The Babe


The infant would sense, even as he gasped for the novelty of air, that an outer skin, the mother's or a soft coverlet, was essential, and the two were sometimes intertwined in a baby's mind, until he would finally relinquish his mother's skin but be annoyed if his clothing and cover were removed. The Babe did not, however, treasure a particular blanket beyond infancy, nor did he suck his thumb or demand a little rubber "pacifier" insistently after his year of nursing ended. He accepted boiled warm milk and water from bottles, and afterwards mashed and strained potatoes and peas and carrots, then ground meat. The water bottle sometimes contained sugar. No feeding problems were experienced.

Every effort was made for him to feel comfortable in his new home. His diapers were changed as soon as they were wetted. He was capped, shirted, pantied, stockinged and slippered as soon as he was washed and moved about. He was carefully watched to assure that his ambient temperature was high and that even his face was exposed only at the nose and mouth. The big stove was kept red hot. His clothing was of the softest cotton and wool, and elegantly embroidered. But the safety pins that held the folds of his diaper could be bought anywhere. He was furnished with covers of varying weight, also soft and embroidered, and he could have withstood temperatures far below those experienced. Invariably, at that time of year, January, the windows of the flat would be frosted part of the day and most of the night, and as soon as he could toddle he would begin to scrape off flecks of ice with his weak fingernails and taste second-hand the cold of a Chicago winter.

The climate of Chicago, U.S.A., was rather worse than Berlin's and better than Moscow's, except that the brutal wind and stenches of Chicago gave real temperature-feelings worse than either. But the Babe was warm at home and did not experience the Russian baby's extended period of wrapping and bundling that would have kept him physically encumbered for a much longer time. (Geoffrey Gorer has speculated that the American adult character was for this reason more active, the Russian more passive.) The summertime was often stinking miserable. The boys cut their hair short and once elected to "get a baldysour," a funny name for a skinhead.

During all of his fifteen years, the Babe enjoyed only natural cloths, cottons, woolens, mixtures of the two, canvas which is cotton, and furs that came into play for dress gloves, dress collars, and a fancy hat during his halcyon days. A disgusting transformation occurred in the quality of the wool supplied him beginning in his sixth year, coarse wool, scratchy, that he would not don even at the cost of freezing, the main offenders being woolen full-covering underwear, Long-Johns. There was leather in his belt, on the uppers of his shoes, and on the outer side of certain highly prized jackets. There were no zippers; instead, buttons and hooks secured his clothing.

When a button popped off it, an article had to go into the sewing box, where other button-short or torn or ill-fitting or holey clothes aggregated. There it had to submit to a complicated system of priorities which took into account the criticality of the unfastened site, weather forecasts, the schedule of dress for the proximate future, the availability of the lapsed button, the stock of thread of the right color, the size of the pile awaiting repairs, the possibility of assistance from outside sources such as Mrs. Anderson or Mrs. Cirnigliaro, the competition afforded by persons also suffering from missing buttons or worse, the pressure of other tasks upon the Mom, her state of exhaustion, her momentary preference for taking up one task rather than another, and, lastly, the intensity of agitation launched by the Babe, which in its turn depended upon his perceived need for the button, the level of personal regard in which the disabled garment was held, and his inclination to make a pest of himself at a given time.

There were also a bag of wash and a bag of ironing. The former was usually handled on Monday if done internally, on regular delivery and pick-up days if it went out to the laundry wagon. Like sewing, the ironing was subject to priorities. Emergencies were frequent and the Babe was used to the call: "Set up the ironing board, I have to iron your Father's pants." And later, "Put away the ironing board, it's in the way." (Nota bene: The Mom possessed this excellent habit, emblazoned in textbooks of human relations management, of following a command with at least the major reason for it. Query: Did it originate from her natural inclination to explain herself or in order to evade the likely "Why?" and the need to answer therefore in any case? She was still liable to further insolent interrogation, of course, like "Why didn't you iron them when I put it up this morning?" But meanwhile the board was being fetched out of the pantry. We would guess that the habit was both forthcoming naturally from her character and was demanded in her household, but was also typical of American culture.)

Shoes were addressed to the work and weather: winter shoes, summer shoes, snow and rain shoes, dirty work shoes, school shoes, sport shoes, and then rubbers and galoshes, still made largely of natural rubber, the first article of non-natural dress having been possibly the stinking stiff phlegm-colored slicker that only a dreadful icy rain could invite. You should not imagine all of these special kinds of shoes in neat array. There were first of all shoes with special functions that were never worn, because they were outgrown, in discreditable condition, disliked aesthetically, habitually overlooked, or stored in obscure crevices of the Boys' Room or even in the coal shed from last year.

