Memories of the Fun Years
In Small Town America
Robert L. Wichterman
Editor’s Note: This essay is republished from The St. Croix Review in 2016 to memorialize the passing of Robert L. Wichterman in December 2016. Mr. Wichterman was a longtime subscriber and writer for The St. Croix Review.
The world in which I was raised has vanished — evaporated. What may intrigue some of my readers may be a depiction, a word picture, of that time period, from 1942 to 1945, and some of the events which shaped my life. As I compose this in September 2016, the reader must know that our Sovereign God has kept me safe, in the palm of His hand through all of my life, in spite of my blunders and poor decisions.
I was born on February 24, 1932. It was the last full year of Herbert Hoover’s Presidency. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected President in November 1932, and inaugurated in March 1933. Fortunately, during the Depression years, my father never lost his job, although he saw his income reduced. One of my recollections of the Depression is of my mother sitting in a large chair in our living room, darning socks. I doubt that many Americans now know what “darning” is. It was the procedure followed to mend a hole in a sock, usually in the heel. A wooden ball was inserted into the sock at the hole, and using a needle with thread, a patch was fashioned where the hole had been. At that time, anything that could be repaired, was; it was not a “throwaway society.” My paternal grandfather, Pop, was an electrician. When anything electrical in their home stopped working, burned out, Pop would rewire it.
My mother, Adeline, knew how to get the most from our available food. Very little was ever thrown away. We saved the grease from cooking meats in a tin can on the windowsill; it was used in frying an egg, or anything else. She also kept the bones from every piece of meat she had cooked. They were valuable. Mom would boil them on the stove for several hours; she’d then add noodles, vegetables, rice, beans, or peas, and cook it some more. Served with a loaf of warm French bread, that was our supper. I do not recall us ever missing a meal; we were truly blessed.
Looking back on those early years, some of my recollections are of instances when I was in trouble for doing something I should not have done. Normally, I did what I knew was the right thing to do. I obeyed my parents, if only reluctantly, most of the time, as I never enjoyed being disciplined. However, memories of my less-than-admirable traits are still sharp. They show that I was a normal young boy. Too often though, I did what I wanted to do. I remember a day when my father arrived home earlier from his job, and caught me doing something I had been told not to do. (I was four years old at that time.) He took me into my bedroom and proceeded to spank me with his hand on my derriere. My stubborn streak came to the fore, and I decided I would not cry. The end result of my toughness was that the spanking continued for what seemed to be an inordinately long time. I learned my lesson; from that time on, I cried quickly — right after the first whack — it shortened the ordeal considerably.
In the spring of 1937, we moved to a house on Park Avenue. In Pompton Plains, New Jersey, “Park Avenue” was an elegant name for an unpaved road. In September 1938, I entered first grade in Pompton Plains’ grammar school. “The Plains,” as it was known colloquially, had a population of about 1500. The Netherlands Dutch from New Amsterdam — now New York City — had settled northern New Jersey in the 17th century. Many of their descendents were local farmers; in fact, when we moved there, 50 percent of the town’s area was agricultural, and the balance residential. The center of Pompton Plains had a U. S. Post Office, the police station, a newspaper, a “sundry goods” store with a soda fountain, two small grocery stores, and Jones Hardware store, which had been in business in the same location since the late 1700s. And, as of 2016, it is still there, and is still owned by a Jones descendent. As a young person, I purchased my .22 caliber bullets there. Thinking of the sundry goods store with a soda fountain, I fondly remember getting my ten cents weekly allowance and going there to get a plain chocolate soda for five cents. It was seltzer water with a squirt of chocolate in it.
When I started the school year, the Pompton Plains’ grammar school building was fairly new. Until 1935-36 it had been only a two-room school. Seven classrooms had been constructed around the original rooms, plus a basement, which had two restrooms and a lunchroom. There was, however, no kitchen. During the War Years — 1942-45 — the basement was our “bomb shelter.” It was where we went when there was an air raid drill. The steam pipes were covered with asbestos insulation that hung down in long white strips. When my wife and I learned of the asbestos class-action suit being filed against the producers of asbestos, we joked that we could have signed on as litigants.
We were renting the house on Park Avenue. A memory of our single year there is of a heavy rainstorm in the late fall of ’38. The Plains is located on a prehistoric lakebed with a high groundwater table. The amount of rain raised the aquifer and by morning there was one foot of water in our cellar. I was excited. Now I could float my toy boats there. My parents did not, however, share my enthusiasm. They were more concerned with the possibility of our coal furnace being flooded. When our one-year lease was finished, we moved to a house on a somewhat higher level than Park Avenue, on Ramapo Road.
