Sunday, March 30, 2008

Living In The 7600 Block Of Dunmanway

In order for you to understand what the people and places in and around Patten, Maine mean to me, you need to know what kind of a young man I was, and where I came from, just before I moved to the Katahdin Valley area of Maine. It would be one thing if I had been a country boy from Northern Baltimore County, Western Maryland, or Maryland's Eastern Shore who had grown up working outdoors on his family's farm and had hunted and fished his entire young life. But it was another thing for me, because I was a Mod clothes wearing Rock n' Roll minded kid from the Baltimore suburb of Dundalk, Maryland. I had quite quickly become a country kid up in Maine. And I loved it.

This was my longtime next door neighbor, Carolyn "Sissy" O'Baker.

Sissy is sitting cross legged in the back of her brother's Blues Rock band's hearse. The band's name was The Psychedelic Propeller.

Our families had each bought brand new homes next to each other, in the 7600 block of Dunmanway, five days apart, in 1955. I have a younger sister, Jeanmarie, who is Sissy's age. Sissy has a brother my age, Austin. "Aussie" and I were best of friends, and Jeanmarie and Sissy were good friends. There were a dozen or so other kids on our block, who's families had also moved there in the mid-to-late-1950s.

The 1950s and '60s 7600 block of Dunmanway was a good place to grow up.

Left to right, kneeling down in the front are: Davy Phillips, Debbie Atkins, and Kevin Humphreys. In the back, left to right are: Austin "Aussie" O'Baker, Bobby Humphreys, Dougie Atkins, and Billy Phillips.

Dave Phillips lives in the house he grew up in, and I think that he has been in a home waterproofing business most of his adult life. Debbie Adkins was married to a buddy of mine, but they divorced, and I have lost track of her. Kevin Humphreys is still around Maryland somewhere, but I have no idea what he's up to these days. Austin O'Baker and his family moved to Chicago in 1967 or '68. One time, just after I got out of the Army in 1971, Aussie visited me when was again living at my parents home on Dunmanway, and that's the last I knew of him. Bobby Humphreys joined the Baltimore County Police force, and served as a narcotics detective for most of his career. Doug Atkins is a successful business man who used to own the Dundalk bar named The Zoo. Bill Philips has passed on to a kinder, gentler world 'on the other side'; where his loving father had been patiently waiting for him, for several decades, and his loving mother has recently joined them.

That's me, when I was about 14-years-old, standing in front of the O'Bakers' house. This is looking up the 7600 block of Dunmanway past my family's house, which is next door to the O'Bakers' former house. My younger sister now owns our old house.

And that's me, at about 14-or-15-years-old over in the Baltimore County Recreation and Park's ball fields across from my former home on Dunmanway.

There were four Baltimore County Recreation Department baseball fields right across the street from our entire block. Plus two soccer fields; one of which was also used as a football field. The competitive sounds along with the spectators' cheers of little league baseball, football or soccer games being played there was a lively and welcomed addition to the soundtrack of my life. I never got too into playing organized team sports, but I sure had fun over there watching games and hanging out with all the other spectators.

I did play in a lot neighborhood pick-up baseball and football games over there though. I preferred the casual atmosphere of pick-up games to the oft uncalled for dirty tactics of trophy-minded parent-coaches, plus the aggravating rule book pounding antics of player's parents. And, as you probably also know from national new reports, it gets a lot worse with some parents and parent-coaches at 21st Century children's competitive games.

Dunmaway was a good place to live.

This was my Grandmom Crews at the left, Grandmom Clarke on the right, and Granddad Crews at the other end of the kitchen table. I took this shot during one of our many family get togethers at my parents', two sisters, and my home on Dunmanway.

Every year, we had large birthday parties there for my two sisters, and me. And we went to my many cousins' birthday parties at their homes, or sometimes at one of our Grandparents' homes. Both pairs of my Grandparents had large enough homes for everyone on their side of the family to be comfortable in; but amongst their children--my parents, aunts, and uncles--our home on Dunmanway was the largest of all the other family homes. So any of my cousins' special, big birthday parties were held at our mutual Grandparents' home. I can't remember how often we had big birthday parties for the adults, it wasn't every year, but we did have them.

That photograph marks my entrance into the world of serious photography. Absolutely so. Before that, I, like most people, mostly took what could only be considered as snapshots.

I saw that typical Grandmothers visiting at our house scene at the kitchen table. But I did not want to do the usual stand there, point my camera, and say, "Hey Grandmom, I wanna take your picture, smile!"

I wanted to capture the scene on film just as it was in normal, unposed life.

