Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
The Gift of a Lifetime
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Gift of a Lifetime
George, you asked me a ponderable question the other day about the who, the what, the how, and the when of the beginning of my romance with the harmonica. And suddenly, as if in a dream sequence, the long forgotten answers unfolded like sections of a well-peeled grapefruit, sour on my mental taste buds but invigorating to my soul. The answer is that you were the maestro who orchestrated it. You gave me my first harmonica and started, with that one generous act of brotherly love, my sentimental journey with that sweet-sounding instrument.
The romance began on a Monday morning after the toughest, meanest, most life-threatening weekend of my unfolding life. Fleshing out the details of that discordant weekend may bring on a fit of hyperventilation, but, since you asked, I’ll chance it. But you have to promise to read the whole story. Read it word for word without checking out the ending, and when you finish you have to tell me the motive that triggered your impulse to add art to my hitherto crafty childhood.
The story begins on Friday morning, about a week before school ended and summer began. Wanting to look my best, I borrowed your brown, crepe-soled shoes, gave them a spit shine, and began lacing them up. Then —WHAMMO!— a shoestring broke, and it took me five minutes to even up the string and re-lace the micro eyelets. From here on out it was uphill all the way. Bursting out of the house, I was halfway up Deshong Street when, frisking my pockets, I discovered my yo-yo was missing. I turned, ran home again, retrieved it from the Panatella cigar box I kept it in, and, like a Jesse Owens in full flight, made it to Larkin Grammar just as the bell tolled.
Today was to be my coronation day! At school assembly, I was featured to perform my full bag of yo-yo tricks that had nabbed the neighborhood championships. The entire school, grades one through six plus faculty, would be there. Attendance was mandatory, I was told. When everyone assembled in the auditorium, I noticed the janitor, Mr. Harkins, leaning on a broom in the rear. Just then, Mrs. Good lifted her perfect-pitch whistle from its permanent position around her neck and blew a needle-sharp high-C above middle, which immediately squelched the noise level of the captive kids. Then, with modulated clarity, she rattled off an introductory resume of my yo-yo exploits.
Blushing with pride, I vaulted from my on-stage seat, and with a flair of professionalism, launched into my rigorous routine. The first and second graders, forced to sit up front, gasped with astonishment—especially when the shooting star became a three-leaf clover leading to an around-the-world maneuver. Encouraged by the “ooohs” and “ahhs,” I launched into my loop-the-loop routine, a perfect finale which got kids involved in the count. Then, just when the crowd had counted to fifty-five consecutive loops, the string broke. I watched in horror as my diamond-studded yo-yo flew high above the heads of an admiring sea of faces—and came to rest right on top of the bristling, Little Orphan Annie head of my classmate Blossom Worrel. Miss Ginter, my homeroom teacher, and Miss Web, librarian, rushed to Blossom’s rescue as she lay sprawled in her seat, eighth row center. From triumph to tragedy in one faulty loop!
Assembly was dismissed for early recess, and Barney Massey, Tommy Mc Alooso, Fred Parker, and Mike Tatarelli, immediately cornered me, accusing me of fraying the string to make it break. I denied it, but they kept it up until the bell rang.
After school, feeling a little let down, I kicked a pebble all the way down Deshong Street. (I forgot that I was wearing your good shoes, George.) Deciding to reward myself, I dropped by Charlie Peck’s candy store, laid my last nickel on his counter, and bought a bag of chocolate-covered bolsters. Just as I stepped out of the store, already crunching happily away on my purchase, the molar on my lower right jaw cracked wide open. No doubt about it, the entire crown was visible in the bolster bar when I yanked it out of my mouth for closer inspection. Running home, I cornered Mom and opened wide for her to assess the damage. Without hesitation she scooped two crumpled dollar bills from her apron pocket and walked me to the front door with urgency, instructing me to run to Dr. Leopold Mielcarek’s dental office at 531 Broad Street.
