Series Part 22 – Extracts from Dickeyville Days Memoirs
By Pen Smith
Memories from Pen Smith between 1949-1967
My sister Page and I moved with our parents, Bert and Kathryn Smith, from a first floor apartment at once-grand 1310 Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill that was a short walk to and from my father’s job as a mechanical engineer and later project manager at Whitman, Requardt & Associates to 5131 Wetheredsville Road shortly after New Year’s day in January, 1949. To say this was a dramatic change in all our lives would be a huge understatement. I was five and Page was three. We had a small collection of the popular Little Golden Books, and I remember my father bringing home and reading to us a new one about a family in the city moving to a house with a yard–and announcing at the end that we would be moving just like that family in the book–to a house with a yard!
My father and old Mr. Gary, who owned the property but now lived in Catonsville, agreed on the price, but there was a thorn in the deal. Actually there were three. Mr. and Mrs. Thorn and their 11 or 12 year old son, Pat, who had lived upstairs at 5131 for years, didn’t want to move out. The lad had recently won a prize for singing a song on Al Ross’ “Candy Corner,” a Saturday afternoon kids’ talent show on WMAR-TV, and his poor, deluded mother thought he was going to be famous and make them rich. My mother had tried to tell them they had to go, but Mrs. Thorn said, “Oh, it’ll be so nice when we’re all living here together!” My mother, not one to stand on ceremony, told us later she thought “you bitch, I’m seeing the judge tomorrow!” She did and they were gone in a week.
That first summer we had our big back lot plowed and disked and we watched the man and his horse for two days. Walking out there later, I found a shoe that the horse had thrown. It’s now number one in my collection of horse shoes, tools, and other cast iron and blacksmith-made pieces from places I’ve lived–Baltimore, Arkansas, and Virginia.
Dad was a really good craftsman, very knowledgeable about tools and carpentry, and just the right person to make that old (1855) house beautiful, adding closets, repairing and sanding the worn-out floors, and carefully choosing paint colors. It took 25 years. Among the many improvements, I particularly remember having the front door and porch with their Victorian trim moved from the front to the left side, and Dad designing a three-room addition for the right side. This was contracted out to a reputable local outfit and was supposed to be done while we had gone to spend Christmas and New Year’s with family in Arkansas and so the parents could attend the Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans (where undefeated Maryland had beaten Tennessee and were national champions for 1951). We drove home only to arrive at midnight and discover a big wet hole in the ground and only a canvas flap across a doorway to keep out the cold!
Another major project I remember was the stone wall that kept our front yard from falling into Wetheredsville Road that had to be completely rebuilt, the nineteenth century original being simply stacked stones with no mortar and badly in need of repair. This was done about 1957 over several weeks of that summer by Joe DiVitas and his helper, skilled Italian stone masons who showed up each morning with their tools, lunch, and a couple of bottles of wine, in the tradition of the old country. A familiar sight in the village for many years, Joe was dependable, polite, and always referred to the woman of the house as “Da Boss!”
I also recall that the Architectural Committee of the Dickeyville Association was pretty strict about insisting that village houses, having been cheaply whitewashed to brighten old unpainted wood, should only be white when painted, but Dad showed them his paint scrapings and they agreed that our house should be returned to its original soft red, as it is today. Soon, a few shades of yellow and grey became acceptable, and still add charm to the neighborhood.
My parents would call that little house home until January 1977 when they sold it, packed up, and moved to Florida to enjoy a long and happy retirement. In the midst of an early and checkered academic career, I had enlisted in the Marines in February of 1964 and left for boot camp, returning home between overseas cruises on six ships of the Navy, and field problems and exercises in seven countries and a dozen islands over the next two years. Assigned to 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC, I was trained in air and amphibious landings, information gathering, demolition, and mapping. Our neighbor up on Tucker Lane, Joe Tischer, a former Marine, told my mother at a party upon learning that I had signed up and would leave for Parris Island the following week, “Tell him not to try to be first, and for God’s sake, don’t be last! Just fit in the middle!” Of course, I didn’t listen. Later, when she told him that out of about 280 Marines that I graduated with, I was the only one to be assigned to Recon, he just rolled his eyes and said, “Oh God! What did he do? Something intelligent!?” In my third year, I was promoted to Sergeant and awarded a headquarters assignment that saved me from being sent to Vietnam, unlike many of my friends in Recon. I was in the Fourth of July parades in Dickeyville in 1964, ’66, and ’67.
