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Part 3 of “Tales from Before Time.”

Discussion in 'Blogs' started by ghrit, Jan 3, 2009.

  1. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    Part 3 of “Tales from Before Time.”

    I started this exercise intending to pass along some of my memories to my kids at some later stage of my life. Within the last couple days, I noticed that I was (to a degree) censoring, based on language, specifically the King’s English. Right after that, I came to the realization that these guys are now well into their 30s and have possibly heard and used more than I have, and understand even more. Censorship will continue, but for entirely different reasons.

    For those of you that may be thinking of doing something similar for posterity, take note. As things come to the surface of consciousness, more will follow as surely as night follows day, and the project grows way beyond what you thought it would. In this case, the idea was to collect anecdotes that might be interesting or fun. Well, it has gone beyond that. Not all that has been scribbled shows up here, more is saved, but is on a far more personal level.

    As this is written, I’m in the new digs in Pennsylvania for just two months and the financial crisis is a full blown global disaster in the making. I’m waiting for some of the flying money involved in the house purchase to settle down, so I’ve the time to spend on this rather than other projects. I think I have some 40 hours into this already, and the end is not in sight. How do you end a project that seems to have no logical closing?

    You can blame Seacowboys for this, his retrospectives triggered the idea.

    Jeez. None of this follows any sort of chronological order. Maybe I’ll edit it some day --

    Another summer job that really didn’t fit into anything other than a bit of income was a summer spent chasing golf balls on a driving range. There was a cage rigged on an elderly jeep so we could push the ball collector around while customers were doing their thing on the tees. It wasn’t so bad 100 yards or so off the tees, but inside that you were basically a slow moving target. Inside say 25 yards, most folks would hold off until you got past. Mowing was also a treat, done during the day. No cage on the tractor (five ganged reel type mower) so that was done in the very early morning before opening for the day. Most of the time, there was a greenskeeper type that came in early for that, but now and then he didn’t make it and either one of the owners or I would go out and mow.

    That rig could not be backed up with the gang in tow, so maneuvering around the guy wires holding up the net was pretty tricky; misjudge, get down, unhitch and manhandle the ganged reels. (The net separated the pitch ‘n’ putt from the driving range.) Last thing at night before mowing was a pass with the ball collector so the mowers would not foul with balls. The reels would not stand that type of abuse. If a ball was seen, you stopped the tractor, got down and picked up the ball or un-jammed the reel.

    There was an irrigation pond on the property, actually on the driving range. There was a wire mesh cover over it to prevent balls from getting lost in the water. On mowing day, someone had to go out on the mesh and heave the balls back onto solid ground where the picking machine could get at them. You had to make sure to throw them over the drainage ditch where the picker could not go. (Nor could the tractor drawn mower.) The ditch was mowed with a rotary mower pushed along by, as often as not, me. This was done every couple weeks, again walked fairly thoroughly to get balls out of the grass before the mower found them. One morning, I took the rotary out, and happily started cutting. About 15 minutes or so into mowing, the blade hit a ball that was well hidden in the weeds, and off it went toward the clubhouse, and hit it in the air right over the house Pro Golfer’s (George Slingerland by name) head while he was conducting a lesson. About 80 yards on the fly, missed a store front sized window by inches.

    When rain was in short supply, the irrigation system got started up. The sprinkler heads were the rain bird type, but of commercial size. The pump could not handle all of them, so while water was running, the greenskeeper guy had to go out and shift them around while the pump was running. The trick was to snake thru the spurts, pull the head going off service and stick it in the next socket. You definitely did not want to get hit with a spurt, they were about 5 gallons a pop. Getting smacked by one was like getting whacked with 40 pounds of wet rags. Yes, I know that --

