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April 15, 2008

Francis Avenue Folk

By Raymond K. Johnson

My mother and father moved to 42 Francis Ave. in the little town of Hamden when I was about one year old. The size of the town isn't important. Between the ages of five and eight or nine the whole world consists of the street you live on and a couple of blocks in either direction. Seven of the families on my street had children; the rest were older people whose children had grown up and moved away. These older folks were each different and remembered to this day for the things we kids learned from them.

My boyhood home at 42 Francis Ave. Courtesy photos

We played the usual games kids play -- hide-n-seek, hit the bat, tag, cowboys and Indians. We were outside, and as long as our parents could hear us, they knew where we were and that we were safe. Sometimes the older folks would come out and scold us for making too much noise, but more often than not they would come out on the porch and watch us play. Sometimes they would give us clues during hide-n-seek games, or applause if a sensational catch was made during a game of hit the bat.

The Monrad sisters (two old maids we called them) lived in the house on the corner of Francis and Putnam avenues and usually didn't bother us when we were playing in the street. But go into their back yard and try to steal some apples and Anna Monrad would come out of the house with a broom and swat us out of the yard. Usually though, as soon as the apples were ripe, we would all have fresh apple pies courtesy of Anna’s sister, Miss Monrad (the only name we ever knew her by).

Mrs. Fehm, who lived next door, used to squirt us with the garden hose whenever we crossed some imaginary boundary line in front of her house. We always thought she was mean, but most of the time when the business end of the hose was pointed at us, the thermometer was reading 80s or 90s. Now that I look back, she wasn't so mean after all; we had lots of fun getting soaked.

Mr. Gustafson was always talking to us about something. We didn't understand a lot of the stuff he talked about. World War II didn't mean much to us 6- and 7-year-olds, but when his son Sheldon came home from the war and told us that we had helped his dad through troubled times, we understood that Mr. Gustafson had missed his son and we were kind of taking his place while he was gone.

Francis Avenue in the mid-20th century.

Across the street from my house lived the Koches (pronounced Cook). Carl Koch was a friend of my father’s. He used to stop at the Country Club Bar and Grille for a few beers with Dad every night on the way home from work. Carl spent a lot of time sitting on the porch with a cold beer watching us play our games.

The Rosengrens lived next door to the Koches. Sigrid Rosengren and my mother were good friends, and Sigrid would make Spritz cookies for us at Christmas. She had a really heavy Swedish accent. Her husband, Orvar, worked for High Standard and in the winter he would bring home rifle stocks to burn in the fireplace. They were mostly broken but some had only a minor defect in them and he let all the kids pick out one or two to use when we played cowboys and Indians. We never could understand how Mr. Rosengren could burn such beautiful stocks. His son, Arne, was in the Navy during World War II.

The Umlands lived next door. Yolanda’s son, Arthur, had polio when he was little but was getting better and tried his best to play all the games we played in the street. Yolanda was always watching “my Arthur” from the window whenever Arthur played with us.

Harry Iverson lived across the street next to the Koches. Harry had the neatest house on the street. He was always painting something or mowing the lawn. On Sundays he washed his car in the driveway. You could always tell when Harry was outside, he whistled all the time. Whole songs, bird calls, it was always something with Harry.

Then there was old Mr. Mahoney. He was Harry’s father-in-law. He was an old grump. If the ball went into his yard, he kept it. No way could you use his bushes in a game of hide-n-seek or the big maple tree in his front yard as "home" in a game of tag. He was just an old grouch. He yelled at us all the time. We didn’t like old man Mahoney very much. At the end of World War II he took in a boarder named Tommy MacDonald. After that he didn’t yell at us as much as he used to. Tommy lived there for a few years before moving to his own house on Putnam Avenue.

The rest of the old folks were about the same -- nice to us most of the time, stern at others. But I remember them all for one reason or another and consider all of them an important part of my formative years.

Raymond K. Johnson grew up Hamden and graduated Hamden High School in 1957. Two years later he enlisted in the Marine Corps, from which he retired in 1979. He now lives in Oceanside, Calif., with his wife, Kay. He is penning his memories of growing up in Whitneyville in this column. Johnson can be reached at rkjohnson1@cox.net.

March 31, 2008

My First Run-In with the Law

By Raymond K. Johnson

In an earlier story I introduced Clarence Drumm, the police officer who was responsible for my throwing up a complete spaghetti and meatball dinner (in the process of saving my life) when I fell into Lake Whitney. Clarence and I had occasion to meet a couple of other times, under slightly different circumstances.

