From the Publisher
"Winner of the 2001 Ohioana Book for nonfiction."
"This memoir is an important reminder that urban life is not the only life: it reveals, for instance, that for people living close to their needs and far from the command-posts of the cash economy, a thing like the Great Depression could be largely irrelevant. Frank Mathias respectfully renders small-town history as a worthy piece of something larger: ourselves. America." Barbara Kingsolver
"A trip down memory lane. Filled with amusing and often poignant stories, it presents a picture of a kinder, less sophisticated, more moral society." Bowling Green Daily News
"Nowhere is what we've lost more poignantly apparent.... An insightful travelogue in time as well as place." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Vividly recaptures the sights, sounds, smells, and very texture of small-town and rural life in the interwar years." Journal of Southern History
"A well-received collection of memoirs about what is being called the Greatest Generation." Kettering-Oakwood (OH) Times
"Vivid and accurate, poignant and funny, this is a marvelous picture of pre-war life whose readability is enhanced by its insights into what makes the American character." Library Journal
"An insightful look at what the 'Greatest Generation' was like before they fought and won the war." Maysville Ledger-Independent
"A memoir about the wondrous variety of daily life, even during the Depression years, that shaped the men and women of the era." McCormick (SC) Messenger
"An affectionate and nostalgic memoir." Ohio History
"A sensitive and respectful balance between the stories of his childhood and the realities of war." Ohioana Quarterly
"A sobering, well-considered and engrossing portrait of ordinary life in a tumultuous era." Publishers Weekly
"A gentle and worthwhile read for those interested in Kentucky's rural past." Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
"Mathias weaves a three-dimensional tapestry of just how these young Americans became so well-bonded that they could make a powerful contribution toward the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan." Sewanee Review
"Takes us back to a time and place that live on in the memories of all of us who grew up in small towns and rural America.... I recommend it highly." Stephen E. Ambrose
"He recreates such a complete and convincing world." War, Literature, and the Arts
"Poignant moments break the narrator's nostalgic rhythm as we learn that particular playmates will later die fighting on foreign shores." Washington Post Book World
Written in the spirit of Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, this is a lovingly recalled memoir of a Kentucky boy who went on to fight in World War II, with details and moments that warmly resonate for anyone of that age. An aside--that somewhere on these streets and riverbanks is the origin of the determination and courage that won the war--gives this innocent upbringing in a small American town a great deal of force. Mathias (professor emeritus, history, Univ. of Dayton) recalls friends and relatives and how they later went on to exploits overseas, sometimes giving the supreme sacrifice of their lives. Vivid and accurate, poignant and funny, this is a marvelous picture of prewar life whose readability is enhanced by its insights into what makes the American character--in one homespun kid at least.--Mel D. Lane, Sacramento, CA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Read an Excerpt
The first grade beckoned. It was the day after Labor Day in Depression-ridden 1931. Dad kissed me and drove off to work; Mom walked me two blocks to Carlisle's one big public school building.
When Mom and I entered the first grade room, I looked it over and decided I was not going to like it. Miss McCloud, the attractive young teacher introduced herself as the bell rang. She began talking to the class, telling us how much she would enjoy teaching us. But as she talked the mothers left, slipping silently out through the cloakroom. I kept my eye on Mom. Miss McCloud distracted me with some chalk sketches on the blackboard. I turned around. Mom was missing-she had slipped out! I had been deserted. Fear crept into me. I was afraid to leave and afraid to stay. I wrangled with this problem for a few minutes, then panic struck. I ran out of the room and all the way home, not even stopping to say hello to Miss Phoebe as she puttered around on her back porch. Mom welcomed and comforted me, gradually making me think I wanted to try again. An hour passed, then she and I walked back. Mom waved to a smiling Miss McCloud as I walked in and took my seat. It was the rough beginning of a happy school year.
