Sunday, July 19, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #7: A Frightening Ride


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

13. 1920 or 1921: Colvin Street Hill, Syracuse

As overworked and as generally hard-pressed as our Mother was, she made every effort to see that each of us understood that no matter how busy she was nor how many of us there were, we all shared equally and generously in her love. However infrequent the occasions were, she took advantage of every opportunity to to do something we boys would enjoy and that she could share with us. On one fine summer day, for instance, she found the time to prepare a picnic lunch and take the three of us boys for a walk to Onondaga Park. Bob, Jim, and I were probably seven, three, and five, respectively, at the time. Reaching the park meant walking the long block to Colvin Street, turning west there and walking about six blocks to South Avenue, a street busy with trolley cars and other vehicles and pedestrian shoppers. Small shops lined both sides of South Avenue at that corner. That avenue marked the western boundary of the flat bottom of the Onondaga Creek valley in that area. From there West Colvin Street climbed very steeply up the west slope of the valley for a very long block to a broad natural terrace, west of which the upward slope resumed. Onondaga Park lay on that terrace, and was a very popular picnic, playground, and swimming pool facility.

We possessed a rather old cart, consisting of a shallow rectangular box body mounted on four wheels. The axle on which the front wheels were mounted swiveled to allow for turning. The handle extended up from the front axle, and pivoted forward and back. When the cart was being drawn, the handle was extended forward; if a child were riding in the cart, whether propelling it by kneeling one leg in the box and pushing along the pavement with the other foot, or by being pushed along by someone else, or coasting down a slope, the handle was swung back into the box so that the rider could steer the vehicle.

With picnic supplies to carry and little Jimmy much too small to make the long walk and too heavy to carry very far, it seemed advisable to take the cart along. All went well, and Bob and I shared the pulling of the cart, with Jimmy and the picnic lunch riding along behind us as we made the long ascent up Colvin Street hill.

Then for a time we all lay down in the shade on the thick green grass, watching birds and squirrels come and go...

The picnic was a most enjoyable one. We couldn't swim, but we had fun in the wading pool. The park was beautifully landscaped, and great old trees shaded the picnic tables, sand boxes, swings, and sliding boards; and a circular platform bearing small wooden horses would rotate when pushed, and made a safe and delightful merry-go-round. We played until we were hungry, and then enjoyed the nice lunch Mama had put up for us. Then for a time we all lay down in the shade on the thick green grass, watching birds and squirrels come and go in the trees overhead, and saw the dappling sunlight slipping through the canopy of the trees as a light breeze stirred the leaves.

... I had what I thought was a good idea ...

All too soon it was time to go home. What little remained to be taken home we put into the cart, and a tired Jimmy, too, climbed in for the ride. Bob and I ran as we pulled the cart, just to hear Jimmy squeal in delight. When we emerged from the park onto the sidewalk at the top of Colvin hill, Mama was some distance behind, calling to us to wait for her. As we stood there looking down the long, steep slope of the sidewalk, I had what I thought was a good idea --why not coast just a little way down, for the fun of it and to give Jimmy another fast ride? Now, carts of that kind had no brakes at all. When coasting, the rider would control the speed by putting his legs over the side and dragging his feet on the pavement. Bob was doubtful, and thought we should wait for Mama. But I could see no reason not to coast along past a few of the houses, to stop and wait for her there. And so I pushed off and hopped in, with Jimmy behind me, holding on to the sides of the cart.

... like free fall ... I was in pure panic ...

In a very short time I had the shock of my young life. I would never have imagined that a cart could get rolling so fast so quickly. It was almost like free fall, but in those days I didn't know what that expression meant. My first and only thought was to stop the cart. I swung my legs out and pressed my bare feet on the cement sidewalk. This had no other effect than to burn the soles of my feet as if I were sliding them over a hot stove. By that time I was in pure panic, trying to steer the cart over onto a lawn. But by then we were speeding so fast that the front axle began whipping back and forth, from side to side, so fast that the handle was simply snatched from my hands, and I could do nothing but cling for dear life to the sides of the cart. Like a runaway horse the cart continued to plummet, at ever increasing speed, down the sidewalk in a frantic left-to-right and back again zig-zag motion. I was frightened out of my wits, as were Bob and Mama as they tried to race after us afoot down the hill. They never had a chance. I remember Jimmy screaming behind me, and suddenly hearing him no more.

