My mother was so intent on becoming an actress that eventually even Memaw got on board and told her that after she graduated from high school, she'd support her financially for one year. After that she would be on her own. Whitney attended the lower division of Pasadena City College, a sort of accelerated high school program for students interested in the performing arts, and she helped out at the college radio station, which was where she met my father, Tom Baxter. Just after Whitney turned eighteen, she got her high school diploma, she and Tom got married, and Whitney was finally able to move away from her mother. My father supported his rapidly growing family as an engineer with the Southern Pacific Railroad and later as a sound engineer specializing in live radio and television.
A couple of times, when I was very young, I visited my dad's studio at the ABC Radio Center on Vine Street in Hollywood. He would sit in his booth with a bank of electronic equipment in front of him, monitoring whatever show was on the air. He sat in front of a large window, through which he could watch the actors read from their scripts in the sound booth. He loved to tell about the pranks he pulled that invariably involved compromising the actors while they were recording. This was my favorite story: Because the rustle of papers is to be avoided in radio, anyone reading from a script typically holds the script pages in the left hand, separates the page to be read with the right, and holds that page next to the microphone, speaking directly into the mike. When that page is finished, it is allowed to waft silently to the floor and the reader continues with the next page. So, midrecording, my father would quietly enter the actor's sound booth and set fire to the top of the single page being read, which would initiate a kind of race for the actor to calmly read his lines before the paper burned up the text, while not betraying any tension to the listening audience.
My father said that he quit the business in the fifties when radio and television went to tape because it ceased to be fun. I think there was nothing for him to set fire to.
By 1953, after about ten years, my parents' marriage was on its last legs and Whitney filed for divorce. I was only five. The last day my father lived with us, my mother was away from the house, and he was in a state of turmoil and despair, just pacing, pacing, pacing. He sat my brothers and me down in the living room and said very seriously, "When I leave, you're never going to see me again." We all started crying like crazy.
My father was hurt, his life had fallen apart. I think his drama-filled master plan must have been to have Whitney return home to find her husband gone and her children sobbing inconsolably because she'd driven him away.
Before my father made his grand exit, without telling us he called my mother to tell her to come home, we kids were alone. So when he drove away, we were scared and Dick called the only number we knew, which was our grandmother's, our father's mother. My grandparents arrived at the house followed closely by Whitney and Art, a guy she was having an affair with. Bedlam ensued with lots of yelling, accusations, and hysteria, and that was the end of my nuclear family.