Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Many older people speak of the "Good Old Days," when things were simpler and, in their minds, much better. They remember a time when families were closer and the money might have been scarcer, but daily life was minus such gadgets as iPods, video games, television, and rap artists. Families clustered together around the radio and the only links you had with political personalities were the radio and newspapers. Newspapers were popular then. It was a heyday for them! Every person with a few pennies in his pocket depended upon newspapers to keep up with the news. My father, who was so poor we were one step above being homeless, still bought a newspaper, which was delivered to the roadside box. He always liked the Hearst Paper, the Detroit Times. He adored Westbrook Pegler and adopted all of his Republican opinions. It would have been amusing had I been older and wiser, to compare my father's life with the people Westbrook Pegler mingled with, the rich, the officers of huge companies, the fortunate among us.

When the battery radio finally gave out and the farm had electricity, one of my brothers gave us a radio to cluster around. It is that radio, an ungainly piece of furniture that sat on the floor and blared its sounds, that brought us the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, that allowed me to listen to the suspenseful episodes of Jack Armstrong and the Green Hornet, that brought music into our living room.

Other than the radio, our musical selections depended upon a Victrola, an ancient contraption that one had to wind up before being able to listen to a record. Somewhere, somehow, someone gave me a stack of old records, most of them featuring an old Scottish artist named Sir Harry Lauder. Day after day, I wound up the Victrola and listened to Sir Harry's scratchy voice belting out his songs. I have long intended to look him up on the Internet and find out more about his life, but have neglected to do so. His gravelly renditions of his ballads became even more interesting when the Victrola needed a new windup. His voice would slow down to a creak, like the slow moo of a cow, and become gradually slower until it faded away entirely, unless one jumped forward to man the wheel.

I'm not sure the "Good Old Days" were all that good. When you sweep away the sentiment and the nostalgia, it was not the greatest time on earth. There is nothing comfortable about outside privys with their rough boards and their exposure to the elements. I have spent some time hurrying through all physical needs lest my hinder suffer from frostbite. Mom, always one to ignore convention if duty called for it, considered it her duty to make life better for her children. So, instead of trotting to the outhouse when it was dark at night, she allowed us to "go to the door," which was quicker, easier and, although not much warmer, at least allowed one a shorter dash back into the warmth.

In the darkest, coldest nights, she allowed us to use "the pot." It was a white enamel container with wire handles and an appropriate white lid. She sat this pot in the attic, which retained some of the warmth from the kitchen below, drifting up from the stove pipe that led to the roof. Helma and I would dash from our warm beds through the chilly hallway and run to the attic, where we would squat on the pot until our business was done. Each morning, Mom dutifully and lovingly carried the sloshing pot to the outhouse to empty it, rinsing it out with water to ward off offensive odors. The rinsing wasn't quite enough, because the aroma from the pot often drifted through the entire upstairs area, but this was easier to handle than the subzero temperatures outside.

Through subzero weather, through blizzards, through freezing rains and winds, the family still arrived constantly to visit. The married brothers and sisters brought their mates and children along and Mom would bustle around fixing the food, while my bevy of neices and nephews raced from one end of the house to the other. Pop was everyone's favorite and many of the kids would plop themselves on his lap as he jiggled them on his knees and chuckled at their exploits. Because Eldin was Mom's favorite, Pop left him out of the circle and he often ignored Helma, who claims he never kissed or hugged her. So, in a way, they divided up the kids, with the baby, Jon, and the rest of us piled on Pop's lap or standing behind his chair playing with his strands of gray hair, while the others kept a distance and hung around the kitchen with Mom. Mom wasn't prone to fiddling around with children. To her, life was a serious business consisting of food preparation, gardening and hard work. Her house may have been threadbare, but it was as clean as daily mopping could make it. She took off her apron when the family arrived, but her work continued...and multiplied.

Hubert and Bud were the best of friends, which has always fascinated me, because they were polar opposites. Bud was quiet, sometimes somber, sometimes looking around quietly with a twinkle in his eye, while Hubert was extroverted, noisy and prone to teasing kids until they either laughed or cried. Both of them loved children, just as Pop did, and each of the nieces and nephews had a distinct personality. Marlene was a little princess with her long, curly hair and pretty face, and because she was younger, the children treated her with special concern, even though we dragged her along everywhere we went. Through mud, sleet, snow and hail, the group of us that were older marched through the orchard and the swamp, with little Marlene staunchly trailing behind, determined to keep up.

One never leaves childhood behind, no matter how the years pile up. To this day, I consider Marlene to be my little princess, and Jon to be the cutest fellow on earth! I remain overly fond of Helma's kids, who always called me "Aunt Boy," and led me through some great adventures when I babysat them. Little Donnie had a penchance for balogna sandwiches and Heaven help you if you could not come up with his beloved "baloney sandwich." The problem was, if there was one handprint or fingerprint on his slices of bread, he refused to eat his sandwich, yet he wanted it sliced. Have you ever tried to slice a sandwich made of fresh bread without pressing it down here or there? Well, I had to manage to do that with Donnie, although I threatened to let him go hungry.

Today, Donnie is a tall, handsome fellow with a love of Ernest Hemingway and a great sense of humor, but I still consider him a little boy with unbending rules for his sandwiches. Each and every one of my nieces and nephews are individuals, with differences that followed them into adulthood. Jon, the adventurer, who shows up unexpectedly, and has stories of close escapes in dangerous foreign lands he may or may not divulge; Stodgy Richard, with his neatness fetish and kindness to the slobs the rest of us were; lovable Donald, generous, with no patience for detail; Sis, with her golden curls; Dawnie, with her squeaking little voice and delicate features; Ronald, always the bully with the quick wit; Charlie, who sprouted wild, curly hair in his puberty, which Pop always claimed had to be the result of a permanent; Norma Jean who was my close friend and ally and; of course, Eldin, still a dear companion always good for an debate or a laugh!

I cannot squeeze them all into a paragraph, but they made up the life I lived, this great, boisterous group of children that bounced around the hills and valleys of the farm. How much our childhoods affected our later lives is a question that cannot be answered. But, I would imagine that many of us wished we were back in those "good old days," even though those days were laced with trips to that uncomfortable, bug-infested, spider-web-festooned, odorous privy.