Series Part 15 – Extracts from Dickeyville Days Memoirs
By Wayne Markert
Memories from Wayne Markert
Many of my Dickeyville memories cluster around essentially solstice festivals, Christmas and the Fourth of July celebrations.
Every Christmas Eve, many villagers gathered in front of our house at 2411 Pickwick Road (such a perfect name). Folks handled out candles with cardboard wax guards and the entire group would wander the village singing Christmas Carols, often stopping at this or that house for a drink or two. I think the caroling was led by Carl Stissel.
Following the caroling, all would gather at my parents’ house for what to my mind as a kid and then teenager and adult were the most amazing and entertaining parties. The food was abundant and delicious, in keeping with the Dickensian name of our street, but perhaps it was my father’s recipe for eggnog that really “fueled” the party. Just for fun, here is a list of the ingredients for a single batch:
- 1 quart eggnog mix
- 1 quart eggnog ice cream
- 1 quart Cloverland Dairy Milk (my uncle was president of Cloverland Dairy)
- 1 fifth Pikesville Rye
- 1 pint rum
- 1 ½ pint peach brandy
- 1 ½ pint brandy
- Whipped cream for topping
- Nutmeg freshly ground, again for topping
The brew led to various comments after tasting, such as a raspy and breathless “smooooth,” and “Don’t drink this near an open flame.” We teenagers always alluded to Red Skelton’s famous routine about “Guzzler’s Gin.” I have made that eggnog many times since, especially during the time I was provost at Hollins University. And, as one faculty member there mentioned to my wife Diane after a cup or two, “You know, I can no longer feel my legs.”
One story that comes to mind, related to my father’s eggnog, involves Marion Sims who lived farther up Pickwick, just across from the back road to the dam. He had had many cups and was literally “in his cups.” So several other men decided that they would escort him home. He clearly had had enough. After he was ushered into his house, however, he managed to return to the party, only to be taken home again. After the third time, folks discovered that the good Samaritans were taking him to the wrong house.
Another incident that comes to mind involves my father, who like many in Dickeyville in those days did his share of drinking. In fact, some folks suggested that he may need to curtail his drinking and smoking for health reasons. Pen Smith tells this story perfectly, wonderfully. At one of the Christmas Eve parties, Fred blurted out, “I have heard that some of you think I should moderate my drinking and smoking for the sake of my health. There is no problem here. In fact, I saw my doctor just today, and he said, ‘Fred, you can drink and smoke as much as you want. You are the picture of good health.’ So I said, ‘Thank you very much Dr. Spranklin,’ and was on my way.” Dr. Spranklin, at the party, was a veterinarian who lived in the village.
It seemed to many of us teenagers during those years that Dickeyville adults enjoyed many parties of various sorts. The Conrys were famous for their many costume parties, complete with hand-painted tin cups for best-costume prizes. My sister still has one my mother won.
My father, always one to enjoy a party and make a scene, arrived at one dressed as half man/half woman. But that proved not quite good enough, so after the party really progressed, he went home, right next door to the Conry house, of course, and then returned wearing nothing but a jockstrap and carrying a china dinner plate, which he threw against the wall, shattering it. He then returned home, winning first prize in absentia as the best discus thrower in the neighborhood.
It seemed that winter in those days always resulted in long stretches of cold during which the dam froze. We used to do so much ice skating, day and night, that conversations about the types of skates we needed, ice hockey or figure, dominated much of our time. Newt Cox was quite accomplished, skating figure eights with precision and grace. We would shovel snow when it fell and warm ourselves by dam-side fires that various folks would build. Of course, there were many stories too about falling through the ice. Pen Smith has a great one, scary in fact. We all fell through at one point or another, occasionally even riding large pieces of ice as the dam thawed. Sometimes I wonder how we all survived.
The great snow storm of 1958 has been well covered in these memory narratives. We were snowed in without electricity for well over a week, and I recall trudging up to the corner store with my father pulling a sled. There we could collect slabs of coal to burn in the fireplace. We had gathered in our living room and burned the coal to keep warm. By the way, Tucker Lane and Wetheredsville Road were perfect sledding venues, not to mention “Suicide Hill” in Leakin Park.
Speaking of surviving, I broke my leg while in the second grade, so I was maybe 7, 8 at most. I was with Christine Meeks, at least as I recall it now, playing, and she had suggested (we never think of these things ourselves) we climb on the house being built next to what was then the Parish Hall. I swung out on a door lintel that had not yet been properly secured. The door faced the Parish Hall. It gave, and I fell about one story into a ditch smashing my hip/leg on a cinderblock. I remember Christine telling me to get up so we could run away. No way could I even move.
