09 July 2015

Ellen's 60th

Across from our home on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston, Illinois.

Ellen Maurer, more pictures and stories: 

In time for my sister Ellen's 60th birthday last month (or what would have been her 60th had she lived), I scanned a few more pictures from our childhood. It was fun to see these scenes again and remind myself that her murder at age 14 was not the only thing the world should know about her.

Until the last year before her death, a year in which she ran away from home repeatedly, and was in either police or mental health custody much of the time, we were constant companions and co-conspirators. Our parents were frequently drinking and fighting, so we had to make our own world. We funded it in part by appropriating whatever loose change our parents left lying around, which was enough to get loads of candy. (5c for small candy bars, 10c for Mounds and Almond Joy, 12c for Hostess cupcakes.) If we were allowed out of the apartment, we'd set up a picnic at a nearby park. If not, one of us would sneak out of the front door of our apartment, while the other would make some noise to cover the sound. The nearest drugstore (huge candy rack) was half a block away at the corner of Elmwood and Dempster, so chances were good that the designated runner would never be missed. The return was covered with a similar diversionary noise, but as an added security measure, the returning runner didn't try carrying the loot through the door. It had already been placed in a basket lowered by rope from our second-story window.

Baskets and ropes were a theme we repeated when we visited my mother's parents in Stuttgart, Germany. There we didn't need to conceal our games, and the loot was not candy, but baskets full of plums from my grandparents' little orchard. It would have been perfectly easy to fill the baskets and carry them into the house, but much more fun to rig up a rope from a plum tree to the second-story balcony, hang a basket on the rope, and use a second rope to pull the full basket up and slide it back down empty.

Same model as our TV. Source.
Drugstore tube tester. Source.
The story of our Hotpoint television is a somewhat less honorable conspiracy. We had vague memories of the television from our youngest years, but our parents had put it in storage as punishment for something that one (or both) of us had done. One day we found its hiding place and, when both our parents were at work, we transferred it to a new hiding place under the laundry in our own clothes closet.

To our enormous disappointment, it didn't work. We had no knowledge of how to repair a television but we figured that the vacuum tubes were the most likely culprits. We checked each of the fifteen tubes, one at a time, going to the same drugstore that supplied our candy habit and using their tube-testing console, and carefully noting the numbers of the faulty tubes. I blush to admit that we shoplifted the replacement tubes from an electronics store a little further up Dempster Street. I'd like to believe that we weren't personally the reason that this store is no longer in business.

(I need to report here that I did eventually grow out of that shoplifting phase!)

Finally, we managed to get all the tubes to light up, and a picture appeared on the screen. We then had to figure out why the picture was hopelessly distorted. We noticed the electromagnetic yoke wrapped around the neck of the picture tube, and by moving it around we realized that this yoke was what controlled the beam of electrons that painted images on the front of the tube. We could twist and shift that yoke and either correct the distortion or, if it suited us, we could create all sorts of funny special effects. I now shudder to think how many thousands of volts were going through those wires that we were playing with so happily.

Our parents were amazed that we had figured out how to resurrect the TV, but they rarely let us use it. My being able to watch my favorite program, Superman, depended totally on whether they were too busy fighting to notice.

In short, our family life was chaos (unpredictable cycles of total neglect, alternating with strict discipline enforced by beatings with a hardwood crib railing) but we coped. At school, Ellen was brilliant. She was allowed to skip second grade, so at school we were only one year apart rather than the two years of our age difference. During her last two years of life, she wrote two short novels and a stream of song lyrics to match the Motown sound she loved so much. I have no idea what happened to all those manuscripts, but I cherish the letters she wrote to me from her times of incarceration in Chicago. I miss her fierce energy and fertile imagination, and can't help wonder what she would have given the world if a sawed-off shotgun had not ended her life.

Indulge me! Here are two more photos from those recent scans:

Reading about the Winter Olympics.

Putting together a science kit. (Such family scenes were very rare, but maybe we learned skills for our TV repairs!)

Friends United Meeting offers two opportunities to visit Cuba. November 2015. January-February 2016.

Reserving comment for another time, but I couldn't pass up this item: 53% of Americans feel that God has a 'special relationship' with our country.

The strange story of Kendrick White. The Guardian. The Moscow Times. Interestingly, the Russian-language coverage of this story that I've seen has been very positive toward White, compared to the neutral tone of these English-language articles. Friday update: White returns, expresses optimism.

Blues dessert: B.B. Queen....


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing, Johan. I especially like the pictures of the two of you at the top of the page, and enjoyed reading about your exploits together as kids. She sounds like she was a very creative spirit and you two were very close. So sorry for your loss--Donna Laine

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you so much, Donna!

Kevin Camp said...

Enjoyed this account. Your life in childhood was far rougher than mine. My best friend growing up was an undisciplined, spoiled, only child with no boundaries who got absolutely everything he wanted. We explored creek beds together as boys. Once, in the woods, after it rained, he stole the machete that had been left behind by an Eagle scout working on his final service project. I'm sure the scout missed it.

My salad days were mostly full of nicotine addiction and imbibing a certain drug that is now entirely legal for recreational use in several U.S. states. But I shall say no more.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you very much, Kevin, for reading and commenting.