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The Mr. Sammy Incident

by Colleen Halupa

Whenever I think of my childhood, one particular incident comes to mind. The event comprised about ten minutes of my life, but it was much more important than I realized at the time. I think of it in capital letters as the “Mr. Sammy Incident.”

Let me set the stage. I don’t think I can really explain it as well as I can feel it. I can try to make you see, smell, hear, and feel what I did on that day long ago.

* * *

The 1970’s were a tough time in eastern Pennsylvania; the mines were closing and unemployment was high, very much like today.

Imagine, if you can, a ten-year old girl growing up in a small town one mile long and one mile wide at the top of a mountain, with houses so close together you can’t even walk between them. The metal siding on the houses was stained with coal dust no matter how many times the housewives in their curlers and babushkas hosed them off with a garden hose while smoking their ciggies.

There were no front yards, only sidewalks cracked and buckled just enough to throw you off balance when you rollerskated on them. Every day was pretty much like the next for a ten-year old, except for the weird moments that pop out at you periodically like an evil jack-in-box clown with big teeth when you least expect it.

Slag heaps and holes as large as meteor craters had been left behind from the closed anthracite mines. They circled the town like a noose being tightened on its neck, slowly choking the life out of it.

The blacktop state highway was littered with potholes so large you could lose a good-sized cocker spaniel in them. These holes were patched every summer by the summer-hire borough employees who spent most of their days drinking Yuengling beer, leaning on their shovels, and lounging under the trees.

Every winter the borough employees dredged up the roads with plows as they scraped up the remnants of heavy snowfalls, beer on their hot breaths. The change of the seasons could be measured by these potholes.

Imagine an unholy trinity of European immigrants: Italians, Poles and Irish with a few Germans and Slavs thrown in for good measure. The values of the 1860’s were still present like an invisible fog that infected the town and everyone in it, a living microcosm of tough times, hard labor and cheap shoes.

Living there was like being stuck in the belly of a whale; once in, it was impossible to get out. But it was VERY tough for others to get in; no outsiders were welcomed. The neighbors lived an arm’s length away from us. Like soothsayers, they always knew when parents fought, which in my case was often, and when you did something bad, which was pretty rare for me. They always knew what you’d had for supper, and they spied on you from their upstairs windows.

Old women roamed the streets, walking to church or to the drug store in their house dresses with rain bonnets on their blue-permed hair and with sensible shoes laced tightly on their feet. Younger women sweated out their days, getting ten cents for each man’s shirt they sewed or pressed in the factories. Unemployed men hung out on the bench outside the pool hall or the volunteer fire company, always drinking and swapping stories and spending their unemployment checks on cheap cigars.

Maybe I’m making it sound worse than it was. Aren’t we supposed to remember only the good things from the past? Isn’t the past supposed to be sprinkled in fairy dust? I think not: mine is sprinkled in coal dust instead.

I had no serious problems... then. Trauma and drama happened when another girl called me a name, or I got a mediocre grade on a math test, or when someone broke my new Ken doll with its real hair, long sideburns and stylish bell-bottomed plaid pants.

There was no violent crime: only husbands in their stained wife-beater T-shirts who came home from their blue-collar jobs, drank too much beer and smacked their wives around when things did not go their way, which was often. It was their “God-given right,” because they paid the bills.

To sum it up: a ten-year old was decades younger then than such a child is now, but in some ways she was also immeasurably older.

* * *

Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes I’ve gone into a public bathroom and the smell of a certain pink soap transports me back to the bathroom in my old elementary school with its short toilets and cracked, black tile walls. It was a place where Old Mr. Guinn, the janitor, who looked like an emaciated Frankenstein’s monster, cleaned up with a fat cotton mop dripping Top Job Cleaner.

On that hot, sunny late spring day you could smell the sulfur in the air from the contaminated creeks mixed with the cabbage cooked on a coal stove by an old Polish grandmother and diesel fumes from the large Euclid mining trucks with tires so large a man could stand up in them.

The smell of chicken poop wafted through the air with the feathers of some Rhode Island Reds on their way to meet their maker. A crackly AM transistor radio played “Sweet Emotion,” a song by the new group Aerosmith. An old brick building built in the mid-1800’s was named for the man who founded the city of Brotherly Love. It had wide wooden steps inside worn down in the middle over the years by the thousands of tramping elementary students’ feet encased in Keds and cheap Converse sneakers.

