Saturday, April 20, 2013

Shamokin: 1728 W. Walnut

I don't really remember the move to Shamokin from Tunkhannock, but somehow we were there in early October 1933.  Our house was on the last block of W. Walnut in Shamokin township up near the woods and on the road to Cameron Coal Company.

Our block jogged slightly off the rest of W. Walnut and had (on our side) a corner store owned by Joe Knovich, two sets of duplex houses and a single house at the other corner.

On the other side of our duplex house lived the Lindemans.  He was an undertaker and she ran a kindergarten class for five or six children in her home.  I could sometimes hear singing through the wall.

There was no formal kindergarten in the Shamokin School system.  I was in the first grade.

Our house had two cement basement rooms. Toward the front of the house there was the coal bin with its little window to the outside where the coal truck could bring our monthly delivery with all its splendid noise and dust.  There was a covered cement porch at ground level which was perfect for hopscotch and there was a small backyard in which my parents planted their bachelor buttons, calendulas, snapdragons, larkspur, portulaca and zinnias.

The first floor was living room, dining room and kitchen, railroad style with front porch right off the sidewalk and back porch overlooking the garden.  The space between the two duplexes had two walkways leading to the back and many iris or flags as the neighbors called them.

Up at the far corner of the block lived Freddy Wesleski, two years younger than I.  His family were Orthodox Catholics, went to St. Stephen's rather than St. Joseph's.  The most interesting thing was going to see Freddy's Christmas tree and presents and his Easter basket a whole week after our holiday.

In the next house down from us lived the Klicks with sons, George and John, who mined coal like their father, Olga, who was in high school, and Rita, two years older than I who went to St. Joseph's parochial school.  Mrs. Klick kept a spotless house with lace antimacassars on the plush living room suite.  They hardly ever used their kitchen.  They had one in the basement so that the miners could clean up in the wash tubs and eat there meals down there.  I sometimes ate lunch with the Klicks when my mother had a doctor's appointment in town.  Mrs. Klick made wonderful and strange Polish Hungarian things that we didn't have at our house.

Next to the Klicks were the Cultons with grown daughters, Margaret and Ruth.  They all attended the Evangelical Church and practiced hymns a lot on their piano. 

Next to Knovich's corner store on the Woodlawn Avenue side was their house, a single home with more yard than we had.  Their children were Dick, Connie and Lorraine who --Joy! -- was my age.  We played together and made our first communion together even though she was "Catholic" and I was "Public."

Across the street and up on our block was another vacant lot on the corner.  Our cocker spaniel, Timmy, would make a beeline for that vacant lot when he was let out.  There  was no such thing as a "leash law" in the 1930's.

Next to that lot lived a family named Lewis, also Evangelical, with grown children.  Next to the Lewises lived the Bogarts with small children Billy and Peggy who was really only a baby.  The middle duplex housed the Williams.  There were a lot of Williams.  In the third floor rooms lived Anna and Margaret, the oldest girls who were in high school and took mysterious courses in shorthand.  Margaret sometimes babysat me when my parents went across town to the Henrys or the Norrises to play cards and socialize.

I remember sitting on the stairs once and telling Margaret: "You can't tell me what to do.  You're not my mother!"  Margaret's and Anna's brothers, Paul and Robert, slept in the other third floor bedroom.  They were big boys, too, in the sixth and eighth grades.  They played ball and run-sheep-run and mumblety peg with a knife.  Sometimes they had us little kids write words with chalk on their tires which they rolled like hoops.  They would spell these words for us and then laugh a lot.  I never knew what was so funny until older girls told me they were "bad" words.

Mary Ellen Williams, the youngest, was on the second floor with her grandmother and parents in the other two bedrooms.  Mary Ellen was two years older than I and took me to school for awhile when we first moved in.  Sometimes she was fun to play with and sometimes not especially when she said my mother was not a lady because she smoked.  I wanted to say her mother wasn't a lady because she did our wash, but I didn't.

I liked Mrs. Williams.  If I ate lunch at their house instead of Klicks, we had baloney sandwiches and potato soup and she was always nice to me.

On the other side of the Williamses lived Joann Kuhn, aged five, and her parents.  Mr. Kuhn worked for Monkey Ward and in the winter he revved his motor to warm it up.

The last duplex housed the Stokes family, Bobby and his parents.  Mrs. Stokes was very sweet and quiet and Mr. Stokes was short, had a military stride and a great Welsh tenor voice.  He sang in the Evangelical church choir.  Last was Madelyn Lewis and her husband Morgan and their two cats.  Ludie, as we called her, loved all of us kids.  They had none of their own.

1728 Walnut Street was where I learned lots of outdoor games like Red Light and Statues.  I learned to read and bought the new comic books, Famous Funnies and Action Comics.  I got my own radio to listen to.  I absorbed some of the Polish and Welsh values around us, acted as go-between in the great Klick/Williams feud over whether Mary Ellen Williams had "spanned" the jump rope and made Rita Klick fall and break her arm. 

There were birthday parties, games, fireworks in the lot up from our block, a cat, Tommy, and a dog,Timmy.

