Learn from Son of Sassamansville how to recognize and incorporate the hustle gene into an energetic approach to life. Witness how rural values and family experiences in childhood become important shields for the vicissitudes of adult life. Follow one man's journey through William Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man to reinforce your own fortitude and protect your happiness in aging.
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Son of Sassamansville
By Leonard A. Swann, Jr.
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Leonard A. Swann, Jr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVillage Days
Sassamansville in 1938 was more Mark Twain than John Updike. Sassamansville was a small village about 50 miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; or to be more precise, it was on Hoffmansville Road, about one mile west of Route 663, which stretched between Pottstown and Pennsburg.
Founded in 1683 by German immigrants, the village was originally called Douglass. Its name was changed to Sassamansville in 1837 to honor Henry Sassaman, who donated the money to build a church at the west end of the village. That church was named the Union Church and was shared by Lutheran, Reformed and Mennonite congregations. The local Lutherans decided in 1895 to build their own church, a brick structure with a three-story steeple and bell tower, about 1/4—mile east, and called it St. Paul's Lutheran Church. These two churches with their cemeteries flanked the village.
Leonard Alexander Swann and Marie Ethel Swann, my parents, were living at my Uncle Joe's and Aunt Helen's house next to St. Paul's Church when I was born in 1938. At that time, Sassamansville consisted of roughly 30 houses and 120 inhabitants with family names of Schoenly, Yoder, Bauman, Erb, Updegrove, Renninger, Huber, Moyer, Tagert, Rothenberger, Kulp and Steltz (virtually all of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage) and a handful of small businesses: Erb's Country Store and Post Office, which was next to the Union Church; Bauman's Apple Butter and Cider Factory, which was founded in 1892; Shupe's Dress Sewing Workshop; a small cigar-making shop; Renninger's Barber Shop; a small Telephone Switchboard Center, staffed by one operator per shift; Schoenly's Auction Barn, where used items of every description were auctioned every Monday night and monochrome movies were shown on Friday and Saturday nights; plus Uncle Joe's J.M. Swann Trucking with its one box truck to haul bulk milk cans to the collection station of Supplee's Dairy in Schwenksville and a 3-1/2-ton dump truck with a snow plow attachment.
Sassamansville was a place where everyone knew everybody else and their business. "If you live here," Mrs. Erb at the Country Store often said, "you better make up your mind to keep your mouth shut. You learn more listening than talking."
My grandparents, Sidney and Lottie Swann, had moved from Charles County, Maryland, in 1920 to settle on a 45-acre truck farm located 1/2 mile to the northeast of the village. Grandpa had worked as Chief Gardener for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., but decided he needed his own farm to support his large family, which numbered nine boys at the time of the move and would grow to 10 boys shortly thereafter. (With a good portion of Irish Catholic blood coursing through their veins, my Grandparents had a total of 15 children with only one being a girl; sadly, four of the boys and the last born, the only daughter, died shortly after birth.)
The truck farm, run by Grandpa and staffed by his brood, provided both a source of food and sporadic income in the summer. For Grandpa and his brood, "summer" was never a verb. Vegetables grown on the truck farm included tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, peas, string beans, red beets and rhubarb; the fruit crops were cantaloupe and strawberries. There were also three cows for milk and a large hen house for eggs and chicken meat. Some of the extra crop harvest and eggs were sold to local grocery stores and hawked by Grandpa and a few of my Uncles going door to door in Pottstown.
While Grandpa was the tireless farmer working from dawn to dust, Grandma was the loyal farm wife handling the cooking, baking, canning to stockpile food for the winter months, and tackling the never-ending laundry. However, her most important role was that of family confessor—in a Catholic sense—listening to her boys' concerns and problems and offering her advice. Her favorite mantras were "You can do anything you want to do" and "There is always a better tomorrow."
Tidbits about life on the farm and my Uncles' accomplishments and escapades splattered on me during my formative years and embedded shards of a fundamental value system and a reservoir of positive energy in both my conscious and subconscious being.
Uncle Russell (born in 1902) escaped moving with my Grandparents to the truck farm by taking off for Manhattan to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor even though he had no formal training or experience as an amateur actor. Shortly after arriving in the city, at the age of 18, he stumbled upon a casting call for a production of Abie's Irish Rose and was hired to play the juvenile lead. Abie's Irish Rose had a successful run on Broadway and then continued touring the major cities, keeping Uncle Russell employed for five years. He later appeared as Abraham Levy in a production of Sunny at the London Hippodrome.
But Uncle Russell's second dream was to be an illusionist, a magician at center stage, at the focus of the audience's attention. His theater schedule permitted his studying under Howard Thurston, one of the most famous magicians of the era. When his theater job ended, Uncle Russell could find no openings for a magician on Vaudeville—movies had taken its audience—so he became a stock broker on Wall Street, where he said he "was so afraid of losing his job that he came in every day with a new trick for his boss." The 1929 Crash ended his career on Wall Street. He struggled to find work as a serious magician in small night clubs and hotel lounges; then he changed to a comedy magician. By 1934, he was receiving regular bookings as a comedy magician in the major hotel lounges and night clubs in New York and around the country.
