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Growing Up In Boom Times
By Chris Brockman
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Chris Brockman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHome Place
It was kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies in reverse. My parents hadn't struck it rich, they weren't hopelessly unsophisticated, they didn't move with their adult children and granny, and heaven knows they didn't move into a mansion. They also didn't have a "seement" pond; they had a cement floor instead.
The cement floor was in what would eventually become our dining room. It was the entrance room to the house, and in a curious concession to aesthetics, the floor was studded with marbles that had been planted in the wet cement. It became one of the pastimes of my very early life to try to get those marbles out of the floor.
Where I live now, in North Carolina, people call the house where they grew up their "home place." My parents' home places were in small town USA- Miamisburg, Ohio. Both had moved there at about the same time, as six year olds. My dad's family moved from an even smaller Ohio town, St. Henry, so my grandfather could seek his fortune working in a mill, in walking distance up the railroad tracks from their Third St. house. My mother came directly from the family farm near Franklin, after her own mother died from tuberculosis. The expense of taking care of his consumptive young wife had cost my grandfather the farm, so he moved his family to Fourth and Buckeye and went to work in the factory, at Frigidaire in Dayton.
Though my parents were in the same high school class and lived only five blocks apart, they had nothing to do with each other in high school. My mother was the attractive, popular drum majorette for the band. My dad worked in a grocery store after school. Fortunately, my dad was good looking enough to catch my mom's eye after they graduated. There's a picture of him with his wavy hair, in dark glasses and white tee shirt, leaning full length against his black '40 Mercury. (Did James Dean steal my dad's look?) They got married while my dad was home on a two-week's leave between trips with the Merchant Marine. He didn't see his three month-old baby, my sister, until he got home a year later.
When my dad returned from his service in World War II, he went to work at "the Cash," (National Cash Register) in Dayton. My mother had worked there during the war in a "high-tech" job, as a comptometer operator. They bought a cottage in Ellerton, across the Great Miami River and upstream from Miamisburg. The cottage was quaint and in a country setting, but maybe just a tad too much so. The arrangements featured an outhouse and a hand pump for water in the back yard. This was "a little hard," my dad admits, on my mother, especially with one small child and another on the way.
Because my dad hated working in the factory, it was easy for one of his friends, who had taken up painting houses, to talk him into going to work with him. This gave him a trade he could pursue anywhere. Then, another couple he and my mother knew told them about a wonderful resort-like area they had found in Oakland County Michigan. My parents visited the area, loved it, and bought a "vacation home" and two lots in a subdivision on beautiful Middle Straits Lake, for $2,500. With their not yet one year-old son and their three year-old daughter, my folks packed everything they owned into a borrowed stake truck and headed north. I had a home place.
* * *
Oakland County Michigan has over 450 named, clear glacial lakes and a bunch of others waiting to become the center of a subdivision.. What my parents bought on aptly named Woodview Ave. was a part of the dream of residents of the nearby urban areas of metropolitan Detroit to get out of the scorching city in the summer and to the woods and water of Oakland County. Summer cottages had sprung up around many of the lakes, and eventually subdivisions were laid out. Our subdivision was and still is called the Riding Club Subdivision. Whether this was actually descriptive at one time or merely wishful thinking, I don't know, but there wasn't a whole lot of riding (with the exception of bicycles) going on in the fifteen years I lived there.
Among the covenants in the charter for the Riding Club Subdivision (I discovered many years later) was one that prohibited the sale of property to "Negroes and Jews." Apparently this was a standard provision outside of the city, and in this case, way outside of the South. When I discovered this, long after my family had moved from there, and showed it to my parents, they were surprised, but far from incredulous. Whether it was from provisions such as this one, or a host of other reasons, I and most everyone else outside of Michigan's bigger cities grew up in lily-white neighborhoods. Virtually the only African Americans I saw in the flesh, prior to going to college, were in Pontiac, in Detroit, or were porters on the trains we took several times back to Ohio. There also were never any Jewish families in our neighborhood. Since I went to a Catholic primary school, I also had zero contact with any Jewish kids there, though I sincerely doubt it would have been very much different in the local public schools.
Our new home place featured a beautiful lake with a fine sandy beach for residents of the subdivision. The subdivision was maybe half built up, with a mix of summer cottages and year-round homes and with denser development closer to the lake. Our house was near the back corner farthest from the highway, about a quarter of a mile from the lake and the beach and with woods close on two sides. The woods and the lake would be my constant playground for the next fifteen years. The house would be my dad's and my mom's home-improvement project for much of the same time.
It started on day one. Indoor "facilities," it seemed, were not a necessity for a summer cottage, here in paradise. They were an absolute necessity, my mother insisted, for any home that she was going to stay in. My dad got the message, and as fast as you can say "indoor plumbing," he had added on a space to one end of the house for a utility room and a bathroom with a basic toilet and shower. That took care of the indoor part, for the time being.
