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Oglethorpe: Go out and play

| Sunday, June 29, 2014, 7:18 p.m.

For most of us our earliest memories are of family. I know that's the case with me. But think back and try to recall who, outside of your family, you first remember. I suspect that, also like me, it will be your first playmate.

Donnie and I were both born in 1950. He lived a block away and, by the age of four, we were best buddies. Together, we shared one of the greatest pleasures of growing up in the 1950s: an abundance of mostly unsupervised playtime. I have many strong memories of those days.

At first we'd take turns playing at each other's house, which gave each of our moms a little break. Eventually, we were allowed to roam the neighborhood on our own. “Why don't you two go out and play” was a common refrain from our moms, usually delivered after a few hours of our tearing around inside of the house.

Early on, before we were allowed to cross Pittsburgh Street, we played in the woods down by Trump Run. A ball field and a church are there now, but in 1955 it was our first hangout. Countless hours were spent exploring those woods, and down by the creek where it flowed under the old Crescent Bridge. We'd build dams, float little wooden boats we had made and hunt for crayfish. Occasionally I'd lift a few kitchen matches from Donnie's and we'd start a little fire, using twigs and trash. I remember the remains of a foundation on the hill, most likely the remnants of the old Etna Foundry.

Looking back, what strikes me is how free we were to do as we pleased, even at five years old. Yes, we were still within “hollering distance” of our homes, and our mothers knew where they could find us, but I don't ever remember either one showing much interest in what we were up to, even when we came home with the occasional scraped knee. It's a freedom rarely given to the current generation of kids. A more dangerous world has bred much more cautious parents.

As we aged, and made friends at school, our play-world expanded. We spent the next few of our young years playing in the woods that ran from the Crescent Bridge up to Reidmore Dam. A path ran along the far side of the creek up to Race Street. The road didn't go through to South Connellsville then, but the remains of the old West Penn streetcar trestle were still there to climb on. The area between Race and Sycamore streets was our favorite part. We played catchers or hide and seek there. We climbed trees and made “forts.”

Growing up in the 1950s, your bicycle was probably your most prized possession. And riding your bike was something you did every day during the summer vacation. I still remember the kind of bikes rode by many of the kids on the South Side. I got a Schwinn Mark IV Jaguar for Christmas when I was seven. That was the year I stopped believing in Santa because I spied the bike under the basement steps. It was candy-apple red with chrome fenders, a big horn tank and white-wall tires. I loved that bike.

The center of our world in those days was Chestnut Street between Newmeyer and Patterson avenues. The Stickels lived in the first home and had a small circular driveway on the side of their house. We called it “the horseshoe” and raced around it repeatedly. There was an open lot on the corner where we played whiffle ball. We roamed the South Side from morning until dark, with the only requirements a stop home for lunch, and to be back in the evening before the streetlights came on.

Newmeyer Avenue was the place to be in the winter too, our bikes traded in for sleds. I had a Flexible Flyer, a very popular brand in those days. They came in several sizes; mine was long enough for two riders sitting up. No metal saucers these, they were made of oak with thin steel runners. In those days cinders were used to treat the snowy roads, but the Connellsville city fathers, in their wisdom, did not treat Newmeyer Avenue hill. Instead they put wooden horses at the top and bottom to discourage automobiles. After a good snowfall, say 6 or 8 inches, the kids descended on Newmeyer, each towing a sled. A busy day would see dozens of us there. It took a few runs to get the snow packed, but then you had a fine and fast track running for several blocks. A quick ride down was followed by a trudge back up. A day of sledding left you weary and cold, but was great fun.

If you weren't at Newmeyer Avenue on a summer day you could likely be found at the South Side playground. Each part of town had a similar spot, and during the summer they were very popular places. Many of them had spray-pools, a fun way to cool off on a hot summer day. Events and activities were managed by playground directors, most of them teachers. Kids could make bracelets or key chains out of plastic gimp. Braiding potholders was also a popular activity. Checkers tournaments and card games were played around picnic tables. Kids still shot marbles and played with jacks. And the swings, sliding boards, basketball courts and see-saws were always in use. Do you remember how to “set the table?”

Where I lived on Aetna Street, we'd also spend time at the South Connellsville playground, which I think was the best one in town. It was bigger than the city ones, running for two blocks. There was a sand box, swings and a merry-go-round that had three levels of seats. The sliding board was high too. We'd take wax paper and sit on it the first few rides to make the board slick. After that, watch out. You'd get going so fast the dismount was usually a flying crash to the ground. Man, that was some fun!

I remember that a few years back the NFL started a “Play 60” campaign, with the objective of encouraging kids to engage in physical play for an hour every day. I had to laugh. On a school day we played for an hour at least, counting two recesses and after school. During the summer we played all day: countless hours of activity. But it was easy for us. The television only had three channels.

Jim Oglethorpe is a former Connellsville resident and author of “Leisenring No. 1.”

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