"From Up the Crick"
Another constancy in my life was neighbors, always the same: The Blairs, the Brysons, the Atkinsons, the Wards, the Shearers, the McGowans, the Robertsons, the Taylors, the Cunninghams, the Steidings always lived on my street, and Annie Pittman, a short, fat, gray-haired woman lived next door in a small, white-washed frame house with a front porch hidden by a wisteria vine. The three-room house was heated by a black pot-bellied stove in the center room and Annie’s house was good for at least one flue fire each year.
Annie had a flower garden that bloomed almost hysterically. It was a constant source of irritation to my mother who bought hot-house flowers each spring. Mother’s flowers prospered but not as gloriously as Annie’s, whose flowers were the result of seeds taken from my mother’s garden. Annie was a hypochondriac and was given to screaming at the first pain. Uncle Jim Langhan once remarked that “anybody who can yell that loud can’t be too sick.”
Most of my superstitions came from Annie who told me wild stories of seeing six white horses in the sky before her father died. She completely convinced me of the meaning of dreams long before I ever heard of Sigmund Freud. Dreaming of muddy water was a sure sign of impending danger, dreaming of babies meant death, dreaming of death meant good luck. I depended upon her for weather reports, cures for warts, and a heavy head of hair, guaranteed by cutting my hair every Good Friday. She rubbed snuff and chewed tobacco and would stand on her back porch and spit for yards into the garden. Perhaps, this was the secret of her successful garden. My mother swore that it was.
Annie was a gullible woman and I took every advantage of this. Once, when she was feeling especially poorly, she came over for some pain medicine. She was never just plain sick but was always at death’s door. I went to the bathroom medicine chest and took out two Bufferins. As I handed her the B-marked pills, I told her that they were Daddy’s personal, monogrammed pills and that she should take only one at a time. She followed my directions and had a complete cure. I suppose we picked on Miss Pittman because she was there, always certain to react, often overreact, to our irksome and protracted annoyance. Annie was as colorful as her scarlet sage, gladiolas, zinnias, asters, and roses.
Often, one is too close to her generation to realize fully what is happening, but there was one thing I did realize fully and that was my friendship with Chloe Robertson. I saw what Chloe saw, felt what Chloe felt, grew as Chloe grew, although not as tall. In our little chores -- Chloe had more because she had two brothers and six sisters -- in the games we played, in the dreams we dreamed, we inhabited a world, vastly different and more splendid than anybody else. We found ourselves absorbed in a world of timeless enchantment with baby-dolls, paper cutout dolls, scrapbooks of movie stars, tea-parties under the apple tree in the backyard, and stringing colorful crystal buttons on Gert Beveridge’s front porch. Gert was a seamstress and had boxes of magical buttons which we made into magical jewelry and remnants of colorful material which we made into colorful baby-doll clothes.
We lived imagined adventures of skating in Sun Valley with Sonja Heine[sic], of dancing with Van Johnson or Gregory Peck on a moonlit terrace by the ocean. We shared secrets of boys we liked, bits of gossip we heard. We spun tales that grew like snowballs rolled by children. We pretended that we didn’t believe the spooky tales about Florence Goodrich, the parrot woman, who could breathe fire out of a burn and who was the only person we knew who owned a parrot, [or about] the “Veil Woman” who prowled at night. The mere suggestion of their presence kept us closer at home. We also steered clear of Koontz Mansion where Raw Head and Bloody Bones, the resident ghost, would get us. We often walked the road that turned up the way from Paradise Street and lead to St. Joseph’s Cemetery but avoided Devil’s Corner, the section of the graveyard reserved for those who died “out of the church” or who had committed suicide.
We waded in the crick, we strained sand through old window screens in order to make more perfect sand castles. Sometimes, a tuna fish sandwich at our house was followed by chocolate cake with sea-foam, white icing at Chloe’s house, for Mimi (Chloe’s mother) baked the best cake in town. We squandered hours riding our blue Goodyear bicycles. Even a bicycle became a challenge, and I mastered the trick of holding on to the handlebars while standing with one foot on the seat with the other leg high in the air behind me like an accomplished ice skater. Chloe was more conservative and more lady-like. She didn’t even get dirty.