Not exactly eager to sit in the dreaded dental chair, I started off with more of a saunter than a run, but by the time I got to the Methodist Church at 7th and Madison the growing pain caused me to adjust my pace to a double strut. By the time I made it to St. Paul’s Episcopal at 9th and Broad, I was invoking Heaven to numb the throb. At Upland I noticed the sleek, black hearse pulling into Clancy’s Funeral Parlor. “More tears are shed on this corner for departing friends and family than I’ll experience in a lifetime,” I reflected as I waited for a trolley to turn onto Upland.
The clock in Dignazio’s window, as reliable as their tailored stitch, informed me as I passed that I had five minutes before Dr. Mielcarek’s classic extracts came to a halt for the day, so I sped on to Potter, checked traffic both ways, passed Third Presbyterian Church, then Moyamensing Fire Station, and without breaking stride ran until I turned the bronze knob on the heavy, beveled-glass door of the “tooth eliminator.”
Dr. Mielcarek wasted no time on pleasantries but instead guided me right into his chair, fastened a napkin around my neck, and expertly spread my jaws with thumb and index finger for a quick oracular survey. Without comment or background music, he selected his stainless-steel, heavy-duty pliers, eyeballed the cratered remains of my molar, braced both feet like an anchor man in a tug of war contest, then yanked. With that single move, the good doctor introduced me to a level of pain I’d heretofore seen only on the face of a celluloid cowboy while he bit down on a towel and had a bullet dug out of his shoulder with a penknife. “Bite down on this kid. It will stifle the bleeding”—these were Dr. Mielcarek’s exact words as he packed the vacancy with cotton. No pat on the head. He matter of factly wrapped the extracted tooth in the bloody napkin that had shackled my neck during the ordeal. I handed him the two crumpled bills and slumped my way, moaning, out the door.
My first upward glance caught the Mac Theatre Marquee across the street: Charlie Chaplin: The Gold Rush. I had seen the movie last Saturday and had laughed so hard I’d fallen backwards over the seat. But that was last week, I mumbled to myself, and even remembered laughter wasn’t enough to displace my present Mielcarek-induced pain. Checking sidewalk-cracks as I walked, I headed east on Ninth Street. When I reached Upland Street, Carl Kateski popped out of RHEA’s Drug Store, hailed me down, and monologued me into Clancy’s Funeral Parlor viewing room. At the far end, an open casket, surrounded by a wall of flowers, distracted my epic internal quakes. Strangely we were the only people in the massive room. This viewing of the deceased was my first ever, and it paralyzed everything but my imagination. Carl whispered something unintelligible as I focused on the casket through fear-infused tears. The body seemed to slowly rise to an angled forty-five degree posture. I swallowed hard, backing towards the double entry doors, but I failed to see Carl slip out—clicking the exit doors shut, leaving me alone in the room. I grappled with the door, but Carl held it shut from the outside. Just then a pear-shaped man in a black suit entered through a side door and gently escorted me out another way: a merciful reprieve from reality therapy. I scanned the vicinity around Larkin School, but Carl was out of sight. He had definitely shown me something that temporarily took my pain away, but at the same time he’d introduced me to future nightmares. This thought racked my aching head as I passed Jacob’s Deli at the mouth of 8th and Deshong. Halfway down the dog-leg of an alley, I spotted the black, multi-lacquered paddy wagon of the Chester Police. The police had raided an illegal crap game held in the huge warehouse, and the gamblers they’d caught were being packed like sardines into the wagon to be hauled four blocks to headquarters. I waited till the wagon pulled away, hoping to eyeball some local notables I knew from nightly rounds huckstering Philadelphia Records and Inquirers around town.
I finally entered our house, feeling overwhelmed by all I’d been through that day. Mom was waiting in the kitchen with a gallon of sympathy and a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, accompanied by a Fleischmann’s yeast square and a tablespoon of castor oil (the latter two a universal cure for all ailments). I lay down on the living room couch, hot water bottle on one jaw, the other jaw feeling the prickly bristles of the horse-hair couch, and listened with Mom to her favorite radio program, “The Johnson Family.” Listening as the master of many voices made Mom ripple with hand-clapping laughter. I almost forgot that a major molar was gone forever from the line-up of crunchers dedicated to the breakdown of candied delights.
