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)

WORKING-CLASS HERO (IV)

A DEVOTED FATHER

As I noted in the preface of Working Class Hero, I support Tom Brokaw’s concept of The Greatest Generation. Yet, without detracting from the record of that group, I wanted to draw attention to the preceding generation, that of the parents who raised these people and instilled in them the qualities and values that were so essential to their later performance.

I chose to illustrate that stalwart generation through one of its two lives that I knew best, that of my father, Jim, who lived from 1884 to 1954. On the occasion of Father’s Day, 2014, I would now like to present excerpts from my book that deal specifically with his role as a parent.

At the outset, I quickly learned the need for restraint. Jim was a father who gave freely and widely of himself, and it seemed that extensive parts of the book, covering most aspects of his life, deserved to be quoted. For the narrow and sharp focus desired, I had to start all over again, realizing that a brief posting cannot fully cover a man’s achievements as a father; it can only suggest the flavor of his efforts.

*            *            *

For the first two years of Jimmy’s life, there is probably no more eloquent description of Jim’s feelings toward his son than his own expressive face as it appears in photographs of the two together. Love and pride are easily seen. There is something else – a sense of awe and marvel as he looks upon this little creature that has been entrusted to his care. These are pictures of a devoted and responsible father.

Fig19JJy28b copy    Fig17JEJy27a   Fig64JJy27a

When his son was quite young, Jim told him the story of a father who placed his little boy on a mantelpiece and said, “Jump into my arms.” As the boy jumped, the father withdrew his arms and let his son crash to the floor. The moral of the story was, “When something important is at stake, never depend on anyone but yourself.” Jimmy got the message, but it could not have been more unlike the actual relationship between the two. Jim was always there for him, discussing, advising, encouraging, helping, and even doing his job for him when necessary.

One example of that last point was Jim’s doing algebra homework for several weeks while the subject remained an impenetrable mystery to Jimmy, until finally there was a breakthrough and the subject became easy for him. This might be viewed as treatment that could “spoil” a child. But somehow the boy understood that it was an emergency measure, not to be expected as normal practice. Perhaps the story of the mantelpiece had something to do with that understanding.

Jim became a father at the age of forty-two, but there was no lack of vigor when it came to raising his son. There was an endless sequence of expeditions to parades, circuses, carnivals, amusement parks, concerts, movies, picnics, museums and other points of interest. New York was a favorable area for endless explorations, and these were on the agenda most Sunday afternoons. Jim tried to teach the boy to play baseball, an unsuccessful effort probably because of the boy’s eye problem. Jim purchased boxing gloves and taught the boy self-defense, an asset that never increased his desire to fight but one that gave him confidence, something he would need on the streets of New York.

Fig24JJy36-7a

Jimmy and Jim in a Coney Island, N.Y. “photo studio”, late 1936 or 1937.
The family has moved to Kew Gardens, New York.

Jim’s efforts to guide the boy’s attitudes and behavior relied mainly on discussion and reasoning. Sometimes he placed undue faith in the boy’s ability to understand. One amusing example of this occurred when his son was seven or eight years old. While the two were at a circus, Jimmy spotted “chameleons” (anolis lizards) for sale, and he simply had to have one. The little creatures were chained to lapel pins, mounted on a large board, and offered at twenty-five cents each. Jimmy could not accept the idea that one of these might die in his tender care. While he noted the cruel treatment of the lizards by the dealer, he saw purchase as a means of rescue. He would have to study economics before he could ever comprehend that buying one might just cause more to be caught.

So Jim retreated to his argument of last resort. He spent a long time outlining the family finances – where the money came from and all the places it had to go – with the conclusion that he could not afford the lizard. By the end of this, Jimmy was glassy-eyed and sufficiently bored to accept the argument. He didn’t get the lizard. But for a long time he wondered how his Daddy ever managed to afford the circus tickets.

