2. CHILDHOOD & YOUTH INTO ADULTHOOD
Sometime after Dad changed jobs from Supervisor at North Pittsburgh Telephone Company in Valencia to Building Superintendent at Calgon Chemicals and Controls, much farther away near the Greater Pittsburgh Airport west of the city, he began considering moving his six-member family closer to his work. This was before the construction of I-79, and his commute time each way was about an hour. He had learned of this job from Jesse Tope, who worked at Calgon, a neighbor, and fellow church member at Glade Run. Jesse’s daughter Janice was my age and after both families moved into the Moon Area School District, she became a cheerleader and was quite popular. Not to brag but I did rather well myself, as we’ll learn.
In 1960, the year we moved, the Mars Area School District was still rather rural, but older brother Paul had taken his own step up and away, having been accepted at Penn State two years earlier. My other brother, Carl “Butch” was able to finish his studies and graduate from Moon before enlisting in the Navy. The area around the new airport was being developed rapidly. While the new Mars schools were still in the planning stages, Moon had just built a new high school complex, complete with a new baseball field and football stadium. One of the attractions was a statue in the front courtyard which they named “Hazel” after the hurricane that hit the east coast in 1954 while the school was being built. The storm killed 80 people despite the fact that the statue was the goddess of love. Everyone hoped the statue would be a positive omen to her charges.Surrounding the new airport and school were many new housing developments. Everything was so new that Moon Township didn’t yet have its own post office. Our address was after the nearby river town of Coraopolis, hard to spell and pronounce. Somehow Dad picked the housing development closest to the new school on a street likewise within easy walking distance to the side door of the school. The modern plan was called Sharon Hill Manor, similar to the name the Presbyterian church and cemetery carried that we attended and that I talked about in the Prelude. It’s important to note that over the course of our time on Springer Drive we actually lived at two separate addresses, which I will simply refer to by the street numbers as 225 and 206. Another point is that, as future installments are titled by college towns where I lived and careers I had. I will return from time to time to my second home – Moon Township. As we’ll learn, after all four kids had left, and Mother admitted that she no longer liked the split-entry design at 225 with three sets of steps among four levels, Dad sold it and bought 206, a ranch-style house over a full basement just up the street, at a sheriff’s sale. It’s pictured below. This reminded me of the old joke, “My folks moved while I was in college, but I eventually found them anyway.”
I remember the drive in Dad’s station wagon, sometime in late April, from Cooperstown to Moon. I sat in the front seat with Tiny Dog, and when we arrived, the giant new house was finished but the half-acre yard was not yet in grass, somewhat forbidding to a young boy and his dog. But, eventually the grass was up and the trees and shrubs on the property were in leaves. It wasn’t long before my sister and I had a baseball diamond laid out. The neighborhood kids didn’t need a formal invitation to “Play ball.” A home run was anything hit into the woods beyond the yard. There was a good-sized wild cherry tree in the middle of the far property line with a “Y” in it. Any ball hit between that was a grand slam, with four runs. We built camp fires on the woods line, and even dug a “cave fort” back there. We had to fill it in after someone went to the bathroom inside. Years later I had my pole vaulting court on the woods line. Dad yelled at me for not having a softer place to land, but I was able to reach almost 10-feet in interscholastic athletics because of that rough pit. My saddest memory of the woods was that brother Butch buried Tiny there after she died. We would pass her grave each time we went to the pond out there to ice skate in the winter.
The house at 225 had a double car garage, but like with many Americans, only one side was used. The other contained Dad’s workbench and storage. I remember polishing the car there, an 8-cylinder grand, white 1965 Chevy Impala, the afternoon before I proposed to Susan. The only problem was that I had put the door down and the fumes from that miracle formula almost killed me. More on that proposal in a later Installment.
The main floor contained the vestibule, the kitchen and dining room, and the family room with a fireplace. The Pearces spent most of their time there. Ellen and I would come home and watch a variety of local kids’ TV shows including Paul Shannon’s “Adventure Time,” from which I learned to love “The Three Stooges.” What’s not to like when one of them was named “Larry”? Mom always had a beautiful music radio station on while she fixed dinner in the kitchen. We could set our watches for 5:30 when Dad came home from work and we sat down to eat. After supper in the summer it was light enough to play baseball just off the cement patio-porch out the back sliding doors. After dark, we would often play “Hide and Seek” with those same neighbor kids, the Wheatleys, the Daltons, the Buzzas, all who lived up the street, and Dick Anderson, who lived next door. More about him shortly. When the fun and games were over, and perhaps a bedtime snack in the kitchen, we headed up the stairs, past Mom and Dad’s large bedroom and formal living room on the third level. That area had a large picture window and was reserved for company, away from the TV downstairs. The living room also housed our piano, which got quite a workout by this “music major” over the years.
