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Fractured Tales of Milwaukee's EastsideA True Story About the Germans, the Poles, the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, and the Greeks
By Thelma "Queen Tillie" Kamuchey Jim "Rabbi" Hanley
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Thelma "Queen Tillie" Kamuchey and Jim "Rabbi" Hanley
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and the neighborhoods." Truman Capote
The era we grew up in, when we learned about life, developed lasting friendships, and gave birth to those countless, delightful and not so delightful memories has been gluttonously devoured by the computer age. Unfortunately it died a regretful and mournful death never again to be revived.
We grew up on the eastside of Milwaukee a few blocks from the fabulous shore of Lake Michigan. Our neighborhood was akin to our immediate family; the two were indivisible. Milwaukee was and continues to be one of society's special melting pots. It's that "Beer City" Mecca that's made up of middle class Germans, Poles, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Greek neighborhoods. We are so proud, bordering on arrogant, about calling Milwaukee our home. Thomas Wolfe's bestseller, You Can't Go Home Again, makes Milwaukeeans cringe over such a sacrilegious thought.
While our fathers worked, our mothers managed the households. They were masters of the budget. We never had a clue that we were poor, thanks to our mothers' finagling.
Out of the ten immediate blocks within our sector, I recall less than a handful of the families that owned cars-public transportation was our mode of travel. Dads took the streetcars to work and families rode the clanging trolley cars to a wondrous shopping event downtown on Wisconsin Avenue. Streetcars and buses ran on a tight schedule and were rarely late.
Then there were the trains. Those smelly, smog producing steel giants that cut a path through Milwaukee's east side. There was the Chicago Northwestern and the 400, the streamlined model that never failed to catch our attention as it left in its wake a cloud of smoke and an ear piercing warning horn.
But the characteristic that stood out most in our neighborhood melting pot was the fact that there were children in practically every home. This meant that we had countless friends, enabling us to experience wondrous incidents-incidents that are the center of our story.
We grew up in the '40s and the '50s. It was a special time, a time for celebration, and a time for thankfulness. The Great Depression left us wiser while World War II united us. It was a time for enjoying life and for building lasting friendships. It was a generation to end all generations.
The character of Milwaukee was never stronger than it was back in 1945. With the world's Great War coming to an end Milwaukeeans were joyfully caught up with the life of a mother duck and her small contingent of offsprings.
Just outside the door of Gimbel's Department store and below the drawbridge on Wisconsin Avenue sat a mother duck, or a soon to be mother. She was nesting upon a wood piling that jutted out of the murky Milwaukee River. Underneath the mother's protective feathers lay six eggs. This scene became a rallying point for Milwaukeean's who came from far and wide to witness this miracle of nature.
Everyone in Milwaukee knew about Gertie the Duck and ventured down to Wisconsin Avenue to view it firsthand. Crowds of people pushed and shoved on the bridge in order to catch a mere glimpse of Gertie. They read the reports each day in the Milwaukee Journal and listened to the radio bulletins on WTMJ.
Gertie would eventually give birth to five little duckies and books would be written about the event and Milwaukeeans would be better because of it. Yeah it was kind of hokey, but Milwaukeean's old enough to remember still smile and feel good about it.
Today's children are sequestered by protective parents, obsessively involved in a cornucopia of video games, driven to their soccer games and dance classes and school by doting parents in the family van. This is Americana my friend. Shoot, you don't even know the name of your next-door neighbor, while we knew everyone's name and family history within a four-block radius, not to mention the fact that we also knew how much money they made and what they spent it on.
We ate together as a family around the kitchen, or the dining room table in the larger families, because eating out, unlike today was a luxury, seldom, if ever practiced. The meals were Spartan, yet nutritious. Our mothers were culinary queens in preparing meals-routinely making something out of nothing. I always preferred my mom's meatloaf to filet mignon.
We got all the fixins at our neighborhood store. Regardless of where you lived in the city, you'd never have to walk more than a block or two to a neighborhood store; the supermarkets came much later. Since we lived in Milwaukee, let it be known that taverns were much closer and far more frequent. It was rumored that there was at least one tavern on every four-cornered street throughout the city.
Shopping for groceries became a daily ritual because the freezer section of our refrigerator was miniscule at best. Not every family had refrigerators; some had ice-boxes. These appliances of the past were kept cool by the large blocks of ice delivered weekly by an ice man. We children were given the task of emptying the drip pan when the ice melted.
The early hour milkman delivered quarts of milk every other day, leaving bottles on our front porch or in our milk chute. As kids we fought to fetch the milk from the porch during the winter months because the frigid temperatures caused the milk to freeze and the cream on the top rose and popped off the cap. This phenomenon left a couple of inches of frozen cream that we devoured before placing the milk in our fridge.