Both of my parents kept abreast of the national and world news. Every election day my mother worked as a clerk at our polling place, recording votes. Our dinner table conversations were usually on political issues, or world and national events. They were both registered Republicans; thus, from “little on up” I lived in an anti-F.D.R. home. Since then, my wife and I have softened our opinions as regards F.D.R. Some examples of his better legislation are the Rural Electrification Act, the CCC, and the WPA. The latter two bills put unskilled men to work on public projects. In 1940, President Roosevelt guided through Congress the first ever peacetime draft. To increase the number of men in our military was very important. Had the bill been defeated, and the vote in Congress was very close, we would have had only about 100,000 men in our military services when the Japanese attacked us in 1941.
When the European War, which became World War II, began in September 1939, I followed it in our daily newspaper, the Newark Evening News. I remember reading of France’s capitulation on June 17, 1940. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. Shortly after that time, I cut out of the newspaper a wire-photo of some smiling German soldiers enjoying their rations around a fire. I don’t remember when, but during the war years, I had a newspaper route, delivering the Newark Evening News. It was an afternoon publication; however, on June 6, 1944, they published an extra edition reporting on the D-Day invasion of Europe at Normandy, France. It was an exciting time of America’s history, and I was a part of it.
When I was eight years old, I joined the Cub Scouts. A vivid memory I still have of being a Cub Scout is of marching in the 1940 Memorial Day parade on May 30. I was not certain that I was able to march the entire one-mile parade route, but I did. Three Civil War veterans rode in an open car at the head of the parade. There were some Spanish-American War veterans in their blue uniforms with a large brimmed campaign hat on their heads, and a large contingent of World War I vets in their brown uniforms. I was proud to be a part of it. Looking back to that day, I now realize how young our nation was. The parade and the ceremony at the Dutch Reformed Church were important to me. The men marching represented 75 years of our history, from April 1865, the end of the Civil War, to May 30, 1940. When I turned 12 in 1944, I was eligible to join the Boy Scouts, which I did.
At the entrance to the Dutch Reformed Church’s cemetery was a Veterans Memorial. An American Legion member laid a wreath on it, a bugler blew “Taps,” the church’s pastor prayed for our country, and thanked the Lord for those who “had given the last full measure of devotion.” We sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” and I was very proud to be an American, and to be able to participate in that function.
By May 30, 1940, Germany had conquered much of Western Europe. France would surrender on June 22, and Great Britain would “stand alone.” America was officially neutral, and the prevailing opinion — with which my father agreed — was “we should stay out of it; let the Europeans kill each other, which they’ve been doing for hundreds of years.” Isolationism was the most popular belief, until December 7, 1941, that is. Pearl Harbor would unite us against the Axis.
I still clearly remember where I was on December 7, 1941. Nanny and Pop had driven from Philadelphia to visit us for the weekend. After our Sunday dinner — which was an institution — we were going for a Sunday afternoon ride. I was seated in the middle on the front bench-type seat, between my father, who was driving, and Pop. Nanny, my mother, brother and sister were on the back seat. The radio was tuned to a pro football game. An announcer broke into the game and said:
“We interrupt this game with important news. Japanese airplanes have bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Additional information will be given when it is available.”
Everyone in the car was silent. I then exclaimed “Those dirty rats.” Those were the strongest words I could think of at the time. On December 8, Congress declared war on Japan. Speaking to Congress and the nation on that day, President Roosevelt declared December 7th “. . . a day that will live in infamy.”
When we were in the war, my Dad was worried that some day he might have to protect our home. The first full year of 1942 was a terrible one for the United States. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we lost the Philippines, Wake Island, and Guam. Thus, Dad purchased a .22 caliber Winchester, model 67 rifle. Seventy-four years later, I still have that rifle; it is still operational, and I occasionally go to a rifle range and fire it, just for fun. As I had learned how to use a firearm, when I joined the U.S. Army in June, 1952, during the Korean War, I became very proficient with the Garand M-1 .30 caliber rifle. During Basic Training, I earned a Sharpshooters medal; later, before I was released, I had an Expert’s score with the M-1. During the war years 1942-45, a friend and I organized an NRA-foot range in an abandoned gravel pit behind our home. I initially earned the Pro Marksman NRA rating, and then went then up to Marksman. A local farmer had agreed to allow me to go into his fields and shoot rats and crows. I can still see myself riding my bicycle through the center of Pompton Plains, holding my rifle on my handlebars. No one thought I might be a dangerous person.
One of my mother’s “rules to live by” was that she would not allow us to go swimming until after May 30, Memorial Day. She believed that the water in the Pequannock River and the small lakes in which we swam was too cold before that “magic day,” and that we may get a stomach cramp and drown. In order to enforce this decree, she kept our bathing trunks hidden someplace in her room. They were handed out to my brother and me on May 30.
