The Way It Was| Part 6

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

Introduction: Welcome to Part 6 of The Way It Was from Eshrink. In Post 5, Eshrink wrote about his memories of the late 1930s (pre-war for Americans, but wartime for Europe). He also described everyday life, the values and customs of the day, as well as working conditions that he remembers from his dad’s stories working at a tile factory. In Part 6: Eshrink will write about his first experience with death, which is one reason he posits that he remembers this pre-war period so clearly.

The Way It Was: Part 6

Death | Funerals | Customs

Meanwhile,  ”across the pond,” the German panzers were on their way to achieving their goal of world domination.  In October 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. I recall the name Neville Chamberlain being disparaged, but later learned that his sin was in attempting to appease Hitler in order to spare England from attack.

chamberlain and hitler dads blogIt seemed that everyone except him knew that there would be no stopping the Germans until they had punished all of Europe for Germany ‘s defeat in WWI.  Those dates are remembered by me since the death of my paternal Grandfather was during the Russian invasion of Finland, which happened three months after Germany conquered Poland.  As we listened to the news, I was enthralled by stories of how, although hopelessly outnumbered, a few brave Fins had held off the entire Russian army with soldiers attacking on skis.  That would not be the last propaganda we would hear designed to bolster our spirits.

FInns on skis fighting russians dads blogDeath

My Grandfather’s death was illuminating in several ways.  This was my first experience in dealing with death, and I didn’t like it.  I visited him with Dad just two days before his death.  He was on his death bed as the saying goes and suffering from pneumonia, which has been called the “old man’s friend.”  In years to come, I would hear Dad express regrets that he had not complied with his Father’s last wish to bring him a bottle of Muscatel wine.  As was the custom, when my grandfather died, he was laid out in the parlor for all to see. There was a steady stream of visitors to offer both regrets and food.  In spite of the sadness of the occasion, I was enamored with all those goodies the ladies left on the kitchen table.

The burial was scheduled for three days after his death, which I have been told is just in case of a resurrection.  Ostensibly, for the same reason, it was mandatory that someone stay with the body night and day during the “showing.”  In this case, his children and their spouses took turns standing guard.  I have since read that the custom actually originated due to the fear that rats might undermine the undertaker’s efforts and spoil the whole show.  This particular death is also memorable because it was the only time I ever saw my Father cry.

It was customary to “take leave,” an exercise which took me by complete surprise!  The entire family was herded into the parlor, the door was closed, and suddenly as if on cue, everyone began to sob.  It was so loud that I cringed, and one of my aunts, who was famous for fainting at every opportunity, slipped from her husband’s arms and fell to the floor.  Just as I thought of a way to escape, the sobbing suddenly stopped. Again, as if on cue, eyes were dried, the undertaker closed the casket, and we headed for church where Scud’s virtues were briefly extoled and we made ready for the short walk to the graveyard behind the church (grandad’s real name was Jesse but known in the community as Scud).  Most of his friends would probably not even know his real name.  One’s given name was only to be used by strangers.  It had been a tough day, but all that pie and cake back at the house almost made up for it.

One of my regrets is that I feel as if I had never known either of my Dad’s parents very well in spite of having vague memories of visits there.  Although Grandad apparently had serious problems with alcohol, it now seems to me that he has not been given credit for some major accomplishments.  My one fond memory of him was when he introduced me to sugar on my tomatoes, which converted me to a tomato lover.  At the viewing, one of his acquaintances referred to him as a “tough old bird” which might contribute to him becoming the subject of another blog in the future.   It seems strange that I remember Grandma’s sister but little about Grandma.  The sister hosted the annual family reunion at the large dairy farm where she lived in a grand farmhouse.  We looked forward to these celebrations as they were great fun.  There were cousins galore and an abundance of the participants’ favorite recipes.  One of the highlights of the day was the performance by my great Uncle, who was an award winning “old time fiddler.”

Pre-War America as I Remember It.

During those prewar days, Europe took little notice of my small part of the world, but we were very concerned about what was going on over there.  There was vigorous debate as to what extent the US should be involved.  FDR had managed to increase military spending, and wanted to sell weapons to England.  The isolationists were successful in their opposition to even peripheral involvement by US.  Their view was that we were safe from attack due to the 3,000+ miles of ocean between–an idea that was soon to be squashed.  FDR in one of his fireside chats announced that he was implementing a program he called “lend lease” in which we would lease rather than sell arms to England.   He thereby by-passed Congress and everyone knew that Hitler’s submarines would be gunning for any transport of arms to Europe, which would inevitably lead to war.  I was old enough to understand some of this, and listened to some heated debates on the subject.

Meanwhile, the Germans were gobbling up property as fast as their tanks could take it.  They were conquering France with little difficulty, along with lesser countries.  France had felt themselves impregnable due to the Maginot line; a series of fortifications lining their border with Germany.  Dunkirksoldier1It was a marvel of engineering which I had read about in history class, but its effectiveness was lost when the Huns simply went around it, picking up Belgium in the process.  With that they were able to surround the French and English forces leading to the disaster at Dunkirk as in the recent movie by that name.

 

 

 

The Way It Was| Part 5

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

The fifth installment of The Way It Was picks up after Eshrink illustrated how the technology we have today has made life so easy by describing how they did things and what they didn’t have in the 1930s in his previous post: Part 4. 

