July, 2008 rendering
- by: Thomas E. Hepler
The Back Yard at 231 Centre Street
My brother and I spent endless hours in our back yard as we moved from
diapers to short pants to knickers to puberty. Mom must have felt we
were safer there, at least through the knickers era, and, to the extent
kids can be left to their own devices, we were. The front of 231 Centre
Street consisted of a porch, a sidewalk, and a large chestnut tree.
Centre Street had another moniker, Pennsylvania State Route 54. Mom just
didn’t want us playing out front unsupervised.
The yard was different. About 30 to 35 feet (meters had not yet been
‘invented’) from our back door, stood a four story, sturdy cinder block
and brick structure, built into an incline. I could write a story about
that building and its evolution through my first eighteen years, and I
will. But this is my yard yarn which is the most poetic expression you
will ever get from me.
There was a paved walkway from our back door to the aforementioned
structure. To the left. stood a two story building that housed, on the
ground floor, Klase’s Shoe Store and two upstairs apartments, one for
Mrs. Klase and the other for her son, William, and his wife Ruth. On the
right, about 20 to 25 feet from Klase’s, stood a white picket fence
separating our yard from that of our neighbor, and landlord, the
Heinzes. Every yard, in that era, needed a white picket fence, one
worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting, and we were not deprived.
From that brief description, it should be obvious, my brother and I
On each side of the aforementioned walkway, a clothesline extended for
the full length of the yard. If there were electric clothes dryers in
the late 1930s and 40s, we didn’t have one, nor did any of our neighbors
or other families that I knew. But we were not otherwise deprived. I
did mention we had a white picket fence, albeit on only one side?
It was on those lines that rugs were hung, reinforced with clothes
poles, to be beaten by hand. Was it only in the spring? I think so. When
I was a very young lad, Mom and Pop would give me a rug beater, a strong
metal device that could best be described as a large tennis-like
racquet, but with thick wire instead of webbing. With it I took my
whacks at the rugs. I think I enjoyed it. As I got older, it ceased to
be fun, it was work. I remember wondering, as I saw the beater being
laid to the carpet, where all the dust came from. It was thick. Today,
were children to be subjected to the rug beating, child abuse charges
would likely be filed against parents or guardians, regarding the dust.
And lawsuits would be plentiful, based on second-hand carpet dust. But,
I have not seen rugs being beaten in well over fifty years. And if I
went to a store to purchase a proper rug-beating device, the clerk would
likely wonder what I was talking about. On my next trip to one of those
big box stores, where a greeter is only too eager to help, I am going to
ask where I can find rug beaters. It will be fun to watch the person’s
Out front, Klase’s Shoe store had an awning. Each year or two, it
needed to be replaced. My brother and I became beneficiaries of the old
canvas. Bill and Ruth Klase had no children. They didn’t even have a
yard or a white picket fence. What could one do with a used canvas? Each
year, we would build a tent and spend many nights sleeping in it. If it
wasn’t my dad sleeping with us, most likely it would be Bob or Frank
Heinze, much older boys who lived on the other side of the white picket
fence. Great guys, they both became well-known Presbyterian ministers.
Bob entered the seminary out of high school. Bob never went into the
service. He had a slight limp, not too perceptible, but enough to make
him 4-F. Frank, it was revealed in an article printed in a Presbyterian
journal after the war, had his calling while parachuting to earth upon
returning from a bombing mission. His B-17 was going to crash, and the
pilot ordered everyone out. Falling to earth, Frank promised God that,
if he lived, he would dedicate his life to his church. He lived, and he
did. Bill Klase, who gave us the canvases, was drafted into the Army. In
January of 1945, he was killed in action. A dissertation on him is found
elsewhere in these memoirs.
One of the Heinze boys, I think it was Frank, as part of a high school
industrial arts course, made two bird houses. He hung them from the top
floor of the building at the back, one above their yard, one above ours.
Sparrows took over immediately and never relinquished their perch,
generation after genration. Those bird houses were still hanging when I
left in 1950, and they were still there after Pop died and Mom came to
live with us in 1970. I don’t think Mom complained about bird dirt,
ever. And I don’t recall being showered either. Nor does my brother.
Until Bobby graduated to knickers, we had no grass in our yard, or none
to speak of. My parents encouraged us to be kids. Consequently, we dug
holes and pretended to be strip mining, one of the major occupations in
the coal region. In addition to the holes we created, we fashioned
roadways for our miniature trucks and steam shovels. We had a grand
time. We got plenty dirty, but Mom was not fussy. That was what boys
were supposed to do. In digging, we often came across Indian arrow
heads. We’d even find a coin or two. When I think of Indian Head
pennies, certainly when I see one, I am reminded of digging in our yard.
Earth worms were plentiful as well. I hate to admit it, but we killed
most of those we dug up. Today, I feel so guilty about what I had done,
that when digging in my yard and finding a worm, or finding one on the
sidewalk, I will gently pick it up and move it to a spot where it can
get back to doing what earth worms do. I am also ashamed that I feel
guilty. A PETA advocate I am not.
Eventually, our miniature coal mining venture gave way to digging
trenches for our toy soldiers as we fought the enemy. Trench warfare was
already obsolete, but we didn’t know it at the time. And we won every
battle we fought.
A tunnel to China became an obsession for us. We spent countless hours
working on the project, but realized, somewhere along the line, that it
would take too much time and effort. And, where were we going to pile
the dirt? We eventually abandoned it. China could wait.
As the real war progressed, part of our digging area was converted to a
Victory Garden. I can’t say for sure what we grew. My brother remembers
Gandpop had given us a bunch of tiny scallion plants. We put them in the
ground and watered them until they matured. Bobby believe the yield was
not too great. He kept pulling them out of the ground and eating them
periodically during the day. He was always the more adventurous eater.
Our Victory Garden had to have yielded more than just scallions. I just
can’t recall what.
We had a dog once, for a day. How we persuaded Mom to give it a try, I
have no idea. We likely convinced her the dog would stay in the yard,
and I think Pop pleaded our cause. But when the dog did what dogs do,
with emphasis on the word do, his days were numbered. Mom did not like
dogs. When we came home from school the next day, the dog was gone. She
bought us off with a quarter to go up to Brown’s for a milk shake.
Lacking scruples, we were easily bribed.
After the war, Mrs. Heinze, by then a widow, moved to Harrisburg with
her only daughter, Helen, six years older than I. Jess Bickel bought the
property. Mr. Bickel, our new landlord, was fastidious. He worked with
Pop to plant grass on our side of the white picket fence. By then, my
brother and I were in long pants, and digging in the yard was old
school. We had to cut the grass occasionally. Digging was much more fun.
Mr. Bickel also built matching porch-like swings in the back of each
yard, separated only by the white picket fence. Our children spent many
hours with their grandparents on our swing when we visited, oblivious to
the two boys who had torn the place apart, enjoying virtually every
minute doing so, many years before. But our oldest three were girls, and
they would not have been the least bit interested in repeating our
spectacle. Phil, without a brother, wouldn’t have been able to compete
with his father and uncle.
After writing this piece, I am convinced I need to see that yard, a
place I have not viewed since Mom left for good. On my next trip to
Ashland, I will knock on whatever doors are necessary to allow me one
One more thought. If we ever go to war with China, I am convinced all we
need do to invade is put the Corps of Engineers busy finishing the hole
we started years ago. In the event the Communists have already sensed
that hole and decide to invade us, we will build a skirmish line behind
that white picket fence and fend them off. That assumes, of course, the
fence is still there. I’ll look into it.