The Early YearsMillworker to CadetOverseasCollege & Alaska Family& Work


While driving forward at age 84, a look in the rearview mirror to see where I've been, before I forget.

 Dedicated to all those people, thanked and unthanked, who have helped me this far.

EARLY YEARS - Verona, PA -1925 to 1931 Dad

Birth -- My "baby book" records the following historic item: "Robert Adam arrived on Thurs. A.M. Jan. 8th., '25 at 3:45 o'clock at [856 First St.] Verona, Pa. Miss Ada Dunsmore and Dr. E. C. Lewis were in attendance. The boy weighed 10 lbs."

I think I was welcomed by my brothers, Dick at age seven and Ray at age five. Maybe I was too young to be a rival sibling. --"Smiled for first the day before he was 1 mo. old."

 The Christening --"Robert was baptised in Trinity Lutheran Church, Verona, on Sun. A.M. May 3rd. by Dr. Elmer Bittle of Pittsburgh." When I was two years and eight months old, I had to leave the spotlight in favor of my new sister Cathie. First Prayer--at 3 years, 10 months, : "God bless this food and fill our hearts with love."
First Faint Memories --- Being found about three blocks away after 'taking a walk' --- my brothers' pet white mice being located in galoshes in the kitchen closet ---the zinc-coated window box where food was kept not-too-cold in the winter --- getting ice cream cones with 'jimmy' on them at John Mons grocery store ---eating a Chocho sandwich which was named for a clown; it was built with lateral slices of banana on a bed of lettuce plastered with old-fashioned peanut butter and mayonnaise captured between two full slices of fresh white bread; still one of my favorites--- at the foot of the hill, viewing my first parade as it headed from Verona to Oakmont ---in the care of my brothers at The Willows swimming pool where they 'taught' me to swim by just throwing me in the water --- the 'dirty'-white bear rug in the attic --- spending scarlet fever quarantine time in the bedroom with Dad. Our meals were brought to the door --- the wallpaper was stripped off and Dad entertained me by drawing pictures on the bare plaster.

I was a favorite of "Sput", my next-door neighbor, who was a fellow in his mid-twenties. One day we took a hike on the railroad tracks down the hill along Plum Creek. Hopping from tie to tie, as a five-year-old would, I was abruptly interrupted when Sput lifted me bodily in midstep. There between the next ties was a coiled copperhead! Giving the reptile a wide berth, we finished our walk and arrived safely home.
Can I explain one simple joy of my childhood? Friends of our family lived near a tiny brook wending among the trees. Launching a small leaf or piece of twig, I'd watch it follow each vagrant current obediently downstream. Sometimes, the "boat" would hang up on a pebbly dam or slow to a stop in a backwater. To the rescue! Prodded with a little stick, the journey was recommenced. At the property edge, the floater would be transported back to the starting point to begin anew. I believe I'd still be there if all dreams could come true. At one Saturday matinee, a 'cowboy' did rope tricks onstage. When I was about six years old, I saw the first movie of which I have a memory. It was about seafaring or whaling. It had a leather-faced actor, like Charles Laughton, who played the part of an ill-fated seaman who had his leg sorely injured. He was put on a rough table and was attended by the ship's 'surgeon', shown plainly with a saw. The scene was changed but the blood-curdling scream that followed will forever ring in my ears!
Attended first grade where we took a penny or two each week which slowly accrued to our savings accounts. Lost it all when FDR closed the banks --- walking home from school, gathering buckeyes on the way ---a slick tin toy monkey that somehow climbed a string which was attached at the top of a doorway---Dad had a pigeon coop at the back porch---- apparently apprehensive about moving to the 'tough' town of Braddock, I made sure to take along a rope for protection.

Also during this span of years, as later, family 'vacations' were actually visits to my grandparents' homes. An early-August trek was usually made to 'The Wigwam', the home of Mom's parents. It was an 18-room edifice (counting all of the sunporches and capacious entryways) situated on a hilltop farm overlooking DuBois. We climbed the barn ladders and jumped down into the haymow. We hiked winding roads through the woods. We grasped and clutched and sat on every branch of of our favorite apple tree. We tasted the ripened mayapples, squeezing the seedy, viscous, lemony innards out. For top-drawer eating, a raid was made on Grama's cookie canister in the pantry or on the parched sweet corn kernels in pie pans kept in the warmer section of her enameled coal stove.

