I was never a good dancer. I went tender into the music business, and musicians, concerned with means, care little about dancing, neither do they have the opportunity to become expert. When I entered high school it was plain to my parents that if I were one day to go to college I would have to work my way. I considered various vehicles of tuition. Fancying in the end that my bathtub tenor resembled that of Arthur Tracy, the Street Singer of radio renown, on my choice they purchased for me, for $90 they could ill-afford, a 120-bass piano accordion, the professional size. It was a white mother-of-pearl effect Volturno, made in Chicago by Italians, which ws the next best thing to one actually manufactured in Italy, and with it came ten free lessons by mail. I practiced diligently such finger-flickers as “Dardanellla” and “The Charge of the Hungarian Hussars.” I had an excellent ear, it developed, and could soon fake any melody once I’d listened to it over the airwaves performed by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch on the Camel Caravan or by Xavier Cugat from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Then my mother passed away—pneumonia, there were no musical symptoms. Through my bellows blew a winter of brokenhearted air.
To put a coda to my grief, in the eleventh grade I assembled an orch consisting of Chester Haysmer on alto saxophone, Earl Doyle on drums, and Gracia Lampkin on piano. Sax and piano couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, unfortunately, and I had to invest in sheet music, but we rehearsed a library of ten numbers, including ballads like “Sophisticated Lady” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the peppy “Goofus” and one stomper, “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
We were warm to be heard by the world. We placed in store windows hand-lettered signs reading DANCE SAT. NITE…PERRY DUNNIGAN & THE SMOOTHIES…HAYSMER BLDG…50˘ COUPLE 35˘ STAG. To rent City Hall, where dances were usually thrown, would have cost $5, and Chester’s father, who owned the only three-story structure in Smyrna, let us have the third floor free. It proved to be no boon. We toiled an entire day sweeping and carrying chairs borrowed from a church and grappling a piano up two flights of stairs and installing lightbulbs and financially, the event was a success. Admissions brought in enough to cover the expense and net a profit of $2.80. Musically it was a disaster. Diffident at first, we played so inaudibly that the dancers had to demand more volume. Our ten-tune repertoire was run through in two sets and had to be repeated over and over. After I had rendered the lyrics of “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me” the fourth time into my megaphone, the applause was less than hysterical. Gracia Lampkin turned out to be the flaw in the ensemble. For freedom on the pedals she played with her skirt far above her knees, and she had the best-looking legs in town. This distracted Chester, whose tone on the alto flatted to that of a disconsolate calf, and also Earl, who speeded the beat until our last chorus, even of a ballad, was so up-tempo you had to be an athlete to tie us. A piano player with gorgeous gams is murder on music.
What almost rescued us was the entrance of Speedy McGimsey, our homegrown celebrity, back from college for the weekend. Perceiving at once the plight of his fellow musicians, he took the megaphone and diverted the crowd by crooning “Please” and “Just a Gigolo.” He had a practically Russ Columbo baritone. But even Speedy cut brief his bows, took hasty exit. Nothing, no one, could have saved our small-town wrestle.
The atmosphere was simply not conducive to Terpsichore. As a dancehall, the room would have made a nifty tomb for King Tut. The acoustics were eerie. Blue lightbulbs cast a gloomy glow. Worse yet, I have not mentioned that in his building Mr. Haysmer amalgamated the sale of furniture and appliances with undertaking, and that his third floor was used for casket storage. We had tiered them against a wall, the heavy bronze-and-velvet on the bottom, those of wood on top, and during the evening some irreverent jokesters among the boys untiered several, dragged them out on the floor and laughing, stretched out in them, causing their dates to scream as though in a Lon Chaney horror movie. Under the baleful lightbulbs, between the caskets solemn couples two-stepped. Through the echoing acoustics, to the peppy strains of “Goofus” they danced, contemplating, it may be supposed, not only their partners but their mortality. While the Smoothies played lugubriously on.
Caskets and embraces. The shout of laughter which turns, suddenly, into a shriek. I have a demented tale to tell, a pop-Gothic romance about a buried boy and a huntress girl and a rich ghost which took place in the long long ago of yesterday.
I am of course that boy, buried now under the midden of thirty-four years. Innocent player, I took a leading role in the fundamental human drama about to unfold. I became a professional musician. I was present when the Loveland was invented, and I danced it once. Via a pipe, I was already on the filthy weed, but far from home and falling in with fast company I sank to smoking, even to inhaling, coffin-nails. I got drunk on a vinegar summer. I found out who Death is. Suspected of committing a capital and sensational crime, I made headlines coast to coast. Screwiest of all, I took a trip to Loveland.
