Tuesday, November 6, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 39 (Cont._2)

We engaged a real estate professional to help find a house. He insisted on our spending more. We insisted on buying what we could afford. Knowing little about the market in Little Rock, we passed up a couple of deals that would have been quite lucrative as time passed. The fact of buying on the GI Bill limited our choices to a small degree. Some sellers opted not to face the additional paperwork. We held hands and observed in awe like a couple of kids in a candy store. The agent fed our excitement.

We settled for a housee in what might now be called “mid-town.” It was one of those “spaghetti subdivisions” with lots of crooked streets and dead ends. Ours fronted on a collector street, though, and provided a more or less clear shot through town, albeit much too far to walk to work. The street was called “Evergreen” and it was a primary artery in a subdivision known as “Leawood,” or “Leawood Heights.”

Churches sat to the immediate East, and diagonally across the street, so we felt secure from unforeseen developments. Or so we thought. Stay tuned.

We began the paperwork and immediately encountered a loan officer that had a bur in his saddle about veterans. That wasn’t unusual in those days. He seemed to resent the fact that we could purchase a nice home without amassing a large down payment like respectable couples. We ignored him. He threw a few stumbling blocks our way, but I had expert advice from those in the office who had been through a home purchase. We swept him out of the way without bother.

The folks at work, by the way, seemed happy for us. We were settling in to become settled members of the community. The house seemed large to us, although by later standards it would be termed tiny. We had no neighbors directly across the street. We met the two ladies who lived next door, along with a large Doberman named “Man.” We discovered later that the name implied that it was the only one, man that is, that they needed. They treated us graciously and life verged on the sublime.

Now, if we only had furniture to fill an eleven-hundred square foot home. We also needed to calm my father, who thought it highly ostentatious to purchase such a mansion. Only millionaires and other deadbeats, he assured me, would live in a home costing $20,000. Were we crazy?

Yeah, at that time pretty much crazy, but just purely wonderful.

That's what I thought anyway.

Monday, November 5, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 39

When you live with someone, you learn things. My little wife with the long red hair and the splendiferous sashshay had secrets. When she wanted to make a design for something, she could draw. When she spoke, she spoke with neither confusion nor equivocation. She listened creatively. When she sat down at a piano, she could play anything from Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca to the song Jump Up from the James Bond film Dr. No. She had never told me. The realization shocked me, as did all her many secrets.

Then one day she wrote something. It was a masterpiece of clear, concise, declarative sentences. It made the point with neither flourish nor pretention. It led to more self-doubt on my part.

“Why don’t your write more?” I said.

“I don’t have that much to say,” she said.

I let it go. In the meantime, I had discovered that the well-known urban planning experts from whom I was to learn didn’t share Brenda’s writing skills. Sad to say, they had no writing skills at all, a fact that had first convinced me I was stupid. I would read a page of work and realize that I had no idea what the author had said. Sentences negotiated a tricky canyon of stilted hyperboles and headstrong allegories, circled back upon themselves, and landed topsy-turvy on a spiked bed of sharpened adverbs, only to encounter a sinister semi-colon that opened a door to more confusion. The typical planning expert couldn’t have described a bowling ball in five paragraphs without the overextended use of the word “efficacious” and a slathering of neo-traditional sentence structure.

A planner with a typewriter formed a fearsome spirit. Some stooped so low as to describe the size of an area using the antiquated terms "zygocephalum"—a measure of land based on the area of land a yoke of oxen could plow in one day. It grew worse with time. They made up words and phrases: complex and nonsensical ditties that made the public shake their heads in bemusement. They dubbed directional signs “wayfinding devices,” for example. They used the term “sense of place,” to replace the venerable standard, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Citizens lost that time-honored title that went back to the evolution of Common Law, and became “stakeholders.” Empowering them, it seems, was important, whatever it meant. A scary world, verbally speaking, urban planning is.

I struggled through the morass, sometime with little wayfinding assistance. I often struggled from a lack of effaciousness, limiting my search, like the drunk searching for his keys, to the areas most brightly illuminated. That eased the way.

At the same time, I struggled with a nagging suspicion that I had, perhaps, over-married.

