When Grandpa Was a Really Little Kid

For a time when Grandpa was a kid, he had no hair. He and a little chum played "barber shop" with Gus's clippers. By the time the grownups found out, neither kid had any hair left. One family photo album features several pictures of "Grandpa Baldy."
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In the next chapter, I'll share my childhood memories dealing with the years after World War II began. By then, I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade. A lot of good memories go way back before then. So I will try to pass along things I remember as a small child.

When I was born in 1932, Mom and Dad lived in a row house in Southeast Washington on Trinidad Avenue. I don't have any recollections of that time. We moved to Brentwood, Maryland while I was still very little. And that's where some memories begin to emerge. The Brentwood house had a spare room that my parents rented out to a couple of different people while we lived there.

Our first boarder was a man named Mr. McGregor. I don't recall much about him except for one thing. Mr. McGregor smoked homemade cigarettes and he had a hand-operated machine that made them. He would occasionally let me turn the handle on the machine. And I enjoyed that a lot.

The other boarder was actually a whole family ... a man and wife and a little boy about the same age as I. The two of us managed to get into some trouble now and then. The one escapade I remember most was playing "barber shop."

My Dad had some clippers, scissors and a barber comb that he used to give me haircuts. The other little boy and I thought it would be great fun to play "barber shop." And one day, when our folks were out shopping, that's what we did. By the time the grownups returned, we had really butchered each other's hair. It was such a mess that my Dad just cut my hair off completely and let it grow back in time.

I remember a couple of Christmases from the Brentwood days. The most vivid memory involves a neighborhood lady. On Christmas Eve, she dressed up like Mrs. Santa Claus and, with a pack over her shoulder, she went calling on all the houses where children lived. Mom and Dad would answer the knock on the door and there she was. She would ask the standard question; "Have you been a good little boy, Charles?" I would say "Yes" and she would dig into her pack and pull out some little toy. One year the present was a little metal racing car with real rubber wheels. How I loved that gift. After all, it came directly from Mrs. Santa Claus.

The Brentwood house was fairly old and it had some appliances you won't find in many houses these days. For instance, there was the ice box. When you say "ice box" you are talking about the refrigerator. When I say "ice box," I'm talking about an insulated wooden box that was kept cold by a big block of ice. Two or three times a week, ice was put into a compartment at the top. That chilled the food stored inside ... items like milk, eggs, butter and meat.

A few times a week, a man with a horse-drawn wagon made the rounds of our Brentwood neighborhood delivering ice to his customers. It was great excitement for us kids. The iceman would chip off pieces of ice with his icepick for the children to suck on. We would troop down the street for a block or so and follow as he made his rounds.

That same house had another feature that is seldom seen anymore. Instead of gas or oil, it was heated by a coal furnace. In the basement was a coalbin that held a ton or two of coal. The furnace heated water that circulated through castiron radiators located in each room. In the winter, my Dad's first morning chore was to start a fire in the furnace, and shovel in a load of coal. His last chore of the day was to put enough coal on the fire to keep the place warm overnight.

The coalbin had the potential for mischief. Here, I am going to tell a story about Grandma Carolyn. Her house in Ohio had a coalbin, too. When she was a little girl, she and her cousin Donald decided it would be great fun to climb to the top of the coalpile and slide to the bottom. And they did, over and over again. The problem with that plan was that they were both dressed up in nice clothes. Company was coming in a few minutes. Grandma Carolyn says she doesn't remember whether she got a spanking ... but her parents "were awfully mad."

I started school in Brentwood. My teacher was Mrs. White. She was a nice teacher but in a way she soured me on the subject of music and it took me a long time to rediscover the joy of it. Our music consisted mainly of singing little songs. I had a deeper voice that some of the kids. Those children with pretty voices are called "blue birds." But I was a "red bird" and Mrs. White made me stand on a chair when we sang. I hated that. And I hated music until I took a music course in the 7th grade and fell in love with "Peter and the Wolf" by Prokofieff.

We moved to our house in Silver Spring in 1939. By the standards of the time, it was quite modern. We had a gas refrigerator and gas heat. Good bye to the ice man and the coal bin!

We weren't quite ready to say "good bye" to some other routine visitors to our frontdoor. The milkman was one. Three times a week, a deliveryman from the Holbrook Dairy would stop in front of the house. He left bottles of milk in a small insulated box on the front porch. If we needed something special like butter, my parents would leave a note in the milkbox and tell him so. Once a month, he left a bill in the box and my folks would leave money there to pay him. That was a common arrangement but I never heard of a thief going from milkbox to milkbox to steal either the money or the milk.

