Looking back with a smile
By Hobie Morris
“The past, the present, and the future are really one: they are today.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe
Although my adolescent years were spent in then hustling and bustling Utica, the lure of the countryside was ever present and simply irresistible as it has continued to be to this day.
The “musings” that follow will hopefully bring smiles of nostalgia to those who remember when.
Compared to those of today’s young people, the passing years of my youth were like the calm waters in a sheltered harbor. What ripples there were barely ruffled the surface.
Before the mid-20th Century, our lives appeared to move alng at a precise, predictable, and leisurely pace. There was a strong element of familiarity that seemed to characterize American life.
We knew, for example, a great deal about the lives of our next door neighbors, as well as the other families living on our street. These people were also our good friends.
Families in those days often “grew up” together – retaining their same houses, telephone numbers, and so on year after year. There seemed to be, in retrospect, a permanence and stability on our street, and similar streets and communities all across America. Through the eyes of a young boy –and now one in “late adolescence” – these distant years appear wonderfully happy compared to the present increasingly sad, chaotic, dangerous, and dysfunctional America.
People did know plenty about each other including the make of their car (people usually had just one); jobs (many people worked all their working years for one employer); church attended (Catholics still religiously ate fish on Friday); schools (city kids had to get to school on their own – no free rides); their children (and who liked to play what and the type of comic books they wanted to trade); favorite wash day; and who was “friendly” and whose lawn to stay off of (Mr. and Mrs. Piper across the street, now long dead. I still have latent guilt just thinking about stepping on what will always be their “sacred” lawn).
We knew all these things and much more because we were close neighbors and innately curious about our surroundings, Today, sadly, people seldom know their neighbors’ names or anything about them.
We cared and shared too. If my Mother needed a pinch of salt, an egg or two, some sugar or flour, one of us would scoot next door to Harriet Dickens’. That’s what neighbors were for. She and others were warmly welcomed to reciprocatein their time of need.
In those years, one could almost set one’s watch by the exact time each morning when the man of the house left for work. Men were still the overwhelming traditional family “bread winners”. One job was sufficient to support his wife and children, as well as provide for a modest home, automobile, and other basic necessities and yes, even a modest savings account. (Plastic money and installment high-interest buying beyond one’s means were only red ink blips on the horizon.)
The wives, like Mrs. Dickens, Mrs. Benjamin, and my mother remained at home doing the countless daily tasks necessary for a smooth running household.
When their young children returned home from school they were greeted by Mother; not by an empty household that is all too common today when it is necessary for both parents to work one or more jobs simply to keep their heads above the constantly rising economic waters. After a hasty snack the children were free to run out and play with their siblings and neighborhood friends.
Eventually Dad would arrive home from work, and soon it was suppertime. A loud call from the front porch, or back yard brought the now “starving” playing children in. After quickly washing hands and face, it was time to sit down and “dig in”.
Supper usually united the entire family. As the dishes were passed and eating began, the day’s experiences were eagerly shared and discussed.
After the meal time, it was time to settle down and do homework, or read a newspaper or book. If time permitted, we’d sit down in front of the radio and listen to a favorite program before bed time. This “no-nonsense” school week routine was vigorously enforced by concerned parents. Weekends, however, were much more flexible and generally more fun for the entire family.
For years the large cabinet size radio standing in our living room was our family’s sole “entertainment center”. Eventually it was rivaled by a 12 and ½ inch Emerson black and white television set, one of the first sets on our street.
Familiarity was evidenced in many other ways in American life a half century ago. If we pedaled our fat tired bike over to the corner drugstore, always popular candy shop, 5 and 10 cent store, movie theater, or mom and pop grocery store – even the full service Sear’s gasoline station (4 gallons for a dollar)- we usually knew the men (and occasionally women) who worked in these establishments. They, in turn, would recognize our faces – if not our names. Many of these faces, voices, sights, and sounds remained largely the same throughout my adolescent years.
Other examples of a much more permanent and stable society come to mind. For years “Max” was our milkman. (Dairies delivered their products to customers’ homes in those times.) I can still hear the clinking of glass bottles rattling in his metal carrier as he briskly walked along our side driveway and opened the back door where he entered with a friendly announcement of “milkman.” He left his delivery on the steps outside the kitchen door – wonderfully rich and tasty Jersey milk – the neck of each bottle containing several inches of the thickest most delicious cream imaginable. (Calorie counters were a tiny minority of the population in those more physically active years).
“Bert” was another familiar face in my safe harbor. My mother would telephone in a grocery order to Bert’s parents’ tiny grocery store located on a pie shaped piece of ground next to their small modest home on Seward Avenue in a quiet residential area of my native city of Utica.