So I went into my bedroom and came back out into the dining room with my cheap little Kodak Instamatic Camera hidden up under my shirttail. Then I got down onto the floor where a few of my younger cousins were playing with some toys. I made it look like I was goofing around with the younger kids, while watching my Grandmothers for when they looked just right. I wanted to capture, for ever, the personal, intimate interaction between the two older ladies, whom I loved so dearly; and who had known each other from way back around the time when they each first got married. When they had lived in the small town of Sparrows Point, Maryland.

As soon as the scene looked perfect to me, I whipped out my camera from underneath my shirttail, quickly stood up, off went the flash, and I had successfully banged off the shot that I wanted. I had made one wonderful, informal portrait of both my Grandmothers together in my home.

Of course, then came warm, sincere smiles from my Grandmothers.

They each said, with deep, Grandmotherly love, and also with pleasantly feigned mild aggravation, "Ohh! David!" Then they said something like: darned you "Davy Boy" for surprising us with that camera's flash. Naturally, my Grandmothers were quite delighted, and felt sincerely complimented, to have me surprise them by taking a photograph of them that way.

Behind the entire block, of the 7600 block of Dunmanway, is pair of train tracks; for freight trains only. Slow moving freight trains, which virtually eliminated any danger to us kids who grew up while often playing "up on the Tracks". Because from anywhere back there on the Tracks you will hear then see the train when it is plenty far enough away to allow you to get off the tracks before it comes any kind of close to you.

And, yup, the first letter in "Tracks" should be capitalized, because to us kids in the neighborhood, it was a specific geographical location.

We always referred to the location as, "up on the Tracks," because the Tracks are on a steep, raised embankment. The railroad tracks were there long before the houses we lived in were built. The raised embankment was built to keep the Tracks evenly level with higher ground just further up the Tracks. But it worked perfectly as a physical deterrent to smaller children who have to practically crawl up the steep, slippery embankment. It also worked as a psychological boundary between the Tracks and the backyards there, for everyone. It did not seem that that tracks were in our backyards, but more down there just past the ends of our backyards.

Those raised train tracks have always served as a nice way to present, for your viewing pleasure, the powerful, modern steel, American industrial beauty and awesomeness of huge freight trains. I have always enjoyed watching trains going up or down the Tracks. My sister lives in the house we grew up in, and if I am there visiting and hear a train a comin', I will go out back to watch it go by.

In the 1950s and '60s, when we often had plenty of extended family over for birthday parties and picnics, the other kids in our family were fascinated by the trains going by behind our home. Naturally, after hearing trains going by several times a day for years, my parents, two sisters and I would detect the faint sound of an approaching train long before our visitors could. We always called out to all the visiting children in the house that, "A train's comin! C'mon kids, go to the dining room window."

It would take a few minutes for the train to get there, because it had to go slow for the unguarded road crossing a half block up the street. That made it even better for the mysteriousness of how my parents, sisters and I knew the train was coming. The kids would always be pressing their faces up against any of the six, large, glass windowpanes of the dining room windows, while jumping up and down and saying, "Where? Where? Where is it? I don't see it. We don't see it!" Then they'd be tickled pink when it came rolling on by back there.

That was for inside parties, which usually occurred in the evenings.

All family picnics were held in our backyard, because it was the biggest and best backyard of anybodies. We had a picnic on every Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day. On the Fourth of July, Maryland's biggest and best Fourth of July Parade ended three blocks away up on Dunmanway. Later, at nightfall, Dundalk's fireworks were viewable from the slightly higher ground of the Baltimore County recreation property across the street.

When trains went by up on the Tracks, we picnickers would all be out there luvin' it, the children gleefully so. We would all wave to the train's engineers, and they'd smile and wave back. Meanwhile, a few of whomever were down at the bottom of the yard, playing Horseshoes, Badminton, or Croquette, would always give the passing engineers the old yankin' an invisible-cord-to-a-whistle arm and hand signal. The engineers 'id give 'er a few friendly toots, and the family would send back cheers of joy to the engineers.

Back during those years, three or four trains a day made round trips on the train tracks behind my former home. They came from the rail yards of Baltimore City down to the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Sparrows Point. There, they exchanged strings of rail cars full of steel making supplies for either emptied supply cars or cars loaded down with massively heavy, freshly made steel products. Then the same train came back up the Tracks again. Every time I saw one go by, I enjoyed it.

But the trains don't go by up on the Tracks very often anymore. Bethlehem Steel once employed over 30,000 men and women, including many members of my family. But there are now fewer than 3,000 total employees working there, and not a one is related to me.

Here is the only good shot of the Tracks that I can find. It must be from 1963 or '64. That is Johnny Ripple at the left, and me on the right. I didn't want to use all these old photos of myself on here, but they are the only ones I have that show what I'm writing about on this page.

The spot of light colored sand at the end of the yard is one of a pair of sand pits down there for playing Horseshoes.

