Scooter Boy… or not

Scooter Boy… or not

Hey Sonny… how old are you?

While standing in the middle of our gravel road on Stanford out in front of my house one day, a car pulled up and a man leaned out his window saying, “Hey Sonny… how old are you?” I didn’t know what to say at first, sort of stumbling for words. I didn’t think to ask why but he continued… “I’m looking for someone at least twelve that would like a paper route.” Of course I did the honorable thing… thinking I would like to have a paper route and this was an opportunity from out of nowhere. These things just don’t happen I thought. Some people call it luck but this was more like just being at the right place at the right time. I was only eleven, but I would soon be twelve, so of course the honest Injun in me told him I was twelve. My decision was based mostly on fantasy and greed… the human conditions we are born with, that hopefully gets taught or shamed out of us before we end up in jail.

A neighborhood friend and schoolmate, Ron Kryzaniack, lived on the corner of Stanford and Telegraph. He was a fellow Boy Scout and possessed a Cushman Motor Scooter that I was very envious of. So if I had a paper route, I reasoned, it would satisfy my fantasy and hopefully, if I could save enough money I could buy one. There was another scooter patrolling the neighborhood, a really cool looking Cushman Eagle, and riding it was another neighborhood kid named Gary Broyles, who lived a couple of blocks over on Hopkins. He was a couple of years older and older is always cool even without a scooter.

Soon after encountering the man in the street I was hired and started delivering the Dearborn Press, a local weekly newspaper. Competition was very high then, there were 2 other weekly papers to compete with, the Dearborn Independent and the Dearborn Guide, not to mention daily papers such as the Detroit Times, the News and the Detroit Free Press. There were so many papers then because people weren’t dependent on TV for their news like today, and TV news programming was in its infancy. Plus, TV everyone knew, was for entertainment, like watching the Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, Milton Berle, or The Jackie Gleason Show. None of these shows were newsworthy in the least.

A brief history: The Dearborn Independent was formerly Henry Ford’s Newspaper and as you might guess he was Mister Dearborn during the papers heyday. The Newspaper was sold to Henry Mills in 1928 after Henry Ford, in the Independent, had made some disparaging remarks about Jews in America. The Dearborn Guide (I think) surfaced sometime after the war, and in 1950 was challenged in court by the Independent as not being a local paper because it was assembled and printed in Hamtramck. A long court battle ensued and the Guide came out ahead, so the story goes? The Independent was purchased in 1958 by the Dearborn Press and today Dearborn now has a combined weekly newspaper called the “Press and Guide,”

Back to my Motor Scooter dilemma: I soon realized neither the Dearborn Press nor the Dearborn Independent, as weekly newspapers, provided enough income for me to buy a scooter. Over a period of time I delivered them both. Not only was there not enough revenue but the money itself was hard to collect. It was an early lesson for me about how difficult it was for people to part with their money… even though they signed up for delivery. Collecting for my papers was done on Saturdays and involved my going door to door which I found to be a very painful chore. No such financial instruments existed then, as now, with credit cards and PayPal. All financial transactions were in cash. Knock knock, ding dong… and I wanted to scream “I know you are in there,” and I did know because I could see them scrambling out of sight as I walked up their driveway.

After a long period of peddling weekly’s I decided I needed to move up the food chain. What I needed was a daily paper to deliver, a move that would put me in the chips, so I thought? Other kids had motor scooters, not many, but if they had them then why shouldn’t I? My fantasy grew but it took me awhile to realize that my appetite for model airplanes was larger than for the scooter and so saving money wasn’t happening. Plus, I had acquired another appetite for French toast.

My wish to deliver a daily came true, I was already experienced and the Detroit Free Press came a calling. The neighborhood delivery route for the Blue Streak became available and I jumped at it. The trouble was, it was an early morning delivery, get this… the papers showed up on my front porch at 4:30 AM. That was even earlier than my Uncle, my roommate, got up to go to work for his day shift at the Ford Stamping plant.

The winter mornings were cold and dark. I arose each morning at 4:30 am, folded papers and stuffed them in my canvas saddlebags and laid them across the rear carrier of my bicycle and headed down our driveway to the street. I recall having about 80 to 90 customers on neighboring streets, then depending on the weather and how deep the snow was, it would take me about an hour and a half to two hours to deliver. I would finish with just enough time to get to school. Telling this today seems like a really big chore for a little guy, and I was a little guy, but really it helped to give me a sense of independence. It was during this period that I gained knowledge of and made an acquaintance with French toast. There was a little diner across Telegraph Road, in the neighborhood of Lehigh and Hopkins that served three full slices for 35 cents. On occasion, when I had a few extra minutes, after papers were delivered I would treat myself.