GROWING YEARS - Braddock, PA - 1932 to 1947

Our family moved into the first floor of the old Mills Mansion which occupied a corner lot. Mom and Dad had one bedroom, we three boys had the second one and our sister used a day bed in the sunporch. There was a wall bed in the living room which was used for guests. I never did need that rope for protection, but 'Red' Weil ran me through the alley once or twice. I walked to elementary school where the basics were taught. Mrs. Ruth Taylor, a former missionary to Africa, was the principal. Being a member of Dad's church, she was a secret ally of his in shepherding me through school. After the depression hit, we were given milk at school although we came home for lunch. Early on, the school made an informal survey to determine how bad things were at home for the families. We were asked to raise our hands when they questioned how many days per week our fathers worked. I held in until they called for "one day a week?" and proudly held up my hand. My minister father got quite a laugh out of that when word got to him. I must have been a loud singer for I was once asked to stop singing so that the teacher could hear the rest of the class! Maybe I WAS influenced by Mom's (were they on Saturday mornings?) radio music programs featuring Walter Damrosch and Madam Schuman-Heink.

Going to the movies in the 30s sometimes involved more than just what appeared on the screen. One Saturday matinee included a live cowboy doing rope tricks onstage. A 'slow' movie night might include a give-away of chinaware. A person could eventually collect a whole set. Once I was in a look-alike contest where entrants were judged as to who looked most like a child star. In this case I believe I was supposed to resemble Freddie Bartholomew. Participants even dressed in costumes to mimic actors representing the likes of Huckleberry Finn or Becky Thatcher.
Alas, when I was nine years old, a movie named "Babes In Toyland" was scheduled to show at the local theater. The 'starring leads' were Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy who romped joyfully in many films of the time. I was assured by Dad that his depression budget could stretch to let me buy a ticket to see them act in this coming comedy. Eager anticipation grew in me for many days. I believe it was the day before the movie opened downtown that some bacterium put me in bed, where I was captive for days. It was and is yet a grating disappointment.

 My favorite toys were Lincoln Logs, along with cowboy, Indian and soldier figures. I also liked a loader which was used to fill toy trucks with sand, etc. It had a continuous chain of buckets which was cranked by hand. When later an electric train was received as a present, it greatly multiplied the possible scenarios in our play. Of course, we had toy six-shooters for outdoor battles. One great youthful accession on the way to manhood was a pair of high-top boots. The right-hand boot had a form-fit pocket on the side which contained a sizeable jack-knife, on-the-ready for any use. My last 'toy' was a neat 2-ft. long wooden sailboat with a steel keel and fabric sails. It did sail on a couple small lakes but mostly it plied the Allegheny at the end of a long strong fishing line. I would let it out quite a distance and then reel it in, wind having nothing to do with its tack.

My priority radio shows in the mid 30s were Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy and Og, Son of Fire. They were each 15-minute serialized stories which were on air in late afternoons. The first chronicled the escapades of a teenage athlete and the second covered the adventures of a cave-boy living a half-million years ago. If Mom called me for supper before the programs were over, I would plead for a special dispensation which would allow me to stay in these imaginary worlds until the end of these exciting broadcasts.

I must retract my statement about not needing protection in Braddock. I believe a friend and I, as scouts, had finished placing flags on graves in Monongahela Cemetery. As we proceeded home through Tassey Hollow, we were threatened by a gang of hooded kids. Money was demanded of us. I was debating whether I should pay ransom with the dime in my watch pocket when a man appeared and chased our tormentors away. I have doubly loathed the KKK ever since.
One crime that happened in Braddock during the 30s would reveal just how crooked the borough government tended to be. A shoe store was broken into one night and many items were taken. Somehow the robbery was solved. The thieves were found to be several of our local police officers who actually used the town's paddy wagon to haul away the loot. It was recorded that wives and girlfriends of the cops had been wearing some of the stolen shoes and hosiery. Although "The Depression" may have spawned these public robbers, it also made us kids into cottage shoemakers. When my shoe soles wore enough to exhibit a pauper look, I purchased a replacement kit at the 5&10 cent store. The kit consisted of a pair of treaded rubber soles, a metal roughener, and a tube of rubber cement. The leather shoe soles were roughened and then lathered with the cement. A similar smear of cement was applied to the attaching sides of the replacement soles. When the cement was 'set', the rubber soles were VERY carefully matched to their correct sites and pressed on firmly. The life of the shoes was usually extended appreciably, but when the cement finally loosened, the flip-flop sound was heard until new repairs could be made!

