The Cheap Thrills of Our Youth

“Let’s go fly a kite

Up to the highest height!

Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring

Up through the atmosphere

Up where the air is clear

Oh, let’s go fly a kite!”


I was checking the calendar in my kitchen this morning to see when my dentist appointment was, when I realized that there were only a few days left in the month of March. Not that it was any big deal to me in 2012, however if I were back in Duquesne as a kid again, I’d be getting rather disconcerted. It would have meant that the prime kite flying month would be coming to an end! Whether March weather provided the best flying conditions was fact or fable, I would always be able to convince my mom or dad that I needed to have a new kite each year. Since kites were only 10¢, it wasn’t a huge deal for them to allow me to buy one, and besides, it would keep me busy and outside playing for the majority of the month!

There were many stores that carried kites around the town. I usually bought mine down street at G.C.Murphy’s 5 and 10. Two other places to buy them were at Hilltop Dairy on Kennedy Ave as well as Elsie’s on Grant. Those simpler times also meant simpler selections as well. By no means were there hundreds of varieties to choose from. The “go to” brand at that time was Hi-Flyer. The style selection was usually limited to the traditional deltoid kite shape, and the colors were normally white with either blue or red printing. I was usually able to convince my parents that I needed to buy a new ball of string for the kite at the same time, and with a minimal investment, I would always leave store as a happy camper.

Assembling my new kite was always a job that both Dad and I would tackle. When I was very little, I attempted to do it myself a few times, however those stabs usually resulted in just that, me stabbing the end of the wooden frame through the paper kite. Eventually my dad would intervene and mend the tear and complete the assembly for me. The hardest part for me would be ripping the two holes in the kite for the front string without creating another “stab wound” that Dad would have to repair. Fortunately, between the two of us, we would end up with the perfect assembled kite ready for the March winds.

The final step was to piece together a tail for the kite that would stabilize it during its flight. Mom would be my resource for the tail. Each time I got a new kite, Mom would raid her duster box for a piece of cloth that I could use to make the tail. I’d grab the scissors and patiently cut strips of cloth to tie together to create the final component for my kite. Once I had completed that step, I’d attach both the tail and the string to my kite and soon, it was ready to soar!

I would head outside with blind ambition and the mindset that my kite would be soaring over the fields of St. Joseph’s Cemetery within minutes. However, as you all know, it took a lot of practice and RUNNING to get the 10¢ piece of paper, sticks, string and rags to fly! I can clearly remember running to the top of the hill in the cemetery with kite in hand and looking down toward Thomas Street. With no trees, telephone poles or other kite-eating obstacles between me and the bottom of the hill, it was the ideal runway to launch my kite. Once I had mentally charted my course, I would take a deep breath and run like hell toward the bottom of the hill. It was inevitable that on my first run, I would typically hit some kind of rut and stumble and roll down the hill. When I was very little, Mom or Dad would normally be with me to help me with my kite. If I fell, it would normally result in tears and a lot of encouragement from Mom to try again. As I got older and was attempting “solo flights” with my kite, a stumble or two never bothered me.

It took a few years of practice, but eventually, I managed to launch my kite successfully on first attempts. Between my friends and I, we discovered all of the techniques that made the job easier. We would lie on our backs at the bottom of the hill and just watch our kites hovering above. The breeze would not only keep our kites aloft, but also enable ever- changing patterns in the clouds. That alone would entertain us as we would identify different shapes in the sky. Talk about a pastoral scene! For just 10¢, a bit of energy and some imagination, we filled our days with joy.

When I think back, the simplest of toys brought us so much pleasure. My memory bank of course, includes some of the typical toys that boys played with. However, there were just as many items for girls that would keep them entertained, active and outside for hours on end. Let’s reminisce a bit:

One of my favorite toys was the balsa wood airplane that you could buy at Murphy’s and elsewhere. Like the kites, they too were about 10¢, and provided hours of entertainment for us. My friends Donnie Brown, Pat O’Malley and I would once again make use of the open fields in the cemetery and spend hours flying our planes. We eventually learned how simple shifts in the wings or tail wing would result in different maneuvers. Our flights would eventually take on a more aggressive nature as we decided it would be fun to try to target each other’s plane and try to knock them down, sort of like a Duquesne Dogfight!

