Petey and I
I am a Pittsburgh native, born in the mid-1950s. I went to grade school, high school, college and medical school in Oakland. I didn’t buy a car until the fourth year of medical school as I walked or biked to most of my destinations. If I was going someplace where I needed to drive, I borrowed the family car. I don’t get back to Pittsburgh much these days, but I have the fondest memories of growing up there, and Oakland specifically.
Oakland was a neighborhood then, occupied by families that knew one another. If I came home from school and was locked out of the house, I’d go next door to the Jaworski’s house to wait for my mom or dad to come home from work. While there, Mrs. Jaworski would insist that I eat something. I did, as it would been an insult to not do so. And there was a sense of safety in the neighborhood, so that my parents wanted me to be outside, playing.
On weekends and in the summer, my parents did not want me in the house.
“Go out and play and don’t come home until dinner.”
So, I did. I loved the freedom of having an open canvas of a day, ready to be painted with adventures fueled by lack of supervision, creativity and invincibility, including ones that my parents would never find out about. Fifty-three years later, one experience is indelible.
There was constant construction in Oakland, my neighborhood throughout my childhood in the 1960s: resurfacing streets, refurbishing old and building new buildings. These jobs needed cement. One cement company parked their trucks around the corner from St. Regis School along Swinburne Street, a long, winding two-lane road that extended from South Oakland into the part of Greenfield called “The Run.”
A friend I will call “Petey” was a classmate from first through eighth grades at St. Regis Grade school in Oakland. He saw rules about what not to do as opportunities, not limits. And I was drawn to the opportunities he presented.
One evening as I was loafing with friends, Petey pulled me aside and said, “There are some cement trucks down Swinburne Street. Let’s go check them out.”
“OK,” I said. “What about everyone else?”
“Let’s not tell everyone, yet. If we all go then we’ll get busted for sure. If it’s a cool thing, we’ll tell everyone.” Petey could be so convincing.
Petey often asked me first to try something new, as I was almost always up for a dare, whereas the others were less daring—or smarter.
“Hey, I have to go get something at my house,” Petey said to the gang. “I’ll be right back. Al, walk over with me.”
“You need him to hold your hand?” said Anthony.
“F— you,” said Petey as we walked away. It was dusk. I had to be home in about 45 minutes.
The cement trucks were in a yard enclosed by a locked chain-linked fence. The trucks’ cabs were locked, so we couldn’t go into the cab, press on the pedals, turn the steering wheel and pretend we were driving. Instead, we climbed to the top of the drum of one truck. We looked down the chute into the blackness of the drum into which workers poured the dry cement and water.
“I wonder what it’s like inside the drum,” I said. “Let’s find out.”
“I’ll do it if you go first,” said Petey.
We shared an attraction for adventure and could be dared into doing stupid things.
I slid feet first down the chute, into the drum, into blackness. My arms had to be up over my head to be able to fit down the chute. The significance of this didn’t occur to me at the time, nor did the fact that the surface of the chute was smooth which eased the descent into the drum. It was cool to be the first one to do something, for bragging rights. Petey slid down right after me.
“This is smaller than I thought,” I said.
We couldn’t stand up. We sat crouched with our knees near our faces. It smelled like concrete. Our clothes were covered with concrete powder. We pushed ourselves up the side of the drum to stay out of the several inches of water setting at the bottom. There was a spiral blade-like structure on the inside so we each sat on it as a seat.
“Isn’t this cool?” We nodded.
“Yeah. This is a great hiding place,” we agreed, looking around. But there was nothing to see as it was now dark outside and no light was coming in.
“It’s tight in here,” I said.
“OK. Let’s climb out.”
The opening at the bottom of the chute was smaller than at the top, and as gravity aided our descent into the drum, it was now our enemy. Sliding down, the chute barely allowed our bodies to pass through, arms overhead. It was not designed with the idea that anyone would be climbing out. And, the chute was smooth, designed to pour water and cement in, and wet cement out, and there was nothing to hold onto or push against to help us climb out.
“How do we climb out of this thing?” we asked, looking at each other, not panicking but surprised by how small the hole at the bottom of the chute was.
“I can’t believe we even fit coming down.”
I shimmied back through the bottom of the chute, arms first and pushed up with my feet, slipping in the water. I tried to push up with my legs but there was no traction.
“My feet keep slipping, and there’s nothing to push against or grab onto,” I said.
