A Day in the Life of a Kensington Kid
1953 to 1957 – Ages 9 to 13 – Summer
The siren's sound was deafening as our teacher quickly guided us to the hallway and told us to put our heads between our knees. Some of my classmates were crying, and others were yelling at each other. Our teacher was next to me, saying the Lord's Prayer as her tears fell on her clenched hands. The siren's sound was suddenly drowned out by a loud, high-pitched noise. I looked up at the window at the end of the hall just as a brilliant light shone through it. Seconds later, the window shattered into thousands of shards of glass, and the light enveloped me.
I sat straight up in bed. My heart was racing, and I was sweating. It was another atomic bomb nightmare. My older brother, with whom I shared a room, yelled, "Jesus Christ, stop moving around or get the hell out of bed." I couldn't think of a witty response, so I just gave him the middle finger and jumped out of bed. This morning, I was lucky. The only bathroom was empty. Being an early riser had its advantages.
After I pulled on one of my two pairs of black chinos with a belt buckle in the back, donned a collared shirt, and put on my only pair of shoes, I was ready for a day of fun. Before I left the bedroom, I banged the tin closet doors a couple of times just to annoy my brother. He retaliated by throwing a pillow at me, promising, "I’ll get you later.” Then my dad shouted, “Will you two shut the hell up?”
Instead of walking down the stairs like a normal person, I decided to slide down on my behind. Our dog Ginger was at the bottom of the stairs waiting to greet me. I petted her auburn hair, and we both walked into the kitchen. Ginger, like her mother Bonnie, now departed, had the same color of hair as me.
My grandmother sat at the far end of the small table, drinking her coffee and eating a Kaiser roll. Nanny, as we called her, was always the first one up. She walked to Front and Clearfield Streets most days to buy rolls and Danish for the family at the German bakery. She asked me, “Do you want Taylor ham or bacon?” “Both please,” I replied. Nanny smiled.
My mom had already left for work at Gerald's Electronics. She got that job after my grandparents moved in with us. Dad didn't like it at first. I guess for his generation, having a wife who worked was a sign of weakness.
I quickly finished my breakfast; grabbed my peashooter, a hand full of dry peas, and my pimple ball; and slid down the center between the front doorsteps and looked to see whether any of my buddies were out. They weren't, so I kneeled at the curb and started tossing the pimple ball at the steps. The idea was to catch the ball on the rebound. If you were able to hit the edge of the steps, that was a bonus. After several games, I was bored, so I sat on the steps and started shooting peas at pigeons. Fortunately for the pigeons, I’m not a very good shot.
Not long after, Billy and Georgie showed up, and we played a game of chink, or wall ball, against Billy's sidewall. Then we played wire ball. The idea is hit the electrical wires with the ball, and the other person must catch it. The electrical wires at Wishart and Howard Streets had several pairs of sneakers hanging from them—one pair was mine. After an hour or so, Wishart Street started to fill up with kids. Susan and some of her friends played hopscotch on the sidewalk, and several other girls jumped rope or played jacks.
Billy borrowed Susan's chalk and made a bottle cap board in the middle of the street, and we played that game for another hour. By then, enough boys were out that we could play handball. The corners of Howard and Wishart Streets were the bases. My first time up, I hit a double, which was rare for me, but I was getting better. Bobby was the king of hitting long balls. He could get more than halfway up the street, so when he was up to bat, the outfielders played long.
My second time up, I hit the ball short and started to run. As I rounded the first base and headed across Howard Street, someone yelled, “Car!” I immediately stopped and backed up. When I was younger, I had been hit by a car and didn't want to repeat that experience. As the older Cadillac drove by, I thought, "Asshole, how dare you interrupt our game!" But I said nothing. When we rode with him, my dad often said that people who drove Caddies were assholes and did whatever they wanted. I guess I learned more than how to drive.
By lunchtime, we had finished our game and headed to our houses to eat, promising to meet up after. At home, I looked in the refrigerator for the Lebanon baloney, American cheese, a Kosher pickle, and a bottle of Gulden’s mustard. I put the ingredients on one piece of German rye bread, then took a handful of Wise potato chips, placed them on top, and put the second piece of rye bread over them.