The Way It Was: Part 5

We humans are very adept at making stuff, but not so good at predicting their consequences.  When I was a kid we spent most of our free time outdoors only because we had no play stations, cellphones, or TV.  There were no traveling sports teams, other than in high school, and kids were expected to be creative enough to find ways to occupy themselves.   We were free to fight, make up, make friends and enemies, in other words learn how to socialize.  In the January issue of Scientific American is an article titled: “Evolved to Exercise,” which posits that humans must be active to remain healthy, which made me think of the recent statistics regarding what some refer to as an epidemic of childhood obesity.  An even more frightening stat is that Type 2 diabetes, formerly a strictly adult disease linked to obesity, is now being seen in children.

In my own case I lost my super stardom in the 4th grade when we left the little farm and moved to town.  As a matter of fact, I did not feel accepted and became shy.  I was bullied and in response became something of a wimp.  I was saved from the bullies who were routinely taking my lunch from me by a kindred soul who had some intellectual deficits and a speech impediment that left him a few grades behind.  Fortunately for me, he was large in stature and came to my rescue.  This story will be quite familiar to my gang as they have heard it many times and it was featured in the “Papa Stories” which I wrote long ago for the Grandkids.

News of the Day

There are only snippets of memories of those days in the late 30s, but since I had no friends after we moved, I must have spent more time listening to the news on the radio and even reading the newspaper.  I do recall hearing stories about Father Coughlin who was a Catholic priest, one of the first to use the radio as a platform for preaching.  Now 800px-CharlesCouglinCraineDetroitPortrait dads blogsince looking up his history, I realize Dad had disliked Coughlin not because he was Catholic, but because his preachings had become anti-semitic and pro fascist.  Coughlin heaped praise on Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, and felt Hitler was correct in blaming Jews for his country’s problems.  His programs had taken this turn apparently due to his antipathy toward Roosevelt whom he had initially supported.  He is said to have had 30 million listeners to his weekly program, many of whom had joined his “National Union for Social Justice.”  He was forced off the air when the war started.

In like fashion, I used Wikipedia to fill in the blanks of my foggy memories of the German American Bund, which was a pro-Nazi organization formed at the behest of Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s right-hand man.  It’s goal was to form a Nazi party in the United States.  Membership was limited to those of German descent and even some American citizens were members.  Until now I didn’t realize what a formidable organization they had become with uniforms, Nazi salutes and even the establishment of military style training camps.  I was amazed to learn that this organization was allowed free reign until 1942, well after war had been declared on Germany.

During those prewar days of the late 1930s, there was a lot going on with much concern over Germany’s rearmament.  The news reels showed footage of massive displays of armaments along with thousands of “goose stepping” troops giving the Nazi salute as they marched past Hitler.   Roosevelt’s fireside chats warned of our lack of preparedness, but his entreaties were ignored by the isolationists who had barely recovered from World War I with its millions of deaths.  The veterans of the war who continued to suffer from wounds, disease, or the sequelae of exposure to poison gas were daily reminders of the horrors of war.

Working Conditions & Unions

It must have been sometime in the late 30s when Dad became involved in attempts to unionize his workplace.  His complaint was regarding working conditions. He worked in the “press room” of the tile factory which was said to be the most dust ridden area of the plant.  Indeed, he arrived home from work every day covered in white dust so thick that one could barely distinguish the color of his clothes.  Our town had at one time been world famous for the production of ceramic products of all kinds, and also a place where there had always been a lot of “lung trouble” which was often fatal.  There had recently been studies in which there was shown to be a link between such dust and pulmonary disease and an increased susceptibility to tuberculosis.  This disease was also found to be prevalent in those working in foundries (they used a lot of sand in molds), and recently has been found to be the major culprit in the black lung disease which afflicts coal miners.  It was called silicosis after the silica which was shown to cause it.

The late thirties was the hey-day of union activity following passage of the Labor Relations Act, another of FDR’s New Deal legislations in 1935.  I have rather vivid memories of several evening visits to our house by a union organizer.  There were intense discussions and he left a lot of literature including scientific publications about silicosis.  I thought that stuff was cool.  There were pictures of X-rays, and lungs that had been cut out of people.  I presume that my Father was chosen to head up the campaign to organize the plant because of his reputation of being outspoken.  I recall one discussion about exhaust systems which could remove nearly all the dust in the plant.  Dad was particularly angry to find there were solutions to this problem which the company had ignored.  After all, he knew several people who were disabled or dead as a result of that dust.

The first step was to try to be the first to punch his time card out in order for him to station himself outside the gate in position to pass out literature and talk to any one who would listen.  It was strictly forbidden to do any campaigning on company time and even discussions were grounds for immediate dismissal.  In spite of his best efforts, the vote to join the union was turned down.  I remember Dad saying they were all a bunch of “chickenshit suck asses.” He suffered no immediate retribution, as I think the law protected him from being punished for union activities, although I am sure there was no effort to make things easy for him.  He did have a great deal of respect for his foreman, they had become friends and I suspect he may have attempted to shield Dad.  The company remained in operation for many more years and of course never did anything to ameliorate the dust problem.

As for me, I have always felt a kinship to the union movement.  In spite of the excesses they perpetrated in later years, they did much to not only create a blue-collar middle class but also help improve working conditions.  There is a family myth (might even be true) that my Mother’s great uncle, who was a charter member of the United Mine Workers, once escaped from a group of strikebreakers with noose in hand by climbing out the rear window of his house as they broke down the front door.  Now the UMW is a toothless tiger and once again mine safety regulations are being ignored.

