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.”

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