The recollection of childhood can be one of the most endearing literary genres. Even if “when I was a kid…” did not always introduce an especially happy memory, the sense that a man or woman has prevailed over adversity, errors and hormones to look back with wonder and affection is a positive experience for both the author and readers (for whom there will usually be memories kindled). What’s more, one person’s indulgence in nostalgia can also be a priceless documentation of social history. That is certainly the case with Roger K. Miller’s “The Chenango Kid: A Memoir of the Fifties”. It is a book true to its time and detailed in its setting: Binghamton, NY. There is something universal as well as regional in Roger Miller’s story.
The book’s title refers not to the county or the river but to Chenango Street, a principal drag in Binghamton that starts downtown (at the roundabout now under construction) and stretches from solid urban blocks into leafy residential neighborhoods. Roger grew up on the downtown end.
The neighborhood wasn’t upscale, but neither was it rundown, because across the street from the Moon Block [a commercial and apartment building where Roger, his mother and sister lived] sat the city’s premier hotel, the Arlington, handy to the railroad station, which was across Lewis Street from the hotel. Rail was an important mode of travel…Around the corner on Lewis Street there was an old-fashioned barber shop where you could see them singeing men’s back hairs. I don’t know why they did that and I never wanted to get my hair cut there. No, it wasn’t a bad street after all. — from “The Chenango Kid”
This work of personal recollection opens with a catastrophe, a fire destroyed the Moon Block on December 6, 1949. Roger and his sister had just entered the building on the way to their apartment and scampered back out. He says it was the earliest event that he can remember, or at least put a clear date to. It was also the first time he’d remember moving elsewhere in the Chenango Street neighborhood — moving to another small apartment would be a recurring experience. His parents were separated, his father never seemed to be able to hold on to a job while his mother earned a good living making shoes at Endicott-Johnson. Both were protective and supportive of their son, who could also enjoy an extended family that included summers with the Grandparents Miller at their humble home in the small town of Lopez in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains.
“The North Side was a village of sorts”, writes Roger K. Miller, and recollections of his boyhood are clear and revealing: shoplifting for fun at Woolworth’s and hiding the booty on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church, wearing noisy metal cleats on the heels of school shoes,scrounging for comic books, going to two or three movies a week. But he also emphasizes that he passed through the decade of the 1950s, a time when youth culture was ascendent. Miller felt more comfortable with the styles and mores from the 1940s.
Style coarsened in the 1950s, but otherwise, culturally and creatively, the decade was vibrant, contrary to the conventional summation of it as soporific and hidebound, as an island of boring stability between the Depression and war of the 1930s-40s and the protests (and war) of the 1960s. The decade was complex in areas like international relations — it had its own vicious war in Korea — economics and housing, and revolutionary in the politics of class, gender and race. — from “The Chenango Kid”
“The Chenango Kid” is filled with observations on the culture of the 1950s, the movies, art, literature, radio and (new in the Binghamton market) television (just in time to cover the Moon Block fire — live!) All this changed popular culture to such a degree that Miller considers his formative years the Decade that Never Ended. Roger K. Miller is a graduate of Binghamton’s old North High School and Harpur College. He holds an M.A. in journalism from Penn State and worked for the Binghamton Press. His novels include “Invisible Hero” and “Dragon in Amber”. He has been a newspaper writer and editor for thirty years. He is now retired as book review editor for the Milwaukee Journal.