GROWING UP IN CUMBERLAND, MARYLAND IN THE 70’S
The older I get, the more I think about my childhood. I feel like I’m stuck in an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Lately, Cumberland, Maryland has been on my mind. I was a happy seven year-old boy in 1970, when my mother told me we were moving from Cincinnati to Cumberland, Md. I did not have any idea where Cumberland was and I remember thinking Maryland sounded like a woman’s name.
It was tough leaving my beloved Cincinnati Reds and Bengals to move to Colt, Steeler, Oriole and Pirate country, but Cumberland helped take me deeper into sports. It was an exciting area in a great era of sports. The Reds fought and lost to Baltimore in the World Series in 1970. The Orioles were exciting with stars like Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Boog Powell. The Pirates, much unlike the Pittsburgh teams of today, were regulars in the playoffs. Legends like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell played alongside of fan favorites Manny Sanguillen and Richie Hebner. In football, the Colts were still in Baltimore and dominant with names like John Unitas and Bubba Smith. The Washington Redskins were a powerhouse with Sonny Jurgenson, Bill Kilmer, and Larry Brown. And of course, Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, and Franco Harris were starting the Steeler dynasty in Pittsburgh. All of these quality teams played just two hours away from Cumberland. Seventies’ sports made me a sport fan for life.
It was more than professional sports, Cumberland offered many opportunities for youth to participate in sports. It was a different era and as youth, we did not have computers and video games to keep us entertained. We played softball in a gully behind my house on Beechwood Drive. It was rocky and very bumpy but we played softball and football. I remember playing sportñ with neighborhood friends like Gary and Richard Geiger, Lou Baker, Doug Dunn, Shawn and Damon Thomas and others. We even built a goalpost out of sticks and a wooden backstop for softball.
We were always playing sports it seems. Two on two football, wiffleball, and basketball at the Bakers. Wiffle ball and Rundown at the Thomas’, just as long as the ball didn’t go into the Miller’s or Hack’s yard. Football at the church yard. Tennis ball in several different yards. We were young, energetic, and living in a time when our parents didn’t have to worry about stalkers, kidnappers, molesters, and drug dealers. There were not any crack dealers or meth houses just a few harmless hippies smoking pot that hung out around the bowling alley. They never bothered us and for some reason, we called them ‘sweats.’ Dapper Dan Little League also played a major part in me developing a lifelong love of sports. The uniforms made out of wool were hot and heavy but we felt like big leaguers. I remember the local cable access channel broadcasting a few games and we felt like stars. Of course, two hits in a game would get your name in the newspaper. I was terrible as a ten year old playing for the Pirates but we had a heck of a team with Doug Dunn and Alan Page. A good childhood friend, Todd Beal, played for us and his dad was the manager. I remember my brother parking my dad’s car outside the field at a game at Constitution Park. Gary Geiger who definitely was not a power hitter cracked a homerun which cracked my dad’s car. His Chrysler was his pride and joy.
The next year, I started out the season and was not much better. Then in a game at Post Field, John Holsey was throwing a no hitter against us. I remember standing in the on the deck circle and repeating to myself “it can be done and I’m going to do it.” Over and over I repeated this to myself. I climbed into the batter box in my imitation Pete Rose stance and nailed a single and a double in my next two atbats and those were our only two hits of the game. I started to believe and went on a tear over the next couple of games getting eight straight hits. I went from a scared number seven hitter to the leading hitter on the team hitting about 560 for the year.
