I was one year nine months old when my father left to fight for freedom in the pacific. It was March 1943. With my father gone, mother went out and got a job. Her first job was at J. J. Newberry’s in Downingtown. For those not familiar with that chain, it was what they called a “five ‘n’ dime” or “ten-cent store”. Woolworths was the most famous of the type. Newberry’s sold a variety of goods: sewing needs, household products like glassware and pillows, comic books, small tools, toys and other sundries.
Later she took a job with Lasko Metal Works in West Chester, makers of such things as electric fans. I assume she worked on an assembly line.
When she worked at Newberry’s she could walk to work. Working in West Chester meant week mom was at work all day. I am sure she was tired when she came home in the evenings. This is why my grandmother did all the housework and looked after me. In some ways, due to the war, I was an adopted child.
I was thinking about it as I wrote and I cannot remember my mother ever reading to me. My grandmother (picture left: my grandmother Brown with me in Kerr Park, Downingtown,
The Timid Soul, There Oughta be a Law, Tarzan, The Little King, Henry, Pogo, Little Orphan Annie, Brenda Starr, Prince Valiant, Maggie & Jiggs, Mary Worth and many more. She read them all to me, even the ones I couldn’t fully understand. I learned to read because of this long before I started school and could read quite well by First Grade. In First Grade, I stood and read passages from the Reader, as did all my classmates in turn. “See Spot? See Spot Run? See Jack run after Jane? See Spot bite Jack?” I read with dramatic emphasis and Mrs. Warren told the class, “That’s the way a story should be read.” Having the teacher use you as a good example is not the way to win friends and influence your fellow classmates. Nobody likes the teacher’s pet.
My Grandmother also sat me on her lap every evening and read from books. She read stories A Hive of Busy Bees, by Effie M. Williams. The book was framed around Don and Joyce, two children visiting their grandparents. Each night they were told a story with a moral with such titles as “Bee Kind”, “Bee Loving” and “Bee Prayerful”. It wasn’t much like the children books I read to my own children. It had very few pictures and a lot of words. It didn’t coddle to children. It was a real book.from a book called,
Another book she read to me many times over was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, a volume that might have planted seeds that blossomed in me later.
I loved hearing stories read. I think this spurred me to learn reading so early. I wanted to read for myself so I didn’t have to wait until my grandmother had the time. I remember surprising her one Sunday by reading a comic strip out loud before she began it.
My mother was probably weary after work and let my grandmother do all this reading. Even when my father came home and my mother no longer worked I don’t remember her ever reading to me. Of course by then I was reading quite well and she didn’t need to.
Mother enrolled me in Mrs. Helms’ Kindergarten in September 1945. I had turned four in June, a young age to start any school at that time. There were no Head Start programs and no daycare centers in the 1940s, at least in Downingtown there weren’t. I went to a private kindergarten and not the public one right across the street from our home because East Ward did not except four-year olds, in fact, I don’t think East Ward even had a kindergarten until a year later. This took the burden of watching me all day off my grandmother.
Mrs. Helms’ school was on the Westside of town. One of the other mothers, or perhaps Mrs.
Mrs. Helms’ conducted kindergarten in her home and thus it was not large. The centerpiece of her yard was a huge sandbox. Inside the school/home there was a grand piano. This was the first place I headed having never seen a piano before. I immediately pressed the keys. This convinced Mrs. Helms I had musical talent for some reason. She informed my mother I must be given piano lessons
My mother did not take her advice because she couldn't afford such a luxury. It was a good thing. Despite the fact that my first published and copyrighted piece was a song, I have no ear for music. I have problems distinguishing notes, can’t carry a tune and can’t tune an instrument without help. I was born with a slight hearing defect. I forget how the doctor explained it to my mother, but nonetheless something inside my ears wasn’t as it should be.
It wasn’t a major flaw, but it makes it difficult for me to catch subtleties in sound. For instance, I could not say the word quarrel. It would come out as corral. The words Calvary and cavalry were always the same when spoken by my mouth. I do play a “one-handed” piano; that is, I can play melodies because I know the notes on the keyboard and can read music. I cannot play anything by ear.
At the end of that year, my mother tried to enroll me in First Grade at East Ward, but they rejected my entry. I was only five years old and first graders had to be six, rules you know. I don’t know why she didn’t place me in Kindergarten there, but instead she sent me back to Mrs. Helms for a second year. I have joked all my life that I failed sandbox and had to repeat kindergarten.
There were a limited number of pupils in her school, no more than ten. The class photograph captured the nature of those times. We pose in a tight group, except for one little girl. Why was she set apart? It was because she was Black. Mrs. Helms was progressive. East Ward Elementary did not allow white and black students in the same room. Even though Mrs. Helms boasted no such segregation it is obvious from the photo a separation existed.
