The Changing Seasons
The 4th of July
The passing of time, holidays, and seasons of course dictated our outdoor play. The big summer holiday was the 4th of July. Picnics, band concerts, and organized fireworks shows were not part of our 4th of July experience. But firecrackers and fireworks were. Firecrackers were then, as they are now, illegal in Chicago. But that didn’t stop certain kids from getting them. Some kids’ parents would go across the border into Wisconsin to buy them. There were also stores in Chicago that sold them illegally. I bought some once from such a store. They were “Ladyfingers”, tiny harmless firecrackers that you could actually hold in your fingers when they went off. The sound they produced was no louder than caps. Nevertheless, they were firecrackers and illegal. Dave Giandinoto told me about this candy store on Belmont, west of Leavitt. He told me that you could buy firecrackers there, if you gave the right codeword. If you wanted the one inch larger firecrackers, you asked for “One large”; if you wanted Ladyfingers, you asked for “One Small”. My heart was beating faster as I entered the store, held out my money, and said to the woman, “One Small”. Without another word being spoken, she produced from behind the counter the Ladyfingers, took my money, and handed them to me. Thrilled down to my toes after the deal went down, I stuck the contraband into my pocket and left the store.
The one inch fire crackers were the common ones. They were loud and they could send a tin can into the air. Then there were the legendary “Cherry Bombs”, round firecrackers that were even more powerful. The possessor of the firecrackers would have a lit “punk”, a smoldering brown composition on a stick. (We all used to have punks at various times. They were said to drive off mosquitoes. We put the unlit end in our mouths and pretended we were smoking.) I was never allowed firecrackers, but my friend Richie Weiss had several different kinds. Evidently, his parents didn’t mind him having them and actually must have helped him buy them. Firecrackers were exploding all over the neighborhood for two weeks before the 4th. Our dog hated it.
Those of us not allowed to have firecrackers had simpler fireworks which could be bought legally. I always had one or two cone-like devices that sprayed colored sparks. These were saved for the night of the 4th. We couldn’t wait until it got dark. Then we went out on the street, and with adult supervision lit our limited fireworks, and looked with envy down the street at those who had firecrackers and rockets. All of us had sparklers, though. These were lit, and we would run around with them, swinging them around, making patterns of light in the air. Finally, near the end of its burning, we would throw the sparkler into the air and watch the neat trail of light it made as it went up and came down. Sparklers were considered harmless, but you could get a nasty burn if you touched them while burning or even after they had gone out. Finally, when it was all over we went into the house and went to bed, still hearing the blasting and whistling sounds as the older kids and adults continued to shoot off their fireworks. The 4th of July was a definite highlight of our summers.
Summertime in that neighborhood can’t be left without mention of Riverview Park, the amusement park which was located on a huge tract of land fronting Western Avenue near Belmont. Visits to Riverview Park, or “Riv” as we affectionately referred to it, were highlights of our early summers. I don’t know about the other kids, but I would go two or three times in a summer, at first with adult family members and in later years with friends. There were rides, games of chance, and all sorts of decadent things to eat. I discovered cotton candy at Riverview Park. I would watch them spin that sugar out on those paper cones and wonder how they could do that. I still wonder.
