THE WORLD WAR II MEMORIES OF JOHN FRANK MATZKO (1912-1991)
Nothing is known of the Dinda family except that there was Mary, my mother and her brother who had two children, all of whom are presumed dead. Mother was a seamstress and made her living sewing for people. She had her own home, and after she married Dad he did some cooper work out of her home. Mother was educated but was a hunchback, which was a factor in [her] keeping to herself a lot. Somehow they met after Dad was released from the Austrian Army. He had been a sergeant of a machine gun unit, one of the first in the Army. Dad had also spent several months in the hospital after a runaway horse and wagon loaded with sand ran over his back. But this never seemed to bother him in any way.
All we know about my father's parents is that they were very poor. Grandfather had served about 12 years in the Army of Austria, some [of the] time as [a] cook and some [time] as a guard for Emperor Franz Joseph. Grandfather and Grandmother had 4 children: Michael, Susanna, Maria, and John.
Michael married a widow with 2 children. She had some physical disability. During World War I Michael was killed on the Russian front. The boy wanted to become a preacher, but we don't know anymore about him or his sister.
Susanna Matzko married Alexi and they had 10 children. We only know Mary, whom Dad helped come to this country. She married John Buchman, who died in 1977, childless. Mary died [on] January 25, 1984, in Philadelphia and left Mike and me an inheritance.
Maria Matzko married ? and they had 2 children, Joseph and Anna. They each had large families. John Jacob Matzko had 2 boys (myself) and Michael who was born in Shenandoah, PA on Sept. 8, 1918. I, John, was born in 1912 in Austria-Hungary, which is now known as Czechoslovakia in the town of Leibitz, or as it is now called Lubica.
My father also had several spellings for his name. Dad's work book calls him Janos Maszko and Janos Matzko, born 1887, town unknown. Dad's brewery union book calls him John Macsko, born June 1, 1887. We always celebrated it on the 17th. Dad's Army papers called him Johann Jakob Matzko. Dad's 1922 passport spells his name John Motzko, [born] July 18.
Father wanted to better himself so Mother was able to help him come to Philadelphia. His first job was in Pencoyd Steel in Manayunk (6 days for $8). After this he worked for a fender maker, Hill and Killburn. He, with other foreigners, lived in rooming houses while they saved enough money to bring over their families. Dad barely got out of Europe due to the War. They were recalling their trained men for service.
Meanwhile in Leibitz, Mother and I were waiting for Dad to send us tickets to come over. Cousin Mary Alexi helped take care of me as a baby sitter. At one time I had a serious illness and was thought dead. I was about one year old when I came here.
Dad [got] a job in Shenandoah brewery as a cooper. He took out his first Citizenship Papers and [sent] for us. Dad's feelings were hurt because I didn't know him when we arrived.
I have very [few] memories of Shenandoah except small homes [and the] steep steps down which I managed to fall with my very bowed legs. I still remember the sickening feeling of a cold knife being pressed on my lumps or the time when I fell and had to have part of my tongue sewed back on. Then there were the yearly baldy haircuts, the outhouses with Sears' catalogues, eating orange peels out of trash boxes and running wild with the Polish kids and talking their language to the consternation of my people.
I remember my mother's waist length hair [and] her using a steel comb trying to get the cradle cap out of my brother's scalp. This I watched with fascination. With the aid of a slate, she taught me to write German script. [I remember] her anger at me when, in my innocence, I drew a complete male figure on the slate. We spoke a guttural German at home, and high German seemed so cultured to us.
I watched four men turn over a 300 lb. sow while another man stuck it with a pointed knife. Then it got up and chased the men until it weakened with loss of blood. [The] meat was then divided and sold to the neighbors who used a crude smokehouse to preserve most of it. We enjoyed the pure lard. I enjoyed it on toast with garlic. This was homemade bread toasted over coals in our range.
How cruel it was for a man to chase one of his pigs with a sledge hammer until he dropped it. I watched my father take a pistol and shoot a cat many times without any feeling. No one cared even though he did it right on the street. We did have a hound dog as companion to my brother. The dog would sleep behind the stove.
