||Preamble by Jim A. (1934-2013)
In April 2004 an unplanned frenzy of geriatric nostalgia erupted spontaneously in the form of an email eReunion by people who were born and raised in the late 1920s and 30s in Brookline (a section of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania). Most of us lived in a house on Birtley Avenue, Berwin Avenue or Beaufort Avenue, meaning our primary concern about what was happening was centered in the area that encompassed those three streets, the major attraction of which was The Big Woods.
They say that just before you go senile, you begin to remember all kinds of minor details from your childhood. Usually, these episodes aren't connected in chronological order, but instead they exist as isolated memories, inside a kind of mental frame with blurred edges, like the photographic print called a vignette where the background fades into blankness. People who recall them usually begin their recitation by saying "I'll never forget the time when….".
My grandparents, Charles and Fannie Frey, bought a house at 506 Berwin Avenue, in June 1919, almost 15 years to the day before my mother Helen Fannie Sayenga gave birth to me inside that same house. Genealogically, this has caused my childhood to be deeply rooted in a rectangle of Pittsburgh geography bounded by specific avenues; Pioneer and Beaufort on the west, Birtley and Wolford on the east, Gallion and Rossmore southward. On the north, there was no boundary. The Big Woods represented the edge of a great unknown universe, formidable and slightly frightening.
During my formative years the center of civilization was Brookline Boulevard. As soon as I was old enough to walk a reasonable distance unaided, I was shown the level route from home to the Boulevard via Berwin and Pioneer. After I began to mix with the neighborhood kids (that is: those who lived on Beaufort, Berwin, Birtley and to some extent Gallion) I was shown a different route involving fewer paces via the steep hill of Wedgemere. Distance-wise, it was a better way if you like steep hills.
Birtley was a dirt road in the mid-1930s, as was Berwin beyond the intersection with the southern end of Birtley. The shortest way to get to the foot of Wedgemere hill at the intersection with Gallion, was a pathway I learned to call The Short Cut. It had three sets of steps connected by walkways. Originally, I feel certain it was made of wood planks, but not many others seem to recall that. At some point prior to 1940 it became paved with concrete. Near Gallion it was divided into circular form with a small tree in the middle and a wooden bench around the tree.
Learning to use The Short Cut was a lesson in a much larger body of knowledge I acquired from kids in the neighborhood, specifically the older ones, who were called The Big Kids. Everyone knew who the Big Kids were because of a hierarchy in street games. The two highest-ranking Big Kids would chose sides. The other Big Kids always were chosen first and The Little Kids last. Later, the Big Kids showed me and my peers that The Short Cut was not the only short cut. There were many other complicated pathways to the Boulevard, and elsewhere. You used alleys and trespassed on private property, a process we called "cutting through". There was a kind of obligation to pass on this special knowledge.
In retrospect, I see now that as a child my entire learning process was divided concisely into three differing sectors. I'd guess this is true for all children everywhere in the world. First, there is a body of knowledge instilled by parents: fundamental concepts of religion and family relationships, and of social order and behavior including modes of dress, styles of speech, types of food, etc. Next there is that stuff we learn in schools: reading, writing, arithmetic, and all that follows as we progress in varying stages toward a series of plateaus of higher education. The third category of knowledge, however, is vital for children and is almost never taught to any child by any of the adults. It is a category represented by The Short Cut and the other short cuts, and by a long list of techniques and tools essential for pre-puberty survival: Which wild fruits and berries are edible and which are not. Basic games. How to shinny up a pole and how to whistle very loud. The ritual of calling dibs. The trails in the Big Woods. Etc. Etc. Etc.
It is appropriate, maybe even useful, to call our website The Short Cut.
---Don S July 2004
from Ron M. (January 2015)-About Brookline, the thing that I remember the most is the cultural diversity, I mean on our street we had families whose origins could be traced to all of Europe and or the Middle East...the neighborhood was in essence very much a true melting pot. From that I learned a good lesson early in life.
0920 St. Clair
| Jim A: One day when I was 9 years old, I was putzing around
in our side yard by myself. Julianne stood at an open window on the
second floor of our house. She called to me to come into the house. I
said "What for?"
She said she had a question. I said "What is it?" She told me to come into the house. I said "Why?" There were repeated iterations of her asking me to come into the house so she could ask me a queston, followed by my refusal to do it. What could possibly be so important and yet too private to allow her to simply ask me from the window? She said "Did you wet the bed?"
I went into house. It was my first lesson in "Be careful what you ask for."
Jim A: Another "when I was 9" story. I had recently seen a Tarzan movie that made a stimulating impact on my imagination. The bad guys set a trap for some good guy (don't remember whether it was Tarzan himself). They dug a hole in the ground, put a vine loop around the hole, a straight piece of the vine across the hole and tied one end of the vine to a branch of a tree above the hole. Then they covered the trap with foilage.
In the movie, the good guy stepped into the camouflaged hole, on the straight piece of vine. The loop tightened around his ankles and he was lifted up. He ended up hanging upside down from the branch to which the vine was tied. It was wonderful! I HAD to make such a trap at home.
I chose the uphill end of the Rose Bush (?) at the front of our side yard, parallel to Birtley. I dug the hole and used string, instead of a vine, for the loop and the "trigger." To disguise the hole I used several handfuls of very long blades of grass, which were always available. I had no implementation of the part that left the victim hanging upside down but that didn't really matter. I anticipated that the victim would be Don or Phil or some other peer.
The trap worked! I did not see it happen but I heard about it later.
The victim was Mrs Selvig! Apparently she brought a pie (or a cake, or some kind dessert) to our house. On the way she stepped into the trap. That possibility had never occurred to me.
|The Little Store was popular because walking to
it took much less time
than walking to the boulevard, which was the only other option. It was
(and still is)
at the corner of Pioneer and (then unpaved) Metz Way, which was then a
dirt road leading down to the foot of Birtley past the tennis courts.
They had a large selection of penny candy, which included things called
There was a fad in the late 30s for boys to wear hats made by cutting the crown out of a discarded man's felt fedora hat, scalloping the edge, turning it up, and then festooning the whole thing with bottle caps from pop bottles which were attached to the hat by prying out the cork seal, then forcing it back into the bottle cap from inside the hat (with the bottlecap on the outside). We called these hats "beanies."
They were the same chapeau depicted on the cartoon character Jughead (in the Archie comics) but they went out of fashion around 1941 when army and navy hats came into vogue.
We acquired bottlecaps for the hats by diving our hand down into the cap catcher mounted below the cap remover on a huge red cooler which sat outside The Little Store. (The bottlecaps were forever falling off the beanie and required replacements). At one point ownership of the store changed and the new owner chastized us for taking those caps.
|Thomas J Cullison (Tommy) was born
in 1918 and lived at 2336 Birtley Avenue (across the street from the
Bailey house). This picture was taken in 1941.
We all knew about the Cullison boys, who lived on Birtley near the top of the hill that was much more thrilling to sled-ride down than the hill on the other side of Birtley, but we thought they were much older than us.
Indeed, Bill was born in 1915, Tommy was born in 1918 and Dick was born in 1925. We were right. That's why they never played "Release" or "Kick the Can" with us.
During World War II Tommy became missing in action in France on 10 September 1944. He belonged to the Eleventh Infantry Regiment, Fifth Infantry Division.