On Mildred Street: my first horse
On Mildred Street—my first horse

At the Beginning: Page Two

When I was eleven or twelve, in the summer, a friend, Cooper Griel, and I used to get up early and go out to the Woodley Country Club. We’d play tennis when nobody was around until about noon, and we never seemed to get tired. We got up around seven o’clock in the morning—without waking our parents—with a toe-pull alarm I invented. It consisted of a string, tied around the big toe, and dropped out the window. Cooper and I would put the strings on before we went to bed. When Cooper pulled my string, I woke up—promptly. This alarm clock has two advantages. It’s cheap—and it will wake up the dead. Cooper always woke up first, so I never had the pleasure.

When I got dressed, Cooper and I would walk up to Hull Street and take the streetcar which went out to the Woodley Club. There was a man on the streetcar who used to make change. I was very impressed with him. He had a little belt around his stomach, and he would press a button and eject nickels, dimes, and quarters. That’s the job I wanted to have when I grew up. It was my only ambition. As fate would have it, streetcars were abolished so I never got to be what I wanted to be.

Cooper Griel was a nice boy and unusual in several ways. I’ve never heard of anybody else whose first name was Cooper. And he had a great Russian wolfhound named Zaree. And Cooper was a Griel. In Montgomery there was a small Jewish community. The leading family, the aristocracy so to speak, was named Weil. They were big in the cotton manufacturing business. The next best-known family was the Griels. There was an expression around Montgomery, “the Weils, the Griels, and the schlemiels.” I never felt like I was one of the last, but probably I was.

On the subject of religion, my parents were Jewish, by descent, but they never made any issue of it with me. Anyway, it never took. I’m neutral on the subject of which religion. As I see it, it’s the question of whether or not there’s a God. That’s up to everybody. How He wants you to conduct yourself, as I see it, is between you and Him. I don’t think anybody’s got a lock on the right way, so to speak. So I’ve been neutral. The few times I think about it, it does seem that if people would deemphasize the religious thing and stop feeling they’ve got the only right way, we could spend more time being nice to each other. It really doesn’t make much sense. There are a thousand religions, and everyone thinks theirs is the right one. This is probably not correct.

My father was born in Montgomery, and so were his brothers. He had an older brother, Morris, and three other brothers and a sister. I remember Grandpa Dreyfus. He lived to be eighty-seven and used to drink a quart of corn liquor every day. Grandpa and I used to play dominoes when I was about five. I beat him sometimes. He wasn’t happy about that. Grandpa Dreyfus was called “Major.” I don’t remember why. I think it was some sort of honorary title. I heard in the family that he was a cousin of Alfred Dreyfus of the famous Dreyfus case. My grandmother’s name was Emma. I never saw much of her because she died when I was a few years old.

Apparently Grandpa hadn’t been a businessman and my Uncle Morris had been the breadwinner for the family. When he was thirteen he had a little store, and from what I gather, that had supported the family. When he became older, Morris, with his brother Dave, started a company called The Dreyfus Brothers Candy Manufacturing Company, a very successful business. Their best seller was a huge peppermint cane that sold for a nickel.

Uncle Morris retired when he was forty-nine. Unlike some retired people it wasn’t a drag on him—he found plenty of things to do. From a business point of view, he invested his money in mortgages with the people around town. I never heard of him foreclosing; I think he was lenient that way.

Uncle Morris had a little house which he bought for $10,000—in those days that was a lot of money. There was a bit of ground around the house and Uncle Morris became a gardener—planted all sorts of flowers. He loved to work in the garden. So between shopping and gardening and a little business activity, he was fully busy. He was a happy man and enjoyed his retirement. He lived with his wife, my Aunt Helen, and her mother. Living with your mother-in-law is not always a pleasure, but Uncle Morris took it in good spirits.

I’d never heard Uncle Morris say a cuss word. I sort of assumed he didn’t know any, and I hadn’t had any thought of teaching him. Uncle Morris drove a middle-aged Buick and was an indifferent driver—that’s a fancy word for lousy. One day, we were going up Hull Street, and he was driving. From the left a gentleman ignored the stop sign and flew right across Hull Street, while we were crossing the intersection. Uncle Morris deftly, for him or for anybody for that matter, pulled our car to the right. We went up on a sidewalk, up on a neighbor’s lawn, around a neighbor’s tree, down onto the sidewalk, past a telephone pole, and back onto Hull Street. No harm was done. However this released a new vocabulary from Uncle Morris. My surmise that he didn’t know any cuss words had been wrong. He knew some. In fact, he knew some I’d never heard. Altogether it was a memorable experience.

I was told that my father went somewhere in Kentucky to bet on the horse races. He did well for a while but then went broke and wired Uncle Morris for money. Uncle Morris replied that he’d send him some, along with candy samples, so that Dad could work his way back, by visiting “jobbers,” the name for candy wholesalers in the South. That’s how my father became a candy salesman. Dad used to be away from home almost six months a year, visiting jobbers.

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