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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 7

The staircase wasn't grand in any way--especially not in the way Mom hoped when Dad told her he found a nice upstairs apartment, and she asked, "What's the stairway like?" "The stairway?" Dad had teased, "It goes up--and down, too, depending on which way you walk." Mom leaned her head to the side so he added, "Honey, it's nothing fancy, but the price was right." Those last words, she knew, were spoken of necessity, so she simply smiled and continued the conversation in her head until she shrugged it off by mumbling, "Who cares about the stairs?" but the question did not punctuate her thoughts.

In that town, an upstairs apartment was always in an old house. Sometimes they'd been beautiful homes where the entry way was quartered off and a banister remained to beg an upward glance and give the hand a sense of presence. Even in a house now divvied up to renters, a banister could lift the mind and guide a gentle touch upward with grace.

Such stairs are great for greeting guests, a social exercise that newlyweds are surprisingly eager to do. Unexpected company brings smiles and two-minute tours, as if to say, "We're married now. This is where we sleep and wake and eat and live when we say we're going home." Secretly they hope that if they tell others that it's home often enough, it may very well begin to feel like home even when they don't say the word aloud.

But this upstairs three-room apartment had no such staircase, and the narrow ascent foreshadowed the confined space beyond the door. Mom had seen the place when the lease began a month before their wedding. It seemed small even when empty of all but the things too heavy to move--cast iron all.

The claw foot tub, the kitchen sink that clung to the wall with cotton flour sacks skirted 'round to hide the pipes, and an old stove that stood on legs like the kind her grandmother had before she went electric.

Not yet a bride and even less a homemaker, Mom was overwhelmed at the thought of making the place presentable. She had never set up housekeeping nor had she seen it done. For as long as she could remember her childhood home (shared by both her parents and grandparents since shortly after she was born) had never changed. She had never seen her mother "feather a nest" because the nest was not her own to feather, and her grandparents had kept nearly everything in the same place since the house was built in 1910.

Mom had not given the apartment much thought until they got home from their honeymoon. By then each of the three rooms had at least one piece of furniture: A second cousin had given them a couch. It was fine except for the big spring that came up through the center cushion--not through the fabric like they do in a cartoon, just through the padding so guests felt the hard metal ring unexpectedly. It prompted various facial expressions, from winces to a naughty smiles. It was a real ice breaker.

The kitchen had the sink and stove and a little table they had gotten as a wedding present from Dad's folks. There was no refrigerator, but it was winter and they kept their milk and other things that needed to be cold in a wooden box outside the entrance door. Mom was still working at Star Oil. That fuel company had a little store front that sold "Firestone" brand appliances as a sideline. Their goal was to use Mom's employee discount to buy a refrigerator before the first thaw.

In the bedroom was an old bed Dad bought from his 3rd grade teacher the week before the wedding. He felt funny about that. The last time he'd seen this woman up close he was on the playground at recess, and now here he was thanking her for the bed... the bed of all things. He tried to pretend it didn't matter, but when he stood on old porch and said, "I'm here to pick up the bed," he felt his face get red and couldn't stop smiling. Neither could she.

That's pretty much what waited for them at the top of the stairs as they returned home from their honeymoon.

The place was missing far more than a banister....

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe Chapter 6-A

[I meant to include this before shifting gears in chapter 6-B .]

The morning after that first shared night in a hotel, my mother opened her eyes to the soft sliver of light that seeps through drawn curtains. She studied the valance at the top and liked how the room belonged together. The wallpaper seemed to match the bedspread, which matched the cushion on the little chair (that Dad did not prop against the door). She liked that the bathroom had a switch and not a string and especially that it was not shared. A deep breath of contentment filled her, but to her surprise, it came out in a sad sigh.
On the nightstand beside the bed was a phone she knew would never ring since no one knew where they were. This reminded her of a wish she'd been holding in since the waking hours of the day before. She did not know how to bring up the subject with her husband of less than two days, but lying there in that perfect moment gave her the courage to try.

