Summer of ’69

As we approach the end of the book in the World Civilizations class I teach, I invite students to name the earliest event they can remember happening that is in history books today. Students older than me frequently speak of the assassination of President Kennedy. Students of traditional college age used to mention the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. For several years the earliest event remembered by many students was the terrorist attack of 9-11. I discovered this summer that, for this year’s incoming freshmen, the fall of the World Trade towers is a historic event; they cannot recall the day it happened.

I remember some events from my early childhood, but the first historic events I remember took place in the summer of 1969. Chief among those events was, of course, mankind’s first visit to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while a third astronaut, Mike Collins, came along for the ride but continued circling the moon during their mission. I remember sitting in the living room watching the grainy broadcast of Armstrong climbing down the ladder and setting foot on the moon. I remember hearing him say, “That’s one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” I remember the other details of the mission as well. It pleases me that my earliest historic memory consists of good news and high accomplishments, not an assassination or attack or accidental explosion.

I remember the Chicago Cubs were doing well in the summer of 1969; they seemed destined to enter the playoffs for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1945. I remember the heat of August as they began losing more games than they were winning. I remember my father’s disgust after some of those losses. I remember the New York Mets passing the Cubs in the standings and taking their place in the playoffs. Reason to hope for success would not return to Cubs fans for another fifteen years.

I remember seeing my first hippies. They were a carful of people with long hair and brightly-colored clothes, shouting happily and waving to the little boy (me) standing by the street. I knew they were hippies. I had seen something on television about hippies and about a concert they were attending somewhere in the state of New York.

I didn’t see the documentary movie about Woodstock until I was in college. They showed Woodstock on campus, and my friends and I went into a frenzy of celebrating everything sixties and hippie-related. A few years later I found the three-disc album from the concert in a record store and bought it and played it over and over. Yet a few years later, I bought the VHS package of the documentary, watching it every August. When those tapes were wearing out, I replaced them with the DVD package released for the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock—it contains several songs that were not included in the original documentary, including performances by Jefferson Airplane and by Janis Joplin.

Some five-year-old and six-year-old children today are going to remember the summer of 2017. It will be their introduction to current events that become history. I wish they could remember successes, accomplishments, and acts of human kindness. The summer is not yet over; we still have a chance to make history. J.

The County Fair

Between Independence Day and the first day of school, the most important week of summer was the week of the County Fair. The fair was always held on the last Thursday through Sunday of July, although as the years passed it expanded to include Wednesday of the same week as well.

My family was heavily involved in the fair, since my mother was the leader of a 4-H Club. (For those unfamiliar with the 4-H program, the four Hs stand for head, heart, hands, and health. The program involves children, from eight to eighteen years old, in a great number of activities that help prepare them to be responsible adults and beneficial citizens of their communities, their countries, and the world.) Along with several buildings containing 4-H exhibits, the fair also featured commercial exhibits, food vendors, carnival games, souvenir stands, a midway with carnival rides, and a grandstand that hosted equestrian events, a rodeo, and—Sunday night, to close the fair—a demolition derby.

When I was young, the 4-H exhibits were checked in and judged Thursday morning, then left on display until Sunday night for the public to view. As I grew older, fair authorities decided to have the check-in and judging on Wednesday before the fair was open to the public. Food vendors noticed the opportunity and began opening on Wednesday for 4-H members and their families. Eventually, the official opening of the fair, including the midway rides, was moved to noon on Wednesday.

On Monday volunteers would come to the fairgrounds to set up tables for the 4-H exhibits and cover them with white paper. Tuesday was quiet, aside from the fact that many 4-H members throughout the county were frantically completing their projects. Wednesday the projects were brought to the fairgrounds. One building—the building where my mother spent most of her time—was labeled “Home Economics.” Exhibits in that building included baking and cooking, canning and preserving, sewing, knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, ceramics, flower arranging, table place setting, and other crafts. A second building was labeled “Science.” Exhibits in that building included photography, woodworking, insect collections, rock collections, gardening (various fruits and vegetables), and the like. More buildings had various livestock: cows, goats, sheep, hogs, chickens, rabbits, and more. Horses generally were not kept at the fair for exhibit but were shown in the grandstand during judging.

