My parents were married on September 5, 1914, and I was born almost nine months to the day afterward in Mt. Sinai Hospital, just about fifty yards from where they lived in a second floor walkup apartment at 512 Reed Street. Pop told me I was delivered just as the noon whistle blew for lunch, on Monday, June 7, 1915.
There is a picture in my possession which shows me as an infant being proudly displayed by my mother as I sat upon her lap. She is sitting on the edge of a hammock, beneath what must have been an apple tree, for fallen apples are strewn about the area.
The picture was taken on the Mike Mosenthal farm in Monroeville, New Jersey, a summer resort I have mentioned previously. It was a place where we were to stay during the warm-weather months until I was about four or five.
I remember one occasion, when we journeyed there, of being awakened before dawn and being led by the hand, in the early morning darkness, down the steep grade from Front Street to Delaware Avenue. There we embarked upon the ferry, which transported us across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey. From that point, a local train took us to the depot at Monroeville, which was not much more than a whistle-stop on the railroad line.
I do not recollect the intervening passage, but, once on the farm, I recall being led to a potato field and being shown how to dig for the spuds. At another time, I remember driving with Mike to the railroad siding, where cans of fresh milk were unloaded to be transported to a dairy.
The farm proved also to have been a refuge during the polio epidemic of 1918, for we spent the entire summer there to escape the onslaught of that terrible disease, which now practically unheard of because of the vaccines which have been developed since then.
My memories of the Mosenthal farm are not my earliest recollections, by any means. The first must have been the one where I was lifted bodily by my mother and placed in a wooden tub of warm water. The locale where these ablutions took place was the neighborhood bathhouse, a popular gathering spot in those days, since it was customary for Eastern European Jews to lave the body in such places before the Sabbath.
The bathhouse was also considered to be a form of rest and relaxation by many of its patrons, for beds were usually supplied on which to rest after undergoing the debilitating effects of heat and steam. Some public baths even provided swimming pools. And, as a standard feature, food and tables were furnished for those in need of nourishment, or wards for those interested in gaming. It was altogether common for habitués to stay overnight in such places.
Although I do not recollect giving Pop an account of the observations I made during my visit to the bathhouse, he often recalled, with glee, that, after being questioned about what I saw, I am supposed to have replied, “I saw a whole lot ditties.” He thought this to be remarkable perception in one only two years old.
Until I was four, we lived in the apartment on Reed Street, next door to my father’s dear friends, the Blumenthals, at 514. The owners of the 512 property, where we resided, I do no remember at all, but I do recall their daughter, with whom I often played.
She was a little blonde girl, approximately of my own age, and we used to have a picture of her among our collection of old prints. The last time I went through these photographs, it was no longer there, but I still remember her shingled honey hair, the pretty pensive face, the dress the exposed her bare shoulders and the heart-shaped locket at her throat. I have long forgotten her name.
There was once incident which occurred during our stay in this apartment, which, for many years, had a profound effect upon my attitude toward my mother. According to a recollection I had nurtured for many years, I awoke from sleeping in my bed to find that I was quite alone in our rooms. I remember being frightened and agitated at being thus abandoned, and I descended the hall stairs to seek my mother’s whereabouts on the first floor. She was nowhere to be found throughout the house. Then thinking she might have gone to visit with the Blumenthals, I went out of the house and into the Blumenthal residence.
Here my recollection of the incident ends, although the trauma associated with it persisted throughout the early years of my life. I think, on one or two occasions, I may have accused her of leaving me untended as a child, but she vehemently denied such a charge. Yet, in my secret heart, I always felt she was lying. Thus, from such an insubstantial reality, were my feelings toward my mother shaped and directed.
Now, however, when I reconsider my impressions of what transpired during this incident, I am convinced it could only have been a dream. For I seemed to have passed through each sequence of what took place without speaking to anyone and with no remembrance of what occurred after I stood before the door of the Blumenthal home. It is for these reasons I conclude that my early feelings of alienation toward my mother were the result of fantasy, and not of fact.
There was one other event during my life on Reed Street which stands out in my memory. My recollection here is of being raised and placed upon the top of my mother’s sewing machine (the lid being down), and of being fitted out with a khaki soldier uniform, an exact replica o the one worn by the doughboys of World War I. The tailor who designed and sewed this creation for me was a brother of Mr. Blumenthal or his wife, and he lived with them in their house.
I next remembered witnessing a large mass of people watching a parade in progress. There were soldiers marching in that parade, and I was led by the hand into the street to march alongside the columns of troops, much to the delight o the spectators. Afterwards, I learned I had participated in the Armistice Day parade of 1919 on Broad Street, which celebrated the first anniversary of the end of World War I.
Many years later, when we were living on Larchwood Avenue, I remember rummaging through a footlocker in our basement and finding the selfsame uniform I wore in that parade. It was so tiny, it seemed it was made for a doll. As to what became of this miniature suit of clothing, I can only guess. It probably became food for moths and was eventually discarded.
There were certain individuals whom I remember especially from my days on Reed Street. One of these was Reuben Blumenthal, the eldest son of our friends next door. While the deed which made him memorable to me did not take place until 1921 or thereabouts, I mention him because of our acquaintance and singularity of his achievement.
The feat for which Reuben was accorded a small degree of notoriety was the installation of a radio receiver into the hat he was wearing. One of the local newspapers carried a picture of him with the adornmentof this unusual head covering. It was a mild sensation of a sort, because radio was then in its infancy, and such advanced technology as demonstrated by Reuben was considered to be newsworthy at that time.
When this event took place, Reuben was in attendance at Penn. Eventually, he earned a doctorate in one of the sciences. Later, he became a professor in his specialty and taught at one of the universities in New Jersey, most likely Rutgers.
Another family I came to know rather well during those early years in South Philadelphia was composed of a wife, husband and daughter, whose surname I do not now remember. They lived on Greenwich Street, a narrow thoroughfare about a block from Reed Street.
My mother had somehow endeared herself to these people, and, when she was required to undergo prolonged treatment in the hospital, she entrusted me into their care. Dvoira (Deborah), the wife, always reminded me of Peggotty in the film version of David Cooperfield. She had the same facial resemblance to the actress who played the part, as well as being endowed with the same heart-warming qualities of care and devotion as those of the character in the book.
The husband, as I recall, was an amiable individual who game much of this free time in conversing with me and otherwise trying to divert me from boredom. I remember one occasion when he introduced me to the widely-held notion of most American youngsters as to how Santa Claus brings his gifts to all good children on Christmas Eve.
Since it is common knowledge that Santa descends into each house through a good-sized chimney and out the fireplace, this gentleman, because he did not possess such facilities, took me into his kitchen, and pointed out to me an 8” round metal duct near the ceiling, which was used to carry off the gases given off by his coal-burning stove into the chimney flue. This, he told me, in all solemnity, was the means of entrance Santa used in coming into their home on this holiday.
Never mind that Santa’s bulk was immeasurably larger than the 8” pipe descending into the stove or the equally narrow flue leading up the chimney. To the innocent eyes of a three-year-old, all things were possible, and I believed my mentor absolutely.
At another time, I remember being taken for a ride about the neighborhood on a horse-drawn wagon by this friend. To possess such a conveyance, I think he must have been engaged in the selling of produce, probably as a huckster.
After we moved from the neighborhood, my mother and I would visit this family from time to time. I recall one festive occasion when we were in attendance at their daughter’s wedding reception. Her name was Fanny, I believe, and she was probably ten years older than I. It was a source of wonderment to me how so many people could manage to cram themselves into hat tiny house.
I was just about four when we moved to West Philadelphia. Here we had a wide, tree-lined street, with a stately sycamore casting its leafy shade before the house. There was even a grassy plot out front, enclosed by hedges, and grass growing in the back yard, as well.
Nothing like this was available in the area we had just left behind in South Philadelphia. In that vicinity, houses were set directly next to the paved sidewalks, and a shade tree was a rarity.
In our new location, we had an open porch, upon which one could sit and view the comings and goings of neighbors passing by or enjoy the warm spring sunshine. The only thing available on Reed Street for such diversion was the hard marble steps before the entrance door.
Furthermore, our new quarters were immeasurably larger than the tiny apart6ment we formerly occupied on Reed Street. Where before there were only three rooms, of which one was a bedroom, we now had eight rooms and a bath, including four bedrooms, no doubt providing for the additional progeny Pop expected when he purchased the house. Sad to say, he was not to see those rooms used by an expanding family.
The first memorable incident I recall at our new address was my initial meeting with Mutsy Schwartz, the neighborhood bully, a round-faced, stocky boy of my own age, who lived three houses down from us. He had observed me sitting at the street curb in front of my house, playing with a small red fire engine. What happened afterward was told me by my father, for I have no recollection of what then transpired.
According to Pop, Mutsy took possession of my toy, causing me to rush tearfully intot he house and loudly bewail my loss. Pop also said I cried out that Mutsy made fun of me for speaking Yiddish, calling me a “greenhorn.”
This latter fact was entirely true, for my parents spoke only Yiddish to me, and, because I heard no other language, I naturally spoke only that tongue. However, in our new neighborhood, I quickly adopted English as an everyday idiom and dropped the use of Yiddish as a conversational medium. While my parents would continue to speak to me in Yiddish, I only answered them in my newly-adopted language.
Mutsy, as I recall, remained my nemesis for a number of years thereafter, until finally, one day, I stood up to my tormentor and struck back at him. Then followed a wild battle between unequal opponents: I, a skinny, undersized kid against Mutsy, who was clearly my superior in weight and strength. However, my physical deficiencies were seemingly balanced out by righteous anger and a bountiful flow of invigorating adrenalin.
The scene of this contest was on a porch two houses away from where I lived. The reason for choosing this site is unclear to me, but the occupants were not at home in all probability, for no one inside intervened to break up the scuffle.
I remember a crowd of onlookers gathering below the porch to view this epic struggle, some among them being adults. However, no one made any effort to stop us so long as I seemed to be holding my own. No doubt the neighbors would have liked to see Mutsy get this comeuppance, once and for all, even if it was from so unlikely a champion as me.
For a while it seemed I held the upper hand in the struggle, for I remember, at one time, driving Mutsy off the porch with the ferocity of my attack. Apparently surprised at the vigor of my offensive, he refused to return to the porch, insisting that the bout be continued on the sidewalk. However, I refused to leave the area where I clearly held the advantage.
The spectators, who were undoubtedly with the underdog, supported my position, and Mutsy grudgingly resumed the fray on my terms. The fight finally ended when Mutsy’s fist missed my chin and slammed into my throat, causing me to choke and gasp for air. Seeing my distress, the battle was halted by the bystanders, and, while I technically lost the fight, from that day forward, Mutsy treated me with unaccustomed respect. We never had occasion to do battle with each other afterward.
Besides Mutsy Schwartz, there were a number of other boys, in those early years, with whom I enjoyed play and companionship. Sidney (Fats) Caplan was one of these, but he was always teased by the other boys because his mother constantly on the lookout to see that no one abused her son. Bernie Cohen lived next door to Sidney, but he was too small and agreeable to fight with. I remember he had difficulty breathing because of a broken nose.
Across the street were newer and somewhat better appointed houses than the ones we occupied on our side. For instance, these could boast of a decorative fireplace and mantle in the living room. In one of these houses lived another friend, Jackie Corson. his mother was a teacher and his father was an architect.
Living on the same side of the street with Jackie, was Ray Peltz. He eventually played varsity football on the West Philadelphia High School team, but when we were kids I knocked out his tooth during a fistic altercation.
