I enter town by an alley off the railroad adjoining the parking lot for G&R Excavating and Demolition — “The Professional Homewreckers,” they call themselves. “No Job to Big or Small.” Sic. Walking into town on a quiet Sunday morning to use my sister-in-law’s computer, my route takes me along the railroad tracks and under I-99, where the 35-year-old overpass is undergoing extensive reconstruction. Workers have wrapped the massive steel girders with chainlink fence and covered that with burlap. It reminds me of a pupating caterpillar, the difference being of course that when it emerges from its chrysalis it will still be a highway bridge. I glance back at the end of our mountain, and see that it’s topped by a wisp of cloud that belies its diminuitive elevation: the sun-struck forest exhaling into the crisp morning air.
Just like Washington, DC and so many other towns and cities across the country, Tyrone’s main street is called Pennsylvania Avenue. It begins at the paper plant on the northeast end of town and ends at the faux train station, built about ten years ago with federal transportation money to house a small historical museum. The original train station was torn down a long time ago, like so many of Tyrone’s landmark structures. “No Outlet,” says the sign. I have a feeling many of the local teenagers would agree. There’s a real train platform a hundred yards beyond the station where the Amtrak stops twice a day, so escape is possible. I’ve tried it once or twice.
I pause to admire the old International Order of Odd Fellows building, now Fink Brothers Hardware — one of two hardware stores in a town of 5,000 people. This area is a handyman’s paradise; houses built during the railroad boom 150 years ago need a lot of upkeep, as I can attest. In the strong morning sun, the brick face of the IOOF looks implacable, eternal.
A stone’s throw away, one of the last two original buildings on the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street, the busiest intersection in town, is apparently slated for demolition. I walk around to the side and discover that it’s completely gutted. Across the street, the one-storey public library occupies the rebuilt, radically diminished shell of what had once been a grand, three-storey exemplar of 19th-century neo-classical elegance: the Jones Building. Tyrone is beginning to resemble a Hollywood set, full of false fronts.
My brother’s family lives on the next street up, Logan Avenue. It’s still on the “wrong side of the tracks,” but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the architecture. Most of the houses are well-kept, and as almost everywhere in Tyrone, the porches have a lived-in look. I’m always leery of taking pictures here, playing tourist in a place where too many people know too much about me, but most people are still in bed, and the streets are uncharacteristically empty.
This is not some desolate, sidewalk-deprived subdivision where houses are isolated by enormous lawns and the residents only detach themselves from their electronic umbilical cords for an occasional barbeque on the back deck. Tyrone is a classic American small town where everyone minds everyone else’s business, and you can’t do that if you’re sitting inside. Steve tells me that evenings can be quite eventful on his street, with all sorts of domestic dramas played out in full view of the neighbors. If I were a novelist, this is where I’d want to live. Rents are cheap.
The old YMCA building still stands; it’s been condemned for some time, but the present owner has some idea that it might not be totally beyond renovation. The sidewalk is blocked off, and I have to detour out into the street to walk around it. The keystone above the door bears the logo of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which paid for the building’s construction, and a faded yellow sign to the left of the door reads “Fallout Shelter.” Some parts of our history are easier to romanticize than others.
A block from my brother’s house, right beyond the Municipal Building, I spot a yard sign advertising G&R Excavating and Demolition. Right beyond, a cellar hole, and the shell of a half-demolished house. The interior walls are bright with pastel colors — yellow, blue, purple, peach, teal. I wonder about the children who grew up in those rooms, and what they’ll see when they pass this spot five or ten years from now.
Late that afternoon, as I’m leaving my brother’s place, he urges me to stop up and see the old Lincoln School, which both of us attended through sixth grade. “Nothing left on the one side but the two columns and the lintel,” he says. “It’s pretty impressive.” It takes me a moment to remember the correct street, which is odd considering that we walked to school from the post office every morning, where Dad dropped us off on his way to work at Penn State. I cross the single track of the Bald Eagle and Nittany Valley Railroad (it joins the main line right past the station), and it’s just half a block beyond.
In 12 years of public schooling, the only ones I’d describe as happy were spent here. I remember sitting out on these steps on pleasant mornings in the spring and autumn, waiting for the other kids to start arriving.
Lincoln School was originally constructed as a high school, and was the pride of the town when it was built. Among the houses that were torn down to make way for it was the birthplace and boyhood home of Fred Waring, “the man who taught America to sing.” When a larger high school was built in the 1950s, Lincoln became the place where all the elementary school kids from the outlying townships were bussed. It was also, for a few short years in the early 1970s, home to an alternative school-within-a-achool called the Non-Graded Program, which my brother and I both have very fond memories of. Two visionary teachers, assisted by a rotating cast of others and inspired by the Free School movement, strove to create a refuge from grading and from grade levels, where a 3rd grader with good communication skills could be in the same Language Arts class as a 5th grader, for example, and where no one would face neglect or condescension simply because she failed to perform well in the IQ test we’d all taken in the 1st grade. Though still quite a structured environment, there was a lot of spontaneity: on nice days, sometimes we’d drop everything and go on a group hike to Reservoir Park. And there was little of the bullying and meanness I’d seen in 1st and 2nd grade, before entering the program. It was a good time — until the federal funding ran out and the program was terminated, much to the delight, I’m sure, of the other elementary teachers in the system.
Ten years ago, when a new, consolidated elementary school was built on the far side of town, Lincoln was vacated. It’s a little unnerving now to look through empty windows where the gymnasium used to be and see the sky.
A big Cat crouches on the old playground, its metal claw at rest. This section of chainlink fence is much older than the rest; it was there when we attended recess decades ago. I remember once when one of the big girls from 6th grade grabbed me, as she and her friends had been doing for a few days running, to play with me like an animated doll. But she happened to go too near the fence. I kicked against it with both legs as hard as I could and my captor fell backwards onto the tarmac with me on top of her, and released her grip. I ran away as fast as I could. It was a very empowering experience.
I remember how we used to sing, to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,
We have broke into the office and have hung the principal…
But seeing the old jailhouse reduced nearly to rubble two days before the start of the new school year is strangely disheartening. There’s a big memorial plaque for Fred Waring on the street in front of the school now. I wonder if it will be joined by any sort of memorial for the school that took its place, where so many thousands of other kids, many of them no doubt as gifted as Waring, spent the better part of their childhoods staring out the windows and dreaming of escape?