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Interview with Charles A. Harrison

Harrison, Charles A.
Female Voice
Deatherage, Justin
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with people and places; Childhood adventures; Stories and storytellers
Charles Harrison talks about growing up in DC and stealing pies.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Justin Deatherage interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
JD (Justin Deatherage): OK.
CH (Charles Harrison): Question.
JD: There, it's, it's more kind of just a, you'll take a direction and some of these will probably be detailed because you're pretty good at getting detailed in your stories, so, ah, um, let's see. [Pause] What stories or books do you remember reading as a child and was there a favorite?
CH: Well, I'm going to be like the president, now define a child.
JD: [Laughs]
CH: I want to know exactly what period of time we're talking about.
JD: You know.
CH: When I was four years old I did not read, five I did not, six, seven, eight, well I tried. But what period of time you specifically think I could read and comprehend a book?
JD: Well it could be, someone, someone read you a book or, or maybe you just telling, told you stories or.
JD: Was there a good story teller in the family?
CH: [Clears throat] No, we had radio back then we had, uh, Fred Allen, uh, George Burns.
JD: Uh-huh.
CH: They were the story tellers but they were all jokers. I guess, ah, Robert Lewis Stevenson when I became, ah, capable of really, I read the Bible too when I was a kid but-.
JD: Uh-huh.
CH: -I never did, uh, really understand it. Um, Robert Lewis Stevenson, what did he, what was ah, Treasure Island, was that it? You don't even know.
JD: I remember Treasure Island but I can't-.
CH: Tom Swift-.
JD: Tom Swift.
CH: -On his motorcycle.
JD: See, I don't // know. //
CH: // Tom Swift // Tom Swift and his airplane. Tom Swift, uh, and his automobile.
JD: I don't remember // any Tom Swift. //
CH: // Tom Swift // in a submarine, all of these. [Laughs] I am serious. If you haven't, you need to go to the library and look up Tom Swift and tell the professor to also because he-.
JD: // [Laughs] //
CH: // -His name // was Tom Swift, now who wrote it I don't know, but ah, but it was, Tom Swift was always on an adventure.
JD: // Uh-huh. //
CH: // Tom Swift // Tom Swift at the circus, uh-.
JD: Do you remember a particular adventure that, uh, caught your attention?
CH: I think the one on the motorcycle when he, but I've forgotten the details of it. I like the one on the airplane. Uh, I'll have to go to the library myself and refresh my memory.
JD: [Laughs]
CH: But he did, uh there were a bunch of stories, uh, like women, what did they, uh, back in those days, uh, the women read, uh, hmm, well, I'm trying to think of what they, it was something all about girls, you know.
JD: Uh-huh.
CH: You had girl books and you had boy books and the boys all heroes and saved them from the, not really anything bad, nothing like we have today, you don't have to be saved from the President.
JD: [Laughs]
CH: Uh.
JD: Do you, uh, who, who was the best storyteller in your family? Did you have somebody that told a really good story or, or was that you maybe? // That maybe-. //
CH: // No, it wasn't // me.
JD: Oh.
CH: My brother was a good storyteller, my sister, but I, I can't remember the stories.
JD: Well, what, uh, made your brother a good storyteller? Do you remember? Because-.
CH: He was not only a good storyteller but he could write. Uh, [pause], we, during World War II we got separated and he went over seas and he wrote back and, really good stories about what happened to him, he was all through the Pacific and the different things. And he, he found out I was heading to the Pacific and said, "I'll give you two words of advice. Keep your mouth shut and your tail down and you will not get hurt." Most important thing he said, "Keep your mouth shut." But he was, uh, well he wrote about, uh, his adventures in, I may still have some of his letters here, he died at a real young age, 50 years old, had a heart attack.
JD: Hmm.
CH: He was about a year and half older than I am. He was a very interesting individual.
JD: Did he, uh, ever tell stories when you were a kid?
CH: I don't remember. What the hell do you think // I am, Methuselah? //
JD: // [Laughs] // Just wondering, just trying to, maybe tap a memory nerve in there. Uh, I don't know.
