an excerpt from my first novel, "JOSEPH'S EASEL"
[This description of life in Cicero, Indiana in the 1940s is autobiographical. I went to grade school in Cicero.]
I was in the process of discovering that Indiana understood and accepted that a large part of its purpose in the world was to incubate and husband certain humbling aspects of God’s more obvious intentions.
Indiana raised my parents and their parents in such a way it could expect that my paradigmatic upbringing and its natural outcome, Humility, would come about almost automatically. Twenty generations of curing overambitious egos had proven a certain formula.
Abraham Lincoln had been an exception, and Indiana regarded its failure to set him on the right path as an aberration. After all, the state did not get to work its system on the first seven of Abe’s formative years. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s two riverboat trips to New Orleans as a teenager undermined the fourteen years Indiana did get.
With a few other ignominious individuals like John Dillinger, Ernie Pyle, and later, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Hoffa, Carol Lombard, Bill Blass, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others, the state could blame flaws of incorrigibility and egocentricity already present in the child that a devilish providence had handed it. Or in some cases, like Lincoln, Indiana could fault contamination leaking into the system from outside. Knowing what to guard against perfected the craft.
With me there would be no tweaking the process from outside the Hoosier state.
Two immense wars marched through history without enlisting my grandfather (too young) or drafting my father (4-F), so my nearest antecedents and mentors did not undergo any of the enlargements and flexibilities and corruptions that the roaring value furnaces of far away exotic cultures often vulcanized into the rigid belief structures of Midwesterners reckless or ill-fated enough to venture away.
Then when the Great Depression bore down hard on factory workers and ground its way through Indiana’s muscle- and metal-economy in the thirties, it left in its jagged path no additional guidance except for one more emphatic line gouged beneath the main specs on Indiana’s blueprint for person building.
In Cicero, in the early fifties, the maple and oak trees with their scabby bark and damp, verdant odor and leaves as big as fedora hats shaded the veranda of every house. Their foliage cooled the mail-order seat covers of the Chevy or Ford or Plymouth parked in the powdered white clay between the crack-veined cement pavement of the streets and the half-buried, half-erupted herringbone brick surface of the sidewalks, and the brown branches of those colossal trees arched like church beams across the full width of almost every street.
I thought Doc Havens’ house was the biggest and prettiest in town. But it was not really an ostentatious mansion. It was, though, the only home I knew of with central air-conditioning, a gingerbreaded and colonnaded gallery around three sides, a true vestibule (functioning as a receiving room for patients) and a caramel-colored Cadillac parked in a two-car garage.
My parents made sure I understood Doc Havens benefited from getting a college degree. He also had that willingness to do work that was often disgusting, and he possessed a tolerance for getting called out of bed in the middle of the night.
The two other four-year college degrees in Cicero, one a furniture factory manager and the other a General Motors Personnel Director, a cousin of my father, also had nice homes. Some of the schoolteachers had two-year degrees but few owned their own home. Most of them got by with rented rooms in factory workers’ houses within easy walking distance of the school. The principal, in fact, lived six blocks down Jackson Street in my paternal great-grandparent’s home in an unheated room above Al and Amy Peak’s front porch.
Almost all the rest of the homes in town had their porches, too. At least you could sit cooling yourself with a cardboard fan in the muggy evenings and talk to people walking to the post office. Those houses belonged to factory workers at Guide Lamp or Delco Remy in Anderson, or Ford in Indianapolis or Chrysler in Kokomo. If the owner didn’t spend his nights listening to music on his phonograph or on the jukebox at Cat Thorpe’s Corner Tavern, and if he did not waste his weekends fishing Cicero Creek or in rubber waders below the dam casting flies into the shadows out at Riverwood, his house would have fresh paint, bug-tight screened windows and doors, and his freshly mowed lawn would be scissor-trimmed.
The forebears of farmers nearby started the settlement of Cicero as a convenient place to sell grain and livestock and buy sugar and tobacco without going all the way to Tipton or Noblesville or Indianapolis. However, the railroad boom the Civil War put in motion really built the town. Then the natural gas industry at the turn of the century erected travel-to factories in Noblesville and Kokomo and Anderson.
