Growing Up In Libertyville in the Thirties and Forties
My Home
Our house was typical. The exterior was unpainted stucco with a screened front porch that offered summer sitting and sleeping. The back porch was roofed. The milk bottles were delivered there and the garbage cans were kept next to the back sidewalk from the house to the garage. The basement had both inside and outside stairs. One window opened into the coal bin for the chute from the truck. You couldn't miss the sound of coal rattling down the chute. There was a room we called the fruit cellar where we stored canned and preserved goods. There was a tool room with tool chests and a work bench. It held at one time a wine barrel with undrinkable wine my father had tried to make from Concord grapes. There was a large coal furnace and the main room which had the clotheslines. We used to drop horse chestnuts down the heat registers so they would explode in the furnace. A clothes chute from the second floor had two doors from which to extract the dirty clothes. There were two laundry tubs and a gas plate for heating tubs of water. Until the late thirties we had a sidearm gas water heater which you lit by a match. Today's type with automatic controls came just before the war, along with electric refrigerators. We got our first gas range with a pilot light after the war.


Once when the parents were away my brother and I took a revolver from the cedar chest and fired it into the coal bin. The noise was shocking. We returned the gun, uncleaned, not realizing that the barrel would be ruined. The damage wasn't discovered until many years later.


We ate in the kitchen, using the dining room at holidays when guests came. By today's standards the kitchen was a disaster. It had only one built-in cabinet. There was a little pantry used for dish and food storage. It would have felt small to a midget. The icebox, refrigerator after 1939, was in the "back room" which was a corridor between the kitchen and the back porch. There was a living room and a "front room" where the piano sat, along with a dresser and my father's desk, that held his American Legion files--he was post adjutant for many years. That desk held the downstairs phone over which he checked in with the Public Service for emergency calls.


Before dial phones he asked the operator for "one thousand, please." When the company operator answered he asked for "247, please." That was the dispatch office. Because he was called to fire scenes he had the "secret code" used by firemen who called the phone company to get the fire location.


The second floor had three bedrooms and the bath, which came with a tub, no shower. There were strict rules about cleaning the tub after each use. The house was poorly insulated and hot summer nights were miserable. We often slept on mattresses on the floor downstairs or on the front porch. The bedroom storm windows could be opened out or you could use a little sliding panel to expose three small holes. The storms were taken down to the basement in the spring and replaced by screens. The attic stairs led off the bedroom my brother and I shared. It held army uniforms and equipment from WWI which we played with. There were bayonets, helmets, gas masks. These, with some Civil War swords that were kept in the basement afforded hours of fun.


Through the thirties mail came twice daily. Our mailman, until he left for the war, was Dick Schotanus. He wore a uniform with a cap and necktie. My father had known the postmaster, Ray Kennedy, for years. As kids, we knew at least the name of' every mailman and inside worker.


At one time our Cub Scout troop met in our basement. Our mother was a Den Mother. That meant she kept some degree of order and applied cookies and milk or Kool-Aid. We had a punching bag and barbell set in the basement. Bob Gillis, the Presbyterian minister's son, took a roundhouse punch at a second bag, but it was the clothespin bag. It was a painful mistake.


Those days the radio was home entertainment. We had a big Silvertone radio in the living room and a table model next to my bed. Programs aimed at kids usually ran fifteen minutes each weekday between five and six in the afternoon. Dick Tracy was big as was Dick Armstrong, the All-American Boy. There were various cowboys, cops and adventurers. Adults got news from H. V. Kaltenborn who had an unctuous, somehow official-sounding voice that made listeners think he knew whereof he spoke. Gabriel Heatter's' horrendous opener was, "Ah yes, ladies and gentlemen, there's good news tonight."