The other times included one when he was investigating an act of vandalism, and a second time, last October when we shared some stories about “the good old days” during a telephone conversation.

I had a BB gun. Mom and Dad gave it to me for my birthday, my 10th or 11th, I think. My brother, Lee, and I spent hours in the back yard shooting at little paper targets and empty tin cans. Of course, if a squirrel or a blue jay happened to come in range we would send BBs flying all over the place trying to bag some “big game.” Mom caught us a couple of times and took the guns away for a few days. We were told that the little birds and squirrels were off limits and we would lose the gun for good if we did it again.

Dad went a little further; he took the shot tube out of the gun so we couldn’t shoot BBs for a week or so. The animals must have overheard the conversation, because after we got the guns back whenever we went into the back yard to play, the birds and squirrels were there.

Now, for my version of the charge of vandalism. Just across the street from the intersection of Francis Avenue and Violet Street was a building that had been the Elm City Market, the store owned by Kenny DeMaio’s father. At the time of the vandalism incident the building belonged to Art and Dick Verneris, and was the home of the Rainbow Cleaners. We used to go over to the store and talk to Art and Dick all the time. They were just starting in the dry-cleaning business and were pretty busy, but they always took time to talk with all the kids who lived on the street.

The store had great big plate-glass windows. From Lee’s and my upstairs bedroom window you could see the windows perfectly. One Saturday morning we were just looking out the window and spotted a bird in the maple tree in front of our house. I don’t know how or why, but suddenly there I was, lining up that little bird in the sights of my BB gun. I think Lee talked me into it. Anyway, I fired a shot and missed the bird, but a second or two later we heard a “plink” sound. I had missed the bird but the BB had traveled across the street and hit one of the big plate glass windows in the Rainbow Cleaners. To our ears the sound was better than a ricochet you hear in a “B” western.

We took turns shooting at the big plate-glass window. Plink, plink and plink. After 10 or 20 shots we decided to go look at the window. It was still early in the morning and the store wasn’t open yet. We ran across the street and up to the front of the store to see if we could find any of the BBs. What we found was a big plate glass window with about 20 little round holes in it. The BBs had hit with just enough force to pop out little round pieces of glass about the size of a dime. They were conical shaped and all the pieces were lying on the floor inside the building.

Lee and I looked at each other. We were in trouble.

We ran back home and up the stairs to our bedroom. In our bedroom there was a loose board in the floor. If you removed the board you could hide stuff under the floor. We used to hide all kinds of things in there -- 1943 steel pennies, baseball trading cards, comic books and anything that we didn’t want our older sister, Louise, to find. It was a secret place and nobody knew it was there except Lee and me. Lee and I thought now might be a good time to take the shot tube out of the BB gun and hide it under the floor. The shot tube screwed into the front of the BB gun and held a couple of hundred BBs. You had to unscrew it to load them; without it, the gun did not fire. We figured if anyone ever discovered the holes in the big plate glass window we could show them that my BB gun couldn’t have done the damage. We were pretty smart for kids our age.

About two hours later we saw a policeman standing in front of the Rainbow Cleaners talking with Art and Dick. We would find out shortly that the policeman was Clarence Drumm. The three of them were standing right in front of that big plate-glass window. Officer Drumm knelt down and looked at the window. He turned around slowly and followed an imaginary line across the street and when he finished moving his eyes, he was staring directly into our bedroom window. It was just like a scene from one of those CSI shows on TV! The fact that Lee and I had secreted the shot tube under the floorboard didn’t have quite the same feeling as it did a couple earlier.

Officer Drumm continued to talk with Art and Dick for a few more minutes, occasionally pointing in the direction of our house. Finally the conversation across the street broke up and Art and Dick went back inside the building. Officer Drumm turned and walked down the street, towards our house. Lee and I stayed in our room and began to read comic books. The perfect alibi.

The doorbell rang. Being a Saturday morning, Dad was off playing golf at Meadowbrook. Mom went to the door and had a long conversation with Officer Drumm. We stayed in our room, reading our comic books. We heard the door close and then heard Mom coming up the stairs. We continued reading our comic books. Mom came into our bedroom and asked us where the BB gun was. I jumped up and went to the closet and got my BB gun and handed it to her. She left the room without saying another word. We didn’t know what to do. All we knew was that the gun was without the shot tube and in its present condition couldn’t have caused any damage to any big plate-glass window. We went back to being little angels and continued to read our comic books. For some reason the comics weren’t as funny as they usually were.

