The Family Moves to Philadelphia

Mother and Dad lived in Washington at first, where both Marion and Margaret were born. Margaret remembers living in Riverton NJ before moving to Philadelphia prior to my birth on October 19, 1913. The picture on the left is labeled as me at age 10 months and the one on the right shows Marion and Margaret at about that time. Frankly, I remember very little about my birth and early years, but a good deal of the stories I was told about it; such as the one that I came very near to being still-born. The family was living in a house in West Philadelphia at the time. Mother had begun to have labor pains in the afternoon, so Dad sent for the doctor. When he arrived, he thought that there would be time before the birth for him to see a nearby patient, so he left to do so. But apparently I was impatient to begin life in the great outside world, and was born before the doctor returned. The doctor somehow knew he had to return as soon as possible [God planted the thought in his mind?] and came up the stairs to Mother’s second-floor bedroom three steps at a time, grabbed me out of Dad’s impotent hands, and gave me a whack on the you-know-where. The resulting yell cleared my lungs of mucous and allowed me to breathe for the first time, after having turned blue for lack of oxygen. A delay of only a few minutes can have damaging effects on the brain, so this may explain some of my idiosyncracies during life.

Preschool Years in Laurel

However, the delay in starting to breathe certainly didn’t affect my energy as a two- and three-year-old. My parents tell some very embarrassing stories, which I don’t want to repeat, about my wriggling out of any type of restraint they could provide, including all my clothes and running down the street in my birthday suit, to be returned by obliging neighbors. One of these stories says that a neighbor, Mrs. Barthelow, called Mother on the phone to say, "Mrs. Mitchell, did you know that Francis is over here, stark naked?" Another says that I was once located on Main Street, three blocks from home, pushing Margaret’s doll carriage. I wonder if these stories are true, as I have absolutely no recollection of them. I do remember two occasions before I was five. One was when I started out the back door of the kitchen to play in the backyard, and saw the porch on fire. Apparently the maid had just cleaned out the fireplace and put the ashes on the back porch. The wind must have fanned some smoldering embers into flame. Of course, I took credit for saving the family residence from destruction. The second was listening to my older sisters telling stories of little people who lived in tunnels in the walls of our house. I guess they were reading the stories out of a book. On one occasion, Margaret was reading a line which told of the digging of a grave. Only she said "digging up the gravy." Both girls thought that was hilariously funny, but I tried for months afterward to find out what the joke was.

I found this old picture (see right) of a family gathering around 1915, judging from my age, and Uncle Wilbur's presence. From left to right, back row: Grandpa Phelps, Grandma Phelps, Grandma Butman, Aunt Beth and Uncle Wilbur; front row, left-to-right: Marion, Dad with me, Mother, and Margaret. I don’t know what the occasion was, but it is the only picture I have of Aunt Beth, and the oldest picture of a family gathering.

We Move to Riverdale

When Dad took the job at the Navy Department in Washington, he had to commute 17 miles to work, either by train or street car. When it became clear that he would have a permanent teaching position at Tech High, he decided that the family would have to move closer to Washington, so he bought a house on Jefferson Avenue in Riverdale (only 6 miles away), just a few months before my younger sister, Mary Josephine, was born on August 19, 1918. I don’t remember Mary Jo as a baby, but I have lots of recollections of our doings when she got old enough to play with me. It was good to have a little sister, as I had been enduring the dominance of two much older sisters all my young life. On one occasion, Mary Jo must have realized the situation, because she mourned, "Marion picks on Margaret, Margaret picks on Francis, and Francis picks on me, but I don’t have anybody to pick on!"

Uncle Wilbur Phelps was the only family member who fought in World War I. He was a lieutenant colonel, medical, in the First Division, and won a Croix de Guerre from the French for evacuating about ten wounded men under fire. He remained in France after the war for a year or more, and I believe this picture (see left) was taken then.

