Silver Bullets

Having now reached an age when my hearing’s on the blink, I have to hold a menu at arm’s length and am invisible to young women, I do at least have the advantage of being able to look back down the big hill of years I have climbed. This hindsight, of course, provides no benefit whatsoever to the bungling little fellow I was. But it does provide the solipsistic delight of watching my favorite actor in a re-run of my favorite program. Most of the old episodes, I know, are not worth watching. But there are certain moments in life when—to borrow Byron’s phrase—“the Fates change horses.” When I was just six years old, a fast-drawing gunslinger in the first grade, the fresh horse the Fates chose for me was a splendid white stallion named Silver.

I had a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox that I took to school with me every day. Every time I unlatched it in the cafeteria, where the other kids were eating and drinking and screaming, it always gave off the same funny, sour smell that olive-loaf-on-white-bread makes when it’s been locked inside a metal box too long. My lunchbox also contained a double pack of chocolate Hostess cupcakes and a little thermos. When I pulled out the rubber plug and poured, it always gave me two yellow-plastic cupfuls of steaming cocoa. My thermos had a picture of Hopalong Cassidy curved around the outside of it.  So when I ate my sandwich and my cupcakes and drank my cocoa, I could either look at Hoppy on my thermos or—which was much better—look at the outside of my lunchbox where Hoppy was smiling at me while sitting on Topper, his big white horse.

Since I wasn’t allowed to wear my guns to school, seeing Hoppy at lunchtime was about as good as it got, except for recess. At least then I could wear my fringed leather jacket and my chaps and play at cowboys with my best friend, Gary. Usually that worked out just fine. Because when I was Hopalong Cassidy, Gary would be Roy Rogers. Or when I was Roy Rogers, Gary would be Hoppy. Or sometimes one of us would be Gene Autry or the Cisco Kid. But that was before I discovered the Lone Ranger.

It wasn’t that I didn’t still like Hoppy. I still carried his lunchbox. I still liked to look into my stereo viewer, so that I could see him and Topper come alive in 3-D Kodachrome. And I liked Hoppy’s side-kick, Gabby Hayes, so much that I had an authentic Gabby Hayes doll that I still kept with my puppets even though the stitches on Gabby’s body had ripped and the stuffing had fallen out of his chest. But Hoppy and Gabby just couldn’t make me feel the way I did on Saturday mornings, when I time-travelled back to the “thrilling days of yesteryear,” when a white stallion reared on a rocky bluff and the Lone Ranger rode again.

So that’s why, one day at recess, I told Gary that from now on only I could be the Lone Ranger. But Gary got angry and said no. Gary said that sometimes he was going to be the Lone Ranger and that there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

Choosing between my friendship with Gary and my need to be the only Lone Ranger on the playground now became the great conflict in my young life and I suffered for it greatly. For none of my heroes—not even Superman—had cast so strong a spell.

Tonto, with his feathered headband and his knowledge of sign language, was part of this enchantment. And so was the horse named Silver. And the silver bullets. And the secret silver mine where the Lone Ranger found the precious ore. But none of this would have mattered without the Lone Ranger’s black mask and the mystery of why he wore it and who he was. “Who was that masked man?” Coming to me through my television every Saturday morning, this was my first real dose of magic—a magic too powerful and personal to share. And only by magic could I hope to keep it.

One of the few irrevocable wonders of my childhood was the fact that my great-grandfather had sold an etching to the King of Italy. The etching was “Birch Woods” and the King was Victor Emmanuel, who bought it at an international exhibit in Venice: these are details I hadn’t learned yet, in the first grade. But I did know what a king was — and even more than that:  I had seen the pictures. What Grampa could do with a pencil struck me as miraculous. So I made a deal with Gary—that I would get one of Grampa’s drawings and give it to him if, in exchange, I could be the Lone Ranger.

When he was just sixteen he’d drawn a sketch of Grover Cleveland’s bride and mailed it to the White House. When the President had sent back a four-page handwritten note of thanks, Grampa had sat down and cried—in joy and astonishment at the suddenness of unexpected recognition. Fame and success must have seemed within his grasp. The great newspaper illustrator Valerian Gribayedoff promoted him from office boy to assistant, and one of his bosses at The World got his name into the papers and pronounced him a “celebrity.” And he did have a measure of success.

The Sun was the first to buy one of his drawings and before long several of the other papers as well—The World, The Evening Sun, The Herald and The Evening Telegram—regularly published his portraits of the movers and shakers of the day. He befriended other journalists and got himself an artist’s studio on Nassau Street—on Newspaper Row. This was the zenith of his youth.

And then he met a girl, a princess. But when he told her parents that he wanted to marry their daughter, they informed him that being an artist was “less than respectable.” And, of course, they knew all about respectability because they owned cold-water tenements and a couple of acres of Alphabet City, paid for with the fortune they’d made selling women’s underwear.

