My earliest memories date back to 1932 or 1933. I was three or four years old and we lived in an apartment in West Minneapolis in a neighborhood called Kenilworth, not far from Cedar Lake where I would life guard during WWII. Our landlord’s name was Ole Hanson. It was Mr. Hanson who taught me how to ride my tricycle on their sidewalk in a straight line. I don’t remember Mrs. Hansons’ first name, but my Dad said she made a great “Lutefisk” a Norwegian fish dish that when cooked smelled up the whole building.
We left the Hansons and Kenilworth when my baby brother, Butsy, was born and moved to a three bedroom duplex apartment on Girard Avenue. Girard Avenue was on the other side of Lake Calhoun where my Dad used to lifeguard when he was in college in the 20s and where my brother life guarded 25 years later. Fortunately none of the Nathansons made a career out of life guarding, but it was great for our social lives.
My folks enrolled me in kindergarten at the Calhoun School, but it was the neighborhood kids who I can thank for the character building lessons I learned in those early years. Our duplex was only a block or so from the Lakewood Cemetery where I was to face my first great challenge in life. But let me set the stage: Apart from its proximity to the cemetery Girard Avenue was a great neighborhood. My pal, Harold Mervis lived in the duplex next door. We would spend hours with our erector sets, Lincoln logs and lead soldiers. Across the street however, lived the “wild” Fuller family who my mother hated, but whose three boys aged 7, 9, and 11 I idolized. They were the Huck Finns of our neighborhood. Harold was a nice Jewish boy, but the Fuller kids were something else; “hoodlums” my mother called them.
Thanks to the Fullers I lived a life of challenges; climbing the unclimbable trees, dodging traffic while sledding down the 35th Street hill, and peeping into the bedroom windows of the “beautiful” Olson twins who lived a few doors away. The ultimate test however took place one fall evening when my parents were out of town and Clara our Swedish maid had her hands full with my baby brother. I was reading a “Big Little Book” on our front stoop when I got the summons from across the street. The Fuller boys announced that “tonight” I was scheduled to be “initiated into their Heroes club”. Our destination was to be the Lakewood Cemetery.
I had never been in Lakewood cemetery or in any other cemetery for that matter, day or night, and I’m not so sure the Fuller boys had either. The big entrance gate was closed when we reached our destination, but we had no problem squeezing through the bars. It was already dark and the only light was coming from a distant building probably the mausoleum. It was getting scary. I think I was actually beginning to shiver. I desperately tried to hide my fear from my daring buddies as they dodged in and out among the tomb stones. Then I remember tripping over something and falling on damp grass.
When I recovered myself I looked around but everyone had disappeared. “Where are you guys?” I hissed. There was no answer. There I was alone in the cemetery ditched by my friends. I was probably more angry than scared. I couldn’t believe it, my pals had deserted me. Try as I might I could not hold back the tears. I had been abandoned.
My three buddies took off running in the direction of the gate, but I was paralyzed; I couldn’t move. The caretaker had seen me and was heading my way. It wasn’t fair. My friends had deserted me and left me to face the enemy alone.
He was a big man and seemed to get bigger as he closed in on me. Now I was really scared, I was frozen. I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t talk. I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t help it. “What do you think you are doing?” the caretaker asked. I tried to answer. “I’m lost” I blubbered. “You sure are”, he replied, “and I know darn well you’re not alone in here. Where are the others?” “I don’t know”, I blubbered again; “My friends ran away”. “Some friends” he said “well what am I going to do with you? Where do you live?” I told him.
As it happened the caretaker turned out to be an okay guy. Through my tears I told him my story. He wasn’t mad, in fact he gave me a big smile and asked me who the other kids were and where they lived. I didn’t know what to say. Could I tell on my friends and get them in trouble? Would he settle for first names? He realized my quandary, explained the meaning of trespassing and walked me home.
A menacing Clara, our housekeeper, was waiting for us at the door, demanding an explanation. The cemetery man identified himself and explained what had happened expecting some sympathy from Clara who turned to me and between her teeth whispered “You yust vait”. “Don’t be too hard on the kid” said my new friend as he turned to head back up the street “he just got in with the wrong crowd”. Well he didn’t know Clara, who true to her Swedish roots, saw to it that I paid the price.
Was the entire night’s experience worth it? You betcha! What’s a spanking compared to the pride I felt the next morning when I was officially made a bonafide member of the Fuller family with all the recognition and privileges that went with it.