My fictional family history

Posted by Jeff Markowitz on Wednesday, April 27, 2011
“I’m going home,” I said, surprised to realize after so many years, that I still thought of Jalapeno Flats as home.  Not quite a town, Jalapeno Flats was nevertheless a pleasantly stagnant cluster of homes built along a dried-up lake at the edge of the desert.
            My grandfather, Emmanuel Silver, was one of Jalapeno Flats’ founding fathers.  Born on New Years Day in the year 1900, the first member of the family to be born in the USA, Manny was the son of a Russian draft dodger.
            My grandfather, from the time he was a boy, only wanted to be a reporter.  He did odd jobs for the New York American and finally achieved some small recognition as a reporter in 1926 only to lose his job a year later for dabbling in honest journalism.  At least he had the honor of being let go, personally, by William Randolph Hearst.
            Working whenever he could and struggling to feed his wife and son, Manny was finally forced to abandon his dream and, in 1934, joined up with a band of Jewish immigrants and black factory workers who, with FDR’s help, were heading for fame and fortune in Arizona.
            Jalapeno Flats and the neighboring town of Canyon Jack were going to be a workers’ collective in the Arizona desert.  When the towns were first settled, people expected that, with hard work and faith in God (and FDR), somehow, the towns would prosper.  Instead, Jalapeno Flats and Canyon Jack had become two more anonymous outposts struggling to maintain life on the edge of the desert.
            I remember Canyon Jack as a town so much like Jalapeno Flats, there was rarely a good reason to travel between the two.  There was a saying in the two desert towns about the deficiencies that characterized both.
            “If you can’t find it in our Sears catalogue,” the saying went, “chances are you won’t find it in theirs.”
            Still, Canyon Jack and Jalapeno Flats occupy a unique place in American history, built in 1934 with the enthusiastic support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Revisionist history has not been kind to this effort, but Grandpa Manny always told me not to believe the critics.  There was no greater American, according to Emmanuel Silver, than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
            Having traveled across the continent hoping to escape the depression and build a new home in the Arizona desert, the founding fathers (and mothers) owned little and brought less.  As soon as the town was established, families supplemented their meager furnishings with mail orders from the Sears catalogue.
            According to records that I found at the Jalapeno Flats Historical Society, I learned that, in 1935, after my grandfather was hired by the Federal Writers Project, my grandparents, taking advantage of the easy payment plan, placed the following order from the Sears catalogue -

                        1 “Glorious” Coal Range (ivory)
                                    $59.95 - $5 down and $7 a month
                        1 Minnesota Model “N” Sewing Machine
                                    $32.85 - $3 down and $5 a month
                        1 Silvertone World’s Fair Table Model Radio
                                    $35.75 - $4 down and $5 a month
                        1 Coldspot Refrigerator (“Keeps milk fresh 14 days in desert”)
                                    $147.95 - $5 down and $8 a month

In addition, for my father, who was six years old at the time, they ordered -

                        1 Dick Tracy “Keep-Out-of-Mischief” Book - 9 cents
                        1 Genuine Gyroscope Top - 19 cents

It appears, however, from the records, that my grandfather over-estimated his ability to make the monthly payments.  Shortly after their delivery, he returned the radio, the refrigerator and the top for a full refund.
            The Range is long gone, but the Sewing Machine remains, and I can almost imagine my grandmother, sitting there still.
            Only I wish I could find that Dick Tracy book.

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