After all the waiting and complications, everything suddenly seemed to be moving too quickly. Allison was worried her parents would be disappointed that David was going to be out of the running permanently, but they weren’t. Max was worried that his parents would be unhappy at the prospect of a daughter-in-law from the “big city” as they called everything west of the Chesapeake Bay, but he hoped that one meeting with Allison and they would become members of her fan club.
The wedding was set for June of 1920. By September of 1919, Max was discharged from the Navy and living in a small apartment in a home in Mt Washington and working for the Baltimore Engineering firm of Parson, Jenkins Consultants. One night, Max took Allison to the Vaudeville show at the Hippodrome in downtown Baltimore. The Hippodrome was a new theater built in the heavily decorated “palace” style, with ornate columns, murals painted on the ceiling panels, and a general air of opulence.
“Quite a place, isn’t it?” Allison observed as they took their seats in the balcony. “Louis the sixteenth would feel right at home here. In a setting like this, even the worst pie in the face comedian would look like one of the Barrymores.”
Max smiled. “Back home we have the Adams Floating Theater. It’s a stage and seats built on a barge that gets towed from town to town.”
“A barge; a palace… what’s the difference? Everyone loves to be entertained,” said Allison. “So when are we going to take a trip over to ye olde Hurlock homestead, anyway?”
“I thought next week, if you can get away,” said Max. “I have a project at work I have to finish, but I’ll be able to go after that.”
“Will we stay with your folks?”
“Yes. You can have my old room.”
“Oh, dear. Is it haunted?”
“And we’ll stop by to see my Uncle Bingo.”
“His real name is Bruno, but ever since the war, he’s insisted on being called Bingo because it’s less German sounding.”
“I see,” said Allison dubiously. “And are all you relatives as, well, unique as your uncle?”
Max sighed, “Some are even worse.”
Just then the band started up and a woman crossed the stage and placed a sign on an easel announcing the opening act, Ezra’s Crazy Comedy Capers, just as two men wearing loud baggy pants and huge red noses appeared from opposite sides of the stage riding unicycles.
“Max, why didn’t you tell me you had relatives in show business?” said Allison.
“Your trip to the Eastern Shore sounds fascinating,” said Betty Pringle a few days later. She had dropped by Alison’s house to catch up on things.
“It should be an eye opener,” said Allison. “So how’s the job at the bank going?”
“Not bad,” said Betty. “I can’t do what I want much of the time, what with all the rules and regulations, but otherwise, it’s fine. How about you? Do you ever have that trouble at work?”
“Sure. I suppose everybody does. They’re pretty understanding, but I can’t always write what I want. I had this idea for an article about the people on the home front during the war waiting for our boys to return from France and how it affected them, but the paper wasn’t interested. The thing is, I already had the article written. I’ve been putting it together for months. I was all ready to spring it on them, but I hit a brick wall.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“What do you mean, ‘what am I going to do?’ I’m putting the article in a drawer. I wonder if I should start a special file for rejected articles? You’ve heard of a hope chest? Maybe I’ll start a hopeless chest.”
“You couldn’t offer it to another paper?”
“Not if I wanted to keep my job.”
“How about a magazine?”
“A magazine? I never thought of that. My contract only says I can’t write for competing newspapers. I don’t think it says anything about magazines. Hmmm. It would be a shame to waste a perfectly good article. Maybe I’ll submit it somewhere and see what happens.”
“How about Today’s Woman? I’ll bet they’d eat it up.”
“Today’s Woman it is.”
Parson, Jenkins Associates occupied a red brick row house on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore. Inside was a scattering of desks interspersed with filing cabinets, drafting tables, and rolls of drawings.
“So Max, I hear you’re visiting the Eastern Shore next week?” said Jake Parsons . “Maybe see how things have changed?”
Max looked up from his desk.
“Probably not much,” said Max. “You know how it is on the shore.”
“Yeah, I know things move slowly across the bay.”
“I’ll tell you what, though,” said Max thoughtfully. “I hear there’s a lot more motor traffic now. Now that the war is over and people have a little more money, more are driving. I hear there are more electrical wires as well. When I was a kid, very few houses had electricity. Things might be starting to move a bit. I also hear some roads are actually being paved.”
Parson nodded. “You’re right, Max. Things are picking up a bit. Now that more people have automobiles, they don’t want to get bogged down in the mud every time it rains. It’s not exactly a booming area, but the state is upgrading and improving more roads and bridges. We just picked up a couple of design jobs there, starting in a few months. All we have to do is find someone local to run things. Know anybody?”
