An early June Morning in 1942 - - the last week of school. The blacktop in front of our house at the corner of Downer Street and Huron Boulevard is already steaming. The smell of tar is everywhere. Even the cement sidewalk is hot. I start walking the two blocks on Huron to Sacred Heart School at 8 am. I’m wearing a short-sleeve shirt and short brown pants, but feel like I’m in a bearskin coat. Along the right side of the sidewalk is a block-long vacant lot. There’s only one house, and it’s a little white thing on the opposite corner. In the middle of the lot is a pond made from rain water with an inviting layer of cool mud. Tempting, but I’m late already. The day is turning into a scorcher. Little do I know how hot it’s going to make me.
I’ve done well in the first two grades and am looking forward to the summer. Final tests have been taken and the inmates are anxious to escape their confinement. I imagine that the nuns in their long black robes and starched white head gear are even happier to see the term ending. As I climb the stairs to the second floor classrooms over the church I’m excited too.
When I enter my classroom Sister Mary Clare tells me that Sister Mary Frances, the principal of our little citadel of education, wants to see me. This can only be bad news. On the short walk to her office I nervously play back what I’ve been doing the past week. I can’t think of any rules I’ve violated. I’m innocent. I knock on sister’s open door and she beckons me into her stiflingly hot office. The window is open, but it’s still hot and will be sizzling very soon inside and outside that little closet. There are the usual decorations on the wall of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ of the Sacred Heart and a crucifix with a dried out palm leaf wrapped around it. There is a faint odor of incense. It could be Sister Mary Francis. She daubs the sweat off her face as she fusses with the mountain of paper in front of her. In the corner a small electric fan pushes the heat around the room.
Sister is a round little thing seated behind the standard worn yellow oak desk. She’s generally serious and has a smile that can go from angelic to satanic in a split second. While I sit stewing, she mines the mountain. At last, she finds what she’s searching for, digs it out and looks up. She starts with a semi-angelic smile beginning to tell me why she wanted to see me.
“You’ve done very well, Michael” - - - that’s my name, Michael Still. I’m momentarily relieved. “I’ve been looking at your grades, and you have an A in every class. You scored 100 on every one of your final exams.” My stomach starts to relax, and the beginnings of an actual smile edges at the corners of my mouth. It’s not to last. “That is perfect. I’ve never seen it in over thirty years of teaching. But this is a problem. You know don’t you that perfection is not possible in this world, Michael? Only God in heaven is perfect.” With that her expression cools and she lays it on me. “I’m going to have to lower your arithmetic grade to 95“. From that moment on I’ve hated math and I don’t care much for Sister MF thereafter either.
I skulk back to Sister Mary Clare’s class. The other kids look at me for a clue as to how bad it’s been. Sister MF never brought good news. They can see I’m crushed. Fortunately, no one is grading my attitude that morning or I’d have had an F minus. How can they do this to me? What is the point of being a good boy, doing everything you’re told and working hard when in the end you get conned?
After stewing in the classroom pressure cooker for another four hours we’re freed, finally. As I trudge back do toward home I struggle to hold back the tears. Remember, mother told me boys don’t cry. Okay, so I turn the frustration into anger. Passing the vacant lot, I look at that pond again. This is the perfect place to blow off some of my steam and take a measure of revenge. I walk right over and start jumping up and down in the dirty water. I don’t know the right curse words then, but in retrospect they would have been something like son-of-a-bitch.
When I get home I leave my dirty shoes on the back step. I find Mom in the kitchen sweating over a pot of boiling spaghetti sauce. I tell her, “Mom, sister Mary Francis said I had perfect grades but that only god is perfect. So, she cut my math grade from 100 to 95. It’s not fair to be cut for being too perfect”. But Mom, who is quite religious at the time, agrees with Sister MF and on top of that is mad at me for my mud-caked shoes. She gives me a stiff brush and commands, “Go outside and brush those shoes off. Make sure that you get every last spot of mud off them. Then, you ask Dad for his polishing kit and polish them so they look brand new.” I’m going from bad to worse.
When Dad comes home from work I look for sympathy from him as well. He doesn’t share my mother’s religious viewpoint, but his cynicism is just as useless. He just lights another of his endless chain of cigarettes and chuckles, “Son, life isn’t fair. This won’t be the last time someone screws you. The world is full of idiots. Just do your best, and leave the garbage behind.”
