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Robert S. Babin 1988
Before beginning my recollections of boyhood in Waupaca, let me introduce my folks. I know none of my father’s relatives, as I will explain. So let me begin with my mother’s side of the family. My mother’s mother, Wilhelmena Bertha King, known to everyone as “Minnie,” was born in Almond, Wisconsin in 1875. Her parents were John and Mary King (in German it was “Koenig”), who had come from Baden Baden, Germany. John King died the year I was born, but I remember Mary King as a little, old lady who spoke only German and always dressed in black. Minnie and her siblings each attended school for about six years. All of them eventually became farmers or wives of farmers. My mother’s father was Samuel Nelson, also born in Almond, in 1868, to Danish emigrants Peter and Hanna Nelson. In 1897 he married my grandmother, Minnie King. They settled on a 160-acre farm near Blaine Center, near Almond, where they grew potatoes, corn, and grain, raised pigs and chickens, and kept several draft horses and many dairy cattle. They had four children: my mother, Maude Anne, two other daughters, Esther and Alta, and a son, Arthur. So it was, on my mother’s side at least, that I would be a third-generation American. That seemed to be so for most persons of my generation in Waupaca. Later, when I went east, I found to my surprise that many of the persons I met, my wife included, had foreign-born parents. Sam Nelson came from a Lutheran family, and Minnie King from a Baptist. So they compromised by rarely attending any church. Their children were all baptized and were required to attend Sunday school, but at church their parents were seen mostly at weddings and funerals. Minnie seriously believed in God, prayer, hell, and heaven, and looked forward to her reward in the hereafter. She encouraged me to pray from time to time, but neither she nor her children felt the need to say grace before a meal—for which I was very thankful. When we visited some of grandma’s more religious siblings, however, we had to pray before we ate. My grandma’s German-born parents spoke nothing but German at home, so grandma learned German as a child. But she married a Dane, so on language they also compromised: English was all they ever spoke to each other (they both spoke it without a trace of any accent) and the only language their children learned. Had there been any motivation for her to teach German to her children, she told me, the anti-German feeling during World War One would have quenched it. During those years, she said, it was dangerous for anyone to acknowledge having any connection with “Kaiser Bill’s killers,” referring to the German Kaiser Wilhelm. The six Nelsons worked hard and progressed quickly. Sam Nelson’s skill at chicken farming was so widely respected that a University of Wisconsin class in agriculture toured his farm more than once as a model of efficiency and modern methods. The farm prospered. Sam kept careful books on his financial transactions, but never disclosed their contents to his wife or family. All three daughters graduated from Almond High School, an outstanding achievement for any farm girl at that time. The two oldest girls, Esther and Alta, went on to Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point) and became certificated grade-school teachers. Soon thereafter each of them took a husband, but both marriages ended in divorce. From Alta’s marriage there was a daughter, Berniece, who was my first cousin. She cared for me when I was an infant, and in later years was much like a sister to me. My mother, Maude Anne, did not want a teaching career. She attended business school in Appleton and then took a secretarial position in Chicago. Her sister Esther began teaching in local country schools, and Alta joined the city school system in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Little Berniece was taken care of by her grandparents and uncle Arthur on the farm. These were the 1920’s, when American women were beginning to feel emancipated. During the recent war many had entered the work force for the first time. Now a woman who could type and take dictation could earn good money in a business office. There remained a widespread prejudicial feeling, however, that every employed married woman was unfairly depriving a male breadwinner of a job. That feeling reached such serious proportions during the Depression that many employed married women passed themselves off as being single.
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While working in Chicago my mother, Maude Anne, met a commercial artist named Sidney Homer Babin, who, she later told me, romantically swept her off her feet. He was born in Louisiana, of French-American parents, who were Roman Catholics. (In Louisiana, as in France, the French name, Babin, and its longer version, Babineaux, are common.) Sidney was 22 years older than Maude Anne, and by all accounts was a very intelligent, articulate, and urbane person. They married in February 1924. He must have been a little self conscious about his age, because, I have noticed, there is a discrepancy between his ages as shown on their wedding certificate and on my birth certificate. He was immediately disliked by the Nelson family the first time Maude Anne brought him to the farm for a visit. I guess it was a classic clash of the urban and farm cultures. Aunt Esther said later that Sidney was too “citified,” and that he acted superior to them. I can imagine that he was ill at ease on the farm, with its lack of electricity and indoor plumbing, its flies and mosquitoes, its pungent manure odors, etc. Probably he could not find much in common with the Nelsons. Also Sam and Minnie were never comfortable with the fact that a man very nearly as old as they had married their youngest daughter. So they all blackballed him. In Chicago on February 5, 1925, I entered the world. I never learned exactly what my parents’ economic condition was at that time, but only a few months later, my mother appeared at the farm with me in her arms. She asked her mother, Minnie, to care for me for a while—how long was not discussed—until she and Sidney “can get back on our feet,” she said. My grandma, then 50 years old, sympathetically agreed, and Maude Anne returned to Chicago alone. From that day until I graduated from high school 16 years later I never lived with my mother. During all those years my two aunts and grandmother housed, fed, and clothed me with no financial help from my mother until I was in my teens. During those years I saw her only a dozen or so times, usually at Christmas. Grandma told me that Sam Nelson took the pledge when he was a young man, formally swearing to a large crowd that he would never drink alcohol. He kept that pledge all his life, which was not unusual among his contemporaries. Abstinence from drink was part of mainstream Christian Protestantism in the midwest farmland during that era. It was preached from every pulpit, ostensibly practiced by every respectable woman, and urged upon every man. Grandma said she often wondered in later years whether it might have been better if Sam Nelson had been able to take a drink now and then to relax a little. He was a very intense person. I make the point here, because his abstinence may have conceivably been a factor in their separation. Sam and Minnie Nelson were not getting along, and in 1927 their marriage reached the breaking point. Grandma divorced him, and she and Aunt Esther and Cousin Berniece and I left the farm and moved into a rented house in Rural, Wisconsin. Divorces in the farm country after three decades of marriage were rare in those days, but Sam Nelson had become impossible to live with. He had developed a pathologically miserly attitude toward family expenditures for anything, including basic food and clothing. He treated Minnie and the girls very badly, railing and threatening them unreasonably over trivial matters. He had actually beaten Minnie, thrown her down the stairs, and broken her nose. It appears that he suffered a serious personality change in middle age, which was borne out by some of his outrageous conduct in later life. There was a tiny divorce settlement. I never learned the amount of it. Within a few years it had disappeared in grandma’s bad real estate investments, which were easy to make in the depression years, when foreclosures were rampant. From then on, until she died nearly 40 years later, grandma was beholden to her children for her support. Like all those of her generation, the federal Social Security program was begun too late. Maude Anne wrote home only infrequently, and rarely provided any personal information on how things were going. Then a terse letter from her in 1928 said simply that my father had been instantly killed (!) several weeks before in an auto accident in downtown Chicago, that there were no insurance proceeds, that she was managing to get along on her own, but that she didn’t know how soon she would be able to take little Bobbie. Thus in that remote and rather mysterious way, my father abruptly disappeared from my life before I ever knew him. During the two previous years he and my mother had again visited the Nelson family on the farm a couple of times, but no rapport ever developed. Their deep-seated dislike for my father affected my later life in several ways. I was never able to meet any of my father’s relatives. The existence of any of my aunts, uncles, or cousins among the Babins was and still is a mystery. Because the Nelsons’ contempt for my father was conveyed to me repeatedly over the years, I developed a pronounced dislike for the man, despite my having no personal memory
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of him whatever. Until I reached middle age, I hated the name “Sidney,” because it was his, and I never volunteered that it was my middle name. To this day I find it difficult to feel any pride in the name Babin, unlike most persons, who are innately proud of their family name. In 1929 Maude Anne wrote home that she had met a charming widower named Nick Rasely, and they were contemplating marriage. Rasely was a man of means. He lived with his two children in a fashionable apartment overlooking Chicago and was a high-paid executive with the Lyon and Healy Company, Chicago’s largest music store. Like my father, Nick was considerably older than Maude Anne, but when she brought him home to meet the folks, everyone could see that the two of them were deeply in love. Nick was too “citified” to totally please the Nelsons, but he was a charming fellow, particularly with the ladies. Overall he got something like a C+ rating from the family. That was raised to B+ when he assured them that he and Maude Anne were planning to take little Bobbie to live with them very soon. They were married later that year, and soon thereafter the great stock-market crash ushered in the deepest and longest economic depression in history. Nick Rasely was laid off and could not find work in Chicago. Soon he and Maude Anne and the two Rasely children moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Nick’s boyhood home. There the four of them shared a house with Nick’s brother, Horace, and his family. Nick and Horace clerked in a shoe store, and Maude Anne was a public stenographer. Together they managed to barely survive in that worst of times. All plans for taking little Bobbie to live with them were deferred indefinitely. In 1930 grandma, Berniece, and I moved to Kenosha to live with Aunt Alta, while Aunt Esther continued to teach at country schools in the Waupaca area, living in boarding houses near school. We lived in an apartment in south Kenosha for the next two years. I began kindergarten at the same school where Aunt Alta taught second grade. Teaching reading was one of her specialties, and she found that I had a great aptitude for learning. With her expert tutoring several evenings a week, I was able to read from second grade primers by the time I had finished kindergarten. Then one day she took me to visit the school principal, for whom I proudly demonstrated my second-grade reading ability. At Alta’s recommendation I was allowed to skip first grade and enter second. In the spring of 1932 the Great Depression was in high gear. Nationwide unemployment was over 25 percent, and long bread lines had formed in every city. President Roosevelt had just taken office. (He would be president during my entire youth—until I was 20 years old.) I was finishing second grade, and we were getting ready to move back to the Waupaca area. Later that year my mother left Nick Rasely. She passed a U.S. Civil Service test for stenographers and moved to Washington D.C., to begin a career in government service that was to last nearly 40 years. (I joined her there in 1941.)
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2. FARM DAYS
In the summer of 1932 grandma, Aunt Esther, my cousin Berniece, and I moved from Kenosha to a farm located four miles from Waupaca, on the road to Scandinavia. Esther had a contract to teach in a school nearby. The plan was that Uncle Arthur would soon come to live with us and work the farm—a plan that never came to fruition. Now a 30-year old bachelor, Arthur was getting serious about his exclusive girlfriend, Miss Marian Robinson. We noticed that he had cautiously begun to use the word “marriage” in ordinary conversation, without wincing. I enrolled in Casey School. I had just completed the second grade in Kenosha, but Aunt Esther knew I could do fourth-grade work. On the day we showed up at Casey, Aunt Esther simply told the teacher that I was “ready for the fourth grade,” so that was the grade I entered. I had now skipped two grades. I was two years younger than my classmates and would remain so all through public school. While this continually made me feel proud of the achievement, my being younger worked to my disadvantage in almost every regard during my subsequent school years. I recommend against any parent’s pushing his child ahead in school even as little as one year. School busing for me was not to be. We lived exactly 1.9 miles from Casey school, and the law provided bus transportation only for students living two or more miles away. So I walked very nearly four miles each day to and from school. The Smith children from the adjacent farm—Enoch Jr., Timothy, and Viola—were my companions on that daily trek. On warm, dry days in the spring and fall the scenic walk to school was delightful. Often we walked the entire distance without seeing a single automobile. The route abounded with birds, rodents, snakes, and farm animals. One autumn day we came upon a snake, at least six feet long, lying squarely across the narrow, unpaved road, basking in the sun. We quickly picked up some small stones and killed it, using the slingshots we each carried every day. We routinely killed every bird, chipmunk, and squirrel, I am ashamed to say, that came within shooting range. Slingshot making was an art that all of us farm boys quickly mastered. We had to cut a pair of half-inch strips of rubber about six inches long from an old auto-tire innertube (there were no tubeless tires) and tie them to a Yshaped piece of wood we had carefully selected and cut from a tree. Then we tied a small pouch of leather to the rubber strips and were ready to shoot. A smooth rock about the size of a marble was best. All of us learned to shoot accurately from the hip, holding the slingshot at waist level. You could always spot a rank beginner by the way he lifted his slingshot up to nose level and aimed it like an archer does an arrow. None of us ever shot at each other, although we did have some pretty severe arguments and a few fist fights from time to time. We were all good shots and could reliably hit small targets at quite a distance. I am embarrassed to recall that we methodically smashed off every glass insulator on every telephone pole along the road to school, leaving the telephone wires hanging on the wooden peg. (Those were the green, glass type that now bring ten dollars each as antiques.) What this wanton destruction did to the phone service we never learned, since none of us had telephones at home. We never broke anyone’s windows with our slingshots, although every glass bottle in sight got smashed. Also among our favorite targets were the private parts of bulls grazing in nearby fields, safely beyond a sturdy barbed-wire fence, of course. On cold or snowy winter days there was not much that was pleasant about that four-mile hike to and from school. Often the roads were not plowed until a day or more after a snowfall. But the concept of closing school for a day or more because of bad weather simply did not exist. There was no local radio station and most farm homes had no telephone, so there was no way to notify parents. We went to school every day, unless the snow was so deep that it was physically impossible to move through it. One morning as I started out for school the thermometer read -22 degrees. I wore two coats to school on such days. Our poor teacher, knowing that at least a few students would show up even on the very worst of days, had to be there every day. For that reason she lived very near to the school, in easy walking distance. Casey School was one of the largest and most modern country schools in Waupaca County. In those years my Aunt Esther taught at several such schools in the County, which I visited. So I know that most other country schools were one-room buildings heated by a single pot-bellied stove and having a pair of outhouses for toilet fapage 5 of 54
cilities. Very few of them had electricity; I watched many Christmas programs by the light of kerosene lamps. But Casey School was of brick construction, had electricity, and a basement with a furnace and deep, chemical toilets. It also had a large cloak room and a closet we called the library, in which books were stored. Like most country schools, Casey had 10 to 20 students each year, so each grade had as many as three or four students or as few as none. The students in all eight grades had their desks in the main room. Reciting took place up front, where during each 15-minute class the students sat on a long, church-like pew. Each recitation class combined pairs of grades, for example, 3rd and 4th grade reading, 7th and 8th grade geography, etc. My seat was near the front of the room, so I spent many hours listening to the higher grades’ recitations. Most interesting to me was 7th and 8th grade civics, from which I learned a great deal about our government, the congress, the presidency, etc. One of the brightest students in that class was a boy named Anderson, who I think later became the Waupaca District Attorney. Perhaps it was his brother.
At the Knotts Berry Farm theme park near Disneyland in suburban Los Angeles a one-room country school house has for many years been on exhibit as a kind of museum. It was moved from a farming area near Beloit, Kansas, where it was in use, a sign says, “until the l890’s.” Yet in every detail it is an exact copy of the one-room schools in use during the 1930’s in Waupaca County! Whenever I step inside it I am overcome with feelings of nostalgia. Its rows of desks of the exact same shape and size that we had in Casey school, each with its built-in inkwell. (Yes, just as in the old-time movies, the pigtails of the girl who sat at the desk ahead of you hung over your inkwell, and the temptation to dunk them in the ink was overwhelming.) Up front in the Knotts school, near the pot-bellied stove, is a six-foot pew to accommodate each class in sequence, and on the front wall are blackboards, maps, and inspirational and patriotic slogans in big, bold letters of the exact same type we had in Casey School. Every time I see it I get watery in the eyes.
Casey School is still standing, but for many years has not been used as a school. On my last visit there I saw a merry-go-round in the yard. I cannot believe it is the same one we enjoyed 50 years ago, but it has seen many years of service and is indeed of the very same design as ours. I recognized the trio of trees in a triangle that we used to play “prisoner’s goal,” our favorite outdoor game, during recess. It required a lot of running interspersed with jeering and taunting of the opponents. A second game, “pom pom pullaway,” which involved some physical contact, was another favorite. Our teacher was Miss Wantakee, an attractive girl in her twenties. She served expertly as tutor, janitor, dramatic coach, nurse, music teacher, and entertainer, as all country-school teachers were required to. On cold days she arrived at least an hour before school to start the fire in the furnace, and she had to keep it going all day. On many mornings, despite her best efforts, the school was so cold that she had us all get up and march around the room, clapping our hands and stomping our feet to get warm. Often we could see our breath indoors until midmorning. Our Miss Wantakee planned lessons, taught class, kept the school records, played the piano while we sang, planned and arranged holiday school programs, rehearsed us for our roles in them, and generally kept the entire plant running. For this she and other country school teachers were paid $60 to $70 per month in the early 1930’s, and perhaps $10 more than that toward the end of that decade. That was good pay in those days. Many men were glad to earn a dollar or a dollar fifty a day. In that era a two-year course at a State Normal School—the Stevens Point Teachers College was one such— was the required education for country-school teachers. The school term began in mid-August, then closed down for two weeks during September for students to pick potatoes, and then resumed full time thereafter. It ended in early May. For a few minutes each day all of us in all the grades sang aloud together while our teacher played the piano. Our song book was “The Golden Book of Songs,” a superb publication that has probably been out of print for ages. It contained the music and lyrics to at least a hundred wonderful old standards from America’s past. Songs from each of America’s wars: Yankee Doodle, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Keep the Home Fires Burning, Just Before the Battle Mother, and My Buddy. Songs of the old south: My Old Kentucky Home, Old Black Joe, and Old Folks at Home. And patriotic songs: America, America the Beautiful, The Star Spangled Banner. And fun songs: Over the River and Through the Woods, The Band Played On, and School Days. Each of us knew the lyrics to a couple dozen of those grand old tunes. We sung our lungs
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out. What great fun it was! We didn’t know it, but we were celebrating America’s great traditions in song every day. One day in fifth grade English class we were told to go to the closet we called the library, select a book, read it during the next six weeks, and write a report on it. The premise, I learned later, was that each child would select a book of 5th-grade-level fiction. But I grabbed my book from the wrong shelf. When I submitted my report on it, Miss Wantakee was aghast to discover that I had read an entire 8th-grade history textbook during those six weeks and had summarized it in my report! It’s fair to say that books never intimidated me. The state law permitted students to quit school at age 14. No girls did, but parental pressure was very great on some boys to quit so they could work full time on the farm. One boy quit on the very day he turned 14. The next afternoon on our way home we saw him working in the sorghum field. He looked miserable. I was thankful that I was not being pressured to quit. Each year our teacher passed out “tuberculosis seals,” which were stamps whose sale raised funds to fight the dreaded killer of that era. An older student said there was a man living on our way home who would surely buy all our seals. He did indeed, and I noticed that he looked gaunt and wasted. The next year when we stopped to sell him our seals we were told he had died “of TB.” Until the discovery of antibiotics in the late 1930’s, TB would continue as a top-ranking killer, with no dependable cure. I saw its scourge first hand. My aunt Alta was teaching in the Kenosha school system, was rapidly moving up in her career, and soon would very likely have become a grade-school principal had not TB struck her down in 1936. The prognosis was that she would not survive from normal treatment, which was complete bed rest and fresh air in a TB sanitarium—a regimen that had a low cure rate, by the way. As with some cancers today, both doctor and TB patient often knew well in advance that there was no hope. She entered the State Hospital at Madison and underwent an innovative surgical procedure called “pneumothorax.” It removed a few inches of each of several ribs over one lung. Then sand bags were applied for several months over the gap in the ribs to force them to grow back together. If they did, and if the patient survived, there remained one collapsed, useless lung, and one healthy one, both of them free of the tuberculosis. (A. J. Cronin’s renowned novel “The Citadel,” telling the travails of a British doctor in the 1930’s, mentions this new pneumothorax technique. Nowadays it is apparently obsolete and long-forgotten.) After a year in the hospital Aunt Alta was cured, but she never fully regained her health or worked again. She was round shouldered and had aged many years. With one lung collapsed she was always short of breath. She lived to age 54. Over the years, X-rays of my lungs have shown scar tissue which doctors have told me is evidence of the work of TB bacteria, presumably gotten from my aunt, that had tried unsuccessfully to infect me. The farm we lived on near Casey School was primitive, even for the 1930’s. As victims of the Great Depression we lived especially frugally. But, as the comedian Sam Levinson used to say, we never knew we were poor. My grandmother baked all our bread, made all our soap, and made many of the clothes we wore. Our staple foods were potatoes and bread, and we always had enough of both. We had no electricity, no radio or telephone, and we subscribed to no newspapers or magazines. An outhouse near the rear door was our toilet. A pump at the kitchen sink was our only source of water. Our heat came from a stove in the living room plus a wood-burning range in the kitchen. Frugality and custom dictated that the fire be allowed to go out during each night, so when we awoke on many winter mornings, it was well below freezing inside the house. Frequently the kitchen pump would be frozen. Each Saturday night we bathed in sequence in a round, galvanized-iron wash tub placed on the kitchen floor, using water heated in pans on the range. That was the schedule and the procedure in most farm homes during that period and in many city homes lacking bathrooms. We had one modern convenience: a naphtha mantle lamp, the kind you pump up with compressed air. It continually emitted a tiny hissing sound, while it gave off a dazzling, white light as bright as several of the ordinary kerosene lamps commonly in use. I found I was the only kid in school who had such a magnificent lamp to study by. I have fond memories of doing my arithmetic—in particular, working some difficult long-division problems— using my stand-up blackboard situated near the lamp, while the rest of the family sat near the lamp to read and talk. That wonderful lamp was the centerpiece around which our family gathered.
