Darlene Wesenberg Rzezotarski
I offer a few thoughts as you embark on Chapter 4 of Tannenbaum Arms.
Who among you remembers living through the Draft Lottery ordeal of December 1, 1969? Readers born on September 14 between 1944 and 1950 especially–you might have felt you had lost by winning. To this day, most friends of this generation, when asked, will be able to blurt out their numbers. For some of us, December 1, 1969, was as shatteringly significant as Pearl Harbor was to the previous generation. With the drawing of a number, based on the date of birth, young men’s futures were sealed by Uncle Sam. It was meant to make the draft fair; but ended up adding to the turmoil of this undeclared war that many found unjust. The generation gap became a chasm. In this fourth episode, “December,” Jay and Lily confront the troubles of the era; yet strive to keep on an even keel with university classes, demanding tenants, and the holiday season. For younger readers, I hope you will gain a little understanding of this era and find its relevance to today’s world.
“In the end, what saves the past is the stories we tell about it. It is our stories that take dead objects and boring documents and make them live again.”
– Chapter 4, December 1969
December: Wherein the Youth of the Nation Tremble over the Draft Lottery, more injustices occur in Chicago and the world, Lily Swan and Little Jay buy a bird; and Lily and Jay write several papers, throw a holiday soiree, and welcome in Baby New Year
The first day of December was chill, with a dusting of frost but no snow, with overhanging gray clouds scurrying towards the lake. It was the kind of weather that the Lost Lenore loved to prance about in, and she was eager for her early morning walk. She nudged Jay from slumber, her wet nose pushing on his arm. “Wake up, Master! Get your fur on. Where’s my leash? Let’s get going!”
Jay groaned and reached out to scratch her ears. “Is it that time already?” He had studied for a German test until after midnight. Now he felt that he really wanted to stay under those covers another hour.
Lily nudged him. “Your turn to walk her and she knows it. Just be quiet so you don’t wake the Hatchling.” She rolled over and put her pillow over her eyes.
“Eins, Zwei, Drei. Say Good Bye. Two, Three. Poor me. Two, Three, Four. Out the door.” And he was up, grabbing for his jeans.
As he and Lenore were leaving, his relatively good mood instantly soured. He remembered that it was December 1, the day of the Selective Service Lottery. Now he was fully awake, confronting the future.
There had been a lot of muttering about this on campus. There had not been a lottery since World War II in 1942, but President Nixon and his cronies thought it might help their image and create more of an illusion of fairness, since so many people from inner cities and rural areas were getting drafted, while middle class boys schemed to dodge the draft legally or became perpetual students or had helpful family connections. Under the present system, the “oldest” young men who couldn’t get deferments, or chose not to, were drafted first, starting with age 26 and working down. Jay knew he could be called if he lost his academic deferment and hoped that his chances might improve through the new lottery.
Jay realized the inequities. Academic deferments were helpful, but not everybody could be a college student—or wanted to be one, for that matter; but the thought of going to a jungle to fight in a war that seemed senseless and unjust, then maybe coming home in a body bag motivated plenty of students to stay in school as long as they could. He had heard that 130 young men had been killed in action just in the last two weeks of November
Jay also knew some people who claimed to be homosexual or handicapped with “bad backs.” Someone even intentionally broke his arm in a door to become ineligible. Often family doctors were happy to oblige with health statements. One crony went to the draft board in full Nazi regalia pretending to be a Neo-Nazi spouting racist slogans and was immediately rejected. He proudly boasted of this creative performance. And. of course, some took the religious route like the pious poet, Brother Peter.
“Selective Service,” thought Jay. “Chosen. Final Selection. Special Invitation for Servanthood. Dictating our future.” As Lenore tugged on her leash at the sight of a poodle down the street, Jay tugged back and resumed his line of thought. He recalled hearing about an incident a few weeks earlier.
The head of the Selective Service, Lieutenant General Louis Hershey, top dog in charge of the draft, had been in Madison. Wherever the old general went, there were bound to be protests. In Madison his car had been egged. Jay recalled hearing that a man followed him around and mocked him, wearing a “General Hersheybar” costume with all kinds of medals on his chest and a toy fighter jet dangling from his side. Jay had shrugged when he heard this. “What good would this do?” he questioned. “But, then, what good can another antiwar poem do? We all bear witness to history in our own way, I guess.”
The new lottery deal was supposed to end this hostility and institute a certain fairness back into who would be called. Everyone between 18 and 26 would be on equal footing, called to service solely by date of birth.
Instead, the mere thought of it already rattled the students. Jay felt relatively secure in his status as a student, at least for the time being until his graduation in June; but many of his friends were at risk. The drawing would be televised that night, and they were meeting at The Tux to watch the show on a large 27-inch screen.
His inner ditty continued, twisted and churned: “Eins, Zwei. We’ll get by. Drei, Vier . Have no fear!”
“Or Drei, Vier. Have a beer. No, too early in the morning for that.”
It would, after all, be a long day. Lenore spotted the red bricks of Tannenbaum Arms and tugged on her leash, pulling him back to the moment at hand.
The afternoons were shortening; soon it would be the time of the winter solstice. It was gloomy by 4:30 when Lily got home and put a frozen pizza in the oven, doctored with fresh mushrooms and onions. Val and Bob from the Poets for Peace stopped by and were urged to share supper. Bob had recently joined a transcendental meditation group and was thinking how to incorporate his newfound outlook into his poetry. “I really dig Maharashi Mashesh Yogi. My girlfriend told me about him and I joined this group that she was already in.” Lily was curious to learn more. She had seen a group chanting in the mall by the union. “And… what does this do for you?”