There was also Arnold Clark, who lived two doors down from Ray Peltz, at the corner house. His father was a painting contractor. Arnold had the distinction of being the only one who could terminate a fistic encounter with me by just one blow. A punch from him into my solar plexus usually caused me to double up and call it quits.
I hope you will not infer from the foregoing that all my days were spent in fighting, for any dispute which resulted in the use of force were altogether rare. Perhaps it was a less civilized era than today, for if one individual was to be free of domination by another, it was necessary to prove, in a physical manner, that submission could not be gained without a struggle.
Also, aside from the protectiveness of Sidney’s mother, no other parents, that I recall, was so observant of the activities of her youngster as to intervene when a fight began. Thus, most of our disagreements were settled between ourselves, even though some bruises did result, and we usually remained friends thereafter.
On the other hand, if there was no physical resolution of an issue, it sometimes had the effect of festering inside each adversary, and, under such circumstances, there was an element of avoidance between the parties, with a subsequent loss of friendship.
There were many other friends I remember from my old neighborhood, but these mostly came to my attention during my teen years. However, with respect to those earlier associates, although we enjoyed each other’s company after school, now that I think about it, none of the others attended the same school I did. While I was enrolled in Andrew Hamilton at 57th & Spruce, the others seemed to prefer the William Cullen Bryant School at 60th & Cedar.
There was one thing, however, we all did together: Every Saturday afternoon we attended a matinee at a nearby movie house, usually the 56th Street Theater, which Mutsy referred to as the “Shitty Seventh.” He was full of odd expressions like that. Another one he created was “feffa mit cendy,” a nonsensical phrase he would pronounce whenever there was a lag in the conversation.
Returning to the matter of Saturday matinees, these were usually cowboy pictures, in which the hero was Tom Mix, Buck Jones or Hoot Gibson. These offerings were usually attended only by male juveniles, and when an exciting incident was played upon the screen, the bedlam became so intense as to strain credulity. But this was also part of the fun involved.
Later, when leaving the theater, after being so long immersed in darkness, we would squint in the unaccustomed sunlight, our energies temporarily subdued by the change of environment. Then, after some minutes of acclimatization, we would whoop and holler throughout the immediate neighborhood, running about as though astride bounding range ponies.
It was inevitable that our pent-up exuberance should be so vented after being contained for two hours in narrow seats. On the way home, I imagined myself to be Tom Mix upon his horse, Tony, leaping over retaining walls, like stony crags, and galloping across lawns and over shrubbery, as though upon prairies covered with mesquite and tumble weed.
Of course, I saw films with other subject-matter, as a boy. I was a patron, as well, of other movie houses in our area, besides the 56th Street Theater, which was just south of Spruce on 56th Street. There was, additionally, the Cedar, on Cedar Avenue, just below 60th Street; the Spruce Street Theater, on Spruce Street just below 60th, which Aunt Minnie’s children used to call the “Cooney Opera House”; the Imperial, on 60th Street, just south of Walnut; and the Cross Keys and Mayfair, both located on the north side of Market Street, east of 60th Street.
It was a rare occasion when I visited the “Cooney Opera House”; the films to be viewed there seldom interested me. However, I do recollect the owner of this theater. He always seemed like a fat bullfrog to me as he sat there collecting the prices of admission.
I think the Imperial was my favorite movie house. The interior there seemed vast to my young eyes, the aisles were covered with soft carpeting and the seats were comfortable. It was there I remember seeing the original “Phantom of the Opera” with Lon Chaney. I can still hear the screams of horror let loose when the monster’s face was disclosed upon the screen.
I did not go into the Mayfair too often, but I was a frequent visitor of the Cross Keys nearby. This was the most elegant movie house in our area before the State Theatre was built on 52nd Street. This cinema was equipped with a stage and a proscenium arch, although I do not recall seeing any live presentations there. Also, there was much more seating available here than in the other houses, for in addition to the orchestra, there were boxes, a loge and an upper balcony.
The higher elevations in this theatre were reached by means of a wide ramp ascending upward and abutted by an elegant balustrade of beige marble. This interior acclivity provided me with my first awareness of racial segregation, for, although there were no signs to that effect, the custom of apartheid was apparently so ingrained in them that blacks never sat in the orchestra section, only in the balcony.
I can still see them now, in retrospect, sweeping, en masse, up the broad ramp to their area of the theatre. This was the only theatre in which blacks were visible to me at that time. The probable reason for this is that Market Street was the dividing line between white and black neighborhoods. After the close of World War II blacks no longer hesitated to mingle with whites in public places.
The pictures I best remember at the Cross keys were the Cecil B. DeMille epics—“The Ten Commandments” and “The Sign of the Cross.”
The smaller Cedar Theatre was memorable to me because it was there I saw “Smilin Through,” the film starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. At the time, I thought it was the most beautiful and affecting love story I had ever seen. I know I wept copiously during the performance.
The happiest years of my childhood seems to have been those years before I was twelve, when I was attending the Hamilton School at 57th & Spruce. The school was located at a distance of only two blocks or so from home, thus it was no great hardship to walk up and back twice a day. The additional perambulation was occasioned by need to return home for lunch.
It’s an odd thing, but I cannot remember how it was to attend session there during the winter months. All I recollect are the warm, sunny days of spring and early summer and the bubbling spirit of childhood that enveloped me then.
The school itself was an unprepossessing edifice, displaying a rough granite exterior on the street sides and brick elevations facing an enclosed, paved play area. There wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen anywhere in the yard, and the expanse of concrete paving was only broken in one place: by a sand pit used for broad jumping competition.
My earliest recollection in this school is of my kindergarten classroom with its long, low benches, on which I and my classmates were instructed to sit. The panorama before my view is of a group of small children circling about a little girl, who stood over a telltale puddle on the floor. I can still hear the loud shouts and laughter, and see the pointing fingers of derision aimed at the unhappy child. I think this occurrence must have taken place during my first day in school.
Another reminiscence, which easily comes to mind, concerns a new arrival in my third or fourth-year class. he seemed out of place there because he was so much older than the rest of us. In a class where the average age might have been about ten, he must have been at least fifteen. He also spoke with a foreign accent.
As I remember, this older boy sat next to me in our room, and, while the others found the incongruity of this age and size to be the subject of humorous remarks, I thought it to be fascinating that he had the determination to endure the stares and snickering in order to forward his education.
This young man, whom I befriended, did not stay with us too long, for, as soon as he showed the ability to master the instruction in our class, he was passed on to the next higher grade. Ultimately, I suppose, he joined his peer group, and remained with them until he reached the limit of his educational goals.
Another incident, which touched me deeply at the time, concerned a classmate who appeared to be destined for greatness when he reached manhood. He seemed to excel in all things, whether it was classroom subjects or sports. I remember, particularly, that he was able to outleap all others in the broad jump pit.
Richard Pierce was in my graduating class at Hamilton, and we used to walk back and forth from school together, for he lived on Cedar Avenue, a street one block south of Larchwood. What was my shock to learn, within a month after school had closed for the summer, that he had suddenly died from a cause I was never able to determine. I distinctly remember my sense of bewilderment and loss at receiving this depressing news. It never occurred to me that the young could ever die. Such events were only reserved for the elderly, I thought. His passing had a profound effect upon me for many years, the saddest chapter of my childhood.
Of all the teachers who had a hand in my education, I recollect only two or three who had an influence on me. One of these was Miss Wister, my sixth-grade teacher at Hamilton. She was an incredibly ugly, thin and misshapen woman who, despite the misfortune of her monstrous appearance, had a genuine love for children and true regard for their educational advancement.
I can still see her now walking through the halls of our school, a tiny figure horribly deformed by spinal meningitis. Because of her disease, her waist and hips seemed never to have developed, so that her legs appeared to be directly joined to her upper body.
Loosely fixed to the angular rigidity of her frame was a head which swayed unsteadily from side to side above her shoulders as she walked, giving it the appearance of being attached to her spine by a loosely coiled spring.
And if her figure was not repellant enough, she had a face which was equally forbidding, with lineaments in which no flesh softened the bony contours of her countenance, leaving only skin folds to replace the lack of fullness in her cheeks. Compounding the frightfulness of her appearance was a leaden complexion and a scrawny neck.
Despite Miss Wister’s physical ugliness, she had a gentle and loving spirit—altogether remarkable in one so afflicted. While I do not recollect any great doctrine proclaimed by her which might have directed me to pursue some future goal or was motivated by her to succeed in my studies, I think the very reality of her existence forcibly demonstrated to me that spiritual qualities can overcome and even efface visible deformities of face and figure.
Miss Wister must have felt a special affection toward me, for when I left her class she presented me with a book. I should have returned to visit her and give her a report of my progress, but I never did. I know it would have brightened her life to see a former pupil and to know that she was remembered for her influence upon him. I deeply regret not having done so, but there seems to be strange quirk in my character which makes me wish to avoid revisiting the past, and I could not overcome this phobia until it was too late.
When I left Hamilton, I was a year younger than most of my classmates, because my teachers felt I was so proficient in my studies I should be advanced in grade to match my mental age. I was never actually aware of being such a scholar, and I had cause to regret being thus pushed into a higher grade with students a year older than I, for this disparity in age, when I became interested in girls in high school, proved to be a detriment in this respect, since they were much more mature than I .
My parents, however, found my scholastic advancement in primary school to be a prideful subject of conversation. Although they deplored my social backwardness, they could always point with pride to this recognition of my brightness, and say to others: “He skipped twice in school.”
An event of early childhood which has long stood out in my memory was my first introduction to a hospital at the age of five.
In those times, the medical profession considered the tonsils and adenoids to be mere accretions of the anatomy, which the Creator had inserted for no other purpose than to be removed whenever they proved troublesome. Now, physicians have a better regard for these lymphoid tissues, having discovered that they have the capacity to prevent or diminish the onslaught of many disease germs.
At the time of which I speak, however, the former view was in vogue, and when my doctor observed these tissues to be inflamed, he advised their removal.
I do not recall in which hospital my operation was performed; I only know I was wheeled into an operating room, and told to breathe deeply when some mask-like object was placed over my face. The next thing I remember was my awakening during the night in a hospital room where other children were sleeping.
I experienced an extreme craving for water, and, to satisfy my thirst, I got out of bed and walked through the halls in search of water. The hallway was dimly lit and unattended by any personnel.
What happened next, I do not remember, but I probably satisfied my thirst at some spigot or water fountain. At any rate, I later learned that drinking in that fashion could have proven harmful to me, that I should have been provided with ice to suck. But no one was there that I could see, and, not knowing any better, I did what came to me naturally.
Since I was only required to stay in the hospital over night, I returned home with my mother the next morning. I do not recall suffering any discomfort as a result of the surgery; I only found I had difficulty in speaking to anyone. however, this condition lasted only a day or two, and my voice was quite normal again.
When I was about eight, I was witness to an historical event of sorts: the blow-by-blow account of the Dempsey-Firpo fight on radio. This was, I think, the second fight ever recorded, the first being the Dempsey-Carpentier bout, a year or two before.
Radios were a novelty at the time, and we did not own one yet. But we happened to be visiting the Kravitzes, family friends, who lived nearby, and the sons of Mr. Kravitz, who were much older than I, were listening in on the contest. Thus, it was quite by accident that I hear the broadcast of this historic happening.
It was one of the wildest fistic encounters in the history of boxing, with each protagonist being alternately knocked through the ropes by the force of the blows being struck. Dempsey eventually won the fight within three or four rounds, but Luis Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, as he was known, certainly gave a good account of himself.
