By Louis Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember a song called “Wedding Bells Are Breaking up That Old Gang of Mine.”
They most certainly did! Marriages, military service, relocations of homes by our families for various reasons, including the regular flooding of nearby Neshannock Creek, led to the breakup.
Seemingly, the creek overflowed its banks every other year, causing all of our neighbors to live with their relatives for a few days until the creek behaved itself.
Those negatives aside, the old gang fished together on the river bank, swam in a makeshift swimming hole, climbed on huge out-of-commission mill equipment, played in a wooded area near the creek, played baseball on a large cinder-filled lot and climbed on piles of junk, courtesy of The New Castle Junk Co., which bought and sold scrap metal.
While there were no playgrounds where we could play, there were these exciting (if not dangerous) opportunities to engage in creative play. One day, an enormous rusting trailer became a starship – the next, a pirate ship.
One day’s activities consisted of baseball from morning until night, another’s fishing and swimming the day away on the creek, which at the time was probably polluted. But what did we care about watermelon rinds floating by as we swam without a care in the world?
My old gang consisted of 10 boys of roughly the same age. To say that I had a wonderful childhood would be an understatement. One thing we had in common was that virtually all of our parents worked in the mill, which was an easy walk from our homes.
Nobody in our old neighborhood could be called affluent and certainly few of the families who lived on Center Street or Jefferson Street lived in luxury or even owned a car.
The kids who made up our neighborhood gang went to St. Joseph School and church approximately three blocks from our homes.
We shared much together. In a sense, we became brothers. Today, on those rare occasions when we bump into one another at Walmart or the supermarket, the years of separation vanish. We genuinely cared for one another.
When the childhood and teenage years began to fade, marriages happened and the beginning of the end of this phase of our lives came with them. Wedding bells had indeed begun to ring, tolling an end to a wonderful period in all of our lives and welcoming another positive phase of life.
Sadly today, it is not marriage that has broken up the old gang. Rather it is the finality of death.
I was heartbroken to learn of the death of one of the old gang, Chico, who lost his battle with the virus. I recall him as a high-energy kid who was the first of the group to ride a two-wheeler, tie his own shoes, and write his own name without adult help. He matured into a great swimmer and ball player and ultimately a popular welding instructor.
In the 1950s, we saw the group lose two members to the horrible scourge of polio. I recall their deaths as if they occurred yesterday. Dennis and Bill fought to survive and all of us sat on my front porch wondering which one of us would end up in an iron lung.
Then came the news from heaven (actually from the University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Jonas Salk – the university is my alma mater – that he had found a cure).
Polio would be gone from our lives but the recollection of this horrid disease, and our fear of it, put a damper on summer fun for what seemed to be an eternity before science finally won the battle.
I recall my parents at one point warning me to avoid the creek since there was a belief that cold river water just might be the cause, particularly in the hot summer months. But this was just one of many bogus claims along with overheating and many others that were said to cause polio.
My gang of friends and I managed our way through it. But, in the end, that fear made us wiser and somewhat stronger.
Believe me, we were not exactly a band of angels. On the contrary, we got ourselves into an occasional difficult situation.
Guards always manned the Mill’s security gate. On those occasions when a baseball would be hit into the windows of the plant by one of our strongest players, we knew that the guard was going to chase us, blowing his whistle. We also knew that he was not faster than us, which enabled us to run to our respective homes.
It was then that we’d get on the telephone (in the days of party lines when you might be talking to six or seven people at once) and we were able to follow the path of the local police cruiser as it made its way down our street.
We also knew that the police cruiser was really meant to simply scare us into no longer hitting baseballs into the windows of the Pennsylvania Engineering Works. It did not work.
My gang of friends and I never grew up to be the gang of humorous ruffians in that series of movies from the 1930s, The Bowery Boys, with my favorite gang member being Satch.
Moreover, we definitely did not become that talented group from Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story.”
No, we were just a group of neighbor kids who pretended to be Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and The Lone Ranger cleaning up the Old West on the shores of the Neshannock Creek.