Friday, October 14, 2011

Community Chest

My childhood home under construction
                In my prior posting I described my neighbors as priceless treasures.  Well, if the neighbors were treasure, then the neighborhood itself was the treasure chest. The community, known as Warren Park, is typical of those that arose shortly after WWII as soldiers returned home and the baby boom began.  Farmland was converted into suburban tracts with roads laid out in square grids and small ranch houses set cheek to jowl.  The east-west streets were numbered (mine being 15th Street) and the north-south streets were named after individuals such as Webster, Sheridan and Kenmore.    For the first several years of my life, my world consisted of a two block stretch of 15th Street between Kenmore and Webster. That is all the farther the street ran given that it T’d with Kenmore (at an intersection that flooded with even a moderate rain and created the neighborhood wading pool) and came to a dead end just before Webster. The net result of this arrangement was that there was very little vehicular traffic, and the quietness of the road made it the neighborhood playground. If you wanted to fly a kite, you did so by running down the street. If you wanted to toss a baseball or football, you did so in the street, always clearing out quickly at the call of “car!” 
School 88

These were the days before integration and forced school busing, when families would pick homes close to a school to which their children could easily walk.  Our school was Anna Brochhausen, Indianapolis Public School #88 and was located about six or seven blocks from our house.    The parade of students began early in the morning.  Bob Phillips would start it out, sometimes picking up his cousin Phil at the corner, then passing by the Walkers, where Julie and Becky would join in.  My house was next so I was usually the last one to join the group.  The walk was very pleasant, lasting about 15 minutes and passing by a carwash, the Anchor Inn (a restaurant and lounge,)  The Little Brown Jug (an eatery and root beer stand more favored by the younger crowd) then past a church before again entering a similar neighborhood to ours.  I can still remember the year they were re-tarring the roof of the church.  Big vats of melted tar perfumed the air with their acrid, chemical smell.  I found a large piece of unmelted tar which was black and shiny and looked like a big piece of obsidian.   I couldn’t resist it, so I lugged it home where it sat tossed beneath the old honeysuckle bush for years.  After all, what can you do with a big piece of tar?  Had I continued only an additional block beyond the school, I would have arrived at my family church, Arlington Heights Baptist Church.  This is where my siblings and I attended Sunday school and church services throughout the year, Bible school in the summer and where my brother was married in 1971.  Only two or three more blocks and I would have been standing at Community Hospital where I was born.  Dr. Moss, the physician who delivered me, lived for many years in a small, nondescript house directly across the street from the hospital.
Arlington Heights Baptist Church today

                The paths to school contained only two busy streets to cross, and at these intersections adult crossing guards were stationed.  Mr. Timmerman, who lived in the older farm house near the corner of 16th and Arlington, was a sweet little old man who was assigned that particular intersection.  He was later replaced with a much gruffer man named Wilbur for whom I never found a liking.  We crossed 16th once more at the school, and here the crossing guard was one of the school janitors.  His name escapes me now, but I remember how I thought he looked just like Morgan Freeman.  In those days Mr. Freeman was an actor on a children’s educational show called The Electric Company.  Each day about midmorning, the teacher would wheel out the television set and tune it into this show.  The only other times the televisions were pressed into service were whenever there would be an Apollo launch or splashdown.   Between the adult crossing guards, students wearing their trademark white belt that crossed their chest diagonally would be positioned at various, less trafficked intersections.  They would step out into the street and spread their arms wide, creating a sort of human T with their bodies, blocking traffic while we strolled across.  There were strict rules in place that no student was allowed to run, and these guards had the power to take down names and report you to the teacher in charge.  I broke the rules one day to run all the way home to see my little poodle, Tina, give birth to a litter of pups.  Either I avoided seeing a student traffic guard or they were sympathetic to my story, because I was never reported.   

