That Time We Seriously Flirted With Joining A Cult

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI have thus far queried 21 literary agencies. Five agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other 16.

While I wait, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

In Chapter 9 (The Dark City Beckons…On Television), I describe the often-difficult three years between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my mother buying the small business where she had worked since October 1976. This was when “the dark city” started in earnest to beckon this curious child of the suburbs, a key marker on the road to becoming a film noir fan. Perhaps because it is the most difficult to articulate, it is the one element I left out of the essay which inspired my book.

After detailing a series of television shows which portrayed one version of the city, and the impact they had on me, I began to venture into the actual “night city” in 1978 and 1979. Some of these adventures were…unusual.

Still, these shows were merely televised versions of “the city.” It was not until 1979 that I began to spend significant time at night in the actual city of Philadelphia. Besides the Warwick, Barry’s and a Cheap Trick concert, my mother and I spent a lot of time in two areas of Society Hill, the neighborhood bounded to the north and south by Walnut and South Streets and to the east and west by S. Front and S. 7th Streets. First was S. 2nd Street between Pine and South Streets, near the original southeastern corner of the city laid out by William Penn. In 1745, a long narrow open-air market was constructed in this two-block stretch, its V-shaped roof supported by a parallel series of oblong brick columns. Called New Market to distinguish it from an existing market, the structure remains today—as do the brick houses built at either end in 1805 to store firefighting equipment, the oldest such structures in the United States. These buildings gave the area its current name: Head House Square.[i]

When I was born in nearby Metropolitan Hospital in 1966, Society Hill desperately needed revitalization. One step in this process was distinctly ironic: a deconstructed shopping mall within walking distance of local residents. Opening in 1973, the western edge of NewMarket overlooked the northern half of the original New Market on S. 2nd Street. Entering from S. Front or S. 2nd Streets brought you to a large courtyard with a central fountain, overlooked by glass-windowed shops and a maze of overhanging balconies and walkways.[ii] When I first entered NewMarket around 1978, I was riveted by its glass-and-chrome modernity and hidden nooks. We visited it during the day, but just as often at night, perhaps to eat in one of its six restaurants; going there at night, I felt like I was like getting away with something. Of the 44 shops located there in 1979, I best remember Paperback Booksmith.[iii] There, contemplating puberty, I bought a brown-covered paperback called Man’s Body: An Owner’s Manual, published in 1976 as part of the Wordsworth Body Series. Along the same lines, this may also be where I bought “Will I Like It?” Your first sexual experience, what to expect, what to avoid, and how both of you can get the most out of it, written in 1977 by Peter Mayle. Sadly, area residents were not as excited by NewMarket as we were; it officially closed in 1987. The original bronze sign, entryway and unusual architecture of the CVS Pharmacy at the corner of S. 2nd and Lombard Streets are nearly all that remain.

Just two blocks north on S. 2nd Street is Spruce Street—one block east from where I was born. Walk 100 feet to the east, and you arrive at the southern end of the short 38th Parallel Place. Its northern end is where cobblestoned Dock Street turns east after curving south and east from Walnut Street around the massive Society Hill Towers, home to luxury condominiums. This is where Herman Modell helped settle a strike in January 1947. Just north of where Dock Street turns sits the Philadelphia Marriott Old City. In 1979, though, a different building stood here—a hotel with a ballroom capable of comfortably seating 300 people; I cannot locate its name.

Rewinding a bit: John Paul Rosenberg was born in Philadelphia on September 5, 1935. In 1960, now a car salesman living in Bala Cynwyd, he left his wife and four children. By 1971, when he was selling encyclopedias in San Francisco, “Jack” Rosenberg had become “Werner Erhard” based on two names he read in Esquire magazine: physicist Werner Heisenberg and West German economics minister Ludwig Erhard.[iv] That year he had a revelation while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge: “I realized that I knew nothing.”[v] Building upon his own research into self-actualization, Erhard then founded Erhard Seminars Training, or est; est is also Latin for “it is.”

The first est training in Philadelphia took place at the City Line Holiday Inn—directly across Presidential Boulevard from the entrance to the Presidential Apartments—in December 1976; [vi]  both the Holiday Inn and the Presidential were developed by Villanova-based builder Martin W. Field.[vii] Over the next two years, my mother and her sister both paid $300 (over $1,200 in 2019) to take the training; at the time my mother only had $500 ($2,000 in 2019) to her name.

With parental permission, someone as young as 13 could take est. This is how I took the training in either October or November, at the hotel on Dock Street. The training lasted from 9 am to midnight over two consecutive weekends, with short evening seminars before, between and after the two weekends. While seated in the hotel ballroom, we were not allowed to have watches, medication (unless with a doctor’s prescription), alcohol, cigarettes or even aspirin. Bathroom and meal breaks were scheduled; there were no exceptions.[viii]

A goal of the training was to realize each of us is solely responsible for our actions, moods and thoughts: we are each God in our own universe. Deprived of our usual distractions, the trainer—a charismatic and handsome man whose name I forget—led us through a series of exercises designed to break down our mental defenses before building us back to the point where we would “get it.” “It” was simply that there was nothing to get: there is no metaphysical shortcut or externality that makes us happy or unhappy, only our own selves. British chef Robert Irvine does something very similar on his television series Restaurant: Impossible.

I had an absolute blast taking est: it allowed me to hang out in the city at night by myself—except when a group of us walked to a restaurant, where Zahav now is, for dinner one of the four nights. One of the other trainees, a youngish man whose name I forget, was my ride each morning and night; when the training was over, he wanted to take me on a vacation to the Yucatan. My mother slammed the brakes on that idea faster than a cheetah on speed; only the nocturnal city was allowed to seduce me.

One of my high school yearbook quotes is attributed to Erhard: “It is easier to ride the horse in the direction he’s going.” After our trainings, my mother, my maternal aunt and I took some “graduate seminars” at the Holiday Inn on N. 4th Street just south of Arch Street; I liked their ground floor coffee shop. There may have also been events at the Holiday Inn at S. 18th and Market Streets—at least once, my mother, one or more of her friends and I had a late-night meal at the 24-hour Midtown III Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, a few steps south at Ranstead Street. The former Holiday Inn is now a Wyndham, the latter Holiday Inn is now a Sonesta, and the Midtown III—last of the four Midtown diners—permanently closed in August 2020.[ix] And the City Line Holiday Inn is now a Courtyard by Marriott.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy. Get vaccinated against COVID-19, and wear a mask!