That evening, health somewhat restored, I made my newspaper-hustling rounds, squirreling in and out of my usual haunts:
I had just vaulted down the steps of the Chester Club at 5th and Welsh, two newspapers left to peddle, when a short, squatty man, walking towards 4th Street, said, “What you got there, kid?”
“Philadelphia papers—a Record and an Inquirer.”
“I’ll buy both if you follow me. I got the money in my apartment.”
I followed him around the corner, entered the dimly lit entrance to a hallway smelling of bacon grease, and walked halfway up the stairs when suddenly a voice in my head shouted, “Run! Get out of here! Run!” I turned, grabbed the banister with my right hand, and jumped six steps for the landing below, twisting my right ankle in the process, opened the entrance door, and fled, limping, for three blocks, to 6th and Welsh. It struck me, while hobbling home, why a man might pretend he didn’t have a dime in his pocket to buy my papers and had to take me to his room to get it. Pop had taught me to be wise like a serpent, and this wisdom had whispered to me and kept me out of harm’s way.
Bathed and bedded down, I reflected on the day as I lay listening, as always, to the Eagle Café piano repertoire that bled through my bay window. My ankle had swelled slowly like an inner-tube being blown up one breath at a time. I stuffed my molar under my pillow (hoping for a visit from the Tooth Fairy). My sore gums sang an ode to a lost warrior sacrificed in the nightly battle to crunch bolsters. As if timed to soothe the aching gap in my jaw, “You are lost and gone forever. Oh my darling Clementine….” floated through the window.
Just then blood began to trickle in drops past my huge tonsils. I bit harder on the cotton tooth cork. The trickle continued. An hour later, almost too feeble to cry out but feeling foolish to bother anyone, I grabbed your shoulder, brother George, and your returned look of mingled shock and horror is etched in my memory forever. You got Mom. Mom called John. John called Chester Hospital on our newly installed Bell Telephone party line. The ambulance came faster than the Lone Ranger could shout “Geronimo.” I was too weak from blood loss to walk, and John carried me down the steps and rode with me to the hospital. They had dripped three pints into my left arm by morning, and I regained consciousness in a white bed. A nurse with a starched white bonnet attended my every need, except food and water. I craved water like a crippled camel in the Sahara Desert, and I pantomimed my drought to the nurse. She smiled an emphatic “No!” to my request as she readjusted the glucose bottle dripping vitals into my left arm, propped my pillows, and departed to attend to other outcries.
The next two hours were spent strategizing how to unplug from the I.V., climb out of bed, and sidle over to the Sun Rock water cooler across the room near the door. I timed arrivals and departures of the nurses, and when the wall clock had climbed toward twelve I detached, de-bedded, and maneuvered to a standing position. Weak but resolute, a loose dressing gown revealing my hinder parts, I used the three beds to my right as a banister to walk to the far wall. I made it undiscovered to the cooler, thumbed the faucet knob, and gorged, while the arched water-stream teared my eyes with intake. Water-logged, proud that I had beaten the system, I staggered back to my bed. In route, wooziness joined vertigo, my eyes blurred, and then, just as my left knee touched the mattress, it happened. A volcanic upheaval of every detachable solid, every coloration of bile, every particle of hot dog, candy bar, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, and castor oil buried in any crevice of my stomach, gall bladder, or upper duodenum belched onto the bed sheet. Only it was not my bed. The lava flow ricocheted off the belly of the man on the bed to my right. Florence Nightingale came running from her station in the hallway. With two assistants, she led me with gentle determination back to my bed. They washed me head to toe as if preparing me for viewing in Clancy’s Funeral Parlor, reneedled my arm, and with gentle fervor reminded me of my breach of hospital etiquette. The old codger next to me was wheeled out of the room. The sheet was not pulled over his head, so I whispered a prayer for his recovery.
Brother John arrived just before dinner that evening to spring me from the hospital. At home, I enjoyed all the spoils Mom could lavish and bedded down early, still too weak to focus.
Sunday morning brother Dan wrapped my sprained ankle and I limped to church, mandatory even for the walking wounded. I listened attentively to the sermon and was especially moved by Walter Budnick’s harmonica solo of “On the Old Rugged Cross” (Mom’s favorite) and Danny Bartkow’s epic baritone rendition of “The Ninety-Nine Sheep.” It seemed as though Danny looked right at me during all four verses.
