Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Mosquito Fogger

One intermittent and looked forward to summer evening event, when I was a kid, was the Mosquito Fogger. A city truck, carrying a large tank of insecticide and the fogging device, would slowly cruise the residential streets. The Fogger, powered by a small gasoline engine which announced its presence a couple of blocks away, would generate clouds of what we all thought of as smoke.

Gravitating to the sound of the engine, flocks of children would walk along behind the fogger, inside the dense cloud of “smoke”, breathing deep of the strange smelling vapor. We all thought this was great fun. The guys in the truck ignored us, and our parents didn’t seem bothered by it all. But, despite what seems obvious today, we all seem to have survived.

Actually, I think the mosquitoes mostly survived the experience, as well.

The Music Before Rock and Roll

THROUGH THE YEARS of my childhood, Saturday nights were always special; whether at Aunt Goldie’s, or watching monster movies on “Shock Theater”, Channel 7s late 50s Saturday night horror movie format, or just being at home with the family. While Friday night had its Fights, sponsored by Gillette – “Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, da da dat, da da”, the more memorable Saturday night staples were the “Jackie Gleason Show, and the old radio favorite “Your Hit Parade”, now on TV, sponsored by Lucky Strike – “LS/MFT”*

The cast of “Your Hit Parade” would sing a musical countdown of the top seven songs of the week, “as determined by a tally of record sales, and jukebox plays”. Usually solo, but sometimes in pairs or as a group, the cast members, Dorothy Collins, the perky Doris Day-like blonde, Snookie Lanson, the all American fraternity guy, crooner Russell Arms, and Gisele MacKenzie, the pretty, but more subdued, brunette (who was my favorite), would sing the weeks selections accompanied by unnamed dancers and cast members who would occupy a scene appropriate to the song being performed.

This was my primary exposure to the popular music of the years just before rock ‘n roll. And as a child I would watch enthralled, not only by the countdown, but by the music itself. Many of those songs, including “Stranger in Paradise”, “You Belong To Me”, “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”, and of course “Autumn Leaves” remain with me today as early favorites.

And though I’m thoroughly devoted to the music of my generation, and of my time, I will always remember my introduction to the music of the adult world; and the beauty of the words and the melodies of the mid-1950s will stay with me always.

* Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco

A Star Is Born, Almost

My thespian career at CM Bardwell elementary school was brief; two performances in fact. The first — my shining moment — occurred when I played the lead in the third (or fourth?) grade school play; the subject of which was the danger of not eating a good breakfast. The method for presenting this message was a takeoff on the currently popular TV police drama, Dragnet.

The opening character, Johnny, whom you would initially think to be the star, foolishly skipped breakfast. Arriving at school, he sat at his desk — at the edge of the stage — and promptly fell asleep. It was then conveyed somehow that the remainder of the story was what Johnny dreamt while slumped at his desk, missing his lessons. That’s where I came in.

In the dream, an egg, Humpty Dumpty, was spurned and fell (pushed?) from a wall and had broken. The police were notified and two detectives were assigned to solve the crime.

In keeping with the breakfast metaphor, the detectives were a slice of Toast, — the star, ME!! — and his partner, a pat of butter, played by my classmate Billy Stoner. We questioned the other breakfast items, juice, potato, etc. We then reasoned, and solved the mystery; Johnny had not eaten his breakfast. In due time we faded from the scene, and Johnny and, of course, the audience awoke with a greater understanding of the need for proper nutrition.

Oddly perhaps, I remember the rehearsals more than the actual performance. In particular, I recall that every time I spoke a dramatic, or meaningful, line, I was to pause while a teacher, at the orchestra pit piano, would bang out the signature five notes of the Dragnet theme — just like on TV. In the beginning, each time this would happen, I would look down at the piano. Through the rehearsal process I was carefully coached to ignore the piano and to gaze at the audience until the music ended. I’m pleased and proud to say that I learned this well, and did not slip up once.

