Tuesday, June 13, 2017

FREE-WHEELING Part 2


Why I ever thought there would be a Schwinn in the trunk of Whitie’s ’52 Chevy when he pulled up next to our screened-in back porch at the big house on West Auglaize Street where we lived back then I’ll never know. It was clearly the result of wishful thinking and day-dreaming over the course of the previous couple of years that caused me to entertain such an absurd idea.  My sister’s bike, which I’d been “borrowing”—often without her knowledge—up to now wasn’t a Schwinn either. It was a sturdy, practical, “Frankensteinian”, Weitz bike.
And that’s precisely what my father pulled out of the trunk of his shiny dark green Chevy now: the most practical bike possible. It was what was known as a standard “rebuilt”.
My little brother Jim (foreground) and I on our bikes. He was
such a little guy that he couldn't share either our sister's 26-inch
or my 24, so his 20-inch acquisition was an easier "sell".
“Eddy Weitz says it’s every bit as good as a new bike,” Whitie said a little too enthusiastically as he set it on the ground. I knew I should mirror his exaggerated enthusiasm, and did. The worst thing you could be in Whitie’s eyes was “an ingrate” (or a Democrat). I wanted so to please him, and so seldom did. Hiding my disappointment was the least I could do.   
Mr. Weitz owned a bicycle shop housed in a very neat and clean but then rather ramshackle building next to the B&O Railroad line that cut a more or less straight northeast to southwest diagonal through the center of Wapakoneta. The back of Mr. Weitz’s shop was almost literally inches from the tracks, and if you happened to be in there when a big diesel locomotive lumbered through town towing a half-mile convoy of freight cars behind it, the sound was deafening. The whole place, with its wooden shake sides and wood plank floors quaked and rattled and seemed to hold its breath until the danger had passed. But the problem was that ours was a very busy rail line, so that this humiliation was visited on Mr. Weitz’s shop numerous times each day, as an incredible number of trains cut through Wapakoneta on their way south. Indeed, every time I recall my home town, train whistles play a major role in my “soundtrack”, so much so that I can never hear the lonesome howl of a diesel train horn in the night, anywhere in the world, and not feel suddenly homesick.
The Weitz Bicycle Shop in Wapakoneta.
Mr. Weitz was a pleasant, slight, somewhat shy man with a full head of neatly clipped salt-and-pepper hair, an angular face, a ready grin and a twinkle in his eyes. His workshop was at the back of the store next to the railroad tracks, with a little side-door right on the street that had a close-up view of the crossing signal. It was a cramped but military-barracks-neat shop in which he not only expertly fixed but also manufactured bicycles out of disused parts that he recovered, refurbished and pressed back into service in the form of his locally renowned “rebuilts”.
I don’t remember his attaching any sort of trademark to his bikes, but I never saw one that didn’t bear his signature colors: a sort of neutral blue with clean white trim. The balloon tire rims were always buffed to a steely sheen rather than a chrome-like shine and handlebars that had started to lose their chrome finish were stripped of rust and carefully spray-painted with metallic finish. His were not the sort of flashy two-wheelers that drew second glances and looks of envy, but they were sturdy, durable and dependable transportation.
Eddy Weitz
Thinking back, I realize how patient Mr. Weitz was. Since all of his merchandise—from new and used bikes to a wide assortment of bicycle accessories (ranging from headlights and horns to handlebar streamers and steering knobs)—was all out on display so that any “artful dodger” could nip in, pilfer an item or two and run out again. So every time somebody came into the store, he would have to drop whatever he was doing in the shop and come out behind the counter, because he ran the place all by himself. Despite that fact, he was never impatient with me or any of the friends with whom I visited the store and always took the time to explain to us what all the accessories were and what they were good for. He knew who his customers were: the kids, not the parents.
If I was at first disappointed in the bike Whitie had brought me, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with it. It was a sudden revelation: This bike was mine, to use as much and as long as I wanted. And it was emblematic of pure freedom, to go farther and faster than ever before, to tour the town, to reach the city limits and return in a matter of minutes. It was a key to new adventures and it immediately became my constant companion. And now that I had a bike of my own, a sturdy boy’s bike rather than a borrowed girl’s that had made me the object of such ridicule, I became more sociable and was ready to hang out with other cycling friends.
Hollywood comic Phil Silvers. Terry was 
sort of child version of the zany 
comedian.
One such friend was Terry, a boy most adults were quick to describe as “obnoxious”, but whom I found hilarious, and utterly free. Terry was a continuous stand-up comedy routine, sort of in the style of a lesser Robin Williams (who wasn’t yet known to the world), although, with his crazy, faux-astonished expressions and black horn-rimmed glasses, Terry looked for all the world like a boyhood version of Hollywood comedian Phil Silvers. He was a natural comic whose running routine was full of slapstick and crazy sound effects, as well as smart-assed one-liners. In the summertime and on weekends, Terry spent the day on his beautiful red Schwinn, touring the entire town and making stops to harass shopkeepers with his crazy antics wherever the spirit moved him.
