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
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
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