Page had married in January 1966 at DMPC and left Dickeyville. I’m sure she also has great village memories and will commit them to writing if she hasn’t already done so.
Most of my memories of growing up in Dickeyville are accompanied by images of an idyllic setting, a village almost lost in time, filled with beautifully restored houses, carefully designed gardens, huge trees, and orderly cobblestones, all working together to create postcard perfect views that really impressed visitors (especially first-time dates). I am always instantly transported back to this village whenever I’m in a house with a welcoming smoky-smelling fireplace. Even in the summer the effect is spontaneous and I’m at the Markerts or Sandlasses. I remember describing the village to schoolmates as some special place, not just a neighborhood. To a nine or ten year old, it was a wonderful place to discover things, usually by myself, like the dam and the stream with its rocks and islands and trees–not like a grey concrete and brick neighborhood in the city.
Wetheredsville Road was kept in good shape in those days,. and coming from the city at the end of a day of school or work provided a calmness, set the perfect mood, and prepared you for the safety and beauty of the village and its characters, friends and interesting people–artists, musicians, writers, editors, and just really interesting folk. One always met them at parties and meetings. At times, though, the city let several of the white wooden posts that lined the downhill side of Wetheredsville rot and sometimes roll down to the stream. My father’s droll sense of humor surfaced and he remarked that they weren’t completely useless in that condition because the space they left would mark the spot and make it easy to find you if you had gone over the edge one night!
Riding the old #35 trolley could be an adventure, too. I first got on in the morning with the other village kids when I was probably in the second grade. You put your nickel (or was it two?) in the glass fare box, watched it clank down the chute, and picked a place on the ancient woven straw covered seats that were simply reversed at the end of the line at Walbrook Junction or Lorraine Cemetery on Dogwood Road by pushing the backs to face the other way. One of the popular and familiar operators was Ernie, who knew many riders by name by the time he retired about 1953. Others were not as friendly, especially to children. I remember one who sometimes wouldn’t let me off at the stop close to my house just beyond the Presbyterian Church, and would continue past the old wooden St. Lawrence Chapel on Forest Park Avenue, and go all the way up to the corner of Forest Park and Windsor Mill Road! This all ended in February of 1954 when the Baltimore Transit Company traded these WWI era trolleys for modern buses. I took a few black and white photos on that Saturday, as did other villagers, many of whom had ridden these machines to and from work and school for decades.
By 1951 most houses in the village probably had a television, but my parents held out. I could walk down to the Moritz’s or even as far as the Meeks’ after school, but my mother wanted me home by 5 o’clock. I could never get up the hill that early because we’d be watching Howdy Doody, or Jim Corbett – Space Cadet, or some old cowboy movie that didn’t end until 6 p.m. Then, there was a fifteen minute national news program that broke the mood and we would go home. By the fall of 1951 we had a Sears Silvertone (17” screen, I think) and a lot less socializing on school days!
By 1953 or ’54, if I wasn’t playing baseball on the Methodist Church triangle with Bobby McDorman, Dixie Roemer, Mike Gibbons, Philip Sieck and others (a fly ball over the trolley tracks was an undisputed home run), I was exploring the woods up behind Tucker Lane or further down Wetheredsville, or on the other side of the dam, or walking all the way home from Windsor Hills Elementary School, an experience highlighted by the daring feat of crossing the Gwynn’s Falls by walking (don’t look down at the water) across the iron trestle, now gone, in a curve of Wetheredsville Road. This was sometimes shared with Christine or Julie Meeks, one or both. You had to know when the next trolley was coming, because there was almost no space to stand on the side!
