In the summer of 1953, when I was 15, my parents and I went on a fabulous American Express guided tour of Europe. It was 11 weeks long. Beginning in England, the tour continued up the coast of Norway to the land of the Midnight sun, all the way to the coast of Russia, then, down through Denmark, and Sweden, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and finally France. We traveled mostly by bus. While my Father snoozed, and my mother collected samples of different types of toilet paper, I took hundreds of photographs with my Uncle Norman's Leica Camera, which he had loaned me, in those days, when we were still friends. I liked France, especially Paris, best!
Three years later, in the summer between the University Of Michigan and Pratt, I went on a chartered flight, arranged by U of M, on Flying Tiger Lines. I traveled with three other students from my former dorm. The plane let us off in London, where we bought second hand bikes, and cycled down, from there to my future wife’s hometown of Dover, and spent the night in a youth hostel, along the white cliffs, unknowingly, on the same street as her home, which was just two doors away. Then, we crossed the English Channel, traded in the bikes for motor assisted models, and went to Paris. From there, we cycled to Spain, and back through Switzerland and Germany, then, up to Amsterdam, where, 11 weeks later, we caught a Flying Tiger that took us home again.
When we got to Paris, I didn't want to leave, and I nearly left the others to stay behind alone. I had taken French for four years at Mumford High, so I could almost get by. But I was not yet brave enough to do that on my own, and Paris was expensive. So, I reluctantly carried on with our little group of four. We stayed at youth hostels for 25 cents a night, and our expenses for the entire 11 weeks were just about $100 each, once we sold our bikes. One of the boys had Family living on a mountain top in Germany, and we stayed with them for two glorious weeks.
So, the thought of going to Paris was not as farfetched, as it might seem. I went into the other room and discussed it with my mother. And although, she was not happy, she reluctantly agreed that it was something I had to do.
My father “left me nothing" in his will. My mother seemed to take a perverse delight in phrasing that information in those words. I tended to believe that he really intended to leave everything in her care, assuming that she would help me, at her own discretion. Her discretion took the form of paying for my college education. But, once I graduated I would be on my own. I thought that was more than fair. Now, my mother made it clear that because I was going to France, the deal was off. I would be going on my “own steam.” It happened that I did have some money in the bank. It was the result of war bonds and baby bonds that I had been given as an infant, and a small life insurance policy that I could cash in. Although, I had not earned the money, it was still considered "mine." I figured there was enough to stay in Europe two years, and my mother reluctantly promised to withdraw and send me $250 of it, every month. That would prove to be more than enough, as my hotel room turned out to be only $30 a month.
And so, the deal was done, agreed upon between myself and my loving mother, who for a brief moment dug down into deepest level of her being, where love and caring for the happiness and fulfillment of one’s children dwells. And we came to a mutual understanding that lasted for all of half an hour.
Then, she got on the phone, and the nightmare began. Her friends and relatives told her what a beast I was to leave her in "her hour of need," with her husband, Sam (my dad) just nine months dead. They coached her on how to make me change my evil mind, and sympathized with her grief. The collective voice of Detroit whispered, screamed and shouted in her ears. And, time and again, when she hung up the phone, she was in tears.
Every few days, she would calm down, and we would talk. She would come away from these conversations, agreeing that I should go. Then the Greek chorus of mourners would begin again. And nights would pass, in which she cried herself to sleep, exhausted from her heavy schedule of Canasta games, in which I was discussed incessantly, amidst the puffs of smoke. Yes, through eight canasta games a week, she kept a stiff upper lip to hold her cigarette in place, and valiantly, tragically, carried on.
I too, was showing the adverse effects of this anxiety. I developed a nervous stomach, which soon became an ulcer. I went to see my doctor, a wise benevolent man, who had treated my entire family, since I was born. There was no Zantac then, or any easy remedy. Dr. Freidman's prescription was: "Mel, Go to France! Get Out Of Town, the sooner the better. You cannot cure this situation; you must Escape!"
Meanwhile, I arranged the whole thing. I visited my draft board, and a nice lady assured me my number would not be coming up for a year, at which time, I would need to report to the recruiting center, unless I was in school. I got my passport straightened out, and discovered that I needed a visa in order to remain in France for longer than three months. WHAT! That was an unexpected wrinkle! And so I went to see my uncle, who had been anointed as the Austrian Consul. He could have easily arranged a visa for me.
