Bampaw’s Roll-Top Desk

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In the breakfast room of my grandparents’ house was Bampaw’s wooden Roll-top Desk, an item a little smaller than a Chevy coupe. Filled with cubby holes, smelling of tobacco, ink, old paper, and lighter fluid, it was Bampaw’s safe and command central. The objects inside were Very Important and Not To Be Touched. Of course, this made the desk a kid-magnet.

Until I was 6, we lived with my grandparents. My granddad, Bampaw, spent most of his household time in the breakfast room, the sunniest in the house and also close to the kitchen, where beer lived in the refrigerator.

In addition to the roll-top desk and later addition of Polly the parrot, there was the misnamed breakfast table, where we ate all our non-holiday meals. It was at this table that most family activities occurred: mail reading, dress pattern cuttings, snacks, newspaper reading, Chinese Checkers, crossword puzzle solving, snacks, art projects, hand sewing, small household repairs, games of solitaire, and snacks.

Long before any books about where to place yourself in a room to command a group meeting, Bampaw had chosen his spot at the breakfast table.  From there, he’d read some newspaper articles aloud. From his Bantam Rooster seat, he’d pour the first dollops of his coffee into his saucer to sip as it cooled, with noisy slurps. From there he commanded the best view of his territory: to the street corner and side porch out one window and all along the side street from a second set. One step and he was at his desk.

There he kept pipe cleaners and abandoned pipes, legal papers, stamps and stationery, stamp pads, “rare” coins, and an elaborate set of poker chips. There I kept my imaginings.

Snuggled into its kneehole, I was hiding below decks on a Spanish galleon – a stowaway kid who would soon find the buried treasure that eluded the colorful but stupid pirates. Or I was the shackled prisoner in the castle dungeon, plotting my revenge. Scooting around to its side, I could settle down to defend the fort from the attacking Indians or Yankees.

Bampaw was very clear that this was HIS desk. I couldn’t go inside without his permission. Little fear there: even if he didn’t lock the drawers and top, I couldn’t possibly lift its heavy, corrugated roll-top. Even he took 2 heaves to get it all the way open. The top slammed into place like a car door – whang! Bampaw also did a good job of describing severed little girl fingers if the top fell.

But I could play on the open desktop if Bampaw was reading the paper or playing solitaire in the room. Kneeling on a chair, I could see over the desk ledge, play jacks or building blocks. Just so long as I muted my sound effects and/or humming. I would build the interior of my castle so as to create a puzzle, a maze. That way the King and his bodyguard knights could lie in wait for the Yankees and not be seen.

I could never get Bampaw to join in Castle Blocks. I would explain how he needed to try and get through my puzzle. He could even be the King and I would be the Indians (I’d NEVER be the Yankees). I would attempt the magic phrase that Mammaw successfully used on him: “It’ll only take a minute!” Never worked. He’d just stare back at me over his glasses, raise his caterpillar eyebrows and go back to his paper.

He knew the special treat, though. Sometimes he would open the Most Wonderful Treasure for me, his poker chips box. These were heavy, large, old-fashioned Bakelite disks with milled edges, in marbled colors: deep red, dark blue, dark green and ivory. They lived in a felt-lined box in stacks on their sides, sleeping. Bampaw would lift them out for me to prevent grimy finger smudges on the felt. They were the perfect doubloons, made a terrific clattering noise when gathered up and let run through the fingers. When stacked exactly, the milled edges snapped together.with a click. There weren’t enough of each color for me build individual castles, but there were endless combinations of colors to use to make one big structure. When licked, they tasted like old tobacco.

I was never able to place all of them in one big stack, despite repeated attempts. Which always ended the chips playtime. Bampaw was unreasonably sure that having the floor covered in chips would lead to a chip loss and I would have to count as high as I could to convince him we had them all back.

Being a sneaky, underhanded kid, I naturally looked for the opportunity to play inside the desktop – Mt. Everest of possibilities. One day it happened. Bampaw forgot to close the roll-top desk. He now was at work. Mom was at work. Mammaw was out doing errands. The only one home was Irene, our occasional help. Here was my big chance! Ohboyohboyohboy. My only obstacle was eagle-eyed Irene.

