I haven’t heard it in more than 50 years, but you don’t forget the sound of a car stuck on the ice on Radcliffe Street. If we were in person, I’d make that sound for you. But here in print it’s impossible to spell. It would include a lot of Zs, that’s for sure.
Radcliffe Street is the hill alongside my house in Pittston. I lived here through my early 20s and returned in my mid-40s when my mom was alone. Recently divorced, I guess I was too. That was in 1995. I’ve been here since.
Cars don’t get stuck on Radcliffe anymore and haven’t in some time. It’s a combination of front-wheel and 4-wheel drive vehicles and better city plowing equipment. But when I was a kid, Radcliffe was a street best avoided in winter.
I was 10 when we moved in at the beginning of summer in ’59 and 11 for my first winter. At the first sound of a stuck car, my dad swung into action. He looked every bit a hero to me as I watched from the kitchen window. I’m sure the driver felt the same.
Out Dad went with a metal bushel barrel of ashes from our coal furnace and a big, heavy shovel. The ashes were for traction. He wouldn’t come back in until the driver was on his way. This could happen three or four times a night, and he never failed to lend a hand. That was my dad. Actually, that was most everyone’s dad in those days. Tom Brokaw didn’t call them “The Greatest Generation” for nothing.
A year later, my dad allowed me to go out and help, and a couple of years after that, the job belonged to me and my younger brother. We actually looked forward to it. Being a hero never grows old.
By then, the furnace was our responsibility too. We learned how to “bank” the coal and “damper it off” before we went to bed so it would burn through the night. And of course, to shovel out the ashes. For most of the year, the metal bushels were placed at the curb where the city workers picked them up. But in winter, they were set aside, crucial to our heroic actions.
Perhaps emboldened by my wintertime ventures, I seized another opportunity for heroism one summer. A hedge separated our property from our neighbor’s. It was a good 6 feet high and about 30 or 40 feet long. I’d watched my dad trim it and was well aware it was a task he did not relish, especially on a hot Saturday after a long week of work. That’s why he’d been putting it off and now the hedge was out of control. My mom was sure it was annoying the neighbor, Mrs. Kennedy, but didn’t say a word to Dad. I decided to make sure she didn’t have to.
I was 11, maybe 12, and just tall enough to reach the top of the hedge standing on a kitchen chair. I didn’t even ask for permission. When Dad went off to work, I dug out his hand clippers (if there were electric ones in those days, we sure didn’t have them), dragged a chair outside and went to work.
I soon discovered if throwing ashes on icy Radcliffe Street made me a hero, this task took things to a whole new level. Through the kitchen window, I could hear my mom on the phone all morning. “Guess what? Eddie’s trimming the hedge,” she announced to my grandmother, my aunts, her best friends. The pride in her voice dispelled any thoughts of quitting and somehow even soothed the blisters it didn’t take long to form.
Even Mrs. Kennedy got into the act. Not only did she sing my praises from an upstairs window, but also tossed out an envelope which turned out to contain six shiny quarters, a whole buck and a half, which was a buck and a half more than I usually had in my pocket.
But the coins from Mrs. Kennedy were nothing compared to the look on my dad’s face when he got out of the car that evening, worn out from another day in the factory.
While the job, no doubt, had become mine from then on, I don’t recall any other time trimming that hedge. That’s probably because no other time came close to the feeling of first taking on the challenge.
That sense of accomplishment, of doing the right thing, and of, yes, feeling a bit heroic doing it, has stayed with me all my life. There are no ashes in my world these days, but I still enjoy surprising a neighbor by shoveling the snow off a driveway or mowing a lawn.
As a dad, I just hope in my enthusiasm to make my children’s lives as easy and carefree as I could, I was smart enough, and indeed loving enough to not deprive them of their own opportunities to be heroes. Kids need that.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.