As every experienced plumber knows, however, there's an outside part as well. Since my dad had grown up in the city and his only other house had had an outdoor privy, his experience with sewage systems was limited to nothing. Before he was done creating a working septic system, he would be a whole lot more knowledgeable, and his knowledge would be a whole lot more up close and personal. For now, he simply tied into the existing drainage system.
In a few years, the existing drainage system was found to be lacking. This was fairly easy to conclude from the fact that the drains and the toilet began backing up on one end. On the other, the ground on one end of our property began to mimic the proverbial pig sty. My dad persuaded my newly-minted uncle Dean to come up from Ohio to help him with "engineering" a new drainage system. I'm sure there was some mention of the great fishing in the lake, because my Uncle Dean was an avid hunter and fisherman. It's a good thing he brought his waders.
Together, they spent a week hand digging a hole in the rock-hard clay for a septic tank, and then trenches for a drainage field. I can specifically remember my uncle, in his waders, standing in a hole close to the house and shoveling out some foul-smelling black stuff from our "grease trap." Next thing I knew, we had a bona fide septic tank and were wise in the ways they do things in the country. My dad remodeled the bathroom and added a tub. A few years later we had a man with a bulldozer come to extend the drainage field, and "just like that" we had a 20th century bathroom and fully functional sewage system.
While the bulldozer guy was there, my dad asked him to dig up the rock that was sticking up just a bit in our dirt driveway. "No problem," said our savvy civil engineer, "I'll just ..." The next think you know, our humble driveway gave birth to a monster rock, a solid rectangle about seven feet long and three feet square. My parents had bulldozer guy push down to the back edge of our property, where it oversaw our "leaf pile" until we moved years later. I don't know why they didn't have it moved to the front yard where it would have made a to-die-for lawn ornament. I guess we all thought of it as just a big old rock at the time.
* * *
It doesn't seem as if many people still buy fixer-uppers and spend years improving them. There ought to be a lot more experienced homes around than ever to work on, but with all the new developments of bigger and bigger houses, it appears that almost everyone wants a brand new house with all the amenities these days. In the 1950's, serial remodeling and additions to houses were popular ways for people to invest their time and money. In my neighborhood, people were always working on their own houses, creating sweat equity. It could be that this was because there were so many tradespeople who lived there. It was definitely a working class neighborhood, with lots of carpenters, plumbers, painters, roofers, and landscapers. The predominance of home improvement was also due to the fact that so many of the houses needed work done on them. Our own house was a continuous, slow-moving repair and construction zone.
Many home improvement projects in my neighborhood were undertaken simply to provide the basics. Others were for new extravagances such as rec rooms or a second bathroom. Often the line between necessity and luxury was blurred. We, for example, had an oil-burning space heater in the living room. Central heating in Michigan certainly provided a superior level of comfort, but a furnace for us would have to wait. In truth, the space heater was great for bellying up to on frigid nights. Roughhousing with my sister guaranteed, though, that I would have memories of more than once burning myself on that stove.
One advantage of having a very small house was that the space heater generally did keep us warm, as long as we didn't close the bedroom doors. This was true at least for my sister and me, who shared a tiny bedroom off one end of the living room. I'm not sure how true it was for my parents. Their bedroom was behind the living room, with no direct opening into it.
In the living room, we also had a fireplace that was cheery and of great utility for roasting hot dogs and toasting marshmallows. I don't think we ever used it to pop corn, but I remember eating popcorn in front of a roaring fire any number of times (maybe because we made popcorn so often!). I also can picture my sisters and me, for whatever reason, in front of the flames eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, also staples. Most of the time, however, it had a painted-gray piece of plywood in front of it to keep the air in the house from escaping.
As a heating device, the fireplace probably resulted in a net loss of heat. One thing we never lacked, however, was plenty of good firewood to feed it. Our lots had giant oak and maple trees on them, which needed to be thinned. Conveniently, my Uncle John, who lived in the same neighborhood, had a tree and landscape service. Several times he came over with his crew and put on a sensory show, complete with the snarl of chainsaws, the acrid smell of oil and gas and exhaust mixed with the sweet smell of new-cut wood, and the flash of white wood chips showering from the cut. Cut into 20" logs, the felled trees provided us kids a woodpile to climb on, a home for several snakes, plenty of splitting exercise for my dad, and a continuing supply of wood to feed the fireplace.
Gruff and growly, Uncle John was a lot like one of his big McCullough chainsaws. He was blocky and powerful, building on the frame of the fullback he'd been in high school. Each Popeye forearm carried a tattoo he'd gotten in the service, artistically rendered to emphasize the muscles underneath. There was high drama when my lumberjack uncle scaled a tree to rope it off and his men pulled on the ropes to get it to fall just right. The sputtering saw would explode and chew into the tree, spitting out the stream of fragrant chips. Then, there'd be a loud splintering "Crack!" and a great uptake of air by the spectators, and the tree would whoosh to the ground with a mighty crash, always landing exactly where it was supposed to.
