Musical Youth

Grade school music classes certainly varied from place to place for boomers. While some received a healthy dose of musical meanderings, sprinkled with a soup├žon of history, others had what amounted to a Mitch Miller songbook that could potentially set back music appreciation a generation. Mister Boomer’s musical education fell into the latter category.

Parochial schools were supposedly known for better math and science classes than their public counterparts. Mister B can testify to the math category, but not so much on the science side. When it came to music classes, though, it was a whole other story. Mister B can’t vouch for public school music classes, but they did seem to have some choices. For years, we’d have a music class once a week that consisted entirely of opening a book and singing a few songs. There was no band practice. There was no record player introducing us to the great music of the world. Perhaps that’s why Time Life felt they had a void to fill? For us, a book and a nun equaled music appreciation.

By fourth grade the students had pretty much had enough. Every week, Sister Ukulele — or Eugenics, it’s hard to remember since all the nuns had strange names — would lead our “music” lesson. “They don’t make nun names like that no more,” as Thom Sharp observed a decade later. Sister Uke would deposit the music books on the front desk of each row at the appointed time, triggering a domino effect as students took one and passed the rest down the row. Before we opened the books, she’d request that the class do a “warm-up.” It was always the same: Rounds, row by row, of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Oh, the irony. She wouldn’t be satisfied until, like the plate juggler on The Ed Sullivan Show, she’d have all six rows in action, creating a cacophony of row-row-your-boatness.

Then came the main course. “Turn to page 43,” she’d say. We all knew what page that was. The Kookaburra song. Again. Still stuck in some gum tree and laughing at us, no less. The class response was less than enthusiastic as she took her position, front and center, her book cradled in one hand, the other conducting with as vigorous an arm swing as her habit would allow.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra
Gay your life must be*

We weren’t laughing. We were barely mumbling. “Come on, now,” she would urge. No dice. We’d had enough of some Australian bird song. Sister Uke would have to be satisfied with a half-hearted attempt from her classroom of tweens.

One fine day as the dreaded music hour arrived, the good Sister had a surprise for us. Instead of passing out the books, she dropped a stack of mimeographed sheets at the front of each row. Receiving the paper, we could see she’d taken to heart the teachings of Vatican II: She was attempting to make her music class more relevant for contemporary times. On that mimeo-smelling sheet, in faded purple ink, were the typewritten lyrics to Jan & Dean’s, Little Old Lady from Pasadena. It’s hard to say whether the class was in complete shock, or we were collectively rolling our eyes. Not a sound was uttered.

“You ALL know this one, don’t you?” queried Sister Uke. No response. “OK, it goes like this…” at which point she sang the first stanza in her mezzo-soprano nun voice. She was greeted with open-jawed silence. Mister B couldn’t help but think the whole scene was, man, so not cool, to hear this old woman singing about a shiny red superstock Dodge. Yet she persisted. “OK, the boys will sing the verses and the girls will sing the ‘Go, Granny‘ lines,” she commanded. Putting her conducting arm in motion, she tried to kick it off, but no one was joining in. Before she could reach the first “Go, Granny,” we had taken that 4:4 beat, dug in our heels and choked it to a halt. Frustrated but not deterred, she drove on, conducting like Toscanini yielding a whip while herding cattle, now moving up and down the aisles to see who was really singing and who was just mouthing the words.

She tried one more class to inject some enthusiasm into us before scrapping the Great Jan and Dean Experiment. Somehow, she did get the message. The following week, we didn’t have to sing Little Old Lady from Pasadena, or Kookaburra. “Turn to page 47,” she said. Just like that we had a new song. Waltzing Matilda.

Today’s “Glee”-ful followers probably can’t relate to that experience as their classes are so involved with whatever the current phrase is for gettin’ jiggy with it. Football players and cheerleaders singing in a chorus? Only if there was a scowling nun hovering over them, if you ask Mister B.

What music class memory helped shape your boomer experience?

*Kookaburra copyright by Larrikin Music; reproduced solely for the purpose of historical content and comment.

Home Delivery

As the Age of Convenience began to unfold after the war, the suburbs, fast filling with boomer families, would now enjoy the added convenience of home delivery. In the 1950s and 60s, a variety of products were delivered directly to boomer homes on a regular basis. Among these were merchandise, goods and services that ran from milk to cloth diapers; tins of potato chips to cases of soda pop; knife sharpening to doctor visits.

Milk had been delivered to homes for decades in Europe and the U.S. before it reached suburbia. As the burbs grew, so did the need for the fresh product. After all, milk was a daily part of our beverage consumption, starting with milk for breakfast cereal, on to a mid-morning milk break at school, followed by milk at lunch time, then a glass of milk for dinner, more often than not. Keeping enough milk on hand for a growing family each week meant several trips to the local market.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Mister Boomer recalls getting Sealtest milk delivered to his home. The milkman would leave two to four glass quart bottles of fresh milk by the front door twice a week. The bottles were beautiful; functional forms made of straight sides and a heavily-lipped rounded top. The stopper was a waxed cardboard that held a little tab in the center to use for pulling it open.

