There was a sign at every entry road into Downingtown.
“Welcome to FRIENDLY DOWINGTOWN
NO NEED for SPEED.
I wasn’t feeling the love when I moved back in 1950. I certainly didn’t feel welcomed. At evening I could retreat inside or stay in the back yard where it was relatively safe. I had no choice come weekday mornings. I had to traipse over to East Ward and be either a target or a reject. None of my attempts to fit in succeeded. The way I talked was wrong, my clothes were wrong, my hair was wrong.
The Confrontation of the Baseball Caps is a typical example, but one that taught me a valuable life lesson. I often wore a Philadelphia Athletics’ Baseball Cap. It was dark blue with a large scrolled A on the crown. I don’t know where I got it. Either my dad or my grandfather gave to me I suppose. It wasn’t a statement; I hadn’t begun to follow the sport at that age. Maybe I wore the cap because it was blue or maybe I liked the Athletics big jolly elephant symbol.
One summer day Denny Myers and some of the other boys stepped in front of me and blocked my way. “Wha’d’ya wearin’ a loser hat for. Did’ja ever hear of the Phillies?”
I’m not sure I was aware of the standings that summer or that the A’s were in last place in the American League and the Phillies led the National. I may have known. I had started collecting bubblegum cards in ’48-’49. But why should it matter to anyone if I rooted for the losers? Maybe I felt more akin to them. Suddenly someone snatched the cap off my head, and I’m sure you know what followed. He held it out as if to give it back to me, but he tossed it to another boy when I reached. Soon I was spinning about in a futile effort to snag my cap as it sailed back and forth behind and over me. Everybody was laughing, except me. They dropped my hat in the dust when interest waned or somebody called them home.
I asked that night for a Phillies cap and got one. I wore it, but it made no difference. I conformed to what the clique had demanded, tried to fit their image of what I should be and it changed nothing, except they found something else to rag me about. I always wore the wrong brand of sneakers or stupid bib overalls or had a Roy Roger’s cap pistol rather than a Gene Autry, any such silly thing.
It was an epiphany. When I changed caps I realized it didn’t matter. If people choose to dislike me, they would dislike me no matter what. This was the essential kernel of prejudice, the stubborn refusal to see the content beneath the packaging. The core necessity of preserving exclusivity is some people need a scapegoat to feel superior.
It taught me to forego image and concentrate on character. The friends I began making eventually were like me in that way. They may not have been the most popular kids in school, but they were the most accepting and the most talented, although a lot of times they hadn’t realized it yet. When everybody in the farmyard calls you a duck it is hard to recognize you’re a swan.
In January 1950 I returned to East Ward Elementary. I was not exactly given a returning hero’s welcome with waving flags and thrown confetti. There were no sticks or stones thrown either -- yet. The only things thrown were insults. Everyone ignored me for the most part and didn’t allow me to join in any reindeer games. I didn’t have a big glowing red nose, but somehow I was different. Perhaps the smell of swamp clung to me.
There was a sing-song rhyme children sang when someone called them a name. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Words may not break bones, but they can hurt and the wounds caused may run deep and last longer than any scars upon the flesh.
I should have been comfortable coming back to East Ward. Several of the kids had once been playmates on my block and I knew most the others from First Grade. A number of the girls still talked and invited me to play, which didn’t really help my cause with the boys. Boys and girls at that age were somewhat like cats and dogs, not expected to mix, and that I quickly became something of a “Teacher’s Pet” did me no favors either.
It may be telling that in the class picture I am standing directly in front of my third-grade teacher, Miss Ezrah. You may note as well, I am standing next to the blond girl I was moonstruck for during all of grade school, Mary Jane Chudleigh. On my left is Tim Mahan, who had been a close friend in my preschool days, but that friendship did not continue. The second boy on the left in the front row is Bobby Cuellers, the one friendship I had at West Whiteland. But it did not pick up where it left off when we reunited at East Ward. Iva Darlington is the sixth person from the left in the front row and she remained a good friend. Standing next Iva is Bill Brookover, a future friend. Denny Myers stands in the back row second from the right next to Jack Swarner. Six months earlier Denny and I had our arms around each other in friendly comradeship, now both he and Jack had become tormenters, each something of a bully.