Riv was only about five blocks from our house, so we always walked. As a little kid walking through those front gates smelling the popcorn and hearing the clatter of the rides and the squeals from the people on the roller coasters, I couldn’t conceive of there being a more wonderful place on earth. We would try to go on “Nickle Nites”, when many of the rides were only five cents each, or on “Two Cent Days” when some of the rides were that low in price. Early in my childhood, one of my favorite rides was “The Mill on the Floss” (whatever that meant). It was what is commonly known as a “Tunnel of Love”, a slow boat ride through darkened tunnels. A high light for me as a little kid was coming out of one of the tunnels and catching a glimpse of an old man sitting on a chair. I don’t know who he was. Perhaps part of the ride’s scenery. Perhaps a watchman keeping an eye on the boats. Whoever he was, I always looked for him during that ride and would comment, “There he is!” to the adult sitting with me
Of course, there was the Merry Go Round, which even when I was young seemed awfully tame. I quickly outgrew that and preferred rides like the “Tilt-O-Whirl” and another the name of which I can’t remember. I think it had something to do with a spook house. It involved riding through the dark in cars that twisted and turned with various objects jumping out at you. The “Shoot the Chutes” was also a lot of fun. It was a boat that sped down an incline into water below. Fast but not too scary for a little kid. Probably my favorite ride---though it wasn’t really a ride---was “Aladdin’s Castle”. It appealed to me because I looked on it as a bargain. For the price of one ride you got a number of different experiences. There was a hall of distorting mirrors, a turning barrel that you had to walk or, at times, crawl through, a chair that turned into a slide as it collapsed, and several other similar “mini-rides”. As the fun-seekers walked through the passageways of Aladdin’s Castle there were periodic hissing sounds from the floor. These were gushes of air meant to blow up the skirts of the girls and women who walked the passageways. I don’t think they were very effective at that, because even when I got older and would be interested in the final result, I didn’t pay any attention to them
But you really had no Riv status in the neighborhood until you made your bones on the roller coasters. It began with “The Greyhound”, a nice mild roller coaster. I was thrilled the first time I ventured a ticket on it, only to find it was not so fast and actually fun. Then we moved up to “The Blue Streak” and then finally, the exciting “Silver Comet”. But looming above them all as the ultimate challenge of roller coasters was “The Bobs”. I don’t think I dared the Bobs until I was in 7th or 8th Grade. It was fast, and it was scary. But you had no Riverview bragging rights in the neighborhood or at Jahn School until you rode the Bobs.
One other ride, which was really a trademark of Riverview Park, because it could be seen from as far as a mile away, was “The Pair-O-Chutes”. Perhaps, because I have a slight wariness of heights, I thought this was the scariest of all Riverview rides. It was a simulated parachute drop. We sat in a two person seat, and we were slowly hoisted straight up a tower by wires to what seemed an incredible height. When we reached the top, with the lights of the city blinking far below and the breezes swinging our flimsy little seat, there was a pause as, knowing what was coming next, all our sphincters tightened. Then the clank. And down we hurdled with that fake parachute open above us. My first ride on the Pair-O-Chutes was when I was in 8th Grade. That was also my last.
But as magical as Riverview Park was to us kids then, it also displayed the open racism that was commonly accepted at that time in Chicago. I never realized this until I looked back on it as a more sensitive adult. African Americans never came to the park. It was understood by both whites and blacks that it was a park for whites only. Even among the large numbers of sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station who frequented Riverview Park on weekends, there was never a black face to be seen. This racism was most blatant in the midway attraction that was called, I believe, “The African Dip”. There, African-American men sat on platforms in cages above a pool of water. They would shout insults at the white participants in the game. Young males would attempt to demonstrate their throwing prowess by hurling baseballs at a metal disc target. If they hit the disc, the bench upon which the black man was sitting would collapse, and he would plunge into the water. To our shame, I never heard anyone at that time complain about this attraction. We just thought it was great fun.
With the arrival of fall and the beginning of school, our interests changed somewhat. Football season began. You could play touch football on the street because it wasn’t cluttered with cars. Sometimes we used a regulation size football, but my memory is that more often we used miniature rubber footballs. Perhaps there were three or four on a side. Instructions given by the “quarterback” might be for one of us to run to the parked Plymouth and button hook back and another to go as far as the sewer cover and cross over. When we used regulation size footballs, they were sometimes white. White footballs were an innovation instituted by the fledgling professional All-America Football Conference in which Chicago was represented by the Chicago Rockets, later renamed to the Chicago Hornets. They played on Friday nights in Soldier Field (The NFL Bears and Cardinals played Sunday afternoon games.), and the white footballs were an accommodation to night play. A number of kids owned those white footballs.
Around the ages of 10 or 11, we discovered the joys of tackling, and our football games moved over to the more forgiving dirt and grass of Hamlin Park. The bowl in the center of the park was used in the fall as a football field. Organized regulation football was played there by the older kids, but, as much as I would have liked to, I never did play on an organized team. Instead, a group of maybe ten of us would gather in a cleared area near the corner of Barry and Damen for a game of “Tackle”. We had bits and pieces of rag-tag equipment. When I started, I wore an old leather helmet that my Uncle Gerhardt wore in the 1930’s. Later I got a more modern helmet and some shoulder pads. A couple of kids had hip pads, and I think a couple of others might have had hand-me-down football shoes.
