Recalls Pinehurst Neighborhood in an Uproar Over Racially Mixed Couple in 1940s
Interviewee: Ralph Benson
Date: March 12, 2011
Interviewers: Joan Solomon Janshego and Carl Lankowski
Transcribed (from audio recording) by: Joan Solomon Janshego
Location: Janshego residence in Chevy Chase DC
Q – This is Ralph Benson. When were you born?
A – December 14, 1938.
Q – Where were you born?
A – Washington DC, Georgetown Hospital, I believe.
Q – Describe your family.
A – My mother, father, and I have an older sister and a brother.
Q – What is your sister’s name?
A – Claire Matilda Boyle
Q – And your brother?
A – Roy Paul Benson.
Q – Your parent’s names were?
A – Eleanor Davis was my mother’s maiden name. My father was Leroy P. as in Paul. He didn’t want anyone to know his middle name. It was unusual.
Q – Let me ask you where your parents came from.
A – They were born in Washington DC. I can’t tell you the address.
Q – What neighborhood?
A – It had to be downtown. They were born in 1908 – both in the same year.
Q – Was it in the neighborhood where the old church [St. Paul’s Lutheran] was located?
A – No. They went to Keller Memorial. I was baptized there.
Q – Is that Lutheran?
A – Yes.
Q – Is it still in existence?
A – The building is still there, but it is not a Lutheran church any more. I was baptized there. I think I came to St Paul’s [Lutheran Church] I guess at 2 years at age – around 1940.
Q – Is that because your parents moved up here?
A – Yes.
Q- What was your parents’ background?
A – My father worked for the telephone company. He was an installer. My mother was a housewife until we were teenagers. Then she worked some. She worked for District Photo, which was a film processor.
Q – Did she process?
A – No. She was an administrator – answered the telephones. She won contests. She would have a lucky streak. I didn’t have it at all. They would have drawings for different things. She would often win.
Q – Do you know how many generations your family goes back in Washington?
A – I never knew my father’s parents, because they died when I was very young or before I was born. The only one I really knew was my grandmother – my mother’s mother. She was a Washingtonian. I think she was probably a native also. I know our family goes way back to Brooklyn, but I can’t tell you when.
Q – You don’t know how many generations back?
A – Probably about two or three back
Q – Is this both your father and mother?
A – My father’s background is some German but mainly Norwegian, and my mother was Catholic before they got married. So I don’t know that much about her – although I knew my grandmother. But I don’t know too much about her background.
Q – You don’t know what her nationality might have been?
A – Probably English and some French.
Q – How about Irish since she was Catholic?
A – Not Irish. English, French and maybe some German. That is the best of my recollection.
Q – So as far as you know, your family was Lutheran for a while.
A – My father always had been, and my mother was Catholic. They didn’t know what they would be when they got married. So they went to a Lutheran church and a Catholic church. Apparently back in those days they had a high mass that evidently was no fun, and my father said “no way.” So my mother became Lutheran.
Q – That was the story in the family?
A – Yes.
Q – So then they moved to Chevy Chase – in what year?
A – In 1936 maybe. I may be a year or two off.
Q – So that was before you were born.
A – Yes.
Q – Then they moved to the house on Upland Terrace.
A – It was Upland Terrace.
Q – Do you know when they were married?
A – They were married in 1930.
Q – And the house on Upland Terrace, was that a new house?
A – Yes
Q – Did they have it built?
A – No. It was already built. They found it by accident during the Depression while they were looking for a place. They had a bungalow on 49th Street, and they happened to make a right turn on Upland Terrace and saw the house at the corner of Upland Terrace and 33rd Street. They could not afford it, but my grandmother had some money, and she had some connections. It was interesting to see the mortgage, they didn’t really have a mortgage in those days. They bought it for $12,000. They had twelve $1,000 notes. Each year they had to re-up them. There was no mortgage as such.
Q – They were able to do that during the Depression?
A – Yes. I think, as I said, my grandmother probably helped. She wasn’t too happy with my father.
Q – Why?
A – He took her daughter away form the Catholic church.
Q – In those days, that was a big thing.
A – That was a big thing, yes. She was a strong-willed person, and she made a fair amount of money in her lifetime. She was a businesswoman.
Q – What did she do?
A – She rented properties. She bought properties and rented them and bought and sold the properties. I never knew her husband, because he died before I was born, I think they probably would have had a divorce if it was today. He lived in the basement. That was the way in those days.
Q – Where did they live?
A – She moved around. I think back then, I am trying to think the name of the subdivision adjacent to Kenwood – in suburban Maryland, off Wisconsin Avenue. Then she moved to Second Street NW and there probably could have been other houses. I have no idea.
Q – So she was a strong woman?
A – She was a strong woman, yes.
A – Did your mother have her kind of personality?
Q – My mother was much kinder, very loving. My mother took care of people all of her life. She took in people who were neighbors from four or five blocks away and cared for them. She cared for her mother until she died.
Q – You mean she literally took them into her house if they didn’t have a place to stay?
A – Yes.
Q – So you remember that as a child?
A – Yes. They actually had to rent rooms, because they couldn’t afford the house. They had the one master bedroom, which had a bath attached. They rented it to a wonderful woman. I remember her she was like a member of the family. Her name was Edith. She was great.
Q – Did she eat with the family?
A – I don’t recall her eating with us. But she was in the family, and she put up with us kids when we were small. We would come in, and she would have things for us to play with. She was a fantastic person.
Q – How many bedrooms in your house?
