Dates to Live By

I was born June 12, 1945. Two months later, Japan surrendered. 

The surrender of Japan. Army Signal Corps photographer LT. Stephen E. Korpanty; restored by Adam Cuerden – Naval Historical Center Photo # SC 213700. Public Domain.

That matter settled, I turned my attention to trying out my body parts, learning my native tongue, and getting acquainted with my family. These experiments engrossed me fully until about 1950, at which point I noticed . . . everything else.

Our world in those days was simple and straightforward. We knew where we stood. If March came in like a lion, it would go out like a lamb. The Brooklyn Dodgers would play the New York Yankees in the World Series. You couldn’t go swimming in the summer for fear of polio.

My Castle of Knowledge and Experience. Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash.

Beyond such truths, whole reams of information settled in my skull, etching deep lines to form a kind of blueprint of reality—upon which, eventually, I would build a castle of knowledge and experience. My castle was not unique. My friends and schoolmates all built similar castles. 

Holidays, Seasons, Rituals

The columns, ribs, and stays of the castle were holidays, seasons, and rituals ordained by society at large. These recurring festivals buttressed a remarkably durable structure of life.

The year kicked off on New Year’s Day, with multi-hued bowls—Rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar. The Groundhog was pure myth. He never saw his shadow, nor did we ever see him not see his shadow.

The Groundhog. Photo by Ralph Katieb on Unsplash.

But then came a real holiday—Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. Lincoln was  one of our two greatest presidents. He had a beard and a kindly smile. (I learned later that he also led our nation through its darkest days.) 

The other great presidential birthday was George Washington’s on February 22. Washington did not have to wear a beard to be great. As Father of Our Country he was an automatic qualifier. 

May basket. “may basket” by brambleroots is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The birthdays of our greatest two presidents were important enough to cancel school, when they fell on weekdays. Such holidays—our national birthright—were never devolved upon the nearest Monday, as they are now in exchange for that mess of pottage known as a long weekend.

Between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays fell Valentine’s Day, a time for exchanging sappy cards with your classmates. We also observed Easter and April Fool’s Day, but they did not leave the impression on me that May 1 did. It was called May Day, and it was wonderful. Egged on by mothers and teachers, we made baskets of colored paper, filled them with flowers, and gave them to our friends in a stealthy manner. You snuck up to the door, hung a basket of flowers on its handle, rang the bell, ran away, and hid, so you could peek out from a safe place to see your friend’s surprise and awe when they found the flowers.

We had May Day and its merry hijinks. Today’s kids have cell phones, X-Boxes, powered scooters, and Pokemon (whatever that may be). Who is richer?

“Decoration Day”

At the end of May came Decoration Day, a time to go to the cemetery and bedeck the graves of our loved and lost. Originally, the idea was to honor the War Dead, but by the time I came along, all but the most disreputable dead had their graves strewn with flowers indiscriminately. After decorating graves in the morning, there came a big parade down Main Street. By the time that concluded in mid-afternoon, the Big Race was on—the Indianapolis 500, which was always run on May 30, Memorial Day.

We watched the race on the radio. Four announcers cried the tidings of roadsters swooping through each turn. After more than three hours of whining engine noise, the winner crossed the line, to receive a bottle of champagne and a kiss from a Hoosier lovely. Your ears could smell the gasoline fumes. 

Decoration Day was an informal name for Memorial Day. The whole pageant has long since been moved to Monday Nearest, like most other holidays.

Independence Day

Thank God we still celebrate Independence Day on July 4, regardless when it falls in the week. This exemption from the Monday Nearest rule shows that the Fourth is one of our most sacred holidays—like that other exemption, Christmas. July 4 is sacred, of course, because it is the nominal date of our Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819. Public Domain.

Why is Independence Day, July 4, celebrated so much more intensely than Constitution Day, September 17? Isn’t the Constitution the basis of our laws? Yes, but the Declaration was the basis of our country. The 1776 phrase “all men are created equal,” and the notion that government’s job is to protect our rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—have always meant more to us than the details inked in 1789. 

The Declaration became paramount before and during the Civil War. Lincoln’s powerful rhetoric was based on the simple notions of the Declaration, not the complex compromises of the Constitution. 

Hence all the fireworks.

Downhill to Winter

After July 4, the year is mostly downhill. Labor Day, recognized by Congress in 1894 to honor the American labor movement, is the only holiday originally fixed on a Monday, that labor might be ennobled by a day off work. 

