GYPSY LIFE IN THE 1940s and 50s
by Robert Carlomagno
We were stationed at Fort McPherson, Georgia, and living in a converted barracks. The base was just outside of Atlanta. I went to school at Russell High in East Point. I loved Georgia. I had good friends, and Russell was the best school I had ever attended. It was my 18th school in nine years, and it would be my last. Nobody was sure what grade I was in.
Unfortunately, it was 1950, and the North Koreans decided they wanted South Korea. They had crossed the 38th parallel, and were cornering our troops in the Pusan Peninsula. My dad was ordered to Korea. My mother and brother, Ralph, who was seven, and me, 16, and our dog, Lady were told to vacate the base as soon as possible. The problem was that my mother couldn't find a place we could afford, and/or take the dog. Not in the short time they gave us to do all our packing. We decided, with my grandmother's permission, to go live with her in Dixonville, Pennsylvania until my dad returned home. We had lived their once before in 1942 during WWII. Dixonville is a very small town, north of Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Mountains.
My grandmother's house was big enough to hold all of us. There were three stories, and five bedrooms. In 1942, there were no indoor bathrooms. Grandma used to have two outhouses, though. Most people only had one, so I guess we were considered among the elite. Bathing was usually done in a large copper pot filled with water that had been heated on a coal stove. In 1950, there was a bathroom, indoor plumbing, and no outhouses. We had all the modern conveniences.
When we had everything packed, the movers came and loaded the van. We stuffed our 1947 Hudson with everything that fit, and headed for Dixonville. The Hudson was a big car, and possibly the ugliest ever manufactured. But it got us there.
It was about 750 miles to Dixonville, and we made it in two short drives, staying at a motel one night. When we arrived, my grandmother greeted us with a cheery smile, and welcomed us into her house. She was probably the best human being I have ever met. She never complained, although life was pretty rough in the Pennsylvania Mountains.
My grandfather was a stern person, not well-liked, very old fashioned, and rarely smiled. However, he was always good to me. He would ask me if I wanted to go with him if he had an errand, and to run, and I always went. He loved baseball, as I did, and took me to several games. He let me work with him at the railroad station, and on anything that needed fixing around the house. There was an old player piano in the living room that used paper rolls. He hated to hear that piano, and I was the only one he would tolerate playing it.
So we settled in for the duration of the war; we thought. My grandfather parked his model A car in the barn where he also kept corn for a few goats he had. When our furniture arrived, we stored it all in the barn with the corn.
Dixonville had a grade school, to which I had gone in 1942, but no theater, no stores to speak of, and no high school. The high school was in Commodore, and I flatly refused to go to my 19th school. I was tired of finding my way around a new school, getting into fights because I was new, and trying to pick up my subjects where I could make some sense out of them. My mother tried to make me go, but she had lost control over me. If my dad had been there then I would certainly have gone. He would have left me no choice.
There were a couple of things my grandfather didn't like much. One was the dog, and the other was my mother. He wanted her to get rid of the dog, but my mother would have just as soon given up one of her children rather than that dog.
After a few weeks, I guess things came to a head with my grandfather, because my mother said we would have to find another place to live. Therefore, we started looking, first in Clymer, a town about eight miles from Dixonville, then Indiana, which was the home of Jimmy Stewart. I saw his Oscar in 1942 in the window of his father's hardware store. There were a few more towns, but we had no luck. Actually, nobody wanted the dog. We finally found someone who would rent us a house right there in Dixonville about a mile from my grandmother's house. They didn't object to the dog. From the looks of the house, they shouldn't have objected to a herd of camels with fleas. The house was built into a hill, and had three rooms, and no baths. There was a bedroom, and living room upstairs, and downstairs was a kitchen. Off the kitchen was a dugout area used as a storeroom. It had dirt walls, so I can't really call it another room.
We had a two-seat outhouse about halfway down the hill. A path covered with pieces of shale led down to it. Detached from the house was a garage, and underneath the garage was the coal bin. The only heat upstairs was a pot-bellied coal stove. The only heat downstairs was the pot-bellied coal stove upstairs. There was a cooking coal stove downstairs, but that wasn't fired up until it was warm enough to go downstairs.
