As I said before, life in the 50s was much simpler but certainly never boring. Our phones didn’t have buttons, and the first ones didn’t even have dials. You picked up the phone and were greeted by an operator saying, “Number please.” You told her what number you wanted, and she connected you.
The telephone office was in the building where the library now stands. My Aunt Mae was an operator and knew everyone. When my old buddy Bill tried to call me, Aunt Mae would say, “Bill, you live next door, come talk to him!”
The only electronic gadgets we had were radios and televisions, snowy televisions. The only radio stations were AM and other than the local WTRN the other stations were barely clear enough to listen to. FM stations were purely “elevator music”.
I loved my little transistor radio (remember that?) because it was a link to my beloved “Buccos” (Pittsburgh Pirates). I loved when they were on the west coast and they came at 10pm. I would go to bed listening to them and writing down the scores on my homemade score sheet. WTRN normally went off the air around 11 p.m., but stayed on until after the Pirates game. I often fell asleep during the game and was woken up at 6 a.m. to the sound of our national anthem when they reconnected.
At first we didn’t have a television, but my father finally gave in to my mother’s pleas and bought one. But alas, it was only a black and white. The only channels were 10 (Altoona) and 6 (Johnstown). Altoona had a decent image, but J-town’s was snowy and rough. And every time a plane flew overhead, the two channels had interference until it passed. Our TV had some kind of remote control though – and the name of the remote was “Jeff”. It was “Jeff, turn up the volume” or “Jeff, change the channel”.
So we were mostly on our own for entertainment, and we got pretty good at it. One of my favorite pastimes was reading, which has become a somewhat lost art these days, at least as a source of entertainment. I read every sport and nature book or magazine I could find.
Tyrone had a great playground system. There was almost one in my backyard along 17th Street. They organized various activities for us all summer, as well as swings, sliding boards, etc. Each was run by a student for the summer, and they provided and supervised all crafts and activities.
For the most part, however, the streets were our playground. And there were baseball diamonds everywhere, and almost every day they were in regular use. And we knew when the streetlights come on, we better go home. Failure to do so resulted in shortened hours of play for us the next day – or two!
We didn’t just have our own parents; all the adults in the neighborhood have become co-parents. They watched over us as if we were theirs. If we needed discipline, they often administered it, which was fully approved by our own parents. And after picking it up from a neighbor, we picked it up on the way home! Can you imagine the outcry if a parent did this to someone else’s child these days?
There were few fences back then. Our backyard collided with our neighbor’s, which collided with another neighbor’s, and so on. We were welcome everywhere, and when we were playing hide and seek, cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, we had the whole block to do it.
Our means of transport was our bicycles. You could always tell where the kids were hanging out by the number of bikes parked in front of a house. We could walk all over town and our parents never worried about where we were or if we were safe.
I have always looked forward to summer evenings. All the neighbors had hammocks or chairs in their yard and they always sat and talked until bedtime. We lived near the Big Yank factory, and the factory’s flat roof was a perfect nesting site for nightjars.
Nightjars are nocturnal birds similar to nightjars. They become active just before dusk and fly on summer evenings catching insects. They would circle overhead, then dive when they saw a juicy bug they wanted and make some sort of raspy sound as they descended. I had one that I called Consomme (can’t remember why), but I could go out and call it and it would come right back!
As I mentioned before, my neighbor, Bill, was several years older than me and was definitely a bad influence on me. He dragged me into a Zorro cult where we dressed up and terrorized the neighborhood girls.
Bill loved the 4th of July, which is to say he loved the pyrotechnics involved. He had a source (which he would never reveal) for the M-80s. Now an M-80 is a firecracker on steroids – they were STRONG!
Bill would attach an M-80 to a helium balloon with the fuse in a lit cigarette, then send it skyward. Once she rose above Tyrone, the cigarette eventually burned and lit the fuse, and whoever she was hovering over received a major wake-up call! There was no way to trace where it came from, as it was often just blocks away from where he threw it. Great!
Bill also figured out that you could take a metal pipe, jam it into a cement building block, drop a lit M-80 on it, stick a tennis ball down the tube, and step back! It was basically a homemade mortar. When the M-80 exploded, the tennis ball was launched skyward like a guided missile! Sometimes we could follow its path and pick it up as it descended, and sometimes it would disappear from view entirely and we had no idea where it had ended up. I could imagine many people perplexed as a tennis ball from heaven slammed into the earth right next to them.
Like I said, life back then was much simpler, but it was never boring, especially when you lived next door to Bill!