by Rich McIlhenny
Growing up on the 100 block of West Mt. Airy Avenue in the late 1960s to the mid-’70s, our street was filled with kids. There were no computers or smart phones keeping us occupied, and we easily found ways to pass the time with our friends outside. We gathered on weekends and after school to play wire ball, step ball, touch football, street hockey and epic games of wiffle ball that lasted into the evening.
In the long summer days, we started to explore the woods and streams of the Wissahickon and Cresheim Valleys, whose entrance was only a 10-minute or so walk away. At night we would play kick-the-can until we were called home with whistles and shouts from our parents from porches and stoops.
There were two big families living side by side at the bottom of our block, the Haaszs and the Morans, who each had eight kids. If you lived in Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill in the ’70s and ’80s, it was impossible not to know one or more of them from Holy Cross, Houston, The Water Tower or the neighborhood.
Mrs. Haasz was a celebrity to the kids on our block, as she sang and played guitar on Captain Noah, a popular children’s TV show. Mrs. Moran was our Cub Scout den mother. Their families were a huge part of our network of kids that soon spread to nearby Nippon and Durham Streets and eventually included kids from East Mt. Airy.
These were kids we went to school with and played football against on the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf’s property or hockey against at the Little Red School yard or in the Holy Cross School parking lot. As we got into our teens, our family and the Sharpes migrated over to East Mt. Airy just as the two neighborhoods began to merge in athletic and partying alliance.
As we neared and entered into our 20s, we looked forward to the hard-hitting football games at PSD or the Water Tower against the kids from Chestnut Hill in the Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl each year. Soon we were hanging with our Chestnut Hill friends at places like the Depot and the Mt Airy Tavern (now McMenamin’s). While there was still a rivalry between the neighborhoods, we strengthened friendships that started years before in Little League and other gatherings that brought the two communities together.
As we got older, some of us started families, and some moved to the suburbs, other states or overseas, but the bonds that we first formed playing in the streets and the woods remained strong. These bonds were further strengthened in recent years with social media as Facebook enabled us all to stay connected and share our lives, both past and present.
Brian, the youngest of the Moran boys, was always quick to laugh and smile. He enjoyed fishing, the outdoors and following the Eagles, Phillies and Flyers. He was a loving father and husband who attended all of the sporting events his children participated in. He shared photos and stories about them with his Facebook friends, many from the old neighborhood with whom he remained close.
Two summers ago, however, Brian was stricken with pancreatic cancer. His devoted wife, Connie, kept everyone abreast of his treatments and surgeries and updated his progress through texts, phone calls and Facebook. She helped organize several events that brought his friends and family together to support him as he battled this disease.
Sadly after a few months, Brian passed away at the age of 49 after a surgery that his weary body could not survive. Over 1,000 people attended his funeral on the last day of October, 2013. There were many tears shed, tributes made there and on Facebook that week and since. There was even a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy” by Brian’s close friend and next door neighbor, Dave Haasz. A year before, Brian had asked Dave to learn the words to his favorite song. When David asked why, Brian told him that he would know in time. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
On Sunday April 6, 2014, Dave Haasz and Brian Connelly rounded up some of the old Mt. Airy Avenue friends for a childhood pilgrimage in honor of Brian Moran Sr. that would start on the block we all grew up on and end with us fishing in the Wissahickon Creek under the Valley Green Bridge, as we did 35-40 years before.
Dave and his brothers, Bobby and John Haasz, Brian Connelly, Scott Younger, Michael Moore, Seamus Sharpe and I gathered at 8 a.m. at the intersection of Mt. Airy Avenue and Brian Street where our wiffle ball, wire ball, step ball, football and kick-the-can games were centered in the early- to mid-’70s. We embraced, smiled and laughed while reconnecting and telling stories, and then took some pictures together before Bobby pulled a bag of Brian’s ashes and spread them at home plate to start our journey.
We made our way down the hill that we had bravely sledded down many years ago and where we paraded on many 4ths of July and stopped outside the Morans’ and Haasz’ old houses near the bottom and spread some more ashes. We then stopped at the Allens Lane Train Station on Cresheim Road and Nippon and grabbed some coffee and breakfast treats at High Point, which was not an option back in the day.
(When we were kids, there was an old man who lived at the station with a great big German Shepherd and they both looked the other way as we ran up and over or rode our bikes up and over the covered bridge over the tracks.)
We then drove our cars a short block over Allens Lane to the other side of Cresheim, where we left them and took the rest of our journey by foot, returning in cars that were left at Valley Green earlier.
