Center of the Universe

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, Middletown was a busy place.  You wouldn’t know that by looking at it now.  The downtown area had stores lining Locust Street and South on 5th Street.  Everything was there – Schott’s Hardware, Bickham’s dime store, Troy’s Jewelry, Moore Drugs, the bank, the Hat Box, Tucker Furniture, and a barber shop.  VanNoy Theater was across the street from Ballard’s Funeral Home.  It wouldn’t have been downtown M-town without Fadely’s Tavern – a fixture for about 2,539 years.  It was hard to find a parking place on weekends and during business hours.  Now, it would be hard to find another car to hit if you were trying to stage an accident.  The rest of town contained a few taverns and an equal number of churches.  I think there were 5 or 6 gas stations and at least 2 car dealers.  If I add in the grocery stores there’s not much left that you couldn’t get in town.

 Speaking of grocery stores, there were at least 2 groceries in the downtown area.  One is where Harvest Market is today.  The second was on 5th Street where the M-town news office is located.  In addition, there were several neighborhood stores.  We had one about 4 doors south of our house – Emsweller’s.  It was a wonderland of sights and smells.  It had a big wooden box out front where the bread delivery guy could drop off fresh baked goods prior to the store opening.  I’m not sure when the store opened exactly but it was way before I had to be in school – maybe as early as 6:00 AM.  Funny thing about the giant bread box outside – there was no need to lock the thing until many years later.

 The other small grocery store (before they were called convenience stores) I remember is Seybert’s.  It was on 10th street and there is a gym in the building now.  It was a prime hangout for anyone in 8th grade or beyond.  Middletown High School was a block west.  The store passed through many hands but I remember it as Seybert’s.

On Friday night the sale barn was in full swing.  Farmers from the area would bring livestock in and auction them off.  The sale would go on all until late at night.  I remember the crowds being huge.  They took up all the parking at the ballpark which didn’t align with my priority.  Baseball should have been king with everyone.  The sale barn had a certain “perfume” about it.  If aliens abducted you and you were teleported back to M-town, you could say with absolute certainty whether you had arrived on Friday night or not.  You could smell this all the way to my house which was quite a distance from the event.

 The other thing that Friday night brought was a packed house at Fadely’s.  Fadely’s had great food but I’m not sure that was the big draw.  They had cold beer and a really loud juke box, occasionally a live band.  Their t-shirts carried a “Nuts on Saturday’s” slogan.  I’m not going to explain that one – you should Google Rocky Mountain Oysters if you have questions.   When I was young, I was told to walk on the other side of the street from Fadely’s.  I guess because there was too much celebrating inside.

 I had to walk past Fadely’s often on Friday night. It was right on my path home from VanNoy Theater. There was a considerable amount of movie watching at VanNoy Theater.  It didn’t matter what movie was showing.  It cost $.25 to get in for kids and it was packed.  The $.75 adult admission must have been out of reach for most because there were very few adults watching the show.  All the couples wanted to sit in the back row by the furnace.  I was surprised to see that most teenagers must be cold blooded because the couples would sit really close and hold on to each other in spite of the furnace’s close proximity.  By the way, it was also the darkest part of the theater.

After the show was over, I would walk home.  I might still be in my little league uniform (Go Yankees).  The sidewalks were not empty – there were a lot of kids walking home.  Amazing how different the air smells on a cool late-summer night (unless it was Friday of course).  I could let my mind wander because I knew nothing was going to happen.  The entire way was lit by streetlights.  The much older kids who could drive were cruising by, ignoring little kids who were not on the same level of cool as they were (gas was somewhere below $.25 / gal).  I always felt like I knew enough of the cruisers from baseball, kick-the-can, and just being in town that if anyone approached looking suspicious, a car would stop to rescue me.  Not that I was that popular, it’s just that people of all ages looked out for other people of all ages.

The house we lived in was within walking distance of all of this.  The house had a great front porch on it with a chair and a glider (ask me about what that is).  If you sat on the porch for an hour, you would see everyone in M-town drive by.  Across the street was the church that is still there and south of that was Central School.  The school lot is apartments now but it was a center of great learning when I was there.

 Fairfield School is still standing but mostly empty now.  It was a brand new building at the time I went to kindergarten through 4th grade.  Every day I walked to elementary school.  It wasn’t scary at all, after all, who would want to mess with a strapping kid of 7.  I was about 2 feet tall and weighed about 35 pounds (not exactly the same shape as today).  Besides, I knew the names of everybody who’s house was on my route and they knew me.  They also knew my parents so if I crossed the street when I wasn’t supposed to, phones rang all up and down the block until they had my Mom on the phone.