One never knows what childhood experiences will be helpful to you as an adult, or even be remembered. In my six and a half years at Windsor Hills Elementary School I got an early exposure to art when, for various reasons, I had to report to the principal’s office three or four times, mostly for some award or pat on the back for having an art project shown at a PTA meeting, and only once for fighting. One did this by first waiting in the Vice Principal’s little nook, where you had a few minutes to nose around. Here I got my first good look at a print of one of the best known Impressionist paintings, Renoir’s “Girl with Watering Can,” her frilly blue and white dress and blonde hair standing out from the background. Then I was ushered into the much larger office of Miss Katherine Nichols, the Principal, who obviously preferred a later Post-Impressionist work, Van Gogh’s “Fishing Boats,” which hung behind her desk so you couldn’t miss its big red boat and sandy beach. I had no idea then that I would use slides of these two famous paintings in my art history class, “Impressionism to Warhol, a Century of Art” for over twenty years! Whenever I’m at the National Gallery in D.C., I have to go into the room with the Renoir and and remember the first time I saw it!
Another place I knew well was the Lloyd’s big old house and barn, as well as a smaller playhouse. Ralph and Bob Lloyd, Bob and B Leonard, and later the Gibson boys, and I made a diamond atop the Lloyd’s hill. Dr. Lloyd promptly made a wire backstop. On the morning of April 15, 1954, seemingly on the spur of the moment, he put all of us kids in his car and announced that we were going downtown to see the new Baltimore Orioles parade up Charles Street to 33rd and on to the brand new (and not quite finished) Memorial Stadium. I have never forgotten that day because it was raining in the morning and nobody was sure the game would be played, but by noon it had cleared and the Orioles won. We saw it on TV!
When I got to be eleven there were not many kids my age in the village. Most were several years older and very good at football and lacrosse which I wasn’t ready for. David Sieck, Russ Bradley, Peter Pitroff, Barky Roemer, Mike Canon, and the Pendleton brothers, all of whom lived on Pickwick except Mike, are some I remember. I discovered that I couldn’t play in the Woodlawn Little League because I lived in the city, but I could sign up for the Howard Park league. Bob Leonard and I went to the first big meeting with our parents and joined that night. We ended up on the same team, the lowly Cubs, the ones with the boring maroon and grey uniforms, in 1955 and again in 1956, helping the team win trophies for finishing in first place that first year. In 1956 Michael Olesker was one of the new kids. That year I made the all-star team. Michael and I both graduated from City College and years later, at different times, we both worked at WJZ-TV with Jerry Turner, Bob Turk, Nick Charles, and others. He appeared on the nightly news with opinion pieces, and I designed the first news graphics in Baltimore, those images that appeared briefly in the upper corner over the announcer’s shoulder and helped tell the story, in the seventies. We kept in touch for many years. In 1998 he wrote a lovely foreword to Anthea’s book, “Finding the Charm in Charm City.”
Among the village characters I remember were Abe and Nettie Cohen, who owned the grocery store in the Odd Fellows Hall on Pickwick. It was not unlike little country stores I’d known in Arkansas, with its pickle barrel, cheeses, and old brass cash register by the door. The dimly lit space was cool and damp and if one looked closely a mouse hole or two might be discovered. When I got old enough to visit the place on an errand for my mother, she’d give me a list of the items she needed, and I’d show it to Abe or Nettie, who got the things together and took my money. On one of those jaunts I had just enough change to buy a small wooden crate they had filled with mostly overripe dark red cherries for fifty cents. Once outside I shared these with kids I ran into on Pickwick until the box was empty. Then I had to explain to my mother why I didn’t have any change. The store closed about 1954 and the space sat empty for years. In 1969 a neat little store called “The Bottle Shop” opened there but it only lasted a year or two. In 1972 or ’73 Marvin and Leslie Weiss opened an artsy shop called “Nostalgia, Etc.” there, which was very popular. Upstairs the IOOF meeting hall was seldom used by a shrinking membership. The store space was cleaned out and rented to a friend of ours, Woody Gruber, who opened his “Dickeyville Gallery” in 1974 When he learned that the Odd Fellows were disbanding and wanted to sell the building, he made an offer and it was accepted. Over the next two years Woody made many structural and design improvements, ran his gallery full time, and moved in to a totally renovated second floor. The Sunpapers had a big article with photos of his wonderfully rethought space, tastefully decorated with antiques and folk art. I think he married, closed the gallery, and moved to Virginia about 1978.