“Most of my old pals are watermen, but let me think about it.”
The steamship Emma Giles backed away from the terminal on Light Street in Baltimore, turned, and started towards the harbor mouth with its side paddlewheels turning. Max and Allison stood on the rail on the upper deck watching the buildings pass. As it was early morning, several steamships were also starting out, while several more were arriving from overnight runs from Norfolk. The stately white vessels seemed to be doing some slow moving minuet in the harbor as they maneuvered in or out of the berths at the terminal.
“Oh, Max. This is exciting. No wonder you liked the Navy.”
“Well, this isn’t quite the same as the North Atlantic, but it does float.”
“I can’t wait to see the Eastern Shore. All I’ve seen of it are the beaches at Tolchester and Betterton. Well, we took the train to Ocean City once when I was little, but I don’t remember much about the scenery.”
Max smiled. “Don’t worry. Things don’t change much on the shore. Whatever you saw then is probably still there.”
“Well, we’ve got several more hours, so we might as well find a deck chair and relax,” said Allison.
“Yes, it’s going to take a while,” Max agreed. “Now, if I had a Curtiss Jenny right now, we could be there in less than an hour.”
“Are you really serious about buying a war surplus airplane, Max? You’ve mentioned it several times already.”
“Absolutely,” said Max. “Aviation is the future and I want to be part of it. Why, they’re already talking about an airplane that can fly to Europe. Maybe even passengers one day.”
“So, what’s stopping you, other than worrying about me getting heart attack every time you go up?”
“Right now I live in a small apartment. We’ll look for a bigger one when we get married, but it still won’t have any land. It’ll be years before we can save enough for a house of our own. I’d have to keep the thing at a farm somewhere. Even then, it would be out in the weather and I’d never be able to maintain it. No, it just isn’t practical right now.”
“Meanwhile, steamboats may be slow, but they are comfortable and beautiful,” said Allison.
She watched a seagull swooping across the Emma Giles’s wake. “So what’s the itinerary?”
“We dock at Claiborne this afternoon. That’s probably where you once got the train for Ocean City. My Uncle Bingo will pick us up and take us to see my folks up in Easton for dinner.”
“So what’s Uncle Bingo like?”
“He’s a builder and all around handyman. He can build or fix anything. He got me interested in engineering when I was a kid. He used to say ‘Max, get an education. Don’t be ignorant like me’.”
“Sounds like a great guy.”
“Not everyone would describe him that way. I have to warn you, he’s a lifelong bachelor and well-known grump. Some call him the orneriest man in Claiborne. He doesn’t like women.”
“Ah; a rural misogynist. I can hardly wait.”
“Don’t take it personally, Allison; he doesn’t like men much, either. Even when he talked to me, he’d act like I was bothering him, but I knew it was just part of his grump act. Uncle Bingo has been talking about picking up stakes and going to California for years. He says he’s fed up with everyone on the Eastern Shore. They’re probably fed up with him as well.”
Several hours later, the Emma Giles tied up in Claiborne and a throng of people swarmed down the gangplank and onto the train waiting on the same wharf. Max and Allison avoided the Ocean City Flyer and picked their way across the tracks. Under a tree on the shore was a battered Chevrolet truck and by the truck stood a skinny man with a bushy beard and his arms folded.
“Hello, Uncle Bingo.”
“Max,” Bingo nodded curtly.
“Allison, this is my Uncle Bingo. Uncle Bingo, this is Allison.”
Uncle Bingo looked at Allison suspiciously, but Allison seemed to have discovered a long-lost friend.
“Hello, Uncle Bingo. Max says you’re going to California. How exciting,” Allison flashed a dazzling smile and acted as if meeting the orneriest man in Claiborne had always been her greatest ambition. Uncle Bingo looked confused.
“It’s so beautiful out there. My father has some relatives there. They grow oranges in their yard. What part of California were you thinking of?”
“Uh, well, maybe around Los Angeles. I figured I could grow grapes and maybe make some wine, but then came that dang fool Prohibition and I put the idea on hold. Buncha dang politicians…”
“Who needs wine? Los Angeles is booming,” said Allison. “Between the movie industry, agriculture, manufacturing and the port, Los Angeles has plenty of opportunity. Max says you’re so smart, you could do what you want there.”
Uncle Bingo looked at her, then looked at Max and nodded.
“Well, we’d better get going,” Bingo said.
As they got in the truck, Max whispered to Allison. “If you think you can work your charm on Uncle Bingo, don’t bother. He has a well-deserved reputation to uphold.”
