Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
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|"Almost 22,000 days have cycled since you throttled my deceptive sleight of hand. Sixty years of fine vellumed scratchings have entered the book of life. As kindly as the Hound of Heaven would allow, I returned the other day to the scene of our raucus childhood, Seventh and Deshong. All is gone!"||The Deed
By DAVE KOMARNICKI
George, you are about to read a story that proves truth is stranger than fiction. In fact, this story is so strange that I don't quite know where to begin. It happened over sixty years ago, but I remember the incident as if it were a series of thirty-five millimeter slides flashed on the projector screen of my frontal lobes.
But then again, how could I possibly forget? The guilt clinging to the incident is massive - like barnacles clinging to one of the piles under the Music Pier in Ocean City. Despite the endless waves of bygone days, sixty years of them, the residual guilt has not been washed away. In fact, the barnacles increased by layers through the years, protected as they were by mossy overlays of a weakened conscience. There were unlimited chances to confess, but it seems I could never conjure the courage or find the appropriate moment. So the silt of guilt was allowed to flow into my mental harbor all those years, and it eventually buried "The DEED." Yes, the daily guilt accumulated because I harbored "The DEED" till now. In fact, "The DEED," unconfessed, would have followed me to my final demise had it not been for this strange but true incident I'm about to unleash on you now. Well, how it ends I don't know, so I'll dive in somewhere near the beginning and swim through the wastewater clogging my mental stream until the truth is totally confessed.
It all took place on Deshong Alley in late August, 1941. I remember because I was wearing your old overalls. (They were really Wrangler blue jeans, but "blue jeans" was sissy talk used only by Dudley and that was his mother's fault because he was an only child). I wore them to Larkin School that day, because you were gifted with a new pair for your birthday. (I'd helped Pop pick them from the pile stacked on a table in Montgomery Ward's). Anyway, you were sporting the new, and I was feeling my oats in your discards. Yours were bluer and stiffer; mine were fading and slightly frayed, but loose enough to allow knee-to-chin action, loose enough for sprints in my Joe Lapchick sneakers that imprinted tracks on the summer-soft macadam-paved alley.
Deshong Alley was our Schieb Park for pick-up games, our dog-leg of action, our direct trek to and from grammar school. Bert Redden lived and held court there, and we used his porch column as a marker for a double in our tire-ball games. Sylvester Wilson domiciled in that flat-faced, tired-eyed pre-Civil War row-house of disintegrating red brick, with its warped window sills and a shredded screen door whose lean allowed buzzing green-eyed horse-flies ready entry. But I digress into unsure ground of sentiment, and Adam Smith, our YMCA mentor in gymnastics, wouldn't like that.
Anyway, as memory holds it, it was the last of the seventh, and, as you recall, our tire-ball games aborted after seven innings - sometimes sooner if Mom sent someone over to haul us away for supper. Paul Lukes was scratchin' the score that day, kneelin' on one knicker-clad knee, scratchin' it every half-inning. Usually he used whatever marker was at hand - a stone, a brick chip - but today he marked with a piece of chalk I'd waylaid from Miss Ward's chalk box. Remember how she kept her chalk box high up on a narrow ledge above the coat hooks in the cloakroom? Little did that sweet lady know how often I dipped into that box in route to the boy's room in the basement. I routinely timed my raised-hand plea for "relief' about fifteen minutes before morning playground recess, just so I could "borrow" a few chalk strips.
I'll never forget the morning I leapt, tipped the box, and caught it just before it bit the floor. Facing into the coats I slid the lid along the etched grooves ... and WHOA! Inside, along with chalk strips, there abided six confiscated penknives. Looking both ways for sudden entries, I pocketed the needed chalk, then "borrowed" the pedigree of all pocketknives ... a pearl-handled three-blader. What a tongue-biting find! I carried that beauty everywhere except into Pop's sight. I practiced my mumbley peg routine for months. George, you never could figure out why I was sooooo hard to beat. Well, I'm tellin' you now. Maybe it's part of this epic guilt I've slung around my neck like a dead albatross all these years.
Well, anyway, back to the stickball game. Paul Lukes was tending score. Our team was ahead four to three - two outs, bottom of the seventh. Billy Lykens just pinged a weak rolling single; Buster Robinson ricocheted a double off Burt Redden's doric-colurmed porch; and YOU were about to step to the chalk-marked plate sportin' your new Wranglers.
The summons to supper was upon us, Brother Dan just slid the front door open (visible to me from my position on the mound). He cupped his hands, hollerin' us home. We ignored him so he descended the three granite steps in route to deliver the call and haul us home. Two outs, two on, last of the seventh ... only you stood between a win and a broken, unfinished game. Dan paused on the curb in front of Bowen's house, waiting for the trolley car to pass on its way into town. I sensed the game was about to slip away into the mosquito-infested twilight. Quicker than a flash of light from my EverReady battery, an unthinkable plot hatched full-grown into my mind - a deed that proved Pop and John Calvin were on the same theological wavelength, proved that evil was alive within, that the magnet of my Adamic nature could attract the iron filings of deception imbedded deep within my soul, waiting for such a time as this to give birth to the unpardonable.
In the whimsical words of Dag Hamerskold, "When does one swim so far away from the shore that the point of no return is reached?" Well, that twilight on the mound became my Waterloo, but my rational ego whittled a lame defense by whispering, "Davey . . . you're only eleven years-old and still in the kindergarten of street smarts." I was still capable of massive blockage of conscience if presented with a ...
Frank's Orange Nectar (12 oz.)
