In 1961 my mom took me for a visit to Battle Creek’s Leila Arboretum. Leila Arboretum is a horticulturist dream come true. The Arboretum is located along West Michigan Avenue at 20th Street east of Limit Street and west of Ridgemoor Avenue. The park is home to the Leila Arboretum Society’s Children’s Garden, Kingman Museum and a championship disc golf course. Other amenities include hard surface walking paths, access to the Linear Park, a water fountain, large open green space over hilly terrain, and picnicking area including a 60-by-30 feet shade pavilion.
At the time of my visit there were no gardens, disk golf course, or walking trails. Only the high old museum building. Everything was very interesting. Two displays stand out in my memory. The shrunken head displays and the growth of a unborn baby display.
The shrunken head was obtained from somewhere in South America. It was gruesome and brought to the front some macabre thoughts. Who was this man? What was his life like? Did it hurt to be shrunken? These were questions that I had no answers for. However it was very interesting to me a young boy of six.
The unborn baby display held my interest also. The display was set up in a series of formaldehyde filled containers. Each container contained a human embryo starting from an early stage of growth to a full grown baby ready to be born. The containers were placed on the top floor around a railing that circled the top floor. If you looked over the railing you could look down to the ground floor. The display was very interesting to me.
I had a great life with my mom. Saturdays were grocery shopping days in my family. I would go with mom to Krogers to buy groceries. Mom let me push the cart admonishing me not to push the cart into anything. Especially her legs! I remember helping mom grind coffee in the coffee grinder and then put the coffee into the bag. And then walking around the store filling up the grocery cart. Groceries back in the early 60s for us cost around 20 dollars a week. Very inexpensive in today’s economic climate. Very expensive back then. My dad made around $4.50 an hour back then. And when my mom went back to work about half of that. So twenty dollars a week was all they could afford. However you got more bang for your buck back then. Twenty dollars would fill the shopping cart. Mom and I continued around the store and completed the grocery shopping for the week.
Mom did not buy meat at Krogers. She went to a butcher on Cliff Street in Battle Creek. I do not recall the name of the butcher. However he was a nice man and he would often hand me something to eat when we visited. Either candy or a Slim Jim or something else. I always enjoyed visiting the butcher.
And then we would drive home and I would help my mom bring in the groceries. Very pleasant memories of way back then.
In 1961 mom dad and I took a driving trip to New Port Richey Florida. It’s approximately 1700 miles from Battle Creek Michigan to New Port Richey Florida. Dad always took his time on road trips so the trip was a three day trip with plenty of down time between drives. We got up very early, around 4 AM, on the first day of the trip. Mom had made me a “nest” in the backseat of the Plymouth for me to lay down and sleep during the trip. She had also packed some toys and things to keep me amused on the trip. There were no interstate highways at the time so the trip was on backroads. Dad would drive no more than eight hours then stop at a motel for dinner and a good night’s sleep. Mom had packed our lunches for the three day trip in a cooler and we would stop at rest stops to eat lunch.
Somewhere in south Georgia, as we were traveling south, we heard a loud bang and the rear end of the Plymouth sagged down on it’s rear axle. Dad pulled over and got out to look under the car. He returned to the car and told us that the torsion bar on the Plymouth had broken. Originally devised by Bob Batchelor, Chrysler’s torsion bar suspensions were used across the entire lineup, from Plaza and Valiant to Imperial, for decades. Chrysler’s implementation was unusual for its universal use and for combining front torsion bars with inexpensive rear leaf springs, instead of rear coil springs, in back.
So. There we were in the middle of nowhere crawling along at about 20 miles per hour in search of a automobile mechanic. Mom was scared and the worry lines on her face showed it. I had been going to Sunday school and had recently learned a new song that they taught us. It was called “Don’t be afraid”. I got up close to mom. I could see she was afraid. So I sang my song to her. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you so don’t be afraid.” Mom looked at me and her fear melted away. “Thank you Jim. You singing that song helped. “
We finally found a mechanic so we stopped for the night. The mechanic promised that the car would be ready for us the next morning.
We continued our journey south the next day and around noon we pulled up into aunt Zoe’s and uncle Ward’s driveway. Zoe was my dads older sister. My aunt and uncle lived in New Port Richey on Illinois ave. I loved staying over at aunt Zoe and uncle Wards place. And I loved them too. Ward was a banker. He was a taciturn man. A man of few words if you will. Aunt Zoe was much like my father. She had a great sense of humor and took interest in people. She was a chain smoker and I could remember waking up on the hideaway bed smelling coffee and cigarette smoke. It was not unpleasant. It meant it is morning. Soon the smell of bacon joined the already existing smells. I was very young. However I remember a few things about the visit. A red step chair comes to mind. And uncle Ward telling me not to walk down the street as there was girls down there. I obeyed.
I also remember ward taking the boat out with my dad. I was not allowed to go! I was devastated. I remember crying and feeling angry that I could not go too. Such is life and I got over it. Later on in life we would stay again with uncle Ward and aunt Zoe when we moved to Florida. They had moved to Gulf Harbors and had great access to the Gulf in the boat. That time when we visited I got to go along. It was the first time for me to see the Gulf of Mexico first hand. Wonderful memories!
In 1960/1961 I loved to help my dad with yard work. The riding mower he used fascinated me. I was way too young at five or six to operate the mower. However I so enjoyed sitting on dads lap as he mowed the 5 acres of lawn. It was so fun!
