The Units

Daddy’s friend Clark drove standing up. That’s the first thing I noticed. “That’s how milk trucks are,” he explained. “You have to drive standing up.” I was still amazed at this when we arrived at the circus. 

A three-ring circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. Public Domain image from State Archives of Florida, published under Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 license.

There in the gathering darkness: a big tent on a dusty lot. We sat high up and saw people called “acrobats” fly through the air and drop into a big, bouncy net. And there came a little car that drove around the three circus rings and dropped off clowns, one by one—at least a dozen of them. The little truck, by some magic, seemed to to have an inexhaustible supply of clowns. 

A milk truck. You had to stand up. “DSC_5874” by improbcat is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 .

Clark drove the milk truck but did not own it. He was not a regular milkman. He was a college student like Daddy. He drove an early morning milk route for extra cash and could use the truck in off hours.

It was 1949; I was four. We lived in The Units—three or four rows of jerry-built shacks on the campus of Knox College. Each unit, one of three connected side by side, had a kitchen, a bath, a small livingroom, and two small bedrooms. Each unit housed a mommy, a daddy, and one or two very young children.

The occupants were families of war veterans attending college on the newly-enacted GI Bill. We moved in when I was three months old, in September 1945, and left in June 1949, not long after Daddy took me to the circus. 

Special Bond

The families who lived in The Units shared a special bond and a certain kind of outlook. The men were college students, the women housewives. They were all, on average, four or more years older than the typical entering freshman. They were householders, married, with young children. The usual campus hijinks of the era held no charm for them. They had their own hijinks. 

They were more serious men, you see, having just fought a war. Yet, like all students everywhere, they sometimes put studies on the back burner, accepting lower grades as a  reasonable price for the rich social life of The Units. That social life included beer, cigarettes, the needs of their toddlers, and late-night bridge games.

The family next door, with whom we shared a wall, was Bud and Helen Steele and their daughter Heather. Helen and Bud played bridge with Mommy and Daddy most nights in their place or ours. When the visiting couple got the contract, the one who was dummy got up and ran next door to check on the ostensibly sleeping child. Bud, whose name was Virgil, was a wiry man with a ready smile, from a family that farmed just south of Galesburg. Helen was a fresh-faced and friendly young woman from Saskatchewan. I don’t know how they managed to find each other, but they made a great match. They remained fast friends with our family long after The Units and until their dying days. My younger sister and I still keep in touch with Heather and her siblings, Hugh and Linelle.

Diversions and Hijinks

One of the men in The Units sought to beautify the little patch of green grass in front of his place by planting two or three sapling trees. Several of his colleagues, by dark of night, dug up the trees and, perhaps inspired by the beer, re-planted them upside-down.

Iceman and children. German Federal Archives, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Life was likewise fun for us tots. A small pack of us roamed The Units, outdoors in almost any weather, older ones picking on younger ones. In summer the iceman came twice a week. Our iceboxes had to be replenished with large blocks of ice, which were slid into the upper compartment to cool the meat, butter, eggs, and milk in the lower compartment. The iceman used black wrought-iron tongs to lug these ice blocks into our kitchens. We kids waited beside the iceman’s idling truck until he came out, tongs empty, to get another ice-cake. Then the boldest of us, Dale Price, begged ice chips from the iceman. He gave us each a two- or three-inch sliver of ice to hold in our hands, very cold under the hot sun. You had to brush dirt and sawdust off the ice chip. Then you sucked on it for as long as you could stand, dropped it, and ran off to play another game. 

It may not sound like much, Gentle Reader; but for us it was a treat.

One time Dale Price drank turpentine from an old Campbell’s soup can my mommy had left on the back stoop, midway through a furniture painting project. Dale was rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped out. “Darn that Dale Price,” Mommy said. “Always getting into things.”

The Railroad

Burlington engine No. 5633, no longer going anywhere, on static display in Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Wusel007, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Galesburg was a railroad town, astride two great lines: The Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy. The Units stood across South Cherry Street from the main line of the CB&Q. I clearly remember standing in our front yard on a bright morning, watching a fast train zoom by, pulled by a chugging black steam locomotive, perhaps a 4-8-4 “Northern,” a long cone of white smoke streaming out behind it. At night, I lay in my crib beside Teddy, my bear and best friend, and listened to the imponderable chug, roll, and bump of iron thunder as switch engines sorted and grouped railcars in the nearby Burlington yards. 

Mrs. Grable’s School

Life went on. Daddy had a part-time job taking the Galesburg Register-Mail to the outlying district of Bushnell in the afternoons. The GI Bill provided tuition, subsistence, books and supplies, equipment, and counseling services for veterans in college; but daily  expenses, beyond “subsistence,” could be tight. When I was three, Mommy got a part-time job as a secretary in an auto parts company, and I began attending a nursery school, “Mrs. Grable’s.” 

1950 DeSoto Suburban ad, Public Domain. Scanned by Alden Jewell, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Mrs. Grable had a large house with a big backyard and lots of toys and crayons. One or two other old ladies helped her wrangle kids. She had maybe a dozen of us. She picked us in the morning in her DeSoto Suburban—a big car with jump seats and room enough for the whole dozen of us. Later in the day she drove around The Units and dropped us off one by one, like circus clowns alighting from a mystery vehicle every afternoon at three.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

No No Nostalgia

Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future. 

Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does. 

Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.

Two Views of History

A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions. 

In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man. 

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.

Jack Finney

In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.

Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.

Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.” 

Willoughby, Anyone?

Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.

Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.

At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future. 

Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author