Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reminiscences 3: Main Street, 1944-1949

Around 1944, our four-member familymy mother Thelma, father Orville, sister Carol and I—moved into a rental property on Main Street in Kimberly that had once been a store but was unoccupied when we moved in.

As you faced the storefront from Main Street, there were two businesses to the right of it, the Joe Mazanetz grocery and Walt Schomisch’s Kimberly Pharmacy. To the left was the Kimberly Post Office, presided over by George Sauter, and another unoccupied store with living quarters above it.

George Sauter was a kind man who often left toys for me in our mailbox at the post office—marbles, toy sailboats he made, that sort of thing. He also gave me four animal cages he had made in imitation of circus animal cages. They fit nicely on a wagon, and when parades were held, neighborhood dogs, cats and rabbits could be recruited for duty in the cages.

My mother did the best she could to make us comfortable in the new quarters. On the ground floor of the property was what amounted to a large living room, a bathroom, and in the back, a kitchen. The upstairs was divided into two bedrooms and some closet space. My mother soon had curtains hanging over the front windows to give the living room some privacy, and of course, curtains on the kitchen windows downstairs. The upstairs had windows in the front overlooking Main Street and in the rear overlooking a parking lot and the smokehouse for the Mazanetz grocery and meat market.

The building had no central air conditioning. Heat was provided by a coal-fired stove in the living room. The coal came in paper-wrapped coal briquets stored behind a large red davenport in the living room. The front door of the stove had an Eisenglass window, so you could sit in front of it and watch the coal burn inside. If you don’t know what Eisenglass is, think of the “surrey with the fringe on the top” from the musical “Oklahoma.” The surrey has “Eisenglass curtains that can roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather.”

There were several advantages to the Main Street location.

The Kimberly-Clark paper mill where my father worked was only two blocks to the north, an easy walk for him, especially in the severely cold Wisconsin winters.

For my mother, Walt Schomisch’s Kimberly Pharmacy next door was her social outlet. She loved Coca-Cola, either bottled in our icebox or dispensed fresh from the pharmacy’s soda fountain. There was always a female attendant behind the soda fountain counter. A number of ladies gathered there at certain times of the day to have a soft drink and talk to one another, talk being the polite word for gossip. The Mazanetz grocery and meat market next door was also convenient for getting food for meals. Two of her favorites were mett sausage and liverwurst, although the Mazanetz market also sold excellent summer sausage and perhaps the best wieners available anywhere. All the sausages were made at the store by master German sausage maker “Obbie” Obermayer from his secret recipes.

For my sister Carol, who would be starting kindergarten, the public school was only one block away to the south. For me, Holy Name Grade School was about four blocks away to the east. There were shortcuts through fields and back yards that reduced walking time.

A clubhouse and swimming pool just a block away on the paper mill property were perhaps the most important social gathering places in Kimberly.

In the summer, the swimming pool was the main attraction for the younger set. Young boys were given  an hour in the mornings and an hour in the afternoons to swim, but there were co-ed hours where both boys and girls shared the pool as well. If you helped the lifeguards clean the pool once a week, you got to stay in all day, something I took advantage of often since I lived so close to the pool. There was also a bandstand adjacent to the clubhouse and swimming pool, and the village brass band gave concerts periodically on summer evenings to large gatherings of local residents.

In the winter, the clubhouse provided a gymnasium for basketball, archery, and on Saturday mornings, free movies for kids. It was there on a Saturday morning  that I saw the 16 millimeter version of one of my favorite movies to this day, “Drums along the Mohawk.”

Weddings were celebrated (after a church service) in the clubhouse gymnasium, usually with barrels of beer for the adults, soft drinks for the children and copious amounts of food for all. Card parties and other gatherings were celebrated on the upper floors. In front of the gymnasium was a lunch counter where malted milks, ice cream, candy and other foods and treats were dispensed. One of my mother’s favorite desserts was an ice cream cake roll (vanilla ice cream, chocolate cake), and I was often dispatched to the clubhouse to buy some. Among the genial people who worked at the clubhouse were Primo Frasetto, Howard Lynch, Agnes Never and Dick Verbeten.