"Russell Swann is probably the best comedy magician in the business today," wrote the senior editor of Night Clubs—Vaudeville, New York City's entertainment newspaper on July 12, 1941, "and sells standard tricks by mock seriousness, clowning, gagging (old and new), and kidding patrons. He works with cards, rabbit, egg, a 'cobra,' and rope."
The story of Uncle Russell's rise as a magician was told in the comic book, Pioneer Picture Stories, June 1942, under the byline "Six Startling True Success Stories Of Brain Muscle In Action." His story, intended as an inspiration for young boys, began: "Russell Swann, the Magic Man ... was born a man who was to bring new life to a dying art."
With his motto, "Don't fool yourself, that's my business," Uncle Russell became a renowned magician, featured for 19 continuous weeks at the Empire Room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, a record for any act. He performed at the Savoy-Plaza, where he became practically a fixture. His magic dazzled audiences at New York's Copacabana, Latin Quarter, Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, plus the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, and the Palmer House in Chicago. He also performed at the White House for Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In 1953, Uncle Russell gave a command performance before Queen Elizabeth II of England. He received national exposure with his appearances on the television shows of Jackie Gleason (he performed on two Gleason shows), Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle and Kate Smith, which I remember watching on our eight-inch round television screen.
Uncle Russell never forgot his parents or brothers. He religiously sent money back to the farm to help his parents and specifically so that each of his brothers, for the first time, could go to the dentist and also for each brother to purchase a new pair of shoes instead of walking around in hand-me-downs.
When he returned for the occasional visit, Uncle Russell came as a celebrity, wearing his fancy tailored New York suits; sporting a beautiful female stage assistant, who was always named "June" and hung faithfully on his arm; entertaining us by pulling coins, dollar bills (never Benjamins), playing cards, and rabbits from our ears. He shared first-hand stories and advice on surviving in the big world out there. I particularly remember his advice on hecklers—"Laugh with them. Always be kind to hecklers. Let them die on their own." Uncle Russell was living proof of Grandma's mantra: "You can do anything you want to do."
Uncle Preston (born in 1904) was a self-taught mechanical engineer who worked first at the Boyertown Burial Casket Company and later as a salesman for Pneumatic Tool Company. He lived for years on Long Island with his wife, Violet, and three daughters, Margaret, Madeline, and Helen. Subsequently divorced, remarried to Catherine and relocated to the suburbs of Philadelphia, he remained aloof to avoid any criticism of his ignoring the Catholic Church's prohibition against divorce.
Uncle Allen (born in 1907) lived defiantly outside the Swann mold and was the only adult son who refused to attend Mass. My only memories of him run back to 1941, when my parents were building their first house, a small wooden bungalow on Route 663, about one mile east of Sassamansville. Dad was digging out the basement and foundation footprint with a hand shovel; it was excruciating and slow. One night, Uncle Allen broke into the Township's Road Maintenance Equipment Yard, stole a bulldozer, drove it several miles down Route 663 to Dad's lot, bulldozed out the basement area, abandoned the bulldozer down the highway near the Hickory Park Restaurant, and then sauntered in for breakfast. The Pennsylvania State Police followed the bulldozer's cleat tracks on the highway from the equipment yard to Dad's lot to Hickory Park and there interviewed a waitress to identify the culprit. When Uncle Allen learned the State Police had secured a warrant for his arrest, he bolted to California. I never saw him again.
Uncle Jim (born in 1910) became a professional photographer and began working in Manhattan, in the early 1940's, as the staff photographer at the Village Barn nightclub. His day job involved my Aunt Lou in owning and operating a small motel in Rahway, New Jersey. When their mid-life crisis hit, they sold everything and moved to Florida for the gypsy life in a large carnival that toured the United States. Uncle Jim owned the photography booth (three photographs on a six-inch strip for a quarter) and Aunt Lou had a concession trailer for French Fries and Italian-Ice Cones. They bought property on Route 663, about two miles north of the family farm, and returned there with their carnival trailer during breaks in their carnival schedule. Carny Jim's favorite line was that his new hobby was collecting portraits of Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin.
Uncle Joe (born in 1912) was my closest uncle, from both a geographic and motivational standpoint. I spent my first years sharing his house and for the period of my life spent in my parent's house, Uncle Joe, Aunt Helen and their children, Charlotte and Michael, lived next door. He was a talented self-made man, starting at age 19, with one old truck and building J.M. Swann Trucking that ran milk trucks, dump trucks and, for over 20 years, the school buses for the entire township. His other business enterprises included a Real Estate Agency, Insurance Brokerage, Construction Inspection Service, and appointment as a Justice of the Peace. His business philosophy was, "When you rest, you rust."