A – It had three bedrooms on the second floor and a finished attic, which was used, as two bedrooms mainly for them [my parents] and the kids. So the kids had a large area and the stairs were kind of in the middle. So my parents would be up there when we rented out the house. They had another room that they rented out from time to time also. I had a room on the second floor for part of my childhood and on the third floor. I liked the third floor. It was a lot of fun. My sister also had a bedroom on the second floor and she was up on the third floor at times. It depended on what the economic situation was.
Q – What about your brother?
A – My brother always slept on the third floor.
Q – You had separate bedrooms?
A – Yes.
Q – But you had at least one person outside of the family living in your house.
A – Yes
Q – And that was for a number of years?
A – Yes it was a number of years. One person lived with us, with no rent involved, when her husband passed. She was a member of St. Paul’s. Also her sister for a year or two. As I said, my mother was very kind and giving.
Q – And your father was OK with it?
A – Yes. He was OK with it. The last person that was there, he was not OK with at all. It was my cousin, who was a nasty person, and took advantage of my mother. But my mother said he was her nephew and “we have to take care of him.” That was the only contention that we probably had in the family, but that was well after I was gone.
Q – So she did this even after the kids left?
A – Yes she continued until probably five years before she died.
Q – What year did she die?
A – She died in 2001
Q – She was into her 80s?
A – Actually she was about 91 – 2000 or 2001. My father died probably 10 years before my mother died.
Q – Do you know anything about the house as to who the builder or architect was?
A – No. The only thing I know about the house is that the same builder built the house next to it. They were different houses, but they were somewhat similar.
Q – At that point was the whole neighborhood filled in already?
A – Almost. Their were two lots on Upland Terrace that were still vacant, and I watched them being built.
Q – Growing up, do you remember who lived on your street? What kinds of families? What were the occupations of the parents?
A – Once again, being a kid, I knew some occupations. One of my best friends was Sue Koenig and her parents. I saw plaques on their walls. They were politicians, I think from Arizona. They were Jewish, and my father would also take Sue, my friend, to Sunday School and church. The mother didn’t care. The father didn’t like it, but he normally wasn’t there. He was on the road quite a bit.
Q – You don’t know if they were in elected politics as opposed as to being in the political scene?
A – He was maybe an Attorney General.
Q – Do you remember his first name? Maybe we could look him up.
A – Yes. Nathan and the mother was Rose.
Q – Well as a child, you would not know his first name. You would just say “Mr. Koenig.”
A – Yes, I think it was Nathan Koenig. There was one maid in the neighborhood. That was Maggie, and she was mainly the Koenig’s maid. But she would work at different people’s houses for a day here and there.
Q – Did she live with them or in the neighborhood?
A – No.
Q – What do you remember about her?
A – I saw her a lot, because often times the parents were not there and she was the one taking care of the house. Back in those days, the maids were black. So she was a black lady. Very nice. She was kind of loved.
Around here, this was a time when segregation was rampant in DC. I remember one time at Pinehurst Circle right before you get to Western Avenue, a house was sold to a mixed marriage couple, and the neighborhood was up in arms. They raised money and bought them out. They had the last laugh because they [mixed marriage couple] probably made lots of money.
Q – What year would that be?
A – Probably back in the 1940s. I can’t tell which end. Maybe 1948. I would be 10 years old.
Q – That would be the only black people in the neighborhood?
A – That was the only black person. Because one was white and one was black. It was a mixed marriage.
Q – When you went downtown, did you see black people then?
A – I might have. The only time I went downtown was when I took piano lessons when I went to Lafayette, and I took the old bus routes – M2 down to 14th Street. I took the streetcar into a neighborhood that you would not want to walk around in now. The times were different then.
Q – Your teacher was not black?
A – No. He was white. Actually, he taught both my parents piano. They also played some violin. They never played violin when I was around. I think that was something they took, but they never used it. I think they met through him. His name was Mr. Oats. I can’t tell you his first name. He was very old, and I think probably almost blind. I remember he had very thick glasses, and his eyes looked huge when I looked at him. He was a nice man. Back in those days when you had music lessons in the ’20s and ’30s they would have small orchestras with their students. I think that is how my parents met.
Q – How many years did you take piano lessons?
A – Two or three. It was not my favorite thing in the world. My father played the piano all the time. I never heard my mother play. She was always busy being a housewife. I remember coming from school. I walked to school, walked back from school for lunch, and then walked back to school and back home from school at day’s end. I didn’t mind that at all. I was on patrol, rode my bicycle when I could. She was always home at that point. She was the old-fashioned mom.
Q – You talked about school, what do you remember about school?
A – I went to Lafayette. It was towards the end of the war, and we had a victory garden at the side of the school – on the south side. And we would bring newspapers, I think it would be Thursday, I believe. We would have competitions as to who would bring the most poundage, and we would get stripes to put on our coats.
Q – What were the newspapers used for?
A – It was for the war effort I have no idea what they used it for.
Q – In the victory gardens, did each class have a garden?
A – I think some of the classes. I don’t know if all of the classes did. I liked growing things; and that was fun. Maybe that is why I like to grow things now. My father did too. We had a little garden at home.
Q – What else do you remember about Lafayette?
A – I remember a couple of the teachers.
Q – Like a teacher that stands out?
A – Ms. Tyler, Ms. McKenna and Ms. Henderson. Ms. Henderson was probably kindergarten. Kindergarten was only half a day. We would have a nap half way through.
