Life on Fletcher Street
I lived at 2119 Fletcher Street, on the south side of the street, about a third of the way up the block from Hoyne toward Leavitt. The homes on the street were all different in appearance. Most of them were two and three flat frame homes. There were a few brick buildings, but only one or two single-family homes. Each house had in front of it a small rectangle of land, characteristically bare or with spotty grass or short weeds, sometimes circumscribed by hip-high hedges. The landlords lived in the buildings, and they were mainly of the older generation. Younger families, from whom my friends mainly came, were characteristically the renters. Below is a photograph of Fletcher Street taken around 1950. Most of the people living in the neighborhood did not have cars, and therefore the streets were never cluttered with automobiles and were safe for children to play on.
Each building had a back yard, the size of which was determined by how much of the lot was occupied by the building. These yards were always fenced off from the neighbors and the alley, from which the garbage was collected. Many people grew flowers in their yards, but vegetable growing was not common. Where there was grass, it was strictly utilitarian and not decorative. There were auto garages behind a few of the homes.
My grandparents owned the building we lived in. It was a two-flat frame building. On the right is a photograph of the front of the house taken about 1950 after my aunt and uncle had bought it. I don’t know who the boys are in the photo.
We lived downstairs. Emma Peters, widowed mother of my Uncle Roy, lived upstairs. In our flat was a living room (We called them “front rooms”.), dining room, and kitchen. The bathroom (called simply “the toilet”) was at a slightly higher level at the end of the kitchen. It had in it a commode, sink, and bathtub. Also in the kitchen was an old Maytag wringer washing machine that my grandmother rolled up to the sink on Monday mornings to do the week’s wash. Like most of the women, she hung the wet clothes on a line. Ours extended over the yard from the back porch by a double pulley system. The water for the washing machine must have been heated, but I don’t recall how that was done. Water coming out of all the taps was cold. If you wanted hot water, you had to light the gas under the large hot water heater in the back hallway. It took at least an hour for that water to get hot. When the need for the hot water was finished, the tank was turned off. It was much more common for hot water to be provided by the large kettles sitting on the small coal stove that also produced heat for the kitchen and for the bedroom that led off from the kitchen. Because of the problem of getting hot water, baths were certainly not a daily occurrence.
An old gas range that we lit with matches also sat in the kitchen. We had a small refrigerator. A few of my friends had ice boxes that had to be supplied by large blocks of ice provided by the Ice Man who came through the neighborhood regularly. Almost all meals were taken in the kitchen at the heavy round kitchen table. The dining room had a clunky dark brown dining table and chairs that were used for family holiday dinners and a glass-fronted cabinet we called, in German, der Schpint. In the dining room was the flat’s only other source of heat, a kerosene stove that was replenished by bringing up from the basement large cans of kerosene. This stove provided heat for the dining room, the two bedrooms that ran off the dining room, and the front room. My grandparents spent most of their time in the dining room, probably because of its warmth in the winter. There was no central heating.
The RCA table top radio, the household entertainment source, was also located in the dining room. In the evenings, my grandparents, sitting in their rocking chairs, and I on the floor, would listen first, from 6:30 to 7:00, to “The Lone Ranger”. He was on the air Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. After that, there were the weekly drama programs. Depending on the night, it might be “FBI”, “Mr. and Mrs. North”, “Inner Sanctum”, “Mr. Keen”, “The Thin Man”, or “Cavalcade of America”. My grandparents never listened to the quiz programs, such as “Truth or Consequences” or “Quick as a Flash”. But they did like a few of the comedies. “Baby Snooks” was my favorite. They seemed to like “Fibber McGee and Molly” (and how we all waited with delighted anticipation as that closet was about to be opened) and “Archie’s Tavern”. Occasionally they would listen to Bob Hope or Jack Benny. They hated Eddie Cantor.
The last technological marvel in the house, located also in the dining room, was the telephone. We had the basic phone, curved handset, which is the prototype for today’s phones. Some homes still had the stand-up phone with the transmitter at the top of the base and the receiver, separate, held up to the ear. A few people had coin phones in their homes. They had to put a nickel in each time they made a call. I can still remember our phone number: Wellington 3888. Later it became Wellington 5-3888. You would pick up the phone and talk to a real person, the operator, who would say in a very stilted female voice (Operators were always women.) “Number please.” After you said the number you were calling, there would be some clicks, and she would say, in the same voice, “Your number, please.”. You would state your own number, and after a brief pause with some more clicks, the phone would start ringing in the home of the person you were calling. The account holder of the phone would be billed for each call made. I always used to wonder if you gave the operator the wrong “your number” whether you could escape being billed for the call. I still wonder that.
The front room was not used very much by them or by adults who visited. There was a couch, two over-stuffed chairs, and a cedar chest. Also, but I’m sure this was unique to my grandparents’ home, there was a large standing R.C.A. Victrola that you had to wind up to get it to play the typical 78 rpm records of that time. It actually worked. Today, that would be a most valuable antique. The front room was where I would play. Being an only child, a lot of my games were imaginary. I slept in one of the two double beds in the same bedroom with my grandparents, the bedroom that ran off the kitchen. There were beds in the other bedrooms, but these had not been used since my aunts and uncles moved out. Only once, in my earliest childhood, did we have overnight guests---German friends from Pittsburgh. The bedroom closest to the front room was where I kept a large toy box with my collection of toys.