There were no yard markers, and it was a very short field. Each team had 4 downs to score; otherwise they turned over the ball. We chose up sides and then decided who would play what positions. Since we were friends, David Giandinoto, Freddy Witter, and I were usually on the same team. David was reasonably fast, so he was a running back. Freddy was skinny and fast, so he was, naturally, a receiver (In those days we just called them “ends”.). I was overweight, so I was a lineman. We didn’t have set plays: they were diagrammed in the huddle. Occasionally, when we needed short yardage I would move into the backfield for one of our few set plays. We called it “Center Plunge”. A more descriptive name would have been, “The Fat Kid Gets the Ball and Lumbers as Far as Possible.” I do remember one glorious afternoon when I scored 6 “touchdowns”. Once again, we were able to organize ourselves, sort out our disagreements, and have lots of fun---without adults striding around making decisions and giving directions.
These were the glory years for Notre Dame football, and most of my friends were Catholics. Being one of the few Protestants in my particular group, I had a definite minority complex. Every Notre Dame victory was trumpeted to me as an example of the superiority of the Catholic Church. I have to confess that I had ambivalent feelings about the Catholic Church in those days. On the one hand, I envied my Catholic friends who were released from school to go to catechism classes at, as they put it, “St. Al’s” or “St. Bonnie’s”. They talked about first communions, made the sign of the cross, wore neat medals around their necks, had ashes put on their foreheads, and didn’t eat meat on Fridays. They didn’t go “to church”; they went “to mass”. As someone who came out of a non-practicing German Lutheran family and who occasionally attended Galilee Baptist Sunday School I felt not only different, but somewhat deprived that we didn’t have exotic practices like that. But, on the other hand I developed some antagonism toward the Catholic Church, instigated, no doubt, by my friends trash-talking the superiority of their Faith. Each Notre Dame victory, Saturday after Saturday, was just more fuel for the trash-talk. Fortunately this did not seriously interfere with our relationships. I even recall David Giandinoto saying to me once that a nun had told him that he shouldn’t play with Protestant boys. But he wasn’t going to listen to her.
We got excited as the day drew near, trying to decide what our costumes would be. The dime stores sold cheap little costumes---Superman, a pirate, a skeleton. They were made out of cheese cloth and you just slipped them over your regular clothes. “False faces” went with these costumes. They were not the elaborate and realistic rubber masks of today. They were made of a porous material, and there were eye holes and a mouth hole. They were held on the face with an elastic band that went around the back of the head. More popular, especially as we got a bit older were home-made costumes. One of the favorites for boys was that of a hobo, where you wore old men’s clothes, a beat-up old hat, carried a half-pint bottle of some brown liquid in your hip pocket and a stick with a bundle on the end of it. For me, the greatest fun wearing the hobo costume was burning cork and applying a fake beard. Another popular home-made costume was that of a ghost. This was a very simple one, because all the kid needed to do was get an old sheet and put eyeholes in it. Some boys actually dressed up like girls. They wore a blouse, dress, perhaps high heel shoes, and make-up. It was a more innocent time. There was no snickering about transvestites and gender confusion. It was just a costume.
They were worn to school. Halloween was one of the few days when I really looked forward to school. We had a party in the room, and then during the afternoon the teachers took all the classes outside and, in our costumes, we paraded around Jahn School and then down the neighborhood streets. Jim Innis remembers the exact route. As I recall, most of my friends enjoyed wearing the costumes. Jim, however, said he hated it. His mother made him wear a costume to school on Halloween. One year it was a monkey costume with a long tail. Jim said that when he got outside, he cut the tail off.
Then at night it was “Trick or Treat”. I can’t remember whether or not we wore our costumes when we went tricking and treating, but the “treat” collecting was something we looked forward to as much as kids do today. We had our sacks and , like kids today, we went from door to door with the traditional “Trick or Treat!” cry. Some people gave us candy; others cookies or fruit. Our most favored treat was money. Many adults gave us a couple of cents, and some gave us as much as a nickel. For us at the end of the night, it could be a haul of up to fifty cents. After the collection of our loot, we might drift over to Hamlin Park where they would have some Halloween festivities and show old silent movies outside.
