Chapter 8

More Childhood Stories

Eighth Grade

In September of 1932 I went into eighth grade.  This was the year I caught up with my sister Margaret and brother Dick.  If not for a bout of measles and scarlet fever, to which I lost a year, I might well have entered ninth grade.  My brother Dick had Miss Dietrich, my sister Margaret either a Miss Farell or Donohue, and I had Hattie Fell.  Miss Fell was also the principal of Washington School, and unlike the paper pushing bureaucrats of today, the principals then taught full time, since running the school took very little of their time.  The other two eighth grades were for the B’s and C’s, I assume, but Miss Fell’s was for the brighter kids.  This is not boasting.  I state it merely as a fact, since I must get on with this. (NOTE:  Here Dad had written as if he was in 7th grade at this time.  But his report cards show that in September of 1932 he was entering 8th grade with Hattie Fell as his teacher, so I have corrected his text.)

 Miss Hattie Fell

Miss Fell was a strict disciplinarian, and a whisper or a pencil dropping in her class was unthinkable.  She was also quite old, quite large, and had a terrifying personality.  Jehovah never displayed a sterner look of disapproval than Miss Fell did upon us.  She taught, not so much from persuasion, as from the sheer power of a bulldozer.  I did not particularly like school, but under the glaring eye of Miss Fell I managed to maintain my marks high enough so that I was somewhere in the middle of the class, and the awesome weight of her displeasure rarely fell upon me.

 Going to see the Principal

The one threat from any teacher then that absolutely paralyzed any wrongdoer was a promise that if their wrong-doing did not cease, they would be sent to Mr. Laidlaw.  The chilling results of such a threat were perfectly clear.  Not only did the unfortunate kid disappear forever, but also all members of his family.  We could imagine a torture chamber where the family was subjected to unspeakable torture and finally ground up into hamburger and flushed down a drain, or something along those lines.  What made it even more terrifying was the fact that though adults and priests could discuss heaven and hell, no one was willing to discuss the results of going to see Mr. Laidlaw.

 “The Ransom of Red Chief”

While I was not too good at most subjects, I was a compulsive and rapid reader as well as a great lover of poetry.  It was in this seventh grade that we first used a text book that was used all through high school.  I refer, of course, to “Prose and Poetry”.  While the rest of the kids in my class were reading only those stories required of them, I was going rapidly and happily through the whole book, and thus I came upon “The Ransom of Red Chief”.

You must bear in mind the stern teacher I had then and the silence of the tomb that prevailed in the classroom.  I read on and on, becoming more and more amused.  I did my best to mask my feelings, but a particularly funny remark or situation caused me to giggle, and then I lost control and literally howled.  Not even the granite visage and shocked amazement of Miss Fell could bring me under control.  She must have thought I had taken leave of my senses.  Observing the tears running down my cheeks, the snot running from my nose, and my hysterical howls, she came down the aisle to ask what was the matter.  I was naturally incoherent.  All I could do was to point to the story I was reading and she, bless her, smiled one of the few smiles I ever saw on her face.  For the rest of the afternoon she permitted the occasional snicker from me with little notice.  She must have read this story herself, at one time, and I strongly recommend that you make a point of reading this story, one that will always be timely and funny.

 The Poem about Mayor Morisette

Although I was thrown in with the kids of the fairly well-to-do, my family was poor, and the other kids would not associate with me.  At that time to be poor was an unforgivable crime.  Of course, this bothered me, but I was revenged, in a way.  As I said, I had a great deal of interest in poetry and in fact, I wrote poetry myself.  I wrote a sarcastic piece about the mayor, Ralph Morisette, which was published in the local paper.  But the mayor, thinking my sarcasm was due to the inability of a kid my age to rhyme, actually invited me down to City Hall to congratulate me.  My father, also, did not believe I could write, so I composed a poem, portions of which I still have.

 Memorizing

To get back to my story, I had a knack for memorizing, far ahead of the rest of the kids in my class.  As we were required to memorize a stanza or tow in English, I would memorize about twice as much as the rest of the kids, and then close my book and make a great show of staring out the window or shuffling my books.  Naturally the teacher would ask if I had memorized the stanza.  When she told me to recite them, I would rattle off a couple of them, while my classmates were still struggling with one, all the while smirking at the snotty rich kids.  Naturally, this did not endear me to them, but there was no love lost anyway. I can still recite poems that I was required to memorize so many years ago.