We had a basement. The floor was dirt. It was dark and full of spiders, and I disliked going down there. The basement was where the large kerosene tank and the coal bin were located. Rats were a problem in the area, and we occasionally had rats in the basement and in the dilapidated non-usable garage in our back yard. We were one of the few families that owned a dog, a black spaniel mix. Pepper was a “good ratter”, and she kept their population down. Rats were not an uncommon sight in the alleys. After my grandfather died, my uncle Gerhardt and Aunt June bought the house and completely remodeled and modernized it, making the basement so nice that a rec room with a pool table was put into it.
The housing of my friends was varied. Some lived in basement flats, some upstairs, some in flats in rear houses, and some in homes like ours. I think a couple of my friends during those years lived in single family homes. As I said earlier, most of them rented. People got along with much less living space then than they do now. The flats were small, and the bedrooms were few. Many, if not most, shared a bedroom with a brother or sister, perhaps even a bed. The family next door to us, the Jensons, had a flat about the size of ours. But living in it were the parents and 5 kids, the youngest about 3 years older than I.
The neighborhood was not just residential. It was truly a community in which most of our needs were met. At the southeast corner of Fletcher and Hoyne was a grocery store where most everyday items, such as bread, milk, and canned goods were bought. It was also a hang-out for the Fletcher Street kids. There you could also get penny candy or a great ice cream cone for five cents. The gumball machine in the store took pennies. For a penny you got a colored gumball. If you were lucky, you got a spotted two-cent “winner” and could turn it in for penny candy. If you were really lucky and got a striped five cent winner, you could get something like a candy bar or package of Twinkies. The store was originally owned by the Marzals, a long time Fletcher Street family. Evelyn Marzal was a former girl friend of my Uncle Roy. Later in my childhood, the Tazler family owned the store. Their son was a nice older boy we called “Taz”. I believe there was at least one other owner during those years, but I cannot recall anything about them.
On the other corner, the northwest corner of Fletcher and Leavitt, was a shoe repair shop. My Uncle Gerhardt and Aunt June and my cousins first lived across the street from the shoe repair shop in a multi-unit frame building with a Leavitt Street address.
On the right is a photo of that corner, taken sometime during the early 1940’s. (Enlarged photo on Photo Page) There was a war memorial plaque on the corner. I don’t know the purpose of the chairs in the photo. A friend of mine from school, Teddy Avesing, lived in the brick building. Jim and Ed Innis lived one or two doors down.
One street north of Fletcher Street was Belmont Avenue, the main commercial street of our area. Streetcars and, later, buses ran on Belmont. Most of our shops and businesses were located there. On the southeast corner of Hoyne and Belmont was Michael’s Drug Store, where we got our prescriptions filled by the friendly pharmacist, “Jimmy” Michaels, a man I recall wearing thick glasses and a perpetual slight smile. In the front of his shop was the soda fountain where for a nickel, you could get a coke or flavored phosphate. What a treat it was for some adult to buy you a sundae, milkshake, or soda for twenty or twenty five cents. You always got a little cookie with the milkshakes.
Next to Michaels’ was Emil’s barber shop, the shop where I got my haircuts. I don’t know if there was another barber shop in the neighborhood. Some of my friends also had their hair cut there. Others may have had their hair cut at home. Emil was a dapper young German fellow with a Hitler mustache. I thought he was very nice, and liked it when he cut my hair. I hated it when my haircut fell to his partner, a sour-faced older American man with a large hearing aid protruding from one of his ears. He used to mutter something about me having “hair like a billy goat” and grab my head with a vice-like grip if I squirmed in the chair. No matter who cut our hair, we always got a lollypop when we were finished. Directly across Belmont from Emil’s was a candy store that underwent several ownership changes during the years I lived on Fletcher Street. I went in there regularly in my later years to play the target-gun machine, a precursor, I guess, of our modern video games. But this machine shot actual bb’s. If you scored enough points, you were given a prize, some small item from the store.
Traveling east on Belmont, was a small German language evangelical church housed in a one-story red brick building. I never attended, nor knew anything about it. The next street east from Hoyne was Damen Avenue. There was a gas station on the southwest corner of Hoyne and Damen. Directly across the street was a very small playground. Whether it was there during my early years, I can’t recall.
Crossing Damen, you passed Phillips Bakery, and then at the end of the block was our elementary school, Jahn. Across the street from the school was a greasy spoon diner where some students ate their lunches. If you continued east past Jahn, five or six more blocks, you first passed the Social Turners gym, a gym sponsored by a German cultural society. A few of my German friends participated in gym programs there. Continuing on, you came to our main shopping area at Belmont and Lincoln Avenues. Goldblatt’s and Wieboldt’s department stores were located in that area, as well as the Lakeview Savings Bank, the upscale Belmont Theater, and a number of other stores. “Lincoln Avenue”, as we referred to it was where Fletcher Street residents would go to buy clothes, larger items, and do all their Christmas shopping. It was an easy streetcar run down Belmont, and not an overly long walk.