Writing is like riding a horse.
You just saddle up and go.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sunday Break

It's Sunday and time to take a break from the adventures of being a newlywed in 1972 Little Rock. Here's a short story I wrote, base on an incident when I was writing pieces for the Quapaw Quarter Chronicle when editor Starr Mitchell was trying to make it a serious publication. Any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental.

The Assignment
By Jimmie von Tungeln
Truth be known, I didn’t want to do the piece in the first place. Hell, I wasn’t even a journalist. I was a consultant, a pretty good one, and should have stuck to it. But I had been doing these modest little columns for a Little Rock quarterly that promoted historic preservation. I was acquainted with the editor, I lived in a so-called historic district, and I knew most of the people who lived there. So, I agreed to help.
 It was a good fit. People associated living in historic neighborhoods with eccentricity back in those days. Things that supported that viewpoint were always welcome. So, folks liked my little “human interest” pieces. As for me, I was happy to stick to them. There was no chance of running out of characters, and I didn’t have to travel.
            Then the editor called me one day and asked me to stop by. When I got there, she up and gave me an assignment. Just like that, like I was some cub reporter or something. This posed a noticeable departure from the usual process whereby I just picked out some local oddball and wrote about how they had adjusted to living in an old house.
This time she picked the subject. Why? Beats me. Maybe I was getting stale or she was trying to sell more copies or something. Rather than speculate, I went along with her for the moment.
            Well guess what? You never know what dish life is going to serve up and what decisions are going to throw themselves in front of you, threatening your hemostasis like a group of western bandits with their pistols drawn and ready.
Here’s how it started.
            A local banker, known to us all as a neighbor and a nice guy, had bought one of the most historic homes in the city. It boasted such long-term ownerships that the house and grounds came with a caretaker who had worked there since the Depression. Mr. Pitts cared for the grounds and lived in a small apartment attached to the carriage house, a.k.a. the garage. He was a quiet little man of advanced age who lived alone and remained out of sight when not working. All the neighbors knew him to nod at, but none of us had ever talked to him.
            The editor explained the human-interest angle. Supposedly, a friendship had grown up between Mr. Pitts and the banker’s young son Alfie—Alfred Chidester LaRue was his full name—a little blond-haired kid from the high-rent side of life. Get it? Old black gardener and white heir apparent, the image of an odd couple as corny as it was appealing to our liberal audience. All I had to do was interview the old man, mine a few historic nuggets and take a picture of him and the kid together. It would produce enough “ain’t that cutes?” to make a tough man buy a round of drinks. There was no Pulitzer looming, but it would get me through until another deadline appeared, like a hungry tiger emerging from the mist. No problem.
Anyway, I didn’t have to. These columns represented a public service for me. In other words, I didn’t get paid. Seeing my words in print provided my only emolument. So, I had a degree of leverage unavailable to a poor inky wretch actually writing for a living.
I could have refused the assignment and interviewed, instead, a friend who was restoring a cottage near ours and who looked more like Charles Manson than Manson did himself. He played cello in the city’s symphony orchestra and would have been great material for a photo essay, the research being carried out over a couple of beers. Why should I spend a dry afternoon interviewing the town’s oldest gardener? It didn’t make a bit of sense. “To hell with the editor and her aspirations,” I kept telling myself. Was I my own man or what?
            Naturally, I took the assignment. I had to go through the banker himself and he pretty much outlined what he wanted the piece to say. Alfie was an only-child and, having few young friends in the neighborhood, he had taken up with Mr. Pitts. Followed him everywhere. Shared secrets with him. Even helped with the yardwork. Well, maybe a little. The important thing was the friendship that had developed between man and boy. That was the angle.
            Sure. One of the greatest and most persistent dreams of American Caucasians is that, someday, an African-American will love them. But I could pretend with the best, so I pressed on to complete the assignment.
            I set up an appointment for the next Saturday afternoon. It was a nice autumn day that welcomed a person outdoors like an old friend wanting to show you his garden. I grabbed an ancient Rolliflex camera that I used for such work, made sure I had pen and paper, and walked the two blocks to the house.
