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Days Gone By

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Editor's note: Valerie and Hendryk Sowa have shared letters from William Stratton, now of Arizona, who spent his childhood growing up in the house the Sowa's now own at 328 N. Fourth St., River Falls. This is the final installment:

"I should mention the level of prosperity, or lack thereof. I distinctly remember knowing and playing with children who very clearly did not have enough to eat nor enough clothing to keep warm in autumn and winter. I don't remember any cases of starving or dying of cold induced sickness.

Our family was fortunate in having a father with a steady job (professor). The pay cut in 1931 or 1932 was drastic but not crippling. My parents would not allow my brother or me to take on a newspaper route. There were families who really needed that money. We did not.

For a few years, pre-adolescent, in the 1930s, the game called rubber gun war was very popular. The tools were homemade pistols or rifles made of wood such that a rubber band (or several for the rifle) cut from an inner tube could be stretched, held and released on command. The butt of the revolver had a stiff piece of wood on a roller and was held at the top by another rubber band wound several times around the butt. The projectile rubber band would be held by this piece of wood and stretched to the end of the muzzle. The design was much like putting a spring clothes pin on the handle.

Maybe no one has clothes pins any more. We would play around the houses and in the barns with, sometimes, various fortifications. Quarreling was rampant with shooters claiming a hit and the target person denying being hit. Range was short and no one was hurt; at close range the rubber band 'bullet' could sting a little bit. It was a safer game than using BB guns.

Another game or activity that was very popular amongst we neighborhood children was the use of 'Lucky Bucks.' This must have been around 1930 plus or minus a year. The comic strips, which we all read, would, on Sundays, print imitation one dollar, five dollars, ten, etc., bills at the top of the comic section. The figure on the 'bill' would be the comic strip character, e.g. Mickey Mouse. We would cut these out and play as if they were real money. In fact, we learned to gamble with them. We taught ourselves to play poker and cheating became a common tactic. I remember once counting the cards in the deck being used: it was far short of 52.

We also manufactured our own pinball machines from the tops of coffee cans. Crude, yes, but it kept us amused. As far as I can tell no harm was done to our futures. Lucky Bucks died out after a short run of popularity and have never been heard of since. One would have to dig deep into the Internet to find any reference to them. This activity took place mainly at the home of Keith Barry and mostly in an unused garage. They were much too poor to own an automobile.

Adults smoked. Cigarettes were common. To imitate we learned that the grape vine has hollow tubes running along the stem. If one cut a length of, say, five inches and lit one end, he could suck smoke through the thing. Hot, not tasty, no pleasure, no stimulant.

I mentioned making model airplanes. For me this was in the fifth grade, maybe the fourth. I was encouraged to do this because I had a terrible temper (which I don't remember). In that era, one could buy kits with drawings, directions, sheets of balsa wood 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick, glue (Duco cement), thin paper to cover the structure, and with single edge razor blade from Dad, I was launched. I equipped some with large rubber bands that one could wind up, launch and watch fly.

Landings were rough, of course, and repairs were required. More often, they were built as art objects, simply to admire (and photograph as mentioned before). After some time we talked one of the lumber yards into ordering sheets of balsa wood that we could buy when needed. Also, we found a harness shop that carried the Duco cement. We never 'sniffed' the glue, but I recollect that the odor was interesting.

My brother never got interested in this activity. Part of my interest certainly was stimulated by my interest in flying. I WANTED to be a pilot and whenever an airplane flew over town I went outside to see it. I mentioned paying 50 cents for a ride when I was 10 or 11.

I subscribed to a couple air-adventure magazines. I remember one called 'Flying Aces.' It had World War I fighter plane stories, but also had some educational matter about airplanes and flying. The instructions about how to take off, fly and land were so detailed, I was sure that I could do it.

The idea became more plausible when, during World War II, an English child sneaked into a military airport, went to a Spitfire fighter plane, started the engine, took off, flew around and landed. I don't know what the officials did, but they should have made him an honorary member of their squadron.

When the Battle of Britain became fierce in the summer of 1940 I considered, for a short time, going to Canada and volunteering for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Common sense prevailed.