Dick Anderson was the friend I mentioned earlier who taught me how to play pool, as he had a table in his family room. He and his dad treated me to a Pitt football game with a fancy lunch in Oakland before. He was also willing to go with me on my first canoe trip down the Allegheny River the year of the great airline strike, 1967. I had a week off from my summer job at the airport. We put in at Brady’s Bend.
Water flows down hill, right? That trip should have been easy, but we were (barely) floating southwest into the wind. What should have taken just a few days would have ended up taking many more, but I called my dad and asked him to pick us up short of our destination. We had hoped to glide to the Sewickley Bridge, just at the bottom of the hill from Moon Township. Instead, we only made it to the lock at Oakmont, northeast of Pittsburgh. Oh well, at least we had the thrill of sleeping overnight on a wooden platform in the middle of the river somewhere near Tarentum. Another canoe trip involved floating from Saltsburg to Freeport on the Kiskiminetas River, a tributary of the Allegheny, with a college girlfriend. My itinerary wasn’t as grand on that adventure, although the water was much more shallow.
The fourth level at 225 had three bedrooms and a full bath. Older brothers Paul and Butch got the largest room. Later, after they had gone off to college, the military, and brides, Mom and Dad took over that room and installed an air-conditioner. I was allowed to sleep there in the coolness during the hot summers when I was in college and worked nights for the airport catering service. But my sister and I each had smaller rooms next to that sleeping quarter. I have to share this memory before the tour of the top level is complete:
It was a warm summer afternoon, and I was in the bathroom. I looked out the window and saw Dad on the patio about to enter the house. For some strange reason I thought it would be fun to give Dad a shock-shower. With a glass filled with water, the bathroom screen was quickly removed, and the liquid was poured over dear Dad below. Conclusion: I might have made it safely to my room across the hall, but I paused to put the screen back in – I wouldn’t want to get yelled at for that omission. I ran out the door and right into the arms of Father, who smacked me a good one before I could get into my room and slam the door. How could I ever forget that side of Dad, who almost never got mad, or if he did, he never showed it.With in any period of personal history the memories flow, both bad and good. Several bad memories that come to the fore from 1960 include the spring band concert in the echoey gym at the old Carnot Elementary School, a three level brick building, part of what was then called the middle school complex. I had just started clarinet lessons at Middlesex before we moved. This was probably a month later. I could not get my instrument to stop squeaking. I should have quit after the first squawk, but I thought I could “fix” the problem. Soon the concert was over, and no one said anything, but I’ll carry that embarrassment with me into the choirs of heaven. If there’s a good side to this story it’s that my big brother Paul left me his Benny Goodman big band albums when he got married and went off to the Air Force. I had Benny, probably the world’s most famous clarinetist, to aspire me, although I later played the piano in Moon’s stage band.
The next year, 7th grade, we had half of our classes in the old building and half in the new. We had to walk back and forth above the football stadium. I must have had “I’m insecure and shy” written all over my face, because while about to enter the old Carnot school building one day, a “Glenwillard” kid (name omitted in case he reads this and wants revenge) stepped in front of me, refusing to let me enter. You must understand that these kids were the roughians from down along the river, not to be messed with. We referred to them as “The River Rats.” He and his buddies thought this was funny, while I was about to faint. Eventually, thank God, he gave up and we all went inside. I don’t know whatever happened to Jim (oops), but I got back at him by graduating with plenty of positions and honors.
Another unfortunate accident happened in the adjoining parking lot, over at our church during a Wednesday Youth Club meeting. The kids always liked to throw the football around before dinner. As I was about the catch a pass, our new preacher came out of nowhere and attempted to intercept it. Long story short, our feet got tangled and he went down on the pavement. We were both terribly embarrassed, but he was the one, suit, tie, and all, who got the bloody scrapes on his hands and face. I realize that accidents happen, but I felt terrible, especially as we ate our dinner and people asked him what happened. Again, I hope you’ll read my Chapter 1, “The Prelude,” for a more positive outcome from my days at the church.
