The sturdy brick house along Rt. 8 in Middlesex Township, southern Butler County, PA, is gone now, no match for the dollar signs the latest owner saw in the proposed construction of a new Sheetz gas station and convenience store. But instead of the bright red umbrella over the gas pumps and promise of tasty sandwiches made inside while the patrons relieve themselves in the restrooms, the original green grass under the splendid old oak tree beside the abode has reestablished itself. Apparently the deal fell through, but not soon enough to save my homestead. My dad had bought the former farmland from neighbor Jim Brennen and started his first mortgaged domicile with a basement dwelling around 1948, the year I was born.Live as you can afford it and pay as you go isn’t allowed today. Young couples today are required to mortgage their future (and their souls) to prevent cement block basement walls covered with first floor joists in turn covered with unsightly tar paper. Dad had lots of help from Mom’s father, Grandpap Paul Gray, a professional carpenter. His experience was gained through the construction of several coal mining towns in northern Allegheny County and his own houses. The first family dwelling was started around 1917 in West Deer Township, Allegheny County, when my mother, the first of 12 children, arrived. Our new home near Cooperstown sat on at least a half-acre of ground, with plenty of room for a big garden and a nice-sized yard for playing baseball and football and building snow forts. We used to roller skate in the basement, and my brothers even had an in-door shooting range down there at one time. The attached garage and large oak tree next to it holding a two-person swing were perfect for family picnics. With larger families in those days before televised sports, Sundays were always spent at someone’s house enjoying food and fun.
The similarity of our house to the one that Susan’s dad, Richard Miller, a self-employed cement contractor, built over the mountain in Somerset County about the same time is amazing, except that ours was a story-and-a-half and Susan’s was a full two-story. Both were brickcased. The biggest difference in the locations now is the amount of development: Just south of the Cooperstown demolition site is a new 90-acre residential and shopping center called Middlesex Crossing in what was once furtile farmland. Also, an upgrade to one of the main roads, Rt. 228, is being constructed between the various Mars Area Schools and Rt. 8. The area around the old Miller house remains almost unchanged.
I’m told that I’m lucky to be alive, the third of four children, after I wondered off as a two-year old to explore the old Rt. 8, then only two lanes but with lots of traffic between north Pittsburgh and Erie. Apparently a trucker blocked the road with his rig, scooped me up, and delivered me safely to my mother who had been doing her laundry that day. I don’t remember.
What I do remember, and probably the first recollection of my many years, happened at age three – a fall from about four feet up the cellar steps where I was sitting, onto the cement below, while watching Mom, again, doing her laundry. There was always lots of that with four kids. I landed on my forehead, the right side just above the eye. This time, Mom scooped me up and we spent the day in the rocking chair as my face swelled. Mom had ice wrapped in a washcloth over it as she waited for Dad to come home from work. He drove our only car, but it would soon carry us all to a hospital in Pittsburgh where I would spend the night as the swelling went down. No permanent damage, I’m told, but I still have an indentation over the eye and had many a headache there growing up.