“It brings us together and our hearts beat as one. Same overall guru as the Beatles, but we have a local guru Sri Siddharta who has been trained by the Maharishi. He has given me a mantra. We all get mantras. Well, I can’t tell you what it is. It’s private. Pure sex. Has a meaning in Hindu. This has a great calming effect and I think if everybody did this, we could attain world peace.”
“Well, it sounds a hell of a lot better than what’s happening in Nam. Maybe Uncle Sam needs a secret word,” Val opined.
“You all could join if you want,” Bob offered. He looked around. “This kitchen is a perfect spot for meditation.” He eyed the steam pipes running across the ceiling. “Some meditators claim to have out-of-the-body experiences. Floating above the whole world, looking down.” He smiled at Lily. “You might give it a try.”
Lily laughed, “Why do you say that?”
“You look a little stressed. The bright sky-blue color on these kitchen walls! Ethereal, and yet in a basement!”
Lily and Jay watched their pizza disappear. Lily privately thought that perhaps if their guests weren’t wolfing down all the pizza so quickly, she might not be so stressed.
“Jay, you should eat faster,” Lily nudged him.
After grabbing the last remaining slice of pizza, Val reached into his jacket pocket and brought out three chocolate bars. “I was saving these for The Tux, but let’s eat these for dessert now in honor of Old General Hersheybar,” he said, breaking them into their little squares and even placing a piece on the Hatchling’s high chair tray as he spoke. Jay and Lily exchanged glances.
The Hatchling picked it up and looked at it curiously, then shoved it into his mouth. A moment later, his face broke into a slobbery smile, chocolate running from the corners of his mouth. He had just experienced his first taste of chocolate.
“The Hatchling and I are happy to sit this one out,” Lily said as the men were leaving. “Good luck to all of you. I expect a full report.” She tried to appear calm but couldn’t keep the edginess out of her voice.
It was a meditative walk through the darkening night. In the bar, the tables were pushed back against the walls to make room for extra seating. The 27-inch black-and-white television had been moved to the corner of the bar. People, mostly youthful males, were somber, hunched over their beers in spiritless conversation. Usually there was music blasting, but not tonight, Eddie the Bartender tried to create a more relaxed atmosphere by cracking a few bad jokes, but that only served to heighten the tension. Nobody really wanted to know why the chicken crossed the road this time. “To get to Canada?” quipped a voice from a nearby barstool.
Precisely at 7 PM, the somber baritone voice of CBS commentator Roger Mudd sounded through the waves and the commencement of the drawing was viewed nation-wide.
“Thousands of people are huddling around their television sets all over the country tonight,” Jay thought. His II-S Student Deferment was good for a few months, yet, then might become meaningless. “This is really the luck of the draw. Grad school might not be such a bad option if I can get accepted, but competition is stiff. Maybe we need a grad school lottery, too.”
He looked around at the faces of friends and strangers gathered at The Tux. He understood that futures of thousands of young men between ages 18 to 26 all around the nation, were contained in those plastic capsules the size of Easter eggs, each harboring one of 366 numbers. First there was an invocation; then the drawings began:
NUMBER 258. That is September 14, the two hundred fifty-eighth day of the year. Assigned Lottery number 001. All young men born on this date between 1944 and 1950 would be first drafted.
NUMBER 114. April 24. 002.
“Second in line. Called up, for sure.” Comments and barbs flew with each call. “I love my country, but this is just wrong!”
‘”I love my country. My country right or wrong.”
Somebody let out a loud moan.
“I hope you get a low number.”
NUMBER 364. December 30. 003.
“Start celebrating early and then party hard this New Year’s Eve.”
A woman Jay did not recognize burst into tears and clutched the dark-haired man next to her. And so the hour progressed. Numbers were met with whistles of relief and hisses of disbelief. “Where did they find those students to do the dirty work of drawing the numbers?” someone questioned, noticing the procession of dutiful youths chosen to draw the numbers.
Occasionally the crowd responded in anger or sympathy as someone acknowledged a date. Jay’s friend Val had been born on Valentine’s Day, not too happy to be 004. “Old enough to fight, but not old enough to vote. Canada’s looking better every day,” he shrugged. “I need a plan.” He paused. “No, Jay. That’s not how we operate in my family. I’ll go. I could never face my dad if I didn’t.”
After the first 30 numbers were called, Jay began to relax. He had heard that was the projected number to expect to be drafted this year. Eventually he learned he was number 247, June 22. The luck of his birth had given him a reprieve, at least for this year. “The undeclared war already has gone on for five years, over 40,000 soldiers are killed. For what?” he thought. Jay knew a night of serious deliberation with friends lay ahead. He gave Val a light punch on the shoulder. “Let’s go find Bob.”
“A free drink of your choice to anyone in the first 100!” Eddie called out. “I-A is a terrible place to be. Glad I’m an old man of 53!”
“Bad joke,” someone called out.
“Anybody have a Quaalude? I need something stronger than beer,” a surly man in a camo jacket muttered.
No one wanted to go home.
It was the kind of night that called for camaraderie and commiseration.