Values

Before proceeding to the war years, I feel it important to elaborate on some of the values and behaviors held important then.  There was great emphasis on manners which extended to the deferential behavior towards women.  We boys were trained that the female was a delicate flower which could be easily destroyed either physically or emotionally, and to strike a woman was not only unmannerly but unmanly. It did seem strange that our Mothers, though obviously female, were tough as nails, and to disrespect her could well unleash not only her wrath but also Father’s wrath.  Discussions in mixed company of anything remotely connected to sex, even the word sex, were strictly for bidden.

All these and other conventions were supposed to be a mark of respect, yet respect in the workplace was lacking.  Women were barred from positions of leadership, and mostly limited to jobs that involved positions in which they were subservient to men, which was also mirrored in their marital relationships.  In general, they were felt to be too emotional to make decisions and to handle responsibility.  We thought we were being respectful, but now I am told the opposite was true.  The war soon to come would shatter many or those stereotypes as women were given the opportunity to demonstrate they were capable of more than nurture.

The Elderly

There was a great deal of respect shown for one’s elders (I was born too late for that).  The rule was that they should always be addressed with the proper prefix (Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc).  The proper suffix should be used in in responding, such as: yes sir, no sir, yes Mam, and they should never be addressed by their first name unless permission was granted.   In private however; they would often be referred to as old geezers or worse.

Table Manners

Table manners were high on the agenda and dinner was always punctuated with instructions as to how one should use the tools, pass the serving dish before spooning out a serving for oneself, and keep elbows off the table.  Eating with fingers was a definite no-no, and to not eat every speck on one’s plate was to insult the cook, not to mention all those starving children in India.

Seen and Not Heard

In the presence of adults, children were to “be seen and not heard” which always left me wondering why we were there in the first place.  One particularly difficult place for me was my dad’s brother’s house, whose wife always impressed me a being “stiff as a board.”  They were childless, their house was immaculate and extensively populated with breakable items.  Upon arrival, I was always directed to a plain chair near the corner of their living room.  I don’t believe she ever talked to me but did occasionally talk about me.  At the same time, I was petrified and scared to move a muscle.  I bode my time by reciting numbers in my head (“a thousand one, a thousand two, and so on until I hit 100, then started all over again.  I remember asking my Dad why they had no children and he answered, “He is a dry bag.”  I only had an inkling what he meant, but didn’t pursue the subject.  In his honor of my Uncle, I named our most recent adopted dog, Floyd.

In marked contrast to Aunt Florence was Aunt Toad, (I never knew her real name, nor how she came to that nickname). She was also childless, but she couldn’t get enough of my talking.  She always greeted me as if I were the most important person on earth and after stuffing me with cookies, cake, and her home squeezed grape juice, she would ask me all kinds of questions, and I would talk non-stop, confessing to all my dreams of being a private detective or airplane pilot, or whatever grandiose scheme came to mind on a given day. She would listen attentively.  She never appeared to doubt my capabilities to do any of those things, and I felt comfortable telling her anything that came to mind.  I think she would have made an excellent psychotherapist even without the cookies and cake.

What We Wore

You may have noticed there are few walk in closets in houses of this vintage or older.  Usually all the space needed was room for a Sunday suit a couple of shirts and maybe a pair of “good pants”.  The suit was for church and funerals.  The pants for family reunions and eating in fancy places. Of course, there was no air conditioning and the suit was mandatory on Sunday no matter the temperature.  A pair of good shoes was also necessary.  Although May 1st was the magic date at which we kids could shed our shoes for the summer, we were forced to stick our swollen feet back into shoes we had probably already outgrown in order to go to church or even a movie.

Men wore hats no matter the occasion, almost always felt, but there was an occasional flat top straw seen in the summer.  No hats of any kind were ever to be worn in doors, and anyone who crossed that line was in trouble.  Hair was worn slicked back, and brilliantine was the most popular way to accomplish that.  It also smelled good which was nice since weekly or less frequent shampoos were the norm.

Editor’s Note: Stay Tuned for “The Way It Was: Part 6” where Eshrink chronicles the pre-war years (WWII) from his perspective as a child. Not only will he discuss “the mood of the country” as he remembers it regarding the war in Europe, but shares personal stories, such as the first funeral he attended when his grandfather died and remembrances of the people who shaped his life.

 

 

The Way It Was| Part 4

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

The fourth installment of The Way It Was is about school days in the 1930s, winter, and the simple pleasures. ENJOY!

The Way It Was: Part 4

Anyone who grew up in those times will understand that if you had an older sibling you would never experience the feel or smell of new clothes.  Thus, when I was sent off to my first day in school in my brother’s hand me downs, I was reassured by Mom with: “You’re clean anyway”.   I have carried that phrase with me all my life and passed it on to Barb.  In remembrance of Mom we have frequently used it when the kids complained about the way they were dressed.

School

My introduction to scholarly pursuits was particularly inauspicious.  Having never been known for lightness afoot, it is not surprising that during the first recess of the first day at school I fell and scratched my knees in the cinders which covered the school yard.   To make matters worse I cried long and loud which did not help me to gain the respect of my classmates.  As a matter of fact, I heard one of the older kids taunt me by calling me a baby.  Much to my surprise, my brother, the person who had spent my entire life teasing and punishing me, came to my rescue and held his handkerchief over my wound.

That entire first year is a blur, but I do remember being jealous of Jim Jones (not his real name, he might still be alive and I would not like to give him the satisfaction), for he stayed in the first row (for those of you who don’t know what that means, keep reading), and he was athletic.  Grade school was much different in those days.  A few years ago, I visited one of the kid’s elementary classroom and was amazed to see all those kids up running around the room, all seeming to be involved in different things.  There were some working together at tables, it was noisy and the teacher was all over the place.  It looked like a really good deal compared to my school days.

