My parents must have evolved from frogs. Frogs seldom form families or care for their offspring; they just mate and jump. It took me twenty-three years to have a family; my brother Jack never did; and my sisters married Jesus.
I was born in the middle of a snowstorm in New York City, January 1913. My father left us in 1914. Didn’t come home one day. Deserted my mother, Jack, Elizabeth, Arleene, the baby, and me. My mother took us back to Virginia where her family lived; I guess she thought they would help.
My memory of her is a pink dress with puffy sleeves and lots of light brown hair piled up on top of her head. And she had tiny hands. That’s what she looks like in the only picture I have of her. My only memory is sitting on the floor, rolling a ball to my dog Buster and laughing in each other’s arms. Buster’s fur was soft and golden; my mother’s dress smelled like flowers.
She left in 1915. Went out one afternoon and didn’t come back. Jack told me she had gotten sick and couldn’t live with us anymore. Even though my mother’s parents were still living and she had four brothers and a sister nearby, none of them took us in. My father came down from New York, not to take us back with him; instead, he bundled us off to Michigan, same place he’d been shipped to by his mother when he was three. His father had died in a small dirty fort in the Dakota Territory. Elizabeth and Arleene were put in an Ursuline convent in Detroit, and Jack and me in an orphanage, a place called Home of the Friendless, in Muskegon.
It was raining and cold when the carriage drove up in front of the Home, and the wind stung our legs. We were still in short pants. It was a big house sitting alone in the middle of a field. Very tall with high gables. The walls were wet and yellowish, that yellow you look like when you’re sick. The windows were outlined in black and there was a wide porch with nothing on it. All the curtains were closed so you couldn’t see in. I remember when we got out of the carriage Jack ran the other way. My father chased him, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him up to the house.
Jack was yelling, “I don’t like it here.”
That night after supper, the women in charge took us upstairs to a long green hall. It looked like the rows of beds went on forever. A woman with red hair showed Jack and me the black boxes at the foot of our beds where we were supposed to keep our clothes. Only three lights in the hall: one at each end and one in the middle. They made shadows everywhere. At the back end was a big white room with toilets and sinks where we had to wash before we went to bed. That’s when Jack showed me the bruises our father made when he grabbed him.
We’d been at the Home for a couple of years, and one day a man walked in the door while we were eating lunch. I wasn’t sure who he was, but Jack knew right away. It was our father. He was a big man, tall, with dark brown curly hair, a broad nose, and a big dent in his upper lip. I remember how friendly he was with the women at the Home, draping his arm around their shoulders, telling stories, making them laugh. It seemed this went on for a long time, but finally we went into town and he bought me a tin wind-up airplane and Jack, a watch from Japan. On the way back, I got tired, so he picked me up in his arms and carried me the rest of the way.
He saved the biggest treat for last. “I’ll be back in three months. And then, you know what?”
Jack and I shook our heads.
“I’m going to take you to your new home.”
Jack and I skipped a circle around him, “What’s it like?”
“It’s a grand white house with a big yard to play in,” he said. “And you will have your own rooms; even your new sister has one.”
“We have another sister?”
Jack and I looked at one another like we didn’t understand how that could happen.
“But we’ll have our own rooms? For sure?” Jack asked.
“Elizabeth and Arleene, too?”
“They won’t be coming,” our father said. “I talked to them and they said they liked where they were living.”
I didn’t really know them, so I didn’t say anything. Jack squirmed a little.
Our new house was in Syracuse. He was sure we’d like living there, and we’d love our new mother.
“What’s she like?” I asked. “Like the one we had before?”
He said the best thing was to wait and see for ourselves.
That night, after the lights were out, I sneaked over to Jack’s bed, climbed under the covers with him and asked how we got a sister and a new mother.
“I’ll tell you when you get older,” he said. “We’ll be alright; don’t worry.”
The next day we broadcast our news to all the other boys in the orphanage. We were going to have a home, a family. We were going to leave. But three months passed, then four, and our father didn’t come back.
“All you did was hang around his neck the whole time he was here.” That’s what Jack told me when I asked if he’d heard anything.
Maybe that was the reason Father didn’t come back. We never found out; we never saw him again.
The other kids started getting mean: punching and tripping us, putting things in our beds. Maybe we had bragged too much. I stopped paying attention at school. Only did my homework because Mrs. Moon at the Home made me. She’s the only person there whose name I remember. She always wore a dress with flowers on it and she could pick up even the biggest boys, throw them over her knee, and spank them until they cried.
I would throw my homework in the street on the way to school. The result: I was kept in the second grade for three years. The last year my knees were raw from rubbing against the bottom of the desk. The littler kids called me “Henry Friendless.” It didn’t help that I had a lisp. Jack was better in school. He was a whiz at math and his teachers spent a lot of time with him.
When I was ten, the cook at the Home made me a cake, and Jack sat beside me. Usually he was with the older kids.
“Henry, you’re old enough to know. Our real mother didn’t get sick and die like people said.”
I remember he started to whisper.
“She jumped off a bridge into the river, that old wooden bridge across the Potomac. Somebody saw her; they said she kind of floated down to the water and then the current swept her away. They never found her.”
“But isn’t it against the Commandments to kill yourself? Why would she do that?”
Jack said she was depressed about Father. That he’d left. She’d come back to Virginia where she’d grown up and couldn’t find us another father.
“We were happy in New York before you came along,” he said. “Everyone was together.”
This was my fault? Being here like an orphan. I felt horrible. It seemed like I had cramps in my stomach for a year after. The people at the home got worried so Mrs. Moon took me to see the doctor. He poked me all over, I had blood tests, even gave me an enema, but couldn’t find anything wrong.