Shamokin, Pennsylvania, 1933

My mother must have taken me to school on that first day after we moved from Tunkhannock.  Maybe she walked with me and showed me how to turn the corner at Woodlawn and then go left on Arch Street for the four blocks to McKinley Elementary School.  I can't get that first day clearly but suddenly I was at home at the back of the second row with my pencil, lined writing tablet and that first mysterious reader.  I remember that first page:  "Father rabbit went into the woods, Mother rabbit went into the woods, Baby rabbit went into the woods.  They all went into the woods, hop, hop, hop."  To master that was the key to unlimited paradise.

Miss Brennan was the first grade teacher.  Slim, carefully curled hair, red fingernails (glamorous and exciting) and a take-charge attitude.  She barked orders at us but was never really mean.  Even when Joseph Poniatowski raised his hand to leave the room and she didn't see him in time, she wasn't mean.  She didn't let us snicker at him or his damp pants.

What did we do in the first grade to take up the whole day?  Miss Brennan had her work cut out for her.  There was the pledge of allegiance (which had to be memorized), some sort of non-denominational prayer, and reading, of course, bit by bit.  We had short sums (one and one equals two) and, of course, the Palmer method.  This was a drill in letters and curlicues and up and down lines which was to guarantee that we all wrote legibly and well.

After a line of circles which looked like nothing more than a long horizontal roll of barbed wire, my arm was full of pencil smudges.  I was a lefty and wrote that wonderful crabbed arm style.  The other two lefties in the class had to learn to write with their right hand but my mother wrote a note saying, in essence, leave her alone.  I guess I managed because I became neat enough to graduate to pen and ink for the Palmer method session.

Now pen and ink had to be done very carefully to avoid inky arms!

We sang songs and went home for lunch and back again for the afternoon.  Miss Brennan had us put our heads down on our desks before afternoon session and there was always someone who had to be really wakened up.

First grade was a motley crew.  There was John Heckert and John Fry and Mary Jane Long.  There was Shirley Gottschalk who wore Mary Janes to school.  I envied her.  I didn't even have Mary Janes for Sunday. She even wore a different dress every day.  Unless I got my dress dirty, really dirty, I wore it twice.

There were Philip and Joyce who were supposed to be twins but they didn't look much like each other.  There was Lorraine Kurilla who dressed up in native Polish dress on Halloween and danced for us.  There was Sarah Messina who had beautiful, thick glossy braids down her back.  Why couldn't I have hair like that instead of a short bob with a barrette.  Short hair, freckles, brown oxfords--I'd never make it.

When school was over, we would march out of our classroom by twos and out the front door of the school and across Arch Street, watched by four important patrols, vigilant, keeping back cars and coal trucks.  I would cross the street and continue up Arch for those four blocks, then to Woodlawn and Walnut and home.

Some time during the year, I became aware of two big girls (third or fourth grade at least) who had come from St. Joseph's down a few blocks and who went home my way.  They began to walk behind me terrorizing me with remarks or threatening to walk on my heels or some other torture.  I began to run the last block or so when they tuned down Edgelawn and I up Woodlawn.  I didn't tell my mother but began to dread leaving school.

One afternoon, poised to walk the gamut of the patrols and across Arch Street, I saw them, somehow grown to big and mean proportions, waiting for me and smirking.  I turned and bolted back to Miss Breenan's room, blurting out my awful problem.  She rose, fire in her eye, and took my arm.

"Come on," she said, "I'll fix them."  We reached the street and looked across.  They were gone, but we waited until almost all of the other children were gone.  "You tell me if you see them again," she said, "Brazen things!"  She crossed her arms and waited for me to go.

I nodded and ran, delivered from the afternoon terrors.  To make sure that they weren't lurking somewhere up the street, I boldly decided to go up Walnut Street instead.  I turned up the street into unfamiliar territory even though it was my street.  Each block seemed more foreboding even though I kept walking in the right direction.  I began to cry quietly, sure that I was forever lost.  Housewives tried to approach me to see if there was something they could do, but I kept walking sniffling and forlorn.

Finally, I came to the block down from mine and familiar houses appeared, the Delaney's, Mary Lou Brennan's, the Helfricks.  And then there was Woodlawn, Knovich's little grocery store and, beyond, my house.

I grew a foot that day, in my mind anyway.  Now there were two ways to go to school.  I never saw the menacing St. Joseph's girls again, but then I knew I could count on Miss Brennan.  I heard later that she was going with someone who worked at Smitty's barber shop.  That meant that she might get married and then she couldn't teach any more.  I don't know if she got married or not, but she was "mine" for first grade.

Twice a day I walked the six blocks to school.  I came home for lunch because there was no lunch room.  Everyone came home for lunch.

The walk was never dull.  That first year I walked mostly alone as the other children in my neighborhood were either older or went to St. Joseph's, the parochial school.  As I grew older, I often walked with other children I had met in class.

I would leave the house and go past the Klicks, the Cultons and Knovich's corner store.  I watched both ways at the corner for coal trucks or other traffic. 

Sometimes there was a group of men repairing the street. These were WPA workers.  Some grownups said that WPA stood for "We Poke Along."

The next block was a short one but I went quickly so I could get past the Delaney's house.  There were a lot of Delaney boys who could make things miserable if they were in the mood. Their sister, Peggy, was okay.  She was my age, but went to St. Joseph's.

Two blocks further on there was an entire block of row houses, one front porch after another right off the sidewalk.  I knew several people in that block.  There was my friend Isobel who had me to supper when her mother made sauerkraut.

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