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Friday, December 25, 2015

Winter Wonderland


In Milwaukee in the 1970s, it snowed. I mean that on January 1st, 1970 it started to snow, and never stopped until December 31st, 1979 with the occasional pause for summer.

For example:

Between December 31st, 1978 and January 1st, 1979 14 inches fell. This was the famous New Year’s storm. Winds gusted to 40 mph and caused snowdrifts to 6 feet, blocking many roads. Then on January 12th and 13th, we received another 14.3 inches, again with 40-mph winds. Finally, on January 23-24 we received another 9.5 inches! The only way people were able to get around was with skis.


Winter is a special time for children. One could throw snowballs, build snowmen, or go sledding with the knowledge that the comfort of home and a warm fireplace was right around the corner. Mom would make hot cocoa, and when you came inside all red-faced and shed the wet clothing and rubber boots lined with plastic bread bags, the steaming cup would be miraculously waiting, complete with a marshmallow. I spent a lot of time outside in the winter. The lawns on Downer were big enough to construct snowmen, and the #30 bus ran by our house so that endless snowballs could be launched at them.


Lake Park ran an ice skating rink that was free, and I owned a succession of old rummage-sale skates allowing me to visit the rink. It was family oriented during the day but became dominated by aggressive bigger kids after dark.

One major fauxpas my mom made was to dress me in her old white girl’s figure-skates when I outgrew the pairs I had. Note to all parents: Do not do anything of this kind to your children. Ever. Period. I almost got lynched by the other kids for wearing them, despite Mom’s wise words to “Just ignore them”. If you think your kid looks ‘cute’ in an outfit, be forewarned that he or she will return from any encounters with the neighborhood toughs bruised, battered, and missing several articles of clothing.


Winter attire in the 1970s mostly consisted of what was inexpensive, with the realization that kids playing in the snow would be hard on their clothing. I wore some hand-me-down corduroy jackets held together in places with safety pins, layers of old pants with various holes, and rummage sale big black rubber boots with those annoying metal fasteners that never stayed fastened. I may have looked like a rag-a-muffin but why cloth your children in Gucci to play in the snow?


My favorite snow related activities were building snow-forts and playing soldier. I used sticks as rifles, and would run back and forth pretending to fire at imaginary enemies and dive repeatedly into the snow or slush. I could keep this up for hours.


We had a classic wooden sled with red metal rails. Ideally you sat or lay prone on the sled and used the wooden control bar to steer by shifting the rails. In actuality, the system provided such poor steering that by the time you tried to avoid danger, it was already too late, requiring one to bail-out into the snow.

At the East End of North Avenue was a large hill next to the historic water tower. On any given day dozens of families would be sledding down the steep run. The city tried to keep people away by erecting snow fences, but we got around them. One could attain a high speed on this hill, and if you were not careful, your ride could end with both you and your sled in the middle of Lincoln Memorial Drive, a busy street next to Lake Michigan. Several of the more creative and poorer kids used flattened cardboard boxes as sleds. This offered great speed and the added bonus of no control whatsoever, often going down the hill backward or spinning in circles. Sometimes the cardboard ended up on top, and you became the sled.



While winter is fun for children, photographers, and lovers, it can be a real trial for adults. Dad seemed to be always shoveling snow, with the piles on the side of our walk growing to tower over my head. He would come in after shoveling all covered with snow and with his nose running and his mustache frosted and growing icicles. He literally had to thaw out.

We never owned a snow blower, and all of the accumulation had to be cleared by hand, Mom and I adding our backs to the effort.

Of course with Dad’s obsessive nature he started shoveling when the first snowflake fell, and didn’t stop until it ceased snowing.

Snow also had to be removed from our upper deck, a rickety platform accessible only from the master (Dad’s) bedroom, and off limits except for shoveling. One year so much snow fell that I could jump off the second story deck and land on the ground safely cushioned by the snow.


A bad snowstorm in Milwaukee is one where the bus system has to shut down, as the huge vehicles can’t get through the streets. That is how we define a real snowfall. When this happened, the streets would be abandoned. No cars or busses would pass, and nobody was outdoors. I loved this time best. The streets would be filled with that awesome muffled silence only a blizzard could bring. My boots would make virgin tracks through the snow, as the streetlights lit the snowflakes like miniature falling stars.


The worst part of the winter snow ritual for our family was the ownership of a car without a driveway or garage to keep it in. Waking up in the morning after a snowstorm, we faced the task of trying to remove the auto from under the frozen hill of ice and snow that the city plow had encased it in. In order to allow plowing, ‘snow emergencies’ would be declared, necessitating the removal of all cars from main streets to side streets. This had the effect of mandating that we first spend hours digging out the car from a side street, and then pushing and shoving it to the newly plowed main street. A few minutes later while removing our sodden clothes in the front hallway, we would observe the plow come by again and bury the car a second time. This nightmare would be repeated until all the streets were plowed, spring came, or we set fire to our car, whichever came first.

Many times, we would get the car hopelessly stuck trying to move it to a different location in anticipation of the plows. Once Mom and I got the car stuck in the middle of the street a few blocks away, and I had to run and get my dad and several neighbors to try to push the thing to safety. I seemed to spend much of my later childhood helping shovel out the car, or running down the street behind it trying to push as it fishtailed and slid from side to side.


It seems now in looking back, that after the beauty of a white Christmas, all of Milwaukee spent the next few months hoping for the first sign of spring.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paper Route Oh lord the lessons of business at 12 years old

The First Job:


When I was 12 years old, I got a paper route delivering the Milwaukee Journal to our neighborhood. My parents must have thought it might build character and teach responsibility. I wanted the route anyway, as my best friend Alex had one already, allowing him to buy more baseball cards than I could. Dad and Mom both encouraged me that employment would be fun, and told me stories of the jobs they had as youngsters, most of which started out with “When I was your age, I had three jobs that blah… blah.”

My dad accompanied me to the newspaper station for our area, and I signed up. My route would include two blocks of Downer and two blocks of Stowell Ave.

The way the system worked was that I would be charged by the week for how many papers I ordered. I would then collect the money from the residents, and any money that was left over after paying for the papers was profit. Essentially, we kids were private contractors.

We carriers received a huge yellow bag constructed of canvas designed to be worn over the shoulder. The Journal consisted of a daily addition, a midweek addition with advertising supplement, and a Sunday edition.


The guy in charge of the local routes worked out of a shack next to a convenience store. He was a fat and disheveled guy in his 30s with greasy balding hair who probably saw his future differently than it now was. He compensated for his pathetic life by acting like the malevolent head of the carrier gang. He assigned the routes and determined the amount of papers you would receive and pay for, so getting on his bad side often meant that you would find yourself trying in vain to sell your extras by standing on the corner yelling “Paper” to passing motorists.  Many of the carriers hung out at the shack, trading insults and baseball cards. They were the bigger and older carriers, and none of us little kids were allowed to hang out with them. Summoned to meet with the ‘boss’, one would have to make his way slowly past the snickering carrier gang who added their snide comments as you meekly awaited his audience. When I first was assigned the route, the ‘boss’ told me that I would be taking over from a girl named Beth. She would show me the collection cards and take me on the route with her on her last day as an orientation. “You will really like her” he said, “She is a real cutie.” I called her and we arranged a meeting. When she set eyes on me she cried “Eww, it’s you!”, and walked off leaving the collection cards on the grass. That was the extent of my orientation. She knew me from school, and since she was a popular girl, and I was a popular target, she had reacted as child-society demanded.


I was supposed to be able to have a job I could do after school, earn money to be put away for savings, and learn responsibility. Instead, I and increasingly my parents became enslaved by it.


The daily additions were easy enough. One simply placed as many as one could carry at one time into the big yellow bag, and staggered off to fight the defective screen doors, viscous dogs, bullies, lonely elderly residents with dementia, and other hazards of the job. When I ran out of papers, I went home for more until the whole route was complete. I repeated this for seven days a week, 365 days a year. There were no vacations as a paper carrier. You might get a friend to cover for you in an emergency, but then you faced the consequences if your friend was less than attentive and forgot to deliver to half the houses, instead choosing to read comic books.


I soon found out that the oft-portrayed icon of the young child on a red balloon tire bike, with a bag full of papers, dutifully delivering the daily news was a myth. Trying to ride my bike with the cumbersome yellow bag was nearly impossible. I would have to lean the bike over 45 degrees in order to balance the load. Pedaling at this angle proved futile. One solution I came up with was to hang the bag off the front handlebars of the bike. This worked as long as you didn’t have to steer or stop. Having to stop the bike at every house and get off to deliver the paper wasted time as well.

