Category Archives: A: Childhood: The 50s

Thanksgiving – Part Two: The Holiday Feast

Arriving home from our Thanksgiving morning hunting trip, Dad and I would shed our heavy coats and boots in the newly enclosed back porch, and enter the house through the kitchen. We were a bit chilled, of course, from our morning in the cold November fields, and the sudden entry into a kitchen filled with the warm, wonderful smells of a Thanksgiving dinner in the making was one of life’s great moments.

The aroma, and the steamed windows, created a cozy, warm, and “At Home” atmosphere that is seldom matched. My mother, Grandma, and an aunt or two, would be hustling about, seemingly doing several things at once, as preparations for the afternoon’s feast progressed on schedule.

We were quickly hustled out of the kitchen — and out of the way — but not before I was given a large cup of hot chocolate to take to the living room where my uncles would be waiting; watching the the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from New York. Even on the “state-of-the-art” low resolution, black and white, 12 inch screen, I liked the parade; the floats, the bands, and the balloons. The crowds and the occasional street views of 6th Avenue and 34th Street, so very different from small-town, mid-western Aurora, were fascinating to me – being like every other little kid of my time.

Other than last week’s Notre Dame highlights (sponsored by The Plaster Institute), there wasn’t too much football on TV in those days – especially on a Thursday, holiday or not — so my uncle’s and my dad chatted while they half-heartedly watched. Occasionally one of the ladies would take a break from the kitchen and watch the parade for a few moments, with commentary on how wonderful it all looked.

The parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus, signaling the start of the Christmas season; the parade was sponsored by a department store, after all. But Thanksgiving, and the extended autumn weren’t over just yet. After the end of the parade, and a bit of brief post-festivities commentary, there was a return to normal weekday programming. In due time the TV was turned off, however, as it was getting to be almost time for Dinner.

Our “dining room” – the not so large space between the kitchen doorway, and the large archway to the living room – had been transformed. The modest table within had grown, by means of something called leaves, and was now covered with a spotless white cloth. On the cloth, along with a couple of candles, were dishes, glass and silverware which were only seen a couple of times a year. The men were pressed into service and began filling the strategically located empty spaces on the table with all of the traditional foods of a Thanksgiving Dinner, crowned of course by a large, golden brown, wonderful smelling turkey.

Not being a toddler, or an infant – as my brother and my two cousins then were – I also helped; carrying baskets of rolls, and trays of olives, and the like to the table. When it came time to sit, there was no lesser “kids table”. All of my “peers” had high-chairs and I sat right there at the table with the grown-ups. There’s not much to say about the dinner itself, other than it was wonderful. I responded to an occasional question, but I mostly didn’t chat much during the meal. Although I listened closely to what was being said around the table (You can learn a lot by paying attention), I was much too busy eating to join in.

After dinner the table was cleared, and the kitchen put in order — with but brief, lethargic, and half-hearted efforts by the men. But I was certainly volunteered to help. It was important to clean up right away, for the table would be needed again, in an hour or so, for coffee and home-made pie. The delayed coffee and dessert was every bit as good as the dinner, but by the time we were finished things were starting to get a bit hazy for me, and the next thing I knew I was of waking up the next morning in my bed, with no memory of how I got there.

As I lay there, I soon realized that 1) It was a Friday, and no school, and 2) it was now Christmas time. So I got up and had a bowl of corn flakes to fortify me as I prepared to meet the new season head-on.

Thanksgiving – Part One: Morning

Though earlier and later years offered different experiences, the fondest Thanksgivings of my memory are those of my grade school years, which started well before dawn and seemed to just fade to a close in the not so late evening.

Those long-ago days would begin with an early morning ride with my father, in the ‘50 Plymouth, through the still dark countryside south and east of Aurora. We would park in the barnyard of the Haag farm on Wolf Road, which seemed to me, at the time, to be a very long way from home. We would gather our stuff, and then walk a goodly distance past fence lines and hedgerows, past and between fields of both harvested and still standing corn. There to await the dawn; when, with the coming of the light, it would be permissible to hunt for pheasant and rabbit.

We would find a suitable spot and settle in to await the sunrise. Dad would break out a thermos, and there we would sit; just the two of us, alone in the half light, in what seemed to me to be a wilderness, for a few precious moments talking and sipping strong, hot, black coffee from paper cups. It tasted awful, but it was “a man’s drink”, and I drank it; proud to be there sharing it with my Dad.

