Older writers make the past present for generations of readers to come

April 16, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER | MICHAEL OLESKER,SUN STAFF

THE WORLD moves too quickly now. We dance to the speed of the computer, sloughing off yesterday and turning yesteryear into a blur. We forget what we've lost. Into the void steps the Baltimore County Department of Aging, and 98 citizens with pen (and keyboard) in hand.

They remember. They've written essays for the department's creative writing contest that stop time and melt the heart. Their common theme is Significant Memories of the 20th Century.

Start with this one, from Carol Knepshield of Dundalk, of an ordinary summer day in 1945 that was "made sacred." She was an 8-year-old riding the bus with her little brother and her mother, who worked at Glenn L. Martin Aircraft. Her father was serving in the Navy in the Philippines and "hadn't been heard from in some time."

"The bus proceeded toward Essex," she writes, "stopping along the way to pick up additional passengers. It slowed for the stop across the street from where Ames Department Store now stands. As the bus door opened, three young men jumped aboard, shouting excitedly, `It's over! The war is over!'

"People on the bus began to cheer and applaud. The young men jumped off the bus and proceeded to stop traffic and to share with as many others as possible the good news that World War II had ended. Passengers on the bus quickly got off. People in the cars got out. We jumped and cheered. There were handshakes and awkward hugs.

"An elderly gentleman planted a big kiss on my forehead, and vigorously shook my brother's hand. One of the young men grabbed my mom around the waist and spun her around, both of them laughing joyfully. My brother and I just stood and watched, grinning happily at one another as we watched these adults who had for these brief moments become a part of our lives.

"It seemed that all the happiness in the world had descended onto this small spot."

Such recollections make a younger reader stop and think: Ah! So that's what it was like back then! History isn't just presidents and generals, it's the stuff remembered around kitchen tables and passed from one family generation to another, if only we stop to listen.

Here is Genevieve B. Miller of Maiden Choice Lane, remembering West Baltimore around the Hollins Street Market during the Great Depression -- which "didn't affect us too much, as we were already poor."

"Things were cheaper at night as the vendors were ready to leave for the day," she writes. "We used to take a wagon to carry our fruits and vegetables home. Small baskets of cantaloupes, tomatoes and peaches. When we got home our mother would fry tomatoes for us. Delicious fried tomatoes! We didn't have much meat, but we always had a lot of vegetables.

"On Saturday night at the beginning of the market, crowds would gather to listen to a seminarian teaching and preaching religion. The whole corner was filled with people listening. On the other corner, a lady sold fresh grated coconut and horseradish. On the other side there was a lady that sold taffy. Further down a chicken man had his fowl stacked up in crates in front of his store.

"There were butter and egg men, and some sold meat and rabbits. They would hang there already skinned and ready to go. My mother bought eggs from a man who saved her cracked eggs because they were cheaper. Imagine eating meat sold outside or cracked eggs. At this time of our life, it seems unreal."

It takes more to impress us in the modern world. We've seen too much, traveled everywhere without having to leave the little box in our living rooms. These essayists remember times of smaller pleasures. Here is Eileen E. Stiltner, remembering growing up on the Eastern Shore:

"We had a large house with a front porch with four rockers and a swing. The side screened-in porch had a glider and the back porch had the pump. The well was deep and the water was cold and delicious.

"You can bet the farm there was no indoor plumbing. You carried an oil lamp to bed at night. My bedroom was large and the reflection from the lamp made scary images on the walls when I was young. You had to walk through the chicken yard to get to the outhouse.

"Dresses were made from flour sacks. I was one of the best-dressed girls on the Shore. When you ironed those dresses, you used three irons and one handle. You kept the irons on the stove and as one cooled down, you took another."

Two themes echo through the essays: World War II and the Depression. But the things recalled are all about finding little shafts of light to get through the darkness. Here is George Culbertson of Timonium, on the bleakest days of the Depression:

"I can remember people who were out of work, and did not have a place to live, walking east on Fayette Street to some new distant place, where they thought they might find work or a relative who would take them in whole families walking together at the end of the day. Hoping to find shelter before dark, maybe in some field, barn or under a bridge.

"I tried not to think that our poor family would one day have to hit the road or go to the poorhouse. We did anything we could think of to survive. As kids, we gathered scrap wood and newspapers to build fires in the furnace. We looked for coal fallen along the railroad tracks.

"I can remember when Dad built a toilet, and later a room downstairs with a bathtub, so we did not have to share the bathroom on the second floor that was rented. Before that, we kids took our weekly baths in the laundry tubs."

The essays are filled with such slices of life. Judging of the 98 entries will be held tomorrow, and winning entries will be announced May 12 at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Towson. Somebody at the store ought to collect these essays and put them on a shelf of their own.

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