I played one season of football in 8th grade, Junior High, and probably thought I’d be a star fullback like my big brother Paul was at Mars. Problem was that I had a chronic ear infection with pus running down my neck, despite having had the aural instrument lanced several times. All this was very uncomfortable. I’m sure the ailment began when I swam in the cow pasture back in Cooperstown. As if that we’re enough, I was near-sighted and could barely see past my nose without my glasses. Not too many football players wore glasses under their helmets in those days and I didn’t know what contact lenses were. So, one season playing backup to Alan Miller, a truly talented Moon Tiger, was enough despite our team going 6-1, losing only to Montour High, which ironically was very close to Dad’s Calgon. Besides, going into high school the next year, and we had to choose between football and band, I thought those uniformed instrumentalists up in the stands had a lot more fun and many fewer injuries. The marching band was for me. In four years I played clarinet and oboe and was the pianist for the stage band and chorus. Take that Jim (oops) from Glenwillard.
One last memory from football came from 1962: the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s that have to do with high school sports? I can remember all the hype on the news and in classes over the Russians putting war heads in that neighboring under-developed Caribbean country. I remember the high-altitude surveillance photos and the film of our ships forming a blockade around the island. Most of all I remember sitting on the locker room bench face down with my head in my hands, asking the Lord when and how this was all going to end. People were talking about nuclear war and the end of the world – way too much for a sensitive young man. You know the rest of the story.Unfortunately, history has suggested that the president who ordered the blockade and gave Russia the ultimatum got his the following year. I remember that I was in physics class when word came that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. It was a Thursday afternoon, and we were all sent to our home rooms for early dismissal. This historic event was all that was on TV, especially with the murder of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald that same week, the lengthy investigations that followed, and the State funeral in Washington, D.C. What a difference living through such a time compared to reading about it in a text book.
With church obligations and music studies, opportunities to play in organized sports was limited. My baseball hero with the Pittsburgh Pirates was center fielder Bill Virdon, so naturally I played that position in Moon’s Little League. However, I was glad to be switched to first base and then to catcher because those positions were closer to the bench and I didn’t have to walk as far between innings. I should also mention than my physique was larger than the rest of the kids on the team and I couldn’t run very fast. But, I could block the ball. I’d like to think that I was a powerful hitter too. I don’t know what my average was, but I hit one over the fence of the high school, quite a distance. Baseball was played in the summer, so it didn’t conflict with my studies. Track and field, on the other hand, took place in the spring and didn’t conflict with marching band. My cousin Lee, from Grove City, got me interested in pole vaulting. In those days the pit where we landed was packed with neoprene cuttings to break our fall. This was before pliable poles so the vaulter couldn’t count on any spring from the pole bending and snapping back. I also threw the discus and put the shot. Those came naturally from this fairly big, muscular kid. I think I over-achieved in the vault. Back then, few young athletes emphasize lifting weights the way they do today. My arms were so skiing and weak, I couldn’t even climb the rope in the gym. Maybe that inability helped when I played the keyboard.
I have to say here that I believe I was an academic under-achiever. If I earned A’s and B’s in undergraduate studies and was included on the Dean’s List my freshman year, I got by with B’s and C’s at Moon High. There were just to many other things going on that I was more interested in. But, in my defense, I want to point to several crowning achievements in writing, at least, and you can laugh if you wish. As you can see above, “Language” and “Work Study Skills” were my strong suits on my 6th grade Iowa Test, with “Vocabulary” and “Reading” not far behind. I was the weakest in “Arithmetic,” and to this day hate math. I’m not so great at spelling either, often presenting a word the way it sounds. I think Abe Lincoln had that habit. Still, back then, my basic skills scores were above the class average. After getting spanked by my elementary school principal for not turning in an essay, I changed gears and produced a lengthy paper in 7th grade entitled, “The Instruments in the Symphony Orchestra,” and another that year on Sir Edmund Hillary, a personal hero who had scaled Mt. Everest just seven years earlier. Then, as a requirement for completing Confirmation class, I wrote, “The Gospel According to Larry Pearce.” Our Pastor wrote “Excellent” on mine, but classmate and later-to-be ivy leaguer Brian had “Superior” on his. I still think my mark was better. This is all to forecast a conflict in later years, as you will read, among my musical, my writing, my physical, and my spiritual pursuits. Stay tuned, and keep reading.
