The soundscape around my childhood home still resonates.
To hear and to feel Plainville’s soundscape,
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I grew up in a small town in Connecticut comprising just 10 square miles and a population of under 9,000 as the 1950 census approached. In the years before air conditioning became popular, windows were kept open. The circulating air was accompanied by something else few pay much attention to: sound. Sound travels willingly1 from one yard to the next. This soundscape, unique to each grouping of houses, was created by children playing, distant thunder, conversation, squeaky doors and mechanical things, snow shovels and snowplows and automobiles. Maybe even the paranormal. These defined the neighborhood within the neighborhood.
Many of the houses on Crown Street were constructed in the late 19th century. A few predated the Civil War. Ours was built in 1922. Like the others, it was a wood frame structure with porous windows and minimal insulation. The houses on the lots were in close proximity to one another. They were around 70 feet in width, 100 to 300 feet in depth and between 6,000 and 16,000 square feet. The size depended upon whether the location was on one of the two main streets, East Main or Maple, or a connecting street, like Crown. The entire town, appropriately named Plainville, was as flat as a pane of glass2, except for the surrounding hills on the east and west. The elevation of my street is 197 feet above sea level. The entire neighborhood doesn’t vary by more than 7 feet. The average elevations of four bordering towns are 213, 295, 367 and 538 feet. The mean average of the entire state is 500 feet, one of the ten lowest in the United States.
How did these factors conspire to form the soundscape? Did they contribute at all to comity between neighbors?
The larger neighborhood was comprised of the short stretch between the central square eastward to my future grammar school on East Maple Street. The junior high school on East Street was next door and the future high school just two blocks beyond. Including the houses on both sides of Maple Street, the route to kindergarten encompassed about 30 homes east of Crown Street. There were a dozen additional houses standing in the opposite direction heading west. But the microneighborhood of a child of three was far smaller. Comprehending it depends largely upon what one can observe or hear filtering through a window. Then, there was the occasional outing and, in particular, the four-minute ride in a rumble seat to my grandparent’s house. I could position myself in just the right way to watch the landscapes behind me transition and evaporate.
In the summers of open windows, my mother might remark that she could feel the increase in wind speed and sense that a storm is brewing. She would comment on the distant thunder and how it might be getting closer or moving away. There were special moments when the uncomfortable air sliding through the open windows became sweet and cool. I knew by then to anticipate rain drops and a brushing of the branches of a tree against the porch roof on the north side.
When my mother observed a neighbor from a window, she would tell me their name and something about them. When they’d pull into or out of their driveway, she’d speculate that they were going shopping, visiting or just arriving home from work. Mrs. Ryder, a neighbor one door over was a bridge champion. Sometimes we could see her husband readying the car in front of their house as he did only on the evenings of a tournament. We knew by her expression and the schedules reported in the newspaper where she was going. The next day the newspaper reported the result, which was never surprising as she was a perennial winner.
Mr. Middleton, a carpenter, who drove a burgundy and gold panel truck I admired, came home regularly for lunch. I watched him pull into his driveway from the kitchen windows. Mr. Carroll, another neighbor at the end of the street, drove home for lunch the grand distance of 350 yards from his car dealership around the corner. He sometimes drove a different car. But he was always recognizable. The car was always a Chevy driven at the same cautious speed. Years later, when I was out and about in the yard, he’d sometimes stop and ask about my doings and of my uncle. Or when I was riding my bike past his house wave me over to where he was holding court with his wife and political friends. There was a pace about the street, a predictability. As I began to grow into the neighborhood, I already knew that the neighbors were a gentle lot.
Besides the living, my mother didn’t neglect to mention the ones who had died or moved away.
Before I was born, most of the family that had lived on the south side were killed in the Hartford circus fire in 1944. She spoke of Mrs. Murphy often. That hot day in July, my mother declined her invitation for my older brother Frankie to accompany her son, Charles, who perished. They were both three years old. A few years later, after I arrived on the scene, she heard a car in the driveway of that house. She called me to the window. The boy getting out of the door was my age, she said, “You’ll have a playmate.” All of the families and the houses they inhabited are imprinted wherever my long-term memories are stored. Seven decades later, I still see and communicate with Henry, who moved into the Murphy house.
I envied my brother. Almost every Saturday afternoon, he got to visit the ancient lady who lived in the Renwick Gold house on the corner. My mother told me about George Washington. I wondered if Mrs. Sechrist could have lived when he did. On Wednesday evenings, he watched television with Joe, Bobby and Chubby (Charles), the three Procko brothers across the street. My eyes would follow him from the living room window and count the steps he climbed before entering the house. My mother knew my thoughts. “You’re not old enough to go,” my mother would say. There were other neighbors he visited regularly – some passed on before I was deemed old enough to visit. One lady, Mrs. Middleton, who was married to the carpenter, liked to bake cakes. She invited Frankie over often when she did. A couple of years later, my mother allowed me to visit for the first time.
At around 2:30pm, after school, children would use my street as a shortcut to the public library around the corner. Sometimes I could hear laughter and bits of conversation as they approached. My mother took it as a reminder that Frankie would be home shortly. I heard it as an early primer in the freedom awaiting me beyond the interior walls of the house. People occupying the houses along the way could have heard the approaching children differently — as a reminder that it was time to put on supper or listen to a favorite radio program. Grownups may have recollected their youth. Older adults, perhaps, thought about their own children who had grown up too fast.