A few hours later we heard Dad’s car pull up in front of the house. We opened up our bedroom door just a little and heard Mom talking to Dad. We couldn’t make out exactly what Mom was saying, but about three or four minutes later we definitely heard what Dad said. We got our mouths washed out with soap when we said stuff like that.

There were 13 steps in the stairway up to the second floor of our house. Dad came up them in three strides. We had barely enough time to jump back onto our beds and grab a comic book before he came into our room, holding the BB gun up in the air, waving it from side to side like Geronimo in a cowboy and Indian movie.

He said five words, “Where is the shot tube?”

Dad was a foreman at Winchester and knew a little bit about guns. Lee and I looked at one another, turned back towards Dad and I said, “We lost it.” And then the most amazing thing happened. Dad lay the BB gun down on the foot of my bed, kneeled down, pulled up the secret floorboard, reached down and pulled out the shot tube. Our secret hiding place, how did he know?

Dad took the shot tube in both hands and bent it into a perfect horseshoe shape. Lee and I began to feel sick. Dad stood there and told us that our shooting exhibition was going to cost him about $200, the price to replace one big plate-glass window. Dad left us in our room and went downstairs. He talked with Mom for a few minutes and then went across the street to the Rainbow Cleaners.

We never did find out exactly how much Dad had to pay to replace the window, but for several months Louise was very happy that she had been relieved from dishwashing duties; that job had been reassigned to Lee and me, along with taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn and every other little job that needed doing around the house. The BB gun was never the same without the shot tube and the thought of asking Dad to get a new shot tube never even crossed our minds.

Years later I asked Mom about the secret hiding place in our bedroom. She said Louise used to hide her diary in there when she had that room and when she overheard Mom and Dad talking she was more than happy to volunteer the information. Ratted out by our own sister.

My next meeting with Clarence Drumm was via phone last October when I was back in Hamden attending my 50th high school reunion. I received an email from Ed Krazinski, a classmate from the class of 1957. He mentioned that he had served with the Hamden Police Department for several years and was familiar with two of the officers I remembered, Danny Liston and Clarence Drumm. I was surprised that Clarence was still living (he will turn 80 in just a few days) and asked Ed if he knew how I could get in touch with him. A few days later I had a phone number.

When I called Clarence I learned that he had served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II and upon his discharge signed on as a police officer with Hamden. One of his first assignments was Beat 3, an area that included the corner of Whitney and Putnam avenues and all the business in the surrounding neighborhood.

During the incident with the BB gun, when Officer Drumm identified my brother and me as the shooters, we never actually met Clarence face to face, we only saw him from our bedroom window as he pointed the accusing finger in our direction from the Rainbow Cleaners. It would be another year or so before I would actually meet him for the first time as he pumped water from me beneath the footbridge at Lake Whitney.

We talked about the lifesaving story and he remembered my father looking like he needed medical attention after running the quarter-mile down Putnam Avenue to Lake Whitney. Clarence still has a damned good memory. He also remembered how cold it was walking Beat 3 along the shore of Lake Whitney in the wintertime.

We have spoken by phone a couple of times since then, sharing several stories about the things that happened in Whitneyville back when I was a kid and he was a rookie cop. Clarence still sounds as strong as ever.

Once a Marine – Always a Marine. Semper Fi, Clarence.

Raymond K. Johnson grew up Hamden and graduated Hamden High School in 1957. Two years later he enlisted in the Marine Corps, from which he retired in 1979. He now lives in Oceanside, Calif., with his wife, Kay. He is penning his memories of growing up in Whitneyville in this column. Johnson can be reached at rkjohnson1@cox.net.

March 17, 2008

Summer Wieners, Crabs & Snakes

By Raymond K. Johnson

School summer vacations were always fun times; playing baseball and going fishing occupied most of our time once we were old enough to go out on our own. But until we got to the age of about 9 we were at the mercy of Mom and Dad as to when and where we were going and what we were going to do, and it usually involved swimming.

Mom took us to Paradise Pond a few times. It was just a pond back then, not a park like it is now. There was no place to play in the sand or get a drink or anything to eat; there wasn’t much more than water and some marsh grass, a few cattails and -- as we were to find out -- leeches. If you ever saw the movie “Stand By Me,” you know what happened when Kenny, Lee and I came out of the water covered with leeches. That was our last trip to Paradise Pond.

After that we mostly went to Hammonasset Beach or Wharton Brook. I never liked Hammonasset. There was nothing there. No soft drinks or hot dogs, and the bathhouses were small smelly wooden things that felt just plain creepy to me.

