January 2007

Vignettes from OWLTOWN

Author: Dennis Malick

Owltown School. Standing alone. One room. Eight grades. Irish Valley. Paxinos. PA. The mid ‘40s.

Owltown wasn’t a school year-round, of course. Gertie Kramer took her teacher books, locked the door May 29, and we were gone until after Labor Day. Summertime. Baseball. Swimming at Knoebel’s Grove. Poker…

Poker? Yes, Owltown young kids playing poker, not at school, but on the screened porch at Aunt Rachel and Uncle Ramey Miller’s, a house about halfway from my home to Owltown. Cousins Buzz and Red Miller were usually playing—Buzz, two years older than me, and Red, two years younger—the same age as second-cousin, Jim, from a couple of houses away, who would sometimes join in.

Bets were made with food ration tokens—blue ones a dime, red ones a nickel—not real coins. Food was rationed during the war, and when rationing went off, the tokens were worthless, except as our poker money.

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Summertime also meant visits to the valley by watermelon trucks from South Carolina, wherever that was. Old beat-up trucks that looked as though they couldn’t get as far as Shamokin, five miles away came piled high with watermelons, the truck’s wooden sideboards bulging. “Waaaaaaaaatermelons… waaaaaaaaaatermelons.” Straight out of Porgy and Bess, but with chubby white “country boys” driving—probably before the term “rednecks” was coined.

The war and its food rationing brought some restricting times, but things were more available to our family of butchers: Uncle Ramey, Uncle Earl, Uncle Ed, Uncle Marley and especially Grandpa Miller, who started a meat wagon route in 1900 and didn’t miss a weekly or twice-weekly delivery day for more than 50 years. Uncle Joe ran a small grocery in Shamokin. “The Boloney Man” (from Lebanon, PA) would pull up on his route with an 18-inch casing of summer sausage (Lebanon bologna) that was somewhat under the rationing radar.

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The Miller poker porch overlooked our multi-sports field, better known as Aunt Rachel’s yard. Playing football there meant dodging clothesline posts and V-notched props that kept the wet clothes from dragging on the ground and the line up higher than neck level—most of the time. (No ball playing on washday.) A five-foot-high hedge was one goal line; the opposite goal was about five or six feet from the road (i.e., car and truck traffic).

The Miller house was on one side of the yard, and on the other side was the blacktop-paved driveway that served as the baseball “field” and also entryway to Clark’s Packing Company. Baseball came to a dead halt when trucks arrived with cattle for the slaughterhouse and home plate ended up under the truck.

Home plate was on a concrete slab in front of the slaughterhouse sliding wooden “admissions” door. Hit the ball and run across the blacktop to first base, then race along the knee-high hedgerow for second at the edge of the road. Aunt Effie Clark’s yard and house were just off the first base line, and occasionally one of her windows took a foul ball.

“Centerfield,” on the other side of the narrow two-lane road, was a hill—almost straight up. The hill was the centerfielder. We could scramble hands-‘n’-knees up the bank for a ball, but we seldom had anyone playing up there—except on occasion when one of the Owltown big kids or a hard-hitting cousin came to play.

Rounding second base, you stepped across the stones lining Aunt Rachel’s yard and headed to third, which was just inside the five-foot-high hedge. From there, you crashed through the hedge and headed for home. On a concrete slab, you didn’t slide into home.

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Also overlooking the “ball field” was the poolroom above Uncle Ramey’s garage that provided rainy day recreation and a short-term hiding place when a ball found Aunt Rachel’s or Aunt Effie’s window. Just across the creek (“crik”), that eventually flowed down the valley toward Owltown School, was our favorite hollow—a crotch of woods that had some great swinging vines. Run down the hill; grab a big vine and “Tarrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzaaaaaaaaaaannnnn” up into a tree. Well, some of us did. Always the best athlete, Cousin Buzz did. I never made it to the tree… and never managed riding a bike without holding the handlebars either.

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