Three days later, more bad news broke. The Black Panthers Party in Chicago had a rising star, Fred Hampton. He and friend Mark Clark were asleep in their Chicago apartment, Fred in bed with his girlfriend, when heavily armed police barged in the front and back doors—eight in the front and six in the back. It was a surprise raid. They fired over 90 shots, dragging Fred’s pregnant girlfriend from his bed and shooting him repeatedly. The next morning, pictures of the blood-stained mattress and bullet-hole-ridden walls were on television. Jay did not hear this news until he was at Bolton Hall and took a flyer from the local Black Panthers group who were staging a protest. Jay felt sickened by the never-ending stream of events that seemed to be endlessly unfolding. This one seemed particularly egregious. “We might never know the whole story,” he ventured. He went through his class mechanically, listening to the conversations around him, but not feeling in a talkative mood. Instead of taking notes on a lecture on Goethe, he began a poem: Eight marauders at the Front Door, Six at the Back, Pounce on Nine sleeping Panthers Clad in Black. Ninety-nine bullets Slamming through the night. Seven minutes later: No one left to fight. Mark. Slain in the dark. Fred. Dead. In his bed. And Now I Let my silent rage bleed all over this page. The hour dragged on. The professor droned on. Usually Jay loved to think about Faustian bargains with the devil and the finer points of the soul’s incomprehensible depths, but today he couldn’t wait for the class to end. On the morning of the first snowfall deep enough to track a cat, Lily arose in a festive mood. “O, Tannenbaum!” she sang, dancing around the kitchen table with the Hatchling in her arms. Since they were in an English basement apartment, the snow drifted snugly halfway up the windows, giving Lily the impression that they were in an igloo. “Let’s have a party!” she suggested. Blue Jay sat at the kitchen table staring at the puffy marshmallow melting in his mug of hot chocolate. “Yeah. Along with writing a term paper, studying for exams, and finishing The Tragedie of Joanie Fist over the break. Oh, yeah. Sell my soul. Shovel snow. Give blood.” Lily leaned over him and took a sip from his mug. “So what? Stop worrying. We don’t need much this year and the Hatchling’s too little to know the difference. I think I’ll make him a set of finger puppets. He’s almost big enough not to eat them.”
“ This snow is nothing compared to Yooper snow. You could shovel this Milwaukee snow with a pancake spatula.”
Lily paused, intuiting that the issue not being discussed had to do with his parents and his sister Violet and not visiting them over the break.
Jay hesitated. “When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get away from home. The isolation I felt inside me seemed to be the same as the isolation surrounding me.” He paused, “But now I don’t know….”
The sentence hung between them, unfinished.
Divergent lifestyles had created a distance greater than the 220-mile trip to Northern Michigan. Jay’s parents ran a ma-and-pa restaurant in Marquette, Michigan—Joe’s Do Drop Inn—and always had to mind the shop; the restaurant business had faltered but staggered on when the iron mines closed, and Blue Jay and his sister Violet had secretly re-named it the Few Drop Inn, except when Blue Jay was having one of his moments and called it the Don’t Drop Inn; or when really in a foul mood, Do Drop Dead.
The siblings knew that the tasty hamburgers fried up and smothered in onions were often made from venison illegally purchased at the restaurant’s back door from Ottawa Indians who did not feel bound by the hunting restrictions imposed upon them by the Department of Natural Resources. Being that one of Jay’s great grandmothers on his father’s side was a member of the Ottawa band of Chippewa Indians, the family felt a certain tenuous entitlement to venison.
“Here in Milwaukee, we have the building to attend to and papers to write,” Jay focused on the moment again, as if to convince himself, “so even if we could have borrowed or rented a car, the long winter’s trip would require more effort and cash than we can afford right now. And then there would be the possibility of a blizzard, and then what about our Kewaunee boiler?”
“And who would get Mrs. Grant her lamb-chops-dearie-from-the-loin?”
When classes ended for the Christmas Break, Jay sent a package with a set of sketching pencils for his sister and a box of chocolates for his grandmother. Lily created a necklace for Violet, made with bright, randomly strung Czechoslovakian glass beads that were sold at the Ben Franklin Dime Store for the ridiculously low price of ten cents a strand. Of course, they were randomly strung and had to be restrung on fish line in an esthetic manner but could be transformed into something quite charming. “One of these days, I will meet you in person, Violet,” she muttered as she wrapped the necklace in holiday paper. “I hope we get along because we are family and we both have a certain affection for this Blue Jay guy.” Jay also tucked in a picture of The Hatchling for his parents. He knew his mother would hang it on the bulletin board near the doorway at the restaurant.
Lily noticed his pensive mood and delivered a quick kiss on the top of his head. “I guess you’re feeling down because you didn’t go to the Spiro T. Agnew Anti-Military Ball and Peace Festival last weekend,” she attempted to joke. “You missed out on the Weatherman Christmas Caroling.”
To further try to lighten his mood, she began singing in falsetto, “I’m Dreaming of a White Riot…. I hear they wowed the crowd. Maybe the Poets for Peace could have done a few numbers.”
Jay forced a little smile accompanied by a shrug. “Let’s see. How about “God Rest Ye Merry Weathermen, Let peace signs you display….” Lily grimaced—not at the words, but because Jay could not carry a tune.
“You missed a great opportunity, home with your nose in a book. But it’s not too late to make amends. Let’s make our own party! A good party will cheer you up. You can invite your Poets group and I’ll ask all the tenants I know, and a few friends from my seminar. Since we live in this English basement, let’s have a Boxing Day Party. December 26 falls on a Sunday.”
Lily, as usual, began hatching plans. The enthusiasm in her voice did not strike a bright note with Jay.
“Yeah. With our luck, a couple of the guys from Apartment 6 would want to have a stoner boxing match.”
