— Chapter Two: 30,000 Postcards —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
Jim’s aunt overheard the men of the family covering up the details of Gerard’s death after they discovered that Jim’s mother was left nearly penniless. Jim was unable to return to Staunton for graduation and no one was ever sure whether it was because of the family’s inability to pay his tuition or the need for him back in Avalon to work at the gas station. In any event, the Avalon house was sold to pay off debts and provide Jim’s mother with some means of support.
Jim never knew the real story of his father’s death, or just never admitted to knowing it. Jim had established many relationships with wealthy friends during his school years, and by working at the garage in Avalon, he had learned a lot about cars, gears, motors, and their maintenance. Through a friend who owned a machine shop nearby, he acquired the additional skills needed to become a machinist and a toolmaker.
Jim’s mother, Ethel, had been born into a prominent family, but their fortune was also diminished by the market crash and they were unable to provide much financial assistance to her and her two sons. Ethel was trained in fashion illustration at the School of Design in Philadelphia. She was an accomplished needleworker and watercolorist, and Jim inherited her creativity and artistic sensibilities, most of which were ignored by his teachers at Penn Charter and Staunton. Men in his family were directed to occupations that focused on business, investing and financial planning.
Unfortunately for Jim, his artistic abilities were never developed enough for him to use them in a trade, and since he had no college degree, it was difficult, if not impossible, for him to expand his social and business connections beyond those of his high school friends.
Fortunately, in the late 1930s he was able to capitalize on one relationship with a friend, Tom Tyson, a supporter of his father who took him under his wing and trained and employed him as a stock salesman. Jim was a quick thinker and understood the concept of accumulating wealth. He also had an ease with the patter advantageous to selling effectively, but which was often marred by a bending of the truth and by applying his own spin on financial affairs.
Though he was quite good at acquiring new accounts, his brand of selling didn’t jibe with that of his firm, and although Tyson and Jim remained friends, Jim was forced to return to his trade as a machinist while still exploring opportunities he’d opened during his time as an investment counselor. He drew on his relationships with classmates and downplayed his occupational skills as a mere hobby, rather than promoting them as the profession he depended on for survival.
In 1938, a wealthy friend from Haverford, Bill McCucheon, contacted Jim about a job opening he had for a director of an oil and gas field leased years before by his father. The fields were located in north central Pennsylvania along Route 6 near the New York border. Having nothing to lose, Jim packed up and followed the lead to the small river town of Port Allegany and stayed in its only hotel, the Canoe Place Inn, which also housed a bar and a restaurant. The large building anchored Main Street and was the only place where a single room could be rented. The day after he arrived, Jim was taken by car to a two-room shack heated by a wood stove, and connected to a pump that fed water from a well twenty feet below. A gas-powered generator provided minimal electricity. Jim was given the keys to a Ford Model A pickup truck and a map that indicated the area leased. With no reason to return to Avalon or Philadelphia, Jim ran the business, such as it was, and remained off the grid until war broke out in 1941 and he enlisted.
Jim often claimed that he could have applied for Officer Candidate School, since he had gone to Staunton Military Academy, but he chose to enter as a private, and spent the next 4-1/2 years after basic training in the infantry, stationed on bases in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. He survived The Battle of Peleliu and returned home early in ‘46 with his only physical injury a piece of shrapnel from a Japanese pillbox embedded in his rear end.
Though the oil industry in Pennsylvania had nearly dried up, the gas wells were still somewhat profitable, so he returned to his job and the shack he’d abandoned more than five years earlier.
Prior to enlisting, Jim had become engaged to a local girl who worked at the Inn, but who dumped him two years before his return to the States. While overseas, he had also kept in touch with Dottie, a girl who had attended the same art college as his mother. Jim asked her to come up for a visit to Port Allegany, and although the shack was pretty much a dump, Dottie, who had recently turned 33, jumped at the chance to live a bohemian life in the wilderness. The couple married in April, just three months after Jim’s discharge from the Army. With Dottie’s help, and that of the men working the gas wells, he turned the shack into a cottage, put in a glass-faced fireplace and bought a used upright piano and Victrola for Dottie that would help them create the soundtrack for their new lives in postwar America.
In July of 1947, Stewart was born, and the small family returned to Philadelphia to christen their newborn child. Dottie’s parents were not happy about their daughter living in an oil town, but the couple seemed happy enough and continued to work on their cottage and their dreams until it became evident that the wells were no longer profitable and the rights to the lease would be terminated.
