Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Oh, Auntie Em!"


My wife and I are returning to our hometown in South Dakota next July for what will be our final class reunion hoorah, my 65th and her 60th. It sounds odd that we still call Mobridge our hometown after all these years, when the town in which we grew up and then then from which we fled as soon as possible no longer exists. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again has probably been alluded to more often than the total number of readers of that novel. But the truth of that title for nearly everyone in this country, maybe even in the world, is that we’re trying to rediscover our youth, and it no longer exists except in memory. So that’s what I and two of my classmates, Gene Schlecht and Bill Sherman, will try to do when me meet in the town that’s no longer our home—reconstruct that long ago village of our youth—the places, the smells, the sounds, the tastes.

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past revolved around the idea that sensory experience can rush us back in time to those places and times in our past. They can also take me back to my youth over seventy years ago.

My Mobridge of the 1930’s and 1940’s is recreated by an assortment of smells, both good and bad. The acrid skunk smell that surrounded The Hide and Fur Company in that tiny building near the railroad tracks on 4th Avenue East. And further south, the smell of smoldering garbage in the Mobridge garbage dump, overrun with the rats many of us shot with our 22’s. And just west of the dump, the odor of horse and cattle and pig shit from the Mobridge Sales Barn. The strong ammonia smell of a farmer’s horse barn. The tear-inducing smell of the Vicks VapoRub our mothers used to smear on our chests whenever we had a cold or the flu. The smell of steaming tar laid down on Highway 12. The pervasive smell of lilac in the basement of our Episcopal Church, the rich pine scent from the tree and pine boughs at Christmas in that same church. The reek of ether that permeated the Lowe Hospital. The smell of the valve oil I put on my cornet valves. The odor of freshly poured concrete in the house being built next door to our house on 5th Avenue West. The delicious aromas in the Masonic Lodge whenever our parents went there for a potluck supper (almost always called “supper,” not “dinner”). The redolence of burning leaves in the fall when we were still allowed to burn leaves.

And the tastes. The bitterness of those green crab apples we stole on night raids in the summers and falls. The bitterness of the choke cherries we plucked from someone’s tree, pretending that they were oh so good. The wild gooseberries we invariably ate before they were fully ripe. The Fletcher’s Castoria our mothers gave us when we got too sick from the crab apples, choke cherries, and gooseberries. The sweetness we sucked from honeysuckle blossoms. The taste of the homemade lemonade from that little food stall at the Sales Barn. The candy bars we grew up on: Powerhouse, Bit O Honey, those wonderful 7-Up bars we always ate, saving the Brazil nut for last. The soda pops (always in those stingy 8-ounce bottles, always “pop,” never “soda”): Coke, Hire’s Root Beer, 7-Up, Orange Crush, Grape Nehi, Cream Soda, Squirt (that later in high school we learned made a great mixer with the illegal 4-Roses or Schenley whiskey an older friend bought for us). Vegetables: raw carrots and white radishes we pulled from our mother’s garden, raw potatoes we nibbled on as we were peeling spuds for our mother’s dinner, tomatoes fresh off the vine out in back, sweet peas straight from the pod as we were helping our mothers get dinner, the corn and green beans and peas we had with our dinners (Isn’t it odd that none of us had ever eaten or heard of broccoli or cauliflower?). Other sweets and treats: the combination of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream from that here-then-gone ice cream shop on the east side of Main Street; the unique taste of Dean’s pizzaburgers; the crinkly taste of the vanilla and chocolate halvah my father sold from the meat department in the Frontier Market; the chocolate slush cones Tom Miller sold in his flower shop; the hot beef and pork sandwiches we could get at the Sereno CafĂ© for only two-bits; the bismarcks and elephant ears from Emil Becker’s bakery; my mother’s lemon merengue pie; the fudgesickles we took into the Mascot (that were always more solid and lasted longer than any you might buy today); the nickel bags of “rooshin peanuts”; the gums we all seemed to chew day and night—Black Jack, Beechnut, Spearmint, Double-Bubble (wrapped separately in big round balls); Cracker Jack (with a surprise toy at the bottom and a whole lot more peanuts than you find in a box today) and jaw-breakers and Sen-Sen (those tiny black mouth fresheners when we wanted to disguise beer breath). Ethnic foods and dishes: the tiger meat my father put together for special occasions (raw ground beef and lots of spices—eaten uncooked on crackers); the milk toast my mother always made for us whenever we were sick (hot buttered milk on two slices of toast); the Norwegian lefse my sister-in-law Bonnie Scott made every Thanksgiving and Christmas; the German kuchen Mrs. Scott and Mrs. Naasz made for my father to sell in the Frontier Market; the German-Jewish stuffed cabbage (what we always mistakenly called “pigs-in-the-blanket”); and the disgusting Swedish lutefisk for the holidays (cod fillets soaked in a lye solution), then rinsed and baked. Ah, the memories.