The day in question, I was wearing ugly red Sears Toughskins with an Alfred E. Newman face patch on the knee because I had busted it out and we really could not afford to buy another pair — in the “chubby” size, unfortunately.

The sun had caused my face to become pink like a strawberry. I was sweaty from exertion because, as I’ve already implied, I was a bit overweight. Okay, maybe more than just a bit, to be truthful.

Picture, then, a chubby girl in ugly Toughskins. She has unruly blonde hair that never looks combed. She’s jumping “Hot Peppers” between two girls with string-bean arms. There I was on this day I remember so well.

Flapping, screaming eight- to eleven-year olds were burning off steam outside at recess so they could keep their butts planted in their chairs for the rest of the day and not incur the teacher’s wrath. Boys raced widdershins and girls jumped and swayed through ropes singing refrains of “Teddy Bear, touch the ground.” Knees were blown out of old but clean blue jeans as footballs scraped the concrete.

The less naïve girls, the type according to my mother that were destined to “put out” in high school, thumbed through Young Miss magazine on the school steps, goggling over the Tampax ads. Heat simmered off an asphalt playground lined by a chain link fence to separate it from an old candy store.

At the other end of the playground, two tennis-court lengths away, stood a large row of chestnut trees that spewed their leaves every fall, to the delight of the children who grabbed them for school projects and created crackly outdoor cushions.

* * *

At this point I need to introduce to you a man we called “Mister Sammy,” although his real name was Samuel Faulk. When Nixon was President and “our boys” were in Vietnam and getting sprayed with Agent Orange, one of the fondest memories of many a child was a trip after school to Sammy’s candy store where you could buy Swedish fish or Squirrel Nut Zippers for a penny, each served by Mr. or Mrs. Sammy themselves.

Mrs. Sammy looked like a jolly Mrs. Santa Claus, smiling and round with glasses perched on her smart little nose. Mr. Sammy looked like a five-foot tall elf with thin, cowlicked, white hair that stood up on end as though he had stuck his finger in the socket of an old table lamp with a damaged plug.

The Sammys had cheerfully served children, both well-behaved and rowdy, for over sixty years in their store next to the playground. Mr. Sammy competed with two other candy stores in town for the precious and rare nickels and dimes of children, but he could always be counted upon to keep in stock candy flying saucers, Sen-Sen, the pumpkin seeds with the Indian on the pack, way before they were called Native Americans, and Bazooka bubblegum.

They had finally closed their store the year before, but he and Mrs. Sammy sat in their big bow window, enjoying watching the children and the children of the children they had served.

* * *

Mrs. Langhorne, the principal, who was supposed to be playground monitor that day, looked almost as old as the school itself. She liked to think of herself as "with it" and dressed in the popular style of the day, which at that time was short A-Line shifts made of hideously patterned polyester that stretched across her formidable size-22 hips and backside even though she was pushing 65.

Every class has a boy the girls adore and the other boys want to be. In ours, that boy was Richard Sampson. He had good hair and excess energy. Richard had just learned a new skill, one that has been learned in elementary school throughout the ages: whipping "The Finger," also known as "The Bird." He was a true artist at it, one we would all later plagiarize.

Mrs. L. never came out on the playground unless something was chasing her or someone was attempting to inflict significant bodily harm on someone else that involved a loss of blood. Instead, she worked at the desk in her classroom, squinting out at us through the window in the fire door, giving us the evil eye.

Richard, rejoicing in his newfound freedom, practiced his new "skill" and flipped her off in the window when she wasn’t looking. My hero! He was so brave!! I lived through him vicariously.

Richard then expanded his horizons and ventured a bit farther afield. He trekked down to the chain-link fence, waved frantically to get Mr. and Mrs. Sammy’s attention and elegantly with a flick of his wrist, flipped Mr. and Mrs. Sammy "The Bird." What happened next was probably the biggest shock of Richard’s young life.

