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Columns

Reflections: Looking back and feeling lucky to be a child of the '50s

Church School in Wheatland Township in Will County in 1952. Our columnist, Roger Matile, is shown in the front row at left.
Church School in Wheatland Township in Will County in 1952. Our columnist, Roger Matile, is shown in the front row at left.

Some of us who grew up in the 1950s were privileged to be youngsters at a time of profound change, as the old days of one-room schools, radio programs and other cultural aspects of American rural life gave way to the modern lives we lead today.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She grew up in a series of post-World War II subdivisions in Aurora, St. Louis, and finally Boulder Hill. That meant she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio. For me, on the other hand, things were very different.

Until I was 8 years old, my family lived on a farm in Wheatland Township. Though located just across the Will County line from Kendall County, we were included in the Oswego School District. The farm we lived on was considered new, the buildings having only been built in the 1930s. But while the house might have been relatively new, it was either built in considerable haste or by some very unskilled folks. One of my earliest memories is looking at the front door of our house (from the inside). While the door looked impressive, it did little to keep those winter breezes out. Which meant during the cold, windy winters on the Wheatland prairie, the door was festooned with clean rags my sisters packed into the numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie breezes. That house was just plain COLD.

The farm house bathroom was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, a fact that should cause no sadness on anyone’s part. Rainwater from the gutters on the roof was piped into the cistern – along with the occasional dead bird. But the water, being "soft," was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds.

But back to the bathroom, which, about the time I was born, my grandfather added in a corner of the basement, sandwiched between the cistern and the coal-fired furnace with which my father did daily battle. It was dark in that basement and, let me tell you, it took real courage to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio. It was, however, a lot better than wading through the snowdrifts to the outhouse, something my sisters never tired of telling me.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water was produced via a hand-fired water heater that burned corncobs or coal. It was my duty, of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my two teenaged sisters could get ready in time for their dates. I remember one particularly disastrous instance when I attempted to check the progress of the fire, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal handle dangling from the lid. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a potholder or piece of cloth to protect my hand. Unfortunately, the random piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself to the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. I thought it pretty funny; my sisters definitely did not.

We didn’t get our first TV set until I was 6 years old. I remember it was a black and gold table model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s appliance store in Plainfield.

Prior to that, though, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case held off the floor by four turned wooden legs. I remember listening to and enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

My mother and sisters listened to the soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which featured excessive numbers of screen doors slamming closed), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of 5 or 6. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the first time!

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber Magee and Molly,” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to be similar. “The Great Gildersleeve” was a special favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I could never figure out, though, why the black guys who worked for the Brown Coal Company (company tagline: “Our name is Brown, our coal is black, we treat you white!”) delivering our coal didn’t talk like either Amos or Andy. It was a puzzlement for years.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. Six grades and some 30 students were all in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. We often got a ride to school, but then walked home, a distance of a mile or so along what is today Heggs Road. Those walks home provided plenty of time for my buddy Rob and I to engage in a lot of productive fooling around.

It has always seemed curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries, eating butter my grandmother churned and cottage cheese Aunt Bess made, and taking milk to the creamery in Yorkville, other kids my age were living in subdivisions. But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up both on the farm and, later, in the small town that Oswego was then. And, human nature being what it is, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood years.

• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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