“Little Texas” is what the grassy and forested area between Cresheim Road and the train tracks just below Allens Lane is and was known to neighborhood kids. We walked onto the tracks near the open field and told more stories and shared more laughs, and someone pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label. We had the first toast of the day to our dear, departed friend, and the first tears were shed as we said his name in unison before our cups joined together.
We then continued towards the woods and the steep ravine that held the legendary rope swing that we played on as kids. You would have to run as fast as you can and leap out into the abyss clutching for dear life and praying that the rope would swing out and around to the other side of the massive tree that was perched on the edge of a 40-foot drop. If not, you were likely to slam into the tree at a high rate of speed.
I once was faced with the decision to hit the tree or let go of the rope while swinging alone as a young boy. Brian Moran wasn’t so lucky one day in the ’70s when he took the swing out to the farthest point and somehow lost his grip. The fall caused him to dislocate his shoulder.
We went down the ravine, climbed the opposite hill and spread some more of Brian’s ashes in the woods where we would have parties in our teen years and then returned to our cars to collect our fishing gear for the walk to Valley Green. One of our friends anticipated some problems walking, so the Haasz brothers brought their mother-in-law’s motorized wheel chair for him to ride. I wondered how this would make it as we crossed Cresheim Valley Drive and started to explore the ruins of Butter Cup Cottage that we played in back in the day. Then we raised our cups for another toast.
If you have ever seen the stone shell of a building along the entrance to the Cresheim Valley, this was the barn for a large farmhouse that was built in the early 1800s and was eventually purchased by the Woodward Family in the late 1800s. They turned it into the Buttercup Cottage for Disadvantaged Girls, naming it for the fields of buttercups that surrounded the property. Sadly, it was closed down and demolished in the 1950s, and the surviving barn that we played in was gutted by a fire in the 1980s.
We headed down the trail criss-crossing the Cresheim Creek, carrying the wheelchair over rocks and logs most of the way, toasting and spreading ashes here and there. Dave Haasz in an effort to help the wheelchair along took it for a rather daring and terrifying (for me watching, anyway) ride down a steep incline that ended up with Dave on the ground and the wheelchair losing a few parts.
The mechanically-minded of our group tended to the wheelchair, putting it back together while the rest of us continued the descent to Devil’s Pool. It was several years since I had approached this beautiful place in nature from the stream above that feeds into it, and it was quite evident how this was considered a sacred spot to the Lenape Tribe who lived in the area.
When we were kids we came here to swim, often jumping from the wooden bridge that used to cross above or from the nearby rocks. On this day, we sat and took in the beauty and made another toast and threw our fishing lines in for fun before being joined by the wheelchair-repairing crew who reported that a couple of members of our party were going to take the trail above to the Valley Green Bridge and meet us there.
The rest of us continued on to Pee Wee Rock just upstream from where the Cresheim Creek empties into the Wissahickon and where we also would jump from as kids into one of the deepest spots in the stream. We fished for a while and told some more stories of our youth and shared some more laughs when all of a sudden the Wissahickon Valley was echoing with David Haasz’ booming voice as he belted out another stirring rendition of “Danny Boy.”
Tears streamed down our faces as David sang and hikers and people with their dogs respectfully and confusedly walked by, unsure of what they were witnessing. When David finished, we toasted Brian again and then spread some more ashes off of Pee Wee Rock into the Wissahickon before our journey along the creek towards the Valley Green Bridge.
Throughout this journey, we took turns wearing Brian’s straw fishing hat, and it was my turn to wear it as we spread some more ashes from the bridge down into our favorite fishing spot as kids. We then made our way under the bridge and tried our luck. After another hour or so, we made our way to the front of the Inn, where we rested and talked some more as the nearby bridal path bustled with people from near and far who were yearning for some time outdoors after the especially brutal winter.
We took some more of Brian’s ashes and put them in a vessel with some stream water, released it into the rapids and sent our dear friend for a ride down the Wissahickon into the Schuylkill, into the Delaware and hopefully out to sea.
Some of the group continued in their cars to the Little Red School Yard behind Houston Elementary School, considered by many to be up there with the Palestra as one of the cathedrals of local sports for the stirring street hockey games we had there during the Flyers’ two Stanley Cup runs and well into our 20s.
In his passing, Brian Moran brought his family and friends closer together in many ways. As the day came to a close, our departed friend was not only memorialized, but so was our amazing childhood growing up in the greatest neighborhood there ever was. This pilgrimage, this journey will be etched into our memories alongside the love for Brian Moran and each other and our childhood bond that will never be broken.
Rich McIlhenny is lifelong resident of Mt. Airy and a Realtor with Remax Services.