Today is the kind of day of which poets write. The sky is a deep azure blue without a hint of an atmospheric perturbation. The sun is the only thing in the sky, a welcome visitor to the morning coolness. The warmth washes over me as a slight breeze tickles my skin with coolness. I am glad to be alive to witness such a perfect day. I am glad to be able to enjoy this moment and each moment that passes, without regret for the past or worry for the future. It reminds me that I am alive right now.
Carolyn and I walked the path of the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge of July 3, 1863 in Gettysburg. The path is about one mile of open farmland. There are a few swales where a man could find some respite if he were to lay down. Otherwise, there is a clear view of Little Round Top, from which Union artillery pounded the Confederate flanks, and straight ahead where the artillery belched fire and death right at them. And behind the low stone wall, men in blue with their heads down and their muskets primed, waited for the order to come up and fire into the faces of the butternut-uniformed men. I can feel it here, as I cross the Emmitsburg Road. I can feel that this land, this very piece of ground on which I stand, was trodden and bloodied, and horrors I cannot imagine took place here where now I walk in peace on this sunny Spring day. I cross the Angle, where the Virginians broke through, where General Armistead met his fate with his sword held high and his hat on the tip, shouting “on you Virginians!”
I walk to the cannons silently keeping vigil where the air turned pink from the point-blank double-cannister fire. I feel it here, too, the memories of those who came here in war and bloodlust, and never left this field. As I return on the path of the defeated army, back to West Confederate Avenue, I feel the bewilderment of those survivors who could still walk, not understanding how General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the invincible army, could have suffered this devastating defeat. I can almost hear General Lee, his hat in hand, peering at his men, saying, “It is all my fault.” I must respect the men who could have born such horrors and kept marching forward as hundreds fell around them in gruesome deaths. And finally I hear General Pickett, after General Lee told him to rally his division for defense from a counterattack, saying, “Sir, I have no division.”
Yes, we actually had those types of desks from the 1930s in our classrooms. Inkwell and all. I can’t discuss my early years without mentioning a few of my teachers. In second grade I had Miss Edgar, the quintessential leftover Victorian Era schoolmarm. She was second in age only to God. Her doctor was an paleontologist. Very old and very wrinkled. Her hair was dyed jet black, she had on copious amounts of blue eyeshadow, her cheeks looked like the rosy cheeks of a clown doll, her lips were fire-engine red, and, I am not lying, she had a silver incisor. I think she put her makeup on with a cement trowel. She hated boys. I don’t know why, but she hated boys. Unfortunately for me, I happen to be a boy. She loved the girls. She treated them with all the deference her shriveled heart could muster. My cousin Kathy was two years older than me, and they had a mutual love. But my friend John and I got paddled every other day. I remember well a rainy day recess. We couldn’t go out to the playground, but Miss Edgar allowed us to go out on the front porch of the school. The front porch was maybe 12 feet by 30 feet. A wide set of about six steps led up to the neo-classical porch with large columns on either side. Of course we got rowdy and two kids starting playing keepaway with my baseball cap. One of them tossed it and it landed on the first step down from the porch. The first step. So my right foot went on the first step as I bent down and retrieved my cap. I would guess within 30 seconds Miss DeGeorge appeared, throwing open the outer doors of the school, grabbing me by the arm, and paddling me all the way down the 30 foot entrance hallway, turning left, and all the way down the final 30 feet to her room. And of course yelling, “I told you not to go off the porch” fifty or so times. Not too traumatizing for a seven-year-old.
In third grade it was Mrs. McClellan. I can see her face plain as day. Older, rather plain, with the shorter permanent hairdo popular in the early 60s. The only problem with her was that she was a germophobe. Back then we used handkerchiefs. Granted, I wouldn’t be too fond of it now, but that is what everyone did. You kept a handkerchief in your back pocket. Well she caught me using it. She grabbed me by the arm, marched me down to the boys room, threw open the door, went to a toilet stall and forced me to flush the handkerchief down the toilet. Well, that’s not too traumatizing for an eight-year-old.
At least my first, fourth, and fifth grade teachers were rather normal. Mrs. Kline, Mrs. Laurman, and Mrs. Bedogne. In sixth grade we had someone that I swear looked like Granny Clampett. She had gray hair and kept it in a tight bun like a pioneer woman and wore those little round-framed metallic glasses popular in the 1920s. Mrs. McDowell was only there for about the three months or so of sixth grade, but in that short time she managed to make my life miserable.