Back in the Fletcher Street area, on the southwest corner of Hoyne and Belmont was Jake’s Butcher Shop, where we would get the occasional piece of meat. A door or two down from Jake’s was a small grocery run by an Eastern European woman. She had two very pretty daughters, Olgha and Eva, both a little older than I. Across the street was Richter’s Tavern and Hall. Wedding receptions were held there, and a school friend of mine, Louie Morrell, lived above the tavern. Across Hoyne from the tavern was Schmidt’s Funeral Home, which handled many of the funerals in the area. Both of my grandparents were buried from there.
Two doors west from Richter’s was the office of our family physician, Lee Barryte. The sign on his building said “Physician and Surgeon”. Besides having office hours and making house calls, he performed all sorts of surgery. He did a thyroidectomy on my Aunt June, which I believed he botched. As a consequence of it, she lost her voice. He had a mustache and chain-smoked, even during the examinations. I think his wife was the nurse/receptionist. For an office visit, the standard charge was $2.00 and for a house call it was $5.00. I don’t know if he had a sliding scale for those who could not afford those fees. I imagine he did. The practice in that neighborhood must have provided him with a good income, however. He always drove a Cadillac.
On the right is a photo of a parade, looking east on Belmont. (Enlarged on Photo Page) You can see the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign by Richter’s and the awnings of Schmidt’s Funeral Home. Dr. Barryte’s office is the low brick building, two doors down from Richters. Note the cobblestones---actually creosote imbued wooden blocks--- and the electric streetcar tracks. This was characteristic of Chicago’s main streets at that time.
Walking west on the north side of Belmont, as the parade in the photo is doing, you came to Clucas Cleaners, a business owned by the parents of Jacquelyn Clucas, a pleasant big girl who was one of my Jahn classmates all the way through my years at Jahn School. In the photo Clucas Cleaners is one of the two buildings with awnings after Dr. Barryte’s office. The first cross-street was Leavitt, and on the northeast corner was a “supermarket”. I think it was a National Foods, but it may have been an A and P. The store was tiny by present day standards, but it had greater selection and cheaper prices than the small grocery stores. And unless my memory is failing me, you went around and took the items off the shelf yourself instead of having the proprietor do it for you, as was the case in the Mom and Pop store’s like Marzal’s.
Directly across the street from the National was Miska’s Tavern, the downfall of a couple of my male family members. Miska’s, Richters and another tavern on the corner of Barry and Leavitt were the three taverns in the immediate area. My grandfather would periodically buy quarts of beer or sweet wine from Miska’s, and a quart of cola or root beer for me, and then take them home to drink. Popular brands of beer at the time were Meisterbrau , Tavern Pale, Edelweiss, and Atlas Prager. The wines my grandparents preferred were Petri Port and Tokay. It was not just a take-out tavern, though; it also had a regular bar crowd from the neighborhood. Miska’s got TV in 1948. Not many people at that time owned televisions, and they were a big draw for the taverns. All Cubs and Sox games were telecast, as well as Friday night boxing and mid-week wrestling. I can remember standing at the open door in the summer or looking through the window in the cooler weather, trying to get glimpses of the wrestling or boxing matches. One time, one of the bar regulars, a lady who knew my uncle George, invited me in for pop and pretzels. So there I sat at the bar, drinking a coke, eating pretzels, and watching something on TV. By that time I had moved in with my aunt and uncle, and they were not pleased when I told them about it.
Across Leavitt from Miska’s was another candy store. Here it was that my grandfather would go to buy the Sunday papers and for me the occasional big splurge of a comic book. Around the 4th of July the store also sold simple fireworks. Firecrackers were illegal, but sparklers and other fireworks could be bought there.
As I recall, there were not many businesses further west on Belmont until Western and Clybourne. However, there was a bakery two blocks west of Leavitt from which we would frequently buy delicious apple slices, a common German pastry you found in most bakeries. They also had great pineapple slices.
That was the physical neighborhood.
There were actually three foci, besides our homes, for us kids living on the street. There was, of course, life on the street itself. There was Hamlin Park. And there was Jahn Elementary School. Since Hamlin Park was only a block away from Fletcher Street, our life there blended into our life on the street, and I will deal with those two foci together. Jahn School, however, introduced us to a new environment, friends, and behavior patterns, so I will deal with our life at Jahn in an entirely separate section.
I’ve had some difficulty deciding how I will address our life during those nine years. As we got older our activities and attitudes changed, as well as our home situations. Also kids moved in and moved out. So our friends in first grade were not necessarily the ones we had in eighth. However, there was a stability to the street which I think is greater than it is now in most urban neighborhoods. Over half of my first grade class graduated from Jahn. My friendship circle was remarkably consistent for most of my childhood.
The Other Kids
I think sometime around four years of age, we started making friends with neighboring children. My “best friend” in my early childhood years was David Giandinoto, (pictured on the left) who lived three doors east in a basement flat. I can’t remember when he entered my life. In my memory he was always there. I remember Dave as a truly nice kid. He had what we all considered a handicap then. He wore glasses. I recall a conversation we had when I wondered whether he could ever become a soldier. During those World War II years, that was an important goal for us. He asserted that he would be “a soldier with glasses”. In addition, he had what we now call a “lazy eye”, where one eye would drift over when he stared hard and he became cross-eyed. I can’t recall us ever making fun of that though. Periodically, he would have a black shade over one of the lenses to help strengthen the weak eye. Dave was smaller than I. He was fast on his feet and a pretty good athlete most of our childhood---pretty good, not great. However, he always struggled in school, and though he started earlier than I, he finished a half year behind me. He had a brother, Todd, about 3 or 4 years younger, and later on a sister, Ellen. On the left is a photo of Dave, probably age 5.