The upstairs of the store our family had occupied was a single large room, which my mother curtained off. Carol and I got the front half facing main street, and Mom and Dad got the back half. Since the only heat upstairs came from a floor vent over the coal stove, the bedrooms were cold in the winter, but not unbearable. Wisconsin summers for the most part did not require air conditioning, so if the evenings were on the warm side, we would just open some windows and let the breeze blow through the upper loft in the summers.

On the rare occasions where I had enough money, my favorite treat at Schomisch’s Pharmacy was a vanilla ice cream sundae with chocolate syrup, crushed nuts and a maraschino cherry on top. At the clubhouse, I favored butterscotch and chocolate malted milks. Our family often went out on Friday nights for fish dinners, served by many taverns in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin. Perch caught at Green Bay were the main fare in a fish dinner, but French fries and cole slaw were the indispensible side dishes. While most of the family liked the perch dinners, my father sometimes favored frog legs as the main course.

As I remember it, I started first grade at Holy Name Grade School while we were still in the house on Birch Street, but somewhere during that first school year for me, we moved into the store between the post office and the Mazanetz grocery.

I had plenty of friends in the new neighborhood. Tim Mazanetz, a year older than me, lived across the street. Donnie Weyenberg lived behind Tim. Bob Gossens, the boy who had gotten me in trouble in kindergarten, lived a block or two away. So did Billy Patrick. And Lyle Verstegen, a year younger than me, moved with his family into an apartment on the second story of the other vacant store to the south of the post office. Lyle and I soon became best friends. 

There were many other young boys from Holy Name who lived nearby.  In the summers, we played baseball and softball, and in the evenings, games like “Starlight, Moonlight.” Young girls in the neighborhood often joined in the evening games. In the autumn, there were scratch football games. In the winter, basketball and archery at the clubhouse, skating on the nearby ice rink and sledding on the hills at Geenen’s woods a few blocks away. In the spring, baseball and roller skating were popular.

There was a sort of built-in calendar in every kid’s head that said when it was time to get out the roller skates (right after the ice and snow melted in the spring), or when it was time to put the footballs away and get out the basketballs.

There was no television, of course. Mass entertainment came from the radio. During the school year, I could usually be counted on to be home when serials like Superman and Captain Midnight came on. There was a big red chair next to the radio, along with a blue rocking chair on the other side. I would hang over one side of the red chair to listen to my programs, which came on around five p.m.  The serials invariably advertised must-have items like the secret decoder tool you needed to decode messages at the end of Captain Midnight broadcasts. For Shredded Ralston boxtops, you got magnetic rings, a glow-in-the-dark arrowhead with a built-in compass in case you got lost in the woods, or rings with other features that no boy should be without—such as a ring with a built-in mirror that permitted you to see things at a forty-five degree angle from you.

One of those cereal box premiums got me in trouble. One of the Tom Mix serials on radio had promoted a premium ring with a magnet in place of the gemstone. Tom Mix in the radio episode used the ring to secretly retrieve a document from a gang of bad guys. The document had a paper clip holding it together. Tom Mix tied a string to his magnet ring, lowered the string until the ring bonded with the paper clip, and then raised the document to his hiding place above. I thought that would be a good trick to try from our upstairs. There was a ceiling heating duct directly over the coal stove on the lower level of the store. I put a piece of paper with a metal paper clip atop the stove—the top of the stove wasn’t hot enough to ignite the paper—and went upstairs to lower my Tom Mix magnet ring on a string through the heating duct ventilator. The trouble was, the heavy steel ventilator wasn’t firmly fixed in the ceiling, and my string caused it to plummet precipitously straight down onto the stove, where it struck with a terrible clatter—which frightened my mother and father, who were on the davenport listening to the radio, nearly out of their wits. My sister was standing near the stove, as I remember, and was nearly (but fortunately not) hit by the falling register.

