The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


It held a quiet place of honor in our apartment, subtly nestled on one of the lower bookshelves in the living room, quietly waiting its time to be called to service.

The button box was a cube, approximately twenty inches on each side, crafted out of a smooth, dark green cloth material.  It had three drawers filled with all sorts of threads, wrapped tightly on their wooden spools, threads in a myriad of colors.  There were orange and fuchsia and blue spools, each of the same size though some had less thread on them than others as they had previously been used to repair various garments.  The largest spools held white and black thread – those colors being used most frequently.

In addition in the drawers filled with thread, a special place was reserved where there were sewing scissors and needles of all sorts of thicknesses and several simple thimbles, one made of brass, the other of silver.  But the top of the button box was where the true treasure existed.  It was a large hoard of buttons that had been painstakingly removed from garments that had been retired from service after long years of use.

Before old clothes were turned into rags with the pinking shears inside the button box, each button was carefully severed and added to the collection.  Of course, many of the buttons which came from my father’s shirts were simple white ones, but they had their own personality and individuality.  Some were pure white and as simple as they were, the ones which had formerly been used to button the shirt front were larger than the ones that fastened the collar.  Even among the white buttons there was variation.  Some had two holes for sewing and others had four.  And while some were resplendently devoid of color white, others were more of a bone shade.  The truth of this dispels the notion that, “All white buttons look alike.”  They don’t.

One night after dinner, our little family sat in the living room to watch that week’s episode of “The Milton Berle Show.”  Dad swung the doors open on the cabinet which housed our Dumont television and turned the dial to on, waiting for the set to warm up and readying himself to fiddle with the rabbit ears antenna on the top should the picture need adjustment.  But after several minutes, the familiar sound of the tubes warming up, getting ready to do their job and bring us an evening of entertainment was singularly absent.

Dad clicked the set off, waited a few seconds and then turned it back on again.  Sadly, no line appeared on the television, letting us know that the set was sufficiently warmed up so that we could soon expect to see Mr. Berle in all his zany madness.  The set was dead.  My father made the pronouncement, much to all of our regret.  So we played a game of Monopoly instead and I got to be the banker.

The following morning my mother called Gerhardt Schrader, the TV repairman.  I had only seen Mr. Schrader twice before when he had previously come by to fix our set.  He was a very pleasant man who seemed to know his craft quite well.  I liked him but I was particularly fascinated by the large mole which he had on his lower left jaw.  Mother told me, “Don’t stare at Mr. Schrader’s mole,” which only made my eyes gravitate towards it more anxiously.  In any event, he was booked up much of that day and asked if he could stop by between seven o’clock and seven-thirty or if that would interrupt our dinner.  (We normally ate at six so mom said that would be very convenient).

True to his word, our downstairs buzzer rang just at seven and we buzzed Mr. Schrader and his tool boxes in.  He promptly arrived at our apartment and headed directly for the set.

Like a skilled surgeon, he gently swiveled the cabinet away from the wall, pulled out a screwdriver and removed the pressed wood backing which protected all the tubes from exposure, set it aside and began examining the tubes in the rear of this most wonderful piece of entertainment.  He quickly identified the tube that was at fault, pulled it from the set, went into his tube box and found a replacement and swapped this new tube for the one that had burned out.  Before reattaching the rear panel to the back he switched on the set and much to our delight, the picture came on and everything was right as rain once again.

While Mr. Schrader was engaged in his surgical procedure, Grandma had gone into the kitchen, cut a large slice of the apple pie she had made earlier that day and returned with it and a cup of coffee to give Mr. Schrader as a special extra, “Thank you.”  Mr. Schrader apparently liked apple and other pies as well since he had quite a little extra belly on him.  And as she offered him and he gratefully accepted this treat, Grandma noticed that one of the buttons on his blue shirt, just above the navel, had been lost.  Through his pale blue shirt, Mr. Schrader’s undershirt was quite visible.

Grandma asked him, “Mr. Schrader, are you still a bachelor?”  He said that he was.  “Well, no wonder you have a button missing on your shirt.  No woman at home to take care of you.  You can’t go around like that.”  With that admonition, Grandma went into her clothes basket which contained the day’s load of clean wash, awaiting ironing, and pulled out a white terry cloth bathrobe.  She handed it to Mr. Schrader with the admonition that he was to go into our bathroom, change into the robe and hand her his blue shirt for repair.  Mr. Schrader didn’t have a moment to object before Grandma commanded him, “Now go.  Go.”    Mr. Schrader, sensing that this old woman meant business, dutifully took the bathrobe and I showed him the door to our bathroom.  He exited a few moments later, decently attired in the robe with his shirt in his hand.  Only then was he permitted to enjoy his pie and coffee.

While Mr. Schrader was changing, Grandma had whisked the button box from its resting place.  She had opened the lid and had assembled an army of white buttons so that she could commence her repair job as soon as the patient was presented to her.  Mr. Schrader handed her his shirt and she immediately began sorting through the buttons she had assembled, diligently looking to find an exact match.

After discarding a few she found one that was perfect and she began threading her needle.  On went the brass thimble and in no time at all she had fixed Mr. Schrader’s shirt, faster than he had been able to eat his pie or drink his coffee.  As I looked at Grandma I saw a sigh of contentment come over her.  It was as though she was relieved that she had been able to right an irreparable wrong and that gave her a great sense of peace.  Mr. Schrader finished his desert and complimented Grandma on her pie.  He waived his normal charge for making a “house call” and only charged my father for the tube he had replaced and went on his way after changing back into his work shirt and returning the bathrobe to Grandma who promptly put it in the hamper with clothes that needed washing.