Since we possessed no radio, our principal source of household entertainment was the phonograph, or Victrola, as it was called, a product of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The trademark on this device was the familiar representation of a fox terrier cocking his ear toward the trumpet which amplified the sound. “His Master’s Voice” was the logo beneath the picture.
These early phonographs were much cruder than the record players in use today. At that time, the turntable was not moved electronically: one had to crank a handle to wind it up. And if it should wind down as the record was playing, the sound would become nasal and distorted, gradually dragging itself to a laborious and painful end, for lack of sufficient manual impetus.
Many of the recordings we owned consisted of cantoral renderings, especially those of Yosele Rosenblatt, a renowned tenor of the time. We also possessed a number of Yiddish folk songs and selections taken from popular Yiddish musical presentations. And if one should tire of this plethora of harmonic delights, there was always the diverting tete-a-tetes of the comic team of Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sheen or the hilarious monologue “Cohen on the Telephone.”
Oddly enough, with the large nu8mber of pieces we had on hand, it was rare when time was taken to listen to any of them. Mostly, such moments were reserved for the entertainment of visitors, which occurred only on rare occasions. Invariably, the machine stood in its corner of the parlor, serving as an article of furniture, rather than the source of musical diversion it was designed to be.
My father was never the “buddy” type of parent. He never encouraged me to enter sports, like the Little Leagues, nor do I ever recall him taking me to the movies. There were occasions, however, when he would surprise me with a gift, or take me to the circus or some sporting event.
Hannukah and Christmas were never especially significant to me as a child. I only knew, on the former holiday, that it was customary for adults to give gifts of coins to children, and, on the latter holiday, which was never observed by Jews, Santa Claus would sometimes overlook the religious beliefs of those he favored, and drop off a toy or game to a child whose parents were of a non-Christian faith.
This happened to me a number of times during my childhood, and each time, I recall, I was surprised to find some gift on my bed or in stocking hung from the rail at its end. Our house never had a fireplace for this purpose, nor was there ever a Christmas tree under which such gifts ar3e usually placed. No; my presents always seemed to arrive in the evening, after Pop had returned from his day’s business and dinner had been completed; and he was lying on the parlor couch reading his daily newspaper. It was at such a time, being Christmas Eve, he would off-handedly remark to me that Santa Claus was on his rounds that night, and if I went into my room there was the possibility I might find a gift there.
During those tender years, the idea that the omnipresent St. Nicholas should deign to visit me was not surprising; but what I then found amazing was how he managed to get into my room without being seen or heard.
Another rare example of the sort of delightful surprises Pop was capable of springing upon me was the single occasion when he took me to see the Big Top—the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, when it came into town one spring. Knowing him as a I did, he probably had an inclination to view the proceedings for himself. However, once having satisfied his curiosity concerning the sort of entertainment it was, as well as having extended toward me the benefit of such an experience, he never offered to take me to the circus thereafter.
In those years, the circus used to pitch its tents in a large open field at Front Street and Erie Avenue. I can still recall the hordes of people milling about the grounds, the strong animal odors, the pervasive sawdust and the confusing array of sideshows, with their human freaks, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and other forms of exotic entertainment.
The activities in each of the three rings under the main tent proved to be confusing to me, I remember, because so much was going on at the same time. Wishing to see everything, but not being able to focus my attention on any single event, I found I was missing something of each performance. Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed seeing the clowns and the aerialists.
At the end of the regular performance, there was a grand entrance of cowboys and Indians on horseback, led by that legendary figure of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill, astride a golden palomino. But, except for a single turn about the arena, the galloping and prancing cavalcade departed, with the voice of an announcer proclaiming that the Wild West show would be soon available for public viewing upon the payment of an additional, but modest, admission charge.
By that time, however, Pop had probably seen enough of the circus to last him a lifetime, and we proceeded to wend our way homeward. But, before we left the environs of the circus, he saw to it that I had a souvenir of the day—a whip that crackled when it was snapped.
Then I remember how my neighborhood cronies crowded about me as I demonstrated my facility with the whip. But I wasn’t overly retentive of my newly-bought possession; I allowed others to enjoy cracking the whip, as well.
When I was about fourteen Pop took me to a couple of professional boxing matches. He was probably influenced in this new-found interest in pugilism by his friendship with Emmanuel Richman, a Kensington pawnbroker, who enjoyed such exotic spectacles. At one such contest, I remember sitting in the upper stands of Shibe Park, then the baseball field of the Philadelphia Athletics. It was a fistic struggle between two local contenders: Benny Bass and Reds Blitman, and, while it was difficult to assess the damage each inflicted upon the other from my vantage point without binoculars, I could savor the conflict and the excitement.
There was another occasion, during this same period, when Pop took me along with him to an important match in the large stadium located on south Broad Street, where the Army-Navy football games were usually held every year. I do not recall the contestants, but it must have been a significant event to be placed in an arena that could seat up to 150,000 persons.
Beginning when I was about nine, in 1924, a succession of tenants took up quarters in the two upstairs back rooms of our house on Larchwood Avenue. I know Pop never cared for the prospect of having strangers live in his house. He would have preferred his privacy, I am sure. However, in prevailing upon Pop to rent out the rooms, Mom had the persuasive argument of added income, as well the inducement of having adult and responsible people in the house when my parents went out of an evening, and I was to be left home. Besides, she must have pointed out, she could no longer bear children to eventually occupy those rooms, so it would have been foolish to allow them to remain empty.
The first occupants of those lodgings was a recently widowed woman (Mrs. Loughead) and her two daughters, Dorothy and Mildred. I am sure they lived a crowded and uncomfortable existence in those rooms, which served for a kitchen and bedroom. however, when they had visitors, other than family members, which was infrequent, they were permitted to use our downstairs parlor.
Mrs. Loughead was thin woman with a long neck, made more noticeable by the presence of a good-sized goiter. The length of her neck, her slenderness and her habit of winding her long gray hair into a bun atop her head made her seem much taller than she actually was.
Mrs. Loughead probably was no older than forty or forty-five when I first met her, but to my young eyes she appeared to have passed middle age, especially since she had lost all of her teeth. Although she never used dentures, her missing teeth were hardly noticeable, since her mouth was very small.
The oldest daughter, Dorothy, was already working as a bookkeeper and giving total support of the family through her efforts. In addition, Pop enlisted her services as an assistant and bookkeeper, on a part-time basis, for his own business. This extra money undoubtedly stood them in good stead. Mildred, the younger girl, was only two years older than I and she was not expected to contribute earnings before she graduated from high school.
The Lougheads lived in our house for eight years or more, and we got along so well together that they seemed like members of our family. Pop would often entrust Mrs. Loughead with large sums of money, and, when my parents were not at home, they would often sit in our parlor and listen to the radio or entertain visitors there.
I remember once having a dispute with Dorothy over the selection of a radio program. She fancied some special presentation, and I had an inclination to listen to another. It got to the pint where she planted herself in front of the console, blocking me from turning to the station of my choice. With that, I lifted her up bodily (she only weighed about ninety pounds), and deposited her rather forcibly upon the couch. After this show of force, I was no longer troubled by her with the radio.
At another time, I proved to be similarly uncooperative toward Dorothy. She had been visited by a gentleman-caller, named Philip, a tall and handsome individual with whom she had been having a friendly relationship for some time. On this occasion, instead of being properly seated on the parlor couch together, their two bodies were surprisingly enfolded in a horizontal position. Since I was in the same room with them, I could not help feeling that this configuration of their two anatomies was unseemly, to say the least. however, they only appeared to be hugging and kissing each other, for I could detect no other movements between them.
Since I was only about eleven, the obvious desire of the lovers for privacy was lost upon me. I only knew I wished to read a book, which was then engrossing my attention, and the activities of the couple across from me were distracting my concentration. Nevertheless, I refused to move, and, by my obstinacy, no doubt, the lovemaking process was inhibited somewhat.
After this, Philip tried to ingratiate himself with me by presenting me with expensive gifts during the Christmas season and on my birthday. However, I don’t remember ever giving up the prerogative to enjoy the use of our parlor whenever it suited me. And, now that I think about it, perhaps Dorothy never forgave me for being such a nuisance.
There were tow other members of the Loughead family: a brother, who I remember seeing only once, and a sister, Helen, who used to visit them in the company of Bill, a police officer. I never knew the exact relationship between these two, but I suspect it was a liaison of some sort.
Whenever the weather was too cold or inclement to visit with neighborhood friends at our favorite corner, I would call upon the Lougheads in their cozy flat upstairs. At such times, Mrs. Loughead would usually be in her rocking chair, while the girls would sit or lie on their bed, as they read the Evening Bulletin or some magazine.
While the girls were lounging thus upon the bed, I would find my eyes constantly being drawn to those exposed portions of the anatomy revealed by the short dresses then in vogue. For this was the flapper era, when the hemline reached above the knee, and the rolled tops of stockings were easily discernible, as well as the bare contiguous parts of the upper leg.
I am sure Mildred was inwardly smirking at my attempts at insouciance in the presence of so much bareness of limb. Mildred always had a mischievous gleam in her eyes and a teasing and coquettish manner about her which she enjoyed exercising whenever I was present.
I was to observe such forms of enticement used by many young girls, as I grew toward maturity. However, I found through experience, if a male were to accept such blandishments at face value, and attempt to press what seemed to be an advantage to fruition, the game would suddenly begin to lose its appeal for these females. Confronted by such circumstances, I have always found it best to maintain an air of detachment in the presence of such allurements by the opposite gender, until a time when they make known their true feelings.
Oddly enough, I never found myself attracted to observe the limbs of Dorothy, Mildreds’ older sister. Although her face was rather pretty, I could never understand what appeal she had for certain men, since, to me, because of her unusual thinness, she had the appearance of a boy. Still, I am certain Philip, her suitor at the time, would have married her in a moment, if she could have been induced to agree to such an arrangement. But Dorothy seemed destined from puberty onward to remain an old maid. And, although she had no difficulty in relating to others, being entirely friendly and pleasant in this respect, she was the sort who was totally indecisive with regard to binding relationship, such as marriage. Of course, being the sole support of her mother and sister could have had something to do with her hesitancy.
At any rate, Philip, who was in the real estate business at the time, suffered severe reverses when the Depression of the Thirties hit the country. Following this misfortune, I never again saw Philip.
I do not recollect seeing any other gentleman-caller for Dorothy, except one visit I remember from her boss, a Mr. Echols, the head of a firm, which manufactured embalming fluid. He also operated a school for morticians, as well, I believe.
The reason for Mr. Echol’s call was mainly social, I am sure, even though he was unaccompanied by his wife. however, there was a companion of sorts he brought to this occasion—a huge and handsome German Shepherd of undoubted pedigree. While fearsome-looking, the dog was altogether gentle, albeit aloof toward those who greeted his master. While I admired the animal, I heartily wished he had been left at home, because of the strong, gamey odor he exuded.
The Lougheads, during their conversation with Mr. Echols, acquiesced and deferred to every remark he made, even one observation of his I remember, which had to do with the then-current shortness of womens’ skirts. They were too short, he complained, and they exposed the ugliest part of a woman’s anatomy—her thighs. Mrs. Loughead was quick to agree with this assertion, and the girls smiled and nodded, but I thought his statement to be ridiculous. Imaging lumping, as it were, all aspects of the upper leg into one sweeping generalization, as if there were no differences between one limb and another!