In urban areas with strong unions, it became a major feast, with marches, picnics, speeches, and political activism. Such was not the case in the small Midwestern towns of my youth. Labor Day was just a welcome day of loafing or, in my case, the last day before school started.

Columbus Day, another reprieve from school, occurred on October 12. We learned that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Latter-day scholars have pointed out that Columbus, in his thirst for gold, enslaved the Arawak natives on the island of Hispaniola and established a pattern of exploitation that has shamed the Western Hemisphere from that time to this. But we learned none of that. He was just the Discoverer of America—which is a good thing, right?

On the night of October 31, rigged out in costumes from our mothers’ fertile imaginations, we gave considerable attention to the process of shaking down our neighbors for candy. There were goblins and ghosts, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone trying to scare the living daylights out of small children, as has become the practice since then.

“Get Your Deer?”

The fourth Thursday in November was Thanksgiving, probably the most delicious holiday of the year. Here in Wisconsin, Thanksgiving falls in the midst of Deer Season, so the festivities sometimes take a back seat to the hunt—at least for those who have not got their buck yet. 

When I was a child in downstate Illinois, deer were not that plentiful, the deer hunt was not of widespread interest, and we focused on ritual re-enactments of the Pilgrims Story—plus, of course, eating turkeys. The central rite of Thanksgiving Day was the Big Football Game, broadcast in mid-afternoon. Regardless of who the combatants were, this was a pretty important game, because Thanksgiving occurred just at the point when the college and pro football seasons were getting serious. The hunt for championships was in the air. 

But in those days, it could be hard to follow that hunt, because our black-and-white television screens were sicklied o’er with electronic “snow.” This virtual precipitation further obscured the action on a gridiron already vexed with actual, meteorological, snow. And mud, of course—because Astroturf was still only a gleam in the eye of Mister Astro.

Guy Lombardo. Photo by Mauice Seymour. Public Domain.

Christmas came but once a year, a month after Thanksgiving. It made a fitting end to the year, the best holiday of all. Because of all the TOYS. Only later in life did I learn that the thing that made Christmas sweet was that the whole family got together. That was better than all the toys. I wish I’d known that when I was six.

There was, technically, one holiday after Christmas: New Year’s Eve, December 31. But, unless you happened to be one of Mister Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, I would seriously advise you to skip it. Too many drunks on the road.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer 

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part II

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets]. 

Grandma’s Narrative:

I was the oldest at home, and was more of a homebody, not caring so much for getting out and tearing around as some liked to do.

Grandma at 18

There was always plenty to do at home outside of school hours, and then we didn’t have automobiles those days to race around in. We had parties of different kinds quite often especially in the winter. When they were out of town we often went in bob-sleds—a farm wagon bed on sled runners, with straw in the bottom to sit on.

Of course there were dances, but I didn’t care for them, and my folks didn’t like them either.

They were mostly public dances in a hall, and some not very nice to go to.

They didn’t have dances in schools & for teenagers as they do today.

Roller Skates and Old Maid Decks

Then Roller skates came in & as we had no cement walks those days, the skating rinks were in a hall or opera House. Very few had their own skates, whoever operated the rinks had skates for rent.

I was never very good at it, but I always went and tried. But ice skating was simply out for me. I was too clumsy or too big a coward or Something.

19th Century Old Maid deck. Public Domain.

My father was never a very religious man, but he never would allow a deck of cards in the house, even a deck of “Old Maid” as was popular then.

So I never learned to play cards & didn’t care enough for it to play much, or try to learn.

At school we played BaseBall, jumped rope, drop the Handkerchief etc. (I expect you think “Some Fun”)

In summer & fall when the leaves came down, we would rake the leaves into ridges or walls for the houses we would layout, marking off rooms etc. This was mostly the girls games. We also played hide & seek quite a bit in the evening, and caught lightning bugs under the street lights.

When some cousins or neighbors came to visit in the evening, especially in the winter, we kids would play what we called “Dark Room,” which was Hide & Seek in the comparatively dark bedrooms or other unoccupied rooms. It was a lot of fun but I wouldn’t have liked my children playing that game, as the rooms were not very presentable when we were through, as we crawled over & under beds and other furniture etc.