Now some carriers had mastered the art of folding the paper in a certain manner in order to toss it onto a porch while continuing to ride by on the bike. My experiments with this ended up with papers in bushes, a broken window, and spending hours chasing blowing pages down the street when they sort of exploded as they were halfway to their destination. I finally was able to master this folding with practice, but it was only practical one or two days a week, as the other days the papers were too thick to fold.

Of course, my dumb bike was not exactly up to par either. A neighbor had given us a black Huffy 3 speed from the 1940s with two of the three gears stripped. It must have weighed over 50 pounds, and had survived a collision with a car. In a feat of inspiration bordering on the lunatic, I spray-painted it day-glo orange, trying to make it look like the expensive road bikes at the local bicycle store. It ended up looking like a cheap science fiction movie prop.


I finally abandoned the bike idea and instead used a rusted toy wagon with no handle, which I pulled with a length of old rope I had attached. I don’t remember where the dilapidated wagon was obtained from, but it must have made me look like the Oliver Twist of newsboys.

After a short period, the wagon must have finally fallen apart, and I moved on to the use of an abandoned shopping cart. Now this was the way to go! I could carry most or all of the papers in one shot. The problem with the shopping cart is that it had one of those funny wheels that one can only find on shopping carts: a sort of free-spirit wheel that always wanted to go its own way. I would make progress down the street, only to suddenly lurch into a tree or a curb.


All these trials could be tolerated and overcome if it wasn’t for the dreaded Sunday edition. Instead of being an evening paper like it was on weekdays and Saturday, the Journal on Sunday was a morning paper. I rose every Sunday to the alarm at 4:30 am, and complete darkness. With bleary eyes, I dragged myself down the stairs and to the curb, where unbelievably large and heavy piles of bundled papers had been deposited. In the pre-dawn silence I half carried, rolled, and shoved the bundles up to our house.

The Sunday paper was unique in that not only was it ten times the size of a daily paper, but it also had to be assembled by the carrier. First, I had to cut the bailing wire that bound the stacks of papers together. Unlike my fellow carriers, I didn’t have my own wire cutters, but had to borrow Dad’s, promising each time that I would put it back properly in its slot on the peg-board above his workbench. The bailing wire had a habit of being twisted too tight, thus ruining the first and last paper in the bundle. I then had to sort the sections one by one into complete papers while sneaking a read of the comic strips, all under the dim 40-watt bulb in the overhead hall light. (We wouldn’t want to waste electricity, right Dad?)

Once assembled, the papers would be piled ten at a time into my big yellow bag, and I would stagger off into the darkness, leaning and lurching with the weight. Once rid of my load, I would return home to get another ten papers etc., until the route was complete. I think I had over eighty houses, so that more than eight trips would be needed. As soon as I got halfway through the first block my body reacted to the shock of being awake by letting me know I had to go to the toilet. When this happened, I hid the papers in the bushes, and ran bow-legged for home.


It was bad enough in normal conditions for a 12-year-old boy to carry 70 pounds of papers eight times through the neighborhood, but when the weather acted up, it could really get tricky. One of the worst things about rain or snow was that as the papers inevitably became moist or wet, they gained weight until you felt like you were delivering bowling balls.

Several Sundays saw the neighborhood covered in newly fallen snow a foot or two deep. At this point, the shopping cart and bag were abandoned in favor of my sled. Mom and I duly dragged the sled through the snow, piled full of papers and covered by garbage bags against the weather. It was early in the morning, so the walkways were not yet shoveled, making every house an Alaskan expedition. It also was hard to move when you were wearing three or four layers of clothing, two coats, and covered in snow.

Some of the residents, accustomed to reading their paper at a certain hour were intolerant of delays. They would stand in fuzzy slippers and a robe, holding steaming cups of coffee just inside their cozy doorways, and watch me trudge through waist deep snowdrifts trying to make it to their door.

On one of these arctic adventures, my mom was pulling the sled when it toppled over. She slipped in trying to catch it and lay on the street calling out in pain. What a way for Mom to spend her day off.

I did get Dad out of bed to help me once, but he complained so much, and made me so miserable that it was easier to do without his help.


Nobody at the Journal had warned us that the whole family would have to get involved. They also could have warned us that the filthy little rag-a-muffins selling papers in the movies were filthy because they were covered in newsprint! Not a day passed when I didn’t come home from the route badly in need of a bath. They also could have mentioned that continued use of the heavy news-bag would cause curvature of the spine. For years during and after my paper route I habitually walked with a conspicuous tilt, and always had to be stopped during school scoliosis tests and gawked at by the nurses. All this for less than twenty dollars profit per week.


One of the most interesting things about my paper route were the residents themselves. Our neighborhood was full of eccentrics.

There was the old woman with memory problems that lived in a huge home filled with antiques. She was forever misplacing her checkbook, and always wanted to offer me booze when it was cold. She needed help to fill out the check, and I was often there for an hour or more, helping her locate the checkbook or her purse (was it in the freezer or the closet?), and trying to politely refuse endless offers of brandy. (I was twelve at the time.)

There was the control freak that insisted on balancing his accounts and his checkbook in front of me while I waited to be paid, the lawyer who waited outside in his bath robe for the paper in winter while drinking a beer, a kind old woman with a little dog named ‘Jasu’, a psychiatrist who always tried to tell me what to do, and several people who always answered the door acting as if they were expecting the cops. Several residents I never saw at all. Their papers mysteriously disappeared from the doorstep of their homes as if by magic.


Most everybody was friendly until collection time.


I wonder who came up with the idea of sending twelve-year-old kids to people’s doors to collect on debts. Isn’t this a thing best left to big guys in leather jackets named ‘Lefty’? I certainly was not what one could expect in the enforcer category. After all, I was only twelve, and weighed less than 75 pounds. I certainly was not the best businessman, and was intimidated by some of the residents as well as being lazy, so often the amounts owed included several weeks or even months of delivery. At collection time, few of the residents actually had money in the house, or their spouse had their checkbook. Perhaps I could come back later or on Saturday? I wasted an incredible amount of time trying to find residents who were actually at home and had money to pay the bill.

I received lectures from the residents to collect more often, and to that effect went out at night to knock on doors to see if I could catch people at home.

It’s funny how the tune changes sometimes. The same people who lectured me on collecting more frequently happened to live in houses that suffered mysterious electrical lighting failures as soon as I rang the door buzzer.

I had an effective way of dealing with these customers. When it came time to deliver the Sunday paper, I would open the outer screen door, and trap the paper at head height between the doors by quickly shutting the outer door. When the customer opened the inner door, he was greeted with a shower of pages onto his feet.

Of course some customers never paid, and were duly reported to the Journal for collections. I never did get my books balanced perfectly, and left the route still being owed money.


I saved just about everything I made on the route not because I was thrifty, but because my parents had enforced it. I obtained a savings account at the University Credit Union when I was about ten, and most all of the money I made selling greeting cards or on the paper rout went into it. I paid for half of the cost of my trumpet, and the entire cost of a later competition target rifle. I may have missed the thrill of squandering my earnings on candy and comic books, but I did learn to save. I also learned a lot about life, the people that inhabit it, and all the trials and tribulations of earning a buck the hard way.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Upper East Side of Milwaukee our neighborhood in the 1970s

Our Neighborhood:


Milwaukee in the 1970s was a city in transition. A city famous for its breweries and beer consumption, heavy industry, machine shops and factories, it was slowly but relentlessly being eaten by the rust belt. Breweries began to close, industry to relocate, and experts prophesied that the death of the American City was upon us. The population began to fall as more and more people moved to the surrounding suburbs. The downtown shopping area began to see empty storefronts. Workers that had held factory jobs allowing them to raise families began to lose those jobs as businesses closed. Milwaukee’s decline or transition would be slow through the 60s to the 80s, and would avoid the drastic decay that cities such as Detroit saw.


Milwaukee’s citizens thought of their city as the best “Small town-large city in America.” Milwaukee was made up of ethnic and industry neighborhoods. The Lower East Side was Italian, the South Side Polish, the 3rd ward Irish and then Italian, and the Central City German transitioning into African American. The ethnic makeup of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods would slowly change as the 20th century wore on, but the local flavor is retained to this day. Each neighborhood had its own shops and business districts. Large factories such as Allis Chalmers transformed or built whole neighborhoods as workers wanted to live close by in inexpensive housing of their own. Above all, Milwaukee neighborhoods were dominated by two institutions; taverns and churches. We had more of both than almost any other city in America, some on the same block. In fact, some blocks contained a bar on each corner, leading to the term “Corner tap.” Each neighborhood was a whole community in itself. Anything one needed was within walking distance or a short streetcar ride away.


Our new home on Downer Avenue was in the neighborhood roughly known as the Upper East Side.

