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 

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