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September 20, 2007

Fresh Flat Cakes 

By Raymond K. Johnson

The New Haven Register was the largest newspaper in New Haven County in the 1940s and ’50s. Every summer the paper would sponsor the Fresh Air Fund, a program that used contributions from the public to send underprivileged kids to summer camp.

In the summer of 1948 or 1949, my mother decided that it would be a good idea to get all the kids on Francis Avenue involved in collecting money to donate to the fund. More than likely it was something to keep us busy and out from underfoot. The idea was to have all of us kids -- my sister Louise, brother Lee, my friends Kenny DeMaio and Arthur Umland -- go around the neighborhood and sell chances to win a cake which my mother would bake.

Mom and Louise made up a bunch of tickets for the raffle and we started out to sell tickets to the neighbors. Of course, before we left the house Mom made sure we had on clean clothes and our hair was combed. We went to all the houses on Francis Avenue, Violet Street and Turnor Avenue, and by the end of the first day we had sold all the tickets for 5 cents each, or three for a dime. The next day Louise made more tickets and we went up to Augur Street, down to Jaenicke Lane, over to Putnam Avenue and to Lilac Avenue. We each took different streets and by the afternoon were back home with pockets full of nickels and dimes.

On Lilac Street, I had stopped at the house of Mrs. Todd, my Sunday school teacher, and she bought 25 cents’ worth of tickets. I told everyone about it and later that day, with new tickets in hand, we all went out for one last time. Everyone made a beeline for Mrs. Todd’s house. She never said a word, bought five tickets from each of us and sent us on our way. My mother was not happy when we told her about all the tickets Mrs. Todd had bought. The final tally for the tickets came to $15.

The next morning my mother made the cake. The cake came out flat. Mom was upset, saying she must have made a mistake when measuring out the ingredients. While she worked on another cake, we got the flat cake to eat. It was great.

The second cake came out of the oven, flatter than the first. Mom was not happy. And we got another cake to eat. Mom went over the recipe step by step and could find nothing wrong. She sent Louise to the Neighborhood Market to buy a new can of baking powder, “just in case.”

It was late in the day so Mom said we would have the drawing to see who the winner was and that she would bake the cake the next morning. Louise put all the tickets in a paper bag. Mom drew the winning ticket and announced to all of us that the lucky winner was Mrs. Todd. To this day I think Mom and Louise fixed it so Mrs. Todd would win. Our job now was to give the good news to Mrs. Todd and tell her that we would bring the cake to her the next day, Saturday.

We ran the three blocks to her house and knocked on her door. No only did we tell her the good news, we also told her about the two flat cakes. She thanked us and said to tell my mother not to worry about the cake. Next morning Mom tried again. Another flat cake.

It was then that she realized that the oven was not as hot as it should be. Now Dad got involved. Mom had him come to the kitchen and check out the oven. The verdict was that the thermostat was broken and we were going to need a new stove. Mom went next door to Yolanda’s house and made the cake over there and we finally delivered the cake to Mrs. Todd.

The following Monday, we all took the bus to the New Haven Register building. When we got there we told our story and gave them the $15. We had our picture taken out in front of the building and a few days later it appeared in the newspaper. We all had a lot of fun, but the best part was eating all those flat cakes.

Raymond K. Johnson grew up Hamden. He graduated Hamden High School in 1957 and left town two years later, never to return. He now lives in Oceanside, Calif., with his wife, Kay. He is a retired United States Marine, and is penning his memories of growing up in Whitneyville in this column. Johnson can be reached at rkjohnson1@cox.net.

September 4, 2007

The Dinosaur Tooth

By Raymond K. Johnson

At the end of World War II, Sheldon Gustafson got out of the Army and came back home to live with his parents. They lived at the corner of Francis and Putnam avenues. Sheldon wore his khaki Army jacket all the time, the shoulders and sleeves were full of Army patches. Whenever Sheldon was out working in the yard or washing his car, my brother Lee, my best friend, Kenny DeMaio, and I used to go over and ask Sheldon to tell us about all the patches and what they were for. He would take a few minutes and ask us to pick one out and then he would tell us exciting stories about the Army during the time he spent in Europe.

One Saturday morning Kenny, Lee, and I were out in the street playing baseball. Kenny was the first to notice that Sheldon was washing his car. This turned out to be the start of the greatest adventure of our young lives. Whenever Sheldon washed his car, the water would run down the gutter in front of our house and into the sewer at the corner of Violet Street. It never got to the sewer before passing through two or three dams that we would build to slow its journey.

The three of us ran to get our shovels and scraped up all the sand that had collected along the sides of the street from the recent rains. I ran to the garden and got a pail full of dirt and dumped it where Kenny and Lee were packing the sand higher and higher to stop the flow of water. The dam was about 2 feet out from the curb and about 5 or 6 inches high. We used some old Popsicle sticks to make a little floodgate, and whenever a bug or some ants floated up to the dam we would pull some of the sticks out and send the bugs shooting over the dam and down into the sewer.

