I Never Hope To Taste Better Ice Cream
My mother was Mary Falatovich from Turrell Town. It is only recently that I discovered that that was the real name of that cluster of houses that we knew as “Turtle Town”. My siblings still refuse to accept this as fact. I am really impressed with The History of Lopez, Pennsylvania on the web so I decided to provide something for Memory Lane that might be of interest. These are some personal recollections of a young boy who spent summer “vacations” in Lopez during the early depression years and a few of those years leading up to it. This was a long period of bare survival, in contrast to some of the earlier boom years that my Turtle Town relatives were never to be fortunate enough to experience. By the advent of the post war recovery years, life had tragically passed them by. I visited Lopez three times for just a day in 1945, 1961, and 1995, and I admire, with heartfelt gratitude, the spirit of those who have rekindled lost memories of what often seemed to me to be a grim and hopeless little town. They have restored it to a beauty that only that remote part of Pennsylvania can claim as its heritage. And they continue to battle with the tragedies that occur, even today, to challenge their unbreakable community spirit.
My mother died young from the White Plague leaving me and an older brother and sister. My father chose to remarry but, out of respect for my grandparents, dutifully drove us from Binghamton to Lopez each year over some of the worst roads in the world. In the part of Central Europe where he was born, I doubt that he had ever seen more than a couple automobiles, so with his first success in his own business, he bought the biggest car that he could afford. It was a huge Packard Touring Car with a canvas top and a rear space so large that it had two shiny chrome seats that folded into the floor when not in use No road signs or route maps were available in the earlier years so he drove from memory with his foot to the floor-boards. There was little danger except for hitting a cow or skidding off the dirt roads into a ditch. Most passengers got very carsick.
When I was at a funeral for an uncle in Binghamton in 1961, a Mr. Behanich told me an amusing story about an incident from the early twenties. Here is how he remembered it.
“Your brother Michael was born in Lopez in 1917. Your father and mother came up to Binghamton where he started his meat business. When it was time for your brother to be christened, they had to go to Lopez so that the whole family could take part and have a big celebration. They would have all had to go on the train in order to get to St Michael’s Church up here and it was hard for the old folks with all their kids and they didn’t speak any English. So your father, Nick, asked me to ride down to Lopez with him and your mother and, since Mary was going to stay there for a while, I would be with him on his way back home. It wasn’t good to be driving alone, even though I didn’t even know how at that time. Regular priests weren’t always there so he had to ask one to come down from Sayre on the train for the big ceremony. The roads were mostly dirt and they were terrible. We just got through because the car was a good one and he knew the road. After the christening, we had a big celebration with lots of food that Nick had brought from his factory and there was plenty of beer and whiskey. He and the priest got very friendly because your father was from a cantor family and they talked about the old country. Your grandfather and your uncle played their fiddles and everyone sang and danced and there was lots more drinking, even the priest. It was getting late and I told Nick that we should go. I was afraid that he would fall asleep driving if he kept on drinking. Nick paid the priest and told him that we would drive him back to Sayre. So we started out and the bumpy dirt road made the priest so sick that we soon had to stop and let him out of the car once or twice. When we got to a better stretch of road up near Bernice and Mildred, Nick speeded up to make up time but the priest hollered for him to stop. Then he grabbed his suitcase and got out of the car. The last we saw of him, he was headed up the road for the railroad station to catch the train back to Sayre, and yelling back that Nick was crazy.”
He always got our queasy stomachs safely to the farm in Turtle Town. The first night we were usually so tired that we slept soundly on the floor on a “perina”. That is a puffed-up mattress that feels like heaven as you sink into its soft folds. Unfortunately, after the first night, you notice that you aren’t getting as much sleep as you would like, as it slowly loses its resilience during the night and lets you down until only the cloth covering is between your bones and the hard floor. So it was very nice to hear the cowbells and get up in the morning even if it meant a soap and cold water wash in a basin on the back porch. Somehow, it always smelled from the milk that had seeped into the rotting wood, and turned sour. But a breakfast of hot oatmeal soon cheered things up. Although the old house was very poorly furnished, our “Baba” had a big black iron stove with bright chromium trim that burned wood, and kept everyone alive with warmth and hot food.
There wasn’t anything for us to do but have fun in the summer sunshine. Our playground area was down at Lopez creek. Our “jungle gym” was the abandoned concrete foundations of some rock crushing machinery that had been loaded onto flat cars and carried away many years before. There were ten or twelve massive chunks of crumbling concrete about four feet square and varying from four to eight feet high, spaced about four feet apart. The “King” of the jungle was a boy named “Tarzan” from somewhere up on the hill across the creek. His daring leaps through space were awesome. I was not good at it and he developed a strong dislike for me, a puny city kid. Several times I was saved from a severe mauling by my older sister, or by my aunt watching through the open door of the silk mill, where she ran a sewing machine all day. Or else I would try to get away by running back home as fast as my skinny legs could carry me since Tarzan wasn’t very comfortable about following me up to Turtle Town.
