Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Tour 2 – Pine Street

*Caption: Our house on Pine Street as it looks today.

A stark, bulldozed lot, a typical, post-war, fifties-style, modified A-frame. A house that differed only in paint color from two beside it, the three all built by the same man, an erstwhile farmer by the name of Botkins, who had decided to start a real estate development, one house at a time, on the cheap and on a piece of his land that was more town now than country.

Whatever possessed my father to sell our house on Defiance Street in a lightning operation while Mom was giving birth to my little brother, I’ll never know. But if I’m guessing (judging from my father’s Scottish thrift, which he inherited from his own dad) it probably had to do not with comfort or aesthetics, but with economics. Perhaps a rise in the price of coal, coupled with less than adequate insulation, with his compulsive neatness and utter hatred of getting his hands dirty – in those days, you had to go down to the basement every so often and heave a few shovelfuls of coal into the furnace, and later clear out the “clinkers” with long-handled tongs – and with the high cost of converting to some other fuel, were what decided him. And when he was on one of his manic highs, he was nothing if not gregarious. So I’m speculating here, but I can just imagine him bumping into Mr. Botkins at, say, the gas station, striking up a conversation, deciding to go see the three new houses the man had built, “just a stone’s throw from the elementary school…young feller like you, y’got kids?” – and, bingo! A down payment and “something to surprise Reba with when she gets home from the hospital, by golly – our brand new, modern home!”

Mom was less than thrilled, I’m sure. The last thing she needed to do when she was just home with her new baby boy was pack up and move. But it was all decided, signed, sealed and delivered. As usual, she made the best of it, looked at the bright side and along with her mother and sister, even made the move fun for us, while her brothers and father organized and handled the grunt work. In a matter of hours we were moved in and within a couple of days, the Pine Street house was a fully operating home.

As it looks today, that house is closed all the way across the front. I’m assuming some subsequent owner added on another room or a workshop. But the original design had some surprising features for being a basically economical construction and a house built for sale, not for the builder to live in. Built off of the north end of the house there was, originally, not just a car port – an invention of those times that was basically a cheap way to provide shelter for a vehicle without going to the expense of building a full-fledged garage – but also a garage. This opened up a whole range of possibilities that neither construction, on its own, could deliver. You could have two vehicles, or you could have one and park it conveniently on the car port in good weather and in the garage in bad. You could use the car port for the car and turn the garage into a workshop or storage area. You could even finish the inside walls and floor of the garage and turn it into a playroom or guestroom. This dual feature was really an added value.

There were also some purely design features that were surprising, like the false shutters with rhomboidal designs on the front windows that gave the house a more finished look (and that have since been removed). But in general, it was plain, cheap construction.

Caption: L-R - Dan, Darla and Jim, first summer on Pine Street.

It was fairly bright and roomy for a small house, however. It was all ‘50s efficiency: rather small but well-placed windows to cut down on heating bills, a natural gas furnace for heat, a modern all-electric kitchen and built all on one storey with 8-foot ceilings. The front door at the top of a two-step concrete stoop opened directly into the living room. From the living room there was an open archway into the kitchen and dinette (efficient post-war construction also did away with the dining room, since most people ate in their kitchens anyway). Unlike our kitchen on Defiance Street where light flooded in through side windows and the glass pane of the back door, this kitchen was the only room that was always a bit dark, since it only had a small square window directly over the sink facing west, so that it only got light in the afternoon. There was a side door out of the kitchen with a small windowpane in the top part of it but it gave onto the carport, which was roofed and faced north and, so, offered little light. But the living room had a large thermo-pane picture window that let in plenty of light. Typical of energy-efficient ‘50s construction, it had no side windows that could be opened, so the only way to ventilate this main room in the summertime, when it was hot, was to open the front door and let air in through the screened storm door. But the living room was nothing if not cozy in winter.

