Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pains and Trains Beneath the Breath of Death

I started Third Grade at West Whiteland in the fall of 1949. I still remember nada about the school beyond that I went. I do recall a morning at home not long after the new Semester began. I woke to a bright day. Sun was streaming in through the side window. It was a Saturday and I was not at my grandmothers. Dad had arrived late Friday night, too late to take me to
I felt fine until I swung my legs over the side of the bed. A sharp pain hit me. It sliced me in half right across my middle. I screamed at the same time I fell off the bed to the floor. I curled in a ball, yelling in agony.
My mother and father rushed into my room. They must have risen early for both were dressed. My mom was saying over and over, “What’s wrong?”
The pain was too intense; I couldn’t speak. I think I managed to screech, “Pain”. It stabbed me worst when I tried to straighten out.
Dad snatched me up in his arms and took me out and lay me in the back of the car. My mother followed and dad drove us at high speed to the hospital in West Chester. I can still see the blur of trees and brush whizzing past the car windows.
He carried me into the emergency ward. Dr. Parke was paged and happened to be in the hospital visiting patients that morning. I was shortly hauled into surgery and told to count backward from 99 as they dripped ether over my face.
I had acute appendicitis and came within a hairbreadth of it bursting. If this had occurred on a day when my father wasn’t home, which were most days, I wouldn’t be writing about it now. I’d been long dead and buried beneath a child’s tombstone reading “Died: Age 8”.
This was 1949 you realize and the odds were against survival. I escaped death by the slimmest of margins and circumstance. If the attack had come a day earlier, what would my mother have done? It would have been only her and me at the house. She didn’t know how to drive. How would I have gotten to the hospital in time?
In 1949 there was no 911 emergency call service. The first such system was initiated in 1968, almost twenty years too late for me.
She would have had to look up a number in the phone book, but what number? The police? The fire company? There was no ambulance service available to her. Some volunteer ambulance services began in a few locations around 1940, but such ambulance services were manned by untrained community volunteers, there were no trained EMTs yet. The country didn’t have a network of ambulance service manned by medically staffed personal until after the passage of the Emergency Highway Safety Act of 1966.
My mother would most likely have called her father in Downingtown and hope to catch him home. My grandmother didn’t drive either. Her father would have to drive out to our place and then up to West Chester. That time to come from Downingtown would probably have seen me with peritonitis and if shock didn’t kill me, it would.
Peritonitis is serious stuff today, but many times more so in the 1940s. The mortality rate
was near total. Treating it successfully was nearly impossible. They hadn’t coined the term antibiotic until 1940. There were precious few in existence. Penicillin was developed in 1942, but not available to the general public until after World War II ended in 1945. These medicines were not yet readily available.
The Good Lord must have decided I had some future use and kept me around.
I was kept in the Children’s Ward at Chester County Hospital for a week. I didn’t like it much. It was a long rectangle room with beds lining walls on both sides of a center aisle. Everything was open, no privacy, and little quiet. There was a lot of crying in the night making it hard to sleep. There wasn’t much diversion. There were no TVs mounted over beds. Television was not yet in common use anywhere, let alone in hospitals to entertain children.
My discharge could not come until the incision completely closed with no signs of infection. On the final day Doctor Parke came to remove the sutures. This was when I felt that anger against the doctor I spoke of earlier.
I say sutures, but that is not totally correct. The doctor had not stitched me up after surgery;
he stapled me back together. Large metal staples held me together. The doctor had to remove them one by one. I don’t know exactly how Doctor Parke did this. Did he have a big pincher thing like you use to remove a staple from papers? All I know is it hurt something fierce when he did it.
Even after I came home I remained out of school for two or three weeks. It was difficult for me to walk without pain during that time, especially going up and down stairs. Eventfully all the pain and stiffness dissipated and I returned to normal life.
I now had a long three-inch worm of a scar running from my hipbone to near my privates to go along with the jagged one on my palm and the sword scar on my cheek. This too did not disappear until well into middle age, although each year it crept further up my body, as you can see in this 1974 photograph where it runs along the top of my right hip. This was not to be my last scar, neither physically nor internally either.
I wish to make a note here in case the idea of staples should frighten anyone about having surgery. My situation occurred in 1949 when I was a child of 8. Medical procedures have progresses a far distance from what they were in the past. My wife
recently had knee surgery and the wound was closed with 25 staples. A Physical Therapist removed these right in our home and my wife felt no pain whatsoever as each was plucked out.

