Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembrance of Things Past - will keep adding new material as time permits

Changes I have seen

Sometimes old age gives us a perspective that is helpful in dealing with current challenges.

Let me start with some of the things I remember. I remember the first time my mother took me downtown on a bus and I saw a colored person for the first time. I pointed to them (thankfully through the bus window) and said something about them being dirty. My mother hushed me up and explained that their skin was a different color.

My boyhood was lived during the second world war, with rationing and shortages of things like tires. Every once in awhile you might see a car running on rims - no tires. We had rationing points for critical things like meat. It didn’t matter what it cost. If you didn’t have enough points, you couldn’t buy it. Same thing with gasoline. Our family car got a “B” sticker, which was pretty limited on gas. Horses were still a common part of life. Our milkman delivered (glass bottles with cream on the top) with a horse-drawn truck.

Most women were housewives. My dad took the bus to work, so mom had a car if she needed to go someplace. The Fuller Brush Man rang the doorbell regularly, selling high grade, expensive brushes. The Jewel Tea man came in a truck selling all kinds of household supplies and food items. They made regular, weekly stops at each house. Boxes of laundry soap came with a “tea towel” as a bonus gift.

My grandmother made her own soap with lye and fat. My mother washed on a wash board, using that soap until she got her first washing machine, an “automatic” “Bendix”. Laundry was dried on clothes lines outside in good weather, and on endless lines in the basement in bad weather.

There were no “fast food” restaurants, so whenever we left the house we packed “picnics”.

Boys wore short pants, usually into the early teen years, when the first pair of “long pants” was a sign of impending manhood. I wore corduroy knickers to school with long sox. They had an elastic cuff that was supposed to keep them up to the knee, but never did, so they usually just slid down to the ankle. And the corduroy “squeaked” with every step as one leg rubbed the other.

My world was all-white. Thursday was a traditional “maid’s day off.” We didn’t have a maid, but I heard about “bumper day” on Thursdays in downtown Cleveland. On certain downtown streets, on Thursdays, a white person would be gently but firmly bumped off the sidewalk into the street by Negroes.

We had gas heat, as most newer homes did, but my grandmother’s house (built just 10 years earlier than ours) had steam heat with a coal stoker and a boiler. She also had an ice box, with regular deliveries of ice, until they stopped deliveries because most people had electric refrigerators. My stubborn grandmother refused to buy one of those. She kept her food in big pans of water in the basement. The water kept the bugs out. Grandma was unsteady on her feet, and there were numerous reports of times she fell, going up and down the stairs to get food from the basement. She never did buy a refrigerator. When her sister sold her house and went into a nursing home, she gave my grandmother her refrigerator.

After the war our family began to have more money, and my mother took me on a bus trip to visit an old friend in Wilmington, North Carolina. That was my first exposure to separate facilities for whites and colored, with signs - even drinking fountains and bathrooms. And of course busses were separated with colored at the back and white in the front. The bus trip was in the beginning of a hot July. In those days women wore girdles so their buns wouldn't bounce. Of course Mom didn't wear one around the house, and avoided them as much as possible even when out in hot weather. When we visited our North Carolina friends they decided to take a trip downtown. They explained to Mother that a hat, girdle, and gloves were absolutely necessary in Southern society at that time.

My Dad’s employer - Pickands Mather - richest partnership in the world. Owned Interlake Steamship company and Hibbing ore mines. Every new employee started out in the mailroom. They only hired 4-point graduates. You worked your way up and were guaranteed a job until you retired. But there was no retirement program. When it was time to retire, one of the partners would invite you in for a consultation, and you were handed your “package”.

No married women were employed, and no man who worked there was allowed to have a wife who worked outside the home. Only Christians employed, no Jews. No brown-bag lunches. You had to go out to a restaurant to eat. During the war (WWII) they hired women to fill the places of men gone off to war, but when the war was over, they were discharged.

I remember when Cleveland switched from DC to AC current - all the motors had to be replaced. I remember when open windows were replaced by air conditioning.

I remember when Blue Cross arrived and a huge sigh of relief.

All the shipping companies were “buddies” so when my Dad died at the young age of 51, his company networked with other shipping companies to find a job for my mother.

In 1951 I started college at Ohio State University in Columbus. I will never forget the first time I was in the rain, with a tan raincoat. It was streaked with black from the rain - because Columbus still heated mostly with coal, and the air was full of soot.

My mother took me to church regularly until my teen years. She helped in the nursery. Then there was a change of pastors, and she didn’t like the new minister, and stopped attending. So I never joined the church. When I got to Ohio State I decided to start attending, and went to Indianola, where Dr. Fred Christian was the pastor. At that time I was in the Agriculture College, intending to be a veterinarian. I attended the youth group for college students, and I’ll never forget one of the elders of the church, who also taught Biology at OSU. She asked to be able to present a program to our youth group. The subject of her program was how “miscegenation” (illegal in some states at that time) would result in “genetic suicide.” Meanwhile, in the Ag school we were being taught that hybrids were healthier. A PhD put in service of prejudice can be a terrible thing!

One memory of Ag school was a bus trip to Chicago, to the Armor slaughter house and meat packing company. We learned a lot about the meat packing business, but one of the memories I have is of all the trucks lined up to receive meats for delivery, and about every other “truck” was a horse-drawn wagon - driven by men who were too old for a trucker’s license, but still able to work with a horse. The sausage-making department was staffed by "tough" women. No young man was allowed to work in that department - for his own safety. I recall seeing wheelbarrows of ground meat being shoveled with (clean, I hope) shovels.

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