The Hood

Municipal Bath House

Glenn Miller  - My Isle of Golden Dreams

Our House

"Number please"

I explore my domain

Until I was sixteen my family lived on a pretty, tree-lined street named Mill Street.  It was typical of the few dozen intersecting, checkerboard-like streets that neatly corralled square green lawns with small homes plunked in their center. Since Mill Street ran directly south, down to the DuPage River only a few blocks from our house, I presume that at one time, long past, there had been a grain mill at the end of the street at the river, though, as far as I know, no one living remembered it.

The first thing I remember as a child of course was our house on Mill Street. It was quite small—although it didn’t seem so then. It was a wooden frame house, with some sort of vaguely white siding, situated on the corner of Mill Street and Benton. I call the house the Mill street house because Mill Street is where most of our young friends lived and where we generally played. Benton on the other hand led east to our Catholic grammar school, a much less interesting route, probably because there weren’t many kids in that direction, just old people who seemed another species to us kids. 

Mill Street was the center of our activities and, besides that, it led to the river, the woods and the quarries only a few blocks south, an irresistible magnet to us as we grew older. In the winter, sledding drew us to the hill on Mill Street that ran steeply down to Jackson Avenue. At the top of the hill we ran as fast as we could, holding the sled to our chests and then belly-flopped onto them for a glorious ride, hoping all the way down that no cars were coming fast along the street at the bottom. Then we would trudge back up the hill pulling our Flyer by its rope, to do it all over again. At the end of the day, as it got dark, we would drag ourselves home, towing our sleds, tired, cold, bedraggled, happy and hungry.

In the summer Mill Street was part of our route to the city beach, which had been constructed from one half of an old stone quarry that had filled with water. It was called the double-quarry. The beach contains an imposing bathhouse constructed largely from local stone and is still used today. The other half of that quarry has since been filled in. At a certain age, in the summer, my brother and I went there every day when it was warm. I remember in particular the “high dive”. This particular diving board was about 12ft. high. I remember standing up on it for a long time letting other people squeeze by me before sufficiently getting my nerve up to take the plunge.

As I mentioned, our house was small. Moving from the east end of the house to the west it had a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room and finally a screened-in front porch looking out on Mill Street. In the opening between the dining room and the living room was the “register”, a three foot square steel grill at floor level, directly over the large furnace in the basement below. At one time a coal burner, it now fed on fuel oil stored in a large tank just outside the kitchen. It was the single source of heat in the house. On winter mornings, as the furnace was heating up—it was turned off at night to save fuel, even if it was 20° below zero—my brother and I shivered all the way downstairs to stand on the register, pull off our pajamas, and put on our clothes, loving its delicious heat, but hopping from one foot to the other trying to keep our bare feet from being burned on the metal of the grill while we pulled on first our socks and then our underwear and pants and shirt. As I recall we changed into clean clothes once a week on Sunday, after our Saturday night bath.

Just off the dining room, to the north, was mom and dad’s bedroom and off that the bathroom—the only one in the house. My brother John and I had the entire second floor to ourselves, really just an attic with a sloped ceiling that had been divided into two rooms: a playroom with all our games, toys, books, and the other paraphernalia of boys’ youth, and our bedroom with parallel twin beds, one under each eave. In the wall along the head of our beds there was one window looking out onto the roof of the single story kitchen. We reached our lair using a banistered stairway from the living room. It had one 90° turn in it with a landing at the turn. When our folks had guests, which was not infrequently, we often sat on the stairs just above the landing, late at night, unseen, after our bedtime, listening to the strange goings-on, too excited to sleep, listening to the mixed din of conversations and wondering what they were all talking about.

There were several small catastrophes in this small house: In one case a floor lamp in the living room had a short in the wiring, and when I touched it I felt current running through my body and I couldn’t let go of the lamp. Luckily, my father was nearby and grabbed me. The effect of this however was that instead of saving me the current stuck him onto me. Finally, sometime just before our mutual execution, we rootched around enough that the cord of the lamp pulled out of its socket and we both fell down, and like a broken magic spell we were set free, sitting there, startled, with the errant lamp on its side on the floor. Another time my father left a cigarette burning in an overstuffed chair. Innocently, we all went to bed. Apparently mom or dad smelled the smoke first in the wee hours of the morning, called the fire department, and dad came upstairs to rescue his two sons. It was a wild time with dense, eye-burning, choking smoke, fire sirens, big strangers with strange big hats in our house, an event that was talked about by us long afterward. Incidentally, to call the fire department you didn’t use 911, which didn’t exist, and even if it had, there was no dial or buttons on our big, stand up, black telephone with a receiver literally on a hook, one just like those you occasionally see in very old movies. As you lifted the receiver from the hook and placed it to your ear, you heard a voice intone, “number-please,” and you simply spoke through the microphone and told the operator what you wanted. She handled the rest. Our telephone number was 1073 at home and, at the shop where dad worked, the number was simply 60, which gives you some idea of how many telephones there were in the town.

This seems such a simple home by today’s standards, yet being raised in it, and because most all our friends had similar homes, its plainness was quite invisible to us.

I wonder why we remember so very little of the very first few years of our lives. I have read that one’s permanent memory cells do not form until some few years after birth, but I don’t know if this is true or not. In any case, besides the house, the earliest things I actually remember—as of about three years old—are some of the physical aspects of what we just called our “yard”: a quite shallow depression in the ground leading to our gravel driveway that oddly, nearly 70 years later, I can still clearly recall the contours of. Perhaps because I accidentally tumbled into it on occasion it was burned rather deeply into my memory cells. Another early memory is of a rather large goldfish and lily pond built of limestone and cement in the back yard that, when I became able to walk by myself, was converted into a sandbox in order, I suppose, that I not drown in it. Near there, just behind the standalone garage with a pergola on one side, was a rhubarb plant that my brother and I occasionally ate from. We would break off a stalk, wipe the dirt off with our fingers, and then wipe our fingers off onto our pants, then we would bite into the sour, bitter red flesh. There was also a large apple tree that dominated the back yard, with hard little sour apples that mostly fell prematurely onto the ground. In later years the grassy area below this tree was transmogrified into a munitions supply depot for the frequent apple fights between my brother and I, as well as among the other kids in the neighborhood. (Some years later we made a technological leap from throwing apples to BB-guns, raising the stakes, and thus recapitulating in our own small way the advance from the Stone Age to the wars of the West.)

We had other “yards” besides our “back” yard, one on each side of the house, and a small border of grass along Mill Street. All these yards were grass but, after I took over the job of mowing the grass with a hand mower—my first taste of sweat and boredom at about or seven or eight years of age—they often became mostly weeds.

 My brother John and I played outside spring, summer and fall and most of the winter. We were remarkably free to wander—as were all the other kids. Our mother’s dictums were, “Stay in the block”—which we interpreted generously until found out—and, “Come home when the whistle blows” (the Kroehler Manufacturing steam whistle that blew at 5:00), at which time our supper was just about ready. After supper it was back outside, and then the order was, “Come back when the streetlights go on.” We could still play out after that, but we had to stay in our own yard. About 9:00 or so we went to bed, usually sweaty, still dirty, and very tired.