Jul 06, 2023

Main Line Banter: Childhood memories in the rubble

The following is the first of a two-part column originally published in Main Line Banter in 2012.

It was difficult to digest what I saw as I drove through my old neighborhood.

The brown-and-black wood splinters and clumps of reddish-gray dust that lay on the ground told a grim story: a part of my childhood had been destroyed.

The heavy construction equipment nearby and a large black-and-white sign announcing Redevelopment Project 7308, were silent, ugly representatives of progress.

The construction equipment had done what North Side Pittsburgh neighborhood row house rivals, frustrated mothers and stormy weather could not achieve.

The clapboard shed where seven, inseparable young boys had spent hundreds of hours having fun and learning about growing up, was gone.

What had taken most of one summer recess from school to build, had been rendered to rubble. Those splinters and bits of crushed brick had once sheltered the joys and sorrows, the pleasures and pain, the laughter and tears of the “Backyard Buddies.”

When the wrecker’s ball pulverized that shanty, it shattered a sanctuary fitted together that summer of uneasy peace – 1941.

The recent moment of memory recalled childhood friendships that had been bonded in that ticky-tacky, rickity-rackity domicile with the tar paper roof.

Along with forging those friendships, Rege and Norm, Walt and Dick, Bobby, Bucky and I gained our first encounters with such things as: parliamentary procedure (although we had no idea then what that meant,) Monopoly (that truly did monopolize many of our leisure hours,) achieving proficiency at drawing to an inside straight (although the pots of pop bottle caps, bubble gum, baseball photo cards and matchbook covers didn’t have much purchase at the corner store,) and learning how not to hear our mothers’ plaintive calls to “come in” that penetrated the dirty outside walls of the shed, but not the dirty walls of our ears.

The shed was our summer citadel of practical education.

Walt, the oldest of our gang, once called it a citadel. Though the rest of us didn’t know what that meant, we never questioned him because the shed was built in his backyard.

Rege and Norm scavenged most of the wood, and their cousin Bobby supplied the nails and most of the shed’s building materials. Walt’s dad loaned us his hammers, saws, planes and drills (he would have had we asked, I’m sure) and the rest of us made other contributions. Its creation was a formidable accomplishment in view of endless jurisdictional disputes we had about who was going to do what and how.

Those differences could have proved disastrous, but in some way, we settled our differences and the shed rose. Of course, our edifice could not compare to the splendor of Solomon’s Temple, but it was no less revered.

About 12 feet long, eight feet wide and seven feet high, it was divided into two chambers by a cardboard partition fashioned from the packaging of a new gas stove delivered in the neighborhood. A doorway of sorts was cut into the cardboard for internal access, and a small metal cot (retrieved from unattended rubbish in a vacant lot halfway down Phineas Street) was brought in.

Joining the cot in that small cubicle was an old wooden chair, donated by Rege’s mother, and a whatnot shelf attached to the wall.

The larger chamber served as a meeting place, game room, confessional and refuge. Furnishing included six chairs hastily hewn from discarded orange crates (purloined from the rear of Max’s Fruit Market on East Ohio Street,) a small wooden table salvaged from Pete’s Friendly Saloon at the corner of Madison and Peralta, a wind-up Victrola rescued from Cohen’s Junkyard, shelves of sturdy Marsh Wheeling cigar boxes (contributed by Mrs. Strauss just to get us out or her store two doors from Pete’s.)

An electric light bulb was wired to Walt’s second story flat on a trajectory paralleling an outside clothesline. Everything in the shed was important, but most important of all was our safe.

The safe was an empty, but clean half-pint milk bottle glued to the bottom of a small metal box hidden in the far corner of the “room” with the cot. When our weekly dues (the Buddies was a solvent society) of five- cents- a member reached the halfway point in the bottle, one of us suggested a party.

There never was a word of protest.

Fun was the reason for our existence.

Parties in the shed provoked excitement days in advance, and a committee of two did the shopping from a list of essential provided by consensus on the appointed day.

They always included a gallon or two (depending on the intensity of the sun beating on the roof) of Dad’s Root Beer, a bagful of five-cents- each, onion-laden hamburgers from Rodger’s or White Tower, a mountain of similarly- priced Klondikes from Isaly’s, and an assortment of root beer barrels, licorice belts, coconut clusters, non-pareils and other penny candy from Strauss’s.

All those excellent “goodies emporiums” were only a few blocks from the shed, so the hamburgers never got cold, the root beer hot, or the ice cream melt.

While devouring the party edibles, we listened to a few 78 rpm records played on a warped turntable. Whoever was nearest the Victrola was “the music director,” turning the handle to the point of maximum stress. Once the handle flew off and crashed into the half-full gallon of root beer, spewing glass and suds all over the table.

We sat stunned and helpless against the ironic backdrop of the Okeh “Laughing Record.” It was as if the darn Vic relished the moment.

For parties, we always double-locked the outside door and latched the two wooden windows facing the alley alongside the shed. Closing the door and windows, we shut out the world, thereby became more worldlier, or so we thought.

Sometimes, passersby would see small wisps of smoke seeping through the cracks in the weather-worn flanks. Indian tobies, plucked from Guckert’s tree a block up Turtle Way, were the smoke’s origin, and a delightful party-ending indulgence.

Sophisticated boys of the world always had to smoke Indian tobies to make everything “official.” Only hours later did the green corn silk assert itself, making all of us rueful of our childish ways.

And, then, there was the robbery!

Part 2 in next week’s Banter.

Meanwhile: Good day, good luck, and good news tomorrow.

Comments invited to [email protected].

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