Friday, November 27, 2009

Smock Recreation

As this year's Thanksgiving becomes nothing more than a memory, and visions of snowflakes appear outside my window, I cannot help but think of those blessed days of Summer back in our little home town.

If you refer back to the blog entry called A Year of Firsts, you would not be surprised to know that the only house with an air conditioner in the Smock Hill of the early 60's belonged to our parish priest. And considering how hot under the collar he would get at times, he deserved it.

For the rest of us, we had to find interesting and clever ways to cool off. You could sit in the basement next to the coal bin but most of our basements didn't smell like flowers. You could sit next to the four-bladed fan with the "G.E." (which stood for General Electric) situated in the center of that guard so that you don't cut off your fingers. Then there was the garden hose.

But for the resourceful Smock resident, there was Spillway Lake. Situated about an equal distance between Smock and Perryopolis on Route 51, Spillway Lake was an easy 10 minute drive from home. "Spillway" had a big building with the showers and bath house on the ground floor and an entertainment hall above where you can spend a lazy Sunday afternoon listening to polkas, waltzes & obereks, which is what you would also hear Johnny Sims play on the radio if you stayed at home. There was the marvelous "protection net" that gave you the feeling that you were separated from the hostile other side of the lake where fish, water snakes, and all sorts of evil creatures lurked. But we know that the net really didn't work, so you swam and you took your chances at being bitten or eaten alive.

Spillway Lake was full of magic for some lucky people like my dear friend Gene, who we know better as Bug and his wife Star, who met each other at this verdant setting decades ago.

Also, if you swam to the other side of the lake, there were rocks that you can hide behind and make your own personal brand of luck.

But as the years passed, more opulent swimming holes were formed such as the "see-ment" pool created by the Curfew Grange in Flatwoods. It lacked the black mud which oozed through your toes that Spillway Lake had. And, after swimming in this new pool, your white swim suit would not be that familiar color of yellow that branded you as a Spillway swimmer. There were no bands, no hot dogs. Nothing but clean water and a wire basket to store your clothes. I liked the fact that you could open your eyes under water at Flatwoods and actually see stuff. My friend John Michael Hovanic still cuts the grass there during the summer.

For the more enterprising few that required a lake-sized experience, there was Shady Grove Park, which was located in Lemont Furnace, PA (pronounced LEE'-mont) and was more like a 15 to 20 minute ride from Smock. Aside from the grassy area around the pool which was big enough to land the Hindenburg, the pool was equally as gargantuan. In the more shallow side was a fountain which had holes in the bottom so that you can explore the inside if you were small enough (like me). And then, there was the high dive, which you climbed a long series of steps to get to. It amazed me that you could jump from this platform and probably count to 50 before you hit the water. You can still go to Shady Grove in the summer where the daily admission is up to $7.00. SEVEN BUCKS???? It used to be 50 cents.

On Sundays, the old men gathered behind my house where there was a pretty nicely kept horseshoe pit. They'd curse, tell stories, and drink Rolling Rock pony bottles. It was located next to the ditch where Walter Dubos would cut the heads off of his chickens on Sunday. Now I know how the people felt in ancient Rome.

We had many ways to occupy ourselves while spending very little money. But the focus was that we occupied ourselves with very little planning. To do something fun on Sunday didn't require a flight plan, enroute food and two pit stops on the way.

For lack of a better way to put it, we'd just go jump in a lake.

(Thanks to Gene "Bug" Vitikacs and his dear wife Star for the inspiration on this one. You may live near Philadelphia but you'll always be my "through the wall" neighbor.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Happy T. Day Revisited

Last year, I wrote about Thanksgiving. And I wrote about hunting and my grandparents and a miracle that happened at St. Therese's Church in Wilmington, Delaware, and being generous and Arlo Guthrie.

But this year, I want to talk about other things I still recall at Thanksgiving time from when I was a kid back in Smock.

Like the songs. Oh, we did Harvest Home and Now Thank We All Our God (written by one of the Luther Brothers; either Martin or Lex). But recently, I found myself humming a tune and then, quite suddenly, realized that it was one that my Mother used to sing during the Thanksgivings and Christmases of the 1960's. It was called "You Can't Be True Dear". Look it up. It was an old German song that Connie Francis and Patti Page doctored up and made very sad. And for my Mom, it was doubly sad since it was in the early 60's that we began to celebrate Thanksgiving without my Dad. He left us for someone else and so that very song was a pretty strong dose of reality.