Mom was homesick. For twenty years, her waking moments had been filled familiar sounds beyond her door. Even when she was grown and out of school, the elders of the house rose first to yawn in the mirror, fumbling through the blind patterns of life and the unwritten score of living. The dull rattle of cast iron pans; the squeak of the bathroom faucet; the tread of feet on the stair; and the tones of distant, disconnected conversation. All this was missing in that otherwise perfect moment. She'd never been homesick in her life because she had never been away from home. She took in another deep breath that stammered out like a child's silent sob.

"What's wrong, Bev." Dad whispered.

"Nothing...." she sighed again, shaking the bed ever so slightly with the trembling breath. Dad sat up and looked at her in the dim light.

"Well, something's wrong."

"No, it's not. I'm fine. Really." She looked up and tried to smile past her brimming eyes. "Don, If I promise to keep the phone call short, do you think I could call home when we get to Washington? Just for a minute. I want tell the folks we're fine and how nice everything is?"

"Is that all that's wrong? Are you sure? I don't know what the rates are from DC to Port Huron, but If you want to call home, I don't mind. You can do it right now if you want."

"No. I want to wait 'til we get there. That'll be even better."

Homesickness is as hard to explain as the feeling of home itself. It's a longing, a sort of hunger. But rather than an empty growl in the stomach it puts an aching lump in the throat. It hits everyone differently I suppose. For Dad it was a sense of uncertainty that he could replace Mom’s longing for home with a new feeling equally strong. It had not occurred to him to call home because the courtesy of such a call might make him feel less on his own, a feeling just as important to a man as feeling at home is to a woman. Newlywed men in that age (and at that age) sometimes struggled as they walked the fine line between indifference and independence.
Mom and Dad both called home that night. Mom's was the longer call.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 6-B

I could share some details we children gleaned from my parents' DC honeymoon tale, but they fall in that category of “facts of life” my parents eventually told their married children (later in life when we were all home for holidays). That satiated hour between a delicious home-cooked meal and dessert (when the children are off playing with their cousins) is when the best laugh-out-loud stories and whispered confessions come to light. I'll summarize as Mom often did:

“We didn’t know anything about anything," She'd laugh. "You kids were lucky. By the time you got married, there were good books that talked about it as God intended. We had nothing, and our parents never sat around like this and talked about these things—not even when they should have. I’d ask my mom a question and she’d just wince like she had a toothache and tell me to talk to Grandma Collinge, and then Grandma would just say, 'It'll all be fine, Bev, don't worry. You'll figure it out.'" And then meaning no insult to my dad, she'd add, "It was years—I mean years before your Dad and I knew what in the world we were doing. Isn't that right, Don.”

Dad would just tilt his head and shrug, and mutter with a smile, “Couldn't've been that bad. We had all you kids didn’t we.”

"That's not what I mean and you know it," Mom would laugh.

As she once put it while talking with my aunt, “Most of the children in this world were conceived in a moment when the wife could very well slip and say, ‘We gotta do something about that crack in the ceiling.’”

So there you have it. No more talk about those nervous nights. This story line is going to momentarily shift gears from the honeymoon to the Duncan Phyfe, so let's fast forward to Washington DC.

When my parents finally got to Washington, DC, they saw all the sights they wanted to see. All that is except the White House, which looked like this from the outside from 1948 to 1952.

Here is a little bit of history that many people do not know or have forgotten: Through the period of the Great Depression and WWII, White House maintenance had been put on the back burner. The story goes that one day the piano leg of President Truman's grand piano went right through the floor, and it was determined that the structure of the 150 year old White House was so bad that the whole thing was condemned and closed to the public from 1948 to 1952. The Trumans moved across the street to Blair House and lived there for nearly his entire second term. He had little choice in the matter since the photo below shows what inside of the White House looked like while the exterior appeared to be getting a modest face lift. ..[Right click to enlarge]

By the time Truman moved back in (just a few months before Eisenhower took office), the White House was a virtual bunker. All the original wooden frame was replaced by steel beams and concrete walls and floors. Two basements and a bunker were built far below the foundation. When you consider the fact that this was the beginning of what would later be called the "Cold War" with its nuclear arms race, it seems unlikely that this "extreme home makeover" had anything to do with a weak floor board under President Truman's piano.

