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

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Babysitters and The Blob and Little Puppets with Big Sticks

         After we moved into 417 Washington Avenue my parents chose to hire a babysitter for me when they went out instead of sending me to my grandparents. I’m not sure why this change. My grandparents were just down the street at 424 and never seemed unwilling to have me around. As a nine and ten year old I wasn’t privy to everything going on around me, so there may have been reasons I never learned. The sitter was hired only now and again, not every time.
          The sitter was Dottie Bender. She had lived in the house up along the Lincoln Highway across from Hines Trucking during the swamp years. Her father was a mechanic there and good friend with my dad and probably had gotten my dad his job at the company. The Benders moved to Downingtown just after we moved back. They had an apartment off Lancaster Pike on the
West side, beyond Manor Avenue.  You went up a fire escape toward the back of a brick building to enter their place (apartment building is the red one pictured on right).
         The apartment looked out on the parking lot of the Downingtown Diner, known then as the Cadillac Diner. It was just a typical eatery of that type and era. Although diners per se had existed for quite awhile, there was an explosion of them after World War II. Perhaps a lot of Army cooks came home and opened a diner. Diners were usually long and rectangle like a boxcar, and prefabricated. They generally had shiny silver exteriors. The Cadillac Diner would have been just one more greasy spoon, except it was to gain long-lasting fame by the end of the decade. It was the Diner attacked by The Blob at the end of that Steve McQueen flick. (That original diner used for the film is not the diner presently on the site. You can see the diners in the photos look quite different. It was either replaced or radically changed in 1960, depending on whose story about its fate you accept.  )

       I have other connections to that film besides the diner in my old hometown. For one, I saw the film in the Colonial Theater when it had its first run. That was in 1958. In the film The Blob attacks the patrons of a movie theater, the very one I saw the film in, how cool is that? The moviegoers stream screaming into the street and several of them run to the diner. They must have been in good shape,

because the Colonial Theater was in Phoenixville and the diner was in Downingtown, about fifteen miles apart. The town of Downingtown celebrates Blogfest every August and beside showing the film they have a reenactment of those patrons fleeing the theater.
        A fire chief assists the police during The Blob’s climatic scenes. Tom Ogden played the fire chief, but I knew him as Reverend Thomas Ogden. He was my minister at the Downingtown United Methodist Episcopal Church.

       My parents didn't retain Dottie as my babysitter for long. Dottie took me to the movies at the Roosevelt. I don't remember what we saw. It wasn't anything I had much interest in. It was "mushy". She kept leaning against me and talking during the film. Then she started asking me odd questions about guys in her class. Dottie was a teenager and I was in elementary school. I didn't know any of these fellows. I can't remember much more about that night except Dottie kept trying to hold my hand on the walk to my house from the theater. I was uncomfortable and glad when my folks came home.    One evening afterward I overheard my mother and grandmother whispering about Dottie. My mother told my grandmother “there’s something not right about that girl.” I heard her say, “She’s boy crazy.” Boy crazy meant a person who flitted from boy to boy or constantly craved men. I didn't understand the term then, but I could tell by my mother and grandmother's tone and expression that it was not considered a flattering term. I believe it was right after this that I was send back to my grandparents whenever my parents went out.
        A couple decades into the future, after I married and Dottie married, my wife and I became social friends with her and her husband Jack. I can’t say if Dottie was truly boy crazy. I doubt she ever came on to me beyond what I described because she probably liked her boys a little closer to being men than in grade school. Still, something happened that turned my mother against her and maybe my mom had it half right. Several years after our friendship, Dottie was committed to Embreeville State Hospital (right), a place when I was growing up we cruelly called  the “booby hatch”

      In the fall of 1950 I entered Mrs. Sara Powell’s Fourth Grade at East Ward. I didn’t like Mrs. Powell (left). She struck me as overly strict. I thought she had a mean face, sharp like a bird of prey. Despite my young impression of her, I actually had my best report card at East Ward in her class. I didn’t really have any serious problems with her.
       I did have serious problems with my ears. I kept getting intense earaches. These had started back when we lived in the swamp, but each year they became more frequent. These caused me terrible pain; enough that I even begged my mom to take me to see the doctor, which is when my mother knew this was dire. I had always fought going to the doctors so if I asked to go I must have been in great pain
           Doctor Parke examined me and diagnosed my problem as tonsillitis. He recommended taking out the offending tissues. Chester County Hospital admitted me to the Children’s Ward once again. Dr. Parke operated. I got the stereotypical reward, a plate of ice cream. I wasn’t in the hospital near as long as when I had appendicitis. I was back to class within a week.

This was a good thing for I hated being confined to that Children’s Ward. There was a head nurse who could have been the model for Nurse Ratched. She barked orders to we children like we were Marine recruits. She showed no sympathy or mercy. I hated her.

