Saturday, May 27, 2017
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
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...|
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.