I don’t think I am different from anyone else in that I thought everyone was raised like I was. It wasn’t until I moved out of my neighborhood and got a little life experience that it began slowly to dawn on me that I was one lucky/blessed kid. Now as I look back on my childhood, it seems like a “Norman Rockwell” style of experience complete with jitney cars, john boats in the creek, (caulked with oakum), log cabins in the hills, dams in the runs all built by our gang. We played “kick the can” after dinner with all the neighborhood kids, even with girls, and we were allowed to stay out until dark.
Our home was built in 1920 by the Schmichael family, who owned a furniture store. It was a rather large place, and we utilized all three floors and the basement. I remember the dining room had ceiling beams made from the same wood as the dining table and chairs as well as the china cupboard and the long low buffet. Mom would always set a beautiful table for dinner with a linen tablecloth and candles. She would call us all to dinner and sort of present her table. Dad would always say, “I am sorry, Mac, but I like to see what I am eating,” as he switched on the electric chandelier.
We moved into this house in the early ’30s, maybe ’34 or ’35; I know it was before the big flood of 1936. At that time all the floors were hardwood with rugs covering most of the surface. We had a dog named Teddy, who was half shepherd and collie. Dad got the dog from “Smithy,” who had a cigar, cigarette, pipe and tobacco store on the southeast corner of 11th and Market. He also sold newspapers and magazines, and I believe there were other commercial transactions that were not advertised or displayed. Dad bought his cigarettes there, and he took me for walks to Smithy’s from his office a number of times.
Back to Teddy. One of my brother Jim’s and my diversions on rainy days was to have Teddy chase us through the house. We would run in a circle through the front hall, the dining room, kitchen, breakfast room, sunroom and living room. It was great sport because even though Teddy was much faster, he would slide on the carpets and then skid on the wood floors after his paws tossed the rugs off the course. This “unlawful” activity was ended with the instillation of wall-to-wall carpeting.
Dad was a General Electric distributor, so he recieved all these new gadgets first as demonstration models. One of his Christmas presents was a General Electric furnace that replaced the big coal furnace and all the big pipes. This made room for a pine-paneled recreational room complete with a ping-pong table and a console radio with a record player that was automatic! This was quite a deal as most record players at that time were wind- up victrolas. This complemented a room with a built-in bar and a ¾ pool table. You can see why our place was a hangout with my parents encouraging the bedlam. We played games and also ran chemical experiments — trying to make wine – in the work room/ fruit cellar where jitney buses were constructed from orange crates from Driehorst Grocery Store.
We were always getting the latest in electric appliances. In the late ’30s Dad put in an all-electric kitchen complete with an electric garbage disposal and dishwasher. Dinner guests would gather in the kitchen after the meal to watch garbage miraculously disappear down the drain and marvel at the machine that washed the dishes without breaking them!
The new appliances, mother would always say, were never as good as the old ones. I vividly remember when the men brought out a console radio with a record player that had an automatic record changer! One would stack six or eight records on the center spindle that would drop to be played followed by an arm that would automatically push them off to a wide slot to the side of the turntable. After we all sat and listened to a series of records played without the aid of a human hand, we marveled at the god-wrought technology. We went to retrieve the records and found that most had been broken when dropped into the slot. The records at that time were black 78 rpms and very brittle. There was a sidelight to those records. They were the same thickness as a nickel, so we set up a slug manufacturing operation in our basement laundry room. We would soak the records in a copper washtub of boiling water, which would make them soft and pliable, then lay them on the cement floor, covering them with nickels, We then hit the nickels with a hammer to impress the face of the coin in them and followed by cutting them out with a small vibrating jigsaw. We sold them 10 for a quarter and had a booming business until the pinball machine was emptied at Siedel’s, a small lunchroom heavily patronized by the Central crowd. I like to think that we were responsible for the advancement of slot machine technology from mechanical to electrical.