The sounds: The train whistles whenever a Milwaukee Road train passed through Glenham and then approached the 4th Avenue crossing. The repeated hooting of the fire alarm to call out the volunteers; the single siren call at 6:00 p.m. and another at the 10:00 p.m. curfew; that most welcome repeated signal in the depths of a snowstorm to tell us there would be no school that day. The sound of Carmen Cavallaro’s piano on the radio in our living room Sunday mornings; Jack Armstrong (the All-American Boy), Inner Sanctum with that introductory squeaking door, and The Lone Ranger in late afternoons, Jack Benny and Red Skelton in the evenings. The buzzing of bugs around the lights at the Mascot Theater; the crunching of those same bugs when they fell to the sidewalk and we crushed them underfoot; the whine of mosquitoes when we ill-advisedly ventured onto the lawns on hot summer nights; the whir of grasshoppers as they fled before us when we walked in the country; the constant chirping of crickets in the night. I think we had more active insects in the past than in the present.

Then there are the birds back then. Of the town birds I most remember, the robins always signaled the end of winter when they returned to do their cock-eyed hop-hop-hop on our lawns searching for angleworms. And there were so many chirping sparrows in town we didn’t even notice them. A family of house wrens lived in a birdhouse just outside my bedroom window. We’d occasionally see red-headed woodpeckers hammering away at the American elms. There were also a few nasty blue jays that screamed at one and all. There must have been mourning doves and pigeons in town, but I don’t remember any. Out in the country, we had crows and magpies, blackbirds both plain and red-winged, hawks of various sizes, barn swallows, golden finches (that we always incorrectly called wild canaries), and owls, I’m sure, although I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing an owl in or out of Mobridge. The countryside had those tiny sandpipers that skipped and hopped and faked injury to lure people away from their ground nests. We had yellow flycatchers that would swoop down to peck at hatless heads if we got too close to a nest. We had mallards and Canada geese that made their annual way from south to north and back again. We had grouse and prairie chickens. But most of all we had those beautiful pheasants that inhabited our roadside ditches and wheat and cornfields. And finally, the most memorable bird for its sound in all of South Dakota—the meadowlark. I can never think of South Dakota and my hometown without hearing the meadowlark’s unmistakable song—long down-note, then up, then a rapid up and down warbling. Repeated every two or three minutes. Just for the heck of it. Or maybe communicating with a male or female meadowlark, asking him or her to come on over for a cocktail and a roll in the hay.

In my mind’s eye, I can locate all the houses I lived in or houses my friends lived in, the houses of the Mobridge aristocracy of the day. These were the houses on the west side of the Mobridge City Park, from the old Ellison house on the north corner of 1st Avenue West and 7th Street, then south to the grand Morrison house, then Judge Mundt’s house, and then my Uncle Ray Travis’s house on the south corner of that block. On the north corner of the next block was the Julius Skaug mansion, then the Stutenroth house, and then the old Congregational Church on the corner of 1st Avenue West and the highway.