“Let me try,” said Petey, but he got no farther.
We resumed our squatting positions.
“Now what?” Petey asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I wish we had a flashlight. My mother is going to kill me.”
“First we have to get out of this trap before that happens,” Petey said.
That didn’t help. I was getting scared.
Each time I looked at the hole in the bottom of the chute it got smaller, and with it being dark outside we could barely see the bottom of the chute.
I yelled up the chute a few times: “Help! Help! We’re stuck in here.”
“Who are you yelling to?” Petey asked. “The chance that anyone will hear us now is zero. There are no houses or buildings close to us. And we climbed the fence to get in here. The only people who come here are the cement truck drivers in the morning. We may have to wait until morning and when we hear them, we start to yell.”
“Oh, so that’s your plan?” I asked. “Wait ’til tomorrow and hope they hear us? What if they don’t come tomorrow? We have to get out of this truck before they start rotating this thing and filling it up with water and cement in the morning. We’ll drown in here. I’m not sitting here and waiting for that. I don’t like small spaces to begin with. I’ll go crazy.”
I looked at the bottom of the chute.
“This time I’ll try like I did before and squirm up as far as I can. Then you push my feet and boost me up when I tell you to. Once I get to the top, I’ll grab something and pull myself up. But you have to keep your hands on my feet so I have something to push against.”
“If you get out what about me?” Pete asked. “Who pushes on my feet?”
“You do the same that I did, except I’ll reach down and grab your hands and pull you up.”
“But I won’t have anything to push my feet against.”
“Quit complaining and just try this. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”
I squirmed up the chute. My nose touched against the surface of the chute. I was breathing in cement particles and could feel my breath back in my face. I felt like I was suffocating.
When I tried to slightly bend my knees they bumped against the chute. My thighs were rubbing against the sides of the chute, as were my arms. Once in the chute, I could only push down with my toes and that didn’t get me very far.
“OK, Petey. Push,” I said, hearing my muffled voice echo in the chute.
Petey gave me a push upward, and I still couldn’t feel anything with my hands that would allow me to pull up.
“Higher, Petey. Higher. I’m nowhere near the top.” I couldn’t feel him pushing.
“Petey. What the f— are you doing? Pull me down or push me up. I’m stuck.”
Petey started to tug at my feet. No movement. I was stuck.
“Petey. I’m not kidding: I’m really stuck. I can’t move up or down.”
I couldn’t hear what Petey was saying. It was muffled.
He gave me another push and the top half of my fingers reached the top of the chute. With my fingers now around the edge of the chute, I could pull myself up a few inches. But I still couldn’t bend my elbows. I needed another foot or so to get them out of the chute.
My shoulders were burning. The chute felt like it was wrapping itself tighter around my legs and arms like a boa constrictor. That wasn’t a good image. My mouth was full of dust.
“Petey, I’m still stuck. I can’t go any more.”
Then, nothing. No sound from Petey, no pushing, for what seemed like minutes.
I just lay there, stuck, exhausted and frightened. Maybe we should have waited until the morning.
I couldn’t yell any more. Each time I opened my mouth more cement powder dropped in. “I’m going to have concrete in my lungs,” I thought. My nostrils were full of powder. And I couldn’t hear Petey.
Meanwhile, Petey was lying at the foot of the chute, exhausted. He was kneeling in the water and he stopped pushing because he couldn’t get any more traction.
I prayed: “Please, God, get me out of this. I swear I’ll never do anything this stupid again.”
My fingers were being rubbed raw as I continued trying to pull up, using the strength of my fingers alone. I was probably six inches from being able to get my elbows outside the chute.
Petey gave me another push and in doing so he was now stuck in the bottom of the chute, having pushed himself in so far that he couldn’t crawl out backward. And whereas I was facing up, Petey was facing down, nose against the chute.
With this last push I was able to get my elbows above the top of the chute and over the next few minutes I pulled myself out.
“OK, Petey. I’m out.”
I looked down the chute. He was lying face down, arms over his head.
He was yelling. It was muffled.
“Get me out! I’m stuck and can’t breathe.”
I remembered that Petey had asthma. I didn’t know what that was, only that he had to go to the emergency room every once in a while, when he had trouble breathing.
“Push up. I’ll reach down and grab you and pull you up.”
“Push up my ass,” he said. “I’m pushing and can’t go any farther.”
