The chapters which are numerical are factual. The chapters which are alphabetical are fiction, though in some instances the fiction modestly drapes what is factual. I will post one chapter a week, alernating factual and fiction.
I was born in Elkins, West Virginia. Although we lived in several different houses when I was an infant and toddler, the two houses I remember were across the street from my paternal grandparents. The first one was a two-bedroom house my father built from plans he bought from House and Gardens magazine. My sister is one year younger than I am. When I was six years old, my brother was born. My parents bought a larger house next door, directly across the street from my grandparents. We were living there when I started school.
My father worked as a machinist on the Western Maryland Railway in Elkins. When World War 2 ended, he accepted a job on the Atlantic Coast Line Railway in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. My parents sold the car, a 1937 Oldsmobile, and all the furniture, pots and pans, dishes, and linens. My mother and baby brother went to Baltimore to live with her sister. My sister and I went across the street to live with our grandparents. I was beginning the second grade.
My father lived in a boarding house while he was working in North Carolina. However, he couldn’t find a house for us. Just before Christmas, he quit his job in North Carolina and went to Baltimore to look for a job. He worked as a machinist in several places including the Bethlehem Steel shipyard, Glenn L. Martin, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Eventually, he went to work at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Mt. Clare Shops.
Soon after Christmas 1945, my parents sent for my sister and me to join them in Baltimore. My sister had pneumonia and couldn’t travel. I went to Baltimore on the train by myself. I’m sure that now a seven-year old child could not travel without an adult accompanying him. But, I’m sure the conductor had strict orders to watch out for me. My Grandad Pritt was the track foreman who was in charge of all the tracks in the yard in Elkins, the terminus of the Western Maryland Railway.
I left in the morning while it was still dark. When the train went through Thomas, West Virginia, I could see the coke ovens on the hill above. I didn’t know about coke ovens. They looked like dragons with fiery eyes and flames shooting out their nostrils. I was really scared and tried not to cry.
The train arrived in Baltimore late that evening. I had eaten the sandwich Grandmom Pritt had packed for my lunch. It was a manly meal made with thick slices of homemade bread. But by the time I arrived in Baltimore I was really hungry. Dad met me at the railway station and took me to the apartment where my Aunt Ginny, Uncle Darld, their two daughters, Darlene and Margaret Lee and now Dad and Mom and my brother Marshall Lee were all living in a two bedroom apartment on the second and third floor in a housing project. In hindsight, I cannot imagine how we all found places to sleep.
Aunt Ginny had fixed a plate of food for me and poured a glass of milk. I had barely begun to eat when we heard the loud screech of brakes and people screaming. A crowd of people came pouring out of the apartments and ran to the street intersection. A newspaper boy had gone through a trackless trolley hawking the evening news. He exited the bus and ran around to cross the street at the intersection. The driver pulled away from the curb, did not see the lad running across the street in front of him, and hit the boy. An ambulance came, but it was too late for the newsboy; he was dead.
Two things I remember clearly from the time I was at Ginny and Darld’s home. There was a playground between the two long rows of apartment buildings. I went out and was swinging on one of the swings. A boy came up to me and told me to get off the swing because he wanted to swing. When I continued to swing, he pulled me off the swing and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of me. I never could or would fight. I went back to the apartment with a bloody nose and bruises. Darlene (who was my age) said, “Show me who it was.” Out of the second story window I pointed out my attacker. She marched down the steps, crossed the playground to the swings, and yanked the boy off the swing. She beat him up so bad that he ran back to the apartment where he lived.
The second thing I remember is that Aunt Ginny made butter. The War was over but a lot of commodities, including butter, were still not in the stores because price controls were still in effect. Ginny got milk from Golden Guernsey Dairy. Their bottles had a bulbous shape at the top. There was a plastic stopper you put in the neck of the bottle to pour out most of the cream. Ginny poured the cream off every bottle into a pint jar. When the jar was nearly full she put the lid on the jar and shook it vigorously. When she was tired, she enlisted the help of her daughters and even me. After much vigorous shaking there were some clumps of butter and buttermilk.
During World War 2 the Federal government built and operated hundreds of housing projects in cities where there were defense plants. They had to house the workers who came from the small towns and rural areas to work in the plants that were producing military equipment and supplies needed for the war effort. So many people moved from West Virginia to Dayton, Ohio to work in the rubber plants that people jokingly said the largest city in West Virginia was Dayton, Ohio. Virginia Lee and Darld Isner lived in the Perkins Project which was near Baltimore’s harbor and the shipyard. Since the War was over, the Federal government was in the process of turning the projects over to municipal authorities to operate.
My parents were able to get a two bedroom row house in Armistead Gardens, another housing project. We moved there in the beginning of February 1946. I don’t know what furniture there was in the beginning. I know my brother, who was about 18 months old, slept in a wagon, his Christmas present. I don’t know if my sister joined us while we were at Darld and Ginny’s or after we moved to Armistead Gardens. My father’s sister Myrtle and her husband Gene, who lived outside Washington, DC, brought her from Elkins in their car.
Our house was at the end of a row of houses, 1127 Newcomb Way. There were two bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. The living room, kitchen/dining area, and fuel oil hot air furnace were on the first floor.
Armistead Gardens was just inside the northern city limits of Baltimore. Pulaski Highway was on its eastern side. The houses in Armistead Gardens were originally built to house workers at the Glenn L. Martin plant. It was built in two stages. We lived in the “old section.” The houses were built as row houses – five or six houses joined together. These units were on both sides of a narrow alley with no sidewalks. There were several streets in that section suitable for vehicular traffic and these had sidewalks.
In the old section the houses were built of cinder block and had concrete floors and flat roofs. The cinder block of the outside wall was also the inside wall. The cinder blocks of the outside walls were 12 inches thick. The walls between each house were 8 inches thick. The cook stoves were gas. Gas, water, and electricity were included in the rent However, the heat was from fuel oil. Trucks came around to fill up 55 gallon oil drums which lay horizontally on concrete stands. There was a spigot to fill the can you carried into the house and poured into the hot air furnace. You had to pay the oil truck in cash for the oil.
The thin walls between the houses meant you could hear the neighbors arguing. We lived in a house at the end of a row, so we only heard one set of neighbors. Lying in bed some nights I would hear the man and woman next door fighting. Sometimes I could hear him hit her. More than once I heard her screaming, then tumbling down the steps. They had three daughters – twins my sister’s age and an older girl my age. I wonder what it must have been like for the girls living in the midst of it.
This same couple would sometimes have a dozen or more children from nearby houses come to their home and sit on the floor in the living room. They would turn out all the lights and tell ghost stories.
The kitchen/dining area, the furnace, and the bathroom all faced the alley which was Newcomb Way. The front door from the living room opened onto a long playground. Directly in front of our house was a “monkey bars.” It was a squarish gridwork of pipes that children could climb on, hang upside, and all kinds of activities. Further down were swings and see-saws. In the middle was a large grassy area where ball games were played. At the far end there was a large area of smooth concrete where children could roller skate, play hop-scotch, etc. In the center was what resembled a giant metal mushroom. On the rounded top was a large shower head. In the summer, when it was blistering hot, they turned on the sprinkler, the children put on bathing suits and ran through the water.
Between our house and the first house of the next row of houses was a large area of what should have been grass but was hard packed dirt. It was there that we boys played marbles. Each boy had a bag of marbles and as the play went on a bag became filled or emptied. Each boy had a large marble which he used as a ‘shooter.” That is also where we played “mumbley-peg” with our pen knives.