By far, the biggest attraction for the kids in the neighborhood was our game of kick-the-can, a sort of glorified version of hide-and-go-seek. We would take an old tin can and place it in the middle of the street. A person would be designated as “it” and he or she would place their foot on the can, cover their eyes and count while the rest of us would scatter and hide nearby. Then whoever was “it” would begin searching.  Should your hiding spot be discovered, “it” would then run back to the can, put their foot on it and call out your name and hiding place. Those who had been discovered were “in jail” and returned to the street while the others were still being sought. If one of the hidden players got an opportunity, he would run into the street and kick the can to release those in jail. The seeker would then duck his head, and walk to get the can while those just released went back into hiding. When everyone had been found, or at the call of “Olly! Olly! In come free!” “(or the variant, “Olly! Olly! Oxen free!”)  the game would end.  Few properties were fenced in those days, and the neighbors were all quite tolerant of kids running through their yards or hiding behind their bushes, garbage cans or cars. There were always a couple of neighbors regarded as “mean” or “cranky” that legend had it would call the police on you should you enter their yard, so only the bold would dare hide behind their houses. 
The old Langdon house hidden behind a hedge of wisteria

Other games to be played in the street included kickball and four square, the contraction joints in the concrete dividing the roadway into four even sections.  Or on any given afternoon, a group of kids might be found playing Nine Lives.  This game is basically a prolonged version of dodge ball where the players were each given nine lives.  That meant you had to be hit by the ball or have your ball caught nine separate times before you were eliminated.  I can still remember the day my sister “stole” one of my lives, and when I called her on it, she laid me flat with a right hook.   But not all games were played in the middle of the street.  Baseball and softball were usually played in the large backyard behind the Langdons.  The old Langdon house was the original area farm house before the neighborhood was developed.  It had one of the largest open areas in the community, so we would all gather under the old butternut tree and play ball.  Just as with kick-the-can, there were those neighbors whom we were warned would confiscate the baseball should a home run carry it into their yard, but of course many balls traveled over the fence and were retrieved without incident.  
Looking back at the old butternut tree behind Langdons

I learned to ride a bike on that street, sitting perched (barely able to reach the pedals) on my sister’s old bike, and Dad jogging along behind hanging on to the seat.  I can recall the day Dad finally let go without telling me; all the while assuring me he had control of the bicycle.  But as his voice became more distant I looked over my shoulder to see him standing there a good distance back, smiling.  I was thrilled to finally be riding a bike on my own, and I continued confidently down the street.  That was until I realized that I had to either stop or turn around, skills that I had not done unassisted up to that point.  So as I approached Flick’s house near the end of the street, I decided to turn the bike around.  My confidence quickly left me, and with shaking hands and a wobbly wheel, I began a wide circle.  Unfortunately, my circle was much wider than the street and the front tire of my bike soon found the stone marking the end of Flick’s driveway.  Needless to say, my solo ended with a crash, but it had convinced me I was able to negotiate a bike on my own.  On Christmas that year, a new three-speed, Swinger bicycle that had red paint fading into gold and a red, sparkly banana seat with matching handlebar grips awaited me by the tree.  I loved that bike and had it many years before selling it to my classmate, Jay, as I moved on to a larger 10-speed model.  The first year I was only allowed to ride on the sidewalk.  Although this may seem boring, there were a couple of spots where the concrete was uneven, and the elevated edge of one of the sidewalk’s slabs always gave me a spot to try to jump.  It was more a situation where my wheel would bounce off the cement, and while it was bouncing I would pull hard on the handlebars raising the front wheel to a grand height of maybe two inches for just a fraction of a second.  It may not have appeared impressive, but to a young boy just learning to handle a bike, it made me feel like Evil Knievel.  One year the kids erected a small wooden ramp at the dead end.  I still didn’t trust myself enough to attempt this, especially knowing that after jumping, the bike would land in the loose cinders that formed the walking path through the empty lot at the end of the street.  Unfortunately, my next door neighbor, Jane, was not so cautious, and I can still see the ambulance pulling out of our neighborhood the day she failed the jump and broke her arm.
My sister, Dianna, flanked by Mike and Joni Strong in our backyard when the neighborhood was new