I played at the creek but couldn’t swim because my brother Mike had almost drowned once, and this left a lasting fear in me that I only got over when I was a teenager. But I couldn’t escape baths in the icy stream that ran by the “stone quarry”. At least once a week, my aunt would grab a bar of Ivory soap and a towel and drag me screaming into the cold water where she scrubbed the dirt off me. My sister Helen could swim and her playground pool was a dammed up swimming hole upstream from there. To get to it, she had to go across the creek on a swaying rope suspension bridge, which I usually crawled across whenever I went with her. She was five years older than I was and, as the years went by, she soon found other interests so I then became somewhat of a loner, as my brother was even further from my age, and soon stopped coming.
I spent a lot of time exploring the barn and the strange outbuildings. There were some crude homemade tools. Once, I broke into a shed and found some small metal shoes that looked like horseshoes. They were probably from a donkey or mule that the family might have owned in better times. I drove some stakes in the ground and practiced pitching horseshoes for hours to pass the time. Eventually, our Aunt Julia, would come home from work at the silk mill to brighten up my existence. For as long as I can remember, Aunt Julia, my dead mother’s younger sister, was our favorite relative during our visits, due to the fact that she was only half a generation older. She was a fun person, always full of laughter and willing to do things with us so that we would enjoy our visit. Our grandparents spoke no English and my relations with them, although affectionate, were sometimes awkward because I knew only a few Slavic words.
The Sears-Roebuck Mail Order Catalogue was a staple of our existence. In addition to the well-known use of it in most outhouses, it was our only link to the outside world. There were no books and only a few old magazines in the house so we would spend hours looking at pages and pages of things that we would like to have. Aunt Julia had the only wage income. Everything else on which the family existed depended on the fairly unproductive farm. My grandfather “Gido” probably lost interest in any non-farm work forever after the mine at Bernice closed, a long time before. My Uncle Mickey’s chest had been crushed by a runaway coal-car and although he was still strong enough for most of the farm work, and for huckleberry picking to earn tobacco money, he always had serious difficulty breathing. Because we always brought along almost all of the things we needed with us, even large amounts of food for as long as it lasted, my father usually only had to leave a little money for us with Aunt Julia. It was intended for the serious emergencies, such as running out of penny candy from the store in town. But she was truly all heart and especially after my half-sister was born, she would give in every year and let each of us order one thing from the catalogue, as long as it was within her means. Starting on the day after the order went out in the mail to Sears-Roebuck, we would both trot anxiously down to the Post Office every day to check for the arrival of the packages. This was usually a two-week wait and the stress level became intense.
One night she took us to the movies to see Shirley Temple. All kids were crazy about her. I think that the theater was in Mildred and you paid for the ticket and the bus ride when you got on the bus in Lopez. (We pronounced it “LOpus” just as though we were natives.) The bus only ran once a week and it must have been the same one that was used to carry the girls from out of town to the silk mill each morning and take them home at night.
Food was a real problem for me. At home, I grew up on chicken and dumplings, holupki (stuffed cabbage), pirohi (something like ravioli, only much better), hamburg, and hotdogs. The last is still my favorite food today. We could only bring enough meat to Turtle Town to keep until it could all be eaten as there was no electricity for refrigeration and not even an ice box.. Things that needed to be kept cool were put under the cover over the well, or in the case of vegetables like potatoes or cabbage, in the dark “cold cellar” under the house. When the treasured provisions that we brought with us were gone, mealtime lost most of its joy for me. The best things that I can remember now for meals were homemade rye bread spread with fresh salted butter, occasional small chunks of ham from the smokehouse mixed with cabbage, Hungarian goulash with macaroni, and of course plenty of mashed potatoes. To help maintain full stomachs, there were always the dried apples or apricots that hung on strings from the kitchen ceiling. I once discovered that the bottom of the breadbox contained rock-hard donut shaped things that I now know were bagles. After sucking on one of them for long enough, it was usually possible to swallow and digest it before going to bed at night.
A crisis occurred one day when lunch consisted of a cup of sour milk into which “Baba” poured cooked pumpkin. I refuse to this day to touch anything containing sour milk or sour cream. I left the table hungry and vowed to live by my wits, even if it meant possible starvation between bags of penny candy. I first discovered a nearly full jar of pickled pigs-feet in an old dining room cupboard. In a couple days, the jar was empty. I next discovered that the vegetable garden up behind the barn was secluded enough for me to risk picking a big cucumber, sneaking some salt out of the house in my pocket, and eating the fresh cool delight including the peelings. When buckets of huckleberries were around waiting for the buyers’ trucks to come to town, my hands and mouth were always stained blue from helping myself. No one ever seemed to mind that very much. But then I really struck it rich one day when I spotted pods full of tasty green peas growing on some vines just over the stone wall in our neighbor’s yard. But it turned out that they weren’t growing wild as I had first thought, and after I spent several days stuffing myself with handfuls of the raw green peas, I was caught and severely reprimanded. But I had learned a lesson in survival.
