Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
A Good Life and A Good Death by William Appleman Williams
Page 7

VII: Building Another Life

It was also a time for Mildrede to make a difficult choice. She had proved herself as a student, teacher, and leader. She was very good, including Phi Beta Kappa, and even in those painful economic times she was offered several jobs upon being graduated. One proposal came from Atlantic, where people remembered, liked, and respected her (and the memory of Billy); but other tenders arrived from larger towns that paid more money, and even one from a city that provided vastly broader cultural opportunities.

Mildrede knew she was good and rather hankered for life in the fast lane. Sometimes she could walk the edge of being arrogant, and it annoyed some of her old friends. One of them told her son: "Milly was at that time one of those people that lots of people were just jealous of - she could do it, had done it, and they were jealous even though they liked her at the same time."

Mildrede later admitted that she "probably annoyed a lot of people. What's that phrase your children use - a smart ass? Well, I probably qualified. And I'm kind of ashamed of it even now, but to tell you the truth I really wanted to take the job in Chicago." A wry half-smile, half-grimace: "That would surely have changed our lives." Indeed. But there is no way to explore those might-have-beens. Except to say that they might have been disastrous.

She chose Atlantic. It is not difficult to list the variables, and hardly impossible to explain which ones determined the decision. The first was her deep sense of obligation and duty to her extended family - the Williamses as well as the Applemans. In different ways and in contrasting styles they had supported her through her time of trouble, and now they were suffering their time of trouble. Maude and Billy had taught her (in their different ways) that one did not take without returning the favor.

Mildrede kept a tiny, very private notebook of aphorisms. It opens and ends with one from Maude: "Give the flowers to the living." There is another that appears more than once. "If someone does something good to you, pass it on and it will come back to them." She took those bits of wisdom very seriously, and hence she must have been deeply moved when her father implored her not to take her son away. "We would have to be weaned away from him gradually now."

Then there was the matter of the child per se. Her son was at ease with Maude and Porter, had made many friends, and was approaching puberty. A drastic change might bring back the nightmares, and Mildrede knew that she was probably not then prepared to cope with such a renewed trauma. Perhaps that awareness reminded her that her abilities and achievements and ambitions had not wholly allayed her own fears and terrors.

Sometime later she reflected on it all this way: "Well, I guess I maybe thought of it as much in fear and as a challenge as in duty. I wanted to go to Chicago, and yet I didn't. I don't know. You know that I don't much go in for this looking into one's navel. I'm pretty much a private person. That has helped me, but it also hurts me. Anyway, I think I decided that going back to Atlantic was a challenge.

"There I was the daughter and wife in two well-known families, and I had that reputation of being a bit of a flapper and irresponsible, and then everyone was sorry for me because Billy had been killed. So maybe I went back to Atlantic just to show them that I knew what I was doing when I married Billy.

"But it was nice to be back with old friends. I was tired and I was lonely and I was worried about you and Maude and Porter."

The job, along with friends and family, solved the loneliness problem. Mildrede was first assigned to teach third grade in the newest middle class school. She displayed that earlier pizazz, this time in the context of great economic dislocation and social tension. Mildrede quickly confirmed her recommendations as a teacher who could engage and educate young children - and thereby focus and discipline their lives. At the end of her first year, the superintendent of the system transferred her to, and made her principal of, the most difficult and troublesome grade school in town.


Her new constituency was based in the children and parents of what in those years was called "the wrong side of the tracks." That was not literally true in the case of Atlantic because the Rock Island's switching and freight yards effectively closed off the expansion of the town north of the depot. But the idiom did describe a part of the town that served as home for some of the Blacks and other ethnics, seasonal farm and railroad workers, temporary clerks and mechanics, and the tramps and others that suffer and endure life in small towns, as well as in cities.

That inherently limited and difficult world had become vastly more painful with the advent of the Great Depression which intensified, accelerated, and extended the structural changes that had been developing independently during the late 1920s. The early emphasis on growing corn, wheat, and other grains began to shift to the use of the cereals to feed cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry for sale as meat.

There had always been a few farmers in the area (such as W.C.) who bred livestock, but they had been considered somewhat eccentric. Now they were becoming the example to emulate. Many secondary changes documented the fundamental shift in emphasis. The freight trains began to look different: there were more cattle wagons than box cars. The first train ride that Mildrede's son had was a highly supervised trip around the loading yards to fill box cars with wheat. Not many years later he rode as part of a teenager crew to water the stock on their way to the Chicago butcher yards.