Did I mention all the old barns in town in which we could catch pigeons? We learned, at some tender age, quite young, that the only black man in town, a barber, would pay us for young pigeons, call squabs. The fee he offered was a nickel, not a great deal, but enough to stimulate business. However, one day he said that he would pay us a dime, but we would have to kill the squabs. That destroyed the business. We could not do it.

Once I caught an adult (squab) late in the day, clipped his wing feathers, took him home to find Mother, Dad, and brother sitting down to dinner. I was late and should have been scolded and might have been, but before that started, I proudly set the pigeon down on the dining table. The bird walked fearlessly and sedately across the table, waded through the butter dish and hopped to the floor. (His wings could make the jump safe, but he could not fly.) Mother laughed and laughed and if a scolding was intended, it was never delivered.

Toward the end of the 1920s and early 1930s cabbages were grown commercially near River Falls. When ripe, these were taken to the railroad station on a wagon pulled by horses, and shipped to, I suppose, St. Paul or maybe farther. In any case, a wagonload of cabbages for boys was like a magnet is for a nail. We could not resist the temptation to help one or two fall off the wagon whereupon it was 'finders keepers.' We ate a lot of cabbage to clear our conscience. I think the market price of one cabbage was about 5 cents in those depression days. As I suddenly remember, a big ice cream cone cost all of a nickel.

The owner of a good bit of the land east of Seventh Street was Link Wasson. He was a good supporting and attending member of the Congregational Church, to which I was sent for Sunday School until I revolted and became an usher. Link was a good guy, but much of the church service, to him, was soothing, very gentling. When we went by him with the collection plate we sometimes found him asleep, no, dozing ever so lightly. A small nudge with the collection plate would awaken him.

Link would hire we boys when we were big enough. I remember putting cabbage plants in the ground for 15 cents per hour. Another time, for 20 cents per hour I helped put hay away in his barn. I was in the upstairs part in which the hay was stored. It was not baled in those days and my job was to move the hay around to make an even layer. I had allergies big time. I never did that again. He also raised strawberries and hired us to pick them for about 5 cents per quart. We could eat as much as we wished. I have no idea how much money he made with the cabbages and strawberries. Not much, I guess. Those were hard times for most people.

My parents subscribed to the St. Paul newspaper, listened to the radio news and subscribed to Time magazine, which in that era was a very good newsmagazine. Consequently we were quite aware of the world situation. It is bad now, but then it was much worse. Austria and Czechoslovakia disappeared when I was a junior in high school, Japan invaded China in 1937, Italy occupied Ethiopia in 1936, the civil war raged in Spain until, I think, 1939, and Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, when I started my senior year. France and the rest of western Europe were taken by Germany when I graduated from high school in June of 1940. The future looked and was bleak. We knew what was coming, but not when.

To hike 'down creek' from town was to follow the bed, canyon, valley of the Kinnickinnic River below the lower millpond. This was a favorite and pleasant place to go for one reason or another. Before World War II I think that enough sewage got into the river that it was not a trout stream as was, and is, the upper Kinnickinnic. I am told that this is no longer the case and that trout can now be caught all the way to Lake St Croix.

I was returning with friends from such a hike, or walk, on Dec. 7, 1941, and stopped at the Texaco gasoline station at the south end of Main Street to get warm. I had worked there pumping gasoline when in high school. The wage was 25 cents per hour and gasoline cost 20 cents per gallon. A cheap grade was a nickel less. Their radio was on and they had heard the news of Pearl Harbor.

When I got home I learned that my parents had not heard this news and I was the first to tell them. I do not remember what they said. I did not fully realize it at the time, but this event ended the happy and carefree childhood, adolescence and teen age life. The United States was in World War II, it was a world disaster, serious business and things would never be the same. I served and lived through it, but a number of close friends did not.

To end a more cheerful note, my father was a trout fisherman and the Kinnickinnic was and is prime water for fly fishing. He kept his rod and flies in the car and a short drive of only a couple miles got him to good water. He said it was the best fly fishing he ever experienced. All the young and middle aged men were gone, of course.

This epistle pretty much exhausts my memory. Beverly and I hope you and your family enjoy it.

-- Bill Stratton"