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Loretta's Dryer

Loretta’s Dryer

by Steve Berberich

It's July 1955 and Loretta is very happy. Her clothes dryer arrived today.

It's been a great month! Loretta and husband Pete had their first child. And today, she got that new fangled cloths dryer.

Sure, at first Pete said it would be too expensive. But, he softened after baby Valerie came. "Oh Pete, baby Valerie deserves fresh diapers," said Loretta. She knows good deal when she sees one. And, this one would prove legendary.

It's that new, outside kind of fold-up, one pole, umbrella-style clothes dryer. It set them back a big $19 bucks including delivery from the Hecht Co. department store just a few blocks away, across from Eastern High School where she graduated in 1952. All in the neighborhood. It's Baltimore.

No other housewife on the block had a dryer like Loretta's. They still hung clothes out on pull-and-pin straight clothes lines on pulleys from house to fence or T pole. But Loretta's new dryer spins!

Pete erected the radical thing out in the center of the narrow strip of lawn facing the alley behind Loretta's dad's row house. They shared the house with her dad on Hugo Avenue near Lake Montebello when they first got married.

On that glorious day, her dad, William, came in from the alley in the evening after work. And, by gosh, there it stood, that dryer thing she'd been goin' on about for weeks. It was magnificent, standing on one skinny silver leg.

"See Papa, it opens like an umbrella, and spins around. Has 220 feet of line. Baby Valerie's diapers, all of our cloths, sheets, towels, even Pete's Navy uniforms can dry all at once, in fresh air," she told her father.

He gazed at the ingenious invention on display for all the world to see (well, any of the world from the alley.), right smack dab in his cherished, only little patch of green, his leisure spot, his bit of wilderness, and near-quiet retreat. "Some design Retta," he said looking back again, easing in through the kitchen door sniffing for supper.

She was pleased. He hadn't complained that her dryer would eliminate horseshoe tossing, ball tossing, cook outs, or neighborhood bull sessions on long summer evenings. She hadn't told him that her new dryer won't prevent any backyard Balmer social life at his house at all. Yes, daddy didn't complain.

William was mechanically astute though, a master machinist at Westinghouse. He figured that his daughter and quiet son in law, a Kansas plainsman, from the land of big-yard clothes dryin' no less, had wasted their money. Pete likely had no idea such a contraption wouldn’t out live Maryland’s soggy, nasty wet weather. But William again said nothing.

Loretta watched him and knew his thoughts. "It comes with a metal sleeve for the pole. That‘s what Pete called it, right down there, see? It’s portable, the ; metal sleeve holds it up. Yeah, that's right." She saw her Papa nodding, smiling. "Pete put that sleeve right in a big cement bucket, dug a hole, and put that cement bucket with the sleeve into the ground to make it stable and secure."

She explained, "People today Papa whenever they want, just pull the dryer out of the ground and bring it in the house. I'll show you. Come on."

Loretta, age 22 is beautiful and sings like Judy Garland. But, perhaps her most lasting trait was being imprinted with the thriftiness of the Great Depression. She would always know a good deal and how to hold on to it, like that dryer.

As it turned out, William was wrong that day, that day when delivery men carefully lifted the long cardboard box off the Hecht Company truck, that day when son-in-law Pete planted the thing in the yard, that day when William thought the contraption was sure to take its rightful place at the city dump by the end of 1955. He didn't know how wrong he'd be.

This past July, 2010, Loretta was sitting in the backyard admiring her umbrella dryer again--same one, yeah. Still drying clothes in the fresh air. After more than 55 years, Loretta's dryer is still standing strong, while millions of broken electric and gas clothes dryers clog landfills nationwide. Umbrella dryers, versions of which were first patented more than 100 years ago and finally popularized in the expanding economy after WWII, are still on duty, still servicing families well, still filling laundry with sun and oxygen, still saving energy for folks like Loretta.

Such umbrella dryers are now mostly in older neighborhoods, those without snooty home owner associations who prohibit unsightly backyard clothes drying on their blocks, cul-de-sacs, and high-end track "villages."

Loretta's dryer isn't as straight and majestic as when Pete first unfolded its angel laundry wings. And, it's missing a few pure plastic lines now, its motley web sags. But little boys can still want to spin it. It still delivers the laundry with that unique outdoor freshness.

If still in vogue, Loretta's dryer today would be called green technology--energy efficient, environmentally progressive. But, in 1955, Loretta's dryer was simply a smart way for people to hang out their underwear, without secretly adding the "Fresh Scent" Downey, or that "Mountain Scent" detergent smell into the gas dryer in the condo. "People spray scents on their clothes from the dryer so they will smell like fresh linens," Loretta laughs, shaking her head.

