Helping Creativity Grow
People of every age are tired of living with pandemic fears and regulations that have kept us indoors more than normal and made many adjustments necessary. While adults often have previous experiences to fall back on, the media keeps informing us that this will be something that will hold children back in the future. The experts could be right, but children are resilient and also creative. With that thought in mind, I wanted to share some personal memories of being alive in the tail end of the depression and grasshopper years, life during World War II with rationing, and the fear of attack by foreign powers constantly on the horizon. At the same time, we had to try to balance those fears with just being normal kids.
My brother and I were fortunate to have lived through the era of fears from outside sources with no special emphasis on our mental state of mind- no counselors. Our mother worked at an office all day every day. We had no swimming pool, no little league or summer school, no television or social media, almost no playground equipment of any kind, originally no library privileges (you had to be ten years old or the child of a woman’s club member to borrow books- also a fee was charged), and a few other items kids today take for granted. At our home, and I suspect at many homes in Langdon during that era, the day started around 6 a.m. when the radio signed on (WDAY station) and my aunt got up to make fire in the kitchen range and begin breakfast. No one slept in that I can remember. Breakfast was over by 8 a.m. and my mother off to walk to the courthouse where she worked. Before that time, beds were made, various people had stopped by to drop off items or to ask my mother to do errands for them, an aunt who was an invalid was dressed and settled for the day, and the aunt who cooked and ran the house had her day planned as well. Doors all over the neighborhood opened and kids ran to school or, if it was summer, went out to play. We did not have play dates. We found things to do in our own yards or in the yards of neighbor children who also played with no really close supervision. Apparently, we had no helicopter parents, and it seems like children were welcome in most yards.
There was generally one bicycle per household, and at our house, my brother purchased the bicycle with his paper route earnings. I was his substitute and got to ride it when he was away from home. We also had a sandbox in a metal tractor tire rim and a rope and board swing attached to a tree. Neighbors in one direction had a wooden playhouse and a strip of sidewalk which ran from their front door to their back door. There was also grass which needed to be mowed and a garden and flower beds that needed to be tended to. The garden chores seemed to be reserved for girls, and once you knew the good plants from the weeds, your services (unpaid) were required by neighbors as well as family members.
A plus to being a girl who had learned to read in first grade was that neighbors loaned me books and magazines and let me take care of their small children. A summer or two my best friend was a baby named Robert who would be placed in his buggy (later his stroller), and I would be told to take him around the neighborhood. Robert loved visiting everywhere even before he could talk. That led to being trusted to babysit other children. The cousins who were at our house either singly or several at a time went along with us.
A family who got the Minneapolis Tribune Sunday edition would save their comics for me. This was a rare treat because one of the comics was Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter, and in the Sunday edition she was a paper doll with fashionable outfits. If you have ever played with paper dolls, you know one or two outfits a week is not an adequate wardrobe for a girl reporter. Fortunately, the catalogues (Sears and Montgomery Wards) would send you a book of wallpaper samples for a penny! The soft colors looked like cloth and made up into enough outfits for my paper dolls and those of younger girls who also enjoyed the dolls. By the time I was ten or eleven, the going rate was six outfits for a penny – or less. When the scrap box of paper dresses got too full, my aunt sent my future designing career to the trash. The penny price charge also held for neighborhood carnivals or other entertainment put on for neighbor children.
Some churches are having Bible School this week, and there were times when we could stay with farm relatives and go to Zion Bible School. Later in the summer there was a Langdon Community Bible School at the Presbyterian Church led by ladies from Child Evangelism. This might have been a two-week session, and children from other churches were welcome to attend. Bible School included quite a lot of memorization and singing fun songs and choruses. Most girls graduated from students to helpers and then teachers by the time they reached high school.
My brother was always a builder- beginning with blocks and then on to tinker toys, Lincoln logs, early legos, an erector set which he dearly loved, and taking apart almost anything that came to our house and then putting it back together. There were lots of boys in our neighborhood to play with, and as they got old enough, they became explorers who daily investigated any building or remodeling project going on in Langdon. Rodney and his friends were in Cub Scouts who had a number of activities and also took their canteens and tin dishes out camping. We were told they learned many ways of lighting a campfire and were instructed on forestry and poisonous weeds. They also tied a lot of knots. Later they moved up to regular Boy Scouts and worked hard on their Morse Code skills, built transmitter radios, and used them to contact each other since only a few of the boys had telephones in their homes. This skill backfired when television was invented, and their ‘not so private’ conversations began filtering into the television airwaves. In adulthood his skills came in handy as part of an army radio unit and later in jobs for FCC and national networks.