[i] https://study.com/academy/lesson/history-of-head-house-square-in-philadelphia.html Accessed December 10, 2020

[ii] https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/society-hill/the-newmarket-2/ Accessed December 10, 2020

[iii] NewMarket advertisement, PI, December 9, 1979, pg. 6-L

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/fashion/the-return-of-werner-erhard-father-of-self-help.html Accessed December 13, 2020

[v] Dowie, Mark, “The Transformation Game,” San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, CA), October 12, 1986, pg. IMAGE-24

[vi] Storck, Dorothy, “Introduction to the word,” PI, January 12, 1977, pg. 1-B

[vii] Cook, Bonnie L., “Martin W. Field, 87, Philly-area builder,” PDN, March 16, 2018, pg. 18

[viii] Storck, Dorothy, “We’re all OK—probably,” PI, January 14, 1977, pg. 1-B

[ix] https://www.inquirer.com/food/midtown-iii-diner-closes-center-city-philadelphia-restaurants-coronavirus-24-hour-whatll-be-hun-20200821.html Accessed December 14, 2020

That Time A Building Completely Broke My Heart

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 11 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Three agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One unexpected theme which emerged while writing was “what once stood proud, now stands not at all.” That applies primarily to John Rhoads Company, the West Philadelphia landmark whose “rise and fall” narrative is woven throughout the book. Forty years after it first opened in 1886, it was taken over by my paternal grandfather and his younger brother in the 1920s then passed to my father a little over three decades later. The demise of John Rhoads in the 1970s is partly discussed here. It also applies to the homes destroyed to make way for superhighways and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or any number of storied buildings–Metropolitan Hospital, The Gladstone Hotel/Greystone Apartments, the Philadelphia Police Department 40th District station house at 28th and Oxford–torn down and replaced for various reasons.

I first wrote about childhood summers in Atlantic City here. In Chapter 8 (Fathers and Sons Are Only Black and White in the Movies), I describe those magical summers in greater detail, lovingly recreating a motel called the Strand, which once stood between Boston and Providence Avenues just off the Boardwalk. On Newspapers.com, I found these contemporary advertisements, one from the June 25, 1972 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer

…and one from the June 10, 1973 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For the full story, I urge you to read Chapter 8 when Interrogating Memory is published. Until then, please enjoy this brief excerpt from that Chapter.

My happiest memory of those summers, however, is seeing Atlantic City from the Atlantic Ocean with my maternal grandfather. Beyond the northeastern end of the Boardwalk, on what was called Inlet Pier, sat the popular Capt. Starn’s; it closed five years later.[i] Besides a seafood restaurant and bar, one could charter boats or take a ride on the speedboat “Miss Atlantic City.” It also had a white double-decker tour boat which gently carried passengers round trip to Longport and back, a safe distance from the shore. I recognized buildings as they drifted by—the Ambassador Hotel, the Convention Center (home to the Miss America pageant since 1921) and, of course, the Strand and the Warwick. As we sat contentedly in one of the 10 or so rows of white plastic seats, two on either side of a narrow aisle, a man sold beverages from a large cooler. “Pop-Pop Sam” always bought a can for me. Nothing has ever tasted as delicious as I remember that Coke or Dr. Pepper tasting.

All things come to an end, though. This is how I described leaving the Strand at the end of the summer of 1975 in a high school English essay I wrote in March 1982:

’Matthew, will you hurry up!’ cried the boy’s mother. She was standing in the parking lot of the Strand motel, by a packed Ford.

“In the motel’s lobby, the boy was frantically running from adult to adult saying breathless good-byes.

“‘Ya comin’ back next summer, Matthew?’ asked an old man who sold candy and sundry goods.

“The boy, who was seven [sic–I was actually eight] years old, with messy, brown hair and a perpetual smile, shrugged his shoulders.

“I really hope so, but I don’t think we will, because my dad said money was tight and stuff like that,’ replied Matthew, the smile fading a bit.

“’Well I hope you do, Matthew. Now you’re [sic] mother is calling you, so you’d better go. Here.’

“The man jammed a Snickers into the boy’s hand. Matthew opened it, stuffed it in his mouth and, yelling good-bye over his shoulder, jumped in the car.”

We returned one last time, in the summer of 1976 or 1977. This time we stayed for a weekend, or perhaps longer, in a room overlooking Boston Avenue; this may be when Allen Hirschbaum rented a room in the motel across the street. One night, I tried to sleep on one of the deck chairs; I eventually returned inside. But once Resorts Casino Hotel opened on May 26, 1978, the Strand’s days were numbered. On June 22, Golden Nugget Inc. president Stephen Wynn announced he had bought the Strand from Solomon for $8.5 million ($34.4 million in 2019).[ii] Wynn tore down the 23-year-old motel to build the 541-room Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, which opened on December 9, 1980.[iii]

Later in the essay, titled “Repulsion Is Golden,” I pick up the story a few years later, likely the summer of 1981. After promising my mother I would return at 6 pm, I ran the “brief block to the bus stop.” From there a bus took me to the corner of Atlantic and Boston Avenues, steps away from where the boarding house Samuel and Irene Kohn operated during WWII had stood. Sprinting the block south to Pacific Avenue:

“’What in God’s name!’ I thought to myself. I frantically checked the street signs. I was on the corner of Boston and Pacific allright [sic]. So what was that in front of me?

“I was quite confused, because where my beloved Strand had always stood was a huge, gold-and-glass horror. The sign on it read ‘Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.’

“I crossed the street and entered the lower lobby. Surrounding me were gold columns, fine carpeting, more glass, and shining marble. I was filled with repulsion, and was rapidly approaching actual physical illness.

“Recovering from the initial shock I walked to the main desk. In answer to my question, I was told the Strand had been torn down three years [ago] so they could build this hotel. I thanked the clerk and walked away.

“I looked around a bit, the gaudiness of the place sickening me. I kept asking myself, ‘How, how, could they have done this!’ Tears welled up in my eyes, so I sat down a minute to think. I recovered, and went into the men’s room to clean myself up.”