A short time later, Bert’s car pulled up our driveway. Up went the trunk and out came a cardboard box containing our order. In lean times, unpaid grocery bills were gladly carried over to the next month or two without interest. Today Bert, his parents, and their store are all long gone. Only the tiny pie shaped piece of mowed lawn remains.
Business practices were considerably less formal and much more personal in those days. There was a greater element of trust and flexibility. A firm handshake was considered as valid as any contractual paper. One’s good reputation in the community was something to be protected as carefully as the crown jewels of a Head of State.
Other once familiar faces, sights, smells, and sounds are still vivid in my memory over a half century later. The ice man; knife and lawn mower sharpener (no affordable power mower existed in those days, just the hand pushed reel that had to be occasionally sharpened); a wide variety of door to door sales people; the tinkling bell announcing the ice cream man was coming down the street with his tasty treats on a hot summer’s evening; the fresh produce man with his truck of morning picked sweet corn, honey dew melons, and juicy mouth-watering vine ripened red tomatoes and much, much more.
For children with seemingly bottomless pits for stomachs, the arrival in front of our home of the Hathaway Bakery truck with its friendly uniformed driver mightily challenged our already weakened will power. The driver would come to our house with a large carrier heaping over with wonderfully fragrant loaves of freshly baked bread, pies, rolls, cookies, pasteries donuts, and even more on pull out trays in the truck. I can still taste the incomparable red raspberry jelly filled, white confectionary sugar coated buns.
Times were different in other respects as well. People seldom if ever locked doors – either houses, autos, or much of anything else. People were robbed and lost their cars but had an overwhelming faith that these cases were isolated aberrations and not the rule of society as it seems to be today where we fear much more than we trust.
Parents, especially, didn’t live in constant fear for the safety of their children as they do in many areas of America today. Kids could safely go and come from school. In school violence was unheard of. They could play on the street, in vacant lots, and up at the playground without fear. Crimes against children no doubt occurred from time to time but were never publicized as they are today.
Children got injured and sick, of course, and some would die from diseases like polio that have now been eradicated. Kids were tempted by vices like cigarettes and alcohol, but society and parental disapproval was still extremely important in molding adolescent behavior and other activities. Cursing was my worst vice and was not too gently remedied by a good mouth washing with a bar of Ivory soap. Accidents were fairly plentiful – cut fingers, scraped knees, and the sundry bumps and bruises of very active children. A young playmate tried to grab the back handle of the Hathaway Bakery truck to bum a ride to the next stop, lost his grip, fell on the pavement, and fractured his skull. The boy survived and learned a good lesson.
Medical care was easily affordable for those with or without insurance. Sick in bed? Mom would call Dr. Pres Clark up in New Hartford. His office was in the basement of his home, no clinic, no specialists, just Dr. Clark and his magical black bag. He was his own answering service, receptionist, and nurse. And he often made house calls. Need medicine that Dr. Clark didn’t carry? Place a call up to Randall’s Pharmacy and your order was soon ready to be picked up. Cost: a few dollars for the pills and way less than $10 for Dr. Clark’s home visit.
Growing up in those years, I never knew a divorced person, an illegitimate child, or a couple living together outside the marriage institution. Parents knew otherwise, but did not discuss these taboo conditions within earshot of their children. Today these conditions permeate our society, destroying in their wake a societal stability that at one time cemented our nation together. Seemingly this once accepted stricter code of behavior has been tossed in the dustbin of today’s “do my own thing” attitude. As we grew older, of course, we grew to know more about human frailties and the problems they could lead to. Compared to today’s generation, we were terribly uninformed and naïve. But in retrospect, I am thankful our parents (and society) spared us the particulars of this darker side of human nature. We were allowed to grow up as innocent children.
Beyond our city street was the surrounding countryside. During my childhood years it was the last bastion of traditionalism and conservatism in this nation. Its life was still regulated by seasonal cycles, and the elements of water, light, sun, and temperatures, as well as the indispensable human element with his time tested ways of working and living in harmony with Mother Earth.
As in urban America, the powerful winds of change were beginning to tear down the traditional ways in rural America. This process continues to this day.
Compared to America of 50 years ago, today’s country has an almost revolutionary new look to it. For better or worse, these new conditions will challenge all of us in innumerable ways that will test our will and resolve and quite possibly the very future of this nation in the 21st Century.
However this should not prevent us from occasionally turning back the pages of our history to a simpler and more understandable time when we were a far happier and contented nation and the future was as bright as the newly risen sun. But then again these are only the “looking back smiles” of a simple country man.
Editor’s note: Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.