Because of this, my parents never saw the inside of the White House.
I did three times: in 1971 with my church youth group; again in 1982 with my wife's parents and siblings; and the third time just two summers ago with my own family.
Getting into the White House is much harder than it used to be. The last time it required a favor from my acquaintance, Congressman Pete Hoekstra. Other than that, the public tour of the White house has not changed much in 35 years.
On that first tour in 1971, as we went through the Green Room, the Secret Service tour guide explained that the room contains many samples of Duncan Phyfe furnishings. My ears perked up when I heard this.
“We have a Duncan Phyfe table at our house,” I whispered to a friend.

“What’s a Duncan Phyfe?” he asked. "A piccolo & coffee?"

“No. It’s a table like that one there." I pointed at the one on the right side of the photo above. "See how the legs come down and then spread out like a wooden banana peel underneath? That's a Duncan Phyfe."

We looked around the room and saw that almost every table had that characteristic banana peel pedestal (as far as I know that is not the technically correct term for this feature).

I did not know at the time that Duncan Phyfe was a Scottish cabinet maker who became famous in the early 19th Century for his elegant but functional designs. I knew only that we had a similar table at home, and I was impressed to have this in common with the President.

When I got home I told Mom I saw her Duncan Phyfe in the White House Green Room.
"I never got to see the inside," she reminded, "but of course, even if we had seen the Green Room, I didn’t have my Duncan Phyfe yet. We didn’t get it until I was expecting Kathy in ’52. I remember that because our landlord didn’t allow babies and we had to move before she was born, but it was that little upstairs apartment we first had it. Did I ever tell you the story about us bringing home the Duncan Phyfe?”

“No, Mom, I must have missed that one. Is it a long one?

“Depends on where I start. We’ve got two hours before supper.”

“Might as well start at the beginning,” I suggested without thinking.

I was fifteen, and did not mind setting the kitchen table as Mom worked her magic with four pots on the stove, talking as she cooked. Every now and then she’d pause to laugh and brush back her hair with the back of her wrist, but the story flowed in the rhythms of all the tales I'd come to love of life and learning in that corner of the world we called home.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 5

The Hotel's Name is Long-Forgotten

Traveling across country in the early fifties held scenes nothing like this postcard. Along the unfamiliar roads were unknown diners and loosely regulated rows of roadside rooms. About the same time my parents honeymooned in Washington DC, a man named Kemmons Wilson also took a trip there and was so unimpressed by seedy motels that he decided to make his own Holiday Inn near Memphis, Tennessee. A few years later, in 1957, he started the successful chain. That same year a man named J. Willard Marriott, whose business began as a root beer stand in Washington, DC, opened his first motel.

A similar story began in California with the Best Western chain founded by M.K. Guertin, but that new "franchise" did not have a motel east of the Mississippi until after 1964. Actually, those new motels in the east were called Best Eastern until it was decided to keep the franchise name the same from coast to coast.

The concept of franchising promoted consistency, customer recognition, and a sense of security on the road. It was eventually applied to restaurants and retail stores as well. For instance, in 1951, there was a stand-alone burger joint in San Bernardino, CA, that had developed something called a “speedy service system,” but the first franchised site of that restaurant would not open until 1955, when a man named Ray Kroc would buy the rights from Dick and Mac McDonald.

It would be a decade or so before recognizable logos of national chains made otherwise strange places feel a little more like home. So how did Dad know where to spend that first night after Aunt Edith's? He didn't. Each night on the road was a shot in the dark guided by a "rule of thumb" held by many people in that day: Don't stay at a motel.

Today, we often use the words Motel and Hotel interchangeably, but hotel is derived from the Medieval Latin word for hospital, hospice, and hostel, all of which imply staff on hand to tend to the personal needs of the guests. Motel, on the other hand, is a uniquely American word, a blend of the words MOTOR and HOTEL (which is what they were originally called). Motels sprang up along America’s burgeoning byways after WWII. They were often in the middle of nowhere serving “one night” guests in a hurry to be someplace else. This lent to their sordid reputation, which was similar to the opening line of common jokes about "the traveling salesman" with a twist of campfire stories about "the Boogie Man." This image became legendary in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho. Who can forget the Bates Motel? But ten years before that film hit the movie screen many travelers who hit the road vowed never to spend the night in one. My father was one of them. “It’s worth the wait to stay in an established Hotel,” his father had warned, “places that have residents and repeat business know how to treat people.”

