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As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with the house on Brownsville Road. There were many great houses on that road, but this one—number 3406—was special. It held a strange attraction for me, even as a young child.
I suppose something had to have been at work even back then; why else would I stare at the place for years and imagine that someday I’d have a future there? I certainly had no idea I’d end up having to fight for it, to battle something so evil that it was beyond my comprehension.
Even when I bought it, other factors were at work. Through a twist of fate, as we were preparing for the move to Brentwood, I learned the house was on the market before it went up for sale. My mother was a retired real estate broker who still had contacts in the business, and she’d heard the owners were extremely anxious to sell. We jumped at the chance and they accepted our first offer without question. It took years before we understood why they did—and why they were so anxious to get out.
But by then it was much too late.
BOB CRANMER’S ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
ERICA MANFRED’S ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Published by Trib Total Media, Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:00 P.M.
Evidence gives support to tales of local history in South Hills area
by Stephanie Hacke
A wooden cross at the base of a more than 200-year-old oak tree in Bob Cranmer’s front yard honors a woman and her three children likely killed by American Indians.
Their grave, probably from the late 1700s, is verified by tales from those knowledgeable about the area, letters between leaders of the Northwest Indian War and a radar scan of the tree’s base, said Cranmer, 56, of Brentwood, a former Allegheny County commissioner whose 1909 house was featured in a television documentary chronicling an exorcism he requested there.
Cranmer believes the woman’s husband planted the tree at the property’s entrance along Brownsville Road as a memorial for his family.
“It’s pretty compelling,” he said of the history he unearthed in his yard.
The Cranmers moved into their home nearly 25 years ago. It often attracts questions.
“People were always saying, ‘Oh you live in that home?’” said Cranmer, president of Cranmer Consultants. “If you’re from the South Hills, you generally know something about this home.”
He was always curious about the tree. The home’s former resident, Walter Wagner Jr., told him about a town legend that George Washington camped there.
Wagner, 78, of Bristol, Ind., who grew up in the home, said he is uncertain where he heard the tale.
“It just seems to be something that somebody once told me,” he said.
Then a woman told Cranmer about the possible murder of a woman and children on his lawn.
She heard that Indians “killed and scalped” family members living there during post-Revolutionary War years, before the current home was built. The father, who was away when they died, buried his family in the yard and transplanted the tree at their grave . . .
Cranmer said, “Well, that’s a pretty interesting story.”
To find out if it were true, he searched the Internet and the National Archives, reading war department documents. He came across a letter from Isaac Craig, the commander of Fort Pitt, to Secretary of War Henry Knox, dated March 31, 1792, during the Northwest Indian War. The letter referenced the wife of Deliverance Brown, killed with her three children.
“(The Indians) wanted to terrorize these people from trying to settle out here,” said Cranmer, a history buff. “Come 1791–92, this was a very dangerous place to be. I’m told this story and then I read this. How unique that in the same time period I find a record of three children and their mother being killed by the Indians.” Yet he wanted physical evidence.
While watching The History Channel’s “Unearthing America,” he learned about a technique: holding two copper rods steady while walking above a grave will cause the wires to cross, he said.
Cranmer tried it on the grave of Pete, the family’s cocker spaniel.
“It responded,” he said. “So with that, I took it out to the front yard and sure enough, when I got near the tree, these things just started going crazy. It’s almost like it’s mechanical.”
He hired Ground Penetrating Radar Systems Inc., a company The History Channel used to find a graveyard, to examine his yard. The results showed a man-made, 11-by-6-foot, disturbance at the base of the tree. The company’s report said the findings are consistent with “an excavated grave site, with what appears to be the remains of objects four to five feet down from the surface.”
“The images that were depicted would have shown four people buried horizontally,” Cranmer said.
Cranmer’s son, Bob Jr., 27, said he was “taken back” as he watched the radar experts in his childhood yard.
“Although, I’m not too surprised,” he said, because he, too, has heard stories about the property over the years. “Older people would be walking down the street and see us on the porch and would come up and share stories with us.”
Cranmer said he has done what he can to determine the history of the tree and burial site. He doesn’t want to disturb the grave.
