A hobo’s life can be a sorry one, and for a pre-teen lad taking to the rails, scrounging a meal here or an odd job there, it’s no way to grow up. But for Pip Tattnal in the American South during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it seemed a reasonable alternative to life in an orphanage, especially since his younger brother Otto was killed there, suddenly and mysteriously. Pip is an exceptional child, suspicious of adults, distant from boys and girls his age, and preternaturally intelligent. He has received a limited exposure to mythology and the classics, but his active mind and vivid imagination recognizes depths of meaning in the world around him: fly stings recall the spirit of the English Rebellion, a conch shell that he and Otto unearthed becomes imbued with ghostly powers. In “A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”, Marly Youmans tells of Pip’s growing up during a difficult time and in a setting that merits poetic expression. http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/national/local-national-1016629.mp3
The moon rose, her outline the most perfect O Pip could imagine, and at once it seemed to him that the whole universe cried out his brother’s name. The moon was Otto’s, and the stars dancing in orbit around its O, and the thousands of miles of interplanetary space into which his brother’s soul had been flung, seeking the door beyond time. Unless maybe it curled inside a shell in the pocket of his bib overalls. Grazing a finger across the place where the conch lay lodged, Pip wondered whether a ghost might be the same thing as a soul or whether they were different entirely so that one’s soul could be flung like a stone from a slingshot across the worlds while the misty limbs ofa ghost remained behind like a thumbprint. “Otto Tattnal, Otto Tattnal, Otto Tattnal…” He chanted in a low voice, his words matching with and lost in the rhythm of the train. — from “A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage”
Pip runs away from the orphanage, visits the cemetery where Otto and his parents are buried, climbs aboard a Southern Railway freight local and is nearly injured but rescued by a fellow hobo. The boy fits into the legendary hobo subculture, ubiquitous during the Depression. He ends up in the Savannah freightyards, beaten by a railroad “bull”. In pain and starving, motivated partly by fantasies of “king’s men and rebels”, he stumbles his way to the protection of Excelsior Tillman, a kindly father figure who has created a miniature village called Roseville.
The recollection of childhood can be one of the most endearing literary genres. Even if “when I was a kid…” did not always introduce an especially happy memory, the sense that a man or woman has prevailed over adversity, errors and hormones to look back with wonder and affection is a positive experience for both the author and readers (for whom there will usually be memories kindled). What’s more, one person’s indulgence in nostalgia can also be a priceless documentation of social history. That is certainly the case with Roger K. Miller’s “The Chenango Kid: A Memoir of the Fifties”. It is a book true to its time and detailed in its setting: Binghamton, NY. There is something universal as well as regional in Roger Miller’s story. http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/national/local-national-1015698.mp3
The book’s title refers not to the county or the river but to Chenango Street, a principal drag in Binghamton that starts downtown (at the roundabout now under construction) and stretches from solid urban blocks into leafy residential neighborhoods. Roger grew up on the downtown end. The neighborhood wasn’t upscale, but neither was it rundown, because across the street from the Moon Block [a commercial and apartment building where Roger, his mother and sister lived] sat the city’s premier hotel, the Arlington, handy to the railroad station, which was across Lewis Street from the hotel. Rail was an important mode of travel…Around the corner on Lewis Street there was an old-fashioned barber shop where you could see them singeing men’s back hairs. I don’t know why they did that and I never wanted to get my hair cut there. No, it wasn’t a bad street after all. — from “The Chenango Kid”
This work of personal recollection opens with a catastrophe, a fire destroyed the Moon Block on December 6, 1949. Roger and his sister had just entered the building on the way to their apartment and scampered back out. He says it was the earliest event that he can remember, or at least put a clear date to. It was also the first time he’d remember moving elsewhere in the Chenango Street neighborhood — moving to another small apartment would be a recurring experience. His parents were separated, his father never seemed to be able to hold on to a job while his mother earned a good living making shoes at Endicott-Johnson. Both were protective and supportive of their son, who could also enjoy an extended family that included summers with the Grandparents Miller at their humble home in the small town of Lopez in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. “The North Side was a village of sorts”, writes Roger K. Miller, and recollections of his boyhood are clear and revealing: shoplifting for fun at Woolworth’s and hiding the booty on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church, wearing noisy metal cleats on the heels of school shoes,scrounging for comic books, going to two or three movies a week. But he also emphasizes that he passed through the decade of the 1950s, a time when youth culture was ascendent. Miller felt more comfortable with the styles and mores from the 1940s.