about growing up in State College, Pennsylvania recently appeared in the Centre Daily Times.
When I was eight and my brother Gene was eleven, we walked to the Centre Daily Times‘s office every day after school. On the way we’d pass through town, the Corner Restaurant, Murphy’s five and dime, and Rae & Derrick’s Drug Store where I bought red licorice and cherry ice cream sodas while listening to Eddie Fisher sing “I’m Walking Behind You” on the jukebox. Across the street from Rae & Derrick’s was the Nittany Movie Theater where we watched Commando Cody, Gene Autry, and Bomba the Jungle Boy at Saturday’s kiddy show. Admission cost us seventeen cents, a bag of popcorn a nickel. Before entering the theater we’d stop at the Pero dairy store to get candy cigarettes, black licorice pipes, red wax lips or little wax milk bottles filled with a sip of sweet juice.
On my way to the newspaper office I’d sometimes get a Dixie Cup of ice cream at Pero’s. Each lid of Dixie Cups had a picture of a movie star beneath a filmy piece of paper. Once I got Keenan Wynn. Mom said Wynn was a relative of ours. In his Dixie Cup picture Wynn had a mustache, held a pipe and looked sophisticated.
After arriving at the newspaper office, we’d sit on benches with the other paperboys in a cramped, stuffy office off the pressroom waiting for our papers to be printed. This room was filled with the muffled clatter of the presses, the alluring smell of its ink and paper dust. With a dramatic flourish the pressroom door would finally burst open and a first stack of papers would get banged down on the counter. When it was my turn the supervisor counted out thirty copies and slapped them in my outstretched arms. I’d ease these papers into my canvas sack, lift its strap over my shoulder, and start walking the several blocks to my customers. As I walked I’d fold my papers into neat, tossable rectangles using a secret technique known only to paperboys. By the time I started tossing papers with a practiced backhand spin my fingers would be black with the ink of fresh print.
Since the Centre Daily Times had only eight pages most days, my frail shoulders could support the canvas paper bag. But on Wednesday it swelled with ads to three times that size. On Wednesdays I had to stop every block or two to rest.
Outside of town the houses grew larger, the lots bigger. Most streets had arches of elm, maple and chestnut trees. When their leaves fell, the air would be filled with a pungent blend of rotting and burning leaves. Before their owners had raked them I’d kick leaves as I walked. Sometimes I’d stoop to retrieve a horse chestnut in its spiky green shell. Splitting this shell I’d remove the chestnut: a warm, luminous brown globe with a tan bullseye at one end. After I resumed walking I’d massage this smooth ball of comfort in my pocket.
As the days shortened, I would glance longingly at warm families framed by lit windows. One block of my customers were all fraternity houses. On winter evenings I could smell the food being cooked in their kitchens. Once when I stopped to collect the subscription fee from a frat, one of their members was being paddled on his backside as part of his hazing.
After all thirty of my papers were delivered I had one more block to walk home. Home was a two story white frame house with green trim on East Foster Avenue. Its front yard sloped gradually to the sidewalk which traversed huge elm trees guarding the street. The back yard – surrounded by a white picket fence – had a picnic table and a glider hung from an apple tree. I spent hours climbing this tree, creeping slowly out on narrow branches to reach its red and green fruit. These apples were small, lumpy, and mottled with dark spots. No apple I’ve eaten since has tasted better. Their seductive smell grew closer as the branches grew thinner, bending under my 60 pounds. It was a challenge to see I saw how far I could go before they snapped. Thankfully, none ever did.
My favorite room in our house was the basement. Its musty darkness spelled intrigue to me. The basement was intriguingly stale, lightly mildewed. Gene and I sometimes played in the coal bin, pretending its shiny black rocks were precious jewels. I liked the smooth, cool feel of coal against my skin, its dust in my hair. Above us we could hear the clatter of dishes being washed by our mother as she listened to “Queen for a Day” and “Truth or Consequences” on the radio.
I loved State College. Titter if you like, but to me this town was Happy Valley. Even though I’ve only been back a couple of times since we left nearly six decades ago, in some deep, warm recess of my soul, State College, Pennsylvania is still home to me.