 Dad Leaves Home

Sometime around November, my father broke into the New York Central freight sheds and made off with a case of Prince Albert smoking tobacco, a case of Camel cigarettes, and half a sack of flour.  Since he had gotten into so many scrapes before, he had been given ten years probation.  The judge had been very lenient with him, due to our large family, but assured him that if he ever came before him again, he would have to serve the ten years.  As my father peddled the cigarettes and smoking tobacco all over town at prices ruinous to competition from cigar stores, the police naturally got wind of it and came looking for him. 

My father arrived home half shot, and immediately behind him came Porky Carmody, a friend of his, who warned him that the police were on their way.  My father took off, and immediately afterwards the city police and the railroad bull, Patterson, came to the door.  All that Pa brought home was the half sack of flour.  As it happened, my sister had made some paste by punching a hole in the middle, so Peterson had to carry it out in his arms, like a baby.

 New Clothes

My mother had to apply to Charley Hubbard, the poormaster, for money for groceries.  Due to Miss Westbrook, the city nurse, my brother Dick and I were given new sheepskin jackets, pants, shirts and high shoes, with the inevitable pocket on the side of one shoe, with a pocket knife.  These were the first new clothes we had had in some years.  We were quite proud of them, since we were dressed almost as well as the snotty rich kids. 

 Christmas 1932

It was also in November that Dick and I went to St. John’s Church to take instruction in the ritual necessary for our confirmation.  As the Christmas season approached, Dick was asked by his teacher, Miss Dietrich, to draw a Christmas scene on the blackboard in colored chalk.  He drew a beautiful scene covering almost all of the front blackboard, of Santa coming down a chimney, with reindeer standing by, and he spent quite some time on it.  I was slated to be in a Christmas play, due my ease in memorizing lines, but at the last minute it was given to my understudy, Bruce Meserby, who naturally screwed it up.  But he was one of the rich kids, while I was a comparative unknown in the theatrical field.

We went after school until Christmas which to us, in our circumstances, was just another day.  My mother found the money somewhere to buy us all some small thing for Christmas.  I can only remember that she bought Dick a small car, and me a small woolly lamb.  I would rather have had the small car, but I did not protest.  Well, maybe a little.

 Dick is Killed

Although it is hard to remember the exact date, it was shortly after Christmas that my sister Margaret and Dick went to the show to see a Frankenstein picture while I stayed home and read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.  Sometime after nine, Margaret and Dick returned form the movies.  Since I was tired by that time of reading, I coaxed Dick into going sledding with me.  We had no sleds of our town, but my Uncle Paul lived right around the corner and so we borrowed our cousins’ sleds.  We slid down the sidewalk in front of Notre Dame Church, across Main Street and into a space between the houses of my Uncle and Medos Kiah, while watching fro cars coming up or down Main Street.

The last time we went down we were racing each other, and I was slightly ahead of my brother.  As I crossed the walk and slid between the houses, I thought I heard a noise behind me, but I paid little attention until I heard a girl scream.  Irene Slamski had been walking up the street, and had seen everything.  I ran back to the street and Irene was pointing to my brother, who was lying almost at the curb.  His sled was lying wrecked on the curb.  I ran home and into the house screaming “Dickie’s dead, Ma, Dickie’s dead!”

My mother and I ran back to the street, but by this time my Uncle Paul had carried Dick into his house and laid him on a leather sofa.  My brother lay there with blood pouring our of his ears and mouth, and I was pleading with my brother to talk to me.  In a short time the Black Maria came and took him to the hospital, and my mother and I went home.  She was sobbing hysterically, and even though I was almost her size, she pulled me onto her lap and rocked back and forth.  She was so overwrought that we forgot our own grief and were afraid for her.