Avid Reader

My one enjoyment was reading, and I had a little trouble with my eyes. The folks would hide any books I was reading, but I usually dug something out to read. My grandmother [Johnanna Marie Elizabeth Nybro Gunstenson Reierson Anson] lived next door at the time, and she was as much of a reader as I was. Of course they didn’t have magazines and librarys in most every town as they do now. 

One day she bro’t out some magazines that were yellow with age, but they surely had a lot of good stories in them. I don’t know where she got them, but she had a lot of them & would bring out a few at a time. So I had a “Field Day” for quite awhile. She came from Norway, but these were American magazines.

My younger brothers and sisters cared for a few different things that I did not.

But as I write it, it seems like practically nothing compared to what they have today, but we never knew about anything else, so we were satisfied.

Organic Entertainment

We always had an organ, a reed organ as practically everybody had. We didn’t have pianos at that time.

1882 advertisement for Beatty’s Parlor Organs. Public Domain.

My mother taught me a few pieces to play by ear when I was quite young, long before I was of school age. & soon I could play practically anything by ear, or rather any tunes I had ever heard.

Then one day while looking in the instruction book I accidentially [sic] caught on as to how the notes were placed on the scale & what it all meant. So after that I played also by note. None of my sisters or brothers ever learned to play much.

I have always played in churchs [sic], Sunday Schools, School etc. without ever having taken a lesson.

I never have learned the pipe organ & very little on Electric organs, tho I have always wanted to, and still do.

Household Chores

Being oldest of the family, I naturally learned to cook & sew very well & did most of the sewing for the family. Those days we couldn’t go to the store & buy ready-made clothes as we do today.

But I never cared too much for sweeping, dusting etc. I would rather do outside work, such as shoveling snow, carrying coal, wood etc. and as my brothers were a lot younger than I, I could always do that. One thing I remember that I had forgotten about, where a short time ago something in a paper mentioned the fact that when we set the table, we always turned the plates upside down over the knife, fork & spoon. I think maybe on account of dust etc. as we usually left them on the table from meal to meal along with salt, pepper, Sugar, vinegar etc. which were in a caster (a sort of merry-go-round) which was in the Center of the table & was high and would hold up the Cover.

We always covered the table with a thin white cloth or a mosquito bar or something.

Feel the Burn

We usually had a summer kitchen for summer use, as we had no gas, electricity, or even kerosene stoves at that time.

We would move the kitchen stove out there every spring, unless we had two stoves as some had.

But it was nice to get the stove out of the way so we didn’t have to look at it in hot weather.

Corn cobs. Photo by Krish Dulal, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Then there was usually a rag carpet, which had to be taken up each spring & cleaned.

We burned quite a lot of corn cobs in the summer as they made a quick fire & would cool down quickly when we were done with it.

Later we had a kerosene stove, and then a gasoline stove. That was something! but a lot of people were afraid of them.

There were no furnaces in those days. As for heating stoves, they were also moved out and in, spring & fall, or at least set back in the corner, and decorated a little during the summer. These burned coal or wood.

1888 Advertisement for a gasoline “vapor stove.” Public Domain.

Then there was the Base Burner which was a large heating stove, with small squares of ising glass [sic] all around, through which the fire glowed and looked real nice. They burned hard or anthracite coal with very little smoke or soot.

We didn’t always have transportation of our own but our grandparents lived near, on a near farm at first, then in Middletown they lived next door. So we went with them quite often. Of course we didn’t go places like folks do now a days, and if we went to Springfield or some place farther, we went on the train. To go to Greenview (10 miles) on the train we had to change in Petersburg. But we went that way every once in a while.

While living in the country, we went to Church & Sunday School sometimes at a Country Church.

Then there were always Decoration Day services at the Cemetery about 2½ miles from town.

There was a speakers stand, and they would take an organ out from town. I sometimes played the organ at these services. Later when a band was organized they played too.

Then on 4th of July we usually went to Greenview. They had a large grove there at the edge of town, and there would be a program. Everyone took a picnic lunch, but I can’t remember that there were any tables. They just spread the lunch on the ground.

The water supply was in large barrels, set around the grove. There was ice in them, and about a dozen tin cups fastened to the barrel with long chains, and eveyone drank. (Real sanitary)

They also had fireworks, but of course not as elaborate as they have today. But we all had firecrackers, sparcklers [sic] etc.

Next Week: All the Comforts of a 19th Century Home

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author