I awoke to the thump, thump, of my great-grandfather’s cane pounding on our ceiling and Dad’s “damn!” The thumping was a signal for my father to get upstairs fast. He wasn’t needed upstairs very often, but often enough to require a signal. This emergency was similar to many others. Given the time of night, Pa (my great-grandfather), had probably dropped Uncle Donald while transferring him from the bed to the commode or from the commode back to the bed. I was six or seven or ten or twelve at the time. My memories spring more from a collage of impressions during a nine-year time span than from accurately recalled details of any specific event. Hindsight is not always 20/20, and my impressions were born from a kid’s mind, but I can promise this account of my childhood will be as accurate as I can make it.
Ours was a somewhat unusual family group – forced together by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Since my age of recall, I remember Uncle Donald’s being in a wheelchair. He had lead poisoning – very severe lead poisoning from working many years at a printing press. He lived with his parents (my great-grandparents). My parents and I lived across the street with my grandparents. When Great-grandma died, leaving Donald without a caregiver, we had to unite the households. This allowed Pa to retire from his job as janitor at the YMCA and take care of Donald. This event, moving from uptown to downtown in Newburgh, New York, to a small two-family row house that would hold all of us, probably influenced my beliefs and values more than any other single event in my young life.
In 1947, when I was five, we moved to the new neighborhood. Families were big and incomes were small. Most were factory workers, but there were a few tradesmen and a dentist. There was a saloon on the corner which many neighborhood men visited nightly after work. There was a small grocery store which sold all the usual staples and an even smaller place that sold penny candy, ice cream, comic books, girly magazines and cigarettes…it pretty much fed whatever unhealthy or unseemly habit one wanted to feed. I heard that the proprietor “took numbers” too (an illegal gambling enterprise similar to today’s State Lottery).
The new neighborhood provided me (a hitherto well-protected five-year-old), with many a jaw-dropping moment. Cops came regularly to break up family squabbles. Drunks passed out on the sidewalks on their way home from the bar. I remember having to step over one in our vestibule on my way to school one morning. Arguments were loud. Fistfights weren’t uncommon. And I loved the excitement of it all!
Dog fights added to the excitement too. Dogs roamed freely, so strays often wandered into our neighborhood and attacked the local pet population. Most of those confrontations were relatively harmless, though. Usually the interloper would escape unharmed and we’d return to whatever we were doing. There was a local bull mastiff, Blackie, however. We always checked to make sure Blackie wasn’t loose before we let our dog Max out. Max’s territorial instincts outweighed his survival instincts. He was easily sixty pounds lighter than Blackie, but Max never backed down.
Our backyard shared a chain-link fence with the Liners, Blackie’s owners. The dogs would fight through the fence and get their teeth locked in a death grip. “They’re at it again,” I’d yell up to Gram. She’d come down with her broom and Mrs. Liner would come out with her broom and they’d beat the dogs until they let go. Sometimes it took buckets of water to get them apart. There was always something to watch in that neighborhood.
I should add here, the members of only two or three families caused most of the street altercations and/or police presence. Most of the block’s residents were poor, but not particularly irresponsible or rowdy. What surprised and delighted me most were the kids. There were kids everywhere, big kids and little kids, playing hop scotch, jumping rope, playing catch, and roller skating.
In the old neighborhood, I had played alone or visited Rena (Mrs. Farina), our upstairs neighbor, or the Dr. Schlymacher’s wife down the street for entertainment. I have no memory of Mrs. Schlymacher and me chatting and having tea together, but I credit Rena for expanding my song repertoire. I’m told I shushed Gram saying, “Ooooooh, no Gramma, don’t you sing. I’ll go up and sing with Rena.” Singing was “my thing” as soon as I could talk, I guess.
Anyway, I was accepted into the First Street group immediately without incident, and found a comfortable niche with the kids closest to my age. We played outside most of the time. No temperature was too hot or too cold, no wind too hard, no snow too deep. We went out early, and except for a quick lunch break or a trip home to get a bag of marbles or something, stayed out ‘til dark or until we were called for dinner – whichever came first. If play was organized, we organized it ourselves. Someone would say, “Let’s play kick-the-can” and we would scatter to pass the word and find more players. We had pure, unadulterated fun (the “un-adult” being the operative syllables). We entertained ourselves pretty much without adult interference. Now, I shudder at some of the risks we took. We climbed trees and telephone poles with reckless abandon. This was long before the days of trucks with hydraulic buckets, so there were handy, dandy iron foot pegs for the repairmen to climb the telephone poles. These gave us access to rooftops and some higher tree limbs. It was a real challenge to make it to a rooftop before a chorus of, “Hey, you kids get down from there!” rang out. Guess some adults were paying attention, after all.
