Cardella: How it Was

By Tom Cardella

The sour odor of male perspiration. That was the smell of summer in Philadelphia back then. Before the anti-perspirant companies began marketing products to men. Before most people had air conditioning. When we used to flock to neighborhood movie theaters in the summer on torrid summer days because the theaters were “air cooled.” Everybody sat outside in the early evening to get away from the heat and humidity. Our folks didn’t own homes at the shore. They rented. If you were one of the lucky kids, your folks were able to afford to vacation at the shore for a week or so.

Before I was a teen, my world was limited to a few city blocks from our house. I’d walk my friend Sal to Mifflin Square to play a game called CHEW THE PEG. Ballplaying was not allowed in that small park where mostly old folks stared as if they were judging us. Young women wheeled baby carriages through the small park. CHEW THE PEG was played with a penknife. It was Sal’s penknife. It seemed to me as if he used it solely to play the game whose rules I no longer remember. My folks would not have trusted me with a penknife. Not that they thought I’d hurt someone with it. Just myself.

We used the side street around the corner from our house to play half-ball. Tree Street, where there were no trees. Some of the people that lived on Tree Street hated me. I lived on the main street. Why didn’t I play on my own street? It didn’t matter that my friend lived on Tree Street. It didn’t matter that the half-ball we played with couldn’t break a window as they feared. All that seemed to matter was that I didn’t belong. Strange, but that long-ago feeling of not belonging has still stayed with me. Even now that I am older than the people who hated me back then.

When it rained on a summer day, you could find my friend and me in his house playing board games such as PARCHEESI. Sal’s mom was always kind and welcoming. I remember being fascinated that she was of Slovakian descent. At that point in my life, my world was pretty much confined to Italians, Irish, and Jews. It made Sal’s mom seem exotic to these young eyes. Sal’s father was a short, powerfully built man with muscled forearms, kind of like my own father. Both Sal and I had the responsibility of having our younger sibling tag around with us a good part of the day. If there were summer camps back then, either our families didn’t know of them or couldn’t afford them.

Summers were great if only because we didn’t have to go to school. We mostly spent our time trying to escape loneliness and boredom. We didn’t visit other parts of the city. Most parents thought it was the school’s responsibility to take you to the zoo or Independence Hall during summer vacation. I spent my days waiting for the week when my folks would rent a room in Atlantic City. Most of mom’s family would be at the shore at the same time. It was a time when most of my folks’ friends were family. We’d all rent in the same area of Atlantic City, the Italian section. Florida Avenue. Bellevue Terrace. It was as if the entire population of South Philly had moved to the Shore for that same glorious week.

This was Atlantic City before gambling. It was the crown jewel of the Shore. The boardwalk stretched forever. Neon signs lit the sky at night. Neon horses raced to the finish line as Sherwin-Williams covered the globe. We waited as we approached the Camel sign until a figure puffed a big smoke ring into the night air. Rolling chairs were lined up along the beach side of the boardwalk. Well-dressed men and women sat in them watching us stroll by. There was an expectancy in the night air. Something exciting seemed about to happen. Anything was possible on the boardwalk on a summer night in Atlantic City.

When I became 11 or 12, I fell in love with a baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers. The Boys of Summer. No love is quite as deep as that of a young boy. My parents purchased a huge radio, so I could receive the signal from WMGM in New York. By adroitly twisting and turning that radio on our kitchen table, I could get decent reception, always hoping the signal would return after a trolley passed outside my house. And that’s how I warded off loneliness on summer nights. Listening to the Dodgers. Hearing a young Vin Scully. Practicing impersonating Vin, who urged us to “pop the cap off a frosty bottle of Schaefer Beer,” as Jackie Robinson or Duke Snider strode to the plate at Ebbets Field.

I never visited Ebbets Field. I dreamed about it. It was, no doubt, more glorious in my memory than it was in person. Ebbets Field was my field of dreams. My Oz. My personal Magic Kingdom.

The Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season. Love lost. I grew up. Summers changed. I could no longer listen to the Dodgers who were now in Los Angeles. I found out that magic isn’t real. Like the Dodgers, life moved on.