Saturday, May 9, 2015

Off to School (and Other Adventures)

In September, 1935, I am 4-1/2 years old. Kindergarten is not compulsory. In fact very few children went to kindergarten, but my parents thought I should start my education. Prosperous parents sent their children to Mrs. Ferguson’s. A year at Mrs. Ferguson’s kindergarten allowed some of her brighter students to skip the first grade. My pal, Scott Gerrish, was one of her students. Her school was located on Cherry Street, two houses below Ash Street and next door to the house where State Rep. Ann Gobi ‘s office is located, along with the office of Attorney Andrea Gordon.

But, my schooling was to start at the WPA kindergarten. In back of where the Maple Street School now stands were two red-brick, two-story buildings, one occupied by Spencer Junior High, the other by the kindergarten on the second floor. All I can remember was they used to serve us a glass of tomato juice and some saltines each day and that we used to pull each other around in cardboard boxes. The only other students I can remember were Pete Cote (brother of John Cote, the registry inspector) and a cute little blonde girl by the name of Dottie Snow. (You all know her as Dot St. Dennis).

It was during this time that, one fateful afternoon, my mother I am going to use the word “insisted” -- that Bob take me to the movies. I would say that I must have been about 4 years old. I am sure that Bob was not at all happy about having his kid brother tag along. The star of the movie was a very popular juvenile actor by the name of Jackie Cooper. I do not remember the title of the movie or what it was about, but I will never forget the incident that happened next. Folks, I shit in my pants, and did it stink. I was smelling up the whole Park Theater. Poor Bob had to leave in the middle of the movie, and take me back to the store. It has been over 70 years and I don’t think Uncle Bob has forgiven me to this day. He commented not too long ago that he never did find out how the movie ended. By the way, that was the first movie I had ever been to.

In the fall of 1936 I entered the first grade at Grove Street School, and brother Bob entered Maple Street Junior High School, which was located in back of where Maple Street Middle School now stands. My first grade teacher was Miss Hamelin. I remember very little about her ability as an educator, but I do recall that she had a terrible temper. She hit me with a pointer on the knuckles once because I was having difficulty making an A. Who knows, maybe she just didn’t like me. The year after I had Miss Hamelin as a teacher, she entered a convent and became a cloistered nun. I would guess that was the best place for her. She certainly had no business teaching first graders. If I had been lucky enough to start school at Pleasant Street School, I would have had Mary Madden as my first grade teacher, as 1936 was her first year as a teacher – ah, some things are not to be.

On Feb. 6, 1937, I had a 6th birthday party at our apartment at 48 Cherry St. Our bread man at the time was Kenneth Parker, and his son, David, was born a day before me, so we had our sixth birthday party together. David Parker now lives in Vermont, but we had fun discussing the party of so long ago at the 50th reunion of our high school class last year.

In the spring of 1937, I smoked my first cigarette. It would be some years before I became addicted, but it was the beginning of a habit that would last for 40 years. I did, however, get caught smoking that day in 1937. A buddy of mine who lived on May Street, by the name of Eddy Duquette, stole two “Spud” brand cigarettes from his mother. Eddy and I lit up our cigarettes as we were walking by Bill Swallow’s Garage on the corner of Cherry and Dale streets. Bill Swallow spotted us, came out of his garage, and made both of us put out our smokes. He then told us he was going to tell Chief of Police Dutchy Meloche that we were smoking. Boy, was I scared.

After finishing the first grade, the biggest and most exciting event of 1937 came about. On Sunday, Father's Day, June 20, Aunt Gertrude presented Uncle Nathan with a son,. David Eugene Israel, born
at Fairlawn Hospital in Worcester, attended by Dr. Alfred Brown, our family doctor.

Behind the Memories: Health Care the Spencer Way

We all hear so much about the health care delivery system in this country. Some people say that it works very well, some say that it does not work well at all. Back when I was growing up in Spencer, it did not matter who you were, or how much money you had, or if you were rich or poor. You got health care.

We had five medical doctors in Spencer. They all had daily office hours -- usually both in the afternoon and evening -- and yes, they all made house calls. The Civin family doctor was Alfred Brown, M.D. His office was in his home, a Victorian house where the parking lot of the Spencer Savings Bank is now situated. In one’s lifetime there are many heroes, some of them famous, perhaps most unsung. Dr. Brown has been dead for over 50 years, but he still fills the bill of one of my most admired people.

Doc Brown was more than just a good family physician; he was also your friend, your mentor. The family would seek his advice on matters other than medical. He was always there for you when you needed him. When he treated you, and you asked what you owed him, he would say, “Oh hell, give me two bucks,” or perhaps, “Get out of here, I didn’t do anything, you don’t owe me anything.” Doc Brown was a handsome man, about 6’ tall and very slender. In later life one of his legs was amputated as a result of a bone disease he caught as a young doctor working for the US Public Health Service in the jungles of Columbia. He used to entertain his juvenile patients by hitting the knee joint on his wooden leg with a mallet when he sat down.

Next door to the doctor’s house stood the Congregational minister’s home. Rev. Harold Bentley was the minister at the time the doctor got his first wooden leg, and the minister’s 6 year-old son knocked at the Brown door and stated “Doc, I am here to see your new leg.” Dr. Brown’s reply was, “ Do you have a nickel?” The boy replied that he did not. The doctor told him to get five of his friends, and he would be happy to show them the wooden leg six for a quarter. Six little boys came back to his house shortly, and Doc Brown pulled up his pants leg, showed them his artificial leg, and pocketed 25-cents.

When our family could not get Dr. Brown, most of the time we would call Dr. Romeo Cournoyer as a substitute. Doc Brown used to call Dr. Cournoyer one of the smartest young men he had ever known. At that time, Dr. Cournoyer was the youngest practicing doctor in Massachusetts. His office was on the corner of Cherry and Ash streets.

Dr. Austin (I don’t remember his first name) lived and practiced medicine in the house next door to Dr Brown’s. His house has also disappeared to make room for the Spencer Savings Bank. Doc Austin was a typical small-town doctor, whom his patients loved. He was portly, and as Irish as Paddy’s pig, with a weakness for whiskey.

Dr John Fowler’s office was in the house next door to the Sugden block. He was a very handsome man with snow-white hair, who chain smoked cigarettes. His wife used to always say that Dr. Fowler was just about the best thing to ever come out of the state of Virginia. Dr. Fowler’s nephew, Dr. Richard Fowler, took over his practice after World War II. Dr. Richard Fowler practiced in the same location until he died about three years ago.

I remember Dr. Conlin as a very jovial man and, though Irish, spoke fluent French. A widower, he lived with his sister, Kate Conlin, a chiropodist. Dr. Daniel Sidenberg came to Spencer in the late 1930s. He was originally from St. Louis, but had been camp doctor at the CCC camp. He left Spencer shortly before the start of World War II to become an Army doctor. He set up his practice in Worcester after the War, but many people from Spencer went to Worcester to see him for medical care until he retired maybe 10 years ago. I think that Dr. Sidenberg is still alive, though he must be close to 90.

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