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When I Was Young

(a note for Dad on his 75th Birthday)

A couple of early memories invoke a feeling of peace and serenity. I must be around 5 years old or so, the mid 1950's, in the backyard swinging on the swingset Dad installed. It stands close enough to the back property line for me to detect the elevation change as the land falls away from me toward the house and then the view widens as the driveway hill falls away continuing southward toward the park across the street. There is no garage yet in the backyard to block my view east towards Inkster Road and I have an unobstructed view west along the houses leading in a curve toward Avondale Ave. A big sky hovers high over me. Facing south while I'm swinging, alone in the yard, there is a dark sky in front of me, darker than the rest of the overcast gray, betraying a storm brewing. I continue to swing unconcerned by the approaching turbulence; indeed it may just pass by without drenching me and the early summer grass, but the feeling it creates in me I can still recall. One of calm in the face of the storm. It may be that events like this have contributed to my enjoyment of wide open spaces, to the degree that I have always enjoyed driving through the "boring flatland" of northern Ohio. There is a calming that comes with being able to see for vast distances. I imagine pre-civilization, native people and wildlife thriving undisturbed in the wilderness. This sense of vastness culminated while driving through Eastern Montana, discovering what "Big Sky" country really meant. This event from early childhood may also have contributed to the allure of thunderstorms. Lightning and thunder have always been incredibly fascinating events for me to witness, attempting to grasp the power and might of the forces of nature required to create these displays. I still love to go outside and watch rainstorms approach and pass, especially if accompanied by lightning or thunder. The motion of the swings added a depth of sensation in that yard. The movement contributed to the calming. At five young years the combination of swingset, long views to the horizon, and the developing storm created an aura of inner peace that would be so hard to find in my adolescent period, but would be restored at the age of 24 in America's Bicentennial year in a born again twinkling of an eye.

The other memory I recall more frequently than others was probably set in the same general time frame and generates a similar feeling described above. However it is an early sunny Saturday morning and I'm motionless, lying on our front lawn, the neighborhood quiet, not yet awake. The peace is tangible as I have no a care in the world, blissfully unaware of what awaits me in the "adult world" of responsibility and decision making. Thankfully, a child can have no comprehension of the unspeakable difference in realities; this difference brilliantly portrayed in such movies as Radio Flyer (an early Tom Hanks success) depicting the greater potential for dream fulfillment in children than in adults. Children can't yet realize the limitations of reality. Adults have had the magic stripped from them, being beaten down by responsibility. But there, lying on a bed of Spring green grass watching cotton clouds float through a crystal blue sky, tall trees of dark gray bark and varied shades of green leaves fanning, with faint dog barks in the background, and the ubiquitous chirping of Robins, Blue jays and uncountable numbers of Sparrows, and no one calling for me to come in to do chores or clean up my room or take out the garbage, I can breathe deeply of peace and know what it means. There's nothing to do but melt into the solace and quiet. A city work crew comes along tossing "cold-patch" into the potholes that decorated so much of Colonial Drive back then. But even their noise doesn't disturb my tranquillity.  This "dream sequence" probably doesn't last too long as I can imagine that Keith Becker or some other neighborhood playmate coming over to play, and one of the dozens of locations in the vicinity would be targeted for adventure; most likely the woods at the far south end of the park across the street would be our destination, to play along the Lower Rouge River eating black and red raspberries from the many thorn-filled bushes growing there. It was a blissful time, a time I would be hard pressed to relive the older I got as High School arrived and responsibilities increased. But now, as these responsibilities have taken control, my advancing age seems to have made it easier to flush these feelings of long ago out of hibernation. The result being the realization that those times can become beacons of influence, especially through recent trips to the Caribbean and, closer to home, walks along the ocean on Tybee Island, or even during breaks at work when, getting away from the office, I can walk the wide open grounds of Gulfstream Aerospace and get close to the runways and watch aircraft depart and arrive.  I find that it brings spiritual and emotional relief to stop for a moment and watch the sky or listen to the waves hit the shore. Creating such moments of peace as experienced so long ago is really possible, if for only briefly. Step outside and be still and watch the sun set or the moonrise, or birds in flight, or the stars turn in their rotation. It is marvelous.

