Storytelling: A trip back in time makes so much seem small or lost
You can't go home again, according to famous author Thomas Wolfe, but I disagree ... sort of.
You can go home again, but first you must be willing to accept today's realities when they're out of sync with yesterday's memories.
I learned this sobering lesson when, after an absence of some 38 years, I revisited Pittsburgh's Beltzhoover-Allentown neighborhood. The trip back to where I grew up was on my bucket list of things to do before age and health dictated otherwise.
I got my first taste of reality as I drove through the Liberty Tunnels. Where was the pedestrian walkway? Gone. Back then, it was a major adventure for kids to walk the length of the inbound tunnel toward Downtown, then cross over and return through the outbound walkway. Drivers would honk, we'd wave back, and nobody ever searched or stopped us.
Turning onto Warrington Avenue, I remembered it being a much wider roadway, affording ample room in the old days for roller skating, bike riding and tag football. A complex of buildings and bus ramps has replaced the open fields along lower Warrington as part of the Port Authority's South Hills Junction operations.
My memory harkened back to weed-covered fields where we played ball, picked berries, ran like hell when a stranger or snake appeared, and threw rocks at overgrown rats that lived in piles of discarded railroad ties at the bottom of a ravine.
The ball field at the Warrington Recreation Center was still there. It, too, had seemed to shrink in size. As a center fielder on our local softball team, the outfield had seemed as spacious and deep as old Forbes Field.
I parked the car and walked to the fencing that surrounded the outdoor swimming pool behind the center. Two lifeguard chairs stood silent guard over the apparently neglected community treasure where I learned to swim. The pool's bottom was covered with drifts of leaves; weeds poked through upended and broken slabs of concrete.
An equipment company now occupied the site where the Capital movie theater once stood at the corner of Warrington and Beltzhoover avenues. How many "Flash Gordon" episodes had I seen there on countless Saturday afternoons! Colorful billboards once covered the theater's outside wall along Warrington, where you made it a point to check out the coming attractions.
Gone, too, was the neighborhood store that sold my favorite butter pecan ice cream. Licking away on a two-scooper on a hot summer day had seemed ample reward for the 12 blocks walking from home to store and back.
Up ahead in the business area of Allentown stood the building that once housed the Hilltop theater. Its old marquee protruded over the sidewalk, but its signage advertised the name of a food mart instead of coming attractions.
A multistoried structure had replaced several smaller buildings directly across from the theater. One of the lost buildings had been the DiRicco family home before I was born, where produce stalls of my father's short-lived fruit and vegetable business venture had lined the sidewalk.
I strolled along a stretch of Allentown for a closer look at the passing parade of pedestrians, autos and buses. Back then, streetcars were the common mode of public transportation. Many times I had placed a penny on the rails for a trolley to pass over and flatten it.
My last stop was the parking lot of a dairy mart at the intersection of Warrington and Arlington avenues. The Knoxville Incline previously occupied the site, though the only reminder was the white lettering -- "Knoxville Incline Station 1890-1960" -- on the back wall of the mart.
The Knoxville Incline had featured a "must-see" curve along its path, and passengers riding it would all gather to one side for a close look at this engineering marvel. It was a special family outing to ride the incline down the slopes of South Side, walk to Carson Street to browse and shop, grab a bite to eat, then head back the same way.
Changing times and reality are not the best companions to share a nostalgic trip back to one's neighborhood roots. And yet I kept reminding myself on the way home that I retained sole ownership of those cherished memories of an earlier lifetime ... and the choice of how I wanted to remember them.
First Published May 2, 2012 12:14 pm