LYING IN STICKY SHEETS under a blanket of hot, humid air, listening to a loud, mechanical "clack-clack-clack" noise in the distance, followed at predictable intervals by female screams -- horrific, primal screams, but in me they only evoked jealousy and grins . . . Only 35 years later, it is difficult to believe that those are memories of a suburban Washington boyhood and not the exotica of some far-away, long-away dream. The clack-clack- clack was made by a piece of machinery at the top of the third hill of the big roller coaster at Glen Echo Amusement Park; the screams came from passengers who, I knew from experience, were flinging their arms into the air -- an act of no real courage, since the safety bar on the seat held you firm -- as the old cars dropped like a full water pail down the steep inclines.
I grew up in Washington in the '40s and '50s -- only yesterday by any reasonable reading of the calendar, but several epochs ago when measured against the frenetic pace of development in this area and in this country.
Washington and environs have changed so thoroughly in 35 years that if it weren't for the monuments and memorials, a native of my age could fairly wonder if one were still in the same place. That Washington had no Beltway and no shopping malls; much of the Mall we did have was cluttered with "temporary" office buildings; there were four daily newspapers, but no really good restaurants -- except perhaps the original Hot Shoppes, which grew into the Marriott Corp.
I raised chickens in my back yard in Bethesda -- the neighbors were appalled to discover that the zoning rules did not forbid it. When I ran out of chicken feed, my mother and I mounted an expedition to darkest Virginia -- a place called Rosslyn, across Key Bridge. Thirty years ago Rosslyn was famous for its Purina feed store and a long row of one-story loan companies and pawnshops (Washington's usury laws drove them to Virginia). I bought my trombone at one of the pawnshops.
Striking as the physical changes have been, though, I suspect this era will be remembered by historians for the social changes it brought, not for the highways and high-rises. The Washington I grew up in was for whites only. It was a southern town in the era of American apartheid -- populated with lots of of black people, of course, but they seemed to know "their place."
My first home was an apartment in Arlington off the Arlington Ridge Road. I lived there from 1943 to 1949. Some of my earliest memories involve features of the war -- taking bacon fat back to the Safeway with my mother ("They make soap out of it for the soldiers," she told me), and coloring the white margarine with a bright orange dye that came with it in a tiny envelope.
MY REAL INTRODUCTION to the city of Washington and its black residents came on my visits to Griffith Stadium, a magnificent palace of athletic culture at Florida and Georgia avenues NW, the site of the Howard University Hospital today. This was a marvelous place to watch baseball or football -- just 26,000 seats snuggled around a well- kept field, and a few thousand more for Redskins games in the fall when they moved extra bleachers into right field. I can visualize Griffith Stadium almost as precisely as that house I grew up in on Wilson Lane, a mile from Glen Echo.
The stadium was in what seemed to a suburban kid to be a strange and exotic neighborhood. The bakery on Georgia Avenue that's still there often put a wonderful smell in the air, and on Sundays, before a double-header or a Redskins game, you could hear gospel music from the storefront churches. Once I remember peeking inside one of those little churches on Georgia Avenue. I saw a crowd of black people in golden robes, their faces glistening with sweat as they thumped out their love for the Lord.
My identification with the Washington Senators was a central part of my identity as a 10- and 11-year-old. I cared deeply about their fate -- a virtually permanent source of frustration. But a Senators fan learned important lessons -- for example, the discovery that my heroes were simultaneously wonderful, exciting, truly heroic figures, and also mediocre baseball players. My Mickey Vernon, my Eddie Yost, my Gil Coan could never finish in the first division of the old eight-team American league, let alone at the top of it. This was a lesson in life's limits. I hated it, but I learned it.
My love of sports in those years also introduced me to one of life's more tantalizing possibilities, one I met on the sports page of this newspaper under the title "This Morning." It was Shirley Povich's daily column, an essay on the human condition as often as an analysis of some sporting endeavor. It was the first journalism that spoke to me in a direct, personal way, and it made a permanent impression.
