Bits and Pieces
Columbus Day next October will be my 76th birthday, but inside this rapidly-aging senior citizen there remains a vigorous 35 year old screaming to get out.
To some extent, we probably all share this slanted sense of self that ignores the call of clock and calendar, and even at times rejects the clear evidence of camera and mirror. I would find this inner doppelganger easier to believe if it possessed the virtue of constancy, but it does not. It is as variable as the wind – sometimes going so far as to sing the siren song of the teens and twenties, only to slam the door of youth brutally in one’s face as our various body parts remind us that we have entered the decade in which the warranties on those parts typically begin to expire.
But on this day, that internal being seems to be in a mellower and more accepting mode, as I look back and visualize bits and pieces of my early past with a feeling of “wow!” and “can you imagine…?” at the enormous differences in the way we lived and looked and acted in those distant days that now somehow seem only a few years ago.
For instance, I remember at the age of about 5 (and I’m speaking of true chronological age now) one of the favorite diversions of kids my age was to hitch a ride on the back of a horse-drawn ice wagon on hot summer days. Ice was still delivered to homes in that era, as electric refrigerators had not yet fully supplanted old-fashioned ice-boxes. The inside of the wagon, behind its heavy canvas cover, was dark and cool and there were always chips of ice we could suck on. I like to think air conditioning and refrigeration were invented by people whose inspiration came from the same sort of childhood activity.
I remember -- during those same summers, well-dressed men always wore stiff, round white straw hats and white shoes. Very dapper. “The cat’s meow”, my aunts would say. But the day after Labor Day, no matter the still-steamy weather, all of that vanished, and the dark colors that had been stored away on Memorial Day reappeared. This, I was told, was an “unwritten law”. I envisioned platoons of fashion police roaming the city looking for improperly dressed people to arrest.
I remember – that milk was also delivered to our homes via horse-drawn wagons. These were marginally less attractive targets for hitching rides, but the milkman would sometimes invite one of our gang up into the driver’s seat, hand him the heavy leather reins, and teach him to drive. On at least one occasion I was the lucky invitee. And, like riding a bike, I could drive that wagon again today if given the opportunity.
I remember – cars were boxy, almost always black, and not everybody had one. My Dad had one, and so did my Uncle Jim. His was better because when he started it he used a crank in front, which was a lot of fun to watch, and it had a rumble seat in back that was great fun to ride in as long as it wasn’t too cold or raining. Headlights on most cars were chrome-encased and mounted separately between the fenders and the hood. The steering wheel was made of wood, and was a lot bigger around than in today’s cars. And the gearshift came straight up out of the floor. As I got older – maybe 7 or 8 – I found that it was important among my peers that I learn to identify the makes and models of all the cars, which had begun to change appearance each year. My favorite was the Cord, which was low-slung and sporty, and had those really neat metal hoses coming out of the engine compartment.
I remember – frequent visits to my grandmother’s house. Memorable not just for the obvious reasons of family and food, but for the technology! All those wondrous things we didn’t have at my parents’ house. First, there was the ice-box, and the opportunities it gave me to learn ice-pick skills that became so useful years later at keg parties. Then there was the Victrola, a wind-up console model phonograph whose needle had to be changed every 8th or 10th playing. I loved it! My favorite record was a song called “Paddy McGinty’s Goat” that I played over and over, and which undoubtedly formed the basis for my later love of classical music and opera. And finally, there was the coal furnace – that one-armed, fire-breathing iron monster in the basement. I actually looked forward to such chores as shoveling coal into its mouth and hauling ash out of its nether regions. But most of all I loved being there in the cellar at coal delivery time, when a ton of that shiny black stuff would come roaring down the chute from the delivery truck in the street to the coal bin at my feet with a noise unequaled until the invention of jet engines years later.
And I remember – a couple of incidents in which my childish reactions became part of family lore, but which still seem to me absolutely reasonable. At the age of about 3, my grandmother gave me two nickels and asked me to go down to the corner store and buy two ice cream cones, one for her and one for me. On the way, I dropped the money, and one nickel rolled into a storm drain, completely irretrievable. When I got back to the house, I was just finishing the last of my ice cream and Gram asked, “Where is my cone?” My answer: “Oh, your nickel fell down the sewer.”
The second incident, which occurred perhaps 2 or3 years later, stems from my habit, when eating cake, of saving the best part – the icing – for last. I was nearly finished my piece when my grandmother came along, saw the icing placed along the side of the plate, and – thinking I didn’t want it – picked it up and tossed it into the trash. For a split second I was speechless, but then I sputtered, “You, you, you, you BITCHIT you!” My aunt, suitably shocked, demanded that I apologize immediately. At first I refused, but quickly saw the wisdom of a tactical retreat, and said (humbly), “I’m sorry you’re a bitchit, Grandma.”
Obviously, my career in the State Department Diplomatic Service was pre-ordained.