Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
Night to Remember
By DAVE KOMARNICKI
Major events happen seldom in life, but the night that a thousand butterflies took flight in my stomach I sensed one was about to happen.
It was a crisp Friday evening around Halloween when I eased into
Charlie Peck’s Ice Cream Emporium and commanded, “A hand-packed pint of
peach, Mr. Peck, and please pack it tight … a celebration treat for my
mom.” Charlie complied with a
smile. As he dipped, I counted
out the coins for payment.
It was a crisp Friday evening around Halloween when I eased into Charlie Peck’s Ice Cream Emporium and commanded, “A hand-packed pint of peach, Mr. Peck, and please pack it tight … a celebration treat for my mom.” Charlie complied with a smile. As he dipped, I counted out the coins for payment.
outside with Mom’s treat in hand, I nudged the door shut with my left foot
and gazed heavenward to check Orion’s position in the clear October sky.
Perfect, just where it should be this time of year, I reflected.
I stepped curbside between two parked cars, a black 1938 Packard and
a pea-green Buick, both with an “A” gas-ration sticker on the window.
Checking traffic both ways, I maneuvered an angled crossing on the
uneven Belgium-block cobblestones of
Mounting the three granite steps that made up our front stoop, I opened the door, traversed the hallway, danced up the twelve stairs, paused on the three-foot-square landing, turned right, and smiled my way into Mom’s room. Mom sat on the bed, awaiting my return from my nightly hustling of Philadelphia Inquirers in the local bars and restaurants.
sold out early tonight, Mom. The
It took only seconds for her to choose between my right hand and my left, but in those seconds the slanting hallway light revealed the anticipation in her eyes and framed the childlike innocence of her face.
She pointed to my left hand, and I placed the ice cream box beside her hip.
“Now put your palms together,” I instructed. I cupped my own hands together to show her what I meant. She clasped her work-worn hands in front of her chest and watched in amazement as I poured nickels, dimes, quarters, and half-dollars into her upturned palms.
Her smile was reward enough for a fourteen-year-old breadwinner.
I perched on the bed beside her. “Remember what tonight is, Mom? It’s celebration night. Tonight I sleep in Johnny’s room.”
“It’s ready,” she whispered back. “Clean sheets and your favorite quilt.”
I hugged her tight and placed a light kiss on her right temple (my favorite spot), then vaulted down the hallway to the bathroom. After brushing my teeth, washing face and neck, and toweling down, I tugged open the bottom drawer of the old dresser in the corner and pulled out my stowed stack of comic books, wrapped in a “borrowed” YMCA towel and saved especially for tonight’s celebration.
Retracing my steps, I passed Mom’s room and noticed brother Jim propped next to her sharing her prized treat. I paused at the half-open door of the bedroom I was vacating. Pop was already sleeping, imploding then exploding his lips in a rhythmic snore. Across the room Paul was peacefully asleep in his half of the bed, unaware that Jim had snuck out for a late-night treat. Turning left, I faced the twelve splintery steps that led upward to FREEDOM. I sprinted up to the top landing. To my left was George’s new room (formerly occupied by Joe and Dan), and to the right was my new domicile, the former roosting place of John and Mickey. From the doorway, I surveyed this sanctum as if for the first time, even though it was the exact duplicate of the one below where I’d shared a squeaky bed with brother George for the past three years. His sleep had often included dreams of dropkicking winning goals, and my calf muscle had often been used as the football.
Entering my new domicile, I dropped my towel-wrapped literary bundle on top of the lamp table, then took off shoes, socks, shirt, and Levis and let them lie in a heap bedside (readily available in case of a fire). I eased myself onto the bed, where Mom, true to her promise, had spread my favorite quilt. I extended my arms and legs, angling them to reach both sides of the mattress at once. Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! I couldn’t finger or toe either edge! I was spread-eagled with room to spare. No more inter-twangled legs. No more knuckles in the night. A feeling like whipped-cream topping was mine. I lay there, scanning the room, listening for sounds stored in the cracked plaster walls—echoes left by Mickey and Johnny. Locked in my listening trance, I squinted my eyes, and, sure enough, I could hear it: the slow, methodical rumble of a six-ounce coke bottle rolling back and forth, back and forth, on the pock-marked linoleum floor, the sound of Mickey’s nightly rehab routine to strengthen torn ankle ligaments. And then another sound joined the chorus: the muted, exhaled grunts of brother John in route to his 100 nightly push-ups.