But the couple were in love and the parents were indulgent:  and so, in exchange for their acquiescence, Grampa became a professional son-in-law, collecting rent from the tenements, taking garment orders from department stores and doing whatever else the family business required. Yet he was, meanwhile still drawing and etching and painting. He had fallen in love with Rembrandt and Whistler and Degas—and there were summers spent at artists’ colonies in Woodstock and Rockport. As long as the family was flush, it didn’t matter if commissions were infrequent.

The stock market panic of 1907 dealt the first blow. And then Grampa and the other sons-in-law botched the sale of the land in lower Manhattan and settled for a pittance. And so began the decades of fighting: Belle had grown up to expect all the pleasant things that money can buy, and Grampa could not make money.

Eventually their son, my impossible grandfather, would take over their support, and the price would be his enduring condescension. By now Grampa Mo and Grandma Belle were living and squabbling on East 88th Street. Not so much for the extra cash, but mostly to get out of the house, to get away from the fighting, he did sometimes take on small, demeaning jobs. But with a pencil in his hand there was the bliss of mastery—and now there was the solace of granddaughters and of the newly-opened Frick Museum and of taking his paints to Central Park. From this period come several of his finest images—a Dickensian portrait of Darwin, illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh, his many old, Jewish men with fathomless eyes, a ghetto street thronged with shadows, a solitary fisherman at a stream, a small house in a pitch-dark forest, the delicate, diminishing perspectives of fairy streams and lonely roads.

Associated American Artists, the National Society of Etchers, the Philadelphia Print Club, the National Arts Club, the National Academy of Design:  these and others exhibited his work. And sometimes—not often—he would get a sale. But the “celebrity” that his boss at The World had claimed for him would never truly be his—and, in time, Grover Cleveland’s four-page, handwritten letter to a young artist would be lost. I grew up believing that he had become reconciled to oblivion. But his son-in-law, my Uncle Billy, told me that he suffered his obscurity. At most Moses Hyman would become a footnote in the annals of the famous because his daughter Constance taught chopsticks to a six-year-old boy, his old friend Will Rodgers’ youngest son Richard. And yet, at least briefly, his work did hang in the Academia in Venice—and the New York Public Library bought his “Patriarch” and The Library of Congress acquired the masterful, haunting portrait he entitled “Sam.”  And his pictures would find their way into one or two other museums and, even six decades after his death, be put up from time to time at auction. But other than that Grampa Mo would be an unknown soldier of the Muse, like the many anonymous artisans who crafted the capitals and vaults and gargoyles of the great cathedrals.

My brother and I had a lot of tricks that were very funny.  We had a wind-up hand-buzzer, a whoopee cushion, a make-believe tarantula and a piece of rubber made to look as if someone had thrown up on the floor. We also had what looked like an ordinary plastic glass, but was actually poked with holes, and that was really funny because anyone drinking from it would get wet. That’s why it was called a “dribble glass” and you had to cover the holes with your fingers when you gave it to someone. After we got to the big house in Pennsylvania, we went into the bathroom and filled the dribble glass at the sink. Grampa Mo was standing in the living room . . . and, years later, that would be my single sharpest memory of him:  standing at his knee and looking up as he took the glass and let it dribble onto his vest—patiently, gently allowing himself to be the butt of a joke for little children.

Grampa Mo lived in a small, white-washed stone cottage beside the huge house where his son, my grandfather the doctor—“Harold the Great,” as Gene Fowler called him—lived with his second wife, Marian. In between the two houses stood a gigantic tree, and that is where the photograph was taken, the only photograph of us all in those days, all four generations posing for the camera, meeting for a moment at the white metal bench beneath the elm. Grampa Mo is the oldest and I am the youngest.

He had come to live in this little cottage as a refuge from the desolation when Belle died, and now he lived here on my grandfather’s magnanimous sufferance, in quiet vassalage to his own son. I called him, my great-grandfather, “Grampa.” But I called my grandfather “Harold”—and I don’t think Harold would have much wanted the childish endearment of the other name, since he didn’t have much time for little children. What he did have time for was what he called the “big world”—the many famous people he had either known since childhood, treated in his medical practice or met through friends and assiduously cultivated. Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Herman Mankiewicz, Clarence Day, Jerome Kern, Mary Martin, Sigmund Romberg, the Duchess of Windsor, John L. Lewis, Henry Morgenthau, John Barrymore, Gene Fowler, Ben Hecht and Jackie Robinson were among the most frequent names he dropped. There were other “important” people, too—an Indian ambassador, a famous French jockey—his “great friends,” as he called them, whom he entertained with all the charm of a cobra. And then something would happen—some slight, real or imagined:  the charm would fade and he would strike with all his venom at the jugular. But of all these famous people there was only one Harold unreservedly loved—Oscar Hammerstein—his closest friend since they’d met at baseball camp when they were both fourteen, just about the only real friend my grandfather didn’t manage to lose.

