Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
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I’m not the guy to ask for time or place, but some are seared in memory as if with a branding iron. Such was the case when, on June 12, 2003, the mailman left notice of registered mail pending pickup at the Chester Post Office. I assumed an attitude that good fortune awaited, grabbed a copy of the day’s Inquirer on the way out, climbed into my ’94 Lincoln Towncar, and drove slowly west from my home at 20th and Melrose to squelch my curiosity and claim it. Turning east on Providence, I passed the venerable buildings once housing St. Robert’s and St. James high schools, then Widener University and Smedley Junior High. Smedley: the repository of many of life’s beginnings.
While cataloging reveries I crossed over Interstate 95 at 12th, impulsively choosing a venture down Upland, the neighborhood of my birth. My slow cruise was a pensive search for long-lost memories, but the scrutinizing gazes of the shirtless tenants now squatting on cracked stoops were question marks of my perceived intrusion into their territory of boarded-up squalor. A stoplight caught me at 9th Street, flashing up memories of Ria’s Drug Store, Clancey’s Funeral Parlor, and Dr. Nuefield’s narrow yard, where juice from pilfered sicle pears still lingers in the underbelly of my tongue. A car to my rear honked, and I moved slowly up to the cobbled alley bordering 812 Upland.
Stopping, I focused a brief but intense meditation on this flat-faced, red-brick, pre-Civil-War home to which our family had moved soon after my birth at 316 E. 10th and which was my first earthly memory. I pulled a felt-tipped pen from the pocket of my polo shirt and began scribbling in the spiral-bound notebook I always had with me.
Mirrored reflections of crystal glass
evoke perceptions of a past scene
In my kaleidoscope view
Knee-climbing splintered stairs,
Unaware that a backward fall
could end it all.
I belly over the top step
eyeballing the long linoleumed hall
before continuing my furtive crawl
toward an open door
where, memory holds,
I’ve been hugged before
Left palm, right knee exchange places
as my locomotioned, scissored crawl
inches me to where
I frame a glimpse of a smiling face
And rocking chair in motion
Aided by a nearby wall,
papered with pink flowers,
I lean, rise, stand as tall
as loose-pinned diaper will allow,
before I wobble a run toward waiting
that coaxed me on . . .
Ah, but a big black shoe
trips me forward to a face-down fall
But before I hit the floor
Gentle arms reach down
beneath my chest and arms,
lifting me ceiling high to hover above
so beautiful a face
laughing into my own
that I blink its epoch frame
into the synapse of my brain
where it remained undisturbed till now.
As I dotted the last “i” of my sudden poetic impulse, I looked up to see a surly-demeanored giant of a man emerge from the house. He closed the front door behind him, then flat-footedly descended the four slightly beveled granite steps, seemingly intent on questioning my motive in parking on his turf. Taking note of his suma-wrestler girth, I avoided eye-contact and pulled away, rolling through the four-way stop at 8th Street into town. “Close call, Dave,” I said to myself, “but at least the stop uncorked a poetic memory.”
It was approaching 2 p.m. when I finally signed for the registered letter. My thoughts of good fortune immediately dissipated as I spotted the Internal Revenue Services’ dreaded logo in the return address. Steeling myself, I tore the envelope open and had my worst suspicions confirmed: disallowance of a tax shelter invested in two decades prior. Biting my lower lip and averting my eyes from the column announcing the Bureau’s calculation of 20 years of compounded interest, I paused for a moment on the broad marble steps outside the post office. As a queasy mixture of vertigo and hyperventilation asserted itself, I grabbed the bronze handrail then sat with a decisive squat on the top step.
Seeking diversion from my newly discovered dilemma, I pulled the Inquirer from under my left arm. After scanning six pages and concluding that man’s condition had declined since the Garden of Eden, I transfixed on an article in the lower-left quadrant of page seven. Whammo!
Tremont, while skiing in the Alps, discovered the perfectly intact remains
of an ice-encased body. It
later proved to be his father, who, 55 years past, disappeared after an
avalanche. Joseph was able to
view his father’s face as he appeared when a young man.