Melodramatic flourishes aside, this succinctly sums up my feelings not only about the replacement of the Strand by the Golden Nugget—itself sold to Bally’s Organization in November 1987[iv]—but of gambling generally. Presented as a way to revive the dying city lovingly portrayed in the bittersweet 1980 film Atlantic City, it instead cleaved the storied resort. Giant lurid casinos flanking the beach draw guests who rarely venture outside the hotels and Boardwalk, while the rest of the city seems worse off than before. Given my father’s addiction, however, it is all for the best we stopped summering in Atlantic City before the first casinos were built.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy!


[i] “Capt. Starn’s pier a sunken relic amid glitter of Atlantic City casinos,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), May 7, 1989, pg. 6B

[ii] “Vegas firm buys piece of Boardwalk,” The Record (Hackensack, NJ), June 23, 1978, pg. A3

[iii] “Gaming agency analyzing Golden Nugget’s trial run,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), December 12, 1980, pg. B19

[iv] “Farewell and tears loom for The Grand,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), September 25, 1994, pg. E9

That Time My Detective Grandfather’s Partner Was A Total Rascal

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

I have written extensively about my maternal grandfather, born Yisrael HaCohen in Shpola in modern-day Ukraine on December 12, 1904. Or maybe it was November 22, 1905? The latter date is recorded on his father Yosef HaCohen’s Petition For Naturalization, while the former date is recorded on the Montefiore Cemetery gravestone of Samuel Joseph Kohn of Cleveland, the name and city of birth he chose to sidestep the anti-Semitism of the Philadelphia Police Department (“PPD”) he joined as Patrolman on August 14, 1931.

For more on Samuel Kohn’s 22 years on the PPD–his stint as a plain-clothes detective, his possible association with future Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo, and his own issues with “moonlighting”– I urge you read Chapter 2 (The Dancing Rabbi, The Philly Cop and The Baker’s Daughter) as soon as Interrogating Memory is published.

Until then, please enjoy this brief excerpt from that Chapter.

Philadelphia Police Department

According to my maternal aunt, her father…

…was a plain clothes detective for a time, but his combative personality got him in trouble. His steadiest partner on the force was a blondish man named Auerbach, who had a squad car in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood where they lived.[i]

Meanwhile, my maternal aunt correctly remembered “a blondish man named Auerbach.” Born in the Pale on June 14, 1910, Jerome Jacob “Jack” Auerbach immigrated with his Yiddish-speaking family to Manhattan in 1913. By 1934, however, he had moved to Philadelphia, where he married Mildred Murlend. Within six years, they were living in a two-story rowhouse at 1935 N. Patton Street, just one block north of where Patrolman Kohn and his young family lived in 1945 and 1946. Despite later founding the PPD K9 Unit, Auerbach was a bit of a rascal.[ii] Soon after arresting the Mari brothers, he was demoted to Patrolman out of the 32nd district (65th Street and Woodland Avenue) in southwest Philadelphia. On April 28, 1949, Auerbach was suspended along with 19 other PPD policemen as part of a two-day crackdown after “Capt. Edward Fossler and Sgt. John Smith said they found Auerbach sitting in his own car with a young woman companion…when he should have been patroling [sic] his beat.”[iii] He was parked at 74th Street and Buist Avenue, one block from his beat: 74th Street and Island Avenue. When the officers approached the car, Auerbach “stepped on the gas and led them a three-mile chase through West Philadelphia” to the corner of Shields and Yocum Streets, less than two blocks from his own station house.[iv] Auerbach’s parked car was dark; the young woman hid on the floor. Curiously, Auerbach was taken to the neighboring 21st district (32nd Street and Woodland Avenue) to be suspended.[v]

While it was particularly brazen to do so with a young woman, “hiding out” was common; eight other PPD policemen were suspended that day for “resting” in such exotic places as a Penn fraternity house, a park bench and the office of a garage. Indeed:

The work of a footman was brutally monotonous. The same row houses. The same families, the same small-time businessmen. A footman was prone to hiding out, especially in rough weather, in luncheonettes and living rooms, or in the wooden boxes where the sergeants checked up on the men. If you got caught hiding out, the discipline was swift, the infraction rarely forgiven. You remained a footman.”[vi]

Auerbach was transferred to the 16th District (39th Street and Lancaster Avenue, three blocks southeast of John Rhoads Company), where his troubles got worse. On July 25, 1949, Auerbach was brought before the Civil Service Commission (“CSC”), accused of violating the City Charter by being a partner in a plumbing business launched one month before he arrested the Mari brothers; his former partner’s wife Ruth alleged he supervised and performed plumbing jobs when he should have been on duty. That same former partner, Benjamin Glazer, had himself been indicted for embezzlement and fraudulent conversion.[vii]  Two days later, CSC recommended Auerbach’s dismissal;[viii] he was suspended the following day.

The disgraced Auerbach sought reinstatement well into 1950, arguing “one private complainant against him [had] failed to appear” at two prior mandamus petition hearings.[ix] Auerbach could also have argued he was far from the only moonlighting PPD patrolman. When Samuel H. Rosenberg was sworn in as Director of Public Safety on March 10, 1949[x], he soon realized “most nights, more police officers were moonlighting than were available for duty.” [xi] On February 21, 1951, Judge James C. Crumlish agreed, ordering Jack Auerbach reinstated as of the previous October 3.[xii] That same year, Auerbach married Dorothea Bochardt, by whom he had a daughter named Denise. Chastened by two suspensions, he rose to the rank of Captain in 1960, then later Inspector. Jack Auerbach died at the of 62 on January 26, 1973 then was buried in Roosevelt Memorial Park [eds. note: my father was buried there 8 1/2 years later].

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy!


[i] E-mail dated March 11, 2013

[ii] https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2017/03/19/philly-restaurant-holds-special-fundraiser-for-ppd-k9-unit/ Accessed March 24, 2019.

[iii] “10 More Police Are Suspended,” PI, April 29, 1949, pg.1 (continued pg. 3).

[iv] According to Google Maps, this is only about a 1.3-mile drive—if driven directly.

[v] Woodland Avenue now ends at 38th Street, as the University of Pennsylvania now occupies most of the area between 38th Street and the Schuylkill River, north to Market Street.

[vi] Paolantonio, S. A. 1993. Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America. Philadelphia, PA: Camino Books, pg. 38.

[vii] “3d Dismissal Ordered for Policeman,” PI, July 26, 1949, pg. 21.