We were well nourished in those days. We had three meals a day—I had breakfast in the morning, before leaving for school, dinner at noon after walking back home from school, and supper around five p.m. in the evening. Preparing meals in the 1940s was much more a challenge than it is today. Wives like my mother cooked on kerosene or wood-burning stoves. Ours was kerosene. Refrigerators were rare—most people had ice boxes that relied on 25-pound or 50-pound blocks of ice to keep food cool. There were no automatic dish washers, garbage disposals, microwave ovens, freezers or other modern kitchen conveniences.

Meals tended to be lighter in the summer, heavier in the winter when we needed plenty of calories to fend off the freezing temperatures. Breakfast might be warm cereal like oatmeal, or cereal fresh out of the box, usually Shredded Ralston or Kix.  Shredded Ralston (which sponsored the Tom Mix western serials on radio) and Kix generally offered the best kids’ premiums for boxtops through advertising coordinated with the radio serials targeted at children. The cereal boxes also often contained premiums of lesser value than the ones that had to be obtained by mailing in boxtops.

The serials targeted at the younger set like me came on between 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. in the evenings. Later in the evening, for two hours or so between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m., came the entertainment aimed at families—comedy shows like Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Red Skelton, Ozzie and Harriet, adventure theaters, private detective thrillers, even some music shows.

Aside from radio, the main mass entertainment in the 1940s came from the movies. There was no theater in Kimberly, but nearby Appleton had the Viking, the Elite, the Rio, the Appleton and later, the Varsity. On a Saturday, a child could see a western double feature at the Viking—perhaps a Roy Rogers movie backed up against a Tarzan or Gene Autrey, along with a fifteen-minute serial episode and cartoons—for fourteen cents. I went almost every Saturday, hitch-hiking first to the Outagamie County courthouse to see my grandmother. I would have lunch with her at the jail, and she usually gave me the fourteen cents admission price to the Saturday matinee. I also knew where to knock on a back door of a shoe store near the Viking to get a free pass—saving me the fourteen cents, which could then be spent on popcorn, candy, or an occasional dime comic book.  Empty popcorn boxes were saved by the youngsters at the Viking’s Saturday matinees to be thrown in the air when the movie drew to a close and the hero defeated the villains.

Sometimes my grandmother and I went to a movie together, but on those occasions we usually went to the Rio or Appleton—my grandmother did not favor the westerns that appealed to the younger set like me.

Among my favorite toys in the Main Street period were a Gilbert chemistry set and a microscope with three different lenses and illumination from below or above the object being studied. With the microscope, I could see amoeba and protozoa that lived in the water from nearby Sunset Point creek. I could also study inanimate objects like diatomaceous earth from the chemistry set. The chemistry set had an alcohol lamp that could be used to heat hollow glass tubes red hot for experimentation with glass blowing.

I remember one experiment that went seriously wrong when Roseanne Van Eyck (a nearby playmate whose father was one of the town barbers) and I were experimenting with the glass-blowing rods. I was eating a Holloway bar with one hand while heating a glass rod in the alcohol lamp with the other. I got my hands mixed up, and ended up briefly putting the red-hot glass rod in my mouth. It took about a week for my tongue to heal, as I recall.

By about the fourth grade, I was reading pretty well, and got hold of a book of chemistry experiments, probably from a catalog of things that would appeal to a young boy. The book had a number of experiments, many of which would likely amaze a college chemistry class. One of them told how to start fire with water. To do it, you needed iodine crystals and aluminum powder, which I obtained by purchase from neighboring pharmacist Walt Schomisch. First, you made a cone of the aluminum powder, with a small cavity at the top, much like the top of a volcano. The iodine crystals went into the cavity. Add a few drops of water, and viola, purple fire erupted in the cone, and the mountain of aluminum was consumed by the purple fire that gave off a good deal of purple smoke from the iodine crystals.

Walt Schomisch was curious about why I had wanted the aluminum powder and iodine, but I never told him. I probably should have. My knowledge of such things as how to make gunpowder and the properties of phosphorous grew apace, and by high school, I had a downright dangerous knowledge of basic explosives.