The house sat on a half-block facing one of the two main streets leading directly to downtown. When it was built, wealth had followed the topography. The larger houses were on the highest ground and homes fell off in size and value as the topography dropped. It was never more than a short walk from the mansions to the homes from which domestic help could be hired, for practically nothing, in the good old days. In other words, urban form followed economic function. Households weren’t separated by income as they are now. That’s how, thanks to the historic preservation craze, I could afford to live near a bunch of mansions.
            Anyway, I arrived. Mr. Pitts had dressed up a bit. He always wore neat clothes with a narrow-brimmed dress hat. Today he had added a tie. He stood at attention with his hands to his side and presented a smile like a boot-camper at inspection. Alfie was bouncing a ball against a tree and the parents stood by with pride. All was set for this to be a painless adventure. Wham, bam, thank you m’aam and I meet my deadline.
            I called little Alfie over and made him sit for a picture with Mr. Pitts. As I lined it up, I pulled a few grunts out of the kid to the effect that he liked Mr. Pitts and enjoyed helping him with the yard work. Mr. Pitts sat smiling through thick eyeglass lenses that distorted his face to where it looked like one of those cartoon characters that has just seen something either real juicy or real dangerous.
            So far, so good.
            Figuring I had about all out of Alfie I was going to get, I excused him with “Now Alfie, why don’t you let Mr. Pitts and me visit while you get back to your yard work?” In other words, “Scram, kid!”
            Alfie was more than happy to be rid of adults so he walked to beyond the garage. There, someone had dug a shallow pit from which smoke was rising. Within the pit, I assumed from the smell, were dead leaves, trash, and some sort of organic waste. Alfie amused himself by kicking more leaves into the fire.
His mother saw the opportunity and appeared from nowhere with a tray of cookies and iced tea. She sat them on the bench between us and asked, sweetly, and devoid of sincerity, the way a southern woman can ask, if we were comfortable. After receiving affirmatives, she then swished away amid a crackling of petticoats and an almost audible smile. I pushed the tray toward Mr. Pitts. He smiled and pushed it back toward me.
            “No, please, go ahead,” I stammered, fumbling for my writing pen.
            “Thank you, suh,” he said. He exaggerated the “suh” so I—so we both—would know he didn’t attach any meaning to it. Then he took a cookie in one hand and a glass of tea in another. He neither drank nor ate right away, though. He rested the arm with the cookie on his leg and wrapped a hand around the glass of tea as if to keep it from flying away. He smiled at me. His eyes looked even larger than before.
            A breeze filled the yard and blew smoke from Alfie’s fire toward us. As it did, Mr. Pits finally raised the cookie in a soft arc to his mouth and took a small bite from it. He lowered it and raised his glass with the same grand gesture and sipped his tea.
            Hoping to get started, I asked him how long he had lived around there.
            “Oh, I was born around here,” he said. “I been here for as long as I can remember. We lived on Tenth Street but it went for the freeway. House ain’t there no more.”
            He chewed his cookie with what I thought was a grim expression. As he did, the smoke circled us and I caught the pleasant smell of burning leaves punctuated by the sharp odor of the other trash smoldering in the pit. Mr. Pitts stiffened slightly and his eyes seemed to retreat behind his thick glasses.
            “I been here since when things were different than they are now,” he said. “Way different.”
Then, that far into the interview, he stopped talking. His voice didn’t exactly trail away as much as it fluttered beyond us like a feather caught in a whirlwind.
            I was losing him. I hurried back to work.
            “Different in what way?” I asked.
            He just looked at me. He seemed to struggle to respond and when he did, it wasn’t really to me but, it seemed, to the trees and the garden and maybe to the city itself with all its history and smoky secrets.
            “Way yonder different. Folks weren’t as good to you then.” He took another bite of cookie and drank from his glass. That energized him.
“My folks had it hard back then.”
            I tasted panic. Alfie had disappeared behind the garage and I felt as if I were on an asteroid hurtling through space with an alien. This affair wasn’t going according to plan. I nodded as if I understood and scratched on my pad without looking up. He continued.
            “The worse was what they done to Mr. Carter.”
            “Mr. Carter?” That was all I could manage.
            “Ain’t nobody should have had that done to them. Nobody. I don’t care if he was colored.”
            I gave up and stared at my pad. What was he saying, and where was he taking me? I stared right through my pad and into the ground. From therein oozed a memory. I met it halfway and solved the mystery.
Back in the 1920s, there had been a lynching in Little Rock, less than a half-mile from where we sat. It happened right in the middle of what was then the center of the “colored” commercial area, along Ninth Street.