I have decided to leave out the details of the sixth grade episode because it would come off as mean-spirited. The meditation must be doing me some good. Mrs. McDowell left suddenly and without an explanation. (Nothing to do with me, by the way)
After that we got our first male teacher, whose name escapes me. I’m guessing he was in the first wave of men to figure out that going to school for teaching gave them a deferment from the draft, the late 1960s being the height of the slaughter of the Vietnam War. I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to have avoided being cannon fodder for an ill-advised war. But there was an entire generation of male teaches who could have cared less about teaching or kids and only saw it as an opportunity to stay out of the Army. He would take us down to the TV room once a week to watch the Mr. Alder’s Science show on WQED, the first public broadcast station in the U.S. We would go in, watch the achingly boring show, and return to our class. We got nothing out of it, and I found it to be worthless. One day I couldn’t take it anymore, so I wrote up a petition to the teacher demanding that we stop watching it. At lunch, I took it around to the entire class and they all signed it. I placed it on the teacher’s desk. When he returned to the classroom, he sat down, picked up the petition, read each word, and looked over the signatures while peering menacingly over the top of the paper. Then he stood up, slowly eyed the entire class, and demanded to know who signed the petition. My friends John and Larry and I were the only ones to put up our hands. This was an early lesson in what it takes to intimidate a crowd.
We were punished by remaining in the room while the rest of the class went to watch Mr. Boring’s science show, and we had to write some science paper thing, I don’t remember what. But in my eyes, I won. I didn’t have to watch Mr. Alder’s Science show, and the trauma began to subside!
Note: I have changed the names of any teacher of whom I speak ill.
End of Part III
Our neighborhood was built on what was an apple orchard; the beautiful farmhouse still stands at the bottom of the hill. And somehow, parallel to the Poltergeist story, my parents managed to build directly on top of a giant wolf spider nest. Look them up, they are nasty beasts as big as a tarantula. I’ll get to that later. My mother told the story of the first summer after we first moved into the house, it was late in the evening and all of the windows were open (no, there was no such thing as whole-house air conditioning, or room air-conditioning). They kept hearing scratching noises and could not figure out where the sound was coming from. Finally, they realized that the sound was on the screens, and found that all of the living room screens were covered in these giant spiders. I don’t mean “oh that’s a big spider at 2 inches,” I mean these were giant spiders at about 5 inches. Hundreds of them. No wonder my mother was always afraid of spiders.That all happened when I was only two years old—too young to know the difference.
Now I fast forward to when I was 10 or 11 years old and my dad told me to cut the grass. We didn’t have a shed or garage, but there was a small “room” under the back porch that led into the cellar. That is where we kept the gasoline for the mowers. I innocently went down the steps, opened the door, and reached down and lifted the gas can. Fast as can be, out ran this five-inch spider right at me. This thing was a monster, and I wanted none of it. Probably because I was screaming like my hair was on fire, my father and mother came running to my aid. Of course, when my mother saw the object of my terror, she wanted none of it either. My father, being a father, grabbed the old coal shovel we kept in the same little room. A coal shovel is a square, short-handled shovel designed, as you may have guessed, for shoveling coal. The blade of the shovel is about 20 inches by 20 inches and weighs a ton. My father scooped up that nightmare of an arachnid and tossed it into the grass, whereupon he began beating it with the shovel. As he lifted the shovel between each pounding, the evil creature would take off like somebody tapped it on the shoulder. This went on for probably three or four minutes until my father, not one to be intimidated by the toughness of the creature, threw it onto the brick sidewalk and gave it one last pound. That ended what I believe may have been the last life and perhaps the end of a species of spider.
I went through about the next 30 years truly believing that we had discovered some sort of Eastern tarantula. I was so convinced that out of curiosity (and before the internet), I contacted a professor at the University of Arizona to ask about the spider, and how a tarantula had come to be in Pennsylvania. Helpful as all intellectually-superior professors tend to be, he mockingly told me that there have never been tarantulas in Pennsylvania. And that was the end of that conversation. It took me another 10 years before I found a site to which people could submit photos and have the site owner identify the spider. And there it was, plain as day, the giant wolf spider.
