Archive for the 'memoir' Category

Tell Them I’m Not Home – out now!

Tell Them I'm Not Home

‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in the Olney section of North Philadelphia in the decade following World War II, a place not unlike Jean Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana of a decade earlier. The close-quarters life in a blue-collar neighborhood of row-house streets provided the author with a cast of characters, many funny, some scary, as well as a near-endless litany of stories. ‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a ticket back to the Olney & Philadelphia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a place as singular, colorful and as lost to today as Hapsburg Vienna or tenement New York.

Contact:
olney.memoir@gmail.com

More Info:
www.petebyrne.com

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Sample Chapters:

“The Glory That Was Rome
In neighborhoods like Olney, people sorted themselves out along a variety of fault lines. Phillies fans versus those who allied themselves with Connie Mack’s pitiful Athletics, those with Lionel Electric trains against those with American Flyers, the cheaper Father and Son shoes against the pricier Flagg Brothers, Luckies or Camels, and on and on and on. But the defining separation among the people who populated the neighborhood of my childhood was the religious split between Catholics and the Protestants. Among Catholics like us, the prevailing interpretation of Protestantism encompassed anyone who wasn’t a Catholic.  (Click here to continue…)

 

 “Happy Birthday Patsy Mullins”
I was coming down 5th Street when I met Eddie Matthews who was coming the other way. In the course of the kind of conversations that twelve-year-olds, newly minted twelve-year-olds, carry on, Eddie asked if I were going to Patsy Mullins’ birthday party. The question kind of bounced off me. Like what birthday party, and why would Patsy Mullins invite me to her birthday party? In the sexually segregated Irish, Latin, Roman Catholic world of late 1940’s Philadelphia where this conversation was taking place, I was very much aware of young Ms. Mullins. But although we were in the same grade in the same parish school, we had never exchanged more than a “Hi” when passing on the street. Seventh grade boys were on one floor of the school building and girls on the other. In all the years I had spent in the Incarnation of Our Lord parish school, I couldn’t remember any interaction between them and us. The seventh-grade girls could have been Albanians or Martians. (Click here to continue…)

“Kenny Bergman”
On Christmas Day, 1950, Kenny Bergman and I sat on his living room sofa smoking cigarettes. I was thirteen. Kenny’s mother was visible, working away in the kitchen. The house smelled of roasting turkey and the radio was on, Bing Crosby singing carols. On the other side of the room under the Christmas tree a set of American Flyer electric trains moved slowly around a platform filled with little houses, cars and mountain-paper tunnels. Each time the train emerged from the nearest tunnel, Kenny or I would raise his Daisy Targeteer BB pistol and aim for one of the glass Christmas tree ornaments he’d placed in a gondola or on a flat car. Several times, a smiling Mrs. Bergman walked through the living room. She never said a word. I thought I was in heaven. (Click here to continue…)

“Tell Them I’m Not Home”
I got in from school around three-thirty. At a quarter to four, the phone in the living room rings. “Oh shit,” I thought. As my mother moved to pick up the receiver, I shouted down from the landing, “tell them I’m not home, Mom. Tell them I’m not home.” I knew who was on the phone. It was Rudy Bederman, the assistant manager at the A & P on 5th Street, and I knew what he wanted. It was Thursday. I wasn’t scheduled to work until the next day, Friday. Somebody hadn’t shown up and they wanted me to fill in. I had nothing on my afternoon agenda other than walking over to Fairhill Street to hang out with the crowd at Geever’s candy store. My mother was not to be trusted in these matters. To impart a sense of urgency, I kept up my chant. “Mom! Mom! Tell them I’m not home.”  Unfortunately, in the seconds that my mother hesitated with the receiver in her hand, Rudy Bederman heard me shouting that I wasn’t home. (Click here to continue…)

 

“Do You Believe In Magic?”
In September 1954, my senior year of high school had just begun, just barely. I had flunked summer school, my third summer school in as many years. According to the rules that meant I wouldn’t be going back to my high school. I would have to go to a public school and repeat junior year. (Click here to continue…)

all content copyright Pete Byrne 2011

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The Golden Age Of The Moniker

Other than hearing them on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” nicknames that overrode a person’s given name seem to have disappeared from mainstream American life. Growing up in a blue-collar, city neighborhood of the 1940s and1950s, I remember nicknames as commonplace.

