I am guessing that it was sometime in 1955 when my parents scraped together the down payment on a cute little white bungalow that stood in a row of identical twins on a quiet block in the St. Louis suburban town of Berkeley being built to house returning WW-II veterans and their families during the post war boom. It did not matter that Garfield Ave. was located on the industrial side of town or that this adorable little house was the fifth house from the end of a street that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. It also did not matter that by the time my parents took procession and settled their meager belongings into their dream house, they had already outgrown the small, four room house with the recent birth of their sixth child.
What mattered was that this house was their first real home. What mattered was that, unlike many of the places they had lived, it had indoor plumbing, the roof did not leak, there was no broken down stoop or exposed wiring, and it was only a short walking distance to both their church and my father’s work. But, what mattered the very most was that it belonged to them. They were no longer living at the mercy of family or renting someone else’s substandard nightmare.
As happened with every house my parents lived in, that little house on Garfield Ave. soon became the hub of the whole neighborhood. Our yard was where all the kids came to play and our kitchen table was often the setting for Saturday night pinochle games or Sunday dinners. That table also saw many long hours where men swapped war stories and fish tales over endless pots of coffee, or where the women commiserated over each others problems and shared tales of childbirth or the antics of their children while sipping tea.
That little house was the first on the block to have a fenced yard, swing set, playground slide, broken window and a garage that never housed a car. It seldom had a empty clothesline and was the last house on the block to receive both a telephone and a television set. Rarely did a week go by that a ball, kite or some other toy had to be retrieved from the roof or the table could not be properly set for dinner without a search of the sand pile and mud holes in the yard for a missing table spoon.
It was not long after we moved in that Jim and Elsie Placker moved into the house next door but one, or to put that into American English two doors down. Elsie was the most remarkable person that I had ever met and the only one besides my Mother’s southern kinfolks who spoke with an accent. Elsie referred to her yard as the garden, her car had a boot and a bonnet, and she liked to drink hot ale straight from the bottle and always called the bathroom a loo. Elsie was soon known around the neighborhood as “that English War Bride” with those huge Airedales, because she seldom went out without her two large dogs in tow.
Elsie and my mother quickly became lifelong friends and Elsie became not only a fixture but a substitute Mother in our home. She would walk into our house without knocking at all times of the day or night and start barking orders at us kids as if she owned us and there was “Hell” to pay for anyone that did not jump to and obey. Elsie never visited without bringing her stainless coffee percolator with her. She said that the standard cup of American coffee was just wimpy dishwater and the junk my mother brewed was nothing more then colored water. Needless to say, the coffee Elsie brewed looked and smelled like crude oil and a spoon would stand up straight as if inserted into chocolate pudding.
I remember one night when all of us kids were sitting on the living room floor, in our pajamas, watching a TV program about thirty minutes before bedtime when in walked Elsie with her coffee pot, she stood in the middle of the room and calmly and firmly stated “bed, I said bed” as she began to scan the gathered faces. Before she could get to the third person the room was empty. Yep, there was nothing like Elsie to empty a room.
My Mother had always been good at inventing creative ways of keeping her growing brood busy during school breaks and what she did not think of, Elsie did. One spring she and my mother began to go on late night scavenger hunts the night before trash collection day and would drag home a odd collection of all sorts of castoffs. After several weeks we awoke one day to find Elsie hard at work in our driveway with a blowtorch and a assortment of pipes and several relics that once passed for bicycles. By midmorning my mother was also hard at work on the project and within several days we came home from school to find several brightly painted and completely functional bikes, one of which was to become the talk of the neighborhood. This bike was so tall that a stepstool was required for even an adult to mount it and if you happen to loose your balance and fall over you were destined to push it until the proper height object came along to give you a way to climb back aboard. That entire summer was spent at the park at the end of the street trying to learn to ride the giant bicycle. The park had a concrete stepping stone retaining wall that gave us our boost up and we could ride in circles around the baseball fields. That bike became the challenge of every adult and child in the neighborhood before summer’s end, and my tiny four foot eleven inch mother loved to show off by riding it around the block with one of the kids sitting on the cross bar.
Jim and Elsie were avid campers and in good weather would pack up their gear and head out every Friday evening and not be seen again until late on Sunday. All their vacations were also spend camping. Being the oldest child, I was the lucky one chosen to take care of their two monster Airedales. I was presented with my own house key and had to go over twice a day to feed, water and let the dogs out into the yard to run. The truth is that I found Elsie’s house to be foul smelling, and creepy and those dogs were huge and had the manners of spoiled children. I don’t know which I hated most, having to go into the house or spending time with the animals I began to call Brutus and Titian. Actually, they scared the tar out of me more than once and I was always so happy to see the Placker’s car turn into the drive.
Over time I not only began to like and respect Elsie for all she did to help my Mother over the years, especially during one long and confining illness, but I began to get a odd feeling that all was not what it appeared to be where Jim and Elsie were concerned. When I was in the sixth grade my sixth sibling was born so my parents decided it was time to move to larger quarters. Over the years my Mother kept in touch with Elsie and Jim and they would occasionally come for a visit. Once, after a visit, when I was in my teens I asked my Mother just how much she actually new about the personal relationship of her friends and if she felt that there was something odd about them. Instead of an answer Mom just told me to go and tidy up the kitchen.
Some forty years later my husband and I moved to a small town and I went to working nights at the local Wal-mart. One night in the break room during out dinner break several associates began to tease another associate and told them that they belonged in a placed called the “Forty Acre Club” Later I ask a co-worker to explain the joke connected with the teasing and was told that the “Forty Acre Club” was a Nudist Colony located in a neighboring town. With my interest and disbelief aroused I came home and did a web search and came up with not only the clubs webpage but half a dozen newspaper articles written about the club over the last half century. I was not only startled to find my parents good friends were among the founders of the Club but a photograph of a Seventy something Elsie doing a full Monty was included in the websites advertising. That is when I realized just where all those weekend camping trips they took during my youth were taking place and why the dogs were left at home.
Several years later I learned that both Jim and Elsie had passed away and I never had the nerve to mention to my Mother what I had learned. So Mom, if you happen to hear about this, I’m sorry but I just did not have the heart to tell you what I had learned, but I suspect that you have known for a very long time.