Instead, this spring he plans to place a brass plaque there.
Nothing in my background prepared me for the supernatural battle I was to fight in the house on Brownsville Road. Before moving there I’d had no experience or interest in ghosts. I never saw a ghost when I was a kid and paid little attention to anyone who said they believed in them. The only spooky experience I had was one day, when I was about eleven, my friend dared me to try to go into a supposedly haunted house. It was also on Brownsville Road, down the street a block from the house I eventually bought. It had sat empty for over a decade because it had such a sinister reputation. The big wooden door was painted white, complete with a brass knocker. I went up and knocked on the door tentatively and tried the brass handle a few times, but it was securely locked. I kicked the door as hard as I could, but it was sturdy and my tennis shoes didn’t move it an inch. In a last-ditch effort, I turned away and walked back a few feet so I could get a running start. I ran up to try and jump kick it open like they did in the movies. Before I could lift my foot the door swung open on its own, with a menacing creaky sound. I didn’t go in to explore. I wasn’t that courageous. We were both terrified, looked at each other, and took off as fast as we could run. I later found out that the same evil deeds connected both that house and my own and were, in fact, committed by the same person.
* * *
Had I any idea that my childhood ambition of owning the house at 3406 Brownsville Road would eventually devolve into a nightmare, would I have taken my family and left right on the spot? Today I’d say yes, but back then I was so full of bravado that I would have bought the house nonetheless.
Ten years after I had packed up my car and headed off alone for the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, I was coming home with a wife, four children ages four and under, and a large moving van filled with furniture. I had left the life of a career Army officer to move back to my hometown of Brentwood, a suburb of Pittsburgh. I loved working in Army intelligence and was disappointed to turn my back on a promising career and an assignment to Berlin, but my wife, Lesa, and I had decided it was more important that our kids could ride their bikes to visit their grandparents whenever they liked, so instead I turned in my resignation letter and took a job with AT&T Business Communications in Pittsburgh.
I would begin my new life by moving into the house I always dreamed of owning.
* * *
As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with the house on Brownsville Road. There were many great houses on that road, but this one—number 3406—was special. It held a strange attraction for me, even as a young child. When I was in third grade, some school friends lived on the blue-collar side of Brentwood, and I would pass number 3406 Brownsville Road on a regular basis, going to and from their homes. Every time I passed, I would always pause and stare across the large yard with fascination. What was it like inside? The leaded glass windows, the big white pillars, and the ornate woodwork made it look like a castle. I wanted desperately to go in, to know the rich people who lived there, to sit in the living room!
I would later be told that there were reasons why I was drawn to this house. I suppose something had to have been at work even back then; why else would I stare at the place for years and imagine that someday I’d have a future there? I certainly had no idea I’d end up having to fight for it, to battle something so evil that it was beyond my comprehension.
Even when I bought it, other factors were at work. Through a twist of fate, as we were preparing for the move to Brentwood I learned the house was on the market before it went up for sale. My mother was a retired real estate broker who still had contacts in the business, and she’d heard the owners were extremely anxious to sell. We jumped at the chance, and they accepted our first offer without question. It took years before we understood why they did—and why they were so anxious to get out.
But by then it was much too late.
The McHenrys, the couple who sold it to us, claimed they were selling because Mrs. McHenry worked for the Pittsburgh School District as a nurse and a new policy required that she live in the city, not the suburbs. It did seem strange that they were moving from a house they had put so much work into. I wondered why she just didn’t get another job. To be honest, though, I didn’t care too much about their reasons, as I was so excited to finally own the house I’d longed for most of my life.
Like the house itself, Brownsville Road had a story to tell. Originally an Indian trail and later a plank-road turnpike, it had a history stretching back to the days of Lewis and Clark as well as the famous Underground Railroad. The road ran south to the National Pike at Brownsville, Pennsylvania. The first telegraph lines to Pittsburgh were strung along Brownsville Road.