I had fully recuperated from my appendix surgery as fall began its descent toward winter. We had made our pilgrimage to the grandparents for Thanksgiving and my mind was thinking about what to ask Santa for Christmas. Iva and I discovering the truth was still in the future. Some of the puppies dad had given to friends ended up in the pound for chasing chickens. Topper was growing into a gentle dog and Peppy still romped about when I played and slept by my side.
I had conquered my bike, although there was a very limited area for me to ride it where we lived. I was limited to riding up and down our lane, which got boring soon enough. I was hoping for early snow to cover the hill so I could sled again, but the field remained brown and un-sledable. The sky was a constant late-November-early-December slate gray color.
I hiked up our hill and couldn’t pull my eyes from the ridge at the top. My mother told me over and over for two years, “Stay away from the crest”. I wondered what lurked there, monsters, Martians or did the earth simply fall off to nothing on the other side.
I was nearer the top than I had ever bothered to come and saw how the land fell off sharply above the peak. I could see distant trees lining the horizon. They sat back a distance from the crest and were lower that the hilltop. I decided to go all the way.
At the top I stopped and looked at what lay beyond. There was a pair of railroad tracks. This was the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
I clambered down the other side, a steep cutout made ages ago by the men who lay the track. I stood by the first set of rails. I looked both ways and saw the rails narrow into the distance. Cinder and coal chips covered the ground with a bit of litter here and there.
This was not threatening. It was quiet and empty. There was nothing much to see beyond the tracks but woods. I hadn’t much experience with trains yet, but I did have my little phobia about crossing tracks.
Yes, in my boyhood I developed a mild anxiety about crossing railroad tracks. The reason was a movie I saw.
My dad sometimes took me to the movies. There was a theater in Coatesville called The Silver. It showed a lot of second-run films and B-movies, mostly action films and Westerns. Dad loved these kind of films, especially Westerns.
(I recently read a Blog claiming The Silver was an all-Black theater back in the old Coatesville. If so, then a couple of honkies slipped in because I know that is where my dad took me to see a number of movies in my childhood.)
I remember some films I saw at that theater with my dad, such as The Sea-Wolf (1941 release), with Edgar G. Robinson . That film stands out in my mind for some reason, perhaps the brutality of “Wolf Larson”. Maybe I expected another animal story, like White Fang or Call of the Wild. The film was based on a Jack London novel and had Wolf in the title.

The Silver showed double features all the time. It played short comedies in between. I remember seeing several of a series about some bumbler that we called “Behind the Eight Ball”. This series was actually “Joe McDoakes” (1942-1956), but the title card always showed him standing behind a giant 8 ball.
This theater often ran Three Stooges shorts. I would get nightmares from them. It wasn’t the characters or their beating up each other that bothered me. It was the opening title credits that spooked me. I found the weird mask in the background accompanied by the “Three Little Mice” theme music somehow upsetting.

(For some reason getting an example of the Three Stooges Title Card was next to impossible. It took a lot of Goggling to find just this one. This is mystifying since every Stooge short from 1945 through 1959 used that background. I wasn’t the only child of my generation frightened by the image perhaps.)
One movie I viewed at the Silver was Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946). I remember little of this movie except the climax. (SPOILER ALERT!) Tracy pursues the villain, Cueball, across a railyard. Cueball gets his foot caught between rails on a switch. A train comes zooming down the tracks and kills him. I became very hesitant every time I came to a train crossing after that film, which I would do every day walking to junior high school in Downingtown. I stepped very carefully. I still do

Noticed I wasn’t afraid to cross tracks, just cautious. I was cautious the day I discovered what was beyond the hill. I stepped across the first set of rails, watching intently where I placed each foot. I successfully crossed and now stood in the space between the parallel tracks. I was so intend on not getting my foot stuck I hadn’t noticed a distant sound. I heard it now. It came from the west and looking in that direction I saw the train coming.
I no sooner saw this train that I heard another in the east. Turning around I saw it as well. I stood frozen in the space between the sets of rails. Trains were coming in my direction from opposite directions. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. This may have been the wisest choice, I don’t know. Would I have made it if I had tried to cross either rail set at that point?
Both trains reached me at about the same moment. There was a swirling wind buffeting me
with leaves and debris spinning through the air. The force from each train must have countered out the other. Centrifugal force didn’t knock me over or suck me under. I closed my eyes and stood stiff as a board until the great roar in my ears subsided. Any object protruding from a freight car could have decapitated me. I was shook up, but whole and alive. I would live to see Christmas. For once I did not hesitate crossing a train track. I ran across the rails and scrambled up the cutout to the safety of my own hill.
My final curiosity at the Swamp was satisfied.
In those two years I became an overly imaginative, nightmare-plagued, highly curious, socially inhibited, physically awkward, self-reliant, risk-taking loner. And Dad was soon to thrust me back into civilization.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Gaining Acquaintances and Losing Friends

Two boys came walking up our long lane that first summer in the swamp. It was late June, not long after school had ended. Both boys were about my age, but I was certain I hadn’t seen them in my class. As it turned out, there was a third boy, he was younger and hadn’t come with his brothers that day. There was also a younger sister. And none went to my school.
I am sorry to admit, but I no longer remember their names.
They said someone at the plant told their mom a boy their age lived down in the swamp and they came to see. The “plant” was the Autocar Motor Company. They lived with their mom in one of the Cape Cod company homes that ran down the east side along the factory, between it and the Church Farm School.
Their dad died in the war and they went to the Hershey Industrial School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That was why I had never seen them before.

