We poised our sled for a moment at the top of the knoll, our breath misting in short, clouded puffs. Other children squealed with delight as they flashed down the steep hill, and called to each other or their watching parents as they dragged their sleds or household trays or pieces of cardboard back up in the crisp, darkening afternoon. The scene was Montrose Park on the northern edge of Georgetown in the early 1940s after a 10-inch snowfall.
In those days, schools did not let out at the whim of a snowflake as they do today. Instead, we had to wait for the usual 4 p.m. release before racing to the park and the steep hillside.
Little has changed in Montrose Park since 1940 and little has changed throughout residential Georgetown as a whole, if one excepts the M Street and Wisconsin Avenue corridors and the new hotel-office-retail complex sprouting between M and the Potomac River.
I grew up on 29th Street between O and P in a small brick row house one block from the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, from which marvelous music emanated every Sunday. On a Sunday, my sister and I would often sit on the front steps of our house reading the comics (we called them "funny papers") and watching the well-dressed black families pass down the street and into the church.
Georgetown was transitional terrain then -- a crossroad of black and white families -- and 29th Street was the border. Although a large and gregarious black family lived across the street from us, the only black person I knew well was our washerwoman, who came once a week to bend over twin tubs in our basement, filled with steaming hot, Clorox-scented water. She would scrub our laundry with yellow soap on a corrugated board before hanging it out on lines that my father would have strung back and forth across our garden before he left for work that day.
We were innocently oblivious to the sociological phenomena of that era, which called for separate seating for blacks on buses and "colored only" water fountains in parks and other public places. Once, I offered my seat on the bus to an elderly black woman burdened with packages. "Sit down!" the driver ordered me. To the woman he barked, "Go on to the back of the bus, woman. You know your place even if this kid doesn't!" I retook my place meekly, too young to grasp the significance of that electric moment.
To the east of us, except for the houses where the future secretary of state, Dean Acheson, our family doctor and a few other white people lived, the neighborhood was mostly black.
To the west, white families had begun to discover bargains in the run-down Colonial and Victorian houses and were buying them up rapidly.
Along N Street, lovely Federal-style houses were being reclaimed by the well-to-do. The river could be glimpsed from their upper floors through the tall trees of their well-tended gardens; there was no Whitehurst Freeway over K Street then to block the view.
According to my childhood diary, we did lots of "loafing," "fiddling," and "messing about." My friends and I explored the alleys and byways of Georgetown on foot.
Close to home, we ordered chocolate sodas with malt sprinkled on top at Morgan Pharmacy at the corner of 30th and T, spinning on the high round stools while we waited. Here we bought our first illicit cigarettes from "Doc," claiming they were for our mothers, and thumbed through equally verboten racy magazines, tame by today's Playboy and Playgirl standards.
"Doc" kept an eye on us, but never moralized. Down on Wisconsin Avenue we explored Woolworth's 5 and 10 cents store, using our allowances to buy valentines, hair barrettes and ribbons, and our first experimental lipsticks (called tangee).
Before it moved in 1942 to the corner of 28th and O streets, where it is today, the Francis Scott Key Bookshop was located just across the street from my house. I was a frequent visitor (there always seemed to be cookies and, in season, a cozy fire). Owners Doris Thompson and Martha Johnson, women in their thirties, helped us pick out books from their tiny lending library.
It wasn't until years later that I learned my mother and these ladies were in cahoots: Mother felt my love for horses, dogs and cowboys was limiting my literary growth. Marty and Doris (as I came to know them) guided me skillfully toward more esoteric fare. I held my first job here: wrapping Christmas packages for customers, and delivering them on foot all over Georgetown. In later summers I was promoted to sales, and subsitituted in the library.
My sister and I loved to do errands, and often fought over who got to run to Scheele's Market, just a block away. Until very recently George and Fred Scheele managed this family market, on the corner of 29th and Dumbarton, that their father founded in the late 1800s.
My mother planned her menus every few days, discussing recipes with our cook, Gladys, before phoning in her order. Later in the day Ssheele's truck would arrive laden with boxes.
Our family also patronized Neam's Market on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and P Street. This is probably the oldest market in Washington still owned by its founding family.