Wharton Brook in Wallingford was a lot of fun, though. The water was shallow, good for all us kids as we had not yet learned how to swim. There was a time when it was called “Polio Pond.” During the polio epidemic in the 1940s, I guess a couple of the kids who contracted polio had been to Wharton Brook just prior to getting sick. Later on we had school picnics there.

But the best place to go swimming was Wilcox Beach at Savin Rock. Whenever Mom and Dad announced that we were going swimming at Wilcox Beach we couldn’t wait. It was a full day for us. The bus ride to West Haven was fun. We had to get transfers from the bus driver and when we changed buses at Church and Chapel streets, we would all hand our little paper transfers to the driver and he would punch holes in them with a paper punch.

When we got to Savin Rock, sometimes Dad would take us to the penny arcade or let us ride the flying horses, where we could get a free ride if we could grab the brass ring. And my favorite ride of all -- the bumper cars.

Note: The flying horses we used to ride were sold when Savin Rock closed and I recently discovered that they are now one of the main attractions at Magic Mountain here in California. When my son, Chris, was a little boy we used to go to Magic Mountain and, unbeknown to me at the time, he rode the same horses that I did as a child.

Wilcox Beach was always fun. The hot dog stand sold Roessler’s Yellow Tag hot dogs and you could smell them a mile away. The best smell ever. The buns were split on the top and with a little mustard and relish they were my favorite.

There was one day when the trip to Wilcox Beach resulted in Kenny DeMaio and me having to be rescued.

Mom took us to the beach that day and after playing in the water for an hour or so we all went and got a hot dog. Then we had to wait the mandatory hour before going back in the water. Finally Mom gave us permission and away we went. Wilcox Beach had a small raft not too far from shore and at low tide we could almost walk out to it. On this particular day. Kenny and I started out towards the raft intent on making it all the way. Once there we could dive into the water and get back to shallow water where we could stand up. We were about halfway out when Kenny felt something nip at his toes and he yelled, “Crab!” We had seen several horseshoe crabs earlier and if you have ever seen one of those huge ugly things you can imagine what went through our minds at that moment.

Kenny DeMaio and I became the second and third people in history to “walk on water” -- all the way to the raft. We sat on the raft wondering how we were going to get back to shore; we knew that we were not going back in the water.

After an hour or so the tide started to come back in. Kenny and I were getting cold and scared. I yelled for Mom. Finally Mom heard me calling and she walked out to the raft to see what the problem was. We told her about the giant crabs and how one of them had bitten Kenny’s foot. For some strange reason all the marks on Kenny’s toes had disappeared. Mom told us to get down off the raft and she would help us back to shore. We wouldn’t move. Eventually Mom had to carry each of us back to the beach, one at a time. It was quite some time before Kenny and I looked forward to going to the beach.

For a while I gave up swimming and started to go to the West Rock Nature Center. Kenny wasn’t into snakes and things like that (the crab incident had a lasting effect) so I would ride my bike over to Cliff Steven’s house on Wilmot Road and from there we would pedal up Wintergreen Avenue to the Nature Center. About halfway up we would stop and rest and wave to the old people who lived in a big three-story brick building. Mom told me it was the Poor House where they put the destitute; it sounded and looked like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.

Tony Cosenza was in charge of the Nature Center and we would help him care for the owls and snakes, a pet skunk and all the other animals that Tony had nursed back to health and made pets of. We belonged to the White Oak Club and being a member meant you got your own white oak leaf, a wooden cutout of a leaf with your name on it, hung from the rafters in the Nature House. Tony would add stars to the leaf whenever we completed our tasks. Usually the tasks involved cleaning cages, feeding the animals, cutting the brush along the hiking trails and getting the big field ready for the Annual Boy Scout Camporee. The one job we liked the most was catching field mice to feed to the owls and snakes.

Savin Rock is gone now and so are the Roessler’s hot dogs, but the West Rock Nature Center is still there, a lasting tribute to Tony Cosenza, the guy who taught me the proper way to feed a mouse to a snake.

Raymond K. Johnson grew up Hamden and graduated Hamden High School in 1957. Two years later he enlisted in the Marine Corps, from which he retired in 1979. He now lives in Oceanside, Calif., with his wife, Kay. He is penning his memories of growing up in Whitneyville in this column. Johnson can be reached at rkjohnson1@cox.net.

March 1, 2008

First Date

By Raymond K. Johnson

My first date ended with Mary crying, and my decision to become a bachelor forever.

