Monday, September 7, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #10: Home Cobbling, Downtown, and First Bike from Hell


by Lynn Harrington
Part I: 1918 - 1927, concluded

19. Sewing, Shop Belts, and Shoe Leather

Keeping us children decently clothed was a continuing problem for our parents. Our poor Mother never lacked for work to keep her busy in the evening, after the supper dishes were done and arrangements for the next morning's breakfast made. That was when she would sit down with a lapful of clothes in need of mending. When I think back on those nights in the Cannon Street house, the picture that most often comes to mind is of her sitting there in the living room enveloped in the glow of the lamplight, darning socks or mending the worn-through knees or elbows of pants or shirts, or taking up the hem of a dress to help it along in its passage down the normal progression from an older girl to the next younger.

Dad's part in extending our clothing resources was concentrated mainly on keeping us boys shod. New shoes were expensive, and we somehow managed to wear a hole through a sole in a very short time. Dad's work as a millwright at the big Brown-Lipe-Chapin Gear factory often involved making repairs to the leather belts which were at that time the most common means of driving machines in factories. A good deal of heavy scrap leather accumulated in that work, and the management was quite willing to let the men take such scraps home if they wished.

Dad had, early on, acquired a few of the essential tools of the cobbler's trade. Among these was a set of metal lasts, pieces of iron one surface of which was flat and smooth, and so shaped as to fit snugly into a shoe of a given size. The opposite surface of the last was contoured in such a way that it would engage firmly on the top of a pedestal-like stand. Dad would select the last of the right size for the shoe that had need of a replacement sole. He would then trace the outline of the sole on a piece of the scrap leather. Seated by the pedestal-mounted shoe and last, he would use shoenails and his tackhammer to attach to the shoe the piece of scrap leather he had cut to the outline he had drawn. With his very sharp knife he would then trim the edge of the new sole until it was smooth and even.

The belting material came in various thicknesses, and he always used the same thickness on both of the shoes of a pair. If the leather was quite thick one resoling would usually last as long as the uppers. We boys were always hoping the belt leather would be thin, for then the shoes would be more nearly flexible. Thin leather, however, meant more work for Dad, for when the manufacturer' s original sole wore through in the middle, the shop-leather sole could be applied right over it. When that one wore through, it had to be removed before the second replacement could be put on. That involved a good deal of careful and difficult tack-pulling.

We were always glad to have our worn-through shoes repaired. We were apprehensive, however, about what our experience was going to be when we wore them to school. Most often no one noticed. But we were not always so lucky. All too frequently the shop sole, when bent to the degree required by the flexing of the newly-shod foot in walking, gave off a loud squeak. This was embarrassing in school, especially if we were called upon to go to the blackboard. A squeak which occurred while walking in a crowded hallway or along the sidewalk did not draw attention to us individually; the same noise as we walked alone in a quiet room brought titters from the class, and a blush to our cheeks.

The embarrassment was compounded when the two soles came from different leathers, one of which squeaked and the other didn't. For some reason, that skip-a­beat squeaking seemed to be more conspicuous, and more amusing to the class, than was the regular squeak with every step. But with wear the noise diminished, and in time our young classmates lost interest in the peculiar performance of our shoes.

20. Downtown Syracuse

During the first half of the 1920s the downtown section of the city was an exciting place to go. It was not a part of the city Jimmy or I would venture into alone. Sometimes one of the girls would take one or both of us there on a Saturday, just for the fun of showing us what a busy place it was. I can remember rare occasions when Dad took me downtown with him when he had some shopping to do or an errand to run. Those were great occasions, for he knew all about the city, and would talk about the sights we saw and the traffic that thronged the streets. I was especially fascinated by the street cars and trains. Dad had worked for a time as a streetcar motorman. The car lines all radiated out of downtown to the outlying neighborhoods. By reading the destination signs on the cars Dad could tell me just where each car went, the streets it followed, and the neighborhood it served.