In the switching yards the old steam engines were replaced by diesel locomotives. The massive wooden water tower, banded with lovely iron holders, with its great elephant trunk spout, was emptied and finally demolished. The world-famous corn canning factory was abandoned and allowed to go to rot. Boys broke the windows and played hooky in the sorting rooms. More adventurous men and women used it for furtive sex. Once a wonder of the world, it became an embarrassment. Somebody finally bought it just to get rid of it. The new factories produced synthetic fertilizer and feed and hired people with different skills - and many fewer of them.

Mildrede dealt with the human consequences of those and related changes, all of which were compounded by the Great Depression. She confronted people who were being displaced by machinery and the collapse of the economy. The children were becoming more undernourished, apathetic, indifferent, and even sullen. "I remember one meeting I had with some parents whose children were not coming to school on a regular basis. I was not very smart. I asked them what was wrong. This man who lost his job at the corn factory said: 'Well, beggin' your pardon, lady, but shit what's the point of my kid going to school when there ain't no jobs for him?' I did not have a ready answer for that one right then. But I got one."

Mildrede's answer was that you had to be ready when the jobs came back. She invested many long and demanding hours in such conferences with those parents and their children - and the teachers under her supervision. Hence she was often weary, preoccupied, and testy by the time she came home. And at home she encountered Porter's loss of confidence and his growing eccentricity - along with passivity and a tendency to drink more and more. All of it challenged her faith in the value of education as education, and depleted her energies.

By the end of her third year teaching in Atlantic, it seems likely that Mildrede was being paid a bit less than $800 a year. She continued to receive her pension, Maude still had some savings, and Porter now and again mustered his energy and will to follow through on the occasional inquiry about a dog and thereby added a few more dollars to the common treasury. The family was not dirt poor, but it did function on a very restricted income and an extremely tight budget.

They clung to the precipitous edge of economic independence. When they could not pay cash, they went without. They kept their savings in a safety deposit box. Mildrede, the first woman driver in the area, walked some 15 blocks to school and 15 blocks home. The ongoing experience, which lasted throughout most of the 1930s, deeply affected her, and she never again quite trusted the system, particularly after the sharp and drastic recession of 1937.

She developed a kind of fetish about shopping only on bargain days, denied herself casual pleasures, and saved-saved-saved to protect herself against another failure of the system. She once attempted a wry joke about it all: "Most people think that I eat cottage cheese for my figure, but I eat it to save for the next depression. I don't ever want to go through that hell again."

Most of what today is called "disposable income" went for the care and nurturing of the son. He was entering that period of pell-mall growth when it seems that a pair of pants has become too short, or a shirt too small, by the time you get home from the store. But Maude was an adroit and clever woman with a foot-powered machine, and that enabled them to buy clothes that were ostensibly too large. She could shorten the sleeve of a jacket with an artful cuff (and add a false pleat to nip in the shoulders), tuck the extra length of pants up inside and tighten the seam, and knit sweaters that were sewn together so they could be taken apart and enlarged as necessary.

But other things deemed necessary or desirable for the child could be provided only if Maude and Mildrede went without something for themselves. Somehow there was always money for music lessons, new athletic equipment, the Saturday morning run of movie serials (with popcorn), and certain magazines. And every so often the joy of getting a money order to buy a new model airplane kit, or order a few more pieces for the Meccano set.

The son at age 9. 1931.
The son at age 9. 1931.

The reason that the son had the English Meccano rather than the American Erector involves a nice story about Porter. Back in the boom days of the dog business Porter traveled with his animals to a good number of large cities, and he always brought his grandson a present. After careful consideration he started the boy with Meccano because it was stronger, more realistic, and capable of infinite variations. The boy played with it even into his high school days.

The great event of those years was the trip that Mildrede and her son took in 1933 to the Chicago World Fair. It developed out of Maude's decision, while Mildrede was going to Iowa State Teachers College, to have the son become a Boy Scout. She concluded that he needed more male guidance than Porter was providing after the Crash of 1919, and that he should develop skills beyond neighborhood play. The boy responded positively and began to climb the ladder toward the Eagle, acquiring various merit badges along the way. He later lost interest in the program, but in 1933 he was selected as a member of the Iowa delegation to attend the International Scout Jamboree at the Chicago Fair.

His expenses were largely funded by local and state philanthropists (oh, yes, there were many businessmen who continued to make money during the Depression). But there is something of a mystery about the money for Mildrede to make the trip. She was invited to stay with friends in Chicago while her son lived in a pup tent on the South Shore, but it nevertheless required cash. One has the feeling that Porter sold a dog or two too cheaply, and that Maude reached deeper into her dwindling savings. As other teachers had done before, and would do generations later, Mildrede probably rationalized her misgivings and guilt by terming it an educational experience.

And it sure was, as well as a marvelous and exciting time of relaxation and play. Her son lived with his peers from around the world for five days, and then joined Mildrede for a long weekend. They swam in Lake Michigan, rode the interurbans and the elevated around the Loop, had a vicarious encounter with a Chicago gangster shoot-out, and did the Fair together.