Mom and Dad hurried through the cold February air into an old hotel whose name has long since been forgotten. The lobby had warm wooden trim and staff-hook reading lamps beside well-worn leather sofas. There was a brass cuspidor beside a chair that reminded Mom of the one at her Grandpa Spencer's house. Though she hated the habit of chewing tobacco, and shuddered at the thought of what the inside of that spittoon no doubt looked like, the sight of it brought a homey touch that made her smile.

“Stay here by the door while I get the room,” Dad whispered.
He stepped up to the desk with a suitcase in each hand. The distance served two purposes: Dad thought it would make them look less like eager newlyweds, but more importantly, he could ask the lady at the desk about room prices without Mom hearing it. The first purpose did not fool the clerk, and the second purpose did not fool his bride, but both women played along. Dad put the key in his pocket and motioned for Mom to join him.
“Top floor, end of the hall on the left,” the clerk repeated.

As the elevator door closed, Mom whispered, “She kept looking at me like a chaperone at a dance. I couldn't tell if she smirking or smiling?”
"At least she didn't say anything about my mother wringing my neck."
On the third floor, the door dinged open to what looked like a neglected wing of the building. The hall was narrow with faded paper, curling at the seams. There were little candle sconces on the wall, and the dim light shone on hard-crackled varnish that clung to the paneled doors like dried molasses. The candle outside their room wobbled loosely in its socket. Mom stood it up straight, but when she let go, it leaned to the left again. Dad pretended not to notice as he turned on the light inside, and closed the door behind them.
It was a small room with a bed that sagged in the middle. The small window did not have real curtains--they were sheets that had been died brown. At least they could have pressed them, Mom thought, but she didn't say a word. Beneath the window was a cast iron radiator and Dad turned a knob at its base to open the valve and let the steam pass through the pipes. "Kind of chilly,” he said, propping a wooden chair under the knob of the closed door.
“Why are you doing that with the chair?”

“My dad told me to put a chair against the door like this. It’s the only way to really keep someone out.”

“Do you think someone would try to get in?”

Since the night before, Mom had been worrying about this second evening because--shall we say--things had not gone smoothly at Aunt Edith's, and now the sight of this chair braced against the door added a new concern to her post-nuptial bedtime jitters. Still looking at the chair, she asked again, “I mean… are there people who break into locked hotel rooms?”
For a moment, Dad weighed the pros and cons of explaining that there are in fact bad people in the world just as there are bears in the forest and sharks in the ocean, but he knew that if the chair was for his peace of mind, his answer had to be for hers. Rather than answering the question she asked, he laughed and said, “Not in places like this where there's nothing worth stealing. It’s just a precaution, Bev.”

He opened his suitcase and pulled out four brand-new tooth brushes still in their boxes and opened one.
"Why do you have four new toothbrushes?" Mom asked.
"We can always use extra tooth brushes," he began, but he knew this didn't sound like his normal frugal self so he blurted out..."Oh, alright. The truth is... every time I went up to the counter to buy the... you know... there was a lady at the cash register so I'd just say 'I'll take a toothbrush.' Finally, at the last drugstore I went to, there was a man and I still felt funny so I got a toothbrush AND the...you know." (Even with his bride, he was not yet able to say some words.)
"Well, that's how we girls feel," Mom pointed out, "when we're buying our things and there's a man at the counter."
They had never talked of these personal matters directly before. Dad stepped into the small bathroom, pulled the string of the bare bulb over the sink, and shut the door behind him.
Mom pulled down the covers of the bed and waved the small lamp from the nightstand back and forth like a torch as if performing some ancient ritual. Dad stepped out with a toothbrush in his mouth.
"You'll want to be sure to lock the other door in this bathroom. It opens to the next room."
"What? Is there anybody in there?"
"I didn't check, but there's a hook to lock it on the inside of the door." He then saw the lamp in her hand. “What in the world are you doing?” he laughed, trying to contain his foaming toothpaste.
“It’s just a precaution. I’m looking for bedbugs! You’re dad told you to do the chair. My mom told me to check for bedbugs,” and then without warning she sat down on the side of the bed and just started to bawl. Dad was at a loss. He could not interpret the signs. After a long pause he spoke.

