My grandfather took me while I was a boy to the Downingtown Iron Works where he worked. It was cavernous inside. The area was very cluttered with equipment and worktables. Over to one side was a welder. He was wearing this huge mask with a rectangular glass-covered slot so he could see what he was doing. Sparks and streaks of fire were shooting out in all directions around him.
Pap-pap led me outside into a yard where some large storage tanks stood on wooden frames. There was this little box above my head that moved back and forth along a track. It had chains hanging down. There was a man sitting inside the little box controlling this crane.
I discovered this photograph of my grandfather in a book by Bruce Edward Mowday titled, Images of America: Downingtown. The caption read: “A company carpenter known by all at the plant as ‘Brownie’ stands by an oddly shaped product. One of his jobs was to secure tanks in cars before shipping.” The “cars” referred to were flatbeds on trains. The railroad that crossed Lancaster next to the Minquas Firehouse ran along the east side of the Iron Works and then north through the woods. This rail line was converted into the Struble Trail many years later, part of what is called the East Coast Greenway. My grandfather knew all the trainmen working that line in those days. I saw a train pull to a stop as I followed him through the maze of metal in the yard. We got near and there was the usual steam clouding the air about the boiler. I hesitated, but he walked me right up to the side of the engine.
We stopped by the cab and he said something to the engineer and his shovel man, then he told me to climb up. I shook my head. I didn’t like being this close to that dragon with all its hissing and spitting steam. The cab was high above my head and you climbed up a narrow metal ladder build into the side. I refused to climb and blew my one and only chance to ride in the steam engine of a train. Instead we walked to the back and we took a ride up the rails in the caboose, which was cool, too. In was a little house on wheels. There were some benches along the side and a potbelly stove in the center for heat. Brakemen and other crew would ride in these little lounges on wheels.
Cabooses were not the only non-standard vehicles I got to see up close and personal.
My father had become very interested in stock car racing. We began going to races as a weekly family activity. It started out being once a week, but grew to twice a week and sometimes more. The first year we went every Sunday of the racing season to Mason Dixon Speedway near Silver Springs,Maryland. We had to leave early because Dad liked to be there for the time trials. This was fine with me because it meant I didn’t have to go to Sunday School during race season. By the second year we were also going to races at a Lancaster County Speedway on Saturday evening.
The cars were mostly 1930s models, the kind they make into Hot Rods and Street Rods. There were two classes, Stock and Modified. Stocks were factory-equipped autos you could drive legally on the highways. Modified Cars had changes to the engines to soup them up.
There were several races at every event. They would run four or five heats, depending on the number of cars present. The first three finishers in each heat qualified for the Feature Race. All the cars that failed to qualify in the Heats raced in the Consolation Race. Sometimes there were two Consolation Races. I believe the first four that finished in these went into the Feature. There could be nearly 25 cars in the feature. Each heat and consolation race was ten laps. The Feature was usually 50 laps and sometimes as many as a hundred.
I loved everything about the races. I loved the smell of the fuel and the roar of the engines. I found it exciting. There were a number of crashes, too, which always enlivened the action. Many pile-ups were quite spectacular. Cars would roll end over end. Sometimes they would catch on fire. I saw cars fly into the air and go clear over the guardrails around the track. The drivers seldom got seriously injured.
I enjoyed wandering about the grounds during intermission and eating the food offerings behind the grandstands. I especially liked the French Fries. They were long, floppy, greasy and salty, but I still have a fondness in my heart for those delicious fries (even though the food police are blowing their busybody whistles and saying these weren't doing my heart any good).
Every week we went I bought another plastic racecar. These were replicas of those on the track.
I had a lot of toy cars and I would race them at home. I would do the Heats and everything. I lined my cars up two by two. I would push the first two cars so they rolled freely ahead, then the next two and so forth. Some cars rolled better than others and so the lead changed several times as I gave them push after push around a circle. I pushed them in the order they stopped each time until my race ended. That is Peppy watching one of my races.
My dad was a close friend with one of the drivers. His name was Stan Zeliak. We had pit passes and would go watch the cars prepared. Dad would often stop and talk with Stan and I got to sit in his racecar sometimes. I even got to put his helmet on. It was surprisingly heavy and was full of foam padding. My dad bought me my own plastic helmut. It didn't have foam padding, was very much lighter and if I ever hit it on anything it would have cracked like an old walnut.
My dad considered becoming a driver. He went to the training classes and the tryouts, but in the end decided against it. I don’t know if he didn’t like it once he tried or he didn’t do well enough in the tryouts, or more likely my mother got on him about it.
We attended the races for several years. It was one of the few activities I ever did with my father I enjoyed, but there was still a tension between us, which I will come back to later in another essay.
