Charles, *1927, U.S.A., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Upper Middle Class
My name is Charles. I was born in 1927 when Coolidge was the President of the United States and was brought up in suburban Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. There were only boys in our family, my eldest sister having died before I was born. My father was a business executive in a firm connected with the steel industry (the main enterprise of the city, which was the main producer of steel in the United States). As a result of the blast furnaces, needed for making steel, the city was extremely sooty, and my father, who wore white shirts to the office, often had to change his shirts and collars in the middle of the day to be professionally presentable. My family was quite affluent-not really wealthy, but well enough off to employ household servants to clean, cook, and take care of us boys as we were growing up. My family did quite a bit of entertaining, and my father's business required him to travel a great deal, not only within the United States but frequently to Europe and sometimes to South America. On some of the trips to Europe my mother sometimes accompanied him. He became something of a gourmet because he usually stayed in very nice hotels and went to excellent restaurants and belonged to social clubs that served very good food. My mother married fairly late. She had had two years of medical school in addition to her university degree. My father came from a fairly unprivileged rural background, but attended a well-known college and graduated with a very high rank in his class. He later served in the U.S. Navy before marrying and going into business. My mother never worked after marrying. But she was very active in social and church affairs and had active intellectual interests.
We lived in several houses in the Pittsburgh area while I was growing up. As a little boy, I remember a comfortable town house. But my father liked green space around him, and we later moved to a suburban location where the houses were spaced quite far apart and families had more privacy. We always owned our own houses. At home I always had my own room as did my brothers. The heating in our houses was originally by coal furnaces, but later we converted to gas heating. My father loved fireplaces with blazing logs, and we burned the fireplaces a great deal in winter-not so much for actual warmth as for the cheerful atmosphere. We took family vacations sometimes in New England, especially Maine, because my father loved the sea shore and had a taste for lobster. We also spent some time in places like Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. My parents had friends in Boston and New York. I also remember a farm that my father owned in the northern part of Pennsylvania, where I was exposed to animals and where I had a pony for a while.
My boarding school was known as a "prep school" (Charles started boarding school at the age of 14.), standing for college preparatory school. These schools usually were somewhat snobbish places and catered to many boys who came from families much wealthier than my own. The tuition and board ruled out the poorer classes except for boys who had been admitted on the basis of scholarship support. But the academic standards were high. We had to write weekly essays of at least ten pages and to read many long books. We were confined to our rooms after dinner for study purposes every night. Radios were not permitted, and the masters came around to visit our room to make sure that we were not wasting time or just amusing ourselves. We had to pass quite rigorous exams at the end of every semester. Sports were required. I played soccer and dabbled in fencing. There was also a sophisticated music program, and I wrote a single-movement piano concerto which was performed in my senior year when I had turned 18.
My mother tended to be quite conservative in the way she allowed us to dress. I was the oldest boy, so I think her conservatism was expressed somewhat more strictly with me than with my younger brothers. Anyway, she did not believe in letting boys wear long trousers until at least 14. In this respect she tended to be quite European or continental. Our typical clothes consisted of short pants with white collared shirts (often with neckties). For dressy occasions such as parties or church we wore short pants woolen tailored suits. In the cooler months we usually wore long stockings, (always tan or beige cotton stockings held up with white elastic hose supporters attached to an underwaist or, later, a skeleton-type garter waist). In summer time we were usually allowed to switch to knee socks, but for occasions like funerals or weddings, my mother thought that long stockings looked dressier. Most of the boys in my generation wore corduroy knickers from about age 10 to 16, but my mother disapproved of these knickers as a bit too ugly and too "common-looking", so we avoided them. But I did wear them occasionally in my early teens. Knickers were unpopular with boys of my generation as were short trousers with long stockings. But we didn't have much choice in the matter and complaining would have been unavailing. My underwear, as a boy, was usually a white or mottled "union suit"-a garment that buttoned from the chin down to the crotch and had a buttoned flap in the seat so that we could use the toilet. This was pretty much the standard underwear for American boys in the 1930s and early 1940s. There were summer and winter versions of the union suit-part wool in winter, light-weight cotton in summer. Some boys wore long underwear in the cold months, but long underwear tended to bunch up under long stockings and my mother didn't approve of this look, so our union suits had mostly short legs. Some union suits of the period were "waist suits", i.e., they had waist buttons for attaching short trousers and garter tabs for fastening on the supporters for long stockings. But I don't recall wearing these. I wore a separate underwaist until I was about ten to hold up the shorts and the stockings. After that, I had a somewhat more grown-up garter waist for the supporters, because I no longer needed the waist buttons. At the age of 14 I was sent away to a boy's boarding school, and my clothes changed dramatically. There was no special uniform at my boarding school, but we had to wear jackets and ties to class and to all meals. Some boys wore knickers with knee socks. Others got their first long trousers. I was allowed for the first time to wear "longies," and I remember the thrill of no longer having to wear shorts and long stockings with garters. I could now wear adult men's socks, which boys of that period (like their fathers) wore with men's garters-elastic bands that encircled the leg just below the knee and had a little rubber-button clasp (like children's supporters) for attaching to the top of the mid-calf-lenth sock.