The essence of most nicknames was that they were almost always off-handedly bestowed, never chosen by the carrier. Nicknames that could stick to a person for a lifetime usually originated in throw-away lines, offered as casual asides. Most recipients of an adhering nickname, after some futile resistance, would reluctantly acquiesce to their new identities. There are men today in their seventies who, were I to meet then on the street or were their names to come up in conversation, would be greeted or referred to reflexively in the often inexplicable nominatives of their schoolyard or corner lounging days. These were not the benign names of contemporary suburbia. There were no cutesy, parentally endowed “Chips” or “Skips.” These were names like “Jiggs,” “Ozzie” and “Nuggie,” likewise “Fat Sam” and “Fat Ralph,” who incidentally was not fat.

We had a “Buzz,” more than one “Ace,” a “Duke” and a “Babe.” There was a “Lips,” a “Joe Guinea” and even a “B. O.,” who smelled no worse that the rest of us. “Roughhouse Ray” was a guy congenitally incapable of putting up his dukes, and “Bones” approached the obese. I knew a “Mouse,” a “Chickie,” a “Pidgie,” a “Jug” and a “Gobbler.” Where that last one came from, I have no idea. “Bull Moose” was an imposingly muscular retarded guy who wandered the neighborhood in silence, and the name “Dippy John” was the price that a kid with minor birth defects paid to belong on the corners. “Dippy John” was in no way “dippy.”

I was present when a co-worker told a low-grade joke about a gay attack dog barking “Bowsie-Wowsie.” From that day on he was “The Bowser,” and none of his resentful objections were to any avail.

A cousin of mine got stuck at the age of seven with the name of his radio adventure hero “Brick Bradford.” The full name morphed to “Bricky” and is still answered to by a man now in his sixties. Fifty years ago, another cousin married a plus six-foot sailor who continues to get “Stretch.” An eighth-grade classmate, whose given name I no longer recall, was tagged with “Uncle Miltie,” and another has carried “Fuzzy” into seniorhood. While nicknames were a guy thing, I can recall a “Bubbles,” a “Cookie” and even a “Jukey.”

A kid named Joe lived across the street and it was my own father who, referencing a newspaper ad for a Yiddish theater production of the play “Yostle the Bum,” hung that name on Joe. The name took instantly and permanently, contracting quickly to just “Yostle” and from there to “Yos.” I doubt that hardly anyone from the neighborhood remembers him as anything other than Joe “Yos.”

For the record, I managed to elude getting a nickname.

Another War Story

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At one stage of my grown-up period when I was attempting to pass for a serious corporate type, I found myself in a conference room of a Harrisburg Holiday Inn, a last-minute, substitute delegate at a committee meeting of a statewide trade association.

I’d never before met any of the ten guys in the room, and had no clear idea of what I was supposed to be doing or not doing at the meeting. I knew only that I was there to show the company flag and to get through the day without embarrassing myself. The other committee members, this was 1976 and they were all men, were a good deal older than me, each representing utility companies from around the State, and they all seemed to be on easy, familiar terms with each other. I felt like a crasher at a private party. There was little serious attention paid to the meeting’s prepared agenda, and I figured that for most of those present, it was a day out of the office with best of all, a free lunch.
And it was to be good lunch indeed.

Deserting the Spartan accommodations of the Holiday Inn for a high-end, overpriced streak joint, we entered a dining room filled with state legislators drinking and chowing-down, all accompanied by smiling lobbyists. In an “aha!” moment, I concluded that like the politicians, we were about to dine well on somebody else’s money. The understanding among my fellow committee members was that the association’s marketing consultant, who had been chairing the meeting, would be putting the lunch tab on his expense account. I watched as my fellow committeemen ordered from the top of the menu. There were drinks all around, a hearty lunch and lots of good-old-boy jocularity. I did my part, smiling, grunting, eating, drinking and nodding.

