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Foreword: This is a fictional account of the experiences of a boy in the 1940s growing up in the only home in town without electricity. The central character is not me, though I have spent some time in cottages and camps that did not have electrical power.
The tale was inspired by a real house not far from the grammar school where I spent grades one through six (from 1949 to 54) in a seaside town in Massachusetts called Beverly. As I walked to school each morning, I looked carefully for a sign of life. I never saw the occupants of the sad little home which looks very much like the one that I selected for the cover.
It was certain that someone was living in the property, for in cold weather wood smoke could be seen rising from the chimney. There was no car in the yard and I never saw people coming or going, or even peering out the window.
I wondered what life was like for them. Did they have a child? If so, was his life the way I imagine it in my story?
It stood on an old road in an ancient New England town. From the sidewalk, if you did not look closely, it looked like all the other houses.
It was white with gray trim, four rooms in a single story, supported by a foundation of stone and mortar. Though the outward differences were few, a closer inspection would reveal that there were no wires leading to the weathered home. No telephone connection. No shiny strands to illuminate Edison’s bulbs or to warm up the tubes of a radio.
In a town bustling with post-war prosperity, everyone (except us) had electricity. Every living room boasted a radio of some sort. There were Zenith floor model radios for the rich, and RCA sets for most people, and Sears (Silvertone) receivers for those who bought from the “Wishbook”.
The trolley tracks running down Main Street were being paved over; because Detroit and Washington made a deal that rails of all sorts, were to step aside in favor of the new crop of 1949 automobiles.
Chevy made a nice little six cylinder car. So did Dodge, Hudson, Packard and Studebaker, but the flathead v-8 from Ford was perhaps the most prized of the year.
In the house with no electricity, there was no garage. That was not a problem because the man who owned the house had no car. He walked to his job in the shoe factory. His wife stayed home as she had nowhere to go. And their nine year old boy, me, walked to the Hardy School which was less than a half-mile away. I liked the walk because it helped to get the smell of wood smoke off my clothes.
Most modern people heated with coal. It gave lots of warmth and was easy to take care of. On ‘Ash-day’ every Wednesday, the coal people put their cans out for collection by the city. Except if it was snowing, when they spread the ashes over the sidewalks.
We heated our house with a combination of two wood-burning units. In the kitchen, at the front of the house, was the stove. It served as the cook stove, but also was a heat source. In the back of the home, was a Franklin Stove. The middle of the house had two bedrooms split by a narrow hallway in the middle. My parents’ room was on one side and mine was on the other.
In wintertime, we loaded up the two stoves and opened the bedroom doors so the heat would flow through all four rooms. It worked well and we were warm, but I always smelled of charred embers.
By the time I got to school, my walk freshened me and I didn’t smell any different than anyone else. I had friends at school, but no close ones. I didn’t want to get so chummy that I would have to have dinner at their house, and they at mine. I didn’t want anyone to know that I lived in the house without electricity.
I kept up with all the latest radio shows by listening to my classmates during recess and break times when they discussed the exploits of the Lone Ranger or the Shadow. In summertime, I could even hear parts of the great radio series by listening at the open windows of neighbors’ houses.
Don’t get the idea that I felt poor. My Mum gave me five cents for every recess. That was my favorite time at school. The teacher would bring out two huge cardboard boxes, the size of milk crates. In one would be ‘Cheeze-its’. We could buy six of them for a penny. Nabisco’s greatest creation, ‘Nuggets’, were in the other box. They were round cookies, about the size of a silver dollar, loaded with chocolate bits. For one cent, you got two Nuggets.
I always bought a penny’s worth of Cheeze-its and a penny’s worth of Nuggets. A carton of milk for three cents completed my snack.
For many reasons, I loved school. I relished being able to snap a switch and watch the light bulb instantly burst into brightness; with no stink of kerosene. I cherished the toilets, sitting on them as if they were thrones, even when I didn’t have to go. Flushing them and watching the water swirl around the drain was a great treat.
There were no toilets in the house without electricity. We had an attached shed and at the back end of it was a ‘two-holer’. It was just two round openings cut in the wood and you sat down and did your business, while everything plopped to the ground below.
Papa put lime on the droppings at regular intervals so the smell wouldn’t get too bad. In the wintertime the ‘two-holer’ was freezing, so I would try to ’hold it’ until I got to school.
“Papa,” I said one frosty morning, “why can’t we have a real bathroom? It’s too cold to use the two-holer.”
“What are you complaining about?,” he said, “In my day, we only had a ‘one-holer’. If two people had to go at once, somebody was out of luck! And also, back then, our ‘one-holer’ was about two hundred feet away from the house.. How’d you like to have something like that in the middle of a blizzard? You should appreciate our fine two-holer”.
I should have appreciated our fine well water too. Except I lost enthusiasm for drinking from the well when I saw Papa, more than once, bring up the bucket only to have it half filled with water and the other half with some dead & rotting varmint.
I should have appreciated all the fine chicken meals Mama used to make too. She always made tomato sauce with delicious meat in it.
“What’s the meat in this sauce Mama? It’s great!”
“That’s chicken, Billy. I’m glad you like it,” Mama answered.
Her meals did taste good, but I lost much of my appetite when I found out that ‘chicken’ was a generic term for whatever Papa gave her to cook.
After work, he used to feed the neighborhood pigeons. The birds loved him. He’d spread breadcrumbs around and they joyously pecked away at them. The pigeons would walk right into hisupturned palm to get the best crumbs – and then he closed his fist! . That afternoon’s pigeon, became the evening’s ‘chicken’.
I can only speculate at what other kinds of ‘chicken’ I’ve eaten. I like to think that the list is limited to rabbits and squirrels.
