In the Fall of 1922, Dad got permission to have us older kids entered into Washington schools, by virtue of his teaching position at Tech. Although I had completed the fourth grade in the Riverdale School, Dad thought I should go back a half-grade, so he entered me in grade 4-B in the Henry-Polk School, just a few blocks south of Tech. I found that the kids were just starting fractions, which I had finished, and other subjects were also repetitive. The Maryland school system had only seven grades before high school, while the District system used eight. I was bored to death, and began to play hookey, going to many places, like the public library and nearby parks, rather than to school. To the teacher I was the sickest kid in the class! When she found out the real cause, she had me moved up to my regular class, and I stopped being truant — for a while.
In the spring of 1924, Marion contracted scarlet fever and was seriously ill for six weeks. I soon came down with it also, but was not really sick — only showed the telltale rash. Since that was a contagious disease, and families could be quarantined, Dad had us both put into hospitals. I can remember Mother coming to visit me and bringing me some modeling clay, and later a wind-up toy car. I got more fun out of hitting the car with the modeling clay, than running it by its spring motor! Although the scarlet fever didn’t make me very sick, it did cause an abscess to develop in the mastoid bone of my right ear. In those days, a mastoid operation usually meant permanent deafness in that ear, as the surgeon cut through the ear drum to get at the abscess. But Dad found a Dr. Bolton, a young surgeon who was pioneering a new procedure of cutting behind the ear, and he performed that operation on me. I remember the pain of his changing dressings, and how tender that area was for many years afterward, particularly at hair-cutting time. At the same time that I was in the Episcopal Ear, Eye and Throat Hospital recovering from the mastoidectomy, Margaret was in Garfield Hospital with a serious case of pneumonia culminating in emphysema, which was often fatal in the days before penicillin. Poor Mother had her hands full, particularly as Dad was in Ohio doing his accounting work to pay all the hospital and doctor bills that were piling up. There was no such thing as group medical insurance in those days!
When I was about ten, I learned to ride George Myers’ bicycle. I was so proud of my feat that I invited Mary Jo to have a ride. We started merrily off toward US 1, which passed through Riverdale and went all the way to Baltimore and points north. For what reason I do not know, we decided to take a long "ride" and took off on the highway for Laurel, 11 miles away. I was a pretty tired boy when we pulled up at Emma Sadler’s house in Laurel and knocked on the door. She was so amazed to see us that she turned and ran to the telephone to call Mother. Not knowing why she had left without asking us in, we turned sadly away and headed back down the highway for Riverdale, 11 long miles away. It seemed to take forever to get home, and I know we walked much more than we rode, but we did eventually arrive to the great relief of Mother, who despaired of ever seeing her two youngest again!
About this time, the Washington school system had
introduced the junior high school, and I was supposed to go to one
when I finished sixth grade. Because of my tender years and small
size, Mother arranged to have me transferred to one of the schools
that would continue seventh grade. Because I had once again become
bored with the subject matter I had already done in the Riverdale
School, the teacher had me moved up another half-grade, and I entered
Abbott School’s seventh grade in February, 1924. That was to
keep me on the odd-semester path all the way through high school.
Abbott was the school where I got so proficient on the chinning bar.
I also was a whiz on roller skates, even to the extent of skating on
the highway from Riverdale to Washington, seven miles to Abbott
School! Dad would buy us commutation tickets on the street car, one
for each fare zone. I would frequently lose my return tickets, and
would pretend to be asleep when the conductor came by. Dad told me
years later that this good man paid my fare for me, rather than put
me off the car.
After just a year at Abbott, that school also lost its seventh and eighth grades, and I had to enter Langley Junior High in February of 1925. There I found myself with boys and girls one to three years older than I was, many of whom had reached dating age. I remember hearing about one girl who was notorious with her sexual favors, but that didn’t interest me at the time.
