The Sum of the Parts
They say you cannot understand the whole of anything without putting together and understanding its parts—sort of the jigsaw puzzle of life. Although one’s memory might fade and specific reminiscences are forgotten with age, each generation owes the richness of their lives and perhaps their life’s paths to the beliefs and events of their era; even though at the time of their happening they may have gone unnoticed or unappreciated. The events of our times give testimony that no matter how hard we try or protest we are neither isolated nor living in a vacuum. No people are an island. Indeed, no man, woman, or child is an island.
The decade before my own beginning that influenced my parents’ lives and choices was the 1940s. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president of the United States. World War II dominated half of this decade and perceptibly defined the decade’s entirety. My mother, Roberta, who was born and lived in Carrara in northern Italy at the time, was in her late teens and trying to live to tell the tale of World War II. Italy was part of the Axis powers until they changed alliances to the Allies, as the Allies prepared their Sicily campaign in 1943. Italy also changed alliances shortly after the start of World War I in 1914 from the German-Austria-Hungarian alliance to the Great Britain-France-Russia coalition. Indecisiveness is typically not beneficial for a person or a people, but Italy defied the odds each time.
What is part of my mother’s fortitude, willful nature, and tenacity of today likely had much of its roots in her survival during World War II. The aerial bombings of Italy by the Allies and Axis powers not only reduced Italian cites and towns to rubble, but also reduced the survival rate of the Italian people. The bombings forced mother and her family to run into the local caves, as they were the natural and only bomb shelters of the time. Her family also had to hide her two brothers in their home’s attic from time to time, much like Anne Frank and her family, as the Nazis often came to town looking for male volunteers to swell the ranks of the German army… or to suffer a much worse fate. What humans can do to each other under the banner of hatred defies the imagination. Mother often related her fears and anger brought about by these world events seemingly never able to escape them.
My father, William, was born in Memphis, Tennessee after his parents immigrated to America from Carrara, Italy—born American, forever Italian. He was a clerk and draftsman at the time of his induction in the U.S. armed services on March 11, 1942 at the age 27. My father served as a corporal in the U.S. army having achieved this noncommissioned rank on May 21, 1942. He served in the 347th Air Base Squadron, 5th Ferrying Group stationed at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. His army specialty was identified as “Artist (296).” My father was discharged honorably on February 22, 1944.
Prior to the world war, the people of America and all humanity had been suffering deeply from the Great Depression of the 1930s. The stock market had crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. War production of the 1940s helped significantly to lift the Great Depression in the United States. It was during this period that my family experienced for the first time what to all Americans was unparalleled and mandatory life adjustments during the war: rationing. Many products were rationed during World War II: coffee; meat; sugar; shoes; typewriters; fuel oil; gasoline; cars; and rubber. Even certain fabrics like silk and synthetic fibers were not made available to ordinary civilians.
During the war years, my father shared that food rationing was the most difficult experience to balance for his family. Each American was issued a monthly book of ration coupons. Rationed goods were assigned a price and point worth, but not restricted as to how much of each rationed goods one could purchase. Once families depleted their allotted coupons, however, rationed goods could not be purchased again until the next month at which time new ration coupons were distributed. Family members in the same household were allowed to pool their ration coupons, which indeed helped to stretch a family’s budget each month. I guess at the time there was more than just safety in numbers. With rationing, families were also encouraged to plant what were popularly called Victory Gardens. These gardens supplied most of the vegetables for each family, including my father’s.
Rubber and gas were the most essential products rationed during the war, and restriction of these products affected American driving habits. Driving for enjoyment was considered nonessential and prohibited in America. Automobile owners were required to display a sticker on their car windshields to enforce the restriction that they were not simply driving for pleasure, but for some strategic grounds supportive of the war effort.
During this decade, the U.S. Allied troops created their own impetus for the War’s beginning of the end with the D-Day beach landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. We, as a people, should be thankful that the 24/7 news coverage and analysis of today were not in place for project Overlord. The plan would never have maintained its secret success of steaming nearly 4000 ships and 133,000 troops to the beaches of Normandy. The landings would have occurred much later if at all while congress argued about whether such a landing had merit—across party lines, of course. Political correctness may signal the beginning of the end of life in America, as envisioned by our insightful forefathers.