My mother’s favorite music was a violin recording of  “Intermezzo.” Perhaps because of that, I decided I wanted to learn to play the violin, and my Aunt Alice, my Uncle Lloyd’s wife, allowed me to borrow hers for the purpose of taking lessons. My mother tracked down a music teacher at Appleton High School named Schwalbach who taught violin lessons on the weekends. I would hitch-hike to Appleton for the lessons. I usually had to do some walking through downtown Appleton to get to Meister Schwalbach’s house on the west side. That would take me by one or two drug stores, where I often stopped to read a few comic books off the sales rack without buying them. I also had to walk by a model shop, so I frequently arrived for my lessons with a model airplane kit in the violin case.

One Christmas season, my friend Lyle Verstegen, who took accordion lessons, my sister Carol, and I with my violin went Christmas caroling in Kimberly’s numerous taverns. We were far from professional musicians or carolers, but given the state of inebriation of the patrons of the taverns, plus the good will of the season, we made out like bandits, with plenty of money contributed to us to buy Christmas gifts that year.

I still have a violin and a viola. I can’t play them any better than I could in my grade school years, but they give me enjoyment. It’s the things I liked in childhood that I still like best—Viewmaster stereo slides, cameras, comic books (especially Classics Comics), model airplanes. And I still like radio broadcasts—it’s a rare weekend where I fail to listen to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.”

Reminiscences 2: I become a kindergarten dropout, 1941-1943

After Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan; Germany declared war on the United States; and the United States responded by declaring war on the remaining Axis powers. War fervor gripped America.

Three of my mother’s brothers—Wilbur X. Derus, Harvey Derus, and Roy Derus—enlisted in the U.S. Army. The three enlisted brothers all became tankers—involved with the armored service of the U.S. Army. All, I believe, served with General George S. Patton in Europe. They all came home, although Harvey suffered a brain injury resulting in Parkinson’s Disease from having his head battered around inside a tank. Wilbur became an officer—much later in life, after I was commissioned, he gave me the briefcase he was given at Officer Candidate School. The two remaining brothers of my mother, Harold “Butch” Derus and Lloyd Derus, were exempt from the draft, if I recall correctly. So was my father.

War propaganda was everywhere. Posters warned people to keep quiet about war efforts lest enemy spies overhear. People were encouraged to buy war bonds. The film industry turned out an abundance of patriotic films in support of the war effort. At movie theaters, the newsreel was generally followed by a passing of the hat for contributions to the war effort. Many people bought savings or “war” bonds by making small purchases of stamps that went into a book until it was full and could be redeemed for a bond.

Rationing of gasoline, tires, and many food staples was a challenge. Many vital commodities were in short supply. Sugar was particularly hard to get, and there was a thriving black market in some rationed commodities. Families were issued coupon books and had to redeem coupons when any of the items critical to the war effort were purchased. Boy Scouts in Kimberly got involved in campaigns to collect old pots and pans and other metals to be melted down for the war effort. Old newspapers were also collected and repulped at a paper plant in nearby Combined Locks, Wisconsin.

I became fascinated with aircraft, particularly fighter planes. We bought cereal in those days that came in cardboard boxes that were printed with fighter plane cutouts. You cut out the various parts with scissors and then assembled a cardboard plane that, if you were careful, was capable of gliding quite a distance, particularly if launched from a high vantage point such as the front porch or an upstairs window. Today’s cereal boxes leave much to be desired compared to the cereal boxes of the 1940s.

The front windows of the houses on our block on Birch Street blossomed with banners. Where once the most prominent window facing the street was used to display a placard indicating how big a block of ice the house wanted delivered to its icebox (25, 50, or 100 pounds), now a banner emblazoned with gold stars representing the number of men and women from that household who were serving in the armed forces appeared. I remember several gold stars on the banner in the front window of the Kneepkens home.