Life in Sharon Hill Manor was idyllic, to say the least, with lots of opportunities. Every July 4th, our neighbors put together an actual parade, which moved up the street past each house. We didn’t even have to leave our lawn chairs. There were lots of local fireworks in the evening too. My earliest special musical recollection involved music lessons from my gym teacher’s wife, Mrs. Fryz, who also lived on Spring Drive. For her spring recital, she had me play a duet with another neighbor girl, cute and blonde, little Jen, my sister’s best friend. As if that wasn’t enough, the piece we played was “Bicycle Built for Two.” Can you hear the words, “You look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two”? Aw! Whether that was one of the deciding factors in my choosing music as a career, I don’t know, but I had pretty much picked music as a pursuit by 7th grade. I remember using a magic marker to write, in big letters on the bottom of my sled, “I LOVE MUSIC.” The standard aptitude test I took later on surely confirmed such a strength.
When we first move to Moon, before our church congregation built a new sanctuary, we worshiped in an aged wooden structure, probably over 100 years old. It was there that I heard my first classical-traditional church music. A talented organist named Frank Cummings offered moving preludes and actually sang along as he played the hymns. Our family sat right behind him near the front where we could see him use his feet. A short time later he took at job in Pittsburgh’s North Hills, and a new talent replaced him, Dr. Wetzel who was doing graduate work at Pitt. He became my piano teacher, and one December, I rode with him to pick-up a harpsichord in Squirrel Hill that would be used in a Baroque Christmas cantata. Not only had I never seen a harpsichord, but I had never heard a string section in a church playing a classical piece before. What a thrill. In just a few years I would be studying pipe organ with Dr. Julian Williams down at the Episcopal church in Sewickley. Organ would be my major at IUP in 1966.
Before leaving Moon High School Days and heading off to college, please let me relay some happy experiences from those days. As I intimated earlier, I was a rather shy lad with an enormous inferiority complex. Was it in my gentlemanly English genes I had inherited from my father? I’m sure my mother’s Scots-Irish side had no such thing. Was it the teasing from my older brothers and cousins? I’m sure I’ll never know. But by the time my senior year of high school came around, I was hanging out with the band, chorus, and track crowd. I was singing in the church choir, elected president of our youth presbytery group, and v.p. of the band. But the supreme honor came as I accepted the presidency of Moon’s Key Club, the youth division of the area Kiwanis service club. I felt like this should be reserved for well-known leaders of the community, and I still do. Who was I to hold such an office? The position meant conducting meetings, planning service projects, holding fund raisers, and chairing banquets. But I also got to got to New York to the national convention. I was able to fly into JFK and ride the train to my hotel and meeting place. That was the year of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, 1965, and I took in as many sights as possible. The year concluded with our chapter being awarded the national achievement honor.
Surely my fondest transition experience between living in Moon Township and studying at IUP was the musical education I had with my piano and composition teacher, Dr. Richard Wetzel, whom I mentioned earlier and who eventually retired as professor at Ohio University. OU’s music library, containing hundreds of books, scores, and recordings, is named after him. “Dick” Wetzel, in addition to being a private music teacher, was also the Christian Ed administrator and choir director at church. He taught me everything I would need to be admitted to IUP’s outstanding music department. One young man in my class could have been considered Dr. Wetzel’s nemesis, my best friend, the late Gary Persons, that is if one incident is considered. Let me explain. Gary and I did practically everything musical together, although he was mostly self-taught. He played the trumpet in the band, string bass in the jazz ensemble, and guitar in our vocal duo. But maybe best of all, Gary was a composer and arranger. He and I did pieces for various youth services in church. But one evening during choir practice, Gary and Dr. Wetzel got into a shouting match. Now we were maybe 16-years old. Not to take sides, but I was so embarrassed that I got up and left the scene. Gary wasn’t far behind, and I think that was the last of our choir practices. He lived just down the hall from me our freshman year at IUP, but while he was out on the football field with the 200-member marching band, I was all by myself in the organ practice room. After graduation, I played for his wedding and he was best man in mine. Gary eventually went west to work for a telephone company and play side gigs in Hollywood film productions. It breaks my heart to say this but Gary was killed in a held-on collision while traveling for work. I will always miss his spunk, his creativity, and humor. I’ve never been able to replace him, nor would I want to.
As I said, I had sung in our church choir for several years and the high school concert choir my senior year, in addition to being the accompanist. That year we performed a Christmas work on KDKA-TV written by Don Riggs, better known as “Bwana Don” on a local kids program. Johnny Costa, legendary jazz pianist of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” had written the score, and though I played for rehearsal, he tickled the ivories for the taping. I sang in that and on the production of a the Moon choir’s audio recording of several spirituals.
