PART TWO: WILLIAMSPORT TO WILIAMSPORT
A light rain began to fall as I quickened my pace, head down, in a useless attempt to outrun it. The wind blew hair across my face as I searched for a rubber band in my pocket to tie it back. I looked up uneasily and didn’t like what I saw. The sky was a cauldron of dark, expectant clouds, ready to boil over at any second. Gunshot blasts of lightening exploded behind me as I flinched, looking for cover. There were none. I turned to see a wall of rain roaring towards me like a tidal wave. I braced myself as the cold stinging rain rolled over me, pelting me relentlessly until I was soaked to the bone.
I was caught unprepared in a deluge and it was miserable. Why did it always have to be so miserable? If I kept going I would eventually get out of it.
I was 11 yrs old the first time I arrived in Williamsport, PA. It was a long trip from California. We were supposed to be moving to Philadelphia, but bad-luck would detour that plan. Our Naval barracks home was still occupied and scheduled for renovation; it would not be move-in ready for six months. Why we didn’t stay in California wasn’t clear to any of us, neither was the fact that our dad was only dropping us off and had to return to San Diego.
We were dumped, and I don’t use that word lightly, in what had to be the lowest class neighborhood in Williamsport, PA. The house was on Canal Street, in a shabby warehouse neighborhood. Canal Street was an unfinished dirt and gravel road that ran parallel to a railroad track that serviced the warehouse on the other side of the street. We were going to have to live in an old three story shingled shack of a house.
It was a God-awful shock compared to our beautiful home back in sunny California. Our Aunt Martha picked this place out for us. Apparently it was difficult to find a place for a sixth month stay and it was all that we could get under the circumstance. Still, I could never forgive her for that. Aunt Martha and my cousin Mary Margaret came out to visit us in California the year before. They saw how we lived, where we lived. How in hell could Martha even think about putting us in this hellhole?
The looks on our faces, when we walked into the house, were similar to someone unexpectedly finding a bloated rotten corpse in a dark room. It was disgusting. What a dump! The floors, all the floors, were covered in cheap linoleum, each room had a different multi-colored pattern you could make out where it wasn’t worn down from years of wear. The walls and ceilings were water-stained and dusty. In the center of the living room was a single light bulb that hung from the ceiling at the end of a frayed black cord. Large heating grates in the floors, one in each room, breathed hot gassy coal air into the rooms. It was stifling. The kitchen had an old stove with greasy units and a broken oven door. The cabinets were stained with dirt around the knobs, on the doors that had knobs. Below those was a chipped porcelain sink and directly below that the linoleum was worn to the floorboards. Gross!
The upstairs wasn’t any better. The bedrooms had recently installed shiny linoleum that curled up along the walls in dingy rooms with old-fashioned roll-up window shades.
“We’ll be out of here, soon enough. It won’t be that bad,” our Mom said hesitantly in an unsuccessful bid to reassure us.
I don’t recall hearing the term, “ghetto,” at least not for a few more years, but we were quite aware we were literally living on the wrong side of the tracks.
My Dad didn’t stick around long enough to worry about it and headed back to sunny California. We unpacked, filled our dressers and arranged our rooms. Joe and I set up our beds about 4 feet apart, parallel to each other. Mom had the one bedroom with a door, Karen, being the oldest and grouchiest, got her own room. Paula, Laura and John shared the other room with barely a foot between the beds and dressers crammed into the room. The landlord stopped by the next day to show us how to light the furnace and keep it burning. A truck would pull in the back yard every week and dump a load of coal down a chute into the coal bin. Besides annoying my siblings, it was my job to help keep the coal burning.
None of us were happy to find ourselves in this kind of predicament. This unhappiness, this psychological, sociological shock would hang like a pall over us for much longer than the time we would endure there.