GRAMMAR SCHOOL DAYS
Upon our return to Chicago in December 1913, my parents rented an upper flat in a building located on the southwest corner of 14th Place and Ashland Avenue. It lay a good half mile from my birthplace on Blue Island Avenue, roughly three miles from the Loop, and in the very center of the Dutch community that had gathered around church and school.
As soon as we were settled there, my brother Tom, then twenty-one years old, unmarried, and gainfully employed, took up residence with us. With this addition, our family consisted of Father, Mother, and seven children ranging in age from five to twenty-one years. There were four bedrooms to accommodate the nine of us. Father and Mother occupied one of these, Tom and Neal another, the girls a third, and we three younger boys the fourth. Mart and I slept together in one bed, and George occupied an adjoining bunk.
There was a living room, usually referred to as the “front” room, which overlooked Ashland Avenue and was accessible to outsiders through a front door opening on a steep staircase; but members of the family seldom used that entrance. There was a rug on the floor (wall-to-wall carpeting was unheard of then), and some overstuffed chairs were arranged on it; but occupancy of the room was usually reserved for visitors. It was not the place in which the family normally gathered.
There was a dining room, which, as I recall, was never or seldom used for dining, in part no doubt because near the center of it Father had placed a coal-burning pot-bellied stove. I was often required to sift its ashes in the interest of economy.
A corridor, flanked on one side by a bathroom and on the other by a bedroom, led from the dining room into a spacious kitchen, which was not only Mother’s throne room but also a veritable family room, the headquarters of our communal existence and the scene of our liveliest interchanges. It was in the kitchen that we ate our meals, attended to prayers and Bible readings, played table games, and discussed whatever pertained to family or world affairs. It was also here that Mother did the laundry, partly upon a corrugated washboard and partly in a hand-operated machine furnished with a wringer. Father, when available, would help to churn the clothes, and I was sometimes privileged to join in. Before consigning extremely dirty clothes to the machine, Mother would soak them in an oblong copper boiler in the interest of maximum cleanliness. Dominating the room was a large cookstove in which both coal and wood were burned, and on which Mother not only cooked our meals but also heated the irons with which she pressed our clothes. From within the oven of that stove there periodically emerged the best pies and cakes in all of Cook County. Next to the stove stood the icebox, into which the itinerant iceman would insert the fifty-pound block of ice that we ordered by placing his sign at the window. Emptying the water basin that captured the melting ice soon became one of my responsibilities. At the other end of the room was a large oblong table ringed with chairs; Father sat at the head in an oaken armchair near a rack supporting the Dutch Bible, which he read aloud each time the family sat down to meals. The reading was, of course, accompanied by prayers offered both before and after eating. To foster my concentration on the reading, my father periodically asked me to repeat the last words, and at the conclusion of the opening prayer I was expected to join in with my own “Heere, zegen deze spyze, Amen” (Lord, bless this food, Amen).
The apartment was lit by gas lamps, whose mantels had to be replaced regularly. For lack of screens, flies frequently invaded our quarters, but sticky flypaper, judicially placed, or sheets of poison flypaper resting in saucers captured and killed most of them.
A window in our kitchen looked out on a smallish, uncovered wooden porch, from which wooden steps led down to a ground-floor platform from which we gained access to 14th Place. It was this exposed back stair that we habitually used to enter or leave our flat. There was a yard of sorts that stretched from the back of our house to the adjacent alley, but it was no more than twenty-five feet wide and forty feet long and it contained not a blade of grass. The yard was encumbered too by a shed in which we stored our coal and wood; but it still served boys of my age as a baseball diamond, and at the time we considered it rather spacious. A hit from one end of the yard onto the street amounted to a home run, a wallop of which one could be justly proud.
Stretched high above the yard were Mother’s clotheslines, which ran on pulleys fastened to the porch at one end and to a tall pole near the shed at the other. When a frayed line broke, as sometimes happened, it required great ingenuity to restore the device to usefulness.
This account would hardly be complete if I failed to report that on the ground floor of our building was a Dutch bakery operated by the brothers La Botz. We bought sweet rolls from them, as well as delicious cream puffs. My companions and I hung around this place a good deal, and in response to our importunities, we would sometimes get a reluctantly given cookie or sweet.
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We lived at the 14th Place address for about two years. At the end of that time, I was seven and a half and I had acquired and stored in my consciousness enough experience to give a certain shape and structure to my person and to afford me a recognizable identity and presence. I had made the pleasurable acquaintance of my classmates at school, and I had come to be accepted by most of the kids on our block. But most of all, I had been nurtured into relative maturity by a conscious and beneficent association with the members of my family.
My father’s sturdy but unaffected piety, his wise counsel, his exemplary reading habits, his involvement in the affairs of church and school, his steady industriousness, and his kindly disposition affected me deeply. Reflecting on it now, I do not remember him ever raising his voice or uttering a harsh word. When I was disobedient or had done some unseemly thing, he simply called me to him, took a firm grip on my arm, and looked me in the eye. By this body language alone he made plain to me that certain things were not done in Israel or tolerated in the Stob household.
And my mother was a gem. The house was, of course, her domain. She was vice president, treasurer, and general manager of the realm. To each of her children she assigned a place and a task, with the result that everything proceeded in an orderly fashion. She was no martinet, but with a firm hand she gently guided the family into a routine that gave our life together a certain consistency and predictability. It was known, for example, that meals were served at designated times, that we were expected to eat what was set on the table, and that no one was to waste any food: what one took on one’s plate was to be eaten. She kept the house spic-and-span and would abide no unredressed clutter. We younger children were taught to wipe our feet when entering the house; we had appointed pegs on which to hang our coats and caps; and shoes and other apparel had to be neatly stored. We were to come in from play as soon as darkness fell and promptly thereafter wash the city’s accumulated grime from our face and hands. Bedtime and rising time were regulated. We school children were not permitted to be underfoot when the early risers were being served breakfast before reporting for work. But she was, amidst all her managerial duties, a loving and caring mother who taught us by precept and example to be neat, decorous, and cooperative. Her lively faith in God and his providence matched that of my father, and she instilled in us a regard for the Scriptures, a respect for authority, a sense of duty, a love for neighbor, and a recognition of the absolute need for religious commitment to the Creator and Lord of all.
There are handicaps to being the youngest child in a large family. One comes to inherit clothes and toys handed down from above and to be regarded as not yet licensed to voice an opinion. Indeed, it was a rule in our house that in the presence of adult visitors a child was not to speak unless spoken to. But there are also advantages to being a minor. I grew up in the company of intelligent and articulate adults to whose conversations I was privileged to attend, whose knowledge I could draw upon, and whose concern and help I could always count on. Brothers and sisters alike served as my mentors. Tom, Neal, and George undertook to advance my education by tutoring me in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and by alerting me to the significance of events happening around us. My sisters saw to it that my hair was combed, that my teeth were brushed, that I was appropriately dressed, and that I observed the social amenities. Mart, nearest to me in age, yet my senior by three years, took pains to ensure that the several indulgences accorded to the baby of the family were kept within bounds. But what proved to be as helpful as anything else was the family gathering that took place most evenings in our large kitchen.
One must remember that the absence of internal distractions and external enticements was a feature of these early years. We had no car to lure us onto city streets and country roads. We had no radio and no television to tempt us away from reading and conversation. Dancing and attending movies (then called “nickel shows”) were forbidden. The opera and the symphony existed beyond our means and doubtless beyond our level of appreciation, our musical education being limited to psalm tunes and gospel hymns. All of this left the older children with little to do outside the home except to visit friends in other homes, attend a midweek church meeting, go to an occasional ball game, or perhaps, as in the case of Tom and Neal, court the favor of some young lady. But even that last occupation was restricted in those days. At best, a young man who was “dating” saw his girlfriend only on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, and, since taverns, nightclubs, and other such worldly things were out of bounds, his time with her was normally spent in the “parlor” or on the porch swing. The minutes of private courtship lasted from the time monitoring parents retired for the night and the stroke of midnight. No proper couples continued their tryst beyond that witching hour.