I lived in a number of houses in Mobridge from the time I was born until I finally left South Dakota. When I was born, we lived in the Ellison house next to Morrison’s. Then we moved to a little house on 5th Avenue West. And after we moved back from Mitchell, where we spent only a year, we lived in the 5th Avenue house for several years before moving into the house on the corner of 2nd Avenue West and the highway, right next to the Dahlman house and kitty-corner from the Catholic Church. And finally, in about 1946, we moved into the Tolkein house just north of the city park, right next to Doc Spiry’s house on 7th Street. It was a considerable upgrade from our previous houses. My father had made good money in the grocery store and meat-locker business following WWII and was able to buy the house from my Godparents, the Tolkeins. I remember vaguely that their son Woody went to Hollywood and had small parts in a few movies. I remember occasionally seeing him in a film and saying, “Oh, yeah, there’s old Woody, the Mobridge film star.”

Mobridge seemed so much smaller then, the Lutheran Academy a long hike through open fields out to the west, and just north of the Academy, the old airport where Bob Brown flew in the old WWII cargo plane that sat there as a sort of club house for anyone who wanted to hike out there. To the north there were almost no houses beyond the high school, Todd’s house just north and east of the baseball diamond, Klapsaddles’s house almost by itself to the northwest. East of town, housing stopped at 6th or 7th Avenue.

In the winter, we skated wherever we could. There was a rink near Leff’s house on 3rd Avenue East, and another right next to Dougie Clifton’s house on 5th Avenue East. There must have been other places on the west side of town, but I don’t remember any. Most of us skated at the one near Leff’s. I can still smell the oiled rags and scrap lumber we burned in a 50-gallon drum for warming us on cold winter evenings. I guess some kids skated on the frozen Missouri River, but I never did, probably for fear of falling through the ice and never being seen again.

In the summer, we swam in stock dams (with those awful muddy bottoms), Molestads (always thick with green algae), very rarely in the river (but never far from shore), and finally in the recently opened city pool near the high school. Most of my classmates were reliable swimmers, but I was never more than an adequate dog-paddler. That would account for my never going into water that was deeper than my head.

All the places that were then and are no more. Main Street included a J.C. Penney store near the corner of Main and 4th Street, a store consumed by fire in 1970. What I best remember about this store are those odd little metal cups attached to wires that ran cash from a salesperson to an upstairs business office with change being sent back down. No registers, just high-flying metal cups. How odd. Nearly all the stores along that long-ago Main Street are new either gone or have been replaced by other businesses. The ones I remember seemed so much more spacious than they actually were. My father’s store in between Swartz’s and Perron’s Toggery was actually quite small, much narrower from north to south than it was in my mind. So too were almost all the other businesses along the street. Some of the buildings were only one-story, many two-story, with offices and apartments on the second floor. I remember going in a narrow entrance between businesses and up a dark staircase to Dr. Mohn’ office at the end of the hall for that dreaded filling or two, or even a painful extraction. I remember a tiny apartment above the Penney store where my Aunt Lu Travis lived. In high school I bowled at a 4-lane bowling alley run by Lefty Boughner. Four lanes! How odd. How narrow. I remember the Mascot as being much larger and grander than it is. Dale Lesher, theater owner, would put out a monthly schedule of up-coming movies and everyone in town would dutifully hang it on the refrigerator or kitchen bulletin board. The premium films would run Sunday through Tuesday, the B’s on Wednesday and Thur4sday, and the C’s on Friday and Saturday, often double-features on the weekends, mostly cheap Westerns with Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, or Roy Rogers, sometimes double horrors like The Mummy and The Black Panther, or a double Tarzan with Johnny Weismuller swinging through the jungle, giving us a thrill with his patented Tarzan yell. A dime got us in, rising to an alarming 12 cents a few years later, tickets sold to us by Mrs. Stacy. How heavenly, a double-feature on Saturdays, with a bag of popcorn or a box of old-maids from Emil Weigum’s Kernel Korn Pop Corn Shop. And an orange, lemon, or grape pushup or a fudgesickle to go with it. Then we’d stumble out in late afternoon sunshine, sick to the stomach and eye-weary from too much doubled-features. Haircuts at the Monogram with Charlie Bell there polishing shoes. Charlie Bell, our token Black in a white town. Root beer floats at Swartz’s soda fountain, furtively checking the magazines near the front (trying to find naked bosoms in The National Geographic). Moving north along Main Street, through Grand Crossing, past Doc Ivey’s home and chiropractic office on the west side, then the Baptist Church where I grudgingly stomped to Bible school one summer. (Was it one summer or only a piece of a summer before I convinced my parents I should quit the classes? Was that the beginning of my disenchantment with religion and formal church doctrine?) At the end of the block was the Masonic Lodge, and across the street was the A. H. Brown public library. Up those three or four steps and through the heavy door to confront the stern librarian, Mrs. Briley, keeper of the books, to whom I would fork over the few cents I owed for over-due books (and I invariably had over-due books). Then to the left in the first shelf of books, halfway down, all the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, all of which I read and re-read over my young years, all the Tarzan series and Mars and Venus series and Earth’s Core novels. Oh, the thrill of those books. And if I went down the short aisle between the first and second shelves, I found a book of ghost and horror stories, one of which has been stored vividly in my mind for the seventy or so years since I first read it, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a study in madness that horrified me then and still does. Later in my life I would read other books from the library, but mostly I read paperbacks, many borrowed from my brother Bob, some bought at Miller’s for two-bits, going through Westerns (mostly those by Luke Short or Max Brand), historical romances (mostly by Thomas B. Costain or Samuel Shellabarger), mysteries and detectives (some by Agatha Christie, mostly those by Mickey Spillane or Bret Halliday), and then onto my favorite genre, science fiction (mostly by Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, or almost anyone else writing during the Golden Age of Science Fiction). And when I tired of one genre, I’s start over with Westerns, and so on. For quite a few years I had a subscription to Amazing Stories, devouring the contents and then eagerly waiting for the next copy to arrive. My parents always had subscriptions to The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, but I was only interested in the cartoons, not quite yet ready for the grown-up stories therein.