We wandered through the woods, walked the railroad tracks, collected and swapped Hoffman Ice Cream Company Dixie-cup lids that contained movie stars’ pictures. We went to every show that came to town. The show changed three times each week: Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. Sunday’s show was usually the best. Wednesday and Thursday’s were usually old ones and Friday and Saturday’s were Westerns. We didn’t like Westerns and thought that Gene Autry wore his pants too tight, but we did like the serials on Saturday, especially Flash Gordon. We liked Shirley Temple but not as much as Sonja Heine[sic] whose movies we eagerly awaited. She was our dimpled idol, we suffered when she suffered, and we triumphed when she triumphed. Things always turned out fine for Sonja. The leading man always sang to her. She always had that final fabulous skating routine amidst ice-laden branches. She never fell down, but we certainly did worry about her. Chloe and I found our young way through lovely things. Whatever it was, we did it together. The world seemed magical with promise to us as we hurried through our young days as friends, always together, up the crick.
So many of the things about the crick that I remember are the perfect prescriptions for the downhearted. The crick’s perpetual constancy lies at the roots of my thoughts. I can still hear the early morning whistle of the C & P passenger train as it neared Midland at 6 a.m., the shrill whistling beginning as the train made the turn at the ballpark and continuing until the train reached the red-painted depot on Railroad Street, one street above our home. The train stopped only long enough to pick up those who worked out of Midland and to load and unload mail. The heavy coal-fired engine pulled the two passenger cars and caboose and coughed out its funnel of black smoke as it moved slowly on to the trestle, inched across Church Hill and, gaining speed, disappeared around the corner past Ocean Mines on the way to Frostburg. One of the legends of the area, the reason for large families, centered around this early train. The old story has it that while 6 a.m. was too early to get up, it was certainly too late to go back to sleep. The railroad tracks and the trestle provided much entertainment for us. We walked the tracks to school and church; we crossed the tracks to go almost anywhere because they cut our town into two parts. We placed pennies on the tracks so that the train would flatten them and always waved to the engineer, the caboose man, and the important railroad officials on the Big Bug Car, as if they were close friends leaving forever.
The C&P trestle was our Disneyland. It spanned the crick and stood about fifteen feet above the water. The trestle’s flat-topped, solid black metal sides stood, at their highest point, another ten feet above the tracks. On both sides of its crosspieces were one-foot ledges where we separated the brave from the cowardly; the brave stood on these ledges when a twenty-car coal train roared across. The thundering cars shook the trestle, blew coal dust on us as we held on desperately, knowing that we had the fierce courage to face death with a jest. But Jo Jo Stakem was the most courageous of all those who “took on the trestle.” He bet his friends that he could stand on the highest point of the trestle, spit, and beat his spit down to the crick. Jo Jo spat, jumped - and broke both his legs. We also wrote messages on the trestle: love messages containing the traditional heart, the anonymous initials, and the broken arrow. But we never knew who wrote the dirty words.
Our lives were as constant, as directed as the womens’ un-admitted competition to be the first to hang out Monday’s early morning wash on the backyard clothes lines, beginning with the bleached white shirts and bed clothes and ending with the kitchen rugs, all hung so as to hide the underwear. I can still smell the clean, phenomenal odor of the soft towels of spring and touch the frozen towels of winter.
Winters were long and cold, and I remember rolling Turkish towels and rag rugs and tightly placing them at the bottoms of doors and windows, banking the furnace for the night, kneeling and quickly saying my night prayers, jumping into bed and under the covers, and falling fast asleep. Winter was hurrying in the morning to the bathroom, heated by an extra, small gas stove, getting dressed there, and then hurrying on down the cold, enclosed back stairs to the kitchen where the open oven door allowed the heat from inside to take away the morning chill.
