Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
"Saturday was a trumpet with all the stops pulled out; it was a harmonica with nary a discord. Except, to be perfectly honest, for one: one particular Saturday that sticks to memory’s walls like flypaper; one omen-filled Saturday that nearly derailed my train.
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By DAVE KOMARNICKI
My sister Mary told me I’m a Thursday child, and how can I argue with someone who helped Doc Gallagher cut the cord? But if the day of birth imprints the psyche, I’d swear it was a Saturday. Saturday was the day my engine coupled on all the boxcars, crammed them full, and pulled them along the narrow-gauge tracks of childhood. In nostalgia’s reveries, I see the rails running 2 miles east to Eddystone, 4 miles west to Marcus Hook, and 2 miles north to Chester Park, then stretching along the Delaware from the cat-tail rushes of Essington to the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry and beyond. The boxcars are filled with a random Barnum & Bailey collection of people and things (no neat, two-by-two arrangement like Noah’s Ark).
Saturday was a trumpet with all the stops pulled out; it was a harmonica with nary a discord. Except, to be perfectly honest, for one: one particular Saturday that sticks to memory’s walls like flypaper; one omen-filled Saturday that nearly derailed my train. That day has been sitting on the spur-track of my mind for all these years, its ghosts crying out to be exorcized. But lest the memories run faster than my Joe Lapchick sneakers allow, I’ll start where all Saturdays began:
Thus energized, I made the three-and-a-half-block dash to the Washington Theater in an eye-blink. A dime gained me entry to a cowboy double feature, and I slotted a nickel into the candy machine for a box of Jujie Fruits. But this Saturday the box didn’t drop. So I double-whacked the machine with both palms and—BINGO!!—down dropped two boxes. What a way to start the day! (GOOD OMEN). Advancing to the second row center, I proceeded for the next 90 minutes to blotter every move Buck Jones made as he lassoed and hogtied all criminals in Laredo. One box of Jujies consumed, I opened the bonus box and watched in awe as Hopalong Cassidy captured all rustlers and other assorted outlaws without aid of posse, gunplay, or mean-spirited words. When the theater lights came on, I loped toward the exit with the herd and resisted a sudden Silver Screen-inspired urge to tackle the usher.
My squinting eyes greeted the high noon sun as I emerged to join the Market Street crowd. Turning north, I halted to watch a Goff’s Seafood truck driver unload a galvanized tub of ice-packed, glassy-eyed flounder for delivery to the Washington House Restaurant. (EVIL OMEN). Crossing Fifth, I stepped nimbly and managed to avoid all sidewalk cracks until a Weinberg’s hatbox knocked me into the plate-glass window of Spencer’s Stationery Store. Down on one knee, I gazed up at a fashionably attired matron of huge proportions. With a glassy-eyed stare (reminiscent of the flounders I’d encountered up the street), she admonished me, “Watch where you’re going, kid,” and waddled up the street, hatbox still jutting out from her ample right hip. Good home training stifled my retort as I contemplated the sidewalk crack she’d made me step on. (BAD OMEN).
Regaining my footing, I sauntered down to the Pennsylvania Railroad 6th Street underpass, where the noon Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington Express had pulled in and was directly overhead boarding passengers. As I bent over to pick up a Lucky Strike wrapper, a steamy spray of soot, mingled with Pullman water-closet extract, assaulted the back of my sweatshirt. The odor—which I have long since mentally codified with memories of the time brother Dan locked me in our outhouse at 812 Upland Street—was overpowering. I shook my fist in vowed vengeance at the departing train and hustled home through the back-alley network. My face turned purple in route as I attempted a marathon breath-hold until I could reach the sanctuary of our household’s hopefully unoccupied cast iron bathtub. Once submerged, I double-scrubbed with Lifebuoy soap, soaking until the hot water turned cold. Toweling down, I double-checked for any lingering aroma then slid into Levis and a freshly washed T-shirt.
