Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Childhood World

Our family moved a lot when my brother, my sister, and I were growing up. It was difficult for us, always having to leave friends behind and make new ones, but I'm grateful that we had the opportunity to be exposed to different places and people. It gave us a broader view of the world. Still, I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if we had stayed in one place. And the place I wonder most about is Warsaw, Indiana.

We lived there for only nine years—from when I was three years old to when I was twelve—but those were some of the most memorable years of my life. During that time, I began to make friends, I became a big brother (twice), and my world began to expand—from our little house and yard, out into our neighborhood and town.

The places I visited during that time are more strongly imprinted in my memory than any place I have visited since. I have often revisited them in dreams. I have even revisited them a time or two when I was awake (always furtively, like some creepy voyeur).

Then, a few years ago, I discovered Google Street View. At that time there were gaps; I found our house, but I could not explore beyond the end of our street. However, I went back last week, and I'm happy to report that my childhood world has now been completely mapped. I can now visit it at my leisure, any time I like, without leaving home. I spent some time there last weekend, and I think I'll go back today. Care to come along?

Here's our house—a typical post-WWII cracker box surrounded by other typical post-WWII cracker boxes:

We’re standing in the middle of North Harrison Street, facing east. (Don’t worry; there’s not much traffic. When I lived here, there was almost none.) That big tree in the yard? It wasn’t there when I lived here. Here’s what the house looked like in the summer of 1958, just after we moved in:

Turn left, and we’re looking north on Harrison Street:

The street was less than half a mile long when I lived here. Down at the north end there used to be a duck farm; now there's a hospital. There were no houses on the left side of the street when we moved in. Back then, there was nothing across the street but trees—a big, old, spooky woods (which my friends and I imaginatively referred to as “The Woods”). I still have nightmares about being lost in there at night.

Back then, there was only one house across the street from us:

You can’t see it, but it’s back there, behind the trees. It was decades old decades ago—the oldest house in the neighborhood, the only house in the woods—like something from the Brothers Grimm. This was the edge of town then, and living here was like living on the edge of a fairy tale—exciting and wonderful, but also scary. Our first winter here, the power went out and we had no heat. My dad went into the woods (at night!) with an ax to gather firewood. He got a fire going in the fireplace, and he, my mother (who was very pregnant with my sister), and I spent the night on the living-room sofa, snug and warm.

Turn left again and we’re facing south on Harrison:

This is the way I used to walk to school. It’s not far—less than half a mile. Let's go!

Harrison used to end here, at Sheridan Street. You had no choice but to make a right at the curve (which my friends and I imaginatively referred to as “The Curve”) and head west on Sheridan. Just two blocks west on Sheridan, and we're at Lincoln Street:

I did crossing guard duty on this corner. Once, some jerk almost killed me when I was riding my bike here. I was scared, but I was also furious. I knew I had the right-of-way, and I had used my hand signals, just as I had been taught in bicycle safety class. I learned a valuable lesson that day: just because you always obey the rules doesn't mean other people will.

One block south on Lincoln, and we’re at my old school, Lincoln Elementary:

It hasn’t changed much, except that the trees are bigger. Once, when I was in sixth grade, I stayed out all night with a couple of friends who, like me, were astronomy buffs. When we got bored looking at the stars and planets through my friend's telescope, we walked to the school and did a little trespassing: played on the playground equipment and even climbed up on the roof of the school. (I was quite the juvenile delinquent in those days.)

From here, it’s only about a mile to the center of town. Shall we go? It’s a longish walk, but when I was kid, I could get there on my bike in just a few minutes. We'll continue south on Lincoln for a block, turn right on Center, and head west:

"Center Plaza?" There was no "plaza" when I was a kid. When we moved to town, there was just a supermarket on this corner, then Judd Drugs opened next door. My friends and I spent a lot of time at Judd's: browsing through comic books, buying candy and soda pop. Judd's had to have been one of the last drug stores in the country to be built with a soda fountain. You could get a phosphate or a flavored Coke for just a nickel. (Does that make me sound old? Well, I am.) Looks like the only store left in this plaza that was here when I was a kid is the Ace Hardware. It opened just before we left town.

After traveling west on Center Street for about a mile, we're at Buffalo* Street:

To the right is the courthouse. The building on the left is now City Hall. It used to be a bank, and the offices of my dad's law firm used to be on the second floor: dark rooms with creaky floors and the intoxicating aroma of old books and pipe tobacco.

Turn right on Buffalo and halfway down the block, across from the courthouse, were two of my favorite places:

"Readers World” used to be called “ReadMore Books;” it was the first bookstore I ever visited, and it started a life-long love affair with bookstores. Unfortunately, according to an article I found online, Readers World closed its doors in 2010. The article stated that there had been "a newsstand/bookstore at that building on Buffalo Street since 1947." (Damn you, Amazon.)

The restaurant next door, "B-Macs," is still around. Back when I was a kid, it was the Humpty Dumpty Grill:

Nothing special: just a diner with a grill, counter and stools on one side and booths on the other. I loved to come here for lunch with my mother. She would order a hamburger, I would order a grilled cheese, and we would both order vanilla milkshakes. And as we ate our lunch, we would both admire the lifelike portraits of cowboys and Indians that covered the walls. The murals were the work of an artist named Fred Olds. It was obvious from his paintings that he loved the West. In 1962 he moved there, becoming artist-in-residence for the Oklahoma Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one thought to preserve the murals Fred painted on the walls of the Humpty Dumpty, but I did find this mural of the 1889 Land Run he painted for the Oklahoma Territorial Museum:

Continuing north to the next corner, we end our tour at one of my very favorite places. Here’s what the corner of Buffalo and Main looks like today:

At the end of Buffalo Street you can see Center Lake, where we went for swims and family picnics. In the winter, they used to put an old car out on the ice, and there was a contest to see who could come closest to guessing when it would fall through in the spring.

But it’s the building on the corner I’m talking about. It used to be the Lake Theater, where my dad took me to see Disney films starring Tommy Kirk or Hayley Mills (my first crush) and, when I was a little older, my friends and I went on our own to see the latest film starring Jerry Lewis or Elvis Presley, or (if we were feeling brave) a monster movie featuring an overgrown lizard or creature from outer space.

It makes me a little sad that the Lake Theater is gone. But at least the building is still there, and I can still picture it the way it was.

And that makes me happy.


* In case you're wondering how a street in Warsaw, Indiana, came to be named "Buffalo," I found the following explanation on the Internet:
At this juncture the suggestion was made by one of the party that the young engineers who had rendered valuable services be accorded recognition by naming a street in complement to each of them. The names of the young men, however, could scarcely be called euphonious, and, as one of them is said to have remarked, were inappropriate for street nomenclature. The suggestion was therefore made that a street be named in honor of the home town of each. Thereupon Buffalo and Detroit streets came into being.
(How Warsaw Streets Got Their Names, Edwin C. Aborn, 1932.) I only wish Mr. Aborn had told us the name that was deemed "inappropriate for street nomenclature."


  1. Wow! Thank you for taking me down memory lane. I was born in warsaw and moved to Va in 1980 but it was the best 13 years! A childhood I wish my kids could have known. I too went to Lincoln and lived across the street and played on the playground in the middle of the night. Again, thank you for your research and post. I miss those memories..First Christian Church and often wonder if we had stayed what life would have been. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. You're welcome. It was a great place to grow up, wasn't it? Happy Thanksgiving!