WHEELING, 1930’s (VI) — REVISED

Epilogue: After Wheeling

In 1936, the difficult employment situation in Wheeling finally forced my father to look for work in other areas.  After checking in various eastern cities from Baltimore northward, he was successful in New York City.  There he had friends from the old days in the orphanage, who were able to put him in touch with people in the building program of the Brooklyn Diocesan Building Commission of the Roman Catholic Church.  We took up residence in Kew Gardens, Queens.

This migration spawned a whole new series of adventures, far too many for an Epilogue.  I will present here only a few of them, just to give assurance that the painful process of growing up continued in the new location.  Much of this process took place at Public School 99, Kew Gardens, shown below as it was in the old days as well as more recently, in color.  I entered this school in the fall of 1936, and graduated in January of 1940.

ps99-1924a           ps99-2000a

The Craftsman

Here we see a picture of the woodshop class – an end-of-semester shot with everyone dressed up and nobody really working.  I am shown at front right, holding a bookrack that I had made, and which is still extant in the family as of  2013.

ps99-1939

I frequently failed this course because of two major flaws.

One was poor technique in the use of tools. On one occasion, after I had been sawing at a piece of wood for an indefinite length of time, the teacher approached and asked, “Are you going to saw all day on that one piece of wood, James?”  I hadn’t yet learned that the saw blade needs to do more than move back and forth; it needs to be pressed downward.  Reminiscent of the lesson my father had tried to impart regarding golf: “It’s not enough to hit the ball.  That ball doesn’t know where to go, and you have to tell it.”

The other flaw was poor planning skills, as exemplified in the bookrack shown.  Cutting the grooves to insert the upright ends, I forgot to allow for the thickness of the saw blade, and produced a groove with lots of room for wobble.  The teacher, considering rigidity of the uprights in his grading, was perplexed to find them extremely rigid.  I might have been thoughtless, but I wasn’t dumb.  Realizing my mistake, I had filled the extra space with liberal amounts of sawdust and glue. 

The end of a singing career

This is a photo of the school’s Glee Club as of  June 1939, a collection of enthusiastic singers.

ps99-glee0639

I am first on the left in the second row, cocking my head in the usual attempt to deal with a vision problem.  By some quirk of our having moved around, the other boys averaged about 1½ years older than I.  As the year went on, the other boys moved, one by one, from the soprano section into other sections for lower voices.  Mostly into what we called Alto Tenor, but a few, who I thought were obviously oversexed, moved into the Bass section.  Then one day we gave a concert for the Parent-Teachers Association, and I was mortified to realize during the performance that I was the only male remaining in the soprano section.  An intolerable situation.

During the next rehearsal, I lowered my voice in an attempt to pass into the alto-tenor section. The teacher immediately registered a facial expression that is usually associated with bad smells.  Passing up and down the aisles and listening closely to each singer, she finally arrived in front of me, and she declared triumphantly, “You’re not making it, Jimmy!”  Unable to face the role of soprano again, my only honorable option was to resign from the Glee Club.  Thus ended my singing career at the age of twelve.

A Place for Adventure

lirr-0400-NL

The photo above shows the Long Island Railroad station at Kew Gardens, just across the street from the Mowbray Apartments, probably about 2000. Much frequented by Jimmy, and the scene of numerous escapades.  Its main parking lot was a great place for endless bicycle riding.  Between the nearby apartment building (then a row of houses) and the tracks was an unpaved secondary parking lot where he had his chief biking disaster (a face full of cinders).  In this lot he and friend Lionel Fichman often found a small car unlocked at night, and they “drove” it all around – one pushing and one steering – and then returned it to its original spot.  The lot was also by night the scene of early smoking adventures, and by day the scene of wrestling matches to establish the order of dominance among boys at school.  The partly visible station platform on the left was open at the far end, allowing access and exploration of its mine-like tunnel interior by juveniles – and tales of unmentionable happenings there in the dark.  Just outside this picture to the right, – within a hundred steps of the station – is the setting for the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 – observed by many, interrupted by none.

