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You'll Eat a Peck of Dirt

Shave and a Haircut

Richard Willis

Previous Installment: Hotel Doose

Farmers didn't gather together for recreation so instead, on Saturday night everyone went to town to relax and enjoy themselves. Even during the busiest harvest time, it was considered bad manners to work too late on Saturday afternoon.

We got our chores done; everyone cleaned up — the mandatory weekly bath - we put our crate of eggs and our can of cream in the back of the car, and off we went to town. Saturday night was the high point of the week for me. It was a small version of my secret long-range plan to escape from the farm.

On Saturday nights, all the little farm towns were lighted up, Marengo just like the rest in those days. The parking spaces around the square were filled with cars from early in the evening. All parking then was, as it still is, diagonal, the cars nosed in at the curb, except that now there are parking meters all around the square. It would have been a rare soul who drove to town with a team, but there were still metal rings set in the curb stones where horses could be hitched, and on the northeast corner of the square there was a watering fountain for horses.

Stores stayed open until after eleven o'clock. The sidewalks were crowded with people doing their shopping and gossiping with friends. It is sad for me now, having been away from my hometown for over forty years, to find the place nearly deserted on Saturday night, with only a tavern and a pool hall now open, the streets dark, gloomy and nobody in sight on what had been our big night out.

In the years before the war, we had Saturday night band concerts in the park during summer months. The bandstand was set a little off-center in the southwest quadrant of the town square. It was octagonal with green painted wooden benches built inside a cement block balustrade, the seating supplemented by folding chairs for musicians who couldn't be accommodated on the benches. Kids from toddlers to about ten years old stood in ranks on the steps of the bandstand to get a good, close look at what was going on. Any overflow hung onto the outside of the balustrade, peering over the shoulders of the instrumentalists.

Our town band, as I first remember it, was a mix of townspeople and high school students. We had a mildly eccentric electrical repairman and general handyman in town, Duffy Bishop. The tall antenna for ham radio transmission he built for himself is still standing on the lot where he lived in the east end of town. The whole Bishop family performed with the town band. Duffy himself thumped the bass drum; his wife, Maude, puffed away at a tuba; and his daughter, Helen, played the Sousaphone.

Out bandmaster was Dick Bryant, a tall, slender man with a hairline moustache. He played the trumpet, a beautiful gold instrument with an engraved bell and a ruby mouthpiece. When the night's offering required a trumpet part at the opening, Bryant gave the downbeat with his instrument at his lips.

Many people spoke highly of our bandleader. I knew him slightly, but I never saw him smile or heard him laugh. Dick Bryant taught music at Marengo High School, where he had a reputation as an excellent musician among his students, the kind of approval not easily come by when you are a hometown man working with high school kids.

Bryant gave up teaching after the war, perhaps because of the wretched pay. Without a leader, our Saturday night band concerts passed into history, and another happy feature of life in town was lost

Across the street west of the park was Marengo's picture show, the Strand, where the bill changed three times a week. On Friday and Saturday, we had cowboy shows and detective stories. Romantic comedies were presented on Sunday and Monday, while Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were the nights when we had big, lush productions — melodramas and historical pieces.

Admission was a dime for kids under fourteen. Adults and adolescents big for their age had to pay a quarter. I was such a runt, I got away with paying ten cents until I was a junior in high school. Then, after having beaten the system for better than a year, I decided to go straight and paid the full fare.

The entire evening's presentation at our picture show was repeated twice a night. Some businesses in town advertised with colored slides flashed on the screen before the program started. The slogan on the slide for the Greeks' Candy Kitchen was, "Sweets for the Sweet." There were previews and newsreels to begin, followed by the main attraction — always a single feature. One complete program lasted around two hours.

If you really wanted your dime's worth, you could go in at seven, see it all twice, and be out before midnight. I learned the hard way that my parents considered near midnight to be too late for me to keep them waiting. From then on, staying through the second show was a risk I took only when the reward looked too great to resist.

The ticket booth for the Strand was centered under the marquis. Posters for coming attractions were displayed around it, and on a sandwich board out in front. When the manager left the ticket office door into the lobby open for ventilation, you could see the screen from outside. Kids who didn't have a dime to get in, or who were making hard choices about how to spend the only ten cents they had, could chisel a little and see the show for free. It was just a matter of ignoring the glares of the manager and craning past him to see the screen. There was no sound, of course, but you can follow movies well enough without sound. Ernie Bell and I terrified ourselves watching "The Bride of Frankenstein" that way.

Inside the Strand, in a tiny lobby screened off from the auditorium by a breast-high barrier of velvet curtains, there was a popcorn machine, a water bubbler and a ladder that led up to the mysteries of the projection booth. Down a single aisle were twenty or twenty-five rows of seats.

At one time there had been a usher with a flashlight who guided us to our seats, but that posh touch vanished after the start of the war. Kids, especially small boys, liked to watch the show from the first row in front, and whenever there was an untoward racket, I'm afraid it came from the front of the house.

On the left-hand side in front was an emergency exit. When the show was crowded and the usher was distracted taking tickets, it was possible to sneak in through the exit door without paying, but that was a chancy business, hardly worth the dime you saved. The only emergencies we ever had were the minor demands of nature. There were no rest rooms at the Strand, and the convenience of the emergency exit was a convenience to men and boys only. Fundamentally we were politically incorrect.

