Thursday, October 30, 2008

Snow daze


As an adult and as a person who has worked for years in operating rooms, snow means potential injury to one's property and one's self. And the injury to one's self doesn't stop at broken bones and heart attacks.

One of the things that I really try to get across in this series of what I call mental "spasms" is that there were kinder and gentler years back in the days when Smock was my home town. Maybe not too gentle.

When it snowed in Smock, it was cause for a celebration. Kids literally RAN out of the house at the second they heard other kids hollering or playing. And the intensity of the fun was ramped up because there was always the potential of not having to go to school the next day. On those nights, we played games (which was mentioned in another "spasm" of mine) and we'd go "sled riding". Not sledding. That was for the "cake eaters" in Uniontown.

You can tell a child's sled in Smock by the condition that it was in. Since sleds were well used, there was the usual bent runner or broken wood slat. And we had a form of duct tape that we used to repair the broken wood. But the REALLY cool thing was that most of our gang's fathers were "handy" and could fashion another wooden slat that was usually better than the original. You always knew the sleds that were "fixed" by the lack of varnish or color of the wood.
We had a hill behind our house. In the summer, we used it for baseball. It was really hard running to first and second base but after second, you thought you could fly since it REALLY was "all downhill from there". There was a drainage ditch that was just behind second base and behind it, the field rose up about 3 feet. Then, the hill rose up dramatically and became much more difficult to climb. Now those of you who know of these winter sports also know that "dramatic" hills were marvelous to come shooting down on a Flexible Flyer or any other type of snow contraption. Oh, we saw it all; inner tubes, plastic sleds (WHAT WERE THEIR PARENTS THINKING???) and even cardboard. That hill beckoned kids like the sirens in Ulysses. I even remember one particular hill ABOVE the main hill that was called "Over The World". You shot down this really steep bank, then UP what skiers would call a "mogul" and then down, down, down toward the waiting ditch behind second base. If you did it right, you flew through the ditch and could actually sled right into your back yard (if you were me or my neighbor Bob, or the Dubos sisters or Jimmy and Phil and Paul Zimcosky).

But if it snowed SO much that the school bus, which had tire chains that broke many a school kid's heart, didn't make it to Smock, there was the Hill of All Hills. Simpson's Hill. The road that leads West from Smock Hill began an upward climb for just over a mile. And in usual Fayette County fashion, it had a lot of twists and turns. And, since it was a ROAD, it didn't have ditches and trees and "jagger" bushes to get in the way. This was the sled riding holy grail. And since the Menallen Township snow plows were pretty efficient, the Grail was not usually within reach.

One day, after a hellish snowstorm, we found that our school bus Old Yeller didn't make it. (It was a 1949 Dodge with LEATHER seats). And Simpson's Hill was perfect. Bob, my next door neighbor and I went up the hill with my sled, which was slightly longer than Bob's. We didn't know physics so we weren't aware that if two of us got on one sled, it would go faster down the hill. I remember it took us about an hour that day to ascend the Grail and after getting up there, we both sat on the sled and talked.

I need to stop the story and thank my dear and good friend Bob Szelc for something. There were countless days and nights that Bob and I would talk about what we were going to be and do when we grew up. Bob, I have treasured those talks and will, like Smock, hold them in a special place in my heart for as long as I live.

After a short while which was determined by how much we didn't feel our toes inside our rubber boots or our fingers inside our gloves, we set that sled on top of Simpson's Hill and got ready. Thanks to my Grandfather (who was also recently mentioned in this blog), my runners were greased with the leftovers that had helped to fry his bacon and eggs earlier that morning. Kids, take my advice; your sled will smell like breakfast, but putting bacon grease on your runners will make that thing go down a hill like the runners were on fire. Old man Yonker, Johnny's grandfather, came by us in his blue 1952 Chevrolet coupe. He was heading for Smock so he blew the horn as we saw him pass by, snow flying from his chain-clad rear tires. Bob said, "Nobody blows their horn at us". I didn't understand just then. As the blue Chevy turned past Watula's house, we pushed off down the hill in pursuit. We caught up with Mr. Yonker about 1/4 mile prior to the turn for Smock Hill. We were going like lightning. So fast, that I had to hold on to Mr. Yonker's bumper to avoid from going under the rear of his car. After another 100 yards or so, I turned back to look at Bob. We were both laughing like fools. What Bob saw was my face totally covered in white snow. I couldn't think of anything to say but out came "Hello Santa Claus" and we laughed our way clear up Smock Hill on just the momentum of our sled and Grandpap's marvelous bacon grease.

OK, so why did I tell this? Because YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE. How many experiences did you have as a 9 year old that have stuck in your brain for fifty years?