When it was full light, Dad would pack the thermos, load the shotgun, and we would set off into the corn. His interest was pheasants, and that’s where they were to be found. Rabbits on the other hand lived along the fence lines, and were almost too easy. Dad would take a rabbit or two, in  the course of the morning, but would refuse to eat them unless “we had had a hard freeze”, which he said was required to kill some kind of bacteria which lived within them. Later, before we left for home we would give the rabbits to the farmer as a way of saying thanks for access to the land. The farmer would grind them up as feed for the feral cats which helped to reduce the numbers of other critters; unwanted residents of the barn and silos.

But it was pheasants that Dad liked to hunt, partly because they tasted so good, and partly because they were so difficult. Pheasants would hide in the corn and not fly, even if you walked closely past them. They would usually fly only if they felt threatened, or if, as I once did, you stepped on one. Then they would fly up — startlingly, past your face — and into the autumn wind, which bore them quickly away. But Dad was quick with the shotgun, and a good shot, so if he would see one he would usually get one.

I would follow safely along behind, or in a rear quarter, wearing a smaller version of Dad’s hunting vest – the kind with large pouches sewn in, so I could do my part and carry a pheasant, or a couple of rabbits.

By midmorning it was time to hike back out of the fields and unburden myself of the rabbits. We would stop at the farm house to say thank you and goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Haag (Don and Bertie – family friends and distant relatives through marriage). Then it was back into the ‘50 Plymouth for the long drive home, where the other best part of the day would begin.

The Last Out of the Game

I’ve commented before on the fact that I was never really very successful in team sports. But when I was in the 4th or 5th grade I was in a softball league, perhaps organized by the local Cub Scout troops (?), where I did reasonably well — with one notable exception. There was a summer evening game at Beaupre Elementary School, played in the school’s small dusty diamond on the corner of Ohio Street and Galena Blvd. I was sort of familiar with the area. Sometimes on my family’s after dinner drives, we would stop for a cone at the Dairy Queen, right across the street from the field.

Games in this league were fairly typical for 9 or 10-year-olds. Some kids rode from Bardwell School with the coach to the “away” game. Some, like myself on this evening, were driven by their parents. Parents sometimes, but not always, showed up to watch the play, and were not, in any case, the fanatical fans that parents seem to have become in more recent years.

As a team, we had no fixed positions, and in the games players would rotate, so that in the course of a game everyone played everywhere. A notable feature of our games however was that, again unlike modern times, we kept score. And the score mattered.

Toward the end of this particular game, with one inning to go, and the visiting team, us, holding the lead, it was my turn to rotate to pitcher. I assumed the mound with some confidence – we had a big lead, after all – and I got the first two guys out fairly easily. One out to go. The next batter got a hit, and with him standing on first base, something happened.

From that moment on, I could absolutely not get the ball over the plate. I walked the next batter on four pitches. That’s okay, I thought, we had the lead and needed only one out to win the game. I walked the next batter on four pitches. It became a procession, as each time I threw the ball four times — in the general direction of home plate — the batter and runners would trot to the next base. I could see pity in the umpire’s eyes, and the relish with which each new batter confidently strode to the plate, as the runs began to score. The longer this went on, of course, the worse I got.

But I kept trying; we still needed just one out to win the game. And so, while this vital fact still remained true, another, previously unplanned, rotation took place and I was shifted to third base. A teammate took over on the mound and I was relieved in more ways than one. And wouldn’t you know it, the very next pitch resulted in a pop-up to the left side of the infield — which I camped under and deftly caught. And the game was won.

After the home team sullenly walked off the field, and our equipment was neatly packed in the coach’s station wagon, we retired to the Dairy Queen across the street; where my teammates indicated that all was forgiven as they complimented me on my game-winning put-out. Funny how things work out sometimes.

Another curiosity — perhaps. For the rest of the season I somehow never again rotated to the pitching position.

The Last Day of School

Despite this year’s milder temperatures, we are in the “dead of winter”, and so I hope today’s post will add a bit of springtime to the discourse. And what is more springtime than The Last Day of School.

During my tenure at C.M Bardwell Elementary School, the last day of each school year was special for several reasons. One, the day was usually over by lunchtime; which was good, because by this time we could barely stand the wait. Two, the “gym shoes”, purchased by Mom in the beginning of the previous September to be used, of course, only for gym class, were now yours to wear (and wear out) all summer long. And Three, the thing which really made this day so special was that it was the last day of school.

Until next September that is, but which — when you are 10 — is so infinitely far into the future as to have no consequence, or meaning, when the long anticipated day of freedom had actually, amazingly, arrived. The day was always a bit surreal; getting up that morning was easier, the walk to school tingled with anticipation. The colors of the flowers seemed brighter and more vivid, and the newly leaved trees fuller, and somehow greener as the warm, fresh, springtime clean air softly moved them about.