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One spring Aunt Esther showed me how to make stilts, as she had done as a girl. You cut two long poles and nail a board on each to support your feet. For beginner’s stilts you nail them just a few inches off the ground, and then later you move them up as you get to be a more skilled stilt-walker. I fell off my stilts dozens of times while learning. Finally, after several weeks, I mastered them. I got so I could walk, run, and dance on stilts. I could even hop around on one stilt. Eventually I was walking on stilts whose foot supports were more than six feet high, up over peoples’ heads. On them I would walk casually up to a tree and look in on birds’ nests that were nine feet off the ground. I had stilt marathons to see how long I could stay on the stilts. Ignoring time out for the bathroom, which was permitted under my rules, I often stood on my stilts literally all day. I was a very lonely child during those years on the farm, although I was not aware of it at the time and made no complaint. I spent many hours completely alone, with extremely few of the toys, games, and tools that a child of that age would have today, and, of course, with no radio or TV to deliver ready-made entertainment. That void of loneliness was filled by a wide range of intellectual and recreational opportunities when we moved into the City of Waupaca, as I will describe. A clue to my need for games to play was the croquet incident. One summer Cousin Berniece was given a beautiful, new croquet set. I can see its lovely, sparkling colors now. I was allowed to play with it only when she and her friends set it up and used it. Playing croquet was such a thrill for me that I would count the hours between games. But after just a few plays, she packed the set up and put it away in the garage. In an unusual pique of selfishness—quite unlike her normal generosity—she forbade me to touch it. I pleaded, but to no avail. I was miffed. I decided to get even. One night I sneaked out to the garage and did a despicable thing. With a pair of pliers I bent and cut each of the wire wickets beyond repair. My crime was not discovered until the next spring. I pleaded nullo. Grandma gave me a stern lecture on “damaging other people's property,” but in view of the circumstances she decided against any punishment. The two giant Chicago mail-order companies, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck, were vital in the lives of Wisconsin families. Four times each year both companies sent every family a free catalog that was a couple of inches thick. The catalogs listed every imaginable commodity, an enormously greater range of products that are offered today. They sold everything from horse collars and farm machinery to eye glasses and ground pepper. Like many other families, we ordered much of our clothing and a variety of other products from Wards and Sears. In those years we could mail an order to Wards in Chicago one day and invariably receive it by mail the day after next, a dependable three-day turnaround. Wards and Sears employed hundreds of young persons on roller skates whizzing around their giant warehouses, filling mail orders. Rarely would there be an item missing from our order. (Now, a half-century later, living here in the nation’s second largest metropolitan area, I can telephone an order to a giant Sears or Wards store a mile or so away. Then, with the help of modern, high-speed digital computers to automate and speed their ordering, billing, warehousing, packaging, and shipping, I will get that order delivered to me by mail in four to six days, and frequently an item or two will be missing!) On the farm when the catalogs became outdated they were placed in the family outhouse to be used as toilet paper. The eight catalogs each year served even the largest families. In a typical outhouse you would see several of the depleted catalogs stacked up on a shelf, all the pages missing except for the few glossy ones that had been carefully bypassed, for obvious reasons. There may have been a few exceptional farms where purchased toilet tissue was used instead of mail-order catalogs, but in all of the many farm outhouses that I patronized I saw nothing but catalogs. One summer we bought a chicken brooder and more than a hundred baby chicks, which we raised to maturity. As was the custom on many farms, our chickens had the run of the yard. My task on a typical Sunday was to catch a full-grown chicken, either by overtaking it on the run or cornering it somewhere, so I could cut off its head using a hatchet and a chopping block. At first I couldn’t do it without help. The job required three hands, one to hold the chicken, another to hold the hatchet, and a third to stretch its neck. But soon I learned to do it alone. I would squeeze the chicken between my knees, stretch its neck, and whack its head off. Some headless chickens would run in a circle for several
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seconds before expiring. Then I would deliver the corpse to my grandma, who would dunk it in a pail of hot water and pluck its feathers. (Years later, when I visited the Tower of London and saw the site of the horrible beheadings of Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and other unfortunates, some childhood memories came vividly to mind.) One Saturday evening in mid-summer Aunt Esther drove us to Almond to visit relatives, and we spent some time on Main Street. It was a pleasant, balmy night, and at least a hundred people were there. Some of them were watching a free outdoor movie, projected on a bed sheet strung up between two trees. Others were strolling in and out of stores, eating ice cream, and chatting. I took the occasion to try some roller skating, since Almond had paved sidewalks. Seven years old and the only kid in town with skates, I was having a tremendous time until I got a shock that I would never forget. I was coasting past a gas station at the very moment when an old fellow in a Model T Ford was trying to exit. His car was jerking forward very slowly, and he was fighting the clutch and the throttle control. He was upset and was not paying attention to where he was going. Suddenly he looked up and spotted me whizzing past the front of his car. I was well out of danger by the time he saw me, but to vent his anger he blasted his horn and yelled at me. Many people turned around to look, and I was very embarrassed. But this was only the first of a double whammy. A few seconds later a giant grabbed me from behind, spun me around, flashed a gold badge in my face, and roared in a voice that could raise the dead, “I’m the sheriff here. Take off them fool skates!” He used the same overwhelming display of authority that police traditionally employ to bust notorious felons who might be tempted to shoot the cop and make a run for it. My being a four-foot child on roller skates had not diverted him from making a standard, by-the-book bust. I was overwhelmed by the surprise, fear, and humiliation of it all. I stared, bug-eyed, at the pistol and handcuffs hanging on his belt at my eye level. I started to wet my pants but managed to stop in a few seconds. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I began to shake. A crowd quickly gathered around us to see who was being arrested. After a minute or so he let go of me, giving no clue to any realization of, let alone regret for, his having used the proverbial fifty-pound sledge to drive a tack. I feel sure he was a Saturday-night deputy, who took great satisfaction in this, his only bust that evening. I have never fully recovered from the effects of that dimwit’s overkill tactics. To this day when I encounter the police unexpectedly, as for example when I get a speeding ticket, I get very uneasy, my pulse races, and sometimes I shake like I did that summer night in Almond, 56 years ago. One winter night on the farm, grandma and cousin Berniece were awakened about midnight by a half-dozen men who had driven two cars into our yard and were shouting loudly. They were drunk. They came up and rapped on the bedroom window, pressed their faces against it, and shouted obscene epithets. Grandma and Berniece were terrified. Grandma grabbed her cane and braced herself for a physical attack at any moment. Lacking a telephone, they could not call for help. After about a half hour of carousing, the drunks drove away, never to return. I had slept through the whole thing and was not told about it until after we left the farm. Grandma explained that soon after that midnight jamboree she borrowed a loaded pistol from a friend in Almond and put it on a high shelf in the bedroom, never telling me of it for fear I would somehow get hold of it. She was convinced that the men were our neighbors, since they seemed to know that no man was living with us. For many months she and Berniece slept in continual fear of their safety. Calling the police was simply not grandma’s way. One spring Uncle Arthur came to live with us for a few weeks after a period of unemployment. Using a borrowed horse and plow, he plowed several acres and then planted potatoes. I was too young to be of any help to him, but I watched in awe as the horse pulled the plow along with little apparent effort, while that long, polishedsteel plowshare penetrated the hard-packed soil and turned over a furrow a foot deep. I was impressed with the skill required of my uncle in holding the plowshare in the soil to the proper depth while orienting it straight ahead and at the same time controlling the horse. Whenever I see rows of newly plowed furrows, all of them done nowadays by machines, I’m glad that I was there to witness one of the last of the hundreds of generations of human plowmen using horse-drawn plows to perform that now-long-lost skill.
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In those years on the farm each of us had his share of ordinary head colds, intestinal flu, etc., sometimes with high fever, but we never visited a doctor or summoned one. Doctors were expensive—one to two dollars per visit—and you simply did not call upon their services except in dire emergencies. There were no antibiotics to prescribe. They had not yet been discovered. Aspirin was all you could take for a fever, and that’s what we did. In retrospect I can see that our lives during those years on the farm were a kind of hibernation, while we waited and hoped for the bad times to end. All across America were millions of victims of the Great Depression, who through loss of employment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, or wiped-out investments or savings were in the same boat as we. Not knowing how long the Depression would last and determined not to go on the government dole, families like ours ruthlessly cut back in every conceivable area of expenditure. There was an expression during the Depression: “You can’t starve a farmer.” It was true. We hibernated, but we never went hungry. In August 1934 we were notified by telegram that Sam Nelson, my maternal grandfather, had died. This changed the family’s plans. Sam’s will left his farm to Arthur, who very soon thereafter married Miss Robinson and settled down there. Sam Nelson vindictively left his wife and daughters each the grand sum of $100, but bequeathed thousands of dollars to civic organizations in Blaine and Almond who barely knew him.
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3. EXCITING WAUPACA
In October, l934 we moved from the farm into a 40-year-old house on Elm Street in Waupaca. My Aunt Alta had purchased it for about a thousand dollars. The monthly mortgage payment was eight dollars. Another eight paid the taxes. I entered sixth grade in the Waupaca City Schools. Most sixth graders were 11 or 12 years old, but I was only nine, because of my previous grade skipping. I was starting in six weeks late, and everyone else seemed to be well acquainted, so the whole experience was very intimidating for me at first. But what a thrilling and exciting place the City of Waupaca was to a nine-year old boy from the farm! Stores, restaurants, theaters, parks, and other exciting places were in unbelievable abundance. After our move into the city, I quickly decided that city life was for me, and that I never wanted to return to the farm. (That has remained my strong preference to this day. I am always amazed at the city-born folks who tell me that it is their lifetime ambition to move to a farm—to get “way out in the country, away from everything,” they say.) Waupaca’s main street was so long that it took forever to walk it. There were paved streets, sidewalks, and street lights. The school had electricity and every room was kept nicely heated, even on the coldest days, by a central steam-heating system that was manned by a full-time janitor. The school had indoor flush toilets and wash basins. Later I was to learn that it even had hot showers. Our house had electricity and a basement, coal-burning furnace that could drive a lovely blast of hot air into all the rooms of the house. Our outhouse was only a few feet from the back door, and the board walk leading to it was sheltered by the garage. My walk to school was only one mile or so. All of that route had paved streets, and about half the way was cement sidewalk. What joy in abundance! Our move to the city from our primitive existence on the farm had, in effect, moved us forward technologically by at least 20 years. The largest store I had ever seen, The Fair Store, stood prominently across Main Street from the Court Yard. It was a department store in the grand old style, carrying a large line of ready-to-wear clothing plus hundreds of bolts of material for the ladies who sewed their own. It had enormously high ceilings, wide aisles, and many electric lights. Everything about it was giant and modern. Each clerk, after making a sale, would drop the sales slip and the customer’s payment into a little basket, and then yank on a cable. The basket would be spring-propelled to a desk up on the balcony, where the cashier sat. She made the necessary change, did a ledger entry, and sent the basket back down to the waiting clerk, who extracted the customer’s receipt and change. Thus no clerk ever made change, a custom that one sees in many retail stores in Europe even today. In large-city department stores the same operation in the 1930’s was accomplished using small cylindrical modules driven pneumatically around the store via long tubes. In the next block north on Main Street, where the Drivas Pharmacy now stands, was The Candy Kitchen— known affectionately as “The Greeks.” For us kids it was a favorite hangout because of the sociability afforded by its large, classic, marble-topped soda fountain with high stools. Soft drinks were made by combining a particular syrup with carbonated water, called “phosphate.” You asked for a “lemon phosphate” if you wanted a carbonated lemon drink, for example. Owned and run by Messrs. Drivas and Karavakis, the Candy Kitchen was Waupaca’s de facto cultural center for kids, in no small part because it was a well lighted, warm, meticulously clean place that stayed open every night until about nine o’clock. Tommy Karavakis was the candy maker, and in the center of the store were glass-enclosed cases displaying the many candies he prepared. Each April Fools’ Day Tommy would make a few types of special candy, clearly labeled as such. He made peanut clusters with raw navy beans instead of peanuts, not hard enough to break a tooth, but enough to bring you up short. In another candy he included a generous amount of red pepper, and the centers of some of his chocolate chips were thin cardboard! I’ve never heard of such delightful April-fool shenanigans since. Inside, near the front door, was an enormous magazine rack, the only one in town. It offered a wide range of magazines, and was the nearest thing to a book store to be found in Waupaca. We kids would spend endless hours standing there and reading magazines without buying any, which understandably nettled Mr. Drivas. I can
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hear him now saying to us, “Do you want to buy it or just look at it?”—a fairly tactful question under the circumstances. On sale there were The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look magazines, each costing a nickel, plus dozens of others, the most elegant and expensive of them costing as much as a quarter. Look and Life, which had just begun publication, were the first photojournalism magazines in America. Their photos and stories gave vivid coverage to national and world events, including the gathering war clouds in Europe. In an arrangement now apparently discontinued, the retailer could cut the cover off an outdated magazine, return the cover to the distributor, and get full credit for the magazine. He was then free to sell the coverless magazine for any price he wished. All such magazines were available for three to five cents. It was these that we school kids bought in great numbers. The nearest thing to pornographic magazines at that time was Spicy Detective, a 25-cent magazine which we would buy for a nickel after it was outdated. That was doubly practical: with the cover torn off we suffered no embarrassment in carrying it around. That reading produced the desired heavy breathing, although its raciest prose was much less salacious than the dialog one routinely hears nowadays on daytime TV soaps, for example. Toward the rear of the Candy Kitchen, where the pharmacy now is, were two rows of booths, where one could sit and enjoy an ice cream, soda, or coke. High-school couples would go there for what was generally called “light necking,” the bright lights and the limited privacy there not permitting anything heavier. I have fond memories of the many hours I lingered in those booths. In 1935 a welcome innovation appeared: soft-cover “pocket” books, priced at 25 cents. Now for the first time one could buy a first-quality book for less than a day’s pay. The very first I ever saw was a Bantam book, “Lost Horizon,” by James Hilton. Now the Candy Kitchen actually became the city book store. Our periods of stand-up reading became longer—it took longer to read a book than a magazine—and long-suffering Mr. Drivas’s vexations increased severalfold. Being without a father, I found that I was an outsider where father-and-son activities were concerned. At the annual Boy Scout father-and-son dinner I was the odd kid. When dads took their sons hunting or fishing, I heard about their good times and envied them. Fathers and sons who golfed, bowled, or played tennis or baseball together rarely invited a kid without a dad. One outcome of that situation is that I never developed any interest whatever in hunting, fishing, or camping and have never been an avid sports enthusiast. During my years in Waupaca I was frequently asked by kids and adults, “Who is your father, and where does he work?” My answer was of course, “My father is dead.” The next question was usually, “Well, does your mother work here in town?” My answer: “No. She lives out east.” The final question was always, “Well then, who takes care of you?” Answer: “My grandmother.” The kids who questioned me accepted my answers. But from many adults I got a skeptical look. Apparently my answers suggested to them some kind of deception on my part, and they wondered what the true story was. In that era it was common in small towns for an unmarried mother to leave home to live and work elsewhere for an extended period, while her mother cared for the child. As I look back now, I have the impression that many of the adults who knew me in Waupaca concluded I was probably an illegitimate child whose mother had left town in shame. I have no idea whether any of my classmates may have surmised that.