The ride seemed to go on forever, but it had probably extended past no more than a dozen houses when it came to a sudden, crashing halt. One of the zigs or zags had sent the cart (and me) headlong into a utility pole that stood between sidewalk and curb. And then, abruptly, all was still and dark and far away. I opened my eyes to see a lady kneeling beside me. Several people were gathered around, with Mama standing with Bob close beside me. Jimmy was in Mama's arms, his eyes wide in his tear-stained face, staring at me.

... barely missing a trolley car and an automobile, then bouncing over the curb and into the front wall of a store, an iron wheel ...

It turned out to be a miraculous ending to a terrifying ride. Jimmy was unhurt. It had been our great good fortune that he had been thrown clear of the cart during one of the switches form a zig to a zag, at just the right point so that his trajectory sent him rolling and tumbling over a nice wide lawn. He could just as well have been pitched out onto the Colvin Street pavement, but he wasn't. The cart was demolished, the wood split loose from the frame, the front axle bent, and the handle broken off. One of the iron wheels was missing. In the group of spectators were two men who lived in houses we had passed, and who had seen the finish of the ride. When I became aware of what was going on, they were busy patching up the cart so that Mama and Bob could pull me home as I lay on it. I had not progressed nearly half way down the hill, but the missing wheel had. A man standing on the sidewalk on the east side of South Avenue had been startled to see, rolling very fast across the street right toward him, barely missing a trolley car and an automobile, then bouncing over the curb and into the front wall of a store, an iron wheel. As he puzzled over it, he noticed a group of people gathering on the sidewalk and a lawn well up the hill. So he picked up the wheel and carried it up to the site, just as the men working on the cart began to look for the wheel.

I suppose that if such an event were to occur today, someone would call the police or the paramedics and, at the very least, first aid and transportation would have been provided. But minor accidents then were matters more of curiosity than of alarm. The kind men succeeded in rigging a platform supported by the wheels and axles, provided a rope by which the rig could be pulled (or held in check), and I was hauled off homeward. Near the corner of South Avenue and Colvin was a doctor's office, and Mama took me in there. The doctor was rather amused by the account of what had happened. But he checked me over and said that my nose was probably broken, but that it would heal; that I was going to have a headache and two beautiful black eyes, but they would clear up, and that some ointment he would put on the soles of my feet would make them feel better. He proved correct on all counts.
And so another memorable childhood experience ended.

I did not think of it at the time, but I wonder now how poor Mama slept that night.

Next week: Trains, Toy and Real


  1. Reading this while sporting two black eyes and three stitches on the bridge of my broken nose has made this entry a visceral experience indeed!

    The numerous and varied "good ideas" my big brother and I had when we were boys (who am I kidding.... boys, adolescents, young-men) make more sense now. Must be a Harrington thing.

    The sheer volume of similar "you came this close to never existing" stories I've heard from BOTH sides of my family makes me shudder.

    PS Do the good folks as Blogspot really find it necessary to show the whole world that I screwed up, erased, screwed up, erased, screwed up one more time for good measure, then erased a third time?

    Dang, I'm trying to falsely appear eloquent here people!!

  2. Adam, the way Blogspot handles comments editing is a sore spot for a lot of us -- no need to feel embarrassed about it. There have been many, many times when I've wished there were some simpler and more effective way of editing my own comments on others' Blogspot posts (notably Mike's, Ruth's, and Brian's.)

    I don't know why only the blog administrator can remove a comment. It's no issue for a blog like this one, but in more contentious ones it could get to be really, really nasty.

    Anyway... yes, you and your brother had many good ideas. Really, really, really good ideas. Yessir. Good ones.

    Like storing a stolen motorcycle in your basement.

    And, yes, random life-endangering actions are a Harrington thing, going all the way back to Sir John and probably before. I think he was the originator of "Hey, dudde, holde myye bier and watche thys!"