Dinner was in the evening, and it was a communal affair with each member occupying his or her assigned chair as age dictated. Always attended by devotions, it was also an occasion for round-table discussion. After the girls had cleaned the table and washed the dishes, the whole company normally assembled for further talk. From this habitual activity I gained knowledge and insight not accorded to those less favorably placed than I. During 1914 much of the talk centered on the war that was brewing and then erupted in August of that year. The July assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was emblazoned in the press and generously commented on at home. The August declaration of war frightened the family and overshadowed the July announcement that the Panama Canal had been completed and would in one month permit the passage of an ocean-going vessel. Father was initially on the side of the Germans because he resented England’s recent wresting of South Africa from the control of his favored Boers. Paul Kruger was in those days a hero we were taught to look up to. The older children, however, having no experience of The Netherlands, tended to side with Britain and France, though they hoped that the United States would not be drawn into the conflict. They were encouraged in this by President Wilson’s August Proclamation of Neutrality.
Other issues were discussed at table with fervor and elan. A 1914 decision of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church to allow office bearers to speak English at classical meetings became a topic of conversation, as did its purchase that year of The Banner. The April 1915 torpedoing of the British Cunard liner Lusitania by the Germans off the coast of Ireland, with a loss of 1,200 lives, modified my father’s opinion of the Germans and confirmed my brothers’ allegiance to the Allied cause. There was talk that year, too, about William Hale (“Big Bill”) Thompson’s election as mayor of Chicago, as well as Jess Willard’s capture of the world’s heavyweight boxing crown.
One should not suppose that ours was an academic debating society. There were no learned savants among us. Father and Mother had not gone beyond the fourth grade, and none of the children had gone beyond the eighth grade, except perhaps Tom, who had taken some commercial courses after finishing grade school. But the Lord had blessed our parents with intelligence and character, and they had been able in God’s good providence to fashion with their gifts a lifestyle conducive to the wholesome nurture and development of their children. Meanwhile, we were a set of ordinary people doing what seemed natural in the light of our Dutch and Reformed inheritance.
Moreover, it was not all talk that went on. We played table games too. I think there was Parcheesi, a game played with dice, no less. And then there was Rook. Card playing, like dancing and theater attendance, was forbidden by the church, but in our circles the interdiction was held to apply only to “devil cards” and gambling. Rook was considered exempt, and it was widely indulged in. Father was good at the game, and Mart later became equally adept at it. However, I took little interest in it and seldom played.
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I am told that soon after our return from Texas, Father found temporary employment at the Badenock Grain Elevator, a wholesale establishment where he had in former years purchased his hay and feed. Within months he had reopened a retail store in these commodities at Hastings Street and Paulina. But, sensing the arrival of the automobile age, he abandoned this project and before the year 1914 had come to a close, he had established himself in a cinder-hauling business. With two wagons and a half dozen horses, he was able to realize an acceptable return on his investment.
Supplementing the income brought into the house by my father were the contributions that were made early on by some of the children. Tom was already an established bookkeeper with a steady wage. Neal, then nineteen, soon took a job with Jelke Margarine, and my sisters Gert (seventeen) and Jen (fifteen) found employment at Haywood Brothers and Wakefield, manufacturers of reed furniture, where they made pillows. George, who entered eighth grade in February of 1914, also took a job when he graduated and turned fifteen a year later. With Father profitably engaged and four or five children paying room and board, Mother was able, after setting aside funds for church and school, to defray all household expenses and also, I suspect, lay a little aside.
It was perhaps this improvement in the family’s financial situation that induced my parents to look around for better living quarters. When it became known that the lower apartment of the Stege house on Ashland Avenue was for rent, they decided to occupy it forthwith. I believe it was late in 1915 or early in 1916, when I was about to enter the third grade, that we moved across the street into our new residence, just a stone’s throw from the 14th Place flat that we were vacating.
The Stege house was so called because it was owned and on the upper level occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Stege, proprietors and managers of the huge brewery that stood on the corner of 15th Street and Ashland, a scant half block away. The large two-story brick house was quite unlike the one we had abandoned. A wrought-iron fence stretched across the front of it and extended down one side. Two gates provided entrance onto the grounds, one at the cement walk that led to the back door, and one near the broad stone steps that led up to a roomy but unenclosed porch. The wide door opening on this porch also opened onto an interior entrance hall from which a flight of steps led to the upper apartment on one side and from which one gained access to the rooms we occupied on the other. A round garden plot filled with the season’s flowers adorned the space between house and fence, and an expansive lawn flanked the house on its south side. A huge brick wall, provided with a door, stretched along the alley at the rear. The house was fitted all around with copper gutters and downspouts, a fact that would hardly be worth reporting had not wartime vandals aroused the family by trying to dismantle and sell them as scrap to dealers with access to the military authorities.
The interior matched the size and beauty of the exterior. There were four bedrooms in our apartment and, besides the large kitchen and the closet-lined, tiled bathroom, there were three spacious residential areas – a dining room, a living room, and at the very front a cozy parlor, all with polished hardwood floors that glistened along the wide borders of the twelve-foot by nine-foot rugs Mother had laid down. From the enclosed porch in the rear, steps led to the basement, where at one end was a storage room, a laundry room with three fixed tubs with faucets and drains, and a full bathroom. A hall led from this area to what apparently had once been a ballroom designed for parties and dancing. Full access to this basement was accorded us in the rental agreement. Both of my sisters held their wedding receptions in the spacious ballroom. The house was heated by a boiler, and there were hot water radiators in every room. We still relied on gas for lighting, and I continued to be assigned the task of purchasing mantels to replace those that had burned out.
The family was now well situated, with space to accommodate friends the growing children increasingly brought into the house. We still ate private meals in the large kitchen, but we served guests in the dining room. A foot-pumped organ now graced the living room, and the young adults gathered around it on Sunday afternoons to sing their favorite songs, thereafter to enjoy the evening meal of ham, cheese, eggs, and bread that Mother lavishly provided.
Life at home went on much as it did before, except, of course, for the changes that advancing years and altered circumstances inevitably bring. Mart and I began to play less on the streets and more in our own yard and large basement. Mother took pleasure in the house’s airy spaciousness and in the laundry facilities it afforded, but it was apparent that increased space did not lessen the tasks of cleaning and dusting. Visitors and guests from outside the family came in increasing numbers, which also kept her busy. Bill and Tillie with their young children, and John and Hattie with theirs, made frequent appearances; but in this she and Father took delight, as did we all. These visits both advanced our family life and afforded my parents ample opportunity to dote on their grandchildren.
We lived in the Stege house for about six and a half years. During that time great changes occurred. At the midterm of our stay, in 1919, Mart graduated from grammar school, and near the end of our stay there, I did the same. Chief among the changes that occurred, however, was the radical decrease in the number of those who sat around the family table. From 1916 to 1922, all the older children got married and left the house to establish their own homes. Only Mart and I were still living with our parents when, in the fall of 1922, we moved into a smaller house some six blocks away.
I shall have occasion below to report more fully about the life we lived during our stay on Ashland Avenue. I wish now to say, however, that in our first year of residence in the Stege house – the year 1916 – a number of things happened that I remember vividly. Chief among them is the marriage of my able and well-loved brother Tom to Jennie Bulthuis on May 17, 1916. His departure, though warmly endorsed and joyfully celebrated, did nevertheless impoverish those of us who stayed at home. Fortunately, he and his wife did not neglect to visit us often, and at fixed intervals he provided us with a barrel of apples from Thomas S. Smith’s wholesale store on the South Water Market, where he was employed as credit manager.