Sliding nimbly off the bed, I unwrapped my comic classics, then stuffed the towel along the bottom of the closed door to keep the light from bleeding into the stairwell just in case Pop decided to make a night visit to the bathroom. You learn a lot from five older brothers, I mused, as I tiptoed back to bed. I slid between the sheets, fresh from the clothesline of our postage-stamp patch of a yard, fluffed the pillows, and purred with catlike contentment. Making a random reach into my treasure trove, I pulled out a Captain Marvel and— SHAZAM!!!— I was glued to the storyline from the very first page.
Just as the action between Captain Marvel and his archenemy, Sirvana, was coming to a white-knuckle climax, I saw the unthinkable: my pilfered YMCA towel was moving inward across the floor, and there, in the doorway, stood Captain Pop. Grave of countenance and silent as a stone, he advanced—a warrior of Tough Love, clad in the humble armor of white-jersey T-shirt and knee-length boxer shorts. His mute gaze bored right through to my conscience, where there was a lever labeled “Liberty/License.” The look in Pop’s eyes convinced me I’d flipped the lever in the wrong direction tonight. Without a word, he gathered up my treasured hoard, then departed in leaded silence, taking with him all my envisioned evenings of literary pleasure.
Still in shock over the silent raid, I crawled out of bed and crept out into the hallway, just in time to see Pop reach the bottom of the back stairwell and step into the kitchen. Having two sets of stairs had come in handy on more than one occasion, and I wasted no time in taking advantage of the front-stairs route to the first floor, where I could see for myself what fate Pop had in store for my cherished collection. Before I was even close to a spot where I could peek into the kitchen, the clang of the circular lid atop our coal stove gave me the first dreaded clue. Then I heard a series of sharp thrusts, as all twenty-five comic books were fed to the embers. I heard another clang as Pop replaced the stove lid, and then I heard his heavy footsteps trudging back up to the second floor. Was he going for his leather strap (whose persuasive abilities I knew all too well from many previous bad decisions I’d made), or was he just heading up to get a re-start on his precious few hours of sleep?
Praying he’d make the latter choice, I darted into the kitchen and lifted the stove-lid. There was my confiscated library, blue flames licking at its edges. Impulse urged me to plunge my hand right into the stove and salvage what I could, but memory of brother Dan’s almost-fatal chest burn impulsed it back. In silent vigil I watched the pernicious flames melt Plastic Man into Spider Man’s web. I watched Bullet Woman, armed with her magic wristbands, vainly trying to fight off the advancing blue-tongued Grim Reaper. The flames turned orange as I watched Batman and Robin and Captain Marvel himself succumb to the collective cremation. I stood there, humming taps, until only carbon ash remained, and then I respectfully replaced the cast-iron lid. After waiting a suitable interlude to make sure that Pop had gone back to Snore-Land, I crept up the backstairs, avoiding all known creaky steps, and stepped back into my Freedom Room two flights up. Despite the ransacking the room had been through, the taste of freedom was still sweet.
clicked off the bedside lamp, re-fluffed the pillows, and in the darkness
savored the adventure of solitary confinement.
Street actions reflected angled light through the room’s bay
window. The gathering thunder of a trolley car was audible from
be seeing you in all the old familiar places … that this heart of mine
embraces all day through … in that small café, the park across the way,
the children’s carousels, the chestnut trees, the wishing wells …”
the lights go on again all over the world and the boys are home again all
over the world, and rain or snow is all that may fall from the sky above
will be blue birds over the White Cliffs of
melancholy crowd crooned along, out of tune but in communion.
Drowning their sixty-hour week of labor with paychecks from Sun
Ship Yard, Baldwin Locomotive, Sun Oil, Baldt
Anchor, they downed as many draft brews as their bloodstreams could
filter. The poled streetlamp
cast a spider-web image on the ceiling of my new room.
Like Spider Man, I climbed each reflected square, inhaling and
exhaling contentment beyond song. I
then swung through inner space on a thread hung on the skyhook of my
imagination. The measured
staccato blasts of the Moyamensing Fire House
alarm at Ninth and Potter suddenly startled me back to reality.
