The other day, alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther stumbled on a website called PittsburghDiary.com. (Don’t ask — I sure didn’t.)
Part of the site contained compelling stories about growing up in Westport during the 1940s and ’50s. They were lovingly written by someone named T. Comden.
“They say you can’t go home again,” she began.
But I have always been able to call up the images of the hometown of my childhood by merely closing my eyes. I’d go home in my mind.
I lived there from 1940 to 1962 and once I was old enough, and pedaled safe enough, was allowed free range through my neighborhood, and then Saugatuck and finally downtown and beyond. My bike was a clumsy street bike, and I stood on the pedals and panted my way up the “steep steep hills” as I remembered them!
My husband and I moved away from town as he followed his educational opportunities and then his career. We returned for visits to my family and his…and we watched the changes and photographed them with each visit.
T. Comden recalls the YMCA as “our crown jewel.” She was not a member — she was, after all, a girl — but she did attend Miss Comer’s dance class in the 2nd floor ballroom.
Aah, Miss Comers. She was elegant, in velvet gown, and her sister, Miss Elsie, played the piano on the stage. We were her students, in prom finery, and we learned to foxtrot and waltz, to samba and tango, to jitterbug.
Miss Comer polished Westport’s young elite. We learned the etiquette of formal dances with dance cards, bows and curtsies. Unfortunately, none of it stuck.
(My husband) Larry remembers going across the street to the Tally Ho for Cokes while waiting for his parents to pick him up; I remember dinner parties there preceding our dance lessons. I remember the excitement of climbing the Y steps in the early evening, in my long gown and white gloves, and feeling so grown-up and sophisticated!
Next to the Y was the firehouse. (Vestiges remain. A fireman’s pole in what is now the Weeks Pavilion leads from the upstairs cardio center to the downstairs weight machines.)
T. Comden says:
Besides the small corps of firemen, there were also volunteers. In the days before emergency radio communications, the location of fires was blown on a whistle at the fire station in a 3-numeral code, which could be heard all over town.
We knew the numbers for our immediate neighborhood by heart and had a complete list tacked to the cellar door so that we could look them up as we heard them. If a neighborhood number was called, we’d be off chasing the fire on our bikes. I remember several grass fires — oh! the excitement.
One fire we did not see happened at night: a truck burning on the Post Road. It was carrying a load of rubber cement. When the firemen opened the back of the truck it exploded, killing several firemen.
It was well discussed around our dinner table. My father knew the firemen. After that, fires did not seem as exciting or attractive.
The fire whistle was put to another use. It blew every afternoon at 5 p.m., signaling to the town’s children that it was time to go home.
She writes about the Fine Arts Theatre, Main Street — and Willowbrook Cemetery.
Larry grew up on Maplewood Avenue, which is just beyond the cemetery. The cemetery was his playground. The area where our plot is today was his ballfield back then.
Larry and his friends often took their dates up to the cemetery, and always, one would “hang” from one of the trees or leap out from behind a tombstone, scaring the girl into her date’s arms. It was better (and cheaper) than a scary movie!
One large tombstone, “Julia,”was horizontal and soaked up the sun all day. In the evening it reflected the warmth, and was a favorite rendezvous point in the cemetery.
T. Comden also describes the Saugatuck River (“an open sewer and all the awful offal flowed down to the Sound with each outgoing tide”), Staples High School (on Riverside Avenue), the railroad station, Saugatuck, the Gault gravel pit (now the Gault neighborhood off Imperial Avenue), the beaches and Longshore (back in the day, a private country club).
Wendy Crowther spent a lot of time wandering around T. Comden’s site. A Westport native herself, she loved the memories.
When she was done, Wendy clicked the “e-mail me” link to say “thanks.”
Quickly, she heard back — from Larry.
He told Wendy that his wife, T. Comden — “Tippi” — died October 10th.
Yet — thanks to Tippi Comden’s wonderful words, and the enormous, random reach of the internet — both she, and the Westport of her long-ago youth, live on.