Posts Tagged With: Bay Pines Florida

Trains, Baseball and Bay Pines: Ramblings of a Florida Youth Before Personal Technology…

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The Bay Pines stop on the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, circa 1965.

Photo, (c) Paul Coe, from the Ted Strickland collection.

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Another view at Bay Pines station, 1967.

Photo, (c) Paul Coe, from the Ted Strickland collection.

I grew up in Bay Pines, Florida, in the 60s and 70s.  Bay Pines is in Pinellas County, a little west of St. Petersburg, snuggled in next to Boca Ciega Bay, with Long Bayou wrapping around its’ eastern edge, the city of Seminole to the west, and nicely close to the Gulf of Mexico.

Before the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (S.C.L.R.R.) quit their passenger service, my 1965 Kindergarten class from Seminole Methodist Church got to take a ride all the way to St. Pete and back!  The train in the photo, led by the classic GM Diesel locomotive, is identical to the one we rode on.

Bay Pines wasn’t really its own town, still isn’t, but it sure felt like one to us.  The only commercial establishments (and kid landmarks) then being Weisgarber’s Pure Oil gas station, with the big, round, blue-and-white sign with the Pure “Firebird” logo…”check under your hood, Mister?”…a 7-11, which was only open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and a small, pink, Spanish Colonial-style passenger train station (see photos, above) of the S.C.L.R.R. on what is now the Pinellas Trail.  The final landmark, the ne plus ultra, was our very own sewage treatment plant of one (?) round tank about 30 feet in diameter and 20 feet high.  There being no fence, some used to climb up the side of the tank to look, and occasionally nearly fall, inside.

My kidly imagination wandered through tales of Pirates and buried treasure, and wondered once or twice what the Spanish version of Bay Pines was…Bayos de Pina?…Bayo de Pinons?  Not that I wasn’t particularly bright, but it wasn’t in the World Book Encyclopedia, my main source of information at the time, and I knew nothing of a Spanish-to-English dictionary.

The correct translation is Pinos De la Bahía – sounds very foreign, doesn’t it?  I’d like to have a boat someday with its homeport listed in that more exotic way; oh, and the boat should be named Pirate or Corsair or something.

(Voice hailing one vessel from another): “…What vessel are you, and where you bound from, Cap’n…?” (Reply):  “…Corsair, out of Pinos De la Bahía…any news of…storms? German U-boats? Sea monsters? (Insert your favorite peril of the sea here).”

No matter if rowboat or a yacht, that sounds great, maybe even better than Hemingway’s boat “…Pilar, Havana” – a piker by comparison.  Seeing the Jose Gaspar Pirate Parade on TV every year probably didn’t hurt when it came to sending me off on those flights of fancy.

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Jose Gaspar – Gasparilla Pirate ship during annual parade, circa 1940s-50s.

Photographer unknown.

We had moved to Bay Pines from Ohio when I was three.  Dad got a job offer from Honeywell in early ‘63 to take a job in Clearwater, Florida.  Having grown up in Ohio, and Dad having visited Florida during college, the decision for my parents was an easy one – the beach, with its palm trees, flamingos, drinks with umbrellas, etc., won out over the lake effect snow, the cold, the repeated shoveling, and too many layers of clothing.  So we were off to participate in what has been since described as the “second great Florida land boom”, and involved in the space program to boot.  The Clearwater Honeywell plant produced avionics, and Dad worked on the business and engineering side of many of the unmanned and manned space and missile programs for 36 years before retiring.

To make ends meet, he also worked part-time in the early years, selling shoes at Montgomery Wards (a department store) in St. Pete.  The best windfall from this job was not that he would get a break on shoes for the family, but that a Krispy Kreme donut shop was nearby, and he’d bring some home on occasion.  What a treat!  This was when Krispy Kreme was a small regional franchise, in the years before excessive everything.

Mom, like so many of her peers, tended to home and family, but also taught piano lessons and ran a music school franchise, among other endeavors – when she wasn’t helping us on homework, fixing cuts and scrapes, cooking, cleaning, and all the other things that make life sweet for children.

Dave K. was one of my best friends from age 5 up through High School.  Like my family, his were from “Up North” (Pennsylvania), it seemed like everyone in Bay Pines was from Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or New York.  My former Navy shipmates from Alaska, Minnesota or Maine might beg to differ, but “Up North” sounded a lot more venturesome than “Ohio” when the other kids asked you where you went for summer vacation.

Dave’s parents let us build a huge tree fort in their back yard, spanning between 2 gargantuan, twin-trunked hickory trees, looking a lot like a modern cargo container, except that it was made of plywood and scrap lumber, and never was loaded with cargo.  There was a parachute harness that I don’t think I ever had the nerve to swing from the top of the fort on, which was about 20 feet off the ground.  Maybe it was after somebody else had it break on him in mid-swing, and the attendant carnage.