I also remember being held in my mother’s arms, suffering from what was probably measles at a young age. We were watching our early black and white television after supper, and while I don’t remember the program, I do remember the feeling of burning up with fever. Obviously, I recovered, and in time for a bout with mumps. Other than being unable to eat, I remember sitting at the kitchen table watching the rest of the family. Mom walked through the door from shopping and gave me a pack of Black Jack gum. I don’t know if I could chew it at the time, but I’m sure I enjoyed it later. I was about six. That was about the age that I had my tonsils and adenoids removed, but not at any nearby hospital. I was taken to my Aunt Helen’s and Uncle Dale’s in Grove City, north of Butler where the well-known conservative Christian college of the same name is. The small town has a tiny hospital, now part of the Allegheny Health Network. Those dear relatives watched me while Dad was at work and Mom watched the rest of the family. I recall the ether that put me to sleep and the tasty popsicle I was given when I woke up.Childhood is often filled with terrors, and I don’t know when I was more afraid than on my seventh birthday, a Sunday at the Pearce grandparents’ farm. Some of the older cousins were playing in the hay loft in the barn. I was told that I was too young to be climbing up that high. I pouted and was on my way back to the house when the largest dog I had ever seen confronted me, a German shepherd. It stood near the springhouse barking, blocking my way. I stood frozen until rescued by one of the adults inside, perhaps an uncle. From that time on I didn’t carry much affection for dogs, except for a precious small, white mixed-breed terrier named Tiny, who looked just like the famous RCA dog. She was our family pet.Our house was surrounded by fields and woods, and “Tiny Dog,” as we called her, had learned to stay off of Rt. 8 after being hit there as a puppy. But she did often follow me on my hikes. One winter’s day I went down over the hill behind Brennen’s to the creek where we swam, fished, and even trapped in later years. There was a thin layer of ice covering the icy water, but as Tiny soon discovered, it was not even thick enough to hold her light frame. Into the water she went, paddling like mad. Even though I wasn’t much older than 10, I instinctively waded into the shallow wet mix and grabbed her shivering body. Struggling back to shore, I placed her on the firm ground and quickly headed back to the house, so afraid that she had been irreversibly injured. Like a trooper she followed me to the doorway, where I found a towel and dried her off. I’m sure her heart was beating as fast as mine as I held and petted her.
Despite having a dog, we were a cat family. Tiny was allowed in the house, but not the cats. They were mostly small animals brought to our abode from the relatives’, the neighbors’, and maybe the nearby farms where my brothers worked. I remember one traumatic day seeing blood splattered up the inside wall of the garage and hearing my dad explain that one had apparently been sleeping on top of one of the car tires, probably still warm from its travels. In backing out of the garage, the poor beast was run over. I hope it didn’t suffer, but I know just hearing the tale was traumatic for me.
In addition to a dog and cats, we raised chickens and turkeys. When I say “we,” I mean that they were Dad’s projects. He bought young goblets from someone locally and fed them in the turkey coop next to the garden. Shortly before Thanksgiving, they were sold to whom I recall as an older Jewish man for “be” heading, processing, and selling for meat. One reason I remember this is that after the birds where delivered to his customers the man came with a check for my dad. He also brought a bottle of Mogan David wine as a way of saying, “Thanks for helping my business.” Our family didn’t drink much, so this was a novelty. Mother hid the bottle in the linen closet, but my sister and I knew where it was and would take swigs now and then. I imagine Dad spent whatever money he made on the turkeys to buy our Christmas presents.
Now raising chickens was another story. Our house was across the road from the Norris Hatchery. We went to church with that family, and I later learned that we were distantly related. The parents taught Sunday School and I was good friends with and went to school with young Calvin. So, every Easter week, Calvin’s dad, Vernon, brought a box of peeps over to the elementary school. Each was dyed a different color. Each of the youngsters that wanted could take a colored peep. Being the in the poultry business with my dad, I gladly accepted one, but wait, there’s more. On the bus ride home, I would approach some of the other kids and ask them if they really wanted their peep. I may have had a caution that their parents might not like their added responsibility. At any rate, on one occasion I arrived home with quite a few young birds. Until the weather warmed up, we kept them in a raised wire coop in the garage, and in the summer the bottom was removed and the structure was moved around in the yard so they could roam in the grass. They grew up fast, and little did I know that Dad would have me hold them in the Fall as he cut off their heads with a hatchet. I didn’t bring anymore peeps home after that. By the way, in those days many rural families, including my wife Susan’s, raised and processed their own meat from a variety of animals. Seems like the kids watched or helped and didn’t think much of it. Thanksgiving morning was often “butchering day” down on the farm.
