Free Read Sample Chapter Joe Vadalma's EPIC Award Finalist Family Memoir Interesting Times
CHAPTER SIX: SCHOOL DAYS
In September of 1938 I started Kindergarten at LaSalle School in Chicago. On my first day, some of the kids cried, but I liked school. There were toys and other kids to play with. The teacher was friendly. The only thing that went wrong on my first day was that I did not go inside after recess when the bell rang. After all the other children were gone from the play yard, I did not know how to return to class. I did not cry but simply stared at the heavy door that I could not open until someone noticed I was missing and came for me.
But that was me. I was always a little different, living an active fantasy life and a bit ahead of others my age in certain ways.
School was like a new life for me. I took to learning like a desert traveler stumbling upon an oasis, drinking in knowledge as though my capacity was limitless. In addition, I loved the independence school gave me. I was no longer always under the thumb of my parents since the teachers allowed me a certain amount of freedom. However, even honey has hazards. For me the sting came because I was small, quiet and not athletic — an easy prey for bullies. In my innocence, I let it be known that I did not believe in God, earning me a Christian beating in the schoolyard.
When I started first grade, my mother returned to work part time from nine o’clock until one in the afternoon to supplement my dad's low income at the candy factory.
In the first grade, I was the third best reader in the class. I loved books and reading, probably because my parents read a lot. I would have been the best reader, except for one question on the test that puzzled me. It asked what a robin said and what a horse said and given a choice of "Cheer-up" or "Neigh." Being a city boy, up to that point I had never seen a robin, and all the horses I had ever encountered, never said a thing. So I figured that logically a horse would be friendly and say “Cheer-up.” The only choice for a robin had to be “Neigh.”
In those days, there were still work horses in the city. Men drove wagons pulled by horses through the alleys to collect junk. They would yell, “Old iron, old iron.” The kids called them “rag pickers.” Many of these men were African-American. Some of the kids in the neighborhood warned me that the “niggers” carried big knives and would hurt me.
My parents had an ice box in lieu of a refrigerator, which meant an iceman would come into the house carrying a big block of ice with tongs. This went into the top part of the icebox and slowly melted into a large pan underneath. Every couple of days, the pan needed to be emptied. I would take one end, my dad the other. Sloshing water all over the kitchen floor, we took it to the sink to empty it. During the summer, I and my friends would steal slivers of ice off of the ice trucks.
By third grade, when other boys were engaged in sports and rough games, I escaped through books. Soon I exhausted the library shelves for my age group and began to read books written for older children. By seventh grade, my tastes were for adult fare.
Nonetheless, I was not a recluse. With my close friends I would play marbles, toy soldiers, cowboys and Indians, Americans and Nazis, hide-and-go-seek, street softball and other childhood games. One of my best friends was the impoverished Bobby, whose clothes were ill-fitting and patched and who always seemed not exactly clean. Sometimes after dark, we boys would sneak into a closed lumberyard by the Chicago River to play war among the forbidden heaps of sand and gravel.
I also enjoyed listening to music on the radio or on the phonograph. The 1940s was the era of the big bands and crooners, such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The bands I liked were Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Stan Kenton. My favorite singers were the Andrew Sisters, Nat King Cole and Lena Horne. When alone in the house, I used to dance around to Rum and Coca Cola. As I grew older I began to appreciate jazz and rhythm and blues.
During the depression my grandfather, Laszlo, had opened a dry cleaning store which failed. He and my grandmother lost their life savings which they had invested in it. But poverty was not new to them, and they made the best of it. Laszlo returned to his old trade as a tailor for other people's cleaning businesses. While my grandfather's establishment was still viable, my uncles worked with him and learned the business. Uncle John became a spotter which was the highest paid position in the cleaning business. The other two of my mother's brothers worked as pressers.
Although my parents were poor, they still enjoyed life. They took long walks in Lincoln Park, went to North Avenue and Oak Street beaches to swim in the summer, played cards and had family picnics. To celebrate Christmas the married couples in the family took turns having the others over for dinner and a party. The family grew as my mother's siblings married and had children of their own. When it became too large to have their celebrations at someone’s home, they chipped in and rented a hall or restaurant for the party, and each family brought food to share. Usually soft drinks and alcohol could be purchased at the establishment. But that was much later.
Sometimes when my dad worked nights at the candy factory, my mother was afraid to go to sleep until he came home. It was difficult for him to adjust to a sleeping pattern because they changed shifts every few months. By the time he got used to one shift the factory changed his hours again.
