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Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...When Neighborhoods had Characters

The first neighborhood I really became a part of was Wilmington Manor. We moved to the house on Monroe Avenue when I was 7. We moved in February of 1971 and the morning we moved, my "uncle" John died in a car accident. He wasn't a relative but our families were too close to ever call him "Mr. Rulon". He was Uncle John and his wife was Aunt Brenda. His son Chucky was one of my best friends at our old house. I know I didn't fully grasp what it meant that he had died. Uncle John was a character. His father even more so. His dad owned a bar in West Chester and carried a cane with a sword inside it. He also had one with a shotgun built in.
There is always a rite of passage when you are the new kid on the block. Monroe Avenue was no different. The street was a dead end, and so the lack of traffic flow allowed the kids to play outside in the street a lot more than other kids would. The neighbors were all friendly to each other, for the most part. Everyone knew each other and they were all "family". Most of the families were original owners when the neighborhood was built in 1960. If you were the new kid, it meant that one of the old kids must have left. This was tough for the others and it made it hard to gain acceptance at first. In my case, the Efta family had moved away. They had three kids and the two boys were popular with the others on the block. So I was the new kid who lived in the Efta's house. Our house had a 4 foot tall block wall across the front yard and up the sides. The yards were all sloped and apparently Mr. Efta had desired a flat yard instead of a slope. So he built a giant retainer wall around the three sides of the perimeter of the yard, back-filled it and planted grass and two trees. The wall was a gathering point for all of us kids on Monroe Avenue. The day we moved in. our neighbor directly across the street. Mrs. Riccio, came over and introduced herself. Knowing how things were done on the block, I'm sure she brought us something to eat. That's what you did back then. You took food to your new neighbor, or your sick neighbor or your neighbor who just suffered a loss. Because you weren't strangers living on the same street, you were friends. You cared about each other...a great deal. I loved Mrs. Riccio. I still make it a point to go see her and her husband when I get home each year. She and her husband were the first family to buy a house on Monroe Avenue. They knew the builder personally. They knew everybody on the street and everybody knew them. Mr. Riccio is affectionately known as "The Mayor" because he has tenure over all the other neighbors. Their son Tommy was one of my best friends growing up. Their daughters Donna and Monica are too, and we all made the block a special place. But first they had to accept me...
"Mrs. Ric" (as I lovingly still call her) still loves telling this story: about a week after we moved on the street, her son Tommy came in the house and said "Mom, I think the boy who moved across the street is named "Newt". Mrs. Ric said "Well I met them last week and I'm pretty sure his name is Craig". Tommy replied "but I heard his dad calling him Newt". It's funny now and it took us a while to figure it out. My uncle Jack had sometimes called me "Craig-a-nooch"  and my stepfather had done so on occasion as well. Tommy had heard him call me that and thought he was calling me Newt. We still laugh at that today.
Sometime in the week or so after we moved in and got unpacked, it was time for my official appearance before the lodge. I would be accepted or voted off the island and this meeting would be the biggest factor. For a week or so, the other kids didn't congregate on the wall like they usually did. I guess they were waiting to see if my parents would be cool with it. Eventually though, they showed up. I think it was also a way of checking me out. They probably knew I'd come out to meet them after a while. The kids on Monroe Avenue were divided into three pretty distinct age groups. The "big kids" were the oldest. They were Franky Messick, Donna Riccio, and Mike Wilkins and Bobby Pennypacker. Mike and Bobby didn't really do much with the rest of us on the street. Ray Winegartner was older still and really never associated with us much. He was an only child who had really cool cars. Robby Miller lived across the street from me, next to the Riccio's. He was a stud athlete and we hardly saw him. The Miller's moved away about a year after I moved there.
Those were the "big Kids" The next group were my age. I was seven when I moved there. My group included Tommy Riccio, who was a couple of years older than me, Jack Bodzo, Ann Pennypacker and Frances Pennypacker and Billy Messick and  Patrick Ferraro who were also older. Then there were the guys my age. Johnny Wilkins, Richard Ferraro, and Kevin Messick.
 This particular day, all the kids on the block were playing touch football in the street. I came out and stood on the wall and they all said hello. We talked for a minute and somehow the topic of our fathers was introduced. I told Franky Messick that my stepfather was "7 feet tall". Now he wasn't of course, but when you are 7years old, a man 6 feet tall seems like a giant and 7 feet tall was about as tall as I could imagine. Franky laughed out loud and told me I was crazy. "Nobody is 7 feet tall...that's how tall Lew Alcindor is!" I had no idea who Lew Alcindor was at 7 years old. But I felt a little embarrassed and I think after that, they tossed me the football and we started playing. Over time, these kids would become my extended family and their parents would contribute to all of us coming of age on the street. Each of their dads were unique men who had very distinct personalities. The same for each of their moms. We went to each other graduations and birthday parties and weddings. We knew all the secret places in each others houses and cut through each others back yards. We slept out in tents and went sledding in the field behind our street. We hopped cars and had snowball fights and rode our bikes to secret fishing holes. We told funny jokes and ate Italian Ice and made up games that we played outdoors until very late on thick, humid summer nights.
...and the whole adventure began with that first big introduction on the wall.

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