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An Oral History of John
My grandfather, John, was born on February 10, 1933. He served in the Navy and Navy Reserves for forty years as well as other jobs like being an electrician. He married Elizabeth Schwarz and they had eight children. He has eight grandchildren. All this I knew about him, but recently he shared his memories of his childhood during World War II with me.
I grew up in Chicago, in what they refer to as Old Town now. It was a six room, four bedroom, cold water flat on the third floor. We had to heat it ourselves with oil and a coal-and-wood-burning stove. We paid twenty dollars a month rent. Now, they turned the house into a condo [building] and the place sold for $450,000.
During the summer time, my brother and myself, before we could go out and play, we had to take our wagon and go get a wagon full of wood for the wintertime. We would find a place that was doing construction and my brother would get the wood. I was only, maybe six, seven years old at the time. I sat on the wagon carrying a big stick so that if someone would try to steal wood off our wagon, I’d be swinging my stick at them. And once we got the wood, we’d go home. And sometimes we’d go back there two or three times if they had a lot of wood so that we wouldn’t have to go out every day. We’d bring the wood home and we’d have to saw it up so we could put it in the stove.
My brother and myself had to go down to the basement, which had no light. It had a dirt floor. We had to bring up buckets of coal, armfuls of wood, or five gallons of oil so that in the wintertime we could heat the flat. We had cold water; no warm water in the house. My father hooked up the water to our stove; and not having all the proper fittings, it would sometimes heat up and explode and we would get a shower in the kitchen!
And that was another thing, in the wintertime, if you didn’t keep your water running at night time, it would freeze. Being on the third floor, you didn’t know where the pipe was frozen, so you’d be out of water.
We had a radio that was a floor model and we could listen to it at night time for certain hours. [We] used to listen to Captain Midnight, [the] Lone Ranger, Suspense, and Gang Busters; Jack Armstrong was another one. A lot of those programs now are at midnight on WBBM. It was always half hour programs. We had no such thing as a TV, no microwave, no refrigerator. We had one light bulb in the middle of the room in the ceiling, and that was all on a pull chain so in the dark you would be swinging [your arm] around trying to find the string.
They [my parents] were hard workers. They were uneducated; my mother had an eighth grade education that she received in Ireland and my father received a fourth grade education in Ireland. He had trouble reading and writing. We depended on the neighbors quite a bit for anything important to be read.
My mother used to do a lot of baking when I was younger. Any time my friends would come over, she used to treat them with a piece of bread right out of the oven and she used to butter it and sprinkle sugar on it and they thought that it was the greatest gift from God. My brother’s buddy reminded me how much he enjoyed it: going over and getting a warm piece of bread with butter and sugar on it.
And then on the weekends, when my mother was shopping, I’d have to go with her with the wagon. She’d fill up the wagon and I’d pull it home. And, as I say, living on the third floor, people were too busy doing their own thing to help you because they were doing about the same thing you are. And I remember standing in front of the A&P food store and there were ten to fifteen wagons with kids. We’d talk and you get to know the kids. They’re waiting for their mother or father to come out with the groceries. We’d be lined up like cars in a parking lot in a straight line.
My mother, when she washed her clothes, she had what she called a clothes line. My father put this here big pole in the back yard, and it had to go about thirty feet in the air and there was a pulley at both ends. My mother would hang the clothes on the line, then use the pulley to push the clothes further out, and once it dried, she’d pull it back in. But the kids on the first floor, their mother would do the same thing, but us [kids] running around in the back yard, a lot of times you’d get tied up in the clothes and pull the clothes down and get them all dirty.
My father at that time was working out at O’Hare field, but at that time they called it Douglas Airport because Douglas used to make airplanes here in Chicago and they used to fly them out once they got built. That’s why O’Hare’s where it’s at now, because they had a runway there from the airport. My father was working long hours and he had to travel back and forth by what they referred to as the street car which was eight cents for a ride. I saw very little of my father because of his hours. He got up at four o’clock in the morning to go to work and he wouldn’t get home until eight, nine o’clock at night.
We had a black woman that came into our house to help my mother because she was of poor health because of the large family. She used to help with the washing and the cooking and taking care of us kids. I had four older brothers, one older and one younger sister and then I had two sisters that died when I was a little kid.
All I remember about school was that it was around the corner of the house; I didn’t have to cross any streets. We had large classes and it was a public school and I was a safety patrol boy. That’s about all I can remember.
I used to go to school and I used to bring this here friend of mine some homemade oatmeal cookies, and he thought they were the greatest. He’d give me these here Salerno butter cookies. People used to put them on their fingers like rings. He didn’t like those but he liked my homemade oatmeal cookies, and so we used to trade. And his mother and father both worked, so he’d eat out, except there was no such thing as McDonalds or Burger King or Wendy’s at that time. He would go and get a loaf of bread and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home and bring it to school.
And at school, everyone was poor in the neighborhood and so they’d furnish us with a free lunch. It was rough but we got through it. They had a piece of fruit and usually some milk; I think there was some crackers. I used to go home because I didn’t like the food that they had there and since I lived right around the corner from the school, I could go home and come back.