I Start to School

I started school at age five — in fact not quite five — in the autumn of 1918. The school was about three blocks down our street, and was almost brand new. Mother had taught me a lot of things by this time, and she thought I was ready for school. For instance, I could count up to thirty in French. The kids in my neighborhood would give me marbles and other small items to hear me do so. All I remember of this was that I said “trunk” — not “trente” — for thirty. This early acquaintance with French was to be a real boon to me many years later, when I had to pass a reading knowledge test in that language. Apparently, the idea of schooling at such a young age didn’t work out, as I stopped going some time before Christmas, and started over in the first grade the following year. However, the teacher moved me up to the second grade well before mid-year, so I got on the school ladder a year younger than my contemporaries. This had some serious disadvantages. Being smaller and younger than the other boys in my class, I could not keep up with them in sports or even recess games, so I soon became a loner, and took to the chinning bar for my pastime. On a physical fitness test when each boy was supposed to chin four times, I was still going strong at seventeen or so when the instructor made me stop. I could do all the various “wheels” (ways of spinning around the bar) — penny, nickel, dime, quarter, fifty-cent and dollar — each successively harder. But I was a washout at baseball — I couldn’t throw the ball — and not much better at soccer.

As we walked back and forth to school, we passed a house in which a family named Rutherford lived. Quite often we would hear gospel singing as we passed, and we wondered why people would be singing hymns when it wasn’t even Sunday. Years later, Mother said that it was the same Rutherford who headed Jehovah’s Witnesses at that time.

My Early Home Life

One of Mother’s childhood neighbors in Laurel was the Sadler family, Emma, Bert and Margaret (for whom my sister Margaret was named). (Margaret Sadler married George McCeney, who had gotten Dad his job in 1914 as principal of the Laurel High School.) When Emma decided to make bread for income purposes, Mother agreed to buy it from her, even though we then lived in Riverdale, 11 miles closer to Washington than Laurel. One of my chores as a small boy was to meet the train three mornings a week on which Bert Sadler rode on his way to work in Washington. I would take the bread from him from the train window, when it stopped at the Riverdale station, and carry it home. It was hard to meet a six-thirty train in the bitter cold of a January morning when you were only a small boy!

When Dad first bought our house, we had no indoor plumbing. We had a well in the back yard, and farther back a privy. I was too young to know the details, but it wasn’t long before Dad built a bathroom, and had water piped in from the street. I am not even sure we had electricity, because I have a vivid memory of Dad’s dispute with the power company for putting a pole right in front of our house. He even went so far as to take an axe and chop halfway through it. Being a lawyer himself, he was not intimidated by their threats of reprisal, but did buy the pole from the company to keep from being sued. He also had a room built over the closed-in back porch of the house, which became my bedroom. It had to be entered from the rear bedroom in the main part of the house’s second floor, which was used by Margaret. I soon learned to escape via the supporting beam to the roof over the stoop at the back door. I could shinny up or down this convenient 4x4 whenever I wanted to get in or out. I don’t know how long it was for Mother and Dad to catch up on this, but they were never able to stop my doing it.

Somewhere along about this time, I had a real problem with bed wetting. I would wake up in the middle of the night realizing that I had wet the bed. Dad never did believe it was other than my laziness to use a pot under the bed, so I could be sure of a spanking as soon as he found out, which was right after he got up. I became quite adept at changing the bed after turning the mattress over, but wasn’t always able to fool him. I didn’t learn until many years later that it really wasn’t my fault — just a phase that small children often go through.

One Christmas shortly after we moved there, I was delighted with the gift of a real live puppy. But it didn’t last! Just a few days later, I had followed some older boys in exploring the newly dug basements of some houses under construction in our block, and had gotten myself and the dog full of mud. What could be more sensible than cleaning up the mess under the pump. A small boy could put on dry clothes, but a dog couldn’t change his wet coat. When the puppy was observed to be shivering from the wetness in the cold January air, I was accused of being mean to the dog, and it was given to our next-door neighbor. I thought that was one of the worst outrages I had to endure as a defenseless small boy.

On another Christmas I received a gift of a standard gauge electric train that Dad had bought from a friend whose son had gotten too old for it. Dad thought I was too young to be allowed to use it under electric power. I found out how to take off the 4-wheeled trucks from the cars and used them as “handcars” in the backyard, making my own tracks wherever I wanted them in the dirt of the ground, It wasn’t long before one after another of the trucks was left out in the rain to rust, and so on the next Christmas when Dad went to set up the train, none of the cars had wheels. Did I get a spanking!

