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Peter J. Dawson—Frankford Gazette Contributor

Peter J. Dawson, a long-time contributor to the Frankford Gazette, passed away on June 30th, after a long illness.

Pete lived in Mullica Hill, New Jersey but grew up in Frankford on Wakeling Street. He attended St. Martin’s grade school and Father Judge High School and then went on the graduate from St. Joseph’s University and Temple Law School.

You may have known him personally or only met him through his stories that we published over the years.  He wrote about growing up in Frankford during the 50s and 60s and he recorded that era in a unique way, capturing the look and feel and smells and even the accents he encountered.

Pete at St. Martin’s

He had both a devotion to his Catholic Faith and yet an open mind about everything that you rarely find in one individual.  I met him at first when he was on the Frankford Ghost Tour.  He was one of those people I enjoyed talking to because you could never anticipate what he was going to come up with.  He had an unfettered mind that is the mark of true genius.

Pete is survived by his wife, Rise’ (nee Sobel), sons Joshua and his wife Elaine, Reid, and Jeremy Dawson, stepdaughters Nancy (nee O’Connor) Doughty, and Melissa (O’Connor) Siegel and grand-children Jacob Siegel, Rebecca Siegel, Andrea Doughty and Bernard Dawson, and 4 brothers and 4 sisters and 18 nieces and nephews.

The following is one of his most popular stories from 2011.


The Terrifying Railroad Staple Machine Guns

One of the centers of kid activity in Frankford in the 1960s was “The Lot,” the tract of ground between Rutland Street, Foulkrod Street, Castor Avenue and Harrison Street.  Back then, a railroad track ran along the top of the embankment on the Castor Avenue side of “The Lot”, from a small bridge at the Castor Avenue/Harrison Street corner to a small bridge spanning Foulkrod Street between Castor and Rutland. In that era, small freight trains still used the track to carry goods in box cars down to what was left of industrial activity down in the Kensington and Allegheny area.

In the early 1960s, the tennis courts you see there today did not exist.  Instead, along Harrison Street, there was just a large open field where we used to play touch or tackle football.

Between the open field and the railroad embankment was the section known as “The Weeds”, the real center of our collective juvenile attention. The area called “The Weeds” was comprised of a vast, dense forest of the tallest, greenest-smelling ragweed you ever encountered, punctuated by chouchun trees, that invasive tropical looking species with woody stems from China, Ailanthus altissima, seen growing everywhere in urban areas these days, which we called “bow-and-arrow trees” because that is what we used to make out of them.

We walked trails and tunnels through the ragweed forest which took us to interesting piles of debris dumped in the weeds by contractors, and to the “forts” we dug into the ground and covered-over with contractor debris.

On the other side of “The Lot” was the large, neat organic garden of hardworking Old Man Schepis, and beyond that “The Garages,” the complex of rented brick garages fronting on Rutland Street near Foulkrod, whose walls can be seen to be collapsing inward today.

We used to don our sneakers, and yell to our parents on Saturdays, “Mom! Dad! We’re going to go play at ‘The Lot’!” And then we would go down there and manufacture bows and arrows and build forts and set-off homemade explosives in holes (to ensure that shrapnel shot upwards, not sideways). We weren’t very safe. But, we survived.

There was a lot of World War II army surplus in Philly in those days.  Dennis and Daniel Grassi, who used to live up on Large Street, would show up with an astonishing array of genuine surplus weaponry (all rendered inoperable before sale) — M-1 rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles with bipod legs to support the barrel, a bazooka, hand grenades and, on one occasion, a Thompson machine gun with the circular ammo container.

Everyone wanted to hold the Thompson. Nowadays, someone carrying such items in public in our terrorism-sensitive society could not avoid arrest. Back then, the owners of such an “arsenal” were the envy of every kid in Frankford. We would show up at “The Lot” with our Army surplus weaponry, try to talk the Grassi boys into a trade for the day, and stage wars.  A few of us would always reluctantly consent to being Nazis.

