Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Spencer and the War Years

As World War II raged on, life in Spencer also raced along for this growing boy. As soon as I reached the age of 12, I became a member of Boy Scout Troop 115. The other two Boy Scout troops were 149, which met at the Cherry Street Fire Station, and Troop 116, sponsored by St. Mary’s Church. My Troop 115 met every Tuesday Night at 7 p.m., with Ralph Warren as scoutmaster -- the best scoutmaster a boy could have. 

He took us on weekend camping trips, taught us scout and outdoor lore, and for many years gave up his yearly vacation from the Spencer Printing Co. to escort his Scouts to Treasure Valley. Some of my fellow scouts were Al Stebbins, Scott Gerrish, and a tall, lanky kid by the name of Eddie Budnik. It was a wonderful time of my life; I truly enjoyed scouting.

For three years I went with my troop to Treasure Valley Boy Scout Camp on Browning Pond. I would save the $7.50 it cost for a week from my paper route money. Treasure Valley Camp was one of my favorite places in the whole world. Each troop had their own campsite, where we lived in large wall tents. We did our cooking as a troop, and learned boating, canoeing, swimming, and other activities. 

One day, on my first year going to camp, I was sawing wood with a two-man cross-cut saw. I was kneeling on one side of the saw, and the scoutmaster was on the other side. I let go of my side when Ralph Warren was pushing on his side of the saw. I won’t go into detail as to what happened, but I did learn a valuable lesson that is, never let go of your side of a two-man wood-cutting operation. I still have the scar above my right knee to prove that theory, 56 years later.

Earlier in the story I shared that Luther Hill Park had been destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938, with not one of those beautiful, tall evergreens left standing. The storm had just devastated the park. It was during my time of scouting that the Boy Scouts of Troop 115 -- with the help of Spencer’s strong man, George Willey -- re-planted all the trees. To this day, the pines that we scouts planted back in 1943 are the ones that still provide shade and beauty.

Another one of my favorite pastimes in the summer was to walk to Alta Crest Farms to visit and play with my friend, Richard Sagendorph. Alta Crest Farms, as I mentioned before, is where St. Joesph’s Abbey is now. It was a four-mile hike, but I did not mind it at all; in fact, I found the trek fun. There were two ways I could get there. I could hike along Route31 to the road, now blocked off, beside the Guaranteed Fitness Center. That road would take you by Kerlin’s Chicken Farm -- run by Nathan Kerlin and his son, Isaac -- over the hills and past the Town Poor Farm, run by the Wilsons. 

Do you remember Mr. Wilson, the pony ride man on the East Brookfield flats? When I was a kid, he was the warden at the poor farm. Before the state of Massachusetts took over supervision of welfare, the cities and towns were in charge of taking care of their citizens in need. All towns had a poorhouse or poor farm. It is where the authorities sent their real down-and-outers. The town farm, I can assure you, was not a very nice place to be. It is good that they are part of history in Spencer and New England, and are no more. Anyhow, over the hills to a great day playing at Alta Crest Farms.

The other way my hike to the farm was up Northwest Road right past the old Proctor Farm. I would get a ride home on a truck that used to come into Spencer to pick up the milk at the Alta Crest Village Farm. This was a smaller farm the Sagendorphs owned on the west side of Pleasant Street, right above Smithville Road. The pastures of Alta Crest Village Farm were where the housing development is today, on Smithville and Old Farm roads. The overseer of that farm was a Scottish immigrant, Bill Gibson.

At the beginning of World War II Alta Crest Farms was awarded the milk contract at Lowell General Hospital in Fort Devens. On Sundays, so that the milk truck driver could have a day off, Dick Sagendorph, Sr. used to take the run to deliver the milk at the Fort. One Sunday he invited my friend Richard and me to accompany him on the trip. It was probably the biggest adventure of my life to that date. Imagine riding in a big yellow truck, hauling a load of milk all the way to Ayer and a real Army reservation. This was not a story my father had told me about the Army; this was the real thing, me, Marty Civin, at Fort Devens. What a thrill it was!

On the more academic side of those days, my love for US history might have started with a boy who had moved from Harlem, New York City, to Spencer. Lauri Ahlbom was sent here by his alcoholic father in New York City to help with the chores, in exchange for room and board, on the farm of Erick Johnson and his wife. (Mrs. Johnson was Jim Grant’s grandmother.) The farm was located where the Klem Dept. Store is in the west part of town. Lauri was quite proud of his estranged father, and with good reason. His father, a world-class sprinter, had been a member of the, I believe, 1928 Olympic Team from Finland. Lauri’s dad had immigrated to the United States to ply his trade as Henry Ford’s personal tailor.

