Chapter Two 428 Leeton Ave. (Partial Chapter)


It’s summer time. Donnie is in his wheelchair parked in the front yard watching me. I’m holding a small plastic rocket in one hand and in my other, a roll of caps. I meticulously tear off a single cap and pull back a little metal nose on the rocket and place it inside. I toss it up into the sky as far as a four year old can throw and it soars. Then it falls down, down, down, back to the earth and crashes with a loud POP as the metal nose slams onto the street.

Donnie laughs.

I repeat the process over and over until the roll of caps is gone and Donnie has slobber all over his shirt from laughing so much. The smell of spent caps fills the air then as it fills my imagination now. God how I wish there were candles or air fresheners that smelled like spent caps or kindergarten Play-doh or elementary PBJ filled lunch boxes or any of those other childhood aromas that act as olfactory time machines that whisk me back to the good ol’ days of my innocence before bills, before responsibility and before broads. I’d light an “eau de bookmobile” candle and put on some...

...My name is Michael,
I’ve got a nickel,
I’ve got a nickel,
shinny and new...

...and turn up the volume on my ipod and travel back to 428 Leeton Ave., my first port where the memories of my earliest adventures begin to come to life.

Prosperity Hill was the name of our little run down, white trashy neighborhood. I only know this because my maternal grandfather spent some of his childhood there and that’s what he called it when telling us stories of his past. There were no signs or special markings that announced to travelers they were entering Prosperity Hill. On the contrary, a trip around the four streets that made up our block was more a progression of poverty and less of a reflection of prosperity.

Prosperity Hill sat on the line between St. Louis City and St. Louis County; bordering between residential and industry always teetering between poverty and despair. Our little three room “shotgun” house on Leeton St. was tiny and narrow and resembled a child’s shoe box but less spacious. The average adult could walk in the front door and out the back in less then twenty paces. The first four steps took you through the family room. The next four took you through the bedroom. Another literal hop, skip and jump and you were down the hall, pass the bathroom, through the kitchen and out the back door. The single bedroom was a cacophony of beds. My sister’s twin bed sat against one wall surrounded by her school art work which I guess gave her a sense of some sort of private domain. My parent’s full-size bed flowed from the wall with the window into the middle of the room and acted as a stumbling block that you always tripped over when you were running from the living room to the bathroom. My bunk-bed that I shared with my brother sat nestled against the other wall opposite my mom and dad’s. The one that faced the bathroom and the one that got the light and stench.

By the time we moved into Leeton, mom and dad had already decided the best place for Donnie was at the State School and Hospital. My younger brother, Brad, had been born and there were now three other kids all begging for her attention. I’m sure it had to be emotionally hard for mom to send Donnie off to a state mental facility but at the same time it must have been both emotionally and physically freeing. We brought Donnie home almost every weekend and he always remained an active and integral part of our family.

It’s hard to image five, sometimes six, people living in that little one bedroom house on Leeton but it wasn’t the smallest house on the block. Up and down the street there were other houses with less space and even more people. The Trembolts had six kids and a dog living in a four room house. And Mrs. Scheafer, who was a widower, had five daughters all sharing two bedrooms and one bathroom. The funny thing about living in a state of near poverty as a kid is that you have no idea you’re living in a state of near poverty. You share common bonds with those around you. Your best friend’s house across the street only has three rooms too and it’s filled with smoke, people and dysfunction just like your house. All the kids in the neighborhood looked, dress and acted like one another. (Well, not exactly like me.) It was nothing to spend the day at a neighbor’s house and see his parents drinking, cursing and fighting. It made you feel just like home.

While living on Prosperity Hill lacked those commodities that made a person monetarily rich to those who viewed us from the outside; within its neighborhood walls were treasure troves of adventures that made a boy truly wealthy on the inside. Our bricks of gold were the dilapidated brick buildings that sat dark and dangerous and called the curiosity of any adventurous boy that happened to be wandering by. The riches we found was in the soil that got ground into our knees and elbows from crawling through the tunnels of weeds or the old abandon sewer pipes. The only diamonds one would ever find in Prosperity Hill were the baseball diamonds that were worn into the grassy field each summer from raggedy kids playing the all American favorite pastime while calling out sayings like, “Aaayyy batter, nooo batter, your momma’s ugly and your daddy’s fatter, you can’t hit...” We had no gloves and sometimes no sneakers even but it didn’t stop us from playing or pretending to be another Pete Rose or Lou Brock. These are the snap shots of childhood that acted as crucibles that made golden memories.

I do not believe there is another place on this planet that offered more diverse adventures and potential perils then my house on Leeton Ave. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn never saw as much action in the hills and caves of Hannibal or on the waves of the Mississippi. The castaway Robinson Crusoe’s adventures were a mere cake walk compared to our daily death defying, as in our parents would kill us if they knew what we were doing, adventures. And Hogwarts, the fantasy land of Harry Potter, is just that—a fantasy land. But the magic of Prosperity Hill was real. So real, it could be charted just like a pirate’s map. Each area had its own easily recognized name that began with the word The...