When I was in school in the 1930s, all of our desks were bolted to the floor in rows facing the blackboard.  If one had something to say or a question to ask, he/she raised their hand, otherwise they remained mute.  Requests for a trip to the rest room required that you raise 1 or 2 fingers in the air depending upon the need. Whispering or passing notes were considered capital offenses, which could result in a trip to the principal’s office.  There was no hesitation about initiating corporal punishment for chronic offenders and cheating on exams was unforgivable.   Unless called to do something in front of the class one could expect to sit at their desk until recess lunch or dismissal.  Little wonder that there was always a wild celebration when school was let out.  Seating was arranged to maximize competition for grades.  The row of seats nearest the window was for the A students.  I never made it past row 3 and that Jones kid was always sitting in the first seat in the first row looking so very smug.

Sometime in the thirties Dad was called back to work at the Mosaic Tile Co, and it seemed as if we were doing relatively well.  We moved again to a house with an acre of ground and a small barn.  Somehow Dad was able to acquire a milk cow which he pastured on a neighbor’s farm.  We also had a few chickens and a couple of pigs.  There was a large vegetable garden and room to plant enough corn to feed the pigs and chickens.  We moved there when I was in the second grade and as the saying went in those days we were “living high on the hog”.

2nd Grade | Living High on the Hog

We lived only walking distance from another village consisting of a general store and a filling station.  For my second grade I was enrolled in a one room school.  There were six rows of kids, for six grades.  My uncle was the teacher who seemed determined to emphasize that my brother and I would not get special treatment.  It was definitely old school (pun intended) and my clearest memory is of hearing the bell toll announcing the start of the day and the tin cups each with a name written hanging on a wall which was standard equipment in order to get water from the hand pumped well.  Fortunately, the well was strategically located at some distance from the male and female privies (the outdoor potties for the youngsters reading this).

One of my clearest memories of that year of one cold night is of riding home from the city in our model A Ford.  I was in the backseat surrounded by what seemed to me at the time to be a truckload of groceries which had been purchased at the A & P store.  My parents were conversing and Dad was complaining about the price of groceries.  They had cost $12 which would not leave much to live on since he made $24 dollars a week (he worked 48 hours), and the monthly rent of $12 would be due in another week.   Nevertheless, he continued wiring houses after work and on weekends (when his customers would allow him to violate the sabbath).  We ate well, although I must admit that was largely due to Dad’s resourcefulness…I had never gone to bed hungry even in the worst of times.

3rd Grade | King of the Hill

The third grade was probably my greatest success in life.  The one room school was closed and we were sent to a consolidated school a couple of miles away.  We were introduced to school buses, which had allowed the latest innovations in education to proceed.  It was back to a room for each grade, and I excelled largely because I became the teacher’s pet.  My teacher was Miss Starkey.  She was a middle-aged spinster who lived on the family farm with her bachelor brother.  He was a music teacher who tried unsuccessfully to teach me to play the piano.  He would be called “sissified” in those days but now his sexual orientation would probably be called into question.  I excelled at sports even though when running I often tripped and fell due to my pigeon-toed stride   It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was “king of the hill.”  I must have thought I was quite intelligent for I liked to use big words when talking to adults.

My position as scholar of the year was solidified during a visit to Varner’s store.  It was a vintage country store with horse collars hanging on the wall.  It was a combination dry goods, hardware, clothing, and grocery store.  Among the items I had been watching was the display of Levi jeans which were the hottest fashion item at Hopewell school.  I saw my chance to score in that regard when Dad began showing my report card of all As to everyone in the store.  In spite of my embarrassment, I would not let this opportunity pass.  To my amazement when I hit him up for the Levi’s, he immediately shelled out the $1.69 and I had escaped from the curse of hand-me-downs, and rushed home to dispose of those sissy knickers that displayed my skinny legs. The lesson learned: scholarly pursuits do pay off.

The Simple Things (a brief digression)

A few minutes ago, I interrupted my writing of this tome to adjust the thermostat.  We are now in the midst of an unusually severe cold wave which led me to think about our prior coping mechanisms.  In general, our long-term memories are very forgiving in that those retained are more likely to be pleasant with the exception of extremely horrifying experiences which lie so near the surface that they may be relived as we see in cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This phenomenon along with our yearnings for youth results in we old folks, with our penchant to reminisce, to ignore or not remember the negative aspects of the daily lives of our youth.  With that in mind I have decided to digress from my own personal accounts of the “good old days” to focus on some of the less pleasant aspects of day to day living.

Winter

When I think of my winter childhood days there comes a flood of memories of sled riding, building snow men, snow ball fights, and school closings.  There was the sense of absolute freedom in lying on one’s back in the snow and making snow angels.  As I cranked the thermostat today, I remembered the down side of winter storms during that era. In the 1930s, central heating was considered a luxury and most homes continued to heat their homes with fireplaces or stoves.  Where central heating existed, it was via hot air delivered through large sheet metal pipes as in Darrin McGavin’s character in A Christmas Story.  For those without a central heat source, there was usually only one room where the cold could be managed.  For those with indoor plumbing frozen pipes were an ever-present threat.

