Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Guest Post: The School Of Hard Knocks...and Cold Winters by Holly

I've been pestering my friend Holly to guest post for a while. She's funny, a talented artist and a traveler ( with kids in tow!). With her family she has hiked all over this great state of Arizona in which we live and has wandered outside the contiguous 48 states to explore Hawaii and Alaska. She and I are planning on taking a literary tour of England together; we'll live it up in honor of all the Dickens, Bronte and Austen nerds out there!

She has tales to tell. This one is about her grandfather, a WWII veteran. Enjoy and feel free to comment. Your comments are always appreciated, and Holly or I will respond.

It’s been a decade or so since my grandfather passed away, but the stories of his childhood, growing up an orphan in the early 1900’s, have a legendary status in my heart. Some of the stories are almost Dickensian to me, although his tales don’t always wrap up as neatly for the hero. It’s just hard to grasp that they are non-fiction when I look at the cushy, sheltered life that my children lead. William Shelden, along with his older sister and two brothers, was orphaned by the Spanish Flu epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia in 1918. He was six years old. Two faded black and white photographs of his parents were all that was left of them in his possession. He always kept them on his bureau, and I remember pondering these strangers as a child. His father was a mason, so the boys were sent to live at the Masonic Homes in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, a rural area of that state a few hours outside of Philadelphia. His sister went to live with an aunt.

Looking at the picture of this great estate with its Versailles-like gardens, I could not fathom that it be anything but comfortable and hospitable, but according to my grandfather the militant German immigrant, Mr. Lowenstein, who was the warden for the boys, made sure the boys knew this was not hospitality but charity that had graced them with a roof over their head and food to eat.

There were three sets of brothers among the home’s residents: the Grahams, the Sheldens and the Vanderslicers. Mr. Lowenstein’s philosophy was: if there was any trouble in the home, one of the sets of brothers was surely to blame. So he would call out, “Grahams, Sheldens and Vanderslicers!”, and the boys knew they were being summoned to his office for a beating doled out to all. Having regular beatings didn’t seem to curb the boys’ mischievous behavior, but a more subtle lesson taught to my grandfather made a lifelong impression. This brings me to my story of the red coat.

At the same time every fall each orphan was given a red wool coat to wear through the whole winter when trudging the long walk to school through sleet, snow, freezing rain, gusting winds, etc. My grandfather said it was two miles to school, two miles back for lunch, two miles back to school and then finally two miles home again. Some years in Pennsylvania they have what’s called an “Indian Summer” or a heat wave in the fall. As you can imagine, wearing a wool coat in 90 degree, swampy humidity would not be the free choice of any child, especially not an obstinate boy, who was numb to paddlings. William came up with what he deemed a very sly idea. There was a stone wall just beyond the doors of the orphanage. He decided to take off his jacket and hide it behind the wall and just pick it up when he returned that afternoon, slipping it back on before he was inspected by Lowenstein upon his return.

The first part of his plan went off without a hitch, but on his return, he discovered the coat was gone from its hiding place! Bracing himself for the beating that was surely awaiting him, he slowly climbed the steps of the orphanage. To his alarm, Lowenstein carried on as usual, not uttering a word about the coat. In fact, he never said a word about it the entire winter.

This tale always helps reinforce for me as a person and a parent that experience is our best teacher. My grandfather never knew whether Lowenstein found the coat or a classmate ratted him out, but a beating certainly would have been less painful than my grandfather's slow suffering of walking eight miles to and from school every day throughout the chilling rural Pennsylvania winter.


  1. The Law of unintended consequences ... love it!

    1. Exactly, Tim. It finds us all, but Holly's grandfather certainly did not deserve that consequence. Thanks for your comment, Tim.

      And thank you to my good friend Holly for sharing this unusual family story! I hope there will be of her grandfather's tales shared here. I would be honored.


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