The dark haired boy to Denny’s left is Frank Marcucci. Frank would become a class leader at Downingtown High School, but that was after I was gone and I never developed any close ties with him. There were never any troubles between us either, although I had a run in with his older brother shortly after moving back to town.
I was playing in the field next to 424 Washington, as I often did. Marcucci, I think his first name was Jerry, came walking across the lot, which at that time was vacant except for piles of cinders on the northern portion. These were used on the roads during winter snows. In the photo on the left can be seen some of the cinder piles in the otherwise vacant lot. People who lived on Jefferson or other streets behind Washington often cut across this lot rather then walk down to the sidewalk along Whiteland. I paid him no mind. I don’t think he said anything to me. He just jumped me, knocked me to the ground and began pummeling me with his fists. I have no idea why. I had seen him cross that lot many times, but I didn’t know him from Adam.
He was older and larger and had the advantage. My dog Topper was in the old chicken pen behind the backyard. Topper was pacing and barking when this happen. Somehow he got out of the pen and ran across the yard. The bigger boy got off me in a hurry and ran. He never bothered me again. I still don’t know why he attacked me.
There are several boys in that class picture who would become friends, some for life, but I didn’t know them when I first came back to town. The two who would be my “bestest” friends were furthest from me in the photo, one standing half hidden behind the other. One is Stuart Meisel, the boy on the far right who looks as if he is holding his breath to the bursting point. He has very dark hair and a striped T-shirt. The other is the mop of hair and half hidden face behind him, Ronald Walter Tipton. There was something “different” about them, as there was something different about me that caused a barrier between we three and our classmates.
My new friendships solidified and I became less concerned with those who didn’t accept me. But as my world expanded I discovered worse bullies than those in my class or immediate neighborhood. Those on the school ground hit me with taunts. There were older boys on other blocks that threatened to hit me with more physical weapons. The saying is “Sticks and stones may break my bones; but words will never hurt me”. That is not at all true, of course, words sting and damage very deeply into your psyche and soul. Saying that mantra really doesn’t protect you from the insults and indignities others heap upon you. Deep down none of us truly believe that words can’t hurt.
But not so deep down we know the first half is correct, sticks and stones can break bones. And fists can leave bruises and blood. I made no attempt to please when it came to older boys who didn’t like me. I glommed onto another old saying as Gospel (Shakespeare actually), “The better part of valor is discretion”. In other words I took Falstaff’s advice, when I saw the enemy I ran.
Their last names were Charles and Bird and Way, and there were a couple others who must have been their nameless lesser toadies. These creeps terrorized me the entire time I remained in Downingtown. Not so much individually; these sorts of cowards get their strength from numbers and preying on the weak. The Charles-Bird-Way way is the way of the chicken. (Pictured left, Doug Way.) I’m sure they suffered from poor self-images and chasing the scrawny little kid from the other block gave them an illusion of self-glory. It truth, such behavior only confirmed their lack of self-confidence, inhumanity and worthless character.
Pointing out their obvious flaws would not have prevented my getting beat up, of course. It would have guaranteed it.
These were the punks that wandered about on Halloween stealing little kid’s treat bags by force.
They lived on the next block west on Washington, the 300 block between Chestnut and Green Streets. Whenever I walked that block I was always glancing over my shoulder.
If I saw them I would jump behind any convenient hedge, bush, parked car or tree with the hope they hadn’t seen me. If they spotted me, I ran as fast as I could. I was a very speedy runner. They seldom caught me, but they scared me near to death a lot of times.