We always received a mix of chocolate and white, since Mister B was not a fan of the plain variety. Mister B recalls when his father would tell him of the milk deliveries of his youth. In the winter, the milk would freeze, pushing the stopper out and the frozen cream to the top. He would break off some of the cream and eat it like a popsicle. In these times, though, the milk never sat long enough outside to become heated or frozen, depending on the season. A few years later, the dairy gave each house on the route an insulated aluminum box, which held permanent residence on our front porch. This extended the time you could leave the milk outside before bringing it into the house for refrigeration. The box could hold up to four quart bottles, plus the occasional cottage cheese Mister B’s mother would add to the order. No one in the family enjoyed the cottage cheese as much as Mister B’s mother. She would add canned peaches or fruit cocktail to it and sometimes placed it on an iceberg lettuce leaf. Cottage cheese was all the rage, and was considered a great lo-cal diet dish at the time, even with the addition of the heavy-syrup canned fruit. Along with the milk and products was a hand-written invoice of the day’s tally. Once a month or so, we’d leave an envelope containing the total — in cash — in the box along with the empties.

The milkman arrived early to ensure that fresh milk was available for breakfast. During the summer months, when we’d be up and out of the house by 7:00 a.m., the neighborhood kids gathered and waited for the milk truck to turn down the block. When the milkman stepped out of his truck, two kids would step in the open passenger door and crawl above the two cooling cabinets on either side of the truck back. On one side ice cream and frozen treats were kept, while the other housed milk and cottage cheese. The milkman also carried eggs. The entire walls and ceiling were covered with aluminum, insulating the inside of the truck. Ice was kept in the coolers, so it always felt cool inside. We’d lay in the 24 inches of space left between the insulated cooler cabinets and the truck roof, always facing forward, absorbing the coolness of the truck as the summer day began heating up. Our driver would return and, acting oblivious to our presence, would surge the truck forward two houses at a time for the next deliveries. We’d stay in the truck above the wall cabinets until he reached near the top of the block. At that point we’d drop down from our perches and bid farewell to our ride. One day a neighbor told Mister Boomer that the milkman knew we were there all along. It did make perfect sense to Mister B. We didn’t try to conceal ourselves, and he often had to reach into the back of the truck to place the glass empties into the wooden crates on the floor and retrieve more fresh products. Yet he rarely spoke to us or acknowledged our presence. It didn’t matter; to us it was an adventure.

Early on, diaper service trucks from a couple of different companies would visit the block. In an age when women were required to hand wash and bleach baby diapers, a service was a godsend. Disposable diapers were yet to be introduced. Mister Boomer recalls at an early age, the ammonia smell of the diaper pail that held the diaper discharges of his baby sister. Mister B’s mother would surely have appreciated being relieved of the drudgery of having to clean the toxic cloths.

Once a month, the knife sharpening truck would pay the block a visit. The driver would bring his truck to a slow crawl and ring his bell: one clang followed by a period of silence, then repeat it, until front doors swung open and housewives or their children came to the street bearing knives and scissors, being careful not to run with them. The man would stop his truck. In the back, large windows were cut to open up the entire truck on both sides. He’d start up the grinder on his bench and go to work. We’d watch the sparks fly as he honed each blade until the sharpness returned and each order fulfilled. One time, Mister B’s father had removed the blade from the lawn mower and asked that we get it sharpened when the man arrived. The side of his truck listed lawn mower blades along with scissors and knives, so we brought the heavy blade to him. A few careful strokes on the grinder, then some hand work with a file finished the job, revealing shiny, sharp metal where there was dullness before.

Doctors regularly made house calls when patients were too sick to travel to the office. Carrying their little black leather bags and always dressed in a suit and tie, the authoritative silhouette of the doctor was always recognizable as he made his way up the walkways to the neighborhood’s front doors. While a rarity in the Mister Boomer household, the family doc did pay the house a few visits. The glass thermometer for temperature taking was often followed by the dreaded penicillin shot. That would spell out a vulnerability to siblings, like Mister B’s brother, who could then target the “shot arm.”

Today, direct home delivery of products is still experienced in some parts of the country, though seriously diminished from our boomer youth days. Some enterprising food businesses have cropped up to sell groceries online that are delivered to your door. There are also complete meals available for delivery. For the most part, the home delivery business has been transformed. Now, it’s not unusual for the children or grandchildren of boomers to order almost anything online and have it delivered to their doors. Nowadays, if the person coming to the door is wearing a uniform, though, it’ll most likely be UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service.

What’s your best home delivery memory, boomers?