But in those days dogs could run loose. There was a dog across the street from us. His name was Blackie, and he knew me. The family was Catholic, and the kids went to Blessed Sacrament School. One day he must have followed me. I remember I had to take Blackie home because he knew me.
Q– He followed you to school?
A– Yes. They asked me to take him home. I said OK. I got out of school. I came back.
Q – What else do you remember about Lafayette – extra curricular activities. Were they still doing the May Pole when you were there?
A – Yes. We had the May Pole, and we had the lower field. I am not sure what they call it now. It had the track. Back in those days, there was a little house that sat on the top of the hill. We used the hill for sled riding when it snowed. There was a smaller building up there. I don’t think we had any playground equipment. Maybe one or two but a lot less than they have today.
Q – So would you say that the teachers were pretty good?
A – The teachers were very good
Q – Did you have extra things like music, art, and orchestra
A – Not as such. We had certain things that would happen. Like one time we brought our hobbies to the auditorium. I had rings. I had my parents’ rings, and my sister would make a dollar bill ring – stuff like that. I went over after school was over and half of them were stolen.
Q – When you say rings, what do you mean?
A – Just regular rings. I cried all the way home. But they didn’t have separate things like music, sports. Sports, they probably had. The only sports that we had was in school. We had no teams. Does Lafayette have teams now, or do they wait until junior high?
Q – Then you went to Deal?
A – Yes. Alice Deal Junior High, Wilson High School, and American University. I like to kid around and say that I didn’t want to get lost so I stayed on Nebraska Avenue.
I can remember a lot more about junior high and high school then elementary.
Q – What do you remember?
A – Well, girls. In junior high it was the time that you recognized girls. In 9th grade, which was the last grade in junior high, we had the Friday nightclub, which was a dance. The boys would go on one side and the girls on the other side. It was very segregated by the sex. I always went to the girls’ side, because I thought that was more fun. But I also remember when it snowed, and it was the Friday nightclub. My father took a cab to pick me up, but the cab couldn’t get up the hill on Nebraska Avenue. I ran into him, and we walked home together.
I had great parents. They were wonderful.
Q – What about high school?
A – I was not into a lot of extracurricular activities. There were things we had to do. We had races. We went to football games. One thing I do remember was we practiced for our baton race, and we always won. When May Day came, they switched us around and it made me last. They made the fastest person last and that was not me. We had a pretty good lead when they got to me, and I got the baton and the other team caught up to me halfway to the end of the race. But I am a stubborn person. I was not going to let him pass me. He didn’t get past me. He even said afterwards, he could not believe it. He was a lot faster than I was. But I almost fell. My body was going faster than my legs were.
Q – Did you like academics?
A – It was OK. I was not great academically. I was a C and a B student. It was not the most important thing. Even when I went to college, I went two years and never knew what I wanted to be. That was the time when the Berlin Airlift was going on, and we all thought we would get drafted. I remember going to Fort Hollabird. And as we left, they said “see you in a couple weeks.” I said to myself, “no way. I am not going to live in a fox hole.” So I enlisted in the Air Force. The Air Force was four years and the Army was two years. Actually that was during Vietnam. I was glad I wasn’t in the Army. I may not have made it back.
Q – Did that interrupt your college years?
A – Yes. It did. I was in San Antonio most of the time. As soon as I got to the point of being in almost two years, I could pursue my education. So I went to St. Mary’s, a Catholic college in San Antonio. This was my growing up process – the Air Force – as much as I didn’t want to be in it. I grew up and said I don’t want to be like some of these people that I saw there. I needed to go to college. I went there part time. I was married at that point, and my son was born. So when I came back, I went part time and had to work full time. Finished college and got my degree at American University. My first wife – she was too young when we got married- was 18 when we married. We got divorced seven years later.
I met my current wife about four years after my divorce from my first wife. She was a good influence on me, because I was a little lackadaisical about things. I became an accounting major. She said, “What are you going to do now?” I said, “I guess be a CPA,” which in those days was about a 3-1/2 day exam. She said, “What do you have to do to do it?” I said, “You go to prep school.” I said, “I need a year off. I just finished college.” She said, “No. Do it now.” And so I did. I wanted to look good to her – this was before we were married. It was interesting. I worked full time and went to school. My mother was great, because she helped me. Before I remarried, I had custody of my son. The way we did things, I would have gone to jail for abuse today. He took care of himself. He was grown up at 6 years old. I think by the time he was 6, he was a latch key child, because he was very responsible. He never had a problem. He let himself out, locked the door. My mother would come by at the end of the day if I was going to school and take him home with her until I was out of class.
Q – Where did your son go to school?
A – In Wheaton – But he was great. The only time I had a problem with him was one summer when I had my niece taking care of him, and I had a few kids breaking into the house. She was not any good. But he was great.
Q- So you had one son only?
A – One son and two stepsons. When I married my current wife, she had two sons – 6 and 7 years old. I brought them up too.
Q – When did you get your own business?
A – It was not long after we got married, because I worked for a non-profit downtown and I did some work for them when I started out. My wife said, “Start your own business – give it a try.” She is a strong person – very smart. I always called her my in-house intellectual.
Q – Let’s get to the neighborhood and see if we can get a better feel for the neighborhood. The houses were pretty much filled in when you were growing up. What was it like living here? You went to school and you mentioned you rode your bike.
A – Rode bikes. We played ball in the street. We didn’t have TVs .
Q – What games did you play?