After the regimen of rehearsing, the performance itself went off without a hitch. I comfortably and easily delivered my lines, despite wondering at the start, where my parents might be. I had not seen them before the play started, and I now could not search the audience for them. But I soldiered on, and after a few minutes, I was relieved to see the silhouettes of my mother, holding my brother David, and my father in the doorway at the back of the auditorium on the way to their seats.

The play was a great success. I and the rest of the cast received rave reviews; even Johnny, who slept through the whole thing.

Alas, my next performance was in a supporting role as one of four dancing mushrooms in the following year’s performance of Fantasia. Thoroughly charming, I’m sure, but anonymous. And with that my career as an actor, and a dancer as well, was over.

Evenings Closer to Home

IN THE TIMELESS summers of my grade school years, we would spend our days roaming far and wide through the streets of Aurora. But after dinner we stayed closer to home. Neighborhood kids of more diverse ages, with whom you might not interact during the day, would gather and think of something to do until it got dark.

It seems that it was in the evenings, with the neighborhood kids, that we most often played “Cowboys and Indians”. We could usually muster up the appropriate number of cap guns and bow and arrow sets, though someone occasionally had to resort to a pointed finger and a heartily yelled “Bang”. But cap pistols were better; they made a satisfactory sound, and the smoke smelled pretty good.

As for the Indians, the only arrows available were, of course, equipped with suction cup tips. This was not satisfactory at all. Suction cup arrows are not very aerodynamic, and will not only not fly true, they will also not fly very far. The simple and obvious solution to this was to remove the suction cups. Problem solved; the arrows would now fly straight, true, and pretty far.

I know this first hand, for one evening as I peered, pistol in hand, from around a bush next to our house, I spotted an arrow flying straight, true, and quite fast, directly toward my left eye. I tried to duck away, but didn’t make it. Fortunately I turned enough that the arrow struck just between my eye and the bridge of my nose. The arrow bounced off, taking a small chunk of skin with it, leaving me with a bloody face and a symbol of my service in the Indian Wars of which I was kind of proud.

My mother, on the other hand, was not at all impressed.

Lunchtime – Soup, Tuna, and Kool-Aid

NO MATTER WHERE we would travel to on summer mornings when I was a kid, when lunchtime rolled around, I would always somehow manage to show up at home just in time for the noon meal – usually a tuna salad sandwich, a bowl of Campbell’s soup (Chicken Noodle please), and Kool-Aid. My mother once said she wouldn’t have made it through raising children without these three staples.

During the school year, because I lived only two blocks from Bardwell elementary school, I always came home for lunch. I was occasionally joined by one or another of my grade school friends, Clifford Allen, Mark Seibers, or David Larson (or sometimes to one of their houses too, of course, for pretty much exactly the same fare).

While eating, we were usually entertained by Uncle Johnny Coons (NBC-Channel 5), or Two-Ton Baker (The Music Maker) (ABC-Channel 7). Bozo the Clown (WGN-Channel 9) had not yet made an appearance, and of what we didn’t know, we didn’t miss. Uncle Johnny was my favorite, but ol’ Two-Ton was OK. Dressed in costume he played a piano on the deck of a pirate ship and interacted with comical crew members, and various sea creatures – Including Bubbles the Porpoise — who apparently lived alongside.

On thing I recall about those lunches; my friend David – son of a doctor, and perhaps a bit more sophisticated for his age than I, would nonetheless laugh wildly at these shows with his mouth fully open, regardless of the half-chewed sandwich parts within. But he was my pal, so I ignored it (mostly).

After lunch, it was back to school; or in summer back to the streets, looking for whatever might capture our interest until it was time for dinner.

Daily Adventures

I THINK WE were a lot more independent, as kids, than is generally true today. You can argue that it is a more dangerous world now, and I won’t disagree. But I will suggest that our childhood world had its perils – they were just different, and although I believe society is now more dangerous for children, the world, the physical environment, in which we, as kids, entertained ourselves was fraught with peril; being as it was not overly encumbered with fences and barriers and warning signs. Litigation being what it was in the 1950s, we were mostly free to explore, and enter, and climb over, and to routinely take risks which are simply not available today. Couple this with the fact that our days, in summer anyway, were unorganized and almost an entirely unsupervised. We had few, if any, of the planned “Activities” by which today’s children expect to be entertained.