Sandwiched between the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and the Lake, the Upper East Side was populated by a diverse mixture of middle-class families, students, and University professors and their families. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it became the city’s cultural center and trendsetter. The houses were built mainly in the 1920s and possessed charms as varied as their architecture. The neighborhood was special, and remains much the same today, only barely touched by the disease of plastic sameness so prevalent in our American culture. It passed nearly untouched through the phase of “Urban renewal” which bulldozed so much of America’s unique neighborhood architecture in the name of progress. It survived for the most part, because it was insulated and filled with owner occupied family houses owned by prominent citizens who would fight against overt changes in their neighborhood. In the 1970s, every city had neighborhoods like this. When relatives came to visit, they would mention that the Downer Avenue section of the East Side reminded them of a treasured neighborhood back home where bookstores and ice cream parlors sat side by side, and everyone strolled the sidewalks seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere particular.




The biggest external influence that dominated life in the Upper East Side was the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Concerns regarding its growth and what that would mean to the neighborhood were always on resident’s minds. The 1970s saw student protests against the Vietnam War spill onto the surrounding streets. Following the uncovering of our secret bombing of Cambodia and the covert escalation of the war under Nixon and Kissenger, the students held mass protests, sealed off the streets, and took over the University. I remember my father escorting Mom from work at the Student Union, and carrying me on his shoulders through the seated throng of protesters. Unaware of danger at that age, I looked out at the strikers with interest from my high perch. From the late ‘60s through the middle of the ‘70s, the residents referred to most of the students rightly or wrongly as “Hippies.” The whole youth movement became a confused morass in which political idealism, new music, drugs, long hair and strange styles of dress merged together to become what was referred to as the “Counter Culture.” Instead of influencing the average American, it often frightened people. The important political and social messages and ideals were lost or misted over by “free love” and the drug culture. The idealism of the 1960s became helplessly lost and confused in the 1970s. The reaction to this fear lead directly to Nixon’s presidency as the common American went to the polls with their own safety in question. East-Siders may have wanted us out of Vietnam, supported local food cooperatives and alternative press, were often active in the woman’s movement, supported equal rights and housing access, but they drew the line at having groups of wild young adults congregating in the neighborhood where their children played.


To protect Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood and others against what the then Chief of Police Harold Brier considered undesirables, special squads of police were formed called the “Tactical Squads.” These goons did what they could to disrupt student protests, ad-hoc rock concerts, and gatherings of youth in area parks. Their heavy-handed ‘tactics’ were barely legal at best. Members of the youth culture did not help things either. Far from realizing that they needed to clean up their act if they wanted to influence others, they instead seemed to be increasingly trying to shock Milwaukee’s citizens with ‘love ins’, or free magazines such as Kaleidoscope and the Bugle American. These local publications actually had some wonderful content, but it was characteristically buried behind advertisements for drug paraphernalia and cover stories no one over thirty years old wanted to read. Progressive East-Siders such as my father were torn between support for the political and social ideas of the youth, and being repulsed by the counter-cultural elements and disruption of neighborhood safety. During the 1970s, Dad spent much of his time staring out our front window on the lookout for “Teenagers” who were in his opinion “all up to no good.” “Teenagers” in his view were anyone under 25 dressed funny or with long hair. This sort of split personality between progressive social views and ‘Archie Bunkerism’ was quite common.


The University didn’t just supply hippies. Art students drew and sketched on the lawn of Mitchell hall where through open windows in summer music majors could be heard. Philosophy students argued their theories over coffee, and mathematicians walked into trees. Everywhere there were people of all ages that were socially aware and had opinions. Then there were the professors…


Quite a few University professors and their families lived in the immediate three blocks surrounding our house. We knew many of them on a first-name basis. Since our house was on Downer Avenue, which was a main route to the University, we could observe them daily. Most were brilliant, if a bit eccentric. Some of them were so immersed in their own thoughts that they marched to school every day oblivious to the world around them. Many were dressed in sport coats and sweaters. I remember an Irish professor of literature who seemed to live in a local dive bar, a professor of comparative religion who was always talking to himself, and a professor of history who had an air of superiority and had run off with one of his graduate students. We knew a teaching assistant who had the most pungent body odor and always wore a long tattered wool scarf. Engaging and always smiling, he was very fond of his beer, and late one evening he tottered past our house on his way home from a local bar. He staggered back and forth down the street, until with a crash of broken branches he fell into a hedge. There he would spend the night, only to wake up and toddle the rest of the block or so to his lecture. One professor of physics stood out above all others. He was a friend or relative of a family we knew, sported a huge beard and long bushy gray hair, and always rode a bike. He rode the bike rain or shine, winter or summer, dressed in a pair of shorts and with bare legs. For some reason, he believed that fresh air was good for his sperm production, and thus never wore long pants. Even today, if one walks down Downer Avenue past the University you are likely to encounter a bearded professor riding a moped dressed in a patched tweed jacket in the middle of a 90-degree day.


The Upper East Side in the 1970s was filled with children. The stately houses, distance from urban turmoil, and the easy availability of the beautiful expanses of Lake Park contributed to the ideal cosmopolitan atmosphere that parents desired, as well as the safety they wanted for their children. Milwaukee had a great park system rivaling any major city and perhaps the finest in America. Milwaukee’s socialist mayors described our park system as a place where “The people could go to breathe,” and it is due to this philosophy that we owe the legacy of our parks. Frederick Law Olmstead, a socialist who also designed New York’s Central Park, designed Lake Park. We citizens of the East Side, especially us children seemed to spend much of the summer virtually living in the park. It was well supplied with playground equipment, baseball fields, a seasonal ice-rink, and other facilities. It also retained a subtle wildness contained in its many ravines, in which on any given day could be seen deer, songbirds, or pot smoking teens, among other flora and fauna. During picnics with multiple families, we kids ran all over the park, exploring every bridge, wooded ravine, or jungle gym. What strikes me today is the lack of fear children and our parents had while in the park. I don’t think we were ever warned about lurking pedophiles, drive-by shootings, abductions by space aliens, or any other looming threat that causes parents today to place their children on leashes while wearing hockey armor and sporting a GPS tracking device. The times were just simpler. Despite political assassinations, urban unrest, war, inflation, racism, and other woes of the day that worried the minds of parents, children were allowed to be free and engage in unstructured and mostly unsupervised play. It was a wonderful time to grow up.


Above all, there was Lake Michigan. The great lake would keep the neighborhood cooler in summer, and provide us kids with a free place to swim. During overcast evenings and nights, we fell asleep to the distant low bass of foghorns. The lake seemed the biggest body of water in the world to us kids, and we could look endlessly to the east, north and south without ever seeing the other side. It was our ocean. On Independence Day, the Schlitz brewery would sponsor a huge fireworks display on the lakefront that we could walk to. Unlike many other cities, Milwaukee protected it called its “Riviera”, and no development marred the lake view that anyone could have by simply walking down Lincoln Memorial Drive. One drawback though, was the periodic die-off of the alewife, a smelt-like fish and invasive species that would from time to time in the ‘70s cover our lake shore with their rotting carcasses, causing us East-Side residents to wish we lived anywhere else. The smell was indescribably bad.


Although the neighborhood was quite safe, like any other it had its less desirable areas. I rarely ventured alone past Murray Street to the west. We kids knew Murray as “Rip-off Street.” If one was unlucky or careless, venturing further west than this could result in getting harassed, chased by bullies, or having your bicycle stolen. At least that was the legend. None of these things ever really happened to us children, instead they always seemed to happen to a friend of a friend. It was more of a psychological boundary than anything else. On one side of the street, we felt safe, while only twenty feet away lay the fearful unknown.


Our neighborhood certainly had its share of kooks and eccentrics, but unlike today, we knew who they were and where they lived. In the ‘70s, we knew all of our neighbors for several blocks. Everyone knew the goofballs. We didn’t need the local news to scare us every evening with tales of pedophiles and predators lurking behind every door and peeping out of windows. We were just warned every now and then by our parents to avoid “Old lady Fussbudget’s house,” or not to bother “Mr. Loner.”


Although some of the residents could be considered characters, the biggest source of weirdoes in our neighborhood was its position between the University and the Lower East Side of North Avenue and Brady Street; both areas being magnets for eccentric people who wanted to loiter around. Every day several transients, former drug addicts who had lost their marbles, and other familiar characters wandered down Downer Avenue. I remember a guy who constantly laughed out loud as he walked. For years we saw him pass our house laughing and laughing as his ratty and too-small clothes dissolved on his back. Every once and awhile someone must have cleaned him up and he would sport a new pair of shoes and a haircut, but then as time went on he would decay back to his old look which was rather like an hysterical laughing Frankenstein monster with long hair and a beard. Dad always warned me to stay away from him, and called me into the house when he was spotted, but he never seemed to do any harm. He just laughed and walked, and walked and laughed. He was known locally as “ The Laughing Guy.”


