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How Did I End Up in Duluth?

Written by Jeff Drake
8 · 19 · 22

The way my grandmother told it, is that she was at home in Duluth one day when she got a call from San Francisco. The woman on the phone told her that her daughter, Mary Ellen, had a baby boy and asked her if she would be willing to come to San Francisco and pick the baby up. I was told that she immediately said yes. Looking back, there is so much to this particular story that remained unsaid and, unfortunately for me, potentially unasked. Certainly, my grandmother would have asked this woman some pointed questions. I know she would have asked. But I will never know what she was told. My grandmother, 63 years old and rather poor, had no means of getting me out of San Francisco, of course. And here, Lady Luck shined her light on me, a pattern of good fortune that would repeat itself throughout my childhood. It turned out that my uncle Mike had reenlisted in the Army and in February 1951, was posted as a lifeguard for the Red Cross at Fort Ord, California. The story goes that she called my uncle and told him about the situation. He went to the Red Cross, told them what was going on and they issued him the money to go to San Francisco, pick me up and take me to Duluth to be with my grandmother. Although I have many questions about the events surrounding my birth and my stint in the “foundling home,” the one thing I don’t question is whether my grandmother and uncle had any qualms about getting me out of San Francisco to live with my grandmother in Duluth. Being 71 years old now, I can actually imagine how my grandmother felt at age 63, suddenly having a 3-month old baby dropped off to be raised, but if there was one thing my grandmother and uncle drilled into me growing up, is that family is everything. My grandmother welcomed me into her home and the rest is truly, history.

Ashatabula Flats Apartments

Over the years in Duluth, I remember quite distinctly my grandmother pointing to a 3rd story window on the Ashtabula Flats Apartments on 3rd street in Duluth, telling me that when I came to Duluth, at the age of 3 months, I used to live in that corner apartment and had to sleep in a dresser drawer because I didn’t have a bed. All this time I thought I lived in Ashtabula with my grandmother during my toddler years, but I recently discovered that my grandmother lived at 1019 East 7th in 1949 and I didn’t arrive in Duluth until 1951. I guess this means I must have lived on East 7th with my grandmother before Ashtabula.

My memories of all this, of course, are virtually nonexistent. I was too little to remember much. Years later I learned that after I arrived in Duluth, my mother came to visit my grandmother, and me, presumably. I was maybe 1 or 2, I believe. Very young. Not heeding the warning from the nurse, that “Under no circumstances was he to be returned to his mother,” my grandmother let my mother take me back to California. I was gone and with her for some months, I guess. No one knows exactly what happened to me during this cross-country adventure. I was told that my mother’s return trip included crossing the country with me, hitchhiking. I guess I was quite a mess when I arrived. “Near death’s door,” is how it was described to me. I don’t know what happened to my mother at this time, except that she went back to San Francisco and out of my life, except as a disembodied drunken voice that would haunt me periodically growing up.

East 7th Street

My very first memory of living somewhere is the lower duplex we lived in on east 7th Street. I believe it was 127 East 7th Street, which is an empty lot now, hidden behind the tree in the picture to the right. It was painted white.

127 East 7th Street (empty)

I lived there with my grandmother, Agnes, and my uncle Mike, who was temporarily back home and out of the Army. We lived downstairs. Our front door faced 7th street, and we had a side door that opened onto a narrow yard. If you took a right turn after exiting the side door, you would walk a short distance to the alley.

Behind our house was a very old, dilapidated garage. I remember it because I used to crawl through a hole in the wall and once found some very old toys, long forgotten. Our back yard had a Mountain Ash tree. I remember it because of all the orange berries that used to drop from it. I ate one once and spit it right out, as it tasted terrible. I used to watch the birds fly crazily around, sometimes striking windows inadvertently, due to being drunk on the berries they ate. Our neighborhood also had a lot of apple trees as I remember, and eating green apples until we got stomach aches was a common pastime.

