Antique Road Show, Part II

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, about 1950.

On October 7, 1949, my grandparents, 65 and 60 years old, cast their fate to the winds and drove Route 66 from Illinois to California in their 1946 Hudson sedan. Recently retired, but with enough savings to travel, frugally, they set off to see the Great West. 

They reached San Bruno, California, two weeks later. They had added 2,871 miles to the Hudson’s odometer and spent $143.11 in total for meals, lodgings, 150 gallons of gas, a new tire, and incidentals.

With Mabel and Bob

The reason they fetched up in San Bruno—near San Francisco International Airport— was that their daughter, Mabel Hiler, lived there with her husband, Bob, and their son, Dickie. Grandma and Grandpa must have let Mabel and Bob know they were coming—mustn’t they? Having known them, I cannot completely rule out the possibility they just showed up on Mabel and Bob’s doorstep one bright Thursday afternoon in October. 

Since Bob Hiler had a good full-time job as a mechanic with United Airlines, and since Dickie was a young boy, Mabel was almost certainly a full-time housewife. Later on I know she worked at a variety of jobs “outside the home,” as we used to say. 

Women drilling a wing bulkhead for a World War II transport plane at the Consolidated Aircraft. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, U.S. Office of War Information. Public Domain.

Probably most women of Aunt Mabel’s generation—which was also my mother’s generation—worked outside jobs at one time or another; but that’s not how it was supposed to be. For one brief, shining moment after World War II, all of America conspired to jam life back into “normal” channels. The men were to wear the pants, the women skirts and aprons. The men would bring home the bacon; the women would cook it, put it on the table, and wash up afterwards. 

Before long, that arrangement would crumble in household after household. How could we afford our everyday needs plus late-model cars plus television sets and of course the finer things of life that were advertised on those television sets, unless Mom took a part-time job “just in the middle of the day, while the kids are in school” to supplement the family’s income. In 1963, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique would advocate for women as full-time breadwinners, no longer to be chained to traditional women’s roles.

Bob and Mabel Hiler, second anniversary, 1938

But I sincerely hope Aunt Mabel was a full-time homemaker when her parents came to California, since they stayed seven months! Grandma kept careful notes on their ramble  across the range, full of where they stayed, where they ate, and what they saw. But not one word about the whole time spent in San Bruno. It’s a mystery. All the principals—Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, Aunt Mable, Uncle Bob, and Dickie Hiler—are gone; I cannot ask them now and did not know enough to ask them when they were still with us. 

Just to picture all five of them spending seven months together in a bungalow in San Bruno beggars the imagination. How did they ward off madness? They must have done something.

The Hudson’s mileage yields one clue. By May 1950, Grandpa and Grandma had clocked 5,326 miles driving to and from California; but their odometer was 8,232 miles older  than when they started. Therefore, while visiting in California, they drove 2,906 miles. That’s about what it would have taken to commute every day into the city from San Bruno—but that’s a silly thought; they had no reason to go downtown daily. They probably made shorter trips for everyday purposes but also drove from time to time to tourist destinations such as Yosemite. (Disneyland was not available yet.) However, they left no record of such trips, nor did I ever hear them spoken of.

Stint in Seattle

There was also a month and a half when they did not drive at all, because they left the Hudson behind. Grandma’s notebook says that on Valentine’s Day 1950 they went to Seattle and stayed a month and a half. They did not drive, they flew. The flight was two and a half hours from San Francisco to Seattle on a DC-6, a modern four-engine prop job. In those days, most airline employees got free flights as a benefit, and these were often transferable. Most likely, Grandpa and Grandma flew United Airlines to Seattle on Bob Hiler’s employee pass. 

In Seattle, they stayed with Edward, the elder of their two surviving sons, his wife, Mary, and their three children. Uncle Ed was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and at that time flew out of Seattle, to and from Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau. 

Grandma’s notebook gives glimpses of this interlude in Seattle: 

Grandma’s notebooks
  • “Sat Feb. 25 – Went to Everett by car with Mary & Edw. Called on Lloyd Engels’ at Everette [sic]. Up Monte Cristo Way as far as roads would permit. Too much snow Early in Season. Dinner in Marysville – nice town.”
  • “Sat. Mar 4. Went to Mt. Vernon. visited with Aunt Susan Beecher and daughters Eva – Ada – & Nina. Back by way of [Whidbey] Island.” They crossed the Deception Pass Bridge at the north end of Whidbey, drove the length of the island, and took the Mukilteo Ferry back to the Mainland near Everett.

Still, they must have passed a lot of time in humdrum ways. (The Space Needle and the Monorail did not yet exist.) Mary was a full-time homemaker and therefore, by prevailing notions, could entertain visiting inlaws without limit. When I knew her, later in life, she was a gracious, adaptable person. No doubt she met the challenge with aplomb.

On April 1, Grandpa and Grandma caught an overnight train from East Olympia for San Francisco, arriving at 11:20 am the next day. After another month and a half with Mabel and Bob in San Bruno, they headed home. 

West to East

Now the silence ends, and Grandma’s pithy travel notes resume the narrative.

They struck straight across country, going by way of Sacramento, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe. Grandma notes the rising topography: 

  • “Plenty Snow – Echo Summit – 7282 Elevation.” 
  • “State Line—Bijou Pines at Bijou near Lake Tahoe.  Spooner’s Summit, East Edge, L. Tahoe (10 miles from Carson City) – El. 7140 ft.” 

They spent a morning sightseeing in Carson City but still made Reno by noon. They got gas, oil, lube, lunch, and back on the road by 1:30. In those days you could leave the car at the gas station; they took care of everything, and you went to lunch.

Outside Heber, Utah, Grandma noted: “Drilling Surprise Wildcat No. 1”—a reference to a new oil well being opened up. Several more wells and refineries were noted as they made their way across Utah and into Colorado.

At Craig, Colorado, a flurry of notes:

  • “Interesting facts about Craig, & Moffat Co. – El. 6200 ft.
  • “(1) Largest wool shipping point in world.
  • “(2) Largest Gilsonite processing & shipping in world. 
  • “Moffatt [sic] County
  • “90 ft vein of coal.
  • “Enough to supply U. States for 900 yrs.
  • “1,600,000 sheep raised annually
  • “20,000 cattle raised annually.
  • “Many Deer.
  • “3,460,500 acres – area of county.”

Think on that, Gentle Reader: Moffat County, Colorado’s 90-foot vein of coal in 1950 was enough to supply the United States for 900 years! It gives one pause.

Enough Coal for 900 Years

First of all, how much coal is a 900-year supply? You need not guess, I can tell you.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration says total coal consumption in 1950 was just shy of 500 million short tons. So, a 900-year supply would have been almost 450 billion short tons. When you consider that just one short ton contains two thousand pounds—that’s a lotta coal.