Most mornings meant getting to St. Joseph’s Church for 7 a.m. Mass, required for choir girls, all the girls in grades four through eight, when it was a Requiem Mass. Singing in the choir was mandatory even if we couldn’t sing because quantity substituted for quality, and even the quantity was limited. At times, maybe only ten young girls sang the Mass, hungry because we had to fast from midnight on in order to receive communion, receiving because not doing so pointed out a sinner who was not in the state of God’s grace. Of course, one could always claim to have taken an accidental drink of water.
Some mornings, we desperately tried to stay awake, and sometimes warm if Boatsman O’Rourke, the sexton, didn’t have the coal-fired furnace roaring early enough. We were totally unaware that the entire world didn’t sing, “Dies irae, dies illa,” at that early hour of the morning. The Latin never fazed us because we were taught Gregorian chant from the third grade on. And we always did what Sister Antoinette, the organist and choir director, told us. Sister had a vigorous grasp of child psychology and iron lungs. She was the adult and we were the children, and she had the power to make us believe by her masterly and incontrovertible logic that coming to church at 7 a.m. each morning, like death and taxes, was part of life. I remember total fear when I slept in or Mother slept in and I missed Mass. I knew I would “get it” when I went to school.
I recall these cold, early mornings, so cold, that I lacked the reverence and the sensibility to the sublime. The walk home from church was a very quick one, over deep-crusted snow that pricked my legs. When the trestle tracks on the C & P Railroad were snow covered and slippery, I walked across the ice on the crick and on home to breakfast. This too, was consistent: toasted, homemade bread that burned on the edges because it was too thick for the toaster, hot cocoa with always some in the bottom that didn’t dissolve, Quaker Oats, and summer-made peach preserves or King syrup. The cream in the milk bottle had frozen, pushed up through the paper cap, and was sliced off for my daddy’s coffee.
After breakfast I walked back over the same route to St. Josephs School, hung my snowsuit on the hook in the cloakroom and placed my galoshes directly underneath. We never seemed to question the over-insistence upon technical details. Our school days were as orderly as the ink-well desks we sat in. Our pencils and straight ink pen rested in the ledge at the top of the wooden desk, and our oil-cloth covered books rested neatly in the compartment under the desk tops. Small rectangular wooden stools were placed on the floor under the desk tops of those students whose feet didn’t reach the ground. Mine didn’t.
Our school mornings began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, with morning prayers, and then the Baltimore Catechism. We were little theologians who knew where we came from, why we were here and where we were going. But one of my classmates, Vinci Monahan, had a more realistic outlook. Father Brennan, preparing us for our First Communion, asked the class, “What is the end of man?” Vinci’s hand shot high in the air, and when called upon for the answer, profoundly said, “His feet.” Incarnation, Beatific Vision, Transubstantiation --these were among the mysterious truths that we handled and these were the answers to any serious questions that we had as children. I never had doubts and never knew anybody who did. There was no conflict waging in my soul.
Besides, I was too busy. Be it math or religion or geography or penmanship our standards were imperatively high. I can still feel the pen as it scratched along the white, satiny paper. Too much ink from the inkwell made blots on the paper, so I learned to use, very carefully, the blue ink blotter before and after I wrote. The nuns frowned upon innovation in penmanship, and we had to write as the nuns wrote; perfect Palmer method. All the nuns that I had as teachers in grade school wrote almost exactly the same. They must have practiced the circles, the sweeps as much as we did, and they must have completely rested their writing arms on the desk, too. To this day whenever I make the number 5, I find myself saying, “Down and around and a hat on his head.” I still mentally say it in a sing-song manner, I remember how difficult it was to keep margins on un-margined paper. We drew faint pencil lines that we later erased.
We were reminded constantly that anything “less than our best was failure and for years I believed that the Parable of the Talents was written exclusively for me. When a student did a particularly stupid thing in the classroom, the nun stepped to the window, threw it open, and in the idiom of the area, loudly proclaimed, “Take him out in the coal bank and bury him,” or with absolute abandon for the supposed sensitivity of today’s educator would comment sarcastically when handing back a student’s paper, “They shot a man like Lincoln and let you live.” We listened intently, and if we happened to miss an instruction, we were told to “get the coal dust out of our ears.”