“Why, Max. I’m just being sociable.”
Uncle Bingo’s house was located between Claiborne and nearby St Michaels. It was a surprisingly handsome and cozy place at the end of a long curving driveway paved with crushed oyster shells. Several old trees provided shade and somewhere just out of sight, several ducks were fussing loudly.
“Uncle Bingo, this place is beautiful,” said Allison. “I can see how hard it would be to go to California when you have all this. Did you build it yourself?”
“The whole thing,” Uncle Bingo said proudly. “Best dang house in St Michaels. She’s already withstood a hurricane and a dozen nor’easters.”
“Well, there you go,” said Allison. “Forget about the grapes. You could be California’s master builder.”
“Humph. I’ll tell you one thing, Miss Allison; I could show those people a thing or two. It would take more than an earthquake to knock down any house I built. Well, you can sit on the porch here and I’ll get some soda pop.”
“Could I see the inside of the house first?” said Allison.
“Inside? Well, I guess so. Come on in.”
“Am I invited, too?” Max asked.
“Suit yourself,” said Uncle Bingo. “This way, Miss Allison.
A few minutes later, they emerged on the porch again.
“Are you sure you’ve never had any architectural training, Uncle Bingo?” said Allison. “That house has the best layout I’ve ever seen. It even faces south to catch the light. I just love it.”
“Well, you know, Miss Allison, you’d be surprised how many people around here’ll just plop a house down any danged place without a thought of which way it faces. They wind up with the north wind blowing in the front door and the sun hitting the side with the fewest windows.”
They settled down in wicker chairs on the spacious front porch and for the next hour, Max mostly was a bystander as Allison and Uncle Bingo carried on a wide ranging discussion of architecture, travel, California, the oyster market, agriculture on the Eastern Shore, and President Harding (Uncle Bingo couldn’t stand him.) Finally, Max reminded them they had to get to his parents’ house in time for dinner.
Uncle Bingo escorted Allison to the car, then took Max aside.
“You did good, Max. You did real good.”
“Thanks Uncle Bingo,” said Max, beaming. “I think so.”
He leaned over and whispered. “Damn good-looking, too.”
By the time they got to Easton, meeting Max’s parents was almost an anti-climax. Tom Hurlock looked like and older version of Max and his mother Ruth looked as if she wore an apron every waking moment, although she seemed to have a keen interest in local politics as well. Tom was the local postmaster and tinkered with boat motors in his spare time. Allison noticed a complete set of the Harvard Classics as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica on the parlor shelves.
Ruth was an excellent cook and created an awkward moment when she asked Allison how she kept chicken breasts from being dry. Fighting the urge to reply “I just order them that way at the restaurant,” Allison said that she just used lots of basting, something she remembered her mother saying. She didn’t have the heart to admit to Max’s mother that she was hopeless as a cook.
Uncle Bingo reverted to his taciturn self somewhat, but did reveal one interesting detail. He was acting as a contractor on a large house being built on the other side of the Miles River.
“Don’t know who the owner is,” he said. “Never saw him. I work for Ned Gunther. He’s sort of a general contractor come all the way from Pittsburgh. I asked him once about the owners and he just clammed up. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Whoever the owner is, he likes his privacy. That place is going to have a fence around it and a big kennel for guard dogs.”
Uncle Bingo excused himself and headed home around eight. The next day, Max took Allison to some of his childhood haunts, especially St Michaels, with its packing houses and shipbuilding waterfront.
Outside the general store in St Michaels, Max picked up a copy of the Easton Star-Democrat, the local newspaper. Allison looked it over critically as she flipped the pages. “All right, Max; I can see the advertising circular, but where’s the newspaper?”
“Well, there’s not a lot that goes on around here,” said Max, looking over her shoulder. “Hey that article is by my old pal Chip Carswell. I went to school with him; worst speller in the class.”
Allison looked at the article. “”MYSTERY MANSION RISES ON THE MILES’. Max, this is an entire article about a house someone is building on the Miles River. Are they that desperate for news?”
Max read the article over her shoulder. “That must be the place Uncle Bingo was talking about. It says the place is huge and is being built by a wealthy couple from Pittsburgh. Nobody seems to know anything about them. Pretty mysterious, I’d say.”
“What mystery?” said Allison, closing the paper. “They’re from Pittsburgh and have money. No doubt they’re hooked up with the Carnegies or the Fricks, or some such steel magnate and are building a summer home for a getaway. Mystery solved.”
“You’re probably right,” said Max, ” but it does get tongues wagging,” said Max. I guess that’s what happens when the Eastern Shore gets discovered by the outside world.”
