(In 2014 I wrote this essay on my family of runaways. In light of many of us being at “home” and my friends Bruce and Joanna returning from Ecuador to Italy and being glad to be “home” even if they are quarantined, I thought I’d resurrect this piece that I don’t think I actually published in this form. I’m not sure what a nomad really sees as home. But that may be another essay. )
My great grandfather on my mother’s side, David Lance Short had one of the largest women’s hair products’ companies in the world. He had factories in China that manufactured the silk hairnets that women wore on their coiffures. It was named the West Electric Hair Curler Company after Augustus Albert West who actually invented the “bobbing pin” and who married my great grandfather’s sister, Great Aunt Ethel. They lived with David and his wife Sadie in a mansion in Germantown, PA with a chauffeur and a couple maids according to the 1920 census. David had a one hundred seventy-five foot yacht and was Commodore of the LuLu Yacht Club in Ocean City. Just before the stock market crashed in 1929 his business started to have problems. My father said he had made bad investments a la Bernie Madoff or perhaps the real Charles Ponzi. Soon after that, my great grandfather fell off his yacht, caught pneumonia, and died. So did he fall off drunk or did he jump? The business puttered along, but no one could replace his unique combination of sales and management genius, certainly not my dandy grandfather who had never done much but sit in a office. And so the fortune was slowly lost. Or so it goes. Nothing much left but some diamond cuff links and an old steamer trunk filled with Twenties era clothes that I would play with in the basement of our small drab raised ranch house in Illinois.
Then there were my sister’s stepsisters who were anything but evil. Before the crash they were flappers and went to parties like the ones in the Great Gatsby. Aunt Madeline was married to the composer of “Manhattan Serenade”. And just like in “Some Like It Hot”, both she and Aunt Dorothy took boats from Miami to Havana to party there. Or so the story goes. Also the story goes that Aunt Dorothy was a Miss Atlantic City contestant and won the talent contest for her toe tapping and that got her a Hollywood studio contract. She and older sister Madeline ran off to Hollywood. Her first movie in 1934 “Call of the Savage” was with Noah Beery, Jr. Aunt Madeline had one line in “The Raven” and that’s all I’ve been able to find.
Aunt Dorothy met another contract player, a handsome former stunt man, Dave “Tex” O’Brien aka Dave Barclay. They appeared in Westerns, musicals and serials. She co-starred in 1936 with him in “Reefer Madness”, the marijuana movie that became a cult classic in the 1960’s in which he uttered the memorable lines “Play it faster! Play it faster!” She also co-starred in his serial “Captain Midnight” where every week her character, Joyce Edwards, the hapless daughter of a scientist, managed to get kidnapped and every week he had to rescue her. What’s not to like about any of those stories true or exaggerated? I listened to my mother talk about her older sisters and her former life and I would day dream of living in luxury with birthday parties with huge ice sculptures and a train set that covered half the basement. I would day dream of being kissed on the forehead by my aunts and their dates, dressed in sequined gowns and fox furs. Those were my dreams, but they were my mother’s real memories.
On the other hand, we had the Depression era tales of my father’s family as they struggled in Dearborn, Michigan. Not very glamorous, but boy could my Dad tell a tale. And as responsible as he was now, he was also more than a bit of a bad boy back then. He was a “Little Rascal”; a Bowery Boy in Detroit. My sisters and I lived for dinners when my Dad would regal us with stories of how he and his brother Tom would find discarded bits of tobacco and roll them into cigarettes and sell them to the auto workers on their way to the factories. He would laugh heartily and tell us how he and Tom got into trouble for trying to sell kisses from their sister, Aunt Fran.
In Dad’s college yearbook, there is a picture of his roommate and himself with the caption “the bad boys of the dorm.” His roommate Marion Snapper and he defied the authorities every week it seemed. There was the time that “Snapper” dressed in a Tarzan suit and swung across the chapel. There was the time that they varnished the seats of the same chapel. And they were pre-seminary students!
When the U.S. entered World War II, Dad and Marion joined the Naval Reserves and were sent to Columbia University and Princeton Theological Seminary respectively. They were assigned to a base in New Jersey. Dad said it was very confining to be stuck on that base after going to classes at the Universities. So they convinced the commanding officer that they were seasoned Thespians and it would do the Navy men a world of good if they could see a play. Of course, they needed a car to get the props, costumes, and lumber for the sets. I guess they had a great time touring around New Jersey. And eventually they did put on the play, “George Washington Slept Here”. Or so the story goes.
Needless to say, neither of them became ministers, but did become educators and inspiring ones at that. Snapper actually was one of my college education professors. My father became a pioneer in special education in the 1950s. In the post war year,s with the rise in manufacturing and the rise of the company man, he bucked the tide and firmly believed that “children should be custom made and not mass-produced.” He taught the children history but also how to harvest hay, raise a steer, and build a wooden jeep that actually ran.
Yes, I was a creature of two very different worlds; the Dutch world of discipline and study on my Dad’s side. The other was the world of high-flying business types, fancy parties, and show business that was my mother’s side of the family. The first one I was raised in and the second one I could only imagine. The first one was quite real. And could be quite scary. Each week the Calvinist minister told us all about the consequences of disobedience and sin. But despite the specter of eternal damnation, I somehow got myself into some sort of trouble now and then for questioning the rules. The other world of flappers and furs I could only run to only in my imagination. It provided some escape from the drab and straight-laced world of the Chicago Dutch.
It was only much much later that I saw how much the two worlds were alike with inventors on both sides, businessmen on both sides and gypsies and runaways on both sides. All of them coping or trying to be creative in the buttoned up cage called adulthood.
So how could I not turn out to be a little rascal who couldn’t quite stick to the script with these kinds of people in my constellation? Must be how I ended up on a cattle ranch in Montana by falling in love with a cowboy. Or so the story goes.