Caption: Our first Christmas on Pine St. (L-R: Dan, Jim and Darla)

There was no hallway to speak of, just a sort of indentation off of the southeast end of the living room, off of which opened doors into two bedrooms and the bathroom, located left, right and center. The bedroom on the left was where my parents and infant brother slept. The one on the right was my sister’s. The tiny bathroom stole a piece of space from the bedrooms on either side of it so as to have room for the toilet just inside the door on the left, the lavatory and medicine chest right next to it and a short-ish bathtub wall to wall across the back under a privacy window. On the right-hand wall was a towel rack and above it, my mother had hung a family of five typically ‘50s mother-of-pearl and black ceramic fish that ranged in size from large to small and three diminishing magnitudes in between and there was a tiny linen cupboard behind the bathroom door to which there was access only when the door was closed. The windows in the two bedrooms and bath – one small, typically American-style, double-hung vertical sash window per bedroom – faced east onto the back yard. The only bedroom that faced west onto the front yard was mine, the door of which opened onto the living room.

The Sun also Sets

In my five-year-old world of sheer immediacy, I recall being in two minds about my room. On Saturday mornings when my sister, Darla, would, out of boredom, occasionally invite me into her room for some game of her invention – paper dolls, for instance, which I wasn’t yet old enough to find effeminate and which consisted of using blunt-ended scissors to cut out magazine pictures of our favorite movie and TV personalities, affixing them to poster-board backing traced and cut to fit the cutouts that then became dolly characters in plots that Darla created – I recall wishing I could have that room where the morning sun streamed in when my room was still dark. But each afternoon, I would once again favor my own room where the west-bound sun now lighted the hills and dales of my bed and floor that became the routes on which my toy trucks and cars made fascinating and often dangerous journeys.

Back in our days on Defiance street, we had been among the first families in Wapakoneta to have a television set. It had been a real novelty. But Darla and I had since become part of the first generation of American kids who didn’t know what it was like not to have TV and our little brother Dennis James was born directly into Marshall McLuhan’s “global village”. So our enormous Admiral cabinet-model TV naturally traveled with us to our new home and was ubiquitously placed in a strategic corner of the living room where it was easily visible from all angles.

Clearly, however, we were not the totally media-absorbed, media-interactive kids of today. TV was still a primitive, black and white medium, with fast-growing but still highly limited technology at all levels. And as such, it still had a stimulating rather than stultifying effect on our young brains. I would watch the Lone Ranger (Rossini’s William Tell Overture that served as its theme song was my first introduction to classical music and I never missed the start of the series because I found that piece so thrilling and inspiring) and then act out the episodes in the vast world of our back yard, in scenes peopled by the invisible cast that I carried away from the show in my imagination. When there was snow on the ground, I was Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the warning I shouted to the crooks and killers I invented was, “Stop in the name of the Crown”, which was fair warning, I figured, just before I gunned them down.

Homemade Interactive

That’s not to say, however, that there was no such thing as interactive TV. Stone Age interactive, admittedly, but interactive all the same. It was a show called Winky Dink and You that aired Saturday mornings at 10:30 on CBS. It starred the tousle-haired, plaid-trousered cartoon character Winky Dink and his dog Woofer. The adventurous boy and his dog were always getting into tight spots and it was my job to help them out. For this purpose, I was required to pester my mother until she finally ordered the official magic screen and special Winky Dink crayons. The kit cost 50 cents (or the price of two hamburgers), which didn’t seem like such a lot to me. My mother assured me, however, that 50 cents was, indeed, a lot if you didn’t have it. But when she saw how frustrating the show was without the interactive portion – the cow-eyed protagonist would stand around waiting for your help that never came, which seemed almost tragic – she eventually gave in.

