When I was six year old, we lived on Quarry Street, one of the steepest streets in Marietta, Ohio. I don’t remember exactly when we moved from 107 1/2 N. Fourth St., but I suspect it had something to do with the almost annual floods we had to deal with. Marietta, the county seat of Washington County, has a lot of historical significance, since it was the first permanent, organized settlement in the Northwest Territory. Its location at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers no doubt influenced its significance, since local, regional and even national trade flowed through the city. But we paid a price for that fortuitous situation with those rising, raging waters. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that my mother, Lorene—witness of many such floods and poor as a rural church mouse throughout much of her early life—wanted her domicile to be a haven away from the river.
My mother had witnessed the murder of my father’s mother, Victorine, by Old Man Ohio River. It was a slow death. 1937 was the year of the second greatest recorded flood in the Ohio River Valley. Pool stage at Marietta is about 10 feet. Flood stage starts about 39 feet. The 1937 Flood rose to 55 feet. “Torienne” was my grandmother’s name, and sadly, I never knew her. Her husband’s profession, glassblowing, was dealt a death blow in 1923 by technological advance in window glassmaking. She and he had switched to running a small grocery store right on one of the main streets in town; right in the flood plain. Andris Grocery was located at 313 Greene Street. But Arthur, the grandfather that I never knew, got brain cancer, possibly work-related, and he died in 1930, leaving Victorine and her sons to run the grocery store.
When the flood waters began to rise in early January of 1937, Torienne made the usual preparations, and when the flood waters rose into the high 30s following 12 inches of rain in mid January, she and her boys—my dad, Fernand, and my uncle Alphonse, for sure—moved all the goods and any equipment that could be moved up to the second floor, a good 50 feet above the river. There had only been one other flood that rose above that level: the 1913 Flood, in the year of my mother’s birth, had risen to 60 feet. Torienne felt that with any fortune, they could be back in business again by June. But the weather had other ideas. They watched, horrified, as the waters steadily rose up to five feet on the second floor. I remember being shown the high water mark in my early life.
When in early February the flood waters had finally receded, there was the usual difficult process of shovelling the mud out, scraping down the floors and walls, drying out. But when Torienne was led to the second floor and saw the burst, caked flour sacks and the rusted tin cans with unrecognizable labels, she realized that she had lost her entire inventory, hundreds or thousands of dollars worth, and she became distraught and inconsolate. My mother remembers that in a pathetic effort to salvage something from the vast wreckage, Torienne took each tin can and scrubbed it with steel wool and tossed it in a bin that sat out in front of the store for sale for whatever it would bring, a penny, a nickle.
My grandmother, Victorine, died from the stress of this flood. To be sure, she was obese, but her early death at 61 on March 3, 1937 came a few weeks after she was led into that mess that had been her life and livlihood. When Torienne developed chest pains on March 1, mom remembered that she and Fernand had managed to push grandmother up the steps to the second floor of the apartment where they were staying and get her in bed, and she never got out again. But before she died, she extracted a promise from my mother: “Lorette, promise me, promise me that you will marry my Fernand and take care of him. He will be lost unless you take care of him. Promise me!” And mom did make that deathbed promise to Torienne.
And so, on the eve of the Second World War, I was born. When I was less than a month old, Dewitt Mackenzie wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer on December 26, 1938 about the frightening consolidation of power by the Nazi dictator, Adolph Hitler, known as Der Fuehrer (The Leader). Americans were worried that year about a flood of a different kind: a flood of hate that threatened to engulf the entire Western World.
Germany had further consolidated and abetted its power by forming an alliance with the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, known as Il Duce (The Leader), and the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. The war raged in Europe, but the United States was not drawn into it until on December 7, 1941, just four days after my second birthday, the Japanese bombed the U.S. Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
I remember the Second World War with a few vivid memories. I vaguely remember the initial local consternation after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While we were still living down on Fourth Street, my father’s and my uncle’s grocery store was just around the corner, and my little neighborhood friends and I visited there for candy and soft drinks. I remember how sugar, flour and meat and other common food items were rationed. Each family was given food stamps each month, and when those were cashed in, no more purchases could be made that month. I remember dad explaining to me that the zinc penny, which was kind of a dull silver, was helping us to conserve copper for the war effort. I remember some of the grieving that attended Marietta’s fallen sons, but I was too young to really get it. Our own family suffered a loss. Both of Arthur Andris, Jrs. sons, Eugene and Robert, served in WW II. Eugene never came home.