Pausing in reflection on the magnitude of this event—a man looking at his father’s face as a young man younger than he himself was now—I suddenly remembered my schedule rendezvous with my son Joe at the Philadelphia International Airport in three hours. I folded the newspaper, placed it on the step beside me, and leaned forward, elbows on knees, my left hand wrapped like duct tape around my mouth, my right hand tweaking the bridge of my nose. Lost in reverie, I moved both hands and pushed on my closed eyelids with sudden intensity, pressuring the optic nerve to emit a radiant aura within which a kaleidoscope of perfectly preserved images appeared. It was as if I’d punctured the opaque membrane separating past and present, allowing me to experience again what the avalanche of time had buried so long ago.
In a flash it was June 12, 1948. At least that’s what was recorded on the dateline of the Chester Times folded beside me. From my vantage point on the marble steps of the post office, I observed a double line of cap-and-gown-bedecked graduates about to shuffle from the oppressive sunshine into the air-conditioned bowels of the Stanley Theatre next door. Extending back to 5th and Edgmont, the line looked like an 800-foot black caterpillar. I scanned faces in the procession and sensed neither tension nor anticipation but only an eagerness to toss airborne the caps from which sweat beads were rolling down. Strangely I vaguely recognized most everyone in the line, some more, some less, but I recognized them all—names and faces.
My gaze came to rest on the face of a kid near the head of the line, just as the procession was about to move forward into the bowels of the Stanley Theatre. As I leaned backward against the polished marble balustrade, a feeling of “transfer” suddenly settled over me.
I’d been horsing around on the pavement with my buddy Ralphie, ceremonial black gowns shrouding our recently acquired zoot suits tailored by Albie Ingerman, when Mr. Sholley, my social studies teacher, had grabbed us and nudged us into the front of the line. Behind us the procession extended, like a spine needing alignment, beyond the post office to the corner of 5th and Edgmont sixty yards away. Sweat trickled down my back, finding its way into my socks, as the Class of ‘48 jabbered small talk and waited for the line to inch forward.
Dave, move it,” Ralphie said, grabbing my arm.
We solemnly shuffled on a slanting descent into the carpeted recesses
of the Stanley, moving down a 40-foot gradual slope through the mezzanine
before proceeding through the polished-brass, embossed doors into a rush of
air-conditioned coolness. Aisle
by aisle, Mr. Plafker directed the seating, pointing us into the last row.
(I later discovered that we were seated according to class standing).
The principal, Mr. Agan, being a man of the cloth, believed in the
biblical adage, “The last shall be first and the first last.”
I laughed inwardly as I tripped my way to a plush contoured seat in the rear, a seat angled to allow, at a glance, a profile view of most of my 400 classmates as they filed in. The theater filled slowly as the orchestra, maestroed by Mr. Lewis R. Zelley, solemnized the seating of the graduating class. I cut the clowning and fell into a mesmerized search for the meaning locked in this never to be repeated moment.
The Stanley Theatre was Chester’s most opulent arena, the darkened palace that lit up the lives of the overworked citizens who willingly queued up for the chance to absorb all that Hollywood produced and smooth away the encrusted cinders in their lives. The Stanley also hosted the big bands when they came to town—Tommy Dorsey, Kay Kaiser, Stan Kenton. War-bond drives had urged big money out of the blue-collar labor that had built a “victory ship” a week at Sun Ship Yard while downriver at the foot of Lloyd Street sixty jeeps an hour rolled off the assembly line at the Ford Motor plant during the war years. I sat in the theater weekly and suffered the pangs of vicarious indefinable passion creeping through my heart valves as Jeanne Crain, Heddy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Betty Grable, Joan Bennett, Jean Harlow, Gene Tierney, and Paulette Goddard carried me away.