Because the land was newly developed, we tended to host quite a few nasty beasts. I can remember laying in the grass on my stomach when a little piece of earth lifted up and out came a large trapdoor spider. We also had a lot of black widow spiders hanging around all of the leftover lumber piles from home construction. In the hedges of the cemetery next door lived quite a variety of spiders and other various harmless critters. The thing was, the outside of the hedges presented a nearly impenetrable barrier, but the inside was practically hollow with the branches creating archways and vaulted ceilings. Remember, I was a kid, so the “vaulted” ceilings were really only a couple of feet high. But we had a fort that was not in view of any adult, and especially John, who you may remember liked to eat children. The hedges ran for a good 50 feet and provided endless fantastical stories. Now and then we had to wrangle a snake out of there, and I’m not sure why I wasn’t more scared of the copperheads (we knew full well they were venomous), but a good forked branch always did the job and none of us ever got bit.
The great thing was that most everybody moved in at almost the same time, and all the parents were about the same age. I swear they coordinated the timing of their kids’ births because every set of kids was around three years apart, and every set had enough kids to play with that we rarely had to jump age groups. Each age group had enough kids to play baseball (OK, not 18 kids at once). Remember, this was the end of the Baby Boom age. I rather like being a Boomer. It reminds me of ballistic missile submarines.
End of Part II
Suddenly and without warning, I am old. And I’m starting to feel like it. I get out of bed with aches and pains that I didn’t have when I went to bed.When I realize how much time has gone by in my life, it makes me want to reminisce, although very often it makes me melancholy to do so, because the only way I can go back is in my head and on these pages.
When I was a kid, we left the house in the morning and came back for lunch, dinner, and when it got dark. A cliché by now I know, but that was the reality. Other than those three times, we were expected to be gone, out of the house, and out of our mothers’ hair. They had adult things to do and we had kid things to do. It was just the natural order of the universe. The only time I stayed in the house was on selected Saturday afternoons, starting at 3:00 p.m., when the original Chiller Theater was on. It was non-negotiable. Black and white movies on a black and white television. This was where I learned about Godzilla, The Monster from the Black Lagoon, Them, The Thing, and one of my obsessions, Molepeople.
I don’t want you to think that my parents didn’t care about me. There were certain restrictions regarding my outdoor adventures. We were not allowed behind the bible, the large stone and concrete bible monument at the edge of the cemetery we lived next to. It was (technically) cemetery property, but practically it was an adventure park that was fueled at least by the fact that it was forbidden; also because John, the cemetery caretaker in his red pickup truck, liked to eat children who wandered onto cemetery property. He was fast, but he wasn’t kid fast.While John couldn’t catch us, I’m afraid that karma could, and did.
One sunny October day the bunch of us went back there to play. We were dressed, luckily, in long-sleeve sweatshirts and jeans. We got behind the bible and I sat down on the ground and kept hearing a loud buzzing sound. I had sat my ass down directly on top of a hornets’ nest. All of the hornets were home because it was swarming season. They were not a bit happy about being disturbed and rose up in a huge cloud of buzzing anger. You have never seen a group of eight-year-olds run so fast in your life. The great part was that the chubbiest, slowest kid in the group was a blur as he passed us up like we were chained to a fence and he was on fire. When I got home I had hundreds of hornets hanging all over my sweatshirt. I’d only been stung a few times in the neck. My mother, assuming that they were all either dead or worn out, began swatting at them with the dish towel she was carrying. They were not in fact dead but very much alive and now really really angry. They swarmed all around and I think I took a few more shots to my head. Finally they dissipated and I was left with welts and one sweet bunch of explaining to do.
Another forbidden zone was about a mile away down a large hill, and through a bit of woods. That was the old brick garbage incinerator (still there, by the way). Now there was a target that was tempting beyond imagination. An abandoned structure. Kids. They just go together. My mother always told me to stay away from there; that bums lived there. That of course was the type of scare tactic used by mothers since forever, but she might as well have said that little kitties lived there and we should go pet them. We wandered around the area quite a bit, off and on, and of course the anticipation was much greater than the reality. Until one day we ran across a fresh campfire with used tin cans strewn about. That sprint was not quite equal to the sprint away from the hornets’ nest, but it may have set a new one-mile record.
Then there was THE CLIFFS. It was an old rock quarry and the approach from our houses was on the bottom side of it. Looking up was like staring at the peak of Everest from a base camp. And for us, “because it is there” was a good enough reason to climb. Plus, at the top was all of the abandoned quarry equipment, including stone cutting saws and other industrial equipment. Or as we knew it, Paradise. We normally climbed up and down without a problem, but one day I climbed onto a ledge about halfway up and realized that I had no way up and no way down. Ricky had to go run home (mile or so away) and get some rope and help. They lowered a bullrope to me and I climbed up to the top. No harm, no foul.
