At the end of a hot summer day spent playing in the back yards and alleys of our neighborhood, a little boy would not be fit company at the supper table or in the genteel family gatherings of the evening until he had a bath and a change of clothes. I’m not sure what happened with little girls. I hardly knew any in those early years. The few I did know always seemed to be clean, and they usually stayed at home.
Shortly after four in the afternoon, then, the chorus of neighborhood mothers would begin, calling their male brood to come and get cleaned up. No one ever doubted the safety of the neighborhood for young children, so it was common for three- and four- year olds to be half a block from home and oblivious of the clock. The mothers knew they must project their voices far, yet they were aware that simply yelling out the name was uncouth and would label them “fishwives” before the entire neighborhood. They were creative in adding musical touches, variations in pitch and length of syllable, and in adding syllables such as “Aah” or “Oh” for greater musical opportunity. And so the child, even when too far away to understand the words, knew by the voice and its intonations that his own mother was calling him. I usually responded to “Aaaah-JIM-meee”, but when it became “WAAAH-jim-meee” I recognized a taunting, mocking sound and I knew that Mama was feeling mischievous.
Having introduced the subject of neighborhood calling sounds, I’d like to digress by completing that subject before returning to my story of summer evenings. There were many tradesmen that came through the neighborhood in their vehicles because the housewives, their principal customers, didn’t have vehicles to go to them. Most frequent in summer was the man yelling “Fresh vegetables.” He drove a truck with a large open-air body, screened in, with shelves full of produce and a central aisle with steps so the ladies could walk in and make their selections. They placed their orders for bulk items in measures now long forgotten – “I’ll take a peck of potatoes, half a peck of onions, and a bushel of corn.” And he had special containers for measuring out each of these quantities.
On occasion the vegetable man also offered eggs and freshly killed chickens. The chickens were mostly plucked, but the buyer would have to pull the small “pin-feathers.” The guts would also have to be cleaned out. In addition to the normal edible organs still provided with chickens, they usually contained developing eggs, without shells, that could be cooked and eaten. They also contained disgusting parts that had to be thrown away. The head of the chicken was gone, of course – that’s how they were killed – but the feet were still attached. I didn’t seem to be squeamish about all this, for I looked forward to the legs after they were chopped off at the bottom joint of the thigh. I could pull on tendons at the knee and that would wiggle the toes. The legs made dandy toys until they began to smell.
One time I begged my grandmother to buy a chicken, and she obliged. Winter had set in, and we no longer kept ice in the icebox. Perishables were kept in a wooden box with shelves that was mounted outside a kitchen window. But there wasn’t enough room in the box, so she stored the chicken overnight on an open shelf outside another window. By next morning it was gone. That shelf was nine feet above the ground, but these were Depression days and some hungry soul had wanted the chicken badly enough to make the climb. I never saw a large predator bird on Wheeling Island, so that was not my prime suspect for the disappearance of the chicken.
The most memorable of the touring tradesmen was an old bearded man, filthy and in tattered clothes, who rode a wooden wagon drawn by a mule. Not just in summer, but in all seasons, he would come by about once a month singing a song of three notes – do, up to sol, then back down to mi. It took me a long time to understand the words, which were “Rags, old iron.” These were things he was willing to buy. We boys called him “Git-a-horse,” I suppose because we thought a horse would be better than a mule. We didn’t know that the term had been invented a generation or so earlier to taunt the early automobile drivers! We boys found that when we yelled this nickname at him, he would respond with loud threats and curses. This was all the excuse we needed to harass him relentlessly. We were cowards, of course, and always kept about half a block away from him. But then one day I learned to my horror that he had a second business: hauling away ashes from our coal furnaces. I was hanging out alone in the basement when he suddenly appeared in the doorway, the man I had been tormenting! Upon close inspection I found that he had a wooden peg for a leg. He looked for all the world like some evil character I had seen in a pirate movie. Trapped, I did nothing but tremble. But he was a gentle old man, and all his energy went into wrestling with a laundry tub full of heavy ashes. May he rest in peace!
Well, now we return to the summer evening. Following the late afternoon bath, the best summer clothing was put on, cottons or linens, spotlessly clean and stiff with starch. This precluded any further rough play that day. In that largely blue-collar region, we classified neighborhoods according to the pants of small children; the three kinds of neighborhood were clean-pants, dirty-pants, and no-pants. Ours was definitely a clean-pants neighborhood.
The principal event of the evening would be a family gathering on the front porch. This was a wooden structure with floor space of 8 by 25 feet, or slightly larger. It was completely under its own roof, which was supported by stately round columns. The inside of the house, especially the upstairs bedrooms, would need until dark to cool off from cooking supper and the heat of the afternoon. The porch was quite livable, but opening it after supper for the evening was a complex procedure.
My grandfather would lower the awning (which later replaced the roll blinds shown in the photo) to block the setting sun. Filtered through the awning, its rays would bathe the porch in a soft, golden light. Others would unroll the wood-slat shade to give privacy from next door, would unroll the reed carpet, and would place all the seat cushions. The white-painted wicker furniture included a swing wide enough for three, an easy chair, a rocker, and assorted tables and stands for potted plants and refreshments. The low parapet wall all around the porch had a wide top at just the right height to make a comfortable bench, so that lots of guests could be accommodated. As with most houses in this flood-prone area, the porch and first floor were six feet above the ground. This height, together with the low wall and the awning, made our sitting area semi-private. We could greet passersby or we could ignore them without hurting feelings.
There were several kinds of genteel outings by which I could escape the family gathering when I got bored. One was to visit neighbors on their porches. Another was to gather with others around a bench in the park across the street, where an older girl (probably all of twelve or thirteen) liked to tell scary stories that made us scream. Still another was to walk to a nearby store that sold ice cream cones, if Daddy could be coaxed into giving a nickel for one. But the best outings of all came on those rare occasions when my uncle was in town and didn’t have a date. He owned the only car in the family and he worked out of town. On these occasions in summer, he would usually drive us out the “pike,” meaning U.S. Route 40 East, to an ice cream emporium called Burkham’s. The breeze in a moving car always seemed to cool us by at least ten degrees.
Regardless of the outings, I usually ended the evening on the porch in long and lively talks with my aunt. Although she was twenty-one years older than I, we were like a brother and sister who were also good friends. We would talk of many things long after all the others had gone to bed. Thus it was up to us to close down the porch, reversing all of the opening procedure. This was done every day to protect things in case a rain came up during the night.
This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)