Next door to Dave lived Richie Weiss, an only child with German parents. I don’t know when Rich moved into the neighborhood, or whether he was there from the time I was born. Rich was my “best friend” in 7th and 8th Grade. Dave and I didn’t have a falling out; we just seemed to gravitate more toward other people. Though Richie’s parents were immigrants and spoke German at home, they were more affluent than most of our parents. His father was a tailor, and they owned the house they lived in, as well as a black Plymouth automobile. Most of my friends’ parents did not own cars. Rich himself had more possessions than the rest of our Fletcher Street group. He, like I, was overweight, and both of us received occasionally the verbal abuse of being called “Fattie” or “Fatso”. Obesity was not nearly as prevalent then among children as it is now. Because of his weight Richie couldn’t run fast, but he was a good softball and baseball player. He was a year older than I, and a half year ahead of me in school.
Another of my early friends was Freddy Witter, a very skinny kid with a big nose and low voice. He seemed always to be making jokes and then giggling. Foot speed was a coveted attribute when we were little kids, and Freddy was very fast. He lived in a multiunit frame building at the corner of Fletcher and Hoyne which included Marzal’s Grocery Store. In this same unit lived Paul Groth, the son of Evelyn Marzal, my Uncle Roy’s early girlfriend. Paul was a couple of years younger than most of my friends, and we included him only when we needed to fill out groups or teams. Later he went on to become a good basketball player at Lake View High School. His athleticism was not apparent then.
Next door to the store was a brick building. Paul’s friend of the same age, Curt Thompson, lived there. Curt had a younger brother, Gerhard, and they also had German parents. He, like Paul, was used only as a fill-in when we played. It seems, looking back on it now, that playmates could be a year older or a year younger, but anything more than that either way put them in different friendship groups. Younger kids like Paul and Curt were used only as fill-ins, and older kids might participate in some games temporarily in a self-declared leadership role.
As we grew older we found the kids across the street and at the other end of the block. Across the street lived the Eggerts. Bobby Eggert was about my age and Earl Eggert a bit older. The names “Bobby and Earl Eggert” ring a lot of my memory bells, but I have no clear mental picture of either of them. Several doors west lived Roger Thompson, who went by the nickname of “Junior”. I recall him as being a friendly, gregarious kid with a cheerful personality. He had an older brother, Artie, who was the only neighborhood boy I can recall having a girl friend. Several of us got a vicarious thrill one Saturday afternoon at the Roscoe theater watching him kiss her in the darkness. The identical twins, Teddy and Ernie, lived a house or two away from the Thompsons. They were several years younger than we, but they were interesting because they were identical twins. Whenever I spoke to one, I had to ask him whether he was Ernie or Teddy. Their grandmother was an amateur fortune teller. When my aunts came to visit, they would always have to make a trip down the street to “have their cards read”. The charge was fifty cents. Sadly, none of these people, according to Jim Innis, are still alive.
Jim, with whom I reunited in December of 2004, lived on that side of the street at the other end of the block. He continued to live in the neighborhood, though not on Fletcher Street, until he went into the army, so he knew what happened to many of our Fletcher Street friends. I remember Jim as a tall thin kid, a bit on the quiet and serious side, who was a good athlete. He was bothered by serious and recurring sties in his earlier years, and he missed so much school that he had to repeat a half grade. I recall him with those two swollen eyes, holding his head back to see properly. He and I were friendly, but we were not always part of the same groups. We had a fearsome fist fight when we were about 11 or 12 that both of us still recall. Jim had a little brother, Ed, who was part of our 2004 Fletcher Street “reunion”. Since Ed was 5 years younger, he really didn’t play much with us, and in my memory is a shadowy figure in the background. Kids at that end of the block formed one group, and those of us near the Hoyne end formed another.
Next to the Innises, in a brick building lived Teddy Avesing, who was in my class all through elementary school. He also was overweight and had a distinct over-bite, which we referred to in those days, not very kindly, as “buck teeth”. Braces for dental correction were not common then. In fact, I used to pity the one boy I knew at Jahn, a kid we called “Sailor”, who had them. They were large and conspicuous. I think the average kid then, having the choice of braces or buck teeth, would choose the latter. Ted, as I recall, also had German parents. It’s interesting that I don’t remember playing with him very much, though we were very friendly in school, and his was the only real kids’ birthday party I can recall attending on Fletcher Street. Sadly, as Jim informed me, Ted died at a fairly young age.
Across the street from Ted and Jim in my later years on Fletcher lived Joanne and Richie Uchiama. They held a lot of interest for us when they moved in, because they were Japanese. I remember back in those post-war, politically incorrect days, asking Richie if he was “a Jap”. He very clearly asserted that he was “ a Japanese-American”. Joanne was in my class at Jahn. She could be a bit on the hyper side, liked the boys, and was what passed in those days for a flirt. Richie was only a couple years younger, and I remember him as basically a friendly active kid who was allowed into our games. It’s interesting that though we grew up with prejudice in our homes, that was never carried over, as far as I can recall, to personal interactions. We were interested in the Uchiamas because they were different. I don’t know how we would have reacted to African-American kids. I believe that just about every one of my friends referred to African-Americans as “niggers”. But strangely enough, there was no hatred in that term. It was the name we heard at home, and so that’s what we called them. I have a suspicion that if a black family had moved onto the street, and the adults had left us alone, we would have been very curious about the black kids and then just accepted them.
