Depression-era childhood rich with memories

The shapes of corn knives differ.

But their bare blades all look enough like machetes that when an angry, tearful Bob Davis slammed his into the surface of a Springfield bar during the summer of 1941, the bartender who had told him to leave minutes earlier changed his outlook.

Moments later, Davis’ alcoholic father had a similar experience after his younger son, still slender in high school but coming of age, punctuated a second request that his father come home by raising the blade a foot over his head and sinking it into the wooden table at which his father and his friends were drinking.

Davis’ description of the scene ends in disappointment.

“As we headed for home,” he writes, “if you can believe it, Dad said, ‘You embarrassed me in front of my friends.’”

By then, Davis was well aware of how a family member could be a source of embarrassment; it was the last time he would go looking for his father.

If always present, Davis’ father’s drinking seems an often distant back story in the account of his Depression-era childhood told in the first 40 pages of his memoir “Growing Up — And Then Some.”

Born March 17, 1924, in Belle Center, Ohio, 10 years younger than a brother and one year older than a sister, Davis distinguished himself as a youngster by skipping crawling and at 14 months, simply standing up and walking.

In his early days, he also distinguished himself by biting off a chunk of his baby dish, swallowing it and then being fed mashed potatoes for a week while his mother worried over the ultimately successful progress of the bowl through his bowels.

Among Davis’ early happy memories are of his bottom seated on a racetrack rail at the fairgrounds at Richwood, Ohio.

“I never forgot the beautiful sight and the sounds of the horses as the pulled the sulkies and the yells of the drivers as they came around the final turn.”

The Depression and the failure of his father’s business send them north in a Chrysler touring car, complete with side curtains. Their destination was a cabin Davis’ grandfather bought for them for $80 near Traverse City, Mich., a place in which Davis would wake up in the winter with snow blown around his room.

“There were lighter moments,” he writes, “but they seem to be tied to the summertime.”

And even then, he was often working — selling minnow, picking apples or cherries — memories that coincide with childhood milestones.

“I pulled three of my baby teeth with Mother’s crochet hook before she saw what I was doing. I think Phyllis (his sister) told on me.”

In the spring of 1934, they moved back to Ohio in the family’s Essex and spent a month in Kenton. Then “Dad disappeared for a while.”

With his brother already in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps employment program, Davis, his mother and sister moved in with shirttail relatives at a farm near Byhalia.

“By today’s standard, I guess you could say we were homeless,” he writes, and as he grew older he came to notice how his clothes were different from those of other children.

Davis’ Byhalia recollections include weekly baths in a galvanized tub, an exposure to the “big birds and big bees” through observations of a stud horse on the farm, and feeling tolerated, but not welcome.

“In a few months Dad reappeared in Magnetic Springs, a few miles away. He was barbering at a hotel … and off we went to be a family again.”

He soon was gone again and the pared-down Davis family was in West Mansfield, where the children entered their third school within a year and lived in an unpainted house with a coal stove and heater.

After a short time, “I had become pretty adept at sneaking under the local coal yard fence at night with a burlap bag,” to filch broken pieces of coal for the stove, he writes. “I don’t think anyone at the coal yard knew what I was doing, but if they did, no one ever said anything. Those were hard times.”

When his mother felt guilty about her young son working all night in a bakery, he wrangled a job at a local dairy farm for $1 for a 12-hour day “and was grateful for it,” he writes.

The job involved fetching a bucket to catch manure when cows in milking stalls raised their tails, said Davis, but “the food was good, and they treated me like family, so I considered myself lucky indeed.”

“Though Mother never said, I suppose Dad sent money to us from time to time. She was able to help Lena Garwood do wall papering now and then; and with my working at the dairy, we managed.”

The family reunited again when his dad got a barbering job in Bellefontaine and young Davis started selling newspapers in bars. Particularly popular to bar patrons was the Columbus Sunday Star, which always featured a picture of a bathing beauty on the back page.

During a memorable summer at Aunt Eva and Uncle Harve’s farm, Phyllis had to be rescued from being devoured when she fell into a pen while watching new piglets; his brother, Dan, punched a cow in the ribs after the animal kicked him off a milking stool; and Davis got his first exposure to the tales of King Arthur through a series called “A Children’s Book of Knowledge.”

“That’s when I really discover reading.”

Bellefontaine not only was where Davis got his last spanking, which his father stopped because the son wouldn’t stop laughing, but “where I made my first knowing choice in a situation influencing … my own future.”

Given the options of taking a whipping or spending time after school for being in a fight, Davis told the principal he’d take the whipping because he needed to get downtown to earn money.

“He looked at me for a minute or two and then told me to get out and go sell my papers.”

Davis was in the eighth grade and his sister in the seventh when they moved to what seemed the huge city of Springfield, sharing a house on Gallagher Street with their landlady Mrs. Higgins.

“She was the nicest old widow lady with a soft Irish brogue. She had five sons all raised and gone from home. I think I became her sixth son, at least for as long as we lived there.”

The children went to Keifer Junior High, where as white children they were reminded they were in the minority. Their dad first worked in a four-chair barber shop on South Limestone Street, then at the single chair of a shop that was a front for an illegal betting parlor. Davis himself had trouble finding work in a more competitive environment.

At school, he saw a stern Mrs. Seger pick up a misbehaving boy and place him head first in a trash can but also enjoyed the sweetness of Miss McElroy, who picked him to emcee the annual KeiferFollies.

In high school, Davis worked at the Eakens Carmel Crisp store and “on my way to work … would pass Dad’s barbershop. I could tell with jut a passing glance whether or not he had been drinking.”

Still, Davis enjoyed himself when he got home in time to listen to Big Bands on the radio, then in the company of pretty girls on dance floors. He reminisces over the music of the Eddie Kadel Band and trips to the Cabanas Club out of town.

“It was not unheard of for kids to stop the cars on the way back from the Cabanas Club, turn on the music on the car radios and dance on the road,” he writes.

But “by the summer of ‘41, you could feel things starting to change. The war in Europe was beginning to intrude and the news all seemed bad.”

A job at Wren’s arranged through the high school’s Commercial program allowed him to keep working, and Davis had had his final confrontation with his dad by the Sunday he was riding in a light rain back from Cincinnati with friends Kenny Keller and Dottie Woodruff when the radio announcer “started talking about Pearl Harbor being bombed by the Japanese.”

The remainder of Davis’ book covers not only his military experiences but much of the rest of his life, as the end of the title “And Then Some” indicates.

But the first 40 pages are a reminder that people can emerge from difficult times and trying circumstances with rich and lasting memories.

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