Odious Uncle Norman was my father’s younger brother, one of the original Birnkrant baker’s dozen. He was a pompous windbag of the highest order, inflated to the bursting point, with his own overblown and unwarranted self-importance. He was paid $1.00 a year to be the Detroit consul of Austria, a country he had never seen. He even painted his patio floor in red and white to replicate the Austrian flag, and tread upon it, in patriotic deference to his adopted fatherland.
When I was still a kid, I had a modicum of respect for him, for he seemed to represent that dubious state that I viewed with ambivalence as “adulthood.” Although, he had been briefly married and divorced, he lived the life of a gay bachelor, in the days when that word simply meant “carefree.” God knows, he was just the opposite of what it would signify, today. Norman was a horny hound dog, on the lookout for any stray bitch in heat. For many years, he lived in a bachelor pad, well before that phrase was coined, in the rather elegant Whittier Hotel, on Jefferson Drive in Gross Point, an area of Detroit, where I’d been told Jews were seldom welcomed. At that time, Norman also owned a large cabin cruiser with a full time captain. He kept it tied up at a marina on the Detroit River. The boat was appropriately named, "The Water Wagon", and he lived part time on, and part time off The Wagon.
I will never forget visiting his apartment with my parents and a group of other relatives, when I was twelve years old. Being a curious person, I experienced an impulse to explore. My intuition told me this would be an opportunity worth missing lunch for. So, as the group readied themselves to go downstairs to the restaurant, I insisted that "I wasn't hungry." Incredibly, they believed me. As if, I was ever, not hungry! And I was allowed to stay in my uncle's home alone... to snoop around. Soon, I discovered his collection of photographs of ladies, topless and in the “all-together.” There were many shots in the assortment that I could deduce, from looking around, had been photographed right there in his apartment. Minutes later, I uncovered his cache of "feelthy" 78-RPM records. And to my great delight, the family was gone long enough for me to listen to them all!
My favorite was a guy, who sounded like the "Kingfish" on "The Amos and Andy Show,” singing a dirty little ditty called," "Let Me Hang my Balls on Your Christmas Tree.” I instantly committed it to memory. And so deep was the impression it made on me that I can still sing it, today. Let’s see, how does it go? Hmm," "Let Me Hang my Balls on Your Christmas Tree. I’ve got the nicest balls that you ever did see! I like to see em, hangin way down low. Of course, I don't want em, draggin round in the snow! I'm smilin and happy as I can be, cause I'm a gonna trim my baby's Christmas tree." I thought about that record collection, often, especially, during the events that took place a few years later.
Oh My God! Can I be dreaming? A sudden impulse sent me looking, and I just found the song on You Tube! To my astonishment, it is exactly as I remember it, although, I never heard the song again, in the sixty-five years that have flown by so quickly, since I was twelve years old. This is another diversion in my always rambling narrative, but I couldn’t resist posting it. For me, this moment is extraordinary.
So here I am at 4:00AM. It is the middle of the night, that hour when ancient memories come to life, and all time, past and present, is the same, adrift on the Sea of Memory again. I spent all of what’s now yesterday, writing this story. And, suddenly, I realized that I was leaving so much out. Therefore, I am, sitting here, in front of the computer, sipping fresh brewed coffee and attempting to insert the story behind the story, one that is far more important than the fact that I endured a horrible summer in 1958, as I prepared to go to Paris France, and leave the Birnkrant family, and my former life behind. And so, minutes ago, I began digging through a file of long forgotten slides.
And, I found this amazing photograph. It captures the three main players in the saga, together at our house on Christmas Day. This was, perhaps, one of the final times that all three brothers were together. My father, Sam is on the right. He radiates a kind of saint-like aura of good natured innocence, not unlike an angel. Just behind him, to the left, is Uncle Mark, my favorite uncle, at the time. Even from my earliest years, he seemed to hold a place of ever present warmth and comfort in my life. And in between them, showing his true colors, is odious Uncle Norman. My God! The camera doesn’t lie! He cannot hide! You can clearly see his sardonic smirk of smug complacency, and the glint of evil in his eye. And in the very background is the mysterious figure who was at every family get-together, always smelling of cigar smoke, Uncle Willie. It was not until years later that I realized he was my grandmother Tillie’s younger brother.
Sometime, in the year that followed, Uncle Mark suddenly died. He was the first of the eight uncles, who I knew, to pass away, and his unexpected death was a stunning surprise. It left his daughters, my dear cousins, Terry and Madge, traumatized.