      (Milton Hershey, the chocolate king, had created the school for orphaned boys in 1918. Pictured on the right is Milton and Catherine "Kitty" Hershey, c.1900. They married in 1898, but she died of a unknown disease in 1915. Because they could not have children, they set up a trust in 1909 for orphaned boys. After her death, Milton deeded a large portion of his fortune to the Hershey Industrial School. The board changed the name to Milton Hershey School In 1959. Today it is co-educational. In 1948 it was still an all boys school. )

Hershey Industrial was a boarding school, not unlike the Church Farm School. Boys were to do chores as well as get an education. This included milking the cows twice each day. These boys only came home for a brief period at Christmas break and then for the summer months. We were to become friends for that summer taking turns playing at each other’s home. My mom, probably concerned about my lack of companions, even allowed me to walk along the highway to their place as long as I stayed on our side and well away from the traffic. I remained banned from cresting the hill behind us, though.
The Autocar company homes were upon a steep embankment next to the Autocar plant. There 
was some sort of dug out tunnel; a big hole actually, atop the embankment we climbed into and pretended was a cave or fort or secret hideout. I don’t know who put it there. The boys claimed they had, but that seems unlikely. The structure was too well designed for boys as young as we were to have constructed. I say it was a hole, but it actually wasn’t open where one might stumble across it and fall in. There was a wooden barrier across the opening that could be slid aside for entry and inside was a wooded ladder, almost steps, built into the dirt. I don’t remember if there was anything else inside, only that it went down several feet and widened into an underground room. We would run back and forth along the edge of the hill playing the usual games of boyhood, war or Cowboys and Indians, anything where you chase each other a lot and pretend to shoot guns. At times we would duck into the hole and call it a fort or our hideout or whatever suited our imagination at the moment. Their sister was the youngest and stayed in with her mom most of the time. She never joined in our rough games or went down the hole.

Loose gravel covered the embankment slope. Embankments were never good to me.
In Mrs. Helms’ Kindergarten we had a project. It was a simple thing, to make paperweights out of coal. To get our material, Mrs. Helms took us on a field trip to the rail yard behind the Downingtown Train Station. There was a lot of loose coal along the rails. We picked up large chunks to take back with us. While we were there we went up into a field beyond the tracks. Don’t ask me why, I don’t remember. I do know I was running along side the embankment overlooking the train tracks and slipped. I fell forward into a barbwire fence and one of the barbs pierced and tore my left cheek. I’m sure there was blood and tears. It left me with a one-inch scar on that side of my face. It was like the sword scars the Old Prussian aristocracy wore as a badge of honor, and it didn’t completely fade away until I was middle age.
Apparently, Mrs. Helms patched me up. I didn’t get stitches. I don’t know if I got a tetanus
shot, I think not, but I didn’t get tetanus either. I completed my paperweight project and I have the piece of coal I dabbed with orange paint and lacquered sitting on my desk as I key this.
Now at Glenloch I once again slipped running along the edge of an embankment. I fell forward, but there was no fence to catch me. I slid down the length of the slope to the pavement of the driveway below. I was a bit stunned. I sat up and my left hand tingled. I looked and that hand was totally covered in blood.
I didn’t want anyone to see my hand. It embarrassed me for some reason. Kid’s minds work in mysterious ways. I stuck my hand in my pocket and tried to act as if nothing was wrong and then I went down the hole to hide. The older of my friends caught a glimpse of blood on my wrist and insisted I see his mother. We went in his home and she made me take my hand out. She gasped when she saw all the blood. She washed my hand off. I had a long gash in the center of the palm. I must have cut it on one of the stones during my slide. She slathered my palm with Mercurochrome, a common household antiseptic during my childhood. You couldn’t tell what condition my hand was in because the Mercurochrome stained it red and you couldn’t tell the blood from the cure. In more recent times the United States Government removed Mercurochrome from distribution in America as a potential mercury poisoning threat (something they should consider about those curlicue light bulbs they are forcing us to use).

As she examined my hand during her treatment she commented on how the lines formed an M in my palm. Ah, I have monogrammed palms!
“You have a M in your palm,” she told me. “That means you will have money someday.”
She was a nice lady, but she was no prognosticator.
The cut left me with another one-inch scar that didn’t fade for decades, a jagged line in my left palm. Although the scar faded, you can see where it ran by looking at the lines. That line that runs across is deeper than the others where the cut had been.
The boys were due to return to the Hershey Industrial School, as it was then known, at the end of summer. The three of them came to my home to say goodbye. This time they brought their little sister along. We played a bit and then they had to leave. I waved goodbye as they went down my lane and I watched them turn east toward where they lived. My mother was doing something in the yard, so I remained outside.
We heard the squeal of tires a few seconds later. We saw traffic slowing and my mother and I ran down the lane. There were a number of cars pulled over to the side of the road when we reached the highway. The three boys were standing on the shoulder. A woman held the oldest boy who pressed against her, obviously crying. People clustered out on the road surface and I just got a glimpse of their sister lying on the cement before my mom turned me about and shooed me up the lane.
As the boys headed home, the oldest boy saw some wild flowers growing in the grass across the highway. He decided he would gather a bouquet as a goodbye gift for their mother. He had been leading their sister by the hand. He gave her to one of his brothers and told him to hold her hand so she didn’t follow. She wanted to pick flowers, too. She bit her brother’s hand, he let go and she ran onto the highway. A car struck her and she died on the road.
How horrible it must have been for the mother and brothers, the husband and father killed in war and the youngest, the only daughter, dead on the highway. I felt guilt for a long time, even though I had nothing to do with her death. Still, they had been visiting me, going home from my place when it happened.
It was the last I saw those boys. They weren’t back the next summer. I do not know what happened to them during the rest of their lives. And I feel sad I can’t even remember their names.