During check-in, adult volunteers including my mother would sit at tables to receive 4-H projects and record that they had arrived, tearing a receipt from the bottom of the tag for the exhibitor. Younger volunteers including me would then carry those projects back to the appropriate table. Each category, such as ceramics or woodworking, had various subcategories, so the volunteers had to be careful to check the number on each project tag and put the project on the proper table. When check-in was completed, judges would come to award each project a blue, red, or white ribbon. (There were also pink ribbons for projects that were disqualified for any reason.) After awarding those ribbons, the judges would consider the blue ribbon winners for championship ribbons, which were purple. Volunteers accompanied the judges to complete forms with comments made by the judges about each project. Those forms would then be given to the exhibitors, usually when they picked up their exhibit Sunday night.

Commercial exhibits included a large booth for the Republican Party and another for the Democratic Party. There were candymakers, home improvement businesses, assorted religious groups, jewelers, t-shirts, and much more. I recall a display one year that promised computerized personality profiles for a dollar through handwriting analysis, and a lawyer who gave legal advice for a dollar. My friend wasted three dollars getting two handwriting analysis and showing them to the lawyer, hoping to prove the computer a fraud. The lawyer indicated that the display with the computer clearly noted that it was “for entertainment purposes only.”

Among my favorite fair foods were barbecued beef sandwiches, cotton candy, salt-water taffy, and snow cones. The fudge sold in the commercial building was also a highlight of the fair. I was not fond of midway rides that went up into the air—not even calm rides like the Ferris Wheel.  I preferred rides that spun the rider—the Scrambler and the Tilt-a-Whirl in particular. Some years a miniature train carried passengers around the fairgrounds. The Merry-Go-Round was also a favorite every year. At first the midway with the rides and carnival games was close to the Home Economics building, but later—to expand it—the midway was moved downhill to the far end of the fairground. Other features of the midway included a traveling waxworks museum, promoted by a “mechanical man,” an actor in heavy makeup who performed with spasmodic gestures and an unblinking stare. Also, a barker offered for two dollars to “guess your age within three years, your weight within five pounds, or the month of your birth,” awarding a prize if his guess was wrong. He built a crowd by making one or two wrong guesses, then was amazingly successful once people were lined up to challenge his guessing.

My 4-H project career featured championship ribbons in photography and ceramics. I also earned blue ribbons in baking (brownies) and vegetable gardening. County fair champions were eligible to compete at the State Fair, which was held in August. One of my photographs won a championship at the State Fair one year.

Check-out of projects was a whirlwind of activity Sunday night. The fair was packed with people, but the 4-H members were interested in collecting their projects and their ribbons. Once again, adult volunteers sat at the front of the building to monitor paperwork, while younger volunteers retrieved the projects from within the building. By the time that was done, the fair was all but over. Volunteers returned, though, the following Tuesday to pick up trash from the fairgrounds. Cups and food wrappers and discarded pamphlets and handouts were strewn throughout the grounds, but a large team of volunteers could usually dispose of most of the trash in a few hours. Then the grounds and buildings were available for other events until the end of July arrived once again. J.

Seven at One Blow

I vividly remember a story I read several times when I was young. It was called “The Brave Little Tailor,” or sometimes “Seven at One Blow.” The story is in the collection of folk tales gathered by the Grimm Brothers, and it also is in the Blue Fairy Book collected by Andrew Lang.

The story begins with a tailor fixing himself a sandwich. His jelly draws a swarm of flies, which he swats, crushing seven of them with one blow. To celebrate the achievement, the tailor makes himself a sash adorned with the words, “Seven at One Blow.” He then sets out upon a series of adventures, during which people frequently assume that the sash refers to seven people rather than seven flies. With a combination of fast thinking and deception, the tailor is able to increase his reputation for strength and daring. Finally, completing a series of seemingly impossible tasks results in his marriage to a princess. When the tailor talks in his sleep about sewing, the princess realizes that she has married a commoner and plots with her father to have him killed. Word of the plot reaches the tailor, and the next night he pretends to be asleep and talking; he lists his exploits and announces that he is not afraid of the men hiding behind the door. By this final deception, his life is spared.

I remember the story vividly because the opening premise always seemed improbable to me. In my experience, houseflies are rapid and elusive. Generally, when trying to kill flies with a swatter, my experience has been one in seven blows rather than seven at one blow. Sometimes I get lucky and squash a fly with a single blow, but that success is rare.

Sometimes a fly gets into the house during the day and becomes annoying while I am reading at night. In response, I create a trail of lights to the nearest bathroom, turning them off one by one to draw the fly into the bathroom. Then I close the door and the match commences. Sometimes I manage to knock the fly out of the air with the swatter, then crush it on the floor or in the bathtub. Other times I deliver the killing blow after the fly has landed on a wall or on the mirror. I don’t give up until I have won, but seven blows or more are not uncommon in these battles.