Does Moffat County still have enough coal to supply the entire United States for 900 years? Probably not. For one thing, almost 70 years have passed, so now we’re talking about an 830-year supply. Except that we no longer use 500 million tons a year. The figure for 2018 is more like 700 million tons—so we’re using it up faster. 

That surprised me. I would have thought we use less coal now, because in 1950 we mostly heated our houses with coal—as a lad I shoveled it into our basement furnace three or four times a day. But now, we heat our houses with natural gas or fuel oil. So, why do we use more coal now? Because coal is burned to generate electricity, and we use way more electricity now than we did then. This graph tells the story:

Source: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=37692

So, what I thought I knew—that we’re using less coal today—is what Will Rogers would have called “things we do know, that ain’t so.”

Even though we use more coal now than in 1950, the consumption trend is steeply down, having peaked at about 1.1 billion tons in 2009. This is for multiple reasons, including government actions, but mostly because natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper recently. Indeed, coal consumption may plunge below 1950 levels and continue downward. 

There is a retrospective irony in all this. Moffat County could soon have a 900-year supply of coal once again, but it may no longer be worth mining. Still, economics being unpredictable, a resurgence of coal, or a plateau in its decline, may be in the offing. However, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Meanwhile, they still mine coal in Moffat County. 

Through the Rockies and Home

Grandpa and Grandma continued through the Rockies via Steamboat Springs, then on through snow-covered Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,680 feet, and across the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass—11,314 feet. Arriving in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Grandma wrote: “1418 miles Denver from San Bruno. Lg. wet snow with trees & elec. wires down making streets impassable – so had to stay here 3 days.” They left Englewood Saturday, May 27, and drove home through Kansas and Missouri, noting “Lots of black walnuts” around Seneca, Kansas, and “lots of apples & some peaches” near Troy, Kansas. 

On May 29, 1950, they arrived at Dwight, Illinois. Now, the thing about Dwight is that we lived there. My father, Lloyd E. Sommers, was the second of two sons who survived the Second World War. He was a radioman with the 132nd Infantry in the South Pacific. Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve pilot who continued to fly in his civilian capacity for Pan Am. Uncles Stanley and Franklin, bomber pilots, were shot down early in the war—Stanley in the Solomon Islands, Franklin over France. 

In 1950 we lived in Dwight, where Dad taught high school chemistry. I was nearly five. My sister, Cynda Jo, was born May 2, 1950. She was a 27-day-old baby when Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us on their way home. I would be fibbing if I said I remember their visit. But Grandma’s book says they stayed three days. They needed to ogle the new arrival, no doubt.

They reached home on June 2, having spent $143.30 for gas, oil, food, shelter, and incidentals on the road between California and Illinois. It was a long trip, but it must have satisfied their longings for that kind of adventure, for they never went West again.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Antique Road Show

. . . ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. . . . .
—Tennyson, “Ulysses” 

In the autumn of their lives—he was 65, she 60—my grandparents set off on an epic journey. 

Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, 1944

They had weathered two world wars, one Great Depression, and the daily trials of work and family in pre-electronic, not-yet-airconditioned America. They had lost their Pierce-Arrow touring car in the Depression; they had lost two of four sons in the Second World War. In that era, when men and women often seemed worn out at 50, Grandma and Grandpa Sommers had lived to an age when a slowdown was in order.

Instead, they plunged into the adventure that six decades of hard living had denied them. 

1946 Hudson Commodore. Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz (CC BY 4.0)

They drove their Hudson sedan, a bulbous gray beast with dusty velour upholstery. It must have been about a 1946 model. I don’t know that for sure; but it had 36,410 miles on its odometer when they left their little house in the village of Knoxville, Illinois, at 7:30 am on Friday, October 7, 1949.

They were bound for California. Before coming home seven months later, they would add 8,232 miles to the Hudson’s clock.

“Is this Trip Really Necessary?”

What possessed them? Why undertake an odyssey at that stage of their life? 

For one thing, Grandpa didn’t have a job to worry about any more. When Dad got off the telephone and told Mom, “Pop’s been fired,” I cried. My four-year-old mind saw Grandpa blackened to a cinder from the flames. They had to do quite a bit of explaining before I understood that Grandpa’s boss had merely sent him home from work and told him not to come back.

Grandpa—William P. Sommers—was a piece of work. Trained as a young man in telegraphy and telephony, he had worked as a rural phone company manager for a few years, then as a railroad telegrapher and station agent many years, before settling down in Sinclair Oil’s pipeline company as a telegrapher and pumping station agent. His technical training and certain unfortunate family traits gave him a lifelong impression that he was the smartest guy in the room, and everyone else was a fool. And obviously, it was his plain duty to inform them all of that. It’s easy to imagine that he simply told his supervisor where to get off, and his supervisor in turn told him where to get off. 

Grandpa was too old to go back to work—and there was a whole world out there. During the Great War, the Chicago and Alton Railroad had sent him by rail to the Pacific Northwest. The rocky terrain he traveled through made a deep impression. I guess he had always itched to go back and see it again.

Grandma had never been anywhere outside of central Illinois. She was stolid, unromantic, matter-of-fact; whereas Grandpa was fiery, flighty, and mercurial. He must have said, “Millie, let’s go! You’ve got to see the West.” 

Test Run

A year before, in September 1948, they had made a swift dash across Iowa and Nebraska, traversed the high plains of Colorado, and ended up in the Front Range of Colorado. They had returned via Wyoming and the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. They returned home on the eighth day after they started, having logged 2,513 miles. 

            Napoleon I, miniature painting made in 1807 by Jean Baptiste Isabey. Public Domain.

Grandpa, the towering figure in any group, was living confirmation of the Napoleon hypothesis, for he stood only about five feet tall. He wore size six shoes as an adult.  I can still see him driving that huge, high-riding Hudson sedan, peering out over the high dashboard from under the upper rim of the steering wheel! I can’t really remember how he managed to get his feet all the way to the pedals, but he must have.

That earlier trip perhaps gave them the confidence for the longer jaunt they now embarked on. It seems their plan from the beginning was to drive to California and stay a good, long while with their only daughter, Mabel, her husband Robert Hiler, and their little boy, Dickie. And also, if possible, get to Seattle and spend some time with their eldest son, Edward, and his family. Whether they knew when they set out how long they would stay, I really don’t know.

All There in the Book

Fortunately for me, Grandma kept a careful log in a wire-bound stenographer’s book, and my father left that book to me. She recorded dates, odometer readings, and expenses. But when they encountered something she thought was remarkable, she remarked. 

