This an’nat …

We had no cafeteria at Penn Township Elementary School. For six years I carried my lunch in an Aladdin lunch box. Over time there were lunchboxes featuring a barn, Zorro, and something about spaceships. One thing never changed, however. Every day I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because that was my choice. Every single day for about a thousand days.

A dinner for our extended family one Sunday was pulled off track a bit when my grandfather (according to my grandmother) forgot to pack the roasted turkey for the trip from Upper St. Clair to Penn Township. In those days a family could not have a meal without meat. Blue laws were in effect so there would be no trip to Kroger. The problem was solved by a quick trip to Islay’s and a hefty order of chip-chopped ham. My brother and I couldn’t have been happier. My great-grandmother laughed quietly in the kitchen with my mother about the faux-paux, but I suspect the drive home was a long one for my grandfather.

I grew up in an old home that still stands across from Kelly’s car dealerships. It is located just inside Penn Township. For many years, locals referred to it as “the old Shafer place” noting the family that built it about 1909. Although electric lights had been the standard for many years by then, Mr. Shafer worked for the T.W. Philips Gas Company and had gaslights installed in the house. When we moved in in 1953, I remember that there were still vestiges of these lights on our walls. The house also featured lightning rods, the type you see occasionally on old barns but almost never on homes.

While my father was very tight with money and never wanted to go out to eat, his father was quite the opposite. He liked to treat us to dinner out probably to give my mom a break. He liked to take us to the Willard Hotel in Butler which required dressing up. We typically wore snap-on bow ties. My brother and I were not gourmands and mostly liked to eat all of the rolls from the generous sized basket on the table. I can’t recall a single item from the menu but I do remember the waitresses balancing meals on huge oversized trays. This was a source of wonder to me.

When I was in 6th Grade, I served as an AAA Safety Patrol. The images I always saw about this job on AAA posters had brave older kids standing in the road, arms outstretched, to ensure little ones were not run over. Our job at Penn School, however, was to stand and walk the aisles of the bus while it was in motion with the unstated mission of being a “bouncer”. I can’t imagine what good we did but I know what we were doing was dangerous should the bus collide with something. I doubt the American Automobile Association had any knowledge of this activity.

My friend Larry once gave a persuasive speech to speech class where he addressed pollution. He took a large glass of water, dumped in a few drops of motor oil, some small gravel bits, and a cup of garbage. He said was adding everything under the sun and “under the moon as well” as he dropped in some pantyhose. He then made his final point by lifting this disgusting mix and offering, “Anybody want a drink?”

I lived in a neighborhood where every single person born between 1948 and 1958 was male. There were over 15 of us! We could always find plenty of guys to do things like play our annual New Year’s Day backyard tackle football game.

The week of your birthday you had a privilege at Trinity Lutheran Sunday School. You got to go up front where Mrs. Turner would hold a glass bank shaped like a church. You would proceed to drop a penny for each year you were celebrating that week. The Sunday School class would count aloud together as they heard the pennies drop.   We thought this a great honor and big deal.

An annual Columbus Day ritual on Pittsburgh television was the appearance of Superior Court Judge Michael A. Musmanno. His Honor would passionately plead his case that Columbus was most certainly the one and only discoverer of America. Watching him make his point was almost as much fun as watching a man named “Gus” take his annual polar bear dip into the Allegheny River every New Year’s Day which was also big TV news.

The task of caring for Penn Township Elementary School’s floors, walls, bathrooms, furnace and everything else fell to the big hands of Chuck Hartzell. Chuck was a daily presence as he pushed the polishing mop or transported the trash. When he went to pull the rope to ring the bell that summoned us back from recess to class, several kids would hang on his broad shoulders and “help”. The big tasks never suppressed his big smile.

I was rarely more conflicted than I was on the day I was asked to “MC” our senior queen “tournament” at school. I had done such jobs before, but this just did not feel right. I did not understand the need for such a recognition. More importantly, while I had absolutely no ill feelings about any of the candidates, the girls I was closest to were not among them. I believed they were just as deserving. I really did not like the idea of going out and celebrating any classmates at the expense of others. It was almost a betrayal. However I did as I was asked. I really did like one performance where three candidates duplicated the suffragette march from Mary Poppins. But as I finished up I tried to deliver a kind rejoinder on behalf of all the girls not on stage that day.   Our class advisor and dear soul, Mr. Hugh Shearer came afterword to say, “You spoke correctly. They are all queens.” One candidate came later to offer her sweet support. I was never certain just how I felt about the whole thing.

I was a fortunate boy. My parents knew folks at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh and I was among the first children to receive the Salk polio vaccine. Medicine had made progress. I recall a program to screen the general public for TB. A bus would park on Main Street in Butler. Inside was an X-ray machine. Folks simply showed up, went in, and were given a chest X-ray. I also remember the Sabine oral polio vaccine being administered at the Penn School on consecutive Sundays. Prevention was offered to all for low cost and with little difficulty. Two plagues that were among the greatest killers of the Forties were nearly a memory by the Sixties.

I was not a musician but I was so proud of the music program at Knoch High School. The marching band, the orchestra, the musicals, the chorus were all great opportunities for showcasing and developing some great talent. Mr. Smith, Mr. Knepshield, Mr. Gillespie and company offered something that should never be taken away from any high school’s curriculum offering!