Just for a second today, I couldn’t remember my phone number. Well, I don’t call myself.
Apparently, in the space where my phone number should have been was a random memory from my young childhood that just popped in from the ether.
The human memory is an enigma, and the whys and wherefores of mine astound me—both with the things I can remember and the things I cannot.
My husband was watching a baseball game and I sat next to him with my eyes closed, and suddenly I was time traveling to the early 1960s on a walk in the retail section of my hometown.
We start at Arnold’s Gas Station. Dad might stop to talk to one of the brothers. For a dime, my brother and I could lift the lid of the chest style soda machine and choose from among a variety of pops. We often had 7-Up because our mom felt the darker sodas were bad for our teeth.
Arnold’s had a hose connected to a bell near the gas pumps, and when I was alone on my bike I loved riding through there very fast to make the bell go off. And then, I disappeared! Poor Eddie or one of the other brothers came outside looking either way for a customer.
After Arnold’s, I’m inside a gift shop with my mom. Was it a Hallmark? I cannot remember, but I remember the lovely Mrs. Davis who owned the store. She was always immaculately dressed and smelled of a heavenly floral perfume. She sold greeting cards and boxes of stationary, and my mother liked going into the store and talking with her.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY.
I see a pattern developing here. No matter which parent I was with, we stopped and talked as we wandered downtown. We only went to Fort Wayne — the “big city” — once in a while, maybe for a special trip to Sears or a movie we couldn’t get at our own Kent Theatre. Sometimes we went to the county seat for special things at Blumenthal’s Department Store or the Garden Gift Store, both on the square across from the courthouse where my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents bought their wedding licenses.
On down State Street past the Western Auto and across the street was the G & G Grocery. While there were several other markets in this small town, my parents always went to the one owned by Gene Weybright. The store had a few aisles, but everything we needed.
Near the two check-out lanes were the chips and candy, two displays of extreme interest for two hungry children tagging along with mom. We frequently went to the grocery store — in the era of no credit cards, my parents charged occasionally and the checker made note of it in a small paper notebook. Dad got paid and went to the grocery and paid Mom’s bill.
MR. GRUWELL SENIOR IN HIS WHITE BAKERY HAT.
The greatest delight of the grocery was what was out the back door.
Nestled in a small space was Gruwell’s Bakery. If I close my eyes tightly, I can taste the best white cake in the world with puffy, thick frosting. I suspect it contained a fatty substance I don’t want to think about now; but lemma tell ya, it was delicious. Any family event for more than a few people required a Gruwell’s sheet cake.
When I grew older, we skipped high school to get donuts — the delicious chocolate covered Gruwell long john — or their sublime bakery cookies whether pumpkins for Halloween or pastel chicks and bunnies for Easter. Bite into one of these large cookies with hard icing that cracked against your teeth and then taste the soft, buttery cookie beneath.
Down from the grocery store were a number of businesses — Dad often stopped in the Tin Shop to chat with men, or to the barber shop where he paid a “per year” fee for 12 haircuts. Was he surprised at the price increase when he moved to West Lafayette in 2005! My memory isn’t perfect but I think the old Mayer Branch Bank was on that side of the street. I remember Mom or Dad going into the bank with a passbook to take out money or make a car payment, and I could barely see over the counters. The newspaper office was on that side of the street. One could always get a friendly way from Rosalie Stellar who ran the front office (as well as practically everything else.)
HOW I MET ELVIS AT THE REXALL DRUG.
North on State Street to the Rexall Drug Store where Mary Walpole could make you a cherry Coke or a vanilla Coke from behind the counter. I loved the drug store. Though the counter, and I think wonderful tile floors, disappeared when I was very young, the Drug Store had something no other store in town had. Records. Forty-fives were fifty cents, and albums were $2.99 or $3.99. My forty-fives are who-knows-where, but I distinctly remember buying “Hanky Panky” (see it on You Tube here). “Hanky Panky” was the number one song of 1966, sung by Tommy James and the Shondells.
I’m nine years old, and I have my own money. I can walk downtown from our little yellow house on Walnut Street and go the Drug Store and buy my own music. My parents have a blonde-colored wood RCA hi-fi, but I have my own plastic blue and white “CloseNPlay” and I can rock and roll in my own room. Other records I’ll buy from the Rexall Drug Store include my first Elvis record, several Beatles tunes and much later, an album with “Alone Again, Naturally” on it.