Dad surprised us one day in the very early twenties when he brought home a radio set that had been built for him by one of the teachers at Tech. It was a good-sized box with several tuning dials on it, powered by batteries and used crystal to bring in the radio station. Dad said he paid $50 for it, and that was a LOT of money in those days. I remember our first station was KDKA in Pittsburgh, and later we heard WRC and WCAP in Washington. You had to listen with earphones, and only two could listen at once.

I was a real hero (in my own eyes) when I caught a large rat with my bare hands and choked him to death. I had surprised him in the “back-kitchen” and chased him into a corner where I grabbed at him. Even a rat will fight when cornered, as the saying goes, and this one sure did. He fastened his teeth on my left wrist (I still have the scar!), so I grabbed him around the neck with my right hand and choked him to death. I remember offering the carcass to our several kittens, but they spurned it until I thought of barbecuing it by tying it to an upright stick and building a fire around it. Did they go for it then!

My Uncle Wilbur (Mother’s brother) was a life-long friend of Philip Sze, then Chinese ambassador to the US. On a visit to our home on one occasion Uncle Wilbur brought with him a box of a popular Chinese delicacy — preserved ginger. He offered me the box, and asked if I would like a piece of “candy”. What small boy wouldn’t like a piece of candy! I can still remember the horror I felt as the red-hot ginger bit my tongue. I have never liked “hot” food since!

My principal playmate was George Myers, who lived directly across the street from us. His father was also a teacher at Tech, and was later assistant principal. George was nearly a year older than I, and consequently was the dominant half of our team. When we were playing together, he was an ideal companion, but when we were with other boys, he treated me rather shabbily. I never did understand why he did so, but it really hurt me. Nevertheless, I spent many happy hours with George all the way through high school. Then our paths parted, and he all but dropped out of my life. His dad was always very kind to me, and I must confess that I liked him much better than my own dad. For one thing, he never spanked me. One winter I put on a pair of my dad’s boots, but didn’t take off my shoes before doing so. Try as Mother and I could, we could not get those boots off my feet. Mr. Myers didn’t teach night school, so he got home before Dad did, and Mother got him to come over and pull the boots off.

Our family all attended the local Riverdale Community Church every Sunday, and we kids all went to Sunday School in the morning and, as we got older, to Christian Endeavor in the evening. As I remember it we didn’t have a regular pastor, and Mr. Myers would often be our preacher. My principal recollections are about the Sunday School picnic each year around Fourth of July. The trustees would hire a street car, and we would go either to Glen Echo, an amusement park on the other side of Washington, up the Potomac River near Great Falls, or to Chesapeake Beach, an amusement park on the Chesapeake Bay about fifty miles south of Washington, which could be reached by street car and steam train.

Good Old Summer Times

In 1921, when I was seven, Dad bought an Overland touring car. That car really changed our life-style. Since Dad didn’t teach during the summer months, we had picnics, excursions, and sometimes long trips. Either that first summer or the following one, Dad took the whole family to Youngstown, Ohio, where his mother lived, and where he got a summer job as an accountant in a steel mill. Crossing the mountains from the East Coast to the Mid-West was no minor feat in those days. We covered all of fifty miles the first day, and camped near Frederick, Maryland. Dad didn’t want to tackle the mountains in the afternoon. The next day we crawled up and down three fairly low ridges to get to Hagerstown, another forty miles. There we met a family going to Pittsburgh. and Dad decided to follow them the next day. Leaving early in the morning, we got to Pittsburgh before dark — beyond the mountains, so Dad pushed on to Youngstown that night, arriving near midnight. The only recollection I have of Youngstown is that of playing in the mountain of sand behind the steel mill. After Mr. Butman, Grandma’s third husband, died, Dad brought her to our house to live for the balance of her life.

During another summer, we went camping along the Potomac River south of Washington. I remember one Fourth of July when I put a firecracker in a milk bottle, lit the fuse, and ran to safety. I turned around just in time to receive a piece of glass in my forehead, which could easily have blinded me. [God guided the piece of glass as He guided the David’s stone which killed Goliath?]. Dad rushed me back to Washington to have the surgeon put three stitches in the cut.

