Growing Up in Wheeling: Sitting on my Woodsdale Porch

Sitting on the porch was an art in the old days in Woodsdale. The neighborhoods were very much designed for porch sitters. As a very young person I got to see a little of the porch era that came to an end. That was the time when the houses of Woodsdale were decked out with awnings. Wheeling Tent and Awning Company would show up and put up wonderful awnings to shade windows and porches. This was how people dealt with heat in the pre- air conditioned era. The houses were equipped with fittings to put up all the sun blocking material. It was like putting a pretty dress on a woman to see the houses dressed up for shade.

As we grew up that custom faded quickly, but the porch was still important. Our house was special because it sat on a small knoll. Sitting on our front porch swing you got a commanding view of the intersection of Poplar Ave and Woodlawn. Someone would walk down the street and you would say hi. Next thing you knew they were sitting on the stone railing of the porch and the local gossip was flowing like the beer at the Alpha.

Now across the street Old Mr. Smoot lived. Mr. Smoot retired from the railroad and he was the most important porch occupant ever. Mr. Smoot kept an eye on everything. As a little kid if you had nothing to do you could go over and talk to Mr. Smoot. Mr. Smoot liked children and was wonderful with all of them. One thing Mr. Smoot taught every kid was how to recite the Hit ta Tit story. Perhaps I can reconstruct it. I will need the help of my little sister Patty on this one.

I ran up a hazel gable
I ran down a hingle bingle
There I saw a thig a ma jig
A stealing my capani
It I had had a hit ta tit
To hit ta tit ta tanie
I could have caught the thing ama jig
A stealing my capani.

Just try saying this real fast. To this day I have a lot of fun with little kids trying to get them to recite this. Mr. Smoot used to teach kids how to recite the presidents in order. My cousin Allison would sit with Mr Smoot and learn all his rhymes.

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My favorite was when he told stories about the railroad. Mr Smoot would tell us about the bums. I think it was Mr. Smoot who inspired me to want to be a bum. Some people say I have succeeded. I like bums. One day Mr. Smoot told a bum story that has stuck in my head forever. He said the bums had no money, but they had a hankering for something strong to drink, so they mixed up a drink called Open Switch. Of course as kids we had to know what Open Switch was. It seemed like the perfect railroad drink. Mr. Smoot said it was a mixture of buttermilk and gasoline. Even as a young person we knew that mixture would probably open your switch for the last time.

In the old days people knew people. You knew your neighbors, you talked to them, and you visited with them on the front steps, or on the porch. Sunday was a special day. On a warm Sunday people walked down to Vance Church by Woodsdale School. As you sat on the porch you could say good morning to those in their Sunday best.

All this porch talk reminds me of an embarrassing moment rushing from bed to run down to the porch. A terrible crash had awakened me. The sound of massive amounts of breaking glass was beyond comprehension. What had happened? With nothing on but my underwear down the steps from the second floor I ran. Just as I started for the door a nice looking young girl came running into the house. Here I was a half naked young teen confronting of all things a girl. She was crying because she thought she killed the milkman. Failing to stop at the intersection she forced Mr. Bell into a tree. In those days all the milk was in glass bottles. That was the crashing can breaking glass that had brought me to life. Mr. Bell was relatively unhurt and life went on.

My uncle lived over on Hamilton Avenue. Many times I would go to visit my cousin Mark and somehow end up talking at length with my uncle. It was a rare thing for young people to have long meaningful conversations with older experienced people. Porches in the old days were very important social places. Hopefully the tradition will come back.