      I still continued to suffer earaches. Whether this had anything to do with us switching to Doctor M. H. Neff, the new pill-slinger in town or not I don’t know. I do know that as common as tonsillectomy was at the time taking them out put me at risk for a greater threat, polio. By the 1950s removing tonsils had become quiet a cash cow for surgeons. They were snipping these little guys out at a rate of 2,000,000 American children a year. Was this a lot? There were only 2,200,000 babies born a year in the 1950s. The number of this operation has dropped off considerably since then. One reason may be they found a correlation between the removal of tonsils and the paralytic disease polio. Children who had their tonsils removed were 3 to 5 times more likely to contract Polio than those who kept their tonsils. It was discovered the tonsils were the primary defense against Polio. I had my tonsils removed in 1951-52; the first Polio vaccine did not appear until 1955.
         I doubt my parents would have had any of this knowledge at the time, but something caused them to switch from long-time family doctor Parke to the new guy in town, Dr. M. H. Neff.
Doctor Neff bought the building next to the Meisel's at 341 East Lancaster Avenue. Prior to his purchase it had been a restaurant called the Tea House that had served a signature dish of chicken and waffles to the town folk since 1914. He paid $38,000 for the property, a hefty sum back then.  Doctor Neff lived in the main house along the avenue. His offices were in the back in what was once the carriage house.
        Doctor Neff was childless, whether the problem lie with him or his wife was never reveled to me. Like many people unable to have children, they lavished attention on neighborhood kids. Everybody made a beeline for the Neff’s on Halloween. You were invited into their parlor. There waited a table with many treats and goodies, including apple cider. They urged you to take as much as you wished. And you could eat it there where the Charles-Bird-Way Gang couldn’t snatch it from you.

      Looking at more pleasant things, the East Ward school took us to see Santa Claus each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas break. We were marched down to the Log Cabin in lines two by two. At the time the Log Cabin was closer to the center of town than its present location in Kerr Park near the Brandywine Creek. When I was in Junior High School historians were trying to determine if it was the oldest standing home in America. (It turned out it wasn’t.) We would line up at one cabin door and exit out the other. We had a little tete a tete upon Kris Kringle’s ample lap. He gave every child a gift and not some cheap candy cane either. I received a tube of Tinker Toys one year, something I really enjoyed. I think the American Legion sponsored these visits.

       I’m sure I had a nice list for Santa, not knowing that in the very near future Iva Darlington and I would uncover the terrible secret exposing the truth and exploding the myth in a spare bedroom closet. After that year, Santa didn’t come anymore.
    This was also a year I discovered something much more exciting to me than Santa Claus. Well, more exciting now that I knew the truth. Mrs. Powell had us read a story in class that totally engrossed me. It captured my imagination completely. It was, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. A couple years before I was avoiding horror; the comic books anyway and the "Tales of Tomorrow" TV shows gave me nightmares. I read this Poe story and I became enamored with the horror genre. I wanted more.
        I joined the Downingtown Library, receiving my first official Library card, an event that proved very auspicious for me eventually. It was a big disappointment at first. The Library banned Edgar Allan Poe to me. His stories were in the adult section and I was a child. It was frustrating being a kid. Everybody kept getting in my way.

       Something else occurred in Fourth Grade that greatly encouraged me. I still don’t exactly know how it came about. I’m just glad it did.
       I was interested in ventriloquisms. My grandfather had bought a television, joining his house with several others sporting antennae on the roof. One of the shows I watched with interest was the Paul Winchell Show. Here was this guy who talked to big dolls and they talked back. You seldom saw his lips move. I had seen Edgar Bergen perform on TV, too, and Bergen’s lips always moved. I was fascinated. I wanted a dummy like Jerry Mahoney, but I never got one. I did have several hand puppets. I would sit in front of a mirror and practice making a hand puppet talk without moving my lips.

       I had a dozen or more hand puppets and a marionette. It was an eclectic mix. I had little rubber headed puppets of Snap, Crackle and Pop, the breakfast cereal mascots. I sent away to the Howdy Doody show for them. I had some sock puppets my grandmother had sewn for me. They had cardboard supported mouths and buttons for eyes. I had a couple papier-mâché ones I had made with her help. I had a monkey.
       I got to put on a puppet show at school. I don’t know if it was part of a larger entertainment, like a variety show, though it doesn’t seem it was. I think I was it, a one-man assembly program.
It mystifies me why I was allowed to do this. Since I wrote the short story in Third Grade I hadn't written anything else that drew attention my way. I did get recognition for my art work, paintings I did with poster paint or watercolor or the scenes I created with charcoal. These were often put on display on the bulletin board. We did have show 'n' tell sometimes and I may have brought in some of the puppets I had made. Maybe I made a nuisance of myself with the teachers until they allowed me to do it.

      The school had a puppet stage. I made my own scenery and wrote the script. Since I had a monkey puppet and I still liked Frank Buck, I did a jungle story. I was greatly influenced by the Punch ‘n’ Judy shows one of the Philadelphia Department stores put on every Christmas season, so my play contained a lot of characters hitting each other with a stick. Stuart Meisel did one after mine was a success. Perhaps then these exhibitions were some sort of class project.
Nonetheless, I was creating things that others saw. This make-believe world was a place I could escape and for whatever reason gain some acceptance among my peers, even briefly and briefly it was.

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