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OP-ED: The great 1950 starling shootout on the Avenues

Joe Brillhart
York Township
York City, Friday, March 27, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Some will say the quarantine has put way too much time into our hands, but I have very vivid memories of a story that I've been patiently waiting for some available time to verify and document it.

The year was 1950. It was ugly. Hordes of filthy, invasive starlings descended each evening into the mostly Norway maple treetops of the northwest section of York City. (Years before, in a diversity moment for the bird population in New York City's Central Park, starlings were introduced from Europe)

The city fathers declared the infestation a public health menace, and Mayor Felix Bentzel took decisive executive action. The 500 block of Madison Avenue, my block, soon became ground zero, and for 10 evenings that September it was a free fire zone.

I was pleased to see that my dad, mild-mannered introspective MIT engineer that he was, could move beyond his Clark Kent side. Most dads in the neighborhood were soon licensed to kill, and he, too, joined the more than two score men of the posse of public protection. Only shotguns were permitted. My dad had a 100-year old English black powder 10 gauge, double barrel with dual hammers. It was the mother of all pellet spewing weaponry.

For sanitary reasons, avian corpses needed to be promptly collected and disposed of. Most of the kids were competitive. "How many'd YOUR dad get last night?" Clearly, it was our newfound late summer sport.

One side story is of a YMCA resident who shot himself in the torso while cleaning his .22 rifle. He apparently had been sniping birds from that unauthorized location. The story made the paper.

Less than half a block down from my house, a man with a firearm came out on his porch one evening just at dusk. Reportedly he was a World War II veteran that no one knew very well. I remember he had on dark slacks and an undershirt. One of the big kids said he had a Tommy Gun. It had a large, round drum magazine and he sprayed the treetops with "hot lead" for what seemed like a really long time. The police soon came and took him away. Some adults hinted there may have been alcohol involved. That incident did not make the paper.

As we were all into cowboy culture at the time, it was a given that firearm use ultimately protected the common good. We kids looked at this indelible late summer adventure as our own elongated shootout at the OK Corral, complete with known neighborhood gunslingers. And kids were still playing in the street puddles — especially enjoyable in the summer rain. Polio remained an always lurking threat, and workable Salk shots were still five years away. I was to turn 9 within a few months.

This story would not be recoverable without the newspaper.com resource. So, as one of my favorite columnists, Dave Barry, is fond of saying: "I am not making this up."

— Joe Brillhart is now a York Township resident.