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My Altoona

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The Red Caboose Page
Chapter Five
Herb Ruscin: My Altoona
The Red Caboose Page
By Herb Ruscin and Roger Rasmussen
With photos and comments from friends and strangers
s the poem "IF" by Rudyard Kipling notes, it is possible for one person to make a difference in
the world! Such is the case with the men who are described, memorialized, explained, and
dissected in this section of our publication. Most often they were simple in their demeanor, plain
in their daily living, colorful in their character, yet they added a meaningfulness to the life of a
railroad town that would be unknown to the reader except for the memories, photos, and
documents still existing in the hidden drawers, minds, and photo albums of those who lived during
the 1940-1970 era. Thanks to Herb Ruscin, Bill Glassbrenner, Bob Thompson, and others unknown
or forgotten who added their flare to this memory book.
Some men made a difference in our lives; some men were the difference! From Darold Wooding
ton, Frank Bresina , Percy Rasmussen- my Father, Leo Looby, Robert Ruscin-Herb's Father, Darold
Jarosh, Issaac Hickock, to Alton Sturz, these men performed duties, task if you would, that most of
us never understood, or gave little credence to. These are some of the unsung heroes of our day who
did the little things called "dirty work"; yet, without their efforts, the trains would never have left
the station; the food would never have been delivered; the mail with good and bad news would never
have graced the eyes of the receivers; peace and security would never have prevailed on the streets
of Altoona; hungry stomachs would never have been filled; and, our cars would have sat in the yards
or garages of our residence. Herb and I would not be the same without them. Thanks men!
It is not enough " for man to live by bread alone" or so the statement goes; but out of the "mouths
of our once youth comes the words that best describe the lives of the men who walked quietly,
although at times they were heard, and their words of wisdom and kind acts linger yet, yet their
paths helped lead a wondering and wandering town called Altoona toward a way of life mostly lost
in America today. These were the men who made a difference and they were the men who were the
difference. I knew each of them personally, interacted with them in many different ways, believed
in what they did to earn a living, at times hero worshipped them, but more importantly, I remember
as did those other worshippers such as Herb Ruscin. Together we have retraced the footprints of
these pioneers, and while many other deserving individuals have not been mentioned, for this
initial publication called the "Red Caboose", we give you Herb's and Roger's Medal of Honor
winners. Those unknown, not included for any reason, and those awaiting the pen of other writers,
we leave to a future publication.
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The Overhead
Herb Ruscin
here is an old adage that states it's not what you know, but who you know. After close to 50
years in the profession called work, I guess I would have to agree with that old saying. It
was probably invented by someone who was not as close to Cleopatra as they wished to be, so I
can see where it would apply in certain circumstances. . . but not all.
Between my junior and senior years of high school I met a young lovely, two
years my junior, who came from St. Pats and was of Norwegian and Irish decent.. We went
together during my senior year of high school, and corresponded for a year or so
after I joined the Navy. We had a transient relationship, after all, when you are sixteen and
eighteen, who knows what life holds in store for you. I got along fabulously with her parents, and
like to think that I was the kind of guy that they wanted their daughter to marry, as that would be
the ultimate compliment. I used to say that after I went into the Navy that I got along better with
her parents than I did with her. But I don't mean to talk about our going together, but rather
because of knowing her I would be able to put 2 and 2 together and come up with a conclusion. . .
even if it was much later in my life.
Her name was Kathy (the same as my wives name) and her dad was a very gregarious
Norwegian named Jim. He had complete trust in me, as gentlemen with his daughter and the
physical condition of his 1954 red and white Ford station wagon. He proved that trust one
summer evening by loaning me the use of the station wagon one Friday night. He didn't lend the
car to take his daughter out, but rather run home to get a good night sleep. A good night's sleep
required so I could get up early to pick up him and his daughter, and drive up to Lake Menomin
for a day of fishing, and bragging rites. The bragging rites belonged to Kathy, as Jim and I got
skunked while she bagged three, two of which were decent fish. I am sure now that although he
has been gone for ten years now that Jims trust in me with his car, and his daughter was well
Kathy's mom Kitty was a sparkly Irish lass, and with her quick wit and devilish smile, a
pleasure to be with. The family lived down by Carson Park on Union Street, and Kathy 's
grandma lived almost directly behind her on Congress Street. While dating Kathy we made many
trips over to her grandma's house and I believe she liked me almost as much as her parents did.
Kathy had a couple of uncles, one of which was a commercial artist and worked for the St. Paul
Pioneer Press as an artist. One time while visiting her grandma she got out some of Pat's
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drawings and painting to show us how talented he was. I remember in particular one painting of
a B-24 bomber that Pat had
done that really impressed me, I was a WW2 fan and anything to do with the war impressed me.
I think Pat must have been a member of a bomber crew as I could not imagine doing such an
extraordinary job of capturing a bomber in formation unless he had drawn it as they were flying
the tediously long flight on a bombing mission. His nickname was Pat, but his birth name was
Marshall, the same as his dad, who was a
railroad engineer.
Now fast forward 40 years to middle aged man who suddenly became enthralled to what
happened in his home town long before he was born. Even though I never went to Altoona,
except for a couple of months of Kindergarten, I will always be a Railroader at heart; even if my
high school ring has the mark of a Rambler. I lived right next to the railroad tracks and after
joining the Navy found out how hard it was to go to sleep in the
barracks without the sing song of the switch engines making up their trains:
So when I started going back to my roots and the roots of my roots, it was natural that I
would look into the history of the railroad and its influence on Altoona. Looking for something
you don't know much about? Go to the library for the answers you seek, because it is all there. I
learned about the photography of O.W Link who back in the 50' s photographed one of the last
operating steam engine railroads, The Norfolk and Western. He photographed the pictures of the
soon to be extinct steam engines at night using flash to give the two books of his photos a
hauntingly eerie effect. He photographed all aspects of railroad life, even including a process that
occurred every five years to a steam engine. It was called wheeling and included the complete
replacement of the boiler assembly from the drive train of the engine. If I have peaked you
interest, the two books of his photos are titled "The Last Railroad in America' and "Steam, Steel
& Stars" and the Eau Claire library has a copy for your approval.
Although these are interesting or more importantly a necessity to a real train enthusiast, it
was another book that peaked my interest. I was so eager to open it up when I saw the Omaha
Road on the front cover that I by passed a second look at that cover, although it would haunt me
later. The Omaha Road was the original railroad in Altoona, and surely this was the book I needed to
get my history of the Altoona railroad history. I would learn why I think Altoona was called Cinder
City and why Altoona was such a big railroad town. But as I went through and looked at the hundreds
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of black and white pictures I would slowly see a pattern, and that pattern pointed to Altoona even
though the book covers all of the Omaha Road, from Elroy to St. Paul.
As I read the captions under the pictures I began to find a lot of pictures taken in Altoona and
the surrounding area. Most of these pictures were taken by a M.P. McMahon, and when I got to page
205 of the book I saw a familiar picture, although I couldn't pinpoint where I had seen it before. The
was no location under the photo, just that it was an east bound Viking and that the Omaha Road
operated right-handed on double track territory, photo by M.P. Mc Mahon. Something said I had
drank enough from the information fountain, as I shut the book I saw that photo again, only it was
colored and had been made into a painting with more of the bridge that the train was passing under
included in the painting.
Then the wheels begin to turn, couldn't M.P Me Mahon stand for Marshall Patrick Me
Mahon, who was my old girlfriend's uncle? Hadn't his dad been an engineer and wouldn't Pat know
his schedule so he could be standing in the right position when the east bound Viking was heading
out of Altoona and passing under the overhead? I went right back to page 205 to take a second look,
and then I went one page further and I knew the answer was yes.
Page 206 showed an east bound Train 508 speeding along between Hudson and St. Paul in the
1950's. And with the caption is: "Photographer Pat Mc Mahon's father was an Omaha railroader and
young Pat nearly followed suit, but settled for an art career instead." M.P. Mc Mahon in italics. I
would think that proves that the cover picture on the book The Omaha Road-Chicago, St. Paul,
Minneapolis & Omaha by Stan Mailer is the old Altoona overhead. That plus the fact that everyone
that I have shown that cover to thinks the same as me; what do you think?
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From correspondence – Roger Rasmussen to Jack Blackburn – July 2009:
Herb [Ruscin] called me [Roger Rasmussen] a few days ago; I baby sat him and two other
siblings during my teen years. Knew his Mom and Dad plus uncle very well. He and I have
collaborated on several ideas before. We've talked a little about the format for the 1935 and
possible 65 maps. We are somewhat in same ballpark. His family- Mom's -Klemstein (sp) are
grassroots. His Grandpa was a significant person in Altoona's early history. The Ruscin family
came to Altoona in the 40's. His Grandpa Ruscin and I worked together for EC County
Highway. He was one of my work mentors. We rode and worked together about once per week.
I as the kid and he the boss.
Herb is very interested in Altoona History.
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Altoona Clinker City Days
Herb Ruscin
omehow it just doesn't roll off the tongue like Altoona Cinder City Days, but then if you go to
the dictionary and look up the definition of each, they really are fairly similar:
Cinder: Any matter, as coal or wood, burned but not reduced to ashes.
Clinker: A hard mass of fused stony matter formed in a furnace, as from impurities in the
According to the Leland (nee) girls, Arlene and Jo, their mother won a contest for naming
the annual Altoona celebration, but Altoona was called Cinder city a long time before 1968, and
I wondered why. So I started asking around, trying to find out specifically why Altoona had that
Mr. Altoona, Ralph Ely thought it was because the streets and driveways of Altoona
residence were paved with the material, and that seemed to make sense, but then one wonders
why Altoona had so many ciders that they could pave their street with them.
Hank Harris and John Thurston were of the same opinion, mainly that there were a lot of
cinders in Altoona, and when things are in abundance (and free) people tend to find a use for
them, but again, why the abundance.
I have been going to the library a lot lately, checking out the books they have there on railroad,
trying to glean any information I can on Altoona's glory days during the steam era. It is ironic
when you run upon something that you aren't looking for, and I think I have hit the jackpot
(twice) by checking out a book titled The Omaha Road -Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and
Omaha. If you are a railroad enthusiast, this book is one that has to be added to your collection,
if it hasn't been already. It has the complete history of the railroad that used to run Altoona,
which was later bought up by the Chicago Northwestern. It is chalk full up pictures of just
about every engine that was ever run by the Omaha, the changes in cab numbers, and even
when it was scrapped. I put it on my Christmas list, and I wilt make sure I don't release this
story till I have my copy in my tight little fists, as alas, the book is out of print. If Kathy can't
find a copy on ebay, I am seriously thinking of stealing the library copy, as I haven't finished
reading it yet, three weeks wasn't enough time.
According to a plot map dated 1927 that I borrowed from Bob Wagner about. 1.0 years
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ago, the cinder pit was located about a hundred yards east of the roundhouse. Three tracks
entered from the east so three engines could purge their fireboxes at the same time. You might
think, so what, Altoona had a place for the engines to clean their fireboxes, didn't every depot
have such a place? The answer is no, and that is because of design.
If you happen to have a fireplace or a wood furnace in you home, you know that for
maximum output of heat that you have to clean out the firebox frequently, otherwise you will
not get the heat that you desire. The more debris in the firebox, the less room for fuel and the
needed oxygen mix for a hot burning fire. The same goes for the firebox of a steam engine, only
the less heat you have, the less horsepower is produced.
So go back about 80 years ago and you are a fireman on a K or I class steam engine.
You are headed east going either east toward Oregon, or hanging a right at the Mississippi and
heading towards Duluth and Superior. You stop at the base of the Knapp hill to take on water to
enable you to make the energy-sapping climb up the steepest hill on the line. As knowledgeable
firemen, you know that this is also the spot to purge you firebox of the unwanted clinkers,
cinders, and ash. But the taking on of water is a short time event, so as time is of importance,
you just dump you waste next to the tracks, so as to finish before the water replenishment is
complete. And that is what most firemen did, just dump their waste along the tracks. Now back
to the cinder definition.
