McOwen Street, action central

After moving from the farm, the family lived in a succession of rented houses Grandpa later pointed out as I rode with him around the northwestern quadrant of town. In these houses, Grandma was soon coping with three small children – Marion, my dad, born in 1922, Myrl Yvonne in 1924, and Donna June in 1927. One photo of the three kids gives the location as 421 Upland Avenue and has Dad in overalls and a fireman’s hat. Another, from Gettysburg Avenue, shows Myrl holding a doll nearly her own size, a scowling Donna gripping a teddy bear, and Dad in knickers and sneakers, deep in a book rather than acknowledging the camera.

The place I knew is the home they eventually owned at 39 McOwen Street, which was also the headquarters for his plumbing business. What catches me off-guard is that the actual purchase didn’t take place until June 20, 1940 – for $3,825. Up to this point, Grandpa had been, like his own father, landless; Joshua had set forth from the family’s small “plantation” in North Carolina, as all farms there were called, and become a sojourning tenant among the Hoosiers and Buckeyes. Now entering his own fifth decade, Grandpa could finally say he was sinking roots.

It was here that their fourth child, Thelma, quickly dubbed TJ by her siblings, was born. As we reexamine the time frame, she calculates, “so they had to have moved there before 1934. They converted the living room to the delivery room. Dad took your Dad, Myrl, and Donna to Uncle Arlie’s earlier that Sunday morning, so they were not present for this superhuman birth.”

Her cousin Wilma, in comparison, admits, “I don’t remember anything about the time when TJ was born.” From her perspective, maybe it was just another day of playing ball with her cousins Marion, Myrl, and Donna.

The McOwen Street house we remember is as least twice the size it was in fact. The frame structure was built in the late 1800s on a narrow lot, and had a railroad-car sequence of living room, dining room, kitchen, and, at the back, the office of James F. Hodson Plumbing & Heating. Its clapboards were narrow, painted a café au lait. An L-shaped porch wrapped around the front, allowing entry to the residence through the dining room, rather than the door to the living room. It helped that the dining room was essentially set sideways into the house, with a bay window on the side beside the entry, with the stairs to the second floor opposite. A natural-gas fireplace sat along the wall against the kitchen, though I never recall it actually working. (It probably would have been too hot for the room, anyway.) A separate entry at the end of a walkway beside the house led to the office. There was also a corridor from the kitchen to the office, as well as a doorway no longer in use.

Along an alley at the back of the lot was “the shop,” a small two-story carriage house filled with bins of plumbing supplies – the various joints and elbows, valves, caulking, solder and muriatic acid – as well as a much-used pipe cutter and threader on a stand. The structure had its own definitive smells: the mixture of oil and metal shavings, plus old warehouse dust, especially. In front of this but behind a trellis lay rows of cast-iron and lead pipes in many diameters. There was barely room at the side for the boarded gate to the alley, where Grandpa rented neighboring garages to securely park his trucks overnight. His own car was out on the street.

As kids, we would play on the pipes, of course, though there weren’t many fantasies we could construct from their utilitarian appearance. It was more like walking metal tight-rope.

Grandpa came to town to learn the plumbing trade from his brother Leroy. These days I’m wondering if Leroy had, in turn, learned from their half-brother Samuel. As jobs went, the pay and hours could be decent. Besides, if you ask a carpenter, electrician, or drywall journeyman, you’re likely hear that plumbers stand at the pinnacle of the construction trades hierarchy. They seem to operate on their own priorities and show up on their own schedule. They can be the prima donnas of a project, you’ll be told. So it wasn’t just any trade Grandpa was learning. Besides, when you need a plumber, it’s often an emergency – seldom the case with the carpenter, bricklayer, or electrician. (The roofer may be another matter.)

Early on, Leroy had envisioned creating a Hodson Brothers partnership, but his wife effectively squelched the notion. Anna, I’m informed, couldn’t stand Grandma. The guess is that it had something to do with Grandma’s endless suspicions and complaining about Grandpa – and Anna thought a good wife should keep such accusations to herself.

Once Grandpa set out on his own, however, he ran straight into the hard realities of the Great Depression. As Wilma relates, “There was one thing I will always remember during the Depression. The Hodsons had very little, as James was starting the plumbing business. I remember my dad telling James, ‘As long as we have food, you will have food.’ On New Year’s we always butchered two hogs. One for the Binkleys, and one for the Hodsons.”

Wilma’s dad, after all, was Arlie Binkley, a farmer married to Grandma’s sister and one of Grandpa’s two best friends. Through their farm, I sense, Grandpa was able to reconnect to his own agricultural roots as well as the neighborhood where he was raised and set out in married life.