Across Leavitt from Teddy lived the Norstroms. Gilbert Norstrom, a friendly open kid was part of our larger group. As I think back, my memories are of him and Junior Thompson being similar personalities. Gilbert had an older brother, Marvin, whom I remember as “a tough kid”. The designation “tough” in those days usually didn’t have much to do with body build. It was ascribed to kids who had an aura of meanness or intimidation about them. They might be the same age or a little older, but you never wanted to get in a fight with one, because you were psychologically beaten before you even started. Marvin was very different from Gilbert.
Across Fletcher from the Nordstroms lived my Uncle Gerhardt, Aunt June, and my two cousins Gary and Gerry. After my grandparents died, June and Gerhardt bought the house at 2119 Fletcher. Later, Gary would be a contemporary and friend of Ed Innis. Both Gary and Gerry, and to a lesser extent my youngest cousin, Roy would also spend most of their childhood on Fletcher Street five to ten years later.
Scattered about the street were other kids who were there, but were not part of our group. Next door to us were the Jenson’s, the family of 5, all of whom were older than I. LeRoy, the youngest, would frequently make fun of me and call me a Nazi. Bobby, the next oldest boy got terribly abusive verbally to my grandmother at Hamlin Park one day. My grandmother must not have been on good terms with Mrs. Jenson at that time, because the issue was handled by my grandparents going to the police station to file a complaint. I went with them, and I remember my grandmother breaking down and crying as she described the episode. Donald, the oldest boy, and the two girls, Shirley and Lavina were very nice and unlike the two younger boys. Later, a girl a year or two older than I, Donna Thumm, would live in the upstairs flat.
A couple of doors down were Jake and Marie Loible and their family. I played a little bit with Jake and have only the vaguest of memories of Marie. What I do remember about their family is that they had a brother---whether older or younger I can’t remember---who was physically handicapped. Jake used to say it was because he fell out of his high chair when he was a baby. My memory of him was of someone not only physically handicapped, but mentally as well.
Across the Street lived for a while a little girl named Peggy. My memories of Peggy are doing a little “I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours” on her back patio when we were very little kids. Kathleen Fritz, a serious quiet girl, again of a German family, lived across from Marzal’s. She was in my class all through Jahn. My grandmother liked her. She used to say that Kathleen was “just like a mother” to the younger kids. Coming from my grandmother, that was high praise. An older girl named Sonja lived above the grocery store for a little while. She would participate in our games a bit, exerting some adult-like supervision. Later a loud little boy by the name of Billy Shaugnessy lived in that flat. He was a chip off the block of his mother who was also loud with a very colorful vocabulary. Living in the multi-unit structure where Fred lived were the Fitzgeralds. Ellen Fitzgerald was a couple of years younger, but she was very friendly, and with her younger brother, Artie, in tow, would play in some of our games. She was a good-looking confident girl. I would be curious to know what kind of woman she became. On the whole, though, the girls were not a very important part of our life on the street. We would develop more interest in them later on in school.
On the right is a group photo of some of these kids that David Giandinoto sent me. (Enlarged on Photo Page) Dave is now retired and living in Colorado Springs. I don’t know what the occasion was. The girls look like they are wearing party dresses, so it could have been someone’s birthday party. The photo was probably taken in 1943.
I don’t know who the first two girls, bottom left, are. Jim Innis thinks the one on the far left could be a girl named Meredith who lived across the street from me. Both Jim and I thought she was very pretty. The little boy, third from the left is Todd, Dave Giandinoto’s brother. Then on Todd’s left is Dave, with Junior Thompson ending the row. Dave was not yet wearing glasses. Immediately above Junior is Fred Witter. I think the girl on Fred’s right could be Ellen Fitzgerald. I’m the boy in the middle of that row. On my right is Kathleen Fritz. I don’t know who the girl to her right is. The older girl standing behind me is Sonja, who lived above Marzal’s store.
As time went by, and as we matured and attended school, our circle of friends increased. Kids from Jahn came over to Fletcher street and we would spend time over in their neighborhoods as well. My memory is that our friends’ parents were not very important to us. Mothers usually did not work. They would be at home, washing, ironing, cooking, while listening to “Stella Dallas” or “One Man’s Family”, popular radio soap operas of the time. Fathers usually worked long hours, and when they were home, they always seemed to me a bit intimidating. Parents then were parents. They didn’t try to be their kids’ friends, much less did they try to be pals to the neighborhood kids. Mostly we played outside, generally without any parental interference or supervision.
