by Hugh Gilmore
The night after my high school graduation, my dad and I went down to the electricians’ union hall on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. The room vibrated with loud voices, lots of side conversations, deals being made and old times remembered. My Dad presented me as a candidate for a summer apprenticeship, even though I was going to college in the fall.
Dad was showing his pride by telling every crony he ran into, “Yeah, my boy, Hughie, here, is going up to La Salle College. Going to be a doctor.”
“Good for you, Paul. It’ll be good to have a doctor in the family.”
I’ll take it, I thought. He’d never mentioned my going to college to me. It went down easy in this hall where my tall and sonorous grandfather, Hugh, once president of the union, gave speeches using old-fashioned rhetorical flourishes, such as, “With neither fear nor favor from any man, I say … ” My father, uncles Hugh, Edward, and Jack also worked as electricians. My brother (who’s an artist now) quit high school to “work electrical” full-time.
The “ayes” were not universal about my plans, though. My Grandmother Gilmore called me and asked, “What do you want to go to college for? Are you trying to be better than your father and your grandfather? Bein’ an electrician’s not good enough for you?” Lots of people felt that way, including guys my own age back in Colwyn.
I went to work as a summer apprentice, hoping to save a little money toward college in the fall. Going to “the job” each day I could have used my grandfather’s old tool box (which I still have) and honored family tradition. But I wanted to cinch a tool belt around my waist so everyone on the No. 11 Trolley Car knew I was a working man.
I was so skinny I had to keep pulling up my tool-loaded belt as I stood holding the trolley strap. But I made good money, better than my friends. I was proud of that and loved bringing home a Hanscom’s strawberry shortcake for my mother on paydays.
At summer’s end, after helping my mom with the bills, I had $50 saved toward school tuition. Not enough. My uncle Hugh stepped in. He had been college-bound himself but had to go to work during the Great Depression. Generously, he offered to pay for my textbooks.
I was going to need a dissection kit for my pre-med program, but couldn’t afford one. I called Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital, where I’d worked in the kitchen during high school, to ask if there was a used one around. Told to come by tomorrow, I did and was sent to the hospital president’s office. There I was surprised with a gift-wrapped, new set of dissection tools. Mother Superior remembered my working as tray boy in the kitchen and wished me well. From scullery lad to college man!
A neighbor’s son had gone to La Salle ten years ago. He was a doctor now. They gave me his old texts and a reversible college-style sports jacket. Of the texts, the only one still used at the college was a Douay-Rheims Bible, the Roman Catholic version – a book I’d never seen before. One less expense.
One of the hospital volunteers was a lovely woman named Dorothy Facenda, the wife of John Facenda, the local newscaster and Philadelphia legend who became famous throughout the world as the early voice of NFL Films. I had met Mrs. Facenda several times at the hospital, and she knew I was going to college.
The Facenda’s only child, a son, had gone to the seminary. That kind of vocational choice was supposed to thrill a Catholic mother – certainly it did the Irish ones – but I felt Mrs. Facenda had some sadness about losing their son, and with it their prospects for grandchildren.
Mrs. Facenda had some things of their son she wanted to give me. When I arrived at her house, she gave me some of the finest clothes I’d ever seen: a beautiful three-piece Italian wool suit, black, with the faintest gray stripes, a few wool V-neck sweaters, and a fantastic, thick, worsted-wool, salt-and-pepper overcoat. All the clothes were from Morville’s, a high-quality, men’s clothing shop. They fit beautifully.
I was now the best-dressed young man in the little borough of Colwyn and about to be the best-dressed man at La Salle. When I got home, the inside pocket of the suit jacket held a good-luck ten-dollar bill.
All these kindnesses made me feel uneasy at the thought of actually following through on this college business. I’d lived such an average mill-town life, and I was suddenly being acclaimed for mere good intentions. I was now expected to be the family champion, the one who brought pride to our modest home. What if I didn’t like college? Or liked it, but wasn’t good at it? What if I couldn’t make the payments?
When the day to leave for college came, I took a deep breath, gathered my notebooks, and walked off to take on the world, a full 90 minutes and 14 miles away. My journey began by turning the corner and walking up Third Street, headed for Main. The trolley arrived. I paid my fare and sat down, anxious to watch the four blocks of my hometown slip by. I felt I was leaving Colwyn in the past as the trolley glided into Philadelphia, carrying me to my brilliant, scary, exciting future. Goodbye everyone!
And back home again that same night. The commuting student’s life.
This story was adapted for the Local from Hugh Gilmore’s forthcoming memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Hugh is also the author of the twisted-romance novel, “Last Night On the Gorilla Tour.” Available through Amazon.com.