Friday, April 19, 2013

December 17, 1941

The date on today's newspaper said December 17, 1991.  It struck me that it was 50 years ago to the day that my mother and I had driven from Pottsville, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. How it all has changed.

My father had gone there some months before to help supervise the construction of a large complex on 16th Street called “The Meridian Hotel for Women.” The work was now well underway and he had managed to locate a small duplex for us to rent. It was now ten days after Pearl Harbor.  War had been declared.  The depression seemed to be over.

We left Pennsylvania after the movers had packed up the furniture from our house on Market Street. We drove south through Harrisburg and Gettysburg and came into Maryland on Route 15 at a tiny town called Emmitsburg, past imposing Mount Saint Mary’s, a Catholic men’s college and seminary. Then on to Thurmont and past the Snake Farm which sounded promising.

Some miles on we drove through Frederick, a busy little town and out past the School for the Deaf into farmland and more tiny towns – Urbana, Clarksburg, Hyattstown, Gaithersburg – more farms, then past a row of slumlike houses, each two sharing a pump, into Rockville.

We came in through an area of black-owned houses and small businesses. I remember a restaurant called “Mr. T’s on the Pike.” We drove up to the big 1st National Bank, then left through several blocks of stores and the Courthouse and wound around out of town onto Frederick Road or Rockville Pike, depending on which sign we read.

We passed yet more farms, a small private airport, clusters of houses here and there and then we saw a sign saying we were now on Wisconsin Avenue. More blocks of housing and shops, then apartment buildings and a beautiful building, the National Cathedral, still surrounded by scaffolding.

The road went down hill and narrowed and we were in a busy shabby area called “Georgetown.” Wisconsin Avenue ended suddenly at some warehouses and the Potomac River. We turned left onto M Street which became Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks later. None of these roads seemed to keep the same name! I was pleased to see that Pennsylvania Avenue, named for my state after all, passed by the White House.

In retrospect I must give my mother credit for her driving and handling new streets, buses, street cars, Washington Circle, and a lot more traffic than Pottsville. We had come to downtown Pennsylvania Avenue by this time and passed the imposing Willard Hotel and other big buildings. I saw to the left, a little later, the National Theater advertising Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance." 

Just beyond on a side street and up from the Neptune Room restaurant was the Earle Theater, playing  "Lydia," with Merle Oberon and also a stage show.  This was more to my liking as I was a dedicated movie goer. As we passed more stores and Government buildings we saw ahead the great white dome of the Capitol building.

Even I, at blasé 14, was impressed. As we got on the circle in front of the Capitol, we could see over toward Union Station, the Dodge Hotel where my father had gotten rooms for the night.  We went around the circle and around and around again.  We couldn't get off.  As we prepared to be trapped there forever a policeman appeared and guided our Ford with the Pennsylvania plates in the right direction.

The next day, with my father at the wheel, we negotiated the circle again and up Pennsylvania Avenue, past rows of houses with neighborhood stores. Joy!  There were two more movie theaters, The Penn which was featuring "Weekend in Havana" and further on the other side of the street, the Avenue Grand advertised "Navy Blues" starring Jack Carson. We passed a small restaurant with a sign in front for “Sicilian Tomato Pie.”  What was that? On we went around Barney Circle and across the Anacostia River on the John Phillip Sousa Bridge.

As we came off the bridge I saw a large building advertising “Mrs. Stevenson’s Pies.” I entirely missed what was playing at the Highland Theater on the other side of the street.  Pennsylvania Avenue stretched up the hill to a new shopping area and a housing development called “Fairfax Village.” There were several blocks of duplex houses interspersed with three story apartment buildings. We turned at the top of the hill on 38th Street and down to the bottom to the last group of duplexes.  Here we were, a stone's throw from Suitland Road and two blocks from the Maryland line.  This was it. I looked in dismay at the house. It was so much smaller than the one we had left in Pennsylvania. As if on cue, the moving van arrived with our things.  My parents and the van drivers became very busy moving, and I sat in the car sulking, lonely and feeling very sorry for myself.

This was my ninth move, and the older I got, each change to a new place was a bigger wrench. I would sit in my bedroom in this small house and write 21-page letters to friends I had left behind and be homesick listening to Jackson Lowe, the DeeJay on the new station WWDC, which played current hits like  “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” and “String of Pearls.” Eventually, the letters would grow shorter and be sent off less frequently, as I made friends and learned to navigate the great and wonderful Maryland-DC transportation system.  The WM&A bus stopped right in front of my house.  I discovered the joys of downtown, then centered around  F and G Streets. There were shops, department stores, the two floors of wonder in Murphy’s 5 & 10, eating places, and above all the movie theaters – Capital. Palace, Keith’s, Columbia, Metropolitan, and Earle – two with live stage shows.

I would start babysitting for neighbors at 20 cents an hour. I particularly remember the Temples. Mr. T worked at the Census Bureau, played guitar, and collected railroad songs. He later achieved local fame as Pick Temple.  Then there was Ben Botkin, who in addition to his government job, was collecting songs, poetry, folk stories, and jump rope rhymes which he later had published.

After the house was put into some sort of order, we went up the hill again to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant for supper.  I saw on the menu that milk shakes were 15 cents instead of the ten charged in Pennsylvania. I was told the price had just recently gone up.

On the way back home, my father pointed out the dark shadow of the Capitol dome across the river.  It had been lit every night, but now it was dark and would stay that way until VE Day.

The next day I was enrolled at Anacostia High School and would start a new chapter in my life. Fifty years ago seems like yesterday.

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