by Bob Sharpe
The long shadows of late afternoon stretched across Fourth Street between Ruddle and Ridge Streets. It was a late October Saturday and we had just come from the Coaldale High School field, where the 1955 Tigers added another game to the “win” column. By the time our version of a football game had begun, most of the street was darkened. The big house on the corner of Ruddle and Fourth, Mrs. Patterson’s, had already cast it’s shadow up to the Middle Ward School building on the other side of Fourth. Even the shadow of Harold’s Corner Store (it’s wasn’t on a corner) covered part of the street.
Eight of us showed up for the game that chilly afternoon. The visiting team was led by the Domin brothers, Mike and Richie, from Water Street. It was ‘tag’ football, although some of those ‘tags’ put players on the ground. The football was a Peewee football, about a quarter the size of a regulation ball. They were low-priced (25 cents at Harold’s), easy to catch, and unlikely to break any glass on impact. The ground rules were explained, and the game began.
Our quarterback gave us the first play. “George, you go straight downfield and then cut across to Billy Morrell’s Dodge”. “Tommy, you cut across the street to Mrs. James’ Hudson”. “What about me, Skrabby? What do I do”? 𠇋obby, you’re gonna stay back here and block for me”.
It wasn’t much of an assignment, but then again, I was only nine years old and it was very unlikely that a 30-yard pass coming toward me would even get caught. I was about 4 ½ feet tall and weighed 80 pounds soaking wet. Fortunately the other team had a player about the same age and size as me and he was assigned to go after the quarterback.
The spectators for the game were the usual gang of ‘old-timers’ who hung out on our bleacher… the 12-foot wooden bench in front of Harold’s store. With a couple of White Owl cigars, a pouch or two of Red Man chewing tobacco, and a half dozen Moxies, these guys voiced their opinions about every play we ran. I remember one of the old-timers, Charlie Mantz, yelling at us that none of us were good enough to even wash “Blue” Bonner’s jock strap, much less play football. It took me a few years to finally find out who “Blue” was and, for that matter, what a jock strap was.
I hadn’t thought about this event even once in the past 53 years until just recently when I read in the Times-News obituaries that James Skrabak had died at age 66. “Skrabby”, as he was known from the first day I met him, was the self-appointed leader of that part of West Ruddle Street often referred to as “Hunky Street”. Along each side of the street there are five duplex structures, each being 1 ½ stories high, for a total of 20 homes, originally built and owned by LC&N. The only exceptions were the 2 ½ story Patterson house and the bungalow-style James’ house at the corner of the street.
I lived directly across the street from Skrabby and although I was four years younger than he, I was still always a part of the activities he planned. As Skrabby and Mike Domin discussed the ground rules for the football game, they obviously wanted the best odds of winning for their respective teams, but rather than tell us younger guys to beat it, they included us in the game. Perhaps years earlier they knew the feeling of rejection by the older kids and didn’t want to see it repeated.
Most of our activities centered about the intersection of Fourth and Ruddle and in particular around the old Middle Ward School building. The building was torn down many years ago and had sat vacant for many years prior to that. Gone also is Skrabby’s home. It’s the only one of the twenty on Ruddle St. that had to be torn down as being beyond repair. We played several variations of baseball on the school grounds, mostly in the much larger rear of the building.
We raced our bikes around the building; on a ‘playground’ that was mostly dirt and rocks. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing anything green growing around that school. The bike races were an early version of NASCAR, where we used balloons for our motors. I tied both ends of a partially-inflated balloon on a fender strut of my Firestone 24-inch bike, and then when we started rolling, we’d push the balloon with a foot until it went between the spokes, making an engine-like noise. Of course, if the balloon broke, that meant your ‘car’ was dead. You had to pull over and replace it with a new balloon before continuing the race. Unfortunately, you didn’t have pit crew, so you kept a bunch of balloons in a pocket. The east side of the school had a very narrow space between the building and the house adjacent to the school. Driving through there, especially when several of us came there together really sounded like a bunch of big Harley motorcycles, as the noise reverberated off both buildings.
One version of baseball I particularly liked was ‘stickball’ and the setup at the rear of the school was perfect. The game could be played with only a minimum of 2 men per side. First, a chalk rectangle was drawn on the wall for a strike zone. The 2 men on the field were the pitcher and a fielder. If a hit ball was caught, be it a fly or a grounder, the batter was out. But if the ball was missed, then depending on where in the field it was missed, it would be either a single, double, or triple. Of course, over the fence onto Ridge St. was a home run.
Equipment was simple; no gloves, just a sponge ball and a broomstick. The broomstick had friction tape wrapped around the base to help hold it. Back then every kid’s father had a roll of friction tape in the cellar. It was the 50’s version of today’s duct tape. Naturally we sometimes broke the broomstick, and then on a rotating basis, it was your turn to get the team a new one. I remember once cutting off the stick from an old broom in the cellar. I figured it was no longer of any use. My grandmother, who lived with us then, had a system where she moved the ‘upstairs’ broom to the cellar as it wore out. Then she bought a new broom for upstairs and used the old broom in the cellar. I caught hell when I got home and she stood there holding a stump of a broom in her hand. Fortunately my father understood what had happened and bought her a new broom later that day.