There is also an enormous, at least in that everything-is-larger-when-you’re-young kind of way, Veteran’s Hospital in Bay Pines.  It sits right on the water.  From where the train station was leading up the main gate, there is a road that runs straight as an arrow for, gosh, almost 2 miles; we’d ride our bikes along on the sidewalk to get there.

The gang used to go out to the VA grounds many an afternoon to play baseball on the quite large ball field, which had no outfield fence and was 1,000’ or more to the tree line.  That made for some long runs if the ball went over your head while in the outfield, especially when the teams had only 4 to 6 on a side – which was almost always.VA hospital2

Bay Pines Veteran’s Hospital grounds.  “Our” ball field is in the center foreground.  Postcard circa 1930’s. 

Photographer, unknown.

The downside was that if you lost a ball when the grass hadn’t been cut for a week, it took a long time to locate, and the afternoon often degenerated into a baseball-finding expedition.  That, or we just gave up, lay down on our backs in the grass, staring up at the sky and the clouds going by, taking in the sweet humid smell of the grass.

We’d sometimes get into conversation with the older Vets there, who’d stop to watch while we played ball.  A memorable character was someone who I think was a former WWI Coast Guardsman, with a white beard, a “Skipper’s cap” and two brilliant blue and yellow Macaws with him at all times.  He reminded me a lot of “Poopdeck Pappy”, Popeye’s dad.  These older gents were all WWI veterans, some 50 years on from their service days.  I wish I had taken my “portable” (5 or 6 pounds), “lightweight”, transistor, reel-to-reel tape recorder and had played Cub Reporter, getting down so many of those stories that are lost to time…hindsight, as usual…

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Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye’s father.

(C) King Features Syndicate, via Michael Pilgaard.  All rights reserved.

The WWII Vets weren’t the swiftly passing on “Greatest Generation” that they are now – just dads (but still mostly great).  “The War” was still a recent memory to many; only having ended 20-odd years before, quite a few dads, roughly 10 years older than mine, had been in it, including Dave’s, a B-29 gunner; my other good friend, also Dave V., who moved to town later, from you-know-where, whose dad had been in the Army tank corps, and another kid’s, who was a Navy SeaBee in the Pacific.  Those I know of the most, I’m sure there were more.

Florida was the best place to grow up for a baseball buff, bar none – memories include going to Al Lang Field, the closest “real” ballpark, and sitting back in the shade of the old stands.  They were painted green, with a large, full, overhanging roof.  I always remember the sensation of cool moisture rising from the concrete.  We’d go to watch either a major league game at the “Winter Home of the St. Louis Cardinals”, or the AAA Florida State League St. Petersburg Cardinals.  The “box” seats were metal folding chairs, like at your church or PTA meeting, and the backstop was composed at least partly of chicken wire!  Watch the video of Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart (or the postcard, below), and you’ll see what I mean.

By way of contrast, today at Al Lang Stadium, people sit, desiccated in the sun, in that white concrete, more-unroofed, mass of a grandstand – all the character of the place is gone!  Note to owners: with the trend in new “old” ballparks, why not bring back an old-style (GREEN, FULLY-ROOFED – hint, hint) grandstand, and increase your gate receipts (probably substantially)?  It’s hot out there in “The Sunshine City”!

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Al Lang Field, circa 1940s-1980.

Photographer unk, via the Florida Memory website,

One highlight I remember most was the time at a pre-season game in the early 70’s, maybe 1974, when then-Philadelphia Philly and famous “clown” Jay Johnstone tossed his glove up over the fence for us to look at and try on!  “…That’s my first custom-made glove, kids…paid 50 bucks for it…” Hot dogs and drinks at the concession stand were a heck of a lot cheaper, too.

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Jay Johstone of the $50 personalized baseball glove.

(c) 1973, Topps, Inc.

When I was 8, the K’s moved from their first home into a house my family had recently rented while waiting for our new one, complete with avocado-colored appliances, to be finished up the street.  These houses were the typical Florida homes of the 50s and 60s – one-story, cement block “ranch” style, with various faux facades.  This house had air conditioning, the first one didn’t – but then cars were rarely air conditioned in those days – it was an option.

Our new home seemed very futuristic to me, with tall, narrow windows (something to do with cross-ventilation?), but I do remember thinking that it would be harder for wild animals to get in.  There was some justification, in my wild imagination, for a concern about animals; the neighborhood abutted a nice little wood of what seemed like 1,000 acres.