Parts of this posting are published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

Childhood in Wheeling, 1930s: V. The Island in Winter

Even as a boy who loved Wheeling and was very happy in his home there, I accepted without question that Wheeling Island was dismal and even ugly in winter. Uglier than the surrounding hilltops and, as I would soon learn, uglier than the suburbs of New York City. True, there were some magically beautiful moments in the winter when freshly fallen snow brightened the outlook and beckoned us to sledding fun on the “bridge grade,” the embankment leading to the bridge that connected us with Aetnaville, Ohio. But within a couple of days the snow would develop a blackish crust, and the slushy mess in the unplowed streets was a very dark gray, thanks to the soot from thousands of household furnaces burning soft coal in the valley, as well as from the sprawling industrial plants with their busy smokestacks. Because of this same soot, every child had to be taught that face-washing included a careful scouring inside the ears and the nostrils, from which the washcloth emerged quite black.

On many winter nights a dense fog would settle in on the valley, and would not burn off till the middle of the next morning. As I walked alone to school before dawn on winter mornings, my way was marked by foggy cones of light beneath each street lamp. The fog had a slight yellowish tinge, and a distinctive odor that seemed to be a mixture of sweetish hydrogen sulphide and acrid sulphur dioxide. Both the color and the odor emanated principally from ever-burning gob fires in coal mine tailings up and down the valley. The odor was not overwhelming. Growing up with it, I came to like it, and similar odors have touched off nostalgia ever since. I don’t know what price we paid in health for that odor. But there was another price that quickly became apparent. Anyone who was bold enough, as my family was, to paint a house in bright and cheery colors would soon see extensive dark streaks as the sulphurous gases reacted with the lead in the paint.

During these dark morning walks to school, the concept of street crime never crossed my mind, nor anyone else’s as far as I knew. But there was one source of mild terror. My route to school included a brief stretch along Front Street where, on the rare winter mornings that were clear, there was a good view of the Ohio River, sparkling with reflections of the city lights on the opposite bank. I loved that river, and by day I would never tire of looking at it. In summer I would play along its banks, I would play in it, and I would swim in it. But in the darkness I found that a view of the river was ominous and troubling. That feeling was a legacy from early childhood, from an event that I’ve described elsewhere in this blog.

It seems that I so readily accepted the ugliness of Wheeling Island in winter that I never thought to look and see whether there were any exceptions. During the usual philosophical inquiries of the teen years, I came up with the proposition that there was beauty in all of creation and that every creature and every object, no matter how reputedly ugly, possessed a beauty that could be seen if viewed in the proper way and with the proper mindset.

This idea arose in winter on Wheeling Island, and after racking my brain for something especially ugly to test the proposition, I selected the tall trees, leafless and black against the fog or the cloudy sky. I looked at them anew with an open mind and, behold, the theory worked! Ever since, I have enjoyed the delicate, lacy beauty of leafless trees in winter. Now the point of this story is not that I made a unique discovery, but that I had been far too accepting of the principle of general ugliness. With prejudice, I had selected one of the most beautiful features of the winter landscape as a supposed example of surpassing ugliness.

Which confirms the old saying that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

J winter_tree_

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

CHILDHOOD IN WHEELING, 1930s

Introduction

Until I was nine, I lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, as the youngest member of a household of seven – the others being my maternal grandparents, one aunt, one uncle, and my parents.  As one might think, this arrangement involved some financial support, but not in the usual direction.  My father made a good living in a contracting firm, Engstrom and Wynn, which built commercial and industrial facilities and public buildings such as schools and post offices.  My grandfather owned the house, but his health had failed and he had to quit work at a time when there was no Social Security and no Medicare.

The following photo shows our house at 608 North Huron Street on Wheeling Island.   It was built about 1916 and purchased by my grandfather about 1921.

608NHca1921a

The two small pin oaks, planted by my uncle soon after the purchase, had reached about seven inches dbh (diameter at breast height) in my early childhood.   In 2011, they had reached between two and three feet dbh.

The shades across the porch were later replaced by awnings of the kind shown above the steps, creating a beautiful, softly  illuminated sitting area for summer evenings.