At the time it was built, a few years before World War I, the house was considered to be a “country house,” located about seven miles out of the city. Originally built by people of means, it was situated well away from the smoke and soot that dominated the river valleys. By the time we moved in, Brownsville Road was no longer an enclave of wealthy business owners. It had seen its share of both prosperity and hard times and weathered the decades in proud fashion, tarnished and faded in places but still fighting to maintain its dignity.
In a way, I identified with it. I’m a fighter, too. Growing up in Brentwood, you had to be. Sometimes you took your lumps, but you were proud to be from the neighborhood. You never ran away from a fight or a challenge.
The stately appearance of the house rivals any New England shore home or grand Southern plantation. The design was so unique it was designated as a Historic Landmark in 1994 and a front-page article about it appeared in the local section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Not as large in size as some of the other Pittsburgh turn-of-the-century homes—only fourteen rooms on three floors—it has an enormous front porch with large majestic white barrel pillars. It has a foyer the size of the average living room and an impressive two-tier oaken staircase that leads up to an open wraparound second-floor balcony. There are three ornate working fireplaces on the second floor and three on the first floor.
The house was originally built on four lots, but the current owners had sold off a horizontal lot in the back where the carriage house had once stood. A small ranch-style house had been squeezed in, and it looked completely out of place. Alongside the back were the neighbor’s encroaching flowers, but closer to the side street and all along the side, the house was surrounded by tall weeds and vines and resembled an urban jungle. It was as if the place were trying to hide.
When Lesa and I first saw it, its sheer size intimidated us. The wraparound balcony on the second floor looking down into the foyer was something that we had never experienced before. The front porch with the massive pillars was also very overpowering. There was a somewhat seductive, stately feel that drew us in. The house exuded a feeling of history, wealth, and success. It was nothing like the small two-story home I’d grown up in, which was comfortable but solidly middle class. This house was a mini-mansion, and it fit my aspirations like a glove. I’d always pictured myself living somewhere really grand that matched my personality and ambitions. An amateur historian and budding politician, I always viewed myself as a general or a respected statesman. I imagined the conversations that must have taken place in its spacious rooms: the sinking of the Titanic, the start of the First World War, and the fall of the stock market. Windup record players had played music during the 1920s, and servants had once prepared and served dinner in an elegant, aristocratic setting. There was still a servant’s bell in the kitchen. Minus the servants, I planned to bring it all back.
To my wife and our four small children, this house with its built-in bookcases, music room, and nine-foot ceilings was truly a castle. We could not control our excitement about living in such a magnificent place.
My elation was dampened somewhat during the walk-through with the owners. Their behavior was strange, as if they were hiding something. We were down in the basement and Mr. McHenry was explaining the old furnace when Lesa suddenly noticed little Bobby was not with us.
“Where’s Bobby?” she asked, turning around. The basement was partitioned into a series of different rooms, making it difficult to know if the boy was upstairs or hiding just around the corner.
“Bobby?” she called, “are you down here? Jessica, did you see your brother come downstairs with us?”
Jessica shook her head quickly while hopping from one foot to the other. “I don’t like it down here,” she said. “I want to leave.”
“Well, honey, this will be our home soon,” I reassured Jessica and then turned to Lesa. “I’m sure he’s fine, Lesa. He’s in the house, probably just exploring.” Lesa frowned and looked toward the open stairs that led up to the door and into the kitchen. The door was closed. I wondered how that had happened, since I’d been the last one down the stairs and I hadn’t shut it.
“You want to go look for him?” I said. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. McHenry glance toward his wife. His face had taken on an expression of concern, and he seemed to be trying to signal Mrs. McHenry from across the room.
Mrs. McHenry started quickly up the stairs and pushed open the door at the top. Mr. McHenry dropped the worried expression and went back to smiling.
“Maybe we’ve seen enough down here,” he said.
As the door to the kitchen swung open, I heard a long and frightened wail. Lesa pushed past me and pounded up the stairs, with me close behind. We followed Mrs. McHenry through the first floor toward the massive oak staircase. As we came around the corner, Bobby’s keening cry grew louder. He was sobbing hard, sucking in gulps of air in between the plaintive howls. It was as if he were crying out for help but had no words to express why.