We had a curious custom in that neighborhood. When we wanted one of our friends to come out and play, we would go over to his house, stand in front of it, and shout in a sing-song voice, “Yo…ohh Dave….Yo Dayyyy…viddd”, “Yo…oh Rich….Yo Richieeee…”. Writing it doesn’t convey the almost yodeling quality of that call to play. The boy would come to the window, take a glance out, put on his coat, and then out the door he would go. We never went to the door and rang the bell or knocked. Because then we might meet a parent. And we never, never would even think of using the phone. In fact, I can’t recall ever talking to any of my friends on the phone. Those calls cost money, and our parents didn’t have it to spend on such frivolous things as their kids calling friends
.The War Years
I was born in 1938, but this narrative does not begin until 1942, because my first sketchy memories don’t begin until I was a three-year old. Like most children of that age, we stayed very close to the house or in the back yards. Activities were riding tricycles down the sidewalk, pulling wagons, or playing in the dirt. My first memory is riding a little blue tricycle in front of my house when the front wheel came off. My mental picture is of the whole bike collapsing, and me bursting into tears. Evidently it was not repairable, because I was later given another larger one (not new---we never got new bikes). This one had blocks on the pedals. Blocks were put on the pedals when your legs were too short to reach them.
My earliest recollections of playing with other kids is sitting in front of someone’s house and playing in the dirt with toy cars and trucks. We also played a lot with toy soldiers. I had a rather large collection of metal soldiers which we would line up in various ways and have imaginary battles. Until 1945, World War II was a major backdrop to our lives. In fact, until 1945 we consciously did not know the country at peace. You walked up and down the street and saw in various windows small cloth rectangular banners with stars on them, blue stars for sons or husbands in the service, gold stars for those who had died. We had a banner with two blue stars and a gold star, the blue for my Uncles George and Gerhardt, and the gold for my Uncle Rudy who had died in 1943 in New Guinea.
The war years spawned some activities of which we were either observers or participants. Rationing was a part of our earliest memories. Each home had a booklet of ration coupons which allowed the household to buy only a limited amount of scarce items. Sugar, coffee, and, I believe, meat were rationed items. Butter was completely unavailable as I recall. The substitute was a vegetable margarine called “Oleo” that was white in color. It came with a packet of yellow coloring that you could add to it. Gasoline was severely rationed, and automobile trips were to be limited to those that were absolutely essential. Even when one used public transportation, he or she would be confronted with signs asking, “Is This Trip Necessary?”
Scrap drives were a part of our lives during those years. There were regular paper drives, where we were asked to bundle our old newspapers and take them to a place where they would somehow be used to further the war effort. We also saved old grease. A friend of mine who lived at the same time on the far northwest side remembers lining up at the butcher shop with Crisco cans of old grease to sell to the butcher to “help the war effort”. I don’t recall that, but I do remember saving the grease. How that old grease helped us win the war, I have no idea.
So we can see that recycling is not a modern innovation. In our early childhood, even after the War, a regular visitor was the “Rag Man”. He would come through the alley on a wagon pulled by a tired old horse, calling out what we thought was “Rags-a-lion”. It was only later that I understood he was really saying “Rags, old iron”. I believe he also took bundled papers. I think he would pay small amounts of money for acceptable rags, paper, and scrap metal. I don’t know what the final end of these materials was, but certainly they were being recycled in some way.
We were encouraged in the summertime of those early ‘40’s to grow our own vegetables. The gardens in which they were grown were referred to as “Victory Gardens.” For those who didn’t have back yards, they could have gardens in various designated empty lots. I recall one of these in the neighborhood somewhere near Leavitt and Fletcher. In school we were given boxes of seed packets to sell to the neighbors. I think I tried to grow some vegetables, but with little success. I didn’t like to eat vegetables, so perhaps my motivation was less than intense.
There were other neighborhood activities reminding us of the war. One of these was the air raid drills. Each block had an “Air Raid Warden”. I’m not sure what his or her duties were besides walking the streets to make sure we all pulled down our shades when we had a black-out drill. I have a vague memory of once going out on the street during a drill to watch the helmeted air raid warden addressing a smoldering device, which I guess was supposed to represent a bomb.
There were also social events supporting the war. I think the “Street Dances” were one of these. The street was blocked off from traffic. Various booths that sold pop, hot dogs, and beer were set up. There were also simple games. You bought tickets and used these to buy food or participate in the games. Later there would be music and the adults would dance. I never paid much attention to the dancing, but I imagine it was mainly women (women thought nothing of dancing with each other in those days) and older men. Most of the young men were in the service. We kids loved the street dances. It was an exciting carnival atmosphere that occurred right in front of our houses.
There were patriotic parades at various holidays, parades in which civilians carrying flags marched with any servicemen home on furlough. On the right is a photo of one of the parades on Fletcher Street. I don’t know the date, but I am sure it occurred during the war years. (Enlarged on Photo Page)
So that was the backdrop for our early life on Fletcher Street. During those years and immediately afterward, we kids played a lot with toy guns. Compared to the toy gun replicas today, they were very crude. There were a few pre-war cap guns in our group, but because of the scarcity of metal, children’s toy guys were made out of wood or a type of plaster which we called “plastic”. The biggest problem with the plastic guns was that they would break if you dropped them on the sidewalk. Some of them were replica army weapons; others were “cowboy guns”, complete with a studded one or two-gun holster made out of, pressed cardboard. Guns were my favorite toys. I always wanted new ones for Christmas. We would run up and down the street, hiding behind trees or bushes, raise our toy guns and go “DA-DA-DA-DA-DA!” or “CRRH—CRRH—CRRH!” (a sound made in the upper back of the mouth) to simulate shooting. Sometimes we would then feign dramatic deaths as we were “shot”. Later on, after the war, when metal cap guns became available, we would load them with a roll of red caps and play, firing the caps. However, the caps would often skip as they were being fed toward the hammer, and the gun would “misfire”. I hated that. In some ways, the old way was better.
