Oglethorpe: Dad worked hard, had a quiet humor
My father was a big man also named Jim. Hardworking and a good provider, he left me with many strong memories of him and, through his stories, an idea of what it was like to come of age in the 1930s.
I remember going to Friday night Coker football games with Dad at an early age. I think that he first took me in 1956. We always sat on the general admission side with the students. I loved the crowds, the bright lights and the noise. I also loved the great popcorn, made fresh right outside of the concession stand. Some of the students would fold their program into airplanes and sail them toward the visitor's bench. And there were always a few of the older guys drinking whiskey under the stands. All told, it was an exciting experience for a little guy and still a fine memory.
Dad took me on many walks, often down to where Aetna Street ended and a path led toward the woods. There was a line of crab apple trees on the side. Dad would break off a couple of long switches, sharpen them to a point with his pocket knife, spear a crab apple and whip it off. We thought that was pretty cool, saved the switches and for weeks after had a good time slinging crab apples around. One time later on I remember seeing an older kid down the hill, a fellow that used to get after me a bit on the way home from school. I loaded up my pockets with apples, got behind some bushes and started raining them down his way. I think I caught him with one. He saw where they were coming from and started charging up the hill. I was gone though, happy with my small bit of revenge.
One of the rituals of my childhood in the 1950s was watching the “Friday Night Fights” with Pop. The fights were a regular part of the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” show. I still remember the commercial jingle for Gillette Blue Blades: “Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp.” Remember the little slot in the medicine cabinet designed for safe disposal of old razor blades? I was always curious about how long it would take to fill up. Pabst Blue Ribbon was also a sponsor. Although he later switched to Bud, PBR was Dad's brand at that time and he always had a few while watching the fights.
As a family, we did not go on a special summer trip every year. Up until I was 10, we didn't own a car. I remember one train trip to Washington, DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival, but no notable summer vacations.
My father was a reluctant traveler at best, but my mother could usually talk him into a short trip. By the early 1960s we had started taking little summer excursions, the first to “Pennsylvania Dutch” country for the Kutztown Fair. I remember Pop being unhappy about having to pay almost $20 for a little motel room, distressed that the locals had raised the rates for the festival. Despite that, Dad really enjoyed that event and many other county fairs. We attended quite a few of them around the state.
The only out-of-state trip I recall was to Niagara Falls. I remember being excited that we were actually leaving Pennsylvania. We couldn't find a cheap motel and actually stayed in one that had a swimming pool with a sliding board! I was pretty impressed with the place, and the wrapped up glasses and paper strip over the toilet. The high point of our stay was my sister, Carol, pulling a sputtering little kid out of the deep end of the pool.
My main complaint about our trips was that Pop would never let me listen to the rock and roll radio stations. WAMO was a no-no, even KQV got on his nerves. At best we listened to KDKA, but mostly the radio stayed off. Carol and I would pass the time playing Jotto, a “guess the word” game. Not fancy by today's standards, but it helped make the miles go by.
Like most men of his generation, Big Jim could work hard. I have many strong memories of watching him work. My earliest one is from when I was 4 or 5. Dad, who enjoyed gardening, decided to improve the soil in the yard by turning it over. He worked with a pick and a shovel, tools he was familiar with from his coal mining days. There was one complication. Like most yards around town, ours was filled with smooth river rocks of various sizes. I guess the Yough was quite a bit wider at some point. He'd hit a big rock with the shovel, then get it out with the pick.
We had a big lot for the city, more like a lot and a half. He turned it all over the course of a few days. He'd fill up a wheelbarrow with the rocks, then wheel it down Woodlawn Avenue to the top of the hill and dump them over the side. My friend Donnie and I would tag along and after he dumped the load we got to ride back in the wheelbarrow.
Another job I watched him do many times was cutting the hedge. We had about 50 yards of it, running down Aetna Street and Gibson Avenue. I'd wake up many summer mornings to the sound of his electric clippers churning away. His work was precise too. Our hedge was as crisp as a fresh flattop when he was done. After that he'd cut the grass. Then he'd grab a few Buds, sit on the glider and admire his work. He'd drain that first beer in a flash. After quenching his thirst he'd lie down and take a well-deserved nap.
Dad was generally the quiet type but also had a sense of humor. He told me once “Jim, I know you love work because you could lie down right beside it and go to sleep.” While I've done my share of physical labor, I could never hold a candle to the Old Man.
Jim Oglethorpe is a former Connellsville resident and author of “Leisenring No. 1.”