Pennsylvania Jack


a story by Pennsylvania Jack

(C) Jack Graham, 2000

It was hard keeping still while sitting in a hole in the ground, peering out through a small slit carefully made from clumps of dirt and grass. My patience finally paid off as movement caught my eye and I saw my brother Dan and one of the Patsco boys coming up the trail. "Bam, bam, bam!" we yelled as Remy and I stood up straight, flinging dirt and grass every which way, and providing the sound effects for our made-from-sticks rifles. They turned and took off down the hill. "I got you!" I yelled after them, and in the time honored tradition of boys playing soldier, they yelled back, "Did not! You missed!"

Ingram park isn't a big place. It was no bigger in the 1950s when it was one of the favorite play places for us Thomas Street kids. Oh yes, it had swings and slides and a merry-go-round, not the big carousel kind with horses and music, just the little spin-around kind on which we loved to make ourselves dizzy. There were things to climb on and even a basketball court, but the "big kids" always monopolized that. The best part of the park, the part those who were in charge probably never realized was so important to boys, was the hillside between the playgrounds and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks up above. That's where we dug our foxholes and played army. That's where we crawled through the hole in the railroad's fence to walk the rails all the way to the Sheraden tunnel. Only once did I get up enough nerve to walk into that railroad tunnel, but that is a story for another time.

There were blackberries on that hill in July. There was a crabapple tree near the top. The apples were lousy for eating but great for hitting with a ball bat, or just throwing at each other. It was especially fun to throw them at freight cars of the trains that passed by. There was a "monkey ball" tree there too, the big ugly fruit of which splattered wildly when batted. There were often empty pop and beer bottles along the paths on the hillside; we supposed those big kids did that when they weren't playing basketball. You could get two cents deposit back for a pop bottle at Duffy's store in those days. I don't know if beer bottles had a deposit or not, but none of us would have dared be seen carrying one to the store, not that we knew which store to take them to anyway. We would pretend they were treasure, and bury them. I'll bet most of the ones we buried are on that hillside yet.

The hillside was also one of the favorite sled riding hills for us Thomas Street uchins, especially for my brother and I, the Marshall kids, Remy, Joey Givvin, Jack Holleran, and all the many Millers, and for the Ingram kids too of course. It wasn't a long way up from the playground area to the fence by the railroad tracks, but it was pretty steep to a kid. Since it was through the woods, you had to dodge trees and jagger bushes and it was rough enough to provide plenty of bumps as you raced down the hill. The more you rode, the smoother, and faster too, the track became. Sometimes we would even roll down the hill without our sleds just to sort of pack the snow down a bit. I have to add that the hill behind Punky Trievel's grandmother's house on Norma Street was also a great place for sledding, but then it should have been because it was another part of this same hillside.

Right next to the basketball court was the Pony League baseball field, and the Little League field was next to that one. One winter day several of us kids had taken our bow and arrows to the fields and were shooting the arrows straight up in the air. It was fun to watch them go. It was exciting to scramble out of the way when they reached their zenith and turned to fall back to earth. It was no doubt a past-time that appeared dangerous to rational adults - it was simple fun to us. That was the day Bill Utz, the large and not-friendly-at-all Chief of the Crafton Police saw us shooting arrows. Chief Utz read us the riot act and confiscated our bows and arrows. That's when we called on our secret weapon - my Mom. "We don't know why the policeman took our bows and arrows, Mom. We were shooting at the big straw target, and being very careful!" Good old Mom. Her boys and their friends could do no wrong. While Mom was on the phone giving Chief Utz an earful, I was busy hustling up to the park with the big round straw target that until that moment had been in Joey Givvens' shed. "The boys were shooting at a straw target, Chief Utz!" The Chief knew what was what, but he was a wise public official, and knew better than to argue with a Mother. In about ten minutes he pulled up in front of our house in the police car and turned all the weapons over to Mom. Then we dutifully marched to the park and carefully shot arrows at that boring target.

Maybe the Borough officials did know about the hillside, now that I think about it, because that's where they hid candy and eggs for the "bigger kids" Easter Egg Hunt each year. The teeny kids got to run out onto the basketball court and pick up eggs which had been laid about in plain sight, or rather the parents carrying the teeny kids got to do that. The slightly bigger kids got to "find" the eggs and candy laid about on the ball fields. We bigger yet kids - 10, 11, 12ish - had ours hidden among the bushes, trees, and rocks of the hillside. At Easter time, early Spring, the weeds hadn't yet grown very tall, so this was a good place. Hidden candy wasn't too obvious, but not impossibly difficult either. I recall finding a chocolate egg one year with a silver dollar taped to the bottom of it - now that was a treasure!

One of the pieces of play equipment was a ladder, the kind meant for swinging across, hand over hand. We called it the Monkey Bar. I remember falling off that ladder one day so hard I thought I'd broken my crown. It was a proud moment the first time I made it all the way across. Some kids never did learn to make it, and those of us who did didn't let them forget it.

That Pony League ball field was also the site of the one and only homerun I ever hit in my youthful career as a baseball player. Okay, so it was in batting practice, but I could take you to the spot where that ball landed today. When a guy only hits one homer, he remembers it.

Ingram Park was also the site of Fourth of July fireworks back then. Folks from Crafton and Ingram, and who knows where else, would head for the fields a few hours before dark to stake out blanket or lawn chair space on the ball fields. By today's mega-spectacular standards, fireworks back then were dull shows, but we didn't know any better. We liked them! Everybody "Ooohed" and "Ahhhed" at each one. Then they did it again a minute or so later when the next firework exploded high overhead. The fireworks guys shot them off from the hillside - we guys were sure they were using our foxholes. We would hurry to the hill the morning after the fireworks show, but we could never find a trace of all that excitement of the night before.

There was a picnic shelter in the park that groups or families would use for special parties. On summer weekday mornings, an old man named George could usually be found snoozing in there. Being boys, we wanted to pester him, but we were always a little too afraid to get too close. Besides, he wasn't the most pleasant smelling person you ever met. An Ingram policeman would usually make him move along about noon. George supposedly lived in an old house down by Chartiers Creek, and made a living mowing lawns and doing other such odd jobs for folks. I remember going to Forbes Field to see a Pirates baseball game with my Dad. Leaning against a phone pole near the ticket windows was a blind man, trying to sell his pencils to the crowd. Yep, it was George. I guess you can only mow so many lawns.

Ingram Park and the hillsides above it became even more important as places to play after 1958 when the Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center opened for business. The fields and swamp were bulldozed and filled in and paved. Even though Thomas Street was in Crafton, and Crafton too had a park, it wasn't as good. It wasn't as close. The railroad tracks are gone now, replaced by a new concrete "bus-way", and some of the hillside was leveled to build a tennis court. The old merry-go-round is gone now, replaced by "new" modern play equipment, which is probably every bit as much fun to kids. But the heart and soul of the park and the hillside remains pretty much as it's been since I was a kid. I hope someone is enjoying it.