Let’s Pretend

February 10, 2010

My Childhood Home

I can remember sitting on our back-porch steps with my next-door neighbor. I was driving a 1952 Plymouth and he was tooling along in his 1951 Chevy. We were both about eight years old and never gave a thought to drag racing. We were just enjoying driving side by side through the colorful countryside.

Other memories include riding a bicycle and pretending it was a horse, or motorcycle… depending on the game we were playing at the time.

Most of the boys I grew up with had very few toys. The one exception was Donny Yarling. I think that was his last name. As I recall, he was big into Captain Video and had space helmets, ray guns, and numerous other space-related items.

Donny didn’t play outside much, and his family moved away when we were all very young. I don’t recall him ever letting us play with his toys, so we weren’t all that heartbroken when he left.

My parents didn’t allow us to have toy guns – except on the Fourth of July. Therefore, we pretended to have guns whenever we played “war” or “cowboys and Indians”. The cap guns we were given for Independence Day were only a small part of our arsenal. We were also given hammer type devices with feathered tops. We’d place a cap or two in the head of the hammer, press in the feathered top, and smack the hammer on a concrete block. That would cause the caps to explode and the feathered top to go sailing through the air.

Come to think of it, I’m surprised my mother allowed us to play with such things. We could’ve put an eye out!

The other Fourth of July “play things” were the sparklers. One of our parents or older sibling would provide the flame to ignite the stick. We’d then twirl it around and be dazzled by the light. We were easily amused. I’m not sure what I pretended as I flashed my sparkler around, but I’m sure my vivid imagination had me fighting a foreign enemy with a sword or something. Had “Star Wars” been around back then, that sparkler would have quickly turned into a light saber.

As an adult, I often wonder how much we relied on our imaginations simply because we had so few toys. I watch my grandchildren play with their toys (I should say their abundance of toys) and realize there is still a good bit of pretending involved.

One thing the children up north don’t have to do right now is pretend there is snow on the ground.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are centered around the many hills in Western Pennsylvania and the abundance of snow. We would ride our sleds for hours… on city streets!

I never measured the distance, but we had a course that would’ve done Olympic bob-sledders proud. We’d start at the intersection of Stratmore and Hollywood streets. We’d sled down Hollywood, across Arnold, and circle around to where Hollywood ran into Arnold a second time.

If we had enough speed, we’d make the turn onto Arnold and continue in the direction of Hollywood until our momentum finally died away. Then, we’d pull our sleds up Ford Street and walk along Stratmore to Hollywood and repeat the run.

One time, just to be different, I went down Ford Street with the intention of turning up Arnold. I missed the turn and slid into the curb. With bloody lips, I dragged my sled back up the hill and returned to the Hollywood run. By the time I got back to the top of the hill, the bleeding had stopped, so I just kept on going.

Often times, in the summer, we’d find ourselves really missing the snow and sledding. That’s when we would walk down to Bodnar’s Appliance store and get a cardboard refrigerator box.

There used to be a vacant lot at the corner of Stratmore and Ford. We never thought they’d build a house there because the lot was basically a cliff – great for sliding down the hill in a box or on a snow disc, but not really suitable for a home with a lawn.

Our favorite sport was to load five or six boys in the box, and then roll it sideways down the hill, Our bodies would be bouncing and rolling over one another until we came to a sudden stop at the bottom. Cut lips, bloody noses, and black eyes didn’t discourage us one bit. We’d drag the box back to the top and do it again… and again… and again… until the box was torn to shreds.

I just realized I’m pretending to be back in that box. Or maybe I’m sitting with my friend on the back-porch steps driving my 1952 Plymouth through the countryside.

Who needs reality!


New Jersey Aunts & Uncle

April 30, 2009
The Crowley residence

The Crowley residence

This house on Shore Road in Somers Point, New Jersey, was the home of my two ‘spinster’ aunts – Mary and Josie Crowley. It would appear that when Uncle Lewis B. Leeds married Nellie Crowley, it was a package deal.

The Crowley girls had been born and raised in Pittsburgh and Uncle Lewis met Nellie sometime after he and dad rode double on a motorcycle from South Jersey to Pittsburgh. That trip to find employment occurred in 1910.