A – We were big on being cowboys. You have to recognize that Western Avenue goes into Montgomery County. When you went to Montgomery County, it was rare to see a house. It was still cows and horses. They didn’t build a whole lot of houses until after World War II. I can remember one time seeing my mother up on the stoop of the house and my best friend, Donald Judson, was with us. Horses ran down the street with a car chasing it. It was like a round-up except it was cars instead of horses chasing the horses. My friend was going to catch one and lasso it. He got across the street before the horses got there.
Q – Is Donald Judson still around?
A – Yes.
Q – Do you know where he lives?
A – Probably in Rockville.
Q – He was your best friend?
A – Yes
Q – So where you lived, which was right near Western Avenue, on the other side, it was basically farms. Were there horses and cows?
A – Yes. I remember only one house there. There was an older gentleman, and he had a horse that the children would ride. It was basically a farm area.
Q – Did you play over there? Or did you stay on this side?
A – We mostly stayed on our side. We probably played some. But we stayed in our neighborhood.
Q – Did you go to Rock Creek Park?
A – I went to the edges of Rock Creek Park. We had a garden there. They still have the gardens there. My father and I grew things. We also had a very small garden at home. My father was for flowers and I did some vegetables.
Q – Did you go to Connecticut avenue as kids?
A – Yes. That was the Avenue, as we called it. “I am going over to The Avenue,” we would say. We went to the Avalon Theater. That is where we saw our movies.
Q – What kind of movies?
A – Mostly westerns. My father took me every Friday night to the movies. Just me. My brother was too young, and my sister was too old. She could care less. She was a teenager.
Q – What else attracted you to the Avenue?
A – The stores. When it was Mother’s day or something. I can tell you where the hardware store was. It was on the first block coming down from Chevy Chase Circle. And there was Shupp’s Bakery.
Q – What is there now?
A – It is the Arcade. That’s where Shupp’s Bakery was.
Q – Where was the hardware store?
A – It was on the next block up towards Chevy Chase Circle – about two doors away from McKinley at the streetlight. There was a Haskins variety store. They would have models that boys would like. It was like model airplanes, cars, and dinky toys. Then there was the bank. Riggs is not there, but it is still a bank. It was three blocks below Chevy Chase Circle.
Q – Apparently there was a dance studio in the Avalon. Dallas Dean told us about it.
A – She was more active than I was.
Q – Other friends besides Donald Judson?
A – Donald Judson, Sue Koenig. The people across the street who were Catholic – the O’Connor’s. I think it was the only house that was a Sears Roebuck house. I know that the O’Connor’s house is.
Q – Did the O’Connor’s have kids?
A – Yes. They had five.
Q – Were any your friends?
A – Yes. We were all friends. Michael the boy. I didn’t fool around with the girls.
Q – So there were a lot of kids on that block?
A – There was another kid a couple doors down from us. Somehow I didn’t do anything with him. I could not tell you what his name was.
Q – You would go in and out of the houses?
A – Yes. We would go in the houses. One of Donald’s and my hobbies was Lionel trains. We spent a lot of time with them. I can remember the year I got my train for Christmas 1946, I still believed in Santa Clause then. Our roomer, Edith, gave me a little house with the man who came out with the lantern that went with the train. I wondered how she knew that I was getting the train. I was very naïve back then.
Q – Still have the train?
A – Yes. I have not put it up for years and years. I still have them in the garage.
Q – Do you remember holidays?
A – Yes the 4th of July we shot off our own fire works Even then it was not legal, but nobody cared. We would get them and shoot them off in the side yard. Every so often it would land on our neighbor’s roof. We hoped that we didn’t burn the house down. Never did. We did sparklers and what they called fountains. In Maryland it was legal. It was a good family get-together.
Q – Did you have picnics in the neighborhood?
A – Not in the neighborhood – actually church.
Q – On the lawn?
A My father was superintendent of the junior department, and we had something called lawn parties. It was like a little carnival with ponies and games. But the whole Sunday School would have a picnic in Rock Creek Park in early summer.
Q – In one of the pavilions in Rock Creek? Did they rent them?
A – They probably did. There was a lot of kids and adults too. A lot more people went to Sunday School at older ages. It was an older congregation until about 20 years ago. There were a fair amount of classes for adults. There was the Domer Class for one and the Huddle Class was another. But then life centered on the church.
Q – What other activities?
A – Luther League.
Q – What did you do at Luther League?
A – It was Dr. Snyder’s era [at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church]. He was my mentor. I looked up to him. In Luther League, we would have a little religious ceremony and then we would dance afterwards. In those days, dancing on Sundays was a “no no.” We would go through our little religious ceremony, and then Dr. Snyder would leave and we would dance. He knew what was going on but did not let on. He lived at the end of the Everett Street and his son, Dr. Luther Snyder lived there after he left. Dr. Luther Snyder was married to Gladys. After Dr. Luther Snyder died, she married Dr. McKnitt. My poor mother, every time she would come to church she would tell the same story about Dr. McKnitt saving her son’s life years before.
We would dance after the religious ceremony in Schaefer Hall at the church. Then we would all get to the car and go to the Hot Shoppe which is not there anymore. It was on Connecticut Avenue going south three, four blocks from McKinley. It was on the west side of the street (right if you are going down). We would drive-in at the Hot Shoppe, and they brought the food out.
Q – There was enough land there, that you could do that?
A – On yes. There were a lot of kids there – especially on Sunday nights. And the kids ran around seeing their friends. I guess the Hot Shoppe didn’t like that. They always called the cops.