There was drama: the Lux Radio Theatre introduced by Cecil B. DeMille, was one of several. Saturday nights were enlivened by the National Barn Dance over WLS and Your Hit Parade which ran down the pop hits. Make Believe Ballroom was on weekday afternoons. Announced by Martin Block, it purported to be from a ballroom. Records and sound effects helped the illusion. At that time the networks carried remotes of the big bands; Glen Miller, the Dorsey brothers' bands, Glen Gray and his Casa Loma orchestra and many others. The sweet or "Mickey Mouse" bands like Sammy Kaye, Hal Kemp and Lawrence Welk were broadcast from the Aragon and Trianon ballrooms in Chicago. Kay Kyser had his Kollege of Musical Knowledge on a major network in prime evening hours.


Kids were frightened by the tales on Inner Sanctum and The Hermit. Their sounds included ghostly howls and creaking doors. I Love A Mystery was popular and years later, living near San Francisco, I was surprised to find that its author, Carlton E. Morse, was alive and well and living two towns down the Peninsula.


Daytime serials abounded: Our Gal Sunday, Stella Dallas, Vic and Sade, Young Dr.Kildare, and many others. Some of them ran for years, fifteen minutes at a clip with lots of commercials. Burns and Allen, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Abie's Irish Rose, Amos 'n' Andy, The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, The Abbott and Costello Show, Orson Welles, Franklyn MacCormack, great names all. Culture lovers could listen to The Metropolitan Opera with Milton Cross, all the way from New York.


Football and baseball were the major sports on radio. When the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were on the road the games were done by telegraph. Listeners could hear the clicking of the keys using Morse code, just like what train passengers heard at the depots. My brother and I were in our bedroom on Sunday afternoon, December seventh, listening to the Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins. The news of Pearl Harbor interrupted the broadcast and we checked the atlas to make sure just where the Hawaiian Islands were.


The twice-yearly arrivals of the Sears and Wards catalogs were events in young lives. In the summer of 1941 Chuck Jamieson, my brother Don, Mark Neville and I went to Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan near Antigo. We slept four to a tent raised on a wooden platform, swam, canoed, hiked, studied nature. Many of the counselors were talking about military service because the draft was in place. The summer of 1942 was the last of the camp for the duration.


Halloween was a big occasion for kids, if not adults. There was clothesline night, garbage night, etc., all before the main event. Little kids did trick or treat and bigger kids rang doorbells, soaped windows and stuffed cow manure into mailboxes. I don't remember any real, destructive vandalism. Older boys, it was said, blew up front porch mailboxes with cherry bombs. Wise householders taped their door letter slots closed for the night.


One year I was part of a small band that took offense at some hapless resident. He had refused to play trick or treat so we tricked. We sneaked onto his front porch to wedge his front door shut with a tree branch, then rang the bell, banged on the door and vibrated a sewing spool, notched, against his window. After pushing in vain against his front door the enraged man stormed out the back door and ran down the sidewalk to the front where he tripped over an ankle-high cord we had rigged and went sprawling, there to receive a shower of rotten vegetables from our hiding place in the shrubs. None of us ever went into that neighborhood for months.


In 1937 there was a huge storm that produced what was called "the big flood." The paper ran photos of rowboats on the streets of Mundelein. The Des Plaines overran its banks and my father rescued Archie Foss from the roof of his stalled truck in a field near the old iron bridge at Buckley Road. Archie didn't swim, so my father plunged in with a coil of rope and towed Archie back to safe ground.


We often told the "rhubarb pie" story in the family. It concerned an incident at Does Inn on Route 21 and 45 near Grayslake. The roadhouse was run by Jack Monroe. They served food and drink and excellent rhubarb pie. After a couple of drinks Dad ordered the rhubarb pie, ate it and said, "I like rhubarb pie. Doesn't everybody like rhubarb pie? I do, so give everybody a slice, on me." Cooler heads intervened.


After the war and an unsuccessful attempt at picking up girls at a local hotspot, I came home very late and tiptoed into the bathroom. To my surprise and dismay, my father was occupying the throne. I carefully removed my clothes to drop them down the clothes chute into the basement, but dropped my shoes instead. It sounded like a bomb going off, but he didn't say a word, so I eased off to bed. About noon the next day I met my mother in the kitchen, no father in sight. He was still in bed, somehow not the worse for wear and rhubarb pie. Later that day he surprised me by asking what time I had gotten home the night before.
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