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Growing up in Buffalo (1941 – 1959): A short memoir of Bob Caldwell’s early years
At a family gathering on our 50th wedding anniversary, my youngest daughter, Janette, asked whether I had ever been in the army. I was amazed that she didn’t know about my (less than notable) US Army career. Later that weekend, my sister, Francie, shared a book with me titled: Reflections on Life in Buffalo (1932-1992) by Thomas J. Murphy, 2006, iUniverse, Inc., NY. Reading Murphy reminiscing about his experiences prompted me to want to record some of the events of my life with the intent that my family might learn more about me. Following is the result.
- Bob, Bobby or Robert
- Lee Francis Caldwell (1912-1964)
- Living at Grandma Boekman’s
- Uncle Will
- Crystal Beach
- Don Pickup
- Wilfred Hand
- The Army Experience
Parenting wisdom says that one of the most important things that you can give a child is a sense of self-worth – a knowledge that he or she is important. Certainly the concept includes and requires being loved. Given that premise, one of my early memories is believing that I lived in the best family in the best city in the best state in the best nation of the world. Certainly we were the best! We (us, the USA) had just fought the forces of evil on two fronts and won. We had liberated the survivors of the death camps across Germany and bombed the Hell out of Japan. Our favorite uncles and cousins were coming back from strange islands in the Pacific with booty – tents and Japanese rifles with bayonets and miniature hari-kari sword sets. New York State was the wealthiest state in the country, counting New York City as its diamond with 7 million people bustling about (I had never been to the big Apple, but I had read about it). Buffalo was the Queen City of the Great Lakes with Ford and GM assembly plants which we toured on school field trips, with steel mills, and chemical plants, and Niagara Falls and factories that made shredded wheat and Cheerios, and stock yards and swimming pools and libraries and the zoo and the Museum of Science that were free. Buffalo had more and better snow than any city outside of Alaska. We had a beautiful brick home with a yard and grass and empty fields nearby in which to run and pick wild strawberries. My mother, Dorothy, was young and beautiful and my father, Lee, was tall, dark and handsome and brought home great huge heavy blocks of ice for the ice box and occasional grouse, pheasants, woodcock, rabbits and squirrels that he had bagged and which he unloaded from his hunting coat onto the kitchen floor while he was still standing three steps down in the back door entry. Who, having all those blessings, could not know they were important (and loved)!
In December 1941, at a time before my memories start, my family bought and moved into a new home at 39 Vernon Drive in the Town of Cheektowaga, New York, about 8 miles from downtown Buffalo. We were served by a regular bus line and a school bus, both of which stopped about a quarter of a mile up the hill, across Manlon Terrace and Lamarck Drive to the corner opposite Dow’s Red and White Market. Dow’s was a small neighborhood grocery store with a full service meat counter, telephone ordering and delivery. Our school, Cleveland Hill School (at first, an 8 room two-story brick building and later, a full elementary and high school with pool, auditorium, labs, shops and athletic fields) was about half a mile further up Cleveland Drive plus a couple of turns. Mom didn’t drive (though most of the women in the neighborhood could drive, none of them had any but the family car) and Dad needed his car full-time, so we walked, rode our bikes, or took the bus to go anywhere. The family car was a ’35 or ‘38 Chevy with lots of miles on it, and given Dad’s need to be available for emergencies at the ice plant (City Ice and Fuel, that became later on, a Division of City Products Corporation) we seldom went anywhere except into the city or on family picnics in area parks.
Some years later (perhaps the late 40’s), a small shopping center (really a strip mall on a triangle) about ¾ to 1 mile away at the corner of Wehrle Drive, Harlem Road and Kensington Avenue opened to provide a Loblaw’s supermarket. Mom pushed sister Francie in the buggy or pulled her in the wagon and we either rode our bikes or walked along with her on the weekly outing.
During World War II, we spent a lot of time at my Grandmother and Grandfather Boekman’s home on Pershing Avenue in Buffalo. I was age 7 when it ended, so I must have been 5 or so when my early memories started to form. Mom’s younger sisters, Betty and Jeanne were still in high school, so they came home with their band instruments and rayon stockings. We listened to the news of the war on the big Philco radio and hoped that “our boys” (primarily Uncle Bob, Aunt Ruth, Uncle Will, Uncle Milt, Paul Sydow (Betty’s boyfriend) and Marty Wurster (Ruth’s boyfriend and husband?) would be safe. They all returned safely, but some were damaged. The kitchen always smelled good, and Grandpa B. regularly baked some sort of fruit kuchen – apple, peach or prune most commonly. He took Cousin David (Hataway) and I out regularly to visit the Buffalo Zoo when we were young. I know we had rationing of soap, butter, sugar, gasoline, tires and other things at that time, but I don’t remember any feeling of privation.
We were not as close to my Caldwell grandparents at that time – Grandpa C. was a tall, slender, quiet and austere gentleman, a deacon in the First Baptist Church, and not much fun to be around, though my mother said that when I was a small boy he delighted to take me for a walk to get candy(?). Grandma C. was a plump white-haired lady whose claim to fame in my eyes was her diabetes. She let us watch her inject her insulin and even let us inject oranges for practice. I believe that she died shortly after Francie was born. Grandpa C. shortly after married his housekeeper, Estelle, who wore a ribbon in her hair and probably caused some mental turmoil in his staid and orderly life. Estelle came equipped with her mother, Mrs. Alexander or more commonly Alexander or ‘Sander. Alexander was a tiny little southern lady who was as old as the hills and as sweet as could be – she lived with them until her passing.