I turned eight in June 1949. My mother gave me a birthday party. It was at my grandparent’s
house back in Downingtown and most of the usual suspects were invited. This was a mostly girl affair again, although fewer than in 1945. I was beginning to lose contacts. A few faces changed, but not many. Judy Baldwin, Toni Yost, my cousin Jeannie Bicking, Iva Darlington and my heartthrob, Mary Jane Chudleigh.
The biggest change was among the boys. There were still but three including me, but Tim Mahan was gone. Billy Smith was still in the picture. The new face was Dennis Myers. He is the boy leaning over between Judy Baldwin and Billy Smith. I am leaning over on the right.
Denny and I had become friends during my weekend visits with my grandparents. I probably first met him in First Grade just before we moved to The Swamp. He lived in an apartment building on the next block over, not on Washington, but facing Lancaster Pike. Eventually Denny’s family would move into the home where Billy Smith lived and Gary Kinzey would move into the apartment building.
Despite being so buddy-buddy in 1949 our friendship wasn’t to last when I moved back to Downingtown. If it had I may not have suffered the slings and arrows of my classmates given his leader status. He became a bully, so perhaps he wasn’t yet a leader; everyone just feared him.
My parents gave me a bicycle for my eighth birthday. At age sixteen a boy learned to drive a
car; at age eight he received his first two-wheeler. At least, most of we boys did. Girls may have too. Denny did not. His parents felt this was too young an age when Denny was eight. He did eventually, when he was nine or ten, get his two-wheeler, but he was not happy with having to wait. This may have turned him into bullying others. The irony is each of his brothers got their two-wheeler at earlier and earlier ages.
Denny had three brothers, each younger. There was Michael, Stephen and David. Denny and Michael were Myers. Stephen and David were Shirk. I don’t know the status of his parents, whether his mother was a war widow remarried or a divorcee. I remember his adopted father as somewhat brusque in nature, his mother as the taller and thinner of the two.
I did not know how to ride a two-wheeler when I received one for my eighth birthday.  My mother said dad would teach me when he was home. They must have let me stay home the next weekend so he could. He and I went to the front yard and he placed my new bicycle near the front steps.
It was a twenty-six incher; that is, the wheels had a diameter of twenty-six inches.
“How do I get on?” I asked.
“Climb up the first step and throw your left leg over,” he told me.”
“I might fall.”
“I got the bike, you won’t fall.”
He had hold of the rear of the seat, holding the bike steady. I was dubious, but did as he said and settled in the saddle. The bike wobbled a bit, but dad had strong arms and a good grip.
“Now push the pedals,” he said.
I hesitated.
“I’m right here behind holding you,” he said. “I’m not a gonna let you fall.”
I began pedaling and we moved forward. I circled the yard. My dad trotted behind, holding the bike upright. We continued the circles, each time a bit faster. I stared ahead, feeling the wind in my face. This was fun.
But tiring.
“I think I want to stop,” I said. There was no reply. “Dad, let’s stop.”
He didn’t stop the bike, I continued moving, still pedaling. “Dad!”
I turned my head to look at him and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t holding the bike anymore. He wasn’t even in the yard. Once I started and had balance he had went back in the house without a word. I was riding on my own.
Now I wanted to stop and didn’t know how. Knowing my dad wasn’t holding me up I lost control. The front wheel wobbled and I couldn’t straighten out of the next turn. I drove directly over the little embankment into the swamp. (I told you embankments were never kind to me.)
Ker-spalsh, bike and I landed in the water and mud.
I dragged the bike up the slope and let it drop to the ground. I was angry. Dad had deserted me. He had promised to hold me up and hadn’t. He said he would be there and wasn’t. It never crossed my mind that I had succeeded in riding the vehicle on my own, that this was an accomplishment to be proud of. All I knew was my dad could not be trusted.
Trust lost is a hard thing to find again.
More and more after that day I began to ignore my parents and do things my way. I did things in secret so if I failed no one need know. It was a dangerous decision, one that could have had serious consequences for me.
A year later I received roller skates as a gift. We lived back in town by then and I took my skates over to the school ground to try. Behind the East Ward school was a large macadam surface. The macadam area had a slight downward slope away from the school. A lot of kids roller-skated and rode bikes here on weekends and after school.  I was struggling to stand up on my wheels at the top of that macadam. Denny Myers circled around me on his own skates, something he got before a bicycle. He rolled in front of me and gave me a straight arm shove to my chest, sending me rolling backward down the slope.

