The west side of Hamilton, Ohio in the 60’s and 70’s had some great little shops on Main St. we kids just loved to visit. My favorite first stop was Frederick’s Coin Shop. Frederick was a grouchy old timer, an official numismatist, (fancy word for coin collector), and he only tolerated kids visiting his store because he figured he’d make a buck off of us one day. He probably was a good businessman, but he sure seemed like he’d sell his own mother if she could be wrapped in a plastic case and set out for display.
Next up was Tom’s Cigar Store – Tom’s was successful because it was likely the original ‘Dollar Store’. But Tom’s had everything and we kids could easily spend an hour walking around and looking at all the cool stuff in Tom’s. After Tom’s came Clark’s Sporting Goods. Clark’s was ‘the’ place to buy all the Little League equipment and every other piece of sporting goods you could ever want. This was a time before Wal-Mart and the shopping mall invaded the Hamilton area. Clark’s was the area’s provider for Converse tennis shoes. Back in the day, the Converse shoe was the shoe to have if you wanted to look cool or if you wanted to not be logged as a ‘dufuss’. We didn’t have Nike’s or Reeboks or any other of the major brands we have today. If you didn’t have a pair of Converse, likely you had either a pair of Keds or, (God forbid), a pair of K-Mart “Specials”.
K-Mart tennis shoes would cost perhaps only a quarter of what a pair of Converse would cost and they would last even less. They were called “Specials”, named for the infamous K-Mart blue light special. If you were ever a shopper in K-Mart, they had a portable cart with a flashing blue light on it and every hour or so, they’d wheel the light to some new place in the store, triggering a new announcement from the store manager. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a flashing blue light special over in the men’s department. Underwear, yes Hanes underwear normally $1.25 each now on sale, 2 for $2.00! Get them while they last”. And yes, you could become the victim of stampede if you got in the way of the mad dash for the tighty whiteys.
Well the K-Mart special tennis shoe would first rip out on the fabric near the foot’s arch. This created a great feature for allowing in moisture, especially in the winter. The soles would wear out very quickly as well, but I never had a pair where the fabric outlived the rubber soles. They must have been the world’s crappiest shoe ever and I hated them. When you hit junior high, you had better become successful at begging your parents to buy you a pair of Converse…or prepare to get teased like hell in gym. If you got a pair of Converse, you had made it to Clark’s.
If we weren’t crossing the river, we’d make our way back up the street to Hughes Drug Store. Hughes (read me)was a real old fashioned drug store complete with a marvelous ice cream soda bar. If you didn’t have any money to spend at the bar, then you didn’t belong in Hughes because the pharmacist there maintained a tight ship – if he saw you lingering, he’d be quick to usher you out the door.
The most favorite shop for a kid, we would save for last. For maybe 7 or 8 years, the west side of Hamilton, Ohio had its very own “novelty shop”. It was named Whitman’s Novelty shop, (if memory strikes me correct), and it was wonderful. Have you ever watched the movie, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? In the early part of the movie Pee Wee visits his favorite novelty shop where Amazing Larry, (the owner of the shop), shows Pee Wee everything from chattering teeth to chewing gum that turns your mouth black when you chew it. That was Whitman’s. The most cherished item you could purchase from Whitman’s was called Morning Breeze.
Morning Breeze was a tiny bottle of ‘hell smell’ concentrated so much that it required only 1 tiny drop to do its job. Its job happened to be the creation of a smell so foul you thought someone had just barfed up an entire breakfast of rotten eggs and then defecated on top of it. It was so horrible that the principal of Wilson Junior High School pronounced an immediate suspension to anyone caught bringing Morning Breeze into the school (hmm, I wonder why that became an issue – I’ll never tell).
Ok, twist my arm, I’ll share. I did happen to take Morning Breeze to junior high with me once. In junior high back in the early 70’s, the kids were divided up into “sections”. Sections were determined by a score from a test taken in the last quarter of sixth grade. The sections began with 1A, then 1B and 1C. The smartest kids were placed in 1A and so on. Then we had a 2A to 2E (I think) and then there were a few sections in a third level. I was in section 1C. Section 1C was filled with kids just like me – we generally got decent grades and perhaps displayed potential, but we were all perhaps just slightly ‘off balance’. I loved the kids in 1C and I loved going to all the classes. It was one of the best times overall from my school days.
My best friend in Section 1C was a boy named Terry Staton. Several years earlier in second grade, Terry played a big role in a huge life event for me, but this is to be another separate story. Terry and I were best friends from grades 7-9 and then Terry reappeared later when he could drive a car (again, more additional stories). Terry and I used to love cutting up in class and pulling pranks. Typically I was the diabolical master mind of the joke and Terry would execute. If the joke went bad, Terry would likely be the one who would get caught. True to form though, Terry maintained his honor and never once snitched on me if there was punishment being doled out.
So one day I brought in a bottle of Morning Breeze and showed it to Terry. He had not seen this before and wanted to open it up to take a sniff. I was frantic – I told him we absolutely could not open it just to smell it because if we did, everyone in class would smell it inside of just a few seconds. On this day I have to give Terry credit – he was the one who had this bright idea and I was the one who carried it out. Upon the bell going off, signaling our departure and time to make our way to our next class, I quickly left a drop of Morning Breeze on another child’s desktop. I didn’t dare leave it back on mine or even in the same place each class as I was afraid of leaving a trail that would lead back to us. As it would turn out later, it really didn’t matter where I left the drop because whenever something happened in 1C, the fingers would usually point to me and Terry or Jeff Riley and Mickey Moryl.