My uncle Harold and his wife Helen had one child, a daughter, Diane. Harold was in the publicity business in Chicago. His family had homes both in Evanston, Illinois, in the Chicago suburbs, and in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. He drove a Packard, an expensive car in those days, and took me on several trips to Evanston. He loved to stop in taverns along the route from Kaukauna to Chicago for a drink and to tell jokes, and whenever he made a stop for a drink, I had to get something. By the time we got to Evanston, I’d have a paper grocery sack full of candy bars, popcorn and other snacks. I have a lot of colorful memories of Harold, who was a great practical joker. I particularly remember one about the time he convinced Sherman Billingsly at the Stork Club in New York that he was King Farouk, who he resembled in stature, appearance, and girth. He was a big, jolly man!

I also got to spend some weekends with my mother’s sister, Elizabeth “Aunt Bess” Winkler,” and her three children, Donna, Ronnie, and Shari. The Winkler family lived on a 40-acre farm in Askeaton, Wisconsin, not far from Kaukauna. “Pa” Winkler, the father of Bess’ husband Roy, was the owner of a gravel pit and road contracting company that operated near the farm.

When I wasn’t visiting relatives—which was most of the time—the Birch Street house was a particularly good place for a child. In the spring, lilac bushes in the back yard bloomed profusely. Aside from their perfume, you could pick single blossoms from a full bloom, put the end of the blossom in your mouth, and suck out the blossom’s nectar. In the winter, sledding and skating were nearby. I remember the fun we had with snow forts constructed from blocks of snow. The neighborhood children would divide into two facing forts and have snowball fights, standing up to throw, ducking down behind the fort walls to avoid being hit.

My favorite place in the house was my own bedroom. Occasionally I had to give it up to a visiting uncle, but most of the time, the bedroom was my place. I had a record player in the room, and a collection of children’s songs on records. Because I knew what song was on every record, my mother thought I could read the labels. More likely, I identified something on the label with the song.

For as early as I can remember, I wanted to be able to read my favorite book, Number 9: The Little Fire Engine, the story of a small fire engine that saved the day when a fire broke out in a tenement on an icy day. But what I really wanted to read above all else were comic books—Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, Captain America, the Blackhawks—which were popular with the grade school set in my day.

What got me started on wanting to read comic books, I think, was my childhood exposure to newspaper comic strips. A special section of the Sunday Milwaukee Journal was devoted to such comics. My grandfather Carl and uncle Courtney usually read the comic strips to me. I fondly remember “Jiggs and Maggie,” “Terry and the Pirates,” “Dick Tracy,” “Dagwood and Blondie” and “Nancy and Sluggo.” One of my father’s nicknames for my mother was “Slug,” which he picked up from Nancy’s playmate, the combative Sluggo. My favorite comic strip was one heavy with text about some tiny people called “The Teenie Weenies.” The strip, created by William Donahey, originated in 1914 at the Chicago Tribune, and lasted for 50 years. It was running strong in national syndication by the 1940s, when it was being read to me on Sundays.

The basement of the house on Birch Street was especially interesting to me. There was a coal-fired furnace down there that my father fed regularly from a coal bin. Deliveries of coal were always fascinating. A truck would pull up to an open basement window, stick a chute into the window, and then elevate the truck bed so the coal would slide down the chute into the coal cellar.

The house had a cistern in the basement that caught rainwater from the eaves. It was like having a swimming pool in the basement. I didn’t yet know how to swim when we lived there, so the cistern was not an “attractive nuisance” safety problem for me. I enjoyed looking into the cistern to see how full it was.

My favorite story about the basement involved my father’s home-brewing effort. Due to World War II, beer was one of the commodities in short supply, so my father decided to brew some of his own. He had a supply of empty bottles, and a recipe for making the beer. His home brew went into the bottles via a funnel, and the bottles were corked and placed near the furnace to ferment. Probably because of the extra warmth from the furnace, the brew fermented quickly. One night, we began to hear the corks explode from the bottles. The corks would hit the metal heating ducts overhead, and the noise would reverberate from all the heating vents in the house. My mother was not amused at being awakened frequently by the serenade. My poor father was stuck with cleaning up the mess from the bottles that exploded, although he likely got to drink a fair amount of the leftovers.