Remember the milk shute a couple feet away from the side door? A 14" square steel box linking the outside world with the kitchen? Remember when you (not you, Dad) were small enough to be able to fit through it without trouble (except as the years passed by) and gain entrance to the kitchen if you could force the door open and crawl through? The Twin Pines milkman, Mike Huff (I believe that his last name), would make the deliveries in those days. The glass bottle was the only known container of milk, and the top was sealed by a thin round piece of waxed whiteboard that would open when you pulled on a small tab along the edge. Mike drove a truck that looked somewhat similar to the Good Humor truck that thrilled us all summer long as it drove its route through the neighborhood. Not too long after our 6 o'clock diner as we continued playing outside the tinkling bells of the white ice-cream truck would greet our ears, and if we had any loose change we'd buy a treat.   I can't recall the names of the products from this distance of time, but I do remember how good they tasted. Sometimes a game of baseball or hide-and-seek would be put on hold for the short duration it took to consume these desserts.

There are many memories that can be recollected of evenings playing with friends around the house. Remember the games of hide-and seek with Sherry and Linda Harrison, Dennis Demon, the Perkovich's, the Nephs, the Cloutier's, and maybe even including the neighborhood bully, Larry Minor, or his more placid older brother Jim. The summer sun would set around 9:30 and the twilight made the games that much more exciting and a greater challenge. There were a lot of kids around to play with. Especially when it came to baseball. No sissy softball games--we'd raise our noses if someone brought a softball to the field with him. No, we played a man's game of hardball, thrown overhand, not underhand, even if it wasn't fast pitch. Our favorite diamond we had created ourselves with home plate against the hill that rose up to the mansion (as it seemed to us youngsters) on the street named Helen where the Lackeys lived, Gary and his brother(s?) and sister(s?). The left field "fence" was Colonial Drive, right in front of our house, though I don't recall there being any out-of-the-park home runs; if you had to run across the street to fetch a ball that got past you, and were able to get it back into play before the batter ran home, a play could be made. I'm sure it didn't happen much though, as a hardball could really travel! As I recall I played left field frequently. While not an especially brilliant player, my fly ball catching skills greatly increased when I received a First Baseman's mitt for Christmas (or Birthday). That big basket of a glove was a magnet for fly balls as well as grounders. I remember disappointing many a potential home run smash, or a triple, with a dramatic catch. Was it Dad who had a catcher's glove from his past (wow, he played sports?); we thought ourselves quite professional outfitting that position. He also allowed us to borrow bats from his past to compliment those we culled from birthdays and Christmases. Remember the heavy bat that may have been Uncle Jim's? It was many years before some of us could use that one. But we each had our favorites, a Hank Arron, or Al Kaline model. These were used to select the Captain's "First Picks." Toss the bat and catch it, the two Captains then placing hand over hand gripping the neck in turn until the owner of the last hand that could grip the top won, and made his choice of player first. I did feel a bit of pride that I was rarely chosen last (unless there happened to be a relative shortage of players); I could hit well, but didn't have a great throwing arm. I could field relatively well but didn't like the fast action of the infield, preferring the somewhat greater tranquility of the outfield. For a good stretch of years our summer weekends were devoted to little else besides baseball. The park across the street was every little kid's dream; what a luxury to have that kind of playground not twenty feet from one's yard. As an adult I have always found a kind of escape from this world in any local field or park, wherever I may have found myself, whether places like Fuller Park in Ann Arbor, or open areas on Fort Bliss in El Paso. I've always had a need to find some secluded spot of nature for use as a temporary retreat to reinvigorate the soul.

A number of Saturdays each summer Dad would treat us kids to a day of swimming at Belleville. His employer, Detroit Edison, owned a nice park on a hill on the north side of Ford Lake for the benefit of its employees. He and Mom would gather the family, load us into their '59 Ford station-wagon and, with a picnic basket filled with lunch, we'd drive the 15 miles or so west to the mini-vacation spot. Exiting 1-94 at Belleville Rd., we'd take the service drive for a few miles west and then turn onto a dirt road (Old Denton Rd.) that headed due south for a quarter mile, then dog-leg left. Then very quickly we'd have to turn sharply 180 degrees and barrel down a steep hill, the bottom of which always thrilled us kids because there the road narrowed, and exposed bodies of water on each side, one of which was a deep concrete well with water violently gushing inside, threatened to drown us if we veered a foot or two off course. If we traversed that point safely (and I don't recall ever failing, though it could have happened at any time!) a huge hill rose before us daring us to successfully complete our journey. It always seemed as thrilling and as dangerous as an amusement park ride, though Belleville park didn't include any but for that driveway going in and out.

