The Kensington Angler
It was a fantastic day. Puffy white clouds slowly drifted across the bright blue skies, and it was warm, but the breeze was cool. It was the kind of day people write songs about. The clickity-clack of the old Thunderbolt roller coaster at Willow Grove Park, coupled with the screams and laughter coming from its riders, added to the joyful feeling.
Across from the park, an elderly man carrying a bucket walked slowly across the grassy field then stopped at the edge of a large pond. He tilted his head to favor his good ear and listened to the sounds coming from the park for a minute. Then he smiled as he remembered the times he took his children to enjoy the wonders of Willow Grove Park. Once, they saw the famous composer John Philip Sousa and his band perform.
The old man sat down on a large rock he had placed close to the murky water many years before, so he had a place to sit while fishing. He closed his eyes and let the cool breeze flow through his full head of silver hair.
After a minute, he took a pack of Lucky Strikes from his shirt pocket and lit a cigarette with an old lighter his son had given him after returning from World War ll. As he stared at the lighter, he remembered the days his two sons left to fight in that terrible war. They had returned safely, but now it was his grandsons’ turn. If he had been a religious man, he would have said a prayer and asked God to put an end to the current trouble in Southeast Asia and to protect his two grandsons who were currently serving in the military.
Religion was not something he thought about much, if at all. Even so, when his daughter was in her teens, the old man warned her never to marry a Catholic or any man who hung out in poolrooms. It was a holdover prejudice from the 1800s when the ruling Protestants of English descent disdained Catholics, especially Irish Catholics. His daughter, Florence, ignored his advice and, at the age of 18, married a Catholic man who was a champion pool player.
He took a long draw from his cigarette and slowly let the smoke out, making small circles as he did. It was a trick he learned as a kid growing up in Kensington with his eight brothers and sisters. His family was so poor that he often had to scour the train tracks for coal that had fallen off trains. Once a railroad police officer caught him and gave him a cuff on his ear. The damage to his ear resulted in hearing loss. The next day he was back picking up coal. It was more important to him that his family be warm and able to cook hot food than a smack from a cop.
The old man always felt a sense of peace when he was fishing. Some people said he was obsessed with fishing, and he had to admit that they might be right. His father had taken him angling at a young age, but that ended when the old man was ten years old. His father died of a heart attack in 1899. At that time, he lived in the Kensington section of Philadelphia at 2658 Palethorp Street. As was the custom, the wake took place in the home.
In the late 1950s, the old man and his wife Ethel moved into his daughter Florence’s house on West Wishart Street. At first, he wasn’t happy about moving from his longtime home at 139 West Lippincott Street. But it was the same neighborhood in Kensington, actually just around the corner, so he quickly adjusted. When he wasn’t hanging out on the corner at Front Street and Allegheny Avenue or playing pool in his son-in-law’s poolroom, he was fishing.
Fishing was in the old man’s blood, and he loved nothing more than teaching his grandsons Billy and Harry the fine points of being an angler. In his later years, his constant fishing companion was his grandson Billy. He tried to interest his other grandson Harry (nicknamed Buddy), but Buddy had different interests. Before both boys went off to the military, he taught them how to cast leaded sinkers, where to find and how to dig for worms to use for catching catfish, and how to make cornmeal to use for catching carp. Many nights were spent hunting night crawlers at the local dump.
Trout fishing season started on April 15th every year. It was like a holiday to the old man. He would often take Billy with him, and once Buddy and Billy both hooked schools to go. That same year a newspaper photographer from the Bulletin took a photo of both Billy and Buddy holding the fish that Billy had caught. Buddy was worried that the school would see the picture. He had not yet learned how easy it was to get away with playing hooky. That came later.
The old man put out the butt of his Lucky Strike, picked up the pail, and poured the contents into the pond. Three large carp tumbled out of the bucket and into the muddy pond water. The old man had caught the fish in the canals at New Hope and used them to stock the pond for future use. He often did this, so he had a close place to fish, especially when he couldn’t go to Wildwood, where he always caught flounder. He was in the Wildwood bay so often, with his little rowboat, that the sightseeing ships would often point him out and ask him to hold up his catch.
Ten years after the old man passed from this earth at the age of 77, his grandson Buddy moved his family to Roslyn, Pennsylvania, an area that bordered Willow Grove. The old man’s great-grandson Billy Hallman often fished and caught carp in the same pond the old man had stocked so many years before. That old man was Harry (Pop) Hird, my grandfather. He was a true Kensington angler.
“A bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at the office!” – Author Unknown
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.