“You’re sorry you married me, aren’t you?”
“No, Don. It’s not that at all. I’ve never been happier,” she sobbed. “It’s just this room is not what I imagined it would be like.”
It was a great relief to Dad to know she was only crying about the room and bedbugs and burglars that in all probability would never show up. In that moment, Dad learned what some husbands take years discover: disappointment is a hard bill to pay, and within reason, a man cannot overspend on the significant "firsts" of life. This was their first night in hotel room. He was trying to save money so they could have a nicer room during their three days in DC, but this was their first room. He put his arm around her and let out a comforting "Shhhhhhhhhh," and the radiator hissed in agreement.
“I’ll be right back. Don’t unpack. I’m going down to the desk.”
“I’m not staying up here alone," Mom blubbered.
"Okay. I'll take the bags but stay by the elevator until I come for you."
Down at the front desk. Dad rose above his bashful ways and walked right up to the lady. “Look, ah… I'm not very fussy, and that room would be fine—if it were just me, but I probably should have mentioned that we’re on our honeymoon, and it's not quite... Well...Do you have anything...How much is your nicest room?”
“I said to myself you two were newlyweds," the clerk beamed, "but it sounded like you were on a budget. Tell you what. Our finest room is right here on the main floor. Second room on the right. I call it our honeymoon suite, and it happens to be vacant. Here’s the key. No extra charge. Newlyweds on the third floor. What was I thinking? You go bring her down here right now.”
"She's waiting on the elevator. Thank you. Thank you very much."
In the lifetime to come, Mom would someday stay in fine hotels across America and abroad, but none struck her as more beautiful than that second room, on that second night, in that hotel with the long-forgotten name.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 4

Home Thoughts on the Road

In 1951 BI, Before Interstates, traveling across country was a game of connect-the-dots with hamlets and highways, hillsides and Main Streets. All of which gave more meaning to the word hometown and the phrase “just passing through.” In those days, it took travelers longer to get where they were going, but they were more likely to know where they had been.

In a small town in eastern Ohio, Dad pulled into a filling station for gas, took a small memo pad from the glove box, and wrote down the miles from the odometer. He stared at the pad until a quiet "Huh" came from somewhere in his mind.