I flailed my arms in desperation. A third way down my feet finally reacted and I overcame
gravity and skated away from a sure hard fall. I have to say Denny Myers taught me how to roller skate.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Routine Life of a Swamp Rat

Photo is the Swamp Rat by the schizophrenic house in 1948.
I remember a time
when I was a lad
and all of my life
was wonderfully sad.

I had no friends,
all I knew were some ghosts
who would haunt my night.
I waited upon them
during the twilight.

I remember a time
when I was a lad
and all of my life
was excitingly sad.

Despite no friends
There were baseball cards
and motion picture shows,
while at home I had
records and radios.

I had some friends.

“At the Age of 8 or 9”
By Larry Eugene Meredith (1967)
“Personal Poetry”, 1970
Davis Ross, editor
Winchester, Va.

 Nabisco is the name to know.
 For a breakfast, you can't beat.
Nabisco Shredded Wheat!"
"Keen eyes fixed on a flying target... a gleaming arrow set against a rawhide string... a strong bow bent almost to the breaking point... and then... "
"Nabisco Shredded Wheat presents Straight Arrow, a thrilling new adventure story from the exciting days of the Old West!"
"To friends and neighbors alike, Steve Adams appeared to be nothing more than the young owner of the Broken Bow cattle spread, but when danger threatened innocent people, and when evildoers plotted against justice, then Steve Adams, rancher, disappeared. And in his place came a mysterious, stalwart Indian, wearing the dress and war paint of a Comanche, riding the great golden palomino Fury. Galloping out of the darkness to take up the cause of law and order throughout the West comes the legendary figure of..."
I hated Shredded Wheat. Shredded Carpet or Dried Straw was a more appropriate moniker for that stuff in my boyish opinion. I certainly wasn’t going to eat that horse food, but I talked my mom into buying it to get the box top for the Straight Arrow Mystic Wrist Kit containing a Golden Arrowhead. Straight Arrow always left one of these arrowheads behind when he rescued someone, much like the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet. I prized my Golden Arrowhead. It glowed in the dark, had a secret compartment for messages and a whistle to blow in case of danger. We often listened to that show during dinner hour too.
I thought Straight Arrow was much cooler than Superman.
I played Straight Arrow over and over during my life at Glenloch. There was an indentation along the edge of the swamp I used for my secret cave. I would go to my secret cave and change from ranch hand Steve Adams to emerge upon my horse, Fury, as Straight Arrow, Of course my Golden Arrowhead was always with me to aid in getting the bad guys.
Moving from town to the desolation of Glenloch might have been daunting to some. I found it a magical wonderland. When I explored the house after we moved in I discovered the storeroom, the extra bedroom across from my playroom. There wasn’t a lot stored there because my parents didn’t own much. Yet in the middle of this room were stacks of comic books.
There were a lot of comic books, two piles at least, and the one pile was taller than me. I assumed these belonged to my dad, but I’ve begun to wonder about it. A dime isn’t a great amount of money, but it had a lot more purchasing power in the
1940s than it has today. My dad was only making $11.67 a week. Whatever money he had made before I came along couldn’t have been much. Where did he get so many dimes? I wondered if those comic books had been left behind by whomever once lived in that house, the same person who left it half stucco, half cinder block?
There were not only every superhero comic created up to the mid-1940s, as well as all the various Warner Brothers and Walt Disney characters, there were some really old comics, historic comics. There were “Famous Funnies”, the compilations of Sunday newspaper strips. There were comics all in black and white. There was even “The Funnies Weekly”, the first original Dell comic book. I wish I had kept them all.

There were other stacks in the room, but these I knew were mom’s. There were about two-dozen Big Little Books. I think I read them all over the next couple of years. There were books based on comic strip heroes such as Dick Tracy or popular detectives like Bulldog Drummond. There was The Adventures of Tom Mix and even some classics such as David Copperfield (the Dickens' novel, not the magician).
Two attracted my attention more than the others. Both featured Frank “Bring ‘em Back Alive” Buck. Oh, wow, I read them and knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. It wasn’t a cowboy; forgive me, Roy Rogers. I wanted to be an explorer, go into the darkest jungles of Africa, capture wild beasts, and discover new civilizations. I was going to be the first person to capture the Yeti.
This was an interesting goal given my fear of heights and that the Abominable Snowman lived in the Himalayan Mountains, highest in the world.
Living in the swamp gave me a perfect setting to pretend explorer and practice for the future.
Meanwhile, when indoors I had other diversions. I played a lot of board games alone. One of my favorites was a car racing game. The box said, “For 2 to 6 players”, but it was perfect for one. It consisted of a large board that unfolded three times to form a racetrack. The track contained six lanes divided into blocks. (The track design was similar to the board game pictured left.) There were six little metal cars of different colors. 
I always used the green car. Green was my favorite color. I learned later that most race drivers avoided driving a green car; they considered the color bad luck just like the number 13. I didn’t care I liked green.

