Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Birthdays in Black and White

There's me, just a few days ago, blowing a blissfully inaccurate number of candles out with the intended help of Levi, who would grab for the lights, but will be content with a handful of frosting if that's all that is in reach.

Birthdays anymore come and go with more or less commemoration and varying levels of reflection and celebration. A lucky birthday is one that coincides, not merely with post season baseball, but includes those guys that wear the birds on the bat. If one must admit to another year, then let it be in glorious October, bright with color above, crisp with leaves and frost, with harvest as background music, squash as its accessory and one last hurrah from the boys of summer.

Nothing like a birthday to encourage a mental after dinner stroll through the flea market of memory. And what should I find there but my first Cardinal baseball game.

That would have been summer of 1966, and I think the Cards were playing the Reds on some of that new fangled Astroturf that blistering day game. We sat way back, deep in center field; even with my fathers's binoculars, I could hardly distinguish between the two sets of red hats. My grandparents attended that game too, but they did not sweat their way to St. Louis like we did, stuck to the turquoise vinyl of the back bench seat. Nope, Grandma and Grandpa Froerer were early adopters when it came to dealing with the heat. Not only did they have the first air conditioner I'd ever encountered in a house, but they had an AIR CONDITIONED CAR, too!
It was a 1964 Dodge with the additional wonder of an automatic transmission, one of the models with the push buttons on the left side of the steering wheel. Manual transmissions, heck, transmissions of any type, were a mystery to me, but as a child of the sixties, push buttons were futuristic, as magical as escalators. Remember, this car predated such modern conveniences as remote controls and frost free refrigerators by decades as far as my life was concerned. As you can see, the interior was aglint in brushed metal and shiny knobs. It had carpet, but I cannot remember whether it had power windows or not...I think not, only because I do remember the power windows my church choir director had in her Cadillac.....

On Sundays during those years, we would pile into that Dodge and take relaxed drives over the swooping state roads south and west of Jefferson City. As the sun westered, I'd look out of those tinted windows at the slender Gothic steeples of the Catholic and Lutheran churches of small towns like Wardsville and Westphalia. The roads were lined with one story brick ranches on neatly mowed acreages and older farmsteads with shiny tin roofs and well maintained red or white barns. The roads traced the ridges of the rolling topography, a captivating but civilized landscape to one raised on the flat peat lands of northern Illinois. The car was cool and quiet, the conversation polite (my father never stopped addressing his father in law as 'Mr. Froerer') ; even then I realized these drives were memories to be bookmarked as part of the past even as they happened in the present.

My mom's brother worked for Boeing back then. In the summer of 1963, our family packed up our bags for the trip all the way from Chicago to Seattle. I have vivid memories of that trip and absolutely none of the planning that must have gone into it! All my imagination was engrossed in the journey itself, a nation spanning route across the north in the distinctive orange and black livery of the Great Northern's Empire Builder. We would be gone for more than a week and were told repeatedly to pack light...as a result, I seem to recollect wearing just two different dresses for the whole week? Can this be? Or has this memory been influenced by slide shows...I am certain my mother packed more food than she did clothing...
On this inaugural train trip, we had an actual Pullman car with a real bathroom with a toilet and cunning bunk beds that folded up against the wall during the day. I had an upper bunk and, being a light sleeper, vividly recall waking at night to see the lights of the pony wells dipping up and down on the dark North Dakota plains and staring one early foggy morning in amazement at the spectacle of Glacier Park passing by outside my private window. When we ate in the dining car, I either ordered a hamburger or a club sandwich. Both came with the colorful cellophane topped toothpicks...a certain indication of class, in my mind. We spend hours in the Dome cars and played rummy in the club car. Every transverse between cars was a terror and an adventure; every detail of the china, waiters, the blinds, was a new experience.

Remember World Fairs? I collected stamps when I was little, so it seemed to me there was a World's Fair every two years or so. Seattle hosted the World's Fair back in 1962 so the Space Needle was still a big deal in the summer of 1963....

But of course, it cost extra to ride to the top of the Space Needle, so our view of it was more like Alice in Wonderland, as if we had nibbled the edge of the great mushroom and shrunk til we crooked our necks to see just it's underside. As a result my memories of the World's Fair site are of the open arches of the Science Plaza, a lacy and graceful cathedral perched under the rather foreboding alien presence of the Needle itself.

The biggest wonders by far were the volcanoes. We hiked the slopes of Mt. Rainier, racing Ahead of the adults in our flimsy sneakers, discovering waterfalls and trying to remember whether avalanche lilies or glacier lilies were yellow or white. Suddenly we came upon a big snow field, steep and long as the tobaggon run at the Forest Preserve park near our home. And, sure enough, the tiny figures at the top were somehow sliding down the snowy slope, laughing and screaming with glee at the notion of sledding in August! Caught up in the moment, I somehow found myself up at the top of the slushy mountain slide, ready to soak my pedal pushers for a thrill. Hard to believe, I know, but I did it... I'm certain it was exciting, but what I really remember how very sodden I was.... Somehow I doubt the National Park Service would tolerate such antics anymore.
When I look at photos from those years, long forgotten brands come back to mind. This was long before canned pop and even most diet pops. The first diet pop I remember was some nasty tasting stuff called Tab..I tried it at the laundromat in Naperville, Illinois after it appeared in the vending machine there. My father did our family wash while my mother took night classes at North Central college; Laura was just learning to read and I was learning my multiplication tables. At a designated time, we got to share a bottle of pop we bought from the vending machine, one of the old fashioned kind that made you earn your beverage by pulling with all your might til the bottle came free and another bottle clanked loudly into place. We didn't drink much pop, so the orange bottle of Fanta was quite a reward for our intellectual labors. Pop bottles were substantial items, weighty like bowling pins with painted labels, not gummed paper you could peel. That being said, the Tab was so unpleasant that Laura couldn't stomach it and our experiment with a new product was a short one.

My mother and grandmother were both accomplished seamstresses, so I never knew a time when I didn't wear home made dresses. A trip to the fabric store or the remnant counter or to pick out patterns from Simplicity or McCall's ( no Vogue for us!) was a treat. We wore lots of shifts and jumpers from practical fabrics like kettle cloth; lots of cotton, enough polyester to make it strong, and florals pretty enough to satisfy any little girl's color fantasy and practical enough to wash over and over again.
I might have three or four dresses from the same pattern if it became a favorite and I didn't grow out of it too quickly. Alas, this veritable garden of many colors stopped where the rubber met the road. When it came time to start a new school year, gym shoes were relegated to gym period and the Red Ball Jets and Keds of the summer had to stay home.....
...while the girl with the double E width feet wistfully eyed the cute Mary Janes and slender slip ons at the shoe store before choosing a sensible string tie Oxford pair of Hush Puppies in a different shade of suede from the year before.
In the words of the immortal Charlie Brown (older than I by a bunch, I might add!), Aaarrrgh! this may well read like the rumblings of one well over the hump and fighting a few organizational cobwebs to boot. But I pull these ephemera out not for nostalgia's sake, but more as a string through the wooded trails of experience, allowing me to find the way back to my past and the loved ones, much older now, or gone, that populated my childhood. That string is just one of the ties that bind, wrapping our birthdays of today like presents to be opened in the future.