[viii] “Rosenberg Asked To Fire Officer,” PI, July 28, 1949, pg. 3.

[ix] “Suspended Officer Sues for His Job,” PI, November 16, 1950, pg. 23.

[x] After serving as Acting Director since February 4. “S.H.Rosenberg, 39, Sworn by Samuel As Safety Director,” PI, March 11, 1949, pg. 1.

[xi] Paolantonio, pg. 43.

[xii] “Fired Policeman Returned to Job,” PI, February 22, 1951, pg. 25.


That Time My Great-Uncle Helped Send a Man To Prison

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfolded. I compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One narrative thread I weave through the book is the story of John Rhoads Company, a successful West Philadelphia business founded by the Harrisburg-born Rhoads in 1886. On July 15, 1926, a 32-year-old Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland named Morris (Moshe bar Dahvid Layb) Berger bought the company, joined by his younger brother Jules. “Julius” had been born in a two-story Philadelphia row house in February 1904. Less than seven years earlier, the two brothers and their three sisters had lost their father under mysterious circumstances that made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But you must await publication for that story…and the shenanigans that transpired in the Spruce Hotel in 1937.

Instead, today I reprint this short passage from Chapter 1 (From Triumph to Tragedy…and the Tailor’s Daughter). It is the second half of the section titled “John Rhoads Company.”

Please enjoy.

It was on this land in 1886 that the former confectioner opened John Rhoads Company, a carpet cleaning, moving and storage firm whose original address was 736-42—later just 738—N. Holly Street. In 1894, this “popular” two-floor firm was the “largest in West Philadelphia.”[i] Less than two years later, on July 27, 1896, 57-year-old John Rhoads died at his home at 4003 Spring Garden Street, a few blocks southeast from his company. It passed through the hands of sons Daniel and John F., their wives and his daughter Mary A. before ultimately passing to John F.’s wife Annie L. G. Rhoads.

In the meantime, John Rhoads Company thrived, advertising “Carpet Beating, 3c Yard. Called for and returned free, also Six Months’ Storage Free”[ii] in May 1914, then “Storage, packing, shipping. Local and distant moving” and carpet cleaning in January 1919.[iii] By February 15, 1919, John Rhoads Company had changed its official address to 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue.[iv]

I do not know why Morris Berger decided to purchase John Rhoads Company, or why Annie Rhoads sold it to him. The likeliest explanation is that Annie did not want to run the family business herself and accepted a generous offer from a man who had started working at the business with his younger brother the previous year, bringing with them an excellent reputation in the used furniture business.

Five years later, on April 2, 1931, Morris Berger officially ceded ownership of the company and the land it occupied to “John Rhoads Co.” This way, according to a paternal cousin, Morris and Jules split their stake in the company 50-50, with an arrangement that if one brother died, the surviving brother would receive an additional 1% of the company, making him bare-majority owner; it is not clear how the remaining 49% control would be allocated.[v]

Jules Berger, now in his mid-20s, took the opportunity afforded by this success to travel in style, Great Depression notwithstanding. On February 1, 1931, he departed Havana, Cuba for Key West, Florida on the S.S. Northland. That summer, he spent two weeks at the Ford Hotel in Montreal, Canada, carrying $100 in cash (almost $1,700 in 2019), arriving August 6 on the S.S. Silvia after a six-day voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia; the ship’s manifest lists his profession as “rug cleaner.” And on March 4, 1933—the same day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated 32nd president of the United States—he departed from New York City for a cruise through the West Indies on the R.M.S. Mauretania, then nearing the end of its run as the premiere luxury liner of the Cunard line.[vi] Twelve days later, the ship returned to New York City, having sailed as far south as La Guaira, Venezuela.[vii]

Six years later, 35-year-old Jules married 30-year-old Roslyn K. Blatt, who had graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Temple University in 1931. While I cannot recall meeting my late great-aunt, the name “Aunt Roz” rang a loud bell when I re-discovered it researching my family history. The newlyweds settled into the house at 444 S. 49th Street, connected by a small concrete walkway to Jules’ brother’s house.

In July 1946, Jules inadvertently launched the noir “fugitive on the run” story of Harry Merrick III. The previous February, Jules had been called to Merion Gardens Apartments, on the suburban side of City Avenue, where it intersects Wynnewood Avenue. There 23-year-old Harry sold my great-uncle rugs belonging to his father, H. M. Merrick, for $200 (around $2,850 in 2019). However, since the rugs did not belong to Harry, his father and my great-uncle jointly swore out a complaint for his arrest on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. Sentenced by Judge Harold G. Knight in Montgomery County Court in Norristown to 11-22 months in the county jail, he was transferred in November to the Montgomery County Prison Farm. There he roomed on the honor system with 20 other inmates and a single guard. On Christmas Eve 1945, Harry escaped in a prison truck, which was found in Philadelphia a week later, its identifying panels removed and its gas tank empty. Harry spent the next six months roaming the country, working whatever jobs he could, until he could no longer bear not seeing his 23-year-old wife Dorothy; the latter now lived with her mother in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. Arranging to meet at the city’s massive railway terminus, 30th Street Station, they spent nearly three days together, during which Dorothy convinced her husband to “face the music,” vowing to wait for him while he finished his sentence. “I’m so tired of being hunted,” he replied, and on the morning of July 26, 1946, accompanied by his wife and a lawyer named Thomas E. Waters, he turned himself in at the same courthouse where had had been sentenced the previous spring.[viii]

By the early 1940s, John Rhoads Company had expanded from a small carpet cleaning firm into a successful reseller of high-quality household furniture and goods, open every day. Advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeted “ANTIQUES, BRIC-A-BRIC, RUGS. Household & office furniture. Baby grand pianos, china. Best prices paid.”[ix] Similar ads over the next five years also highlighted “ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS” and “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites.[x]

In August 2019 I spoke to some current residents of N. Holly Street, who were exceedingly generous with their time and memory, and learned the giant door through which the trucks would drive in and out of the building was located on the right-hand side of the N. Holly Street end of the building, as you faced it from the sidewalk. This was also where the giant rolls of carpet were cleaned.

This is what that section of N. Holly Street looks like now.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy.

[i] “BUSINESS HOUSES AND THEIR PROGRESS.” PI, December 16, 1894, pp. 26-28. The listing of West Philadelphia businesses is on page.28.