The great thing about those woods, besides being next to “The Bayou”, was that they were on unincorporated county land.  That meant that as soon as you left our back yard, you would cross railroad tracks and be on a dirt road that seemed miles away from the suburbs, but still within shouting distance of Mom.  Barb, my older sister, had horses she bought with earnings from after-school jobs, and kept back over the tracks, caring for them at a stable, often with the assistance of my little sister, Lis.  She covered just about every rideable inch of the woods there.

A cause for excitement several times was when Mom, who grew up on an Ohio farm, had to retrieve the shovel from the garage, and behead rattlesnakes that had come from the woods, and were making a run for it in the street in front of our house.  Mom was defending us and the other neighborhood kids upon pain of possible death.  The bravery! – a rattlesnake would DEFINITELY kill you, ask any kid!  Me, Dave K, our brothers, and others, would go on “hikes” back in the more inaccessible parts of those woods, and often scared ourselves witless with sightings of enormous snakes, both real and imagined.

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Mom and her sisters on the farm in Ohio.

We also spent many hours on the railroad tracks, before the days of “No Trespassing” signs.  It seemed then that we all had more common sense, knowing to get out of the way of a train that was approaching, although not very quickly, and only once or twice a day.  The thing was to see how far you could walk on one rail, like a tightrope walker, without falling, how far you could throw a rock down the tracks, stuff like that.  This could occupy an entire Saturday, after yard work and other chores, and we never once got “bored”.

Those tracks brought another great thing every year  – the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, leaving their winter home in Sarasota by special train to tour the country, as they still do, and passing right behind our house!  The memory that’s strongest is the sight of the animal car with a couple of giraffes sticking out what seemed like 20 or 30 feet!  The train was captured on our old 8mm movie camera for posterity at least once.

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Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus train.  

AP photo, (c) 2012, by Rainier Ehrhardt.

So, those teenagers today that think their mom or dad exaggerate about their lives being different, before PCs, before video games, except at an arcade, which cost “real” money, from your allowance, that you earned – oh, and you had to ride your bike or walk to get there.  We did spend a heck of a lot more time outside.  You parents, set time limits on video games and computer use – even Bill Gates only allows his daughter 45 minutes a day of free time on the computer!

My friends and me were almost inseparable.  We came home from school, cleaned up, and went off on our bikes, or on foot, until we were due home for dinner – heck, our moms would force us out of the house – “go play outside” – because that’s what kids did.  The lack of this today has inspired a spate of recent books about our society’s disconnection with nature, untold number of public discussions, and caused sociologists, psychiatrists and others of their trade to wonder, “…what in the Sam Hill…?” is going on here.

Parents, recent figures on crime have shown children no more likely to be victims of violence than they were 20 years ago.  Maybe more than they were 30 and 40 years ago, but I think the disconnection from nature and the lack of real friends, caused in large part by the more isolating indoor pursuits, is at least somewhat responsible.  That, and the media shoving the news in our face, constantly.  Do we really need to know about car accidents from the other end of the country??  The near-destruction of the concept of safety, I lay firmly at the feet of Madison Avenue, the pursuit of profit, and sensationalism in the media.  Show only local news on a “local” news show, puh-leeze!

A friend of mine recently remarked that his son has homework in Kindergarten – that, to me, is unnerving.  Do they really need to be saddled with that much, that early?  Come on!  Maybe we think we can keep kids safe by keeping them constantly occupied.  Parents, not every child will be a genius/prodigy/doctor/lawyer, no matter how much information you cram into their little minds.

Childhood is the only time that the passage of time can be truly warped and extended – let kids be kids, their adult life will just whiz by, don’t fret!   While we’re at it, let’s knock off the competitiveness, and the scheduling, and the minivans in kid’s sports, saving mom and dad money and let them be a little more at loose ends – they can get a baseball game (soccer, whatever) together all on their own – or lay on their backs and look up at the sky.

Let’s live more reasonable, more modestly, making it so mom or dad can be there when little Jimmy and/or Suzy get home from school!  And developers, put in sidewalks!  Why should people have to take the car to go ¼ mile to the convenience store??…

…But I digress…then there was the time that Mike Hudson, whose dad owned a Hudson Hornet – I think because he liked having a car with the same name, was directing traffic at a minor fender-bender, at age 12 or 13…or the time, on the way to junior high school, that I did a 180-degree vertical flip on my bike, unintentionally, after hitting the back wheel of another kid’s stopped bike, at full gallop while trying to beat him to a corner, and didn’t even get bruised or dirty!…but those will have to wait for another day…

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1951 Hudson Hornet ad.

Now go outside, son, daughter, you’ve got a bike…a baseball glove, a stick, a rock, an imagination, don’t you?…dinner’s not until 6.  Don’t forget your cell phone!

~Until next time.

 In memory of Dan K., and now my brother, Rob – both gone too soon.

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