My favorite sound was only heard in the winter soundscape after a heavy snowfall that excited my interest and brought me to the living room window. It was the soft muffled sound of the chains of plows and automobiles striking the veneer of fresh snow on the pavement, like someone reaching inside a pocket and rhythmically rattling coins together. It was a calming sound. Little did I know that it was a suggestion of profitable winters to come. My friend Henry and I would shovel sidewalks together and earn a few dollars. Then there was the often-repeated sound of spinning car wheels stuck in the snow – like a stubborn swarm of bees. We would add to those sounds the rasping of our snow shovels.
The other favorite sound in the summer soundscape was that of the Procko brothers playing baseball with my brother on the empty street in front of our houses. I couldn’t see them over the porch wall. But I could detect the shared enjoyment in their voices. My mother listened, I’m sure, for any pauses that might suggest a glance out the window was in order. By the time I awoke on these summer mornings, my mother was already freezing popsicles in the refrigerator. She believed in hydration. Periodically, one of the boys would knock and cry out, “Mrs. Barboza, is the next batch ready?” Every summer when those boys visited their uncle in Pittsburgh, they brought back baseball souvenirs for us from Forbes Field. I anticipated their return and the sound that the crushed stones made as their Hudson pulled into the driveway. Mr. Procko, years later, gave me an autographed baseball hit by Stan Musial during a 1953 doubleheader in Pittsburgh.
Just before noon, five days a week, I’d hear the letterbox squeak or see it open. I liked to hear the letters coming through the brass slot. I’d watch them descend and strike the floor with a soft swish, like an accurately thrown basketball shimmying through a net. Sometimes, on nice days, Mrs. Hart and Miss Rooney, met for a brief chat in front of our house. Each walked cautiously with a cane to a spot midway between their houses, just below our living room window. I couldn’t make out the words. But I sensed warmth and recollections were exchanged between long-time friends. Mrs. Hart had raised her son, Chester, in the same house next door where he raised his children, my playmates Ruthie and Chet.
There were other sounds — the occasional spinning blades of a cast iron lawn mower and a clothesline pulley begging for lubrication. On Tuesday mornings, the rag and bone man drove by slowly bellowing an unintelligible declaration that he was prepared to pay you for any useless iron and steel lying around. Most evenings and weekends, Mr. Hart, would cry out to his kids from the back porch, as if from the mess of a battleship, “CHOW DOWN!” Chow sounded much more tempting than plain old supper. The bicycles with the big tires and wide fenders have a distinctive sound when pushed to the ground. When I heard one fall, I knew it was one of Frankie’s friends, Bob, Doug, George or one of the other inseparable boys stopping by. If more dropped, I’d have an inkling about how many to expect at the door.
At the end of a day, my mother would settle down at the kitchen table with the regional newspapers and a bottle of Pepsi. Occasionally, during baseball season, she’d hear voices coming through the back window and ask if it was Mr. Hart provoking an argument with Frankie about baseball. Who will win the pennant, the Yankees or Red Sox? Who is better, DiMaggio or Williams? Who is the better announcer, Gowdy or Allen? My mother found it amusing. She was glad, I think, that our neighbor and my brother found camaraderie in their common affection for argument.
My younger brother, Mario, now able to stand in front of the living room window and observe the cars passing by on East Main Street, taught himself to reliably identify makes and models. Then he began to boast that he could identify cars by engine sounds. Remarkably, he was more often correct than not. Not long after, he boasted he could perform the ultimate feat: identify the color of any car just by the sound. He could do that too, although without the same accuracy. He would listen for the screen door of Henry’s house signaling that Mrs. Kusmierz was about to garden or take the car somewhere. He would rush to the window and wave enthusiastically as she smiled up and waved back. My mother, too, had an ear for cars. She once commented that a neighbor’s car “doesn’t sound the same.” A few months later, the neighbor traded it in for a new one.
Talk about cars? On Saturday evenings in the summer, when the sun vanished and the house was quiet, we could hear the distant din announcing the start of stock car races at the popular track at Plainville Stadium two miles away. The elevation is about 21 hardly noticeable feet above my neighborhood. For about two hours, with breaks in between, the emission continued in a fashion that was not unpleasant, like a picture of sound being painted. I could visualize cars twisting and turning around the track, pulling ahead and falling back. I saw the race in my mind as mufflers became louder and the roaring waned and then repeated. This was a bittersweet reminder that another week had passed and that summer was approaching the finish line. Oddly though, as I grew up, I never had an urge to actually attend a race. The sounds, and my imagination, were a more than satisfactory substitute.
Every now and then when I’m leaving one of the builders’ supply stores, I’ll take a quick look at the energy efficient window display by the exit. I feel thankful that I grew up at a time when open windows were an invitation to the sounds of the neighborhood. The house, itself, also emitted sounds. My mother and aunt Vickie, who visited in the late evenings, often would say they heard footsteps on the stairs leading to the attic. But I wasn’t persuaded it was a ghost. Old houses creak. However, at times before falling asleep, the creaking appeared to touch one step and then the next all the way up.
My cousin Shelia recently became a grandmother. I asked her when she expected baby Thomas to say his first word and what it might be – momma or daddy? She said that when her son, Britt, the baby’s father, uttered his first word, it was neither. She lived on a street in Washington, D.C. near a bus stop. For each day of the baby’s first year, she would comment, “the bus is coming.” One day, she heard the bus pass by, and baby Britt shouted, “bus!”
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