My Detroit Free Press “Blue Streak” customers seemed like a better lot than my weekly bunch. I didn’t encounter nearly as many people that wouldn’t answer their door when I knocked or rang the bell to collect. They were friendlier and maybe they enjoyed their morning paper more. One such customer, Mr. Nichols and his wife, lived on the southwest corner of Stanford and Westlake. He would meet me each morning at his side gate to receive his paper no matter what the weather was like. They were retired and they owned a brand new Lincoln car. Mr. Nichols, I learned early on, liked to play the horses and not just in Detroit. They were the sweetest, nicest couple, I had ever known at my young age, and would probably rank high in the many I’ve known since.

Each spring he and his wife would drive to Hialeah, Florida to engage in a bit of wagering on the ponies. After returning home he would pay tribute to the local tracks, one being the Detroit Race Track out in Livonia and following that up with the Harness Racing going on at Hazel Park Raceway. One week in the spring, with my parent’s permission, he offered to take me with him out to the track in Livonia. He taught me how to read the sheets on various horses and how to pick them to wager on. He asked me to figure out which horses he should bet on and I gave it a try. He then said “Ronnie, here’is two dollars for you to bet with, so pick a horse.” Well, I really didn’t want to bet with his money but how was I to say no? I would rather have had the two dollars to keep for myself. A good lesson was learned that day and maybe it was intentional on his part? The horses I picked had lost and I really wished I still had the two dollars. Later, even though my flying career had me spending a lot of time in Las Vegas, I have never been a gambler. And I wonder if my lesson about gambling occurred that day with Mr. Nichols?

The Hialeah Park Race Track, in Florida, is one of the oldest existing. It was originally opened in 1922 by aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss as part of his development of the town of Hialeah. The Park itself is on the National Registry of Historic places. Soon after my wagering experience with Mister Nichols, he and his wife headed south for their annual drive to South Florida, to do some wagering with the racing elite.

One evening, shortly after the Nichols left for Florida, my mother pulled me aside and made me promise not to tell, she had a secret she wanted to share and that I couldn’t tell anyone… ANYONE! The secret was, Mr. Nichols had come to our house and asked, with her permission, that when they returned from Florida he was going to buy me a Cushman Motor Scooter. Whoa, can you imagine that? Well, I was pretty high on cloud nine, if that is really the highest cloud there is.

My experience with Mister Nichols taught me another important lesson, even more so than the pit falls that wagering can bring you. A cliché for sure and so true… “One should never count their chickens before they are hatched.” It has remained the longest month of my life, my head never out of the clouds until… the weekday morning when I got the news: my mother , with tears in her eyes, showed me the article in the paper. It read… “Local couple involved in fatal auto accident near Greenville, Indiana.” It went on to say, “Mr. and Mrs. Nichols, of Dearborn Township, returning from a Florida vacation, were involved in a two car automobile accident in which Mrs. Nichols died. Mr. Nichols, although seriously injured, remains hospitalized.”

A few months later Mr. Nichols did return home, he met me at his gate one morning while I was delivering papers, I didn’t know what to say to him. I still don’t remember what I did say or what he said to me? Mr. Nichols died a few weeks later of natural causes and I’m sure it involved a broken heart.

I was never sorry that I wasn’t able to save for a Cushman Motor Scooter or that the gracious promise of Mr. Nichols didn’t occur. I still feel sorry for him losing his life partner in such a tragic way. The result for me was an early lesson about the fragility of our existence. Life isn’t a forever thing and hopefully, its stages, can be appreciated if we can just manage to survive most of them intact with the ones we love. And, not all are so lucky to have the opportunity.

Edsel B. Ford Elementary

Edsel B. Ford Elementary

the new Boomers, and Fran and Al

It could have been predicted, and perhaps it was, that 5 years and 9 months after the Second World War ended, our school systems would be overwhelmed with new little earthlings all ready and willing to learn. The reasoning is quite obvious.

My school, Edsel B. Ford Elementary, sat in a field on the corner of Penney and Gulley Roads in Dearborn Township. Most everyone I knew walked there from where they lived in the immediate neighborhoods. My trek each morning was about seven blocks, and half of that distance involved walking through a few wooded areas that included a barnyard complete with barn. There were no cows but there was some cow and horse residue, which if not careful could be stepped in. The streets weren’t paved and there were no sewers yet, so we had ditches that were sometimes filled with water, which were good for getting a soaker. Getting one of those involved crashing through thin ice and getting wet to as high as your knee. Not a pleasant result when going to school, because you had to live with a wet shoe all day.