Heat

For most homes, there were only stoves or fireplaces.   Later, most furnaces and fireplaces were converted to natural gas, but when I was a kid coal was really king.  Those houses in which there were furnaces usually had a room reserved for coal in their basement. For others, coal was stored in a shed or in a backyard pile.  This meant that to keep the fire going, one would make periodic trips outside to fill the coal bucket.  It required a considerable amount of effort to keep the fire going, not only by feeding it the right amount of coal to keep it going without causing a chimney fire or melting the stove pipe (the pipe from the stove to the chimney), but to keep the fire smoldering through the night in order to avoid the task of gathering newspapers and kindling wood to restart it in the morning.  It was mornings, by the way, which were the most adventurous.  When bare feet hit the linoleum after Mom’s entreaty turned into an ominous command, there was a mad rush toward the living room with clothes in hand in order to dress near the stove.  With a bedside glass of water frozen solid, there was no time to waste.

Sleep, by the way, was a good way to cope with the cold, but it required some preparation.  With the onset of winter, sheets would be replaced by thin blanket sheets.  Layers of comforters, quilts, and blankets gave a feeling of security, although the weight sometimes made it difficult to move.  There were tricks to minimize the shock of crawling in bed before it warmed.  Sometimes hot water bottles would be dispatched under the covers prior to entry, but my favorite was when Dad would lay a brick on top of the stove until it was very hot, then wrap it in an old blanket, and slip it under the covers a bit before bedtime.  In addition to curing the cold feet problem it afforded an opportunity to enjoy being tucked in without being forced to admit it.

Bathing

But the greatest torment by far was the Saturday night bath, an absolute necessity in order to attend Sunday School so Mom could send us off as “clean anyway” even if the clothes were a little ragged around the edges.  I believe some of the houses we lived in had running water earlier, but I don’t recall hot water via a faucet or tub or shower until was 11 or 12.  Prior to that we relied on “spit” baths, which in winter meant bathing in the living room while standing as close as possible to the stove.  There was one incident of my very young childhood which for many years caused me to avoid bathing as much as possible.

Spring Cleaning

The end of winter was not the end of its demands however, for there were ashes to dispose of much of which had been spread on the sidewalk ice.  There would soon be spring cleaning, a chore with a long tradition resulting from the aftermath of all that coal dust and smoke.  Nearly all rooms in those days were covered with wall paper and by spring the designs would be much less distinct.  There was a brisk business in a product specifically designed to clean residue.  It was very much like the consistency of playdough but I came to hate it in later years when I was called on to help in rubbing this stuff all over the floors and ceilings.

The Way It Is: The Simple Things Made So Much Simpler

It seems likely that editor Maggie will disapprove of my insertion of this vignette about Eshrink and the thermostat in this otherwise marvelously choreographed historical document however; the way this old head works if I don’t say it when I think it, it is soon gone.  The thought of the power that this one pinky of mine can harness to obviate nearly all the problems outlined in the previous paragraphs is one that fascinates me.  But of course, it doesn’t end there for we live in a pushbutton world.  Available buttons include those on this computer.  With them there is no need for trips to the library.  I no longer need my library card for I will have access to more information than thousands of libraries could hold.  I have a button to open and close my garage door, and a button to start my car, and to lock or unlock it, tell me where I left it, and even start it remotely so that I won’t need to get my tender body chilled.  I push a button to make my coffee and keep it warm.  I can microwave my oatmeal in 90 seconds by pushing a single button.  My TV operates mysteriously with buttons pushed from across the room which I operate from the comfort of my lift chair, which not only gently lifts me to an upright position, but reclines me to any position I require (I respectfully declined the model with built in butt warmer and massage).  There is also the myriad of buttons on the car I purchased last year.  I have no idea as to the function of most of them and consequently am afraid to punch them.

With this overuse of our digits, I am surprised that we don’t see more repetitive use injuries of our fingers similar to those assembly line workers experience.  Fortunately, Siri and Alexa have arrived on the scene and have initiated action to rescue us from the horrors of finger fatigue.  As voice recognition programs evolve computer keyboards will likely become as obsolete as carbon paper.  I can then talk to my thermostat and control the temperature of my house “without lifting a finger.”  Yes, we certainly have come a long way since the days of the coal bucket, but talking is somewhat tiring, and some have predicted that some-day we may be able to issue commands by just thinking rather than verbalizing them.

The thermostat thing is only one of thousands of ways our lives have been changed by technology, and my nostalgia in no way means I would like to give up all those conveniences I have come to enjoy and on which I depend.  I have been an all-out advocate for progress, and have been able to see up close and personal how advances in medicine, for example, have done much to alleviate suffering.  In that regard, I am especially grateful for without those innovations I would have been dead years ago, long before I began writing blogs. 

Thanks for reading. Editor Maggie is working on Part 5 of The Way It Was.

 

The Way It Was: Part 3

Editor’s Note: Eshrink (my dad) was motivated to chronicle his childhood memories by his son Peter (my brother), who is a history buff. My brother and I both think there is immense value to have an account of everyday life during The Great Depression and WWII: the decades when the people who have been dubbed “The Greatest Generation” grew up. In Part 2, Eshrink recounted conversations between his dad and friends that he overheard while the men met to help each other find work during the Depression. He also told us about his near death experience when he fell into the Licking River as a little boy. In this post (Part 3) Eshrink tells us about his other near-death experience and gives us a glimpse into the entertainment world of the 1930s.

Click here to read Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.