A lot of people that got jobs in those cities preferred to live in tall two-story homes in smaller towns. They wanted to live where everyone understood the obligation to know all their neighbors. They wanted to live where people ventured pretentiousness only about religion and welcomed the duty to present whatever they produced—including their offspring—to the world as a tangible demonstration of right living. And they wanted to do it with the candidness of unshuttered windows, or better yet in the ingenuous honesty of the front yard.
I learned to consider the space between the front door and the street as not belonging really to my family; we seemed to belong to it. More accurately, my front yard, under the vault of tree limbs, felt more like a sanctimonious extension of church, a place where it was orthodox for your posture to be a little stiff, where language was formal (as formal as Hoosier dialect can be, “Why hello, Mr. and Mrs. Ziegler. Strolling to Wednesday church, I see.”) and dress was always complete—you never went barefoot in your front yard.
When the father of my best friend, David Specter, the one called Big Dave, built the first privacy fence in Cicero, it offended everyone. My parents could not explain to me why people were so upset: it was just obvious and a plain reason for suspicion, “They got something to hide. Where’s he from? Some daggone city?”
My response was Mom and Dad’s first clue that Indiana’s formula was apparently failing, that I was somehow going bad.
“From Canada,” I said with an ill-advised tone of pride. “Mr. Specter built a swimming pool in the back yard. David said they need the fence ‘cause people wouldn’t want the dots on his mom’s bikini staring back at them. They even got extra suits for visitors. They might tear their house down and build a ranch-style next summer.”
That night my parents sent me to bed early and stayed up late talking.
Single story, or ranch style homes, like Big Dave planned to build, had an unsavory reputation in Cicero. There were only eight single story homes in the city limits, all of them Quonset-style ex-chicken houses cluttered together on the far south end of Peru Street. That was the main north-south route through town, which going both ways beyond the city limits turned into a cement washboard called Cicero Pike. It was where the stench from the natural gas relay station two miles out toward Noblesville floated to the edge of town and put a curdled coating on your tongue. The south end of Cicero was a sour place where nothing but weeds, stagnant mud puddles and misery would grow for very long. At one time those Quonset-style corrugated metal huts had been residence to Gerald Morrison’s laying hens. Now, slightly modernized with naked electric wiring, iron stoves, tin flues and canvas outhouses, the Quonsets sheltered the lazy, the pathetic, the drunks, the hopeless dreamers and the few families otherwise sick and lame enough to have “justifiably” lost their chance to have better lives.
My parents sometimes put on their Sunday best, washed the Chevy and helped Bethel Lutheran Church assemble and drop off sugar and flour and powdered milk and even some of their mended clothing and blankets in brown grocery bags on the cement block front stoop of those who had sickness as their excuse. That my church excluded the disheartened and the alcoholic from assistance I understood was part of my lesson. Lazy hands as well as the cup of ruin make a man poor. What aid those people got came in small doses from the few sympathetic sippers and depressed souls still living in real houses who, reading their dismal cards, anticipated a need for help in their own future. The hopeless dreamers were shut off from sympathy of any variety, and I understood that their kind was to be shunned. But I noted that my minister frequently acknowledged their presence in the community by reminding parishioners of the folly and the wages of harboring vain ambitions.
To know about those ambitions, Pastor Michael must have ridden his bike down the alleys, too. Like me, he must have sensed a gloom of unsatisfied mystery in the façade the town presented to its streets. And in his curiosity, he must have found the drawings and the poems awaiting their burning in the barrel of trash behind Jake Molson’s Quonset.
Jake’s wadded up elegies to great artists and his odes to their famous paintings had so many scribbled revisions and erasure tears that they were more or less undecipherable to me. Except to comprehend that Jake Molson longed to be an artist as competent and inspirational as Raphael and Leonardo and Michelangelo. The drawings that Pastor Michael must have unwadded and spread flat against the cinder alley revealed not only hundreds of nude studies, some of which were recognizable as neighbors, but also robed religious figures and, like Grandpa Peak, portraits of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur. And they revealed a great, great deal of that competence Indiana had programmed Jake to think he lacked, and was not even entitled to.