Stafford column: Tales from the Springfield summers of the 1960s

It’s mid-August, and summer is getting away from us.

So, I thought I’d pass along some stories I enjoyed listening two a couple of weeks back about the summers of the ‘60s from a woman in her ‘60s.

At 67 — the model year of my parents’ aquamarine Pontiac Catalina — Rosa Tuttle grew up Springfield a few steps away from South High School.

“We lived on Church Street, right behind my grandpa’s company, Haley Trucking,” Tuttle said.

But in those summers when NASA astronauts were orbiting the earth headed for the moon, she and her sister’s orbit was the gas station where Ohio 343 dead-ends at Ohio 72 in Clifton.

Their aunt and uncle, Thelma and Dutch Crothers, owned the Sinclair station with Dino the Dinosaur holding his head high on the sign. And her mother worked there.

“I would love to have one of those dinosaur banks,” Rosa said.

It was a piggy bag from the Jurassic era, large, green and heavy enough “you could hit ‘em on something, and they wouldn’t break,” she said.

Back then, it seemed parents weren’t afraid their kids would break, either. And because their Cousin Denny — Thelma and Dutch’s boy — who “knew everybody there,” Rosa soon had the run of Clifton and its un-metropolitan area.”

“We just rode our bikes everywhere. Down to the mill, to all the friends’ houses. I can remember when it was raining — not storming — just riding our bikes in the pouring down rain.”

It felt like a thunderstorm of freedom.

During the first of maybe four summers spent there, she and Phyllis Bittner, a native Cliftonian, became good friends.

“I would always go to her house and knock on the door and just play at her house. I know she had a couple of brothers; I know one of their names was Buck.”

Many days, fishing poles in hand, she and the other kids would bike the short distance to the creek at Prather’s Lodge and meet Rosa’s mom, who’d drive over.

“One time, she pulled her stringer out (at Prather’s) and a snake had engulfed all the fish she caught, probably three or four fish. Its mouth was at the stop of the stringer.”

“It didn’t really freak her out, because she wasn’t afraid of anything,” like most girls who grew up in West Virginia.” Seeing the snake, “She just lowered the stringer into the water and walked away.

There was also Orton’s Pool. The trip required some careful steps along a path at the top of Clifton Gorge, “and we had to carry our bikes around this little thing,” she said.

But once that was done, they were on a shortcut through the woods to John Bryan State Park, where the pool sat. These days, “lot of kids aren’t going to have a little adventure like that,” she said. Part of it is due to the belief back then that kids weren’t as breakable. One the other hand, she recognizes the real dangers.

“Do you think I would let my little ones (her grandchildren) do that nowadays?”

Her answer was in the tone of her voice.

“Back, then, you just trusted everybody.”

Rosa avoided hard knocks those summers but absorbed a few softer ones while learning the kinds of things kids learn at that age.

“One day we were riding our bikes and my cousin told me that blind people can ride bikes. I said, ‘No, they can’t.’” When she closed her eyes to see, “I ran into this man and he grabbed the handlebars and said ‘What are you doing?’”

She had the same question frequently about her father.

“I remember asking Dad if I could have a nickel” for a Snickers or Three Musketeers from the service station store, “and he would get so mad. He would bite his tongue,” she said, mimicking the lemon sour expression. “It would aggravate him so bad.”

“It’s not like he wouldn’t have the money,” she said, but still carried on as he searched his pockets.

Her face twisted hers on at least two occasions: When she sneaked a puff on a cigarette while squatting behind cars with her cousin Denny, and when she filched a piece of chewing tobacco from her uncle’s pouch to find out what Dutch – and some of her female relatives -- took such pleasure in.

Rosa has remained tobacco-free ever since.

“I just couldn’t believe how anybody could chew that stuff.”

Five years younger, her sister Glenda didn’t get in on all the adventures. But give the little girl credit: She did catch the Sinclair store on fire.

On a day when Clifton’s Designated Old Man was sitting in front of the store with their Mom, Mom asked Glenda to go inside and fetch her matches.

As interested in matches as Rosa had been in chewing tobacco, Glenda whispered a question to her about whether she might light match, but not loud enough for Mom to hear.

Not hearing a “no,” she gave it a try.

“She lit it and dropped it, and there must have been papers around,” Rosa recalled. “It just went poof.”

“She went outside, and by that time, I guess mom yelled that the store was on fire. And they never knew. I guess the fireman said it was electrical.”

As a result, a little bit of the interior got remodeled on the insurance company’s dime.

Inside, “They had a meat cutter, and they had pop and candy, cigarettes, ice cream, like cooler ice cream. Lots of little miscellaneous stuff. But I don’t know if they had beer or not. I’m not sure about that.” To keep the cold stuff cold, “We used to go down there on Water Street (in Springfield) and pick up big things of ice. And I remember the smell of ice place inside. It smelled good. Somebody told me it was like ammonia,” a staple of ice houses of the day.

The station also had a little garage where Dutch worked and puttered.

“He changed oil, tires — stuff like that. He was always out in the garage.”

The bathroom was around the side of the station, as so many were in that time. And Rosa was told one of the boys snuck into a little loft above it now and then for a look-see.

“Oh, my goodness,” she said.

“I forget the cop’s name. But there was a cop that set up the hill” north of the station. “He was always getting so many people there.”

“And we used to walk down and see the bear at the gorge.”

“I think this was a few years later, after we were going down there a lot, that some guy came down. Because the bear was friendly. Well, they got him drunk and got him out of the cage, and he fell over the gorge, and it killed him.” At least that’s what she was told.

One of those summers, “we drove to California” in a station wagon to see Thelma and Dutch’s daughter in Los Angeles. In the car were Grandma and Grandpa Haley, Thelma and Dutch and Denny and Rosa.

“At one point, I guess, my grandpa was a truck driver. When we would go into a restaurant and heat, Grandpa always got up and paid and left a tip on the table.

“Grandma would say, ‘He ain’t leaving that hussy any money,’ and she’d take the tip and put it in the pocket. It was an old station wagon.”

A side trip to the San Diego Zoo got her some treasures she fetched out of storage.

“I have a stuffed alligator. I have my book from San Diego. I still have this little tiny Indian doll in a little papoose of kind of soft material.”

As they do, the years drifted by. A minor disagreement in the family cropped up, the children grew a little older, and the best times passed.

But she and Cousin Denny still reconnected.

“When I started 10th grade, me and my cousin Debbie used to ride to John Bryan on our 10-speeds and we would meet up with Denny, and we’d have a few beers and ride around with his friends and we’d play football.” Debbie was her Mom’s sister’s daughter, who Rosa did everything with until Debbie died of pancreatic cancer at age 50.

But she still lives in Rosa’s memories of the 60s, with Elvis Presley’s music, as solid as the Dino the Dinosaur Bank you could smack on something and still wouldn’t break.

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