Ever polite, shy and self-effacing Sunday school kid that I was back then, I found Terry’s comic ways and his complete irreverence for authority refreshing and tagged along on my new bike with him wherever he went. He was more than happy to have a sidekick, because, only child and off-beat character that he was, he was very likely often lonely. Together, we rode our bikes all over town and visited every shop from five and dimes to hardware stores, and it was a thrilling new experience for me to get thrown out of most of them. If we felt like a Coke, we dropped in unannounced on either of our fathers—his was a softer touch than mine, although we could now and again talk Whitie into a freebie as well—both of whom owned soda fountains and were competitors.    
Terry's dream car, the original 'Vette'
Our favorite places of all were car dealerships. We both loved cars and knew the names and models of just about everything on the road. But my interest was more aesthetic than practical, while Terry seemingly, at least to me, knew everything there was to know about cars and had an uncle, I think, out by Kettlersville, west of Wapakoneta, who prepared stock cars and even drove them in local drag races. Terry found me sorely lacking in automotive knowledge and started teaching me about the technical specs of all the cars we went to see. Our favorite place to go the summer we hung out the most together was the Chevrolet dealership on the north side of town. It was far, far from home and it seemed like a real adventure to go there in the company of my new friend. There was a Corvette convertible (before it was a Stingray) in the showroom and Terry was an absolute fanatic of that car.
Every now and then, he would say, “Let’s go see the ‘Vette’,” and I would accompany him.  Clearly, the sales staff was accustomed to his visits, because as soon as we parked our bikes by the big plate glass showroom window and walked in, the salesmen on duty would appear and start dogging us around the sales floor. To their credit, neither they nor the managing partner, Mr. Bovee, were ever mean to us—just watchful. Mr. Bovee and the salesmen, Mr. Gering and Mr. Binkley, were all the fathers of friends of mine and I tried to be on my best behavior. It was embarrassing to me that my companion made them nervous, and I tried my best to be polite and friendly, and to keep Terry reined in. But with Terry, that was like trying to lasso the wind. All it took was for the salesmen and me to drop our guard for a split-second. And Terry would be vaulting the driver’s side door of the sports car convertible, slumping low in the bucket seat and running through the gears while making motor noises so incredibly authentic that they sounded like the Indy 500.
Terry vaulted the door and jumped into the
driver's seat. 
It was always at about that point that we were politely but firmly asked to leave.
My carefree roving days were short-lived, however. On Whitie’s urging, my bike was pressed into service as a delivery route vehicle, first for the Dayton Journal Herald, and later for the Lima News. The Journal Herald job was a killer paper route that I inherited from a friend of my sister’s named Blaine, who was three years older than I was, and was giving it up for something better-paying. Since it was a morning daily, I had to be up before 5 a.m. to pedal my bike up to the Post Office, where a truck dropped off my bundle of papers. There, I quickly folded my newspapers on the Post Office floor, stuffed them into my paper-bag and pedaled off to deliver about eighty copies in time to get back home, have breakfast and mount my bike again to ride it to school, where I struggled for the rest of the day to stay awake in class, especially after lunch.
On my own and unbeknownst to Whitie, one Saturday when I was out collecting from customers on my Journal Herald route, I stopped by The Newsstand, run by a man named Russell McLean, who managed distribution for the local afternoon paper, the Lima News. I knew Russ from my father’s restaurant, where he was a regular, and he knew who I was because I was a regular “customer” at his shop, where I often, in the guise of browsing, read entire stories in the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen mystery magazines or in Argosy, Look, and The Atlantic Monthly. So I overcame my shyness, told him I was looking to leave my Journal Herald route and asked if there were any openings for the News. He said not right then, but that they came up frequently and if I’d check back regularly, he’d let me know. It wasn’t more than a few weeks before he had one for me.
Whitie had a thing about not wanting me to be “a quitter”—I’d blown off Peewee League, refused to play basketball and football, quit Scouts and quit trombone lessons—and I was sure he’d try and stop me from quitting my Journal Herald route. But I had the most compelling argument possible when it came to Whitie’s line of reasoning: The Lima News route was bigger—considerably bigger—and I’d be making more money.