Unfortunately, booze had done him in, and he was now working at his trade in New York. Lauri, who was my age, came to David Prouty Junior High at the beginning of the seventh grade. He was the smartest kid I had ever met, and he excelled in everything. Though he was rough around the edges, he must have been a teacher’s dream. Our history teacher, Miss Silk, gave extra credit if you could memorize the summary of each chapter in our history textbook. A competition began between Lauri and me, with both of us memorizing the summary, word for word after each chapter. I don’t remember who won, but I do recall that we both memorized our whole history book. After he returned from visiting his father (on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem) over Christmas vacation our seventh grade year, there wasn’t a boy in our class who didn’t envy Lauri. While in the Big Apple, Lauri and one of his Harlem friends went to Chinatown, to Charlie Stewart’s tattoo shop. For 25-cents my buddy got a sailing ship tattooed on one of his biceps, with seagulls flying above the sails. Lauri Ahlbom was my friend until he moved to Florida a number of years ago.

Jimmy Bogle was another good buddy -- known as a tough kid, but a good kid. He lived upstairs at One Valley St., the house next to the Spencer athletic field. His mother did housework, and his father, Scotty Bogle, worked in the dairy at Sibley Farms. My mother was not at all happy with my friendship with Jimmy, whom she was sure was going to lead me astray. Besides attending school most of the time, Jimmy Bogle was a striker on Sibley Farms’ milk truck.

The summer of 1944, when I was 13, I gave up my paper route, and Jimmy got me a job as a striker. You were paid $7 for 7 days’ work, $1 a day and breakfast. I worked for a driver from East Brookfield by the name of Don Wagner. He would drive the truck around the route, and I would run door to door putting the glass bottles of milk on the doorsteps. My day started at 5 a.m. and usually ended about 2 p.m. I haven’t seen or heard from Jimmy Bogle in years, but I do know what happened to him. He quit David Prouty in his junior year and joined the Navy 1947. After boot camp, he became a pigboat sailor. Pigboats were World War II-class submarines. It was like going to sea in a sewer pipe. He ended his seagoing career on atomic subs. Jimmy retired after more than 30 years’ service, with the Naval rank of captain -- that would be the same as an Army colonel. Not bad for a dead-end kid from Valley Street.

It was around 1943 or 1944 that Civin’s Specialty Shop moved from 10 Mechanic down the street to 20 Mechanic St. My parents went all-out in designing this store: They finally had a fashion shop. They had their fixtures built in knotty pine, which was the trend of the day. No more makeshift racks; it was a real women’s and children’s shop now. My parents were now drawing $42 a week out of the business, a sum they would draw for many years. My mother -- who could at times be quite frugal -- used to boast that they managed on a $42 weekly salary for years. What she did not mention was that the business paid all their expenses, with the exception of food.

In the autumn of 1944, I entered David Prouty High School as a freshman. My subjects were English, Latin, Ancient History, Algebra, and Science. My marks stunk; I just got by with five Cs. Most of my time in classes I sat and dreamed, and when I got home I did very little studying. I dreaded report card time, because I knew there would always be yelling, lectures, and punishment from my parents. I also became quite introverted and withdrawn. It took me many years to come out of my shell.

Scott Gerrish and I got a job in the fall that year for the whopping sum of 40-cents an hour. I am serious; we thought that was darn good money for a couple of 13-year-old kids. The job was with Johnny Ficociello’s vegetable farm on the East Brookfield flats, across the road from Petruzzi Farms. (Johnny was the brother-in-law of Sandy Petruzzi’s grandfather.) Our job was to walk behind the tractor and plow as it dug up the carrots, pull the foliage off the vegetables, and throw them into bushel baskets. It was all stoop labor; talk of earning your money. Wow. From that period of my life until 1996, I have had some interesting and varied positions, but it was topping carrots for a few weeks where I started to learn that a dollar did not come easy.