As Wilma wrote to me, “Your dad and I were very close when we were growing up. Of course, Myrl, Donna, and Thelma [TJ] were, too. We had such times on Saturdays when they would all come out to the farm.” Later, she explained: “I always looked forward to Saturday when the old Model T came up the hill and the kids came flying out of the car before it stopped. That is how anxious we all were to start playing! I did not see Myrl and Donna as often as teens. As kids, each one came one at a time to visit on the farm each summer. Then I could go to the city for a week.”

She then told of something I’d never heard from my dad. “I want to tell you about how your dad, Myrl, Donna, and I played ball in the old orchard on the farm. TJ and Orpha were too little. We may have included them for a little while. Orpha says she doesn’t remember. We played so hard and always had fun.

“Your dad had a toy typewriter. He would compose a sports newsletter when he got home. He always gave it to me the next time they came out. I looked forward to getting them. I wish I had saved them.

“Your becoming a journalist may have been sparked by your dad’s hidden desire to be a sportswriter. Who knows!”

This was something he never mentioned to me. And here I felt I’d let him down with my lack of interest or ability in sports!

A generation later, the farm visits continued. Mom was always impressed by the unassuming manner Aunt Edna had for ensuring everyone else was well fed before sitting down to dinner herself. Saturday was for making a dozen pies, including some for shut-ins and one or two for the pastor’s family, as Mom reported with awe.

Wilma, however, has another version: “I do not remember my mother baking pies for anyone else but our family. She made six pies on Saturday. They were what we ate all week long. She took them to the cellar, where it was cool and there were no flies.” Perhaps the six-pile custom continued after the children had left home. Now I wonder if that was a tradition Edna retained from her mother’s Rasor side; even so, it’s not something I remember Grandma doing weekly. For Wilma, however, “As I remember Susie, she did not bake like my mother, although she may have when they lived on the farm.”

“Going to Phillipsburg” meant the Binkley farm a mile from the village. Sometimes we took critters received for Easter but grown too big for the house, or a litter of kittens – memories that still sadden my sister.

Uncle Arlie was gentle and sweet, even before his final illness set in. I vaguely remember riding with him on the tractor or on the wagon harvesting corn. Even one late experiment with popcorn, whose ears were often smaller than the harvester could handle. There are also faint impressions of a woman in Plain clothing – his mother, Hannah Binkley, in her later years, cared for by Aunt Edna. The fact that some United Brethren kept Plain dress as late as the 1950s comes as a surprise, considering my impression that many who joined were trying to move away from the “old ways” and the strictures of disciplined denominations such as the Friends or Brethren.

Even for me, the visits to the farm instilled a special sense of groundedness, something I treasure now but didn’t recognize then. To be a boy climbing around the hayloft (with its dangerous trapdoors for feeding livestock below) or walking beams over the equally dangerous hog pens retains a magical fearlessness, countered by the array of pungent barn odors or the shafts of light beaming through the cracks in the siding. For Grandpa, the visits must have stirred their own range of emotional memories.

I once overheard Grandpa telling that his first clue of Arlie’s ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, came when Arlie asked him to back the tractor and wagon up to the barn. “He never had trouble doing that,” Grandpa said, “I knew something was wrong.”

Uncle Arlie died in 1957 with my father at his side. I was nine and this was my first experience of an open casket and a funeral, which took place in a church where all of the pews had been made from a single tree felled from Arlie’s woodlot.

Now I wonder how Grandpa developed his facility with a tractor – the photo of Dad in a potato wagon suggests he was still farming with horses before moving to the city, a much different set of skills.

While we heard many references to the hardships of the Depression from my grandparents at their dining room table on Sunday afternoons, I recall few details, other than a general sense of FDR-New Deal bashing. I do know that Dad paid room-and-board from junior high on, from money earned on his newspaper route and later as a pin-boy in a bowling alley, among other enterprises.

Dad once told me of a repeated dream he’d had most of his adult life; it was based on the actual experience of spending one of his teenage summers in the blazing sun scraping and painting the exterior of the house. He was unpaid, unlike the man hired to assist him. In the dream, the rest of the family was indoors, dining and living it up. Who knows what the reality was.

There was also a period when they rented out the front bedroom to a woman and her daughter boarder. Later, that would be Grandma’s room, after being Myrl’s or Donna’s.

The “North Room” at the back of the second floor was Dad’s. Maybe it was different when he was still living there, but by the time we came around, it was dark, unheated, cramped space above the plumbing office. Maybe its walls were covered with a dark wallpaper, but in my mind what I see is a black room with sloping walls. (By then it was used for storage, and never as a guest room when we kids visited.)

