A wonderful youth-a gift that lasts a lifetime.
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By James A. Bambrick
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 James A. Bambrick
All rights reserved.
Pottsville was a town of twenty-five thousand or so people in the 1950s, nestled among the Blue Mountains in east central Pennsylvania. It was on the edge of the Anthracite Coal Region. Actually, there was a lot of coal directly under the town, and it is still there. South of Pottsville was known for farming, predominantly done by the Pennsylvania Dutch. The town was surrounded by several hills. There were two main streets: Center Street, which ran north to south, and Market Street, which ran east to west. The downtown stores were located mainly on Center Street. Streets ran up the hills in parallel to these streets. The hills were very steep. On the outskirts of the town were forests that were untouched by development. Pottsville was the county seat of Schuylkill County.
The most famous resident was John O'Hara, the writer, who wrote a number of novels, such as The Horse Knows the Way, Butterfield 8, 10 North Fredrick, etc., which described life in the town in the first half of the twentieth century. Pottsville is also the home of the oldest brewery in the United States—Yuengling, whose brews have recently become very popular in the East and, more recently, the South. It should be noted that an early NFL team, the "Pottsville Maroons," won the championship in 1924, beating the Chicago Bears. The title was later revoked on a technicality—but not in Pottsville.
There was and still is a lot of money in Pottsville. The same families have held a lot of the area's wealth for a long time. On Mahontongo Street and the streets that run parallel up the side of Sharp Mountain are the homes of the well-to-do. Many of these houses were built from the profits from coal and are grand ladies of architecture and landscape design. Pottsville has a very beautiful brick football stadium with a handset stone press box. The grandeur of the stadium reflects the importance of the sport in the region. If you were good at football, you came under a different set of laws. Season tickets became available only when someone died. The town also boasted its own planetarium and a Wren-styled public library, vestiges of better times.
Anthracite coal was discovered in the region by Necho Allen. Anthracite coal is a hard coal that burns much cleaner than bituminous or soft coal. Coal fueled the industries of the East. Mining became the dominant industry in the region. Historically, you could generalize that the English owned the mines; the Welch and the Germans ran them; and the Irish, Poles, Lithuanians, and other Slavic ethnic groups worked the coal. The Italians were skilled tradesmen and laborers and also had a significant presence in the town. Although a melting pot of nationalities, there was separation of the groups socially and physically. There were ethnic neighborhoods, churches, and fraternal clubs. A small black population was present in addition to the other groups but not segregated in the traditional sense of the word. The baby boom at the end of WWII blurred the lines between these groups.
The economy was based on coal mining, the manufacture of steel, and the ALCOA aluminum plant. In the '50s, the town was still growing and almost reached thirty thousand at its peak. The downtown thrived with stores owned by people everyone knew, and who knew you. There were two public bathrooms below ground on Main Street that were spotlessly maintained. The town also boasted three theaters. It would take an hour to walk from one end of the downtown business district to the other between Thanksgiving and Christmas—it was that busy.
The Necho Allen Hotel was located at the junction of Center and Mahontongo Streets across from Pomeroy's, the largest department store. The hotel had a dining room, banquet rooms, and "the Coal Tap Room," which had coal cars that were used in the mines for booths, and the walls were lined with anthracite coal. The coal is diamond black in appearance. It was the best hotel in town.
Pottsville had its vices with the "numbers" being the most widespread. Everyone played the "numbers." They, along with slot machines, punchboards, and other forms of gambling, were outlawed in the '50s—but the "numbers" remained and are still active to this day even with the lottery. Everyone knew who ran them, but other than token raids, it went on uninterrupted. I don't remember a single murder when I was growing up or anyone we knew ever getting divorced. I'm sure there were divorces but not among the people we knew. It was a time of prosperity and immobility—no one ever seemed to leave. They might move, but within the region, usually within the same town to a different street. It was a very safe place. No one locked their doors, and everyone knew their neighbors. By this I mean almost everybody in the town seemed to know each other.
We also had services that no longer exist for the common man: milk and milk products delivered daily, a baker who came to your door, laundry pickup/delivery once a week, and a farmer who sold fresh produce directly to you. We ordered food from small grocers over the phone, and it would be delivered the same day. We had a cleaning lady who would come once a week and stay the whole day. She even made dinner—great potpie. She was like a member of the family.