[ii] PI, May 25, 1914, pg. 12

[iii] PI, January 14, 1919, pg. 19

[iv] Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), February 15, 1919, pg. 17

[v] Letter from Source 1 to author, September 15, 2017

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mauretania-ship-1906-1935 Accessed October 19, 2019

[vii] “Steamship Movements,” The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), March 8, 1933, pg. 1

[viii] “Fugitive Returns On Wife’s Plea; Felon Persuaded to Give Up After 6 Months of Freedom,” PI, July 27, 1946, pg 11

[ix] PI, February 2, 1941, pg. 58.

[x] Per a small 1942 “For Sale” advertisement: “WANTED ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS Household and office fur., grand pianos” PI, February 8, 1942, pg. 52. They were open every day from 9 am to 5 pm (Mondays until 10 pm). Another ad on the same page announced an “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites. Similar ads had appeared in the Inquirer in 1941 (February 2, pg. 58; May 4, pg. 14) and earlier in 1942 (February 1, pg. 10), and would appear again later in 1942 (July 21, pg. 30) and in 1943 (January 4, pg. 26), 1946 (January 2, pg. 41).

Sybil: A brief, dramatic epilogue

Since July 2017, when I began to research and write Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I have spent hundreds of hours gathering information online, pulled many dusty books of the shelves to review, sorted through dozens of photographs and retrieved countless documents from my filing cabinets. I even pulled out my 44-year-old Best of Old Time Radio records to listen again to episodes of Gang Busters, The Green Hornet and The Shadow. Proper interrogation of memory demands meticulous attention to detail—no fact is too small to check. Nearly every one of those memory-interrogation aids proved, at worst, bittersweet and, at best, joyful. And not one provoked a viscerally negative reaction.

Until yesterday, that is.

A few days ago, I explained why the saga of “Sybil”—the pseudonym given Shirley Ardell Mason in a 1973 book and two-part November 1976 television movie—exemplified how not to interrogate memory:

Unfortunately, we may never know whether the events recounted in Sybil occurred the way Mason first told Dr. Wilbur they did, or whether they are false memories resulting from a confluence of rationalized incentives: the troubled young woman searching for a mother figure; the young psychiatrist trained in an archaic and unscientific methodology so eager to have a case of MPD [multiple personality disorder] she ruthlessly probed her suggestible young patient—herself a substitute daughter—until she heard what she wanted to hear; and the journalist and professor who, simply put, should have known better.

At every step along the way, all three women—and even Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who treated Mason when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation, but kept his doubts about her alleged multiple personalities to himself for decades—failed to consider the fantastic tales unfolding with the most rudimentary skepticism. This failure to interrogate memory perversely made them rich and famous, albeit behind a pseudonym for one. The consequence, however, was a destructive over-diagnosis of a once-rare—for good reason—mental disorder, sweeping even the powerful APA [American Psychiatric Association] along with it.

For these reasons—never mind that the artistic and piano-playing Mason reputedly could not draw or play a note as “Sybil”—this episode is a textbook example of how NOT to interrogate memory.

The proximate cause for this interest, bordering on obsession, was writing in what I anticipate will be Chapter 10 about watching Sybil when it first aired: not all of it, I think, but more than enough. I had just turned 10 years old, which begs the question how I was allowed anywhere near a television set broadcasting it, let alone sitting in my faux-leather swivel chair in our downstairs den watching it.

I write about Sybil in the larger context of how many inappropriate television shows and movies I watched as a child; this sets up being a young teen watching whatever I chose on the television set, complete with HBO, in my new bedroom. Perhaps because it was just becoming part of the zeitgeist, Sybil was one of at least three televised portrayals of child/spousal abuse I watched in 1976. The title character of A Girl Named Sooner is subjected to emotional abuse. Around the same time Sybil aired, Martin Mull played the loathsome Garth Gimble, a wife-beater who traumatizes their son into bed-wetting, on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. When those episodes aired, commercials for Electric Light Orchestra’s A New World Record featured snippets from “Livin’ Thing;” for years I could not listen to that song without shuddering. While I have long since made my peace with that excellent tune, I only wanted to push Sybil as far out of my mind as possible.

Until yesterday, that is.

As for the lack of parental discretion: one month earlier, my mother was forced to get a telephone solicitation job because my father had finally lost the business his family had operated since 1926—when it was already 40 years old. His gambling had become destructive; I recall a sheriff coming to the house one night to take him away. A few months later, on March 2, 1977, my parents formally separated; my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I moved into a nearby apartment. The night before they separated, my father sat down at our kitchen table to type out a short report for me; he had rarely, if ever, done anything like that before. When he was finished, he set the two sheets of paper to the side then asked me if I knew what was happening the following morning. I told him I did. At that point, he cried in front of me for the first and last time. Whatever I was personally feeling about the impending disruption of my young life, my empathy kicked in, and I began to comfort him.

Indeed, I had spent most of my childhood that way; my severely intellectually-impaired older sister, who had only moved into a full-time residential facility less than two years earlier, simply required too much attention. It helped that I was a naturally quiet and bookish boy.

Sue Ellen Drive Jan 1977

And that may explain what happened to me yesterday afternoon.

**********

I am shocked, frankly, how curious I became about the underlying “truth” of Sybil; the film had traumatized my 10-year-old self that much. But, in the same way we keep poking our tongue into an aching tooth, I kept looking for clips from the film. My wife Nell, partly to stop me talking about it, first suggested I should finally watch the entire movie. Which I resisted…for about as long as it takes to read this sentence.

Unable to locate in on Comcast OnDemand, Amazon, Netflix or YouTube, I contented myself with those clips, mostly out of context. Except those clips only aroused my curiosity further. Those brief glimpses were that compelling. Then, less than 24 hours after writing the previous essay, I found the full, three-hour-plus movie here.

I immediately started to watch it, mesmerized. It was already dark, however, and my foolishness only extends so far, so I paused after the first half. Already, though, I could see how director Daniel Petrie and screenwriter Stewart Stern were playing a bit fast and loose with established facts. Setting the sessions between Mason and Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in 1970s Manhattan, rather than between 1954 and 1965, was likely a way to save money on costuming and sets. It was likely also to condense the sweeping story that “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City, not—as with the real-life Mason—about a decade earlier in Omaha, NE.