By mid-decade, President Roosevelt died from a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945 without experiencing the victory that would soon be celebrated by each and every American. Following Roosevelt’s death, Vice President Harry S. Truman was sworn in as our president. It was said that Truman attempted to comfort Mrs. Roosevelt; however, she reportedly returned the favor by replying, “You are the one in trouble now!” How perceptive Mrs. Roosevelt was and how clueless Mr. Truman would be about the complexity of the trouble ahead.
Yet, the world war was brought to its methodical conclusion. V-E Day, Victory over Europe, was celebrated on May 8, 1945. Japan later surrendered on V-J Day, September 2, 1945 after two atomic bombs decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. With the Allied victory, the United States emerged as a superpower that militarily could only be challenged by the U.S.S.R. With the end of World War II, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in 1949 in response to the emerging tensions of the Cold War between Russia and the United States.
Well, now you have a slice of my parents’ life as well as many people of the era. The value of the dollar and scrimping were lessons taught to them by the world depression, a lesson they bestowed daily upon us whether through the sharing of a nickel ice cream cone among 3 children or sustaining a weekly food budget of $30.00 for 5 family members. The value of rationing and sacrificing for the common good were taught to them by world war. The violence and death of war was thrust upon my mother, as a matter of the time and place in which she lived. My father, like many other fathers and sons, volunteered for the armed forces to serve his country. My father came home a proud veteran—many others did not. My mother survived in Europe—many others did not. Yet, survival had its price. To this day, mother becomes quite angry with presidents and other government officials who make decisions to wage wars and conflicts that put our young men and women in harms way.
World events aside, my mother and father were introduced to each other by a ‘mutual friend of sorts’ and married in early 1948. My beginning was in 1951—the decade of the 50s, three years after the birth of my sister Diane and four years before the birth of my brother Rick. Yes, I can say it now… I am a middle child. I know some of you are nodding empathetically, but more of you are snickering, “Oh, a middle child!” Anyway, if I count backwards correctly, I became more than a gleam in my parents’ eyes in cold February of that year—either by happenstance or by plan—as I was born in October 1951. OK, now you are snickering because I am an old fart!
To continue, when I was born the world population was 2.5 billion people. I was born in the United States where I was one of nearly 155 million people in 1951—a statistic that almost makes you feel dwarfed and insignificant right off the bat—does it not? Life expectancy was 71 years—for women of course. For men, life expectancy was beaten down to a mere 65 years. Are women just stronger than men or does marriage just make men weaker?
Anyway, the world was at war again as it seems that the only way to achieve fleeting peace is through victory—this time, the Korean War—or “police action” depending upon your political reference and point of view. President Truman ordered Naval and Air Force service men to Korea in June of 1951. The 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. In essence, the war never ended, only the fighting among nations involved in the conflict at the time. In Japan, the United States signed a pact that permitted U.S. troops to stay indefinitely in Japan… and the unrelenting warrior of World War II, Winston Churchill, was elected to form a new government across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom.
On the home front, Harry S. Truman was president of the United States and Alben Barkley was vice president. Alben who? Truman submitted the biggest peacetime budget to date in U.S. history to fund American’s participation in the Korean War. The 22nd Amendment was ratified, which limited the number of terms a president may serve—good for us when we elect an ineffectual president; bad for us when we elect a productive, influential one. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for treason for passing atomic secrets to the Russians, and their execution in 1953 sparked controversy.
The federal debt was $255.3 billion compared to the over $8 trillion dollars of today. For those of you suffering and/or benefiting from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the debt of at this very moment to the penny is: $8,392,042,389,042.07. For today’s U.S. population, your share of this debt comes to $28,071.41.
Minimum wage was 75 cents an hour back in 1951 and the annual average income was $3,515. However, commodities were also much more economical at the time: first-class stamp, 3 cents; loaf of bread, 16 cents; milk, 92 cents a gallon; 72 cents per pound for ground coffee; eggs, 24 cents a dozen causing many chickens to leave the coop due to slave labor; and ground hamburger for 50 cents a pound, which was not enough to cover the cost of cow flatulence! You could own your own home for $9,000, buy a new car for $1,520, and drive your roadster to the hottest hangouts for a mere 19 cents a gallon, or if you preferred, to the movies for 65 cents—a really cheap $1.30 date as long as she did not ask for popcorn and soda!