Pottsville had the advantages of a city, and yet you could walk fifteen minutes and be in the wooded hills surrounding the town.
The most significant thing about the area were the people. They were very, I don't know how to put it, neighborly. They would help each other and anyone who was passing through. I think it was because their families lived there for generations or came in waves of migration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had the same problems, and the communities were relatively small. So people knew one another and lived through very trying times—the Depression, the wars, etc.CHAPTER 2
My Dad and Mom
My father was a unique individual. He was the next to the youngest of eight (seven boys and one girl). His parents were second-generation Irish. His father worked in the mines until he was about forty. He somehow became owner of a hotel in the town where they lived called New Castle, which was about seven miles north of Pottsville. It was a mining town of a few hundred people, mostly Irish miners and their families. The hotel had two bars and a dining room as well as a few rooms for guests. The family lived there. My father always said it was on the Old Turnpike. Not the road we know by that name today, but a significant north–south route into the region in its day. Most of the coal taken out of the region used the Turnpike or was barged or taken out by train.
In the early twenties, the residents of New Castle were put on notice that in forty-eight hours, the town would be raised, and mining of the coal underneath would begin. No one got any compensation because they didn't own the mineral rights to the land. It was done with no recourse. Both my father's parents died within a year of the loss of their hotel and home. My grandfather, John, died of black lung and disappointment, and his wife, Mary, followed dutifully. The children were separated and went to live with relatives. My father was sent to his aunt. She ruled her home with an iron fist. Her husband died in the early 1920s. My father said her husband preferred death to living with her.
I have a picture of my dad when he was about nine or ten. It's a class picture of his grade school. It was a one-room school. He's in the center, and the camera must have been focused on him because his eyes shine like two lights. He was very good looking and 100 percent Irish.
There were always danger around the mines. My father, when he was 10, was playing on a slate bank with another kid. They were climbing the bank with my father in the lead. He heard his friend say "my feet hurt". My dad turned around and he was gone. A shaft probably collapsed and sucked him down. His body was found years later.
His great-great-uncle was Jack Kehoe, the leader of the Molly McGuires, who was hung along with three others for killing two mine supervisors. It was a time when the mining companies had their own police and used their force almost at will. The prosecutors were aligned with the companies. The trial was a foregone conclusion of conviction. It is a fact that before he was hung, Jack said that if he was innocent, his handprint would remain on the wall where he placed his hand in his cell of the Carbon City Jail in Mach Chunk on June 21, 1877. It can be seen there even to this day. The trial was later described by a Carbon County judge, John P. Lavelle, as follows:
"The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows."
Jack Kehoe was later acquitted by Governor Shapp about one hundred years after the fact. It didn't help Jack, but if you're in Girardville at the Hibernian House owned by the great-grandson of Jack, John Wayne, the event is celebrated when anyone speaks of the Mollies or Jack.
My father's education was very limited. He had only one teacher, Mr. Barry. Dad loved him. I met him when I was a little boy. My father treated him with great respect. He was always "Mr. Barry" to my father. He taught math in a very unusual way using what is now called "set theory." My father could do calculus problems in his head. He finished eighth grade, then worked in the mines until he was seventeen. His first real job was with the Ford dealership in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, working for the Morrison's. They were one of the best dealerships Ford had at the time. He sold Ford trucks until the Depression came, and he was laid off. Mr. Morrison regretted having to let him go, but there wasn't enough business, so only family members remained employed. He and a good friend traveled the country drifting from state to state. His friend was a gambler, and he must have been a good one, because that was all he did his whole life. My father never spoke of specifics of his travels. He'd just tell us the states he went through. I regret not making him tell me about that trip. I'm sure there were many interesting stories that remain with him. They returned in the mid-'30s, and he went back to selling Ford trucks and did quite well. By 1938, he owned a small farm and had two riding horses.
My dad was best man for his good friend (the one he traveled with throughout the Depression). He was a Protestant. At the time, this meant he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. My dad said such a rule was ridiculous, and he ignored it. An independent thinker at that time to say the least.