Definition Number 4. A coal that is still burning, but not flaming. So if you take the cinder out of
the firebox, and expose it to the air, you are helping the coal to complete its burn, and that's what
happened, thanks to a lot of firemen, they enabled the cinder to finish burning, but not in a
firebox. More specifically, they were setting the railroad ties on fire, at the cost of $140.00
annually. Not only was the cost of replacing the ties upsetting to the Omaha execs, but the lost
track use time due to repairs.
When the east and west Omaha's merged, Altoona turned out to be almost exactly half way
between St. Paul and Elroy, the two main depots of both lines. So if they were going to have a
designated spot for the official cleaning of the fireboxes, Altoona was the spot. So the edict was
adopted that Altoona would be the only designated spot for engine purging. To make sure the
Altoona tracks would not suffer the burns that occurred in Knapp, a special spay system was
adopted to extinguish the cinders when the air revived them.
The pit was established in the mid 20's and was 149.5 feet long by 30 feet wide, and was
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used till the last steam engine left Altoona in 1957. The pit was covered over in the late 50's.
Barb Duszynski knew why Altoona was called cinder city, because of the pits. But I found
it interesting why the pits were in Altoona, and I hope you have found it interesting also. But I
found it ironic that I was looking for one thing but found the answer to something else.
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In appreciation of your untiring interest and efforts in behalf of the Youth of
our Community, we the graduating class of 1958 affectionately dedicate our book
to you.
Your understanding and guidance in making our Youth Center a reality
exemplifies your willingness to contribute to and cooperate with the young
people of our Community.
This token of our esteem is our way of saying, 'Thanks to you, Ike!'
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By Herb Ruscin
Dodge city had its cop called Wild Bill Hickock, Altoona had its own
Hickok, but his name was Ike. He might not have been famous like Wild
Bill, but he will always be remembered for the way he performed his job,
and by the way he treated the young people of Altoona who were in their
teens during his watch. I don't think he had a deputy while he was chief, but
then that was back during the 50’s when Altoona didn't have a bank, and
the law breaking was done mostly by teens who weren't aware yet of the
lines between right and wrong. He carried a gun, but I can't remember
noticing it like the cannons the police wear now. I doubt that he ever used it
because I can't remember a lot of law breaking when he was chief.
He drove a 1954 Buick two tone, light blue over just a little darker blue. It
had a siren on the front driver's side fender that was shaped like an
elongated acorn. That was the extent of the markings that would tell you
that it was a police car. I am sure it was his own private vehicle, as it was
always at his residence at 628 1
Street East in Altoona. But when he was
leading the fire truck on a fire run that elongated acorn seemed to make
twice the noise of the siren on the fire truck. And Ike was always leading
the way, and that was probably because of the communications web. The
fire call would go into the railroad depot because of their radio system.
They could call Ike on their radio and I believe they started the fire alarm
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also. Everything seemed to revolve around the depot because they could
get a hold of Ike, and he in turn would meet the truck and tell them where
they were going.
The first time I had personal contact with Ike was through little league. We
were having a Saturday practice at the little league field and Ike drove by slow
and pulled over. It didn't raise a lot of eyebrows at the time, maybe none of us
had anything to feel guilty about. We were practicing bunting this Saturday
morning, and not having a good time of it. A few of the guys had gotten hit on
the fingers when they stuck the bat out to bunt the ball. Ike stood their for a
while watching, and as the line shortened to my turn he walked up to the
plate. I was up next, and not relishing the fact that my fingers might end up
smashed trying to bunt the ball. He came up, took the bat out of my hand, and
commenced to show me how to draw my fingers up the bat after bending my
fingers behind the bat before I moved them up the bat into a batting stance. I
guess I thought at the time that maybe Babe Ruth showed him how to bunt.
But then maybe he did because our team got real good at the bunt, and when
ever I thought of using that trick to get on base I would remember him showing
me how to do it, and I usually laid a good bunt and got on first.
I only had one official run in with Ike. It started out innocently enough, a bunch
of guys behind the Methodist Church located one 1
Street West. A Saturday
afternoon with a fresh snow, we were looking for some excitement, or more
clearly stated, something to throw the fresh packed snow at. Someone
mentioned that none in the group could possibly hit the round stained glass
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window high up in the back of the church. I learned a lesson about dares that
day. When you are the biggest kid in the group (I was with the Squire boys and
a couple Larson boys, all younger than me) maybe you should remember you
might be able to do something they know they can't accomplish. I guess
maybe I thought I couldn't reach that high with my snow ball, so I packed one
and let it fly. There was a round circle in the middle of the round window, and
that is right where my snowball went through the stained glass. I stood there
looking at the window that was now just a hole in the building. I turned to say
something on the order that I didn't think I could do what I had just done. But I
was talking to myself as everyone had scattered, no one was left to admire my
handy work. So I just walked slowly home.
I kind of figured that wasn't the end of it. The Squires lived right across
from the church, and the Larson's were only a block away. It was Saturday, so
church would be happening the next day. I guess I knew I would get busted,
and I did. It didn't happen that day, and I even made it through Sunday, and
then Monday, and by Tuesday night I thought I might have just pulled it off.
But after supper Tuesday as I was doing the dishes there was a knock at the
door. I went and answered it, and there stood Ike. He asked me if he could
come in, I told him yes. He asked me if I had thrown a snowball through the
Methodist church stained glass window, and I told him yes. He then said
something that made my blood run cold, he told me to get my coat as I had to
come with him. As I got my coat, I couldn't believe I was going to jail, I was
only 11. We headed for the city auditorium where his office was, but we took a
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turn on 1
and headed for the Methodist church. The lights were on and there
were a half dozen cars parked in front of the church. When I realized what
was going on I think I would have preferred 20 years in the slammer.
We walked into the church and up to the front. There was a table set up
right under where the stained glass window used to be, and there were four
men and three women sitting at the table. The hole was covered with a sheet
of plywood to keep out the cold. I just stared at that plywood and waited for the
hammer to fall. They asked me questions on the order of how much did I think
that window was worth, and how was I going to pay for it. After they answered
their own question and told me how much a new window would cost I realized
I could answer a question they didn't ask, how long would it take me to pay
them back, the age 40 or 50 came to mind.
I was pretty close to tears when they stated that they had a solution to the
problem. They realized that my family couldn't afford to purchase a new
stained glass window, and that it would take me a long time to earn the
money to do so. But they believed that I was at fault and should do a penance
for not coming forward and admitting to what I had done, even though it was
accidental. Because the snow had caused the damage, they figured that the
snow would be my mode of penance. If I agreed that it was a fair solution, they
would forgive my dept if I would shovel their sidewalk every time an inch or
more of snow fell on it. It should be mentioned that the Methodist church is on
a corner lot, so I had a lot of shoveling to do, not only because of the length of
the sidewalk, but I don't remember getting as much snow as that year. But I
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did hold up my end of the bargain, and was grateful that was all the penalty I
had to pay. I somehow think that Ike had a lot to do with working out that
arraignment. He knew I didn't break that window on purpose, but I did need a
lesson air accountability, and I did learn from that experience, and to this day I
am ready to stand up to anything that I must be accountable for.
The story goes that Ike was counting out fine change one evening when his
heart gave out. I didn't go to the funeral even though it was at St Mary's. But I
sat out in our garage and listened to the music from the church, and cried. I
had already lost a grandpa by this stage of my life, and I hadn't cried then. I
guess I figured grandpa was old and that the eventual wasn't far off, so when
it happened, it wasn't a shock. I guess what bothered me about Ike was the
fact that it was so unexpected and when he died a lot of good passed with
I never thought I would see a cop like Ike again. The men that replaced
him were good men, but not like Ike. I was proven wrong right after I got out of
the Navy in 1970. The newest chief of the Altoona police department stopped
to say hi one sunny July day when I was putting a coat of wax on my Mustang,
and his name was Dave.
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By Roger Rasmussen
Wild Bill Cody was famous for shooting! He was a great marksman! He was also known as Wild
Bill Hickcock. Altoona had its own sheriff, cop if you must, and I seldom saw Ike with a gun or a
club. He didn't need one. His quiet demeanor, his soothing words, his capacity to unnerve the most
difficult situations, including a few where I was involved as a teenager, his unswerving commitment
to never arresting a person unless there was no resolution, and his dedication to the daily personal life
of each resident, especially teenagers, rests in my mind as his greatest accomplishments. He was our
peace officer; while he wore a badge and uniform, as a youth I thought of Ike as one of my dearest
friends. I gave him lots of reasons for not being my friend too!
I agree with Herb's documentation on Ike and I would add that 100's of other youth, now senior
citizens, would second our thoughts, feelings, and appreciations on this giant of a man who quietly
but with assuredness patrolled the streets of Altoona during some difficult times.
Drunkenness was not an unknown attribute near the taverns on Spooner and 1st Street East nor in the
railroad yards of the CNW Railroad. It was common knowledge, and my eyes and memory will
attest to the frequency with which I encountered men, but periodically women too, who were
intoxicated. Altoona did not have more than its share of these-Fall Creek, Augusta, Fairchild, almost
every railroad town, had their share too. Since I spent most of my teen years walking the streets of
Altoona, between the Dairy Bar, D.L's Gas Station, Looby's, the Auditorium, and one of the two
restaurants, Mooney's or the 400 Club, it was easy to encounter those men who enjoyed the bottle.
Times could be tough, especially during WWII, and those frequent lay-offs where unemployed men
had little do to but wander and wonder. It was during those frequent lay-off times, the early 1950's
that Ike and his "Barney Fife" sidekick George Hoff, kept peace in Altoona.
Ike was not one to give tickets for speeding, drinking, or bad behavior even though many of my
relatives deserved such. George, on the other hand, didn't mind giving a speeding ticket now and
then. I heard once that he threatened to give his Dad a ticket, but I never confirmed it. I knew these
men because they allowed me, and others too, to ride with them during their duty tour. This was
especially true with George who worked weekends while Ike was off duty or on vacation; on that
point, I don't remember Ike ever taking a vacation. I suppose he did! George, on the other hand,
worked most weekends during the early 1950's. I enjoyed riding with him on Saturday nights for it
was then that we patrolled "lover's lane" - Wilson Drive and Lake Altoona area. George loved to
catch "lovers"; we would both have flashlights and we would drive slowly, without lights on, until
we saw the car. Quietly we would sneak-up and with one movement shine the lights into the car.
Most of the people in the car I knew; they were not young people always. Some were my friends.
Once viewed, they became either my friends or they avoided me. I wondered, years later, why some
people shunned me!
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Well, it seems as though some members of my family enjoyed the fruit of the vine and so Ike
periodically made a trip to my home; sometimes he brought a member home who couldn't walk
straight, and some time he came to check on me- why I had bothered to try and steal watermelon
from Mr. Peterson's garden; of course, I was guilty, along with six of my buddies. Paying the $15
fine to Ike, who gave it to Bruce, wasn't nearly as bad as the fact that we failed to get even one
melon. Hurting more was the fact that we had to wade through two swamps upto our waist to avoid
being caught. Ike
only asked once: "Roger were you at...and he never had to finish the sentence—YES! " I was guilty
more than once. I paid only once!.
