Humble starts in village’s Little Italy

It wasn’t anything like what we saw on TV – those images of half naked children crouching on dirt floors, all skin and bone, their bellies protruding from malnutrition, their innocent eyes bulging in silent solicitation.

It wasn’t like the tent cities of Southwest America, with vagabonds coming together in makeshift communes along creek banks, enjoying a short-lived peace before the byproducts of their lifestyle – their heedless strewing of trash and poor hygienic practices – would cause such a public protest as to have them removed by the police.

It wasn’t like the streets of big cities, with the homeless migrating from shelter to shelter, or like the rural, deep South with families living in three-room shanties and no running water.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the people of Fredonia were pretty well off. The nearby factories, farms, shopping centers and schools provided ample opportunity for employment (albeit not always full-time). There were social classes, yes, but the demarcations were often blurred, and interactions, especially among children, were not greatly affected by income.

Nevertheless, there were families that struggled to make a living, many of them residing in the Eagle Street area referred to as “Little Italy.”

There were a few reasons why adult family members failed to provide. Generally speaking, it had to do with a lack of ability or ambition. Or, in many instances, alcoholism.

Also among the less “well-off” in Fredonia were those quiet outliers – the migrant workers who sojourned here during the growing seasons. While many stayed in camps outside Fredonia, there was a house on Eagle Street dedicated to those workers.

As a kid in middle school, I didn’t live in Little Italy, but I was drawn there for a few reasons. There was the CYO recreation hall, where we could hear the music from outside, and spy on the teenagers – the guys with brylcreem hair driving GTO’s, Fairlanes and Darts, the gals in their A-line dresses, knee socks, cashmere sweaters, and red lipstick.

The magnet in Little Italy for kids my age was the playground, which lay at the bottom of the hill on the creekside of Eagle Street. It wasn’t much – a wooden teeter-totter, a chain swing, a squeaky, lop-sided merry-go-round, an old rusty slide, and horseshoe pits. But the Little League baseball field was there, which made it the summer hotspot during the evenings.

Most of the best athletes hung out there – the local Italians and the Laona boys. While the playground was open to the public, there was little supervision, and our gang took advantage of the shady dugouts during lazy afternoons to talk about those things good boys are not supposed to talk about.

In the evenings, there was always action around the local businesses orbiting St. Anthony’s church – Leone’s, Favata’s, Chimera’s, St. George’s, Privateer’s, Mangus’. Especially in late summer under the veil of dusk, we could spy the older girls as they descended porches and promenaded along the sidewalks, their shadows leaning to and fro under the streetlights.

One of those young women (I’ll call her Ramona) had a real reputation. First, she was tough – tough enough that the boys were careful how they talked around and about her. Second, she was good looking.

One night we heard from an older boy, who had heard it from an even older boy, that Ramona was spotted all by herself up the creek with no clothes on! This newsflash provided much food for thought, and my friend (I’ll call him Larry) and I decided to investigate.

It was late afternoon when we climbed over the chain link fence behind the dugout and entered the vine-tangled woods leading to the creek. We were beset by several fears as we began our journey. First was poison Ivy. The woods were notorious for it. We’d heard about kids who had it so bad their entire bodies were covered with welts, their eyes and nostrils swollen shut.

The second concern was about the migrants who stayed in the red house above the creek. Rumor had it they bathed there in the pools beneath a shallow waterfall.

There had been much rain that summer, and we worried how deep the creek would get upstream – if we would be forced out of the bed, up the banks and back into the woods where no clear paths existed and the insidious ivy lay in wait.

Our biggest fear, however, was being caught in the act of spying, thus incurring the wrath of Ramona (unimaginable in her primitive state!). Yet we ventured on, stepping from rock to rock, careful not to get our sneakers soaked.

Suddenly we heard the sound of voices somewhere beyond the bend. Hugging the near bank, we inched closer until we could glimpse, not fifty feet from us, two skinny boys in underpants splashing in a creek pool. On a clear bank above them was the figure of a female – not Ramona, but a pale-skinned woman in a threadbare moo moo waving a bottle in the air, hollering at the boys below.

Sorry if this memory falls flat. But maybe beginnings and endings are not as important as how one gets through life. I can say in good faith that those brothers in the creek, I’ll call them Timmy and Tommy, despite severe childhood adversity, have done very well. Their Fredonia story is at least as rich as any other.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident who teaches English Language Arts at Northern Chautauqua Catholic School. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com


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