By: Steve Ashe, Parkton, Md.
I heard a news report on NPR (National Public Radio), that stated that we, the USA, are the only nation in the world, where one can watch a color TV at home and have an automobile in the driveway and be officially listed by one or more Government agencies as being "below the poverty level". This, sowed the seeds for yet another reminiscence of growing up in Balamore. Read the following and ask yourself the question: "What is my true definition of "rich" and "poor"? If being rich means holding a golden reflection in your mind's eye of sitting around a warm kitchen and playing "Ring on the String" with friends and relatives, then read on!
My earliest memory is of helping Mom and Daddy move all of our household goods across Harlem Ave. to "Nannie's" house (Nannie being the name my grandmother had chosen for herself in lieu of Grandmother, etc.). Daddy had been recalled into the Army in 1945, after having served a three year hitch with his twin brother, Charles, from 1934 to 1937. He had since, married and had one "pre-war baby", Me! He was 28 years old and had a "dee-fence" job with Martins!
No matter, Uncle Sam called and he went, which precluded our holding on to the rented row house on the 600 block of Edgewood St. (Note here, that we were neighbors to none other than Donald Schaffer, with whom my Mom had grown up.) At three years of age, I found myself helping to push a red "Radio" wagon, laden with household items, across to 701 Linnard St., in order to move in with Nannie.
Thankfully, President Truman made the final decision to drop the Atom on Japan, which ended WWII and sent my Daddy home from Ft.Knox, where he had been assigned to a tank unit. I need to stop here a moment and have the gentle reader imagine this scenario taking place in the '90s. Here was a man who had already served his country in the military, had married and fathered a child, *before* the outbreak of hostilities. He has started a career and then was notified to report for active duty in the military. He did not contact his congressman or and attorney, in order to avoid service, but uprooted his family, so that they could make due, by living with a relative and then, went off to do whatever it was that his country requested of him.
Foolish? Naive? Perhaps, but that is how it was, for that generation of Americans! My Daddy's twin brother fought the Federal Government in order to *join* the Navy, following Pearl Harbor. The job he had, welding in a shipyard, was deemed, critical to the national defense. His boss blocked his enlisting in the Navy in 1942. He was able to surmount this opposition and served over 3 years as an "Armed Guard" on seven different Liberty ships, making trips to Murmansk Russia and ending the war running supplies to the beaches of the Pacific islands.
Four brothers in all served in combat arms during WWII. Uncle "Happy" was a combat engineer in Europe and served on during occupation duty in Germany. Uncle "Bud" was a radio operator on a heavy cruiser. All came home sound of body, but somewhat wounded in spirit, though none ever complained and went back to jobs and careers. For them, service to one's country was what one did and politics never entered the picture. "Wish I didn't know now, what I did't know then!", a Bob Seeger line tells us.
Following the dropping of the "Bomb", which may have saved the USA from suffering over one million casualties, Daddy came home, having had high "points", due to prior service and a pre-war marriage and a pre-war child. Along with thousands of other returning GIs, he vied for a job, landing a bread route "position" with Hauswald's Bakery. Every morning, we heard a distinctive beeping of an automobile horn. This, known only as "Daddy's rider". Nobody called it car pooling, or thought of any energy conservation, it was simply "having a rider", or of being connected with a person who had access to a car, who was willing to take one to work, in exchange for a sharing of fuel expense, or some other barter.
Dad would bring home Hauswald's raison bread. I still can smell that fresh baked bread today. At night he tinkered with clocks, later creating his own business out of clock repair and sales. All this, on the basis of no more formal education then he could glean from the fourth grade. Dad is by nature, a voracious reader. I would wager that in terms of a broad appreciation of the 20th century world, he has the equivalent of a Master's Degree!
Nannie lived upstairs, having become an apartment dweller in her own home, in order that she allow us to occupy the first floor and two bedrooms upstairs. There was no television in the house, as we could not afford one and because nobody considered a TV to be essential to a household in those times. Evening entertainment consisted of radio shows and reading. We also talked to family members more than I see occur today. Neighbors around us were acquiring television sets (Why did we call them "sets"?) and automobiles, but I do not remember feeling underprivileged or, God forbid, poor! We shared rides with family members on Sunday, in order to go "up the country". This meant, the gathering, at my grandfather's dairy farm in Glenarm, where the uncounted grandchildren would play baseball and "explore" in the woods.