We roller-skated a lot too… down City Terrace hill… on which there could be no realistic hope of stopping before the cross street. Plans to stop had been devised by earlier neighborhood daredevils and passed along to us, but their plans were flawed. This street had a grassy median where trees were planted between the sidewalk and the street. So, theoretically, you could jump onto that median and run (in your skates) until you would slow down enough to grab a parked car or a tree.
The main problems with this plan lay in the design of our skates and the condition of the sidewalk. The bumps and cracks in the uneven sidewalk nearly always caused the clamps on our skates to come loose from our shoes, so we would crash long before any plan could be executed. “Clamps on our skates?” Yes, clamps; we didn’t have shoe skates. Skates were attached to shoes the way skis are attached to ski boots, except the clamps grabbed (but not very securely) the sides of your shoe by the toes. You couldn’t wear Keds; you needed to wear Oxfords with a hard sole that stuck out farther than the tops of the shoes, so there was something for the clamps to grip. The back of your foot was secured to the back of your skate by an ankle strap, and therein lay the problem. Talk about an injury waiting to happen. Helmets, knee pads and elbow pads didn’t exist in our world. We didn’t have a chance.
While I was happily ka-thunking my way down the hill, pigtails flying in the breeze, the clamp at the front of one of my skates would invariably pop off. There was nowhere to go but down – which wasn’t bad in itself. I mean falling down is expected and okay, but that metal skate dangling around one’s ankle made for some very tough landings. It was nearly impossible to land without the skate being sandwiched between your ankle and your butt. It must be one of Newton’s laws or something. Anyway, on skating days, I usually returned home with bloody ankles and a bruised behind! But I brandished my scars proudly. We all did.
Not all of our activities were dangerous, of course. Most were not, but neither were they sedentary. What was so great about living in a “hood” with so many kids was the variety of activities that were available every day. I’d go out in the morning and get to decide which group to play with. Some might be playing marbles or flipping baseball cards. Some might be jumping rope – whatever. Sometimes, no one would be out yet or maybe no one would be doing what you felt like doing – in which case, you’d go call at the door of the person most likely to do what you wanted to do. I don’t remember being bored – not ever!
Boys and girls didn’t play together very often, not in the morning, anyway. Morning sent girls seeking girls for games of hopscotch, kick-the-stone, roly-poly or jump-rope. Boys never deigned to join us in these pursuits… probably because they were lousy at them. Playing “our” games required good balance, some agility, and patience – not their forte, I presume. But the girls… well, we could spend hours hopping around on one foot – a primary talent required for many “girly” games.
I asked around and not many people have heard of kick-the-stone, but it was one of our favorites. You couldn’t play it unless you had just the right stone though, so I guess most neighborhoods simply didn’t have smooth, flat stones of the correct size and shape to make it a popular game. Some of our sidewalks were made of slate which tended to break into flat pieces as opposed to roundish chunks. Choosing the right stone was critical, so much so, we’d often save a good one for future competitions. Choosing the right sidewalk was important too. A nice flat, regular grid made it too easy. We preferred what we had – cracked, bumpy, irregular surfaces that tested one’s talent. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” was the main rule. It ended your turn.
The grid was three squares up and three squares back – any size we wanted to make it. So, to begin, you threw your stone into the first block. If the stone didn’t land and stay in the correct block, your turn was over. If it landed and stayed, you hopped on one foot (never touching the other to the ground) and kicked the stone to block two, block three and so on. Onesies, as you can see, was the hardest round to complete because you had to be on one foot for the longest amount of time.
The trickiest part was when you kicked your stone and it landed across the crack between blocks… which happened all the time. Maneuvering the stone off the crack without touching the crack with your foot was damn near impossible for all but the most talented hoppers. I mean… picture it: You’re on one foot, trying to secure the stone between the ground and the toe of your shoe and drag it back to a spot where you will not be in danger of breaking your mother’s back when you kicked the stone forward. My calf muscle is screaming just thinking about it!
The smaller, age and gender-segregated groups of the daytime, became one large un-segregated group most summer evenings. It was time for stick ball, kick ball, kick-the-can, and versions of (or combinations of) tag and hide-and-seek. Captains chose their teams, and the least athletic and smallest were chosen last. Nobody worried much about hurt feelings or any possible dangers to the youngest among us. Big kids learned to jump over or leap around little kids and little kids learned to get out of the way. Our biggest concerns with the “street” incarnations of baseball were losing a ball (or can) down the sewer and calling “time out” when a car drove through our “field.”