We loved climbing the embankment up to the railroad tracks. Before hang gliding became an American “thing”, we tried like the dickens to achieve flight from the top of that embankment, with homemade fixed wings and giant kites. One of us kids — one of the guys from St. Martin’s School on Oxford Circle, I don’t remember exactly who — broke his leg in one of the crash landings. We never achieved flight. But we were happy.

The biggest thrill of all was stupidity multiplied by a hundred — hiding in the weeds along the railroad tracks, as close as possible to the railroad trains thundering by a few feet away, without being seen.

The reason why getting close to the train without being seen was a big thing in those days had nothing at all to do with the very real danger being run over by a freight train.  It was because of a rumor going around among the kids that railroad trains along that freight line were manned with cruel “railroad police” armed with frightening “staple machine guns” that could shoot out staples in a machine-gun-like fashion at kids caught playing near the trains.

The rumor was that railroad personnel had a kind of “license to staple,” and would cover us with painful staples, legally, at the drop of a hat.

Once I was over at Grassi’s with Den and Dan and I heard Mrs. Grassi warn her sons about the railroad police with their staple guns.  Aghast, I thought, “So! It’s true!”

When first one kid and then another courageously crawled into the weeds next to the tracks while a freight train passed, and then came back without being stapled, he was a hero for weeks.

Finally, I did it, and I repeated the story of my bravado to friends while some of them stared at me open-mouthed.  And I guess that used-up my allotted 15 minutes of fame.


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Be a Deus Ex Machina

Peter J. Dawson

In  Shakespearean  times,    an  employee  of  the  company  putting  on  the  plays,  working  in  the  catwalks  above  the  stage,  would  sometimes  trip  and  fall  20  feet  or  so  —  plop !  —  smack into  the  middle  of  the  play  being  watched  by  the  audience.  If  no  bones  were  broken,  he  would  stand  up  and  quickly   pretend  to  be  an  angel  or  a  god  from  above,  delivering  a message  or  rendering  unexpected  aid.

This  practice  mutated  into  a  figure  of  speech  —   a  “deus  ex  machina,”  or  “the  god  from  the  machinery”  —  referring  to  the  person  who  inserts  himself  unexpectedly  into  the  time  of troubles  of  another  person  and  renders  aid.

Look  for  the  opportunity  to  be  a  “deus  ex  machina”  in  your  life.   I’ve  known  a  few.    I  had  a  friend  in  high  school  named  John  Lazauskas.   His  father  was  an  ordinary  guy  —  a little man  who  raised  his  little  family  in  a  little  row  home  in  the  Frankford  section  of  Philadelphia.

We  all  went  down  to  the  Frankford and Pratt  bus  terminal   on  workday  mornings  to  catch  a  bus  or  trolley  or  the  Frankford  elevated  train  to  school  or  our  job.   Every  day, thousands of  people  saw   the  homeless  Smelly  Bag  Lady  crawling  around  between  nooks,  looking  for  opportunities  to  beg,  pee  or  sleep.

One  day,  as  hundreds  of  people  were  looking  on,  John  Lazauskas’  father  astonished  the  universe,  the  angels  and  the  demons  by  bringing  the  homeless  Smelly  Bag  Lady  a  wonderful  breakfast  on  a  tray,  while  the  rest  of  us  stood  puzzled,  and  numbed  by  the  programming  of  our  age  and  by  our  own  internal  laziness,  fear  and  inertia  into  watching  one  of  God’s precious  children  suffer  horribly.

Mr.  Lazauskas  did  this  day  after  day,  until  the  homeless  Smelly  Bag  Lady  made  headlines  by  being  hit  and  crushed  by  a  bus.

When  Mr.  Lazauskas  did  what  he  did,  nonetheless,  he  permitted  the  invincible  love  and  power  of  the  almighty  creator  and  destroyer  God  of  the  Universe   to  enter  and  suffuse  his flesh  and  mind,   so  that  he  became  God’s  most  powerful  tool  on  Earth  at  that   place  and  time,   to  the  astonishment  and  applause  and  cheering  of  the  angels,   and  the  astonishment and  anger  of  the  demons.