You would park, and when I first started going there, someone came and took your order and things progressed and you would have a little box with a speaker. You pressed a button to order and they would bring out the order to you.
The only drive-in theater I went to very much was the Rockville Drive-In. It was interesting, because Rockville Pike was a three-lane road. It was really only two lanes and the third lane was for passing. When you came to a hill, you had to switch lanes.
Q – What establishments were along the side of the road?
A – The commercial stuff that is along Rockville Pike was not there until you got into Rockville.
Q – Were there farms along there?
A – Little farms, yes, The streetcar also ran on up Wisconsin Avenue to Bethesda.
Q – When you wanted to take the streetcar, you went to Wisconsin Avenue.?
A – Yes. They had a terminal I think it was right at the Maryland-DC line.
Q – Isn’t there a terminal on Connecticut Avenue north of the Post Office?
A – That was only a bus terminal. It was never for streetcars.
Q – So there was no streetcar on Connecticut Avenue that you could recall.
A –You took buses to get to Wisconsin Avenue and then a streetcar going down town.
Q – Did you in fact do a lot of walking around here?
A – On yes. I loved to walk. I still do.
Q – Going back to holidays, what did you do on Halloween?
A – We would go treat and treating. Some kids would do tricks like putting honey on doorknobs. My sister and her friends, who were six years older than we were, would go to the neighborhood houses and trick them. We didn’t. We were good kids. We just knocked on doors and got the candy.
Q – Did you have Halloween parades?
A – At school – nowhere else that I knew of. Of course Christmas was a big deal. At church, my father had a manger scene, which we still have. It is probably in very sad shape. He took it to Sunday School, and I waited for it to come home. Church was a big deal for me. I did not consider myself a super religious person at that point but church was important. My father said, “I don’t care what time you get home on Saturday night, you are going to Sunday School and church on Sunday.” That was the way that it was.
Q – So you have literally gone to that church your whole life.
A – Yes. I was about 2 when we got there. Some day when I find the records, I can find out when they became members. It was probably around 1940. I don’t remember the church that I got baptized in. I was too young. There were streetcars going up and down there [where I was baptized] near the Capitol.
Q – Did you go to the Capitol and other places by streetcar?
A – Sometimes we did as a family. We would do that.
Q – Did you go the Art Gallery – the National Gallery of Art.
A – I have been there a lot but since I got married. My wife was into going to the art galleries. The zoo was a big deal. I enjoy the zoo.
Q – You went to the zoo as a child?
A – Yes
Q – Did you go by yourself or with your parents?
A – I didn’t go alone. I went with Sue or Donald. I also went with my parents. They drove us there.
Q – Did you mother drive also?
A – Yes. She drove when she worked in Beltsville.
Q – Did you have two cars?
Q – There were times when we had two cars. I remember a 1932 Ford with a rumble seat. Great fun. I wish I had that car. It was dangerous as all get out, because in a rumble seat you could only get 2 people in it. Have you ever seen one? The back flips out and you have a little seat there.
During the war too, there was rationing. There was food rationing, There was gasoline rationing and whatever. I remember one time I had an uncle – he was in the black market. We called him Uncle Buck because every time that he came over to our house, he gave us a silver dollar. Actually, in those days, that was a lot of money.
Q – How did you know he was in the black market?
A – Every so often we would get things that you could not get unless you had the rationing tickets for it. We went downtown, I am not sure why. We went shopping. I went down town with my mother, and we had a 1938 Oldsmobile. The battery was under the front seat and so was the gas tank. That is probably not the best combination, but that was the way that it was. I remember coming up Connecticut Avenue, and standing up in the back seat. There were no seat belts in those days, and she said “something is burning.” So she pulled off. I think it was at the Kennedy-Warren, and she went in and she said “I think that my car is on fire.” The lady there said “are you sure?” She said “I don’t really know if it is on fire or not.” So the gardeners went out there with a hose. I remember seeing them take the front seat off and there were flames in there.
Q – They hosed it off?
A – No. They called the fire department. It could have exploded. That is where the gas tank was.
Q – So what kinds of things were rationed?
A – Food, gasoline – everything was.
Q – I mean sugar, flour, and butter?
A – Yes. Butter was for sure. Cream. In those days we got milk and butter delivered to us by the milkman and Thompson’s Diary. I can’t remember what the other one was. We had a little insulated box out there by our back door for dairy delivery. Everything – eggs, and meat was hard to come by.
Q – So meat was rationed?
A – Yes. You could only get so much of a certain thing. When you ran out of ration tickets, you didn’t get that anymore. That was a good incentive to have a garden especially in the summer time. I remember one time, my parents really never had much money, but we went on vacation to a farm in Virginia. Where it was I have no idea, and I remember gasoline was rationed. If you had no more rationing tickets, you had no more gas. My father started going home the wrong way – towards North Carolina. We finally figured it out. It was scary, because no more tickets, no more gas.
Q – But you made it?
A – Yeah. We made it.
Q – So there were not many vacations you are saying?
A – No, I went to Camp Nawakwa It is in Pennsylvania – Ardensville. I know when I went because it was 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. I remember reading a newspaper when I got up there.
Q – You went by yourself?
A – My father took me up.
Q – Was it a church camp?