My Uncle Johnny Falatovich was a very accomplished four-string banjo player and he played in bands in Binghamton and elsewhere. He never struck it rich as the banjo ceased to be a regular band instrument, and he couldn’t, or didn’t want to, adapt to the guitar, just to play in a band. Back then, musicians were usually part-timers who earned a few dollars to supplement regular jobs, or to avoid starving. Johnny did not have that problem as he always had a good job in our meat factory when he wanted it. The bar business might have been slow at that time because of the Great Depression because the Deckers somehow got word up to Binghamton for Johnny to come down and play his banjo for a rare dance night at the bar in the hotel. He brought along a really good accordion player named Al Goodman and their music filled the bar and dance floor that night. It seemed like everyone in town came, even the teetotalers. Our whole family and most of our neighbors were there. I was allowed to go along and stay right into the late evening. It was great.
Typical of Aunt Julia’s dedication to making us happy was what she did on a summer night a year after the dance. My half-sister and I had pestered her for a week about making ice cream. Although the histories do mention ice cream parlors in Lopex, I think this gloomy period was one in which there wasn’t a five-cent double-dip cone to be had in town. She got hold of a hand churn from somewhere and we had salt, vanilla, and plenty of milk and cream but I don’t remember ever seeing anyone who delivered or even sold any ice. Aunt Julia knew of only one place in town where there would be some, Decker’s. She grabbed a burlap bag and a flashlight one night and she and I marched down to the hotel when it got dark enough that no one would see a young female going in. She burst through the door into the bar and loudly asked for a block of ice.
The Deckers didn’t know who she was and they told her that they didn’t provide ice to the public from their precious supply. Luckily, one of the few men standing at the bar thought he recognized her just as we were ready to give up and go back home. When he told the Deckers that she was Johnny Falatovich’s sister, the mood suddenly changed and they got a big fifty-pound block of ice, put it in the bag, and wouldn’t take any money for it. This turned out to be a mixed blessing because I was a very puny little kid. I could just about drag the bag of ice along the ground for about half a mile in the pitch-black night, while Aunt Julia held the flashlight so that we could see our way back home. She wasn’t really very strong herself, but just as I was about to sit down in the middle of the road and cry, at the foot of the hill that went up to Turtle Town, she dragged both me and the bag of ice the rest of the way. She just laughed at me and teased me while I held the flashlight. I never hope to taste better ice cream than I did that night.
There were almost no cars in town and few commercial vehicles. Most people had to walk wherever they were going. Walking along the railroad tracks was the surest and easiest way to go any distance because it was pretty hard to get lost. But there were problems. We went barefoot all summer and until our city feet got toughened each year, the hot creosote oozing out of the ties made it feel like walking through fire. It didn’t help to walk the rails because the summer sun made the metal even hotter than the ties. To get off onto the coarse gravel would have been excruciating.
When we first started coming to Lopez, a Lehigh Valley train would sometimes run south from the station past Turtle Town on its way to some unknown destination. We loved to engage in the age-old pastime of waving to the engineer. When the depression deepened, that route was abandoned for lack of freight and the train just came into the Lopez station and backed out again. Empty gondola cars stood silently on the unused track as a memorial to better days. South of the silk mill was a spider-web of unused track until it was all torn up with the general demise of our rail transportation systems. A long abandoned spur ran past the old stone quarry and brick factory on its way up to Lopez. On occasion, an apparition would appear on the track. An old crone in black, bent over as if fighting a stiff wind in the still summer air, was on her way to town for something. Always frightened, we ran for our lives or hid behind the quarry.
She lived alone in a dilapidated old shack that must have once been railroad property used for maintenance or signal gear. Her “home” was in the middle of the barren, dirt and cinder filled wasteland, south of the mill. There was a black iron rod sticking up alongside the tracks in front of her hovel and it supported an iron disk in which a “W” had been cut, probably for the old train crews to indicate some signal or switching condition. To all the kids in town, the “W” had come to stand for “witch” or in Slavic, “kriwa”. That was also how I knew her until the day that I discovered that she was actually a friend of “Baba”. “Kriwa” came to our house one Sunday afternoon to visit and I embarrassed my poor grandmother by showing an obvious fear of her. We walked over to the home of another neighbor, Mrs. Kozemko, and that nice lady was able to communicate well enough in English to calm my fears, and to try to explain how cruel the kids in town could be. I never ran from the poor old woman again.