The first grade room was nestled into a first floor corner of the big brick school. It was a sunny room with rows of small desks huddled in awe of the teacher's big desk centered up front. Tall windows graced two sides of the room and slate blackboards the rest. Letters of the alphabet, numerals, and pictures of animals ran across the top of the blackboards. Impressive steam radiators stood below most windows. When winter came we were entertained and often startled by the hissing and popping sounds they made. Winter also set us staring intently from our desks up through the windows in the hope of seeing snowflakes silhouetted against the sky. When snow did come, the wooly smell of scarfs, gloves, and hats drying on the radiators filled the room.
I fit quickly into my new life, sensing I was now part of things beyond my home. I felt this keenly during my walk to school. After passing through Miss Phoebe's overgrown yard, I joined a stream of students of all ages. I admired boys clattering sticks across the upright slats of an iron picket fence running alongside the Cox house sidewalk. I could do this as well as anybody, but I could not whistle like the older boys. And I was amazed the following spring when boys and girls made screeching sounds by blowing through maple seed wings held between tongues and teeth. Since I was dressed in short pants and long brown stockings instead of knickers, I sensed I still had a lot to learn.
During the first grade I gradually fell in love with my teacher. There was no chance she could beat Mom's time, but Miss McCloud had earned my affectionate attention. I made good grades because she was the teacher. When I discovered a pretty ring inside a Cracker Jack box, I knew what to do with it. Dad had just given Mom a ring for her birthday, making her happy. During the first grade's May picnic in parklike Mathers' Woods, I sat in the violet-dimpled grass next to Miss McCloud. "Here's a ring for you," I said, my eyes full of admiration.
"Why, thank you, Frank!" she exclaimed in pleasant surprise, slipping it on her finger. "You're a sweet little boy." She gave me a hug, and I knew I had done the right thing.
All but one of the twenty-one first graders fit easily into the class. The exception was an oversized, gawky boy with shaggy hair and shy demeanor. His mother came with him the first two months, sitting like a sentinel in a corner chair. Her black dresses touched the floor, covering men's work shoes. She kept her bonnet on during class. She was different, and her intelligent son knew it. If asked a question, she usually replied, "I can't rightly say." My classmates and I shamefully teased her son behind her back. Our parents scolded us for this but we did it anyway. Her son quit, I think, after finishing the eighth grade. I forgot about him until I opened a Cincinnati Times-Star decades later. There was a large photo of a noted Ohio banker standing proudly beside his award-winning bank manager. I read the manager's name, looked closely at the photo, and was pleasantly surprised to find that everything matched-he was the "Ugly Duckling" from grade school!
Whenever I walked home for dinner (no one said "lunch"), my competitive three-year-old brother made sure I did not hog Mom's attention. Anytime I seemed to do so, he dropped to the floor and banged his head up and down until noticed. Andrew Metcalfe thought this was the funniest thing he had ever seen-thus prompting Charles to perform regularly for him.
I liked the first grade and was vaguely unhappy when the school year ended. But before summer vacation, an unpleasant event came my way. No one could win a blue ribbon at the annual May Day festivities without proof of a general health examination, and this included teeth. With this in mind, Dad took me to see Stanley Hutchings, his dentist and longtime fishing friend. Although I knew and liked Dr. Hutchings, I did not know what to expect. When I saw the dental chair, I thought he ran a barber shop and sat down to get a haircut. He probed gently here and there in my mouth and found a cavity. Hutchings pulled his drill down and let me feel the stone-tipped burr spinning painlessly between my fingers. "This little drill won't hurt a big boy like you very much, will it?" he asked, grinning a typical dentist's grin and knowing all the while he was lying through his teeth.
I looked at Dad for reassurance, and he nodded and grinned in agreement with Hutchings, then took his false teeth out and snapped them at me. (It was my understanding that he and Mom had lost their teeth owing to "diarrhea," not learning until several years later, and with some relief, that the word was "pyorrhea," an infection of the gums and tooth sockets.)
