HEAR NO EVIL
The Early Years
‘The Early Years’
Since the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the act of childbirth has been duly declared and decreed a “miraculous” event; a glowing gift of God’s Grace. While all childbirth is miraculous, some childbirth is more miraculous than others. The most renowned included a Virgin Mother, a babe in a manger, some shepherds, three Wise Men and a Heavenly Host: the most miraculous miracle that changed the world forever. While my birth was no where near as spectacular, it ended up being more miraculous than most.
According to all the marvelous methodologies of modern medicine, I was not supposed to happen. At best, I would be birthed alive, live for a couple of hours, maybe days and then succumb. There were no other options. Modern man knew it all. Fortunately, God, in His Infinite Wisdom, saw things differently.
Like most Americans whose ancestors have been kicking around the continent for the last couple of centuries, I am ethnically of the Heinz 57 Variety. Surprisingly, after wading in the family gene pool, I find that I am not quite as diverse as I once thought. In fact, both my parents could claim a single predominate strain.
My father was predominately Scottish, with a blending of Scots-Irish and Palatinate German. Physically, he was 6 foot, forever, dark haired and fair skinned; considered quite dashing and handsome by the fairer sex. He was calm, cool, collected, controlled and totally self-contained. He was also discretely dynamic and driven to excel. Emotions in any form were an anathema to him, something to be avoided at all cost; a certain sign of either bad blood or bad breeding.
As proof of his better breeding, father took his potential fiancée to the slaughtering pen of the local Stock Yards to pop his proposal. Romance did not run rampant in his DNA. Not surprisingly, he did NOT seek an emotional response. After all marriage was a partnership. Equally not surprisingly, he didn’t get one. Surprisingly, after receiving more proposals than Carter had liver pills, Madame-Mere quickly accepted – and she was a romantic. Go figure. I don’t get it and probably never will. I also accept that.
My mother, Madame-Mere, was predominately Welsh, with some English and Napoleonic French, hence my name for her. The name, ‘Madame-Mere’ came from Napoleon. Shortly after assuming the throne of France Napoleon was called upon to ennoble his family with suitable Imperial dignities in keeping with his own. His brothers and sisters posed no problems; they instantly became blood Princes of this and Princesses of that. His mother however posed a greater problem. Since she had never reigned as Empress of France, she could not be called the ‘Dowager Empress.’ In the end, simplicity reigned: she was entitled ‘Madame-Mere,’ “Mrs. Mother.”
Physically, Madame-Mere barely tallied 5 foot on a good day, also dark haired with that special off-white skin tone which tanned overnight. As a charter member of the burn-and-peel club, I found this to be exceedingly rude, immeasurably ill-gotten and grossly unfair.
Madame-Mere was naturally vivacious, outgoing, massively naïve and totally innocent. Shirley Temple had nothing on her. Like father, she was also self-controlled, self-disciplined and when necessary, cool and quelling. Madame-Mere was a good mother and a great wife.
My parent’s union was a toxic one. Not in the usual sense; on the contrary they were terribly harmonious and definitely in sync. Not within my hearing did they ever utter a harsh word to one another or elevate their voices in anger. For me, it was both normal and surreal. Later on, I would discover that it was also unworldly.
Au contraire, my parent’s toxicity stemmed from a chemical mismatch, which neither could change nor control. It just was. They were diametrically and sanguinely non-simpatico. It was a blood feud to the death; my death according to all the experts.
My father’s B positive blood did not ‘make nice’ with Madame-Mere’s A negative blood. Not only did they just not ‘make nice;’ they made a lethal liaison, “arsenic of the arteries.” The medical experts all calculated that I would be a casualty of this cruel concoction.
The disease is called erythroblastosis fetalis. In its more virulent form it was more aptly called ‘erythroblastosis fatalis.’ Most of us know it better as the “rh factor thing.” Simply put, momma’s blood does not play well in the sandbox with baby’s blood. In self-defense, momma’s body produces antibodies to counter the invasion. It takes one pregnancy to set up momma’s antibodies. First time is a freebee. With each successive pregnancy, the antibodies escalate. I was the result of the fourth pregnancy.