This spring a bag of potatoes spoiled in the kitchen. Before we realized what had happened, a family of small flies had bred in the bag and were scattering throughout the house. I don’t know how momma fly and poppa fly arrived; perhaps they had already visited the potatoes before they were bought and taken into the house. It took several days for us to locate the source of the flies inside the house, and meanwhile we were taking several measures to try to reduce their population without threatening our health or that of our cats.

One of our precautions was to try to keep the kitchen as clean as possible. We wiped down counters, rinsed dishes if we were not immediately ready to wash them, and tried to keep food packages sealed. Where they found moisture, though, the flies gathered, and if the liquid was sweet they were especially interested. Sometimes I would walk into the kitchen, see a group of flies gathered on the counter, and give them a swift swat with my open hand. Soon I was matching that fabled tailor, and then even exceeding him. My proudest moment was when I eliminated twelve at one blow. “Bring on that wimpy tailor,” I said to my daughters.

After we removed the potatoes, the fly population diminished, although it took some weeks before the house was finally fly-free. Since I am not a tailor, I did not make a sash to boast of my accomplishment. But at least you know now that I am capable of twelve at one blow. And I am not afraid of those men hiding behind the door. J.

The basement

As I’ve written before, I grew up in a ranch house with a full basement. A lot happened down in the basement, including some spectacular floods.

The washing machine and clothes drier were down there, along with a chest freezer and a second refrigerator. My parents stored frozen vegetables and fruits from the garden in the freezer, and also had shelves of canned fruits, jellies, applesauce, and the like. One of my mother’s hobbies was ceramics, which she taught to 4-H children and also to ladies from the church. Year-round, the ladies would gather once a week in the basement to prepare items for their annual Christmas sale. Most of them were cast in molds; my mother had a large collection of molds, glazes, and a kiln for firing the ceramics.

Two of my father’s hobbies were woodworking and photography. He had a fairly complete work area in one corner of the basement with a table saw and other tools. In another corner he assembled a darkroom in which he printed photographs he had taken. When he built the darkroom, he also made a second room which he intended to be a recreation room. It had a tile floor and wood panel walls. A ping pong table was in the room, but gradually it accumulated various items for storage, so not much recreation happened there.

Twelve wooden stairs led down from the back entry to the basement. There were four steps and then a landing (which held the cat’s litter box), and then a turn to the right and eight more steps down to the basement floor. Next to those steps was the furnace that heated the house in the winter. When I was young, I kept some of my toys in the cubbyhole underneath the steps and landing.

My parents never threw away a cardboard box, because one never knows when one will need a box of a certain size. I remember a huge mountain of boxes in the basement when I was younger. Of course when the basement was flooded, the cardboard was ruined and had to be discarded. Most of the molds survived and were usable again after they had thoroughly dried. The freezer floated and tipped over, spilling its contents, which (needless to say) also had to be discarded.

Aside from the recreation room and darkroom, the floor of the basement was concrete. It had a number of cracks through which water would seep on rainy days. A sump pump kept the basement relatively dry except during major floods, but most summers the basement had a musty smell.

Our first major flood was caused by a heavy rainfall in the summer. The second major flood, a few years later, happened because of an early spring rain while there was still snow on the ground. We had no heat in the house because of that flood; the pilot light of the furnace was below the level of the floodwater. More floods followed. When the creek was high and water was seeping through the cracks in the floor, my parents and I would try to get items of value out of the basement. I, of course, was most worried about my toys; my parents had other concerns. My father eventually bought a second sump pump to deal with floods. The main sump pump was electric and diverted water into the creek. The second sump pump was gasoline powered; when my father ran that pump, he had to run the hose out the basement window. Of course when floodwaters reached the window, trying to pump water out of the basement was pointless.

My parents were legally required to purchase flood insurance. After a major flood, the insurance company would give them money to replace the furnace, washer, drier, and freezer. They did not cover craft materials or toys. Along with replacement money, though, the insurance also provided funds for cleaning the basement, based on the square footage of the floor and walls that had come in contact with floodwater. As my parents became older and major floods became more frequent, the basement was increasingly unsafe. I know that pockets of mold and mildew existed where they could not be reached to be removed. My father was anxious to move, but my mother was very attached to the house and the village.

After my mother died (a little more than a year ago), my father relocated as quickly as he could. A government agency was purchasing houses in the floodplain. Months of legal negotiations were involved in the transaction, but eventually my father was able to move, and the house was leveled.

