I don’t know if this story is about “Harper” or “Mutzie”. In my head, I’ve got the two of them mixed up. They were older boys, born before The War.
Anyway, I don’t want to confuse you so let’s pretend it’s about Mutzie. If I’m wrong, correct me. (This is how I do things – I just give it my best guess and let the chips fly.)
In the fifties, people worried a lot about “juvenile delinquency”. There wasn’t much else to worry about. Mutzie wasn’t actually a juvenile delinquent; he just looked the part.
He was big and strong and always wore a tee shirt and had a pack of Winston’s rolled up in his sleeve. He had long, straight brown hair combed back in a ducktail. When he wasn’t smoking a cigarette, he was chewing on a toothpick.
He had a way of looking mean and tough – not like some crybaby from the movies – I mean Byersdale tough.
He had a nice car with white wall tires and skirts. It was robin’s egg blue and cream. He always kept it immaculately clean and polished. It had everything but a good muffler. He liked it that way. We always knew when Mutzie was coming down the hill.
One day my brother and his friend Steve let us in on a secret – someone had put sugar in Mutzie’s gas tank, causing the engine to seize. (They were quick to add they hadn’t done it.)
My sister and her friend Marlene asked me if I wanted to take a walk up over the hill to the playground. Sure, I loved to play on the see-saws. I was about seven years old.
Way up on top of Anthony Wayne Drive the three of us ran into Mutzie. He was working on his car. The engine was on the sidewalk in about fifty pieces. There was grease on his white tee shirt. His shiny brown hair was mussed.
All of a sudden he crossed the street and came toward us menacingly. He pointed his finger at me. “You’re the little bastard that sugared my tank, aren’t you?”
Marlene placed herself between Mutzie and me.
“That little boy is seven years old. What kind of an idiot are you? Have you any idea what you’re saying?”
Marlene proceeded to give Mutzie her lip. I forget most of what she said but that’s OK. I couldn’t print it here anyway.
Mutzie backed off. We continued our walk. I was still shaky. I think I was scared for three days afterward.
The crib was put away in the attic after my little brother outgrew it and moved into the bed in the hall. It didn’t come out again until eight years later. It looked like any other crib – it was painted white.
The mattress was just thick enough and the springs were just strong enough. One side was adjustable – you could lower it to change a diaper and then raise it back up so the toddler wouldn’t fall out onto the floor.
I think it had two strings of wooden beads impaled on steel rods on the adjustable side. A child could find delight spinning them and moving them up and down. They may have been painted with bright primary colors but I don’t think they were – I just remember the shiny white paint (or was it a maple varnish).
My earliest memory ever is of being exiled from my parents’ bedside when my new brother came home from the hospital. It was time to move out of the crib and into a hostile world.
For my brother and me, it was the beginning of a rivalry.
The Sea of Legs
We were inside the big tent erected on top of the softball diamond in Byers’ Field. It was lit with strings of bare incandescent light bulbs. There were tables here and there with things to buy. Was this part of a carnival, or was it a flea market or rummage sale? I think it was part of a carnival. There were at least fifty people inside the tent, maybe even a hundred. It was a big tent.
I was about three years old. I held my mother’s hand as she guided me through a sea of legs, mostly the female kind.
My mother let go of me to look at something on one of the tables. I had to keep moving or I would be trampled.
Panic set in. Where was Mom?
I saw a pair of navy blue slacks. I felt relieved. I reached out and tugged on the slacks.
I looked up. It was a complete stranger.
Those first furry mammals that looked up into the face of a tyrannosaurus rex must have had a similar scare.
Freak show! That settles it - it must have been a carnival.
The Clover Farm Store
There was a neighborhood grocery where the Laundromat now stands across Dearborn at the north end of Watson Street. It was once the AM Byers’ company store but that was before I was born. I remember it as the Clover Farm Store.
Residents of Byersdale could run a tab there until payday. We kids went there for soda pop or penny candy or for a loaf of bread and lunch meat. The store was turned into a laundry after the Isaly store opened just down the street and ran it out of business.
We didn’t appreciate it at the time, of course, but that was probably our first brush with “the creative destruction of capitalism”.
There was a lady there called “Binger”. There also was a Mrs. Overholt. I don’t know if “Binger” was a last name or a nickname.
Anyway, Binger was nice to us kids, especially my brother, who was cute and had curly hair. One day at the dinner table my brother stunned everyone by announcing, “When I grow up I want to be a store lady like Binger.”
Ouch! He should have phrased that a little differently. The teasing and ridicule began and has not let up to this day. At our family reunions, someone will always ask him if he has become a store lady yet.
He has learned to deal with it – “No, I haven’t grown up yet.”
Good retort, bro. I haven’t grown up yet either.
Once or twice in the evening each summer, Mom would take us for walks down across Duss Avenue to the road in Byers’ Field where all the sixteen-year-olds practiced their driving. That road leads into another road and pretty soon we came to the AM Byers Company railroad siding. At that time of day there was never a train idling on the siding to block us.
Once we crossed the siding, we could see the Ohio River. We stood at the top of a high bluff that loomed over the Pennsy tracks and the ruins of Old Lock Number 4.
Once in a while there were coal barges tied up along the lock wall. They were interesting but not half as interesting as the trains. We had come to see the trains.
There was a wooden staircase that the carpenters at the Byers plant had built so that workers could go down to service the pump house that stood on the river bank with its foot in the water. (Maybe the water was cold and it didn’t want to plunge all the way in.)
We sat on top of the steps and took in the view. After a bit a train would come along. Sometimes there were two at once, one headed north and the other headed toward Pittsburgh.
Watching the trains was like a geography class. All those place names written on the sides of the boxcars. Even a small boy realized what a big country it was.
“What’s that train way across on the other side of the river?”
“That’s the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. The ones in the steel plant are the Aliquippa and Southern. The four tracks on this side of the river are the Pennsylvania.”
“The Pennsylvania is the best, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Bobby, it’s the best of all.”