Culm, slate banks provided some good not-so-clean fun
Kids can sometimes be a pain in the neck (and possibly elsewhere), but you have to hand it to them. They are resourceful. They can play virtually everywhere.
If they live in the Sahara Desert, they have the world's biggest sandbox. Kids in northern Alaska can have snowball fights virtually the entire year.
Coal region kids were also able to enjoy their environment even if it consisted of strip mines, mining roads, colliery ruins and banks of coal byproducts such as slate and culm.
I didn't realize it until much later, but I had it a heck of a lot easier than my grandfather and namesake. When he was a kid of 8 or 9, he worked in a breaker picking out slate from a rush of anthracite coal. When I was that age, I got to run around on the slate banks that he helped to create.
We usually found our fun in the playgrounds, school yards, streets and sandlot fields. It was a challenge trying to avoid being impaled on the fin of some gigantic car from the '50s while playing tag football on the street.
There was the excitement of risk of being grilled sliding down a griddle-hot sliding board on an August afternoon.
But there were days when I wanted to explore the different dangers that lay on the mountains and other areas outside of town. Anthracite deep mining had pretty much stopped and there were only a few strip-mine operations, but the landscape offered unique challenges.
One of these exciting pastimes was descending the steep hillsides that were covered with shale and other coal mining waste. These slopes were also bare of vegetation, so there was nothing to grab onto to slow my descent.
I couldn't even depend on the larger rocks as I careened out of control downhill. I would grab onto a particularly safe-looking, sturdy stone and find myself even more out of control as I ran and stumbled down the hill - carrying a big piece of rock.
Dad taught my two brothers and me a safe way of navigating downhill. We would descend sideways as we dug in the inside and outside of our sneakers into the shale and dirt.
It might have taken a few minutes to shake out all of the coal dirt from my sneakers, but it was worth it.
Once in a while, I liked to throw caution to the wind and head straight downhill as fast as possible. (I am still going downhill at a rapid rate, but that is another matter.)
There was a big culm bank that overlooked the field where we played junior league baseball. I started down that hill and soon my legs were moving faster than the rest of me.
The momentum carried me over the fence that surrounded the field.
It was the only time I ever got anything over the fence and it happened to be me and not a baseball - and I was heading in the wrong direction.
Running down culm banks had a special bonus for my friends and me. When we got home that night, once-white socks and sneakers were black.
For a pasty white kid like me, my coal-darkened feet and legs were the closest I ever got to having a tan.
By the time my brothers and I got done taking our baths, there was an inch or so of coal sediment in the tub and the ring could be removed only with industrial-grade sand paper.
While the lower reaches of the hills which bracketed our town along its north and south borders were devoid of much plant life, the mining-scarred areas did have their attractions.
My friend Leonidas and I once ran into an elderly guy who was known to seek refreshment from alcoholic beverages while sitting in the shade of one of the very few trees on the hillside.
One look at the guy, who was called "Willie Lump Lump" in honor of Red Skelton's drunk character, got Leonidas and me turned around in a hurry and we didn't stop running until we got to Leonidas' house and hid under the back porch.
Our moms made sure that we were warned repeatedly about staying away from mine shafts and air holes. As my mother used to say, "The first step is a doozy."
There weren't any caves on the hillside that I knew of, but the huge rocks left from strip mining operations allowed Leonidas, me and the other guys to pretend there was a cave when boulders were piled together, leaving a kid-size space underneath.
Of course, the hills were not desolate. Higher up there were plenty of trees, a fresh-water spring or two, and the town's two reservoirs, viewable only between the links and barbed wire of a high fence.
The sand spring that fed the reservoirs was my favorite place on the mountain. I could use my cupped hands to drink the clear, cold water and relax under a canopy of pine trees.
But that wasn't the best part. That was thinking about how dirty I could get running down the culm and slate bank to get back into town.
(Walt Kozlowski, a freelance writer from Mount Carmel, composes "Walt's Way" for each Sunday edition.)