This afternoon the temperature is hanging below the freezing mark. Somewhere between six and eight inches of snow are on the ground. The forecasters assure us that the snow will be followed by a freezing rain. Perhaps all of this proves that when I elected to stay in the great state of New Jersey, I was out of my mind.

The title of this essay might lead one to believe that it had to do with integration of the races. That is, of course, not the case. The recollections have nothing to do with each other. They are individual recollections that may reflect a time when life was a little harder but perhaps a lot simpler.

On a cold snowy day such as this one, a person fortunate enough to own an automobile in the 1930s would have several things on his mind. To start with, he might wonder whether the radiator would freeze. In the 1930s, a person of lesser means would have used an antifreeze based on denatured alcohol, which often tended to boil away as the engine heated. Every service station was equipped with a hydrometer to measure the antifreeze component in the radiator. If the contents of the radiator of the automobile were to freeze, it would be a catastrophe that would require a new core to the radiator. A poor man could not afford this extravagance.

On the other hand, owners of automobiles with greater financial resources could purchase a product called Zerex, which was alleged to be a permanent antifreeze, even though it lasted only for one full season. People who were affluent enough to have Zerex in their radiators were also likely to buy an upscale gasoline with ethyl in it. Most people drove their cars on a gasoline called “regular” and ethyl had to be asked for. In the current situation with the Arabs having a strangle hold on our oil supplies, we are fortunate to be able to get any gasoline at all.

Now, on a cold wintry day such as this one with snow on the ground, it is incumbent upon every owner of an automobile to make certain that he owns a pair of skid chains. Prior to 1950, every car was driven by a set of drive wheels on the rear, not the front, of the car. Putting skid chains on the rear wheels of the car was a messy job at best, because of the dripping snow. And it was a dangerous job also. The back side of the car must be jacked up with the skid chain placed so that it covered the entire surface of the tire with the link on the inside being most difficult. This work was accomplished by an attendant lying flat on his back, trying to attach a latch that he could not always see. Stories abound about the cars falling off the jacks and crushing the arms or the chests of the attendants who were trying to affix the skid chains.

Skid chains seem to have lost their allure and we rarely hear of them these days. Similarly, skid chains were succeeded by tires equipped with studs. In theory, the studs were to grip the road and made skid chains unnecessary. In point of fact, however, the studded tires tended to tear up the roads and often did not provide much more protection from skids than the old-fashioned chains would.

At the time we are speaking about, for all intents and purposes there were no heaters in the automobiles. In the early 1930s, there were so-called manifold heaters which were nothing more than a metal device clamped over the exhaust manifold which was then poked in to a hole in the passenger compartment. They not only failed to heat the inside of the car but they provided fumes as well. So much for manifold heaters.

The first heaters were called “Southwinds,” which were gasoline heaters. The Southwind heaters provided a lot of warmth but they also were the cause of fires in the passenger compartment of the car. They did not last very long.

Because of the lack of heaters in automobile interiors, lap robes were often found in the automobile seats. For reasons unknown to me, lap robes made of the hide of a horse were greatly favored. The robes were simply spread over the lap. Unhappily, the driver of the car could not use lap robes at all. He had plenty of other things to occupy his arms and legs and mind.

Signaling a turn was an important function in the era we are now discussing. In those days there were no direction signals, of course. A turn signal was accomplished by rolling down the driver’s side window and thrusting the left arm out beyond the automobile. In Missouri, for example, if the left arm were raised as it stuck out the window, it signaled a right turn. If the left arm tended to point toward the ground, it signaled a left turn. If the arm stuck straight out, it signaled caution to the drivers behind and to the drivers approaching the car. The signals were not uniform throughout the United States, which accounts for the fact that there were many accidents caused by confusion over the arm signals. As a general rule, passengers in the rest of the car were anxious for the driver to roll up the window to avoid icy blasts of snow and rain such as are occurring this afternoon.

In those days, the automobile owners were required to drain and replace the crank case oil every thousand miles. Ordinary automobiles used an oil called “30 S.A.E.” If my recollection is correct, the SAE stood for Standard American Engineers. On a day such as today, I might recommend to a driver that he use number 20 S.A.E., which was thinner than the number 30 S.A.E., to replace the oil drained from his crank case. It made starting a little easier. But if the engine of the car needed a ring job, its consumption of oil would increase.

Advances in technology have made the care and mothering of automobiles much less burdensome. Taking one thing with another, this old filling station attendant misses the old days not at all.

When I started this essay, I thought that it would be about segregated recollections. Now, having disposed of automobile recollections, there are two or three other matters that need to be recalled. In the 1930s, it is my recollection that every home was equipped with a hall tree that usually stood at or near the front door. Men in those days always wore hats and upon entering a household, polite men were instructed to hang their hats on a hall tree. There were also hooks for hanging an overcoat.

