At its best, my childhood looked like Jean Sheperd’s “A Christmas Story” with me as Ralphie. I wanted the BB gun too, but also my school, the coal furnace, the front yard, clothes and snow suits… my life really looked like this. Until I was ten we lived in Ann Arbor, the college town. More than half of the time we lived at the campus.
This is the late 40s in America. Earth tones clothes, furniture and walls. One telephone in the house, one electric plug per room. Plastic was exotic. No such thing as TV. Behind our house was a lady who had about 30 cats.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, corner of State & Huron. In the picture, that’s it. Dad’s Grace Bible is the ivy-covered stone building. Our house, the parsonage, just next to the church. Both buildings are now offices of an architectural firm. My back yard of grass, clothes lines and rhubarb is now a parking lot .
This old native stone building was my playground, especially the tower. Across the street in my time was Ann Arbor high school.
The University of Michigan music school was, maybe is, the red brick across the street from which the picture is taken, specifically the wind instrument department. Toot, toot. Kitty corner then and now the Methodist church where children were told a crazy guy lived in the bell tower.
For five years, from the age of four, my world was this church and the university campus. There was one other kid, Johnny Fontana, son of the live-in guy at the undertakers just a block down on Huron. So Johnny and I ran the campus, invisible because were were too little to be noticed. We found the ways into the utility tunnels that ran for blocks and carried water, heat and power to the buildings. We used the tunnels to get into campus buildings, particularly the museums, whether they were actually open for business or not. On alternate Fall Saturdays we marched in a parade to the football stadium, Ann Arbor’s real church. We were two little boys with a regular marching band parade of their own, noise and joy, a mile and a half through a Great Lakes autumn afternoon, regardless of repeated instructions. What could possibly be better.
My school was a brick pile twenty minutes walk from home. In easy reach there was a war surplus joint selling off the left overs from World War II, and a YMCA which showed three hours of movie serials on Saturday for a dime. There was a local newspaper —the Ann Arbor News which ceased publishing in 2009. There was a chinese restaurant and a dairy where they made milkshakes with their own ice cream. The grocery store employed a butcher and sold blocks of white margarine that looked and tasted like Crisco. Yellow coloring for it came in separate packets and was mixed in at home, a tribute to the power of the dairy farmers who saw no reason why congealed vegetable oil should look like real butter.
I lived there in that house until I was nine.