Friday, April 3, 2009

Dropping In

Times sure have changed! Would you get in your car, drive to a relative’s home in the suburbs, and just drop in on them, uninvited and unannounced? Probably not! Yet that was acceptable conduct in the 1950s and 1960s in my family, as well as in many other families, and not just in Chicago, but also in northern Wisconsin where my friends Dave and Patti grew up.

I vividly recall many Sunday afternoons when Dad would suddenly announce, “Okay, everyone, let’s go visit the Paetsches.” Or the Herkerts, Lorches, Masts, Korbs, or other friends or relatives. Gas was cheap and plentiful at only 29 cents per gallon, and when we filled up at the Jubilee Station on Lincoln Avenue on Saturday evening, we’d receive a free Sunday Chicago Tribune as well as a free glass or other gift. Oh, yeah – you’d also get S&H Green Stamps or Gold Bell Gift Stamps, which would be glued into a book and later exchanged for free household and sports items.

So Mom, Dad, Linda, and I would load up in the family car, first a blue 1949 Plymouth (photo above with Linda and Chuck) and later a two-tone brown 1958 Ford Fairlane and drive out “into the country.” We did it so often that at a young age I learned the route to each place.

Of course, as Mom used to joke, the car could never make the drive non-stop, because it always got thirsty. That was her passive-aggressive way to imply that Dad needed a beer, and he had a favorite bar along each route where he’d stop for what he called “a pit stop.” He’d park, go in for 20 or 30 minutes, come back out, and the journey would continue. As I got older, he’d take me in with him, perch me on the adjoining tall stool, and order a Coke for me. Mom was never invited inside because he knew Mom wouldn’t join him, and when Linda was real young, he knew Mom wouldn’t allow her little girl into such a den of iniquity. (I guess I was expendable!) In later years, Linda would join us and we’d chuckle as she tried to climb onto a tall bar stool. Linda nostalgically recalls she developed a passion for both Beer Nuts and crackers with cheddar cheese from large crocks, salt-laden freebies the bars offered to get patrons to order more liquid refreshments.

A few years back while watching a television show, there was a gas station called “The Pit Stop,” and Mom remarked the name was highly inappropriate, vulgar, and extremely offensive to her. We thought it was an appropriate name, since gas stations used to be for servicing cars and pit stop referred to the place on a race track where cars are maintained. It turned out Mom wasn’t aware the term derived from auto races. She only knew the term from Dad’s use of it and assumed it referred to his need to get a drink and to relieve himself.

The farthest drive was to McCullom Lake to visit Uncle Albert and Aunt Annie at their summer place, and we usually took Grandpa along since his brother, Bernard (standing on the left beside my grandfather, Karl Barteldes) lived across the street from his daughter (my Aunt Annie). Down at the end of their street was a farm, and we’d walk to the barbed wire fence and watch the cows standing around, and it was there that I observed firsthand the origin of the old saying about the forcefulness of a cow urinating on a flat rock.

Once, while on a vacation at “The Last Resort,” I got a touch of stomach flu and with no home remedies around, Dad had the bartender give me a shot of vermouth to “settle” my stomach. I don’t think it worked any better than Mom's home remedies which were either flat ginger ale or a foul smelling, disgusting tasting German concoction called Alpenkreuter which contained alcohol.

The photo below is in Uncle Carl and Aunt Margaret’s backyard in Highwood. The boy waving at the bottom is my cousin, Ralph, and to his right his older brother, Bart. I’m on his left, next to my Dad who is also waving, then Mom, Tante Martha and Grandpa, Sylvia, her daughter, Karen, and her husband, Walter, next to her elderly aunt, and then KK and her mother, Louise. Louise was the sister of Karl (both were Mom’s cousins), who with her husband, Dick, lived next door, so we kids had adjacent yards to play in. One year there was a carnival at the local school a block away, and Dick gave us kids a $20 bill to spend there, which was a veritable fortune to us back then. Years later when I attended Dick’s wake, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw Dick standing in a corner talking to some people. I hadn’t known that Dick had an identical twin!

Back on the road, we’d arrive at our destination, ring the bell, surprise the lucky relatives with our honored (and uninvited) presence, and spend an enjoyable afternoon. More often than not, dinner would be offered by the man of the house and be accepted by Dad, thus lengthening the unsolicited quick visit by several hours, as the unprepared hostess hustled to augment her planned meal or prepare an entirely new meal to accommodate the unsought interlopers.