Now, Irene had unfortunately missed her true calling of Marine drill sergeant. She did have her Rules and you followed them “or else”. I had spent quite some time closed in the room I shared with my mom when I had merely not sufficiently modulated my voice.

Luckily in this case, Irene never wanted me “spying” on her at work, hanging around. I did have to regularly sound out from where ever I was to let her know I wasn’t Up to Something. She’d call out “WhaChooUpTo?!!” and I was supposed to answer “Picture books!” or “Drawing!” I had learned never to say “Nothing!”, as she correctly would realize that that meant Something. The only time I had a break from this radar-monitoring was during Vacuum Time.

Irene would get into a vacuuming rhythm and not turn the machine off for quite a while. If I could listen for the vacuum, I’d be safe to explore the desk. So left my crayon work on the breakfast table, pulled over the chair and climbed up! Wow! What a view! I could see all the way out the windows to across the street. Land ho, me hearties! I rule the seas from this pirate ship’s deck, haha! Raise that main sail! Catch that treasure ship. The desk’s surface made a satisfying creak – just like a ship – when I shifted my weight, hands on hips, a dagger between my teeth. I dodged some cannonballs and hid in the curve of the desk sides. Nyaah, nyaah, ya missed me, Capt. Hook! The vacuum stopped. Irene did her call and I answered “Drawing!” Vacuum started up again.

Next to the kitchen on the back porch was the fishing kit I used in the inflatable wading pool of the kid next door. There was a short rod with a blunt hook and a few flat, plastic fishes of different colors that you could catch. I then sat dangling my feet off the desk edge dock, catching a meal for my crew. I was a good pirate captain. Then I heard our car pulling up the driveway. Mammaw was home! I abandoned ship.

A few days later, I was at the breakfast table when Bampaw moved a pile of papers on his desk. Frowning, he swiveled around and held up a blue plastic fish. “What is THIS, young lady?” Fortunately, he had read a funny column out loud about fishing only that morning. I blurted out “The one that got away?” He hooted loud as could be and laughed himself into a coughing fit.

Decades later, widower Bampaw married a Cuban widow acquaintance, Mary. During my first visit with them, she and I were rearranging the breakfast room. She asked me to move a small table, but I couldn’t be sure of what she’d said. She repeated “Over there. By the fishing desk.”

Southern Zen

Screenshot 2016-07-14 14.49.37In the late 1950s, Montgomery, Alabama was filled with scores of Early American, Antebellum, Late Victorian, Sears Modern, plain Hand-Me-Down furniture. Across the city, far as the eye could see, all those living rooms and dining rooms were filled with such. Crocheted antimacassars, overstuffed sofas, electrified ersatz gas lamps, sleek hi-fi consoles, flying-saucer-inspired light fixtures were accompanied by looming display cabinets containing the family’s heirloom china.

Not the Marrs family. We had the only “Oriental” furniture in town. Our living room and dining room furniture boasted a small decorative screen featuring a peacock, 2 Japanese Floral Nesting end tables and a coffee table – all 3 topped with bas relief village scenes, a black lacquer corner chair, 2 tall floral urn porcelain table lamps, and a tiny dark red baby grand with painted oriental figures on its side. Our sofa had a satin-textured floral pattern of a vaguely Asian design. I was quite proud of this style, thinking it was proof that my Mom’s aesthetic taste trumped convention.

When asked (quite politely) “Why, Annette, whehevah did yew come to dew your house … this way?” She responded “Ah just always liked the Oriental look; it seems so graceful, don’t yew think? Have anothahr deviled egg?”

Annette was stunningly beautiful, quite charming, very smart and privately quite funny. In those days, she was generally a conventional woman – she sewed quite well, cooked very badly, and insisted that we constantly vacuum, mop and dust. She baked cakes and pies for church socials – from a box, but even so. She totally enjoyed and gave terrific parties. Her imagination was alive, quite vibrant.