Ike Hickock was no lawman; he was a peace -keeper whether that involved what we now call
"family disturbances" or if it meant helping teenagers keep out of trouble. Ike believed the job of a
cop was prevention first and punishment only when nothing else would work. I never saw Ike arrest
a person during my many nights with him. He never arrested a member of my immediate or wider-
family, even though there were many times he should have. Altoona never got rich off of Ike's
Ike Hickock, as Herb Ruscin notes, made a difference in the lives of youth in Altoona, and as the
picture notes, his dedication to their welfare was so richly known and expressed by the simple
statement in the school annual of 1958—" your understanding and guidance" ! I would add- "
your acceptance of us as young kids and your commitment to our well-being" to his monument, for
as Herb would say, "what could we have done to deserve such a friend"? The peace trees planted in
Ike's memory ,by school kids, have grown into strong towering signs of the healthy nature of a
small town called Altoona, just as we, the youth of the 1950's, have grown into healthy citizens of
our respective communities. Thanks to guys like Ike Hickock, his dream for us has been fulfilled
because he helped us develop into worthy citizens." Everything good that goes around comes
around in future generations." We thank you Ike for making the difference and being the difference
in our lives. Every generation and every town is blessed with quiet disciples: "The Lord has a way of
matching the needy with the givers." Ike was a giver!
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The Principal’s Office
By Herb Ruscin
In The Seventh Annual Year Book for St. Mary's Academy and High School there is a
picture of the old railroad hotel as it looked in the 1914-15 school year as a boarding school for
girls. If you remember the old school when it was St. Benedicts Boy School you will remember
how imposing it was with the double wide 7 step entranceway with the double library type doors
opening into the grand foyer which used to be the foyer when it was a railroad hotel in the late
century. You may also remember the part of the building that jutted out over the steps that
was the principal’s office and general typing office area. This office and typing room was only an
outdoor porch over the entranceway in the 1914-15 yearbook picture. The Benedictine nuns
purchased the school in 1915 and had the porch enclosed and the roof raised to enhance the third
floor as part of the building renovations. It was said that by 1936 St. Mary's was one of the most
attractive buildings in Altoona.
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As imposing as the entrance was it was the overhang that worried me, as I had visions of
that part of the building that hung out over the steps falling down and squishing me like a bug just
when I was under it. I had unrealistic fears like that when I was young, maybe because of an
overactive imagination. When we lived in Washington State at Bremerton, my dad worked at the
Navy shipyards. He worked on the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La, and when the flight deck
alterations were complete the yards had a family day. All the yard workers could bring their
family on board the Shangri-La for the family members to see the ship. I was five at the tune and
terrified to walk up the gang way to board the ship. There were small gaps between the wooden
slats and I was afraid that I would slip through into the water. If that wasn't bad enough when
the rest of the family walked over to the edge of the flight deck to see how high the ship sat out
of the water, I got on my belly to crawl the last six feet, afraid that I would fall off the edge of the
Now combine my fear of the building falling on me with the fact that it is the first day of
school (for me) and I am starting in a different school in the first grade in October. I had attended
Altoona's Kindergarten the year before, but then in October we moved to Eau Claire's west side,
where Kindergarten wasn't offered, so I sat out the rest of the year. Then I started first grade at
St. James only to be pulled out when dad bought the house across the street from St. Bens. Three
schools in 14 months and I wasn't even half way through first grade yet, could things get any
Why yes they could if you really want to know. We had made it through the front door
without the front part of the building falling on mom and me. But then I took in the hugeness of
the grand foyer and another set of double steps leading to the second floor. There was a landing
3/4 of the way up the stairs, and on that landing sat the biggest grandfather clock I had even
seen, probably the only grandfather clock I had seen. Surely that clock could fall over as I
ascended the stairs, and squish me like a bug, it just wasn't my day. But we made it up the long
staircase past the clock, up the steps from the landing, and all my fears dissipated, I was safe,
nothing to worry about, right? Wrong.
We had to get to the principal’s office for mom to register me, and I somehow thought
that font office of the principal hung out over the steps. Ah, that part of the building hadn't fallen
because it had waited till I was in it, so I could fall with it. Mom had to drag me across the thresh
hold of the office and if she hadn't had a hold of my hand I am sure I would have bolted for
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home. I was momentarily safe, until I met eyes with the principal of St. Benedicts Boy School!
Do any of you remember Sister Ildephonse? When you are only in first grade, six feet is a
long way up, and Sister Ildephonse was as close to six feet if not taller. Add the extra height of
the wimple she wore and she looked closer to 7 feet tall. But she reassured me by coming up and
shaking my hand and mom's too. We sat down and she welcomed us to the school, the parish,
and the city. She was gentle spoken and I think I took my first breath in ten minutes. As we sat in
the two chairs she offered us she began to relate to mom the requirements of the parents that
were enrolling their children at St. Ben's; tuition, lunch and daily milk prices, PTA, and etc. As I
sat there getting bored my eyes and mind wondered about the room. I could see by the lack of
windows in the part of the office we were in and that my fears of the building breaking off with
me in it were unfounded. The part of the office we were sitting in was definitely over solid ground
and it encompassed a desk that Sister Ildephonse was sitting at, placed to the right of the room to
allow passage to the dangerous part of the office, that hung out over nothingness. There were two
chairs that mom and I sat on, and a small china closet between the chairs and the library doors,
and the china closet omitted a slight odor that wasn't entirely unpleasant. To our left on the wall
was a large picture of St. Benedict who I was unfamiliar with, but would get to know very well
after 8 years at St. Ben's. I could see in the back part of the room which was surrounded by
windows that was the area that things got done in. Papers and a typewriter and what looked like a
million red pencils (for marking purposes I marked) were arranged to delve out A's, B's, C's, and
hopefully not D's and F's. This area might determine if I would progress from one grade to
another, but my mind wasn't on that thought, not really. What was that smell, that wonderful
smell, the one associated with education? And it was at about that time that I left my thoughts
and joined in on what the Sister was talking about; the china closet, and what it contained: any
tool needed to get a good education, and at a small nominal price, just over the price purchased
price from the vendor. I would learn the contents of that cabinet in depth over the next 8 years,
and I really do think it was my favorite part of St. Bens; except for the front door when summer
vacation arrived.
Let's take a mental inventory to see if my memory serves me right. You couldn't express
you thoughts or take a pop quiz (on a half piece of paper torn diagonally in half as not to waste
paper- shown to you by Sister Mary Jane-the proper way to fold the paper and crease it before
making the tear) unless you had a Big Chief tablet, of the thick line variety. It was easily
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identified because of the bright red cover with the line drawing of a very brave looking Indian
chief, cost, 25 cents. I always saved the picture of the chief when the tablet was used up, and
although I didn't know what to do with them also save the stiff card board backing.
Although the paper was one of the contributing smells of the china closet, the next two
were the strongest of the combined smell. The Pink Pearl eraser was probably the strongest odor
in the closet, price 5 cents. I was always careful to just use the sharp edge of the eraser and try
and keep the edge on the edge. But I was a mistake maker, so in my career as a grade schooler,
went through many erasers, probably two or three dollars worth. One can not keep an edge on the
edge when the frustration factor is mixed in with the urgency of getting it right.
I could dictate a novel on the next most aromatic tool enclosed in the closet. Besides
being the most colorful of useful tools they also dictated your family's monetary standing, the
more money your family had the bigger the box of Crayolas you could afford. I came from a box
of 12 priced size family, just your basic colors plus a couple of combinations of said basics. I do
remember advancing to the 24 count variety box with double the color combinations, but I think
that bonanza came from some birthday money that was wisely diverted from the penny candy
counter down at Kopliens. I never did graduate to the 48 color box, the box that always sat
proudly on Georgeann Becker's desk. She had finesse when using her many colors, she didn't
press hard like I did to get the darkest and brightest colors out of the crayons. And I always
appreciated the fact that the sisters never did offer the 64 crayon box with the built in sharpener.
Surely that was the mark of decadence and waste, and I am glad no one had the chance to wipe
those adjectives in our faces.
Running next in the odor race was the number 2 and number 3 unsharpened pencils and I
think that attributed to the wooded shaft that the lead was incased in, although I do have to admit
to the lead having its own unique smell, and taste also. They sold for two cents and were probably
my most purchased product out of the office china closet. I almost felt a tinge of sadness when
mom bought me a ten pack of pencils at Woolworth's as that package cut down on my trips to the
My trips to the office were many during my years in the first and second grade on the
second floor. But when I graduated to the third grade and went down stairs to the corner room that
faced the railroad tracks, I found my supplies trip to the office grow less frequent, I guess I had
turned a corner and become more dependent on quantity buying at the dime stores.
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The enrollment visit was the only formal sit-down I had at the office. It was always a threat if
Sister Mary Jane or Sister Claries couldn't handle you. That never happened though, as those two
ladies were good at what they did, and by the time you were past their tutelage you were a pretty
good student, or had transferred to Altoona public school (sorry Terry-no offense).
In later years I would sweep the principal’s office and empty the waste basket, and
somehow the room had shrunk in size. I would gaze out the windows at our back yard and notice
how close it seemed. That was the area of the yard where I had learned the saltier language I was
never suppose to acknowledge that I knew. And as I remember as I watched my little brothers
playing how every word they spoke could be heard in the office. Now I realize what those
frowns that Sister Ildophonse had cast my way on Monday mornings when going to class on the
second floor. Remembering some of the words it was surprising that she didn't grab me and run
me into the bathroom for a good tongue washing. I guess I should be thankful that I wasn't on her
turf when those words were spoken.
Sister “I” was the principal of principal’s; she was a princess - a noblewoman of the highest
magnitude. Normally, the noun principal referred to a masculine leader of a school. Sister I was
an important woman in my life. Thanks my sister!
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The Train Barn
By Herb Ruscin
I had never been in the building before, but it seemed vaguely familiar, and I couldn't figure
out why. The height of the ceiling seemed to be part of the answer, as the different niches varied in
height seeming to draw the eye to heaven. I guess that was an architectural trick to accent the
building. I had never been in a cathedral before unless you could consider the one in La Crosse one.
But this was Barcelona Spain and the huge structure that reached towards the heavens was probably
three hundred years old. It was Easter Sunday in 1969 and we had been on the Mediterranean cruise
since November. We hadn't been to church a lot even though we had spent more than half the cruise
time in port. But after ten or twelve days at sea church was the last place we wanted to visit. A
building that contained alcohol and young ladies was more favorable to a church. But then in was
Easter, and we had missed going to church at Christmas, so church was chosen as the place we
wanted to be, if only for an hour. The bars would be open after church had let out.
We usually went on liberty in a group, mostly made up of the same guys we worked with on
the ship, operations in our case. Only a couple guys were Catholic, but that didn't seem to matter as
shown on the faces of my friends as they gawked at the tremendous size of the structure. They too
had probably not been in a building that covered that much ground and enclosed that much space. But
I struggled with the feeling of recognition and it began to bother me, as deja vu was a new word to
me, but I knew I had never been there before.
Then came the answer to my question sparked by the noise of a pigeon flapping his wings to
move from one perch to another in the upper reaches of the highest tower of the church. When I heard
the flapping I was transposed to the inside of the Altoona railroad roundhouse and remembered that
echoed sound of the pigeons there flying away from us as we caused them to seek refuge in the rafters.
We cut through the round house often on our trek to Altoona beach. The old building offered a spot
of shade during our journey and often we could see furry critter scurrying towards a spot of safe
haven. It smelled of odors that were exotic and strange, smells we hadn't smelled before and in some
cases would take years of experience to identify. Spilt oil soaked into the cement, remnants of coal
and soot, and the bleached scent of steam baked brick.
At that point in my young life in was the biggest building I had ever been in, and we were
traveling through what amounted to be just a third of the total size. That part was the southeast corner
that was actually the newest part of the structure. It was separated by tracks that ran between the
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smaller part of the roundhouse (which was no longer in use) and the larger section which still was
being used. We would enter a door on the southwest end of the building and enter into a section that
had 7 bays for steam engines that entered through huge doors that accessed the round table set in the
middle of the complex, or could enter from the end opposite the turntable if the engine was too long
for the turn table... Each bay had a pit that extended between the tracks and was almost the whole
length of the bay. These trenches allowed workers easy access to the workings under the engines.