I remember getting the measles in the Birch Street house, and being quarantined. In those days, to avoid the spread of contagious diseases, the town doctor put a quarantine sign out front of the house to warn away anyone that might be calling. I was particularly disappointed because the measles occurred over Halloween, and kept me from going out in costume to trick or treat.

I started kindergarten while our family was still living in the Birch Street house in Kimberly, but I wasn’t there for very long. I soon became a kindergarten dropout. Here’s how it happened.

I started kindergarten in the fall of 1943. The class was held a few blocks from the house on Birch Street, at the building that held the public grade school and the public high school. The teacher was Miss Calvey. I already knew many of the children in the class. Marlene DuPont and Bob Gossens were among them.

The classes were actually fun. Much of the activity consisted of play. Art—the usual finger-painting, leaving your hand-print in wet putty, that sort of thing—was part of the curriculum. And there was always nap time.

The trouble started in one of the play periods. There was a playhouse in the classroom that had a child-sized kitchen. Bob Gossens sat in the toy sink, and I said something to the effect that Bob had wet his pants. Somehow the story got to Miss Calvey that I had said something impermissible, and she sentenced me to stand in a corner facing the wall. I told her that I had done nothing wrong, and if she made me do that, I would not be coming back to kindergarten.

I stood in the corner, but had already decided that I was not going back. It was winter when this happened, and I worked out a plan. The next day, I left the house on Birch Street towing the red and blue sled. I walked past the school, and on out to Sunset Point, a park where I could slide down the snow-covered hills on the sled. The sled, by the way, had a defect. One of its runners had become cracked, so it could only be steered to the left, never to the right. Nevertheless, I had a good time. About the time the kindergarten class was dismissed, I would make my way back home as though I’d been at kindergarten.

This ploy went on for several weeks. Then my mother ran into Miss Calvey on the streets of Kimberly one day. Miss Calvey was of the opinion that I was ill, and asked my mother when I would be coming back to her kindergarten class. When my mother got home, and I came back home from my day’s wandering, she asked me about my absences from kindergarten. My explanation was that kindergarten wasn’t teaching me to read and was a waste of time. My mother and father discussed it, and the upshot was, since kindergarten was not mandatory, that I could wait until I started first grade at Holy Name Grade School in the fall of 1944, without going back to kindergarten.

A short time later, Art Hopfensberger decided to sell the house on Birch Street my father and mother were renting. He gave them very little warning, and they needed to find another rental place. The only thing they could find quickly was an abandoned store on Main Street in Kimberly next door to a drug store owned by pharmacist Walt Schomisch and a grocery store run by Joe Mazanetz. More about life on Main Street in my next reminiscence.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reminiscences 1: Pre-school childhood 1937-1941

For any of the children or grandchildren interested in my remembrances of childhood before kindergarten, here are a few of my memories.


I was born on December 19, 1937, at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Appleton, Wisconsin. I weighed nine pounds one ounce at birth, leading my father to refer to me occasionally in later years as “the big-headed little S.O.B.” 

I was baptized a few days laterperhaps on Christmas Eve. My mother wanted me to be baptized Noel in honor of my birth so close to Christmas, but the parish pastor where I was baptized believed every child should be baptized with a saint’s name, and he didn’t think there was a saint Noel. So I was baptized Peter Noel Lee Griese. The pastor was wrong about Noel not being a saint’s name, by the way. Saint Noel Chabanel, a Canadian Jesuit martyred by a renegade Huron in 1649, was canonized in 1930.

My earliest memory is of our moving into a rental house on Birch Street in Kimberly, Wisconsin, directly across from the DuPont and Kneepkens homes. My father and mother rented the house from Art Hopfensberger, a local butcher and grocer, shortly before my sister Carol was born. I remember visiting the house with my mother Thelma and father Orville when workmen were still sanding down a landing for the stairs to the upper story. I would have been about one and a half years old then.