Nanny was out at her part-time job of making lunch for some businesspeople up on Howard Street, so it took me a while to find the bread. I grabbed a Pepsi and sat down at the table. Just as I was about to take a bite of the sandwich, my brother slapped me on the back of the head. They were always easy slaps, but they were just enough to irritate me. That was our thing. We found something that annoyed each other, which was an easy task for me because Bill had many things that irritated him. After he hit me, he said, "I told you." I let it go because about a year before, he had done the same thing, and I had chased him with a butter knife and put my hand through the door glass. I am pretty sure I will carry that scar for the rest of my life.
After lunch, I met up with the guys. We had all changed our peashooters for slingshots. Afternoons were great for exploring, so we headed for the railroad at Tusculum Street. I had seen kids jump onto coal cars, but I had promised myself I would never do that. Hanging halfway over the bridge was enough for me. We walked to the other side of the railroad up Mascher Street until we came to the Boys’ Club on Lehigh Avenue. There, we played some basketball and a little pool on a rickety old table. The Lighthouse Boys Club was one of the few places you could go for free. Sometimes we went to the Lighthouse Field on Erie Avenue to play baseball or football. The field was also the home of the circus when they were in town.
We soon tired of playing ball and started back toward the railroad, where we shot construction staples at anything we thought we could break. We had even had fights shooting at each other in the past, but that was too painful, so we stopped. As the dinner hour, 5 P.M. approached, we trekked back to Howard and Wishart Streets and went to our homes. It was spaghetti night at our house. When I got near our house, I saw my brother Bill working on his car. He was parked in front of Mrs. Murphy's place. She kept the sidewalk in front of her house spotless, so she often scolded my brother for making a mess. I did not see her, so she must have been shopping.
Nanny and Mom had the dinner table set. Mom and her lady friends always got off work early enough to be home for dinner. We had six chairs—just enough for Mom and Dad, Nanny and Pop, and Bill and me. My sister had married and had her own home.
The house smelled incredible. We didn’t have rolls or bread for dinner except on spaghetti nights. Mom and Nanny were good cooks and did well with the sauce. On other nights, we might have roast beef or pork, meat cakes, pea soup, vegetable beef soup, or—my favorite—meatloaf. On Friday nights, it was always baked macaroni and tuna.
Mom asked me to call my brother for dinner, so I went to our door and called out to the street, “Hey silly Billy, mom says dinner!” I did this three times, but he ignored me. Finally, my mom came to the door and yelled, “Billy Hallman, get your ass in here now!” Finally, he came in to eat.
When I finished dinner, I left the house to find the guys. After all, we had six hours or so more to hang out. When the others finished eating, we sat on the steps of a house at the northwest corner of Howard Street. It had a small overhang in case it rained. We played pinochle for a couple of hours and decided to play tin can Eddy. It's similar to hide and seek but involves throwing a tin can down the street, and everyone must hide before the “it person” brings the can back to home base. We got our cans from Naylor's garage. About a year before, I had tossed one of those oil cans and my index finger got stuck in the jagged opening. It ripped a hole in my finger, creating another scar that I figured would be with me for life.
After that, we played rough and tumble. It was not my favorite game, but I played. Rough and tumble requires you to make a ball out of a newspaper, which is then thrown to any player. Whoever catches it can be beat up by the other players, so it’s important to get rid of the “ball” before you are trounced.
At around 11 o’clock, we tired of games and took to the steps to rest and talk. As I looked up and down both sides of Wishart Street from our perch on Howard Street, I could see many of our neighbors sitting on their steps talking to their family and friends. Some had beach chairs, and others just spread a towel on the hot steps. They laughed, told stories, and drank cold sodas or beers. It had been a hot day, and that heat would stay in the bricks and concrete all night. Some people chose to sleep outside and felt safe doing so.
I saw my mom sitting on our steps, talking to Agnes, her best friend, who had her children Joan and Pat with her. They were more like cousins to me than family friends. I said goodbye to the guys, but before I left, we decided that we’d go to the Wishart Movie theater the next day. I made my way toward my mom, Agnes, and my cousins Pat and Joan. As I walked, I wondered if, like my scars, these happy summer days would be with me for life.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.