Cheap depression era entertainment:

  • If our shoes were in fair to good shape, we would line up a couple of empty evaporated milk tins at right angles to our insteps. Then we would tromp down hard on them until their ends would curl up and wrap around our shoes. With these attachments applied, walking along the concrete sidewalk or brick street made clacking statements of our presence.
  • Fill seven or eight fine goblets or our better drinking glasses, to varying depths of water. Tap each with a spoon to produce a note. Add or remove water to each as necessary to make a proper scale, and play your favorite tunes! And at church, four of us fellows formed a quartet. We performed at our church dinners, between acts at plays, and just for our own fun. . People really enjoyed our music. Most tunes were standards of the day but one I recall was a specialty for which we had bought the music. It was called "Daddy, Get Your Baby Out Of Jail." Wow!
  • To move up in the world, we made stilts from 2X2s and short step pieces of a 2X4. Made us feel big for a while.
  • Pinball machine in the Parsonage? Sure! Dad always knew the local gendarmes and politicians. After a raid was made in which pinball machines were confiscated, Dad ended up with one. It was first set up in our dining room where we could play the games without using any coins. Eventually it was moved to the basement, providing many months of entertainment until it went kaput. I sapped the last fun out of it by minutely dismantling it.
  • Going on to junior high, I learned that some students would cheat. I never did so, being satisfied that at least my B's and C's were my own. One lady history teacher gave us her opinion that World War I had not solved everything and that more bloodshed would be needed. How right she was.
  • I took Woodshop where I made a small wall shelf which I gave to Mom. In Mechanical Drawing, I was intrigued to learn how to make a 3-view drawing and how to interpret a blueprint. I had a Jewish friend who lived across the street. Evidently his family were members of the traditional synagogue. I recall that he would ask me over to his house on Saturdays or holy days to do any cutting, with knife or scissors, which he needed done.
  • We made home-made root beer in our cellar. The mixture of flavoring, yeast, sugar and water was carefully portioned into quart bottles, leaving enough air space on top. A hand-levered device allowed easy crimping of the caps to the bottle tops. Bushel basket loads of the product were lugged up the outside cellar steps and on up to the almost-flat roof of the garage. There, the sun worked its magic on the 'recipe', but at times, too well. Then it was we would hear a loud explosion as the yeast won out over the bottle cap. But the contents of those surviving bottles sure did make for a satisfying drink.
  • Sometime in the mid-30's Dad joined with several friends to form the Riverview Outing Club. This group bought 75 acres of woodland at Dotter Eddy on the Allegheny River. A two-story four-bedroom frame house was available on a rotation basis by members. Initially there was a telephone mounted on the dining room wall. This menace to the peace was soon ripped away, never to ring again. Here we enjoyed "cheap" vacations fishing, swimming and hiking. My near death experience happened on the river. I had seen my older brothers wade across upstream when low water made the 'riffles' an easy passage. Not knowing this important subtlety, a friend and I decided to walk across near our boat landing. We got out some distance when the current grabbed us and started us downriver. Luckily for us, we latched on to a sturdy boulder and yelled for help. Dad heard us from his fishing spot, saw our predicament, and quickly rowed over and rescued us. Target shooting was practiced on our 'range' which was located where a large oil storage tank had once been. The remaining surrounding revetment offered a 360 safety backdrop. I hung my cracked-up model airplanes from tree limbs and used them as targets, especially the German Stuka. Because of the dry sandy soil at the camp, earthworms were almost non-existent. We'd go in to the Emlenton Cemetery after dark and collect beaucoups grand nightcrawlers for bait. Dad owned two or three different boats over the years. At one time he had a Mullins steel rowboat which was made at Oil City. In the 60's, I built a 15 foot plywood skiff which lasted a couple of seasons. I remember that 'fishing' included: lowering home-made rock and rope anchors to the river bottom precisely to align the boat at a right angle to the streamflow; hearing Dad complain and almost swear when he hooked a hellbender or 'mudpuppy'; laughing as a disturbed "shitepoke" dropped his load on the shore rocks; almost reverently watching the morning mists rising from the water surface; as sounds of thunder echoed down the valley, quickly reeling in our lines, hoisting anchors, setting the oars, and rowing hard for shore; taking in the sparkling eruption of myriads of mayflies escaping their underwater birthplace. I also greatly enjoyed skipping stones across the water and watching the Northern Lights mix with glowing embers rising from a campfire.
  • Another high point in the hard times came to town by rail. This was not the Greatest Show on Earth which we did get to see in Homewood sometime later. This event was the Flea Circus. We boarded a train car on a rail siding downtown. There in all its embalmed glory was a full-size whale! To this true landlubber, it was stupendous! Being duly impressed, I moved to the next car where I saw a small well-lit platform attended by a buxom bare-armed lady. With a closer look, I could see tiny fleas pulling wagons, swaying on swings, and pushing wheelbarrows! Amazing! I learned then or later that the lady fed the critters by letting them bite her arm.
  • Kennywood Park was just across the river and Idlewild Park was out east by rail from North Braddock. We enjoyed both places. I recall seeing the mail plane (a Stinson Reliant ?) fly over the valley each evening heading for, I think, Bettis Field. Also, we older teenagers would drive to the County Airport to watch the planes land and take off. And then there was the occasional gruesome pastime of visiting the Pittsburgh Morgue to view the "unknowns". [ I believe it is no longer open to the public.]
  • Not that we ever went hungry but once in a while when my folks invited an extra large contingent for dinner, FHB went into effect for us immediate family members. We were each told to "FHB", which was code for Family Hold Back. That meant that we were to make sure our guests had ample servings even at the expense of smaller helpings for us!