I reached down. Our hands didn’t touch.
“C’mon, Petey. Push up. You’re almost there.”
“I told you. I can’t push any further!” Petey yelled, near desperation, his voice sounding raspy and weaker.
We were still a foot apart and I couldn’t get further down into the chute without falling back in. And that would make things worse.
“Petey, hang on. Let me see if I can find something to pass down to you to pull you up.”
“Hang on? Where the hell else am I gonna go? Get me out.”
I climbed down to the ground. There was a shovel.
I tried to climb back up to the top of the drum but my legs were shaking. They had no strength. I couldn’t climb the ladder back to the top. I got to the first rung of the ladder on the side of the truck, put one foot up, put one arm over the fourth rung of the ladder and hoisted myself up while holding the shovel. I was breathing hard. I repeated this maneuver as fast as I could, my arms doing most of the work, and I made it, crawling over to the top of the chute.
“Petey. I’m back.”
“Where have you been? Hurry up. My arms are getting numb. And I can’t breathe.”
“OK, Petey. Grab onto this shovel as tight as you can.”
I pushed the shovel handle down into Petey’s hands. He grabbed the handle and I pulled up on the shovel leaning back as far as I could without falling off the drum. I was able to get him up six inches. I pulled repeatedly until we grabbed hands. Then I set my belly on the top of the drum, reached in the chute and pulled him out until he could get his elbows out. I helped pull him out the rest of the way. We flopped on top of the drum, lying like wet dishrags.
We lay there for several minutes, unable to move or speak, shaking and looking at each other. We were covered in white cement powder. My fingers were cut. Our faces were scraped. Petey was coughing and wheezing.
“I’m having an asthma attack,” he said.
“Let’s get out of here.”
We fell as much as climbed down the ladder.
We started to walk up Swinburne Street. We wrapped our arms over each other’s shoulders. At the top of the hill, we stopped and looked at each other. We realized we had been through a dangerous situation of our own making, but we rescued each other.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” I asked. I heard him wheezing. That was new.
“No,” he said, “I’ll be OK,” already knowing that he wasn’t OK.
“Sure?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’m OK. Don’t worry about it.”
I wanted to say something else, funny or important, but all that came out was, “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. See you tomorrow,” he replied.
He turned left at the end of the street to go to his house; I turned right to go to mine.
I got home after my curfew. My mother asked what had happened to me. I told her I was playing in a yard and fell into a pile of concrete stuff. Which wasn’t a complete lie. I was grounded for two nights.
I didn’t see Petey the next day. He was hospitalized for three days with an asthma attack.
We didn’t go near those trucks again. We didn’t tell anyone about what happened either, as we were embarrassed at our stupidity. As time went on, however, the thought occurred: I did get out of the cement truck, didn’t I? I could get myself out of a jam. I didn’t need protection. Yes, I took risks, but I knew what I was doing. I wouldn’t go too far the next time.
Petey and I shared an affinity for daring and adventure, but we started at different baselines and had different tolerances for illegality and potential consequences. This was evident as early as the 6th grade when we started loafing together. I told him when I disagreed with some of his ideas that I thought were too dangerous or too illegal, but he shrugged off my advice. Once he made up his mind, he didn’t care what I or others thought. He didn’t need a partner.
Our lives were a Venn diagram with the overlap consisting of football, baseball, pin ball machines, girls, riding bikes and doing things we weren’t supposed to do. Over time Petey could have pulled me further into a larger overlap with his orbit of more stupid, dangerous and illegal activities, but not wanting to disappoint my parents kept me out of a lot of trouble. On the other hand, I didn’t pull Petey closer into my sphere, for example, to do better in school. He was a smart kid, no doubt. He either didn’t care about school, didn’t apply himself, no one expected enough of him, or all the above.
Our trajectories diverged after grade school. He moved to another part of Pittsburgh, and the years passed. I always wondered what had become of him, and if he remembered our cement truck excursion. Not long ago, I tried to contact Petey and learned that he passed away prematurely. I was sorry to hear it, of course, but I wasn’t completely surprised.
We all make decisions that affect our lives fundamentally. I have been lucky. And blessed. I became a physician, working with teenagers specifically, trying to keep them from making decisions that could have adverse, life-altering consequences—like climbing into the drum of a cement truck. None of the teenagers I’ve seen over the years has ever mentioned a stunt like that. After all, who would do such a stupid thing?