I laughed at Dad's antics, but when the dentist stuck his drill into the cavity, the laugh was on me. The low-speed drill of that era heated the tooth as it slowly ground its painful way through the decay. When the pain hit me full force, I called a halt to the proceedings, saying: "I want to go home right now!"
"It will just take a little bit more, Frankie," Hutchings said sympathetically, "and then you will be set to get a blue ribbon and your name in the paper. What do you think of that?"
I liked what he said, so I stuck it out. But every year after that I endured a frightful May Day trip to the dentist's office, expecting the worst for my cavity-prone teeth. I laid a stick or object of some kind at the foot of the long stairs leading to Hutchings's forbidding office, saying to myself, "Boy, oh boy, will I be glad to pick this up again!" And I was, forgetting teeth forever and a year.
When I entered the first grade Dad was fifty and Mom forty-three. Some of my classmates' grandparents were younger. Charles and I experienced the ups and downs of children actually raised by grandparents. Moreover, the Great War dug an immense social, cultural, and moral trench between preceding generations and those that followed. At the time, however, few understood that the Roaring Twenties were ushering in the "modern world," least of all Lucky, Nannie, and their two boys.
Charles and I were of course unable to understand that our parents had grown up in a society far different from our own, nor could they be expected to tell us. They were Victorians, raised in the most optimistic of centuries, the nineteenth, when there was an almost sacred belief that all good things were possible. Townspeople of their generation, such as the Metcalfes, were just like them. World War I is said to have undermined these beliefs, and perhaps it did for battered Europeans, but most of the old ways lived on in battle-free America; at least they were in full flower in white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Carlisle. Although rejecting some Victorian values-Prohibition, for example-my generation held on to the old social and cultural unity necessary to overcome the near fatal challenge of fascism in World War II. But with Victorians for parents, my brother and I felt no little confusion as we explored a completely unmarked trail between the old and the new.
As far as Dad was concerned, the modern world could go its way and he would go his. Sports, for example, meant little to Dad for he had worked hard since leaving the eighth grade. His one great recreational obsession was fishing, which he shared fully with Charles and me. But he never pitched ball with us, nor did he know much or care about the Cincinnati Reds, the UK Wildcats, or even the Carlisle Musketeers. He never once criticized any sport or its fans; he simply walked his silent path and expected others to do the same.
The radio got Lucky somewhat involved in sports for the first time in his life, not as a participant, of course, but as a listener/fan. In 1927 he bought a Crosley radio. At first glance it seemed to be a spindly metal table with an absurdly thick top. On closer inspection, one found that the top had several tuning dials and that a saucer-size speaker hung on several wires under the top. Lucky strung some two hundred feet of fine wire over and around the hoot owl house for an aerial. He loved to tinker with the radio and aerial, and he kept both working so well we could pick up Havana.
Lucky became hooked on heavyweight title bouts and Notre Dame football. In tight bouts or games he became as loud and aggressive as a man half his age. One memorable 1933 heavyweight title bout pitted Jack Sharkey against Primo Carnera. Dad huddled by the radio, becoming fully and loudly involved as Sharkey and Carnera-the "Wild Bull of the Pampas"-battled it out. Suddenly, there was shouting and noise outside; people were running through our yard. Dad turned up the radio, but a torrent of noise now came in from across the street-the small combined grocery and dwelling next to the warehouse was on fire! By this time the uptown fire bell was ringing wildly, calling the volunteers to the engine. Help was obviously needed to carry out furniture and grocery stocks. "Charlie," Mom shouted, "you've got to do something!"
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Lucky grumbled loudly as he stormed out the door. "That damned place would catch fire in the middle of the best fight of the year!"
Seventeen years later I was reminded of Dad and his addiction to championship prizefights. I was a ticket and customs agent for National Airlines at Miami International Airport. Someone cleared his throat while I was busily hunched over my desk. I looked up and was startled to be staring into the placid face of Joe Louis. I was thrilled.