When discussion and reasoning did not bring the desired results – generally in cases of sulking, defiance, or disrespect – Jim would apply corporal punishment. He had several strict rules for this, which together assured an intense and close personal interaction between father and son. First, the punishment had to be prompt; the only excuse for delay was to secure privacy. Second, it had to be as brief as the nature of the offense allowed – often a single slap, several in the most extreme cases. Third, Jim’s hand was the only acceptable instrument; he strongly disapproved of sticks, belts, or any other devices that might have a distancing or depersonalizing effect. And fourth, his facial expression during punishment showed strong disapproval of the offensive behavior – suggesting anger but never out of control. He did not risk the mixing of signals that might result from punishment with a loving expression, but the loving expression soon reappeared after the punishment was finished.

On one occasion, after several whacks on the rear, Jimmy came to his father with a serious limp, claiming that his hip was in great pain. Jim said, “I see you’ve read that news article about the girl who was crippled by her father’s beating. Well, don’t worry. That didn’t happen to you, and you’ll soon be all right.” It took the boy about three seconds to give up his pretense.

Jim often stressed the principle that, if something is worth doing at all, then it is worth doing the right way, worth doing with full attention and to the best of one’s ability, and worth doing completely. This came up most often in connection with schooling. It was quite frequent that Jimmy would report some good achievement like a 98 percent grade on a test, and Jim would respond by asking, “What went wrong?” As he finally got the boy to understand, this question did not represent any dissatisfaction with the 98 percent. It was a suggestion to investigate the 2 percent that he missed. Then he would know it all!

When Jimmy showed repeated anger or irritation toward someone else – usually another boy at school – Jim would say, “He’s got your goat. Get over it.” The “goat” expression signified that the other person had become such an obsession that he was controlling one’s moods. One needed to find a way to let loose of these feelings.

As he moved into the teen years, Jimmy developed resentment toward his father that lasted until about the age of eighteen. It began with blame for moving from his beloved Wheeling to New York. The family of Jimmy’s mother supplied him with all sorts of petty reasons to resent his father. Punishments by his father undoubtedly added somewhat to the resentment. By far the greatest sources of resentment, however, were Jim’s intellectual qualities. His unusual viewpoints, his self-assurance, his eloquence in arguments, his overall brilliance and his strong presence – all these traits comprised a “dominance” that made the boy feel threatened and diminished. And so it went, no doubt, with countless male teen-agers.

Fortunately, the boy’s feelings were never aired, and the two had many good and close times together. Jim never showed awareness of the resentment, but he was wise enough that he probably sensed it and ascribed it to the inevitable vagaries of the teen years. He never doubted the boy’s love for him. Both father and son felt the security of unconditional love. The important thing is that, as Jimmy passed into manhood, he realized the pettiness of his resentments and came to terms with them.

After the move to New York in 1936, Jim and his son had many extended separations from one another. Early on, these were occasioned by the boy’s love of Wheeling; later by difficult wartime housing conditions; and still later by such activities as military service, college, starting a career, and family responsibilities. Jim never had a complaint about any of these absences, and both father and son were joyous and enthusiastic at their reunions. The picture lingers of Jim meeting Jimmy at the railroad station as he arrived on a short vacation from college in early 1950. As the car was still coasting to a stop, Jim could not wait: His face was beaming, his arm was waving, the driver’s door was open, and his left foot dragged on the pavement in an effort to stop the car.

The last time the father and son were together was on March 1, 1954, when Jimmy drove Jim to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Jimmy regarded this as a minor event, during which diagnostic studies would soon lead to new treatments that would restore his father’s health. Therefore he scheduled it as a brief morning trip, assuring his boss that he would be at work right after lunch. It seemed that the drop-off would be even shorter when a guard said that parking by the hospital entrance was not allowed – then, seeing Jim’s difficulty walking, relented and allowed parking for ten minutes.

