The Dark Ages Of My Youth

( 4 )

Overview

When Ward Degler graduated from journalism school, his mother speculated he would become a world-famous war correspondent or, at the very least, editor-in-chief of an influential newspaper. He did neither. Instead, he became a columnist, giving him the opportunity to write about subjects that interested him while avoiding everything that didn't.

In The Dark Ages of My Youth, Degler shares a selected collection of the weekly columns written for the Times Sentinel in Zionsville, ...

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The Dark Ages of My Youth: and Times More Recent

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Overview

When Ward Degler graduated from journalism school, his mother speculated he would become a world-famous war correspondent or, at the very least, editor-in-chief of an influential newspaper. He did neither. Instead, he became a columnist, giving him the opportunity to write about subjects that interested him while avoiding everything that didn't.

In The Dark Ages of My Youth, Degler shares a selected collection of the weekly columns written for the Times Sentinel in Zionsville, Indiana, from 1993 to 2010. The essays explore the way things were, where we've been, and where we are going. He reveals the challenges of an eight-year building project that was supposed to be completed in three months. He narrates his bafflement in dealing with the world's most headstrong dog. With humor, he details the foibles and dilemmas of everyday living. And, he profiles the special people who have altered and enriched his life.

From the simple to the complex, from the sublime to the silly, The Dark Ages of My Youth takes a charming walk through both the past and present.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781462019984
  • Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/13/2011
  • Pages: 428
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Dark Ages of My Youth and Times More Recent


By Ward Degler

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Ward Degler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-1998-4


Chapter One

The Dark Ages of My Youth

When I was invited to write a weekly column for the Zionsville (IN) Times Sentinel, I looked around and decided to write about what I saw in my everyday environment. One of my first pieces was about a headstrong cardinal that had declared war on his own reflection in our bedroom window. The bird attacked the window so ferociously that he left streaks of blood on the glass. It was to be a human interest piece, one that I hoped would invoke sympathy for an insane bird that I appropriately named "Crazy."

Halfway through the column, I wrote the phrase "in the dark ages of my youth," and went on to describe the slate juncos that used to gather around our backdoor in wintertime when I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin. The phrase subsequently crept into many of my columns when something in the present I was writing about would spark a memory. It has become a dominant theme in much of what has appeared under the column title, "I Was Just Thinking."

Once, when I tried to interest a newspaper syndicate in carrying my columns, the editor referred to my work as "nostalgia." Perhaps it is. But for the purposes of this book, they are simply musings from the Dark Ages of My Youth.

Changes in My Hometown

I visited my old hometown recently. It had been years since I'd been back, and I realized that most of my memories of the place were created as far back as grade school.

A lot had changed, of course, but I was amazed how much the town maintained its original footprint. Small towns are like that, unlike their big-city cousins. There seems to be a lingering sense of importance adhering to even the most out-of-date buildings in small towns, whereas big cities seem less nostalgic and more apt to obliterate their pasts and build anew.

Small towns are like antiques—old pieces of furniture, faithfully preserved despite their uselessness. Few cities view themselves that way, except perhaps London and Paris, or maybe San Francisco.

There were a few new roads and streets added as the town expanded into a new city park and a business complex. But all the old streets remained as sort of elder statesmen. The old park in the center of town has a new gazebo for summer band concerts and occasional political speeches, but the old merry-go-round that my sister fell from and broke her arm is still there, still in need of paint.

All the old Main Street buildings are still there, though most have new assignments. Gregory's Grocery is now a real estate office, the dairy has been converted to a tire shop, and Holiday's Drug Store is now a fabric store.

Old Mr. Holiday created quite a spectacle when he sold his drugstore to a man who wanted to open up a Western Auto. Truth was, Mr. Holiday didn't like pennies. Seems his cash register had slots for half-dollars, quarters, nickels, and dimes, but for some reason there was no room for pennies. So, whenever he got pennies in change, he tossed them behind the cabinet next to the soda fountain. After twenty years, he carted two wheelbarrow loads of the copper coins across the street to the bank. When the bank insisted he count them, he rallied all the kids in town to help out. When it was all done, we each got a roll of pennies. Reportedly, the Western Auto guy kept the original cabinet and continued to find pennies for years.

Hemmelman's Hardware stands empty today but the name, once emblazoned on the big window in front, is still visible. Hemmelman's, like its modern counterpart, was the gathering place for every man in town on Saturdays. Unlike today's stores, where everything is arranged on shelves and neatly displayed on racks, the merchandise in Hemmelman's was kept in boxes, bags, and bins in dark recesses throughout the store. There was no inventory except in Mr. Hemmelman's head, and only Mr. Hemmelman knew where things were.

