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April 21st, 2019

When I Was Between Grass And Hay

I could gaze into this photo for hours…

 

 

It takes me back. I’m a kid again, and the world is big again. I can breathe the air of those days, feel its wind in my hair. Just looking at this photo I can walk all those paths again. I’ve been gazing at it off and on now for days. At some point I’m going to make a print of it and stick it on the wall behind the bar in my art room.

This photo was posted on a Facebook page I follow about growing up in Montgomery County Maryland. Most of us posting there are oldsters like me. Some of us were kids back in the 1960s. Photos like this are often shared, but none have ever struck so deep a chord in me as this one. Why? Well, just try driving that road today. It’s true, you can’t go home again.

But, in some sense, you can. Always. If there are photographs. Alas for me, this time period was before I really got heavily into photography, so I don’t have many shots of this period of my life. This particular photo was taken sometime in the early 1960s. The person who posted it to the Facebook group couldn’t say exactly when, but I lived there and I can see the timeframe in the details. It’s Rockville Pike, then called East Montgomery Avenue, looking toward southwest from just south of Rockville. One tell of the timeframe is the bus coming toward us on the left side of the road. By it’s colors it’s an old DC Transit bus. DC Transit was the private bus company owned by O. Roy Chalk until 1974. But that’s one of the old buses. They were replaced in the late 60s with the new GM “New Look” bus which had bigger windows and a modern look.

The other tell is the cars. That’s (I think) a ’64 Ford Galaxy on the left coming toward us. It looks like there’s a touch of frost in the shadows on the right, so it’s late autumn. This explains the rolled up windows on the car. Most cars didn’t have AC back then…it was an Expensive luxury. But central Maryland is brutally humid and hot in the summer months.

Also, the large field on the right…that was a working farm. Now it’s just another ugly shopping center. Back then corn grew there. The field is empty in this photo, because the corn has been harvested, and the stalks gathered into bundles, and the earth plowed and ready for next spring. That was the cycle of life on that field I came to know all the years I lived there…

…there…in the apartments to the right of the large building in the distance on the right of the Pike. That building is the Tenley Building, which must have just been recently completed. I don’t know the name of the other building a bit further on across the Pike, but when mom moved us into the apartments, then called Courthouse Square, it was also just being finished and the top two floors of the Tenley Building were in the process of having their rooms and offices built out. The Tenley Building was built for doctors and dentists. Mom dragged me crying miserably over to it for my shots. The needle terrified me, and memories of diseases that killed many when she was a girl terrified mom. So I got my shots.

What takes me back the most, something almost completely unbelievable now about this photo, is all the wide open space in it. You’d think this was somewhere out in the sticks. And I suppose it was when we moved there from Hyattsville. My earliest memories are of the apartment we had in NE Washington DC. Mom moved us to Hyattsville when I was 5 and in Hyattsville I could still believe I was in the city. We moved to Rockville when I was 8 and into a Much nicer garden apartment with a big glass window with a door that opened onto a private balcony. And it had AC! You will never appreciate AC like I do if you didn’t grow up in Washington DC and Maryland without it in the summer. There was a swimming pool, and playgrounds and barbecues for the tenants. I thought we’d hit the big time.

And there was so much open space, I felt like a changed bird suddenly set free. The sky above was huge. The stars at night were vivid. A massive private country club abutted the apartment complex, and evenings I could walk out to a hill in a field behind the apartments and look out across it and see the lights from the WMAL radio towers in the distance. One afternoon shortly after we moved in I was standing on our balcony marveling at how far up in the world we had come, and looking across the Pike glimpsed a train go by. Huh!? I had no idea there were railroad tracks so close by and I immediately had to go see. I walked across the Pike and a small parking lot and clambered down onto tracks that I later learned were the main B&O Railroad line west out of Washington DC. The tracks ran straight as arrows toward Rockville, and back the other way to Washington, and I remember gazing into the distance while some deep and powerful urge developed within me to go see what was there, to explore those horizons.

It was all so wonderful. I was between grass and hay as they say, just old enough to be allowed to wander on my own, but not so old that I didn’t have to be back home by supper. I went to an elementary school in Hungerford, close in to Rockville for a year, then the school boundaries changed and went to Congressional elementary. It was my first experience riding a bus to school. It felt like we were living in the country. Every spring the farm behind the apartments would plant for corn. Every summer I’d watch the corn growing until it was taller than me. Every July 4th mom and I would walk to a hill next to the farm and watch the fireworks light the sky from the Richard Montgomery High School play field. Every autumn would come the harvest, and the smell of cut stalks. Then came the Rockville Fireman’s Carnival.

Summer days I’d walk down the Pike to Congressional Plaza, stopping first at the newly built Talbot Center (It was but a dug out hole in the earth the day we moved in to the apartments next to it) and the Minute Mart there for a soda to drink whilst walking. Then I’d stop at Children’s Supermarket, later to be renamed “Toys R Us”, and inventory their model car shelves for anything new. Then I’d hit the People’s Drug Store in Congressional for any new magazines and comic books (Mad was a favorite), and then check the model cars at the Kresge five and ten, and the Murphy’s. On the way home with my loot, if any, I’d hit the McDonald’s for a burger and shake.

Just re-reading this now it strikes me how much a single divorced mother could provide to her kid, including even an allowance that made it possible for him to indulge in his model car hobby, back in a time when women made maybe 60 cents for every dollar a man doing the exact same job made. But those were the Kennedy days. Things started coming apart for the working class when Reagan promised everyone a shining city on a hill if only the chains of government were taken off big business and finance. But…I don’t want to remember what came later now. We’re all living it anyway.

This photo takes me back into a different world. Classrooms smelled of mimeograph paper and chalk. Telephones had wires connecting them to the wall, and long distance was anything beyond the city limits and horribly expensive. TV came like radio over the airwaves, not a cable, and there were only four local channels, and if the conditions were right and you got the rabbit’s ears tweaked just right maybe you could get the three Baltimore stations with only a little static. There was a legendary Harrisburg station that you could sometimes see the ghost images of amidst the static. There was three daily newspapers, the Post, the Star and the News. And there was a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day…

And I wandered. Lots. Mom felt safe letting me do that there. To this day I have to end my days with a walk, though sometimes I take a drive. But I still love to just wander. In many ways the world was so much smaller then, not nearly as interconnected as it is now. And I have my driver’s license and I’ve taken my cars from this side of the country to the other. Were I to transport many of you reading this back to those days you might get a case of claustrophobia from the sense of isolation. To me it brings back memories of a world just beginning to open up to me. I discovered the horizon here, and all its mysteries, because for the first time I could actually see it.

Just there in the photo, to the right of the Tenley Building, is the row of apartments we lived in. I can almost see my bedroom window. I used to gaze out at this stretch of road often and to the city and the horizon beyond. I can half close my eyes just now, and do that still.

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