Yo-yos; Soap Box Derby; Piccolos

                   Not me.

I’ve noticed that in the course of writing these memories I often find my young self “astonished” and “amazed” at various points. I feel as if I’m coming across like one of those lost tribes you read about, where scientists discover an indigenous tribe in the deep forests of Africa or South America where the people have never been exposed to civilization. Often I point out in these instances that I wasn’t particularly “stupid,” that I’d at least heard of some of these things, but I often didn’t have actual experiences with them. That came up when I was thinking about yo-yo’s.

I said in the last entry that there were “seasons” for various activities during grade school. Playing marbles, was one of them. Suddenly, as if by mental telepathy, kids would bring their bags of marbles to school and at lunch and recess and after school great circles would be drawn in the dirt and we’d all be hunkered down trying our best not to lose all our marbles to the guys who were really good at the game. I don’t know if girls had any of these seasons, maybe someone out there will educate me.

One day it was announced that there would be a special program in the auditorium. We dutifully filed in and there on the stage was a bunch of kids playing with yo-yos. These shows must have been put on by the Duncan Yo-Yo company, because I just looked them up on the Internet and sure enough, they’re still sending “crews” around to schools putting on yo-yo programs! All the boys in our gang, on Maxwell Avenue, had at least one yo-yo. They were cheap enough that everyone could afford one. Duncan made fancy ones, but the basic model, just painted wood, only cost a dollar or two, if even that. The Duncan website today sells those like we had as “vintage” models for $12.95, so if you want a good gift for a kid or grandkid, you can order one “Just like grandpa had when he was a boy” and show off your skills.

Everyone could do at least a few basic tricks like Walking the Dog or Rocking the Baby in the Cradle or flinging it Around the World. You’d do these tricks while you were nonchalantly standing around talking to your friends, who would also be working their yo-yos. Sometimes there would be small disasters like getting strings crossed and tangled while attempting to do Around the World at the same time. Sometimes you’d get bashed in the head by someone screwing up this particular maneuver.

Back to the auditorium… As we settled into our seats, I remember being — here it comes — astonished that all the boys in this Duncan crew were Japanese… (I just had to put this blog on hold to call my son and ask what we’re supposed to say these days when referring to what I was about to write – “Orientals.” He says that this word is a pejorative, and we are supposed to say “Asians.” Ok, ok.)… or if not Japanese, Asians of some variety. To us kids, these yo-yo whiz kids were Japanese, though we had never actually seen an O… oops, Asian… in real life. This is what I mean by sounding like we were a tribe living in the dense jungle, away from civilization. Never seen a real live Japanese person? But that was the case back in West Virginia circa 1955. Of course these kids onstage were fabulous yo-yoers, and for a few brief minutes we had visions of standing on the street corner, yo-yo dancing through the air, surrounded by children and adults, all applauding our performance. Then reality set in, and we realized that we would never really be very good because you had to practice long hours to get to anything beyond our basic level. Besides, Soap Box Derby Season was right around the corner.

And so was another special program in the grade school auditorium. Sometimes it feels like we barely went to school at all, that the day was spent trekking back and forth to the auditorium to listen to adults tell us about one thing or another that seemed really interesting until we realized we weren’t going to be buying whatever it was that they were selling. In this case, Soap Box Derby Wheels.

They would show pictures (had the slide projector even been invented yet?) of kids lined up on top of hills, then racing down in their cool Soap Box racers. They, the adults, would talk, we would dream, thinking maybe, just maybe this was possible, attainable, there was always plenty of scrap wood laying around, then it would all come crashing down when they said you had to buy a set of Official Soap Box Derby Wheels which was going to cost $20. End of dream. No one had $20. No one’s parents had $20, at least not to buy wheels. We would sit through the rest of the program, but by now we hated the adult who had dangled this dream in front of us, and then crushed us. We would show him, we would build our own racers. We didn’t need special wheels.

And we didn’t. As I said, there was always scrap lumber lying around, and wheels of some sort, from busted up wagons if nothing else. We would borrow some tools – hammers, saws, nails, pliers — from our dads, without telling them of course, which was easy for me because my dad was out of town all week. The hard part was remembering to put the tools back before he found out I was using them, which sounds easy but nearly always resulted in forgetting a pair of pliers that would lay hidden in the grass, silently rusting away until dad ran over it with the lawn mower at which point there was hell to pay.

So we built these carts, as we called them, which were usually nothing more than a wide board to sit on and two cross boards to attach the wheels to. The front board would be put on with a bolt so it could swivel back and forth. The steering was provided by a rope tied to the ends of the board that you pulled back and forth to steer. Sort of.

At one end of Maxwell Avenue was the 19th Street Hill, which was a fairly steep hill and much used in the winter for sleigh riding and when we had a cart for downhill races. The adults in the neighborhood knew to be careful because there would often be a kid who was learning to ride a two-wheeler by plunging down 19th street, or a cart, or a kid on roller skates or some other form of childhood death about to happen. Sometimes strangers in cars would come over the hill and have to slam on the brakes or swerve violently to avoid killing a kid.

When we got a little older, in Junior High, we would find old gasoline motors and affix them to our carts. The few times these things actually worked, we’d get a ride that would scare the crap out of you before you ended up flipping over a curb, or, if you were lucky, crashing into a hedge. I can remember the neighborhood fathers standing around watching this mayhem, laughing at us. None of them thought to tell us to stop, and, in fact, they would use the occasion to relate their own stories of death-defying behavior that if allowed to happen today would have had all the parents thrown into jail and the kids put into foster homes. Today you get arrested for letting your kids walk home from the park alone.

