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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Howard


The first four years of Harlan’s existence were spent living with his father, Ralph Howard, in numerous tenement homes. Ralph would pay rent when he could, when he couldn’t; he’d pack up and move to the next tenement house. Ralph and Harlan moved often as Ralph only worked when he wasn’t drinking. When Ralph managed to earn a day’s wage for doing menial jobs at the Ford Motor Company, he had to pass too many bars on the way home. The temptation to drink was stronger than the obligation of going home. Sometimes Ralph never made it home, and often when he did; he wasn’t alone. I remember Harlan telling me he barely remembered his father. He said he had a vague childhood memory of a night when his Dad brought home this ole floozy. He added, I remember thinking, I’d wish they’d quit wrestling so I could sleep. Needless to say, Ralph was not a stellar father.

For background purposes, the union of Ralph and Evelyn Howard produced three male children: Harlan, Milton and Wallace - youngest to oldest.

Harlan’s brother, Milton Howard, was the middle child. He was five years older than Harlan. Milton hated school and didn’t see the need for it. He was a consistent no-show at school and eventually was labeled a truant by the educational system. One day, a truant officer was out looking for Milton, who was seven maybe eight at the time. The truant officer reported finding young Milton smoking cigarettes while navigating a hand-made raft on the Detroit River. Shortly thereafter, Milton was placed in the care of the Ford Motor Company trade school where he learned the craft of welding. Milton worked his entire career, I believe, for General Electric Company in Cincinnati, Ohio as a welder.

Wallace Howard was not as lucky as Harlan and Milton. Wallace was eight years older than Harlan. In the late 1920’s and 30’s ice was delivered by horse and carriage and then by the newly produced Ford trucks. Wallace and some local boys were hanging out when the ice truck pulled up to make a delivery. It being a hot summer day in Detroit, Wallace jumped up on the back of the truck to get shards of ice for himself and his friends. The shards of ice would be like an icicle or popsicle today. The driver returned to the truck not knowing Wallace was onboard. The truck took off and Wallace was pitched off the back. He died not long afterwards from a head injury sustained from the fall. Harlan once told me he wasn’t sure how Wally died. He added, he just remembered his Dad coming home distraught one night and telling him that his brother was dead. It wasn’t until we read the state documents that Harlan realized the details of Wallace’s death.

In 1935, Evelyn was reunited with Harlan who was a rough and tumble kid. With little guidance from adults and a lot of learned mischievousness from street-smart hoodlums, Harlan was well versed in the art of lying and stealing. He had little regard for honesty and no regard for others’ personal belongings. Harlan likened it to this: when you have nothing, everything looks intriguing and inviting. His lust for something, anything, to call his own was consuming. In his young mind, the world was dog eat dog. It was survival of the fittest; and Harlan was determined to not only survive, but to thrive, even if it was from ill-gotten means. He loved the fact that he was no longer a state kid; however, he didn’t know that Evelyn had taken up with Ivy Cutcher, and they had a son named Floyd. Harlan balked at the idea of having to obey this new figure of authority. He was sure to be a thorn in the side of Ivy Cutcher.

Harlan’s smugness immediately got him into trouble. Floyd, who was barely a year younger than Harlan, was born an albino. That genetic condition impaired his eyesight and he was declared legally blind; however, with special glasses he had limited sight. Floyd, who was called Joe by his parents and Whitey by his friends, was doted on by his parents due to his poor eyesight. Ivy was his protector. This fact would not bode well for Harlan who already had a complex for obeying authority figures. Harlan wasn’t a cruel child, but Whitey was an easy target. Harlan was guilty of being a bully to Whitey before bullying became a rallying cry. There were many fights between Ivy and Evelyn and most of those disturbances fell bullseye on young Harlan.

There was one particular fight that went down in history in Harlan’s memory. On a hot summer night, Harlan was instructed by Evelyn to take Whitey to the movie and make sure he got home safely. Whitey’s sight was limited but was better when he wore his newly acquired expensive, glasses. On this sultry evening, Harlan was being a thug. Harlan was taunting Whitey saying, I’m over here, no over here, the whole time running and hiding behind trees. In the dark, Whitey rammed into a tree breaking his glasses which were hard to come by during the Depression. Whitey knew there would be trouble at home; however, Harlan was unaware of the danger that loomed on the horizon.

Upon returning home, Whitey cried that it was Harlan’s fault and recounted the story of Harlan taunting him. Harlan watched the scene unfold from his vantage point of the upstairs balcony. He saw how mad Ivy was. He saw the helplessness of his mother in defending him. Ivy told Evelyn that every time he looked at that boy, he reminded him of Ralph Howard. No, Evelyn said, Harlan looks like me; Milton looks like Ralph. Well, that argument fell on deaf ears this time and the gauntlet was thrown down by Ivy. He declared to Evelyn that one of us is leaving here tonight - either that boy or me.

By this time, Evelyn was pregnant again. She couldn’t imagine raising a family on her own. Harlan didn’t know the severity of the outcome yet, he just knew it was bad. He’d have to go and go quickly. Evelyn made the decision to place Harlan in the care of the Donald Grant family who lived on the outskirts of town. He was still eight years old.

Respectfully written by Melanie Smith-Howard, 10.10.18

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