CH: Well, I can remember as a child in Washington, uh, Georgetown. Playing, um, what we called outs. You know what that is?
JD: Playing house?
CH: O-U-T-S.
JD: // Uh-uh. //
CH: // Outs. // Well, that meant one group stayed and the other group dispersed themselves and you had to find them.
JD: Uh-hmm.
CH: So then you found them, brought them in, if you brought them in you, you won, if you didn't bring them in, you lost.
JD: Um-hmm. What kind of terrain? Were you playing this in the woods or, uh, was // this-. //
CH: // Oh, // no. Know anything about Georgetown at all?
JD: G-, Georgetown. Now there's // a couple of different-. //
CH: // Washington, D.C. //
JD: OK, yeah.
CH: OK. This is the one.
JD: Actually urban, then.
CH: It's that's the right word? It's city.
JD: Um-huh, um-huh.
CH: Um, ah, cobblestone streets. Still got them, uh, railroad tracks or streetcar tracks, in the middle of the road. It was heavily built up. Concentrated row houses, one right after the other.
JD: You'd play this at night, during the day or?
CH: We played at twilight because daytime you could find them, twilight.
JD: [Laughs] Takes the fun out of the // game. //
CH: // Um-hmm. // We used to also play, uh, [clears throat] take a tennis ball, interesting where we got the tennis balls, uh, and throw them up against a wall. If you hit, throw the tennis ball on the ground, it bounces up and then you catch it on the way back. You've done that?
JD: Um-hmm.
CH: OK. So you unders-. So we'd play it off of the, uh, brick. They had a brick shelf and if you could hit the ground and hit the brick shelf then it would come back like a rocket against the wall it would come back in. Yeah, that was a, you did that at twilight, too, or you could do that in the daytime, really.
JD: Where did you, uh, get the tennis balls at?
CH: Oh, tennis balls. Well, Washington still does, and I'm certain that Georgetown had, see I didn't appreciate this until I became an engineer, civil engineer, but the sanitation system consisted of manholes but it was not only for water, for storm water, it was also for sewage.
JD: Uh-huh.
CH: So they had to come the, what we called the, uh, I forgot now what we called them, anyway they'd come by in their truck about every four or five months and they'd lift up the lid and they had these scoops and they'd pull the skim off top and load that and carry it off and in that would be tennis balls.
JD: [Laugh]
CH: Perfectly good tennis balls, not a damn thing wrong with them. And so you'd salvage that-.
JD: Uh-hmm.
CH: -And play, uh, baseballs would sink, tennis balls they'd, they'd float.
JD: Hmm. You, you may need to check that.
CH: Uh? Yeah, I think it's done.
JD: OK. [Break]
CH: We're picking up from, uh, before dinner. Now after dinner and after another scotch or two, after a good dinner and, uh, B.B. brought up the, uh, pie thing. See, you've got, you don't understand, and there's no way for me to convey to you, where I was born and where I was raised in the city of Washington in Georgetown. Now Georgetown is a very aristocratic area. It consists of M Street which is on the, way down, N Street, O Street, P Street. You know the alphabet? What's next?
JD: [Laughs] Oh, oh. Q?
CH: Uh, M, N, O, Q.
JD: R?
CH: R, S, T, V, that would be, S, T, V is almost out is almost out of Georgetown. Georgetown is built from the river, climbs up and goes like this up to R Street. R Street is where they had a big reservoir where we got our water.
JD: Uh-huh.
CH: They pump the water up there and they let it fall by gravity down to us. Streets are cobblestone. Railroad tracks, not railroad tracks, streetcar tracks, my daddy worked for the streetcar company, he was a welder, uh, master electrician, or whatever, you know. And back then he made about 50 dollars a week which was pretty high cotton.
JD: Uh-huh.
CH: OK. Now we want to talk about the pie thing.
FV (Female Voice): [Laughs]
CH: I was, uh, raised in a, what they call the melting pot.
