Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Can't I Be Like Alberta Whaley?

More memories of Flint from Pat McFarlane, born at Hurley Hospital in 1930.

Why can’t I be like Alberta Whaley?
As far back as I can remember that question would pop into my consciousness like a Hindu mantra.

Alberta was my best friend. She lived in the next block on Illinois Avenue at a time when blocks were cities unto themselves and you knew everyone. Some families were considered undesirable, like the Bach’s who lived a few doors down from our house. My every outdoor excursion was prefaced by my parents with “Don’t play with the Bach kids.” Of course, my rebellious nature made me devise clever schemes to do just that.

Now I realize that the Bach’s were poor. Although we were working class, my parents had high standards that had nothing to do with money. When discussing the Bach’s my dad would say, “You don’t need money to mow your lawn.”

Alberta’s parents were Southerners who had migrated to Michigan looking for work and a better life. In the thirties, Flint was a Mecca for the unemployed looking for jobs in the booming auto plants. “Go West Young Man” had turned into “ Go North.” Her dad worked the night shift at Buick and her mother was a telephone operator for Michigan Bell in the days when you dialed zero a real person answered. Alberta’s mom was a true, soft-spoken Southern lady. I had my suspicions that her dad was a quiet drinker but this was never discussed. Alberta and I knew that some things are best left unsaid.

Our friendship was an unlikely one as she always did what her parents told her and I was always asking “Why not?” Perhaps that’s why we were such good friends, each fascinated by our respective differences.

I spent most Saturday afternoons at the Roxy, a small neighborhood theater a few blocks from my house. I loved the darkness and the roar of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion heralding an afternoon of previews, world news, serials and finally the main feature. It was usually a western or film noir, allowing me to escape into the Wild West or the shadows of a mysterious city. Alberta could never go with me as I think her parents considered movies sinful.

At that time, my parents didn’t attend a church, believing that God knew they were good people simply because they were Scots and had arrived in Michigan from Iowa. But I was drawn to religion. I made pilgrimages to various churches and Sunday schools. I even had myself baptized. Twice! Sometimes I would go with Alberta and her mother to their evangelical church. It was nice until the call to march up to the altar and “accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” In spite of the gentle hand of Alberta’s mother urging me on, my instinct was to run, so my evangelical experience was short lived. I eventually became a Catholic, where you were not coerced into marching down the aisle to communion, but it was understood that if you didn’t you would bypass purgatory and go directly to Hell. I could identify with that doctrine.

Occasionally, we would get to spend the night at each other’s house. Unlike today’s “sleepovers,” it was a special occasion and done only between families who knew each other well. It was always a quiet event at my house because my bedroom was right across the hall from my parents. But Alberta’s house had one bedroom downstairs where we slept. We giggled, told secrets, read Nancy Drew books and best of all, raided the icebox for our favorites — left over fried pork chops and banana peppers, which were an exotic food to me. I don’t think they existed in the Scottish food chain.

But like many youthful friendships, Alberta and I drifted apart. By the time we reached Central High School, we’d simply say hi in the hallway, talk occasionally, but that was it. I was reminded of Alberta when her name appeared on the honor roll every semester, while mine was often on the tardy list.

I loved history, social studies and band. I played alto sax and being in the band meant being classified as a nerd. I preferred to think of the band members as artistic intellectuals. Some of us played in jazz bands after school and a few went on to become professional musicians. The male drum major in later years became the mayor of Flint. And many, like most Flint high-school graduates, went to work for General Motors.

I still remember the thrill I felt when our band marched onto the football field playing the fight song and I knew whatever I did in life it had to be exciting. I didn’t realize exciting can sometimes be a lonely road to travel.

I became friends with a drummer in the band named Jerry. He lived a block from Central and we sometimes ate at his house. His mother had painted nails, wore red lipstick and was divorced! She was remarried to a real estate salesman that Jerry hated. Just after VE day, Jerry’s older brother, Richard, returned home from the Navy. Suddenly, lunch at Jerry’s became very inviting. Dick was going to college and playing saxophone in jazz band, and we all know the low moan of an alto Sax in a smoke filled room is the Pied Piper of love.

Forget high school! I spent all my time taking my fake ID and trying to get into bars and clubs where the band was playing. I may have invented the catch phrase “I’m With The Band.”

The bass player, Earl, was my first exposure to a brooding intellectual. He was tall, dark, handsome and involved in the socialist movement. He soon had me passing out the Daily Worker and going to Detroit to see Russian propaganda movies in secret mysterious places. I was flattered that someone so intelligent could like me. He eventually earned his Ph. D. and became an archeologist, widely published and well known for his projects everywhere from Northern Michigan to Mexico. We always remained friends. I knew he loved me and I often wonder how my life would have played out with him.

I lost track of Alberta after we graduated from high school and I left Flint. My mother sent me the newspaper announcement of her wedding to a policeman. Some years later I heard she had a son who was severely disabled. I understand she and her husband were devoted to caring for him. God knew what he was doing when he sent that baby to Alberta. She was full of goodness and love.

Now, even though many years have passed she is still a part of my life. In my darkest moments of despair, misjudgment and just plain selfishness, it crosses my mind like a banner behind a small plane. Why can’t I be like Alberta Whaley?

Is she somewhere pondering, Why can’t I be like Pat McFarlane?


  1. Great story! It's strange how we drift apart from our closest childhood friends. Thanks for this well-written reminder of the connections people form. You never know what influence you've had on someone's life.

  2. I enjoyed this as well. Band nerds rule!

  3. Well, I just have to say that between a love of Nancy Drew, history, smoke-filled clubs and bass players with socialist inclinations, I'm quite sure I would have been got along famously with your grandmother - what a zest for life and what a super story!!! And - what a window into everyday life and Flint's social demographics at that time. I have no doubt that Alberta had (or has) fond memories of her childhood friend later in life. And the word "icebox" - now there's something I haven't heard in awhile!

  4. I LOVE this woman! What a treasure! My family has lost all of it's "storytellers" sad to say. Her words paint such pictures in my mind. I spent so much time with my grandparents on the Southeast side of town (Atherton and Dort) and listened to their stories of a Flint that had come and gone. Keep posting her lovely, well told "adventures" Gordon! She makes me smile!

  5. I had missed this post. Thanks for relinking it. Really nice :)


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at