Visiting my grandparents was a once-a-year treat.
We lived in Aiken. They lived in Pittsburgh. In days before interstates, that meant a two-day drive with Dad at the helm and Mother the navigator.
As we drove through two-lane roads in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, there were few four-lane highways and virtually no bypasses around the larger cities that were encountered. By today’s standards, it was an arduous journey.
Until I was 12, there were four of us boys along for the ride. The littlest was five years younger, and the older siblings were three and four years ahead of me. The youngest sat up front between our parents on the bench seat that was standard in the 1955 Plymouth Plaza.
As the youngest of the back-seat crew, my place was in the middle with feet straddling the dreaded hump that ran down the centerline of the car. With limited visibility from my vantage point I had a tough time looking out to see what we were passing.
The lack of air conditioning didn’t make the summer passage any easier, and it did nothing to improve my car sickness. A dose of Dramamine helped, but nausea was a constant companion in the back seat.
After a day and a half of bumpy roads, slow traffic and busy cities and towns, we finally reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike with its four lanes and higher speed limits. The Keystone State breeze brought relief as we roared toward our destination, I knew we were almost there.
Grandma and Grandpa lived in the South Hills of Pittsburgh in an area known as Brookline, the heart of which is Brookline Boulevard. He worked for the Post Office, riding a rail car between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. She was a first-grade teacher.
They moved into their two-story home after marrying and lived there for 40 years before selling and ultimately settling in Florida. We loved visiting that house and getting to utilize features that were novel to us.
The light switches, for instance, were push buttons. Push the top button for on, the bottom one for off. That was much more impressive than flipping a switch up and down.
The neatest item in the house – one that was unnecessary in the ranch houses we occupied in Aiken – was the laundry chute. In the top-floor hall was a small door that opened to the chute leading to the basement. Dirty clothes were dropped into the opening and landed next to the washing machine. You might imagine that other things plummeted to the floor below when we visited.
The basement was also a novelty. Even on the warmest of summer days, the basement with its many secrets stayed cool.
Visiting in Pittsburgh had other advantages. We got to see aunts, uncles and cousins who lived in the area. Since our grandparents’ house didn’t have enough room for the whole family, some of us were farmed out to other relatives for a few nights. Annual visits with cousins who showed us around their neighborhoods were a real treat.
There are favorite memories of those visits to the Steel City. Back then there were still mills producing steel for American industries. Seeing the plumes of smoke from the factories was exciting to a boy of the South who had read about such factories in social studies books.
Riding the streetcars was also a highlight. During my childhood in the late ’50 and early ’60s Pittsburgh had an established system of electric streetcars running on tracks. Each car had bars extending upward to make contact with overhead power lines that provided the electricity.
Seeing the cars with 39 Brookline on the front always gave me a sense of satisfaction – that’s where my mother grew up. That was a return to home.
Brookline Boulevard was also a hot spot for a pre-teen kid from South Carolina. Less than half a mile from my grandparents’ home, The Boulevard was somewhere I wanted to visit each year. Grandpa regularly visited a bakery there and brought home treats that were not part of our Aiken diet.
There was also a store that sold the kinds of knick knacks that a kid has to have, but wonders months later why he wasted his money on them. There were comic books, gum, candy and sodas. The purchase I best recall from that store was an ocarina – the musical instrument also known as a sweet potato.
It came with instructions of how to play and a guide for a couple of songs which I mastered and probably drove the family crazy by repeating it ad nauseum.
Although we visited for less than a week each year, the memories of the house, family and a different setting still remain strong. There were trips to the local museum and its superb dinosaur display. We went to Pirates baseball games in Forbes Field. We looked out over the city and its three rivers from the top of Mount Washington. We went to the local amusement parks. We choked on the exhaust that filled the Liberty Tunnel which took us from the southside to downtown.
And some things other than dirty clothes may have accidentally fallen down the laundry chute.