Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Other Oddities

The first time I recall going with my grandmother to Seattle on a shopping trip I saw some amazing sights. They are still fresh images for me. Going anywhere with Gramma was more fun than going any place with my mother. Gramma was fun; Mom was not. On the ferry, I was allowed to go on the outside deck - way up front where the wind blew. Gramma just sat on the bench and watched me as she clutched her hat to her head. No hairdo-upsetting wind would be tolerated by my mother. In her defense however, I know her wildly curly hair was hard to tame under the best of circumstances. The seagulls floated on the air currents screeching their songs; the splashing of the saltwater as the bow of the boat plunged its way threw icy cold mist on my face. Above, in the wheel house, the Captain stood, his dark uniform with the gold shoulder epaulets made him look like a silent god watching over the glistening scene.

As soon as the ferry tooted its arrival at Coleman Dock, we bunched up with the other foot passengers and waited to get off. I've told this particular scene many times and no one seems to believe me. But it is true. As we walked off, I could see down to the beach - it was COVERED with a mass of squirming, brown rats. I am not kidding. The water that lapped at the edge of that living carpet, was littered with garbage. Gramma hurried me along. This was long before an overhead walkway was added to the dock which let passengers dash across Alaskan Way without having to dodge trains. My mother often laughed as she related when she went to work in Seattle (after the War ended)it was fun to run across the train tracks and often, through freight cars that were standing. You know, the kind with matching doors on both sides so it was not only possible but done with regularity, commuters would step up the little ladders, run across the car's floor, and descend on the other side of the tracks. Of course there were warnings against such activities by newspapers on both sides of the Sound. They were as effective as the admonition to drown tent caterpillars.

If you are familiar with trekking the steep hills of Seattle, you know the sidewalks have concrete treads built into the sidewalks. Those treads gave footholds to people walking up or down and in wet and/or icy weather, made such walkways passable. Our destination was the Pike Place Market so we only had to make our way up to First Avenue and then walk north to the Market. It was not the trendy, tourist destination location then as it is now. No fish mongers waiting to dazzle us by tossing huge fish over our heads. It was a seedy place and not one where a woman and a small girl would wend their way down dark, winding staircases in search of a good cup of coffee or a rare book. Instead, we marched up some stairs along with a lot of people to a huge room overlooking Elliot Bay. It was a second hand store - not "vintage fashion." Gramma was looking for bargain clothes. I remember it smelled old, mouldy - but with Gramma, it was fun rummaging through piles of thrown out garments. She was a practical woman, not a fashion setter or follower. My mother sewed all her clothes and my sister's and mine. She WAS fashionable and the only way we could afford style was for her to do the creating. And she did. In fact, that is the way she made money all the time we were growing up. Our dining room was her sewing room.

Anyway - here is Nina's story about going shopping in Seattle.

"After the war, we took the ferry to Seattle and visited the Army/Navy stores (they were stuffed with war's detritus). We got all sorts of things from them. I remember gray blankets on my bed with the USN logo. Also cutlery and nifty little shovels that folded back on themselves so they could be carried in a pack. We found some strange raincoats made of something new called plastic. We bought camping gear - tents, canteens, sleeping bags. Above the row of Creosote company houses there were woods and an enormous granite rock (we kids just called this place "the big rock") which we climbed up and slid down. Here we used the shovels to dig a "fox hole" (notice the Army parlance). Or rather my cousins and my brother dug the hole. It looked like a grave. Then they covered it up with fir boughs. They told me I could not come in. I was the enemy because as my cousin said, "you can't pee standing up like a boy." I did manage to get into that hole once and couldn't figure what the big deal was. We were replaying WWII with play guns, grenades.

The so-called plastic raincoats we wore to a Bainbridge Island baseball game behind the high school. It rained and the darned things sort of melted and flaked into a gooey mess. They had not quite gotten the formula right."

Across the bay, the gaggle of kids I ran with also dug a fort. The boys did and for the same reason as Nina, my sister, Old Man Taylor's granddaughter, Susan, and I were not allowed in. This fort was in the dirt backyard of one of the boys. They covered it with planks. We could see in and also couldn't understand the big secret - all they did was sit there. We stole their shoes - no shoes allowed in their precious underground fort. But we were scared they would beat us up so we tossed the shoes in a pile and ran away.

Back to the Seattle shopping trip.

On the way back to the ferry dock, we stopped at a drugstore with a soda fountain. There were a couple of tiny, round tables and wire chairs. Gramma bought us each a scoop of vanilla ice cream served in a little silver dish. The outside of the dish was frosty and cold. Never had ice cream tasted so good. Then we stopped into Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront. Supposedly there was a mermaid in a bottle - pickled mermaid - yuck. I don't remember if there was a mermaid but there were lots of shrunken heads, arrow heads, and beads. I wanted to stay a long time but no - we had to catch a ferry. Grampa and my mother would not have tolerated any unannounced schedule changes. No cell phones nor even message machines then. Actually, having a telephone at all was still a novelty. There were strict rules regarding its use. No long calls. No interrupting anyone on the party line except for extreme emergencies, NO long distance calls (and calling almost anywhere else on the Island was long distance and cost a nickel toll). My grandparents' house in Hawley was so close we walked home.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Car Trips, Emergencies, and Other Excitement

As my friends/classmates share their stories, I find that exact chronology is impossible. So I suppose it is best just to go with it. Memories stir memories!

