Memoir essay from Norman J. Olson

journey of a baby boomer from the country to the suburbs

by:  Norman J. Olson

in 1959, at age 11, I moved from a small failing dairy farm in West Central Wisconsin to the slums of St. Paul, Minnesota’s East Side…

I went from a one room country school set in a sheep pasture, to Erickson Elementary which must have had about 500 kids….  a tough school in what today would be called an “inner city” neighborhood…   we lived upstairs from my mother’s parents in a big old house on Desoto Street (which I thought was named for the car)…  this had once been a nice house with a marble fireplace and a stained glass window over the front stairway, but had been divided into a duplex many years before and was now just another rundown house with brown shake siding on the rundown East Side of St. Paul…   the only tougher area in St. Paul at that time was the black neighborhood on Rondo Street…  which was demolished in the 1970s when the freeway connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis was by some mysterious chance run right down Rondo Street…  through the middle of the city’s black neighborhood…  so much for the “good old days…”

I remember the first night in the new apartment…  it was in late fall so cold weather had set in and the apartment had a space heater…  the farm house had been heated with wood or coal in a parlor furnace and had never been really warm in the winter…  with the natural gas fired space heater, we were amazed that you could make the inside of your house warm like summer, even in the middle of winter and for the first week, we kept it at like 80 degrees in there…  we were so amazed to be really warm in the winter… 

I also had my eyesight checked for the first time that fall and it was discovered that I was extremely near sighted…  I remember going to Dr. Shultz’s office in the old Lowry Medical Arts Building…  going up in the elevator, still a great novelty to me…  and then on the second visit, putting on the eyeglasses and having the world beyond arms reach come into focus… it was amazing to be able to see…  I remember looking out the window of the optometrist’s office and seeing a billboard outlined against the sky and being able to actually see it…  it was so amazing when the world went from being a blur to being something I could see…  no wonder I was not much good at baseball, I realized that other people could actually see the ball… amazing…

going to school was kind of a culture shock…  I was not stupid, but due to my very chaotic homelife, I was not very successful academically after the move…  the teachers were kind and told me I was “college material” if I would only do my school work…  but I just could not make myself do it…  and so was embarrassed every day to be the one in class who did not have their lessons prepared and was always on the verge of failing…  the teachers were mystified…  I think I was mostly just unhappy and depressed…  I would sit in class and draw…  pictures of ships and hot rod cars…  pictures of tough guys in leather jackets…  I was not very good at drawing, so the teachers could not understand why making those crappy looking drawings was more important than doing my school work… 

I did not have a lot of friends but I found that I was good at getting into fights…  I thought I was a tough country guy and could take any of the city slickers…  but it turned out that attitude got me beat up more than a few times…  and those little Italian, Irish and German kids were every bit as tough as I was and mostly much better fighters…  I remember this bigger kid named Karl…  he must have repeated a grade because he was a head taller than the rest of us and in sixth grade already had his hair combed in a cool ducktail…  and wore cool high school type clothes…  while the rest of us could not have combed our hair if we wanted too and dressed like little kids in jeans and polo shirts…  anyway, Karl had beaten me up without even breaking a sweat, or messing up his ducktail…  and so, I waited after school one day…  standing on the stone foundation of the school building which stuck out from the wall and made a stone platform about four feet off the ground…  I waited there because I knew Karl always walked that way leaving the school building…  and so when he went by, I jumped on his back… knocked him down and sat on him and punched for all I was worth until he started to cry….  then I got up and ran because I knew, if he got out from under me, he would kick my ass again…  but from then on, he left me alone…  I think he thought I was crazy… 

but mostly, I just got beat up…  I came home from trips to Wilder Playground with my clothes ripped and a bloody face…  my mom told me to stay away from the playground…  I did not stay away from the playground because that was where everybody went but I eventually wised up and started trying to avoid the tough guys…  I did beat up one kind of effeminate kid that everybody else also beat up…  but then I felt really bad about that for a long time…  I still feel bad about it…  so, had I won any fights, I don’t think I would have felt better about beating people up…  than I felt about being beaten… 

I had a bicycle that I had cobbled together from parts of other bicycles… and I liked to ride around…  I did not go very far, but felt that I was somehow mobile…  that I could go someplace if I really wanted to…  and I knew that someplace, there had to be a world more interesting than the Eastside of St. Paul…  a place like the neighborhoods I saw on television where everybody looked nice and had nice clothes…  where nobody got in fights and where parents were sober and looked at their kids…  I suffered terribly from night terrors, had terrible vivid dreams about being attacked by monsters, vampires and Frankenstein monsters, flying reptiles with human heads…  my mother would hear me screaming and try to sooth me by telling me that it was just dreams…  which helped a little, I think…

I really did not have any friends so would ride my bicycle around by myself…  this bicycle did not have any brakes and so whenever I was on a hill, I had to drag my feet to stop and it really is a wonder that I never was run over… because coming down the Desoto street hill, I could not have stopped for cross traffic under any circumstances… 

I had a cousin who lived in St. Paul, who would take me around to see the sights…  we would take the bus downtown where we would climb up all the steps to the dome of the state capital to see the gold horses…  there was an old mansion across the street from the state capital  that housed the Science Museum…  they had a mummy which we thought was really cool that was kept in a turret at the corner of the old sandstone mansion…  which was kind of creepy but cool in a way that sixth graders could understand…  we liked open stairways and knew of buildings downtown that had open stairways where you could look down over the stair railing and see the floor far below, once you had climbed to a high story… 

I liked to make kites and made box kites out of paper or plastic wrap and lilac sticks… the kites flew very well…  I once made a huge kite in the attic of the house on Desoto street out of a big sheet of plastic I found and some boards…  I had big ideas!!!  but I never tried to fly it…  maybe I realized that it would have taken a hurricane to lift that stupid kite off the ground… and it would not have fit through the attic door anyway…

we lived on Desoto street for two years and then moved to suburban Oakdale…  using my dad’s GI loan, to a housing development that was just being built up in an old farm field…  the contractor had set up model homes and built basements on all the streets and then when a customer came, the contractor would build a house on one of the basements to the plan of one of the model homes…  we used to find salamanders in the basements…  pretty little wet, green lizard like creatures…  and I buried time capsules all over the area…  putting drawings, coins etc. into a jar and then burying the jar near one of the unimproved basements…  this was very much a working class suburb and the residents were mostly people joining the “white flight” from the Eastside of St. Paul, to the bucolic semi urban fields of Oakdale… 

so, my parents went, in about three years, from poverty stricken farmers to working class suburbanites…  and I was along for the ride…

1959 – age 12 in St. Paul, a different (indifferent) universe

summer was sidewalks and

mostly empty streets…  no

more trilliums

and violets…  my own war

had finally begun…

and there I was

unarmed,

nearsighted, confused by

touches

and smells…  sad, frightened and always

in those days, feeling that all I saw

and felt and touched

was like a poorly done theater flat… 

garish…  phony…  too bright

in sunlight…

the entire city scene

and the crowd of people, especially the crowd of people,

was a papier-mâché, plastic, or even gold and ivory mask…

maybe somebody’s gentle

Protestant god hunkered

behind

the mask…  waiting to jump

out at the last minute…  like

some fool

at a lame surprise party…

or maybe nothing…  or maybe

deep wells of space and

time…  a cosmos

of galaxies spinning like

pinwheels

above a black and

            bottomless

            abyss…

or maybe just the gray/black

streets of St. Paul…

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