Several months later, one of my friends named Betty, the girl in the building next door, saw my mother on the street and asked if I would be allowed to join her family for an event that was being held at the Bierhaus about a half mile from our apartments.  There was a wonderful band that was coming all the way from Leipzig and her parents asked if I could join them for dinner and an evening of traditional German songs.  My mother agreed – knowing that these were very nice people – and wanting me to experience music in its many expressions.

The night of the event came and I was all dressed up for the occasion.  Mom delivered me to the Knecht’s and Mr. and Mrs. Knecht, Betty and I began our fifteen minute walk to the Bierhaus.  It was a beautiful late September evening.

The Bierhaus was full of people – all speaking German.  I was glad that I had the Knechts as my guardians because I couldn’t understand a thing that people were saying, other than them.  And then, over in the corner, I spotted Mr. Schrader.  Like everyone there he seemed to be enjoying himself, actively engaged in a conversation with another man while he swung around his half full frosted beer stein, managing to keep all its contents inside.

I remembered my mother’s admonition, “Don’t stare at his mole.”  That turned out not to be difficult, because my eye was fixed elsewhere – on the missing button from his dress shirt under which I could plainly see his white undershirt.  It was in the same place as the missing button which Grandma had repaired.  I began to think, perhaps there’s something about Mr. Schrader’s shirt and his belly which just don’t get along.  I still hold that opinion.

Mr. Schrader came over to our little group.  Apparently he knew Mr. Knecht quite well.  As I later found out, the Knechts used Mr. Schrader when their television needed repair.  He was apparently the television repairman to the neighborhood.

The two men began speaking in German and having a very good laugh together.  Fortunately, Betty translated for me.  She told me that Mr. Schrader told the story about how Grandma had repaired his button when he had made his house call to us.  When he had finished telling Mr. Knecht the story, he turned to me, noticing that my eyes kept gravitating to the space where there had once been a button and said, “Please don’t tell your Grandmother about my missing button.  Let’s just keep this our little secret, okay?”  And I never did because I knew it would have broken her heart.

Comments on: "THE BUTTON BOX" (7)

  1. An outstanding story, of which I believe every word, because it could have been my family (any of the three, in fact). I miss that world, which slipped away when we weren’t looking.

    I grew up amongst Germans, and will always remember the grandfather of my best friend lecturing him, “Earl, these damned kids do too much drinking and running around,” (Earl was as bad as any of us), this would go on for about ten minutes and always end with, “Earl, you want a beer?”

    • Thanks for sharing. Your story brought me a good laugh. Yes those times were simpler and, I think better. Our perspective on what was important was quite different – and the way we treated one another was far more neighborly.

      • It has me for years, I’d guess we were 15-16 at the time. 🙂

        Sometimes I don’t trust my memory because I grew up in a small town where we all knew each other, and likely it was different in the cities. but yeah, mostly what I remember is how we used to care about each other. Frankly there’s a lot more of that out here than there is in the bigger towns, we don’t (usually) have the money but we got the neighbors. 🙂

      • My dad used to say, “To have good neighbors you have to be a good neighbor.” The story I related in the post happened in NYC, of course. One of the first lessons which my family stressed was that I was always to be polite. Fortunately, they started teaching me that at an early age and they provided a wonderful example of how one actually should treat other people.

        Our next door neighbor was an elderly lady who happened to be Mike Wallace’s Aunt Mamie. She was very shy – almost agoraphobic. But I always addressed her very politely when I would run into her in the hallway and I always held the elevator door for her if we were taking it at the same time. None of this seemed to be enough to overcome her diffidence. Until one day …

        Our doorbell rang and there was Mrs. Howlett. She asked my grandmother if she might invite me to her apartment for lunch the coming Saturday. Granda agreed that would be okay. So I went to her apartment at the appointed time and found that she had prepared a dual can concotion of Chung King chicken chow mein. It was ghastly but I praised the luncheon and her cooking.

        Well, I became one of her favorite “little people” as she used to refer to children. That was a good thing. The bad thing was that, seeing how much I purportedly enjoyed the meal, I had a standing invitation to luncheon one Saturday a month thereafter. This went on for six and one half years until I went off to college.

      • That is the truth. And yep, I think we have all been bit by being polite about something like that. I thin I was about twelve or so, one summer mom took me along for about three weeks with Aunt Belinda, who was single and had a one bedroom apartment, which worked out it was a fairly small town and mom was used to me running all over. But we had to go visit all these friends from when they were young (Belinda didn’t drive, and that was the point of the visit, I think). When I was a kid I hated rhubarb pie with a passion, and I think in the twenty or so days, I had at least 14 pieces, and those Norwegians had no idea what a small piece was either. 🙂 Now, I sort of like it, but no one makes it anymore. Figures 🙂

      • Funny you mention rhubarb since one of the few things that my grandmother made that was not on my top 10 list was stewed rhubarb and strawberries. But I got a taste for it a few years ago, found a recipe and was all set to go – when I discovered that rhubarb in Las Vegas as scarce as a winner at a casino – maybe more so. But the funny part was when I would walk up to someone in the produce section and ask them where I would find rhubarb, they looked at me as though they had never heard of it. (They probably hadn’t).

      • I think it’s a cold weather crop, I rarely see it here, either. Nor was it common in Indiana, we had one plant (I sort of liked it raw) but it must have been like a weed in northern Minnesota. Funny isn’t it how the stuff we disliked as a kid, gets better as we age. My nieces asked last winter if there was anything I missed from Christmas at the folks (other than all the people that are gone, of course). They specifically excluded mince pie, and I said that was the one thing 🙂 Funny thing was, we figured out how to make one, and we pretty much all liked it, and we all hated it as kids. Now I need to think of something else. 🙂

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