Bagnell Dam. Photo by KTrimble, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

They drove to Peoria and followed Route 66 southwest, with some deviations. They visited relatives and friends in Springfield and Gillespie, Illinois, and in the state-named town of California, Missouri. They visited the nearby Bagnell Dam—a modern wonder built eighteen years earlier to impound the Osage River and form the Lake of the Ozarks, thus gaining both hydroelectric and recreational benefits. (Wikipedia claims it’s still there.)

They drove through Joplin, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. That night, near Sapulpa, they stayed at the Wild Horse Cabins. Ah, the romance of the West! To lifelong residents of Illinois—where the horses are all tame—what could better hint of high plains adventure? The word “cabins” may suggest a certain rusticity, and that may have been the case. But in those days, “cabins” was simply a word for inexpensive roadside lodgings, which could be quite sketchy for creature comforts. The modern motel had not been invented—neither the word nor the item itself.

Petroleum Fever

Oil derrick. Photo by Egeswender – Own work, Public Domain. 

As they drifted west, Grandma frequently noted oil derricks, drilling rigs, pumps, and refineries. That’s because Grandpa had a definite interest in oil. I suppose he figured his great natural intelligence (which was an actual fact), combined with his technical mastery of telegraphy and telephony, qualified him in the oil business. In later years, he acquired  an idée fixe that by poring over geologic maps of the western states, he could pick winners in the great wildcat game and make a fortune. He invested what must have been only small amounts of money in dozens of oil-drilling partnerships to open wells in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. My mother, who was never intimidated by the old man, used to laugh at this obsessive hobby of his. But the old man had the last laugh: His complex portfolio of oil royalties continues even now, more than sixty years later, to trickle dollars into our family’s coffers.

Rugged Travel Days

Grandma and Grandpa crossed into Arizona and she noted that they “slept in car 1st time” before driving on the next morning. Probably there was no convenient overnight  cabin near the Arizona border. Bear in mind, Dear Reader, that a long motor trip was still a big adventure in 1949. The best roads were two-lane, two-way ribbons of concrete. Other roads were more iffy. Hotels, tourist cabins, restaurants, and gas stations were strewn haphazardly about the landscape. You might find one, you might not. I’ll bet Grandpa had stowed a five-gallon can of gasoline in the trunk—just in case.

Arizona Meteor Crater. “467” by bunnygoth is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

On Friday morning, October 14—one full week into their journey—they drove by the “Immense Munition Depot” at Holbrook, Arizona, but stopped to see the Arizona Meteor Crater and its museum near Winslow. That afternoon they drove out of Williams, Arizona, at 3:00 pm, and Grandma added a plaintive note: “Decide not to visit Canyon as too late in afternoon & no good place to stay overnite, so head for Boulder Dam.” What a letdown, having traveled so far, to forgo a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Grand Canyon! But Grandma’s notes contain no hint of disappointment; just the matter-of-fact account of a decision made. Maybe the Grand Canyon was not a high priority, since it contained no oil wells.

The next day they did spend about three hours seeing the Boulder Dam, the name of which had been changed to “Hoover Dam” not too long before. “Took in free movie showing building of dam,” Grandma noted. 

Eventually, they rolled through Las Vegas, Nevada (“wonderful city”) and entered California over the Clark Mountain Pass. By the time they crossed the desert and reached  Los Angeles, they had fulfilled Bobby Troups’s 1946 hit song—having visited Kingman, Barstow, and San Bernardino. The Hudson came down with a flat tire at San Berdoo. I wish I could have seen Grandpa make change that huge tire. The little Bantam rooster must have made short work of it, by might and main, with no expletives deleted. 

They arrived in the City of Angels, where they stayed with an “Aunt Annie” for three days and also visited some cousins in Compton. On their way out of town they bought a new tire; evidently the flattened one was beyond repair.

“Open Up That Golden Gate”

They drove up the coast to San Francisco—or actually, San Bruno, a southern suburb, where Mabel and Bob Hiler lived—arriving on Thursday, October 20, the fourteenth day of their trip. They visited the Hudson Motor Company, where they got a lube job for $1.50, tires rotated for $1.00, five quarts of new oil installed for $2.25, and 6.8 gallons of gas for $1.82. All this by way of putting the car right after its long trek.

Their outward journey encompassed 2,871 miles and used 150.4 gallons of gas, an average of 19 miles per gallon. They spent $55.44 on “gas oil etc.,” $23.10 for “meals etc.,” $23.00 for “Cabins,” $24.92 for “other incidentals,” and $16.65 for the new tire. 

A harbinger of things to come: $31.71 of the automotive total was bought on a credit card, which must have been a newfangled thing. Grandma’s notes do not say which credit card it was, but this was more than eight years before the 1958 launch of BankAmericard, the first general-purpose credit card. It must have been an oil company card. It may even have been an embossed metal “Charga-Plate,” which some merchants issued to favored customers and which enabled easy recording of transactions.

Once at San Bruno, Grandma and Grandpa stayed put for several months, with Mabel and Bob Hiler and their little son, Dickie. Grandma recorded nothing about that stay—but it was not without events. 

In those days, you stayed with family. For Grandma and Grandpa to rent a hotel room, or even a “cabin,” in a town where family lived, would have been unprecedented. Still, months of their constant presence may have been trying to Mabel and Bob. And equally trying to Grandma and Grandpa. 

If my read on Grandpa’s mind is accurate, he would hardly have minded imposing on his daughter and her family. It would have been a welcome change from going to work every day, to take orders from the know-nothing young popinjay who gave him his walking papers. Mabel’s house in San Bruno was, by contrast, an adventure. It was the West.

NEXT WEEK: More adventures in the West.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

 

Grandma’s Trip Books

Mrs. Schmieden– wife of officer in W.W. I with 1 son. Husband died & [she] married a Nazi General of WW2.

“While her son was in hospital from being wounded, he was given orders to go fight Russians.

“She found that her husband had given these orders, so she left him as she was fed up with Nazis anyway.

“The Gen had been jealous of this son. He was later tried in the War Crimes Court but was exonerated.

“Her father had been a Banker & they were well to do before the War. She had English Governess etc, & never had to work etc.” 

—from Grandma Sommers’ travel notes

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

—Psalm 90:10 (King James Version)

In America today, many of us will exceed threescore and ten, or even fourscore years, in good health and strength. But we know that before long, the words of the Psalmist will be fulfilled, and we too shall fly away.

Like many other septuagenarians, I am trying to reduce, not enlarge, my collection of mementoes. Some of them, however, I just can’t part with. 

