…while in the hotel bar after three days at a conference, a few of us were enjoying a beer and some light banter when somehow, we began talking about our alma maters and their respective athletics programs. One guy was an Ivy Leaguer (Princeton), another from the University of Michigan, one from an SEC school (Auburn) and one guy who attended UHK. None of us knew UHK. As it turned out, this alum just happened to be the president of a major financial services company, and when asked what and where is UHK, he sheepishly smiled and said, “University of Hard Knocks.” None of us at the table had ever heard that expression and we are all surprised that *** never attended college yet was able to make his way to the top of a major player Wall St. firm. This was both impressive and inspirational to me (not so much to the Princeton guy). Thinking about his enlightenment on the flight home, it came upon me that I too had an education delivered in a non conventional way and much earlier than my college years.
Our family moved to West Oak Lane ( Broad and Olney Ave) from South Philly when I was six years old. We returned to the old neighborhood regularly to see extended family and friends and pop’s ‘business’ was there. While we physically resided in a different part of the city, our family was still South Philly in its roots, thought, language, customs, food and general ‘attytude.’ That said, our new neighborhood was great. West Oak Lane was primarily a Jewish section of the city which proliferated after WWII with very good public schools, a million kids and a park which was a block away and visible from our front door through Morty’s alley. The alley was a recreational haven in itself due to our half ball games played in between the backs of both Morty’s and Eddy’s houses whose rear elevations faced each other. Half ball you ask? This is strictly a Philly game where you start by finding your mother’s broom and sawing off the business end of it so that you are left with a long pole. That pole becomes your bat and you would have to explain what happened to the broom when you got home and take your licks. We alternated who would be the next bat supplier when one broke. Our moms were not amused, but it was a small price to pay for the fun it generated. Next step in the process was to buy a ‘pimple ball.’ A what? It was a 10 cent rubber ball the size of a baseball with concentric rows of small bumps on the surface and we would cut it in half with a pen knife. The escaped air smelled like hell. You only need two players…a pitcher and a batter. The batter stood in front of Eddy’s garage which was at ground level in the back of his three story row house. The pitcher pitched from Morty’s garage and threw this half ball about 10 yards toward the batter by grasping it between the thumb and forefinger and delivering it sidearm. The ball came in slowly with a spin around its horizontal axis like a small spinning flying saucer. If you made contact and the ball was caught either with or without a bounce and no bobble, you were out. If the ball hit Morty’s garage on the opposing side of the alley on a fly and not caught on the rebound, it was a single. The kitchen level got you a double and the bedroom level was a triple. A ball that was roofed was a homer and the game wasn’t over ‘cause you still had another half ball.
Morty’s alley housed five or six kids. Another four or five lived within block and a half, and four or five more several blocks beyond them. We would pick each other up on the way to the park starting with the kids who lived furthest. They would pick up the kids who were closer then they stopped at our house to get me and we would proceed down Morty’s alley to get the remainder of the guys and go to the park. This was ritual on Saturdays, holidays, summers and anytime we weren’t in school. We were all about the same age and grade when this started…like 6th grade and probably 10 or 11 years old. The park was so named because of its location on Chew Ave and it became the center of our universe. Chew Park was three or four square blocks in size, but half of it was wooded and unusable. We created a makeshift baseball diamond in an area that had some grass but was mostly dirt. Our bases and home plate were the sides of cardboard boxes which we cut and placed, although they constantly moved. Our baseballs always had the covers knocked off early in their lives due to wear and we wrapped them with tape. During the spring and summer, we played baseball. In the fall and winter we played football. Late fall, winter and early spring, we went to Pennell schoolyard as well to play basketball since there were no courts at the park. Pennell was also an educational institution in and of itself, but that is a story for another time. We had no coaching, no leagues and no practice in our early days at the park. We made our own rules, chose sides, made adjustments to accommodate an injured player who couldn’t run. A pinch runner was assigned, and most often that guy played catcher. We called our own games without refs and rarely did a disagreement result in anything more than loud voices and ‘explicit’ language. We generally accepted whatever the majority ruled, and the game continued. We were highly competitive but remained flexible.