Speaking of chicken coops in the garage, I vividly remember learning to ride a two-wheeler behind the house when I was about seven or eight. My brother had removed the training wheels and got me started with a shove. Off I went, finally experiencing how centrifugal force could keep a bicyclist upright. Problem was that I had to make a turn to keep going without running into something. Well, I didn’t make a complete turn and that “something” was just inside the garage – the chicken coop. I’m sure the peeps literally went flying as the cage collapsed, but no one, including me, got injured too badly. Why is it that we remember these things so clearly?One happy thing I remember from my fifth birthday: I got a shiny new red wagon, known as the Radio Flyer Classic. In those days, kids would knee on one leg inside and push along the ground with the other, steering with the tongue. And then there was the thrill of coasting down a hill with all limbs inside. That “first vehicle” is still in my daughter’s garage in Virginia. Over the years it’s been repainted and had the tires replaced. She uses it to haul wood, tools, and supplies from point to point. That one-time “toy” still sells for under $100. Who could imagine getting such a practical use from something so inexpensive so many years later?
Birthdays and Christmases were the times to get other momentous vehicles: a first bike, a sled, a toboggan, and even a set of skis. I believe it was for my sixth birthday that I got an unusual and memorable gift, a periscope. I’m sure my parents couldn’t afford nor would they trust me with an entire submarine, so I got a 30-inch cardboard tube with tiny mirrors through which I could peep over fences and around corners. My darling, blonde-haired sister, Ellen, and I were playing in the basement and got into an argument. She angrily grabbed my precious periscope and smashed it on the floor. I returned her anger by hitting her. Of course she went bawling upstairs to our mother. Mom took it all in stride, but I remember that when the neighbor across the road, Mrs. Robinson, heard of this, she took Ellen’s side. Perhaps she was a feminist? I know that I had done wrong, but my guilt was only amplified sometime later when I received a stern lecture from my Sunday school teacher about when, out of curiosity, I had picked two robin’s eggs from a nest in a pine tree along our driveway earlier in the week and accidentally broke them. I think my sister had told her what happened. Ellen, if you’re reading this, “I’m sorry, but boys will be boys.” Seems like everyone liked the blonde baby of the family better.
I did take on some responsibility around the age of ten or eleven when our neighbor Jim Brennan asked me if I’d like to mow his yard. He promised to pay me in silver dollars. Who could say “no” to that. Well, the problem was that when I took the shiny objects to open a savings account at the nearby Mars National Bank, I gave them the coins, thinking that I could get them back at anytime. Imagine my surprise when I made my first withdrawal, asking for my silver dollars and was told that they weren’t available. I understood but was very disappointed. Instead, that little, blue fiber passbook with hand-typed records of my transactions was all I had. How far we’ve come with online banking.
I mentioned the Robinson family above, who lived across the road from us. Mr. Robinson ran an ice cream stand and nursery on our side of Rt. 8. The dairy was a favorite spot for the whole neighborhood and hungry travelers. Some of the area kids worked in the nursery, pulling weeds from around the shrubs that were for sale. I thought that I might like to get in on that and one day, after striking a deal with Mr. Robinson, I took a bucket, got down on my hands and knees, and began pulling weeds. I think that lasted less than an hour, when I encroached on the habitat of a garden snake. Well, that ended that enterprise. I got up, dropped the bucket, and went down to the tastee-freeze to quit my new job. With a smile, Mr. Robinson seemed to understand. For my efforts, he handed me the biggest ice cream cone on the menu, worth all of 25-cents in those days. I went home, a happy camper. Let me continue with two unusual and perhaps scary stories, one involving a school bus and the other a skunk. First, although we lived less than a mile from our Middlesex Elementary School, having a young person walk there along busy Rt. 8 would have been out of the question. There were no sidewalks. So, my younger sister and I would walk across the neighbor’s backyard and catch the bus as it came out of a side road to the north. The entry to Rt. 8 was down a slight grade. In the winter it could be icy so we kids would run and slide down the slope while waiting for the bus. I think I must have been a little late one morning and was running down the road just as the bus was getting to the stop. Before the giant carrier was completely stopped, I found myself sliding and losing control and on my back, not only slipping partly under the rear of the bus, but up against the giant twin wheels. As fate would have it (and a good God above), the driver had slammed on the brakes, locking them from running over my mid-section. I was able to climb out from under safely, without a scratch. The driver reported the incident to the school and my parents, and I was looked at by a doctor. I never told anyone until years later exactly what happened, saying only that I had slid and brushed against the bus. I was too frightened and aware of how stupid my actions were, not to mention how dangerous things could have turned out. I guess when I consider some of the close calls mentioned earlier, I must have nine lives. There are other ones to come.