I quickly found I liked making my own money. With the new, bigger, afternoon route, and a Sunday morning route that not only included the Sunday edition of the News but also delivery to Newsstand subscribers of The Columbus Dispatch, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Toledo Blade, The Chicago Tribune, and other major papers, I started doing pretty well. A couple of cents off each paper I delivered, I found, quickly added up and some weeks I’d make over ten dollars. I won a camera, a change holder to wear on my belt when I collected and a half-hour ride on a Lake Central prop passenger plane out of the new Lima Airport, all for winning sales performances. I also accepted some peripheral business propositions from Russ McLean, like selling a set of cookbooks in monthly installments to my newspaper customers.
Suddenly, I was feeling flush and wanted to feel flusher, so I also started taking on side jobs like mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, painting fences, cleaning out garages, etc., usually for people who were already my newspaper customers and trusted me to do a good job. By now I had way too much money to only think about such immediate investments as bottles of Dr. Pepper, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Jack Horner pies, burgers and fries. I started looking at fishing rods and reels, BB guns, pocketknives, and finally...a new bike.
A black Schwinn Speedster with 2-speed brake...I was in love.
I often stopped by Eddy Weitz’s bike shop with the excuse of needing my tires pumped up or my hubs tightened. But that always led to my browsing through the accessories in Mr. Weitz’s display case and to drooling over the shiny new bikes that crowded the shop floor. I’d bought a battery-power horn and headlight, a sturdy basket, a fancy rear reflector, a new, more comfortable saddle and other knickknacks. But now I was saving for a brand new Schwinn. One in particular. Most Schwinns seemed to be either flashy red or flashy blue. But this one was a shiny jet black Schwinn Speedster, and it was embellished with not just white racing stripes on the fenders, but with a slender red one as well. Every time I saw it, I fell in love.          
Once I had put away enough for the bike—a little over sixty dollars with tax—I told Whitie about my planned purchase. I was afraid he would be offended that I was purchasing a new bike to replace the one he’d given me as a gift.
I said, “Dad, I’ve been saving up for a new bike I saw at Mr. Weitz’s shop and I finally have enough to buy it.”
“Y’do, huh?” Whitie said laconically.
“It’s not that I don’t like the one you got me,” I went on, “but I’ve been riding it awhile now and it’s getting kind of old...”
Old?
“Well, you know, kinda used.”
“Is it a better bike?”
“It’s a Schwinn,” I said excitedly, “a twenty-six inch, black, with red and white racing stripes...”
“The color’s not important. What’s important is if it’s a good, practical bike. It’s not an English bike, is it? Because they’re a pain in the ass with handbrake cables and gears to go wrong, and you’re like me, not the handiest with tools.”
“No, Dad, it’s a real solid American bike with a two-speed Bendix coaster brake.”
“What’s that?”
“Oh, it’s really neat! When you back-pedal to brake, it automatically downshifts to first.”
“What’s Eddy Weitz say about it...the brake I mean?”
“That it’s the best, that they never break or need maintenance.”
There was a long pause, while Whitie mulled this information over. He always hated being hit with things like this as soon as he got home from work...or when he was watching TV...or when he first got up...or when he was about to leave for work...or, especially, at work. And I figured he’d say, “Well, we’ll think about it,” and promptly put it out of his mind.
But to my surprise, he said, “Wanna drive up there and us have a look at it together?”
“Sure Dad,” I said. And right then and there, I excitedly ran off to dig out my savings and we got into the car and left for the bike shop.
On the way, I said, “Dad, I was thinking maybe I’d keep the bike you gave me too.”
“Why?” he asked, glancing my way.
I shrugged. “I don’t know...I thought maybe I’d use it for work and keep the other one just to ride.”
“Know what I think? I think once you’ve ridden that new Schwinn, you’ll never want to ride your old bike again and that it’s going to end up sitting in the garage rusting, and we don’t have room in the garage for a lot of stuff we don’t use. It’s like getting a new car. Best thing you can do is sell the old one or trade it off.”
I sat there beside him on the broad bench seat of the Chevy giving what he’d said some thought. Worrying maybe I’d hurt his feelings and he was just covering it up by telling me to get rid of my old bike. And besides, although I knew inanimate objects didn’t have feelings, somehow, I couldn’t help “feeling sorry” for my old bike. It had been a good friend and I was abandoning it. What if it could feel something?
“You do what you want,” Whitie said after a brief silence, “but if you want me to, I’ll talk Eddy into taking it as a trade-in. Maybe he’ll knock a few bucks off the price of the new one.”
I knew my ol’ man to be a great “horse-trader” and assented.
Then he said, “Y’know, Danny, this buying a bike with your savings is going to be good for you. I’m pretty sure you’re going to see how much you appreciate something you buy with your own sweat. A person learns a lot from working, and it’s nice in life to know you don’t owe anybody anything. That whatever you’ve got, you earned. 