After my one year probationary period on the sidewalk, I was then allowed to ride in the “gutter,” meaning I could ride in the three feet of street adjacent to the sidewalk.  Since cars would sometimes park there, this was actually a little dicier, but it would give me an excuse to break the rules and move out into the actual street on occasion.  Finally, after earning the confidence of my parents, I was free to ride wherever I wanted.  Every kid had a bike in those days and we would ride together until we were bored.  That’s when we would gather at the “big tree,” the Walker’s large cottonwood at the corner of their property.  This was the tree that each spring clogged our window screens and coated our sidewalks with its downy seeds.  Seeking out its shade, one or two kids would pull up alongside the fence and hang on, keeping their bikes upright and their feet on the pedals. The others would sit with their feet on the ground, slumped over their handlebars rocking their bikes slowly forward and backward.  This was how we discussed life and planned our days.  Another thing we often did with our bikes, although not necessarily the healthiest practice for the spokes, was to attach a playing card or small balloon to the frame of the bike allowing it to bounce along the spokes as the wheel turned.  The card gave the wheel a high, pitched dirt bike sound, but the balloon created a full-throated, roar.  
The home that housed a horse in the garage

The year I was finally old enough to explore a little further, I was allowed to ride my bicycle around the block.  In my simple, naïve world, this opened up whole new vistas and adventures. I loved riding along Webster’s curving lane.  Somehow one half of Webster had avoided the straight road syndrome that affected the rest of the neighborhood.  The gentle curves created a nice, relaxing ride that broke up the monotony of my usual straight ahead pedaling.   During the summer months, a gentleman living on Webster and who raced midgets would have his race car up on blocks in his garage or sitting in the driveway while tinkering on it. Growing up in the hoopla that surrounds the Indy 500, to see a race car of any type was an exotic thrill for me.  If I continued down 14th to just past Kenmore, a different scene presented itself. On the south side of the road there was a home that had a horse! We were in the suburbs, not the country, so the site of a horse was unexpected. Their garage became a modified barn and I always looked for the horse’s head peeking out the Dutch door. Across the street was a good sized yard in which lived a collie. I had grown up watching Lassie, and in grade school about that same time, I had read a book about a collie named Champ who lived on a farm. For me, that cemented my childlike belief that once you proceeded beyond Kenmore, you were in the “country!”  And the feel of the neighborhood did indeed change at this point.  It must have been a little older because the trees were larger and the road shadier.  It seems to me that more houses were clad in stone and brick versus the wood clapboards that sheathed the majority of homes on my street.   My world seemed even more expanded only a couple years later when I was allowed to occasionally ride my bike even a few more blocks to Pleasant Run Parkway which paralleled a creek by the same name.   Now I could park my bike in the wooded strip edging the road and explore the lazy, narrow creek.  Small fish could be seen darting in the shallow water, but what I was always on the lookout for were crawdads.  I think I was drawn more to the crawdads because I was afraid one would bite my bare feet rather than because I wanted to handle them. To me they were an exotic creature from the wild, and that added the final element to my picture of the world.  My neighborhood encompassed fast, urban racecars at one end, farm animals in the middle and wild, forested areas at the other end.  It seemed so big and vast to a little guy, but in reality it was no more than a few city blocks.
The wooded Pleasant Run Parkway
The meager Pleasant Run Creek

Summer afternoons and evenings usually found us gathered around one of the basketball goals in the neighborhood.  Sturms and Phillips both had goals on paved drives while the Walkers, like us, had a goal in the backyard.  Serious games had to be played on the concrete, but for a more laid back game of H*O*R*S*E or 21, the backyards were a good place.  As darkness would fall, the kids would then gather under the streetlight on the corner to talk and watch brown bats dive at the swarming bugs.  Insects were always a source of entertainment in those days.  Large grasshoppers and praying mantis populated the juniper bush on Walker’s corner and the plantings along our home’s foundation, and we were always on the lookout for these.  Lawns were not the immaculate swaths of green, as they are today, so in summer white clover grew in abundance.  The clover, in turn, attracted honeybees, which were plentiful in those days.  The bees were a constant threat to those of us who spent the summer barefoot, and I received painful stings on more than one occasion.  I also discovered another aspect of lawns untouched by herbicides- the painful thistle that sat hidden in the grass.  To step on a thistle was almost as painful as stepping on a bee.

