We didn’t know we were poor. Metaphorically speaking, everyone in the neighborhood was in the same boat. Our lives were fairly simple and for children, toys were few. Heck, we didn’t need toys because we played outside. People lived in flats, apartments, two family houses and older single family homes. To the best of my recollection, most structures had a weathered, dull look and seemed as though they needed a new coat of paint. It didn’t matter to us as children. You see, we were more focused on forming friendships and having fun.
Families were more traditional Post-WW II. In many families, dads were the breadwinners and moms stayed home. That certainly wasn’t the scenario in my house. Mom was a woman who was driven to succeed. While other moms were assuming the roles of June Clever or Donna Reed, my mother was charting a pathway to lift us up and into the newly emerging middle class.
I remember the linoleum floors throughout our apartment. They shined and reflected light almost to the point of blinding a person. Every so often one of the floor nails would pop up which could signal danger for an unsuspecting child, sliding across the floor in their socks. A snagged sock and the maple post at the end of my bed resulted in my first childhood wound. Over 60-years later and I still carry the scar, less than one inch from my eye. Many more childhood cuts were to follow. However, back in those days, the doctor came to the house and simply stitched me up as I sat on the red Formica and metal kitchen table.
December 1, 1948, was the date Syracuse got its first television broadcasting channel. It was another 14 years before our area got its second TV channel which was an ABC affiliate. As a youngster I watched, “I Love Lucy, Disneyland, The Jackie Gleason Show, The George Gobel Show, The Jack Benny Show, The Milton Berle Show, I’ve got a Secret, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke, Wyatt Earp, Maverick, The Howdy Doody Show, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, and Captain Kangaroo.” I can still hear adults yelling, “Sit back from that TV before you need glasses or you go blind!” It seems so silly now, but back then we didn’t question any adult. The first television my parents purchased came with a metal locked coin box on top of the cabinet. Once per week an employee of the store where they purchased it would show up, unlock the coin box and take the money mom and dad had deposited in it. I guess if a payment was missed the TV would have been taken away by the man collecting the coins. My mom referred to this as, “Revolving credit.”
I grew up in an era when parents were not our buddies, pals or friends. They were the adults and were all too willing to dole out corporal punishment if we didn’t obey the unwritten rules of respect, obedience, good manners, behaving in school, doing chores around the house, and addressing all adults as Mr., Mrs., or Miss. Spare the rod and spoil the child was a common theme for those in my generation. Although we may not have liked certain things or conditions, an authority figure was never questioned. Rest assured, the punishment was swift, severe and came with little warning.
My uncle Rodger is only 4 years older than I. We were more like brothers, especially after my mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather and Rodger shared a bottom floor flat for a few years. We had a great relationship considering I never had any siblings. My grandfather was a pipe fitter, by trade. Most of his jobs were either out-of-town or out-of-state. During his long absences, we all managed as a family unit. Our apartment was convenient for my dad who merely had to walk out the front door, cross the street and enter the factory where he was employed. I fondly recall the tremendous amount of love, warmth and security I felt during this time when we were all together.
Rodger’s father was actually my step-grandfather. He was an intimidating man, mostly due to his large and rugged physique. “Pop,” as I always referred to him was an immigrant from Norway and spoke in broken English. It was difficult for me to understand him. Even though his accent was thick, Pop knew proper English and grammar and no one was given a pass for poor grammar. Always present on the dining room table was the 5 inches thick “Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged Edition.” If a word was misspoken the full weight of the dictionary would be slammed onto the table and we would be forced to look up the word and then define it. These early lessons helped me to be more cautious with my use of vocabulary and the meaning of my words.
A short walk from our apartment was Burnet Park. It was the largest park, within the city limits of Syracuse, covering nearly 100 acres. Pop had a voracious appetite for reading. I fondly recall him taking Rodger and me to the park swimming pool, finding a nice tree to sit under and then lose himself in the pages of a good book. The park also had a zoo and we would spend endless hours walking the perimeter and looking at the reindeer, buffalo, peacocks, and the bears who were housed in makeshift stone bear caves. Once the winter snows started to fall Rodger and I could be found back at the park screaming with pure elation as we slid down its hills. We always had an abundance of activities filled with energy, excitement and wild imaginations. Rarely did we find ourselves bored because in our young minds there was a world of exploration waiting for us to make new discoveries with each passing day.