It made me think of divorce back in Smock. You see, there wasn't any. NONE. I think that in those days, people worked hard to get along with their spouses and with their neighbors. Isn't it interesting that in today's society where divorce is over 50% that we still hear people harping about how "marriage is work"? Well they can harp all they want because its true. But why work knowing that work was usually hard and laziness is easy. And addictive.

On Sundays at St. Hedwig's, you could look around at all of the couples. Sure, they were there together every Sunday. John & Dorothy, Helen & Ted, Mike & Mary. And they worked hard at their jobs in the mine and the mill but they worked hard at their marriages. Even my uncle Mike and aunt Helen who I can't stand are celebrating something like 75 years of marriage, so they must be doing something right!

You can still drive through Smock and see the rather barren gardens that you see in late November, but during the summer, you can also see all of the work that was put into those wonderful vegetables and flowers.

Porches were literally scrubbed with detergent and hot water (which caused them to also be painted regularly). The concrete walkways were also scrubbed with the same stuff.

Now you can drive through Smock and see piles of garbage and old abandoned cars in some of the yards. Or the boxes of who knows what. Or the perpetual Christmas lights that go in and out of season each winter. These are the homes of the younger people who have taken up residence after people died or moved away. And the music in these homes has been replaced with constant fighting or the sound of video games.

So does this sound like a kid who lived in Smock that should be thankful this Thursday? I hope so. I'm thankful that there still remains some people who work in gardens or on their relationships. And I'm thankful for the peace that covers my little town after the shouting is over and the last Nosferatu is killed in Vampire Slayer III.

You see, I'm very thankful for the hope that someday, these new neighbors will want to ask why people smile so much while they're digging up their yards or why some folks still hold hands after 60 years of marriage. And along with the thanks, I'm also hopeful that the shouts of anger will someday become shouts of joy when their son or daughter gets a hit on the ball diamond that I played on when I was a kid. And hopeful that the kid calls the two adults in the stands Mom and Dad instead of Mom and (fill in any man's name here).

But I'm especially thankful that my 87 year old Mother doesn't have to sing "You Can't Be True Dear" any more.

I never thought that I'd be thankful for old age and forgetfulness but I surely am.

A Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Retail Establishments

In the days of the coal mines, H.C. Frick had a brilliant marketing idea which spawned the question "Why not build and run stores in these little mining towns and bump up the retail prices by a few percent so that it was convenient for the local shopper and profitable" And out of the ground came the Union Supply Company Store, a place made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford and perpetuated by this very blog.

As a kid, I remembered my Grandmother's sister, Katie, who worked at the Smock Company Store. She would allow me to ride on the running board of her 1948 Dodge so that I could cheat death. Aunt Katie worked in the office surrounded by a forest of vacuum tubes that would periodically vomit up a container with a bill for lumbar or gas or peanut butter accompanied by money. She'd put the change and receipt in an envelope and the tube would take the canister back to the sales counter totally by magic.

You could buy a coat, chipped ham, a saw, some candy and the oil you used in your miner's "sunshine lamp" all in one place. It was a poor man's Macy's. It flourished until someone invented antitrust lawsuits and then one day, it became a skating rink that doubled on Saturday nights as the Smock Recreation Center, a place where a young man could meet exotic women from Royal and Keisterville. Today, it doesn't have the grand storefront windows and mannequins that displayed the fall lineup for the modern man and woman from Smock. That's it right there at the top of this chapter. I miss the windows.

And then there were the "Mom & Pop" stores. On the "new side" of Smock, Charlie Peskie ran such a store and was in direct competition with Florek's, a converted living room that Andy Florek's parents ran on Smock Hill. In either store, you were able to buy necessities such as bread, candy, milk, pop, candy, ice cream and candy, (Its a wonder I still have teeth.) Charlie was a very mild-mannered guy who rarely said much. The Florek's didn't say much since they spoke "broken" English.

Those in Smock that said Uniontown was a much better place to shop never really appreciated Charlie's and Florek's stores until ten or twelve inches of snow fell and blocked the roads.