The Way It Was: Part 3

In addition to the near drowning experience, I had another close call as a child. While not as dramatic, this event was equally frightening for those who witnessed it.  I had accompanied my Grandfather to Reilly’s store in the village which was a short walk from my grandparent’s farmhouse.  Mr. Reilly had given me something of which I was very proud, I think it may have been a banana (which was considered a luxurious item in those days).  Grandad was always careful to walk facing approaching traffic due to his hearing problems, which proved to be a problem in this case since we were walking on the side of the road that was opposite from the house.  The entire family was sitting on the porch and I was eager to show them my new-found treasure.  I managed to break away from my grandfather’s hand and started across the road just in time to collide head on to the front fender of an oncoming car and was just seconds away from being run over.  The next thing I saw was Dr. Wells standing over me as I lay on the couch in the parlor (a room that was ordinarily reserved for important events) announcing that I would be just fine while expressing concern about my Grandfather who still hadn’t recovered from fainting. 

 All the recent discoveries about the long-term effects of concussion leave me wondering if that brain rattling experience may explain a lot about me.  Perhaps it can be an excuse for the previous paragraphs of autobiographical meanderings when this paper was to be about historical events.  But perhaps you can take comfort in knowing that narcissism is not exclusive to our nation’s capital.  In any event, I will take pains to avoid further digression and proceed with the topics Peter suggested. While my close call with the fender of the car wasn’t newsworthy enough to make the radio, I will attempt to explain the importance of that media (and others) as I remember it as a young boy.

How Radio Changed Our Lives

In previous blogs, I have written about journalism.  The rise of radio in my day challenged newspapers in the business of reporting the news much as has TV, and more currently the internet, does today.  Nightly radio newscasters became famous and the networks competed for listeners.  Since FM came along much later, we only had AM radio with sporadic reception that was affected by atmospheric conditions.  During thunderstorms, static made listening impossible.   At times, one could listen to a station hundreds of miles away. Other times we would have trouble tuning to a station across town.  Some stations were licensed to give a stronger signal strength than others.  I recall listening to KDKA in Pittsburgh, which was the first commercial station to be licensed.  Radio was still in its infancy during my childhood, but rapidly became an essential part of our lives.

blog zenith adv 1930 radio

Entertainment| Soap Operas + After-School Programming

The standard status symbol of the 1930s was a Zenith or Fairbanks-Morse radio.  There were many styles of table models, and very large console models for the affluent or ostentatious.  There was something for everyone.  zenith radio 1930s blog picture

As previously mentioned, we had both local and international news.  For kids, there were after school programs like The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Terry and the Pirates, The Shadow, and The Thin Man to name a few.  For women, there were daytime soap operas which were serialized so that viewers could Jack armstrong coverlook forward to listening to the exploits of their heroines daily.  Even those moms committed to 24-hour service to their families planned their daily activities around the schedule of their favorite soap opera, and friends knew not to call during that time frame.  Among the more popular ones were The Guiding Light, Ma Perkins, and General Hospital.  If you were listening to a baseball game at one of those times you were best advised to leave the premises.

Sports

Sports fans were able to hear play-by-play descriptions of their favorite teams and players.  A new profession called sportscasting emerged as people talented in describing the action became as famous as the players.  Ronald Reagan was one who got his start in show business reagan2 baseball radio blogcalling baseball games.  At a time when things looked bad, many looked for a hero to follow.  This was the time of Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis for whom some records still stand.  Everyone loved “the Babe.”  the brown bomber blogSadly, support for the Brown Bomber (Joe Louis), the guy who was heavyweight champion for 12 years, winning 66 of 69 fights 52 by knock outs was lacking.  I am saddened to confess that even as a child I was one of those bigots who wished for a “great white hope” to defeat him.  Championship fights were promoted vigorously and supplanted normal programming.  All ears would be immersed in the action, and we could almost feel every blow.  Radio forced us to use our imagination to picture the action in much the same manner as books do.  Indeed, I believe there is some truth to the idea that television has helped to “dumb down” us viewers.  

Fireside Chats from the White House

Radio had been ignored as a political tool, but Roosevelt was to change that.  Soon after taking office he initiated a series of broadcasts which would come to be called fireside chats. The first one, delivered 442px-FDR-April-28-1935-fireside chat blogonly a couple of months following his election, was designed to reassure the country and outline his plans to deal with the country’s financial crisis   His informal style of speaking was well received, even by republicans, and subsequent broadcasts would be carried on all of the networks throughout his presidency.  They were particularly useful in maintaining morale during the dark days of the horrible war soon to come.  Somehow, we were among the 40 percent of families to have a radio. Consequently; we usually had as many interlopers show up for the fireside chats as we did for the Joe Louis fights.  As for me, I recall being angry that all this furor kept me from listening to my favorite show: Gangbusters.

Movie Theatres: The Great Escape

Radio was marvelous until movies came along to completely capture hearts.  Talkies were fairly new to the scene in the 30s, but they soon became our ultimate divorce from reality.  Movie stars became the rich and famous at a time when poverty was the norm.  It has been said that the enormous appeal of movies may have been related to their ability to allow us to remove ourselves from the misery and hopelessness that we witnessed continuously during those days when hope was in short supply.  The venue itself, sitting in a darkened theater, allowed us to totally immerse ourselves almost as if we were living the story we watched.  I suppose that might be why television never supplanted movies as many predicted during the early days of TV.

 In a previous blog, I mentioned that when I was a kid there were five movie theaters in our town where less than 30,000 souls resided. One of the theaters was ornately decorated with frescoes and thick carpet.  It even had a pipe organ which during sing-a-longs would miraculously arise from the orchestra pit.  During intermission, the audience was encouraged to sing and follow the “bouncing ball” as it followed the lyrics that were projected on the screen.  They employed a fulltime organist in addition to a projectionist, ticket takers, and ushers.  Movies were shown continually, and one could be seated at any time and stay as long as he wanted (a boon to those homeless folks who could scare up a quarter and manage to look a bit tidy).   It was common to arrive in the middle of a movie and stay to watch the part missed.  Summer attendance at the movies was bolstered by the presence of air conditioning since it was the only place in town where it could be found. 