“Oh my god,” I thought. “This is where he is going.” I tried to raise my head but it took three attempts to overcome the gravity created by that realization. When I did manage to look up, Mr. Pitts was somewhere far away, and scared. I mean really scared. His hand was shaking so much the tea was spilling.
            “I remember that day like it was yesterday,” he continued. They made us all go inside, for they knew there was to be trouble. I was just a child, but the oldest. My Momma put the youngest under the bed and made me watch after them. She said the white folks had done killed Mr. Carter and was draggin’ him down Ninth Street behind a car. She was scared and she made us all cry.
“We could hear people yellin’. They was honkin’ their horns and yellin’ so loud we could hear them in the bedroom. Wasn’t no colored folks on the street, except Mr. Carter and he was dead. They hung him and beat him and drug him up and down Ninth Street. We was all hidin’ and cryin.’ My Momma was tellin’ us to be quiet.” He stopped, looked away and back, directly at me.
“They shouldn’t have done that.”
            Here I was. It was a nice brisk autumn day and I should have been somewhere else, but I was sitting in someone else’s yard listening to an old man reciting his version of our city’s most awful moment and I couldn’t escape.
            “They drug him and drug him. All back and forth on Ninth Street. We could hear the cars and them horns honkin’, the honkin,’ oh my lord, the honkin’. Ain’t nobody ought to have that done to them. We was still cryin’ when they built a fire at Ninth and Broadway and burned him up. We could smell the smoke and that made us cry harder. My momma had some cookies in her apron pocket and she gave one to the younger kids to hush them up. She broke one in half and gave me a piece. She took the other half and then she started cryin’ too.”
            He looked at the cookie in his hand, then returned to that awful day.
            “Somebody said they broke one of his arms off and waved it at the cars going down Broadway,” he said. “I don’t know. Nobody looked out the window the whole time, for we was too scared.”
            I pretended to write something.
            “Too bad,” he said so low I barely heard him. “Them was bad days. Bad for us all.”
            The smoke circled us and I sat as still as I could. Mr. Pitts stopped talking and sat with his hand with the cookie resting on his leg. As the fog of remembrance cleared, he began to smile. He didn’t say anything. He was done talking to white strangers for the day.
            He sat there proud and triumphant, a black-skinned Cicero having had his say, needing neither accolades nor approval. I thanked him, not sure at all whether he even heard me, and then eased away and headed home. I was all confusion, trying to sort out what had just happened. I still had an assignment but what the hell was I going to write? The truth about what happened? That would be the honest thing. It might even be a good piece. Shake the readers up a bit. Let them know that history wasn’t all about Victorian houses. Hell yes!
            Back home, I sat in the kitchen and stared through the window. When I tried, I could hear the shouts on the street, feel the throb of the car engines running, and smell the acrid smoke of man and wood burning.
Damn that old man!
Outside the afternoon was dissolving into evening. The shadows got longer and darker the way our thoughts will as we doze. Beyond the kitchen window, the air was still crisp and clear. Inside, it was dark and gloomy. The evening sky changed purposefully that time of year like a lover moving from caresses to kisses, and then to the dark undertones of passion. My thoughts moved that way, too, as I reflected on the day and what it was trying to tell me. Maybe it was trying to tell me to be brave, or truthful …, or honest. Maybe it was suggesting that I approach what I was doing with something a little deeper than just seeing my name in print. Maybe it was just trying to tell me to say something else entirely, before darkness came. Maybe. Maybe.
After a time, I stood up and retrieved a beat-up Remington typewriter and package of paper from a closet and carried them, with as much gentleness as I could muster, into the kitchen. I placed the typewriter on the kitchen table so I could see beyond it into the deepening gloom. Then I slid a page of paper into it and turned the cylinder so the paper was position precisely across the top, aligned there neat and worthy of higher-level thought. I drew and released a long breath of sad air—air that had once moved through the city and down the streets and around the large oak trees past the moving cars and quaint old houses and had once even flowed around the twitching, smoking body of John Carter.
I didn’t want to, but I smelled that smoke.
Click, click, I advanced the paper.
I was ready. My mind was as clear as the way of a traveler making the last turn on the last curve before home. I rubbed my hands. I thought how funny it would be to make the Sign of the Cross.
Instead, I started to type: “Mr. Otis Pitts, age 70 and a lifelong resident of Little Rock, has a new best friend who is only five years old.”