And some of the older people appreciated Morris and Alvie Bortz who built a bar just up from the company store where people with other needs found shelter and an escape from the hell that was called the Colonial Mine. Right down from the bar was the Bortz Beer Distributor, where a simple phone call would spring Franke Blanda into action who would deliver that much needed case of Iron City right to your door.

Across from the old company store was a brick building which could be considered by today's standards as the Smock Shopping Mall. On the left side was the U.S. Post Office and on the other was Nick DiNardo, our stereotyped Italian barber who literally gave me my first proper haircut.

I also remember that if you were a member of the Smock Rod & Gun Club, which arose from the halls of the old coal mine bath house, you can grab a beer on Sunday. And if you could keep a secret, you could also play a little poker or drink a cold one behind what used to be the St. Hedwig's church hall. My Grandfather knew both of these places very well.

You got gas at Ed Sparrow's Pennzoil gas station (see elsewhere in this blog) or got your clothes cleaned at Colonial Cleaners who, like Frankie Blanda, delivered your pants right to your DOOR.

Money changed hands in several different ways in the Smock that I remember. And most of that is gone today thanks to what some call progress. But on that rare occasion, and if your timing is right, you could still enter through the Company Store's back door and find the occasional bake sale or dinner put on by the Christian Mothers. The sounds and the smells are the same and they still call a sixty year old man Bobby Joe. And for a few God-ordained holy minutes, I'm back again.

The only other wish I had at that moment was to walk outside and hear my Aunt Katie yell "OK Bobishka, hold on tight" as I cheated death once more on that running board.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

OK, one more......

There's a main road that passes by Smock called Route 51. And, counting this one, I have written 51 stories, mostly about my little town.

In talking to a friend tonight who hails from Smock, I began to think about the divorce rate of our town. I think I can accurately say that it was less than one percent. And then, came the bigger issue. Why?

Was it because we were brought up by parents who actually knew of the word "commitment" or maybe was it those pesky little vows that were said at the altar? Was it the handholding that we thought was odd for people in their 70's? Or was it some secret signed document that said that if one person leaves another, the one left behind can hunt the other down with a 12 gauge?

I think it was the polkas. Every Saturday and Sunday, people would search the AM radio stations that belted out the songs from people like Lil' Wally or the Versatones or Marion Lush or the local group from Grindstone, The Invictas. (I think they were named after a type of car.) Johnny Sims from Latrobe was heard on Sunday and always started his "Polka Party" show with the phrase "Happy music for happy people." And it was happy. And Slovak and Polish words to these songs usually spoke of the important things in life like love, the "old country" or food.

At weddings, the polka band factored heavily in the evening's entertainment since the whole celebration was for the newly married couple. Men actually danced with their wives. And toward the end of the evening came a ritual that EVERYONE from Smock has at least once in their life took part. The Bridal Dance. A circle was formed with an entrance at the 12 o'clock position and an exit at the 6 o'clock position. Upon entering, the maid of honor had what looked like an apron but truthfully, it was a huge sack to hold what you deposited in it to dance with the bride. A good bridal dance can pay the mortgage on a new home for a couple of months. Ushers from the bridal party only allowed you to dance with the bride for a few seconds, since the longer the bride lasts (and the band), the more she made. At the exit of the circle came the reward of a piece of wedding cake and a shot of the cheapest whiskey you could find at the Uniontown State Store. Oh, and if you put the cake under your pillow, it is said that you would dream of your own future bride or groom. All I got was an ear full of icing and cake all through my hair.

On one polka show from Fayette County, the Slovak announcer, who had a rather thick accent, advertised Beer City, a local "beverage" distributor. Their phone number was Geneva 8-1110. However this guy, in his thick Slovak accent would say "Geneva eight, one, nadda one, same ting, nya-ting. I loved that guy.

We were happy people who listened to happy music. Walking up the street on Sunday, all you'd hear is Johnny Sims playing the new one from Cleveland's Frank Yankovic while all you'd smell in the air was cabbage. And after the music faded away, mothers would smile at fathers sitting on those old metal porch gliders and they'd hold hands.

"Daddy, I still love you." "What, and you think I don't?" Then mother would sing "Kocham CiÄ™ kochanie moje." "Hey old man, are you crying?" "No, I got something in my eye."

Me too.