3.0 WHO /WHAT MADE ME;

 

3.1 EARLY EXPERIENCES.

 

My mother was less than five foot, two, and weighed between 90 and100 pounds before she had me. I was born at home, and backward, (breech), My weight was estimated by the doctor at about nine and a half pounds. The doctor sent dad to the drug store to get some medicine. Actually it was just to get him out of the way. My oldest memory was at a “flat” on Carter Avenue in St Louis. Our families moved from flat to flat in groups of three. We lived upstairs above grandma and grandpa and uncle Ed and aunt Ella and aunt Mary lived one or two houses away. I have two “first memories”. I remember the family moving from one set of flats on Carter Avenue to another set of them about a block away. I remember our new address was 4585a Carter Avenue. By the way, a flat was what we called a two story rental with one “apartment” upstairs and a separate one below. They may have been called flats because some of them had flat roofs. The new location was about half way up a steep hill. The old  “double decker” busses had to get a running downhill running start to make it up the hill.

 

My other “first memory” I think is remembered because my folks told it so often that I couldn’t forget it. I remember staring through a fence at the big kids playing in St. Englebert’s schoolyard. I had to cross two busy streets and walk a long city block to get there. Apparently I came home with a stick in my hand which mom proceeded to whip me with. (They were so mean to me.)

 

Grandma had a player piano. I remember when I was big enough to pump the pedals, the three girl cousins and I would sing along to; “ My Buddy”,” Peggy O’Neal.”  “The “Prisoner’s Song”:

Oh if I had the wings of an angel

Over these prison bars I would fly

And I’d fly to the arms of my loved one

And there I’d be willing to die.

At my age, I couldn’t see how anyone would be willing to die.

And then there was;

It’s only a shanty in old shanty town

The roof is so slanty it touches the ground

Just a tumble down shack

By an old railroad track

Like a millionaire’s mansion

It’s calling me back

I’d give up my palace if I were a king

It’s more than a palace, it’s my everything

There’s a queen waiting there

With her silvery crown

In my shanty in old shanty town

I didn’t realize at my age that the depression was at it’s worst, and there were homeless, jobless people living in tin and tarpaper shacks at the time. I remember later, while on the excursion boat trips down the Mississippi, seeing “Hooverville”, a collection of shanties on the riverfront.

 

I believe we also played and sang the first song I ever memorized, “ Springtime in the Rockies”;

When it’s springtime in the Rockies

I’ll be coming back to you

Little sweetheart of the Rockies

With your bonny eyes so blue

Once again I’ll say I love you

While the birds sing all the day

When It’s springtime in the Rockies

In the Rockies far away

 

 There were three pianos in our clan. We had one, aunt Ella had one, and grandma had one     Nobody in the whole bunch knew how to play one. For the edification of the uninformed,

a player piano was a wonderful magic machine. There is a scroll of paper about a foot wide with perforations, one for each piano key. The foot pedal moves the scroll across a bar and blows air through the holes actuating the piano keys. The words are printed on the scroll so you can sing along. It worked without the magic of electronics. By the way, Ed and Ella had a “ Victrola” that played records, also without electricity. They also had a copy of a famous painting called “September Morn”. It showed a naked lady stepping into a babbling brook. It was very “fuzzy” and not explicit, but I was mortified by it. although I don’t think I ever mentioned it to anyone.

 

When I was five, mom took me to enroll in kindergarten at St. Engelbert’s. Sister said I looked big for my age, so she put me in first grade. So all through school, I was a year younger than my classmates. In those days school was simple and inexpensive. Almost all the teachers were nuns, working for almost nothing. We walked to school, walked home for lunch. All we did was sit down and learn and take home our homework. When we moved to Shirley place we were in the same parish, so I didn’t have to change schools.

 

Life in the city was simple but pleasant. Cousins and friends and school and Church were within walking distance. For a long time I didn’t know there were any “non-catholics” in the world. Our friends, the Haenels, Herman and Ethyl, were not only non-catholics, but they were the only “Republicans” we knew. Ruthie Menges lived next door to us on Carter Avenue. She was a year older than I. When she was six, I was five and I thought,  “next year I’ll catch up with her”. Unfortunately I did. She caught the measles at about age six, developed pneumonia and died. I guess I’ll never forget that.

