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Recollections about growing up in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C., 1939 - 1950Bill Donaldson, Raleigh, NC
William Donaldson was born in December 1931 and lived in Columbia Heights from then until August 1955. He received a Ph.D.in nutrition (animals) from the U. of Maryland in 1957 and taught and conducted research at the U. of Rhode Island (57-62) and North Carolina State University (62-present). Mr. Donaldson graduated from Central High School in June of 1949.
Part 2Click here for part 1
In part 1, I described my memories of 14th Street during the late 1930's to late 1940's. In this part, I'll focus on other areas that I remember. On my afternoon trips home from elementary school I seldom went via 14th Street. The trip "to" school was always on 14th Street because that was the quick way. The trip "home from" school was usually via 15th because that was more fun. In fact, the only time we didn't go home via 15th was when it was either pouring rain or the wind was howling out of the north. In the latter case, it was almost impossible to make any headway on the hill during the gusts. A portion of that "14th Street tour" took you to St. Paul's Academy, a Catholic school, where I received my first through eighth grade education. St. Paul's was on the north side of V Street between 14th and 15th. The church was on the corner of 15th and V. Next to it if you walked north was a large red brick building that served as a storage house while I was in school there. It may have been the original school house or even the original church (or both?) but of that I am uncertain. North of this building up to W Street were row houses.
At the next corner was the wide open space of the intersections of the western terminus of W Street, 15th Street, New Hampshire Avenue which began the second section of its southwest course toward downtown, and Florida Avenue which formed the southern boundary of Meridian Hill Park between 15th and 16th Streets. The Roosevelt Hotel was located on the east side of 16th Street between V Street and Florida Avenue. Behind the hotel, in the angle formed by New Hampshire and Florida Avenues, was a grassy area with some trees. The area was surrounded by a 3 to 4 foot high chain-link fence. We kids would play a form of hardball (baseball) there. We couldn't play in the flat area of upper Meridian Park because the Park Police would chase us if they saw us (more about that later). Maybe a third of us had gloves. There were usually two bats, one of which was always cracked but nailed and taped so it was still usable. The covers had long since departed from the ball which we covered with black friction tape. Our baseball field was adjacent to St. Andrew's Episcopal church, at the corner of New Hampshire and V Street.
None of my friends grew up in families that owned automobiles. Public transportation took us everywhere. As a consequence, there were no sports teams or leagues organized by adults (with the exception of a basketball league for Catholic 7th and 8th graders in DC, which came into existence while I was in 7th grade). This lack of organized sports caused us to center much of our after school activities in Meridian Hill Park. There were unwritten rules for the use of the park, and these rules were enforced to varying degrees (depending upon whom was on duty) by the U.S. Park Police. At the north end of the upper level were several croquet layouts which were used primarily by the senior citizens. The wickets were heavy-duty and were permanently left in place. South of the croquet layouts, the boys in our 7th and 8th grade classes would practice playing tackle football. One guy had shoulder pads and cleats, another two had helmets, someone else had a football, and that was the exte nt of our equipment. Our "practices" were laughable and usually ended-up in our choosing sides and playing a ragtag game. If we were lucky, the Park Police weren't patrolling. Occasionally, there would be a "good guy" on duty who would watch at a discrete distance and allow us to play as long as we weren't bothering anyone. About half the times, an officer would politely chase us off. Then we would disperse onto the paths behind the bushes and wait (and spy) until the policeman went down to the lower levels of the park. Then back to football.
Our games were on Saturdays and were played at the Ellipse fields on the Washington Monument grounds. One of our group would arrange a game with another group (I hesitate to call them teams) who might or might not show up at game time. No matter; there were always others like us at the Ellipse on Saturdays during football season. A game could always be had. (We played baseball in season also. I remember playing arranged and pickup games at Galludet College and at 16th and Kennedy Streets. But, back to football). We used the 14th Street streetcars to get the "team" downtown. Since it was Saturday, two or three of our parents would be finished with their Capital Transit passes for the week (they cost $1.25 and were good for unlimited fares from 5 A.M. on Sunday until 5 A.M. the next Sunday. One kid would get on and palm the pass back to the next one until the motorman caught on. In that case, the pass came out a window to one of us standing on the platform. If the streetcar w ere crowded, which it rarely was on Saturday mornings, we would try to get our teammates on by opening the middle door--unless someone snitched on us. It might take us 4 or 5 streetcars, but eventually, we'd get everyone transported.
My particular spot in Columbia Heights was 14th and Girard. I had several school buddies who lived in the 1400 block of Girard. There were several other kids in the same block who went to public school, and we all knew each other. I went to Central High with most of them. I remember that we played a weird form of touch football-either in Girard Street or most of the time in the alley behind the homes facing Girard and Harvard Streets. I say weird because of the rules. The "kickoff " was a pass (a kick was more likely to end up on the roof of a garage) and was always performed by the kid who could heave the ball farthest and highest. All plays, including the kickoff, were governed by a rule called "anytime--anywhere". This meant that the receiving team on the "kickoff" could throw a forward pass (one per kickoff) at any time before being touched by an opponent and from any point in the playing area. The same was true on scrimmage plays too. It made for difficult defense becaus e a player could start out running, and when the defense came up to tag him, he could throw a pass despite being several yards past the line of scrimmage. There was no limit to the number of lateral passes allowed.
Another game played in the alley was called "kick the tin can". In those days, aluminum cans had not been invented or the game probably would have been called "kick the aluminum can". It was a form of hide-and-go-seek. A tin can was placed on the manhole cover of the sanitary sewer where the alley I just described intersected with the alley behind 14th that connected Girard with Harvard. Someone was chosen to be "it". Everyone else went off to hide. The first two caught became the "it" person's helpers. All subsequent "catchee's" had to stay within a few feet of the can which was the home base. The search went on until all were caught. But, if one of the hiders were able to get to the can and kick it away before one of the 3 searchers got there, everyone that the 3 had caught got away. Hanging around the base was not allowed--so 2 would always be strategically placed to see any hider approaching the can--hopefully they would get back to the can first. The third person would try to flush out those in hiding.
I last saw 13th Street about 5 years ago, and it looked the same as I remembered it--primarily residences with a few churches interspersed. One vivid memory I have of 13th Street while in high school was of sitting on the wall at 13th and Clifton before school started. Back then (and still?) 13th was one-way downtown in the A.M. and one-way uptown in the P.M. The rest of the time it was two-way. This made for some interesting events at the crest of 13th Street hill. Cars would have been stopped by a traffic light a few blocks north. When the light turned green, a wave of cars would bear down on the crest of the hill. At least once a week, some unsuspecting soul would either not know or forget about the street being one-way. They would turn up the hill off of Florida Avenue or Belmont Street, and about halfway up would be faced with a solid phalanx of cars bearing down on them from the top of the hill. If far enough down, they would turn off onto Belmont. Otherwise, it was ei ther a quick U-turn or drive up on the sidewalk. Occasionally, there would be the squealing of tires, but I never remember a collision during my 4 years at Central.
I'll close this reminiscence by saying that when I saw it 5 years ago, the high school looked exactly as it did when I was a student. I hope that the current students at Cardoza will have as many happy memories of the school and of the neighborhood as I do.
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