By Slagg Ditch
Slagg Ditch was raised in McGill next to a notorious waterway. He’s also a WPHS graduate.
All us McGillites owe a debt of gratitude to Keith Gibson. He has written extensively of life in our town, much of it in his Keith’s Corner column on these pages. He has a prodigious memory and his work is priceless. “Heathens,” his writings call us kids who grew up with him in McGill in its halcyon days. Like he did with his fictional Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Mark Twain could well have chronicled our adventurous young lives as Keith describes them.
We were one of several, small copper-reliant towns spread across 20 miles or so. As youngsters, we had little interaction with kids from the other towns. Do they look like us? Do they have pointy ears? Pigeon toes? It was a lingering mystery.
I don’t have Keith’s memory, but a few events lie nestled in the hippocampus of my brain, among them:
Music: One of my earliest childhood memories is hearing the blaring trumpets, roaring trombones, and quietly lilting flutes and clarinets as the McGill Grade School band paraded around town before school opened in the morning, practicing songs and routines for parades to come. A sixteen-measure phrase of one particular drum cadence echoes through my mind to this day. [dum-da-dum, dum-da-dum, la-da-da, da-da-da, dum-da-dum] Repeat, with the last note of the repeat cadence being silent. Before long I would march in those parades.
Religion: We had a number of religions in McGill, including Greek Orthodox, Catholic, LDS, and nondenominational. Like most parents, ours felt that my sister and I should be introduced to religion in a way that allowed us to make up our own minds.
And so it came to pass that on a bright summer morning I was shipped off to Bible school at the Methodist church on the corner of 2nd Street and J Row. I recall sitting on a hard bench in the dimly lit nave listening to the drone of a disinterested sounding preacher. His words about a wall that fell down thousands of years ago were, to my 11-year-old ears, as oil is to water. Behind him hanging on the wall were large, scary pictures of old, scowling men with long, bushy beards, in flowing robes, some bare foot, others with sandals. One man’s out-stretched arm and finger seemed to be pointing at something or someone off-stage. I learned years later that I was looking at a poor man’s rendition of Michelangelo’s Adam reaching to touch God’s finger as portrayed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That was the closest I got to God that day.
And so it came to pass, that after their hearing my review that evening at the dinner table, my parents agreed that I would be closer to God when on the ball field or in the swimming pool. Such was the sum and substance of my religious training.
Sex Education: Sex education in schools didn’t exist in our day; in fact, its mere mention was taboo. So, it was up to father to son and mother to daughter to broach the nearly impossible subject.
It’s a nice summer evening as my dad and I round the corner from H Row onto 2nd Street, heading for the ballpark. I’m in uniform, metal spikes clacking on the pavement, carrying an ancient leather glove. I want to hurry to the park to warm up. But dad is dragging along at an uncharacteristic slow pace. As we pass in front of the Roberts and Slater family’ homes, we hear the public address announcer reading the lineups. I’m growing more anxious when dad says something like [clears his throat] “um uh” [clears his throat] “um uh.” Another throating clearing and he finally gets it out. “Um uh. Son, do you know your mother and sister are different from us?” [clears his throat] “Yes dad, I do,” says I.
That, in a matter of seconds, was the totality of my sex education. I was left to figure out the rest of that everlasting mystery on my own. Happily, I hit a double as dad relaxes in the stands, his having successfully completed one of fatherhood’s more onerous tasks.
Lower Education: McGill Grade School students were blessed to have very fine teachers at every level, from Mrs. Galbraith’s kindergarten all the way up to Mr. Carter in the 8th grade. My pal Johnny and I were somewhere at the higher end of that scale when we embarked on our adventure of the week..
It’s a coolish early October day when he and I sneak out of class, headed for the ball park to sit in the stands and listen to a very important major league baseball game. It’s only mid-week and we already have to do something to relieve the boredom of school. We have a little plastic transistor radio and are able to pick up a station from somewhere. The Giants have come from 14 games behind in August to tie the Dodgers. It’s a one-game playoff to see who goes to the World Series. It’s the bottom of the 9th, Dodgers up 4-2 with Ralph Branca on the mound. With one out and two men on base, Bobby Thompson hits what comes to be called “the shot heard round the world,” a 3-run homer for a Giants’ win. A dreadful pall still hangs over Brooklyn folks when they think back on that day.
Johnny and I decide to sneak back into class. Lurking by the stairway as we open the school’s front door is the enforcer, our feared vice-principal, Ray Carter. “We’re sunk,” I say to Johnny as we cower next to one another. I’m wondering what my parents are going to say when they get the note. Mr. Carter, looming large, strides purposefully up to us and says, “Gentlemen, who won?” After we tell him the score, he politely tells us to go back to class. He must have been a Giants fan.
Not only were we privy to the greatest game in baseball history, but Johnny and I learned a lesson in human kindness that day.
Higher Education: I think it was the day after Labor Day and the seniors had prodded us freshmen to clean the “WP” high up on the hill facing Aultman Street and WPHS. My memory of that day is of dirt and dust and heavy rocks, being splattered with whitewash, and ignoring the infernal commands of seniors.
The next day, the first day of high school, I walked timidly into my first period classroom for Murray Tripp’s Civics class. The room was beginning to fill as I took a seat at a desk behind a beautiful, dark-haired lass. Then a gorgeous girl with dark hair and big, deep-set eyes sat to my right, and a tall, slender curly-haired young lady sat down behind me. Finally, a blond with a smile that struck to my very core took the desk to my left. It seemed as if I was on an island surrounded by the most beautiful creatures on the planet. They were all from far away Ruth, yet none of them had pointy ears or pigeon toes. Luckily, Mr. Tripp didn’t call on me, for I was dumbstruck.
“I think,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to like high school.”