OK, folks, it’s that time of the year when people make travel plans – vacationing … to get away from the routine of everyday life.
A favorite among retirees, traveling takes us anywhere we want to go.
But for those of us not inclined to take to the open road we, too, can journey, not off to a destination, but back in time to reminisce about the “good ol’ days.”
For those of us in our 70s and 80s, how often do we recall growing up in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s? How often do we compare our childhood to those of our tech-savvy grandchildren? We recall how life was more relaxing and less complicated than it is today.
What brings this to mind is a recent USA Today story discussing our generation of savers vs. younger generations of spenders … and a review of Greendale-published Reminisce magazines and books, as suggested by sister-in-law Audrey.
We all have memories of those long-gone days, and we’re inclined to recall things that no longer exist, but that shaped our lives.
For example, I remember:
An ice box in the kitchen … basement coal bin … home delivery of coal, ice milk and bread … peddlers who sold fresh fruit and vegetables from a truck that regularly visited the neighborhood … the “rag picker” who traveled with horse and wagon through gravel alleys calling out for trash and any “recyclables.”
My father never owned or drove a car. Streetcars were his and our mode of transportation. Employed at a South Milwaukee shoe company, his annual salary never exceeded $6,000. Yet, he built a new house in Cudahy in 1930. The cost: $5,600. We had no phone until 1944. Pa and Ma’s advice on money: first save, then spend.
At first, they lived with my grandmother (mother’s mother) on a five-acre farm in the old Town of Lake, near the current site of St. Francis High School. With brothers Severin and Leon (now deceased), we visited the old farm house – with a wood-burning stove but a hand pump gave water and an outhouse served our needs. Snow apples grew in an orchard. Though a little tart to the taste, the flesh was white as snow — thus, the name. Haven’t heard of snow apples since.
Living in Cudahy, we walked five blocks to St. Frederick School. Some schoolmates walked a mile or more. We walked home for lunch, then back for playground activity. At school we drank water from a bubbler, collected newspapers to fill huge wooden crates for fund-raising drives. Exemplifying the namesake of their community, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi often fed disheveled transient visitors who found their way to the convent for a hot noon meal.
In summer, we relied on playthings from a toy loan center … seasonally exercised with clamp-on ice skates and roller skates … fabricated a “scooter” from an orange crate and 2×4 with roller skate wheels … played baseball, softball and basketball at a nearby school or in a vacant lot … gathered on a street corner for kick the can … played football, using an old cloth salt or sugar sack filled with leaves. Some of us were fortunate to have a wind-up train set … perhaps a Lionel electric train … American Flyer coaster wagon … a Flexible-Flyer sled … Tinker Toys … Lincoln Logs.
Unlike today, there were no organized summer sports programs. A public school playground near our house attracted neighborhood players. Baseball and softball teams included kids on our block vs. the kids across the alley or in the next block. Each brought his own bat, ball and glove.
I recall one summer playing softball at the local playground. The organizer suggested I be the catcher. The first batter swung and missed. The bat flew out of his hands … and landed across my nose. Bleeding profusely, I went home, told my mother what happened. She never considered taking me to a doctor. She had me lie down and applied a cold compress to stop the bleeding, which it did. My nose probably was broken, but no big deal. Home remedies relieved most of our aches and pains. For the common cold, it was warm onion juice.
My first bicycle, a first Communion gift in 1939, was a shiny black and silver Roadmaster. The cost: $25. Early morning bikes rides with buddy Charlie took us to South Milwaukee Grant Park for golf. Golf balls were Walgreen specials: three PoDo for $1.
I can’t recall a family meal at a restaurant. Grandmother and mother were good cooks and we often shared holiday and special meals with uncles/aunts/cousins at our house or theirs.
Potato pancakes from scratch, an all-day project, were a favorite meatless Friday supper. Buckwheat pancakes made a hearty breakfast. There were homemade donuts. Dad loved his pungent Limburger cheese. Making sauerkraut was an annual October family venture.
For entertainment, we had radio. Popular programs were “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy,” the “Lone Ranger,” the “Shadow,” “Green Hornet” and “Jack Benny.”
A windup Victorola phonograph played 78 rpm vinyl records. “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” was our favorite. Cowboy/Indian movies at the Majestic Theater filled our Saturday afternoons. In the ‘50s, many of the big bands drew us downtown to Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater.
We got our first TV in 1955. A spiritual message from Bishop Fulton A. Sheen was a Sunday afternoon must-see – in black and white.
For professional baseball, we rode streetcars to Borchert Field at 8th and Chambers streets to see the American Association Milwaukee Brewers play the Toledo Mud Hens or Minneapolis Millers, among others. For social activities we joined St. Frederick’s CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). Jitterbug was a popular dance step. Now, it’s a cell phone provider.
For many of us, our first jobs were delivering newspapers. At first I delivered the morning Milwaukee Sentinel, two years later I had an afternoon Milwaukee Journal route. We made the rounds on bicycle. In winter we pulled a sled from house to house. A weekly subscription was 28 cents (3 cents daily and 10 cents for the Sunday edition). Friday and Saturday were collection days. Generous subscribers would offer 30 cents, adding “keep the change.”
In my sophomore year at St. Francis Minor Seminary High School I landed a 45 cents-an-hour part-time job in the men’s clothing department at downtown Gimbel’s. Having various duties keeping display cases in order, I recall one day being asked to deliver a new suit to magician Dr. Neff, who was appearing at the Pabst Theater, to his room at the Wisconsin Hotel. As I handed the package to him he asked if I would like two tickets to his show. Taking me by surprise, I kinda shrugged my shoulders without responding … to which he said, “If that’s the way you feel about it, get lost.”
Reflecting on the past, it seems a sentimental journey adds miles of memories along the well-traveled road of life.
(Horn, a retired Catholic Herald reporter, is a member of St. Roman Church, Milwaukee.)