Number three barely made it. He had the full blown case, complete with jaundice and 13 transfusions from 7 different donors. Sixty years later, they’re still trying to sort out his blood. For that pregnancy they used the titer test which monitored the level of antibodies which Madame-Mere produced during pregnancy. She was doubling the normal number. After he was born, both she and father were severely counseled to abstain from making additional children.
First and foremost, father was a realist. For him to buck the odds was quite surprising. Madame-Mere would agree with whatever he felt was best. I don’t know what happened, but for some miraculous reason, they decided to give it one more shot. I’m certainly not complaining about the decision. I rather liked it. I also strongly suspect that some divine intervention was involved.
Madame-Mere got pregnant again. True to form, her antibodies shifted into overdrive. She was quadrupling the normal output. The odds diminished accordingly. The doctors told her not to hold her breath.
Madame-Mere did not believe in either full term pregnancies or long labour. They did not fit in with her concept of timing and organization. She had never carried a child full term and was not about to start. It was highly overrated.
I was due to arrive in June. April 1st rolled around. Father was away at a business meeting so Madame-Mere dined in solitary splendor on beanies and weenies. Soon thereafter, she got gas. Only it wasn’t gas; it was me. I was on a roll and ready to get going. With Nanny behind the wheel it was a high speed race to the hospital. Madame-Mere asked from the back seat if she could go any faster. Nanny informed her that she was already doing 85 mph. True to the nature of the day, nary a policeman or state trooper ever appeared.
Madame-Mere was given an injection to delay and/or postpone her labour. Big surprise, it didn’t take; after all, she had a biological clock to keep. I was born 45 minutes later – in a hallway. There had not been enough time to get her into a birthing room.
According to all the tests performed on Madame-Mere, before and after, I had a terminal case of erythroblastosis fatalis. Throughout her pregnancy, Madame-Mere’s antibody production output had run in overdrive. Since father was once again missing in action, Madame-Mere’s doctors politely prepared her for my imminent demise. If the tests results were any indication, I would definitely die, most likely from heart failure.
However, I did not have erythroblastosis; fetalis or fatalis. I had every sign and symptom – just not the disease itself. Go figure.
To further complicate matters, I emerged with O negative blood. According to all the experts that was not possible. It could not happen. It couldn’t be.
War was waged as the lab technicians did battle with the doctors over my blood tests. The technicians testified that the test results were correct. The doctors said that the test results were incorrect; claiming that I could not have O negative blood. B positive fathers and A negative mothers did not make O negative children. It just didn’t add up. The battle ran on.
Meanwhile, I was taken home and put into the care of our Scottish nurse, Andie, who specialized in babies. She usually stayed for the first few months and then moved on to the next newborn. Apparently, she was so well endowed that she could carry me around on her bosom without the use of her hands. Unfortunately, I have no recollection but it must have been heavenly. No wonder I didn’t cry.
Andie could only remain for a couple of weeks this time. Madame-Mere’s penchant for premature pregnancies had totally trashed Andie’s schedule. A month early was one thing; over two months early was quite another. She was booked elsewhere with someone who actually carried full term. Before she left, Andie figured out that something was wrong with me besides my weight or lack thereof. No newborn never cried.
It was back to the hospital; this time for multiple months. I had a collapsed lung. No wonder I didn’t cry. I probably couldn’t. All things considered it could have been a lot worse. I still didn’t have the dreaded disease. Nonetheless, I was incarcerated in an incubator – my own clear plastic coffin. It was definitely not Andie. Fortunately, I have no recollection of that time either. For some strange reason, I am not overly fond of enclosed small spaces.
While I incubated Father’s curiosity and conviction kicked into high gear. He wanted to know what had happened and why. He did not like not knowing. The locals had no answers; they were probably still doing battle over the blood tests. Therefore, Father began contacting the national leaders in the medical community.
Finally Mount Sinai and Mayo’s were called in to mediate the matter. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. They had no explanations either. According to both of them, there were no answers. However, they both took the time to write him in great detail, stating that what had happened couldn’t have happened. It was physically impossible. This was one for the records. Well, at least I made it into the medical textbooks. I guess that’s a good start; even if I had nothing to do with it.