In November 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his fourth term as president, with Harry S. Truman as his vice president. Roosevelt, though only 60 years of age looks like death warmed over in his pictures. The war in Europe is beginning to wind down, or at least everyone thought it was winding down. In December 1944 the Nazis made a desperate last attempt to reverse the tide of Allied advances. The Battle of the Bulge in Belgium turns out to be one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Fortunately, the Germans’ last great push failed, but not without crushing casualties on both sides. The Allied advance now resumes across the Rhine River and into Germany. From the east the Soviet Army, which had held the Nazis at Stalingrad for over three years, was making the Germans pay for the 30 million Russians -- both military and civilian -- that had been killed in the war.

Franklin Roosevelt did not live to see the end of World War II. He died in Warm Springs; GA, in April 1945.The greatest leader of the 20th century was dead at the age of 61. Harry Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States. The beginning of May of that year troops of the US and Red armies linked up at the River Elbe. The war in Europe was over, but there was very little celebration, because there was still a bloody war to be won in the Pacific.

The war in the Pacific rages on in the spring and summer of 1945. The battle for Okinawa turns out to be extremely bloody on both sides. The US and her allies are preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Casualties are expected to be catastrophic. Japanese kamikazes (suicide bombers) are hitting our ships one after the other. Meanwhile, off the coast of Okinawa, a young radioman third class in the radio tower shack on a destroyer gets a relief to get a cup of coffee. While he was in the ship’s dining room -- or galley, as it is called -- drinking his coffee, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashes his plane into the radio shack, killing the radioman third class’s relief. The radioman was someone familiar to you Civins: R.M3/c Kenneth (Mookey) Bernstein.

On Aug. 4, 1945, President Truman makes a weighty decision. He gives his consent for a B-29 bomber, called Enola Gay, to take off from the island of Saipan, and go on a bombing run to drop its load on Hiroshima, Japan. The first atomic bomb is dropped, and a couple of days later another A-bomb is dropped on the city of Nagasaki. On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese Imperial Government surrenders to Army General Douglas McArthur, aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Harbor. World War II is over, the Atomic Age is born, and the world will never again be the same.

I will never forget V-J Day, the day World War II ended. What a celebration it was here in Spencer! Scott Gerrish and another friend, Richie Lilystrom, went downtown that evening of Aug. 14, 1945, to watch the parade. I can remember a drunken sailor coming down the Town Hall hill lickity-split on a tricycle. People were dancing in the street, horns and whistles were blowing, and it was a night like none I had ever seen. After a while, Richie went to his grandmother’s house and stole a jar of homemade peach brandy. The three of us went out to Scott’s backyard on Cherry Street and downed the brandy. It must say, that was my first time that I did any serious drinking, and I did have quite a shine on. We three celebrants then borrowed Scott’s father’s 12-gauge shotgun, and we each fired off a few rounds. We all then went home, and went to bed. I will never forget that night. I was 14 years old.

Behind the Memories
Medical Miracles —Yet to Come

It is easy to forget that some of today’s routine tools — especially in medicine — had yet to be developed. Take Richie Lilystrom, who lived at 95 Main St., the house on the east corner of High Street.

A year younger than me -- and a little on the wild side -- Richie was one of my best buddies. He looked like someone in a Norman Rockwell painting, a skinny kid with blonde hair hanging down over his forehead, and a freckled face. However, Richie had a bad problem; he had a bad heart. Today, most likely some surgery and a couple of days in the hospital would have fixed him up. Back in the 1940s open-heart surgery wasn’t even a dream. Richie died of a heart attack at age 15. My pal knew that he should have restricted his activities, but – such is a teenager -- he refused to do it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

1939: At The Edge of War

The nation was on the edge of another major world war in 1939, but I continued to enjoy my boyhood in Spencer. In September I transferred from Grove Street School to Pleasant Street School. My fourth grade teacher was Miss Viola Hastings, whom I liked very much. She married Frank Devereux a few years later. Because female teachers were not allowed to marry back in the 1940's, she left her profession. Mrs. Devereaux has been deceased for many years. (She was the mother of Jim Devereaux, owner of the Oakwood Christmas Barn on Route 31.

Sitting in the seat next to me in the fourth grade was a farm kid from Wire Village. He was small like I was, but a lot tougher. I immediately took a liking to Al Stebbins. He became perhaps my closest buddy until 1947, when he quit high school to join the Navy. 