The rewards for gaining entrance was a refreshing swim in cool water on a hot sultry day. There were a couple of rafts out in the deep section of Ford Lake, which was less of a "lake" than it was a wide area of a river, 25 yards offshore where the big kids romped and horseplayed, pushing each other off and diving in. Some of us Schneider kids mostly played much closer to shore, sometimes taunting Bill who had to protect his tender feet from the stones near shore any wearing is PF Flyers (or Keds). Diving under water, we thought little of the greenish hue that limited visibility. Were we really not able to see more than a few inches in front of our noses even at the earliest visits to the park? No talk of concepts of water pollution or health hazards soiled our ears back then. How is the state of our health today directly attributable to inadvertently guzzling gallons of Ford Lake water? Who realty wants to know. We cared little for things like that in the late 1950's or early 60's. We did have a blast there though. The water wasn't the only entertainment. For the guys the big treats were the genuine locomotive engine and jet plane on display for us to climb all over and we imagined ourselves as engineers and pilots, propelling these vehicle through space or over rails. How many kids today have such things for playtoys? There was also the Canteen that always tempted us with hot dogs and potato chips in spite of a full picnic basket Mom assembled for us. Not having our own money prevented us from spoiling our lunch, and Mom and Dad were not about to pay for food when we had brought our own. How unreasonable! Years later we stopped going to Belleville, and Edison sold its interest in the park. I have to believe the water pollution problems were at the heart of the matter. The activism of the 60's awoke the nation to addressing these environmental concerns, not to mention corporate concerns of litigation. But, boy, did we have fun there.

One of the family traditions in early childhood was the Sunday trek to Grandma's and Grandpa's house for dinner. Dad and Mom had lived in there on the 3rd floor (originally used as a servant's quarters) for the first few years or so after they married, and had Lynn and Jim there. This was the house in which Dad grew up. I don't know how many Sundays each year we enjoyed that visit, I'm sure it wasn't every Sunday! But we'd pile into the white '59 Ford wagon and drive into Detroit to Glynn Court at 12th Street. The toys were pulled out of the front closet to keep most of the six or eight of us kids occupied (depending on which years one might be remembering). It seemed an exotic environment for us little people, the house looked huge with lots of nooks and crannies to explore, some declared off limits for our own safety.

Coming in the front door and passing through the vestibule where coats were hung, one could take two steps straight forward and then up the dark stairs, past the cut glass tiny window letting in the sunlight refracting rainbow colors. The stairway reached a landing from which you decided whether to continue forward and descend into the kitchen or turn left and climb the remaining stairs to the bedroom floor. At the top of the stairs, in a large widening of the hall, was a votive station, just like in church, with a kneeler and small candles in red glass waiting to be lit to illuminate statuary of the Blessed Virgin or some collection of saints, I forget which. It was a place maintained for devotional moments, though I never saw it in use. That probably was because the presence of so many of little kids could never provide the required peace and quite. From that point a quick turn around placed you at the door to the stairs leading up to the 3rd floor, the old servant's quarters. The steps were so steep as to be thought dangerous. At least that was the story used to keep us out of mischief. It didn't work much because we did play up there on more than one occasion. But a more adventurous location was the 2nd floor outside deck facing the backyard. If you walked through the master bedroom and through Grandpa's small study you could open the door to it. The admonition was that the deck was not sturdy because it was very old. We didn't figure we weighed very much though, so at every occasion we'd try to sneak out there. We all survived the peril.

But mostly we played on the first floor, running around the pantry off the kitchen, or the den at the rear of the house, which was the room with the large black leather chair, old with cracks in the surface of the leather. The smell of pipe smoke permeated everything in that setting, and we'd poke around grampa's smoking paraphernalia, playing with pipe cleaners and the pipe rack and pipe scraping utensils, etc. We'd pilfer through the bookcases leafing through interesting books, and we'd find the stereoscope, which entertained us with vistas of the mountainous west, and foreign cities, and strange looking people, all convincingly in magical three dimensions. Things like the fireplace or the grand piano also were objects of curiosity for a little child. The Olympic sized slate pool table in the basement found our attention and we enjoyed playing with the brown bead counters hanging from the ceiling on a wire. But the most fun was had playing with the reel-to-reel tape recorder of Grandpa's. Remember the green vocal chord looking sound meter showing signals being recorded? Great laughs were had as Grandpa would sing in funny ways into the huge brown steel microphone. And the rest of us would chime in. We'd create amusing stories or goofy vocalizations and laugh hysterically upon playback. If only we had today those tapes we made. What an invaluable resource of memories that would be!