At the height of the huckleberry season, the woods were filled with people scrambling to supplement their meager cash resources. A ten-quart pail of clean berries could bring as much as a dollar and a half from the big trucks that rolled into town and parked at the open space where Old Home Day has always been held. I wasn’t a good picker and most of my berries were either eaten or cleaned of leaves, stems, and “greenies”, and added to somebody else’s bucket. One year I decided that I wanted the money so I went down to the truck with two quarts of the cleanest berries I had ever picked and waited in line. I held the baskets in the palms of my hands, day dreaming, and waiting for the man to take them and give me my thirty cents. A boy broke away from a small group over by the Post Office, ran across the road, and slapped at my hands scattering my hard work in the dirt. I was beyond crying. I remembered what Mrs. Kozemko had said and I knew that there would be no justice for a city kid even if he could say “LOpus”.
But my young life was always full of surprises, some of them very unusual. One day, I was playing down at the creek when I began to hear the unmistakable sounds of chopping, sawing, and hammering just across the creek and up the steep cliff. I was sure it was “Tarzan” building a trap to finally imprison me. I made my way across the big boulders and climbed hand over hand until I could just see over the edge of the cliff. A young man we knew named Steve Piworchik was working on something in his back yard. I knew that he had no job and, in a couple years, he would have to leave Lopez and come up to Binghamton to work in our meat plant, just as so many others had over a period of time. I doubt that he had a dime in his jeans on that balmy summer afternoon, and if I offered a prize to anyone who could guess what he was doing, I know it would go unclaimed. In the middle of that dark and depressed period in our history when many people had lost all hope and faith in our poverty-stricken country, Steve had dug a deep hole in his back yard, cut a tall flagpole, and was about to set it up to fly the American flag.
As the summer neared a close in those mountains, we now began to need our sweaters at dusk if we had to chase our cow home from the open assembly area in front of the silk mill. I never ceased to be amazed at the intelligence or instinct of those animals as they gathered together in the morning and proceeded across the creek to the grazing areas in the hills; and then reversed the process at night. With winter coming, the barn had to be filled with hay and this was a job for the entire family, even the kids. The hay was cut from the fields at the back or higher end of the narrow farm property, using scythes. These were sharpened with a large grinding wheel set in a crude homemade frame and run with a foot treadle. The art of using a scythe is as old as time but it is still surprisingly difficult to master and only the adults could do it. We kids helped collect the hay to be pitched into a hay rig. This was a homemade open frame on four wheels with a long, thick pole attached straight out from the front axle in order to steer it. Since the farm had no draft animals, it had to be pushed up the steep slope, filled with hay, and then everyone had to grab the steering post and brace their feet against the slope, so that it wouldn’t run away while being let carefully down to the barn.
After the corn had been picked and the potatoes dug, it was time to prepare for the end-of-the-season corn roast. This was when my father drove down, after closing the factory on a Saturday afternoon, to take us home. All day long we gathered wood from the forest beyond the upper end of the farm and piled it in the middle of the highest hay field. Then a vigil began to await the arrival of my father’s car. No matter how much fun the summer had been, I missed my father. I would hang on the front gate with my eyes glued on the dark shape of the far off hill to the north, around which the main road curved, before descending to the bridge over the Loyalsock. When I saw a pair of headlights coming around the curve, I knew that it had to be my father and that in five of ten minutes, he would be waiting for me to open the gate to let him in the yard. What joy! Then people would begin trekking up the hill with their flashlights and kerosene lanterns, loaded with baskets of food and supplies, for the roast. The fire was started and everyone sat on blankets, wearing sweaters and jackets against the cold night air. The corn and potatoes were thrown into the fire as soon as it got going and everyone then took sticks and roasted some of the hotdogs my father had brought. Aunt Julia would play the guitar and the singing would begin with “Down In The Valley”. People would hear us from far across the way, up on the hill above Lopez Creek, and some of them would join in. Before the corn and potatoes had finished roasting, we would have gone through “Red River Valley”, “Give My Love To Nellie, Jack”, and “Twenty-one Years, Babe, Is A Mighty Long Time”.
Anyone who has never pulled a roasted ear of corn or a hot potato from an open fire, slathered it with fresh butter, and eaten it under the moonlight in those Pennsylvania mountains, needs to get to heaven when they die. I’ve been there. During the marshmallows and before the long trek back down the hill, with some of us sleepy little people bundled up for warmth in the arms of some relative, we would finish the singing with D. J. O’Malley’s now almost forgotten “When The Work’s All Done This Fall”.
The next day it was back to Binghamton and the real world, always certain that there would be a return to Lopez the next summer. But fate stepped in after the close of one fateful summer and it was never to be again.
by Chester Bogosta