July 2009
Revised 2017

Saturday, November 3, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 38 (Cont._4)

Here is what happened with regard to our company’s first development project, a charming subdivision in a thriving community. It started out well, four lots pre-claimed. We couldn’t sell lots until the Final Plat gained approval, signifying that we had completed all improvements. Ron McConnel and I went down of a Saturday morning and secured a sign to a timber wall at the entrance, announcing Wellington Heights. All appeared ready.

The city planning commission approved the plats and final closings took place on four lots, only 40 more or so to go and we would be in the pink. Interest was high. Building materials appeared on two of the lots. This would be the finest small subdivision in south Arkansas.

Then in happened. An African-American family purchased the fifth lot. The man worked for the local railroad line, a good job that assured his ability to pay for the lot and finance a nice home. Somehow word of the purchase got out, no doubt passed around by a local competitor.

Next day, four “For Sale” signs went up. Did I mention that this was south Arkansas? Everything stopped. Realtors in the area quit accepting phone calls or answering messages. The subdivision sat as deserted as a Jewish cemetery in Nazi Germany. We sat as dumbstruck as a deserted lover. What happened?

We didn’t know. There was some talk of sabotage by local developers. There were some snickers from those who knew secrets of land development of which we were unaware. Some hinted at a plot by a local advocacy group seeking to “universalize” human rights. What cheek.

The truth? I’ve always believed that it was an honest effort by an honest man to provide a decent home in a decent location for his family in a land, and at a time, that we didn’t tolerate such presumption.

Perhaps the man had survived the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, and felt that entitled him to respect.

Perhaps he had led an honest and productive life and felt that earned him a place in society.

Perhaps he just felt that his god blessed all people equally.

I never knew. The entire operation went into “top-secret mode” at that point and little news filtered down. What I did know was that no further action occurred in the subdivision until much later when the development was sold to a group of local African-American business men for pennies on the dollar. The financiers of the development absorbed the loss, and life moved on.

At home, I contended with my own struggles, albeit small ones. I was learning. One thing was that heaven help the man who woke my young “trophy-wife” up of a Saturday morning while she was enjoying her day off by sleeping late. Brenda looked like the very picture of a modern precious angel as she enjoyed her leisure moments. I knew though, from my brief experience, that her fractious sister Brendhilda lurked ever so slightly beneath that angelic face. She was, no doubt, ready to pounce upon the perpetrator of the slightest transgression.

One can imagine, therefore, my consternation when I slipped out of bed one Saturday morning to go into work to address a deadline that beckoned like a child needing a visit to the toilet. With a change of clothes in hand, I quietly entered the small bathroom in our apartment to witness a sight I had never, even the darkest days of my military service, encountered. There, hanging across the shower rod was a still damp pair of pantyhose.

What was a man to do? I chose circumspection and prudence. I needed to prepare for work, but feared unauthorized tampering. Seeking guidance was out of the question. Following a Methodist rather than Baptist approach, I chose sprinkling over full immersion and left the dangling garment in place to be attended later by the adult of the family.

After leaving a note, off to work I went, as refreshed as common sense allowed. On the way, I told myself that I was learning a lot about the world that might come in handy in the future.

And it did.

"Lord help the mister,
Who comes between me
And my sister." - Irving Berlin

Friday, November 2, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 38 (Cont._3)

We started looking in earnest for a house a month or so after we married. We had advantages, of course, being Caucasian. Also, the GI Bill offered me a lowered interest rate and a no-down payment loan. Friends gave us a lot of advice, some good and some bad. One said, “buy more house than you can afford and you’ll grow into it as your income rises. That sounded to me like the cowboy who bought a horse he couldn’t ride because it might quit bucking someday.