My uncle came around, as well, twice a year to spray for mosquitoes, of which we otherwise had swarms. One of his crew pulled a tank and compressor on wheels behind his truck, across the property, while Uncle John sprayed with a firehose up into the trees, until they dripped, with DDT. His sole concession to safety was a red bandanna over his nose and mouth. He certainly didn't wear a respirator. We kids would stand out watching him—it was another good show.
Against the frigid Michigan winters, the ceiling insulation in our house was minimal, and there probably was no insulation in the walls. The winters would produce an abundance of snow, and on sunny days it would melt off our roof. There were no gutters in the back of the house, so the most colossal icicles would grow from the edge of the roof, sometimes all the way down to the ground, if we kids didn't knock them down first. Target practice at icicles with hard-packed snowballs was great fun and a good service too. An alternative use of icicles was to suck on them, like a Popsicle. Sparkling diamond-like in the sun they looked mighty good. Presumably, all the DDT had washed off the roof by this time.
* * *
When my parents were able to afford a furnace, there was already a space for it in the utility room, which had been added on to the original cottage, to the outside of my parents' bedroom. This was evidenced by the double-hung window between them. The utility room is where we kept the ringer washing machine. Despite my mother's admonitions, we kids had a lot of fun rolling our hands and forearms into the rubber-covered rollers of the wringer. We only stopped when my little sister got her arm in past the elbow and couldn't get it back out, resulting in a pretty flat arm and some very scared kids. I truly don't remember (guilty consciences have a way of expunging information), but I suspect that my little sister didn't come up with the idea of putting her arm in the wringer all by herself.
The job of running the ductwork for the furnace fell to my father, of course. Except for that cement floor in the front, the house was on a two-foot crawlspace. My dad had to wiggle his way around on his back under the house, working overhead to anchor the ducts to the floor joists. There was more than once, he likes to tell, that he would turn and look into the beady eyes of a rat. At least it was a country rat.
* * *
We originally shared water with the house behind us. Two brothers lived there, one my older sister's age and one mine. My sister would have nothing to do with the older boy, Jimmy, but Timmy and I were frequent companions. We also were just as frequently adversaries. Our favorite pastime was throwing either dirtballs or stones at things, or at each other. I don't know if it was because she knew that Timmy was a much better shot than I was, but when I ended up with a gash in my forehead from a Timmy-thrown stone, my mother strongly discouraged me from playing with him anymore. There was at least one other time I received this suggestion. It was when Jimmy and Timmy made up a little song about me and a neighbor girl, which was obviously supposed to be an insult. So, I asked my mom, "What does "Chris and Connie sitting in a tree/F-*-*-*-I-N-G" mean." She never told me what it meant, but she did say that I shouldn't play with Jimmy and Timmy anymore. Eventually, the problem was obviated when Timmy's parents split up, and he, his brother, and his mom moved up to northern Michigan to live with her parents on the family farm.
Excerpted from Growing Up In Boom Times by Chris Brockman Copyright © 2011 by Chris Brockman. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Growing Up In Boom Times" is written by a baby boomer himself, Chris Brockman. In this book Chris tells of his life while growing up in what is called today as the "Baby Boom days" or the "Hippie Generation". It was a time of rapid change and the world would never be the same. This book will fill the readers mind with visions from days gone by much too fast. They will remember a time when life was simpler and changing as technology was only beginning to emerge on the horizon. Memories of skinny dipping with friends, one room schools, first telephones, first loves, and first jobs will rush to the readers mind. Smiles will once again surface on stressed faces as they go back in time to what may have been the best years of their lives. Readers who did not live in the baby boom days will smile as they wonder just what their parents were thinking as they lived through these strange days without a car, TV (If you were lucky enough to have a TV, you just a couple channels and soon learned to use tin foil to get the antenna to come in better) or cell phone to keep up with their friends. They will be taken on a journey back to a simpler time. They will no doubt be thankful for the technology of today that exists in their lives. I rate this book a 5 star and recommend it to anyone who whats to know how life was growing up in boom days. I highly recommend it to those who lived in the baby boom or hippie generation. I loved the writers style as he told stories of a generation that will long be remembered for changing the world. It brought back memories of walking through the woods on a sunny day because there was nothing else to do once the farm chores were done. I had visions of how natural it was to walk a mile to the nearest home which was my Grandparents. I had such wonderful memories surface as I read this book. I loved the tone that the author set for the reader. The tone was that of simplicity and fulfillment yet a tone of rebellion as the youth fought for more freedom and won.