Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Early Years: The Store, The Schools, The Swamp

(Note:  The most recent assignment in our Writing Class was to write a narrative describing our activities during our early childhood.  This was  inspired by the sharp contrast with the childhood experiences of this generation, particularly because of the immersion in technological devices.)

In 1947, when I was six years old, my parents moved from Three Rivers, Michigan, ten miles north to Moorepark,  a village of 500 people located 15 miles south of Kalamazoo on old Highway 131.  They wanted  to make a go of it running a General Store, selling basic groceries. Across the Highway to the east was a Methodist Church; (My family never went to church); across the street to the south was a gas station and Gunsmith Shop run by Bergie Hughey.  To the west was a Post Office, and across the street from the Post Office was a one-room schoolhouse.

Our living quarters were located just behind the  store, separated by a curtain.  We lived in one big room.  My parents’ bed was in the northeast corner; my sister, Jean, three years younger, and I slept in small cots in the southwest corner, next to the couch, easy chair, and big, wooden radio.  In the northwest corner was the kitchen with a hand pump over the sink because we had no running water.  Next to it was an ice box that used ice blocks delivered once a week.  Next to it was a primitive stove .Near the kitchen were two large, lead tubs for laundry and our baths. My mother hung clothes on a clothes line.  The two-seater outhouse was just outside.
At night, we huddled around the radio listing to series like “The Shadow,” “The Lone Ranger,”  “The B Bar B Ranch,” and “Amos ‘n Andy.”
During this time, I attended a one-room school, Grades 1-8; I was a student there from Grades 1-4, when my parents gave up, and we moved back into town, Three Rivers.

Mrs. Steininger, a tall woman with gray hair and glasses, masterfully taught us, about 45 kids in one room.  There were 5-6 kids in each grade; she made it work by having the older ones teach the younger ones.  I looked forward to going to school.

(Incidentally, years later I went to a Psychic Reader who said that in my former life I was a Jewish professor at a German University, and I in the late 30’s, I was caught in a round-up by the Nazis, placed in a truck with other people, and a gas hose was attached to the back of the truck, and we were asphyxiated.

She said that several of my family immigrated to the United States.  She said that I came back rather quickly (1941), and one of my sisters became my teacher.  I often think that Mrs. Steiniger was my sister in my former life.

Yet, when I think about it now, I do not recall that she had a German accent, and  how could she have gotten certified to  teach so quickly?)
On most summer days, my friend Nino, from a large Italian family down the street, and I would head for The Swamp.  He often proudly told me that his name meant “young bull.” Across the street from the store behind the church were large fields, and behind them were woods and swamps and streams.  We would head out with our bows and arrows, our knives in scabbards hanging from our belts, and small knapsacks on our backs, carrying our lunch—baloney and mustard sandwiches, Twinkies, and a canteen of water.

We hunted bullfrogs, shot at snakes, and threw rocks at the fish, and played cowboys and Indians.  We swam at The Pit, an enormous sand pit, its large, almost vertical banks sloping into a warm pool.

Looking back, I realize that it was so much fun because we were free to do as we wished, no restrictions imposed by parents or teachers.
After four years, my dad and mom realized they just couldn’t make it running the store.  People tended to go to the larger stores in Three Rivers for groceries, and only came into our store for a few items, like milk and  bread and cold cuts.

We moved back to Three Rivers.  My dad took a job as a butcher in a nearby grocery store, and my mother proudly became a secretary at Continental Can.  She was proud because she had graduated from high school and had taken typing.  I entered Huss Elementary School in the Fifth Grade.  I was wondering how I would do in school, moving into a city of 10,000 people.  I was amazed that I did perfectly all right, often  raising my hand to answer a question.  Mrs. Steininger did her job.

Although bullying was not widespread, as it seems to be now, a couple of guys messed with me because I had moved to town from the country.   One day in the restroom while I was washing my hands, a couple of guys came in and called me “Country boy.”  I grabbed the nearest guy by the front of his shirt, slammed him against the wall, and said, “You better stop fucking with me,” while the other guy took a step back and when I released the first guy, they were out the door. From that day forward, I was accepted and often picked early on for pick-up games in football, softball, and basketball.
On Saturdays, my sister and I would go to the movies in the Riviera Theatre in downtown Three Rivers.  For 12 cents each, we saw a double feature, a serial, and cartons.

And so it went, almost 70 years ago.