“Mom we’re going to ‘The Woods”.”
“I’ll meet you at “The Creek”.
“Stay away from “The Factory”
“The Train Tracks is where you smash pennies.”
And then there was always...


Maybe it’s the global warming or maybe it’s just a child’s perspective, but winter seemed to be extremely more cold and snowy growing up as a kid. I guess three inches of snow is a whopping 1/14 of a 42 inch boy and a mere 1/24 of a 6 foot man. There’s also the fact, I’m no longer knee deep in it building snowmen or walking across frozen creeks or spending hours behind snow forts throwing snowballs at my enemies.

I feel sorry for West Coast kids and students who live in the warmer climates of the South. Sure they have the fun of the sun, sail and surf but they never get to feel the cozy joy of sleeping in on a winter’s morning after the night has drops it's fury of snow causing the school administration to call for a snow day. Growing up in the Midwest, snow days were academic gifts of God. They were like sick days, minus the sickness plus a lot of fun. If there was even a hint of a winter weather advisory in the air, we got on bended knees and prayed to Mother Nature to unleash her white wrath while we slept. Come morning, before the break of dawn and between the sounds of the percolating coffee pot and the crackle of the AM radio, Mom listened for that dreaded school closing announcement that meant only one thing-chaos. Eventually we’d wake to the smell of coffee and Cream of Wheat; the old fashion kind complete with lumps that took ten minutes to make. After a hurried and hectic breakfast, mom would layer us in long-johns, blue jeans and sweat pants. Two pair of socks on our hands were as good as mittens and a couple pair of socks on our feet, covered with plastic Wonder Bread wrappers tucked in our shoes sort of resembled rubber galoshes. Before the last coat buckle was snapped, we were out the door and off to the “The Hill”. 

During the summer The Hill was just a steeped piece of landscaping that led from The Park to The Field. A place where the grass grew knee high and weeds fought with the wildflowers for the right of sunlight and raindrops. We road our bikes and go-carts down The Hill’s well-worn paths. There were paths everywhere in The Neighborhood. Through The Park, down The Hill into The Woods and across The Meadow; each connected with one another like kid-worn highways. The only temporary paths were the ones that snaked through The Wheat Field. In the height of summer, much to the farmer’s dismay, these paths appeared like crop circles go awry and disappeared when harvest time came. The rest of the paths stayed on all year long that became dusty trails in the summer’s heat, muddy trenches in the spring and autumn and ice-filled streams in the winter’s snow. No matter which path you were on, they all seemed to eventually merge back to one place; the top of The Hill. It was during the winter, after a volley of snowflakes, when The Hill became more then just a steeped piece of landscaping; it became The Sledding Hill. I use the word “sledding” here symbolically. Sleds were a commodity the kids on the other side of The Train Tracks possessed. Which made no difference to us, we were content with cardboard boxes, cheap round plastic toboggans and an occasional trash can lid. Although once, during a fierce snowball fight in the alley, some of the other boys and I stumbled upon a metallic treasure peeking from behind the Barkers shed that was to forever change our sledding lives; it was an old abandoned Chevy car hood.

“Looks like a giant sled to me.” I announced to the gang.

Everyone immediately agreed and within seconds, we turned it upside down and like pallbearers solemnly carrying the corpse of a loved one, we marched the Chevy car hood to “The Sledding Hill” and dropped it on the ground. Before it made a thud, half the boys in the neighborhood piled on top of it while the other half gave us a running launch. We were off; soaring down The Sledding Hill faster then any kid had ever sped down its snowy slopes.

Yelling. Screaming. Laughing.

In the midst of our ecstasy we became frantically aware there was no way to steer the Chevy car hood sled. It had no rudders or ropes just one giant curved piece of uncontrollable metal. Soon our giggles and bright-eyed stares turned to pleas of panic and shock.

At the bottom of The Hill stood an old dilapidated baseball backstop that, for generations long before we were born, had stopped foul balls and wild pitches from going into The Creek. It had been around during my grandfather’s childhood, when Prosperity Hill was still prosperous, but by then it was just an old tangled, bent, snow-covered rusty relic. We were on a collision course with the ol’backstop and there was nothing anyone could do except scream.


Like the thousands of wild pitches it had stopped over the decades, the ragged old backstop caught our Chevy car hood sled and flung a half a dozen wild boys back into the snow covered infield. We lay scattered about dazed and confused like dying snow angels staring up at the wintery sky. Off into the distance was the faint echo of other kids standing at the top of The Sledding Hill laughing their little asses off. Then, through the silent crisp cold air, Jimmy quietly whispered,

 "Far Out!”.

And before the next snowflake fell to the ground, we all jumped up and were once again on the path climbing back to the top of The Sledding Hill and doing it again.

No comments:

Post a Comment