Growing Up In Libertyville in the Thirties and Forties
Around and About on Wheels
Having wheels made it easier to stretch out from home base. Wagons were common and could be used by two or solo. The same effort applied to a scooter made a trip faster and easier. Tricycles were common and could be ridden solo or tandem. At one time we had an Irish Mail which was rather like a railroad handcar. It would go fast, but wasn't maneuverable like roller skates. Skates, except at roller rinks, were always clamped on over street shoes. I don't ever remember seeing skaters on main business block sidewalks, but our favorite place was the north side of Lake Street coming down the hill to Milwaukee. You could get up real speed there. The problem was making the corner without falling or going out onto the road or hitting a pedestrian. So, we often mounted a sentry at the corner for the sake of safety and to warn of the approach of an irate shop owner.


Real mobility came with a real bike. Most bikes, back then, had balloon tires, no gears, maybe a squeeze-bulb horn and for some fortunate bikers, a headlight. Given parental permission or just unawareness it wasn't too tough to make the rail yards at Rondout, the interesting roads at St. Mary's, the interesting and forbidden gravel pit area, trails by the river; sometimes the beach at Lake Bluff.


In the winter there was good skating with ice skates that clamped to street shoes, later with real lace up skates. Kids skated anywhere there was ice, sometimes on the streets because salt was rarely used and a hard winter would provide a hard packed street network for days at a time. We skated on Butler Lake after sweeping the snow to one side. The best skating was on the Des Plaines when it was cold enough to freeze it over. We skated from Oak Spring Road north to Buckley Road. That was especially nice at night, with a fire going on the bank and the ice glistening in the moonlight.


Sleds were big. Opinion differed as to the best brands, but the American Flyer and the Flexible Flyer were among the best. There weren't any real hills, but the best was 4th street between Sunnyside and Meadow Lane. Other popular sledding was on Wright Court and the slope from Church to Broadway. Kids from our block often went to what we called "Taylor's hill." That was next to Dr. Taylor's house on a street off Laurel that overlooked Butler Lake. There was a little indentation in the slope where you could get a sled airborne, sometimes with disastrous results. Really daring kids would belly flop behind a car and hang on to the rear bumper. It was dangerous, but I don't remember any accidents. The really big guys, high school age, would tow behind cars on their skis. Many kids had skis but there wasn't any real skiing, just poling oneself along. The river was good for that on the rare occasions when a hard freeze and snow provided a decent surface.


In 1940, my first year in high school, I met Ken Johnson. He lived on West Lake street, a few doors from Bush Road. Kids from out there had gone to Bush school, which was the classic one-room schoolhouse with outdoor plumbing. Ken had various Model T Fords which he drove around in the family pastures and on the ice of Butler Lake in the winter.


In 1941, after graduation, Ken and his brother Russell who was known as "Buzzer," and I drove into northern Wisconsin in his Model T truck. Because of gas rationing Ken had rigged a gallon can filled with gas on the firewall. That was used to start and warm the engine, then it was switched over to kerosene. The driver manipulated the spark and throttle while a passenger cranked the engine, being careful to position his thumb so it wouldn't be broken if the engine kicked back. A solo driver could manage by cranking, then dashing back to the controls. Model T's had dynamos rather than batteries and a transmission that functioned with adjustable bands, so you changed gears with two pedals on the floor. The windshield could be folded down and the T's had the famous ah-ooga squeeze bulb horn.


Later on, Ken had several of the much improved Model A Fords. They had amenities like starters, batteries, rear view mirrors; and some models had rumble seats, convertible tops and spare wheels mounted in wells on the front fenders. Tires had tubes back then, and on our trip to Wisconsin we had twenty-one flat tires. We patched those alongside the road. One fairly strong guy could lift the car by hand so the wheel could be taken off and replaced. It was a form of showing off, of course, because we always carried a jack.


All too frequently we made trips to Homer Martin's junkyard on Route 21 just west of Milwaukee. Shortly after the war Ken, Pat White, Frank Swanson and Chuck Jamieson raced stock cars at various tracks. One night we chanced by the track west of Waukegan and, finding the gate open, drove in for a few fast, lights-out laps. Ken has lived in California for nearly forty years and as a hobby restores classic Jaguars, Mercedes and others. On my last visit there I had the pleasure of a ride in his Mercedes 450 SL, truly a car with class.


In the early forties trains took us into Chicago to the big swing bands at the Oriental, Chicago, and State-Lake theatres. You got a first-run movie and a stage show and could sit there from nine in the morning until the last show. We saw bands like Tommy Dorsey with a young and skinny kid singer named Frank Sinatra, Glen Gray and his Casa Loma orchestra, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey with singers Bob Eberle and Helen O'Connell. The only big band I missed was Glen Miller, who was in the army by then.


The music business was segregated then and the Downtown was the only Loop house that presented black bands. It was on South State Street. I was there once in 1944 to see Duke Ellington. That band was both subtle and powerful and had the audience literally standing on their seats, something I never saw at the other Loop venues. The Duke played at the Civic Opera House sometime in 1946. I was there on furlough and saw the show. There was plenty of clapping and a standing ovation, but nobody standing on seats.
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