Mildrede wanted to spend two full days at the Fair with her son, and in any event they had to catch the Rock Island home from Union Station, so she left her friends in Oak Park and rented a room in a downtown hotel. They returned from the first day's excursions about 10 at night and went to bed. It was extremely hot, and Mildrede left the windows open. Along about 2:30 a.m. they were jarred awake by the unmistakable sounds of Thompson submachine guns, shotguns, breaking glass, and screams.

They ran to the windows. Across the street, a bit off to the left, some people were lying on the sidewalk, and others were racing away in big black cars still shooting at each other. The son naturally wanted to go down and see what had happened, but Mildrede talked him back to bed and sleep. The next morning after breakfast they walked by the scene. The sidewalk was spotless, the windows of the post jewelry store had been replaced, and it was business as usual. For many years Mildrede saved the back page news story she had found. The lead paragraph was a gem of low key journalism. "Early this morning in the Loop two rival gangs shot it out with each other instead of grabbing the loot."

As for the Fair, Mildrede indulged and educated her son. The hotel was close enough to walk, and on the way she took him by the buildings designed by Louis H. Sullivan. She also took him to art exhibitions, as well as spending much time in the science and engineering halls. That was probably where he got the idea that he wanted to be an architect.

But Mildrede also liked to play, and they spent a long afternoon enjoying rides and shows on the Midway. Nobody knows whether she was remembering the sensuality of her marriage, or beginning the sexual education of her son - or both - but she also took him to see Sally Rand do her famous Fan Dance. It was a bold and insightful act, and in later years the son came to realize that Mildrede had an exceptional touch about sex. Subtle, moral, and powerful.

In any event, that action helps explain why Mildrede was such an exceptional teacher. She not only knew what to do, but she usually knew how and when to do it. Even upon graduation from Iowa State Teachers, and even more so after her work in Atlantic, her reputation was reaching out into the wider world. Hence it was no surprise that when she returned from the Fair she found an attractive offer from the school system in Fairfield, Iowa.

Fairfield was a bigger Atlantic at the opposite, southeastern side of Iowa. Some of her old friends from Atlantic had moved there and established themselves as leading citizens - the owner and editor of a very good newspaper, and the key entrepreneur of a firm that manufactured state-of-the-art agricultural implements. It always helps to have friends at court, particularly in hard times, and it is fair to assume that Mildrede was offered the job because of her connections, as well as because of her reputation.

And there is no doubt that Mildrede's trip to Chicago served to revive her dreams and ambitions. There were long, visceral conversations about the decision. Maude once said to her grandson: "Oh, I just got sick and tired of it all. I would go off and talk to my flowers." Maude's diary tells us that she was skeptical because she did not think that Mildrede was ready to handle the job and function as what today is called a "single parent." But she told Mildrede "to do what she had to do."

There was of course the problem of keeping an open line back into the Atlantic School System. After the fact, piecing together a hint from here and there, we realize that Mildrede was an effective - if somewhat acerbic - politician. She apparently negotiated an understanding that she could return after one year in Fairfield. She knew how to cover her derriere.

And so Mildrede and her son went off to Fairfield. Much of it was rewarding, joyful, and pleasant. Once again she quickly established herself as a fine teacher. And she easily became as one among old friends who played at the lakeside and then enjoyed each other's company over drinks, dinner, and bridge. She was able to send money home to Maude because her salary was higher, and because she lived mostly rent free in a large over-the-garage apartment owned by old friends who also often provided the evening meal. The truth of it is that Mildrede was a most likeable woman. People sought and enjoyed her company, and she gave as much as she took.

There were two problems. Maude had foreseen the first one. For the first time since Billy's death, Mildrede was soloing as a single parent. Always before she had been able to count upon various support systems. This time she was on her own. Her friends in Fairfield "understood" and "cared-about" her predicament, but they offered very few neighborly social services. They were very busy with their own lives. They wanted Mildrede to join them relaxed, unencumbered, and fancy free. That was the way they remembered her: either on a weekday about 8 in the evening, or on the weekend along about 3 for a swim and some gossip.

Mildrede enjoyed it all. She went for it like a kitten to the lap of a kindly old lady knitting a ball of soft wool. She began to take it and run. She would make breakfast and get herself and son off to their respective schools. He would come home first and putter around with the radio or books or model airplanes. There was no yard: no place to shoot baskets or fly the planes. Mildrede would arrive tired and edgy. "Why haven't you done your homework?!?"

Sometimes she would make supper, but more often they ate with friends or went downtown. Then back to the apartment. Maybe most times it was all business, the son and mother doing their respective homework. But she also went off to see her friends. Since the nightmares were gone, the son rather liked being left alone. And being trusted.

