The Road to Somerset

Being next to the youngest in my family was not always a good thing, especially during the seven-year period on the farm when I was between the ages of five and eleven.  From my vantage point, then, with no information to guide me other than what I saw and the odd comments from my older brother and sisters, I had no idea the farm was losing money.  My parents went from raising cattle to pigs to raising nothing at all, from growing our own crops, to growing crops for the government, to renting our fields and barn to local farmers, all the while searching for an agricultural formula that would pay the bills.  In turn, our hired hands never stayed long and frequently left our farm in worse shape than when they arrived.  All this seemed natural to me.

From what I recall, Daddy rarely managed the farm’s business, and, I suspect, looking back, he knew less about farming than Mother and, with his commute, was simply not around to learn how to be a farmer, even if he wanted to be one, which I realized as a kid, he decidedly did not.  He came and went like the sun – up in the early morning hours to drive to Pittsburgh and back in time for dinner by seven o’clock that night.  Ultimately, his income as a commodities broker provided the critical revenue necessary to keep the farm operating, the family in good health, and the profitability to free Mother at night after being alone all day with a newborn baby.

Jerry was born shortly after I started first grade and almost to the year after we had moved from Linshaw Avenue in Pittsburgh.  No longer did Mother see herself as the farmer’s wife with four children in school out to manage the farm, cut costs, and live on what the farm produced, like her grandparents did so proudly for years when she was child, but, rather, she saw herself as a beautiful young mother, once again.  With her focus on the baby, no longer did our daily chores include feeding the livestock or cleaning stalls and over time we stopped going to the barn at all.

Beginning our second year, we shifted from being an active farm family, like the hundreds of other farm families in Somerset County, to becoming what we really were: the landed gentry living far removed from the urbane world of Pittsburgh.  As kids, free of farm work, our chores focused instead on the house, the yard, and the flower gardens around the house.  Likewise, Mother turned to the city of Somerset, where most of the region’s gentry lived, for her friendships and social activities.  Starting with an art class in the evening that second fall, driving to Somerset soon became a daily part of our lives.

Our farm to Somerset was nine miles and took fifteen to twenty minutes.  Mother, though, was a fast driver and, I bet, could do it in ten.  We became used to the commute and went to Somerset for everything from groceries to gas, from necessities to doctor and dentist appointments to trips to the library and music lessons, from movies on Friday and Saturday nights to the Presbyterian church on Sunday.  At night, Mother drove to art classes, bridge games, and social engagements at the country club; Daddy drove to the community theatre and meetings with the Rotary.  As the years progressed, the reasons to make this drive increased, but the distance never became shorter.

Mother was a no-nonsense driver and didn’t tolerate distractions in her car, the family station wagon.  Not like in the Falcon with Daddy, with whom we could sing camp songs, or listen to stories of him and his friends growing up in Pittsburgh, or play the radio as loud as we wanted.  In Mother’s car, in an era before seat belts – with Holly in the front passenger seat, Jerry on her lap or beside her between her and Mother, and Charley, Allison, and me tight together in the back seat – we sat, staring out the windows and listened to the radio on low, if on at all, as we charged off to Somerset perpetually late for one thing or another.

At the top of our lane, we would turn left onto Route 31, the main highway to Somerset from the east, especially for truckers who chose not to pay the toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Quickly we would get on the busy road and breeze past the large state-run cemetery on the right; after burials, after family members and mourners returned to their homes, my bother and sisters and I would run up to the cemetery and take our pick of the flowers from the new graves, filling our house with the mournful scent of lilies and lilacs.

A mile past the cemetery was the crossroads of Brotherton.  On our side of the crossroads was the Brotherton Methodist Church and, on the other side, the entrance to the Scotts’ farm.  The Scotts had a son my age, if not a year younger.  However, our wildness overwhelmed their family and his parents rarely allowed him to play with us.  I could see him playing in his yard by himself and sometime would stop on my bike.  One summer I got up early and peddled down to the Scott’s barn and helped his dad milk their cows.  Mr. Scott, who invited me to join him when he walked by me talking to his son, was surprised I showed up and, even more so, when I came back after that first morning.

The Scotts and other local families went to the Brotherton Methodist Church at the crossroads, but our family was Presbyterian.  That same summer, though, Mother enrolled Charley, Allison, and me in the bible camp at the Brotherton church, and it was the only time we ever stepped into its sanctuary – to me, it was just as equally dark and holy, with stained glass windows depicting Jesus and his disciples, as the Presbyterian sanctuary in Somerset.  In the community room downstairs, along with other kids from the area, we learned to make outlines of Jesus’ hands on thin sheets of cooper.  I gave mine to Mother, but, like a lot of inconsequential gifts we gave her, she lost it after a couple of weeks.

At the Brotherton crossroads, if Mother took a left past the church, the next house was where Kenny Peel’s grandparents lived.  Kenny was a boy one year older than me who lived most of the time in Johnstown, but spent weekends and parts of the summer with his grandparents in Brotherton.  When he was around, he frequently played with Allison and me.  Kenny was street-wise and slick and told us thrilling stories of what he and his friends did in the city and how they would get into trouble.  Allison and I wanted to get into trouble too, but we couldn’t think of what we could do in Brotherton.