We attended Delaware Elementary school. It was a ghastly old brick schoolhouse, which, incidentally, is still operating today. The interior was daunting and quite honestly, I was terrified during the three years I attended this spooky building. The incessant clamor of the steam radiators clanging and hissing added to the dungeon-like eeriness I experienced. For an inner-city school, it was quite unique that Delaware Elementary had an indoor swimming pool in the basement. While many may have viewed the swimming pool as an asset, I saw it as my nemesis. I learned early on that the boys and girls bathrooms were also located in the basement. I was mortified going down into the bellows of the monster where I smelled the chlorine and heard the oceanic sounds of gurgling and water lapping against the parameter of the beastly pool. I was so petrified to use the bathroom, so much so that I actually urinated in my pants, while sitting at my desk. I can still see the puddle I left under my little school desk. The trauma of messing myself was made worse when the teacher made me stand against the radiators to dry off. I think this was the first time in my young life I became aware of shame.
Rodger and I walked home from school at lunchtime. We were greeted at the door with the aroma of toasted cheese sandwiches and piping hot bowls of tomato soup. The warmth and comfort I felt not only from the food but also seeing my grandmother’s loving face, still lingers in my mind. Once the winter snow had melted from the blacktopped surface of the playground we, along with many others, would gather our cotton drawstring bags of marbles in anticipation of some games after school recess. In the game of marbles, players soon learn that all marbles are not created equally. There were large ones, small ones and those considered to be normal sized. The colors and styles varied widely, as well. We thought the bigger the marble the better the win. My favorite marbles were cat’s eyes, bumblebee, devil’s eyes, oxblood, tigers, and pearls. Steely was a metal ball-bearing and for me, it was the grand prize of all marbles. I treasured the steely so much so that many times I wouldn’t even carry it in my bag, for fear of losing it in a match. Rodger and I would feverishly walk the railroad tracks in search of the ever elusive ball bearings that may have fallen out of a railcar. We were, most definitely, modern-day treasure hunters.
The area where we resided was an olio of immigrants, working class and the poor. Some had labeled us as living in the ‘DP district’ which referenced a large amount of foreigners (displaced people). We had a German man who lived on our street and painted cars in a garage behind his house. My parents had a good laugh after picking up their freshly painted car when they noticed instead of driving a Pontiac, they, instead, now owned a ‘Pontica’. Apparently, the German painter hadn’t yet mastered the English language.
I had my fair share of dumb kid moments. My mom gave me a hand/sock puppet and what does a child do with such a gift? I went outside to show my friend. I was tossing the puppet in the air when it became snagged in a tree. Naturally, without thinking, I picked up a pointed stick in an attempt to knock the puppet to the ground. This act was not one of my brightest or finest moments. Like a javelin, the stick could not deny the laws of gravity and plummeted back to earth, but not before striking my friend in the eye. People poured out of their homes to the sounds of my friend’s blood-curdling screams. I stood there helplessly trembling with a fear I had never felt before. The little boy was rushed to the hospital. I sobbed uncontrollably, wondering if I killed him or if he lost his eye. I trembled with an uneasiness in anticipation of the outcome. Fortunately, my friend didn’t lose his eye or any vision, even though months later his eye was still blood red. I hope I hadn’t caused a permanent injury.
I didn’t stay in 1st Grade for very long. Shortly after a little girl and I got caught kissing behind the “Dick and Jane” reading books I was promoted to 2nd Grade. Apparently school officials thought I was too advanced for my age. In 1957, the romantic comedy film “Tammy and the Bachelor,” starring Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen hit the movie theater circuit. In July of 1957, Debbie Reynolds had a number one hit with her song, “Tammy.” I can still hear the innocence of her voice singing, “Wish I knew if he knew what I’m dreaming of, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love.” While being introduced to the students in my 2nd Grade classroom, I was smitten with the little girl in the front row. Her name was Tammy. Once Valentine’s Day rolled around there was only one thing to do. Tammy would get her very own special card. Walking to school, I was excited with anticipation of how Tammy’s individual card would be received. I was tossing it into the air and then miss the return catch as it fell into one slush puddle after another. When it was time to pass out our cards I eagerly handed the wet and stained envelope to Tammy. Her immediate response was sheer disgust by how dirty the card was and she immediately handed the unopened envelope to the teacher. I don’t think Tammy spoke to me again after that fateful day.
(The story will continue)
Written by Dennis L. Page