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
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
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
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
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’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.
“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.
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.