I was fascinated by Sister Patricius, the principal, and “Black Susie,” a long, black strap that Sister didn’t hesitate to use or at least to threaten to use. It is strange how we become indelibly impressed with specific occurrences. Sister Patricius used to visit classes and frequently teach. One class in American History I’ll never forget, simply because I did forget some of the facts. On a test I placed Bunker Hill in Baltimore, and I was sent to Sister Patricius. At the moment, I didn’t know the reason and merely figured that I was the one sent with the note because I had been especially good that day.
Nuns habitually rewarded good behavior with work: carrying notes, washing blackboards, straightening chairs, dusting shelves, window ledges, and desk tops. Well, I proudly walked up the aisle to her desk and said, “Good morningster”. We always combined our daily greetings: “morningster”, “eveningster”, and no amount of correction changed this. Sister read the note, looked at me, and somberly asked, “And where did I tell you Bunker Hill was?” I immediately remembered.
One other time I had an encounter with Sister. There was an open field at the bottom of Church Hill. In the corner of the field was a “chinning bar,” a forerunner of today’s parallel bars. Instead of swinging by my hands as little ladies should, I hung by my legs. Naturally, my dress went up over my head. Several others did the same. Sister sent an older student to tell us to go to her immediately. Not me! I cut out of the field, down the tracks, across the trestle, and on home, pretending to be very ill. My mother swallowed my lie until my brother showed up at the door with orders to return me to school. In those days the parents always sided with the nuns. It was automatically assumed that the children were wrong, and punishment at school meant further punishment at home. At this point, my memory of the incident fades. Perhaps, it was too impassioned a moment to remember. Perhaps, it contained too little to preserve it from oblivion. However, Bunker Hill and immodesty embody my entire image of Sister Patricius.
I revel in my memories of sliding down the coal bank on cardboard sleds at recess and hurrying home for my noon meal so I could hurry back to slide some more. I remember the stinging red ring of chapping around my calves caused by snow getting down in my rubber galoshes during too many trips up and down the bank. We rolled snowballs from the top of the playground to the edge of the hill and sent them smashing down through trees and bushes into the crick. We built igloos from hundreds of snowballs, and flopped backwards, with arms outstretched, into the snow, making angel wings. I can still see and smell the long, tan, cotton stockings and sopping wet woolen mittens and gloves drying on the radiators during the long afternoons of geography, art, “Evangeline,” and penmanship. School was over at 3 p.m. unless it was our turn to wash the blackboards, always from top to bottom, to clap the blackboard erasers out the window, to straighten the desks into a military line. Then, on home.
As soon as we got home from school, we grabbed a bite to eat, maybe sugar bread or syrup bread, or jelly bread and a glass of milk. We changed our school clothes for play clothes and headed for Squirrel Neck Hollow, a hill up behind the crick, to skate on the Frog Pond. If the hollow was snow-covered, we put on our skates at home. If not, we’d sit on a log at the pond. I pretended to be Sonja Heine[sic], but I was too cold to believe it, and besides, my snowsuit with its suspendered pants and hooded jacket bore little resemblance to her skating outfits. The pond was circular with a diameter of no more than ten feet, but a young child can enlarge and embellish anything.
Bernadette Winner, who lived down Back Street, must have thought that it was quite huge. Without looking behind her, she put her one leg in the air and the edge of her blade gouged me in the right eyebrow. I hurriedly skated home, down the hollow, up Back Street, around our walk, up the two steps to our back porch, and opened the back door, all the time blood running down my face. My daddy was seated at the supper table. Mother looked at me, barked, “You’re late for supper, again.” The purest love is the most exacting and I had broken one of the rules: Be home on time. I lost nothing in my life by believing this. But I do have a scar in my right eyebrow.