What I remember most about my journey to school each morning was walking in fresh morning snow and arriving at my schools front door… in the dark. Then, pulling the door open and being greeted to the warm smells of school, the smell of busy little bodies ridding themselves of the constraints of their winter garb, like leggings and boots, hats, scarves and mittens.

Because of the influx of our new baby boomers, as we refer to them today, there weren’t enough classrooms to fit the needs of the school district in 1951-52. So, a plan was concocted to have us attend school in shifts while an addition to the school was underway. Mine was the early period. My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Ross, and I got to share a desk with a former 4th grade classmate, who attended in the afternoon. Her name was Mary Alice Waske. She was a cute girl and all of the boys liked her, which included me. I’m sure I wasn’t anyone special to her, but we used to leave notes for each other in our shared desk. There were a lot of cute girls in my class but you weren’t allowed to let it be known you liked any of them. Liking a girl was totally off limits in our 5th grade boy’s world. Leaving notes in the desk was the way to go and there wasn’t much chance you would get caught, of all things…liking a girl.

I believe it was during this period (fifth grade) that the socialization of ten and eleven year old girls and boys began in earnest. Our faculty of teachers scheduled a dance and all of us were expected to do it. Dance. There was another teacher that also taught a fifth grade class and I think her name was Mrs. Stewart. And, I have to admit even as an eleven year old, she was a looker. She was also very tall. Well, one day, we were all marched down to the new gymnasium and shown some rudimentary steps in how one is expected to perform this awkward manipulation of feet, arms, and legs. Their intention was not to teach us how to do the chicken, or the tango. It was all about waltzes and foxtrots that came from the phonograph with no one singing (they were Instrumentals, I was to learn later). I’d never seen a fox trot (to music) so this made no sense to me and I’m sure all the others. We were then paired up and asked to get on with it… all except for me. Me, the short one, was chosen to dance by the tall good looking teacher. So we began as we were instructed, and proceeded with what I thought was the proper dancing engagement. My left hand holding her right, my right arm around her waist and her left arm was on my right shoulder. Or so I thought? After a few minutes of this entanglement, I noticed some of the kids pointing and they were pointing at us! I heard some giggling and took it all in stride concentrating hard on keeping good time with the music. Here’s the fun part… I was dancing with my right hand on the tall teachers behind, not her waist as I thought? How was I to know…? I was short. Plus, as a 5th grader, I wasn’t yet experienced in how a waist and a rear end were supposed to feel.

There were other social events during this particular school year orchestrated by parents. There were Birthday Parties that included both boys and girls. Being invited to the same party seemed like a very awkward event at that age. Evelyn Sawyer had such a party, and I don’t recall being enthused about going to a girl’s Birthday, after all, what do you buy a girl as a present? But, I was invited along with several other friends from school so I went. And for the life of me I can’t remember any of them that attended other than Fran Elser, another of the cute girls in my 5th grade class. After the festivities there were the usual party games like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” and then ending with some rounds of “Spin the Bottle.” That is where I must have totally lost any recall. Again, I remember nothing of who else might have been at the party other than Fran and the Birthday Girl, Evelyn. I don’t recall who was first to choose whom, but Fran was the only one I chose to kiss, and I liked kissing Fran… a lot.

Fran and I are able to share, and sometimes chuckle with our friends during our many school reunions over the years, about that early experience of ours so long ago. Evelyn Sawyer’s party was a distinct turning point, although I remained very shy, it was then that I recognized girls were an entity to be dealt with and no longer need be ignored and categorized as nuisances. It was a necessary coexistence for sure, and they weren’t going to just disappear, thank goodness.

My secret sweetheart will always be Fran, but Al Kaline, of the same era, was to remain my hero for quite some time. Because, before you could have a real sweetheart, and let’s be honest, you had to be a Major League baseball player that played for the Detroit Tigers at Briggs Stadium down on Michigan Avenue and Trumble. It took nearly another decade for me to realize, that I didn’t need to be a baseball player to have a sweetheart, I could be an airplane pilot.

The Driving School

The Driving School

There was a driving school at my Uncle LuLa’s house but he knew nothing of it. We hadn’t owned a car while living in Detroit and one really wasn’t a necessity. Turns out we got along well with just having a wagon and (for winter) a sled. Pretty much everything we needed was nearby and within walking distance. There were bars, barber shops and mom and pop grocery stores on every corner in the neighborhood. It would be different living in the suburbs.

