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 

A Fine View of the Lake

Daisy smiled at the uniformed operator, an old black man, as she and about twenty well-dressed men and women squeezed into the car, closer together than decent folks ought, even in this new century. Or maybe decency was different here. Still, she would not let the yoke of her new sailor-style blouse get crushed on her first full day in Chicago.

The door clanged shut. The operator moved his handle and the car rose, pushing up on the soles of Daisy’s feet. She had ridden an elevator before. The Palmer House, where she and her parents were staying, had one. But this one, in the Montgomery Ward office building, scaled a full twenty-five stories—and Daisy was determined to ride it clear to the top.

She floated almost off her feet as the driver slowed to let a man off at the fourth floor. He cranked the handle to bring the car up even with the approaching floor, his bright smile never dimming. The serious man in the gray suit got off, brandishing papers. The operator pulled the door shut and started the car hurtling upward again. Daisy tried to act nonchalant. 

Most of her fellow passengers stayed on. They were going where she was going: the observation deck, under the ornate pyramid, lantern, and statue at the peak of the tower.

They reached the twenty-fifth floor and the operator opened the door. The crowd around her dispersed and headed for the large observation windows. Daisy stood stunned with wonder. Light flooded in from huge windows all around. Near the elevator stood a sales counter, where ladies sold sandwiches, soft drinks, and souvenirs. How could Daisy have guessed, when ordering goods from  Montgomery Ward’s catalog, that her custom supported all this grandeur? 

After hours of gawking at the spectacle spreading out beyond Chicago to all points of the compass—most especially the endless blue, coruscating expanse of Lake Michigan to the east—she left the windows and visited the sales counter. She was not hungry. The sandwiches did not even look good; better food would be on offer back at the hotel. Still, she wanted to buy something. She wanted to spend a little money here, at the pinnacle of American commerce. 

Cheap trinkets were on display—mostly little molded replicas of the building itself. Wholly inadequate, and pointless besides. Then she spotted a rack of photographs. Some were side-by-side stereopticon views, others simple postal cards. But sepia and white could not capture the magic of the view. One of the cards, however, was a line drawing of the building itself. Now she recalled that Cousin Millie had begun collecting postal cards. 

Daisy put down ten cents—outrageous!—to buy one of the cards that showed the building. “For only twenty-five cents more,” said the saleswoman, “our calligrapher will inscribe an elegant, rhymed message on it for you.” She pointed to a woman at a writing desk, who smiled and chatted as she wrote on a customer’s card.

“No, thank you.” Daisy smiled. When she got back to the Palmer House, she would pen her own thoughts to Cousin Millie. 

A fictionalized account of true events.

Daisy’s postcard to Cousin Millie. From my grandmother’s collection.

Deltiology

 Professor Randall Rhoades of Ashland, Ohio, coined the word “deltiology” in 1945 to mean the study and collection of postcards. But my grandmother, Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers (1889-1971), was done with the hobby eight years before it was named. Grandma was always ahead of her time.

Mail Order Headquarters

The earliest card in Grandma’s collection made it through the mail without a postmark, but the sender dated it by hand: July 27, 1906. The card shows a corner view of the Montgomery Ward & Co. Building in Chicago, “one of the largest commercial buildings in the world.” Several electric streetcars navigate the intersection of North Michigan Avenue and East Madison Street; a couple of early automobiles are also depicted. But most of the traffic in the picture is pedestrians, cyclists, or horse-drawn commercial wagons. 

Ward’s was the first big mail-order catalog and department store retailer and operated  for 129 years, from 1872 to 2001. The headquarters building on Grandma’s postcard was designed by architects Schmidt, Garden, and Martin and was built in 1898. It was superseded as corporate headquarters in the 1920s but survives to this day—minus its ornate pyramidal cap. In fact, you can rent the penthouse apartment at the top of its now-truncated tower for $20,000 a month. (Good location.)

Write on the Picture, Please

Grandma was unmarried, a few days shy of seventeen, when she received the Montgomery Ward postcard, with its message: “How are you by this time? I am up in this tower twenty five stories high. The view over the lake is so fine I can hardly leave it. I am going home next Tuesday. Give my love to Lizzie and John and all the children. Daisy.” 

“Lizzie and John” referred to Grandma’s parents. I have no idea who Daisy, the writer, was, but in the fictional vignette above I have made her out to be a young cousin from downstate, about Millie’s age but traveling, probably for the first time, to Chicago. 

Daisy had to write her message in the blank areas on the front of the card, along with the picture, because postal regulations reserved the entire back of the card for the address. The Postmaster General hadn’t figured out picture postcards yet. The following year he changed the rules, dividing the back side of the card into two spaces, one for address and the other for message. Thus began the modern age of postcards.

Social Media

In Grandma’s heyday, picture postcards were a novelty but also filled a real need. They were social media, the perfect way to send a bit of chatter to a friend, just to let her know you’re thinking of her.

“Hello! This is what they call Lovers Lane. How would you like this for a change. How is Billie—Ta Ta.”

“Hello Millie—How did you enjoy the 4th. Myrtle.” 

Many messages, different in content but similar in spirit, adorn the rest of Grandma’s saved cards, from 1906 to 1937, when the collection ends. In her early years Grandma was a shrinking violet, so she would have doubly appreciated all these sociable greetings from friends. Maybe that’s why she kept them.

Speedy Delivery

Mail was efficient. On every fast passenger train, U.S. postal employees stood through the night in a swaying mail car or “Railway Post Office,” sorting letters and cards by hand even as the train carried them toward their destinations. Mail almost always arrived the next day—unless it was sent across the whole country, in which case it might take two or three days. Airmail service would not begin until 1918, and then at a significant extra cost.

Sorting mail on the rails. USPS photo.

In 1906 a postcard cost one cent to mail and a first-class letter two cents. When I was a child in the 1950s, the “penny postcard” was still in use, but letters had gone up to three cents. They went to four cents in 1958; since then rates have increased every two to five years, except for one small decrease in 2016.

Home Town Boosters

The art on postcards became more and more captivating. Monochrome gave way to color; color gave way to better color; and many of the cards became downright artistic. 

When people traveled to exotic places—Chicago, Omaha, Denver, or Seattle—they sent postcards to show the home folks their experience. “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.” But picture postcards showcased the wonders of every city, county, town, and hamlet. So you could say “Hi” with a postcard of your local bank, park, or grain elevator. By making contact with your friend in another city or state, you also boosted your own hometown’s image. 

Even when folks stayed at home and sent postcards of purely local wonders, I imagine Grandma was glad to get them.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author