Before Carol Eberly bought the iconic drive in at the corner of State and Calhoun, it was Spec’s Drive In (Spec Newell). I remember going with my parents both to Spec’s and to Carol’s. Believe it or not, I did not have pizza until high school when we had one from Carol’s. Pizza just wasn’t as common in my childhood as it is today.
Here my memory plays tricks on me, because I think there was a tea room next to Spec’s near where the Ideal Dress Shop was. Was Mabel Himes the owner? I remember going there on Sundays when I was very small with my grandparents, and it was a fancy place with white linen table clothes. My mom bought some dresses at the dress shop, but it did not really appeal to a tall, thick child.
STALE CIGARETTES AND MEN’S DIRTY SOCKS.
Across the street was the laundromat, which may still be there. For the first ten years of my life, we often had problems with our dryer and occasionally visited the laundromat which had a distinct odor, a combination of stale cigarette smoke, bleach and men’s dirty socks. If Dick Kreider’s Standard Station was still open (if you visited late and the Drug Store was closed, or it was a Thursday afternoon when the streets were rolled up), one could buy a candy bar to tide you over until you returned home.
Past the corner cafe and the antique store were two of the richest, most mind-boggling places of my childhood, Baxter’s Dime Store and the Huffman-Deaton Hardware Store. Both had an eclectic inventory that went from floor to ceiling. My father always believed in buying things in South Whitley first. I know he paid more per gallon for gas to support Tom and Blackie’s Mobil Station; he ordered appliances (except for a new dryer) from the hardware store.
Each year when South Whitley Elementary School started, my brother and I took our lists to Baxter’s Dime Store and purchased new thick pencils, erasers, lined notebooks, colored folders and all the paraphernalia necessary to start a new year. Working between her store in Pierceton and South Whitley, Mrs. Baxter was a stern, stoic who guarded her inventory with the eyes of a hawk. She always wore a simple, patterned house dress. I cannot ever remember her wearing pants; I was not allowed to wear pants to school until high school. It just wasn’t done, and many older ladies of that era never did wear pants.
A GINORMOUS CREAKING WOODEN DOOR.
One entered the store through an ancient, wooden and glass door that opened inward. Immediately in front of the door was a four-sided glass case (with an entry on one of the sides) filled with open bins of bulk candy and nuts. Atop the glass bins were boxes of branded candy, from sugary candy cigarettes and chocolate Necco wafers to the tooth-shattering vanilla Turkish taffy.
My brother and I would get a nickel or a dime from our parents.
With a few cents, a child could get a white, waxy bag full of chocolate-covered peanuts or black and white non-pareils, or fireballs.
Beyond the candy case, the store held everything from bolts of colorful cloth to kitchenware and children’s books and greeting cards. However, one could not loiter for long, as Mrs. Baxter would chase you out. And had your thrown your bicycle haphazardly in front of the door when coming in, she might chastise you for that.
Dad frequently went to the hardware store. If the inventory in Baxter’s was impressive, the inventory at the Huffman Deaton Hardware Store was beyond measure. If you needed one tiny screw for something you bought in 1947, they probably had it. My parents always bought large frying pans from the Hardware store. Dad would tell the man at the counter in the middle of the store what he needed, and Mr. Deaton or Mr. Huffman would be gone for a few minutes and come back with whatever Dad needed, be it a screw for the lawnmower or a new frying pan.
My trip today is nearly done. When I was ten, we moved into the country and my daily trips downtown slowed. While we only lived a mile outside of town, I couldn’t as casually go to State Street. We lived on a state highway and as the day wore on, especially in the summer, the lake traffic grew worse. I stayed home more.
Why this walk in 1966 or so came into my mind today, I don’t know. It was not “The Andy Griffith Show.” Things are never as uncomplicated as they seem on a 23-minute black and white situation comedy. I might be a completely different person had I grown up in Detroit or Atlanta. But my reality was a small town in the middle of farm country in northeastern Indiana.
For me the great fortune was not so much the place, but the nest I was dropped in. Indeed, that along with these happy memories, is a great blessing.