The main intersection in downtown Downingtown had five streets. Route 322 running north south from West Chester joined the east-west Lancaster Avenue. Route 322 became part of Lancaster (Route 30) for about a mile before it turned north again as Manor Avenue. They called Route 322 Brandywine Avenue on the south side of Lancaster. On the north side two streets ran north off of Lancaster. Thelarger and longer was Wallace Avenue (left: looking from Brandywine at Wallace). People referred to both Brandywine and Wallace Avenues as Creek Road. The other street was short and called Park Lane (right: looking from Brandywine at park). It went back into Kerr Park and dead-ended at Pennsylvania Avenue.
The buildings at the mouth of these two streets had a triangular shape. The little white building on Park was a sandwich shop during my boyhood. George Karahalis owned it and called it George’s Restaurant. It would be what we call a sub shop today. That was their signature sandwich, but no one called it a sub. We called it a zep, even though Zep changed in a lot of places to Sub during World War II. Zep was short for Zeppelin, because of the shape of the roll. Zeppelin was German. (Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had designed the airships bearing his name).
There was a large empty lot along Park Lane that ran behind the stores along Wallace. People used this field for special events. Every year there was a town fair on the lot. The Cole Brothers/Clyde Beatty or Hunt Brothers’ circuses used the lot when they played the town. One time Stuart Meisel and I decided to go to the lot and watch them set up the Big Top.
There was a smaller tent already erected off to the side. Stuart and I wandered over to it. A flap, comprising the doorway, was up and we could see it was empty inside. We stepped a few feet inside.
A voice said, “Hello, boys.”
We were both ready to run for it, but we didn’t. We turned around and there was a woman leaning against the side of a small platform. She struck up a conversation with us and we learned this was the Ten-in-One tent, more commonly known as The Sideshow or Freak Show. The lady was a sword swallower. Stuart thought sword swallowing was fake, the sword telescoping into itself like a trick knife. The lady explained there was no trickery to the sword. She explained the method and demonstrated that she did indeed swallow it.
She was very nice to Stuart and me. I don’t know her name. There was a female sword swallower named Lady Jean traveling with those circus in the 1950s, but I don’t know if this was she or not. Female Sword Swallowers often used the title “Lady”, such as Lady Sandra Reed and Lady Aye (usually mispronounced as “A”) Pyrate. Lady Sandra was an Albino swallower who made the Guinness World Record book by swallowing the most at one time, but she didn’t begin performing until later than the 1950s (pictured right).
Lady Aye (left, with a fork up her nose) is a present day practitioner of the art who also does fire eating, escaping, blockhead arts and grinding (yes, bump and grind like strippers do). Meeting that sword swallower was the start of what would become another of my obsessive lifelong passions – sideshow people.
I had personal reasons for my interest in sideshow people, but we won’t get into those until many chapters down the line.
My parents still forced me to Sunday school weekly. I probably needed it, but I hated it. My family was nominally Christian. No one else went to church, but the family had been traditionally Christian so that is what we called ourselves. There were Bibles in the house and my grandmother had read to me from a volume of Bible stories for children, but beyond a quick grace said at holiday dinners very little spiritual activity occurred at home. Still there was one day a year I was happy to go to church, the annual Sunday school picnic.
If Sunday school picnics were a lunch basket in Kerr Park followed by sack races I wouldn’t have gone, but our picnics were at Lenape Park. There was all the difference in the world between Kerr and Lenape Parks. Lenape had amusement rides; Kerr Park had squirrels and sliding boards.
There was a carousel, which we always called a Merry-go-round, bumper cars, Funhouse, giant swings and a Roller Coaster. I would go on three of these. My fear of height made me avoid the giant swings and the Roller Coaster, at least until one particular year.
Lenape and other parks of that time did not charge a General Admission Fee and parking was usually free. They charged for each individual ride. Our church, Downingtown Methodist Episcopal, gave each of us a string of ride tickets and a couple of vouchers for refreshments. If we had some money of our own we could ride and eat even more. It was worth putting up with a short sermon and a prayer at a pavilion.
The Lenape Carousel (pictured left) had beautiful carved horses, which went up and down n brass poles, except on the outer row. The outer row horses were stationary and interspersed with sleigh shaped seats for the “older folk”. The only reason we kids would ride on the stationary horses was to catch the brass ring. There was a long metal sleeve hanging down on one side of the building. At the lower end of this was a slot out of which peeked a metal ring about the size of a half dollar. If you could grab a brass ring as you circled, you got a free ride.
I never caught the brass ring – story of my life!
The Funhouse was a series of dark passageways that twisted about inside as a maze. Every so often lights would flash and something would come toward you. It might be a stack of crates that looked about to tumble over you or a Devil jabbing with his pitchfork. It could be a monster or mummy reaching or a giant spider in its web. Between these displays it was black as a coalmine. You stumbled through, arms outstretched, bumping into walls until suddenly you burst through two swinging doors into daylight.
At the very end of the Funhouse journey you came to the Magic Carpet. The Magic Carpet was a giant conveyer belt that moved downward over rollers for about thirty feet. The exit door was at the bottom. At the top you sat down on a kind of bench, which would suddenly collapse beneath you, flattening out and allowing the belt to pull you forward. You had to jump off at the bottom because it never stopped moving. You could walk down steps by the side if you were afraid. There were very few kids who used the steps because nobody wanted to be called chicken, but there was also a good deal of fear of jumping on that thing, too. The trepidation was because of an urban legend. Rumor had it that some children died because they could not jump off quick enough at the bottom and were sucked under the rollers. You always rode down the belt with butterflies in your belly thinking, “Remember to jump, remember to jump.”
