The house my mother found in Gettysburg was magical. It was everything I could have wanted as a teenager, and it didn’t take long before I realized it. My family lived in three different locations while I was growing up. The first was a big house in Pittsburgh where we lived when I was born, back in 1953. Specifically, it was on Linshaw Avenue in Ingram, a neighborhood on the south side of the city. The second was a modern ranch-style house on a 35-acre farm in the Alleghenies, where I spent my elementary school years, and the third was an old Victorian house on Carlisle Street in Gettysburg, across from the office of former President Ike Eisenhower on the campus of Gettysburg College. This was the house of my middle school and teenage years. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, my mother sold this house to our next-door neighbor a year before I graduated from high school.
I don’t remember my younger years in Pittsburgh all that well, but the eclectic assortment of memories I do have are good ones – of living in the top half of our house, of a large, open living room that was on the second floor and looked out over Linshaw Avenue. I remember Charley, Allison, and me getting our tonsils out and lying in this room eating ice cream. (At my age, my mother had no business removing my tonsils, and I can only think that she received exceptional pleasure in abusing all three of us at once and/or got such a deal from the doctor she couldn’t turn it down!) A second stairwell led to the bedrooms on the third floor and offered a wooden bin in turning the corner midway up the staircase that my sister Allison and I played in for years. Behind the front living room was the dining room and behind that the kitchen, which overlooked a large back yard. I don’t remember who lived below us, but I do remember our house was in a middle of a block, and we knew the neighborhood like the back of our hands. Across the street were the Freys who had kids Charley and Allison’s ages and up the street was a German woman, Greta Voss, who had a son my age, and, together, we explored the streets and alleys around our houses, catching fireflies at dusk in the summer, trick-or-treating in the fall, throwing snow balls and sledding in the winter. I remember a noon day whistle every day from the firehouse a block or two away and a candy store on the way to school. This was the domain of my early childhood, and I loved being on Linshaw Avenue with my brother and sisters. I was the youngest and benefited from the constant attention Allison gave me, though she was only a year and a half older. My brother Charley was a year and a half older than her, and I idolized him as any younger brother would and wanted him to like me, though often he didn’t. My oldest sister Holly was three years older than Charley and, as a result, I don’t remember her at all when we lived on Linshaw, but this changed dramatically when we moved to the farm.
Since this is, in part, a reflection on my mother, I thought I should mention what I remember of her back then. What I remember, in fact, was that she was beautiful. Every kid says this about his or her mom, but, back in the early 1950s, this truly was the case with my mother – ask any of my siblings or the neighbors kids, we all were in love with her! Our mother was a petite woman but athletic; she had a pretty face with especially appealing, sparkling eyes; she wore vivid red lipstick and kept her sandy, blonde hair in that bob-style so famous at the time, making her look oh-so young. The daughter of a doctor, my mother grew up with her two brothers under the daily care of a live-in nanny who watched over them after the death of their mother when they were just children. My mother was a World War II teenager who went to Denison College in 1944; she met my father upon his return from the European Theatre and had four kids by 1953. I maintain that three of us were born one right after the other in the early fifties so my father would qualify for the family deferment from active duty, but Holly says Daddy, who was in the reserves after World War II, didn’t get out of being called up for the Korean Conflict and that Allison, in fact, was born in Indiana when they all were living there on an army base. However, when I was born, we were back in Pittsburgh (at least my mother was), and though, in fact, my father never did go to Korea, it wasn’t long before we were together as a tight little family on Linshaw Avenue. At the time I knew nothing of the dark side of my mother’s life, including the death of her mother, but, as we moved from house to house and became teenagers, the stories were passed between us. On Linshaw though, our mother was pristine and beautiful, and we loved showing her off in school as we knew our classmates and even the teachers would be so envious of us for having such a vivacious beauty for a mother.