It was a point of pride back then, both for our town and for Mr. Hemmelman, that whatever your hardware need, it could be found at Hemmelman's. In fact, it became sort of a contest to need something that Hemmelman's didn't have.

A neighbor decided to fix up an old stable at the edge of town and came to Hemmelman's for a part to a water trough pump that had been made in the mid-1880s. He announced smugly on entering the store that there was no way Hemmelman's would have this part. Mr. Hemmelman picked up the failed part and, wiping his glasses on his necktie, examined it carefully for several minutes, holding it up to the light and turning it slowly in his fingers. Then he disappeared into the back room, where he began sifting through ranks of obscure boxes. After long, suspenseful moments, Mr. Hemmelman emerged carrying not just one but two replacement parts.

"We don't get much call for these anymore," he said seriously. "If you ever need another, I got a spare."

When the county assessor's office was damaged by fire, Mr. Hemmelman was approached about ordering replacement tiles for the twelve-foot ceiling. The ceiling in the county office, among others in town, was covered with panels of sculptured metal. No one knew exactly when the buildings were constructed, but popular wisdom held that it was sometime around the turn of the century. The county commissioners as a group agreed they would probably have to replace the burned ceiling with something new, but decided to show Mr. Hemmelman the damaged metal anyway, just in case.

Mr. Hemmelman never batted an eye. He stalked off to the back room and emerged moments later with a stack of the sculptured metal panels. Seems it was Hemmelman's who supplied the county with the original materials.

"I figured one of these days somebody would need a replacement," he said, blowing a layer of dust off the panels.

When Mr. Hemmelman died a few years later, the store died with him. There just wasn't anyone who could carry on the tradition. His heirs tried to sell the inventory to a hardware wholesaler, but after a half day of trying to make sense of things, he gave up and left town. Later a few antique dealers rummaged through the place and carted off some treasures. By permission, old-time Hemmelman's customers continued to look through the store for odd items whenever the need arose.

After a year or so, the family gave up trying to empty out the place and just locked it up. Presumably, much of the inventory remains within to this day, which is good to know if I ever need a part for an antique water trough pump.

Playing Marbles and Rolling Hoops

Does anyone play marbles anymore? When I was in grade school, not only did we play marbles, it also was a school competition. I had forgotten that until a week ago, when I returned to the small town in southern Missouri where I attended the third grade.

We also rolled hoops, and I had forgotten about that, too. This is not to be confused with shooting hoops, which is, I think, by constitutional amendment required fare in Indiana schools. These were steel hoops between ten and thirteen inches in diameter. We rolled them along in front of us with sticks that had little arms attached to the bottom. The arms formed a V-shaped slot in which the hoop rolled. By twisting the stick, you could turn the hoop to the left or right. Hoop rolling was a competitive activity at my school, too.

I used to comment about hoop rolling to my kids until they flat-out told me that I was making it up. Once they showed me an engraving of a kid in the 1890s. He was rolling a big hoop with a stick.

"Like this, Dad?" they asked with a sneer. I told them the hoops we rolled were much smaller and the stick was different. They looked at me the same way they had when years earlier I had insisted the moon was made of green cheese. Kids have become real cynics.

Back in my third-grade town, I found my way to the small historical society museum. The woman in charge pulled out a dusty folder of old newspapers dated 1943. The war was in full bloom that year, and I wanted to get a little historical perspective to go along with my recollections of multiplication tables and the more advanced adventures of Dick and Jane I remembered learning in the classroom.

In small towns such as this one, the weekly newspaper was a major source of in-depth local and worldwide news. I paged through the yellowed and brittle papers. The War Bond drives told the story of financing the war. One issue explained in exhaustive detail how rationing worked. There was a column each week that gave news of local men and women in uniform.

There was local society news, too, and news from the local schools. The high school football team was having a winning year, and at the grade school, Activity Day featured stiff competition in marbles and hoop rolling. I read the list of winners and gritted my teeth at the mention of my old nemesis, J. D. McGrath. He won in both events. I remember one of the arms breaking on my hoop stick so I couldn't control left turns without slowing down. There was even a photograph, blurry but discernible, of a pack of boys running the course, pushing their hoops. The historical society had no copy machine, but I took copious notes to offer as proof to my children.

As I remember it, the marbles competition was not supposed to be "for keeps," but old J. D. made a command decision to keep my marbles anyway and then dared me to complain. J. D. McGrath was a lot like the character Moe who bullied Calvin and Hobbs.

