Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Monday, September 12, 2005

Directions often filled with town history

For someone like me who gets disoriented in grocery stores, giving directions to strangers can be a challenge. Some questions, such as "Where's the courthouse?" are easy. Others, like "How do you get to Lower Coleville Road?" are harder.

I wisely stayed out of a recent discussion at the Diamond Deli when a motorist wanted to know how to pick up Interstate 80 without going back to Milesburg, where there were traffic delays. And I couldn't help the people who wanted to know how to get to Little Marsh Creek Road.

Sometimes, though, people want recommendations.

When a dad and his daughter asked where they could get a big breakfast, the Waffle Shop seemed like a good choice -- no one ever leaves there hungry. I was with a friend once who asked for pancakes, and when the tower-like structure arrived, she realized she should have ordered the "short stack."

Recently, a young couple asked if there was a dollar store in town. "Next light, turn left, straight ahead on your right."

But when another couple asked how to get to Sandy Ridge Furniture, I was stumped. I knew the place by family name, Roy and Martha Stoltzfus, but not by store name, so I hope those folks found it.

It's easy to confuse streets that have east and west versions or north and south ones. Newly located here, I once directed a friend up steep South Allegheny Street instead of North. By the time she arrived at my house, she was in a state of shock.

Watching a pizza delivery girl trying to maneuver down icy apartment steps on East Curtin Street last winter with her undelivered order, I realized she was looking for the same number on West Curtin.

Sometimes we use old businesses as landmarks. Bellefonte Hardware has been gone for many years, and Schaeffer Hardware not quite as many, but people still call these buildings by their former names. I've lived in my house for 20 years, but it is still Dr. Capers' home.

When I am out of town, I am often asked, "Where is Bellefonte?"

That's what Larry King wanted to know when he interviewed Police Chief Duane Dixon last month on "Larry King Live." The chief's answer was that we're about 10 miles from State College, giving Larry the chance he was probably waiting for, to bring up Joe Paterno and Penn State.

We may be living in reflected glory for now, but if Bellefonte keeps growing, people may some day ask, "Where is State College?"

Friday, September 02, 2005


Writer and critic Henry James once said that the most beautiful words in the English language were "summer afternoon." To James and his aristocratic friends, the words must have called up an image of shaded lawns and sedate conversations. For me, growing up, the setting was different but the mood was the same. My summer afternoons existed in a kind of suspended torpor which I hoped would never end.

We didn't have the organized activities and tons of toys that kids have today, but we were never bored. We could catch minnies and crayfish in a nearby stream, make boats out of walnut shells, strip bark from birch branches to chew, blow choke cherries through pea shooters, make dolls out of hollyhocks and wreaths out of maple leaves. Nature was our playground.

And when it rained we could read comic books, which transported us from our small town surroundings to an urban underworld, a foreign country or a mythical kingdom. My favorites were Classic Comics with their artistic renderings of works like "The Count of Monte Cristo" and Wonder Woman, who, with her bullet-proof bracelets and magic lasso, represented a unique figure of female power.

When we had the cash, we could walk to the neighborhood store and deliberate over penny candy: spearmint leaves or Tootsie pops, sour balls or rootbeer barrels? For a nickel boys could get a baseball card in a Fleers Dubble Bubble gum pack, and for a little more girls could get a picture of a movie star on the back of a Dixie cup lid.

Since they are no longer on newsstands, where, I wondered, do kids buy comic books today? A search led me to Steven Tice on Valentine Hill Road who owns Calliope Comics. Here The Green Lantern, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, compete with each other in all their garish glory. But what used to sell for a dime starts now at $2.25. I was relieved to know that Wonder Woman is still going strong.

Do baseball cards still come in bubble gum packs? They do at Jake Tibbens' shop Sportscards Plus on West Water Street where Gheen's store used to be. Most of Jake's stock is in the form of loose cards, of which he must have thousands, but you can still get a pack of Topps with a baseball card for $4.00.

And for candy, there is Jabco's across from the park where some of the candy, sold from antique jars, is still actually a penny.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Cicadas' song an end to summer

What began as a tentative scraping in July is now a full-fledged chorus. Entomologists call it the cicadas' song, but it is more noise than music.

As the summer wanes, the high-pitched whirring reaches a crescendo, followed by a tragic finale. The male cicada dies after mating, and when the female has finished laying her eggs, she dies also.

What we are hearing now are not the so-called 17-year locusts. A fact sheet from the Penn State Entomology Department identifies them as "dog day cicadas," which appear every year from mid-July through mid-September. They are "large, blackish insects, usually with greenish wing veins."

I have never seen one, but their sound has always signaled, along with other seasonal markers, the end of summer and the start of a new school year.

Stores have been rolling out their back-to-school displays since July. Target's main aisle is paved with fridges, futons and computer desks. The bulletin board at the YMCA posts a daily countdown of the number of days left before school starts. A sandwich board in front of The Hidden Salon advertises back-to-school haircuts. And the August lilies are blooming.

The rhythms of my life have nearly always been dictated by school calendars, first my own school years, then my children's, and then years of teaching.

The first September of retirement, I had to fight the feeling that I should be back in my classroom. In a recurring dream, I am trying to get to school against insurmountable obstacles. Old habits, like old songs, cannot easily be erased.

Besides the song of the cicadas, there's another song I can't get out of my head. At the recent arts and crafts fair, I wandered over to the bandstand to listen to the State College Senior Band playing great old tunes like "Blue Velvet" and "Tuxedo Junction." When band leader Joe Perez announced "Harbor Lights," and Ted Fuller took the mike, I was back at Hecla Park, sometime in the mid-50s, listening to Sammy Kaye's band.

This plaintive song about a couple's sad farewell reminds me that the dance hall is used for storage space now, and the amusement park which surrounded it is abandoned. But the memories, and the song, remain.

Love and loss take many forms, from the life cycle of the cicada to the break-up of a romance, but with sadness comes hope. The new school year will be the best yet. The cicadas will emerge another year for another grand performance. And big bands are coming back.