I am certain that each teacher had a heck of a time surviving through the next hour. MB would typically last 15-30 minutes. I don’t recall if we hit every single class, but I’m sure we left an imprint in most that day. It must have been horrible for the next group of kids whose misfortune it was to have to come to class that day behind 1C. (I’m sorry, is it wrong to gloat?)
My all time MB story though was to happen in Vincennes, Indiana at my grandma’s house. Everyone should have a grandma like my Grandma Wyatt. Like most grandmas, she loved all her grand babies and treated us like we were precious gems, me more probably because I was her first. I wish my grandma were alive today as I would love to have a several hour conversation with her to document her life. I have only bits and pieces and would love to learn more – like how she managed to get through life and still be so seemingly constantly happy, while walking with a limp, (from what I don’t know), while working in a diner all of her later life as an older woman and above all, how the hell did she manage life through losing a son in a hunting accident (and my understanding is there was some sort of story there too). My grandma, at least when I was there, never showed me any level of unhappiness or anger, though there must have been much.
I only knew Granddad towards the end of his life I guess. When I was very young, I remember he was still working in a factory (Palmeroy’s). I guess in his youth he was a strapping form of a man as he was 6’5″ and fairly large frame. The little 4 room house they lived in had been built by my Granddad. It was not much to look at; I now know this, but he had built it all by himself. I didn’t know anything about drinking as a child, but looking back now I think I can safely say he was a drunk. He would spend the greatest portion of the day laying in bed with a box fan sitting on a table in front of the bed, blowing constantly on him. Also, he always had a book in his hand. I suppose he had a bottle or a thermos of something nearby too; this I don’t know to be fact, but what I was told later by my dad. Grandad would talk a lot and tell stories. He seemed to be able to recall most of what he read because anytime there was a question in the house we knew he would know the answer, especially if the topic was history. He loved history and he also loved on occasion to sing songs, sounding like a drunken sailor. Grandma would laugh and tell us stories of her own too. There was a lot more story telling in those days I suppose.
On one visit to Vincennes, I had smuggled in a vial of Morning Breeze. My Grandma used to play a lot of games with me as a child, so I just knew she would be up for a prank on Granddad. I don’t know what got into me, but perhaps it was the fact that I knew my grandma would maintain my confidence, no matter what. She was Grandma and she was the type of grandma that let you know that her grandkids came before everyone – and this included Granddad.
I showed her the tiny vial of MB I had brought with me. I told her it was a horrible stink perfume that we bought from a novelty store and that it smelled like a really bad skunk. I asked her if I could put a drop down on the table that held Granddad’s fan and with a huge laugh, she readily agreed. I placed a drop on the table and she went over to sit down in the chair against the wall, offering an optimum point of view for the show which was about to take place.
Grandma’s in position and it’s time to rock. I casually walk by the fan and shake out a drop or two onto the table without Granddad watching me and I keep on walking and sit down in the kitchen where I would have a good view myself. Perhaps only 3-4 seconds passes before Granddad says “whew, Thelma” (Grandma). “Do you smell that?” Grandma is chuckling a bit and trying very hard not to outright laugh, “no Bob, I don’t smell anything, what’s wrong?” Granddad – “whew, how can you not smell that?” On one side of him he had the fan and on the other side he had a window with a screen. I remember watching him stretch over to the window to sniff outside and he says, “Lordy Thelma, they must be working on the gas line.” My Grandma laughed a lot so she was chuckling quite a bit as she was responding to Granddad’s comments.
Then something crazy happened – Granddad actually got up out of the bed. I rarely saw him do this. He got up, slipped his blue jean shoulder straps of his coveralls up over himself, slipped on his boots and proceeded to walk to the back door to go outside to check things out. He came back in soon enough to report he didn’t smell any gas outside. Meanwhile Grandma and I were laughing like crazy while he was outside checking things out. As we heard the rear door being opened, Grandma shushed me and told me he was coming back. He came back in and set down on the edge of the bed. Again now he says, “mercy Thelma, the gas or skunk seems to be in here”. Grandma continues to play innocent – Robert, I don’t smell it, lay back down, I’m sure it’s ok.
Granddad lays back down but it doesn’t last. He said something like, “Thelma I can’t take this, I can’t breathe – I’m going to go sit out in the truck for awhile”. At which point, Granddad gets back up, puts on his boots, picks up his keys, his book and his thermos (I seem to recall he always had a thermos?), and walks outside to his little Datsun pickup truck. We see the the dome light come on and Granddad continues on with his book. Grandma and I were cracking up. I don’t recall if my younger brothers were there and in on the joke or not, but I can remember our quoting Granddad – Lordy Thelma, and Grandma slapping her knee and laughing harder than I’d ever seen her laugh before. What a great childhood memory!
I never knew if Grandma ever confessed or gave me up to Granddad. He likely would have said something about it, so I am thinking she did not. That grandma not only allowed me to pull a prank on her husband, but she also kept it a secret only makes me more fond of her memory. Grandma never got to go on a cruise and I don’t even know if she ever stepped foot on a plane – surely never to take a vacation. And yet, she seemed to ‘just enjoy life’ and always do what it would take to get by. I knew the love of the best grandma a kid could ever have. Of the people that I loved and are no longer with me, I dream of Grandma Wyatt the most.
Ah, it’s a beautiful morning kids and there is a fresh breeze in the air!