 There were no strangers trying to snatch little kids on the way to school.  If somebody would have tried that, they had Fred Glad, our town marshal to deal with.  Fred must have been good at all aspects of small town policing but he was best at providing safe passage across the one street I had to navigate to get to school.  Fred knew most of us by name.  I swear I heard him tell kids that they had left their lunch box at home, forgot their books, and other assorted critical updates.  Who needed cell phones and texting – we had Fred.  (He was the only adult that I can remember that I was allowed to call by his first name instead of Mr. Glad.)  Foot transportation was a secure means of travel.

Going home from school was an exact reversal of the process except it was usually done at a much faster pace.  This was probably due to the lunch boxes being empty on this part of the journey.  The lunch box was one of the keys to success at Fairfield Elementary.  Pick the wrong lunch box design and you were destined to eat alone (at least I think that’s the reason).  I had a cool lunch box that was shaped like a barn and had a thermos that was painted up as the silo.  How cool can you get?  We kind of ignored the kids who carried brown paper bags.  We survived on baloney (not the more proper bologna) sandwiches and Hostess Cupcakes.  The cupcake seemed like it was a luxury – it cost $.12 for a package of 2.  The thermos always had semi-chilled white milk.

The walk home from school was often interrupted by the breakout of a baseball game.  Given that was my favorite activity, I was usually involved.  It was a modified version of baseball – you couldn’t play too hard.  If you got sweaty, your clothes would smell bad when you had to wear them again later in the week.  If a grass stain appeared due to over exuberant fielding or base running – there was 30 minutes of sitting on a chair when you got home.  Ask me how I know this one.  Mom even threatened a few times to “sell me to the gypsies” if I didn’t behave.  I wonder how much I was worth.

The walk home included passing the houses of my best friend Kenny Phil.  It also included walking past the Norfleet’s, the Wisehart’s, the Hulse’s, the Luce’s, and our neighbor’s, Clint and Icey Pierce.  They didn’t have kids of their own but treated us like we were part theirs.  In their yard was the root of many of my childhood struggles – a walnut tree.

The stupid nuts that fell from this tree were a menace to society.  Some of them grew to near baseball size.  Given it was the national pastime of the day, using walnuts in place of baseballs made some kind of sense to me.  You should pick up a green walnut and throw it around for a while.  You now have a permanently green hand.  The green finally washed off of my hand about a month ago.

Since yard mowing soon became my responsibility, I was given strict instruction that all walnuts must be picked up prior to mowing.  Coupled with the pears that fell from the tree that was on the south side of the house, that was too much picking up for one kid.  I picked them up about once.    I could get away with this as long as there were no cars or people in the area when actual mowing took place.  A lawn mower can hurl a walnut at about 4,000 miles an hour.  When it hits, it leaves a green stain on whatever it smashes against.  I know this from experience.  Pears just become pear-sauce.

I hate pears.  Pears draw bees.  The south side of our house was Disneyland for bees.  Bees hate lawn mowers and people who push them.  To this day, I shudder when bees are in the area.

Enough about fruit and nuts.  The neighborhood was full of kids, most of them older than me.   Summer’s were unbelievable growing up.  The mornings were for getting the yard mowed (no nut or fruit picking up).  After that I was on my own.  That’s kind of an exaggeration.  Remember that all the parents knew all the kids.  So if I were doing something wrong I could expect to be corrected by the closest parent.  Then I would really catch it after they told my parents what I had done.  So when I say I was on my own, it means I was under the watchful eye of every parent on N. 8th street.  My Mom had no fear I was going to run-off.  If I tried, the home phone would ring and the message passed on that “Ronnie is clear over on 6th street”.  My Mom’s response – “Tell him to get home, his Mom is looking for him”.  The message was relayed and home I went.  This seems like a big restriction to some people now but looking back, I see it as a big security blanket.  I could get in a little trouble but not much.  I could feel safe in that I could push the envelope a little and there would be an adult nearby to keep me from major issues.

The intermediate curfew was supper time.  Once I was out the back door, I was under the neighborhood umbrella until supper time.  At the designated hour, I had to be home.  If not, the yell would come out the back door from Mom that it was time to come home.  Again, there was no need for cell phones.  I think it’s funny that she would sometimes forget who she was yelling for and the message would come out as “Bo.., Ja.., De.., Ronnie, it’s time for supper”.  She had just cycled through all of our names Bob, Janet, Debbie, and me either because she couldn’t decide who was missing or because she wanted everyone to know she had 4 kids.

A mandatory appearance was made at the supper table.  Then I was excused to go terrorize the neighborhood until dark.  Janet and Debbie were stuck doing dishes because that was “women’s work”.  That seemed normal to me but would certainly get the ACLU knocking at your door if you tried it now days.