Now that I think about it, such a manner of assessment strikes me as being a kind of bigotry—in this case, against all feminine thighs. One who could pontificate in such matters, undoubtedly must have an intolerant attitude toward other ideologies or even other groups of people.
As I grew older, I was to encounter a number other Mr. Echols—those who, through positions of power or wealth, think their views are the only ones worth holding. They seem to forge that those who are inferior to them in these respects do not dispute their perceptions only because they are dependent upon them and fear to lose what they possess.
While I was attending session at Hamilton, I felt the first dim stirrings of love toward a member of the opposite sex. I could not have been above eight or nine at the time, but the longing to be near a certain little girl, named Dorothy, was to me very real and persistent. However, the prepubescent culture of that time did not permit of fraternization between boys and girls. To be so inclined would subject the renegade to hoots of derision and the appellation of “sissy.”
It would have been difficult to survive under such circumstances, and, if I had been of a mind to press my suit, I could foresee many fistic encounters as a result in order to maintain my honor. And yet I think I would have been prepared to face such an ordeal, if I only had the nerve to speak to her. But I was too shy to even make some offhanded remark in her direction while in class. As a result, my yearnings were never satisfied, and I had to settle for distant observations of the one I loved. But what I would have given to hear one word from her lips to me or view a fleeting smile aimed at me!
Although these strange and disturbing emotions I began to feel at this early age, altogether innocent and pure, lasted for only a few months, I believe they foretold what features and mannerisms of the opposite sex I should be attracted to in the future. Whatever else resulted from this experience, I felt a warming glow within my heart for many years thereafter, filled with fantasies of tender love and romance.
During those early years at Hamilton, I was always uncomfortable when my parents were invited to visit my classroom in order to observe my progress and speak to my teachers. Only my mother came at such times, and, when she did, I became acutely conscious that she might be recognized as an immigrant, because of her broken English and alien accent. At the same time, I experienced a sense of guilt for harboring such thoughts.
Indirectly, of course, I was afraid that my mother’s presence would make me appear to be different from my classmates. Thus, whenever visitation periods arrived, I was torn between feelings of shame and remorse, and I would then have wished to be anywhere else in the world but there.
All through my growing years, I was unduly sensitive to the presence of others, having the uneasy feeling that I was constantly under observation. Thus, any incident which might make me appear different or cause me to be held up to ridicule gave me deep concern. I did not feel this difference so much when I was in the company of my father, even though his background was more obvious from his speech than it was with my mother. This was probably because he was accepted and respected by almost everybody, despite his accent and his foreign mannerisms. With my mother it was another matter. Her meekness and diffidence was almost equal to my own. As a consequence, I felt her personality was not likely to command a proper respect from others.
I was not able to overcome these feelings of inadequacy before I felt adequate within myself. This took many years of self-examination, as well as observation of how others interacted with me or themselves, before I felt strong enough to dispel such thoughts.
Perhaps I might have been better prepared to overcome my social failings if I had the chance, as a youngster, to do some useful work for others, such as serving a newspaper route. There was a time when I was anxious to do so. In fact, I pleaded with my father to allow me this opportunity to earn some money on my own. I feel certain such an experience would have enhanced my feelings of competence, and might have helped a great deal in fitting me for the challenges of business and social competition in later life.
But, as I remember, Pop turned down my request with surprising vehemence. To permit such a venture by a child of his would have attached a stigma to him as a provider. He could not see the psychological benefits to be derived from such an effort. His only thought seemed to be that his son would never soil his fingers in common trade as he had been forced to do. Ultimately, it was his sense of false price which was at issue here.
During these early growing years, I remember my freedom of action was often inhibited by fables and superstitions which were imparted to me by boyhood friends, and which, at the time, I believed implicitly. For instance, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, I was told if I permitted so much as a drink of water or the tiniest crumb to pass my lips, it could be observed by the Diety, for which the direst punishment could be inflicted upon the perpetrator. Thus, when I began to feel hungry toward the end of that holiday, I would sneak into the house like a thief, and, making certain I was unobserved by eyes, corporeal or otherwise, I would satisfy my appetite. At such times, I sincerely hoped the Lord was elsewhere occupied so He might no observe my sinful behavior.
Another shibboleth of that early time had to do with an injunction against touching the house numbers which were inscribed in luminous paint on the wall adjoining our front entrance door. According to this enjoinder, anyone touching these numbers would become irrevocably attached to the manganese bricks in the wall.
Oddly enough, although I realized, within a few years, that this assertion could only be nonsense, I still never attempted to lay a finger upon those numbers, not even up to the time when I moved away from the house to become married. I think this demonstrates how deeply ingrained become the impressions of our childhood.
I even promulgated such myths myself. I remember once inviting a few small, neighborhood friends to view the habitation of goblins, which I claimed to keep in my basement. Since these unnatural creatures lived with me, I , of course, had no fear of them. But the visitors I escorted into that unlit, subterranean room trembled with fright, as I guided them to the edge of the wood pile where these grotesque beings were supposed to reside.
“There!” I exclaimed, “didn’t you see the eyes of the bogeyman staring at you?”
My little friends huddled together, as they anxiously searched the spaces between the lengths of lumber for evidence of my observation.
“Yes!” they all cried at once, running fearfully toward the cellar steps and the floor above.
Such is the gullibility of the childish mind that it believes whatever it is told. I remember feeling a sense of power at being thus able to frighten my juvenile acquaintances.
There was even a time when I used to be called upon to relate tales of terror about ghosts and ghouls. These I invented in an extemporaneous fashion, but they seemed to achieve the same chilling effect that a proper story of this type might have had.
Most of the amusements we enjoyed as children were the games we played on the streets and sidewalks of our immediate vicinity. One of these, of course, was baseball, with the bases being marked off in chalk on the curb sides of the street. Thus, home plate and first base were across the street from each other, with second and third bases an equal distance away at opposite curbs.
The pitcher stood in relation to home plate, much as in the regulation game, but we often competed with less than nine players to a side. Another difference in our game was that we used an air-filled ball, or the sliced half of an air-filled ball which had become no longer serviceable, usually as a result of being run over by some passing car.
The light weight of the air ball enabled the pitcher to easily make it curve when thrown, so that the batter had difficulty in assessing the trajectory of the toss. In addition, when a half-ball was used, the pitcher could cause the truncated spheroid to rise or fall when delivered, depending upon which side was up when thrown to the batter.
The bat used in playing this game was usually a length of broom-stick sawn off a discarded broom. When such a bat was not available, the ball was punched out with the closed fist or even slapped down with the open hand. In most other respects, the game was played according to the rules of baseball.
Another game we played on the street, which was somewhat similar to baseball, except there was no running about the bases, was a pastime we called “Peggy” or “Pussy.” The “peggy” was a piece of broomstick of about six inches in length, one end of which was tapered by wh8ittling. The shortened bit of stick was shaped in this manner to enable the batter, using the broomstick bat and striking its narrowed end, to cause it to rise vertically while turning end over end.
Once the peggy was lofted, the batter would swing his stick at it, attempting to drive it as far into the outfield as he could. If the peggy was missed, he was out; but if he connected, he was awarded a base, depending upon which designated marker on the street the peggy passed. Scores were made by combining hits or knocking out home runs.
When we were younger, we played the traditional game of Hide and Seek. The Seeker, or It, as the one so designated was called, was usually chosen through a curious procedure in which all of the participants stood or sat in a row with their fists extended, while one, who was selected to do the choosing, struck each fist along the line with his own in turn, as he recited the rhyme:
“One potato, two potato, three potato, four;
Five potato, six potato, seven potato, or…”
The fist of the one that was struck at the word “or” was usually It. But if, as sometimes happened, the one reciting the rhyme was dissatisfied with the selection, he could add a concluding phrase: “and out goes y-o-u.”
As each of these foregoing syllables was pronounced, the chooser would continue to hit each extended fist consecutively, resting finally upon the one reached with “u.” At this point, the owner of the last fist became It, since there were no more rhymes with which to alter the result.
Another verse commonly used in choosing sides or individuals had a racist connotation, which would be undoubtedly frowned upon in today’s enlightened environment. As in the previous recitation, those who were to be chosen to play lined up before th4e person who was to make the selection. In this case, however, instead of striking fists, the person designated to make the choice would point to each player in turn as he spoke each word of the verses.
“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo;
Catch a nigger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go;
Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.”
With the concluding word “mo,” the person being pointed at would be It, or a member of the side being chosen.
In the game of Hide and Seek, the it person stood at a selected home base, usually a lamppost, and, with his forearm covering his eyes, called out a prescribed series of numbers. At the end of this enumeration, the Seeker would turn and shout: “Here I come, ready or not!”
While the Seeker had been counting, the Hiders had been searching for places of concealment where they were unlikely to be found. Most of the excitement of the game was generated by the paucity of time allowed and the usual likelihood of more than one person having the same hiding place in mind.
The Seeker was also limited in the area of his search, because if he strayed too far from home base, those who were hidden nearby could dash out and reach the lamppost before him. At such a time, the Hider would shout “In clear!”
If the Seeker did discover the hiding place of a player, he would shout out that individual’s name and the location of the place where he had secreted himself. Then would follow a race between them for the home base. If the Seeker reached there first, the losing Hider would then become the next Seeker. Thus the game would progress until some or all of us would tire of it.
There was an additional ritual when it was necessary to determine which side would “kick off” or “receive,” as in football, or which side would have “last outs,” as in baseball. This was decided either by the pitch of a coin, or, when a baseball game was to be played, whose hand was the last to grasp the upended handle of a bat. The starting point for this latter contest was decided by the position of one player’s hand on the bat handle when he caught it, after it had been thrown toward him. From there, each opposing player would successively grasp the bat handle tightly against the hand of his competitor. When no space on the bat remained to offer a secure grip, the player whose hand was nearest to the end had the choice of “last outs,” or any other alternative in dispute. Additionally, to make absolutely certain that a player’s last grip upon the bat was incontrovertible, he was required to swing it vertically about his head three times, without changing the position of his hand. If he could accomplish this feat, there then was no question of his entitlement to the option to be decided.
There were a number of other amusements we enjoyed as children, but these diversions were used with less frequency than those I have heretofore mentioned. One of these was the game of Red Rover. In this, the person who was It stood in the street and confronted a body of players who stood on the sidewalk before him. The individual who was It would call out: “Red Rover, Red Rover, for _____ to come over.” The player thus challenged would try to cross the street to the other side without being tagged by the challenger. If he succeeded in escaping the challenger’s touch, he would get another opportunity to demonstrate his speed and agility; if not, he would become the It person, subject to the annoyance and frustration of trying to catch fleeter competition.
A variation of this same game was played without any challenges. In this form of the pastime, the players standing on the sidewalk could dart into the street whenever a likely opportunity presented itself to reach the other side without being tagged. Sometimes a number of players would essay to cross at the same time, especially if it appeared that the It person was experiencing some difficulty in intercepting any players attempting to traverse his territory.
When the latter circumstances prevailed, riotous fun was enjoyed by the players at the expense of the It person, as they taunted and dared him to catch them, if he could. Sometimes, however, such audacity operated to the benefit of the player in the street, for where many attempted to cross, there was also a greater likelihood some careless individual might be caught. If and when such an event occurred, the former It person then had an opportunity to make a fool of his successor.
Another game we enjoyed when were about twelve or so was called “Buck-Buck.” In this pastime, one designated player would bend forward from the waist, bracing himself against a wall with outstretched arms, while five or six other players would assume a similar position behind him, attaching themselves successively to each other by clasping the upper legs of each individual coming before, the head being positioned alongside the hip of the forward player. The physical formation finally conjoined perpendicularly against the wall had the appearance of a stationary centipede or other segmented animal.