I was named for Mom’s younger brother, Bob Boekman. I never heard anyone call him anything but Bob, whether in anger or amusement. In contrast, I got the diminutives and the superlatives, if that is what you could call Robert L. (for Lee after my father). When I was young, I was Bobby to nearly everyone. Grandma Boekman called me Bobby right up until her end, but for most of my life, I was known as Bob to friends and family. Elaine and Mom as she was getting elderly, called me Bobby as a sign of affection. Robert L. was a pretty strong and important sounding name and I used it for formal things like signings through much of my adult life, but lately I have come to see its use as pretentious. Now I even sign formal letters and papers as Bob. If they don’t like me as Bob, then they can just lump it! I hated it when occasionally I was called Roberta by young male friends wanting to inflict pain, but I didn’t mind it when a friend called me Bobert. It was given in friendship.
I have almost always liked to work. Except, of course, weeding under the privet hedge bordering our long driveway at 39 Vernon. I dreaded that job. It was dry, stoney, hot, sweaty, boring and difficult. There was no pay for it! I hope never to have to do it again. As a childhood chore, I also didn’t much like mowing the lawn either, but that was mostly because Dad had gotten a “greens” mower from some golf course. Instead of 5 blades, it had 7 and that made it 40 percent harder to push. Mowing our lawn also didn’t generate any money. At age 11, I can remember how much I looked forward to getting a paper route, mostly to satisfy that need for money. There was no extra money in our home, and the $5 or $7 a week I earned bought 20 cent marshmallow sundaes, 15 cent hotdogs, 45 cents per dozen doughnuts and cheap war surplus. I was not a good paperboy. I delivered the morning Buffalo Courier Express newspaper 7 days a week for almost 5 years with only a few days off, but I seldom got the papers out before 7:00 AM. At the end of my tenure, I had just as many customers (or even a few less) than when I started. I had a friend Joe Selden, who delivered roughly the same route for the afternoon Buffalo Evening News, and we cooperated when we could. For a while, we even had the big green (Courier Express) and big blue (Buffalo Evening News) wagon boxes nailed together to hold the big Sunday morning edition.
When we finished the big Sunday route during nice weather, we routinely rode our bikes up to Zigler’s Doughnuts (about a mile away) and each bought a dozen mixed doughnuts for 45 cents. Cinnamon twists, cream filled, jelly, peanut covered, chocolate covered, glazed – wow, what a cornucopia of delight. It seemed very reasonable and appropriate for each of us to eat our entire dozen before breakfast.
One of the major benefits of a paper route was the possibility of Christmas tips. The theory was that if you took the annual holiday calendar around and personally handed it to each customer with a heartfelt greeting, they would be reminded of how wonderful a boy you had been all year, delivering their paper through all kinds of snow with a cheerful smile on your face, keeping the neighborhood safe while not leering noticeably at any of their eligible daughters. If the mother in the family received the calendar she might be prone to give you a dollar or maybe even more. If however, you were forced to give it to the snotty little brother who answered the door, you got nothing.
“Hey Kid! Can your mother come to the door?” “Naw, She’s not here!” “Well, can I have the calendar back and give it to her?” “Naw. I’ll do that. She’s really busy now. I’ll tell her you came.”
And that’s the last you saw of that calendar or any tip associated with it. You did lose a few, but it was not uncommon to pick up something like $60 or $70 for the season. That was 10 or 20 times what I had to spend every week, and with inflation, might be worth $600 or 700 today. I could buy presents for everyone in the family and squirrel a bunch of it away for upcoming emergencies. I didn’t have a bank account so I put folded bills behind the stuffed deer head that hung at the foot of my bed in my unfinished attic room. Uncle Will had given it to me from the (Grandpa) Caldwell attic. Most of the hair that was going to fall out of that deer had already fallen out so it didn’t contaminate the money much.
Dad occasionally had to borrow money from me. I wished that he hadn’t needed the money for beer. but I was a little secretly proud that I could help support the family. The one time that Mom came to me and asked specifically for “$45 to pay the mortgage this month,” really stands out. It was at that point, that I learned that Dad was making about $45 a week, and that the mortgage payments were just one week’s pay – the proper proportion that financial gurus said it was supposed to be. The house had cost $4500.
I started stopping by at local banks and cashier’s offices to see if they had silver dollars in their tills that they would trade for bills. I converted all my spare cash into silver dollars. Though silver dollars were legal tender, they were not common in Buffalo. I had found that it was very difficult for a person to borrow a few dollars if they were in big, hard, heavy, silver cartwheels. The act of spending a silver dollar required a commitment to the transaction. You had to consciously trade that heavy, valuable silver for another commodity and you had to really want it. Nowadays, credit card transactions require no such commitment. Many times I will buy something with a credit card and not even read the receipt to see how much I spent.
My insistence on hard currency allowed me to give my dad 72 silver dollars when it came time to buy my first shotgun – a Model 870 Remington Wingmaster 12 Ga. Pump. God! I loved that shotgun almost as much as a girlfriend. Probably in place of a girlfriend. Maybe I would rather have had a girlfriend. I took it to College with me, and ultimately took it to India and mistakenly sold it there for $450. I shot my first pheasant, deer, rabbit, woodcock, crows, quail, Indian ducks, geese and peacock with it. Given a little time, I think I could remember each of those firsts in some detail. (Actually, I think that the first pheasant was with a nice little Ithaca double barrel 20 gauge.)
