A lot of the 'good old days' amounted to a lot of work

Echoes of our past
William Wangemann • for The Review

It’s not hard to tell that fall is in the air. Now you might think it’s the leaves beginning to turn, or maybe V-shaped flocks of geese winging their way south, or perhaps nights that occasionally dip into the lower 50s, but its none of these, its backpacks. That right, backpacks! You might ask what have backpacks to do with autumn. If you do ask this question it is very clear that you do not have children of school age. It seems that backpacks are now absolutely essential for a child to return to school in the fall. Living not far from James Madison School I have had ample opportunity to watch as little tykes trudged off to school in past years, staggering under the weight of a backpack that would have made a polar explorer shudder. But getting back to the backpack, it is now the first sign of the approach of fall. Some where around the first of August you can walk into any retail store in the area, or any area for that matter, and encounter huge displays of backpacks, a sure sign of the approach of autumn and the start of the school year.

I began to wonder just what do kids carry in these mysterious pieces of school equipment? In walking through one of our large retail stores recently I came across a tower like display that had a large number of slots in it, and each slot was labeled with a school name, and grade, and in the slots was a list of the items the students were required to bring to class. I pulled several of them out and I was amazed. I doubt if the paratroopers that jumped into Normandy on D-Day in World War Two carried as many items as are on these lists.

Our schools here in Sheboygan ask their students to bring no less than 24 different items. Included in this list are: a box of Kleenex (250 count), 12 #2 pencils, scissors, glue, 2 red pens, crayons, colored pencils and 4 AAA batteries in their original package, just to mention a few of the items on the list. There are lists from Cedar Grove, Plymouth, and Sheboygan Falls as well as Sheboygan and all other schools in the area, all requiring students to bring a similar array of items. Also included in the list is clothing, such as swim suits, gym shoes, towels and on and on. Education sure has changed over the years; one would certainly hope for the better. Is it any wonder that backpacks are so necessary for a child to return to school?

How well I remember returning back to school in the fall. All summer long maintenance crews had cleaned, and polished and varnished the floors and woodwork until the school sparkled (Jefferson School in my case). Then there was that tension-filled night before you went back, when you really didn’t sleep too well. There was always a certain amount of tension; would you like your new teacher, were your friends going to be in your class? When the clock rang that first morning of school I was already awake. Each year, if my dad could afford it, I got a new pair of pants, new shoes and maybe a new shirt. But of course these clothes were just for school, and as soon as you got home I had to take them off at once. Also there were strict orders not to horse around on the playground during recess and get our clothes dirty or, heaven forbid, tear them or scuff up your new shoes. As for school supplies, it seems to me the school furnished them. I do recall taking a pencil or two, maybe an eraser and a notebook but little else, certainly nothing I needed a backpack for. There was no school lunch program; my school lunch program was at home. We were dismissed at 12 noon and had to return by 1 p.m. During that hour we walked home and back again, after lunch at home. People seemed to think it was their responsibility to feed their children, not the schools.

Even though we dreaded going back to school after a summer of fun, in a way it was exciting. The classrooms all smelled of fresh varnish and seemed so bright and new. In those early days of fall on warm days the teacher would open the large windows that lined one wall of the class room, but only from the top. She would use a specially made pole with a metal hook on the end that fit into a round hole on the window casing. Then as the classroom settled down the school year began.

One of the fall rites of preparing a home for winter was a job now almost forgotten. The dreaded day when it was time to put up the storm windows! My home had 22, today I have none!

First, all the windows had to be hauled out of the basement or the garage, where they had stood for the summer collecting dust. Then each window, with two panes per window, had to be washed on both sides. In my case that was 88 sides of glass to be cleaned. But then there were the windows on the house that also needed to be washed, inside and out, another 88 sides of glass. I tried many times to sneak the newly washed storm windows on the house without washing the house windows, but every year I got caught at it, and after a stern admonition from my wife I was forced to wash them any way. Without fail, some of the putty had dried out and fallen off the windows and needed to be replaced. Almost always I also found that, mysteriously, one or two panes of glass were cracked and had to be replaced. So after a trip to the hardware store, such as Geele Hardware, Trilling Hardware,

Braun Herr Hardware or one of the many other smaller mom and pop hardware stores, most of which are now gone, I was ready to repair my windows. It seemed in those pre-big box home improvement center days there was a convenient neighborhood hardware store just around the corner. The owner of the store seemed to know just about anything you wanted to know about hardware from A to Z.

Once the windows were repaired, puttied and washed there was the thrill of hauling them up a wiggly ladder and wrestling them in place. It always seemed that at least one storm window had strangely changed size during the summer and did not fit. Now the window had to be dragged down again and just a bit of wood planned off the edge until at last the errant storm window slid into place.

I can remember that at home in the fall it was my father’s chore of getting the heating system ready for the winter, which meant in most cases making sure the ash pit on the bottom of furnace was empty and the door that regulated the furnace draft was working. Often the draft was controlled by a chain that ran upstairs to a round device mounted on the wall with a lever that could be turned to open and close a small door on the bottom of the furnace which controlled the draft. Once a coal fire was started the draft door would be held open by the chain until the heat in the home rose, then the draft would be closed down to control the fire. All too often after starting up the fire or when coal was added to the fire we would forget to close the draft and the furnace would roar out of control, overheating the house and wasting coal. Then in the evening the fire had to be carefully banked and coal added to it or the fire would go out during the night. More than once we woke up to be greeted by a temperature in the house in the low 40s because the furnace had gone out. It was my father’s job to maintain the fire, and it was my job to carry out the ashes.

Tending a coal fire furnace was a skill that few people today could do.

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