The class moved to their seats slowly. Twelve years of my life and times, shoulder to shoulder, sitting like a compressed accordion: Larkin Grammar, Smedley Junior High, then three meteoric years at Chester High. A tidal wave of memories rushed through the canyon of my mind as I scanned the theater. Some were as clear as a color slide, some sepia-colored—old but vintage. Others were like an 8-millimeter movie and could, if I’d let them, run on and on. But how was this montage sutured together in my mind? How and when did our lives touch, if they touched at all? How did we grow through all the awkward struggles in search of who we were at every stage and what we hoped to be?
Along the way we practiced our own cunning, our bragging, swaggering conceits, as mice invaded the walls of our childhood innocence and nibbled on the cheese of conscience until it became riddled like Swiss. We laughed at others’ deformities but sulked over our own acne. We chose our own crowds to run with, we competed, we fought, we challenged, we grew into siblings’ hand-me-downs and defined our own roles in our neighborhoods. We honed our skills on the school grounds and in Chester, Crozer, and Deshong parks. We hookied school and, when caught, paid the price meted out by paddle or strap. As Mr. Giles often said to me, “This, David, will go on your permanent record.”
We suffered and enjoyed all the agonies and ecstasies without a vocabulary capable of describing our feelings. As small children we held a sibling’s hand when crossing a slippery, cobbled street and later crossed by ourselves when school-appointed safeties waved us on. We were herded to church or synagogue to sit through grown-up talk we didn’t understand, until the day we walked alone, on our own, searching through grown-up pleadings, to find out for ourselves who we were, where we came from, and where we would be headed when ultimately lying prone, coiffed, and momentarily mourned and eulogized. We threatened to run away from home and did—but always sneaked home before curfew. We shared colds, lined up for pox vaccinations, survived the shame of ringworm, felt sorry for ourselves through whooping cough, enjoyed the reprieve from school when quarantined for measles and mumps, stared in the mirror at infected tonsils that touched in the back of the throat, swallowed a coin or two and searched for them in our stools.
We measured our growth by notches on the door jamb, and slowly, imperceptibly we grew—not just up but outward, like rings on a tree trunk. The concentric circles moved us from breast-feeding and the crib, to crawling, to wobbly stance, to a walk along the wall, to a strut that felt like balancing on stilts, then—magic!—to a hand-held walk in the street to school with lunch pail and milk-money in our pocket, to a morning salute of the flag, to cursive with ink-pen, to dodge-ball at recess and marble games in the hand-smoothed dirt, to hide and go seek, to king of the hill, to foot races, to fistfights, to pitching pennies, to crap-shooting in the alley, to the YMCA where we swam naked in a chlorinated pool, to gym class where we tumbled on mats and climbed ropes hand-over-hand to the ceiling, to the Village Green Pool where we learned how to back-dive, swan-dive, and flip a one-and-a-half gainer off the 9-foot board and swim two lengths under the water. We tossed medicine balls and played basketball, handball, baseball, football in the mud, stickball, volleyball, badminton (a sissy game), and tennis (another sissy game; they always wore white shorts and matching shirt).
I did all this and more, as the circles of my tree trunk added impervious bark, taking me from diapers to short pants, to knickers, to Levi’s, to church suits, to zoot suits and tailor-made shirts with Billy Eckstein collars. And between the growing circles, I felt my sap rise and my strength increase. My limbs of experience reached nimbly out, further and further, until all the wards in Chester were known to my migratory feet. I carried my passport under my left arm and flashed it with my right—huckstering the nightly news in every taproom in town and wherever else I could sniff out the sale of a Philadelphia Inquirer, a Record, the Daily News, the Bulletin, or the Public Ledger. I’d challenge territorial claims made by other kids, and at times we’d duke it out, like dogs fighting for a bone, to see if might made right. My deviated septum is with me still….
Meanwhile, in the orchestra pit, Bob Barkley lowered his chinned violin, Roland Cohen unpuckered his clarinet, and the saxophone section unclipped their neck hooks. Mr. Zelley slumped his baton to his side, ending the mantra repetitions of pomp as the verbal circumstances were about to begin.
My sentimental meanderings were interrupted as the Reverend Richard Strohman of Third Presbyterian Church invoked heaven’s blessings upon us all. Silence reigned during this solemn moment, and then Principal Karl Agan strode into position center-stage and sought to homogenize the gathering with upbeat positivism. After a spirited crescendo of handclaps, Principal Agan returned to his seat among the dignitaries ensconced stage-right.