The format of those movies was different, but predictable.  Following the previews there was a newsreel where the audience could actually witness what they had been reading about in their local papers.  This was always followed by a cartoon.  One of our theaters specialized in western movies.  They had taken a page from the soap opera writers, and added a short serial movie to the main feature which would end with the hero in crisis followed by a caption to return next week to see the conclusion. Of course, the next week’s episode would end in another crisis, and kids would immediately start planning how they could find a dime for the next episode.  

My First Movie

The first movie I saw was “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  It was by far the most amazing experience of my young life and I still have vivid memories of that marvelous day.  I recently looked up the date of the mutiny on the bounty poster blog

movie’s release and found that I was only five years old. It was made even more spectacular by the fact that my Uncle Don took me (my mother’s younger brother).  We even stopped at a downtown soda fountain where I had a cherry flavored fountain coke.  Uncle Don was my hero.  He was Mr. everything, an excellent student and outstanding athlete.  I marveled at how he threw 100-pound sacks of feed around as if they were bags of feathers.  He was very soft spoken and modest, which was the Van Horn family’s style.  For example, when he graduated from high school as valedictorian and with multiple medals for his athletic accomplishments, his Mother was asked why she didn’t seem more proud of him.  She replied that she was proud, but she didn’t like to see people “going around bragging.”

A night at the movies was a fairly cheap date.  Tickets were 25 cents and with a buck a guy could have enough left to have chocolates sundaes at the nearest soda fountain.  The problem was that many young men only made a dollar a day.  According to Wikipedia there was a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour in the 1930s; however, I am sure most employers paid little attention to that. 

Throughout those darkest days Dad would take any work available and he was not shy about professing to be an expert at whatever chore was available.  He billed himself as an expert wallpaper hanger in spite of never having done it before.  I recall sitting on the floor watching as Mom pasted and he struggled to get the paper in place.  In 1936, FDR provided another opportunity by establishing the Rural Electrification Administration with a goal of providing electric service throughout the country.  Over 90% of rural residents were without electricity and their use of kerosene for light and heat made Rockefeller one of the richest men in the world long before gasoline was the predominant petroleum product.  The REA as it was called soon began stretching wires to the far reaches of the US, and true to form Dad declared himself master electrician and was soon busy wiring houses. 

The year 1936 stands out to me. Maybe because it was my first year in school. I also remember our neighbor across the street bought a brand new shiny black Chevrolet.  I don’t recall what he did for a living, but I do recall his position was rare enough that it produced envy throughout the neighborhood.  Another major event that year, which would be unthinkable now, was when my Dad confronted that neighbor about an alleged affair.  My Father was never reticent about expressing his feelings, even though many would suggest he mind his own business.  jesse owens olympics 1936The other big event of 1936 was the Olympic Games. Specifically, the performance of Jesse Owens. His ability to put Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy to shame was wildly applauded even though “he were a nigger” (sorry to offend, but that is the way it was in those days).  Later, I would watch multiple news reel accounts of Jesse Owens at the Olympics.  My hero Uncle Don would tell the story of how he was congratulated by some black guy when he won the 440 in the State High School track competition.  When he asked someone who that guy was, he was told it was Jesse Owens.

The Way It Was: Part 1

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.

While loving someone deeply gives you courage. 

Lao Tzu

                  My son Peter, the history buff, has requested I write something about my childhood with emphasis on my remembrances of World War II, and events preceding it.  He believes others may be interested in that subject in spite of the millions of chronicles already written of those times he suggested that I do my own version in a blog with emphasis on the experience of growing up in that era.  The most impressive oral histories of the thirties were carried out by the Federal Writer’s Project a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the auspices of one of Roosevelt’s New Deal creations.  Although designed to chronicle the travails of ordinary people living during the depression, it is best known for the verbal histories of former slaves.  Those manuscripts now repose in the library of congress.Federal Writers Project American-guide-week-fwp-1941

It is true that much of recorded history had its genesis in oral accounts passed on from one generation to the next.  It is also true that it has been shown that memories are frequently distorted, and further colored if they are passed on verbally through a series of listeners.  In an article on oral histories published by History matters, the impetus for verbal history taking is outlined as follows: “…..for generations history-conscious individuals have preserved others’ firsthand accounts of the past for the record,  often precisely at the moment when the historical actors themselves, and with their memories, were about to pass from the scene.”  I can only hope this was not Peter’s motivation in encouraging these reminiscences for I am not ready to “pass from the scene!”

In my own case, I often thought of events which occurred during my father’s lifetime and regret that I didn’t encourage him to talk more about his childhood.  My father was born in 1904 just 10 years prior to the onset of World War I.  It would have been interesting to compare notes for I was born 11 years before the onset of the next “great war to end all wars” and arrived only a few months following the Stock market Crash of 1929 which ushered in what came to be called The Great Depression.

My Mom & Dad

My parents had little to lose when The Depression hit, but what they did have was gone.  Dad had grown up in poverty, with an alcoholic father and a long-suffering mother whom he adored.  He had quit school in the 8th grade, and went to work as a common laborer in order to help the family.  He had three sisters and an older brother, who was rather passive by nature. My dad became the adult in charge, a role which he would occupy the rest of his life.  One of the more poignant stories of his childhood I remember was his explanation of why he was fixated with having eggs in the refrigerator.  He told me that when he was a kid, his mother sent him up the alley to the neighbor who kept chickens with a penny to buy one egg.  He was embarrassed and vowed to always have plenty of eggs when he grew up.