If you look very closely, in any of the three, over forty-years-old black and white photos on this page with me in them, you can see that I'm wearing a pair of Jack Purcell Sneakers on my feet. They cost three times what regular sneakers did; they cost over nine bucks. And, I believe that they were the most expensive sneakers money could buy at the time--in and around Baltimore.

A half-a-block down the street from my childhood home on Dunmanway was Baltimore County's Merritt Beach.

If you scroll back up and take a quick look at that photo of me standing on the Baltimore County Recreation and Park's ball fields across from my former home on Dunmanway, and look at the baseball backstop fencing at the top, right side of the photo, you can almost see through the fencing and into the entrance for Merritt Beach.

When I turned 11-years-old, I began taking Red Cross swimming courses "down the Beach". We neighborhood folks rarely ever said, "Merritt Beach," it was "down the Beach" to us. I took Red Cross swimming lessons down the Beach every summer, from when I was 11 until I was 14--when I passed the Red Cross Junior Life Saving test. The only difference between Senior Lifesaving and Junior was that you had to be 16 to take Senior, they swam more laps than us and had to swim out three times as far to save a 'drowning life guard', to pass their test.

In 1965, Merritt Beach was closed to swimming. It was the summer before I turned 16 and was old enough to take my Senior Life Saving there. It was closed due to the terrible water pollution caused by the Bethlehem Steel Mill, in Sparrows Point, over across the back waters of the Chesapeake Bay that we swam in down the Beach.

Entrance fees for the Beach were a quarter for anyone 15 or under, and fifty cents for anyone over 15.

But then, I was a neighborhood boy, weren't I. And there was a locally well known way to sneak into the Beach without paying. It was a path through shoreline trees and bushes, way across the other side of a school field from the ticket booth. It was on the other side of Merritt Elementary School--my Alma Mater. And young Dave, that'd be me back then, was probly the best there was at utilizing that free path to fun in the sun.

If you got caught sneaking in, the lifeguards told you that you had to help them clean up the day's litter from the beach, along side them at the end of the day. I never got caught more than twice. But it was a lot of fun when two or three of us younger teen sneakins on litter patrol got to making horse playin' challenges with any of the 16 to 20 some-year-old lifeguards, who would gladly wrestle any two or three of us aggravaters into the sand. I never knew any guy who got caught sneaking in to not show up at the end of the afternoon to pick up beach litter, like the lifeguard had ordered them to. It was all part of the fun. The Beach was one of the best local teenage hangouts there ever was, anywhere, in any century. There was no way we locals would ever get ourselves barred from there for not showing up at the end of a great day at the Beach to work for the entrance fee we had tried to sneak past.

Anytime I snuck into the beach, that two-bit ticket price I saved by sneaking in bought me one ten-cent twelve-ounce soda, full sized candy bars were a nickel, so were small bags of pretzels or chips and also any one great Rock n' Roll song on the jukebox played for a nickel. But there were times I snuck in 'cause I didn't have a quarter. Even though my father had a good full time job in a steel mill, and my mother had a good part time job at Hutzler's Department Store in Eastpoint Mall. That's the way it was with all middle class Americans back then. We always had a nice, comfortable home, enough groceries and good clean clothes to wear though. And I never heard of any family around us ever loosing their home due to foreclosure or eviction.

The Beach was often packed with picnicking families, especially on weekends. Down there at the former Merritt Beach, there is still a very cool, breezy, large, nicely spread out picnic area under great shade trees at what now is called Merritt Point Park.

This photo of Merritt Point Park, formerly the Merritt Beach picnic area, was taken on a foggy, drizzling day in around the year 2002. It is the only one I could find right now to show how nice the shaded picnic groves are in that park.

Here is a 1977 photo of the section of the former Merritt Beach where we used to swim. The grassy part right in front was where the soft, clean sand for laying upon out in the sun used to be.

There were times on the sandy part of the Beach where you could not find a place to lay a beach towel. A beach house at the top of the gently sloping beach sand had a little snack bar, a wall of vending machines and one kick-ass jukebox. I can hear the long ago sounds of bare, happy, sandy feet shuffling under the young dancers there right now. It was a great place to meet chicks.

That platform out in the water once had two ladders for swimmers to climb up onto it and two diving boards for swimmers to dive off of it.

The two sets of poles out in the water used to have ropes with flotation devices on them. The two ropes ran parallel to the water line on the beach. "First Rope" was the safety line that non-swimmers should stay behind. The water at First Rope was about five-foot deep at high tide. The beach sand went out under the water to about 1/3rd of the way past First Rope out towards "Second Rope". At high tide, Second Rope was in eight-feet of water. It was illegal to go past Second Rope. One fair warning was all the lifeguards ever gave to anyone who swam out past Second Rope. Two times out past it and the swimmer was ordered out of the water.

