Brightside from the air: the whistle, prisoners of war and a house on fire

I like to capture these aerial shots of the homes that are meaningful to me in case they are ever razed (like the Colonial Park house was) or the neighborhood changes so much that a comparison might someday be instructive. That way, folks in the future can see how the houses looked in a previous lay of the land. The house that my mother was raised in on Brightside Avenue in Pikesville, and her mother before her, doesn’t seem to be in any danger at present because the neighborhood is relatively healthy. But here is an aerial photo of the neighborhood all the same.

Brightside Avenue and the Armory.

Aerial view of Brightside Avenue and the Armory from the west. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.

The house with the big front porch and a huge shed in its backyard in the middle of the lower half of the photo was the family house. Brightside Avenue is the road in front of the house; it runs from northeast to southwest running diagonally down to the bottom right corner of the image.

In that direction Brightside comes to a dead end, where railroad tracks run through a deeply cut trench. I have a memory of steam trains puffing through that cut, oily and gray and trailing a great clamourous noise, but it is not my memory. It can’t be. Somehow that memory got into my head after someone else told me that they used to rush to the end of the street when they heard the trains coming, and how even before they reached the end of the road they could tell the locomotive’s progress through the ravine by the location of the plume of dirty smoke and steam.

The railroad tracks at the end of Brightside Avenue.

The railroad tracks at the end of Brightside Avenue. This photo is shot from the southwest. Number 133 is marked as the very brightly sunlit house up at top right. The other bright white house, the one on the right edge of the photo, I believe may have been built in the 1950s on the site of the older Schwartz house. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.

I do remember someone walking my sister and me to the end of the street to watch trains go by on a trip we made Back East with my mother in about 1964 after Aunt Cindy died. But we would have seen diesel engines by that time, not steam engines. In the photo above there are two sets of tracks. The tracks on the left that go into a tunnel are not terribly old; they’re the commuter line that was put in since I was a kid.

I don’t know which direction he would come from (probably northeast) but my grandfather used to whistle a certain way when he was approaching the house, to let my grandmother know he was coming. Apparently this was their little code for many long years. I asked my mother to write the brief story:

The Whistle

My parents, John Lewis, a.k.a. ‘Lewie’, and Wilma Caroline, a.k.a. ‘Billie’, had a special whistle between them. I never remember Mom whistling but do have a clear memory of Dad’s whistle as he came home. He was whistling a simple two-note sound letting her know he was near. It was a clear, cheery sound which would send Mom running to meet him.

During their courting days Dad would come walking down Brightside Ave. toward the house and would begin his call. The story goes that at one point, after hearing the whistle announcing Lewie’s arrival, my grandfather Rohde remarked, “For heaven’s sake! Why don’t you just marry the girl!” And he did…on August 24, 1935 at Strawbridge Methodist Church in Baltimore.

Just a wingbeat behind and to the east of the house, across Military Avenue, is the Armory. That’s the sprawling compound that takes up the top half of the first photo above. It was indeed an armory at one time — I’m not sure it is anymore. My mother and her younger brother, my Uncle Jack, often remark on the fact that German prisoners of World War II were kept there, which suggests that the installation and its Teutonic inmates made a big impression on them as children.

“I remember the German prisoners held there,” says Mom.  “The gate at that entrance was a heavy affair that you could see through, a heavy guard gate, and we could see the prisoners sitting out on the barrack steps in the evening, some playing accordions and singing in German. I also remember that in the mornings and the evenings during the week the prisoners were loaded onto military trucks and driven out to work on the farms. We kids would hide behind the hedge and as the trucks drove by we would holler not nice things about them.  I don’t remember what but since our knowledge of world affairs was limited at that age I doubt it was anything too terrible!”

Mom said the soldiers had a perfect view of Bertie Schwartz’ house. But there’s no gate now in the long outer wall of the Armory on the Military Avenue side. This fact, along with some topo maps I found, makes me pretty sure that the Armory’s perimeter was modified in the mid-1950s. There’s no way now that anyone can see into or out of the compound, and the only gate is off Reisterstown Road. If the Armory’s wall was then the way it is now, the German prisoners would never have made the ruckus they did about the fire at Miss Bertie’s house.

A topo map from 1953 shows barracks in the armory.

A topo map from 1953 shows barracks in the Armory and access from Military Avenue.

The topo map from 1956 represents the armory with the more substantial perimeter footprint it has today.

The topo map from 1956 represents the armory with the more substantial perimeter footprint it has today.

Brightside and Military from the south. The Schwartz property is outlined in green, with a house that may not be the original. Number 133 is outlined in violet. The now wider Armory perimeter is at right. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.

Brightside and Military from the south. The Schwartz property is outlined in green, with a house that I suspect is not be the original. Number 133 is outlined in violet. The now wider Armory perimeter is at right. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.

The Schwartz’ house was the first house around the corner on Military Avenue. The deep lot ran back from Military behind the lots on Brightside. Mom remembers Miss Bertie as an older lady who had a palsy that made her head bob and weave, and even though she could drive she chose to pull her groceries in a little wagon, and she wore a wide-brimmed sunhat. She called my mother, whose name is Barbara, “Barbry”.

Uncle Jack once told me about the fire. “There was a fire at Bertie Schwartz’ house,” he said, “on Military Avenue right across from the Armory. The Germans couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more of a salvage effort going on. They made so much noise that they were let out so they could help, and they took all the furniture out of the house while the place burned. They risked their lives.”

– mdf

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