Columnist celebrates 95th birthday

by John Straka Published:

I was born on December 18, 1917, in a rented second floor of a two-story house on E 57th off Harvard in Cleveland. That makes me 95 years old. I attended grade school at St. John and Our Lady of Lourdes in Cleveland and St. Wenceslas in Maple Heights. I graduated from Maple Heights High in 1935. I had a paper route while in sixth grade and during high school worked nights in a bakery for 10 cents an hour.

After graduation I worked for the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad for 28 and 3/4 cents an hour. That was increased when the minimum wage became 35 cents. When the war began, it became a matter of work or fight and I was in a defense plant. That began a machine shop career that lasted until I retired as foreman in 1987.

Within weeks I started a second career as writer for the Maple Heights Press. The 1,262 The Way It Was columns I've written so far are a personal diary of the way things were during my lifetime.

I've been asked recently if I really saw horses on the streets, and what did I do before there was radio and television. I remember horses pulling wagons of ice, bakery, fish and other things to be sold door-to-door. Horses did much of the work now done by tractors and front-end loaders.

My first radio was a crystal set with earphones and a long wire for an antenna. It was years before radio took the place of card games, board games, and a whole lot of outdoor games and activities such as baseball, kite flying, belly slamming, and throwing snowballs.

I used a telephone for the first time around 1928, when an operator would ask "Number please?" and make the connection by hand. My first ride in an automobile must have been shortly after that. I didn't own my own car until about 1947. You couldn't buy one during the war.

Between 1926 and 1945 our family was what would today be called poor. My dad was not in good health and his job as streetcar conductor made his bronchitis worse. On his salary he provided for himself, my Mom, my brother and sister, my grandmother and me.

Our first real radio was powered by several large radio tubes about the size of a 60 watt light bulb. When one would burn out, most of the tubes would be taken to a shop for testing and the burned out ones would be replaced. Those large tubes were later replaced by smaller peanut tubes and after that, by transistors. The speaker was separate from the radio and stations had to be tuned in by turning a dial to exactly the right number. For a while, shortwave radio was popular, as well as amateur radio. I enjoyed hearing Big Ben chime direct from London.

My first television was a 12-inch DuMont that cost me $330 -- a huge amount in those days. I think mine was the first or second on our street. Television programs were all locally produced until some were connected together into networks. That made it easy to get on a local program, which I did. It was a game show and I won something like $12 and a pair of pajamas.

I remember when my first antibiotic shot of penicillin cost $5, a lot of money at the time. X-rays were new and not understood by most people. Having to go for an X-ray was a sure sign you were very sick. If you heard of someone who had to go for an X-ray, that was bad news.

When I was growing up, we had an icebox. In summer the iceman would fill it with 25 pounds of ice, at a cost of 10 cents, maybe as often as two or three times a week. We got our first (second hand) refrigerator just after the war.

I remember Mom's first washing machine and our old water heater with its galvanized uninsulated tank. She used a wringer to squeeze the water out of the laundry and hung it on a clothesline outdoors in summer and in the basement in winter.

I remember entering some kind of contest that required sending in an entry form and a dime and was rewarded with a first-of-its-kind plastic water tumbler. My Mom used a celluloid comb and converted a celluloid doll into a talcum powder holder/dispenser. Rayon and Bakelite were early plastics.

My first camera was a Brownie my Dad got by redeeming some coupons. After taking the eight pictures on a roll, I would take the camera to the drugstore, where the man would replace the film with a new roll and send the exposed roll out for processing. Several days later the prints would be ready to be picked up. One time the pictures came back with a free 5-by-7 enlargement. That started my lifelong interest in photography.

Retail stores were mostly family owned and I remember the names of the owners of all the local stores. Meat was cut to order, and some things were weighed and packaged by hand. The first self-serve store I remember was on Miles Avenue. The first frozen meals were called TV dinners and didn't taste very good.

Ask any old-timer about the coal furnace and you will get an earful of memories. That was a whole thing all by itself.

So was home delivery. When people didn't have cars, almost anything you could buy would be home delivered: Milk, ice, bakery, dry cleaning, coal -- even babies.

Doctors charged $2 for an office call and $5 for a house call. You handed the doctor his fee and he put it in his pocket. No forms to fill out, no receipt, no health insurance, no appointments.

At age 95, I wonder what will our world be another 95 years from now. Will the atom bomb ever be used again? Will there be a cure for cancer?

Editor's note: Birthday wishes for Mr. Straka may be sent via email to wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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