Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Childhood -- trees and games in the yard

This is what I remember, not what actually happened. I could have discussed the details with my brother and two sisters as research, but I chose not to. Until my tenth birthday nothing happened and I loved it. Don’t expect this part of the story to move along.

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, the summer of 1946, the fourth child. My parents were renting a house on Prairie Avenue right off Central Street. It was no longer big enough, so they bought the house in Wilmette soon after my birth. The old house on Prairie Avenue stayed in the family because Uncle Ted and Aunt Bea rented it after we moved out and they lived there for many years. We didn’t visit them very often, because Uncle Ted was boring – at least that’s what I thought. He had such a big nose. Aunt Bea had a tiny nose and a sharp mouth, and the food wasn’t any good. My cousins, Dick, Rosemarie and Jerry, were much older than me and they didn’t play.
Uncle Ted was the oldest of Mom’s four brothers. His real name was Ambrose. He had been a stock broker in the 1920s and was making a good living until the Crash. After the Crash he put every last penny back into the market thinking it had reached the bottom. He was wrong of course. Uncle Ted had no more confidence in himself after that. He would not take any leadership role in our family, even though he was the first born. He just got some nondescript job and kept quiet. He might have been sad. I didn’t notice – I had a lot of uncles. Uncle Ted was a spare.

But the old neighborhood always meant something to me. Mom still liked to do her shopping on Central Street. She would take me with her to the butcher shop and they would give me a slice of liver sausage. We bought our shoes at Vose’s every year. The salesman always had a nice smile and said, “Good Morning, Mrs. Owens. How are you?” New shoes were fun, especially sneakers, because I felt extra jumpy when I got them. The salesman would kneel down in front of me, making me feel special and important. He brought out the silver-metal plate with sliding pieces that measured the length and width of my feet. This was a very positive experience, to have growing feet and to be needing new shoes, and to have a nice mother who always got them for me when I needed them.

The best thing about Central Street was the parade every Fourth of July, followed by the fireworks at nearby Dyche Stadium, the home field for Northwestern University. The parade and the fireworks was a very big deal for me, and the rest of the year, when Mom took me there, the street would resonate in anticipation of the big parade.
Not forgetting Prairie Avenue, because the way from our house in Wilmette to Central Street was down Prairie Avenue, and I always looked at the old house when we drove past. It was a stucco bungalow with dark green wood window trim. Stucco was the right and truest way to build a house, because our house in Wilmette was stucco. Everybody else’s house was different and maybe just as good, but stucco was my standard.
We moved to the new house in August, 1946, six weeks after I was born. The address was 1612 Forest Avenue. I didn’t have a stronger connection to the house than my brother or my three sisters, but I always felt that I was the reason we bought it – because we need the room.

Forest Avenue was well-named. The oak trees and elm trees towered over the house and made a canopy of shade all up and down the street. I knew at a very early age that this was better than what other people had, that a good neighborhood had good trees. They were huge at the trunk, even three feet in diameter for the elm tree in our front yard, although it wasn’t exactly in our yard, but between the street and the sidewalk.

Not for climbing, the trunk of the elm tree soared up to the sky in mighty strength, and the high branches spread out in graceful symmetry. I knew it was beautiful. The oak tree was right in the center of the backyard. It was stronger, the bark was rougher, the limbs more twisty than the smooth curves of the elm. The oak tree was not beautiful but it was awesome – so big and so old, and part of a company of giant oaks in the neighborhood. There was an oak next door, and another one across the alley. We were all under their protection.

For wildlife we had grey squirrels, robins and blue jays. There were acorns. There was a horse chestnut tree a block away that was of some interest, because we could gather the smooth dark-brown chestnuts, just to feel them and throw them away after a while.

We had a great climbing tree across the street, a maple with a short trunk and many horizontal branches. You could jump up, grab one of the low branches and swing up your feet. The bark was smooth and worn smoother because all the kids played in it. I was competent and graceful in the tree branches, never reckless. I shinnied up to a certain height, I never tried to test the limit. It was a good tree, nobody ever fell out.

I hardly noticed the weather, except when it was fun. An extremely hot day was not of great interest. Summer was good for thunderstorms and lightning. I loved the boom and the crash and the flashing blue light. We might stay out in the downpour and get all wet and jump in puddles, but usually we were shuffled indoors and just got to watch. The night crawlers came out on the sidewalk after the rain, very big fat worms, sprawled out and lazy in a warm puddle. You could fill a jar or a can with them, although there wasn’t much else to do with night crawlers except cut them in half and squash them in various ways. I had only a mild interest in worm torture.

My parents didn’t make me wear shoes in the summer. Basically from when school let out in the middle of June and until school started again in September, I was barefoot, except on Sunday at church. They were more permissive in this regard than some other parents. I had really great feet. I could walk or run anywhere in bare feet, fearlessly, even on gravel, although that was tough.

