Chapter 1: A Rare Picture

Better Angels - Front Cover

The sound of shattering glass pulled David Charles Phelan out of a fevered sleep into the thick heat of his bedroom. He sat up gasping and crying out. Sma-a-sh! The sound came once more by the open door of his room, and he shivered and cried out again. “Mama?”

“Get up and get dressed, Davy. We’re going out.” It was not a dream, but he wished it were. By the yellow light of the street lamp
beyond his bedroom window screen, David saw his mother standing
in front of the hand-carved case mounted on the facing wall. Lulu
Pearl Phelan ran the black poker around and around the inside of it
to scythe away the remaining shards and reached in to remove the
bat. David flinched and stared at the ruins of his father’s special case
and could not believe his eyes. The special bat had a crack and been
discarded. But it had been hand-carved by Ty Cobb from the wood
of the rare chestnut-oaks that grew in his hometown of Royston
Georgia. His father Wallace Charles treasured it.

“But Papa will…” What? He sensed his father’s absence from their
well-kept house on Gladstone Avenue, just west of the Hiram Walker Distillery and the Ford City auto plant, where Wallace Charles Phelan worked as an interior carpenter. “Why, Mama?” David couldn’t imagine the shape of his father’s anger.

“Quickly now, Davy.” Lulu stepped carefully over the glass into the dim light by his front bedroom window, the bat in one hand, the poker in the other. “It’s himself I’m going to deal with.” No hint ofthe Spanish in his mother’s Irish cream skin and the red hair, piledneatly atop her head, with a single strand escaped from the hold of the pins and tortoiseshell combs from her exertions. The unprecedentedsight of that escaped hair scared David more than anything else.

The bat looked too large for his mother’s slim stature, but her anger had given her strength, and the force of her will was irresistible, even to his father. David thought of the sharp spike on the wicked looking axe head so prominent at the entrance to his King Edward Elementary School: USE ONLY IN CASE OF FIRE. The head and handle were painted blood red. Now his mother seemed to burn in the half-dark, red rising until her cheeks glowed with colour. “Get a move on, Davy.” She gestured with the bat.

David got his shorts and clean shirt from the top of the dresser, where Lulu had laid them out herself, put them on over his under shorts, then sat back on the bed to pull on his socks and the boots he kept neatly together under the single bed. His fingers were sweaty, and David had a hard time with the shirt buttons and shoelaces, but finally stood up in his mother’s shadow.

“What time is it?” The steel alarm clock on the side table faced away, but its ticking was loud in the room, the mechanical chewing of an animal.

“It’s just gone half ten. Mind the glass.”

“Where’s Father?”

“Well now, that’s the question, isn’t it?” His mother’s tone upset him further. It had the same quality as the clock. Wallace Phelan was a skilled carpenter and wood carver, his talents in demand on both sides of the Detroit River, especially in the throes of the Great War, when both Detroit and Windsor had worked continuous
shifts to supply its monstrous appetite for men and material. Those four years had been a dark time for young David, and even now he had not fully taken it in. There had been an edge of desperation in his parents’ hugging and expressions of reassurance, even before he was old enough to understand all the words. The effect was the opposite, leaving David more fearful, with a childish anger that was all the more disturbing because it was so diffuse, so lacking in focus. When the war broke out, David’s single bed had been moved back into his parents’ room just before he turned three. It remained there until he began half-day school at four, when embarrassment over the situation in the presence of his new schoolmates trumped his fears.
“I think I want my room back, Father.” David had announced it after grace at their big meal on a Sunday afternoon.

“There’s our little man!” His father had praised him. “We’ll take the bed apart and move it over after supper. Your mother and I could do with a wee more privacy.” He winked at David.

“Wallace! Not in front of the boy.” His father had laughed and squeezed his shoulder, and his mother blushed, but was drawn into the laughter, in spite of herself. His father had that gift. David warmed to feel the love between his parents, and the old anxieties continued to recede.

Yet his mother’s sudden embarrassment intrigued him—until he remembered those sounds coming from his parents’ bed some mornings, before he was all the way awake. The moving shapes like sawing wood. Lulu softly crying out. At first it was just an annoyance he tried to ignore that drove him more deeply into his bedclothes. Awake, some instinct told David not to raise the subject, especially with his mother.

Then there were the older boys at his King Edward Elementary School, on Ottawa Street. After school was out, David often saw them at the school gate, talking in lowered voices behind their hands and watching the girls go by in laughing groups—but with quick glances back too, as if they knew the boys talked about them, and didn’t mind it, and exchanged whispers of their own. “Toddle your arse home, Phelan. Come back when you have some hair on your pecker,” Brian Broder had mocked, aiming a kick at him.