The main thing I remember about my dad’s store is that it functioned as kind of a community center. Most of the people living around it were very poor, and a lot of them were on measley pensions or county welfare. A lot of hard-working day laborers shopped there, people like Perry Wheeler, who lived across the street with wife and several children. Perry almost always had a dirty, grimy complection. He dug trenches in the hot summer sun. But when an important event like the attack on Pearl Harbor would occur, a steady stream of neighborhood characters would ensue, each with his or her own remarks on the event.
In 1944 aged 5 years and 9 months, I started going to Willard School, just across the street from the new location of Andris Bros. Grocery on the northwest corner of 4th and Greene Streets. It was a bit puzzling to me—now that I was going to a school that was right across the street from my dad’s workplace, my grandmother’s home and my parents’ home—why my parents decided to move us four blocks east and two blocks up a steep hill. But we were living there by the Spring of 1945. A few weeks after we had moved, so I was told by Lorene, I went into the kitchen at 809 Quarry Street and announced to my mother that I didn’t like it up here on Quarry Street. It was too far from the store, too far from school, and too far from grandmother (and her mother, whom I called “grandma”). I said I didn’t have any friends up here, and I was going to leave and go down to live with grandmother. And I did (apparently with mom’s help). Somehow a suitcase got packed, one that a six year old could heft, and I put on my jacket and left. Mom told me she had dad follow me quietly in the car. He came back and reported that I had made it the six blocks to grandmother’s, who had been alerted to her new boarder by phone. Incidentally, that was 1468 calling 943-J. A couple of days without mom, and I was back home, though.
But the deal was that grandmother Clara had some neat stuff at her place, and she also had a cabinet radio. Actually, my father gave grandmother Clara and her mother, Eva, the choice first floor two bedroom apartment at 103 North Fourth. The radio sat in the large living room looking out of three bay windows on Fred and Laura Enochs’ back yard. They had a soda shop next to our Greene Street house. Even though grandmother’s apartment had worn linoleum floors, an area gas stove for heat, and a small, chipped white porcelain kitchen table, that dining-living room was like a palace with a hearth to me. Sometimes I could get away with stealing grandma’s rocking chair for a few minutes. But when 5 o’clock rolled around, the radio came on for my favorite shows: Sky King, Captain Midnight, The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, and later, Roy Rogers and Dayle Evans. “Don’t forget clouds are made out of the sunshine, so wear a smile on a rainy day.” Grandmother never missed an episode of Fibber McGee and Molly, and we all waited in anticipation of the next time Fibber would open the stuffed-to-the-ceiling hall closet.
Truth be known, I was beginning to assert my life long tendency to be an unapologetic iconoclast. I definitely was not a sports fan in my youth. Music was my game. But the boyhood customs of the day did not set well on my frame. And I could be just plain anti-social on occasion. I remember that one of the two summers we spent at the Quarry Street address, I developed a hobby of selecting various different colored stones, including fragments of bricks, and pulverizing them with a hammer. I would then put the different colored pulverized materials in different glass jars. I have no idea why I found this to be amusing, but I have a clear picture of myself bare-footed and squatting, left arm around left leg, hammer in hand, pounding away. One day, Jimmy Opp, who lived across the street up some steep steps, came over and stood there observing me at my peculiar task. He was a few years older, and towered over me. After a while, he observed that what I was doing was kind of stupid. I reached over with my hammer and gave him a sturdy whack on his nearest exposed big toe. He went wailing and screaming back up the steps whence he had come. After a while, Norma Parlin came down and gave me a good lecture about manners. Mom and dad definitely heard about this, too, and I was punished.
School was a whiz. Well, it helped that both mom and dad had read to me, and that I picked up reading my simple story books, for the most part, from their instruction. But, let’s face it, the kid was bright. So bright, that Miss Barrett, my first grade teacher, arranged for me to take the Stanford-Binet. This was not the group test, this was the individual test, administered by a person. I wasn’t really given any prep that I knew of. Miss Barrett came over and got me out of my seat and took me just outside the classroom door. “James, this is Dr. Simpson, and she is going to give you an intelligence test.” I replied, “How can she be a doctor, Miss Barrett. Are there women doctors?!” Miss Barrett was completely unflapped. “Yes, there are, James, and now you have met one of them.” So I took the test. I thought it was fun. A few weeks later, there arrived an assessment of my I.Q.: 160. The letter announced that I had a mental age of nine years and four months. Five decades later Miss Barrett came to my father’s funeral. I found out then that dad had provided milk for recess and the lunch at school for the entire first grade that whole year.