The next morning Miss Westbrook, the city nurse and a long-time friend of my mother’s came to our house.  She told my mother that she had just come from the hospital and that it would be better if the Lord took him, since his skull was badly crushed.  If he should live, he would be a vegetable for the rest of his life.  The next evening the hospital sent word that he was sinking fast.  My mother, her brother George, and I went to the hospital.  My brother was laying in a bed with his head wrapped in bandages, and he was making a peculiar moaning sigh.  My Uncle and I went back out and left him with my mother and a nun.  He died a few minutes later.  I was to hear this same sigh again, and I knew afterwards what it was.  It is known as Chain-Stokes breathing, and you never forget it.

 The Funeral

Someone called Utica, and my brother Pete and Aunt Leona came.  The welfare bought Dick a suit to be laid out in, and this suit had two pair of pants with it, as was common with every suit that was bought then.  I was given the extra pair of pants, the first long pants I ever owned in my life.  Dick was laid out at my Aunt Lena’s, who had a better place than any of the rest of the family.  A black skull cap was placed on his head to hide the crushed skull.  Miss Dietrich and his entire class came down in the afternoon to see him, which was unusual since this was on school time.  Miss Dietrich kept the Christmas scene he had drawn for her for some months afterwards, until she had to erase it.  He was buried in Potter’s Field, between two large pine trees next to the Jewish Cemetery.  The pines were later cut down, and all the bodies were moved.  I have no idea where he is now.

 The Killer is Caught

Meanwhile, the cops had questioned Irene Slamski and had found that the man who ran over my brother was Earl Fleming, a son of the Captain Fleming that I have mentioned before.  Since this was during prohibition, he was speeding up Main Street with his lights off and a load of Canadian booze in his car.  Though he admitted later that he felt his car hit something, he was too anxious to get his load under cover to stop and investigate.  He came to our house the day after Dick died, but my mother would not talk to him.

 The Killer is Sued

After a couple of weeks a local attorney approached my mother and coaxed her into suing Earl Fleming.  My mother, being a fatalist, believed this to be the will of the Lord, and was reluctant to keep the wounds open.  But John Livingston convinced her that Fleming should be punished and assured her that she had nothing to lose, since he would pay all expenses.  So, much against her will, my mother agreed.

As the trial approached, Livingston coached her and me in courtroom tactics.  To my horror, he explained to her that when he made a certain statement or statements, she must force herself to burst into tears to impress the jury.  this coaching was completely unnecessary, since even a mention of Dick would bring my mother to tears. I was also put on the stand and repeated my carefully coached lines.

This was my first experience with the greed and cold-blooded ruthlessness of lawyers. I disliked Livingston then, and I dislike lawyers in general even more today. We won the case, and after Livingston took out his share my mother received the princely sum of twenty-five dollars.  This is what that son-of-a-bitch Livingston considered adequate recompense for the hell he had put her through.  Livingston later became city judge.

 St. Valentine’s Day

I have mentioned that my mother was a lady, more of a lady than any of the mothers of the snooty rich kids in my class.  On Valentine’s Day all the kids in my class brought in valentines for the teacher, and for those kids who were their friends.  But my mother forbade us to slight anyone.  So she told us that if we gave a valentine to one, we must give them to all.  Since we were poor, she bought us the valentines that came in a book.  We had to cut them out, as well as the envelopes.  Our class had over thirty kids in it, most of them well-to-do, and probably half a dozen poor kids.  But the poor kids were constantly trying to curry favor with the rich, with the exception of myself.  The only valentines I ever received, for four or five years, were from these same poor kids, who would send me a comic valentine, hoping to attract the notice of the rich kids so they could have a mutual laugh. 

This year, however, I hit upon a new gimmick.  I made out all the valentines that my mother requested, but I put my own name on all the envelopes.  This year I compared very favorable with the most popular kids in my class.  But Miss Fell, knowing my handwriting, asked for an explanation.  I was forced to confess that, although the kids in my class detested me, I detested them even more.  At that time wealth demanded respect, but I did not respect it.  Title demanded respect, but I did not respect them.  I must have been a thorn in the side to a lot of people.  I felt that with a little more effort I could have put the rest of the kids in my class in the shade, but I did not care for the school that much, or for anyone else’s opinion that much.

