In my time... Where to start...Hmmm. As I write this, I realize that some people just won’t understand. Others may even be upset. Believe me when I say that I really couldn’t care less. I was there. This was my life. And if I died tomorrow, I’d go to my grave with the knowledge that I grew up, and worked in a world that, for the most part, doesn’t exist anymore. That being said, The old days.
My earliest memories involved work, dirt, chainsaws, the smell of gasoline, and freshly cut wood. I spent a lot of my time outside, even as a child. The barn was a wonderland of heavy, dirty things that I didn’t understand. Tools, welders, dozer parts, birch hooks, cant dogs, spades, square points, and smudge pots. Everything had a purpose, most of which I had no idea. It was where the men were men. A place where I heard new words, that were never spoken: “in the house”. That was a different world entirely. It also held its own wonders.
There was a gun rack on the wall of the living room. It held a 20 gauge shotgun, a pair of 30-30s, and an old Remington 22. These were not treated as anything other than tools, and they put a lot of food on the table. They didn’t come out of that rack very often. Guns weren’t for recreation back then. I still have all those old guns today. Why wouldn’t I..? Speaking of food, we’re talking the “pre-microwave” era. Leftovers were a very different thing back then. There were also TV dinners. I almost think they were marketed to be the “same stuff we send into space with the astronauts”. That was the best place for them, at least in my opinion. They came in foil trays, with a foil cover, and cardboard top, that showed what the “food” was supposed to look like savory gravy indeed...
The milkman still delivered, as did the farmer down the road. He’d load up his station wagon with corn, peas, beans, cucumbers, and fresh eggs. His route took him all over town, and across the state line. His produce was also found at the local stores, gas stations, and any place with a cooler. He was a small man, but it wasn’t uncommon to see him carrying two 100 lb grain bags on his shoulders. He bought his grain and bagged feed by the boxcar. When he was ready, he’d hire a few teenagers to help him unload the boxcar onto his old flatbed truck. It was hard work, but he paid well.
My first paying job was picking beans for him during the summer. This sparked my nearly life-long disdain for gardening in general. Men only wore a few different types of clothes and shoes in those days. I was nearly grown before I ever saw a grown man wearing jeans or sneakers. They wore either work clothes, like Dickies, overalls, or some type of business clothes. T-shirts were not an outer garment unless it was some god-awful hot. Footwear was either leather dress shoes or one of two different types of work boots, they either had a seam around the top of the toe or not. In the winter, cold weather gear was plaid, and wool. Working men carried a lunchbox (one of two types) either black and tan, or grey and plastic. Both had a place to carry a thermos. If there were plastic bags, we didn’t have them. Sandwiches were wrapped in wax paper.
Job opportunities were everywhere. Even in our small town, there were no less than 6 mills of different types. They would blow their whistles at noon, as did the town firehouse. A man could literally buy everything he needed to go to work right at the local gas station. Whether he worked in the woods, or in one of the mills. Clothes, boots, gloves, lunch boxes, and thermos. All were available at either Bob’s Corner Store or Charlie’s Chevron. Back then, summers seemed almost endless. A time of buzz bikes, and fishing poles. Some days I’d get to go to work with my dad, and those were special days. I don’t know now how much help I really was, but I had my own hard hat, and shovel. Just being there made me feel like I was a part of some exclusive club. At home, my mom was always busy doing housework, cooking, patching or sewing clothes. She was always the first person to get up in the morning every day. She’d make coffee, and breakfast as the rest of us were getting up. No one slept in, even on weekends.