As fall moved toward winter, our thoughts turned to hopes for an early snowfall. But before that happened, there was one last fall custom we enjoyed---burning leaves. With the reward of being able to burn them, I didn’t even mind the preliminary raking. The leaves were raked and put into piles on the street, and then, with some adult supervision, we lit them and kept the fire burning, stirring it with a rake, and adding more leaves to it, until all we had by the curb was a pile of ash. That we were able to do this is another indication of how uncluttered with automobiles the streets were. Today on Fletcher Street it’s bumper to bumper parking. Of course, we have to protect our air, and such burning has been prohibited for years, but it’s still a bit of a shame that later generations won’t be able to catch a whiff of burning leaves and be taken back in memory to brisk autumns of a simpler time.
The Approach of Winter
When the days were colder, especially before the Chicago snows arrived, more of our activities were inside. I can recall getting home from school every day and turning on the radio to listen to “Hop Harrigan”, “Captain Midnight”, “Tom Mix”, and “Terry and the Pirates”. These were fifteen- minute serials that were broadcast after school, but before the supper hour. I recall how furious and frustrated I was when on April 12, 1945 announcements of such an unimportant matter as President Roosevelt’s death preempted my serials. My grandfather, who absolutely hated Franklin Roosevelt, would later laughingly describe to other adults my reactions on that day to those announcements.
We would also play with our soldiers or our toy cars and trucks. Board games were popular with many of us. Monopoly was a particular favorite of mine. We might play simple games of cards like “Old Maid” or “War” (which we called “Matcher”.) Outside, while it was still light, some of the kids might pitch pennies. Standing behind a line, they would toss pennies at a line on the sidewalk. The player who got closest to the line would get all the pennies. As I recall, this was an activity of the older kids. I never did it because I never felt comfortable gambling.
Comic books were our reading staple throughout the year. We had stacks of them, many with the covers missing, and we read them over and over. Some of us read the words; others just looked at the pictures. But we never seemed to tire of a favorite comic book. My favorites were “Captain Marvel”, “Superman”, “Bugs Bunny”, and any with a Walt Disney character. Later I came to like “Archie and his Friends”. A new comic book cost a dime. In those days, that was not an insignificant amount of money. Most of the refreshing of our reading supply, therefore, was done through reading our friends’ comics or trading some of ours for some of theirs. Later a store that sold second hand paperbacks and comic books opened up on Belmont. I think second hand comics were two for a nickel. Much more affordable.
The highlight of Sunday was the Sunday papers. The Tribune was then, as I guess it still is today, king of the Chicago print media, and its Sunday morning comic section was by today’s standards huge. How we waited for “The Jokes”, as we called the comics then. We would open up the comic section, lie down on our stomachs, and follow the adventures of “Dick Tracy”, “Brenda Starr”, “Buzz Sawyer”, “Mandrake the Magician”, “The Phantom or the foibles of The Captain and the Kids”, “Lil Lulu”, or “Mutt ‘n Jeff”. Some of the colored Sunday strips were larger continuations of the black and white four-box strip in the daily papers. Certainly this was the case with “Dick Tracy” whose strip introduced such colorful characters as “Prune Face”, “Flattop”, “B.O. Plenty” and his eventual bride, “Gravel Gertie”. The Sunday comics were such a big event that there was even a radio program on Sunday morning in which the various strips were dramatically read. That was a lot of fun---looking at the strip and hearing it read over the radio dramatically with different voices.
Though the movies were a year-round attraction, and just about the only way to get into an air-conditioned environment during hot summer days and nights, we probably went to them more in the cold weather than in the summer. Movies were the major commercial entertainment in those days for both kids and adults. The Hollywood studios cranked out an endless stream of black and white potboiler mysteries, cowboy adventures, war movies, love stories and the occasional Technicolor spectacular. The films were usually sixty to ninety minutes in length, and Chicago neighborhood theaters always showed double features plus a newsreel, cartoon, and sometimes a short subject. The selections changed three times a week. If I recall correctly, the runs for a double feature would be Sunday through Tuesday, then a new twin bill on Wednesday and Thursday, and the most popular films on Friday and Saturday. Matinees were only on Saturday and Sunday, and that’s when we kids went by ourselves.