I kept the paper route until I was 16 and could get a real job. I then worked as a bag boy/stock boy at our local Loblaws supermarket for about $0.75 an hour for 16 to 20 hours a week. Lots of my friends worked there and on a good day, you got to bag for Suzie Williams or Carole Schramm who were running cash registers as well as being two really nice gals from my class. You were supposed to wear a clean apron and a tie while on duty. A clean apron meant trying to find one that the meat cutters had not gotten covered with blood (sometimes you could hide one behind a stack of canned peas and have it available for several shifts). The tie was something that was always in the way and usually dirty, and I revolutionized the industry when I instituted the clip-on bow tie. The assistant manager shrugged his eyebrows, said “I guess it’s a tie” and the culture shifted perceptibly. Within a month, every male at Loblaws was wearing a clip-on bow tie.
At about my age 13, Grandpa Caldwell realized he had an important asset in my free labor. I first remember being invited to come along and help get sheep manure at the Buffalo stock yards. Grandpa had a small utility trailer that we could fill up with sheep manure that we pried out of the sheep pens at the stock yards. I don’t know where those yards were, and assume that they were a cultural artifact on the way out, but the manure was free and ideal for his new garden at the house he built on Wehrle Drive just East of Transit Road. Initially he had a Planet Junior walk-behind garden tractor but soon traded that in for a riding tractor that I got to drive to plow, disc, till, and cultivate his garden. I say his, but as a family, we planted quite a bit of it ourselves – lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, beans, cabbages and beets. I learned to back-up a trailer there, and took quite a bit of pride in that skill. Most city kids never got a chance to learn backing-up a trailer, and when I took my Farm Practice Examination at Cornell (can you imagine, new Freshmen at Cornell in the College of Agriculture had to take such an exam – dentifying common weeds, agricultural implements, various grains, and operating a tractor including “backing-up” a trailer), I aced the “trailer-backing” part, though I didn’t know what a “pitman-arm” was called.
At that time, Uncle Paul Sydow was just getting settled in a little post war house and happened upon an older home in Buffalo that wanted to get rid of some old wrought iron fencing. It came in about 6 foot sections, each end firmly concreted into the ground. Although it was tough work, I was eager to help and we got it all dug up and carted home in a utility trailer (it was probably Grandpa Caldwell’s). I don’t remember ever helping to reinstall the fence, and wonder if it is still in place.
Just before Christmas one year, the Hall’s Bakery man asked if I would help him deliver on Saturday as it was going to be a particularly busy day. He covered the neighborhoods largely in our school district from an old stand-drive truck. I kept really busy carrying that basket over my arm, going to the houses he told me to, many of whom had standing orders and many of whom bought special for the holidays. Almond rings and snowflake rolls stand out in my memory as the big specials. Though it was cold work, he fed me one hotdog at lunch, no baked goods all day, and then gave me 25 cents an hour for the day’s work. Granted, that was about 1952 or ‘53, and the dollar was still pretty big, but it wasn’t that big. Mostly that day, I learned to settle the terms of employment up front unless you don’t want anything.
I loved working with Grandpa Caldwell at his farm. Operating the equipment was only part of the pleasure. I liked planting, watching things grow, harvesting, constructing the chicken house, chopping grooves around the old trees in the hedgerow to kill them to eliminate their shade over the garden. I liked the pheasants that crowed in the adjacent field, and the rabbits that snuck out to steal the beans. I especially liked it when Dad would take me out to the farms of his country friends to shoot woodchucks or ruffed grouse and I loved the smell of old barns. So when our friends and neighbors, Frank and Ellie Hoefler, bought a small farm in Lyndonville with dreams to raise Hoefler’s Wholesome Hereford Heifers, I wanted to be adopted. We had visited a number of times, and the summer I was 14, I wrangled the opportunity to work for them for room and board. I don’t know how much my parents had to pay the Hoeflers to let me stay with them, but I loved it.
Hauling hay out of a field at midnight under a bright moon on a July night was magical. Learning to drive a tractor, bagging oats on the combine, fixing fences, lifting and hauling 100 pound sacks of fertilizer out to the spreader, walking behind the pea viner, eating lunch with a big harvesting crew on the front lawn of a neighbor’s farm, watching the neighbor’s dog drink beer, etc., etc. – it was lots of hard work but a wonderful experience. Then came the afternoon that Mr. Hoefler told me to take the kids up to the Lake Ontario beach for a couple of hours. “How?” “In the car?” “But I’ve never driven a car.” “I’m only 14!” “On the road?” “O.K.!” So that was my first actual car driving experience, it came off successfully, didn’t start me on a life of crime, but did give me fond memories of a 1947 Studebaker Starlight Coupe (though I never really wanted one). The farm was plagued by a number of misfortunes, including a pond that washed out, the barn-load of hay that crashed down into the basement, and Frank’s back injury (which wasn’t permanent, but shut him down for a number of months). The Hereford enterprise only lasted a few years, but it was enough to instill in me a lifelong zeal for agriculture.
Recently, the local newspaper ran an opinion column soliciting statements on “What was the worst job you ever had?” I and my neighbor Dale Ireland agreed that some jobs had been better than others, but there were none that we actually hated. All were better than not working. However, one that stands out in my mind as a close candidate was a day I spent in the hot sticky air of late June in Irving, New York, cleaning out a winter’s worth of packed-down chicken manure and bedding from a hen house that had less than 5 feet of overhead clearance. The fragrance was heavy, the yellow jackets were thick, the sweat was running off me everywhere, and I wished I were done, but it’s one of the few days that I remember clearly from that summer. Think how much richness that work added to my life experience!