Past Kenny’s house, the road went on like a needle sewing farm after farm after farm to its black thread, until, seven miles later, it reached the tiny town of Berlin where at the far end of Main Street our elementary and high schools were located.  Next to the entrance to the schools was a potato chip factory, Snyder’s of Berlin; my memory of recess was the pervasive smell of potato chips frying in the factory’s deep vats of fat.

At the Brotherton crossroads, if, instead of turning left, we took the right, as we often did on our bikes, we would continue into farm country for about a half-mile before the road turned into dirt.  Down a short way an artesian well and a small pond lay hidden in the tall grass.  On the edge of the pond, in the weeds coming out of the water, we would find hundreds of milky white globs of frog eggs.  Cold in our hands and so squishy, I couldn’t help but wonder how many frogs would be born if we left the white globules alone in the water – my brother Charley, though, had other ideas and threw them at us like they were spring’s snowballs.

Mother always raced straight through the crossroads with all of us packed together in the station wagon.  We now were on our way to Somerset and would quickly pass the Brotherton Garage, the last significant structure on the edge of our farm world.

The Brotherton Garage was the commercial center of the crossroads; with its three large bays for tractors and farm trucks and two old gas pumps near the office, vehicles of one sort or another from the local area constantly pulled up to the dirty white, wooden clapboard structure.

The Sikes family lived upstairs above the garage and had three kids in ages close to Holly, Charley, and Allison; their kids often came to our farm to play British Bulldog and build forts in the barn.  At one point, Nancy Sikes, who was Allison’s friend, along with Kenny Peel, who was mine, formed a club with Allison and me, and, together, we ran around our farm, Kenny’s grandparents’ house, the Methodist Church yard, and the Brotherton Garage calling ourselves the SPGs.

Mr. Sykes was a mechanic in the garage; a heavy-set man with powerful, hairy arms, he was nice enough to us in the apartment upstairs, but not at all friendly when we hung out at the garage.  He always wore dirty, mechanics, short-sleeve work shirts.  Mrs. Sikes, his heavy-set housewife, often watched soap operas on their TV, and every time we came into their apartment, she would be ironing to As the World Turns, Guiding Light, or All My Children.

As kids, if we scraped together enough money, between us we could buy a bottle of root beer, birch beer, or Coca-Cola in the coke machine within the dirty office of the Brotherton Garage.  With no extra money to pay a five-cent deposit for the glass bottle, we would sit on our bikes outside the big bays and share the soda between us, trying to stay out of the way of the trucks coming into the garage and beyond Mr. Sykes’ threats to send us home.

Inside the small office an old, wooden-frame, plate glass counter partitioned the room in half and separated the red horizontal Coke machine from the wooden desks cluttered thick with papers and receipts.  I remember staring down through the glass counter at the Clark candy bars and packs of Doublemint gum on the glass shelf next to boxes of Lucky Strikes, cans of oil, and black rubber belts for trucks and tractors.  However, what I most vividly recall was the calendar on the sidewall behind the counter.  Somehow I knew I shouldn’t stare, but each month the calendar showcased a busty woman posing in a one-piece bathing suit.  It was enough to distract me into forgetting what I came to buy or I even that had friends waiting outside.

Mother never spent time in the Brotherton Garage.  Never bought a soda and never shared a Clark bar.  She never saw the calendar nor met Mr. and Mrs. Sykes except to call and tell us to come home.  For her, the garage was simply a reminder of how remote we were as we shot past and sped out of our little valley.

Still, before crossing the first set of hills, we would pass the dirt road where Sadie Moss lived.  This road, on the left, with its haphazard cluster of gray mailboxes on dirty two-by-fours, provided the only access to five log cabins on the distant mountainside.  In the middle of those one-room cabins lived Sadie Moss, an older woman who babysat us for the first couple of years of our lives on the farm.  To me, Sadie came from the earth itself; she was a thin, wiry woman with a face and hands weathered through the accumulation of years of hard work.  She had a high voice with a lilting country accent that reflected the very tenor of the mountains and the surrounding farms, but her instructions were never to be ignored.  I remember too she had gray hair that she kept braided and knotted in a bun on the back of her head. Only when she was spending the night did we ever see it down: it went all the way to her waist and it shimmered like a wave when she brushed it.  Her log cabin, she told us, with a twinkle in her eye as she put us to bed, was where she grew up and it had only a wood stove for heat; given how cold winters were, I would go to sleep wondering how she survived all those years.

Driving through the woods at the top of the ridge, leaving all vestiges of Brotheron behind, we would pass a small, one-room, roadside shack of a bar on the right just before descending into Dead Man’s Curve.  This was the only bar in the area before Somerset or long past our house heading east, and Daddy would stop here to drink and, on occasion, take Allison or me with him.  It smelled of sweat, farmers, and stale beer, and we would crack peanuts from a little barrel at a shaky table while Daddy, looking incongruent amongst all the farmers, drank beer at the bar.

