Sunday, October 26

simpler times

When I was growing up (suburb of a medium-large city) utilities were different. We had an LP (Liquid Propane) stove made by O'Keefe & Merritt which was fueled by one of two cylinders behind the house. When the first ran out, we went outside and screwed the valve shut, and opened the valve on the reserve. When the reserve started running low (you could tell by the hollow sound it made when you tapped it) we'd call the gas company and they'd send a truck to swap the tanks with full ones.

there was a man we called "Mister Frank" who came by once or twice a week to deliver fresh bread. He drove one of those old style bread trucks (I think it was painted green) and we'd leave a note (if we weren't home) to say what we needed: a loaf of wheat or pumpernickel, or whatever. At some point (like most kids) I stopped eating anything but white bread (now I wouldn't touch the stuff). I think Mr Frank delivered milk, too .. I dimly remember an insulated metal box where glass quarts were delivered. We'd leave the money atop the box, or he'd just get the payment on his next visit. I don't remember which grocery we used, but this home bread-and-milk delivery probably saved a lot of wear-and-tear on our cars (which were not nearly as reliable as they are now).

the oil-fueled Sears furnace was fueled by a tank buried near the front of the house. We measured it by a wooden stick that we'd drop into the tank twice a year. When it ran low, we'd call the fuel oil company and they'd send a tanker truck to refill the (500 gallon?) tank. It was very efficient, and I only recall one downside: an occasional black carbon buildup near the heat ducts. It had a pair of filters that needed changing a few times a year.

for most of the time, our water supply came from an underground well in the backyard. At some point, "city water" finally made it to our neighborhood and we attached to it via a pipe that was dug from the street to our house. The house next door was one of the first on the street, and it had a hand water pump next to the garage (although it was more a curiosity by the time I arrived on scene, having been replaced by their own electric well). Both houses had a small water tank inside the basement, which automatically refilled via an electric pump when it ran low.

Sewage disposal was the biggest problem. We had a "sump pump" in the basement, designed to move the waste water (from the sink, shower and the toilets) into the disposal field buried in the backyard. I only remember a problem with it backing up once in 20 years, and that was enough! The "mix" percolated to the surface, showing exactly where the pipes lay below. wheee-uuuuuu it was nasty .. the ground was gooey for weeks (I think the pipes were dug up, or cleaned/flushed) and eventually things returned to normal.

the only utility that hasn't changed much is electricity. It was supplied via cables connected to "telephone poles" to the power grid. When a significant enough ice storm rolled through town, the cables would snap and we'd be without lights (and curiously, refrigeration) for a few days. In hindsight, it would've been prudent to move the frozen foods from the "deep freeze" in the basement to the snowpack behind the house (the house was heated by fuel oil, remember? And when the power's out, the food in the freezer slowly warms to room temperature and spoils).

and finally, there was The Telephone. Yes, this was before you could buy a phone at every drugstore, department store, and grocery in town. Everyone "rented" the phone from The Phone Company (there was only one provider); was rotary-dial; was painted black; and had two real bells inside to provide the ring. [RJ-11 connectors so you could move the phone yourself? HA!] And then there was the service itself. Since we lived in the suburbs, phone circuits were rationed: you shared your service with some (usually unknown) pseudo-neighbor on what was called a party line (they may still exist somewhere).

I remember one day when my father (who ran a business from home) needed to use the phone (to place an order for materials). He'd pick up the phone and hear two women talking. So he'd hang up, and try again a few minutes later. This went on for an hour or so, and the women were unconcerned with the periodic clicks they heard when dad picked up the phone. So, he finally picked up the phone and listened for a few seconds. One woman commented "I paid $2 at Winn-Dixie for a ham" and my father chimed in "You paid too much .. it's cheaper at Kroger" and quickly hung up. About 5 minutes later, he picked up the phone and successfully completed his order for materials, uninterrupted.

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