They were deep enough for a person to stand in them and I think if some of the smaller boys had
been put in the trench they wouldn't have been able to get out without help. But we must have been
pretty good big brothers as we never did that to the younger ones.
The huge doors to the entrance facing the round table sported many windows to allow natural
lighting in enable light for working on the steam engines. There was an elevated section of the roof
in the middle of the roof that followed the radius of the building. This elevated section was also
almost solid glass to allow more lighting for the interior of the building. The abandant part of the
roundhouse was about 17,000 square feet and the newest part of the building, being added to the
1930's. It was necessitated because the older part of the complex could not handle the new "H" and
"I" class steam engine. These larger engines were meant to travel longer distances and haul heavier
loads which helped destine them to the scrap heap when the diesel came into its own and could to a
better job in both departments at a smaller size that used less fuel.
The whole round house took up 257,477 square feet, 76,524 of the footage being enclosed. The oldest
section covered over 48,000 feet, the new section 17,000 as mentioned before. The machine shop
used for fabricating new part for the variety of engines took up 9800 square feet, and there was over
1500 feet of office space. The center open section sported a 90 foot long turn table and when engines
grew to over that length they had to be brought into the 5 new bays built to accommodate them from
the outside of the building complex. The tracks leading into the roundhouse featured a sand pit for the
traction tubes used on the engines for traction, a cinder pit for purging the cinders and clickers in the
engine boilers, and a water tower to take on water while the clinkers were being cleaned out of the
The oldest part of the roundhouse was completed in December 1881 and had 20 stalls that
could accommodate steam engines up to 75 feet in length. Two of those bays were separate of the
rest of the building to allow engines to access the turn table. In 1910 the roundhouse was renovated
and five larger stalls were added to accommodate the larger engines that had to be serviced. These
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stalls were erected on the south eastern part of the building and attached to the two stalls that were
separate of the main structure. In 1855 the American Type engine was only a little over 52 feet long
and weighed in at 90,000 pounds. By 1942 the Tl class was 122 feet long and weighed in at 954,000
pounds. The giant strides in size and different models led to many inconsistencies when repairs were
needed. With so many different types and sizes of engines there was no consistency in parts required
for repairs. Most parts had to be fabricated by hand, and this led to long turnover times when repairs
were necessary.
The first diesel came to Altoona in 1946 and was used as a switch engine to make up trains in
the yard. But the steam engines days were numbered as the diesels were perfected and beefed up to
haul larger loads with less fuel... And by 1956 the last steam engine left Altoona and was completely
replaced by the diesel engine. Shortly after the seven stalls numbered 19 through 25 that were
separate from the older complex were torn down, this being the section we used to walk through- In
1966 number 9 through 20 were torn down leaving the last section of the roundhouse that was
dismantled along with the turn table in the early part of this decade.
I have heard different versions of how many round houses remain, some say 2, other 3. But
the bottom line is that number is one less by the Altoona round house being ripped down. Instead of
jumping in you car and driving to Lake Road in Altoona, you will now have to drive out to
northeastern Pennsylvania to Scranton. People with vision had Congress establish Steamtown
National Historic Site back in 1986. There is a working turn table and 31 stalls that have been
refurbished and exhibit cars and engines put on display.
I have that story on this historic site in a three ring binder. I might make the trip out there
some day to walk through their roundhouse and climb on their engines and through their passenger
car displays. After that story in my three ring binder is a picture of an artist rendition of what the
Altoona roundhouse could look like, complete with a familiar green and yellow 400 train parked
along side. Even though that site should only be about 3 miles from where I live it doesn't exist, only
on paper. Maybe like the old H and I class steam engines, I too am a dinosaur that has seen its better
days. But I can remember a couple of nephews that used to go bananas whenever a train went by.
And like the dinosaurs, when the trains are all gone, maybe then they will be lamented for their
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On Bended Knees
By Herb Ruscin
It is hard to believe that it was almost 50 years ago since it happened, but in fact it is
49 years to that date, June 3, 1960. It was the last day of school and although he was only 4, he was
as happy as all the others that school was out for the summer. They were celebrating their new found
freedom by racing around the yard, and Tommy was doing his best to keep up with the bigger boys.
Nellie Brost was over and she and mom had settled into seats at the kitchen table to share the gossip
of the neighborhood.
I was only 12 years old, but somewhere along the line, mom had let me sit in on the
coffee clutches she had with her friends, Nellie, and Barb Olson. I picked up on a lot of things that
guys shouldn't do in regard to women, so maybe these sessions are one of the reasons I have been
married so long. As I sat down at the end of the kitchen table facing Spooner Avenue, I had a view of
the traffic as it headed towards Eau Claire. I was a car hound when I was a teenager, and pretty much
knew who everyone was by the kind car they were driving. I also had an eye for the newer cars and
always looked forward to the unveiling of the new year model that came out in September of the year
before that of the car.
I had listened to mom and Nellie for about a half hour when I noticed one of those
new models that Dodge had put out called a Dart. The rounded off fins on the back of the car kind of
made it look like a dart, and it had the new double headlights in the front that had come out hi 1958
on some cars. A young guy who lived at Kenny Babbits, on the corner of 2
street West and Spooner
owned it and had pulled up to the stop sign to turn onto Spooner. The Dart was a metallic green two
door hard top, a pretty sharp looking car. I had noticed in a couple of times but only in passing, so I
kept looking at it as he came up Spooner. As I mentioned, he was a young guy, probably his first
new car, and he like to motivate up Spooner Ave.
Bruce was at the front door no more than five seconds after we heard the
screeching of rubber tires. The boy's rambunctiousness had spilled out across Spooner, and the boys
were making then- way back to the yard when they crossed the street in the path of the Dart. Tommy
was the last one across, and a step or two behind the other guys. He almost stayed and waited for the
car to pass, but then changed his mind and went for it.
When we all got out on the street, Tommy was lying in front of the Dart and wasn't moving or
conscious. The driver was kneeling over him, and the other boys looked on. Grandpa Rucsin was
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about a block away running at full speed with his lunch box in his grasp. We all just stood there, not
knowing whether we should move him or not, his left leg was bent at an awkward position. For being
almost 62 years old, grandpa made it to us in a heartbeat that seemed to last forever. He kept saying "I
knew this was going to happen" over and over as he took off his jacket and carefully put it under
Tommy head. The older guys suspected they were in trouble for not looking after their little brother,
and a couple of them were crying. Nellie had stayed back to call an ambulance when she saw what
had happened, and Ike was there almost immediately. He told us not to move him and wait for the
As we all stood there in silence I wished the ambulance would hurry, and looked
around to give my mind something else to think about. As I looked at the car, I noticed a dent in the
hood that was pretty close to the passengers side of the windshield. It looked like someone had taken a
cantaloupe and pounded it into the hood to cause a melon sized indentation. This was 1960 and there
were no plastic parts on this tank. The steel was all steel and I thought I was going to get sick as I
thought of how much force caused the dent. Mom must have noticed the concern on our faces and as
the ambulance got there and put Tommy on a gurney and into the ambulance she told us all the go
into the living room.
Once we all were together, mom told us to all get on our knees and pray to God
that Tommy would not die. She then went out and rode to the hospital with Ike. We were all pretty
much crying by then, and I remember Pat starting to say an Our Father, and we all joined in. As I
knelt there paying out loud I couldn't imagine life without that happy little guy.
We weren't out of the woods till Sunday, as Tommy was in a coma and had a
broken leg. When he finally did come to we were allowed to go up and see him, one at a time. It was
scary to see such a small guy in this big bed and his leg was in traction. He ended up being in the
hospital most of the summer, and I know it sounds like it wouldn't be that way, but the house was
kind of empty without him, even though there were seven of us at the time.
When he finally did get out of the hospital he came home with his leg in a cast that
reached up around his waist and down onto the upper part of his other leg. There was a stick that
connected the two legs together which enable someone to pick him up using the stick as a type of
handle to carry the cast and his other leg, with an arm around his back. This enabled me, Pat, and
Rob to carry him to the bathroom and move him around the house being he couldn't walk. This
repeated task over the 12 weeks he had the cast on probably led to his knick name "Fat Ass".
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It should be mentioned at this point, that when Tommy came home he wasn't the
same as before he was hit by the car. Where he had been quiet and shy, now he was boisterous and
bossy. He had had a lot of attention at the hospital and brought home more toys than all the rest of us
had put together. We were glad we didn't lose him, but got a little tired of him still wanting all the
attention. Where there were seven of us and he had just been one of the many, now he wanted top
banana billing, and it got kind of old.
So we started to think of ways to get him off his high horse, and you would have to
admit, we had the upper hand when it came to that. If he needed to go to the toilet, no problem, we
could hardly deny him that necessity. But when he was done, that didn't mean we had to be Johnny
on the spot to go in and take him back to where he was before the call of nature. What better way to
get him off his high horse than let him sit on the toilet an extra, 5, 10 ,15 or even 20 minutes. This
retaliation didn't work real well when mom or dad were around. But we really made him squirm when
they were gone. And his retort would always be: "If you don't do what I want, I'm going to take my
toys and go back to the hospital!" And I think my siblings would agree with the fact that after a while
we thought that wouldn't be a bad thing.
When Tommy was up and walking again one leg was a bit shorter than the other,
something the doctor said he would outgrow. But so he didn't limp they made up a special shoe for
him that was a bit higher than the other. It was just some thickness added to the soul and it enabled
him to walk normally. I remember the next year at Easter time Tommy was all dressed up with a
shirt and tie, and maybe even a suit coat. He was coming from the living room and between that
room and the kitchen there was a crack in the door stoop. As he approached the doorway a tiny
luckless mouse struck his head up through the crack. Tommy smashed that mouse good.
I think it is Pat that is always saying it (I don't want to misquote anyone), but he
always remarks about at the ages of 48 to 60 how lucky we are, being there are so many of us, that we
are still all here. Some day that won't be a fact, and I am not looking forward to that day, no matter
which one of is first to join mom and dad and Andy and Blanche. But no matter what, I am glad the
fact that we are all still together wasn't denied us 49 years ago June 3
Who was the man who answered your prayers that day? Jesus; my mentor! (RR)
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Too Big For My Britches
By Herb Ruscin
When you are a rookie, the world is a scary place, as the unknown can be intimidating
and a hard road to travel till you get the information you need; to be cool. Little League was like
that for me, and having not played too much baseball I was reluctant to go to tryouts. We didn't
play a lot of organized baseball when going to St. Ben's, and dad was on the road a lot, and I
didn't have an older brother to teach me. But mom wouldn't hear any of it, after all, weren't all
my friends all going out for the newly formed Altoona Little League? Didn't they have some
land that would be the new field just for little leaguers? And didn't I know some of the coaches,
Mr. Karpe, Mr. Ely, and Mr. Crandell? She would hear none of it, I was going to the tryouts, and
she got the signup form herself. I was assigned a number, which I made myself, and if I did as
good a job at the tryouts as I did making the number I was to wear, surely I would make the
But my inexperience showed, and when the names came out for the teams, my name
wasn't there. With more practice, maybe next year was what mom told me, but to myself I
thought I couldn't endure the embarrassment, and there would be no next year for me, I would
never be good enough, so why even try. All of this I kept to myself, as I knew what mom would
say if I verbalized my thoughts, and I was in no mood to hear it. She hadn't been there when I
had missed the pop fly's hit to me. She wasn't present when my arm strength, or lack of it was
proven from right field. And she never witnessed my fanning the pitches thrown for me to swing
at. She just didn't know how bad I was, but then again, she was my mom.