It was Al who taught me to drive when I was 14, in an old Model A truck in the pasture of their farm. Al’s mother was a colorful character who chewed snuff and used to tell me, when I would get a little to big for my britches, that, “You ain’t stopped pissing yellow yet.” Al moved to the Iowa a couple of years ago to be close to his daughter, Debbie, and her family.

The 1939 World’s Fair drew my parents and Uncle Bob out of town. I have often wondered why, but I was not included in the trip. I guess my mother and father thought that I was too young to enjoy the festivities, so I stayed home with Uncle Nathan and Aunt Gertrude. Among others wonders, new phenomena called television was introduced there to the public for the first time. 

I sometimes find it hard to believe that I grew up in a world without television. Uncle Bob, a paperboy for the Spencer Leader, launched his journalistic career that year. I remember the picture of Bob sitting on his bike with a paper-carrying bag over his shoulder. The article he wrote was entitled, LEADER NEWSBOY’S IMPRESSION OF THE WORLD’S FAIR.I followed Bob into the “newspaper business,” getting my first paper route in the summer of 1941. It was a morning route starting on the corner of Mechanic Street and Main, going down Mechanic and up the hill to Prospect Street, over to Maple Street, down the hill, finishing on all the streets around Muzzy Meadow. 

I peddled the Worcester Telegram, The Boston Record, The Boston Globe, The Boston Post, and The Springfield Union. I did all this for the whopping sum of $3.50 a week, but I suppose that wasn’t bad for a 10-year-old kid. The best tipper on my route was J. Henri Morin, who always gave me 3-cents, “To buy a stamp to send your girl a letter, and 15 cents for you self.” Most customers only tipped 1 cent.

I always used to collect for the paper at Mahan’s Café on Friday nights, because the bartender, Scotty Thompson, would pay and give me a nickel tip; after all, it wasn’t his money. If Charlie Mahan, the owner of the saloon, paid me, it was only a penny tip. One of the more interesting people on my route was old man Savegeau. Once a bare-knuckle boxer in the Army in the Philippines at the turn of the century, he had the biggest hands I think I had ever seen. 

He was short and squat, with one eye. The old man used to scare the hell out of me when he would come to the door to pay me. People over the years have told me that he was as gentle as a lamb. Four of his sons were pretty respectable professional boxers during the 1930s. (One of the boxer sons was Cathy Savegeau, who was in Melanie’s class, father.)

That fall I had saved enough money from my paper route to buy a bicycle from the Eastern Cycle Co. on Portland Street in Worcester. I purchased a brand new bike for the grand sum of $18.95. It was a beautiful bright red, Harvard brand, with balloon tires, a light, a carrier on the handlebars, and -- best of all -- I bought it myself. 

Uncle Bob’s 16th birthday was Oct. 8, 1941, and that evening Mother sent him downtown to buy some ice cream. He borrowed my new bike to run the errand. He couldn’t stop on the bottom of High Street, crossed Main Street, and crashed head-on into a car coming up Elm Street. Bob’s leg was broken and his thighbone was shattered. He had to have a steel plate inserted in his thigh to hold the bone together. It has been almost 60 years since his accident, and he still has the steel plate. After the accident my mother said no more bikes for us. But, a couple of months later, my father surprised me by having my bike repaired. How happy I was!

Meanwhile, the winds of war are encompassing both Europe and Asia in 1939. The Austrians welcomed Hitler into their country with open arms. The Germans invade Czechoslovakia and Poland, and in June 1941, Hitler makes the mistake of invading the Soviet Union. It is the beginning of a long struggle between good and evil, but the war is still a long way from peaceful Spencer. Roosevelt is supplying Great Britain with a lot of the tools of war, but the United States has avoided committing troops to the struggle.

On Pearl Harbor Day, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Naval Air Force bombed US installations and most of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, territory of Hawaii. I can visualize it as if were yesterday, although it was 59 years ago. We had a large console radio situated against the wall in the dining room. 

As the report of the air raid was broadcast, I can see my father leaning on the radio with his head bowed down on the top panel. The next day, Monday, all the students at Pleasant Street School were let out of their classrooms, and we stood on the stairs between the two floors as we listened to President Roosevelt declare war on both Japan and Germany. We heard the President’s speech on a little radio we students had earned from the school the previous spring by selling seeds. The world would never be the same again. I was 10 years old.