I’m sure some people would be horrified that a major play activity of little kids then was using toy guns to pretend to kill other people. Did this make us a more violent generation? Who can say? For me it didn’t. I loved guns then, and I loved playing with them. I fantasized about having real ones and going hunting. But they were fantasies that passed as I became older. In fact, I have never owned a real gun, and I don’t think I could kill any animal, except in self-defense, and not feel guilty about it.
After the War: Games and Activities
As we grew older our street games became more organized. Warm summer evenings would find us out on the street playing “Hide and Seek”, “Tag” (which we called “It”) and its variation, “One-Caught-All-Caught”, where each tagged player joined the group pursuing the others. When a new kid would finish supper (It was always “supper”, not “dinner”.), leave the house, and seek to join the game, someone would shout “Olee-olee-ocean-free, new player!”, and we’d all stop let the person join and we’d start over again. Some other more stationary summer street games were “Red Rover” and “May I?”.
Otto Shutz was a Fletcher Street character who came out on the street periodically to organize some games for the older kids. Otto was a married truck driver, and he and his wife, Adeline, had no children of their own. He had a loud gruff voice and manner, but it was obvious he liked kids. He had a home-made game with tops that he would bring out and let some of the older boys play. He would also sometimes organize a game called “Kick the Can”. I can’t remember the rules, except that it involved kicking a tin can as far as you could and then running. Kids loved it when Otto came out on the street, and the older boys all gravitated toward him. This tended to squeeze us younger kids out, but we frequently were allowed to play anyway.
On other summer evenings we might gather at Marzal’s Grocery Store. Most of the time we didn’t interact with the girls very much. They might play “May I?” or “Red Rover” with us, but while we were chasing each other around and doing what we considered masculine things, I recall them staying to themselves, jumping rope or playing “Hop Scotch” on the sidewalk. However, when we gathered at Marzal’s, some of the girls were there and interacted with us. We might even play some Hop Scotch with them or jump some rope (If we could---I never could get the coordination down.).
Marzal’s had two large concrete steps leading into the store, and we would sit on them and talk or play a guessing game like “Movie Stars”, where one of us would state initials of movie stars and the others would try to guess who they were. The movies and movie stars were more important to us than they are to kids today. Someone might then suggest we play “Statue Maker”. This was a simple little game where one of us, the Statue Maker, would grab the hand of each participant in turn and then spin them out, naming some celebrity, usually a movie star or other well-known person, and the player would “freeze” after letting go of the Statue Maker’s hand. This was done until all the kids were “frozen” with some new identity. Then the Statue Maker would say, I believe, “Statue Maker”, and all the “statues” would come to life and each kid would act out the new identity. This game probably would seem rather simple-minded and trite to kids today, but for us it was a fun way to interact with each other on a warm summer evening.
These games might continue until dark or a little after. Then we went home on our own or responded to the calls or whistles of our parents. Unusual for an old lady, my grandmother could whistle very loudly, and that’s how I was summoned home. Of course, on school nights, and when the weather was unfavorable, we didn’t spend so much time outside. Instead We would then be in our houses, reading comic books, playing with blocks, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, or toy soldiers while listening to the stories on the radio. I can’t remember spending much time on homework.
There was other summer play that involved simple equipment. Besides the tricycles and later bicycles, many of us had scooters. Certainly not motorized or with ball-bearing wheels like today’s versions. These were larger, made of heavy painted steel, and had hard rubber wheels. The propulsion energy came only from our left legs. Some of us also had wagons in which we would pull or push each other.
Most of us also had roller skates. These were nothing like the in-line skates of today. They were steel skates that had clamps which gripped the side of your shoe in front and a strap that went around the ankle holding the back of the skate on your foot. You couldn’t wear sneakers if you went roller skating, because you had to have a leather shoe with a firm sole that protruded. The skates’ clamps were tightened onto our soles using a metal “skate key” that we usually carried on a string around our necks. It was great fun racing each other down the sidewalk on our skates. But there was always the danger of the clamps loosening and the skate coming off the front of the foot. We all experienced the consequent bad spills from time to time. And we had no padding. Scabs on the knees were a regular mark of roller skating on Fletcher Street.
We also made some of our toys. Hohmeier’s Lumber Company over on Belmont Avenue would put out scrap lumber in the alley behind their building. All you needed to do was get a strip of wood about three feet long and nail another shorter strip cross-wise about six inches from the base. You had a sword. And as you and your friends whacked those sticks together, in your mind you were then Errol Flynn sword fighting with pirates trying to take over your ship.
With the help of adults, and if we could get better quality wood, we could nail right-triangle pieces of wood onto two by fours to make stilts. A number of us had those stilts, and it was a bit of trick learning how to walk on them. Most of us were able to manage the shorter stilts that raised us about a foot off the ground. But the really accomplished kids could walk with the larger stilts more than two times that height. Like jumping rope, I could never master the larger ones.