Many decades later I asked her about this obsession with all things Asian (she was now living in Albuquerque, NM, still surrounded by Asian furniture.). She frowned and said that when she was a child, there seemed to be a craze of things Oriental that swept the country. She drew and later painted Japanese designs with watercolors for her mother. She asked for a kimono coat for her birthday. She didn’t get it. “Where would yew WEAR somethin’ like that?” her mother said.

Curious, when I returned home, I looked up the appearance of things Asian during the late ‘20s/early ‘30s in America. Most probably the source was Frank Lloyd Wright and his Japanese artwork obsession. There were endless photo articles during that period featuring his Asian collection – anything for Wright publicity. There were wallpaper patterns and avant garde paintings. The latter were strange filtered versions of Japanese art – sorta Asian, sorta American.

IMG_3853In high school, Annette began painting Asian figurines to be sold in furniture stores. They sold quite well and the furniture stores kept her constantly supplied with unpainted blanks. Several Halloweens she dressed as a geisha. At least a Montgomery version of a geisha…

Once Annette married Dr. Ted Marrs, she began to indulge her predilections more fully. Bought through catalogues (those furniture store connections paying off) from Chicago, we eventually had almost full sets of Asian furniture. Air Force friends from Maxwell AFB delivered small Japanese objects as well.

Annette joined the Ikebana Club at Maxwell AFB and soon large, graceful flower arrangements filled our dining room at every party. Ikebana is a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. And in this group of mostly women, she found kindred spirits.

Other than drawing cats or dogs for her little boys, she had ceased to be an artist. In these floral creations, I could see at that time that I WAS her daughter; that I had inherited my talent from her. In my pre-teen fog I would ask her to explain what she was doing as she placed the branches or arranged the blossoms. Those sessions are treasured memories.

Our furniture was seen by the Montgomery folk with appreciation, awe, resentment and suspicion. Why were the Marrs so different? At the swimming pool, the local shopping mall, the Dixie Rexall drugstore, I’d overhear various people gossiping about our house. “It looks SO strange.” Have yew seen that dinin’ room table? Ah couldn’t eat off it.” “That breakfront is just ODD. From out of town, Ah’m told.”

The universal conclusion: the Marrs family were Communists. Entertaining, generous, colorful Communists.

The Life We Never Led

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Mom was on her 4th solitaire game at the dining room table. Not looking up from the game, she said casually:

“We almost lived in New York City. We just missed out on havin’ an entirely other life – if your dad hadn’t been drafted or the medical foundation’s offer had come 6 months earlier.”

WHAT???

Back in those days, the early ‘50s, we were four: Annette and Ted both on their second marriages, me from Mom’s previous marital attempt, and bro Bill a recent result of a Mom-and-Dad effort. There were 3 more kids from Dad’s original marriage, but they lived out of town and we hadn’t met them yet. Home was Montgomery, Ala., at that time “The Cradle of the Confederacy”.

Annette had been a teenage beauty queen; started college but came down with severe anemia and never finished; a temporary secretary and bookkeeper. Ted was pediatrician to half the city, a partner in Jackson Hospital, co-owner of Pineview Manor, the Home for Handicapped Children. He was super smart; going to college just when 16 yr.s old; a brilliant diagnostian.

We were living in a “just darlin’” converted barn down the hill from Pineview Manor on the edge of the forest. The little house had 2 bedrooms, flagstone floors, authentic barn doors, varnished pine walls and a huge fireplace. No central heating.

The wind literally whistled through the walls.

These were the early days of their marriage. Ted was responsible for us 4 plus his first wife and those 3 kids plus his mother. But money had no significance to Ted. He didn’t attend to bills. On his housecalls, patients paid him in cash – stuffed into his pocket or in produce – stuffed into his car trunk. There was no real accounting at all. As a trained bookkeeper, Annette was shocked: 8 dependents and no accounting? Mah gawd.

So, she had taken over the family finances entirely. She began going through Ted’s pockets at night and quizzing him about what amounts came from where. He thought this was darlin’. At first.