The Roscoe, a small theater located on Roscoe near Hoyne, was our favorite, probably because it was so close. The Belmont, on Belmont Avenue near Lincoln was more upscale and more expensive. It cost twenty cents instead of the twelve and later fourteen cents that the other theaters charged kids under twelve. When I turned twelve, I, like most of my friends, still tried to get the half-fare. I would stand before the ticket window, bend my knees a little bit, and raise the pitch of my voice as I asked for a half-fare ticket. It was the only time in our childhoods that we tried to act younger than we really were.
On Lincoln Avenue, a little bit beyond the Lincoln-Belmont intersection was The Lincoln theater, which was older and bigger, but basically on a par with The Roscoe. The Lincoln, if I recall correctly, had more Saturday afternoon serials, those short films that would leave us kids hanging all week long, wondering how the hero would escape the horrible predicament in which the story had left him. Finally, continuing several more blocks down Belmont from the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland intersection ---and this was a long walk from Fletcher Street---was The Julian. The Julian theater was where we would go if we wanted to see a triple-feature low-budget western starring such acting immortals as Bob Steele, Lash LaRue, Charles Starrett as the “Durango Kid”, or William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. These were usually hour long black and white clunkers that had lots of horseback chases without the benefit of music. Even as a kid I noticed how strange it was to have a supposedly exciting long chase scene without any sound except hoof beats. Most of my friends didn’t care for the Julian. I occasionally went with Richie Weiss, who loved it. He would bounce up and down in his seat during the “exciting” parts.
The most popular films were on the weekend, which we could see as matinees and the adults would see later on in the evening. A quarter got you into the Roscoe with enough money left over for a ten cents’ box of freshly popped popcorn or two candy bars. That was a decision. Should I go for the popcorn or the candy bars? When I went for the candy bars, one of the selections was a Holloway sucker, because it lasted so long. Milk Duds was another good, long-lasting choice. The movies themselves might be a black and white Charlie Chan paired up with Errol Flynn in a war or pirate movie. Gene Autry or Roy Rogers movies were quite popular, though personally I never cared for them. I didn’t like the fancy clothes, and I hated it when the Sons of the Pioneers gathered around Roy during a pause in the story, and they all started to sing.
There were certain movies that we never wanted to miss. When we heard there was a new Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy film coming to the Roscoe, we had to see it. Ditto for any of the Frankenstein/Wolfman/Dracula films or Tarzan movies. The most popular films I can recall at the Roscoe, when the theater was absolutely filled, were Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka. The Walt Disney animated films were also huge draws. And hearing about an upcoming “Three Stooges” short was always cause for joyful anticipation.
One of the curious things about going to movie theaters then was that the films ran continuously----on the weekends, from the time the theater opened in early afternoon until it closed at 10:30 or 11:00 at night. Patrons could see the film more than once if they liked. This was a sore temptation for us when one of the really popular films was playing, and we frequently got orders from our parents to see it only once and then come straight home. Another oddity about viewing movies then---and this affected the evening movie-goers more than us kids who were waiting in line when the theater opened---was that the movie-goer would think nothing of coming in to the film at any point, catching on to the story, and then staying until that point was reached in the next showing of the film. “This is where I came in.”, is a popular expression even today. But I wonder if younger people, who never experienced viewing movies that way, understand the origin of the expression.
Cold Weather and Thoughts of Christmas
The weather got colder; we spent more time inside; and we looked forward to the first snowfall. And how thrilled we were, usually sometime around Thanksgiving, to see those first snowflakes and then the white coating on the sidewalks. It didn’t take much snow before we were scraping together what we could to make our first snowballs of the season.
By this time we were in our winter clothes. The most common type of boy’s outerwear was called a “Mackinaw”, a heavy, plaid, woolen coat. Common types of caps early on were the “Elmer Fudd” brimmed hats with ear flaps, replica air force flight helmets, woolen skull fitting caps that tied under the chin, and Navy model “Pea Caps”. Most of us had woolen mittens that we dried on the stoves or heaters when we came in. The really cool kids had gloves. I can recall being thrilled when I got my first pair of leather gloves. Pants were often heavy corduroys that “whistled” as one’s legs rubbed together while walking. A few lucky kids would have pull-over rubber boots. Most of us wore what we called “galoshes”---rubber boots that you wore over your street shoes, tightening them by fastening the metal clips in front.