The Winky Dink interactive kit consisted of a large piece of transparent yellow vinyl and the magic Winky crayons. The TV screen generated ample static electricity so that the plastic “magic screen” could easily be applied to the glass surface and remain in place as if it had been glued on. I then sat cross-legged on the floor, directly in front of the TV or in a little child’s chair that my mother provided so that I would be more at the proper height to carry out the task at hand. As the plot developed, situations emerged in which Winky required my help: “Quick! Winky Dink is being chased! Draw a bridge so that he and Woofer can cross the river to safety!” And I would use my Winky crayons to create a bridge on my magic screen and then watch the cartoon hero cross it – or cross reasonably near it, at least. You had to have a rag handy to wipe off whatever you put on the screen, however, unless you wanted the bridge, or tent, or stick figure, or whatever you had drawn, to invade every scene from then on.

At first, I was often too slow and Winky would, I was astonished to find, eventually rush across whether the bridge was finished or not. But I ended up getting quicker – if for no other reason, in order to maintain the illusion that I was actually helping the hero.

Field and Stream

But except for evenings and weekend mornings, I really wasn’t the kind of kid that was glued to the TV screen. I was crazy about the great outdoors, and even in the dead of the harshest Ohio winters, my mother was hard-pressed to get me to stay inside. She worried because I had had pneumonia when I was three and was prone for years afterward to any combination of croup, bronchitis and tonsillitis, but my health probably improved as much as it did thanks to all the time I spent outdoors.

I wasn’t picky about activities. Left to my own devices, my vivid imagination permitted me to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians or war with a host of other personalities that only existed on TV or in my mind. And later, books would be added to the mix. I never minded playing alone. If somebody else was around, great. But if not, my made-up characters were practically as real to me as any playmate I could have had.

If all else failed there were always Marie and Chuddah, my imaginary sister-friends from Defiance Street, who would continue to accompany me for a while longer. In fact, I remember the day that we parted company. It was about a year after we moved. I was on the back stoop of my father’s parents place, across from the house on Defiance where we had once lived. My Grandma Alice had been peeling green walnuts for some culinary project and, messy as the job was, had decided to do it on the back porch instead of in the kitchen. I was sitting on the steps watching her, taking in the pungent, almost citric fragrance of the green walnut peels, when Grandma Alice hurried inside to answer the phone. It was a long conversation and, as usual when I was bored, Marie and Chuddah showed up. But this time, it was different. The two of them just stood there. They were holding hands. We talked but none of us seemed to have anything to say and nobody seemed to want to do anything special. After a long silence, the two of them, still holding hands, held up their free hands to wave goodbye. Then they turned their backs on me and walked away in the direction of our old house. They had evidently decided to stay there and not return to Pine Street. I never saw them again.

I also tagged along with my sister whenever she let me. Sometimes she naturally got tired of my company, as big sisters will, but she usually was tolerant and involved me in her own more complex games, since she was an unusually intelligent little girl and was already feeding her mind with every children’s book she got her hands on. She often shared them with me, showed me the pictures and read them to me. I was fascinated by this whole reading thing and couldn’t wait to learn how myself. In spite of the new TV phenomenon, reading became an enormous part of our lives. Both our mother and her mother, Grandma Myrt, were avid readers and whenever Mom had time or Grandma was over for a visit, it wasn’t uncommon at all for one or the other of them to sit in the middle of the couch with my sister on one side and me on the other and read classic stories and fables to us from the Golden Book and Childcraft series that Mom bought for us.

Darla was much more gregarious than I was, though, and it was through her that I started meeting the neighbor kids. The first ones to start coming over were Junior and Patty, who lived across the street. Darla made friends with Patty, who was a couple of years older than she was, and Junior, who was between Darla and me in age, started coming over and trying to make friends with both of us. I didn’t really like him much. He was loud, and his nose, which he wiped on his sleeve, ran all the time. He was constantly spitting hawkers in the grass or farting or doing some other gross thing. And if things didn’t go his way, he took it upon himself to beat up whoever his playmate happened to be at the time. On top of everything else, he told the most tremendous lies!

