Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bocce At Guerin Playground

I've been thinking back on pasttimes lately, and started thinking about my grandfather and how he would take my brother, sister, and I to Guerin playground every Sunday and once or twice a week during the summer months. The weekends were ours, he'd sit and watch us play or push us on the swings as high as he could. My grandfather really enjoyed taking us out, and probably had at least as much of a good time as we did.

Grandpop was very protective of us too. I remember a boy had pulled my sister's hair as she came off the sliding board one Sunday afternoon. My grandfather chased him, fired up with rage that a boy would do that to a girl, especially his granddaughter. Fortunately, the kid was naturally faster than the older man, and he made his escape. Well, those things didn't happen too often, the times there for us were typically enjoyed.

During the weekdays, Grandpop had his fun too. Not like us kids on the playground equipment. He and the older Italian men would gather at the bocce courts at Guerin and spend the better part of the day playing bocce, talking, and at times drinking wine from bottles they brought in. It was a great way for them to spend the last years of their lives after retirement, and it helped keep their community alive. I only knew the names of a couple of the men who gathered to play and talk, but the faces were very familiar. I don't think there was a man among them who was timid, all were involved in something by the courts.

As time takes it's toll, things dissapear. It saddended my grandfather as his friends started to die off. The community of the bocce courts started to dwindle in the mid-70s, and by the end of the decade, most of the men had passed away or were unable to make the walk to 16th & Wolf to play or talk, my grandfather included. By the dawn of the 80s, he was confined to the house or to the bench on the front porch, sitting and watching the world go by with faces he didn't know. Around the same time, the outdoor bocce courts disappeared from Guerin.

My grandfather died in February 1983 at the age of 90. Because of him, I had the pleasure and privilege to experience the Italian culture, if only by sitting and watching him and the other men. What may have seemed like a waste of our playtime back in our childhood is now a fond memory.

UPDATE - 9/4/2006:
It seems I've posted in haste regarding the demise of bocce at Guerin Playground. With the outdoor courts gone, I figured bocce went with it. But a number of folks noted at phillyblog.com that bocce is alive and well at Guerin, only now it's inside rather than out, and many who play in the leagues there speak Italian. I'm always glad when someone tells me I'm wrong when it comes to things like this. It's good to see the game surviving.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Go Carts, South Philly Style

Kevin Karns reminded me in response to my post on bottle traps about the "go-carts" we used to build as kids. I haven't seen one in ages. Now kids either have motorized plastic vehicles, good quality bicycles, or real motor bikes. They don't have to build something themselves. Would they? I don't know, but it'd be a fun thing for them to do.

If you're in your forties or older, you probably built one or more yourself. We used to scour the trash outside of peoples homes on Wednesday, looking for material to build our go-carts and scooters. Or, we would go down the basement to see what we could find to put one together. Sometimes one guy would provide the wheels, another the 2x4s, and so on and so forth. But we all worked together and got one built, then ran it into the ground until it fell apart. The wheels were usually an old pair of our own roller skates. You remember the kind that went on top your sneakers? Yep, those types of skates. The ones you needed a skate key to tighten. We were fortunate to find bigger wheels sometimes from discarded shopping carts and such, but usually, it was the skates that got us rolling.

I did a Google search on "go carts", hoping to find some photos of the types of wrecks we built. I didn't find one I know that it wasn't a South Philly only thing, but no one gives mention to these things on the web. Pretty sad, huh?

The bodies were again sometimes found in the trash, but sometimes they were pilfered from a nearby grocery store. The bodies of our go-carts were sometimes produce crates or metal milk crates, the later good for scratching the paint on a car here or there. Much better than the produce crates that would fall apart after one or two collisions.

Fire Alarm Call Boxes

Remember the old call boxes that you found on every other corner of the larger streets to call the Fire Department back in the day? In today's high-tech world, they don't make sense. But even before the cell phone became popular they started to disappear from the streets of Philadelphia.

The call boxes made perfect sense back in the days when most homes didn't have telephones. But in the early 1980s, the Philadelphia Fire Department figured they became obsolete. And they were right, those call boxes got way more activity with false alarms than for actual working fires. Wanted to shake things up on the street a bit? All you had to do was go over to the corner, break the glass on the box face, and pull down on the handle. Firefighters would be there in just a few minutes, hoping to find a citizen to direct them to the site of the actual fire. But in the later years, the citizens beat feet and didn't stick around after pulling the box. So the PFD pulled them from the corners before the 80s could zip halfway through the decade. A bit of nostalgia, but not useful at all today.


...that some boxes were painted black. I never could find out why. Legend was that the box was painted black when a firefighter died when responding to a fire there. But there were many boxes painted black that had no fatalities attached to them. Being they started to go black near the end of their effective lives, I would think it was done to show that they were no longer active.