Once the centipede was in position, the opposing side would spring, one at a time and as far forward as space permitted, onto the backs of their crouching opponents. As each player prepared to leap, he would announce his takeoff by calling out: “Buck, buck, number one is coming!” Each following player would herald the onset of his jump by shouting his own number in succession. These proclamations were uttered so that the crouching players could prepare to brace themselves for the impending fall of a heavy object upon the back of one of their number.
The purpose of these consecutive leaps was to cause the collapse of the human chain upon which they landed, either by vaulting high and landing heavily, or by causing its downfall through the sheer weight of their bodies. Of course, if this design was unachieved and the human bridge held firm beneath the burdensome onslaught to which it was subjected, then the leaping players, in turn, had to submit to being leaped upon.
Less physical forms of play, in which we engaged as children, included the game of marbles. In this pastime, a number of marbles, or agates, as we called them, were placed in the center of a large circle, drawn on the street with chalk, or etched with a stick on the bare ground. Then each player, using his favorite shooting agate from the rim of the circle, would try to strike a targeted marble within the ring in order to propel it out of the field of play.
Each marksman, when shooting, attempted to put sufficient spin, or English, on his agate, so that when it struck another marble it would remain within the ring and near enough to the other spheroids so they could be driven out of the circle from close range. With such an advantage, a skillful player could bag most of the marbles, since all such objects, once knocked out of the rim, became his property.
Something like the game of marbles was played with soda bottle caps. These were put in motion by flicking the first or second finger from behind the thumb against the cap, propelling it forward in the direction of an opponent’s number of like objects. As in marbles, any cap knocked out of the circle of play became the property of the shooter.
Another game played with bottle caps involved the delicate maneuvering of such objects, in the manner heretofore described, through a succession of numbered squares. Each player was required to enter each space consecutively, without touching the lines enclosing those areas. The penalty for encroaching upon such boundaries was the loss of a turn. He was declared the winner who succeeded in entering and passing through all the numbered spaces.
There were other games we played as children, but they were employed so infrequently, I do not think it worthwhile to mention them.
When we played football on the street, we never attempted to tackle the ball carrier. To do so might have resulted in serious injury. However, where a field was covered with grass, we sometimes attempted the rougher aspects of this sport.
Only kids with indulgent fathers or members of sponsored teams ever had uniforms, helmets and shoulder pads to protect themselves from injury. Although we were never so equipped, no one of our group, as I recall, ever suffered concussions or incapacitating injury as a result of playing tackle football. Actually, we never played what might be called a regulation game; with us such activity was merely a romp consisting of a number of scrimmages.
One of such games stands out in my mind as being memorable because of the flying tackle I managed to execute at the time. Charging behind the line of the opposing side, I lunged through the air and brought down the ball carrier as he was attempting to make a gain through the center.
I have never again experienced the thrilling sensation I felt as I flew through the air at that moment. It was as though I had escaped the pull of gravity and could glide, through that limited expanse of ozone, like a bird swooping down upon its prey. Surprisingly enough, I sustained no injury or pain as a result of my unexpected flight, only great exhilaration and the back-slapping congratulations of my teammates.
The number of opportunities we had to engage in such sport was usually governed by the number of times we had access to the use of a football. But when such an article was available to us, we would troop en masse the mile distance to Cobbs Creek Park and “The Hollow,” located at 63rd Street, near Spruce, and enjoy a game on the yielding earth for a change.
Cobbs Creek itself marked the western boundary of the city, and “The Hollow,” which was situated on the east side of that stream, was a depressed area between low-lying hills, forming a natural amphitheater. Here many organized teams played their games, and once I recall seeing a semi-professional baseball team play, whose members all wore beards. This was the House of David squad, a group of individuals belonging to some religious sect, whose hirsute adornment seemed outlandish during those times.
Another diversion we enjoyed in the park was sledding down the snow-covered hills in winter. Some of the heights there were rather steep and eroded by the washing down of countless rains. Only the trees growing up and down their surfaces prevented them from becoming absolutely vertical.
Sledding on such precipitous slopes always offered us a challenge we found it difficult to resist, and many were the narrow escapes I experienced in skimming through the trees which dotted those hills.
A challenger of another sort almost had tragic consequences for me. This occurred in a section of Cobbs Creek Park which was south of Baltimore Avenue and across the creek from the Delaware County borough of Yeadon (pronounced Yad-don). Cousin Bernie Levin and I were strolling through this area together when we came upon a wooden railroad trestle, which bridged the valley occupied by the creek and the park. It seemed to have been abandoned, for neither of us ever recalled seeing a train run upon those tracks before.
The bridge, with its network of ties and crossbeams, stood some forty feet above the grassy plain we were traversing. From a distance, it appeared as insubstantial as the toy construction of an Erector set.
Being curious to explore it further and assuring ourselves it was no longer in use, we climbed the bank where the bridge entered upon firm ground, and proceeded to walk across it.
We found two sets of tracks upon the span, but, instead of a roadbed beneath them, there was only the cross ties with beam supports and empty space between them. On each side of the tracks, narrow catwalks extended across, providing room for only one person to walk upon. High guard rails had also been thoughtfully provided to keep pedestrians from toppling off the bridge in moments of giddiness.
We arrived at a point about midway on the trestle, and were enjoying the scenic view below, when we became conscious of a rumbling sound in the distance and a distinct vibration of the structure beneath our feet. Our worst fears were soon realized when we observed the fast approach of a freight train bearing down upon us. Noting that the engine was coming toward us on the side of the rails where we were walking, we made haste to cross over to the other side.
Bernie was quicker and more sure-footed than I, and he reached the other catwalk without incident. I, however, because of my frightened impulses, stumbled into one of the open spaces beneath the tracks, my left leg slipping in up to the crotch.
The train was almost upon me before I managed to extricate myself from that gap between the rails. With a superhuman effort, induced by the terror of the moment, I raised myself in an instant out of that yawning invitation to infinity, and flew to the other side, and flew to the other side in time to escape the oncoming locomotive. As the train passed us by, we huddled together against the guard rail, trembling and sobbing at our narrow brush with serious injury or death.
I never revealed to my parents the trying circumstances of that afternoon’s diversion. It would only have pained them needlessly. I wished to put the incident out of my mind altogether, for I had no desire to dwell upon a happening in which I came within a hair’s breadth of being dispatched to the other world, before I had quite entered upon this one.
Other memories of those childhood days crowd in upon me. I recall especially the many outdoor vendors who trod the highways and byways of our neighborhood, conveniently bringing their wares directly to our homes, as well as providing a mélange of color and sound to the quiet and uneventful aspect of those times. The narrow back alley behind the row of houses on our block was unique in this respect, serving as an avenue for all manner of enterprises.
One among such pursuits was the plethora of hucksters who trod those cramped environs to offer fruits and vegetables for sale. These proclaimed the virtue of their products, as well as their low price, with voices stentorian and undiminished in intensity. It was only when a customer called upon them that there was a temporary respite from their cries.
Such peripatetic salesmen were particularly in evidence during the Depression years of the Thirties. Many of my neighborhood friends earned spending money in this way.
Aside from these entrepreneurs who dealt in agricultural products, there were a number of alley hawkers who only traded in one commodity or service. These would announce their presence by articulating a distinctive chant.
One such peddler proclaimed his presence in the vicinity by calling out continually and in a singsong fashion he one word associated with his enterprise: “Horseradish!” This huckster enjoyed a flourishing business during the Jewish holidays, especially Passover, when the use of bitter herbs was always associated with the paschal feast.
Another member of this musical tribe of vendors was one who offered to mend damaged umbrellas. He had a rich baritone voice with which he asked the melodic question: “Any umbrellas to mend?”
Tuneful accents of another sort were uttered by a peddler who sang out: “I but old clothes!”
Other such open-air merchants came through this back passageway with their wares, but they were not as memorable for me as the ones I have described.
In addition to those who plied their commodities through the alley behind us, there were many others who brought their goods directly to each resident from the avenue running in front of our house. The most picturesque of such traders was the omnipresent iceman, who was seen early and late bearing a tong-impaled block of ice upon his burly, burlap-covered shoulder. Into each house he would go in turn, depositing his frozen product into the wooden iceboxes then in common use.
During the hot days of summer, the kids of the neighborhood used to leap upon the rear step of the open truck in which he hauled his frozen cargo and forage for cooling slivers of ice to suck upon.
In the winter, when the temperature was below freezing, the iceman’s business suffered a seasonable slack, for then most households employed outside window boxes for storing perishable foods.
Other vendors who offered goods or services from the street-side of our house included the milkman, the laundryman, the breadman and the occasional provisioner. Of all these, only the laundryman is sometimes seen today.
Besides those I have mentioned, there were infrequent visits to our vicinity by an old and quaint Italian peddler of water ices or soft pretzels, the latter being announced by his “La, la, pretza!”
A compatriot of this aforementioned gentleman would also come into our neighborhood every once in a while, pushing a mobile barrel organ, which we called a hurdy-gurdy. He would crank this instrument to make it play, while his rhesus monkey passed among the spectators to cadge for coins, doffing his cap at each contribution.
A constant visitor to our street, during the summer months, was the perennial ice cream vendor with his assortment of flavors. But other manifestations of the warm weather season were not so regular in appearance. Among such rare treats was the arrival upon our scene of a portable merry-go-round, playing the familiar strains of the calliope. At the sound of this music, children would come from far and near to wait their turn for a ride.
Sometimes, a strolling photographer would pass through the neighborhood. This particular entrepreneur could snap the picture of his subject and develop the print within a few minutes. This was long before the invention of the Polaroid camera.
There was one such photographer, who seemed to be more enterprising than the aforementioned operator. He had a small pony in tow to attract children to his camera. For little boys, he had articles of cowboy apparel to entice them to pose for him. We have a picture of Stuart, when he was a child, dressed as a cowboy on one such pony.
There were a variety of unrelated incidents during my early years which impressed themselves upon my memory because of the unusual circumstances with which they were associated.
One of such happenings occurred on one or two occasions, I believe, when it was announced that public health officials would visit each house occupied by children for the purpose of inoculating them against diphtheria and/or small pox.
A large number of children lived in our neighborhood at the time, and the hushed silence in the street outside then must have been something like the eerie stillness of a woodland emptied of its birds. In addition, numerous medical personnel busied themselves in the execution of these procedures, evincing the indifference to the emotions of fear and pain in their subjects common to those who perform the same task repetitively.
From that time forward, I have never again witnessed such a method of mass inoculation. To me it seemed something like the takeover and subjugation of a conquered people by an alien power, where the populace dumbly submits to the will of their masters.
Something like this same feeling of submission and helplessness occurred when I contracted the usual contagious diseases of childhood, particularly measles. To confine the energies of a healthy child within the limits of a single room is like caging a wild bird which had once known unlimited freedom. Even when I was permitted to get out of bed and roam about indoors, I spent most of my time at the front window, observing the activities of my little friends outside. These were among the most depressing periods of my young life.
The most unusual experience of my childhood, and one I have not revealed before to anyone to now, took place when I was perhaps eight or nine. I remember being in my bedroom during the early evening hours and sitting on the edge of my bed. As I rose to walk to the bathroom, a sensation of weightlessness came over me.
In the hall I could hear the voices of the Lougheads in the back rooms, so I knew I was in the real world. But my feet never seemed to touch the floor beneath me, as I seemingly floated upon insubstantial air.
