Monday, August 31, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #9: Salesmanship, Workmanship, and the Fruits of Thievery

By Lynn Harrington
Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

15. Liveries

One of the more prosperous families living near us on Cannon Street was the Nastasis. Of the family in general, I remember hardly anything. The one member I recall quite clearly is the father, Mr. Nicholas Nastasi. He was without question the most elegant gentleman in our neighborhood. We used to see him leaving for work in the morning and returning in the evening. He walked past our house on his way to and from the street car stop at Salina and Colvin. In the wintertime his black bowler hat would have been a prime target for a wayward boy with a snowball, but the dignity of his bearing and the impressiveness of his dress -- a splendid dark gray overcoat with its black velvet collar, his fine light gloves, and the black walking stick he carried --- were intimidating enough to prevent any such misconduct.

I remember wondering aloud one day, along about 1925 when automobiles were becoming increasingly common, why a man so rich as Mr. Nastasi didn't have one. "Oh, he could have one if he wanted to," my Dad said, "but he thinks automobiles are the work of the devil." He went on to explain that Mr. Nastasi owned a livery stable down near the Lackawanna train station. He had made a fortune renting horses and rigs to traveling salesmen ("drummers", they were called then) and others who had need of temporary private transportation. The rapidly growing availability of automobiles was relentlessly forcing liverymen out of business. Dad thought that Nick should have acquired a new car agency, but the man's pride and his anger at automobiles in general were too bitter to let him stoop to that, so his business was going to smash.

The Vanderbilt Hotel, Syracuse, early 1920's. Notice the mix of internal-combustion and horse-drawn vehicles on the streets.

Between our house and the University, on Raynor Avenue, was another livery stable and wagon rental business. The proprietor of that one, when we boys found it, had given up and sold his horses. In one of our rambles through the outlying neighborhood we came upon that abandoned enterprise, with its barn silent and empty of horses. We found a way in, and reveled in the excitement of exploring and playing about in the dim interior of that old barn, among the horse stalls and in the parts where wagons, draped with cobwebs and thick with dust, remained in storage. The more common gigs, single-seat buggies, and work wagons were parked in a large, fenced lot out back. But in the barn were the splendid coaches and carriages, some of the finest with glass-windowed passenger compartments and high outside bench seats front and rear, for the driver and his helper, and second-class passengers. These coaches yet retained the elegance of their upholstery and were fitted with fine lanterns and lamps; when we brushed off the accumulated dust we could see the gleam of the brass and nickel trim of those fixtures. Those beautiful upper-class coaches also had leaf springs, while their less imposing partners in the trade had either leather-strap suspensions or no springs at all. Passengers in the coaches had the luxury of riding on wheels bearing hard rubber tires, too, rather than the common iron bands that were the tires for the wheels of lesser vehicles.

16. Cloverine Salve and the BB Gun

It must have been during the winter of 1923, when I was eight, that I saw the advertisement. It was most likely in a copy of Boys' Life, a magazine I liked to read at the Beauchamp Branch Library, which stood then at the northeast corner of Colvin and Salina Streets. The ad was run by the company that marketed Cloverine Salve, an ointment that was guaranteed to end the discomfort of everything from burns to poison ivy. The promotion was aimed not so much at
users as at boys who were urged to sell the tins of Cloverine, to earn not cash but prizes, the value of which was determined by the number of tins sold. All a boy had to do was to have his parents send in an order for the number of tins the boy must sell to gain the prize of his choice. Of course the parents had to agree to send back any unsold tins along with payment for the portion of the order actually sold, whether or not the boy had achieved his goal.

The prize that caught my eye was one that I very much wanted, but knew in my heart that I would never have enough money to buy. It was a genuine 200-shot Daisy air rifle. I copied out the details and took the information home, hoping against hope that Mom and Dad would let me try. It took a lot of pleading, but at last they consented, upon my solemn promise that I would keep careful track of all my sales, and turn over to them promptly upon receipt the full payment for every tin I sold.

I was beside myself with delight. I was going to have a BB gun of my very own, and all I had to do to get it was sell two dozen tins of Cloverine Salve. Surely, that wouldn't be hard.

The wait for the arrival of the tins seemed endless, but at last the package arrived. And then it wasn't long before I found that the neighbors all seemed to have plenty of salve. In my enthusiasm, I told each prospect all about the dandy air rifle I was going to get. In the blackness of my disappointment I told Mama that nobody would buy my Cloverine. She said that maybe I wasn't trying in quite the right way, and suggested that I make believe I had come to her door, and say just what I had been saying to the customers. I did that, and she very quickly saw the problem.

In my eagerness to get the prize I was saying very little about the Cloverine, and a great deal about the gun I was going to get. Then she explained the point I had not thought of: Very few of the mothers or fathers were going to be enthusiastic about helping a little neighbor kid get an air rifle which could very well accidentally hurt their own children.

That lesson learned, I made up a spiel about how good the Cloverine was, and what a good buy at the price. Then I started to get an occasional sale, and my hopes rose again. Still, it was a slow, hard job, and by the time I sold the 24th tin I was sure I didn't want to be a salesman when I grew up.