I looked up “ring-a-le-vi-o” in the dictionary… and it was there! And it was described as I remember it… except for the name. We always said “caw, caw ring-a-le-vi-o”. The “caw, caw” was a reduction of “call, call”, I guess, but we didn’t spell it, we said it and played it. Basically, ring-a-le-vi-o is team tag with prisoners who can be freed by a free team member calling “ring-a-le-vi-o” at the prison. As I recall, there were elements of hide-and-seek in there, too, because I remember hiding in a tree near the prison so I could be the hero and free everybody. Anyway, this was usually played after dark without the little kids and often encompassed many blocks. We were usually called inside before either team won by capturing and keeping all of the opposition contained in the jail.
And then there were the winter games. Let me say right now – if being cold and wet caused colds, we all would have been sick all winter! Neither would we have survived if second-hand smoke is as dangerous as we are led to believe. We all grew up in great clouds of it anytime we were inside – five out of the six adults in my family smoked…but that’s another story.
We spent nearly as much play-time outside in the winter as we did in the summer. The hills were great for sledding. I use the term “sledding” loosely. Sheets of cardboard and garbage can lids (without handles) were more common than actual sleds. The block east of ours was one of the steepest hills in the city. We NEVER skated down it – that’s how steep it was! But we did sled down it, because the snow banks provided a safe landing and no cars could venture up or down while the road was icy. That is… we went down it until a kid from a different area got hit by a car while sledding. Then the parents put the word out, “No sledding on the streets!” So we went to the park.
Downing Park was a mere four blocks away – all uphill. Actually, I don’t think that part bothered us; we were used to walking everywhere. (That was my old body and sore knees talking.) The bad part about going to the park was walking home – even though it was downhill. After sledding for three or four or six hours, nothing on our bodies worked. Boots and mittens were snow-filled. Fingers and toes were throbbing in protest; snot was frozen to our faces and all joints (elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles) were encased in icy casts. We were immobilized.
Nor did I have a prayer of getting inside the door when I made it home. “Get undressed in the hall. You’ll get everything wet!” Get undressed? By myself? Mom had to be kidding! Getting one’s boots off required elbows and knees that could bend, hands that could grip… and perhaps a crowbar! Sooner or later (usually later), a rescuer would answer my whines and/or screams of despair. I don’t know how the other kids got released from their frozen prisons, but I know I couldn’t have escaped without help.
On rainy days (we did stay in out of the rain), we girls spent a lot of time playing with paper dolls – designing and cutting out our “original” creations for hours. Our dirt-floored cellar was the favored indoor “hang out.” It was routinely transformed into a hospital, a ranch, a castle, or (Heaven help us) a torture chamber. Saturday movies often dictated the choice. Grandpa’s sawhorses were saddled and ridden if we’d seen a Western. His tow ropes were strung from the floor joists and called “vines” if we were in Tarzan mode. The storage room held a treasure trove of would-be scenery. My folks must have wondered how all the winter blankets and extra cushions got so dirty.
We were quite creative, I think. My dog, Max, was assigned many various roles to play. He might be Roy Rogers’s dog, Bullet, or a four-legged Cheetah or a space alien. His roles were easy to assign, not so for other roles. I think we spent more time arguing about who was going to be who than we spent playing. Everyone wanted to be the Judy Garland character, or Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, or Dr. Kildare.
There was another time-consumer too. I don’t remember if the others were as compulsive as I was about this, but I remember spending a lot of time explaining away inconsistencies. For example, the backyard fence made for good horseback riding too, so we’d often bring the sawhorses out there when forming a “posse.” Well, obviously, the sawhorse horses, being much shorter than the fence horses, had to be ponies, not horses. But why on earth would the sheriff’s posse ride ponies? “Maybe some of the horses are sick,” I’d explain. Fortunately, I never felt compelled to explain why our horses had no heads, but for some reason a neuroscientist or shrink would have to explain, I have always felt the need to “make sense” of just about everything.
Eventually, we outgrew our creative ventures in the cellar, but they proved to be good practice for future endeavors. When I was twelve (or thereabouts), five of us girls decided to produce a street fair for charity. We didn’t hold it in the street, though; we took the fence down between ours and the neighbor’s backyards and held it there.
The Red Cross was having a flood relief drive, and we knew we wanted to do something to help. After much deliberation, we decided to aim big. No measly little bake sale for us… we were going to get the whole neighborhood involved. And we did. We accepted any adult help we could get for this project. My grandfather helped us build the booths… or maybe I should say we tried to help him build the booths. The women baked cakes and cookies and made aprons and pot holders. We hit up the local hairdresser for a cold wave (whatever that was) to raffle off. People donated canned goods, which we boxed up and gave as prizes. Someone even loaned us an official wheel to use in our “put down a nickel and pick a number” booth. We had some nice prizes available for that game, most of them donated by shop owners.