But my guardian angel was watching out for me; him and Ralph Ely. I don't know if it
was the same day that the names came out for the teams, I think it was the next day. Mom came
to tell me that Ralph had called to ask if I would like to be the bat boy for the team he was
coaching. I was embarrassed, but not enough to turn down the position, even if it was just picking
up the bat after Al Duszynski or Larry Johnson had smacked one over the fence. But what they
didn't tell me was that I would get in some practice time with other kids, time to get better at
what I needed to do to tryout for a team the next year.
Catching the returned practice fly's to the out field and tossing the ball to the coach hitting the
fly's helped. Filling in for players that were late for practice gave me experience, and probably the
best experience was catching for a pitcher who was warming up to be put in as a replacement.
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Later I would be a catcher, and this practice made it possible. But the success isn't what I want to
talk about, but rather the big head it caused, and the lesson I learned about being too cocky.
I acquired a nickname, not really a good one, as it made fun of something I had never
done, hit a homerun; I was known as Homerun Herbie. But by the time I was 12, going on 13 I
was the big kid on the block, no longer a rookie, but a seasoned veteran, I even hit a homerun;
sooner or later I had to, as I was one of the biggest kids on the team. They called us the Harris
Dairy Half Pints, but I thought of myself as a full pint, maybe even a quart, something I would
never say out loud. Where I had taken the jokes of the older kids, the snickering and barbs that
older kids always dish out, now I was handing them out, and although I was never mean, (or so I
thought) it was fun to be giving on the giving end instead of the receiving end of the game.
I came home from a game one night after we had won against a team that wasn't very
good, and I was feeling pretty full of myself, I should have known I was in for a come upance,
but I didn't see it coming. Mom was sitting at the table when I got home, almost like she was
waiting for me, which she was. But I didn't see it; my head was too high in the clouds. She asked
me who won, and if I would have a seat, there was something she wanted to talk about; I knew I
was in trouble, but didn't know why. She sat there for the longest time, like she had something to
say, but didn't know how to word it, it was uncomfortable. She finally asked me to name all the
players that were on the Half pints team; and that knocked me for a loop, why did she want to
know that?
But I started to think about how I would arrive at a list and not miss anyone, so I started
with us older guys, the ones that were playing their last year; me, Vince Wagner, Denny
Connell, Mark Ely; then on to the next older guys La Mont Squires, Melvin
Pinkert, Dan Ely, Jim Larson, Steve Erickson, Beaver Johnson .......and as soon as I said
Beaver I knew what this was all about, and I quit reciting the team member names, busted I was.
And mom just sat there looking at me as if to say that I had answered the questions showing in
my eyes.
She didn't say anything for a long time, she let me stew in my own juices, and she was
good at that. And then she finally asked me some questions. She asked how I had felt the day I
came home after learning I hadn't made the team. She asked how I had liked taking a kidding
from the other players that I was just a batboy, one that didn't even have a number on my
uniform. How had I liked shagging every foul ball that had been hit out of the park during
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practice, or homeruns retrieved during the games? Even though I had finally hit a homerun (but
just one) how did I like the name Homerun Herbie when it meant that I had never hit one. And
then she asked how I would like being called Beaver just because my teeth stuck out a little, and
then she looked at me for the answers to her questions.
She knew what all my answers would be, so I never did say anything. I felt ashamed for
having done what had me feel so bad when others had done it to me. I never did call Doug
Beaver again, and I guess I even went so far as to tell some of the other kids to not use that
nickname; at least I hope I did. But I learned something from that, and it has stuck with me for all
my life; and that would be not to think more of myself than others. It took me a while to figure
out how mom found out about the nickname. But more importantly; how did she find out that it
was offensive to Doug, but then only a mother could tell you that.
Doug's mother, Barbara Johnson died the second of June this year, and it did take me a
while to figure out that Barb had called mom to tell her about it. And of course Doug's mom did
know the pain it caused Doug, so she sought out the help of a friend, mom. Barb and mom
where friends from childhood and lived close to each other on the east side of Altoona, and their
friendship lasted right up till mom left us two and a half years ago. See Barb used to volunteer
down at Oakwood, and I remember her telling me about the remembrances of two ladies who
used to be little girls. Thanks Barb and thank you mom for all the lessons that you taught me.
Women; hard to live with them and hard to live without them. What would my life had been
if I had not had the guidance, support, and comfort of my Mom and her friends-especially
Barbara Johnson. It is worth noting that men are the back-half of women; we are often the bud
of our own demise. Thank the world for moms- WO/men! (RR)
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The Mailman Ladies Daughter
By Herb Ruscin and Roger Rasmussen
When you are young, things should be as they seem, and I was always
questioning things that didn't seem to be, as they should. One of the first conundrums I
had was when I went to the post office with grandpa Klemstien. I couldn't figure out
why when we were going to see the mailman, that the mailman wasn't a man, but
rather a woman. Grandpa shot back that she was a mailman lady, and that answered the
question, problem solved. The mailman lady of course was Jean Henning, and in my
early post office runs she treated me real good. Mom would send me to the post office
with a letter in my pocket, only to be taken out by Jean, and four pennies in my
mittens, not to be taken off before I got to the post office. Jean would remove the letter,
dump the pennies on the counter, and give me a four-cent stamp I could lick that she
would stamp. I didn't think there could be a better mailman lady, but then Betty hadn't
helped me yet.
When I joined the Navy I became a mailman and worked at a terminal post
office in Viet Nam, and later ran a shipboard post office, doing everything that the
mailman lady would do in Altoona, maybe even a little more. One of the things I
picked up while working in the post office was stamp collecting and its varied
collector's collectible habits.
While in the Navy I could satify my own stamp needs through the post office I
worked out of. It was after I got out of the Navy that I first met Betty and sought her
aid it getting the stamps I needed. I collected plate blocks which are a block of four
stamps that include a plate block sheet number that identifies the stamp for ordering
purposes. Each sheet is actually only 1/4
of the printed sheet, as the sheets are cut into
quarters after printing. So each sheet will have four plate block numbers located top
right, top left, bottom right, bottom left for each printing. This is called plate block
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number location collecting, and even I must admit that it sounds kind of anal, but that's
what I was into. When a post office orders a certain number of sheets of a certain
stamp, more than likely all those sheets will have the plate block in the same location.
So as a collector you have to go to different post offices to find your four different
positions, that is why they are so hard to obtain.
When I started to explain this to Betty I thought I would get the same reaction
that I had gotten from the postal clerks in other post offices, order what you want, and
give the person behind you their turn. But I was telling Betty something that she hadn't
known before, and she was sincerely curious and interested. She even went so far as to
tell her what positions I needed for different stamps, when she dealt with other post
offices she would ask if they had those positions for the different stamps that I needed.
Every once in a while I would get a call from Betty telling me that if I wanted to drive
to Osseo or Eleva or Fall Creek I could fill a position I needed. I think she enjoyed the
hunt almost as much as I did.
So I only dealt with Betty when it came to purchasing stamps for my hobby. I
would even let other people go a head of me so I could spend more time talking with
her and sharing her sunny personality. Besides stamps she was always asking about
my mom, as when Betty was growing up she was a neighbor to the Klemsteins, Elys,
Bundts, and Pettiss up on the hill by the water tower. I find it ironic that her and mom's
obituaries were in the same issue of the Altoona Star, neighbors till the end.
After Betty retired I hung it up as far as seriously being into collecting stamp, it
just wasn't as much fun anymore. You could always anticipate the first day of issue,
where the stamp was having its first cancelling, what the stamp commemorated, but
when you got down to actually buying, it wasn't as enjoyable. Every once in a while I
will buy a sheet that catches me eye when I am standing in line, but that's about it.
Did you notice that all stamps have a sticky back to them, no more little boys
able to lick the gum. The post office has also made it impossible to collect block
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numbers, as there is no way to tear off four stamp that are self sticking. As I walk
through the autumn years of my life I notice how we have lost a lot of the good things
that made life enjoyable, and we have really lost something precious with the loss of
Herb- 12/11/06
Roger's Reply: October 5, 2009
I knew Jean Henning as the' lady, and I mean LADY, who controlled the mail in
Altoona. In the 1940's and 50's mail was not delivered it was retrieved at the post
office. Jean either took it out of the general delivery box or, if you were rich enough to
afford a mail box, you used your key or combination to secure you own mail. Mail
was most often delivered to Altoona twice a day and so twice a day you could make
the trip to see Jean. I fell in love with her as a youth. Well, not so much in love, as I
admired her business-like demeanor, the fact that she could always remember my
name, but more importantly I admired the speed with which she could type on that old
Underwood typewriter. I understood that she entered typing competitions and at one
time could type over 100 words a minute; correct words that is- once called CWP. Oh
how she could type. I knew I would try and master that feat. It took me until age 35 to
accomplish it-but I used an IBM Selectric; oh what a difference electricity made.
I was fascinated by Jeans capacity to type, her attention to details, but more
importantly the professional manner in which she conducted her work and herself.
She was a beautiful person who upheld all of those virtuous qualities we so admire in
people who are dedicated to their work and to the service of people. Her kindness was
ever-present; I never saw her get mad; firm yes, but not mad. She had many reasons to
display anger by our actions and our casual comments. We were youngsters and able to
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get our parents' mail; what a thrill, privilege, and honor. We carried it with pride.
Wow, to get a personal letter and to have Jean say, "a letter for you, Roger" was almost
heavenly. She served Altoona for more than 20 years and was an example of a
professional's professional; she gave beyond the call of duty, and she often took "crap"
from people who complained that their mail should have been there by now, and why in
&*%$# couldn't Jean find it? Most often these people had just crossed the street from
a liquor refreshment facility and were not in a strong state of mind or a strong physical
presence. Needless to say, during my youth, from 5-18, I saw and heard many a drunk
give hell to the postal clerks, store clerks, city clerks, barbers, and the cops. Thankfully
there were people who appreciated the efforts of clerks like Jean Henning, Hugh
Russell, Virginia Walters-Harris, Dean Strong, Cecil Walker, Mrs. Rudolphson, Mrs.
Valski, Mrs. Thompson, and dozens of other daily servants who made our life more
pleasing and fulfilling.
Jean was succeeded by her Daughter Betty Henning-Hagen who was replaced by
her Son Mark. I didn't know Mark, but I knew his parents and especially his Mom
Betty. She was two years old than I in school and she was my pal. She and Rosemary
Klohs were pals and so I became a sort of male protector of both. It is about Betty that
I wish to write because she made a difference in my life in many special ways, but two
still stick in my aging mind.
Betty Henning was a Will Rogers; "She never met a person she didn't like, and I
never met a person who didn't like her." Well, perhaps there were a few basketball
referees where some mutual admiration was adrift. Betty was not her Mom. She was
professional and kind, but beneath her surface was a person who was awash with
gentleness, sweetness, kindness, and friendliness; beyond anyone person I have ever
met. She was not the town beauty; but she was gorgeous! My senior year I was the
senior prom king and until the last minute I had not select a queen. I had asked Shirley
but she had accepted another invitation. In desperation I asked Mr. Pederson if I could
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ask Betty; she had been out of school almost two years by then. He smiled and said,
"Roger you need to select from someone now in school." Betty would have been my
choice regardless. I once told her that story and I thought she would cry; she did!
For survival and fulfillment of the necessary task required to keep a city functioning
effectively, dedicated people are necessary; however, dedication is only one of the
essential qualities. Equally important is compassion and understanding for those less
fortunate, less able, less qualified, economically poor, and physically needy. Betty
Jean and her Mom Jean Henning were anchors in my home town, Altoona. They did
their job without fanfare, little recognition, and they did it with a gentleness not often
found in civil servants today. Life was easy, simple, fun, entertaining, meaningful,
exciting, and thanks to people like Jean Henning, Betty Henning-Hagen, and Mrs.
Rudolphson, Altoona City Clerk for several decades, the youth of Altoona were treated
with respect, learned how to give respect, and those of us fortunate to be touched by
these women, are much the better because they "cared enough to give their very best"
even when we didn't reciprocate.