For my money, go ask God. He’s the One with all the answers, especially when it comes to the ‘impossible.’
Ultimately I was sprung from my shoebox and taken home. For a baby, home is wherever the rest of clan resides. As the youngest, I was always too busy trying to catch up with my siblings to notice much about my surroundings. Wherever one lives is normal; after all it’s home. Years later, I had the luxury of reflection.
Considering the abnormality of my earthly entrance, it is probably not terribly surprizing that my environment was equally abnormal – at least not normal in the average sense.
The house was huge and heavy. Originally built in the post Civil War period, the house had been as one of a pair. One was south of the tracks; the other, north. We lived in the Yankee one.
I know nothing about the original architect, though I have harbored some serious suspicions. It has always been my belief that the architect probably came from somewhere in Kansas and had been hired, sight unseen, by mail. Nevertheless, he had been commissioned to design a pair of English manor houses. Since he had apparently never been to England or ever seen a real English manor, he built these instead. I also strongly suspect that all his previous architectural experience had been in exclusively erecting penitentiaries and other penal outposts.
The construction consisted of concrete and fieldstone with a stucco wash. Insulation was not a problem; the walls were three feet thick. Though not barred, every window was lead-paned; terribly English and terrifically quaint - until a window was broken. Then it took two days and an eighty mile round trip to get it repaired. Winter could be real nasty with no window.
Sometime later in the 19th century, a previous owner decided that the house was too constricting. Accordingly he commissioned the construction of a new wing which doubled the overall square footage and added a living room which could have housed a horde and served as the foundation for six new rooms cum bathroom en suite. To finish off this new addition and ‘Anglo-fy’ the whole, the owner bought a genuine manor house in Surrey, England, gutted the insides, then imported and installed a new, old main staircase, paneling, massive beams, 2 bronze chandeliers with wax light bulbs, built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for the new library and seven fireplaces. For some unfathomable reason the living room was acoustically designed for two grand pianos kitty-cornered. Even I figured out that two grand pianos in one room are not normal.
There was live-in staff and, from time to time, gardeners in the Coach House. Some staff remained for years, others for only hours. My personal favourite was a cook who lasted a total of 8 hours before her boyfriend’s knife-wielding wife showed up at the front door. She must have specialized in short orders. We also had Louise, an unhappy Hungarian who cried over her decade’s dead husband and made noodles every time she was sad. We ate a lot of pasta. Madame-Mere’s father, the founder of Parent’s Magazine, was living with us at the time. He died of cancer a year later.
The gardeners were an especially interesting lot; including an octogenarian Swede, who wore kneepads, a couple of rednecks, who beat our animals and left in the middle of the night and a neo-Nazi who died under mysterious circumstances with a lady who was not his wife. We didn’t need to watch soap operas; we had our own running 24/7.
While most of the staff came and went, Nanny was always there; Thanks be to God. She had been the one, in Father’s absence, who had taken the wheel and broken the sound barrier to get Madame-Mere to the hospital for my birth. Without her, my odds of seeing 21 would have been slim to none.
Nanny had initially been hired as a Mother’s helper. She was totally Teutonic, blond-haired, blue-eyed with matching dimensions of 4 foot, 10 by 4 foot 10. She had originally agreed to remain for only as long as Madame-Mere continued to produce children. The ultimate, all-enveloping earth mother, Nanny adored babies, the more the merrier. After my unusual earthly entrance, Madame-Mere finally heeded the counsel of the medical experts and ceased all future production. Apparently too busy chasing after three rug rats; Nanny didn’t have time to notice the stoppage. She stayed on. All told, on and off, she remained with us for over 50 years, an integral part of the familial unit. This was an excellent thing since I enjoyed a much longer-than-normal childhood.
It was especially helpful the year after I was brought home the last time from the hospital. A cousin and her parents had visited us and spent the night. A week later she was diagnosed with polio. We were immediately taken for checkups. The outcome was not good. We all had the symptoms. Upon notification, all the staff fled except Nanny and the cook who was over 70 and figured she had already lived a good life anyway.
