“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past: Whitey
Long before it became a forbidden word—a simpler time when lightening bugs animated the night sky and cicadas made unholy racket; when being “It!” in a game of Kick the Can was the height of childhood sturm und drang—I knew a boy named Whitey.
It was the summer of 1954, about the middle of June. Andrea Dillon and her parents had come to Agincourt for the week; Andrea’s maternal grandparents the Enfield’s lived here, in a big cream-colored house north of Darwin school, and the Dillon’s came more regularly as their parents aged. This summer’s regularity was supplemented with a guest: Henry Malone, a.k.a. “Whitey.” Or was it Maloney?
He was about nine—my own age that summer—and, like me, he’d just finished the third grade. His family lived in suburban Chicago near the Dillons but there were special circumstances surrounding his visit here, something we kids weren’t supposed to know but did anyway. Figured it out, the way kids do. It may have been the summer I was no longer a child: the summer when grown-ups morphed into adults; the summer I was spoken to, not talked about, as though I weren’t there in the midst of the conversation; it was the summer of inclusion. I’d sensed my older sister Catherine making that transition a couple of years before; saw what seemed at the time to have been the contradiction of her growing independence and simultaneous participation in family decision-making. Was it because she was a girl? I wondered. Will my time come?
Henry stood apart for a couple of reasons; things that made him different beyond being someone who was simply “the new kid on the block,” even if only for a few weeks. First, his hair was so blond, his complexion so fair, so pale, as to be borderline albino. I’d heard the story of our albino calf—a long night in 1883 when a pure white Highland calf brought short-term fame to the McGinnis farm out beyond Fahnstock—but had no idea humans could be born with pigment deficiencies, too. Henry was a living tintype. His appearance wasn’t as distinctive as his behavior, though, which existed somewhere outside the bounds of childhood.
He was feral, but not some 19th century waif living in the Schwarzwald, immune to the ways of humankind. Henry’s presence had been cobbled from other disparate sources. First, he was prematurely old—an Old Soul, like a handful of others I’ve known—in the sense of reticence that comes from seeing things we ought not; of wandering too near the edge; of Trust betrayed, the contract of childhood broken. What you heard contradicted what you saw and what you heard was not the childish talk of pre-adolescence. Henry did not speak, so much as converse.
Oh, sure, we played. I recall a Maxfield Parrish afternoon on the merry-go-round in the park behind the Methodist church when we spun faster than astronauts. Dizzy, giddy, laughing hysterically, for a moment barriers vanished and gaps between us closed. For a moment, Henry’s armor lay on the verge, safely out of reach, until the moment passed, so much salt in water. There were one or two similar events in the next few days. Then the Dillons and their guest went home. I wrote him now and again during the following months—those “penpal” letters are somewhere in the house, even yet, lingering like these recollections—but I do not know what became of him.
Perhaps google knows. It knows everything.