    One day, Don and I were looking for something to do. It happened that a number of others had recently acquired slingshots. How it happened that everyone got one of those devilish devices at around the same time is mysterious, but it did. Except us. Neither his parents nor mine were disposed to provide us with a commercially available toy type slingshot suitable for peas and small stones, so we determined to make our own. Glossing over the various experiments with forked branches found on the ground in the woods, the many busted elastic bands, torn fabric pockets is easy; it all meant nothing compared to the final solution. We cut a small tree about 2 inches in diameter that just happened to have a close to symmetrical fork. Over all, it was over four feet long, with the forked ends just over a foot. Rubber bands were (by this time) in pretty short supply due to the earlier experiments, so something else rubbery was needed. How it came to pass that we “found” an old inner tube is left to the imagination. More experimentation lead us to cutting the tube into strips of the “right” length and width for use with rocks, approximately a small fist sized. Now, this was not a one kid deal, there were none then and likely none now that could handle this monster. Comparing a regular rifle to a normal slingshot, this was artillery. We cut a point on the butt of the fork and stuck it in the ground, loaded up and pulled it back. That didn’t work well, the fork came out of the ground and smacked the puller. Not good, rethink. Put the sharp end in the ground and the non-puller brace it with his shoulder, keeping his head down, eh? AH! That works. Now we need a target--. Eventually, we took this slingshot to the school field for trials, range and accuracy. We got to the point where we could hit a 55 gallon drum at 100 yards (measured by football field stripes) about 1 of 5 tries using 1 inch ball bearings (that is another story for another time.) Yes, Virginia, slingshots recoil, and inner tubes do whip around.

    The late 40s and early 50s were indeed kinder and gentler times. Far less paranoia and far less reason for it. My mother’s parents lived in a neighborhood where every one knew everyone else, Friday nights the men met in a vacant lot and played quoits and horseshoes. Eggs, milk, coal, and bread were delivered right to your door, and you didn’t need to call for it. Bread came from Shofer’s bakery by small delivery van similar to what the post office now uses. G-ma had a sign that got stuck in the window if she needed anything, and the delivery guy dropped off whatever she listed on a slip stuck under the door knocker or in the screen door. The same sort of thing with milk and milk products. It was a treat for me to catch the bread man when he came by and ride up the street with him as he delivered to the rest of the houses on Oak Terrace and drop me off on the way back out. G-ma didn’t buy eggs off the delivery, she walked up the street to a friend’s house and got them there. (Yes, there were fowl still in town back then, legally.)

    Pretzels are good, accept that. However, there are some that are better than others. My father was a pretzel connoisseur of the first water. I cannot imagine the amount of time he spent searching out the perfect pretzel nor the number of side by side comparisons he did to come up with his top choices. There were a number of pretzel bakeries in Berks County, both large commercial types and much smaller local “foundries” as he called them. Most of the smaller operations achieved local followings because of one or another specialty of the house, and few were known very far beyond their own neighborhoods. None, to my knowledge survive to this day, most just died out when the owners did, or closed because of tightening health codes. There was one halfway between West Reading and Wyomissing Hills that turned out decent, but relatively pricey product that had a gallery where you could watch the fabrication process, all the way from dough mixing to where the baked pretzel fell off the oven conveyor. The only power or automated equipment was the dough mixers and the conveyors, the actual pretzel was hand twisted by women, placed on the conveyor and salted on the run prior to entering the oven. No salt was not an option, that would not be a pretzel, that would be an unnamed, unallowed, evil aberration.

    Pop had determined thru years of trial and error that the only pretzel worth its salt was a creation from a shop in Reading. Billy’s Bretzels (not misspelled) was a smaller shop than the one mentioned above located in a more or less out of the way corner of Reading. You had to know it was there. Long since closed, but they also hand made the pretzels on site. The bakery smell was to drool over. Almost every trip to see the grandparents involved a trip to Billy’s shop and a bag to take home. My favorite was the cheese bretzels, but they were relatively expensive, so we didn’t get a lot of them. And, for price reasons, “brokes” were the choice most of the time. No matter, the taste was the same. If I remember rightly, brokes were about 2/3 the price of perfects. (Not to mention that they were bite sized most of the time, thus fewer crumbs from kids chomping on whole ones in the car on the way home.)

    Billy’s are not matched today, about the closest you can get are Tom Sturgis. I’ve seen Sturgis in the occasional grocery store, but not as widely available as might be wished.

    The first shotgun I ever fired was a 410, at maybe 12 years old, more or less. The second was a 10 gauge, maybe a year later. I remember that vividly. I was visiting a school friend that lived a bit out of town on some acreage. (He and I both played trumpet, took lessons together at school.) We were just meddling around, and the talk was of things outdoor, including hunting and fishing. Since we were on the subject, he got out his father’s Remington rolling block 10 ga and we took it out to the back yard with a couple shells. And of course, touched them off. The drop to the comb was in accordance with the custom of the time it was built, meaning there was a lot of it, and I had to crane my neck to see the bead sights over the action. Which means the kick was not directed straight back, but tended to lift the muzzle. A lot. For what it is worth, 10 ga loads, even with black powder, are not mild, and I found rather quickly that forcefully sitting on the ground can be uncomfortable. (Didn’t drop the gun, tho’.)