In the summer they would take us to Camp Hardy at Blue Lake. It was in the middle of the woods, a big lake; even the older kids couldn’t swim across. There’s a picture with Jack and me at the camp. We’d been picking blackberries in the brambles. I remember all the kids had berry juice all over their faces and hands, they had us go swimming to clean off. That’s something I was good at, swimming. Used to win all the races.
In the photo I’m in a too-big shirt with rolled-up sleeves at one end of a line of scraggly looking kids; Jack’s standing five feet away on the other end. That’s what it was like.
He made out we weren’t related. We didn’t look a lot alike, so he got away with it. I had curly blonde hair, a narrow face, and a nose I didn’t grow into until I was eighteen. Jack had dark brown hair; his face was round, and his ears stuck out.
While Jack and I were at the orphanage some of the other kids got adopted. When that happened, the other boys walked around: looking at the ground, starting fights.
The adopted kids said, I’ll come back to visit, but they never did.
I asked Mrs. Moon, “Why can’t I be adopted?”
She said, “As long as your father is still alive, you can’t be. It’s the way it works.”
By this time, I was probably too old to get a family anyway. All the people that came to the Home were looking for little kids.
But, when I was fourteen I got adopted, sort of. Because it was too far to walk to St. Jean’s High School, Dr Wilson, the man who took care of my stomach aches, said I could have a room in his house. And they promised the Home that he and his wife would watch over me. I think he felt sorry for me. That’s how he looked after the tests showed nothing, when I told him what had happened with my mother and father.
I had a room in the attic, my own room, where the ceiling sloped down on the sides and I had to bend down to get into bed. I put my pants under the mattress every night so they would look creased in the morning.
Dr. and Mrs. Wilson were in their sixties I think. They both had gray hair, though hers was more silvery, and they had what everyone said were “kind” faces, wrinkled into smiles that came easily. It was a quiet home. Nice after living with forty other boys. In the evening Dr. Wilson read books, like Tale of Two Cities and Don Quixote. Mrs. Wilson usually sewed or played the piano. And he would see I did my homework and quiz me on my lessons, especially biology. When I had trouble in lab, he found a couple of frogs and showed me how to dissect them.
“Here, Henry, hold the scalpel like this.”
He put his hand over mine to show me how to slowly and lightly glide the scalpel across the skin without cutting into the muscle.
“Now for the abdominal muscles, same light touch. There, you did it. Now there’s the heart and the liver.”
Then he explained about how they lived, and how they reproduced.
With his help I raced through high school in three years. I was determined to make up for taking so long in the second grade. And maybe I wasn’t going to Harvard, but I was going to learn as much as anyone who did. I put together a “Map of Knowledge.” In a little blue notebook I outlined every subject in the world and the best books for each. For History of Economics, the best book was Hobson’s The Science of Wealth; for Social History, Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Then I started to read. I was on my way.
Jack? I forgot to mention. He went off to Harvard the year before I moved to the Wilson’s. Got a scholarship. Haven’t seen him since.
My grades weren’t quite good enough to get a scholarship and I didn’t have any money, so after I got my high school diploma I went to Washington to look for a job. I didn’t know anybody, but like everyone else in the 1930s, I went there because the government was hiring. I started by digging the foundation for a new building on 14th Street. That lasted six months. Then, I was a clerk for the Department of Agriculture for six months. Then I repossessed cars for the Capital Service Bureau.
One day, out in Virginia, I found the red Chevy I was looking for. Parked in front of the guy’s apartment. Scanned the area, no one in sight, had the key in the car door. I was five-six, 120; a guy twice my size came bursting out of the building, a baseball bat in his hand, swinging it in my direction.
“What you doing with my car?”
“Mr. James, you haven’t been making your payments; it’s not yours anymore,” I said. “I’m here to take it back.”
“Hell you are.”
He kept coming. I ran. Back to the office and resigned.
About this time I met Martha. She came from a family with seven kids; they all grew up in the same house in a small town in Massachusetts near a lake. Her father came home for supper every night. They had a garden in back of the house. I took her skating; she was good. And she had an infectious, throaty laugh.
A month later I inherited two thousand dollars from an aunt I’d never met. Jack, Elizabeth, and Arleene inherited too. I don’t know what Jack did with his. My sisters had to give theirs to the convent.
Me, I bought a used Model A Ford, a sporty tan coupe, with a front seat that folded down for a bed. Then took off for California. One of my ancestors had captured Monterey from the Mexicans; another was a 49er who had tried to get rich panning for gold. I drove the southern route so I wouldn’t get cold sleeping in the car. When I got to the top of the Tehachapi’s at El Tejon Pass, I figured I could save gas by turning off the engine and rolling; the car cruised right into downtown LA.
At the end of three months I’d seen the Observatory, MGM, the Pier, and gone to the movies at Grauman’s. Spent time at La Monica Ballroom on the Pier trying to meet girls.
“Hi, my name’s Henry. Would you like to dance?”
“You don’t look like you’re from around here. You going to be here long?”
“Don’t know; it depends.”
“What do you do?”
“Well, nothing right now,” I said. “I’m thinking of going to law school though.”
“Yeah, sure, let’s hook up when you’re ready to go to trial.”
I went north to Monterey to see the Mexican Customs House my great-great-grandfather, Commodore Sloat had captured. Then to Angels Camp where my great uncle Henry Perrine had panned for gold. It’s a place Mark Twain visited some years later.
One night, I sat down under a tree by the Stanislaus River and looked at the water milling against the banks. Heard the croaks of distant frogs. That’s when I put it all together, about how even I had been jumping around. And I thought about Martha. And I went back.