Loretta’s Great Deal
by S.M. Berberich
The hazy morning sun promised another sweltering hot one on that unforgettable July 31, 1955. It didn’t matter, though. Loretta couldn’t be happier. Her delivery truck had arrived.
That burly man in gray and red coveralls lifted the truck rear door with one arm. She saw it there, inside the truck, just as pretty to her as it was in the store window. Loretta darted out of the corner row house, a cup of coffee in one hand and a cold bottle of Coca-Cola for the nice man in the other.
“Thanks madam. I’ll get this baby off for you.”
She watched him pull it out. “Sir, put it back there, please,” she said, pointing to the backyard, past a neat row of red rose bushes and flower beds.
At last, it lay there wrapped in plastic on her grassy yard, eager to give out a giant yawn and open like a big swelling flower bud. She signed the receipt and gave the burly man a dollar tip—generous in those days.
Hands on hips, she said, “It’s one of those new-fangled clothes dryers, sir.”
“I know madam. Must be the first one in the neighborhood. Congratulations.”
The thing didn’t look like much, arms folded up around a shiny pole and covered with twists of plastic roping. But Loretta was pleased. The store salesman said it would be a great help raising her baby. Loretta and husband Pete had been blessed on July 20 with their first child, Valarie.
Pete and Loretta lived paycheck to paycheck in those days and Pete opposed springing for “that weird thing,” he said. But, he softened when Loretta pleaded, “Oh Pete, baby Valerie deserves fresh diapers.”
He’d learn soon, though. His Loretta had the knack for knowing a great deal when she saw one. This deal, this ‘expensive’ purchase, would prove legendary for their growing family. It was that fold-up kind people used to put outside–a single-pole, umbrella style clothes dryer. The crazy thing set Pete back a whole nineteen bucks including delivery.
Life in Baltimore back then was all about the neighborhood. On Loretta’s block, her umbrella dryer was a sensation. In the coming years, she would be hanging diapers out on that thing for not only baby Valarie, but three more baby daughters in short order.
She secretly loved being the first on the block with the umbrella dryer. The neighbors hung clothes on pull-and-pin straight clothes lines on pulleys. Meanwhile, Loretta’s new dryer thing spun around like nothing yet in clothes-drying history. It would literary twirl if you let it, with clothes flying and flapping in the wind in a giant circle of colors and whites. These were Loretta’s home flags! They advertised that Loretta was raising healthy, lively daughters.
Loretta remembered little of her mother. She vowed to make up for her motherless childhood by giving all the time and effort needed to bathe, care and dress her daughters with love and freshly laundered dresses.
She always said that the hot, sticky day when her umbrella dryer arrived was more than a happy day. It was a neighborhood event. Pete got off work early to put it together. With one eye on his bride smiling and waving encouragement from the back stoop, Pete was soon head scratching and fumbling with the web of plastic clothes lines wrapped around the thing until he was ready to put the ‘flower’ into full bloom.
A small crowd of kids and middle-aged women had gathered at the alley, most of the neighborhood ladies with gigantic hair rollers poking through wind-blown head scarfs, like pink toilet paper rollers.
Finally, the ladies gave out a collective gasp as Pete pushed up the dryer arms from the center pole and flung it open. Some cheered. They say one old lady fainted. But, there it was, all sprung out magnificently like an umbrella, just like that sweetheart Bud Collier showed on his Beat the Clock quiz show.
Loretta’s dad, William, was next to arrive at the event, returning from work to his home he now shared with his daughter and new son-in-law until they could afford their own place. William opened the back gate from the alley, and, by God, there stood that thing Loretta had been goin’ on about for weeks. Upright and firm on one skinny silver leg; it was a grand monument to modern progress during those happy days in post-World War II America.
“See Papa, it opens like an umbrella and spins around. Has 220 feet of line. Baby Valerie’s diapers, all of our clothes, sheets, towels, even Pete’s uniforms, all can dry in fresh air,” she told her father.
He gazed at the ingenious invention on display for all the world to see (Well, the world from the alley, that is.), smack dab in William’s cherished patch of green, his leisure spot, his bit of wilderness in the asphalt city.
“Some design Retta,” he said while easing in through the kitchen door to sniff for any intriguing aromas of supper.
She smiled with mild relief. He didn’t complain that her dryer might eliminate horseshoe tossing, whiffle ball, cook outs, or neighborhood bull sessions on long summer evenings.
Loretta watched him and guessed his thoughts. “It comes with a metal sleeve for the pole to slide into and out of the ground, Papa. Pete put that sleeve in a big cement bucket in a hole to make it stable and secure. It’s a new idea. You can pull the dryer out of the ground and bring it into the house. I’ll show you. Come on.”
“Ah huh, what’s for supper, Retta?’ he said. Being mechanically astute, a master machinist at Westinghouse, William figured that his daughter and quiet son in law had wasted their money. Surely the metal contraption would soon rust away in that Maryland’s soggy weather.
Loretta was a 22-year-old, beautiful brunette of German stock who could sing like Judy Garland as she did housework or tuck her daughters into bed every night, much to the pleasure of anyone passing by her open windows in summertime.
By 1966, Loretta was full commander of the laundry. No one dared touch the laundry but her. She cared that much about cleanliness and raising good kids. Loretta and Pete’s four daughters were always pretty, healthy and in fresh, clean outfits, thanks to their Ma.
When they needed more living space, they bought a detached house in the county. She would not miss the neighborhood, but worried, “Good Lord, what’s going to happen to my dryer? Say what you will about my daughters, but don’t mess with my umbrella dryer,” she joked.
The first thing in the moving van was, you guessed it, Loretta’s umbrella dryer. When they moved, she even had Pete dig up the ground socket, cement bucket and all, and then anchor it in soft sandy loam behind their new home.
Versions of the umbrella dryer were first patented more than 100 years ago. But it took the expanding economy after WWII to become popular, and some are still on duty, still servicing families well, still filling laundry with sun and oxygen, still saving energy for folks who know a good deal when they see one, like Loretta.
The umbrella dryers are now mostly in older neighborhoods where there are no snooty home owners’ associations like those on new cul-de-sacs and high-end track villages prohibiting “unsightly” backyard clothes lines.
So, don’t look now, but it’s already July 20, 2012 and old Grandma Loretta is still happy, sitting in her backyard, sipping a cup of coffee, talking with neighbors and, oh yes, waiting for the clothes to dry on her umbrella dryer. Yes, the same one.
That weird thing didn’t rust away, but is still standing strong, while millions of broken electric and gas clothes dryers clog landfills nationwide. She’d kept it painted and out of the weather all those years. Loretta’s umbrella dryer today would be called green technology–energy efficient, environmentally progressive.
With the help of her daughter, Loretta lets go of her dryer pole and shuffles across her yard to say hello to a neighbor. “Hi there, my baby Valerie turned 57 today. Wanna come to our birthday party? It’s for Valarie and that reliable umbrella clothes dryer over there. She’ll be 57 too, on the 31st!”