Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
Independence Day, 1944
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Anticipation was drifting drowsily through my early-morning slumber, when the unmistakable sound of a cherry-bomb explosion under a tin can, then another, jolted me awake. Loud laughter and the pungent smell of firecracker smoke drifted through my window, and a quick look outside confirmed that my neighbor Doodles and his cousin Harvey were the culprits. July 4, 1944, had begun with a bang.
I climbed into my clothes faster than a fireman late for a four-alarmer, then scurried down the backstairs to the kitchen. I kissed Mom on the forehead, emptied the Wheaties box into my bowl, and spooned its strength into my lean, 13-year-old body.
Today was the day Delaware County tilted toward Chester for the big Independence Day Parade. The citizenry walked from Upland, bused from Media, and carpooled from Upper Darby, Lansdowne, Sharon Hill, Glenolden, Rutledge, Morton, and Marcus Hook— the pulsing blood of the county testing the capacity of Chester’s heart.
Packed to the chin with the Breakfast of Champions and a hastily downed glass of orange juice, I headed out the door and sauntered up Seventh Street toward Edgmont to soak up the festivities. The parade would form four blocks away at Third and Market, but the lunch-packing, Thermos-toting crowd had staked their claims early and were already three deep before starting time, stretched like a rubber band on Edgmont as far as I could see in both directions. Only Kandravi the traffic cop seemed blissless as he stood waving traffic through the clogged artery at 7th and Edgmont and whistling the steady stream of parade-goers onto the curb in front of Speare Bros. Department Store. Businesses had hung flags and draped bunting on every available pole, and the feeling of patriotic fervor was running high.
I walked along Edgmont toward Sixth Street with an attitude of “no concern,” knowing I’d find a space to slither into. I passed Speare’s, Murray’s, Birney’s—no luck. In fact, the crowd was clotted ever thicker. I made it to Sixth, thinking I’d climb the Pennsy Railroad embankment, but the Buckman Village kids had claimed the ledge, squatting where the incline allowed. As I emerged from the underpass, heading toward Fifth Street, a flock of nervous pigeons flew across the elevated tracks. They flapped in loose formation, then circled to land on the roof-rim of Kresge’s Five and Ten Cent Store. Closing ranks, they formed a line as if they had reserved seats to catch the parade with an unimpeded view. And WHACKO! —just like that, I knew what I would do.
Turning, I walked three steps to the Union News kiosk and bought five newspapers: a Philadelphia Inquirer, a Philadelphia Record, the Public Ledger, a Bulletin, and a Chester Times. Leon, the newsstand owner, looked a little puzzled as I forked over the 15 cents for the papers, since he knew I was a paper boy myself.
By the time I reached Whalen’s Drug Store, the crowd had thickened to a pickpocket’s delight. The clock in the store window said 9:30, which gave me 30 minutes until parade time. The sun was steadily rising in a cloudless sky, and sweat beads began popping out on collars and brows. Kids were everywhere—straddling their dads’ shoulders, licking twin-stick orange popsicles, digging wooden spoons into Dixie cups, smearing their faces with cotton candy.
I maneuvered toward Fifth Street, my five newspapers locked under my left arm. As I walked along, I cataloged the names of the stores I passed, as if I had to know them all by heart: Cohen’s Jewelry; Green’s Market; McCoy’s Men’ Shop; Spencer’s Stationery; Thom McCann’s Shoes; Morris “Square Deal” Jewelers; Lloyd’s Men’s Shop; Freed’s Furniture (where Freed himself was standing on one of his oak chairs so he could see over the crowd); Royal Shoes Market (my sisters, Mary and Vicky, would never grace this joint); Vogue Millinery (perhaps they’d window shop here); Bomberger’s Drug Store; and finally the Chester Cambridge Bank at the corner of Fifth and Market. Looming across the intersection was my destination—the Crozer Building, the tallest building in town.
My Joe Lapchick sneakers carried me nimbly across Fifth Street and swiftly negotiated the two white marble steps that led up to the majestic eight-story building. I pushed open the plate-glass doors and walked purposefully to the concession stand in the back corner of the lobby, over near the elevator. The heady aroma of Camels, Lucky Strikes, Chesterfields, and Muriel cigars mingled with a breath-stealing pungency that choked my tender lung tissue. “Pack of spearmint, please,” I told the lady who squatted atop a high stool. Plunking my nickel down on the counter, I thanked her and moved aside to open the pack and unwrap the first stick from its silver paper. I carefully folded it, inserted it in my salivating mouth, and then licked the sugary residue from my fingers.
