Exploitation?

My husband and I have talked a lot about how his mother and aunt supported their own mother when they were girls.  By the time Helen’s father died in 1925, Helen was forced by circumstances to become a professional dancer.  She would have followed that path anyway, but had to make the decision sooner than any of them expected.  The fatherless little family desperately needed the income and the mother didn’t work outside the home.

The City of New York enforced what were called the “Gerry Laws,” age restrictions for children in show business.  The minimum age for child performers was set at 16, though Helen danced plenty before legally permissable.  With the right application of make-up and her mother along at auditions, confirming the girl was of age, she landed two contracts  still closer to 14 years-old than 16.  Helen did a little modeling for romance magazines, too, costumed in lingerie more suitable for a 20 year old.

It felt easy to judge her mother for exploiting Helen’s talent for her own financial benefit.  But after more research for the book, River of January, I found the practice of pushing children on to the stage was more common and egregious than anything concocted by Helen’s mother.

Many small children acts crossed the vaudeville stage.  These precocious kids forfeited an ordinary childhood to support their ambitious parents.  Some of the more famous child acts included Sammy Davis Jr, “Baby” June Havoc from Gypsy fame, Bobby Short, and  “Baby” Rose Marie.   These children were no more than preschoolers and unable to say no, or make any of their own decisions.  And the laws were on the books in most cities to protect children from these exploitative adults.

For the parents of these children violations meant jail time, if they were caught.  And mothers or fathers spent  as much effort dodging law enforcement as they did in promoting their little ones’ careers.

I started out this piece to honor those champions of child welfare.  I believed these reformers battled for vulnerable children, who had no one looking out for their best interests.  Then it hit me that other small children at the exact same time were more brutalized in other sectors of the economy.  These same “Gerry Laws” did nothing to spare those little kids from the hazardous mines and mills of America.

I’ve decided that these “do-gooders” chose to target theaters because the stage was so visible.  While these so-called reformers made names for themselves crusading in the theater district, other children faced greater threats laboring as virtual slaves.  Young children suffered perilous dangers, becoming victims of accidents, crushed below ground in coal mines, or mangled in the machinery of filthy factories.  Those abuses were committed out of the public eye.

The city fathers looked quite virtuous to the public, as did the police in ferreting out vaudeville’s exploitation of young children.  Bad, self-serving parents either paid big fines, or served time, satisfying the community’s outrage.

It may appear at first glance that Helen was misused by her widowed mother by going to work so young.  But in comparison to say, 4-year-old Baby Rose Marie, or the multitudes of tiny children facing 60-hour weeks in textile mills, Helen’s experience was more a joy than a sacrifice for her family.

Fear and Euphoria

The doctor told us that it would be awhile before any tests were performed on my husband.  She quietly, carefully explained that she would call me if there was news of his condition.  For the moment Chad was hooked up to a drip for pain and another for fluids.  Then this quiet, unassuming doctor made it clear we were dismissed.

Stepping outside, the three of us lingered along the broad circular drive.  The night was warm, still hanging on to the day’s exceptional heat.  I remember almost laughing when I told Carlos about the art of timing.  He unwittingly had walked into a hellish ordeal that had actually barely begun.  Making our way to the public parking area, my girl suggested I sleep at her house since it was so close to the hospital, maybe a five minute drive.  We didn’t know what the night would bring and I needed to remain close.

Soon seated in Catherine’s living room, glass of wine in my hand, I suddenly felt like me.  I somehow slipped back into my personality again when I wasn’t looking.  There was no one needing my help, no one calling my name, no one griping about how awful they felt.  For the moment I was free.  So bowed down by responsibility and fear, the absence of demands jolted me back from that alien world of caretaker.  I felt nearly giddy with my momentary freedom, not willing to contemplate what was happening in that hospital room a few miles away. Bidding goodnight to room mates, new boyfriend, and my daughter, I toddled off to bed, setting my cellphone on high.

Sleep, however remained elusive, with the adrenalin of fear, then of euphoria swirling around my mind and body.  At 1:00 AM the cell phone shrilled loudly.  I fumbled around the floor next to the bed, aware that my daughter was next to me.  Flipping the phone open, I graveled out a hoarse hello.  Catherine sat up.

“Mrs. Chumbley?  I have received he results of the CT scan and it is clear that the colon has ruptured, feces is spreading through his body.  Chad is in grave condition.  He must have surgery.  You will soon receive another call from a surgeon, Dr. ???, (I honestly can’t remember his name.)  He will perform the procedure and will require your permission.

“Should I come back?”

“I don’t see anything you can do at this point. The surgeon will call for authorization and that you can do by phone.”

“Oh, okay.  Thank you.”  I hung up.

“Maybe we should go back down,” my daughter whispered in anguish.  I thought that over.

“No.  I think we will get more sleep here than in the waiting room at the hospital.”

We drifted back off to sleep.