A recent surprise had revealed that Ted not only didn’t keep track of his money at all, but he didn’t pay any attention to his piled-up mail from the office. His secretary began to stuff it into a paper bag and he would bring it home saying “I’ll get to it later.” Finally going through three months of mail, Annette discovered a $1200 check for Diagnostic Consulting from an Atlanta hospital! The sacks then came home every two weeks.

Eventually she uncovered a letter to Ted from a medical foundation in New York, N.Y. They were a group devoted to pediatric needs, creating a new position of Medical Director and wanted Ted to contact them. New York City!! The foundation had run across his articles about warm water treatment in rehabilitating paralyzed children, early detection of spina bifida, etc. in medical journals. “Investigating him” had revealed his extensive diagnostic experience throughout the country and his speaking engagements promoting his and his partners’ innovative techniques in child health. Once Annette ran across the letter, furious correspondence and many long distance phone calls ensued.

Ted and Annette were terribly excited. Ted had a dozen ideas he wanted to pursue from a larger stage than Montgomery. Annette wanted out of the barn. Annette shared with me grandiose vistas of the art world, the museums, the fashions. New York City!! Ted took the train to N.Y. (there was little plane travel in the early 1950s) for a Meeting. He heard their plans, pitched some of his ideas and came back on Cloud Nine.

Annette’s great uncle, Robert Lester, had an apartment in N.Y.C. on Fifth Avenue with five bedrooms. We were welcome to stay as long as we liked, until we could get settled. But Annette was concerned. A.) What was the salary they were offering? B.) What conditions did their contract contain? Ted (of course) pooh-poohed her concerns.

MEANWHILE the father of one of Ted’s patients was on Montgomery’s draft board. The Korean War was full on, and the draft had been reinstated. This second draft law created the system for the “Doctor Draft” aimed at inducting health professionals into military service. Against regulations, the father had let Ted know that he was on The List coming out in a few months.

Ted had been in the Army during WWII, he had said. Now, Ted was a Tall Tale Teller of the first rank, silver leaf cluster rampant par excellence. Specifically what/how/ when are actually unknown. He told at least five versions of his adventures in WWII, ending with his being given an honorable discharge due to severe pneumonia. Comments from his mentor and best friend, Dr. James Shelburne, indicate that Ted WAS in the military and somehow connected with the O.S.S.

At any rate, the Army had now lost his records. (?) And Ted never having paid any attention to anything written (see above re letters, salary etc.), he had no record of his honorable discharge himself.

Annette felt Ted should pay attention to this draft thing. He could go in and persuade the board to give him a deferral or something. The minute The List was out, he should just go in… Wait. Did the foundation know that Ted was on the draft list? Uh, noooo.

The foundation had already sent him train tickets for five (Grandmother Marrs also included) and the contract was in the mail when Annette put her foot down. She wasn’t going ANYWHERE with Ted until he notified the foundation and talked to the draft board. Period. In the calm, mature manner that Ted and Annette conducted their disagreements, Annette decamped to her mother’s with Bill and me. For Ted to have a chance to “cool off”.

Ted talked to the foundation. They were royally pissed, felt that they had been purposefully deceived. Hmmn… well, yes. Annette returned the tickets and the contract.

Having already experienced the efficiency of the Army, Ted choose to volunteer for the Air Force before the draft got him. Based on Annette’s artistic taste (more on that another time) they listed “Japan” in all the blanks under “Preferred Posting”. We were sent 137 miles away to Eglin AFB, Fla. for 2 years. Ted’s Air Force choice eventually led them to the Pentagon and the White House.

So we lived in a lot of places: Destin, Fla.; Biloxi, Miss.; Schertz-Cibolo, Tex.; Dreux, France; Arlington, Va.; Falls Church, Va. and the parents ended up Albuquerque, N.M. But we never did live in New York City.

Fired From Kindergarten

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What I remember:

I was delighted to be in kindergarten. For the first time, I was around other kids. There had been only one other child in my neighborhood, Melissa, the granddaughter of our next door neighbor. She rarely came to visit on our street and only wanted to play dolls. Phooey. Boring.