"Hope I can get a ticket for Cuba here," Louis said in his low-key way.
"You're in the right place," I replied. "We've got six flights a day with plenty of seats on most of them. Say, I saw you fight an exhibition bout at Fort Benning back in 1945. Sugar Ray Robinson was on the same program."
"Yeah," he said, "I remember those days," nodding as I handed him his ticket. As he walked away, I pondered those bygone days when Dad and most white boxing fans followed Louis's fights with the express hope that a white man would finally beat him. Times had changed. I admitted to myself that Joe Louis had stood for a lot more than boxing titles.
Except for Notre Dame, Dad never had much to say for football. He had no deep knowledge of the game, and I am certain he could not have named the positions played by the eleven athletes. He may have had a vague religious identification with the school, but I never heard him say so. He loved to back a winner, however, and in the days of Knute Rockne and Elmer Layden the Fighting Irish walloped team after team almost as if from force of habit. He also put these games and boxing bouts to practical use, for they served as excellent conversation starters along his sales route.
Dad was little more involved in his sons' schoolwork than he was in sports, but Mom easily took up all the slack. My brother and I got advice and help only when we could prove it was "deserved." Nannie had a near uncanny knack of knowing whether Charles and I really deserved help with a lesson or whether we were trying to fool her into solving our problems, and help never came if we did not deserve it. She often filled in as a substitute teacher at the high school, so I thought of her in some ways as I did of my other teachers. It was good to hear classmates praise her as a typing and shorthand teacher, but as she often said, "It's so easy to teach when backed by a first-rate superintendent," and Carlisle had one.
Everett Earl Pfanstiel, called "Fanny" behind his back by the students, was appointed superintendent of Carlisle City Schools in 1926. An alumnus of Transylvania University, he held an M.A. degree and was a World War I veteran and a native of nearby Bracken County. Admirably equipped by nature and by training, Pfanstiel combined a sensitive sense of justice with a humorous, easygoing manner that in no way interfered with his consistent demand for quality or with his intolerance for cheating or serious student troublemaking. Any miscreant "sent up" to Fanny's office took a trip few wanted to repeat. In other words, his name meant discipline; education cannot take place without it.
Pfanstiel's public school domain boasted a commanding presence on a low hill overlooking the town. Grades occupied the first floor and high school the upper two stories. There was a large auditorium, with stage, usually called "chapel," with stained glass windows and church-type pews for seats. Chapel was held once a week. Protestant ministers and occasionally the Catholic priest often spoke to the four hundred or so students on such subjects as cheating, honesty, fighting and other nondoctrinal topics. The Lord's Prayer was recited here as well as in classrooms each morning. I heard no complaint regarding "violation of church and state separation," either from my parents or from anyone else.
I first met the superintendent when several of us first graders were inspecting a strange contraption in the "boys' basement." This was the boys' part of a basement underlying the entire school, with toilets and play areas. The girls had their part, as did the Penny Lunch and home economics department. Brick walls separated each part. The funny-looking contraption we first-graders puzzled over was a generator with protruding, long, paddlelike wooden blades set in a half-circle-at least, that is my best memory of the thing. Pfanstiel happened to walk by while we were inspecting it. "Don't you boys know what that is?" he asked.
"No, sir," we answered. We had heard a lot about him and were impressed that he had paused to talk to us.
"Why, boys," he replied, with a meaningful grin on his face, "that's my paddling machine."
We of course believed him, holding the thing in awe until it was removed, presumably for action in his formidable office.
Pfanstiel had a genius for showing up at the wrong time, a characteristic my brother experienced when he lit a string of firecrackers at recess in the basement. The elated smirk had hardly left his face when a big hand reached around a corner and grabbed a handful of his red hair, bending him over. A paddle blazed a trail across his rear end. Fanny released him but stood there with a quizzical look on his face, as if to ask how such a stupid thing could ever have happened. He was famous for this look. But Charles's respect for the superintendent soon increased greatly, for Fanny did not tell Lucky about the firecrackers. Had he done so, Charles would have gotten another paddling.