Just then the elevator doors opened, and I stepped in with assurance. Face forward, I inched steadily backwards as others entered to cramp my space. A woman the size of a newborn hippo came in first, edging me toward a corner as we were joined by a couple wearing the etched frowns of a lifelong argument. A lawyer type stepped in next—decked out in a navy-blue, vested shantung suit, cuff-linked white shirt, and cordovan-polished Florsheim shoes. (My acute awareness of his footwear came from three years of eyeballing potential customers ambling by my shoeshine box). The hippo lady had me cornered until she waddled out on the fifth floor, producing a noticeable easement on the elevator cables. The frowning couple stepped out on the sixth floor, moving like two convicts joined by leg irons. Before making his exit on the seventh floor, the lawyer adjusted tie, cuffs, and collar as if answering a curtain call. Not one word had been spoken by any of us while we’d been on the rise.
Traveling to the eighth floor in brief but welcome solitude, I stepped out over the brass Otis signature plate on the metal threshold. Thanking Otis for the pulley-cable invention that had lifted the world into vertical integration and which now potentially allowed me to observe the parade from a pigeon’s vantage point, I turned right and headed toward the roof exit at the rear of the building.
I had to admit I’d been dreaming and scheming this moment since I’d first walked down Market Street. And walked it I had. At the age of five I’d walked with sister Mary to the foot of Market to board the Wilson Line for an excursion to River View Beach, that sandy paradise nestled down river on the Jersey side at Pennsville. At the age of seven I’d walked unattended down Market to Third, where I’d unloaded Christmas-gift fantasies in Santa’s ear at Stotter’s Department Store. I’d walked it with Pop to visit his clubfooted friend Sam Douglas, from whom he bought the Bible tracts he’d later distribute to the sick at Chester, Taylor, and Crozer hospitals.
As I walked down the long, white-tiled hallway, about to test the limits of my loosely constructed conscience, I kept my newspapers securely tucked under my arm—an added cover in case anyone stepped out of one of the long line of offices to inquire as to my business on the eighth floor. If challenged, I’d simply say, “Paper, mister? I’m down to my last Inquirer, Record, Ledger, Bulletin, or Chester Times.” As I moved down the long corridor, I passed “John McClure/Insurance,” “Aaron Tollin, Esquire,” “Joseph DeFuria, Esquire,” “Chester Merchants Association,” “John Hancock/Insurance,” and “Lindsay Law Library,” but none of the illustrious occupants emerged from behind their pebbled-glass doors. With one quick “All clear?” backward glance, I pushed the crossbar of the door marked “Roof Exit” and stepped onto the fire escape leading up to the roof.
I scrambled up quickly, without looking down through the corrugated steps to the alley eight floors below. Crossing onto the roof, I gingerly walked the catwalk toward the front of the building. At roof’s edge I leaned forward on the chest-high steel guardrail, giving any gawkers down below the vicarious thrill of vertigo. I set down my newspapers, gave a quick “Thanks for the inspiration” salute to the pigeon lineup across the street on Kresge’s rooftop, then did a slow 360- degree turn to drink in a panoramic sweep of the city. Gazing down on the Delaware River five short blocks away, my eyes zoomed in on a tugboat. Rubber tires were rope-tied along the bow, serving as bumpers when nudging massive cargo ships into docking position. An oil tanker with a bellyful of crude cruised toward Sun Refinery. Turning northeast, I saw the Philadelphia skyline shimmering in the glare of the sun, William Penn standing jauntily atop City Hall.
I checked out the Port of Philadelphia, crowded with ships. I knew that heavily muscled stevedores were at work down there—wielding big metal hooks to steer cargo onto pallets for loading or unloading the bowels of the vessels. I knew this because my big brother John was a stevedore before he’d gone off to war, and he’d let me handle his hook once. I followed the curved shoreline south. It was crammed with industries grinding out endless production to bury the enemy and end the war. Westinghouse was building generators; Sun Shipyard was launching cargo ships, one a week; Scott Paper was turning pulp into the best paper products on earth. Baldt Anchor, Sinclair Oil, and Sun Oil were arrayed along the shore, chimneys pointing heavenward, belching gray smoke and doing their best to blot out the morning sun. If an acrid smell and burning eyes were the result, so be it—if it helped defeat the enemy and bring my brothers home.