Jim, of course, was much more aware of his plight. After check-in, as the two walked toward his room in the Osler Wing, he made a joke. “Now this is really a bad omen. Dr. Osler was in favor of euthanasia for sick old people!” As they reached the room and took their farewells, Jim showed one of those familiar signs of an emotional moment. An expression of incipient weeping flashed across his face and was gone in a second. This haunted Jimmy as he returned to the car and drove off, with the result that he found a place to park and returned to spend the afternoon with his father. It was a quiet and restful time for both as the old man ate his lunch, talked about his hopes for diagnosis and treatment, pointed out a new symptom (the left thumb had gone numb), and generally relaxed. At the final farewell he lay on his bed, head propped up on one arm, smiling and waving goodbye.

*            *            *

Rightly or wrongly, Jim’s son picked up the message that Jim, while not atheistic and probably not agnostic, did have serious doubts about how the established religions presented God. Jim did not pretend to know the nature of God, did not think that one could know it, and was not particularly troubled about not knowing. He seemed to believe that “miracles” and “revelations” were either natural events or artifacts of the human mind or some combination of the two. He placed his emphasis instead on concepts and ideals of this world.

One of the most important of these was being a “Man,” and raising his son to be the same. This term had to do with integrity and honor and many other virtuous human qualities and behaviors. Jim stressed honesty, loyalty, and responsibility in all his dealings, and he sometimes carried generosity in thought and deed beyond what he could afford. “Man” in this context was not gender-specific, but since both Jim and his only child were male, that question never arose. Jim kept a framed copy of Kipling’s poem “If” on the wall, and he used it extensively in teaching his son what he thought were the important virtues. The poem is not a complete definition of his concept of a Man, but it probably comes as close as any one-page document does. The argument of the poem is to enumerate a number of virtuous behaviors that, if achieved, will yield certain benefits including, “And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” Jim would reprove a misbehavior by his son by quoting from memory the specific lines from “If” that pertained. Jim’s concept of being a Man was, for him, the foundation of an entire philosophy, a source of guidance and stern discipline that some others would seek from a Bible.

Fig08IFpoem

Jim’s framed copy of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

A second concept, closely related to the first, was the importance of developing and using one’s Mind. Jim never put it in quite these terms, but his general feeling seemed to be that, just as a person’s quality of character might be measured by one’s achievement of the virtues that make one a Man, so also could a person’s breadth and depth be measured by the extent of one’s interests, knowledge, and understanding.

He started with basic functions of the mind such as concentration, memory, and logic, and sought every means possible to refine and improve these. When raising his son, he presented games specifically designed to foster these abilities.

He had a natural affinity for the great areas of study that offered a better understanding of our world and ourselves. These started with philosophy, and he became familiar not only with the great philosophers of the previous several hundred years but also with the ancient Greeks as well. Among the Greeks, it perhaps showed his own tendencies that he was most intrigued by Socrates, the great questioner of his society’s values and assumptions.

Jim’s focus was on secular philosophy, which he considered the province of great minds and creative genius. He had no interest in religious philosophy, which he considered more the domain of established dogma. From philosophy his interests extended into political science and economics, which also had much to say about how the world works. He never said anything about psychology or psychiatry, which itself may indicate something about his regard for those disciplines.

From these great subject areas, Jim extended his interests into every conceivable field that might further develop the mind. He turned away from no subject simply because it was trivial; his criterion was whether it offered any mental stimulation. Whatever the subject at hand, if it met that criterion, it got his full attention. His mechanical aptitude was limited, and one might think that this area would be the least interesting to him. But even here he found mental challenges. He developed a sort of consciousness of the inanimate world that gave him a feel of how objects would behave and react. He expressed this in many venues: “It’s not enough just to hit the golf ball. That ball doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go, and you have to tell it.” The same for sawing wood and for driving a nail. He was so intrigued by the action of a golf ball that he went on to invent some kind of stationary machine for practice driving. Apparently the ball was supposed to stay mounted on a spinning arm, but Jim never quite found a way to keep it from flying off under the force of the drive.