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4. SIXTH GRADE
Miss Hall taught all us sixth graders in a ground-floor room on the west side of the three-story brick building that housed grades five through twelve. Like every teacher I came to know in the Waupaca Schools, she was a competent, conscientious person. She had lost a sister to tuberculosis and was determined that none of us would suffer the same fate. Each day she gave us a pep talk on proper breathing and had us all stand up and do deepbreathing exercises for several minutes to fully utilize our lungs. About 30 of us made up the sixth-grade class, and Miss Hall taught all our courses. One of them, surprisingly, was Ancient History: Egyptian, Greek, and Roman. (It turned out to be the only such course I ever took, and on my several trips to Greece and Rome I have often recalled it.) We also studied reading, arithmetic, English, and health. Dozens of times we recited the fraction-percentage equivalents aloud: “three-quarters is 75 percent, seven-eighths is 87.5 percent, etc.” As always, I excelled at arithmetic. On Halloween that year (1934) all students were invited down town to the Palace Theater, right after school. One of our youngest teachers—Mr. Munson, himself a recent Waupaca High Graduate—got up on stage and told a long, chilling ghost story that held us all in rapt attention. Then we all sang “Rosy O’Grady,” led by Mr. Lester Emmons, the Superintendent of Schools. Lastly we all got a free piece of candy. It was my very first large-crowd experience, and it was thrilling indeed. That pulse-pounding feeling of being in a large, enthusiastic, cheering mass of people was new to me. That joyous, old-fashioned Halloween get-together was never repeated in later years. I soon learned that the major purpose of the theater party was to prevent our committing Halloween pranks. (The American candy industry had not yet conceived the multi-million-dollar idea of Halloween trick or treat.) As I grew older I found myself spending more and more time each Halloween night soaping windows, letting air out of tires, and other relatively harmless tricks, while listening in amazement to the older boys’ stories about their having pushed over outhouses—some with the occupants still inside!—placed autos up on blocks, chained autos to trees, locked a man inside his house, etc. The most ambitious Halloween trick that I ever saw was the word “P R I S O N” emblazoned in white oil paint across the front of our school building in letters a foot high, just below roof level. It was carefully painted there on Halloween night in 1934, the very night of our theater party. The enterprising prankster must have lain face down, hanging over the edge of the roof, risking a 30-foot fall, while he expertly brushed the paint on to the bricks. The next morning our janitor was livid with rage and cursing aloud, because he would now have to climb up and grind off the paint, lying face down and hanging over the edge. I discovered more and more of Waupaca’s many recreational opportunities. There were swings, merry-gorounds, monkey bars, balls, bats, and other playground equipment in great profusion. There were many organized activities and games, and there were the marble games, called “shooting aggies.” Now apparently a long forgotten art, shooting marbles out of a 10-inch circle drawn in the dirt, using a “shooter” marble propelled from the hand with a flick of the thumb was such engrossing fun that each spring it occupied hundreds of hours of the life of every boy in the six-to-ten age bracket. We shot aggies when the ground was still frozen and the air was so cold that my hands were blue. We always played “for keeps,” and the greater skill of certain boys was shown in the quantity of marbles they owned. The Nelson boys, Donald and Roger, were the de facto city champions. They had a large shoebox filled to the brim with marbles. When I retired from the ring I had a cigar box nearly filled. In the late 1930’s national standards for marble shooting were established by the National Youth Administration, which began yearly competitive meets. I entered one at Stevens Point. To my amazement they used an absurdly large, six-foot circle, and most of their odd rules were unfamiliar to all of us who actually played marbles. It was another case of the feds being out of touch with their constituents. I soon became very good at roller skating. Sidewalk skating required skates with steel wheels; polyurethane wheels hadn’t been invented. I would borrow a friend’s skates from time to time and would stay downtown for an hour or so after school to skate, there being no sidewalk in front of my house. I found that the very smoothest, best skating sidewalk started in front of the Catholic Church and extended down to the corner where
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one of the cutest, friendliest girls in my class, Arlene Fabricius, lived. I was not the only one who had a hard time deciding whether it was little, golden-haired Arlene’s beauty or the smooth cement in front of her house that drew many of us boys there. During the winter the Waupaca Armory, then only a few years old, offered indoor roller skating. For a dime on weekends we could rent a pair of clamp-on roller skates and skate there on the largest floor I had ever seen to the lovely, bouncy music of phonograph records played through the very modern, multiple-speaker public-address system. The first few times I skated there it was so exciting that I dreamed about it repeatedly all night long. Some of the skaters were adults, a few of whom owned their own skates and took it all very seriously. Skating doubles at the Armory allowed me, for the first time, to put my arm around a girl’s waist and give her a gentle squeeze—a very pleasant experience, I now recall. While in the sixth grade I began taking piano lessons from an unusually capable woman who had been teaching music for many years. I think her name was Brenna Gibson. Her lessons cost 75 cents each, which was a very high price at the time. She used very fine, high-quality music books and knew just how to motivate kids who at the outset were studying the piano only to please their parents. She fired my enthusiasm very nicely, and I really enjoyed the challenge of the piano. At the time, by the way, one of Miss Gibson’s pupils was talented young Lorraine Jensen, one of my classmates. By the time we finished high school, Lorraine was a piano virtuoso, having studied assiduously for many years. I was going great guns and was just beginning to play music in which the right and left hands play different notes when Aunt Esther, who was paying for the lessons, discovered another teacher who taught piano for 25 cents a lesson. I became her pupil, and it was the beginning of the end. She was pleasant and knew how to play the piano, but she wasn’t able to teach it well enough to retain my interest. Some of the first homework she gave me was too difficult for me, I later realized. I began to cut back on my practicing, and she chastised me for doing so, which caused more cutting back and so on. I quit the piano for all time after just a few lessons from her. Here was a classic case of paying too little for the product and by so doing, losing everything. I often wonder how many kids have given up their musical training for lack of a really skilled teacher. In the 1930’s the big Ringling Brothers circus never played nearer to Waupaca than Stevens Point or Appleton, but some of the smaller circuses would play Waupaca each summer. In the summer of 1935 we heard that one such was coming and that if we would go there early in the morning they would let us work our way into the show. The night before the event my excitement was so great that I hardly slept at all. I got up at four in the morning and raced to the empty lot on Demerest Street just in time to see the circus trucks arriving. Sure enough, one of the circus crew soon lined up several of us boys and started putting us to work. He was an evil looking old geek who had long, uncombed hair and rotted teeth. He had not shaved for days. He wore torn clothes and had a whiskey breath that I could smell before I got close to him. Also he talked funny. It was the first time I had ever heard a backwoods, southern accent. He started trying to teach us how to sew up rips in the tent canvas. His hand was shaking as he handed me a large, threaded needle. Pointing to a torn flap, he told me to “put dat dar flap agin yothum.” I had never heard words like “yo” or “agin,” so I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I said “huh?” and he repeated, shouting it, as unintelligibly as before. I said “huh?” again. In his stupor he decided I was mocking him. He yelled “Gettouta heah, ya dayam foowul.” I ran toward the exit in tears, but on the way I noticed that some of the other boys were watering the elephants, so I grabbed a pail and joined them. That turned out to be lots of fun, and the foreman was a teen-ager who enjoyed his work and knew how to handle kids. He dismissed us at mid morning and told us to return at one o’clock for the first show. When we did we found to our delight that we were to be in the show! Wearing a beret and a brightly colored cape, each of us led a pony around the ring during the opening ceremony. This was really the big time! Late that afternoon, after the show, our young leader took us through the sideshow and introduced us to the freaks. What a thrill it was to shake hands with the fat lady, the bearded lady, and the contortionist. One of them smelled of whiskey, they all smoked constantly, and they were utterly bored. I’m sure that letting us kids in to see them was done in the hope of enticing a few more parents to come to the evening show.
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Then it was back for the evening show, again leading the ponies around the ring. Now we were able to watch the clowns’ routines up close and to see one putting on his several layers of grease-paint. At 10:30 the show was over and we were told to leave immediately. Taking down and packing the tent and fixtures was about to begin, and it could be dangerous for us to be in the area, we were told. Now when I think of how many boozers were doing the work, I certainly agree. What stories we now had to tell our folks and the other kids for weeks to come! We played circus repeatedly, imitating the clowns, the acrobats, the sideshow freaks, etc. What absolute joy! Recently I learned that in decades past, local people appearing in traveling shows had been common practice, not only in circuses but also in traveling vaudeville. Many local, stage-struck persons, attired in some kind of slipover costume, would gladly appear on stage in a scene or two in exchange for free admission plus the thrill of getting backstage. In Europe, some of the crowd scenes in the great operas had more local amateurs on stage than traveling professionals.
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5. JUNIOR HIGH
In 1935, when I entered junior high-school (seventh grade), my school horizons were broadened more than ever before, and several events and experiences greatly enriched my life. That year I got my first bicycle, which was a more significant change in my life style than getting my first automobile was to be 14 years later. Now I was truly mobile. I could race from one end of town to the other in minutes, and on a summer day in less than an hour I could even whiz out to the Chain O’ Lakes. I discovered the South Park swimming facilities that summer; they were now only a few minutes from home. That was the first of six consecutive summers in which I swam there several times each week. With my new-found mobility I discovered fascinating places everywhere: the golf course, the railroad depot and the adjacent baseball diamond and stock yards, the cemetery, the stone quarry, and the city dump, where kids shot rats. In the fall of 1935 sweeping changes were introduced in Waupaca Junior High School and also in many other Wisconsin city-school systems. Previously junior-high students had been taught all their classes by one teacher in one room, as in the sixth grade. But beginning this year, for the first time ever, seventh graders would carry their books from room to room, just like high-school students. Our English class would be taught by an English teacher in one room, history by a history teacher in another, etc. Having just barely left a one-room, eight-grades schoolhouse I was now entering the seventh grade to be taught by high-school standards. Other thrilling innovations were announced. We junior-high students would have a “home room,” where we would meet for a few minutes daily for help and counsel. But most exciting, some very unusual elective courses were offered for the first time ever, among them, cooking for boys, manual arts for girls, and ballroom dancing for boys and girls together! Twice a week several of us boys went into the Home Economics room, where no male student had ever before been welcomed, and were expertly taught how to fry an egg, to mix dough, and even to boil water. Those classes neatly removed the intimidation that cooking holds for many males. The cooking I learned there and later in the Boy Scouts got me off to a good start on becoming a handy man in the kitchen. Our ballroom-dancing class was absolutely electrifying. Now, at age 11, I put my arm around a girl for the first time and we began to sway to music! And she put one arm around me and we touched foreheads and, oh, my God, I could feel her brassiere strap! It was too much. My pulse increased wildly and my breath came in short gasps. The weekly lesson only lasted about 20 minutes, but it always took me most of an hour to cool off. Never before had any boy squashed a pat of butter in the Home Ec room, nor had any students ever before danced during school hours, and here I was among the very first to experience these thrilling breakthroughs. This is all so commonplace nowadays as to be boring to tell, but our rapid emergence out of the traditional mold was heady stuff then. Some of our teachers showed uncommon insights into the precursors of World War II. Our seventh grade history teacher, a man named Roberts, was a very articulate, scholarly man, who made some surprisingly accurate predictions. One day in class he got on the subject of Japan, although we were not studying it at the time. He suddenly said, “Mind my words, we will one day be in a war with Japan. You can bet that the Japanese now have a better map of Wisconsin, for example, than we have.” This was in 1935. I remember thinking how odd his remark sounded and wondering what in the world prompted him to make it. Speaking of the Japanese, all during the l930’s we perceived them as incompetent bunglers. We all knew they made the little toy in the box of Cracker Jacks, the one that always broke as soon as we started playing with it. All of the cheapest, lowest-quality toys and gimcrackery were Japanese-made. There were simply no high-quality Japanese products. In movies and newsreels there was constant propaganda suggesting that technically the Japanese could not do anything right. One juicy story we read and heard repeatedly was that the Japanese had for years been stealing and copying American ship designs. One American ship builder got wise. He carefully botched up a set of his ship-design drawings and then let them get into Japanese hands. Months later when the Japanese launched their first ship built to those botched drawings, it instantly keeled over and sank! A preposterous myth, but it was told and retold with great glee.
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Everything we learned from our newspapers, newsreels, movies, and radios led us to believe that Japan was a backward nation that was incapable of any technological achievement, let alone building a powerful military force. Somehow we were not told that Japan was building one of the largest, most powerful and modern navies in the world plus thousands of advanced-design fighter aircraft and had fielded a well trained, experienced army. Although Japan’s designs on Southeast Asia and Indonesia and their methodical build-up toward that end were obvious to the experts, the public media did not disclose it. For those of my generation who served in the Pacific during World War II the consequences of that misinformation are well known. Most memorable of our Junior High teachers were two whose names and personalities we would never forget: Misses Reinhart and MacGregor. Each of them epitomized the high level of competence and dedication among all of Waupaca’s teachers. But, alas, they were absolutely all business and no fun in the classroom, so they were not well liked by most students. They lived together, drove to school together, ate together, and were always seen together. Their entire lives were totally dedicated to their teaching. We really learned arithmetic from Miss Reinhart and English from Miss Macgregor, as any one of the thousands of those who sat in their classes over the years can testify. In their last years they were actually teaching the grandchildren of some of their first students. In Miss MacGregor’s eighth-grade English grammar and composition class she did no lecturing. Each student worked his way through a self-teaching text at his own speed, writing a test at the end of each chapter, which MacGregor graded. (Nowadays this old, common-sense procedure goes by the high-powered title “programmed learning.”) She had honed and polished that course for many years by the time I got there. I found that I enjoyed parsing sentences, learning the parts of speech, etc., and I got straight A’s in her class. I learned English grammar so well, in fact, that the bulk of it has stayed with me to this day. I remember learning, for example, that the gerund requires the possessive pronoun and why it does—a rule that is unknown among most speakers and writers today. I hear TV commentators, for example, saying “The judges rated him swimming.” (I am convinced that American universities are turning out many graduates nowadays whose knowledge of their mother tongue and whose skill in writing and speaking it is considerably less than most of us had achieved when we completed Miss MacGregor’s eighth-grade class.) Another one of the pleasures of junior high school was physical education class: gym. What exquisite joy it was to be able to play basketball on a full-size court for 20 minutes or so twice each week. And then to top it off each time with that wonderful, warm shower, a special treat for me, since we had none at home. Each day during the class or two ahead of our gym class most of us boys were so bedazzled by the anticipation of the fun awaiting us that concentration was near impossible. When the bell rang, the quicker we got into our gym clothes, the more time we had to play ball. So the idea was to race down the stairs, tear off our clothes, get suited up, and get out on to the floor in minimum time. Weather permitting, some of us wore tennis shoes to school on gym days—even though that was not normal grooming, as I will discuss later—so that no shoe change was necessary. But Donald Nelson, the de facto city marble champ, went us all one better. He wore his complete gym uniform under his clothes! Within 30 seconds after he hit the bottom of the stairs he had made the transition and was out on the floor shooting baskets. Donnie was the champ, but I was his runner up. My best time, unofficial of course, was one minute, eighteen seconds. A basketball of regulation size and weight was very expensive, about ten dollars. They were made of leather. Regulation plastic balls didn’t exist, and the cheap, rubber ones were not regulation weight. All of us boys longed to own a regulation ball to play with on weekends. One spring the gym teacher gave me a genuine regulation basketball that had a damaged bladder. I was beside myself with the frustration of having this prize possession and not being able to use it. Knowing no one in Waupaca who could help me, I sent the ball and a pleading letter to Montgomery Ward, Chicago, even though it was not their product. In several days back came a perfectly repaired ball and a bill for a dollar. I was now the only kid in town with his own regulation ball. After it got dry enough to play basketball outdoors, my popularity took a giant upswing. Eighth-grade graduation in the spring of l937 was a more formal and elaborate affair than nowadays, presumably because for many who graduated it was to be the last diploma they would receive. Some would soon quit
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school and others would flunk out. (It would be another two decades before the no-fail policy of pulling everyone along to graduation was initiated.)
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6. EARNING MONEY
Each of us kids had a driving motivation to somehow earn some spending money by working after school and weekends. We wanted to see movies and to buy candy, ice cream, magazines, marbles, etc. Our folks were continually telling us that we should be “saving your money for a college education,” a concept that never took on any reality for most of us. Now that I was the proud owner of a bicycle, many opportunities were open to me. A boy at school gave me a ten-subscriber Saturday Evening Post route. I collected five cents for each magazine and kept three cents commission. I soon gave that route to a friend in favor of a Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper route. That was a morning paper, and my memories of getting up every morning at five to make the deliveries are so unpleasant that my brain has been nearly wiped clean of them. I soon dropped the Sentinel in favor of the Milwaukee Journal, a late afternoon paper, for whom I “peddled papers,” as we called it, for several years. The Milwaukee Journal was in those years a very aggressive company where sales and profits were concerned. It was in fierce competition with the Milwaukee Sentinel—which I understand it has since purchased—and it never hesitated to increase the workload of its newsboys if another penny was to be made. We newsboys had to attend weekly sales meetings, at which our manager urged us on to new heights using promotional literature, slogans, and prizes furnished by the Journal, One day four of us Journal boys who had outsold all others in a contest got a free one-day trip to Milwaukee, my very first. We toured the Milwaukee Journal editorial rooms and printing presses, and we sat in the glass VIP booth at radio station WTMJ while Heinie and His Grenadiers (a popular daily program in those days) did his show. Heinie thrilled us enormously by mentioning our presence there to all those thousands of people listening. What a splendid day that was! We saw tall buildings, wide streets, stop lights, thousands of automobiles, and the biggest thrill of all, a sports shop: an entire store devoted entirely to sporting equipment. A toy shop for grownups! It had never crossed my mind that any such store existed. The Delavan Hotel, diagonally across Main street from the Pool Hall, was our newsboy headquarters, and our manager was Mr. Dick Boehm, whose family owned the hotel. Dick was a kind, affable fellow who always did his best to treat us fairly and considerately. In those days the Delavan was the foremost hotel in town, the favorite of salesmen and other travelers having business in Waupaca. Several retirees lived there, some of whom had lived in Chicago or Minneapolis and enjoyed telling us boys big-city stories. Mr. William Boone had his barber shop there. Each year the hotel served many dinners to fraternal and civic groups. It was there that I ate my first multi-course restaurant meal and for the first time tasted an unusual fish called “shrimp.” We newsboys met at the Hotel each weekday afternoon at 4:30 to get our papers from a truck that brought them from Milwaukee. In bad weather it arrived hours late, and of course we sat and waited for it, delaying our deliveries and our supper. Our first task after the papers arrived was to “stuff” them, which meant to assemble the several sections of the papers, because they were each bundled separately. Why? No one ever thought to ask. Our errors during the thousands of stuffings each year resulted in many customers’ missing their sport section, or their financial section, or getting two of the same section. On Sunday mornings we were required to complete all deliveries by 8:00 a.m. That necessitated our getting down to the Delavan by six every Sunday, rain, hail, sleet, snow, cold, or wind notwithstanding. Every week we carriers had to collect payment from each customer. Paying a month or more in advance (as I must do nowadays for my paper) had never seriously crossed anyone’s mind. We were required to do our collecting on Saturday morning, actually a poor time to try, because many people were not at home then. Some who were at home would simply not answer the door, for all too obvious reasons. In those depression years many of our customers fell behind in their payments to us, but the Journal demanded payment in full from us each week, so we boys had to carry the delinquents. We would repeatedly threaten to drop such customers, but the boss always convinced us to continue. When I finally quit the business, I was out about seven dollars, nearly three weeks’ pay, from carrying delinquents. One lady stalled me for many weeks, ran up a bill of over three dollars, and then moved out of town without ever paying me. Tipping a paper boy during the Depression, at least in Waupaca, was unheard of, even at Christmas. Everyone’s paper was delivered to his door every day of the year, without exception, regardless of how deep the snow or
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rain, how strong the wind, or how low the temperature. There were no plastic wrappers in those days, so on badweather days we knocked on the door and handed it to the customer. (Nowadays I frequently think of that while I am searching in the street and under our cars and in the bushes and shrubs to discover where my paper has been thrown.) But no one saw our service as being beyond the ordinary call of duty. Among my customers were a few successful merchants and professionals, whose large homes and cars gave testimony to their financial status. Yet their wives would typically have the exact change and no more. The doctor’s wife and several others used to have exactly 28 pennies put aside for me every week. The only tip I ever got was fifty cents from a young fellow who had just gotten his first job out of high school. He ran the projector in the movie theater, so my tip was at least two hours’ of his pay—overtipping by any measure. I feel sure he had once been a paperboy. One Christmas the Milwaukee Journal sold (!) each of us Milwaukee Journal calendars at five cents each. At our weekly sales meeting our manager urged us to buy one for each of our customers, which we all did. He explained in careful detail how we should hand the customer the calendar, smile, say “Merry Christmas,” and then simply wait for a generous Christmas tip. I did exactly that with every customer, but every one of them took the calendar, said “Same to you,” turned, and walked away. The other carriers told me they got the same results: no tips. On my route the banker’s wife had called me back to ask, “Young man, did the calendar cost you anything?” “Yes ma’am” I said. “It cost me five cents.” “Just a moment,” she said. She went back into the house, kept me waiting for several minutes, returned, handed me a nickel, smiled, wished me a Merry Christmas, and walked away! On September 4th, 1939, we were called into a special sales meeting at which our manager told us that since war had now begun in Europe, Americans would be wanting to read more world news than before. Then he gave us a rousing pep talk to sign up more Journal customers, after which we jumped up, salivating with enthusiasm, and set off to knock on the door of every last non-subscriber on our route to try to sign him up. Frightening, upsetting news of Hitler’s devastating blitzkrieg came out of Poland that week. But none of us imagined in our wildest dreams that America would ever get involved in that war. It was so far away we could not conceive of its ever becoming our war, and we heard all the adults saying that America surely would not repeat its foolish involvement in World War I. Let them fight it out among themselves, everyone was saying. The radio networks now began the innovative idea of broadcasting news as it occurred, instead of waiting for the dinner hour. The expression “news on the hour” was heard for the first time, and a few times each week we began to hear news from Europe by short wave. Near the railroad depot were the Third-Ward Bowling Alleys. In 1938-9 I worked there sporadically as a pin setter. Totally automatic pinsetting machines had not yet been invented, so the pins were set by a push-down rack into which we loaded them. Our job was to pick up the knocked-over pins, place them in the rack, return the ball, and then lower the rack to place the pins properly for the next frame of bowling. Each of us worked two alleys simultaneously. The job was arduous and a little dangerous. One could get hit in the head with a flying pin. I was hit only once and was dazed for a few seconds, but some of the full-time pin setters told of their being knocked out cold. The loading of the rack had to be done quickly to keep up with the bowlers, so one had to learn to grab two pins with each hand and slide them into the rack. The job paid the federal minimum hourly wage, which was 17.5 cents per hour. I can visualize the poster that displayed that number. It had the NRA insignia and a picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt shown prominently. An evening’s work was about four hours, the total pay, 70 cents. Bowlers’ never tipped a pin setter. Alongside me setting pins in the other alleys were other schoolboys plus a few adult men who had day jobs but needed the extra money to make ends meet. One of those men would work his four hours, sipping beer all the while, pacing himself so that when he finished he had exactly drunk up his pay. I did not realize he was an alcoholic, so his conduct totally baffled me. Earning money at that lowest level of unskilled labor helped firm my resolve to get enough education to avoid having to do that kind of work as an adult. Also, to this day I don’t care for bowling. As soon as I hear the clattering of the pins and smell the cleaning fluid, I want to leave.
