More on Memories- The Early Years

Heathfield, Sussex

Heathfield, Sussex, England

In my musings about the loss of short term memory as we grow older, my thoughts turned to my recollections of my young days. My earliest memory that I can recall, was around 1940 when I was about 4 plus years old having suffered my Mother the indignities of arriving in this world on January 20, 1936.

When the war broke out in 1939, I was living with my parents, my sister whose real name is Barbara Eileen but everyone called her Peggy and my two brothers Norman and Peter, in a house out in the country in the county of Sussex. Historically, the infamous Jack Cade, who led a rebellion in 1450 against King Henry VI was caught and put to a slow lingering death very close by with an huge engraved stone marking the spot, located in Cade Street.  At least he got a street named after him. Don’t know if it’s worth dying a horrible and painful death for though.

The lane I lived on for the first 11 years of my life was named Huggletts Lane. It was out in the country and when I say out in the country I mean, way out in the country. Almost everything in England is country with small villages every 3-4 miles apart. Technically we were in the village of Old Heathfield Village the actual center of which comprised of a pub, The Half Moon and a couple of shops all run by older people. At least, that is what it seemed like to me but then again, I was only 4 going on 5 and everyone seemed old.

My brothers and sister were all at least 10 years older than me so I never got to hang out much with them. I do remember them taking me on a hike through the woods which was a huge part of our lives growing up. We made our own entertainment and most of it had something to do with Nature and the great outdoors. Anyway, we were walking by a stream and all doing something different. As we were on a slope with the stream bank below us, my thing was to swing one handed around the trees that grew on the bank. Needless to say, one of them broke throwing me directly into the  stream at one of the deeper parts. My brothers hauled me out and we headed home on a bicycle that had no tires. I’ll never forget how rough that ride was.

They were always trying to play tricks on me either to just torment me or to scare me to death. Usual sort of irrational behavior that siblings treat each other and they had the advantage of being older than me, much older, so I was a prime target. One time, they took me to one of their friends house telling me it was haunted. We walked a mile or so and they made me wait outside then when they let me in, they tried to frighten me into believing that my sister was a ghost. They had covered her with a sheet and she was standing in the room by herself. For some reason, I wasn’t fooled that time.

My sister was in her last year of school which was located in the opposite direction in another village about 4 miles away called Punnets Town. I can remember her taking me with her on her last couple of days which was a really big deal for me as the rest of the senior class all thought I was cute and made a big fuss of me.

The following Fall when I was 5 years old, I attended the local school for younger kids located in Old Heathfield which was about 3 miles away. We walked to school rain or shine in a big group picking up other kids along the way. No one worried about us not being safe as is the problem nowadays and our parents were quite happy with this arrangement. In truth, until we were old or big enough to ride bikes, there was no other way to get there. As far as I can remember, no one rode a horse to school and there were no hitching posts out front.

The school was a large two room affair with one room for the younger kids up to about age 8 with the bigger of the rooms for the older kids. Back then, we had 8 classes a day and were  in school from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The Headmistress was a bear of a woman and a real tyrant. or at least that is how she appeared to me but again, I was pretty impressionable. Many the time she used her cane generally across the  hand but for more severe misdeeds, across the backside always in front of the entire school. You were considered to be a cry baby if you let out so much as a whimper. Stiff upper lip and all that. The British way.

The Headmistress’s name was Miss Ray and I will never forget her as she was not one to spare the rod. Don’t think I was ever spoilt though because of it. Not that I was a bad student and in fact, I was pretty smart but I had this knack for getting into trouble. I remained at that school until I was 10 when I took and passed the 11 Plus Exam which earned me the right to go Lewis County Grammar School as soon as I was 11. But that’s another story.

Looking out for Jerry

Because it was wartime, the older kids had to take turns in pairs keeping a lookout for German planes. If we spotted one, we would ring the very large school bell and all of the kids in the school would dive under their desks for protection. There was no where else to go as we didn’t have an air raid shelter that was close by. After we rang the bell, we were supposed to come in get under our desks like the rest of the kids but many was the time that we stayed out just to watch the planes. We had no fear and no idea the danger we were putting ourselves in.

As this story is supposed to be about memory or loss of it, one comparison I make in how easy it was to learn and remember things back then was our school plays. We used to put on plays attended by parents and friends as schools are wont to do here in the U.S. Turns out I was a pretty good actor with far less inhibitions than I have now. I didn’t mind being on stage and appearing before a large audience. That is much different than I am now. I am not afraid to speak in front of an audience as long as it is about a subject that I know well but I am no longer an actor and please don’t ask me to sing.  I clearly remember bringing home the book that contained the play and learning all that I needed, which was quite substantive, as I walked home from school. I suppose as one grows older and more self conscious, it is harder to perform for fear of making a complete fool of oneself unless one has had the proper training or is so outgoing that it is second nature to be the center of attention. Me, I’m that guy that would rather let someone else have the glory and prefer to stay in the background.  I had the same trouble when we were learning long division. I could not seem to get it right or properly understand the logic until I can vividly remember a light bulb going off in my brain and having a complete understanding of the problem. Ah, those light bulb moments. Wish I had a few more of them nowadays.