Once when my father was trying to create a lawn out of the rocky, gullied terrain that was our front yard, Junior came over and stood watching. I didn’t want to play with him and stuck close to Dad, pretending to be absorbed in the work I was ostensibly “helping” with. With his usual “joy” for manual labor, Dad was attacking some tough, gnarled roots with a spade and then with his bare hands, yanking, heaving and pulling on them, trying his best to get them to break free. And, also as usual, he starting taking their obstinacy personally. He would punctuate each jerk and tug with an epithet: “Come-the-hell-on, you-stubborn-assed-son-of-a-bitch!” And then remembering my presence and that of Junior, he toned it down, saying, “Did you ever in your life see more uneven terrain than this? You’d think Botkins could have at least leveled the damn thing properly before he built the house on it. I mean it’s just one dip and gully on top of the other.”

Junior, who had a wildly imaginative seven-year-old’s opinion on every subject, took this as his cue.

“Well now, Mr. Newland, I know why it’s like that,” he said.

“Oh you do, huh?” my father answered absent-mindedly while continuing to heave on a particularly stubborn root with his bare hands.

“Yup. It’s cause o’ what ol’ Botkins buried under here.”

Now this even got Dad’s attention. He stopped, stood up, pushed up his steamy eyeglasses with his middle finger and stood with his hands on his hips staring at Junior.


“Yup. No wonder it’s so uneven. Ol’ Man Botkins buried a Ferris wheel under your house.”

“A Ferris wheel! Aw come on now Junior!”

“Yup, I seen him do it. There used to be a Ferris wheel. I used to come over and ride it all the time. Ol’ Botkins, he couldn’t get it tore down cause it was too big, so he just covered it up with dirt and built that house on it.”

“Aw, come on now, Junior,” Dad said again. “Your darn nose is gonna grow if you keep lyin’ like that.”

“I ain’t lyin’, Mr. Newland. Cross my heart. You got a Ferris wheel right under your house. Nobody else knows it, but I seen that ol’ man bury it.”

Long afterward my parents still laughed from time to time about the Ferris wheel on top of which Mr. Botkins had built our house.

Junior was right about one thing, though: There was indeed something buried there. Namely, the roots of what Mr. Botkins’ tractor had stripped from the surface of the land, the very roots that my father had been attacking with such righteous vigor and with his bare hands. The roots of the ancient stand of poison ivy that had long thrived there, before the land became a real estate project. Needless to say, Dad suffered the worst case of poison ivy you could possibly imagine on his hands, arms, face and chest and almost went crazy with the itching, before Mom soothed his blisters with cornstarch and Caladryl. We also made a discovery about me, since I had been “helping”. We found out that I had a natural immunity to poison ivy. I didn’t get a single blister.

For all of his other faults, however, it was Junior who introduced my sister and me to the “forbidden zone”. Forbidden, because he wasn’t allowed to go there and neither were we, but we went every chance we got. Right behind our back yard was about an acre of land that Mr. Botkins still farmed for his own consumption – a truck patch, he called it. And right behind that was an area that, at the time, was still wild and untamed. It wasn’t very big, I now realize, but back then it seemed like an endless wilderness. It was on the southeastern edge of town, a few acres of swampy, low scrub forest that still probably looked much as it had when part of the Shawnee nation still made its home in all of this area. It formed a kind of crescent around the east and south sides of the three lots that Mr. Botkins had built up with fill-dirt before he constructed our house and the other two beside it and ended in a sometimes-pond beyond the third lot, which went dry in the dead of summer, but sometimes spilled over onto the street during the spring thaw.

The Zone

That was a world like I’d never seen before. It was strange and somehow eerie. The low tree-canopy and heavy underbrush created a natural filter that, to me, made the place seem as if it were in constant twilight. It was so marshy that cattails grew there along with scrub oak, pussywillow, bittersweet and spearmint. That’s not all that thrived there. It was also home to groundhogs, possums and raccoons, crows, cardinals, owls and hawks, toads, tree frogs and a colorful variety of snakes – king snakes, grass snakes, garter snakes and (the name that most fascinated me) blue racers. Some old folks in the neighborhood said there were water moccasins and copperheads back there too, but I think that was just to scare us. There were also anthills and hornet nests and spiders the size of a golf ball.

