Wine Before Five
Because Life is Good. And Sweet, & Short.
A Shady Neighborhood
Part One: A Child’s View
My childhood neighborhood in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s had immense, tall, mature, leafy trees lining every sidewalk and street, and spread through spacious back yards.. The grass, and even the stone slab sidewalks, were cool beneath my bare feet, even on most summer days, because of the wonderful shade trees. We knew the names of everyone who lived in every house, as well as their daily routines.
For kids, it was a great place to grow up. Our neighborhood – which I thought of mostly as my side of my own street and the one behind it – had several families with six kids each as well as many other families with kids, and we all played together. Summer meant baseball, tag, hide-n-seek, and best of all (to me) “Tarzan swings.” As soon as it was warm enough to go barefoot, we would run up and down the gravel alley in our bare feet until they were calloused – that meant being “ready for summer.”
One couple who lived in an old & beautiful brick house in the middle of the neighborhood had children who were grown, and grandchildren who were not yet old enough to play with us. Yet they allowed all the neighborhood kids to play in their yard every day, summer and winter. In today’s world, it would have been Liability City.
For baseball, we had two different “fields.” One was in the yard of the old brick house, where we had a small stone placed in the center of a paved alley beside the house for home plate, a larger rock placed at the far edge of the lawn off to the right. Second base was a small tree, big enough to climb, but still small – growing pretty close in an almost-direct horizontal line with first base. Third was a telephone pole, about 12 feet from home plate. The pitcher stood halfway between home plate and the small tree, probably about five feet from third. We weren’t too picky about things being regulation.
The Tarzan swings were ropes strung up, I guess, by the neighborhood boys, tied – apparently carefully – to tree limbs, with a loop at the bottom for one foot. Our calloused feet helped a lot here, and the thick, rough rope gave us calloused hands. We would swing from the small tree to the large tree, and from that tree to the top of the old garage roof, remembering not to let go of the rope there, or we’d be stranded until someone tossed a rope up to us. The garage was really an old wooden carriage house, and everyone involved was fortunate none of us crashed through the roof. We often went inside it, though, and climbed up into the dusty loft. There was nothing there, so we’d just climb back down. I’m not sure what the purpose of repeatedly going up there actually was – it was hot and dusty and empty every time.
Summertime meant running across lawns for the shortest distance between two points when we felt like it. Most people didn’t care if you touched their grass, but my neighborhood had two old biddies who did. Mrs. Waffle, we’ll call her, who had the most beautiful hydrangeas I’ve ever seen lining her front walk, would sometimes dart out her kitchen door in her housedress & apron, and scream “You kids get off my grass!!!” She startled us more than scared us, so for a few days we’d run down the gravel alley, then just start running across the grass again until her next shout-out.
The second old biddy, Mrs. Baseball Thief, lived across an alley from an empty lot where we sometimes played baseball. This lot was much closer to regulation size – or at least shape – so I don’t know why we didn’t always play there, but maybe that had a lot to do with her. She must have sat at her window all day, watching us play, because the instant a ball went foul to the left, she ran out her back door, screamed “You kids keep your baseball out of my yard!!!” grabbed the ball, then ran back inside. She must have had thousands of baseballs in there by the time she died.
Winter meant building snow forts and snowball fights when we could see our breath in the dark night air. My favorite thing, again, involved fast motion – sled riding on the wooded hillside at the far end of the street behind mine. We had steerable sleds then, Flexible Flyers, and needed them, because it truly was a heavily wooded hill. As darkness came, not all that long after school let out, we tucked a flashlight under one arm to use as a headlight. The crashes were awesome fun, there were lots of screams and laughter, and I don’t remember anyone getting hurt. We went home when our wool coats and pants were pretty soaked and we were so cold we could hardly bend our mittened hands to pull the rope handle of the sleds behind us. Usually we stood those wet things up to dry while we ate supper, then put them on again, sometimes dry, sometimes not, and headed back to the hill.
It’s interesting as I look back now and realize I remember no broken arms or legs, no stitches, no major falls. Yet I do remember one day two of the next-door grandchildren had some sort of squabble. My Dad and I watched from the dining room window as the older one – maybe about six years old? – chased his younger brother with a sickle. The younger one darted into the dense shrubs, and the older one just kept swinging. Apparently, no one was injured. How is this possible?