Moving north again to the city park, that wonderful place for rubber-gun battles and touch-football games. The bandstand where my wife broke her arm jumping to the ground, the nearby concrete fountain bowl, the birch trees the trunks on which so many or us carved our initials, birch trees and elms now gone, the one to old age, the others to that devastating Dutch elm disease). Moving north from the park, up the hill to the middle school/high school. Why do I recall it as a hill that I climbed every weekday to get to that middle school/high school? Maybe because it was a trudge up there and a frolic back down. I remember the high school library as a tiny room across the hall from the auditorium/study hall. Too many memories of classes there, classrooms there, most of them good, some of them not so good. I remember the band/chorus room on the second floor of the middle school, in which I sang in the mixed chorus and boys’ glee club, practiced in the high school band. Some of the band members I gest remember: Delbert Steiger and Bobbie Klein on trombone, Gene Zimmer on French horn, sister-in-law Kaye Zimmer and Benny Thompson on trumpet, and, of course, Wenzel Leff on first-chair trumpet. I played in the trumpet section but I was unmemorable and didn’t play very well. My memories of high school are divided—sports memories good for the most part, scholarship memories not so good.

One more place I must mention, the sand dunes several miles west of town, just before the curve up to the wagon bridge. Isn’t it odd that I still call it a “wagon bridge” even though in that long time ago no wagons passed over it, only automobiles? The sand dunes seemed to occupy at least a hundred acres of land just off the highway to the east of that final curve to the bridge, deep white sand blown into dunes by the South Dakota winds, a wonderful place to play Arabs. I don’t remember who I went there with or how often I went, but I can still see it in my mind’s eye. And that eye may not have 20-20 vision anymore.

I’m looking forward to hearing what Gene and Bill remember of that lost youth, what they remember that I don’t, how their memories of events and places may differ from mine. We should have a great time reminiscing over our last Mobridge Hoorah.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the memories. As a '61 graduate of Mobridge it was great to be reminded of the many things that made Mobridge "home" that no town could ever replace. Robert Nickisch

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