Caption: Darla and Dan, just back from the forbidden zone.

The topography included soppy, methane-smelling swamp, small grassy knolls, briary thickets and an occasional quartz boulder. There were even treacherous patches here and there of what we called quicksand – perhaps not the real quicksand that sucked people in and swallowed them whole like in scary movies, but boggy ground with greasy clay-like mud into which a child could easily sink to mid-calf and over. For us, it was a vast land of adventure, practically in our back yard. And when our mothers heard the yard fall silent and we were nowhere to be seen, they could usually count on finding us there.

Punishment for straying there, in our case, ranged from being made to stay inside (Darla couldn’t have cared less, since if grounded, she simply read, colored with Crayola crayons in her coloring book or played with her dolls, but for me, being penned up was a fate worse that death) to a couple of good whacks across the bottom with Mom’s yardstick, which, if she had to come looking for us because we failed to answer her calls, she was sure to carry along for the occasion.

Mom was not the cold, premeditative type, who would tell you you were in trouble, leave you stewing and thinking about your transgression, call you into a room after the fact, give you a talking-to and sentence you to a spanking “when you father gets here.” No, not at all. Reba Mae believed in swift, on-the-spot punishment. Though back then this sometimes seemed to me unfair, arbitrary and even cruel, I learned to love this trait in her. I found the meditative, dangling-sword judgments of some other kids’ mothers and fathers sinister, unloving and mean. Didn’t they have better things to do than to think all day about how to better make their children’s’ lives miserable, I wondered, or how to demonstrate that they were the superior power and that their kids were mere subjects? With Mom it was never like that. Swift, balanced, expedient, over. That’s how punishment worked with her. Usually she had forgotten completely about such incidents within minutes, while Darla and I were still going around acting as if we were “never speaking to her again”.

Even though we knew the risk we were taking, however, ‘the zone’ was entirely too attractive not to risk it. Usually, it’s the little boys who scare little girls with creepy crawly things. But in this case, Darla was the white hunter and Junior and I who stood by watching in open-mouthed amazement. There was almost nothing my sister was scared of. She caught lightning bugs, preying mantises and spiders in jars, and toads and snakes in her bare hands. She knew just how to hold a toad so that it didn’t hop away or pee on her and she was, to our amazement, able to do it without changing expression or squealing ‘like a girl’. She snatched up snakes, latching onto them at the back of their heads with the professionalism of a snake-charmer and let them wrap body and tail around her forearm. She would catch flies and feed them to a captive mantis and watch as the strange creature enjoyed the feast, holding the prey in its dexterous ‘paws’ and devouring it with it triangular swiveling head. But, unlike a lot of boys, she was never intentionally cruel and always let her captives go after observing them for awhile. It was a treat to go to ‘the zone’ with her. And it wasn’t long before we no longer felt we needed Junior to guide us and left him out completely. ‘The zone’ became exclusively ours. No amount of punishment seemed capable of keeping us from slipping off there from time to time.

Other Friends

Also soon after we arrived at the house on Pine Street, Darla and I were playing outside, making a snow man in our back yard, when we received the visit of two little girls whose own back yard was just across an alley from ours. They approached us like two little phantoms. We were concentrating on our snow sculpture – mostly trying to figure out how to roll up the pristine snow without its getting all full of grass and dirt from the ground beneath – when we suddenly looked up and there they were, standing on the very edge of our yard, by the alley, just gazing impassively at us.

“Hi there!” Darla said, stopping what she was doing. One of them, the biggest one, smiled but didn’t respond. The other one drew closer to her big sister, clutching the sleeve of the older girl’s coat.