At last, dinner would be served and the perfunctory standing roast would be carved and place on the good china. We though Grandma was a great cook, each of us having favorite foods to devour, mine being the roast beef and the chocolate cream pie with the graham cracker crust and decorated with chocolate and coconut. One staple I couldn't stomach was the cucumber salad: a pile of cucumber slices floating a large bowl of its own juices or whatever was that liquid. I don't know what it tasted like, I could never bring myself to try it. But there were plenty of other dishes to fill up on. Fresh cut green beans, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, creamed corn, a couple of fruit salads, one in Jell-0 and one not, rolls, and too many other delicacies to remember. But it was delicious. For many years, at the appropriate season, the annual broadcasting of the Wizard of Oz would be watched after diner, a production that never failing to mesmerized us. Afterward the dark drive home was made in silence as many, if not all of us kids, fell asleep, caused by full stomachs, the dark of night, and the droning of highway noise. If I was awake while travelling on the freeway, the lights illuminating the underpasses we drove through would always fascinate me. I remember one night in 1964 we returned back home to Inkster, us kids racing into the house into the dining room just in time to turn the TV to the Ed Sullivan show as the Beatles performed on stage. One particular return trip home was made hastily as well, but the destination was the Garden City Medical Center. The reason was that while playing in the dark on the empty corner lot close to Grandma's house I was accidentally pushed by Lynn while semi-kneeling down avoiding detection by whomever was "it" in hide-and-seek. Unfortunately a broken bottle lay between my knee and the ground and the gash and amount of blood appeared to me to be terminal. It also must have panicked Mom because I believe we packed up right then and drove home. There must not have been any qualified emergency care facilities around that part of Detroit and it usually took 30 to 45 minutes to get home from Grandma's. After dropping everyone off at home Mom drove me to the clinic where I received my first stitches. It is amusing that then the wound was right on my knee but after years of growth the scar is now located four or five inches below the knee. It wasn't as traumatic a medical event as, say, Jim's falling from the big tree across the street and landing on his right arm breaking it, but mine had more blood!

There are many fun memories of winter sports in the park across the street as well as the one on the other side of Inkster Road. In those days the Rouge River would frequently overflow and the result was the creation of many ice rinks. In some areas of the park the ice would be thick enough to play hockey with the same kids with whom we played baseball. Ice-skates and hockey stick were Christmas presents received every few years by most kids in Michigan. Much later Mark would turn these experiences toward Community hockey and do it well. But it was only a diversion for the rest of us, though the Perkovich kids (John and Larry) joined Mark in some serious organized hockey. The more serious unorganized hockey was played (not by me) on the two outdoor rinks in Inkster Park. The City of Inkster maintained two rinks accompanied by log cabins which I think may have been changing rooms-I can't recall for sure. But when the big kids weren't in control of the rinks playing hockey we could skate there as much as we wanted. At night large bon fires were torched for the benefit of those who got too wet or tired. My last hockey experience I can recall found me playing goalie across the street from our house. And on one particular offensive rush I got a stick in the eye by one shooter. I made the save but after the play I was rushed to the Garden City Medical Center, again by Mom. I recovered my sight after having to wear an eye patch for a few weeks. Sometimes the ice across the street near the woods and around fallen trees was a tad thin. Every once in a while some poor maladroit would discover this by breaking through and getting soaked up to the knee or waist. Namely me. It seemed a long walk across the park to home carrying an additional few pounds of water, while walking through snow drifts and freezing winds wobbling on ice skates. Boy, those were the days!