The Glovers, down the block, had a television set, which I was allowed to share at 7:30PM every Thursday, when "The Lone Ranger" was telecast. The Harveys, on Gelston Drive, hosted us on many evenings to watch the "Fights" and the blow by blow calls of Don Dunfy. "To look sharp! And to feel sharp too! Choose the razor, that is right for you!" Gillete Blue Blades was one of the sponsors of the fights. I can still see the Gillete parrot who sang the jingle.
Harry Harvey and my Daddy would argue until the end of the fight, over who was a better boxer. My Daddy would choose Sugar Ray Robinson, while Harry backed Jake Lamota. Over the entire series of fights between these two gladiators, my father crowed over Robinson's victories. Daddy never forgave Rocky Marciano for knocking an aging Joe Lewis out of the ring in 1951. "Marciano is only a 'bull fighter'! Joe could have taken him easy, when Joe was in *his* prime!", Dad would repeat this lament throughout his youth and even today, I can get a rise from him at 81, by mentioning that Marciano still holds the record of 50 victories as a professional heavy weight and *no* defeats! "You always liked Marciano!" he'll say, "But, if he'da fought Joe Lewis when Joe was young, Joe'da made mince meat outa him!" Well, maybe, but those early days of watching boxing on black and white television have endeared me to a sport where even today, it is true, that, "He can run, but he can't hide!". These, Joe Lewis' own words.
By the age of six, my horizons had widened, indeed. To the west, I went alone, as far as Lynhurst School #88. This being on Wildwood Parkway, one block north of Edmondson Ave. (Nannie always called Edmondson Ave. "The National Pike"!) On the east, my boundary was Hilton St., overlooking "The Gwynns Falls" and Bloomingdale Field. My southern reaches ran out at Edmondson Ave. and the shops to which I was sent by my Mom. "The Greeks" was a drug store/soda fountain on Allendale and Edmondson, while Lilly's Hardware was on the corner of Linnard and Edmondson, across from Voshell's Drugs. North, was the mother lode of exploration, as in that direction, I could go across Gelston Drive and go into "The Woods", these, being the strip of undeveloped land, leading into Leakin Park.
These spindly forests were the scenes of all the great wars ever fought, during our play. They were also where my friends and I must be careful, lest we would encounter "The Big Kids". The big kids have been very well depicted in Stephen King novels. These young toughs, probably no more than 10 or 11 years of age, struck fear into our tender hearts. For some unknown reason, they relished chasing little kids. No three year old thoroughbred has the speed that our group mustered when the big kids hove into view. Once a friendly backyard was gained, we would flop down, spent by our flight. Lungs gasping to be relieved of the taxing, we would blurt out our gratitude for once more being given the swiftness needed to leg it away from our dreaded tormentors. I, to this day, can conjure up the image of the when a "big kid" chased me up Allendale St. I ran up on a porch, as I had been coached to do, in the event that danger threatened. Alas, the desperate beating of my fist on the front door brought no savior from within the unlit interior.
As a last resort I huddled in the corner of the porch, knowing not what I would do when my drawing and quartering commenced. The big kid withdraw a pack of matches from his pocket and struck one into flame as a cruel smile crossed his flinty pre-teen countenance. As he brought the flame nearer, he began a sing-song chant which contained a pronounced lisp. "Right in the faith. Right in the faith. I'm gonna poke thith match right inna yer faith!" I know now that the volume of my scream probably startled and unsettled the little cretin. He dropped the match and backed off of the porch with the final warning, "Ah'm gonna git yew, yew little pither!" My feet never meet the street as I flew down Harlem Ave. to home. Mom was out of control with anger, when I recounted the "almost burned alive" encounter. We walked the neighborhood for better than an hour trying to spot the big bad kid with the speech impediment and a pocket full of matches, but were unsuccessful.
Real harm to kids must have taken place in those days, I'm sure, but we were carefully and lovingly shielded from whatever uglyness was near. I know now that whatever gentleness I may possess is born out of a time when brutality and unacceptable behavior was, in my mind, confined to Europe and the Third Reich or on the other side of the world, as perpetrated by Tojo and the rest of the Japanese warlords.
The poverty that was mentioned on NPR rings hollow in my memory of those days. We owned no television, no car and perhaps the pleasures were more simpler than are expected today. During the television watching, as guest in a neighbor's home, there were always bowls of pretzels, chips or popcorn to munch. The kids sipped on some soft drink, while the Add-dults had a coupla'beers.
