I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell is a mill city just north of Boston. In those days it had a population of around one hundred thousand. The three main ethnic groups were French Canadian, Polish, and Greek. It wasn’t a bad little city but I didn’t appreciate it in those days. I thought it boring. Thinking back, it was colorful.
Life was different back then in the 1940s. Not always better. This was in the days before natural gas was piped all over the country in prodigious quantities. People needed gas to cook. If they didn’t have gas they had to use wood or kerosene. There were very few electric ranges then. To make the gas that was needed the local gas company would take tons of coal and bake it in ovens. They would collect the gas that was given off in huge cylindrical tanks. The gas was compressed and piped around the city primarily for cooking purposes. The pungent aroma of coal gas hung over large parts of the city. Houses were heated either by burning the coke that was produced by out-gassing the coal or by coal itself. This all added to the overall aroma as well as the amount of carbon particulate in the air.
The Merrimack River runs through Lowell. From it’s headwaters in New Hampshire to the ocean it was used as an open sewer. Towns, factories, individual homes dumped sewage, chemicals, whatever they wanted into the river. But, unbelievably, it was also used as a potable water source. Lowell did what they could to clean it up but it would be considered undrinkable by today’s standards. Many people had big carboys of spring water on metal swivels in their kitchens. But there were many in Lowell that couldn’t afford to buy pure water. Since this was before the days of tap filters, they drank what came out of the faucet.
There were still many horses on the streets in those days. Those were the days when the rag man drove his horse drawn wagon through the neighborhoods, calling out “RAGS” as loud as he could. Women would flag him down and bring their worn out clothes and bedding, any cloth. He would weigh it and give him a few cents per pound. They were happy to get it. Those were hard times. The police still used horses as there were few motorcycles and most towns couldn’t afford them. But those big critters on the streets soon taught you to watch your step.
Another thing that I think back on without fondness is illness. Antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet. If you got a wound you washed it and doused it with iodine. Now if you have never had iodine poured on an open wound, I am here to tell you it is a thrill greater than going over the top in a roller coaster. Especially if you are a little kid. Then you just hoped that it didn’t get infected. Then you hear people use interesting words like sulfa drugs and, my personal favorite, debrasion. When I was thinking about writing this section I also had to think about childhood diseases. In those days kids pretty much got them all. My personal score was measles, German measles, chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough, possibly scarlet fever, plus various colds and fevers of unknown origin. Polio ran rampant through the communities but, thankfully, I got a pass on that. Living in an Iron Lung was every child’s fear. Interesting times.
There weren’t as many birds in those days. DDT was the primary bug spray and everybody used it, from homeowners to farmers. It got in the water supply and in the ground water. Birds drank it and their shells became thin and fragile making populations dwindle. There weren’t as many critters around either. I never saw an opossum until I was in my twenty’s. I never saw coyotes until I was in my forties. Now they’re everywhere, much to the dismay of cat owners. I think that leash laws have helped the expansion of critter territory. Back in the day dogs roamed free. Sometimes they would pack up and beware any creature that got in their way.
So it wasn’t all great in the “good old days”. But it wasn’t all bad either. It was a great time to be a young boy. We had a freedom then that lads today will never know. We were all street urchins in the best sense of that term. Especially in the summer, we went out the door in the morning shouting “I’m going out”. Mothers response was usually “be home for lunch”. Out and gone. Not to be found unless we wanted to be found. Roam the woods or roam the streets. Things to be seen and stuff to do. Find a friend or two and be off on adventures. But it was a safer time then. Every adult felt responsible for every child. If you misbehaved the nearest adult would straighten you out and probably tell your mother. Yeah, those were the good old days.