Ah, I’m sounding like an old geezer again. That’s because I am an old geezer.

Let us now return to the infamous grade school auditorium for yet one more presentation where Mr. Flint, the music teacher, was demonstrating instruments. He played the trumpet, the clarinet, and the drums, which drew the most interest, particularly from the boys. Then he went through some others — various string instruments, and finished up with a demonstration of a piccolo. I figured I would be a trumpet guy, like my dad in high school, until Flint picked up this tiny, silver instrument and said, “This is the smallest instrument in the band, and yet it is the loudest.” He played it, though I didn’t really hear what it sounded like, I could only hear the words which seemed echo in my head and drill down to my very core: “Smallest and yet the loudest.”

That was me.

So I went home and told my parents I wanted to play the piccolo. I’m sure they were dumbfounded by this, but once again, they didn’t say a discouraging word, simply went to the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, which is where we bought everything, and looked up piccolos; sure enough, there they were, so we sent away for one.

I know I was an anomaly. The vast majority of piccolo players start out as flute players. The piccolo is usually added to the flute as almost an afterthought. Aside from marching bands, it’s not a very widely used instrument and hardly heard at all in orchestras. I went the other way around and didn’t get a flute until a year or so later, after I learned to play the piccolo. We went back to the Sears catalogue for the flute as well, even though the usual route would have been to go to the music store in town and order an instrument through them. Let me explain.

My father worked for Sears and Roebuck. The official name was/is Sears, Roebuck, though we always put the and between the two names. Dad wasn’t a salesman nor did he work in the Sears store in our town. His job was to drive to an existing store in his assigned area that was due for renovation. His “beat” was the mid-east states.

He would show up at the assigned store, almost always in West Virginia or some other nearby state – Ohio, Kentucky, even Indiana — with vast sets of blueprints supplied by corporate headquarters, and his battered briefcase. He would check into a local hotel or motel. All meals were taken in various barrooms with the other guys, a regular crew he always hired to do the carpentry work. After I was ten years old I used to go with him in the summer to one of the jobs for a week or two. I loved it. I got to ride in the front seat of the car; there were no seat belts in those days, so I could really move around. The trips took hours and hours and we would spend our driving time checking gas stations for the best prices, often finding a locale in the midst of a “gas war,” something that no longer happens and hasn’t for many years, where the price could drop down to 15 cents a gallon. I loved eating out for every meal, and was astonished to find that I could have a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato every day for breakfast; my dad didn’t care and the short order cooks seemed happy to oblige.

My father worked this way his whole career, beginning long before he met my mother. There was a scrapbook in our house that showed what life on the road was like in those days, and it was certainly a time unlike any today. His crew was all young men who would sleep in one room, three or four to a bed, to save money on their expense accounts. There were pictures of three of them in the bathtub at the same time, throwing soapsuds around and goofing off for the camera. Today’s homophobia would never allow close contact like that between young men without people thinking they were all gay, but that was not the case. Many nights they all slept on tables on the job when they were up against a deadline, my dad saying there would only be a few hours to spare so they had to “sleep fast.”

One of the perks of this nomadic motel lifestyle was that Dad could gather up all the little extra soaps in the bathrooms and bring them home for us to use. Ditto the towels. I was in high school and staying over at my friend Freddy Klein’s house when I discovered that soap came in a large size, which seemed ridiculously enormous to me. And the towels! I didn’t know that towels could be that thick and luxurious. Ours were thin and small and rough. But instead of making me want thick and luxurious, I’ve only been happy with really cheap towels my entire adult life. When my mother went into a nursing home at the age of 90, I was clearing out her apartment and came across a large plastic bag of those soaps, each one with a printed ad on the wrapper for a cheap motel. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

When the Sears store my dad was working on was finished with their extensive renovations, usually after several months, he and his crew moved on to another store. This meant he was away from home all week, coming back only on the weekends or every other weekend. It was an odd sort of life for my mom and dad, different from all my friends in the neighborhood, but because he actually wore a coat and tie and carried a briefcase he was seen as something of an executive type and looked up to. Everyone else’s dad wore a work uniform: auto or some other type of repairman, guard at one of the big chemical factories down on the river, policeman, etc.

One really important thing for our family was the Sears job came with a 10% employee discount, which meant we bought every stitch of clothing and everything else from either the Sears store in town or through the catalogue. My father was extremely loyal to the company and never worked for anyone else. He always said he would never lose his job at Sears even if there were another big depression because everyone would always need toilet paper and tractors, so the company would never go out of business.

We never shopped for clothing at the high-end department store downtown, Dils Brothers, because we were too poor for that. I didn’t know at the time, particularly when I was younger, but our clothes were pretty cheesy, which didn’t matter much because everyone else’s clothes in our neighborhood were cheesy as well. Remember being either Ford or Chevy people? This was another example of that sort of brand loyalty; you were either Sears or, J.C. Penny, or Montgomery Wards people. Of course we always hilariously referred to Montgomery Wards as Monkey Wards. Monkey Wards was our mortal enemy, Sears and Roebuck’s enemy; we would never even step foot in that store. The result was any “formal” clothes I had — church clothes — were just a little too loud, the material was a little too rough, or a little too shiny, or a little too something. But the play-outside-clothes and the work clothes were fine. Sears and Roebuck was the king of play and work clothes.

My sister bore the brunt of the Sears clothing mandate. Everything she had was plain and ordinary. Very tough for a young girl in those times. But when it came to clothes, I didn’t know any better. Which was the reason I ended up with The World’s Ugliest Sport Coat.

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