Stranger in a Strange Land
When you live in one place for a long time, you get comfortable with your surroundings, get used to the people who live near you, and become accustomed to your daily routines. I grew up in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 1950s. By the time the decade changed in 1960, I was 16 years old.
As a typical teenager in that era and place, I had learned to curse with the best of them, drink Southern Comfort from a bottle I snuck into the Iris movie theater, and become a bit car crazy. My mother and my grandmother, who lived with us, were old school, which meant my brother and I never had to make our beds, do the dishes, or cook any food. I take that back—we were good at cooking Taylor’s Pork Roll and burning it.
Our understanding was that one day, we would be called upon to get jobs, work hard, and support our families. We would not be doing the laundry, ironing, dusting, or polishing furniture. We had to be available to lift heavy things, take out the garbage, and change tires when they went flat. If we went to the store, it was generally for one or two items, never a shopping cart full. Men (and boys who would become men) were not trusted with large-scale shopping. My brother and I avoided having to play handyman, which was also typical for boys, because our grandfather fixed things around the house.
As a young child, our primary jobs were to play on the asphalt streets and cement pavement, learn to fight, make things from whatever junk we found, and, most importantly, explore how we could get into trouble, and that was something we were good at. We were on our own on the streets. We only came home to eat meals or maybe bum ten cents from mom to buy a soda or ice cream cone. Come to think of it, I don’t remember people drinking that much water back then. Sodas, lemonade, coffee, and beer were drunk in abundance, but not water.
When we became teenagers, our jobs changed to hunting for beer and booze, learning how to talk to girls—which we had never had to do before—and learning to fix old, broken-down cars. We also had to start to prepare for those jobs that would help us support our families one day, which meant taking on some freelance labor projects when we could find them. It was the way of our world, and that concept was reinforced in junior high and high school, especially Stetson and Mastbaum, where I attended. Boys had shop classes and mechanical drawing, and girls had home economics and typing.
There was one other thing that boys who were growing into men and living in Kensington faced. It was a pretty sure thing that we would be drafted into the military between the ages of 18 to 20. That meant two years in the Army. My brother, who is four years older than me, joined the Naval Reserves, went to school, and spent two years in active service and several more in the reserves. I had seen too many WW2 John Wayne war movies to be excited about either the Army or the Navy, so I enlisted in the Air Force in 1962.
When I walked through the doors of 401 Broad Street, I became a stranger in a strange land. I had to learn how to make my bed, and if I didn’t do it exactly right, I was punished. I had to learn to jump out of bed at 5 AM, brush my teeth, and be fully dressed 15 minutes later. I had to learn to keep my bunk area spotless and my locker organized. I was forced to exercise and smoke only when allowed, and there was no drinking for at least eight weeks.
If I was late, I was punished. If I didn’t listen, I was punished. If I failed a task, I was punished. Slowly, I could feel the spoiled brat crust crumble off of me; I was becoming a man.
Eventually, I was sent to school, where I spent 30 days working in the base kitchen before I attended a class. If my mom and grandmother had seen me peeling potatoes, stacking boxes of vegetables, and washing pots and pans, they would have been amazed. For four years, I toed the line and paid attention to what I was taught, which I had not done in high school. I felt as though I was making a contribution to the overall good of the Air Force and, hopefully, my country.
It took me a while, but I started to adapt to this strange land, and I was aided by what I had learned growing up in Kensington, where I was expected to find a job and work hard. In Kensington, I was often on my own out in the streets with little supervision, and I used my self reliance to facilitate my military career. I had to learn to accept people from all parts of the world, which helped me get along with my fellow airmen. In Kensington, I had to be resourceful and find ways to get things done with meager resources, and I used that skill in this new military land.
Almost four years after I walked into 401 Broad Street, I stepped off the train at the North Philly station as a civilian, and I was ready. I was now twenty-two, married with a new son, and eager to make my contribution. I will forever be appreciative of what the Air Force and my childhood in Kensington taught me. Once more, I was a stranger in a strange land—the land of adulthood—and I was well prepared.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.