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, 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)