Loretta and Pete raised four daughters. After fair-haired, cautious Valerie, there came pretty, dark-haired Diane. Then came the twins: intelligent, playful Heather; and musical, intensely idealistic Hilary, who followed Pete's footsteps in the Navy Band. They all grew up pretty, healthy, and strong. And thanks to their Ma, always in fresh, clean outfits. Life wasn’t always a bowl of cherries, she says, married to a musician with late hours and demands of the military in the daytime, plus independent, talented girls defying their strong-willed mother’s need to maintain order and economy. But Loretta and Pete persevered in raising a good, decent family, due in no small part to her demands for cleanliness, and that dryer thing in the backyard.

By 1966, Loretta was a full commander of the laundry, because she did care that much. And with three more daughters now to raise, Pete and Loretta needed more space. They planned to move that year to a detached home in Glen Burnie, much closer to Pete's daytime work in Annapolis as a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy Band at the U.S. Naval Academy. But, when they moved what would happen to my dryer?, she thought.

Moving day came and the first thing in the moving van was, you guessed it, Loretta's umbrella dryer. Insisted Ma Loretta, "and, don't forget my dryer...yea, I want my dryer." She wouldn’t think of leaving it in Baltimore anymore than one of her daughters, “Say what you will about my daughters, but don’t take my dryer," she jokes. Pete even dug up the ground socket, the cement bucket and all, then anchored the thing in soft Anne Arundel County sandy loam behind their new home. They folded up the precious metallic member the family and packed the thing with the lamps and undershirts for the burbs. “It was still practically new and worked fine. Why not, and I had painted it a couple of times. I liked it and wanted to keep it."

In Glen Burnie, if neighborhood issued an ordinance against outside dryers, she would refuse to take it down. It's part of the earth now, terra firma, an immovable, permanent shrine to honor pioneering human technology of a prior day. "I'm too attached to it."

Loretta is not of course an environmental pioneer, a green revolutionary, even a household energy efficiency expert. She does, however, through all these years, like to save money and keep things clean, and, like thousands of new housewives in Baltimore's post-war years of innocence, she knows how to do it. Knows how to hold on to a good thing.

She still prizes her dryer, "I can remember all the girls' white diapers out there blowing in the breeze. That dryer has seen my family grow up. It never failed us in the bitter cold and sweltering heat. And, it still costs nothing to run."

Despite raising four daughters and being married to a man in uniform with an regular band gigs in the evenings, Loretta was, as mentioned, the undisputed commander, benevolent ruler, of the laundry. No one was to touch her dryer, washer, ironing board or many other appliances she kept in perfect order to last. For example, one night just after daughter number two Diane returned home briefly from graduating college, Loretta barred Diane from her washing machine. As luck would have it Diane met her husband of 30 years that night at Sun Valley Laundromat.

Loretta hung Pete’s evening band uniform, his “suit of lights,” in the well-balanced middle third line of the dryer so the cloth below millions of sequences would dry evenly with no creases.

Valerie wore her Ma’s 1954 wedding with wrinkle-perfect veil that her mother had hung it on the outer, down-wind line to capture that fresh air scent that filled the lungs of the wedding party with at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Glen Burnie. Daughter Heather recalls their Ma hung the wedding dress out on the dryer every sunny day for more than a month before Valerie’s big day to get it whiter than white.

And, there was Diane's puffy blouse. She played violin in the Junior High School orchestra. Loretta recalls that the only way to keep Diane’s show-time blouse puffy and wrinkle free was a full day on the umbrella dryer. The afternoon before her orchestra’s concern Diane kept glancing at her blouse wafting out back as she practiced her violin.. And that evening, for sure, it was the puffy blouse, the brightest, neatest in the adolescent orchestra that moved Diane to play her best.

You can still buy an umbrella dryer on line at Linen N Things for $67.40 or from Wal-Mart for $39.95. On line, Wal-Mart reviews echo Loretta's long-term thinking: "Working out great. You can easily hang 2 loads on it." "I just love hanging my clothes out in the sun and this product makes it so easy." "Great, what a way to save on that electric bill!" "There is no artificial scent that can compare to "line-dried cloth"...and the energy savings is even more pleasing!"

Standing with her right hand on its old pole, Loretta is steadied by her dryer, which is not about to fall or let go of her. Too much love, too many memories. Loretta tells neighbors my Baby Valerie turned 55 this July, “Hey we should include a party for the dryer too,” she laughs.