Down in the backyard of one of my friends was a fence that ran the length of the neighborhood. On the other side lay adventure. The other side was a couple of acres owned by one of the original residents of Carroll Township. I don’t think any of the residents ever came down to the bottom of their property. Part of it was pretty much an open field, but there was a circle of very tall pines surrounding a beautiful, grassy patch. Once inside the pines, no one would ever see you. On another area stood three weather-worn, dilapidated, and collapsing one-room houses in a row. We understood that these were servants’ quarters. By the condition of them I would guess 50 years or more had passed since they were used. Someone had to look inside. The floorboards were broken and fallen in. I have no idea how many animals had used them for a home, or how many were actually home at the time. No, we were too pumped with adrenaline to care. The greatest find of all was a WWI gas mask and some sort of flag. I didn’t recognize the flag, and to this day I cannot remember what it looked like. We grabbed our treasure and ran for the fence, climbed over and ran to my friends’ house. There we began to examine the trove with which we had absconded when their mother appeared and demanded to know where we had obtained our artifacts. We could hardly contain our excitement as we described the houses and their contents and how we made it in and out and back over the fence and the entire discussion came to an abrupt halt when she held out her hand and said “You are not allowed in there. Ronnie I will be telling your mother what you did.” With that, the historical, museum-quality artifacts were lost to history, and we were given our due, which was far less pleasant than the consequences of climbing around dilapidated houses could have been.
Our roads were made of red dog and were unnamed. There was “our road,” the “first road,” and the “second road.” Red dog came from scrapped mountains of coal that were unusable due to the mixture of stone, sulfur, and other impurities with the coal. The heat generated within those mountains caused the coal to ignite and bake the stone so that it turned various shades of red and even orange. The roads were hell to ride a bike on, so you had to be an expert rider. The stones had sharp edges like flint, and if you fell, you hoped your mother had plenty of iodine and Bandaids because there would be blood. Once a year the township oiled the roads to keep the dust down. That was a most glorious day of the year! Of course it meant that we couldn’t walk or ride our bikes on the road for a week or so, but we got to play in the oil. In spite of our mothers’ best efforts, we always ended up with oil on our shoes, which of course we then tracked right across the linoleum floor that they just waxed. We enjoyed ourselves making dams to hold back the running oil, then throwing various objects into the lakes of death. It was the early 1960s—we were easily entertained.
Our toys were simple, yet in some cases, deadly. I had a mortar that was a three inch diameter tube, tripod-mounted, and about two feet long. It had a metal plate in the tube that was attached to a large diameter sprint. The spring was compressed with a cocking device on the side of the tube, readying the mortar with a hair trigger. When anything went down that tube and hit the metal plate, it immediately came back out at about 200 feet per second. Heaven help the twerp that had his or her face over that tube. The mortar came equipped with plastic shells, but they were definitely not exciting enough. No, we used dirt bombs–basically a fist-sized lump of hardened clay in somewhat of a spherical shape. That mortar threw the dirt bombs in a long parabolic arc, landing about 100 feet from the mortar and exploding in a spray of shrapnel and dust. Perfect.
We also had the early versions of Estes rockets. Always fun, and always dangerous. The engines came with a fuse that had to be lit with a match. No electronics to keep you at a safe distance from the hurling missile. The process was 1. lay on the ground on your stomach near the launch pad, 2. light a match and hold it to the one inch long fuse, 3. wait for the familiar hiss, and 4. roll away as fast as possible. We never had a casualty, except for the rockets, which occasionally went up and apparently ended up in Oz.
Winters were great in the early 60s. Road cleaning equipment was scarce and tire technology as well as automobile technology were relatively primitive. The cars had rear, one-wheel drive, which meant if you slipped, you were done. Limited slip didn’t arrive for a few more years. At any rate, that all meant that when it snowed, nobody went anywhere. That absence of traffic meant that the roads were open game for sled riding. Because we lived on a hill, the roads were perfect and we took full advantage of them. Well, until the road crews did show up with a plow and ashes. They didn’t use salt to clear the roads. They just put ashes on top of the snow to give you some traction. Obviously those ashes (I believe it was potash left over from coke burning) were the enemy of sled runners. When we would hear the truck coming we would load up on snowballs and pelt the hell out of that truck. We also did some serious sled riding in the cemetery. It had a seriously steep road on which we would build yankee bumps to launch us on the way down the hill. It was a perfect place except when our old nemesis John would show up to clear the roads. Needless to say, he was not a fan of our using the cemetery for our own purposes. But he still never caught us.
End of Part I