Najeeb Neam and his wife came to the United States from Lebanon and opened the market at its present site in 1909. Of four surviving sons, three (Jack, George and Edmund) run the store today; a third generation is also now involved.
In 1940 the Neam brothers, then in their teens, worked long hours delivering groceries throughout Georgetown. Mr. Neam was the butcher and kept the shelves stocked, while Mrs. Neam presided over the cash register.
Every Christmas the Neams gave us a large box of homemade baklava, a rich pastry, and during World War II and rationing, Mrs. Neam sometimes found an extra pound or two of butter for my mother.
Whatever our Saturday activity, every other week in fall and winter we had to be home in time for dancing class. This meant dressing up. My father would escort me to Mrs. Shippen's tall yellow brick Victorian mansion on Q Street. Here 50 or so boys and girls were deposited for a couple of hours to learn a semblance of manners, and how to dance the waltz, fox trot, tango, rhumba and (later) the Lindy hop.
Dinner was family time for us. At 7 o'clock we would join our parents in the living room. Promptly at 7:15 Gladys would announce dinner and we would dine by candlelight, with Gladys passing the dishes to us one by one.
On "maid's night out" Mother cooked, and together we all did the dishes, trying inadequately to harmonize to our parents' childhood and college songs. Sometimes we ate out: at Billy Martin's on Wisconsin Avenue, at Arbaugh's (for spare ribs) on Connecticut Avenue, or -- a special treat -- at the Smorgasbord downtown.
Our parents belonged to a singing group of neighbors who called themselves the Bach and Beer Society. They met once a month throughout the winter months, and at Christmas sang carols while strolling through Georgetown, carrying lanterns and candles and dressed in festive colors.
On Dec. 7, 1941, my aunt called and told us to listen to the radio. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. It was war.
Within a few days we had tacked up blackout curtains to every window in the house, pulled back out of sight but "ready to go" if there were a bombing raid on Washington.
My father became the air raid warden for our block, complete with white helmet and felt armband, and he went out on a patrol whenever the sirens sounded. These practices came frequently. At any time of night we would run out into the street to double-check our blackout curtains' effectiveness before taking shelter indoors to wait for the "all clear." We had air raid practices at school, too, pushing our desks to the blackboard side of the classroom, away from the tall windows, and hiding under them or filing soberly into sheltered stairwells.
Mother volunteered at the Red Cross and was made head of the Canteen Corps, serving coffee and doughnuts to servicemen and at disaster relief areas in the metropolitan area. Overnight she acquired a snappy gray uniform that she wore to work proudly, sometimes bicycling away on a secondhand English bike that she was very lucky to find. In view of the anticipated gasoline shortage and eventual gas rationing, bicycles suddenly became scarce and coveted. For the first time in our lives, we locked our bikes when we left them outside. And overnight we became "latchkey" children -- both parents were gone long hours.
As seventh and eighth graders, we sold war bonds and learned to knit hideous khaki scarves that disappeared into large cardboard cartons and were shipped to God knows where.
The 1942 record flood of the Potomac River tested this newly formed Canteen Corps. It had rained for days, and the boiling, wild, dirty current swirled higher and higher up 29th Street above K. My friends and I went each day after school to check the water's level.
One night Mother came home very late, riding in a camouflaged personnel carrier with a big red cross painted on the side. "Come with me," she said. Dalecarlia Reservoir was flooded, she said, and the houses down below were threatened if it overflowed. Farther out along the canal, families were being evacuated from the tiny cottages and shacks built haphazardly between the canal and river.
That long night is a jumble of impressions: a gymnasium somewhere filled with evacuees -- families resting together on mattresses or canvas cots, the children wide-eyed, clutching favorite pets or toys. Steaming coffee (which I helped serve) in huge metal containers. The smell of wet wool, wet rubber, fear. Sometime during the night the canal locks gave way; for the rest of the war the canal remained dry.
Now, more than 40 years later, the soda fountain at Morgan's Pharmacy is gone. But Marty Johnson still presides at the Francis Scott Key Bookshop. And the house that once was ours on 29th Street is newly painted, and looks loved.
Children still slide down the hill on snowy days, dodging and turning their sleds to miss the tangled copses of honeysuckle, pokeweed and black raspberries before slowing to a stop somewhere above the stream.