There was a plastic container shaped like a banjo, a large circle at the end of a long neck. Inside this odd tube were six colored balls, one for each racecar. You shook the plastic with the balls in the round part and let them roll down the neck. You placed the cars at the starting line in the order the balls fell.
You repeated this procedure each turn. You then threw a die for each car in the order
the balls were and moved it the number of blocks in its track. You could try to get to the inner track, since it was the shortest, but you had to use one count to move sideways before moving forward again.
I made up drivers for each car, not imaginary names, but kids I knew in Downingtown. I drove the green car, Billy Smith the red, Tim Mahan the Black and so forth. I did this with everything I played. It was only I making every move or acting every part, but I always pretended my friends were involved.
I became quite good at pretend. Living alone develops imagination. Everything I played had a plot. I never just played; it was always a story. The swamp wasn’t a marsh; it was a vast wasteland fraught with dangerous pools of quicksand and alligators. The distant cows in the pasture were prehistoric beasts or aliens from outer space. The hill behind the house was a mountain, the woods to the east of the cornfield an Amazon jungle. Sometimes the risks I took were not imaginary, but all too real.
I was alone and isolated. I may even have felt lonely at times, but I don’t remember ever getting bored. I could imagine myself surrounded by friends, but what I couldn’t do was learn the skills of dealing with the real thing. That was to be a problem when I had to intermingle with my contemporaries, but that was two years away.

Easter came on March 28 in 1948. There would be no stroll up to St. James Presbyterian Church (left) for pony rides this year. I sat in the kitchen with my mother Saturday evening as she helped me dye hard-boiled eggs. My grandmother had a method of removing the contents from fresh eggs through a tiny hole leaving only the shell. She painted funny faces on the shells and dressed them in little cardboard hats. She made an Abe Lincoln egg and a clown egg, etc. But this was just mom and I and we did nothing quite so fancy. I enjoyed the simplicity of dipping eggs in the various dyes.
Easter falls on Sunday, so my dad was home. He was usually home on major holidays anyway. He was home on Thanksgivings for the four-day weekend, something I was not thankful for. On Thanksgiving we would go to my
grandparents after noon for the big feast of a dinner. (Pictured right, Thanksgiving with my father and grandfather showing.) My grandmother went all out. The centerpiece would be a great golden turkey with her homemade bread stuffing. Her recipe for that stuffing went to the grave with her. There was so much food on Thanksgiving, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams with cherries and marshmallows, cranberry sauce, green beans, macaroni and cheese, Cole slaw, pickles and olives. I never had room on my plate for everything at once. She usually baked pumpkin and mincemeat pies; I loved pumpkin, but disliked the mince.
This was a meal repeated on Christmas.
On Easter we also went to grandmother’s for dinner in the afternoon. No one went to church, even on those high Holy days. The meal was lavish enough, but the meat was usually ham, which I wouldn’t eat. There was enough other food on the table for me. I was full of candy by dinnertime anyway.
On Easter morning I woke early. I didn’t allow my parents to sleep late on Christmas and Easter. We came downstairs and before any breakfast, other than coffee for my father, which he salted Navy style, I searched the house for those dyed eggs from the night before. Mother hid them hither and yon throughout the house. She counted the eggs in my basket. One did not want to find an overlooked egg come the heat of July.
I saw what the Easter Bunny left, but wasn’t allowed to touch until after our egg hunt and breakfast. I generally received a large woven basket of jellybeans, coconut crème eggs and yellow marshmallow peeps. There was also a large chocolate rabbit and maybe a giant crème egg as well.
Seven years of age may strike some as old for such a belief. I believed the myths of the Bunny and Santa Claus much longer than I suppose modern children do. Perhaps this was due to my isolation from other children who might know and tell me the truth or maybe it was just more innocent times with less public media to spoil the magic of childhood.
It probably helped that someone in a giant bunny costume didn’t come to the department stores in those day as Santa Claus did. (Photo left is my son about four years old with an Easter Bunny impersonator.) Kris Kringle was human looking after all. A fat man in a red suit with long white whiskers was certainly plausible to see. A giant rabbit was a bit different. If such a beast didn’t frighten a child, it certainly stretched even a kid’s credulity.
Anyway, I had eyewitness proof such beings existed.
March of 1948 had been fairly mild in the Philadelphia region. Temperatures averaged in the mid-sixties during the last half of the month, even having a one-day high of 84. There was a lot of light rain, drizzle and fog. Still, on the morning of the 28th there was a light snowfall and some snow lay in the shade near the house when I went outside after breakfast. As I walked about the house I saw the tracks.
There were rabbit tracks in the dusting of snow and in the mud of the drizzle. They came
across the yard from the back garden. Snowball was still in the hutch, so it had to be a wild rabbit or…