Marlene DuPont, who lived across the street, became my favorite playmate. 

Bernadette “Birdie” Kneepkens from across the street was my favorite babysitter. I remember only one disappointment with Birdie, who I dearly loved. When I was five or so years old, she was going to take me to Appleton, three miles away, to see the movie “God Is My Co-Pilot,” about a Flying Tigers fighter pilot  in China. At the last minute, she decided war movies might give a child nightmares and took me to something else. But I’ve gotten to see that movie several times since. There's a picture of Birdie taken in 1949 when she was a cheerleader for the Kimberly High School basketball team that went to the state tournament in Madison at .    

Soon after our small family moved into the house on Birch Street, my sister Carol was born. I can remember wheeling her about the house in a baby carriage.

Carol probably remembers better than me an incident with a candle under the back porch of the house on Birch Street. I think it was Donnie Kneepkens from across the street who brought the candle over along with a Halloween pumpkin and matches to light it. It was dark enough under the porch to see a carved pumpkin face illuminated from within by a candle. Somehow, some of Carol’s hair got burned, and my mother discovered us. We all got a long talking-to about playing with fire.

We had currant bushes in the back yard, and a plum tree. I can remember my mother picking currants to use in making and canning currant jelly. I also had a little garden near the back porch, perhaps four feet by four feet. I randomly threw seeds into the ground that my father had spaded, and my mother was amazed when sweet corn and other vegetables emerged and thrived.

My favorite food among those my mother would make was hot waffles with a slab of vanilla ice cream melting on top. Another favorite for both me and my sister Carol was bread dipped in a mixture of fresh crushed strawberries and melted vanilla ice cream.

One of the things in the neighborhood that fascinated me was a car repair shop at the corner of Birch Street and Kimberly Avenue run by Joe Krautkramer. There were always puddles of water between the repair shop, and gasoline and oil would get into the puddles. The sheens would irridesce, and I enjoyed watching all the colors of the rainbow appear when the puddles were stirred up. A huge oak tree that grew beside the repair shop provided an abundance of acorns in the autumn for use in play and for fashioning toy smoking pipes when a straw was inserted into a hollowed-out acorn bowl.

The village ice rink was only a block away from the Birch Street house. My father Orville, who had been a high school track champion who held the Wisconsin state record in the 100-yard dash for many years, liked to ice skate in the winter. We had an old sled painted red and blue that he modified with a child’s seat that I could sit in. He’d tow that sled with me bundled up on it to the ice rink, and then skate towing me. The sled would swerve this way and that on the ice from the whiplash. Occasionally the sled would overturn, with no particular damage to me that I remember. However, I remember my mother witnessing such an overturn on one occasion, and some sharp words being exchanged about babies and safety.

Also a block away from the Birch Street house was the house of my father’s parents, my Grandmother Ida and Grandfather Carl Griese. Also living in the house were two of their children, my Aunt Arna and Uncle Courtney. Courtney had epilepsy, and Arna had back problems. I often had lunch there, and slept over many times in a front bedroom.

The grandparents had a big garden out back where they grew both vegetables and flowers. I remember the huge rhubarb stalks, the lettuce and the radishes, and flowers like bachelor buttons and bleeding hearts. In the spring, there were tulips, and in the fall, a plant that we called Chinese lanterns because its orange bulbous fruit resembled small lanterns.  

The Van Drunens lived directly behind my grandparents. Ricky, one of the Van Drunen sons, was my age. His father had built him a playhouse, where Rick had a collection of glass canning jars. He would fill the jars with water, then color the water by putting various colors of crepe paper in it. The dye used to color the crepe paper was water soluble, so Rick soon had a fantastic collection of colored water.

My other grandmother, Mary Derus, lived first in nearby Kaukauna, Wisconsin, and then in Appleton, the county seat of Outagamie County, where she was the matron at the Outagamie County Jail on the top floor of the courthouse. I often visited her there, staying overnight. She was a loving woman who had raised a large family. Her husband Joseph committed suicide, hanging himself during the Great Depression when he was unable to find work. 