For some reason, anything that rolled on iron wheels over steel rails intrigued me. This was especially true of the New York Central passenger trains, with their great chuffing steam engines and their long strings of cars. At that time the train station was situated downtown, and the tracks had not yet been elevated. The long trains rolled east and west in their slow passage right down the street in the center of the city. Traffic delays on the busy north-south streets were frequent and frustrating to pedestrians and all forms of traffic that had to wait for them. I enjoyed occasional visits to the station and its train shed where I could watch passengers boarding and leaving the cars, and baggage and express being put on and taken off the cars designed for that service. Watching the engineer using a long­spouted oil can to lubricate the side-rod driving mechanism of his locomotive as it stood panting at the head of the train was a special treat to me.

The New York Central's "Empire State Express" rolling through downtown Syracuse in the 1920's. (Postcard image from the collection of Michelle Stone on Genweb.)

Setting one of those long, heavy trains in motion required the skilled touch of a master engineer. One tug too far or too quick on the throttle would send the driving wheels spinning in a frenzy without moving the train. Sparks would fly and there would be a great roar form the exhaust stack of the engine. Then the throttle would have to be pushed back and a new, more gradual start attempted, with a further application of sand fed from a storage dome atop the boiler down the tubes to the rails, directly ahead of the driving wheels. Less experienced engineers would sometimes have to repeat this process two or three times, especially in getting a long string of heavy steel Pullman cars under way. The veteran engineers, especially those assigned to the crack trains such as the 20th Century Limited, the Commodore Vanderbilt or the Empire State Express, rarely spun out more than once in getting their great trains into motion.

When I first visited downtown, traffic at each major intersection was directed by a policeman. He stood in the center of the crossing, looking very natty in his blue uniform and white gloves, directing the traffic flow by hand signals accented by shrill blasts from his whistle. And then one Saturday, in which year I can't recall, Dad took us boys downtown to see the newly-installed automatic, electrically operated traffic signals. They were mounted on posts at curbside at each major intersection, showing in sequence and in uniformly controlled intervals the three standard light colors, red, yellow, and green. Only in later years came the more sophisticated signalling, such as selective delays for turns or for pedestrians only, or the showing of both yellow and green simultaneously as the green phase of the cycle neared its end, while the red shows continuously in the other direction. But the earliest important improvement in the system as first installed came quite soon. All of the signal posts operated simultaneously. For several seconds with the changing of the lights there rang at each signal pole a clamorous warning bell. This was not a gong, but a rapidly burring bell, like a greatly amplified doorbell. The clamor of all those bells ringing at the same time from every signal post in the downtown area was bad enough for the passing motorist; for those who worked downtown it was simply intolerable, and was soon discontinued.

Policemen patrolled afoot night and day in the downtown section. They had no radios for communication, but Dad told us of the method they had developed for summoning assistance from fellow officers on nearby beats. Each officer had a nightstick, a shiny black cylinder of very hard wood about two inches in diameter, formed to a smaller diameter near one end to serve as the grip-handle. A hole drilled through at the point where the diameter diminished allowed for the attachment of a leather thong which the officer could loop over his wrist. It was a treat to see how the policemen could stroll along, glancing watchfully about, and casually twirling the nightstick on its thong, so fast that it looked not like a stick but like a whirl of reflecting blackness. It was with his nightstick that the officer would signal for help in the quiet of the late night hours. They had all mastered the technique of beating a rapid drumming of the stick against the cement sidewalk, producing a loud, rapidfire, and pervasive sound that would carry for a long distance in all directions. Fellow officers would hear the signal, and move off on the run in the direction from which the sound came.

21. My First Bicycle

During the summer of the last full year of our residence on Cannon Street, in 1925, I reached the age of 10. A few of the boys my age in the neighborhood had bicycles, and I longed very deeply to have one of my own. But my parents had two very good reasons why I could not: First, because they didn't think I was old enough, and, second, because they couldn't afford it. I understood about the money, but felt sure I could ride a bicycle safely. I had already learned to ride well enough to keep a bike balanced, courtesy of a few boys who let me practice for short intervals on their bicycles. As the summer wore on I came to realize that they were tired of my pleading, and I gave up all hope. And then in late summer came my birthday, and with it, to my astonishment, a bicycle. Neither Mom nor Dad said anything about where it came from, or what it cost, but it clearly must have lain in storage somewhere for a very long time, since it was quite different from any of the bicycles I had ever seen.

