The Tools Of The Trade

The biggest day of my life was the morning I put on my new knickers with the brand new leather lace-up knee boots with the pen knife in a special holster. It was attached to the outside of the right boot halfway up the calf and a cover with a snap to secure it. Really hot stuff!

The new knickers were made from stiff corduroy, and all classmates were delighted as the the pants “whistled” audibly when walking and even when being marched down the silent, highly waxed corridors of Saint Michael’s grade school. The whistling was caused by one leg rubbing against the other. The Sisters of Divine Providence, their faces framed and pinched by the white, heavily starched head pieces, were covered from the top of their heads down to their black shoes in multiple layers of black cloth. Their badges of authority were large rosary beads and a crucifix that hung from their waistband almost to the floor. They could do nothing about this “illegal sound” loudly breaking the rule of silence that was strictly enforced in the hallways. This, of course, caused poorly suppressed giggling among the troops, and my stock with my classmates soared.

Our playground at that time was a mud lot where Saint Michael’s Church sits today. The biggest activity on the lot were yo-yos. I remember a salesman gave an extraordinary exhibition, performing tricks with all types of beautiful yo-yos, one of which emitted a loud hum.

The other activity, the really the big one, was playing marbles. We all had our leather or cloth bags of marbles with our favorite shooters and the pretty glass ones along with the plain ones made of clay called “commies.” There were marble games everywhere. The big championship games were held in the driveway of Harry Weiditz’ garage. A circle was drawn in the dirt with a stick about five or six feet in diameter, and the pot of marbles was put in the middle. The shooters had to shoot from the circle line and had to knock marbles out of the circle to claim them. It took powerful shooters to play, and I was not one of them.

I always had plenty of marbles. Even though I lost most of the time, my game losses were more than compensated by my cigar box. I would offer five marbles to anyone who could drop a marble held waist-high through a hole in the top of the box a little bigger than a marble. The box sat on the ground, and it was a rare event when somebody won.

Shooting marbles was a big, free-time diversion with neighborhood championships set on Friday afternoons in a driveway that was rolled flat and covered with small pea gravel. Then there was the huge tournament promoted by the city at Wheeling Park. These events were big time with only the best and most powerful players participating. These matches sported a large ring, four or five feet in diameter scratched in the dirt with a core of marbles tightly packed in the center. These shooters were the power players who rested their shooting hand on their other hand which was used as an elevated tripod. I don’t know why marbles died out. We didn’t play once we were in high school.

The centers for our weekend activities, especially in the winter months, were the two neighborhood theaters, the Pike and the Mayfair. The Mayfair was our favorite because of its accessibility. It was newer and had large double fire escape doors on the left side down by the front row. It had crash bars for easy egress from the inside.

Saturday mornings would be spent knocking on kitchen doors and asking if we could return their glass pop bottles for the 2-cent deposit. When we had the price of an admission, 25 or 35 cents, we went to the movies in the afternoon to see a feature film. It included a pathe’ (or MovieTone news) and the latest chapter in a serial like Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, or Batman. One of us would take the deposit money and buy a ticket, enter the theater and wait until the show started. We would then sneak to the fire escape and throw open the double doors and the gang rushed into the theater– kids running everywhere with one or two ushers trying to grab us. The management had put bars on the men’s room window which had eliminated that route.

There was a lad named Visser, whose dad was a minister, I believe, at Vance Church. He did everything in his power to live down the fact that he was a preacher’s son. He had an old car which was rigged with gadgets, whereby he could lay out a smokescreen by burning old oil while sending smoke out the tail pipe.

One summer evening as the 7 o clock gangster movie was letting out at the Mayfair, he drove by the theater, and someone in the back seat fired two blasts, blanks, from a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun at a man walking past the theater on the other side of the street. Two “men” jumped out of the slow-moving car and dragged the “body” into the back seat of the car, and it sped off in a cloud of smoke. There was lots of excitement that quiet summer evening. No one was ever caught.

Around this time, new homes were being built on lower Haddale Avenue, all of which backed Wheeling Creek, which at that time was an open sewer. This was before the interceptor sewer was installed.

For foundations and brick construction the men used a large metal pan in which they mixed the cement. They were about three or four feet wide and six or so feet long and 18 inches to two feet deep. They looked an awful lot like the john boats we used to build from wood. We packed the space between the boards with okum, a great smelling rope-like substance mixed with a greasy concoction.

We discovered that these metal tubs served fairly well in the creek except that they didn’t float, and we left many at the bottom of the creek after short expeditions. This activity ended when the workmen began securing the mixing pans at the end of the work day.

Our summers were occupied with building tree houses, dams in the creeks, then taking short dips in the freezing water. We built log cabins, which were exposed to the marauding Romney Road Gang. We decided to thwart their destructive efforts by digging and building an underground club house. This effort came to a sudden halt when we discovered a cow had fallen into our excavation. We abandoned the project so the owner could dig a ramp for his cow.

The Lenox gang would walk to Oglebay over the Edgington Lane hill, coming out about where the Key Animal Hospital is now (one of the dam sites). We would then walk up the road to the falls, cross the creek and follow the bridle path up to the park where the Schrader Center is now. We would pack a lunch which usually included a potato which we packed in mud and roasted in a fire, being careful to spear the potato a few times with a fork or a pocket knife so it didn’t explode.

An unforgettable moment in those years was a spring hike to the park when the athletic field at Camp Russell was being leveled. It had rained a ton, and the field was a muddy bog. It was a cool day, but the sun was really hot. One dare led to another, and we ended up playing football in the nude in the sloppy, muddy field. We had planned to utilize the outdoor showers to clean up. We had failed to observe, however, that there was no hot water. We had to get the mud off to get dressed. I will never forget that freezing cold cleanup.