Aside from just looking at beautiful girls in my new school, beginning in about 6th grade, I remember making associations between them and love songs I heard on the radio. In those days, KDKA was my favorite station. In fact, after interning at Indiana’s local station, my friend Gary, eulogized above, worked there before marrying and moving to the West Coast. But, the D.J. I listened to the most years earlier was Clark Race, who incidentally lived in Moon Township and told lots of funny stories about his residency. Certainly that had an influence on my enjoying a 20-year career in broadcasting, which we’ll hear about in coming chapters. Mom gave me permission to formally date when I turned 15, and Chuck, a classmate and fellow church camper who was old enough to drive, asked me to “double” with him one summer when his girlfriend visited from out of state. The four of us ended up parking in a lot overlooking the airport. My date and I found ourselves staring from the back seat at Chuck and his date up front as they “necked,” all the while listening to love songs on the radio. I don’t think I ever kissed my date that night, and it may have helped me form a practice not to kiss on a first date. My confirmation teacher at church had convinced us that kissing was a prelude to intercourse, and sex before marriage was morally wrong. I certainly didn’t want to marry yet, so my blind date and I just talked that night. Fortunately, my teenage logic saved me for a few more years.
Other informal relationships began with my election to the chairmanship of District I, Pittsburgh Youth Presbytery. We covered that wonderful experience an earlier installment, The Prelude. I got to meet many young women from all over Pittsburgh’s South Hills through youth rallies, meetings, and camps. I don’t know that I ever dated anyone from my high school, except during my Junior Prom and the summer of my senior year. I’ll confess three reasons: First, I was around many of these girls every day; second, I never wanted it to get out that maybe I wasn’t as important as I thought I was if/when we broke up; and third, I wanted to be associated with “high class” women, the like of which lived in Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, and Bethel Park.
In the transfer of power as president in the Youth Presbytery, the end of my junior year, I did grow fond of a fellow member of our church and the high school band, whom I’ll call Niki. She was a year older than I, but she was also beautiful and intelligent beyond measure. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, when she went off to study veterinary medicine, I never saw or spoke to her again. I’m sure we were both too busy to bother, but she inspired me to work hard and reach for the stars.
Though Mom and Dad move up the street from 225 to 206 Springer Drive after I went off to college, I’ll include some stories and pictures of this spacious ranch-style house here to keep within the Moon Township theme. Sitting on a half-acre lot, the abode kept my parents busy year-round: Dad with mowing the grass, gardening, raking leaves, and plowing the driveway.
Mom stayed busy with housework, flowers inside and outside, and of course, her daily soap operas. We never missed a meal, as you could tell by looking at me. Another fond memory from Moon was the 50th wedding anniversary celebration my brothers, sister, and I had for Mom & Dad at the church in 1988. Aunts, Uncles, friends, and neighbors came from all over. After repeating their vows in front of everyone, Dad smiled and said to Mom, “Now I know we’re married.” He explained during the reception that followed: at their real wedding back in 1938, the minister had called him “Harry.”
Perhaps my fondest memories were the family picnics we had at the upper Springer Drive property, especially the summers of 1974 and 2000. Aside from the funerals for Mom and Dad, and maybe a wedding, those days were probably the only times when all of their children, grandchildren, and even the great-grandchildren were gathered in one home place. The babies were bounced on laps, the younger ones soaked in an old washtub, the older kids played baseball, and the seniors just sat around and talked. If there was a sad part of the memory it was the phone call from my Grandmother Pearce saying that she needed to go to the hospital. Dad had to go off to Butler, and she died some time later. All good things must end.
And so it was when the time came for the deaths of Mom and Dad. I accompanied my parents on their tours of various area retirement villages after Dad’s retirement at age 67 from Merck, which had acquired Calgon Corporation. After months of investigations, Mom and Dad decided to live out their years at 206. That became wise and practical when my sister Ellen moved home to care for them. But just shy of his 85th birthday, February 2, 2002, Dad contracted pneumonia, was hospitalized, and died ten days later. Just over a year and a half later, my older brother Carl passed away at age 62 from heart failure brought on by lung problems. Then the next year Mother died after collapsing while getting ready for church. In falling, she broke her ankle, and we thought the mending, hospital stay, and physical therapy would take care of everything. We were wrong. She had survived breast cancer in her early 70s, but this episode turned out to be more deadly 15 years later. The passing of three pillars in my life in three years was almost more than I could bear, but I have drawn strength from remembering them. I have made it my life’s purpose in retirement to pay tribute to them and all Susan and my ancestors through the family history website, E-Gen.info . From the hundreds of hours of research and thousands of pages of recorded facts and memories, you’ll find, for example, eulogies for my parents and brother. May I invite you to type a name in the “Search” box atop the right hand column of this webpage.
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Last revised 1/22/22