    Fred and Pete lived in an up-scale neighborhood in Matawan, both attended the public school system for part of the time I knew them, and both attended Admiral Farragut Academy later on. In spite of not being in the same schools, several of us public school types, a few of the catholic school guys and they wound up in the same social circles. Often, a bunch of varying size gathered at their house for pool parties in the summer, and any excuse during the other seasons. Their place was the gathering spot for several reasons, the pool was only one; their house was bigger, had a nicely finished basement with a pool table, and it was more convenient than any of the others, a central point if you will. Pete was my age, Fred two years older.

    There was a basketball hoop across the driveway on land that belonged to the family that saw many pickup games. That was an empty lot except for the hoop, maybe an acre or a bit more. Just before Fred was old enough to get his driver’s license (which event we all looked forward to) Fred’s father bought a Henry J auto, I guess in the hopes that some learning to drive would take place on their property. As an automobile, that Henry J was not high grade, but the wheels went round. And so it came to pass that the basketball lot became a place for practice driving. Around in a circle is no particular way to learn to drive, but at least the mechanics of starting, stopping, manually shifting with a clutch, and steering could be accomplished. However, the lot became boring --. We found an old plate that was of the right color for the year, hung it on Henry, and took a couple joy rides around town and out into the county, fortunately never getting spotted by the constabulary. Such a small town, every cop knew every kid; had we been spotted it would have been all over.

    Henry came to an end sometime later, I wasn’t there when it happened. Fred was driving around in circles on the basket ball lot, ever faster, sliding Henry around, something often done when his parents were not home. Henry tripped and rolled over. There was a bit of a bit of a to-do about it, but nothing significant in the long haul.

    Fred graduated from Farragut, then stayed on for a post graduate year preparing for college. He went on to Franklin and Marshall College. Pete and I plotted to visit Fred in the summer I got my driver’s license; Pete already had his. All plans laid, we took off in Pete’s father’s 53 caddy. After a couple hours on the road, we took a break. Now, bear in mind that this is July, and we were not exactly taking it easy on the Penna Pike. After the break, we got back in the car, and it would not start. We are someplace a long way from anywhere. Thinking instead of acting, we figured out that it was vapor locked from the heat we put into that flathead. A wet rag and three hours solved the problem. Never mind how we wet the rags –

    Along with other miscellaneous things, Mom thought my sister and I should be exposed to something cultural besides school plays. At a very young age, we were packed off once a week to a place in Keyport for dance (tap and ballet) lessons, along with a smattering of really basic gymnastics, all in the forlorn hope that a bit of interest would result. It didn’t. Then there were the Jon Nagy drawing kits we got for Xmas one year. At the time, Nagy had a show on TV that was supposed to teach us how to manipulate charcoal and pencils. For me, that didn’t work. L was bit, and to this day does artsy craftsy stuff for both fun and (very little) profit.

    Much later, I think it was in 7 or 8 grade, the local YMCA arranged for dance classes to be made available to school students. In due course, we got enrolled in that as well, presumably to be prepared for what surely would come, that being a family country club membership. I guess Mom still hoped that Pop would make enough money that joining would happen. It didn’t while I was still home because he didn’t, or at least the spending priorities changed beforehand. All this was just before rock and roll came along and displaced ballroom styles with things that went better with music popular at the time. As accomplished as I became with ballroom styles, there was very little use for them by me up until now, and still isn’t.

    As noted, we never had a country club membership while I was still living at home. Pop joined a small public golf club the first year I was away at school right after he was promoted to VP. (Golf was the corporate executive game.) I played 9 holes with him once (the only golf I’ve ever played) shot a 64 and broke Mom’s driver. That same summer, we had a family membership at a swim club south of town. Most times, I came home from work and hitch-hiked to the pool, dipped for a while, then rode home with the rest of the family if they were there or caught a ride back with friends. Now and then, I’d be allowed to drive down for a couple hours, then it was my turn to take someone home. Needless to say, there were girls occasionally involved, and getting home was later than it might have been on some of those days.

    Somewhere along the line over one summer, I was dating a girl from a very well off family that had a membership in a pretty exclusive country club. On at least two occasions, we attended club functions that needed formal wear. I was not at all well fixed for such things, so rented tux was the way I had to go to get there. Now, it takes some time to rig up a tux correctly, and I had to practice for speed and accuracy because this was summer, my job was a hot, sweaty exercise, and the turn around time from home to out the door was only about 15 minutes; shave, shower and dress included. So get the tux the day ahead, do a trial run the night before, and be ready to hit it the next day for the function. Both times I nailed it from a timing standpoint. I guess bragging rights accrued, but there is no way I could duplicate the feat today. (She and I parted ways that winter.)