Only a patch of woods separated our back lot at 5131 from “Wakefield,” the horse farm owned by old man Tebbs. The cows sometimes got loose and from our house we’d see the hands rounding them up all day. There were horse shows and riding competitions and, best of all, it was home to Dixie, the white mare that raced around the field at Memorial Stadium while being ridden by a young woman in a blue and white cowgirl outfit and waving her white western hat every time the Colts scored a touchdown or a field goal. Sadly the beautiful Dixie died in a barn fire at Tebbs‘ farm in 1959 or ’60, shortly before he sold the land to developers.
The Markert’s basement was a popular spot for us teenagers, especially after school and on weekends, day and night. From about the age of fourteen I watched Buddy Deane, played eight ball on the pool table, and sang along with Buddy Holly, Elvis, Dion and the Belmonts, the Platters, and many others. You could dance to these hits of the time, or ask a girl to go out the back door and “take a walk” down by the dam. I recall a convenient concrete bench that had heavy use after dark. Once, at the age of fifteen, we agreed to play “spin the bottle,” and I discovered that almost every fourteen year old girl knew a lot more than I did about French kissing and other forms of contact! Years later, as adults, we thought the new swimming pool in the back yard was great for beery midnight dives and dips with only some piece of underwear on.
Fred and Miriam Markert not only opened their house at 2411 Pickwick to us kids, but also threw great parties for their friends. Most memorable were the annual Christmas Eve gatherings. This was a social event that everyone on the guest list looked forward to and knew what to expect. The first floor was crowded with people from dinnertime to midnight church service time. The fireplace blazed and spirits flowed. Miriam had made sure that the dining table was the center of attraction, with Smithfield ham, roast beef, and all the trimmings with pies for dessert. And, of course, the kitchen was an open bar, with Fred presiding. Downstairs Wayne and Joy entertained their friends. Most guests lived within walking distance, as I did, but for some, getting home on their feet was a challenge after several trips to the bar, especially if it was icy.
I guess I’ve saved the best for last — the cold March Saturday morning in 1958 when Chris Meeks and I were passing a hockey puck on the ice right above the dam. I was chasing the puck to the far side of the stream and almost to the bank when I heard a loud cracking sound and fell backwards as the ice gave way. The water was over my head! I managed to tread water for what seemed like a long time but was probably only five or six minutes. My sweater, coat, and skates were really heavy, and I was using all my strength to stay afloat. Christine zoomed across the ice and yelled at young Mr. Sellers, the only other person there who could help. He was down close to the dam on thicker ice with his young twin daughters, showing them the classic moves of figure skating. I remember that I did go under at least twice, scaring the hell out of Christine. Then I tried grabbing and breaking off some ice until I got to some thicker ice that might hold me, but not succeeding. My hockey stick disappeared under the ice. Mr. Sellers went up on the bank looking for anything he could hold out for me to grab. I could hear Christine yelling encouragement and then there was a long, thick branch coming toward me. As the ice cracked under his weight, Sellers yelled, “Hold on!” and began pulling me out of the water and onto the ice. On my stomach, I crawled away from the big hole in the ice. I was shaking and could hardly stand. I was freezing. A short walk up to the nearest house and we knocked on the door. Lois Lautenbach appeared and led me into the kitchen, where I stripped down to my wet boxer shorts and sat wrapped in a blanket in front of a heater while she called my parents to let them know what had happened and that I was OK. She didn’t tell them I had almost drowned. Miraculously, I thought, I hadn’t swallowed any of the bacteria rich stream water. No, I wasn’t going to get typhoid. Chris went home and Mr. Sellers got me into my wet Levi’s and into his car, then drove me home.
