Summer Fun in 1940’s Pittsburgh

Growing up on the city line of Pittsburgh filled me with many memories that I’ll always cherish. I’ve enjoyed telling people I could walk across the street and be in Crafton Borough, and walk across another street and be in Ingram. Of course, a friend in college, who lived on Pittsburgh’s South Side, insisted you had to be able to walk across a bridge and be in downtown before you could claim to live in the city. I could walk across that same bridge… it just took me longer to get to it.

Many stories written about growing up in the 1940’s or earlier talk about kids going barefoot all summer long. Obviously, those children didn’t live in our neighborhood. Our street was made of bricks, the sidewalks were concrete, and alleys were either asphalt or gravel. Walking barefoot on any of those surfaces on a hot summer day was an extremely painful experience. Farm kids, who could walk for miles on grass or dirt, had a definite advantage over us.

Short pants were not popular during my early childhood. I remember one boy in grade school who wore knickers, but they were basically out of style by 1950. Our summer attire consisted of blue jeans and tennis shoes. The tennis shoes were seldom worn to play tennis. We just called them that. Some people called them sneakers. They were high tops – the only kind back then – and were either Keds or P.F. Flyers.

The only time we wore shirts in the summer was when we were going to Vacation Bible School or somewhere with our parents. Interestingly enough, I can never remember getting a bad sunburn back in the days before sun screen.

During the days, we’d ride our bicycles or play whiffle ball. Sometimes we’d play softball in a vacant lot that was close by. The only problem was the elderly couple who lived on one side of the vacant lot. They got very upset if our ball went into their yard. Thus, we made a rule that if anyone hit the ball into their yard, it was three outs. Naturally, whoever was pitching would intentionally aim the ball to ensure that the batter hit the ball into the off-limits area. Since the elderly women seemed to stand at her basement door and wait for our transgressions, we had to assign one person the job of getting to the ball before she did. If she won the race, she kept the ball and our game was over.

Once, when it was my job to retrieve the ball, she almost beat me to it. As she bent over to pick it up, I screamed at the top of my lungs; she ducked and I grabbed the ball. I quickly disappeared back over their fence and back onto the vacant lot.

The only nice thing about those people is that they never called our parents to complain. They were among the few. It seems that whenever my brother and I did something we shouldn’t have done, Mom knew about it before we got home.

From time to time we’d venture farther away from home. Dunbar Field was a baseball diamond several blocks away. In those days it was poorly maintained, which worked to our benefit. The field was seldom used during the day and we could always find enough guys to have a game. If we had more than nine players for each side, we simply had extra outfielders. If we were short-handed, we played a game we called “rounders”. The method behind that game was that all but four players would go out in the field. The four batters would take turns hitting. If one of the batters made an out, whoever was pitching would go in as a batter. The player who made the out went to the outfield and began playing at one of the positions – whichever one was designated ‘last’. As each out was made, everyone moved up one position until he was pitching. When another out was made, the pitcher became a batter.

The city finally decided to rehabilitate the field. They restored the locker rooms and built an apartment for a caretaker. The field was restored with healthy grass, and the infield was smoothed out. That’s when the fences went up and the field became ‘off-limits’ to any body not part of an organized league. Fortunately for us, we had all outgrown such activities and seldom went to that field any more. Unfortunately, the children who were following our footsteps found themselves locked out.

There was another vacant lot in our neighborhood that gave us many hours of fun. It was basically a steep drop of about twenty or thirty feet. Of course, we needed specialized equipment to take advantage of it. The specialized equipment came in the form of empty appliance cartons. We got those boxes at Bodner’s Appliance store, which just happened to be next to the Purity Cone Company. Purity Cone made waffled ice cream cones and always had discards. We’d show up at their door with a paper bag and they’d gladly fill it for us. After our snack, we’d go over to the trash heap behind Bodner’s and help ourselves to the biggest box we could find. We’d drag it back to the vacant lot, load it with whoever was there, and start rolling toward the hill. By the time we reached the bottom of the hill, we’d have split lips and a group of boys who had just been through a train wreck. We gleefully dragged the box back to the top of the hill and repeated the process… until the box disintegrated. Oh, what wonderful fun! If I tried that today, I’d probably break most of my bones.

It seems that summers were much longer back then, but like today, they eventually came to an end. When it came time to go to school, we discovered that most of our playmates were Catholic and they all went to St. Philip’s Church school. My brother and I went to Schaeffer School – the public school in our area.

Things were definitely different in the 1940’s. The folks sending their sons to private school weren’t any better off financially then our family. Private schools must have been cheaper in those days. Maybe the school was cheaper because it was in Crafton and our friends had to leave town to get there. Just a thought.

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