What I remember with almost equal vividness is the November re-election of Woodrow Wilson to the Presidency of the United States. My father was a Republican, and he favored the candidacy of Justice Charles E. Hughes. Because of his interest in the race, we stayed up late on election day in order to read the message about the result, which was to be signaled toward midnight by a light flashed from the Wrigley Tower. A victory for Hughes was flashed that night and we went to bed satisfied; but the morning papers revealed that Wilson had won. His promise to keep us out of the war had apparently turned the tide.
General John J. (“Black Jack”) Pershing’s vain pursuit of Pancho Villa across the Mexican border also elicited our interest that year, but it was only when the general took command of the American troops in 1917 that the Mexican expedition took on fresh meaning. Of lesser interest, though a cause of some regret, was the movement of the Chicago Cubs from a stadium in our area to Wrigley Field on the far north side. In spite of the move, the Cubs continued to be our team, and they remain mine to this very day.
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When we moved into the Stege house, we did not move out of the neighborhood; we stayed within it, and I was neither required to sever any of my social ties nor inclined to quit entirely the familiar streets and alleys in which I had previously roamed. It was a Dutch neighborhood we lived in, although it was not an exclusive enclave without an ethnic mix. Jews lived in numbers along 14th Street, and there was a scattering of Irish and Polish Catholics in the neighborhood; but the Dutch predominated and it was under the shelter of their culture and mores that I grew up.
To fix the geographical parameters enclosing the Dutch community is a somewhat tricky undertaking, but I dare say that our people lived in an area bounded by Throop Street on the east and Oakley or Ogden on the west. It was bounded on the south by 15th Street and on the north by 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road). Most of the Dutch, however, lived in the area that was best known to me, which, lying in the north-south axis, stretched a half mile east and west from Loomis to Wood Street.
Among our near neighbors on Ashland Avenue were the Rispens, Blauws, Huizengas, Rozendals, Kiemels, De Boers, Jacobsmas, Teunes, and others; living on 15th Street were the Ter Maats, Vander Ploegs, Dwarshuises, Tammingas, and Vander Molens. It was on 14th Place, however, that most of our acquaintances were to be found. Within the space of three blocks on that street, almost every house was occupied by a Dutch family. Other Blauws and Vander Molens lived there, as well as the Veldmans, Groenbooms, Belgraves, Browers, Konings, Mensingas, Bosmans, Vander Veldes, Stowies, Norlags, Iwemas, Van Stedums, Van Byssums, Hoffmans, Dekkers, Renkemas, Lanengas, Huizers, and several others whose names I do not remember. Close by lived the Evenhouses, Ottenhoffs, Gelderlooses, Wigboldys, Wierengas, Mulders, Rozemas, Holtrops, Dryfhouts, and Venhuizens, to name but a few.
These people, most of whom had roots in the Dutch province of Groningen and who still mastered and frequently spoke the language of that region, boasted no proud ancestry and laid no claim to culture; but they espoused and generally practiced the stern morality and displayed the personal graces that the Calvinistic faith they embraced tends everywhere to engender. True to their ethnic tradition, they were also industrious and thrifty. Few of them were rich, and some would perhaps be regarded now as deprived and underprivileged, but I doubt that any of the latter thought of themselves in this way. Most lived happily within their modest means, and, though they did not despise prosperity and success, they had learned from the apostle to be content with the circumstances in which they found themselves.
The Stege house was, with its appointments, grass, and flowers, an anomaly in the neighborhood. Most houses were small and placed close together with only a narrow gangway stretched between them. There were almost no lawns, trees, or gardens, and no empty lots in which children could romp and play. Flowers sometimes appeared on window sills, but their presence did little to relieve the general bareness of the scene. The alleys were unpaved and muddy after rains. For want of adequate policing by the city’s sanitary department, they were also often cluttered with refuse and debris – and consequently rat-infested. Yet, in spite of these conditions, there was among the people a pervasive spirit of friendship and neighborliness, as well as many front steps and porches from which to exercise these admirable traits.
Men and unmarried young women were, of course, the providers. The place for a married woman was in the home: matrimony led to housekeeping and the bearing and rearing of children, not to outside employment. A married woman or a widow living on the edge of poverty might indeed become a cleaning lady for the more affluent or resort to laundering other people’s clothes in her own home; but she was not apt to take a job in a public workplace. In our neighborhood this outside activity was reserved for men and girls.
Although some heads of families in the community worked in shops or factories, others held office jobs, and a number ran their own small businesses. Messrs. Veldman and Dryfhout owned a blacksmith shop on Fourteenth Street and Paulina, and Mr. Dekker owned another one at 14th Place and Laflin. Mr. Stowie ran a grocery store at 14th Place and Paulina, and Mr. Rispens owned one a block away, at 14th Place and Ashland; the butcher shop that he ran in conjunction with it was later taken over by Mr. Boersma. Mr. James De Boer owned a hay and feed store, which he operated with the aid of his three oldest sons at 14th Place and Loomis. Mr. Conrad Ottenhoff was an excavator who deployed heavy earth-moving equipment in his work. His brothers George and Walter dealt in real estate and insurance. The Wigboldys, Wierengas, and Evenhouses were, I believe, engaged in trucking. Mr. Van Byssum sold shoes and did shoe repair in a small shop he ran on 14th Place. Mr. Vander Velde delivered ice in summer and coal and wood in winter from his home on 14th Place and Paulina. Mr. Koning, who lived nearby, was a collector of manure, which he sold to dealers who shipped it by the carload to outlying farmers for the fertilization of their fields. Then, of course, there were the aforementioned La Botz brothers, whose Ashland Avenue bakery supplied the community with Dutch pastries.
Our dental needs were taken care of by Dr. Hartgerink, and when we got sick we could call upon the services of Dr. Van Dellen. Both had offices on Ashland Avenue near our house. I don’t remember how the physician got around – he may have been among the very few who owned a car – but it was common for him to make house calls and, after ministering to the sick, to stay and chat a while. When there was a death, Mr. Leenhouts was available for embalming. He ran a funeral establishment on Ashland Avenue, just a few paces from our house, but it was more a workshop than a meeting place for mourners. The body of the deceased normally lay encoffined in the family living room; and to pay their respects and condolences, neighbors came in measured steps and muted tones to the crepe-draped house of mourning.
I can hardly omit from this account of our people a report concerning the smoking and drinking habits of its leading men. Cigarettes were unknown when I was a small boy; they were introduced, I believe, when the soldiers returned from France in 1919. In any case, they were not smoked by the elderly, who already then referred to them as “coffin nails.” But pipes and cigars were everywhere in evidence. My dad usually smoked a corncob pipe, and on the rack beside the family Bible there always stood a large can of roughcut tobacco. He smoked cigars too, of course, especially on Sundays and when guests were in the house. The minister also smoked, as did the elders. The consistory invariably met, I’m told, in a smoke-filled room, though the goings-on of these stalwarts bore no resemblance to the shenanigans of the scheming politicians who were said to meet within similarly foggy confines.
They say that the Dutch and the Scots, both sons of Calvin, resorted to drink in order to withstand the wet cold blasts that blew down upon them from the turbulent North Sea. However that may be, liquor was freely – though not excessively – imbibed by a great many of our staunch burgers. It was not uncommon for elders to be served a jigger of bourbon or rye when they appeared for house visitation. Nothing so fancy as a highball existed back then; people took their drinks straight and undiluted, albeit in thimble-sized draughts. It was the custom in our circles to serve “boeren-jongens” at year’s end: this was a compound concocted of whiskey and raisins, and a batch of it was prepared during the Christmas season by most Dutch matrons. People would visit each other after church on New Year’s Day and be toasted with a small glass of these floating, spirit-soaked raisins. Nor did anyone object to the consumption of beer, and on hot summer days the adult members of our family drank it openly on our front porch. A good quantity of it could be fetched from the corner saloon in a tin pail for a dime, and when I was still in school, I was sometimes dispatched to perform this errand. Nobody inquired whether or not one was a minor.
The drinking, happily, was generally done with due temperance; but there would be occasional lapses, and public drunkenness was unfortunately not unknown on our Dutch streets. It was, however, strictly condemned, and any offender was bound to be visited and reprimanded by the church authorities.
