September of 1961 brought another change in my life. In September my grandfather Wiler died. He’d been ill from Emphysema for many years but over the last few months of that summer he took a turn for the worse. Emphysema is a progressive chronic illness that can take years to kill you but when it does it comes on quickly. Technically my grandfather probably died from a heart attack, since his heart would have had to work twice as hard to get enough oxygen from his damaged lungs.
He’d been a life long smoker and that coupled with a stint in the mines as a young man along with a genetic predisposition to Emphysema was all it took. That fall we were involved in a venture of our own and his death, while anticipated, barely brushed me. One day men were lugging oxygen tanks up the porch to his room, the next he was gone.
He’d loved Mick and Ted and I but his illness prevented him from being much fun around us. He was a distant figure to us, unlike my grandmother, and I had no real feelings about him or his death. His wife, my Dad’s mother, was another story.
My grandparents had moved to Wenonah when my grandfather became ill and needed more care. They bought a house up the block from us on the corner of W. Mantua and S. Jefferson. It was one of the earliest homes in Wenonah and had been owned by the Cattell family, a South Jersey family with deep roots. The house still had the original barn behind it, now used as a garage.
Mick and I played in the garage whenever we could. It held secret passages built by other children long ago and you could jump out the hayloft onto a compost heap below. One half of the garage held my grandmothers gardening tools and insecticides. She was an avid gardener and worked hard at it. As a consequence the smell of DDT and Dieldrin filled the barn. Dusts and concentrates sat in heavy brown glass jars on her work bench. When I went to work as an exterminator I recognized those smells immediately.
In the house, on the sunporch, was where she painted. She was a painter of landscapes and still lives and worked in oils with a knife. Her work was extraordinary but devoid of life. Bare empty warehouses, telephone poles, crumbling chimneys in an empty field. Brilliant and cold and scary. The room smelled of oil paints.
In the next room was the dining room and just off it the kitchen. My grandmother didn’t cook and a succession of maids and cooks kept house for her.
My brothers and I were a source of constant irritation with our yelling and noise and roistering. As a consequence we were generally banished to the outdoors at family gatherings.
So here we are in September of 1961 and what am I really involved in. Football. My friends and I have started a football team. The Wenonah Hawks. We've had lemonade sales and raised money to buy uniforms. We've recruited enough boys to fill out a full football team. We found a coach, a man who was a boyfriend of one of my neighbors, Al Frank. We've begun to practice each day. We are a bunch of little kids with no organization that formed a football team in a town with no organized football program and we challenged the local midget football teams. There were teams in Deptford, Mullica Hill, and Center City. We played them all. We played in a 110lb league despite the fact that only Ted Glenn, our center, weighed 110 pounds. Our defensive end, Chuck Lake, might have weighed 65 pounds on a good day. All I cared about that fall was our team and our practices and our games. My grandfather died and my clearest memory of his death is the smell of hay from the knees of my pants from football practice as I watched the technicians delivering oxygen tanks to my dying grandfather.
Our team was pretty good, and very small but we made it to the Lions Bowl in Glassboro that year where we played the champions from Mullica Hill. A boy we knew from Woodbury, Jim Coombs was on the team. They were large and hard and the game was played in January on a frozen field in Glassboro. We got our asses handed to us.
It was wonderful.
So, yes, my grandfather was dead. And yes, my grandmother remained. But we had football glory. Skinny little geeks in green jerseys covered in blood and grass mixing it up with the big boys. And we did it all ourselves. Me, Chris, Gary Condell, Terry Fleming, my brother Mick, Herbie Danner, Ted Glenn. We were hard. We were strong. It was glorious. Not unlike the poems we memorized.
After the Lions Bowl there was a banquet we were invited to. The Mullica Hill team had tough black kids on their team. They all got up at the end on the stage and danced the Pony. We all knew we couldn't dance the Pony but we could hold our own on a frozen field in Glassboro.