Next to it was what must have been “the girls’” room, though to us it was simply “TJ’s bedroom,” or Thelma Jean’s.

What we would now call a master bedroom sat between that, next to the stairway, and the front room. It had a large armoire, and a small bed beside the big one. The dresser presented distinct odors, including a hair cream that must have smelled like Listerine.

Photos of Dad “first long trousers” and “Marion and his first bike” are both situated outside the McOwen house – likely by 1932 or so. And with TJ’s birth in 1934, it’s obvious the family rented the property for years before purchasing it in 1940. (Perhaps they were buying it on installments, or some other plan.) Even so, to be tenants during this period would mean lacking the sense of permanence I’d always connected to the address.

Dad graduated from Steele High School in downtown Dayton in 1940, married in the Euclid Avenue church on June 4, 1942, and was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in November 1942 at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis. Grandma’s notes have him being sent to Miami Beach; Edmund, Oklahoma; back to Miami Beach; and on to Fort Myers, Florida, where he spent most of the war, before being discharged at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, February 14, 1946. “Arrived home 2:15 a.m. Feb. 15,” she adds. Mom had followed Dad to Fort Myers, where they lived off-base.

I wonder how Grandpa reacted to the war years. Once, as boys will do, I asked if he’d served in the Army, and as I recall, he rather blanched. His brother Leroy had, as did his cousin Ralph McSherry. But the First World War was winding down by the time Grandpa turned 18.

The Second World War, however, was a different matter, especially with a son in uniform. By now, in his early 40s, Grandpa must have been enjoying some success as a businessman. Despite rationing and the impact of war on the domestic economy, Grandpa and the family were able to visit Dad in Oklahoma and then in Florida in 1943 and 1945, according to inscriptions on the backs of snapshots. As TJ recalls, “Our family travels during the war were to visit Marion and Dottie, and we went by train. If we traveled by car, Dad had enough gas rationing coupons from his truck allotments to fill our car. I only remember driving to Indiana to see relatives, not any other places.”

There was a story of TJ’s falling out of a moving car during one of those trips and being, miraculously, uninjured – an event she now says nothing of.

A July 10, 1945, letter sent air mail to my father reveals some of Grandpa’s personality. The Mary Louise he mentions was one of my mother’s best friends; she had been diagnosed with a severe arthritis and the funds he mentions were obviously for her treatment. Dorothy, or Dottie, was my mom, whose father had just died of a heart attack.

“It has been some time since I have written to you but here it comes. First I must express my sympathy to you in the loss of your father-in-law. No one could ever hope of having a better father-in-law, or even father, than he was. As he has often, very often, told me how proud he was of you. It’s hard to understand why but the Bible tells us that someday all of these mysteries will be made plain. We almost came back from Wisconsin on the train, for the funeral, leaving our car in Wisconsin and then going back but time was so short and it would have cost $100.00 so we did not but our prayers and thoughts were with you, Dorothy, and Mums. We had a nice trip and delivered Mary Louise to Wisconsin General Hospital, Madison, Wisc. Room 332 for treatments which we all hope and pray will bring her back to health and happiness. Our fund has now reached $873.00. The first month’s expense, which I paid in advance, was $240.00. The second will be $225.00. So you see as far as finances is concerned we are sitting on top of the world. While there I would have liked to fish in some lakes but Rev. Ward and I wet the stringer with our 4 fish. We saw the Wisconsin Dells and a lot of very pretty scenery. Also one of the creameries which made 12,338 lbs of butter Saturday and takes in as high as 330,000 lbs of milk. We visited one of the cheese factories and watched them make cream cheese and brought home a 5 lb box which we have to age for about 2 months. We made our headquarters at Rev. Wards at Richland about 60 miles west of Madison and then one day we went to LaCross 70 miles another to the Dells 65 mi and one day fishing 74 miles. We drove a total of 1,339 miles. On the Fourth we were out to the country for dinner and they showed us a good time along with a big Beef Roast which was sure good. Of course you have heard that Joseph and Gene [Jeannie] are getting married in the Euclid Ave U.B. Church Sat Eve we sure wish you could be here. Dottie will be here tomorrow for dinner and then Sat to stay all nite and go along to church. We sure feel sorry for her as Cecil and her were real Pals. I think I have already told you I have a new gasoline pump to pump out ditches, cellars, etc. which pumps 7,000 gal per hour that is a lot of water. I sold 2 automatic water heaters today one 60 gal one 30 gal. Round Thursday A.M. – I did not get to finish this Tues nite so here I am to say Good Morning. Ray [?] was here last eve and will take our men to Cincinnati this afternoon for 2 ballgames at a twilight game at 5:30 and the other starts a 9 P.M. so we expect to have a nice time. Dorothy was here for supper last night and was surprised to hear she is starting back Monday. Of course I know it seems a long time to you. She is coming here for supper Saturday will stay all nite and go along to church and the wedding. Breakfast is ready so will see you later.