The river glistened in the baking summer sun, with foamy wakes trailing the ship traffic. Could this be the spot where William Penn first stepped ashore to walk among the Brotherhood of Friends? I looked down on the jostling crowd lined up in front of the Colonial Courthouse. That’s where Sir William had signed the first colonial charter and later held the first Supreme Court in the American colonies.
Next my eye fell on the extended wooden awning next door, belonging to the Washington House Tavern where George Washington had rested his weary frame and logged his journal entries about the lost battle at Brandywine 14 miles south. While I was deep in thought about General Washington grinding his teeth in an attitude of true grit and scratching his quill pen across the diary pages, my peripheral vision caught sight of a man stepping onto the roof, a good 40 feet from me. I’d seen too many Gary Cooper movies to panic, so I picked up the newspapers I’d placed by my left foot for just such an eventuality, waited until he was near the front rail, and bellowed, “Paper, mister?” He paused, smiled, then said, “Relax, kid, I’m here for the same reason you are.” The need to explain my presence eight stories up was totally squelched when he added with a grin, “Take it easy. I’m not the truant officer. I like people just fine, but I don’t like crowds. I’d say we’ve got the best view in town, kid. Say, what’s your name?”
My apprehension had totally evaporated by now. “Davey,” I answered. “What’s yours?’
“Call me Wally,” he said, sticking out his hand.
Before I could respond, the shrill whistle of the Grand Master snapped the lead band into a drum-rolling high-step that brought a roar from the crowd below. The parade had begun.
I leaned over the tubular railing as far as faith would allow and thrilled to the brash, brassy sounds of the instruments and the chest-high prancing of the majorettes. Right behind the lead band came the veterans of World War I, shuffling along as fast as they could manage to a tune from their glory days:
There, Over There
The veterans extended their flags high, and kids perched on their fathers’ shoulders excitedly waved miniature flags back at them from curbside. Up on the roof, I snapped to attention with heels locked, and Wally stood erect as a ramrod with a salute as rigid as a bronze statue’s. There we stood like a two-man reviewing stand as the parade moved steadily up Market. Units formed at Third and Market Square, came to life with whistle and drum roll, and began marching and strutting to the waves of family and friends.
From my perch eight stories up I could barely make out the embroidered lettering on the street-wide banners held chest-high by the various groups to announce the name of their society, their reason for being: “The Sons of Civil War Vets,” “Spanish American War Vets,” “The Veterans of Foreign Wars.” They all moved with dignity and purpose, as if they were carrying their legacy with each step. They seemed to be moving down the street in memory of buddies left behind. Here came the American Legion, then the American War Mothers dressed in white, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Jewish War Vets—all getting their big fat say on this warm sunny day.
An unforeseen pause in the action came when the uniformed mounted-police brigade was passing Fourth Street. Right in front of the Delaware County National Bank, a horse reared up on its hind legs, causing the curbed crowd to pull back in alarm. While the recalcitrant steed was being calmed, one of his stable mates unloaded a giant pile of you-know-what right over a manhole cover. The crowd roared with laughter as the whole parade came to a halt for a manure-grabber to excavate the generous pile and cut down Fourth Street with the steaming treasure. During the break in the action, traffic cops opened up Fifth Street for vehicles to proceed through. The parade resumed with the Knights of Malta, followed by a group whose banner read, “Artisans of Mutual Protection.” (If school hadn’t been out for the summer, I’d be asking Miss Eachus about that one in history class!)
On and on they came: gleaming fire engines; bald-headed dignitaries in late-model convertibles; Mayor Peoples flashing his toothy Roosevelt smile from the back of a Cadillac; baton twirlers who tossed their sticks skyward and caught them to the unanimous amazement of the crowd; and Chester’s pride and joy, the high school band in their orange and black capes. Wally had been walking the roof corner to corner during most of the parade, as if he was trying to see every detail and memorize it, but now he rejoined me at the rail, standing to my right. The high noon sun caught the left side of his temple, revealing a spider web of scar tissue fanning out from his eye, into his hairline, and then back down along his cheek and onto his neck where it was visible under his unbuttoned shirt. He had the spartan look of a marathon runner—lean and disciplined—and he had a six foot two view of the world. I wondered about his scars and wondered why he’d come up to the roof, why he didn’t like crowds, and why he wasn’t off fighting the war like my brothers were. He turned to me slowly just then. “Got any older brothers, Davey?”
