Monday, July 4, 2016

The Best Playground

Columbia Spy is privileged to publish several articles by Columbia native Mike Clark, the first of which appears here, with permission of the author. The essays were previously published in The Globe Leader and 50-plus Senior News and will be reprinted in the Spy over the next few weeks.

The Best Playground
by Mike Clark

Up until I was eleven years old, I lived right across the street from the most imposing playground that God, railroads, and rivers could ever devise. It wasn’t necessarily safe, but isn’t that the essence of adventure?

A rocky field stretched from the back yard walkway of a small row house, to an obsolete railroad reservoir. This field was our baseball diamond. It was roughly configured, and it was in use daily, as weather permitted. The designated pitcher was most always Shorty Lehman, a small, middle-aged man who worked for the local telephone company. Shorty not only pitched, but he coached and encouraged each child who stepped up to the plate. He never berated or ridiculed, but his good-natured razzing was constant. Shorty was the positive influence that helped to turn rough-and-tumble boys and girls into good men and good women.

The reservoir sat atop a low hill, and a circular concrete wall topped with a pointed iron fence kept us out of harm’s way. The stagnant water within the small basin was covered with algae and was polluted with old tires, discarded wood, tree limbs, baseballs, and other unidentifiable debris. Fish, caught in the Susquehanna River, mysteriously found their way into the filthy stew, along with some snapping turtles and snakes. We actually tried catching those creatures with a fishing rod (sumac limb) and dough balls made from wet bread. We caught a lot of foul carp and unidentifiable crud in that mess.

At the base of the reservoir, a large cellar door led to a dark and dank earthen floor where an intake pipe and valve that fed the reservoir stood dormant. The valve had been locked off for many years as there was no longer a need to pump water; steam engines hadn’t run this line in ages. But we found enough toads down there to amuse ourselves for hours.

The back hill of the reservoir descended farther into the railroad beds, making a decent slope for sledding and rolling to the bottom in large cardboard drums that had been discarded by a metal smelting plant a block away. I don’t know that these drums were as much discarded as they were pilfered. This hill was like the dark side of the moon; we were hidden from the watchful eyes of parents, which instilled in us a sense of freedom.

But the best part of this playground lay beyond The Rezzie, as we called the reservoir. The tracks of The Reading Railroad, once the Columbia & Reading, often presented box cars and flatbeds at rest. These marvelous carriages hauled the most interesting freight. We were constantly snooping around the cars hoping to find new and fascinating cargo. Our favorite was the military equipment that sat proudly above the tracks on the flatbed cars. My brother and I have a black and white photo of us standing on top of an army tank while sporting boat shirts and clam diggers, the fashion rage in the late 1950s.

Just slightly south of the train yards, the rusting framework of an iron bridge that once carried steam engines across the river and points beyond, beckoned the more adventurous among us. The thick, wooden plank decking on each side of the remaining track was riddled with large gaps that threatened the careless runner with a steep plunge to the water below. Iron ladders along the way offered much safer access to the river and the muddy foundations of the piers, from which we could swim and bask in the hot summer sun.

Not too far over the tracks of the railroad yard, just before the actual banks of the mighty and treacherous Susquehanna River, lay a shallow, timeworn channel of the Pennsylvania Canal system, a part of Columbia history that began in 1832. We never gave history a thought, though, as we played on the banks and in the muddy water of that ancient waterway.

One of my my last adventures on the river happened the day we “found” a canoe and paddled our way up the canal toward a narrow inlet. There were maybe four or five junior explorers on board the craft that day, anxiously looking for action.

There was unexpected action, though, as we were flung into the drink from a wildly rocking canoe, which became unstable from all the movement within. At least that's what I thought caused the mishap.

I just found out recently, after over fifty years, that my brother intentionally sabotaged the boat; he was the unstable element within. I lost a sneaker in that prank. I don't remember how I explained it to my parents, as they had just bought those shoes for me. You see, we were forbidden from playing anywhere near that river. I can only assume that I told a real whopper of a story about how I lost a shoe while being somewhere that was dangerous and off limits. The consequences, I knew, would have been much worse had I told the whole truth.

I can't recall many adventures after that, if there were any. My mom passed away in 1962 and my life thereafter took some unexpected turns. But up until then, this is how we spent our days in the best playground ever.

As published in The Globe Leader, New Wilmington, PA; and 50-plus Senior News, Lancaster PA.

Mike Clark lives in Columbia, PA. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Psychology/Organizational Behavior from Albright College in Reading, PA.



Sharon said...

I love this story! Thanks Mike Clark.

Anonymous said...

Great story Mike.............