Another character that made a weekly appearance was the “Potato Chip Guy.” He was a transient elderly man with a huge gray beard who wore a decaying black trench coat. Under the coat were stored dozens of large bags of potato chips. He hung out at bus stops eating bag after bag of chips between trips to the local food store to re-supply his stock. Again, this character never hurt anyone, and seemed to be concerned with nothing but eating potato chips, hoarding potato chips, and procuring more potato chips. He never seemed to speak a word to anybody.


Mom vaguely knew one of the local characters from the University, and tried her best to avoid him. He wore a white hardhat and laboratory coat, and rode around on a bicycle accosting innocent passersby and talking to them about arcane subjects. It didn’t take long for the poor unsuspecting victim to get the point that there was something odd about this guy, and excuse themselves from the conversation.


Our local cat-lady lived on Downer several blocks south of us. She was a very intelligent and eccentric woman who served in local community groups with my father. She always wore heavy coats and scarves and carried a flashlight. She also smelled suspiciously like something that died. Her house was always dark and cold because she had the electricity and gas disconnected. (Thus the coats and flashlights…) Copious juniper bushes and wild overgrown weeds hid the front of the home, so that if you didn’t know there was a house there you might think it was an abandoned lot. There seemed to be rumors that she kept a lot of cats, and when the police came to her door for some reason or another, her home was found to be in an unlivable condition, filled with felines and feces. She was taken away to God knows where and her house was bulldozed.


Several local characters were conspicuous Jesus freaks. The most notable drove around in dilapidated black station wagons with ranting religious writing scrawled everywhere in white paint. They used loudspeakers to broadcast themes of sin and repentance, and predicted the end of the world and hellfire. There seemed to be several of these nuts and their cars over the years.


The main shopping district in our neighborhood was on Downer Avenue between Park Place and Webster. It was only five blocks from our home; so simple shopping could be accomplished with relative ease. The whole area was modeled on a European village square, centered on St. Mark’s church, and still retains much of its former charm. It was the center of the Downer avenue community, and a common meeting place. There was a Sentry food market and Sendik’s, an upscale grocery store with excellent produce. Later came the Coffee Trader with exotic roasted coffees, fresh baked bread, and imported cheeses. In the mid 1970s I was sent three times a week to the Coffee Trader to buy a loaf of sourdough rye bread. For years the clerks at the Coffee Trader referred to me as “The sourdough kid.” Interesting small retail shops lined the avenue, and one could purchase craft supplies, imported woolens, Earth Shoes, visual art, candles, and get your hair cut by a barber with a real working barber pole.


My earliest memories of shopping expeditions pre-date our owning a car. Instead, we owned a succession of broken down two-wheel wire shopping carts. One of the carts was barely held together with old rope. These carts stood on end, and were supposed to fold up. (Hopefully only when you wanted it to, and not on its own accord.)

Mom and Dad would tow the cart to Sentry, where once filled with several grocery bags, it became hard to maneuver. Dad would carry two large bags in his arms, so it was my task as a five-year-old to help Mom lift the cart over curbs at street corners. (Handicap equipped corners came much later) Several times, I remember the carts falling over or the collapsing, spewing groceries to the street. It always seemed to be raining or snowing when this happened. If it were sunny, one could fill the old cart with bowling-balls and it would make the trip home, but if even a single drop of rain or snow fell, the cart began to wobble like a drunk, and the bottom would then fall out. It only did this when one was the maximum distance from home. The groceries would have to be piled back into the wet brown paper bags, and returned to the cart. We then would continue home towing the broken down cart, its geriatric wheels wobbling and squeaking.


When it snowed, my sled was substituted for the cart. During snowstorms, we would not be the only family shopping by sled or toboggan. Without a car, it was the only way to get groceries home.


Sendik’s market on Downer had a machine that squeezes oranges before your eyes and turns them into orange juice. The oranges were loaded into the top and then like a pachinko game would tumble down through a hole where an apparatus would squeeze out the juice. You could see the whole thing happening in front of you, as the front of the machine was made of glass. Every time my parents shopped at Sendik’s I stood in front of the machine, and had to be dragged away when it was time to go. The smell of orange juice that was so incredibly fresh was a real treat.


My favorite store to visit was Downer Hardware. At the time, it was one of many neighborhood hardware and general stores on the East Side, but as time went by and other shops closed their doors, it became unique. Downer hardware had a blended smell of paint thinner, fertilizer, pest killer, and oil that was perfume to my young nose. They had a key-making machine, and I watched with fascination as the staff ground keys for customers. There was always something fascinating to watch or something new and interesting to see in the hardware store, along with lots of stuff you were warned not to touch. Like many small local establishments, they had to cater to the neighborhood needs as a bit of a general store. One could purchase alarm clocks, American flags actually made in this country, cookware, lawn chairs, nuts and bolts, glues, coolers, and twenty varieties of mosquito repellent. Downer hardware also carried a decent selection of Christmas decorations, all which were over thirty years old and perpetually on sale. I spent hours looking longingly at the pocketknife display. They must have had over fifty different versions of what we then called ‘jack knives’. Everything in the store in those days was covered in a thick patina of dust, even the employees. After a trip through the store, you could relish the smells of hardware the rest of the day, as you took it home with you on your hands.


Two first class pharmacies were in the same little area. Lake Park Pharmacy and Bellview Pharmacy both smelled like candy and castor oil, and had varieties of goodies now missing from our big-box world. There was a comfortable atmosphere to these little corner stores, and the clerks, usually smiling older folks with thick glasses and white smocks often knew you by name. Important to us kids, they had penny candy and shelves of comic books to look through while your parents did stuff you could care less about.

Next to Downer Hardware were the Blue Ribbon Pet Shop, and a café-soda fountain. Both were to be destroyed in a fire in 1975.

Past Bellview to the south was the Downer Theater; Milwaukee’s oldest Film Theater in continual operation, and across from that was the most famous of local landmarks, the Popcorn Wagon.


The Popcorn Wagon was Milwaukee's oldest, and possibly the oldest wagon of its type in the country. Some residents say it dated back to 1916. If you have never seen one, they resemble a small circus wagon in appearance.


Besides popcorn, the wagon sold a large collection of nickel and penny candy. One could get: wax lips, spaceship candy with little candy balls inside, plastic pixie sticks filled with pure sugar that no child could manage to open, a miniature plastic garbage can filled with garbage shaped candy, a tiny coffin filled with candy body parts, wax soda bottles filled with stuff that made you sick, packs of baseball cards that contained a slab of vulcanized chewing gum, candy lipstick, JuJubes which accidentally removed your fillings, and various other crazy treats that us kids found irresistible.


On any given day in the summer, one could join long lines of kids anxiously waiting their turn for goodies with a dime or two in their pockets. Children with sugar highs ran around the Popcorn Wagon in circles, while other kids that had consumed a lethal combination of Pixie Sticks, circus peanuts, cotton candy, and popcorn lay on the pavement clutching their stomachs in agony. Each day in summer each of us consumed more sugar than the entire population of India. One of my favorite candies was a jawbreaker. For ten cents, you could get a jawbreaker the size of a billiard ball made up of a thousand layers of flavors that varied from orange, grape, lemon, red (which tasted like chemicals), and a myriad of other colors and tastes only remotely related to anything in nature. These things were so large that we kids could barely get them in our mouths, and once inserted, we walked around the rest of the day unable to speak and drooling all over ourselves, incapable or unwilling to remove them.


Our two east-side theaters (Downer and Oriental) have survived the efforts at urban progress (destruction), and remain much as they were when they were built, full of charm and representing a slower time. Unfortunately, as I wrote this, the Popcorn Wagon is being relocated to make way for a parking garage. Progress anyone?


One block to the north of our home and across the street from the University was Riegelman's Downer pharmacy. It was an old-fashioned drugstore with a lunch counter and soda fountain, and had an extensive candy selection. Serving the neighborhood from 1969 to 1984, it was a place of refuge for students and staff of the University as well as local characters and children. For 45 cents one could consume as much coffee as one wished while reading the newspapers, eating wonderfully greasy burgers, talking to the local cat-lady, or debating Schopenhauer with wild-haired philosophy students. It became an East-Side institution in the 1970s.


Six blocks to the west of us on Oakland Avenue between Linwood and Locust streets were a Ben Franklin store and East Side Foods. Mom would ride her bike to this shopping area carrying me on the back in a child’s seat. East Side Foods was an inexpensive grocery store where she often found bargains on food that was still good but ‘had to go’. Ben Franklin was an original five and dime variety store that filled a need on the East Side for a mini-department store. They carried pets, craft supplies, clothing, bathroom and kitchen accessories, party notions and decorations, greeting cards, and a vast supply of toys and candy. Those were the days of cheap toys made in Japan out of recycled tin. The reverse side of the tin toy was often covered with ideograms advertising beverages. I loved to come here because the toys were so cheap that I often could pester Mom into buying me something just to shut me up.


