Bill Eggert

Recently, I got a call from an old friend, Jim B. I have known Jim and his wife Patty for several years, and Jim and I go back to grade school days at St. Benedict, when the nuns were teaching students. 

Maybe it was the news that the Richland Bowl was put up for sale that had Jim and I waxing nostalgic about the “good old days” of Richland and how much – or how little – Richland has changed over the ensuing decades.

Jim and I discussed how the development in our neighborhood sprung up in the 1950s, from extensive farmland to newly minted neighborhoods of Cape Cod houses. I mentioned developer Jake Hoffman, who gave a discount to home owners who helped to build their own houses, folks like my dad and Jim’s dad. Jim said that they should build a statue to Hoffman for his contribution to Richland’s development, and I agreed.

Looking at old black-and-white family photos, I am reminded of how much of our neighborhood had yet to be built. There were empty lots all around us. It was weird looking at familiar land with no houses on them. It reminded me of a scene in “Back to the Future,” where Michael J. Fox goes back in time 30 years and goes to his folks’ home, only to see farmland, no houses and a sign announcing his neighborhood to be built soon. It caught me emotionally when I saw it – I guess because it reminded me of home.

Drawing on the memory banks, I reminisced about life back then. A whirlwind of memories of summer days: blue skies, warm breezes, playing in our backyard. The anticipation of the familiar bell and music that signaled the approach of the ice cream truck, which magically pulled kids from their houses and yards like the Pied Piper. The ice cream truck was the high point of our day back then.

We lived not too far from the airport, and our backyard must have been in the flight path of planes approaching it. One of my favorite memories was reading comic books on a sunny day, listening to the purr of airplane motors as they flew overhead. 

One eventful day I looked up and saw a Navy blimp fly over. I had never seen one before, so it was Mom who explained to me what it was. One Saturday, Dad took me to the airport, and a buddy of his from the mill took Dad and me up in his Piper Cub and flew us over our neighborhood, much to Mom’s dismay. As a small child, it was the thrill of a lifetime. As an adult, I would pass on the experience. But I have loved airplanes since childhood – from the ground, at least.

While much of Richland still looks the same, topography-wise, many of the businesses have changed.

Mr. Muffler used to be the Richland firehall. KFC occupies the land where Stuver’s once stood. Giant Eagle occupies the space of Gee Bee’s, and Sears used to occupy the space of Big Lots and all the stores there. Walmart occupies the area that was once the Richland Mall, and before that was the beloved Richland Drive-In movie lot. 

My fellow classmates and myself attended both “old” Richland High Schools: the one where East Hills Medical Center is now and the one near the police station, now a community college. A drugstore occupies the lot once the locale of the Jolly Roger drive-in. The commercial hub of Richland back then was the Bel-Air Plaza, which had Grants, Thrift Drugs, the Village Dairy, Acme Supermarket and Scotts/Masons/ and now Value-It.

Thinking back on those times, I cannot help but feel a bit of melancholy at the passing years. Years that are lost except to our memories. Memories of family members, and old friends like J.T., his father John and other neighbors who are gone as well. 

Life seemed so much simpler then. The air seemed cleaner, the skies bluer, the nights so dark, bereft of light pollution, that you could count thousands of stars on a clear summer night. 

It would be nice to be able to go back in time just for a day and experience those halcyon days of childhood summers. Then my only concern was collecting baseball cards and comic books, throwing the baseball and Frisbee around and riding my bike down to the Bel-Air Plaza. 

It was a great time back then, or so it seemed.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He can be reached at Eggert2020@live.com. He writes an occasional column.

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