Be  one  of  the  good  guys.   Astonish  the  universe.    Be  a  deus  ex  machina.

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Miracle of The Re-Appearing Loaf of Bread

This installment of my articles about life as we knew it in Frankford as I grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s contains some somewhat “racy” material. Names have been left out, “to protect the guilty,” and adult readers may want to refrain from encouraging the kids to read this one.

There were nine of us kids, in our Wakeling Street house across from Frankford Stadium. If we wanted spending money, we had to work.


So, beginning in 1965, when I was 12, I worked after school and on Saturdays at the Harrison Quick Shop, a Unity Frankford grocery store at 1100 Harrison Street on the southeast corner of Harrison and Large Street. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Matus, were a German-speaking couple from Czechoslovakia.  They taught me to do everything at the store. By the age of 16, I was filling in the Unity Frankford wholesale order sheet,  unloading the truck, “doing the count”  to square the invoice with what was delivered,  stocking shelves, filling customer orders, delivering groceries, cutting lunch meats, cutting steaks and chickens, and manning the cash register.

Mr. Matus’ English was about 80%, with a heavy German accent.  He would sound like this: “Peee-TAIR, get ten dozen ahx from duh vall-kin bahx” — “Peter, get 10 dozen eggs from the walk-in box,” the big walk-in refrigerator. He knew that sometimes he was hard to understand, and he would have fun with that.


The people were generous with their tips.  We delivery boys all shared the big tippers. There was one house the older guys never shared with me, though, until one day one of them said, “Do you think that Pete’s old enough for the Irish lady’s house.” “Yeah,” said the other, “I think he’ll survive.” I was about 14 at the time. I thought, “What are they talking about?”

The Irish lady’s house was a home in the middle of the block of Harrison Street opposite Frankford High School. I carefully lifted the large box of groceries off the bike,  walked up the steps, knocked on the door,  and an Irish lady in her thirties, completely au naturel from the waist up, answered the door.  And, sheesh, was there ever a lot there for a young man to see and be concerned about!

Inside the house there were all of these little kids running around in their underwear or naked as jay birds. The woman’s state of dress left no doubts about how there came to be so many.

I carried the groceries into the kitchen, pretending that there was nothing about the lady to gape at, received the money for the groceries and my tip, and left. There was another residence like that. The girl, a pretty lady about 10 years older than me, was always fully dressed when I delivered groceries, but she knew when I would be passing her home at night, while walking the dog, and she would often stand in window “in the buff.” I was just too naïve to do anything about it, to tell the truth — a good thing, correct?

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Teasing the Russians of Frankford

From  about  1978  to  1981,   I  lived  in  a  first  floor  apartment  in   a  brick  building  on  Penn  Street  near  the  Margaret  and  Orthodox  Station  of  the  Frankford  El.

A  late-20s  couple  with  a  skinny  little  blonde  daughter,  about  5  years  of  age,  lived  upstairs.   About  once  a  week,    the  father,  who  worked  nights,  would  scream  with  insane  anger  at  the  wife  beginning  at  about  10:30  p.m.,  and  then  I  would  hear  him  stomp   down  the  steps,  slam  the  door   with  seismic  force,  and  get  in  his  truck  and  go  to  work;   and  then  I  would  hear   the  mother   scream  with  insane  anger  at  their  little  daughter  —   a  very  clear  case  of    “pecking  order  abuse.”  On  one  occasion  after  the  father  left,   I  heard  a  loud  smack  after  the  mother  finished  screaming  at   little  blonde  girl.       The  little  girl  showed  up  on  her  tricycle  the  next  day  with  half  of  her  face  black-and-blue.    A  neighbor  called   the  child  protection  unit  in  Philadelphia  Department  of  Human  Services   before  I  could.   The  memories  of  that  little  girl  haunt  me  to  this  day,  and   I  always  become  extremely  upset  at  child  abuse  and  feel  the  urge  to  scream,  “PARENTS,  HUG  THEM,  DON’T  HIT  THEM!”