"Huh what?" Mom asked.
"What huh?" Dad replied.
"Just now you said 'huh' like something was wrong."
"I did?" Dad asked, not recalling any sound at all.
"Yeah. Just a quiet little 'huh'...like that."
"Well, nothing's wrong. I was just logging our miles."
Mom paused then whispered, "Are you glad you married me?"
"Of course, I am,” he smiled, “It was just a 'huh.’"
She smiled back, but Dad was looking again at the pad and remembered what he was thinking when the inadvertent "huh" slipped out. It had occurred to him that this was the farthest he'd ever been from home. He was not surprised by the fact—he knew it would happen on this trip—but he wondered why it felt strange. For over a year, all they could think of was getting married and starting a home of their own. Now they were married, but he suddenly wondered when two people begin to feel at home by themselves. It was not so much a place but that feeling that seemed far away. All this was hidden in that mumbled "huh," and he knew in fairness to his bride he must learn not to utter such a sound again.
"Regular or Ethyl?" the man asked through the window.
"Regular," Dad replied, "I'll check the oil myself," he added, stepping out and propping up the heavy hood.
From inside the car, Mom smiled and studied the street of the umpteenth town they'd seen that day. In April, she would turn twenty-one, but until the night before at Aunt Edith's she had never been away from home or family—not to camp, not to a slumber party, not to college. Nowhere.
She turned on the radio, and the empty static reminded her that it did not work, but Dad was sure he could fix it once he found the right tubes. Looking at the people passing by, she wondered if she knew someone who knew someone there. The idea made her smile. "It really is a small world," she thought, "if you just talk long enough. I'll bet if I could visit with that woman coming up the walk that in no time we'd find something in common, and later on, when I meet someone else from Ohio, I could say I have a friend in..." It was then Mom remembered she did not know the name of this town much less the lady on the sidewalk, and her smile dropped ever so slightly.
Pulling out the oil dipstick with confidence, Dad smiled at his wife who was watching. He had forgotten to get a rag from the trunk, but not wanting to miss a beat in this manly ritual, he pulled out his back-pocket handkerchief and wiped the tip clean. He'd never used his handkerchief for this before, but this he knew was his oldest one. He was saving his good handkerchiefs for their days in D.C. Just as the dark oil stained the white cotton, the lady on the sidewalk walked by shaking her head.
“Your mother is going to wring your neck when she sees that.”
“What? My mother?” Dad stammered.
"Your mom will be fuming when she sees that in the wash."
"I don't live with... I'm a married..." By the time he got out a full sentence..."It's my oldest handkerchief," the woman was far away. Dad let the hood drop with a thud.
"Did you hear that lady?" Dad asked, sliding in behind the wheel.
“I saw her talk to you but couldn't hear what she said.”
“Either she thinks you're my mother or we must look like a couple of school kids.”
“Is that what she said?”
“No, but she might as well have.”

The truth is Dad was twenty-one, but looked much younger. Down the road a ways, he told Mom what the lady really said, and they both had a good laugh. The thought would make them laugh again that evening as they parked beneath a flashing VACANCY sign of a hotel near Pittsburgh and walked into the warm lobby together.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 3

Aunt Edith had come to the wedding and was staying in Port Huron for a while so she offered her house in Detroit to my parents for their wedding night.

Times were different then, I suppose. It's hard to imagine an aunt offering her house to a new couple on this special night--not a condo or beach house or a chalet in the snowy hills--just a brick bungalow in the sprawling neighborhoods of Detroit. It's even harder imagining newlyweds accepting the offer. My mom, who has told us kids this story countless times and whose voice I hear narrating it even now, always reminded us that things were tight and they were trying to save what money they had for when they got to Washington, D.C.

In spite of this goal, Mom also admits that the thought of Aunt Edith returning to her house the next evening added stress to her growing anxiety. "It was bad enough," she laughs, "that we didn't know anything about anything back then. On top of that I had to worry about leaving Aunt Edith's place exactly like we found it."

It was nearly midnight when they reached the street that matched the "X" on the map. Mom had only seen a picture of the house, but the sleepy street lamps lit the way. As they turned into the drive of the fifth house on the left, the headlights hit the address beside the door, and they knew they were at the right place.

"The key is under the mat," Mom said, "I'll stay here 'til you get in."

Dad carried their suitcases up the steps of the brick and concrete porch. The mat was slightly frozen to the stoop, but it broke free to show the waiting key, worn smooth with time.
The kind that requires a touch to work; the kind it takes a while to know; the kind that finds its place just so... before the bolt clicks, and the knob turns, and the hinge gives way to open.

It brings a groom understandable pause to breach an unfamiliar door and beckon his bride to join him in a place they've never been. Even with the owner's blessing, it feels strange to fumble in the dark for the switch; to wonder where to go, what to touch, and where to put your things; to kindle a fire that takes away the chill; to feel both far away and close but not quite yet at home; to wake to a strangely silent room and know you're not alone.