In my basement there is a box labeled with my name: It holds photos, notes, artifacts, even scraps of paper linked to people or events that linger large in my memory. I have a similar box for my parents; and one each for my uncles Stanley and Franklin, both of whom died in World War II. And there is a shoebox labeled “Old Folks,” compassing traces of earlier generations. 

Grandma’s trip books.

In the “Old Folks” box I found two spiral-bound, stenographer-style notebooks, plus a thin bundle of 4” x 7” looseleaf pages. What I did not find, yet, was time enough to go through them page by page, for they certainly are worth that kind of scrutiny. Taken together, these little books contain my Grandma Sommers’ notes from two remarkable journeys she and Grandpa took. One was a driving trip from Illinois to California and back. They left October 7, 1949, and returned May 29, 1950, after a jaunt of nearly eight months! The other journey was their only visit to Europe—from November 8, 1954 to January 28, 1955—eleven weeks and four days.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, c. 1955.

Today, few of us make such extended journeys. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter. But also, we lead busy lives. It’s hard to get away for more than a week or a month at a time. And travel is, relatively, less expensive now. What we don’t see this time, we can catch next time. Both of the trips recorded in Grandma’s journals were once-in-a-lifetime excursions for my grandparents. They were determined to make the most of them.

Grandma was a straightforward person. In conversation, you could be forgiven for thinking her a “ho-hum” person. But these notes show she was an astute observer, keen to see and hear everything, and keen to record the details. Unlike us, she had no frivolous and ephemeral way to do this. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. All she could do was write notes in longhand in paper books. What worked for Julius Caesar, Marco Polo, and Meriwether Lewis, also worked for Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers.

Many of her notes were mundane. For example, from the California trip log: “Leave San Bruno – 9:30 am – 42187 [;] 6.6 gal. gas – 1.51 Castro Valley – 42213 [;] 1 qt oil – .41 . . .”

Other entries are more intriguing, like the one quoted above from the looseleaf addendum to the Europe trip book. It apparently records the results of a conversation she had with a real German woman, Frau Schmieden. Grandma’s summation of their talk contains the seeds of a big novel, maybe even a major motion picture. 

The Great Heidelberg Tun, largest wine barrel in the world. Photo by Larry Sommers.

Grandma’s Eurpean trip notes also tell of visiting Heidelberg, where they saw in Heidelberg Castle the famous Great Heidelberg Tun, the world’s largest wine barrel. “Built in 1196,” she notes. “Holds 50,000 gal. Stairs leading to top.” Imagine my surprise to learn that this German cultural icon, which I myself visited and photographed in 2015, had been on my grandparents’ itinerary sixty years earlier.

Grandma’s notebooks hold the promise of further tantalizing facts and memories. My ancestral duty to look into such things and, if possible, keep some of them alive in our communal recollection, is one of the joys of being in the “reducing” phase of life.

I’ll try to keep you posted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

On the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington. 

The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.” 

Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville. 

Train 18, The Super Chief – El Capitan, east of Streator, Illinois
on January 28, 1967. A Roger Puta Photograph. Public Domain.

George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station. 

“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked. 

 “All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.

“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”

“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.

George Washington raised an eyebrow.

“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”

“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”

“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”

The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.” 

Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.

“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?” 

“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”

“Ah,” said the old man. 

#

Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.

Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Memory as Fiction

The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.

In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington. 

No Risk Too Trivial

Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly  railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time. 

Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.

We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.

Black Porters

A. Philip Randolph, 1963. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and Sun.Public Domain.

Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.

Hazards of War

Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.

When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.

Weaving Tales

Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts. 

While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them herehere, and here.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Flock of Recall

The tagline of this blog is “seeking fresh meaning in our common past.” It’s my mission as a writer. I’m all about the past. Especially, I take an interest in how the past comes down to the present, and what that means to us.

Sometimes a mere object flushes a covey of memories like doves bursting from cover into sunlight. Who can say the meaning? One must be content to list the fowl of the past and let them perch where they will in the present.

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I rummaged through a box of old junk—some to scrap, some to keep. My 7-year-old grandson, Tristan, said, “Bapa, what’s this?” 

It was a lighter—the self-capping Ronson type, not the Zippo type. A handsome thing in silver and white, it touted the Galesburg Register-Mail, “A Better Newspaper.” The gizmo enthralled Tristan, who had never seen one. He is mechanically inclined and immediately discovered that this thing flips its lid with a satisfying click every time you push its lever. There was no other effect—no spark or flame—because the lighter had lost both flint and fluid long ago. But the mere action itself: that, Tristan loved.

Circulation

I explained that it was used to light cigarettes back when everybody smoked. And that the reason we have this item is that my great-uncle, Harry Young, was circulation manager of the Galesburg Register-Mail in those days. Tristan’s eyes scrunched up the way they do when he’s working something out, so I told him what a circulation manager does; that many boys, not much older than Tristan, were hired to fling papers on porches all over Galesburg, Illinois, a city of 35,000; and that Uncle Harry made sure enough boys were hired and told them which houses were to receive the news.

There was more to it than that. Uncle Harry had overall responsibility for getting the paper out to all its customers. When a delivery was missed, the phone rang in Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry’s house—in the middle of supper, for the Register-Mail was an afternoon rag. Uncle Harry usually had two or three spare copies on hand; so they would finish eating, get in the car, and drive the paper out to the stiffed subscriber. Then, if it was a nice summer evening, they might stop at Highlander’s for ice cream.

A Family Affair

In the late Forties, when I was a tot, my father attended Knox College on the GI Bill. Mom had a part-time job, but even so, we needed a bit more money. Uncle Harry hired Dad—that is, his niece Barb’s husband—to drive a Register-Mail route every afternoon to Bushnell, thirty miles south of Galesburg. All to make sure folks got their papers.

Aunt Jean worked as a secretary at the Register-Mail for a year or two after she graduated from Knoxville High School in 1952. I don’t know whether she worked in Circulation or elsewhere in the paper. In any case, being Harry Young’s niece was a good thing.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry were family favorites. Down-to-earth, droll, with no children of their own, they doted on my mother and her six younger siblings. And, by extension, on me, my sister, and our cousins. They took us swimming at Lake Bracken. They had the whole family over for fish fries after they made a good catch.

Nothing lasts forever. Uncle Harry, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to emphysema. The  loss devastated Aunt Bertha. She did not long survive him.

A Presence

Even after their passing, the Register-Mail went on. It remained a presence in our lives.

In the 1960s, I attended Knox College following my father’s footsteps. For spending money I  worked the lunch rush in a hamburger joint, Charlie Nash’s “Big Guy” restaurant. One day, a lunch customer made a strange remark about President Kennedy; but I had hung up my apron, was on my way out the door, did not stop to inquire.

