NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 25, 2013

A prized purchase brings a life lesson

John Lagoulis
Newburyport Daily News

---- — Back during the 1930s, the Kalman Family Clothing Store was operating their business on Pleasant Street in Newburyport.

The immigrants often stopped by their store. Kalman’s carried a line of clothing needed by the immigrants, while other clothing stores offered fancier items. The line of clothes at Kalman’s was less expensive, yet nice. They also had a payment plan available with no money down. It’s hard to beat that one!

For the immigrants, that payment plan was heavenly. Once a month, the oldest Kalman son would visit the house and ask for 75 cents or whatever one could spare. And, there was no interest tagged on to the balance. My mother would make sure she had at least 75 cents when the Kalman son came to our door monthly.

I would enjoy looking at the styles in Kalman’s display window. One day, I was surprised to see a beautiful, black, leather jacket — similar to a bomber jacket. I liked it so much I’d go each day and look at it. Nobody seemed to buy it. If I remember, the price was around $12, which was a lot of money during the Depression.

About two months went by and still nobody had bought it. And, I was still going by daily and looking at the jacket on display in their window. Evidently, someone in the Kalman family must have noticed me because one day the oldest son said, “I see you’ve been looking at the jacket.” “Do you like it?” he asked. I said, “Yes, I do — very much.” He responded, “You can have it.” I told him, “I do not have any money.” He offered to reduce the price in half. And, he would put it on their payment plan.

It was approximately 1935, early fall. I had returned from my five-month tour of duty in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). I’d decided I would go back to school in the fall and complete my high school education. I had given my mother my monthly CCC checks of $25. She informed me she had saved some of that money and told me she’d help me buy the jacket. She handed me $2. I ran to the clothing store and gave it to Mr. Kalman and told him I’d pay the rest monthly on their payment plan.

I put the jacket on. It was a comfortable fit. It was made of good heavy leather. It had zippered cuffs and many zippered pockets. I planned to wear the jacket on cold winter days. It was perfect.

As I stepped outside onto Pleasant Street my good friend, William “Larky” Contas came along. I showed him my new black, leather jacket. He said he liked it and gave his approval. I felt good.

He was nicknamed “Larky” because he had a unique musical talent – he could whistle like a bird. At times he could even outdo a bird! Larky could also play the bugle very well in Boy Scout Troop 4 in Newburyport.

That day, Larky was sad because his mother was very ill. He asked me to walk with him to the hospital in Danvers where his mother was dying of tuberculosis. We had no means for transportation, so we walked together along the highway.

She gave us some advice about life and living and the dangers of tuberculosis (TB). TB was prevalent in those days. It was especially prevalent amongst immigrants and factory workers; it was everywhere.

After visiting his mother, William and I walked back to Newburyport. I was still wearing my new, black, leather jacket and recall how it kept me warm during that long walk. I was enjoying my new purchase.

William’s mother passed away shortly after that. He told me he’d received a letter from his uncle who was living in Chicago. The uncle wanted to come to Newburyport to see the family, but he was unable to because he ran a restaurant in a Walgreens in Chicago.

He had offered William a job working at the soda fountain in his restaurant. William wanted to go in the worse way – but not alone. He pleaded for me to go with him. So, I did. My friend and I set off to hitchhike – just like that – all the way to Chicago. At the same time I had heard rumors “a World’s Fair is going to be built in New York.” So, we went there first, thinking we may find work. When we arrived at the site, to our surprise we found nothing there but a big fence and big empty lot.

While there, we’d heard more rumors of “jobs coming available at a big, well-known trucking company in New Jersey.” We weren’t about to give up on the possibility of finding work. So, we got a ride across the bridge into New Jersey and found our way to the Mack Truck Company…things were just as bad.

The rumors were rampant everywhere regarding jobs. In reality, there was just no work. We decided to head on to Chicago.

Before leaving, we met a man in New Jersey who befriended us. He told us, “It’s too difficult hitchhiking from here to Chicago. It’s best to continue by freight train.” The man knew the exact freight train that goes straight from New Jersey to West Virginia and Indiana and into Chicago.

He offered to help by showing us how to hop onto a freight train. He decided he’d come along with us and show us how it’s done. So, the three of us hopped a freight train. I was so glad I’d purchased my black, leather jacket which now kept me warm while riding.

By hopping freight trains, we’d become quite dirty and needed to wash ourselves. The man knew where we could shower. We headed to the showers (also provided by the Volunteers of America group).

We each selected a shower stall and hung our clothes on the hooks just outside each stall. William and I each went into a separate shower stall, but the man stayed behind and waited. I thought nothing of it. When I came out from my shower and reached for my clothes, my beautiful, black, leather jacket was gone! And, so was the man! In its place the man left me his dirty, old, worn out zippered jacket.

Now, I had to wear his jacket – the jacket barely fit me! I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach and I was so confused. I was beyond anger. My jacket was gone!

Coming from Newburyport I had always been a trusting young man. Growing up in Newburyport I had never experienced theft, probably because I never owned anything of value worth stealing. I’d forgotten I was no longer in familiar Newburyport.

This was the first time in my life I’d ever had a personal item stolen. It would be the last time. I decided then and there that I would never be so careless and trusting again.

All I could do was continue on our journey to Chicago. The Rapid Transit, a huge above ground and underground passenger transport system, would now take us from Indiana to Chicago for ten cents. William and I boarded the transit to Chicago with hopes of finding work.

We got off the transit at Michigan Avenue. Money and jobs were so very scarce in those days. We located William’s uncle at the restaurant. William’s uncle was feeling sorry for his nephew and the mother’s recent passing away. He offered William the counter job at the soda fountain in Walgreens. There was only that one job available. Unfortunately there was no position available for me, and I returned to Newburyport.

That entire adventure was a lesson to the good, especially for a naive 16 year old boy. When I reached Newburyport and got back to my home on Unicorn Street, my mother greeted me at the door…placed both hands down firmly on each of my shoulders….looked straight into my eyes with a smile on her face and said, “Son, where have you been?!”

And, later she asked, “John, where’s your new jacket?”

Oh, how I loved that jacket!

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John Lagoulis, now in his 94th year, is a columnist for the Daily News who writes about life in Newburyport the way he lived it during the early 1900’s. John has authored two Volumes titled, Newburyport: As I Lived It! The Trials & Tribulations of a Young Wharf Rat during the Early 1900’s in Massachusetts ~ a legacy ~, which are available in local bookshops. He can be reached by e-mail: wharfrat01@att.net or www.NewburyportWharfRat.com