One of my painful recollections of those years at Langley was an occasion, while playing soccer, when my shoe went higher in the air than the ball I was trying to kick. I was mortified by the crowd’s laughter, and never played soccer again at Langley or Tech. Instead, I participated in Langley’s cadet corps, thus initiating me into the world of the military where much of my life was to be spent. I also remember a close call I had on my bike, going to school one morning. Langley and Tech were at the top of a hill, which was reached from Riverdale and Hyattsville via Rhode Island Avenue. I couldn't pedal up the hill, so turned left at the bottom of the hill, in the path of a car getting up speed to go up the hill. We both wound up on the left side of Rhode Island Avenue, as the driver had managed to turn with me instead of hitting me. I didn’t try that again!
Meanwhile the Myers family had moved to a new home west of Riverdale in a newly
opened area on West Madison Avenue (later Queensbury Road). Dad
decided he would like to live there also, and purchased a Sears
Roebuck house — yes, a mail-order house! All of the materials
needed to construct the house, except brick and cement, were prepared
at the factory and shipped via freight car to the buyer. Only precut
lumber was included, not prefabricated sections. Dad had considerably
enlarged the original house plans to finish the second floor with
three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a large sleeping porch. I believe he
also had the width of the house increased by two feet. He purchased a
lot and a half at #418, and hired some of his Tech teacher associates
to help him build it during the summer of 1925. I remember well the
huge hole in the ground for the cellar, carefully located between
four large oak trees, two of which had to be cut down eventually. It
was a large house, and accommodated not only our family, but Grandma
Butman and Grandpa Phelps in later years. My part in the construction
was limited to painting a few of the siding boards — few
because I soon tired of the work.
I had my own room at last, and a huge closet as well, and I proceeded to load the closet with everything a boy could collect. Years later, Mother cleared out the closet, and I was presented with my keepsakes, most of which I had completely forgotten, but which included a scale drawing of the orbits of the planets in the solar system, a xylophone, a number of science fiction magazines, my first homemade radio transmitter, my lessons on learning to be a wrestler, and many others too numerous to mention.
Dad had also built a two-car garage, which eventually wound up as a dead-storage area including the chassis of an old Model-T Ford that George Myers and I had acquired and tried to get running. As I remember it, we did get the motor running, and when Grandpa Phelps’ Model-T’s motor gave problems, we swapped motors. That, and replacing a broken axle in the same car were ny claims to fame as an auto mechanic while in high school.
I had an excursion into the livestock industry also as a young teenager, by acquiring a dozen Rhode Island Red hen-chicks, which I raised and sold for 25 cents a pound, live weight! After the chickens were gone, I got a pair of rabbits and eventually had 13. These didn’t sell, however, and one by one they got out of their pen and disappeared. George and I also experimented with the housing industry, by using the lumber and bricks a builder named Williams intended for the real thing, to build little "shacks" and finally a tree-house. Many years later when I bought a real house from Mr. Williams, he told me what a problem we had been to him then — and we thought he didn’t know!
It was during this time that I started a hobby that gave many hours of interest — recording the states of cars on US 1 on a Sunday afternoon. I enlisted Mary Jo’s help, and the two of us would spend several hours faithfully tallying the count of cars from each state, rejoicing when we I got a state we hadn’t seen before. I believe we got all 48 on several different years, but can’t prove it. The picture at the right was taken about this time (at Great Falls, I believe), and shows what we looked like then.
I was a voracious reader, a characteristic that seemed to run in our family. My favorite topic was science fiction, and I used my allowance money until I earned my own to buy the magazines. Many of them were about Utopias that one scientist or another had produced through his technology, and I got hooked by that idea. I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do, and was so serious about it, that years later I almost broke up with Mary Charlotte when I realized that building a Utopia and getting married wouldn’t mix. The only part of the process I gave any real thought to was how to finance it. My scheme was to build a tunneling machine which would go through miles of countryside and into Fort Knox, bringing out the gold in an electric train that ran through the tunnel. That didn’t seem wrong to me, because the gold wasn’t doing anybody any good just sitting there in the vaults at Fort Knox! I believe now that I got more of my ideas of what is right and wrong from those magazine stories than from any other source. I read many of the OZ books by Frank L. Baum, and many of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, which covered many more themes than Tarzan. One of the consequences of being a "loner" was that one lived in a different world much of the time. Mother used to chide me occasionally for always "living in the future." All through junior high and high school, my ambition was to be a scientist — a practical scientist that could build space ships and things like that. Mother tells me that at some tender age I wanted to be the first man to go to the moon! I don’t remember that at all.