Low wages for women meant we did not have the higher-priced toys at our house which was not all bad. Many of the girls I knew had received a last doll when they were eight or nine years of age, and that doll was rarely played with but spent much of her life on a shelf or dressed in her nicest outfit on a guest room bed. However, we had board games and jigsaw puzzles which saw us through stormy or rainy days and remained great entertainment for many years. We learned to count playing Sorry and to spell playing anagrams and later Scrabble. Some of the games were gifts from family friends to either my Aunt Pearl or my Aunt Adeline so they were shared and played as a family. Other aunts and uncles, and some of the cousins, made sure we were never allowed to play with a deck of cards that might be used for poker, bridge, or other adult games. For card games we were limited to Old Maid, Authors, Rook, Pit, and other inventions.
One of my godmothers sent us a box of watercolor paints which introduced us to painting and new names for many colors. That box of paint lasted for at least twenty years until I taught at a school that had powder paints that we were allowed to mix up and teach the children to paint with. Actually, that was my own introduction to a short but enjoyable art experience since the teachers at Langdon in that era did not have art as a class subject. One elementary teacher did show us how to make snowflakes and hearts – a skill that opened the doors to teaching my own students how to make those plus butterflies with paper and scissors.
Towards the end of World War II (gas rationing was still on) a Girl Scout troop was formed at Langdon which included both girls from the public school and St. Alphonsus. This became the first time girls from the two schools were officially allowed to be together, although in our neighborhood we tended to not exclude friends who attended another church. This group of girls went to camp at Turtle River State Park and received an unforgettable education in sunburn, leeches when swimming, and cooking on a buddy burner which was simply an upside-down gallon sized can. Yes, we still remember the night the tent went down and that Romeo Chaput brought us home in his grain truck because of the gas shortage.
There are now houses and manicured lawns or flower beds in the coulee which was once home to minnows and frogs or salamanders but at the same time was our favorite playground in every season. We enjoyed the cattails, complained about the yucky green algae and crossed on the bridge many times a day, skated on the frozen water in winter and thought of it as our special place. We also had free run of Ramage’s Pasture, Tony’s Pasture and, if no one caught us, exploring Calvary Cemetery. Now houses, schools, ball fields and the park fill those areas. In our day kites flew from hills no longer visible, and many wildflowers bloomed in the ditches. The roads to and from were not paved and often muddy but home to many earthworms after a rain. Some of the homes you see today were probably built in those areas by the children who once played there or maybe by their children and grandchildren.
Those reading this who think Langdon has always had streetlights might be surprised to learn that really is not true. Once electricity was available, some lights were put up along Main Street (now Third) and a few others along Highway 5 (now Ninth Avenue). Yard lights did not emerge until possibly the 1950s. What we did have was the sky overhead day and night. I have no memory of learning about constellations in science class; it might have been mentioned on one of the pages but was not something we spent time on. Farmers tended to judge many things by the sky, the phases of the moon, the times of sunrise and sunset. My mother would point out to us the more familiar constellations, rings around the moon and stars inside those rings as a way of knowing when a storm might appear. As children we enjoyed the northern lights from the back yard when trees were fewer or farther between than they are today. Before rural electricity was available, families would stand on an upstairs porch and look for those same sights. After power lines were installed, they stopped seeing the stars and began counting the yard lights that spelled out their nearby neighbors.
Children learn just from being children, and if some of the world around them is pointed out by parents or friends they absorb what they see and hear in a special way. Long ago Langdon and the surrounding farms may have lacked things that today’s families feel are very necessary, but we did have a community filled with opportunities for learning that could not be felt and seen just from reading about them in books at school. Some students will enjoy collecting lady bugs in a jar or even knowing the simpler names of a few flowers or trees. My aunt brought back a strange “seed” she found in the park at Cavalier around 1970. It was planted in a small soup can where it stayed for years and grew to be a plant with about three leaves which to me looked like oak leaves. We put it outdoors to see if it was going to be a tree. A little girl came one day and asked if she could have a leaf from that tree, about as tall as she was, to take for show and tell. Of course. Today it is one of the tallest trees in that neighborhood. Creative ideas have a way of growing that just might fill in the blanks missed while struggling with pandemic school sessions. Parent and grandparents may help that creativity along just by encouraging the ideas children generate every day.