Still looking for an ally, my last hope is my new baby brother Bob, who is about a year old. Lying in his crib, he looks up at me with big innocent eyes as I explain to him what has happened to me and how unfair it is. All my hard work, all my beautiful perfect scores have been stolen from me by the black habit thieves at Sacred Heart, backed by my spineless parents. Bob just smiles up at me, gurgles and drools.
My parents have reason for their desperation. They were married in the heart of the Depression, 1933. My mother, Irma, delivered me on a blisteringly hot July 30th in 1935. The hospital was not air conditioned. The stuffy delivery room must have been a hundred degrees adding to the pain of child birth. She never tires of telling me how difficult her labor had been and how insensitive the nurses were. She talks as though the nurses and I had somehow conspired to make it difficult for her. I tire of hearing it, but she never lets it go.
Now, in 1942 the worst of the Depression is over, but the effects still linger. We’re among the lucky ones because my father has a job at a local factory that makes farm machinery. He’s in the accounting department. It’s not an exciting job unless you’re an accountant, which he isn’t. He’s good with numbers so they start him out as a bookkeeper and he’s thankful for the job. When he gets home at night he tells us stories about the people and the job.
We’re happy to have Dad’s paycheck every two weeks. Once a month he and Mom sit down at the dining room table after dinner and get all the bills out to see if they have enough money to pay them. I like to watch them do it and hear what they have to say to each other. I always like to listen to the big people when they sit at our house and talk. My parents make sure that with his salary of $200 they can always keep up with the $30 monthly rent for our brown shingled bungalow. All other bills come after that. I remember one night when we’ve had some unexpected medical expenses there isn’t enough money to cover all the bills. They talk about it a long time. Mom say, “We could cut down on meat for dinner for a week. That will save two dollars. Dad says, “Why don’t you cut my hair? That will save fifty cents.” Back and forth they go looking for a few pennies here and there so that they won’t be late or be in debt. Finally, Dad says, “There’s no way out of it. We have to dip into our savings for fifteen dollars.” Mom starts to cry, “That money is for us to go to the lake for a week next summer.” Dad agrees, “Yes, but maybe we can stay for five days instead of seven. Maybe I can find an odd job to make it up.” Mom jumps up and says, “I forgot about that. Mrs. Solis is looking for a housemaid for a week to help her with spring cleaning. She’s getting old and can’t do it all by herself. Mr. Solis is almost bed ridden now and he can’t help her. She told me that she would pay someone ten dollars to help her for four days. I can do that and still have time to take care of our house.” Dad smiled and said, “I think old Mr. Burns at work was hinting that he could use some help picking cherries in his yard. He had two or three trees and they are too much for him to keep up with. I can probably get at least five dollars doing that for him.” They sit back and smile. Then they hug, which they don’t do very often. “We’re gonna make it hon,” he shouts with a big smile. The pressure was off, at least for another month.
Mom and Dad are very proud that they always pay their own way. If someone invites them on a trip, even if it is only one day, they always insist in paying their share. One time Dad is invited to go on a short golf trip with some of the executives of the company. He declines because he won’t let anyone else pay his expenses. He tells me, “You’ve got to be responsible for yourself. Self-reliance is important. If you can’t afford to do something don’t expect someone else to pay for you. Be a man and take care of yourself.”
While we’re lucky to have a roof over our heads, even if it is small, old, frequently drafty or leaking, it requires endless labor to maintain it. The landlord said,” You live in it you take care of it.” The little brown shingled house had a small porch in front, two bedrooms and one bath, no shower. In the basement there was a coalburning furnace, a coal bin, laundry sink, work bench and space for a reclaimed pool table.
On warm nights I like to sit on the porch with Dad after dinner and watch the sun go down. He smokes his cigarettes and blows smoke rings for me. I try to put my fingers into the hole but the ring always breaks up. As the sun sets the shadows creep slowly up our street from the west. Then, the street lights go on and the bugs start buzzing around them. Sometimes we talk about life and how to live it. Even though I’m no more than eleven years old I have lots of questions about the world, people and myself. Dad answers my questions if they aren’t too obtuse. His basic advice is always, “Pay attention to what is happening around you. Watch people carefully to know if they are honest with you. Then do what you think is right.”