The most elaborate of our home-made simple toys were the rubber-band guns that became a fad when I was eight or nine years old. The rubber bands referred to here were not the small office supply that we use today, but they were half-inch wide strips cut from old inner tubes. The “gun” was a piece of board about a foot long, a half-inch thick, and about four inches wide. The release “trigger” was half of a wooden clothes pin held in place at one end of the board by a rubber band that stretched the length of the board, wrapping around it from front to back. The gun had to be “calibrated” in length so that the strip taken from the inner tube would make a tight fit around the clothes pin, holding it firmly against the end of the board Then a large nail was driven into the bottom of the board, parallel to the clothes pin, about two inches or so, depending on your hand size, from the clothes pin. Your gun was now ready. You gripped it with the heel of the hand against the clothes pin and the first three fingers on the nail. Ammunition was other rubber bands cut from the inner tube. These were knotted in the middle. One end hooked around the front of the gun, stretched along the top, and the other end of the band tucked in and was held in place by the clothes pin at the end of the gun. To shoot it, you gripped the nail and squeezed against the clothes pin with the heel of the hand. The rubber band was released and “shot”. They were harmless and great fun. The only problem was that the most common old inner tubes available then were made during the war out of “synthetic rubber” and bands from them didn’t have the stretch and snap of real rubber. Lucky was the kid who had one or two old pre-war inner tubes.
I don’t want this narrative to describe life then as idyllic. There were occasions where we called each other names; when we were mean to each other; where we argued; where we had occasional fist fights, especially as we got older. These usually developed out of rather minor issues---one word led to another; one shove led to another. Adults did not interfere; we were expected to settle our own differences, or as we were told then, “fight your own battles.” One of the things that looms large in Jim Innis’s and my memories of each other is a marathon fist fight we had when we were about eleven years old. It’s a good illustration of this nastier side of our childhood and the attitude of adults toward our physical confrontations.
I was playing down at Jim’s end of the block early one summer evening. I was on the street in front of his house. The kids playing with us were those from his group. I don’t know what started the fight and neither does Jim, but there we were with our fists raised and a circle of kids around us. I didn’t like to fight. I was a bit afraid of Jim. And I was surrounded by his friends. For me, with all of Jim’s friends there, it was a very hostile environment. But given the way we thought then, it would have been a serious loss of face to back off. And neither of us had the maturity to say, “Let’s talk this over.” Instead we started to hit each other. Surrounded by a loud group of boys of all ages, we exchanged punches for what seemed an eternity. Fights in those days were usually very short-lived. Both of us remember this as a marathon.
Finally, one of my blows hit Jim squarely in the nose. He grabbed his nose, as I remember, said it was bleeding, and he turned away to go into his house. Totally exhausted, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and hoped now to get back to my end of the street to a friendlier environment. But, much to my surprise and despair, Junior Thompson, whose adrenalin must have been pumped up by watching us, stepped up to me and said he was going to fight me, and started dancing around me. So I had to do it again with another kid, but this one much less formidable than Jim. It didn’t last very long, however. As soon as Junior realized he was going to get hit, he decided that he would rather watch fights than participate. He gave up. I desperately wanted to get home.
But as I turned away to leave, out of the crowd, to my horror, stepped Marvin Norstrom. Marvin was about two years older. He was a neighbor of Jim’s, and the brother of Gilbert, one of Jim’s friends. Marvin had the reputation of being a tough kid. He was shorter than we were, but Jim remembers him as being quite developed physically. In fact, Jim thinks he was taking boxing lessons. In any case, there was an aura of menace about Marvin. He stepped out and with a very snarly voice said something like, “So you want to fight, huh?” I don’t remember what I said, but it sure wasn’t “Yeah”. Even if I hadn’t been exhausted, fighting Marvin Norstrom would have been a very scary prospect, and I would have been beaten before I even started. I don’t know if I even fought back, but he hit me a couple of times in the face, and I lost it. I turned around and went home crying.
But what I didn’t know until just recently when I talked with Jim is that there is more to this story. Jim’s father, who had been watching the fight, wouldn’t let Jim into the house. He told him he had to go back and finish the fight (whatever that meant). By this time I was crying and heading home. Jim came back out and was then also confronted by Marvin who accused him of starting the fight with me. It ended up with Marvin pummeling Jim and beating him up as well. Evidently, Marvin’s idea of keeping peace was to beat up the younger kids who were fighting with each other.
I’m recording this incident, not only because it’s so memorable to both Jim and me, but also because it reveals a lot about adult attitudes at that time and in that neighborhood to boys’ physical confrontations. Unless serious injury was going to be done, adults did not interfere. There had to be any number of grown-ups on the street who saw us fighting. But no one rushed out, saying “Break it up!” or took us aside so we could talk it out. We didn’t expect any parent to interfere and rescue us. In fact, Jim’s father watched both fights and wouldn’t let him quit. We were expected to defend our honor ourselves and bring things to a conclusion by fighting, if necessary. It was our business. When my Aunt June heard about the fight, she made fun of me by taunting me, saying I got “beat up by little Marvin Norstrom.” We didn’t even get sympathy.
Corner of Fletcher and Leavitt
Belmont Avenue Parade