Shortly after we had moved to 418 West Madison Avenue, my oldest sister Marion eloped with George Huff. She was 19 and he, I believe, 21. Dad was furious. He said they could not sponge off of him, that they had to make their own home. But he cooled down in a few weeks and George and Marion were frequent visitors to our home. On one of these visits, the picture at the left was taken. (Back row, left to right: Grandpa Phelps, Mother, Margaret, Marion with Dad behind her, and George. Front row, left to right: Grandma Butman, me, and Mary Jo.) On another of these occasions, I happened to be nearest the telephone when it rang, and answered. The operator asked, "Did you report a fire?" "No, certainly not," I answered, and then looked out the window to see the house next door blazing away. I could hardly tell the operator what she needed to know, but managed to satisfy her, and ran for the yard. George also came out, and got our hose going to play on our roof, to keep sparks from the burning house from setting it afire. The fire engines responded very quickly from a few blocks away, and the fire was soon put out. But the house had been ruined. It was a mixed blessing, however, for the owners, the Coopmans, were able to build a much larger and better house with the insurance money, which pleased my Dad no end. He had often disrespectfully referred to the original house as a "chicken coop."
After two years at Langley, I
graduated and started at "Old Tech." Already construction
had begun on "New Tech" in a location adjacent to Langley,
but it wasn’t ready until the Fall of 1927. At Old Tech, I
found myself in a math class taught by my own father! Dad was a good
teacher, and I got along quite well. Although he gave me a good
grade, I remember he confessed some years later that I had earned the
highest grade in the class, but he was afraid of criticism if he gave
it to his own son.
Tech really was a family school for us. As mentioned earlier, Dad gave it nearly forty years of his life. All four of us children graduated from there, although Marion went there only for her final year. We did pretty well academically, too. Marion was first in her (senior) class; Margaret was the first woman in the graduating classes of all the Washington high schools, and won a city-wide scholarship; Mary Jo was valedictorian of her class and also won a scholarship; I, however, was only eleventh in my class and won only a certificate of honor.
Old Tech had some workshops to teach the various manual trades, and New Tech had much better ones. Although I had some interest in machine shop, I opted for printing, and took that trade for my entire time at Tech. New Tech even had a linotype machine, which I learned to run quite well, and liked very much. Mr. French, the printing teacher, was also in charge of the high school cadet corps. He persuaded me to join it in my second year at Tech. The problem during the first year was that Dad said he could not afford to buy my uniform, and I had not yet begun to earn money.
Being teachers’ sons was of some benefit to George and me. During the summer before Tech opened, George and I had the privilege of roaming about the construction site, and exploring the "miles" of tunnels for carrying water and sewer pipes and electric and phone cables. As soon as school started, we were given the responsibility for operating the soda fountain, located in one of the alcoves of the huge dining hail. This job took our lunch hours, and certain other special times, but paid $5 a week plus all the ice cream we wanted to eat. Commuting to school had already become a problem for me, and the idea of a bicycle seemed the perfect solution. But where could I get the $25 needed for a second-hand one? I soon convinced myself that there would be nothing wrong in taking the $25 from the till as advance pay for five weeks, and have the benefit of the bike during this time. No sooner thought of than done. However, when I got the bike home, Dad soon got the story out of me where the money had come from. He confiscated the bicycle for the five weeks, but then let me have it. I don’t know how he squared it with Mr. Myers, assistant principal at the time, and responsible for the soda fountain.