At the bike shop, Whitie negotiated with Mr. Weitz to the point of exasperation. It was late and all Eddy wanted to do was close his shop and go home for the day. In the end, my father cut me a deal where I got the shiny new Speedster for forty-eight dollars plus my rebuilt and I went home with a beautiful new ride and twelve dollars still in my pocket.   
The rebuilt I traded in was the last vehicle Whitie would ever buy me. From here on out, I was free-wheeling.   

Saturday, May 27, 2017

FREE-WHEELING


The first bicycle I had wasn’t the one I wanted. By American standards, I wasn’t a spoiled child and tended to be openly grateful for everything I received—especially because I heard a lot from Whitie, my father, about how lucky I was not to have grown up in the Depression, the way he did, and about how “kids nowadays didn’t know how good they had it,” and how everything he was doing for us (my sister, my brother and me) was a major sacrifice so we needed to be more appreciative—but the bike wasn’t the one I’d had in mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t throw a tantrum or anything. I smiled and hugged my dad and thanked him and yelled, “Oh, a bike!” when he brought it home. But there was a nasty little lump in my throat and a sinking feeling of certain disappointment in my gut when he raised the trunk lid on his ’52 Chevy and I could see more of it than just the two wheels that had been sticking out when he pulled into our driveway and drove up to the back steps, where I was standing.
The bike was meant to be a surprise. My mother, Reba Mae, must have talked Whitie into it. His theory had been that since I was big for my age, there wouldn’t be any need to transition from a “training bike” to a bigger one if he waited long enough. Up until then, while we still lived on South Pine Street, before we moved to the big house on West Auglaize where we lived now, he’d had my older sister, Darla, share her bicycle with me. While we were on Pine Street, our little brother Jim was still too small to be concerned with grown-up stuff like bikes, so at least Whitie didn’t have to worry about his wanting one yet. Darla had gotten a full-sized bike right away. No training bike for her either. She’d gone from the oversized tricycle she and I shared to a twenty-six-inch bicycle. By now she could, stretching a bit, reach the pedals from the seat without having to ride standing up all the time. But in my case, the twenty-six-inch two-wheeler was still too tall to sit comfortably and pedal. Learning to ride involved learning to do so in a standing position, only sitting on the seat to coast. But that was okay, Whitie reasoned, because it was a girl’s bike, so no crosspiece to worry about. Practical.
It wasn’t the first time Darla’d had to share with me. It seemed that “since she was older” it was important for her to “learn to share,” and since I was younger, my lesson appeared to be that I should be content to borrow certain things (expensive things) from her. It had begun with her allowance. My parents had instated a sort of “seniority” system by which Darla’s “being older” entitled her to a bigger allowance than mine, but that right also burdened her with an obligation to “share with her brother,” precisely because her allowance was bigger than mine. So if we went to the grocery store to buy penny candy or a popsicle, it was understood that my sister would have to buy something for me too because, on my allowance, I couldn’t afford the same stuff she could.
Darla was an incredibly good sport about all of this—even if it often seemed quite apparent to me that I needed to be prudent in my attitude toward her whenever we were doing something in which she was obliged to share with me, because there were times, I felt sure, when she would gladly have shoved me under the wheels of a passing delivery truck as I tagged along to the corner store. There were a number of lessons encompassed in this binary process. I was learning to be patient and my sister was learning to be generous, or so we were told. Whether those lessons were accepted or not without a constant state of mental rebellion was an altogether different affair.
Along with Darla’s two-wheeler also came the responsibility of passing on what she knew. I remember Whitie impatiently teaching her to ride her bike. When she first got it, it was way too big for her, but Whitie subscribed to the One Bike per Life Theory. Eighteen or twenty-inch bikes with training wheels were for sissies, and, more importantly, were a waste of money, since kids quickly outgrew them. I recall our father holding onto the tall seat of my sister’s bicycle and impelling her forward, steadying her to keep her up, while she stood on the pedals, pumping away with strength and courage until Whitie let go, stopped trotting beside her, and watched her ride shakily off on her own. Darla was a good student and fiercely independent. Once she had it, she had no further need or want for parental help. She was free-wheeling.
But I was a different story and when it came time for me to learn, parental authority was delegated to my older sister, who was eight at the time. It was important, she was told, for her to “take some responsibility.” She was the oldest and as such, she needed to “learn to take care of her little brothers.” In my case, learning to ride a bike was the same as having learned to swim: Whitie gave Darla her first lessons and it was then up to her to give me mine.

In her precociously didactic way, Darla’s cycling lessons were as precise and no-nonsense as had been the swimming lessons she’d given me in the public pool. Off we went with her enormous bike to the elementary school playground across the way and down a short alley from our house on Pine Street. She warned me that I’d best pay attention and be a quick learner because she didn’t plan to “waste her entire summer” jogging around the playground teaching her idiotic little  brother to ride. Despite the admonition, however, she put her heart into it, like everything else she did, and, with the help of her steadying hand and shrill orders, I was soon pedaling my jittery way around the playground blacktop and I heard Darla shout behind me, “Way to go, Dan! You’re on your own.”
As I gained confidence, I became more and more enthused with the ride, and my sister became more and more bored standing around watching me. It was as I was making my shaky umpteenth pass of the First Grade wing of the building that Darla said, “Oh look, there’s my old first grade teacher.” She waved and shouted, “Hello Miss Long!” as I saw through the windows that faced onto the playground, a portly middle-aged lady with her hair put up in a bun, apparently preparing her classroom for the coming school year. The woman waved back at Darla and Darla turned to me, and said, “Wave at Miss Long!” Being left-handed, I smiled and took my right hand off of the handlebars to wave at Darla’s former teacher and immediately veered sharply south and crashed into the brick side of the school building.
Carrying out a quick damage control while trying not to cry, I realized, with a mixture of relief and self-pity that I had fared far worse than the bike, having sanded the skin off of my knee against the wall and having seriously hurt my opposite elbow, which was already swelling to twice its normal size, by landing on it with all my weight against the surface of the blacktop. My sister’s bicycle, thankfully, only had a small scrape on the back fender. But she was already there recovering her two-wheeler and vowing she would never let me use it again, as she hurried me off the playground and back home, where it was left to my mother to patch me up and comfort me.
But Darla did let me use it again...repeatedly. In fact, I used it a great deal more than she did, even though I was the target of scorn among other boys for riding a girl’s bike, until Reba Mae finally talked Whitie into getting me a bicycle of my own. It was a twenty-four-inch bike, slightly smaller than my sister’s. I guess Whitie figured I could reach the pedals despite the crossbar and once I grew into it I could keep on using this medium-size bike forever. The size seemed fine to me, but it wasn’t the shiny new Schwinn or Huffy that I’d been expecting “any time now” to show up on by birthday or for Christmas during the couple of years while I was sharing with my sister. Nor was it the “English bike” I’d dared ask for on numerous occasions. The term referred to any bicycle with razor-thin high-pressure tires, hand brakes and three gears. They were usually black or deep dark green, and seemed so sleek and cool to me when I saw my wealthier classmates riding them, compared to the stocky American bikes with their big balloon tires, heavy frames and back-pedal brakes.
But I’d given up on the dream of having one of those. Whitie thought they were sissy and impractical for sure. You couldn’t run a paper route on one of those, and as soon as I was old enough, a paper route, he made it clear, would be in my future. My bike needed to be a practical one.
To be continued...


