Thursday, October 1, 2009

Riverside Boulevard, a Street of Dreams

Dear George,


When my dad returned home from the Paciific shortly after the war we became the first family to move out to Riverside Boulevard, about a mile and a half west of the Menominee city limits.  My grandfather Guy Cramer had built “river house” on a beautiful bend of the Menominee River as a summer cottage, and, though not entirely outfitted, it suited our family well.  At first, we lacked sewage and electricity.  We used a one-seater outhouse behind the garage, we had kerosene lamps in the house, no telephone, and we drew our kitchen and bath water in pails from a hand-operated pump outside the front of the house.  A little later we had a gasoline powered generator in the garage which produced electricity.  The generator broke down regularly, and John Sargent, a knowledgeable family friend, would drive over from Northwood Cove and start it up again. 


Riverside Boulevard was in no sense a boulevard.  It was a two-lane, gravel county road (now named River Road).  Though the Meads and Orths built houses adjacent to us within a year or two, the largely unpopulated road was at the bottom of the county’s priorities for winter plowing, and we enjoyed one or more snow days from school whenever a big storm rolled in.  When the road got covered with ice, my dad would hitch our toboggan to the back of the car, and he would tow us on a joyride up toward Mason Park.  When the spring thaw came, the dirt and gravel road turned to mud, and cars made a pathway of deep ruts.  The road had been constructed on a bed of logs, so that when the ruts became deep enough we bounced up and down every foot or so on the log foundation.  Needless to say, Riverside Boulevard would become impassable in the spring as well as the winter, so we got more weather-related vacation days from school than anybody else. 


By the time I got into high school, the county blacktopped Riverside Boulevard, an immense improvement for our family’s travel, and I began riding my bike three miles to school each day. 

By the ninth grade I was working at the Marinette drugstore, earning thirty cents an hour, and so I had ample spending money.  After school I would stop at the Ideal Dairy on Highway 577 just near the intersection with Riverside Boulevard.  The Idle, as my father called it, had a plentiful variety of ice cream flavors, and I would get a six-dip cone for fifteen cents.  Eating a six-dipper while steering your bike with one hand is challenging at first, but I did master it, and I would typically get all the way to the cemetery before finishing my last bite.  The Ideal Dairy had a flavor called Lemon Flake, which I’ve looked for ever since, but never found, at least in its original version.  I can’t describe how incredibly delectable Lemon Flake was.  Twice as good as Cincinnati’s Graeter’s or Aglamesis’, better than anything.  My mouth waters right now as I think about it.


Riverside Cemetery was the major public landmark on Riverside Boulevard, located about halfway between Highway 577 and our house.  It’s a very pretty, woodsy cemetery, situated on the banks of the Menominee River, and Katja has always proposed that we be buried there.  Sometimes after a heavy rainfall my dad would take us at night to the cemetery keeper’s house where we would bring flashlights and gather up nightcrawlers that had emerged from the soaked earth and were stretched out on the grass.  These were impressively big worms, perhaps 8 or 10 inches long and 3/8” in diameter, and they were purportedly ideal for fishing.  I can’t remember ever actually putting a nightcrawler on a fishing hook, but Steven did, and it was scary and exciting just to go along on a nightcrawler hunting expedition at the cemetery.   


Once Steven was in the 7th grade, we would ride home via Stephenson Avenue, past the Riverside Country Club, and then travel through the Cemetery, the west side of which was on the banks of the river.  We’d have to carry our bikes around a steel fence at the river’s edge, and then we could make our way home on “the old road”, a long abandoned one-lane road through the forest which was overgrown with foliage and occasionally blocked by fallen logs.  On one such occasion we found a woman’s brassiere hanging from a shrub near a drive-in entrance from Riverside Boulevard.  We checked it out with great curiosity and engaged in adolescent speculation about how it had gotten there.  Steve strongly wanted to take it home, supposedly to give to our mother, but, as the older brother, I was too prudish to allow it. 


In my mid-teens I would ride my bike to town in the evening, get a Creamy Whip on Ogden Avenue, cruise around, then return home after dark.  With many images of ghouls and vampires from my movie-watching, riding past the cemetery in the dark always filled me with anxiety, and I would try to pedal eighty miles an hour.  When I saw cars coming behind me in the distance on Riverside Boulevard, I would race them, seeing if I could get all the way home before they passed me.


The city dump was across the street from the cemetery and was the Boulevard’s most entrancing attraction.  I first went there with my father when I was in fifth or sixth grade.  The dump was unattended, and my dad was impressed with what surprisingly good things people would throw away, the choicest of which we would bring home.  I specialized in collecting bottle caps.  Soon I started going to the dump by myself, walking the half mile up the road pulling my red wagon and using it to bring desirable objects home.  These exciting trips undoubtedly account for my adult passion for yard sales and flea markets.  One day I found a huge dead pine snake, probably five feet long, and I brought it home and hid it under the sheets on Steven’s bed.   As we got older, Fath would take us to the dump at night with strong flashlights and the .22 rifle, and we would shoot at rats on the garbage piles.  A sad day occurred when the city put up a gate at the dump’s entrance and hired a watchman to let garbage haulers in and out.  For all practical purposes, our scavenging activities came to an end.


Brewery Park was down the road, next to the Mead’s house.  As its name implies, the park, an undeveloped patch of land on the river, was owned by the M&M Brewery and made available to its employees for swimming and picnicking.  Only a few people would come by every now and then, and we would swim there occasionally.  When I was coming of age, I decided that this would be a good place to hide and watch older women change into their bathing suits.  I went over one day and climbed thirty feet up in a pine tree to see what I could see, but nobody came along.  Mrs. Mead, though, did see me up in the tree out of her kitchen window and called my mother in a state of great fear. 


Our neighbor to the west was Mr. Shaver, a bachelor who used his property as a summer cottage and was civil to my parents, but didn’t like children trespassing on his property.  One night my parents heard somebody apparently breaking into Mr. Shaver’s house with an axe, and they called the sheriff.  They were red-faced the next day when Mr. Shaver, still in a rage, complained that the sheriff’s deputies had surrounded his house while he was entertaining a lady friend (and had been out in the back chopping wood for a romantic fire).  Mr. Shaver had an outhouse whose walls he had decorated with magazine photos of movie stars.  We were fooling around in it one day, and Steven locked me in and went home.  I must have been there for an hour, and, when he didn’t return, I climbed up by pressing my feet and back on the walls and crawled out through a small space under the roof.  In the process, I made a major mess out of Mr. Shaver’s photo decor.


Lou Reed’s house was a half-mile beyond Mr. Shaver’s, and he would hire me in the summer for twenty-five cents an hour to weed his large garden patch.  It was hot, tiresome work, and my parents would bring me an ice cream cone from the Ideal Dairy to make me feel better.  One summer the Reeds hired me to watch their house, water the plants, and feed their cat while they were away for two weeks.  I enjoyed exploring their house, looking through drawers, etc.  One afternoon I went into an attic storage space and inadvertently locked myself in.  I wound up having to break the door down to get out, and it was a very mortified child who had to confess to Mr. Reed what had happened.


There were a lot of other places of import on Riverside Boulevard: Mason Park, the Popkey’s, the silo, our tree farm property across the road, Little River, the horse pasture, the riding stables.  Suffice it to say that Riverside Boulevard was the center of my world from ages 9 to 18, and I have many memories, good, bad, silly, serious, trivial, and consequential that are connected with it.  Nowadays it’s pretty built up, but it was more of a wild place in days gone by.




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