Dark was the real actual curfew but was subject to interpretation.  The definition of “dark” originally was “when the streetlights came on”.  I successfully argued that actual dark was at least ½ hour after street light illumination.  Everybody knows that actual dark occurs when there is so little light that the ball hits you in the face because you can’t see it.

There were no real boundaries on what made up the neighborhood.  It started out for me that it was bounded by “don’t go off our block”.  There weren’t any fences and nobody really cared if the game of choice of that day extended past actual property lines.  Once we started playing baseball and started wearing base paths into the grass, there was some parental discussion about where to play.  Until the corn came up, we were allowed to use Mr. Hulse’s corn field.  The ground was uneven from the plowing but who really cared.

Once I proved that I could be trusted not to run away with the circus, I was allowed to play with the kids on the next block east of Central School (technically 2 blocks from my house but still controlled by the Parental Overwatch Committee).  While my immediate neighbors had mostly boys, the new area had about ½ girls.  They were pretty cool but tired quickly of baseball games that lasted 36 consecutive days and had scores in triple digits.  The alternative entertainment was “kick-the-can” which we played with great vigor.

The can was retrieved from the closest trash barrel (everybody burned their trash in those days).  If you could score a Hi-C juice can you were a hero, even if the can was somewhat blackened and bent.  I could explain the rules of the game to you but you should probably look it up.  The rules seemed to change frequently depending on the participants.  We did have quite a variety of participants.  The games never seemed to end and were controlled by how difficult it was to find the actual players (or figure out they quit and went home).  In fact at certain times, some participants would find such a great hiding place that we could never find them.  Since it was usually the same boy and girl that disappeared we became suspicious that more was going on here than simple hiding.  An aside – that was probably 50 years ago and that same couple has spent their entire lives together in the M-town area.

On rainy days and after dark, there was no kick-the-can, no baseball, and no bicycle riding (well maybe a little).  You were stuck in the house.  The TV had 3 stations that you could get most days and a 4th that you could get if the weather was right.  One of the great topics of debate among neighborhood adults was “what kind of antenna are you using and which way is it pointed?”.  Kids existed to serve in place of remote controls and you lived by TV Guide.  “Hey, it’s 8:00 and Ed Sullivan is on channel 8 – one of you kids turn it to 8.”  The TV had actual knobs for changing the channel.   Saturday morning was all cartoons and Sunday night was all about Ed Sullivan.

One of things I remember most about watching TV (black and white mostly) was that on Friday night, we could stay up late if we turned the volume way down.  An amazing transformation took place after the 11:00 news.  You could pick your poison (well – 3 ½ channels worth anyway).  Most of the time, we chose Sammy Terry and some of the scariest horror shows ever made – The Blob, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein (the original), Wolfman, etc.  If you’re 10 years old and lead a sheltered life in a quiet neighborhood of small town America, this stuff could scare the heck out of you.  Sammy himself was bad enough (he’s still performing – I know a story about him: just ask me).  The movies would have me cowering under a blanket and watching with one eye. It really helped having an older sister that didn’t seem fazed by monsters.  She was rock solid.   There was no blood or people’s inside falling out on camera but I had bad dreams none-the-less.

The other choice was a variety of movies that covered romantic stuff, murder mysteries, and  other miscellaneous topics  that are of varying interest to young people.  That was a backup in case Sammy Terry was sick or out haunting some other time zone.  There were other shows on other days that my parents let us watch:  Car 54 Where Are You?, I Dream of Jeannie, etc.  These shows all had some things in common – good guys always won, nice guys always finished first, and problems were always resolved in the allotted time.

One more thing I wanted to include relates to a swimming pool.  I think to please my sisters, my parents acquired a small backyard swimming pool.  It was not elaborate by today’s standards.  It was square, made of blue canvas and held together by a red steel frame with triangular shaped seats filling in each corner.  I thought it was great for a short period of time then reality struck.  I was trying to hold my breath under water (every kid has done that).  The pool was maybe a foot deep and I somehow managed to get my head underneath one of the seats in the corner of that pool face-down.  I panicked.  If my Mom had not pulled me out I think I would have not been here to write these notes.  I’m sure that my sister is still laughing about it.  As a result, I have never learned to swim and have never been comfortable in water.  I now have a really nice pool in my backyard.  I swear that I will conquer that crazy swimming thing.  So even in M-town, life could throw you a curve when you least expect it.

You should now have a good feel for life in the ‘hood as it existed in the 50’s and 60’s.  I don’t like to tell people it was “simpler times” because it could be quite complex.  But it was complex because every day you had to deal with a huge variety of people – young and old, boys and girls, grouchy and nice, etc.   You didn’t remove yourself from society, you were an integral part of everyday living in the center of the universe.