At that time Wheeling Island was a pleasant suburb of about 10,000 people, in the middle of the Ohio River and just a short walk or streetcar ride across the bridge from downtown Wheeling.  At the south end of the island, “the fairgrounds” were a site often used by circuses and carnivals.  The fairgrounds came to include a track for horse races, later converted to dog racing, and also a football stadium. Much later, the Casino was built there. On the western shore near the middle of the island, Bridge Park included a baseball field and a public swimming pool.  At the north end of the island, which we called “the Point,” there was a wilderness of low-lying land that got flooded every year.  I had many wonderful experiences as a jungle explorer at the Point.  I occasionally swam there in the “back river” on the western side, long after swimming had been prohibited in the fast-moving main river, where gravel dredging had set up treacherous eddies.

Our house was less than 150 feet north of the streetcar stop on Georgia Street.  The conductor is shown throwing the switch to direct the car, “Route 70–North Island,” southward onto North Huron Street and back to downtown Wheeling. The fare was five cents.  The other switch position sent cars of “Route 71– Martins Ferry” straight across the Aetnaville Bridge into Ohio, then northward to Martins Ferry.  The fare for points in Ohio was ten cents.

Rt. 70 North Island Car, Georgia Street nr N. Huron St 6/26/47

This car stop* made our house very convenient for the commuter into downtown Wheeling.  I also found it useful as a place to have pennies flattened on the track.

Streetcars were a comfortable and inexpensive means of travel in the city and also for surprisingly great distances into the countryside.  In daytime, one car usually passed this point in each direction every fifteen minutes. The cars themselves were non-polluting, although the same cannot be said for generating the electric power that drove them.

 I loved my extended family, the house, the island, and Wheeling, and it hurt to leave.  When I was six we spent a year at Ocean View near Norfolk, Virginia, which offered cheaper and more relaxed living than Wheeling.  The Depression had slowed down construction until my father only occasionally had a week or two of work to do, and he would go back to Wheeling on those occasions.

After the year in Ocean View, my father was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and was chiefly involved in construction at the Warwood water works.  When I was nine, he decided to leave Wheeling permanently and seek work along the east coast.  He looked in a number of places and found employment in New York City, where he had connections with people from his childhood in a Catholic orphanage.  He was the superintendent of construction for a number of Catholic schools and churches, and that kept him busy until the war came and stopped all such activity.

After the move to New York, I spent many vacations back in Wheeling.  When I graduated from high school, not yet seventeen, I spent a year there with my aunt and grandmother, who were then the only people still living in the house. The war was on, housing was tight, and my parents and I had been reduced to living in furnished rooms in New Jersey as my dad moved from one wartime construction project to another.  We all agreed that my move to Wheeling made sense.  During that year (1944) I took my first full-time job, as an apprentice repairman for National Cash Register, at a rate of $0.4125 per hour, 48 hours per week.  (Gross weekly pay $21.45, take-home $19.14.)  There were other more lucrative job openings, but most employers were not interested in a young boy who would soon be “draft bait.”

I once had many relatives in Wheeling.  My grandfather was one of six children, all immigrants from England, and five of them spent their lives in Wheeling.  The family home was sold in 1946. My last close relative there was my mother, who died in 1990.  My last connection of all was Susan, a younger second cousin by adoption, who died in 2005 as a result of a collapsing staircase.

Even without these connections, Wheeling remains a lovely place to visit and it stirs fond memories.  Two of my sons and I have enjoyed returning there annually during nearly every one of the past seven years.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)


* 3:18 p.m., July 26, 1947 – Car 38 at North Island – Norman Peabody, Operator
Rt. 70 North Island Car on Georgia Street near N. Huron St. on the island
with Norm Peabody throwing the switch turning off Rt. 71. 
(Photo from William J. B. Gwinn collection – provided by Linda Fluharty)

CHILDHOOD IN WHEELING, 1930’S (IV)

Summer Evenings

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.

608NHca1921aThe 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)

 

CHILDHOOD IN WHEELING, 1930’s (III)

Laundry Days

This story is not about something I did, but about something I watched with interest as a young child.  It involves one of the ways in which women exerted great labor to keep a home running in those days. There is much here that could infuriate a modern reader.  I can only say that in those days the average man did not have it easy, either.  I believe that both men and women faced an overwhelming amount of work to be done.  My purpose here is not to second-guess how they chose to divide it.  It is to remember and honor the women for the hard work and cheerfulness with which they responded to their duty as they saw it.