I was five and just starting kindergarten when we moved to the farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Back in the fifties most of the “upwardly mobile” families living in Pittsburgh were heading out for the new suburbs, and we really should have done the same thing, if truth be told, as my father worked as a stocks and bonds salesman in downtown Pittsburgh. A half-an-hour commute to a cul-de-sac in Monroeville would have been perfect. However, my mother and father had lived in Pittsburgh all of their lives, and she, in particular, was looking for something more than tree-less, tract-housing east of the city. How they found our farm an hour-and-a-half up the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I have no idea. It was located in the western range of the Allegheny Mountains nine miles from the county seat of Somerset in the township of Brothers Valley near a crossroads called Brotherton. However, the farm attracted her, and with her persuasive desire to raise her children where they would have room to run, pets to raise, and farm animals to be cared for – as well as all the fresh air that comes with living on top of the Allegheny Mountains – I don’t think my father had a chance. Even if he thought it was an absurd idea, he never expressed it to any of us. Though, clearly, he was the one to bear the brunt of the commute back and forth, and, certainly, this had to be one of the fundamental problems that began to undermine their relationship. That and, of course, the reality that neither knew how to be a “family,” let alone one living on a farm an hour-and-a-half from Pittsburgh.
Charles Edgar Giles
My father was a tall man and solid, with wavy, sandy hair and a big toothy smile. As I mentioned earlier, he could be quite entertaining. He grew up the only son of a strict mother who worked for the Presbyterian Church. He lost his father when he was a little boy, the story is told, when, as a leader of a Boy Scout troop, my grandfather jumped into a river to save two young scouts from drowning. Though he saved the boys, he himself was swept away and found dead several hours later. My dad was proud of his father, and we were aware of this story as children, more so than anything about my mother’s father, who I never recall ever meeting let alone hearing about from my mother or my two uncles. However, my father told wonderful stories of growing up in Pittsburgh, and, for some reason, we never asked our mother what it was like for her. His stories became the stories for both of them, of his running with friends from roof-top to roof-top and even falling, at one point, through a skylight, only to jump up and run out of the building! Of going to ball games and rooting for the Pirates, Forbes Field, and playing sandlot baseball. My brother Charley and I were swept up in these tales and often tried to duplicate his feats and the stories we read in adventure books and, of course, Boys Life, like building a raft on our creek below the barn, just like Huck Finn, to take down the few rivers separating us from the mighty Ohio – stuff on which life-long dreams are made!
Unfortunately, the worst spanking I ever received was from my father when I refused to go to Cub Scouts. I hated the troop, which was centered in Somerset nine miles away from our farm, I hated the boys, who all knew each other from attending the same grade school, and I hated the leaders, who were two of the boys’ mothers. I especially hated the stupid things we had to do; it never dawned on me that unlike the other boys I had no aptitude for crafts, no knowledge of wood-working, such as constructing bird houses, and no one to do any of the assignments with me. My mother was busy in her own world and simply not interested, and my father, who may have been interested, was either at work or on the road commuting home. After dinner one evening my mother did what she said she was going to do all afternoon and told my father that I was being obstinate, I hadn’t done that week’s assignment, and now I was refusing to go to that night’s Scouts meeting – all of which was bad enough, but, in fact, she also told him I said I no longer wanted to be a Cub Scout. After trying to reason with me, he became angry, of course, and finally tried to force me to wear the outfit and go to the stupid meeting. We ended up wrestling on the bathroom floor, and, ultimately I found myself on his lap being spanked really hard – I mean blow after blow after blow after blow. I think it’s the only time he ever spanked me. I mean, really spanked me. I remember crying my heart out, but I do know, I never went to that meeting nor any other Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts meeting again.
I can only imagine what was going on in his mind or what he must have thought, and, of course, it is easy to recall bad memories, but I have good ones of my father too, like seeing him in the role of the arch-villain Snidley Whiplash in a play put on by the Somerset Community Theatre. I don’t remember who played Dudley Do-Right or the heroine, Nell, but Daddy played Snidley so broadly that even when he was booed every time he came on stage, I knew it was only the part he was playing and he was having a wonderful time. Everyone loved how evil he was, and I was so proud to tell my friends running around in the corridors outside the auditorium, that he was my dad. When people clapped at the end and gave the cast a standing ovation, I clapped too and was thrilled to hear the audience cheer as I knew it was for him.
Categories: My Family Story