The house was built in 1904. For the longest time it was the only building in a large flat field in the southern outskirts of Columbus Ohio. The house was an island in the midst of a sea of waist high grass that gently swayed in the summer breeze. It was modest and sturdy. It had a rugged integrity that reflected the strong work ethic of its builders. It wasn’t big, or plush. Its lines were simple, straight and true. Each stud, floor joist, and each piece of clapboard that covered its walls and framed its long narrow windows were destined to thrive not just survive. The windows were a distinguishing characteristic of the house.
Sixty years later in the summer of 1964, I was a 14-year-old boy growing-up on the Southside of Columbus trying desperately to fall asleep in the second floor front bedroom of this same old house. I am stripped to my white BVD underwear, trying to stay cool in the heat and humidity of the summer night. I didn’t know the meaning of the word insomnia but I knew the experience.
In the sixty years that had passed since this house was built, a working class neighborhood of aluminum and vinyl-sided clapboard houses had sprung up on narrow lots barley wider than the houses themselves. What had been the first house in a development in the middle of a pasture had transformed into a single-family home in an urban neighborhood. The houses on Southwood Avenue and the streets around them, Jenkins, Markison, Sheldon, and Moler, shared a modest functional design with little distinguishing characteristics. Some of the houses needed paint. Most of the lawns were well maintained. Several alleys behind these homes had cars parked in them that hadn’t moved in months. It was a neighborhood surrounded by factories, a public housing project, and a large park.
I lived in my grandparents’ house in the second floor, two-bedroom apartment that I shared with my brother and my mother in this 60-year old house. My bedroom had two long narrow windows that I kept open at all times trying to entice what little breeze there was into my bedroom. I mostly attracted mosquitoes and an occasional black fly that seemed big enough to fly away with me in its sticky legs. The windows were each cracked and coated with a film residue from the smoke released from the Owens Illinois Glass factory across the street. It occupied nearly five city blocks starting less than 50 yards from my bedroom windows.
Many men and women from the immediate neighborhood were employed at the factory. Most of them walked to work passing our house carrying their lunch pails and dressed in green or tan work clothes – heads down – walking with a single purpose. They were a rich assortment. The neighborhood was filled with Hungarians, Germans, Italians, some Jews and some Blacks. The hillbillies, mostly transplants from hills of southern Ohio and Kentucky, qualified as an ethnic group in my mind. They had their own language, quirky habits, physical mannerisms, and propensity to have old cars jacked up on cinder blocks or in garages with broken windows, dirt floors, and peeling paint. This assortment of humanity shared a common purpose of making a living through an honest day’s work.
The factory building just across the street from my grandparents’ house at the corner of Southwood and 19th had a single row of windows about ten feet above the ground – too high to look into when standing on the ground below them but perfect to look down into from my second floor bedroom window.
As I looked out of the windows, I saw a ceiling-mounted conveyor belt system that had hundreds of metal hooks spaced about three feet apart that carried television picture tubes. They were square glass screens about 30 inches by 30 inches suspended in air and propelled clockwise around the perimeter of this large room. Sometimes the hook had a picture tube attached and some times it didn’t. The screens were moved along a production line and were being inspected at various intervals to determine their readiness for use in a finished television set.
I remember the sound of breaking glass as I lay in bed in my underwear listening to Joe Hill on an old Philco radio announce the Columbus Jets baseball game on WTVN. This sound was never predictable. There was no routine or pattern. Out of nowhere, a loud crashing sound would break the silence of the night and interrupt the play-by-play radio broadcast from Jet Stadium. For a split second, I knew that another imperfect TV tube had been detected, its fate irrevocably determined by the hammer-wielding worker who was paid to end its life before it started.
The sound of breaking glass became a part of my night sounds just as surely as the cricket’s chirp, the police sirens, the laughter and loud talking coming from the front porches of so many neighbors and the occasional car filled with teenagers listening to the top forty on WCOL.
I remember the sound of breaking glass because of its unpredictable certainty. All of the other night sounds had their natural rhythm and schedule. Nothing was left to chance. The ball game on the radio, the steady hum of people living their night lives, the distant siren and passing cars provided an audible certainty that I counted on, that I grew accustom to. I knew that life was going on as planned – that in a world of uncertainty I could count on night sounds that I heard through the windows of that old house, in that city neighborhood that had changed so much since the house was built.
I suspect that no one living in that house 60 years before could have imagined the sounds of a factory or the sounds of a city neighborhood of diverse people and experiences let alone the unpredictable noise of glass breaking throughout the night. I can only imagine what the uncertainty was in their lives that kept them up at night.
I never did get comfortable with the sound of breaking glass. Sometimes it woke me from a sound sleep. Other times it was an unwanted annoyance during a baseball game when there was a 3/2 count with a runner in scoring position. Other times it startled me out of a false sense of security that maybe tonight might be the night when no mistakes were detected and every picture tube made it into an RCA console to become illuminated with the antics of the Three Stooges, the CBS nightly news with Walter Cronkite or the top music hits according to Dick Clark and the American Bandstand. I can’t remember a night when glass didn’t break.
The old house on the Southside of Columbus that played such an important role in the early years of my life was characterized by broken glass. The glass in the long narrow windows of my bedroom on the second floor was cracked. Abandoned cars with broken windshields were common in the alleys surrounding the house. And the sound of broken glass permeated each night that I lived there. In one form or another, I remember broken glass always being present in my life in 1964.
Why do I remember something so seemingly insignificant and why did it make an impression on me? The answers to those questions lie in what I came to associate with the sounds and the images of broken glass – uncertainty and imperfection.
First, I was never able to predict the sound of breaking glass. Although I knew that it was going to happen, I was never certain as to when or how often. In the process, however, I learned that uncertainty wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, uncertainty became a part of life not to be feared but to be expected.
Secondly, broken glass was linked to imperfection. As each TV tube was examined someone made the decision as to whether it met the standards set for it by a distant product manager or quality control director. If it did, it proceeded, if it didn’t it was shattered to be recycled into another use.
I learned that standards are important and that often times others will judge you against the standard that has been set. Unlike TV picture tubes, however, our imperfections do not automatically regulate us to the scrap pile nor do the “hammers” of others’ harsh words designed to shatter our opinion of ourselves.
The old house, my family, and the neighborhood of diverse people and experiences that were a part of my life growing –up on the Southside in those early years, provided a stable context in which uncertainty and imperfection became appreciated parts of my life.