During the early years of her marriage my mother had many sore throats and colds. Also I was often plagued by bronchitis. In 1939 when I was six years old, my mom and I had our tonsils removed. We stayed overnight in rooms in the doctor's office which was like a clinic. I was given an anesthetic which put me to sleep. I recovered quickly and was able to eat ice cream after two days. My mother's tonsils were removed under a local anesthetic. She was required to hold a bowl to spit out the blood. Removal of the first tonsil went well, but my mom became so upset by the time the doctor had a difficult time removing the other tonsils. My mom's neck swelled up, and she could hardly swallow for the next two weeks. The doctor botched the job so that the rest of her life, she had trouble with that side of her throat.
One Christmas my parents bought me an electric train, and my dad and my uncles stayed up half the night playing with it.
The movie “The Wizard of Oz” was a great influence on me. My parents took me to see it in a theater. It was not so much the movie itself that influenced me as the fact that I became interested in the Oz Books, the entire series of continuing adventures of children who visited the wonderful Land of Oz, by Frank Baum, Ruth Thompson and J. R. Neill. My dad once built a replica of the Tin Man out of old stove pipes. Another children’s book that I read over and over was Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.” Some of my other favorites were “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and books about pirates like Captain Kidd and Blackbeard.
In September 1939 when I was six, Hitler invaded Poland. That year the economy improved and jobs became more plentiful because of the war in Europe. Many factories shifted to arms production to sell to nations involved in the conflict. The world was preparing for the world's worst conflict, World War Two.
In 1940 my family moved to Burling Street across the street from Newberry Grammar School, where I started second grade. I became good friends with Harriet, a girl my age who lived on the first floor of the house next door. Soon after we moved, my parents purchased the house where Harriet lived, a two-story two-flat brick building. My friend now lived downstairs from me. However, when Harriet's fireman father was killed in a fire, my good friend moved away.
Also, in 1940, my Uncle Chuck bought a two-flat frame house down the street. He made a lot of improvements to the building. For this, he was awarded a prize of five hundred dollars by the Lincoln Park Conservation Association.
The house I lived in from the time I was seven until I left home was a two-story brick building on a twenty-five by hundred foot lot. It was set back from the sidewalk a few feet. A picket fence divided our property from the public walkway. Half of the front yard was paved, and we used this as a patio. My dad had a flower garden in the other half. A gangway on the left facing the building led to the backyard. There were two entrances. The one on the left led to a staircase to the flat where we lived. The one on the right led to the first floor apartment. At the rear of the house, the backyard was paved near the house and unpaved from there to a storage shed except for a paved walkway that ran down the middle. Fencing divided our house from the neighbors.
The upstairs and downstairs flats were laid out identically. The main rooms were in a line as follows: the living room was at the front of the house and had a closet to one side; next was the dining room with my bedroom to one side of it: near the rear of the house was the kitchen with my parents' bedroom off of it. The bathroom was to one side between the dining room and the kitchen. It contained a bathtub and sink, but no shower. At the rear of the kitchen was an enclosed porch which was used for both storage and as an extra sitting room. I usually played with my toys there except when the winter weather made it too cold.
My parents had an iron stove in the kitchen which they called a garbage burner. In it they burned trash, newspapers, wood and coal. Sometimes it would get so hot it would turn cherry red. There was a tray at the bottom which had to be emptied of ashes. In the winter my dad would spread the ashes on the steps and walkway outside so that people wouldn’t slip on the ice and snow.
My mother had a round washing machine which had a ringer on top. After the clothes were washed, she ran them through the ringer to get the excess water out. The ringer consisted of two rollers which turned mechanically by a crank or by an electrical motor. The clothes would go in-between them. The type that turned by an electric motor could be dangerous. My mother had to take care not to get her hand or clothing she was wearing caught in the ringer.
In the dining room we had an oil space heater. This posed all sorts of dangers, from fuel oil spills, clogged pipes and chimneys, and possible explosions. Our radio had vacuum tubes and was housed in a piece of furniture. My Aunt Anna had a windup Victrola. My parents were modern and had an electric phonograph that played 78 rpm vinyl records.
Under the house was crawl space with a narrow aisle that was entered from the backyard by opening a trapdoor and walking down concrete steps. After a heavy rain this would flood, and my parents and I would have to bail it out by hand using buckets.
In September of 1941 I started third grade. In the school library I read a book about a trip to various planets of the solar system. This turned me on to science-fiction, astronomy and science in general. My favorite subject in school was arithmetic. I enjoyed it so much that I made up problems to do.
On December 7 of that year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Franklin D. Roosevelt with the concurrence of congress declared war on Germany, Italy and Japan, known as the Axis Powers. I was seven years old and heard the news over the radio. When war broke out, there was a big parade in downtown Chicago that lasted fourteen hours. Many unions and workers marched to show there solidarity with Roosevelt's decision to declare war on the Axis.