Every neighborhood had family grocery stores. Ours were Schwatrz's, Retzer's, and Oberdautz. Most families had a running tab that was recorded in little notebook pads by the owners of the stores, which was an early version of charging items. I can still envision Mrs. Schwartz getting out her pad and with a stub of a pencil; she'd enter the items that I had just charged for my mother. Mom would pay off the debt on Friday when dad got paid. I loved shopping at Schwartz's, but I had a pact with mom. I would go willingly, but I would not get her Moddess ... not on your life! There was always a younger brother we could send in our place.
Those of us old enough to remember the 40s recall milk companies, such as Bordens and Golden Guernsey, who made their daily deliveries by way of horse drawn wagons. Then there were the ash man, the iceman, and the ragman, all of whom sat aboard horse drawn wagons. Another street vendor was the knife sharpener who zigzagged through the streets of Milwaukee pushing his cart while ringing his loud bell that announced to all, "Come and get your knives and scissors sharpened."
We never went to summer camp, took family vacations, or had sleepovers. We were expected to entertain ourselves by playing in Riverside Park. When we were younger we made forts and castles in the sandbox, flew through the air on the swings, bounced up and down on the teeter-totters, and capped off the day with a few trips up and down our magical slide. It was magical because it brought smiles to our faces and produced a giggle in everyone. There were no parents around, only Tony the Parkman who always kept a sharp eye on us.
While we were doing boy things like playing ball or getting in trouble, the gals did their own thing like playing with dolls or dressing up that we wanted no part of. They did the dress up like mom thing, played hopscotch on the sidewalk, and became grand masters of the jump rope.
Every evening before it got dark outside, all of the neighborhood kids got together for our nightly battery of games. Once again there would be no parent interference as we playfully frolicked through our favorite games. Kick the Can, Hide 'n Seek, King of the Hill, Fifty all Scatter, Red Rover, and Simon Says were only a few of the ways that we amused ourselves. Then when the streetlights went on, or the church bells rang, it was the signal that is was time to head for home; our merriment for the day had come to an end. We rarely missed the streetlight curfew because we didn't want to answer to our mothers.
Mom would always have a light snack like graham crackers and milk waiting for us as we got comfy and curled up on the floor in front of our family radio. We listened to Mr. District Attorney, Amos and Andy, the Lone Ranger, the Life of Riley, and the Shadow only a few of the radio shows we listened to before turning in. Sometimes we would fall asleep in front of the radio and mom or dad would have to roust us up to our bedroom.
WWII was a big part of our young lives as we entered into the '40s, however, our concern and insight fell far short of the impact that it had on our parents. Without television our perspective of the world's greatest conflict was limited to the newsreels at the Oriental Theater; newsreels that showed America's strength as our military stormed beaches in the Pacific, dropped bombs on Japan, and used tanks in Europe and Africa to overpower the Nazis.
Our grade school teachers spent some time on current events, yet most of their lessons taught us how to take cover under our desks or how to exit down the fire escape in case the Japs or Nazis had their sights on invading Milwaukee.
We did our part by participating in buying defense stamps at school for a dime, and when our book was filled, we'd receive a savings bond. The stamps were sold at school every Tuesday. The money went towards our nation's defense and it made us proud to help out our soldiers in our battle for freedom.
Most of the guys loved doodling and drawing pictures of B-19s, American tanks, American flags, and Kilroy-a phenomenon of the '40s and the subject of graffiti spread around the city. The words, Kilroy Was Here, were plastered all over America. Personally speaking, I was a master of the B-17 with its turrets and bombs being dropped to the enemy below. The girls drew pictures of themselves as Florence Nightengales helping and caring for our wounded servicemen.
Our parents often discussed the war around the home and when FDR came on the radio during a fireside chat, everything stopped and we all gathered around the radio to listen to the latest news from the front.
We intimately knew soldiers and sailors and marines; our boys that traveled across the seas to fight for democracy and freedom for all. My Uncle Bob (my mother's younger brother) was a naval officer aboard a submarine that helped clean up the mess in the Pacific. The Casalena boys served, as did countless friends of Uncle Bob; all of them spent some time at our house. Donnie Buchholz and John Iverson, Newhall Street neighbors, also defended democracy abroad. Uncle Bob was so official looking and so handsome in his white officer's uniform. Women felt the same about him.
Many of our neighbors who had fathers, sons, or daughters serving in the military had small flags or banners hanging in their front windows. Each star on the banner depicted the number of family members serving our country. A gold star meant that someone had died in action. A silver star meant that they were missing in action. A purple heart meant that they were wounded in action. Milwaukee was a multicultural community, but united in its patriotism.