Monday, May 15, 2017

FIVE AND DIME...AND OTHER MEMORIES


Something I’ve only become aware of recently, for obvious reasons, is that the older you get, the more you find that there are certain images and memories from “the world you live in” to which only your own generation, and age groups within a slim margin of a couple of decades on either side of that demographic, can relate. In my case, for all intents and purposes, such memories can only be shared, and elicit any level of identification, with people who were growing up from, say, the late 1930s to the late 1960s, and even then there may be gaps in terms of the more short-lived trends and fashions. That doesn’t mean you can’t share these stories and images with people of younger generations. Depending on how general-audience “friendly” the telling is, you’ll either pique their interest or you won’t. It only signifies that, if you do decide to share your faded old postcard images with the young, they can only relate to the story as that: a story, a tale from the hazy museum that I call my mind, a repository of scenes from another time, another world, a place as alien to today’s youth as if I were to tell them stories from Timbuktu or Shangri-La.
One such memory is of what was known when I was growing up as “the five and dime”. When I go back to my home town—a still small town in west-central Ohio, uniquely named “Wapakoneta”—and walk down the main street, if I squint my eyes and avoid looking in through the shop windows or at the signs over their doors, I can still almost “see” with my mind’s eye what used to be there, when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties. (WARNING: Don’t try this at home. It’s a good way to run into a lamp post and knock yourself cold). And although I have ample memories of the many shops that served our then still bustling farm town, those uppermost in my memories—from before I achieved “drinking age” at least—are the “five and dimes” (also known as five and tens, five and ten cent stores or simply dimestores).
In Wapakoneta we had four of them. Two of them, despite their home-town feel, belonged to famous national chains: G.C. Murphy’s and W.T. Grants. Grant’s was a relative newcomer. I can remember when it opened. And it wasn’t called a five and dime, but formed part of the dimestore’s evolution that was the “variety store”.
Auglaize St., Wapakoneta's main drag. Part of 
G.C. Murphy's store front visible on the far left.
Courtesy Auglaize County Historical Society.