The other incident I remember from those days in elementary school involved checking my trap lines. My older brothers and uncles had all found hunting and trapping animals lucrative and rewarding to their male egos. Around the late 1950s, with them off to college and the service, I inherited the metal utensils and they were willing to teach me how and where to set them to humanely capture, and kill when necessary, fur-bearing creatures found in the fields and streams around the area. I had some success catching muskrats during the winter season. Like my brothers, I would check the traps before school and skin anything I had caught in the garage after. One morning I found a skunk in one of my traps I had set in the woods behind Norris’ Hatchery, near to where the culled eggs were dumped. The animal was still alive as I approached, so I carefully dispatched it with a blow to the head, using the end of a club. What I wasn’t so careful about was stepping in the poop the skunk had issued during his confinement. Soon I was back home, on the school bus, and into my classroom. It wasn’t long before the whole school knew that something in the air wasn’t right. Embarrassed to the bone, I was taken out of class, to the nurse’s office, and home. As I look back, although I’m sure there were some chuckles and noses held, everyone was kind to this thoughtless 11-year old. Seems like this could only happen in rural Pennsylvania to a young man trying to keep up with his older brothers and uncles. Long story short, Mom was especially kind, getting those stinky clothes and shoes off, and getting me into the bath tub. It wasn’t long before I was dressed in clean clothes and different shoes and back at my desk in school with a story to tell. Today I’m sure of two things: Mom scrubbed those wearables, because we never threw anything away. Tomato juice comes to mind. Secondly, I eventually took the skunk into the woods behind our house and carefully skinned it before sending the hide off to collect my payment.
Aside from getting a crisp, new one-dollar bill in Grandma Pearce’s Christmas card each year, My sister and I looked forward to Halloween. I don’t remember anyone in those days going to the store and buying a costume. Everything was homemade, except maybe a mask. All I needed was one of Mom’s old dresses, a pair of high heels, a wig, and some of her make-up. I’m sure I felt more convincing as a lady-of-the-evening than I looked, not that I knew what one of those was. Other times I’d be a professional sports figure, musician, or one of a dozen other role models. We never went far from home: across the field to Brennan’s, up through the Frazier Road development next door, or carefully along each side of Rt. 8 with Mom or Dad. Arriving back home from “Trick or Treat,” we would dump the goodies on the living room floor. Next we’d separate out all the fresh fruit – oranges and apples we didn’t consider “treats” – and give them to Mom for refrigeration. We still remember the women neighbors who thought they were keeping us healthy – yuck. The rest, all the candy bars and cookies, went back in the Halloween bag to be hidden where brothers and sister couldn’t find them. My goal was to make all this last until at least Christmas, when we had the promise of more candy, but on a good year it was all gone by Thanksgiving.
Despite having what I considered to be a lot of friends in grade school, I suppose I had a usual number of fights. Some resulted in bumps and bruises while one cost me a pair of glasses. I had been condemned (or blessed) with corrective lenses at age seven. This had all come about when I started having headaches and vomiting, usually after church and Sunday school for which I was awakened by my parents and rushed off without breakfast each week. We usually visited Grandma Gray Sunday afternoons, and I spent many of those lying on her bed trying to settle. A visit to the eye doctor and prescription lenses soon took care of the problem.