 A Brown-noser Gets His Come-uppance

The last amusing incident I remember from the eighth grade had to do with a boy from the city orphanage.  I can’t remember his name, but this kid was so polite that he made the rest of us gag.  Each time Miss Fell would reach for something he would leap up to get it for her, or run to the door to open it for her.  She was constantly praising him for his courtesy.

On this particular day she was even more miserable than usual.  In a few hours most of the class was seething with hatred.  At any rate, apparently her fanny was becoming a little sore, so she stood up a trifle to rearrange her flab.  Our amiable and courteous little brown-noser, thinking she wished to stand, immediately leaped forward to pull her chair out of the way, with the result that she hit the floor with a loud thump, or squish, or whatever sound two hundred pounds of unrendered lard, amply cushioned by a generous derriere, would make.

I would like to say that her little friend’s hair turned snow white on the instant, but of course it did not.  His face turned white as a sheet and we could tell, by his horrified expression, that all the events of his short and miserable, but courteous, life were passing in review.  But game to the last, he offered his hand to old granite face, sprawled out on the floor.  Disdaining help she leaped to her feet, and with a purple face and a ghastly smile at this poor unfortunate, which she fondly hoped was a benevolent look, she defended and praised his courtesy.  But all the while she held him impaled to the wall with a violent glare while the rest of us in the class held our breath, expecting lightning to strike.  Of course, we dared not smile, but it made our day and I noticed when class was over, our courteous little friend was the first one out the door.

 On Welfare

Since there was no one working at this time, we were given grocery orders, about eleven dollars, which was supposed to last two weeks.  Our rent was paid by the welfare.  We also received a quart of milk a day, two quarts being delivered every day my the milkman.  We rarely saw any of it.  Our house was the closest to the railroad yards, and it was often stolen by bums or hoboes before we got up.

 Peddling Papers

I got a job peddling the evening edition of the Watertown Times.  I would get to the railroad station after the 3 PM train came in and pick up my papers.  I had a dozen or so customers, and I would try to peddle the rest around the downtown area.  I took this job over from a friend of mine named Clarence Harney, and I used a gimmick that sold a lot of papers.  I had a very tame female dog, most hound.  I put her into my paper bag with her head and paws outside the bag.  People would buy a paper because she looked so cute.

 Winnie, the Gum-Chewing Dog

Our little dog’s name was Winnie.  I think my sister Margaret named her, since it was originally her dog.  But being a boy who loved dogs, and having more affection to offer, it soon became mine.  One thing that always amused me about my dog was her habit of gnawing gum off the bottoms of seats.  Since people waiting for trains would frequently chew gun, every station had a dispenser.  The gum came in rectangular blocks, rather than sticks, and as far I can remember, could be bought only is a railroad stations.  After the passengers chewed the flavor out of it, they would make a great show of scratching their legs and sneak it on the bottom of their seats.  After a number of years, you can imagine the amount of gum plastered to the bottom of the seats.  My dog always helped herself to a substantial cud, and chomped merrily away, to the astonishment and amusement of all who observed her.  Many times I squandered the princely sum of one whole penny for a stick of gum to demonstrate to my friends her unique habit.

 Confirmation Clothes

As I mentioned before, I was studying for confirmation in St. John’s Church.  I was confirmed sometime in June of 1933. My mother was hard put to find clothes for me suitable for such a solemn occasion.  This was finally solved through the efforts of Miss Margaret Westbrook, who found a suit nearly my size.  My mother bought me a white shirt with a tie, so I was only lacking shoes.   My father was home at the time on one of his pilgrimages of apology, so he obligingly took a trip one night to the city dump and found a pair of shoes somewhere near my size.  One of the shoes was fairly presentable , while the other had come apart at the toe.  this presented an unsightly extension which my father was unable to fix.  He rose to the occasion, however, with he brilliant idea that since the confirmation would be held in a dark church, and I would be wearing black stockings, he had cut off the unsightly part and no one would notice.  My father gave the shoes a high polish and we were all set.