My father, Lee Caldwell, was caught in a self-imposed trap of a low-paying job in a culture where everybody drank and where there was a tavern on every corner. First off, I want it said for the benefit of Martha, Francie, Evelyn and Steve that he was a good man, that he tried his hardest, that he never physically or emotionally abused any of us, and that I loved him and still do. But what I really missed was what he could have been and done and I regret that we didn’t get a chance to share his accomplishments and ours. He died too young, and I blame him for that.
I know nothing about his early years except I am told that at the end of the school year and the beginning of summer in Covington, Kentucky, he and his brothers took off their shoes and didn’t put them back on until September. (Read Wendell Berry’s excellent series of novels about Port Williams, Kentucky to get a feel for what Covington might have been like in those times.) Lee and his brothers spent those halcyon days on Aunt Bertie’s (?) farm. When Dad was a high school student (1928+/-),his father, Frank Alexander Caldwell got transferred to Buffalo where he the manager of the Buffalo branch of City Ice and Fuel, a firm of ice manufacturers and distributors. They were the major supplier of block ice for home food refrigeration – they also iced rail cars for shipping foodstuffs. During school holidays and vacations, Dad and his two brothers, Will and Milton, helped pull ice at the plants and deliver those 25-50-100 lb. blocks of ice to homes around the city. Milton went on to become an M.D.; Will became a skilled air-conditioning technician and I heard Dad talk about attending Lafayette High School and then starting at Canisius College, but know no details except that allegedly his father gave him the choice to go to college or start full time at the ice plant. He chose the ice plant. Why?
Knowing Dad, it was probably the lure of a steady salary and the opportunity to continue his lifestyle. He ultimately became their chief engineer (an operating engineer, a member of the IUOE, and a specialist in ammonia refrigeration). Unfortunately, that decision was akin to choosing to go to work for a buggy whip manufacturer as ice manufacturing went slowly but steadily downhill.
When I came of age, Dad began taking me hunting on the farms and rural properties of his friends and cronies. He was ultra-careful to obey all safety rules and game laws, and he observed a strict code of moral conduct. For example, when I proudly shot a redwing blackbird, even though it was legal, I received a slow shake of the head and a strong understanding that you didn’t kill things just to kill them (except for woodchucks). At another time, he and his friends had rented an abandoned farmhouse near Angelica, NY for deer season. It was “bucks-only” through Thursday and then “doe-season” on Friday and Saturday. After no success for the first four days and just after dusk on Thursday, he returned and told us of having sat in a gully immediately across the road from the farmhouse and trained his shotgun (loaded with deer slugs and looking for antlers) on each member of a herd of does as they tripped past his stand. Knowing that such a kill would be legal the next morning and knowing that there was very little chance of being caught in wrongdoing, he chose to provide me with an ethical example that I cannot forget. And he never got a deer that year, either.
Buffalo has been described as a “Cheers”-like town where there is a tavern on every corner where “everyone knows your name!” There was, and they all knew Dad’s name. Once on a bus ride through our neighborhood and environs, Francie, as a 4 or 5-year old girl entertained the other passengers with her listing of each of the saloons as the bus passed. To Mom’s embarrassment, Francie proudly pointed out: Strinka’s, the Cross Roads (where they have a long goldfish tank whose cover was the bar top), Joe Hoch’s, C. Fix’s Bar and Grill and others. She had visited all of them with Dad. I hope that he took her in with him and showed her off to his friends. I have many memories of being left to sit in the car while he would be stopping “just a minute” to have a beer.
Dad was raised in the church and by the time he was 18, he’d had enough. In the First Baptist Church of Buffalo, attendance at Sunday school, morning worship, evening worship, Wednesday night prayer meetings, and perhaps several other weekly events was expected. As young men, he and his brothers were ushers and the story was told that after helping to take the morning offering, they slipped out the back, crossed the street, and had a quick beer in a neighborhood saloon before the service ended. As a result of his upbringing, he rarely attended church as a grown-up. Weddings, funerals and the C&E (Christmas and Easter) services apparently satisfied his needs. I don’t remember him ever discussing religion, but he was a highly moral man. He never swore, told off color stories, exhibited any sort of prejudice or lied. We said Grace before every dinner meal and I’m not sure, but I don’t remember that he every offered it. Although his failure to follow organized religion must have hurt his own father terribly, they had a very cordial relationship, and I never observed any sign of discord.
During those younger years, Dad was known as quite the man-about–town. Being tall, dark, and handsome, having a connection to the church and having a friend in the funeral business led to regular demand for his services as a pall bearer with white gloves, black suit and all. He allegedly squired young debutants to balls, wore good clothes and cut the rug with some friends whom I had only heard about even though some of them still lived in the Buffalo area. Why this “glamorous” lifestyle ended when he married, I don’t know but it may have been totally due to finances. He and Mom never went out, – in her older years, she told me that since they were married, he had never taken her to a movie. Other than taverns, he never took us to a restaurant until the day we had dinner as a family at the State Street Diner in Ithaca on the way to Cornell University. I had corned beef and cabbage. He borrowed Grandpa Caldwell’s car for the 142 mile trip because our ’47 Chevy was too untrustworthy. I think that must have been embarrassing for him.
In addition to hunting and fishing with Dad, I most enjoyed Sunday afternoons spent in the basement with him working on projects and listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio program. In Buffalo, there were a lot of weekends between November and March when the weather was too foul to encourage outdoor activity. I still love to listen to opera even though I don’t understand most of it. I’m very fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas where I can at least follow the story line. But Dad loved good music and Sunday at the Met was apparently his source before he built a high-fi set-up in Long Beach. I wonder how he would have liked a Bose sound system?
