15. NEIGHBORHOOD (Early 1960s)
By the time we were all moved into the new house, I had explored the neighborhood pretty well. Directly below our house and across the street were four small duplexes and thick wooded areas on either side of them. There were trails that led through the dense brush with blackberry vines that weaved through the undergrowth and linked the back yards to the houses further down the hill.
The two Gilbrit brothers, Jerry and Bruce, both redheads, lived next door and had already built an impressive tree house in the crook of branches in a tall tree across the way. Jerry showed me the homemade go-cart he had made. “Like my bug?” he said. “I ride it down Barrett Street when I can get somebody to look out for cars at the bottom”. “I’ll do it”, I said eagerly hoping that he’d exchange the favor once he’d had a few runs. His bug was tricked out pretty nice with soapbox derby regulation wheels on the back and repurposed tricycle wheels in front. “The axels are the most important part,” he said with authority. He’d used coffee can lids and washers to pivot the front and steered with a rope hammered to either side where he put his feet.
I ran to the bottom of Barrett Street and sat on the heavy wooden barrier fence and looked both ways. “Nobody’s comin’,” I yelled up at Jerry. There were other kids playing with Tonka trucks and they stopped to watch. “Are you sure?” Jerry shouted back. “Yeah, Go for it!” I hollered. Jerry’s bug had a backrest on it but he hunched over the front end as he took his feet off the ground and he started off with a slow coast. As he picked up speed, he swerved first to one side and then the other. Halfway down the hill he swung wide and leaned hard into the turn and shot by where I was sitting within inches and hurled down the level side street. “Man, that was Cherry!” I said as he came by with the bug in tow. I decided not to ask him if I could use it too but waited patiently while he hiked up the hill and got ready for another run. “OK?” he said once he got into position.
After two more runs it became evident that he wasn’t going to share his bug and I told him I had to go. “My Dad teaches a wrestling and tumbling class on Saturday mornings down at the church” I explained and started walking towards our place. “You mean you don’t get to watch Saturday morning cartoons?” he called after me. I did sometimes resent being denied this birthright pleasure for kids my age but if I got up early enough I could still watch Heckle and Jeckle and Woody Woodpecker.
Dad gave me the hairy eyeball when I got back to the house. “We were just about to leave without you. Jump in”, he said. My brothers were already in the car, William claiming the front seat as usual. While riding in back with my little brothers I started figuring out how I was going to build my own bug.
St. Margaret’s Church had a downstairs that functioned as lunchroom, Bingo hall and stage for special events such as weddings and funerals. Since the school was locked up during the weekends we couldn’t use the gym that was in the basement and kept the large wrestling mats off to one side of the stage. We knew the routine: unroll all the mats together and do some warm-up stretches before practicing somersaults, cartwheels and leap frogging over the other boys that showed up.
Later, Dad would match us up with each other and referee the wrestling matches. We’d start out in a standing stance with one hand on our opponent’s shoulder and the other on his elbow. “Ready? Rassle!” dad would shout. I’d try to get my opponent into a headlock, turn my hip into him and take him down before trying to get him on his back for pinning his shoulders down for the count of three.
Dad had this knack for pairing me up with somebody bigger and stronger than I was like my older brother William and it was all I could do to avoid getting pinned right away. I was pretty quick and managed to squirm out of most holds but usually got pinned in the end. We’d all pitch in putting the mats away and dad usually stopped by the neighborhood market for some candy or ice cream afterwards.
Leo and Helen’s Market was four blocks from our place and carried everything from fruits and vegetables, bread, milk, eggs and sundries to comic books, kites and water pistols. It was also where the newspaper shack was located. Every afternoon on weekdays and early on Sundays the Seattle Times Truck would drop off stacks of newspaper bundles that the shack manager would count out for the individual carriers to deliver on their routes.
I had no idea how much money could be made delivering newspapers and asked my Mom if she would look into it for me. She got back to me about it a few days later and said I wasn’t old enough. “You have to be twelve at least”, she said. “But there is the Shopping News that you could deliver. It’s only two days a week and you don’t have to collect anything. They just send you a check.” “Whatever you save up, I’ll double it if it’s important” Said dad from his sofa-chair. “Okay. I’ll give it a try,” I said. Mom stated strictly, “If you’re not able to keep up with your homework, you’ll have to give it up though”.
A week later I got a route mailed to me along with my contract. My route started at the very top of Dravus Street, went down a block past the Little Store, we called it, and then back up both sides of three blocks on the next street over. The papers were only several pages each and I learned how to fold them and tuck them together so I could throw them onto the porches from the sidewalk.
I knew exactly what I’d save up for first. Dad used to take us to the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop on Lake Union. It was a sprawling place with separate areas for furniture and beds, tools and building equipment, clothing, books and toys. After two months I’d managed to save seven dollars and knew I could get wheels and axles to build my own bug for that amount. There was a separate bin for old tricycle wheels and I picked the biggest ones I could for the back wheels and found a metal rod that would work for an axle. Dad said he could drill a hole in each end and cotter pins would hold the wheels on.
For the front wheels I bought a single roller skate that could be attached to a regular shoe. “Why do you want just one?” said the cashier when I brought up my wheels and axle. “I’m gonna take it apart and use both ends for the front of my bug” I replied. “Your what?” he said. “You know, my soapbox derby-type go-kart,” I said. “Wait a sec” he said and ducked under the counter next to the register. “How about these?” he stated and held up two black regulation-sized wheels. “I don’t think I can afford them,” I said forlornly. “How much?” said my Dad as he came up with my youngest brother Chris in tow. “Six bucks for the two” said the cashier. “Tell you what” dad said. “Throw in the tricycle wheels and the axle and we’ll settle for ten bucks even”. “Done” said the cashier, and they shook hands on it.