Other high points?

  •  After the war, I did get to West View Park on a few Sunday evenings.
  • The very rare times when I managed to get a ride in a rumble seat. Pure joy.
  • Another enjoyment was experienced when I was charged with the collection of eggs in Grandma's chicken coop. Groping into each recently abandoned nestbox was like a real treasure hunt.
  • And for unequalled cuddly comfort, I still remember the one and only time I slept in a feather bed.
  • And we got to other high points in a Model A Ford when traveling to York and environs from Braddock. With our car loaded with the six of us and a dog, the auto sometimes overheated climbing up the mountains. At critical spots, a local kid would station himself and offer spring water to slake the radiator's thirst. An aqueous fill-up might cost 5 or 10 cents! One high crest was anticipated eagerly. That was where we could stop at the "Grand View Ship Hotel" for a snack. If the weather was clear, we might see all the way to Maryland and West Virginia!
  • In July of 1938 I was in attendance at the Sesquicentennial remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg. There was a host of people in the town and on the battlefield. I was privileged as a 13-year-old to witness the Union and Rebel survivors camping together, I believe, at Spangler's Spring. [ Insert note, 5/28/07-This Memorial Day, the master-of-ceremony for the first time called us WWII vets up front as a group. I believe we are beginning to be recognized as 'survivors.' :-) ] The Peace Monument was dedicated by FDR of whom I caught a fleeting glimpse. Little did I realize then that in another five years he would be my Commander-in-Chief.
  • I went underground about 1939. My aunt and uncle invited me to go on a summer trip as companion to their son, my cousin Dick. We traveled the area around and in Washington, D.C. Seems we saw the FBI, the Capitol and maybe the Smithsonian. Even though I was a kid, the oppressive heat and humidity of that Piedmont region impressed me. It was a surprise to my ears when I heard but had great trouble making out what the local kids were asking or telling me, I had never been exposed to a real Southern patois till then. Then down, down we went, into the cool cathedral chasm of the Luray Cavern. With the aid of well-placed electric lighting, the beauty of underground erosion was apparent. Colorful rock "pipe organs" and stone "waterfalls" showed plainly. Even glistening "fried eggs" looked good enough to eat!
  • A two-tube radio with headphones came into my possession in the 30s. Lying in bed at night, I'd listen to orchestras playing music from as far away as Chicago!
  • Awaking in the morning, I could look up at the ceiling and see a fleet of various warplane silhouettes where I had attached them.. Skipping forward five or six years, I found myself IN a U.S Air Force airplane enroute from India to China listening on my headset to music from all over Asia being picked up on the radio set which I used as a flight radio operator. Talk about Karma.