The 1950s arrived and so did television. Everybody saved their money so that they could be the first on the block to have one. The ‘next-door people’ got a set and they told me that I was welcome to look at it anytime I wanted to by standing outside and peering in through their window.
I watched fairly often, and they always were kind enough to lift the sill a few inches so that I could hear the sound. I enjoyed television, but not as much as radio. Dramatic radio back then, and even now, was a much more fascinating and stimulating experience. If you’ve ever heard the original “War of the Worlds”, “Sorry Wrong Number”, or Escape’s “Three Skeleton Key”, you might understand.
At sixteen, I left the house without electricity, got a job washing dishes at the Rose Restaurant, and rented an apartment with two friends. The home was owned by the brother of one of my pals.
I had my own room. The house had electricity. It had a real bathroom. I spent many happy moments simply snapping on and off the lights.
There was a common TV in the living room, but I hardly watched it. I had my own peresonal radio in my room. It was 1959. Jack Benny was off the air – he went to television. So did George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Milton Berle. But ‘Gunsmoke’ had taken over the radio airwaves, along with ‘Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar’. ‘Escape’ and ‘Suspense’ were still on – and so was ‘Lux Radio theater’, presenting radio movies of the best Hollywood films, with the original stars.
Life was great. I lived in a house with electricity, light bulbs and a radio.
Now, almost sixty years later, I still live in a house with electricity. I have a giant flat screen television, internet equipped and tied into a magic box called Roku.
With Roku you can watch nearly any TV show ever produced. You can select from tens of thousands of movies. You can watch films from the silent era right up to the hits of today!
There’s something else you can do with Roku. You can hear old time radio shows! You can listen to any radio show broadcast during the golden age; or you can even listen to the best of today’s offerings, like Prairie Home Companion.
Picture this. I turn on my state of the art HD flat screen TV from 2017; equipped with Roku, Netflix, Crackle, Prime and more; and I tune into The Fred Allen Radio Show from 1949.
I turn out the lights and listen to Fred, walking down Allen’s Alley talking with Senator Claghorn and for a few moments it is 1949 again.
Listen in for a few seconds as the brash old time politician brags to Fred about his favorite topic, the South:
“I’m from the South son,” Claghorn tells Fred. “I love the South son. Why, when I am in New York, I won’t even go to Yankee Stadium. And you know South Carolina? Do you know what’s above it? Upper South Carolina!!!!!!. That’s a joke son.”
As I listen, once again I am living in the house with no electricity. I am still nine years old. Mama’s making sauce with faux chicken and Papa’s chopping and stacking wood.
It wasn’t much, the house with no electricity. But it was home.
And though it’s true you can’t go home again; you can go back for a visit, if only in your mind.
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Bill Russo is the author of The Creature from the Bridgewater Triangle and Other Odd Tales from New England; in which he recounts his meeting with a swamp creature called a Puckwudgie. His blog about that scary encounter led to an appearance in the award winning documentary, The Bridgewater Triangle. He also was also featured on national television in ‘Monsters and Mysteries in America’ and ‘America’s Bermuda Triangle’.
A number of his fictional works are centered in the Bridgewater Triangle, where he says “Fantasy and reality are crowded together into a haunted 200 square mile area of Massachusetts – where they share an uneasy truce”.
‘Swamp Tales’ and its prequel, ‘Jimmy Catfish’ take readers deep into Southeastern Massachusetts and neighboring Cape Cod for various adventures involving ghosts, monsters, and a strange amphibious boy who swims with, and leads, a school of shark-like, killer catfish.
In ‘Ghosts of Cape Cod’, Russo does not write the typical tale of people waking up and seeing spectral beings at the foot of their bed; rather, he probes into the fascinating lives of the real people who became the legendary ‘haunts’ of one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States.
Many of the ‘Ghosts’ are well known such as the real ‘Pirate of the Caribbean’, Sam Bellamy. He was Captain of the Whidah – the richest prize ship in history. Others are lesser known but no less fascinating, like the Reverend Joseph Metcalf who owned the first of the once ubiquitous Cape Cod Flower Boats. The story of the Ghost of the 13 Churches is told in detail for the first time. It’s an odd yarn of a peculiar doctor who amassed one of the biggest fortunes in Colonial Massachusetts. He gave it away to the 13 churches of Cape Cod when he died; but then returned from the grave to take it all back!
The Ghosts of Cape Cod audio book is available at all major retailers. The narration is by Scott R. Pollak of National Public Radio.
Bill Russo, retired on Cape Cod, was educated in Boston at the Huntington School and at Grahm College in Kenmore Square. He was editor of several newspapers in Massachusetts as well as a former disc jockey, news writer/presenter, and broadcaster for various outlets in New England.
His other employment included management positions in logistics and warehousing as well as a stint as an ironworker and President of Boston Local 501 of the Shopmen’s Ironworkers Union.
Contact Bill at All e-mails are personally answered
Bill’s Blog is called Adventures in Type and Space: http://billrrrrr.blogspot.com/
He also shares news and videos on his Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/billrrrrr
This is a fictional account of the experiences of a boy in the 1940s growing up in the only home in town without electricity. The central character is not me, though I have spent some time in cottages and camps that did not have electrical power. The tale was inspired by a real house not far from the grammar school where I spent grades one through six (from 1949 to 54) in a seaside town in Massachusetts called Beverly. As I walked to school each morning, I looked carefully for a sign of life. I never saw the occupants of the sad little home which looks very much like the one that I selected for the cover. It was certain that someone was living in the property, for in cold weather wood smoke could be seen rising from the chimney. There was no car in the yard and I never saw people coming or going, or even peering out the window. I wondered what life was like for them. Did they have a child? If so, was his life the way I imagine it in my story?