A – It was a Lutheran Camp. Actually, it is still there. It has changed a lot, because I took my granddaughter there the year before last. It was completely different. We used to get water out a spring. It was like a cistern. It was a big stone spring that poured out water. They stopped it – probably because it probably was not healthy. But we never got sick. It tasted good. It was spring water. The swimming pool was also spring fed. There would be snakes in the pool at times. It was fun. They had a waterwheel. I remember that it went around I am not sure what it was for. We would get on it. It was a simple life. We didn’t have the things that kids have today.
Q – Getting back to the war, do you remember things during the war like black outs?
A – I remember blackout curtains.
Q – Would the sirens blow?
A – Yes. Once again, I was pretty young, but I do recall that.
Q – Do you remember when the war was over?
A – Yes.
Q – Do you have specific memories?
A – I don’t remember specifically that the war was over in Europe and then we dropped the A bomb in Japan. What I remember is that I liked things like models and things. I remember they had a fly over – a lot of planes. They were in formation. I thought that was great guns. It was probably 1945 or 1946.
Talking about things in grade school, we used to have these Filipinos that would come over. They sold yo-yos. They would make all the tricks with the yo -yos and try to get the kids to buy them. I don’t think I ever bought one. My parents didn’t have the money. They had to make ends meet. I remember they would put the church envelopes in the middle of the dining room table and put so much in them every day so that they would have enough to take to church. In those days there were 2 envelopes. There was a monthly envelope and a weekly envelope.
Q – It was important for them to put the money in for the church?
A – Yes. Very much so.
Q – So when you were talking about the air formation, do you think that was one of the times when the war was over – either in Europe or Japan?
A – The war was over at that point.
Q – Do you remember when Franklin Roosevelt died?
A – No. Not until years later [laughs].
Q – When did you leave Upland Terrace?
A – I left when I got married the first time – 1961 – and I went into the Air Force for four years and then came back there.
Q – Now in 1961 there was a point of time when things were not as good in this neighborhood?
A – No. They were still good. Of course, Western Avenue was all built up.
Q – When do you think it started to get built up?
A – I think it was at the end of the war and thereafter. I think it was Post-War when most of the houses were built.
Q – Someone who used to live in my house for a brief period of time and was born in 1933 called me and said that he went to kindergarten at Lafayette, and he thought there was a CCC camp there. That would be before your time. You would not know about that and your parents did not talk about that?
A – No.
There was a story that I heard that at the end of the war, there was a spy ring at a house at the end of Western Avenue – going towards the park – on the DC side. I don’t know if was true. I have heard the story over the years. I think it was probably a house that was abandoned, and it looked like a haunted house to the kids and they made up some stories
Q – Have you ever heard of the Purple Iris?
A – Oh yes.
Q – Tell you what you know about that.
A – The Purple Iris – I always thought there were a bunch of crooks that went there, because it goes back from the road. I think it was on Rittenhouse. There was a fair amount of land there.
Q – It was literally purple in color?
A – It was purple. To me, it was so far back that I didn’t see much of it, and I didn’t pay much attention. You saw cars come there and drop people off. I am sure that some parked around there, but I don’t remember that. So we always thought once again the criminal element was there.
Q – Was it a public place?
A – I never knew it to be public
Q – Did it have a sign?
A – I don’t recall. I don’t remember being back there. It was something different, and we made stories up [about it]. We had a good imagination. Kids today don’t have good imaginations. because they have too much stuff. We had to use imagination to play. We played baseball. We played in the street, and you wouldn’t get run over like today. It was fun. We had a good time.
Q – Did your parents assign you household chores?
A – I know I took care of my room. I had to make my bed every morning before I went to school. I wish I could get my granddaughter to do this. She won’t. We did the dishes, getting things off the table. Washing dishes – no dishwasher. My parents’ kitchen was small. You came into the backdoor and the refrigerator was there. There was an entrance into the dining room and there was a stove. That was it. You had a little sink – very small. Dirty dishes on one side. We washed the dishes on one side, and rinsed them off and put them in a holder. It had a breakfast room off the kitchen. I think they [people who live there now] probably took the wall down. It was too small and made the kitchen tiny.
Q – It was like a nook?
A – Yes it was like a nook. That is where we ate all the time – except for Sundays or holidays. Then we would eat in the dining room.
Q – Did your mother make a full cooked meal every evening?
A – Yes. She cooked and she made cakes and pies.
Q – Did she can?
A – No she did not can. My first wife’s grandmother did but that is getting away from our neighborhood.
Q – What did you do in the evening? Did you have television?
A – We got it in 1948. I think when Truman was inaugurated. The brand was Farnsworth. Do you know who Farnsworth was? He invented TV. The worst TV we ever had. It would last a day or two and then go out. Things were different. There was no TV in the morning.
Q – What time did it come on?
A – It came on at 5 o’clock with Howdy Doddy. And we got Hopalong Cassidy for the westerns. We finally got an Admiral TV.
Q- Were you the first people in your neighborhood to get TV?
A – I think we were second. We might have been the third. The O’Connor’s across the street had one of the first. It was a Hallicrafters. It had a 7-inch screen. In front of it and attached to it was a magnifying glass. We had a large TV. I think it was 10 inches. We had John Cameron Swayze for news. He would come on at quarter to eight, and he would go off at eight o’clock. We would get all the news and weather in 15 minutes. Things are a lot different now.
Q – How many channels?
A – Channel 4, 7 and 9. That was it. We could have gotten Baltimore but in those days, it was not strong enough for pick up.
Q – Do you recall before television things that your family did together?
A – Yes. In the summertime especially. We had a screened porch. We would hang out there all together as a family on the screened porch. We would make Kool Aid and freeze it in ice cube trays and put the ice cubes in a glass and chop it up. We had fun doing that.