In the 1930s, we knew nothing of permanent press fabrics or of things like Scotchgard to keep away the stains.  Cottons and linens would wrinkle badly after a short wearing time, and they quickly got dirty from the omnipresent soot and coal dust in the Ohio Valley.  In a family of seven, it was easy to see how the weekly laundry became mountainous, and why, even with three women working at it, there were two full laundry days each week.  The women and the child certainly contributed their share of dirty clothes, but the major share came from the three men, who always wore white shirts.  The two working men needed a clean shirt every day of the week, including weekends.  This included my uncle even when he was on the road.  Each week he mailed home the dirty laundry, and it was mailed back to him clean and pressed.  My grandfather, who no longer worked, still sat around in white shirts minus their detachable collars and cuffs.  His shirts could last through two or three days of wear before needing a wash.

The first act on Monday morning was to start heating water in a large oblong copper kettle that straddled both burners of a little gas heater in the basement.  This kettle was rated at about 23 gallons.  It took at least two fillings by hose, and two emptyings by pan and bucket, to handle one day’s wash.  We had a modern electric washer, a tub with    ThorWashMch30s   agitator, and above it a wringer consisting of two motor-driven rubber-clad rollers under tremendous pressure against each other.  The washer contained hot soapy water.  There were no plumbing connections; it was filled by hand, and emptied into buckets through a drain cock at the bottom.  Alongside the washer, each Monday morning three wooden stands were set up to complete a square.  Large laundry tubs, one an old wooden one and two of galvanized steel, were put on these stands.  One contained hot rinse water, one cold rinse water, and the third bluing in cold water for the white goods.  Off to one side was a smaller tub of hot water with a scrubbing board, a stiff brush, and a bar of brown laundry soap for really tough items such as shirt cuffs and collars.  Also off to one side was a small tub containing starch, which was used on shirts and, in summer, a great many items of cotton clothing.  All these tubs were filled and emptied by hand.

WhgGalvWashtub                       Washboard

At the end of a wash, feeding clothes between the rollers of the wringer would squeeze most of the water out of them, as with today’s spin-dry cycle.  The wringer was also used during each transfer of clothing from one tub to another; it could be swung out to all the positions of the square array of tubs.  Wringers were known hazards to women’s hands and, indeed, their forearms as well.  Any part that was caught and drawn into the wringer tended to have the skin stripped off from the muscles and bones.  There was a lever for quick release of roller pressure, but in the panic of the moment it was often used too late.  So the watchword was extreme caution.  Fortunately, the women of my family were cautious and never suffered that particular accident.clothesline2     clothesline

By early Monday afternoon it was time to string up the clothesline for drying the laundry.  In summer it was outdoors, in winter, in the basement.  (We never called it the basement.  The rear part, where all the washing took place, was called the laundry.  The forward part, with a coal bin and many shelves full of preserves in canning jars, was known as the cellar.)  Once the clothes were dry, it was time to fold and stack them, take down the clothesline, and start preparing supper.

Tuesday was ironing day.  First, each white shirt, all dry and stiff with starch, was sprinkled with water and folded up into a neat package where the dampness could permeate the entire shirt and facilitate a form of steam ironing.  We had just acquired a modern electric iron (without built-in steaming), but several of the old ones of solid cast iron were still around.  Several had been needed so that some could be heating over the gas flame while one was in use and cooling off rapidly.

ironmangle

For large towels and bedding, my grandmother was the fortunate owner and sole operator of what she called the “mangle.”  It had a cloth-padded roller, about 6 inches in diameter and about 20 inches long, that was driven by an electric motor to rotate against a shiny curved hot plate.  The items fed into it came out pressed as neatly as by hand ironing.  By some magic manipulation, folding and refolding large bed sheets, she could iron all parts of them and they would come out not only pressed but also neatly folded.  (Again, without permanent press, bed sheets would have been terribly wrinkled if not ironed.)