We had an occasional significant snowfall between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Of course, we utilized those opportunities, especially when we had “good packin’”, as we described snow moist enough to make efficient snowballs. However, winter activities didn’t really start during this period of time. Instead, our thoughts were turned toward the approach of Christmas.
My friends and I talked a lot about what we wanted for Christmas. Early on we believed in Santa Claus, and debated how he could get into our houses and flats. We didn’t have chimneys he could come down. So he must come in some other way. At one point we decided he must come in through the keyhole. The fact that this was even more far-fetched than coming down the chimney didn’t seem to bother us. Wieboldt’s and Goldblatt’s each had a Santa in their toy departments. Once or twice as a little child I waited in line to sit on his knee, so that I could tell him what I wanted for Christmas. I was so intimidated by the experience that I got tongue-tied and couldn’t think of anything to say when I was on his knee. Perhaps another reason for my reticence was my fascination with the string that attached the beard to his head. That and the fact that he was also at the same time over in Wieboldt’s started stirring up some doubt in my mind. But then I guess I figured anyone who could come in through keyholes could have dual personae.
The Chicago Tribune during those years had the journalistically irresponsible practice of putting colored editorial cartoons on its front page, right there with “the news”. One year during my belief period, probably 1942, it had a cartoon of Santa Claus flying over Germany, being shot at by German soldiers. I don’t know what the point of that cartoon was, but I recall being very afraid that Santa would be shot down and not make it that Christmas.
However, my Faith-in-Santa period was fairly brief. My grandparents never encouraged it. I remember when it finally ended. One Christmas Eve after I opened all my presents from family members, I hung a large woolen stocking by our Kerosene stove, (Perhaps at that stage I believed he came down the stove pipes.), and the next morning found that the stocking was as empty as I had left it. Though this was disappointing, I suffered no trauma giving up a belief I was finding harder and harder to maintain.
Christmas with the Barutzkes
Christmas was definitely a family time, and the families on the block had different traditions. One of ours was to make a journey sometime in the several weeks before Christmas on the streetcar and el into the loop, or “downtown”, to see the decorations. The big thrill for a little kid was the elaborate window displays in Carson’s and Field’s. They were intricate scenes of Santa and his dwarfs or other Christmas themes, and the large dolls in the display were mechanized and moved.
As the big day approached various foods were laid in. My grandparents followed German traditions, and fruits and nuts with the shells on were a big item. We also had bags of store-bought pfeffernuesse, traditional German Christmas cookies. I guess some people liked them but I could never see why. They looked good. They were about the size of oblate ping-pong balls. But as far as I was concerned, the only good thing about them was that they had a white sugary covering. When you bit into them, they were hard and dry with a slight anise taste, a flavor which I have never liked. I used to envy my friends who got real Christmas cookies, those with different shapes and colored frosting. All we had were these round hard objects which I suspect to this day were Christmas C-rations for the German army. There was also fruitcake. Enough said about that. Obviously food was not a big thing for me at Christmas.
But what was really important for my family at that time was wine and schnapps, a German term for any kind of spirits. I had three biological uncles and two biological aunts, all living in Chicago and frequently visiting during the Christmas season. All the males in my family, including those married to my aunts, were hard drinkers. My Uncle Gerhardt, who was the youngest, didn’t really hit his stride until later. But the rest of them could drink. And at Christmas time they outdid themselves. In fact during the days before Christmas, wine or schnapps would be offered to anyone who visited us. Even the mailman was given a glass of wine if he was delivering close to the day. I don’t know if other people in the neighborhood also followed the custom of providing nips for the mailman. If they did, I imagine there were a lot of Christmas cards that never made it.
The Christmas trees. Another source of family lore. Picking out a decent tree at a “cheap price” was a challenge. Arguments always revolved around the one the men brought home. They were too tall. They were too short. They were scraggly. They were one-sided. They had to be shortened. Or the trunk had to be chiseled down so it fit in the stand. Holes were drilled in the trunk of the bare areas so that branches cut from the fuller areas could be inserted. Then, when the tree was finally put up, it’s best side had to face outward. Listing and falling was corrected and prevented by strings connecting the tree to various pieces of furniture. Members of my family yelled at each other as all this was going on. My wife could never understand why I got irritable during tree-decorating time. Was it conditioned, or is there some Barutzke gene involved?