If we have rain sometimes we go out onto the lawn with flashlights and look for night crawlers, big worms. If there’s a lot of rain the worm holes are flooded and they come out onto the grass. When someone is going fishing we give the worms to them for bait. Dad, Pa and I go fishing a couple times on the river that divides our town. We hook the worms with our fish hooks and drop them into the murky river water. I remember the only things we catch are a couple of small bass, too small to cook, so we throw them back. Once we caught a bullhead. It is a bottom feeder that is thick, dirty gray, with whiskers like a catfish and pretty ugly. It was only about eight inches long so it went back into the river too. Even if we had kept it no one would have wanted to eat it except a cat.
In the basement of our little place I often help Dad shovel coal, scooping out the dusty pellets and dropping them into the hopper that feeds the furnace. It makes me proud to help with this because this is what my grandfather does for a living. He shovels coal for the railroad. The hopper feeds the coal pellets into a large donut shape in the furnace. Every day or two Dad reaches into the furnace with a long hook and pulls the burned coal out. The hot donut is about twenty inches in diameter and is called a clinker. Dad breaks it into a couple smaller pieces and drops them it into an ashcan. Once as I turned from the coal hopper to get another shovel full from the bin, Dad turned with his shovel and hit me in the forehead. I was showered in coal dust and pellets. The impact made me see stars. Dad dropped his shovel and went to his knees, checking my head. When he was sure he hadn’t nearly decapitated me, he helped me take off my dirty clothes, gave me a big hug and said he was sorry. Then, he sent me upstairs for a bath. My head pounding, my legs shaking from the impact, I open the basement door to the kitchen where Mom is toiling over her second hour of ironing. Turning toward me with fatigue covering her body she snaps, “What happened to you? You’re a mess. Get into the bathroom and take a bath this minute. And make sure you don’t leave coal dust all over everything for me to clean up.” She never asks about the red bump on my forehead. I grit my teeth and do as I’m told.
While my dad’s week is regulated by factory work and house maintenance, my mom’s week has its own seemingly endless cycle of chores. There is an unending pile of washing, daily cooking meals for a husband and son . . . later two boys, beating back the dust and grime her husband and sons bring into the house, day after day. Every Saturday it is laundry day. We have a blue enamel, round washing machine on wheels with a hand wringer on top. Soap comes from shaving off a large bar of pure white soap about four inches long. Clothes go into the tub with the soap shavings and hot water from the laundry tub. A small electric motor turns the rotor in the tub. This draws the hot soapy water back and forth through the clothes to release the dirt. After washing a load, rinsing it in the two tubs and running it through the hand wringer Mom gives the clothes to Dad and me to hang while she continues to run more heavy loads through the machine. We must do at least a dozen loads counting clothes, linens and towels. In the summer we hang the clothes outside on a couple of lines that run from the house to poles next to our detached garage. In the winter we have to hang the clothes in the basement. It takes several days for them to dry that way. The basement, with its cement block walls and concrete floor smells moldy all winter. About the time the clothes are dry it was time to start laundry day again. The cycle of heavy labor was enough to break the spirit of some people. But for most of us it was the only choice.
Like most households my mother has a small Victory Garden during the war. She continues it until brother Bob goes to school. Then, she goes to work at an office and doesn’t have time to tend a garden. Although it wasn’t very big it took a good bit of labor to dig, fertilize with real cow manure, plant, weed and harvest. That is just the beginning. Then, she still has to prepare and serve meals using the produce. Behind the garage, where the garden is located, Mom grows lettuce, peas, corn and other vegetables I don’t care for. Our daily meals are basically northern European style, namely meat, potatoes, bread and butter, milk or coffee and, in the winter, canned vegetables. In the summer, along with vegetables, Mom’s garden produces my favorite, strawberries. On Thursdays, the entrée is usually liver and onions, which look, smell and taste like the sole of a shoe. Since we’re Catholic, Friday is fish day. Living in the Midwest the seafood selection is limited. The local rivers produce only a few fish that you really don’t want to eat. Mostly we eat frozen halibut that has the consistency of thick cardboard.