On special occasions, we would visit other specialty shops in Milwaukee. At Christmas, we would take the bus to Glorioso’s Italian market on Brady Street. In business for over sixty years at the time of this writing, Glorioso’s was a throwback to the neighborhood ethnic markets of the early 20th century. We bought chestnuts to roast in our oven, hard Italian salamis and exotic cheeses covered by cloth and suspended from strings, and ogled the various canned specialty goods such as smoked oysters and stuffed grape leaves. I loved the smells of the deli. Often on the same trip, we would proceed to Usinger’s on Old World Third Street. Usinger’s is another treasure of Milwaukee. Since 1880, they have made the most divine sausages in the German tradition. The sales shop had (and still has) a European charm of by-gone years. It featured murals of German Sausage-making elves painted in 1906. The murals depicted the elves in the various processes of production, from capturing the pigs by the tail, mixing the meat with special spices, all the way to the table full of delicious steaming platters of sausage surrounded by happy pudgy elves with beer steins. In our family, Usinger’s sausage was a treat to be savored, and as we waited in line, Dad would tell stories of his boyhood, when he accompanied his Grandfather to local German butchers. We savored: knackwurst, braunschweiger, bratwurst, natural casing wieners, landjager, and summer sausages, always purchased from the ‘seconds’ bin. When we got home with the treasured box of sausage, Mom would put the Knackwurst on to boil, and once on our plates, it would be consumed with smacking noises accompanied by German mustard and pumpernickel bread.


Another destination we frequented from time to time was Nick Topping’s International House and Imports located in the Sydney Hih building on the east side of Downtown Milwaukee. Nick was a progressive who marched in civil rights protests and was best known as the man who brought the Beatles to Milwaukee for a concert. As a leftist, he and Dad had long conversations about politics and society, while Mom shopped for exotic Pilafs, and I picked out imported candies from China. The whole shop had the smell of a middle-eastern bazaar.


Being poor, Mom and Dad were always looking for inexpensive entertainment. One outlet was Pat and Tom’s Murray Tap, an inexpensive neighborhood bar on the Lower East Side. A sort of dingy and dark smoky atmosphere pervaded the place. Not able to afford a baby-sitter, my parents dragged me along with them. It took little coaxing. The place was full of local characters that entertained me. They bought me Beer-Nuts and Hershey’s bars and I usually ate so many that I got sick. Mom and Dad had a few quiet .25-cent beers and had a chance to people watch and a change of pace. The reader may recoil in horror that my parents were so irresponsible as to take me into a bar when I was only six, but they didn’t see it that way, and I loved it. I still remember the revolving Schlitz beer signs and the jukebox that I could never figure out how to play. (I had no coins-duh!)


Through the years, the Upper East Side has changed little. Unique businesses came and went, only to be replaced with other interesting stores. Citizens and local characters wandered into history, but others took their place. It seems that the neighborhood lives outside of time, attracting similar people each year that want a progressive cosmopolitan experience. I like to think of it as the “Greenwich Village of Milwaukee.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Play and toys in the 1970s, a Memoir

Play in the 1970s


The 1970s were a more innocent time for children’s play. Parents didn’t rush their children to the emergency room for a ‘boo-boo.’ We rode bikes and inevitably fell off. No one wore helmets. Some of our bikes even had neat shift levers right in front of the seats at crotch height.


Roller-skating caused knees to bear scabs and Band-Aids, which were badges of honor to the injured. If one could travel back in time and look at the children then, one would be surprised at the amount of missing teeth, torn clothing, bloody noses, and other field damage inherent in actually having fun. Make no mistake about it though; we did have fun! Kids in those days climbed trees. In fact, it seems that a great deal of time was spent up trees either seeing how high you could go, throwing endless rotten apples at girls, or eating mulberries until you got sick.


We collected things. Kid’s pockets contained frogs, nails, and slugs for soda machines, marbles, string, pocketknives, firecrackers, yo-yos, and pennies. Found objects were often the topics of wild speculation as to their origin. These small items were often traded back and forth and argued over. Everyone envied everyone else’s pocket possessions.


Like most children, I was endlessly curious. I took apart old alarm clocks to find out what made them tick, peeled and unwrapped golf balls to see what was inside, and was always peering into cupboards, wondering what that jar on the top shelf contained. Chimneys had to be investigated, berries tasted, kittens teased, and manhole covers peered into with flashlights. When mom cooked in the kitchen, I was at her side, mixing flour, pickle juice, and colored sugar crystals into imaginative but disgusting concoctions with a toy cook set. Everything in the basement was fascinating, especially the things that I was told not to touch or couldn’t identify. Discoveries awaited around every corner. I peeked into endless boxes full of bric-a-brac, poked into the old wooden barrel containing coal, and played with the old cast-iron gas stove that thankfully was disconnected. As a child, I viewed our basement as a combination of haunted house, museum, and chamber of curiosities and spiders. Things made sounds in the basement. Things ticked, groaned, whispered, and sighed. The ancient furnace fascinated and scared me with its explosive power and hundreds of little gauges, pipes, and ducts.


Most of us in those days were skinny. It may have been the home-cooked meals and all the exercise we got from running around outside every day. Although we spent part of our allowance on dime store candy and Popsicles, we never wandered down the street eating fast food out of a bag. Bedtimes were conservative too. Most of the kids in our neighborhood had bedtimes of around nine o’clock, and mine was at eight. The late evening was adult time, as parents emerged to sit on front porches and talk to neighbors while having a beer or lemonade.


Kids ran free and innocent, and play was not the structured activity it is today. Parents set up boundaries as to how far away from home we could stray, gave us instructions and severe warnings, and then let us free to play. The term “Play-Date” did not exist. Our parents supervised us by having a beer in the backyard or on the porch.

We ran through neighborhood yards wearing army helmets and waving cap guns that were excellent facsimiles of real firearms. No one even thought to call the police.

Every block saw elaborate games of Cops and Robbers, or Cowboys and Indians complete with costumes.


I spent entire summers in our back yard playing games by myself. Since I was never sent to summer-camp, the backyard took its place. I made bows and arrows out of fallen branches and string, constructed copies of stone-age tools I saw in books, built forts from logs and twigs, and was constantly folding and inventing new paper airplanes. Dad made wooden swords for me, and I built cardboard suits of armor and a shield, copying pictures I found in a children’s encyclopedia. The neighbors must have thought I was nuts as I ran back and forth enacting my fantasies dressed up in my latest costume creations. One summer I built a submarine out of a cardboard appliance box, and fashioned a torpedo launcher from paper-towel tubes and rubber bands that would fire smaller toilet-paper tubes. I drew controls on the inside and had a ball sinking imaginary enemies and backyard squirrels until it rained and the submarine sank into the lawn.


There were no video games yet, and even if there were, my parents would have banned them from the house. I was not allowed to watch television during the daytime or after school, with the exception of Public Broadcasting or Popeye, which Dad felt had some redeeming messages.

Dad demanded that the house was a quiet area, and no yelling or tearing about was allowed, so I spent most of my time outside, alongside most of the other children. Above all there seemed a sense of time that had no stress or hurry. We spent hours on sunny summer days laying on our backs and seeing shapes in slowly moving and emerging cumulus clouds.


Sometimes the restrictions on noise and what we could and couldn’t play with cost me friendships. On a summer day, a newfound friend named Sean came over to play. He loved our back yard, and soon set about climbing our wooden fence. “Don’t climb that,” I quietly said, “Dad says it’s not allowed.” Sean then began swinging from a large wooden pole that routinely held a clothes-drying line. “We’re not allowed to play on that either,” I told him with regret. He then began bouncing a ball against our house. “Don’t,” I said with increasing embarrassment, “Dad says…” Half an hour later Mom came out with sandwiches but Sean had departed for home, opting to walk the five miles rather than wait for his mom to pick him up. I learned a lesson from this. From that day onward, I would play at other kids houses, but would seldom ever invite anyone over. Our home was just not amenable to play. Sometimes my friends were not even at home, but I would visit their yards and homes anyway so that I could play in peace without being nagged or yelled at for making noise.


My best friend in the early ‘70s was Alex. Alex lived a block south of us, and was one of two sons of a University Professor. We had met in a summer activity group when I was around six, and the next year we became fast friends. Alex had a large sandbox in his backyard, and we spent great lengths of time after school playing war with toy tanks, or constructing rival cities of sand and debating which was the best or biggest. All our play was unstructured, and we mostly made up our own games. Alex and I formed a club called the International Spy Agency, and spied on the neighborhood kids while hiding in bushes.