I believe that after I moved out of the Junior High School, it burned down. And our hours were reduced as the six classes had to double up in the High School.

I settled on the Scientific Course although I never thought I grasped Mathematics fully. I did enjoy Biology, History and English. Took Latin and French. My physique and Gym were incompatible, as I couldn't pull myself up a rope, couldn't chin myself, or put a basketball through the hoop very often.

I belonged to the Latin Club, had parts in plays, and was in the Photomicrography Club. The latter entailed staying after school when we took photos through a microscope and then developed and printed the resulting pictures. Occasionally we were so involved that we lost track of time. Coming out of the darkroom, we would find we had been locked into the school by the janitor. Then we would go out through a window and down a fire escape. What dedication to learning!

I cannot fathom why, but there was an active fraternity, Tau Beta Pi, at the high school. Following brother Ray's lead, I joined. There was no extreme hazing, but we had to carry certain things like matches to provide to our older "brothers" if requested. We also might have to recite certain memorized goobledygook to them if demanded. One such item was a definition of leather which started out, "If the fresh skin of an animal, cleaned and divested of all hairs, fat and other extraneous matter be immersed in a dilute solution of tannic acid, a chemical combination ensues. The gelatinous tissues of the skin are converted into a non-putrescible substance, impervious to water......."

On Mondays following our weekend meetings, we always had carnations on hand which we individually presented to our current best girlfriend. The biggest social function that our frat sponsored was an Easter Monday Dance, usually held at a local spot like the Edgewood Country Club.

I did manage to have a second near-death experience when I was about 16 years old. The Pneumococci invaded me and I was diagnosed as having double pneumonia. This occurred before the advent of penicillin which was able to conquer this disease almost magically. But I was confined to bed and treated with the cures of the day, including mustard plasters. At the critical stage I was cared for by nurses around the clock. The detailed temperature chart showed when my fever finally broke, after 'I had heard the angels singing.' I believe I was absent from school for maybe two weeks and had to make up some work to catch up in class.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put a punctuation to feelings I had harbored about war. The cover of my tablet already had doodles pertaining to my moral outrage against the Axis aggressors. With a year and a half before graduation, I continued on with my studies albeit in a changing environment. Rationing was ordered. Metals and other items were collected. Used toothpaste tubes were saved. My older brothers ended up being rejected for military service because of heart palpitations. They pulled their weight at the steel mill relining furnaces with the "brick gang". It was a tenet of our family that any useful work could be prideful, even that of a 'honeydipper.' Dad became an air raid warden with the job of enforcing practice blackouts. The authorities never did determine how to blackout the steelmill hellfires which lit up the night skies for miles. I cut out silhouettes of military airplanes of all nations participating in the war. These I attached to the ceiling above my bed and studied them daily.

About five months after my seventeenth birthday, I graduated in the top twenty percent of our class of two hundred students. I believe I had to register with the Selective Service then but could not volunteer until I turned eighteen. A free federal course in machine shop was offered over the summer, so I enrolled. I made a small steel vise and a hammerhead. Upon completion of that class, I was employed as a machinist apprentice at the Sommerfeld Machine Co., a local shop which was manufacturing 20-inch lathes for building artillery pieces for Australia. This first job paid 40/hour and I soon learned that pretending to be busy was worse than being busy.

A little side job I had there was making metal hooks. A piece of heavy wire stock was laid on a flat jig and a compatible bar was used to turn the wire around steel pegs to form the hook. As I did this one day, a steel peg broke and shot up, striking my eyeball. Upon reporting the injury, I was advised to walk to the 'company' doctor's office about ten or twelve blocks away. Such was OSHA's predecessor in the old days...non-existent. My eye healed.

It might have been prior to Labor Day 1942 on a Saturday, if we worked six days a week. The shop workers, all non-union, held a rump meeting before going home. Its aim was to decide whether to work on Labor Day 48 hours hence. A vote was taken and it was agreed that we would work due to wartime priorities. I patriotically walked to work on Monday and the shop was closed tightly with not a soul around! So much for some of the home front folks.

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