It was decided that for the most part, I could walk to school and then go across the street to grandmother’s house when school was out. But there I was stuck in a house on a hill with a slopey walk in front. Two memories, though, stuck with me for the rest of my life. Some time in late 1944, the City of Marietta started having air raid drills. They had them in school, too, but I remember the ones in the evening. Mom pulled the blinds in the front room, but left about a foot crack in the front window. In daylight you could see the county court house tower and some of the Williamstown bridge from that window. The eerie sirens began, and mom turned out all the lights. We watched as all the downtown lights were gradually extinguished. I did understand exactly that this was so German bombers, if they ever flew over Marietta, could not see their targets below.
My most vivid memory from my Quarry Street days is meeting my little brother, Tom, for the first time. I think I was kind of spoiled, since I had my two parents, my grandmother and my great grandmother all to myself for the first six years of my life. I doubt that there is any connection other than coincidence, but Tom was conceived on or about D-Day, June 6, 1944. That was the turnaround point for the brutal European war in France, with Paris being freed on August 25, and the Paris Airport now bears the name of Charles de Gaulle, who led the Paris liberation. Mom was quite pregnant with Tom late that fall when she and her mother, Clara, took me shopping in downtown Marietta. We went into Penny’s and spent quite a bit of time there. On one earlier occasion, I had hidden under a display and basked in the commotion I caused as mom and a clerk searched high and low for me.
However, on that particular day at some point I ran towards and pushed my mother, causing her to almost fall. Well, Clara gave me quite a whipping for that incident. She waited until we got home. What was more important, she made sure I understood just how important my brother was. She let me have it in no uncertain terms, that I could have hurt my mother, that Tommy might have been lost, that I had to stop being so selfish and now I would have to not only share with my brother, but I would have to learn to protect him against the evils of the world. I really suffered more from the shame that I felt than the red welts on my bottom. It was kind of a tough introduction to the responsibilities of brotherhood, but it’s a lesson I never forgot. I only hope that I lived up to my responsibilities as we got older.
So finally it was time for Tommy to be born. As family karma would have it, he was born during the 1945 Ohio River Flood, which was bad enough in Marietta, but was almost as devastating in Louisville, Kentucky as had been the one eight years earlier. My memory is somewhat dimmed, though I heard the story several times, but I do recall that after a perilous trek to Marietta Memorial Hospital, possibly partially by boat, emergency conditions were in place in the hospital, and doctors were scarce. Tommy was coming in like a train on greased tracks. Mom’s labor was short, and, as usual with Lorene, she prayed hard, the Lord was with her, and Tommy came out slick as a whistle. The nurse who finally made it to the room said he was the cleanest baby she had ever seen delivered. But I do seem to remember that there were consequences to that quick delivery, and they packed Lorene in ice. I, of course, never witnessed any of this; I was staying with grandmother.
But I do remember meeting Tommy for the first time. Grandmother was with me at our Quarry Street home, and dad, mom and new baby, drove down Seventh Street from Marietta Memorial Hospital and turned left at Quarry Street. The old black Buick with its toothy front grill, running boards, and whitewall tires drove up and parked on the slanty red brick street next to the curb. Dad walked around and opened the door to the car. There was mom, all dressed up in hose and heels and a new fancy dress, and with nice makeup on and her dark red thick hair all in place around her face. And she was gingerly carrying a blanketed bundle that had Tommy in it. I couldn’t wait to see my new brother. Mom leaned down to kiss me. “Can I see him, mom?!” I eagerly spouted. She pulled the blanket back and held him down so I could see his face. And just then he opened his eyes. “Mom, his eyes are blue.” “Babies’ eyes are always blue, Jimmie,” she replied, “we’ll have to wait a while to be sure.” “Were my eyes blue when I was born?” “Well, sort of dark blue, yes.”
We all went in the house, and the rest is history. Ok, it will be history if someone writes it down.