A Sleepy Southern Town

William Gray: Oral History Excerpts

BG: My name is William Gray. I was born March 5th, 1929.

And where were you born?

BG: At the old Garfield Hospital in DC.

Let’s talk about your family. Tell us about your parents.

BG: Both my parents were born in Pennsylvania. My father was born in 1898 in Pittsburgh. My mother was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in a town called Lititz in 1898. I have no brothers or sisters. I’m the only one. And I am a native Washingtonian.

And how did your parents arrive in Washington?

BG: They came by train. My father was taking a course in law school. He became an attorney. And my mother worked for the C&P Telephone Company as a switchboard operator. That was in the 1920’s.

Where were they living then?

BG: They were living down on 17th Street, NW, in the Copley Courts apartments. About 1925 they moved to Adams Mill Road. That’s near the Zoo, not far from the main intersection at 18th and Columbia Road. The area was not yet know as Adams Morgan then. Then we moved out to Chevy Chase—bought a house on Barnaby Street at 6504. I was 9 years old at the time. Barnaby Street is three blocks long—6400-6600 blocks.

How long have you lived at that address?

BG: from 1937 to the present. Still there.

Getting around town: trolleys and buses
How did you get to school?

BG: I walked back and forth to Lafayette. I rode the bus to Deal. We used discounted fares, saving about 3 cents per ticket. We couldn’t buy the ticket book from the driver—we had to go over to the street car barn on Wisconsin Avenue. I was always amazed at all the streetcar activity going on.

Where was that barn exactly?

BG: You know where the corner of Wisconsin and Jennifer? Just a block north of Gawler’s Funeral Home on the west side. They had street cars until 1962. That was one of my hobbies, because when I was growing up, my grandfather used to have a weekly pass. And he would buy the weekly pass for a dollar. He would use his pass during the week to travel from his apartment on Adams Mill Road to downtown to do his business down there. But he didn’t use it on Saturdays and offered to let me use it. “Sure!” I said—“I’ll take it!” I started to ride street cars all over town.

Where did you go?

BG: Well, I went all the way down town. I rode out to Mount Rainier, Beltsville…

Wow! What an adventure—how old were you?

BG: about 8. Yeah—I went out to Cabin John, Glen Echo. Wherever the cars went, I just got on and took a ride. Came back. I continued this for a year or two after we moved to Chevy Chase.

How did you get to the street car?

BG: Took the loop bus to Wisconsin Avenue, which ran over to Tenley Circle. I’d ride down to Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, down to the Navy Yard, come back via the Calvert Bridge, up to Mount Pleasant. Streetcars were going just about everywhere back then. 

The war years
Talk to us about the war years.

BG: Well, we had ration books like everybody else did during those years. A card attached to our windshield with an A or B or C. I forget how they were broken down, but I think the C card was for doctors and emergency people who needed to get around and needed to keep their cars full of gas. We had an A card, which allowed us maybe 10 gallons a week or something like that. I don’t think that much, though, actually.

What kind of car did your family have?

BG: We had a Hutmobile. Long since discontinued. I remember our neighbor had a Terraplane Hudson—how about that?

Did many people have cars?

BG: Yeah—quite a few did. But not everybody did, because there was always a place to park on the street. Now Barnaby Street is just loaded—everyone has a car. Some people have two cars. So parking can sometimes be at a premium. But in our particular block there is always a spot. I forget where we got gas. All I can think of is the Amoco station where the American City Diner is today [NW corner of Connecticut and Livingston-CL]. If you look carefully at the street, there’s a section where there is no curbing and a driveway –that used to be the driveway into the gas station. Now if you go up there you’ll be driving into the diner. But the street has not changed that much.

Other wartime memories?

BG: Certain types of food was hard to get. Coffee, for example, was difficult to come by.

Was that rationed?

BG: Yes. That was part of the regular book we had. You would tear out a coupon that said “coffee” on it. You’d present that to the cashier and he would fix up a pound of coffee for us. Back then it was just “coffee”. Today, it’s various types of blends—mocha-java, Sumatra and all the others. We got that at the Safeway.

