Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall recalls Girl Scouting, car trips, wartime and more


Arlene recalls attending Girl Scout meetings at the replica log cabin that stood in front of the La Porte Depot off Washington Street. (La Porte County Historical Society photo)

WNLP editor’s note: Here is another chapter from the memoirs of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall. Arlene, who now lives in Del Mar, Calif., grew up in La Porte. WNLP readers’ many responses to her memoirs have added more sweet stories of our hometown.Arlene graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities; she also studied in various European countries. Look forward to more of her memoirs soon on WNLP. 

After my father got a car, we enjoyed vacation trips. I still have a photo of my family at  Mammoth Cave in 1937. We also visited Washington, D.C., of which I recall little more than we stayed at the Capital View Tourist Home. 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

Perhaps a young child shouldn’t be  expected to remember the impressive buildings, giant monuments, a visit to a session of Congress, or looking up at a seated President Lincoln. But to remember a tourist home? Yes. Motels and hotels were not ubiquitous back then. Though tourist  accommodations in residences were common, I had never before stayed in a stranger’s  house.

Such lack of appreciation of parents’ efforts to instill a sense of our nation’s history and  grandeur must be discouraging. I can compare how my parents must have felt to my own experience with our pre-school sons. We took a long, cross-country trip from California, thrilling to look down the Grand Canyon, wandering around Monument Valley, and experiencing awe and fear at Niagara Falls. Visits with grandparents in  La Porte and Connecticut provided lovingly planned activities for all four of us. 

Upon our return home, my husband and I asked the boys what was the first thing they would always remember from our trip. Expectantly we waited, trying silently to guess which of America’s wonders or interactions with grandparents would be a favorite. Almost  simultaneously they replied, “It was when the radiator busted in the desert and went Spuuuuuuurt! in the air.” 

Perhaps we should have been prepared because we lived on the beach, an eternal treasure of sights and sounds. 

Given choices of short family outings, the boys always added to our suggestions “going to Mr. Cassan’s garage.” Jack was a neighbor who had a repair facility and a large lot of wrecked autos. In utter ecstasy the  boys wandered among “junky cars” and were difficult to pry away to go home again or even to get ice cream cones.

La Porte had no Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan (10 miles away), but we had our own attractions, including five lakes and parks and small green spaces, like the one next to the New York Central Rail Station off Washington Street. There sat a small log cabin. I never bothered to learn much about why it was there except to serve as a meeting house for Brownies and Girl Scouts. 

On my way from home to meetings, I always took different streets, carefully observing everything along the way. Which houses needed repair, where were small businesses, what was the condition of sidewalks? Good places to roller skate? Never bored, I was busy with trivia. 

At meetings we Brownies, wearing funny brown hats, sang songs about our being useful little folks. Later as Scouts we did good deeds and learned skills while earning badges for our uniforms. La Porte had no other organized activity for quite young people other than the Scouts. 

Well do I remember our singing trips to the County Old Folks’ Home (aka “Poor Farm”), a large brick structure at the west edge of town that housed the indigent who could not care for themselves. We sang carols during the holidays, supposedly to cheer them.

At the large Soldiers Memorial Park, our family often enjoyed picnic outings on a summer evening or weekend, where a bandstand was the venue for our local city band to present concerts. Members wore white uniforms and familiar music was conducted by the high school music teacher, Paul LeResche. The “new” beach there on Stone Lake was popular, while a channel led off to adjoining Pine Lake, frequented by small boats. Fishermen had good luck catching bull fish, little bony perch and bluegill. Still today my mouth waters at the memory of fish fries. In another section of town, on Clear  Lake, a bear and monkeys attracted us to Fox Park.

Too soon the war came, but as young children we experienced it only on the fringes. My cousin Bill went into the Navy, but he was much older. Mom saved meat fat and  returned it to the butcher to be used elsewhere for munitions. Some foods were rationed (especially meat and sugar) and allotted with little red or blue ration disks or stamps  (but not the famous green S&H trading stamps). 

We children bought savings stamps at school to finance the war effort and put them in special booklets to save for a bond. Our parents bought war bonds. Once my dad’s such purchase got us to see (from a  distance) in person Carol Lombard and her husband, Clark Gable. 

In school we crouched under our desks in air raid practice. At home drills required lights to be put out if heavy curtains didn’t conceal even slight slivers. My father was a captain whose duty was to walk around the block looking for infractions. From time to time a military plane  might have lost its way because it flew over the town. We youngsters recognized its size by the roar and ran outside to identify it; it was always a “B” something or other. But the war was far away.

A junior high geography teacher, Miss Garten, encouraged us to cut maps from the  newspapers, saying never again would we be able to access such detailed maps that focused on small rural areas of Europe. Even now I seldom see a map I don’t want to save. I treasure a patched-up geography book dated 1877, and when reading a novel set in a city I’ve visited, I pull out my map of the place to follow fictional characters through the streets — for example, Barcelona.

As peacetime manufacturing grew after 1945, the proliferation of cars did not correspondingly increase with the desire and need for transport in La Porte, even though Studebaker in nearby South Bend rapidly churned out small autos. A most welcome  arrival was the city bus system. No one ever had to walk far to a bus stop, where for a  pittance one could travel to almost any part of town. Transfers occurred at the courthouse. By that time, I was permitted to ride my bike further away than the front door and take the bus, so I would visit my grandmother on F Street and my dad’s twin sisters who lived only two houses apart on Weller Avenue. If that wasn’t “togetherness”!  They married two men who had grown up in the same household.

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