1920's-vintage Daisy BB gun. Image from .

At last came the great day of the arrival of my Daisy air rifle. It was beautiful. Unfortunately no ammunition was included. When Dad got home he gave me five cents, so that on the next day I could go to the hardware store and get a tube of 100 BBs. I could hardly wait to try out my new gun. It was too cold and snowy outside, so the only place I could try it was in the cellar. That was a dark, dirt-floored place, but it would have to do. There were nails in the beams, where Dad hung lanterns when he had anything to do down there. One of the girls fixed up a target for me, by drawing circles on a cardboard box. We put that under a lantern at one end of the cellar, and at the other end, under another lantern, I sat down on a box to load the gun. I decided to pour in the full 100 BBs, as that was less than the capacity of the gun. The mechanism of the air rifle was such that the forward end of the barrel consisted of a metal disc, threaded around its outer edge, and with a tube, through which the BBs were propelled, leading back into the invisible interior of the works. By cocking the gun, air would be compressed into the chamber behind the BB which, with the cocking motion, was dropped into place in the tube. The inner surface of the front end of the barrel was threaded to receive the threaded tube-and-disc arrangement.

I put the pieces all together, screwing the insert into place, and cocked the gun. I was surprised at the force required to cock it. It was a very strong spring, but I managed to get it cocked. Then, seated on the box in the dim light, I took careful aim at the center of the target, and squeezed the trigger.

The gun went off with a surprisingly loud BANG, and a lot of things happened to the gun all at once.

Concurrent with the bang there was a rattling noise, and I could see the whole inner works flying out of the barrel and landing on the dirt floor about half the distance to the target. Along with the other components went the entire 100 BBs. The loss of the ammunition on the dirt floor made no particular difference --the threads at the end of the barrel had been stripped, and there was no way the gun could be put together again.

I never did find out why my gun was faulty. Just defective workmanship, I suppose. I was very much saddened, and probably should have learned some important lesson from the experience. But all I could think of was a conclusion I had reached some time before:

Kids shouldn't expect to win all the time.

17. Winter

The winters I remember from our Cannon Street days were much the same asnorthern winters are today, but coping with them then was in some ways harder. For one thing, the sophisticated snow-removal equipment available now was not even dreamed of then. There were no snow blowers, no plows mounted on high-powered trucks. The snow which was not shoveled off by hand or melted off by intermittent thaws simply accumulated and was packed down by traffic. Streetcar tracks were kept pretty well cleared by the weight of the iron wheels on steel rails. But in a season of heavy snowfall, this caused problems.

As the layer of snow in the streets became packed down and hardened under the traffic, the street level became effectively raised, leaving the trolley car tracks as deep, hard-walled channels. It was not unusual to see a team of horses pulling a sleigh wagon diagonally along the street, with the team and the front set of runners on the packed snow surface, straddling one rail, while the rear set of runners, firmly trapped in the rail's trench, could not change its course.
Following slowly behind would be a streetcar, or in rush hours a string of streetcars, their frustrated motormen all clanging away at their bells to the annoyance of the equally frustrated teamster. Sometimes a break in the icy wall would free up the runners, and the cars could get by. And sometimes the whole procession had to stop while workmen broke down the barrier for a long enough distance to free the trapped runners. Under such road conditions it was an imprudent teamster who tried to cross the tracks at an acute angle.

Playing in the snow could be great fun, especially when we could build snow forts and engage in snowball fights. That was more dangerous at the time of the first early, wet snow. Under those conditions it was easy for a malicious boy to pack a stone into a snowball, and a hit by such a loaded snowball could be a serious thing. That didn't happen in my experience, but we heard of incidents of that kind in tougher neighborhoods. Later in winter, when the snow lay deep all over the land, stones were well buried, and did not become ammunition.

There were ice skating rinks in the parks, and many people enjoyed that recreation. People who skated rarely had shoe skates; at any rate, I have no memory of seeing such skates. I do remember Mildred and Florence taking their skates and going to the rink at Kirk Park. The skates were of the platform type, with a flat metal upper surface with clamps by which the skate could be gripped firmly to the sole of the skater's shoe. We boys somehow didn't get into skating much, but we did enjoy just sliding on the ice. Onondaga Park, with its long, sweeping hillside surfaces, made a great place for sledding and tobogganing. We had no toboggan, but we were always able to join a group of several boys on a toboggan one of them had brought to the slopes. We had sleds, which were great for riding on packed surfaces. That was in contrast to the toboggans, which rode best down trails they cut into deeper soft snow.

As we grew a little older Dad helped us to make exciting devices called skip-jacks. Old wooden barrels and scrap lumber were easy to come by, and a single stave from the side of a large old barrel became the sliding surface. A short section of two-by-four attached to the center of the concave surface of the stave and surmounted with a small flat piece of wood formed the seat. Given a steep slope of well-packed snow, a boy could sit on the seat, push the device along by a shove with both feet, and be off on a wild ride down the slope. Some became quite expert at maintaining balance, and could ride all the way to the bottom of the slope. Most of us were lucky to get half way down the hill before the skip-jack flew off in one direction, and the rider in another.