My parents would go to the American Store and bought sugar and flour by the 100 lb. bag. They would also make their sauerkraut in a small barrel. Once they let me tramp it down by walking around in the barrel as they added the spices. Pork was our food in all forms: sausage, bologna, even the blood. Once in a while there was chicken, which I didn't care for because my father wanted me to eat the repulsive skin. I also hated the skin on the milk after it was cooked. We would take a pail and get our milk from the people in the back who had a cow. After I saw Dad skin a rabbit, I disliked that also. It reminded me too much of a cat. Besides the pork, we would have such dishes as mashed potatoes and buttermilk, or a dish of rice with cinnamon and sugar, or a dish of pigs feet in gelatin. We also had all the famous things like fried brains, livers, kidneys or some kind of soup.
A chicken dinner was a big deal as Mother would first have to catch the chicken [and] try to hold its neck on the block to cut off its head, and even after that it often flew around spraying blood everywhere. Then the feathers had to come off, and it had to be cut up. The next thing was making the noodles from scratch.
Mother also baked bread once a week. This was then blessed by putting a cross on the bottom of the loaf. A typical breakfast was stale bread cut into a huge cup of coffee, which was made from chicory, acorns, or green coffee beans roasted in a frying pan. On rare occasions there was oatmeal. We only had cake twice a year around the holidays. There were no desserts; as a special treat I would get a penny to buy a bag of candy. Sometimes my father would give me a large kettle and fifteen cents, and I would go to the saloon for birch beer. And there was the most delicious ice cream. A pint once a year and chocolate covered cherries about as seldom. That taste I still remember fondly.
The little schoolhouse in Mt. Carmel was where I started to go to school. There were only two rooms with two grades being taught by one teacher. The teachers neglected us, and they would leave a girl in charge to take names and then when they got back every boy had his hands hit at least twice. One teacher did try to teach us to take care of our teeth. Toothbrushes were unknown to us so she tried to get us to at least use some salt on a finger. I didn't have a brush until [I was] in my teens. So even though we had few sweets, our teeth were very bad. During recess we ran up and down the mountains of slag behind the school.
Toys were almost unknown to me during my early years. I did get a metal tricycle from Mike's godfather, Michael Orend. A windup train I had, and there always were spools, slingshots, cans, and there were the potholes to run around in. There were huckleberries to be picked, but to me it was too much trouble. I did pick a pint once and a RR man gave me fifteen cents for them. Someone gave me a penknife. I cut my finger and fainted. This was my first experience with a knife.
The only trip that I knew Mother to take is when she went to visit a lady that she had gone to school with. [The friend] was living near Pittsburgh on a farm. I remember the quiet, the total darkness, the rifle behind the door, and the horse which didn't want me on his back. He gave me a frightening look, and I was glad to get off. Dad once hired a horse and carriage and we drove into the country. In those days cars were few. A memorable time was when my father took me with him to the circus in Sunbury. The Brewery had provided tickets and transportation for their men. It was the first time I saw wild animals or circus clowns. It was very enjoyable.
There for awhile my father took me to Saturday movies when Mary Pickford was playing. I also went alone often. It cost about ten cents. They would run serials that would leave the hero or heroin in a terrible situation, and you would have to come back to see them rescued next Saturday. We had a Victrola and a few records. Father tried to make a violin, but it didn't work, so he bought me one for $15, which entitled me to one lesson. I never took lessons because that would have cost fifty cents.
In 1918, in Shenandoah, Dad bought a saloon. There I saw the men get drunk and fight and carry on. My father got too much at times [as well]. Finally, when Dad, Mother, and Mike were sick with the flu, he got out of that awful business. Here is where I learned the taste of all the drinks. Why I was there so much I don't know, except we did live there, and Mother was busy with the baby.
The Government gave my father the choice of Army or the coal mines. He worked in the mines for awhile but didn't like it and got out as soon as he could. Then Dad got a job as cooper in Mt. Carmel for the Anthracite Brewing Co. He bought two houses on Maple Street only 100 feet from his work. so he was able to come home for lunch. I was able to go and watch him swing his 15 lb. cooper hammer in his shop. It was interesting to see him hammer the hoops and to see the name of the brewery burnt into the wood.
