Saturday, January 19, 2008

Story Hour - Part III

Story Hour is a collection of short, auto-biographical stories written by my father, about his childhood memories growing up on a farm in Upstate New York.
The Father

The Laird: David Gladstone Brown, Lord of the manor. An honest, hard working man with the same dream that drove countless Americans as they struggled out of The Great Depression. He was fortunate that he had the security of a full time job as a fireman on the New York Central Rail Road.

Firing on the railroad was not an easy task. Endlessly shoveling coal into the fire box, breaking the “clinkers” with the long, steel poker, adjusting the draughts so that the plume of smoke was always white (that was the sign of a good fireman). Watching the water level and raking ashes were part of the job too. It seems as I look back through the tunnel of time that he was hardly ever around, and when he was around he was trying to catch up on missed sleep.

He came over from Scotland when he was about fourteen, having been born in Glasgow with numerous siblings - six brothers and two sisters. Not much is known about his early years in America other than the family lived in New Jersey for a short time and eventually ended up around Syracuse and Pulaski. His father, my grandfather, was known as an eccentric character who had a taste for strong spirits and a bit of a mean streak. He always dressed the dandy and explained "I was a gentleman in the old country and would damn well be one here”.

One of the grandfather stories I have heard involves a motorcycle and sidecar trip to Canada with one of his drinking buddies. On the return trip from the North, loaded down with bottles of illicit booze, they were unfortunate enough to lose the road and end up in the ditch. The next day, impeccably dressed as usual, relating the story in front of the drug store, he was heard to exclaim, ”And the funny parrt aboot it, we nair broke a bottle”.

There are two possible sources of his income. One was that he owned several tenement houses in Glasgow and was a slumlord. The other was that he was a remittance man. A remittance man is a black sheep, paid by the rest of the family to stay away and out of sight. I really don’t know which, if either, story is true.

He supposedly came to America twice. During prohibition he remarked that, “Any country that made it illegal to take a drink was not worth living in”. And thus, he returned to Scotland until after the repeal of prohibition.

As far as my dad was concerned, I never saw or heard of him taking a drink of any kind. On the hottest day of summer a glass of cool water or switzel would quench his thirst and the work would continue unabated. Switzel was a homemade concoction of water, vinegar, sugar and ground ginger. It sure didn’t taste like Pepsi.

According to sister Sally, DG had a reputation as a ladies man. This may well have been but being a young boy I never noticed any such activity except for one bit of obvious flirtation with our lady school teacher at a school picnic. I’m sure nothing materialized from this and it was promptly forgotten.

DG did indeed have a very frugal manner. Once in a while we would make the trip to Pulaski on a Saturday evening to do the grocery trading. There wasn’t much trading involved as we didn’t have a surplus of eggs, butter or other trade goods but we would buy a few staples such as flour, coffee, salt and of all things - MARGARINE.

The canny Scotsman figured that it was more profitable to ship the milk (instead of making butter) and buy uncolored margarine for pennies per pound. The margarine was white and came with a little color packet of yellow orange powder. When it was properly mixed in the butter bowl it did look like butter, but tasted like grease.

As we progressed down Main Street (DG, Dugal and I) we would stop in the various stores, exchange howdys and my dad would always inquire if there were any bargains on sale. Some times a small bag of stale candy (I remember candy orange slices so hard you couldn’t bite them). Shriveled oranges, over-ripe bananas and stale mixed nuts left from Christmas were all fair game. Now-a-days kids have to go to the mall with a hundred dollars in their pocket in order to enjoy themselves. Times change…..

Another big treat was a trip to Syracuse. This involved DG, Dugal, Sally and I riding in the old Model-A Ford. The purpose of the trip was to visit Grandma Brown, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Jeanette on Comstock Avenue.

Grandma had a parrot that would draw blood if he could get you. He sometimes did a little swearing too. Grandma had a Scots Brogue to the point I had trouble understanding her. Part of these trips was a stop at “Hanks” on North Salina Street.

Hanks was the king of close out shops --- the junk, and overstock capital of Syracuse. You could hardly walk through the place. It spilled out onto the sidewalk and the merchandise was left out all night. I don’t think there was anything worth stealing in the whole place. Nonetheless, DG HAD TO STOP AND CHECK FOR BARGAINS. The only thing I remember getting from there was a soft cap with a snap brim that the kids wore in the 20s/30s (I hated it). I would rather have had the quarter it cost.

1 comment:

leslie said...

There is so much in this story!
The motorcycle trip to Canada for booze..."we nair broke a bottle".
The fact that Grandpa left the US during prohibition.
The concept of 'Remittance man'. I had never heard of it before.
Switzel.
See?? I told you there was a bunch here!
The frugality in the family is something I experienced. My mother would save the rubber bands from the newspapers. I don't think I ever had a brand new rubber band my whole life :)
Great stories! Please be encouraged to get them written down.
(Thanks for the house floorplan)