The best advice simply said buy the least expensive home in a stable and popular location. The value of the more expensive homes will exert an upward influence on the value of yours. Also, buy a home you could conceivably pay for with one salary. Life is unpredictable. Some advice is ageless.

The generation before us had settled, when the war ended, for modest frame homes, some no larger than 800 square feet. Their sons and daughters would settle for no less than a three-bedroom, two-bath, brick structure as a “starter home.” That was to be one of many differences between the so-called “Greatest Generation,” and the Baby Boomers.

It also confounded the “trickle-down” theory taught for so long in planning schools. The older generation was supposed to move from their “starter homes” into more expensive ones, freeing cheaper units for purchase by the younger set. It didn’t quite work out that way. Nobody wanted the cheaper houses and they quickly converted to rental properties, with no provision for upkeep.
The only thing that trickled down was rain flowing through rotted roofs.

About this time in America, the purchase of a home began to represent, for many families, the best way of amassing wealth. This would require a steady rise in housing values over decades, much like a company’s stock that never stopped rising. It would also generate substantial benefits for homeowners that didn’t accrue to renters. We had no idea at the time how much this trend would change our country.

My non-white comrades who had served alongside me in the military faced different challenges in taking advantages of the GI Bill’s housing benefits. They faced few choices in housing location at that time. An urban renewal project in Little Rock had cleared a slum neighborhood and converted it into a spacious subdivision of mini-mansions for the wealthy and elite African-American families: physicians, attorneys, business owners, and, once, a star of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Less affluent brothers and sisters were relegated to racially acceptable neighborhoods. One can easily understand what that meant.

There wasn’t anything equitable about it. That’s just the way things were. Life rolled on. We, as a family, were about to take advantage of the inequity. We, as a company, were about to learn how rocky the underlying racial prejudice in our country could make the road of life. At the time, we were foolish enough to think that prejudice might dissipate someday, become gone with the wind, so to speak. The most wondrous dreams can sometimes be the most foolish.

We plan on buying a house.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

My Redacted LIfe: Chapter 38 (Cont._2)

 What did a young married couple do back in the fall of 1972 when they had no spare money to spend, i.e. neither pot nor window? Oh, we were making money enough, but spare cash went into saving for a home. The GI Bill offered substantial benefits in a home mortgage and I intended to take full advantage. So, recreational outings were both creative and inexpensive. We saved and improvised.

Brenda introduced me to a cheap pastime. The area in which her family farm sat was rich in Native American history. A sluggish wetland called Baker’s Bayou was the center of much ancient activity. After a farmer had plowed a field rains had come, one could walk around and spot artifacts rising to the surface of the earth. We would collect specimens and store them roughly by location. Later we learned that the major collection points coincided roughly with bases identified by the state archaeologist's office. The effort produced much fun at little cost.

I suppose collecting them was insensitive, but by now they would have been pulverized into unidentifiable bits of stone by the huge farming rigs.

Brenda’s dad, Julius, told us of being a very young boy and talking to a very old former slave who said he could remember the last Indian family that lived on the Bayou. One morning they had simply disappeared during the night. Figuring placed the time somewhere in the late 1850s. An archaeologist acquaintance, who once helped us categorize our collection, considered the ages and verified that the story could have been true. I’ve thought about it many times over the years, the continuity of history and all.

While we were walking the ruins of a past civilization, I was working to control the nature of the next civilization. It struck me as how little impact the ancients left on the land and how much power we now possessed to enact change. Maybe the role of my profession wasn’t to design paradise, but to ward off hell. It made me think.

In the meantime, Brenda taught, I travelled the state, and, after a rain, we walked, hand in hand, over the remains of a past civilization of people who had no doubt worked, loved, and dreamed of a future. I suppose, perhaps, that one day some life form will walk over the remains of our efforts to lead a meaningful life.

Wonder what they will find?

Cars probably. Lots of
rusted old cars.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

My Redacted LIfe

Out earning today. Tune back in tomorrow for more thrilling adventures.