It was during the superintendent’s speech that my focus clouded. His commentary had the effect of swallowing a bowl of shredded wheat with no milk, so I opened my yearbook for some distraction from the stage proceedings. I fingered the pages randomly until I came to the double-page spread of a cartoon Ferris wheel in which sat the “Big Wheels” of the Class of ’48, their faces as recognizable as the Coca Cola logo.
There was Fred Parker up near the top. “That’s where you belong, Fred, even though my influence sometimes led you astray. We shared the same neighborhood, the same mentors, for twelve years. Remember when we got booted from the basketball team together by Coach Bob Forwood when we missed the school bus home from the Radnor game?”
And there was Harry Ashbridge in the next seat down: “You couldn’t do better than date Bennie Holcomb’s sister. You’ve got my seal of approval on that one.” And Poe Parramore: “You’re the dream of every mother who prays on bended knee that her daughter will marry you and improve the human race by twelve or more.” And just below him was Harold Stewart looking suave: “Harold, your face should be plastered on every mannequin in Adam’s Clothing Store’s display windows. They’d sell more suits.” And there was Walt Pietryka: “Walt, if you don’t rip any tendons scooping wild pitches out of the dirt, I’ll be paying someday to see you play for the Phillies.”
My thoughts drifted back to the hot August day when Barney Massi had ended my own baseball career before it had gotten off to much of a start. It was a Saturday-afternoon pick-up game on the baked-dirt field behind the Deshong Museum, and I’d just gulped down a mini bottle of Miller Flounders chocolate milk before stepping to the plate as confident as Ferris Fain, fearless first baseman for the A’s. And then Barney’s fastball connected at the top of my spine, just below my left ear, driving me facedown in the dust. As I limped to first base, the welt growing on my neck, I told myself that Barney might have a mean streak but he surely hadn’t meant to brain me. Next time up, his fastball bounced off my rib cage just above the kidney—shattering my confidence to hang-in-the-box and permanently closing the door on my Major League fantasies.
A ripple of applause for the speech I’d tuned out snapped me back to my seat in the back row of the Stanley. From the podium Vice Principal Giles declared, “And now for the long-awaited moment of the presentation of diplomas.” The leatherette-encased diplomas were placed in stacks, hopefully in the right order, to the side of the stage near the stairs so that the recipients could make a quick descent after a hearty handshake from Principal Agan. As the roster of graduates was called out, I amused myself by listening for butchered pronunciation of the Slavic names and watched for a while the brief fleeting saunters across the stage followed by the brisk walks back up the aisle to assigned seats. I figured it would be a long wait before my name was called, so I returned to the Ferris wheel picture at the back of the yearbook.
There was Art Levy: “Hey, Art, if you follow in your brother’s footsteps you’re destined for respect in the highly buffed hallways and hallowed courtrooms of the county seat. But I’ll always remember you as the guard who wasn’t a ‘gunner,’ who passed the ball for cut shots and made Herky Miller’s game look good.”
And Eugene Slivka right below him: “I’d always look for you on your front porch, right across the street from the Russian-Ukrainian Baptist church I attended on Sundays. Eugene, your voice rings like a bell in my head.”
And George Weiss: “I always saw you hunched pensively over an encyclopedia at the Crozer Library on 9th Street. I hope the hound-dog scent of knowledge doesn’t keep you from smelling the roses.” And Berkley Brown: “You call to mind the proverb that says, ‘If a man is to have friends he must show himself friendly.’ And so you do, my friend.”
And Anna Mae Fuhrman: “I watched you move through six years of bouncing down hallways at Smedley and Chester High. Maybe that’s why jitterbugging to Woody Herman’s ‘Woodchopper’s Ball’ was so easy for me.”
And Ray Given: “Those who know say that ‘humor is the grease needed to lubricate the rusted gears of life.’ You are well greased, Ray—keep lubricating.”