We also loved sports at Johnson Heights. I remember arriving early to play softball on the blacktop and hitting balls over the fence. In gym glass we would play on the field in the school yard and thrive to hit the ball onto the blacktop. I remember a young coach named Mr. Caney (who would become Fort Hill’s football coach) trying to get us to play soccer in gym class. I hated soccer and to this day do not consider that a real sport, lol. I remember my friend Eddie Bishop dominating us in basketball. Eddie and I walked together to Washington Jr High School. We entered a one on one intramural tournament. Of all the people in that school, I drew my friend in the first round. I knew I was doomed but practiced and practiced. Eddie promptly thrashed me and I was out in the first round
But, how can I ever forget Johnson Heights? From the moment, I walked into Mrs. Moore’s second grade class, ol’ Johnson Heights became a place I never would forget. We were a singing and dancing bunch I know that. The old May Day festivals seemed torturous at the time. Each class would do a weird dance like ‘the sword dance.’ We would practice it over and over during the day. Then, on Mayday we would have a festival or carnival. We would put on a weird show for everyone to see and then play games after ward. We seemed to have a lot of plays and Christmas shows as well. I remember one song that went “leave it be, leave it be, if there’s a flower in the woods, leave it be.” In the sixth grade we went to Outdoor School. It was scary being away from my family but it was interesting and we learned a lot about nature. The counselors scared us with tales about Chicken People coming down and eating children. Of course, went had to put on a skit at the end of the camp. Our cabin did Attack of The Chicken People where we had a couple of kids with ketchup on them like blood, run into the building screaming. The rest of us were knocking on the building and making chicken noises. We scared the heck out of several girls. They were screaming and crying. I made great childhood friends like Eddie Bishop, Mike Twigg, Brady Andrews,Todd Beal, Mark Keefer, and others. It was sad to leave. Johnson Heights was a great time period in my life. I’m not sure what happened in my one year at Washington Jr high but things changed. I became separated from my Johnson friends and we quickly grew apart. Todd started hanging with the jocks, Scott Lewis became a brainac, lol, and Mark Keefer and Howie Emerick became ‘ladies men’. I felt kind of left out. My world changed. There were bullies and constant talk of iniations.
It was to grow apart from my friends and be separated into groups. I’ll always remember my true best friend – my dog Lucky, In those days, dogs could go every where. He’d follow me to Village Dairy and the owner Jim would come out and give him ice cream. Then we would walk down to Grants and bark at Jim’s big sheep dog Sam. Lucky would follow me to the park and to Acme and Town and Country and wait patiently for me outside. He even defended me when an older Tommy Stallings picked on me. My brother, Gary, was five years older than me but he was a great big brother. We rode our bikes all over Cumberland. He had his own friends but let me tagalong to Fort Hill football games. We used to play Army and hide and seek with our friends in the woods behind our house. Lucky always gave me away when I was hiding. Then, Lucky would chase a rabbit. He must have chased with his eyes closed because the rabbit would turn off and he kept a runnin’! Every year I would wait patiently for new baseball cards to arrive. I would check Dairy Mart, Drug Fair, and the Village Dairy for them to arrive. Usually Joe’s Texaco got them first. I liked Joe’s but some old guy would run me off every time I tried to read the magazines. Sometimes I still taste the double-deckers or clams from Mr Ed’s, the hard dipped ice cream cones or roast beef sandwiches covered in mashed potatoes and gravy from Village Dairy, or the turkey from The Bucky Bradford House, the restaurant that was inside of Grant’s.
Of course, I developed a love for music in Cumberland. Of course, my taste did not start off good. I used to buy 45 rpm records at 50 cents every chance I could at Town and Country, Grants, or Drug Fair. My first single was Neil Diamond’s “Play Me”, lol but my second was “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. I used to listen to WCUM (wonder why they changed the name, lol) and to JJ Jeffries on WTBO…. And of course some guy name Casey Casem on America’s Top Forty. Yes, I often recall Cumberland as a magical place where I discovered sports, music and well……I never had a girlfriend. But, I had a secret crush. There was a girl that was in my second grade class. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I lusted from a far. I never said a word to her or her to me. I walked down her street to steal a glimpse (hmmmm, guess I discovered stalking in Cumberland, too) and I still think about her from time to time and wonder if she is still is as pretty.
I guess wherever you grow up is always special to you. It seems like it was a great time to grow up. Yes, there was stress from the Viet Nam war, Watergate, and HIPPIES!!!!!! But, it seemed like it was much more innocent times (maybe because we were innocent children) and there were jobs for everyones parents. PPG, Chessie system (now CSX), and Kelly Springfield were big employers. I’ve been back to Cumberland but while the names on the mailboxes in White Oaks are still the same, sadly, most of my friends moved away without a trace. Jails (local, federal, state) are the biggest employer now in Cumberland. Cumberland never knocks down and rebuilds the buildings so it still looks the same. But something seems to be missing, maybe it’s just the loss of the innocence of my youth.
Johnson Heights..... as I get older, I think more and more about where I came from and how I became the person I am today. Although I left Cumberland in 1976, I feel like I learned a lot of my morals and developed a great deal of personality in Cumberland, Maryland. In many ways, Johnson Heights helped shape who I am. Johnson Heights was more than a school it was a community.