CH: I was a, uh, Anglo-Saxon, my brother and I, my sister. Italians across the street, Polocks, Germans. The Germans were the worlds worst, they were the meanest sons-of-bitches you ever met in your life. And then we had the Irish. You had two kinds of Irish, the black Irish and the white Irish. Well, one of them was Protestant, the other one was Catholic. I never did know the difference, I mean I couldn't tell who was what but anyway, this is and, uh, no blacks except down on O Street we had one black family. OK. Uh, Washington, back in those days, was a city when the sun went down no blacks lived there except these people down there whichever one you know, they tolerated them. They're nice people. My daddy would tell me, "You get an ice cream cone." This little black boy would take a lick and I'd take a lick, you know? Uh, I was well integrated into it I guess is the right, no that's the wrong word. Anyhow, so we lived by our wits. We had grocery stores on all the corners. Uh, you, a terrible life I led, I was a bandit.
FV: Abandoned?
CH: Not abandoned, a bandit.
FV: [Laughs]
JD: A bandit?
CH: Yeah. The grocery guy would set the oranges out and the stuff like that and the kids that my gang would come, psshtt, bye. We would all rip them off.
JD: [Laughs]
CH: And the guy would come out hollering and screaming. We had a Chinese, uh, laundry there, and uh, oh shit. Yeah, I'm thinking about some, um, real deep stuff. Uh, we'd open the door to the Chinese laundry and say, "Chica-chica China-man, eat dead rats," and run.
JD: [Laughs]
CH: And the, the Chinaman would come out just chasing us.
JD: [Laughs]
CH: Of course, I think he was kidding 'cause he never caught us. Uh, and then we'd go back to the pie factory down on, uh, oh, I can't think of the street. It's not O Street, it's not, uh, N, O, P. Wasn't P Street. There was a street right in between there. And on the corner was the pie bakery. And the pie bakery had this big building behind it [clears throat], which where all the pie trucks came in at night. They'd park the trucks and they'd leave their pies in the trucks. Back then it wasn't actually quite like it is now where everything has to be put up. Uh, and we would, at night, invade the pie bake-, the, the truck place where the pies were and to show you how damn little I was, how small, the pie would be about that wide, about 12 inches and the, the enclosure and the pie truck would have all these in them and they were just little old trucks with a little tiny engine, you've seen them, you know. And the door would open you'd go into it and they had these little bins on each side and it would be the pies. And our raiding process, which consisted several times a watchman would come out there, and would almost catch us. We were totally silent. An Indian could not have made a sound but I was small enough that I could fit in that 12 inch enclosure and all the rest of us and the guy would come through, checking with his lantern and, not a flashlight now, a lantern and looking. He'd know something was going on but he couldn't find out. And you'd hear him walk away and then you'd slip out and you'd take you pies and climb back out the way you came in which was, uh, getting in was a real chore the way you had to do it, but that's another story because that I was in gymnastics and // athletics-. //
JD: // [Laughs] //
CH: -And that sort of thing. Getting the pie out without breaking it was great. Same pie bakery on Saturday morning you could take a nickel down there and get a big ole pie. What they called 'crips.' They were cracked a little bit and-.
JD: // Um-hmm. //
CH: // -You // know? But they were, of course once you ate one of them they all cracked and cracked up.
JD: // [Laughs] //
CH: // Anyway // in fact, uh, so that's the story of the pies. And I guess I must have been eight, nine, 10 years old. Georgetown was a great experience. It was in what you call self-reliance. We had our gangs. Uh, the O Street gang, the P Street gang, the N Street gang and, uh, and we used to fight all the time but not really seriously, we always fought fair you know. No hitting below the belt. Tom Mix was on the movie down there. Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, these guys never did anything unfair. Everything was fair and above board.
JD: All right.
CH: So all our, everything we did was fair and above board. However, I do have a few brick marks up here-.
JD: // [Laughs] //
CH: // -On my head. [Laughs] // Some of the guys didn't follow all the rules.
JD: Right.
CH: OK. Well, what the hell else you want to know?
JD: That should be plenty. We just have to get about something like // about 10 or 15 minutes. //
CH: // That should be // more than enough.
JD: Yeah, well that's all right. She said just let people talk.
CH: Uh, well they, uh, especially if you're oiled up.
JD: [Laughs] Ah.