Four decades later, Lynn Harrington still loved doing the skip-jack thing, even without a seat and on a real toboggan. (1960 photo by Catherine M. Harrington.)

Skiing was popular then, too, but not by any means so popular an activity as it is today. In later years we boys would have skis of our own, but while we lived on Cannon Street the only family member who had skis, to the best of my recollection, was one of the older girls, probably Myrtle. She was the best sport of all, and would try anything. That continued into her adult life, when she played golf, rode horseback, and even successfully completed the qualifying lessons for an airplane pilot's license.

Those winters on Cannon Street had a quite different, special charm of still another kind. The family was closer at that season than at any other. On cold winter nights we would all be within warming distance of the stoves, mainly the one in the kitchen. We played games and listened to stories, enjoyed the fragrance of hot cocoa steaming on the range, and one of the girls would occasionally make a pan of fudge. We would never again live in a house just like that, and the winter evenings would never again be quite the same.

18. Summer

Summertime was the best season for outdoor play. During the days we would wander about the neighborhood, an ever-expanding area as each succeeding summer found us grown a little bigger, a little stronger, and a little bolder than its predecessor had left us. We went to the deep gravel pit and found excitement in daring each other to jump from the rim far down to the big pile of sand heaped up below. And, the dare accepted, we had to make that breath-taking leap ourselves.

We challenged each other to climb to the top of the big apple-tree in our back yard, and one day Bob's friend Bobby Ammerman went first, and climbed very nearly to the top before falling. He didn't fall far, though, because one foot caught right at the start in a tight crotch. He hung upside down there, screaming bloody murder. We ran to a neighbor's house for help, and the man came with an extension ladder and got Bobby down, and then gave us all a thorough scolding for being such nuisances.

After supper, the long twilight of those summer evenings was the best time for playing outdoor games. Hide-and-seek and tag and various games with balls were the favorites, followed closely by kick-the-can. This was a group game, played in the street. It was a distant relative of soccer, of which we had never heard. Any old tin can would do; imaginary goal lines (or sometimes black lines made by a boy with a piece of the black carbon rod material used at that time in the city street lights and discarded when too far consumed) were drawn across the street, perhaps 20 yards apart. A half dozen kids would kick away at the can (and each other) trying to kick it across the opposing team's goal line.

Most of those games, while we didn't recognize it at the time, were based on an inborn desire to challenge and compete, and conquer if we could. They were, for better or for worse, training exercises for the game of life. Sometimes they led us into small troubles.

Such was the case one nice evening when six or seven of us pondered what to do next. Bob, being one of the older boys, was a natural leader in such circumstances. He put forth an irresistible temptation when he said, "Let's raid McNulty's grapes!"

Mr. McNulty had a house on a rather large lot around the corner on Colvin Street. He was a big, vigorous man who took special pride in the small vineyard he maintained in his back yard. Entrance there could be made only by the greatest stealth, for Mr. McNulty knew what a temptation his grapes were to the kids of the neighborhood. But since Bob was going to lead us, we had to go or lose face.

Noiseless as a band of Indians, we made our way around behind the house next door, and found ourselves very soon in among McNulty's vines. We thought our movement utterly silent, and were enjoying the luscious grapes far more than we would have if they had been served to us at home. And then, with no warning at all, the light on the nearby back porch turned on and there was Mr. McNulty, shouting "Who's There? Stop or I'll shoot!"

We didn't even pause to wonder if he had a gun. Scared witless, we took off at top speed in all directions, like a flushed covey of partridges. It just happened to be my bad luck that I alone chose to dash pell-mell not for the street, but across another neighbor's yard. I hadn't fled more than a dozen strides when I met a sudden comeuppance. That neighbor had clotheslines hanging slack between standards in his yard, and one line hung just low enough to catch me by the neck, just under my chin. At the speed at which I was running, I took the slack out of that line in no time at all. My feet flung up ahead of me, and I came down on my back with a thump. My neck was on fire and I hurt all over and I was going to get shot and I was scared.

Mr. McNulty was over me with his flashlight in a moment, and the neighbor whose clothesline had leveled me had heard the commotion and he was there, too. I could just make out the two of them bending over me. "What happened?" the neighbor asked. I heard Mr. McNulty's deep voice answer, "It's just a boy who was enjoying my grapes, but I don't believe he wants any more, so I think he'll get up now and go home." And that is what I did, and I don't think that when I got home Mama knew what I had been crying about, and I didn't explain.

The next morning when she saw me in the daylight she saw the red, rashy line on my neck, and put some Cloverine on it, and told me I must be more careful.

1 comment:

  1. We played something we called kick-the-can too, but it was a variety of hide-and-seek. "It" had to retrieve the kicked can and reposition it in the middle of the street and then find us. Some hero could rush in and kick the can again, freeing those already caught. It could go on almost forever.