Paul L. Nichols, pictured here in a recent photo, recalls growing up in Ames in the 1920s and 1930s. His family lived at 1313 3rd Street.
When I was about six, Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea if I learned how to swim. In the summer, the college swimming coach was allowed to make a little extra money by teaching Ames boys to swim in the college indoor swimming pool. We all had to swim in the raw and thought nothing of it. We were required to shower before entering the pool area; then we were each thoroughly inspected by the coach for any missed dirt residue. He rubbed the inside of the elbow of each arm. If any little balls of dirt appeared, it was back to the hot shower. One lesson, I had to go back three times before he let me in the pool.
The shallow end of the tiled pool was four feet deep, so at only six years of age I learned to swim fast; it was either that or drown. I soon became the best swimmer I knew, or at least my competitive nature made me strive to become the best. Let me just say that I loved to swim and dive, almost wearing out Carr’s Pool and the college pool every summer until graduation from high school. It was always a wonder to Mom that I didn’t grow webbed-feet.
While still very young, perhaps ten or eleven, in the very early summer heat, I began pestering Mom to take us out to Carr’s Pool, which was, and I’m reasonably sure still is, a wonderful, big pool to swim in. Mom said that as soon as the thermometer hanging on the back porch reached 100 degrees, she would take us swimming. She then went on with her housework (a bad mistake, Mom).
Clever devil that I was, I got a match and put it under the thermometer bulb. Up the temperature went to well over 100 degrees. The only thing was that the flame had left a good-sized black smudge at the bottom of the bulb area. I ran in and told Mom that the reading was over 100 degrees. She came out and looked while I held my breath. Sure enough, the reading was over 100 degrees. Somewhat guiltily, Don [the author's older brother] and I went swimming. I told Mom about that little guilt trip many years later. Even then she could not believe that I could have done such a thing. Gee, it was easy, Mom.
Carr’s Pool had an eight-foot diving board and a sixteen-footer. Just climbing up that perfectly vertical ladder to the sixteen-foot tower with wet hands and feet would scare a lot of kids, but not me. It’s a wonder I didn’t end up with a flat head. Hmmmm... maybe I did.
Cowboy movies at the Twin Star Theatre down at the east end of Main Street, better known to us kids as the Bloody Bucket, was our Saturday afternoon babysitter. Don and I didn’t mind at all. Usually the folks had to come into the theatre and slowly walk down the aisle until they spotted us; and even then, they had to drag us out when it was time to go home. This usually took place somewhere around 7 p.m., after entering the theatre with a ten cent ticket about 12:30 in the early afternoon. We happily watched those early cowboy shows three or four times.
For some time, that theatre had no toilets or air conditioning; so most seats throughout were nearly always soaked before the evening show began on Saturday. I can guarantee all of the dampness was not from perspiration. Strangely, we never seemed to mind. These were the days before radio and way before TV. What the human mind will put up with all in the name of entertainment! It may explain how we put up with some of the shows we now see on television and in the movies. Of course they’re not all rotten, but the floor of that old theatre had to be. I know it smelled rotten.
[The marquee sign of the Twin Star Theatre is pictured below. It can be identified in the photo above (Farwell T. Brown Photographic Archive) by the star and letters TWI which are visible behind the Capitol Theater sign.]
One of our great pleasures in the summertime was to go out to the Iowa State College Home Economics building, and, with the help of one of the neighborhood kid’s family contacts, obtain small white mice used there for experimentation. For us, they made first-class pets. They were so prolific that their cages and nests were usually full of young members.
The College seemed glad to give us as many as we wanted, and, once home from this scrounging trip, we each had at least one white rodent crawling in and out of our pockets. We played with them by the hour. I would lay my bike on its side and spin the front wheel very slowly, then place the little rascal on the spokes. Once there he could run on those spokes, seldom if ever missing the next spoke as it rotated around the axle. I say seldom, because once in a while I would get the wheel going too fast, and the little guy would fall off. I had to be very alert to prevent the old guillotine effect.
One male actually reached adulthood and escaped our clutches. He developed his own tunnels under the dirt floor of our car garage. For some reason Dad didn’t appreciate this happening in his garage, so we were told to eradicate the cause. Easier said than done. We tried traps with no luck, so I waited for him to come out so I could get a shot at him with my BB gun. I was a soldier without mercy with the BB gun in those early days, and my stealth eventually paid off. I may have figured that as miserable as he must have been without a mate, he surely didn’t mind. But I doubt that I was thinking along those lines at that point in my life. What did I know?
CROWS AND FLIES
Early in life Doe [Charles Ray, the author’s classmate and friend, nicknamed Doe Ray (from the musical scale)] showed a great love of birds. One spring he found a crow’s nest with babies in it. Somehow he got those baby crows home and raised them into beautiful adult birds. The crows thought Doe was their mother. When school began in the fall, they followed him, going from tree to tree as we walked towards our school. Crows are very intelligent, and these were able to actually find Doe in the classroom of the rather large Roosevelt School building that we were attending at that time. Those birds stayed on the windowsill outside the room and made all kinds of racket. Soon, Doe became a homing pigeon breeder and racer. He spent hundreds of dollars on his hobby while we were in school together. Somehow I could not join my life-long buddy in the effort, but he told me all about his obsession.
While we were still young we built many different models of airplanes, both solid, balsa- wood models and flying models. I recall one project I believe Doe invented. By taking a single strand of very fine wire (or was it horse hair?), an oval loop perhaps 6 x 3 inches in shape was fashioned. After gluing the ends together he was ready to proceed. Taking a pot big enough to float a wing on the surface tension of some water in the pot, he carefully placed the wing on the surface. He had found some kind of fluid that, when dropped on the water surface, would spread over the entire wing area, then, after a short time, harden to a clear, tough, thin sheet. VoilB, we had a very lightweight wing.
Now he had the big job of catching a horsefly alive to act as the motor. He finally got one and carefully put fast-drying glue on its feet and held it down on the center of the wing until the glue solidified. The fly couldn’t get away, but remained very lively. We then took the wing outdoors to launch it. Once released, the fly must have flown for at least 100 feet before it hit something and stalled out. Can you imagine what went through that fly’s mind?
I was a paperboy starting when I was 12 and continuing to perhaps the age of 15. With the money I made I was able to buy a lot of things I needed that the folks couldn’t afford to buy for me – things like a new bike that made delivering papers both easier and faster. It came in handy for the longer trip to and from school as I worked into junior high and high school.
Before I got my bike I had to walk to get my papers all the way downtown, a block south of the Sheldon-Munn Hotel, two doors up from the railroad crossing on the west side of the street. My route was the area south of Lincoln Way and from the Highway Commission all the way down to the Lincoln Way bridge to the college – a long way to walk.
I delivered both the afternoon Des Moines Tribune and the Sunday Register. For the latter, I had to get up at 2:30 a.m. every Sunday, walk downtown, fold my papers, load them into two shoulder bags, and then walk to my route (at least one mile), just to start delivering my papers. They had to be delivered before people got up for breakfast. Then I walked home and got ready for Sunday school, which Mom insisted upon. Once a week I had to knock on each of the doors and collect for all those papers. Collecting wasn’t always easy during the Depression.
I hated the alarm clock worse than anything else in my young life, and I have hated getting up early ever since. Some people say that they love to get up early and enjoy the morning air. I never have said that, though I have done my share of it.
These excerpts are taken from the author’s book, Doe Ray and Me (1995), and used with permission.