Back at home, my tongue still checking out the massive empty space in my gum line, I trickled down a liquid lunch while sitting quietly in the kitchen, drawing giant four-leaf clovers on the oil cloth covering the kitchen table. “Boy, do I need a shot of luck,” I thought. After dutifully carrying my empty soup bowl to the sink, I opened the back door to see if I could find a shamrock among the patchy grass in our fifteen by twenty foot backyard. (Mom and I had searched one day, and she’d found two. We’d put them in a jelly jar and sealed them for good luck). Well, I searched on bended knee till grass stains began to show, searched until I heard the unmistakable tooth-fanged growl of Rinnie, Tola Lynch’s German police dog, nemesis of the neighborhood. I turned to catch sight of Rinnie just as he leaped the slatted wood fence between our yards. I ran to the far corner of the yard to hide behind the telephone pole, but Rinnie clenched my arm, ripping out a sizeable morsel of muscle and skin, and then re-arched a leap to his own side of the fence. My scream, equal to Mrs. Good’s perfect-pitch whistle, beckoned brother John. He reached for a hanging shirt on the clothes-line, ripped the sleeve to shreds, and applied a tourniquet to my blood-gushing arm. When the bleeding stopped, John told me to sit still. He grabbed our garden hose, leaped the fence as smoothly as a high-hurdle champ, faced down Rinnie on the run, then, greeting the dog with jungle justice, lavished blows on it with a rubber hose. John then re-leaped the fence, scooped me up, ran to the middle of the street, and hailed the first car heading towards town. As we pushed our way into the back seat of the car, John shouted, “Chester Hospital Emergency Ward!”
We sped through town, ignoring Officer Kandravi’s whistle. John kicked open the hospital’s double doors, laid me on a gurney, and wheeled me into the emergency room. Florence Nightingale couldn’t believe her eyes. We caught her as she sauntered down the hallway toward us. In disbelief she exclaimed, “Is it really you!? Again!?” She took over the gurney, wheeling it into a workable area, and listened intently as John briefed her on the episode. I remember four faces huddled above me as Florence Nightingale stung me in the hindquarters with a rabies shot. She then strapped a pint of blood on a pole, pumped up a prominent vein, and plugged a drip needle into my aching arm. I asked for a glass of water. She responded with a silent smile as she gazed at John in distracted admiration. I lay there looking up as four blue eyes built a bridge across my gurney. Hmmm…could this be the reason why Rinnie bit me? Apparently not. Instead of being wheeled off to the ward for overnight rehab and an opportunity for a Nurse Nightingale/Brother John romance to blossom, I was released after four hours in the Emergency Room.
That night, bedded down, hovering in the twilight zone, I catalogued my wretched condition: a throbbing sprain of the ankle, a yawning gap in the gum-line, a rabies shot in the buttock, a cratered hole in my right arm big enough to bury a bolster bar, three pints of new blood trying to integrate with my old blood, and a double dose of self-injected pity. Just then, as I moved my arm instinctively upward under my goose-feathered pillow, I touched, then fisted, a miniature box. Holding it up for inspection, aided by the street lamp, I read the label: Hohner Harmonica. Lifting the lid, I felt the smoothly polished silver housing of this tactile apparition of a longed-for dream. All pain vanished as I drifted into contented anticipation of Monday morning. Pop departed the room at six. You, George, left at seven-thirty for school, and I remained in bed for the day, searching for the tunes hidden somewhere between the sharps and flats, inner-ear sensitivity, and words and music buried deep within and aching for harmonic expression.
In time I came to know that you slipped it under my pillow, though to this day you won’t admit it. Perhaps as we sat side-by-side in the squeaky church pew, you saw the longing in my eyes when Walter Budnick, hands cupped around his Hohner, wailed away on his repertoire of hymns. Whatever motive prompted the gift, George, lost as it may be in your rust-laden layers of amnesia, the gift was not lost. It has given rhythm and rhyme to the sentiments of my soul ever since. Thank you, George.
© 2003 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.
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This page last updated 10/10/07