Each year’s last day was the culmination of a week of roller coaster emotions. After the brief, tantalizing, “almost there” feeling of Memorial Day weekend, restless students were pulled back, and once again enclosed by the walls, and the regimen, of grade school as the longest week of the year began. How tedious to finish that final book report, to read that final lesson, while just beyond the glass lie a world of dreams.

This final day of the school year was different from the day before the 11 or 12 days we had off for Christmas and the New Year, or the beginning of the all too brief Easter week hiatus. On those “last” days, terrific as they were, we could see well enough into the near future to anticipate the end of the break, and know it was temporary. Before long we would return to the same old routine.

But summer was long. And yes, we of course understood that someday, in the far future we would have to come back. In due time, stores — where new “school clothes”, and new gym shoes could be purchased — would begin to advertise Back-To-School sales. But that was a whole summer away, and when we did return it would be to a different grade, to a different teacher, and to a different and hopefully better year.

Also, when we returned, we would be older. Not in time so much; the age difference between the third grader in June, and the fourth-grader in September was minimal. But the emotional reality — that is to say, how you felt — was huge. With each new grade, we would literally stand a bit taller, and walk the halls with more experience and confidence.

But all of that lay ahead, and was not considered on that special day in early June when “the bells rang out the summer free”, and time ceased to exist as we donned our gym shoes and passed into a different state of being. Summer Vacation.

 

The Allen Family

Of my friends at CM Bardwell Elementary School, my very best friend was Clifford Allen, son of the proprietor of a small grocery store on Marion Avenue near Fourth Street. The Allen family resided on Marion Ave, as well; on the other side of Fourth Street, a couple of houses from the corner.

The Allen house had the typical backyard of the day, a modest expanse of grass, and a garage whose entrance faced the block dividing gravel alleyway. A curiosity, the Allen house had two backdoors; one, on the right (as seen from the back yard), providing entrance to the kitchen, and another leading up and into the adjacent dining room. Each backdoor had a small concrete stoop, and between them was what I thought at the time to be the best feature of the house — a large sandbox.

Not a box in the accepted sense, this perhaps 4 foot X 10 foot sand filled enclosure was bounded by the rear foundation of the house, the aforementioned two stoops, and a low barrier along the narrow concrete walk which joined them. In the center of the foundation there was a tap, ostensibly for the backyard hose, but was also our water source for the pools and canals and rivers which we sometimes sculpted into the sand.

On any given day this sandy space might be transformed into hills and valleys where troops of green plastic soldiers would fight fierce battles. On another day toy steam shovels and dump trucks might assist in landscaping and in the construction of houses and other buildings — occasionally on a river, or sometimes at lakeside — as we transformed the area into one venue or another.

Often Clifford’s older brother, Gary would play with us in the sandbox, and sometimes in the yard at various games; that is until he aged a bit and heard the siren song of other pastimes. But whether with Gary, or with some other neighborhood kids, or just my friend Clifford, I loved that sandbox.

This was all enhanced by my friend’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Claude and Alice), who were wonderful to me, and treated me as if I were family. And at Allen’s Market, we were always welcome when we came in for a candy bar, or the occasional Fudgesicle.

Scouting: Part Three – Winter Nights at Camp Kedeka

Camping was of course a big feature of Boy Scouting, which was perfectly logical and expected, given the origins, nature, and mission of Scouting. We had several weekend campouts in various parks and other places. But there were other things, as well. There were “merit badges” to be earned, and meetings to attend at which merit badge work could be reviewed and camping trips be discussed and planned. I’m sure there was more but that’s what I remember.

The meetings, once begun, were OK. They were a bit more regimented than the Cub Scout gatherings, and for better or worse, included very little involvement by our moms. But we were older, and could go off and participate in such things by ourselves. I also, with some fondness, recall the wild, impromptu, undisciplined, “capture the flag” sort of games we would play in the OLGC gymnasium, which nicely counter-pointed the organized meeting which immediately followed.

But it was the outings — in my mind and memory, at least — which seemed to be the predominant activity. As I’ve indicated earlier, we had various campout experiences. But far and away the ones I remember most fondly took place in winter.

Each year, deep in the winter, we would spend a couple of weekends (Friday evening through Sunday afternoon) occupying the small, rustic cabins at camp Kedeka, in the heart of Bliss Woods in Sugar Grove, IL.

For a Boy Scout camp the name Kedeka seems a nicely appropriate Indian-sounding name, but was in fact the concatenation of the first letters of the three counties which the camp served; Kendall, DeKalb, and Kane. We had no idea where we were, and could not have found Sugar Grove a map to save ourselves, and Bliss Woods had a much more primitive and remote feeling than Camp Blackhawk ever did. But the car rides to and from were much shorter, so we knew we weren’t too far from home.