I often made my own toys. Rubber band guns were easily made out of a piece of scrap wood and would entertain a kid for hours when used to knock down plastic army-men. I made ‘Polish switchblades’ out of Popsicle sticks and a clothespin. Receiving a toy army-man complete with parachute called a ‘Parachute Jumper’, I discovered that the parachute was no more than a round plastic disc with strings tied to it. I cut sandwich bags into circles, attached my own army-men and action figures and had hours of fun endlessly throwing them into the air and watching them glide back to earth. That is one of those unique aspects of childhood. Anything worth doing once would be worth overdoing or doing repeatedly until you finally got tired of it or annoyed your parents to the point that you were sent to your room. Like most other kids in the Apollo generation, I also was fascinated with space travel. Many of my friends had the plastic multiple stage rocket toys that were so popular. I made my own out of cardboard and construction paper. Theirs may have looked more realistic, but mine actually flew. The compass needle that I used to simulate the nose-cone antenna was probably a bad idea though. Sorry Mom.


Dad built me toys too. I was the only kid on the block to have an authentic 1940s hand made apple-crate cart with roller skates for wheels. Dad had constructed it for me, but with the cheap plastic roller skate wheels we used, it barely made it down the neighbor’s driveway. He showed me how to make depression–era rubber guns, which fired strips of inner tubes and could take out a stray cat at 30 feet. These things were dangerous. He also showed me how to make other toys from his childhood. We made button hummers, wooden-spool and dowel tops, and even little ‘spool tractors’ that would run across the table.


I was also obsessed with kites, and destined or cursed much as Charlie Brown never to be able to fly them successfully. Much of the reason for this was that my kites were homemade. I used balsa wood or drinking straws as spars and covered them with tissue paper. They never flew right. In fact, most of them dissolved or came apart on their maiden flights. To me, the process of creating the kite was more important than its performance, and I spent much of that time painting imaginary machine guns on the kites, or attaching razor blades to allow my kite to destroy other kites. Never mind that there were no other kites in the area. All the added weight along with the plastic army-men I attached pretty much guaranteed a short flight.


An inexpensive toy that my parents often bought me were rubber band powered balsa wood airplanes. They only cost a quarter, and since they had to be enjoyed outside, it guaranteed Mom and Dad a few hours of peace. These things really flew, often attaining heights up to 50 feet and sailing forever. The problem with the planes was that with each landing the wings and stabilizers came off. The planes were made up of a main section with propeller, and plastic clips that allowed all the other pieces to be attached. The clips barely held, and after awhile one or more of the pieces broke. The planes were equipped with landing gear, but I think this was strictly for show. Mine always landed propeller first. I finally came up with the idea of saving all the unbroken parts of multiple planes in a box, so that I could swap parts out as they broke. These balsa wood planes also had a unique ability to home in on tall trees or nearby roofs and get stuck. After a particularly violent windstorm, I would often go out into our back yard and find that one or more lost model planes had been blown down.


Some toys I found other uses for. When Mom bought me a set of ‘jacks’, I would ignore the jacks themselves and play with the rubber ball. Marbles were used in races down neighbor’s driveways, and never as intended. Hot Wheels cars were an early favorite. Most of mine ended up wrecked because I was obsessed with seeing how fast I could make the cars go. To that purpose, I often ran the track down the concrete stairs or even out my second floor bedroom window. The cars that I raced on these occasions went quite fast, but never seemed to stay on the track. They usually plummeted to earth and ended up scratched and with bent wheels. Here was another mysterious aspect of childhood. No matter how many times we did things and got poor results, we just kept on repeating the same mistakes. Building skyscrapers out of blocks, we would get to a critical height, and our architectural masterpiece would collapse. Then we would set out to build one even higher! If we attempted to jump over a box with our bicycles and crashed, resulting in a badly skinned knee, you can bet as soon as Mom had us fixed up, we were back on the bike ready for a second round. We gleefully pushed every activity to the limit, butting our young heads against the barriers of physics and our abilities.


When I was old enough for a bicycle, Mom bribed Ocaboo (Uncle Bill) to drive us in his delivery van to the police auction to bid on a bike that had been stolen, lost, or repossessed. Mom as usual had reasoned that if I was going to soon outgrow or ruin something, then why pay good money for it? The auditorium where the auction was held was huge, and full to the rafters with bicycles. A lot of kids in those days must have lost their bikes. Maybe there was a crime wave, I don’t know. Mom had allocated ten dollars as her budget for my new bicycle, so the first 90 percent of the auction went by with us being outbid. Finally, Mom was the high bidder, and for a grand total of six dollars and some change, we went to the dock to pick up the treasure.


My ‘new’ bike was a blue Schwinn Stingray complete with banana seat and a slick rear tire. Ignoring the fact that half the seat covering was torn off and the foam hanging down, the tires bald, the chain rusty, and the handlebars crooked, I jumped with joy. I had learned to ride neighbor’s bikes with training wheels, so I looked forward to a bike of my own. I don’t know if it was the gearing or what, but that bike was the slowest in the neighborhood. It was truly a case of form over function. It was good at skidding out, popping wheelies, and tossing me over the handlebars, but when I actually tried to go someplace, toddlers passed me up on tricycles.


A bicycle is a boy’s best friend and most dear possession, but mine looked and rode like it had been in an accident with a semi-truck. I didn’t care though; it was mine. The bike expanded my domain by several blocks, and allowed me (in theory) to keep up with the other kids. For some reason, I was not allowed to ride it to school, as my parents feared it would be stolen. What kind of desperate or nearsighted thief would have stolen my bicycle, I could not imagine. Bicycles were also an expression of a kid’s personality and had to be customized or decorated. Mine sported neon strips on the spokes, and baseball cards taped to the fork to make sounds. I covered the dilapidated seat with political bumper stickers and Wacky Packs. Many of our bicycles were intended to look like motorcycles, and Mattel even made a toy that attached to the handlebar and made motorcycle sounds so that our imitation of reckless adults could be more realistic.


When I was older and fascinated with fireworks, I designed and built my own rockets. Carefully scooping the various contents from the fireworks such as bottle rockets, snakes, sparklers, etc. that I had found at area parks, and combining the resulting powder with match head scrapings, I would encase the fuel mixture in rolled aluminum foil tubes along with a wick from a firecracker. The finished engine would then be inserted into a carefully made paper rocket complete with nose cone and fins, and elaborately decorated. My rockets produced a lot of flames and were good at self-immolation, but seldom traveled far enough to make the ordeal worthwhile. I also got the idea that if I combined the same mixtures in one of Dad’s spent rifle cartridges, the resulting homemade device would be like a Roman candle or fountain. Now all of these fireworks were commercially available and could be purchased during a short drive to an adjoining county, but I just had to create my own. The first test of ‘Erik’s Cartridge Thing’ took place in my friend Ricky’s parent’s garage (unbeknown to them, of course). The resulting shower of sparks and fireballs reached to the ceiling accompanied by shouts from us kids of “Cool” and “Neat”. Now that I saw the idea was a success, I experimented with other applications.


 One of our favorite commercial fireworks consisted of a cardboard tank with three cannons that shot little balls of fire and sparks. The only problem with them was that for some reason one of the cannon’ was dedicated to propelling the wheeled tank forward as it fired the other barrels, and therefore had an irritating and downright dangerous habit of going in directions not necessarily planned for, and setting fire to nearby objects. This gave me an idea. I constructed my own tank of balsa wood and encased it in protective aluminum foil. Accenting the tank was a little window made of clear plastic behind which sat a tiny army-man. I then mounted several of my latest cartridge cannons on the front and challenged Ricky to a battle to the death with one of his store-bought tanks. We duly lit the fuses and ran like hell, only returning a little closer when my tank did not immediately explode. The resulting conflagration was spectacular. The cardboard store-bought tank fired a couple of rounds at my tank before being set ablaze by my cannons, and burning to the ground. Ricky was so impressed that he designed his own tank, filling aluminum tubes with powdered firework stuff similar to mine. He painted his tank an army green, and amid endless debating as to which tank was better, faced off against the ‘Helm Eliminator Tank’ in the ally behind his house. The battle was more or less even until the aluminum tubes on Ricky’s tank sort of melted closed while combustion was still taking place, thus transforming themselves into miniature pipe-bombs. KABOOM! We didn’t know quite what had happened yet when a stentorian female voice rose above all of creation, emanating from Ricky’s mom seated somewhere in the kitchen. “That’s enough of that!” she commanded. It sure was.