In 1919 the Volstead Act put the breweries out of business, and so Father went into partnership in a soda plant. It was called Star Bottling Works. It consisted of two trucks, two hand operated bottling machines, and a bottle washer. The men would take turns going out on the street. In those days owning a vehicle gave one the right to drive it. There was no licensing or tests. They had no snow tires and so it was an adventure to go out on an icy day. If one couldn't go forward, then he would try it backwards. The fact that there was no deposit on bottles soon put them in the red as not enough of [the bottles] were returned.
In 1922 Dad went to Czechoslovakia to settle some property and made efforts to bring Mary to this country, presumably to take care of Mother who by [then] was very ill with cancer. About 1922 we moved back to Philadelphia. Dad worked for Strawbridge and Clothier finishing floors [with] hand tools, a very hard job on the knees. He then bought a candy store on Pechin Street where I was able to help him by waiting on the customers when he was busy or during the day when things were slow. We lived on Terrace Street then. Dad sold the candy store and bought a wreck of a house and fixed it up into apartments and opened a meat and produce store. He hired a butcher and learned how to cut meat. I had to deliver circulars and get and deliver orders which I disliked. I attended Roxborough Junior High, which was only one year old.
The only time I saw my mother in church was when Mike was christened in a Lutheran Church in Shenandoah. Father taught me to pray and to make the sign of the cross but not as the Catholics. We did ours from the forehead to the chin to the chest. I was always sent to Sunday School and Dad and I would go to church. One Sunday as we went to church a boy was having a hard time pulling his wagon up the hill. My father told me to help him. I refused and after church, I was put in the cellar with my hands tied to repent and ask for forgiveness, which I did. But what puzzled me is why my father didn't help the boy himself.
In Mt. Carmel we used a kerosene lamp until Dad wired the couple rooms with electricity. Wires were run in wooden moldings and a bare bulb would hang from the ceiling. There was no refrigerator or bathroom in the house. Dad did make a cement box in the cellar to keep the food, but it didn't do the job. Mother made her own soap and catsup, which exploded all over the place. I don't think she knew how to can things.
When I was very small, I was given a BB gun and I would shoot at everything in any dark room in order not to be afraid of the shadows. The kids never let me play at their games and would chase me, which turned me to books of which I would read about three a week. I saw a wonderful thingmy first plane in Mt. Carmel.
The Russian neighbors behind our house were unusual in two [ways]. They celebrated Christmas around the 13th of January, [and] they had the most beautiful, highly decorated Easter eggs. We would give them our Christmas tree when we were done with it.
I believed in Santa Claus for a long time and didn't know that my father would take a saw and go into the nearby woods to cut down a long needled spruce for our tree. It was so fresh that there was no danger of fire from the many candles that were put on it. One never heard of a tree fire. The decorations were nuts, apples, toy, candy, and some string tinsel. As a usual thing, things to wear were given to us, and for these we were very thankful. There were some lean years when there was no tree and nothing but a bag of mixed nuts which we heard Santa throw on the porch. In school the teacher would spend all day drawing a Santa Claus, greens, and berries. She would show us how to make paper stars and we sang Christmas songs.
Dad bought a knitting machine which was supposed to make them some money. The trick was to follow directions and make socks and other things and sell them to the company that sold the machine. But they never learned to work it. Dad tried to make whiskey and wine, but none of these things made him any money. He didn't care much about drinking the stuff at that time.
The day my brother was born, I wasn't allowed in the house for a long time. Then I was told that I had a brother. I wasn't thrilled because this baby seemed to do a lot of crying, and I knew it would keep me awake. Besides I wanted a doll, not a brother. He did do a lot of crying, but [it] didn't bother me. The people around us tried in every way to show mother what to do to make him content. Finally they found out that he really wasn't getting enough to eat from being nursed, so he was given Eagle Brand condensed milk and other things to satisfy his hunger.
Mother's milk dried in her breast and it developed into cancer. She suffered and lost her breast. They put an awful hole under her arm, but I was too young to understand what was going on. She must have been sick about four years. During her last year, our Pastor Schmider, who had just lost his wife, visited mother almost every day. They sang hymns together and she prayed with him. She was ready to be with the Lord. The night before she died, she had a dream; a very vivid one of the Virgin Mary dropping out of heaven at her feet in the form of a stick and then returning to heaven.
