Throughout the 70s and 80s, paperboy Ken Hohman spent eight years delivering the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to homes in in the cozy suburban enclave of Mt. Lebanon. Chronicling the highs and lows of his beloved trade, Paperboy Days is a tribute to the vanishing trade of newspaper delivery. The following chapter recounts Mt. Lebanon’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.
His book is available for purchase on the Amazon Kindle platform.
Fireworks, Ships, Parades and Bells Mark Bicentennial
– Headline from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, July 5, 1976
It’s a sparkling, sunny day in the summer of ’76…America’s bicentennial! It’s a day tailor-made to enjoy the sights and sounds of my little corner of America, the township of Mount Lebanon, USA.
The pool is only a 1- minute ride away, but if you pedal in and out of the neighborhoods getting there, your ride could stretch into hours. My bike is a hand-me-down three times over. It has a banana seat and high handlebars, no gears and a worn-out brake that has proven to be very unreliable in dangerous situations. It even has an extra-long sissy bar in the back to make it look more like a hot rod. I stop to pull my striped tube socks up to my knees and to make sure the five dollars I stuffed into my cut-off jeans are still there. I pop a half-wheelie and start rolling down the road, enjoying the crackle of knobby tires on the pavement and the feel of the waffle grips on my handlebars as I pump the pedals and get up to a good cruising speed. Maybe I can swing by the home of that pretty girl who lives in the next neighborhood over. Maybe she’ll be playing outside. Would she think that I was spying on her?
The smell of fresh cut grass fills my nose and I hear the contented hum of lawn mowers as I move from block to block. A trio of little girls is giggling as they blow super bubbles into the air. A transistor radio is propped against a tree playing Jim Croce’s ‘Working At The Car Wash Blues’ as a teenager washes his Dad’s shiny red Firebird in the driveway. I feel a rush of panic as I perform a sharp turn at the intersection, suddenly recalling that my coaster brake pads are wearing thin. It was only a few weeks before that the brakes gave out on me and I went soaring across a street corner, only to end up beneath the front end of a car as it came screeching to a halt. As I pump my brakes, I breathe a sigh of relief to find that they are actually working and that no car was headed in the opposite direction.
Some kid comes zooming down a steep driveway straddling a new skateboard and his shiny, new urethane wheels launch him into a smooth jump off the curb. The pavement tapers off into scalloped bricks as I ride into the older neighborhoods of Mission Hills. The bricks rattle my bike, creating a cool purring sound like a motorcycle. I yell to a friend as I watch his parents stuff him into a car. He’s all dressed up in his church clothes for some family event and I laugh as he lets out a cry for help.
The street takes me to the bottom of a steep hill and I pick up speed in order to take it on. As I climb the hill, it pushes back at me and I stand on my bike pedals, pumping my Pumas until I’m forced to grind to a halt. I dismount and dig the tips of my Pumas into the bricks, lurching forward and pushing my bike up the hill as the gleaming sun floods my eyes. Like a Bedouin traversing desert sands, I close my eyes and absorb the heat, almost reaching a state of meditation as the sweat begins trickling down my sideburns.
All the fire hydrants in Mount Lebanon have been painted in patriotic fashion by area school children to salute the 4th of July. Some have a red, white and blue motif while others are painted to resemble the founding fathers, using the nozzles for arms and the caps as powdered wigs or tri-cornered hats. I wheel by them on my beat-up Schwinn, tapping the heads of Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with my hand as I wind my way to the public pool.
On a whim, I decide to buzz by uptown Mount Lebanon where all the shops are. I turn on to Washington Road and shift into 3rd gear, making the adjustment for flat pavement cruising speed. I feel the rhythmic clack of the cracks in the sidewalk every half second and swerve to the right to avoid the telephone poles. Traffic is light, so I can glide across the intersections with relative ease. Every once in a while there’s an unfriendly curb to deal with, and so I risk riding alongside traffic for a block or two. As I approach uptown Mount Lebanon, I drift by George Washington Elementary School, conspicuously empty during the summer, save for a few kids hanging upside down from the monkey bars.
The municipal building welcomes me to uptown, a two story art deco structure built back in 1929 that houses the town administrative offices as well as the fire department, with four garage doors for the fleet of Lebo fire trucks. I pass the firemen as I slow down to a pedestrian-friendly speed before I hit the storefronts. A few kids spill out of Mandell’s Pharmacy with comic books and candy in hand. Even more kids are lined up outside of the Denis Theater to catch the matinee showing of Jaws. I tried to get in myself a week earlier, but I got bounced because it’s rated R.
I pick up the aroma of fresh pizza being baked at Caruso’s, but I resist the temptation for a slice and keep rolling on. There’s a lot of activity uptown today because they’re having ‘The World’s Largest Garage Sale’ at the three-story parking lot in the middle of the business district. I dismount and walk my bike through the rows of vendor tables. Lots of mantelpiece knick-knacks, a crate of old records and an old wedding dress that hadn’t been properly stored. Nothing sparks my interest, and so I jump back on my hot rod and circle back around past Potomac Bakery and the trolley loop, and then past the pharmacy again. The kids I saw earlier are now camped out in front of Washington Elementary, reading their comic books and chomping on wads of chewing gum that are too big for their mouths.
