1951, Tuesday, July 17, 6:45 p.m.
The 1936 Chevrolet four door sedan humps and bumps its way to town carrying in the back seat a Berlin Blockade between the two German heritage children, Eddie, age nine, and Lorraine, age eleven. Each has pushed her or himself against the door and is glaring out the window.
The dispute is where the family will go on their next trip. Because she wrote a report about it in school last spring, Lorraine prefers Scotland. Eddie, who has developed an interest in the polar regions, prefers a trip to Alaska. He would prefer Antarctica, but that trip is not available. The night before during supper the mother jokingly suggested they compromise on Labrador or Newfoundland. With glaring patience, Lorraine reminded the mother they have already traveled to Newfoundland. Short of a physical confrontation, which the two children know to avoid, the parents prefer to let the siblings settle their own disputes.
Lorraine is clutching in her hands the price of their travel tickets, a sack of 105 pennies, five of which are lead, remnants of World War II, which is still fresh in everyone’s memory. For the last seven weeks the pennies have been collected in a small Red Wing pot. Every member of the family adds their pennies to the pot, the mother and father pronouncing as they add theirs, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
The collection of pennies is closely watched until they have 105 of them. The expenditure of that $1.05 is carefully planned by the children, a task they usually complete in collaboration, but as we see, not always. One hundred and five pennies buys a set of View-Master reels. A set can be one, two, or three reels, but a set of three is preferred. They can be purchased at either the drug store or the dime store, which is never called by its real name, The Ben Franklin, named after the famous man who first said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
The family is only beginning its collection of reels after an aunt gave the children a View-Master viewer for Christmas in 1949. Over the next few years, the family will amass an extensive collection which will provide $1.05 trips to London, Paris, Rome, New York City, San Francisco, the Rhine, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Washington D.C., Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, Dawson City, Plymouth, Mt. Vernon, the time of the mastodons, the Everglades, Angel Falls, the Field Museum, the Louvre. The mother calls the children “living room braided rug world travelers.” The appeal is not only in the magic of the stereoptic effect, but also in how the small black viewer pressed to their eyes shuts out the here-and-now and takes them away to the then-and-there for as long as their index finger holds out pulling down the lever to spin the reels.
This warm Tuesday evening, when the stores stay open until 8:30, the moment of resolution of the blockade is approaching. The obvious compromise is for one child to make this selection and the other child the next one. Patience is a virtue preached and by necessity lived in the house. The blockade is in part caused by sibling rivalry and in part because they have expended all their patience waiting for the pennies to reach the magic 105. More delayed gratification is too much for either of them. During the day they flipped one of the pennies, and Lorraine won fair and square, but Eddie is unhappy with his loss and has appealed the judgment, to no result because the higher court of the mother has ruled in Lorraine’s favor.
The father parks the Chevy on Iron Street in the town business district. Seven of the businesses are bars. The children sit. The mother turns and says, “Well, Eddy, punishment could settle this for you, if you are not careful.”
Lorraine sighs and offers Eddie a bone. “It’s my turn to pick the ice cream flavor. You can have my turn tonight.” Eddie does not know that Lorraine likes his choice of butter brickle almost as much as her choice of strawberry. She has held back this fact for moments such as this one. Eddie accepts the bone, which restores the siblings’ close relationship. The blockade falls. They carry the pennies to the dime store. The parents wait in the car with the windows down. Most Tuesday evenings they take this little foray, but they prefer the pre-Christmas or summer evenings when the downtown has a festive air, a feeling of community.
When the children return with Scotland in their hands, they know more patience will be required. The parents sit in the car and relax, watching the passing parade, chatting to people who stop at the car, or quietly commenting on what is revealed about the community, marriages, families, and individuals who are out this fine evening when the sun will not sit until close to nine o’clock. Three women stop to talk to the mother about church issues, the progress of gardens, and inflation of grocery prices. Gossip is eschewed in front of children. Schoolmates wave to Eddie and Lorraine but do not stop to talk.
This being both a mining and a railroad town, it has a higher than average share of excessive drinkers, drunks in the patois of 1951. The father waves to one of the men as he lurches past. The man comes over to the window and shouts into the car directly in the mother’s face. “Howdy, there, Ollie. This the little woman and kids? What yous up to?”
Eddie and Loraine watch the tension across their mother’s back. She wants to lean away, but does not. It is not only the whiskey breath, but the word yous, a local expression that always sets her teeth on edge. Nor is she happy being reduced in stature by the common expression little woman.
The father answers, “Just out enjoying the nice evening, Dick, doing a little shopping. How’s your wife and those two girls of yours?”
“Fine, I guess.” Dick does not want this conversation. He lurches off. Ollie, a son of a drunk, says as much to Eddie and Lorraine as to his wife, “More money that didn’t make it home. I know he gambles too, plays poker in the back of The Dominoes.”
“The railroad will write the paycheck to the wife if she goes in and proves her case,” the mother responds.
“Bet if she tried, Dick’d lay into her pretty good.”
They are all silent for a minute or two. Eddie and Lorraine understand that these nights are part of their education. The father almost shouts in an awkwardly familial tone, “Come on yous; let’s get into the drug store and then head home.” He winks at the mother and laughs.
At home they gather at the kitchen table around their two ritual purchases. The first is the weekly Saturday Evening Post, the cover of which this week is a Norman Rockwell painting entitled “The Facts of Life” portraying a father talking to a discomforted son. The family will each have turns at the magazine over the next few days, each finding parts they like.
The second purchase is a gallon of ice cream, the flavor chosen each week by one of the four of them. Without electricity, all the ice cream has to be eaten soon after they arrive at home. They sit around the table, relaxed and enjoying the treat, feeling no need to talk. Eddie and Lorraine each look once through the new View-Master reel. Then it is off to bed for the children.
View-Master reels and Saturday Evening Post—two ways to reach the larger world from the Arrowhead in 1951.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017