It was among these people and within this neighborhood that I lived my schoolboy years. When I was in first and second grade and still living in the flat above the bakery, I seldom moved beyond that portion of 14th Place that ran from Ashland to Paulina, except of course for Sunday visits to church and daily trips through the alley to the school on 15th Street. As I grew older, I roamed widely and more freely through the neighborhood in order to absorb its sights and sounds. I liked the smell of Mr. De Boer’s hay and cherished the often-granted opportunity to ride on the wagon with his sons when they made a delivery of it. I delighted to see Mr. Dekker at his forge and to witness the deftness with which he fitted shoes on sometimes balky horses. The livery stable on 14th Street also interested me: I can still bring back the horsey odors emanating from it, just as I can summon to consciousness the aroma of draught beer that floated from the saloons on our corner when the doors stood open in summertime. And there still reverberates in my ears the rumblings of the El that thundered past 14th Place at Paulina.
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What fashioned the Dutch people in our neighborhood into a community was the local church. It came into being in 1867 when several families left the Dutch Reformed denomination to make common cause with the Michigan secessionists who had left a decade earlier. The first worshipers met in a small forty- by sixty-foot frame building they had erected on Gurley Street between Miller and Sholto, and my father joined them there when he first settled in Chicago. When, around 1883, the Gurley Street structure proved to be too small to accommodate the growing congregation, it established new accommodations on 14th Street between Throop and Loomis. It was in this church building that I was baptized and in which the family worshiped until the early 1920s, when the congregation moved once again, this time into a large and handsome brick edifice on Ashland Avenue and Hastings Street that the Lutherans had put up for sale.
The church of my early years, commonly called the 14th Street Church (though incorporated as the First Christian Reformed Church of Chicago), was housed in a rather large frame building into which one entered by mounting a flight of weather-exposed wooden steps leading to the double-doored front entrance. Two small spires arose in front on opposite sides of the roof, and in the front center stood a steepled bell tower, which gave the whole an attractive appearance. The inside pews accommodated a congregation that during my time numbered somewhat over 200 families and 1,100 souls. The building contained a gallery that was normally occupied by young adults during worship services, and they were not always well behaved. Opposite it stood the centered pulpit mounted on a platform, and on the side of the pulpit were transverse benches accommodating the members of the consistory charged with monitoring the preaching.
Beside the church stood a three-storied, rather narrow brick dwelling that housed the janitor on the lower floor and the minister on the upper floors. During my early days, S. S. Vander Heide was the pastor. It was with him that I first took catechism lessons, and it was under his ministry that I resided until he left to take another charge sometime in 1918, when I had reached the age of ten.
I am told that before my time there had been three worship services on Sunday, but in my day these had been reduced to two, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and these I attended regularly. Adult young people were expected, however, to be in church on Sunday evenings for singing school or for engagements in other religious activities. Boys and girls my age were exempt from attending these meetings. Midweek prayer services were not in the Dutch style and were not held, but a number of “societies” formed for Bible study did meet during the week. There was also a recitation society, in which like-minded people practiced eloquence and presented poetic readings. The latter was a kind of corollary to the so-called “Singing School,” where both young and older adults learned to develop their vocal talents. However, their musical abilities were not put to use in the worship services. Nothing like a choir was permitted to complement, much less supplant, the rendition of the Psalms by the voice of the assembled congregation.
Saturdays at our house – and I suppose elsewhere as well – were set aside for Sabbath preparation. Mother began the day by scrubbing the floors and dusting the furniture in an already clean house, and assigning Mart and me to take up the throw rugs and attack them with rug beaters on the backyard clothesline. Next came Mother’s inspection of the men’s Sunday clothes, together with the mending and pressing they might require, whereupon Mart and I gathered up the Sunday shoes of the whole family and brought them to the back porch for polishing. We boys were free to play on Saturday afternoons, but we were expected to be in the house early enough to avoid the evening traffic that flowed in and out of the bathroom. Saturday was bath day, and every member of the family had to be given his or her allotted time in the tub. Saturday night was not a night for visiting, and neither the older children nor their properly trained peers went out on courting “dates” on Saturdays. Such out-of-house engagements were held to be deleterious in their effect on Sunday worship. Mother was not opposed to cooking on the Sabbath, and our dinners on that day were uniformly great; but to minimize Sunday labor, she usually peeled the potatoes and made other culinary preparations the evening before. Probably for similar reasons, Father, instead of shaving in the morning as was his daily custom, did so on this day just before retiring for the night. When the evening’s activities subsided, we joined in chatter and conversation, but no one stayed up late. We went to bed on time in order to be rested and alert when the Sabbath dawned.
After a communal Sunday breakfast, we all dressed for church and walked in a group to the house of worship. Before we left our residence, our parents distributed peppermints all around. I was also given two pennies, one for Sunday School and one for the church “collection,” which was taken up in midservice by deacons manning long poles with open-faced velvet bags at the ends for the reception of the offerings. Arriving at church, we entered as a family, and, since ushers were then unknown or regarded as an impertinence, Father and Mother took the lead in conducting us to our customary pew midway in the sanctuary. It was customary in those days for boys who had reached the age of sixteen, and had thus become licensed to discard their knickers and wear long pants, to declare their maturity and independence by abandoning the family pew and sitting in the back rows or in the gallery of the church. But Father frowned on the practice, and it was not indulged in by my brothers.
The worship services were conducted in the Dutch language. This is not remarkable: it is natural that immigrants should wish to hear the gospel preached in their native tongue and to sing the songs they learned in the land of their birth. Many of the older worshipers on 14th Street had been in America for decades, and though they spoke intelligible, if somewhat accented, English on the job and in the streets, most of them were opposed to the use of that language in the church. American religion, they believed, was Methodistic, and the Americanization of the church could only mean the dilution if not the dissolution of the Calvinistic faith. Forgetting that classic Calvinism was first articulated in French and Latin, some even held that no language was better suited to preserve and propagate it than Dutch. Whatever the reasons given, the fact is that as late as 1915, nearly sixty years after the church’s founding, only seventeen of the 223 congregations in the Christian Reformed Church conducted worship services in the English language. The slow pace of Anglicizing them is no doubt regrettable on many counts; but when I consider what has contributed to my own development, I cannot much lament the community’s long retention of things Dutch. I learned the rudiments of a foreign language as a child. I also came to possess the stately full-noted Dutch psalms, which on occasion I can still bring to mind, and I was insinuated into a history and into a culture of which there is reason to be justly proud.
I don’t know how much benefit I derived from Rev. Vander Heide’s sermons. I listened as best I could, and I believe that I grasped the elements of his discourses. But a young boy’s attention span is short and the sermons were very long, so long indeed that, to retain a hold on even adult listeners, the preacher often asked for a psalm to be sung when he had arrived at the midpoint of his sermon. The congregational prayer – which omitted nothing pertaining to praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, and petition – was lengthy too and was commonly referred to as the “long prayer.” When it was about to begin, people generally resorted to their store of peppermints; it was understood that these hard candies were to be sucked and not chewed, lest a sound disturbance be created. Hymns were not sung in church; only the Dutch psalms were used, and there were no racks with a supply of these psalters. People owned their own copies, many adorned with gold or silver clasps, and these they carried to and from church. A hand- or foot-pumped organ accompanied the singing, but when a relatively unfamiliar psalm was announced, a voorzinger would appear up front to lend support.
The elders marched into church as a body, with the minister at their head, and they sat together on the side benches provided for them. To express their agreement with the preached word, each shook the hand of the minister as he descended from the pulpit. I know of no case where an approving hand was not offered, but I am told that it sometimes did happen to the embarrassment of all. The communion wine was sipped from a common cup: since Jesus drank with his disciples in this way, there was strong opposition to the introduction of individual cups, although Synod did in 1918 leave the use of them to the discretion of local consistories.