Tech really was a good school. Not only did it have a full range of math courses, but it covered most of the other areas of learning as well. Having had a year of French at Langley, I completed the two-year foreign language requirement with a second year at Tech. Then I decided I’d take German as well, and had two years of that language — one of the most valuable courses I had. I took all the math courses offered and also took physics and chemistry, but not biology. Literature and the arts had no interest for me, even though I was required to take four years of English — which included both grammar and literature. I can still quote part of the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales which we had to memorize, and rather enjoyed most of the English novels we had to read. The poetry was another matter — I hated the time spent on that stuff! I thoroughly concurred with the students who called our textbook "Twelve Tons" — instead of "Twelve Centuries of English Literature."
Next to printing, my most interesting "course" was the high school cadet corps. Each high school in the city had its own cadet regiment, and inter-school competitions were held each spring at all unit levels. The company competition at the end of the school year was the most important, and was the major event in my school year. Missing out on my sophomore year because of lack of money for a uniform really proved to be a handicap to me. If I were to graduate in February, I could not become an officer in the cadets. So in the spring of 1929, when I was already a senior, I decided to drop the required English course, and so would have to stay over another semester and graduate in June. Being only 15 at that time, the powers that be readily approved the plan, and so I could aspire to becoming an officer. However, since I would still have only 2-1/2 years "service" instead of the usual three at the beginning of my last year, I could qualify only for second lieutenant. A further problem was my height. At this time I was only five feet tall, and an officer had to carry a saber. Mr. French was quite dubious about my doing so and having it drag on the ground! That problem was solved by my growing eight inches that summer. So in September 1929 I reached my goal of an officer’s uniform, Sam Browne belt and all, for which I had to earn $29.50.
Shortly after George and I had begun to take
printing classes, we got the idea of forming our own print shop.
Perhaps it was Mr. Myers’ idea, as he was then deeply involved
with a laundry called the Service Laundry Company. He gave us
permission to set up the shop in George’s basement, and the
Service Printing Company came into being. Not being incorporated, we
were told we could not be called a company, so we made it the Service
Printshop. By this time also, Mother’s business activities had
brought her to the Washington distributorship of a vacuum cleaner
manufacturer. By doing the work for our parents, we had a good start
on a successful business venture. Aside from several short-lived
attempts at newspaper delivery, that was the major source of my
income during my high school years — and George’s as
well. I think we did good work, but cannot claim our parents agreed,
except that they continued to have us print their business
One cloud hangs over that picture. As our business grew, our need for additional type faces and sizes also grew. In those days of manual typesetting, the individual pieces of type (letters, other characters, and variously sized spaces) were held in flat, compartmented trays, called cases. We learned of the Washington Monotype Company, which sold these second-hand. George and I would go there and buy one or two cases for a few dollars, and pocket fonts of type that cost many times as much. I’m sure we had more type that was stolen than that which was bought! Years later my conscience led me to try to make restitution, but I could find no trace of the Washington Monotype Company.
My personal life during the high school years was largely concerned with studies, the print shop, and the cadets. Girls didn’t interest me until my senior year. I well remember my first date — I took her to one of the class dances. Her name was Virginia Miller, and the only decent suit I owned was my cadet officer’s uniform. My dancing certainly wasn’t the best, but I did manage to get through the dance. When I later asked for another date, she refused. I reasoned that she was miffed that I had introduced her that night as "Virginia Smith." The most vivid recollection I have of contacts with the "opposite sex" was in a Sunday School play, in which I was called upon to kiss one of the girls — Audrey Bosher. After several failures to carry out the part, I finally made a stab at her face, only to have her say, "He bit me!"