Mrs. McHenry got to him first. He was standing in the center of the first landing of the staircase where the stairs made a sharp S turn, his mouth wide open in a wail, his eyes squeezed shut. Mrs. McHenry wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace, hugging him close and looking around the room frantically, as if she expected to see something.
“Are you alright?” Mrs. McHenry asked Bobby. “Did something scare you? Did you go upstairs?”
Bobby was shaking, his usual carefree attitude totally vanished. He opened his eyes and his cries petered out, although he looked as though they could start up again at any minute. “You were gone,” he said, looking up at his mother over Mrs. McHenry’s shoulder.
“You got lost?” asked Lesa, relief evident in her voice. “It’s a big house, isn’t it? It’s okay, we’ll learn it together,” she said, as Mrs. McHenry straightened up.
Lesa held out her hand to Bobby, who slowly moved toward her side. Mrs. McHenry took one last look around and said, “You really need to keep track of your children.”
Lesa was not happy with her comment, but she took a deep breath and let it pass. She always tried to be nonconfrontational and was better than I at not showing her anger. “You have several grown sons, don’t you? Didn’t they run through the house?”
“Not as much as you might expect,” said Mrs. McHenry, as she turned and headed back down the stairs. As she neared the bottom she mumbled, “We weren’t exactly told the whole story when we bought the house.”
She was gone around the corner before Lesa or I could ask her what she meant. Her demeanor was so forbidding that we didn’t want to bring it up later.
The McHenrys took us for a walk around the grounds. Mr. McHenry carefully pointed out where the property lines were, while Mrs. McHenry made short, angry remarks about the neighbor’s carefully planted flower beds that crossed over into their—now our—yard.
Lesa pulled me aside and told me that Bobby still seemed frightened. He had refused to be out of her sight since she found him.
“Mrs. McHenry asked him if he’d seen anything,” said Lesa. “What did she mean by that? She seemed really upset.”
“It’s nothing. She’s unhappy we’re here. That’s pretty obvious.” I was doing my best to calm her down, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with the house. I finally attributed it to its simply being a big old house with cavernous rooms, but there wasn’t the warm and fuzzy feeling that I had fantasized about. My hope was that once we’d moved in and added our own personal touches, the strange apprehension I was struggling with would go away. However, my unease was so heavy I sought out John McHenry and asked him to follow me back into the kitchen where we could talk privately.
“I want to buy this house,” I told him. “I’m kind of a history buff, and I keep imagining all of the discussions that must have gone on in this house, the important events its inhabitants were witness to.” I hesitated for a moment, trying to ease into my questions. “But you and your wife seem to have very mixed feelings about moving out of here. Tell me, is there anything wrong with the house?”
Mr. McHenry answered quickly, “No, no, the house is great. We’re just sorry to have to go. But, the wife’s job, you know.” It was all he would say about why they needed to move so quickly and why they were willing to take the first offer that had come their way.
“We even celebrated Mass in the house,” he continued. “Our boys had their first communion right in the living room.”
“What? You had Mass in your home?”
“Yes, a few times.” His eyes shifted away from me.
“The priests brought the Eucharist here?” I was confused, to say the least.
The Catholic Mass of Communion is rarely done outside of a church and only under special circumstances. The rite is considered to be one of the most powerful ways to purify and protect the soul through the transformation of the wafer and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.
“That’s right,” said Mr. McHenry, again nervously unable to make eye contact with me.
His answer seemed very strange to me. Despite being raised Catholic and having been an altar boy, I had never heard of such a thing. But I figured they were devout Irish Catholics and it must be some type of Irish tradition. Years later I would understand all too well the meaning of his answer when we, too, as a family would attend Mass in that very same living room, and, for months after that, throughout the rest of the house on all four floors, including the basement.
“Can we get on with the agreement?” Mrs. McHenry’s brusque question interrupted my thoughts.
The details of the sale took almost no time to complete, but we still would need a radon inspection done, the bank to send an appraiser, and to jump through all the other hoops that are part of buying a house. We filled time waiting for the closing by shopping for more furniture to fill the oversized rooms, and we were excited about a grandfather clock we bought for the foyer. We occasionally stopped by to take some measurements, but the McHenrys made a point to have as little contact with us as possible. We commented to each other on their standoffish behavior, but Mrs. McHenry had never seemed all that happy anyway, and we simply chalked it up to her odd personality.
