Memory is such a powerful force in our lives. It can transport us back in time and place over decades in an instant. It can bring those long dead alive again. It can conjure powerful emotions long buried and make them fresh and tender as if they were brand new. Memory was a gift with me riding shotgun as I drove the neighborhoods and streets of my childhood for a good chunk of the day yesterday.
It didn’t hurt that the weather was near perfect. The weather itself brought back memories of simple, care-free days of boyhood summer, when one awoke with only the goal of getting outside, meeting up with friends, and playing all day until you needed to be “home by 6:00” for dinner. The post-war East Hills neighborhood that was home was developed in the late ’50’s to accommodate the baby-boom. Built around a public park, the names were drawn from the English canon: Shakespeare, Avon, Woodbury, Ivanhoe, Nottingham, Cornwall. My street was Westminster Road, and I always thought that through it the Divine Author was using foreshadowing in writing my life’s story. During the ‘60’s the city would hire a teacher on summer break or a graduate student to supervise from 9-2; they would open the recreation building with its wide porch that offered cooling shade, a perfect place to play box hockey, quoits, ping-pong or make arts and crafts. He’d get out the red bouncy balls that were t for games of kickball. We’d bring wax paper from home and wax up the high slide that was nearly too hot to touch from the shiny metal being baked in the sun, so we slide faster. There were monkey bars, large teeter-totters, swings, basketball courts, and fields for baseball, and games of chase. It was a child’s paradise and all the kids from the neighborhood would pile out and play all day.
My dad, always committed to civic concerns, founded the East Hills Civic Association shortly after we moved there the year before I was born. There were a couple of officers, but everyone in the neighborhood would kick in a few dollars a year to expand the offerings at the park. He’d also organize workdays, Easter-egg hunts, Fourth of July Parades, anything to get the neighbors out and working together. When Mr. Dunnegan was injured and out of work – with a family of 10 children (5 girls and then Joseph, James, Michael, Patrick, and Thomas) – the EHCA paid to have their house painted. We learned how to live together – Catholics (because Our Lady of Perpetual Help was the parish church just up the street), Protestants, Jews, Orthodox (Plato Exaros was on the corner), even a Muslim family. Dad was active in politics, so we also knew which families were registered Democrats and who were Republicans. There were many folks who worked for The Steel (Bethlehem Steel), but some who taught at Lehigh or for the school district. Mr. Schwartz, who lived across the street, was a salesman for Hershey Ice Cream and Mr. Price next door sold copy machines for 3M. In the early days Pop sold for a competitor of IBM and was on the road M-F selling in the Finger Lakes district of Upstate NY. But when I turned six, he got off the road and landed a job with PennDOT in Allentown before winning an election and becoming a judge when I was ten. About a decade ago I read Bill Bishops fine book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart that suggested that our move to increasingly homogenous neighborhoods is contributing to a “self-gerrymandering” that allows for greater political intolerance. I am grateful for the kind of mixed-up neighborhood that was home. It helped that from ages 9-11 I was a paperboy, so I knew all of families by name, slinging Bethlehem Globe-Times (the evening paper) around and having to knock on doors to collect every few weeks.
I was able to walk to all my schools: Governor Wolf Elementary, East Hills Jr. High, and Freedom High School. East Hills and Freedom were the “new schools” opened in the late 60’s; Hubert Humphrey, while on his run for the ’68 Presidential election, spoke at the opening of East Hills. Both Junior and Senior High Schools were built side-by side on farmland and were in a mid-century modern style that contrasted greatly with the “Bethlehem High School” (renamed Liberty when Freedom opened) that just celebrated its 100th birthday this year. Northampton County Area Community College (NCACC) was out beyond our High School and Johnny Krupka’s Dad was one of the first professors (math) when it opened in the early ‘60’s. During the summers in hs, Johnny, Alan Shannon-Breslin, and I discovered handball and started seriously hurting our hands playing on NCACC’s racquetball court. During hs I competed yearly at Moravian College in Model UN competitions and when I found Lehigh University’s amazing Linderman Library, I spent study time in that glorious high Victorian space (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Lehigh+University+Lindeman+Library&docid=608046131144578336&mid=30BA010372A59D48839330BA010372A59D488393&view=detail&FORM=VIRE).
While I was out near NCACC, I drove out past Moravian Academy’s Green Pond campus to see if I could find the Matson Farm where I rode horses between the years 9-12. My mother held to the belief that the best thing for the inside of a kid was the outside of a horse, so twice a week, Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings were given over to horseback riding. That also meant mucking out stalls, storing hay, and walking the horses to cool them down. There’s nothing quite like being a 9-year-old holding on to the end of a rope tethered to a 1,500lb black horse named Charlie when a summer thunderstorm explodes with lightning and thunder! I was glad to find the farm but saddened to see it down on its heels it was and another old farm up the road up for sale. One of nice things about where we lived is that it became country quickly. There is still some of that, but neighborhoods are now where lovely fields I used to ride in used to be.
Going home also means visiting. I was able to see my old pal, Karen Clauser, who was home taking care of her mom, Nancy, just out of the hospital. Nancy had been one of the secretaries at First Pres. Her husband, Fred, had been CEO of Koh-I-Nor, the company that imports Mont Blanc pens. Fred had been a paratrooper and was a small plane enthusiast. Often when I’d hitch-hike home from college, Karen would mention to her dad, “It would be nice if Guy could stay longer, but he has to leave to hitch-hike back to DC.” Fred would smile and say, “Ah, have him over. Let’s take the bird and fly him back.” So, I would get some air time with the three of us flying back to school. Once, he was participating in the Great American Air Race where solo pilots of small planes would take off from airfields close to NYC, fly across the Atlantic, land near London, and the first one to the London Bridge would be the winner. But one year something happened and he went down in the Atlantic off the coast of Ireland and, luckily, some Irish fishermen picked him up clutching the wing of his plane and then hauled it to shore by its tail.
In the afternoon I spent two wonderful hours with Betty Krupka, Johnny’s amazing mom. She hadn’t finished Bucknell, but eloped with John’s dad, and then had four children quickly. When we were in hs, she went back to NCACC to finish her degree, and became first seed on the college tennis team, setting records both on the court and in the classroom. She’s often said I was like a 4th son as I was over at their house so frequently. Her encouragement and concern were very much part of the “village” safety net that provided some balance and stability in the wake of Mom’s death. Seeing her again and catching up on the rest of the family made for wonderful few hours.
Bethlehem is also a town of churches. I didn’t go in First Pres (I’ll do that when I’m back next week), but I’ll meet with the new pastor, J.C. Austin Sunday night. I did take the chance to go into Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church on the South Side. Holy Ghost is my friend, Kevin Kauffman’s, home church. I’ve long admired it, but this was the first opportunity I had to visit. Thankfully it was a sunny day and the afternoon sun lit up the stained-glass windows so I could see, since I couldn’t find how to turn the lights on. Whenever I visit a Roman Catholic church, I like to light candles and pray for my RC friends and friends who are lapsed Catholics (you know who you are!). On the South Side, 4th Avenue used to have 5 or 6 Roman Catholic churches catering to the different ethnic communities (German, Italian, Polish, Irish, Czech, etc.); not all those churches are still open, but it was fun to see all the steeples along the street.
Well, there is much more I could write, but this is already too long. Suffice it to say, down every street, around every corner, a memory was called forth and made new again. I was filled with such gratitude for the good fortune to have been born and raised in Christmas City USA.