During the war, certain foods and heating oil was rationed. My parents bought meat from a butcher on Willow St., but the government closed him up because he was sympathetic to Hitler. They went to another butcher, but he refused to sell meat to new customers because it was scarce. He said his steady customers came first. They continued doing business with this butcher and bought end pieces of sausage and bare bones to make soup. After a few weeks the butcher finally sold them meat. Another scarce item was nylon stockings. As a result my mom did not wear any for the duration of the war.
The stores were different in the forties. There were no malls or supermarkets. Except for the big department stores downtown, shopping was done at little mom and pop specialty stores. Meat was bought at a butcher shop; groceries at a grocery store; drugs at a pharmacy (which didn’t sell other stuff); magazines, comic books, candy and cigarettes were sold at a candy store; chickens were sold at a chicken store where the customer picked out a live chicken, the owner took the choice in the back, killed it and removed the feathers; and of course there were the malt shops, where the high school kids hung out.
Our family was issued a ration card with stamps for things in short supply such as meat, gasoline, cigarettes and coffee. Because my dad was a friend of the man who owned the candy and cigarette store in our neighborhood, I would be sent to buy cartons of cigarettes hidden under the counter for my dad while adult customers who were strangers to the owner would get sent away after being told that the supply of cigarettes was sold out.
There were practice blackouts where everyone drew heavy drapes across their windows and turned off most of the lights in the house. In school I bought “war” stamps which were pasted into a book, which when filled could be exchanged for a Twenty-five Dollar War Bond, similar to a Twenty-five Dollar Savings Bond of today.
During the war our family was glued to the radio news broadcasts. The newspapers had maps showing the progress of the war. Besides the news I and my parents listened to the radio variety shows such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny, sitcoms such as Fibber McGee and Molly and Duffy’s Tavern, and dramas such as The Inner Sanctum which featured a squeaking door. In the afternoons, I hurried home from school to listen to serials such as Terry and the Pirates, Jack Armstrong, All American Boy and The Shadow.
In 1942 I entered the fourth grade. My fourth grade teacher was tall, unattractive and thoroughly disliked by all the students. Her name was Miss Palmer. Behind her back, the students called her “Palmer, Palmer, the old Jap Bomber.” Her favorite thing was to have the class copy pages out of books while she left the room to do who knew what. One time, I became disgusted and scribbled nonsense. When I refused to copy pages, I was sent to the school psychologist, and my mother had to take a day off of work for a conference.
When I was ten-years-old (1943), my parents allowed me to travel downtown by myself. I felt quite the adult riding the subway to the downtown shopping area. I enjoyed Marshall Fields and other department stores and liked to ride the escalators. I especially enjoyed browsing through the book department. If I had the money, I would buy an Oz book. Around Christmas time, the big department stores had displays with moving characters and other attractions to lure children and their parents into the stores.
Many children of all ages lived on our block. We played cowboys and Indians using cap pistols and bow and arrows and medieval combat in which we had at each other with sticks for swords. We also played, marbles, softball with a sixteen-inch softball (this ball was softer than a normal softball so that it could bounce off parked cars without doing too much damage), hardball in Lincoln Park, hide-and-seek in which kids would sometimes never be found, and crack-the-whip on roller-skates. Sometimes in the evening, the neighborhood kids got together on a stoop to simply talk and joke around.
One time I and some friends were playing hardball in the park and my cousin Kenny was the catcher. A foul ball caught him in the teeth. He was lucky that none were knocked out. Another time my family had a picnic in our backyard and was playing Bingo with navy beans for markers. Kenny stuck one in his ear, and it swelled and would not come out. He had to go to the hospital that time.
I had accidents as well. One time Kenny and I were chasing each other around my grandmother's yard. As I ran toward the gangway, Kenny yelled something to me. I turned to hear what Kenny was saying, but kept running. When I turned back, a ladder that had been leaning against the side of the house in the gangway was right in front of me. I smacked right into it, practically knocking myself out. Another thing that we kids used to do was climb on the fence and swing on the limb of a tree that grew there. One time, the limb broke; and I fell knocking the wind out of me. Another time, I hit my friend Ted with a board on the head. What I did not know was that it had a large nail in it. Blood spurted from the wound. Nonetheless, Ted was essentially unhurt except for a scalp wound. His parents were furious with me.
I and my friends climbed on the roofs of sheds that were in each backyard, sometimes going from shed to shed on their roofs. One time I climbed up on the garage of the man who lived in back of our house. The roof of which was shingled with brittle ceramic shingles that easily worked loose. The neighbor spotted me and came after me with a pitchfork.