... Police call boxes. I never saw an active one, but remember numerous abandoned boxes around South Philly through the end of the 70s. Useful for cops on patrol before radios became widespread. Now the average citizen can't even listen to the police on their obsolete scanners since they went digital a few years back. So a few of us have somewhat expensive paperweights with speakers and digital displays.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mike Douglas Passes Away

Most people 40 and over will remember Mike Douglas and his afternoon TV show on KYW-TV 3 back in the 70s. Mr. Douglas' show featured musical and entertainment celebrities of all types and was pretty popular at the time, before cable had widened the variety of programming and before people like Oprah and Springer ruined the format in various ways.

I read that Mike Douglas died today on his birthday at 81. Gone, but not to be forgotten. He was a staple of Philly television as much as Larry Kane was and Jim Gardner is to anchoring the news, or as Sally Starr and Gene London were to kids TV, even if we did watch him back then in blue and white pixels instead of color.


... Mike Douglas' contemporaries of the era. Steve Allen, Merv (Ooooh!) Griffin, and Dinah Shore all had similar programs in the afternoon.

... The set of The Mike Douglas Show being maybe somewhat spartan by today's comparison. Just a few high stools, the name of the show on the wall, and a few characters with it such as an asterisk and exclamation point. Simple stuff, but the emphasis was on those on stage and not on the set or the lighting.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bottle Traps

They were almost invisible. They may have startled you a bit if you tripped one. They'd be just about impossible to make today because plastic has replaced glass in so many things. What were they? We called them "Bottle Traps".

Bottle Traps were the result of bored imagination of your average everyday kid who had a lot of nights with nothing to do but to get a laugh whenever possible. We took a length of fishing line - (you remember our last use of it from Dave and the door knocker), tied one end to a glass soda bottle, the other end to a car door handle or whatever was available, and then placed the bottle on the top step in front of someone's home. And we always did it on Oregon Avenue because we knew there would be foot traffic.

It didn't take too long to wait, even later at night. Someone would soon ramble on down the street and trip the Bottle Trap. Most would soon realize what happened and shrug it off. Some would curse and look around to see if they could see who set the trap. We always concealed ourselves and never got caught.

Every so often, someone had to dispose of the Coke or whatever soda they drank earlier that night. The suggestion would then be to urinate in the bottle before setting the trap. Not a great suggestion if you're not the one doing the urinating and/or a cap isn't available for the bottle. We didn't do it too often, but it was one of those alternatives to change things up a bit.

The other alternative was bottle size. We mostly drank 16 oz. sodas in those days. We didn't have 20 ouncers then, and we didn't have as many bloated waist lines either in the neighborhood. But sometimes we found quart bottles lying around on a corner or in an alley and used them for a bigger shatter effect. More of a startle effect too.

Someone's going to read this and say, "hey, that's the jerk (or harsher expletive) who got me way back when!" Yeah, it probably was me and some of the other guys I hung around with here around 17th & Oregon. Get over it. It was the mid-70s, we've all changed since then. If you haven't, may I give you a little advice? Get on with life already!


...When soda bottle labels were painted on glass bottles.

... Foam labels that replaced the painted types. They lasted until the plastic bottles came in and thin plastic labels surrounded the bottles.

... When sizes were small compared to today's soda bottles. Before the late 70s, the biggest size was the quart soda. Then came the two litre bottles and bigger, heavier kids and more kids nationwide with diabetes because of obesity. Not diabetic because of the soda, but because of the amount consumed along with super-sized meals and big bags of chips and king sized chocolate bars. We lost moderation somewhere in the last couple decades.

... Brands of soda long gone, or at least not found around here in South Philly anymore. There was Orange Crush (not the REM song), Hires Root Beer (I think made by the same guys as Crush, Ma's Root Beer and other flavors, Frank's Sodas - the local favorites (Black Cherry Wishniak anyone? It's okay, Hank's makes it now.) TAB, the nasty diet soda disappeared, but it's now back as an energy drink. I won't try it, if it tastes as nasty now as it did then, I can do without that nostalgia. And we won't forget Booth's brand of soda, made famous by Doctor Shock and his Saturday night horror films on channel 17, advertising it at commercial time with his daughter "Bubbles".

... Collecting bottle caps. The only purposes they had were for playing dead box in the street, or taking up space in a cigar box in your room. Our boredom kicked in again around age 12 and we made bottle cap rifles out of a stud, nail, and rubber band, having wars with them. That was before someone told us we'd be damaged by playing with guns of the toy variety and before manufacturers had to put orange caps on the toy guns so that the police wouldn't mistake a kid pointing a toy from a real one. Oh yeah, the bottle caps. They were solid metal with a cork or plastic liner. They were called "crown corks" by some in earlier days, probably coming from the name of the company that produced them, Crown Cork & Seal (a Philly company, now called Crown Holdings).

... When soda bottles were shipped in wooden crates, not cardboard boxes with plastic over them.