Happy Days

Happy Days

By John Earl Hambright ’58

 

Two tall landmarks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, commemorate our fair city’s rendezvous with game-changing destinies. In the heart of downtown, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument memorializes Lancastrian contributions to the Union victory in the Civil War. And celebrating our community’s triumph over the Great Depression is John Piersol McCaskey High School.

Did you go to JP? Do you count among your banes and blessings the heady hearty experience of living, learning, laughing and loving beneath those wide-flung roofs on Reservoir Street?

McCaskey opened mid-year in 1938. With hope and help from the kind of activist government  Alexander Hamilton and Thaddeus Stevens believed in, hundreds of Lancaster County’s best workers and craftsmen were rescued from unemployment and given the best job of their lives.

To see how they repaid the New Deal, take a look at McCaskey’s brickwork sometime. It’s among the finest ever raised in America’s oldest inland city.

Officially, credit for the construction goes to FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Progressive, indeed, was the work of 49 year-old Lancaster architect Henry Y. Shaub.

The very look of McCaskey High School trumpets the years of its birth. Some call its style Art Deco. Others say modern. Or streamlined.

Some even saw in JP’s sleek long lines the elegant cut of the Cunard ocean liners being built at the same time. How many high schools are rounded at their wingtips like the stern of the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth?

But those boats have long been dry-docked and moth-balled as tourist destinations. To my mind, McCaskey High School remains timeless. Always there. Always ours.

Always in my family’s backyard.

THE VIEW FROM HOME

Everyone who spent time at McCaskey has memories of highs and lows that are all their own. Here — and in a post to follow — are some of mine, beginning with the West Lampeter farmer who — three years after McCaskey’s dedication — became my grandfather.

Few people knew the land Lancaster’s new high school was built on better than John Sheaffer Hambright. He grew up there — just over the hill and through the woods.

Son of the tenant at the McGrann family’s Waterworks Farm, my father’s father soon became a McGrann tenant himself, taking on the historic Hardwick estate just east of later McCaskey. Castle Hardwick, once known as the most beautiful house in America, commanded for most of the nineteenth century the heights overlooking the corn fields cleared to build the football stadium where my classmates — Johnny McFalls, Bob Metzger, Gordie Kraft, Mike Nissley, Penn Kemble and the rest —  won the Central Pennsylvania football championship on Thanksgiving Day, 1958.

By 1924, Pop Hambright had corn fields of his own on the east bank of the Conestoga River. His picture-pretty farm lay tucked away in a remote hidden location the family always referred to as “out back of Eden”. Mom Hambright thought it the middle of nowhere.

Today that spot is the Lancaster By-Pass interchange with new and improved Walnut Street which runs right past — wait for it — John Piersol McCaskey High School.

Wish Pop could have seen that. Five years after McCaskey opened and three years after my birth, he sold his farm to Eshelman Feed. Mom had heart trouble and needed to be closer to doctors and the General Hospital.

By then, the three oldest kids had married and left home. Esther and Ed Schwartz had the Columbia grocery store. And Marie and her husband, aptly named milkman Clarence Creamer, were soon living on Lehigh Avenue with their first child, my cousin Judy.

As for my father, eldest of the Hambright five, he moved in to the Sixth Ward with the North Carolina bride, Susie Isenhower, whom he married in 1940. At my birth — just nine months later: my parents always moved fast — he was selling farm machinery for Landis Brothers from their store above the Northern Market at Walnut and Queen.

Meanwhile, youngest daughter, single Ruth, was applying for work at the new war plant built by RCA at Hardwick, her birthplace. And her younger brother, tag-along Lloyd, would soon be old enough to prepare for Franklin and Marshall at Lancaster’s amazing new school.

Pop Hambright had seen to that.

My grandfather found the right city house for all concerned. It was in the exact middle of the brand-new brick row built along the north side of the easternmost block of East Madison Street. The view from the back window, where I perched atop the kitchen stool to look out at the age of three, was — you guessed it — McCaskey High School.

“Over home’ was what we called the drive along Franklin Street to my grandfather’s house. Just beyond Bogar’s lumber yard and across the tracks Dad eased his Model A Ford into a gently sweeping curve of roadway.  Above it– taller than any mere castle — rose the elegantly fluted tower of McCaskey High.