The photo below shows Linda and Chuck with Uncle Eric and his dog, Captain, a multiple championship winner in obedience competitions, in their Des Plaines backyard. Aunt Dorothy’s immense vegetable garden is in the background. Uncle Eric sometimes took us to a nearby large park to run Captain through his paces including retrieving thrown sticks. When I would give Captain a command, the dog would look at his master, and if Uncle Eric “transferred” command to me, the dog would then obey my commands. Aunt Dorothy also had a dog, Toby, which was short and squat like her and obeyed absolutely no commands, but was still fun to play with.

Occasionally, we’d ring a doorbell to discover no one home. No loss, though. We’d leave a note saying we had stopped by, and either head somewhere else or return home, having enjoyed “a nice afternoon ride in the country,” as Dad would say. And we all did enjoy both driving through the scenic countryside and the time together in the car. The areas out of Chicago intrigued us since it was all so different from the cityscape we lived within. Especially different were the smells of the countryside. Dead skunks were particularly noticeable, as was the redolent odor of cow manure, the smell of which caused Dad to longingly sigh and then laud the “fresh country air!” We kids would hurriedly roll up the car windows since there were no power windows on those cars, and no air conditioning, either, though as Dad said, “We have 4-40 air conditioning –- 4 windows open at 40 miles per hour!”

Other Dad-isms included “nice -- rolling -- stops” where he’d slowly brake the car as we approached a stop, ever so gradually slowing, until he’d suddenly slam on the brakes right at the stop sign or red light. Another involved telling us to put our feet through the holes in the car’s floorboard to help the car get up hills or to get us home faster when we’d complain “are we almost home yet?” This joke derived from the fact that our old Plymouth had actually had holes in the floor where the metal had rusted away. A friend from church was a car body repairman, and he installed a wooden floor in the old Plymouth so water wouldn’t splash up onto the front passenger’s feet as happened to me one rainy day while Dad was driving me to a weekend Boy Scout campout at Camp Kiwanis in Willow Springs.

I vaguely recall one Sunday when we arrived back at our Paulina Street apartment after a fruitless excursion into the country, and learned that the relatives we had just dropped in on, who hadn’t been home, had in fact dropped in on us at the same time, and we all laughed about that for years.

The photo on the left shows Mom playing badminton in the backyard of Uncle Fritz and Aunt Alma’s in Des Plaines, with cousin Ray relaxing in the lounge chair. Annual Labor Day parties were held in their yard which was so large we could play softball in it. Growing up in Chicago with three locks on our front door, I was amazed at how the Masts always left their back door unlocked, and I believed Des Plaines must have been like heaven where no thieves were allowed.

Please understand this. Though the mores of today’s society may frown upon dropping in, these spur-of-the-moment visits during my youth were exciting and welcomed, and at other times, the visitees became the visitors and dropped in on us. All delighted in these impromptu parties and were thrilled with these quick visits. We were a close and loving extended family and enjoyed the company of each other, and we children loved playing with our cousins as the adults endlessly talked and talked, joyous at having company, as all relished the convivial get-together. No ill will arose from the surprise visits, which in turn encouraged repeat performances, and thus the cycle perpetuated.

Women in those days did not have jobs outside the home, so housework was done during the week, homes were clean and presentable, and after a week home alone most of the day, the women appreciated weekend social encounters and conversation with friends and relatives. Sunday mornings would be for church, but the afternoon could be another long, lonely time if there were no social plans.

Of course, youngsters today might not realize that many stores were closed on Sundays in that era, thus limiting recreational choices. For many decades, “Blue laws” mandated that stores close on the Sabbath, but even after the laws were changed, many businesses were slow to open on Sundays. I recall Pastor Hereth, our minister at St. James Lutheran Church, raging from the pulpit when the neighboring store, Turnstyle, announced it would be open on Sundays. He claimed it would be a death knell for religion and family time. Although that may have been hyperbole, stores open Sundays now, though providing full-time weekday workers with the opportunity to shop on Sundays, perhaps also takes them away from family time.

So how would your relatives react today if you arrived uninvited and unannounced for a visit? Or how would you react if drop-in relatives arrived at your door unexpectedly? And they half-expected supper? With today’s hectic schedules, would they (or you) even be home? And if you were home, would you sincerely welcome them with open arms -- or feel they were invading your space at their convenience?

Times have certainly changed! But is it for the better?

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