Super glue was invented in 1951 in case you had the urge to dangle yourself or any part of yourself from a construction beam or anything else. Smile —still cameras were introduced with built-in flash units. Power steering was launched by Chrysler and they marketed this feature as “Hydraguide.” Colorforms was the hot new toy in 1951 even though it was flat and two-dimensional. More importantly for little girls (and some boys) everywhere, Mattel introduced Barbie in 1959. I do not know about my male peers, but Barbie never looked like any of the girls I knew… and nothing lasts forever, anyway, as Barbie and Ken have since separated.
Television was becoming the dominant mass media for communication and diminishing the role of radio. Color television was introduced in the United States just a month before I was born—clearly one of the more critical events in my personal history. However, back then our family did not even own a black and white TV set. We watched television at our grandmother’s next door on a black and white RCA Victor. The top opened like an old fashioned stereo to access the television controls, which to us looked like the baffling cockpit of a modern airliner. If you wanted color, you could buy a multicolored plastic screen that you placed in front of your black and white television display. It was a long time before I realized that color was not evenly horizontal! You could also enjoy a TV dinner in your own home in front of your television—the precursor of the dinner theater of today.
A number of classic TV shows were broadcast at the time, including Amos ‘n’ Andy, Dragnet, All Star Revue, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Roy Rogers Show, and Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now. The television soap opera Search for Tomorrow and the situation comedy I Love Lucy debuted. The first transcontinental television broadcast in America took place, as it televised President Truman’s address to the nation. Television also broadcasted its first human birth at mid-year. Woo-hoo! So much for the age of innocence and thinking we came from the cabbage patch or whatever patch that you crawled out of as declared by your parents!
It was a time when events drove the news unlike today where the news can drive events or perhaps gives them a good push tainted with shameless bias. News coverage was ½ hour daily of local and national news back in the 1950s, not the 24/7 coverage of today. The around-the-clock coverage and endless analysis are strained at times to make news out of the news in order to sustain on-air coverage. You used to have reasonable time to digest the coverage and then arrive at your own conclusions. And if the news runs dry today, somebody is sure to spot Elvis,Nessie, Big Foot, or Small Toed!
The first videotape recorded (VTR) was invented in this decade. An American in Paris won the Oscar for best picture in 1951. Best Actor was awarded to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and Best Actress went to Vivian Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. Moviegoers of the time could also see All About Eve, Alice in Wonderland, Scrooge, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and A Place in the Sun.
Yul Brynner made his first appearance of many as the king of Siam in The King and I. Alan Freed used the term rock ‘n’ roll for the first time to describe R&B music. Top songs for 1951 blaring on jukeboxes included Come On-A My House (Rosemary Clooney), If (Perry Como), Cold, Cold Heart (Tony Bennett), Too Young (Nat King Cole), Cry (Johnny Ray and the Four Lads), and Be My Love (Mario Lanza). J. D. Salinger penned The Catcher in the Rye, Herman Wouk wrote The Caine Mutiny, James Jones penned From Here to Eternity, James Michener wrote Return to Paradise, and Tennessee William’s The Rose Tattoo was published.
Not in time to prevent my birth, but I suppose you readers may or may not be eternally grateful that the first oral contraceptive was developed. I think I hear snickering again. UNIVAC, the first computer to process both alphabetic and numeric data was introduced. The U.S. performed the first nuclear test in the Nevada desert as an Air Force plane dropped a one-kiloton bomb on Frenchman Flats. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission built the first nuclear power plant, which best explains why I have a tail—but that is another beginning!
In sports, the New York Yankees defeated the New York Giants in the 1951 World Series—no doubt a commercial bonanza for the east coast. Willie Mays began playing for the New York Giants at age 20 and Joe DiMaggio announced his retirement from baseball after signing his third $100,000 contract earlier in the year. The Pro Football champion was the Los Angeles Rams—the Superbowl extravaganza was not yet envisioned. The NBA championship was won by Rochester over New York. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated Montreal for the all Canadian Stanley Cup. The Circle City’s Indianapolis 500 winner, who blazed the two and one-half oval at 126.244 miles per hour, was Lee Wallard. Ben Hogan was the U.S. Open Golf champion. At Wimbledon, Dick Savitt won the match for men and Doris Hart for women. The Kentucky Derby champion was Count Turf. Kentucky was the NCAA basketball champion and Tennessee the college football champion. Jersey Joe Walcott won the heavyweight title in boxing.