As swimmers walked out past First Rope towards Second Rope, the sand dropped off at that 1/3 of the way out mark, and it dropped off at a very steep angle. It dropped into very soft, mucky muddy bottom.

During a very low tide, I once jumped off one of the diving boards feet first and held my body stiff like an arrow to see how far down into the muddy bottom I could sink. I went into it all the way up to my knees. But because this was after I had taken four years of Red Cross swimming lessons, taught at Merritt Beach, including Junior Life Saving, I knew that as soon as I began to try and kick myself free from that muck that I'd be sucked in tighter. I was ready for it, I was just doing an experiment as I did try to kick myself free. And by-golly it sure enough did just what we swimming students had been taught--the muck sucked onto my legs, and the harder I kicked, the tighter the mud's grip on my legs became. So I relaxed my legs and used my fairly well developed upper body to "power" myself back up to the surface. I was ready for it: I had sucked in and held my breath in preparation for it; the were not very many people at the beach that day; I had buddies on the diving platform and lifeguards on the beach who would have known right away if I was under water too long and stuck in the mud. The danger was minimal to me at that particular point in time. But I had proven to myself that any untrained swimmer who did not know what the bottom was like there would have definitely drowned if they ever became stuck in that soft, mucky stuff. There probably had been drownings there when someone got stuck in that muck, but I do not know of any of those actual incidents.

And that trailer park across Bullneck Creek there is a five star rated trailer park. I don't know who rates them, but I do know that five stars is the highest rating. I mowed lawns and delivered newspapers in that trailer park, plus I visited friends there. It is very neat and clean, and during most years the police never have to go down there for anything. It is still that way today--a nice, clean, safe place to live.

Before it was closed due to pollution, I had planned on becoming a lifeguard down the Beach.

Then I had planned on getting my driver's license at 16. So that I could meet girls at the Beach, or coming out of the Beach, and then give them a ride home.

An any hot summer Saturday or Sunday, when the Beach was still open for swimming, but was getting ready to close for the day, a steady stream of families in slow moving cars came up past my house on Dunmanway. Along side of the cars, in the street between the moving cars and the neighborhood cars parked along the curb, was a steady stream of tired, walking teenagers, along with any of their younger brothers and sisters who had gone to the Beach with them. They were all worn out from a day of fun in the sun. The girls would often ask me and/or Aussie O'Baker and/or any other possibly-16-years-old looking neighborhood guys who were relaxing out in front of our houses, while enjoying the parade, if we could give them a ride home. We young teenage guys in front of our homes on Dunmanway and the thin, steadily moving crowd passing by were joking and laughing with each other the whole time, till the last weary straggler struggled on by.

The loss of swimming down the Beach was very bad for me.

But the neighborhood was still a good place to live.

This is the former Merritt Beach in 1991. You can see a flat piece of the old beach house jutting out into the right side of the photo. That tree filled area across Bullneck Creek is Chesterwood Park. It was, and still is, a very nice place, indeed. Back around the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, during hot summer days, when there wasn't much of anyone who owned any motor vehicles yet, steam boats from the harbor in inner city Baltimore brought picnickers out of the awful, stifling, coal-burning-cookstove-smoke-saturated-air polluted, city heat to Chesterwood Park for a day's relief from that crappy, city life.

In those olden days, back around 1900, when Chesterwood Park was one of the best places where any inner city Baltimoreans ever got to go, Merritt Beach was part of a large farm.

The Beach was formerly known as Dundalk Bathing Beach, and was once affectionately known as "The Old Snake Hole." But, unfortunately for a young outdoorsy kinda' kid like I was, most of the snakes that were once seen down there, in abundance, had been long gone before I was ever old enough to go down there to see or catch any of them. Ah well, I've never really been much of a snake handler anyways.

When I was growing up on Dunmanway, there were, and there still are, a few turtles living down there in the shallow, mucky bottomed back waters of the former Merritt Beach. Catching and releasing Snapping Turtles was my specialty, amongst us neighborhood kids. But! Guldangit! I'm prett-near ashamed to have to say that I never ever got my paws on one single wild Painter Turtle in my whole life. And I have yet to photograph any Snappers. I intend to do some great portraits of Snapping Turtles some day. But here's a photo of me with a whopper of a Snapper that I caught down the there, about a dozen years ago. That's me old best buddy, Bug Doggy, at my side.

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1 comment:

Brian said...

Hey this is a great story! I currently live in dundalk and go to patapsco high school. Im curious about the train tracks. Are they the ones by dundalk middle school? There are rarely trains in dundalk anymore! And what schools did you attend in dundalk?