I was very enamored with the whole racing scne. I suggested to friends we have bike races around the blacktop behind East Ward School. The photo on the left will help you picture the layout. Behind the school was a large area covered with macadam. It had a very slight downward slope away from the building. At the very bottom were two basketball net backboards each supported by two metal poles where the grass of the playground began. This photo taken after I no longer attended East Ward appears to show the basketball nets attached to the back wall of the school, but this was not the case during my years there. Our races began with just a few participants, but during the summer grew until even those normally having nothing to do with me joined in.
The school ground races started the year Denny Myers finally got his two-wheeler.
Denny arrived on his brand new bike and was anxious to get in the races. He had waited longer than most of us for his bike because his parents felt eight years old was too young for one. Now at ten he had a bike and so did his younger brother, Michael, who did get a two-wheeler at age eight. Denny was probably rankled by this. His two younger brothers didn’t even have to wait till eight.
It is a wonder his parents didn’t revert to their old policy after what happen the day Denny showed up at the blacktop with a bike. He rode a lap with the rest of us, but as he came to the fourth turn he lost control. He picked up speed going down the small slope and seemingly forgot how to steer and how to stop. He crashed head first into the support pillar of a basketball net at the bottom edge of the macadam.
His bike crumpled and Denny flew over the handlebars, between the two basketball backstop supports and did a face plant in the grass beyond. He was unhurt, except for his dignity. There was serious damage to his bicycle. Its basket was squished and knocked eschew. The front fender was twisted. The front wheel was bent. His pride was bent as well, which to him was the worse of all.
Gary Kinzey was another boy with bike problems. He was suffering pedal envy. We boys all had 26 inch bikes. The wheel diameter was 26 inches across. Gary had a 24 incher. In those days size mattered. He was somewhat disappointed and disgusted that his bike was the smallest among the pack. He had both his seat and handlebars jacked as high as they would go (pictured right).
Sometimes we moved our races across Washington Avenue onto the empty lot next to my grandparent’s house at 424. There was a large cinder pile to the front of the field. The township used the cinder in winter to give traction on the streets during snowstorms or when it was icy. The cinder piles provided hills for our races. We even reached a point where we thought we were so good that we turned “professional”. Iva Darlington, Judy Baldwin, Michael Myers and I canvassed the neighborhood, going house to house attempting to sell tickets to our bicycle races on the cinder pile. A few people actually came out for it; okay, maybe a couple.
They had a special race one Sunday at Mason Dixon Speedway. The winner of this event wasn’t the first car over the finish line. It was the last car running. They called it a Demolition Derby. It was controlled chaos. The cars went every which way, on the track and on the infield. The object was to knock every other car out of the race by slamming into them. Everybody out there was having collisions on purpose. Cars would have tires go flat or wheels fly off, steam was shooting from radiators, metal was bending and glass was shattering.
It gave me a whole new idea.
I came back to our bike races and upped the bar. I called it the “Ditching Club”. The rules were simple. Pedal around the blacktop and try to bump every other bike out of the race. I was pretty good at this madness. I had no fear of falling or of hitting another bike. I usually won. I knew just where and how to hit my opponents to make them tumble over. It was glorious. For a time I was a winner! There were skinned knees and blood galore. My bike was a moving collection of dings and dents, but usually it was moving. (Pictured left, my ditching bike still with its fenders, Summer 1952.)
I decided to go from stock to modified. I removed my fenders and painted the bike with this bright red, green and white paint. When my dad came home and saw the bicycle the only thing he said was, “It looks like a nigger’s.”
Okay, I though we were never to use that word. What went for the rest of us didn't always go for dad.
I believe it was that summer Ronald Tipton and I began our explorations of the haunted hills. We rode our bikes up the various country roads out of town, often hiding them in the bushes and hiking through the woods. It would be difficult to sort out all our discoveries as to time and order. We did thisfor years until Ronald decided he was too old for bicycles, which was when we were 14. I bought his bike from him to take a job as a paperboy. In those years we were too young to drive a car; you needed some kind of wheels. One of our earlier expeditions was up Uwchlan Avenue to the Northwood Cemetery. We both had a morbid bent for walking around graveyards. That penchant persists to this very day. (Left, Ronald in Northwood Cemetery, 2004.)
We circled about the graves and toward the farthest back saw a narrow path into the woods. We followed the path and came across a group of neglected and weathered stones. No one would know these graves existed if they didn’t have a sharp eye and an adventurous streak such as we had. The path was narrow and overgrown and only our boyish sense of curiosity kept us following it. Why these graves were deserted and forgotten I don’t know for sure, but my suspicion is they were Negro graves.
