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.

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