After lunch and over coffee, one of more outspoken of the group, the association staffer, a big stuffy guy, self-important and decked out in full Ivy League drag, lit one of the cigars offered by the generous consultant, almost everyone still smoked in those days. “Mr. Big Deal” as I’d christened him, sent out his first clouds of smoke and began what would be a long monologue about his wartime years, all spent in the peaceful environs of Hawaii. “Best days of my life,” he went on. “Plenty of booze and horny women everywhere…,” and on and on. After a few minutes of that and looking for any escape, I turned to the guy seated next me, a guy from a gas and water company in Reading. I knew his name was Bernie. He looked about the right age. So I asked him, matter-of-factly, “hey Bernie, were you in the war?” Bernie was a little guy, even shorter than me. He wore one of those waffle-weave polyester blazers that were sold on the premise that they’d never wrinkle. It was mustard yellow. He too was puffing on one of the consultant’s freebee cigars.

Pausing as if to consider answering, he slid the cigar from his mouth and gave me a slow, flat, “yeah, I was in the war.” Willing to do anything to maintain an alternative to the “Remember Pearl Harbor” soliloquy going on across the table, I followed up with an equally disinterested “what were you in.” My new friend Bernie barely acknowledged my inquiry. In fact he actually turned his head away from me as he quietly said, “the air corps.” He said it like it didn’t really mean anything to him. It was my serve again, and I was beginning to tire of the whole thing. “Did you fly,” I asked. “Yep,” was all he said. Approaching terminal tedium with Bernie and his one-syllable answers, I asked what I thought would be the requisite and final question of a dead-end conversation. No longer at all that interested in Bernie, not in his war, not in his hideous sport coat – his necktie was worse – I threw out a casual, “what did you fly.” With a studied slowness, he pulled the cigar from his mouth and for the first time in our little back and forth, looked me in the eye. It was a look to say, “you really fucking want to know, don’t you.” Deliberately, slowly, and enunciating every syllable, he smiled for the first time and said, “P-38s.”

My outburst of “no shit” was involuntary and turned every head at the table in our direction. Catching myself, I allowed Mr. Big Deal to resume his Hawaiian rhapsody before trying to recapture Bernie’s attention with another “no shit, Bernie. Did you really fly a P-38?” He knew he had my attention. I got another sly smile and a modest, softly stated, “sure did.”

I was eight years old when the Second World War ended. Coming into awareness in the excitement of the biggest war ever fought, the content of the imagery inside my head anticipated the entire film library of the History Channel. My default settings for action, for excitement, for cool were all referenced to the photojournalism, the newsreels and the movies that had covered the war. I hadn’t cared a damn for sports, for cowboys, for cops and robbers. Nope, it was all tanks, Iwo Jima and John Wayne. I had spent the first conscious years of my life devouring the data, the statistics, the trivia of everything that came my way related to World War II. I knew that the .30-caliber, M-1 rifle, gas-operated, semi-automatic Garand was clip-fed, and had superceded the 1903 bolt action Springfield, that the Thompson submachine gun used the same .45-caliber ammunition as the Colt .45 automatic pistol, and that the Japs were real bastards.

On an unconscious level, too many of my aesthetic paradigms were weighted toward the imagery of the Second World War, toward the gracefully lethal. And of all the internalized configurations; the silhouettes of destroyers, of the Schmeisser machine pistol, even of the shark-toothed Curtis P-40 of Chennault’s Flying Tigers, it was always the supercharged, 400 mile-an-hour, double-boomed, twin-engined, Lockheed Lightning P-38 single seat fighter with its nose full of firepower that came closest to defining the absolute embodiment of deadly cool.

In “Populuxe,” his treatment of the design concepts that came to define the postwar consumer culture, Thomas Hine pointed out that Detroit’s addition of tail fins to American cars was a direct lift from the profile of the P-38. But that came later, after I’d let my enthusiasm for things military burn itself out while marking time for two years as a draftee in an army motor pool in Germany. In that expensive steak joint in Harrisburg, my brief conversational gambit with Bernie “whats-his-name” had struck and unearthed something primordial, something on which I was compelled to follow through.

