Monikers that endure from childhood
The other day, several members of my family and I were scratching our heads wondering where the summer had gone. Then, last weekend, my wife, Marie, a 1960 graduate of Nesquehoning High School, and her classmates gathered for their 50th-year reunion. She and they hugged, wondering where all the years had gone. As they paged through their yearbook and other 50-year-old memorabilia, there was much lamenting about loss youth, growing old and other manifestations of aging.
I have no interest in returning to my pre-teen or teen years, even if I could, except on one count: There are some people I encountered I would like to see again. In some cases, I owe them sincere apologies.
John Markey, the fire chief in my hometown, Summit Hill, was as dedicated a public servant as any community could have ever wanted. Chief Markey, though, had a lisp, which made him easy prey for us unthinking jugheads. My friends and I would take great delight in mimicking him.
"Dish ish Fire Chief Markish ssspeakin," we would say in a stern voice through a make-believe telephone held to our ear, then convulse in laughter.
I did not make the ironic connection then that some of these alleged friends would bedevil my immigrant father with his broken-English accent. My dad, Phillip, who operated a grocery store on North Market Street for many years, answered the phone with an enthusiastic "Hellooeee." On the other end would come a thunderous "Good-byeee," followed by uncontrollable cackling laughter and a click.
Other times, some of these same town teens with mature-sounding voices would "Well, you'd better let him out." More cackling. Another click.
Some, I am sure, will pass off this kind of behavior as harmless youthful exuberance, a rite of passage. Maybe, but there were even more malicious incidents, which, when I reflect on them, horrify me.
I vividly recall Charlie X, the name we had for a middle-aged man who would hang out for hours at a street corner near my parents' store. Alone and friendless, he appeared simple-minded and would constantly laugh when people would walk near him. Dressed in perennial overcoat and clam digger's cap, he'd rarely talk to anyone, just laughed and wore a constant smile.
Charlie X had a reputation of being a "pervert," a man who preyed on boys. He never approached, bothered or even remotely hinted at anything out of the way to my friends or me, yet we had no problem in spreading and perpetuating the rumor.
I gave Charlie X wide berth, never wanting to find out first-hand whether the rumors were true. As I matured, I labeled my behavior as reprehensible, the epitome of small-town bandwagoning - indict someone, then ask questions later or worry about whether the allegations are true.
Charlie X died many years ago. I have no idea whether he fully comprehended the abuse a generation of youngsters heaped upon him. Whenever I get a little too full of myself, I remember how I treated Charlie X and am instantly chastened, humbled, embarrassed and disgusted with myself.
One of the enigmas of my childhood was "Sheenie" Black. Once a week, like clockwork, "Sheenie" would stop by our home to rummage through our garbage. Long before recycling was in vogue, Sheenie would select tin cans, rags and other items that would bring him a few pennies and carefully them into a big sack he always carried.
When my mother wanted to really frighten me, she threatened to tell "Sheenie" to put me into his sack and sell me. To engage in fair reporting, my now-deceased mother, who had become a pro with her selective memory, denied any knowledge of this ploy.
"Sheenie" held a strange fascination for me. He was one of the few adults who spoke to me. Upon reflection, he was one of the few who respected what I thought or had to say. He was a gruff-sounding man who wore an overcoat even on the hottest of summer days.
Despite the fear and loathing many in my neighborhood had for him, I liked "Sheenie," but I would say or do nothing in his defense when neighborhood friends and their parents ridiculed him. To this day, I regret my timidity in failing to stand up and defend him.
"Sheenie" taught me a valuable lesson. When it comes to taking a stand today, I frequently invoke the "Sheenie Principle" - speak up for what I believe is fair and honorable.
When I was in my late teens, "Sheenie" died and received a pauper's burial because he had no immediate family.
(Bruce Frassinelli, a native of Summit Hill, lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)