Francie was born in 1945 when I was 7 years old. The War was winding down and the mood of the country was positive. She was a good baby and a beautiful child and we loved having her around. At least I did, as opposed to knowing whether Martha did – I didn’t know anything about what Martha liked or disliked, except I know she once begged to go hunting with Dad and I. When she saw and heard what hunting was about, she never wanted to go again.
Mom apparently needed extra help when Francie was born and so the decision was made to bring the whole family down to Grandma B’s Pershing Avenue house for a period. That house was big enough to fit us all, and Martha and I transferred to P.S. 48 which was the same school that Mom had gone to when she was a girl. Even the principal was the same woman who had been there when Mom attended. I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and hated the school, the kids and the curriculum. They had “Bell Work” which I detested and they were into Math subjects that I had not yet learned. Even the songs that they sang were different. The worst part was the morning that someone stole the “March of Dimes” money off the teacher’s desk. As the new kid in the class, I was accused. I wasn’t used to not being trusted and it was quite traumatic for me. The real thief was caught later that morning. The teacher noticed that he was limping and that his shoe was untied. Seems that he had hidden the money in his shoe, but he didn’t yet know how to tie it back up.
P.S. 48 was a few long blocks away from Grandma’s and it was convenient to walk past John’s Pretzel Factory on the way home in the afternoon. John’s Pretzel Factory was not a boutique or a fancy coffee shop – it was just a little pretzel factory. It’s stellar feature was that on the side street, they was a window shelf just the height I could reach. On that shelf, they placed the pretzels that had broken in process. Free for the taking like manna from heaven – every day a newly replenished supply!
The Pershing Avenue house seemed reasonably big though not big enough to have yards and landscaping – just a small patch of grass. For some reason, I remember everything being covered with a fine layer of black sooty dirt. I know there was a small back yard where I spent what seems like a whole summer sitting in a glider with a cloth soaked in gentian violet on my knee trying to heal a persistent case of impetigo. Wow, talk about modern medicine.
The best thing about Pershing Avenue and it’s cobblestone pavement is that it was just around the corner from Lang’s Bakery and Lang’s Brewery. The heavenly smells of fresh baking bread and freshly brewing beer filled the air day and night. Those smells were complimented by the smell of fresh horses and horse manure. Lang’s had quite a stable of horses to handle beer and bakery deliveries (I suspect that horses held on long after they probably would have been sent off to pasture if it hadn’t been for the War and gasoline and rubber shortages). If a small boy got up early on Sunday morning, he could watch them exercise the horses. Maybe they would have gotten lazy through a day off or maybe it was reinforcement training? And this brings up one of the worst things about living at Grandma’s – she got quite mad when I got up and slipped out before everyone was awake. She told me that I should stay in bed and I hope her reason was that she might have been concerned about whether I’d been kidnapped or not. I suspect that she didn’t want to have to get up too. To me it seemed like solitary confinement rather than protective detention.
Pershing Avenue lots were quite narrow. The eaves of one house shed water onto the roofs of the next door neighbor. Somehow, they had even crammed a second house onto some of those same lots. A friend named Toby Carpenter lived in one of those “back” houses. There was only a narrow sidewalk to his door – the house number was something like 27½. The cobblestones were quite noisy under horse’s hooves and you often heard the clip-clop of the baker’s wagon, the milkman or the junk buyer. The junkman would sing out as a way of announcement: “Rag-a-dee. Rag-a-dee.” And if you had any old cloth, metals, string or other things that needed recycling, he would buy them. Odd to think that a person could support themselves and a horse on those slim pickings.
Dad’s younger brother was Wilford William Caldwell. Will was a slightly shorter than Dad, a little “meatier” and had short kinky reddish hair. Will, sometimes known as Bill, had been absent for the time period of World War II, probably 1941-1945, so I didn’t know him – only of him, most notably because his car, a 1940 Plymouth business coupe sat on the street in front of Grandpa Caldwell’s house on Legion Drive in Kenmore for the entire time he was gone. It was fun to ride with him ‘cause you could lay in the package tray immediately behind the front seat. Will worked for his Dad at the ice plant and then made the jump into air-conditioning, whether residential or commercial, I don’t know. I think that he did quite well at it. Uncle Will was a bachelor and so for the first 8 or 9 years after the war, he spent more time with our family than you’d expect. He and Dad were good beer drinking and hunting buddies. We shot a lot of clay targets and woodchucks together. At some time, perhaps when I was 10 or 11 or so, Uncle Will brought me a much loved pup tent where I spent many nights in our backyard with friends. He also gave me the mounted deer head that I hung over the foot of my bed and which I treasured highly. When I was 14, Uncle Will took me out for my first day of legal hunting – the October 15 opening day of the small game season in 1952. Our beagle, Buck, got on a trail immediately in a hedge row next to Grandpa Caldwell’s house. He put up a big pheasant rooster that I brought down with Dad’s 20 gauge Ithaca side-by-side double. Will took a color photo of the event that was another treasure of my life.
Will married finally (1952 or ’53) a very pleasant lady named Evelyn Derner who was quite deaf. She brought along her sister, Clara (or Clair?) who lived with them in a very nice home within a mile or so of our house. Evelyn and Clara had a brother named Harold Derner who taught at our high school for several years, perhaps Chemistry. Will had always had a nice car and they had one of the early color TVs – a big console that had to be “retuned” if ever it was moved it to a new spot in the room. Though I admired him, I had never consciously tried to emulate Uncle Will, but one day several years ago, I looked down at what I was wearing, and had a flash of déjà vu. I saw that I was dressed exactly like Will. I had on brown leather moccasins, khaki pants, a brown leather belt and a Campbell plaid red flannel shirt. I still love that combination and wear it often.