Ironing was an all-day job for two of the three women; the third took care of preparing lunch and dinner.  I never heard any complaints about the work of these two days per week.  Instead, the days were filled with cheerful conversations.

After a winter of smog, soot, and coal dust permeating the entire community, “spring cleaning” was laundry day with a vengeance, lasting at least a week.  Bedspreads, curtains, doilies, and in fact all exposed items of fabric were added to the pile of things to be washed.  Rugs and carpets were taken outdoors, hung on a clothesline, and beaten.  The bare wood floors were vacuumed to get black dust out of the crevices.   The beating was a unique effort where the help of the men – and the child – was actually put to use.  Spring cleaning was strenuous enough and lasted long enough that conversations became less cheerful than on regular laundry days.

Long before my birth, my grandmother was seriously ill and it seemed that she might die on a Sunday night.  Her two sisters-in-law, maiden ladies who lived together, were discussing the situation.  One said, “Well, if she doesn’t die tonight, we’ll do laundry in the morning.”

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

CHILDHOOD IN WHEELING, 1930’s (II)

The River

People living on Wheeling Island quickly learned that the Ohio River shaped their lives in many ways, and on a daily basis.

It was their source of water, and it took their sewage.  It brought huge barges of iron ore and coal to make steel at the plants where the people worked.  It provided transport, out to the nation and the world, for the many products of the local industries.   DSC00127b2

In summer, many boaters used the river – mostly motorboats, because the currents were swift.  A beach at the north end of the Island, complete with a stand selling hot dogs and cold drinks, was once a favored site for swimmers.  The beach was strewn with flat pebbles, ideal for many “skips” off the water’s surface when thrown in just the right way.  I was a generation too late to see the dance pavilion that had once been located there, within my mother’s memory.   About 1934, the beach was closed and never reopened.  Pits in the river bottom, where gravel had been dredged, set up treacherous eddies that led to the drowning of a number of swimmers.  Swimming in the river was forbidden from then on.

This dredging was one more example of a tragic theme that characterizes West Virginia’s history and, as far as I know, continues today:  Where the extractive industries conflicted with the interests of the common people, those industries won, whatever the commodity involved – coal, oil, gas, chemicals, timber, glass sand, gravel, you name it – and whatever the cost to the people.  What industry wanted from West Virginia, it usually took.  Studying the state’s history is a painful ordeal for one who cares about its people.

Winter brought occasional ice jams on the river, sometimes rising to monumental proportions.  I could look out the kitchen window and see the piles of ice reaching well above the highest land elevations on the Island itself.  Surely they must have been scraping the undersides of the Suspension and Steel bridges.  Not a good time to walk to town.

Spring was noteworthy because of the floods that it brought.  From early times through the 1930s, there were long intervals between destructive floods, intervals in which the people of the Island repeatedly showed their resilience, determination, and stamina by repairing the damage and renewing the beauty of their homes and neighborhoods.

I was present for the granddaddy of those floods, in March of 1936.  That flood crested in Wheeling at 55.2 feet, the highest on record, and one of only five floods that have exceeded 50 feet since the year 1763.  On the first floor of our house, 6 feet above ground level, the water was 4 feet deep.  Most of the Island was at lower elevations, and some houses were completely submerged.

As the floodwaters rose, I looked forward to sailing on them in a galvanized laundry tub, but my parents had other ideas, involving a move to visit friends who lived on higher ground “out the pike.” (eastward on U.S. Route 40).  While all hands were busy carrying 36Flood95MdSt2furniture upstairs to escape the water, I sulked over their plan, retreated to write poetry in the bedroom that I shared with them, and avoided helping – at least for the short time that such behavior was tolerated.  Of course I had no concept of how the fury and power of floodwaters would affect the sailing of a little laundry tub.

The house of my great-aunts at 95 Maryland Street
on the Island.  The first floor is almost totally submerged.

