December 26, 2022

Tales from the attic: My first home

Sam Smith - Our house, in the middle of historic Georgetown, was new, built on the former site of a trash dump. My parents, launching my father’s entry as a mid level New Deal official, had considered buying an existing house,  but balked at signing the ubiquitous restrictive covenants barring sale not only to blacks and Jews, but to an assortment of ethnic pariahs that included "Syrians and Persians." The trash dump -- next to a row of ramshackle homes with privies outside and impoverished blacks inside -- came without a restrictive covenant.

Georgetown did not appreciate the house my parents built. It was a flat-roofed, boxy, Depression-modern structure with brick coated with whitewash that kept flaking off as though possessed by chronic psoriasis. The front door was uncommonly plain except for a little one-way window that I wasn't tall enough to look through. Once the air raid warden -- Gerhard Gessell, later the federal judge who presided over the Iran-Contra cases -- came to our house to chastise my mother for having forgotten to cover the little window in the door with the black cloth that made the rest of our house and all of Washington invisible to the Nazis.

The living room had a wall of glass overlooking a terrace, garden, and the gentle slope of a large backyard where I built massive road systems for my toy trucks, often excavating effluvia from the landfill. I came to believe that all dirt contained bottle shards and sharp pieces of rusted metal.

I was the third child but there eventually came three younger sisters and, during the war years, two English children evacuated from London. My mother would to the end speak of the latter as "my English children" as though everyone had English children.

One of the English children in fact did become almost a sister and called my parents Uncle Sam and Aunt Eleanor. Older than any of us, Ann returned to live with the family for five years after the war.

Ann became the family anthropologist, a participant-observer of acute perception, offering discreet, sardonic analyses of our psyches, motivations and behavior:

"Uncle Sam never wanted girls at all."

He would eventually have four of them. Why not?

"Well, of course, his children were meant to be world leaders and you couldn't be a world leader if you were a girl."

Ann was loved by all and free to excuse herself when the going got tough, although you hoped she wouldn't because things always seemed more pleasant when Ann was around.

It hadn't been easy for Ann to get to Georgetown in July of 1940. She wrote me 60 years later:

I set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on, though I remember seeing icebergs and wondering.

My mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.

On August 30, 1940, the Volendam set off with a load of British children for America. It was sunk by the Germans in the Irish sea. All were saved.

On September 17, the City of Benares sailed with many of the Volendam survivors. It was sunk in mid-Atlantic and most of the children perished.

No more British children were sent to America after that.

The other English child who lived with us, a boy I remember hardly at all. After the war he never wrote and when my mother eventually found his address decades later, he wrote back that it would be best not to continue the correspondence.

It wasn't until after my mother died, that I found a possible reason why, described on the Gay Social Network:

Among the prominent military personnel accused of sodomy was [the boy's father] Sir Paul Latham, a wealthy Conservative Member of Parliament, who, though exempted from service, joined the army of his own accord. In 1941, he was tried and convicted of "improper behavior" with three gunners and a civilian while serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Convicted of ten charges of indecent conduct, he was discharged dishonorably, imprisoned for two years, and forced to resign his seat in Parliament."

And elsewhere this note:

In the Forties, Sir Paul Latham MP was caught writing an indiscreet letter to a man, and tried to kill himself by riding a motorcycle into a tree.


Making sure everything was right was a preoccupation in my family. There were charts for inoculations and rules about eating and rules about when one had to rest and when one could play and rules about which illnesses (or suspected ­­­­­illnesses) required an enema and which didn't. Young children returning from school were expected to put on their pajamas and rest in bed so that they did not "wear themselves out." And before you went to the dentist you had to brush your teeth with charcoal.

I didn’t notice that my school and nearly all of Washington were segregated. Nor the difference between our house and the decrepit row of houses next to us, in which our mailman and other blacks lived, nor that most of their bathrooms were outside while ours were inside. As late as the 1950 census, 226 of Georgetown's 1,663 occupied dwellings lacked a private bath and 135 had no running water. Nor did I find it strange that at Christmas time my mother would visit her poor neighbors with food baskets fully outfitted with hat, gloves, tailored suit, and fur neckpiece.

The blackness and the whiteness of the world were simply there as elsewhere in the south. A friend from Richmond recalls being invited to sing at the church of her family's cook. Her performance was listed on the program as "Jesus Loves Me -- Sung by White Girl." To the end, Rosetta, our cook, would refer to us as her "white children." Things, you were taught, simply were.

Once, though, I told Rosetta that my mother had declined to look after our then one child and had said, “I’ve raised one bunch of children and I’m not going to raise another.” The short Rosetta put her hands on her hips, looked up at me and said angrily, “What does she mean saying she raised you?” I nodded as we stood only a few feet from the kitchen closet where I would regularly read the comic pages my parents considered banned.

My school was several blocks away, a classic red brick building with small playgrounds on either side. There were four teachers for 120 kids. Two of the teachers were maiden sisters and everyone, student and parent, called them The Fat Miss Waddy and The Thin Miss Waddy.

Although spelling would plague me throughout life, within a few months the Thin Miss Waddy was writing in her best pedagogical manner to my parents, "I am quite pleased at [the] effort to overcome his spelling. Our real worth is measured by how we do that which is hard rather than the excellence of the easy tasks." Miss Waddy lived in a world in which one's real worth was constantly being measured by some nameless judge according to standards as immutable as time itself. Miss Waddy was strict, but she was not cruel or mean. After all, the mystical measurer was sizing her up as well and she was only trying to prevent her charges from coming up short. She may even have had certain reformist inclinations. She let left handers like myself turn our paper sidewise and write down the page rather than forcing us into the contorted position insisted upon by most teachers of the era.. The older children had started out at private school. But my parents decided they were wasting money with a good public school nearby. The headmistress at the National Cathedral School was understanding, but at the boy's school, Beauvoir, the headmistress said, "It's all very well for you to be democratic, Mrs. Smith, but you don't need to go to the gutter." It made my mother furious. 

My older brother eventually went to Gordon Junior High School. The idea of a public junior high was still new and already it wasn't working well. So the parents were busy there also, organizing patrols to stop knife fights in the halls and rowdiness in the lunchrooms. My brother, four years older than myself, carried a knife and had his nose broken in a neighborhood fights. Gordon and Jackson were all white so nobody blamed the rowdiness or the knife fights on race. The segregation of the rest of DC, unlike elsewhere in the south, was one of custom rather than law, but it was just as effective. And when one of the city's streetcars crossed the line into Virginia, blacks were required to move to the rear. The streetcars stopped traffic as they turned corners, clanged bells and generally displayed admirable supremacy over everything in their way. To me, power in Washington was represented not by politicians or lobbyists but by the streetcars. Local regulation prohibited overhead wires in the downtown section. This rule, as far as I was concerned, produced two major benefits. Downtown there was a third rail and in snow and ice the streetcars' connectors rubbing against the third rail would produce a gorgeous bluish plume of sparks. Even better, the 30 line ran up Wisconsin Avenue and switched from third rail to overhead lines just a few blocks from my house. There a man sat in a hole in the street. A streetcar would stop over the hole, and the man would raise or lower the trolley and change the third rail connector. To a young boy, observing this border crossing was second only to eating ice cream from Stohlman's. 


Greg Gerritt said...

We need those trolleys.

Ann said...

My mom grew up in Anacostia and I have lots of memories of visiting DC as a kid. The trolley came near my grandparents' house so there were rides to downtown. Their neighborhood was Italians, Germans and Chinese, all new Americans. And there were outhouses. Ah yes.