After a couple of “wows,” and a “really,” I began pumping Bernie about what it had been like to actually fly one of those Harleys of the sky. The intensity of my enthusiasm seemed to disarm the laconic stoicism of my tablemate. “Well,” he said, “it’s not something you quickly forget about. I was only twenty-years old at the time.”

I got him warmed up, and I found out that he had flown in a fighter group based in Italy during the final months of the war. He had flown combat missions. He had been shot down. And, yes it had all been exciting, most of it anyway. He told me that it had been like hanging out with your high school friends. “Hell, we were all kids, really. Six or eight of us would go up together, loaded for bear. That plane had six fifty-calibers and a 20-millimeter cannon in the nose pod. “Christ,” he said, “you could cut a tree down with one burst from that sucker. And, it was fast, I mean really fast.”

He went on to tell me that the first time he was hit, a German plane had gotten behind him before he knew it. And that it wasn’t until the enemy plane shot past him that he realized he’d been fired on. “My one engine was smoking and he’d shot away most of one side of my tail.” He said he’d been at about ten-thousand feet and had had to bail out. “I didn’t have time to be scared until my chute opened, and then I worried all the way down.” He was over Allied lines and before he could gather his parachute, there was a jeep coming across the field to pick him up.

The second time, he told me, he hadn’t been as lucky. “We were shooting up trains and railroad tracks along the Inn River in Austria,” he said. “We were low, and I took a big hit, anti-aircraft fire, flak. I started losing control of the plane.” He told me that was too low to jump and had to ride the burning plane down, crash landing on a farm road, going through a hedge and finally stopping just short of a herd of dairy cattle. “It’s funny,” he said. “The last thing I could remember was those goddamned cows. One of them turned its head and looked at me. I can still see the big bell it had around its neck.” He said that was when he passed out. “I was pretty banged up,” he went on, “and I guess I had a lot of shrapnel in my legs. The local krauts must gotten me out of the plane before the fire reached me,” he said. “And that was the end of the war for me.”

“Boy! Bernie, that’s an amazing story,” I said. “I guess everything since must seem kind of flat after going through stuff like that.” “Well, not quite,” he said. “Looking back, I could have just as soon done without the whole thing.” A pause and then, “I didn’t get out of the hospital for almost a year and a half, Christmas of 1946. I’ve had nine operations on my legs.”

The waiter was clearing the coffee cups. Mr. Big Deal had finally finished the saga of his glory years, and the consultant was looking at his watch. Time to go back to the Holiday Inn and the conference room. Leaving the restaurant, I noticed that Bernie lifted each foot with the studied concentration of a man who wasn’t too sure he would actually be able to make the next step. I served on that committee for another four and a half years, for one six-month period I even chaired it. Bernie, his last name was Penowski, almost always got to the meetings before me, and he always saved me a chair next to his.

Shhhh! A Library Memory

log12The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran photos of several of the neighborhood public libraries slated for closing due to the City’s current budget crisis. One of those libraries is the Logan branch, and the sight of that old, classical facade sent sixty year-old memories washing over me. 

Until 1949, the Olney section of North Philadelphia where we lived had no library. As newly-minted ten-year-old in the early Fall of 1947, I learned, from several of my fifth-grade classmates at the Incarnation of Our Lord parochial school, that there was a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library system within walking distance of our neighborhood. If you went there, you could get a library card, and if you had a library card, you could borrow books on all kinds of neat stuff, real books, not comic books. There were even books about the recent war, a subject I was slightly batty about. 

I somehow scoped out directions from our street to the Logan Branch Library on Wagner Avenue, wherever that happened to be. After school, on a mild overcast September afternoon, without telling my mother where I was going, I set out to find this promised land of cerebral wonders, this library, whatever a library was. 

The context of my life until then was one of physical boundaries set by the fact that we didn’t have a car, not all that unusual in Olney in the late nineteen-forties. But it meant wherever I had been outside our immediate neighborhood had been dictated by the bus, trolley and subway-elevated routes of the local transit company. Heading off for this mysterious library place, I had only a vague intimation of just where it was I was going.