In the early 60’s, a toy that had been around since 500 BC became wildly popular, and every kid wanted to have one. The yo-yo! Duncan was the brand of choice and every child had one stuffed in their pockets as they came outdoors to play. I am not sure what the yo-yo sold for at that time, but I think it was around $2 or $3 dollars. Whether you were playing alone or with your friends, the yo-yo was the ideal toy to have. There was no running involved, just a lot of tenacity and agility were necessary. I cannot tell you how much time I would spend on my back porch trying to master some of the simple tricks with my bright red yo-yo. The first was learning how to get the yo-yo to “sleep” at the end of the string in order to even begin doing any advanced tricks. The only tricks I recall mastering were “Walking the Dog” and “Rock the Baby.” Donnie was always MUCH better at the tricks. I just didn’t have the patience to learn them, and would eventually entertain myself by just watching Donnie go through his repertoire of stunts.

Throughout my childhood, I remember two toys in particular that the girls in the neighborhood would play with outside. The first was a simple jump rope. This perhaps was the cheapest and yet, the most popular toy. I don’t recall ropes with handles, swivels or ball-bearings like the modern day versions you’ll find in gyms. The jump ropes of my youth were simply long pieces of clothesline that some mother had cut off for their child. They would be long enough to allow two kids to turn it for a third child or, the rope would be wrapped around their hand to shorten it to the point that they could skip by themselves. Often, two ropes would be used at the same time when three or more kids were playing and Double Dutch would become the game of choice. The two ropes would be swung in opposite directions and would be a true test of the jumper’s agility. I never tried it, but I’m sure it would have been very challanging

Remember how girls would sit on the sidewalk in front of their homes and engage in a game of jacks with their friends? Their abilities always amazed me as I watched. It wasn’t simply a matter of picking up jacks randomly. There was some real planning that had to be done with each move to make sure they were able to capture the correct amount of jacks without disturbing any others. It was brutal at times, as the participants would watch with hawk eyes to catch any mistakes! They were not timid about calling out errors either. I’m sure some of them must have gone on to become Major League umpires! Boys were occasionally invited to play as well, but only when invited to by one of the girls. I recall it not being an easy thing to do. The one issue I had is that it hurt like heck after a few minutes of scraping your hand across the rough cement sidewalks when attempting to pick up the jacks. I never checked, but I’m sure that the girls’ hands were as calloused as a marathon walker!

There were dozens of cheap or free sources of play when I was a child. Corrugated boxes were an endless source of diversion and resourceful play. It could be a fort, a home, a tank, a hiding place, and hundreds of other imaginative purposes. Couple the box with an old bedspread or tarp and the spectrum of uses became limitless.

Aside from the toys I’ve mentioned so far, there were dozens of others that provided children of our era with endless hours of amusement and play. Listed below are a few others that I recall. Hopefully, these will provoke your memory and you’ll share others that I may have omitted:

                                                                CAT’S EYE MARBLES

                                                                     MODEL KITS


                                                                     PADDLE BALLS

                                                                     STREET SKATES


                                                                         SPINNING TOPS

The thought of being in the house and not outside playing was unimaginable in a kid’s mind. By the end of a typical day of outdoor play, we were usually so exhausted, that after our family supper and our evening bath, we were zoned out and ready for bed. Today however, parents have a tough time in prying their kids away from their computers, video games, televisions, smartphones and iPads to even consider playing outside. It could be a beautiful Spring day like today, but wouldn’t matter. If parents eventually get their kids outside, they often need to be entertained with expensive swing sets and jungle gyms, skateboards, dirt bikes, etc., to keep them amused and engaged in play. To many of these children, the concept of a rope, a paper kite and a yo-yo just doesn’t compute! God bless the simplicity of our childhood in Duquesne.


This entry was posted in Life in General, Playing and Games, Springtime. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Cheap Thrills of Our Youth

  1. Grandma Kc says:

    I love Google! I was looking for some information on old kites — the kind from my childhood in the 50s. I ended up here! Great post!

  2. Russ B. says:

    All good memories! I didn’t realize how poor we were until I got older and looked back. We lived in an apartment above a grocery store at the corner of Evens Ave. and Versailles. I was around 6 years old when my older brother and I would rub wax on a board that was about a foot long and would try sliding down the steep sidewalk towards that busy intersection. My mom freaked out when she realized what we were doing. Good times!