Right after we sat for the family photo, we all went into the big house for lunch. More than fifty years have corroded many of the details of that day. But Marian, I feel quite certain, would have given me and my brother peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Grampa Mo would have sat quietly. And Harold (as if to compensate his father’s failure to make a grand appearance on the world stage) would have held court, and when he laughed, his cheek wouldn’t have worked right because it was paralyzed. My brother and I must have been well-behaved, because Harold promised us that he’d take us to visit “Oc.” Although I was only in the first grade, I knew that Oscar Hammerstein was a famous man—and, of course, I was excited. But first (while the grown-ups stayed inside talking) my brother and I were going to go outside to roll down the hill. Most hills weren’t nearly this good for rolling down. But this hill was steep and the grass was soft.

My brother and I were so eager that we were already sitting in the backseat of the Studebaker by the time Harold and Marian and our parents got into the car. I distinctly remember driving up a long road, seeing an immense house—and then a green lawn below me in the distance where Oscar Hammerstein was playing croquet. But I also remember the next moment—getting out of the car . . . and Harold’s sudden anger: for my brother and I had disgraced him. We had committed the crime of getting grass stains on our pants, and the punishment for it was that he would not allow us, looking like that, to meet his friend. So a glimpse of a man playing croquet and the disappointment that I wouldn’t be allowed to meet him are all my memory retains of that afternoon visit—that and still a trace of wounded love.

But that was typical Harold—the sudden, lacerating judgment and withdrawal of affection, the hypersensitivity to any blots on his self-importance. This was a man who went in a flash from doting to derision, who expected others to agree with him and smeared anyone who had ever disappointed him, who mailed his curriculum vita to everyone he met. But it was, indeed, an impressive resume: his years on the medical faculty at Columbia and on the senior staff at Mount Sinai, his syndicated “Doctor Says” column, all the scientific articles and medical books he’d written. But it was his work on syphilis (for which he claimed he had been cheated of the Nobel Prize)—his development of the five-day cure—that had been so important to the war effort, that had gotten the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Morgenthau and put him on the front page of The New York Times. It was fitting that his greatest claim to fame was based upon his expertise in the diseases of love.

At the end of the day, before we left, I went to the cottage to visit Grampa Mo. I believe I went there with some notion that I might get up the nerve to ask him to give me one of his drawings—so that I could keep my deal with Gary. But the Fates were making mischief at their loom, and the moment right after I walked in the front door of Grampa’s cottage is one of those memories of childhood that remain sharp after more than half a century: there is a fireplace on my left, and above the fireplace sits a metal box. I thought it was a tin of cookies. So I took it down and pulled off the lid. And that is when Marian, my step-grandmother—who would die of a stroke while gardening ten years later—walked up behind me and found what I had done. She wasn’t angry, but quickly put the lid back on. Because instead of cookies, as I’d hoped, I’d opened up a boxful of my great-grandmother’s ashes.

Whether I had been shaken from my purpose by the disgrace of getting grass stains on my pants or by the shock of opening up the can of Grandma Belle’s ashes, I never did ask Grampa to give me one of his pictures. I can’t say that that was for the best. But very likely that is when it happened—when, without my even knowing it, the mixed blessing of his mantle settled on my little shoulders. After all, the next day was school and I would have to come to Gary empty-handed. If Gary wanted to be Roy or Hoppy, that was one thing: but I just couldn’t let him wear the mask. So I got out my crayons and some paper and made a drawing of my own. And the next day, when Gary and I had put on our chaps and our cowboy hats and were going out to recess, I handed him my picture. I told him that I couldn’t get one of Grampa’s. My drawing wasn’t very good. But, to my surprise, Gary accepted it—and, in exchange, relinquished his claim to the black mask and the silver mine and the silver bullets. And that’s how I became the Lone Ranger.

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Full List of Essays
“A Noble Apology” • How I received an apology for the Spanish Inquisition (anthologized in Travelers’ Tales Spain)

“Allegro Furioso” • An introduction to my impossible grandparents and why Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical about them (published in Columbia Magazine)

“Silver Bullets” • How I disturbed my great-grandmother’s ashes, didn’t meet Oscar Hammerstein and became the Lone Ranger.

“This Pen for Hire” • A lament upon the indignities suffered by an unpublished writer that, ironically, earned me my first publication—in The Washington Post Book World.

“The History of My Adversities” • The so-help-me-God true and lugubrious story of my first bloody taste of the perversities of the publishing world.

“Château d’If”A tribute to the tiny prison where I pen my deathless prose.

“Berlin Memories” • How I was frightened and tested by a stranger in a trenchcoat.

Just Who, Exactly, Is the Master? • An homage to my superlative cat. (Published in Westchester Magazine)

And click here to read my essays exclusively on the topic of TITULOMANIA (my love of titles).