Its pronouncements echoed through every ward of
as the last tune from the Eagle Bar filters through my putty-blotched
window, the regulars departed: ladies exiting through the side entrance on
Historic memory of other drunks and their assaults into our alley alerted me to his intentions. We were prepared for these nocturnal visits, keeping two Bergdoll quart bottles of water on the broad ledge outside our alley window. I went to rouse brother George, sleeping peacefully in the adjoining room: “George, we’ve got another live one!” We rushed to the open window. Just as the relief-seeker was streaming his discharge of processed draft beer on our brick wall, his face turned heavenward in contented relief, George and I working in perfect tandem, unloaded both quarts of Chester’s prize-winning water on the unsuspecting geezer. Our water bombs dropped their payload into his sighing mouth, drenched his head and shirt, and gravitated southward to his shoes. The surprise on his countenance as he gulped this tasteless brew started a wheeze in George’s throat that bordered on an asthmatic attack. The boozer looked up and caught full view of our faces, hung as they were over the ledge, and gargled a barrage of four-letter zingers never to be found on the approved vocabulary list of Smedley Junior High principal, Margaret Stetser.
waddled a crooked swagger out of the alley, and within seconds our front
door commenced to rattle. Although
the door was double-bolted, he was making a valiant attempt at home
invasion, and George and I were ready for him just in case his outrage gave
him enough adrenalin to break through. We
held the high ground on the landing outside Mom’s bedroom door: I with my
Ted Williams-signatured Louisville Slugger, George with an empty Bergdoll
milk bottle in each hand. Soon the door-rattling and the grumbling ceased,
and we tiptoed back to the window in time to watch him weave his way up
chill of exhilaration contorted my body as I watched the morning trolley
then a horse-drawn Bergdoll milk truck clopped into view, stopping directly
across the street from our house. Mr.
Lynch, our milkman, rattled four quarts as he double-stepped across the
My plan was to divide it out in three neat portions, then visit some local notables—porch it, bang on the door, torch the bag, then run like crazy. Mrs. Strayhorn, who worked at the Detention Authority, was at the top of my list. Also, Mr. Collin’s porch should be fertilized. He’d run over the back wheel of my bike with his car and hadn’t even apologized. Burt Reddin, local politico, was my third candidate, for reasons yet to be explained.
I felt like scooping the steaming pile up right then, but I was afraid to disturb Pop. “Let sleeping Pops lie,” I was told once by brother Dan, who should know.
block away, the window-rattling Pennsylvania Railroad express train moved
From my bed, I had a good view of the street lamp outside my window. The mesh was a new addition, put there recently as a sort of vandal-barricade by the public works crew, who had also replaced the huge light bulb that cast a gargantuan circle of mega-wattage light some twenty feet in diameter. Although I didn’t find it quite so offensive from one floor up, that humungous bulb had been a nightly assault on my eight hours of regulation sleep when I’d shared the room below with Pop. If the authorities knew who had taken out the lumens of that original bulb, it would have been reform school for George and me.
One night a few weeks past, we’d climbed out onto the third-floor roof with George’s recently acquired Red Rider single-pump bee-bee gun. We’d surveyed the street below, then George had taken aim and with a single shot cut the city’s electric bill. We’d lingered on the cracked-seamed tarpapered roof long enough to catch the pedestrian commentary about the sudden dimming. The inebriates from Millers’ Bar were finding it a little more difficult to negotiate the raised quarry-stone curb, and their expletives filled the night. Burt Redden, party man and chief vote-procurer on Election Day, had been heard to say, “Looks like a local job to me. The neighborhood is unfoldin’.” (That astute comment had been enough to put him on my list for the Halloween manure-mission).
As he’d sauntered up Deshong to his high-porched house, George and I—mission accomplished—had moved across the tarpapered surface with furtive steps, dropped to the roof one floor below, reentered the window, wrapped the Red Rider in a towel, buried it in the closet, and bedded down with nary a twinge of conscience.
But Pop had gotten wind of the deed, and despite the long hours he worked to feed his brood, he’d managed to sniff out the culprits. He’d caught George red-handed with the Red Rider and, after failing to break it in half over his muscular thigh, had marched George and his contraband weapon down to the cellar furnace, where he’d unlatched the door and fed the firearm to the flames. As I remembered this tragic event of a few weeks past, I didn’t feel quite so bad about Pop’s comic-book caper earlier this evening.
I sat watching the a la carte happenings outside my bay window, I thought I
recognized someone a block away. He
was advancing slowly toward the center of town with a resolute, sober
stride, and it looked like our family friend, Mr. Budnick.
I made positive identification when the street lantern erased the
shadows, and I could clearly see the bucket he carried.