Despite the way we laughed off the McHenrys’ secretive ways, a continued sense of unease, of foreboding, still managed to creep into our thoughts. While I kept my feelings to myself, Lesa, a practical woman by nature, commented more than once about it.
“It’s like the house is laughing at us,” she’d say. “I feel like we’re being taken in by it. We’re not buying it, it’s letting us in.” One interesting “coincidence” made it seem that Lesa might be onto something with these assertions. When then owners prior to the McHenrys sold the house in 1979 they had a “house sale.” I was in the Army by then, and my sister-in-law Donna went to the sale. I can remember feeling jealous when my mother told me Donna had actually gone into “my house.” Anyway, she ended up buying an old crib that was in the nursery, and had subsequently given the crib to us when my son Charlie was born. The crib, which had been in the house for who knows how many years, was now headed back to the exact room she had taken it from. That seemed a little strange to me, more than just a coincidence. Later it would become a small piece of a much larger puzzle.
From the first, Lesa and I always had the feeling that we were not alone in that house, that we were being watched by someone, or something. I can remember the sensation so clearly. We felt surrounded by the past, as if we were almost living in it, that we were only temporary “visitors,” tolerated for the time being—who would eventually be expelled.
Why did we continue with the sales process in spite of these feelings? I was driven by an assurance of personal destiny and the power of my faith. I had been drawn to this house all of my life, and just as I was moving back home to a great job, with a wonderful family, it went up for sale. We could easily pay what they were asking. I felt that it was meant to be, this house was waiting for us, and I was convinced that we were meant to live in it.
Besides, there is a big difference between feeling that the ghosts of history inhabit a house and an actual haunting by a malevolent spirit that wants to destroy you.
* * *
Moving day finally arrived, and we packed up all of our belongings. We had even bought a new car, a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon—the same kind of car my parents always owned.
“New house, new job, new car,” I said to myself. Everything seemed blessed to me on that day.
We shook off the dark feelings that had been bothering us, and on December 12, 1988, we moved into the house on Brownsville Road, celebrating with the purchase of the grandfather clock that had a brass plaque mounted on the front with the month and year to commemorate our new adventure. I took a photo of our new home, standing back on the edge of the sidewalk where I had often gazed at the house as a child. Captured in the picture is my son Bobby standing on the porch, framed by the massive house. He looks like he’s about to be swallowed whole.
Bobby had regained his playful personality after the incident on the stairs, but he was reluctant to investigate the house that first day, unlike David and Jessica, who roamed all over, exploring each room. When Lesa and I went to check on Bobby later that night, we found him curled up inside his closet sound asleep, instead of on his new bed.
I understood why the kids felt uncomfortable being alone at night in their giant rooms, and hardly a night passed when at least one of them wouldn’t end up in our bed before morning. I, too, felt uneasy at night but decided that my faith would overcome any negative energy in the house eventually.
* * *
For the first month or so, walking into the house made me feel like I was walking into the inner bowels of a large oceangoing ship; completely engulfed by it. I would later come to think of it more like a Venus flytrap swallowing its prey.
One of our rituals became singing with the kids at night before bedtime from an old Baptist hymnal. One particular song that we always sang loudly and clearly was “There Is Power in the Blood.” The kids loved it because I would stomp my foot on the floor to keep the rhythm. Even then, in the recesses of my mind, I think I knew I was preparing for something. What we were singing about so loudly and joyfully would one day become central to our lives. The sacrificial death of Jesus and the power of his blood would become our weapon against the evil that infested our house. It was a shield that would also become a sword.
Not long after we moved in, I was talking to a colleague at work who told me that his father had grown up in Brentwood during the 1930s and lived a few blocks from my house.
“So you bought the haunted house, did you?” were his first words when I told him which house I’d bought. I was a little alarmed by this statement, because by then I knew that there were issues with the house, but I didn’t let on.