Toys and Games:
As a child I was absolutely in love with movies, and my favorite movie actor was Errol Flynn, who played swashbuckling roles and starred in "Robin Hood". I used to ride my pony around, wearing a green cape with a toy sword strapped to my waist and pretended to be an archer with a home-made bow with arrows made out of willow branches. I was imitating Errol Flynn in "Robin Hood."
I was very interested in classical music and studied the piano as a boy. My parents bought me a Steinway grand to practice on, and I even did some childish composing as a schoolboy. I also collected recordings of symphonic and instrumental works (recordings in those days were heavy 78 rpm shellac disks that were stored in large albums). My favorite composers were Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Handel.
Meals in our house could be quite elaborate, especially if my parents were entertaining guests to dinner. Up until our teen years, we children tended to be fed separately in the kitchen because we were supposed to study after dinner and then go to bed quite early.
We always went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve for the beautiful service. We were allowed to stay up late that night, because it was a way of making sure that we didn't wake up too early on Christmas morning, and my parents would have a bit more time to get our presents and tree ready for the festive celebration. We opened presents in the morning and then had a long rest and a bath-later dressing up very formally for the Christmas dinner in the evening. Our Christmas dinner always consisted of oysters, roast game (usually a turkey), wild rice, creamed corn, a salad course, and a flaming plum pudding with brandy. My father used to bring out some of his finest wines for this meal. We were sometimes allowed to have a sip of some of the sweeter wines (at dessert time) even though we were too young to drink alcohol seriously. But my father thought that children should be exposed to drinking in a civilized way so that we would not go hog wild when we went off to college or university. I was fond of electric trains as a small boy, and at Christmas, my father would set up quite an elaborate spread of tracks, intersections, and switching devices that I and my brothers played with. We enjoyed arranging the toy houses, churches, station houses, fire trucks, and the like to accompany our train set. The electric train was usually set up in a special room in our house that was kept locked until Christmas morning so we would be surprised by the set-up on Christmas morning.
My parents kept the major Holy Days-Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension Day, etc.
My parents had been raised Protestants but converted when I was very young to the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism in America), so our religious upbringing was quite Catholic in spirit and practice. We attended Mass regularly, and in those days the more prominent families of a parish had a special pew reserved for them with a brass name plate on it. Thanks heavens, this snobbish practice is no longer countenanced by the Church. I loved the Anglican liturgy from the time I was a small boy. My parish had a distinguished choir, and since I was very interested in music, I began as a young chorister as early as five years old. When my voice changed at the age of about 11 or 12, I became an acolyte (altar boy). I gradually got more and more responsible duties in the service including learning to be a thurifer (the boy who swings the censer with the incense).