We suffered a few years at our new home with trying to manage without a car of our own. Uncle had a 1948 Plymouth Coupe that was spread pretty thin, especially since he drove it to work in the mornings. He worked at the Ford River Rouge Stamping Plant and for thirty-five years he stamped… fenders and doors. My Dad worked at Kelsey Hayes Wheel on McGraw and Livernois. After our move to the suburbs he transferred to their plant in Romulus and fellow workers came by to pick him up for his afternoon shift. He worked that same shift all of his life, so during the week he was never home when I got home from school. I saw him mostly on weekends. I figured out later in life why he chose to be away… Mom was difficult.

Sometime during 1953 Dad and Mom decided we needed a car. We bought a used 1950 Ford two door that was blue. It had a standard shift and was to prove my mother’s undoing when it came to learning to drive it. She never did. I had another Uncle that was married to my Dad’s younger sister Katherine. My Uncle Vern was a kind warm hearted soul that decided he would take on my Mother’s ineptitude behind the wheel. Having been decorated in battle during the War, he’d earned a Purple Heart from the loss of an eye, so thought if he could survive the war he was up for this job. What he didn’t know, try as he might, was my mother would never learn to drive. My uncle Vern owned a new 1952 Chevrolet and I believe it was green, but can’t swear on it… it has after all been over sixty years since the driving school on Stanford Street opened and closed its doors. But, the 1952 Chevrolet was a beautiful car, that is, until my mother drove it through the front porch of Uncle LuLa’s house, our new house. Separating a car from a house is painful for both parties.

The driving school at Uncle LuLa’s house didn’t close its doors immediately. There was other driving to be done and the 1950 blue Ford, newly acquired, still sat out by the front curb. My growin up bud, my cousin Dan, would often come and visit staying the weekend. Spending both Friday and Saturday nights as a rule, and you know where this is going don’t you? It’s true, we did it!

When the adults would leave us alone, while they were out on the town, Dan and I would climb into the 1950 Ford and drive it around the block in the dark. And, we got away with it for a very, very long time. Our parents never found out about our escapade and were very surprised, when at the legal age, without the benefit of drivers training, when put behind the wheel we carried on quite nicely. They would brag to friends and relatives about our natural driving abilities. My mother however, not wanting to reek-havoc on neighboring houses, could not bring herself around to giving it another try.

In later life, after Dad no longer could drive Mom around, I bought her a car and paid for driving lessons through the Sears Driving School. She used the car a lot, but when doing so, there sitting behind the wheel (driving) was of all people, My Uncle LuLa.

My Uncle LuLa

My Uncle LuLa

“He’s a Travelin Man”

Shortly after my 10th Birthday, and my Grandma Hart’s funeral, I swapped houses and roommates. Moving from 32nd Street in Detroit into my new home on Stanford, in Dearborn Township, I acquired a new roommate. My old one, my Mother’s older sister Inez, was exchanged for my Dad’s younger brother Uncle Louis, known to me later as Uncle LuLa. I was used to sharing a room so there was no concern in this new arrangement on my part. The exception was, there was only half the amount of space in our shared new bedroom. Uncle’s house had only two bedrooms and we shared the smallest. Our twin size beds butted up against each other in the shape of an L. The foot of Uncles firmly against the side of mine so climbing into or out of bed meant crawling in or out from the foot end.

There were two dressers that stood about four feet high. The top of mine was always covered with a variety of plastic model airplanes, with perhaps one or two hanging from the ceiling at any one time. On the top of Uncle LuLa’s dresser were framed family photos and an assortment of cuff links and always new… the latest fad in camera’s and picture viewing devices. He tried them all and was especially fond of his 3D viewer. There was very little room for anything else in the room, with two identical looking closet and bedroom doors standing side by side, one swung left and one right. The knobs were identical as well and were just a few inches apart. It wasn’t unusual, in the middle of the night, to hear Uncle thrashing around in the closet having taken the wrong door out to use the hall bathroom. I don’t ever remember finding wet shoes in the morning so assume he made it out OK.

My Uncle was a lifelong bachelor. His many nephews and nieces adopted him as the family patriarch and he still owns the honor to this day, long after he is gone. He loved to travel and travel he did. One of his earliest trips after I moved in was Uncle flying in an American Airlines DC-7 from Willow Run Airport to Florida. I remember watching him depart, viewing from the roof of the airport terminal in Ypsilanti, and seeing the many factory buildings where not that long ago, so many of our bombers were assembled during World War II. When my Uncle returned from his Florida vacation, sitting on top of his dresser was a plastic model airplane of an American Airlines DC-7 that I’d glued together for him. Not much later we became travel partners for many trips during his lifetime.