“No, I didn’t buy the haunted house. That house is a block away and across the street.” In fact there was a house on Brownsville Road that was known to be haunted, and it had sat empty since the 1950s. It was the same house that I’d been dared to enter as a child.
“My father always believed that the house you now live in is haunted as well,” he said, going on to tell me that the house was empty during the late thirties and that his father and a friend had gone into it and were scared to death, and chased out of it “by something.”
This colleague was a no-nonsense kind of guy, so I took him at his word and filed it away with the other things I’d been finding out. Little did I know at the time that I would later learn that there was a strange relationship between my house and the “haunted” one down the street.
Soon after we moved in, my mother suggested that I ask a priest at her church to come to the house and bless it. We were not Catholic at the time, but I’d been raised Catholic, and out of respect for her, I agreed to have her set it up. Her favorite priest at the parish was Indian born and his name was Fr. Victor. He was about as nice a man as could be, and he was genuinely happy to spend the time necessary to bless all of the rooms of our large house. He gave me a special bookmarker that he made himself with a quote from St. Augustine written in calligraphy which stated: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” I still keep it in my Bible.
He moved along throughout the house, stopping to bless each room without anything unusual happening until we came to Bobby’s bedroom. Bobby was three years old at the time, and in a very determined, bold manner he stood at the door and refused to let Fr. Victor enter the room.
“Bobby, come on, he isn’t going to hurt anything,” I said, upset by his refusal.
“No, he can’t come in. I won’t let him.” Bobby stamped his foot furiously and scowled.
“Oh, that’s alright,” Fr. Victor said, not wanting to make a scene, and passed the room. We paid no attention to the incident. Bobby was still in the “terrible twos” stage, and we assumed it was just a toddler’s tantrum.
For about a year Bobby refused to sleep in his bed at night. He would go into his walk-in closet, turn on the light, and sleep on the floor. Eventually we just put a crib mattress in the closet, and that’s where he slept every night, with the light on. From the first month we moved into the house and Bobby refused to let the priest into his bedroom, I had suspected that there was something strange about the room. I didn’t understand why he refused to sleep in his bed and chose the floor of his closet.
The large room with plaid blue wallpaper, blue rug, and a beautiful fireplace would seem to be any boy’s dream. But Bobby said that the room scared him at night and he felt safer in the closet with the light on. We offered to move him to another room, but he refused, insisting he wanted to stay where he was and just sleep in the closet. I knew many children his age felt there were monsters in their rooms, so I figured that he would grow out of it, and after about a year he did eventually begin to sleep in his bed. But as time passed I started to notice a change in Bobby’s demeanor. Our bright, chipper little boy began to develop an introverted personality. I didn’t associate this personality change with the “blue room” until years later when I would discover that the family who owned the house before the McHenrys would not use the room as a bedroom.
During our first spring in the house, I was planting flowers in the front yard and made an extremely interesting discovery. While digging with a hand shovel near the front corner of the property, I came upon a small metal box buried about six inches down in the soil. I dug it up and brushed it off and noticed that it didn’t look like it had been there for a very long time. When I opened it, to my dismay, I discovered that it held a set of rosary beads and some religious medals. I called the McHenrys to find out if they knew anything about the box and why it was there. They told me very forcefully to just put it back exactly where I found it, refusing to elaborate further on the matter.
Soon, strange things began to happen inside the house. The first incidents were more of an annoyance. Every morning I would go to the closet underneath the massive oak stairs in the foyer to retrieve my overcoat. To turn on the light I would have to reach for the long, thin pull chain that hung just inside the door.
Every night when I came home and went to put away my coat, the chain was either wrapped around the light or meticulously twisted around one of the small screws which held in the glass shade. At first, I thought Lesa or possibly one of the children was pulling the chain too hard and letting it fly. But the children were too small to reach the chain, and Lesa assured me it wasn’t her, so I tried an experiment. I left the chain hanging straight down in the morning and made sure Lesa kept the door to the closet shut all day, and yet, every night when I came home, the chain was wrapped around the light.
We told each other we had a friendly ghost in our old house and laughed it off. In order to solve the problem, I tied a wire onto the chain and wrapped it around a coat hook. The prank stopped, and for a while we forgot about it and went back to fixing up our beautiful new home.