Some of the boys didn't make it back, which took its toll on the adults, but they kept the bad news from us. As a kid I never fathomed the finality of death. It wasn't the sort of topic that families discussed back then ... and I imagine that it's a rare thing today as well. A couple of Bob's teammates on Riverside's championship football teams (Riverside High School went undefeated from 1935 through 1939 with 32 wins and 0 losses) passed away overseas. I remembered my mother weeping over their deaths.
Some of our parents still had families living in Europe and when we heard the news of deaths overseas, the loss and sadness affected all of us.
When the death of Mr. Kamuchey's father in Greece reached the family, the patriarch sat in his favorite chair and wept. When he was all cried out, he put his Greek records on the Victorola and danced slowly around the living room to the mournful music.
The Kamuchey children learned that their grandfather, whom they never met, fought in the Greco-Turkish War in order to gain freedom from Turkey.
At the age of ten or eleven I recall walking down to Farwell and North to see General Douglas MacArthur in a victory parade after the war had ended. It was a show of America's pride and support. MacArthur had ties to Milwaukee. At one time he lived at the Plankinton House and attended West Division High School; one of our rivals. Milwaukee Congressman, Theobald Otjen, appointed him to the U.S. Military Academy.
During the 40s we experienced polio epidemics and during the summer of '44 we were quarantined for the entire summer. We weren't the only ones either, because all children under the age of twelve were placed under "House Quarantine" in the cities of Detroit, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh. In order for children to leave the premises they needed permission from the City Health Department. We made do because we had no choice. Could you imagine today's youth being stuck in the house all summer without TV or computer games?
Mike Balister was diagnosed with polio in the mid '40s. The ailing young lad was taken to Children's Hospital where he shared a room with about forty other children suffering from polio. They were quarantined there until the fever passed. Every day they were treated with the Sister Kenney Treatment, which amounted to dipping wool blankets in boiling water and wrapping them around the affected limbs. They oftentimes produced burns because of the heat.
You could always hear the screams of children receiving these treatments. The treatments done twice daily were intended to aid in regaining feeling and the use of the affected muscles. They also received some physical therapy.
The children occasionally witnessed a bed being wheeled out of the ward with a body on it and they realized that a friend had left them. Some remained in the hospital for many months. Mike was one of the lucky ones-not needing an iron lung.
After his release, Mike went to Gaenslen School, which was across the river from Bartlett and near the Pumping Station. He received the needed therapy there to learn how to walk and move his limbs all over again. His doting mother had her own form of therapy where she took Mike to Bradford Beach in the summer and buried his crippled legs in the hot sand and then exercised them. Dr. Blount, a well-known specialist in the field, treated many of the stricken children.
When fifth-grade came, Mike once and for all rejoined his friends at Bartlett Avenue School to resume the normal school year again. Mike was the only one of us that got polio, despite his being quarantined like the rest of us.
Mr. Works, a Bartlett Avenue resident, was the first germaphobe that any of us knew. He was genuinely concerned about the health of the neighborhood and decided to take matters into his own hands. Since no one knew the cause of the polio outbreak, Mr. Works surmised that it was somehow related to cleanliness.
So back in '44 he rallied the neighborhood, and with brooms and buckets and mops, this anti-polio brigade took to scouring the alley on Bartlett Avenue from Riverside Place to Park Place. They cleaned the horse poop from the rag man and the milk man, and they sanitized the trash barrels along with every inch of the alleyway. It became a neighborhood project that everyone felt good about. The adults felt good about it while the kids could have cared less. They were instead delighted to have the opening of school delayed in September due to the epidemic.
Then the next winter, the memorable winter of '47, Milwaukee experienced the snowstorm to end all snowstorms. Snow banks reached the eaves of the two story homes. Men were marooned at work as the city was at a standstill. There were no cars on the streets and no public transportation. Those that ventured onto the streets wore skis. Adults didn't know what to do, but we sure did. We made forts and tunnels and raged war with our neighbor kids. The ammunition-snowballs, snowballs, and more snowballs. It was a true winter wonderland.
Growing older, we played ball in the park like the older guys and dilly-dallied across Acorn Hill to the Milwaukee River where we were pleasurably introduced to the sport of fishing. We captured bluegill and bullheads with delightful regularity. When we became daring, we went over to Retzer's Market to purchase a few cents' worth of liver from Phil the butcher. With the liver as bait, we reeled in buckets of crayfish-a rather frightening specimen for young kids like us.
Excerpted from Fractured Tales of Milwaukee's Eastside by Thelma "Queen Tillie" Kamuchey Jim "Rabbi" Hanley Copyright © 2010 by Thelma "Queen Tillie" Kamuchey and Jim "Rabbi" Hanley. Excerpted by permission.
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