Come to think of it, when my parents stepped into Aunt Edith's cold, dark house on that February night, it was not much different than every other honeymoon suite where innocence is shared.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pause: Some Background About Gratiot Avenue

I have often called Gratiot Avenue "the byway of our life." It has an interesting history of its own, but for my childhood family the history began the night my parents married at Gratiot Park Methodist Church in Port Huron and drove sixty miles south on Gratiot Avenue to Aunt Edith's house in Detroit. We later lived in Roseville, just north of Detroit, and regulary took Saturday or Sunday drives down Gratiot Avenue to Port Huron (before I-94 came), and it was Gratiot Avenue that took us to church (and later high school) every week for 15 years. After those years, we built a home just a few miles east of Gratiot and 23 Mile Road, and later...much later...just up a shaded hilltop from Gratiot Avenue --just a mile or so from the church where this story begins, came the final words of the final chapters. They are written in stone at Lakeside Cemetery. For this reason, for my extended family, Gratiot Avenue is a more than line on a map; it is timeline spanning half a century. 
Here is how this avenue got its name.

Just as the young furniture maker Duncan Phyfe was establishing his business in New York City, Old Detroit was destroyed by a fire in 1805. President Thomas Jefferson appointed Judge Augustus Woodward to design a new city plan, and in 1807 he presented this drawing, but just as the work began, Mr. Woodward and his team ran into a little hitch: the British invaded the continent and reclaimed Detroit in the War of 1812. It was not until 1815 that Woodward’s design for a new Detroit began in earnest. The heart of the city's lay-out was a hub called Grand Circus Park. The hub had five long avenue “spokes” that would eventually reach out to other cities far away. These original five avenues still radiate from the hub, but the city itself is overshadowed by a maze of interstates and freeways.

The first avenue runs along the scenic waterfront and was named after the President who authorized the plan: Jefferson Avenue. 

Michigan Avenue heads west to—where else?—Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan (1817)— but more interestingly it continues due west (M-12) to the south end of Lake Michigan where it historically dog-legged north to Chicago ending with what is now called "The Magnificant Mile" of—what else?— Michigan Avenue.
Grand River Avenue goes northwest to the Grand River Valley near Lansing. In this sense the term "Grand" in this Avenue's name goes from the east to the west shoreline of the state, because from Lansing, in that time,the avenue and the Grand River became a pathway of trade and commerce to Grand Rapids, continuing on to Grand Haven where the river enters Lake Michigan. I now live just a few miles from that spot (and will be watching fireworks there tonight at the Coast Guard Festival).

Woodward Avenue (M-1) is Detroit’s “Main Street.” It is the shortest of the five original avenues (27 miles northwest from Detroit to Pontiac), but it is famous for being home to the first mile of concrete pavement ever laid on the face of the earth (The year was 1908, two years after the Ford Motor Co. was founded).

The Avenue I've not yet mentioned was named after Colonel Charles Gratiot, a hero and chief engineer of the War of 1812 who built a fort in what is now Port Huron, Michigan. It was later named Fort Gratiot in his honor, and the 60-mile "spoke" that connected the Fort to Detroit is Gratiot Avenue. Ten years later, the Erie Canal brought new residents from the East, and fifteen years after that, Michigan had enough residents to became a state.

A place called Fort Gratiot still exists on the North side of Port Huron. The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is an icon in my family's life, and three blocks away is the old Gratiot Park Methodist Church where Mom and Dad were married. That night after their wedding, my parents headed south on Gratiot Avenue and drove that long two-lane road to Aunt Edith's house in Detroit. See... I'm still telling the same story about "Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe." In fact, it was during this same time period, that the original Duncan Phyfe's cabinet-making shops in New York City occupied numbers 168, 17o, and 172 on Fulton Street.

The correct pronunciation of "Gratiot" is a mystery that only people in the Port Huron-Detroit corridor seem to know. It was a French name, but it's been anglicized. The first syllable sounds like "grass" with an "H" on the end. It is not pronounced Gra-T-ot but more like "grasshut." (In fact, must people put a soft "i" in the last syllable and it sounds like a warning sign on the lawn of a petting zoo, but this is hard to explain on a family-friendly blog so I'll leave it at that.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 2

On the evening of February 10, 1951, the narrow streets around Gratiot Park Methodist were lined with parked cars. It had no parking lot. Like every other old church of that time, it was built before there were cars, back when all of the essential stops of life were just a walk away. People walked to church; children walked to school; moms walked to corner markets. It was all this walking and crossing of paths that kept the warp and woof of neighborhoods drawn tight.