The funniest story involving a tree stars my Uncle Gerhardt and Aunt June. As I recall, they put up their tree the latest. Perhaps that was a tradition of my Aunt June’s family. In the early afternoon near the 24th in 1946 or ’47, my grandmother got a call from my Aunt June. June was in tears. Gerhardt had gone out to get the tree. Before he picked it out, however, he had stopped at Miskas for a libation. One libation led to another, and after a while my Uncle Gerhardt’s tree-picking skills were not as keen as they might have been. He brought home to June a tree that was much too big for their small flat. Of course, June was upset at him for coming home half in the bag with an over-sized tree. Gerhardt, in his typical good-natured way, told her to calm down. He would trim it. So he took it out on the porch and sawed off the top third. They now had a huge disproportionate floor-to-ceiling bush that seemed to fill the entire living room. I gather screaming ensued. A tearful June, for some reason, called my grandmother. Gerhardt went to bed to sleep it off.
But Christmas Eve itself was a lot of fun. The whole family gathered at my grandparents and later at Gerhardt and June’s. The men were well-lubricated, but pleasantly so. There were decorations, the trimmed tree in all its surgically-improved glory, Christmas music coming from the radio or phonograph, the air filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, and laughter and shrill conversations from the gathered adults. Then it was time for the gifts to be opened. We kids opened our presents in a frenzied swirl of discarded wrappings. The women opened theirs with squeals of “Oh Evie…” or “Oh Emma….” or “Oh June…..You shouldn’t have!” while the men opened theirs with grunts and muttered “What’s this….?” and embarrassed half-smiles, and an occasional “Oh Jesus….” Finally, when the gifts were all opened, and we kids were playing with our new toys, the adults retreated into the kitchen for the buffet. There were cold cuts, buns and German rye bread, sliced tomatoes and lettuce, and two kinds of potato salad. And of course, there was more beer, wine, and schnapps. Those nights were full of good memories for me.
Christmas Day for us kids was a bit of a let-down. We went to one of my aunts’ homes for Christmas dinner---turkey with all the trimmings. I would have preferred to stay home and play with my toys, but there was usually the promise of one or two more gifts from a family member who couldn’t make the Christmas Eve gathering. My family would always play cards after dinner. The dishes were washed and dried (by the women, of course), the dining room table was cleared, the table cloth taken off, and all my aunts and uncles gathered at the table, now covered with protective leather padding, with their jars of pennies to play penny-ante poker. And so the afternoon went, with more drinks and an increasing number of shouts when someone had a good hand. Finally, in the early evening, sandwiches from the left-over turkey and dessert were served, and we all left to go our separate ways. I don’t know what the other Fletcher Street kids did on those two days. But that was Christmas in the Barutzke family.
New Year’s was not a big deal for us. If my grandparents did anything on New Year’s Eve, they just had another old German couple over to play cards. I was allowed to stay up until midnight that night, and I struggled with sleepiness to do so. But at the stroke of 12:00, we and what seemed like everyone else on the block went out onto the front porches to welcome the new year by yelling, blowing horns, and rattling cans on the ends of sticks. Then off to bed.
Winter in the Neighborhood
The week between Christmas and New Year’s was the unofficial opening of the Fletcher Street winter sports season. By that time we usually had significant snow and we had the full week off from school to enjoy it. Once school began, our winter activities would continue after school and on weekends until the snow disappeared in March.
Snowball fights were fun and easy to get started. All we needed was that damp snow we referred to as “good packin’” and a decent pair of mittens. If we had a lot of snow, we would build opposing snow forts and battle each other from behind them. But that required too much extra effort and was only occasional. Most of the time we opposed each other by just standing on opposite sides of the street hurling snowballs at each other. We couldn’t throw very hard, and it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the stone fights we occasionally had in the summer. Nevertheless we were wary of the legendary “ice balls” which one could make if the snow was wet enough. A dashing in-your-face move during a snowball fight was to catch someone else’s thrown snow ball and immediately fling it back at him. John Wayne in mackinaw and mittens.
