George’s property contained a small orchard. He had a pear tree, a peach tree, a couple of different apple trees, and two beautiful cherry trees. I often climbed the cherry trees and sat in them, eating cherries with delight until George came out the back door and yelled, “you damn kids get out of those trees!”
I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but hey, that’s what confession was for. “Bless me father for I have sinned. I ate cherries from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in George’s backyard.” What I didn’t know was that I could be imprisoned or be required to pay a fine. The 1958 Iowa Code states (in part) that if “any person (I suppose that could be an 8 year old kid) . . . mischievously enter the inclosure [sic] of another with intent to knock off, pick, destroy, or carry away . . . any fruit or flower of any tree, . . . he shall be fined for the first offense not less than five nor more than one hundred dollars, with the costs of conviction, or be imprisoned in the county jail not exceeded thirty days.” Mom would be pissed. However, it would be one less mouth to feed for a month, and in those days, that could have been a big savings.
My fruit pilfering didn’t end at George Powers’ orchid. Johanna had some of the best rhubarb I have ever seen in my life. I would pull a stalk of it occasionally, rip off the big leaf on one end, the bright red root from the other, and peel back the outer skin. What was left was the sour tasting green fruit within. It made me pucker, but I loved that stuff. I was more afraid of George than Johanna. Not until I was older would I realize how poor she was. Looking back, I often wonder if she had electricity. I never saw a light on in her home. She once paid me something like a nickel to bring in some heating oil from a 50-gallon drum outside her back door. Upon entering her kitchen, I noticed a lack of any furniture other than the table positioned up against the east window and a chair next to it. I often saw her reading a newspaper at that window. There were some stacked newspapers, but that was it. I can’t recall seeing a refrigerator or range/oven. I am going to assume that she used newspaper and other inflammable materials to burn in order to stay warm – or, as I believe now to keep from freezing.
Jail for carving initials on desks
Another 1958 law that caught my attention was one that was punished with a fine or imprisonment in the county jail for willfully writing, making marks, or drawing characters on any schoolhouse, or on any furniture, “or willfully injure or deface the same.” I attended St. Ann’s Grade School. Our desks were probably made in the 1800s. Each desk had an inkwell. How long has it been since you used a fountain pen? The sides of the desks were heavy black wrought iron and the seats folded up when you didn’t need it. You could easily fit two children in a desk at once, and it happened more than you think.
From grade one through eight, every desk I was assigned had carving from a previous student. I imagine some of them were dead. Those former students could have been imprisoned for defacing those desks. It’s difficult to determine when those carvings were made, but when I was in school, none of us carried pocketknives, at least, not to my knowledge. Besides, if the nun teaching the class caught you, the punishment could have been beyond corporal and close to capital. It could have been worse if Father Clark was going to be involved.
Juveniles of 1958 didn’t have a chance. Look at these definitions of a juvenile delinquent. Habitually violating any “town or city ordinance?” Curfews were meant to be violated.
Section 232.3 “Delinquent child” defined. The term “delinquent child” means any child:
- Who violates any law of this state punishable as a felony or indictable misdemeanor, or habitually violates any other state law or any town or city ordinance.
- Who is incorrigible.
- Who knowingly associates with thieves, or vicious or immoral persons.
- Who is growing up in idleness or crime.
- Who knowingly frequents a house of ill fame.
- Who patronizes any policy shop or place where any gaming device is located.
- Who habitually wanders about any railroad yards or tracks, gets upon any moving train, or enters any car or engine without lawful authority.
Some of those immoral persons (C) were relatives – uncles, cousins, parents.
That reference to “idleness” (D) must have been to encourage child labor. And what Madam would allow a teenager to frequent a brothel (E)? Maybe one with money and curiosity?
A policy shop (F) is defined as “a gambling place where one may bet on numbers which will be drawn in lotteries.” No convenience store in Iowa would be safe for a kid today.
What kid in a town with railroad tracks (G) didn’t wander “about any railroad yards or tracks, get upon any moving train, or enter any car or engine without lawful authority?” Every kid I knew in Vail had to put a penny on a rail to see it get smushed by a train traveling through. We all played in empty boxcars, grain cars, and under the railroad bridge.
It was a rugged life in 1958. Staying out of trouble was about as difficult in 1958 as Huckleberry Finn had it in the middle of the 19th Century.