The class photograph was during my second year, I believe. I can’t remember the names of most of the kids. I am the tall boy in wrinkled shorts kneeling on the left. The heavyset boy in the middle and the girl almost directly behind him are Barry Gregg and Helen Burkhart. They went into First Grade at East Ward with me. They were relatives of each other, cousins I believe. The boy kneeling on the right was Tim Mahan, and he was to be one of my earliest friends.
It was during this period of kindergarten that I incurred my first wound that left a scar. During
Coal was common in those days. We could have easily brought a piece in from home, anthracite.
I finally graduated from kindergarten in 1946. The picture on the right is I in my cardboard cap holding my diploma. That year an event occurred that would have more significance for my life
What they had sitting in that big room at the U. of P. would eventually have something to do with my talents than Mrs. Helms piano ever had.
Nellie was my mother’s dog. Mom had raised her since a pup and by the time I came along Nellie was getting long of tooth. She became a companion to me, traipsing about with me in the yard and sleeping up on my bed at night.
I don’t know what kind of dog she was, a mix surely. She was gentle, but not overly active. Her run was a slow trot and she didn’t do a lot of running. She was shaggy, with a round body and fairly short legs.
Nellie wasn’t the only animal in my life at 424 Washington. I have already mentioned the
These dogs were not for playing fetch or anything. They were kept chained to their boxes most of the time. They were for fox hunting, a popular activity of the farmers in Chester County at the time and a favorite of my grandfather Brown. He would load the hounds in his old Ford on occasional weekends and take them to a hunt.
Nellie died a few months after my father sailed away with the Navy. My mother found an old suitcase and laid her out inside. She festooned it with some kind of plants and we had a little ceremony in the back yard before my grandfather buried her in the garden. This was my first experience with death. I learned that living creatures died. Dead things did not move and got put in the ground so no one ever saw them again.
I used Nellie as the model for a story I wrote many years later called “Passing”. In this I moved the location from Downingtown out to the lonely house in the swamp at Glenloch. The young character experiencing the reality of death and questioning God was also switched from a young boy to a young girl.
Death came into my young life again in January 1946. My father came home on emergency leave because his mother was dying of cancer. She died on January 19. I don’t remember my dad coming home at that time. I barely remember Grandmother Meredith. She was a big woman and that is about all I recall. I never knew Grandfather Meredith because he died in 1937. According to the date on her tombstone, she was 53 when she died. According to the obituary in the Coatesville Record of January 19, 1946 she was 55. If the newspaper is correct she was 27 when she married Benjamin, eight years his senior rather than six.
One Easter, I received a present of a white rabbit. I named it Snowball. I say it because I don’t know what sex Snowball was. It was around this same time my Grandfather gave me a puppy. He came home one night and told me to look in his jacket pocket. I did and two eyes were staring out at me. The puppy was very tiny. It was a Toy Fox Terrier, a little White dog with a black face and a couple large black spots on its body. Its tail was bobbed to a short stump like many such sports dogs.
Since the puppy was extremely frisky, I named it Peppy. I had Peppy until after I graduated high school. When Peppy reached adulthood she had a funny habit. At that time the comic strip “Li'l Abner” by Al Capp had introduced these strange critters called Shmoos. Shmoos looked a little like walking bowling pins with whiskers. They were all white. I had several Shmoo squeeze toys, each about four or five inches long. When Peppy went through heat she believed thesewere her puppies. She would carry each in her mouth to her dog bed and then guard them. If you came near she would snarl. After a few days she realized they weren’t really puppies and go back to her normal playful self.
Peppy had her own doggy bed, but most of the time she would curl up beside me in bed to sleep, just as Nellie had. She was younger and full of energy. She liked to play fetch with a little rubber ball or chase about the yard. (The photograph right is me holding Peppy in 1951.)
My grandfather often brought me gifts, not always with the approval of my grandmother. I’m not sure she was happy when he pulled Peppy out of his jacket pocket. Her usual objection was my grandfather didn’t get me age appropriate gifts and she was right. It isn’t he gave me anything wrong for a child to possess; only he gave to me too soon.
For instance, he gave me a baseball bat. Every young boy of the ‘Forties and ‘Fifties needed a baseball bat. It was expected boys would play the game. It was the National Pastime for Pete’s sake. However, he gave me, at four years old, an Official Stan
It was not only gifts inappropriate for my age Grandmother objected to. My grandfather sometimes said things in front of me she didn’t like either. One May morning in 1946 Grandfather Brown was reading the paper at the kitchen table as usual. There was a story about a car engineer named Louis Reard who just introduced a new model in Paris, France. It wasn’t a car. It was a
My grandfather looked over the top of the paper and said, “You know what the next new women’s bathing suit’s gonna be?”
Grandmother cocked an eyebrow. I just shook my head no.
“Two Band-Aids and a cork,” he said and laughed.
Grandmother didn’t laugh. Her face got red. “How can you say such a thing front of the boy,” she said.
I had no idea why my grandfather laughed or why grandmother got so angry with him. I didn’t understand that joke for another ten years.