Lee was taking handfuls of the dirt I had brought from the garden and packing them against the sides of the dam. Suddenly he stopped and said, “Look at this!” We turned and looked at Lee. There in the palm of his hand was the biggest tooth we had ever seen. We washed it off and inspected it more closely. It was about 3 inches long and almost as wide.

“What do you think it is?” Kenny said. We looked at one another, speechless. I said, “Let’s ask Sheldon.”

We ran up the street to where Sheldon was still washing his car. I held up the tooth between my thumb and forefinger and asked Sheldon if he could tell us what kind of tooth it was. He took it from me, turned it over and over, examining it very closely. After a minute or two he said, “It’s a dinosaur tooth.” Sheldon handed the dinosaur tooth back to me and told us we better go show it to our parents.

Mom and Dad weren’t quite as sure about the origin of the tooth. But we were, and to prove it to them I had a plan. About three miles down Whitney Avenue was the Peabody Museum and it had, at that time, one of the best dinosaur exhibits in the country.

The making of the Peabody dinosaur mural. Courtesy photo

Mom had taken us there to see the giant brontosaurus skeleton about a year earlier. It was about the same time that the museum was having a giant mural painted on the wall of the dinosaur exhibit room. I told Kenny and Lee my plan; we would take the tooth to the museum and show it to the people there and they would confirm what Sheldon had told us. Then Mom and Dad would have to believe us. We agreed and told our parents the plan. They said OK, but Louise, my older sister, would have to go along with us. We complained, saying she didn’t find the tooth, but when all was said and done, Louise was going to come along. She was three years older than I, and Mom felt it better that she go along with us in case there were any problems along the way.

We cleaned up the dinosaur tooth and put it in a small box lined with cotton. On Monday morning, the four of us started out on our trip to the museum. Mom had made each of us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Kenny and I took along water in our Cub Scout canteens. We walked down Whitney Avenue talking all the way about dinosaurs and cavemen and giant birds. We stopped at the Whitney Lake dam and ate our sandwich by the Eli Whitney Museum building. We started out again and in about an hour and a half arrived at the Peabody.

Louise went up to a man who was directing visitors to a museum exhibit. She asked him if we could see the person in charge. The man looked us over and asked if we would tell him the nature of our business. That’s all I needed. I took the box out of my pocket, opened it up, pulled back the cotton that was protecting the tooth and said, “I found this dinosaur tooth in the street and my mother and father don’t think it’s a dinosaur tooth so we came down here and would like to see the man in charge of the dinosaurs and prove that it is.”

The man took the box from me, removed the tooth, held it up to the light and inspected it very closely. He put the tooth back in the box, handed it back to me and asked us to wait right where we were.

He left and in a little while returned with another man who introduced himself as “the man in charge of the dinosaurs.” We told him who we were and then I told him about how we found the dinosaur tooth while we were building dams in the street. I handed him the box and he took out the tooth and turned it over and over and looked at it very closely, just like the other man. He asked us to follow him.

As we walked down the hallway he told us about some of the dinosaur bones that were on exhibit. When we got to the Great Hall he showed us the skeletons and told us when and where they were found. He showed us a giant turtle and then he took us over to the wall and pointed out all the different dinosaurs and the time periods when they lived. I told him I remembered being there last year and watched the man paint the mural.

The man told us all about how they found the bones and how they prepared them and put them all together -- like a puzzle. After a while, he took us to another room and asked us to wait. He went to get a book and opened it to a page full of pictures of teeth. Then he took our dinosaur tooth out of the box and placed it next to one of the teeth pictured in the book. We all looked at the picture and then at our tooth. It was then we finally realized that we didn’t have a dinosaur tooth.

The picture in the book said the tooth belonged to a horse. He asked if there were any horses in the neighborhood where we lived and we said no. He thanked us for coming to the museum and hoped we had had a good time. We told him we had, and then the other man took us around and showed us some of the other exhibits. We spent a long time at the front entrance watching the big Foucault pendulum swinging around and around. The tip of the pendulum was suspended so its tip just touched a layer of sand on top of a pedestal. As the pendulum swung back and forth it would leave a tracing of its path in the sand.

Finally, Louise said it was time to go. We were pretty tired from all the walking but Louise came to the rescue. She pulled a dollar from her pocket and told us Mom had given her some extra money so we could get the bus back to Whitneyville. The bus ride was quick, and once back home we went to find Sheldon to tell him about his mistake. When we finally got home and told Mom everything the man at the museum had showed us she said that when she was a young girl the milk wagons were pulled by horses.

That evening when Lee and I went to bed we decided we would show the tooth to Mr. Codiane, our milkman, the next time he made a delivery.

Raymond K. Johnson grew up Hamden. He graduated Hamden High School in 1957 and left town two years later, never to return. He now lives in Oceanside, Calif., with his wife, Kay. He is a retired United States Marine, and is penning his memories of growing up in Whitneyville in this column. Johnson can be reached at rkjohnson1@cox.net.


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