The park had two wooden picnic tables with attached benches and it resided under a grove of trees located not more than 10 yards or so from Chew Ave. It was our school away from school and the venue where life lessons were gleaned from time spent in that hallowed place. We learned how to play ball, curse, smoke, fight, gamble, drink, wise-off and reconcile. Later, we learned about sex, girls and cars. Most important, we learned why it is necessary to keep your mouth shut when you ought to be listening rather than talking…especially around the ‘schkutz.’ Ah, the ‘schkutz!’ This a Yiddish word assigned to gentiles, and it is not particularly complimentary.
There were clearly two sets of players who made this venue into an emporium of sorts. There was ‘us,’ the Jews, and ‘them,’ the not Jews aka the ‘schkutz.’ The ‘schkutz’ were older and we interacted with them on a regular but guarded basis. Most were in their late teens and early twenties, and some even older. They let us play in their ball games when they needed additional players in order to balance out teams. And, they let us play in their poker games when it suited them. But mostly, they let us in on their escapades with girls. What could be more stimulating for an adolescent? There was James Friskie, Whitey, Will Flowers, Keys, Pete Bechtel, Cortez the Puerto Rican who could spit through his bottom teeth and the Gudkenecht family of which there were hundreds, maybe thousands. Rumor had it that they were Nazis who ran a local bund. While the ‘schkutz’ were sort of fun to observe and hang with, we knew we were different and never got too close. We weren’t better or worse, just different and considerably younger. Our sensibilities separated us more than anything…like on the subject of cars: In our early years at the park, we were still too young to drive, but we began to have interest. No no…not how they operate or knowing their parts or how to maintain and fix them, but just identifying them by make, model and year. Remember, we were Jewish kids and it was almost irreverent to know anything mechanical other than how to fix a balance sheet, a ticket or cereal. To this day, only one guy in our crowd had and still has a modicum of skill in the ‘industrial arts.’
While in our mid teens, Pete Bechtel, pulled up to the bench on Chew Ave. in a black ’53 Merc with fender skirts. Very cool customized car! He said, “it has a 411 positraction rear, a custom tuned exhaust system with chrome duals, a big block engine, chrome spinners, a suicide knob, suspension on a rake (front end lowered) and trips.” You don’t know what ‘trips’are? Oh the shame! Either did any of us, but we came to learn it meant three two barrel carburetors. Right! What’s a carburetor? We thought we were cool ‘cause we could use these terms (not having a clue as to what they meant and did) with our buds who didn’t hang out at the park. This made us feel as though we knew something they didn’t know. Gamesmanship I guess! In that very cool Merc’s shot gun seat sat a ‘schicksa.’ This is a female ‘schkut.’ She was strikingly pretty, sexy and didn’t look anything like the Jewish girls we knew. She was hot…about 18, blonde, blue eyes, small turned up nose, tight sweater, torpedo tits, very red lipstick, kerchief in her hair and a tight skirt which showed off her phenomenal tuchus when exiting! Wow!!! I was speechless! We were speechless!! Is this what cars can do??? Yep!
Our Chew Park crowd was composed of 12-15 guys but our true core was actually seven. This brotherhood remains through today with the exception of Chaz who passed away in the mid nineties. I must be careful about identifying the distinguishing characteristics of the ‘Philly Boys’ at the risk of creating issues like, “no, he wasn’t this or that” or “are we talking about the same guy” and/or who knows what else. To that end, I’ll be brief and highlight only a few defining traits as I remember them…poetic license.
Remember, we are Jewish. We debate and deliberate everything from who was the best center fielder in history to what color is the sky. To provide an example of ‘nothing is ever right,’ in Jewishland, there are many jokes the ol’ borscht belt comedians used to tell that personify this mindset… like the one about the waiter who inquires at the table, “is anything alright?” Or my favorite: After 35 tears of solitude, Ginsberg is rescued from a desert island whereupon the rescuers see these two magnificent structures and inquire as to what they are and who built them. Ginsberg replies in a Yiddish accent, “these buildings are synagogues and I built them with my own two hands from the natural resources on the island.” “Yes, but why two” asks the Captain? Ginsberg says while pointing at the one to his right, “this is the one I go to, the other …I wouldn’t step a foot.”
