When Old Men Were Young
I lived during that time when old men were young…
John William Strobel III
I guess it’s not fair to talk so much about the “good old days” today. Those of you who were not around then are probably feeling a little left out, and well you should. There is a special recognition that goes to anyone who lived through the “Great Depression”, World War II and the Post War Period…Those are the “days” of the “Good Old Days” and unless you lived them I can understand you feeling left out.
For instance, none of you will ever know what it was like to sit in front of a radio (“A what?” you ask…) A radio was a thing that had a lot of wires, a few tubes, some resistors and condensers and an antenna and with it you could listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tell you, “The only thing you have to fear, is fear itself.” With his “Fireside Chats,” addresses to a nation deep in an overpowering economic depression, he filled us with his optimism and hope. He would sit in front of the fireplace in the “Oval Office” with his Scotty dog “Fala” beside him and speak of the “Indefatigable American will”, our “Unbridled spirit,” our “Ability be the Bread Basket of the world,” how we would “Restart our manufacturing plants to out-produce any nation on the planet.” And, when it became absolutely necessary, he inspired us to defeat an “Axis of Power” in war. The greatest effect was probably on the young people of the time.
The radio also urged your imagination to heights you never thought you could attain. Rush home from school, get a pile of Wonder Bread, a jar of peanut butter and some of your mom’s homemade apricot and pineapple jam, turn on the good old radio and listen to “Your” programs. Jack Armstrong – the All American Boy, Little Orphan Annie with her “Glorioski Sandy”, the Green Hornet with his man Cato, or best of all, “Buck Rogers in the 21st Century…” Those were all 15 minute radio shows that held my generation spellbound dreaming of space travel or being an “All American Boy”…
I was born in 1931 at the height of the depression. My dad had been out of work for a year when I was born and other than some hit and miss efforts at business, he was unemployed (without a regular job that provided him with a regular paycheck) until 1935. Because of our economic situation my sister, Jackie and I learned to do without a lot of things that tempted kids of that day. When a lucky child got a nickel from his grampa or aunt or uncle or wherever, we would often watch as they got an ice cream bar from the “Good Humor Man”. Our taste buds relished what they were eating so we would devour the ice cream vicariously with them. Then, later, we would chase the “Union Ice” truck and pester the poor iceman until he would chip off a piece of ice and hand it out to the many little grimy hands. We were sure there was nothing more delightful or delicious than that sliver of frozen water that we substituted for ice cream.
We had no thoughts of danger when we would pry up a bubble of hot tar from the street repairs and chew it like gum pretending it was “Blackjack, a licorice flavored popular chewing gum of the time. We begged our mothers to let us go to the “Rock Crusher” on the Ventura River to skinny dip with our friends. There was a giant swimming hole at the “Rock Crusher” that provided we children of the depression with a free, natural swimming pool that was just as cool and refreshing as the pool at the Saticoy Country Club to which we did not have access. Or, and this was probably the biggest or in our young lives, we would find a way to get our hands on a two bit piece (a quarter that was made of real silver then) so we could go to the “Micky Mouse Club” on Saturdays. For a dime one could enter the Ventura Theater at 10:00 a. m. and see Hop Along Cassidy, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, or a young John Wayne or Roy Rogers, gallop through western movies that all had the same theme. A lovely young girl, whose dad was about to lose the homestead to barfly crooks who knew the railroad was coming through their town and they were cheating every honest rancher out of their homesteads. They varied very little, only the actors changed.
There were usually four feature films shown every Saturday, two in the morning session, then a break for lunch and then more movies with Mickey Mouse and Looney Toons cartoons in between. That was our TELEVISION, six hours a week of rootin’ tootin’ shoot ‘em up westerns that many times had us standing and screaming when the bad guys were about to ambush and plug the hero. I lived for Saturdays when my mom would make us a brown bag lunch with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then she would get Jackie and me all dressed up to go downtown with my dad. He had gotten a job at Hirshfelder’s Shoe Company which was only one block from the Ventura Theater so we would ride into town with dad and then go to the movies, brown bags and all.
We sat through the morning session screaming ourselves hoarse and then went outside at the break to have lunch. Plaza Park was just a half a block away, so with me in tow, Jackie would find us a bench or table and sit me down, then go across Santa Clara Street to get us two huge chocolate malts from the “Real Ice Cream” parlor. The malts cost us ten cents each so we had a nickel left to ride the bus home after the movies. My dad had to work until 9:00 on Saturdays so we couldn’t ride home with him. We didn’t feel underprivileged or poor, we just enjoyed being able to do the things that made us happy and kept us out of trouble. We went without a lot of “things” but we were a tight knit, happy family that did things together. We were poor, but you’d never know it from looking at us. Mom kept us dressed as well as any kid of the day. I wore overalls a lot and my sister always had a clean bright dress to put on, we didn’t have any idea that we missed anything growing up.
Our home was always happy and fun to be in with smells coming from the kitchen that would make anyone salivate. Mama was an excellent cook. One of my favorite pastimes was to stand on a chair and watch her as she mixed a birthday cake with “Swan’s Down Cake Flour” or rolled out the best piecrust you ever put in your mouth. My reward for being so attentive is that I make a pretty good piecrust and can put out a tasty cake if need be. I specialize in chocolate eclairs, cream puffs, pies of all descriptions and a killer pineapple upside down cake. I think of my dear mother every time I bake and I still use her well worn Betty Crocker Cook Book full of handwritten recipes most from the depression when she would feed the whole family and guests, if there were any, with four eggs, bacon crushed into bits all mixed into a huge pan of rice. We called it, what else, rice and eggs and it was one of our favorite dishes, kind of an American version of Chinese fried rice.
All of the holidays were special times for our family. We may have been poor monetarily but we were rich in every other way. Mom would put on parties for our birthdays. The Fourth of July celebration began a week or two before the actual day. Fireworks stands sold fire crackers, sparklers, Roman Candles and sky rockets from the middle of June to the big day itself when we would all go to the beach and set off our meager allowance of sky rockets but watch all along the beach from Ventura to Port Hueneme as others did the same. We always had a bon fire and occasionally got to pick up Grunion if the time and tides were right. (They are very tasty fish when fried golden brown…)
But atop the list of wonderful holidays was Christmas. I can never remember a Christmas when my dreams were not fulfilled. My parents saved in a “Christmas Club Account” at our local Bank of America. They put away a small amount every week and then on the first of December were rewarded with enough money to keep Jackie’s and my dreams of Santa Claus alive.
I mention all of these family times and matters in an attempt to differentiate what life was like for me, then, as a young child and what it is like for me now as an old man. Some of you know what I mean if you are more than sixty five years old. The things that jogged my memory in this article are things we all lived together, like standing up when the flag went by in a parade or when the Star Spangled Banner was played. Like being there when Mickey Mouse was just a kid or when Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or when Dopey was the most popular dwarf in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or when ladies wore white gloves and impossible hats to go shopping at the Pay ‘n Takit or when men got up out of their chairs in a ladies presence or when you wouldn’t utter the “F” word in a million years or when you said, “I do” and meant it or when your wife said to you, “John W. Strobel III, meet John W. Strobel IV…” Those are the things memories are made of. Those are the times when an “Old man was young…”