A pal becomes a rival. Mary Ellen chooses Herb.
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Chapter 14: Herb and Mary Ellen Find Each Other
The Covenant Presbyterians were old school Presbyterians. Like other evangelicals, they looked at life like scientists, which is to say, what counted with them were facts, or to put it another way “appearances”—visible, measurable appearances—as opposed to airy philosophic or aesthetic speculations. My sister and brother and I resented our parents’ emphasis on appearances, particularly on our appearances. We could not leave the house for church until we were picture perfect, and we were expected to be almost as mute as pictures, too. Our parents had no time for our childish speculations, and their refusal to speculate irritated us. We thought they were hypocrites and wanted to believe even worse of them. But we couldn’t, because in our hearts, we knew that they were responsible, competent, and honest, and that, in their own way, they cared deeply about us. So while we couldn’t deny the way they made us feel, we couldn’t justify our feelings—which increased our resentment.
Some evangelical preachers rely on an emotional style of preaching to “wake up” sinners to their need to be “born again.” But not the preacher at Mary Ellen and Herb’s church. He based his sermons on reason. This was agreeable to Herb. He wanted “no truck” with anyone who let himself “get carried away.” This reflected his long-standing grudge against the Holy Rollers who had boycotted his stepfather’s store in Joplin. That was when his family’s poverty began in earnest.
The Covenant Presbyterians reasoned that the same bourgeois virtues that helped a person better himself morally would help him better himself economically. That was a message Herb and Mary Ellen had ears to hear. They wanted to be born again in a better neighborhood.
In the meantime, they wanted to have fun. And the “kids” in their Sunday school classes were good at that. The young women in Elva Miles’ class were called the KDs. That sounds like a sorority, and there may have been some sorority-envy involved. (I doubt if many of them had been to college.) But KD did not stand for Kappa Delta. It stood for King David’s Daughters. The members of the men’s class were “the Fi Chis.” Cheered on by the KDs, teams of Fi Chis competed against baseball and basketball teams from other Sunday schools in a citywide athletic league. This enabled them to network with the young “go-getters” of different churches and from different parts of town. The Fi Chis took the KDs on picnics at Brush Creek Park and on overnight “outings” to the Lake of the Ozarks. Once they all went spelunking. And everywhere they went, they sang. They sang on picnics, accompanied by mandolins, ukuleles, or banjos. They sang a cappella on car trips, even with strangers on streetcars (when perfectly sober). They sang around a piano after smoky bridge parties. There was a national pop repertoire in those days. It included “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “K-K-K-Katy,” “Shine on Harvest Moon,” “Dinah,” “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” “Clementine,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Mexicali Rose,” and “Always.”
The KDs bobbed their hair, bound their breasts, and wore short, slippy, flapper dresses, but not the more extreme versions, of course. Nearly all of them, were “nicotine fiends.” So were most of the Fi Chis. A few of them drank illegal gin or beer. Jack Jones, one of Herb’s new friends (and one of the few who had been to college) occasionally received a delivery of illegal bourbon from friends in Arkansas. But neither Herb nor Mary Ellen smoked or drank. Herb remembered how alcohol had crazed his stepfather, and Mary Ellen remembered how it had stupefied her father and grandfather.
Sometimes the KDs would rent the Armory or the Masonic Temple and put on a “theatrical.” Acting and actors fascinated Mary Ellen, but she never trusted herself enough to take a role on stage. Out there she would have no control over what people thought of her. She would be “exposed.” It was just too terrifying. So she stuck to the business side. She sold ads for the theater programs and made “the arrangements.” One time she directed a play.
Often a group of KDs and Fi Chis would get together to play bridge. Sometimes “the girls” got together for slumber parties. One time the girls had a “kid party,” where the twenty-somethings all dressed like pre-teens. Mary Ellen took “snaps”—“Kodaks”—of her friends acting silly in their costumes and, later in the evening, cavorting in their chemises and pajamas.
She had realized in high school that she was never going to get the recognition she craved from her mother, so, self-reliantly, she decided to recognize herself. She bought herself a camera—a “Brownie”—and from then on very little in her life went unphotographed.
Her particular friends included Louise, Ann, Dot, Martha, Thelma, Helen, Rowena, Betty, Mildred, Lilly, Missy, Roxie, Louella, Alma, Melva, Hortense, Reba, Isibel, Violet, Madge, Leona, Emaline, Loree, Gwen, Edwina, Cora, Gretchen, Nellie, Elva, LaWeva, Divona, and, of course, Maude. Few of those names are popular today. Many are as rare as the spotted owl or the snail darter. Some are probably extinct—having gone the way of men’s spats, fox fur pieces, and veils on women’s hats.
The KDs and the Fi Chis began pairing off. They thought a man making $40 a week or $175 a month was ready to get married. Herb was making $225, which “put him way up there”! But he remained unattached. The girls regarded him as a pal not a prospect.