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One thrilling evening, Mr. Andy Varapapa, the world-renown professional bowler, gave a demonstration of his prowess at the Third-Ward Alleys. We had read about him in Ripley’s Believe It or Not column. He had officially bowled several perfect, 300 games. That night in Waupaca he very nearly bowled a 300 game. We watched him bowl ten consecutive strikes! But then he spared. In the summer of 1937 I first caddied at the Waupaca golf course. It was run by a crusty old fellow with a loud bark. It was my bad fortune to caddy for him on my very first time out. I knew nothing whatever about the game, and should not have been allowed to caddy without some training, but no one asked about my qualifications. I was extremely intimidated by it all. The special jargon and all the formal protocol on the green were totally baffling at first. The irons were called by name (“mashie niblick,” for example) instead of by number. On that infamous first time out I managed to lose the old man’s ball in the weeds and got chewed out unmercifully for it in front of the group. I ended up in tears. The fairways and greens were, I believe, nearly as attractive and well kept then as now, but there was no clubhouse. Only a small shack where players signed in and could buy balls and tees. In those depression days it was a pleasant experience to watch a few lucky people who had the time and money to be able to recreate. Caddies’ pay was 35 cents for nine holes, which was about two hours work. After I really learned how to do a good job at caddying, I asked the other caddies about tipping. They said tips were rare indeed, regardless of how experienced the boy was or how well he did the job. Most of the summer golfers were vacationers from Milwaukee or Chicago. In those depression years anyone who could afford a vacation was well off, and many of these folks drove fine cars and dressed very well. Some of them carried high-quality liquor in their golf bag. We caddies sometimes assisted in mixing a whiskey and water at the pump near the number-two green. But they knew that in Waupaca they could get away without tipping the caddy. A few years later in the Navy I met a young fellow who had caddied in Chicago during those same depression years. From him I learned that the green fees in Chicago were about double those in Waupaca and that any Chicago player known to tip less than a quarter could expect to have all sorts of “accidents” befall him as he made his way around the course.
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It would be a gross understatement to say that hair and clothing styles have changed since I was a boy. I think they have changed more during the past half century than in any previous 50 years in American history. Incredibly, the very styles that we most admired and held in highest esteem when I was a boy have become passe, and some of the styles that we disliked or despised outright have become very much in vogue. Consider hair styles: In the 1930’s virtually every man and boy in America had what was called the “clean-cut look.” Our hair was cut short on top, was tapered up the neck, and our sideburns did not extend below mid-ear level. President Roosevelt, our men in Congress, our captains of industry, our teachers, our parents, and of course those who really molded public opinion, the movie stars, all had the clean-cut look. Clark Gable had it, and so did Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and David Niven. So we all knew it was right, correct, and proper. Those lacking the clean-cut look—except for a few character actors and eccentrics—were regarded as uncouth. There were a few (Elvis Presley later epitomized them) who liked to wear long sideburns, and some of them would let the hair on their neck grow an inch or so until it actually curled up at the collar. For us that was the epitome of unkemptness. When we saw these people in the magazines and newsreels we considered them odd indeed. We wondered what ever possessed them to adopt such an uncouth, repulsive hair style. All during the depression there were, of course, many poor souls who could not afford the 25 cents for a haircut. Sometimes there would be a student at school who had not seen a barber for many weeks. They were embarrassed and we felt sorry for them. Also there were vagrants who begged door-to-door for food. They always needed a haircut, badly. It was their badge of poverty and part of their working costume too. We grieved for them too. Consider mustaches and beards: A few very special people like Clark Gable, David Niven, and William Powell looked good with tiny, thin, carefully trimmed ones. But for every man with a mustache there were tens of thousands without. When it came to beards there was no middle ground. The man who wore a beard was the crazy professor in the movies, or he was the eccentric playwright, George Bernard Shaw, with his hilarious Scotch-terrier cut. Or he was Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a noble looking man in his 70’s, who looked like King Lear. No ordinary man who took pride in his appearance and did not wish to be thought eccentric wore a beard. It was just that simple. Haircuts and shaving were mandatory. A self-respecting man or boy would no more let his hair grow long or grow a beard than he would wear a woman’s dress in public! Long, unkempt hair was a sign of slovenliness, the mark of a man who didn’t care about his grooming and took no pride in his appearance. Everyone knew that. If there was ever any lingering doubt, next week’s movie put it to rest. All our heroes on the screen had a close, clean-cut haircut and they shaved every morning. In contrast, the movie villains routinely wore long, unkempt hair, and long sideburns. Most of them either had an unkempt beard or hadn’t shaved for several days. The situation with the clothing we wore was similar. Parents, teachers, and students alike had a clear, consistent concept of what constituted proper clothing for school: clean, reasonably wrinkle-free trousers and shirts for the boys; skirts and blouses for the girls; and sweaters, leather shoes, and cotton stockings or socks for both. Nobody ever deviated much from these standards. The Waupaca schools probably had some kind of dress code. If there was one, no one ever found out by challenging it. Presumably if anyone had come to school in shorts, for example, or with purple hair or without shoes, they would have been sent home. No one ever tried. We were all conformists. We didn’t know we were, because no one ever even contemplated nonconforming. There were two items of clothing, it may surprise some young folks to learn, that were not really acceptable for school wear: blue denim trousers (blue jeans) and tennis shoes (sneakers.) Let me explain. The uniform, so to speak, of the Wisconsin farmer in the 1930’s was blue-denim, bib overalls. Without exception that is what all farmers wore every day while working. (They did not wear belted blue jeans without bibs, as inaccurately portrayed for years on The Waltons TV series.) Denim was the most serviceable cloth for rough uspage 22 of 54
age. All men and boys, on the farm or in the city, owned blue-denims, and most city boys preferred the non-bib style. In the city, blue denims were what you wore to take out the trash, wash the car or the dog, play ball, go skating, or go hunting. One cut below ordinary blue denims were old, faded, torn blue denims, which you would wear to work underneath the car, clean out the attic, shovel manure, paint the house, or do any other task that was so dirty that you wouldn’t be embarrassed being seen dressed like a bum. Everyone knew that blue denims were second-class attire. Like high rubber boots and rubber gloves, denims were attire that was utilitarian and inherently unattractive. Moreover—and this, I believe was most important— for any boy to have gone to school in the city dressed in blue denims, with or without the bib, would have been dressing like a working farmer, which was not the appearance that any of us, including boys living on the farm, wanted to have in school. We never wore blue denims on a date, or to church, and only rarely to go shopping or to a movie. So no boy ever wore blue denims to school, not even brand, spanking new ones. No one would have been sent home for wearing them. There was no rule against it. It simply wasn’t done. Of course, no girl ever wore jeans of any kind, denim or otherwise, to school. Girls wore skirts only. We boys wore trousers of corduroy mostly, but sometimes of cotton or wool. Ordinary rubber-soled, canvas-topped tennis shoes were the cheapest shoes available. They sold for as little as 50 cents, whereas leather shoes cost two dollars or more. Most tennis shoes were available only in white, so after a few wearings they showed their soil most visibly. Also their canvas tops tore easily. Medical experts said tennis shoes would ruin our feet, because they lacked adequate arch support, a dictum that has since been reversed. Our parents, believing that advice and recognizing the rapid deterioration and unsightliness of tennis shoes, continually insisted that we wear leather shoes instead. The leather shoes looked much better and were better for our feet, they repeatedly told us. That tennis shoes were tacky and second best was reinforced by our seeing their heavy use only in those few families who were on city relief. Some such kids owned no leather shoes and actually wore tennis shoes right through the winter! More than once I saw boys in tennis shoes walking in snow or slush. To this day I and many of my generation associate poverty with tennis shoes. We see them, even in their modern, high-powered “walking shoe” incarnation, as decidedly unattractive, unsightly substitutes for real shoes.
Holding such deep-felt attitudes toward blue denims and tennis shoes, many of my generation were astounded when the youth revolution of the 1960’s made those two items part of the standard “uniform” for both sexes. Blue denims, in fact old, faded ones, and tennis shoes have since nearly become high fashion! One sees them even at church weddings and funerals in California, and it’s hard to think of an affair where anyone—except some of us old folks—would look askance at them any more. Also in the 1960’s young men began to wear longer hair, beards, and mustaches, and many of them took pleasure in carefully maintaining an unkempt, disheveled appearance, which they would tell you enhanced their sex appeal. For the first time since the Civil War years men opted for long, curly locks. To many of us it seemed as if young Americans had gone berserk or were taking part in a giant charade in which they were intent on simulating the lowest element of society, the vagrants, and the wastrels—or the bums of the Great Depression. By 1970 most schools had dropped their dress code, and students were free to wear whatever they wished. Blue jeans and tennis shoes quickly become the de facto school uniform for many and have remained so to date! By 1980 the marketing of both items had become big business. You can spend a hundred dollars for a pair of name-brand tennis shoes, and a second hundred for a pair of pre-faded denim jeans (with a ready-made rip in one knee, if you wish!) that fit your body so tightly that you have to lie down to put them on. In some business offices blue denims—even faded, visibly worn denims—are frequently worn by all but the top-level managers, and before long I expect to see vice presidents wearing them. The “Miami Vice” look—consisting essentially of a two-day growth of beard plus tousled, wind-blown hair—has recently come into vogue among men. My amazement grows with each passing year!
In the 1930’s rimless glasses were very much in vogue. Dark horn-rimmed glasses had been popular in the 1920’s, but were now out of style, along with the pince-nez style. Every adult who mattered wore rimless glasses: President Roosevelt, governors and congressmen, Hollywood character actors like Edward Arnold, and
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our parents and teachers. Deep in my subconscious is the long-standing association of rimless glasses with age and authority. To my surprise, during the 1960’s young people began to wear rimless glasses!
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One of the many privileges of being in high school was that of attending the school dances held several times each year in the school gymnasium. What fabulous (I rarely use that word) memories I have of the many dances I attended there. On such evenings the gym was festooned with crepe-paper streamers, and the lights were very low, creating a very romantic setting. There was never a live dance band. Phonograph records—all of them the old 78 rpms that broke like glass— were played on the school’s newly acquired public-address system, a large, 12-tube, high-fidelity, multi-speaker model that superbly filled the gym with music. We danced to a fine selection of big-band music by the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Jan Garber, Horace Heidt, Russ Morgan, and Kay Kayser orchestras. The big bands staffed up expansively, typically with a half dozen woodwinds, four slide trombones, six trumpets, four violins, etc., and two solo vocalists backed up by a quartet. They played bouncy music now and then, but their stock in trade was the ballad, which was a piece of sweet music having romantic lyrics. The lyrics to the ballads were not works of great poetry, but they rhymed, most of them had a rational meaning, and they had a beginning, middle, and end. They were sung by capable vocalists with mellow voices, trained professionals who took great pride in their clear enunciation, so that their words could be heard clearly and understood. We memorized dozens of those idyllic lyrics. They formed our vocabulary of romantic love. They helped us formulate the sweet nothings we whispered into our special partner’s ear as the two of us glided across the floor in each other’s arms. To this day whimsical phrases from those wonderful lyrics like “my deep purple dream,” “moonlight serenade,” and “the stardust of yesterday” bring back the sweetest, most nostalgic and romantic memories of those magnificent dances and that superb music. For anyone of any age who might wish to savor that feeling, I suggest your getting a copy of the lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s grand old standard, “Stardust,” which is really the champion of all those marvelous, incomparable big-band ballads. (Recorded more than eight hundred times, its lyrics by Mitchell Parish have been printed in over a hundred languages.) Read those lovely words while you play any big-band arrangement of the ballad. Hum along. Your eyes will get watery. Dancing in those days had to be learned. You could not simply take a partner and go out on the floor and start gyrating. First you had to suffer some embarrassment at the awkwardness of embracing your partner and trying to move in unison with her but not being able to. The jerkiness would be seen by everyone watching from the sidelines, and the humiliation could be very great. Secondly there was the practical matter of avoiding stepping on each others’ feet, a painful experience that also could soil or even ruin a girls’ shoes. At every school dance one could see most of the freshman sitting on the sidelines, intently watching the feet of the dancers, trying to figure out how it was done. Word had it that one of my classmates, La Verne Johnson, had taken ballroom dancing lessons from a dance teacher named Eloise Quimby. Sure enough, at the very first dance we freshman attended there was La Verne out there on the floor all evening, expertly dancing with girls from the classes ahead of us. God, was I jealous. The two main dance steps were the fox trot and the waltz. A skilled dance teacher could teach you these in two or three hours of intense tutoring. You could not simply watch dancers for a few minutes and then go do those steps. The nationwide Arthur Murray Dance Studios made a fortune teaching those two steps to millions of Americans who were willing to pay to learn them. In Waupaca what each of us boys had to do was to find a girl who knew how to dance and practice with her long enough to feel reasonably at ease at a public dance. The girls could dance with each other, so they learned faster than we. The weekly junior-high ballroom dancing class that I mentioned earlier was unfortunately so brief as to only whet our appetites for dancing. I sat out most of the dances during the first two years of high school, a pattern that was common for many of us boys. Some did not learn to dance until their junior year, and a few never did. I was well into my sophomore year before I was able to find a girl who could really dance and was willing to teach me. She was beautiful Yvonne Siebert, who in just a couple of hours was able to show me the fundamentals and to give me enough self-confidence to take it from there. During the learning process I made the main-street bowling alley my “dance studio.” Downstairs they had a juke box and a small dance floor. I had a routine: I’d put in a nickel, make my selection, and dash into the men’s
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room. While listening carefully to hear the beginning of the record, I’d quickly dance a few steps alone to be sure that I could handle that number, then dash back out on the floor to ask one of the girls to dance. Frequently I’d be too late; all the girls would be taken. But over the months I was able to cut down the men’s-room practice to only a few seconds, so my batting average with the girls improved. Eventually I eliminated the trip to the john. Our parents could enjoy the music at our school dances, because it did not differ greatly in style from the music of their youth. At a few of our dances I saw parents there dancing among us, and on one occasion two grandparents joined us. I imagine that had been the situation for many, many generations before us; the youngest generation’s music did not differ so markedly from that of the parents as to make it unenjoyable for them. You and your mom and dad and grampa and grandma could all get out on the floor and dance to the music without its grating anyone’s nerves. Alas, that fine tradition was to change abruptly during the 1960’s when rock music took over. Now one rarely sees more than one generation on a dance floor. My generation, for whom dancing means mellow, harmonious, melodic orchestral sounds with meaningful, romantic lyrics that we can understand and enjoy, stands aghast at the all-pervasive rock music, with its raucous, discordant, hyperstimulating sounds. We wince at its primitive, absurdly repetitious lyrics that are whined in an affected southern accent and are intentionally smothered in the incessant beat of the drums and guitars. While couples of my generation danced embraced to the sound of mellow music in a romantically darkened, festively decorated ballroom, today’s dancers gyrate a few feet from each other in the pulse-pounding environment of flashing, high-intensity strobe lights, with the music played at such earsplitting volume that all conversation below the shouting level is impossible, and many persons suffer permanent hearing impairment. That this frightening change could have taken place within my lifetime astounds me. By the late 1930’s, tap dancing was very much in vogue. Millions of kids across the country took tap-dancing lessons, so they could emulate Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple, Bill Robinson, and Jimmy Cagney, who they had seen dance in numerous movies. In Busby Berkley’s movies hundreds of shapely chorus girls tap danced in unison. Most people found tap dancing clever, attractive, and fun. We watched and applauded tap dancers as people do break dancers nowadays. Tap-dancing kids would perform on stage in school programs and the like. Miss Eloise Quimby taught tap dancing in Waupaca. I took several lessons and lost interest in it. Glenn Brown, a classmate of mine, continued on and developed considerable tap-dancing ability, which he often displayed on the stage of our assembly room at school. (Never since then has tap-dancing been so popular. There have always been “hoofers” in stage shows everywhere, but the 1930’s mania for it has never been revived.) Bernadine Simpson, who was a year behind me in school, studied athletic dancing, I believe it was called. That beautiful blonde-haired girl had a shapely, supple body, and frequently performed graceful dances on our school stage. (Bernadine was later to marry a renowned Hollywood screen-writer, and to act in his movies.) For those who could not yet dance, Waupaca High School wisely provided an alternative: boy-girl games upstairs in the brightly lighted general assembly room, while the dance was going on in the gym. Miss Knutson, a full-figured lady who taught typing and shorthand, was often in charge. We played musical chairs, blindman’s buff, and a variety of other games from the Victorian age, stopping well short of spin the bottle and other kissing games, however. I enjoyed them thoroughly.