15 or 20 miles from Buffalo across the Peace Bridge into Ontario, Canada was an amazing amusement park. You could reach it via car, but the best method was via the S.S. Canadiana. The Canadiana was a beautiful old 3 decker steam driven excursion boat. It had been painted several hundred times, so the paint on the rails was thick and chipped, but the brass in the engine room (which you could watch over a second deck rail) was beautifully polished with red paint on valves and gears and all the other equipment. It was hot and clean appearing and it must have been fired with oil, because I don’t remember any coal or wood . Once a summer, we made a family excursion to Crystal Beach via the Crystal Beach boat. The family was Mom, Grandma Boekman, any aunts or cousins from the Boekman side of the family who were in town plus Martha, Francie and me. The first thing that was required was that Martha and I had to go door to door in the neighborhood to collect the discount tickets cut from the newspaper. I don’t remember the cost, but I think it was relatively cheap, and we purchased strips and strips of ride tickets from the boat terminal down on the Buffalo waterfront. I am going to guess that the round trip boat ticket was 50 cents and the ride tickets were a dime or so each. (You could check this by reading the Buffalo Evening News for July of 1950.)
Mom and Grandma cooperated in packing a pretty good picnic lunch and we’d all meet at the boat terminal. We were part of a large crowd on discount day and it was a mad charge to get aboard when they opened the gates. The departure was accompanied by steam snorts, whistles, horns and lots of noise from the kids. I am always amazed when I get on a Seattle ferry and compare the water quality with that of Buffalo. In Buffalo, it started out a filthy brown or black and you knew you would die in a minute if you fell overboard. The water turned green about the time you got to the harbor entrance, and within minutes it was clear blue and stayed that way through the docking at Crystal Beach. Seattle’s water starts out clean and blue and stays clean and blue. And who knows, perhaps Buffalo’s water is clean now too. There were no TSA agents checking passports, enhanced ID’s or passenger’s carry-ons for liquids over 2 ounces. The only formality was to tell the Canadian agent that you were born in “Buffalo!”
After that magnificent boat ride, we were turned loose in the park with big long strips of tickets with the promise that we would meet at one of the picnic tables for lunch. The old wooden roller coaster was good, but the new “Comet” that replaced it was much better and faster. On my first ride, through some mixup in boarding, I ended up in a seat all by myself and bounced from one side to another in fear and panic, but once through it, I could never be scared again. They had an old wooden coaster named the “Cyclone” generally for adults only. Legend had it that it was the only roller coaster in the nation that had to have a registered nurse stationed at the debarking end to handle the emotional trauma of the riders. Betty and Jean and perhaps other aunts and uncles made sure to tell us how horrible that ride was. There was an elaborate miniature steam train that actually burned coal and took lots of passengers on each tour around the park. You might have seen an old photo that shows Martha and I and probably Grandpa Caldwell looking over this ride. In the interest of modernization, they replaced the steam engine with a diesel towards the end of my time at Crystal Beach. It didn’t hiss, clang its bell, blow its steam whistle or smell like hot oil and coal. In short, it wasn’t any fun!
After lunch, we were free to go back on the rides, but much of our afternoon time was reserved for the funhouse. You could stay in there as long as you wanted and go on all its features as often as you wished. It included some great old “view scopes” (?) that you looked in and cranked the handle to watch some of the oldest cartoon characters cavort on the tiny screen. Food at Crystal Beach, when you could wheedle some, was of the midway type. Our treasured selections featured Loganberry juice, French fries with malt vinegar (must be a Canadian or British tradition) and some sort of pastry formed by dipping these elaborate “branding irons” in batter, frying them in hot oil (at which time the pastry fell off the “branding iron”), and dusting them heavily in powdered sugar.
I loved to build things when I was growing up. My favorite books from the nearest branch of the Buffalo Public Library had titles like “101 Things a Boy can Build”. These were not things like bird houses, but projects like manned glider airplanes, roller coasters and tree houses that used actual designed supports to hold them up. (I have since tried to find copies of these books and they are gone. Apparently they were printed in the 1920s and 30s and just got tossed out in misguided efforts to civilize boys.) Hardware stores were my kind of place. If you could buy screws and nails and staples and chicken wire and electro-galvanized 1×2 inch welded wire mesh (great for rabbit cages) then I was happy to be shopping there.
One of our finest adventures began with the acquisition of an old horizontal shaft gasoline lawn mower engine. After tinkering with it enough to get it running, we thought that it would make a wonderful means of propulsion if we could somehow hook it up in a manner that didn’t require a clutch. A propeller was the obvious solution. I designed the propeller during study hall using articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica. We cut the 4 foot propeller out of a liberated 2×4 using Don Pickup’s father’s band saw. It had been designed as a pusher prop, and when we fastened it to the engine and bolted the whole works to a test stand, it blew quite a breeze. Next stop – the sky! I got to be the test pilot since it was my idea. We bolted the engine to a sturdy rear carrier on my (by this time, old and beat up) Shelby Flyer, cranked it up and I headed out the driveway. I was doing quite well until I got to the end of the driveway where the pot-metal pulley we had used to connect the prop to the engine shaft sheared off, sending the propeller up in a high arc that ended in the street, just missing the left front fender of the neighbor’s car. Fortunately the car was parked, so there were no adverse witnesses to the event. A turned steel pulley from the hardware store solved this temporary setback, and I was soon on the road again. I made it out of the drive without mishap, and headed up the hill towards Manlon Terrace when a neighbor’s dog came out to chase the unusual loud contraption. Through God’s grace alone, he didn’t get his head snapped off, but I knew we still had some design details to tend to. I got home just in time to be witnessed by Dad who said “Get that damned thing in the back yard, dismantle it and don’t let me ever see it again!”