The summer weekday, and many Saturdays as well, started with breakfast — a bowl of corn flakes (Kellogg’s, of course), or Wheaties, Cheerios, Rice Krispies (Snap, Crackle, and Pop), or whatever was your favorite.

There weren’t too many pre-sweetened cereals in those days. There was Raisin Bran, puffed wheat, (the name escapes me), the multi-colored, and supposedly multi-flavored Trix (Raspberry RED, Lemon YELLOW, Orange ORANGE), and of course, Tony the Tiger never let us forget that Frosted Flakes were Grrrrrrate.

Being a fairly typical child of the fifties, after breakfast I would often just disappear until lunchtime. Summer days were mostly a series of random, and unplanned, events. My bicycle — sometimes with neighbor Billy Elliot riding on the back — would take me anywhere I wanted to go around the east side of Aurora, and sometimes beyond. We roamed far and wide, from various parks, to downtown, to the railroad bridge over the Fox River which was, for several reasons, a favorite destination.

 The EJ&E (Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern) railroad bridge crossed the Fox River about a mile from our house. The solid green vegetation around and below the bridge was a close enough approximation to our vision of the jungles of the South Pacific. We fought and defeated many imaginary Japanese soldiers in that swampy, sweaty green. The bridge structure itself, and the shallow rapids of the river at that spot, looked to me very much like the movie version of the “Bridge on the River Kwai”, which greatly enhanced the fun. Oddly enough, this is the very place at which I received, from my Mother, my phobia of snakes. But when we were fighting the Japs, I didn’t give it a thought.

The bridge also offered a different kind of fun. From the pedestrian walkway, tacked to the side of the span, you could — with no warning signs, fences, or guard rails to protect us from the 40 foot drop — cross over to the tracks and climb down onto the center support; the top surface of which was perhaps 4 feet below the track supporting ties. This offered a very private space, a great view of the river, and much excitement when a train thundered by just inches above our heads.

Thoughts About Snakes

I DON’T LIKE snakes.  In fact, to say that I fear snakes, or have a snake phobia, is an understatement on the order of saying that the sky is a place above your head. I have a monumental phobia about creatures that have no legs; and to a lesser degree, creatures with too many legs, but that’s another matter.  I received this fear from, of all people, my mother.

When I was small, my mother and I would often go to visit my grandmother, and in those days if we had a car at all my father drove it to work. So we walked. It was a journey of just over two miles from our house, across the Fox River to Grandmas, and the EJ&E (Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern) Railroad Bridge was directly in line between the two points.

There was a narrow wooden plank walkway beside the tracks so pedestrians could also use the bridge. On the eastern side, a wide, level, gravel pathway lead from S. Broadway to the bridge, while on the western side, the flood plain, the tracks continued on an artificial ridge while a narrow, overgrown path descended, for about 50 yards, to S. River St. It was on this stretch that my mother would constantly warn me to, “Watch out for snakes”.

I can’t blame her though. She had an experience when she was little that would have had me in therapy for years. She and her two sisters were running home from an errand to Prisco’s Italian Grocery Store, and were about to run up onto their terraced front lawn  when one of my future aunts yelled, “Olga, look out!”. On the lawn, just in front of her was a particularly nasty looking snake. At eight years old, my mother was not very tall, and at the foot of the terrace, she was eye to eye with the creature.

She then did just what I would do, even today. She reversed course and ran screaming to the back yard where my grandfather, as luck would have it, was working in the garden with a hoe.

As her father marched, hoe in hand, to the front, my mother ran into the back door of the house. After a couple of nervous minutes she summoned the courage to creep to the front door and peek out through the glass. The snake, having meanwhile crawled onto the front porch, peeked back at her.

This double whammy gave her the phobia which I possess to this day. She was, as it turned out very fortunate. The snake was determined to be a viper of some kind, which neighborhood speculation had it must have crawled onto a Burlington Route freight car in the southwest somewhere and dropped off the train as it rumbled through the “South End” of Aurora on its way to Chicago. Very scary stuff indeed.