But we also had two locally-owned traditional dimestores, one known as Miller’s Five and Ten, and the other as Wright’s Five and Ten, both  of which competed with Murphy’s. I’m embarrassed to say that I remember nothing about Miller’s. Of Wright’s, however, I recall that it had, it seems, a particularly good, non-standard stationery section and my mother used to go there to buy unique greeting cards and gift-wrapping paper. What I recall most about it, though, is filed under my (not few) “holiday trauma” memories.
The store was always very cheerily decked out for the Christmas season (fa-la-la-la-laaaa la-la la-laaaa!), but the decorations included a feature that struck me from a young age as sinister enough for Halloween. To wit, a smiley, almost leering, Santa Claus trapped beneath the narrow staircase leading down to a small basement sales section. You didn’t notice it going down. It was only when you were finished in the basement and started back up the creaking, squawking wooden steps. Suddenly, you found yourself face to face with the marionette-like Santa staring out and grinning at you through a riser —not unlike a crazed axe murderer, was my first impression—the wood of which had been replaced with a cramped, rectangular glass window.
When I was very small, it scared me silly and if I had to accompany Reba Mae down to the basement, I always clung for dear life to her hand for fear of being grabbed by the ankles and dragged under the stairs forever by the sinister old troll. But as I got a little older, I couldn’t wait to visit Wright’s at Christmas time, so as to go down to the basement and get creeped out by the “secret Santa” hiding out under the stairway. It was a feeling not unlike the lugubrious nursery rhyme by William Hughes Mearns that goes, “Yesterday upon the stair / I met a man who wasn't there / He wasn't there again today / I wish, I wish he'd go away!  
Five and dimes, as a major trend, date back to the late 1880s and were a kind of natural progression from the old “general store”. These last were small-town stores that sold, as the name suggests, everything from barbed wire and firearms to sewing needles and doilies. But they were businesses where pretty much all of the merchandise was behind counters and each customer had to be “waited on” individually by store personnel (usually the owner and a couple of assistants at most). Customers basically didn’t come into direct contact with the merchandise before they specifically asked to see it, and since it was generally kept in cupboards, drawers and cases, marketing and merchandising were minimal. So you had to have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to purchase before you ever entered the store.
The dimestore concept was the creation of two brothers, Frank and Charles Sumner (“Sum”) Woolworth, founders of Woolworth Brothers variety stores, which, as a nationwide dimestore chain, would later become the F.W. Woolworth Company. The idea was to have a much wider variety of low-cost merchandise than the general stores, in a large-store format where everything would be on display for customers to peruse unperturbed, choosing whatever items they pleased and then taking them up to a counter where a cashier would ring them up. The stores were basically self-serve, so floor personnel was relatively minimal and not only answered customer questions but also restocked the shelves as items were purchased. Seen in this way, the dimestore was a catalyst for impulse buying. Costs were kept low by purchasing in bulk or ordering merchandise direct from manufacturers. The model became so successful that other chains followed, including not only Murphy’s and Grant’s, but also other famous names such as Ben Franklin, McCrory’s, J.J. Newberry’s, S.H. Kress, S.S. Kresge’s (predecessor to K-Mart) and Walton’s (predecessor to Walmart), among many others.
Nowadays, it’s hard for anybody to imagine chain stores that could amass the great fortunes of people like the Woolworths, the Waltons or the Kresges, for instance, selling mostly items that cost less than a dollar and that had an ample inventory of articles that were in the five to ten-cent range. But even just back when I was a boy, in the 1950s and ‘60s, prices were such that this was a much easier concept to comprehend. Just to give those of you too young to recall those times some context, it’s worth noting that in the US in 1960, an average new house cost 12,000 to 15,000 dollars and the average yearly income was between 5,000 and 8,000. A new car cost under 3,000 dollars and a gallon of gasoline averaged under 25 cents. You could buy a great pair of leather shoes for ten or twelve dollars and a skirt or pair of slacks would set you back around five bucks. Five pounds of sugar cost just 38 cents. A Hershey chocolate bar cost five cents as did a six-ounce Coke (standard-size bottle in those days when “big slurp” sizes were unheard-of). A hamburger or a piece of pie would run you 25 cents and a cup of coffee ten (with all the refills you could drink).
The impressive Woolworth Building 
in New York. Nobody thought you could
build a nickel and dime empire...until
Woolworth's did it!
But even other major retailers didn’t believe the Woolworth brothers when they said that they could make money exclusively on a nickel and dime business model...until they did! And that changed everything in mass retail marketing. Indeed, as if to prove it, in the first 55 years of the Woolworth chain’s existence, nothing in its stores cost over ten cents, and their success was phenomenal. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the company deigned to recognize the existence of inflation and imposed a new ceiling of 20 cents on its general inventory of items.
Although Woolworth’s (established 1879) had been in business for three decades already when George C. Murphy—who’d learned the trade working for McCrory’s—opened his first five and dime in a suburb of Pittsburgh in 1906, his chain turned out to be one of America’s most successful. Unfortunately, Murphy didn’t live to see the business’s incredible expansion, since he died only three years after founding it. Already by then, however, he owned a dozen five and tens, which, on his death, were acquired by two other former McCrory employees, who honored Murphy by maintaining his name as the company trademark.
There were eventually over five hundred G.C. Murphy stores in the United States, and one of them was on the main drag in Wapakoneta. That one started the way lots of Murphy’s stores did: by buying out another dimestore, in this case, the Morris Five and Ten. The building was, like most of the shops on the north side of Auglaize Street—Wapak’s main drag—perfect for a variety store, since they had no street behind them to hem them in. Just a large open area that was to become the city parking lot—a zone known colloquially as “behind town”— and then, behind a concrete flood wall, the Auglaize River, which ran east to west through the downtown area.