As a machinist, Jim could have lived and worked in and around Port Allegany for the rest of his life, but Dottie made it clear that she wasn’t going to have her child bought up a “bumpkin” in a dried-up oil town with a father who fixed peoples’ cars and welded gas tanks for a living. With Bill McCucheon’s financial support, Jim and his family moved back to the Philadelphia area where Jim found work as a machinist wherever he could, while Dottie continued her campaign to move to the wealthy Main Line and for her husband to get back into the business of selling stocks and providing financial advice.
During his military tour of duty, Jim had forged a place for himself with the soldiers in his battalion by painting pin-up girls on bombs and aircraft using whatever types of paint he could get his hands on. He used his raw drawing skills to craft personalized V-Mails he’d send home to his grandmother, mother, cousins, the girlfriend he soon would lose, and to his future wife. He had his own untrained technique, but borrowed on others, including the style of the Sad Sack created by the artist Sgt. George Baker, who repeatedly spun the tale of a lowly private experiencing the absurdities and humiliations of wartime service. He also wrote articles for Time Out, a military newspaper, that he typed on a Smith Corona left by a New York Times correspondent. He paired his essays with drawings of beautiful women and soldiers like himself, and shared the daily events of everyday life in the Pacific minus the tragedies of war.
He continued to create and send postcards after returning home, but found little humor in his situation after leaving the oil fields and being left without a viable income suitable for the needs of his wife and son. For a while, he borrowed money which he hoped to pay back from his earnings as a machinist, but Dottie had bigger plans for her son than what Jim’s salary could hope to provide. Her father had driven a cab, and she had gone to private school, so she figured that her husband, with only one child, could certainly afford the luxuries she had, especially since Jim had grown up wealthy and had never mentioned the family’s financial losses. She enrolled Stewart at Montgomery School in Wynnewood, and had him delivered and picked up in a cab. She rented a piano and hired a teacher who came once a week, but then stopped coming once there was no money to pay her, or to pay the rent to keep the small spinet.
Jim hid his job as a machinist from his wealthy friends, and spoke of the deals he had made in the oil and gas industry, and about the money owed to him from the results of his prospecting trips to Denver, Dallas and the Permian Basin that promised big returns for upfront investors like himself. Unfortunately, although Jim represented his wealthy friends on those trips, he never had any personal money to invest, but traded on his prospects while acknowledging to himself that he was taking money that would never be returned, with or without any profit. But the pressure was on, and Jim continued to borrow on his dream and continued to drink.
When sober, Jim was a good worker and tried in every way possible to share in Dottie’s dream, but he was tortured inside by the remorse he felt for scamming his friends to pay for a lifestyle he never needed. When drinking, his wrath came out boiling hot. He never hit Dottie or their son, but his meanness and resentments burned a hole in the boy that would take decades to heal.
By the time Dottie found a job, Jim, only in his mid-forties, had already given up hope of ever again gaining meaningful employment. He held onto the lie of riches owed to him nearly to the end and continued to embellish on stories of fortunes gained that existed only in his head. In the meantime, he read paperback mysteries stolen from the library, played solitaire to keep his mind off the failures of his existence, and continued to draw and send postcards that mimicked events in the lives of the people he came across on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, and also depicted himself surrounded by oil rigs and wearing a cowboy hat and with a Texas star belt buckle on his jeans.
Many of the cards were well-crafted and cleverly depicted the recipients as penguins, bears, rabbits and squirrels. They were light-hearted and skillfully drawn and representative of the talent and imagination exhibited when he was sober, while the dark, brooding and often messy cards he drew after too many drinks in the bar shed light on the reasons for his diminished existence.
In 1983, Stewart estimated that his father had created more than 30,000 cards. Stewart lost or misplaced nearly all of the cards he’d collected since childhood, while scores of other people his father touched with his art cherished their cache of clever cards that followed their lives and achievements.
Stewart gave his mother the credit for his survival, but only realized as he grew to be an adult how closely he had followed in his father’s footsteps as an artist, cartoonist, writer and pictorial commentator.
It probably wouldn’t have helped Stewart to recognize during those early years that he was closely wed to both the temperament and talents of the man he believed had failed him in the most basic ways, as he strove to nurture the skills that his father had failed to perfect.
Stewart never questioned the effects on his father of the years he’d spent at war in the Pacific, the loss of a family fortune to a boy just starting out on his own, or the marriage to a woman so ill-suited to his needs.
Stewart had his own mountains to climb and struggles to surmount. He aimed for success despite the odds against him, never realizing the wealth of abilities he’d inherited from his father and by how narrow a margin he had avoided his own defeat.