Thanks Ladies! Your secret admirer!
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For a Nickel I Would
Herb Ruscin and Roger Rasmussen
It got so I didn't want to answer the phone for fear that it would be her
wanting immediate servicing. It seemed to happen at the most inopportune
times, I would just be getting ready to go somewhere, or it was time to eat, or
watch my favorite show on TV. I felt sorry for her, so I never told her I wouldn't
do it. I guess I thought maybe I was the last person she could count on, and
that seemed rather sad to me. I guess I could have pawned her off on Pat or
Rob, but then that didn't seem fair, to her or them. So when she called, I
responded to her wishes, no matter what the weather might be. Maybe I
thought this my way of earning a get out of jail free card, or better yet, go
directly to heaven, pass goal and collect $200.00.
The fact that she called with only 15 or 20 minute left before the store
closed made it a do it now task. If I was eating, I couldn't finish because of
the time factor. I had to leave, go to her house and get the list, and then get to
the store before Leo the Lip closed, and he was always punctual about
closing. If I got there and he was outside the building, I was out of luck, and so
was H.P., no pork chops for her that evening. And you know whose fault it
was, mine.
When I first started doing this task for her, I had tried to talk her into letting
me do her grocery shopping at Koplin's. Everything looked fresher at this
store than at Looby's. But apparently H.P. thought different, that Leo had
fresher meat and produce. Maybe that was true, but there was something
about Leo that didn't set well with me. Maybe he didn't like me and that was
the reason that he was never very friendly towards me, or maybe that's just
the way he treated everyone. I can't ever remember seeing him smile, and
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he seemed to say as little as possible as if each word he said cost him. He
was a big man, over six feet tall, but he was also physically large, maybe he
had to eat the food he didn't sell that day rather than see it go bad. Even
though I had a list, Leo seemed to know what was on it He would usually be
cutting the center cut pork chops when I walked in the door, and center cut
pork chops were always on H.P.'s list. Maybe she called him in case I lost the
list, and maybe she gave me the list to make sure Leo didn't forget anything. I
guess between the two of us we always got it right, as I never had to make a
second trip to the store to correct a mistake. I would hand him the note, he
would hardly glance at it though, and start putting the items on the list on his
counter. When he had completed the list he made out a bill on a little pad that
required a piece of carbon paper. Before he stuck the carbon paper between
the two sheets of the pad, he did something that caused me to call him Leo
the Lip. He would wet his thumb so he could separate the two sheets of the
pad to insert the carbon paper. And he wet his thumb by striking it on his thick
lower lip, hence Leo the Lip. He would then write down all the items he had
place on the counter top, total the price, and have me sign it. He then tore off
the original and place it in a bag with the items he had gathered and handed
me the paper bags.
There was something that struck me about Leo, although he was a big
man, his voice didn't match his phisyque. It was a high pitched whine, almost
that of a woman. And now that I think about it, maybe he wasn't real proud of
that high voice, so he didn't use it any more than he had to. And then again,
maybe he didn't think I would be interested in anything he had to say. When I
think about it a little further, I am probably the same age Leo was when this
story took place, and I guess young people aren't that interested in what I
have to say today either.
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I said that I never refused to go to the store for H.P., but I came pretty close
one Christmas Eve, and of course she called right at the last minute. But it
was Christmas Eve, and I didn't want to be a Scrooge, so I went. There were
a lot of items on the list, and I ended up with two bags almost full. When I left
the store, Leo wished me a Merry Christmas with that high pitched voice of
his, and I swear he gave me a little smile. When I got to H.P.'s, she hurriedly
looked in the bags and stated that Leo had messed up her order. She then
gave me the nickel she always gave me for the errand, and then picked up
the two bags of groceries and handed them to me, and told me to take them
home and give them to mom. She would deal with Leo after Christmas. Those
two bags of groceries ensured a nice Christmas for the Ruscin family that
year as if my memory serves me right, this was the first Christmas we spent
without dad.
The next year I graduated from eighth grade. I learned that I had a
scholarship for Regis. I know that this not because of my grade point
average, but rather because I couldn't afford to pay the tuition. I never asked
her, but I am almost certain that H.P. put up that scholarship. And if it was her,
I quess maybe I owe any success in life to her, just because I didn't say no to
a lonely old lady. 10/11/03
Roger's Commentary: October 1, 2009
Having now read Herb's comments, story, about Leo and Horse Power- for
that is what the HP stood for - I am sitting in the Atlantis Casino in Reno
awaiting the train that will take three Altoonites to Sacramento and then back
to Reno. We made the trip to Reno not so much for the chances, but to enjoy
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the beautiful 120 mile trip aboard the AMTRAK and because we grew-up the
children or grandchildren of railroad workers. Evelyn Kolkind-Lampman's Dad
was a mechanic on the CNW and worked for more than 20 years. Garold
Lampman's Grandfather worked on the CNW, and I'm sure somewhere along
the line Garold's Dad Lawrence may have worked there too. Regardless,
Garold's family lived closer to the railroad tracks than any other family. During
our teen years we played basketball at Lampmans until midnight using the
spotlights from the CNW. Somehow, someone, seemed to refocus those lights
just right so that when it got dark-those spotlights lite-up Garold's back yard.
For 10 teenage boys, those lights were a god sent-especially when we were
not able to convince Martin to let us into the old auditorium.
My connection with the CNW goes beyond my Father Percy who worked for
the CNW off and on for some 25 years, either as a track repairman, working in
the Ice House or Coal Shed, both of which were on CNW property but
managed by Shipley Company. My Uncle Bill held three different jobs on the
CNW for more than 35 years starting at age 16 as a Call Boy and ending in
1993 as a clerk. My Uncle Waldemore worked for some 30 years and held
similar jobs as his Brother Bill. Their father and my Grandfather William
Glassbrenner was a "car toad", checking the physical condition of box cars
and assisting with switching of cars to create a tram. Four great-uncles,
Herman and Adolph Heuer, George Thurston. John, and Fred Thurston all
spent their careers on the CNW. By my estimate my Rasmussen-Thurston-
Heuer family dedicated more than 200 years of service to the CNW. So when
I say " I am a railroader-I am a RAILROADER in the truest sense of the word.
Now with all of that said, let me get back to Leo Looby, the focus of this story.
The morning after, Saturday, November 1, 1951, the great Altoona High
School fire, I was lamenting the loss at Woodington's Gas Station when Leo
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crossed the street and engaged DL in a conversation. I knew Leo as that
giant of a man who managed/owned the meat market- one of three grocery
stores on the same street-Lynn Avenue-all within a block of each other. We
shopped at Emanuels/Kopplins not Looby's- well that is unless they would
give my Dad no further credit and then we would turn to Leo's for help.
The outcome of their conversation was the start of my first real part-time job.
I started working at 12:00 that day for Leo. My wages were 25 cents per
hour; I could eat anything I wanted at anytime and that included the noon
lunch that Leo's wife brought everyday. Her tastefully prepared lunch, it
always included tidbits of herring in cream sauce, meant she came to check
the receipts and income and to total all individual accounts. It also meant she
would take a $20 bill to use for her card games in the afternoon. I'm not
certain we made a profit of $20 everyday, but she would take that 20
regardless. She would be dressed to kill- precise, predictable- and pretty.
She was not huge like Leo, but she made me feel and look small.
Leo was another story; he neither took lip from anyone, and few ever gave
him lip, but he had an answer for most of what was wrong with the world. My
nickname was "alibi Ike", especially when I found excuses for not wanting to
work. Leo disliked President Eisenhower, Ike as we was called, because he
was a Republican, but more importantly because Ike found excuses for doing
nothing. Right or wrong, I learned early at age 15 not to look for excuses to
cover my laziness. He taught me a work ethic that I still maintain today. It is
4:00 a.m. in the morning and I am writing this story. I'm 73 and I could easily
rest longer; John and Jack are demanding this article be finished by October
15,2009, and I am one week away from my deadline.
Leo taught me a work ethic, but he equally taught me that the customer
may be wrong, but always right; that is, if you lose the customer over a few
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pennies, you've lost them for the many dollars too. To Leo each penny was
precious. As the chewing gum make Wrigley wrote, "made my millions one
penny at a time" so too Leo would say, "each dollar is little more than 100
pennies." Leo created my savings attitude. Retired for some 16 years now,
thanks to Leo, I earn more each year than he earned in his lifetime.
Some Altoona residents avoided Leo because he lived in Eau Claire and
not Altoona. By hiring me, Leo tried to be connected to Altoona beyond his
store. My large family, all 11 of us, ate lots of food; Leo wasn't dumb, he could
use our business rather than his competitors. Our agreement; for 25 cents
per hour and all I could eat, he would give me all of the beef roast still
standing, actually sitting, in the meat counter at the end of the workday on
Saturday, actually 5:00 when we closed. That meant that each Saturday I
could take home what was left in the meat counter. Well, Leo wasn't dumb-
he wasn't going to leave 20 pounds of meat there. In meat markets then, a
few small roasts were displayed, but larger roasts were always cut fresh from
the bigger cuts of beef. Pork and chicken were something else. During my
several years with Leo I never missed a Saturday of work for I knew I could
help feed my family with the meat Leo gave freely. He taught me a real lesson-
"never judge a person just by the sound of their voice, or their words." His
squeaky voice, his size, his demanding demeanor, his quickness of response
to my excuses, or the complaints of customers, these were covers for a kind
heart that few Altoona people ever knew.
Leo had no children; the residents of Altoona were children. By the time of
the fire, Leo knew my family was poor and my Dad worked hard to make
ends meet. Darold knew this even better- he was my mentor-my soul mate.
So they made a pack that gave me the job over many older and more
qualified boys- Leo and DL eventually admitted this to me when I finished my
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first graduate degree. By then they both had retired and it was to be our last
real visit. I thanked them for the concern, their kindness, and their
compassion; not just for myself, but for the whole City of Altoona.
Both men left their jobs, one a mechanic the other a butcher, with
customers owing them thousands of dollars. Leo forgave so many debts that
I could buy a nice car today; in 1960- $7,000 was a lot of money. The same
with DL- he once said " I still have more than $4,000 outstanding-that I'll
never collect. Neither of these men ever fathered children of their own.
Together they helped raise a community of boys in Altoona by giving them
jobs, teaching them a set of values that would guide them for the rest of their
lives. No monuments stand recognizing their efforts or successes; they were
the foundation upon which a community is build and a citizenry learns that"
you receive back in equal portion to that which you give." Darold and Leo
were big men, big dreams for us kids, big hearted, yet they were simple, kind,
compassionate, and forgiving even when we were stupid; more importantly
they both taught me "it is not just what you stand for- it is just as important to
know what you stand against." They were pillars of my hometown Altoona,
Wisconsin, and I speak for those hundreds of you boys and their families who
were fed by Leo and their automobiles serviced and fueled by DL, when I say,
"everytown in America could use a few more Leo's and DL's today." How
lucky we were and how proud I am for their kindness and guidance.
Roger, one of their disciples, and "thanks Herb for your story on Leo", for you
too were touched by his giant hands and soft heart.
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He Was the Egg Man
By Herb Ruscin and Roger Rasmussen
Even though this is to be the Christmas issue, it is difficult to get in the
Christmas spirit when it is only the first week of November. Halloween is gone;
Thanksgiving is still a few weeks off, so it is kind of a no man's land as far as finding a
theme. Ah, but not so fast e-bay boy, if I remember right, didn't I order a couple of
Christmas presents (while the hints were fresh in my mind) just last week? Ah,
Christmas shopping season (if you are smart) is upon us, so on with the recollections,
which have nothing to do with Christmas, but rather shopping.
Shopping wasn't such a big deal back in the 50's and 60's. If you needed a new
pair of shoes, over to the Co-op you went, and away with new shoes you walked. Need
a gallon of paint and a brush, off to the Coop you went to get what you needed to color
your world, whatever color it might be. The big word in shopping back then was need,
if you needed something, you went and bought it.
