By Richard Carl Lehman
By Richard Carl Lehman

The winter of 1942 was dark, cold and damp. Our lives had been turned upside down. We were at war and we had no TV, iPhone, Gameboy, social media, podcasts or jazz stations for diversion.

On many mornings I walked to Riley’s Café on the corner of Madison and 43rd to get breakfast served by my mom, who worked there. Behind me was the usual stampede of men who began ordering quick breakfasts before boarding the Kirkland ferry to Todd’s Shipyard. The clamor reminded me of soldiers running into battle with the clinking of tool belts and steel-toed boots.

The café was always bright and filled with workers, but sometimes it was so busy I had to eat in a corner in the kitchen. I knew some of the men in there as they lived by us.

I watched as one guy ate a huge stack of pancakes by quartering it, pouring the syrup, folding it, then somehow driving the thing into his mouth. He, like the others, was in a hurry to secure a seat on the ferry.

Another fellow poured his hot coffee into the saucer and sipped it as it cooled. Toast and bacon and/or sausage was folded into a napkin for a snack later. All of these folks managed to carry on conversations and even smoked before, during and after the meal. Some just took a cup of coffee outside to look for the ferry lights.

Women were also ship builders and formed lasting alliances, and they all got along fine with the men.  Word was there was no smoking allowed in the work area, but many chewed tobacco. I was offered some once, but I am sure it was a joke? Some smoked a pipe, which smelled good, but the chew just left stains on the sidewalk.

There was the usual line of cars, with four or more in each. A schoolmate, Roger Kelly, sold the morning Seattle Post-Intelligencer for five cents to them. Other school friends arrived, and we watched the workers scramble when the ferry horn blew. Too bad if you got in the way of the thundering herd running by. It finally got quiet except for the café workers clearing the many dishes inside with just a few locals left eating breakfast.

On the walk to school, we greeted store owners as they opened. Traffic was sparse and slow. An ice truck delivered to the grocery store, and the driver gave us a few pieces of ice to cup up our sleeves. Nothing like fresh shaved ice, I guess? Even the friendly dogs who followed us to J. J. McGilvra’s begged for ice.

The school hangout was Johnsons’. Miller and John always welcomed us as we collected our supply of energy food — candy — to be stored in our lockers (mine was No. 47). We had no qualms about getting to Mrs. Noon’s class as she was our No. 1 inspiring teacher. She filled our heads with knowledge and made the hardness of war slide into the background for a while.

Madison Avenue was always friendly. When we got our ration card for meat (sometimes), fish and chicken, that was a good day. Not to knock Spam because with eggs, it wasn’t terrible. Our favorite store was the bakery for indulging in a huge cinnamon roll split two to three ways. Next, it was fun to see what was new at Bill and Ada’s Dime store, a must for ammo for our BB rifles. The Madison Park hardware store was owned by a tall gentleman before Bud and Lola McKee owned it. He usually looked askance at us while we played with small trinkets.

Soon it was time to hang up our skates, put our bikes with playing cards on the spokes to rest and find a hot rod. My first car was a ‘42 Dodge previously owned by an Army general. The joys of car ownership had its place in lifting our spirits.

Years later, four of us sat in the big round booth in the Red Onion and flipped a coin to see what letter of a last name would be chosen to be drafted. To add to the game, we would disguise our voices on the phone while pretending to be from the draft board and then laugh like hell at the ominous joke.

In the end, two of us were drafted into the Army, one into the Coast Guard, two into the Air Force, two into the Marines and one deferred (some small thing in his past).

We wrote letters home, of course, while biding our time in two-year enlistments. If we chose a three-year stint, we had a choice of Military Occupational Specialist) jobs. A 10-day leave was never enough but always great.

After being discharged, it was time to feel truly hopeful. It was August 1959, and Madison Park was still a sleepy village. The businesses started opening up, college students and flight personnel were moving in, and parties ensued.

Before the war, I had been invited to dinner by a family of five who lived in a garage. Bedrooms were jerry-rigged with blankets separating the rooms for privacy. The plates didn’t match, nor did the silverware, but it all worked just fine.

Many years later, I was invited to a dinner party in that same garage, which had been converted. Hard to believe it was now a fashionable pad for a Flying Tiger flight attendant. She had a workmate who lived in another converted garage in the alley between 42nd and 43rd; Rent was $35 a month. That building is still there but looks to be a bit dilapidated and uninhabited except for a few mice.

In dark times and happy times, Madison Park has always welcomed newcomers. May it continue to be a thriving, fun community to be savored for future generations.