“Yeah, four of them. Mickey, Johnny, Joe, and Danny. They’re scattered, all off somewhere fighting for the flag. I sure miss them. I wish they were home.”
Wally smiled as he looked away, the smile tightening the skin on his scarred cheek. “No, Davey, your brothers are where they have to be right now, and I wish like anything I could be where they are.”
Sensing an at-ease mood, I asked him, “Where they are? Is that where you got that scar?”
“Yes, Davey, I was there, and that’s where I got the scar.” He said it in a hushed tone, then fell silent and looked out toward the river where the Chester/Bridgeport Ferry was leaving the dock, loaded with cars heading for the Jersey Shore. Then he moved a little closer so he could be heard above the rising street noise. “Davey, I haven’t talked to anyone about the war, but I feel the urge to talk to you right now. See, I want to ask you a favor, and it’s only going to make sense if I share a secret with you. I’ve got a feeling you’ll follow through if I ask you.”
I felt like I’d gained the confidence of an older brother and a compact was about to take place. “Gosh, thanks, Wally. No matter what, if I can do it, I will!”
“Davey, the real reason I came up here was to get my last look at the city, to see as far as my eyes can see. And it turned out to be a good day for it—the 4th of July, a reminder of all that I fought for in the Pacific before ….” Wally paused for a few seconds. “… before my discharge. See, I was wounded on Guadalcanal, and the doc says I’ll be blind in a year or less. That’s why I came up here, Davey, to drink it all in so I can remember it when the lights go out.”
It was hard for me to take in what he was telling me, but I could tell by the resignation in his voice that it was all true.
“Davey, I’ve got a girlfriend here in town, and I was planning to marry her when I returned from the war. Well, I returned all right, but not the way I hoped to. I haven’t told her yet what the doc said, and I’m not sure I will. I can’t stand pity, and that’s what she’s going to feel for me. I left too many buddies buried under dirt clods on hell-infested islands to accept pity for this. I don’t even know if I’ll stick around this town.”
Wally’s voice had been heavy, but suddenly a note of enthusiasm came into it. “Here’s the deal, Davey. Julie and I took a walk in Deshong Park before I enlisted in the Marines. We walked down the hill, holding hands, down to where the road curves at the wading pool, the pool with a cobble-stoned fountain in the middle of it. We sat down on the grass, and I wrote my feelings for her into a poem on a little piece of paper and read it out loud to her. Then we walked down to a giant oak tree by the edge of the creek. I spotted a crevice where the lower branches met the trunk …”
My attention was riveted on what Wally was telling me, and I had a feeling that he was about to unload the big secret on me.
“I grabbed a broad branch and pulled myself up,” he continued. “Then I wrapped my poem in a spearmint-gum wrapper, folded it up into a ball, and shoved it deep down into the crevice of the tree, covering it with a little pebble I’d picked up when we’d been walking. After I jumped down from the tree, Julie and I walked some more along the creek. I guess I shared my heart with her then and told her that I’d like to marry her when I came back. I told her that the poem was the seal of our commitment and that we’d retrieve it after the war. I said I’d read it out loud to her again at our marriage ceremony. I thought of that moment through every battle as we fought through the Solomon Islands. It kept me going, Davey.” Wally swiped at his eyes, and I took a furtive wipe at my own with the back of my hand.
“Thinking of that poem hiding in that oak tree in Deshong Park gave me the will to live, I guess. Davey, this is what I want you to do. I want you to go down there and see if it’s still there. Take it out of the crevice and keep it for me. If I’m still around next year, I’ll meet you downstairs in the lobby by the concession stand—12 o’clock sharp next 4th of July. I’ll be the guy with the seeing-eye dog. And if I don’t show, the poem’s yours to keep, as a memory of the guy you shared a roof with to watch the big parade.”
Wally looked me straight in the eyes. “Is it a deal?”
“Deal,” I answered.