  3. missbtisme says:

    Oh my goodness, the memories you- and your readers- brought back. I had forgotten all about those kites, rolled up tight against the wood, tall and skinny. Had to take mine up to the local school yard so it didn’t get caught in the wires that criss-crossed the street in front of our house.

    The yo-yo. Whiffle-ball baseball games. The gyroscope. And the microscope. Kids did have more fun way back when- we were free to roam and explore and come up with our own plans and adventures- which I recall also included a generous amount of caps and a few cap guns.

  4. Tom Lane says:

    Another thing we did, was to play “whiffle ball” in the alley. Hours and hours of 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 games until the ball would finally break apart. The bat was usually an old broom handle. A hit was a ground ball that was not caught. A double was a ground ball that got past the outfielder and a homerun was over the line on a fly at the end of the alley. What a great game that was. We went thru dozens of balls in a summer. I had totally forgotten about that.

  5. Bob Chermonitz says:

    Is it possible to get kids today to fly a kite? My dad intoduced me to kite flying by helping me build (which translates to me watching him build) a Jolly Boy kite made from paper bags. He even built me a “reel” to use with kite string and if that wasn’t enough I had to watch him fly it in order to be “certified” to do it the right way. I would fly it from the top of the hill on Commonweath Ave where the Hilltop Apts are in Duquesne Place today. That kite would fly all the way out over the Mon river on some days. This was in the 60’s. I guess those kids from the 20’s and 30’s really knew how to spend a beautiful spring day and they wanted us to know how, too.

    • Lou A. says:

      C’mon, Bob. From the Hilltop Appts to the Mon is over a mile as the crow flies, I just checked. Your dad must have made one LARGE reel to hold 600o feet of cord….LOL

    • debbie rinkacs kuchma says:

      Bob I can just here and see your dad….good memories

      • Bob Chermonitz says:

        Hi Debbie! Thanks for the nice thoughts about my dad. If alive today and having read your recipe he’d try cooking it up in the kitchen. If it didn’t work out he knew the Kuchma women would do it right and would set some aside for him! By the way, congrats on the Pirate tickets. I was listening to KDKA in the car this morning when they said you won. I nearly raan of the road. 🙂

  6. Amy Slavin Corbett says:

    We used to fly kites up where the Library used to be. We would fly it as high as the string would allow and then pool our money for someone to run to Elsie’s to buy more string. That person would have to be the fastest runner or would have a bike so that they could get back FAST!! I remember the kites going over the mill and seemed like if the string broke that it would fly to Eastland.
    I also loved chalk…to either make hopscotch or just to draw on the ground.
    Since I grew up in a neighborhood with mostly boys, we played a lot of army, ran bases, and played with hotwheel cars that were huge for us in the early 70’s. We made tracks all over the place.
    I also loved my roller skates with the key…we would roller skate everywhere but if you didn’t have the right shoes and those skates came off you could really eat the pavement!
    Such sweet, innocent days…

  7. Vickie Brady says:

    The memories of childhood. We did Hopscotch and dodgeball, among the many toys you mentioned. We had imagination back then and did fun things even if it was going up to nickly hollow on top of 3rd street and climb around the rocks and build a tree house, or just explore, wondering whats hidden with in the rocks. One of my favorite childhood things to do was jump rope. I wish the kids today could or would be able to experience the “Fun Things” we did as kids. I still tell my kids and grandkids how we as children had fun. One thing I can say when my daughter (who is 26 and a mother of 5) comes to visit me we still like to go out and play as we would say Birdie (which is realy Badmitten), and I still enjoy it, of course we dont play a game we count how many times we can keep it going back and forth.. I can truely say i had a great childhood.