 

Walking west from Fifth Street on the Fishers Avenue sidewalk, I was still on reasonably familiar territory. When I went under the railroad overpass at Seventh Street, everything began to change. The row houses resembled those on most of the streets I knew, and yet they somehow they were different. In fact everything was different. I began feeling like I was sliding through the looking glass. I remember turning and looking back toward Fifth Street for reassurance, and then continuing forward into the unknown.

Five blocks out, at Tenth Street, I had been told to go to the right. The street here was partially paved with bricks something that added to my feelings of exotic exploration. To my amazement a large factory building proclaimed itself the home of Fleer’s Double Bubble Chewing Gum. That the prized Double Bubble I had been purchasing at Sam’s Variety Store on Fifth Street was manufactured less than a mile from my home came to me as a mind-altering revelation. 

Not knowing whether I was closing in on, or still miles from, from my destination, I continued warily along the tree-lined and heavily shaded residential streets hoping for a sighting of this book-laden White Whale of my imagination. I had already passed a large white-columned building hidden in a park like setting before I turned and read the sign announcing the Logan Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Clueless as to library protocols, I wandered past the front desk and began walking up and down the aisles gawking at the book-laden shelves trying to force some sort of order to emerge. Stopping at a row of low shelving, I began browsing a stack of yellow-bordered magazines with cover titles of “The National Geographic.” 

I was seated on the floor with seven or eight National Geographics strewn about me when a large lady hovered over me and said that I had to leave the adult section of the library for the children’s section. I could have stayed right there with those magazines until the place closed for the night. 

I found the children’s section of the library thin gruel indeed. The fairy tales, the large-format cuddly animal books and the so-called children’s storybooks left me stone cold. I was accustomed to stronger stuff. At ten years old, I was already a habitué of the Sunday afternoon B-movie double-features and addicted to the network evening radio drama shows. Within a year I would have a paper route that introduced me, at age eleven, to a lifelong habit of daily newspaper reading.

 I never returned to the Logan Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, and other than a cursory visit to our own Olney Branch that opened in 1949, I never went back into a library at all until well into my high school years.  One afternoon, at the age of sixteen, almost as an afterthought, I wandered into the Olney library, got a card and casually began checking out books. Ironically, while I had little or no interest in my schoolwork, my reading quickly became almost obsessive, and remains to this day, a central fact of my life to this day. Go figure.

A Horn and Hardart Moment

To eat in a restaurant was an extraordinary and memorable event when I was growing up in the nineteen-forties. With my parents trying to get on their feet financially after my father’s illness, every penny of every spending decision was thoroughly weighed and gravely pondered. Eating out didn’t enter the equation. However, every July during my father’s vacation when the mill shut down for two weeks, the rules might be relaxed, just a little. On our way home from one of our day trips, a cruise down the Delaware River on the Wilson Line to Riverview Beach Park, we stopped on the sidewalk between Second and Third on Market Street.

In the orange light of a summer sunset, my younger brother and I watched as our parents became engaged in earnest discussion, sorting out the serious issues regarding the expenditure of the price of a restaurant meal for the four of us. My father’s argument for the celebratory moment finally prevailed over my mother’s worried doubts about any spending that wasn’t absolutely necessary. My brother and I were directed through a set of big metal and glass revolving doors into the chilly air-conditioned splendor of a Horn and Hardart Automat/Cafeteria restaurant.

Even now, after years of sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated eating out, I always get some a rush of excitement upon entering a restaurant. The idea of sitting down and ordering anything you want from a menu remains one my life’s joyous little luxuries, one I associate with those and happy occasions like our post Riverview Beach dinner at Horn and Hardart’s.