“Well, maybe then we should serve punch and let them get punch drunk. You could be the referee.”
Jay’s resolve began to weaken. “Um, if we do this crazy thing, let’s not call it Boxing Day. Maybe we should just call it a Holiday Open House,” Blue Jay volunteered, his spirits rising a bit.
“No! I know! Better yet! Let’s have a Holiday Soiree. I’ve always wanted to attend a soiree,” Lily countered. “We’ll keep it simple. Just punch and appetizers as evening falls.” December continued to be busy, with many assignments catching up with Lily and Blue Jay that had been put off for the break. Removing the wax from the U-pipe under the sink in Apartment 6 took the better part of a Sunday afternoon that should have been devoted to studying, but Blue Jay went to get some information and tools from Ernie, the caretaker down the block. “Wax in the pipes?” He shook his head incredulously when Jay told him about the job he was going to undertake. “Candle wax? What kind of idiots do you rent to?” Ernie was a good mentor, only too happy to offer advice, along with a large wrench and a big tube of some gooey substance. “This here is what you call pipe dope,” he explained. “You’ve got an old building with old plumbing. Turn the nut gently or you might have a bigger mess on your hands than you’ve bargained for. Once you get the damn pipes apart, be sure the joints are dry. Them smear this dope around the threads before you put it back together.” Jay nodded and thanked him, secretly hoping he could figure this out. “If you need any help, kid, just give me a call. I’m only a block away.” “Thanks, Ernie. You saved my skin again.” The repair was accomplished without further damage. “I have to make this bad pun,” he whispered to Lily who was assisting. “Pipe dope for the pipe dopes.” “We better finish up fast or we’ll get high just by breathing the air up here. Wanna keep a piece of the wax as a souvenir?” “No, thanks. I already have enough in my ears,” As they were leaving Apartment 6, Moisette popped her head out of the back door of Apartment 5, like a cat waiting to pounce. “Well, hello, you lovely twosome! I want to let you know that we have no more mice, but I saw two centipedes coming up the drain in the kitchen sink yesterday.” “Well, we just took care of a major clog next door. That’s enough plumbing for one day,” Lily smiled defensively. “May I suggest a little baking soda down the drain and run the hot water for a few minutes,” added Jay. “And if that doesn’t work, maybe you can catch some and put them in a fruit jar and keep them as pets.” Moisette actually laughed at that. “Hey, guys, I was just kidding.” She closed the door. The Civil War of Heat between Generals Grant and Davis continued to rage with almost daily phone calls and verbal skirmishes until Lily had the bright idea of shutting off some of Mrs. Davis’s radiators, thus improving everyone’s work and sleep schedules in the fine English basement apartment. Lily realized that having the blue wall phone installed in the kitchen just outside the nursery had been a mistake, but it was something they had to live with. On the afternoon of December 17, Jay came in, tossing down his book bag and stomping snow off his boots. He was laughing his hearty laugh and picked the Hatchling up, folding Lily and the toddler in a big bear hug. “I kindly request a date with you tonight, Dear Lily, in front of the TV after this little one is asleep!” Lily rolled her eyes. “Gotta watch the Johnny Carson Show. You know that singer with the ukulele and the Captain Hook nose and the falsetto voice? Tiny Tim? The Tiptoe Through the Tulips guy? He’s getting married tonight on national television.” Lily burst out laughing. “You wanna watch television? That’s a first. Sure!” Jay and Lily settled in on the wicker couch that night, their eyes on the tiny black-and-white screen in the corner of the room. The marriage ceremony they viewed was a strangely solemn affair with a real clergyman, traditionally filled with the King James Bible’s Thee’s and Thou’s and admonitions to be slow to anger and not puffed up. The bride, Miss Vicki, was bedecked and veiled in white; the groom refrained from using his falsetto voice during the ceremony, and at the end they shared a chaste kiss, followed by a camera shot of Johnny Carson and live audience applause. “Well, there. We saw it,” Jay said. “If I weren’t so beat, it would call for a poem.” He yawned. Lily couldn’t stop laughing. “Unreal! Be nice to me or I’ll buy you a ukulele for Christmas. Wanna take a bet on how long that marriage will last?” Lily countered. “That was pathetic Hollywood blarney. That’s the point I keep trying to make about television. Our simple courthouse wedding had more meaning than this charade.” Jay’s words hung in the air. “Well, Jay, you fell for it.” He got up and turned off the television with a dramatic flair. “Let’s go hit the feathers and experience reality.” As Lily was vacuuming two days later, she contemplated the wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vickie. “Maybe we could expand this idea. Kangaroo courts featuring real kangaroos. Dog weddings. Find a husband for the Lost Lenore, maybe a basset would be nice, and we could rescue one from the pound and name him Edgrrr Poe. Dress them up and marry them off on TV. Thousands of viewers having a little comic relief from ugly news.” The door to Apartment 5 cracked open and Linda invited her in for a coffee break. Lily enjoyed Linda and was thankful for the chance to talk. She knew that the Hatchling was napping with Jay. Linda had been taking some classes at MATC to save on tuition, hoping to transfer to UWM’s School of Education after completing her associate’s degree. “How’s it going, Linda? I don’t see much of you and Sarah.” “We’re both busy with waitressing and classes. And Moisette flits in and out. God knows where she goes or what she does.” Linda disappeared down the long hall and reappeared with two cups of coffee. “Sarah should be finished in June. I think she’ll stay on here over the summer, though. She’s been taking upholstery classes and wants to open a business. MATC put her in touch with some low interest start-up loans. Look at this.” She pointed to the floral, high-backed chair in the corner