The best part of summer in our neighborhood was getting to play outside after dinner. That was never allowed during the school year, not just at our house, it was a neighborhood rule. But in summer, after being excused from the dinner table, we could go out and play until the street lights came on. That was a good standard because there was no arguing. When the lights came on, the game was over. Our street light, and I pretty much thought it was ours, I knew we didn’t own it as such, but it was still proprietary to me, because it stood square in the center of our yard next to the curb. It was our beacon, cast iron in a six-sided column, fluted, with three sides that curved inwards and three sides that lay outward and flat, rising to a pretty tower of light with six panes of mottled glass, and each pane tilted outward slightly, and the light topped by a crown and spike. The street lamp was beautiful to me, and I knew it was better than what other people had. It was the home beacon, Mom and Dad never had to call out in the darkness, we always came home.

The games on summer nights were great. There were a lot of children on our block and we played in the street. Forest Avenue was paved with dark-red bricks, as smooth as porcelain, warm or cool to bare feet, with little bits of green moss or tiny blades of grass growing between the cracks. We played Kick Ball, that was sort of like baseball in that someone pitched the soft red ball to a kicker who booted it and then ran some bases, but girls could play. We also played Kick the Can. I don’t remember the rules or how it was played. The most fun was Hide and Go Seek, and we used the big elm tree for Home Base. Come to think of it, the games always centered in front of our house and not down the block. I think that was because we had the most kids. The Giambalvos lived across the street. Jimmy Giambalvo – that made a rhyme -- was two years older than me, and Paul Giambalvo was one year younger than me. Jimmy was dark like his Italian father. Paul was freckled and red-haired like his mother. They were nice people, but their house was kind of sad and subdued. Mrs Giambalvo was an alcoholic but we didn’t know that at the time.

The Tuttles lived next to the Giambalvos. Their two kids, Sally and Lynn, were much older. Lynn was a strong, masculine type of fellow. He had a canoe. Lynn was not a regular boy’s name, to my mind. There were not too many people who were different than us, so I noticed this.

The Wolfs lived on the other side of the Giambalvos. Mr. Wolf owned the hardware store in the village. This was cool because of all the stuff they had there. They had a girl Christine who my sister’s played with, and a boy named Charlie who was much younger than me, but still a lot of fun, and we used to go over to their house a lot and read comics and watch TV. Plus the climbing tree, the maple, was in their front yard. So really the focus of the games was in the middle between our house and a little bit to the right, where the Wolf’s lived. Mom was even friends with Mrs. Wolf, and sometimes Mrs. Wolf came over to our house for a visit. Mom was friends with the other neighbors, but it was more like cordiality.

The Steinbrechers lived next door on our side of the street. Two kids, Marcia and Richie. Marcia was busom buddies with my sister Carolyn. The Steinbrechers moved away to another part of Wilmette, but we still stayed connected. They were Protestants. The Lynches moved in after the Steinbrechers. The Lynch kids – David, Katy, Molly and several others – were a ton of fun, but they didn’t stay long. Mom really liked Mrs. Lynch. After that the Soderstroms moved. They had only kid and it was boring.

Kick Ball was fun, but it was like weeny baseball and we let the girls in, although the girls didn’t see it that way, because it was understood that street games were never just a boys’ thing. Girls had jump rope and Hop Scotch. Boys threw baseballs and footballs around although we never organized regular games because there wasn’t enough room or enough boys.

Hide and Go Seek was the most important game because it was full-time for boys and girls. We knew that girls could not throw as well as boys, or hit a ball, or do cool things on a bike, but they could run just as good, and hide just as good, so it worked out. If you were It – I loved that word, It. – That was the beginning of philosophy for me, because I used to ponder the status of being It and how it was used in various games. You didn’t want to get caught and become It, of course, but the good part of being It was being the center of attention, and playing the next game well enough so that you would no longer be It.

If you were It in Hide and Go Seek, you covered your eyes and leaned your face against the elm tree – the biggest and most glorious elm tree on the block, which was Home Base and there was never a question about that – and counted to one hundred, while the other kids ran away and hid, usually not too far away, behind a car or a bush, or around the corner of one of the houses.

When you finished counting you called out, “Here I come, ready or not.” You might do this in a sing-song style for effect. And you began to look for the other players, the idea being to tag them before they could run Home and tag the tree, in which case they were safe. As soon as you caught some other kid and tagged him, then they became It for the next game. Of course there still some kids hiding, so you called out “Allee, allee income, freedom free,” also with style.

The back yard was white-fenced in rectangles of two-inch wide strips with a cap rail that you could walk on like a tightrope. The oak tree was smack in the middle of the yard, which was square. The yard just wasn’t big enough for baseball, but we had various pitching games, using the house as a back stop. It was too easy to hit one over the back fence and into the alley, or even further into the Johnson’s yard. Mr. Johnson was a grouch, and if we dug in his flower beds searching for a lost ball, it was just a lot of work. We weren’t scared of him or anything.

The big game was badminton. The back part of the yard was just the right size for a court. This was also boys and girls. We put up the net in early summer and kept it there through the season. We played so much badminton that we wore a six-foot circle in the grass on each side of the net. I loved to slam it and I loved to hit high looping floaters. We played until 21 points, and then we played again.

Mom had peonies and roses against the back fence and roses, but too many children to do much gardening. We respected her garden patch, but she was fairly easy-going about it. If you trampled something you didn’t get a big scolding.