The Morris 5&10 in Wapakoneta was destined to become
one of the country's 500 G.C. Murphy dimestores. 
Courtesy Linda Knerr 
The long front-to-back store aisles were made of ancient, warped and spongy-feeling wood-planking that pitched and creaked piteously under your feet as you walked, imposing a rolling gait as if negotiating the bobbing and weaving deck of a clipper ship. And although I eventually learned to associate the aroma in the place with the pleasantries of dimestore shopping, on first impact it was, I must admit, revolting. A nauseating combo of the smells emanating from the vast miscellany that was the inventory and from the store itself: the pungent stench of natural rubber mixed with that of scented candles, handsoap, cheap incense and cheaper perfume, amalgamated with wicker, leather, dark-dyed denim and an oily mélange of varied roasted nuts, all with an undertone of paste floor wax and kerosene.   
Nevertheless, the Murphy’s in our town fascinated me as a boy. When I was small, it seemed to me that there was nothing you could possibly want in the world that Murphy’s didn’t have: everything from a dazzling range of toys to a variety of ladies’ lingerie, from shoelaces and stationery to zippers and lace, from artificial flowers and dress patterns to sturdy work clothes and bandanna hankies, from floor mats and door mats to galoshes and snow boots, from wire trouser-stretchers and ribbons to dimestore cowboy novels and oilcloth tablecloths, from lavender cologne and bay rum to Sen-Sen breath mints and horehound cough drops, and so on and so forth.
But the center of attention for me was the big oak and glass candy case at the front of the store. They knew right where to place it so that kids couldn’t help but feast their eyes on it both coming and going...smack in front of the door.
Now, whenever we were vying for some toy or game we’d seen on TV, my sister, brother and I preferred to tag along with our mother, Reba Mae, rather than with Whitie, our dad, because Whitie was nothing if not frugal and the chances of talking him into buying anything unplanned and non-essential were about as likely as of talking the devil out of collecting his due on a blood oath soul-harvesting pact. Whereas Reba Mae might acquiesce on this or that trinket just to shut us up and let her get on with her own shopping. But when it came to the candy counter, we wanted to be in the company of Whitie, because back then Reba Mae seemed to always be dieting and so refused to even look at the candy case, whereas our father had the most extraordinary and insatiable sweet tooth of any adult I’ve ever known, and couldn’t pass up the sweets section any more than we could. Sweets were his indubitable weakness, and he indulged it enormously.
Center of attraction...
Fridays were a good time to tag along with Whitie since that was when he was most likely to stock up for the Gillette Friday Night Fights on TV. Where other dads might rush out for a carton of beer and chips before the fights began, Whitie raided the candy counter at Murphy’s. There was hardly a sweet that my father had met that he didn’t like (exception made for anything with pineapple or coconut, both of which, oddly enough, he loathed). The choices of sweets that we purchased were all his, so he passed his taste in candy down along with his genes (which probably explains why I still love such unsophisticated fare as sugar-loaded orange-colored “circus peanuts”, which most sane people give up after the age of, say, five or so). But like I say, his tastes were broad-ranging and included, of course, chocolate of almost any kind: Hershey bars and kisses, Brach’s chocolate stars, big irregular chunks of bulk milk chocolate, chocolate-covered cream-filled peanut clusters, chocolate-covered malted milk balls, chocolate-covered caramels, chocolate-covered peppermint patties, as well as Snickers, Milky Ways, Milk Duds, M&Ms plain and peanut, Butterfingers, peanut butter cups and Zagnuts, nor was he averse to the occasional box of chocolate-covered cherries.
But he was also a huge fan of hard candies, soft candies, jelly candies, pralines, nougats, caramels, taffies and fudges of all kinds. These included such favorites as cinnamon balls and cinnamon squares, rootbeer barrels, swirl peppermint and spearmint candies, white peppermint and pink wintergreen lozenges, old-fashion hard candies of a variety of fruit flavors that displayed hearts or flowers in the middle, Kraft caramels, green-leaves spearmint jellies, orange slice jellies, juju beans, red and black licorice (pronounced lickerish in Ohioese), sugar-coated capsule-like sweet licorice Good & Plenty, any variety of jelly beans, peanut logs, little brown jugs, Bit-o-Honeys, candy-coated “burnt peanuts”, ultra-sugary maple-leaf maple sugar candies (a favorite of my sister’s but a taste I never acquired, unless it was boiled down and poured over pancakes with hot butter) peanut butter kisses, saltwater taffy kisses, peanut brittle (which, because of how it castigated his ever-dodgy molars, Whitie referred to as “peanut brutal”) and on and on the list goes. And he was fully capable, over the course of a boxing match or late-night movie, of polishing off a pound of any of these candies or chocolates all by himself...and did, perhaps “washing it down” later on with a bowl of ice-cream. Incredibly, he was always middle-weight trim, to our sporadically diet-enslaved mother’s chagrin.  
As I say, I seldom got to choose the candy we would buy. But I was fascinated by the bulk candy purchase and sale process. Hearing Whitie order the different sweets with the authoritative knowledge of a candy connoisseur and then watching the lady behind the counter shovel into the brimming bins with a deep metal scoop and then shake the contents into a white paper bag that she would set on the scale until a pound was reached. Two, three, four bags filled in this way with bulk candy, depending on Whitie’s whim that day, then all of them placed in a larger brown paper bag for easier carrying. To me it was such a feeling of wealth and luxury to see that candy being fractioned out from a seemingly endless source.
Gone now is the magical world of the store front Main Street shops of my youth. Gone, the alluring five and dimes of that distant past, having given way to the hypermarkets and superstores that have relegated small-town Main Streets to the realm of fading nostalgia and retro revival.
It’s a world I can’t help missing.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

