It was 36 years ago today . . . wait, that sounds like a Beatles song. Anyway, here I am, young, hopelessful, and unemployed. When I woke up on Monday, June 13, it was the first time in my life I had nowhere to go. Adrift. Typical because planning isn’t my forte, but it wasn’t a good feeling. I was too burned out and poor for graduate school to be an option.
After spending part of the summer selling Chicago City Ballet tickets by phone (really), I found a full-time job starting in late September through the classifieds in the Chicago Tribune (really).
One job I interviewed for that I didn’t get — a writer/editor for a dietitian association (if I remember correctly). Why didn’t I get it? I couldn’t type fast enough.
I can’t say we took any great American road trips when I was a child — mostly 200-mile jaunts to visit family in the Altoona area of Pennsylvania or rare shorter ones to local attractions like Niagara Falls or Letchworth …Continue reading →
Note the date — 2 March 2019, the first Maple Sugar Time held at the newly designated Indiana Dunes National Park. No doubt it will be years before the signs are replaced.
As I’ve probably said before, Maple Sugar Time brings back one of the few bits of childhood I remember, if vaguely. My class — second grade? — made a field trip to a maple sugar farm (sugar bush) in March, I assume. I wish I knew where, but I’d guess it was owned by the family of a classmate. The world is enormous to a seven-year-old, so I remember it as far away and magical.
The day was dreary and foggy. Dense clouds of fog everywhere at ground level. Or maybe I’m confusing the outdoor world with the sugar shack, where the steam rose in clouds from the boiling sap. I’ll never know for certain. In a world before smartphone cameras we weren’t able to preserve even marvelous moments except in our faulty, failing brains.
I was given a piece of maple sugar candy to try. LOVE. Much better than plain white baking sugar or sugar cubes — some ineffable, ephemeral quality beyond mere sweetness. My mother must have given me some money because I bought a tiny bag of the precious maple leaf-shaped goodness. Even now, when my “allowance” is more substantial and all my own, I look upon maple sugar candy as a rare luxury.
Perhaps the other high point was the draft horses snorting steam into the fog. We may have gone on a wagon ride. If such a thing makes me happy today, imagine how it thrilled me 50 years ago?
Back to present-day Indiana. J and I indulged in our traditional start to Maple Sugar Time — the Chesterton Lions Club pancake-and-sausage breakfast served in a vinyl-sided tent that keeps out some of the cold and breezes. It’s like the year’s first picnic.
Our timing was perfect. We finished our 2 p.m. “breakfast” and found Ranger Bill with a group at the Maple Sugar Trail, ready to go. The hike covers how to identify sugar maples, and I learned the box elder is a maple.
We walked through the various eras of maple sugar making, from hot rocks to metal pots to Chellberg Farm’s sugar shack to more modern methods. As many times as I’ve been to this event, I’d never gone inside the sugar shack. While an impressive amount of steam arose inside (welcome shelter after the cold!), it came from boiling water. Current daytime temperatures are too cold for maple sugar sap to run. Maybe next week — current forecast is for temperatures in the low 40s. But the forecast changes every day.
The walk ended up at the Chellberg farmhouse. Since the building that formerly housed the store has been covered to an employee/volunteer center, the maple goods were for sale in the entry room. Yes, I did buy maple syrup, maple cream, and of course the luxury of my childhood, leaf-shaped maple sugar candy. In another room, we picked up a Dare maple cream cookie. They’re not just for the kids.
Outside we found Belgian draft geldings Dusty (2,450 pounds) and Mitch (2,350 pounds). Dusty left horse slobber all over my hand and bag. When a girl and her brother stood by him for a photo, he started to groom her hair. A little disgusted, she shoved her brother into her former spot. “That won’t help,” the volunteer said. “He’ll just reach right around him.” On cue, Dusty did just that. He wasn’t licking only people. Between visitors, he gave Mitch’s neck some good grooming strokes.
We said goodby to Dusty and Mitch and chickens and headed to Indiana Dunes State Park so I could get a yearly pass and because the beach is gorgeous (and less crowded) on a cold March afternoon. We walked around, but not on the shelf ice. It seems someone finds out the hard way every year that the sign isn’t there for decoration.
We tried the Speakeasy at Spring House Inn, but at this time they don’t serve meals so off we went to Chesterton’s Villa Nova to warm up on Italian cuisine (and add back any calories we may have burned off).