 

 Life in the city had a lot of amenities. I remember when we got our first refrigerator. Before that we had an ice man who came by daily, (I think), and carried blocks of “fresh” ice up the stairs and put it in the “ice box”. We would leave a sign in the window, letting him know if we wanted 25 or 50 pounds, or none. It was a great treat when he “accidentally” spilled a few small pieces for us to chew on. We didn’t need a refrigerator to keep the milk cold, since the milkman came by every morning with a fresh supply. The grown-ups bought groceries on almost a daily basis, usually by phone. Mom would call up and order meat, cut to order, vegetables and whatever. It would be delivered within a couple hours. If you went to the grocery store you stood at the counter and told the clerk what you wanted and he, or she, picked it up, brought it back and put it in your bag and carried it to the car. (If you had a car)  There were many people who made a living doing “menial chores” in those days. Chores now performed by “do it yourselfers” or “high-tech” gadgets.

 

There was a truck with fresh vegetables daily, (I think), and a White’s Bakery truck that came by. He used to come by with a horse drawn wagon, and people congratulated him when he got a truck. He said it was no improvement. He used to stop his wagon, visit several houses, and the horse would keep up and meet him at the new spot. Then he would mount the wagon, let the horse “drive” to the next stopping point while he did his “paperwork”. Now, he had to go back, move the truck, and drive on, doing his paperwork afterwards. There was also a hot tamale vendor, a knife and scissors grinder, a “rag- picker” and a few other vendors who came by. We even had an “old lamp lighter”, an old gentleman who lit the gas lit street lamps in the evening and turned them off in the morning

 

I was part of the last generation to grow up without TV. The beauty of it was that we didn’t miss it. We had closer family ties and we had radio. (We also had voice recognition telephones. You picked up the receiver and an operator said: “number please”). Radio in those days was a source of quality entertainment. The best entertainers from vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood gravitated to radio. Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, (George) Burns and Allen, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and many more. Radio did not demand your undivided attention. You could listen with one ear whole doing your homework. Comedy and serious drama were to be found there. 

 

The best part of radio was that it left something to the imagination. In “Amos and Andy” the kingfish had various ways of describing his “momma-in-law”. “She had the disposition of a hermit crab, the beauty of a wart hog and the sense of humor of a wounded rhinoceros”. Now every listener conjured up his own picture of this person.

 

Radio also had fifteen minute adventure stories that ran between school time and supper time. Tom Mix and his Ralston straight shooters, Jack Armstrong the all-American boy,) he was a student/athlete at Hudson High for at least ten years.) And, of course, Little Orphan Annie (as portrayed in the movie, “A Christmas Story.)  As a matter of fact I had a lot in common with Ralphie in that movie. I had a Little Orphan Annie decoder badge, a Red Rider 250 shot carbine style bb gun with a compass in the stock. I even had a “lucky Lindy” aviator’s helmet with goggles. I also had a little brother who wouldn’t eat  and a fight with a bully, but I didn’t wear glasses.

 

I interrupt this story for a little bit of showing off. I remember most of the words to their theme songs:

 

 

Jack Armstrong;

Wave the flag for Hudson High boys

Show them how we stand

Ever shall our team be champions

Known throughout the land

Little orphan Annie;

Who’s that little chatterbox

The one with pretty auburn locks

Cute little she

It’s little orphan Annie

Bright eyes, always on the go

There’s a sign of healthiness handy

Mite size, cheeks a rosy glow

If you want to know

 “Arf says sandy

Always wears a sunny smile

Now wouldn’t it be worth your while

If you could be

Like little orphan Annie

Of course, if you wanted to be like Annie, you would drink your Ovaltine.

 

While I ‘m in the mood for nostalgia, what I believe was the first ever singing commercial went like this;

Pepsi Cola hit’s the spot

Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot

Twice as much for a nickel, too

Pepsi Cola is the drink for you

You can tell by the price how old this commercial was.

 

Catholic schools in those days were taught mainly by volunteer “slave labor”. Dedicated nuns who had almost no salary and no “ family life” to distract them. We walked to school and walked home for lunch, (or brought it). No computers, no fancy teaching tools. It was the three “R’s” plus Religion. If sister spanked you, you didn’t go home and tell mom, unless you wanted another spanking. Of course, I was so good I never needed to be punished.