My birth aside, a number of influential and famous people were born in 1951. According to the Chinese Zodiac, this was the year of the Rabbit. Rabbit people are affectionate, obliging, and always pleasant, but they can get too sentimental and seem superficial. Being cautious and conservative, these people are successful in business but would also make a good lawyer, diplomat, or actor. I have no business sense and I am not a lawyer, diplomat, or actor—but those born in 1951 include John (Cougar) Mellencamp, Jane Seymour, Kurt Russell, Rush Limbaugh (EIB), Sally Ride (the first American woman in space flew on the space shuttle Challenger), Bonnie Pointer, Francis Ford Coppola, and Dan Fogelberg. At the same time people came into our world, others were exiting it. Those that died in 1951 include Will Kellogg, Ferdinand Porsche, John Alden Carpenter, William Randolph Hearst, Joe Jackson (of baseball’s black sox scandal), and Fanny Brice. We take notice of people leaving us, as with age it becomes a measure of our own mortality. And if the reader will forgive me for jumping out of character and time, as I write this particular day of July 27, 2003, Bob Hope is dead at age 100. Thanks for the memories, Bob!
There were other events shaping our world and neighborhoods in the 1950s. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 made it easier legally for immigrants to become United States citizens. In 1953, Lucille Ball gave ‘birth’ to Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show after having given birth to her real life son Desi Arnaz, Jr. earlier in the day. In 1954, U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy began televised hearings into alleged Communists in America. Racial barriers in the United States were attacked by several marked events. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and reaffirmed that the separation of races violated the Constitution’s requirement of racial equality. In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to relinquish her seat on a public bus to a white person.
Transportation and beyond got its start in 1956 when the federal Highway Act was signed. This marked the beginning of projects for the interstate highway system in America and introduced orange cones and barrels to weary driven Americans everywhere; and where Midwesterners in particular eagerly awaited the arrival of the cold winter when road construction ended and those barrels disappeared. In 1958, the first domestic jet passenger service is begun between New York City and Miami and little further up in the sky, the U.S. satellite, Explorer I, orbited successfully the earth. And if America was not yet big enough, Alaska and Hawaii become the 49th and 50th states, respectively. The phrase under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the fifties.
Not only does the decade of your beginnings influence your development and character, but also so does the place of birth and the laws that govern your state. I was born in Indiana. Sometimes it is difficult to comply with what one would consider normal and necessary laws mainly because there are so many of them. Laws are not written for criminals anyway because criminals do not comply with them—what would be the point?
In addition to essential regulations, there are laws on the books that seem pointless and only serve to question the sanity of the people of the state. These senseless decrees impact one’s temperament if not on one’s behavior. Their absurdity, however, do provide a degree of humor. One’s imagination runs amuck in pondering what circumstances and turn of events had to come together to force reasonable men to create such eccentric laws:
- Your body is no longer your property once your breath leaves you [probably enacted because your estate is taxed after your death like you owe the government something for dying]
- It is illegal to bathe during the winter months from October thru March [likely enacted because deodorant was not used widely and you smelled less during the winter than summer months]
- A resort area passed a law requiring all black cats to wear bells on Friday the 13th [probably enacted because cats ate the rabbits’ feet they were given]
- It is against the law for a barber to threaten to cut off a child’s ears [apparently enacted because some impatient barber did so]
- It is illegal to ride public transportation or attend the movie theater in one city within four hours of eating garlic [probably enacted with the increase of Italian immigrants]
- It is illegal to make a monkey smoke a cigarette [everybody knows that pipe smoking is the method of choice for apes]
- Liquor stores may not sell milk [likely enacted because children sent to buy milk spent their milk money on booze]
- You may not back into a parking spot because it prevents the police from viewing your license plate [likely really enacted because of the increase in auto accidents, as most people do poorly in backing up in confined spaces]
- Pedestrians crossing a street at night are prohibited from wearing taillights [likely enacted because it simply was not done in the fashion world]
- No one can catch a fish with his or her bare hands [probably enacted because something was fishy for those who did]
- Men are prohibited from standing in a bar [likely enacted because they couldn’t stand even if they wanted to]
- Drinks on the house are illegal [probably enacted because drinkers would fall in the gutters soon enough]
- State government officials who engage in private duels can be dismissed from their office [likely applied to the loser only]
- Mustaches are illegal if the bearer has a tendency to kiss habitually other humans [probably enacted as a way to control running the bases]
- The value of Pi is 3.2, not 3.1415 [probably enacted by some rounder who wouldn’t know a good pie if he ate one]
- It is forbidden to eat watermelon in the park [likely enacted because of the increased assaults due to seed-rage]
- No one may spit on the sidewalk [likely enacted because somebody did and people who spat thought they could vomit for free too]
- No one may throw an old computer across the street at their neighbor [probably enacted after a frivolous lawsuit because nobody could pick up those heavy old computers let alone heave them]
The pressure to grow up normal and sane is harder than people think, but we were a generation of character and we generally did anyway.