We didn’t have pets at this time that I can remember. However, there was a neighborhood pet, I guess you’d call her, whose name was “Alice.” Alice was a big St. Bernard dog. I don’t know who owned her. Alice made a point of frequent visits to every house on our alley, looking for handouts. The duplex we lived in was very narrow by today’s standards. There was a side door at the rear of our flat and a front door facing 7th street. Alice, smart girl that she was, knew how to open the screen door, so she let herself in all the time. I remember watching my grandmother tug on Alice and push her out the front door, then run as fast as a 63-year old woman can run to the back door to lock it before Alice could get back in. It was a race. She often wasn’t fast enough. She never got mad though, not really. She had to laugh because it was pretty funny. Alice was not going to be denied!

Above us lived a family with a daughter, whose name I cannot even vaguely remember. She was much older than me, a teenager perhaps. I remember her being huge, somewhat of a giant, but friendly. She came out into the back yard one day and amazed me by walking around on two wooden stilts. For some reason, I can remember the stilts very clearly, but her face is lost to me. She tried in vain, for some time, to teach me how to walk with the stilts, but no matter what I did, I could not. I remember her getting quite frustrated with me. It is the only memory I have of her and that family.

If you faced our house from 7th street, the house to the left of us was home to the Skurbing’s. I remember them because they had a couple of boys in their family. They were both older than me, but the youngest one was also named, Jeff. To not get us confused when being called into dinner, he was always referred to by the neighbors as “Big Jeff” and I was called, “Little Jeff”.

To the east of our house, just down a house or two, perhaps even next door, lived a woman whose name I don’t remember. I do remember that she was really, really, nice to me. I think she felt sorry for me, being raised by my grandmother. One of my earliest painful memories is when she asked my grandmother if she could take me with her to go visit a friend of hers. When we got to her friend’s house, she told me that I must be sure not to touch anything. I remember her being rather emphatic about this. Being little, perhaps only 3 or 4, I somehow managed to break a lamp at her friend’s house. I remember the nice woman getting very angry with me, and I don’t remember ever seeing her again. Gee, I wonder why? Thinking back it seems a bit odd to me that a woman would ask to bring a little neighbor kid with them to visit a friend of theirs. There must be more to this story.

Across the alley from us lived another old woman. She was known for yelling at kids who made too much noise or were caught playing in her yard. Except for me, for some reason. I do not remember how she and I got acquainted, perhaps through my grandmother, as they were of similar age? In any event, she would invite me into her screened porch and sit me down on a chair made for young kids. Then she would feed me cookies! She was so nice to me. Adults who felt sad or pity when hearing that I didn’t have a mom and dad would benefit me periodically over the years while I grew up. I don’t begrduge them for it, as they helped me out a lot, actually.

Coming out of the front door of our lower duplex, you had to walk down some steps to get to 7th street. The steps were kind of steep for a little kid like me, and there was a wall that ran east and west of the steps. It was a stone wall and it was quite high. When they tore down our duplex, they apparently filled in the wall, leaving a lighter shade of stone. I remember this wall (see the photo above), because I somehow managed to ride a tricycle over the edge of it and onto the sidewalk below. I don’t remember much about that incident, except my uncle racing to pick me up, and I think he took me to the hospital.

The East 7th street neighborhood I lived in had a lot of kids! I remember the Tarnowski’s and the Ubanski’s because I went to school with them and lived just across the alley from me. There was also one of my first friends, Larry Lanhart. I knew some kids on 8th street too, whose names I can no longer remember. There was also another kid named, Joey, younger than us. While I’m at it, I mustn’t forget one of my first crushes, Jeanie Pons. She lived nearby, on the avenue I think.

For the most part, I have happy memories of life on 7th street,

Let us know what you think…

Comments

2 Comments

  1. Barbara Kressman

    Hi Jeff,
    I enjoyed reading how you ended up in Duluth, as I do all of your writings. You can only wonder how you became the person you are today with such a rocky beginning. Thank goodness for your grandmother and uncle for giving you the love and upbringing that they did. Unfortunately, we do not get to pick our parents but in your case you were truly blessed with family who loved and cared for you. It is funny that your grandmother and uncle told you that
    “Family is Everything”. That is exactly what I tell my boys all the time!!
    Stay well, continue writing and say hello to your wife for me.

    Reply
    • Jeff Drake

      Thanks, Barb. I appreciate the kind words. Jeff

      Reply

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.