Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Rainy Day Trip Down Memory Lane

Sometimes my mind wanders back to days long past when I was a young boy. It seems like it was a much simpler time then. Of course we are talking about over 60 years ago. In reality it wasn't simpler at all. We were in the midst of the greatest war in history, World War 2. Funny how as a child you take so much for granted. All around us were the signs of a country at war and yet our nation was luckily spared from any of the massive property destruction and resulting depravation wrought on other countries' homelands. Perhaps the folks at Pearl Harbor on the fateful day of attack in 1941 would disagree with this statement, but for the most part our war was one waged on foreign soil. Our losses were indeed staggering when the cost in human life is considered, but to a child growing up in those days, this was something we were pretty much unaware of unless it hit home with the loss of a parent or relative. Although we were warned to expect air raids, and cities in the Northeast had blackout curtains and air raid wardens and sirens to direct people to shelters and even buckets of sand available in attics to help fight incendiary fires, no attacks came.

In Jefferson City, Missouri where I grew up it was the little things that passed for normal to a child who had nothing else to compare with. Older brothers being drafted and going off to camp. The songs, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me," The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B," the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, and Kate Smith whose rendition of "God Bless America" could bring tears to the eyes of grownups. The sight of military convoys and trains loaded with troops and war equipment. The slogans and advertisements calling for the buying of War Bonds and Savings Stamps, conserving fuel, food rationing and saving of scrap metal for the war effort. The little flags hanging in windows, with the number of stars on them depicting the number of men or women in that household who were in the service; a blue star meant the individual was alive and serving; the gold star..deceased. Heavily censored V-Mail and slogans like "Loose lips sink ships" come to mind. V-mail was mail that was opened and censored and then photographed to reduce the volume before sending overseas. What the recipient got was a sort of miniature photograph of a letter, oftentimes with gaps that had been censored out. Possibly a soldier had mentioned a troop movement or destination of a troop ship or the date it was embarking. I remember looking up in the sky to see the flights of warplanes. The fighters such as the Lockheed P-38 with the triple fuselage grabbed our attention and whatever anyone was doing, we always looked up to gaze at them when they appeared. I remember the initiation of daylight savings time; Hollywood movies that supported the war effort, the Movietone News of the Day, which preceded the main feature and the radio news, broadcasts by Gabriel Heater. Everyone was quiet and listened when he came on. He would begin his broadcast with "Ah, there's good news tonight!" no matter how direful the report. I remember he would give the grim statistics of battles, which were oftentimes not good in the early days and even often late in the war. But he would find a way to make something appear encouraging.

Only now in the light of current events do I recall the absence of opposition to our war effort. It was what had to be done and everyone pitched in for the common good. Men and boys rushed to join up and get in the fight. Those who were physically rejected for duty as "4F" were likely to go off to Canada; not to escape service but to try to get into the Canadian Armed Forces and join the battle.

Against this backdrop, my life as a child was very normal. Parents didn't worry about their children being molested by perverts. Illegal drugs were unheard of except for perhaps an occasional moonshine still. The most important thing for us was to be home by suppertime. We enjoyed a freedom not possible in today's world. A majority of households in those days consisted of two parents and one paycheck. If the mother as well as the father worked, the kids usually didn't need sitters after they were old enough to do a little fetching for themselves. Most times after school, we played outside or went to a friend's house where the mother was home. Television was not available then. Radio programs which we liked to listen to such as Tom Mix, Gene Autrey, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Shadow, and One Man's Family came on in the early morning or evening hours.

Later in the evening, when we would wander about the neighborhood collecting firefly's in a jar, you could hear the pleasant squeaking of porch swings where folks sat out to chat and enjoy the cool of the evening after a hot day without air conditioning.

We were pretty inventive. We made rubber guns from scrap wood and clothespins and pieces of rubber bands made from cut up inner tubes. We also made bows and arrows from willow branches and sticks. Then we would have elaborate battles playing Army, Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. Physical energy was expended on a scale not seen in today's crop of youngsters. Most sports we organized ourselves without the help or interference of adult supervision. Almost everyone had a bicycle and we would use them for transportation all over town. When they broke down or got a flat we would go to someone's home workshop and fix them ourselves.
I probably dismantled my old coaster brakes a dozen times, cleaning the discs and reassembling the thing so it worked better. Western Auto always had the parts we needed if we had the dough to buy them.

Almost everyone walked or rode their bikes to school and traffic guards were selected from amongst the older responsible students. They were called Patrol Boys and it was an honor to get the badge and the white belt that looped over one shoulder. I remember having been selected for this duty in 6th Grade and being posted at a busy crossing on US Highway 50 that ran directly through Jefferson City. I had to get there very early in the mornings before the kids started crossing the highway on their way to school and then again in the afternoon, leaving a few minutes before the bell to be there when they returned. I felt very important and a heavy responsibility going out onto that highway and stopping traffic.

I remember our grade school lunch breaks very well. We had a cafeteria, which provided a hot meal, usually pretty tasteless. I remember gagging on the lima beans, cabbage, or navy beans that seemed to figure prominently on almost every menu. I think our kitchen staff simply boiled them and served them up without benefit of seasoning and the taste or lack thereof lingers to this day. Getting to the Jell-O desert was a treat. The biggest treat however was on days when an extra nickel or dime was available. We would walk to the corner grocery and buy two slices of bread, a slice of baloney and a pickle from the barrel. The storeowners at Park Market were very accommodating and had everything set up for the lunch crowd. Along with a bottle of Nehi or Double Cola, or Grapette, and perhaps topped off with a Mars Bar or a 3 Musketeers or Mounds, that was heaven. No recent arrivals to this world can even imagine how large those nickel candy bars used to be. I feel like in my life I have witnessed a great calamity in the way the candy bars have shrunken in size while simultaneously ballooning in price. This is not unlike myriads of other products on store shelves.

By the time I was in 7th and 8th Grade, I was busy with various school activities, sports, marching band and Boy Scouts. There was always a job to do. In the winter I welcomed the snows because that meant money to be made shoveling neighbors walks. I had a paper route year around and in summer I cut grass for several neighbors, and set pins evenings at the bowling alley. I can truly say there is no exercise machine made today that equals the workout you got from setting bowling pins. I think every muscle was brought into play and there was no let up. Today with the automatic pinsetters, those jobs have gone the way of the horse and buggy.

The closest I came to a video game were the pinball machines I dearly loved and would play whenever the opportunity presented itself. I'm sure we kids purchased the machine at the East End Drug Store many times over with all the nickels we put into it. I liked that machine because you could shake it pretty wildly without activating the tilt mechanism that voided the game. We also used to frequent the Central Hotel on High Street where just inside the doors were two pin ball machines eager to take our money.

Yes, those were memorable times. At least in my mind. I wonder if today's youth will have as many treasured memories to recall when they look back on their formative years from the vantage point of elderhood.

Who can predict the future? Perhaps it will make today's events look tame by comparison. I surely hope not.

 © 2005 David Agniel


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