Somewhat disorienting, though, the flashback scenes set in fictional Willows Corner, WI have the look and feel of the 1930s—when Mason truly was a young girl. And the first scene we see there is the upsetting tonsillectomy Mason actually had when she was seven—the event journalist Debbie Nathan believes was the kernel of truth the suggestible Mason turned into the more outlandish tales of sexual and physical abuse. In the movie, this merely serves the purpose of establishing young Sybil’s desperate fear of her mother—and her love for her protective, albeit invalid, grandmother. But it is almost as though they knew future—and highly skeptical–researchers would point to this event, so they wrote this scene. Just as they wrote a brief scene between Dr Wilbur (Gina Petrushka) and a fictional older female mentor named Dr. Lazarus. As they walk through Manhattan, the latter tellingly says, “Such a compliment they [the personalities of “Vicki” and “Peggy”] should reveal themselves so quickly.” After Dr. Wilbur gushes about her new patient, they stop at the railing along a riverbed. There, Dr. Lazarus cautions Dr. Wilbur,

“Be careful. Honey, be careful. Do not fall in love with her illness, or she could be obligated to seem just more complex than she is, just to keep your approval. You know that about little girls, they’re defenseless but belong to somebody else. Pieces, fragments, illusions. And they are acting out a drama that has nothing to do with you.”

When Dr. Wilbur replies that she knows that, Dr. Lazarus adds the kicker: “So…you mustn’t act out one that has nothing to do with them.” For instance? “For instance, you are not their mother.” Literally the next thing we hear after this sage—and thoroughly ignored—advice is Woodward’s voiceover explaining how hard following that advice is. Watching naïve “Peggy,” who thinks she is a nine-year-old living in a small Wisconsin town, disappear into the Manhattan night so tugs at her, she wants to call her back. And, of course, Dr. Wilbur does become a surrogate mother to “Sybil,” just as the actual Dr. Wilbur did to Mason.

I finished the movie the following day. Once again, I saw how Petrie and Stern protected themselves: adding a love interest named Richard, eliminating the use of barbiturates during hypnosis and reducing the June 1958 recanting letter to a brief conversation. Most important from the perspective of memory interrogation, though, are the wholly fictional scenes in which Dr. Wilbur meets with “Sybil’s” father in Chicago, unethically discussing his daughter and conveniently learning “Hattie” was once diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She then travels to Willows Corner to investigate. There, she receives confirmation from Dr. Quinones (Charles Lane) about young “Sybil’s” many severe injuries, including bladder and uterus damage that foreshadow the climactic “green kitchen” scene. Dr. Wilbur also visits “Sybil’s” now-empty childhood home and finds both the green kitchen and proof of another traumatizing event. This is then used to get “Sybil” to admit she fabricated her recanting. And when “Sybil’s” personalities finally merge into one on a field somewhere–not even close to how this allegedly happened one day in 1965–Woodward’s voiceover tells us “Sybil” stayed in psychoanalysis for 11 years, airbrushing the months during which the movie has taken place.

All of which brings us to…the scene.

In my memory, it lasted a very long time and was quite graphic. I also had young Sybil bound in a closet. As the scene began, my heart was racing; I was legitimately scared of what I was about to see. However, while still horrifying, much of what I thought I had seen was actually implied through editing and voiceover—and there was no closet. Chalk up another win for memory interrogation.

Still, once the scene—which was also much shorter than I remembered—was over, and we were back in the park where the revelations take place under hypnosis, I began to cry. Not “a few tears rolled down my cheeks,” but uncontrollable, body-racking sobs—wet, snotty and loud. My entire body shrieked with visceral anguish. It was a good 10 minutes before I began to calm down.

Yes, any person with a drop of empathy would recoil in horror at what I had just witnessed—and what the imagination conjured on top of it. IF we are wrong, and young Shirley Ardell Mason was subjected to these medieval tortures, then Martha Mason should suffer the eternal punishments of the damned—and I write this as a Jewish-raised atheist who was never taught, and never accepted, such things.

And there was a good deal of relief I had made it through the movie; this was something I clearly needed to face.

Underneath all of that, though, was something else—my own pain and hurt. When I first watched that scene, way back in November 1976, my happy life was crumbling around me—that my life arguably turned out far better is beside the point. I was never able to express how I truly felt about the separation—I was too compliant for that. My father was shattered, and my mother was becoming what she would call “nervous.” Suddenly, not even 11 years old, I was the man of the house, at least in an emotional support sense. There was little-to-no space for me to grieve what I was losing.

So, perhaps, I did the next best thing. I displaced those feelings onto a terrifying television movie, converting and expanding already-awful scenes into Grand Guignol horror. I never fully understood this until the last few weeks, as I began to interrogate my own memories of those days. And then—when I had watched the scene again—it all came pouring it.

I suspect there is more to come.

**********

Let me just add this: despite its factual inaccuracies and dubious veracity, Sybil deserved all of its accolades. Purely as a work of art, it is astonishing and highly recommended. As good as Woodward is, Field gives an absolutely tour-de-force performance.

As for the real Shirley Ardell Mason?

The following facts are illuminating:

  1. Shirley is said to be the only surviving child of Walter and Martha Mason.
  2. The latter was already 39 years old when Shirley was born in 1923, when a woman’s life expectancy was just 58.5
  3. Shirley survived, but was frail and sickly—and was treated with calf’s liver for what very likely was pernicious anemia.

Under these conditions, is it remotely surprising the “bizarre” Martha Mason would practically smother her only child—intelligent, artistic and sensitive—with extreme overprotectiveness? So much so that when Martha Mason died in 1948, Shirley had never really learned how to care for herself as an adult in the larger world outside rural southern Minnesota. Her father, having found a new romantic partner, then stopped giving his daughter money. That same daughter who was so fascinated by psychology in college.

Of course, Shirley Mason would feed Dr. Wilbur’s personal and professional interest in multiple personality disorder—however unconsciously—in order to appear “more complex than she is” to her surrogate mother, the woman who was essentially supporting her in New York City.

All of this is merely conjecture, of course, based only upon a twice-seen television movie and a little bit of online research; I confess I have not read any of the primary books on Sybil/Shirley Mason. Nonetheless, it remains the best example I have yet found of how not to interrogate memory.

Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.

Further interrogating memories of childhood fires

I plan to complete a first draft of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own later this summer. No, I have not yet identified a publisher or a literary agent, though that is the goal. But as with my Noir of Who essay, I always planned to finish this labor of love before contemplating next steps.

