Old Frank Schoonover found an air gun by the railroad tracks. Fifty years have passed but I can still remember that kindly old man and the hours I spent talking with him while perched on his porch steps. I wasn’t even off to school yet and here was this fellow who had all sorts of time to talk with me. He lived along the tracks by the old wooden bridge that was the gateway to town but also the isolation of my neighborhood. Prospect Street had one block off West Main Street and then ran southward straight up hill and into farm country. The Erie Railroad practically encircled town like a big horseshoe setting atop a man-made berm. The tracks ran somewhat angled behind our house and then there was a wide and rolling horse pasture which eventually sloped downhill to the McKinney Stables. Living on Prospect Street hill and adjoining Bristol Street was like living in a bubble.
Friends from school rarely ventured across the bridge and those of us on the hill spent our time together playing hide-and-seek well past sunset on summer nights. It was home until we moved the summer before my eighth birthday in October 1970. Our rambling 5 bedroom house was the first my parents ever bought. 21 Prospect Street was only blocks away from the hospital at the end of Bristol Street where I was born. As a small boy I could imagine living nowhere else. When my brother and I once walked the pasture and approached the tracks we became frightened and turned around for home.
Mr. Schoonover was one of several older neighbors who treated the children as extended family. He gave me the air rifle. He had cleaned it and one day when I was visiting told me he wanted me to take it home. I quickly discovered you could stick the barrel in mud and then pull the trigger and give a stinging surprise to a playmate. Mr. Terwilliger was a handyman and worked often alongside my dad. His nickname was “Hook” and as a small boy I was allowed to address him by the nickname. Years later when I saw him at a grocery store and he was white-haired and near the end of his life his wrinkled face lit up and he reminded me of the hours and hours I spent talking with him while he worked tinkering on some project.
Across the street lived Mr. Roeske and some of the children claimed he was mean. He spent much of his time trimming trees and gardening and he and his wife didn’t like Muhammad Ali. I know because they shared he was a “big mouth”. One day Mr. Roeske handed me an enormous can with instructions. “Take this home to your brother and sister!” It was filled with candy. His own grandchildren were frequent visitors and childhood friends. It made me feel very special he saw us much the same as his own kin.
There was another man in the neighborhood called “Chief Sweet”. As in police chief. On cold or rainy days he would pick up the neighborhood kids on the way to school and on the way home. He had 9 children of his own. His family’s station wagon doubled as squad car.
Growing up I always believed life was a secure bet. I don’t spend much time thinking about my hometown but during times of stress it finds me. Lately in dreams. A month ago I dreamed I was there but recognized little as it was under renovation. And my dad was there, on Main Street, showing me what was new and improved. He died in 1996. In reality not much has changed since I left for good thirty years ago but for what fire has destroyed. The kindly old timers are all long gone (as are childhood friends who mostly moved away in search of jobs).
I was there again last night during a dream. I was moving away. Friends from all periods of life were stopping to see me and wishing me well. Old coaches, friends I met elsewhere and from assorted work places. Then I walked outside and stood on Main Street. It looked clean. Almost Potemkin. And it was empty.
For the last 11 months I’ve lived in Idaho. On Friday a moving van stops at my house on the east coast and loads my things for the cross-country drive. Then perhaps the old memories will fade away in a rear view mirror.