Perhaps my best friend growing up was a geeky kid named Donald Pickup. Don had owley eyes behind thick lenses and the nicest family you can imagine. He lived two streets over in a slightly larger frame house with a big garden in back. His dad had lost his left hand by feeding it into a corn husker on the family farm and had to drive himself to the hospital ‘cause no one else could drive. He was a model-maker for Bell Aircraft during WWII, mocking-up full size helicopters, largely in wood. The missing hand didn’t bother him one whit. Working in his shop, he often had a rubber band around the stump holding a punch or a pencil and I never saw him at a loss for figuring out how to do something. The family was fairly religious, attending a Methodist church more than once a week and said grace regularly. At dinner, new, unfilled plates were stacked by Mr. Pickup’s place. After Grace. he dished out every plate, and handed it down the table until each person had been served. I thought that was an unusual but perfectly acceptable way to handle the task. I spent a lot of time at Don’s, both in Cheektowaga and later when they invited me to spend time with them at their cottage in Fort Erie, Canada. The cottage seemed to have come to them through a family inheritance, but it was not elegant. It had a cistern for collecting and storing roof runoff for cooking and bathing water. We carried water for drinking from Buffalo. It had no inside bathroom – only a pail in the outhouse sprinkled with lime(?) that had to be buried in the garden every other day or so. Men and boys were not supposed to use the pail for stand-up functions.
I remember spending several long summer weeks at the Pickup’s cottage over the period of several years. Fireworks were legal in Canada, so we staged duels at 50 feet using 15 cent, 3-shot “Butterfly” roman candles. Fortunately, we never got hit by any of those flaming balls, and we also blew-off millions of firecrackers without losing any fingers. We built an aqua-plane to tow behind the relatively underpowered boat and would take a folding chair or small folding ladder on it and sit up and lord it over the other users of the river. We fished in the Niagara and we swam across it (about 1-1/2 miles) with Don’s Mother escorting us in the boat. We ate wonderful BLTs for dinner. About a quarter-mile down river lived Don’s old uncle who had been a taxidermist. His garage was filled with great sets of antlers and some old head mounts. This uncle had a 1927 or ‘28 Chevrolet and being totally deaf, he wasn’t aware that he would rev it up to about 3500 rpms before letting out the clutch. You could always tell he was coming by the roar of the over-revved engine and the screech of the tires.
Don and I were cub scouts and boy scouts together, had paper routes at the same time, took the same courses in school, excelled at mechanical drawing together, built architectural models and used his father’s tools for many projects. We both worked at Loblaws and were socially inept together, though he did talk about having a girlfriend at church. After the failure of our propeller driven bicycle to thrive, one of the last projects I remember working on with Don was a propeller driven model airplane-engined snow ski machine. Don got a degree in engineering at the University of Buffalo (now SUNYAB?) and spent his career making things like sulphuric acid for a chemical company in Delaware. He is the only person I have talked with from the old neighborhood though I would be interested in hearing what some of them did with the rest of their lives. Probably it’s too late for that. That cute little girl that I had a crush on as a freshman is now 75 years old if she’s still alive.
Will was an interesting and good high school friend. He lived in Tiorunda, a WWII project that had been, by this time, largely converted from public to private housing. It was not considered very desirable, and Will was my only friend from that area. It was also 2-3 miles away, and therefore not our neighborhood. During one of those childhood diseases that laid kids up for several weeks, Will had taken the bed time to build a crystal radio kit and it turned him on to the technologies of radio. He learned everything he could about electronics and soon was repairing the neighbor’s television sets. I think the rest of my family met him when Mom returned from the grocery store to find Will and I sprawled on the living room floor with our TV set arrayed around us in pieces. She was sure that we had destroyed it. I never knew what he was doing, but he sure did. Soon Will had put together a shop upstairs over his family garage and was into radio and TV repair in all his spare time and made good money.
Will was also not one of the popular kids in high school. He was friendly, helpful, and useful. He was on stage crew where we built sets for the junior and senior plays and he was in the audio-visual club and always running a movie projector or recorder for some teacher. He had a very bad case of acne, as did his sister Patty, whereas the better kids only had an occasional blemish. At one point, Will and I decided to build an aqualung from plans in Popular Mechanics. It required that we buy a war surplus diluter demand regulator (AN6004-1) and other parts from Palley Supply in Burbank, California. (Don’t ask how or why I remember those details.) Construction was a lot of fun, and then we had to borrow somebody’s swimming pool and scrounge up some breathing air (at 2000 psi) which was not yet a popular commodity, especially in an inland port like Buffalo. I think Will must have finally junked the “Tin Dingus” as it was known around school.
The summer after my freshman year at Cornell, I worked in Buffalo, staying in Joe Selden’s attic. Several times, Will picked me up and we went with him, his two sisters, Patty and Gerry and maybe some other kids over to Sherkston Quarry, an informal teenage swimming hole near Port Colburn, Canada. Patty was really nice, and if I had been dating, had a car, had money, etc., I think I could really have liked her. I understand that she went to nursing school and married a doctor. Good for her!
