You Can Go Home Again. - For a Short Visit.
The House With No Electricity: by Bill Russo
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 close 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 that ran down the street were being paved over; because Detroit and Washington had made a deal that rails of all sorts, had 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 car 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 'Ashday', every Wednesday, the coal people put their cans out. Except if it was snowing, then 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 was divided into two rooms. My parents bedroom was on one side and mine was on the other.
In wintertime, we would load up the two stoves and open 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 had freshened me and I didn’t smell any different than anyone else. I had friends at school, but no close ones. I did not 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 they often 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 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, about the size of a silver dollar and were 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.
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 also cherished the toilets. I would sit on them and luxuriate even when I didn’t have to go. I enjoyed flushing them and hearing the water swirl around.
There were no toilets in the house without electricity. We had an attached shed and at the back of the shed was a 'two-holer'. It was two round openings cut in wood and you sat down and did your business, and 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 that 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 his hand to get the best crumbs.
Then Papa would close 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. I could stand outside and peer through their window anytime I wanted to. I watched fairly often, and they always lifted the sill a few inches so that I was able to 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 have ever heard the original “War of the Worlds”, or “Sorry Wrong Number”, or Escape’s “Three Skeleton Key”; then 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 would spend 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 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' was still on and so was 'Lux Radio theater'.
Life was great. I lived in a house with electricity, light bulbs and a radio.
Now, more than fifty years later, I still live in a house with electricity. I have a giant flat screen television. It is internet equipped and is tied into a magic box called Roku.
With Roku you can watch nearly any TV show that was 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 2015;equipped with Roku, Netflix, Crackle and more; and I tune into The Fred Allen 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.