But it became more than a bit of a bore for the son. That was the second problem. He was the new boy on the block in an established community, and he did not have a father. Many years later, the son looked back on it all and decided that everyone was playing a kind of game: his father was off on a long business trip of some kind, and in the meantime everyone would pretend that nothing was wrong.

He remembered that he had known better than that, and so became increasingly frustrated and tense. He missed his grandmother Maude who always had been there even if she was giving him what-for. He missed his grandfather who knew so many neat things. He missed his friend who came over every Saturday afternoon to make model airplanes. That kid was not really a close friend, not like the ones who show up in the winter after supper to go scooting down the alley in snow and ice on a cardboard box, but it was nice and easy on those Saturday afternoons.

They just sat there and stuck pieces of balsa wood together with a glue called Ambroid, and then pasted Japanese tissue paper onto the fuselage and the wings with something called "dope." Finally they would go out to see if it would fly, and be half-unbelieving and half-ecstatic if it did actually stay in the air for a minute or so. Most of them usually crashed, but they would patch them up and try it again. They got better. They built some that flew around for several minutes, and one even caught a thermal and simply disappeared. They chased it down the streets but never did find it. It was a great moment.

Maude had a lovely sense of community. She always knew which afternoon to call the mother of one or more of her grandson's friends and say: "The boys will have supper here." There was none of that in Fairfield. So he took to sports in a serious way. He was not big and powerful but he was quick and clever, and so he could catch passes and duck and dodge and make touchdowns. The word got around and they began to lay for him. He took a lot of thumps. And the playgrounds were gravel, not grass.

Therein lies the story of the end of the Fairfield interlude. The son, striving to be accepted into his strange new world, caught a pass only to be gang tackled on the goal line. It was ruled a touchdown that won the game, but one side of his face, particularly his nose, was full of grit, sand and even a few pebbles. Of course he could not cry until after he had trotted the ten blocks to home.

One never knows for certain what inclines people to choose one option over another. But there can be no doubt that Mildrede was unnerved by the sight of her son's raw and bleeding nose. Later she vented the emotion: "Oh, all I could think of was the accident. I couldn't sleep at all that night."

What Mildrede called "the accident" was a memory from the past. When her son was about two, say in the spring of 1923, Mildrede and her husband were driving from Atlantic to Omaha to enjoy a weekend fling while he had some time off from barnstorming. It was a chance to get away together: go shopping, have dinner, go dancing, and then make love. In those days the maids in good hotels would keep an eye on the children. And they did want the child with them.

The accident happened along the way to Omaha. Back in those days the intersections between highways and railroads could be risky at best and deadly at worst. There were no flashing lights or crossbars. Mildrede more than once said: "If you knew what you were doing you carried a railroad timetable along with the highway map." Who knows what they were doing that morning? Maybe petting a bit in the front seat, taking in the scenery, or perhaps arguing about whether Billy should stop barnstorming.

We do know that they came upon a bad intersection. The train tracks curved sharply through a cut and then crossed the highway. The train came roaring into sight, and Billy had to jam the brakes. Their son was nicely tucked into a laundry basket on the back seat. On the floor was a metal Army suitcase carrying Billy's flying gear. The basket tipped over, and the son's nose was smashed against the edge of the suitcase. The happy weekend got off to an unhappy start.

They drove fast on into Omaha and straight to a doctor. He cleaned up the mess, gave the child a bit of morphine, and said: "We'll just have to wait and see. Either the nose will come back out or it won't. If it doesn't, then we can talk about what next to do." There went most of the first day of the vacation.

One presumes that Billy and Mildrede sat there and wept and embraced and kissed and held moist hands. But after about three hours the child's nose began to reappear. It was shaped a bit differently, but it was there. "Well, we didn't go dancing that night, but we were very close."

Hence some ten years later in Fairfield when Mildrede said that all she could think of was "the accident," we can assume that she was really thinking aloud to herself about what she was doing with her life. It must have been an extremely difficult moment. The injury dramatized and forced her to confront the truth that she was not prepared - emotionally or pragmatically - to be a single parent. She had been indulging herself in a playback of her salad days in Atlantic.

She took the salary cut, bit the emotional bullet, and returned to Atlantic. It was a tough and brave decision. Many years later when her son learned about the story he could think of nothing so appropriate as Tom Wolfe's novel You Can't Go Home Again. Atlantic was a community that prided itself on preparing its children to move on if they so chose. Hence to leave and then return required a special kind of courage. Mildrede had that pizazz. She came home with the mature patience and confidence to see her son through high school in his natural environment - and then go back into the wider world.

Perhaps that was the moment when she became truly independent. Whatever the pain, whatever the costs, she would do what for her was the right thing to do.