I clearly remember many afternoons spent in the basement. I remember using a hand drill to drill holes in a block of wood, which kept me busy while my father worked on more complicated projects. I remember the gatherings of 4-H children and church ladies to work on ceramics, and I remember a few projects I produced at the same table. (One of them won prizes at the county fair and was exhibited at the state fair.) I remember playing with toys on the floor of the recreation room, and I remember frantically gathering toys to take upstairs because it was raining outside. I remember lessons from my father on developing film and printing pictures, many years before telephones were used to take pictures. I remember a sense of security while my mother loaded the kiln and my father sculpted cabinet doors for the kitchen and I played with my toys. All that remains today are the memories. J.

 

On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

Mealtime

I don’t want to create the impression that my childhood was tightly regimented, but you could determine the day of the week by seeing what was served for breakfast. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we each had one fried egg, one strip of bacon (or one sausage link), and four ounces of orange juice. Tuesday we had scrambled eggs, Thursday we had French toast, Saturday we had cold cereal, and Sunday we had pancakes. Sometimes we had coffee cake along with the scheduled breakfast–usually leftover coffee cake from some other event. Only three days varied the routine: on Thanksgiving and Christmas we had coffee cake for breakfast, and on Easter we ate breakfast at church after the sunrise service.

Lunch was usually sandwiches, and (in the winter) a bowl of soup. The sandwiches might contain deli meat or perhaps a salad made from eggs, tuna, or some meat left over from an earlier dinner. Side dishes might be chips, pickles, applesauce, or whatever else was available. Since I lived just down the street from the school, I had lunch at home every day of the week. Sundays we did not have lunch; we had dinner at noon, generally a major meal with a beef roast or ham or some other big piece of meat, along with a vegetable, a salad, and a starch (whether bread or potatoes). On Sundays we had supper in the evening–generally sandwiches, just like lunch the other days of the week. The other evenings of the week we had dinner in the evening.

Monday was always laundry day. Everything was washed on Monday: bed sheets, towels and wash clothes, and clothing. Weather permitting, bed sheets and some clothing were hung in the back yard to dry. Everything was ironed, even bed sheets and blue jeans. Monday night’s dinner was frequently leftovers from Sunday’s dinner, unless it was something else easily prepared.

Friday was grocery shopping day, followed by a thorough housecleaning. When we got up Friday morning, we had to clear the furniture so it could be dusted and also pick up things from the floor so the floor could be vacuumed. All those things were piled on the bed; when I got home from school, I was expected to put them all away again. Not only were the bedrooms dusted and vacuumed; the living room and dining room were also dusted and vacuumed, and the kitchen was mopped. Friday’s dinner was either a casserole or something else easy to prepare, such as spaghetti or Spanish rice con carne.

Christmas was the only holiday that interfered with these Monday and Friday schedules.

Every lunch, dinner, and supper included a dessert. Lunch desserts might be a cookie or a piece of cake; dinner desserts were often pie or something else fancy. Desserts were always homemade. Bread for sandwiches or for a side at a dinner was also homemade. Dinners always included a salad–usually lettuce and dressing, but sometimes coleslaw, and sometimes (generally in the winter) jello with fruit. Many of the vegetables we ate were home-grown, either fresh when in season, or thawed and cooked after being frozen. After dinner we each had one piece of candy. In November, my piece of candy would come from what I had received on Halloween’s tricks-or-treats. That often lasted until Christmas. Christmas stockings included candy, and candy was also given on Valentines’ Day and in Easter baskets. When holiday candy had been consumed, we generally each got a piece of candy from a box of chocolates.

Dishes were done after every meal. (We didn’t have a dishwasher.) My mother washed the dishes; the rest of us dried them and put them away. Sometimes we played guessing games while doing the dishes (“I’m thinking of something vegetable.”) and sometimes we sang songs (“I’ve been working on the railroad.”). Doing the dishes was inevitable after every meal, and no one was excused from the chore.

We always ate our meals at the dining room table. Television was not on while we ate, with a rare exception for a Chicago Cubs baseball game or Chicago Bears football game. For a while, we also made an exception during Sunday supper for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Often the radio was on while we ate, especially during breakfast, and at times records were played during meals, especially in December when we listened to Christmas music.

