The twelve-year-old boy says goodbye to his mother and leaves their rented South Baltimore row house, at 807 William Street, by the side door. He passes through the covered areaway (or “sallie port”) which separates his house from the one next door, emerges onto the sidewalk and turns right, toward the harbor. The water begins one block from his front stoop and runs along Key Highway for a mile or two, and from there it goes on to Antwerp, Bombay, Darkar, Jeddah, Keelung, Liverpool, Malta, Port Sudan, Rangoon, and Zanzibar, and ends—for all the boy knows—in some dark jungle pond where jaguars come to drink.
The boy walks on rectangular Belgian blocks paving the surface of Key Highway. The stones once served as ballast in the holds of clipper ships which, two centuries before, sailed regularly from Europe and the Far East bringing tools, dry goods and foodstuffs to the colonies. The street reverberates with a cacophony of cart and truck wheels on rough pavement. The life of the city huddles close to the water’s edge. The workers’ homes—small shoulder-to-shoulder structures with low, slanted roofs, combine with the narrow streets to create an intricate pattern of late afternoon light and shadow. Sailboat spars gracefully dissect rooftops; the lines of a five-masted sailboat, lovely, etches itself against the background of a coal pier. Sunlight tints the oil-slick harbor water and illuminates two bright white excursion steamers—the Bay Belle and the City of Richmond—waiting for dusk and sailing time. Nearby, banana boats are unloaded at the United Fruit Company pier.
Huge cranes, black against the sky, tend ocean-going ships. The boy notes the origin of each vessel; There is a clean Norwegian loaded with tractor parts bound for Cape Town; a rusty Frenchman packed with wheat for Rotterdam; a Panamanian tanker gurgling rich back oil below-decks; a Russian, the name illegible on her dirty bow, holding only the residue of iron ore; and a British tramp freighter, emptied of a cargo of firecrackers from Hong-Kong, chests of tea from Shanghai, rubber from the Malacca Straits, glass from Genoa and seeds and ochre from Marseilles. Swarms of tiny welders work in the hull-rigging of each ship, making hot repairs to steel bellies, their torches creating a fireworks display of sparks. The harbor is smoky and dirty and filled with the clangor of steel on steel. Smoke stacks, grain elevators, factories, freight terminals and ramshackle wooden buildings line the innumerable wharves. Piers separate and define every twist and turn of the water’s edge. There is salt in the air, the odor of fish and clams, the scent of Oriental spices, the acrid smell of chemical fumes. From the shadowy depths of the low pier buildings the boy hears a musical chant. Black men in greasy overalls, their singsong blending with the noise of labor, rush from boat to truck and back again in ceaseless procession, dragging their livelihood out of ships’ holds. Lumber, sand and gravel, oysters, fish and crabs, cantaloupes and watermelons, tomatoes and potatoes; the men handle ponderous boxes and barrels and crates. Backs bend and straighten. Muscles expand and contract. Sweat glistens and salt collects in white lines on dark skin. The men are power made visible—made human—and as they stretch and lift, their graceful movements achieve the effect of great dancers.
The sun dips toward the western horizon and the mood of the harbor changes with the light. Smoke no longer clouds from the stacks, but spreads in an even, violet haze. The boy is aware of an unaccountable mystery that takes possession of the place. Monsters—towering chimneys and grain elevators, huge buildings of steel and concrete—are no longer black or red or harsh yellow, but are alike draped in a blue-gray mantle, infinitely soft, dusky, dreamy. Outlines soften into shadows. It is impossible now to distinguish the ugliness of the garbage scows and the lumber barges. At the steel mill, away in the distance, flames lick the twilight. Suddenly, three shrill blasts on a ship’s whistle startle the boy. He hears the sound of a gangplank scraping a pier, the scratch of heavy mooring lines being lifted from dock stanchions, tossed overboard and drawn through the water by thin ropes. Officers shout orders to seamen on the after deck. Fussy tugboats close in on the enormous sea-stained hull, nudging, pushing. From the bridge the captain watches. The engines are given full-forward power and the ship slides past a bulkhead, swings out into the channel stream and heads for open water. The boy feels—or imagines he feels—the deck shift and pitch under his feet. He waves . . .
Baltimore Harbor, 1951 was originally published in a slightly different form and under a very different title in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1979 or the early 1980s. I’m usually pretty good when it comes to dating clippings—especially my own—but in this case, as Jon Stewart might say, not so much. My idea for this rather poetical mood piece was to attempt to convey the romance of the harbor as viewed by a young boy who very recently moved to the city from a small town in Virginia.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Three Sex SymbolsDecember 17, 2008
Jacquie Roland, a writer of wonderful blog comments on some of my posts—several of which we’ve turned into posts in their own right—has sent a short personal essay via e-mail this time, occasioned by the death of the 1950s sex symbol, Bettie Page. Miss Page (no “Ms.” in those days) was the “IT” girl for pre- and post-pubescent guys like me, and Jacquie thought that I might like to know about Bettie’s passing. She was so right, of course. In fact, when I received her e-mail I merely had to look over my left shoulder to see a favorite picture of Miss Page pinned to the wall. (I’ve reproduced it here.) Enjoy that image (click on it for a larger view) and the delightful word images Jacquie creates in her memoir.