So this was the backdrop of my developmental growing years. In addition to these events and decrees, family life was quite different in the 1950’s than in the 21st century. Families actually ate meals together—home cooked, non-microwaved meals by your mother. In our Italian family, that meant some variety of pasta 4 days a week with meat thrown in between for good measure. Meals were the center plate of the home attended by each and every one. After all, the first countertop microwave, which most families could not afford at the time, was not introduced until 1957. The first McDonalds was opened in California in 1948, but did not proliferate in the Midwest until the late 50’s and early 60’s. So, family members communicated and sat at the table patiently until excused. Yet, even with such bounty you did not readily gain weight, as children’s lifestyles were not terribly sedentary then as they are today. And you were not bombarded with television commercials for diet pills that boasted anecdotal histories of vast loss in weight followed by the ever present yet brief flash brought to you in minuscule, unreadable print: Results may not be typical—no kidding! What results?
Mealtimes, particularly the evening meal and on Sunday, were dominated with family sharing and conversation. Parents generally understood their children of the time and the children of the time generally knew something of their parents. Piercings were restricted to the ears of mature women. You did not worry if you could not remember that left is right and right is wrong. Two parent households were the norm rather than the exception. Few people were single at the time where single men and women occupied only 9% of homes, which today has risen to more than 25%. People married younger at the time where the median age for first marriage was 22 years for men and 20 years for women. Only 2.5 people per 1,000 were divorced in the 1950’s compared to the now nearly 5 people per 1,000. Divorce was uncommon at the time and carried a stigma for those who dared to venture outside of an unhappy marriage. Same-sex marriages were not thought of at all.
During my growing years, you felt safe, sheltered, and protected by your family. Childhood symptomatology associated with anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and other psychiatric ailments was uncommon even though in the latter part of the 20th century and now the 21st century almost every family has one or two such children with such ailments.
My family lived in a duplex designed by my father with my paternal grandmother living on the north side—in essence, two separate homes joined together in what was called a ‘double’ in those days. Long cement sidewalks curled from the street to their respective porches. Two brick columns and railings surrounded each cemented porch. Our families spent many evenings on these porches watching dusk turn to darkness, and neighbors going about their uncomplicated nightly lives. Two ordinary brick chimneystacks belied the ornamental marble fireplaces that were hidden inside each home. Perhaps they were just a facade anyway, as they were as marble white as the day they were built for neither side were ever lit for the warmth and ambience they could provide.
Our kitchen was white as snow, which balanced the black and white squares of the linoleum floor. Our home hosted three bedrooms. My brother and I shared the back bedroom with two windows, one facing toward the driveway and the other toward the backyard. Territorial wars were not uncommon between us, as our beds were only several feet apart. My sister had her own bedroom in the center of the hallway cattycorner from my parents’ bedroom. Interestingly, that would have been my bedroom if I had two sisters—ah, the fickled finger of fate! A single air conditioner protruded from our parent’s bedroom at the front of the house—not necessarily decorative, but frigidly functional. There was no central air-conditioning at the time. My sister, brother, and I often slept on our parents’ bedroom floor during those long hot summer nights. There was no relief in any other room of the house when the heat and humidity were high and the evening breeze was quite still. Those were amazingly safe and uncomplicated times, as the three of us cuddled on the floor with a thin blanket and our own comfy pillows.