I have never undergone a similar sensation since that time. It could have occurred as a result of a dream, but I doubt it. And I was not in bed because of an illness, because I was fully clothed. Yet I felt as though my soul had left its corporeal body to waft about unencumbered by its flesh. Of course, this could not be, for the members of my anatomy were still attached to my person and not lying motionless upon the bed, as has been described by others who have experienced similar disassociations. For all that, I have never been able to escape the feeling that I once knew what it was like to enter the world of the spirit.
No history of my childhood would be complete without an account of the annual pilgrimage my mother and I embarked upon each summer, after the closing of school, to “the Shore”—Atlantic City. The sojourn at this resort was always attended by a great deal of packing and preparation, for our stay usually extended until after the Miss America Pageant, the week following Labor Day.
Before we departed to our summer refuge by the sea, a large trunk loaded with our effects was dispatched by express to the hotel where we would be staying. This hostelry was usually selected during a day trip in the spring to Atlantic City, when various accommodations would be inspected and rates compared before a deposit was paid to ensure tenancy.
One the morning of the day we left for the shore we always arose before dawn, hoping that, by an early start, we might escape the traffic and heat of the usual summer weekend.
There was always a long line of autos and commercial vehicles waiting to embark upon the ferry, which plied the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden. These wide-beamed vessels arrived and departed in fifteen or twenty minute intervals, and, when passengers and vehicles debarked, a great push and scurry of people, cars and trucks would issue forth from their interior, as though propelled by the release of some volatile gas. Of course, all this waiting and crowding took place in those years before any bridge had been constructed to span the river.
Despite the inconvenience associated with these ferry crossings, I always experienced a sense of adventure in the navigation of that waterway. I enjoyed the sloshing of the currents against the bow of the boat, and the expansive view of the river from my vantage point made it seem as though I was traversing an inland sea.
I took special delight in standing near the prow of the vessel, so I could observe other ships at closer view; to watch for the meeting, in midstream, of the other ferry, as it plowed the stream toward the other shore; to be fascinated by the gradual approach to our docking area, and to note with what skill the pilot eased his craft into its berth.
The docking procedure was done with extreme care and precision, causing a great churning of water as the engines were thrown into reverse to avoid a sharp impact into the curve of pilings rising before us.
Viewed from a few hundred feet above the river, the ferries must have seemed like gigantic water beetles, darting out from opposite banks to be sucked up by the mouthlike moorings awaiting them. Once our ferry was safely attached to its dock, there was an almost simultaneous starting up of vehicular engines, and the autos and trucks followed each other on to dry land in slow procession, ours among the rest.
From that point, we drove through the narrow streets of Camden and a succession of suburban communities, until we reached an area in our passage almost totally devoid of habitation, with the exception of Egg Harbor. Then followed, for mile after weary mile, the monotonous view of scrub pine and other stunted conifers, interspersed by equally undersized deciduous trees. The terrain was invariably flat and the sandy subsurface visible at every hand. These conditions persisted for almost thirty miles, until we reached Absecon.
Here we detected a noticeable cooling of the ambient air, coupled with the distinctive and tangy odor of the ocean nearby. From this point onward, no trees dotted the landscape. The only vegetation visible seemed to be the salt marsh grasses, which covered everything except the widespread tidal coves.
But in the distance, above the shallow washes and desolation, loomed the shadowy towers of the elegant hotels of Atlantic City. After a short distance, we crossed the bridge over the bay separating Atlantic City from the mainland, and we were in the environs of that resort community.
Our stay at the shore was for me almost uniformly boring. After only a few days there, I began to yearn for home and the friends I had left behind in the city. I did not enjoy broiling my body on the beaches, for I burned easily, nor did I care for the hot and yielding sands thereon, or the enforced propinquity with teeming humanity bent upon enjoying the virtues of the seashore, despite its shortcomings.
I did find some pleasure in the waters, but only when they were relatively calm. However, after a short period of such ablutions, I usually felt chilled, requiring the warmth of a robe and the rays of the sun to bring my body temperature back to normal levels. I don’t think I ever remained in the water more than fifteen minutes at time.
The most discomfort for me, after leaving the beach, was to trudge back to the hotel with a wet suit clinging to my body and gritty sand attached to my feet. It was only after a warm shower and a rest in bed that I felt refreshed and cool.
Because of my disenchantment with the beaches and the ocean, I took to roaming the boardwalk during the day, killing time by listening to the spiels of the pitchmen proclaiming the virtue of their wares, or visiting the amusement piers, or watching games of chance, or attending auctions, or spending some hours in a movie house.
Once I did something unique for a change: I undertook to walk from our hotel (which was close by Million Dollar Pier) to the farthest end of the boardwalk at Longport and return, a distance of some eight miles. In Longport, I inspected the famous elephant landmark located there, walking through the tiny rooms of that structure and observing the many names of previous visitors inscribed upon walls and woodwork.
I don’t remember being particularly tired at the conclusion of my expedition. Rather, I felt exhilarated at being able to accomplish such a feat.
Among the diversions on the boardwalk I found to be especially memorable was the multifaceted amusement center known as Young’s Million Dollar Pier. Upon entering this establishment, one came upon a large and splendid ballroom in which the most noted bands of the day made music for the dancing public. At the farthest end of this room, glass-enclosed tanks displayed fish native to the local ocean waters.
Near the middle of the pier stood the residence of Mr. Young, a rococo mansion faced with stucco, that was every evening illuminated by spotlights from every angle. I never observed any lights inside this edifice, so I am not certain that anyone ever resided there.
A little beyond Mr. Young’s house, one entered a good-sized theater given over to cinematic offerings and live variety performances. My fondest memory here is of the Emmett Welsh Minstrels. These were a collection of black-face entertainers, who sat in a broad arc upon the stage, with the interlocutor in the middle of the line. This was a portly individual who was unabashedly Caucasian in hue and resplendently attired in formal dress.
The interlocutor acted as the straight man or foil for the end men, who were the comedic talents on the show. These were also distinguished from the others by having enormously wide mouths painted upon their features and stiff collar wings which extended outward about six inches or so.
Between presentations of song or dance by the others, the interlocutor would engage the end men in conversation, eliciting from each a humorous response. Sometimes the end men would have a dispute between themselves, with amusing consequences.
Because of its racial connotations, the minstrel show, as it was then performed, is no longer considered to be in good taste. However, I have been reliably informed that this type of stage show was actually invented by black players themselves.
Another feature on the pier I always enjoyed was the hauling in of nets every morning to see what prizes from the sea had been snared in a 24-hour period. There was a thrill of expectancy for me in watching this ritual, for one never knew what strange denizen of the deep might slither and squirm into the receiving bin, once the nets had been raised.
About a mile or two north of Million Dollar Pier was a much shorter pier called Steeplechase. This structure was devoted to amusements in which the paying guest came to actively participate in each.
One entered here through a massive revolving cylinder of highly-polished wood sheathing, which tested the sense of balance of all those who wished to partake of further joys upon the pier. After a number of passages through this whirling barrel, it became easy to adapt to this unusual means of ingress, although the fun of it was in the falling and sliding downward on the sides of the slowly rotating drum.
Once past this obstacle to an easy entrance onto the pier, one came upon a structure consisting of a mass of passageways. At first, those who entered here were confounded in striving to find a means of egress from this labyrinth, for the majority of its corridors ended only into blind alleys. Most people had no difficulty in overcoming the dilemma confront them, but a few became so hopelessly confused in seeking an exit, they had to be assisted out by an attendant.
A traditional haunted house was also available for those who were fearless enough to withstand the eerie sounds and the ghoulish figures brushing by in the darkness. The feature here that usually provided the most fun was a creaky passageway which entered upon an open balcony in full view of an audience below. Such onlookers (mostly male) awaited the passage of an unsuspecting female, who, upon stepping on a certain bit of flooring, would cause a stream of air to blow her skirts upward, hopefully revealing her thighs and the unmentionables surrounding them. Too often, the spectators were denied such erotic satisfaction, because a slip beneath the dress refused to rise or a modest miss had reflexes too quick to allow such ogling.
One of the rides I particularly enjoyed on this pier was a whirling apparatus, consisting of a double circle of chairs suspended by chains attached to a round, metal superstructure above. These seats, hanging limply vertical when at rest, could, by virtue of the centrifugal force produced when the revolutions were at their highest speed, extend rigidly outward to an angle almost sixty or seventy de3grees. During that period of most rapid orbit, there was a sensation akin to flying through space, as indeed we were. And, when we sailed over the rail at the edge of the pier, we had the added thrill of soaring over open water!
From here, I usually went to the enclosure where I could ride an electric car and test my steering skills in avoiding the bumps and sideswipes of other drivers. I was also not averse to jarring other vehicles myself.
Once tired of such amusement, I could proceed to the Giant Slide. This was a wide, undulating surface of polished wood, which extended downward, from a balcony near the roof to the floor below, at a forty-five degree angle. The length of the slide was at least a hundred feet.
Riding this smooth descent upon my backside was almost as exhilarating for me as sledding with my Flexible Flyer on some of the steep, snow-covered hills of Cobbs Creek Park. The only disadvantage to this type of ride is that it had a tendency to glaze the underside of one’s trousers. To overcome this drawback, most of those who engaged in this diversion sat upon handkerchiefs before attempting this slide.
Finally, came the piece de resistance—the Spinning Bowl. This is the name I have given it because of its appearance—like a fruit bowl with a flattened mound upraised in its center. Those hardy souls who dared to challenge the powers of centrifugal force sat about the rim of the elevated circle at its hub, holding on to its smooth, polished, wooden surface with the flattened palms of their hands.
As the bowl whirled faster and faster, those of us sitting upon its raised center gradually started to slip away, one after another, to be propelled unceremoniously against the sides of the revolving vessel. Here we seemed to be skewered, as it were, in all manner of indecorous positions, like so many discarded and sprawling rag dolls. Not even a head could be raised while the device was turning about at its maximum speed. It was only when the motor, providing its momentum, was shut off, that we were released from the incredible pressure induced by the centrifugal force of the spinning bowl. Needless to say, none of us suffered any ill consequences as a result of our experience.
About a block above Steeplechase Pier stood Steel Pier. This was comparable in length to Million Dollar Pier, but it did not then enjoy the popularity it came to know until the recent past. At that time, Steel Pier was noted primarily for its driving horses, as well as the high dives performed by humans. There was also the showing of films, as well as variety performances, but nothing to compare, in quality and diversity, in my estimation, with its rival.
About five or six blocks further north was Garden Pier. This structure was of a length about equal to Steeplechase Pier, but it had the distinction of housing a full-sized theater, where plays and musical offerings were performed. The playhouse was destroyed during a particularly severe hurricane, and it was never rebuilt.
There was one other pier in Atlantic City. This was of a size comparable to Garden Pier, and was located about six blocks north of Million Dollar Pier. It was then called Heinz’s Pier, after the products then promoted there. In addition, another section of this structure was given over to the manufacture of Lucky Strike cigarettes, from the raw tobacco to the final twenty-pack of smokes.
Here, also, aside from a number of speciality shops facing on the boardwalk, was a bazaar-type interior, where various other enterprises sought to interest and separate the visitor from his money.
Aside from the numerous diversions available, Atlantic City was also memorable because it was here I had my first kiss from a girl of my own age. This happened while were staying at Streitfeld’s Hotel, a large frame hostelry located at the boardwalk, a block below Million Dollar Pier. It was demolished many years ago, but the incident I am about to relate never left my memory.