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The movies were our main source of first-class entertainment. Radio could be engrossing, but it was nothing like a well photographed, capably edited motion picture with synchronized sound. My movie going really began shortly after the first “talkies” were introduced, but before that I was taken to a few silent pictures when I was very young. I slept through most of them, but I can clearly remember being awakened abruptly during the old silent film “The Phantom of the Opera,” just after the heroine pulls the mask from the heavy who is playing the organ, and he leers at the camera in all his grotesque ugliness. Someone’s scream in the audience woke me up, since the theater had no piano or organ accompaniment and was totally quiet. I awoke to the terrifying specter of a man with his nose and parts of his face missing. I immediately broke out into loud wailing, as did several other kids in the theater. Aunt Esther quieted me down, and I went back to sleep. In the 1930’s average national movie attendance was twice a week. Many of us kids attended even more frequently than that when we could afford it and got parental permission. In a teachers’ journal Aunt Alta read someone’s theory that the 150,000 or so individual pictures flashed before children’s eyes in a typical movie has so debilitating an effect on their sleep that night that kids should not be allowed to see a movie on a school night. At home I heard that bizarre theory repeated as fact, year after year. After I left home, attending all the movies I wished was one of the things I most enjoyed doing. The movies were tremendously exciting and great fun. How could we ever forget seeing Errol Flynn as Robin Hood or Clark Gable as Rhett Butler or Charles Laughton as Henry the Eighth or Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra? Beyond entertainment the movies were a powerful force in molding our attitudes about our own behavior and that of others. While family, church and school were supposed to establish our basic values, the fact is that we looked to the movies to really show us how mature, intelligent, and sophisticated people actually conducted themselves in a variety of joys, successes, achievements, love affairs, predicaments, dilemmas, and crises. For example, the fact that Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Charles Boyer, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and all the other superstars smoked and drank in their movies assured us that it was acceptable and appropriate adult conduct. There was absolutely no question in our minds that smoking and drinking was sophisticated, urbane behavior. It was what modern, responsible adults did. The trouble was that in many vitally important areas the movies rarely portrayed actual human conduct. They were too heavily censored. In the early 1930’s, after a series of sex and drug scandals in Hollywood, the movie industry decided to “clean itself up.” Censorship of all Hollywood-made movies was turned over to the newly established Hayes Office, which meticulously reviewed every movie and had the absolute authority to prevent its release if it did not comply with the new censorship code in every detail. Basically, the code prohibited the excessive portrayal of sexuality, violence, blasphemy, the glamorizing of crime, or the misuse of drugs or alcohol— on the face of it a very sensible set of guidelines. But enforcement of the Hayes Office code was done with a heavy hand. To meet the code, for example, every movie we saw had to explicitly show that every malefactor was punished before the end of the movie for his or her transgressions. Not only did murder always have to be punished, but so did stealing, cheating, lust, greed, blasphemy, and a long list of vices—including treating one’s siblings unaffectionately! If a movie scenario omitted explicit punishment for any violator, it had to be rewritten to meet the code, and that included those based on the greatest works of fiction. Thus, for example, screenplays of many of the classic French and Russian novels whose characters who were not all punished for their lust or greed had to be rewritten before we could see them as movies. Where human sexuality was concerned, all the movies we saw were so heavily censored that my generation grew up with grossly distorted attitudes and values about what constitutes normal conduct in men and women. What was presented to us as normal was abnormal indeed. In all the hundreds of movies we saw, the most passionate display of emotion we ever saw between lovers—including man and wife—was a seven-second kiss. In every movie romance no respectable woman ever evidenced the slightest clue to her having sexual needs or drives of her own. The heroine was always chaste and chased until marriage. She was pursued by the hero in the fictional manner of the gallant knights of old: he never scored. On camera no male and female, even man and wife, ever occupied the same bed.
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Nor would the Hayes Office approve any movie that depicted brutality. Persons shot or stabbed on camera never bled or showed other visible effects. During scenes of violence or torture the camera always looked the other way. The Hayes morality code was a fiction that existed only in the minds of its idealists. The movies were fairy tales. Our seeing two or three movies every week, year after year, was a kind of Pablum for our brain. In our young minds it established the fictitious beliefs that justice always triumphs, virtue is always rewarded, sinners are always punished, true love is virtuous and beyond the constraints of class, and, without exception, sex outside marriage is by its very nature always degrading and despicable. It gave me and many of my generation a naive, immature, inaccurate, and distorted view of human conduct in real-life situations. The damage this did to my generation was sizeable, particularly so for us males, who would soon leave home to enter the armed forces, fight in an extremely vicious and bloody war against fanatic ideologues, return to woo and win a wife, raise a family, and earn a living in a highly competitive society.
In the 1950’s the movie makers managed to break the strangle hold of the Hayes Office and to begin to make movies that did not need to run the wickets of absurd censorship. Their quality immediately improved. Sex, violence, deceit, and treachery, along with love, joy, and success began to be portrayed more realistically. The great European novels were all done over again, this time the way they were originally written. In recent years, some of us feel, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and there needs to be more restraint and exercise of good taste by the movie makers.
Waupaca had two movie theaters: the Palace, on Fulton Street, and the Adler (means “eagle” in German) on Main Street. The Palace was a large, elegant building that was built as a vaudeville theater before the motion-picture era. Many traveling road shows played the Palace. I went to see a touring black-faced minstrel show there in the 1930’s, probably one of the very last of the hundreds that had toured the country for most of a century. Also one of the traveling Major Bowes Amateur troupes played our Palace about 1940. During most of the depression years adult admission was 25 cents, and kids under 12 paid a dime. There were mid-week specials where every seat was 10 cents. Some of them even showed double features, usually the lowest-quality shoot-em-up westerns. Gene Autry, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, and Tom Mix starred in many of their own movies. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans made several westerns each year. In every one of them it seemed there was a scene where Roy is out in the bunk house, and one of the cowboys rides up and says, “Roy, some desperadoes are burning the crops in the east forty, rustlers are stampeding the cattle in the west forty, and the Indians have Dale staked out on an ant hill.” Roy jumps to his feet, says, “Mount up men. We’ve got a job to do. But first... [dramatic pause, while he grabs his guitar]...I’m gonna sing ya a little song.” At the Adler theater each Tuesday night was dish night; every woman got a free glass dish. On those nights the crash of breaking glass was heard during the movie when someone in her vicarious involvement with the movie let go of her free bonus. Friday night was “bank night.” A cash prize was awarded, based on drawing a ticket stub from the barrel of stubs. The stubs were accumulated week after week, and the claimant had to be in the theater to collect. If no award was made, the next week’s amount was increased and boldly displayed on the marquee. Thus the prize amount would often build up over the weeks to hundreds of dollars, and people would come from miles around to sit through the worst imaginable movies to try for the prize. Sometimes the name of a person not in the theater would be called. A runner would be seen leaving the theater to try to round up the winner and get him into the theater within the five-minute time limit. I can still see Arlo Clausen, the theater manager, standing there, watch in hand, waiting out the five minutes before proceeding with the movie. Also I can hear the lovely music they always played during the vigil, notably, “My Hero” and other lovely selections by Rudoph Friml. Before the movie started we were always shown 15 minutes of newsreels by Movietone or Pathe News. The photography was capably done by cinematographers stationed around the world, and the narration was expertly handled by men like Lowell Thomas and Ed Herlihy. These newsreels provided much of our national and world news, the bulk of our understanding of what was happening in the world. They were the 1930’s equivalent of today’s network TV news. Running the newsreel companies were the giant Hollywood studios, who owned most of the nation’s theaters. They wanted to avoid all possible controversy in trying to please the greatest number of moviegoers. So the
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newsreels we saw were methodically censored and stripped of any subject matter that could possibly upset or offend anyone anywhere. Any topic considered controversial was omitted. The forbidden topics of the Victorian age—sex, politics, and religion—were avoided or handled with great superficiality. Filmed human violence of all kinds was also left on the cutting room floor. Natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes were given prominence, but we always saw the event from a distance, frequently from an airplane. Never was there any closeup evidence of the death or destruction. We were told of the brutal, pitiless Japanese bombing of Nanking and we saw it from several miles away. There was smoke rising in the distance and refugees in the foreground, while the narrator blandly mentioned some casualty estimates. If any closeups were taken of any of the thousands of helpless civilians that were slaughtered in that massacre, they were cut from the newsreels we saw. We saw Adolf Hitler ranting to his sieg-heiling puppets, but always with purified, objective commentary by Lowell Thomas, none of it ever suggesting that that murdering fanatic already had the blood of thousands on his hands. We were shown the Spanish Civil War, but always at a distance, never seeing a single corpse, much less any bloodshed, and always accompanied by a dry-cleaned, middle-of-the-road narration that could not possibly offend any partisan. While hundreds were being slaughtered each day in China, Spain, and the several European countries already under the Nazi heel, we newsreel watchers came away with the impression that those events consisted of buildings being demolished and great masses of refugees moving from one point to another, because that was about all we ever saw. Sometimes we saw what were called “red riots” in the big cities, always at a distance, never showing actual violence or the bloody consequences, and never attempting to explain the issue that caused the riot. No topic, however important, was ever treated in depth. The longest coverage of anything we saw was two to three minutes. The real issues of the day, like unemployment, poverty, bank failures, foreclosures, labor unrest, the Communist threat, the constitutionality of Roosevelt’s radical programs, and the rising threats of war in Europe and Asia were never addressed. They were all too controversial. Some partisan somewhere might have gotten upset, and box office receipts would have suffered. There was always a segment that showed beautiful young women, some in conservative swim suits, and there was a couple of minutes of humor. Not only was the selection of news and the commentary bland and non-controversial, it was consistently proestablishment and pro-flag-and-country. From the newsreels we learned over the years that America and Americans were always right in their undertakings, and that Americans’ actions and motivations were always pure, ethical, and wholesome. (Nowadays whenever I hear the TV evening network news criticized for lack of in-depth coverage I think of how far we’ve come and what an excellent job the TV networks do in the limited time available.) Year after year the newsreels gave us a rose-colored, sanitized, totally non-controversial view of the world, a view that was always more pleasant and less upsetting to see than the authentic one would have been. By unconscionably cutting and censoring, the newsreel editors methodically misinformed us about our country and our world in a way that made us naive optimists. They gave us only a superficial view of the terrible forces of evil that were at work here and abroad. They deprived us of an understanding of that fact that there were important national and world issues—matters on which there were two or more decidedly different but nonetheless defensible points of view—which as citizens in a democracy we should have known about and tried to understand. They did pitifully little to prepare us for the terrible war ahead.
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The High School building had a giant room called the “assembly” room, also called the main study hall. It was so large it could seat all high school students at once and did so whenever we had a “general assembly.” At several general assemblies each year we were all delightfully entertained by traveling professionals whose visits constituted our “lyceum series.” These people were dramatic actors, lecturers, singers, dancers, puppet masters, or the like who made the circuit of public schools. Often performing in the costumes of some far-off national or ethnic group, they provided the only live, professional entertainment we ever saw. A few of them were inspirational lecturers. One of them was such a spellbinder that for many weeks after his lecture I was doing the daily regimen of morning exercises and self-analysis that he had passionately urged each of us to undertake. These were riveting experiences for a generation of kids without television. One speaker took out a live tarantula, handled it, and explained that its bite is not deadly, as is commonly supposed. An actor in a Dutch costume spoke a few words and sang a song in Dutch. (I was studying German that year and suddenly realized how similar the two languages are. That led to some later questioning, from which I learned that English, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages are all Germanic in origin.) An actress did a scene from A Tale of Two Cities, which made the pathos of the French Revolution very vivid for us. There were other occasions for general assemblies. Among the most memorable were the two occasions when we listened to Adolf Hitler giving a speech, with running English translation, direct and live from Germany by short-wave radio. One such speech was, I believe, during the Austrian anschluss, and the other was during the week of the Polish invasion, which began World War II in early September 1939. At holiday time, the assembly hall was where we entertained ourselves with our own student programs— drama, comedy, dance, choral groups, etc.—and where the yearly graduations were held. In addition to being our theater, the assembly hall was the study room for each of us for at least one period each day. Its acoustics were not the best for study; so the slightest noise could be heard throughout the room. But it was the nearest thing we had to a student union or theater, and we loved it dearly. I have nostalgic memories of my many hours in that grand old room. I wonder if it still exists today. In Waupaca during the 1930’s every Thursday night during the summer was Band Concert night, the town’s busiest night of the week. Several hundred people would come into town, many of whom would sit on the green park benches placed around the band stand on the courthouse lawn and listen to a two-hour concert. It always consisted of ten musical selections, the last of which was the Star Spangled Banner. Free printed programs were provided. For us kids it was a thrilling experience. The younger kids would dash around the square, often falling into lock step with the marches. Mind you, John Philip Sousa was then alive and much admired. I frequently marched along while singing at the top of my lungs. Little wonder that I am so stirred by live marching bands today. For many years the musicians and their bandmaster were adults hired by the city, but in later years all the concerts were given by the Waupaca High School band. My memories of the earlier, city band led by a man named Carroll are the most vivid. It played some very heavy classical music, with emphasis on marches. Much of it was of German origin, including strong doses from Richard Wagner’s heavy operas: Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, etc. But, thank goodness, about a quarter of the selections in a typical evening were familiar and lovely. They usually played a wonderful, melodious selection or two from the magnificent operettas of Johann Strauss, Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar, Rudolph Friml, and Sigmund Romberg—the last three of whom were living at the time. Selection number five was always a medley of popular music, a few of the tunes that people were currently humming or whistling. During the concerts I used to wonder repeatedly whether many of the listeners there were really enjoying the heavy stuff, or, like myself, were waiting for the more familiar music to be played. In later years I learned the axiom of conduct at classical music concerts: expect most of the music to be unfamiliar to you and to everyone else except for a very few music aficionados. Sit tight and eventually, toward the end, you will hear something familiar. It will get a standing ovation, because very nearly everyone else sitting there has been just as bored up until now as you have.
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Those Thursday night concerts remind me of the passing parade before the old, picturesque Court House square that has been Waupaca’s centerpiece from its very beginning in 1848. In the 1930’s several veterans of the Civil War were living at The Wisconsin Veterans’ Home (since renamed King) near Waupaca. More than once I saw two or three of them in a Memorial Day parade down Main Street, past the square. How radically different their uniforms looked compared to the World War I uniforms worn by most men in the parade. I did not appreciate at the time that I was seeing men who were actually President Abraham Lincoln’s contemporaries! Considering that span of years from 1865 to now makes me feel very old. I shudder to think of how soon it will be that the very last veteran of World War I will pass on, and not long after that the last veteran of my war, World War II, and then of my son’s war, the Vietnam War, and so on. Before I got my bicycle and became mobile, I spent many hours watching and listening to the men who occupied the park benches in Court House Square. On a sunny summer day there would be at least a dozen of them there. A few of them were railroad bums, but most of them were veterans, mostly from World War I, but a few from the Spanish American War. We could tell, because they often wore an army shirt or hat. Many of them were very old and crotchety. They spoke in clipped sentences, sometimes waiting a long time before answering a query. One very warm day Chuck and Jack Boone and I were eavesdropping on a conversation between two old vets who looked like walking corpses. It seemed an enormous effort for them just to speak. I would not now remember exactly what they said that day, had not the Boone brothers memorized it and satirically dramatized it many times later. They had an unusual ear for words and a great capacity for satire. Here, verbatim, was the vets’ pithy interchange that hot day: 1st vet: “Hot enough fer ya?” 2nd vet: (after a pause) “I giss.” 1st vet: (after a longer pause) “Good fer the corn.” 2nd vet: (a full minute later) “I spoze.”
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11. ROMANCE AND SEX
The sum total of the sex education offered us in high school consisted of one half-hour lecture to us senior boys (the girls had theirs separately) by a visiting specialist, presumably a state Department of Education employee. There were no slides, movies, or other visual aids. The speaker made just two points. First: for unmarried persons, sexual abstinence is the only proper conduct, because non-abstainers of both sexes lose their self respect and the respect of others, since unmarried sexual activity is low, contemptible, and degrading. Second: all contraceptives, including condoms, are undependable. That was it. No mention of venereal disease, homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, rape, or a dozen other topics on which we might have later benefited by being even slightly informed. Such was the nature of the times. The speaker’s demeanor, his choice of words, and his body language all told us that his topic was disgusting. It was dirty work, but somebody had to do it. Oh yes, I almost forgot. He recommended—and I kid you not—a cold soak in the tub for any boy whose “needs” seemed to be getting out of control. What had been billed as man-to-man sex information turned out to be an abstinence lecture of the kind we had already gotten parts of at home or at church. We were told to keep zipped up until holy matrimony. When our speaker finished, he asked for questions. Of course there were none. There was a long silence. The speaker was embarrassed with his topic, and we were made uneasy by his embarrassment. To change the subject to something less stigmatized, Erwin Beach asked him “What is impetigo?” Our speaker, not having an answer available, said, “It’s nothing more than barber’s itch,” and dismissed us all. My first romantic experience was so exciting and so devastating that I can recall it as vividly as if it just happened. One winter evening when I was 15 years old, several of us were ice skating on the Waupaca River. Gradually the crowd thinned out and I soon found myself there alone with a fairly attractive girl who lived nearby. We barely knew each other. We had spoken a time or two in the past. In school she was a year ahead of me, which would make her about three years older than I. I smiled at her and said “Hello,” grasped her hand, and suggested we skate up the river a little way. She agreed and we soon arrived at a place where the fork of a large tree plus some shrubbery provided us a place to sit. Until that evening I had never kissed a girl except once during a kissing game in a crowd of laughing kids. Tonight I was determined to do some real kissing, just as I had seen it done in the movies. She and I talked about nothing in particular for most of 15 minutes, while I very slowly, painfully slowly, put my arm around her and drew her close to me. To my great pleasure and excitement she made no attempt to draw away. Nor did she take the initiative at any time. She was completely passive, just as all women were in movie love scenes. I nuzzled her cheek. No reaction. Then I slowly kissed her full on the mouth and held it for at least ten seconds. Wow, what a thrill! I felt it all the way to my toes. My heart began to pound, and she began to breathe heavily. I kissed her several times in succession. I was almost delirious now, but she was completely silent, except for her heavy breathing. I had a hard time getting enough air. My nose was stopped up, so every time we kissed I had to stop breathing. I was visualizing Don Ameche and Alice Faye, who I’d seen kissing in a movie the night before. I was now he, of course, and the girl in my arms was Alice Faye. Beautiful, blonde, curvaceous Alice Faye. Recalling that gorgeous figure, I started to unbutton my girl’s jacket. She offered no resistance whatever. I reached in and fondled her breast. Again no resistance. So I unbuttoned her blouse, put my hand inside her brassiere and gave a gentle squeeze. Now she gave me a strong pull toward her while I kissed her. I was out of my skull with excitement. My heart was beating so wildly that I began to feel faint. The air temperature was about 20 degrees. We had been sitting for a half hour. I was mentally dazed, sweating profusely, gasping for air, and developing cramps in both legs. This girl was returning my kisses and showing no objection to my advances. What should I do now? I kissed her again and contemplated. Then suddenly I began to shake and my teeth began to chatter. I quickly withdrew my hand and buttoned her up. I managed to stand up. We skated to shore, changed our skates, and I walked her home. We kissed good-night and said “See you tomorrow.” When I got home I was shaking so violently from the shocks to my system that I had difficulty speaking coherently. I drank some very hot water and jumped into bed. My mind was ablaze. I had held a beautiful girl and kissed her repeatedly, and she had let me touch her intimately. She must love me very much to let me do that. So
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I must love her very much. Yes, I am in love with that warm, beautiful woman, and she is in love with me. This must be a turning point in my life, the most important thing that has ever happened to me. My feelings were so intense that they overwhelmed me. Mind you, none of my thoughts ran to further sexual activity with her. They fixed instead on our being in love, in a kissing, hugging kind of sexless love—the exact kind of love that Hollywood’s heavily censored movies featured exclusively. I drifted off to sleep with sugarcoated thoughts of how I would act when I saw her again, what she would say, when we would be able to kiss again.... The next morning I intercepted her on the walk to school. She treated me just as coolly as she had before our romantic experience the night before! She wasn’t in love with me. She barely knew me. I was just an acquaintance. I was so upset that I couldn’t find words to tell her. Finally, the next morning on the way to school I asked her “Doesn’t what we did mean anything to you?” Her answer was simply “No.” She said it with a cold, emotionless look that left no doubt about her feelings. I was totally crushed. Here was a situation where the young, inexperienced boy fell in love with love, as the poets say. A veteran of several hundred Hollywood movies, he reacted exactly as all his movie heroes did. Kissing and petting means love, so I love her, he told himself. The girl, more experienced, saw the petting interlude as nothing more than that. She’d seen the same movies, but her experience with other boys gave her a more authentic, detached view than Hollywood had been portraying. Perhaps she too had been carried away at her first experience, but that was years ago. I never fully got over the experience. To this day I can get rather emotional recalling it. What I cannot for the life of me remember is the girl’s name. That, I am sorry to say, was the total of all my romantic experience in Waupaca. That girl’s abrupt rejection of me at a time when I was extremely vulnerable and impressionable made me fearful and anxious about asking other girls for dates. I did some timid questioning, got turned down, and watched with great envy while other kids paired off in a variety of rewarding experiences. In 1936, when I entered high school, a sizeable number of eighth-grade graduates from the nearby country schools joined us as members of the freshman class. Among them were some of my former classmates from Casey School, Guy Kragh among them. In that first year together with the country-school kids many of us city kids had a tendency to feel superior to them, or so it appeared to me. I, just three years off the farm, already felt that I had acquired some urbane sophistication that they lacked, and I observed similar attitudes in some of my classmates. How quickly those attitudes faded when it became evident that with most of the country students came one feature that was second to none in importance. They had automobiles! Most of them had their own cars or rode with older siblings, and all of them seemed to know how to drive and how to get access to a car. (How 15-yearolds legally drove cars we never questioned.) The popularity of a freshman with a car was unlimited. We soon discovered that Charlie Jenkins, the Jorgenson brothers, and a number of others had their own cars, and that by cultivating their friendship one might be able to arrange a double date involving their car. Oh joy! Before long the popularity of some of those car-driving country kids far eclipsed that of their “urbane” classmates from the city, and all earlier feelings of superiority vanished.