We have a small yard on the front and west side of the house. It’s big enough for Dad and me to play catch after work. He bounces the ball at me or throws it as high as he can. I run under it and try to catch it. It’s fun and helps develop my baseball fielding skills. In the back is the fence and a double garage. The owner rents the other half to someone who often leaves disgusting things in the bed of his dump truck. I recall vividly the smell the night he left a dead horse in it.
On the east side of the house was Huron Street, a very busy road that leads north to my father’s factory and south to Sacred Heart church and school. During the War Dad’s factory switches from farm machinery to cannons. Because he has two kids, is in his thirties and works in a defense factory he’s exempt from the draft. I remember well trucks going past the house towing army drab green 105 millimeter howitzers off to war. Morning and night people speed to and from work along Huron. I get many lectures about not going into the street after a ball. In good weather Dad walks the five blocks over the hill to work. Across Huron Street is Mr. and Mrs. Burken’s little cream colored grocery store. They look like Ma and Pa Kettle. He’s small and quiet. He dresses in a clean work shirt and wears suspenders that he likes to hook his thumbs into when he’s just standing looking out at the traffic. His principal job seems to be stocking shelves and sweeping out. Mrs. Burken, who never stops moving, distributes two hundred pounds in lumps over her six foot frame. When he thinks she isn’t looking Mr. Burken will sneak me a small piece of candy. If she catches us she yells at him, “What are you doing? Do you think money grows on trees?” Few people like Mrs. Burken, but they patronize her store since it is convenient. Beyond the store there are only a few clustered houses half submerged in a sea of corn fields that seem to stretch to infinity. On a hot, humid summer day you can smell the sweet scent of corn. You could almost hear it say, “It won’t be long now until you can pick and eat me.”
During those difficult Depression and prewar days there was an attitude of helpfulness. Paychecks are small, if you even have one. With a couple million people still out of work people help each other. If Dad needs someone to help him repair the house there is usually a neighbor or relative who has the requisite skills and makes time to lend a hand. It’s expected that everyone should help out. Even right after the war I remember the family and friends erecting a prefab house for my uncle, free of charge. I lend a hand picking up scraps and throwing them into someone’s truck to take to the dump. By the fifties the country is prosperous for the first time in thirty years. Most people have jobs and through the GI Bill many are able to buy a house for the first time. As the basic economics of the country change so to, gradually, attitudes change. It’s the dawning of a new, more prosperous, but more self-centered America. The pioneer spirit that marked America as unique in the world is dead forever.
* * *
My dad’s mother, Ma, dies in 1945 when I’m in fifth grade. We have to move across town to live with Pa. Ma’s house is a gray and white Victorian across the street from McGowan Park. It has a large bay window that looks out on the park. Ma’s first husband, Mr. Weisman had run a small brush and broom factory and was well off, although not rich. Ma is a whirlwind of a housekeeper. Mom said she would work up a sweat cleaning every crevice in the place. I don’t remember anything ever out of place. Ma had been sent by her family from Luxembourg to America alone when she was only nine years old. She had been settled with a distant relative on a nearby farm. Throughout her life she is very angry for having been sent away alone to a foreign place and unknown people.
The move means a new school for me. Its name is Saint Nicholas. Although I’m unsure about moving and meeting new kids, I find life in Ma’s house much easier in some ways. The rooms are large. There are easy chairs and a sofa, and best of all a large radio and windup record player. Ma used to make remarks occasionally about how good Mr. Weisman had been to her. I think they are aimed at Pa who is a common laborer and who often frustrates her with his cigar ashes on the carpet. She’s about the same height as him. I used to have a picture of the two of them standing in our yard. Side by side they resembled a couple of fireplugs. I like Ma because I am her first born grandchild and she pampers me. Her baking specialty is cinnamon and oatmeal cookies. They’re both about three inches in diameter, thick and chewy. The cinnamons are lightly covered with brown sugar. The oatmeal has raisins and sometimes little pecan chips buried inside. What is it that gives grandmothers these great culinary skills?
