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Pillars of Salt, Post Twenty-four
Constitution Park was named by seventh grader Hume Annan, winner of a 1939 contest among area children to christen the new park and public pool built on 100 acres, 63 of which were given to the city from Carl Richards and Carl F. Grebenstein so that sewage and water services would be extended to a plot of land they owned and had plans to develop.
It was the Depression, but the pool opened to great fanfare. Fifteen hundred bathers, most under the age of 16, flocked to the pool when it opened as a whites-only facility on June 25th. Black city residents had to dig their own pool by hand at the Pine Avenue Playground, since they were not permitted in the Constitution Park Pool.
Public works like Constitution Park were underway across the city. The Works Progress Administration, part of the New Deal, provided labor for construction. Flood control was a major focus. A disastrous flood ravaged the city in 1924 and 1936. It wasn’t until 1950 that a robust flood control system was undertaken, which would be completed in 1959. Regardless, federal dollars were flowing to the city to bolster its infrastructure and forestry related businesses. My great-grandfather worked forestry under the CCC in the Green Ridge Mountains.
We pulled into the park from what I thought of as the “back” way, turning up a steep hill off of Baltimore Avenue as it straightens out heading toward the hospital and Allegany College. When I was little, one of my favorite playgrounds was sitting back in the park, circled by a slow drive and small, aging pavilions. It was a big, flat lot surrounded by woods, the ground soft with mulch, the play equipment made of steel and unguarded. We drove around the loop as I looked for the tall watchtower structure with the fireman’s pole down through the center and a faux steering wheel to guide the ship of imagination through the seas or open space or to the center of the earth.
All those old play structures were gone. It was new, molded plastic. Some of these new play structures are truly awesome. Webs of ropes strung to create a weave of climbing opportunities, slides that bend through tubes and aren’t made out of something like recycled baking sheets. Still, I was sad to see the old stuff gone.
There used to be, sitting up above the pool, on the town-side of the park, an array of emergency vehicles, an old tank, and a decommissioned jet. These too were gone. I had hopes of sitting Wendell up in the immobile firetruck, or propping him on the wing of the jet. If they were not riddled with hornets, of course. But they were gone.
The pool looked good. It was preparing to open and the water pumped steady and clean through the fountains and down the plastic slide. We drove around, past the water tower, around by the covered city reservoir, out briefly through the neighborhood by Fort Hill High School, then back into the park again just below an open field and amphitheater where they still perform Shakespeare in the park, and pulled the car under the shade by another playground with more equipment than the one I had driven by already.
We got out and Wendell ran toward the brightly colored play things. I had to go down a slide enclosed by a tube with him before he would do it himself. Afterwards, he was vocal that he could “do it by self.”
I called my grandfather to verify where we’d meet him. My step-grandmother answered. “You’re Pap’s out at the shop,” she said, which I took to be a good sign. She’d have him call me back.
We walked down around some dumpsters, a collection of stored trash bins, and a utility shed toward the nature trail and an outdoor gym arranged in a clearing. The blue, metal, stationary equipment was ringed by concrete picnic tables paired with little wrought iron grills, steel bristled brushes hanging idly to the ground on the end of thin chains. There was some refuse lying around. Old beer bottles and cans. A few wrappers from fast food or snack cakes.
“I hate to say this,” I said, “but maybe keep an eye out for used needles while we’re down here.”
I felt reactionary saying it, but I had a toddler after all. Constitution Park was a place with that double reputation as a gathering place and community center, which meant also that bums and addicts gathered there, at night and on the peripheries, like down in the hollers around the nature trail. I knew the park could be dangerous at night.
I was assaulted in the park one night by a gang of thugs wearing blue and carrying badges. I had just started driving and had pulled my step-dad’s heavy, silver X-11 hatchback into a parking place. My headlights illuminated a payphone as my friend got out of the passenger’s side to call home. He had promise his mom he’d check in and so he was.
The police later explained that kids were using the park to meet up, allegedly to go to a house party or something. The police were not specific and anyway there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with using the pay phone nor with going to house parties. We didn’t have any alcohol on us, but there was an improvised smoking device hidden under the seat.
Whatever the case, my friend’s only crime was being brown and using the phone. So the cops rolled up, leapt from their cars, and threw my half-Salvi friend face first into the chain link fence, pressing him there with one thick forearm grinding into the back of his neck. While they patted him down, we were all removed from the car by a combination of force and the threat of it.
We almost all became criminals. For whatever reason, they let us go. We drove home a little more radical.
We didn’t see any used needles as Wendell tried out holding his own weight, dangling gleefully from a piece of workout equipment. My phone rang. It was my grandfather calling back.
“Yello,” he said after I answered.
“I just wanted to see where you’d be today. If you were going to the river or not.”
“Yeah, I can be down there.”
“Well, were you going there today?” I asked, not wanting to bother him.
“Just head on down there. We’ll be there,” he said sternly.
“Ok, we’ll see you in a bit.”
“Very good,” he said and hung up.
We gathered Wendell up and pulled away from the playground. He was sad to go, but made amiable by the prospect of seeing the river. We went out again by the water tower and reservoir and I drove past Fort Hill where graduation festivities were underway. Allegany was using the stadium on Greenway Avenue, which both city high schools use because it is very nice and very expensive, though it is physically part of the Fort Hill campus.
I thought I could still get Wendell to see an airplane, even if it wasn’t a jet. My grandfather was a bit of an aviator himself and spent a good part of his early retirement building a single engine prop-plane that I had named “Starscream.”
With that, we were on our way back out of town, headed to the north branch of the Potomac and Mexico Farm.