of the living room. “Not bad!” “She already has a name for her business: Sitting Pretty Upholstery Shop.” “Maybe Lenny can throw some work her way. How about you?” Linda shrugged. “One more year to go down there, keeping up the old grade point so everything will transfer. Now I’m finishing up European History from WWII to Present. The professor lives history, makes it real and immediate. Long Polish name, unpronounceable. He has this wild hair and mustache and gestures a lot and talks really fast with sort of a South Side slur. Sometimes I don’t even try to take notes—just sit there listening.” Lily nodded. “I wish I had a class like that this time around. I could have used it for my sanity. I have this really pretentious newly arrived professor for my seminar. Ivy League. I don’t know who he thinks he has to impress. Not us. People say he’s a tough grader. Wants to make UWM the Yale of the Midwest. My other two classes are okay, though. I’m not real interested in statistics. It’s required for my Sociology major. It’ll be more fun when I can actually apply it to research.” Linda held up a recent Life Magazine. “Have you seen this? Moisette brought it in. It’s pretty gruesome.” A close-up photo of a deranged-looking man with buggy eyes greeted Lily. “The Love and Terror Cult. The Dark Edge of Hippie Life.” Linda read the headline slowly. They paged through the magazine, gazing at the photographs of cult members living on a ranch in the California desert under the control of a hypnotic leader named Charles Manson. “The women look like throwbacks to pioneer days,” Lily mused, “And the men look just plain spooky.” “They were not harmless crazies riding around in dune buggies playing cowboys and Indians, like the police thought at first. They actually committed those gruesome murders and were trying to start a race war. They almost got away with the murders, but one of the women was in prison for something else and she told another prisoner and they all got implicated.” “I read that last month. Anybody rich and white deserved to be dead, in their book,” Lily replied. “Especially rich and white and famous. So much for hippie cults in the desert.” “Things can turn ugly on a dime. Maybe you could research this for one of your sociology classes, Lily. Devise a public opinion survey.” “How could anybody get this far out, and what kind of women would follow orders from somebody like that? Gives everybody in the counterculture a bad name,” Lily replied. “And ironically it happened just around Woodstock.” She sighed. “I really should get back to work. The dust bunnies are multiplying as we speak.” “I’ll bring the magazine down for you guys when everybody’s done with it here. Anyway, I always enjoy my little chats with the Hatchling and Lenore.” And with a final sip of coffee, Lily resumed her cleaning duties. The Hatchling demanded increasing attention. He experienced things by tasting them—everything from pencils with enticing erasers to morsels of dog food spilled on the floor. He crawled around the apartment until the toes of his shoes became scuffed and the knees of his jumpsuit became worn. Lenore followed him around, occasionally nudging at him to keep him in some imagined order, until Blue Jay and Lily began to wonder if there were perhaps also some shepherd blood in her. Blue Jay bought the Hatchling a little orange tambourine at the Ben Franklin Dime Store. Although Lily did not think this toy was baby-proof, Blue Jay tried to teach him to shake the tambourine when he wanted to be picked up rather than crying. “Hey, little Jay-Jay, play a song for me!” he sang to the Hatchling in a loose, nasal imitation of Bob Dylan. “You’re not sleepy and there is no place we’re going to-o-o-o.” He shook the tambourine and the Hatchling grabbed for it and tried to shake it, too. Now, the real trick would be for the Hatchling to use the tambourine to summon his parents in the middle of the night instead of crying. Lily went shopping for new tennis shoes but decided to take a sightseeing detour through the basement of the downtown Woolworth’s. This was a place of wonder, with gleaming kitchen wares spread out on counters next to discounted towels and linens, next to baby clothes and school supplies. It smelled like a carnival, with the heavy scent of the roasting hot dogs slowly basking on the rotisserie. There was no music, but the shuffle and bang of workers with carts and the subdued conversations of patrons created a dreamy background. As they approached the back of the store, Lily pointed out a large tank of bright goldfish to the Hatchling. She lifted him close to the glass so he could watch them swim. When the novelty of this wore off, the Hatchling discovered the parakeets nearby. He reached out for one and squeaked. There were perhaps thirty birds in a large wire cage, vivid green and blue, with smart black feathers on their wings and yellow hooked beaks. No sweet music here; they seemed to be communicating in raucous burps while hopping about and occasionally pecking each other or vying for a spot on a little trapeze. Suddenly it struck Lily. This was the perfect Christmas gift for Mrs.Grant! Shoes could wait. “What do you think, Jay-Jay?” she asked. “Gramma Grant will really be surprised. Which one shall we get her?” Lily observed the interactions among the parakeets. Since she had been reading Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd in her Social Order within Human Species class, a requirement for her major, she often thought about “inner-directed and outer-directed” people. “Is it possible,” she thought, “that birds and dogs and other species might also have an inner or outer direction? And if so, which type of bird would make the better pet?” “Outer-directed, of course,” she answered herself. “That way, it will actually interact with Mrs. Grant, easing her isolation with its gregariousness. In that case, I should look for the parakeet that is paying the most attention to us.” She stuck her finger in through the bars on the cage. At that point, a blue-breasted parakeet with a slightly manic cast to its eyes hopped over and nipped her finger. “You’re the one!” she laughed, and keeping an eye on that particular parakeet, she rang the bell for service. “Burp!” it