At that time, the neighborhood was over 25 years old, having been built by James Keelty. Old Mr. Keelty rode up Harlem Avenue in a horse drawn buggy four and five years after the houses had been sold and would asked residents if everything was okay with their house. My grandmother mentioned often, Keelty's concern that no buyer of his houses be dissatisfied by it's quality. Even after twenty five years, fresh paint was always in evidence on the wooden trim of the brick fronts and the small lawns were cut neatly and bordered by flower beds.
Most of the families were second generation citizens of the neighborhood. Some having shared the same teachers as their parents had studied under. Mrs. Keister, my fifth grade teacher, had taught both my mother and my aunt at Lyndhurst School. White haired and stern, she would march us to the Enoch and Pratt Free Library at The Edmondson Village Shopping Center. (This, being the first shopping center built all at once, in the nation.) At the library, we would hear book reviews and then, have a chance to select a book or two, to take home. My problem was, that each review delivered by the librarian was so fascinating, that I wanted to read all of the stories right away. Audio/visual equipment was nearly non-existent at School #88. When Queen Elizabeth was coronated, Mrs. Keister marched her entire 5th grade class down Gelston Drive to her home on Grantley St., where we watch that grand event on her 12" television set, while packed into her small living room.
Somehow, the lack of modern learning tools held no one back in later life. Most schoolmates that I have encountered as the years scrolled by, have become valuable assets to their communities.
One of the flights of fancy that my mother allowed herself, was that of being an incurable chaser of fire engines. Upon the distant sound of an approaching fire truck, Mom would run out into the middle of the street and look around for the telltale sign of rising smoke and attempt to bird dog out the direction that the engines were taking. On the occasions where we reached the scene while firemen were still working, (we didn't call them firefighters then, just firemen), I was disappointed by never seeing flames leaping into the skies, as on the old newsreels of the London Blitz!
It was on one of these occasions, with dirty looking smoke wafting from the second story window of a West Balamer row house, that I learned that all policemen learn to mouth the same orders. "Move along folks! The fun's over! Move along!" Hey Dude! You just wait until the '60s! Move along my cocked hat!
Nobody was blocking traffic or even blocking the sidewalk or doing anything else that would impede the desparate work that the firemen were about, in order to extinguish the trashcan fire where some day sleeper had no doubt thrown his cigarette butt. Still, the boys in blue felt unable to stop themselves from parroting the old saw, "Move along folks!"
The house at 701 Linnard St. was built on a slope. Being an "end of group", my grandfather, Harry Joynes had built his "Drug Store/Beer 'Bidness'" in the basement, opening on the side. The back of the house jutted three stories up from Harlem Avenue, highlighted by Nannie's "highporch". We sat out on the "highporch" many evenings and watched people make their way up and down Harlem Avenue, or across Linnard Street.
A fair number of boys headed up to St. Bernadine's Church in the evening, with their alter boy robes over their shoulders. My Daddy never tired of shouting a good natured question their way, as to where they attended "Cooks and Bakers School". The "highporch" gave some respite, from the sometimes brutal Balamer summer evenings.
Up until the late forties, my Uncle Vernon, who lived in Walbrook Junction, would take his brood, with blankets, over into Leakin Park to sleep on the grass, when the air refused to stir on Elsinore Ave. For us, the "highporch" did the trick. We would sit out there with the Edgewood Movie "moving marquee lights" throwing carnival colors on the scene from one block away and talk of how lucky we were to be able to sit above the stifling heat, far below, on the sidewalk. After a slice of watermelon, or perhaps one of my mother's dentist defeater candied apples, we would go off to bed, to be lulled to sleep by the sound of a distant steam engine, down under the Hilton Street bridge.
For a couple of weeks each summer, St. Bernadine's Church had their carnival. We could walk up Harlem Ave., cross Grantley, Allendale and turn left for one block, down Mt. Holly St. to reach the bright lights of the ubiquitous gaming wheels of the carnival. Cotton candy and lemonade were the main treats, as we were generally still full of meat loaf or tuna salad from supper. Friends from school and church were always roaming around the carnival grounds and we could walk the area, watching the gaming and other attractions, until weariness took hold and we trudged back down the Harlem Ave. hill to home, most likely to see Nannie silhouetted on the skyline, as she nodded off in her rocker, on the "highporch".
With no television and no automobile and precious few meals "out", were we underprivileged or *poor*? NAAAAWWWW! Whatever it was that I retained from my growing up in urban Balamer, it was enriching beyond anything else that I have experienced since!
Mr. Ashe operates Roy's Never Stop Clock Shop in Hampstead, Md.
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