Wednesday, April 11, 2007


    The weather on Thanksgiving Day, 1950 was moderate, but toward evening the temperature began to drop. Both Pittsburgh newspapers, the Post-Gazette and the Sun-Telegraph, predicted light snow for the next day, Friday, November 25. Snow did begin to fall in the early hours of that morning, but to say the newspapers' prediction missed the mark was a gross understatement, for snow continued with ever-increasing intensity all day, eventually burying the city in more than thirty inches of snow. By early noon, downtown offices and stores dismissed their employees and customers, advising them to vacate the city as immediately as they could and battle their way home. Hundreds of stranded cars already snarled city streets and blocked trolley rails. Those few streetcars that did have a clear enough path to run their routes, plowed their way laboriously through caverns of snow. All the while, the snow, unremitting, continued its relentless assault. To make matters worse, the wind blew in great and steady gusts, creating mammoth drifts. Some of them, in the day or two to come, eventually topped five feet. National Guardsmen were called in to patrol the streets and deter motorists from trying to make it into town.

    I was young then and impervious to winter's wrath. I was in my third year at Pitt, and happy in the strong suspicion that a pretty neat fellow-student in his first year of Medical School was falling in love with me. Why else would he have hitch-hiked on such a day all the way from his hometown of Petrolia, to Butler, and then from Butler to Pittsburgh – just because he had promised to cut his Thanksgiving vacation short and come back two days early and attend the Pitt-Penn State game with me on Saturday? The Harmony Short-Line buses (Petrolia's only commercial lifeline to the outside world) were snowbound that day, and the Pitt-Penn State game, of course, had already been canceled, but on he came anyway. By the time he reached Pittsburgh that wintry Friday, it was close to midnight. He phoned me from a pay phone in town and told me that the only trolley running from town was the #73-Highland. There were none able to make a run to the South Hills (Dormont) where I lived. He said he was going to take the #73-Highland as far as he could and then walk the rest of the way to his boarding house in the Point Breeze section of town. After a night's sleep, he was going to try to make it to my house.

    By morning, the Pittsburgh Railways Company had managed to open up a few more trolley runs, and the #42-Dormont was among them. It was shortly after ten when my swain showed up at our back door.
    “I never thought you would set off for Pittsburgh in that mess yesterday,” I said, “but I’m really glad to see you!”
    “Well, I had promised you,” he said. “Boy! Was my dad mad when I set off! My mother, I could tell, was worried, but all she said to me was that the girl I was coming to Pittsburgh to see must be pretty special.”
    I was sorely tempted to ask him, “and is she special?” but I held my tongue.

    My mother immediately offered him breakfast, and then gave him a mission to fulfill — to go “upstreet” with me and find a store open somewhere to purchase milk for my “baby sister,” who was no baby at all, but nine years old.

    “Get two quarts if you can,” she said, “unless in this present emergency, they are limiting it to one-quart-per-customer.”
    “If we find any at all, of course,” he said.

    Miraculously, we found some. The Clover Farm Market on West Liberty Avenue where Mother usually shopped, was open, and Mr. Beck was happy to sell us two quarts of milk, which in those days came only in glass bottles.

    I suggested to my young man that I carry one of the bottles, and he the other, but he said, “No, no. You’ll probably fall with it. I’ll carry them both.”

    I bristled at his insinuation that I could not be trusted to be as foot worthy as he, but instinct dictated that it was too early in our budding relationship for me to argue, so I was silent as he tucked a bottle firmly under one arm and let me help him secure the second under his other arm. It seemed a mightily tenuous arrangement to me, and the thought flashed briefly across my mind that it would be too bad, but poetic justice nonetheless, if one bottle or both should not make it all the way home.

    Later I wondered if I had perhaps jinxed things, for halfway down Dormont Avenue, just before we were to turn into Annex Avenue (our back street), that nice young man, whose family name I much later was to take as my own, slipped on the snow, and in a valiant effort to remain essentially vertical, did a twist, then a turn, then a most agile ballet maneuver — but all in vain, for his legs had an agenda all their own.

    They flew out from under him, and he landed hard on his posterior, his two arms still firmly holding against his sides the bottles that somehow had survived whole and unshattered, although for an instant the milk within each one sloshed almost as wild a fandango as the one he had just danced.

    I wanted to ask if he was hurt, but I was stifling a laugh (O cruelty, thy name is woman!), and I was afraid it would escape if I tried to speak. As it turned out, I needn’t have stifled, because he gave out a loud guffaw himself, and said, “Well anyway, it was a good save – you have to admit that. I guess I should have let you carry one of the bottles.”

    “I guess so,” was all I said.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

If It Dies, It Dies

It is less than a handful of days before Christmas.  Family tradition dictates that before our children visit Santa and ask him for the one special thing each one wants, we take them to the toy section of Horne's Department Store for one last look at what is available, 

Linda, Tom, and Ann have already determined their choices, but Stevie, even this short a time before the big day, is undecided.  The hour is growing late, and the department store will soon be closing.  Still, Stevie, increasingly more and more nervous, in a frenzy of searching up one toy aisle and down the next, simply cannot make up his mind.  The other three children, angry with him, tell him to hurry up.

“We won't get a chance to tell Santa what we want,” Linda says.  “Santa will be going home soon!”

“Yeah!” Tommy says.  “You're going to ruin Christmas!”

Now poor Stevie is really stressed!

Finally, looking at his watch, their father says, “Okay, that's it, Steve!  We have to go see Santa right now.  Settle for something, and come on!”

Soon the four of them are standing in line before Santa's throne.  Stevie keeps slipping back to the last-in-line, but eventually he has no choice but to go forward.

Santa pulls him up onto his lap.  “Well, Sonny!” he booms, “what do you want me to bring you for Christmas?”

Stevie looks back at me in poignant desperation, then blurts out, “A turtle!”

When he rejoins us, I ask, “Why a turtle, Stevie?”  He has never even mentioned such an animal before to my recollection.

He is still visibly shaken.  “I couldn't think,” he says.

Aside to me, my husband, in a whisper, repeats the question.  “Why a turtle?”

“How should I know?” I snap.  That's all I need! I think – the added concern of finding a turtle at this late date!  I feel the annual pressure of my Christmas Funk coming on.

As it turns out, my husband saves the day, not to mention my sanity, by assuming the turtle responsibility.  Thanks to him, under our tree on Christmas morning, among an infinite number of toys and brightly wrapped packages, is a cute little snap turtle in a tiny Plexiglas aquarium.

Stevie seems pleased with it – perhaps not ecstatic, but reasonably pleased.

“What will you call him?” I ask.

“Turtle,” he says.

“You know, Steve,” his father says, “you're responsible for a living being now.  It's up to you to make sure it's cared for and doesn't go hungry.”

Stevie's little brow is furrowed as he nods his head in agreement.

In the days that follow, I often have to remind him before he goes out to play, or when he's off on a house-bound adventure with his siblings, “Stevie, did you feed Turtle?  If you don't feed it, you know, it will die.”

This goes on for weeks on end -- “Stevie, did you feed Turtle?  Stevie, if you don't feed it, it will die.  Stevie did you feed Turtle?”

Finally one day, while playing outdoors with friends, he calls back, “You know what, Mummy?  IF IT DIES, IT DIES!”