My Father was a house painter by trade and every morning he and a neighbor Mr Bert Holman, would set off on their bikes as they went to ply their trade. Mr Holman lived up the hill and would stop by our house to meet with my Father so the two of them could bike to work together. He had a son, John, who I would pal around with sometimes. John was a sickly child and was often laid up in bed. I think he had a severe case of Asthma. Without fail, every morning, Mr Holman would tap the thermometer and announce to the rest of us, the current temperature.

Heathfield taken in 2006

They both worked for my Uncle Ambrose who owned a construction company located in the village of Heathfield. This village was much bigger than the places closer to me like Cade Street, Old Heathfield and Punnets Town. It had a Main Street majestically called, High Street and had many more shops and even a movie theater called the Picture House. Not very original but as it was the only one within several miles, deserved the name. It would show Saturday morning matinees for the kids and the place was a mad house with noise and food and drink thrown everywhere. One thing it didn’t have was popcorn. probably a good thing as it would have added to the mess.

Heathfield had a butchers shop owned by a Mr Malpass with cuts of meat hanging outside the shop window. Next to it was the fishmonger whose name escapes me, with all of his wares displayed quite openly. Don’t know if people ever got sick from food poisoning back then but they probably called it by a different name like “the runs” or “the farts”. My greatest pleasure was the Hardware store only over there it was and probably still is called the Ironmongers Shop. This one had the most wonderful collection of tools and to me they were magic and utterly fascinating.  Like a lot of men, I am still in love with tools and gadgets and have all that I need for the things I like to do.There was also this wonderful bakery that had the most delicious crusty bread and cream cakes and even as a very young kid, I always enjoyed it when we stopped in the cafe part of the bakery and I was allowed to have my choice of one of the cream cakes. Funny, nothing has tasted as good since those days. Maybe that is because I am so weight and calorie conscious that I don’t eat cake anymore. In my young days, Heathfield was indeed a magical place to visit.

The house in which I lived was heated by open fireplaces as were most houses back in those days. We  burned either coal or coalite which was like reused coal. This was kept in one of the sheds and was delivered routinely every month by the gentleman aptly known as “the coalman”. He would carrying the stuff in large sacks on his back to place it in our shed. The coal shed was a little like the American Wood Shed only a lot dirtier although I can never remember being sent to the coal shed for any of my wrongdoings.

Double Decker Bus

The house itself was two stories semi detached with a huge mostly finished attic that was used as additional bedrooms.  Our neighbors were an older couple that lived on the other side, Mr and Mrs Akehurst. In our house in the kitchen built into one corner was a brick washtub known as a “copper” that was heated by a wood fire built under it and lit on wash and bath days. It was known as the “copper” because the actual tub part that heated the water and boiled the clothes was made of copper. A little further along the wall built into an alcove was an old fashioned kitchen stove with an oven on the side fired by the above mentioned coalite. Most of the cooking was done on this until the purchase of an electric oven brought us into the modern era. There was no indoor plumbing other than running water and no hot water. The bathroom was reached by going outside although it was attached to the house and connected to a septic system. Bath night was quite an ordeal as it meant lugging in a big old metal bath and filling it  with hot water that had been heated in the copper. Bath water was shared by all, one after the other. If you were lucky, you drew the first straw. If you were the last, the water was not quite so clean and getting cold. There was a semblance of order to bath night as the ladies were allowed to go first and the rest of us were banned to the living room to listen to the radio or read or if you were a male, to play with the mecano set and build things.

The house had a huge garden that we diligently planted out every year with staples such as potatoes, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and root crops like carrots, beets, parsnips and rutabaga known to us as swedes. We even planted out lettuces, tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse so we had our own salad fixings. Almost every house had a garden and without fail, everyone had it planted. It was after all, wartime and things were scarce and rationed. There were no such thing as modern day Supermarkets that can provide fruit and vegetables out of season. Over there at that time, you ate what you had when it was ready and canned the rest. It was hard to give stuff away as everyone was trying to do the same.  That was the way of life.

Then their was the inevitable chicken run that contained at least a half dozen chickens. They produced eggs and at Christmas, one of them was the unfortunate one to provide the Christmas Dinner.  We hardly knew what a Turkey was except it was something that rich people ate. Our garden had one solitary plum tree that always seemed to produce fruit in abundance. We made pies and jam with the fruit. In the corner on a bit of a hillock stood a very tall pine tree. This tree was probably 60ft tall. In later years, after my brother took over the house, he cut it down because, he said it was getting dangerous.

Now why do I remember small incidents like these when I was not yet 5-6 years old? How come my memories are so vivid of those times so long ago? More to follow…

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