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My favorite teacher in high school was Mrs. Gurley, a white-haired matronly lady, probably in her fifties, who taught only mathematics. She had a stern expression that intimidated many students, and short patience with those who weren’t willing to try to do their best. She also had a fiery temper that ran out of control now and then. I once saw her throw an eraser the length of the classroom at a girl in the back row who wasn’t paying attention. Many students, particularly girls who couldn’t find an interest in math, hated Mrs. Gurley with a passion and looked forward to the day that they finished the geometry and algebra classes—one year of each—that everyone had to complete. Mrs. Gurley was a cultured, intellectual person who had set high academic standards for her teaching and was determined to meet them. She was an excellent teacher, but a demanding one. She spoke fluent German and one or two Scandinavian languages, read a great deal, and was well informed on the events of the time. Those who took a serious interest in mathematics and gave it their very best became her special pupils and suffered none of her wrath. I was one such. After doing very well in geometry and algebra, I signed up for a year of advanced algebra, followed by trigonometry and solid geometry. Enrolled in these advanced courses were only six or seven of us boys, so she did no lecturing. We just worked our way through the book, going up to her desk for help when we felt the need. I found that beneath her stern exterior was a warm, kind, caring person who took great joy and satisfaction not only in teaching us math but in counseling and encouraging us in our career pursuits. Most of us boys studying advanced math had in mind some kind of technical career, a matter about which she knew a great deal. It was she who explained to me about the several branches of engineering, and the differences between an engineer and a scientist, a distinction that very few people are clear on even today. She told me about The United States Naval Academy, and explained how a Congressional appointment can send a boy there for a free, four-year engineering education leading to a degree and a commission as a naval officer. (One of the students then in our advanced math class, Wendell McHenry, would soon receive such an appointment. Today Wendell is a retired Rear Admiral.) In my junior year I read in a magazine of an engineering tool called the slide rule. For a quarter I bought one by mail and set about learning it. As soon as she saw it, Mrs. Gurley offered to help me with it. This evolved into more personal discussions with her on engineering, on what engineers and mathematicians typically do, and how they use mathematics. She was able to give me excellent tutoring on these matters, the only such guidance I was ever to get in high school. During my senior year our friendship reached the point that I would frequently go up and sit with her at her desk during my solid-geometry class while she did my entire German homework assignment for me. I could tell she enjoyed doing it, since it was the only way to exercise her knowledge of the language. One little apothegm that Mrs. Gurley often repeated I can recite verbatim. She used to say that “People often remark on how hard they have been thinking. But you know you have really been thinking when you are so deeply immersed in a mathematics problem that when you touch your forehead, you can literally feel the heat of your intense concentration.” I could never decide if she meant that literally, but I have frequently thought about it metaphorically. I owe a great deal to Mrs. Gurley. She was a kind, considerate, and supportive lady whom I shall never forget. Without her tutelage and encouragement it is quite possible I would never have become an engineer. There was more of substance and personal caring in the guidance she gave me than in that provided by all the other teachers and professors I have known. I hope that at Waupaca High School today there are teachers of her caliber and dedication to provide the vital career guidance that students need. Another of my favorite high-school teachers was Miss Sophelia Kurkowski, our American History teacher and school librarian. She was probably in her forties, was intellectually sharp, well read, and gregarious. She enjoyed talking with anyone interested in national and world events. Unlike most persons I knew at that time, she had the insight to see that a monstrous world war would soon engulf us all. She had a graduate degree and taken a number of postgraduate courses over the years. She threw herself into her teaching of history with great enthusiasm and gusto. By any measure Miss Kurkowski was a superb tutor who could put new life into old, musty events and demonstrate their relevance to our lives.
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The Civil War was her special interest, and she lectured on its particulars with the familiarity and insights you would expect of someone who had actually been there. She had talked at length with the several Civil War veterans who were spending their last days at the Wisconsin State Veterans’ Home. She took the time and care to impress on us that the major cause of the Civil War was not slavery but states’ rights, and that much arrogance and egotism were involved. When “Gone With The Wind” played at the Palace in 1939 she urged us to see it more than once, and we discussed it in class at great length. Thanks to her efforts we got a very adult understanding of the most bloody war in America’s history up until that time. While we were studying the Revolutionary War, she emphasized that not all the actions of the revolutionists were pure and untainted, and that greed and opportunism were among the motives of those “young radicals” as she called them. She explained that in a revolution the line between patriotism and treason is not easy to draw. Miss Kurkowski was a dear lady who most of all among my teachers epitomized the high level of education and dedication that characterized most of the teachers in Waupaca High School. It’s clear to me that her excellent teaching was largely responsible for my developing a lifetime interest in history. Mr. George Hendrickson, who was later to become Superintendent of Schools, was my senior physics teacher. He was an especially friendly teacher, a calm, capable fellow who we could always approach on any topic. Another one of the grand old seniors was Miss Shoemaker, the Latin teacher. I never studied Latin, so I didn’t get to know her well, but from other contacts with her I know what a refined and gracious lady she was.
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13. SPORTS & GAMES
In the fall of 1940 football was resumed at Waupaca High School. It was common knowledge that it had been discontinued seventeen years earlier because of the death of a school football player. None of us ever heard this story confirmed or denied, and to this day I have no idea if it is true. A handsome young coach named Leroy Haberkorn was hired to put Waupaca High back on the playing field, which he did most capably. My memories of that period are most vivid, because football that fall was the most important thing in my life. Everything had to be started from scratch. Uniforms, towels, bandages, iodine, etc. were ordered. We bought our own shoes. There was no football stadium or field. We practiced and played in a hay field about a mile out of town, near the airport. Coach Haberkorn chastised us, complimented us, baited us, enthused us, threatened us, and encouraged us. In several weeks he taught us rookies several dozen plays by number and showed us how to function together as a smooth-working group. Not smoothly enough, however. We lost every game that first season! In the very first play of the very first game (versus Manawa), one of our team, Harlan Newman, actually broke his leg! At that first game the whole town attended; every store in Waupaca closed that afternoon in support of it. Gordon Jensen, playing end, caught one and ran it over for the only Waupaca score of the game. Gordon was our senior-class president and the most admired athlete in school the year we graduated. I played left guard, but I spent the entire season on the bench, while suffering the ultimate indignity of being the only senior (of seven on the team) who was assigned to the third team, consisting mostly of freshman. All the other seniors, Gordon Jensen, Ward Rudersdorf, and Erwin Beech among them, were on the first team and played in every game. The coach kept me totally out of every game, except during the last moments of the very last one of the season. We had already lost it, and only a couple of minutes remained. The temperature was about ten above zero, and I was so thoroughly chilled that I could barely move. Why the coach rated my talents so low I never found out, but I imagine he had good reasons. It’s hard to believe now, but the average weight of juniors and seniors on the team was less than 150 pounds, and at 162 I was the second heaviest kid on the roster. I routinely lost exactly five pounds each afternoon during practice, and then gained it back by the next day. At our first practice Coach Haberkorn asked for a show of hands of those troubled with nosebleed. Only the five who raised their hands were issued a helmet having a face protector. The rest of us went without. A few days later we saw vivid evidence of what the face protector is for. It was time for our first live-tackling practice. Haberkorn placed us linemen across the field and told us to tackle the backfield boys, who were to grab a ball and come charging through us, all the while bringing their knees up high on each step. I was a little scared. As the practice wore on I noticed that Sammy Taylor had disappeared. About a half hour later I saw him, standing there on the sidelines next to the coach, smiling, a bloody hole where one of his two front teeth used to be. His front tooth had been kicked out! I shuddered and seriously considered turning in my uniform then and there. But of course I didn’t, and no one else did. It would be many years until someone in authority decided on mandatory face protectors for every football player in America. Until the Waupaca Armory was built, the High School basketball games were played in the high school gymnasium on Friday nights. I never attended games there, but I can imagine how crowded it must have been. By the time I arrived, the games had been shifted to the new Waupaca Armory, built in 1934. There a Friday-night basketball game was the most exciting thing doing in town. Several hundred wildly cheering students and parents would sit on long rows of bleachers while our team heroes did battle with the visiting team. That Friday night scene is burned into my memory. The Armory was lighted so brightly you could thread a needle anywhere. The Waupaca School Band was there to play our school song (actually the Notre Dame University fight song with special Waupaca lyrics). I can see our team: Gordon Jensen, Donald Nelson, Ward Rudersdorf, Wendell McHenry, and the others, and now the other team in their school colors. By comparison with today’s games it proceeded slowly, because after every basket there was a center tip off, instead of the opposing team’s simply taking out the ball under the basket, as is done today. Typical game scores were in the thirties, and a big-scoring player might make only ten or twelve points in a game. Our cheerleaders would lead us in several cheers that we had all practiced that afternoon in the assembly hall. We’d cheer so loudly
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that we’d get hoarse. Popcorn, candy, and pop were available in abundance. During half time the school band would strike up again. The excitement was simply too much.... During my last year at Waupaca High we were all asked to vote on a permanent name for the school’s athletic teams. Several nominations were made, among them the “ACAPUAWS,” which is Waupaca spelled backwards. It nearly won, but the name “Comets” beat it out—and, I understand, has remained to date. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to create employment during the Great Depression consisted of establishing community recreation programs in towns and cities across the nation. In Waupaca two WPA employees—one of them named Algee Zimmerman, the other a Mr. Hoppe—worked year around to develop recreational opportunities for children and adults. Both men were probably in their forties, and I doubt that either had ever been an athlete, but they achieved a great deal. They set up a fine, well-lighted ice-skating rink each winter for several years on the flat land down next to the river behind the old city hall. There folks of all ages could ice skate all day and well into the evening. We boys had some rousing hockey games and skating races there over the years, and our school hockey team played its home games there. (In my wildest dreams of boyhood I never envisioned a year-around, indoor ice-skating rink in a heated room where one could skate in shirt sleeves. Now there is one, which I have never used, just a half mile from my home.) I am reminded that about 1935 a young Waupaca boy named Nelson was skating on Shadow Lake, went through the ice, and was drowned. I attended his funeral. Over the years many of us boys skated on the Waupaca river and on various lakes, always with the risk of going through the ice. The WPA land-based skating rink nicely eliminated that terrible risk. Just a few feet north of the site of the ice skating rink were two clay tennis courts on which we played each summer. There was always a line of people waiting to play, and the courts were pretty primitive. After each rain the clay had to dry out for a day or two, and the lines had to be completely rechalked before we could play, but we got in a few good days of tennis each summer. Also the backstop fences were very small, so a tennis ball would frequently land in the river, and we became specialists in retrieving river balls. Mr. Hoppe was a fair tennis player and an excellent tutor, as I learned one memorable day when he offered to coach me in serving. I had supposed that it would take years to learn to serve adequately, but in just one hour of practice under his careful guidance, I improved my serve enormously and built up great confidence in it. It was one of the few times in my life that I have had the luxury of one-on-one coaching in a sports activity. That day I learned that concentrated effort on a skill under the personal guidance of an expert can produce miracles in just a few minutes. I had begun playing tennis at age nine, and four years later when the WPA men staged a city-wide tournament I won first place in the young boys’, under-13 group. I was then taken to Stevens Point to play in the regional tournament. The whole thing was strange and intimidating to me. The courts were cement and were surrounded by fences on all four sides, and the net was dark green, which made visibility bad. We had an umpire who was constantly flirting with one of the young ladies there and frequently forgot to make the out-of-bounds call. My very first opponent was a boy from Stevens Point who had mastered the fine art of “gamesmanship,” as explained in Stephen Potter’s hilarious book by that name. Potter called it the art of winning the game by putting the other fellow at his “dis-ease”—winning while not actually cheating. Because of the morning chill in the air I had the sniffles, and for that reason was playing in a long-sleeve sweater and had buttoned up both my sweater and shirt all the way to the top. I’m sure I did look a little odd that morning in June. The Stevens Point boy, playing in shirtsleeves, began to work me over deftly on that point. Although he was no older than I, he called me “kid.” “Hey kid, don’t you wanna take off yer sweater?” he asked within a minute after we began. Noticing that his question made me self conscious, he decided to play that tune at length. Smiling, he repeated the question over and over during our three sets, and the more he did so the more unnerved I got. After beating him the first four games I lost most of the following ones. He won all three sets.
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Someone—was it W. C. Fields?—once said, “Proficiency in pool is the indication of a misspent youth.” If so, then many of my school chums and I had misspent youths. The Buedding and White pool hall, across Main Street from the Court House, was for many men and boys the main recreational center in Waupaca. Everyone called it “Bud’s.” It was tacitly understood that women were not welcome there. I never once saw one on the premises. Bud’s had six regulation-size pool tables and one billiard table, each of them nicely illuminated with overhead lamps. The equipment was first-class. Males of any age were welcome. It wasn’t necessary to play pool to enjoy ourselves there. We could watch and listen to the older boys and men play pool and listen to them curse and brag about the fish they had caught or the deer they had shot or the women they had known. The most popular pool game we played was officially named “rotation.” I never heard it called anything but “shit” pool, in this context meaning “lucky” pool. It’s the game where you have to hit the one ball first, until it drops, then the two ball, etc. After the cue ball first hits the rotation ball, however, any other balls you sink add to your score. So what you lacked in accuracy you could partly make up for by shooting just as hard as you possibly could, trading brawn for skill—thus the pungent, colloquial name for the game. After a player made a particularly lucky shot, it was considered clever for his opponent to say “Now wipe yourself.” In contrast to rotation, we also played a more serious game, called “straight” pool, in which brawn played no part. Here skill took over. You had to drop a particular ball in a pocket that you had called in advance or you couldn’t score it. Each game of pool cost a dime, and you played until all the balls were sunk. Since dimes were hard to come by, we boys would make the game last longer by taking balls out of the pockets, putting them back up on the table, and sinking them a second or even a third time. The co-owner, Mr. Buedding (“Bud”), was on to all our tricks and seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. Almost as soon as we put the first ball back on the table, longsuffering Bud would come thundering down to our table, scowl, and in his bull-horn voice order us to pay up and get out. Over the years we got more and more skillful at deceiving him, making our rotation games last longer, and at the same time goading and baiting him. Bud never smiled. He was always angry, but we knew he was really steamed when the blood drained from his bald head, leaving it stark white. Then it was time to move out quickly! We didn’t know it at the time, but we all had great affection for old Bud. The pool hall wouldn’t have been any where near as much fun without him. Mr. Whiting, Bud’s partner, was a pussycat. He tended the bar and never gave us any trouble at the pool tables. Saturday was the pool hall’s busiest day, because the farmers were in town to do their shopping and we kids were out of school. At least 50 men and boys would fill the place to overflowing. All tables would be in use from noon to closing time. There were always pungent odors of cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco and human bodies, since Saturday evening was the weekly bath time in most homes. Every Saturday morning Bud would exit the place at midmorning with a suitcase in his hand, returning at noon. We finally found out that on Saturdays he went somewhere to take a bath. Bud’s served up a great deal of beer every day, but I never saw a minor served or asking to be served. It seemed to be an unwritten rule that you waited until you were an adult to start drinking. The same was true of smoking. Only rarely did I ever see non-adults smoking in Bud’s. Almost without exception, however, every adult there smoked or chewed or both, and most of them drank beer when they could afford to. Six copper cuspidors were strategically placed to serve the chewers. For a time, a friend of mine had the job of cleaning and polishing them, and my watching him perform that revolting task one day left a vivid picture in my memory that I will not share with you. Up on the wall behind the beer bar were displayed at least 50 kinds of tobaccos and pipes. Among the most incredible chewing-tobacco brand names was “Nigger Hair,” a name changed to “Bigger Hair” not many years later. I never saw any fighting or even sustained shouting in Bud’s, in striking contrast to some of the pool halls that I visited in later years, where thugs accustomed to fighting, knifing, and shooting were hanging around, looking for trouble. There was rarely any betting, but after most games the loser paid for the game. The exceptions were
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the rare times when an out-of-town pool slicker would show up. We were able to watch their clever technique more than once. The slicker would get one of the local men to play a game with him for a small wager, say a quarter, and the slicker would lose. They’d play another, and of course he’d lose again. Then they’d play a few more and he’d lose, gradually raising the wager, until the slicker had lost several dollars. Finally, after he’d worked the local fellow up to a very expensive wager, say, five-dollars, he’d win a game for the first time. The local, believing that it was a fluke, would insist on another game. This next, pivotally important game the slicker would carefully lose, to strongly suggest that he was no expert. Thereafter, the slicker would methodically win about three out of every four games, at a few dollars each, until the local would run broke and quit. One evening we saw a young farm hand lose over thirty dollars, very likely his entire month’s pay. I think my lifetime aversion to gambling had its roots there. Out in front of the pool hall were some horizontal steel pipes, placed there originally to tie horses to. When I was a young boy they were a favorite perch for men to sit on while watching the main-street traffic. There they could smoke and chew and whistle at the women going by. The pipes are still there today, but now welded along the top surface of the upper pipe is a row of inch-long spikes, placed there vertically to discourage anyone’s sitting down. I was an eyewitness to the event in l936 or thereabouts that brought on the spikes. For many years Messrs. Plutz and Plowman had their barbershop directly under the pool hall. One day while I was waiting in their shop to get my hair cut, a young girl seated next to me started up the stairs, which were directly beneath a row of men seated on those steel pipes. At that instant one of the men, a tobacco chewer, turned slightly to his left, and without seeing the approaching girl, spit a very large gob of chewing-tobacco. It hit the back of the little girl’s white dress and splattered a large, ugly spot on it. The girl ran screaming to her mother, who in a quick, angry consultation with Mr. Plutz, got his agreement to do something drastic to correct the situation. A few days later a welder came by and added the spikes.