That’s why they call it the Funhouse, folks – fear!
Yes, at some early age I developed acrophobia, an irrational fear of being up high. For me, being up high meant anything above three feet. It wasn’t mere fear I felt either. It was sheer terror and panic. This was to be detrimental to me during my life, especially the early years.
This was the same reason I never road Roller Coasters, sometimes called the Scenic Railroads, until this one particular summer on the Sunday school picnic.
In Fifth Grade I was more shunned with fewer friends in Sunday school than I had in public school. When we went to the annual picnic I set off alone after the opening sermon and dispersal of the tickets. No one wanted to go with me and I didn’t care. I never had a problem doing things alone after my years in the swamp. This time things worked out differently.
There was another boy in Sunday school who was shunned even more than me. I forget his name, but people today would call him “Challenged”. I apologize ahead of time for what I am about to write because it isn’t politically correct. Well, hard cheese, I hate euphemisms. What in the wide world does “Challenged” mean?
I am suffering from arthritis, mostly in my ankles and feet, but in my hands as well and often it hurts to walk, stand or write. The pain challenges me because it is intense. In fact, some of my fingers are paralyzed due to the disease. Maybe I would call that challenging. Yet if I lost my ability to use my hands at all or couldn’t walk upon these feet anymore, should I still be considered challenged? No, I would be crippled, not simply challenged.
That is the actual definition of crippled, “unable to walk or move properly; disabled”. Cripple is the legitimate word for someone with such a condition. But somewhere people decided the word cripple is offensive, so instead of facing the facts and stating the truth we must hide it behind a non-descriptive term for fear someone’s feeling will be hurt. Then we decided to throw the word “Challenged” at everything so nothing has real meaning.
This boy was “challenged”? What does that mean exactly? You tell me he is crippled then I know he can’t walk. You say he is challenged; in what way, he struggles to do algebra? He can’t conjugate a verb? He can’t put his pants on right side front?
The plain truth is this boy was a Moron; simply meaning he had an I.Q. somewhere between 50 and 69. He wasn’t an Imbecile and he wasn’t an Idiot, but he was below Dull. These words are not insults; they are measurements.
You see, such words once had very specific meanings. A moron was someone who had a mental age between 8 and 12 years old when their chronological age was older. Such people are mildly retarded. People don’t want to face facts and deal with the reality, plus somebody called someone else a retard, so we can’t say retarded anymore even where it is applicable. The words Moron and Retarded have been declared offensive even though the word retard simply means held back or slowed. Retarded refers to being less advanced in mental, physical or social ability than one’s age group. Socially retarded is what I was and to some extent, still am. I’m sorry, I should have said socially challenged. I wish people would stop hiding behind semantics and just deal with reality. Either that or lets call Geniuses “highly unchallenged”. In other words, let become adults. But it is easier to use a generic, non-descriptive word to hide the truth than to deal with the reality and actually do something.
The best description of that boy was mentally retarded. He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t dumb. His difficulty was not contagious. He was simply behind his physical age mentally. Both he and I were 11 years old, but he talked and acted like he was 5 or 6. Others avoided him. They teased and made fun of him and of anyone befriending him. They called him names, such as dummy and stupid. Teachers said he was “slow”. Yes, adults were ignorant in the 1950s and kids are cruel anytime.
For some reason this boy decided to tag along with me. In all honesty, I didn’t want him hanging around. Those other kids teased me enough; if they saw me being a pal to this guy I would just get more razzing. But I couldn’t shake him, so I started talking to him. He was curious about things, just like any five or six year old would be. Obviously he could learn if you took your time explaining things and didn’t mind repeating yourself a few times. He was having a good time. I found him very likable. It was like having a kid brother who was tall for his age, that’s all.
He was fearful of the rides, especially of going in the Funhouse. I took him through, holding his hand the whole time. He was scared, but he did it and he was so happy he did. His mother came and took him home early. I was then on my own again for the rest of the day.
wasn’t even a big one. There was one high hill at the very beginning and then a series of curves. I stared at it. It didn’t look that bad. If that boy could go through the Funhouse that scared him so badly, maybe I could ride the Coaster.
They tell me the way to conquer your fear is to face it. I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. I rode the Lenape Coaster three times that day and have never been on a Roller Coaster since, except for a kiddies’ one at Dorney Park with my own child. I’ve never been on a Ferris Wheel even once.
A few years after that roller coaster ride, when I was around 13 or 14, I hiked up to Rock Raymond with two friends named Jim Dawson and Dickie Dietz. Rock Raymond was beside a country road of the same name above Downingtown. The elevation atop it is 210 feet or so,but the exposed side of the rock was maybe thirty. The picture on the right isn’t Rock Raymond, but it was similar. The cliff side was perhaps a little less straight up vertically, but it was pretty close. My friends decided to scale the Rock. I resisted, but gave it a try. I shook the whole way up and was terrified to look down. My friends urged me on. One went ahead of me, and one behind. I don’t know how anyone thought this made me more secure. If I fell no one was going to catch me.
I made it to the very upper lip and there was a slight ridge to go over. When I began to climb further I discovered the ground here was a lot of loose dirt. It was hard to get a grasp and stones would roll out from beneath my hands and bop me on the head. I had no choice now though. There was no way I could climb back down. There was only up and up I went and I conquered Rock Raymond. But I didn’t conquer my fear of height. I’ve never climbed another rock cliff in my life again either.
I preferred my risks closer to the ground, and there I could be much more daring. Some would say foolhardy.