Tag Archives: childhood

Taken for a Ride

As I nervously watched my daughters reeling down our street in an abandoned shopping cart, memories of my own childhood misadventures rushed into my head.

Any kid who could get his hands on certain common household items like shopping carts and refrigerator boxes, was golden.

On spring in the 1970’s, my brother Tray scored two large inner tubes. He called his friend, Tracy, to come over to help him figure out what to do with them. Tray and his friends were in Junior High School and wanted nothing to do with little sisters like me. They were mischievous, parted their hair in the center, listened to Foreigner and Supertramp, and said things like, “That’s decent.”

After lunch, Tracy and Tray disappeared to hatch their plan while I trotted up the hill to the neighbor’s house to find my two friends.

We had recently moved from town into a rural neighborhood on the side of a hill with only five houses. Our house was at the bottom of the hill on the road, and my two girlfriends lived at the top of the hill near the woods. 

Starting from the tree line, our hill sloped steadily downward, flattening out a bit at the neighbor’s property, but then taking a steep drop toward a barrier of blue spruces, my friends’ grandma’s house, and the road beyond. In winter, we rode sleds down the long hill and in summer we rolled down the hill and played in the tall grass.

As I trudged barefooted up the hill to find my friends, I picked a handful of newly sprouted dandelions along the way.

About an hour later, there was a knock at my neighbors’ playhouse door.

“Hey, Lisa! C’meer! Wanna do something fun with me and Tracy?!”

Completely gullible, I threw the baby doll I was nurturing into the spider-webbed corner and ran out the door. “Whaddya wanna do?!” I yelled excitedly.

Tracy and Tray lead me to the side of the neighbors’ house where I saw the inner tubes lashed together, side by side, with twine. Glancing sideways at each other and down at me, my brother said, “Lisa, if you climb inside the tubes, we’ll roll you down the hill and it’ll be really fun!”

I couldn’t see the red flags or hear the alarm bells going off. All I knew is that my big brother finally wanted to play with me.

I crouched down and climbed into the center hole, gripping the metal valves like handles just as they instructed. With my chin on my chest and my legs criss-crossed, I fit snuggly into the tiny space.

Assuring me that the ride would be better than the Scrambler at the County Fair, they carefully shoved me off down the hill.

As the tubes took their first few rotations, I squealed with excitement. But then, I reached the sharp drop off at the front of the neighbors’ property, and the tubes spun wildly with the sudden acceleration.

The undulations in the grass sent the tubes airborne, causing them to change shape as they hit the ground. The circle distorted into an elongated oval with the impact, and my teeth clacked.

As the contraption flew down the hill toward the border of blue spruces, my initial squeals of delight turned into breathy screams of terror, and then into the silence of survival mode.

From my cramped vantage point, I could see flashes of blue sky, the approaching spruces, grass, and Tray and Tracy screaming down the hill after me.

I knew I had to save myself from certain disaster, so as I slammed into the ground after a particularly high bounce, I allowed a foot to pop out of the ring. My toes immediately caught the grass, flipping the tubes like a quarter in a coin toss.

My wheel of terror teetered to a stop just before the spruces, and I instinctively burst out of the confining hole onto the grass. The entire universe spun around me.

I could hear faint yelling coming closer, until Tracy’s silhouette appeared against the blue sky above me.

“Lisa! Lisa! Are you OK?!” Tracy panted as a drop of spit began to ooze from his gaping mouth. Just before the elongated globule could detach itself, Tracy slurped and swallowed.

What an idiot I was to trust my brother. He had baited me into many a judo flip, locked closet and harebrained scheme, so why did I think that moment would be any different?

Anyone with an older sibling knows the answer to that question. No matter how much my brother acted annoyed by me, no matter how many times he gave me a charlie horse-producing punch, no matter how many times he called me “Chunky Dinners,” no matter how many of my Barbis he maimed, I would drop anything if he showed me the slightest amount of attention.

And now, as I watch my daughters careening down the street in a shopping cart, I say a little prayer that no one breaks an arm, I accept the natural order of things, and understand that some things never change.

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Seventh Heaven

As Steeler fans everywhere anticipate upcoming Superbowl XLV, my mind can’t help but wander to football seasons past, when “Stairway to Seven” held an entirely different meaning.