I’m not sure of the time frame, but at some point Uncle Lewis and the girls moved to Florida. A few years later, they moved to South Jersey. That’s where they were living when they each eventually passed on.

Uncle Lewis' home in Linwood

Uncle Lewis' home in Linwood

The entire arrangement is one I never thought about until the last few years as I learned various details from my cousin, Ruth Morris.

According to family rumors, Aunt Nellie refused to allow Uncle Lewis to consummate their marriage. In the meantime, Aunt Josie may have had at least one secret affair that was consummated.

My sister, Gert, somehow found herself as the executor of Aunt Josie’s will. Josie was the last of the group to pass away. During the process, Gert learned that Josie had left everything (which turned out to be a negative number) to some woman who could only be contacted through a church. Unfortunately, the woman could not be located, but it is surmised that the lady in question might have been Josie’s daughter – born out of wedlock and given up for adoption. We’ll never know the whole truth behind that one.

In the meantime, when we would visit Mary and Josie in the 1950s, there was a blind man living with them – a Mr. Biddings. Again, the rumors insisted that Mr. Biddings was Josie’s live-in lover. Another thing we’ll never know for sure.

According to Ruth, Uncle Lewis and the ladies also had a habit of checking out of hotels without bothering to pay the bills.

That’s one of those rumors that, on the surface, doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure what Uncle Lewis did for a living prior to becoming a politician, but he eventually became a Freeholder in Atlantic County. I, being a little boy at the time, bragged to my friends that he was a freeloader. I might have been right!

I’ve been told that a freeholder in New Jersey is the equivalent of a county commissioner in other states. I have no idea how much he was paid in that capacity, but I do remember he drove a big Cadillac.

Aunt Josie worked at a mental hospital in Pleasantville. She called it the Looney Bin. Uncle Lewis used his political clout to get her the job. Considering some of her idiosyncrasies, she may have made a good resident of her place of employment.

For one thing, Josie refused to drive faster than thirty-five miles per hour. I can recall riding with her on the Garden State Parkway. I was greatly relieved that we only traveled a short distance on that superhighway.

When Uncle Lewis died, Josie inherited the Cadillac as she was the only sister who drove. She immediately had her garage remodeled. The finished product had doors on either end so she would never have to back in or out.

Aunt Mary was the chief cook and bottle washer in the family. I should note that when Uncle Lewis died, Aunt Nellie sold her home and moved in with her sisters.

Eventually, Aunt Josie was the only one left.

One time I had a business trip to Philadelphia. I decided to take my middle son, Kenn, and planned a side-trip to Atlantic City. Kenn was around twelve years old at the time. We dropped in on Aunt Josie and both Kenn and I soon realized what we were dealing with.

Aunt Josie repeatedly asked me how Jimmie was doing and I repeatedly explained that I was Jimmie. The house was a total disaster and Josie kept offering us something to eat. She finally went into the kitchen and invited us to follow. She pulled out an apple pie that was covered with mold and offered us each a slice.

It was then I decided the visit had lasted long enough. I stretched the truth a bit and explained that we had a dinner reservation in Atlantic City and really had to be going. Kenn was pleased that we had escaped without being fed.

About a month later, Gert was in the area and stopped in to see Josie. To Gert’s surprise, Josie was royally angry at me. After Kenn and I left, she had prepared a meal for us… and we never returned to eat it!

There is one more memory I have of Aunt Josie. When Aunt Mary died, Josie had her body shipped back to Pittsburgh for burial. I went to the funeral and rode in the limo with Josie to the cemetery. They had a very nice memorial service in the chapel. When the service was over, Josie insisted on seeing her sister’s coffin lowered into the ground.

The undertakers and cemetery officials were not prepared for that and tried to talk her out of it. She was adamant… as were they. Fortunately, I bumped into another undertaker, Ray Brusco, whom I knew through the Lions Club. I explained the situation to him and he pulled some strings.

Later I learned that the main reason for Josie’s insistence is that she did not trust the undertakers. She was afraid they’d open the casket and steal things from Mary’s corpse.

Just think, I could get ornery and crotchety when I get old. Nah, that would never happen.