Despite the Activity Day loss, I recall having a large coffee can filled with marbles all during grade school. My favorite taw, or shooter, was a heavy steely. Of course, steelies weren't allowed in competition. I also had some special "pee-wees" and a handful of "aggies." The aggies, carved out of Lake Superior agates, would be worth several dollars apiece today.

We also played a game called "mumble peg" with jackknives. There didn't seem to be a lot of tight rules about the game. You just had to toss the open knife and stick it in the ground from various positions. Nobody played mumble peg for stakes; you just used the game to accent conversation and to beat the boredom. Girls played jacks and jumped rope for the same reason.

But lest I get maudlin, my granddaughter pointed out the other day that kids still play games to augment their lives. Sometimes they go to the mall. And other times they jump into a new video game.

Saturday Matinees at the Princess Theater

I hadn't seen the place since 1943, and it was still standing. Of course, it had long since been abandoned and had become all but invisible in the way empty and forgotten buildings do.

A faded sign protruding from the front of the building creaked in the soft breeze and testified that sometime in its more recent history it had been the home of Carson's Custom Meats. Above the sign, near the roof line and spread out across the front of the building, however, was the true identity of this place. After more than fifty years, you had to stand just right to see the words, but they were still there showing through multiple coats of faded paint. In 1943 those letters were bright red and proclaimed this building to be none other than the Princess Theater.

In 1943 the Princess Theater was as close to heaven as any ten-year-old boy was likely to get. It was a sanctuary, a safe haven from the brutal realities of school, chores, and, of course, a world war that raged far away but at the same time seemed so close and was so frightening. It was here on Saturday afternoons that we lined up on the sidewalk clutching our dimes in fevered anticipation of imminent immersion into a double feature, three serials, and four cartoons.

In its entire history, the Princess showed nothing but Westerns, although back then we called them cowboy movies. All of our heroes were there: The Lone Ranger with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, Roy Rogers with Dale Evans, the Durango Kid, Red Ryder, Lash LaRue, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and—my idol—Tom Mix.

There wasn't an Oscar nomination in the lot back then, and the plot of one movie was predictably similar to the plots of all the others. There were the bad guys, of course, and they almost always wore black hats. The good guy always came out of nowhere, almost always wearing a white hat. Townsfolk or hardworking ranchers being victimized by the gang were sadly powerless to do anything about it. Then the good guy showed up and helped the victims find their own inner strength and defeat the bad guys. Afterward, he always rode off into the sunset, usually after bidding fond farewell to the schoolmarm or the rancher's daughter.

Secretly, we shared the hope of the townsfolk or the rancher that he would stay and take over the ranch and maybe marry the schoolteacher. But we knew he had to leave so he could rescue the next town or the next ranch from the bad guys. That's what good guys did.

Looking back, I realize that I sat there every Saturday, hunkered down in my seat, my feet propped up on the seat in front of me, and I always knew what was going to happen next. As a matter of fact, every kid in the place knew what the bad guys were going to do next and what the good guy was going to do in return. We knew, but we didn't care. The point was that every Saturday these movies proved to us that good outweighed bad ten to one, and—in spite of an unfair war out there—good would always triumph in the end. Moreover, after the last bad guy had bitten the dust, the good guy had ridden off toward the horizon, and the house lights came back on, we were amply fortified to spend the next week carrying that message of faith and hope. For the next seven days I could be Tom Mix, reassuring a frightened world that everything would be all right.

We moved away from that little town and the Princess Theater just before the end of 1943. A couple of years later the war ended, and the country set about the business of building a future. I guess that future didn't include places like the Princess Theater. After all, the war was over, prosperity glowed brightly on everyone's horizon, and we just didn't need to be reminded anymore that good would prevail over evil. I stopped going to Saturday matinees and began looking forward to high school. After awhile they stopped making cowboy movies like that, and all the good guys rode toward the sunset one final time and disappeared.

At some point, the Princess Theater closed down. Folks I talked to said it was a frozen food locker plant for several years. Later, somebody named Carson turned it into a meat market. When Carson closed down, somebody else used the building as a warehouse for a while. After that, the building stood empty. Near as I could find out, no one has used it for anything since.

But I defy anyone who ever scoured up a dime on a Saturday afternoon and sat through a Tom Mix double feature to stand on the sidewalk outside that ruined building today and deny hearing the distant thunder of hoof-beats and feeling deep within that everything is going to be all right.

When the Carnival Came to Town

Every summer when I was a kid the carnival came to town. There was something electrifying in the air from the moment its battered trucks hit the edge of town laden with brightly colored rides and booths and the promise of magic.