    There was a pretty poor excuse for a park across from the high school that had a gully running thru it on the south side and with streets on the other three sides. It sloped gently from the north to south, perfect for small kids to roll downhill in the grass in summer, and do a bit of sledding in winter. At least as long as going over the crest and down into the gully could be avoided. There were also paths down into the gully, which became pretty significant challenges for sledding. Needless to say the challenge was accepted more than once. I broke a sled crashing into a tree, another kid cracked his skull on the same tree, and another broke a leg.

    Down Broad Street the other way, there was a cross street that dead ended some 30 near vertical feet above Lake Matawan. Along the north side of the cross street, the gutter passed under the guard rail and ended in the lake. When the challenge of the gully became old, we took on the slope from <st1:street w:st="on"><st1:address w:st="on">Broad Street</st1:address></st1:street> down the cross street, under the guardrail, down the hill and onto the ice. When it was there, of course. More than once, the ice wasn’t ready. Also more than once, someone didn’t keep his head down going under the guard rail.

    Our town was economically challenged and not able to install jungle gyms or slides in the parks. However, the grandparents town was. These “toys” were heavy duty things, built of 2 inch pipe and set in concrete, to say built hell for stout. Bear in mind this was before plastics and before prevention of playground injuries became popular. The slides were suitable for any kid that could climb the ladders and could stand the sun induced heat on the hand rails and sliding surface. More than one kid found that hot steel slides are not slides, they are sticks, and hot ones at that. Burning butts --. We learned to take a sheet of wax paper when we went there, it helped dramatically getting down to the hard dirt landing. I should add that the warm wax on the seat of the pants collected gravel, and it took some practice to get feet on the ground rather than said seat of pants. A certain number of headers, scrapes, and bumps were accepted as normal; and as a way to teach care, not like today’s prevention of learning experiences.

    No discourse on a life would be complete without some mention of storms to go with the sunshine. As a kid, there were two big hurricanes that hit Matawan and the nearby areas. Carol (I think) and Diane (I know) hit town in the mid 50s causing all sorts of disruption. Pop was nervous about them well ahead of time and saw to it that we could go for several days if necessary without power. As it happens, we did lose power for a day or so. We were directed to stay away from the windows, all of which were opened a crack to allow ready atmospheric pressure equalization from the wind shiftings. We lost nearly nothing, as all was taken in, either to the garage or basement, but Pop was concerned that we could lose the chimney, so we were in the front of the house rather than the back where there was a low roof and a 20 foot free fall if the top of the chimney went. No ill effects on our house, but others suffered greater or lesser damage from trees and power poles that came down. There was a very large tree up the street that got blown over, pulling out the roots rather than breaking off. Memory being what it is, I’d say from here that it might have been 3 feet thru at ground level, maybe more. It took a couple days to cut it up and clear it out and reopen the street. The final act was stump removal. There was only one rig in town that anyone thought could handle the weight, a wrecker belonging to the Miller’s (who ran a gas station on Rt 34) which was conscripted along with half a dozen men to do the rigging. They got it chained up, and started the winch. All went well until the front of the wrecker lifted off the ground. Much scratching of heads, until two guys jumped on the front bumper and some evidence of lifting the stump became visible. When I last saw it, there were 5 or 6 guys sitting on the hood and fenders, the stump clear of the street, and they were headed south to I know not where with the front of the wrecker bouncing off the pavement. I’d guess there was a cord of wood for someone’s fireplace in that stump.

    Another worth mention passed thru New London in (I think) 1962. There was plenty of notice, and classes were cancelled, leaving the student body with nothing particularly interesting to do. Half a dozen of us got out our storm gear and went forth to see what was to be seen. Eventually, we wound up on a jetty just in front of the college, sorta hunkered down in the rocks, yakking it up with a beer or three and generally “enjoying” getting hammered with wind and rain. I was (for some reason) faced toward the land end of the jetty talking to a guy (whose name I don’t remember) when all of a sudden his eyes got big and he ducked. I followed suit, a good thing, as a wave that must have been 10 feet tall broke over us. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but I’ll always remember the look on his face. Right after that, we decided to abandon the jetty, probably a good plan as the waves got bigger. No injuries and didn’t spill a drop of beer.
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