Oddly, it is this summer night custom from which I developed a case of arachnophobia, a fear of…. uh… itsy bitsy spiders (yuck!). After a typical night of sleeping peacefully on our parents’ bedroom floor, my sister awoke and began brushing her long dark hair, as she did every morning in her attempt to straighten out her curls. In mid-stroke, what should happen to fall out of her hair and saunter away on the floor like he owned the place but a big, black, hairy spider—believe me, it was not an itsy bitsy spider. For me, this was more blood curdling than crossing paths with snakes and it left its traumatic mark. I was such an impressionable little snot!
Each side of the double had a full basement. I often played in the basement, but grew to dislike them because of the dust and bugs they seem to collect despite mother’s constant cleaning. It is where friends and I skateboarded—well, we put a piece of wood on top of a roller skate and pushed ourselves along with our hands. It is where friends and I played basketball—well, we used a tennis ball and a tape recorder that counted down the minutes from five minutes, and we aimed the ball through a specified space in the cross ceiling. It is where friends and I played hide-and-go-seek—well, we tried to even though one soon learned where to find the few best hiding places.
On our side of the basement there was a separate room where my father had built an intricate train setup with original Lionel trains. Lionel was just about the best toy for a young boy. There were dinning cars and cabooses. We had train locomotives that smoked after dropping a smoke pill in their stacks. These smoke pills were later discontinued as they were found to cause cancer. We had train cars with cranes and cargo. In and around the multi-layered tracks we had signals and switches, roads and cars, people and streets, bridges and lakes, fences and buildings, barns and animals, and always something new to add every month or two.
And, when we were not good or violated limits, we were often banished to the basement, sort of an underground time-out. During the day, this was not so bad—with the darkness of night, it was a different story. We were generally good children, but mother did almost all the parenting in the house. Even good children go bad once in awhile and tax even their most patient caretakers.
My grandmother’s basement had a separate room that included kitchen appliances. She also had a separate room right off the backdoor. It was not uncommon for grandmother to take in a single female border who would use her basement as a kitchen. This was somewhat confusing in that our Italian family, especially and particularly our grandmother, was more than just a little bit suspicious of strangers outside our family or our Italian heritage. A famiglia!
In the center of the large front yard spanning the doubles was a birdbath sculptured by my paternal grandfather, who was no longer alive at the time. I spent many moments kicking footballs and batting baseballs from our front yard to my friend Rick’s front yard across the street, especially on Sunday evenings after dinner when our homework was done and school seemed such a long time away. The driveway was covered with rock, doublewide, and quite straight until it made the right-hand turn to the double garage. Opening each garage door was manual labor, as there were no automatic garage door openers in those days. For many years, only our father’s car inhabited the garage. Our grandmother and mother never drove. It stayed this way for a long time until the three of us began driving our own automobiles. In a recent visit, the driveway is now cement with a below ground swimming pool crowding the backyard.
A hedgerow along the driveway divided our property line from our neighbors. We spent much time moving the rocks here and there looking for those special quartz rocks or any rock that was shinny or out of the ordinary. There seemed to be an abundance of them in our young lives. There was an alley to one side of the garage where one could take shortcuts to friends and places. Yard fences were not common then—we did not know anybody that we wanted to keep out—and we often had a straight shot to anywhere we wanted to go. Bush upon bush circled the house—a trimmer’s nightmare. Nature’s insects and tiny creatures were in abundance back then, but in today’s cities, you hardly see a one even with focused scrutiny. While growing up, a multitude of cocoons dangled from the bushes and inside each cocoon was a caterpillar waiting to burst out… and sometimes we prematurely helped them. Butterflies, grasshoppers, praying mantises, bumble bees, and yellow jackets were more common than people on our street. Nature’s mix was in full bloom before overrun by suburbia.
You did not lock your doors to your home when you left during the day or slept at night. You left your keys in your car. Sleeping on the porch or in the backyard was not uncommon. You could walk after dark without fear of becoming a blot on the local police blotter. Not that in 1951 there were no murders, child abuse, rapes, robberies and other insidious crimes. Our parents and neighbors protected us from those kinds of events and they did not occur naturally in our community.