Furthermore, like the slots provided for in the table of personnel of an understaffed military outfit, several recognized needs went unfulfilled, whether because of an economy drive, the expectation of a change in the weather, or the proximity of some gift-giving holiday like Christmas when, as with troops replacements, the footgear would be promised, and expected. There were also cases when the attended footwear was still on the feet of Bro Bus, whose growth did not quite fulfill earlier expectations.

Only on major inspection days of the year, notably the all- Chicagoland Spring Clean-up Week, prior to which the schools fired broadsides against the trash and junk that lay uncollected in basements, alleys and houses, and the litter blowing along the streets, but also at moments of high parental desperation and anger, the footwear would be assembled and lined up beneath the bed, their knotted laces locked against their eyelets, their tired tongues lolling sidewise, one pair stiff as a board from last week's storm, the rubbers doubled up on themselves, the ankle-high Keds stinking up the room, and inevitably the shoes awaiting transfer to the repairitorium but meanwhile yawning crazily at the Inspector.

The weather of Chicago, natives would proudly declare, using the same tones they used in boasting of their criminal gangs, corrupt politics, stockyards stenches, and lamed garbage disposal system, was the worst in the world. When Minnesota pointed to their own sub- zero readings, Chicagoans would introduce their winds. When Kansans came to bat with their prairie heat, Chicagoans would pitch the humidity at them. Were the height of snowdrifts to become an issue with Michiganians, Chicagoans would allude to the awesome heavy coatings of soot and chemicals that pressed down upon their drifts and the heavy traffic that ground these into a poisonous paste. As for changeability, the Babe and his petits confreres loved to sing with instant appreciation the ditty beginning, "Oh it rained all night the day I left, the weather was so fine..."

Chicago had many a storm that would drive a dog under the table. There would be this lowering of sky, mean-looking, stinking damply of industrial smokes and then it would come: a whirl of winds, fearful tympanic crashes, torrential rainfall. His heart palpitated in trepidation and ecstasy. Whether inside or outside, he became excited. No thunderstorm ever failed to arouse and please him. He frowned and shivered and laughed.

The Dad would speak of a tornado he had been caught in. It was in Kankakee. Their car had been lifted up and carried nearly a block and laid down again without injury or damage. Impossible? Think again. Would he lie to the boys? No. Have such experiences been reported and confirmed? Yes. Did the Babe know this? No. Was he justified in suspending belief? Yes. But he sensed what a tornado might be like from feeling the winds of "The Windy City." Actually Chicago is number 12 in average-wind-speed-in-January among American cities, but so far as he was concerned this was the limit of human endurance, these arctic blasts, sirocco blasts, generating on a million miles of western prairie where the cold and heat were ready to go, waiting only for the winds to build up muscle and sharpen their knives.

Nothing, nothing, swore the Babe from out of his hunched-up frame, could be as excruciating as the wintry wind blowing against him as he stood, underdressed, he being underdressed or overdressed much of the time, refusing to go along with the Mom's urgings that he carry with him clothes for all climes (yes, and look like a lunatic and be helplessly overburdened), waiting for a trolley-car with its sick-making and life-supporting heat to come along. But once home, once arrived anywhere, he would boast of the insufferable cold that he had endured.

And when they trekked to Oak Street Beach on a blistering afternoon across streets oozing asphalt that could pull your shoes off, then arrived, and, before you could strip for action, crack! a bolt of lightning and quickly thunder, followed by the thud of raindrops on the sand, there was here, too, a frustration sans pareille, because they largely believed in the exclamations of the Mom and in the consonant behavior of the beach crowd, that to be in the water when lightning strikes invites quick-roasted death, yet, while believing so, he was determined to reach his objective, throwing himself into the waves. Hence, each time lightning struck, he would allow a decent second for the fatal current to complete its traverse of the whipped green surface and then dash in and dare the lightning with a second bolt to strike him dead before he could scamper back to the beach.

The primordial element of water was experienced in sundry other manifestations. Listing these in order from the moment of his sortie from the womb's water, and noting duly the water sucked from his bottle, adulterated with sugar, alas, there occurred the water sponged upon him in the small basin wherein he was crouched. Then came the water outside the window, from the sky. Then came the tap water, "hard" water he heard it called and it was many years before he would believe that soft water, such as New York City consumed, might be superior. The magical drip and flow of tap water, putting out a hand to catch the water, withdrawing it, splashing, catching water in a cup: here was recreation on a grand scale.