We'd jump on our bikes and get to the fairgrounds even before the last truck rolled in, dust billowing. Then we'd settle in on the perimeter and watch as the carnival workers unloaded their priceless treasures. Sometimes one of them, usually dressed in low-slung Levi's and a cool-looking torn T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled into the sleeve, would give us some work. We'd be paid in free ride tickets.

The rides were great, of course—pure fun: the Ferris wheel, the high-energy Tilt-a-Whirl, and the stomach-challenging Loop-the-Loop. But there were other attractions, less well-defined, that were just as exciting: shooting galleries where, if you scored a bull's-eye with every shot, you would win a giant stuffed panda; the baseball throw where you had to knock down wooden milk bottles—that booth had stuffed pandas too; ring-toss booths; darts-and-balloons; and the game where you tried to get bouncy ping-pong balls to land on the five-dollar slot.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Dark Ages of My Youth and Times More Recent by Ward Degler Copyright © 2011 by Ward Degler. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Foreword....................xiii
Preface....................xv
Acknowledgments....................xvii
Introduction....................xix
The Dark Ages of My Youth....................3
Changes in My Hometown....................5
Playing Marbles and Rolling Hoops....................8
Saturday Matinees at the Princess Theater....................10
When the Carnival Came to Town....................12
Selling Scrap Metal....................14
Neighbors Worth Remembering....................17
Banana Nut Bread, Fudge, and Making Taffy....................20
Revisiting Big Rock....................22
What the Heck Is a Skate Key?....................25
Breakfast Never Changes....................28
Camping....................30
Forest Fires....................33
Lilacs—My Favorite Flower....................36
Remembering Charles Kuralt....................39
Put the Brakes on Road Rage....................41
Decoration Day....................44
Firecrackers....................46
Lawn Mowers....................49
Dog Days....................51
End of Summer....................53
Canning....................55
Labor Day—the Last Hurrah....................57
Fountain Pens—They Sometimes Leaked....................59
Buddy Poppies....................61
Mom's Wash Day....................63
Spring Cleaning—Grandma Style....................66
Telephones—Yesterday and Today....................68
Trains and the War Effort....................70
Working My Way Up at the Greasy Spoon....................73
Summer Jobs....................75
Libraries Were Like Monasteries....................78
My Favorite Comic Strips....................81
Salting a Bird's Tail and Other Tall Tales....................84
That First Bike....................86
Litter Bags—Where Have They Gone?....................89
Thinking About Cars....................91
We Once Had Fans....................94
Spring Break—Pioneering the Long Trip....................97
I'm a Winner—So Was Mr Duggan....................99
Gasconade River....................102
My Love Affair with Rivers....................104
More River Thoughts....................107
A Mute Wedding and Another I Survived....................110
Once We Wore Galoshes....................114
Snow Forts....................116
Christmas Marches On....................118
A Christmas Story....................120
Making Peace with Winter....................122
White Christmases I Remember....................125
High School—Looking Back Fifty Years....................127
The Project....................129
The Project Begins....................131
I Have Created a Monster....................134
The Project Becomes a Teaching Tool....................136
Learning by Swinging a Hammer....................138
The Project Endures....................140
I Learn About Wiring....................142
The Roof Leaks....................145
It Was Almost Like Escaping from Prison....................148
Next Stop, the Sewer....................151
The Greatest Invention—Ever....................154
The Problem with Time....................157
An Anniversary—of Sorts....................160
How to Move a Mountain....................163
Into the Crawl Space....................166
The Shower Gets a Glass Wall....................169
What's That Stuff, and What's It For?....................172
The Studio Emerges—at Last....................174
The Project Is Finished....................176
Puppy Dogs....................179
One-Dog Family....................181
Another Second Dog....................183
Doghouse....................186
Raccoons, Dogs, and Cats....................188
Trapping Raccoons....................191
Trapping the Cat....................193
Remembering Moosey....................196
Brutie, Like Moosey....................198
Choir Practice....................200
Brutie and the Squirrels....................202
Checking Things Out with Brutie....................205
Jealous Cats....................207
The Birds Are Back....................210
People....................213
Remembering Sara....................215
Grandpa....................217
Barbara and Tim Conway....................220
Teachers I Have Known....................222
A Visit with Polly....................225
Barber Shop from the Past....................228
Skinny-Dipping, Mr Secretary?....................231
Dad Saw an Ivorybill....................234
Hoboes....................236
Dickie Pope....................238
Easter....................241
Family Reunion....................243
Charley Barnes Met Stan Musial....................245
Gerry Mulligan and His Music....................247
Habitat for Humanity—a Good Start....................249
Helping Others....................251
Jack Underwood....................253
Sometimes Cancer Wins....................256
Kristen's Sandbox....................259
Out of Grief, a Book....................261
John Krouse....................263
Remembering Jackie....................265
The Last World War I Pilot....................268
Lucius Newsome....................270
Lyman Porter....................272
Mom....................274
Dad at Eighty-Nine....................276
Jumper Collins....................279
Remembering Mr Gault....................283
Skydiving....................285
Small-Town Obit....................287
Walt Gelien....................290
Lex Cralley's War Souvenir....................292
The Unforgettable and Exasperating Bob Heisey....................295
My Brother Dies....................298
The Boat....................301
The Boat Begins....................305
Describing Key West....................308
The Boatyard....................311
Stock Island....................313
Working on the Boat....................316
A New Gangplank....................318
The Other Side of Key West....................320
Key West Chicken Roundup....................323
Chicken Roundup, Chapter Two....................325
Getting Things Done on the Boat....................327
The Bells are Tolling—Hurricane Katrina....................330
Wilma!....................332
Key West Recovers....................334
Garbage Truck at Fort Jefferson....................336
Rescue at Sea....................339
A Funeral at the Water's Edge....................341
One Final Trip to Key West....................343
Farewell to Key West....................345
This and That....................347
My Most Embarrassing Moment....................349
Using the Blender....................352
Looking for Grodies....................355
Moving Pianos....................357
Blowtorches and Cows....................360
Lawn Mower Racing....................363
Farm Sculpture....................365
Winter Storms Didn't Bother Stepin Fetchit....................367
I Thought I Hated Winter....................371
Considering the Horse....................374
Lost Soybean Project....................376
Beware of Promises Too Good to Be True....................379
Cemetery of the Innocent—1995....................381
Goodbye to Tavern on the Green....................383
Navy Destroyer....................387
Patrolling in Taiwan....................389
Ditty Boppers at Kunia....................392
Newport Revisited....................395
Remembering Pearl Harbor....................398
Final Thoughts....................401
Your Columnist Bids Farewell....................403
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  • Posted August 9, 2011