I will never forget Uncle Mark's Funeral. And, in particular, the casual remark of a sewer worker, on that occasion, that taught me one of the great lessons I have learned in life. While we were waiting to depart for the burial, all my other Uncles and I were standing out on the sidewalk that ran along Balmoral Drive, in front of my late Uncle Mark's palatial home. There happened to be two workmen, standing waist deep in a trench before us, digging up the sewer line. One of them looked up, and, addressing our group, exclaimed: "That's, some house! I'd sure like to be in that guy's shoes!" No one breathed a word! The irony of his remark, and the fact that all my Uncles possessed the self-control, not to enlighten this poor fellow, made a deep impression on me. Never wish to be in another man’s shoes! Ironically, that very thought, “I'd sure like to be in that guy's shoes!" was just what my opportunistic Uncle Norman was thinking too.
Therefore, when Uncle Mark was just a few weeks dead, Norman stepped forward, to sweep Aunt Phillis off her feet, and fill Mark’s, still warm, shoes and bed. And thus, for Madge and Terry Joy the shock of losing their beloved father proved to not be half as bad as having Norman for a dad. And so it was that a few weeks after Uncle Mark's death, to the entire Birnkrant family's shock and surprise, Uncle Norman married his brother's widow, and moved into her house on Balmoral Drive. My cousins were appalled. Terry-Joy who was 14 at the time, despised him. With growing good reason, over time. And, from that moment forward, there was no joy in Terry Joy. She went from being fat and happy to thin and miserable, almost overnight. Her younger sister Madge, got over it all right. Aunt Phyllis carried on with business as usual, her stony face, paved over with make-up, betrayed no emotion.
The wedding reception was held at our house on Seven Mile Road. And thus, here is another incredible photo. Most of the Birnkrant family, was gathered here, from far and wide, together in Sam’s rumpus room, for what might have well been the last time. The newlyweds, Norm and Phyllis are in the middle, with Madge and Terry on either side. My dad is on the far left. My mother’s hidden in the crowd. And if you look real hard, you might even be able to find me. Wow! You’re good! You found me easily! Is there any wonder why I often wondered if I was actually a member of this family?
Here's another delicate morsel, which, although, it sounds like something that could only happen in a joke, I swear to God it’s true! Right up until his wedding night, Norman had both a parakeet and mistress living aboard the Water Wagon. I can't recall the bird's name, but I will never forget the name of his full-time lady-friend: "Bevo", (pronounced Bee-voh). Believe it or not, the bird could only say one thing: "Where's Bevo? Where's Bevo?" A question that it continued to ask out loud, for years thereafter, to Aunt Phyllis's chagrin, from its new perch on Balmoral Drive. I might add that, no one was more surprised by the abrupt consolidation of the Birnkrant family than Bevo, who was left in the lurch, exclaiming: "Where's Norman? Where's Norman?"
Over the years, Norm had always been on my case. He would bait me into a conversation, asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. And when I answered that I hoped to be an artist, he would get red in the face and holler: “What’s wrong with being a lawyer? Being a Lawyer is good enough for me! Now, when I went over to his house, and dared to ask him in person to help me get a visa “to study art in France,” he flew into a rage! “You little Brat,” he screamed,. “Leaving your mother in her hour of need! Get OUT! And never darken my door again!” Then in an outburst of adrenalin, he lifted me by my collar and the seat of my pants and literally threw me out of Uncle Mark’s house. And as I flew through the air, somewhere between the doorstep and the grass, the steel tip of his Austrian boot, kicked me in the ass.
The next day, I researched the situation and learned that I could stay in France, as long as I wanted, provided I left the country to renew my visa, every three months. And once I got my passport stamped, I could immediately return to France. So, in the year that followed, although, the visa was just a simple formality that Uncle Norman could have solved with a phone call, I ended up taking a weekend trip to London, visited Spain, and saw the Brussels World's Fair, instead.
Meanwhile, my Aunt Loris, who was far too intelligent and sophisticated to be born a Birnkrant, managed to interject a note of sanity, and calmed my mother down, again and again. When I finally left, in late August, Aunt Loris went with us to the airport. Leila couldn't carry on irrationally, when Loris was around. In one of my mother's few attempts at insight, she speculated that Loris, probably, only did it, because she enjoyed seeing her suffer. Oh How I love Detroit!
In the weeks before I left, I had reached a point where I was sleeping 20 hours at a time. When I arrived in Paris, I found a hotel room, and slept for three days, and three nights. And, then, as if my entire history, up till then, had been no more than a dream, I woke up to a whole new life.