answered. The Hatchling laughed and kicked in his stroller and tried to reach for the birds. The nearby cages and the packs of birdseed finished off the shoe budget. The next morning the presentation was made to Mrs. Grant. Lily thought this was something the whole family could do together, but Jay balked at the idea. “How do you know she wants a bird? Maybe you should have asked her first, Lily. Maybe she hates birds.” “Well, in that case, I guess we will have a bird,” Lily replied. With the Hatchling under one arm and the bird in its cage draped with a blanket, she proceeded up the stairs and knocked on the door. “Um, Mrs. Grant, we have a present for you. We thought you would like this.” Lily hesitated, doubting the sense of this gift for the first time. “I can come up and clean the cage if you need a little help,” she added. Mrs. Grant’s face broke into an incredulous grin. She graciously received her gift, although seemed somewhat taken aback by its unusual nature. “Well, Dearie! What a thought! I am sure it must be kept very warm. It is a tropical creature, is it not? We must keep the apartment warm now at all times!” Mrs. Grant looked around the room and hesitated. “Why don’t you just set that cage over here on the buffet close to the radiator? What pretty, bright feathers! And can I get you a cup of tea?” Lily relaxed. The bird was going to have a good home here. “Sure. I’m on vacation. That little cup in the wires is for water. And I brought you extra seeds, and I can come up and change the sandpaper in the bottom of the cage whenever you call me.” It turned out that this was an anti-social bird that refused to repeat words but chirped in gibberish incessantly all night unless a tablecloth was thrown over the cage. By Christmas Day, it had developed a fine knack for spitting seeds out of the cage. Lily suggested to Mrs. Grant that she name the parakeet Tennis Shoe, since it was bought with money intended for shoes, but Mrs. Grant decided the parakeet was female and named her Messy Bessie. After returning to the English basement, Lily dashed off a card to her mother, hoping she was still living at the same Tulsa address. “Mama’s putting a big kiss in this envelope, Hatchling,” she smiled. “This is for your grammy. It might get there a little late, or it might not get there at all, but that’s okay.” Christmas Day was a busy time, preparing for the Boxing Day party. Lily had acquired an album by Leonard Cohen for Jay: Songs from a Room. Jay, in turn, presented Lily with Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Lily made cupcakes for the soiree, singing along with the album; and also made a small cake for the family, in celebration of the Hatchling’s half birthday. They gave him a fuzzy little brown bear. He shook it and tasted its ear, then smiled and said, “Bah!” and made his favorite throaty growl. That evening, instead of studying, Lily listed all her son’s accomplishments in her sociology notebook:
Crawls around on the floor. Interacts with Lenore and all other people. Says, “Hi,” Enjoys being read and sung to. Has two teeth. Slurps from a cup. Throws food on the floor when he is full or doesn’t like it or wants attention. Puts everything in his mouth. Sleeps with a toy tambourine. Plays peek-a-boo and giggles when you make a face at him and say, “Boo” or growl like a bear. Growls back.
By the afternoon of the Holiday Soiree, the English basement apartment smelled of spruce and twinkled with miniature lights. Blue Jay had found a vintage round oak table cast out at the curbside a couple blocks away and had rolled it home like a big hoop. It now stood draped in a colorful red and green plastic tablecloth, loaded with Christmas cookies, punch, and a crockpot of chili. Artistically arranged around the table were three wooden chairs garnered from the Goodwill Store and toted home on the bus, interspersed with three folding lawn chairs of various styles. The Lost Lenore and the Hatchling, sensing the excitement in the air, scuttled from one end of the hall to the other. Over coffee that morning, Jay recalled the generosity of the neighboring building super, Ernie Warner. “He helped us out so much. We just have to ask Klara and Ernie, even on such short notice. This will be an excuse to get Lenore out for a little exercise before the crowds arrive.” Promptly at three, the doorbell rang. Larry and Lenny stood at the door with a bottle of cranberry wine. “How did you know it’s my favorite?” Blue Jay asked. “I’m from cranberry country, you know. Upper Michigan. That’s about all we can grow in the bogs up there. Along with mosquitos and rabbits and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, of course. And frogs….” Ernie appeared with his wife Klara bearing a plate of Lebkuchen. “This is one of my specialties,” Klara announced. “I hope you like them. We had them every Christmas when I was a girl in Germany.” The spicy cookies filled the food table with the rich scents of cinnamon and nutmeg. Lily decided she couldn’t wait and snatched a cookie immediately. “Delicious!” Not to be left out, the Hatchling made a grab for it. Klara laughed, “Maybe he could have his own cookie. It’s all healthy ingredients.” Next came Mrs. Davis like one of the magi, bearing a large jar of Ma Baensch’s herring, her two canes clomping on the wooden floor, followed by Mrs. Grant. While everyone was busy helping Mrs. Grant down the stairs, Lenore took the opportunity to go sightseeing around the neighborhood. She didn’t wander very far lest she miss the excitement on her home turf. She did, however, manage to run around the corner and scratch at the door of her poodle friend, who was not receiving guests, and to take a little detour to leave a generous stain of yellow on the neighbor’s pristine snow. She then huddled shivering beside the door until such time that Moisette and Linda arrived, both festively dressed in white satin blouses with long red velvet skirts and capes. Moisette had embellished her outfit with a sparkling tinsel bow and earrings the size of silver dollars shaped like Christmas wreaths. Their third roommate Sarah had to waitress over at the George Webb’s, so she sent her regrets; but Linda had baked fudge brownies for the occasion, and