Today is the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth. I discovered this delightful clipping about a hike to a farm and a picnic with storytelling under a big tree she helped to organize. It could be straight out of Anne of Green Gables.
I love finding these blurbs. This and others are giving me new insight into my parents’ early lives pre-me.
Do you remember Fotomat? You drove up, dropped off your film, and got your photos back the next day. (I can’t swear they were always on time.) If you don’t recall the distinctive Fotomat kiosk, you may be familiar with the idea from That 70s Show. The name was disguised as Photo Hut, which loses the charm of the alternative spelling common in the era’s advertising and the nod to the old-school automat.
Fotomat seems like a natural extension of mid 20th-century culture. Interstates, drive-in restaurants and movie theaters, motels (motor hotels) — why not drive-up film processing and prints?
In Hamburg, New York, the nearest Fotomat couldn’t have been any closer to us. It was plopped near the outer edge of the South Shore Plaza parking lot, where my dad could stop on the way home from work or to the store. If he’d been so inclined (and willing to dodge Route 20 and parking lot traffic), he could have walked over from the trailer park.
My dad liked Fotomat because they used Kodak processing and film for his primarily 126 film prints. He could be snobbish about certain brands, and Kodak was one of them. If I remember right, our South Shore Plaza Fotomat and others switched to another brand, possibly Fujifilm. That’s when and why he began to use Fotomat less frequently.
According to Wikipedia, the photo minilab made Fotomat obsolete in the late 1980s. The brand continued online with photo storage and editing until 2009. It’s funny to think of a brand built upon its unique physical locations and look surviving (barely) as a virtual service.
South Shore Plaza, opened in 1960, died a long, painful death, finally torn down and replaced by a Wal-Mart in 2009. I’d guess the Fotomat succumbed long before the plaza emitted its final gasp.
As we know from many creepy images of Poconos resorts or old amusement parks, when an idea or place is abandoned, it’s sometimes left in place until it falls apart or something comes along to take its place. Some of the 4,000 Fotomat booths remain, repurposed. Drive-through coffee or cigarettes, anyone?
Let’s talk about the relic that’s helped to bring us countless words of wisdom—in more than 144 characters at a time. Yes, today’s relic is the typewriter.
I still have the typewriter that got me through the final years of high school, then college—a Royal Sabre portable, complete with manual (it’s around somewhere, although the key to the typewriter case likely has gone missing). When I moved in 2003, I started to put it outdoors for the neighborhood scavengers, but couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. It was one of the most expensive gifts from my reluctant parents.
Why the Royal Sabre? I don’t remember where we bought it. We would have looked at discount stores like K-mart or perhaps Ames, where I’d picked out my Huffy Superstar 10-speed bicycle. We’d have looked at quality and price. My thrifty dad, who’d turned 16 in 1929, didn’t believe in throwing away good money on poor quality (or generic store brands, unless they’d proven themselves). Because of the store’s nature, there wouldn’t have been much of a selection. I don’t recall the price, but I’d guess about $80 to $90. (Incidentally, this is the price I remember for the Huffy Superstar.)
As a portable typewriter, the Royal Sabre was noisy. The keys striking the platen solidly made quite a racket, especially when a poor, erratic like me was in front of the keyboard. My bad habit of typing during the wee hours began in high school, when Mr. Verrault’s papers were due Monday morning. I’m embarrassed now to admit that, in a single-wide, 55-foot-long trailer, on Sunday nights/Monday mornings I was at it until after midnight. Forty years later I can’t tell you how late, but later than suited my early-to-bed, early-to-rise parents. Oddly, I don’t recall much criticism from them for keeping them up. (Of course, my dad could have slept through the Apocalypse.) If he were convinced something was necessary for my education and future independence, my dad would go along as best he could. Of course the procrastination wasn’t necessary—hence my guilty conscience 40 years later!
At college, I found many of my fellow students were more affluent and had electric models, which I considered decadent (I’d told my mother the same thing about electric can openers). I learned I had a fixed number of computer hours per quarter, but playing the text-based Adventure seemed easier than learning to write/type without a program. Although I had a vague idea about computers from Star Trek (for example, oddly computers sound like Nurse Chapel), in practice they were a new and mysterious beast to me.