The milk came in glass bottles and it wasn't homogenized so there was always about 1/2 pint of pure cream at the top of the bottle. Mom and Dad used real cream in their coffee so they poured off the top of the bottle into a cream pitcher. The great delight came from time to time when Mom would chill a pint or two of cream, add a little sugar and whip it with an eggbeater until it became real whipped cream. She would then make a wonderful dessert. She would layer gingersnaps and whipped cream --- the whipped cream would soften the gingersnaps. Or sometimes, the whipped cream would be used as a topping for a freshly baked pumpkin pie. Today, we use Ready Whip out of a spraycan but it doesn't hold a candle to the real thing.

Another periodic visitor to the Silver Spring house was Mr. McNaulty. He was the insurance man and he came by once a month to collect the premium for my Dad's life insurance policy. Now and then he might try to sell more insurance but mostly he just picked up the cash, gave Mom or Dad a receipt, chatted a few minutes and was on his way to the next customer. I don't remember when Mr. McNaulty stopped his visits ... it was after World War II. The insurance company began sending out a bill once a year ... and my parents just mailed the premium payment directly to the "home office."

We moved to Silver Spring when I was in the middle of the first grade and I entered Parkside Elementary School. I mentioned earlier in the book that Parkside was a "progressive" school with no homework and a rather unconventional curriculum. For example, a 4th grade geography project involved a lot of time building a concrete replica of New Guinea. For the life of me, even to this very day, I don't know why the teacher thought we needed to know what New Guinea looked like.

In the third grade, the entire school was involved in a big outdoor pageant that was staged in a wooded area that adjoined Parkside. I believe it might have been a presentation of "The Midsummer Night's Dream". The kids in the upper grades had some speaking parts. The children in the lower grades were "extras" ... birds, flowers, and so. This snapshot shows three of the extras: Grandpa Charlie as a bird, a neighbor girl named Jane Richmond as a flower, and my next door neighbor Joe Sharpless as an elf. I was a scarlet tanager. On cue, all the scarlet tanagers had to flit through the forest. At one point, my wing came unfastened from the rest of the costume. Your Grandpa Charlie held on to his wing and kept on flitting. When the show was over, I told Mom and Dad about my mishap. They were very pleased with me. If I learned anything from that experience it was: "Carry on in spite of adversity" --- not a bad lesson.


As I write this, some early memories about your great grandfather Gus have come to mind. Some of the earliest recollections of my dad involve reading to me. Long before I was old enough to go to school, Dad would sit me in his lap and read stories to me --- children's stories of all sorts. By the time I was ready for first grade, I could read fairly advanced material for a child. Books were treasures for me and I often received a book or two for Christmas. Even now, I like to receive books and give books. What were some of my early favorites? "The Wizard of Oz," "Treasure Island," "A Collection of Poems and Stories" by Robert Louis Stevenson, and "Tick Tock the Story of Time." That last book was a gift from my Mom when I was in the third grade and it told the story of mankind's advances in time-telling from early caveman days to modern times. I am very happy that the love of books has been imparted to you by your Mom and Dad. No image is more vivid than the one your own imagination can conjure as you read a story --- the movies and TV don't even come close.

My Dad was a musical man in his simple way. He had a lovely voice and enjoyed singing. At Christmastime, he would sing "Adeste Fidelis" ... the entire hymn ... in Latin. That was a carryover from his childhood upbringing in the Catholic Church. The liturgy when he was little was always in Latin. I mentioned that Dad was a successful square dance caller later in his life. He was a "singing" caller and a joy to hear. Once, in the early days of TV, he appeared on a program with Buck Owens and Grandpa Jones ... two country music stars of the era. Dad also played the harmonica. He played by ear and a couple of songs that I enjoyed hearing were "Red River Valley" and "Danny Boy."

Long before your Great-Granddad was on TV, your Great-Grandmother Ruth was on the radio. She and Dad went to a studio to see the broadcast of a show called "The 64-Dollar Question" ... a quiz show. She was selected from the audience to be a contestant. And she won. The prize was 64 silver dollars. I was at a baby-sitter's house and we were listening to the show. You can imagine the excitement when we heard Mom was selected to be on the show ... and then to WIN!!!

I hope you have enjoyed this essay. I'll come up with more things to talk about later on. But for now, it's time to give my keyboard a rest.