The bike merits detailed description, partly because it was so important to me, and partly because an understanding of its construction and operation is necessary to visualization of the various experiences I encountered in operating it. The bicycles with which I was familiar were basically pretty much alike, with mudguards and handlebar grips and coaster brakes. My birthday bike had none of those things. It consisted of tires, wheels, frame, handlebar, chain, and a sort of improvised seat. The pedal arrangement was standard, with its cogged wheel which turned with the pedals and. by its chain connection with the rear wheel hub, propelled the bicycle. But the rear hub was not at all conventional. It housed no brake nor coaster mechanism at all. The result of this unorthodox setup was that the rear wheel, the chain, and the pedals all moved continuously whenever the bike was in motion.

The most important effect of this novel arrangement was that there was only one way of achieving any braking effect. This was to put all my weight on the foot that rested on the pedal moving through the upward half of its circular motion. When I wanted to stop I had to switch my weight back and forth repeat­edly from one foot to the other with every half-turn of the pedals. The rate of this weight-shifting and the consequent bobbing up and down was determined by the speed at which the bike was moving. At anything higher than a moderate rate this was very uncomfortable. Given my light weight, the retarding effect of bearing down on a rising pedal was minimal at best.

I loved the bicycle, and was thrilled when I rode it. Whenever a quick stop became necessary it was thrilling in quite a different way. I usually had two alternatives if evasive movement was out of the question: First choice was to steer into a bush or any shrubbery that was near enough at hand. I might get scratched up, but the bush would stop me less abruptly than a tree or a wall. The second choice was even less pleasant. That was to fling myself off the bike. That was painful, and didn't do the bike much good, either.

I learned several things early in my ownership of that machine. One was, don't go fast on purpose. Second, don't go fast unintentionally, which meant stay away from hills. Third, at anything more than a low speed, never take both feet off the pedals; getting them back on would be a problem. Probably most important, never give Jimmy or any other little kid a ride on the bar. Such rides were virtually certain to end in a spill, and a little boy who was pitched off my bicycle would scream like crazy, and I would have the wrath of his mother upon my head.

There came a day that fall when a big boy, one of our older cousins, was visiting with his parents at our house. He was much interested in the bicycle. When I told him about my braking problems he told me I just wasn't doing it right. What I should do, he said, was to push the sole of my right shoe against the tire of the front wheel, up near the fork. Then he hopped on and rode a little way up the sidewalk. Coming back he had it going at pretty good speed by the time he reached us boys, standing in front of the house. Then, following the instructions he had given me, he put the toe of his right shoe against the fork, then pressed the sole of the shoe down against the tire (no mudguards, remember) and stopped the bike quite smoothly. I was overjoyed, and immediately set out to try his technique. I was going along at a great rate when I reached the watching group, and then I removed my right foot from the pedal and pressed the toe of my sneaker hard against the front tire. I had no time immediately after for analysis of the results, but as he reminded me later (and as he obviously assumed even a dumb kid would have figured out) he had put the toe of his shoe against the base of the fork, just above the tire, before bear­ing down on the tire. Besides that, his shoe had a leather sole, which would not grab on the tire as my sneaker did. As a result of my ignorance of these little details, when I shoved the toe of my sneaker farther down than he had, I induced a quite spectacular result. Before I knew what was happening the tire drew the toe of my sneaker up and jammed it tightly into the space between the tire and the fork, stopping the wheel dead still. The immediate stoppage of the wheel didn't induce much of a skid. What with the speed of the bike and my light and forward-leaning weight, the direction of motion was simply transformed from linear to rotary. The bicycle and I swung a swift arc, pivoting around the axle of the front wheel and dumping me head first on the sidewalk. I saw a lot of stars, and discovered that I could scream even louder than the little kids could.

I had lost some skin from my nose and fore­head, and had quite a bump on my head. But the consensus of the adults who had been drawn out of the house by the excitement on the sidewalk was that, with a bit of rest and cleaning up, I would be all right. So Mama washed me up and put me to bed, keeping a cool, damp cloth on my forehead until I fell asleep.

By the next day I was only slightly the worse for wear. After a while I went out back of the house to see if my bike was all right. It wasn't there. Bob said Mom and Dad had a conversation about it the night before, and he had seen Dad pushing it along the sidewalk toward Colvin Street before I was up that morning.

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