Bob and I can tell you hundreds of stories. And that's why I write this blog. Just to share them with you.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fresh dirt



Every summer when I was a kid, my uncle Dick from Pontiac, Michigan would bring his wife (my Mom's sister) Evelyn and their three boys Pat, Jim and Ed to Smock. Part of the ritual while they were in town was to eat pancakes, a mythical but legendary angelic food that must be common in Pontiac, since I never ate them at any other time. Another ritual was to go up to the field behind my house and shoot at bottles and tin cans with my uncle's .22 caliber rifles. For a kid from Smock, this was truly a glimpse of heaven. And thanks to the instruction of my uncle, I shot "expert" in the Air Force and have the ribbon and certificate to prove it.

The people that lived right through the wall of my circa 1895 duplex home had two sons, Thad and Bob, who also enjoyed the shooting when my uncle came to town. But they asked themselves, "why does it have to end when this guy goes back to Michigan?" They bought their own rifles, something that was forbidden in my home. But they saw fit to take me along with them to shoot at Number 4 bridge. (You guys have made countless memories for me).

Number 4 bridge was a railroad bridge that could be accessed two ways. You can drop over the hill behind my house to the Redstone Creek and follow upstream or you can walk down to the Smock post office and follow the railroad tracks. Either way, you found yourself at Number 4 bridge, a 50 foot high perch over the creek that had a walkway and railing that was made to rest a gun upon to steady your aim at the glass bottles and cans that became our moving targets in the wretched water.

For the benefit of the environmentalists, the Redstone Creek to this very day flows....orange. The source of this cotaminated sewer and stream was an old coal mine that closed because of a huge sulphur deposit. Water found its way in and through the mine and eventually found the Monongahela River, which is one of the three rivers that merge in downtown Pittsburgh. Yes, there is probably a six foot layer of broken glass just downstream of where the bridge used to be, but I don't know anyone who kayaks or swims in a creek that smells like rotten eggs. And Redstone is STILL is the primary sewerage deposit for many homes along its banks.

Over the past 50 years, Thad and Bob and I still found our way out to where the bridge used to be. (Someone took the iron and sold it for scrap). Our more modern access to the area is through the property of Ray McGill, a well known farmer who allowed us passage through his "lower forty" and down to the bridge. Ray never asked us for anything, but we felt that a couple of bottles of Four Roses or Imperial whiskey would be appropriate, as well as provide evening entertainment for Ray and his wife Cindy.

I never got to know Ray that well, other than to know him as a very happy individual. Maybe it was our "gifts" that made him happy? Maybe not. But yesterday, Ray McGill died at 55 years old. And since you don't know Ray, it is important for me to tell you that he had seven children; Daniel, Betty, Tammy, Amy, James, Mandy and Chad. And everyone knew of the McGill farm which was the first property you pass when you turn off Route 51 into Smock.

So another grave is dug and will soon be covered with fresh dirt. I guess it is inevitable that as I and many of my friends pass from decade number five on to decade six, there will be much more fresh dirt in those peaceful cemeteries in Smock.

Ray once described himself to me in rhyme, "Ray McGill lives over the hill, never worked and never will." Smock has many happy people. They played polkas at Mike Senker's post-funeral luncheon last week. I hope that tomorrow, after Ray is lowered to his final resting place, someone has the decency to play Hank Williams.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Town Mechanic

In the 1950's, Smock had more than just a bar when you counted up all of the retail establishments. There was Nick The Barber, Ohrin's Market, Charlie Peskie's Market, Ed Spooner (another barber) and even a store on Smock Hill called "Florek's" which occupied the living room of the family home. There was the post office and the Union Supply Company store.

And then, there was Ed Sparrow, who owned the Smock Central Garage. He was about 6 foot tall and had blonde hair which was usually covered up by this skull cap with the bill turned upward. The cap read "Pennzoil" and had black and white stripes. His work uniform was just that. A grey and black striped pair of coveralls, white shirt and a black bow tie. Ed was not merely a gas station attendant/owner but the single executive of the Smock Central Garage. And, you knew it.

Ed had a matter-of-fact way of telling you something whether it was about a machine or about how to drive to Grindstone. And if you pulled into Ed's garage, your oil and water (coolant) were checked along with tire pressure. And windows were cleaned, front and back.

Ed never had any air powered tools or anything with the words "Snap On" or "MAC" stamped on the sides. Some of his old pipe wrenches had wooden handles. He also had the old brass oil cans that had that long, skinny spout which dripped oil when you pressed the bottom of the can with your thumb.

You would think that Ed would have cars lined up for gasoline or for oil changes, etc., but you would be wrong. I'm not sure if anyone will ever know why people drove to other towns for gas or routine auto service. Maybe it was because he was not Roman Catholic in a town that had only a couple of families drive to Pleasant View Presbyterian Church on Sundays to consort with devils, according to Mom & Dad? Or maybe he was just too friendly? Or maybe people just didn't like Pennzoil gas? Or was it the sign near the cash register that had the picture of this older woman behind what looked like an antique desk with a manual calculator that read "Our credit manager is Helen Waite, so if you want credit, go to Helen Waite"? But Ed was one of the finest men that I knew in Smock.