As far as commercial toys were concerned, few parents in the ‘70s were concerned with the safety of the toys their children played with. After all, they remembered playing with BB guns, homemade fireworks, and other hazardous devices when young and they had survived. Most of the toys and games we played with would never make it on the market today. Toy safety groups would see to that. I am a little split as to whether this is entirely a good thing. Removing overtly dangerous toys and lead paint content is definitely progressive, but it is hard for me to not think that the pendulum has swung too far, and that children today are missing out on fun because toys which might be even remotely dangerous (if little Johnny really tries hard, he can fit the latest action figure up his nose) are taken off the market. I would hazard a guess that the average household has more inherent dangers in any square yard of the kitchen or living room than we had in our toys in the ‘70s. Sacrificing joy and imagination for clinical safety might also rob children of needed life-lessons, such as the discovery of why you don’t aim your new missile firing toy tank at Mom’s cherished Japanese vase. If that tank had never made it to market, you may never have learned so much about 18th century Lithuanian poetry; having been forced for two weeks to copy in long hand the entire entry from the encyclopedia while seated at the kitchen table.


My parents were rather meticulous in choosing toys for me. I received many construction sets, and educational toys. I whiled away the hours with Spirograph and Etch-A-Sketch, Erector Sets and Tinker Toys. I built elaborate machines from the Austrian wooden engineering set I received for Christmas. Dad, of course, kept tight controls on the more valuable toys, and they all had to go back onto their proper place on shelves when I was done playing with them. He even kept my wooden erector set on a top shelf in his bedroom, and I had to get permission to play with it, which may explain why all the pieces are still intact to this day. My Tonka trucks and construction equipment had to cleaned off after play and returned to their own box too. When I was about seven, Dad bought me a little red toy Alpha Romeo car. After a bit, Dad noticed that I had scratched it while playing with it, and it was taken away and hidden in his dresser. There it stayed until I was considered responsible enough to play with it. When I was visiting one Sunday when I was thirty years old, Dad found the toy car while cleaning out his sock drawer, and gave it to me with the words, “Well, you might as well have this.” Perhaps I had achieved responsibility?


Like any boy, I had my share of toy cars and hot-rods, but these were always balanced with educational games. However, I still got to experience the thrill of popular and hazardous toys through play at houses of friends, or through acquisition at rummage sales.


One of my favorites was Jarts. Jarts was a game in which two teams (of adults…right?) competed to toss large plastic and metal darts into rings placed on the grass. The Jarts were heavily weighted at the front end and sharpened in order to aid penetration into the lawn, or someone’s skull. Sort of like horseshoes using spears. In order to get the Jarts to stick and stand up properly, one had to achieve a high angle of fire. In other words, one lofted the Jart high in an arc and tried to land it in the ring. The Jarts came down from above, and any errant throw would see people in the classic duck and cover position with hands over their heads scattering in fear. It was bad enough that this game was often played by adults while consuming copious amounts of alcohol, and that had not thrown anything in the last ten years, but children added a whole new dimension to the game.


After playing the proscribed way for a while, we kids made up our own rules. One version was to see how close you could land the Jart to your friend. Another great game was to see if you could toss the Jarts over your house into the front yard and land them in the grass. Of course, you never looked to see if anyone was in the impact zone first.

Putting a friend’s little sister’s favorite doll in the ring and trying to hit it was also fun.

The best game by far was the distance competition. Begun with the boast “I bet I can throw it farther than you,” it saw us children launching the missiles into other people’s yards and not having the foggiest idea where they would land.

Needless to say, Jarts were taken off the market after multiple ‘accidents’ were reported.


Being a boy, I never had an Easy Bake Oven, but many of the sisters of neighbor kids had them. These were miniature ovens in which budding homemakers could cook gourmet confections with the aid of a 40-watt light bulb heating element. Even a 40-watt bulb can get hot enough to burn someone, and girls around the neighborhood often sported gauze bandages.

Now after a day of slaving away over a hot oven, every peewee housewife wanted to have one of us guys enjoy their creations. I don’t know what was in the mix for those cakes that would allow them to be cooked by a 40-watt bulb, but whatever it was it wasn’t food. I think it consisted of pureed cardboard and sugar, and was about as appetizing.


Junior chemistry sets were popular. Designed to teach children science while they played, they contained small vials of chemicals, several test tubes, and a book of experiments. Far from using them as proscribed in the instructions, we instead mixed the chemicals at random in the test tubes and shook them up until something cool happened. Often the cool thing that happened necessitated a large cleanup effort by Mom and an airing out of the house.


I had many toy guns. Everybody had them in the ‘70s. I had a toy ray gun that shot sparks. It had a revolving abrasive wheel that contacted flint in order to produce the sparks. If you really got it revved up, you could set fire to things, including your clothes.

I had cork-guns. The fun thing to do with them was to substitute pointed sticks for the cork and shoot them at your friends.

I was a huge fan of the toy Star Trek Phaser gun. It shot small plastic discs at great velocity in seemingly random directions. No matter where you aimed, you were apt to hit something breakable or someone’s eye. Pennies were the same size as the discs, and did a lot more damage. Once you ran out of plastic discs, pennies worked just fine!


Cap guns were popular too. The caps came in rolls of 100 and were filled with little chambers of gunpowder. None of these worked right, and each roll of caps had as many misses as ones that went ‘bang.’ The cap guns looked real too. Few parents back then really worried about their child becoming a criminal from playing with toy guns, instead it was assumed that we kids knew the difference between playing games and the real world. No one even dreamed of a school shooting.


Some toys, however well marketed and popular, were poorly thought out and remarkably unsafe.


One such game was called the Slip N’ Slide, and consisted of a long strip of plastic with a perforated tube in the middle. One connected it to the garden hose and laid it out on the lawn. When the water was turned on, the whole thing became a big wet slippery ride. The problem was that when one built up enough speed you could not stop sliding. When you consider the small backyards these things were often set up in one can readily understand what happened when a child reaches critical velocity and terminates his or her slide by impacting the side of the garage, some lawn furniture, or even other kids standing too close.


Another very popular toy was the Nerf Ball. These were originally marketed as the ball you could throw in the house without damaging things, as they were made of soft foam. There are probably many kids like me that ended up in solitary confinement in our rooms after destroying some treasured keepsake with those damn balls.


When I was at School at St. Robert the popular toy for many girls were Clackers. These consisted of two hard acrylic balls connected with a string. You made an up and down motion with your hand and the two heavy balls came together with a solid “clack.” If you were good, you could get them clacking hundreds of times in a row. The string that connected them eventually broke of course, which saw the heavy balls careening into kids teeth or worse. Often they managed to hit your head, thus excusing you from recess of gym for a week due to concussion.


Several friends of mine had a toy called Sock-em-Boppers. These were inflatable toy boxing gloves best used after eating several dozen pixie-sticks full of colored sugar, and were guaranteed to encourage violence, general mayhem, and a severe grounding after knocking one of your playmates unconscious. They also were often borrowed by adults for use in marital disputes.


I begged my parents for a toy called Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, which promised the creation of multicolored semi-permanent balloons. It actually worked. One squirted different colored latex goo from various toothpaste-like tubes to form a ball, and stuck it on the end of a hollow tube. You then blew into the tube until a balloon of the desired size was reached. You then played with the resulting balloons. The problem was that the latex goo caused my eyes to water and turn red, and my lungs to burn. I don’t know what sort of toxic waste the stuff was made from, but I can still smell it.


Like most boys, I had a fascination with fire engines. There is something primal about giant red trucks that emit ear-shattering noises that kids find irresistible.

When I was about eight, I received a metal fire engine for my birthday. It was a pumper truck with removable ladders, and featured a real squirting fire nozzle.

One simply hooked up the garden hose to the back, and the water shot out the nozzle. You could direct the water onto objects and play fireman.


Of course, the obvious attraction was to put out real fires, and I soon put the fire truck to that task.

We had a large stump of an elm tree in our back yard that was slowly decaying. It had been cut down during the Dutch elm disease scare in 1968.

I borrowed Mom’s large magnifying glass and on a sunny day went to work setting fire to the stump. It smoldered convincingly, and I was soon using the fire truck to squirt water on it while running around the yard wearing a plastic fire helmet and making siren sounds. I must have thought I put the fire out, and soon was onto another activity. Far from being extinguished, the stump continued to smolder for the rest of the day until Dad came peering outside to see where all the smoke was coming from. He tackled it with the garden hose, and I got a stern lecture.

Didn’t the designers of the fire truck foresee this? I wonder how many other children set fire to things in order to play fireman with that truck. What other purpose could that water-squirting nozzle be used for anyway?


Probably the most infamous of all toys in the 1970s was the Creepy Crawler Thing Maker. It consisted of a hot plate, a dozen metal molds for bugs, skeletons, fake fangs, etc., and various tubes of colored liquid plasti-goop material to form the creatures with. My parents would never have bought this for me, but I found one at a rummage sale for a dollar and pestered my mom until she caved in.

I was in the middle of a monster kick at the time and this became my favorite toy.

The idea was that you squirted the plasti-goop into the mold, cooked the goop on the hot plate that hardened it into a rubbery consistency, and then when cooled, played with the creations.

