Having wheels made
it easier to stretch out from home base. Wagons were common and could
be used by two or solo. The same effort applied to a scooter made a trip
faster and easier. Tricycles were common and could be ridden solo or tandem.
At one time we had an Irish Mail which was rather like a railroad handcar.
It would go fast, but wasn't maneuverable like roller skates. Skates,
except at roller rinks, were always clamped on over street shoes. I don't
ever remember seeing skaters on main business block sidewalks, but our
favorite place was the north side of Lake Street coming down the hill
to Milwaukee. You could get up real speed there. The problem was making
the corner without falling or going out onto the road or hitting a pedestrian.
So, we often mounted a sentry at the corner for the sake of safety and
to warn of the approach of an irate shop owner.
Real mobility came
with a real bike. Most bikes, back then, had balloon tires, no gears,
maybe a squeeze-bulb horn and for some fortunate bikers, a headlight.
Given parental permission or just unawareness it wasn't too tough to make
the rail yards at Rondout, the interesting roads at St. Mary's, the interesting
and forbidden gravel pit area, trails by the river; sometimes the beach
at Lake Bluff.
In the winter there
was good skating with ice skates that clamped to street shoes, later with
real lace up skates. Kids skated anywhere there was ice, sometimes on
the streets because salt was rarely used and a hard winter would provide
a hard packed street network for days at a time. We skated on Butler Lake
after sweeping the snow to one side. The best skating was on the Des Plaines
when it was cold enough to freeze it over. We skated from Oak Spring Road
north to Buckley Road. That was especially nice at night, with a fire
going on the bank and the ice glistening in the moonlight. Sleds were
big. Opinion differed as to the best brands, but the American Flyer and
the Flexible Flyer were among the best. There weren't any real hills,
but the best was 4th street between Sunnyside and Meadow Lane. Other popular
sledding was on Wright Court and the slope from Church to Broadway. Kids
from our block often went to what we called "Taylor's hill."
That was next to Dr. Taylor's house on a street
off Laurel that overlooked Butler Lake. There was a little indentation
in the slope where you could get a sled airborne, sometimes with disastrous
results. Really daring kids would belly flop behind a car and hang on
to the rear bumper. It was dangerous, but I don't remember any accidents.
The really big guys, high school age, would tow behind cars on their skis.
Many kids had skis but there wasn't any real skiing, just poling oneself
along. The river was good for that on the rare occasions when a hard freeze
and snow provided a decent surface.
In 1940, my first
year in high school, I met Ken Johnson. He lived
on West Lake street, a few doors from Bush Road. Kids from out there had
gone to Bush school, which was the classic one-room
schoolhouse with outdoor plumbing. Ken had various Model T Fords which
he drove around in the family pastures and on the ice of Butler Lake in
In 1941, after graduation,
Ken and his brother Russell who was known
as "Buzzer," and I drove into northern Wisconsin in his Model
T truck. Because of gas rationing Ken had rigged a gallon can filled with
gas on the firewall. That was used to start and warm the engine, then
it was switched over to kerosene. The driver manipulated the spark and
throttle while a passenger cranked the engine, being careful to position
his thumb so it wouldn't be broken if the engine kicked back. A solo driver
could manage by cranking, then dashing back to the controls. Model T's
had dynamos rather than batteries and a transmission that functioned with
adjustable bands, so you changed gears with two pedals on the floor. The
windshield could be folded down and the T's had the famous ah-ooga squeeze
Later on, Ken had
several of the much improved Model A Fords. They had amenities like starters,
batteries, rear view mirrors; and some models had rumble seats, convertible
tops and spare wheels mounted in wells on the front fenders. Tires had
tubes back then, and on our trip to Wisconsin we had twenty-one flat tires.
We patched those alongside the road. One fairly strong guy could lift
the car by hand so the wheel could be taken off and replaced. It was a
form of showing off, of course, because we always carried a jack.
All too frequently
we made trips to Homer Martin's junkyard on
Route 21 just west of Milwaukee. Shortly after the war Ken, Pat
White, Frank Swanson and Chuck
Jamieson raced stock cars at various tracks. One night we chanced by the
track west of Waukegan and, finding the gate open, drove in for a few
fast, lights-out laps. Ken has lived in California for nearly forty years
and as a hobby restores classic Jaguars, Mercedes and others. On my last
visit there I had the pleasure of a ride in his Mercedes 450 SL, truly
a car with class.
In the early forties
trains took us into Chicago to the big swing bands at the Oriental, Chicago,
and State-Lake theatres. You got a first-run movie and a stage show and
could sit there from nine in the morning until the last show. We saw bands
like Tommy Dorsey with a young and skinny kid singer named Frank Sinatra,
Glen Gray and his Casa Loma orchestra, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Jimmy
Dorsey with singers Bob Eberle and Helen O'Connell. The only big band
I missed was Glen Miller, who was in the army by then.
The music business
was segregated then and the Downtown was the only Loop house that presented
black bands. It was on South State Street. I was there once in 1944 to
see Duke Ellington. That band was both subtle and powerful and had the
audience literally standing on their seats, something I never saw at the
other Loop venues. The Duke played at the Civic Opera House sometime in
1946. I was there on furlough and saw the show. There was plenty of clapping
and a standing ovation, but nobody standing on seats.