Many of the modern conveniences were lacking in the church of my youth. There was no parking lot, but none was needed, since most of the people lived within walking distance of the church. There was no nursery, and crying infants sometimes proved distracting. There was no air conditioning, which meant that on hot summer days the congregation resembled a sea of waving fans. Since there was no loudspeaker, the minister had to be in good voice to be heard. Ours fortunately met the standard; but occasional guests did not, to the distress of those in the back rows. No coffee was served after the service: eating and drinking even in the basement of the church was tantamount to temple desecration.
My father was a firm believer in catechism training, but he was lukewarm toward Sunday School, since it was, in his judgment, an alien import, most likely from England. I nevertheless attended, in part because my playmates did, and he offered no objection. I don’t remember much about the instruction. The teachers were no doubt devout and committed people, but they were untrained and worked under handicaps. The classes were scattered in pews around the auditorium, and the general hubbub was disturbing. English was spoken here, but we often sang Dutch hymns. One of them, “Er ruist langs de Volken een lieflijke Naam,” still remains with me, and I sing it to myself on occasion. The Christmas celebration was the highlight of our Sunday School life: it was then that we all received an orange and a small bag of hard candy. But I don’t believe that I ever performed in the Christmas program.
Catechism classes were held once a week after school. The instruction was conducted by the pastor – in the Dutch language. Our text was Borstius’ Primer, a compendium of the Heidelberg Catechism. I still remember how it began: “Vraag: Wie was de eerste Man? Antwoord: Adam.” (Question: Who was the first man? Answer: Adam.) Classes met in the sparsely equipped and dank church basement, and we had to pass through the largely Jewish settlement on 14th Street to get there. The Dutch are not normally anti-Semitic, and Hollanders and Jews did in fact peacefully coinhabit the neighborhood of my youth. But schoolboys invading an alien “turf” did sometimes get waylaid. Consequently, we tended to walk in groups and often carried sticks for use in possible combat. These we laid neatly beside our chairs when we recited Borstius’ Primer. My parents required me to be prepared for class: on the evening before catechism, either Father or Mother took the book in hand and, one by one, asked the questions. Should my recitation be to any degree faulty, I was ordered into a corner, there to improve my knowledge. Only when I had learned the lesson could I go to bed.
We observed the Sabbath at our house in quiet. We attended church, ate a good meal at noon, went to church again, and for the remainder of the day arrested all of our weekly activities. We dressed in Sunday clothes, did not play outdoors, avoided team sports, threw no balls, rode no bikes, and rested. What occupied us was reading, hymn singing, and conversation, and in retrospect I know of no better way to spend the day on which the Lord arose.
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The school I attended was only twenty years old when I entered it. It had been established in 1893 by the consistory of the 14th Street Church and was under its governance until 1902. In its earliest years it was thus a decidedly parochial institution, and it went by no other name than “the Christian School.” During the first two years of its existence, classes were held in a rented store located at 685 South Ashland Avenue, and thereafter, until 1906, in the basement of the church. In 1902, however, the school came under the supervision of an independent board. It then took on the character of a genuine nonparochial private school supported by a legally constituted association of parents and friends. In 1902 it was given the name Ebenezer, and three years later it was relocated in a building of its own.
I was already five and a half years old when we returned from Texas in December 1913 and thus quite ready for school; but classes at Ebenezer had already been in session for some months, and I was not allowed to matriculate until February 1914. Since there was no kindergarten, I went directly into the first grade, where our school work was done on slates. In the following year, however, the slates were abandoned and we were trained in the use of pen and ink. The inkwells inserted in the desks sometimes tempted boys to blacken the hair of the girls sitting in front of them. The student enrollment at the time was around 330. I don’t know what the tuition was when I began school, but a few years earlier, parents with one child in school were charged $2.00 per month; those with two children enrolled paid $3.00. And the fees were staggered in such a way that parents with four or more children in school paid no more than $3.75 a month. Teachers’ salaries were comparably low: in 1919 the average salary was $20 a week. The financial support of the school was provided almost exclusively by the members of the 14th Street congregation. People attending the nearby Dutch Reformed Church (now RCA) tended to regard the Christian school as separatistic and un-American, and almost all of them sent their children to the Clark public school located on Ashland Avenue near Hastings.
Ebenezer school was located on 15th Street between Ashland and Paulina, a half block south and another half block west of the flat we first occupied on 14th Place. I could reach it by way of two alleys in almost no time at all. The same was true when, two years later, we moved into the Stege house on the east side of Ashland Avenue between 14th Place and 15th Street.
I don’t remember the process by which I was enrolled, but I do remember not being scared or intimidated by the prospect of going to school. I knew most of my classmates from church and Sunday School; moreover, my brother Mart was a formidable fourth-grader, and my brother George was in the class about to graduate. Under these circumstances there was nothing I need fear.
Of some of my teachers I have only the dimmest of recollections. I recall, however, that all of them were men, and this in retrospect strikes me as quite remarkable. Among these teachers were the Messrs. Pilon, Goeree, Bremer, Lobbes, and Van Harn, and I seem to recall that while the latter three were typical of the staff, the former two were considered distinctive in a “peculiar” sort of way, their views and habits being considered by the older folks somewhat eccentric.
Naturally, I remember our principal, Mr. Henry Kuiper, for, though I was normally a well-behaved scholar, I was occasionally sent to him for correction and nurture. This kindly man remedied my defects – and that of others – by smartly applying two rulers to the outstretched palms of any offender sent to him. I did not then, and I do not now, take this ill of him. I think corporal punishment, when exercised in moderation, is generally wholesome, although I don’t recall any of my regular teachers resorting to it. They usually required us to stay after school or to write some apologetic sentence fifty or a hundred times. I may record here that my parents always took the school’s side in cases of this kind, and endorsed the teacher’s discipline by supplementing it with their own.
I distinctly remember Mr. Jacobsma, that lovable gray-bearded teacher who was with the school from nearly its beginning and who taught our second grade class to read, write, and tell time. He was also a near neighbor and a close friend of the family. Whether it was in his class or in the first grade escapes me now, but I remember that we learned about the letter “z” by viewing a picture of a sausage sizzling in a pan. All of us respected and admired Mr. Jacobsma. On Friday afternoons he taught us Dutch, thus supplementing the adventitious foreign language instruction I was receiving in church, catechism, and home.
Lambert Flokstra taught the seventh grade and Mr. Kooistra the eighth at Ebenezer school. I learned much from them. Mr. Kooistra excelled in mathematics, and he inspired in me a love of numbers and spaces. He later joined the high school faculty, and, when I returned to school after spending three years in the work force, I benefited once more from his tutelage. I later served on the Calvin College faculty with Dr. Flokstra, and we would sometimes reminisce about our Ebenezer days.
A grade school student does not normally concern himself with curricular affairs and I simply do not recall how the curriculum was ordered. We were, of course, taught to read, and we were made to work hard at grammar, spelling, and composition. There was also geography to learn, plus history, civics, and arithmetic – and then there was Bible. All of us had Bibles in our desk drawers, and we were required to follow in them during daily devotions in class. One of the scariest moments in my young life occurred when, in one such devotional period, I accidentally tore out part of a Bible page. On that page I read the words: “If any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life” (Rev. 22:19). Accosting the teacher in some panic, I inquired about the judgment that awaited me. To my great relief, he assured me that I was in no danger of damnation. He did not even reprimand me for being careless in the handling of books. The morning Bible readings were accompanied by singing, and the hymns we sang stuck in my memory, partly because I was impressionable at the time, and partly because we also sang them repeatedly around the organ at our house.
The brick school building was erected in 1906, when my father was secretary of the school board (1904-08). A tall flagpole stood in a small flower garden in front of it, and the flag was ceremoniously hoisted every morning. The principal’s office was on the basement level, as were the boiler room, toilet rooms, and some open spaces furnished with clothes racks. There were two floors above ground level, each containing four classrooms, for a total of eight. That was it. There was no teachers’ lounge or faculty room. Board and faculty meetings were presumably held in one of the classrooms. There was no assembly room, no cafeteria, no gymnasium, and no library or music room for the students. Yet the whole place was a seat of learning, and no one vacated it without having come into possession of the basic elements of knowledge.