Povich brought the race issue home in a way that a white kid could understand. He devoted many columns to a personal crusade against George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Redskins who for years refused to hire any black football players. Those columns still make marvelous reading. In a typical one, Povich wrote about a black halfback, Bob Gaiters of New Mexico State, whom Marshall refused to draft: "(Gaiters) was born ineligible for the Redskins, whose colors are inflexibly burgundy, gold and Caucasian. Gaiters is a Negro."
On another occasion Povich noted that "The Redskins' end zone has frequently been integrated by Negro players, but never their lineup." Marshall eventually succumbed, not to Povich, but to Stewart Udall, John F. Kennedy's secretary of the interior, who threatened to ban the Redskins from Washington's new, federally owned stadium unless they integrated. That threat brought Bobby Mitchell to town.
MY LIFELINE to the Big World from Wilson Lane in Bethesda was the Cabin John streetcar, an underappreciated urban amenity that was allowed to die prematurely. For 17 cents originally, if memory serves, and 21 or 22 cents later, we could ride the streetcar all the way to Union Station, a trip of about 40 minutes along the C & O Canal, through Georgetown and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Occasionally a few of us would take the streetcar downtown to a movie. I don't think we had anyone's permission to do this, we just did it. The first time was to see a movie called "The Robe," one of the first Cinemascope color spectaculars, at RKO Keith's on 15th Street. Other times we went to the Capitol and the Palace on F Street -- two splendid monuments to the baroque age of movies and vaudeville later destroyed in the e of progress.
The Glen Echo Amusement Park was our neighbor thanks to the same Capitol Transit Co. that owned the streetcar line. Like many American amusement parks of its vintage, it was built by the transit company as a way to generate revenue. All summer long the streetcars disgorged city residents (that is, white city residents) outside the main gate to the park.
For us Glen Echo was a neighborhood amenity. We learned to swim in the pool there, though the polio scare kept us away for a couple of years. We drove dodg'em cars the way some kids mastered their scooters, and I learned the bumps and dips on the roller coaster so well that it eventually lost its kick for me -- not that I ever admitted this.
Eerily, Glen Echo is still there; only the rides and stands have been removed. (The Carousel still turns, a forlorn reminder of what used to be.) I've walked around the asphalt more than once as a grown man, remembering moments and people in sharp detail, all the time hearing the girls screaming from the now-gone roller coaster.
IN 1959, after four years in Albany, N.Y., I returned to a Washington in the throes of racial integration. Like the Redskins, it was still far from succeeding in abolishing the color lines of my youth.
In the summer of 1960 I sporadically joined picket lines around two of my old haunts: one at Glen Echo, the other at the Hiser Theater on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Both establishments refused to admit blacks, and a lot of my childhood friends from the Wilson Lane neighborhood had joined a group of black kids to picket them. We had a great time yelling back at passing drivers who shouted obscenities at us. That was the summer John F. Kennedy was nominated for president, and we all felt the '60s in the air, though of course we knew nothing of what was coming at the time.
I was talking about this the other day with Darro, who moved into the Wilson Lane neighborhood in sixth grade and was one of the leaders of the picketing six years later. We recalled how heroic we all felt at the time, standing up for what was Right -- and ultimately contributing to the integration of Glen Echo and to John Hiser's decision to sell his movie theater.
David, now a lawyer with the Postal Service, also told me how it felt in the summer of 1966 when he came back to Washington after four years of college and two years in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps: "I was standing in line at the cashier in the Hot Shoppe, when a young black fellow just cut in front of me. He didn't look around to say excuse me -- he acted just like any rude white man. I stood there waiting for him to turn around and look apologetic, but he didn't. And I realized that the situation had really changed."
The image of a young black man sufficiently liberated to cut into a line seems appropriately ambiguous. The Washington I live in today is still divided along racial lines; our dreams on those picket lines in the summer of 1960 are still unrealized. But I take comfort from the thought that your skin color no longer dictates how rude you can be. And it is pleasing to see that the city government that I covered just 17 years ago, when it was still almost totally white, is now run at least as well by blacks.
This community has passed through truly historic changes in these 35 years, even if much remains undone.