Since the hospitals were already overloaded with the severe cases requiring iron lungs; we were put into quarantine at home. No one was allowed to come and go except for Father. Groceries were ordered and then delivered to the back porch. Everything else happened by telephone. Nanny was not even allowed to visit her own family for over 6 months. Talk about dedication. Her limited time off was spent cruising the back roads and visiting the local record shop after hours.
Father had founded and ran a bunch of companies which did a myriad of things. One company made precision piping for NASA among others. Another company produced silverware then imported and distributed European china to go with it. A third company manufactured specialized agricultural equipment while a fourth was engaged in oil exploration and development. Some of the companies were based in the United States; some overseas.
One of these new-born Nazis marched over to their table, threw down his calling card and strutted off. Father picked up the card, calmly looked at it and then put it politely back on the table. Tony picked up the card, excused himself from the table and departed, informing Father that “he would handle it.” Father became confused, having no idea what “needed to be handled.”
In due time, Tony returned, dropped the card on the table and plopped down in his seat. He turned to Father and informed him that the duel had been called off. He would not have to fight after all. Father stared in stunned silence as Tony related the story.
The neophyte Nazi had not been pleased with Father’s pseudo-salutes to der Fuhrer and found them oafishly offensive. To satisfy the slur heaped upon Herr Hitler, he had challenged Father to a duel. In those days, fencing was the number one Germanic pastime. Dueling was de rigeur and demanded an annual match. Facial cuts were craved and then carefully packed with tobacco to insure a lasting memento.
The totalitarian Teuton expected Father to either belly up to the bar and get beaten or beg off. Either way Germany would prevail for the honour of the Third Reich. Since Father was the challenged party he enjoyed the choice of weapons. Naturally the German was expecting fencing foils. Instead, Tony chose fisticuffs. In those days, the Germans believed that the Americans boxed as much and as often as they fenced. Getting pummeled to a pulp by an American Olympic athlete was not going to garner greater glory for the Fatherland.
The German chucked his challenge, tucked his tail and retired in prompt order. Hitler would have to do it without him. Father swore off the Fuhrer and minded his manners.
After his western sojourn, Father pursued his penchant for flying. Out west he had picked up piloting and storming barns in-between barroom brawls and riding in the rodeos. Chicago had just built a state-of-the-art airport so Midway was hosting an International Air Show. Father, finally affianced, was asked to coordinate the extravaganza. All aspects of aviation were showcased with wing walking one of the bigger attractions.
All went well until opening day when the wing walker suddenly took sick. Since the show must go on, Father excused himself from his fiancée and friends, found the plane and pilot and climbed atop. The next time Madame-Mere saw her fiancé, he was walking the wings of a biplane fifty feet off the ground in front of her and thousands of other spectators. He carried it off without incident or accident. By this time Father had simmered and settled down and become prim and proper. Nonetheless, by my calculation, he continued to be a chronic overachiever only changing the fields of competition.
Eight days later, they were quietly married and headed off on their honeymoon. After cruising the Caribbean, they returned home and Father began his first company under the guidance and patronage of General Wood of Sears & Roebuck. Madame-Mere washed the windows in the old factory while Father cleaned the commodes. A year later, Hitler invaded Poland.
During World War II, he tried to enlist as a pilot. General Wood had a different notion and scotched Father’s enlistment attempts. Following the General’s direction, Father became a dollar-a-year man for Uncle Sam, having totally transformed his civilian company into the manufacture of military materiel. He did his normal job during the day and ran a punch press at night, writing down his nightly output in chalk on the wall. Uncle Sam had demanded a triple increase in his company’s output within thirty days. Knowing that he could not order his people to produce more, Father offered a bonus to any employee who could out produce him until the new production levels were attained. He never paid a dime.
A scratch golfer, Father was popular with the older set seeking good golfing tips. President Eisenhower was a member of this set. As a result, Father received some interesting offers, including the management of John Paul Getty 103-company portfolio, Studebaker-Packard and the recently created office of Secretary of the Air Force. All the offers were delicately declined. Father preferred doing his own thing and living outside the box. However evaluated, Father was a chronic overachiever and a tough act to follow.
After the War, several of his companies and/or their divisions were morphed into the manufacture of top secret products for the government, including parts for NASA. The race for Space was on. Everything was hush-hush and not discussed.