 Confirmation

Next morning, neatly dressed, hair combed, face washed, etc., I cut a figure second to none of the more well-to-do kids.  The ritual proceeded without a hitch.  Unfortunately, after the ceremony we were all marched out into the bright sunlight of the side yard for a group picture.  In spite of the neatly dressed young men and the beautiful girls in their white dresses the most outstanding and conspicuous attraction was my shoe with the missing toe.  I tried standing on it with the other foot, but the photographer insisted we stand at attention and I could see every eye in the crowd of onlookers and every kid in my class, riveted on my shoe.  Since I was unable to drop to all fours and slither away through the grass I answered their queries by stating that I had dropped a large rock on my toes which had smashed them beyond recognition and I was forced to cut off my shoe to relieve somewhat the unbelievable pain.  No, I could not take off my shoe to show them the extent of my terrible injuries since my stockings were already welded to the wreckage of my toes.

 The City Dump

I should state here that the city dump was somewhat of a shopping center as well as a swap shot for the better dressed legions of the destitute.  If you had an item fifteen sizes too large or too small you bought it to the dump and exchanged it for a more appropriate size among the piles of trash.  In fact, it was not unusual for an individual who ran across something in very good condition which he did not particularly need at the time, to put it out in plain sight where someone else who had need of it would be sure to see it.

 We Build a Boat

I think that I have already mentioned George and Eddie Coleman.  At any rate, this summer the gang decided to build a boat.  Lacking the nerve to obtain the lumber from a lumber company for free, our usual practice, we built it out of odds and ends of scrap lumber.  Unfortunately we knew little of caulking the seams, but it seemed quite seaworthy to us.

Since we were quite proud of our masterpiece, we sent the Coleman brothers downtown to steal some paint.  It was possible to buy a small can of paint for a dime, and this can would bit quite unobtrusively into one’s pocket if one did not have a dime and was unobserved by the sales ladies.  This was a skill that the Coleman boys had developed to a high degree.  Adroit as they were, however, they could not read.  As a result, when we ran out of paint and sent them back for more, they would come back with a different color.  It taxed our imaginations to a high degree to paint our boat with fifteen different colors and convince ourselves and others that we had planned it this way.

 The Launch

We were anxious to try it out and so, no sooner had the paint dried than we carted it off tot he railroad slip to launch her on her maiden voyage.  The boys who had a hand in its construction were, as I recall, Chet Vinch, the oldest and toughest and therefore the leader, Bert Gilbert, Jimmy and Harry Jerome, Buck Harney, an older brother of Clarence Harney, and myself.  While we had been building our boat a mutual acquaintance, Chubby Kiah, took such an interest in the results that it was decided that he and Buck Harney would have the honor of piloting our craft on her first trip.  This small craft would hold no more than two, so we decided to follow her in a large punt.  Since some of our crowd was late, Cubby and Buck started on without us.

 Tragedy

It was soon apparent that our craft was a submersible due, no doubt, to a lack of caulking.  As she pulled away, Cubby pulled strongly on the oars while Buck frantically bailed.  As the current of the Oswegatchie caught them, they were soon swept down opposite the city dock where she finally went under.  As we were all good swimmers, we were not unduly concerned, so we decided to walk down to the city dock.  When we got there, Cubby was on the dock and we could see our boat floating down the river.  But there was no sign of Buck.

Cubby told us that he had told Buck to hold onto the boat while he swam to shore.  Whatever happened, whether Bujck panicked or cramped up, we never knew.  The police were soon down, dragging the river and after a few hours they brought his body up.  We were a tearful crowd, since we all thought a great deal of Buck.  It was especially bad for me because he happened to be my best friend.  So twice in less than six months, I had lost someone close to me.  When I came home in tears my older sister Margaret ridiculed me as if my friend were no more than a cat, an act hardly conducive to generating affection for her.  My mother, of course, was more understanding and sympathized with me.

 The Harney Family

I think it appropriate to mention something about the Harney family.  Besides Buck and Clarence there was an older girl named Katherine, I think, who was possibly eighteen or so.  It was apparent to all of us, even for our tender years, that this girl was superbly stacked.  Most of the boys in our crowd used to fantasize about her.  I assure you that as far as I was concerned, my fantasies had little to do with reality.  Had she fallen in a faint in a vacant lot, I would probably have just stared at her and continued to dream.  Except for Clarence, the whole family was cross-eyed, but they were the nicest people I had ever met.