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.

Real­ly?

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.