Meanwhile, as much as I have learned about my genetic family, my legal family and my own past, key questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered. For example, while I have definitively identified my genetic mother, she steadfastly refuses to communicate with me beyond one terse text to her younger sister, whom I met in person in August 2019. Furthermore, while I am nearly certain I have identified my genetic father—a man who, unfortunately, died in 2006—I cannot discuss him with my genetic mother.

Similarly, I remain unable to pinpoint the precise date and circumstances of two fires from my early childhood. In fact, I may never obtain this information for the early 1970s fire at the John Rhoads Company. Founded in West Philadelphia in 1886 as a carpet cleaning company, my paternal grandfather and his younger brother first assumed control of it in 1926, with my father assuming control in 1960. Folks who live adjacent to the site—now an empty lot—recall the fire, but not precisely when it happened. My maternal aunt is certain my father hired a convicted arsonist named Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set the fire, presumably to collect insurance money; it is likely my father was already accumulating gambling debts. Advertisements for John Rhoads stopped appearing in the Philadelphia newspapers at the end of March 1972, only to resume for its second, and final, location in September 1974. But within that time frame, there is no public record of a fire at that location.

On a more positive note, though, I may be zeroing in on exact date of the fire at my childhood home, on Sue Ellen Drive in Havertown, Pennsylvania. One breakthrough occurred during the same trip I met my genetic maternal aunt: Assistant Chief Mike Norman of the Manoa Fire Department showed me this photograph. “Sue Ellen Drive” is written on its back, and Chief Norman stated the uniforms were those worn in 1973, meaning it depicts the aftermath of the fire in question—if what I have deduced through an analysis of the events of that night is correct.

IMG_4252 (2)

**********

As for the fire, let me once again walk through what I know—or think I know—about that night, with the caveats these events occurred nearly 50 years ago, my mother died in 2004, and my older sister is unable to articulate any memory of that night.

At the time of the fire, I was in first grade.

If this is correct, that limits the fire to sometime between September 1972 and June 1973.

We did not have school the next day, and my father was out particularly late, suggesting it was a Friday or Saturday night; I am almost certain it was a Saturday night.

It being a Saturday night is purely impressionistic—it is what comes to mind when I probe the memory. Either way, though, this further reduces the number of days on which the fire could have occurred.

The first I knew something was wrong was when I awoke in my bedroom—all three bedrooms were on the top floor of the split-level three-story house—to find Mindy standing quietly in my doorway.

Mindy is severely mentally impaired. According to her annual Life Enrichment Plan, which summarizes every aspect of her treatment and history, she lived with on Sue Ellen Drive through June 1973—when I finished first grade—then was in and out of residential facilities until entering her current residence in December 1974.

I then could smell—or feel or sense—the smoke and/or heat rising from the ground floor playroom, situated beneath Mindy’s bedroom. I must have roused our mother from our parents’ bedroom—our father was not home—because the next thing I remember is the three of us standing on our neighbor’s lawn with our Keeshond Luvey, still wearing whatever we had worn to sleep, watching the firefighters.

There are a number of things to unpack here.

First, Luvey—so named by our mother because “he loves everybody!”—was born on December 17, 1972. We acquired him—one night at a pet store in Wilmington, Delaware for…reasons—when he was only a few weeks old, likely in early January 1973. If Luvey was with us, that limits the day of the fire to a Friday or Saturday night between January and June 1973.

Second, I do not recall any of us needing heavy jackets, nor do I think it was raining or especially windy; the photograph, at the very least, does not contradict this. This would eliminate January and February, when average minimum temperatures in Philadelphiawere 15.6 and 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, narrowing the time frame to between March and May 1973.

Thankfully, the firefighters had responded to the alarm—sent by a neighbor perhaps—quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the playroom, though that was destroyed. As Chief Norman remembered it, he and his unit received the call while they were returning to the fire station from another local fire.

If Chief Norman’s memory is correct, there was at least one other fire that night, not just in Havertown, but in the smaller area served by Manoa Fire Company—one of five volunteer fire stations in the town. Hold that thought.

Deeming our house uninhabitable, my mother drove Mindy, Luvey and I to a nearby motel to spend the night. For some reason—my memory says Mindy unnerved the front desk clerks, though they may simply not have allowed dogs and/or had no vacancies—we were unable to rent a room there. We returned to our house—our father had not yet returned—to sleep, despite the lingering smell of the fire. Our mother would later say the fire started because she had not turned off the hair drying unit—one with an apparatus you tilted over your head while sitting—she had been using in the playroom. I do not know if she had simply forgotten to do so, or if it needed to “cool down.” Either way, she thought her husband would turn if off when he came home. He never did, and the unit either overheated or short-circuited, starting the fire.

To be honest, this story has never made a great deal of sense; my wife Nell openly scoffs at it. Moreover, our mother’s older sister more than hints it was set by Klayman because my father had not yet paid him for setting the John Rhoads fire.[1] However, Chief Norman did not find the story unreasonable at all, analogizing it to teenagers leaving hair curlers on in the bathroom.

That there was such a hair drying apparatus can be seen on the right side of this photograph. While I cannot be certain when this photograph was taken, Luvey could easily be a few months old, and I could easily be six years old, putting it in the spring of 1973.

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

A few years later, the “fire marshal” came to Lynnewood Elementary School to speak to us about fire safety; Sitting to my right in the auditorium during the assembly was one of my best friends, a girl who lived just a few houses from me. When one particular house appeared on the screen, she prodded my arm. Pointing to the screen, she excitedly whispered, “Matt…That’s your house!”

It was, in fact, my house. Not only had a photographer been at the fire, but someone had filmed it as well. Theoretically, either could have been the work of a neighbor, though Chief Norman suggested the photograph, at least, was taken by a professional.[2] This would also explain how the film shot that night made its way into the fire safety film watched that day in Lynnewood. Incidentally, Haverford Township did not have a designated fire marshal until the 1980s, so I suspect the speaker was the fire chief of one of Havertown’s five volunteer fire companies.