Eighth-grade girls have it made. All they have to do is wait for a boy to ask them out. That’s it. Sit there and say “yes” or “no” to some young boy who has been practicing for a month how to say, “Would you like to go to a movie with me?” without stuttering, or worse yet, going into a pubescent stupor halfway through the sentence.

Dance classes had brought Mary to my attention, and more and more of my time was spent trying to figure out what to say or do in order to get her to go on a date with me. My change in attitude was not lost on my parents. I would sit in the kitchen for an hour with a can of Kiwi shoe polish, brushing and buffing my shoes until I could see my face in them. Mom was spending a little more time on the weekends ironing my shirts and pants, something I had never been concerned with until the dancing classes started.

Dad was having a good time with all of this. One Friday evening he was lying on the couch reading the newspaper, and as I was leaving for dance class he asked if I had remembered to shave. Mom snapped back, “Graham!” Dad stuck his nose back in the sports page and chuckled.

I finally worked up the courage. I asked Mary if she would like to go to a movie with me at the Whitney Theater. She said she would like to but first had to ask her parents. The next day Mary said her parents had given their approval but only after asking several questions about me. The one question that struck me as being odd was, “Where does he live?” Mary lived on Ridge Road; I lived on Francis Avenue about two miles away. In those days, the families who lived on either Ridge Road or the Old Hartford Turnpike were thought of as the rich people.

I mentioned this in an earlier column and was rebuked by my friend Russell Ellis. Russell lived on the Old Hartford Turnpike and in his response he wrote: “…my parents were not wealthy, and they had some hard times to survive indeed. The cost of living was low, and so were the salaries at the time.” Russell, of course, was right, but the kids who lived on the side streets along Putnam Avenue thought that anyone living across Lake Whitney near the New Haven Country Club Golf Course HAD to be rich. I apologize to Russell.

So why the “Where does he live?” question? Mary’s parents were very protective of their little girl and if she was going out on a date, especially the first one, they would provide the transportation.

I had decided to take Mary to see “Titanic,” starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwick and a very young Robert Wagner. That was mistake No. 1, which I will explain shortly.

Everything was set. On Friday night Mary, along with her parents, arrived right on time. My parents came out on the porch and introduced themselves. Mary’s dad said he would pick us up after the show and bring me home. Everyone shook hands and away we went. When we got to the Whitney I was asked to go to the ticket window and find out what time the movie ended. I got the information and told Mary’s dad; they waved goodbye and we went into the theater.

We walked about halfway down the aisle on the right and settled down in our seats to watch the movie. Everything was going great. Mary and I talked a little, even held hands, but mostly just watched the movie. I was keeping a close eye on how Robert Wagner was acting with Audrey Dalton; if he got to kiss her, just maybe … I could not have been any more wrong.

That stupid boat hit the iceberg and started to sink; people started falling into the Atlantic and dying; and Mary started to cry. (Rule No. 1: Never take a girl on a first date to a movie where thousands of people die.)

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. Mary was wiping away her tears with a handkerchief and I sat there like a dummy. Finally, I asked her if she would like some candy. What a great line. She sniffled “Yes, please.” I bolted up the aisle to the candy counter and bought a couple of candy bars.

Then came mistake No. 2. On the way back to my seat I must have shuffled my feet a little on the carpet and in the process picked up some static electricity. I sat down in my seat and looked at Mary. She was still teary-eyed and I leaned over towards her to give her a little kiss.

Zap! -- the electrical current from the static electricity jumped between our lips. My head snapped backward and my brain was screaming, “What the heck was that?” I didn’t say another word the whole movie. Mary stopped crying. We watched the rest of the movie in total silence -- hundreds of more people freezing and dying -- and finally, mercifully, the movie ended.

Mary and I walked up the aisle towards the front of the theater. The two candy bars were still clutched in my hand. When we walked out of the theater Mary’s mom and dad were waiting in the car. I swear the car hadn’t moved a foot from where it was when they dropped us off. The evening ended with a short ride home. I gave Mary her half-melted candy bar, thanked her parents for taking us and told Mary I’d see her in school on Monday.

When I opened the door I found Mom and Dad sitting in the living room, waiting for all the details of my first date.

I wished I had been on the Titanic.

Raymond K. Johnson grew up Hamden and graduated Hamden High School in 1957. Two years later he enlisted in the Marine Corps, from which he retired in 1979. He now lives in Oceanside, Calif., with his wife, Kay. He is penning his memories of growing up in Whitneyville in this column. Johnson can be reached at rkjohnson1@cox.net.


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