It was a typical Western Pennsylvania winter weekend in 1976, and my family was nestled inside our little house on the dead end of North Seventh Street in my hometown. My pork-chop-side-burned father was glued to the console television from his pea green lounge chair, a Salem 100 burning in the adjacent stand-alone ashtray.

My aproned mother bopped in and out of the room from the kitchen, where she was cooking up football food with beef, pork or venison, and enough onions, garlic and beans to guarantee a prolonged case of gas and bad breath.

From the scratchy olive carpeting, I propped my head upon my hands, stared into the television and sighed. The single earphone from my groovy yellow Panasonic Toot-A-Loop transistor radio emanated Myron Cope’s characteristic caw. Turning the dial in search of soft sets of Barry Manilow or Captain & Tennille, I could only find Jimmy Pol’s Steeler’s Polka.

With all the talk of Bradshaw, Greene and Bleier, my brother and I would eventually get bored, and often whined and begged until our parents to let us walk “Downtown” by ourselves.

Peeking out from under our stocking Steeler hats with gold pom-poms, and wrapped tightly in our Franco’s Italian Army scarves, my brother and I set off up North 7th Street to town. 

We looked like the spawn of a rail yard hobo and a bag lady in our mismatched getups, but in Steeler country, our outfits were the norm.  It seemed like everyone had a Steeler stocking hat in those days, except women who did not want to mess up their shag, and even those ladies wore a miniature crocheted replica, pinned to their wide lapels or on their sweater vests.

Crossing the crooked part of Chestnut, Seventh Street rose up before us, and the houses on either side got bigger and fancier.  At the summit, the street came to a graceful end atop Vinegar Hill, and offered a municipal staircase for pedestrians to descend the steep cliff leading down to the center of town. My brother and I paused at the top of the long cement steps and silently contemplated our escapade.

To us, “Downtown” might as well have been the Las Vegas Strip. There were so many lights and sounds, so much trouble to get into.

As we descended the long staircase, I was eager to see the pretty pink and green neon emblazoned One Hour Martinizing.  My mouth watered at the thought of the penny candy counter at G.C. Murphy & Company, with its bins of sugary drops wrapped in cellophane.  I wondered how long it would take my brother to pick a comic book at The News Stand, from the display of Sad Sack, Richie Rich, Casper and Archie. I hoped we’d sip a hot cocoa or some birch beer at The Capitol, its tables caked underneath with colorful blobs of chewed gum.

Reaching the bottom of the staircase, we dashed across Water Street and approached the main thoroughfare of town. Hearing the clanging bell of the cross walk, we ran to beat the traffic light.

Safely across, my brother huffed white clouds and strained to see the courthouse clock. Although I was happy to stroll and glance at the glitzy storefronts, my brother had an agenda, and he didn’t want to be late. 

Of the two movie theaters in town, The Manos was my favorite. The marquis seemed encrusted in blinking crystalline lights, and the metal sheathed ticket booth gleamed in reflected glow. The afternoon matinee was a double feature – “All Monsters Attack” and “Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster.”

Tickets in hand, we followed the isle lights along the rows of velvety seats down toward the old orchestra pit.  The matinee crowd, consisting mainly of adolescent boys and their younger siblings, was noisy, sticky and generally unruly. Ensconced in the cozy warmth of the red seats, we still left our Steeler hats on to guard against spit balls and flying Jujubes.

The crowd hushed as the lights went down and the screen came to life with The Road Runner.  Our faces glowed vibrantly with ambient light as we watched Wyle Coyote foil another plot to blow up his nemesis with Acme dynamite.

Much to my dismay, the cartoon was over in a flash, and I was soon cowering behind the seat while Godzilla’s son, Minya, and tiny Ichiro Miki with his yellow ball cap ran in terror from Ebirah the mutant shrimp. Unable to look at the screen, I clamped my eyeslids shut and pulled my hat down over my nose.

Two hours later, my brother jabbed me in the shoulder to wake me up.

In a rare act of kindness, my brother used the rest of his allowance to buy us square Tom’s Pizza slices. We sat at a turquoise Formica table and gazed at the Greek mural on the wall.