But that begs this question: if the fire in our house merited photographing and filming, why can I not find a single mention of it in the Delaware County Daily Times (DCDT), which regularly featured stories about local fires? Using the invaluable Newspapers.com, I carefully went through every edition from March 1 through May 31, 1973—page by tedious page—on the off chance either the street name or the town name had been written incorrectly, but there was not a single reference to a house fire anywhere in Havertown. I did find an April 26 story describing three different fires throughout all of Delaware County in the previous 24 hours.[3] Presumably, two fires in the same night in a much smaller geographic area would have been irresistible—assuming, of course, they had been aware of it in time; reader tips apparently drove much of the DCDT’s reporting on events such as fires.

However, in the spring of 1973, the DCDT did not publish a Sunday edition—meaning events which occurred on a Saturday night could easily have been missed; there was more than enough other news to fill Monday editions. If the fire in our house occurred on Saturday night/Sunday morning, this could be the reason—other than simply being deemed insufficiently newsworthy—the fire in our house did not appear in the DCDT.

Meanwhile, what can we learn using the weather conditions I remember from the night of the fire?

Table 1 displays the temperature, precipitation level and wind speed at 12 midnight on every Friday and Saturday night between March 1 and June 2, 1973. Midnight is a reasonable approximation to the time the fire occurred, and weather conditions rarely appreciably varied between 10 pm and 2 am.

Table 1: Midnight Weather Conditions of Friday and Saturday nights, March 1 to June 2, 1973

Date Weekday Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit Precipitation level in inches Wind speed in miles per hour
March 2 Friday 47 0 5, NNE
March 3 Saturday 42 0.08 13, NNE
March 9 Friday 44 0 12, ENE
March 10 Saturday 42 0 9, E
March 16 Friday 57 0.06 10, E
March 17 Saturday 41 0 29, WSW
March 23 Friday 42 0 12, NNW
March 24 Saturday 43 0 6, W
March 30 Friday 47 0 5, WNW
March 31 Saturday 50 0.06 10, E
April 6 Friday 51 0 8, W
April 7 Saturday 50 0.02 2, SSE
April 13 Friday 40 0 8, N
April 14 Saturday 40 0 7, S
April 20 Friday 49 0 12, E
April 21 Saturday 56 0 7, SW
April 26 Friday 52 0 17, ENE
April 27 Saturday 55 0 15, SW
May 4 Friday 47 0 14, W
May 5 Saturday 54 0 9, N
May 11 Friday 56 0 8, WNW
May 12 Saturday 55 0 7, SW
May 18 Friday 46 0 6, W
May 19 Saturday 57 0 7, SSE
May 25 Friday 54 0 12, ENE
May 26 Saturday 51 0.04 7, ESE
June 1 Friday 67 0 6, WSW
June 2 Saturday 64 0.09 11 pm, 0.10 1 am 8, SE

Beginning with the assumption there was zero precipitation at the time of the fire, we can eliminate March 3, March 16, March 31, April 7, May 26 and June 2. Next, using the assumption it was not especially windy, let us additionally eliminate any night wind speed was at least 10 miles per hour (MPH): March 9, March 17, March 23, April 20, April 26, April 27, May 4, May 25. It is not at all clear how to define “not cold enough for anything other than pajamas/nightgown and bathrobes,” but let us use 45 degrees Fahrenheit as a minimum temperature. That further eliminates March 10, March 24, April 13 and April 14.

At this point, the only Saturday nights remaining are April 21, May 5 and May 12, forcing me to rethink my memory the fire took place earlier in the year; the conditions were unseasonably mild .

And here things get interesting.

At just after 10 am on the morning of April 21, 1973, 21-year-old Barry Foster was turning the Sun Oil truck he was driving—loaded with 8,000 gallons of gasoline—from I-95 onto Chester Pike in Eddystone, when “it just toppled over.”[4] Foster managed to escape the truck, which began to leak its contents; he and the owner of a nearby auto repair shop—who happened to be Vauclain Fire Company Chief Donald “Duck” Daliessi—began to warn occupants of nearly buildings. Their quick actions, along with those of another local police lieutenant and fire chief, saved lives: no sooner had 1301-03 Chester Pike been evacuated when gasoline leaking into its basemen was ignited by a heating apparatus. The resulting fire—at one point rising 100 feet into the sky—burned until around noon, destroying five buildings. Other than some cuts from flying debris, though, nobody was seriously injured. Traffic was snarled for five hours, however, and firefighters remained on the scene for nearly 24 hours—or until roughly 10 am on Sunday, April 22, 1973–which was Easter Sunday that year. IF the fire occurred the previous night, this could explain why we could not rent a room at the motel–they were booked for the holiday weekend.

No other fire—not even multiple fires the same night in the same town—could have compete for limited space in a local paper that typically was limited to 22 pages on Monday. And this it is at least consistent with the idea our house fire did not make the DCDT because it occurred on a Saturday night and was deemed insufficiently newsworthy for the following Monday edition.

The same applies to the night of Saturday, May 5. Early the following morning, a fire left five residents of apartments at 17 and 19 Main Street in Darby; just after the alarm was sounded at 3:39 am, a Yeadon police car collided with a Darby Fire Company No. 1 fire truck two block east, with no serious injuries.[5] One week later, the DCDT splashed this headline across the top of the front page of its Monday, May 14 edition: “2 hurt, 13 die in weekend crashes.”

Of course, none of this really proves anything—I cannot be absolutely certain the fire was not on a school night; or on a colder, wetter night; or that Luvey was with us. Indeed, the essence of interrogating memory is not to take any remembered fact or story detail at face value. Moreover, I was no more than six years old when this fire occurred, and that was 47 years ago; memories morph and fade in far shorter time frames.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of rigorous and meticulous validation—using a range of independent, verifiable data—interrogating memory demands. Thus, I tentatively, in the lightest pencil, list April 21, May 5 and May 12, 1973 as the likeliest dates the playroom in my childhood house was destroyed by a fire of questionable origin.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] I should point out that IF this is true—and it is a huge IF—this would confirm what I strongly suspect: the John Rhoads fire occurred no more than a few months after April 1, 1972.

[2] He gave me the name Brian Feeney, of Feeney Fire Films, but his Twitter profile states he did not start taking photographs of fires until around 1996, after serving 23 years as a firefighter.

[3] “Fires hit Yeadon, Radnor, Brookhaven; no one injured,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 26, 1973, pg. 12

[4] “Police, firemen are credited with saving lives in fire, blast,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 23, 1973, pg.1

[5] “5 left homeless in blaze,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), May 7, 1973, pg.1