Pitching was the unique part of stickball. We didn’t have any catcher’s gear, so asking a kid to catch hard-thrown balls, even the sponge type, was suicide. But with the wall there and a strike zone, we didn’t need a catcher. The ball usually just bounced back to the pitcher. We could pitch as fast as we wanted and strike-outs in stickball were common. So were some of the longest shots I’d ever seen, up to that time. I was a few years older at this point in my youth, and the physical differences between Skrabby and me were more equal. I threw him one of the best fastballs I could; down low in the strike zone. Skrabby picked it out perfectly and sent that ball not only over the school fence, but over the VFW building across the street! The four of us just stood there for a minute without saying a word. Skrabby wanted that ball back to put on his nightstand as a souvenir, but the woods behind the VFW were badly overgrown. We all searched for about an hour before giving up. If anybody ever finds an old, rotted, dried-out sponge ball back there, please contact me. A reward will be given.
Still another version of baseball was learned where all that was needed was a sponge ball and two players. The player ‘at bat’ threw the ball against a wall, and the other player needed to cleanly field the ball for an ‘out’. Any miss was a single. This game was perfectly suited for the 5-foot stone wall surrounding the Ruddle St. School at Fourth St. (see the picture above). The batter had the choice of using the wall itself, or using the edge of the curb on the sidewalk there. The strategy was to throw the ball against something that would make it rebound in some unexpected way. The ultimate ‘sweet spot’ was the very edge of the curb, which would send that ball maybe 30 feet into the air. Any ball that went over the fielder’s head was a home run. But by the same token, there was no greater thrill than to make a diving leap into Mrs. Patterson’s 5-foot high hedge to make a one-handed grab. Mrs. Patterson, I know you’re long gone, but on behalf of my buddies, thank you for not getting too upset about what we did to the hedges. We always tried to push them back to normal (as much as possible) and I noticed they are still growing well there.
A common complaint we hear these days from doctors and nutritionists is that today’s kids are overweight and not in shape. The combination of hundreds of TV channels, video games, and fast food choices have turned today’s youth a generation which may, for the first time, have a life expectancy which is lower than the previous generation. Well, growing up on “Hunky” Street meant that the typical food being prepared would horrify those nutritionists with the calorie and cholesterol ratings, but I really can’t remember any kid in town that would be considered obese. You could walk Ruddle Street from Fourth, down to Fifth Street on a warm summer afternoon and never lose the smell of halupki cooking somewhere, but we burned off the calories quickly with a full day of activities that usually went several hours past dusk. Skrabby should have become an athletic director as an adult
Skrabby also introduced me to the game of Monopoly. His family had an old shed behind the house and we made that out official Monopoly center. The typical kids for this were Skrabby, Tommy Sabol, and I. He never gave us a copy of the official rules that Parker Brothers included with the game, but instead gave us the ‘Skrabby’ version. For example, any money paid for fines, taxes, etc. went not to the bank, but to the center of the board, to be given to whomever lands on ‘free parking’. You can’t mortgage your property; only keep it, trade it, or sell it. I think that was because it involved paying 10% interest to the bank to get the property back, and Skrabby wasn’t too fond of math. Forget all the rules about buying houses and/or hotels. Once you own a color group, you can build as much as you want or can afford. Skrabby once bought Baltic and Mediterranean (the 2 cheapest lots) and then built 20 hotels on each! Hitting Baltic with one hotel may cost you $50, but with 20 hotels? Skrabby was probably one of the first ‘slumlords’ running low income housing. And if we ran out of actual red hotels, he drew pictures of them and used them instead. It was the same with money and the bank. If you were broke, you could borrow money from the bank; and if the bank ran out of money, then just take some plain paper and make more money. This sounds very much like the problems we now have with banks and mortgage lenders in the continuing home foreclosure problems. We hardly ever finished a game. We just agreed on who had the most money as we were being called to dinner.
Skrabby was also an early ‘pinball wizard’ in the back room of Harold’s store, where there were 3 or 4 machines, at a nickel per play. I’d like to say that Skrabby introduced me to the pinball; but that happened back when I was 5 years old and Harold’s nephew, George Welsh, who was about 18 at the time, gave me my first lesson with the 5 balls of steel… but that is yet another story. Skrabby fine-tuned the art of hand-eye coordination and played the flippers like a concert pianist. He studied the weaknesses of each machine and took full advantage of them. I once watched Skrabby walk into Harold’s early one summer morning, insert just one nickel into the “Nautilus” machine by Bally, and play it until Harold was ready to close at 5pm. Harold paid 5 cents for every game cashed in and Skrabby started running a ‘tab’ with Harold for soda, candy, ice cream, etc. to stay nourished for the day. Skrabby even called in Tommy Sabol and me to sub for him for bathroom breaks during the day. Skrabby left Harold’s that day with a full stomach and a few extra dollars in his pocket. Within the week, the “Nautilus” had been replaced with a new machine.