I ignored them at first and kept messing with the snow, unsure what to make of the pair. They looked so pretty and vulnerable, somehow, standing there mute in the drifted snow in the pale winter sun. Especially since we had no idea where they had come from. They were wearing tweedy coats and woolen scarves. From under the hems of the coats hung skirts that reached beneath their knees and what showed of their wool-stocking-clad legs were plunged into the same sort of rubber boots my sister was wearing. They were pallid, Nordic-looking girls, with light-colored eyes to match their skin. They wore warm wool stocking caps but the hair that emerged from the bigger girl’s was a shiny, light brown while her little sister’s was unmistakably blonde.

"Do you want to play with us?” Darla tried again.

In response, the older girl leaned over to the younger one and, cupping her mouth and her sister’s ear with a mittened hand, whispered something. Then the other little girl precisely mimicked this same gesture and whispered something into her big sister’s ear. Then in unison, they said, “Okay!”

That was how we met Martha and Mary Lou. Martha, it turned out, was my age and Mary Lou a year or two younger. Darla played with all of us on an occasional basis, but Martha and I became inseparable and wherever Martha went, there too went Mary Lou, so we became a band of three. The fact is, these two sisters came into my life just before Marie and Chuddah decided to leave for good.

Caption: Martha, aged about 8.

With Martha, it became a friendship that would last throughout grade school and high school. But never was it more intimate than during the years when our back yards were an alley apart. On sunny days our respective yards expanded into one and became a world of our making. In bad weather we played at Martha’s house and although my mother tried her best to prevent me from “driving Martha’s mom nuts every single day”, Martha’s mother always got Mom to give in and let me go over and play. The two of us started primary school together, and since Centennial School was just a hundred yards the other way down the alley from us, we walked there and home together every day during the three years that we both attended Centennial.

Martha was a lot like my sister, except that she was my same age, was much less capricious about playing with me and wasn’t, well, my sister. She was, like Darla, however, intelligent, adventurous, imaginative and fun. We were both fast to learn to read in school and by third grade competed to see who could read the most books. We not only enacted many of the fantasies that we read about and saw on TV but also used them as the basis for fantasies of our own invention.

I particularly recall Martha’s “magic wand”. She was “Queen of the Fairies” and could make any wish come true with a wave of that wand. The “wand” was, in reality, a wooden paint-stirrer that her father or mother had obviously used on numerous projects around the house. Half of it – the half Martha held in her hand - was a plain, wooden stick, but the other half (the wand per se) was adorned with the most gorgeous colors – robin’s-egg blue, flamingo pink, ivory-white and bright canary-yellow. But the colors were not nearly as captivating as the magic with which Martha imbued the otherwise unremarkable stick. Over time, I became so enchanted with her ability to convincingly play the Fairy Queen that I actually believed she could wave the wand and make fantasies come to life.

As we grew and had a greater run of the block, our sphere of friends extended and we all engaged in games that permitted more people to participate. Darla was invariably an organizer, along with a newfound friend a year or two older than her, Darlene, from the big house on the corner: We played ‘statue’ and hide-and-go-seek and built snow fortresses for our snowball wars, in the expanding territory of our combined back yards. But from the time I met Martha until the time we once again had to move, if the game didn’t include her, it didn’t include me either.

Moving Day

Three years after we moved to Pine Street, Dad one morning tried to raise the bathroom window that was swollen shut and couldn’t. By this time he was convinced that Mr. Botkins had somehow “hosed him” and had again gotten it into his head to move.

By this time, his manic depression had led him to have his first complete nervous breakdown. After he came back from a clinic in Indiana where he went for treatment, he hit a new high and once again swiftly sold the Pine Street house and moved us to a new place. But this time, Mom couldn’t have been happier. It was, she felt, a dream home.

For me, it would take awhile to adjust. For right now, it simply meant leaving behind Martha and ‘the zone’ and it wasn’t something I wanted to do.