Jingle Bells is playing on the radio. It is Christmas season; it must be time to move to a new address again. This will be the fourth move in my eight years of life and the third time in December.
Born in West Chester in June, lived in Modena. Moved to Whitford not long after birth. Moved to 424 Washington Avenue in December of that same year. Moved to Glenloch in December of my sixth year. Moving back to 424 Washington Avenue in December of my eighth year.
How did Santa Claus ever find me?
Of course in the December of my ninth year, with the help of Iva Darlington, I got the answer to that question. (See Chapter 19 of Swamp Rat.)
My dad had changed jobs.
After two years hauling milk for Hines, he took a job with Atkinson Trucking headquartered in the steep hills of Manayunk, Pennsylvania. He switched jobs for the money.Atkinson must have paid very well in comparison, because leaving Hines meant losing that rent-free house in the swamp. I think dad told me he went from $50 a month to $50 a week. That still was far below the average salary in 1950, $23 a week below it actually (Average annual salary in 1950 was $3,800.). Minimum wage was $.75 an hour or $30 a week. My dad was basically on the job 120 hours a week, and that works out to 41 cents an hour.
Dad took me into Manayunk to the Atkinson terminal a few times. I remember one time we went in toward the end of day. I no longer recall street names, but we left the Schuylkill Expressway at some point and we had to go down this long and steep street. At the bottom it took a sharp turn onto a bridge. Dad talked about how if the brakes failed or if there was ice on the road how easily it would be to smash
He hauled sugar from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh for Atkinson. All he needed was the cereal to go with the milk and sugar, but it wasn’t cereal he backhauled. It was steel. The change of cargo didn’t change his schedule. He still wasn’t home much. The photo on the left is the old Sugar House Plant of the Pennsylvania Sugar Division of the National Sugar Refining Company where dad picked up cargo for Quaker Brand, Jack Frost and Arbuckle sugar. It was in what is known as the Fishtown area of Philadelphia. The Sugar House Casino stands on the sight as of this writing.
Philadelphia to Pittsburgh is 300 plus miles. You’re talking, especially in those days, of six hours of driving one way because at the beginning it was older roads, especially up through the mountains. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Extension between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh wasn’t fully up and useable until December of 1950. When that happened it made his driving safer, but didn’t cut the time much.
Dad set off early Monday on an average week. He’d pick up the sugar at the plant in Philadelphia and head west. He’d stop at a greasy spoon or a HoJo’s (Howard Johnson’s – this chain had a monopoly on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the 1950s) along the way for lunch. That might kill a half hour. He might have to pull through a weigh station for inspection, which farther delayed the run. Truckers hated those weight stations. If he made his delivery point by late afternoon there would be time to offload same day. Otherwise he would sleep in his truck for offloading in the morning and then hightail it to Butler for his steel. If he did get offloaded the day he arrived he might have made Butler Monday night. This would be nice because then he could get a meal and sleep in the large truck stop bunkhouse.
The earlier he was at the steel mill the better. If he was later there would be a long line of trucks waiting at the gate and it might take all morning to get his backhaul. Then everything would go into reverse and he’d make the six-hour or so drive to a drop off site around Philly. Usually he would arrive too late to offload and have to sleep over by the plant to be first in the morning. He’d pick up the next payload of Sugar and stop home in the afternoon.
This would be Wednesday and he’d stick around long enough for dinner before heading west again. Wednesday evening he would drive for several hours, then pull over on the shoulder and sleep in his cab. Drive, load, drive, sleep, unload and do it all over again. He generally rolled home Friday evening. Sometimes he didn’t get home until Saturday morning. Sometimes he left Sunday night. All I can say is I didn’t see a lot of him as a boy and I was comfortable with that.
Dad’s trucking companies, cargos and destinations changed many times over his life, but that basic schedule stayed the same until he was seventy-six, a man then older than I am now. I don’t know how he endured, except he just loved to drive. He gave up his Class A CDL in 1991 and got a Class B license. He kept on truckin’ so to speak, except now he drove a school bus for another 13 years, until they decided 88 was too aged for that.
I always joked dad’s coffin would have to come equipped with a steering wheel or he wouldn’t go. The doctor’s took the steering wheel out of his hands at age 90 and told him because of his heart condition he was a risk on the road. Driving anything any more was not allowed. This meant he had to also quit his then current job as Sexton (maintenance and cleaning) at his church. Seventy-three years of almost never being home and now at 92 he couldn’t leave the house.
With the loss of the Swamp House we all moved back with my maternal grandparents. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” I’m back in my old bedroom and it is the Christmas season once more. I’m able to look out my window and see the houses on Whiteland Avenue lit up for the holidays. The one house is all in red lights; another all in blue. I stare at the blue house and find it makes me feel melancholy.
I don’t have a playroom anymore. I’m back to playing in the dining room, but I don’t like being in plain sight anymore; it inhibits me. For instance, I imagined I ran a grocery store one day. I clipped pictures of boxes and bottles from the ads in mom’s old magazines. I sat on the floor and pretended there were shelves and I stocked these with my cutouts. I had a little toy cash register I had gotten for Christmas, which is probably why I got the idea to play store in the first place. It had working buttons and a little window where numbers popped up. I don’t know if it actually added correctly, but it did have a no sale sign that sometimes appeared and a cash drawer that opened. It served as a bank, too. There was a slot near the top and a little lever on the side that allowed the coin to drop into the drawer.
I was playing away, serving my make-believe customers when my grandmother passed by me between living room and kitchen. She stopped and her face got red. She was upset about something. She bent over and snatched up a couple of my cutouts, snapping, “You don’t want those things.” She gave no explanation, just took them out to the kitchen trashcan.
I was shaken and wondering what I did wrong. These pictures were no different from any other on my pretend shelves, no different from my ones of Wheaties or Kleenex. I had no idea what Tampax and Kotex were, except now I thought they must be evil or illegal, but then why were they in my mom’s magazines. (Left, a German Tampax ad; right a 1950 magazine Kotex ad. I would have cut out the little picture of the boxes at the bottom of the page to use in my “store”.)
People didn’t speak of certain subjects in the 1950s, especially to children. There was a great conspiracy to protect out innocence. Thus I didn’t understand my grandfather’s bathing suit joke about two Band-Aids and a cork nor my grandmothers angry reaction to it and to these little ad boxes I had cut out.
This secrecy would have consequences later on.
After New Year school began again and I was back at East Ward Elementary for the last half year of Third Grade. I don’t remember my third-grade teacher at West Whiteland, but I do remember that teacher at East Ward. Her name was Elizabeth Ezrah and she was to have a more positive effect on my future than the strange secrets of Tampax, Kotex and sex would.