Moisette was carrying a large poinsettia. When Lily opened the door, Lenore lunged inside with a whimper, almost knocking the poinsettia out of Moisette’s arms. Lily was startled because she had not even realized that Lenore had gone for a stroll on her own. Two tenants from Apartment 6, Mel and Dan, sauntered in. They were in jovial moods, reeking of weed. “Scott’s coming momentarily,” Mel informed them, plopping two bottles of chianti down on the round table, both tenants helping themselves to heaping bowls of chili, all the while handing out fliers advertising the expansion of the Underground Switchboard. This was a special emergency hotline that desperate hippies or yippies or wannabes could call anonymously for problems ranging from drug overdose, to suicide, to homelessness. Dan lifted his voice: “You know, we need to get the word out. This group has performed a real community service for a couple years already and now they’re expanding into the basement of St. Mary’s by the Water Tower. They will have more services, too, even a free clinic.” “Once again I have underestimated the human race,” thought Lily, “most specifically at this moment, The Sixes of Apartment Six.” “We pitched in and bought a mimeograph machine. This is the first flier we’ve printed,” Mel boasted. “We’re gonna specialize in drug and dealer information. Besides reporting on rat finks and pigs, we are going to research and print information on drugs and let folks know when there’s bad stuff out there. Gonna call it Weed Sheet.” “I don’t think the Civil War Generals will need that,” Jay laughed, as Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis received the Underground Switchboard informational flyer with puzzled expressions. “This is a great service,” Lily read. “Specially trained phone counselors can offer advice on many troubles and make referrals to professionals if it looks really serious. Says here you can ask about drugs, legal contacts, places to crash, abortion, and anything else that’s bothering you. Nothing will be reported to the authorities. They’re offering free switchboard training.” She paused. “I wish I had more free time. I wonder if you can bring babies along. I would be interested in working for them at some point.” “Much needed around here on the East Side,” Moisette observed, launching into a tale of a friend whose parents kicked her out when she came home stoned, and she tried to sleep all night in the Greyhound Bus Station until they kicked her out, too. Apparently she then made her way in the night to Tannenbaum Arms, where she found refuge on the couch the occupants of Apartment 5. Lily was interested. “When was this? What happened?” Linda and Moisette exchanged glances. “Last week just at the start of break. It all worked out just fine. She called her brother in the morning and he came and picked her up.” “Um. Actually, she might be coming to the party here tonight. We invited her to crash. Her brother, too,” added Linda. “We knew you wouldn’t care.” More Apartment Sixers made their appearances. Bongo Bob arrived, with his loopy smile and glazed eyes. He had brought along his favorite ceramic bong, which Blue Jay made him leave in the back hall. Mel had brought along his girlfriend Marsha, who had brought along her guitar and two of her friends, Bella and Ruthie. They were involved in a folk music group and had traveled to Woodstock, enjoying a Summer of Love and Music. After a couple glasses of punch, they filled the room with Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez songs, interspersed with classic Christmas carols. Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis sat side by side on the wicker couch but didn’t converse much since both suffered from a bit of deafness. They seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, as Mrs. Davis tapped both canes to the thrum of the guitar. Moisette adjusted her silver bow and carefully lifted the rhinestone hem of her skirt as she sat beside Mel, trying to enchant him with her news of her upcoming trip to Paris. Mel, however, inched away and kept ogling Bella. All the tenants were present except Mrs. Hopkinson, who sent her regrets along with a crisply folded twenty-dollar-bill as a Christmas bonus. The Civil War generals seemed to have declared a Christmas truce and left together as evening fell—which is always around five p.m. in late December when the days begin to get longer. The Poets for Peace groupies straggled in and out throughout the evening, replenishing the food supplies on the round oak table with their gifts of wine, home-baked bread, cheese, and cookies. Coats formed a wet, woolen mountain on the bed and Lost Lenore, exhausted from the effort exerted on her neighborhood tour, as well as domestic herding responsibilities, burrowed into the coats and fell asleep. The Hatchling was cooed over and passed around from person to person, eventually falling asleep on Linda’s lap. When the music broke, Larry amused the remaining guests with tales from Milwaukee’s past glory when it was marketed to prospective German immigrants as “The New Athens.” One Samuel Tannenbaum, disenchanted with the oppressive terms for doing commerce in the Old World, was lured by this propaganda to Milwaukee. Here he established a dry goods store in the area on the east bank of the Milwaukee River called “Juneau Town.” The business thrived, expanding into food and beverages, as well, eventually becoming a stylish “department store.’” Samuel Tannenbaum became a friend of the Beer Barons, Gustave Pabst and Emil Blatz, selling their foamy product by the bucketful to citizens who found it preferable to Milwaukee water. As the city expanded northward, Samuel’s son saw the opportunity to expand the family fortune in real estate holdings; thus, Tannenbaum Arms was erected, eventually given as a wedding gift to Samuel’s granddaughter, who had fallen in love with an itinerant stock boy while patronizing the ladies’ department of her grandfather’s store. Klara was interested. “I came over from Germany in the 30’s. These stories are new to me. Tannenbaum. Do you know, in German that means fir tree?” Linda nodded. “We are still a German enough city that even our mayor sings O Tannenbaum and we light a big tree by