There was one day I looked forward to each week and that was trash day.  Trash bags were years away from use, so in those early years neighbors sat their garbage on the curb in open cans.  For my sister and me, this became the weekly treasure hunt.  You never knew what a neighbor might toss out, so an early morning walk allowed you to inspect the newly discarded loot.  In addition to still useful items, we looked for any unfinished containers.  If there was some form of liquid left in a bottle or jar, whether food related, paint or a cleaning compound, we confiscated it and brought it home to mix together in some bizarre concoction.  We held no regard for what we mixed, and it is a miracle that we did not kill or injure ourselves with some unfortunate combination.   We never did anything with the potions we cooked up, but it was always fun and mysterious.  I also liked trash day because I was sure I could convince one of the garbage men that I was a mannequin.  As soon as I heard the truck approaching, I would hurry down to the can by the curb and strike my best mannequin pose.  The workers never gave me a second look nor even spoke a work to me, and I wonder how panicked I would have become if just once one of them had played along and picked me up. 
Naval Avionics is barely visible in the background as my parents grill out with my sister, Dianna and brother, Jerry
The final character in the story of my neighborhood was Naval Avionics, a government facility charged with research, development and manufacturing of electronic s for airborne weapons as well as weapons guidance systems.  This was the plant that had produced the top secret Norden Bomb Site that Lt. Hoobler, my father’s bombardier, had used to guide their B-24 during its bomb runs in WWII.  What I remember was a plant consisting of a mass of 62 red brick buildings occupying 163 acres of land, which I could glimpse from our back window.  A tall fence with barbed wire surrounded the grounds, and occasionally stacks of small missiles could be seen stacked outside.  I would gaze at the plant and wonder what mysterious weapons were taking shape within its walls, and sometimes imagine myself a spy trying to infiltrate the facility.  Fortunately, my career as a spy never materialized, and although it is no longer a government run facility and has undergone a name change, the facility still stands.
15th Street today

Time has taken its toll on both the neighbors and the neighborhood.   The neat lawns (which once I mowed to earn money for college) and their flowerbeds have been replaced in many places with weeds and overgrown grass. The small houses which were built over a half century ago are showing their age with tattered roofs, bent siding and peeling paint. Many of the drives from which I shoveled snow in winter lie broken and cracked.  There are no longer horses, but you might see a pit-bull behind a fence. Neighbors no longer sit together on front porches in the evenings and no games of kick-the-can are played on the quiet street.  Neighbors view the children with a suspicious eye, and should someone be seen hiding behind your bushes, you probably would be wise to call the police.  Yet I close my eyes and it is all again as it once was.  Chuck and Francis are sharing a beer with my parents on the front lawn while in the distance the sound of cars racing at the Speedrome on Kitley creates a steady hum in the background.  Becky is next door shooting baskets on the goal nailed to the back of their garage while her sister Julie swings on the tire swing hanging off the big tree, and I am chasing lightening bugs in the yard.  A half century may have passed, but in these sweet memories I, like the old neighborhood, am forever young.


  1. In a way I am quite envious of the neighbourhoods and that feeling of community spirit that you, and so many of my blogging companions, grew up knowing. My early years were spent living in halves of Edwardian houses, then we progressed to a whole three bedroom flat on a new council estate, and although there was a sense of togetherness amongst some groups, the older women tended to stick together, the younger ones too, very little mixing of ages. And since those days I have always lived in places where neighbours were friendly enough, but there was none of this popping in and out, no get togethers, parties in the summer garden, no real sense of community spirit. Where I live now, there is this, but it is little cliques, small areas or cul de sacs of houses, but more especially bungalows where the old folk live. Perhaps it is they who really know the value of community spirit, have the time to embrace it. Everyone else seems too busy, by which I mean the younger generations in their thirties or forties. It could be because this is a large village, and in our case because we live on the main road through it, so you only ever see neighbours when going out in the car, or in the shops perhaps. But how lovely to have a neighbourhood which gives you such vivid and colourful memories.
    Great read....

  2. ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
    This was superb!
    You took me back & gave me a grand smile! Beautifully said Scott!