Saturday Diary / The fastest boy in sixth grade

I remember well my small Pennsylvania hometown’s centennial

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of my greatest and only athletic triumph: 1st place finish in the 440-yard run.

My victory took place at the 1964 Northern Lehigh Schools field day and was part of the centennial celebration of Slatington, my hometown. That week’s worth of events in eastern Pennsylvania included a firemen’s night, ice cream social, street carnival and the first parade in which I marched as a member of the high school band. I turned 14 that year, and memories of that Tom Sawyer summer remain clear.

My recollections were strengthened after a buddy told me that the Slatington Library was selling a DVD that contained color film from the centennial to raise money for this year’s 150th anniversary celebration. I bought a copy. Watching those silent images proved to be a bittersweet experience.

My borough had a population of about 5,000 in the 1960s, and I would have estimated that I knew half the town by sight, if not by name. To my distress, I only recognized a handful of faces.

Not surprisingly, several were teachers. Angelo Scarselletti, the high school band director, turned up multiple times as he conducted different music groups. I think I glimpsed a shot of social studies teacher Owen “Truck” Roberts being led off to the borough’s mock jail, possibly for the crime of not having grown a beard during the 100th anniversary festivities. Father Edmund Barr, the tall, ascetic pastor of Slatington’s Assumption Church, was instantly recognizable as he delivered opening prayers and benedictions.

Kids’ faces should have looked familiar, but here, too, I saw only a few I could place.

The centennial parade that ended the celebration took place on a hot, humid August afternoon. Photographer Oliver Mummey, who shot the movie film used in the DVD, had tried his best but changing light levels washed out or darkened faces in his images of the anniversary march through town. I could not recognize myself or anyone else in the high school band.

To my delight, however, Mr. Mummey had shot film at the field day that included the start of my 440 race. I found myself on the far right, wearing long pants, a dark sportshirt and, possibly, high-top sneakers.

Mine is an unathletic family, and my father, a man of many virtues, was no more likely to go outside and throw a football with me than he would toss around a hand grenade. I was, it goes without saying, picked last for baseball games. But it turned out the one thing I could do was run.

While I dreaded most of the periodic physical education tests — walking on a balance beam or doing sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups — I looked forward to the 100-yard dash. Never was I faster than in sixth grade when I left the rest of the field in the dust. At that year’s awards assembly, Mrs. Abigail Kane, the gym teacher all through elementary school, gave me the top honor: a blue shield inscribed with the ambiguous words: “Most Improved.”

One key to my 440 victory is visible in the Mummey film: I had the inside lane. That allowed me to pull ahead at the start of the race, float through the backstretch and have a little kick left for the last 40 yards.

But I also discovered during another of those field-day events that I was by no means the speediest kid in the school district. A boy one or two years older named Fred Steckel blew the doors off the rest of us in the 100-yard dash on that summer afternoon.

I really didn’t mind. I was headed to high school the next month. A world of much more appealing, if geekier, pursuits beckoned: marching band, math club, debate and the school newspaper.

Nevertheless, it was nice to win that one time. And I still have my first-place ribbon.

Len Barcousky covers suburban news and local history stories for the Post-Gazette (lbarcousky@post-gazette.com, 724-772-0184).


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