It was another mystery to David and his friends, one of many, quickly forgotten when the bat and ball came out and the raucous choosing of the sides for scrub baseball on the cinder playground began. Still, he thought his father might be more approachable when it came to the subject of girls.


David had been born in 1912, considered a banner year by Wallace Charles Phelan. His wife, Lulu Pearl Phelan, had given birth to a fine son and, almost as important, the old Bennett Field had given birth to Navin Field, which became the new home of his favourite Detroit Tigers baseball team and its genius of the bat, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the ‘Georgia Peach’. “Tyrus, the man’s father named him, after the ancient city of Tyre on the Mediterranean Sea. Supposed to have admired the way the people there didn’t give in to a siege by a powerful army led by a general called Alexander the Great.”

“Sounds like Mama,” David said.

“Indeed, it does. So, a professor the man was and knew such things. Wanted his son to be a doctor or a grand lawyer. Too much hard drinking, cursing and tobacco-chewing in the sport for his tastes.”

“Mama doesn’t like those things either.”

“And aren’t I just the walking illustration?” Wallace struck a dignified

“Sometimes you are.”

“You have the Phelan wit and tongue, and I hope the sense to know when to hold them both.”

“It would be hard to talk with a cherry all-day in my mouth.” His father laughed and took him by the shoulders.

“You drive a hard bargain, my son.” But they walked west, all the way up Sandwich Street, and he bought David the special hard sweet on a stick from N. M. Meisner’s Confectionery—and then one for himself, to David’s surprise and amusement. “I believe you’re right, Davy.”

“Ah, Davy! You and the stadium, the luck of the Emerald Isle and the luck of the faithful gamesman, coming together in in one glorious concert,” his father would declare more than once.David’s parents had met while riding one of the Detroit Belle Isle and Windsor passenger ferries between the two cities, on a Sunday
afternoon in the summer of 1909. Lulu, with her cousin and friends from the Central Methodist Church, was on her way to a combined Methodist Church picnic that had been jointly organized by the Detroit and Windsor congregations, this one near Detroit’s Corktown village. The village was the place where many Irish immigrants had settled, resisting a farther move southwards to the larger Hibernian enclaves in Boston and New York, but working as cheap labourers in the expanding city, now with its thriving auto and manufacturing industries on both sides of the Detroit River.

But sectarian divisions remained strict between the British-leaning Protestants and the generally poorer, but numerous Catholics, mostly descendants of the so-called “Famine Irish,” living, worshipping, and breeding under the paternal eye of Rome in a new country where it was easier to be a good Irishman, a good Catholic and a good American, than in the monarchist-loving Dominion of Canada to the north.

Lulu was often angry at the situation. “Don’t the parish priests know the poor families can barely feed the children they have? The little ones starving and the poor mothers worn out with childbearing and bearing still.” But she felt sad too, David knew.

In Canada, where British citizenship remained the key to success, the Catholic priests and bishops damned from the pulpit all support for Irish nationalism, on the altar of recognition and social acceptance
for their Republican-leaning parishes. Thus, the rebellious sentiments of the Fenian Brotherhood, and even the later, less extreme Ancient Order of Hibernians, remained anathema to the Irish Catholic Church in Canada, and were considered evil sedition by Irish Protestants like the Phelans. “We stood ready at the Boyne, and the Orange stand ready still,” Wallace would pronounce—but only out of his mother’s hearing.

Lulu Pearl was passionate on this matter too. “Did the Irish famines and the Great War teach us nothing? Leave the Troubles in Ireland where they belong. Canada is our hearth and home. I’ll not have you filling our son’s head with that old hate, Wallace. We have a new century and a new cause and trouble enough here. Devote your energies to the breaking of the Devil’s cup!”


Now it was his father’s prize bat case that was broken, and David walking out into the humid night. His right hand was in his mother’s left and her right hand was holding Cobb’s bat. David had the sick feeling his father had indeed gone to the Devil, and his mother was about to drag him back. Or worse.

It was July 12, 1919—celebrated, not quite accurately, as the 229th anniversary of the Protestant Orange victory of good King Billy over the Catholic hordes of the deposed James II, in his unholy alliance with French forces, at the river Boyne. That was the old cause. David knew his mother’s love for his father, and his father’s love for her in return. But Temperance was the new cause, her cause, and Lulu Pearl Phelan was as dedicated and fierce in its defence as any Fenian.

“Stay close now, Davy. And do exactly what I say.” Standing on their front porch, David held Cobb’s bat while his mother fastened her blue cloth purse at her waist, tucked the stray hair under her narrow straw hat and took his hand. They turned north on Gladstone Avenue, headed toward the Detroit River. “Exactly what I say.
You hear me?”

“Yes, Mama.”

But David began to cry. And when his mother, Lulu Pearl, looked down at him, he saw the tears in her eyes too.

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