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Memories of the lamplighter


DURING THE late 1940s, when I was an adolescent, we lived near the point where Harford Avenue and Aisquith Streets, which run parallel, intersect with Biddle Street, creating a triangle. This was a favorite play area for local children. It was at that intersection -- just before twilight -- that George Henry, Mark and I would gather to wait for a man we called "Mr. Bill."

A short muscular man with curly, gray hair, Mr. Bill trudged through the neighborhood with a ladder on one shoulder: It was a tool for his nightly duties -- lighting the gas streetlights that dotted the neighborhood. Because of his familiar gait -- slowly moving along as if he were carrying a ton on one shoulder -- we could always spot him from blocks away.

He braved icy rains and snowstorms and 100-degree days, covering the 25-block territory assigned to him. We never heard him complain. When it was cold, one hand would grip the ladder and the other would be thrust into a pocket of his peacoat; the free hand would come out when he stopped to light the gaslights.

Our families didn't allowed us to stay out after dark during winter, so we never followed his route when it was cold. But on most summer evenings, we'd keep him company for several blocks, hoping for a chance to climb his ladder and light the streetlights. That was wishful thinking. Mr. Bill wouldn't allow it, no matter how hard we pleaded.

One evening, George Henry had a bright idea: we could make a ladder and start lighting the lamps before Mr. Bill reached our block. So we set out to accomplish our goal. Of course, we needed wood to make the ladder. The next day we loitered around the neighborhood lumber company, waiting for an opportunity to swipe a few two-by-fours. After a couple hours, the chance came, but neither of us had the nerve to steal; so we went to the old horse stable off Biddle Street and picked a few half-rotten planks off the junk pile and nailed them together until we had a contraption resembling Mr. Bill's ladder.

That evening, from about three blocks away, we saw Mr. Bill ambling down Aisquith Street, stopping at each lamp, lifting a glass globe and igniting each one with the little torch he carried.

We grabbed our makeshift ladder and ran to a gaslight at Harford Avenue and Chase Streets; after propping it against the post, George Henry began his nine-foot climb to the top. He was halfway up the ladder when one leg broke and the ladder collapsed. George Henry caught onto the crossbar atop the lamppost and dangled, screaming for help. Mark and I stood immobilized, not knowing what to do. Then we heard Mr. Bill's voice:

"Hold on, son," he shouted. "Hold on, I'm coming!" He rescued George Henry. Since we didn't have any matches, he scolded us

instead of calling the authorities.


H. L. Hounshell writes from the Maryland Penitentiary.

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