I walked a block out of my way to pass the Register-Mail on my way back to campus. The printing plant had a huge front window, so townspeople could see the paper printed. Pressmen would crayon headlines on a big sheet of newsprint and tape it up in the window, a preview of the day’s edition. If the news about Kennedy was important, I would see it in the pressroom window.

No sheet hung on the pressroom glass. The presses were still. No employees to be seen working inside. 

“They killed him.”

I walked back to school puzzled. The silence was eerie. No cars moved, as far as I remember. Near Seymour Hall, the student union, I encountered one living soul—a history major I knew, Ray Gadke. Ray walked toward me, away from the union. “They killed him,” he said, tears in his eyes. He staggered on by. 

We had only one television on campus. It was a floor-model Sylvania with a fine wood cabinet and commanded form one corner the Seymour Lounge, a large room with lots of sofas and chairs. Students, professors, administrators, staff members occupied all the furniture, leaned on walls or pillars, sat on the floor. It was a scene of flowing tears, faces frozen in shock.

The sound was cranked all the way up. Martin Agronsky of NBC-TV News announced  that the president had died.

You know the rest, if you were alive then. If not, you have heard all about it all your life. No point rehashing it. It’s just that it comes up, inevitably, when a flock memories is flushed out by the mere mention of the Galesburg Register-Mail.

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Someday I’ll share all of these things with Tristan. He knows that Uncle Harry worked for the paper, managed the lads who delivered it across town; and that the lighter itself makes a delightful click. That’s enough for now. 

But we’ll hang on to the lighter, for the time being. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Carpe Diem, Illinois

Some of Wisconsin’s best writers hail from the Flatlands. Kristin A. Oakley is one of those.

Oakley’s novel Carpe Diem, Illinois (Little Creek Press, 2014) is a mystery, a suspense thriller, and a romance. Dashing but troubled reporter Leo Townsend hopes to save his career by taking on a ho-hum assignment to profile a small town, Carpe Diem, that is a haven for home schoolers. Just when Townsend arrives to interview the mayor, things in Carpe Diem are heating up, due to an auto crash involving a local activist and the wife of a crusading state senator.

In the process of investigating the town, Townsend finds himself also investigating the accident. The lives and fortunes of the town’s residents—particularly its young, “unschooled” citizens—hang in the balance. There are lots of thrills and twists, and along the way we learn about the philosophy known as “unschooling,” a form of education in which “the children determine what they need to learn, when they will learn it, and how they go about it.” 

Kristin A. Oakley

The book is well-written and moves at a brisk pace. The reader winds up cheering not only for Leo Townsend but also for various teen and adult denizens of Carpe Diem. If you like to examine important social and educational issues in context of suspense and high drama, you’ll enjoy Carpe Diem, Illinois.

Kristin Oakley, who now lives in Madison, was a founder of In Print professional writers’ organization, is a board member of the Chicago Writers’ Association, and teaches in the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies writing program. She is also the mother of two daughters who were home schooled. You can find more about her at https://kristinoakley.net

Carpe Diem, Illinois is the first book in the Leo Townsend series. The second, God on Mayhem Street, was released in August 2016. 

Happy reading!

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Not Idle Nor Wild

July 11, 1959: a sultry night all over the country, including Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

Photo of Wiffle® ball.
Wiffle® ball.

We played Wiffle® ball under the streetlight at 23rd Avenue and 68th Street. Dom and Loretta Forgianni, Sandy and Pat Johnson, my sister Cynda and me. Sometime after full dark, maybe nine-thirty, we broke it up and went inside.

Mounting the stairs to our second-floor flat above the Forgiannis, I heard an NBC staff voice—sonorous, gray, authoritative—interrupt regular programming to inform us, coast-to-coast, that a jet airliner was in serious trouble in the East. Pan American World Airways Flight 102, a Boeing 707, had dropped two of four wheels of its left main landing gear into the bay on its ascent from New York International Airport—then known as Idlewild, now JFK.

Prudence and Recklessness

The pilot requested at least three thousand feet of Runway 13R be spread with fire suppression foam. During the two hours it took to accomplish this, he circled the airport, burning as much jet fuel as possible to reduce chances of a catastrophic fire on landing. When foaming was complete, the plane flew another hour—burning fuel and preparing 102 passengers and eleven crew members for a possibly rough landing.

In New York, as in Kenosha, it was a hot summer night. Many thousands of bored New Yorkers drove out to Idlewild to view the spectacle. When airport access roads became blocked with traffic, drivers abandoned cars where they stood and swarmed over the runways and taxiways on foot. Idling and abandoned cars blocked roads needed by New York fire and police units attempting to converge on the airport. Those units that did get through combined with Port Authority police to corral the ambulatory thrill-seekers north of Taxiway Q, more than eight hundred feet from Runway 13R.

Down to Earth

Preparations were as complete as possible. With millions of us glued to our TV sets, the pilot touched down his right landing gear at 130 knots and full flaps, dropped the left side gingerly—with a shower of sparks as the sheared-off wheel strut met the runway—held the craft straight and true while blasting full reverse thrust, came to rest 1,200 feet short of the foamed area of the runway.

Cabin crew deployed emergency egress chutes immediately. Several passengers slid down them before responders cut them away and replaced them with portable stairs. All passengers deplaned in under three minutes. 

There was no fire. Hundreds of curiosity seekers encroached on the scene, refused to move back, and got sprayed away by a Port Authority fire truck. Four passengers were injured getting off the plane.

No grand explosion. Nobody died. The pilot was a hero. 

The Pilot Was Uncle Ed

My father’s oldest brother, then 44 years of age. The TV reported that around midnight. 

Edward Foster Sommers, born in 1914, graduated from high school in Knoxville, Illinois, then attended the University of Washington on a Naval ROTC scholarship. The U.S. Navy taught him to fly. Graduation made him a Naval Reserve officer. On November 29, 1939, he joined Pan American Airways as a co-pilot. After a stint flying Pan Am’s bread-and-butter routes in South America, he came to Oakland, California, in 1940 to fly the transpacific “Clipper” routes in Boeing B-314 “flying boats.” He, his wife Mary, and young daughter Elaine lived on a hillside in Oakland, a pleasant downhill drive to the seaplane harbor at Alameda, from which he flew. 

Boeing Model 314 flying boat docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ca. 1939-1940. National Air and Space Museum (NASM 85-14240), Smithsonian Institution.
            Boeing Model 314 flying boat at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ca. 1939-1940. National Air and Space Museum (NASM 85-14240), Smithsonian Institution.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Uncle Ed had a brush with Infamy as the Anzac Clipper he was flying inbound to Hawaii was forced to divert to Hilo. Its regular port, Pearl Harbor, had unusually heavy traffic that day. But that’s another story.

