Of My Early Childhood
recollections of a time before the world was at war and people were still living under the shadow of the Great Depression.
As children, we thought little about the effects of poverty. While I was luckier than most, there was an awareness that my
playmates in the neighborhood sometimes went without a good meal, wore old worn tennis shoes with holes in the bottom and
dungarees with knees so bare their mothers sewed patches there.
who somehow had clawed their way out of the terrible financial hole created by the depression years, provided me and my siblings
a modest home in a small, Midwestern community along the shore of Lake Huron. Dad had worked long hours painting barns, picking
fruit and doing other farm labor for a dollar a day to pay his way through college. By the time I arrived he was employed
as a chemical engineer at the Huron Milling Company, the main employer in Harbor Beach. Consequently we always had food on
our table. A box of new clothes, coats and shoes from the Sears Roebuck catalog arrived late each summer so we had new things
to wear to school.
we were never classified as well-to-do, we lived in a town where many families were overwhelmed by poverty. I didn’t
know her then, but not many miles away, my future wife, Doris, was one of those depression-strapped families. She told of
wearing hand-sewn dresses made from burlap feed sacks to school, of not having shoes to wear until the snow was flying, and
waiting with her mother and brothers for the lights of her father’s car coming down the road at night, hoping he was
bringing something for them to eat.
was how people in Michigan were living during the years just before and during World War II. Those of us old enough to remember
it, know how it is to survive a depression and struggle through extreme poverty. It has an effect on people that never goes
though my parents never went without once my father landed that job, they always lived a frugal life style. That was how the
depression affected them. I remember my mother carefully reading the grocery ads in the Harbor Beach Times, then traveling
between the three grocery stores in town, carefully picking out the sale-priced items. Sometimes she would drive blocks to
save a nickel on a box of laundry soap. I used to wonder if she ever thought about the cost of the gasoline burned to make
grew up with a family of four children on a farm on the Western side of Michigan. Her father ruined his lungs driving a truck
and hauling lime to bring home the bacon and keep his family going. He also was a chain smoker. He eventually died of emphysema.
was the second youngest in a family of nine children who grew up in Kansas. They lived at a time when travel amounted to a
thumb up along the highway, and two or more children shared the same bed.
after he was financially secure, my father drove his cars until they literally fell apart under him. I recall one final trip
to an automobile dealership in which our old car chugged to a final stop in front of the store and would run no more. We were
forced to buy another vehicle before we could go back home. It was usually always a used car. I remember only one new car
that he ever bought. It was a modest Ford without any frills.
up in a different era, one that became even more difficult after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged the United
States into World War II. There is a belief among many people that the war brought an end to the depression, but that is not
true. Indeed, it put a lot of people to work. The men went off to war and the women took their place in the nation’s
factories building the machines of war. But life at home became worse than ever. Most commodities needed for the war effort
were either made unavailable or were so severely rationed that when we got them, it was either a treat or purchased on the
black market at a high price.
problem was that many foods and materials imported from other nations became impossible to acquire during the war. Sugar was
so rare we were forced to use a super condensed form of milk on our morning cereal that gave it a sweet taste. Gasoline was
rationed so we couldn’t go anywhere, and rubber tires were almost impossible to buy. They hadn’t yet invented
synthetic rubber to make good tires.
went without silk stockings during the war. But inventive minds in the nation’s laboratories produced nylon which could
be threaded like silk, and the nylon was in vogue. From this came Rayon, then better plastics, and a whole new industry evolved
from the war effort.
time the war ended in 1945, America was poised to crank up its factories and put people back to work filling the need for
housing, new automobiles, and all of the things we went without during the war. That was when the depression officially ended.
until I recently got my hands on my late father’s memoirs that I realized just how much the world has changed since
the days of my own childhood. Dad was pursuing his dream to be a chemist and was working on an advanced degree by teaching
chemistry at Michigan State College in Lansing when he met my mother. He hitch hiked his way over a maze of undeveloped dirt
roads to Harbor Beach to apply for a job with the old Huron Milling Company which was then operating in that town. He had
to get a job before he and mom could afford to get married.
job paid $140 a month, which apparently was a very good salary at the time. Dad mentioned that they paid rent of $25 a month
on our house on South Huron Avenue. It was not long after they arrived in Harbor Beach that they bought their first car, a
1936 Chevrolet, which they drove all through the war years.
of that home, and that time, are all happy ones. I grew up with a lot of children in the neighborhood. That was a time when
people didn’t worry about pedophilia or children going missing, so we had a free run of not only the neighborhood, but
a wonderful wooded area and a golf course that wrapped itself around the neighborhood. It was an amazing playground filled
with trees, open fields, hills, and even a little stream filled with frogs and other creatures just waiting for our curious
hands to find them.
danger was the golfers who played the course during the summer months. There was always a chance of getting hit in the head
by a flying ball if we dashed across the fairway at the wrong time. An even bigger danger was being chased off the grounds
by the greens keepers or the course manager for getting in the way of golfers. We discovered that the golfers were always
losing balls in the deep grass and wooded areas surrounding the course. It was great sport for us to find those lost balls
and sell them back to the golfers. During the late fall, winter and early spring that golf course was our playground. The
hills were perfect places to sled during the snows of winter.
of all, at least for me, was the fact that the Pere Marquette freight train, pulled by a steam engine, arrived in town every
afternoon at around five o’clock. The train followed a track that ran alongside the golf course and into the factory
grounds in the heart of town where my father worked. I could see it clearly from my upstairs bedroom window, or, if I could
get out of the house in time, I could race through the woods and then run across the golf course in time to watch the train
from a closer vantage point. It was great when I waved at the engineer and got him to wave back.
old house on South Huron Avenue was an ample two-story, four-bedroom structure with a large bathroom with a claw-foot tub
on the second floor. It had hot water radiators with a coal-fired boiler in the basement. We had to order a coal truck to
dump loads of dirty black coal through one of the basement windows into a special room designed just to hold the coal in the
basement, right next to the boiler.
boiler room, located right at the foot of the concrete steps leading into the basement, was a spooky place in the winter when
the furnace was being used. Beyond that was the laundry room where my mother washed our clothes in an old fashioned tub that
had a hand-operated ringer attached to the side. Before the clothes were carried outside and hung on laundry lines to dry,
mother ran them through the ringer, forcing most of the water out.
kept a large garden on the property, which stretched back behind a single-car garage, across a vacant space and through an
orchard. Mom canned the fruit from the orchard and the vegetables from the garden. The canned food was kept on shelves in
yet another basement room located off the laundry room.
thing I liked about that property was that there was a long, slanted-roofed barn on the north side of the site. We found a
way to scale a tree behind that barn and get to the roof, which was a great place to hang out. Dad also built a playhouse
in that orchard, and had a load of sand dumped beside it, which also became a popular hangout for all neighborhood children.
He installed a swing in the yard, so we never lacked for things to do in outdoor play.
especially fond of an old rowboat left rotting in the tall grass beside the grape arbor located behind the garage. That boat
became an imaginary ship from which many an adventure occurred. It also became a stage coach, fortress, and just about anything
we wanted it to be in our daily play.
that house on South Huron Avenue was the perfect place for a child to grow up. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.