A number of boys and girls, I among them, were seated in a circle on the floor, playing spin the Bottle. For a long time, the bottle avoided my direction, and, as each spin passed me by, I hoped and prayed that I would not be chosen to suffer the ordeal and embarrassment of kissing a girl in front of my peers.
I remember that most of the young ladies there were titillated at the prospect of being kissed by one particular dark-skinned youngster. According to my conception of male beauty, he did not appear to be especially attractive. And yet these young girls oohed and ahed whenever it seemed likely that one of their number might be favored above the rest. No such interest was displayed toward me, and I was somewhat disappointed, for I had always been praised by adults for my good looks. I can now only account of the allurement this young man projected by the Latin influence of Rudolph Valentino, the Shiek, as he was called, who was then all the rage in films and then had similar coloring and features. Besides, it cannot be deined, his nonchalance and self-assurance in the presence of so many adoring females, as opposed to my own insecurity, must have added immeasurably to his charm.
As fate would have it, the bottle inevitably pointed in my direction, with its opposite end selecting a mousy female whose personality blended into the wallpaper design. I remember that we both arose and walked together, as though to a public execution, into the confines of a nearby telephone booth. Here we attempted, by placing a seat pad against one of the glass panels, to shield from view the osculatory forfeit we had to pay.
Not being experienced in this line of endeavor and inordinately shy about performing in public, I only made a half-hearted attempt at kissing the designated girl. But the young lady had no hesitancy in the matter, and gave me a resounding smack full upon the lips. The spectators applauded our effort, but I think I must have blushed to participate in such an unseemly display of public affection.
In the matter of lovemaking and the Rudolph Valentino image project on the screen, there was a coincidental event which transpired one summer at the shore. I remember then attending a film matinee of “The Shiek,” in which Rudolph Valentino starred with the actress, Vilma Banky. At the conclusion of this showing, I walked back toward my hotel, and purchased a newspaper on the way. Surprisingly enough, the banner headlines on the front page proclaimed the startling news that Rudolph Valentino, the greatest lover of the cinema, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, in the fullness of his manhood.
When the funeral of this celebrated actor took place in New York, the streets were reported to have been choked with mourners and the curious, mainly women. To this very day, stories are sometimes reported in the press of elderly women laying flowers on his grave on the anniversary of his death.
For several summers thereafter, I remember hearing from the pitchmen at the boardwalk health food establishment how Valentino was laid low by the evils of constipation, and how one could, they inferred, avoid a similar fate by regularly ingesting material similar to Metamucil. I was so impressed by this implication that I purchased a supply of the product for my own use. It worked rather well for me, I must confess, but once having achieved a superior regularity and quality of bowel movement, I readily gave it up.
One summer, as I recall, Ray Freedman and his mother stayed for a time at the same hotel where we had taken up residence. With his company, the boring routine at the shore became somewhat more bearable.
It was during this period that an incident occurred which left its mark upon me in more ways than one. We had returned from a swim in the ocean to the locker room of the hotel. Here we removed our wet bathing suits and showered, before donning our street clothes. It was then that Raymond took it into his head to playfully flick his towel at my bare body. To keep him from pressing his advantage, I flicked my towel against him, as well.
During this contest of snapping bath cloths, with what must have been more luck than skill, the tip of Raymond’s towel struck me on the loose folds of skin adjoining the head of my penis. Oh, what a sting that was! And part of those folds of foreskin was pushed back as a result of that chance fillip. Of course, in this confrontation there was never any intent to inflict injury, only to frighten and repel by the crackling sound of the towel tip as it was snapped like a ship. In later years, Raymond often delighted in gloating over his marksmanship on that occasion.
About the only event I looked forward to during our stay at the seashore was the weekend arrival of my father. In those early years, the end of the line for the trains was at the boardwalk, and passengers debarked into the street, Arkansas Avenue, I believe. Of course, this was before the train terminal was built on Atlantic Avenue, where it is now a bus terminal.
When Pop was due to arrive, I used to wait for what seemed like an interminable period of time before I aw his train pull in, and I was able to catch sight of his familiar figure. Then followed news of home and a recounting of events which had taken place in the real world, the one far removed from the insular fastness of sand and sea in which I felt imprisoned.
Pop rarely went to the beach, for he was exceedingly fair, and might have suffered a severe burn from the hot sun. But, when he decided to chance the rigors of sand and surf, he wore a bathing costume which would have been considered stylish in the early 1990’s. This was a two-piece suit, the upper part of which resembled a T-shirt with horizontal stripes and, covering the lower portion of his body and descending to the knees, a tightly-fitting pair of trunks of similar design. In addition, deferring to the modest code of dress then prevailing, the shirt was worn over the trunks, so that the outline of the buttocks was not too distinctly visible.
Since he was so sensitive to the sun, and visited the beach so infrequently, Pop never felt the need to purchase a more modish bathing costume. Besides, the shape and style of it, with the more generous use of fabric, as opposed to that generally worn at the time, was more protective of his body. He even loved to boast that he purchased the suit many years ago for only $1.98, and it was still serviceable.
Finally, the day I had been hoping and praying for those many weeks eventually arrived—the day when we could all return to the familiar haunts of home. This time the monotony of the long drive back to the city was much more bearable than our pilgrimage outward. Each familiar landmark that brought us closer to home was cherished and savored as a harbinger of the happier days to come, much in the way a returning homesick traveller would view the distant outline of the Statue of Liberty, as he neared New York’s harbor.
Upon reaching Camden, there would be the inevitable lineup of cars waiting to board the ferry, that marvelous vessel in which we would be transported to the beloved shore across the river. I think it once took us upwards of an hour before we were permitted to board the ferry. Such long lines were not uncommon on Sundays when vacationers drove home from the shore.
Once embarked, I always sought to stand as near the prow as I could, so I would be as close as possible to the approaching dock on the Philadelphia side and the furthest away from the Jersey shore. With what ecstasy did I inhale the aromatic breezes on the river! Even the sloshing sound of the water against the hull of the ferry was like music to my ears. And, in the distance, standing tall upon City Hall tower, was the figure of Billy Penn, his hand slightly upraised, as though in greeting, beckoning home the returning native.
As each recognized landmark was passed by, I could hardly contain the excitement I felt at being once again in familiar surroundings. Curiously enough, however, whenever we returned to our neighborhood after an extended absence, I was always struck by the compression and diminution of the environment I remembered. The streets were far narrower than I recalled; Hamilton School was not the imposing stone edifice I thought it was; and even the house in which we resided seemed to take on the dimensions of a dollhouse.
After a short while, the experience of this deflated perspective adjusted itself to the reality of my situation. This mild disappointment was quickly replaced by the happiness I felt at being enabled, once again, to sleep upon a firm mattress with linens that did not constantly smell of the briny dampness of the seashore. No longer did I have to dress for the occasion of dining, nor, at night, did I find myself being assailed by the glitter, clamor and pervasively beery odor in the streets of Atlantic City.
What a joy it was for me not to be subjected to the relentlessly hot and glaring sun during the day, while seeking relief from the boredom of constantly visiting and revisiting the same sites upon the board walk and becoming less and less diverted by each encounter. Here, at home, when I walked about, familiar faces were at every hand, and voices that I knew responded to my own. No more did I encounter those rabid vacationers, who attempted to crowd every bit of excitement and amusing interplay in the short time at their disposal, enduring uncomfortable beds, indigestible meals, sleazy pleasures and insincere friendships for exorbitant charges and transitory gratifications.
I know some of my cronies would have wished to change places with me; I know I would gladly have done the same for them. This childhood aversion for the seashore has never left me. Whenever I see outcroppings of sand where loam should be, or a panorama of rooming houses against a background of surf and sand, I begin to feel an inordinate yearning to be elsewhere. There is something in me that cannot endure an environment where trees find it difficult to exist, and where grass and flowers need to be fertilized to grow well. Whenever I encounter such conditions, I thank my fate I do not have to abide for long among them.
There were occasions when we spent a summer or two in the country instead of the seashore. But I am sure this was done out of deference to my antipathy toward Oceanside resorts. These several weeks were enjoyed at a rural retreat near Collegeville, Pa. While the proprietor of these summer lodgings doubtless found it profitable to take in guests to supplement his income, it was, in fact, an operating dairy farm, with a large herd of cows and fields of oats, corn and hay to support the cattle.
The farmer’s name was Moyer, a name as common among the Pennsylvania Dutch as Smith or jones in the general population. Although there were quite a few teenage children of both sexes helping out with the farming chores and the needs of the guests, I think they were all foster children. For none of them seemed to take any leisure that the child of such well-to-do parents might feel free to enjoy.
I struck up a friendship with the eldest of these children, a boy of about eighteen. It was he who did most of the sowing and reaping on the farm, and he sometimes allowed me to hold the reins over the horses, when gathering bales of hay in the field. He tried to demonstrate for me the correct manner of milking a cow, but I could never get the hang of it. There was also instruction by him in the operation of the machine which reduced the horny ears of corn into granular feed for the cattle. Once we walked around the farm together, inspecting the traps he had set for woodchucks, and, on a number of occasions, he allowed me to accompany him in a pickup truck when he had to go on errands into Collegeville or the nearby hamlet of Eaglesville.
Perhaps my most memorable experience at this farm took place when a nearby farmer brought his cow over to be serviced by the Moyer bull. Then most of the youngsters there, I included, climbed up to the hayloft in the barn, which overlooked the cattlefold adjoining it, and observed how the bull earned a stud fee for his master.
The bull was a massive animal, and, when he saw that the cow was ready to accept him sexually, he demonstrated an erection the size of which I have not seen again since. His penis literally extended as far as his forelegs, and with it he found his mark unerringly. I have heard, in later years, that a certain gentleman made a walking stick out of just such a bull’s sexual organ.
When I observed the dairy herd in the field, I became fascinated by the manner in which the bull learned how each member of his harem was ready for mating. This he apparently perceived from the odor of the cow’s urine, for whenever he saw one in the process of micturition, the bull would hurry over to sniff the cascading stream. Then, with flaring nostrils raised upward to capture the quintessence of that golden liquid, he savored its bouquet like a wine connoisseur assessing the merits of a vintage Burgundy. Once he discovered an excretory fluid which bore that indefinable aroma which only bulls can relish or define, he never left the side of the one who so stirred his amatory impulses until their mating had been consummated. Later in life I learned that bulls perform a vital service in the production of milk, for cows are only lactiferous when they are in the process of calving.
On days when I was left to my own devices, I used to roam through the woods nearby in search of game, armed only with a metal slingshot I had purchased through an advertisement I had seen in some magazine. I was not aware then of the feeding habits of wild life, so I usually was abroad in the early afternoon, when one is not likely to hear the songs of birds or the stirring of small animals in the overgrown grasses. Only the omnipresent turkey buzzards circled widely overhead on distended wings. These were too far above me to present a palpable target, so I contented myself by shooting stones at inanimate objects nearby. In this way, I was able to sharpen my aim, without injuring any living thing.
Sometimes, when the days were hot, we were driven to the Perkiomen Creek, which ran by the town of Collegeville. This stream is about fifty feet across, with brown water and a viscous, muddy bottom, but it served as a refreshing interlude during those warm, lazy days. And always, when the subject of this particular creek was mentioned, the natives thereabout would recall the many floods it caused in years gone by and the high water marks of each.
Raymond joined me during one summer or two at the farm, and he enjoyed his stay there as much as I did. In later years, I have passed by the vicinity of Collegeville many times, but I have never been able to find the narrow, dirt road that leads to the place where we spent a few delightful vacations. My only recollection of the spot is that it joins Ridge Pike, about a couple of miles before Collegeville, in the middle of a steep grade and next to a church yard.
