Back then, we sometimes put playing cards in the spokes of our bicycles to make them sound like motorcycles.
We roared with our fake mufflers around tight corners, cruised up and down sidewalks, bounced over curbs. With old-time foot brakes, we could skid to a stop quickly, and send gravel flying with great accuracy.
We jumped small walls, could ride three on a bike if needed and could go for hours with little nourishment, even in the dead of summer.
The lady living across the street didn’t have a chance.
She was one of the evil neighbors, one of the enemy forces. She sealed her fate this particular day by opening up her front door, with me sitting there on my bike’s banana seat, staring in at her through the screen door. She put her hands on her hip and screwed up her features to make an ugly face at me.
With bulging eyes and jowls, she was already pretty sad looking, before she did her contorting. I immediately thought: “Frog Face.” Her surname started with an “F,” too, so the alliteration was a bonus.
I hatched a plan.
With my little brother a shoo-in to help, I only needed a couple more cohorts to launch this attack. I found volunteers easily. No respectable kid in this neighborhood liked this lady or her husband. They had called the cops on us for simply playing touch football in the street. (Well, OK. The statute of limitations has passed; we might have hit the husband’s fancy-schmancy car once or twice.)
In a half hour, five of us were ready to go. I would lead, and sound off first. The rest simply had to follow me, mimicking my taunts as they felt the urge and staying in tight formation. She needed to see our discipline and commitment to ruining her afternoon.
The route was easy enough. Up one driveway. On to the sidewalk. Past her front door. Down another driveway. Circle back around to fly past her door again. “F-rrr-o-o-o-o-g F-a-a-a-ce. Fro-o-o-g-g-g-g Fa-a-a–ace.” Each and every time my body lined up with her screen door, I would growl the insult loudly. Behind me, my gang would repeat what I said or throw in a “R-i-i-i-i-bbbb-b-bit” for variety.
The first time, I’m sure she didn’t actually hear what I was saying. Because she stood there smiling, even daring to contort her face at me again. By about the time we completed Circle 99 in front of her home, she had closed the main door and begin to try to peer out at us nervously from behind her kitchen curtains, phone in her ear.
We were really into it by then, ready to go another 99. We had drawn an audience, and more kids joined in.
I could be recalling this in a romantic way, now that so many years have passed, but I believe we stayed out there circling for hours, until dusk. She deserved it, and more.
Hey, we didn’t know then that she had thyroid disease. It would kill her much much later. No, I didn’t really feel bad when I heard.
I had a pretty strange childhood. And, while you’re having a strange childhood you don’t actually realize you’re having a strange childhood.
You tend to think you’re just like everybody else.
Yup, you actually think every kid has the cops called on them. Every family has surrounding neighbors that hate them. Everyone’s mom has stood on the front porch yelling to her all-white neighbors a threat to sell the house to black people.
OK. I know. That last one did get me wondering back then. It was odd. Really odd. I don’t think it happened that often. Not even in the ’50s. Not even at the height of white flight.
Except it happened to me and my five siblings.
To understand, first you have to know a little about where we lived. A couple years before our notorious “Frog Face Ramada” my family lived in an apartment in a more urban part of the City of Pittsburgh, where everyone or most everyone was pretty poor and noone had a lot of land. We had fire escape in our all-brick backyard.
When we got a chance to move into a long-established neighborhood in a nicer part of town, we jumped at it. Our new house had a long backyard, so we felt like we had made it to the suburbs. We actually only made it to a small, aging borough in transition called Mount Oliver.
It was surrounded by the city and faced significant angst — a large part of which stemmed from a public housing project about a mile away that had almost exclusively black tenants. That housing project was built on a giant slag heap and anyone who wanted out and didn’t have a car would have to walk through Mount Oliver.
The borough wasn’t affluent, either, with pockets of poor and a main street that had seen better times. But to us — I cannot stress enough — this was a big step up. We took over a shoddy, former tiny schoolhouse with four downstairs rooms and two upstairs. My dad and mom and some friends and relatives did their best to fix it up and make it respectable. But, my dad was not the most handy guy and worked long hours as an accountant.
The neighbors saw a small house crowded with kids with a crumbling front wall and worn asphalt siding — it was supposed to look like red brick. They worried about property values and were not quiet about it. Some were both gossipy and judgmental and — unfortunately in the tinderbox that was developing — of German descent.
My mom was biased against Germans. One of her brothers was killed in WWII. Another suffered in the war. She blamed Germans and not just the ones overseas. She called our dictatorial neighbors “Krauts” who cared more about their lawns than their kids. Early on, she only used that “K-word” inside our house, mostly with my dad and us kids. She only began shouting that insult directly at the neighbors much later.
If you excise the bigotry from her statements, some of what she said held water.
Some neighbors had manicured yards and pretty, flowering bushes. But they routinely sent their kids away from home to play. Oftentimes, because I had good-looking, creative and funny siblings and our house had a streetlamp right out in front of it, these neighbor kids ended up at our house, the corner house with the six kids, the narrow, long backyard and the young parents willing to make Kool-aid and popcorn and join in playing badminton, wiffleball and kickball.
In the early years, this all played out fairly well, with some neighbors happy that their kids played close to home. Some neighbors for a time even hung out with us, socializing with mom and dad and relaxing while all we kids played and, for the most part, got along.
Not sure when it went really sour, or what triggered the fallout. But fall out it did. And before we knew it, the Isemans were blindsided with “THE PETITION.”
It started something like: “We the undersigned believe that for the following reasons, the Isemans should remedy the following conditions at their home or be forced to move.”
Among other things, it accused my sisters of hanging out with boys late in the evening in our backyard, with those boys flicking cigarettes two stories in the air on to the roof of a neighboring home; they called the appearance of our home ghetto-like; we created danger by playing in the street; and I was the “sassiest” kid in the neighborhood.
Seriously. I’m not exaggerating.
Six surrounding neighbors signed this thing and presented it to the mayor. Not sure what he was going to do with it, but my dad found out because he did some occasional bookkeeping for the borough. I forget who leaked it to him. A quiet guy who grew up in the country, my dad planned to try to handle this thing logically, wisely and diplomatically.
As for mom, well …
The day we received the petition burns in my memory. Mom took it out to the front porch and, holding it in her hand while she shook with anger, shouted the threat about selling to a black family. It was something like:
“Move? They want us to move. Well sure, we’ll move.”
“I’ll sell this place to the biggest, blackest garbageman I can find.”
I was angry because this upset her so. I was proud of her, too, not understanding at the time how impolitic her statement was. At the opposite end of the racial spectrum, I also didn’t immediately realize how mom’s diatribe would be taken by the tough guys down the street — white guys all.
It hit me soon enough. So did they.
I got grabbed, smacked around a bit and threatened. I had to do some fast talking to avoid a major beat-down.
The threat certainly did nothing to advance my mother’s reputation for cool-headed, rational compromise. Nope. She might as well have declared war. It was on.
And who would lead us? Me.
As the oldest boy, it seemed like my duty. I would become the general in this campaign. I had little brother Bob I could shanghai at any time, and my sisters helped to a degree but quickly became distracted by fashion, the 60s and boys.
Still, I was able to recruit, as you can tell from the story about the “Frog Face Ramada,” kids from poorer homes like ours.
The petition came when I was only 10 years old. My brother was 8.
Not old enough yet to drive or date girls, we had an advantage the complaining neighbors did not have or realize until it was too late.
We had all the time in the world.