This is a stab in the dark - my mind-movies are flashing on our re-arrival back on the Island after a mad dash from East to West in late 1946. That cross-country road trip was not one of America's new (so-called) "love affairs with the automobile." It was a harrowing, flight for life. The infant in my mother's arms was perilously pale and lethargic. My sister was nearly four, and I, almost six. Of course we did not understand what was happening. It was a game to us. We got to color and play word games; it was an adventure to sleep in the car as it sped along. We ate peanut butter sandwiches. Gas station stops included water for all of us and "going to the bathroom." My sister would not sit on ANY public toilet - especially terrifying to her were those that emitted a blue glow around the lid - she preferred to pee at the side of the road. I have not found what the blue toilet thing was all about but it was probably some sort of hygiene hoax on an unsuspecting and trusting public. Of course that is what we all were - "all" being the new "traveling" hordes of Americans experiencing the exciting novelty of automobile ownership. As I noted previously, WWII marked the beginning of the liberation of the middle masses of America. So here we were, my unorthodox family, driving from Pennsylvania to Washington state - before the war, that trip would have been a curiosity, an adventure. To my family it was a hope for life-saving. And in the parlance of the day, "family" in our case was immoral - two adults not yet divorced from their spouses, the woman with two children from her first husband and one tiny, desperately ill infant fathered by the man who was hunched over the steering wheel; he who had not-so-recently been set free dishonorably from the U.S.Navy. No record remains why but he proved his unworthiness over the rest of my youth.

Anyway, there were no overnight stays at a motel along the way - no money for that and in those days, motels were reputed to be unsavory anyway. And no quick in and out restaurants easily in sight of the highway. Any stop for groceries or aspirin meant locating a market in whatever town where the road led. Even supermarkets were still a novelty - that is, a retail establishment where all kinds of goods were available; like foodstuffs, diapers, toothpaste, even gasoline. So each type of purchase had to be made at different stores. The two-lane highway hair-pinned through steep mountain passes, were pocked with holes and bumps; not even entirely concrete but blacktop, too, and in winter (as our trip was), treacherous with snow, ice, and pools of rainwater. No straight-through, many lane freeways yet. Needless to repeat that it was a difficult trip.

The morning after our arrival back on the Island, I stood on Grandpa and Grandma's porch watching my mother running up the hill pushing my baby brother in a buggy. At the Winslow clinic, Drs. Bourns and Wilt treated all Islanders for many years. They were venerated lifesavers and could no wrong. I don't remember Mommy returning. I just recall the feeling that something very scary was happening. And my sister and I were coughing, coughing. The suffocating dread of whooping cough fell over the house.

"They took him to Children's Orthopedic in Seattle."

My Gramma told someone on the phone. Of course, it was a party line so the news spread swiftly. The telephone operator knew everyone on the Island, listened in on all the party lines (it was a known fact), and took no time spreading news - she believed it was her job.

Clearly, medical emergencies on the Island had to be even more emergency than emergency. Today, helicopters, speedy ambulances across the Agate Pass Bridge, and a sophisticated medical community right on the Island makes yesterday look antiquated to say the least. Nina tells a story, too. Once rescued from condom contamination, her family faced another, far more dangerous situation. In her words:

"Shortly after (we were saved from those nasty condoms) my father took ill in the night. He had been working terrible hours in the bomb factory (and then, at the Creosote plant), getting very little sleep, existing on coffee and cigarettes. His stomach was giving him terrible pain. My mother called the doctor (must have been Dr. Shepard - the other doctors were off to war). He came to our little row (Creosote company) house, examined my Dad and discovered he had a burst ulcer and was in great danger. That's where Captain Brisboe came in. The doctor asked him to take my dad on a stretcher into Seattle on his tugboat. It was the middle of the night; no ferries were running. Captain Brisboe arranged with the hospital in Seattle to meet his tug. So - my Dad made it across and was taken immediately into surgery. He was in the hospital for nearly three months. My mother had to hire private nurses to care for him because all the hospitals were filled with War vets. The savings my parents had from the Illinois job dwindled quickly away to pay medical bills. My father came home weak and depressed. It was into the fall for my father's recuperation. My mother spent most days at the hospital and when he came home, took daily care of my Dad. My brother and I came under the care of my aunt (also living in one of the Creosote company's row cottages). She fed us breakfast and then dismissed us to "go outside and play." We did. Bainbridge woods, beaches, everywhere, became our hideouts and playpens. We had a ball! I honestly do not think we understood my father was very close to dying."

Today excellent and immediate medical attention is taken for granted. And it was not but a bit over hundred years ago that medicine truly came into its own as a respected, reliable, indeed venerated, profession. We are fortunate in countless ways! And it is interesting to look back to those years. Nina's story is the first time I read about the necessity of hiring private nurses.

Also I need to note that Nina's father's medical crisis took place just before the war ended. It was late 1945 when our cross-country dash took place. Do Dr. Bourns was back from war and it was he who saved my brother - at least according to family lore. Six months after he was rushed to Children's Orthopedic, Paul (who later insisted - for several years - that his name was Ole Larson) came back home, a laughing,round-faced baby in excellent health. Everyone cried and laughed at the same time.