Growing up in Wheeling was like coming from a special planet. Wheeling seemed to specialize in cultivating unusually eccentric people. Wheeling suffered from a disease called acute prosperity. The prosperity struck in the late 1800s. An article appeared once in The Wall Street Journal about Wheeling. The article pointed out that Wheeling was the wealthiest city in the United States per capita in 1894. All of the prosperity emanated from its position as a jumping off point to the West on the Ohio River.
The little seed that was me popped from my mother’s garden of nine children as child number seven. My life fluttered into existence on 26 Poplar Ave.. Somehow this family of nine children was plunked down amidst mostly doctors. Our family was surrounded by doctors on three sides. With nine kids money was not plentiful for us as it was for the children of doctors, but we survived. Often I identified more with the Home dingers than the doctors children.
Who were the Home dingers? Over on Orchard Road was the Children’s Home. It was a kind of massive, scary building where the orphan kids lived. We called them the Home dingers. All those kids went to school with us, and it was a good experience. Those kids were tough; they had to be. If you messed with one, you messed with all of them. Quickly you learned don’t mess with the Home kids; they were a tribe. As a Quinn we were a tribe of nine. It was also wise not to mess with our tribe for the same reason. We had Scouts with the Home kids, and it was fun to have them as compatriots. If you ever felt sorry for yourself, you immediately could see things could be worse.
One of the most peculiar things in Wheeling was all the huge mansions scattered around. I grew up thinking this was the case in every town. We were friends with many of the kids who lived in those huge old houses. It was fun to see the excess that was once common in Wheeling. I always wished I could have seen some of those magnificent houses in their glory days. As kids we would sneak around the yards of some of the estates that still had goldfish ponds full of huge carp.
We lived close to Oglebay Park. A lot of our life revolved around the park. My father was a Brooks bird club devotee, and we spent many hours at the old nature center. In the summer we all went to nature camp. As a youngster almost daily I hitchhiked to Oglebay to swim. Being broke, money had to be raised to pay to swim. It was usually a simple matter of finding some pop bottles to return in the hedge by the park across from Woodsdale school. To this day people are amazed by my free-diving skills. I always find the keys and lost glasses on the bottom of the lake I now sail on. I developed this skill at the pool at Oglebay. Before leaving the pool I would stare into the water from the diving board for coins. On most days I could pick up enough change from the bottom of the pool to pay to swim the next day.
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My grandfather lived over on Walnut Avenue with just one house between us. The neighborhood was magnificent in those days. Every house has a huge porch. Each kid had a club under the porch where you could smoke cigars stolen from the drugstore and read Playboy, also provided courtesy of the drugstore. Up on the porch you could sit and watch the world go by. People were social, and everyone knew everyone. As people walked by, they stopped and chatted.
Now I will divulge since porches have been mentioned. Our porch had a swing, and we lived on the corner. Nothing could be simpler or finer than a swing on a porch high above the corner on Poplar Ave. My entire life was set into motion by that swing. One lazy sunny day, I lay on that porch napping on the swing. George Mattason walked by and said “Hey Quinn, what are you doing?” I replied “Nothing.” George asked me to go along for a ride with him down the river. George’s mission was to fill out a job application to become a summer employee of Consolidation Coal Company. Down the river we went to the Ireland Mine.
At the mine a man called everyone into a room. Each person was handed an aptitude test. With great care we each filled out the test, carefully answering every question. The man doing the hiring did an amazing thing. He took the bundle of tests and neatly banged them on the table to make sure the pile was in good order. Next without looking at a single test he threw them all in the waste basket at his side. Then he announced, “The company requires me to test all new applicants, I did.” After tossing the test he looked around the table and said, “I have a problem.” He explained he had told 10 people to show up and fill out applications. Counting the people, he realized there were 11 people. The human resource guy said, “Someone is here who does not belong. Who is it?” Like a sheepish idiot, I raised my hand expecting some insult. Then he said, “Well you’re hired too.”
Everyone else in the room put on their application they wanted summer work. For some reason I thought I should apply for a full-time job. Life has strange twists. They taught me to operate equipment and made the other guys pull weeds and do miserable work. When fall came, I left and went to college, but I came back each summer and paid my way through college. It is a long story, but one thing led to another and after college I had a career in coal mining that took me from Benwood to southern West Virginia, to Eastern Ohio, and at last to North Dakota. I retired at 50 and have been living happily ever after all because of that nap on that porch swing on 26 Poplar Ave.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Mike’s blog, Kadizzled. He has generously agreed to look the other way while we pilfer his material that pertains to Wheeling.