I could listen to Connie Lemko on Sunday morning as he throttled out all five stanzas of "Ship Ahoy" and my conscience never recorded a word of his pleadings, augmented as they were with a Ukrainian tenor overlay.
Anyway, as twilight descended, as mosquitoes circled, as you stood there swinging your broomstick, brandishing all the intimidation you could muster, you suddenly dropped the stick, nimbled over to the Eagle Cafe wall, slightly to the right of the screen door over which an internally lit sign was posted, "LADIES' ENTRANCE."
You leaned over, picked up the "reserved" stickball bat, my stickball bat, the one I couldn't handle, the one I'd fashioned from a discarded rake I found while junkin' behind Galey Hardware Store. They'd tossed a chipped rake into the trash, and I'd bagged it along with about six cardboard boxes I'd flattened on the spot before stacking them onto my wagon ... but not before rippin' my index finger on one of those heavy staples holding the box together.
The rake was split at an angle below the point where my visionary eye saw potential for a stickball bat. I'd sawed the rake part off in the back yard while Sonny Lynch's German Shepherd, Rinnie, growled at me through the slats in the fence between us, drooling to sink his eyeteeth into my tender flesh. I'd paused from sawing the handle long enough to finger a full hand of stone-mangled dirt. I'd whipped it into Rinnie's face and barked in falsetto as he took refuge behind the pear tree on the far side of the yard.
Anyway, I'd finished my bat-making routine by notching vertical slits into the end of the bat for distinction and set about to make practice swings of my new acquisition - gauging the weight, assessing my hand-eye coordinates. But after many many swings sadness had descended. The hickory stick had felt heavy - too heavy for my eleven-year-old bone density. Try as I might, that beautiftilly notched hickory stick was slightly beyond my tensile strength. But I'd carried it nonetheless to the game that day, hoping by surreptitious practice swings to elevate my strength to an Elmer Valo, Sam Chapman, or Hank Majeski level.
So now you were facing me down with my own bat. Dan hollered, you turned ... and just then I reached into the frayed back pocket of your discarded hand-me-downs, lifted out a concealed hose ball HALF THE SIZE of the sanctioned one in use. I fmgered it into a Bob Newhauser forward backspin thrust, let loose with an air of superior finality, and instead of a whiff of my perfect pitch you eagle-eyed it as if delivered in slow-motion. Your Ted Williams microsecond detection system corked it with a brutal whip (latent wrist) action thrust ... sizzling my illegal-sized hose-ball past my ear, generating the hum of 10,000 hornets in route to the honey farm. You corked a line drive so blinding it blurred as it sailed beyond the telephone pole midway up the dog-legged alley, disappearing into the twilight somewhere beyond Eighth Street, beyond the chestnut trees on Larkin School grounds.
No one bothered to hunt it down.
But I left with invisible pain. A heavy weight hung around the ventricle pumps of my heart. I felt despondent - even though at the time I'd never heard of the word. I was the last to leave the alley. I kicked the quarried granite curbstone near the cast-iron sewer cover in front of the Eagles Cafe, as Patsy Logan leaned out the bay window above Miller's Bar and sassily said, "Who won the game, Davey?" I ignored her, though I heard her loud and clear. Joe Miller was spitting' tobacco juice, arching it slightly beyond the curbstone, one foot folded at the knee, leaning against the gold-plated window of his den of iniquity (Pop's name for his establishment) while he made small talk with George Patrycia, who was about to turn off his barber pole for the evening. It seems everybody intuitively knew of my scam foisted upon brother George. Joe Quinn had that knowing look as he sat at ease on his stoop smiling at me. Mr. Massi had just closed his ash-strewn parking lot and was walking home slowly as if in leg irons, taking slow, methodical half-steps, looking at the ground as if to find some coins in the gutter. I walked back a few steps to pick up the chalk marker Paul Lukes had used to keep score and flung it across the street, hoping to hit one of the four cats sauntering slowly down our side alley, before mounting the front steps and walking the hallway to the kitchen where cold soup and a cold grilled cheese sandwich awaited me.
Almost 22,000 days have cycled since you throttled my deceptive sleight of hand. Sixty years of fine vellumed scratchings have entered the book of life. As kindly as the Hound of Heaven would allow, I returned the other day to the scene of our raucus childhood, Seventh and Deshong. All is gone!
The house into which we nightly hustled for food and shelter
I stood in respectful silence, pondering the ghosts of bygone days. Then started a forced march up the alley upon which our bodies marathoned our daily celebration of childhood. I walked the length of that dog-legged alley slowly, methodically - as if in remembrance of Mr. Massi in route home with invisible leg irons impeding his pace. Reaching Eighth Street I paused, smiling my way past Jake & Reuben's long-gone deli. Then, as if drawn by an invisible magnet, I continued to the spot where daily we stood in line, awaiting the ringing of the hand-held school bell at Larkin Grammar. I drop-kicked my right foot forward, aiming to send a granite pebble twenty yards - an honest kick to vent the rising anger I felt toward the arsonist who'd torched Larkin to the ground.
All is gone. Not a trace of the Camelot that once thrived there.
But wait! What's that I dislodged when I hoofed that pebble?
Could it be? Dear Lord, could
Slowly I dropped to one knee, reaching down, extending thumb, index, and middle finger of my right hand. A tidal flusb of memory was born again with the fingering of the very same MICRO TIRE-BALL I'd deceptively delivered to the plate on that humid, mosquito-infested day in August, 1941. As I knelt in mossy-eyed silence, there arose from the sub-cellar of memory the booniing voice of Connie Lemko singing these words:
When we walk with the Lord
When we do his sweet will
-- Brother David,
© 2000 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.
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