During the 1950’s my late father was busy running around the alleys in Pittsburgh’s South Side Flats neighborhood. It was a typical big city atmosphere, where shop owners lived above their store fronts, everyone was within walking distance of their jobs and churches and small grocers popped up on every block to serve the needs of the community. For a few years when he was between eight and ten years of age (circa 1951-1953), Dad and his friends would occasionally see a older firefighter walking down their alley on his way to work.
Dad described him as a tall man in his early sixties, with a full head of silver hair under his hat. He didn’t know what his rank was within the firehouse, but based on the uniform he could tell he was one of the chiefs (There are a few of them in the United States anyway). When the man was wearing his long company overcoat during the colder months, he had these amazing gold buttons or clasps that would run down the entire front. Dad thought his uniform was really cool.
Dad never got his name, but he and his friends interacted with the firefighter enough to remember his voice and gait. They talked to the firefighter in the street when they were pushing toy cars off of a stoop, playing sports or just sitting around enjoying a nice day. When the man spoke to them, he came down to their level, never standing tall and hovering over them. These interactions were never more than a few minutes at a time since he was heading to work. Dad never saw him again after the age of ten or eleven, but he just assumed he retired. The old firehouse was down around South 21st Street, and the man was always walking east from S. 17th St. With all of the local grocers, churches, shoemakers, theaters, etc., people could live six short blocks from one another in 1950’s South Side and never meet.
Life went on. After graduating high school in 1961 Dad worked in downtown Pittsburgh at a few places and then decided to join the United States Navy in mid-1960’s. He came back home from the Navy in 1968 and continued living with his parents right off of the main street that runs through the South Side, East Carson Street. After being in Hawaii for two years one would think Dad would complain about coming back to a congested house in a congested neighborhood, but the constant buzz of cars, trucks and trains twenty-four hours a day didn’t bother him since he grew up in that environment.
It was a Monday night in October, 1970. Dad knew this because it was the first year ABC aired NFL’s Monday Night Football and he went out with a few friends to watch the game. It was probably the fourth or fifth Monday game because Dad remembered wearing a light jacket that night. The bar was on East Carson in between S. 14th and S. 15th Street. After the game was over around midnight, Dad set off east toward home, which was between S. 18th and S. 19th Street. The usual midnight buzz was around the neighborhood at the time, with trucks driving to and from the steel mills and workers walking to and from hospitals, steel mills and other jobs that required a nighttime presence.
Dad said it recently stopped raining that night when he set out for home, so a slight fog was in the air. With no wind in the air, it made for a nice walk home despite the oncoming changing of the seasons. He was walking alone because his other friends either stayed at the bar after the game, or lived in a different direction. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, but when Dad started walking down East Carson with his head down, he noticed everything was quiet.
The constant midnight buzz that I mentioned (and witnessed myself in early 1980’s) was silent. Dad picked his head up to see no street traffic, no pedestrians, no sounds of trains, nothing. Quiet. Up ahead on the same side of the street, Dad saw a silhouette of a person coming toward him. The wind suddenly picked up. As the person got closer, it was clear that it was an older man in his sixties with unkempt silver hair and he was wearing a long overcoat that was unbuttoned and flapping in the wind. He had a hurried gait like he was walking urgently without having to run to his destination.
Right before they crossed paths, Dad looked at the man. He looked familiar but he didn’t know why. The man then said, “Good evening.”
Dad replied in the same fashion, and in the few seconds after this encounter he figured out how he knew this person–from the voice of the man. It was the old firefighter from when he was a boy! But there was so much that was different about him from what he remembered! The voice was the same, but his hair was wildly out of control. He had the overcoat with the gold buttons but it wasn’t neatly buttoned as it used to be. The gait was the same, but the calm pace that the firefighter used to walk with was replaced with a pace of desperation.
Dad was also amazed that he didn’t age. The firefighter should have been around eighty by now and he was walking very fast for a person that old. When Dad turned around the catch up with the man, there was nobody there. A few seconds prior, they crossed paths in the middle of a block and now, the mysterious man had vanished. No businesses were open to enable a quick getaway off of the sidewalk and no apartment doors were nearby to quickly escape the cool weather.
While standing on the sidewalk in disbelief, Dad noticed that the wind that accompanied the man had dissipated, there was still fog outside (which didn’t make sense because the wind should have killed off the fog), people were walking all over the sidewalks again and all of the car, truck and train traffic had returned.
Dad continued to walk those same South Side streets until 1973 but he never saw the firefighter again. He was never afraid during that strange encounter in 1970. Dad felt that the firefighter wanted him to know that he remembered those innocent encounters years ago and was giving him a final goodbye before moving on.