Then, as now, typing was the last step in the writing process. At 3 a.m., I was writing the paper longhand in pencil on notebook paper in the dorm lounge. At 6 a.m., I was typing the pages slowly on the faithful Royal Sabre. At 9 a.m., I was finishing proofing and marking errors or retyping if needed. At 9:55 I was running madly up several flights of faux-Gothic stairs (or waiting impatiently for an elevator) to meet a 10 a.m. deadline. By then I would have had some wild hallucinations from fatigue and panic. The Royal Sabre would go back into its hard plastic case, and I would go to bed, too tired and wound up to sleep.
One of my college professors—I don’t recall which—sternly forbade the use of erasable typewriter paper. The finish made it easy to erase mistakes, but it was friendly to neither pen nor pencil. He was so adamant that he would threaten to knock your grade down or refuse the paper if you dared to defy his prohibition. For someone like me—with portable typewriter, subpar typing skills, no correction key, and no budget for different kinds of paper, this seemed excessive.
At some point my dad’s sister Marietta acquired a word processor, and several years after college so did I—a Smith-Corona. It had some built-in storage and some kind of external storage. When I first got it, I spent a happy afternoon playing with the different setups and type wheels, and practicing my typing speed. Suddenly it was dark, and I realized hours had passed while I was blissfully unaware. I used the Smith-Corona for resumés (for all the good that did me) and some correspondence. I’m not sure how I used it, just that it mostly supplanted the Royal Sabre. I don’t think I used it much because it was large and heavy, and I was lazy about getting it out and setting it up. It was also hard to write and edit on the three-line(?) screen.
When it was in semi-regular use, the Royal Sabre never needed repair that I recall. Help was hand nearby, however, if required. A-Active (named to appear at or near the top of telephone directory listings—another relic) Business Machines operated in Hyde Park, first on 57th Street, then at 1633 East 55th, where I remember passing it. I never went in, but the ancient Underwood(?) in the window would catch my eye. The last ad I could find in the Hyde Park Herald for A-Active is dated July 6, 1994—which was probably about the time I brought home my first computer, a Macintosh Classic II borrowed from work.
The Classic was followed by a series of Apple laptops, and the Smith-Corona word processor faded from favor as I was sucked into eWorld and America Online. When I moved in 2003, I debated with myself over keeping the Smith Corona. Unlike the Royal Sabre, it ended up in the alley, its fate to be forever unknown to me.
In a previous, early work life, sometimes I used a typewriter, likely an IBM Selectric model. When the proofing business was slow, I might help with filling out forms. If I remember right, one or two typewriters had been dedicated to and set up for this task. I don’t recall details (probably to preserve my emotional health), but I’m sure it was a lot of fun to line up everything and hit the magic correction key when the mind or finger slipped as they often did, or start over if things went way south—as they often did. I’m sure I saw the correction key as a technological marvel. I’m pretty sure computerization and automation of forms became big business as soon as introduced.
Every now and then (more then than now), I play with Hanxwriter, a typewrite simulator for Apple devices inspired by actor Tom Hanks. If you want to spend more money, you can “buy” typewriters from the “Signature Collection,” like Hanx Prime Select, Hanx 707 (the closest to the Royal Sabre’s shower stall green), Hanx Golden Touch, Hanx Del Sol, Hanx Electrix, or Hanx Matterhorn. Despite the “now and then” above, I finally bought all. Hanxwriter can save documents as PDFs only, not text—so, like typewritten pages, Hanxwriter pages are not easily edited. There’s something amusing about that.
The Royal Sabre weighs more than even heavy laptops, and from the start I thought the handle on the case was too flimsy for the weight. It’s stood the test of time, however, and as far as I know the typewriter would still work with a fresh ribbon. Surprisingly, ribbons are available for many typewriters, including the Royal Sabre. I tell myself that someday I’m going to get one and try out my computer-improved typing skills, although I doubt they’re better on a machine where you have to depress each key with an impressive force—hence the beauty of those “decadent” IBM Selectrics. Someday.
As usual in the Midwest, summer has brought a relentless series of watches and warnings, including thunderstorms, severe weather, flooding, and tornadoes. When a new watch or warning is issued or a current one is updated, one of my phone’s weather apps emits a submarine sound. Sometimes I feel like I’m immersed in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Not that long ago, before mobile phones, weather apps, and 24/7 cable, people got their weather news and updates from regularly scheduled radio and television news. Emergencies might warrant a crawl across the TV screen with a siren or very loud beeping. Basic, everyday weather news at 6 and 11 wasn’t enough for my dad, however. He tuned into his dedicated weather radio.