We made snowmen too----a good solitary activity when the snow was new and damp and you had the time. You’d start out with a snowball, and roll it and roll it and roll it until it got really big. That was the bottom part of the snowman. The orthodox snowman was comprised of 3 of those snow boulders----the largest on the bottom, then a smaller one in the middle, and the smallest one for the head. We used sticks for the arms, and we had real coal for the eyes, nose and mouth. Occasionally we might put some sort of hat on it, but there was too much chance of the hat being stolen or, at the very least, wet. So, most of our finished snowmen were primitive and bare-headed. “Frosties” they weren’t.
During those winters I spent on Fletcher Street, I cannot recall seeing, even once, a snowplow. People shoveled and put salt on their sidewalks. But the street was another matter. The owners of cars dug them out after a snowfall, put “skid-chains” on their back wheels, and just drove away through the snow, each car helping to pack the snow down. Not only did this save the city fathers considerable money to use for more important things like buying votes and keeping relatives on payrolls, but it provided us with a whole new sports venue….a slippery, snow-packed track right in front of our houses.
Most of my friends had sleds---wood slats bolted to a steel frame and runners. You could steer them by slightly twisting the frame using the wooden steering handles in front. When the snow got thick, hard, and slippery enough, we would get our sleds out and go belly flopping on the street. The technique was to hold the sled across the body at about a 45 degree angle, run as fast as you could, and when you reached maximum speed, dive forward with the sled. The worse the street was for cars and trucks, the better for us belly floppers.
It was even more fun belly flopping at Hamlin Park. The hillside in front of the field house was our sledding hill. Why we didn’t use other parts of the hillside surrounding the central depression, I don’t know. Perhaps it was because in the wintertime a warming house was put at the bottom of that part of the hill. Whatever the reason, that was our sledding area
There had to be enough snow, and the earliest sledders sacrificed for us all by enduring the slow downhill pace through loose snow while packing it down for the later sledders. The occasional freezing rain on top of snow that made driving hellish created a paradise for us Hamlin Park sledders. We backed up to the benches in front of the field house to begin our run, and then holding the sled at the appropriate angle, we ran across the sidewalk to the top of the hill and dove forward. Getting the “flop” just right took a bit of nerve and practice. If you flopped too soon, you lost too much velocity before starting downhill. If you flopped too late, you were coming down as the hill was dropping beneath you, and you could get hurt. The youngest kids went down the hill sitting on the sled and steering it by short ropes attached to the steering handles. But that was safe, slow, and boring. Suitable only for little kids and girls.
Midway through my childhood on Fletcher Street, I learned how to ice skate. At some point I received as a gift double bladed skates that clamped to your feet like roller skates. I can’t recall ever seriously using them. About the age of 9 or 10 I got a cheap pair of hockey skates like some of my friends had. Hockey skates were the skates acceptable to boys who were beginner skaters. Later on as we became better skaters, racing skates, with their long, pointed knife-like blades were the masculine fad for some of us. But real men never used figure skates.
Though I can remember one winter day when the snow and ice on Fletcher Street was so packed down I went skating on it, we did most of our skating at Hamlin Park. When the weather got cold enough, the authorities at the park flooded the center of the depression. Word quickly spread on the street that they had flooded the field at Hamlin, and we knew we could soon skate. The only problem was that kids kept testing the ice to see if it was hard enough, and others who didn’t care at all about skating used to love to walk across the partially frozen surface in their galoshes, enjoying the cracks and foot tracks they left behind when they broke through the ice. The ice was never consistently smooth. There were bumps, holes, cracks, and upturned frozen layers that we skaters had to navigate around and between. It was particularly a problem when we graduated to our racers and we wanted a stretch of smooth ice to demonstrate to the girls our speed and skill at leaning forward, taking long strides on those more dangerous skates, while swinging our arms in just the right way. We could never quite pull it off on the Hamlin Park ice
Occasionally we would go skating at Audubon School, an elementary school a couple of blocks north of Roscoe. While those of us who went to Jahn looked down on the students who attended Audubon, they did have a nicer school yard. They had play ground equipment, and more importantly from my perspective, in the winter they flooded a part of their school yard for ice skating. I don’t know why, but those Audubon kids seemed to leave the ice alone until it was frozen. What a pleasure it was to skate on smoother ice. Nevertheless, I always dreamed of skating for miles on frozen rivers or lakes, just like you saw in the comic books.