At the time of his spectacular landing at Idlewild, Uncle Ed was a captain, command pilot of the plane, with full responsibility for 113 lives. He had amassed 17,100 flying hours—not unusual for a professional pilot of two decades’ experience. Only 170 of his hours were in the Boeing 707, which had been in operational service less than eight months. 

Inerviewed soon after the landing, he said that despite the complex flight skills needed, he never doubted he would set the plane down safely. His main concern was that when the exposed strut touched the runway, the craft might “slew around sideways and take out a few hundred damned fools on the ground.”

Celebrity Passenger

A London-bound passenger on Flight 102 was movie director Otto Preminger. If Uncle Ed had not preserved this man’s life that night, we would not have had such motion pictures as Exodus, Advise and Consent, and Hurry Sundown. Or maybe we would have had them anyway—but not directed by Otto Preminger.

According to my cousin Steve, this was the first major incident for the 707. General details can be found in the pages of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s accident report here and here. A concise summary is also posted on the Facebook page of the Pan American Museum Foundation, Inc. 

Steely-eyed Heroes

Photo of Edward and Mary Sommers at the start of their marriage.
Edward and Mary Sommers

In a profile that appeared a day after the big event, the New York Times said Uncle Ed “demonstrated the steady, clearheaded qualities essential to the complete airman.” I think that’s about right. It would be a mistake, however, to think of him as the steely-eyed Robert Stack or John Wayne type that we all desire in a pilot. The real life Edward Sommers was ordinary. Though his career took him around the world—he and his family lived in Brazil, California, England, Germany, and New Jersey at various times—part of him was still the small-town boy from the flatlands of Illinois. He received at least his share of the dour, phlegmatic, mundane outlook that marks our family. Perfectly at home guiding a multi-million-dollar plane, he leaned on Mary, his charming wife, for the social niceties of life.

I imagine he relished the world’s adulation of this one particular instance of routine superlative performance at his chosen trade. Who doesn’t like recognition? But I also am certain Uncle Ed was glad to have his fifteen minutes of fame behind him. He continued flying for Pan Am until he reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 60, in 1975. His renowned employer went out of business in 1991. Mary having died some time earlier, he lived out his life as a gradually shrinking old man until his passing just a few years ago.

Need for Speed

One of his grandchildren told me of taking “Grandpa Ed” for a motorcycle ride during his later years. The old man perched on the rear fender, my second cousin (Uncle Ed’s namesake) drove cautiously until his grandfather—like many pilots, intoxicated by speed—said, “Let her rip, Eddie!” The bike then gobbled up a few miles on a rural highway at astoundingly illegal speeds, much to the old man’s delight. 

A few paragraphs above I said my uncle was dour, phlegmatic, and mundane—but I never said he was dull.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

The Unknown American

Squanto teaching. The German Kali Works, New York. Public Domain.

His name is known to most of us, but it’s unusual to hear it spoken, except around Thanksgiving. Each November, we briefly recall that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, thereby saving their colony from annihilation. We honor him for giving our English ancestors a warm welcome.

U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Tercentenary of the Plymouth Landing. Public Domain.

There are no true pictures of Squanto. Photography had not been invented; no artist drew him from life. The image above—adopted here mainly for its freedom from legal encumbrance—shows a man with intelligent eyes and open smile, demonstrating the use of fish to fertilize a planting. But Squanto’s story goes far beyond that. 

Our knowledge of history can be ten miles wide and one millimeter deep.

“So Squanto helped the Pilgrims get started when they landed at Plymouth. Why, for crying out loud, do we need to know more?” 

The Rest of the Story

It’s a fair question, and here’s the fair answer: The full story of Squanto informs us beyond the familiar triumphal tale of European colonization. We heirs of the Pilgrims should desire this information, not to dim the luster of our own history, but to remember it with wisdom and grace.

The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1877. Painting by Henry Bacon (1839-1912)

Squanto never aspired to be the native mentor to the Pilgrims. That role came about because when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in 1620, Squanto was already quite familiar with the English and even spoke their language.

Six years earlier, he and about twenty other young men of the Patuxet tribe had been snatched in one of many kidnappings by English explorers and freebooters ranging in those days up and down the Massachusetts coast. He was shipped across the Atlantic to Málaga, Spain. In Málaga he was freed by Spanish friars, or escaped on his own, or somehow avoided the life of slavery to which he had been consigned. He made his way—we know not how—to England, where he lived for some time in London.  

After a few years, he managed to return to Massachusetts with an English voyage of exploration. When he returned on foot, alone, to the site his old village, he found it abandoned. All of his people were dead or scattered to the winds.

“Virgin Soil Epidemic”

Squanto’s Patuxet tribe had been utterly wiped out by an illness that swept the Northeastern seaboard in those years. Because that illness did not afflict the many Englishmen and other Europeans mingling with the natives at that time, historians consider this great plague a “virgin soil epidemic.” The kind of epidemic that occurs when new disease organisms are brought by outsiders into the midst of a population which lacks prior exposure to them. Nobody knows for sure what single disease, or combination of diseases, rampaged the Massachusetts coast in those years, but the result was a region cleared of former inhabitants. Thus, when the Pilgrims in 1620 arrived on the Mayflower, in foul weather, desperate for a place to hunker down, there was a choice spot of land recently vacated: Squanto’s former home.

One could hardly blame Squanto had he showed hostility to new English settlers. Not only had he been abducted and forced into years of exile far from home, while his friends and family suffered extinction by disease. Many similar kidnappings and other atrocities had been worked upon the local inhabitants in the years preceding the Pilgrims’ landfall. Despite all this, Squanto befriended the Pilgrims.

Why?

Chief Massasoit and Governor John Carver smoke a peace pipe in 1621. Unknown artist. California State Library. Public Domain.

We would like to think the Pilgrims’ character, which stood out from these toxic relationships, vouched for them; that remaining Indian tribes, such as the Pokanoket under Chief Massasoit, discerned their peaceful and honorable intentions, well enough at any rate to trust them and form an alliance. In this context, Squanto was far from a “noble savage” who innocently befriended newcomers with a great white vessel and strange ways. Rather, he was a capable, worldly man, acquainted with European technology and customs. He consented—given his footloose status on his former soil—to become a kind of diplomat for the neighboring tribe in its calculated attempt to forge an alliance with the least-threatening and most promising band of Englishmen in the region. 

After about twenty months of generally satisfactory service in that role, Squanto himself succumbed to illness, leaving the Pilgrims bereft of one important man who had been their friend in adversity. Governor William Bradford, in Of Plimoth Plantation, writes approvingly of Squanto and his influence on the young colony.