My thoughts drift back to memories of the night before when I played capture-the-flag in a neighbor’s backyard. I had found a cool, dark spot near a stone wall to hide in while my enemies crept by, oblivious to my presence. Once they passed, the flag was in clear view. I could have stolen it and won the game for my team in a flash, but for some reason I held back. Then I suddenly became aware that it was almost as much fun watching the action than actually being in it. Shadows leapt from the bushes, morphing into neighborhood kids, darting around the yard as they tried to outwit the jailer and the flag guard. Eruptions of laughter and frustration sound out when one kid tags an enemy and drags him to the jail. Two, three and then four of my teammates are being herded into the jail as if it’s a German stalag camp. It’s time to spring into action. The guard drifts too far from his post and I burst out of the bushes, screaming like a madman. My heart pounds like Mighty Joe Magarac’s hammer as I tag my teammates and free them from their make-believe jail. The boys have no idea where I came from, but they’re thrilled with their newfound freedom and they fly across the yard like hornets released from a nest. I hear the shouts of panic from the other team as they spot me running and snatching the flag, then launching into an all-out sprint to the far edge of the boundary lines. The cool air fills my lungs as I tear through jagger bushes and double my speed for the home stretch. A pair of kids is closing in along the bush line, but they’re too late. I dive over the hedges and land with a thud onto my team’s home turf, eating some dirt and grass along the way. I break into laughter as I roll on to my back, and then I look up through the trees to witness a star-spangled sky stretching across the universe and a chalk-faced moon laughing back at me.
I think it was the Fourth of July
I open my eyes and emerge from my daydream to see a long stretch of hot pavement down the hill before me. The radiating heat bends the air above the road so that it looks like it’s under water. The road snakes through the town park and ends at the public pool. The prospect of taking on all those curves with my Schwinn and its worn out brakes sends goose pimples up my back. I kick it into gear and pump the pedals fast enough that I can finally let them go. The street is wide open and the maples, sycamores and elms of the park fly by in a kaleidoscope of green hues. I zoom by families picnicking in the park, the parents standing on tables to attach red, white and blue bunting across the park shelters. I catch a whiff of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the air and jot off a quick mental note to come back to that shelter to mooch once things get crazy in the park during the fireworks. The knobby tires of my bike hug the curb and I lean into my turns, feeling the wind rush by my ears; a soundtrack of white noise for the final leg of my journey.
Still moving at top speed, I spot the pool on the far side of the park and as I soar around a bend in the road, I make a last second decision to cut through a narrow walkway that will take me straight up the ramp to the bike racks outside the pool. I swerve sharply, but my speed is too fast to hold me to the path. My wheels slip on the edge of the walkway and I feel the bike give way underneath me. Holding on to the handlebars a little longer than I should have, my foot catches the walkway and I’m sent sprawling on the pavement, breaking my fall with my right hand. The concrete scraped a few layers of skin off my palm and my eyes begin to well up with tears.
Sniffing back the tears, I get to my knees and look around to check if anyone had seen me crash. Confident that only one family exiting from the pool saw me, I lick the blood off my wrist and slowly lift my bike upright. Walking it up the hill toward the pool, I look forward to the cool waters at the deep end of the pool and wonder if the chlorine will help heal the scrapes on my hands.
Later in the afternoon on that golden 4th of July day in 1976, I pump my Schwinn up the path along the hillside that overlooks our high school. At the top of the hill sits a small municipal park situated along a busy little intersection, the kind of park that’s only big enough to accommodate a few strollers and two or three families staking out spots for the fireworks to come later that evening. But at this time of day there’s a small ceremony taking place that I had a small hand in creating. To celebrate the bicentennial, a time capsule filled with judiciously selected memorabilia was going to be placed beneath the earth so that one hundred years from now, in the year 2076, residents and local community leaders will open its contents and marvel at what life was like here in Mount Lebanon in 1976. My sixth grade class at Markham Elementary had contributed some artwork and a letter to the Americans of the future, asking them questions like ‘Do you ride in flying cars in 2076?’, ‘Is the world a more peaceful place?’, or ‘Are math classes any shorter in 2076?’
Leaning on my handlebars and watching from a distance, I see that a few local luminaries and a small crowd are gathering around the time capsule for the ceremony. For a kid whose thoughts about the future rarely went beyond the next comic book purchase, the future was a big concept. It was exciting to think that someone would pop open the capsule – I imagined it sounding like opening a Coca-Cola bottle – and rummage through all our 70s junk just to try and get a picture of what I was experiencing here today. Would they be inspired by our place in America’s history, or would they think we were entirely unremarkable? Would they look back on us as backward cavemen clapping stones together or a generation of rare intelligence and foresight who had fundamentally changed the world for the better? I imagined them remarking upon how this town was the birthplace of soccer star Ken Hohman and, in fact, he contributed to one of the letters found in the capsule! I envisioned them laughing as they looked at pictures of us with our long hair, bell bottom jeans and tube socks pulled up to our knees. I imagined them pulling out a cassette tape from the capsule and wondering what on earth they were supposed to do with it. I could see the people of 2076 emptying the contents of the capsule on the ground and, after taking in the collective beauty of Mount Lebanon in the 70s, breaking down in tears of sweet nostalgia thinking about how good people had it back in our day. Where had it all gone?
Watching as the time capsule is lowered into the ground to a robust round of applause, I discover that thinking about the future kind of scares me. After all, in the future my friends and family and even my hot rod bike would be gone. Our nation would be 300 years old the next time that capsule was opened and, unless they invent some kind of super anti-aging pill, I wouldn’t be around to see it. Would there be a nuclear war – with giant scorpions added in for good measure? Would my school or even my house still be standing? Would Pittsburgh still be standing? Who would have my paper route by then? There was no telling. But one thing I did know was that I was happy living right here in the sweet embrace of 1976. The sun was still shining brightly across the hills behind the high school, I still had some bike riding to do, hot dogs were waiting for me at home and tonight I’d be back up here for the greatest fireworks display in our nation’s 200 year history. Who needs the future when you’ve got all of that?