The shack was just above Dead Man’s Curve, which consisted of a sweeping left turn to circumvent an old, open quarry on the right as we headed down into the next valley.  When Ricky Nelson’s sang “Tell Laura I Love Her” on the car radio, I often thought he died at Dead Man’s Curve, having crashed his car through the guard rail and down into the rock quarry below.  No wonder Laura needed someone to tell her – how could anyone ever survive such a crash!

Driving across the farm land of the next valley was like crossing a pastoral ‘no-man’s’ land between tiny Brotherton with its farm-centered life and the vivacious influence of Somerset, the largest town in the area, with its court house and law offices, its hospitals and doctors’ offices, its post office and county library, and its downtown movie theater, drug stores, and retail stores, and, like an artery of the heart, it’s access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike with hotels and restaurants surrounding the turn-in to the toll-road.

Crossing this agricultural valley, we could see off in the distance cars and trucks on the turnpike speeding to Pittsburgh, a route we knew from countless trips to baseball games or special events, such as when the Pittsburg Pirates won the World Series, or when we shopped for clothes at the Kaufman’s Department Store downtown, or when we visited Daddy’s mother when she lived in the Presbyterian Home.  The other direction was the way to Philadelphia, where our Uncle Tommy and Aunt Nelda lived.  Allison, Charley and I traveled to Philadelphia every summer to visit our aunt and uncle who lived in a split-level house in the suburbs, and Aunt Ned would take us to battlefields, the liberty bell, museums, gardens, and zoos.  We loved Aunt Ned and Uncle Tommy, and when they visited us on the farm at Christmas, their car would be full of gifts and food and our time together would be magical.

Closer to Somerset Mother would slow down as we went past the State Police Barrack on the left and then speed up again as we drove past the state hospital on the right.  This facility was not a typical hospital, like the Somerset Hospital or the Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh; rather this hospital was fenced in and centered on a hillside far from the highway.  The complex consisted of four very large, brick dormitories, each with a central entrance and five long rows of dark windows on either side.  Holly told us it was a hospital for insane people; Charley said this was where Allison and I belonged and swore it was where Mother and Daddy found Jerry.  I didn’t know what to believe, but I never saw anyone on the grounds and only a small smattering of cars in front.

I often thought of who might be staring out those dark windows, counting the number of times we drove past; in my mind it was never a kid like me but always some crazy old person who likely would be buried some day with grey, horrible flowers in the cemetery near our house.

Shortly after the police barrack was the turn off to one of the two Howard Johnson service areas located on either side of the turnpike.  Later, when Mother was desperate for money, she worked the night shift at the Howard Johnson on our side of the turnpike, but that was near the tail end of our time on the farm.

By this point countless small brick houses and manufactured houses with yellow plastic siding indicated we were approaching Somerset.  Quickly we would zoom past these nameless homes and shoot down a short hill into the beginnings of the city.  Before us lay a mile-long stretch of shopping centers and tractor dealerships on the right, including the A&P grocery store, always an important stop for Mother before returning to the farm, and beauty parlors and insurance agencies on the left. On the right, too, was the Old Farm Drive-in; here waitresses roller-skated to our car and delivered hamburgers, French fries, and chocolate milkshakes.  Though this was something we rarely did with Mother, we could convince Daddy to take us after going to the hardware store or the Ag store for dog food and other supplies.

At the bottom of the hill another major road merged from the left onto our road.  Often, rather than drive the strip into Somerset, we would take that sharp fork and head back out of the city.  This highway was the direct route between Somerset and Berlin eleven miles away; for us, it was the road to the Somerset Country Club a mile down the pike and a key destination for many of Mother’s runs.

That second winter Mother and Daddy joined the Somerset Country Club to give Daddy access to Somerset’s wealthier citizens and, in the summer, so we could swim in the club’s Olympic-size pool under the watchful eyes of the town’s college-age lifeguards.  Of course, the nine-hole golf course and the large clubhouse with its dark, manly bar, its active dining facilities, and its banquet hall complete with organized dances, holiday parties, and bridge tournaments, only added to the membership.  For mother and daddy, it was like leaving behind the dull and frustrating world of the farm for a life of sanity among normal people, people who enjoyed manhattans and martinis, who owned sailboats and went skiing, who could dance the twist, and who purchased the latest color TVs and princess phones for their kids.

I hated Somerset, the Somerset Country Club, the suave and sophisticated Somerset members and their Somerset children, all of whom we had absolutely nothing in common.  I hated the social life Mother and Daddy now conceived for themselves and us far from our farm, the SPGs, Berlin, and the Crossroads of Brotherton.  I knew, even as the one who was next to the youngest in our family, with no understanding of the outside world other than what I saw and heard, this new life, a life into which we now were thrust, would grow and fester and be like a open sore that refused to heal until long after Mother and Daddy’s relationship disintegrated and we were gone.

****

 



Categories: My Family Story

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