All of this came before the glorious emergence, the walk after a rain, when the sidewalks are wet and the gutters course along the brick-lined brook, untouchable at first, then to be probed with a stick to feel the depth and thrust of the current. And the pools -- quick, before you can be pulled back, splash! Triumphant, smiling, no crying because your attendants are not the kind who scold and shake a child when he gets his shoes and stockings wet. They say to him reproachfully, "Now look at you, all wet." He looks, and is satisfied.

Puddles, running gutters, they never lost their seductiveness, wet red brick sidewalks and street paving blocks, glistening, catching and casting facets of light, how warm and varied the gems of the setting sun on the irregularities of all that is old and used. The old man, too, come to spread his paper on the damp green wood bench and sit there finds deliverance from high above, ray-struck like a Cranach painting.

Then a time would come when they boarded a train, led by a steam locomotive, that passed into the country to the Northwest, and soon paused at Sheridan, then crossed a bridge. This was "Look, the Fox River!" and the train stopped because the conductor had been alerted and they descended at Glen Park, a summer resort colony of wooden cottages smelling of damp boards and they stayed for weeks and months until the woods around, the kerosene lamps, the wire screens and the scented planks impregnated his soul and the Fox River ran forever in his mind, while two more forms of water, the brook and the well, introduced themselves, the brook by gurgling loudly as he approached it up the path (on the way to Mr. Winter's farm for milk and eggs and to visit the animals) and crossed over it, a feat he liked to repeat several times at each approach, on the return as well, small victories over a pleasant friend; too, the pump by the well, screeching as the Dad vigorously raised and lowered its iron arm as if they were shaking hands, gushing thick jets of water into their pail. The Dad couldn't wait to taste it and taught them how to catch it by cupping their hands (after washing them in the flow first). "It's the best in the world; it has lots of iron in it." "From the iron pump," thought the Babe, and as he tasted the iron, he could feel his thin muscles tighten into iron arms. It all made sense, it was the Age of Iron, the water tasted like iron, and they came from the World Capital of Iron.

The rain of the forest was a more intimate rain than the City's, tapping on the pine and tar-paper shingles above your head and dripping from the eaves all around, and scampering along the boards of the screened porches, both by day and by the evening light of the kerosene lamps, a hushed time whether by day or night, too, for there had been a natural invention of sounds that subdue and dismiss ordinary sounds, and all of this time was transporting a heady fragrance, nor is there a word for such a perfume composed of the essences of lamp gas, rain vapor, dank planks and beams, tree- drippings, soil fog, mixed with faint exudations of your own sweat, oil and clothing.

So discreetly did the water fall from the trees and roof onto the tufted ground that you could not tell easily whether the rain had stopped. But when it really did pause and you went out, its water was waiting and brushed off on you at every post and bush, from where it sat, sweetly, flirting, with its minute leaf-mirrors, stump- mirrors, stone-mirrors.

The Dad arranged his work to have a week in the country with them, and it rained continuously. "It's raining, Al," Kate told him as he opened his eyes and couched his head on his arms, so he growled in reply, so they teased him all week, several times a days, especially the Babe with his "It's raining, Al!" and what can you do to a runt who thinks he is being funny, except to growl accommodatingly.

Then they would sing,

Oh, it ain't gonna rain no more, no more,

It ain't gonna rain no morrrre!

How in the heck (`hell' among boys alone)

Can the old folks tell,

That it ain't gonna rain no more?

The Babe puzzled over the logic of this song that was so much fun to sing in loud hearty tones: Who said that the old folks could tell in the first place?

Back home in Chicago, he performed several aquatic feats: he went down to Lake Michigan and ran up and down the sands of the World Ocean. He crossed the Chicago River in a trolley car; the car was protected by an iron cage (so seemed the old bridge) from falling into the water. After several crossings, the ultimate promise was fulfilled: his trolley car halted, the whole great cage lifted itself up to let a tug and barge pass through. There came other miracles associated with water; in the lagoon at Lincoln Park waterfowl abounded, ducks with ducklings unfailingly fastened to the mother fowl, geese and swans one nastier than the other, goldfish that looked him straight in the eye from below the water's surface, reeds bent crookedly as they broke water, whence, at another pond he with the others clambered into a rocking rowboat, pushed awkwardly at heavy oars, stuck his mitts into the passing current from the safe ample stern seat, until the rental hour had passed in a few seconds.