Eating lunch in school was forbidden for most of us; only a few who lived too far from school to go home during the noon recess were accorded the privilege. Instead of gym classes, we did calisthenics for five or ten minutes in the classroom aisles. In fair weather and foul, the windows were opened wide for this exercise and selected students were appointed to open them with the long notched sticks provided for the purpose.
Our gym was the schoolyard, where we played under supervision but not under instruction. It was not much of a yard by modern standards, but it suited us fine. It was about fifty feet wide on the east side of the building and ran north and south from 15th Street to the alley at the rear. It was in this space that I once broke a school record and in the process elicited from the principal a display of truly gentlemanly behavior. A game current at the time involved a device made of two tops joined at their narrow ends, where the point of one had been inserted into a small hole bored into the other. Taking in hand two thin round sticks, with 2- or 3-foot lengths of string attached to each, one tried to spin the jointed top on the string, throw it high into the air with the leverage the sticks provided, catch it on the string when it descended – and then repeat the process, counting meanwhile the times the elusive top was thrown up and caught again. I was performing this act during one recess period, and just as I was approaching a record established by another student, the school bell rang summoning us indoors. When neither I nor the rather large number of spectators heeded the call, the principal emerged frowning; but when told what was in progress, he smiled, stayed to observe, and when, having broken the existing record, I finally missed a catch, he escorted us all with due courtesy to our respective rooms.
Many different games were played in the schoolyard during recess. It was there that we played at marbles and at “Buck, buck, how many fingers up.” But mostly we played ball; a home run was a hit that landed in the alley. In back of the school was a still smaller space that was usually used by the girls to jump rope or do such other things as schoolgirls do. There was no grass and no trees: the whole yard was paved with cinders, which discouraged sliding into second base. Altercations sometimes took place in the yard, and fisticuffs were not unknown. Bouts were soon broken up by the older and more responsible students, however, and by tradition a means was provided for the settlement of differences. After school, a ring (or square) was drawn on the unpaved alley behind the school, and there, with upper classmen acting as referees, the combatants were required to exhibit their fistic prowess, with or without gloves, before an attentive assembly of their peers. It is here that many of us received our first training in the fine art of boxing.
Across 15th Street to the south there was a single row of houses occupied mainly, I believe, by Polish people whose children attended a Catholic school near Ashland Avenue and 17th Street. Between that school and ours lay the Baltimore and Ohio elevated railroad tracks. This multi-tracked rail concourse ran east and west, abridging the backyards of the 15th Street houses, and was separated from them by a high concrete wall. A similar wall existed on the other side of the tracks, and these walls and tracks minimized – if they did not eliminate – schoolboy battles between the Polish Catholics and the Dutch Calvinists. Hostilities, when they occurred, took place in the Ashland Avenue viaduct, and only the very brave ventured unaccompanied through that space.
What we did after school is a very long story. Mostly we played, although when I was still quite young – in the second or third grade – engagements in rough sports and strenuous exercises were not my style, for I was rather frail and frequently sick. Like most children, I contracted measles, mumps, whooping cough, influenza, and sundry other maladies, especially rheumatic fever. I don’t know how often the doctor was called, but I know that it was my mother more than anyone else who nursed me back to health from these several illnesses. Home remedies were in vogue in those days, and, when I was suffering from a cold, Mother would apply goose grease to my chest and wrap a heavy woolen cloth around my upper body. This was designed to dispel the chills and fevers, and somehow it worked. I swallowed a good amount of Dr. Pieter’s Zokoro in those days, as well as quantities of the evil-tasting Haarlemer Olie and unflavored castor oil. At some point during this period I had my tonsils removed, and from then on my health and strength greatly improved. In my middle years at school I was as strong and robust as any boy my age.
I lost some days at school on account of these early and recurring illnesses, but there were compensations. While recuperating in bed or in a comfortable chair, I was led to read more than I would have otherwise. Having once been introduced to books, I never abandoned the reading habit. In the ensuing years at school, I read Jane Porter’s Scottish Chiefs, Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty, Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster, and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, among others. And then, of course, there was Zane Grey, Curwood, Altsheller, Standish, and Horatio Alger. These I read even though my parents sometimes wondered whether such reading befited a covenant child.
Our after-school games and activities were numerous and varied. I believe that we were not permitted to use the school playground after classes were dismissed. We kids, therefore, took mainly to the street, although, as we grew older, we played our more organized games on the Clark School cinder field. It was chiefly on 14th Place between Ashland and Paulina that we rode our bikes, sped on our roller skates, pushed our homemade scooters, and in winter belly-flopped on our sleds; at times we also wrestled, boxed, engaged in tug of war, or simply ran. We played shinny, dock on the rock, and peg; we shot marbles, roasted potatoes, sailed straws along the curb after a rain, and went junking down the alleys in search of salable bottles, old rags, and pieces of metal. What we collected in our junking forays we sold for pennies to an itinerant scrap dealer we called “Sheeny Randolph.”
Sometimes we went swimming in a nearby municipal pool; at other times we retreated to a friend’s backyard into the clubhouse we had erected out of salvaged lumber. We often simply sat and talked – about everything. As we matured, we even debated common grace with the Veldman boys, who, being nephews of Herman Hoeksema, rejected the concept. I had learned to skate on ice, and in a juvenile race I once earned a small gold-plated medal. But mostly we played softball in summer, using well-placed manhole covers and sewer outlets for bases. Later we formed a baseball team and joined the church league. I started out as a pitcher, but my young arm lost its dexterity when I began throwing curves prematurely. I wound up at second base, where I earned a mixed reputation as a good glove and poor bat.
It was not all play after school. Often I had to run errands for my brothers and sisters, or go to the store for items my mother ran out of or had forgotten to order. It was at Rispens’ that we usually traded: his store and butcher shop bore the likeness of all those independently owned establishments that dotted the landscape before the conglomerate supermarkets began to appear. Most things came in bulk lots. Cookies, crackers, flour, rice, coffee, and other commodities stood in boxes and bags on the floor, and the grocer withdrew from these containers the amount a person ordered. Butter and lard came in large tubs, from which he scooped the required amount into boat-shaped, paper-thin wooden containers. Margarine came uncolored and was made to look like butter by mixing a capsule of food dye into it at home. Bread came unwrapped and unsliced. Barrels of dill pickles and salted herring stood temptingly in a corner. Canned goods were up on the higher shelves, and the grocer retrieved them by mounting a sliding ladder or using a long-handled grasping tool. He figured the bill by adding up penciled figures on a pad of paper. One brought a shopping basket in which to take things home.
To signify our Dutchness, we frequently bought Dutch rye bread, an assortment of Dutch cheeses, and quantities of pickled herring. We also bought such favorites as kale and grey peas. We ate kale in a mixture with mashed potatoes and attended with sizable slices of pork steak; grey peas with bacon and quantities of bacon fat. What we usually bought in the butcher shop was pork chops and round steak. Chickens were expensive and eaten only on holidays. Liver was considered unfit for human consumption, and spare ribs were uniformly held in disdain. Frankfurts were cheap; I was given one whenever I made a purchase of meats.
But I did more than shop; I also worked at things. On several occasions I helped Mr. Rispens make sauerkraut in the dank basement under his store. I folded issues of De Toekomst, which was published by Dr. Van Lonkhuyzen in the small print shop adjoining the parsonage. I took woodworking classes at the nearby Church of the Brethren. I even took piano lessons for a while, though for fear of being called a sissy I discontinued the instruction after half a year. My chief occupation was with the Jewish people in the neighborhood. Since orthodox Jews may not work on the Sabbath, they hired me to light their Saturday morning fires during the winter. I usually found the stoves already laid with paper and kindling; I needed only to light a match and ignite the flammable materials. I had ten customers and each paid me ten cents for my weekly services.