It was filled with sponges, chamois, and a six-foot pole topped with
a window squeegee. I watched in
respectful silence as he crossed Deshong, negotiated the curb of the Eagles
Club, and trudged past Charlie Peck’s
store. It was a regular ritual
for him, no doubt, one that he did during the pre-dawn hours when I usually
lay sleeping. It was Mr.
Budnick’s job to restore clarity to the city’s storefront plate-glass
windows before the business day began, and he did the job to perfection. Mr.
Budnick was a member of our Russian/Ukrainian church at
few weeks ago, the Chester Times had
featured his son Joe’s picture in the obituary column: “Killed in action
One floor below I heard Pop stirring. His morning ablutions, the ritual of preparation before departing for work, were beginning. How often had I watched him from my adjacent bed, as George and Paul slept soundly. Pop would drop both feet over the side of the bed, then leaning on right elbow would leverage his strong body to a sitting position, pause as if for inner-ear balance, rub his face from chin to forehead five times, then flat-footedly rise. He’d stand, as if at attention, in jersey and boxer shorts, then he’d walk on toe-tip to the narrow closet, un-hangar his pants, balance on one foot at a time as he slipped them on, pull each suspender up to a shoulder, then walk with tempered movements past Mom’s room, take the landing step past Vicky’s room, and then five quick steps down the hall to our single bathroom. He’d fill his cupped hands with cold water and use them to splash the water up from face to chin, making a lip-shivering sound I could never reproduce. I was convinced it came from a certain curvature of the lower lip developed by the large number of children sired. Maybe it was futile to try to master it. In fact, I had to towel the floor of splashed water each time I tried to duplicate his efforts.
Pop shaved with bifocals on and raced his Gillette single-edged razor in all directions, using shaving cream whipped to a foam in a thick white cup (of the Boyd diner variety). He’d paint his well-formed face with a shaving brush, usually starting just above the Adam’s apple, backstroking the neck and then swirling the lather across both cheeks from just above the upper lip. He moved with purpose, never prolonging the stare into his own reflected image. He’d save the upper lip until last, stretching it downward over his teeth. After a few quick rubs to check for stubble, he’d clean the territory—good example to his four remaining sons at home. He’d walk back to the room, lower his suspender straps and don a heavily starched white shirt, knot his tie as tight as a hangman’s noose, re-shoulder the suspenders, garter his calf-high stockings, grab his closeted coat, and then whisper a loving Ukrainian goodbye into Mom’s room. Then he’d thump his way down the ten rubber-matted steps and take three strides to the front door. The door would open and close gently and he’d take the three steps down to our cement sidewalk and begin his brisk, purposeful walk to work a block and-a-half away.
I watched from the bay window three stories up as Pop headed off. Though his sleep had probably been negatively affected by my repeatedly squeaking bed, the caper with the comic books, the drunkard’s outrage and his attempted forced entry, he was steeled for the upcoming twelve-hour day at Roser’s Restaurant. His resolute pace picked up cadence as he reached Massie’s parking lot, no right or left movement as he passed Grieco’s Print Shop. As Pop turned left at Welsh, he disappeared from sight. Just as Mom began to stir below, dawn gave way to reveal white streaks of cirrus clouds. A cat meowed in the alley (an alto among Mr. Bowen’s orchestra of twenty-five cats), and eddy-pools of fall wind stirred up gutter-tossed wrappers.
The window rattled, my eyes blurred with each blink, and my head swirled with the heavy events of my long vigil. It had been my first night alone to will and to do of my good pleasure. I slid off the bed, felt cool linoleum on my knees, heard the distant wail of the freight train whipping through town a block south, and with head in hands and my eyes gathering moisture that substitutes when words seem flimsy, I whispered a prayer:
“Help us, Lord, to find our way home. The home you intended for us when our parents heard our first cry, the home parents hoped to make for us by their daily round of sweat and tears. Help the boozer-man seeking relief in our alley to find his way home. Help my brothers to come home again to rooms like this. Help the Budnicks to look to you for answers to their grief, answers that can come only from you. Dear God, keeper of our heavenly home.”
bedded down again, tucked the quilt beneath my chin, and slid the pillow
over all but my nose. I breathed
in with the full capacity of my lungs and exhaled slowly the breath of my
expanding life, as I drifted inward to visions of endless Saturdays.
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© 2002 John A. Bullock III.
This page last updated 10/18/05