I recall then some doctor who lived in the village putting some sort of splint on my leg to keep it stationary until the ambulance arrived. The break was right at the hip joint. I was then carted off to Mercy Hospital where I spent time off and on for the next six months having old casts removed and new ones put on. These covered both legs, with a bar across the middle to keep my entire lower body immobile. There was some talk, I gather, about whether I would be able to walk properly afterwards. The casts were replaced to account for body growth. And, as Christine says, my parents set up the dining room as my hospital room. It was quite the project and event, and folks came by to visit and give me get well gifts. Amazing. I remember David Sieck, in fact, giving me his comic book collection, which I treasured at the time.
Prior to that even, I like others would take the 35 trolley to school, Windsor Hills Elementary. I am told by my mother that the driver, Ernie, once came to our door to collect that fare that I claimed I did not have, even though she provided faithfully each day. It seems I must have had other uses for the fare, candy probably. Hard to believe I was such a brazen little kid.
Fred (aka George Randall) was the source of many stories, good and bad to be honest, up until his death at age 63 in 1971. At his funeral at St. Lawrence Catholic Church on Security Blvd, stories continued. Jane Brandy said as the hearse arrived for his 10:00 a.m. service, “Thank God they carried Fred to the church. He would never have gotten here on his own at this hour.”
On a side note and speaking of St. Lawrence’s Catholic Church, when I first got my driver’s license, and we Catholic teenagers were still required by our parents (what an irony there, in fact) to go to Mass, all would tell their parents, “Think I’ll go to twelve o’clock Mass with Wayne.” So Crosbys, Webers, and others would walk to my house, and we would all promptly head off to Gino’s drive-in on Route 40, Saint Gino’s as we call it, skipping Mass. Don’t know if our parents ever figured that out. Probably did. The smell of hamburgers and French fries, our communion wafers, was a dead giveaway.
Fred’s alias came from a character he played in one of the Dickeyville Players’ productions. Elinor Sandlass, in fact, managed recently to find the title through a Google search. He was the sheriff, George Randall, but could never remember his name as he was being sworn in as a witness, or so he pretended? The cast then painted his name in large letters on the back of the proscenium so he could look up a read it during the play. The audience never saw, of course, and he seems to be looking up in a photograph I have of the production, reading his name I assume.
My mother’s alias, “Miss America,” came from my sister Joy, or should I say Joy crowned my mother “Miss America.” I’m not exactly sure how that title evolved, but the pseudonym stuck and seemed appropriate given the grace with which she presided over parties, garden club, and, along with Virginia Sandlass, the Dickeyville Candlelight Tours. Miss America loved our Christmas parties as much as anyone. She also was quite an accomplished interior designer. As some may know, after she graduated from Western High School, she attended the Maryland Institute College of Art majoring in interior design. She won a fellowship upon graduation from college and spent several months in Europe in the early 1920s studying art and design.
Most of us Dickeyville guys worked in her shop, The Miriam Baker Markert Company, at some point or another. My father was the business manager and Miriam the creative center. I worked there off and on delivering furniture, especially after my parents moved the shop from Charles Street to Roland Avenue. Kevin Weber, Mike Gibbons, and others worked there too. George Choksy was especially entertaining as a worker. It would take him hours to paint a single step. My sister referred to him facetiously as “Rembrandt.” I think he may have been stoned at the time, enjoying the painting process more than the result.
My mother also tended to move items from her shop to our house and then back to the shop again, or vice versa, including pieces of furniture, paintings, knickknacks, etc. A lot of my friends at the time noticed that it seemed like everything in our house had a price tag on it. You would see a red tag handing from a painting or turn over and wooden bowl to find a sale price pasted to its bottom. Joy and I were sure we would wake up one morning with a price tag tied to our toes.
Many have commented on the Fourth of July celebrations, including the parade, skits, and wonderful parties throughout the weekend. Parties were always central to those days. I think it may have been the first parade that I drove in with my go-cart. There are pictures somewhere. Many of the adult males marched in their old military uniforms, if they could still get in them. I remember Lou Gibbons in particular in his Navy uniform, Lieutenant Commander. He still looked good.