There were some inherent dangers with the toy. The refining hot plate reached temperatures of 300 degrees. The flimsy tongs provided for unloading the hot molds were inadequate, and often resulted in dropping the molds on yourself, or losing the skin on your forefinger. The plasti-goop itself gave off a noxious cloud of toxic fumes when cooked, and I often got stoned or sick during the creation process.

If you didn’t pay attention to the exact timing of the cooking, your little creatures became blackened and acrid smoke would fill the room.


If everything went according to plan, the hot mold was placed into a cooling pan of water and gave off a sizzle. Once removed from the molds, you had a whole set of rubber creepy things to scare the neighborhood girls, throw at people, or just irritate your parents with.

The picture on the box the ‘toy’ came in showed a kid wearing the plastic Dracula fangs one could create with the Thing Maker. Yes, that’s right, we were supposed to put the finished products in our mouths!

I played with the Creepy Crawler until I ran out of goop to make the bugs and monsters. That was the end of that.


In later grade school, the popular toys for a young lad were action figures. Most every home had a G.I. Joe or twelve, and the endless accessories that the poor parents had to keep buying to make their kids happy. The action figure genre really took off with the production of Star Wars action figures. We played for days with Luke, Darth, and the others.

Of course, anything worth doing is worth doing to the absurd, and soon action figures included weird and dubious products like the Love Boat figurines. I don’t know what kind of kid ever played with those.


Every home with kids had a supply of board and card games to keep the children occupied. I had Parcheesi, Monopoly, Uno, Tank Battle, Mastermind, Which Witch, and others. Being an only child, my parents were constantly being pestered to play the games with me, and to uphold the peace, usually let me win.


Some other memorable toys included SSP Racers, Romper Stompers, Hot Wheels, Matchbox cars, and Tonka trucks. Slinky was a fun toy. It was kind of like your friend’s little sister, if you left her alone she didn’t do much, but when pushed down the stairs, she entertained for hours. One birthday I received one of those toy rocket launchers that you filled with water and then pressurized by pumping it up. It promised to fly up to heights of up to 100 feet. I think that was kind of conservative. On its maiden flight my new toy rocket took off with a ‘swoosh’ and climbing over the roof of our house, disappeared forever.


In the 1970s, Japan produced hundreds of cheaply made wind-up toys. They were made from old recycled tin and aluminum cans, and contained plastic gearing. I had motorcycles, helicopters, racing cars, and jet planes. They were quite inexpensive, but we got what we paid for. Most of these toys lasted no more than a few days of being wound up before they broke or fell apart.


Above all, I loved to build plastic models. I received .25 cents a week as an allowance for trimming the lawn and dusting, neither of which I was very diligent at. The Ben Franklin on Oakland Avenue had Aurora’s ‘Monsters of the Movies’ series, as well as a good selection of WWII airplanes and warships. The monster models cost $1.49 each, so I had to save my money and dream for a month and a half before I could buy one. I had Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Godzilla, The Wolfman, and The Mummy.

For many of these projects, Dad helped assemble the model and supervise the gluing process. The models were best assembled by using very little glue; just a touch on the edge of the plastic. When on my own, the gluing got a little careless. Like most other things to a kid, if a little glue is good, then a lot of glue is even better. Aiding in this process were the tubes and spouts that the toxic glue came in. They inevitably clogged, necessitating the use of pins and nails to unclog them. After a few squeezes, the tubes developed holes in other places, usually squirting the glue into the palm of your hand. Finally, you gave up, made a big pile of glue on a piece of cardboard, and used a pin to apply it to the model. That is, if you weren’t too stoned from the fumes at this point to care. Crooked propellers on planes, things assembled backwards, broken parts, and other mishaps may have been more toxic glue-related than a sign of carelessness.


Once the model was assembled and had dried, it was time to paint it. I used that ubiquitous Testers stuff that seemed to do a better job of sticking to my hands and getting on my face than staying on the model. Like glue, the more paint you used the better, and many of my early models literally dripped with it. The paints usually were sold in sets containing eight or ten colors, but containing only one brush. Buying extra brushes never seemed to occur to me, so I simply dried the brush on my jeans or shirt and moved on to the next color. After two or three colors, the pigment on the brush began to blend with the remnants of the former colors, and some models became unintentionally psychedelic in appearance.


I often wondered why my creations never looked like the ones pictured on the box cover.



One of the most destructive ‘toys’ we had in the ‘70s was Wacky Packs. Wacky Packs were stickers sold in a random group and made fun of common consumer products; such as “Monotony” instead of “Monopoly,” or “Valveater” instead of “Valveeta.” Each card/sticker had colorful artwork highlighting the spoofed product. There were literally hundreds to collect. The problem was that they stuck incredibly well to any surface they were placed on, and soon became the bane of teachers, janitors, bus drivers, and parents who had to scrape them off of every conceivable surface. In the ‘70s, it was nearly impossible to find a surface not somehow marred by the plague of these kooky stickers. Why we kids found these funny I can’t say, but just like everyone else, I had a couple of them myself.


In our neighborhood, even our semi-organized play and games were kind of ad-hoc. Our football field was the Front of Mitchell Hall on the University campus. Here the first downs were not marked by chalk lines, instead trees and bushes took their place. Kids in our neighborhood played hundreds of hours of touch and tackle football here. We mostly played touch football, because when we switched to tackle, there was inevitably some big kid who would join the game and score touchdowns at will, dragging us along while we hung on for dear life. We used a ‘Nerf’ football. As far as kid’s sports go, it was the greatest invention since the jock strap. It was soft, so when it hit you in the face during a long pass when you were staring at a blonde coed instead of paying attention, it hurt a lot less than a leather ball. It also allowed even the most challenged of us to pass like Bob Griese or Roger Staubach. One drawback was playing in or just after a rainstorm. The ball was made of foam rubber, much as a sponge. Like a sponge, it was also good at soaking up muddy water, and equally good at disgorging it onto our faces when we caught a pass. After a game in the wet, we were all pockmarked by muddy impact points where the ball had been caught. 


In addition to the lawn at the University, we often played football in the street. We were not suicidal enough to play on Downer Avenue, but usually chose less busy streets such as Hackett or Stowell, those being the two nearest quiet streets. Even then, we faced hazards. Running for a pass often lead to crashing into parked cars or chased by dogs. The pass patterns we ran had nothing to do with professional football at any level. We would simply tell the quarterback that we were going to “Run past the blue car, fake to the right, and fade toward the house with the cat-lady.” Our teams were goofy too. We mostly played with teams of two persons for each side. One kid would play quarterback, and the other the running back or receiver. We were constantly making up rules and arguing about them. That was half the fun. One thing we all agreed on. All play temporarily stopped when someone yelled “Car!”


Our baseball field was likewise not exactly regulation. In fact, it was an alley. We never had a neighborhood fat kid that perpetually wanted to be a catcher, so we constructed a ‘strikeout’ field instead by chalking a strike zone on a brick wall of the Christian Science Church. One of us would pitch a tennis ball, while the batter stood against the wall and swung one of several dilapidated bats we owned. If the ball struck in the chalk-box, it was a strike. If you hit the ball, then various landmarks determined how many bases you were awarded. If you hit it into the fenced-in yard with the angry dog with diarrhea and its perpetually stoned owners, then you had to supply a new ball.


After Dad bought me a baseball mitt, I began practicing fielding by throwing a tennis ball at our large ash tree in the backyard. Many kids in the neighborhood had one of those pitching nets that had a marked strike zone and returned the ball to you. Completely by accident, my idea of using the tree provided the perfect training for shortstop. Since the tree was round, if you didn’t hit it dead center, the ball would careen off in wild directions which you had to anticipate with split-second timing. How ironic it seems now that because I lacked the proper equipment and just used my imagination, I became one of the best fielders in our neighborhood.


I fear those days are gone in America. Imagination has become an orphan. Kids no longer play hide and seek after dark, no longer wear crazy costumes or climb trees. We are free from the minor scabs and injuries that we thought were part of having fun, and a game of cops and robbers is likely to end with the interdiction of a real cop. There is a silence in our neighborhoods that seems uncanny until we spot the culprit, the blue glow of the television screen. We certainly watched our share of television, but it never seemed to interfere with our outdoor games, roaming on bikes, or exploring creeks and ravines. Scooby Doo and Johnny Quest only fueled the fires for our own adventures. Toys may have been an important part of our play, but only as props in a larger unending game or story. We may have been the last generation to spend all afternoon absorbed in playing with a cardboard box or a flashlight. Our parents were freer too. Instead of spending every day shuttling us back and forth to structured activities, they had time to engage in their own hobbies. Although parents in the ‘70s were busy, they were never “Too busy.”

Perhaps falling down and skinning your knee, burning your hand on a creepy Crawler oven, or barely escaping being skewered by a Jart wasn’t as bad as it now seems.