And in Baltimore, an appreciation for a city of quirks

James H. Bready

December 06, 1991|By James H. Bready

THE FAMOUS foreign correspondent put it bluntly: "We are on the verge of war with Japan," said Vincent Sheean, who had just returned from the Far East.

Sheean's audience that Dec. 4 night at midtown Goucher College included at least one uniformed member of the armed forces. I was worried. War might mean having to leave Baltimore. The lecture over, I took a No. 17 streetcar downtown, hitched a ride to the White Tower and caught a second ride back to camp. There, in a lights-out squad room in Edgewood Arsenal's large World War I barracks, peace prevailed, Brig. Gen. Ray L. Avery commanding.

Next day -- newspapers covered speeches then -- The Sun gave Sheean 15 paragraphs. The headline and first five paragraphs quoted him on Russia and Germany; Japan was downplayed. I felt better.

Edgewood Arsenal, 20 miles out U.S. 40 (Pulaski Highway), was headquarters for the Army's possible use of, and defense against, mustard burns and phosgene blisters. Many, not all, of its draftees were chemical engineers. Many of the old-timers were straight out of James Jones.

Saturday at noon, the men of Chemical Warfare made for the exit gate. One great thing about World War II was the trustful public -- the free rides. Some GIs had cars, and filled them; most of us stood there at the Edgewood Road-U.S. 40 stoplight. There was no need to waggle a thumb. Ten minutes was a long wait. Thus, back in May, I had met Baltimore.

To someone age 22, a new city bears examining. I knew a little of Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Des Moines. This was Baltimore: A church on West Fayette put cots up for us overnight; Sunday's alarm clock was the ringing of bells. One of North Howard's used-book stores had a book that mentioned my great-grandfather. Walking down Charles one summer evening, I chanced upon another bookstore. Not only was it open; from the rear came conversation and music.

In the squad room, Baltimore rated so-so. There wasn't much life in the Charles Street USO. The transit company exacted the same 10 cents from $36-a-month servicemen as from $36-a-week civilians. Receptions given by the young women of Society were for commissioned officers only. Many guys went on through to Washington, with its Pepsi-Cola serviceman's center, its free transit, its WACs, ultimately its Stage Door Canteen.

Baltimore seemed insular. It was a nickel town -- no dimes in your change. It had good things: the B&O Railroad, Johns Hopkins, Pratt Library, H. L. Mencken, Miller Brothers, Glenn L. Martin, Bethlehem Steel, Maryland Historical Society, lacrosse. And some not very good things: recent architecture, art, orchestra, pro sports, public higher education, zoo. And some very bad things: residential and recreational segregation, corrupt politics and terrible traffic.

In fact, the city had one of the East Coast's worst traffic problems, but I was unconcerned. Sent a bicycle by my faraway brother, I rode it into Baltimore, and a downtown garage agreed to let me park it free between trips in from camp. Then, still and always in uniform, I rode the streets, downtown, uptown, exploring.

One day in June, I parked it outside Pratt's Govans branch, went in and started talking to the young woman behind the desk. Her hair was red, her eyes a very dark brown, her conversation wonderfully bright and engaging. I walked young Mary Hortop home; her parents made a place for me at dinner.

That night, standing where the trucks slowed for the turn from Highland Avenue into Pulaski, I thought I discerned something. Expect Baltimore to hand you something for nothing, and it was likely to look right through you, I thought. But meet it part way, offer as well as ask, and Baltimore could soon be treating you as one of its own.

Suddenly, it was Dec. 7. Sheean had been right. At once, Edgewood confined all personnel to the post. Ultimately, I was wafted off for a tour of Europe. But long before then, a thought had hardened: If or when this thing ever ends, Baltimore is the place I want to come back to.

James H. Bready did marry the girl and did settle in Baltimore, where he now lives in retirement.

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