Back to our home. Mom was the quintessential mother, loving and patient. She was a wonderful cook, and although we always had a maid, she prepared the meals. I remember that when the dinner was ready, she would go into the living room and have a cigarette to relax with Dad. Everyone was eager for dinner at 6 p.m., when it was served. No matter what activity we children were engaged in, whether school activities or playing in the hills or in the creek, or at our buddy’s house listening to Jack Armstrong or the Green Hornet, it was home for dinner at 6. Dinnertime was a free for all discussion of whatever was on anyone’s mind. The meals were lovely, delicious and prepared with loving care. It seems to me that mother shopped on Thursdays and Fridays often taking us with her, especially when we were very young. I remember walking with her through the upper market on wet concrete floors with naked light bulbs hanging over the stalls displaying the produce on a slant, and how good it all smelled through the damp cold. Mom would go from stall to stall selecting an item here and one there with great care and always with a discussion of quality and freshness as well as exchanging news of the families. She always bought a jar of freshly ground horseradish with discussion about what time that morning it was ground. It seemed to me that everyone knew everyone else, the vendors and the customers. After shopping, we might go over to Stone and Thomas to be treated to an orange drink, served in a paper cone cup placed in a metal cup-holder with handle. It was near the book department where hard copy books were either sold or rented. There was an older woman who would recommend books to her clientele.
An integral part of our family were the Saturday trips to Momma’s house to pick up the dutch cake or the kugan and the doughnuts that she baked for her daughters’ families. Momma always saved “the holes” in the doughnuts for the grandchildren. These were cooked and covered with powdered sugar like the doughnuts, and we had a tale to tell at school. The baked goods were the feature of the Sunday morning late breakfast.
Mom would go to mass early, taking Kay and Betty. Dad, Jimmy, and I would wait until they returned and would depart for a later mass. I remember one notable wait when Dad found a pair of dice from Zellers in his coat pocket and proceeded to teach Jim and me how to shoot craps. We were on our hands and knees throwing the dice against the baseboard in the breakfast room when the swinging door opened and Mom exclaimed, “Bill!!!!” Dad responded very sheepishly, “Mac, they are gong to learn this game someplace, and it’s better to learn it at home.”
When Mom got home from church, she prepared a big breakfast that was served in the dining room with a fully appointed table. Today it would be called a brunch. After we children finished, we would be excused and our chairs, and others as well, were filled by people who would drop in for coffee and a piece of kugan or a doughnut, with the air filled with conversation. This would break up around noon or 1 p.m., and we would have a light supper around 6 p.m. that Mom would prepare. The regular day off for the maid was Thursdays, and Mom added Sunday as it was sort of a family day.
Our home was the center of a lot of activity. With the game rooms in the basement, the work room (laboratory), and the basketball hoop on the garage, it was the hangout for my crowd and Jimmy’s as well. I remember our first basketball game. We used to play three-on-three, a sort of half-court game. Our dog, Teddy, came snarling off the back porch, as he thought the other boys were trying to hurt me. No one was bitten and I had to pat everyone on the head and talk softly to them individually to let Teddy know that they were friends. He then went back up the steps to resume his vigil on the porch.
Our sisters Kay and Betty were pretty, both May Queens at the Mount, and popular with many girlfriends. I remember their eating sandwiches after school made of bananas and peanut butter, which the boarding students devoured. This combination drew the boys like flies. Jim and I really enjoyed seeing and meeting our sports heroes. When one of the boys would come to the door to pick up one of our sisters for a big dance, Jim and I would take turns meeting them at the door and calling them by a rival suitor’s name and bringing the wrong corsage from the refrigerator. This, of course, brought cries from our sisters that something had to done about our horrible behavior. Another score!!!
Our home on 2 Laurel Ave. was a happy place, especially when we were a growing family. It had good vibes! I remember Sunday morning breakfasts in the summer with the windows open. A special treat was a slice of fresh cantaloupe with Dad talking about taking us to the pool at Wheeling Park for a swim. What excitement!
It is strange, but even today, so many years later, when I cut a fresh cantaloupe, the smell transports me back immediately to that wonderful world I was so blessed/lucky to inhabit.