Stone marking the spot of King Philip’s death, placed by the Rhode Island Historical Society more than two hundred years later. Photo by Swampyank. Public Domain.

Squanto was a complex individual. The Pilgrims were, like many of us, saints but also sinners. Chief Massasoit and other Native Americans sought to advance their own interests. Latter-day champions of the Pilgrims and other Puritans who poured into Massachusetts starting in 1630 point out that the lands occupied by these English immigrants were acquired in fair, legal purchases, duly recorded in colonial archives. It is also true that white European immigrants—legal niceties aside—began to displace the original inhabitants of the land, who retreated ever further westward. This trend eventuated in King Philip’s War of 1675-76, the first real “Indian War” fought in the English colonies. More than 600 colonists were killed; thousands of Native Americans were killed or displaced. The ultimate effect was the continued advance of English civilization and progressive decimation of the American Indian population.

A present-day family poses with historical interpreters portraying its Pilgrim ancestors at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts.  “pallattos with ancestors” by drain is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

The Moral of the Story

Nobody can undo the past. The people of the past had their own motives, praiseworthy and otherwise, for everything they did. Wisdom for us in the present requires owning the full truth of the past in all its messy–sometimes inconvenient–complexity.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memoir-ization

We’ve all got a good memoir or reminiscence book buried inside us. It’s quite another thing to actually get it out on paper, virtual or real, in any useful form. Because it requires selectivity. Unless you’re a major public figure, the world probably doesn’t need your autobiography. But it might not be able to resist your own take on the choicest bits.

That’s why there is so much to admire in what my friend, Michael Bourgo, has done. His memoir, Once Upon a Time: Growing Up in the 1950s, delivers exactly what the title claims—the experience of childhood in that now-legendary era from which so much of today’s pop culture—Happy DaysBack to the Future Leave it to Beaver—derives.

Unlike Hollywood’s version, however, Michael’s version has the smack and tang of real events as lived in a particular person’s life. That person happens to be a warm, engaging old man recounting oodles of details from a long-ago period of his life. The struggles of a young family trying to get a start in a dynamic yet unpredictable postwar economy; the thrill of shopping at Marshall Field’s in Chicago’s Loop and dining at one of that elegant store’s six on-site restaurants; the satisfaction of showing up at summer camp self-contained and not dependent on a helicopter mom (yes, they had them in those days, too!) to unpack one’s footlocker. 

Most of us, when we go to write a memoir, get overwhelmed by the imperative of sharing everything we have experienced—because every bit of it is significant to us, and we are sure that if we simply spray it out in its entirety, our own deep appreciation of each detail will transfer automatically to the mind of the reader. That is a delusion.

Write for the Reader, Not the Author

What readers want is information that is in some way new and significant to them—not a catalog of what is old and significant to the author. While trotting out an abundance of details from his amazing memory, Michael Bourgo always respects the reader’s need to get something surprising and interesting from the narrative. He also knows when to quit. This never becomes a recitation of everything that happened in the author’s life. He knows that what is significant, that today’s people might need or want to know, has to do with childhood in the Fifties. He sticks to that subject.

Jerry Mathers as The Beaver. ABC Television. Public Domain.

With a format composed of solid chapters arranged on chronological and topical lines, alternating with page-long poems that shed further light on matters already covered in prose, Michael gives us a credible understanding of life in the Fifties, one that goes well beyond the stereotypical adventures of Beaver, Wally, and Eddie Haskell. 

For example, describing the ritual of young boys getting haircuts in those days: “There was another side to Ken’s [barber shop]. . . . My brother, always a more astute observer than I, figured it out when he was in high school. One day he overheard a strange exchange between a patron and one of the barbers, and he realized they were using some sort of code to set up a wager. So, in addition to cutting hair, Ken’s was also a front for a bookie operation that handled bets on sports. No doubt this was a service that many citizens found useful because in those days there were only two places to place a legal bet—at a horse track or in Las Vegas.” (I also, Dear Reader, patronized that kind of a barber shop as a boy. But I only got my hair cut.) 

Those of us who lived through the times Michael Bourgo describes will recognize many of our own experiences in his narrative; and we will encounter other episodes, foreign to our own experience, that reflect the broad range of life lessons disclosed to members of different families in different places. 

For readers who did not arrive on the scene before the Fifties finally petered out (around 1965), this well-balanced and life-affirming memoir will showcase a whole new world in richness and nuance—a world that Marty McFly would never find in his DeLorean.

I recommend Once Upon a Time: Growing Up in the 1950s to anyone who would like to re-live the era through a different set of eyes, and also to anyone who would like to experience it for the first time as it really was—not just as shown on TV.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Purple Snow

When geezers gather, the gab gets garrulous. There is boasting value in extremes. 

“We were so poor that the patches on our jeans, had patches on their jeans!” 

“What! . . . You had jeans?”

Tales of poverty can still score points, but people who remember the Great Depression are mostly gone. So the extremest thing most of us can conjure these days is the weather. 

Sling psychrometer. CambridgeBayWeather. Public Domain.

Eco-warriors among us—whippersnappers!—construe any bump in the barometer, any thump in the thermometer, any slump in the sling psychrometer as a harbinger of the woe we are to reap from Global Warming. Well, maybe.

I can say this for sure: Nobody ever weathered weather like the weather we weathered, back in The Old Days. Gathered geezers may tell of the Terrible Winter of 1935-36, the Great Floods of ’93, the Summer That It Rained Alligator Eggs, or the Year With No Summer Atall. You never know, Dear Reader, when you may find yourself swamped in a five-hundred-year flood of such remembrances.

Winter of Purple Snow

When I mention the Winter of the Purple Snow, people look askance. When I claim that, actually, every winter in The Old Days was a winter of purple snow, a ceiling-mounted wide-angle lens would show a frenzy of Brownian motion away from me and toward the exits.

But it’s all true, every word. We did have purple snow, at least in Streator, Illinois, where my boyhood was misspent. Other cities must have had it, too. 

Each winter, the snow tumbled down in December—pure, fluffy, altogether white. Over the next three days, the snow on the ground—not the snow in my backyard, but the snow on every city street—became empurpled. The cause of purple snow is easiest to explain in retrospect: Snow tires had not yet been invented.

“So, ‘no snow tires’ equals purple snow?” Exactly.

In these apocalyptic times—even as we face continual peril from CNN-scale floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and disaster films—one thing we no longer worry about, much, is sideways slippage on winter streets. All our cars wear radial tires. Radial tires slump a bit. This increases the surface that contacts the road, thus improves traction. Those who like to gild the lily may put on special “winter radial tires” in the fall. They have a deeper, more “road-gripping” tread design in addition to the famous radial slump. Most of us don’t feel a need for this. But before radial tires were invented, deep-tread “snow tires” were better than nothing. 