In her “spare time,” she’d go to Brown’s Variety and buy patterns, and cloth to make her own clothes. Her work seemed unending. Meals in general were different then. We ate “fresh food” a lot more, and the canned stuff was more for when you’d run out. The cellar was always full of canning jars of vegetables from our garden. Potatoes were stored in buckets of sand, and onions were bagged and hanging from a beam. The entertainment was interesting too. Our radio was strictly AM until the mid-70s, or so. The type of AM radio that still played for about 10 seconds after you turned it off. The TV worked most of the time, it got ABC, NBC, and sometimes CBS. Some of my earliest memories of TV were watching the news with my dad before supper. Most of the news involved the “Vietnamese Conflict”. It was never referred to as a “war” until much later. Probably felt like a war to my uncle Larry, seeing as how he didn’t live through it. Land mine, or so I was told. I remember my dad saying the damned TV was going to cost us that war, and in some ways, I think it did. Interesting how even back then, he blamed the TV. It was his belief that some things weren’t supposed to be seen by the general public. War is a messy business, and it always has been. This was a time where nearly every adult male that I knew was a veteran of one war or another. They didn’t talk about it much, but most were members of the American Legion or VFW. My dad was in the 5th Army in Italy during World War II. He marched in the Memorial Day parade with the legion for many years, either with the honor, or color guard. I carried a small flag and marched with the cub scouts. People stood, and removed their hats when the flag passed by. Different times indeed. One of his proudest moments was being awarded his 50-year pin from the American Legion. They held quite a celebration for him, and the three other WWII vets receiving their pins. Seeing how all the other Vets treated them was really something. It sure was something to see him get credit for something in his life. I made sure that the “50-year” pin was buried with him a few years later.
I was the youngest of three children and by quite a bit. My parents were old enough to have been my grandparents. I was surprised (as my mom used to say). My dad was also the youngest in his family. This left me with a lot of cousins that were 30 years my senior. It also put me in sort of a generational time warp. One of my great grandfathers migrated here from Ireland during the potato famine. Another fought in the civil war. I was around older people my entire youth. This could be where I developed a lot of my ideals.
I grew up about a mile out of town. “Town” is the word for it too. Not one stop light until just recently, and even that is just a flashing red light, not a real traffic light. It was a small town indeed, but it had almost everything we needed. We had a hardware store, 4, or 5 gas/service stations. That’s right, “service stations”, they sold you gas, but they’d also change your oil or do any other mechanical work that you needed. We had two grocery stores, a few restaurants, and a state liquor store. The town had its own police force (as it was), but we were also covered by the County Sheriff and the State Police. There were a few small bars in town, but back then they were more restaurants that also served drinks. There was really very little trouble in our little town. When there was it was “big news”. As I’ve said, the town was mostly supported by the forest products industry. The men worked in the woods, in the mills, or drove trucks that hauled logs, or finished products. Pine logs were made into boards used as trim but were also used as sheathing back then. This was before plywood, and chipboard became popular. Spruce and Fir were sawn into studs. The best hardwood logs were sold for veneer, with the next best being “saw logs”, followed by pulp for paper, and firewood. Speaking of paper, there were two large paper mills in the area. Both were around 20 miles away, in neighboring towns. One was upstream, the other was downstream. I call it a “stream”, but what we’re really talking about is the Androscoggin River, which winds its way between the mountains from the New Hampshire border, through Bethel, Rumford, Lewiston, and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. As a child and a young man, I spent many hours on the banks of the river, hunting, and trapping. You’ll notice that I left out “fishing”. That’s because, back then, the river was polluted to the point where no one would eat anything that came out of the Androscoggin. I remember one time during trapping season, I had to wade out knee-deep into the water to retrieve a muskrat float. After they were washed, the pants I was wearing looked like they’d been bleached from the knees down, but at least they didn’t smell like the river anymore. The river always had big globs of foam floating by. We never knew what it was, but when the water came up, all the trees would get these cardboard-looking rings at the waterline. We were downstream of the Berlin paper mill. I can’t imagine how much worse it was downstream of the next paper mill in Rumford. Now, most of the adult males that actually worked in town were in the timber industry, but there were also mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, all the trades you’d expect to find. Many of them did quite well, but it was far more common for the homeowners to do most of that work themselves when they could.
Everyone had gardens. That’s right, plural, “gardens”. Some folks grew vegetables for the local cannery in South Paris, but most of the time the veggies were canned and stored. There were also several dairy farms, where you could always get good farm-fresh milk. Looking back, people did so much more for themselves back then. I don’t know how we had time for anything else. But we did. Back then, you took the time, you had to. We made the time to go fishing, camping, all that stuff. But because we actually had to plan ahead, it somehow seemed to make things more special. A “big deal”. An event to be remembered. Documented, and celebrated with Kodachrome!! That’s right, and disposable flash cubes too. Really “dating myself” here, but I guess that was the point.