by Shawn Hart
I’m not a joiner. With the notable exception of Little League and Boy Scouts — after all, a kid needs someone to smoke and slobber over Playboy centerfolds with — I’ve had no affiliation with a group of any kind.
But I want to talk about George — a neighbor, a loner, but a joiner on just one day every year, July 4, Independence Day. George had no friends and spoke to no one. However, he did once mumble that he’d pay neighborhood kids 10 cents a wagonload to haul the old bricks from the razed old jail house at Front and Westmoreland Streets to his yard. It was the only “conversation” I ever heard or overheard. I participated in that drayage work until I got tired.
George lived behind my house on Howard Street in Kensington in the 1950s, about eight doors down diagonally across a checkerboard of concrete backyards. An alleyway bisected these boxed-in squares, creating an easement between the back walls of Waterloo and Howard Street homes, just wide enough to drive a bike through, if a rider was willing to risk scraped knuckles or bruised knees. I traveled this alley a lot and left more flesh on the wooden fences and lightposts than most, as I usually fled through at night to escape meddling, well-intentioned neighbors who wanted to warn me that smoking would stunt my growth or how the cops weren’t kidding this time about the new curfew I was violating.
One night as I was ripping through, the alley lit up like a prison break, completely blowing my cover. It was George. I didn’t know him well then, but I’d occasionally heard his old gramophone grinding out John Philip Souza marches and always the national anthem on holidays. The scratchy old albums would pop and spit off the brick back walls that lined the alley like gunfire echoing around a cornered gang in a rocky canyon. We kids had no clue as to why it was being blasted at us; adults would shake their heads and turn up the radio so they could hear the ballgame…just old George, their shrugs would say.
Well, one night old George pulled out the big guns: orchestral explosions from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky accompanied by occasional flourishes from his bugle, which still had a mucous-colored tassel hanging from its tarnished brass bell. Creeping along the fence line low enough to fill the shadows, I made my way towards the blinding light and the bleating horn that raised the hair on my arms as I drew closer to the noise.
Squatting, unmistakably, in unseen dogshit outside George’s yard, I caught a glimpse of the man through a crack in the rotting boards.
Resplendent in a black cutaway, his breast emblazoned with brass buttons, George stood under the lights conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, his sword cutting a silver arc through the fulsome notes and the warm summer night. Atop his head was a black hat that might have been stolen from the British Admiralty but for the ostrich plume. A filigreed golden scabbard shone at his side hanging from a wide, white patent leather belt. He was magnificent, terrifying, triumphant. He wasn’t just “old George.”
The next morning, July 4, around the corner from George’s house on Waterloo, Little Mickey was jerking his motorcycle and sidecar, one hard pull at a time, out of his garage up onto Westmoreland Street. His bad right leg — dead leg, peg leg, call it what you will — was just strong enough to provide a balance point for a quick pivot off the good left leg. Short, scrawny and seemingly held together by leather and hair pomade, Mickey might have been 50, or a really beat-up 40. Nobody knew or cared. He lived alone and didn’t much give a shit about anything. I asked him what he knew of George.
“The Loonie? What’s to know? Friggin’ loonie. It’s those goofy friggin’ uniforms, know what I mean?”
As a kid, national holidays in my neighborhood might have been scripted by Boys Life or Look magazine editors. Parades led by local priests, prominent merchants and ruddy-faced politicians in starched white shirts poured through the streets like floodwaters. Fife and drum corps, high school marching bands, Mummers and the rare palomino-mounted television or radio personality like Sally Starr or Chief Halftown tramped for miles behind gaudy banners and staccato drum rolls.
Men and boys would salute the flag as it passed, usually held aloft by a sweating Eagle Scout in white cloth gloves with two sore arms who might have been second-guessing his decision to accept the honor. Kids like me, too young to stand still, usually skipped along or rode their bikes beside the uniformed stream as it wound through the streets toward a churchyard tomb or a local cemetery. There, the white rifles, responding to barked commands, would take wing from shoulders, snap skyward and fire in unison, spilling brass bullet casings to the sidewalk with a sound like chimes, barely heard beneath the still-echoing thunder of the volley. Man, I loved these holidays.
But not nearly as much as did George. An early riser anyway, but on Independence Day, George heard reveille in the sun’s first light and rose with the anticipatory impatience of a poor kid on Christmas morning. The only question was which George would be the first to tour the parade grounds returning every salute (derisive or otherwise) with a crisp flick of his own right hand.
Back then, Independence Day was more about the flag our fathers had fought for than about how to maximize a three-day weekend. Demobilized American Legion members wore caps festooned with branch, rank and battlefield pins that didn’t seem anachronistic or absurd (as they now do) cocked jauntily atop 80 year-old heads. Inside every uniform was a pride that filled it out and made it fit, even on sick, skinny survivors of the South Pacific battles or those weakened in spirit by having seen too much Nazi cruelty. And inside many of those uniforms was George.
He began that day as a Boy Scout Troop leader, a Smokey the Bear campaign hat pulled tightly down onto his high, domed bald head with a leather chin strap, cinched under a strong, closely-shaved jaw. Green khaki shorts, matching knee-high socks and large brown brogans that looked out of place duckwalking down Waterloo Street. Later that morning he’d change into U.S. Army infantry garb, the woven wool uniform tailored too tightly around his bulging middle and the unpressed trousers looking a little sloppy, an inch and a half too short above the same scuffed shoes.
George the sailor appeared in mid-afternoon; his cap as white as Clorox could make it, the dark blue uniform (he never wore the summer whites as best as I can remember) hiding what the Army’s tailoring only unattractively revealed. Along the sleeves were the chevrons of the “lifer,” a man who’d made the Navy and the distant, deep blue sea his home.
Finally, George would don the Marine dress uniform that every little brother in Kensington wished his older sibling would one day wear home for the holidays (or soon leave home to acquire.) And while I don’t recall an Air Force identity, no one would have denied George his pilot’s license or his wings.
George may have had actual military experience in WWII, but if so, he was a far different man at that time than the one we grew up thinking was just a guy who loved costumes, particularly military garb, which I’m convinced he wore as part of his personal operetta.
Those uniforms probably were purchased in a surplus store, as there was a very large one in the neighborhood, called Johnson’s Salvage. It burned down in a raging blaze one weekend morning when I was about 13.
Personally, I always thought George had probably been a shell-shock victim receiving a disability pension, as I never knew him to work, nor do I think he could have. The strange thing is that George the loner became the consummate joiner every July 4, looking for a way to overcome his loneliness. He was harmless, a lovable lunatic, and insofar as he became the embodiment of “E Pluribus Unum” with his patriotic pretenses, he was a “good soldier.”
Shawn Hart, a Mt. Airy resident and former Local associate editor (unofficial title, “scapegoat”), calls this piece “my recollection of a lost era when anomalies like George could remain a big part of a community’s culture without being engaged as a participant in anything that might be called ‘meaningful.’”