When winter came and holes could be bored by hot breath into the frosted window pane and icicles could be broken off the window sashes, there came to Seward Park several men with picks and shovels, who dug up the sod to make a large shallow oval ditch over half the terrain of the Park. The watchers from above waited expectantly, telling each other, "Call me when the firemen come, don't forget!" Whereupon the firemen came, without sirens sounding, and connected their long fire hoses to the fire hydrants at the corners of the block, and led the hoses into the large oval space. The water was turned on and poured in to challenge the great space. Within hours, as the Watcher reading a book by the window could detect, the puddle became pondish and then crept out to the very rim of the rink; there remained now only to gaze at the marvelous phenomenon of water turning to ice. Early the next day, unless Chicago's weather perversely warmed, the sliders and the skaters appeared.

The Babe and his cohorts were prepared: the skates with runners, the single-bladed hockey-skates, the wicked-looking and dangerous racing skates, were dug up. The sleds were removed from the coal shed, if they hadn't been already out to greet a snowfall. They were washed, their runners were greased, their ropes inspected. The boys had no true hockey sticks but they could fashion them, nailing and wrapping a long length of wood on a short end-piece at right angles, using for the puck a stone or chunk of tire rubber.

Actually, as active optimists, they were over-prepared, at least psychologically; materially, they suffered inadequacies: some of the equipment was in a poor state or did not fit properly, or had been put into condition to receive replacement parts that were late in arriving. At times, too, the ice would succumb to an unexpected thaw and they would have to resign themselves to slugging through its slush in galoshes or by slow sledding. Further, if all were otherwise well, there was the annoyance and fear, always present in public places, that the "Big Guys" -- contemptuous strangers -- would order them around, kick them off the ice, forcibly borrow their sleds, or run them down at breakneck speed with pointy steel blades.

Crystal Lake, Northwest of the City, was the next conquest, where it seemed that some friend's renting, buying, building, or owning of a cottage was the basis for a trip, sometimes for hours, but possibly for a week or two. The Lake was safe and dull, with two attractive features, a dock from which fierce floppy small fry could be caught with a pole, line, floater, sinker, hook, and worms, dug or purchased; too, a brook whose mouth harbored many frogs and small turtles, with an adjunct interest for the Dad in its lush watercress. A long summer afternoon spent amidst rushes and lily pads was most rewarding, never a total failure, yet there persisted the moral question: should an animal be removed from its habitat, or killed and eaten as turtle soup and frog legs. Respectable, though frequently unrealistic, voices argued for and against all of these positions.

Crystal Lake was a small version of Stevens Bay on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Bro Bus and the Babe journeyed with a lot of other boys once to the Bible Institute's Camp Olivet, and of Lake Orinoko at Berrien Springs, Michigan, where the Babe's Boy Scout Troop 42 and St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church staged a camp. After this, he plunged into the swimming pool of Lake View High School with bravado when it came time for a swimming class, where, because of all that has been already said, he outswam most of his classmates and began to sense an ambition to swim well, perhaps ultimately to inherit the jungle domain of Chicago's own Tarzan, Johnny Weissmueller, Lady Jane, and Cheeta the Chimp.

Finally two other waters impressed him, that mysterious river that carried his boat through the Tunnel of Love at Riverview Park and the grand Buckingham Fountain, practically solitary in a city of three million humans, that he got to see when the World's Fair struck up the band in Chicago in 1933 and the brothers had free tickets from Uncle Bill and Dad to prowl around. The Buckingham Fountain, out-royaling the Versailles Fountains of the Sun-King, was placed too near to the Lake; it, or another great fountain, or a dozen such, should have been constructed at the centers of the dry and dusty vast spread-out west-side neighborhoods. As it was, the huge pseudo- chandelier appeared uniform, poured too regularly, hence was boring. "The world's biggest," though. That was something.

They joined the multitude at hand when Italo Balbo's fleet of twin-engined Savoia Marchetti flying boats flew in next to the World's Fair Grounds, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Italy. All honors were given to the Fascists. (Adolf Hitler had just become dictator of Germany.) It was nice of them to come, of course, and Chicago loved to be the culmination of any kind of experience; "It put the city on the map." Hardly anyone, it seemed, thought that Fascism was bad for a country. Not the Chicago Tribune, nor the Chicago industrialists, nor the four heaviest components of the Chicago population: not the Poles who paid homage to Marshal Pilsudski; not the Germans; not the Italians; not the Irish who were for the Pope and against the English. Not the Babe, not yet. His politics were with his abandoned toy soldiery, in the Middle Ages, in the Civil War, and among the cowboys. He was fully aware, however, of the mighty murderer, the machine-gun, and had long ago sketched fleets of tanks, warplanes, and attack submarines. So we can see that his antiquated mind was possessed of advanced technology, and was thus as one with the leading statesmen of the age.