Even though the family had technically left Riverdale, we continued to be active in the Riverdale Community Church. Dad was elected a trustee, eventually serving as the president of that board and also as an elder. After many years without a full-time pastor, the congregation authorized a search committee to select one, and an unmarried Presbyterian seminary graduate named Keith Custis was selected. He had a girl friend named Pearl, whom he later married, and I can remember an outing to Great Falls where some of us teen-agers had a canoe race with Keith and Pearl. Much to our chagrin, they won! Mr. Custis served his entire working lifetime in our church, and retired at age 65 still being its pastor, with Mother as one of the oldest continuous members. Keith was a moderate — neither liberal nor conservative. Since every member of a Presbyterian Church had to profess belief in Jesus Christ as a condition of membership, everyone was assumed to be "saved", and invitations were unknown in our services. Of course, the church baptized infants, and one was encouraged to make his or her own vows at confirmation class, usually around age twelve. I went along with the others in my age group when that time came, but I now realize that it was not a true confession of faith. Not that I didn’t believe in God — I cannot remember not believing in Him — but I certainly had no concept of what the Lordship of Christ meant. The closest I came to that realization was at a summer camp at which an evangelist called Colonel Cudlipp used his small sailing yacht as a base for a Christian camp. Three scenes come to mind from that occasion: my winning the fancy dive contest with a back dive; my being censured by the leader for reciting — incorrectly — the shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept."” (I put "and" in front of "Jesus wept"); and taking part in the campfire service on the last night, when we were supposed to make our confessions of belief.
Margaret got married on April 25, 1929, to Robert Caruthers, on the lawn of the house where our newly acquired pastor, Keith Custis, boarded. This was my first experience with a major family ceremony, and impressed me with the effort one makes on such occasions to "put on the dog." Not that there was anything extravagant or ostentatious about the wedding. I was simply at the age where elaborate ceremonies were the last things I wanted to be involved in. In fact, when Mr. Myers died a few years later, I refused to go to his funeral, much to the dismay of my family and George and his family. That caused a rift between us that was never fully healed. To this day I cannot justify my action, even to myself. I suppose it was an expression of rebellion against the "establishment" that most teenagers seem to go through.
During the year before graduation, Dad had moved the family to a house he had bought at 912 Cleveland Avenue in Riverdale (renting our West Madison Avenue house), so that he could have his mother "board" us and thus have some responsibility and income. Mother was deeply involved with her vacuum cleaner business at the time, and reluctantly consented to the move. The house didn’t have enough rooms for all of us, so I had to be located in the attic, access to which was through the only bathroom. Suffice it to say that it was not a very convenient arrangement for me! During that winter, I had a sledding accident which caused my left wrist bone to be broken. When the doctor was telephoned, he said that it was probably only a sprain and to put compresses on it overnight and bring me to his office the next morning. When he determined that it was indeed a break (by feeling it with his fingers, to my intense pain), he had to straighten the arm (no anesthetic!) and then put it in a splint. I went to school late, as I had an examination to take. Needless to say, I didn't do very well! That wrist has always been weak, and when I had a carpal-tunnel operation a few years ago, the X-ray showed that while the main bone had knit, the two side bones were still unconnected to their counterparts in the wrist. Arthritis has made that area a very sensitive one indeed for me for some years now.
When George and I graduated from Tech, he was driving an old Model
T Ford he had acquired. We took a short spin in it the morning of
graduation, just to kill time, and he had an accident. We were both
shaken up, but the damage was small, and he was able to drive the car
home. That was not a good omen for graduation, as the assistant
principal overlooked my name in awarding honors.
Graduation from high school is a major point of demarcation in anyone’s life, and mine was no exception. Life was never the same after that! At the tender age of sixteen, at the start of the great depression, I did not know where life was going to lead me. Dad had already said he could not afford to send me to college, that I would have to earn my own way. Margaret and Mary Jo earned scholarships, but I didn’t. This didn’t seem unfair to me, just a fact of life. Having made enough money to take care of my high school needs through the Service Print Shop, I thought I could manage earning my way through college. There was no thought at this time in my life that God was interested in me. In fact I wasn’t particularly interested in God. Dad had instilled some good morals into me, such as be truthful, be honest, avoid forbidden sexual relations, do an honest day’s work for your pay. I have always practiced those principles, but didn’t relate them to the Ten Commandments or God’s moral law in general. I knew I had a good mind, and was quite confident that I could make my way in the world.
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