Honesty compels me to report some naughtinesses. John Vander Velde and I sometimes took our lives into our hands by climbing the high El structure near his house, vaulting over the electrified rail, and after mounting the platform stealing a free ride to the Loop and back. Of this I gave no account to my parents, who would certainly have disapproved of this adventure.
More innocent, but fraught with consequences less pleasant, was an action I took in the summer of 1919. My brother Neal was in the army of occupation on the Rhine, and we looked forward eagerly to his return. One day I espied on the nearby elevated B&O tracks a stalled train, whose cars were filled with soldiers about to be mustered out. Wanting to greet the tired-looking, khaki-clad men, and hoping that Neal might be among them, I managed somehow to climb the steep protective wall and land at last on the tracks. I had been there but a moment when a railroad guard took me in hand for trespassing and walked me to the roundhouse on Wood Street. From there he called the police, and when they arrived, I was driven in a paddy wagon to the Maxwell Street Station. There I was severely reprimanded by the officer in charge, though not booked. I walked home disconsolately. But when I told my parents of the incident, they applied no censure. Indeed, they thought that a certain eleven-year-old boy had been unduly harassed and mistreated.
The course of study at Ebenezer school finally came to an end. I had done satisfactory work and was asked by the principal to give the student graduation oration. On the evening of January 26, 1922, we were given our diplomas at the exercises held in church, and I said some words in praise of George Washington, the father of our country. Our graduating class was much smaller than the one that had left school in June of the previous year: we numbered five boys and eight girls. I was thirteen and a half years old at this time and still quite uninterested in girls; but to celebrate the occasion I asked the prettiest one in the class to accompany me to the ice cream parlor on 12th Street. After we had had a banana split, I walked her home. And that was that.
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The nineteenth century did not end in 1900 or even in 1908. The robust optimism of that century, its firm belief in human progress, and its Victorian lifestyle lived on for nearly two decades after the calendar had ostensibly signaled the century’s demise. Its hopes and aspirations were still alive when in 1911 men confidently erected a Peace Palace in The Hague, and when in 1912 they launched a presumably unsinkable ship. It was only after a floating piece of ice arrested the Titanic’s maiden voyage and sent a supposedly invincible vessel to the bottom of the sea, and after the dreams of empire led misguided humans to plunge the world into four years of death and destruction in the course of a global war, that a new era dawned and another age arrived on the scene.
So I lived for at least ten years in a waning nineteenth century and for several more in a still emerging twentieth. It is true, of course, that the scientific advances of the present age and the technological marvels that now surround us and significantly shape our lives had been adumbrated and in some cases had materialized decades before my birth. Before my father arrived on these shores in 1880, the country had already come into possession of Morse’s telegraph, McCormick’s reaper, Singer’s sewing machine, Pullman’s sleeper, Bell’s telephone, and Edison’s incandescent electric light. By then, the railroads had also spanned the continent and had woven a web of rails in every region of the country. The ubiquitous telephone became a familiar household instrument, and horse-drawn streetcars were replaced by electrified trolleys. In 1891, Edison patented the kinetoscope, and its invention engendered a burgeoning movie-making industry. Henry Ford put out a two-cylinder car as early as 1892. The typewriter came into general use in 1895. In 1901, the first wireless signal was sent from Europe to America. And in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright initiated the age of modern aviation by flying a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk. During my infancy and youth further developments took place. In 1909 Henry Ford began to market his popular Model-T. In 1910 Glen Curtis flew a plane from New York to Albany at fifty miles an hour. In 1914, when flying boats were already traversing the sky between Tampa and St. Petersburg, the Navy established at Pensacola a training school for aviators. In 1916 the tank made its debut in the Battle of the Somme. In September 1917, a United States Army aero squadron arrived in France to do battle in the air. And modern radio broadcasting began in 1920, when station KDKA transmitted over the airwaves the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election.
Yet, while I was growing up, very few of these developments impinged significantly upon our lives. I knew, of course, about railroads, telephones, trolley cars, Els, and the like; but for the most part my neighbors and I lived in a period of unsophisticated transition, unenriched by modern gadgets and conveniences. We saw no planes, used no typewriters, went to no movies, had no electric lights, listened to no radio, and possessed few cars. Ours remained to a very large extent the “horse-and-buggy” days. Mr. Rispens eventually acquired a Model-T, which became the cynosure of curious eyes and rather a thing to be gawked at than to be driven in. Occasionally, a truck with hard rubber tires and a visible chain drive appeared on the streets. Equipped with governors, these early trucks were not able to go very fast, and when we were on our roller skates, we kids could hitch on with ease. But what we normally saw on the streets were horses and wagons. All house-to-house deliveries were made from horse-drawn vehicles. The Chicago Fire Department began to motorize about the time I was born, but wailing fire engines drawn by horses and accompanied by spotted Dalmatians were still to be seen rushing down the streets when I was growing up. Large wagons laden with barrels of beer and drawn by handsome Belgians or Clydesdales appeared everywhere. The street sweeper with his cart and stiff, long-handled brush, who was charged with picking up what were euphemistically called “road apples,” was a familiar sight. Iron hitching posts and judiciouly placed water troughs stood at intervals along the curbs, and a “wooden Indian” could often be seen standing outside a tobacco shop. As for the railroads, the locomotives were steam-driven, and water towers and reserve coal bins dotted the landscape along the rails to facilitate their refueling. What particularly fascinated youngsters like me were the hand-propelled carts on which the railroad’s maintenance men sped to accomplish their mission. All of us hoped one day to ride on one of those carts or to sit in the caboose.
The nineteenth century also reflected itself in the clothes we wore. Until their midteens, boys wore knickers and long black stockings that were held up with rubber bands; they invariably wore caps, even in summer. On Sundays they donned button shoes that were fastened with a metal buttonhook. Men wore high, stiff, detachable collars and derby or fedora hats; the vests of their three-piece suits invariably sported a gold chain attached to a usually massive gold watch. Men shaved with straight-edged razors that they sharpened daily on a leather strop. The women wore bone-ribbed corsets and high-necked, floor-length dresses, and in our circle at least, they eschewed lipstick and rouge. Pregnant women who were already great with child avoided public exposure and remained in waiting until the time of their delivery.
The prevailing etiquette preserved the manners and mores of the Victorian age. Children did not interrupt their parents’ conversation or intrude on an adult gathering. Young people called older folks, and especially married persons, by their surnames prefixed by Mister, Missus, or Miss. No one of any age presumed to address a relative stranger or a casual caller by his or her first name. This unseemly practice, which in the twentieth century has come to project a friendliness obviously artificial and spurious, was then rightly regarded as a belittling discourtesy.
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The year 1917 was a year to be remembered. I was then nine years old and in fourth grade. Of parochial interest, and a cause for thanksgiving, was the fact that Calvin College, the denominational institution my father always called with great fondness “Onze School,” had in September established itself in a spacious new building on a nine-acre Grand Rapids campus. But of more immediate interest and concern was the ongoing European war. Russia, whose military might was not great, and whose forces on the eastern front were in any case ineffectually deployed, signed a peace treaty with the Germans in December of that year and withdrew from the war. This hurt the Allied cause: Germany now not only had one fewer enemy to fight; she was able to shift large forces westward to engage her remaining foes.
But more important than this were the events that were occurring within Russia itself. I don’t know how statesmen of the time assessed these goings-on. I know that we in our small corner barely took notice of them. But they proved to be of great significance, and the forces they loosed have to a large extent directed the course of twentieth-century history. In March 1917 the so-called “White Russians,” or “Mensheviks,” revolted against the czar and set up a moderate socialist government under Prince Levov, and in May under Alexander Kerensky. Emperor Nicholas II abdicated on March 15. An internal struggle followed his dethronement, and on November 6 the Petrograd Soviet under Lenin and Trotsky overthrew the Kerensky government and established a communist police state. With the Bolsheviks in control, Russia stepped out of the war. In time, the powerful Soviet Union was formed, and its political, economic, and religious policies and stratagems have had world-shaking effects. But I suppose that at the time few, if any, thoroughly understood what was happening or envisioned the global consequences the Communist Revolution would produce.
