One of my fondest memories of growing up is being a member of the 16th Street Gang.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about some outlaw street gang. We didn’t wear leather jackets or doo rags or ride choppers.
We wore Levi’s and white T-shirts and Chuck Taylor high-tops.
Our most lawless acts were hiding behind trees and hitting passing cars with snowballs in winter or throwing fireworks at each other on the Fourth of July, or shooting off bottle rockets that landed on someone’s front porch, briefly igniting porch furniture.
Mostly, the 16th Street Gang was about as wholesome a bunch as you can imagine.
The Gang included the Vogrins, Tomelleris, Carrs, Hays, McCrarys and other families who lived in the 400 block of North 16th Street in Kansas City, Kan., between Orville and Tauromee avenues.
(Our little neighborhood was four blocks north of Central Avenue, the dividing street between north and south in KCK. Tauromee Avenue honored a Chief of the Wyandot, a Native American tribe which had settled on the west banks of the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw (Kansas) rivers after moving from Upper Sandusky, Ohio. It’s believed Orville was originally spelled “Orrville” after a developer of the area.)
Anyway, our neighborhood sat in the shadow of the belltower of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. We’d hear its bell ring each noon, for Sunday Mass, on holidays, for weddings and for funerals. Most of the families were Catholics and members of the parish. In fact, we all attended Saint Peter’s Catholic Grade School. The church and school sat two blocks east on 14th Street.
(We routinely cut through the McCrary’s yard and jumped their backyard fence to get to and from school.)
Our Gang had additional members depending on your age and where your family lived on the block.
This was my core group of friends in the Gang and we were thick as thieves, which meant we were great friends when we weren’t mad at each other about something petty.
My best friend in the Gang was Joe Tomelleri, who was my age, shared my interests in sports, art, Hot Wheels and music and remains one of my closest friends in the world.
Joe’s parents were Jeanne and Gus and his siblings were Cathy, Mary, Melinda, Regina, Theresa, Andy, Gus and John.
The Tomelleris lived five houses south up the block, sandwiched between the Carrs and the Hays families.
Bob and Pat Carr had five kids — Mike, Cathy, Peggy, Jimmy and Timmy.
Bob and Dorothy Hays also had five children — Margaret Ann, Cathy, Bobby, Martha and Rosemary.
Jim and Joanne McCrary lived across the street and a similarly large family. Sons Brian and Kevin were my friends.
I was quite fortunate that Joe’s parents treated me like their 10th child — Mrs. Tomelleri called me her only red-headed son. Joe’s Dad let me tag along on many trips to Meadow Oaks Country Club, where they were members, down to the Lake of the Ozarks, where Grandpa Ralph Aldridge had a beautiful cabin, and on outings such as to Shawnee Mission Park.
We’d pile into the Tomelleri’s Rambler station wagon and take off. Joe and I played baseball, whiffle ball, 10-spot on the steps, basketball, football (including the Mud Bowl one winter) ping pong and pool, chess and many other board games. Perhaps most important was our mutual love of bicycling.
We rode all over KCK. We’d ride to City Park or to Wyandotte County Lake — about 10 miles northwest of 16th Street. We even rode the 180 miles or so to the cabin in the Ozarks!
The kids mixed pretty freely between all the families. When we came back from a long vacation in Colorado or to Yellowstone National Park or Michigan to see relatives, the Gang would be waiting and run down to welcome us home.
Those homecomings could be bittersweet if, for example, I got home to find out while I was gone Peggy decided she liked Joe instead of me!
In the summers, there were many games of “Red Robin” played across the front lawns. Or we’d play hide-and-seek. Or we’d catch lightning bugs. Often, the boys would play “hot box” in the street or hit the plastic whiffle ball.
Eventually the Gang followed the Tomelleri family to Meadow Oaks and we all swam together (and got terribly sunburned) at the pool.
There were birthday parties celebrated together.
Our families held crazy New Years parties.
We’d watch family slide shows from various vacations.
We’d sled down the hill in the Tomelleri’s side yard and we’d build snow forts and hold snowball fights in winter (until someone got hit in the face and went home crying.)
As I mentioned, we had our share of spats because the 16th Street Gang was basically one big family. And families have disagreements from time to time.
The best thing I can say about the 16th Street Gang is that it meant as much to many of the others as it did to me. Many of us have reconnected over social media in recent years and we all share a bond from that idyllic time.
I am forever grateful to have been a member of the 16th Street Gang. It’s one of my fondest childhood memories.