As Richard began stalking some other unsuspecting playground victim, Mr. Sammy ran out of his front door onto the playground, brandishing a fireman’s axe. He bee-lined it for Richard at a speed that was amazing for his age and size. He was like an omnivore madly attacking a carnivore, a bunny with an axe attacking a lion.

As soon as Mr. Sammy cleared his front door I heard the "thwapp" of the screen door hitting the frame. It seemed as if I were being teleported into another dimension, where everything moved in slow motion.

An immediate hush enveloped the playground. All the jump ropes elegantly coiled within themselves, fell in slow motion and dropped to the ground gracefully with a "whoosh." My Keds were glued to the ground. Shock, fear, confusion and awe rattled chaotically in my brain like bingo balls in a mixer. Finally one popped out: fear, and I ran screaming as fast as I could with the rest of the girl mob to the chestnut trees at the far end of the playground.

Typically, the other boys moved out of the path of destruction, but hung in front of us, perhaps hoping for yet fearing their own piece of the action.

Mr. Sammy loomed at Richard, drool falling from his bottom lip. Richard was the fastest runner in the class; he started to run backwards in glee and ducked and faked side-to-side to taunt Mr. Sammy even more. The blue veins and the white bones of Mr. Sammy’s knuckles tightened as he gripped the axe, ready to lob it at Richard’s head.

Finally, Mrs. Langhorne heard the commotion. She must have known our screams were not the ordinary cacophony of psychotic girl screams, because her face was corpse-white and the whites of her eyes were showing as she blasted out of her door to the playground, her blue polyester mini-dress flapping madly around her thighs. I had never seen her move so fast before.

She tried to insert her size 44D bulk in between Mr. Sammy and Richard, who by now realized that this was not a joke; he was nearly wetting his pants. He ran behind Mrs. L. through the fire door into her classroom. Mrs. L. outweighed Mr. Sammy by about eighty pounds and was twenty years younger, but it took her a while to wrestle the axe away from him. She had almost done it when he pulled away again and started to head to the classroom after Richard.

"Ugh, arghhh," Mr. Sammy grunted as foam flecked his mouth.

Where was our old, lovable Mr. Sammy?

Finally, Mrs. L. plastered herself across the door. Luckily she could cover most of it. Her stockings hitched down below her short dress, down around her knees; her formidable chest was heaving as she blocked Mr. Sammy’s way. He waved the axe and tried to get past her.

And then all of a sudden he looked at her as if he had never seen her before and he did not know why he was there. He deflated right before our eyes. Mrs. Langhorne put her arm around him and walked him back to the steps of his house where he sat down heavily on the stoop, panting. All this time, the oblivious Mrs. Sammy had continued to sit and stare out the window.

That night we had quite a tale to tell our parents. It even surpassed the day earlier that June, when it was 90+ in the shade and our teacher, Miss Kessler, shut all the windows, turned the heat on as high as it could go, and locked us in the room because she had caught someone with chewing gum. She left the school for an hour and let us sweat it out, literally, while she suffered a mental breakdown. That is a different story, but In a way I guess it was the same story.

The next day Mr. Sammy’s bow window was covered with heavy curtains and blinds, and Richard was unusually quiet.

We never heard a peep from Mr. and Mrs. Sammy in the remaining few days of that school year. By the next year, their house was empty and awaiting new tenants, who might never come. I never did find out what ever happened to the Sammys. No one would say.

* * *

On the surface, the event was scary and funny, like paints mixed together on an artist’s palette. But now that I see it as an adult, I’ve added other colors. The first was sadness for the Sammys.

And now, as I get older, I add an ominous black. Facades had to be maintained in that town, even though they sometimes melted like greasepaint on the face of a clown and stained permanently and indelibly what lay beneath, even as the town and its people caved in on themselves like the mine tunnels beneath them.

I am also sad for myself. Age ten is too young to see a person we once perceived as an elf suddenly go after one of us with an axe. Like Mr. Sammy’s axe, the town and I have been left out in the rain. We’ve rusted. We have nicks in our blade from direct hits, and the paint on our handle has aged and worn away. We cut and have been cut deeply, but we survive. Most of us.

* *

Author’s note: This memoir is entirely factual. The events actually happened as described. Only the names have been changed.

Copyright © 2013 by Colleen Halupa

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