My grandfather, too, had ideas of staying at home during the flood.  Taking a seat near the front door on the only dining chair that remained downstairs, he asserted, “This house is the only thing I have.  If it goes, I’m going with it.”  But he shared my fate, for my uncle and my father had other ideas.  They lifted him bodily and carried him out the door, down the porch steps, and into my uncle’s waiting car.  Grandpa, too, visited friends on higher ground.  His house did not “go.”  But the steps of the front porch did go, and his beautiful golden oak upright piano, too heavy to be taken upstairs, was a casualty of the flood.  It was dumped off the front edge of the porch for cleanup crews to haul away.  It turned out that almost every house in the block had a piano, for they all ended up dumped into the flood mud.  The back yard, now raised by six inches of flood mud, had to be completely regraded, limed, and reseeded, and the concrete walkway had to be reset at the higher elevation.  The attractive concrete steps, connecting two former “terrace” levels of the yard, no longer had any function, and had to be carted away.

A year or two before this flood, an evangelist named Lehman had built the Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle, a large one-story frame structure, on high ground near the north end of the island.  Contrary to local custom, the building was not bolted to its foundation, but depended on gravity for staying in place.  As the flood rose, the tabernacle sailed like a mighty vessel down Erie Street, clipping several houses off their foundations as it moved, and all the structures ended up as debris at the foot of the embankment to the Aetnaville Bridge.  It seems that Mr. Lehman never appeared in Wheeling again, probably a wise decision.

Cleanup after the 1942 flood

42FloodCleanupAs of 1936, there hadn’t been a serious flood on Wheeling Island since 1913.  Most of the people were willing to tolerate such infrequent flooding.  But during the early 1940s, destructive floods became essentially annual events, poorly predicted, and during wartime when few men were available for the labor of preparing for a flood, or of cleaning up afterward.  This led to a collapse of real estate values and an exodus of those who could afford to move, changes from which the Island has never recovered.

As fish returned and again disappeared with the successes and failures of pollution control efforts, the river was never devoid of life.  In the absence of fish, swarms of little black tadpoles moved along the shores, turning in summer into hordes of toads that overran the entire island.  Children – at least the boys – enjoyed catching the baby toads and trying to make pets of them.  This usually ended badly for the toads.

Through the age of seventeen, I was much at home on the banks of that river.  I walked its shores and waded in its shallows.  I blazed trail in the wilderness of the northern “Point” of the Island, as we called it – the low-lying upstream tip that was flooded every spring.  In early childhood I often swam at the beach – though memories of that involve mainly an itchy coarse wool swimsuit, unendurable until wetted.  In my teen years, I swam with friends in the calmer “Back River” (west of the Island), which was free of dangerous eddies.  River swimming was a “no-no,” and the family was not to hear of it.

Another note on wildlife: While exploring the Point, I once came across a small group of younger children enjoying a picnic.  As I passed by, they suddenly screamed.  I looked and saw an animal approaching them.  I first thought it was a rabbit, but the ears were short.
Then I thought of a small dog, but the tail was very long.  It was the most enormous rat I have ever seen!  As the children fled, the rat moved in to enjoy the feast.

Despite my enjoyment of the river by day, by night it became a fearsome thing, sending shivers through my body.  This was true whether I actually saw the river at night, with the city lights shimmering on its surface, or whether I merely pictured its daytime appearance in my mind while lying awake in a dark bedroom.  I was a grown man before I ever realized the likely cause of this reaction, which was:

One summer evening when I was about seven years old, I saw large numbers of people walking past our house toward the north end of the Island.  Without hesitation, not even telling the family, I joined the march.  Such was our feeling of safety in public in those days.  The march ended in a large assemblage of people on the former beach at the “Point,” facing the city.  As darkness fell and the city lights began to reflect from the water’s surface, I noted two men in a rowboat, equipped with a bright floodlight, rowing back and forth in front of us.  I soon learned that they were dragging a hook, attempting to find the body of a drowned swimmer.  It was a young man, a strong swimmer, who had confidently disregarded the prohibition against swimming.  He was accompanied by a friend who watched, helpless, as he got caught in a whirlpool created by one of the many dredged gravel pits in the river bottom.  The friend rushed to notify the authorities.

I thoughtlessly took a position by the tailgate of an ambulance to watch the proceedings.  “Thoughtlessly” because I hadn’t foreseen what was bound to happen.  When the body was finally recovered it was brought, completely exposed, to the ambulance where it brushed by me as I watched in horror.  At my tender age, I wasn’t ready for an experience like that.  And I believe that is why I feared the river in the darkness, a fear that I never fully outgrew.

