An odyssey is defined as a long series of wanderings or adventures filled with notable experiences. Our North Baltimore odyssey of walking to and from school lasted for nearly a decade, surely qualifying it as a long series of wanderings. Similarly, our odyssey was filled with many notable experiences. Of course, they weren’t the cyclopses, witches, sirens and gods encountered in Homer’s Odyssey, but they seemed quite exciting to us.
The Beecher Street kids began by walking to Powell School for grades 1-4. Initially, our assignment was to walk along Broadway and turn right on Main Street leading us straight to school. Fairly quickly, we began to explore other routes leading to Powell School. I can remember exploring overgrown areas along Cherry Street in the early fall and picking milkweed pods and counting wooly worms. Soon our adventures became so bold as to walk along the railroad tracks. One time we actually found a dollar bill along the tracks. It seemed as if we had won the lottery.
By fourth grade, we had achieved such a high level of responsibility that we served as the safety patrol for the kindergarten students walking to Powell School. We each had a reflective belt that signified our rank. Ron Bean, another member of the Beecher Street gang, was selected as the Safety Patrol Captain and he received a trophy at a countywide banquet; we were all impressed by Ron’s trophy. As another example of our fourth grade maturity, we were allowed to ride our bikes to school during the last two weeks of the academic year at Powell School. I can still remember the freedom of pedaling to school on our bikes; Easy Rider didn’t have anything on us!
More exciting than our morning walks to school were our leisurely strolls home. Some days, we walked along Main Street to Aikens’ IGA. We each had a nickel left as change from our lunch money. We would march into the grocery store straight to the old-fashioned Coke machine. After inserting our nickel, we would open a door and grasp the neck of a glass Coke bottle. We pulled the bottle out and popped the lid in a built-in bottle opener. The bottles were quite small; we were able to chug the entire bottle, burp loudly, and then replace the empty bottle in a wooden crate. After the pop was finished, we always headed to the meat department to say hi to the butcher, Ron McGarvey, who always had a friendly word for us.
By sixth grade, we were walking to another school: the Main School on Second Street. This provided new escapades for us. My favorite memory was stopping at Weith’s store in the morning before school. Our most important purchase was the spiral-bound North Baltimore Tiger notebooks for 69 cents. I was so proud to have a notebook emblazoned with a Tiger and my school’s name. Best of all, the notebooks came in many colors; my personal favorite was orange representing NBHS school colors. While we were at Weith’s, we usually ordered a quarter pound of our favorite candy to tide us through the school day. During an especially warm spring day, a squirt gun might also be added to the purchase; sometimes they came in handy during study hall or school lunches. Unfortunately, any morning that started with the purchase of a squirt gun was likely to end in after-school detention.
From my perspective, one of the very best things about growing up in NB was walking to and from school. We were never in a hurry; we always had time to explore or meet new people along our journey. We created our own odyssey, and practiced our storytelling skills, as we fabricated ghost tales or urban legends about people in our town. In my memory, our fictitious stories seem every bit as scary as Homer’s witches, sirens, and gods. And just Homer as described many centuries ago, our adventures met the ultimate benchmark of all great odysseys: “A decent boldness ever meets with friends.”