    Highly recommended - all generations!!

    First, very easy to read. A collection of two-to-three-page stories that can be read five minutes here and ten minutes there, or, as I did..."Ok, that was good. Gotta read the next one, it's only a couple pages." (That lasted for at least 10 more pages every time.)
    But most importantly, I recommend "The Dark Ages of My Youth" to everyone. This book touches all generations and stirs every emotion.
    "The Dark Ages" are decades past that those of you who are now greatgrandparents will remember fondly - switchboard operators and party lines, Mother's Oats with dishes in the box, filling coal bins in the fall - all things I, having been born in the 80's, have never experienced. But upon reading about "The Dark Ages", I feel closer to and more curious of my grandparents. This book makes me want to sit down and ask them to tell me stories, any stories, about anything, in their lives before me. But the book doesn't stop at "The Dark Ages", there are also "Times More Recent" - stories about hard work, inspiring people, crazy pets, loved ones lost, nerve-testing projects, and lessons learned. Sometimes you'll giggle, sometimes you'll cry, you'll cringe and wince, and you'll definitely laugh out loud, but with every story you will learn something you didn't know, remember something you had forgotten, or be inspired to act.
    For a laugh: "Raccoons, Dogs, and Cats" or "We Once Had Fans"
    For a cry: "Sometimes Cancer Wins"
    For a cringe (and a giggle): "How to Move a Mountain" or "Barbara and Tim Conway"

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 16, 2011

    Thoroughly enjoyable read!

    The author has produced a kaleidoscope of nostalgic, heartwarming, poignant, humorous, and inspiring human experiences. This book is difficult to put down! I would recommend this as a gift that will be appreciated by all ages.

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  • Posted September 1, 2011

    Definitely A Must Read For Everybody

    Having lived through the time periods and locations of those mentioned in the book, I can relate to some of the things mentioned. World War II is still sharp in my mind and the author brought back many remembrances of a time that was not to be forgotten. His descriptions of the frustrations of attempting to be a jack-of-all-trades in The Project bring back those horrible dreams of "what if" when I slept. In his stories about the cold in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri and Germany sent me shivering once again. This is a book that is definitely written for all ages and should be mentioned to everyone that you know. Maybe even strangers you see on the street. I can't wait for Book 2. Bob Cardwell

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    Posted September 29, 2011

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