My “Thunder Road”

Liberty Road and Baltimore Beltway in 1962. In the upper right portion of the image, the road jogs left. To the left of that was my neighborhood.

Liberty Road Westbound in 1969, 5:32 p.m. commuter traffic.

I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore. When my family moved there in 1961 (before I was born), it was quite rural. By the time I hit puberty, the surrounding area had become a strip-zoned hell. There were still some green spaces left, if one knew where to look. I won’t go back now because I’m sure pretty much everything is paved. There is one place, however, that I am sure is still green. A family in my neighborhood donated it to the county with the stipulation that it be kept green in perpetuity. It had been their horse pasture.

My street was easy to miss when speeding past. Two dead end tertiary roads met to produce a loop; both were paved with tar and gravel. The houses on my street were all cookie cutter post-war brick colonials. So far as cookie cutter houses go, they were pretty nice, all set on a quarter acre: paradise to a working-class World War II veteran and his baby-boom family. There was a mixture of working-class and middle class families, but the middle class folks moved out and left the working classes to themselves as apartment complexes and strip malls encroached. County-level corruption in zoning is an underrated white-collar crime. Small businesses and houses yielded to McDonald’s and liquor stores. Ironically, we stayed because it was our home.

When I say working class, I mean wage-earning union folk. When I say middle class, I mean owners of the means of production. We didn’t own any stock in anything, and my father routinely turned down promotions to management. We trusted in the FDIC and Social Security. He was an FDR democrat, a union man, a shop steward, a proud member of the proletariat. The family with the horse farm (“rich” in my childhood lexicon, but it was only a few acres with a barn) left in the early 1970s. I remember their name even though I was just a shorty: Trumbauer. Mr. and Mrs. Trumbauer had accents, and my father was cordial to them but didn’t like me hanging out with the older Trumbauer kids.f. I thought it was because Mr. Trumbauer was rich and my Dad was a union man, but it was because Mr. Trumbauer was German and my father was a war hero. Having been present at the liberation of Dachau, my father moved us to a Jewish neighborhood. I don’t think Mr. Trumbauer was Jewish.

Mr. Trumbauer must have been far richer than I understood, or just a far better man than his ethnicity led my father to think he was. When he moved from his cookie cutter to the gods know where, he fought a battle with the county government. Seeing the writing on the wall (as perhaps a refugee from Germany might have been uniquely qualified to do), he wanted the boomer kids in the neighborhood to have a green place to play, so he gave away his horse farm. The county didn’t want to take it because Mr. Trumbauer insisted that it never be developed it. Later, in law school, I found this strange. I learned that such prohibitions were unenforceable, but someone must have budged because the field is now a county park boasting community gardens.

Before the gardens, while the land was in legal limbo, my world started changing. I was an unhappy teenager, profoundly bored in public school and acting out. I got my kicks by sneaking out at night to hang with dubious sorts who seemed dangerous and worldly to me, a fourteen year-old kid. The Trumbauer barn was still there in 1979, and a popular hang out spot occupied the area between the barn and the woods behind it, hidden from the road. Most nights, that little patch of defiance was packed with muscle cars blaring The Boss and Dire Straits, its denizens engaging in the illicit pleasures of the time: drinking beer, smoking a little weed, making-out, listening to music. No heroin, crack, or guns; just boomers from the middle and end of the generation trying to hold onto the peace and love thing.

The police busted us one night. I had been caught out that late once before (being out after midnight as a fourteen year-old was a hanging offense in my family), and I was not keen to repeat the experience, so I ran (or in the lingo of the time, I booked out of there). I couldn’t make it to the woods despite being a sprinter because the fuzz surprised us by driving through the woods, so I ran toward the road, the barn giving me a few seconds head start. I ran to the darkest part of the field and just dropped. I flattened out in a slight depression about 100 yards from the barn. The police flashed their spotlight repeatedly in my direction, but I remained so very still; I was one with the ground. I had just read Huckleberry Finn, and all I could think about was Huck observing that when one must be still everything starts itching at once. I became Huck Finn, a blade of grass plagued with phantom itches and twitches.

To this day, I don’t know if the police saw me and thought my attempt to hide in plain sight was so ridiculous that they let me think I had gotten away with something, whether they thought my jean jacket was just a piece of detritus containing no miscreant teenager, or whether they just weren’t that interested in teenagers playing at being grown up the summer before high school. It might have been The Boss: “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” was my invisibility cloak.

I like to think I fooled them with my brazen stealthiness and quick thinking; I like to think Huck was right about acquiring functional invisibility through staying absolutely still in the grass. I want to thank Mr. Trumbauer for that memory, but I am quite sure that running from the cops wasn’t what he had in mind when he fought a legal battle to preserve a green space for the working-class children of World War II veterans.

History of the region: http://www.bcplonline.org/community/history-randallstown

To reserve a plot: http://www.libertyroadrecreation.com

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Filed under Autobiography, Baltimore, Memory, Teenage years

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