Dad also had a rather large garden. He planted lettuce, onions, potatoes, corn, cabbage, beans, cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe. Most of the vegetables were canned. Mom would set up in the basement where she had a stove used for canning. First she would sterilize all the Bell jars and lids. Then after cooking the vegetables she would pack them into the jars and place the jars into the pressure cooker. After the pressure reduced she would take the jars out of the pressure cooker and let the jars cool. Then she would press down on each jar to make sure the jar sealed during the process. If a jar failed to seal she would open the jar and return the contents to the rest and try again on the next batch. It was an all day affair that went on for weeks in late autumn. It was like a production line down there in the basement. When it was over we had two shelving units full of canned vegetables. Enough to last through the winter.
One of my best friends was Carol Washington. She was my age and very much a tomboy. Later on in her life she would change her own brakes on her car and do repairs on her motorcycle. We enjoyed each others company. We would perhaps swing on the tire swing that my dad had put up for me on the big tree at the back of our property. Or we would ride bikes up and down Jono road playing turnpike. Or maybe play a board game along with Carol’s older brother Carlos. Or perhaps play in the fort that her dad had made over the garage at her house. Or play in the tree house that her dad had made in the large tree on her yard. Or swing from the rope that was hung in the large weeping willow tree in her front yard. I had a great time playing with her and the fun we had was genuine.
Later on she would ride with us on her motorcycle. She could ride as good as any of us boys. She had a Honda trail 50.
Many times before school she would come over and we would dress up in our parents clothes. I wonder if all kids did this or was it unique in our situation. We were the best of friends and did most things together.
The years 1960 and 1961 hold many treasured memories for me.
The year of 1960 went by. Days of being at home with my mother as my dad worked at Kellogg’s cereals. I turned 5 in May of that year. I remember playing alone with my toys. Or watching television on the old black and white set. Or maybe rummaging through my dads clothing and trying on this and that. I discovered that I had a lot of growing up to do to fill dads shoes. Very pleasant days with my mom and then with my dad after he got home from work. Mom would prepare a great dinner either on the stove, or the double built-in oven. Dinner was served on the fold down dinette. We never folded it down. It always remained in the ready position. Then afterwards, dad and I would go to the living room for some television time. Dad would watch Perry Mason and some other shows I can’t recall. One show I do recall is the Flintstones. The Flintstones first was released as an adult cartoon. However the kids loved it too. The one episode that stands out is the one where Fred and Barney build a pedal powered helicopter. Then they flew it over the town. I was already just beginning to be interested in flight. I guess that is why this episode stands out for me.
The year went on and soon it was the holiday season. It was my first year to go trick or treating. I don’t remember what mom dressed me up as. Come now it was just over 60 years ago. Memory fades on some of the details. I do remember walking up and down Jono road and knocking on front doors and my mom telling me to say “Trick or Treat”. I can’t remember if I said those words. I do remember looking at each home owner, smile on my face, with my plastic jack o lantern held out as the home owner dropped candy in!
Then came Thanksgiving. We had guests that year for Thanksgiving. Three of my moms sisters Esthereen, Grace, and Doniett along with uncle Harold, Esthereen’s husband. I loved my aunts and my uncle Harold. Uncle Harold reminded my very much of George Burns the actor. He did not remind me of him at the time but now in retrospect he does. His mannerisms and they way he talked were definitely a George Burns style. He called me George. When I said “I am Jim.” He would say “Okay George. Jim it is.” My Aunts would dotter over me and they gave me gifts they had brought from Dubois Pennsylvania. I still have a teddy bear that was given to me on that visit. My mom and my Aunts went into the kitchen and fixed this enormous feast for Thanksgiving. Turkey with all the fixings. Cranberry Sauce, Stuffing. The works!
And then Christmas came. Again we had a guest for Christmas. My cousin Bobby and his mom and dad, Esthereen’s son Robert and his wife. I know this is all very confusing. But here they were. Bobby and I played well together. We enjoyed each others company. We were the same age. Christmas eve came and dad said “Hey Jim. Hey Bobby. You both better get in bed. You know what they say. All good boys and girls have to be in bed and asleep or Santa may not come. He will try to come back to see if you are asleep. But you just don’t want to take the chance now do you? So off to bed you two. Scoot!” So we Scooted! We brushed out teeth and I offered Bobby the top bunk. And off to sleep we went. Meanwhile the adults got to work doing the work of Santa.
Bobby and woke up very early on Christmas day as children do. We were told the night before not to go into the living room until they had got up. I went into my parents room right next to my room and told them we were ready to go out to the living room. Dad told me that they were not ready and that we were to wait. Well he did not tell us that we could not peek. So we lay down on the floor in the hallway and stretched our little necks out as far as they could stretch. Oh my God! From what we could see, the room was filled with presents. We could not wait to go out. But we were good and waited for out parents to get up.
We finally were allowed to go out and under the tree was a miniature town. And around the town there was a miniature railroad with a train that smoked and four box cars and a caboose. Wow! After some instruction we operated the train making it go forward and backwards. Bobby and I played for hours with the train. I received other toys too. Some Lincoln Logs. Some small cars and some other things. Clothes and stuff. But by far, the train was the best gift ever!
I hold this Christmas in my heart as on of my favorite Christmases. Each Christmas adds to the next you know. The good Christmases and not not so good ones too. Each Christmas the memories flood back in and the memory of the people that made it possible. Merry Christmas everyone! And Happy Holidays!