War and after-war-time:
When I turned eighteen in 1945 I was finishing my last semester as a highschool boy in Ohio. I was attending a private boarding school and was preparing to enter university. Of course, 1945 was the last year of World War II, so I was immediately drafted by the U.S. government as a private in the American army and sent to a "boot camp" in Florida to be trained for combat. But while I was still in my first six weeks of training as an infantryman, President Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and the war suddenly ended in the Pacific where I was preparing to be sent. The war in Europe was already over by then of course. Luckily, I was a good typist and so was assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Corps where I served as a secretary for the colonel who was the chief medical officer in the First Division, stationed in southern Germany (Bavaria mostly). Our headquarters moved around quite a bit. I was first stationed in Nurenburg during the period when the War Crimes Trials were being conducted, and I served briefly as a guard where I could observe the legal procedures when Göring and the other top Nazis were on trial for their lives. The trial was conducted in four languages (German, English, French and Russian), and there was simultaneous translation of everything that was said in the courtroom. But shortly afterwards I was transferred to a post in Bad Tölz, a beautiful town in the mountains where the American army had taken over a German installation with a stable of very handsome German riding horses attached. The colonel for whom I worked had been a former cavalry officer, and so he was very interested in horseback riding. He used to get me up very early in the morning to ride these horses with him, and at one point I got thrown into a river when the horse balked. I wasn't badly hurt, just very young and inexperienced. On the ship taking me to Europe from America I was in charge of some German prisoners of war who had been captured by the Americans and transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Arizona (in the American Southwest). We were "repatriating" them to Germany, and they were naturally very frightened because they assumed that they would be turned over to the Russians since many of them came from the area of Germany that the Russian occupying force controlled. They were actually going to be sent to the British zone, but they didn't know that, and two of the German soldiers jumped into the Atlantic ocean, preferring death to life under the Russians. It was very sad. What moved me a great deal was that some of the German prisoners were very musical and had been allowed to bring their instruments on board. In the hold of the ship, a pretty terrible way to travel, they played Beethoven quartets to keep up their spirits. I am very interested in music, so this was a memorable and moving experience for me. My longest period in Germany in 1945-46 was in Regensburg, which was a city relatively unscathed by bombing. It has a beautiful cathedral where I used to go to Mass, and I got to know one of the priests there a little bit. I am an Anglican, not a Roman Catholic, but Masses in Anglican churches are very similar to ones in Roman Catholic churches, so I felt pretty familiar with the services. In my spare time, I took piano lessons from a German professor who took me on as a pupil for almost nothing - a pack of cigarettes or a chocolate bar, which Americans could buy easily but which were almost unobtainable by Germans except on the black market. I was also stationed briefly in Munich, and I remember that one of the largest department stores had nothing to show in the large plate glass windows but cards of buttons and other such trifles. Clothes were very hard to come by. A German woman occasionally washed my clothes, and the going price for a big load of laundry (which she did beautifully) was just a bar of soap. She would use half the soap to wash my clothes and keep the other half for herself. I was invited once to the palace of Thurn und Taxis, to the aristocratic German family that is famous for founding the German postal service. As I recall, I came to be invited to their palace because I had a friend in my military unit whose parents had some distant connection to the family. He was invited because of this family connection and was allowed to bring me along as a friend. What an impressive place - even in those dismal days when Germany was looking so down at heels! It was a rather grand occasion. Of course I just wore my soldier's uniform (we were not allowed to wear civilian clothes at that time), and I took a carton of cigarettes to my hostess who was overjoyed at my generosity. The cigarettes cost me almost nothing, but they were worth a fortune to her. I remember that the service at the dinner party was very elegant although the food was a bit meagre because of the terrible shortages at the time. This almost royal family were very courteous to me and a few other American soldiers. But it was depressing to walk around the streets of Regensburg and be followed by children who were waiting for us to throw our cigarette stubs away. The children would avidly retrieve these stubs and strip them for the little bit of tobacco still left. I felt very sorry for the German people in Regensburg whose lives had become so hard because of the war and the insane leadership of Hitler and the Nazis. I was discharged from the American army in 1947 and went back to my parents' home in Pittsburgh. I lived again with them until the following autumn when I became a college student in a little town in Maine only a few miles from the sea. The college is a famous and very old liberal arts institution for boys only in northern New England. Many of the more elite colleges were segregated by gender in those days. Now almost all such places are coeducational (for both boys and girls together). I took courses in both German and French. But, alas, my German is now pretty rudimentary. I can read German texts with some difficulty (as I often have to do for purposes of scholarship as a university professor), but I always have to rely heavily on a German dictionary. My French is a bit better. But I have travelled in Germany quite a few times in later life, and I still love the country. I have always been treated very well by my German friends, even though I could certainly understand a certain hostility to the USA, particularly now under the very distressing leadership of our current president, George W. Bush. After graduating from my college in Maine, I went to a famous university in England and then finally to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., for my doctoral studies.
-If my parents had guests for dinner, the dinners tended to start too late for young children-around 8 o'clock-but we sometimes were invited to come downstairs to meet the guests very briefly while they were drinking their cocktails and before they actually went into the dining room. I remember being interested in what my mother would wear to her dinner parties. She sometimes allowed me to visit her as she was getting dressed and to advise her on what earings or high-heeled shoes she would wear to greet her guests.
-My parents gave me a weekly allowance for spending money when I was growing up. But I had to account for the way it was spent, and when it was gone, I was not permitted to have any more money until the regular time for dispensing allowances came round again. We were encouraged to put part of the money in the collection plate at church.
Charles told us his memories via email in January 2006 and March 2007. Thank you very much!
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