Q – Did you play any games?
A – Monopoly, Parcheesi. That type of games. Not intellectual. We didn’t do intellectual games.
Q – Did you do much reading when you were a kid?
A – I read what I had to.
Q – For school?
A – Yes. It was not a “biggie.”
Q – Do you have hobbies?
A – I made models – trains. I liked to grow things – which I still like to – grow things. Bonsai – I like bonsai.
Q – Speaking of organizations, did your parents belong to anything else other than the church?
A – My father was unionized. That was one of the biggies. At Christmas time, there were family parties, and my father would take my sister and me.
Q – What kind of union was it?
A – Communication Workers of America. Back in those days it was AT&T before Verizon and all the rest. He worked late some times, and we would drive down and pick him up down at 13th Street. I recall going in during the war. He had to go to work, I went with him, and we would sit there and play. We could talk to each other on the microphone. My father would be there only an hour or two. It was fun.
He would take the bus to work and back. and my mother and I would pick him up across the street from the church [St. Paul’s Lutheran] on Connecticut Avenue on the other side.
Q – It sounds like you had an ideal childhood.
A – It was nice but probably boring to most people today. I enjoyed it and looking back I would like to go back to those days.
Q – Did your mother do the shopping in the family?
A – Yes. She did the shopping, My father did the wash. Well, they both did.
Q – Did you have an old fashioned machine or an automatic?
A – We had a wringer/washer. They had two sets of tubs. Wash goes into the first set tub. Shake it around and get it rinsed a little more then put it through the wringer. Then it went to the last water. Then it went through the wringer again. There was a basket there, and then they took it outside and hung it up.
Q – So your father did this?
A – Yes. But my mother did too.
Q – So he helped?
A – Yes
Q – Did you help?
A – I might have helped a little. I remember once one of my arms getting caught in the wringer, and my mother having to push the release bar.
Q – You were going to tell us about the time that you almost died – about Dr. McNitt.
A – I was six months old My sister was 4 years old, and she kissed a boy and she brought me home whopping cough and chicken pox. My mother took me to a pediatrician, who said “take Ralph home and make arrangements. He is going to die.” This is the story I heard from my mother. My mother and father stayed up and walked me up and down the hall. I had whooping cough. But I survived.
When I was 7, I got the measles and mumps together. Evidently, measles have to come out, They stayed in too long, and it made me sicker. Once again, the pediatrician said, “take Ralph home. He is not going to make it.” Edith [our roomer] came in handy. She said, “I know this doctor – Dr. McKnitt. He doesn’t take children but he will see Ralph.” So you can see how things happen. Realistically, if that did not happen I would probably have died.
Q – Did Dr. McKnitt have an office on Everett Street or somewhere else? Is that where he lived – by the church?
A – Dr. McKnitt did eventually live on Everett Street but not at that time. I don’t know where his office was or where he lived when he treated me. Dr. Snyder had a son [Dr. Luther Snyder] who was a doctor and lived on Everett Street with his wife. Dr. Snyder was a heart specialist. When he died, his wife married Dr. McKnitt. So Dr. McKnitt eventually lived at the house at the end of the block on Everett Street.
Q – Speaking of doctors, we learned that there was a Dr. Havel on McKinley Street, and he had a house on the triangle of Nebraska and McKinley. He had his office in his home You don’t know about him?
A – No. I remember a doctor on 45th Street, Dr. Tilley. He was my first wife’s doctor.
Q – I want to skip to something about the war. Was your father in World War II?
A – He was not in World War II, because he was considered essential being in communications. Also, I think he was in between the age limits. He was too old. My uncle did. My uncle enlisted.
Q – You would remember the Korean War?
A – I know the Korean War. I was 12 when it started.
Q – Do you have any memories about it?
A – I thought in those days since we won World War II, this would be a piece of cake. Basically, the North Koreans pushed us off the continent. The Chinese were not in at first and then [General] MacArthur took over, and he invaded up by Seoul, which is the capitol of South Korea. The basic idea was that the North Korean Army would get pushed back. The Chinese got word about what we would do. MacArthur wanted to go to China. Truman would not let him. The Chinese pushed the Americans forces and South Korean forces back.
Q – You were young then. You remember all of this?
A – Yes. I could tell them what kind of planes they used. I was interested in the mechanical things that boys liked in those days.
Q – Were you also interested in public affairs?
A – No. My wife is.
Q – But I mean back then?
A – No.
Q– But for some reason, you were interested in Korea?
A – I was interested in mechanical things – planes, cars, and boats.
Q – I think you talked a lot about happy memories. One of my questions is, what do you remember as happy memories of living in Chevy Chase?
A – It was where everybody was a neighbor. We all knew each other. We looked out for each other. If something happened, and my parents weren’t there, there was almost any house that I could have gone into.
Across the street was an older couple. We used to go sled riding in their back yard. They were sweet.
Q – What were their names?
A – The Murphy’s. And Blackie, the dog, comes back into the picture. They had a cherry tree that we climbed up in. We would climb up in the tree and say, “sic em.” That poor dog would go nuts. We just did things that kids do. When I was a kid, we played with pots and pans when I was younger. We didn’t have any toys. As I said, my parents didn’t have much money. My bicycle was an English racer – second hand. It was a good bike, and I had a dog when I was probably a younger teenager – Sonny – who I loved. He got himself killed by a truck. He would chase after them, because the vehicle made a lot of noise and the truck tried to outrun him.