The school tried many ways to make sure we were well rounded individuals. My love of sports came from playing sports and even discussing sports. I remember even getting to watch playoff games and World Series in classrooms. Like every school, we played softball in gym class and at recess. In the morning before school we would also play pickup games on the blacktop and hit homeruns out over the fence into the street.
Johnson Heights also helped instill an appreciation of music in me. Sure, we sang a lot of hokey songs in music class like Lazy Bones and Swinging on A Star but the love of music still stuck in me. There was always plays, musicals, and Christmas shows going on. No matter how shy we may have been we still eventually had to get on stage and stare out at the audience.
Who could forget the annual Mayday ritual? At the time it seemed like cruel punishment as we endured what seemed like hours of rehearsal out on the playground doing routines like The Sword Dance. Then in early may we would put on a show. Each class would do their ‘dance’ in front of our parents and anyone else who was at the festival. It was a show of community, though as there was food, games and even raffle prizes. At the time it seemed awkward and like work, but I do realize now it made us a tighter community.
I still remember my first day at Johnson Heights. Mrs. Moore was my second grade teacher. She was older and I would guess near retirement but I still recall a story she told us that first day. I remember her telling us that her and her husband went to Ocean City. He thought he saw a ball so he went and grabbed it and it was a jelly fish or some type of creature and it wrapped around him and would not let go. I’m not sure why I always remember that story but it stuck in my mind for all of these years. I remember seeing a beautiful girl named Robin in my second grade class that first day. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I ever seen. I never ever talked to her in my life as that was the only class I was in with her. I just admired her from a far and was afraid of her. My first friend was Danny Bopp. He moved to South Carolina later. We used to trade baseball cards and play on the monkey bars. He liked Robin and would talk to her and I’d hide when he’d get close to her.
In the third grade, we had a split class. We had fourth graders in there too. Mrs. Castle was the teacher. Midway through the year we got a fourth grader named Alan Paige. He was one of the first African-Americans in Johnson Heights besides the Trimbles. Mrs. Castle and my parents made it a point for me to treat Alan good because he was different. This is how weird that period of time was in the 70’s. I remember going out of my way to be friends with Alan and Kevin. I liked them but it was like people was making me feel like I was changing the world by being their friend. It is awkward and embarrassing now, they were great guys it should not have taken a special effort but that was the 70’s and people were ignorant and awkward.
I also remember The Heart Unit (not sure if that was the correct name), but in the sixth grade, we had a very extensive program dealing with our hearts and how to take care of our bodies. Each section was very extensive. They tried to teach the value of exercise, good nutrition, and discourage smoking.
In the sixth grade, we were went to outdoor school. Outdoor school was like a week long camp. It was the first time many of us had been away from our parents. We got to meet and make friends with children from other schools. We took hikes and watched movies about nature. The counselors teased us about ‘mountain chickens.’ So when it came time for our cabin to put on our skit (it wouldn’t have been Johnson Heights without singing or skits) we acted like we were attacked by mountain chickens. We were banging on the doors and some of our members ran into the room with ripped clothes and ketchup as blood. The rest stood outside and banged on the cabin and made noises. Girls inside were screaming and crying. What fun! I guess this may have helped developed my sometimes twisted sense of humor. The teachers tried to give us moral guidance and help to develop us as good citizens. I still remember a speech Mr Delany gave us in the fourth grade. He told us in a couple of years we would be sixth graders and we would be ‘at the top’. But then in the 7th grade we would be back ‘at the bottom.’ Again at the top in the 8th and then at the bottom. He compared it to the rest of our lives and tried to instill humility and understanding in us. In the sixth grade, I had somehow acted up in the cafeteria, and he took me aside and reminded me of that speech. I remembered that throughout my life, maybe I remembered the reinforcement of that more than the original speech because I was truly embarrassed about my behavior and had a hard time looking him in the eye. But there was not a lot of bullying or bullies at Johnson Heights and maybe it was because teachers tried to stamp it out early and be a good influence on us. I only went to Washington Jr high a year but things changed. Our tight group of friends kind of separated and met new friends. Things changed. There were more bullies at Washington. The whole atmosphere was different and at times was very intimidating. I found myself often missing the sense of security and family we had at Johnson Heights. Nowadays we hear of drugs and violence in our schools and perverted teachers. That world just seems eons away from our little world inside the gates of Johnson Heights.