These were scarce items in the coupon book? Butter?

BG: Butter was also rationed. Certain types of meat were, I think.

Did you have a victory garden?

BG: At one time we had a little victory garden in the back where we grew vegetables.

How did they grow in that soil?

BG: Pretty well, especially the tomato plants. People didn’t get around as much back then, because of the rationing for gas. You used your car when you needed something. You needed to be always cognizant of your gas tank.

There were buses?

BG: We didn’t have cross-town buses at that time. Not up here. We had the loop bus. It ran from Pinehurst Circle, to Utah, over to Nebraska and on to Tenley Circle. Then it would come back over 41st Street, make a right on McKinley, come up McKinley, turn left on Broad Branch, turn right on Western and on to Pinehurst Circle and that would be the end of the line. Two routes: one that went from Pinehurst Circle to Tenley Circle and one that went from Pinehurst Circle to Wisconsin and Western where it connected with the streetcar line.

Who ran it?

BG: Capital Transit Company. Both streetcar and bus.

Do you remember what the fare was during those war years?

BG: ten cents. You rode for ten cents and got a free transfer, too. That was pretty nice. Take you all over town. Transfers were usually good for two hours.

Do you remember blackouts?

BG: Yes, we did have blackouts. We needed to put up blackout shades to keep the light in. Or just turn out all lights until the all-clear sounded. There would be a big all-clear sound that sounded like a bull-horn. There were several of them around the neighborhood, so that everybody could hear.

Where were they mounted?

BG: One was on top of Lafayette School.

Did that happen very often?

BG: No, it didn’t as I recall. Maybe a couple of times a month. My father was an air raid warden. He would don his helmet and go out and if he saw any lights he would go up and ring the doorbell and tell them to turn that light out until the all-clear sounds. Some people didn’t do that. Most of them did, though.

How long did it last?

BG: The air raids lasted a little less than half and hour.

Were you that aware of the war and what was going on?

BG: Oh yeah, uh huh. We got our news from the radio—President Roosevelt’s speeches and fireside chats.

Did you listen to them?

BG: Yeah, we listened to them, gathered around the radio. That was our source of information back then. Of course we had the newspapers, too—the Evening Star—that was the evening paper—the Washington Post or the Times-Herald came in the morning. We got the Evening Star. My father left the house at 7:00 or 8:00 o’clock in the morning. We didn’t have time to read morning papers.

Do you remember any particular broadcasters from back then?

BG: HV Kaltenbohrn. There was Walter Winchell. Luella Parsons had a Hollywood gossip column. Walter Winchell came on Sunday nights at 9:00 o’clock on NBC. He always started his program with “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. North America and all ships at sea. Let’s go to press.” And then he’d go into news.

What else did you listen to?

BG: We listened to “Inner Sanctum” mysteries. There was “Mr. District Attorney,” we listened to “Lights Out”, we listened to “Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy”, we listened to “Captain Midnight,” we listened to “Spy-Smasher”—these are our kids programs I’m talking about. On Captain Midnight they always had a free offer. Tear off the top of the Wheaties box and send it in with twenty-five cents and they would send you a “free” Jack Armstrong whistling ring. Jack Armstrong and his buddies would sound the alarm on their whistling rings to get the bad guys. Every kid on the block wanted a Jack Armstrong whistling ring.

Did you get one?

BG: Oh sure—but I had to eat a box of Wheaties to do it.

Was the radio something that you listened to every evening?

BG: Pretty much so. Also listened to “Fibber McGhee and Molly”. George Burns and Gracie Allen. Jack Benny. “Amos ‘n Andy”, too. I don’t think that would go over too well today. The characters were imitating black people and they were white. They would try to mimic the dialogue of African-Americans. “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow” were two more. Radio was a rich field at that time.

Where in the house was the radio?

BG: In the living room. We had had a large piece of cabinet type furniture, but we got rid of it and got a Zenith, which we put on the floor. It had better sound quality. We also had a portable up in the bedroom. You had to be selective. There was so much to choose from.


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