I spent the next hour drinking hot tea in the bathtub filled with hot water to raise my body temperature, and went to bed still feeling the freezing cold. I remember feeling the cold water around me for at least a couple of days. My wife says I’m still feeling it because I sometimes want a blanket on my feet and legs in the middle of a warm night! And, of course, every time I see that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where the young Harry Bailey falls through the ice and is rescued by his brother, George, I’m right in the water with him. And that puck has been on the bottom to mark the spot for almost sixty years!
In retrospect, 1958 was a landmark year for Baltimore. That little adventure on the ice was just one of three events I’ll never forget. Second would be the famous surprise snow storm of March 21-28 (?) which paralyzed the city and surrounding counties for a week. Beginning on a Friday afternoon, the wet snow quickly made roads icy and dangerous, and soon impassable. Even when plowed the next day or so, the roads were quickly iced over. Many people lost electricity. At 5131 we ran out of oil for the ancient furnace and things to eat. A trip to the corner store quickly revealed that they were out of everything edible. This was a few years before we had a working fireplace. We burned a few Sterno tablets left over from my Boy Scout days for warming soup and, after three or four really cold nights, it was decided that we should get into the city so my father could get to his office and I could walk to Poly when it opened where I was in my first semester. I helped get the station wagon uncovered and free from the ice, and we and our neighbors, the Sumwalts, got rooms at the old Mount Royal Hotel. I think we spent three nights there before the streets were clear and electricity was restored to the village. In the dozen years I spent in Baltimore City schools, this was the only time they were closed for an entire week. I’m sure many Dickeyville people had similar stories.
I don’t recall any other memorable events that year until, of course, the one that really turned Baltimore into a town that people took seriously as a major American city, a destination and not just a place you had to get through on your way to New York or D.C. I’m referring to the cold, grey day of December 28 that the young Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium to win the NFL championship. Even people who were not sports fans were tuning in on their black and white TVs that day. The Colts were behind with only a few minutes to go and were moving the ball down the field. My father and I were on the edge of our seats, daring to think that we might be seeing an exciting win…and then the screen went blank! What the hell?! First, there was silence…nothing! I heard words come out of my normally calm and proper father’s mouth I’d never heard from him. Turns out some idiot tripped over a wire on the sidelines, knocking out the TV transmission for about 10-12 minutes. We got the picture and sound back just as the Colts got close enough to tie the game with a field goal, and the rest, as they say, is history! The Colts won in the first overtime “sudden death” period in the NFL. People in Baltimore went nuts! Horns honked! Cars ran off the road. Fans came out on their porches, beer in hand, yelling “Gimme a C!” Footballs were tossed in the middle of Tucker Lane. Neighbors invited friends over for drinks, and spontaneous “Colt parties” were held. How sweet it was! Many fans had to call in sick the next morning, Dickeyvillians among them.
My time living in Dickeyville ended in 1967 when I returned after being released from active duty in January and registered at nearby Baltimore Junior College. I needed only a few credits to graduate with the A.A. degree in June, and get my own apartment, but my parents lived at 5131 for another decade. In the summer of 1968 I met the person I would spent at least the next 50 years with, Anthea, who worked in the advertising department of a client of my employer, a small design and production company. Six months later we became a couple and came out to Dickeyville regularly, mostly on weekends. We were married in 1974. By that time I was designing on-air graphics, sets, and promotional materials for WJZ-TV and Anthea was a media buyer at the Rouse Company in Columbia, and then vice president of an ad agency with the Rouse Company as a client.
Although we are both retired now and living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, we get back to Baltimore a few times a year, and still enjoy an occasional visit to the village. It’s still as beautiful as I remember it. bps