By 1941 the popularity of pool declined, due in large part, I suppose, to the increasing number of excellent radio programs one could hear at home. In the years that followed many pool halls across the country went out of business. Then Hollywood made a movie called “The Hustler,” which stimulated an enormous nationwide interest in pool. For several years thereafter millions of persons of both sexes and all ages enthusiastically played pool. Then interest again began to wane. Now video games have largely replaced the pool tables in recreation centers. I was very disappointed on my last visit to Waupaca to see the old pool hall converted into a store.
I guess you could call hanging around the pool hall a vice. If so, it was a pretty tame vice in Waupaca. It won’t take much more room here to summarize the other vices of high school kids in Waupaca in the 1930’s, because there really weren’t much of any. In the entire high school I feel sure there were less than a dozen kids that ever smoked—smoked tobacco, that is. Marijuana was unheard of. None of us, child or adult, had even heard the word. Ditto for coke, speed, LSD, and all the rest in the hallucinatory family. They were all totally unknown. Beer drinking by students was about as limited as smoking. Not all beer bars asked for proof of age, and I know that a few upper classmen did get served beer on occasion. To my knowledge there was never any instance of drunk driving by high-school kids, however, or of students coming to school with hangovers. No student drank hard liquor. I never saw or heard of a student carrying a bottle or having one in his car. The concept of alcoholic high-school students, which is now a very serious problem in many schools nationwide, was as inconceivable as putting a man on the moon.
My folks were all non-drinkers and non-smokers, and they repeatedly advised me strongly against alcohol and tobacco. Their advice on smoking really took; I have never smoked, despite heavy peer pressure in the Navy, at the university, at work, and elsewhere. But my folks’ disapproval of drinking had an opposite effect. As soon as I left home, I cut loose, something like the proverbial minister’s daughter, and made drinking my key anti-establishment behavior. For many years thereafter I must have subconsciously felt that drinking was urbane, sophisticated, mature conduct, with a nice touch of libertinism, and that it was the hallmark of the rich, sophisticated, and famous—notably including Hollywood’s superstars. Over the years I ingested sizable quantities of alcohol in unthinking conformance to that myth. Finally, in recent years I have
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come to realize the fallacy of that illusion and have become a teetotaler. I have often wondered how my life might have been different if in my boyhood home alcohol had been served to adults in moderation, as it has been in millions of homes worldwide.
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For many years the town photographer in Waupaca was a fellow named Hank Estberg, who in addition to doing most of the town’s photofinishing, took all the pictures for the school. Although photoflash bulbs were invented in the mid-1930’s, Hank had no truck with them. He used only flash powder, at least until 1941 when I left. That spring a group of us lined up in front of the school on a very overcast day and Hank took a flash-powder picture of us. “Boom” it went, and a puff of smoke rose in the air. Not the sort of thing you’d want to use indoors, although most professional photographers did. In the 1930’s all the pictures that we ordinary folks snapped ourselves were black and white. Color prints and slides (the latter invented in 1935) were out of the reach of amateur photographers on a depression budget, as were high-quality cameras with good lenses. Most people took their pictures with box cameras, which, as the advertisements said, you needed only to “load, aim, and shoot,” since the camera had a fixed-focus, fixed-aperture lens and a fixed shutter speed. The capability of box cameras was so limited and their design so utterly deficient, that it is surprising that so many persons continued to snap so many pictures with them. Box cameras cost two to five dollars. Their lenses were fixed-focus at about 15 feet, so if you tried any closeups they would be out of focus. Experienced snapshooters knew better than to try. You could look at hundreds of pictures in their albums and never find a closeup. The box camera’s shutter speed was about 1/30 second, so slow that the slightest movement of the subject, like a person’s speaking or gesturing, would blur the picture. The final insult was that only orthochromatic, non-red-sensitive film was available, and it made everything that was red or orange in the picture—such as rouged cheeks, lips, freckles, red hair, red sunsets, etc.—come out coal black in the print. But, if you went outdoors on a bright, sunny day, positioned your subject 15 or more feet away, held your camera very, very still, and your subject was absolutely immobile, you’d get a properly exposed, not-too-fuzzy picture. Box cameras made pictures big enough for your print album without enlargement; the negative was the same size as the print. Thus photofinishing, as Estberg did it in Waupaca for many years, consisted of contact-printing the negatives, and then developing, fixing, washing, and ferrotyping the print. The going price was three cents a print. From a kid at school I found out that you could buy photographic paper and chemicals at the drug store and do your own photofinishing. He had been doing it for years, and his dad before him. A dime would buy a tube of print developer and a tube of fixer, and a quarter would buy a lot of photo paper. Then you needed a red safelight, unless you could work in complete darkness, and until you could afford the ferrotype tins you could use the enamel surface of mom’s stove. I bought a used box camera for a quarter and began in earnest. Of the several hundred pictures that I made I still have a few left, each of them having a black border, the mark of a guy who didn’t own a printing frame. The first 35-millimeter camera I ever saw was an Argus A2 that Mr. Showers, our chemistry teacher, owned in 1940. It served as camera and enlarger. The photo bug had bitten him, and he frequently brought his latest enlarged prints to class to show us. His pictures fueled my already burning desire to own a really good camera and enlarger. After studying the camera sections in the Wards and Sears catalogs, however, I soon reached two conclusions: a) a camera having a focusing, f4.5 lens with shutter speeds to 1/200 second was what I really needed, and b) I should forget it; it was priced far out of my reach, more than $20. (It would be many years until the equipment that I really wanted would be priced within my reach. Once it was, photography became my most enduring hobby.)
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1934 was a banner year for me, because that is when radio entered my life. That Christmas we got our first radio receiver, a used one. It had sold new for about $25, two or three weeks’ pay for most folks. It weighed about 20 pounds, had seven big vacuum tubes—each the size of a large cucumber—and a wooden case that sloped to a peak at the top, “cathedral” style. Its dial was not even calibrated in kilocycles; it simply read 0 to 100. Having no built-in antenna (hadn’t been invented yet) it came with 50 feet of wire, which the instructions said to connect to a nearby tree or post. We did that and were overjoyed to find that under favorable conditions we could tune in stations in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis. For the first time in our lives drama, music, and other entertainment, plus up-to-the minute news was brought right into our living room all hours of the day and night. During the l930’s Chicago was the radio center for the nation. More programs originated there than in New York and the West Coast combined. We tuned in the fine talents of Jack Benny, Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and other famous entertainers on their own weekly shows. There were wonderful kids’ serials every afternoon: Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, featuring Don Ameche and his brother Jim—who were born and raised in Kenosha. There were the early evening adult comedy programs: Amos and Andy, Easy Aces, etc. (In 1947 when I visited the Easy Aces show in its New York studio I felt like an old friend of Goodman and Jane Ace.) There were excellent dramatic programs: Lux Radio Theater, The Shadow, and many others. There was music, lovely, melodious music: the big bands of the Dorsey Brothers, Glen Miller, Jan Garber, Lawrence Welk, Wayne King, and others—plus The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, soon to star a newcomer named Frank Sinatra. There was the Saturday Night Barndance from WLS, Chicago, the Grand Old Opry from Tennessee, and classical music and opera on Sunday afternoons. Listening to phonograph records had now become passe. Each evening around six, Lowell Thomas read us the latest news in his mellow, resonant voice. Also there was a colorful newsman named Boake Carter who introduced us to short-wave radio, a miracle by which he supposedly talked directly with reporters in London, Rome, and Berlin, and elsewhere, and they responded to him, while we listened! Carter affected a clipped British accent. His sponsor was the Philco Radio Corporation, and his distinctive sign off was “And now Philco and I say to you Chiddeeyoh.” Later is was disclosed that his short-wave gimmick was this: each afternoon he used a wire recorder to record the short-waved reports from his overseas correspondents. Then at air time he went through a convincing act, saying exciting things like “Hello London. Hello. Are you theyah London? Can you heah me, London? Go ahead, London” just before he switched on the playback of his earlier-recorded input from London. It was the first instance of a delayed broadcast cleverly dressed up as being live. I now believe it was one of those thrilling Boake Carter newscasts that planted the idea in my mind of making radio (the word “electronics” would not come into use for another decade) my lifetime career. The idea of sending one’s voice across thousands of miles of space riding on invisible waves of such incredibly small power fired my imagination in the way that nothing had ever done before. I began using the term “radio engineer” as though I knew what it meant. When asked, I would sometimes say knowingly that that is what I plan to be when I grow up. Thousands of books have been written about the fascinating evolution of radio, but only those of us who lived in the pre-radio era have experienced the mind-boggling transition. Before 1934 I was a kid who barely knew of the existence of places like Chicago, New York, London, and Berlin, and whose only exposure to professionally played music had been via phonograph records and the movies. A few months later, thanks to radio, I was a global traveler. The radio news, drama, music, and humor I had heard had made me a citizen of the world. I had heard Paul Whiteman’s orchestra play George Gershwin’s premier composition, “Rhapsody in Blue,” in Carnegie Hall, New York, one Sunday afternoon, and I had heard the rabble-rousing voice of Adolf Hitler shouting to the cheering masses in Germany. Once I had heard the calm, assured voice of Admiral Richard E. Byrd speaking from Little America, his base camp in Antarctica. Miracle of miracles, one day I had heard a man broadcasting from an airplane in flight! The impact of our transition from no radio to radio in the 1930’s was enormously greater than that of radio to television a generation later. Where music, entertainment, and keeping informed were concerned, radio had a profound effect on all our lives. The people we heard on radio partly determined our set of values and helped us
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decide what we wanted to be, who we wanted to emulate, what we wanted to make of our lives when we grew up. There was, by the way, one kind of music on radio and in the movies that I never enjoyed: negro gospel singing. I couldn’t find much to like about it. Their singing was harmonious, but their repetitious lyrics—”Am a comin’ to Jesus...” repeated 20 to 30 times—their wailing voices, and their wild gesticulations turned me off. I always tuned them out in favor of more pleasant, melodious music having meaningful lyrics sung by persons who were not in a state of frenzy. Now, 50 years later, wherever I go I hear what seems to be a hideous descendent of negro gospel music. It is called “rock” music. I cannot switch it off. It is sprayed down on me from ceiling speakers in restaurants, barber shops, elevators, supermarkets, airplanes, waiting rooms, and even business offices. Apparently millions of young persons crave this frenetic music during all their waking moments. Instead of the old gospel standby “Jesus,” rock lyrics repeat “bayee-bi” ad nauseam. A typical lyric is the following repeated endlessly: “Ah needs mah lovin evah naht, bayee-bi. Bayee-bi, bayee-bi, bayee-bi, bayee-bi. Needs mah lovin evah naht.” Rock lyrics are muddled and absurd, and some of them are crudely salacious. It is an unwritten rule that they must be sung in heavy southern accent, even by the most northern-born singers, and being able to carry a tune is not a prerequisite for becoming a superstar. For me, the gyrating, shouting, moaning, wailing, and screaming of rock-music performers are the worst aspects of the old gospel singing now grotesquely distorted and exaggerated into a monster. Earlier I mentioned “favorable conditions” for listening to radio. If there was any rain falling in Wisconsin or its nearby states, the static level resulting from the total of all the lightning strokes in those rainstorms made radio listening very difficult or impossible in Waupaca. There were no network stations closer than Milwaukee, and their signal strength was so minimal that it could not compete with any but the mildest static. In summer one could expect that on one or two nights a week the static would be so heavy that listening would be seriously impaired, but in winter it was rarely a problem. All year long, however, there was a second, much more serious radio interference problem in Waupaca. Somewhere someone had a powerful radio-noise generator, and chose to turn it on two or three evenings a week between seven and nine o’clock, plunk in the middle of prime time. The buzzing sound was so loud that it completely obliterated all programs on all stations. Typically it lasted from 30 to 90 minutes, and our only recourse was to switch off. We never found out who the offender was. It was common gossip that a particular family’s diathermy machine was the culprit, but that was never confirmed, so far as we knew. When I left Waupaca the noise maker was still going strong. (I reported it to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington D.C., when I went to live there in 1941. They told me months later that they had sent an FCC man to Waupaca to investigate, but he found no such interference.) In 1937 I discovered Amateur Radio—”ham” radio—and Mr. Paul Niles, who was apparently the only licensed radio amateur in Waupaca at that time. He was a kind and considerate gentleman who repeatedly let me sit and watch him using his transmitter and receiver in his home, tapping out messages on his telegraph key and getting responses from other amateurs all over the world. Niles, whose call, W9KXK, I can recite from memory even now, had by then contacted more than 100 countries! He ranked among the most accomplished long-distance communicators in the nation. I soon learned that there were about 35,000 radio amateurs worldwide and that to be licensed one had to pass a written exam in radio theory and send and receive Morse code at 13 words per minute. I read that a 12-yearold girl in Illinois had recently been licensed! I taught myself the code very quickly and began studying radio theory on my own, trying to use the hopelessly outdated technical books in the school library. I tried desperately to understand esoteric concepts like amplification, resonance, decibels, selectivity, directivity, modulation, polarization, impedance matching, standing-wave ratio, etc. But before long I was completely overwhelmed, and having no one to turn to for help, I gave up. (Seven years later I easily passed the test for my first Amateur Radio License.)
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That first exposure to Amateur Radio brought to my attention two profound truths concerning grownups’ hobbies, two axioms that I have since seen confirmed many times. The first is that adults’ toys cost much more than kids’ toys. The second is that some adult toys are so complicated and involved that you have to study them for years to be able to play with them well enough to enjoy them fully. In the fifty years since then I have often been reminded of those axioms as I have made engrossing hobbies of amateur radio, photography, astronomy, woodworking, cryptology, genealogy, high-fidelity audio, programmable calculators, and personal digital computers.