As to parental guidance regarding what we should or should not see, there was none, or next to none. My mother used to reassure me that the show was "only a story, not anything real." That caveat notwithstanding, I was scared stiff by "I was a Prisoner on a Chain Gang," "Death Takes a Holiday" and "China Seas," even though I didn't miss the smallest part of them. Only when "Gone with the Wind" came to town was there any serious discussion among parents as to whether or not pre-teen boys should see it. (I don't know what was done about pre-teen girls). Love scenes, of course, were the central point of concern. Then as now murder and mayhem were acceptable; human passion was not.

The Strand was owned and operated by a couple named Panknen. Otto Panknen died in early middle age, and his widow, Ida, carried on running the show, but it was a burden she could barley handle. She suffered from some mental disorder that overcame her periodically, causing her to display the most bizarre behavior, a gamut of oddities ranging from applying her make-up in a garish manner to screaming obscenities and trotting out into the street stark naked.

The State of Iowa mental hospital at Mount Pleasant was a medieval institution, there was no other word for it. I had to visit the place once when I as in college as part of an assignment for a Psychology class. It was like something out of Hogarth. They would take Ida away to Mount Pleasant for a while, and later she would re-appear, her old self once more. People use to say, "When Otto was alive, he could handle her." Whether or not that was true, Ida's behavior wasn't changed much until she met and married a small-time hustler named Jack Gibbs who drifted into our community.

Gibby was very much the hale-fellow-well-met, a glad-hander who fit well enough into what passed for social life in Marengo. He seemed to be genuinely fond of Ida. It was obvious to everyone that she was his meal ticket, but he looked out for her, and nobody thought the grief he showed when she died was less than genuine. A few years later, when Gibby, too, passed away, they buried him in the Panknen lot, Otto and Ida next to each other under the big family stone, and Gibby marked by a smaller stone off to one side - which is about where he always had been.

Ida and Jack Gibbs had tried to keep the Strand in some kind of repair, but during the war when materials were hard to get, things got ahead of them and the place ran down badly. One symptom of decline was an increase in the rat population at the picture show.

My mother had a phobia about rodents. Mice made their home in our battered old V-8, and I may just tell you it was worth your life to be in the car when Maude was driving, and a mouse poked his head out of the hole beside the brake lever.

Maude knew the Strand was rat-infested, and one night while she and Aubrey were at the show, the handle of a purse she was holding on her lap dropped over and struck her on the knee. In a voice modestly low, but charged with genuine emotion, she said, "Oh, my God, Aubrey," loudly enough that people sitting near them were immediately interested. My father, who had been keeping an eye on a rat maneuvering up and down the aisle, but not saying anything about it for the sake of peace, was moved to instant action, and they decided they might as well go home.

About ten thirty or eleven o'clock on Saturday nights, the Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register arrived in Marengo on the truck delivering cans of film for the next day's picture at the Strand. Jimmie Lonergan and I lay in wait, grabbed the bundle of papers and ran off with them to Ray Lindsay's soda fountain, the only place in town that sold Sunday papers. Ray was my pal's uncle. Everyone but his wife called Ray "Peggy" because one of his legs was about six inches shorter than the other. He wore a kind of rocker device under that shoe.

We bought a paper from Ray, ten cents for the Sunday edition, and then, faithless scoundrels that we were, we took it around the block to the Greeks' Candy Kitchen where we bought fountain Cokes and read the comics in a back booth. Our favorite strip was "The Katzenjammer Kids." We went to all kinds of lengths finding ways to decide who was going to get to read that one first.

The fact was, Ray Lindsay's wife, Agnes, didn't really care much for kids, and most of us didn't like her, either. We certainly weren't disposed to give her the benefit of the doubt, not to the extent of spending our nickels and dimes with her, at any rate. Of the two ice cream parlors in Marengo, the Greeks' was our clear favorite. It was smaller than Lindsay's, not as nicely appointed and pretty messy, but we liked it.

Down the block east from the Greeks' there was a corner popcorn stand run by a tall, spare dour old fellow who had to deal every day with snotty kids yelling for extra butter on the popcorn he sold. Inside his four-by-four stand he had a mechanical clown that never tired of its task of turning a little barrel-shaped peanut roaster.

One of Aubrey's favorite stories was about a fellow from Amana out on a date in Marengo with his girl one Saturday night. As they passed the popcorn stand, the girl said to her beau, "Golly, that popcorn smells good!" The suitor obligingly answered, "Gee, we just ought to walk by and smell it again."

In those lively times, Marengo had four barber shops: Louis Payne ("Shave with Payne" it said on his window), Earl "Puggy" Myers, Joe Jenkins and Louis Colson all did big business on Saturday night, with their shops full of men waiting their turn for a shave and a haircut. Women weren't exactly prohibited, they just didn't go to barber shops much. They had their own beauty parlors, where there were generally no men to be seen.

Getting a shave in town was just about the only sensuous pleasure legitimately available to men. Battered farmers could, for a few minutes, enjoy the luxury of stretching out in the barber's reclining chair with hot towels on their faces, and somebody attending to them for a change. Pampered and powdered, they came away trimmed up, slicked up and smelling like several different roses. All that cost less than a dollar. It was worth the trip.