As Ever

Dad”

In this letter – as in a letter from his mother and her uncle’s Civil War memoir – I am struck by the difficulty in speaking from the heart: the few moments when emotional content surfaces, it is promptly buried beneath dry, almost news-style writing of date, prices, and participants. I believe this reflects a McSherry legacy embodied in Grandpa’s mother’s careful arrangement of notes before sitting down to write a letter. Alice was, in fact, an avid newspaper reader, a fact that might help explain Grandpa’s collection of each morning and evening’s Dayton Journal and Herald during World War II – the stacks of yellowing newspapers stored on deep shelves above the stairs to the basement. “These will be worth something someday,” was the explanation. These were the city’s Republican newspapers, unlike the Democrat Dayton Daily News, published by James A. Cox, also a member of the United Brethren denomination, as I’m surprised to learn.

I know little of the years of struggle – the Great Depression, of course, and then the war, with its shortages of supplies, workers, and general income.

The family photos, however, present another impression altogether. “They’re not at all shy,” my wife and daughters observe. “Oh, look at those coats!” or other stylish dress. And, as Myrl and Donna grew out of childhood, “Those are some legs.” As for my dad, their Grandpa Marion, “He was a cutie-patootie” at the time. They remark, especially, how Dad looks nothing like Grandpa. Later observation, from multiple independent sources, say he and I resemble Grandma’s Ehrstine ancestry instead. The one definite Hodson characteristic Dad inherited was wavy hair – though the waves never returned after the U.S. Army Air Corps barbers finished and his hair grew out again. Still, it’s hard for me to see genetic family connections in these half-dozen individuals. Grandpa is solid, serious, with dark wavy hair. Grandma, thin and plain-looking, often seemingly lost in her own musings; Myrl, blonde and preppy; Donna, dark-haired and Hollywood sensual; and TJ, the bright-eyed baby sister throughout.

An interior shot – from the stairs, looking down on the dining room table – shows a dozen young adults with dessert bowls and saucers; there’s room for two or three more. It’s hard to imagine so many people around a table in most homes today, but I do remember helping Grandma add extenders to the table, or removing them, as needed. And there was a spacious closet under those stairs, where folding chairs were kept, just in case.

McOwen Street, running a single block between North Main Street and Riverside Drive along the Great Miami River, provides a tree-lined backdrop for many of the snapshots. Its substantial houses and uncluttered street project middle-class calm and security. In one picture, Dad’s in uniform, sticking his head out from the driver’s side of an ample sedan – one with curvaceous fenders and a running board – a far cry from the Model T of Grandpa’s youth. So Dad’s home on furlough. The house itself looks imposing, and the narrow side yard back to the office entrance is flanked with window boxes, climbing vines, and lush plantings. Another, on the street, shows a sequence of babies being held aloft – some by young men in uniform, others by men in suits or at least ties, and many by proud young mothers. There’s even an intent toddler speeding in a self-propelled stroller along the sidewalk, straight toward the camera, as well as a furry black dog totally ignoring a mother trying to get its attention for the baby.

When TJ speaks of her childhood and adolescence, she displays an intense fondness for McOwen Street itself. While I have many memories of the house, especially climbing around in the pipe yard or lowering and raising the retractable steps to the attic, which became to us cousins a kind of spaceship, complete with the turbo-fan (for summer relief, in the days before widespread air conditioning), for TJ the site stirs up an entire cosmos, one she can almost reenter, just behind the decay and destruction that’s set in over recent decades.

As the only girl on McOwen Street at the time, she grew up as a tomboy in a neighborhood filled with boys – initials rather than a first name served her well. It was only when she was dating the man she wound up marrying that she shifted over, since he insisted “TJ sounded like a boy.” (John now says, sheepishly: “You have to understand those were different times.”)

After my dad’s funeral, as we drive past McOwen Street, TJ tells my elder daughter of being Dayton’s first female newspaper carrier. At first, the paperboys hazed her mercilessly when she went to pick up her papers each morning. When Grandpa caught wind of this, he arranged to have her bundles delivered to the house. But later, after some subscribers stiffed her on their payments, he was so outraged he made her quit and seek other employment.

On the drive, she points out her elementary school, Van Cleve, followed by Colonel White for grades seven and eight and then Fairview High.

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