Shortly after the war started, as his contribution to the war effort my father became an air raid warden on High Street. His responsibility was from Prouty Street south to Pleasant Street. If I remember correctly, Charlie Putnam was the air raid warden on the other half of the street. Remember, at the beginning of the war the people did not know what to expect. We Americans did not know if we would be subject to the same kind of bombing that England was enduring. 

During air raid drills the entire town would be blacked out; not even the light from a cigarette was allowed. Air raid wardens would patrol the darkened streets to make sure everyone was inside -- preferably in their cellars -- for shelter, and adhering to the blackout. Once in a while Gordon McMurdo and I would sneak out of our houses during a drill, and hide in the bushes. I guess it wasn’t too smart, but boys will be boys. Mom has told me that her father was also an air raid warden in Worcester. 

I believe it was on Thursday nights that my mother and a group of ladies, headed by Miss Cruickshanks, would do their part by rolling bandages. The bandages they constructed were sent to the theaters of the war to dress the wounds of the men injured in battle. Do you remember the framed citation that Grandma Civin had in her den from President Harry Truman? The citation was for her effort in making bandages. She never missed a week during the war.

A terrible tragedy hit our family in August 1942: Uncle Nathan Israel died of a massive heart attack. Nathan was just 40 years old. He left behind his wife, Gertrude, and his 5-year-old son, David. It took a long time for us to adjust to life without Nathan. 

David was badly afflicted with asthma, and a few years later, Gertrude asked my parents to buy out her share of the business, and she and Alice Duggan -- who had also recently become a widow -- moved to Florida. Gertrude felt the warm climate would be better for David’s health. David was more like a kid brother to me than a cousin. I lost my buddy forever.

Through the sadness, Spencer was on a war footing. Recycling came into being for the first time. We would pour bacon and other meat fats into tin cans and bring them to the A&P or First National markets to be shipped out, to be used to manufacture, I believe, nitroglycerin. The food stores would pay a penny a pound for bacon grease. 

There were scrap metal drives. I remember when most of the yard at Kleven Shoe was full of scrap iron. We bundled out newspapers, loaded our wagons, and took the paper to Tower Box to be recycled. Over 800 of our town’s young men and women served in the armed forces. Over 20 young men made the supreme sacrifice.

Service people from Spencer served on every front, from the beaches of Normandy to the bloody islands of the South Pacific. Arthur Gendreau was lost on a submarine in the Pacific. Bob Agard, the son of the superintendent of schools, was killed in a tank in Italy. Bob Begin, a US Marine (and Melanie’s classmate, Vicky Begin’s, uncle), was killed in action on Iwo Jima. Pliny Allen, the son Allen Squire Shoe’s owner, lost his life as a gunner on a B-24 bomber in one of the bloodiest air raids of the Second World War, the oil fields in Polesti, Romania. 

Also perishing in that raid was Arnold Krause, a boy from Brooklyn, NY, the son of one of my mother’s girlfriends. Arnold had come to Spencer to spend a couple of weeks with us around 1940, but he was so homesick that he went back to Brooklyn after a couple of days. All of the boys that were killed in World War II had so much to live for, but the evil in the world had to be stopped.

I could not mention events in Spencer during World War II without telling you about Elton (Jed) Prouty. Jed Prouty wrote a column in the Spencer Leader detailing the life and adventures of Spencer’s sons and daughters serving in the military. He personally corresponded with all the people of Spencer who were serving their country, telling them about events in their hometown. When I say all, I mean ALL; if Jed could get a service person’s address, he wrote to him or her. 

Jed was probably one of the most dedicated people I knew during the war. Jed’s wife, Annetine, worked for Grandma in the store as a salesperson for many years. There is a sad story that I must tell about Jed Prouty. He had been an alcoholic for many years, but kept so busy during the war years that he stopped drinking. I guess Jed was so busy writing he did not have time to drink. When the war ended, ex- servicemen returning to Spencer started buying their friend drinks. It was sad; Jed Prouty would go on benders. He would start his toot drinking at the Massasoit, which was the best bar in town. As the days of his bender went on he would keep lowering his standards as to where he drank. 

He would usually end up in Pete’s Café or the Windsor, two of Spencer’s less desirable saloons. One night, shortly after Mom and I married, we were coming back from Worcester, and we rescued Jed, who was staggering up Main Street in the middle of the road, and we took him home. Annetine used to tell Grandma that he was a wonderful, talented man, but when he drank he was no different than any other drunk. It is such a sad commentary.