From time to time, Father would ‘disappear’ for a while, either off to a secret base which he told me was ‘somewhere between St. Louis and San Francisco’ or behind the Iron Curtain in Europe. He was forever going to one place or another.
In one instance, an old friend saved father’s life in Budapest soon after the failed Imry uprising against the unwanted Soviet occupation. As fickle fate would have it, Tony from the Bavarian beer hall dueling fiasco happened to be on the same train as Father and happened to look out his window to see father being forcibly marched off by communist military guards. He hopped off the train and followed at a safe distance. Once Tony had figured out the lay of the land he shot off first to the British embassy where he collected the resident First Secretary and then on to the American one. A formal protest, duly filed by both embassies with the Hungarian authorities got Father released. Both Father and Tony boarded the next train out of Dodge, this time escorted by American and British diplomats.
Father did not return to Hungary, ever. While God had given a Guardian angel to Father; it was best not to push it too far.
Another time the FBI picked him up and grilled him for 8 hours before finally figuring out that they had the wrong guy. It was a case of mistaken identity with similar names. Apparently, the Bureau wasn’t any brighter in the 1950s than they are now. (Later on, I concluded that my early run-ins with the FBI were a perpetuation of a paternal tradition.)
Madame-Mere did not work, though she had done so before marriage as a national coordinator, presenting fashion shows around the country. According to Father, “Women and business didn’t mix.” Besides, “it was not done.”
She was a card-carrying princess of Danish/Teutonic extraction, the sister of a close family friend. This royal truly took the cake; actually, it was the coke. I should have figured that something was up when she showed up with 21 steamer trunks and 3 maids. She was a royal pain and even had the blue blood to prove it. No wonder her husband didn’t accompany her.
She also had the horrible habit of only drinking coca-cola which had just been procured from the local soda shop. She expected some poor soul to run uptown every time she wanted a drink. Unfortunately she wanted one often. Nanny drove; I fetched.
It got real old, real quick. We plotted and complained. Two days into her visit, we even tried substituting the bottled variety to save on the wear and tear. You had to give the petty princess her due. Damned if she couldn’t tell the difference between the bottled stuff and the soda fountain cola. She probably would’ve noticed if we had put a pea under her mattress as well. I was thinking boulder or boa constrictor. Fortunately, her visit was a one time only experience. Return engagements were religiously refused.
As a result, I grew up with flocks of foreigners flowing through the house. My childhood was an exercise in total international immersion. It was fantastic. I never grew tired of them, their stories, their countries, their languages or their accents. I never knew whom or what I would encounter. It was living in Wonderland without Alice.
In between visits, we lived like everyone else. We went to the public school across the street, participated in intramural sports, sledded in season and swam for most of the summer. Polio did have some benefits.
We attended the oldest church in town. It was purely protestant in the best New England tradition. Father was a Deacon. Like all proper little people, I attended Sunday school, coloured in Jesus, sang songs and performed in a plethora of pageants and programmes.
The church was basic and simple in structure (both external and internal) and content with fieldstone walls, mildly stained glass windows and an outdated heating system. A big brass cross hung over the altar. It was polished and cold, much like the church itself. Personal salvation or damnation was never mentioned. Everyone either did good deeds or talked about doing them. New hats were mandatory for Easter.
Church was correctly comfortable and convenient in a sterile sort of way. Nothing major ever happened. There were no surprizes and certainly, there were no major revelations. It was just one of those things which one did, like wiping one’s mouth or saying “excuse me.” I was disinterested, disengaged and disgruntled. I could take it or leave it. Given the option, I left it, early if possible.
If God was there I never saw Him.
While I never did find God in our church, He had nonetheless been operating overtime in my life during those early years. I was successfully born and shouldn’t have been. I lived and shouldn’t have. I had a rare type of blood which I couldn’t have. I had polio, wasn’t crippled and should have been. What should have happened didn’t, and what shouldn’t have happened did.
In retrospect, living through those early years had to be like maneuvering through a massive minefield for my parents – a continuous cascade of crises. Only God had kept us from being blown up along the way. It was a miracle, actually a multitude of miracles, but I was too young and too ignorant to understand what He had done. Soon I would be five.