However, in the 1950s, we didn’t even have those. There were only regular bias-ply or belted-bias tires. No special deep tread, no radial slump. They just perched on the ice and slid this way or that. In heavy snow, you might put messy, inconvenient “tire chains” on your tires. These were circular cages, made of interlinked chains, that enveloped each tire. They bit into the snow and ice. If you had to climb a long hill in the country, you needed chains. But on city streets that were half snow-covered and half clear, as is often the case, those chains chewed up the pavement, the tires, and themselves. So you didn’t use them any more than you had to.

“Where,” you ask, “is all this headed? Have you forgotten about the purple snow?” Stay with me, Kind Reader.

We needed something short of chains to help tires grip the street—especially at intersections, where most winter crashes occur. Sand would have been  dandy. But why use expensive sand, when  you can get crunchy, gritty cinders free of charge? This thrifty solution appealed to the city fathers in Streator and, I’ve got to believe, elsewhere.

Coal

You see, our houses were heated by coal. In Illinois, Mother Nature, 350 million years ago, had buried a generous layer of bituminous coal not far underground.

There are three forms, or “ranks,” of coal: anthracite, bituminous, and lignite. Lignite is brown, not much harder than the peat burned by poor Irish cottagers and rich Scottish distillers. Anthracite is hard, black, almost-a-diamond coal that’s mined in Pennsylvania. Bituminous is harder lignite but not as hard as anthracite. In other words, it is just right—not too hard, not too soft. Goldilocks would have used it in her furnace, for sure.

One ton of bituminous coal cost about five dollars—1950s dollars, that is. About fifty bucks in today’s money, so it wasn’t as cheap as it sounds. But if you could heat your house halfway through the winter on fifty dollars—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Bituminous coal was useful, abundant, and cheap.

But “O! The horror!” Did not all this burning coal cause sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, toxic metal residues, acid rain, air pollution, and so forth? Why, yes. It did. That is why we have air-quality regulations now, why the coal industry looks for low-sulfur deposits. It’s also why most coal-burning homes converted to gas, oil, or electric in the 1960s and ’70s. Through a combination of governmental action and industry initiatives, air and water in most places is cleaner now than it was in the 1950s.

Even in the Fabulous Fifties, however, pollution from coal was not very bad—in most places. It was quite bad in some heavy industrial corridors. But for most of us, the worst side effect was a thin film of soot on our walls. 

“Spring cleaning” in those days meant something very particular. Our mothers each April removed coal dust from every interior wall. This was not a happy task that added joy to Mom’s relentless mission of caring for her family. My mother seemed to regard it as an irksome chore. But it must be done, and done it was.

Casey Stengel. Public Domain.

She bought wall-cleaning putty at the hardware store. She rubbed it over the wall surface, then pulled it out, folded it over to expose clean putty, rubbed again. At the end we had clean walls. Plus many little balls of soiled putty to throw away. When homeowners abandoned coal, the makers of wall-cleaning putty added bright colors to the stuff and called it “Play-Doh.” That’s right, they did. (As Casey Stengel might say if he were alive today, “You could Google it.”)

“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PURPLE SNOW?”

How to Be a Kid, 1950s Edition

When I was seven, Dad introduced me to my first regular chore—stoking the furnace. The furnace lived in the basement. It was a huge cylinder with ducts about a foot in diameter that sprouted all directions from its head. The main chamber and all the ducts were padded with asbestos insulation. (See “O! The horror!” above.)

Bituminous coal filled a room near the furnace, called “the coal bin.” Two or three times a year, the coal deliverymen would pour a ton of coal down a metal chute into the coal bin through a basement window.

Our coal came in rough lumps the size of a baseball or softball. It was shiny and black. You could break a lump in two with your bare hands. This exposed the striations of the rock. Sometimes it also exposed a fossil—the outline of a small leaf, for example—that had been trapped in the coal back in the Pennsylvanian Age of geology.

Coal was lightweight, for a rock. It was friable; when you handled it, you got greasy black dust on your hands. I scooped it from the coal bin with a giant shovel, set it in the furnace on top of the coal already aflame there. I had to make sure the new coal caught flame, augmented the fire and did not smother it. 

Then I shook down the grates. (Purple snow coming up, Gentle Reader!) Two metal handles protruded from the furnace below the coal door. I rattled these handles; dead ashes and cinders fell through the grates into a hopper below. Once a week we shoveled ashes and cinders—also called “clinkers”—out of the furnace. We carried them to the alley behind our house in a five-gallon can. When the garbage men came by to collect our refuse, they dumped our ashes and clinkers into a separate compartment on their truck. 

They collected these materials from every alley in the city. The product, as donated by householders, was a mix of fine, white fly ash and dense, iridescent clinkers. The city washed the fly ash away, leaving the clinkers—small, irregular rocks of metallic slag. A single clinker could be round, bulbous, sharp, jagged—all at the same time. They were multi-hued, but dominated by purple, blue, green, and pink.

The Empurplement of Streator, Illinois

When snow blanketed city streets, crews dumped these clinkers on every intersection for traction. Every passing car crushed them into smaller pieces. Periodically the city replenished the clinkers at the intersections. 

Voilà! Purple snow. This image is a modern re-enactment, because I only had black-and-white film for my Brownie camera in those days. And besides, purple snow was so normal that nobody would have thought to photograph it. “purple snow” by TORLEY is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Numberless bits of cinder got dragged down the street—transferred from interesections to tires, then deposited in mid-street, in driveways, in alleys, even on sidewalks. By mid-winter, all streets were festooned with purple snow, colored by the powdered residued of our furnace clinkers. It ranged from bright purple-pink to a dull brown slush with just a bit of rosiness. 

Snow melts; cinders remain. They lay in small, sharp bits, in gutters and on sidewalks. They formed a light coat over asphalt schoolyards and potholed alleys. They lay in wait for innocent childen.

Cinders paved athletic running tracks before the invention of GrassTex, Tartan Track, AstroTurf. Sprinters and middle-distance runners got cinders in their low-cut track shoes, chewing up their feet. Or they fell on the track and embedded tiny chunks of metal under their skin.

The same hazard faced every child who strapped on a pair of roller skates or drove a tricycle pell-mell along uneven sidewalks while clad in short pants and tee shirts. Nobody escaped. Some kids had cinders embedded so deep that years later you could still find the black speck in cheek, knee, or elbow where the projectile had burrowed in.

Was anybody killed or maimed by these clinkers?

Come on. We were made of sterner stuff.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer