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Upper City Park worthy of attention

| Monday, July 6, 2009

During one of my recent walks around the track of Monessen's City Park, I decided to alter my course and travel across the covered, wooden walking bridge and up the pathway that ascends to the upper portions of the park.

My first stop was the outdoor amphitheatre that once hosted many musical concerts, dance revues and talent contests. The attractive natural stone walls and encasements still proudly stand around the stage, but the stage itself is in need of repair.

As I walked farther up the hill, passing the two major pavilions of the park, I recalled the many years they housed the reunions of my mother's large family.

July 1934 undoubtedly marked my first trip to the park. At the tender age of seven months I do not remember the details but, according to the minutes of that reunion, I was the youngest family member in attendance.

Through the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, including the war years, those reunions continued. They were scheduled each year for the last Saturday of July. Mom came from a family of 15 children so you can well imagine the number of cousins I was blessed with.

I pictured with fondness the many contests and games we participated in during those years. There were sack races, three-legged races and water balloon tosses. We children competed to see who could blow the largest bubble with a jaw full of bubblegum. Women competed against one another to see who could toss a rolling pin farthest while the men attempted to pound a ten penny nail into a 4-by-4 with the fewest number of strokes.

It was a simpler era that seemed to produce greater enjoyment than we realize today. With the possible exception of Christmas, the family reunion at Monessen's City Park was my greatest day of the year.

Many firsts occurred for me at the park. My first swing ride and my first trip down a sliding board took place there. I tasted my first drink from a water fountain, vaguely remembering more water dribbling down my cheeks and body than I was able to get into my mouth.

I roasted my first hotdog around a campfire at the park and still recall the utter taste joys when I sank my teeth into my very first toasted marshmallow.

As I departed from the pavilion area, I continued my walk up the red brick walkway that made an oval around a bed of flowers. I proceeded across the road to the natural stone steps that would lead me to the highest level of the park.

I paused a few moments to read the two memorials that had been placed there in 1957 by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles and its Ladies' Auxiliary. One memorial contains the Ten Commandment and a second memorial tablet holds the 23rd Psalm.

My community pride swelled to even greater heights as I considered the leadership over the past five decades for allowing that gift to remain during an era in which, sadly, the Lord's Prayer had been taken out of our public schools and many public displays of our spiritual beliefs have been ignored and eliminated.

It felt good to know that this heritage that honors our past, present and future is still proudly displayed in the City Park that I have come to know and love.

As I proceeded onward and upward, my thoughts turned to the concession stand that was such a great part of my youthful days at the park. The stand had been eliminated and dismantled years ago.

I wished it was still there; a cold cola or cherry soda would have tasted quite good. I remembered the 5-cent ice cream cups with the wooden spoons we once purchased there. They came complete with a lid which, after licking the ice cream, revealed the picture of a favorite movie star.

I was especially gratified if that picture was a cowboy such as Hopalong Cassidy or, even better, Johnny Weissmuller portraying Tarzan.

Continuing my nostalgic walk through the park, I passed the old tennis courts that have been converted into a dek hockey court. I could see my adolescent friends, Johnny Croussouloudis and Jerry Simmons, playing tennis. They invited me to join them and I was introduced to the sport. At that very spot I developed a questionably effective serve, learned the back stroke and discovered the word "love" was really a tennis term.

The old tennis courts were replaced with two excellent composition courts farther down the hill. My son, Brian, uses those courts quite often. His serve, as well as his entire game, is much better than mine ever was.

Beyond the tennis courts was the baseball diamond. This opened up the gates to a host of additional images. I could see dozens and dozens of young boys carrying taped-up bats and well-worn mitts. We were all shapes, sizes and colors. We were neighborhood teams that came from every corner of Monessen. We invaded the park with colorful names such as the McMahon Aces, Smokey Hollow, Ozarks, Cherry Alley, Moaners, Hilltoppers and the First Street Ramblers.

I could visualize little Smokey Widziszewski tumbling down over the steep embankment in right field as he chased down a towering shot hit by Bob Mastracci. I remembered Half Pint Hayes and Heads Pinasko scooping up ground balls and I relived watching Moose Zoretich and big Bruce Pezzelle throwing fastballs from the pitcher's mound.

We learned to shag fly balls and scoop up grounders. We discovered the art of the hit and run as we learned the elements of the game from one another. We got ourselves to the ballpark on our own, taking turns in carrying the heavy bag of bats and balls. It was a great time for growing up and the environment of the park made the adventure all the more exciting.

Traveling back toward the lower track a few more images of the past began to haunt me. One of them was a corn roast and picnic celebration that the Monessen police held for us at the conclusion of a successful baseball season. I can still see the butter dripping down our PAL jerseys. I believe I ate a dozen ears of corn and five hotdogs that afternoon.

Still another mental snapshot appeared as I witnessed a healthy, young soldier who had just been discharged from Uncle Sam's Army. The date was Saturday, July 27, 1955, the same day as the Eisley Family Reunion.

The soldier was me and I had just made my final journey from Fort Benning, Ga., to resume my life as a civilian. My first stop was at Monessen's City Park.

Today, that same park is there for the citizens of Monessen and the surrounding Mon Valley to enjoy.

The lower portion of the park with the walking track and the state-of-the-art war and veterans memorial is probably in better shape and is used even more than it was during the days of its illustrious past.

The upper regions of the park, however, seems to have lost a part of its one-time glamour and appeal. Perhaps we fail to use this magnificent park as much as our parents and grandparents did because we are stuck in our air-conditioned homes complete with three or four television sets and at least one computer.

Perhaps we have outgrown old-fashioned picnics and reunions; and, perhaps we have become too complacent and a bit overweight.

Whatever the cause may be, it seems to me that we would all be better off if we rejuvenated our park with the sound children's laughter, the sight of swaying swings and the scent of roasted hotdogs and toasted marshmallows.

It is true as well that the park needs more repairs. The amphitheatre needs a new stage. I once enjoyed the sound of invigorating musical notes from the MARS band or other musical groups as I made my way around the lower track. It would be wonderful to march to those sounds once again.

Many of the red brick walkways that direct us from one area of the park to another are also in need of resurfacing and some of the beautiful natural stone walls call for slight repairs.

I pray that our citizenry and our elected community leadership will never allow this wonderful park to become no more that a faded memory.

In today's economically distressed environment, money is always a major consideration. We praise the efforts of our service organizations such as the Lions and Rotary Clubs and ask you to continue carrying the ball for further improvements.

We also ask our government leaders to seek and explore grants and other sources of funding to keep this park alive and well. We have a precious gem right in our midst; may it remain a valuable treasure for our children's children as well.

Next week: Our Ethnic Heritage

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