  8. Harold West says:

    Your are forgetting the bikes with the playing cards in the spokes, You had 20, 24, and 26 inch sizes. They had large balloon tires and big wide handlebars. Girls had a step through frame and boys had the triangle frame. One speed with a coaster brake and kickstand. You can still buy this style but they are called cruzer bikes and are about 4-10 X the price they were when we were growing up, Banana seats and chopper handle bars showed up in the late 60;s You sat farther back on the bike and with the extra leverage of the bars you could pull wheelies, The contest was see who could ride one the farthest. 8o)

  9. Michael Bashista says:

    And what boy didn’t make a “rubber band” gun or slingshot? For the best ones you would always go to the neighborhood gas station & see if they had any bad inner tubes from a car tire that would allow you to cut out dozens of strong rubber bands as narrow or wide as you needed. For your slingshot you had to search hard for the perfect “Y” shaped branch that was perfectly shaped and strong enough not to break when you really pulled back on the rubber band. Even shot at a few birds or squirrels with the “perfect sized” stones.

  10. Cliff Warner says:

    Jim,I don’t think the yo- yos were anywhere near $2 or $3 or I’d never of had one, more like about .59 cents if I remember correctly. LOL
    As far as kites went we bought ours at the Hilltop Dairy and flew them behind the Hungarian Reform Church on Kennedy avenue.
    For a few years in the 50’s possibly even into the 60’s the city erected a small playground in the field over the hill behind the church parallel to Hudson Avenue. I remember two of the playground “teachers” ,high school girls who worked there as a summer job. A tall blond named Barb who as a 11 or 12 year old I had a crush on.and a friendly brunette named Bridget who replaced her. The “ball field” connected to the playground was an old slag dump with plenty of ruts and ridges that made fielding a ground ball a real adventure.
    One of the toys that I remember as being quite popular in the 50’s were pea shooters, which were basically large diameter plastic straws . The Hilltop Dairy sold them along with small paper bags of dried peas. We were quite pleased to find that the same peas were available in 1lb. bags across the street at Andy Valco’s Kennedy Meat Market, a much more reasonable “bulk” price.

    • Tom Lane says:

      Cliff, I remember Barb also, I had a big crush on her also. I think I am a few years older than you, but I loved to hang out in that makeshift playground so I could fantasize about her. She graduated with my sister, so she was 5 years older than me. A fun time. I guess boys will be boys, even at that young age. tom

      • Cliff Warner says:

        Yes you are a couple years older than me but I hung out with you and some of the other older guys around Doney street. We used to play tackle football in the field next to the Hilltop Dairy and tag foot ball in the alley between Doney and Peter Street.
        I’m not surprised that I wasn’t the only one with eyes for Barb, she was really sharp ! I wonder if she follows The Duquesne Hunky and is chuckling about this thread!


  12. MTHS says:

    One of the best places for selection of the products that we grew up with was Parker’s Hobby Shop which was located near the corner of South Second Street and Whitfield Street. I think the Olsen family lived on the corner. Always had to have my fix and save my pennies to buy a balsa wood airplane model kit. These were the ones where you got sheets of balsa wood and paper plans to transfer onto the wood. You would use carbon paper to do this. Cut it out with a single-edge razor blade (oh yes if you had some money you could afford the X-Acto knife… got this one year for my birthday – a nice box with all types of blades and handles in a nice wood carrying box.)… Cover it with onion-skin tissue paper. Use the good old Testor’s DOPE glue [yes, I did sniff it – along with plastic glue in the tube. Rubber glue was my favorite! heh, heh, heh! – of the joys of youth].

    • John Dillinger says:

      I remember 1 day out of the year where you would built your modelin the window of Parker’s Hobby Shop.

  13. Linda Perhacs says:

    I remember roller skating on the St. Joseph School playground, especially on top of the “tunnel” which ran from the school to the church. It was a very smooth surface, and the skate wheels made a “hollow” sound on that area. Playing jacks on the Novosel’s cement porch was the greatest.

  14. Diann M. Topley says:

    I remember so well the simple toys we played with. I still have my Duncan Yo-Yo; however I am clueless how to do the tricks. When I was in 9th grade my grandma bought me the Christmas present of my dreams: a microscope! When the street lights came on and we had to go inside I would inspect anything I could get my hands on underneath the light. How did she know that my secret dream was to be a scientist some day?

  15. Rick Burton says:

    And of course there was always collecting baseball cards and “flipping contests” to see who could win the most cards in the neighborhood.

    Another was “release” — especially great when we played it with the only “limits” being the whole city of Duquesne. (hey I find it interesting the spelling of Duquesne is deemed incorrect by the computer).

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