My father worked in the Kimberly-Clark paper mill in Kimberly, a massive plant that produced coated paper for magazines, books and advertising broadsides. The first major purchase he made for our fledgling family was our first car, an Essex of 1920s vintage, faded green with black trim. If I recall correctly, it had to be hand-cranked to start it, which kept my mother from driving until we could afford a more recent model with battery-assisted starter. The Essex, in the meantime, got us out of town to Appleton and Green Bay.

Bill DuPont, a paper chemist with Kimberly-Clark, had a much more modern car, a late 1930s tan turtle-top Plymouth, if I recall correctly. Marlene and I sometimes played in it, pretending it was an airplane or a ship. 

Speaking of mobility, I had two favorite toys in this period. One was a little station wagon that I could sit in and use the pedals to make it go. It had a steering wheel, of course, and I rode it inside the house and out. I suspect my parents had to save for some time to afford such a luxury toy for me. My other favorite toy was a red tricycle that I inherited from my cousin Diane, the only daughter of my mother’s brother Harold “Butch” Derus and his wife Helen. I could barely reach the pedals at first, but it was my main vehicle for riding to Grandmother and Grandfather Griese’s house a block or two away.

One of the funniest things I remember from this period is a 4th of July where Dad and Bill DuPont chipped in to buy fireworks to entertain us children (and themselves). That evening, there was the usual assortment of Roman candles, sparklers, small firecrackers, whistling devils and fountains of sparks. But it was a big rocket that was to be the piece de resistance, the grand finale. My Dad had nailed together two boards into a V-configuration to serve as the launch cradle for the rocket, which was to shoot up into the night sky and then explode in a burst of reports. Now, Birch Street looking north terminated in a dead end at Kimberly Avenue. At the intersection, on the far side of Kimberly Avenue, was DeLeeuw’s Tavern, the site of the best Saturday night roast chicken dinners in Kimberly. Bill and my Dad carefully placed the rocket in the launch cradle, pointed it straight up in the air, and lit the fuse. The fuse sputtered, then seemed to die. Disappointed, my Dad and Bill lowered the rocket and cradle until the rocket was pointed directly at the tavern. That’s when it came to life and roared down the street. I can’t remember if it exploded on the porch of the tavern or went straight through the screen door and exploded inside. That’s because we were all running to our respective homes, so I didn’t get to see exactly what happened when the rocket hit the tavern. To this day, I have visions of the reactions  of the people sitting at the bar when the rocket exploded.

As I remember it, Bill DuPont and my father were sitting on the front steps of our rental home on Birch Street talking on the late afternoon of Sunday, December 7, 1941, when they noticed a newsboy up on the corner of Birch Street and Kimberly Avenue hawking a special edition of the Appleton Post-Crescent. It was extremely unusual for the Post-Crescent to publish a special or extra edition. The paper was an afternoon daily except for Sundays, when it was home-delivered by paper route boys in the morning. I was given a coin to go buy a copy so Bill and Dad could find out what was going on. 

The special edition was, of course, devoted to an announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Only the most cursory of information was available that Sunday afternoon. The first Japanese bombs had fallen on Pearl Harbor at 7:43 a.m. Hawaii time, or 12:43 p.m. Wisconsin time. Presidential Press Secretary Steve Early in a terse statement from his home in Washington had told a three-way hookup of the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service at 1:22 p.m. Wisconsin time on December 7 of the attack. At 1:31 p.m. Wisconsin time on December 7, the CBS radio network aired its regularly scheduled news program “The World Today,” leading with the attack on Pearl Harbor. By that time, wire services such as the Associated Press would have spread the word to newspapers such as the Post-Crescent.

Although both my family and the DuPonts had radios, the Post-Crescent special edition of the late afternoon of December 7 was probably the first notice both of our families got of the event that would shape the next four years of our national history. The next day, the Post-Crescent carried a much more extensive front page announcing, among other things, the U.S. Declaration of War on Japan in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The front page of that special edition is online at the Post-Crescent Web site.