Pa’s name is Johann Baptiste Schullatsch. It was shortened to Still when he came through immigration. Pa is 5'5" tightly packed with 200 pounds of muscle. For over twenty years he shovels coal to keep the boilers going and provide steam power at the rail yards across the river. Family lore has it that when someone teases him about being short, he picks the man up and throws him into the coal bin. Pa loves to drink. Ma keeps a close watch on him. She knows exactly when he gets off work because they blow a loud, shrill whistle at the end of each shift. In an effort to thwart her when he leaves work he runs as fast as his stubby little legs can carry him and stops in at the bar on our side of the bridge. He chugs a couple beers and then runs the rest of the way home. When he arrives he is sweating like a horse and doesn’t smell any better. I idolize Pa because he is direct, tough, strong and irreverent. He doesn’t take sass from anyone except Ma. Unlike Dad who just laughs it off, Pa will fight back. He belongs to a croquet club in McGowan Park. The club has two perfectly level, hard packed clay courts, lightly sanded and surrounded by a cement curb. It serves the dual purpose of keeping balls in play and gives the players a border on which to bank their shots. The club has a neat little shack that houses a couple card tables and racks of the member’s customer made mallets. In the early hours Pa sneaks me into the club to play a game before the other members show up. To me, it’s like playing in Yankee Stadium. There is nothing Pa couldn’t or wouldn’t do except drive a car. He for sure wouldn’t let a bunch of nuns cheat him out of a perfect score. My mother and Pa don’t get along well because he laughs at her piety.
Mom’s family lives across the river on the east side. While Dad is an only child, Mom has three brothers and two sisters. The family has fantastic longevity genes because almost all of them live into their nineties. Grandma makes it to a few days short of 100. Mom’s father, Jeremiah, owns a sheet metal business and does quite well. To avoid paying craftsmen, whenever he needs something done he uses his sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons as an ad hoc workforce. Grandmother Emma is a very small woman with several crooked front teeth housed within an easy smile. While Mom seems overwhelmed by the demands of her small family and her house, Grandma is imperturbable. She has been born and lived her whole life in this house. Her memory of the neighborhood is legendary. One time she tells me about the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed millions of people around the world. It wreaked havoc on her street as well. She started her narrative by telling us that on a Monday one of the girls at the Weiland’s house took sick and died in four days. On Saturday the family took her to St. Mary’s three blocks east for burial. When they got home Donny took sick and he was gone before the next weekend. Grandma went through the whole neighborhood reciting the epidemic’s tracks. It was truly a plague.
The floors creak throughout her house. She has a real ice box and a stove with a wood-burning chamber in her large old-style kitchen. When she needs a block of ice she puts a cardboard sign on the pillar of her porch. Depending what number shows on the card the iceman chips a chunk off a big block in the back of his horse drawn wagon. Then he carries it on his leather shoulder pad up the steps and into the house, depositing it in her ice box. If you want ice for anything there is an ice pick on top of the box. You just open the ice door and chip off what you need. Invariably chips fly onto the floor. Grandma just laughs and kicks them aside where they’ll eventually melt and dry up. This attitude undoubtedly contributes to her longevity. In the backyard is a large, black trunk, cherry tree that produces beautifully scented white blossoms in spring and large, dark red, sweet cherries in summer. Grandpa finds someone to pick them of course. Grandma turns them into the richest, sweetest cherry pies in the Western Hemisphere. She bakes fresh bread every day because Grandpa won’t eat store bought. She also makes “fry cakes”, her name for doughnuts. They’re light, fragrant and crispy on the outside, steaming on the inside. Eating a doughnut immediately after it comes out of the hot oil with a glass of cold milk is indescribably delicious. The aromas of her baking fill the old house.
On holidays the whole clan of aunts, uncles and cousins descend on Grandma’s house on Fall Street. Hordes of grandchildren run through the house, banging on tables, the piano or each other. One Easter my youngest uncle, Ed who is a chemical engineer, shows us a new type of army canteen. It isn’t the typical gray metal we’re used to. Instead, it’s sort of dull green, smooth and much lighter than the typical canteen. The surface has a texture that we never felt before. He extolls the advantages of this vessel, telling us how it is almost indestructible. My know-it-all uncles are skeptical, so he says, “Stand back”. He jumps up on the porch and throws the thing down as hard as he can onto the brick path leading to Grandma’s porch. It bounces up to eye level where he catches it. Then, he holds it out and lets us examine it. Instead of cracking or denting it’s unmarked. Amazing! He explains to the incredulous group, “This is plastic.”