I think we had five booths (or tables) – baked goods, crafts, a “white elephant” stand filled with all the old, unwanted items from folks’ closets, and two games of chance. There were games for little kids too. Dropping clothespins in a milk bottle from waist-height was one game for the little kids. The neighborhood really came through. We made $49.85, and got an article and our pictures in the paper. The things parents (and neighbors) will do for kids. It never occurred to us that it would have been cheaper and easier for them to have just given us the fifty bucks. They had, after all, provided the building supplies and made everything we sold… and then they came to the fair and bought what they’d made and played our games to win the prizes they’d donated. But we had worked very hard and accomplished what we’d set out to do. We felt good about ourselves, which was exactly what the adults had intended, I guess.
Preteen years for girls are particularly strange… or at least, I found them strange. With bodies gearing up for adulthood, many unexplained feelings and unexpected drives started surfacing. Sex Ed didn’t exist in school, of course, and parents rather ignored sex too, unless we asked specific questions. Well, one evening after dinner while Gram, Mom, and I were doing the dishes, I had a question. Mary Ellen, a buddy from my sixth grade class, had told me how babies were made. To say I was horrified is a gross understatement.
I told Mom and Gram what Mary Ellen had said and exclaimed, “That can’t be true. Men don’t put their thing inside down there, do they?” At that, my grandfather let out a huge guffaw and a choking sound from the bathroom, which was right next to the kitchen. We all turned in that direction with astonished looks on our faces… and he continued to sound like he was having a stroke or something. Then Mom and Gram started laughing too. They were not cool! I still didn’t have an answer. I knew enough to be embarrassed, but I didn’t really know why. Were they making fun of me for believing such an outrageous story… or was it true in all its grossness? When Grandpa settled down, we had a grandmother, mother-daughter talk – a very short talk. They confirmed Mary Ellen’s tale, but little else was explained. I had a lot to think about that night.
Yes, the preteen years were odd ones. I remember playing with dolls in the morning, and baby-sitting later in the same day. We girls often went around the neighborhood offering to take babies for walks, and the mothers usually took us up on the offers. We were pretend mothers, practicing for the years ahead, and it didn’t seem to matter if the babies were real or not. Those tween years were filled with curious part-kid and part-adult experiences. Lots of “firsts” in those years… first periods, first bras, first stockings, first high-heels, and first boyfriends. Playing kick-the-can one minute, stuffing our new bras with Kleenex the next.
As I wrote this came a new realization. The tween years may not be nearly as awkward a stage now as they used to be. Women today are often involved in sports, and everyone wears jeans or sweats all the time. They didn’t then. Women’s roles were much more rigidly defined. Being a “lady” and indulging in only lady-like activities was more expected, so at twelve, girls were often in the midst of redefining themselves rather dramatically. Being a tom-girl at heart, I never quite made the transition to lady-like, but my priorities and interests were definitely changing.
Some time a little later in that time frame, my dad did a much better job of answering my questions about sex than Mom had. In all innocence, I had described to my mother that wonderful feeling I got if I squeezed my legs together just right. I was scared. It seemed to me there must be something wrong about doing it. I have no idea where the guilt came from; I had never heard of masturbation or orgasms or anything except that a man put his “thing” inside a woman to have babies. After some bungled attempts to explain, Mom deferred to Dad’s expertise. He was really good – calm and matter-of-fact. No laughing or anything. While some other parents warned their kids that masturbation causes blindness, my father told me to do it as much as I wanted – nothing wrong with it. Okay, Dad.
Sex education in those days was very sporadic and I guess you could say “shocking” – shocking because we were so innocent. Television programing then wasn’t anything like it is now. Married couples didn’t even share the same bed in the old days. No steamy kisses either – everything was left to our imaginations.
Now kids are exposed to some pretty hot and adulterous bedroom scenes on the afternoon soaps. I doubt if there’s anything remotely shocking to most twelve year-olds these days; everyone grows up seeing sexual exploits daily, even in ads for medicine. We had to find a Playboy Magazine in the gutter, or Dad’s drawer, to be enlightened. And it was shocking. I didn’t find a Playboy, but I and some friends did find a series of very explicit S and M drawings in the park. We didn’t know what S and M was, of course, so for a while we thought our parents must tie each other up to make babies.
It’s funny though, my friends and I look back and delight in our accidental discoveries and our temporary misconceptions. It seems a more fun way to learn than in a classroom with a teacher. It was the mystery and the “dirtiness” – the fact that it was a forbidden topic that made the discoveries so much fun. It also scared the hell out of us girls, so our ignorance probably kept us on the straight and narrow for quite a bit longer than is typical now.