I followed the tracks and they curved along the side of the house right up to below the dining room window. They went from there down to the lane. It must have been the Easter Bunny, I thought. He entered through this window and left my basket of goodies on the dining room table. How a rabbit of normal size could have carried these large objects or reached the window sill never crossed my mind. I simply accepted these were the foot prints of The Easter Bunny.
It was on one of the Christmases at the Swamp House that I got my evidence that Santa existed. I think it was the second Christmas just before we moved again. I lay in bed awake on Christmas Eve, unable to sleep as usual, too full of expectation and excitement. It grew late and then I heard it, a whoosh, like a strong wind, circle the house and something thud on the roof over my head. Santa and his sled had arrived. I shut my eyes and pretended sleep.
To this day I don’t know what I heard that Christmas Eve, a sudden and single wind puff that blew a branch upon our roof perhaps? It sounded just as Santa’s sleigh should sound and confirmed my trust in Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, at least for a while longer.
I will tell you how I lost my belief in Santa, even though it didn’t happen until we moved back
to Downingtown and into 417 Washington Avenue (pictured right). I must have been 10 years old by then. Denny Myers would tease me for believing in Santa. “It’s just your parents, you know,” but I didn’t believe him. Town kids were always trying to bring me down in those days and Denny, once a friend, was one of the leaders in teasing and bullying me.
It was getting near the big day and Iva Darlington (pictured left with Judy Baldwin on her left, 1952) and I were playing. No one was home at my house. Dad was on the road and
mother was working again at the Five ‘n’ Dime. Iva and I went into my house for a while. We began to snoop. I don’t know if it was her idea or mine. We were trying to find what my parents got me for Christmas. Normally I got clothes with perhaps a small toy or two from them, but we snooped anyway.
In the back of the closet in the spare bedroom we found a cache of
toys, the very things I wanted for Christmas. Oh, I was ecstatic. I was going to have quite a haul this Christmas, what with the toys Santa brought and all these from my parents as well. I could hardy wait. On the right is that spare bedroom, with Peppy on the bed and Chessie and her two kittens picture on the wall.
On Christmas morning I dashed downstairs and there about the tree were the toys Santa had left in unwrapped display. The same toys Iva and I had seen in the closet. I got the usual clothes from my parents and although I never let on to them, I now knew the truth. Another illusion on childhood was gone.

It is hard to distinguish time during the swamp years. The days remained so consistently the
same. There are several events I remember with great clarity, but not precisely when they happened or in what order. I can separate some by season, but not to a month or day.
We came in the beginning of 1948 and by Spring I was exploring further from the house. I had free reign to wander. The only restrictions were to stay away from Rt. 30 (the Lincoln Highway) and not to go over the crest of the hill behind us. I understood the first admonition well enough. I knew a truck or car could squash me just like the dog I had seen. I didn’t understand the second, but I was to hear the warning more than once over the months. Eventually I would discover why.
For the time being I was content to play my Bring ‘em Back Alive fantasies closer to the house. The swamp was only several yards from our front door and in the spring it blossomed with life. Redwing Blackbirds sailed into the reeds and cat o’nine tails of the marsh. They came in the mornings to breakfast on the water skimmers and mosquitoes. It singled the wetland was again swarming with awakening life.
I would amble along the shoreline with a butterfly net and Mason jar. I was stalking the ferocious tadpole. These baby frogs were massive, dark in color and shaped like sperm. They wiggled about in schools just below the water surface. I snatched up a bunch in my jar and toted it to my room. I wanted to watch these creatures turn into frogs, but when mom saw my captives she made me turn them loose. It was cruel, she said. “They’ll just a die in that jar.” So I returned them to their home and family.