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Even though I could walk to Triadelphia High School from my home, I was sent to Central Catholic in town because of an edict handed down by Bishop Swint: Catholic parents who sent their children to public schools were forbidden to receive the sacraments.

At that time, students attending Catholic schools were not permitted to ride in the school buses. Bill Watkins, who worked in my father’s store, picked me up in the mornings and drove me to town. I rode one of the co-operative buses home. Central was an all boys school then, and we were taught by a solid lineup of Marist brothers who were trained at Stillman’s Gym as well as in academia. They had to be tough to take on the working-class students. Everyone in that school was either tough or pretended to be. I was 13 and small for my age. Central is where I learned to run fast and talk faster.

I was a smart aleck to try to fit in, so I was seated in the front row, far right, an easy target for the brothers to hit with pieces of chalk and erasers. Once, I was turned and talking to the boy behind me when Brother Felix sneaked up on my blind side and smacked me across the side of the head so hard i landed on the floor. The swivel seat broke from the desk with a big loud crash because the metal waste paper basket got involved in the action.

I had to pay $14 to repair the desk to which I gladly agreed, so long as my parents were not told. I could handle this because I was shoveling coal into homes after school– 2 cents a bushel for single shovel and 4 cents for double shovel, big money! This was during the war years, when the draft and enlistments were taking all the young men to war.

I developed two little businesses while at Central. The first was making and selling “bolt bombs.” I went to the hardware store and bought a pair of the largest diameter bolts and a nut to connect them. We filled the cavity created between the two bolts with the white heads from the tips of self-striking kitchen matches. The bolts were joined by a strip of a coat hanger wire so the bolts didn’t become projectiles (and get lost) when it was set off. It was detonated by dropping one end on a hard surface such as a sidewalk.

My most financially rewarding venture were my grasshoppers. Since I lived “out the Pike” with plenty of lawns, I could obtain the little “tobacco spitting” insects with ease. I tied a thread to a rear leg and sold them to my fellow students, so they participate in our game. We would place pennies in a square of linoleum on the classroom floor along with our champion grasshoppers. The pot of pennies would go to the owner of the first grasshopper to jump out of the square.

Another very successful venture was the slug business. On the alley corner across from the cathedral was a little shop called Siedel’s, where one could buy cookies, candy and cigarettes and bottles of pop from a metal cooler filled with ice and water to chill the pop. There was also a pinball machine which was mechanical. One got 4 balls for a nickel (or a slug) and they paid off for games won, so it got a lot of play.

Records were 78rpm and the same thickness as a nickel. We would get old records and boil them in the laundry room copper tub then lay them out on the concrete floor and place nickels on the softened surface, hit them with a hammer, wait for them to cool then cut nickel impressions out with a vibrating jig saw. We did a land office business selling nickel slugs, 3 or 4 for a nickel. I like to believe we were responsible for the advancement of the slot machine into the electronic age so that the machines could detect the plastic slugs.

Carbide, which was sold in the hardware stores at that time, was used in miners’ lamps. It was a small rocky-like substance which, when put in water, emitted a gas which was flammable (explosive). It wasn’t a money maker but was very useful. We would sprinkle it on the ice at Wheeling Park, when there was skating, and then light it. It was a wonder! We stopped using it when someone who had a disagreement with the management of Siedel’s put a paper bag of it in the pop cooler. Of course, there was a lot of carbide gas generated and no way to stop it. The store had to be evacuated and closed for the day.

My life began to change irrevocably when Torter Wilson, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George K. Wheat, who lived on Linden Avenue, taught the gang to dance in her living room. I don’t remember how all that got started but all the gang decided to go to a dance at the pine room in Oglebay Park. It was a big deal- gasoline was rationed, and none of us were old enough to drive anyway, so two of the older sisters drove us, one going up, the other taking us home. We had one couple in the front seat and two couples in the back.

But, I am getting ahead of my story. All the guys were for this venture except me. I wasn’t ready for the girl stuff. Since we all went or no one did, they really worked on me. Finally, they got together and bet me 87 cents I wouldn’t ask Betty Kepner to go to the dance. There was an awful lot of back and forth, and we were standing on National Road at the bottom of Kepner’s driveway at 11p.m. I walked up the longest driveway in the world to the darkened house and rang the bell.

Some lights went on, and a side window opened, and Mr. Kepner in his robe asked me through the screen if i knew what time it was and that this had better be important. I replied that it was very important: I had a bet of 87 cents that I would not ask Betty to a dance. He said, “This is important. I’ll get her.” Betty came to the window and agreed to go to the dance with me.

On the way home from the dance, by way of Peters Run Road, we ran out of gas. Finally, a car came along and pushed us into Elm Grove to the front of Siebert’s Restaurant, where the board of education is now. Wilson Siebert came and asked what we were doing out so late. Mary Callahan, our driver, explained the situation, and Mr. Siebert seated us at a table and set us up with hot chocolate. We were told later that two men carrying five-gallon cans replenished the gas supply, and we then proceeded on our way.

When we got to Betty’s house, the lights were on, it was around 2 a.m.,  Mrs. Kepner was crying, and Mr. Kepner was pacing the floor. He immediately demanded to know where I had been with his daughter at such an hour! I replied truthfully, “Sir, we ran out of gas.” He started across the room with fire in his eye and Betty quickly exclaimed that this was the truth. All I wanted to do was get out of there, now! After some forced, clumsy, Good Nights I left alive and intact.

Betty was really pretty, and I had never met such a wonderful person. She was just swell. My interests took a dramatic change in the course of that night, and that marked the beginning of new phase of growing up.