Taking the shortcut through G.C. Murphy’s, we stopped at the candy counter, where I bought four Pixie Sticks, three root beer barrels and some Wax Lips with the two dimes I dug from the pocket of my hand-me-down Garanimals twill pants.

Our adventure complete, we headed back to the Vinegar Hill stairway to North Seventh Street, and to the warmth of our comfy little house, with its console television blaring the latest news about Bradshaw and Swan.

The Steelers went on to beat the Cowboys in Superbowl X that winter, and our parents were thrilled. But my brother and I always knew that, right out side our front door, we could find the same thrill and excitement. No matter who was winning the football game, our “Stairway to Seventh” would lead us high and low, to bright lights and big adventures.

For the Love of Candy

No matter how much we hammer the religious significance of Easter into our children’s little heads, their minds default to one thing this time of year: the candy.

Sure, they put on flouncy dresses and stiff ties, kneel angelically in prayer, and pose for pictures on the church steps. But secretly, every kid is patiently awaiting the main event: the Easter Egg Hunt. Once released from the confines of the church, kids all over the world run like crazed prison escapees across lawns, through apartments, and between houses, viciously knocking each other over in search of sugary confections packed into brightly colored plastic eggs.

Back in the 70s when I grew up, the objects of our hunt were slightly different. Somehow, the Easter Bunny broke into our house every year, found the hard-boiled eggs that we dyed, and scattered them around our yard.

After church, my brother and I would burst from the family station wagon and race through the yard in search of the eggs and our baskets. Usually, the eggs, which had apparently been hidden for more than an hour, were smeared from the dewy grass, and the drippy food coloring often got on the white gloves I wore with my crocheted Easter dress each year.

My older brother didn’t particularly like hard-boiled eggs, but the competitive nature of the hunt sent him on a wild rampage. He often whizzed past me, swooping in to grab his prize. I didn’t mind much, because I knew that the Easter Bunny had my back. I knew there was candy somewhere especially for me. Sure enough, I would eventually find it – an Easter basket behind a shrub or under a sawhorse in the garage, with my name on it, packed with sweet treats.

My brother and I also always had one filled egg or a chocolate bunny in the center of our baskets – surrounded by what seemed like an eternal supply of Brach’s jellybeans, marshmallow “Peeps,” and tiny foil-covered Hershey chocolate eggs nestled in the strands of plastic grass. For the most part, my parents allowed us free reign to dive into the spoils of our hunt, provided we ate the obligatory slice of ham and plop of scalloped potatoes at supper.

Back then, however, I exhibited some early hoarding tendencies, and was known to squirrel away the basket in my room for safekeeping. I would ration slices of my filled egg for as long as I could, until it eventually became a hardened, crystallized lump that I had to throw away. In retrospect, I wish I had stuffed my face while I could, because later, during my chunky years, the Easter Bunny inexplicably brought me sugarless gum and packs of raisins.

Today, however, the Easter Bunny has more options. The fruit and nut-filled eggs of the past have been replaced by an endless array of individually wrapped chocolate confections, all miniaturized to fit into a bright plastic egg that won’t ruin one’s Easter dress.

Gone are the days when purple jellybeans reigned superior – those candy dinosaurs have been edged out by tiny one-inch square miniature candy bars in every brand: Snickers, Milky Ways, Reese’s, Whoppers, Baby Ruths, M&Ms, Kit Kats, Butterfingers, Hershey Bars, Peppermint Patties, Twizzlers, Starburst, and Skittles, to name a few.

All these relative newcomers have replaced old beloveds like Mallow Cups, Zagnuts, Gold Mine Gum Sacks, Necco Wafers, Good-N-Plenty, Sugar Daddies, Razzles, Chuckles, Circus Peanuts, Chick-o-Sticks, Boston Baked Beans, Charleston Chews and Bubblegum Cigarettes. Even though the packaging is different, the sentiment is still the same: Kids want candy on Easter and lots of it.

One might conclude that candy is the evil vice that has sucked the meaning out of the holiday. But I like to think that the tiny tasty confections are just our children’s rewards for donning itchy dresses and suits, sitting on hard wooden pews, and choking down rubbery ham and soggy green beans. And besides, watching the joy on their faces during an Easter egg hunt is really God’s gift to us on Easter, and He doesn’t mind us indulging in that sweetness one bit.

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