To my llttle boy’s eyes, the building did indeed have a face. And a body. A dragon maybe? A friendly reclining dog?

But as I grew,  it would come to stand as a symbol of manifold mysteries — reading, writing, calculation, competition, achievement and — and oh, yes — first love.

And before any of that — perhaps summing up all of that — was the most entrancing magical mystery of all.

Entertainment.

AMERICA’S BIGGEST STAGE

My mother, Susie Isenhower Hambright from Conover, North Carolina, was a born theatre brat. She majored in drama at Lenoir-Rhyne and a play she wrote about her grandmother Celia Weatherly Jordan, called PINK DROPS, was selected to be performed for a Carolina Folk Drama festival at Chapel Hill.

The first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, UNC professor Paul Green, worked with my mother preparing her one-act play for its premiere. My mother said that at the end of that hot April Saturday with the great man, she barely recognized PINK DROPS.

That was a story I’d heard from my earliest days. And — thanks to my Aunt Ruth — early in life, I had the chance to see for myself what theatre was all about.

Soon after the end of World War Two, Ruth Hambright’s employer — The RCA, she called it — began gifting its people with entertainments of all kinds presented on the stage Henry Shaub designed for McCaskey. Did you know it’s said to be wider and deeper than the performance space at Radio City Music Hall in New York City?

Have you been to Radio City? It doesn’t have the entrance McCaskey does. Nor the spacious lobby. Nor all that lustrous marble that our high school’s janitors kept polished to a gloss you could see your smile in.

Think of the smiles Lancastrian girls from Girls’ High must have flashed in that elegant corridor as they met for the first time with boys from Boys’ High and sat down side by side with them in McCaskey’s vast auditorium. I can tell you what I felt sitting there with my Aunt Ruth seven years later, waiting for the curtain to rise and the RCA shows to start.

An amazing high.

Remember Bill and Cora Baird’s marionettes? You probably know well their Lonely Goatherd and his pig-tailed girl friend dancing in the movie SOUND OF MUSIC. The Bairds were just starting out when they played McCaskey for us. Television — where their puppets would one day be as big as Burr Tillstrom’s — was just a gleam in David Sarnoff’s eye.

And who’d ever heard of SOUND OF MUSIC’S Trapp Family Singers?

More famous at the time was Clare Tree Major whose children’s theatre toured the country from a base in New Jersey and brought to Lancaster one year an adaptation of the Harriett Lothrop story FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS AND HOW THEY GREW. For the first time in my life I saw living human beings in the same big room with me moving about in a make-believe house and telling stories I could lose myself in.

I wanted so badly to be up there with them.

But I caught the theatre bug even worse the following Christmas when a family of singers in fairy tale costumes — boys, girls, teenagers, a vibrant mother and venerable old father — all of them looking like they’d just stepped out of a holiday card painting — pranced and preened about the stage, inspiring their Lancastrian audience to laugh, clap, and sing along. For weeks thereafter, I sang snippets of their songs about goatherds and edelweiss and loved saying the group’s name over and over: THE TRAPP FAMILY SINGERS.

Their mother’s name, I distinctly remember, was Maria.

AMERICA’S BEST INVENTION

Zeke Hoover, our daffy neighbor, often leaned over the railing of his high front porch and demanded of people passing by him: “Hey. Where ya goin’?”

One day his neighbor on the other side, sweet sixteen Patsy Paules answered brightly: “Not to McCaskey.”

I laughed. Zeke was flummoxed. He didn’t know, as I did, that teenagers had adopted a new fad that season. Somebody asks you a question, you start your answer with “Not”.

“Where did you get that ice cream cone?”

“Not at Yarnall’s.”

Teen humor that year. Remember your own generation’s jokes, fads, buzz words and one-liners? Or are they unprintable?

Teenagers were never created by God. It took America to invent them and it all happened pretty much during the first years of my life.

Before McCaskey, Lancastrians between the ages of fourteen and eighteen had suffered immemorial separation by gender — males at Boy’s High, the later Fulton Elementary on Orange Street, and females at Girls’ High, later Stevens on Mulberry.

In such a world — without glances across a crowded room, meetings at the lockers, carrying her books – how can you have teenagers?