Supper was a family affair. Up the crick we had breakfast, dinner and supper; lunch was something we had when we wanted a bite to eat between meals or what we carried in a brown paper sack. We children had to get washed up before we sat down to eat. Our daddy was not only the head of the household, but the head of the supper table. At least, Mother allowed him to think so. And all food began with him and then was passed to us. After supper I helped to redd the table, Mother washed the dishes, and Cyril and I dried them with striped-linen dish towels that had been dampened and ironed with the same care as Daddy’s white shirts. It was a long time before I caught on to Cyril’s game of “let’s have a race to see who can dry the most.’
For years, Cyril also had me fully convinced that I had to be twelve before I could drink a milk shake. I was only old enough to have a chocolate rickey, Homer Noel’s name for chocolate milk with ice in it. Cyril pocketed the extra money. Homer Noel and his mother Bella owned the local confectionary store and gathering place. They managed to have a successful business because it was the only one in town. God knows that I can’t think of any other reason, unless it could be Homer’s dog that he scatted away with a swipe from the same dish towel that he used to dry glasses.
We would sled ride down the hollow and if the snow was firmly packed, we could start at the top, cross Squirrel Neck Hollow’s wooden bridge, cut across Back Street and make it to the railroad tracks with no concern for traffic because there really wasn’t that much. On the final run of the evening, we hooked together an “eastern” by holding on to the feet of the rider in front. At times, the more daring among us skied. Our skiing was unique for our skis were barrel staves, our poles were stripped tree branches, and our Alps were coal banks, but we had the daring and exuberance of Olympian down-hillers. The knitted cuffs of our snow pants and jackets were frozen stiff, our faces, hands, and feet tingled with cold, but we stayed out until the time allotted by our parents, and then pulled our sleds home by the ropes attached to them, set them up on the back porch, readied for the next day.
After lessons were completed at the kitchen table, we were allowed some time to listen to the oak, floor model, RCA radio in the “sittin” room. We laughed at Fred Allen, George Burns, Fibber McGee, The Great Gildersleeve, and Jack Benny, and we believed that Dennis Day was the best singer in all the world. I listened, but didn’t always understand when President Roosevelt spoke to his “fellow Americans.” I knew that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost comprised the Holy Trinity, but somewhere in a close second were Christ, FDR and John L. Lewis. Although there were no pictures of the last two in my house, I knew that I had better be aware of their importance up the crick. One night, Mother turned on the radio, and there was a shrill squeal. She tried several times and each time the same thing happened. So, she unplugged the radio and called her nephew Jack Monahan, who could fix anything, and would, for Mother. Upon investigation, Jack found a mouse wedged between two tubes, and every time the radio warmed up the mouse got enough voltage to shock him but not kill him.
Chloe and I especially enjoyed “It Pays to be Ignorant” and roared with laughter at such questions as “Where’s the Brooklyn Bridge’” and almost died with young giddiness at a panel members follow up question, “Who built the bridge, Mr. Howard?” I marvel at our simplicity but they were great days for simplicity. We never analyzed our present nor worried about our future. We were children who for the most were at peace, were free, and not locked up inside ourselves.
With young joy we waited for the holidays. Thanksgiving meant two days off from school, a live turkey, perhaps won in a raffle at Dempsey O’Brien’s bar, and Miss Pittman or Uncle Jim Langhan chopping the head off the turkey, soaking the turkey in a wash tub of scalding water, and laboriously picking out the feathers one by one. Thanksgiving was eating in the dining room, a lace table cloth and linen napkins, the good china and silver, getting all dressed up for the meal. It was roast turkey and bread dressing, “smashed” potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, homemade rolls, and minced-meat and pumpkin pies.
But Christmas was most special. The live tree, so carefully decorated by my daddy who hand-pressed each icicle that hung on the very end of the branch, ceremoniously reigned in a corner of the parlor, a part of the house set apart from everyday life. The tree was never taken down until after Little Christmas, the sixth of January. Christmas Eve was Midnight Mass when we performed in the choir what we had practiced every Sunday afternoon. We sang with joy the Introit of the Mass, “Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te,” (Thou are My Son, this day have I begotten Thee,) and ended with a young, stirring rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’ This, of course, was after we were old enough to stay up that late and after Sister Charitine, third and fourth grade teacher, had informed us that there was no Santa Claus.
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