MY PERSONAL STORY Scene Three: Formative Years

Heart murmur.  Not being able to play with other kids. My Mom, the Nurse, being overly protective. My little cousin Frankie, dying at an early age from a disease that my uncle Frank, a Medical Doctor, my Doctor, thought Frankie caught from someone at his in-home office.  I remember going to Frankie’s funeral  — my first –and riding in the procession sandwiched in the front seat between my Mom and Dad, peering through the front windshield past the sticker that said “FUNERAL” at my Uncle Frank’s car, which carried Aunt Olga and cousin Glava, and the hearse in font of them carrying the casket to Roosevelt Cemetery in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was sad and scared seeing Frankie’s tiny  casket being lowered into the ground.

My Uncle Frank introduced by Dad, who had a pharmacy at Jefferson Hospital, to my Mom who worked as a Registered Nurse there.   She was Valedictorian in her high school graduating class. She wanted to be a doctor, but her family was poor, and although she was offered a scholarship, she couldn’t accept it because she had to help support her family in Skullville, New Jersey, not far from Mays Landing and Atlantic City.

Uncle Frank treated patients at his in-home office and also paid visits to homes — that’s what Doctors did in those days. Tragically, my Uncle Frank died at an early age from a heart attack, probably because he blamed himself for his son’s death. I clearly remember that day, my folks receiving the phone call and racing out of the house to go and help him. I stood at the window, crying, because I didn’t want to be left alone.  I heard a siren wailing and knew it was a medical vehicle for him.  Not long after he passed on, I had a private conversation with Uncle Frank because I felt awful that I was selfish and cried about being left alone at the house the night he was struck down.

As a child I didn’t speak until I was almost three years old — what I did do was invent my own language.  Later in life, my Mom told me one of the words I said was “Dum dum,” which meant water.  I recall being a slow reader.  In first grade we sat on tiny chairs in a circle and read from books like “Fun with Dick and Jane.” My teacher always went around the circle clockwise from child to child to give each one a chance to read.  The next time we had a reading class we would continue clockwise in the same direction from where we left off the day before.  But I had a plan.  Every day I changed my seat and sat to the right of the kid who had read the day before. The reading circle hardly ever got around to me. When it looked like I might actually be called on to read, I would raise my hand and ask my teacher permission to go to the bathroom.  I managed to pull off this ruse for quite a while.  In first grade, one of my classmate’s was Leon Brown, a black boy, who was affectionally called Bunky and my constant rival for the daily “best dressed” award.  I was painfully shy, I remember my aunts and uncles always asking, “What’s the matter with Johnnie?” Although I didn’t speak very much I watched and listened.  At H.C. Lea(Grammar) School in West Philadelphia I became the captain of the audio visual squad. This meant skipping classes and avoiding homework, the tradeoff for my showing educational movies: carting the equipment around, setting up the beaded screen and threading the Bell & Howell 16mm sound projector. I was a good projectionist because I figured out the reason for the loop was so that each still picture could come to a complete but brief stop in the film gate behind the lens and the optical sound track was advanced 19 1/2 frames in front of the picture so it could roll continuously over the drum where it was read by the optical reader. Somehow this all got melded together inside the Bell & Howell projector and became a “sound movie.”  These movies were generally boring but I loved to watch them just the same.

MY PERSONAL STORY will continue…

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