I don't go to the mall much, unless it is just before closing and I never go on the
weekends. People don't go shopping because of a need for anything these days. They
go shopping because they need to shop. Oh, maybe they have a trigger thought to get
them motivated, "A new pair of shoes would be good." But I don't think most people
shop for things they need. It is their way of paying themselves for working hard all
week, waiting on other peoples needs, now it is their turn to be waited on, and they
have the capital to do it from their weekly labor. And I guess that's not really a bad
thing (as opposed to " that's a good thing", from our favorite jailhouse do good lady
now dressed in prison blue).
The Home Shopping Network is not a uniquely new idea. Although they didn't
do it through the TV, people still came into our living room (the kitchen in our case) to
sell us their goods, and this is about a few of them that I will always remember.
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His name was Ed Messerschmidt, and he was the egg man. Every Friday he
would drive up in his 1961 light green pickup and make his way to the kitchen door.
We hardly ever used the front door of the house as the side door was more personable
and user friendly. If you weren't going to let the person into the house (mom and dad
had strict instructions about not letting a hobo into the house) you could at least talk to
the person you weren't going to let in without yelling over the traffic on Spooner
Avenue. It was ironic that the hobos always came to the front door, and usually one of
us would guard the front door while another of us went and made a peanut butter and
jelly sandwich to appease the hobo's empty stomach.
Ed would usually be dressed in gray striped suspender overalls with a matching
striped railroad hat. He was a big man who usually needed a shave, and his speech
had a heavy German accent. If mom wasn't there to do the ordering, I usually would
put in the weekly order. We ate a lot of eggs when we were growing up. The word
cholesterol hadn't been invented yet, and I think all of us could fry an egg by the time
we were 9 or 10. So 4 or 5 dozen wasn't an unusual order for the week, and at .25
cents a dozen the price was right, if the price went up, it was usually by a nickel a
dozen. We always paid for the eggs at the beginning of the month, so Ed would enter
our order into a small spiral notebook he kept in his shirt pocket. He would always tell
me what the charge was, and I would mark it on the calendar by the phone. So that is
where I got that from, I write everything on our calendar on our bulletin board. I guess
I don't have to tell you I have all our calendars going back to 1975, you knew that,
right? (Challenge me on that! Give me a date, and if I have the calendar for that year
((Kathy did throw a few away.)) I will tell you what we were doing the closest
weekend to that date) If Ed didn't have enough eggs to fill our order, he would give us
what he had (which makes me think we were the last clients on his route) and promised
to deliver the remaining order the next day. I guess you can squeeze a chicken only so
many ways to get an egg out of her. We never ate a bad egg, and I always enjoyed my
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dealings with Ed.
Oscar Franson was our Jewel Tea Man who would visit us less frequently than
Ed did. Oscar came every month it the memory serves me right. He dealt in products
more interesting than a dozen eggs, although most of the items he was hawking you
couldn't eat. He was a user friendly person, and even though his son and I had a falling
out about a $5.00 bicycle I bought from Bob, he never let on to being bothered by the
fact that dad took Oscar to task about having a cheat for a son. The small bike would
loose its chain with EVERY revolution of the pedals. Oscar would enter the kitchen
with a custom made carrying case with a heavy duty handle. In that case was
everything any 10 year old boy could ever want, and Oscar did well just before
Christmas. Mom would let all us kids into the kitchen, and even though I know she
didn't know short hand, all of us would score a stocking stuffer thanks to Oscar's case
come Christmas time.
I remember one gift I got through Oscar. It was a 20's era model -T plastic police
car, and the policemen who had grooves where their feet would be fit onto different
spots on the car that had slots to accommodate their feet slots. It was a take off on the
Key Stone Cops, and the younger kids would always steal the cops and hide them on
me. Kathy and I are avid antiquer's, and that police car is at the top of my wish list
because I remember it so well, but so far, not even close, can't even find a cop. Unlike
Ed, I didn't have the authority to order anything from Oscar, so if mom was gone,
Oscar usually had to come back. But he was always kind enough to show us what was
in his case, and we could get a head start on our wish list. A shrewd businessman, and a
very likable gentleman!
I saved the very best for last. Kenny Harris was our milkman and he came into
our home twice a week, Saturday and Wednesday. I was a self-conscious person when I
was young (I guess I still am, but try not to make a big deal of it). On Saturdays Kenny
usually came in the middle of Saturday morning cartoons, and the kitchen table had a
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cereal disaster movie theme to it. Spilled sugar, milk, cereal, crumbs from toast,
spilled jelly, half empty bowls of cereal, and an occasional half eaten wiener? (Must
have been Pat, he loved hot dogs, even if they were raw). He had a few kids himself,
so it was like letting your dad into the kitchen, except you couldn't get in trouble. Ken
was such an accommodating and laid back person I felt completely at ease with him,
and when ever I got in trouble with my dad, I yearned for Ken to be his replacement.
He had an air of happiness to him and I will admit to looking forward to Saturdays and
seeing him.
Then one Saturday a stranger came to the door carrying the milk carrying case.
His name was Jimmy Joe Mac Laughlin, and I knew him from St. Ben's, but he wasn't
Kenny. Apparently Kenny was smart enough to realize working wasn't the only thing
in life, hopefully he was doing well enough so he didn't have to work six days a week.
I still saw him on Wednesday, so it wasn't a complete loss. Plus, after a while I
realized that Jimmy Joe was even more laid back than Kenny. By this time in my life I
didn't need a father image to imprint too, but Jimmy Joe seemed more like Kenny than
We were just getting adjusted to Jimmy Joe when one Saturday Jimmy Joe
didn't show up. I had known Bob Kerbell since I was a little tyke. When I think about
the three of them. Kenny, Jimmy Joe, and Bob I can almost sit in on the interview that
Kenny did. Job requirements were to be the very best you could be, personality wise,
and the younger you were, the better it got.. Bob is only a year older than me, but I
have to say that I always looked up to the three milkmen we had during those
informative years.
Kenny did more than deliver our milk and cottage cheese. The last year I played
little league I wore a Harris Dairy Half Pints uniform, and was proud to do so. I know
he was into Little League for more than that one year I played for him.
On a collector note, milk bottles are a big item on collector's wish list. And I
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cannot pass a display of milk bottles without hoping to find a half gallon Harris Dairy
milk jug. Again, no luck in that category. If Kenny had kept the milk jugs he had used,
Kendine would have been able to retire many years ago. (If you know where one is,
ask me how much I will pay for it)
Kenny will always be in my mind when I think about when I was young, he was
so Mister Altoona. We lost him before we should have left us, but he left nothing but
good memories. Kenny was a collector too, and I remember one time I ran into him at
an auction and I went over to talk to him. He was there because the auction list
included Edison Gold Moulded phonograph records. These aren't disks, but rather
cylinders that mount on the first record player invented by Thomas Edison. The
cylinder is made from wax and comes in a cardboard container the size of a 8 ounce V-
8 juice can.
Kenny had bought the whole lot that was for sale, and I went over to talk to him when
he was surveying his buy. I had never seen the cylinders before, and he was more than
willing to tell me all about his hobby. As he went through the box, he came across one
that had a nick on the leading edge. He told me that it was still playable, but because
his haul was in such good condition, and he was the kid that had just grabbed the golden
ring on the merry-go-round, he gave me the cylinder with the imperfection in it. He
told me that collecting was his passion, and that maybe I would get into it as much as
he was.
I know I have said that I have possession that I wouldn't trade time or money
for, and Kenny's present is one of them . I only have one of the Edison Records, but if
you want so see what Kenny started, come over to 642 Putnam Street, and let me tell
you about my passions. Thanks Kenny!
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Roger's comments
Mr. Messerschmidt was a stranger to me because I was away from home
during his visits. Uncle Sam kept me busy at a military hospital in France. Mr. M as
we called him, that long German name was hard to pronounce. For those who could
afford his eggs, he was a god-sent; my Mom and Dad could not afford those prices and
so we bought cracked eggs at Hoff s located on the top of Otter Creek Hill by the Co-op
Shopping Center; or, if we had transportation, we went to Fairview Meadows Hatchery
located where the K-mart now sits.
Regardless of the source of the eggs, eggs, fried, pouched, hard-boiled or, as
some drinkers preferred, raw, they were a steady diet. Without eggs, noodles, corn
flakes, oat meal, and bread, I'm not certain we would have survived. Men like Mr. M, a
Fall Creek/Brunswick farmer, were a life-line for families on limited budgets; of
course, which families didn't fit that mold?
Kenny Harris may have been a milkman, but Herman Klingbeil was his mentor.
Herman, and his son Herman Junior were everykids' friend since year around they had
ice to keep their milk cool. A chip here and there helped you make it through a hot
summer day. Kenny assumed the route when Herman retired and his son became a
milk hauler. I had one of Kenny's daughters in my social studies class and she was
bright; so was Kenny. Before and during his milk delivery days, Kenny also had a
portable hot-dog stand located today where the Altoona Library now stands. Kenny
would open it when milk delivery was finished and keep it open until dark or until the
free movies were finished. It was located exactly in the same spot as the billboard
noting the names of every Altoona serviceman who served in WWI or II. That
beautiful shrine was torn down for some unknown reason. Kenny parked his root beer
stand in that spot- next door to the store that was owned by Emanuel's, Kopplin's, and
Wolfs. In 1950 Altoona had a population of less than 1200 but had three stores. Today
with a population of 7,000 it has no stores. Something seems wrong when a city of
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7,000 can't support one store but can support three taverns. Did we stop eating? Oh
how sweet that cold root beer tasted on a hot and dry Sunday at the free-outdoor
movies. Kenny never knew how much we enjoyed his stand. He sold Rochester
Rootbeer; it has vanished much as have the small stands that once dominated every
little town. The towns are vanishing too!
Shorty Franson was a salesman to be admired. He sold every kind of small
home appliance, every type of rug, every kind of coffee and tea, and for kickers, he
could find almost anything you wanted. My Mom ran a credit account with Shorty
and it was too easy for her to charge another set of throw-rugs (perhaps as many as six
sets a year) so she could have a gift to take when visiting my Sister JoAnne in Beloit. I
thought Mom felt an obligation to buy from Shorty rather than at a reduced price from
the Co-op. Cash she did not have; credit worthiness was her name. Her annual bill
often exceeded our annual food bill. Without my Mom and Herb's Mom, I'm not
certain Shorty could have survived. My Dad paid dearly for my Mom's
Shorty had time for everyone; he was a friend for everyone. Counselor,
minister, educator, purveyor of good and spicy news, he would take a minute or an
hour; his time was your time. His work day should have been from 8-5:00; most often
he could be seen knocking on doors at 9:00 p.m.. I know my Mom often fixed soup for
Shorty at noon; this was especially true on Fridays because it was soup day at our
Without Shorty Franson, we might have missed Christmas or Easter for what
my Mom ordered seemed to arrive at our house just the day before Gift-day. One
Christmas morning Shorty delivered to our house two gifts that he had forgotten to
deliver. I was 14 at the time and my Mom had ordered me a hat and mittens. Shorty
made the cold Christmas morning trip out to our ranch at 525 West 10
Street warmer
for me. He seldom made more than a basic living wage but he gave to his customers a
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level of service beyond the comprehension of most people; more importantly, he was
the epitome of that statement coined by Hallmark, "Care enough to give the very best."
Shorty was our life-line of credit when no one possessed a credit card. What was a
credit card in 1950? Who was that small strange man knocking on all the doors in
Altoona? Shorty Franson, a man bigger that a blocking guard; a man with a heart, soul,
and a kindness so missing in the everyday life of a young man in the 1950's! Merci Mr.