When my friends visited and stayed for a meal, they were startled by the formality of my family. The table was always set with a plate, a glass, a spoon, a knife, a fork, and a napkin for each person. Food was served from platters or bowls, never from pots or pans. When the food was on the table and everyone was seated, we said a quick prayer, and then we passed the food around the table. No one started eating until everyone had his or her food. Each of us was expected to eat all the food that we put on our plates. Second servings were permitted, but only after everyone had finished their first servings. Dessert was not served until each of us had finished the rest of the meal.

Mealtime was family time. No one missed a meal unless work or school or sickness made it necessary to be absent. We talked to each other while we ate (but never spoke with food in our mouths), reviewing the day’s events or sharing jokes we had recently heard. Often during Sunday’s dinner we would discuss the pastor’s sermon. Feeders outside the dining room window held seeds to attract birds, and sometimes we would comment on an unusual visitor to the feeder.

Mealtime was valuable time, both for nutrition and for family togetherness. Many of my warmest childhood memories took place in the family’s dining room. J.

Jim

When I was growing up, one of my neighbors was a boy I have decided to call “Jim.” Jim was four years older than me and was three grades ahead of me in school; he was also large for his age. Not only did we attend the same school: we also went to the same church, and our parents were friends.

I have always thought of Jim as a bully, although I can remember only one occasion when he was unkind to me. I was about eight at the time, and he offered to take me out on the river in his rowboat. When we were over the middle of the river, he started making the boat circle in the water. I was scared and begged to be taken back to the shore, but he just laughed and continued circling. I don’t know why I would have gotten into the boat of someone I feared and didn’t trust. All the same, my friend and I thought of Jim as a monster. When no one else was watching, we dropped rocks into the aforementioned boat. Aside from that, we were careful to keep our distance from Jim.

It occurs to me today that we may have feared Jim purely out of stereotyping. He was big and loud like the classic American bully. For all I know, he may have been very gentle at heart. Remembering Jim is painful for me, because I remember him with fear whether or not he deserved to be feared.

Jim died a few years ago of heart disease. I know that he was helpful to my parents several times over the last few years of his life. My father would probably be astonished to learn that I remember Jim as a bully, especially since I can offer only one example of anything mean that Jim did to me.

On occasion at work I cross paths with young men who remind me of Jim. In general they are hefty and have loud speaking voices. For a while I puzzled over the question of why these young men make me uncomfortable, until I realized their resemblance to Jim. When I am around these young men I feel threatened, even though they are doing nothing even remotely threatening toward me or anyone else.

Fear is not rational. Anxiety does not always make sense. I’m sorry to leave such a blot on Jim’s memory–I hope that somewhere on the internet someone else has written nicer things about him. J.

The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.

Fresh fruits and vegetables (and weeds to pull)

The soil of my childhood home consisted of rich black dirt. Yellow and gray clay lay under the dirt, as I found along the banks of the creek. The topsoil was fertile, capable of supporting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

My grandparents, my parents, and my uncle and aunt and cousins lived in three houses on three acres of land. Each household owned part of the land, and the property lines were known to all of us. All three households cultivated land in the center of the three acres. Although it looked like one garden, each household planted and tended and harvested from its own part of the land, according to the property lines.

Standing in my back yard, I would see the right side of the garden with a flower bed in front and vegetables behind the flowers. To the left were two grapevines, as old as the house. Behind the grapevines was a bed of strawberries and then some more vegetables. Further left, toward the creek, was an orchard. There were two apple trees, a pear tree, and a cherry tree. The cherries from the orchard were sour, not good for eating raw, but good for pies and jellies. The orchard also had a bed of rhubarb and some bushes which produced currants, gooseberries, and blueberries.

Late in the winter my father would start some tomato plants and pepper plants. These he would keep sheltered until after the last frost. By the time those plants were moved into the garden, rows of seeds were being planted for other vegetables. He would plant lettuce, peas, beans (green, yellow, and lima), carrots, beets, parsnips, and onions—usually one row of each vegetable. He would also plant several short rows of sweet corn, because the corn would not pollinate well if it was planted in one long row. He would plant small beds of zucchini, cucumbers, and sometimes pumpkins. The pumpkins were a particular challenge, because they would trail in various directions all over the garden, so we never knew where the actual pumpkins might ripen. There was also a bed of asparagus that renewed itself every spring.

Needless to say, weeds also thrived in our fertile soil, so pulling weeds was a task we all shared. It’s not enough to pick weeds—if you leave the roots in the soil, they will grow again, stronger than before. When pulling weeds, though, one must be careful not to harm the desired plants. Some vegetables were hardier than others; cucumbers, I remember, were one of the most fragile of garden plants. They would seem to wither if someone merely looked at them the wrong way.