 “You can have whatever you want,” my mother told my brother and me. I stood with my brown bakelite tray resting on the chrome rails of the serving line, paralyzed by the range of choices. I froze and stammered “uh, uh, uh…”  My brother had begun ordering right at the start of the offerings. The server had already put two knockwursts, an order of fried bacon, baked beans, and cole slaw on my brother’s tray before my mother could intervene. “Mother of God! That’s it. You’ll never eat all that.” My brother looked stunned. He hadn’t understood the rules of fine dining. You could have anything you wanted. You couldn’t have everything. Continue reading ‘A Horn and Hardart Moment’

Military History, Chapter Two, 1956

Barracks, Fort Chaffee, ArkanasasWhen you’ve found yourself standing in the light of revealed truth, every detail of that instant, every sight, sound, smell, what your were wearing, the weather, all of it, is yours forever. In the unlikeliest of settings, the cloud of life’s confusions can lift, if ever so slightly, but enough. And no matter the years, it will remain with you as if it had occurred this very morning.

Over a half-century ago, I stood as ordered, in the at-ease position, with two hundred of my fellow field artillery trainees, my hands atop each other at the base of my spine. I felt anything but at ease. Again, something had gone wrong or gone badly, and in the usual military way, we were, all of us, somehow guilty. The winter afternoon was raw and overcast. I was at an isolated army post in northwestern Arkansas. I was eighteen years old. 

On a low wall in front of us, flanked by his senior NCOs, stood our battery commander, an officer, unapproachable, to us almost a god. A tough guy, not as young as me, but young, a no-nonsense second lieutenant, roaring at us, telling us what “a sorry bunch of assholes” he believed us to be. It was damp and cold, and we had been outside all day doing the repetitive, mind-numbing gun drills known to us as the “cannoneer boogie.” During noon chow, which we ate from metal mess kits while standing beside the guns, it began raining and it rained just long enough to add an asterisk to our misery. I had begun to forget what it was like to be outdoors without the big mud-caked, metal-buckled rubber overshoes that covered my combat boots.

Lieutenant Olson had a slight speech impediment, but most of us knew instinctively that it was something to stay away from. Lieutenant Olson cultivated an image that he was nobody to fuck with. The few barracks room Elmer Fudd imitations drew more anxieties than laughs. I had decided to take Lieutenant Olson at his word. The rumors and stories about our fearsome, but less than esteemed, leader had begun churning from our first days on post as artillery gun-crew trainees. Continue reading ‘Military History, Chapter Two, 1956’

A Member Of The Club, 1951, Part One

 

The Incarnation Catholic Club lay behind metal grilled windows and took up most of the basement of the parish elementary school building. On warm afternoons, the sounds of clicking billiard balls, the smells of cigar and cigarette smoke, and occasionally, raucous voices would drift out into the schoolyard, hinting at a mysterious and exclusive adult male domain. We’d peer down through the grillwork trying to get a better look into the fabulous place we weren’t yet allowed to enter. The qualifications for admission to and membership in the club were rigorous. You had to be out of eighth grade and able to pay dues of twenty-five cents a month. 

A rite of passage followed each year’s eighth-grade boys graduation from the Incarnation school, a parade of thirteen-year-old boys into the club to apply for membership. From the entry door, a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged corridor led into the clubroom. An open refreshment concession, “the cage,” steel meshed so that it could be locked up at night, was presided over by the club’s manager, Lefty Huber. To initiates like us, Lefty was a remote, intimidating figure. A wiry, taciturn, unsmiling, no-nonsense man; his weathered face spoke of hard miles. Lefty was not married and his personal life was as remote as his personality. Among adults, the mention of Lefty Huber’s name usually brought the comment that the manager of the Incarnation Catholic Club was not himself a Catholic. You could smoke in the club. You could buy cigarettes, twenty-two cents a pack. You could buy candy, ice cream and sodas. Milk shakes, real milk shakes made with hand-dipped ice cream, were twenty-five cents. 

In front of the cage on a floor raised above the adjoining basketball court were four pool tables available at a dime an hour. Two derelict bowling alleys paralleled the basketball court. The club’s basketball program had spawned a neighborhood legend, Tommy Gola from Third and Lindley, who went on to the NBA. Gola had been coached by Lefty Huber and had developed a unique flat shot attributed to his years of playing under the low-ceilinged court at the Incarnation Catholic Club. Continue reading ‘A Member Of The Club, 1951, Part One’