I have very fond memories of certain adults in that neighborhood as well.
The people who lived just across the little side street beside our house had a farm in the country (that would be about a five-minute drive from their house) and we bought eggs from them. Mrs. Farmer’s Wife always had a smile for me when I knocked tentatively on her back door and asked “May we please have a dozen eggs?” She would take them from the “egg fridge” that sat there beside the back door, and always asked “How are you, Emma Ann?” as I gave her the two quarters in payment. I always wanted to give her a hug, and regret that I never did. She was a sweet lady with a house full of kids and grandkids, but always had time for me. Mr. Farmer always smiled & said hi & called me by name, too, when he rolled in from the farm in his pick-up truck. They were great people.
One summer day, Mr. & Mrs. Farmer’s Son rode a horse into town from the farm, and brought it right into my back yard! Somewhere along the line of my egg-buying expeditions, I had apparently shared with Mrs. Farmer’s Wife that I had never ridden a horse and would love to. That incredibly kind lady had her teenage son (I thought he was pretty old, actually) ride the horse in from the farm, lift me up on it where I sat all by myself, and he gave me a ride around my very own backyard as he held the reins. I remember it like it was yesterday – sitting up high, feeling safe because he was right there, and passing under the tallest and biggest of the shade trees in our yard. It was pure heaven. What dear, sweet people!
I don’t remember many houses where no one was at home during the day, and I do remember the men who came home mid-afternoon with their “work lunchboxes,” – black barn-shaped metal containers that held a Thermos bottle on one side, sandwiches and snacks on the other. The man in the family who lived behind us was one of those, and after parking his car at the back of his lot, just across the alley from our yard, he would always look over at this shy and quiet six- or seven-year-old and smile and wave. “How are you today, Emma Ann?” That made my afternoon good.
The people who lived in the big, old, beautiful brick house where we played day after day were also so sweet and kind. We all called them “Aunt” and “Uncle.” They had a huge old-fashioned kitchen, and I loved being in there. It had a big farm table with lots of wooden chairs, a simple old porcelain sink in the corner by the door, and tall, tall cupboards that reached up to the high ceiling. They always had smiles, and Aunt/Mrs. Old Brick House used to give my arm a squeeze whenever she walked by me. That made me feel pretty warm and fuzzy inside. I wish I’d told her that.
There were other good things in what was really a Shady Town, though I mostly saw only my shady neighborhood.
Our park had a wonderful swimming pool, where I took swimming lessons every summer — in the very, very cold unheated water on June mornings — and spent many hot afternoons. It seemed like a long walk there, and an even longer one home when I was starving from two hours of non-stop swimming. Some kids rode their bikes to the park, and there were no locks back then. One of our neighborhood kids regularly had his bike taken – I’m not sure why; it was just a black metal frame with two wheels – no fenders – and a set of handlebars – but he never worried about it. Each day when he was leaving the park, he’d check out the bikes lying around, and when he saw his, he stole it back.
We had one more thing I remember with great fondness from summertime. Tony the Pony pulled The Pony Wagon, which brought homemade ice cream and cold treats on summer evenings from a local dairy store. I think one-scoop cones were a nickel, and two scoopers a dime. I loved hearing the clip-clop of that horse from a couple of blocks away, and wish my kids had had a Pony Wagon in their childhood.
Those are the best memories I cherished as a child back in that shady neighborhood, second only to time spent with my Dad, who taught me to fly a kite & ride a bike, who hung a wooden swing with rope handles from the branch of the biggest old tree for me, told me stories of his childhood, parents and grandfather, & who let me stand beside him while he watered the huge vegetable garden he planted at the back of our neighbor’s yard where there was plenty of sunshine. Some years he planted a garden at the far end of the block, and once found a nest of abandoned baby bunnies there. He brought them home and let me keep them in the kitchen, feeding them from a doll baby’s bottle. I don’t think any lived, but I still remember how amazing it was to have tiny bunny babies that fit in my hand and lived in a cardboard box in the corner of the kitchen.
Every kid should have a childhood like mine, in a shady neighborhood, set in a shady town.