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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Red-Headed Second Child

I was born in an old folks’ home in Montana. No, really.
I suppose the Bronx, New York, must have seemed rather dull after World War II, what with my father carrying the secret code of the day and bathing in his helmet, to the amusement of the locals in North Africa, so my parents decided to move to Montana. He had done Air Corps cadet training in Great Falls, and they thought it was beautiful. They bought a used station wagon, filled it to the gills with their earthly possessions and my older brother, then seven months old, and headed west.
They liked the little town of Choteau. Official population was 1,180, but the locals insisted they had 1,700. It’s about the same today. None of the three lawyers in town wanted to hire my father, but a waitress told my parents she thought there would be work for another lawyer, so there he hung out his homemade shingle.
     No one else in town could imagine living in the little house they bought. It began as a one-room farm house, and other owners had added rooms here and there, not all on the same level, and all with different sizes of windows. The bathroom was carved out of a corner of the kitchen, and a trap door in a closet led to a root cellar. Carrots, they learned, can get very limp in a root cellar. Snow blew under the door in winter, and food stored in the spare room froze solid. But it was a real house with a yard, not an apartment with stairs, and they were thrilled with it. 
    You didn't need a street address to send them mail: only their names and "Choteau, Montana."  In town, their location was "across from the doctor's." There was one doctor in Choteau and one nurse, his wife. They all became good friends. There was also only one establishment that was anything like a medical facility, and that was the old folks' home, which the doctor and his wife ran. When I came along, Mom had a choice between driving 50 miles to the nearest hospital and delivering in the old folks' home. She chose the one she could walk to. 
    I came along in the dead of winter, August. (Mom always said Montana had two seasons, winter and July. I missed July.) She took my brother by the hand, waddled to my father's office and called up to the second-floor window. "Howard! Howard, you have to take Andy!" He peeked out the window and said, "But I can't. I'm working." "Well, I'm in labor, so you have to." He was persuaded. 
    One of the oldsters had to give up his room temporarily for the birth. It confused him, rather. The old dear was A. B. Guthrie, Sr. If you don't know his son A. B. Jr., you must immediately read The Big Sky. There's a movie too, with Kirk Douglas, but the book is better. A. B. Sr. is said to have moved his family as far west as he could and still have a newspaper. That's how he wound up in Choteau, not terribly different from my family's motivation. Anyway, the poor man kept shuffling back into the room, addressing my mother by his daughter-in-law's name and demanding to know what she had done with his clothes. Between contractions, Mom called, "Mr. Guthrie's back." 
    In those days, fathers did not attend births. Once I was out, swabbed and swaddled, Mom and her nurse pal fell to plotting. "If only we could borrow a black baby," they said. None was available. They settled for a little fellow who was about six months old. When my father entered the room, the nurse said, "Here's your new daughter." Right on cue, the little co-conspirator popped his head up from the blanket and grinned at him. Dad's eyes got very large and his knees rather wobbly. 
    I turned out to be a more standard size, but with deep auburn red curls, which necessitated many jokes about the mailman. (Dad was blond, Mom brunette.) After a year or so, my hair grew in blond from the roots. People asked my mother whether she had dyed my hair. She fumed. "What kind of idiot dyes a baby's hair?" 
    Another year, another baby, and a call back to active duty with the U. S. Air Force took us to Nebraska: Offal Air Force Base, as the residents called it, near Omigod. Base housing is the first place I actually remember for myself. When I was four, Dad was sent to Germany, and they took the opportunity to get divorced. Mom drove me and my brothers to Florida, where her parents lived. I grew up there, but I still think the best stories come from Montana. 

Still curly, but red was gone.


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