Picture_24
(Photo courtesy of Frank Saporito)

Through all its changes, the river has continued to be a spectacular and powerful force.  It has remained beautiful even when mining and industrial wastes drove out the fish, and in recent years it seems more beautiful than ever.  Though the State of Ohio has adopted “Beautiful Ohio” as its official song, in my mind that song with its original lyrics will always refer not to the state, but to the river.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

CHILDHOOD IN WHEELING, 1930’s (I)

Hairstyles for a young man

Even before I was born, my father was already enthusiastic and conscientious about his forthcoming role as a parent.  Without benefit of ultrasound imaging, he pressed his intuition to the limit and ascertained that I would be a boy.  With amazing foresight, he also pictured exactly what I would look like as a child.  Armed with this knowledge, he toured the galleries until he found a portrait of me, and he bought it.  DSC00546BoyPortr2aw2

When I came into the world, the prospects were not good that I would ever become as handsome as the boy in the portrait.  For starters, I seemed to be cross-eyed, and my left foot was deformed to the extent that, as an infant, I often fell and then had to learn to walk all over again.

As the first few years went by, I quickly came to understand that this portrait represented what was a major expectation of me.  But I also realized that I didn’t have the features needed to match it.  In compensation, the one thing I could do was to accept the hairstyle.  And so I did.

This worked well until I reached the age of about five.  My whole family enjoyed my long hairstyle, and my father was well pleased with me, and terribly proud of me, for which he claimed many reasons beyond the hairstyle itself.

JRBca1932xThen, the day came when I started Sunday school.  Next to me sat a sweet little girl, who kept studying me closely.  Finally, she asked the big question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”  I appeared to ignore her, never answering her question, even though she repeated it a couple of times.  I was both mortified and furious.  Fortunately, I had been taught never to hit a girl.  So I stored the fury away until I got home, and then I let it out on the family.  I had to have a proper haircut.  Immediately.

The clippers, comb, and scissors came out quickly, wielded by my aunt, whom I called Ann, a person of 1906 vintage whom I loved as if she were the favorite sister I never had.  Soon the problem was solved, and I had a hairstyle worthy of a rising young man of the early 1930s.

But Ann then informed me that this hairstyle carried with it certain responsibilities.  The hair had to be “trained” so that it would lie flat on the head.  Bushy, spiky manes were not in style that year.  Also, I had to select a place for the part (the line from which the hair departed in opposite directions) – left, middle, or right side of the head.  And the hair had to learn to revert to that part no matter how much it was tousled.

Training was a bedtime operation requiring the use of hairbrush, comb, a strange liquid known as brilliantine, and a skullcap made from a woman’s stocking.

First, the hair was thoroughly soaked in brilliantine. This thick, green liquid apparently consisted of very long molecules, evidenced by its property of pulling back into the bottle any stream of the liquid that was hanging outside when the pouring was finished.  These molecules did an excellent job of binding the hair together in a rigid mass.  When they dried out, the hair was as stiff as if it had been run through starch in the laundry.

After careful and thorough brushing while still wet, the hair was touched up with a comb, primarily to make sure that the part was straight and sharp.  And the tightly fitting stocking cap was then applied to make sure that nothing moved during the night.  Next morning, the cap was removed and the hair combed out to face yet another rough-and-tumble day without being mussed up the slightest bit.  I’m not sure how long the training took; maybe a month.   JRBca1933x

At last, I had achieved a hairstyle that would last a lifetime. In the next few years, I would see men with long hair, but they were artists in Greenwich Village, and they really didn’t matter.  It was more than twenty years before I saw any real threat to my style, first by the ducktails and then by the incredibly long tresses of the rock-and-rollers.  But by then I had become a stubborn old cuss with no intention of changing.  And so I’ve remained till the age of 86, and am still counting.  It seems that I inherited some very stubborn genes, but not to worry – it’s clear that I passed them on intact to the next generation.  They, too, would have hairstyle issues, but mostly in a sequence the reverse of mine.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)