There  was  one  other  problem  with  that   apartment:    The  demonically-possessed  roach.   It  was  a   big  one  —   big  enough  to  put  a  saddle  on  and   take  for  a  ride  around  the  block.   There  were  no  other  roaches  or  other  unpleasant  critters  in  that  apartment.  Just  that  one  roach.   And  it  seemed  deeply  intelligent,  and  impossible  to  catch  and  kill.   It  was  always  peeking  around  corners  at  me,  and  then  when  I  would  move  to  kill  it,  it  would  be  gone.  I  worried  about  whether  it  would  make  an  appearance   when  my  girlfriend  was  visiting.   Once   when  I  got  up  for  work  in  the  morning   and  pulled  on  my  robe  and  stood  in  front  of  the  bathroom  mirror  to  shave,  I  felt  an  itch  on  my  right  shoulder,  and   scratched  it  through  the  robe,  and  guess  who   climbed  up  out  of  my  robe  onto  my  face.    Oooooh,    did  I  freak  out!   I  swatted  my  face  repeatedly,  screaming.      The  little  so-and-so    fell  to  the  floor,  ran  out  of  the  bathroom  and   disappeared.

One  day,  after  a  hard  day’s  work  at  the  Philadelphia  DA’s  Office,    I  came  home,    went  into  the  kitchen  and  turned  on  the  fire  beneath  my  tea  pot.    As  I   turned  to   leave  the  kitchen,  I  heard  an  odd   fluttering  sound    and  looked  back.      There  was  something  alive,  there,   in  the  flames  next  to  the  gas   burner  on the  stove  beneath  the  tea  pot.  It  was  the  demonic  roach,  wings  afire!      I  jubilantly  thought,  “Ah-HAH!”   I  raced  over  to  the  stove  and  turned  up  the  fire  full  blast,  and  I  incinerated   the  little  beast,  and    I  am  certain  that  he  was  afterwards  consigned  by  God  to  even  hotter  fires  in   Hell  forever.

On  days  when  I  walked  beneath  the  Frankford  El   to  go  shopping  in   the  stores  on  Frankford  Avenue,  I  would  frequently  overhear  Russian  immigrants   speaking  their  native  language  as  they  strolled  on  the  sidewalk  near  me.    Though  I  couldn’t  pick-up  much  of  what  they  were  saying,  I  understood  a  word  here  and  there.     A  CIA  recruiter  who  had  visited  the  DA’s   Office  some  months  before   had   suggested  that  I  learn   Russian   before   I  apply  for  a  position  in  the  CIA,  and  so  in  those  days  I  was   taking  a  post-graduate  course  in  Russian  at  St.  Joseph’s  University,  my  alma  mater.  But   as  I  overheard  my  Russian  neighbors  after  my  move  to  Penn  Street,  I  was  not  yet   sufficiently  “up  to  speed”  in  the  comprehension  department   to  follow   normal  Russian  conversation.

Once,   when  I   worked  very  late,  I   was  coming  home   in  the  wee  hours  of  the  morning  on  the  Market  Street  Subway  portion  of  the  Frankford  El.     I   had  boarded  the  Frankford-bound  subway  at 15th Street.     The  car  was  empty.    I  picked  a  seat    and  opened  my  Philadelphia  Inquirer.  At  13th Street,    a  large  group  of   ladies  crowded  onto  the  train.   They  were  clearly  the  ladies   who  cleaned  the  offices  in  the  office  buildings  in   center  city  Philadelphia  late  at  night.  All  of  the  ladies  crowding  on to  my  car  were  speaking  Russian.   It  occurred  to  me  that   these  ladies  were  from  the  same  enclave  of  Russian-speaking  immigrants  as  the    people   whom    I  had  heard  speaking  Russian   in  my  neighborhood  near  the  Margaret-and-Orthodox  El  Station.   One  of  them  was  young  and  very  pretty.  The  others   were  middle-aged  babushkas  —  Russian  women,  middle-aged  or  older,     nicknamed  for   their  traditional  headgear,  the  babushka,  or  kerchief.  The  babushkas  were   doing  all  of  the  talking.  Although  I  still  couldn’t  follow  conversational  Russian  very  well,      I  could  tell  that  the  talk  was   risqué,  and  about  the  pretty  girl,  who  kept  smiling  guiltily,  and  blushing,  blushing,  blushing.