A modern day Ed Sparrow is Mel Bagley, owner of Mel Bagley's Auto Service in West View, PA. Mel will change your oil and oil filter and lubricate your car for under 30 bucks. And you can wait the 15 minutes it takes seated on an old Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon back seat, which does not have arm rests, cup holders or a hole where you can stick your skis.

Yesterday, I had the misfortune to allow a 1/2 x 2 inch bolt impale into my right rear tire sidewall. (For those who don't know, a sidewall puncture cannot be repaired). Mel said that there was a nearby tire store that would sell me a new tire and install it on my wheel. Mel said that if he installed a new tire on his tire machine, it would really destroy the wheel. But then he said "wait a minute". A few minutes later, Mel came out with a very not so used tire that was the exact size of the tire on my car. "How much?" "Nothing...I save these for my friends who have this kind of problem." Mounting the tire cost $15.00.

Ed Sparrow's garage is still standing and locked up but through the windows, you can still see a bunch of old tools and gas station "accessories". If I ever get in there, I know of a nice brass oil can that has Mel Bagley's name on it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good-by, Mike

I remember the day that Mike Senker moved to Smock. I must have been in about 4th grade, making me 10 years old or so. You knew someone was moving in because of the amount of people poking their heads from their back doors or blatantly walking up the street to get a glimpse of the new people.

Mike had four children. Marian, Theresa, Monica and Diane. With exception of Monica, Mike's kids had "problems". Marian wore braces on both legs and walked with crutches. Theresa had an exaggerated gait with slurred speech. And Diane was carried everywhere she went. And to top it off, Mike moved into the one non-standard home on Smock Hill. All of the other houses were company homes.

In the late 1800's, the Colonial Mining Company had an architect draw up plans for a duplex home. They were made from wood and were rather autonomous. Each side of the house had it's own sidewalks front and back, and it's own coal shanty and outhouse. Mike's home was a small white square place that was different.

The kids in Smock were very hesitant to socialize with any of the Senker girls. Not because they weren't born in Smock and not because they lived in a different style of home, but because they were "crippled". Yep, that's the word that they used. But when you talked to any of them, you found that the only thing that may have been less than perfect were their legs. But we're not talking about them here; we're talking about Mike.

One thing that made Mike fit in with his neighbors was that he was Roman Catholic and therefore attended St. Hedwig's. He also loved polkas and was a fellow "hunky". But soon, people started to think of Mike as different too. He went to church too often. In fact, daily. And people would see Mike sneaking into church when there wasn't anything going on inside. I feel that this may have created some resentment in some of his neighbors. "How dare him go to church more than ME? Who does that guy think he is?"

Smock will be a bit of a poorer place now that Mike Senker is gone. He was clearly the most religious man I have ever met. I have never heard him raise his voice. He adored his wife. If they had arguments, they never made it outside the walls of their non-standard home.

When his profoundly ill daughter Diane died at about age 12, Mike asked me and a few others who found him and his family to be "different" to be pallbearers for his lovely daughter. I can remember this as if it were yesterday. How could we think of them the way that we did and then have him turn around and give us this honor to carry his daughter to her grave?

Yesterday at Mike's funeral, Father John Sedlak allowed Mike's daughter Monica to speak after the mass. Several years ago, Mike told her that he was ready to go to Heaven. It was a statement of his undying faith in God. Monica told her father that she knew he'd go straight to Heaven when he died. It was his answer to her that I think I shall never forget. He said "I'll be waiting there for you."

This should speak volumes to you and I, those people that called Mike Senker their neighbor. He had raised his children to live without resentment or self-pity. And, he raised his children to love those who may not love them back because they had some physical incapacity.

Those of us from Smock can say that Marian, Theresa, Monica and Diane were raised well because they lived in Smock, a town that was "behind" Uniontown by 20 years and "behind" Pittsburgh by at least three decades. We can say that Mike's children turned out so well by not having those outside influences that I had mentioned to you before. And if you believe this, you are just partially correct.

Mike taught his children right from wrong. He spent time with his daughters and saw beyond the crutches and braces. He saw his children as perfect little girls and took the TIME to raise them up.

In our society today, I see two very important things happening. I can see where parents are too busy to spend time with their children. And children who have so many distractions that they do not have the time or inclination (or love) to spend time with Mom or Dad.

I think that we can take a lesson from Mike Senker, a simple but magnificent man from Smock.

At the luncheon following the services at the cemetery, they played polkas. It was Mike's last request. Mike knew where he was going along with everyone at the Smock Volunteer Fire Department hall. And when you think of it, isn't this a cause for celebration?

The one sad part about yesterday was when looking across the tombstones at St. Hedwig's cemetery, there was just way too much fresh dirt. Eddie Myers (the whistling bread man), John Bozek (Pecker's dad), and Mike Senker's daughter Theresa.

I just hope that they leave some room for me.