Q – You did not replace him?
A – No We had a cat before that – Skippy. The dog was Tippy. So it was Skippy and Tippy.
Q – Is there anything that we haven’t asked you?
A – I probably will think a whole lot about other things after I leave. It was a wonderful time. It was a safe environment. Everybody was friends with everybody else. It was a fairly closed knit community.
Q – Were you aware that you were living in the nation’s Capital, or did you just think you were in a neighborhood?
A – No I didn’t think much about it being the Capital.
I didn’t think much about segregation so much in those days. There actually were not very many blacks in DC at that time. We used to go to the beach in summer time.
Q – Which beach?
A – Mayo – on the Chesapeake Bay – we didn’t go to the ocean. I remember that it was not only the blacks but also the Jews who were discriminated against. When I got older I drove into Mayo, and there was a sign there and it would say “gentiles only,” which meant no Jews allowed. I would ask my father “what does that mean?” He said, “no Jews allowed.” It is interesting to see how things changed. They changed for the better. Now we don’t discriminate against Jews or blacks or anyone else. Now some Americans want to discriminate against Muslims, and that is not fair. But we did it during World War II – taking Japanese out of California and putting them in concentration camps.
Q – You probably were just not so aware of race and discrimination. It was not an issue. You probably learned about it during the Civil Rights era.
A – Actually I think I knew about drinking foundations – for black and whites.
Q – In Washington?
A – In Washington.
Q – Where at?
A – Everywhere, No matter where you were. Bathrooms too. I never got into the bus situation because where I lived, it was all whites. There weren’t any blacks.
Q – How about the stores – like Woodies?
A – They had black people working there like janitors. That sort of thing.
Q – You didn’t see black people shopping?
A – Downtown I may have seen one or two. I don’t really recall. Woodies and Lansburg – their windows would be mechanized at Christmas time, which was fun. They got de-mechanized during the war. They were there but they couldn’t use electricity.
We did things. We went to the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Actually most of the things that I did was through the school – the Capitol and Washington Monument. I do more for my grandchild now. My parents were too busy. We made up our own schedule and did our own thing. The zoo was about as far as we would go.
Q – You would not go independently to the Smithsonian and places like that?
A – No. I could have gone with my sister. She was six years older. I had my first date in DC.
Q – Where?
A – At the Uptown Theater with Sue Koenig. She was my first date. I was 11, I believe. I had a dollar or two I think. We went to the Uptown Theater and came back to what was Peoples’ Drug Store on the corner of McKinley Street. They used to have a fountain. We had a Coke and hot dog. I remember I came home and told my mother, “this is too expensive. I am not going out again until I have a driver’s license,” and I didn’t until I got my driver’s license.
Q- Did you walk to the theater? How did you get there?
A – We took the bus. So I didn’t start going out with girls again until I was 16.
Q – Did you go to the prom?
A – Yes. I went to the senior prom and to the junior prom.
Senior prom I just had broken up with the girl I was going with. So I went with another girl I saw in the hall. We never went out again. I ran into a gal that I knew from high school about five years ago, and she was a slum landlord. She said, “I never thought I would be a slum landlord when I grew up.” I don’t know if she is alive or not. But I wish I could remember more.
Q – I think you remembered a lot. Any questions you want to ask, Carl?
Q – I resonated with one of the comments you made by San Antonio because I was in the Army at Ft. Sam Houston. You were at Lakeland?
A – You had Lackland Randolph AFB, Kelly AFB, Medina that you probably never knew about. The Atomic Energy had that. I had a story about that. There was an explosion there. A radioactive thing went off. I gave tests when I was down there. In the morning we had testing basic training, and in the afternoon there was a permanent party. I was leaning back in the chair, and I was feeling dizzy. All of a sudden, the building felt it got picked up and shifted back again. This was not supposed to leave the room. I went out to the hall, and the guy at other end is looking out the window. I said, “what the hell was that?” He said, “there it is.” I looked out, and I knew that Medina AFB was an Atomic Energy Commission facility. There was a mushroom cloud. I said “Oh Geeze, we’ve had it now.” What they told us was that it was a conventional explosion, but it did consume some radioactive material but it was not a radioactive explosion. That is why my eyeballs light up every night. [laughter].
Q – What was it like when you were at the age when you were going to be drafted?
A – I had never been on an airplane until I took my first plane fight going down to San Antonio. That was my first flight. It was on a Constellation – It had three rudders. It was a prop plane. They didn’t have any jets as such. They did shortly thereafter. They had jet props. It was an English plane. Then I was in Mississippi and went to tech. school there.
Q – Where in Mississippi?
A – Greenville. They had a little airstrip there. Once every three days a plane would fly in. That was different. But they closed it down. I remember the coldest place in my life was in Mississippi. I remember the electricity went off, because the wire went down from town. We are all sleeping in the barracks – in one room. I was asleep. The head guy was a captain who came around carrying blankets. He said, “are you cold?” I said, “not until you woke me up.”
I went to the Mississippi River one time. I think it was Biloxi.
We had a lot of free time at Greenville Air Force Base. I had one friend, he writes me once in a while. I was married. The others had passes and went to town. I didn’t because I was trying to save my money. I had very little. I usually was asleep when they came home.
San Antonio was interesting, because they had a small black community and a Hispanic community.
Q – Anything more you would like to say about living in Chevy Chase?
A – No. I think we covered a lot. But I may think of something later.
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