I had become close friends with three other guys, all of whom were in my class — Art, Rich and Bill. We would get together often. My brother Jack, who is four-and-a-half years younger than I am, usually was with us, too. We’d ride our bikes around the town, looking for whatever interested us. After school was over for the summer, Jack and I would leave our home after breakfast, meet with our friends, be involved in some adventure, and be home in time for supper. My mother did warn us to avoid “tramps” or “bums,” but they did not have to worry about a sexual predator or a kidnapper. If we were playing around the Erie Railroad tracks, we were told to “be careful,” but that was it.
Returning to the swimming trunks issue, although I rarely opposed my mother directly, I knew how to do what I wanted to do. When the weather warmed up to a swimming temperature, we — Art, Rich, Bill and sometimes my brother Jack — rode our bikes to an area where no homes were close by, along the Pequannock River. We took off our clothes and sneakers, and dived into the water. When we were finished, I dried my body with my T-shirt, and my hair has always been so short that it dried quickly. In retrospect, we were unaware that several miles upstream there were factories which daily dumped their waste into the river. As I think back on my behavior, especially that I usually did what I wanted to do (I still fight those self-centered drives which are within me), I am so happy that now I know that when Christ hung on the cross, He carried my sins on His back, and my sins have been forgiven.
There was no “Physical Education” at the Pompton Plains Grammar School; nor was there a gym. Every day we had morning and afternoon recess. It was a true “country school.” When the weather cooperated, the boys played softball. I don’t remember what the activities were for the girls. The only recreation equipment the school owned was a swing and a seesaw. When there was snow on the playground, there was a teacher who supervised snowball fights during the lunch break. A line was drawn in the center of the field; you were allowed to stand on either side of that line and throw snowballs at the students on the other side of it. Other winter activities in which I participated were sledding in the Ramapo Mountains and ice skating on some small lakes and farmers’ ponds. We also played pond hockey there; two rocks were placed at either end of the pond, and we attempted to get the puck in between them. As there were no officials, those games became rough, but I held my own.
During the war years, our school had some difficulty in finding teachers. When I was in seventh grade in 1943-44, a teacher who had retired was convinced to return to the classroom. Our class sizes were not large; only 21 students graduated from our eighth grade. We were sent to the regional high school in the borough of Butler. Mrs. Colfax was our seventh grade teacher’s name. She was quite opinionated. Almost every day she would tell us what she would do to the Germans after we had won the war. Her message was, if she were in charge, she would execute every living German, in order to eliminate the nationality. Once, I stood up and told her she was wrong, that many Germans had contributed much to the world. Her reply to me was, “What are you, a God damned Nazi?” That evening, I told my parents of her challenge, and what she had said. My father telephoned the school superintendent, and when they were able, they replaced her.
When we were in sixth grade, many boys and girls were enrolled by their parents in the Walker’s Dance Studio. We were taught ballroom dancing, the fox trot, waltz, rumba, tango, samba, jitterbug, and square dancing. When I went into high school, I was glad I had learned all of those dances, as I had become a good dancer.
I was fortunate to be able to attend a YMCA summer camp; I believe I went twice, each time for two weeks. This camp was located on a small lake in Sussex County, New Jersey. I no longer recall the correct spelling of its name. The last time I was there was in August 1945. Every morning, an official would read us the latest war news. One or two days before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he read our warning to Japan that, if they did not surrender, we had a very powerful weapon which we would use. Then, on August 6, he told us of the bombing of Hiroshima. We were all very quiet. I knew how momentous it was. However, Japan was still committed to bushido, and would never surrender. Therefore, on August 9, a second, and our last, atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. They surrendered on August 12.
As I have written, those were “fun years.” We had many good times, and although I no longer recall them, I’m sure there were some instances that were less than enjoyable. Through it all though, God kept us in the palm of His hand. There were never any misfortunes that caused us bodily harm.
Another enjoyable memory occurred during the summer of 1946, after we had graduated from eighth grade. Art, Bill, Rich and I were walking along the bank of the Ramapo River — which flowed into the Pequannock River — and we spotted a sunken wooden rowboat with its bow line tied to a tree. Pulling it up onto the riverbank, we discovered that its stern was separated from one side of the boat. I rode my bicycle to my home, picked up my dad’s hammer, plus some nails, and returned. We nailed the stern back to the side, and put the boat back into the river. Having been submerged for a period of time, the wood had swollen, and the boat no longer leaked. We found some scrap boards, and using them as paddles, we went for a cruise. For the rest of the summer, we had a great time exploring the river and its creeks in our boat.
Art, Bill, Rich and I remained close friends through our high school years. After our 1950 graduation, though, we went our separate ways. I will, however, always have the memories of the good fellowship and the adventures we shared in “The Fun Years.” *