“Every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
The phrase is commonly accepted as referring to a bunch of anybodies. But my Uncle Harry wasn’t just anybody. Let me tell you why…
Harry was one of four children born to Edward and Bertha Power in a span of nine years as America was getting ready for the hard and hilarious times of the Twentieth Century.
Linna Mae, born in 1895, was the first of the four kids.
Harry arrived in 1896.
Then came my mother, Lola, in 1897.
After this three-year rapid-fire, Larry was born in 1904.
Why Ed and Bertha chose the rather alliterative trio of names, Linna, Lola and Larry, only to leave Harry on a bit of a sibling island may not have been intentional, but Harry turned out to be one-of-a-kind.
The Power kids were raised in a white two-story clapboard home on the south side of Bond Street in the quiet east end of Hastings, Michigan. With a population of some 5,000 souls during the Depression, Hastings, the seat of Barry County, to this day boasts just a few more people.
When the Great Stock Market Crash occurred on October 18, 1929, Linna, Lola and Larry had been able to take sufficient refuge with their spouses under some sort of economic umbrella in order to withstand the financial “toad strangler” inundating the country.
No word was ever passed to me about Harry’s fortunes during this time.
Bertha died in 1929 and Linna, with her husband Frank, took over the household on Bond Street. Edward shared the home. Frank had a good job at “the Bliss,” as folks called the factory at the east edge of town that manufactured printing presses. Memory brings back times that I went with Aunt Linna in the big green automobile – a Maxwell, I believe– to pick up Frank after work.
The thing I remember most about Aunt Linna was her teaching me how to fish from a rowboat close offshore at Wall Lake where my parents had purchased a cottage in 1937. Patiently, Aunt Linna showed me how to bait a hook with a worm and then drop the line optimistically overboard.
With Frank’s job providing safe refuge from the economic tornado, tragedy struck in 1938 when, after treatment for a brain tumor at Ford Hospital in Detroit, Linna died at age 43.
My mother, after graduating from Hastings High School In 1915, obtained a job as secretary at the Hastings law firm of Coldwell & Potter. It wasn’t long before William W. Potter, well-armed with both legal and political acumen, began to rise steadily through the Michigan governmental firmament. His secretary, my mother was taken along, not only to her benefit, but to her family.
Eventually, Potter headed up the Public Utilities Commission, then became the state’s Attorney General, before long a Justice of The Michigan Supreme Court, and later Chief Justice
Mom did some of Potter’s secretarial work at home. I remember her heavy typewriter on a table at our cottage. Mom strong-armed and strong-fingered that big Underwwod at as much as 80 words per minute, slamming that carriage bar so that the machine constantly crept to the left toward the edge of the table.
Every few minutes mom would have to rescue that typewriter.
Potter’s influence and his great regard for my mother proved valuable to my dad, Uncle Larry and yes. to Uncle Harry, during those difficult times. Beyond mom being the secretary, friendships grew between us and Potter’s sons, daughters and grandchildren.
Larry was the athlete of the family. At Hastings High the sports teams called themselves the Saxons. That name was reflective of the racial makeup of the town and its narrow outlook toward other nationalities.
“Kiddo,” as Larry was called, was on the Saxon track team. Competing one spring in the state meet at Waldo Field in Kalamazoo, “Kiddo” Power, brandishing a bamboo pole, set the Michigan high school pole vaulting record of the time at 11 feet, six inches.
With jobs very scarce during the Depression, my dad at one time found himself digging ditches for the footing of Pattengill Stadium on the east side of Lansing. A bit later, he sold shoes at Max Haaryman’s on Washington Avenue. It wasn’t long before both he and Uncle Larry were hired as examiners in the Michigan Insurance Department. A word from Judge Potter was instrumental in their hiring.
These two gentlemen were insurance examiners during the latter part of Prohibition, which ended in 1933. Their job included examining companies that did insurance business in both the U.S. and Canada. To this end, they occasionally rode the Grand Trunk Railroad back and forth across the Detroit River into Windsor, Canada.
Liquor was sold legally in Canada while it was unlawful just across the river in the U.S. Uncle Larry told of one trip when they decided to use their train ride to sneak some booze back into Michigan. They had some of their stuff in hip flasks.
As the Grand Trunk rumbled across the Detroit River, one of Uncle Larry’s flasks broke, or so the story goes. With customs about to come through the train, Larry hastened to the restroom at the end of the car. The window there would open and Larry’s trousers suddenly needed airing out. Sitting on the window sill with his pants down would make things go more quickly. And they did.
During the late 1930s, we — mom and dad and my and my two brothers, Jerry and John – lived In a two-story gray-shingled house at 1041 West Grand River in East Lansing. One afternoon, when I was eight or nine years old, I had just returned from Central School and was in the living room.
My mother came in from the kitchen and called my attention to the fortyish-looking gray-haired man coming down from upstairs.
“Jim, this is your Uncle Harry.”
Mom indicated that Uncle Harry would “be with us for a while.”