Will had made enough money in Radio and TV by then to buy, outright, a new 1956 Plymouth Belvedere that was black, looked like an unmarked police car, and had a big fast V-8 under the hood. On a whim, we decided to drive it to California to visit my family whom I had not seen since they “abandoned” me the previous November. The entire trip, there and back, took us just 2 weeks and must have allowed us less than a week to see Mom, Dad, Francie, Evie and the new baby, Steve. I don’t remember ever spending any time with Will after that trip. I understand that he became the Commodore of the Buffalo Yacht Club, but what that means, and to what end, I do not know.
I never thought much about a military career. As young boys, my friends and I fanticized about killing Nazis and Japs if they came up our street to invade, but fortunately it never went further than that. Uncles and aunts and friends of uncles and aunts had all served during World War II, but their experience didn’t trigger any sort of romantic desire on my part to fight and kill in foreign places. We did love war surplus stores of which there were some good ones. Things there were so cheap and smelled so good and were generally so useless – I mean, what can you do with a fully screened jungle army hammock or a parachute in Buffalo, New York? However, a kid could also buy up lots of wax and cardboard fire starters for about 3 cents each or a supply of Carlisle bandages in case some real disaster happened on the next camping trip. We were well stocked on those essentials.
The Korean War (1950-1953) got off to a full run while I was delivering the Courier-Express. I read the headline stories from the front page as I made the early morning rounds and so I was pretty well versed on what was happening. Color printing on the front page of the Courier had just become common, and it seemed that each day featured an updated map showing how we were first pushed into a tiny South-East corner of the country, then we pushed the communists back up and up the map until they were forced nearly out of North Korea, but then things turned around, and suddenly we were down at the 38th parallel, and stuck there. The “Police Action” seemed to go on forever without the satisfying conclusions of WWII’s V-E Day and V-J Day when the sirens and celebrations assured us that we had won.
Friends of mine who didn’t go on to college were drafted or encouraged to join-up voluntarily shortly after graduating from high school. Korea had simmered down by then, and tours of duty for draftees were generally in Europe, Japan or exotic places like Thule, Greenland. Male students at college got a deferment, but Cornell had a compulsory 2-year ROTC commitment, and many of my friends used that as a springboard into Advanced ROTC and a commission. I didn’t get any real pleasure from ROTC, but I didn’t mind the drills or classes – it was a little like PE, you had to take it, so why not just relax and enjoy it.
When I graduated from Cornell in August of 1960, my draft number came up, and I was told that I would receive a notice to report for duty about the first of March. Hank Wenz (a fraternity brother whose Commission was going to begin about February) and I decided to use the free time to see the West. We drove out in my beat-up 1956 Triumph TR-3. We spent a bunch of time drinking beer with Uncle Bob, hanging around in the desert, driving the ’25 Chevy truck in Richard Nixon’s parade, and driving to Acapulco, Mexico where we spent about a month laying on the beach (room and two meals a day was $2.50 U.S. dollars), eating oistiones (rock oysters free for the prying) and drinking more beer (Dos Eckes was 50 centavos each or 4 cents a bottle U.S.).
After Christmas, I began getting serious about the military and located a Long Beach, California Army Reserve unit that would sign me up with a commitment to an immediate 6-month active duty for training assignment and then the balance of 7-1/2 years spent at regular reserve (we were called weekend warriors). The immediate assignment to Active Duty would stop the draft action. I thought that the reserve unit had signed me up to go to Cooks school, but it turned out that they sent me to Clerk school. What a cheat when I got to Fort Ord, California! I was really looking forward to being an Army cook – my whole career lay ahead of me. I never found out whether the Reserve unit sergeant had snookered me or if I just misunderstood and thought he had said “Cook”. My military ID was BR 1969 1865; my Draft number was 30-88-38-398; I can’t remember my rifle number.
I was a squad leader in Basic Training – that was a sort of Corporal status which came with a few perks. As a corporal (even a fake one), I didn’t have to stand guard or take KP, but I and my squad were responsible to see that the latrine was sparkling clean every morning for inspection. We never got gigged for dirty bathrooms! I really sort of liked the training, and met some good people, none of whom I ever remained in contact with. As soon as I got out of my 6-month assignment at Ft. Ord, I got on a train in Los Angeles and moved back to Ithaca where I had been promised a one-year job working for Cornell University helping with some poultry research. I transferred military units to one in Ithaca where Ken Wing served. That lasted a year and then Elaine and I married and moved to Lafayette, Indiana. I served for 2 weeks at a US Army station in Lansing, Michigan and then we moved to Corvallis, Oregon. After one year there, we moved to East Aurora, New York and a year later to Syracuse. The Army got tired of transferring me, and then put me on a sort of inactive reserve status until they discharged me after 6 years of my 8 year assignment in 1967. I didn’t serve a lot of time, but I was always ready if I was needed. I’m still mad that they didn’t make me a cook instead of a clerk. I can cook lots better than I can type.
The military didn’t pay very much. Because of my ROTC time, I was eligible to have entered the service as a E-3 Pfc or Private first class. However, they didn’t tell me that at the time – I had to find out later (when you are a clerk in a Headquarters Company, you can read everybody’s records and find out anything) but I entered the army as an E-1 Recruit receiving the grand pay of $78 per month (spend it anywhere you want!). I should have gotten $83.80, so they saved $5.80 a month on me. Such a bargain! I actually liked much of the army, not all of it by any means, but some of it for sure. With an Ivy League degree, having received one of the highest grades on the AFQT (basic intelligence test) and sporting a work ethic, they loved me. As soon as basic training was over, they transferred me into Headquarters Company, United States Army Training Center (HQ/USATC), Fort Ord where we didn’t have to stand guard, K-P, or work weekends. We went to the beach in Carmel or up to San Francisco nearly every weekend.