Uncle was proud to have served in the US Army as an infantryman during the invasion of Italy from North Africa, where General Mark Clarks 5th Army had assembled in 1943. He returned with an E.A.M.E. Theatre Ribbon with 3 Bronze Stars, and Good Conduct and Victory Medals. E.A.M.E. meant the European, African, and Middle East Theatres, and the Bronze Stars were for the number of Campaigns he took part in.

During his travels he liked to visit his old army buddies. One year he took the train completely across country to Portland, Oregon to visit an old friend from the war. The next year he decided to drive east to Portland, Maine to visit another of his military acquaintances. And this was the first year he decided to take me along and where I learned to navigate from the right seat of his new blue 1953 Ford Coupe. I truly believe had I not been with him he would still be lost somewhere north of Quebec. He was not good with maps and direction, as in North and South. Even though we were well equipped with a compass and all of the latest AAA Trip-Tiks, as they were called then, it was still hard to convince him when and where to turn. It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my early life.

Leaving Detroit we crossed the Ambassador Bridge into Canada and headed for our first destination at Niagara Falls. Next we continued on to Montreal and Quebec, and back into the U.S. via the New England States. We finally made it to Portland, Maine and spent a few days with his friends there. Then we proceeded to Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and last and best was the Battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. The Pennsylvania Turnpike helped us easily find our way home. What a great two weeks that turned out to be. On that trip I was made aware of the outside world, which provided me the desire to one day see the rest of what lay beyond the wilds of West Dearborn, Michigan.

Being a committed bachelor Uncle never had to suffer the struggles and responsibilities of parenting. He had girlfriends from time to time but they were usually scared off by relatives warning him of their intentions to own his house one day. I don’t think he worried about that so much as he enjoyed his role as uncle to the many nieces and nephews of our large Polish family.

Parenting isn’t for sissies and not everyone should take it on. Easy to say for sure, but becoming an accidental parent can be very easy if you aren’t careful. I wasn’t careful or well educated in that respect, and so (I figured out later), neither was my biological father. The result of which is me. We seemed to have followed in all of the same footsteps… it is funny how that works.

Having my Uncle LuLa near, during this period in my life, was a blessing in disguise. Being raised by an insecure, dependent mother was difficult. I could never have provided her with what it was she needed. Love was doled out like putting money in a bank and hoping one day it would be returned, with interest. Well, it wasn’t. “You don’t understand how much I have done for you” was her mantra, and “You don’t know anything.” Well for sure I didn’t know anything because I was never told anything. It took 35 years to discover what it was I didn’t know… what I didn’t know was I had been adopted when I was eighteen months old. The “Poor Me” persona, my mother adopted for herself, never worked well with extracting or demanding love in return. As far as I can tell it doesn’t work well anywhere. Mothers beware: Love is best given without the expectation of some sort of gain. If you think about it… it isn’t really love you’re doling out if you have an expectation of a return in your investment. My Uncle was my safe haven and for all he gave me he never ever asked for anything in return. He bought an outboard motor and put it in his trunk and took me fishing on weekends.

During his later years he always traveled to see me no matter where I was living. Arkansas, Oklahoma, Dayton, Ohio and last was my home in Southern California where I was based as an airline pilot. During my days off I drove him all the way north to San Francisco. On the way we visited his World War Two training base at Camp Roberts, which he often spoke of while I was growing up. When I was working my wife Chris would trek with him all day, in and around Los Angeles, till he cried Uncle. Which was him saying that his dogs hurt. He was a very funny man to be around with a great appetite and would eat whatever you put on the table.

Near the end of his visit to California I succumbed to his wanting to visit Disneyland. So off we went and had a great time. Whenever we had visitors staying with us from out of state it seems all anyone ever wanted to do was visit Mickey Mouse. So it wasn’t an attraction that we always looked forward to visiting. This visit was different… “Oh my, would you look at that,” he would say. “I have a picture of that at home in my 3D Slide viewer,” And he did. Our last stop was the show at “The Golden Horseshoe,” an old time western themed saloon show. Near the end, one of the entertainers was asking around in the audience… and pointing to my Uncle says, “And where are you from sir?” Uncle Louis replied, “I came all the way from Detroit to visit my Son.” Well, I don’t need to say anymore about how I felt about my Uncle LuLa, at that moment or since.

On January 13th 1984, eleven days after his 70th Birthday, my Uncle Louis died. It was a great sorrow for our extended family and especially so for all of his nephews and nieces. I was honored to speak at his funeral and to share what he meant to me. I think of him often, sitting with me there, as his son, in The Golden Horseshoe’s Saloon.