The “while” proved to demonstrate amazing patience by my mother (and my dad) while Uncle Harry, a benign, and friendly personality, took a temporary shot at a wonderous variety of jobs, interspersed with extemporaneous departures from sobriety.
From here-and-there coments I gleaned while I was a kid, Harry had been married to a woman named Selma and they had lived in Saranak, a small town in central Michigan. Whether he had had other marriages, I never knew. He had one son, Robert Power, whom I came to know pretty well.
Always gentle-voiced when he wasn’t in the clutches of too many drinks, Uncle Harry sat with me one late December afternoon on the davenport near the bay window in our living room.
“Just think, Jim,” he said, “Santa’s coming tonigt!”
I was at an age where maybe Santa was, and maybe he wasn’t. But I replied with something like “Gee, Ya!” Of course, Jerry and John, both younger than I, could be sold on Santa’s arrival later that evening.
Second-hand smoke had plenty of opportunity to affect my health as well as that of Jerry’s and John’s. Mom depended heavily on Chesterfields and my dad couldn’t get away from Lucky Strikes. Uncle Larry stuck to cigars. But Uncle Harry was different.
In those days, it was a rare barn that didn’t have signs “Mail Pouch” or “Red Man” plastered on it to catch the eye of motorists rolling along. No barn-side stuff for Harry, though; he used Bull Burham and rolled his own with the dexterity of a surgeon. He’d open a pack of Bull Durham, put it in his left hand and place a cigarette paper in his right.
After putting some tobacco in the paper, the nimble fingers of Harry’s right hand would create Harry’s favorite smoke – with no mirrors.
Harry was attached to one job longer than any other during the years I knew him. He became, certainly with some kind of word from my mother, Judge Potter’s Harry-of-many-trades, including that of chauffeur when the judge took occasional trips to his cabin up on the Au Sable River, a bit north of the “Thumb” in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Uncle Harry found jobs, each one apparently perishable, in the East Lansing area.
I can remember when he did a stint as cook at the Spartan Bowl, a rather non-descript eatery on Grand River Avenue in downtown East Lansing across from the Michigan State campus. Harry invited Mom, Jerry, John and I to sample his culinary talents at dinner there. As I remember, everything I ate tasted pretty good. The years fog things a bit, but I remember that at one time Harry provided a responsible authority at Mason-Abbott Hall, one of the first men’s dormitories at Michigan State. He served another stretch as a guard at the state reformatory on the eastern edge of Lansing.
I believe it was 1937 when my mom and dad purchased a cottage on the north shore of Wall Lake, about 15 miles southwest of Hastings – a half-mile around the bend from Judge Potter’s rather large “cottage.”
Of course Harry would have an interesting role out at the lake.
As 1939 faded into 1940, Harry was living part-time at the lake. This was the period during which he was playing piano in a tavern in Delton, a small town a few miles down Route 43 from the lake, toward Kalamazoo.
Harry lived part-time in a rather large tent on the east side of the cottage. My parents had it up as overflow for summer guests. One day my mother showed me a letter from him with the rather whimsical return address:
“Tent, Wall Lake, Delton, Michigan.”
One day, in the dead of the 1939-40 winter my mother received a phone call from Harry:
Our cottage had burned to the ground.
As I remember, there were some out-loud thoughts on the part of my parents as to whether Uncle Harry, in some moment of insobriety, might have had something accidentally to do with the fire.
At any rate, my parents quickly got hold of someone in Hastings, who was primarily a carpenter, about putting up a new cottage. By the middle of June that year, 1940 – school had just let out – a three-bedroom cottage had been erected, complete with a cut-stone fireplace and with plumbing that likely couldn’t be equaled in any other dwelling on the lake. That’s because Uncle Harry installed the plumbing. As a result, if you wanted hot water, you turned on the cold-water faucet. And if you wanted cold water, vice-versa.
During the years I was exposed to Uncle Harry, he was repeatedly part of our household, whether we lived as 1041 West Grand River, 336 University Drive, 316University Drive, or 336 Northlawn – all in East Lansing.
In the depths of his adventures into the dens of drunkenness, the decibels of his voice – or noises — could attain astounding volume.
I remember one night at our house on Northlawn, in the mid-1940s, I was In my bedroom upstairs at the east end of the house. Harry was in a larger bedroom across from a hall-sitting room area. Suddenly from Harry’s room there came an almost continuous succession of yell-punctuated moans. It went on and on.
I got hold of my mother, who told me it most likely soon would stop, and finally it did.
Not too long after that my dad took mom, Jerry and I on a deluxe trip to the West Coast. John didn’t want to go, and stayed in East Lansing with friends.
Harry stayed at our house
Mom asked a family friend, Dr. Milton Shaw, to keep an eye on Harry. We were returning from our vacation, aboard a train from San Francisco, when mom received a call that Harry had died.
I remember something I saw in a downstairs bedroom when we got back at the house . . .
An empty cardboard case that had lately held 24 bottles of beer. Sadly enough, it was sort of a final calling card from Uncle Harry.