On one of these summers camping down the Potomac River, Dad and Mother had to return to Riverdale, and left us kids at the camp. On the way up, they had a serious accident. An approaching teen-aged driver tried to pass on a curve and Dad turned off the road to avoid a head-on collision. Unfortunately, there was a culvert at that point in the road, and the Overland was stopped immediately, throwing both of them against the windshield, which shattered. Mother was thrown out of the car, and the shattered glass lacerated her face. Dad was hurt, but not seriously. He managed to get Mother the same surgeon who had sewed up my face, and he had to put 26 stitches in her face. She kept her mind off the pain by selling the doctor a vacuum cleaner (which was then her business career — more about this later).

On another occasion, Mary Jo and I went swimming at low tide, when one could go hundreds of yards in shallow water. Dad was in a canoe fishing or crabbing, and soon out of sight. I was about eight and Mary Jo three, and we knew nothing about tides. As the tide came in the water started getting deeper and deeper. Mary Jo and I hurried as fast as we could for the shore, but we had gotten a long way out, and soon I had to carry her, for the water was over her head and rising. As Dad tells the story, he suddenly heard a voice [God's voice?] telling him to go at once to Francis and Mary Jo, so he paddled furiously back to where he had left us, and saw our two heads just above the rising water, still some distance from the shore. I don’t remember panicking, as I was confident we could have made it back.

Dad really loved the seashore, so it was not long after the Sunday School picnics at Chesapeake Beach, that Dad bought a lot at a community three miles south called Randle Cliffs. Over the next two summers he built a summer home there, with some help from the children and friends. Our lot was almost at the top of the high ground back from the shore, and could be reached only by either one of two dirt roads. When it rained, both roads were seas of mud, and difficult to traverse. I remember late one afternoon we headed for “the beach” and had almost gotten there when it began to pour. The next thing we knew the car had skidded off the road and we were stuck! While Dad went to get a farmer with a horse, we kids tried to do what we could to clear the wheels. Then Marion noticed a billboard right near us with a Morton’s Salt ad on it: “When it rains IT pours!” That sent us into peals of laughter which mystified Dad until he was let in on the joke. The cottage, as it was affectionately called, was a source of great pleasure for the whole family for many years.

Two Other Incidents

In April 1922, there was a freak snowstorm that deposited 26 inches of snow on Washington and its environs. The weight of all that snow caused the roof of the old Knickerbocker Theater in Washington to collapse, killing hundreds of people. It was one of the worst disasters in our Nation. Because of suspicion that our school was not properly built, the school board suspended school for nearly six weeks, while the walls and roof were strengthened. My recollection of that is that we kids had a field day with all that snow and nothing to prevent our playing in it! We had a huge fort built in George Myers’ backyard, complete with entrance tunnels, and snowball storage recesses.

Mother had begun to seek outside income at about this time, and tried a number of sales opportunities — Aerolator fans, California Perfume Company, Clothesgard garment bags, and finally Vacuette vacuum cleaners. She did very well with the Vacuettes, becoming the company’s distributor for the whole city of Washington. Many of her high school class-mates had risen to important positions in Washington’s government offices, giving her an entree to government business. At some age between five and ten, I started to “borrow” money from her purse and buy candy with it. I took only a small amount at first, but started taking more and more, until on one occasion the local grocer got suspicious when I showed up with several dollars worth of change to buy candy. That hurt Mother so much that she even spanked me, much to my amazement and chagrin. That didn’t cure me of pilfering, but at least I didn’t take any more of her money. Mother often took me with her in the car when she delivered her goods or was seeking new sales, and I was not in school. I can remember many occasions when I would turn the car around, backing and pulling until it was ready to return from whence it had come. That was great fun and gave me early practice in the art of driving.

I have been asked frequently if I had a happy childhood. At the time I never thought about it! Life was just one day after another, and one did the best one could with each situation. I did occasionally mourn the fact that I was an in-betweener. There were boys in my neighborhood older than I and also some younger, but George Myers was the closest to me in age and he was nine months older. That kept me out of the Boy Scouts, for instance, and also off of most sand-lot ball teams. My only occasions to play baseball were the informal “three-knocker” games. I remember being close only to Mother and Mary Jo. Dad was too much of a disciplinarian to show his love for me, and Marion and Margaret were getting into their teens and too much taken up with outside activities to be companions to a little brother. I like to think that I "raised" Mary Jo as she was the only close friend I had.

Though I had no way of knowing it, two events were to occur that would make a major change in our life-style. We would have a new home and a new school set-up.

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