 

Sports were a spontaneous thing. There were no little leagues with practice and referees and demanding parents. You went to a gathering place, chose sides and started playing. In those days in the city, we usually went to the Steinlage’s house. They had three boys about our age and three older siblings we seldom saw. Everyone got to play. (There was no bench..) If you didn’t feel like playing you didn’t go there. If there weren’t enough players to cover three bases we played with two bases. If you had less players you played “Indian ball”. No baserunners, two baselines, one or two infielders, one or two outfielders. You hit the ball, if it’s fielded cleanly you were out. If not, it’s a single. After you load the bases, every hit scores a run. Cork ball was played by similar rules of scoring. A minimum team consisted of a pitcher and a catcher. The pitcher threw a small, unstable ball, (It was almost impossible to throw anything but a curve ball), the batter swung a broomstick sized bat. One strike is an out, unless the catcher drops the ball. Foul tips don’t count. If the ball is hit in front of the plate and not caught in the air, it’s a single. I presently posses a bat and a couple balls, for museum purposes.

 

Some of the good things about those times;

 

Police were considered our friends. Once, when our streets were covered with packed snow and we children were sledding down the hill, the police barricaded the street so the cars had to use the alleys to get to their homes.

 

The only drug “addicts” were criminals and some musicians.

 

We walked the streets at night without fear. (Partly because of ignorance.)

 

We members of the “knot hole gang” could watch major league baseball for free.

 

Some of the bad things about those times;

 

The practice of medicine was far removed from what we know today. As I mentioned earlier, the little girl next door died from pneumonia, a complication following measles. Pneumonia was often fatal in those days.

 

We were in the midst of the “Great Depression”. There were no unemployment benefits, no welfare and virtually no jobs. Joan’s dad Will had a job. Her uncle Fred didn’t. His family moved in with Will’s family, instead of sleeping on the street.

 

The world was covered with soot. Virtually all homes with central heating were heated with coal. If you ever wondered why movies of that era showed “common folks’” homes in dark colors of woodwork and wallpaper. Soot was the answer. Coal was shoveled from a truck, down a “coal chute” into a bin in the basement. Coal dust and fly ash abounded. Every morning you could open your window and brush powdered ash off the windowsill. Also, the ashes had to be removed from time to time. They were placed in “ash pits”. Concrete things shaped like a bath tub about six feet by four feet square by four feet high. At least that’s how I saw them as a child. They were also a popular breeding place for rats. (No fun)

 

When my baby brother was born I was five years old. I was so naïve and people were so secretive about pregnancy that I had no idea he was coming. I guess I didn’t notice that mom was getting fat because one day I got up and dad said mom was in the hospital and I had a new baby brother. I was so happy to have a playmate, and so disappointed to see how small and helpless he was. I wanted to call him Bill, and for some reason they agreed. He was not named after anyone as I was, (after grandpa John), but uncle Ed, who was William Edgar, thought Bill was named after him. As far as I know nobody told him different.

 

Bill was a skinny kid and a poor eater. I was the one who would eat almost anything put in front of me. He was not sickly, but he didn’t have a great immune system such as mine. I would come home with a “touch” of scarlet fever. I would miss a few days school and pass the germ on to Bill, who would get very sick and miss a few weeks of school. When we went to a restaurant, I would wait till after Bill ordered. Then if he ordered chicken, I would order steak, knowing I would get to finish his chicken. During the war, when food was rationed, especially meat, Bill suddenly acquired an appetite and never relinquished it, becoming the well rounded person we know today.

 

When I was about eleven, we moved to the suburbs, a place called Bel-Nor in Normandy, Mo. I was in sixth grade. I finished grade school at St Ann’s, in Normandy. I met Jack Sly, who lived in the next block.( his back yard touched ours). He became my best friend throughout my life.

 

The “gathering place” in Bel-Nor was the Smith’s house. There were three boys there, so that’s where make-up baseball and football games were organized. During the games, for refreshments, volunteers would go across the road to Bellerieve Acres to collect apples. There were large houses on large lots with lots of apple trees. We would eat them, hard as rocks and green as grass, through the summer until they were ripe and ready. When they were ripe, the summer (vacation) was almost over. That’s how the summer went. In spring, before school let out, we could pick cherries. In summer, apples and pears. When the grapes were ripe, it was time to go back to school. Sometimes we had permission, more often, they were “swiped”. (They tasted better). It never occurred to us that we might be “stealing”.

 

In the eighth grade, we went to a few “dances’. There wasn’t a lot of dancing. Believe it or not, most boys were not that interested in girls at that time. The best dance that year was at Koenig’s farm, where I ate strawberries right off the vine for the first time.

 

p.s. When we were small we used to play games like; “hide and seek”, “cops and robbers”,    “cowboys and Indians”, and sometimes “war”. I remember the first time war was explained to me. Grown-ups going out and trying to kill each other, (total strangers). It was hard to comprehend. It still is.

 

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