Given Jim’s interest in development of the Mind, it is no surprise that he placed great value on education. He had high respect for educated people. For his son he tried to get the best possible education even at the high school level – until he found that his financial means were insufficient – and later had high hopes that the boy would go all the way to a doctoral degree. It seems that he may have been overly optimistic about the difference an education could make. The best evidence for this was the way he, a school dropout at age fourteen, towered intellectually above just about everyone he met.

 *            *            *

Jim had remarkable skill at creating rhyming and rhythmic poetry on very short notice. Some poems were for his son’s entertainment, as in the first two examples below, or deadly serious and on his son’s behalf, as in the third.

BOY ‘0 MINE

A boy went swimmin’ With two fat women
On the beach at Chesapeake Bay.
The wind was blowin’ & the waves were high
The boy splashed water in the big girl’s eye

The girls took the boy and squashed him flat
And that was the end of a perky brat.

-Your Dad (1934)

RAVEN SPLITS

Edgar Allan, ere you fell, sir
Prey to melancholy gloom,
You should have quaffed an alka-seltzer And chased the raven with a broom;
Removed the bust that he sat perched on, Likewise the shelf the bust sat on,
Dust trap it was, and nothing more.

And the croaking that you twisted
Into presage of nothing more,
The same was croaked ere words existed. It was a belch and nothing more;
In ravenese, it meant – “I’ve eaten A worm or two too much, I ween,
So I’ll regurgitate and eat some more.”

Ravens, crows and other gloom birds
Who come a-tapping at your pane,
Are not the cleanest kind of room birds, (For even ashes drive a wife insane)
So keep the tappers without your chamber, Admitting only those who ring,
Unless you’re busy with Lenore.

So, Edgar Allan, lie not saddened,
Upon the night’s Plutonian shore.
If all things cease, we’ll not be maddened By things that irk us evermore
We’ll be relieved of all our taxes, Nor plagued by politics or wars
Nor be disturbed because we snore.

–  For the Raven Society, University of Virginia, 1949

FOUR MILLION FATHERS ASK

I have a son, my lords, but one,
Whose time of life doth near approach, The age thou hast decreed
When all his life shall be delivered thee For sacrifice, for barricade
“Between this haven of fair liberty And the devils of Berlin”
(The thought is yours, my lords, I do but write and so describe it
To set the issue that has come between us.)
Delivered to thee, my lords, to be maimed or butchered
Or to maim and butcher another’s son.

This son, my lords, this only one, For him I did assume, with parenthood,
The guardianship of his life and limb His heart and soul and mind likewise
‘Gainst all and every ill that might arise To foster and to cherish with my life
So he may fully grow to take the role I now fulfill, equipped to bear his burdens
And enjoy his life and heritage As God hath chosen and designed,
And I, an implement in this design, Must ask you justify your call.

The body of my son, my lords, his life, my heart,
The sacrifice you ask is great and surely doth deserve
That you and I, whom responsibility doth bear,
Should both see eye to eye or dissipate our differences
With reason freed of unseemly rancor or heat
Examine if the cause is as you paint it – or is not
Then seek another way to ease the troubles of the world
Than like the pagan priests of old
To send our fairest to propitiate the gods
That ne’er existed – Like the ways of your claim The bud that never flowered.

It appears, my lords, (and I pray you Belittle me not with specious talk,
I am a man Who listened once before, and responded,
And ever since have felt I was befooled).

It does appear, my lords, your diagnosis errs In finding ourselves so very good and they,
Our chosen enemies so very vile
We must dismiss the naiveté which claims
Them vicious and the puppets of a brain awry
And we the noble guardians of the fleece
Else your prescription will but annihilate both them and us
And never reach the canker that’s beneath it all.

— Undated (World War II)

(Adapted from Working Class Hero: One Life in a Stalwart Generation, 1884-1954, by Jim Burns. 2013.)

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 (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)