They spent another night with Max’s parents, who were obviously delighted with Allison, despite her lack of culinary skills. The next morning, Tom Hurlock took them back to the steamboat pier in Claiborne for the trip back to Baltimore.
“Bingo called this morning,” Max’s father said as they got in the Packard. “He asked me to drop you off at his place and he’ll take you the rest of the way. Said he had something else to tell you.”
“What do you suppose that’s all about?” said Max.
Tom shrugged. “Well, Max, you know Bingo. He gets sudden notions sometimes. I try to humor him.”
After Tom Hurlock said goodbye and drove away, Bingo asked them to come inside and sit in the parlor. “There’s plenty of time to get to the steamboat, but I wanted to talk to you before you go.”
“Sure, Uncle Bingo,” said Max.
“The thing is…well…I’m going to California, just as soon as I finish working on that place on the river.”
“Uh huh,” said Max.
“No, Max. I mean it this time. I’m not getting any younger, but I never wanted to leave this house and let some danged stranger get it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Max. I want you and Allison to have this house when you get married.”
Max and Allison looked at each other. “This house? Uncle Bingo, this is a great house, but we’re just starting out. We could never afford…”
“Who said anything about money? I’m giving you the house. Call it a wedding present.”
“What? Come on Uncle Bingo. We could never accept….”
Bingo turned to Allison.
“Miss Allison, would you please ask your hard-headed future husband to keep his mouth shut for a few minutes? He might learn something.”
Allison looked at Max and shrugged. “You heard the man.”
“I’m not going to California to make my fortune,” Bingo began. “I got all the money I need. I’m going for something new; something different. I don’t need any more money and I don’t need this house. I’m signing it over to you, free and clear. If you sell it, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that at least I wasn’t the one that sold it to a stranger.”
Max and Allison were silent, trying to grasp what Uncle Bingo was saying.
“Look,” Bingo said softly. “I never had a wife and I never had kids. Max is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a son. I kinda feel responsible for helping him out if I can. I never did before because I didn’t know what sort of dang fool girl he was going to hitch up to, but I’m not worried about that any more. Max, I don’t know how in the world you ever snagged anyone like Miss Allison here, but, if you got the brains God gave a duck, you hang onto her. And, well, if you both would live in my house, I’d be honored.”
Max and Allison looked at each other.
“I know you both have good jobs back in Baltimore, and you probably can’t just pack up and move here, but I still want you to have the house. If you sell it right away, at least you’ll have a nest egg to start your life with. That’s my wedding present.”
“Uncle Bingo, I…” Max began.
“Come on,” said Bingo, rising from his chair. “We gotta go; do you want to miss your steamer?”
“Oh, no, Uncle Bingo,” said Allison. “You’re not getting off that easily.” She stepped up to him, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, you dear, generous man. Thank you.”
“Aw, come on, Miss Allison,” he said hoarsely. He was blushing. “You got a steamboat to catch.”
As Claiborne receded into the morning mist, Max and Allison talked about the house.
“It’s a great house,” said Max, “and there’s a lot of property and a barn to keep an airplane, but what would we do for a living? We both work in Baltimore. One thing that is in very short supply on the Eastern Shore is employment that doesn’t involve oystering, farming, or working in a packing house.”
“I love that house,” said Allison, “but you’re right; how would we live over there? Still, I hate the thought of just selling it.”
Max looked out over the bay silently for a moment. “You know, Jake Parson is looking for a local to run some engineering jobs over there; roads and bridges and the like. He asked me if I knew anyone. I could volunteer.”
Allison nodded. “But what about my job at the Sun? Max, I’m finally writing and getting paid for it. I love you, but I need something more than sitting in Bingo’s house listening to the clock tick.”
Max sighed. “Well, there’s a local paper, the Easton Star-Democrat. My friend Chip Carswell works there. Maybe they’d be interested in a veteran Sun reporter.”
“Max, with all due respect to the land of your birth, I saw a copy of the Star-Democrat. It’s a series of ads and farm reports tied together by a scattering of week-old local news stories about lost cats or tractor accidents. What would they want me for; to spice up the obituaries?”
“As always, you have a point,” said Max, obviously deflated. “You’re a talented woman. I won’t ask you to marry me and then expect you to languish in a house in the back waters of the Eastern Shore waiting for me to get home. Your writing is important and you’re destined for something better.”
“Thank you, Max.
When the Emma Giles docked back in Baltimore, they were no closer to a solution. The ride back on the streetcar was a quiet one.