Having completed the sixth grade at Hamilton, I was transferred to Harrity, at 56th & Christian Streets, for the last two years of primary instruction. From here I was to be enrolled into West Philadelphia High School.
Scholastically, my stay here was relatively undistinguished. Again, as at Hamilton, none of my neighborhood friends were chosen to join me at the new school, having been designated instead to enter Bryant, at 60th & Cedar. There was, however, one young man, newly-settled in our vicinity, who was also assigned to Harrity, and he often accompanied me to school for the short time that he remained there.
This individual was Abe L., who was already two or three years older than I, and he had matured to such a degree that he found it necessary to shave every day.
Abe’s father operated a fish store on 58th Street, and some of the dankness of these surroundings seemed to cling to the person of his son. In addition to this aura of clamminess he exuded, I was further repelled by the thick, black hairiness of his body and the constant rheumy discharge issuing from his nose, which he habitually sopped up by sliding the shirt sleeve covering the underside of his forearm across his nostrils.
If these foregoing attributes were not enough to dissuade one from his company, his short, bowed legs and the singing movement of his long arms when walking gave him an appearance more anthropoidal than human.
Oftentimes, he would make himself appear even more grotesque by elevating the motion of his right arm, when walking, into a wide, sweeping arc, the tips of his fingers taut and angled like a scythe cutting through space.
The most arresting aspect of Abe’s features was a pair of bulbous and unblinking eyeballs which, with the magnification of his spectacles, made them goggle out like the yes of a Muppet. A bon mot or riposte would be announced by a distinct enlargement of these saucer-like orbs, evoking from his listeners a greater response of laughter from his farcical leer than from any inherent humor in his discourse.
While Abe’s appearance was unprepossessing, to say the least, I never had the heart to disdain his company. Besides, he was always amusing and pleasant with me, although I later learned he was extremely sensitive to personal criticism.
This latter quality came to the fore one day in class when our teacher, losing patience with Abe’s habit of wiping his nose on his sleeve, blurted out: “Don’t you ever carry a handkerchief with you, Abe?”
At his remark, the boys in the room laughed aloud and the girls tittered. Abe was struck dumb by this cruel disparagement before the entire student body. For the rest of the session, he sat slumped in his seat, his yes never raised from the desk in front of him.
It was no surprise to me that Abe did not return to class. And, for several months after this degrading incident, he was missing from school and his usual haunts. When he finally reappeared, it was at the center of a group of neighborhood boys, at our favorite street corner, and he was regaling them with anecdotes concerning life aboard a sea-going freighter.
Apparently he had been so chagrined by his humiliating experience in the classroom, that he ran away from home and managed to secure a berth on some vessel. Where he went or what work he did was never elicited, according to my recollection. Mostly, his stories had to do with the raunchy activities of men, who are denied female companionship for long periods of time, and who seek homosexual gratification for such yearnings.
I found it difficult to believe that anyone could have an interest in Abe as an object of amorous desire, what with his hairiness and the fishy aura given off by his body. But he swore that his anal virginity was threatened whenever he was in bed, bending over in the shower or while dressing.
“They tried to make a brownie out of me,” he said, “and take a trip up the brown and dusty path.” Abe leered at his listeners, his eyes bulging, as he imparted this erotic detail to his naïve audience.
Abe further diverted his assembled hearers by singing certain sea chanties he had learned during his travels. One such was called Columbo,” and, as I recall, it sent something like this:
“Oh, Columbo went to the Queen of Spain
And asked for ships and cargo;
But damned if that son-of-a-bitch
Didn’t bring back Chicago!
Oh, his balls were long and round-o;
They reached right to the ground-o—
That (high-falutin, bullcrap shootin’),
The phrase in parenthesis is something of my own creation, in keeping with the general tone of the lyrics, since I cannot recall the original words.
Another bit of ribald doggerel which Abe loved to emote, with the expression and rounded tones of the stereotypic Shakespearean actor, was this description of a bow-legged man:
“Behold, what manner of men are these
Whose balls hang between two parentheses?”
Abe’s stories and conversations concerning his adventures, in a world far-removed from childish games and classrooms for immature, for a time imparted to him a certain romantic image in my eyes. Indeed, so strong was this impression that I began to overlook his repulsive appearance and odious habits, and even look forward to his company.
This bond between us became so strong, that when he proposed a hitchhiking jaunt to Crum Creek, some ten or fifteen miles distant, I never hesitated to join him. The prospect of cooling off in that suburban swimming hold on an oppressively hot, summer day appealed to me, as much as did the idea of adventure. I did not even notify my mother of my plans, mainly because I thought I would be back before Pop came home from his business. Besides, she had always left me to my own devices, never feeling the need to supervise my activities.
As I recall, we headed south on 58th Street until we reached Baltimore Pike. From that point we managed to get a lift to our destination, without too much difficulty. The swimming area was set back from the pike in a shaded and secluded spot. Initially, the waters appeared inviting, but no one lese was swimming there. This seemed curious on such a hot day, and the thought of skinny-dipping in this alien stream suddenly lost its appeal.
Our change of intention was triggered by a hesitancy to challenge the unknown hazards confronting us: the depth of the stream or other pitfalls to be encountered. Prudence on the face of such unexplored possibilities had a chilling effect upon our desire to go swimming. In addition, darkening clouds had shut off the sun from view, and it looked like it might rain at any moment.
Turning back toward the highway, we were suddenly drenched by a heavy downpour of rain. Not being near any shelter, we continued to walk by the side of the road. The pike was now crowded with home-going traffic, made dense and constrained by the heavy rain and the slickness of the highway.
We had reached a steep incline on the pike, when our attention was suddenly drawn to the sight of a tractor-trailer speeding down the hill at a velocity which exceeded the bounds of good judgment, considering the road conditions. To avoid crashing into cars traveling before it at a much slower pace, the truck swerved aside, and with a lurch, it overturned and lay straddling the road in a jackknifed position. Soon, despite the rain and the lateness of the hour, the highway was swarming with interested onlookers, drawn as though magnetized to the scene of the accident.
I had no wish to further delay our homeward return, for I knew my parents would be concerned if I should be late for dinner. Thus, we did not linger in that vicinity, but continued on our way. We were soon fortunate enough to secure a ride from a passing motorist into the city, and I got home belatedly, but safely.
I do not recall receiving any punishment for traveling so far afield, nor do I recollect that my parents betrayed any unusual alarm at the lateness of my arrival.
After this incident, my relations with Abe became less intimate. Beyond meeting him, among others, at the street corner and engaging in the typical banter and riposte among young boys, I seldom saw him alone again.
While attending Harrity, I was introduced to facilities beyond the capacity of my former school (Hamilton) to offer. Indeed, once or twice a week, I was required to go to still another institution, the Huey School, at 52nd & Pine, in order to be instructed in the use of tools for woodworking. Aside from the fact that this latter school was quite a distance away from Harrity (over a mile), this course in shop work was also remarkable because it was taught by a woman.
In Harrity, a number of classes could be grouped together by simply folding back the partitions between the rooms. There was also an auditorium for our use located in the Sherwood Recreation Center across the street.
I remember Sherwood very well, because it was here that I was called upon to perform, or, rather, to speak upon the stage. For this occasion, I and each of my classmates was requested to find some joke, epigram or anecdote to recite before an audience of students from other classes.
Dutifully, I found something witty in the daily newspaper and memorized it for my stage debut. The next day, when the dreaded moment arrived when I was to speak my piece, I vaguely recollect walking to the center of the platform, as though in a trance. Daring not to look at the mass of upturned faces staring at me, but fixing my gaze on some object at the far end of the auditorium and near its ceiling, I delivered my lines hurriedly and with little thought to timing.
To compound the ineptitude I felt at that moment, my knees began knocking together uncontrollably. I am sure my listeners must have observed this phenomenon, and enjoyed my discomfiture. Mercifully, the words I had to say were few, and the punch line of the joke was no doubt delivered with as much grace as a humorous remark at a funeral. But, at the end, I was surprised to hear a smattering of laughter. Whether this resulted from the humor of my selection or my visible disquietude, I cannot say. At any rate, at the completion of my performance, I swiftly slunk away in search of anonymity. From that day to this, I have feared the thought of facing an audience from a stage.
Other memories of Harrity include my first observance there of one of the advantages of wealth. Up to that time, everyone I knew seemed about equal in property and possessions. But in this school I saw a pupil being driven back and forth from class in a chauffeured limousine. This was a girl with the unlikely name of Sydney Berkowitz, and her father owned a fashionable ladies’ dress shop on South Street.
Such ostentatious display of affluence had an inhibiting effect upon friendly overtures from her classmates, for, by being aloof from the ordinary student who walked to school, very few gravitated to her side. Sydney’s parents would have better served their daughter if they had enrolled her in a private academy, where she would have been able to mingle with children of similar backgrounds and financial advantage. When she went on to high school, I was pleasantly surprised to find that she discarded such means of conveyance for the ordinary mode of travel.
A teacher in Harrity also deserves mention in my lexicon of memorable experiences, for it was she who brought it forcibly to my attention that my speech had an element of inflection in it which was disturbing to those not used to such cadences.
I was reading from a passage in a book, when she curtly remarked: “Can’t you stop reading in that sing-song fashion?” Up to that time I was unaware that my accents were any different from those of my peers. And if the lady had any regard for my feelings, she would not have spoken to me in such a brusque and demeaning way.
From that time forward, I became more acutely aware of the disparities in articulation and accent between individuals who originate from different ethnic backgrounds and localities. For myself, I determined that it must have been my use of Yiddish as a spoken language, from my earliest years, which affected my speech in English, imparting to it a distinctive tone and lilt characteristic of Eastern European Yiddish.
I had heard these Yiddish cadences all about me as a child. It is a sententious style of speech which had its origins in the reading of the Talmud and other sacred tracts, as well as the debates which usually followed concerning the inherent meanings therein. It also sprang from the psalms and hymns chanted in the synagogue. It was from such sources as these that caused those special intonations to be filtered into the uses of speech.
The Yiddish idiom is replete with aphorisms to suit almost every occasion. When a speaker calls one of these into play, his opening statement is often uttered in a somewhat higher pitch, with the epigrammatic close dropping to a lower register. Oftentimes, a grace note of sorts is included to make the substance somewhat more memorable.
Since I had no way of knowing, at that time, how my voice sounded, I became acutely self-conscious about my manner of speech when reading aloud, always being careful to avoid any sing-song quality in my delivery. At such moments, I tried to limit myself to a monotone, which must have been a dull exercise for any listeners, but had the virtue of instilling in me a kind of discipline and awareness toward any recitation I was called upon to perform.
Later, I tried cupping my hands about my ears when I spoke, to test the quality of the sound emanating from my throat. However, it was only when I heard a tape recording of my voice that I fully realized the timbre and range of my articulation. It was not the sound I had heard when cupping my ears, which then seemed agreeable and full, but an utterance quite nasal in quality, much like those I heard expressed by other natives of the Philadelphia area. Undoubtedly, I could do little to improve this proclivity in my speech, but the sing-song quality to which my teacher objected was not evident, proving that my efforts in that direction had been successful.
Just one other memory of Harrity remains: the basement confectionery where fresh cocoanut slices and home-made candies were for sale.
Aside from the foregoing, little else was memorable to me about my stay at Harrity, and when the time arrived for me to move on to high school, I was delighted to make the change.