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Saturday, November 16, 2013
The Good Old Days
The Gateway Café on Ogden Ave., Our Teen Hangout [VAL photo, late 1940s]
Memory does funny things. I suspect that my childhood and adolescent years were frequently painful and distressing. However, the further away I am from those early days, the more idyllic they become. I think everybody has an endless capacity to reconstruct our memory banks, and we’re probably prone to do so in ways that make the past more pleasurable. Objectively I don’t know if my world today is any better or any worse than it was in my youth. However, it’s absolutely different. Here are some of the things I remember from growing up in Menominee in the 1940’s and early 50’s.
Comic Books. Comic books cost a nickel or a dime, and every one of my friends had a big stack in his or her collection. I was particularly advantaged because my uncle Kent let me read the week’s new comics off the rack in his downtown Menominee drugstore. Captain Marvel was my favorite. A contemporary of Superman, Captain Marvel had many of the same astonishing superpowers. His alter identity, teenager Billy Batson, would be transformed into a superhero by uttering the magic word, “Shazam”. Captain Marvel disappeared in 1953 when DC Comics brought a lawsuit that claimed his creators stole their ideas from Superman. I’m just glad I got to be there for Captain Marvel’s heyday.
Candy stores. Several neighborhoods in our town had a candy store which catered to grade school children. Ours was a half-block down the street from our grade school, and it was like paradise. There were a series of bins lined up at the front counter, each containing a different type of penny candy (e.g., peppermints, licorice, bubble gum, all sorts of chewies). Candy bars – e.g., Baby Ruth, Hershey bars, Snickers, Mars bars – were a nickel apiece; a box of Cracker Jacks, a dime. You could also buy marbles, water pistols, jacks, and lots of little toys.
Ice Cream. Ice cream was more affordable too. Our family lived one mile west of the Ideal Dairy on Highway 527, a local firm which offered a dozen or more flavors and whose cones cost two dips for a nickel. Lemon flake was my favorite, and I’ve never been able to find since I went away to college. Often on my way home from high school I’d buy a six-dip cone and ride one-handed on my bike while holding the cone with the other. It would last me till just past the cemetery a half-mile down the road.
Cavities. With sweets galore and no fluoride yet in the water, the dentist usually found one or more cavities on our annual visits. Novocain helped, but the dentist’s drill made your ears vibrate, and getting cavities filled was one of the more unpleasant events of childhood.
Vaccinations. Dentist drills, however, weren’t as terrifying as the gruesome needles used for children’s smallpox vaccinations. Every year in grade school we’d march in a long line down Ogden Avenue to the court house (or maybe the high school gym) to get our shots. It was like being on the Bataan Death March. It was common for children to break out in tears or hysterics and try to bolt the ranks. Then we’d have to stand in long lines and wait for the nurse to jab a huge needle into our upper arms. In my memory, it seemed around the size of a knitting needle. Besides the immediate pain, vaccinations created an ugly red swelling and resulted in a scab which stuck around for a couple of weeks.
Cowboy matinees. These days children still go to the movies, of course, but I don’t think it’s anything like the weekly Saturday afternoon matinees of our childhood. For ten cents you’d go with chums to the Lloyd Theater and get the Movietone news, two or three cartoons, previews of upcoming attractions, a 10- or 15-minute short (e.g., The Three Stooges), and at least one main feature, usually a cowboy thriller starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, or Randolph Scott.
The Golden Age of Radio. TV didn’t reach Menominee till the early 1950’s, and radio was the mass medium of choice in my youth. My siblings and I would gather around the family radio on our window seat and listen to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, the Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee & Molly, the Shadow, Superman, Duffy’s Tavern, and many other classics. The Hit Parade, with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, kept us up to date on the latest pop music hits. On Friday nights Frankie St. Peter and I would listen at our respective homes to boxing on the radio. Our favorite radio boxers were Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles (from Cincinnati).
Guns. It would be politically incorrect today, but guns were a huge part of our childhood, particularly for the boys. In the advent of World War II, I had my own arsenal by mid-childhood – pistols, rifles, machine guns, cowboy guns, detective revolvers, military guns, water pistols, guns that shot ping pong balls or darts, and other weapons like bows and arrows, daggers, swords, and spears. Basically, we were pint-sized warriors. Most of the pistols shot caps, and you could buy these for ten cents a roll at the five and dime store. A lot of our play activity involved guns – cowboys and Indians, war, cops and robbers, etc. When they came of age, many kids then moved on to BB guns. One of my acquaintances used his BB gun to shoot at the detonator of a .22-caliber bullet which he’d lodged between two rocks (until one of the bullets caromed off a rock and put out his right eye).