The announced names began to reverberate from the stage curtains, the chandeliers, and the bedecked walls as the lengthy list of grads was summoned one by one to the stage. I returned to my yearbook, zooming in on Lee Layton, whose placid face belied the Swiss-watch timing of his wit. “We shared Smedley for three years, Lee, as well as the love of pool and the allure of a deck of cards.”
And there’s Anne Hughes, smiling. Could it be she’s thinking of the night I’d walked her home from the Smedley eighth-grade dance? We’d held hands—my left, her right—as we struggled for five tortuous blocks up Edgmont to 23rd to suture speech parts together while feeling each other’s pulse beats through interlaced fingers. Ah, wilderness! Will I ever make it through the woods?
Chick Summa sits beside Anne. (Maybe they’re holding hands). “Chick, I’ll miss seeing you at the Royal Billiards. We’ve frittered away many an hour perfecting bank-shots and massé of the cueball.”
There are Barry Ives and Audrey Cullis: “While you humbly bowed to the Oracle of Knowledge for answers to life’s riddles, I, on the other hand, majored in minors of no consequence.” And Pat Nolan: “You vibrate health! Your face should adorn a Wheaties box.”
And here was Joe Tiburzi: “Joe, your feats on a mud-patched football field will forever hang in memory.”
Reflecting on Joe’s stellar accomplishments reminded me of my own short-circuited football career, abruptly ended when I was a sophomore. At practice one day, I returned a kick and my hip pads slipped around and caught my groin, grounding me without a tackle. Coach Babe Buono later implied that if I were to continue such antics I’d never attain the pedestal upon which brother George was enshrined. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I could see it in his eyes: “You, David, do not possess the ‘Try to get around my end’ attitude your brother George had—not to mention brother Dan’s back-field “Bronco Nagurski” feats in ’44.”
And so, reluctantly, I traded in my jock for a shoehorn and a part-time job at A. S. Beck on Market Street. This, I rationalized, put coins in my pocket, thereby funding my poolroom acumen, which in turn reaped dividends to buy tailor-made zoot suits such as the one adorning me now.
“So much for shifting pads, Joe. Maybe Coach Buono gave me yours to wear that day—ending one career, hatching another.”
I closed the yearbook just in time to heed the call of my mispronounced name. (Being the eighth in the family to attend Chester High, you’d think they’d get it right by now). This disgruntled thought kept me company down the aisle and across the stage to receive graduation certification and a handshake, eye contact, and warm “Congratulations” from Principal Agan. I then skipped down the stage stairs like Fred Astaire and breezed to my seat to absorb what followed.
It took a while for the roll call to get from “Komarnicki” to “Zultowski,” but the procession finally ended, and it was time for Ralph McCafferty to step to the podium and artistically sketch the valediction. In finale, we stood to sing the Star Spangled Banner, hemming in memories woven on the broadcloth of 1945-48, and then, like a giant whale, the Stanley Theatre belched out the sons and daughters of Chester.
I was among the last to exit into the afternoon sunlight. After exchanging wisecracks and small talk and looking into faces I knew I’d never see again, I defrocked, tucking the ceremonial garb under my arm, and began walking up Edgmont toward town. Just then a hand landed on my right shoulder. “Dave, I just got paid, and I’m itching to win my money back. I’ll meet you at the Royal Billiards in an hour.”
Was it Bill Brazell’s voice in my reverie that woke me up or the brush of a foot as someone passed me on the post office steps? No matter, I’m glad it happened. A glance at my watch told me I just had time to make it to the airport. Rubbing my eyes to refocus, I walked to the curb and slipped a dime in the parking meter to thwart imminent municipal ticket-extortion of a classic 1948 Lincoln Zephyr.
I then crossed the street to my Towncar, catching a red light at 5th and Edgmont. I blinked water from moist eyes just in time to see a kid in a gray sharkskin zoot suit saunter beneath the Pennsy Railroad underpass at 6th Street, walking with a straight-backed strut—as if ready for the potluck of life.
© 2003 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.
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This page last updated 10/18/05