Mom just celebrated her 89th birthday last week. A rambling conversation with her during a visit often turns up some interesting small tales from the valley in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
That narrow strip of land containing the local Laundromat in Fairmount City has a storied past. At one time, the plot of ground was a small picnic grove. When Mom was a girl, there was still a small fountain in the grove, a good place for a little girl and her younger brother to play.
As an aside, “Laundromat” needs to be capitalized in newspapers, probably because somebody trademarked the name at one time and now we news folks are stuck with it. We also capitalize Dumpster for that reason. Realtors want us to do the same thing with REALTOR, but we rebel.
For Mom, it was a short journey to the banks of the Red Bank Creek from the little fountain. My uncle was a bit more cautious about life, but Mom had no problem wading into the water with her friends. We won’t mention the fact that she didn’t know how to swim.
The creek was the likely culprit for her infection with hepatitis A as a young teen. Nowadays, she would have been given antibiotics for a week or so and been none the worse for wear. In the latter days of World War II, civilians still had to tough things out for a couple of months.
She has tales of the Great Depression, too. I guess anyone who lived through it has a treasure trove of them.
The government distributed all kinds of agricultural commodities in an effort to keep people somewhat fed. My mom tells stories of my grandmother and neighborhood ladies cooking dishes made from the commodities to share at the elementary school. The schoolhouse has been gone for many decades, but its foundations still surround a grassy area up in Swede Hollow near the medical center.
In those days, families were lucky if they had one vehicle in running condition. My grandfather drove to work every day that he could find employment, leaving Grandma McGregor to hotfoot it up today’s Railroad Street in Fairmount City carrying a pot of red beans to the schoolhouse. That is a pretty good hike even if you aren’t toting a casserole.
One of Mom’s least-favorite meals during that time was creamed corn over mashed potatoes. It seems like an odd combination, but combine a grain with a tuber and you have a complete protein. Little children in hard times could care less about nutrition, and Mom still laughs about how she hated mashed potatoes for a while.
Creamed corn over mashed potatoes still sounds a lot better than some carroty concoction favored by Eleanor Roosevelt. Whether you are a fan of FDR’s or not, Eleanor made sure that the White House ate some of the same food as less-privileged Americans did.
Not all the stories are of hardship, though. Mom often talks about riding in the rumble seat of her uncle’s car to have a sleepover in Oak Ridge with her cousin.
Cherry Run Campground out in Toby Township features in a number of Mom’s stories. I had to smile when my story of talking to Nellie Arner at the flower show last summer came full circle. Mom and Nellie met as young girls one summer at church camp there back in the ‘40s.
Shick’s Garage once stood on the site of today’s Moore’s Physical Therapy building across from the high school. Grandpa usually committed his own auto repairs on the kitchen table, but state inspections still had to be done by a licensed garage.
Shick’s offered a bonus. Kids lucky enough to have some coins of the realm went to Shick’s and rummaged around in the chest-style freezer for their favorite Popsicle flavor. The treats were always broken in half, and everybody got one portion.
And then there’s the semi-shameful story of how her other brother got his foot caught in the railroad tracks on the way home from school. Naturally, the afternoon train was coming down the tracks at that exact moment. The other kids managed to pull his foot out in time, but the shoe didn’t make it.
It was still wearable, I think, and my grandmother didn’t really know what happened. At a time when most people received one pair of shoes per year, one more scuff mark was barely noticeable.
I’m an odd duck in many ways, but when I go home after visiting Mom I write down all these little details from the past. Somebody in a hundred years might read the stories and get a chuckle from them.
With apologies to the late Robert Serling’s Twilight Zone, people are alike all over.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]