There was only one TV station, which wasn't unusual for 1950, but getting reception in those mountains wasn't easy. I nailed an antenna to the front of the house at the peak of the roof. You had to twist the antenna so it was pointing in the right direction for the best reception. This usually took all three of us shouting, and relaying position versus reception. Once in awhile the wind would blow the antenna around, and then we would have to go through the whole procedure again.
Putting the car in the garage was a dangerous, and tedious job. I was 16, and not allowed to drive the car without my mother, except to put it in the garage. The street past the garage was narrow, and built for model A's. Directly across the street from the garage door was a stonewall. There wasn't room to just turn straight into the garage opening. First you got it as straight as you could, and then backed up, then forward again, then repeat that until you got it inside. That was the tedious part. The dangerous part was that nobody in or around Dixonville drove under 60 mph. I guess it was an unwritten law. So, while putting the car into the garage, I was sort of hanging out there waiting to get clobbered. There never was much traffic so I lucked out.
We were in the house for a week or so, when one night while watching a TV show, or a test pattern, a mouse came from seemingly nowhere, and sat down to watch along with us. At first nobody moved, and then the brooms started to fly and the dog was barking, and chasing the mouse. It seems that a few families of mice had made a new home in our sofa, and chair.
They had been living in the corn feed in the garage. With the help of the dog, who was a good mouser, we finally got rid of them all. They did give us a run for our money.
Winter was here, and it would be the worst winter in Dixonville in 50 years. Weren't we lucky to be there to live through it? Mother slept in the bedroom, my brother slept on the couch with the mice, and I slept on a cot in the living room. Ralph, and I used a lot of blankets, and slept as close as we could to the stove. We all used bedpans, since going to the outhouse in temperatures of -25 degrees was out of the question. You could literally freeze your butt off. One of my chores was to take the bedpans, and empty them in the outhouse every morning. My brother, and I had several other chores that had to be done in the morning. First we had to put coal in the pot-bellied stove, and get the fire nice and hot. Then it was time to go downstairs, and start the fire in the cooking stove in the kitchen. A glass of water left downstairs the night before would be frozen solid the next morning.
Once those two chores were done, we could eat breakfast. After breakfast we made our way through the snow, over to the garage, to fill the coal buckets and haul them back. That had to be done several times a day to keep the fires burning. Another chore was to take the sled up the mountain road to a farmer's house to pick up milk and eggs. The milk was carried in one of those
large milk cans that people today cherish as an antique. It was a long walk. It was always tempting to ride the sled back down the mountain road, but it was too steep, and had too many curves. We would never have made it without turning over, and spilling the milk. In addition, there was no mail delivery so we had to walk the two miles to the post office to pick up the mail.
There was a lot of snow with cold temperatures, and blowing wind. Many of the storage buildings collapsed from the weight of the wet snow. The wind blew our antenna down, and I had to crawl up on the roof in blizzard-like weather to put it back up several times. I guess the straw that broke the camel's back was when I was taking the bedpans to the outhouse, and slipped and fell on the snowy shale path. My mother was watching, and decided then, and there that we would leave on the first clear day in the spring.
In the early spring, we packed once more, and called the mover's for the mice less furniture. I was sorry to leave, even with the hardships we had suffered. The only place I could call home was here. We were like gypsies, moving all the time. But, we were going back to Georgia. I didn't know why we were going back there but I was happy we were.
We said our goodbyes, except that, to my regret, I didn't say good-bye to Connie. I guess I had all those blond curls in Georgia on my mind. I wrote to Connie a couple of times, several years later, when I was in the Navy, and had a chance to see her when I visited Dixonville in 1957. She was living in Clymer at the time but I didn't go to her. I never spoke to her or saw her again. She married, and moved to Jamestown, New York and had three children. Some years later I contacted her mother, and she told me that Connie had died of cancer.
When we got back to Georgia, we moved into an apartment that was within half a mile of the house we had left the year before. In July 1951 I would join the Navy, and continue the moving from place to place. I had my feet firmly planted in mid air.
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