City Hall to open the season.” Another glass of punch, another tale… this one, Larry said, was a sad but true holiday story about a schooner that sank in 1912 after leaving Upper Michigan with a great load of Christmas trees. Every year it would travel down and dock in Chicago. The captain would string lights from all three masts, so the ship looked like a giant Christmas tree and put everyone in a holiday mood. Churches and many poor people were given free trees. “Nobody knows for sure why it sank,” Larry added, “but later the captain’s wallet floated up.” “That’s worthy of a ballad!” Blue Jay interjected. “Somebody should write one.” “Mais oui. Maybe you, mon cher,” Moisette winked. “A little bird told me you’re a writer.” “Jay, you’re about fifty years behind the times,” Lenny laughed. “It’s already written.” A refill of the glasses, a toast to the residents of Tannenbaum Arms, and Larry reeled off another ship-sinking tale. “This one,” he said, “is even sadder. This explains how the Irish lost their dominant role in Milwaukee politics. “Um, Larry, maybe not….” Lenny interjected. Larry stopped abruptly and looked around. “No! Don’t stop!” Lily spoke up. “This is us. This is our history and we should know a little bit of it.” “Have you ever noticed that all the Irish people seem to live in Chicago? The kids don’t even go to school on St. Patrick’s Day down there. The mayor throws green dye in the river and they have a parade. “Anyway, in 1860 many of the best Irish families of Milwaukee went on a special cruise to Chicago and back on a ship called Lady Elgin. There were four hundred passengers from Milwaukee on board. Just think of all those Irish folks, dancing the night away. “Then a schooner collided with the Lady Elgin and it sank! The shore was four miles away and just about everybody died. That damn lake is a cold killer, three out of four seasons. Amen and God rest ye merry gentlemen.” “End of the partiers and end of the tale,” said Lenny with a grin. “Well, let’s hope we’re not all on a sinking ship of another sort,” was Lily’s response. “That was a great story, Larry, but let’s talk about something more cheerful. “Sure. How about some of that pound cake? Or perhaps a fudge brownie?” Larry smiled. “And maybe I can persuade you to have a St. Patrick’s Party here in March, Lily and Jay. This is a great party space. We could even do gymnastics off the pipes on the ceiling. And I’ll have more tales lined up.” “No, I think we should host,” interrupted Lenny. “By the way, Lily, I was noticing your ever-so-elegant chair arrangement. If you like, I can get you a matched set the next time I re-do someone’s habitat. The trend nowadays is for sleek, sparse lines and people who think they’re in the avant garde are hiring me to throw out the good old classic furniture from Grandma’s attic and replace it with the moderne look. Would you like?” She didn’t pause. “I’d like!” “Well, then, Merry Boxing Day.” “Same back to you.” Shortly after midnight, when all the problems of the world had been discussed but left unresolved, when several fine poems had been read, when all the songs had been sung, the guests claimed their coats and boots and trudged out into the night to the front door of Tannenbaum Arms as a light snow began to fall. In parting, although all the wine had been consumed, with all the guests’ offerings there was more food left over on the table than when the party had begun. “Oh, Tannenbaum, Oh, Tannenbaum, how lovely are your arms!” Lily sang into the empty hallway as she locked the door and turned off the Christmas lights. Blue Jay had dozed off in his favorite easy chair. Lily tiptoed up and kissed him on his forehead. He did not stir. She sighed. Then, in most uncharacteristic fashion, she reached down and removed his shoes.
~ * * * * * ~
In comparison, New Year’s Eve was a slow boat ride to China. Both Lily and Blue Jay had research papers to work on, since the semester would come to an end in just nineteen days. “Whoever thought up this schedule is diabolical,” Blue Jay complained, looking up from his trusty Underwood Olivetti typewriter. “I wish they would end the semester in December. I am ready for a new start, and this semester is just dragging on.” “Yes, but if we weren’t such procrastinators, we could have been out partying by now.” She paused. “I can’t help thinking…. this year we had Americans walking on the moon. Humans on the moon talking about a great leap for mankind. I’m not feeling it. We had the Summer of Love, but the world showed little love back, even too much hate. Joshua, my dear, what do you think 1970 will hold in store for us?” “It’s a new decade. I’ll never stop hoping. Maybe our country will get back on track. End the damn war. Build schools, not bombs. Free college tuition.” “An end to racism. Equality for all.” “Ha! Maybe the Yoopers will find gold in their dead iron mines and it will be the start of another Gold Rush.” “Maybe I’ll get a little closer to finishing my degree and find a real research job, Jay. Or maybe I’ll take the quick route out and just get certified for teaching. College life gets weirder every day.” “And more imperiled. Maybe I’ll get a poem or two published and land a good creative writing fellowship for grad school somewhere like Iowa. At least I have to finish the BA by June.” “Better start applying. Get a positive attitude. Line up those letters of recommendation. Maybe we should go somewhere warm,” Lily added. “The Hatchling will walk and talk and grow up in a happy southern place, but we will go Up North to Marquette every summer and visit your folks and go on hikes along Lake Superior and you can teach The Hatchling about his one drop of Ottawa blood. “Up there, Lily—it’s God’s country. It’s home. For me, Lake Michigan just can’t match Lake Superior. Lake Superior is alive. Sorry. Don’t get me started on that.” He smiled and reached for her. “Happy New Year, Lily, my love!” “Happy New--.”
At that moment the doorbell rang insistently, repeatedly. Blue Jay sighed, “Let’s play Guess-which-Tenant-is-Locked-Out.”
Just then, they heard the jingle-jangle of a little tambourine from the nursery.
“Oh, no! He heard the doorbell, too! But the tambourine! He’s learned it! I taught him that!” Blue Jay beamed.