Sliding my hand into my left front pocket yielded a skate key and a Popsicle stick branded “FREE.” (GOOD OMEN). So, strapping on my skates, I headed for Charlie Peck’s Ice Cream Emporium across the street, losing my footing for a moment as I crossed the tracks just a heartbeat ahead of the approaching trolley. “You’re cutting it close, kid!” the conductor bellowed, clanging the warning bell about ten times. I waved at the retreating trolley, laughing as I skated off to redeem the “FREE” stick gripped in my right fist. Unceremoniously entering Charlie’s store, I slipped on the granite door-sill and ripped a hole in the lower left corner of the screen door. I skated nonchalantly onto the worn linoleum floor, as Charlie (not having seen the hole yet) hollered, “Close the screen door, Davey!” Turning, I complied—reflecting for a moment on how often Charlie had bellowed variations of that request.
Was I a slow learner or just deliberately provoking the limits of Charlie’s tolerance?
I was fourth in line, waiting to cash in my freebie. As I waited, I watched Charlie dip his specialty: a Walk-Away Sundae made of one scoop of Breyer’s vanilla served in a Dixie cup and topped with Hershey’s chocolate syrup. A horseshoe of white hair framed his shiny bald pate at ear level, and his round specs magnified jolly Santa Claus eyes. He had a potbelly to match the Saint Nick image, and when his ready laughter was unleashed it sent earthquake tremors up and down the broad white apron draped around it. His patience (which I tested almost daily) was legendary, and his neighborliness was boundless. Look at the countless times he’d rapped on our door to summon sister Vicky to his store telephone before we could afford our own. In wintertime Charlie would tirelessly shoulder a bag of “Blue” coal to our door so we could warm our bleak, cold kitchen. On special summer evenings, when my newspaper earnings allowed and peaches were in season, I’d ask Charlie to handpack a pint of peach ice cream. He knew it was Mom’s delight, so he’d pack it tight and let some hang over the top. Then, handing it over the marble counter to me, he’d give me a knowing smile and say with Irish flair to my departing back, “Shut the door, Davey—the flies, the flies.”
My turn, finally! I handed the Popsicle stick to Charlie. He eyeballed it, then whispered so the customers behind me wouldn’t hear: “Are you sure this is yours, Davey? I don’t see your name on it. Could this be the one your brother George was searching for under the booth yesterday?”
I smoothly sidestepped the question: “I’ll take Creamsicle this time, Mr. Peck.”
Skating out, I closed the door without being reminded (hoping it would keep Charlie from noticing the hole in the screen). I sat on the warm cement steps next door, savoring every slurp and contemplating Charlie as a dispatcher of happiness to the neighborhood. As my tongue slipped the last layer of ice cream off the stick, I suddenly crowed: Another winner! Another freebie! (GOOD OMEN).
Suddenly my tender conscience presented a cross-referenced catalog of budding criminality practiced by Joseph and Anna Komarnicki’s eighth child on this neighborhood saint.
So I decided to make penance by buying stuff. As Charlie handed over my second Creamsicle of the morning, I blurted, “Mr. Peck, I want to buy the diamond-studded yoyo in the window, the Dick Tracey cap gun, six rolls of caps, and two trick strings.” Emptying my pockets, I pushed the money toward him across the glass-topped candy case. Before taking it, Charlie rubbed his chin and gave me a proposition I couldn’t refuse: “Davey, how would you like to earn back the money for what you just spent—and 50 cents besides if you do a good job?”
I was overwhelmed: “How?”
“Mow my lawn and rake up the clippings.”
I didn’t have to think twice: “Where’s your house, Mr. Peck?”
“You’ve got a deal, Mr. Peck,” I said, stunned by my good fortune.
“Okay, Davey. The mower’s in the backyard shed. Don’t forget to take the yoyo and cap gun with you.”