Sometime after moving in with my maternal grandparents, a house up the street at 417 became vacant. My parent’s rented it and we moved yet again, but still within the same block of Washington Avenue. 417 was a double house. It had a sun porch on front. The backyard was fairly private. On the East was a large hedge dividing our yard from the attached yard of our neighbor at 419. On the West was the windowless wall of a long garage. There was next to us a dealer in farm equipment. I played on the tractors and combines during the times it closed.
It would seem my backyard was a fortress, but it was also a trap as I discovered one winter day. It snowed. It buried our yard and the farm equipment next door. The day after the snow it warmed up and snow began to melt. It became little pools of cold water on the seats of the tractors.
I was in my backyard at 417 playing. It was Sunday and the farm equipment dealership was closed. Suddenly a snowball hit the side of my head. It was very hard. More missiles found me. The Charles-Bird-Way Gang from the 300 block had invaded the farm machinery and attacked me. They had me outnumbered and used the pooled water to make ice balls. I packed the snow from my yard as best I could and flung it back, but it was softer and generally flew into ineffective pieces if and when it did hit anyone.
It occurred to me if I got a basin of water from the kitchen I would be able to make ice balls as well. I ran onto the porch. Framed behind the glass panel of the backdoor stood my father. I tried the knob, but he had locked the door. I motioned to let me in, but he wouldn’t do it. He thought I was trying to run away. I wanted to get a basin of water I explained. He turned and walked away. I was getting pelted, trapped on the porch. I did what I could, trying to get some water from along the porch where it dripped from the overhang, but not very successfully. I took a pounding before they ran. I don’t know what made them stop, whether they got tired or somebody came and told them to get off the farm machinery.
But it was another rip in what little fabric of faith I had in my father.
It was unusual for the Charles-Bird-Way Gang to come down my block and do anything. They pretty much stayed west of Chestnut. It was difficult to avoid their block, not impossible, but inconvenient. There were two places I went to often down at the far end of Washington and the most direct route took me through Charles-Bird-Way territory.
One of the places was the Roosevelt Movie House (pictured right) on Brandywine Avenue just a bit south of where Washington ended. I seldom went to the movies alone, but attended with Ronald and Stuart. I generally walked to Stuart’s when coming or going, which meant I wasn’t on Washington until my own block. Church was a different matter.
Shortly after moving back to town my mother made me go to church or more accurately, to Sunday school. She was raised a member of the Grove Methodist Church so she sent me to the Downingtown United Methodist Episcopal Church. This was on Brandywine Avenue directly across from where Washington ended. I seldom saw any of those 300 block boys out on the street early on Sunday morning, but if I did I would start using an alley that ran between Lancaster and Washington from Chestnut to Green. The alley allowed me to avoid that block entirely.
I had never had much in the way of a fistfight with any of the Charles Gang. They chased me and knocked me down a couple of times. Once they shoved me down and tore the knee in my jeans. I skinned my knee in that fall, but that mattered less than tearing my pants. My wardrobe was meager and to damage something brought a lecture at home. It also meant my grandmother would sew a big patch over the knee and I would have to go to school in bandaged trousers. I received enough kidding about my clothes. If this had happened on Sunday going or coming from church, well Heaven help me, I’d need prayer. My folks forced me to wear a suit on those jaunts, white shirt, bowtie and a brimmed hat. I looked like a Rabbi in training.
I acquiesced to Sunday school until I reached Junior High age and then plain refused to go. That is not really accurate. I simply complained and fussed so much about it my mom got tired of hearing me and gave up.
What was the point of it? No one else in my family was bothering with church or much of religion that I could see. We had some Bibles at home, but they were hidden away in a drawer except for one large one gathering dust on the sideboard. It was used more often for recording family deaths and births or pressing flowers than reading. I had a bible they had given me at the church. Sometimes I flipped through it. I liked some of the stories, but most of it made no sense, just a lot of jibber-jabber in a strange form of English. Who needed it? When mom said I didn’t have to go anymore I was estatic. I thought I was done with religion forever and I knew I didn’t need it.
I was a good boy.