Philadelphia, PA – The early 70s
I grew up on a street called Magee Street. It was a picturesque neighborhood of classic 50s and 60s lifestyle. All the dads kissed their wives goodbye in the morning and went off to work. All the moms stayed home and got the kids ready for school and then settled into housework and running errands. Most of the kids went to Lawndale school which was a public school and all of the Catholic kids went off to Presentation in nearby Lawncrest.
I remember being in the car with my dad one day and a kid named Mark Simpson was being pulled around in a wagon by his sister Linda. Only thing was, he had a cast on his leg. My father made a comment:
“I always see that kid running out in the street all the time.”
“Well, he’s not running now.”
“He got hit by a car. That’s why his leg is broken. He better watch out or he’ll get killed one day.”
I listened to my father’s words and watched in silence as Linda pulled her little brother down the street until they vanished from sight.
We lived in a time of basic rules. Say Thank you. Respect your elders. Stay off of other people’s property. Look both ways before you cross the street.
We also lived in a time of no bicycle helmets. No one wore seat belts. (Some cars didn’t even have them.) No sunscreen. No organized sports for everybody. Children ran free to go anywhere unsupervised. Just be home in time for dinner. I played by the railroad tracks. We’d ride our bikes miles from our homes. We had no cell phones. We developed keen senses of direction and distance. Every day we thought of new ways to have fun by putting ourselves in some sort of isolated danger.
But we were fine. Young people live by the “I” words. They don’t know it, but they do. Immune. Indestructible. Impotent. When you’re young you think you’ll live forever. But when the street lights come on… get inside.
I think I was in 4th grade when I became a Safety. You wear a little white belt like the kid in the picture above. You also get a nice shiny silver badge to pin on it. (My sharpest memory of being a Safety was when I was doing poorly in school and my father said he should rip that belt off me and beat me with it. What a thing to say to a child. But he was a bit of a rage machine back then.
Your job is to stand on your designated corner and put your arms out and block the little kids from crossing the street until it’s safe. I don’t even know how I became a Safety. Maybe someone just elects you. Maybe they didn’t have enough kids who wanted the job. But each morning and afternoon, you’d go to your assigned corner and protect the little kids.
I remember one time I was holding a soft pretzel in my hand and I put my hands out to stop the little kids. As I was waiting for the traffic to clear, one little kid on my right took a bite out of the pretzel in my hand in front of his face. Too cute!
Mark Simpson and I worked the same corners. We weren’t really friends, but he lived up the street from me. I think my sister maybe sometimes hung out with Linda, but I’m not sure. I think Mark may have been a grade behind me.
On cold mornings his mother would whip up a few thermoses of hot chocolate for the Safetys. We’d finish up getting all of the kids to school and then all head into an office in the school and sip hot cocoa together. A little warm repose and reward for keeping the little ones safe on their way to and from school.
Fels Junior High – 1975
I was in 8th grade. I remember walking down the hallway early one morning. The school was oddly quiet. My friend Jimmy Hunsinger comes around the corner and says the following words:
“Did you hear? Mark Simpson was coming home from chess club, and ran out in the street around a bus and got hit by a car.”
“Oh my God. Is he okay?”
I just stood there frozen. My face, a grimace of mute protest.
You can’t process that kind of information when you’re a 12-year-old boy. Your friends can’t die. Kids don’t die. There must be some kind of mistake. What kind of horrible lie is this?
But it was true. He ran out in the street around a stopped bus, and a car coming by the bus on the left side took him out. Apparently, the trauma to his head was so forceful that he was hemorrhaging from his brain and he died on the way to the hospital.
Word quickly spread throughout the school and the neighborhood.
I remember my friend Michael and I went to his funeral service. (Closed casket) Everyone was dressed up in suits and ties and girls were in their Sunday best. This kid named Paul Berger was standing to my left in the pew, and he was playing with the zipper on his jacket because he was obviously bored. I told him to knock it off and be still out of respect to our fallen comrade.
After the service, the family came to us and thanked us for coming. I just remember Mark’s sister’s face was almost unrecognizable because of how scrunched up it was from crying nonstop. Her face soaked with tears as she hugged us both. We here alive and had been through a few scrapes of our own but nothing compared to this nightmare.
Later we went to the Simpson’s home to pay our respects. This is some grown-up stuff here. Death puts everything into perspective. Especially when a child dies.
What Michael and I found odd was that nobody really looked broken or sad there. It was like a forced family reunion over grim circumstances. Everybody was eating and drinking. Mrs. Simpson asked us if we wanted to go up to Mark’s room. I had never been in Mark’s room let alone this house before. As I said, we didn’t really hang out together.
He had a typical young boy’s room. It was neat and clean with all sort of boy memorabilia about the room. It felt weird to be looking at his stuff and touching his things. I picked up a little model car he had made. I thought they should give all of this stuff away to other kids because Mark will never come home to play with it ever again.
But of course, I didn’t say anything about it.
As darkness fell over the neighborhood in those days, the clouds soon clear and people go on with their lives. Kids playing and going to school and just normal everyday events happen. Life goes on. The world continues to turn and some of us are not in it anymore. In the future, that day will come for me and everyone I know. But we all hope it comes in old age and asleep in our beds when death comes to scatter our days.
I suppose the biggest ironies of this story are: My dad’s black prophecy about Mark getting hit and killed by a car. Him being a Safety and protecting other little kids from getting hit by cars, and then darting out into the street and taken by that very thing.
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