Perry Dunnigan & the Smoothies disbanded. Gracia dropped piano and raised her hems. The drummer went out for basketball and the alto went out for Gracia. Undaunted, I continued through the winter to strop my ear on the radio and to increase my bass and treble dexterity when one March afternoon Smyrna High was stricken with rumor as though with mumps. Speedy McGimsey was home again and driving his own automobile. No one our age had his own car, no one. After school my pals and I tore downtown. It must be true. With Speedy, believing preceeded seeing. Why should it astonish anyone that he should defy the Depression when the miracle was that there could even be a Depression while he was around?
It was a graphic day. Spring had sprung. The sun clanged. Icicles crashed. People walked about trying like snakes to shed their skins and be free. Our hero and his chariot were parked in front of Al’s Drycleanery and it was a darb. A black ’32 Chevrolet Convertible Cabriolet Couple, it had red wire wheels and a rumble seat and chrome-plated hood ports and a tan canvas top and trumpet-type horns and an arched double tie-bar across the radiator and bullet-type headlamps and a chrome-plated whippet rakish on the hood and a six-cylinder sixty-horsepower motor which would do up to 70 mph and a fold-forward windshield and Free Wheeling. Cats of awe got our tongues.
We followed him into Al’s back room and sat around between the racks of clothes and slapped knees as, strumming his genuine Harold Teen uke, he regaled us with collegiate ditties such as “The Ring-Dang-Do” and “The Queen of Spain was a sprightly dame, A sprightly dame was she; She loved to fool with the royal tool, Of the king across the sea.” While his disciples drank Green Rivers and sucked ice he expounded on Michigan State College, on the frat he belonged to, the coed queen he was pinned to, the whiskey he’d surrounded tk-a-tk-a-tk, how he’d garnered a car by playing guitar and leading his own orch, the Speedy McGimsey Six, and how, after graduation, he might take it on the road to fame and fortune tk-a-tk-a-tk. He emancipated us. Teethed on the same rustic ring as we, he’d ventured into the great void beyond Smyrna and conquered. We ate him up, gazing. He had barley hair and a cleft chin and tight ears and a wholewheat smile. Fish in his blue eyes and you’d always have luck. He wore corduroy pants and an MSC sweatshirt and scuffed brown-and-white saddle shoes which he said were absolootle, positivle the cow’s udders on campus. This was Speedy McGimsey, ukulele troubadour to his time. His secret was simple: you might pray to Julius H. Priest to be in his saddle shoes, but you couldn’t resent his having everything because he deserved everything and besides, who resented a spring day because it was graphic? He was a five-leaf clover. He was a cooned melon. He jingled.
“Talkin’ about the road, guess where I’m taking the Six this summer?”
“I’m not joshing. We’re booked three nights a week into some joint called Loveland and two nights a private club. Up in Charlevoix.”
When we looked bumpkin he flipped his uke in scorn. Charlevoix the Beautiful and Petoskey and Harbor Springs and Mackinac Island were as ritz as any of the ritz summer resorts down East. Cher-le-voy he’d heard had elegant hotels and a casino and yachts and maybe, though he doubted this because it was common knowledge they’d all jumped out of Wall Street windows, a relic millionaire or two. “Also the babes grow right on the trees. And if you’ve got the rabbit habit, any doe will do tk-a-tk-a-tk!” He had the habit of clicking the tip of his tongue against his upper teeth in a kind of dental delight, with himself and with life. “I tell you, children of sorrow,” he jingled, “high sassiety and babes with fine bods and if you can get Nehi for a nickel, how high can you get for $27.50 a week?”
We couldn’t conceive how anyone could spend that sum every week, let alone earn it.
“Neighbor,” he said to me, “I got an earful of you fronting that gruesome foursome. You play okay and you warble not bad. You ought to put on some long pants and toddle up to Charlevoix this summer.”
“Nobody but. Bring along the old push-and-pull and sit in with us. You might make the team.”
“Me?” I said. “Gee,” I said. It was like being tapped by Paul Whiteman. I deliquesced with gratitude. “Gee thanks, Speed!”
