An Old Friend – Revisited

When I was a child the City of Milwaukee was dotted with natatoria. If your Latin is rusty a natatorium was a public bathing facility. On alternating days year-round, workmen and women, boys and girls, would, for a small fee, enjoy a hot shower and a swim in a small Romanesque indoor pool. The reason for this was that most of the housing stock was built in an era of potbellied stoves (for heat), wood-fired stoves (for cooking), kerosene lamps (for light), and outhouses and hand pumped wells in the yards. For the littlest children bathing was usually done in a large wooden or galvanized steel tub. If you had a working hand water pump in the kitchen you were relatively upscale. Over time, the city grew, building sewers and a potable water distribution system, and the houses were gradually retrofitted for such luxuries as indoor plumbing, gaslight, then gas stoves and then even later, electricity.

When I first started kindergarten in 1955, although some families used fuel oil, most of the houses were heated with coal; reeky, stinky, bituminous or anthracite coal. We used to watch the coal man making his rounds with his specialized lift truck, either carrying the coal on his back in a light canvas carrier or dumping the coal down portable linked chutes to the coal bins specially built in the basements.

Back then we had both ash and trash men that hauled away garbage and the ashes and cinders (clinkers) from the fire pits of the coal furnaces. Every yard had a concrete ash box for safety. Many coal furnaces had a loop of a water pipe in the fire pit that lead to a storage tank in the attic. The thus heated water rose naturally up the pipe and the cooler water fell, a system (in lieu of a modern water heater) that served to provide both hot and cold running water for kitchens and bathrooms.

I remember the old man, up twice nightly in the midst of many a frigid winter, shoveling coal, shaking down clinkers and muttering a few magic words. One neighbor had a thermostatically controlled electric coal feeder attached to his furnace. When the thermostat called for more heat, an augur would feed more coal into the fire pit. He only had to load it once a night. Another of our neighbors was a coal man. At the end of the day he was always covered from head to foot in light absorbing, soot black coal dust. He was blacker than any chimney sweep you’re likely to meet. His eyelashes were always heavily mascaraed; and even in broad daylight, the only thing you could see was the whites of his eyes. But when he doffed his brimless cap, the only clean part of his whole person was the very top of his bald head, which, in comparison to his black face neatly delineated, shone like the sun, much to our childish amusement.

Nobody I knew had air conditioning back then. As a rite of spring we hung wire mesh window screens and spring-loaded screen doors to ventilate and circulate fresh air throughout the house and to keep out the horseflies and mosquitoes. And as for just cooling off, we had porches and Popsicles for that. If it were up to me, I would dictate and make mandatory porches, balconies, and grand verandas on all new housing construction. Little has been written concerning the psychological or social impact of the physical isolation of neighborhoods brought about by air conditioning, television or even the telephone for that matter. Horseflies you ask? Yes, we had horseflies (and houseflies aplenty) because we had horses around back then. The dray men, the icemen and milkmen, had only recently switched to gasoline powered trucks and the last to give up his horse was the rag man. We had road apples even then.

Aside from the air conditioning, and as a finishing touch to the modernization of these old houses was the addition of a doorbell. Being as it is, on a separate, low-voltage circuit, the doorbell was an add-on or afterthought. Most homes didn’t have a doorbell back then – the troglodytes. When we called on our friends we hollered. We’d stand in front of the house and yelled. When the screen doors were in use in the heat of summer our voices carried throughout the house.

Imagine if you will, a ragtag group of kids in mismatched play clothes, scruffy shoes, bicycles or a bat and ball, or even some fishing poles, working their way down the block, standing in front of a house, calling out their playmates loud and in unison: “Oh call for Bill eeeeee!” “Oh call for Tom eeeeee!” or whatever their friend’s name was.

“Oh call for (fill in the blank)!”

In Kindergarten I was held back half a year for excessive shyness. This was perhaps the result of being low-man-on-the-totem pole in a family of nine children. It was either that or sleeping during nap time. But I did make some friends. One of them was Zack.

Zack, diminutive of Isaac, was as out-going as I was shy. We seemed polar opposites in character. He sort of swept me away and took me under his wing. He was exuberant and energetic. This was long ago and I don’t recall exactly how we met, but we played together on the school playground at recess but on school days I always had to go straight home. I remember two scenes with him in them. The first is the two of us marching down the alley, arms draped over each others shoulders, chanting a bit of detritus, a remnant most likely, of the pyrrhic victory that was World War II:

“Hey! Hey! Get out of our way!

Just got back to the U.S.A.!

Hey! Hey! Get out of our way!

Just got back to the U.S.A.!”

(ad infinitum)

It was a Saturday or summer or both when I went to call on Isaac. He lived on the back lot of a duplex in a tiny cottage that abutted the alley across and a ways down from the playground behind our school.

“Oh call for eye-zaaaack!”

He came to the screen door but didn’t open it. He just stood there motionless in dark silhouette. I asked him if he could come out and play. He stood there a long moment and said in a monotone:

“I can’t play with you anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re Catholic.”

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About The Twentieth Man

Age 67
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