Philadelphia, PA – Mid 70s
My friend Michael and I were hanging out in one of our forts just chilling one afternoon. We’re just chatting and watching the trains roll by. We noticed some other kids who we didn’t know across on the other side playing around with matches. We figured just a couple of firebugs like us.
But stuff starting to catch a little bit and we decide to investigate. They were a little younger than we were, so we felt a bit of hierarchy there, (plus this was our territory, We had forts!) We crossed the tracks to go talk to them.
Growing all along that side of the tracks on the Cheltenham side were these pink colored weeds. We knew most of the plant life around the area because we had all come home at one time or another with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. Pretty, gross. I had it all over my arms once and not only does it burn and itch it creates these little pustules on your skin that burst into tiny yellow crusty sores. Yea, the woods are fun. We tell them to watch out for the pink weeds because they’re really flammable. We’d used them before to help get our little campfires going. But these idiots are just doing what they want and before we know it, the pink weeds start to burn.
Normally the tribe just take off their jackets and beat down the flames. That usually worked for us, but it’s getting a little bigger. At one point somebody says, “Does anybody have to take a wicked piss?”
No one did, so that solution was struck down. Fire on dry weeds start to spread, and somebody had the brilliant idea to pick up this big slab of wood the size of a door and say: “This will put it out,” thinking that will crush and extinguish the flames. Normally that could work, but what it did as it fell, was create this burst of air that landed on the main fire, but blew the flames out all around it. Now the fire was 5 times bigger.
There’s a moment when boys realize they’ve lost control of a particular situation. At that point, there is only one solution. And that my friend, is to RUN like Hell.
Michael and I knew the fire was out of control and bigger than anything we’d ever seen. If we ran back across the tracks and headed home, neighbors would see the two of us, walking away or running away from a blazing fire and billows of grey smoke coming from where we just were. We’d totally be blamed because the other kids simply vanished at some point heading south.
So thinking quickly, Mike and I ran west across the old ball fields. They led to the woods we were very familiar with, and we just kept going. We ran through the woods in terror not looking back. We were so frightened and paranoid we’d go to jail for being framed for arson and burning down the woods, we just kept running. There was a path that ran along Tookany Creek. I told Micheal we shouldn’t take it because if they put together a search party, they’d look on the path, and what if they brought dogs? We were so just so scared. Our fear had hit hyperdrive. I came up with the idea that we should slide down the embankment on the creek edge, and follow the creek south as far as we could. No one could see us from the woods down there.
I remember back then we referred to Tookany Creek as, “The Crik.”
We made our way along the creek bank for about a half-mile, stepping on stones making our way along the creek out of sight. We got pretty far down until we came upon a small waterfall, so we knew where we were. We climbed up the embankment and got back on the path.
I remember, while down there making our way along the creek I found an old metal helmet. It was underwater, banged up, rusted, and looked pretty old. It was round with a wide brim and I knew it didn’t look like a modern army helmet I’d seen soldiers wearing in movies or Vietnam footage. We figured it was maybe from the Civil War. Our young minds conjured up battles fought a hundred years ago between the North and South. A helmet lost in combat right in the woods on the edge of our neighborhood.
But we’ll get back to that.
We walked up Levick street which was a huge hill. Not as high as Martin’s Mill road but a solid climb. We got to the bridge that went over the tracks and climbed under it. There was a cool space where you could sit under the overpass out of sight. Just a moment of repose to gather our thoughts and plan our next move. It’s funny when you’re a kid you think you find all of these cool hiding spots around your neighborhood. But, there’s always evidence somewhere to show you that you weren’t the first ones there. I’m sure kids had been hanging and drinking under that bridge for years.
Still scared to death, I said we should walk east on Levick street until we got to Rising Sun Avenue. We got to the corner of Levick and Rising Sun and headed north along the avenue. We strolled along, fanning our jackets trying to get the smoke smell out of them.
Once we got to our street, we turned left on Magee Avenue. We casually walked up to Oakley street and then down our block. This way, if anything was going on it would look like we were just two innocent little boys who were coming from the opposite direction to whatever destruction had occurred. As we approached my house we saw the white Cheltenham firetrucks sitting over by where the fire had been. There was smoke still billowing up from a very large section of the pink weeds that had been decimated by the fire.
We went into my house through the back door and I ran the old helmet up to my room. I came back downstairs and Michael and I peeked out the front porch side window at what was going on over there. Our parents would have skinned us alive and left us for dead in a ditch somewhere if they thought we had any part of something where the Cheltenham Fire Department had to come and put it out.
Michael and I never talked about what had happened that day for a long time, but later when we told the story it was always good for a laugh.
Oh, and that helmet I found…
When my mom saw the rusty helmet in my bedroom, I told her I found it in the creek. (Not a lie, even though it was connected to a two-alarm blaze!) She knew my friends and I were a bunch of trash pickers so she never raised an eyebrow. It looked worthless like many of the things we found.
I sprayed it gloss black, and painted a German Iron Cross on it. I just thought it looked cool like that. It sat on the radiator of my bedroom for years until I agreed to lend it to my sister for some play she and her classmates were putting on. I told her I wanted it back when they were finished their little show, but I never saw it again after that. I think some little weasel absconded my helmet. I was a little salty that my cool helmet was gone. Had someone realized it was an authentic relic from the Civil War and sold it for a bunch of money? But, I was so busy in my life by then I pretty much forgot about that.
Turns out it was only a doughboy style, early World War II Civil Defense Helmet. Sounds like an impressive collectible, but you can buy helmets like the one I found today that are in better shape for about $40 on eBay.
So, no harm done Sis.
Tune in next Tuesday for, Wildlife and Evil Pets
And Thursday for, Back the Tracks – The Journey to Metamorphosis
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