As  the  Russian  ladies  ignored  me,  it  dawned  on  me  that  they  were  assuming,  because  I  was  reading  an   English  language  newspaper,  that   I  could  not  understand  a  word  they  were  saying.     And,  for  the  most  part,  that  was  true.

But  I  realized  that  the  situation  was  nonetheless  ripe  for  a  good  Russian  language  practical  joke.

As  the  train  pulled  into  the  Margaret  and  Orthodox  Station,    I  got  up  from  my  seat,  and  as  I   began  to  squeeze  past  the   ladies  to   get  to  the  sliding  doors  I  said  a  single  Russian  term  out  loud…

Izz-vin-EE-tyah!”  —  “Excuse  me!”

All  of  the  ladies  looked  up  in  astonishment.      The  young  pretty  lady  blushed  blood  red  and  looked  at  me  with  an  uncertain   smile.  The  babushka  who  had  talked  longest  and  loudest   covered  her  mouth  with  her  hand.  And  I  smiled  broadly.

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Election Day Blues

Many  years  ago,  back  in  the  early  1970s,  I  had  grown  up
in  a  conservative  Republican  home,  in  our  neighborhood   around
Frankford  Stadium  on  Wakeling  Street,  the  23rd  Ward,  9th
Division.   Though  we  were  raised  that  way,  to  tell  the  truth  I
liked  the  personalities  on  the  other  side  of  the  political
fence  more  in  our  neighborhood.   Bill  Green,  III,  living  2
blocks  down  from  us  on  Wakeling  Street,  was  still  serving  in
Congress.      Timmy  Savage  was  still  just  a  Democratic
Committeeman  and  Ward  Leader,  decades  away  from  becoming  the
federal  judge   down  on  Market  Street.  Timmy’s  wife  Linda  was  a

But  politics  is  politics,  and  anyone  who  has  ever  been
involved   in  The  System  will  tell  you  that  politics  is  a  very
crazy  thing.    And  it  was,  that,  very  much,  then  —   even
in  quiet  little  23rd  Ward,  9th  Division  in  Frankford.

I  think  that  because  I  was  viewed  as  a  “young  egghead,”
at  a  particular  point   the  “Reps”  asked  me  to   run  for  Judge
of  Elections  in  our  little  voting  district,  a  2-day-a-year
job,    on  Election  Day  in  November    and  in  the  Spring
primaries.   I   had  worked  at  the  corner  store   for  years  in
our  neighborhood.      I  was  a  lector  at  Mass  in  St.  Martin’s
Church  on  Oxford  Circle.   So,  I  was  popular,  and  so
unfortunately  I  won  the  election.       On  election  days,   we’d
get  up  at  5:00  a.m.,  shower,  eat,  and  rush  down  to   Frankford
High  School  where   voting   occurred.     I  always  wondered,  as
we  moved  the  voting  machines  into  position  and  opened  them
up,    what  kind  of  bizarre  thing  would  happen  that  day  which
would  get  my  Fruit  of  the  Looms  all  knotted-up.


Every  year,  all  of  us  on  both  sides  of  the  political
fence,  Committeemen,  poll  watchers,  Inspectors  of  Election  and
I,  the  Judge  of  Elections,  were  mystified  by  one  particular
vote  cast  in  every   election  —   for  any  Socialist  Workers
Party  candidate  on  the  ballot.     Who,  among  our  neighbors,  in
the  conservative   9th  Division,  was  the  one  person  who
consistently  voted  for  the   Socialist  Workers  Party  candidate?
None  of  us  had  any  idea  at  all.     It  just  didn’t  suit
anyone  we  knew  in  the  9th  Division.

Until  finally  something  happened   which  enabled  me  to  solve  the  mystery.

Continue reading Election Day Blues