We stood facing each other as the last band played a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “America First” and disappeared under the Sixth Street railroad underpass. Wally and I shook hands and gave each other a snappy salute. Then he turned and walked away without a backward glance, disappearing below the roof’s edge. After taking one last panoramic sweep of the city, the repository of all my archived memories, I tucked my newspapers under my left arm and headed across the roof back to the eighth floor. I pushed the down button on the Otis and watched the arching dial move from one to eight. I stepped into the elevator. Luck was with me (no hippo lady), and I descended alone.
I sold the five newspapers while I walked down Market Street, neatly recouping my 15 cents, and stopped to pick up a miniature flag from the curbstone in front of A. S. Beck Shoe Store. I bought a half-pound of rock candy at the Candy Kitchen, then strolled across to Whalen’s Drug Store, straddled a counter seat, and slowly sipped a cherry Coke as I reflected on what had just happened—on the first adult secret I’d ever been let in on.
Three uneventful days came and went before Saturday rolled around, the day I’d picked for fulfilling my pact with Wally. Clothed in T-shirt, Levi’s, and my Joe Lapchicks and filled with Wheaties, I steamed up Deshong Street, cut diagonally across the Larkin School playground, entered Deshong Park, and eyed the ripening seckel pears just itching for me and George to shake the branches and collect a two-week haul. I stopped to guzzle down some spring water at the fountain, then moved through the meadow grass like a puma on a mission. Reaching the wading pool, I aligned my sights on the creek across the road like a surveyor, then walked a straight line to a craggy chestnut tree, its roots stretched like giant twisted straws sucking life into limbs that stretched 40 feet up. The tree leaned toward Chester Creek in a slightly reverential bow as if to thank the source of its life.
Yes, this was Wally’s tree all right. The lowest branch was beyond my reach, but a half-buried rock ledge jutted out, so I took a five-yard running leap, extended both hands, gripped the branch, swung a leg up and around it, and hoisted myself into a sitting position. The jagged bark was pressing through the fabric of my Levi’s, but I sat there for a while, giving the area a sweeping surveillance. A toothy squirrel was observing my invasion from an upside-down position two limbs up. I shimmied toward the trunk, and, sure enough, there was a half-buried pebble lodged tightly into a crevice by six years of growth. It took five minutes to shave away the bark and dislodge the stone with my pearl-handled pocketknife. It was a wonder that the park guard, Mr. Ditchfield, and his roaming German police dog with its hanging blue tongue hadn’t noticed me by now.
I tweaked out the pebble, then held my breath as I fingered out the hidden treasure. Taking no chances, I shoved the Wrigley’s spearmint wrapper deep in my pocket, then dropped nimbly down to the ground. I walked casually along the creek to climb the embankment at Ninth, then jaywalked and ran past the Masonic Hall and the Boyd Theatre, cut through the yard of St. Michael’s Rectory, belly-flopped over the wrought-iron fence into Charlie Peck’s side yard, entered his store and bought a bottle of Royal Crown cola, walked home, mounted the steps to my room on the third floor, carefully unfolded the wrapper, and smoothed out the creases in the scrap of paper. This is what I read:
like the summer treat
of ice cream
on a warm, breezeless night
Ah! To make these savored moments last
to the point
of melting in my hand …
aware as I feast
that the catlike thief of time
will swallow up
the here and now
and in this time,
only a semblance of a trace
of your solitary face
in the corner of my brain
I read the poem three times before the words and Wally’s feelings came together in my eighth-grade understanding. Then I rewrapped it, tucked it in the bottom of a worn sweat sock, dropped marbles and other assorted treasures on top of it, and hid it away under a loose floorboard in the closet.
One year later, on July 4, 1945, I left the house dressed exactly the way I’d been dressed the year before. The poem was tucked in my right front pocket. As promised, I made it to the lobby of the Crozer Building at high noon. In fact, I got there a little early, because I’d allowed time for the parade holding me up. I waited outside until the parade had passed and the crowds had disappeared. I watched the clock tick away the minutes from 12:00 to 12:30, drawing off the juices from a whole pack of Wrigley’s spearmint while I waited, but no Wally.
I never knew his last name. He’d never offered it.
I never found out if he left town, married Julie, or just couldn’t make it that day.
Maybe that’s why from that day on I’d stared intently at faces in every crowd, looking for Wally.
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