And how much money was Mary Ellen making at the Martin Printing Company? She would never say. But she let me know that nobody in her crowd was making more than she was—including Herb. How could she know this? I never asked, but I’m sure she was right. She didn’t make mistakes about money.
Herb’s bosses promoted him to the order desk, which made him feel financially secure enough to buy a car, a Ford Coupe, which he nicknamed Cicero. (Everyone nicknamed their cars in those days.) This improved him in the eyes of the KDs, but then he went to a dentist and had him fix the tooth his sister had broken while they were playing in the barn. The next time he smiled at a KD he flashed a big, shiny gold tooth. The girls kept their faces straight in his presence, but privately, they giggled. What a hayseed!
When Gibbie and Herb began attending Mary Ellen’s church, she saw at once that Gibbie was “the catch,” and she caught him.
“Guess what?” he shouted, holding her hand up so everyone could see her ring.
But their friends had hardly finished congratulating them before Gibbie’s boss sent him to Fort Scott. The job was supposed to last a month, but there was a chance it could be permanent.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” he chortled. “That’s a juicy territory.”
He asked Herb to look after Mary Ellen while he was gone. “See to it she gets to the shindigs and ball games, won’t you, sport? I hate to think of her getting dusty while I’m gone.”
After Gibbie went to Fort Scott, Herb asked Mary Ellen if she thought Gibbie would mind if they went to a movie.
She didn’t think so.
“How about a picnic on Brush Creek next week?”
She thought that would be all right, too.
She was beginning to see Herb in a new light.
Gibbie had had a couple of strikes against him for some time. Mary Ellen wasn’t a lips-that-touch-wine-will-never-touch-mine fanatic. Nor had Gibbie ever “gone overboard” in her presence, but she’d heard stories. Also she didn’t much like cleaning ash trays. A little thing, but life is composed of little things.
In a lot of ways Gibbie was “a peach.” He could dance—something Herb couldn’t do. He was tall and handsome, and everybody liked him. But his assumption that she would simply chuck her job and trot herself down to Fort Scott really got under her skin. Why should she be the one to relocate? A salesman could catch on anywhere. Jobs like hers didn’t come a dime a dozen. He couldn’t seem to get it through his head how many of “the old berries” she was socking away. Not that she’d told him! But he knew what she did. Why couldn’t he put two and two together?
Herb could. He understood about her job right away. She wasn’t just a cutie-pie to him. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. And he wasn’t the type who thought the music should stop every time he had something to say. Probably he’d stay at “the American,” but just in case, he was getting a law degree at night school. She saw in him a reflection of her own focus and determination.
Herb had never been so stuck on a girl in his life. But he hated the feeling that he was double crossing a chum—more than a chum, a “brother.” Shortly after coming to the city, Herb, sponsored by Uncle Arch, had joined the Masons. Gibbie, too, was a Mason. Becoming a Mason made it possible for young men to meet other young men like themselves and also older, more established men in the city.
Herb had Masonic emblems on his cufflinks, his tie clasp, and his alarm clock. As he walked along the street, he saw Masonic emblems chiseled on the cornerstones of buildings, displayed on license plates, and engraved on the rings of strangers. From the back of every dollar bill, the all-seeing eye looked at him. The square reminded him to give everyone a square deal; the compass, of the need to master his passions; the gavel, of the need to knock off his rough edges and to rid himself of vices and superfluities; the plumb rule called to mind uprightness; and the trowel spoke to him of the cement of brotherly love.
He had to level with Gibbie. So one Saturday before dawn, he woke up his new roommate, William B. (“Jack”) Jones, and they walked across the frosty grass to “Pluto,” Herb’s new roadster.
He stood in front of the car. Jack sat behind the steering wheel with his collar turned up, and his hands in the sleeves of his overcoat, which was all he had on over his pajamas.
“Switch off,” called Herb.
“Switch off,” echoed Jack, yawning.
Herb turned the crank three times to suck gas into the cylinders, “Contact,” he said.
“Contact,” mumbled Jack, turning the key.
Herb carefully cupped the crank handle with his palm, folding his thumb under it. (If the crank “kicked back,” it could break a fellow’s thumb.) Herb gave her a twirl. After two more tries, the motor roared. Yawning, Jack got out of the car, and Herb got in. He put her in gear and went put-putting down the driveway. Upon reaching the street, he turned south towards Fort Scott.
Gibbie was surprised. “What are you doing here, sport?”
He was even more surprised when he learned what Herb had come to tell him.
“So there it is,” Herb said. “May the best man win.”
He offered his hand.
Gibbie turned away.
When Herb got back to Kansas City, he telephoned Mary Ellen.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, sensing that something wasn’t right.
She didn’t reply.
Then he understood. Gibbie had beaten him back to town and was over at her house!
He heard nothing more, but one Sunday in church, he caught her look and right then and there, without a word being said, he knew that the mighty Gibbie had struck out.