We would settle in late on Friday afternoon and because, as I have said, this was the dead of winter it was already getting dark by the time we arrived. The cabins in which we stayed were actually a bit more than rustic — they were primitive. Memory fails me here, but I’m guessing that they were each no more than 15 x 20′. The central feature was a large fireplace, opposite the entrance. The accommodations were four wood frame double bunks built against on each side wall. The bunks were man size, however, so there was plenty of room, and with a thin mattress to supplement our sleeping bags, they were downright luxurious compared to sleeping in a tent on the ground; even dry ground.

Settling in, we would cook and eat our dinner, then tidy up and all gather around the fireplace of one of the cabins for stories. We were too keyed up from just being there to turn in early on Friday, so we would sit well into the night, mesmerized by the fire, lost in the stories the troop leaders would tell, which of course would include the terrors possibly lurking in the dark snowy woods just outside the thin cabin door.

Saturdays were filled with activities; woodcraft and knots, of course, and usually a hike in the dense woods. We would stop for lunch at some small clearing, or beside a stream, and the troop leaders would again provide proof that a cooking fire could indeed be built and lit in the damp cold woods. After the meal we were taught how to properly douse our fire, and disperse the remnants, so as to leave the woods as we had found it.

After Saturday night’s supper, and a few more stories, or sing-alongs, or whatever, we would turn in; being pretty tired on this night from the exertions of the day. This was what I was waiting for. Every time we went winter camping at Camp Kedeka, I took with me the same plan. My intention was to sleep for a few hours, and then get up about 1 AM, and go for a hike of my own. I wanted very much to hike the winter woods in the complete and silent solitude of the cold dark snowy night. It just seemed like such an adventure, and I would look forward to and plan my trek for days before we would make camp.

Alas, it turned out that each time I had the opportunity I was just as tired as everyone else, and I would sleep through the night. Each time this happened I always had a tiny sense of failure. I hadn’t brought my plan to fruition.

The upside was that when morning came I always awoke fresh and properly prepared for the Sunday breakfast of pancakes and sausage, which set us up nicely for Sunday’s fun. I regretted missing the opportunity to have my solo adventure. But okay, I’d do it next time, for sure.

Blackhawk

Scouting: Part Two – Camp Blackhawk

As Boy Scouts, our circle of activities widened. We still had regular meetings and gatherings of course, but we did other stuff too; like a day in the woods identifying various shrubs (like poison ivy) and trees, and such, as well as learning to build a fire, and what knots were useful and how to tie them.

There were extended adventures as well. One fine, if more than a bit rainy, summer weekend we camped with several other scout troops along the Fox River at Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles, IL.

I also spent about ten days at a place called Camp Blackhawk, which I heard once was somewhere in Michigan. (Muskegan County, I much later learned. I knew at the time it seemed an awfully long way from home). We did the usual things; ate our meals in the communal mess hall, swam and rowed boats on the rather nice lake, and slept in semi-permanent tent structures, which held bunks for about 10 boys each.

The camp counselors were guys a few years older than we were, and each an “expert” at one of the various activities in which we participated. The counselors stayed in cabins scattered about the lakeside woods near the venues which they supervised; woodcraft, archery, boating, and the like. Even a small rifle range. The cabins in which the counselors stayed all had names; usually puns on the names of movies popular at the time (i.e. “Paintin’ Place”).

On the first day, while taking our initial tour, the rifle range caught my attention. When we were introduced to the counselor overseeing the range, he asked the group if anyone were interested in competing with him — best score for five shots with a .22 rifle. The bet was a quarter, and he would supply the ammunition (which probably meant that it was the camp’s ammo).

No one stepped forward, except finally one. Me. A quarter was a fair portion of the money with which I had been supplied — with the stern instruction to spend it wisely — and the of the rest of the guys all eagerly told me what a fool I was, and that I couldn’t possibly win. But I went forward anyway.

So down I went to the shooting counter and we took turns firing at the target. When 10 shots were expended we walked to the paper targets to learn the results. I discovered that, surprise!, I had lost — and badly. Actually, my shots weren’t that bad, but he was an ace.

I handed over my quarter and received a large number of “I told you so’s” from my new friends. But that was okay, I got to shoot five rounds and to be center of attention for 15 minutes or so, and it only cost me a quarter. I still believe it was money well spent.

The time passed and we cycled through the various activities by day, rowed boats and had water fights after dinner, and generally had lots of fun. And I learned a few things as well, including the theretofore unknown joy of apple butter on breakfast toast. Surprisingly, I won an award on the archery range; an activity in which I had little real interest. But I accepted the award proudly nonetheless. And still have it.

The last day we packed up our stuff and were off on the long bus ride back to Aurora; happy to be going home, but sad to be leaving. A sign, I guess, that we’d had pretty good time.