A treat at that time would be going up and down the alleys looking for metal we could sell at the junkyard so that we could have spending money. Having ten cents in our pockets made us rich. And when I made my confirmation, I got two quarters for gifts.
Ice cream was a treat because we couldn’t have ice cream in the house; we didn’t have a deep-freeze. We did not have a refrigerator; we had an icebox where the ice man came every day to drop off fifty pounds of ice. One of the biggest thrills we had at those times was following the ice man around. He’d have a wagon full of ice. He’d have to chip it to get it down to the size people wanted. We’d jump on it and steal the chips to cool ourselves off. We thought it was a treat because we didn’t have ice cream or cold pop.
Everything was rationed. For meat you had to give them whatever the price was plus however many coupons and the same thing went for candy; milk and bread was not rationed. Milk was ten cents a quart and bread was eleven cents a loaf. At the start of World War II, my oldest brother bought a [used] Model A Ford for $25 and when he joined the Navy he sold it for $15. He was working in a factory at that time. This was ’39, ‘40 and he was getting paid 40¢ an hour. He got a 2¢ an hour raise, and he thought he was a billionaire now.
Only 3¢ for the newspapers and to get a job delivering newspapers was very hard because everyone wanted the job. They’d have to deliver the papers and put it on their front porch or back porch depending upon where they lived at. And my three brothers had this one paper route where they delivered papers to what they call now “Marshall Field apartments” and they had to deliver them on the back porch and it was a four story building and it had about twenty-four buildings and they used to cover all of them, well three or four of them would go up and down, a lot of times you used to jump from one porch to another porch just so that they could save [time]. Like I say, newspapers used to be 3¢ and it was hard collecting from these people. A lot of them would say “I never got my newspaper so I’m not gonna pay for it.”
A lot of people used to collect newspapers and sell it. They used to get ten cents for a hundred pounds of newspapers during the war.
Gasoline at that time was anywhere from three or four gallons for a dollar. They used to say “Three for a buck.” Then again, you couldn’t just buy gasoline, you had to give these here coupons; they were all rationed. And getting tires for a car was impossible, because everything was going for the war effort.
We used to play marbles. We used to dig little holes in the ground and then we’d throw a marble of a wall and bounce it into a hole. That’s how you’d win. And another game we’d play with marbles is we’d make a circle and we’d each put in so many marbles and we’d take turns trying to knock them out of the circle and if you knocked them out of the circle, it was yours. I always had a pocket full of marbles because my brother, Coleman, was very good at marbles. He’d give me the marbles he won to replenish the ones I lost.
The other game we played was “Kick the Can.” You would put a can on the sewer and one person would be it and then we’d kick the can. When he was running to get the can, we’d all run and hide and then he’d try to find us. And when he was looking for you, someone would sneak up behind him and kick the can again. He would have to run and get it and go put it back on the sewer.
But we didn’t have any bats or baseballs to play with; we didn’t have a football or basketball. Like I say, that was the thing, we had to use our own ingenuity for games; we didn’t have Monopoly or chess or checkers. We used to make our own rubber guns. We went to different gas stations to see if we could find old rubber tubes and then we’d cut them into big rubber bands and then we used to make our guns out of that with a clothes pin and a nail and a piece of wood. And to make the rubber bands go further we’d tie a knot in them, in other words, to shorten them up. But anything we did in those days we had to make ourselves. We had to make our own scooters with a skate, a two-by-four, and a box. So we’d pedal it and run around. We didn’t have bicycles, or very few kids had the bicycle, I should say. And you had to be careful since some of the scooters, if you left them laying around, people would come and break them up and take the wood home and burn it.
My brother and his friends were making a clubhouse. They’d be going through the neighborhood getting these here big pieces of wood. They’d nail them together and make a clubhouse, but then someone tore it down and burned the wood.
When I was going to high school, St. George High School, in Evanston, had the tuition of $125 a year. Since money was real short, I was expected to earn money to help pay for my tuition. And I worked in the cemetery over the summer for two summers and the last summer I worked in construction. My first job I made something like 85¢ an hour. I was sort of digging foundations for the headstones. And when I went to work construction I was getting paid $1.10 an hour and I was mixing concrete and carrying pipes and other labor work. And when I graduated from high school the tuition was up to $250.
I had two brothers in the Navy during World War II, and one brother in the Army Air Corps and they seemed to enjoy it. The talked about having three good meals every day, a warm bed to sleep in every night, traveling around with their friends, and, like they say, their days were busy doing things. My brother in the Army Air Corps was a mail clerk; he would sort the mail out. And I enjoyed their stories of traveling around so that influenced me to join the Navy. I joined the Navy in high school but I didn’t leave for the Navy until after I graduated from high school. At that time, it was hard to get into the Navy because of the war going on in Korea. Everybody was trying to join the Navy so they wouldn’t go in the army. So I joined the Navy in high school so I could have a spot when I graduated from high school. I graduated June first and June ninth I was in the Navy up at Great Lakes, a week afterwards.
It was a poor neighborhood. There were no parks around there to play in; we had to play in the school lot. It was a very plain neighborhood. We had nothing; nothing was offered. Like I say, it was rough, but we got through it.