Thus was combusted in me the spark of hope which became, that warm, fateful afternoon at Al’s Drycleanery, a naphta blaze of ambition. Except on Saturday nights, Smyrna offered puny summer prospect. You could twiddle your thumbs and wonder what was going on in Grand Rapids. Or you could rest your face and hands and appreciate the katydids. Or, for action in the evenings, you could dawdle down to the town library and watch people pay fines on overdue books. A dozen Saturday nights, however, did not a summer make. I would, I must go to Charlevoix the Beautiful. It was a beggar’s horse, a child’s aspiration, but these were tearjerk times and tragedy makes children of us all. I had just highjumped into seventeen. Snips and snails and foreclosure sales were what my world was made of, not honey and money and Fort Lauderdales. But if the Depression were a splitting national headache, I had an aspirin spirit. If the country had been sent to sit in a corner till it got some sense in its head, my heart was a natural dunce. A simpleton boy, then for a simpleton period, and I intended to thrive on it, for when you were down, it said in my primer, the only way to go was up.
It was 1934. I was glad to have leaped sixteen as the United States was to be rid of 1933. There was much debate that year about which might solve our problems, Technocracy or Huey Long’s Share the Wealth or Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California or Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice or the Blue Eagle or Dr. Townsend’s plan or, now that the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the Second Coming of Alcohol, but I’d have proposed still another solution had my opinion been sought. “What is your name, young man?” asked Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Perry Dunnigan, Mr. President. Dunnigin with an i-n not an a-n.” “And what solution do you propose, Mr. Dunnigan?” “A resource our country hasn’t discovered yet, Mr. President. My energy.”
For football I was too scantling, for basketball too bumble-kneed, but I had as much energy as hair. For my age I was too hirsute. I had to shave every other day and a thunder of sable sat upon my brow. I theorized that my hormones were out of whack, that the underconsumption of energy caused the overproduction of hair which, in turn, the way smoking kept some boys short, had kept me thin. But if Washington did not utilize this imbalance to the common economic weal, I could to my own. I would, I must, whip up to Charlevoix the Beautiful. Vim would be my engine.
I got a job at Hahn’s Grocery, working two hours daily after school. I bagged sugar. This involved staggering 100-pound sacks of sugar around and emptying them into a bin, a real tour de force since I outweighed them by only twenty pounds, before measuring the sugar into paper bags. I made 5˘ an hour, a not inconsiderable stipend when a half-dollar would buy a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread and a quart of milk. Besides, bagging sugar had for me a social as well as a sacroiliac importance. The war for survival between independents and the new chain stores had become a public issue, sentiment was generally anti-chain store, and I pictured myself a soldier in a white apron fighting for an American institution, the corner grocery, so that with my wage, plus the bonus of a martyred back, there came a condiment of righteousness.
To cut the costs of spring I undertook a regimen right out of Youth’s Companion. Since a Green River spurned was a nickel earned, I denied myself a toast, in May, to the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets. For romance I substituted skinny-dips in the novels of Thomas Wolfe and the peripatetic yarns of Richard Halliburton. Gangster movies with George Raft I eschewed, and Charlie Chase comedies and Westerns starring Hoot Gibson.
Pluck triumphed. By early June, the lucky bean sown in me by Speedy McGimsey had burgeoned. A marvelous stalk was mine for the climbing.
Provided. I must have permission. And my father and I really had a relationship.
I was very proud of him. He was cashier of the Smyrna State Bank and made $2800 a year and was invincible. He had lost his shirt in the stock market, almost two thousand dollars, to atone for which he made do with his 1929 overcoat and gladly ground the valves of his 1928 Hupmobile, but he’d be beautiful, he said, if he’s accept general responsibility for the barrel the country had gambled itself into, and damned, he said, if he’d batten down either side of his bum to any local bed of nails. Therefore he continued to chew on expensive three-for-a-quarter Bankers Special cigars, training them at hostile horizons like the guns of a dreadnought. Even more invincible, he had begun to date, and I easily scouted who. To a small town, the activities of widowers are more interesting than international events.
Now I had to ask his permission. I’d rather have had acute appendicitis. Because it wouldn’t be just asking him to let me leave home. I went to Grand Rapids frequently, but I had even traveled to Detroit to rubberneck the skyscrapers, but Charlevoix the Beautiful was two hundred whole miles away. More pertinent than geography, though, was the fact that we were more than father and only-begotten son, more than friends, we were allies. In recent years we’d passed through many fires together—“Dardanella” and the desolation after my mother and The Day They Closed The Banks. We had been embattled. Bankers were in approximately as good odor then as skunks, and since no eau de adolescence could make a banker’s boy any sweeter to society, it had been the two of us vs. a world which held its nose. Now I’d be asking him to muster me out of the ranks. To take on contumely single-handed. To war alone on loneliness. To split up for the first time since I had assumed my rightful place at his side the year before, on that historic morning in the middle of February 1933.