In our town, the civil defense sirens always shrieked at 11:00 am every Friday. In our neighborhood, the emergency siren was located outside the old family owned Stop ‘N’ Shop grocery store. Mother often walked us to the store… and everywhere. When marketing with our mother, we often found ourselves covering our ears in a vain attempt to banish the noise. We did not understand what the howling was all about or all the nuances and dangers that made up civil defense. The wailing of the civil defense siren in our town has changed neither the day nor the time in over a half of century. I always thought this would be a good time for foreign invaders to attack our town, as the citizens are complacent to its pleaful warning each and every Friday morning.
Your newspaper was delivered to your front door, not the end of your driveway, in the street, on the roof, or not at all. Mail was delivered to your mailbox on the porch or swallowed by the mail slot of your home. Siblings often fought one another to be the one to extend their arms up the mail slot to see if more mail lingered outside. You enjoyed talking to your letter carrier and he not only had time to talk to you, but also enjoyed a glass of water or a cookie. Going postal was not a phenomenon. Milk in glass bottles, butter, and other dairy products were brought to your door—well, actually to your porch and placed in your family’s milk box. You did not pay immediately for these products, but you were extended credit even before credit cards became commonplace—you were trusted and charged no interest. You left the money you owed in cash in the company’s envelope and placed it securely in the milk box until tomorrow’s delivery. I still have a metal Roberts milk box trying not to rust away in the garage like many forgotten things of the past.
A big yellow truck hauling three men collected the neighborhood trash like clockwork every Wednesday in our neighborhood. Recycling was not in vogue. There were no plastic trash bags, only aluminum or metal trashcans. Each and early every Wednesday morning during the summer, Mark, my back door friend and I, sifted through the trashcans of the neighborhood looking for discarded Stokely van Camp company canned vegetables, fruits, etc. Armed with our trusty razor blade cutters with no thought of malice, delinquency or terrorism, we slashed the can labels that could be mailed to the packing company and bartered for prizes—just as magnificent as Battlecreek, Michigan. It was a time when you did not fear sticking your hands into somebody else’s trash of life.
As a child, you really enjoyed the summer because you were actually out of school for at least three months because the next school year did not commence until after Labor Day. Schools did not legislate wholesale group testing, 185 days of attendance, or made-up snow days—and yet, children of the time did not grow up uncouth and stupid! Summer days were long back then and summer evenings seemed forever endless. You had time to decompress from the school year and enjoy a good part of the summer before thoughts of schooling reentered consciousness. What you forgot over the summer usually was something you were not going to use as adults anyway. As a young child, it was your most favorite time of life that you hoped would never end even though year by year you knowingly felt it slip away, as being childlike gave way to maturity.
Summer ice cream cost a nickel or a dime, as the ringing bells or music of the Mr. Softy truck or the three-wheeled bicycle with the icebox lodged in front of the handlebars beckoned you. Children searched their family’s couches and chairs, or begged for coins as others ran into the street ready to make their purchases. You rode your bicycles everywhere, especially to the local prescription or drug store where ice cream and sodas were on tap. You played baseball or football in adjoining yards and did your best, albeit not always successfully, at not breaking glass—what a pane!
My parents were proud of their Italian heritage and participated in the Italian celebrations at the time. The annual Little Italy festival occurred each summer at a local parish south of downtown. The sites, sounds, and foods of Italy filled one’s senses and brought familiarity and comfort to first generation Italians. Also, there was an army camp in the southern part of the state that played a major role in U.S. efforts during World War II. This camp was constructed early in 1942 when the American government purchased tracts of land to build a key military installation in our state. During World War II, the camp was home to some 15,000 Italian and German prisoners of war. During their internment, the Italian prisoners of war built the Chapel in the Meadow, in part due to their appreciation for their humane treatment at the hand of their captors. Every year thereafter in late summer, Italians gather at the army camp to celebrate the Mass outside of the Chapel in the Meadow before joining each other for Italian food, drink, and fun.
Well, those are the sum of my parts that I remember today and shared with the peers of my yesterday. These are the experiences that influenced my parents and, in turn, impacted on my life choices.
Now, let me tell you about another beginning in my life
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