Soon, however, the pranks would stop being funny.
Maybe it’s not quite true that nothing prepared me for the enemy I eventually faced in my house. As a military intelligence officer in the Army, I studied psychological warfare, which came in very handy with a supernatural enemy as well as a human one. The personality traits I inherited from my parents were invaluable as well. Both taught me character and integrity and to be implacable, to never back down when facing an adversary. They were both extremely determined, somewhat stubborn people, which is what attracted them to each other, but eventually those same traits became a problem in their marriage. They butted heads a lot. When challenged, where most people would back down, they both would respond, “I don’t give a damn what you think.”
Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but you’d never know it from talking to them. They were voracious learners. My dad always drove me crazy correcting my grammar when I was trying to tell a story at the dinner table.
My father is my all-time hero. In addition to spending over twenty-five years in the Army as a military policeman, he chased bootleggers during Prohibition, escorted FDR, and even participated in an ambush set up for Bonnie and Clyde. Tall, handsome, and imposing, he maintained his military bearing in civilian life. With his squared-off face, stocky build, and jutting jaw he looked every bit the part of a lawman. Nicknamed “Cap,” he was a John Wayne type, whose attitude was “bring it on” when threatened—that’s if someone was foolish enough to start up with him. He was fifty when I was born, and I remember one day when I was twelve, and he was in his sixties, a young guy who was in front of us in a traffic jam came up to our car and started yelling at him through the window over some road rage incident. He rolled up his window and locked his door, but when the guy shouted at him, “You old jag off,” a term no self-respecting Pittsburgh male would tolerate, my dad took off his glasses, got out of the car, and decked him with one punch.
A policeman appeared and told the poor guy to get back to his car. He then said to my dad, “Are you OK, sir?”
“I’m fine, but I broke my new pair of glasses when I took them off,” my dad responded, holding up the cracked frame.
Cap applied for a position with the Brentwood police force in the early fifties after leaving the Army, but because he wasn’t from the community, didn’t know the local politicians, and was a real policeman who wouldn’t be easy to manipulate, the job went to an unemployed bricklayer. He eventually started a kitchen remodeling business. From time to time, he joked about his rejection, but I knew that it was a source of disappointment for him. Maybe that was part of the reason I tried to clean up the Brentwood police department when I became a borough councilman. The Brentwood police and their cronies disliked me intensely for it.
In contrast, my mom was the George Bailey of Brentwood. She sold real estate, and her office was a hub of activity in the sixties with Pittsburgh’s exploding economy and the abundance of VA loans. A five-feet-two bundle of energy who never left the house without makeup, she was quite a glamour girl in her youth and loved to ride horses but could also wrap men around her little finger if she cared to. She worked all day, had dinner on the table every night, and still had time to bake little gingerbread men for me. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, she used her job as a personal mission to help others. I remember one family who couldn’t qualify for a loan because their finances were too screwed up. She managed their finances and paid their bills for six months, got them on their feet, and then helped them get a mortgage.
While my dad was the disciplinarian, my mom believed in teaching us lessons rather than punishing us. One time when I was a kid, I accepted some baseball cards a friend stole from a store and my mother heard me bragging about it to my brother. She handed me a dollar and told me to march back into that store and pay for them. I was mortified when I had to explain to the salesclerk what had happened. I learned a valuable lesson that day. I wish I’d been able to handle it the same way when my son Bobby stole from a store for some older kids and got caught. I spanked him and grounded him for weeks in the summertime. I thought, at the time, I was doing the right thing, but when I remember my mom, I still feel ashamed of myself.
Both of my parents had hardscrabble childhoods during the Depression. Like many people who grew up during that era, they vowed to bring up their own children so we’d never know what poverty felt like. With only three children, my two older brothers, Gene and Wesley, and me, our family was the smallest in the neighborhood, and we were generally the envy of the street. Our house had a swimming pool, we always had two cars, and every year we would go on vacation to Canada for three weeks and take two or three of our friends with us. I wouldn’t exactly call it a life of privilege, but we didn’t want for much. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world.