I, too, learned the hard way. One boring afternoon in study hall I embedded a pin in my shoe sole and hunched my foot across the aisle to jab Martha Barnett, two seats to the front. As I was midway into the act my rear end exploded, as if hit by a sky rocket. There stood Pfanstiel, quizzical look and all, holding his long, thin paddle. I was surprised it was not smoking. As he slowly made his way through the room, I was embarrassed; I hated to look at my classmates' smiling faces. They later pointed out my oversight. "Didn't you notice the silence when he came in through the cloakroom door?" Martha asked, more mindful of my plight than of my attempt to stick her with a pin.
"How come you didn't smell the cigar odor and the cinnamon balls?" John Hopkins wanted to know. He had me there, for everyone knew Fanny smoked cigars and chewed cinnamon balls, leaving a telltale smell wherever he went. I just rubbed my sore butt and shook my head, but I was thankful he would not tell on me. Parents backed the teachers and the students knew it. Discipline, in effect, came from within the student body itself.
"Professor" Pfanstiel, as the townspeople called him, had much more going for him than his paddle. One day Dicky Jones, as I shall call him, came to the superintendent's office with a puzzling request: "Sir, I want to be excused from attending graduation exercises."
"Why, Dicky," Pfanstiel said in a bewildered tone of voice, "you are a fine student and I want to know why you make such a request."
"Mr. Pfanstiel, I just don't have the money to buy a suit and all the other seniors are set to wear them."
Fanny immediately stood up, put his arm around Dicky's shoulder, and headed out the door. "We are going downtown right now and I'm going to buy you a suit." Although Jones was too proud to accept Pfanstiel's offer, the small town added this to a lengthy listing of Fanny's concern for his students.
Pfanstiel was ahead of his time in waging a continual antismoking campaign in behalf of student health and fire safety. Although he smoked an occasional cigar, he was determined to stamp out smoking on school grounds, especially in the boys' basement toilet and play area.
There were few if any campaigns against smoking in the 1930s, especially in a state and county where tobacco was the economic mainstay. Smoking and chewing seemed harmless to most Americans, but not to Fanny. We grade-schoolers were shown expensive full-color pictures of the dark, putrid lungs of heavy smokers, as compared to the rosy, healthy lungs of abstainers. Pfanstiel called cigarettes "coffin nails" and "nicotine sticks." The football and basketball coaches testified that cigarettes caused "short wind and low performance" in any athlete foolish enough to smoke them. As a result, I did not become foolish enough to smoke anything but a few Indian cigars until I was in the army.
Sometime during the mid-1930s the superintendent began mentioning the "Basement Puff Club" when he spoke at the Wednesday chapel assemblies. He created the title to designate a number of willful and habitual smokers in the boys' basement. One Wednesday he offered a challenge to members of the club. He said something like this: "I'll call members of the Basement Puff Club into my office from now on and tell each one which kind or brand of cigarette he was smoking and the exact time he did it. If I'm correct, the smoker will be honor bound to admit it, quit all smoking on campus, and accept a paddling."
One by one, and sometimes two by two, the "club" began losing members to Fanny's paddle. As he expected, the lads had tacitly accepted his terms and saw the thing as a game stacked in their favor: "Fanny'll play hell catchin' me" was the general feeling. But Pfanstiel did catch them, and all were perplexed as to how he pinned down the exact time, the brand of cigarette smoked, and often even the conversation and number of puffs taken by the smug youths of the "club." Although smugness was paddled out of them, they added to a student belief that Fanny had mysterious power to see through walls or read smokers' minds. Most have never learned his secret.