My first dozen years at Cooperstown no doubt shaped my ideals of love and romance. This probably began with my interest in a neighbor girl when I was five. Let’s just say that we played “house” (and sometimes “doctor”) and her mother wasn’t too happy when she was told about my anatomical engineering curiosity – how girls are made. The next year I was appointed the groom in a Tom Thumb Wedding at our church. I don’t remember if I told my now-wife Susan that I had been married before. I know that this was the first time I ever wore a tuxedo. In later years I wore one to the prom, for my wedding, and eventually to play and sing with the Johnstown Symphony. See, clothes do make the man!
Perhaps my fondest memories of life at Middlesex Elementary was falling in love with two other females. I still didn’t really know how the physical aspect of my being worked, so to speak. My first and second grade teacher was Miss Long and she looked and smelled so nice. I guess the descriptor for such feelings today would be “infatuation,” an intense but short-lived passion or admiration for someone or something. One interesting internet site, “Marriage.com,” explains the difference between this and “love.” I’m sure I’m not the only young person to have experienced this. The questions tend to be: “What is happening exactly,” and “What do I do about it”? I remember attending a Christmas eve service at the church in 1955 and seeing Miss Long all dressed up for the holidays. She smiled at me and said, “Merry Christmas.” I thought how Santa had given me just what I wanted.
A second encounter with whatever a young boy is capable of feeling involved a dark-haired girl in my class whom I’ll call Kathleen. Not only was she beautiful but a gifted dancer too. We were both involved in the third grade talent show. She performed the most perfect tap routine, and I managed to forget most of my lines in a silly monologue. The words from a well-known Irish song express how I felt: “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen.” Like an idiot, I thought I might kiss her on the playground at recess one day. What a fantasy. It rained that day and we didn’t go outside when the time came. Later, I was told that one of my best friends, Ron, had kissed her. I was heart-broken and that was pretty much the end of my imaginary romance. Sometimes I think men’s minds still work like a little boy’s.
Our home along Rt. 8 was just close enough to my Grandparents Gray and several aunts and uncles that I often would join my cousins in the summer for swimming in the creek that ran near their houses. Sometimes I would hang our empty two-gallon steel milk can from the handlebars of my bike and drop it off at Park’s milk house across the road from there for Dad to pick-up full on his way home from work. Our milk was unpasturized in those days, and yet we lived to tell about it. Anyway, the swimming hole was just west of the barn, and probably contained a certain amount of manure as we Gray cousins weren’t the only ones using the creek. Again, aside from a medical history of bad ears which I attribute to that unfiltered water filling my ears in those days, I lived to tell about it. We boys would get to the pasture after lunch when the sun heated things up. With spade shovels, we would cut away the bank where the creek made a curve nearest to the road and stack the sod down stream, damming up the water for a deeper pool into which we jumped from the bank. The inside of the curve offered a nice sandy beach. The dam afforded us several hours of enjoyment and then gave-way under the increasing pressure of the stream. At that time we knew it was time to go home. Unfortunately, the site of our favorite swimming hole will probably be lost with the road improvements now underway.
Probably the final memory I have of Cooperstown and my elementary school days was the one and only paddling I ever received. It was in the final days of sixth grade at Middlesex, not long before I was set to move to our family’s new location. We had been assigned an essay. I was in a bad mood and told my friend Wesley that I just wasn’t going to do it. Now I was an average student while Wesley was the brain of our class. Empathizing with me, he said that he wasn’t going to do it either. Wesley sat right in front of me, and when the day came to hand in our papers, the teacher came back the row, collecting the essays. To my surprise, Wesley handed his in, a serious study of “The Beaver.” How could I forget that? How could I forget telling Mr. Tindall, our teacher, that I hadn’t done mine? I was told, in front of the whole class, to go to the principal’s office and wait for him. Still red-faced, I still remember the three whacks to the backside and the embarrassing return to the classroom. This is a fitting way to say, “The End,” and if you’re into vulgar puns, a way of introducing our family’s move to “Moon” Township.
Next installment, Chapter. 2B: Move to Moon Township
Return to Introduction & Table of Contents
Last revised 1/22/22