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To The Dump, To the Dump, To the Dumpity Bump Dump
By Herb Ruscin and Roger Rasmussen
There were seven days to the week when I was young, and therefore there were seven
different things to do each week, squared. Each day had it importance for what day of the week it,
was. Being Catholic, Friday was the day we ate fish or more conveniently, if no fish was bought
macaroni and cheese. Sunday was church day (mandatory if you were Catholic) and if you wanted
to divest your guilt to enable you to go to Communion on Sunday, Saturday was the day of
confession. So as you can see, in the 50's and 60's, we were less diverse (I hate that word, they
should combine it with the word abnormal, and state what it really means, not what you are used
to, you do the math). Anyway, back (way back) when you could know what to expect, you went
to school at 8, got off at 20 after three, and supper was at five. The only penalty you could expect
was if you weren't home by five, you wouldn't get any supper, and oh yes, Mac's wasn't an
alternative, hungry till breakfast is what you got in fact, and real time.
With habit there is normalcy, you know what is expected of you, and if you don't follow
the plan, egg is on your face, and the extra time wasted is your fault, re embarrassment. Young
people don't seem to know what embarrassment means anymore, everything wrong, is somebody
else's fault, but I don't want to get into negativity. But I will personally tell anyone who want to
listen about my last run in with a "younger" consumer out at Wal-Mart who got upset because I
didn't hear her say "get out of the way".
If Sunday was Mass day, and Friday fish day, Saturday was, to my dad, the last day of the
week. It was the day that the trash was taken out, the last chance to get the old week over with,
and on to the new week, it was garbage day, the day we went to the dump.
Being raised with a large family, there really wasn't a lot to throw away at the end of the week.
Except for Thursday's, when we had liver, there were never left over's. Mom seemed to know how
much food it took to bide us over till breakfast, and she was pretty accurate. If we didn't get
enough, you could make up for it by being the first one to the table the next morning.
No, the Saturday garbage run was a ruse, it was a reason to fill the station wagon with two
garbage cans, that contained less than one half of one garbage can worth the garbage to make a
run that was one more of a pickup than a delivery. Let me explain.
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Dad came from Ludington, a child of the depression, coming from a time when money was
hard to come by. And when you don't have money, you revert back to what people did before
money, back to the day of the Indian, back to what Indians used for money, it was called
wampum. This was the first foreign word I would leam, although it was actually more American
than I was. If s a good word, meaning (in my mind) a deed or product in exchange for a pay back
deed or product or in other wards a substitute for currency. It is what man did before money was
invented; it was a deed for a deed, as opposed to a promise of a deed to be repaided in a promise of
a deed (money). It is a word that should be learned by the young, as if our money system fails,
wampum with return, with a vengeance.
Percy Rasmussen was the gatekeeper; he had the keys to the chain that locked up the
dump to all Altoona users, except for Saturday mornings, and Wednesday if my memory serves
me right. Percy was the boss when it came to what discarded product went where. You can almost
see the entrance to the old dump; it is located on the West End of the building that houses Finley
Engineering these days. If you look real hard, you can see where the tree line has a smaller height
where the road to the dump used to be. It ran south for about a quarter of a mile, if not less, and
then turned to the left, and almost right away you spotted the huge hole in the ground where
Altoona used to discard its garbage.
Percy dictated where everything was to be dumped. They had a spot for "garbage"
garbage, stuff to be buried. There was also a spot for items that could be burned, which was done
weekly, and then there was the recyclable area, where metal items and maybe salvageable items
could be places. This area is where dad always parked; bee lined to that spot, and didn't seem to
have any hurry about dumping anything till Percy came over to see what he had. Dad always had
one can with garbage in it, but the other held items that weren't for dumping, but rather wampum
to be used for barter for what Percy had acquired for the week.
Dad specialized in electric motors. As a vacuum cleaner salesman, he was also a repairman
of the same. He always said that an electric motor never gave out, unless abused, it was always
the "brushes" that failed. And dad knew how to replace them, so he was always on the lookout for
used electric motors that he could breath new life into. And 400 Club barstool mate, Percy, was
more than happy to keep an eye out for discarded motors for dad. I can't tell you what dad gave
Percy in exchange. All I can say is that one-day I came home from school, and there was a
Maytag washing machine next to the garage. The next day when I came home from school the
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Maytag was gone, and there was a rabbit coop with a rabbit in it, and a nameplate above the rabbit
that read, Maytag. Dad was a horse trader, and although we never, ever had a horse in our garage,
if I had all the items that went through that garage, I would be a millionaire today. Going to the
garage was like going to a museum, one that changed exhibits frequently. It is where I first saw a
stuffed moose sitting next to a Piper cub airplane propeller.
So it was a marriage made in heaven. Dad on the road all week, taking in almost anything in as a
down payment on a new purchase of a Kirby, and then him trading some of the items to Percy for
rebuildable electric motors. A side bar says I should say something about the 12 dozen eggs dad
brought home one time as a down payment on a Kirby, and that we had baby chickens running
around before we could eat all those eggs. One of my brothers retells the story that those eggs
weren't fertile, and that the chicks came from another down payment from a different Kirby
purchaser. I like the first version better, but as Joe Friday used to say; "Just the facts Ma'am, just
the facts", and that's how I will tell it.
Dad and Percy were pretty good friends, and I can say that with assurance as I can
remember two of his children babysitting us, Roger and Dorthy, but that is another story. But one
day I noticed that dad had a shiner, and I had never seen him on the short end of the stick, although
I knew that he "mixed" it up every once in a while after a night at the "gin mill'. I didn't have the
audacity to ask him what happened, but mom was curious, so she wrangled it out of him.
For you who never knew Percy, he wasn't a big guy, but neither was my dad, bandy
roosters would be my description of both of them. But neither would back down when
confronted. It was comical to hear, but apparently Percy was having problems at home, and he
was commiserating with dad about the fact. Dad was a good listener, and trying to make Percy
feel better was relating to his problems in the same area at home with mom. Apparently an over
abundance of suds and Percy thinking that dad was talking about Percy's wife, and not dads. He
told dad he couldn't talk about his wife that way and socked him in the eye. That was about the
extent of the story, but I can tell you that black eye didn't stop us from going to the dump on that
bumpity dirt road, and it didn't stop Percy and dad from continuing their horse trading, and more
importantly, it didn't end their friendship. Because when all is said and done, after we are gone,
who have we got left to remember us besides family and more importantly, friends?
1/17/08 1516
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Roger's Comments: October 6, 2009
Percy the garbage (Dump) man was my Father. Like so many men and some women who work
in menial jobs, the publics' view of these workers is not positive; this was especially true back in
the 1950-60- and 70's, Why would any reasonably strong and mildly intelligent man want to dig
sewer ditches to unclog a neighbor's sewer or repair a water pipe? Why would that person plow
the streets, cut the grass, repair the potholes, flush the fire hydrants, or salt the icy streets? For
gosh sakes why would an able- bodied adult male work in a dump? The answer my friends, as
the old song goes, "is blowing in the wind" - for someone must do it or the inner city becomes a
disaster area; a dump.
I never thought too much of my Dad's job as the care keeper of the dump. My early contact
with the dump, the Washington County Dump, located not in Altoona then, but now, involved the
shooting of rats and crows with Garold Lampman. We were early teenagers and he had a 22
single-shot J.C. Higgen's rifle. He would let me shoot it periodically. Shooting rats was a
challenge. They would poke their heads up from the garbage and if you were quick- you got one,
I seldom hit one; Garold was a much better shot. In the early 1950's no one person tended the
dump. When the gates were open, one could drive in and dump. No questions !
After my Dad's railroad accident, he was unable to continue in his work position and so he
sought other employment. He worked at the Ice House, for Mr. Sturz, and it was killer work;
almost inhuman endurance was required to move 200 pound cakes of ice. He did this work on
and off during the 1940-and 50's , but by 1956, the work was beyond his small physical ability.
With two fingers missing on one hand and a thumb on the other, he needed another type of work.
Gus Sund came to the rescue. My Dad became a "city worker"- a dirty word at the time. I'm not
sure Gus felt that way, but mostly people worked part-time for the City when they were unable to
locate other work. High school boys often helped in the summer but "real" men were needed to
plow the streets and tend the dump.
And so it came to pass that this small adult man called Percy became the tender of garbage. He
could direct people to places to unload their garbage and he could deny non-residents the
privilege of dumping. The reader might be surprised at the number of big business who tried to
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dump their "toxic junk" at the dump. A check of that area today, where some beautiful homes are
now located, might reveal some large vents sufficient to remove "something" from the buried
And so out of people bringing garbage and very often taking someone's garbage (unwanted
items) home, developed a working relationship between my Dad and those who dumped. Over the
years I heard of many stories of how my Dad took two different broken bikes and created a new
one for some needy kids. Where was he when I wanted a bike at age 15? Percy was the guy who
befriended a fellow Lutheran named Roger by giving his son a puppy someone had purposely
dumped in a box. He was the guy who hauled unwanted furniture to needy people so they had a
place to sit or sleep. \
My Father once said," I could make a good living by salvaging the throw-aways I got each
week." Well he did salvage many things, but mostly he gave them away to people who were not
necessarily as needy as he. Hard to find people like that today. He never earned much more than
$100 a week in his life; he never attended school beyond the 8
grade; he never owned a home; he
never owned a car until he was 40 years old and that was a gift from my Uncle Bill. He never
asked for praise or reward-just kindness and recognition that he was doing a job for the City that
needed doing. He displayed a work ethic I've never seen again; he often walked two to three
miles to work and back in the coldest of winters and I never heard him complain. I never heard
him complain when the "rich ones" came to the dump and asked him to dump their garbage. Like
so many-many men of his generation he rose above the demands and complaints to do his job.
Never asking for more than a fair wage and a good week's work. Quitting time was not a set time
nor was starting. When he got to work, which was always early, he started; ending was often
when the work was done, but never early. No overtime pay; but lots of overtime work. That
generation is mostly gone; they would be more than 90 years old.
What lessons did they teach me? One major lesson: "Be a job big or small- do it well or not at
all." Secondly: "If you cannot do the job, move aside and let someone who can -do it." Thirdly:
"Few people ever die from overwork; at best they develop keen minds and lean bodies." Fourth:"
Regardless of your vocation- try to find some joy and try to bring some joy to another person's
daily life." Finally: "Humbleness is a virtue not a weakness." My Dad , Percy Rasmussen, taught
me these lessons.
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Today, at age 73 and still working after two retirements and still enjoying the "good life", I can
still see my Dad standing like a shepherd at the City Dump directing people where to dump their
garbage. He might have been an orchestra conductor rather than a dump director; he loved music.
Which job is more important in our daily life? There are no plaques nor parks or football fields
named after guys like Gus Sund, Eddy Duzynski, Percy Rasmussen, or the dozens of other men
who performed the dirty work that kept Altoona clean and alive. So why did they work for so
little yet give so much? The answer my friend "is blowing in the wind." Someone must or...they
A Thankful son .....
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Percy Rasmussen
Keeper of the keys to the Altoona Dump
a.k.a. the Washington County Dump
My dad, Percy, tended the Dump when the City and County realized it was unsafe
to have the dump open without some supervision. As teenagers we practiced shooting
rats at the dump. Often fires burned unattended for days, often requiring calls to the Fire
Department. Companies dropped waste materials that later were considered hazardous,
while many people walked carelessly on top of garbage trying to salvage scrap metal and
other useful objects. One resident, name not mentioned, salvaged caned goods and other
food products dumped by residents and non-residents. It may have been the large influx
of non-residents that resulted in a need to gate the dump and provide some supervision.
Percy received hundreds of useful items from dumpers and gave these items away to
individuals who put them to good use. My daughter Amy was rocked as a baby in a
cradle left at the Altoona Dump. It was used by six other family members, eventually
finding a home at the Salvation Army in Eau Claire. Who knows where that old maple
cradle is today!
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