My mother, by the standards of the day, was well educated having spent a year at a local “business collage” learning secretarial skills which she would never utilize.  Although her father (one of my favorite people) was relatively uneducated, he was a strong believer that women should be able to “stand on their own.”  I suspect that for her time she would have been considered liberated.  Model T FordI recall seeing a photo of her standing beside a Model T Ford that she had been driving that she had rolled over on its top.  In those days, for a woman to be driving a car would have be en unusual if not scandalous.  That experience must have left her shaken for she would never drive again and her back seat driving performances were legendary.  In similar fashion, she would cede much authority to my father while firmly retaining control of her department, i.e. keeping house and raising kids, a very common arrangement at the time.

Their marriage began well and a year later my brother was born, an event which was followed three years later by the greatest financial crisis in the country’s history.  As a wedding present mom’s father, a carpenter, had provided them with the labor to build a house.  Shortly after that fateful day in 1929, dad lost his job and subsequently the house was repossessed.  To make matters worse, a year later I entered this already complex picture.  I am told that I was welcomed although I am sure another mouth to feed was one of the last things needed.  Just as my kids have endured the repetitive nature of my stories of their early life, so have I endured the following story of my birth hundreds of times.

Hello World

I was born in what was called Dr. Wells’ hospital located in the village of Nashport, the name originating from the fact that Mr. Nash had settled the area as a port on the Ohio canal in the early 19th century.  To call the facility a hospital was a bit of an exaggeration even in those days for it consisted of an extra room attached to his office.  Nevertheless, Dr. Wells must have been a progressive practitioner who had abandoned the practice of home delivery in favor of modern facilities.  In my mother’s case, he even offered her the choice of anesthesia, and my father confidently volunteered to “drop ether” (a term used by anesthesiologists for inhaling ether as an anesthetic).

Fortunately, mother and I both survived the procedure which was reported to have been difficult as I weighed in at 13 pounds and have been told I was “long and skinny,” a term that would be used to describe me throughout my childhood.  Dr. Wells is said to have remarked “look at those ears, he is a little Spinney.”  Spinney was the nickname of my Grandfather who was famed for the large ears which protruded from his skull at right angles and were probably made more noticeable by the irony that he was significantly hearing impaired.  I know little of what happened in my earliest years, but it is certain that there will never be a plaque on the door of Dr. Wells hospital commemorating it as my birthplace for the building was later razed and the village was moved to higher ground in order to make way for a flood control project.

My First Memories

My family’s history for the first few years of my life is hazy, but I did learn that they had moved frequently during my toddler years.  Whether this was due to evictions or looking for a better deal I can’t say.   Alfred Adler a Freudian psychoanalyst placed great importance on our first memory stating: “The first memory will show the individual’s fundamental view of life, his first satisfactory crystallization of his attitude.”   In my own case, this pronouncement may ring true for my first memory was of my introduction to Crackerjacks while watching a baseball game in a bleacher with my parents most likely around 3 years of age.  Indeed, I see it as a prophecy of my life to come, which has largely consisted of a search for the toy hidden among the tasty morsels of everyday life even though the occasional unpleasant experience of biting down on a kernel which hasn’t popped, is inevitable.

There is another pleasant memory of that time-period which competes with the Crackerjack story for first billing.  The standard tool for mowing lawns in those days was the person powered push mower with its rotating blades which could be disengaged by turning the mower upside down.  The incident must have occurred when I was less than 4 years of age based on the timeline of where it occurred, but the memory remains clear.  My Father had placed his folded coat on the mower and I was sitting on it as he pushed it down the sidewalk.  Of course, at the time this was simply a fun time for me, but later I would learn that he was cruising the neighborhood soliciting lawns which he could mow.  I now suspect that my presence may have been designed to add to the pathos directed at potential customers.

Dinner Time

The remainder of my preschool years as you might expect are clouded and I have no way to place these in any logical sequence.  In retrospect it is clear that some of these experiences related to the extreme stresses under which my parents labored.   It is clear that we were very poor and at times they were desperate for food, a fact of which I was blissfully unaware.   In recent years my brother reminded me of times when our parents did not join us at the dinner table and chose to eat later.   Since no one had money, food was cheap, and farmers had little incentive to produce more than they could consume.  City dwellers with backyards planted vegetable gardens, and Mothers learned to preserve the produce by drying or canning them.  An apple tree in one’s yard became a valuable asset.  Even some city dwellers kept chickens in their yard which were carefully guarded lest they become someone else’s dinner.

There were occasional distributions of food via the local “relief” organization, so named as part of FDR’s Federal Emergency Relief Organization.  Food was distributed at regular intervals at the local relief office.  At a time when independence and the ability to “paddle your own canoe” was valued it was embarrassing to be seen standing in the long lines when it was announced that food was about to be distributed, and many chose to suffer hunger rather than to be known to be “on relief”.  The type of food given must have depended on whatever was available to the states at any given time for I recall my Father, having braved the disgrace, coming home with a huge bag of rice.  Mother was talented at finding innovative ways to prepare food, but in spite of her best efforts the steady diet of rice dishes for what seemed like eternity to a kid, left me with an abhorrence of rice that took me 50 years to overcome.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Way It Was” where Eshrink gives us a glimpse of the camaraderie between his dad and his friends as they searched for work each day during the Great Depression of the 1930s; conversations overheard about survival, politics, world affairs, and morality; and the close call that almost ended his life.