Let’s start with Steve:
Then…strong, good athlete, smart, tough, liked to fight, didn’t take shit from anyone, and a natural born leader. He started at Temple University then transferred to NYU as a sophomore. Upon graduation, he shipped out with the Merchant Marines then returned to study for a Masters in Economics at University of Virginia. Upon completion, he returned to NYU to study for a second Masters in Business Administration.
Now…my brother from another mother, very successful Investment Adviser in north NJ, most honorable man I know, still very close.
Then…tenacious, perseverant, independent, big feet, deep voice, tall, tough, very funny. Eddy started at Temple and left to join the Army. Upon completion of his service, he re-entered Temple then went on to Law School at the University of Toledo.
Now…big time Philadelphia lawyer, former Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, still very close.
Then…very tough, angry, smart, short, redhead, fight at the drop of a hat, Marine. (Viet Nam vet in Battle at Chu Lai). After he completed service, he came back to Philly and worked with his dad as a plumber then began acquiring residential properties.
Now…retired real estate mogul living in south FL, mellow, fun, laid back, athletic, still very close.
Then…also Half Jewish (father), very good athlete, small, devilish, smart, funny. Started at a small school in Missouri, transferred to Temple, transferred again to LaSalle. Upon graduation, went to Law School at Wake Forrest University.
Now…Country lawyer living and still practicing in North Carolina, close.
Then…best natural athlete in the gang, pure shooter, natural lefty, threw hard and swung a bat like Ted Williams, smart, mellow, horse racing enthusiast, gambler, roommate. Upon graduation from high school, went to work at a food market, became a student of ‘the ponies,’ and all sporting events. Went to Vegas, learned to deal Blackjack, returned to Atlantic City in the mid seventies when gambling was legalized in NJ.
Now…retired pit boss still living in Atlantic City, somewhat recluse, very little contact.
Then…we could tell Chaz stories all day and still not finish… very colorful character, the first to do everything, funny, charming, smart, singer, troubled and purveyor of all activity nefarious and otherwise. You name it, Chaz did it. Steve eulogized Chaz at his funeral and recounted a story that no one could appreciate except us Philly Boys. Steve said, “I wanted the distinct honor of being the first expulsion from the new auditorium at the Pennell Elementary School during its inaugural assembly. All the guys knew this. As the program began, I looked over at Bobby, Al and Eddy and nodded as if to say, ‘here we go.’ I behaved badly, got tossed and winked at the boys on my way out and Chaz was already in the hallway.”
At Chew Park, he seemed to have a connection with the ‘Schkutz’ that surpassed the rest of us. Somehow, he thought he could roll those dudes, and he could…especially at the poker games. He had a difficult life starting with family where his parents were separated during his early formidable years and his supervision was less than stellar. He left Philly some years after high school and went to Vegas where his Uncle Joey arranged for his training as a Blackjack dealer and he and Ronnie were roommates – crazy times! While Chaz was a smart guy, he never did attend college on any sustaining and serious level, but was always…how should I say…’entrepreneurial.’ As a result, he spent some time residing in Carson City, Nevada (at the State’s expense) and Eddy always advised him (pro bono) on most of his legal matters of which there was no shortage. Chaz passed away too early in his life due to a combination of maladies including, but limited to, an unhealthy lifestyle as well as complications resulting from a botched surgery. We miss Chaz very much and talk about him every time we are together, which is frequently, even though we reside in different parts of the country. When Chaz departed, he took a little bit of each of us with him.
Then…trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. (Boy Scouts Motto) And if you believe that…
Now…winner of the Heisman Trophy, Pulitzer Prize for Literature, Nobel Peace Prize and The Congressional Medal of Honor, but enough about me. Oh Yeh, right!
In 1960, we graduated from high school and Chew Park was over. I loved Chew Park. All of us loved it. It was the place where we explored and learned about the way of the world and our place in it. We may not have determined what we wanted, but in some ways, we observed that which we didn’t want. The road maps were drawn. We learned about ourselves and grew as a result of our experiences. When the Philly Boys get together, conversations pick up where they left off…just like the walk down Morty’s alley to that hallowed ground. As I observe today’s youth, I’m not sure which educational experience away from school is better…Chew Park or the Universities of Google and Wikipedia.