In my mind, teens started with Archie comics. The first issue appeared the year after Lancaster built McCaskey

My teenaged babysitters read Archie and sometimes read the stories to me as I followed along with the pictures. A teenaged cousin from North Carolina came up on an Easter visit and left me a whole pile of Archie comic books when she went back south. I poured over them as if they were Holy Scriptures. My Garden of Eden became Riverdale.

Archie. Jughead. Betty. Veronica. Mrs. Grundy and Mr. Weatherbee of Riverdale High.

I knew them like neighbors. In fact, they were neighbors.

There were dozens of high school Archies and Jugheads who passed our New Street house in Lancaster’s Sixth Ward. Johnny Tompkins even wore a black McCaskey sweater with a bright red varsity letter.

And I was in love with a dozen teenaged Bettys and Veronicas from the block, who bopped by our house in saddle shoes, bobby socks, jitterbug skirts and Lana Turner sweaters.

If you had asked me that year what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer would have come back instantaneously: “Not a teenager!”

SPELLBOUND

I was a teenager, thirteen years old in August of 1954, when I finally got to see McCaskey beyond the auditorium. That morning still seems to me like a dream out of the Twilight Zone — one of those episodes where everyone in the world has disappeared and only you are left to carry on.

Our neighbor on the other side, Mr. John S. Oller — McCaskey’s Mister Science — invited his visiting grandson Dale and me to accompany him to the high school. He had a chemistry lab and physics classroom to set up for the upcoming semester.

While Mr. Oller washed and polished test tubes and put out Bunsen burners and his infamous Wheatstone bridge, Dale and I were left free to wander McCaskey’s empty broad halls. It was my first experience of the school beyond sitting in the audience for stage shows.

Did we kick off our shoes and slide up and down the polished marble floors of the lobby? Dale was from a no-nonsense military family. He wasn’t really the type.

Besides, we were being watched. Hundreds and hundreds of sentinels stood along the broad corridors in the form of lockers bearing silent but eloquent witness to the thousands and thousands of students who had already been there with their books and coats and duffles and the thousands more who were yet to come with their earbuds and iPads, their backpacks and Nikes.

All this belonged to all of them. And in another year it would be mine as well.

What a brave new world. And huge.

And like nothing I’d ever seen before. Manhattan Modern. Hollywood Grand. If the Emerald City had a high school, it would be McCaskey.

We checked out the English and History Wing in one direction and in the other, the Music Wing where I would spend many raucous hours rehearsing with the marching band, the dance band, the orchestra, and the Christmas brass choir.

On this August morning with Dale Oller, though, the Music Wing was silent. And nowhere in sight in the English and History Wing were those formidable ladies — most of them maiden — who would soon be our tormentors, mentors, and muses — Beattie, Bitner, Buckwalter, Gall, Sheaffer, Shroy, Terry and Troup.

Upstairs we never noticed the Lost Wing as we peeked through tall glass doors into The Library. Two-stories high, Art Deco everywhere, McCaskey’s library looked like nothing so much as the first-class dining room on the luxury liner I’d just seen Marilyn Monroe enjoy in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.

At sea aboard a vast ship was exactly how I was feeling as my companion and I ventured over to the Science Wing where we saw Dale’s grandfather quietly at work in his lab. It was all too eerily still, so I suggested we find the one place at the center of the school where I was pretty sure the action might be.

We found the gym. And more: we discovered it opened on to the incredibly broad performance space of McCaskey’s vast auditorium. You could sit in its seats and watch hoop games back in the gym as easily as a band concert onstage — or a musical comedy or the Trapp Family Singers.

We walked up and down the apron of the main stage with its McCaskey-red curtains and peered down into an orchestra pit that would be the envy of any Broadway theatre.  The auditorium I would one day learn seated 1350 people.

Did I at that moment envision or even think I would often share that grand stage with musicians and actors? Take gym there? Get a polio shot?

Dance with my dream girl?

Dale soon rousted me from starry visions of things to come. He wanted to find The Shop Wing his grandfather had told him to check out. And The Cafeteria, the Boys’ Locker room, and at the rear of the basement, through impressive doors, The Swimming Pool.

I walked alone with my reveries.

TO BE CONTINUED