Friday, April 19, 2013

Pottsville: 1939 - 1941

Coal mines were grinding to a standstill in Shamokin and my father found work in Pottsville, also anthracite country, about an hour away.  So in October of 1939 we moved to 1407 Market Street across from the large city cemetery and equidistant from the high school (two blocks up) and the junior high school (two blocks down).

Pottsville in 1939 was a fairly prosperous town and was still talking about native son John O'Hara's bestseller, "Appointment in Samarra", set in Gibbsville (read Pottsville).  Speculation was high about which character was based on which townsperson.

Market Street ran from Center Street downtown at one end and out of town toward Minersville at the other.  It was the base of a low hill and three other streets, Norwegian, Mahantonga, and Greenwood, went up in sequence and the further up the more elegant the homes.

Market Street was very middle class and unassuming.  It had modest houses, small stores here and there and several schools.  Our house was semi-detached with the front porch right on the sidewalk and a tiny back yard at the rear.

There were three rooms on the first floor and three bedrooms and bath on the second floor.  There was one finished room on the third floor where my toys were kept.  These included my games of Parcheesi and Monopoly, Old Maid and Authors and a Shirley Temple doll somewhat the worse for wear with red fingernails and toenails and a new pageboy hairdo.  She did have a nice wardrobe sewn by my mother and great aunt.

On the other side of the detached house lived the Ignatoviches.  They had a son a few years younger than I.  One summer Mr. Ignatovitch surprised us by coming out in the yard and sitting down to teach us how to play jacks.

On the other side of us lived the Johnsons with two young sons.  Around the corner on Norwegian Street was Majestic's small general store where I could indulge my mania for penny candy and my mother could put the occasional nickel on a number while stocking up on canned soup or bread.

When I grew to know the town better, I discovered a little store a few blocks up that had a barrel of huge homemade dill pickles.  They cost four cents each and, if you wrapped a napkin around one and ate judiciously, it could be made to last all the way downtown to Center Street and the movies.

Besides three movie theaters, Pomeroy's department store, five and dimes, Weiss's ladies apparel and a host of other shops there was Imschweiler's ice cream parlor, complete with wire chairs around little tables, a marble counter, and its own Yeungling's homemade ice cream.  For a dime one could get a mouth-watering chocolate marshmallow peanut sundae topped with real whipped cream.  Bliss.

School in Pottsville was a revelation.  In Shamokin our elementary school was old and worn in the 1930's, aging brick with stairs worn in the middle and cold, smelly bathrooms in the basement.  A small outbuilding at the back housed the seventh and eighth grades.  The playground was a blacktopped yard with a basketball hoop. Girls mostly stood around and talked or jumped rope.  The teachers, as dedicated as they were, got paid by the mining companies and as often as not, payrolls couldn't be met.  We had days here and there with no school.

Here in Pottsville, the junior high had a fairly new, handsome building.  There were homerooms for the seventh and eighth grades, extra classrooms, a big gym and an assembly hall.  I found to my amazement that boys and girls had separate homerooms and classes and met only in the halls or at assemblies.  This arrangement worked very well and the administrator (or mother) who thought of it was very wise.

I arrived in late October and was put in the last row of Miss Downey's homeroom across from the first black -- or, as we called them then, colored -- girl I had ever met.  She was Norma Murphy, pleasant and shy.  Two other colored girls were in my grade, also.  There was Annie Bacon, quiet and studious, and Emma Cash, the class cut-up, who kept us entertained.  In my sewing class, she sailed paper airplanes and she and I were the last to master threading our machines.

Sewing class got me a B plus in basting and D in almost everything else.  My mother had to finish my class project.  A seamstress I was not.  Sewing only lasted six weeks in the seventh grade and then we had cooking (difficult projects like applesauce and peanut brittle!) and library science, art, music and a study of the Constitution. 

There was no cafeteria, however, and we ate lunch at our desks.  To my delight, we could buy chocolate milk and fresh hot soft pretzels, new to me.

Teachers were varied and on the whole, very good.  Miss Downey taught us ancient history.  Miss Aikman taught mathematics.  She had white hair done in an elegant French bun, was very genteel.  It was in her class that I managed to learn to whistle with my fingers in my mouth.  I earned a ladylike frown for that.

The most memorable teacher was Miss Simpson who struck fear into our hearts.  She could have posed for a portrait of the perfect old maid teacher complete with dark, homely dresses, hair done up in a careless knot in the back, glasses and a wart on the side of her nose.  She taught English to giggly seventh graders and ruled with an iron hand.  She had all our names on index cards held by a rubber band.  At the beginning of class or when we were called on to answer questions, she would slip the rubber band over her hand and call on us in a dry tone, one-by-one, always by our surnames.  If one missed a question or hesitated too long, she would flip to the next card and repeat the question.  God forbid we should change our minds or answer twice.  She would peer over her glasses and say sarcastically, "Just like a female." 

On the few occasions when class work was put aside, like Christmastime when she read us "The Gift of the Magi," we were slightly uncomfortable.  We didn't know how to deal with a pleasant Miss Simpson.  She taught us to parse sentences.  That I remember!
I made several good friends in Pottsville.  There was Edith, a pretty red-cheeked brunette who read my copy of the Sheik disguised in a Nancy Drew cover to keep it from her strict fundamentalist Welsh father.  There was Katherine whose father worked at the YMCA and got us free swimming time.  Katherine's mother served creamed chipped beef for breakfast at her house, a novelty for me accustomed to having it for supper.  There was Virginia of the blue eyes who taught me to whistle through my fingers and who went to mass with me and there was Janet who lived closest and sang close harmony with me.

Pottsville years marked the turning from child to young woman.  It was a time of going to "Gone With the Wind" with a lunch.  I worried about surviving four hours without food.  It was a time of Girl Scouts and giggling with Boy Scouts when we had Saturday shifts at the Bundles for Britain store, practicing kissing on my window, being annoyed with my first period, reading endless movie magazines, wearing my first long stockings, mooning over songs like Green Eyes, Stardust, Marie Elena and Blues in the Night.

A time to go to the big public library and daringly borrow books like "My Son, My Son" because there were two racy pages in it.  On occasion the librarian looked sternly at me and said "Does your mother know you're reading that?"  It was also a scary time when the polio epidemic hit and we were forbidden the public swimming pools and school started a month late.  My Shamokin friend, Phyllis, wrote to say her sister had died from it.

When school did start, it was exciting because this was high school, the big time.  My favorite class (not Civics taught by the football coach and just barely) was English.  Our teacher was young and vivacious and loved her subject.  We read a lot of short stories and had compositions to write.  I did a satire on one short story and got an A and a lot of encouragement.  It was then I got a serious writing bug.

That December the country was stunned by Pearl Harbor and my father, already in Washington on a new construction job, sent for us.  He had found us a house.

So, ten days later with much reluctance, I left Pottsville and two happy years.  It was time for new adventures. 

(Pictured above l-to-r: Virginia, Sarah, Katherine; below, Edith)

No comments:

Post a Comment