Wednesday, January 18, 2012

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.

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