Fifty years before, at the turn of the 20th Century, cars rolled on the scene, and the need for parking lots and garages soon followed. At first, many people simply built small sheds behind their houses, but as cars became part of the family, the garage became part of the home. By the end of the century, the most prominent feature of a house was not a front porch but a huge garage door that open and closed automatically behind the driver. There came many unintended consequences with automobiles.

In 21st Century suburbia, the essential stops of life are larger, less personal, and further from home. We can now motor from point A to point B without having to walk or talk with those who live around us, but this is not the way it always was.

The little church where my mom and dad were married on that mid-winter night in 1951 was three blocks from the house on Forest and Riverview where Mom was born and raised. I've walked to this church by my grandma's house and stood on the walk between the door and the curb where a young couple posed for this picture in the back seat of the best man's convertible, and drove off to begin the longest journey of their lives.

This is the case every time a bride and groom drive away from the place where whispered vows and steeple bells ring true, but for Mom and Dad it was also literally the longest journey of their lives, a road trip to Washington D.C.

Like most young adults at that time, their roots went deep but did not spread far from the family tree. Neither of them had ever been more than a Sunday drive from home. Dad was twenty-one and Mom was twenty. They were children of the Great Depression and young teens through the war. Cars had been under-produced, gas and tires had been rationed, Truman had just defeated Dewey a few years before, and Eisenhower's dream of interstates was a long way down the road.

After this picture was taken, my Uncle Jack (the best man) drove them to where Dad had hidden his '39 Ford (safe from his fun-loving buddies). It was packed and ready to go. First stop Aunt Edith's house. Now doesn't that sound like the ideal place to spend a wedding night? Don't worry... Aunt Edith wasn't home.

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 1

[Sequentially post-dated from July 17, 2007.]

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941,my dad and mom were 12 and 11: two Junior High kids that barely knew each other's names. Ten years and two months later, they were married and headed for a Washington, D.C. honeymoon in Dad's '39 Ford. A week later they settled into a small three-room apartment just a few blocks from the high school where they fell in love.

Doesn't it feel strange to consider that a "1939 Ford" was no older in the year 1951 than a 1995 model is as I write today. My daughter drives a '95 Saturn, and it doesn't seem that old to me. But the thought of ’39 Ford in the Fifties, sounds old. Oddly enough, there is another reason that this car did not look that old on the road...

In the 40's, the world my parents and their parents knew was hanging by a thread. During WW II, progress on the domestic front took a back seat to "doing without" for the war effort.

The 1942 cars models were in production when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but those car designs did not change for the duration of the war. The auto plants were converted to military production and while a few cars were still being made each year, they were in fact the same car as the year before.

If your family was among the few to buy a "new" Ford in 1945, it was a 1942 Ford. If you bought the new Ford in this second picture (circa 1948), it was a 1942 Ford with only a slightly different grill, which still looked very similar to the 1939 model in the first picture. Not until well after the war (1949) did Ford begin rolling new designs off its Detroit assembly lines. So in that sense, in 1950, my dad's '39 Ford looked as "up to date" as a 2004 model might look today, but all that was about to change.

In the next few years Detroit quickly made up for lost time by completely skipping a decade of gradual change. After hunkerin' down and pulling together through the Great Depression and a global war, America wanted to...needed to...see some signs that the best of the 20th Century was yet to come. Seemingly overnight, it was as if beautiful metal butterflies emerged from the drab cocoons that had been sitting by the curb.

I was born in 1956. By the time I was old enough to know what a car was, many of them had the lines of a rocket. Ours, of course, did not. The six of us were still piling in and out of that '39 Ford—by then 20 years old. Dad was driving a Bell truck to and from work and a newer car was just not in the budget. I later learned that it was in that old Ford that Dad taught Mom to drive, and that was the car that brought home the Duncan Phyfe.

This is the story of their first year together—before any of us kids were on the scene. It will take a while to get to that part of about the table, but stories about life and love are a lot like life itself. It’s best not to hurry such things… to take it slow as if you’re strolling as you read.
Originally posted Wednesday, 7-11-07. Moved for sequence with Part II.

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