Oglethorpe: A week in the life of a smalltown boy
Many of my strongest and best memories are of the simple events that marked smalltown family life in the 1950s. Domestic life was predictable in the Oglethorpe household, much more so than now. Most days had a regular theme, repeated week after week throughout the year.
Monday was laundry day, an activity that took place in the basement and, in warm weather, the front yard. I remember my mother getting her new “double tub” washer which allowed her to wash and rinse at the same time. As I got older I'd be enlisted to help, catching the clothes as they came from the ringer and putting them in an old fruit basket for hanging. A second basket was filled with clothespins and line. Mom had an elaborate system of poles and hooks around the yard that the line was strung from, and a set of notched wooden props that kept the loaded lines from sagging onto the ground. The props also came in handy when your balsa wood airplane got stuck in a tree.
Doing laundry then was hard work, and involved many trips up and down the cellar steps. But the double-tub wringer washer was a step up from the washboard and metal tub that her mother used, and that still sat in our basement.
Tuesday was ironing day, and in the days before permanent-press almost everything needed to be ironed. The only exceptions were our trousers and jeans. They were dried with expandable metal stretchers in the legs that left them with a crisp crease front and back. Mom always set up her ironing board in the living room. To keep me entertained she'd drag in two kitchen chairs, and I'd drape an old orange blanket over them and play happily inside my “fort” for hours. Mom would iron all morning on Tuesday and wore out many an iron. I know that for a fact because she saved all of her old ones in the basement, including one that her mother had used. It was a simple device, a heavy piece of metal that was heated on a coal stove. I suspect that Mom saw her 1950's steam-iron as quite an improvement.
Friday was fish sandwich day, no surprise in a town like Connellsville that boasted five Catholic churches. At that time, a good Catholic did not eat meat on Fridays, a tradition still kept by many. But in Connellsville most of the town ate fish on Friday, Catholic or not.
In my childhood experience fish came two ways, Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks or a fried fish sandwich. I do remember that Mom tried to get me to eat a salmon croquette once, but I hated it. I preferred the sandwiches. We almost always bought ours from Homini's in South Connellsville. They were made with a big fillet on a chewy French roll. Dad liked his with cocktail sauce and warmed it up a bit with some hot sauce. Like a good Pennsylvania boy, I preferred Heinz ketchup. Eventually, Homini's changed hands and we switched to Bud's. They were pretty good, but I think that Homini's were better.
Early Saturday mornings were reserved for watching cowboys on TV. I'd be first up and remember watching the test pattern, waiting for Roy Rogers to start. We were all little cowpokes in the ‘50s. “The Lone Ranger” was my favorite, followed by “Hopalong Cassidy.” I had his signature two-gun revolver and holster. But Saturday was also always the day to clean the house. Mom started working at the hospital when I was 6 years old or so and, as a result, expected (maybe demanded is a better word) that I do my share.
My jobs included washing floors and dusting. She had a double bucket, one side for washing, the other for rinsing, and it was hands and knees work. I washed the kitchen, the floor around the rugs in the living room and parlor and the bathroom. Then I dusted.
When finished I'd let her know, and she'd inspect my work. If she was satisfied I was free to go out and play. I really didn't mind helping out. Mom had started her work career at a young age cleaning other people's houses and well deserved the assistance.
We went to church every Sunday without fail, usually attending St. John's the Evangelist. I remember Mom dressing me in my Sunday best, which usually included a little snap-on bow tie.
We took the bus and always got there early. I can still see the old Slovak ladies, all dressed in black and assembled down front praying the Rosary in Slovak. Their rhythmic chanting, heads bowed and covered in babushkas, was hypnotic. I also remember that each pew had a line of spring-loaded hat clamps that I would fiddle with until Mom made me stop. The ushers collected the offering in little baskets attached to long poles. The stained glass windows were beautiful. I can clearly remember the one up front on the right, young Jesus with Mary and Joseph.
The best part of going to church came afterward. We'd go over to Whitey's and pick up a Sunday Pittsburgh Press. Then my mother, having a sweet tooth, would stop at Duggan's Bakery. We'd get either lady fingers or cream puffs and maple rolls, which were Mom's favorite. Then back on the bus for home and the big Sunday meal, all events that marked the dependable rhythm of life in simpler times.
Jim Oglethorpe is a former Connellsville resident and author of “Leisenring No. 1.”