From a personality perspective, Uncle Joe was closest to my Grandma. His assigned chores—helping her with the daily housework of peeling potatoes, washing dishes and scrubbing the floors—resulted in his assuming Grandma's humility and spirituality (for most of his adult life, he went to Mass everyday) and her philosophy "There is always a better tomorrow."
Uncle Sidney (born in 1914) carried the patriarch's complete name and the mantle as the slowest of the boys, never graduating from high school and always experiencing bad luck in most situations. Stories about him were legendary. He was a dedicated farm hand caring for the livestock but they kept tools away from him. "Give Sydney an anvil and he'll break it." And his brothers observed: "When Sidney separates the wheat from the chaff, he saves the chaff."
Or the family was sitting around the kitchen table and there was one chicken leg remaining on the dinner platter. My Grandma asked each boy if they wanted the last leg and each politely answered "No, Ma'am." Suddenly the electric lights flickered. When the lights stabilized, Uncle Sydney had six fork wounds in his right hand which he had used to grab the chicken leg.
Another time my uncles went to Turkey Buzzard Hill, a local road house. While most hovered at the bar, Uncle Sydney went into the kitchen to flirt with the dishwasher. A fight broke out at the bar. Uncle Sydney rushed through the kitchen door to help his brothers but was immediately hit across the head with a beer bottle. He was taken home with a lump on his head and blood spatter all over him only to be berated and grounded by Grandpa.
In World War II, Uncle Sydney left his foundry job when drafted into the Navy. In boot camp, Uncle Sidney told the base barber that he wanted to keep his sideburns. "Hold out your hands," the barber replied. Uncle Sidney was assigned to be the tail gunner in a TBY-2 Seawolf Torpedo Bomber, the most vulnerable spot on the aircraft, and flew combat missions against the Japanese in the Pacific theater. Who would imagine being in the Navy, not at sea but spending his entire flight experience facing backwards in a TBY-2 Seawolf?
After the war, Uncle Sydney and Aunt Sarah, his wife, purchased a small house and land over the western hill from the family farm. It became known as "Sydney's Back 40." Uncle Sydney saw his brothers thriving by starting their own businesses, decided to start an equipment rental company on his "Back 40" and purchased a franchise with 12 small rototillers for rental. Perhaps suffering the Pygmalion Effect, he did not rent one machine, because there was no demand for walk-behind rototillers, hidden off the beaten track in the "Back 40," and offered for rental to a farming community where everyone had access to a family-owned tractor. The rototillers, which Uncle Sydney proudly pointed out were "lined up alphabetically by height," became rusty monuments to his failed dream.
What kept Uncle Sydney barely financially afloat was his regular job as a welder at Bethlehem Steel's fabricating plant at Pottstown. One day a steel beam fell and crushed his leg, forcing an amputation and dumping him into retirement. His small disability insurance was allocated to expand a costume business that Aunt Sarah initially had started to custom-make costumes for rental to cast members of the theater productions at the local high schools and civic opera groups and then recycled them as rental costumes for Halloween. Uncle Sydney purchased my Dad's first house, the bungalow on Route 663, and built a little costume shop next door. Uncle Sydney announced his long range plan: "Go to bed at night and get up in the morning." He closed out his life, sitting in that shop among the thousands of costumes, watching Aunt Sarah sew, and hobbling to the Sassamansville Fire House for the Friday night poker games. Even there he had no luck in drawing the winning cards.
Uncle Jack (born in 1915) did well in high school, graduating as Salutatorian, then worked at the Boyertown Burial Casket Company and a State Liquor Store until he was accepted in 1938 in the Pennsylvania State Police, where he spent 35 years, retiring as a Captain. The words "stern" ... "strict" ... "integrity" ... and "straight shooter"—both literally and figuratively—best describe him. His only distractions from his obsession with law enforcement were his devotion to Louise and Karen, respectively his wife and daughter, plus his hobbies of playing cards (Poker, Pinochle, and Canasta) and collecting United States coins. Uncle Jack was very close to my Dad and was my Godfather, who came many times to my rescue.
My Dad, Leonard (born in 1918), was considered by his brothers to be the most talented. While a more in-depth picture of him will be revealed throughout this memoir, his siblings were awed by his innate mechanical ability to diagnose the cause of engine problems by merely listening to their sound; his radio expertise, securing an Amateur Radio License W3KLB and building his own radio studio with a 1000-watt transmitter; his musical talents, playing the guitar and performing as the lead singer in a local western band with venues at amusement parks, fire houses and weddings; a pilot who flew both single and dual engine planes; and entrepreneur who turned driving a dump truck into a thriving heating oil company—all before he was 44 years old and with time out for four years in the United States Navy. Dad was another poster boy for Grandma's mantra "you can do anything you want to do."
Excerpted from Son of Sassamansville by Leonard A. Swann, Jr. Copyright © 2011 by Leonard A. Swann, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Apple Butter Day....................233