When I entered Clayton High School in January of 1936, the instructor or teacher in the shop department was a man called Sam Hall. Mr. Hall was a lovely person and no one fooled with him. He was perhaps six feet tall with a burly build. Somehow or other, he could instruct kids planning a board while at the same time teaching other children or other youngsters to run a lathe. I greatly admired Sam Hall, and as you might guess. My first project under his guidance was the construction of a hall tree.

To construct something like a hall tree, Mr. Sam Hall had a mantra that we all learned to repeat. It was: “Plane a board smooth and true, and mark it one. Plane an edge smooth and true, and mark it two.” I must confess that seventy some years have erased my memory as to what happened to marking it three and four and so forth. But by the time school had ended in June of 1936, my hall tree was completed and I carried it for the three miles to my home. My mother said it was the finest hall tree she had ever seen.

There is one other recollection from the 1930s that is unpleasant. In nearly every office, many of the desks came equipped with a spittoon. In those days, men chewed tobacco and sooner or later required a place to dispose of the contents in their mouths. I have never been adept at toe dancing, but as I walked around the St. Louis offices of AT&T, I had to be extremely careful not to kick a spittoon, which would result in my trouser leg becoming wet. Spittoons are gone now and, if I may say so, good riddance.

Now to move on to things of a more pleasant nature. As a youngster, my mother often offered her children tapioca pudding because it was a cheap dessert during the American Depression. I discovered on my last trip to Overlook Hospital that they occasionally serve tapioca pudding. All things being equal, I very much enjoy eating tapioca pudding. And so today, some seventy years after the Depression, Miss Chicka, my wife, makes tapioca pudding for me. To my delight, she has developed a taste for this desert, and it is one of the few pleasant memories that has survived since the 1930s.

When the ground becomes a little warm in the spring, those lucky enough to have bulbs of rhubarb will find green shoots rising from the ground. Those of you who have not tasted rhubarb are in for a treat. I have a great fondness for that fruit or vegetable or whatever it is, and we try to buy enough in the springtime to be frozen to last all winter. Unfortunately, the menus at such fancy places as the Four Seasons in New York offer no rhubarb at all. What a shame!

A final thought or two about recollections from the 1930s or thereabouts. There were those of us who, as winter approached, were required to wear long underwear. As time went on, the arms in the underwear lost their elasticity and tended to peak out from under one’s shirt. This was the source of great embarrassment to children such as myself who were required to wear the long underwear. Rich kids attending the same school could afford fancy sweaters but that was not the case for this old geezer. I do not have fond memories about long underwear and bring it up only as a segregated thought that goes with today’s essay.

Before wrapping up these disparate thoughts in today’s essay, a thought or two about female names comes to mind. It seems to me that very few parents are naming their female children with names such as Gertrude. Mildred is another name that is not much used these days. In the 1930s, there were female children named Shirley which, of course, had to do with Shirley Temple. From the decades prior to the 1930s, we have names like Olive and Verna Mae. On the male side of the ledger, not many parents are naming their children Harry or Willard. These are fine names and I regret to see their non-use.

Finally, in the St. Louis area, in the 1930s, there was a company that manufactured Skelly Gasoline. I have searched my memory and have been able to conclude that it was sold at only one station, run by an elderly gentleman named Stack. By this time, I suppose Skelly has gone the way of Gertrude, Mildred, and the other names of yore.

This essay was named segregated thoughts but perhaps it should have been named disparate thoughts. But no matter how you look at it, in the end it is nothing more than the recollections of an old-timer on a cold snowy February day.

I leave you now with the thought that before long the baseball season will take place. I know that in winter there is the agony of ice and snow but I take pleasure in the belief that sooner or later the baseball season will bring joy to us all. It is only a matter of time before an umpire will yell “Batter up!” and/or “Play Ball” and joy will be with us all.

February 27, 2008
Essay 296
Kevin’s commentary: Either I’m not getting something or a “manifold heater” is pretty much just a way to give oneself carbon monoxide poisoning. Relatedly, I’ve never, ever heard of “lap robes.” I just feel like even now, when signaling a turn can be done by moving one’s finger by about an inch, people signal turns about a third of the time. I can only imagine how infrequently people would actually signal turns when doing so required that you roll down the whole window and freeze everyone in the car. Ugh.

Speaking of old names, there was a very loud girl in the room a few doors down from me during my Junior year of college. Her name was Esther. Wolfram Alpha tells me that this name peaked in popularity around 1897. She was obnoxious as hell but that was still a 19-year-old named Esther, so maybe Gertrude and Mildred have hope still.

More thoughts on skid chains:
More on Mr. Hall and hall trees:

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