2411 Pickwick again did its share to add to the festivities, with a tapped keg of beer on the back patio (we teenagers loved that aspect) and my father’s crab soup. Fred loved cooking, including many spaghetti dinners. His crab soup became a Fourth of July staple, but one year there was the crab soup disaster that others have mentioned. It spoiled. Luke Schallinger and I carried the large pot down the stream behind our house and dumped it, trying not to gag the entire way. I do not think any fish were killed. Fred was always trying to perfect the recipe, and that year he decided to use fresh corn rather than cooked/frozen corn. It fermented and spoiled the soup. So never use fresh corn in your soup!
I think it may have been the first parade too in which Fred marched dressed as Benedict Arnold. Always the clever one, he wore a sports jacket inside out (turn-coat), along with his boxer shorts. The boxer shorts then became his Fourth of July uniform. Diane recalls first meeting Fred standing at our front door in boxer shorts, apron, and holding a soup ladle. She married me anyway. And Bob Knudson recalls him similarly attired when he first met him. Fred offered Bob some home-made peach-brandy ice cream. Of course, he had put too much brandy in the ice cream, and it would not freeze, even after hours of churning. Bob said he would love some, not knowing the outcome of Fred’s efforts, and was then handed a glassful, basically a peach-brandy milk shake. “Smoooooth.”
The basement of 2411, with a large club room that ran the entire width of the house and a beautiful stone fireplace, with a much-distressed mantel after I had hacked at it as a kid with one of the swords my parents bought for decoration, was the perfect gathering place for us kids, especially after my father purchased a pool table. Access proved part of the appeal. Anyone could walk down the airy way beside our house and enter the club room through the back door without encountering parents. Of course, it was not the best pool table but it worked for us. We would gather there during my parents’ parties and held our own parties there too at other times. How many times did we hear my mother or father yell down the steps, “Wayne, are the lights on?” We would turn them on for the answer, “yes,” and then off they would go again.
Another important aspect of our youth, not necessarily unique to Dickeyville in the 1950s and 1960s had to do with the cultural revolution of that time and the ways we all learned from and supported each other. The Sandlasses and the Roemers were to my mind the Pickwick intellectuals. God forbid you uttered a sound entering the Roemer house if the family was engrossed in the latest “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode. They stared at the TV screen as if the voice of a prophet was coming through it. All Roemer brothers loved the latest avant garde films. I went with them to see Fellini’s 8 ½ when it was first released having not a clue what I was about to see. I then too became devoted to all the films shown downtown at the 5 East, 7 West, and Playhouse. Just ask Diane about me taking her to see Glen and Randa.
Elinor Sandlass introduced us to the satirical piano and songs of Tom Lehrer, especially such songs as “The Vatican Rag,” which we loved playing for Tommy Conry. We all might want to listen these days to his song, “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
Pen Smith introduced us to Ray Charles and the iconoclastic humor of Lenny Bruce. To this day, a group of us can recite Bruce routines verbatim. Indeed, we have our own short hand, such as “Did you take my drink away?” Or “Bullets? Look in the back of my brown slacks.” Or “I have a dog home, at least I think he’s home.” Try these lines at the reunion on Pen, Mike, Bob Knudson, or me. We will recite the entire schtick.
We would gather at my house, Elinor’s house, or Pen’s too, and listen to these and other works of popular culture. We first generation baby boomers generated the Beatles and our current Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, unprecedented artists. We read Catcher in the Rye and Goodbye Columbus.
There was the dark side of things too, the Viet Nam War, assassinations which seemed to happen almost every week, race riots, you name it. As I said, our youth was all about time, place, and people. Pen, by the way, had a complete collection of Playboy magazine, but those were not the only reason I enjoyed visiting his house. Playboy, however, was another icon of our era.
Dickeyville was (is) a marvelous place and proved the picture-perfect community, an oasis, in which to grow up during the 1950s and 1960s and somewhat into the 1970s. We had moved there in 1953 probably, and I lived there until 1972, the year Diane and I were married. My mother moved not long after. Those years created a “perfect youth” (rather than a perfect storm). Time, place, and people combined beautifully and poignantly. Many of us have stayed in touch over the years too. Old friends are indeed the best friends.
Editor’s note: Please check back each Sunday to the Dickeyville Village blog to read extracts from the Dickeyville Days memoirs – a compilation of memories from previous Dickeyville denizens reflecting on a childhood spent growing up in the village during the 1940s, 50s, & 60s. We hope you enjoy their stroll down memory lane.