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17. TRAINS & AUTOS
On some Saturdays we kids would go up to the Waupaca Depot and watch the telegrapher-dispatcher, Mister Siebert, at work. His telegraph sounder was always clicking away, its sounds unintelligible to us, of course. We would be asking him inane questions and he would be humoring us with answers, and then suddenly he would stop talking, turn, and go to his telegraph desk. Incredibly, while talking to us he had heard his own special call on the sounder! He would touch his telegraph key for a moment, listen for the response, touch it again, another response, a quick written notation, and then he would come back to us and resume talking where he had left off. This remarkable man had two keen brains, one for talking and the other for telegraphy! He was the man you went to to send a telegram. The Waupaca Depot was the terminal for all Western Union messages and as such was the city’s communication center. Two passenger trains and at least two freights came through daily, all of them stopping at Waupaca. All the engines were steam driven; diesels had not yet arrived. It was spine-tingling to stand there as a giant steam locomotive pulled into the depot. The earth shook under you, and great bellows of smoke and steam and showers of cinders filled the air. Sometimes well dressed, cosmopolitan-looking folks got off the train, with smart looking suitcases. The passenger train was America’s first-class mode of travel, and the Depot in Waupaca was part of the nation’s efficient network of railroads. You could get on a train in Waupaca and go just about anywhere in North (and South?) America. The railroads carried much more of the nation’s goods than trucks did, and they accomplished it more reliably. In the 1930’s railroad employees were well paid, respected people, who did important work and took pride in it. If your dad was a railroad engineer or fireman or conductor, or he worked on the road crew, you told your friends with great pride what a special person he was. The railroad telegrapher-dispatchers had the safety of the trains and all aboard them in their hands. One mistake and a head-on collision of trains could result. (Even so, I have been told authoritatively, many dispatchers on the night shift would routinely go to sleep on duty, with the telegraph sounder clicking away. When their call was sounded, they would wake up instantly, do their dispatching, and go back to sleep!) The house in which I lived was situated only about 200 feet from the Soo Line track, about a mile from the Depot, so every train coming from the north would roar past our house at about 30 miles per hour with its whistle wide open. The entire house shook—very much like a Level-5, California earthquake—and the combined noise of the train and whistle was absolutely deafening. One such train came through at about two o’clock every night! We who lived there slept through it every night and never even spoke of it, but guests who spent a night with us would bolt out of bed, certain that the end of the world had arrived. About a half a mile north of the depot, just a few feet from the track, was a long-abandoned, water-filled stone quarry. Now it was a spring-fed pool of cold, crystal-clear water at least forty feet deep, where we boys swam on many summer days. All of us always swam in the nude. We owned swim suits, but it was an unwritten rule that all stone-quarry swimming was done naked. Also it was tacitly understood that when the afternoon passenger train came by, everyone must climb up on the rocks, facing the track. Thus we were able to shock all the lady passengers looking our way by presenting a startling tableau of totally naked boys in various athletic poses. One rather mature teen-age boy with an athletic build had perfected a special backward dive that he did for the ladies. He’d begin by facing the passing train, then he’d slowly lean backward, and then, well, you’d have to see it to fully appreciate it. He had a friend make an 8mm movie of that famous nude dive. One evening I saw him downtown in Allen’s restaurant, proudly showing that movie, projected on the wall in one of the booths, to two giggling waitresses and a crowd of boys. The 50-degree water was always refreshing, and there was a stone bluff about ten feet above water level that was ideal for our diving. About 25 feet below the surface of the water you could see the top of a full-size locomotive sitting upright on the bottom of the quarry, rusting away. On a hot summer day there would be thirty or more boys there cavorting in and around the quarry. Once in a while a non-conformist would show up in a swim suit and would take his share of razzing. One day Roger Welch
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and two other fellows and their girlfriends, all of them in swim suits, did a little swimming at the far end of the quarry, while a large group of us nude boys swam and dived at the near end, much to everyone’s mutual delight. The old stone quarry was Waupaca’s nudist club, with membership restricted to boys. Not far from the quarry was a “hobo camp,” a place where railroad hoboes, who we called “bums,” lived a transient existence between trains. All during the Great Depression thousands of bums rode the rails, without paying any fare. They sneaked into box cars when they could, or, failing that, they rode on top of the cars or underneath them, lying on the undercarriage, just inches above the track. Some rode the rails only a few times a year, to get to some part of the country where employment beckoned, but others were continually on the move. Some would arrive in Waupaca, beg door to door for food or money for a few days, and then move on to the next town. In the winter, of course, they all went south. The railroads did not take kindly to all this. Special railroad police, who the bums called “bulls,” were hired to pull the bums from the trains, beat them viciously with clubs, and sometimes turn them over to local police on a vagrancy charge. But the experienced bums avoided this by getting off the train out of town, before it stopped, a risky business that resulted in many a fractured limb. Several times we visited the bums’ camp near our stone quarry. A dozen or so men would be gathered around an open fire, on which a battered coffee pot and perhaps a can of soup would be heating. Some of them, with a whiskey or wine bottle in hand, would be singing or frolicking. The others would be sitting on the ground or on a stump, talking or kidding around. They looked much like today’s street people in large cities: unwashed and unshaven, dressed in torn, cast-off clothing that did not fit them. They always treated us with courtesy. We weren’t afraid of them, but we were always a bit uneasy. Of course we never told our folks that we had been with the bums. Near the Waupaca railroad depot, just beyond the railroad bridge, there was for many years a baseball diamond and old, unpainted, wooden bleachers, partly surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence. On summer Sunday afternoons games played there would attract at least a hundred people, each of whom paid a small admission. During some of those games I was one of several ball boys whose job was to retrieve balls knocked out of the park. Many pop flies required our services, so by the end of the game my knees were badly skinned from shinnying up the rough-hewn fence. Regulation baseballs cost fifty cents, so when a ball went over the fence, the whole game came to a stop until it was returned. All eyes were on me when I was the retriever. As I reached the top of that high fence my golden moment would arrive. The pitcher would turn to me and say, “Here kid,” and I would throw it to him, or at least toward him, and the game would resume. We ball boys were paid five cents—not per ball, per game—and of course we could watch the game free. After each game we lined up for our pay. One Sunday in the pay line I found myself right behind the pitcher, and to my amazement I saw him paid twelve dollars! It had never occurred to me that any ordinary person could earn that much money for just three hours work of any kind, much less for just throwing a baseball. As I stood there holding my nickel, I thought about the pay ratio of skilled to unskilled labor: more than two hundred to one! That was a red-letter day in my evolving understanding of the American economy. One year one of our upperclassmen—Bill Ewald, I think it was—bought an old Model T Ford in running order for fifteen dollars. One winter evening a bunch of us chipped in a nickel each for some gas, piled into his car, drove out on ice-covered Shadow Lake and for several hours put the old flivver through a series of ground loops. Bill would drive it in a straight line for a time and then would suddenly cut the wheels sharply in one direction, at which the old tin lizzie would go into rotation. By gunning the engine at just the right moment, Bill could accelerate the spin, and the effect was much the same as the rides at an amusement park. On another evening we repeated the performance, but there was nearly a foot of new-fallen snow on the lake. The high-slung Model T nicely cleared the snow, so now our ground loops were accompanied by great swirls of flying snow. It was like being in a rotating snowplow. No, it was our 1930’s snowmobile. Gasoline was around fifteen cents a gallon, a quart of oil was a dime, and a Model T got about 35 miles per gallon. Many gas pumps were hand operated; you turned a big crank to pump the gas. Many cars had no gas gauge; you checked the level with a wooden dip stick that looked much like a yard stick.
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During my entire youth it seemed that nearly all the cars I saw were Fords, either Model T’s, which were discontinued in 1928, or the Model A’s that followed them. New Fords cost three to four hundred dollars, which was apparently far enough below their competitors’ prices that people on depression budgets couldn’t afford the other brands. During the depths of the Depression persons driving non-Ford cars were generally seen as being “well off.” To this day I have an ingrained, subconscious feeling that Fords are budget cars for people who can’t afford a really good car.
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My folks were not churchgoers, but like most adults they had the gnawing feeling that the younger generation ought to be churched. Somewhere around age 10 I began to attend the Baptist Sunday School, after some heavy urging by grandma, plus the promise of a weekly five-cent bribe. It was an utterly boring experience, but might have eventually evolved into something fruitful had not the minister soon begun to insist that I be baptized. Baptism, he explained in vivid terms, required my complete body submersion in a tank of water in view of the congregation. In those years I had a serious nasal condition that caused me to gag and experience upsetting aftereffects whenever I got my head under water. The thought of immersion was so frightful that I panicked. Asked whether my baptism might be postponed a while, the minister answered a flat “No,” and began talking about setting a date the following month. I quit the Baptist Church, never to return. My classmate, Donavan Beer, went to Lutheran Sunday school, so I gave that a try not long after. Baptism did not come up as an issue, and I was able to collect the weekly nickel from grandma, who was ecumenical to that extent. The church services and school were as boring as the Baptists’, but there were picnics from time to time. One big one was planned for the Fourth of July, and I was looking forward to it. Somehow Donavan failed to tell me that it was held on the third, and I missed it. I was miffed. That was the last straw—actually the first straw, but I needed only one. With that as my rationale, I quit church going for several years. As I have explained, my Aunt Alta nearly died from tuberculosis, but recovered after a year in the state hospital at Madison. While she recuperated there, a Christian Science practitioner visited her ward regularly, and Alta became intensely interested in that religion. She came home convinced that it had helped cure her. Soon grandma, Aunt Esther, and I were attending the Christian Science church in Waupaca. Christian Science has many appeals to persons who want less ritual and formality than that provided by most other churches. Christian Science has no ministers, no baptism, no recitation of a sin-confessing creed at each Sunday service, etc. Its adherents believe in self healing through prayer to the extent that many do not call for medical help except in dire circumstances. Incredibly, they also say that they do not believe in the existence of matter. In its Sunday school I felt I was being treated like an adult. Instead of memorizing and reciting excerpts from the bible, we were led into analytical discussions by our teacher and were encouraged to question and doubt. Sunday school was now a pleasant, intellectual challenge instead of a boring drudge. I attended regularly, with no weekly bribe, for most of my last two years in Waupaca—but never after that.
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As soon as I turned 12, I joined the Boy Scouts of America, the BSA. Waupaca had no cub-scout troop for younger boys. Our scoutmaster was Mr. Ruben Nelson, a Waupaca businessman who for many years did an excellent job in that role without pay or glory. There were two Scout troops in town, numbers 34 and 36. Ours was the former and had about two dozen boys. The rather spacious building we met in, across the street from the Armory, had room enough for our meetings and a generous open space for a ping pong table and other games and general roughnecking. I quickly and easily passed my tenderfoot and second-class tests. I was developing great enthusiasm for progressing upward to the higher levels of scouting, and would very likely have become an Eagle Scout eventually. But I repeatedly flunked the first-class signaling test and never progressed any further. Several other boys also came to a halt because of that formidable signaling requirement. I had taught myself Morse code very well, and could easily have passed the single-flag Morse flag test, but two-flag semaphore signaling was a mandatory firstclass requirement. No reason given, just BSA policy. Years later the first-class BSA requirement was changed to permit Morse-flag or semaphore signaling, at the scout’s option! I have often wondered how many other scouts were stymied by the old semaphore signaling requirement. I was the company clerk for the troop. I collected the nickel weekly dues from each scout and recorded the minutes of our meetings. That role was good training for the note taking I’ve done at several hundred technical and business meetings in the years since then. None of us ever owned a complete official scout uniform. They were available only from the BSA, which always charged top dollar for every product it sold. A complete uniform cost more than ten dollars, which made it out of the question. Most of us owned an official BSA neckerchief, several of us had a BSA shirt, others had BSA pants, and one boy had a BSA hat. Correction: Donavan Beer somehow pulled together a complete scout uniform—Smokey hat and all—during my last year in the scouts. It was the only time I ever saw any boy from our troop in the full uniform. While scouting places emphasis on out-of-doors activities like camping and hiking, most of the year we did our scouting activities indoors. We played a wide variety of games, did arts and crafts, and worked on our scouting tests and merit badges. We did very little camping. For fourteen dollars a scout could go to the nearby BSA camp for two weeks in July. Located a few miles from Waupaca, it was a lovely, scenic place along a lake in a lovely pine grove—or so we were told by the only two boys in our troop who ever attended: the Weeden brothers. The rest of us never came up with that much money. Bob and Dave Weeden made it their business to get to camp each summer. All year long they collected waste newspapers, which sold for about fifteen cents per hundred pounds. Their father had made them a bailer, and they bailed tons of paper. One day in July we would see a truck pull up at the Weedens’ to load in dozens of bales of paper, and some big money would change hands. Then the Weeden boys would start packing for camp. We heard that there were boys in the other troop in Waupaca whose parents sent them to camp for the two weeks every summer. What luxury. Little did we know that some prosperous families in America sent their kids to expensive camps for the entire summer! Like most of my chums, by the time I reached age 15 I became more interested in football and girls and other matters not treated in the Scout Handbook, so I parted company with scouting. That was pretty much the pattern for all boys; no one I knew stayed with scouting much beyond that age. (Not many years later I became a scoutmaster in Washington D.C. for a time.) Scouting was and still is a fine organization that promotes wholesome fun and character building. We played games, we studied, we learned how to work as a team, we strived for and won awards, we did good deeds, and we marched as a troop. Beneath it all there was character building: setting goals and working toward them, reciting a sensible, wholesome oath each week and trying to live by it, and developing a sense of service to the community.
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In the 1930’s Waupaca High School did not offer several distinct curricula, one for college preparation, another for homemakers, another for technicians, etc. as high schools now do. To graduate, every student had to complete four years of English and a year of algebra, geometry, American history, biology, civics, and a senior science (chemistry or physics), plus a specified number of electives. So-called “rough” courses like algebra, geometry, biology, and a senior science, which nowadays are viewed as college-preparatory subjects by many educators, were routinely completed by all of us, I am proud to say. When I read nowadays that a large fraction of highschool students graduate having studied no algebra, no geometry, no science, no foreign language, and only two years of English, my esteem for the Waupaca High curriculum of the 1930’s gets a boost. I feel sure that we who graduated in the class of 1941 were better educated than all but a tiny fraction of the current crop of high-school graduates. Every Waupaca High graduate in my class was eligible for entry into almost any university. There was no need for a college prep school or special tutoring after high school. In effect we all took what is today called “the college option.” A possible exception was a few universities’ language requirement. Waupaca High offered Latin and German but did not require either language for graduation. Five weeks into my junior year, the principal reminded all students of those facts and urged us all to get at least two years of language if we planned to go to college. I signed up for German, and with grandma’s nightly help for several weeks, I caught up with the class and enjoyed two years of German studies. It turned out that I didn’t need any language to enter my university. But on my several vacations in Europe I have greatly enjoyed using my limited knowledge of German. The normal student load was four subjects per semester, but in my junior and senior years I took six. It was partly an honest thirst for knowledge, but mostly, I guess, it was an ego trip for me. I felt proud to be able to say I was carrying 150 percent of the normal load. My grades varied from a few A’s to mostly B’s and C’s. The teachers told me I was an “underachiever,” a euphemism for “lazy.” That was partly the cause of my not doing better, but partly it was the utter boredom and frustration of having to study topics that bored me—like reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Emerson, Hawthorne, etc., who bore me even today. Along side me, taking many of the same classes, were straight-A students like Gordon Jensen, Maxine Czeskleba, Betty Jacklin, Lorraine Jensen, and others, who doggedly cracked the books and did their homework assignments without exception, no matter how boring. I observed of myself then what I have noted all my life: I do well only at those things that I am interested in. I do poorly at most of the others, even though it might benefit me greatly to discipline myself, dig in, and do well with them. I am fortunate in having found a profession—electronics engineering—that fascinated me from the beginning. I have great sympathy for those millions of persons who never found any calling that profoundly grabbed their interest, and who have had to grit their teeth and wade into boring matters to make a living. At the same time I admire them.
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One of the joys of remembering my youth is identifying early attitudes and patterns of behavior that I was not aware of at the time. For example, I have come to realize that folks in Waupaca during the depression years, at least those that I knew, had a very strong aversion to any conduct that could be called self-indulgent. Although they may not have known it consciously, most adults were opposed to indulging themselves or their children, and only rarely would they permit their children to indulge themselves. “Self indulgence,” by the way, is my choice of term, here. I never heard the phrase until after I left home. Some sociologists might call that conduct part of the Protestant Ethic with an overlay of the Great Depression. But I never detected any religious overtones. I was never told, for example, that self-indulgence was a sin, although my folks may have subconsciously felt that it was. No, the operative phrases of my youth were “we (or you) can’t afford it” or “you shouldn’t waste your money on it.” My folks and other parents repeatedly forbade their kids to buy items that they saw as self-indulgences, and they berated them when they did buy such things. Even after the money for the purchase was available, perhaps even saved by superhuman effort, it still wasn’t right to make the purchase if owning the item was seen as being indulgent. In my senior year in high school I saved up six dollars and bought a small radio of my own, Ward’s cheapest model. It brought a great deal of joy into my life. Grandma criticized my purchase as “wasting your money” and said I should have saved it instead for my college education. In her view it was a self-indulgent toy that I had purchased. If instead I had spent the six bucks on clothing or a few good meals for myself, I’m sure she would have felt all right about it. That philosophy was clear and consistent. Of life’s necessities—food, clothing, and lodging—you bought what you had to. You spent frugally, but you didn’t cheat yourself by always buying the bottom of the line. But of life’s non-necessities, like hobbies, souvenirs, jewelry, knickknacks, toys and games, sports, travel, recreation, etc. you either avoided the purchase completely or you bought the very cheapest item available. It was improper to do otherwise. There was peer pressure on the adults also. If your child saved up his money and bought, let us say, an expensive camera, your friends and relatives, themselves imbued with the anti-indulgence credo, would notice the camera and make critical remarks that you would find hard to bear. Living by these criteria, my folks never ever bought a new car; a used one replaced their old one when the time came. (Our next-door neighbor saved for several years and finally bought himself a flashy new convertible. There was much talk around town about his “wastefulness.”) We never took a vacation or even thought about taking one. Sunday visits to the relatives in Almond were limits of our away-from-home recreation. The family camera was Aunt Esther’s 1920 box camera that had sold for a dollar. We had no telephone, no refrigerator, and our radio was a small, used one. Of course it was financially impossible for us to do better in all those areas at the same time, but the point is that we chose to do none of them. Yet we were well fed and housed, and it would have been unheard of to ever even consider buying used clothing—which, by the way, I did several times while in college. I have mixed feelings about this aspect of my rearing. I’m thankful that I was not allowed to indulge myself without limit, as I see some of my son’s generation have been. But I regret being taught to buy the cheapest item when it is a non-essential or to do without it completely. I recognize that where money matters were concerned, most adults were running scared during the Great Depression, and some of their fears descended on their children. Foreclosure, eviction, loss of employment or of one’s lifetime savings had happened to many, and they were continuing risks for almost everyone. Little wonder that many or most of my generation have suffered at least some mild paranoia along with an obsessive attitude toward money. Some of this Depression syndrome has permeated my thinking to this day. Even at my advanced age I have to remind myself frequently that if I buy the lowest-priced item, it will very likely not be the best purchase in the long run, and that I can easily afford to buy the top of the line.
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In May 1941, 82 other High School seniors and I put on our caps and gowns and met in the public ceremonies of graduation to cut the umbilical with the public school system. I had just turned 16 the previous February. The next week I was to take a train to Washington D.C. to join my mother there, never again to live in Waupaca. Many of us had been discussing where we might go to college and what we might study. For us boys the possibility of military service loomed large on the horizon. We knew that the war in Europe had been going badly. The previous summer Hitler had done the impossible in western Europe. In a 15-day blitzkrieg his panzers had by-passed the Maginot Line and raced across France all the way to the English Channel. The French Army, the strongest in the world, was quickly brought to a disastrous, humiliating defeat. German troops marched victoriously down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Now most of western Europe was in Hitler’s bloody hands, England was being bombed and threatened with invasion, and Winston Churchill was telling President Roosevelt that to save western civilization, America would have to enter the war. During the last week of school those ominous tidings plus my plans for leaving Waupaca put me in a pensive and introspective mood. On the very last day of school I stood for several minutes at the rear of the assembly room, with diploma in hand. The room was empty and completely silent. I feel sure that was the first time in my life that I was able to look to the past with some adult maturity. I told myself to remember this day, because it was a key milestone in my life (even greater, I thought to myself, than my romantic night on the ice!) My nine years in Waupaca flashed before my mind. I felt good about how far I had come from the countryschool days to my now holding a diploma from a first-class high school. I experienced a surge of energy as I began to think about the dragons waiting out there to be slain. Then as I stood there a vague premonition came over me. An indefinable fear welled up within me. Tears came to my eyes and I turned my back to the entrance for fear I would be seen crying. After a few minutes I regained my composure and joined my classmates. It turned out that some of my fears were well founded. Two weeks later Hitler’s legions would attack Russia, involving all of Europe in the bloodiest and most monstrous of all wars. Six months later America would be precipitously drawn into a global struggle against Germany, Italy, and Japan, in which I and many of my Waupaca classmates would soon serve. Several of my school chums, remarkably none from my class, would perish in war. As historians like to say, events were about to overtake us.
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On the whole, writing this book has been an enjoyable experience for me. Recalling the joys and triumphs of my youth has been fun all the way. Even reliving some of the pains and sorrows has been rewarding. But writing about my youth has made me feel older. I began this only three years ago, but now I feel at least a decade older! Just recalling to mind what happened 50-odd years ago has been an aging experience. It has aged me to sit at this keyboard night after night, writing from memory about events in the 1930’s, while working with young folks each day who are not sure who Roosevelt or Hitler were or what the Great Depression was. Also I feel more senior than ever, having reached the conclusion that I will probably not live long enough to see rock music replaced by anything remotely resembling the lovely, harmonious, romantic music of my youth—if indeed that replacement ever occurs. The writing has helped me realize more clearly than ever before that “none of us is going to get out of this alive.” In a positive way that has clarified my perspective on life and death. Recalling and writing about dozens of friends and relatives who have been in the grave for decades has helped me to locate myself in the continuum of the generations.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Babin is about to retire after a 41-year electronics-engineering career in government and industry. He and his wife, Madelene, met and married in Washington D.C. (in 1947), and for a time they lived near Boston, Massachusetts, her home territory. They have been Californians since 1957, so retirement will not mean their moving somewhere else to find sunshine, mountains, or surf. This book is his first. He wrote it using the word-processor in his home computer. Previously he had limbered up the computer by crunching numbers and writing essays and philosophical speculations. There may still be a writer inside him, trying to get out.
Copyright 1988 Robert S. Babin
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