What engaged the attention of Americans, as well as the members of our family, was America’s own participation in the war. The United States had affirmed its neutrality from the beginning of the war; but its armed cargo ships had for some time been surreptitiously delivering goods and equipment to the beleaguered British. This led Germany to declare, in February 1917, that after March 1 any armed merchant vessel plying the high seas would be considered fair game for its ubiquitous U-boats and would be sunk without warning. After the United States had suffered some losses, and the seas were no longer safe, President Wilson, with congressional concurrence, declared war on Germany on April 6. The act was enthusiastically endorsed by the general public, and all across the country young men appeared eager to enter the fray. In some German and Dutch settlements in the Midwest, however, approval was muted or unexpressed, and people there sometimes suffered under the chauvinistic ardor of their neighbors. Indeed, one bad feature of the war years was the hate hysteria that swept the nation not only against innocent and patriotic German citizens but also against the German language and all things Germanic.
On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, and early in June Secretary of War N. D. Baker drew slip number one to begin the draft. My brother Neal, then twenty-two years old and in love with a young lady from Englewood, was one of the earlier draftees. I shall not forget the day he left the house to join the army. I myself became a member of the armed forces during World War II; but in the early 1940s we went in solitary privacy to our appointed posts. Things proceeded differently in 1917. The papers announced that the young draftees from a designated neighborhood would assemble on a certain street at a certain time and be marched in a group to the waiting train, which would carry them to their destination. Citizens gathered to cheer the recruits on; and to the accompaniment of flag waving and applause, the civilian-clad boys marched awkwardly but cheerfully off to war with the boisterous acclaim of the crowd ringing in their ears.
Neal was sent for training to Camp Grant near Rockford, Illinois, where members of the family were allowed to visit him on occasion. Having gone through the bare basics, he was shipped overseas in late 1917 and assigned to the army’s Eleventh Machine Gun Battalion, a unit of the Fourth Division. My brother George, then but 17, had wished to join him; but he was not subject to the draft, and the officials would not accept his offer of enlistment.
Naturally, it was with some trepidation that my parents saw their son put on the khakis; yet the family shared in the general excitement engendered by the declaration of belligerence, and all of us did what we could to support the war effort. We patriotically heeded Herbert Hoover’s admonition to preserve essential foods, and upon his advice we normally observed wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays, meatless Tuesdays, and porkless Thursdays and Saturdays. We planted no victory garden, as many people did, but Father bought some “Liberty Loan” bonds, and Mart and I bought a few “Thrift Stamps.” We boys even put our alley junking habits into the service of our country. We had been told that peach pits were needed for the production of gas masks, so we scrounged as best we could to gather a supply of them. My sisters helped the cause by assisting the Red Cross in preparing bandages for the wounded; and, though Father and Mother did not usually join the chorus, the rest of us often sang the war songs that could be heard everywhere – “Johnny Get Your Gun,” “Goodbye Broadway, Hello France,” “Keep the Homefires Burning,” “The Yanks Are Coming,” “Over There,” and others.
Neal soon earned his sergeant’s stripes, and while in command of a machine gun unit he fought at Chateau-Thierry, in the second battle of the Rhine, and at the St. Mihiel Salient. In one of these encounters he was gassed and subsequently briefly hospitalized; but he nevertheless took a belated part in the Meusse-Argonne offensive, which sealed the fate of the German forces.
The end of the war was signaled by Kaiser Wilhelm’s flight to Doorn, The Netherlands, on November 9, 1918. On November 11 the armistice was signed in Marshal Foch’s railway car in the Compiegne Forest. The jubilation that greeted that act knew no bounds. People in our neighborhood went berserk: they built a large bonfire late at night on the corner of 14th Place and Ashland, within a stone’s throw of our house, and supplied fuel for it by gathering together every scrap of wood to be found in the vicinity and even by seizing unchained carts and wagons and wheeling them onto the fire. Gangs blocked the progress of the streetcars by sitting on the rails or by cutting the trailing trolley ropes with knives and scissors. Though none of our family participated in the destructive activity, as far as I know, we remained awed spectators of the scene for a very long time, and it was early morning when we retired to our beds.
When the turmoil of war had died down and winter had set in, the dreadful influenza of 1918 spread among the people. Our family fortunately escaped the worst effect of the disease; but there were several in our neighborhood who were laid low by the flu-induced pneumonia, and a number of them died.
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The year 1919 can be said to have ushered in a new age. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points relating to the establishment of democratic freedoms, the security of treaties, the cessation of war, and the reconstruction of Europe had already been ignored in the previous year by Britain’s Lloyd George, France’s George Clemenceau, and Italy’s Vittorio Orlando. The harsh Treaty of Versailles that these three and a weakened Wilson imposed on the Germans proved to be the seedbed in which Hitler’s Nazi tyranny later sprouted. An omen of coming days was the rise in Italy of Benito Mussolini in 1919: in the course of that year he organized his Fascists into a military force known as the “Black Shirts.”
What did much to create the so-called Roaring Twenties was the October 1919 passage of the Volstead Act, which the following January imposed Prohibition on an unreceptive and uncooperative populace. There were no blacks in the immediate neighborhood of my youth, but their presence in Chicago and their sorry plight came vividly to our attention when, in July 1919, a four-day riot killed forty-two persons and injured 514 more. Although Jack Dempsey had not been in uniform during the war and was considered a “slacker” by some, most sports fans were elated when he won the world’s heavyweight boxing crown that year. They were deeply saddened, however, when that fall the Chicago White Sox became the “Black Sox” by throwing the World Series through the gambling defection of key players. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, which would dominate church life in the 1920s, was presaged by the establishment in 1919 of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and a certain denominational polarity came to expression with the appearance in the Christian Reformed Church of the magazine The Witness and its counterpart Religion and Culture. A personal highlight of the year was the September return of my brother Neal, who had served in the army of occupation until late August 1919 in Coblenz on the German Rhine.
Family festivities took place in the year 1920: on June 16, Neal married his long-time fiancée, Jennie Hoffman; and on August 25 my sister Gert married John Zeilstra. That year saw Warren Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, defeat the Democrat James Cox and the Socialist Eugene Debs for the presidency of the United States. It also witnessed the establishment of the League of Nations, as well as the growth of Calvin College into a four-year, degree-granting institution. Church life was disturbed in June by the deposition of Rev. Bultema for holding and publishing unacceptable premillennialist views.
On May 11, 1921, my brother George married Ann Rispens, and the couple took up residence in an apartment above Mr. Rispens’ store. The newspapers that year gave great publicity to the Sacco-Vanzetti murder case. Nicolo Sacco, an Italian shoe factory worker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, an Italian fish peddler, had been convicted of the murder of a Massachusetts paymaster and his guard; but charges of racial prejudice and judicial bias kept the matter in the courts and in the public domain for six long years thereafter. Of religious interest was the emergence that year of Frank Buchman’s “Oxford Group,” later named “Moral Rearmament”; and of parochial interest was the establishment of a missionary training school in Chicago that would in time develop into the Grand Rapids-based Reformed Bible College. In the early years of this institution, my brother George served as its treasurer.
On January 1, 1922, my father assumed the vice-presidency of the First Church consistory. I graduated from the eighth grade on January 26, and on August 2 my sister Jen married Henry Vander Molen. Seven of my brothers and sisters were now married, all of them to persons of Dutch extraction who held full membership in the Christian Reformed Church. All of them, except George and Ann, lived in the Crawford Avenue area, about three miles west of us, where they attended the Douglas Park Christian Reformed Church. Father and Mother were now grandparents of ten children, and I, at the age of thirteen, was an uncle ten times over.
So ended my grammar school days.