As a kid I was quiet, withdrawn, and mostly an observer not particularly liking what I saw taking place in my immediate family. Actually, life with mom, pop and my nasty sister was a totally dysfunctional mess. For all intent and purposes I feel I could have been raised by wolves.
I like to say that when I was grown high enough to reach the door knob of our small apartment I was out and gone, escaping into the magical kingdom of the projects, and that is pretty much what happened.
The Mellet Homes housing project was built smack dab in the middle of Ozzie and Harriet’s middle class America by the U.S. government to house the influx of workers needed to man the local factories and steel mills gone full bore into the war effort. Each barracks type building, containing six small apartments, was packed closely together onto a thirty five or so acre tract of land.
It was a noisy place full of clothes lines, screaming kids, crying babies, and cars. A distinct perimeter existed between ‘us’ poor folks and ‘them’ rich folks. We even had our own school for awhile cause they wanted to keep us riff-raff segregated from Harriet’s little darlings.
I can only imagine how happy she was to see a slum arising in the midst of her beloved neighborhood, but what the hell, the war was on and everybody had to sacrifice a bit for the cause. Ozzie went off to kill Germans while Harriet stayed home and tended her victory garden. And when the vegetables were ripe, project kids stole and ate them.
The project was a great place to grow up. We played Cowboys and Indians with enough kids to field two armies. We played War and Kick the Can well into the night without the thought of perverts or gun slingers. We played football, baseball, basketball. We fought bare knuckled when we were mad, boxed with the gloves on when we weren’t. We wrestled in the mud in the rain. We played doctor with the girls in the woods by day and used their cover by night as a staging area for vandal raids onto Ozzie and Harriet’s turf.
We lived under a pecking order where everybody knew their place. If we messed with the older kids we got beat up. All the adults looked out for us and didn’t mind giving us a slap when we deserved it either.
There were no knives, guns, drugs or any of that stuff. The men would occasionally get drunk and get into fist fights, but no one ever got killed. The women would get into shouting matches sometimes, but all that noise just added a minor chord that made the melody all the more interesting.
Nobody got much for Christmas in the projects, so we would get up Christmas morning, see what we got and go around to all our friends places to barter and exchange until we ended up with something we wanted. ( I’m sure Tommy always kept his pair of socks) Man, we had it all and were living the dream. We were happy cause nobody ever told us how poor we were.
The projects was always a bee hive of activity. I remember when the ice man would deliver large blocks of ice by hand to feed our refrigerator.
I remember the rag man with his cart walking down the street yelling, “Rag man!…….Rag man!” and people would come to buy a clean one or drop their dirty rags in his cart.
I remember when the milk man would come and deliver milk. Us kids would steal orange drink out of the ice bin in the back of his truck while he did it. We’d also ride our bikes alongside a pop truck and help ourselves to a Coke when ever we saw it coming. He’d stop and yell, but he could never catch us.
Nobody had a TV in those days so we used to listen to movies on the radio. Amos and Andy was my favorite, and who could forget The Shadow. When TV came out there was only one family in the whole projects who could afford one. Us kids would gather quietly around their living room window after dark while old man Bear and his wife sat on the couch on the inside, and watch our favorite show Lights Out with them. Wonder if they knew we were even there? Can you imagine that happening today? We would have set off an alarm the minute we bent a blade of his fake grass in today’s world.
I think I was about nine when mom finally bought me a TV. I still remember coming home one evening from the YMCA (where I practically lived) and seeing Sgt. Preston of the Royal Canadian Police playing in my living room . . . WOW one of the happiest days in my life to that point.
In the projects the walls were so thin that if the guy next door sneezed you could hear it. We had these medicine cabinets in the bath room with a slot in them where you dropped razor blades after they were used up. Well, if you looked into the slot and the person in the other apartment had their cabinet door open you could see into their bathroom. Robyn, my girl friend, would accidentally on purpose leave her door open when she took a bath. I would turn out the light on my side and open the door to watch her. Really exciting voyeurism for a guy my age. Ha! I still remember that stuff . . .Robyn I still love you, wherever you are!
I moved from the projects one cold, windy day in the winter of 1957 with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was forced to leave Berry Davis, the love of my life, and my many friends. I was a very unhappy camper when my mom got remarried and forced me to move. The one place where I could feel at home in those days was in the projects among my friends.
The projects were in existence until 1965 or so when they were torn down to make room for a shopping center and a parking lot. The new Walmart now sits directly on top of the spot where I once lived, kinda poetic justice I suppose since I had practically made a career out of stealing from those kind of stores. In the end we all lose. I lost big time the day my mom made me leave the projects and move onto Ozzie and Harriet’s turf.