Reaching adolescence, I was tormented by the anguish a bad case of acne could cause. Without dwelling on the resulting adverse psychological effects, suffice it to say 1 was compelled to write to the Detroit Free Press's Action Line column for help. This was an ombudsman type community assistance help-line. They responded to my note by getting an appointment for me at the Veteran's Hospital in Allen Park. The examination by the doctor resulted in a series of visits to a dermatologist (was this covered by dad's health insurance?) that continued for years, with a modicum of success. Every two, three, or four weeks Dad would drive me to the doctor's office also located in Allen Park. Dad would occasionally take advantage of this trip by stopping at the Sears store we passed on the way back to purchase some things for whatever home remodeling projects he happened to be working on. Some times he would smoke his pipe during the drive to or from, which would make me nauseous, though I never admitted this out loud. If I did I'm certain he would have stopped (wouldn't you have?), but I didn't have the temerity to be so forward. But I am grateful that he did take the time out for those years to drive me down there and wait while I had my treatments of pimple poking and sun burning.

There are many other memories that are cheerful and are enjoyably raised from slumber. Walking around the neighborhood streets at night with transistor radio plugged into my ear, listening to WKNR and Dick Purtan and to groups like Tim Tam and the Turn-Qns. I collected the Keener 13 record lists the station released every week. I don't have those anymore. I remember my introduction to Rock 'n Roll via the floorstanding Philco radio Dad kept in the basement, solid wood, about 4 feet tall with a small round radio dial, and Jim having friends over playing pool in the basement and listening to that new-fangled music. I'll never forget the life changing record Journey To The Center Of The Mind by the Amboy Dukes. My music sensibilities changed forever after hearing that seminal record! As teenagers Bill and I would take our paltry allowances down to Dearborn Music or to Crowley's record department (in their basement) to buy the latest Ventures album or other; prices were around $3.79 each LP record. Thanks to Uncle Jim's donation to our family of some stereo components and speakers, music became an intrinsic element of my life. How our folks survived our loud music, I don't know! Saturdays, bath day, our living room would be filled with sounds of Perry Como or the Ray Coniff Singers, Mom and Dad's choices. Then we kids brought home Cream and Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Gordon Lightfoot. I can still see Mom, one Saturday noon, trying to hang some curtains in the living room while I rocked on the sofa listening to some music. Of course I felt constrained and resentful to keep the volume level moderate, but still it must have been quite aggravating being subjected to that.  And Dad's little 4 stringed plastic ukulele was a stepping stone to my first guitar that Mom and Dad bought for me--the 6 stringed Stella. Then Bill started playing and years later would buy a Martin D-28 guitar, only to have his wanderlust compel him to transfer it's title to me for $350 so he could hitchhike around the country. It will remain one of my greatest treasures until I die.  Only then will he reposess it by inheritance.

There are many other memories that surface occasionally I remember working early in the morning for Suchita's Bakery, at Inkster and Avondale, during my last two years of high school. This was after I outgrew the Detroit Free Press paper route. Ralph Suchita and his wife introduced me to great outdoor sports like snow skiing and fishing and deer hunting. Girlfriends were a rarity for me, bad acne and poor hygiene could be blamed; certainly not a lack of personality, eh? In any event, my crush on Christine Bielak in the second grade (or was it the first) went unrequited all those school years. In high school a pretty, red haired Mary Auty turned down my request to take her to a dance using the apology that she would be washing her hair that night, which diminished not the slightest my affection. It wasn't until years later I found out what that really meant. I did go anyway (alone). (That was the St. Norbert's dance that Mom chaperoned! I wonder what she thought of all those kids and their loud music.) Through lack of experience I wasn't too comfortable with girls, though I did have a few dates with some who risked being social pariahs to be seen with me. It wasn't until as a senior in high school that a freshman, Debbie Franklin, and I started flirting, dropping notes in each other's lockers in the north wing of Cherry Hill High School, outside my Drafting class. Having begun innocuously was probably why the friendship blossomed so well. And she was my first kiss. Shortly thereafter her parents forbid us to see each other-I was a Senior, she was a Freshman. I suppose the difference in years at that age looked vast to them. But I recovered (eventually) and graduated high school with the just barely passing grade of C minus. Those years weren't the most productive in my life but I can look back on them now with some appreciation. For better or worse they have helped to make me what I have become; someone much more comfortable with himself than I while a teenager. That internal conflict, sadly, created such an internal tension, I can't fathom how Dad and Mom coped with me. But they survived too. And we have all grown. If I only knew then . . . I certainly would have done many things differently, and would have been a different person. But those regrets are futile. And my predominant memories today are those that put a smile on my face, like those listed above. As I get older I find myself appreciating them more and more--these memories of a family.

Happy Birthday, Dad