     My first kindergarten was located in a sylvan glen in Cloverdale, a section of Montgomery, Alabama. We played music (hitting sticks together), marched around the room and sang. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah”, “Three Little Fishes”, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”. Most of these songs I already knew, like many of the other kids. It was great fun.

     I had been reading already and liked that there were so many new-to-me books there. The teachers didn’t like me reading the books myself and said that I might tear them. The books were for THEM to read aloud to all the children. I then remembered that I drew in all the books we had at home, even Uncle Luther’s, which made Mom upset. So I understood.

     They put down little blankets on the floor every day and we were to lie down and take naps. I wasn’t ever sleepy and so would talk to the curly headed girl next to me. They moved her to another blanket. So I talked to her replacement on the next blanket.

     The teachers and I REALLY disagreed on writing eights. I insisted on putting a smaller circle on top of a larger circle. It looked neat that way. This made the older teacher VERY mad. Everyone else was using one line to make the eights correctly. This was the Palmer Method, she said. She drew a big red X over my eights. Didn’t they understand mine was prettier?

     At playtime, we went outside. I regularly organized the other kids to play “Pirates” on the Jungle Gym or “Cowboys & Indians” instead of Red Rover or Ring Around the Rosie. The other kids particularly enjoyed “Pirates”. There were a lotsa pirate movies and westerns then. Following the movie plots, on one side were the pirates and the other side were the British. The divisions of “Cowboys & Indians” was obvious, although some of the boys wanted to be “scouts”, which meant they were Indians who were really cowboys… Organizing this was a little more difficult.

     I was moved to a second kindergarten.

What my Mom remembers:

     Mom rarely picked me up from kindergarten, Mammaw did instead. Hence the notes. Mom began to receive notes from Mrs. Benson and Miss Bend (she had never forgotten their names) saying that I was a very smart little girl but I had difficulty “minding”. I wasn’t entirely misbehaving, just being difficult.

     She set me down and said in no uncertain terms that I had to do EVERYTHING the teachers said. I shouldn’t contradict them. I shouldn’t talk back. I wasn’t to act like a smartmouth. (She was assuming I was acting toward them like I did toward her.)

     Finally Mom was officially called to the kindergarten after hours. They informed Mom that they had to let me go. They advised Mom that I needed psychiatric help. They went into detail. I was obviously a VERY DISTURBED child. No doubt, they said, this stemmed from my “unusual background” (Mom was divorced.). Mom was furious.

     So she went in tears to Dr. Ted Marrs, my pediatrician. Dr. Marrs knew me well. I had had mumps, chicken pox, measles, lice (from Melissa), serious sunburn, and had once gotten a whole plum caught in my throat. I had stepped on a nail one summer & my foot blew up like a balloon. We were constantly in the waiting room.

     Once when Mom thought I was “nervous”, Dr. Ted investigated and found that at 3 yrs. old, I had caffeine nerves. Both my grandfather and my mother were unknowingly giving me a cup of coffee/milk mixture every morning. The family tale was that Dr. Marrs hypnotized me into hating the taste of coffee. I certainly did – for the rest of my life a tea drinker.

     Dr. Ted heard the kindergarten story out and burst into laughter. He said those teachers didn’t appreciate my “budding leadership skills or creativity”. The other children were obviously more interested in playing the games I thought up than theirs. Not to worry, just put her into another kindergarten.

     Mom was both miffed and relieved. Miffed that Dr. Ted would laugh at her and this serious problem, and relieved that I was not crazy.

What I remember:

    In the years that followed, there has been some dispute about the validity of this diagnosis.

The Motley Crew

LEFT: Top row: Ted, Annette, Lee • next row: Dodson & Bill • bottom row all to himself: Jim, then known as J.W., Jim Dandy, Jungle Jim or James Grump. RIGHT: Lee, Annette & mugging J.W.  RIGHT MOST: Dodson & Bill on the beleaguered Citroën.