Marbles. Marbles were a major lunchtime and recess activity on our grade school playground. Players dug a hole in the dirt with the heel of their shoe, then used their “shooter” to propel other marbles into the hole. You could play for “keepsies” (i.e., the winner of each round kept the opponent’s marbles) or “funsies” (no marble exchanges). I didn’t like playing keepsies because I’d usually wind up losing my stash of marbles and would have to spend a sizeable chunk of my weekly allowance to replenish my supply at the candy store.
Boys Chase the Girls. The most exciting playground game during my childhood was Boys Chase the Girls. Most of the time, children’s recess play was gender-segregated. The boys played touch football, while the girls jumped rope and played hopscotch. Every once in a while, though, we would join together for Boys Chase the Girls. All the girls lined up on the east side of the playground; all the boys, on the west side. Then the two groups ran toward another, with the girls’ goal to avoid being touched and to make it to the opposite side, while the boys’ goal was to capture a girl. There was another variant of this game, Girls Chase the Boys, which offered some of the same thrills but wasn’t quite as exciting.
School prayers. There wasn’t so much talk about the separation of church and school during my childhood. It wasn’t unusual for our public grade school teachers to conduct a prayer in the classroom. The school system closed on Good Friday and the Monday following Easter, and we’d sing lots of religious songs throughout December. On Monday mornings all year long my fourth grade teacher instructed everybody who’d attended Sunday School the previous day to go and stand by the blackboard. This usually left only one or two heathens still sitting in our seats (myself included).
Cheap gas. When I started driving in 1953, gasoline at the local Zephyr station at the foot of the Interstate Bridge was 19.9 cents a gallon. Sometimes, though, there would be a gas war among the stations in town, and prices would drop to 9.9 cents. Bob A. was the first person in our peer group to get his own car at age 16. He’d get us all to chip in a nickel or a dime, whereupon we’d spend an evening cruising around the loop.
Atom bomb drills. As schoolchildren we became aware of the world-altering potential of the atomic bomb soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia had begun its own nuclear program in 1943, and, with the steady escalation of the Cold War, fears of a nuclear holocaust soon dominated the public imagination. In Menominee people worried that Russian bombers might stray off-course and mistake Menominee’s river and harbor from above for the St. Lawrence Seaway, a prime military target. Our grade school teachers prepared us for unthinkable catastrophe through atom bomb drills, which mainly consisted of bending over and putting our heads underneath our wooden desks until the “All Clear” was called out.
The Family Fallout Shelter. My parents always struck me as rather level-headed, but they weren’t immune to free-floating nuclear anxieties. Sometime in the early 1950’s my father and grandfather decided to construct a bomb shelter in the basement of our Marinette drugstore. It was stocked with water, canned foods, and other supplies. Barely big enough to hold our family and my Uncle Ralph’s family all crammed together, I think there may have been some discussion of having firearms available to ward off potential intruders from the neighborhood.
Hadacol. As a teenager I clerked at the family drugstore, and one of the most popular items that I sold was the over-the-counter patent medicine, Hadacol. A vitamin supplement and miracle product, customers vowed that Hadacol made them feel much better – certainly moreso than the Centrum Silver I take today. It’s not clear that the effects were due to the vitamins though. It could have had more to do with Hadacol’s 12% alcohol content.
The Bunny Hop. One of my great regrets about my adolescence is that I never learned to be a good dancer, especially in terms of swing or jitterbugging. Mostly we confined ourselves to slow dancing in which the idea was to tangle yourself around your partner and feel agitated. The bunny hop, though, was another thing. It started in San Francisco in 1952 and had spread to Menominee within a year or two. Kids got in a line and held the waist of the person in front of them. You tapped the floor two times with your right foot, two times with your left foot; hopped forward, then backward, and finally three hops forward. We still were doing the bunny hop at my high school reunion a few years ago. Possibly they do the bunny hop at high school dances in 2013, but I’m going to list it here as a highlight of the good old days.
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-Phyllis S-S (11-18): Dave, This was fun to read and remember. Nice to see you and Katja at Linton. I hope she's OK now. How awful for the both of you that she was in the hospital. Have a nice trip to New Orleans…. Best, Phyllis