Yes, in those days even Black and White corpses didn’t lie in peace together.
There was a places we were warned not to go, but went anyway, places such as the old quarry off of Boot Road (pictured right). There was extensive stone mining going on near Downingtown both then and now. Quarry Road was even the name of the cross street. If you went east down Boot Road beyond the town limits you came to a narrow bridge over a railroad. Just before crossing this bridge there was a rutted dirt road going back into the scruff. We pushed out bikes back there, ignoring any Keep Out and No Trespassing signs until we came to a wooden barrier nailed on two posts. Beyond this barrier was the lip of the old quarry. It was a long vertical drop down to dark green water. There were rumors of suicides and accidental drownings connected with this forbidden place. I used this site for the climatic scene in my novel,Gray.
We would go to even more questionable places. After all, the Gates of Hell were only a short distance from the quarry and the hills were alive with haunted houses. (I suppose that should be "dead" with haunted houses?) We would explore them all.
EXERPT FROM "GRAY"
Stu stood. He felt better. His head cleared and his stomach settled. He had a sense that time had skipped ahead on him, that he had blacked out briefly, but if he did, it seemed to have helped. He turned toward his vehicle and saw something shiny out of the corner of his eye.
He skirted the car, ducking to the other side of the drive where there was an embankment of rock and scrub brush. He eased along this natural shield until he could see around the bend of the driveway. From here he saw a car sitting squarely in the center, the blue-green Chevy he had been pursuing. It looked deserted.
He put a hand to his holster, unsnapping the restraining strap with his thumb. He listened. There was no sound. Things were as still as death on a late winter night. He stood and his heart thumped against his shirt. The thumping was distracting, annoying. He felt like his heart was too big for his ribcage. He tugged his uniform blouse from his chest as if that would relieve the annoying thump.
He saw grass move to his left, a bit further down the drive but not as far as the car. He stared across to where he saw this movement but could not pick it up again. His heart thumped louder as he turned his head. He thought it was audible, that anyone nearby would hear the beating heart as if it were a drum beating the tempo of a coming parade.
He heard something now to his right. It wasn't loud, wasn't much of a sound, but unnatural to this place he was certain; not the sound of bird or insect, perhaps an animal, perhaps a hare or groundhog or opossum, just above him, and not far, perhaps just beyond this bend. He caught a fleeting glimpse of something lying on the side of the hill where it could view the driveway between here and the car, where it could see anyone who approached along the driveway and ambush them.
Stu backed up. Another wave of lightheadedness hit and he had to squat down on one leg. He sat there on his heel, gasping in air until the dizziness left once more, then moved back to where the embankment slanted level with the driveway beyond his own car. He climbed through the bushes and crossed the embankment from the top.
From here he had the sight advantage. He could see the lane below and the quarry ahead, but more importantly he could see across the lower hill along that stretch of driveway. Behind one thicket was a patch of shiny black. It was a well-shined man's shoe just visible in a patch of bare dirt.
He pulled the service pistol free of the holster and stepped several yards, which took him above that shoe. He was closing on the man when the shoe moved and the man jumped up to face him. They stood no more than three yards apart.
The man had gray hair and wore a dusty gray business suit. The man had a look of utter shock on his face and from where Stu stood the man's eyes seemed empty and watery until he realized the man had gray irises. The man had a stick or rod in his hand, but no gun.
"Freeze where you are." Stu yelled.
The man did not move, but he had been standing stock still anyway. The man did not drop the rod.
"Put down the stick."
The man did not move, did not drop the stick or rod, did not so much as blink.
"God damn it, put down the fucking stick." On the last word, when he said 'stick', his voice wavered. A pain shot across his back between shoulder blades ten times worst than before. The pain turned inward and cut through to his chest.
Stu’s legs wobbled unsteadily on the angle of the hill and his lower foot slipped on a rock while his left leg slid away from him and he stumbled. He tried to counteract the slide, to regain balance, but as soon as he made this sudden move the pain blazed across his chest and down both arms. His eyes seemed to explode and all he could see was a great spray of red, then his eyes cleared and he was still standing, still in pain, although it had reduced itself to a dull ache. Stu had his gun pointed across at the gray man except the gray man was no longer where the gun pointed.
Stu spun; trying to locate the guy and when he did the pain stabbed him in a thousand places at once. He fell, tumbling to the bottom of the hill, coming to a stop on the driveway. He couldn't move against the pain that shot through him. All he could do was lay where he had landed, clutching at his chest with his hand. He thought he still had his gun in the other hand, but he could not feel that hand and wasn't certain he hadn't dropped the gun during his fall.