Students came closer to divining his secret than they knew; he was, in effect, "seeing through walls." I was a senior before I learned that the superbly built school had several walk-through ventilation shafts built into the three-story, thick-walled structure. It was possible, given a boost by a pal, to look down into some classrooms through small, ceiling-level, screened registers. (One could also peer into an uninspiring section of the girls' basement this way.) An innocuous looking door in the boys' basement led into the shafts. It had a misleading sign concerning electrical power plant dangers on its front and a hinge-hasp with an imposing but broken combination lock. One side shaft dead-ended in a home economics room closet where pies could be spirited away through a small opening. This seldom happened, for we "in-crowd" boys feared encountering Sandy Williams, the African American janitor and Fanny's spy, while in the shaft.
The crucial shaft for smokers ended in part of an abandoned basement furnace. The furnace door faced the boys' toilet area. Actually, the back of the furnace was missing, but the front half was fitted snugly over the shaft exit, not to trap smokers, of course, but to keep students out of the shaft. But now it played its fateful role, for anyone inside the shaft/furnace had a close-up view of the restroom through a partially open shaft regulator in the furnace door. Williams probably revealed the possibilities to his boss, thereby inspiring the creation of the Basement Puff Club. In any event, Williams did the spying and collecting of the damning information. Puff Clubbers knew Sandy was involved, for he sometimes sneaked in on them from the boys' basement itself, but they had no inkling that he usually did no more than peek through the furnace door, take names, note cigarette brands, count puffs, and perhaps record boasts that "Fanny will whistle 'Dixie' a long time before he ever catches us!"
One of the paddled smokers, Maurice King, told me that decades later he ran into Sandy Williams on a city bus in Dayton, Ohio. Both had moved there after the war. One day he saw Williams board the bus, and as he walked up the aisle, King shouted. "Here they are Mr. Pfanstiel, here they are; come and get 'em, they're all smoking!" Sandy laughed and both of them embraced over what had become happy memories of a fine superintendent and an excellent school.
The excellence of education under Pfanstiel and his teachers speaks for itself. Of some one hundred students in the classes of 1942, 1943 (my class), and 1944, there arose full professors at Tulane, Berkeley and Dayton; a major Westinghouse executive; a commander a flotilla of the U.S. North Atlantic submarine fleet; prosperous businessmen, lawyers, farmers, engineers, journalists, and ministers; but above all, one hundred men and women leading happy and successful lives.
Pfanstiel played a leading role in the difficult task of placing Carlisle and the county on a wartime footing following Pearl Harbor, a story handled later in this book.
Years later Pfanstiel often recalled his many years as superintendent over coffee with former students at a local restaurant. He worried excessively that he had been too harsh with his students, but we assured him he had not, that time had changed the system. A man Pfanstiel admired and may well have known had a similar problem in justifying past actions with changing times. Albert D. "Ab" Kirwan, high school administrator, coach, college dean, author, and finally president of the University of Kentucky, addressed the problem in a 1969 televised speech. I quote from my biography of Kirwan, but I think it fits Fanny and most schoolmen of his era "to a tee": "Some 25 years or so ago I was the Dean of Students. . . . I would certainly be classified as a tyrant. I hope I was a benevolent one, but this was the system. The Dean of Students' authority, insofar as disciplinary matters were concerned-either on the campus or off, made no difference-was supreme. The Dean said 'come' and the student came. He said 'go' and the student went. That time, of course, is gone-long gone-and probably, also, it's well that it has. But there has come in its place a great deal of uncertainty."
Fanny, always a strong Republican volunteer worker, remained at Carlisle High School until his party won the 1944 gubernatorial race. He awarded his last diploma to my pal Nate Young, then moved his family to Frankfort after his appointment as deputy highway commissioner. Resurgent Democrats and the aftereffects of extensive surgery forced him and his family back to Carlisle in 1949. After a lengthy recuperation, he served twelve years as Carlisle's postmaster, retiring in 1967. A stroke felled him in 1980 at age eighty-six. The citizenry was distressed, realizing they had lost the very type of man and leader that comes along only once in a long lifetime.