About this time, he met my mother. She was from a very different background. She was of German heritage. Her father had a degree in pharmacology, held some patents with the Vicks Corporation, and had considerable stock holdings. They had live-in maids, a house in the country, and a rather grand lifestyle. One day, HJ (my grandfather) came home and told the family they were millionaires from gains in the stock market. It was 1928. A good friend of the family, who was also their broker, advised them to get out of the market early in 1929. They didn't. Lost almost everything. The family relied on the pharmacy for their income and the money my aunt made working for one of the utility companies. Her father became a working pharmacist and gave a lot of drugs to people who had no money during the '30s. They never forgot his kindness. The income from my aunt's job was all the cash they had some months.
My mom's mother died two years after my mother was born. She had her gallbladder removed. The operation was successful. She died from the recovery, actually on the day she was to come home from the hospital. When she was dressing to go home, she collapsed from an embolism. It must have been horrible for my grandfather to witness. Those were the days when it was good medicine to have the patient stay in bed for two weeks after an operation. As a result, my mother was raised by her father and his two sisters who lived with them. She had two older sisters and an older brother. She had a very happy childhood, studied the violin, and had the nickname "SLINKY." She was president of her senior class in high school and went on to study business for two years at the Ford School of Business. She worked as a proofreader for a local newspaper. I don't know how they met, but they dated steadily, and my father proposed in 1938. She turned him down. She thought he was too wild. I've never been able to find out what she meant by that, my mom being a pretty private person. They continued to see each other. She was twenty-three at the time, and my dad was thirty.
From what I can gather, it was not common for those of German descent to marry beneath them. By that, I mean marry anyone other than other Germans, English, or Welch. This hierarchy followed the pecking order in the mines. This social more was not particular to the Germans. The top of the social ladder were the English, then the Germans and the Welch, followed by the Irish, Italians, and then those of Slavic descent. The blacks were at the bottom of the ladder.
I loved my dad and mom and thought they were the best parents in the world. They were people of great moral character and endless kindness and patience. They were also discipline minded and tried their best to keep us in check.CHAPTER 3
WWII and Beyond
In the late Spring of 1941, my father was drafted. He was thirty-four years old. He said he could have gotten out of it if he told them about the ruptured disc that he had from a fall off a horse. But he didn't. I can see my dad doing that. In those days, if you passed the physical, you went straight to boot camp with no return home. This was before the start of WWII. The camp was all mud. They arrived by bus, and as they were getting out, someone was trying to escape from the stockade. My dad said the guy had nowhere to run even if he got over the fence. One of the officers commanded him to halt. The guy didn't stop. The guards were ordered to shoot him. They did—dead. My dad hated the Army from that day on. They lived in tents, made $4 a month, and had to buy their own shoe polish, cleaning material for their rifles, etc. He also lost the farm for back taxes because of the Army.
The Army, in all its wisdom, made him a shell loader in the coastal artillery. His back went out, and they put him in the hospital. He fell one night. Actually, he was tripped as a practical joke, and he was knocked unconscious. The trippers heard someone coming and put him back in his bed. The nurse was making rounds, and she examined my dad and thought he had had a heart attack. Of course, my dad never told about the tripping. They put him on a toast and tea diet. He weighed ninety-five pounds when he was discharged. Pictures of him from this period show a very skinny man with a shock of black hair inside a very baggy uniform. He looked like a concentration camp survivor. A rather unbelievable story if you think about it.
There is another story about my father's army career. He attacked the officer who gave the order to shoot the escapee. Spent the next six months in the stockade. Was discharged honorably when he said he would go to the press with the incident. My mother believes the latter. She said that she couldn't get in contact with him for months. They put him on a toast and tea diet and starved him. In any case, he was discharged.
I have checked his military records and found very little about his service. Some of the records were destroyed in a fire that occurred in the '70s. I like thinking my father stood up for the guy trying to escape. It fit his way of living. He was a man of of honor and conviction. In later years he was asked to join the country club. He refused because they wouldn't allow Jewish members. It would have been very good for business had he done so, but he would not compromise his principles.
Excerpted from Cricket by James A. Bambrick. Copyright © 2014 James A. Bambrick. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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