🙍🙏 My apologies once again! Technical problems (connectivity) persisted again today but are now solved. I'll try to have my May 13 blog out by midday or a little after tomorrow, Monday, May 15.
Again, many thanks for your patience and warmest regards to all.

Saturday, May 13, 2017



Due to technical difficulties, the regular blog that I should have posted today will be published tomorrow, Sunday, May 14. I'll be recalling five and dime stores...and other home-town memories.
Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE THIRD AGE AND RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE


I’ve often talked about my “dual life” as a Southern Yankee, born and reared in the US heartland, and almost magically transported to a brand new life, first in Europe and then in South America. But it’s not as two-staged as it sounds. Like life itself—and I suspect that this happens to a lot of people who end up living in places and cultures that are far distant from those of their birth, whether they ever live abroad or not—this has felt more like a three-stage existence, not two.
I think this has to do partially with the fact that life, as such, tends to be divided this way: young, middle-aged and old. But having reached “a ripe old age”, as it were—to my utter surprise, since I spent most of the first stage and part of the second convinced I’d be unlikely to make it to the third—I no longer think of these milestones in that way, but rather, merely as stages one, two and three. That’s why I’ve always liked, and now subscribe to, a Spanish-speaking school of thought that refers to stage three not as “old age” but as “la tercera edad” (the third age).
There are those of my own age and some of slightly younger generations who sometimes try to pull the wool over my eyes by saying I shouldn’t think of myself as old. Sixty, they say (somewhat self-servingly, I assume), is the new forty. When I point out that I passed the sixty marker many moons ago, they remind me that if sixty is the new forty, then seventy is the new fifty and since I’ve still to attain that lofty number (all things come to those who wait), I’m “just middle-aged.” Well...perhaps...if I plan to live to be a hundred and thirty-four. I have a friend who entertains that goal. She seems convinced she’ll live to be a hundred and fifty at least. More power to her. I mean, having come this far, I’m clearly not ruling anything out. But I figure, statistically at least, it’s highly unlikely.
I mean, statistically speaking, the average American male lives to be around seventy-seven. But I have to consider that I’ve spent most of my adult life in Argentina, where the average male lives to be seventy-three. When sixty-eight is staring you in the face, these figures can give you a sudden adrenalin rush. Statistically—just statistically, mind you—I could surmise that I have between half a decade and a decade left to live. But the secret that third-agers seldom share is that it’s not like you’re suddenly enlightened on reaching stage three. Okay, yes, you may have learned a few tricks by this time that the young and the middle-aged don’t have a clue about, but the fact is that you’re still pretty much as clueless about the mystery of life as you were when you first started searching for its meaning and you certainly don’t go around running the stats in your head and saying to yourself, “Holy crap! Five more years? I’d better get a move on!” 
It’s more like what Shakespeare said through the mouth of Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
But also, and less depressingly surely, like Alexander Pope said:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast...”
So that just when we thought we would have everything neatly figured out, we still find ourselves going, “I wonder what life has in store for me?”
That said, however, it’s not like I’m throwing in the towel. Not by a longshot. And that’s why I have fully embraced—quite recently, actually, since I found sixty and the first couple of years after that decade first descended on me to be particularly depressing landmarks—the idea of “a third age”, rather than old age, as a philosophy worthy of incorporation.
And although I might try and make it sound like I don’t give a damn about statistics, you do have them in the back of your head, if not, perhaps, as sharply focused as they should be. By way of example, I remember a TV show I liked a lot as a teen—a rather dark, existentialist teen, admittedly—called “Run for Your Life”. It starred Ben Gazarra as attorney Paul Bryan, who, in the first episode (1965) receives news from his doctor that he has a terminal illness that will only allow him to live for another nine to eighteen months—despite which, the series’ success kept it on the air until 1968.
In it, Paul decides to leave his successful law practice behind, walk away from his life and, like the proverbial guy who goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back, opts to take the money and run. His vague idea when he sets out is to “do all of the things he never had time for.” But what happens in reality is that, along the way, he meets up with a wide variety of people who end up touching his life and him theirs, leading him through every situation from bittersweet romance and passion to high adventure and imminent danger.
I enjoyed all of the human dramas that unfolded with each new episode, but what attracted me most was the point of view—that of a guy who pretty much knew how far his “non-renewable resource” was going to carry him and so could face each new day with no illusions about the future. The future simply didn’t exist, so he was free to live life on his own terms and stepping into others’ lives with no commitment but the one he was willing to make to them in the here and now.
It seemed to me a brilliant way to live. And although many would have tried to tell me that it was a good story, a good escape, but hardly realistic, I would have argued then (as I still might now) that Paul Bryan’s stance couldn’t have been more realistic, and that people might be a lot happier in their lives if that were precisely how they lived...as if tomorrow might never come.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all these years, it's that living like Paul Bryan in “Run for Your Life” is, quite possibly, the best and happiest way a human being can live. But I’ve learned it by observing other lives, not by practicing what I preach. Indeed, some of the happiest and most successful people in their fields have lived precisely that way. Many of them have been artists and, as some people might point out, they’ve had to make certain sacrifices, in terms of what others might consider “a normal life”, but have, I believe, reaped other satisfactions that most of us only dream of.
You might be asking where on earth I’m going with all of this. The answer is, I’m not sure. I’m thinking out loud, as I have been thinking to myself for many years now. And I guess the best response is that I’ve come to the conclusion that grabbing life by the tail and riding it to the stars requires risk. In fact, it requires risking life itself.
But the other part of that response is, perhaps, that those of us who are lucky enough to make it through stages one and two and reach The Third Age need to remember the words of the inimitable Yogi Berra who had several great observations to make about waking up and going through life with constant awareness: One was, “You can see a lot just by lookin’.” Another was: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And the last one was, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Admittedly, as in Willie Nelson and Leon Russell’s A Song for You, “I’ve been so many places in my life and time...” But still, I can’t help having the feeling I could have risked more, lived more, done more if I’d lived every day like it was the last one and let the future take care of itself.
But as Yogi said, it ain’t over till it’s over, and I’ve seen clearly, finally, that the way to look at this new third stage is as a liberation from the enslavement of a future that simply doesn’t exist...nor has it ever, anywhere but in my mind.