We had a hammock hung between the oak tree and the garage. It had a soft, cotton texture, and mildewed, outdoorsy scent.

The alley was cool. It wasn’t paved. It was the wilderness and the underworld. Day lilies – we called them tiger lilies – grew in a riot between the back fence and the ruts of the cars. They just grew by themselves. We burned the trash in a wire can, so there was debris and ashes around like blackened tin cans. When we were older we went alley-hunting around the neighborhood looking for junk.

A special quiet place for me was the north side of the house, a shady grove where violets and lilies of the valley grew untended. I would sit there on the ground and pick a bouquet and bring them to Mom, purple for violets, and that special tiny white color of the lilies. This may have been why I liked that book so much, the one called Ferdinand the Bull. Ferdinand was the most powerful bull in the pasture of Spain, but they could not get him to fight. He only liked to sit under the cork tree and smell the flowers. As a child I wanted to be strong like a bull, but I didn’t want to fight, I wanted to smell the flowers. Not entirely true. I used to fight and scream with my sisters a fair bit. I never got into punching fights with the other kids, although one time, when Scottie Soderstrom had just moved in next door – he was my age and went to the public school – I punched him really hard in the stomach, I don’t know why. He just ran into the house to get away, and after that his mother wouldn’t let him play with me. Scottie was an only child and he just didn’t know how to act.
That was the yard and the block we lived on. The yard and the block were fundamental markers. The outer boundaries were the through streets with traffic lights and white stripes down the middle. Green Bay Road was two blocks towards the lake and the train tracks went by on the other side of the road. When I was really young the choo-choo trains got me really excited with big towers of white smoke, but the diesel engines came in when I was little older and I was more blasé about that. Shimoneck’s was on Green Bay Road. That was the gas station. I could buy an orange soda for a dime. My allowance was twenty-five cents a week. I was friends with Billy Hoak for a few years when I was about ten. He was pudgy and quiet and he had red hair, but the great thing about Billy was that he could a two dimes from his mother almost anytime and we went to get sodas.

Lake Street was one block from Forest Ave. We didn’t cross that. It was paved with black tar – that was fast for bike riding. Our brick street was cool, but it rumbled under the bike tires. Lake Street was fast in general with cars that clipped along, and it went east to Lake Michigan, one mile away.

Ridge Avenue was three blocks to the west. This was major. The eponymous ridge was only twenty to thirty feet in elevation, but it was the only hill we had and the only hill I knew about. You could ride your bike down the hill and go fast and take your hands off the handlebars and be coasting a long way.

St. Joseph’s church and grade school – St. Joe’s -- was at the intersection of Lake Street and Ridge Avenue, just a short walk from the house, but it was up on that ridge and the church was very tall and imposing. The school building was huge too, facing the church across Lake Street. The drugstore was at the third corner at the intersection. We could buy popsicles and candy bars there.

The last boundary was three blocks to the north. It went Lake Street, Forest Ave, Walnut Avenue, Elmwood Avenue, and then Kenilworth, where the rich people lived and the houses were much bigger.

That was my territory, within that grid. Everything was the way it was supposed to be, and it was always that way. The oak trees and the elm trees covered everything with a summer canopy. Nothing ever happened.

In the fall the leaves came down and there were huge piles and raking teams, us kids, on Saturday morning, raking them all to the curb and burning them in the street. But first we made a big pile and jumped in it. I loved burning the leaves, seeing the first curly whisps of smoke and watching it build and then get dense with rich thick white smoke like whipped cream billowing upwards, and then flames leaping, getting hot, roaring, and then it would die down slowly, or we would dump more leaves on it and start the white smoke again.

In the winter we had snow, snow men, snow forts, snowball fights, and lying down to make angels. Snowmen we outgrew pretty quickly. Snow forts could happen under the right conditions, with plenty of good packing snow and enough kids to build one or two forts and then start a war. It was stupid to get cold fluffy snow that you couldn’t pack. It was contemptible – there was no point in having snow if you couldn’t pack it and make snowballs.

The ideal was good packing snow and enough to get out of school for the day. That was heaven, throwing snowballs. When we were older we used to throw them at the icicles hanging off the eaves of the houses, to knock them down. We would go hunting for big ones and keep throwing until we got it. Even older we got into the riskier games which were to throw snowballs at the street lamps with six panes and knock them out, but usually just one of the panes, because then we had to run away. If we really wanted to be hairy we could go over to Lake Street and throw snowballs at cars driving by. The coolest shot was to land one on the windshield. This could bring the cops around.

And the craziest thing was skitching. I didn’t do it, but the Ridge Boys did. I just wasn’t that wild. You did it on a slow street when it’s packed with snow. You waited until a car came by, then you ran behind it and up to it. You quickly squatted down on your heels and grabbed the rear bumper and went for a wild ride until you fell off and went sprawling.

I didn’t envy those Ridge Boys too much because I was already having a lot of fun and to get into a little trouble was enough for me. Besides that, we lived in a better house. Mom and Dad and the other parents, always Mr. and Mrs. – I had no overall objection to their rule. I knew it was wholesome and it felt good. The world inside that neighborhood was more than enough.

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