One event which has lingered in the back of my mind for all these years goes back again to the corner of Fourth and Ruddle. It also goes back to when I was probably 8 years old. Coaldale was finally making some street improvements which had probably been postponed because of World War 2. Both Fourth and Ruddle were not much more than rocks and potholes…. certainly not a good place for driving or biking. The big machines arrived late one summer afternoon and were parked near the school. Early next morning we were all out there at the crack of dawn to see some serious roadwork being done. The machine that amazed us the most was the blacktop spreader. It was half as wide as the entire street, and as a dump truck poured hot blacktop into the front, the machine slowly crawled along oozing a smooth black surface from behind. Men were climbing all over it, making adjustments and a few ‘steam rollers’ followed behind, packing it all down nice and smooth. Skrabby, Tommy, and I stood at the corner, taking in all this and planning for how we were going to use it. In areas where the big machines couldn’t reach, they used smaller hand-operated equipment. Just as a workman came near us to dump a wheelbarrow load of blacktop, Skrabby reached into his pocket, took out a nickel and a penny, and neatly placed them into a pothole in the street, a few seconds before it was filled with fresh blacktop. Tommy and I looked at the money, then at Skrabby, and then back to the new blacktop, which had just covered it.
Skrabby had a smug sort of a smile on his face when we both looked back at him again. We didn’t have to ask him why. He already started telling us. “You guys know that an 8oz. bottle of soda cost 6 cents at Harold’s. Well, someday I’m gonna be real thirsty and not have any money to get a soda….but I’m gonna remember where I can find 6 cents real quick. Now, only 3 people know about this money, so if it comes up missing, I know who to look for…understand?” Tommy and I swore we would never touch that spot or dare reveal it to another soul. Even now, I haven’t really revealed the exact location. After all, there are 4 different corners at the intersection.
As the 1950’s came to a close, so also did neighborhood as a remembered it. Nothing comes to a complete stop; it just gradually slows and changes until you realize it’s time to move on. One morning you go down to the cellar, cut another broomstick off at the base, and carefully wrap it with friction tape. But when you go outside looking, or even knock on a few familiar doors, there’s nobody available for a pickup game. You hang out at Harold’s on a late Saturday afternoon in the fall with your Peewee football, but only play a little catch with another kid. The big thing I noticed in that time frame was the lack of new younger kids coming around and wanting to be a part of the game. Their parents had made the decision that the future had to be outside the Valley, so there were few, if any, to carry on the traditions.
Of course there were, and are, many youth organizations throughout the Valley for kids and athletics…places where they can learn skills, discipline, and cooperation. These are a vital part of a child’s development. I only wish they also had a chance to learn some of these skills without coaches and managers explaining the rules or umpires and referees making the calls. When rules had to be improvised to suit the given conditions and calls of fair/foul; ball/strike; tag/miss; in/out bounds had to be made by the kids involved, certain dynamics came into play. The bully will always demand the call for him, but eventually be shunned by the others. The softie will always give in, even when he knows he is right and be considered weak. Hopefully most will go with the call they know is right, even if it hurts the team, but will defend themselves and others when they know it to be correct. Ultimately, those who were willing and able to compromise for the sake of the players and the game came out as the real winners.
I can’t remember the exact date or time, because it didn’t seem that significant then. Skrabby was packing a suitcase into his older brother Frank’s car. He was already attending Coaldale High and I was getting ready to finish up at St. Mary’s grade school.
He came across the street to tell me he had decided to leave school and enlist in the Marines. He took me by surprise with that decision, but then Skrabby was not in the running for class valedictorian and the Marines seemed to be an excellent choice. We shook hands and he told me to take good care of Ruddle St. because he expected to be back soon. I told him I’d do my best, and to rest assured that his stash of money would still be where he had placed it. That was the last time I ever saw Skrabby. By the time he had returned to the area, Tommy and I had left and none of us returned again permanently to Ruddle St.
It’s unfortunate we often don’t remember things like this until an obituary hits us. Many of the guys around Skrabby’s age were mentors for me growing up. None of them were perfect role models and a few had some rough edges, but being a part of this process in an environment which occasionally might get a bit rough, was an excellent way to see the real world. As one of the younger members, it was always reassuring to know that “I’ve got your back, kid”. Let’s just say that if I was fresh out of boot camp and on patrol in Viet Nam, the only thing I could ask for is to have Skrabby as my platoon leader.
Now there are only two of us who know where the 6 cents is hidden. I may come back to that corner with Tommy Sabol and quietly dig it up late one summer night. I promise to repair the hole, so as not to anger the town of Coaldale. I also promise to spend the money locally. Harold’s is gone, but Tommy and I will take that tar-encrusted nickel and penny to the Viennese Villa (also on Ruddle St) and add enough extra money to raise a toast to the Leader of Ruddle St….James Skrabak.