A weather radio picks up NOAA broadcasts that include arcane weather details you won’t hear on the 6 o’clock news, which you may not watch anyway because you get the news from trending topics on Facebook and Twitter. I hadn’t heard a weather radio broadcast in decades, but I remember a flat, tinny male voice, most likely not a “voice talent,” reciting a long list of current weather conditions and statistics in a monotonously soothing way. My dad could listen to this for long periods, as though he were a farmer whose livelihood depended on knowing weather conditions intimately and preparing for them. Our weather radio did come in handy a few times, such as during the Western New York Blizzard of ’77. We kept spare batteries on hand for all of our radios because we never knew when wind or ice would knock out the power.
Today I imagine a weather radio may be useful to boaters, campers, hunters and fishers, construction foremen, and anyone else whose life or work might depend on unexpected or sudden changes in weather conditions. Several years ago in Chicago, a horrendous thunderstorm with hail abruptly blew in without warning, even breaking thousands of panes of glass at Garfield Park Conservatory. If I were out on Lake Michigan in a small craft, I would have wanted to know about those black clouds darkening the western sky, how conditions were changing, and how long I would have to row my boat ashore.
NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. . . . NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal.
As I said, once upon a time, the voice belonged to humans — as it turns out, the updates were recorded by staff at local National Weather Service offices, nearly all of them male. Although the voices varied, they were reassuring in their lack of voiceover-style sophistication. Today, however, the voices are synthesized. “Tom” comes closest to my memories, but still he doesn’t quite evoke morning at the kitchen table, listening to the weather radio.
Of course weather radios aren’t truly a relic. Not only can you still buy them, but there are even a number of options in a surprisingly broad range of prices (my brief search showed roughly $25 to $60, or $75 with a lithium battery). Copy for my favorite, no longer available, says: “If you’re in an area prone to occasional violent weather (and what area isn’t?) this radio can be a lifesaver.” I’m tempted.
Will your eight-year-old son or daughter wax nostalgic over iffy mornings and evenings or camping trips spent listening to “Tom” or whatever synthesized voice supplants him? For myself, “Tom” doesn’t evoke strong feelings or tempt me to buy that spiffy weather radio after all. I guess I’ll just have to keep feeling like I’m aboard the Seaview.
UPDATE 7/29/2016: After the skies turned dark again, I compromised and spent $4.99 on a weather radio iPhone app. Still not the same as the radio on the kitchen counter.
I can’t count the times Garrison Keillor has worked the Lutheran compulsion to ply guests with coffee into A Prairie Home Companion. My parents weren’t Lutheran, but the moment they saw a car that looked like it might pull up in front of or next to the trailer, out came the coffee and any cookies that had escaped my foraging on the sly. It was an invariable ritual, almost as certain as death or taxes.
The first coffeepot I remember was a percolator. Although I haven’t seen one since those times, I remember that coffee percolating was a rich sensory experience — the aroma of the coffee as it percolated, the sight of the liquid shooting up against the inside of the clear lid handle, and the bubbly sound that inspired an unforgettable series of percussive notes that still evokes vintage Maxwell House coffee advertising.
I recall the parts as well — the pot, the basket, the lid, and the hollow stem through the basket, as well as the filters with the hole for the stem. For my parents, the brew of choice was Eight O’Clock coffee, bought at Loblaw’s and ground (coarse) on the spot in the store’s big grinder.
Percolators fell out of fashion in the 1970s when drip coffeemakers became popular thanks to Joe DiMaggio in ubiquitous Mr. Coffee commercials. My parents (most likely my dad, as he did the shopping) succumbed to the hype and bought a drip coffeemaker, which then took over a spot on the counter.
The once-simple world of American coffee has evolved into one my parents wouldn’t recognize — the latte grande, the espresso machines, the syrups and shots, the French presses, the “pound” of coffee sold in 11-ounce cans, the Keurig cups, and fussiness of it all. If you camp like a cowboy on a cattle drive (like Keillor’s Dusty and Lefty), you may still use a percolator because all you need is a fire to get a pot going (although these days Dusty and Lefty mostly find themselves in new-fangled cafés, complete with very noisy espresso machines).
Electric and stove top percolators are still sold. The most frequent comments on Amazon seem to be, “I would get one if I knew how to use it” and “Are there instructions?” Maybe it’s a sign of how in the 21st century we’ve become so used to our electronics doing the work and keeping the time that operating a simple coffee percolator seems not only different, but daunting.