I caught a snake down by the water one day. It was three feet long and probably a Garter Snake. They were fairly common in our part of the world. It isn’t poisonous. I doubt there were any poisonous snakes in our swamp, which was a good thing the way I pursued such things with my bare hands. I ran toward the house calling for mom excited by my catch. She came out the front door and saw what I carried, knowing I had every intension of taking it to my room as a pet.
“You put that down right now,” she yelled. “Don’t you be bringing that snake in this house. Let it go.”
Mom didn’t like snakes. She didn’t have the phobia toward them my grandmother had and she wasn’t going for a hatchet, but she still didn’t want that snake near her. She went back inside and I stood staring at the porch with indecision. I hated to lose my prize, but I dropped it. It wriggled up the yard and under the front stoop. I didn’t tell mom where the snake went. I didn’t think she’d be happy it was close to the house.
Things were little different when I explored the cow pasture across our lane. Sometimes there were cattle in the field, but most of the time there wasn’t. I would walk across the pasture when there wasn’t following this narrow stream that ran through it. The stream twisted about, sometimes doubling back on itself. It had high banks and a rapid current. It also had its own wildlife, but I never tried to scoop it up in a Mason jar.
The water was full of Crayfish as we called them. It some parts of the country they are known
as crawfish or Crawdads. I didn’t like the look of them. They reminded me of big bugs. They had these claws and I was afraid of being pinched. I left them alone.
There was watercress aplenty on the banks of this stream. I had heard of watercress sandwiches, Lord knows where. I plucked a few handfuls, took it home and plopped it between two slices of bread. A couple of bites were enough; I never had another watercress sandwich in my life.
The marsh disappeared into woods to the southeast end of the property. I went into this woods a couple times. Skunk cabbage covered the ground, which I was sure you didn’t put in sandwiches. I never went too deep into the trees for fear of getting lost. There was enough to interest me in the other fields about our home.
There was behind our house another home. It looked better than our place. It was all stone with no scaffolding. It didn’t have people though, except one summer a family came up the lane one day and stayed in that house for a month or so. I never spoke to them. At summer’s end they went away and I never saw them again.
I stayed away from that house.
I found our door locked arriving home from school one day. We used the back door as our main entrance and seldom locked it.  I walked to the front and found that door also locked. It was winter at the time and cold. I rapped on the door, but nothing. The house looked empty. I panicked. I found a large rock out in back and used it to smash out a cellar window, crawled through the frame and went up the steps to the first floor. My mom came down from upstairs as I entered. She was now the one in a panic. She had fallen asleep and not heard me come home.
I wasn’t punished for breaking the window. My mom was relieved I hadn’t cut myself to ribbons on the broken glass and I guess my dad admired my act as some how manly.
There was a long slopping hill behind the house and garden. Corn covered its surface. In the
fall trucks came up our drive. One pulled an odd contraption with a long shoot rising above one side and pointed funnel shaped tubes to the front. The farmer had come to harvest his crop.
I stood by the back of the yard watching and one of the men asked if I would like to ride in the truck with him. Sure, I would. I clambered up into the high cab and off we went. I discovered what the odd looking contraption did. It plucked the ears off the stalks. The pointy funnels pressed down the cornstalks and stripped off the cobs. The snipped off ears were somehow propelled up that long tube where they flew out of an opening into the bin of the truck I rode in. They spewed out fast and furious and occasionally an ear or more would sail through the open side windows of the cab and I would have to duck. The driver laughed at this. It was great.
The farm hands came that one fall for harvest and I never saw them again either, just like those summer visitors to that other house.
It snowed a good bit one of our winters there. That hill was great for sledding as long as I kept to the wagon path running along side the fencerow. If I moved too far into the field I would catch the sled runners on the broken stalks. I pulled my sled up the track by an old clothesline tied to the front. At the top I would sit on the sled and push with my hands to start. I never lay down facing forward to sled. I don’t know if I didn’t know how or was afraid.
As I trudged up the hill I saw something dark in the field. It was a bright morning. I assumed it was a shadow, but then it moved and I saw a second object, then a third. There were some kind of animals running out of the cornfield into the fencerow. I was a little nervous, but I continued on and didn’t see anything anymore that day.
At supper I told mother I saw groundhogs up on the hill.
She was a little dubious about this. I’m not sure she believed I saw anything. I made up so many stories she thought this was probably my imagination. She told me there were groundhogs in our woods, but they would be hibernating this time of year.
The next day I saw the spots again. This time I ran up the wagon track to get closer, my sled bouncing behind. The objects took off and ran into the fencerow as before and I followed them. The animals were nowhere in sight, but the ground was crisscrossed by tiny paw prints. There was an old fallen log in the center of the fencerow with a hole in the ground at the near end. The prints converged at the hole. It must be the groundhogs’ burrow, I decided.
As I stood there something moved in the brush nearby. Suddenly a puppy scurried from the brush and skittered down the hole. Another followed it. I got down on hands and knees and tried to see down the hole, but it was too dark. I picked up a stick and stuck it in, wiggling it about.
By now I was lying on the ground. I heard a low growl behind me. Rolling over I saw a large Collie up on a small rise of dirt. It was bearing its teeth and the fur stood up on its back. I didn’t even think. I jumped to my feet and ran. I grabbed my sled and belly flopped upon it, riding it down the hill into the yard. It was my first face forward sled ride. I rolled off the sled and ran up the back steps screaming for my mother. There was no sign that the dog had chased me.
My mother calmed me down and heard out my story. This time she didn’t question my truth. She called the Chester County SPCA and reported the incidence. An hour or so later a van came slowly up our driveway and mom went outside to meet it. She talked to two men and came back into the house. The men had some kind of pole and a cage, which they carried with them up the hill. They were up there for a time. When they came down they had the Collie, the mother dog, in the cage. After sliding this into the van they drove off.
“What about the puppies,” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I’m sure they’ll come back for them,” she said, but the men never came
back. She called the SPCA again. The men couldn’t get the puppies because they were down a groundhog hole she was told.
“Couldn’t?” she muttered, “Wouldn’t more like.”
Mother kept cans of dog food in one of the kitchen cabinets for feeding Peppy. I led my mom up the wagon track to where I found the log. She dumped some of the dog food at the edge of the hole.
We did this for a couple of days. My dad came home for the weekend and mom told him about the puppies. He got a pick and a shovel and carried them up the hill. Dad dug the pups out of that burrow and brought them all down the hill in an old picnic basket. My dad found a home for each of the pups with his truck driver buddies. The runt of the litter was the only one left and dad said I could keep him. He was the smallest of the group, but I named him Topper. (To the right that is Topper and I playing by the doghouse dad built for him out behind the swamp house.)

Topper was the nicest dog. He was also very handsome. He grew to look like a German Shepherd, which must have been the father, but with the sleeker more elongated muzzle of a Collie. Now I had two recruits for my explorations, Peppy and Topper.