I did not enjoy pulling weeds, but as my father and mother both said, “It has to be done.” When the three of us worked together on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, we would usually have a transistor radio in the garden with us, tuned to the baseball game. From experience, I learned the seasons of different fruits and vegetables: asparagus and peas in the spring, before the heat of the summer; strawberries in June; sweet corn in August; sun-ripened apples and grapes in autumn. I remember snacking on an apple and some grapes on many a weekend afternoon in the fall while I was playing in the back yard.

The benefit of a garden is, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables. The family also froze or canned fruits and vegetables for other times of the year. Nothing beats fresh vegetables from one’s own garden; I still cannot stomach canned peas. When we were to have corn on the cob for supper, my father insisted that the water must be heating to a boil on the stove before the corn was picked and the husks removed. The hottest and most humid days of August were always the days that corn was harvested for freezing. My mother would have large pots of water boiling on the stove as we husked the corn—and we had no air conditioning. All of us were dripping with sweat. The corn would be boiled briefly; then the kernels would be cut from the cobs and bagged and boxed for the freezer.

My parents were frugal, and we often continued to eat vegetables that had passed their peak of freshness. I remember stringy asparagus, tough and wrinkled lima beans, and woody parsnips. I remember my mother cutting a five pound zucchini in half, removing the seeds, and stuffing it with a meatloaf. But I particularly remember all the homemade foods: pies, jellies, tomato juice and grape juice, tomatoes left on the vine until they were red and ready to eat; and zucchini bread. I remember shelling peas so they could be warmed in a little butter and served with supper. I remember seeing tall yellow stalks of corn standing upright in the first snow at the end of autumn. J.

Neighborhood games

Those who read my previous post about playing outside may have assumed that I always played alone. It is true that I often played alone–from solo baseball to solo croquet–but I was also part of a neighborhood cadre of eight children, from three families, who played together. Often our group expanded to include children from other families further down the street.

Our favorite game was “kick the can.” For the can we used a plastic ball filled with air. One player (who was It) guarded the can while the rest of us tried to kick the can. Those of us who were not It had to be hidden, though, because when we were spotted, It would touch the can and announce, “one-two-three on [name] who is hiding [location].” If the person who was It could spot the rest of us before any of us kicked the can, he or she remained It for another round. If one of us did manage to kick the can, he or she would then be It for the next round. No cumulative score was kept; each round counted as its own game. Success required darting from one hiding place to another, approaching the can; it often involved teamwork to approach from different sides, forcing It to choose which side to guard. It could wander anywhere to discover hidden players, but if It strayed too far from the can, one of the players was sure to kick the can and end the round.

We also played a game we called Army, which essentially involved splitting into two teams and reenacting unspecified military events from World War II. Half of us would be Germans and the other half Americans. Most of our loose scripting was based on what we had learned about the war from television shows and movies. Each of us carried a stick to represent a rifle. In this game also, the goal was to remain hidden from the opposite side while trying to sneak up upon them to shoot them. A clear sight of someone on the other team led to raising and aiming the stick and shouting “bang,” or, sometimes, “I got you.” A certain amount of honor was involved in agreeing to be shot and to die upon these announcements. If someone insisted, “you missed,” or, “you only got me in the leg,” the game was effectively over. Unlike kick the can, our desire in Army was to prolong the game and enjoy the maneuvers. I remember that the game fizzled, though, once one boy from down the street brought a new plastic replica of a gun that even produced sound effects when used.

I cannot remember ever playing Cowboys and Indians. Once we were all accomplished bicyclists one summer came to pass in which we designed a Cops and Robbers game, but I no longer remember the rules to that game. We did not try to split into teams for sports such as baseball or basketball. One boy in the group, who was in Little League, introduced us to a baseball-based game he had learned called Stealing Bases. There were two bases, fifty to sixty feet apart, and two fielders with mitts. They threw the ball back and forth. The rest of us (generally five or six, as I recall) would be on-base until someone thought that the throwing and catching might be challenged by a sprint. The hope was to inspire an off-target throw or a dropped ball, since a thrown ball is much faster than a human runner. I was more daring than the others, but I was also tagged out more often than the others.

Most of these games were played in the summer when school was out. Eventually we became too busy even to play in the summer, by which time we had friends at school who outranked our neighborhood friendships. I do not know the location of any of these childhood playmates. I doubt we would recognize each other any more if two of us happened to be in the same room (aside, of course, those who were siblings). As with the house in which I lived, all that remains of those times are memories. J.