By Jacquie Roland
Bettie Page died December 11, 2008, at the age of 85. For young men of a certain age she was the most beautiful, exotic, woman they had ever seen. She filled their every fantasy. Those boys—men now— must have felt a certain pang, a loss, when they saw her obit in the New York Times. They couldn’t have forgotten her. How do you forget your youth?
In recent years, Bettie had become a cult favorite. Websites, books and calendars were devoted to her. In her 80’s, she again had fans who remembered her heyday, when they were all living high. A movie THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, starring Gretchen Moll was well received , as were several books, telling her life story. I hadn’t given her much thought until I saw the listings in BUD PLANT’S ART BOOKS catalog. It was then I remembered the woman in the fishnet stockings and the whip that had been taped inside notebooks, and on the back walls of gas stations when I was a kid. No thought of “PC” in those days. Ladies would just look away.
There always seemed to be two pinups, now that I remember… Bettie Page and Jane Russell… one in little or nothing, and one in the most incredible sweater. Both were sex symbols, both world famous. Although I wasn’t sure about the sex symbol stuff, even as a child, I understood fame. Jane Russell was a famous movie star, Bettie Page a famous model, or “Pin-up”, as we called them then. Her claim to fame was her body and , for their day, her provocative poses. And they were provocative… enough so that she was called to Washington by no less than Estes Kefauver to testify in his anti- pornography campaign. Both women went through what could be termed ” a bad patch” as adults, but came out whole on the other side. Both became Born Again Christians. Read their biographies.
Ms. Russell had a more secure upbringing than Ms. Page, to say the least, but both ended up being married three times. Neither woman could conceive a child. Bettie had no children, while Jane had three. She adopted two boys and a girl. I never met Bettie Page, but because Ms. Russell was an adoptive parent, and because she founded WAIF ( World Adoption International Fund), I met her in Washington, DC during the CHILDREN GROW BETTER IN FAMILIES adoption initiative, under President Reagan. A staunch Republican and adoptive mother, she would be the perfect keynote speaker. Would she come to Washington, and help out her old friend Ronald Reagan? I hung up the phone happily… she would.
The day she was to speak, however, I was panicked. The “green room” was full, the Great Hall of the Health and Human Services building was as well… and no Jane. The other celebrities were waiting to go on, and time and celebrity waits for no man ( or woman) but she was nowhere to be seen. When I rushed out of the green room one last time, I saw guest Art Buchwald look at his watch. The kids from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE , Melissa Gilbert and the Laborteaux boys, were getting restless. Will Sampson, the American Indian actor who was so good in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST was talking to baseball great, Steve Garvey. They were all wearing that ‘lets get this show on the road’ look. Time was, in fact “a-wasting”. I literally ran out of the elevator into the Great Hall. Nope, none of the greeters had seen her. My god… a no show… I was about to lose my job. …. But then…In the middle of that vast room stood Ms. Russell, (to this day in my mind’s eye) in a sunbeam, surrounded by a nimbus cloud. A perfect angel in a belted, print, no nonsense dress and sensible pumps. She was older, of course, but who could miss her? She was a queen… a real celebrity… every inch a star.
My greeters, sweet, lovely and handsome youngsters had each been given her bio, so that they could answer intelligent questions and in fact were looking for the Jane Russell of THE OUTLAW, cleavage ‘down to there’, or at least a Madonna look-a-like. No official greeter was near, in any case… they were still craning their necks out the front doors. I feared that “my “star was not prepared to be swept up by some small, panicked art director, but that is how it was. I said the first thing that came to mind, to put her at ease… I may have been less than truthful, but I was quick. “Ms. Russell, Mr. Buchwald was just asking about you… may I take you to him?” Which I did, when I got her downstairs I opened the green room door and said “Mr. Buchwald, it’s Ms. Russell, sir, she’s here.” Art Buchwald, Pulitzer Prize winner, took his cue like a man from Central Casting, and introduced her to the others. Perfect.
I spoke to them both several times that day, saw to their welfare, took care they were both filmed and interviewed… and though I don’t remember a word of her speech… I do remember that it was spectacular. Years later, I heard that Art Buchwald was ill. While still working for the Reagan White House I had the opportunity to call on Mr. Buchwald now and again for small favors. He was always gracious. I wrote him, reminding him of those days on Capitol Hill. I finally asked if he remembered what he and Jane Russell talked about that day. He wrote back July 20, 2006:
Dear Jacquie, thanks so much for your nice letter and reminding me of my tete-a-tete with Jane Russell. I cannot reveal what we said to one another, WOW, was I living high at that time. Love- Art Buchwald
I could almost see the twinkle in his eye, as I read the words. Yes, Mr. B, we WERE living high, weren’t we? Mr. Buchwald died January 17, 2007. Ms. Russell, now 87, lives in California. And lest you feel mislead by this post’s title—to me, there is nothing sexier than a kind, intelligent, witty man. That gets me every time. And I’m willing to bet that is why men were so drawn to Bettie Page… she was intelligent, and had the twinkle in spades. The leopard skin helped, though. I do so wish I had also met Bettie Page back then, but meeting two out of three iconic sex symbols in one day…not shabby.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
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