Dropping my booty off at home, I wasted no time running the 17 blocks, moving faster than Hopalong’s horse, Topper, at full gallop. As 90+ degree heat barbecued me, I plowed that dull-bladed mower through Charlie’s grass until water blisters broke on both thumbs. Just as I cut the last strip, up the steep incline near the wrought iron fence, it happened: THE BADDEST OF BAD OMENS was unleashed on me. It was like a descending avenger for all I’d perpetrated on Charlie. Clipping the ground with the mower, I unearthed a subterranean compound of yellow jackets. They flew into formation, hovered, then headed for me as I were a honey-comb farmer with a fresh crop. With the black and yellow cloud following me, I flailed my way west on 24th Street, scraping against a thorny hedge as I turned south onto Edgmont. I thought of claiming sanctuary at First Presbyterian, but, as a Baptist on the lam, I wasn’t sure they’d let me in.
As the dive-bombing yellow jackets propelled me past the Chester Rural Cemetery at 19th Street, two gravediggers leaning on long, flat-faced shovels gaped after me and then plunged back into their work as if they were preparing my final resting place. I remember the scene vividly, because it was just then that I felt two piercing stings just above my right kidney. Those avenging renegade bees had made it inside my shirt and were going for my vital organs! As I reached Imschweiler’s Funeral Parlor at 14th, a hearse with an open rear door seemed to beckon me. At 12th I shot across the B & O railroad tracks without stopping, looking, or listening. At Deshong Park Art Museum the bronze lion wore a smirk that mocked my long overdue retribution.
The diehard battalion of bees buzzed me past St. Michael’s Church until I reached the source of my stinging atonement: Charlie Peck’s Ice Cream Emporium. I bypassed its hole-marked screen door and pummeled my way across the street to the refuge of home. Mom immediately whipped up her trademark cure-all: a secret-formula mix of mustard plaster, Epsom salts, boric acid, iodine, castor oil, and Ovaltine. I suffered in silence that night, biting on a towel while I slept fitfully.
Sunday morning I wobbled to church (no option with Pop), took a front-row seat, and hunched forward to avoid seat contact. Through the narrowed slits of my swollen eyes, I watched young Pete Perozak—decked out in his perfectly creased white Navy uniform—take the pulpit. (It was his last Sunday before being shipped overseas). Pete solemnly opened the huge pulpit Bible, looked (so memory serves) straight toward me, and read: “God is not mocked. Whatever you sow that you shall also reap. Be sure your sins shall find you out.” After intoning these warnings, he turned slightly to the right, resting his left arm on the pulpit. In a muffled panic of disbelief I leaned further forward to check out the circular patch on Pete’s left sleeve:
I saw a giant yellow and black bee firing a machine gun. Pete Perozak had joined the Seabees: THE OMEN OF ALL OMENS! I toppled over, knocking down Danny Bartkow’s trombone stand before I hit the floor. After the closing hymn, I streaked for the rear exit to avoid congregational comment.
My multifarious infractions on Charlie Peck henceforth ceased, and summer slid by without further chiding of conscience in that particular regard. (I did, however, use my new cap gun on night visitors from the Eagle Bar and Grill seeking kidney relief in our narrow alleyway—an oft-repeated deed of which I am not proud. The diamond-studded yoyo was used more nobly, as I captured the neighborhood championship).
School began after Labor Day, and summer sneakers gave way to high-tops laced just below my loose-banded knickers. I trudged up Deshong Alley to take my place (last in line) to await Mrs. Beachum’s clanging of her miniature, handheld Liberty Bell. My mind—lost in summer reveries—snapped back to attention only when the infamous Wally Zabitka edged in front of me. We compared notes and spoke in muted tones of projected ways and means for good times. I could feel subtle shiftings in the resolutions made on Big Sting Saturday.
Mrs. Beachum’s bell rang loud and clear. As I ascended the eight smooth quarried steps leading to formal learning, I instinctively knew I had acquired a new mentor in dubious morality. But that’s another story.
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© 2002 John A. Bullock III.
This page last updated 02/24/07