The next day, March 18 1925, when I came home from school, Roxborough Jr. High, she was gone. There were ladies there taking care of things. Mother was laid out right in our living room and I wasn't even concerned or sorrowful and only when my father sobbed at the funeral and told me that they were putting mother in the grave, did it make an impression. We didn't seem to miss her, perhaps because father was around so much that we got used to him taking care of us. That same month I was confirmed in the German Lutheran Church on Pechin Street. I recited the books of the Bible in German as part of the ceremony. (The pastor and his wife are in the plot next to mother.)
With Mother gone, we had to take care of ourselves. I was supposed to take care of Mike, go to the store near us, dust a little, and at times I would help my father in the candy store. One day Mike started a small fire by the house and I got excited and threw it against the fence. We had it burning and I think someone who was passing by put it out.
Dad was busy now trying to find a suitable mother for us. He brought a couple of ladies to look us over. When the right one came along who had compassion on us, Dad married her. Emma Hantwerker married Dad on Thanksgiving, and we gained a stepmother who was like a real mother to us.
Stepmother had been divorced from a Mr. Walker after he had caused her to lose two babies after he kicked her. So we fulfilled her need and she filled ours. Before this Dad had tried to put us in the Moose Home in Elkhorn, but they wouldn't take us because only one parent was gone. (Dad had been a member of the Moose Lodge.)
Dad's father-in-law, Andreas Hantwerker, loaned him $500, and he and mother bought a building with a store that had been vacant for a year across from the freight yard. So we moved into one apartment, and they rented one. Also there was a spare room which they also rented to suitable men. The store they named Star Delicatessen, and they did everything to make it go. Mother made lunches for the factory workers across the street, Collins Honey Scotch. Then there [were the workers at] LaFrance Textile who either came for sandwiches or I would take orders and then deliver. Mother also made pies, potato salad, coleslaw, crab cakes, fish cakes, etc. We were open seven days from 5:30 to 11 or later. I would help after school and Mike would also deliver orders when we could find him. He would rather shoot marbles and hated the store because he wanted to live like normal people.
[Teenager and Young Adult]
I started at the Harding Junior High on Torresdale and Wakeling Street and stayed until eighth grade. I never seemed to have homework so there was plenty of time for me to work in the store. We joined the Emmanuel Lutheran Church on Plum and Lackawanna Street. Now our way of life changed. We not only had dessert but had two of them each meal. We had to stagger our meal times because someone had to be in the store at all times. Also at our fingertips [were] loose cookies, pretzels, and ice cream. We had everything that we never had before.
Dad spent a fabulous amount for a Zenith radio, about $300, which was a lot of money in those days. We also got two newspapers. We never had one before. Dad kept remodeling the store, and [it] became a Frankford-Unity Store, which was considered one of the best. Now the blue laws closed us on Sundays, and we also closed some evenings, which being a F-U store required.
On my 14th birthday, I was given a gold Elgin pocket watch. 1926 was also the year when the Ben Franklin Bridge openedthe first bridge in this area to replace ferries. Mike and I also went to the Sesqui-Centennial by trolley and Mike would get sick. We would get off and I carried him for awhile and then got back on the trolley. The Hantwerkers favorite game was pinochle, so we all played every Sunday evening and some evenings. There was no money involved [just] plenty of refreshments to keep us fat.
In 1927, my father wrote to Czechoslovakia for my birth certificate, and I found out that my middle name was Frank. With the encouragement of my father, I altered the date to make [myself] 2 years older. I got working papers from school so that I could get a job. All of the relatives were in hosiery work, but none would help me get a job. Dad found a customer who got me into the Apex Hosiery on 5th and Luzerne. A person had to have a German background to be considered. The pay was eight dollars for five and a half days work. I worked up to [being] an operator of 1/2 of a machine. The CIO had a sit down strike and my job was gone. I was very unhappy because I had to leave my trade. Now an exodus began for the hosiery mills; nearly all moved to the south.
While at Apex, they had an outing for the employees at Willow Grove Park. I still remember the good time and sore neck from one of the whip rides. Also at Apex I was invited to party by one of the girls. She acted foolish at the games they played: kissing and hugging, which was a new thing to me. A group of us also went to Clementon on a Saturday. We took a trolley to the ferry and from the ferry on another trolley to Clementon, where we went into the water and had a good time. I was fascinated by Ann Schmidt with her big brown eyes and brown curly hair. She wore yellow dresses, and I still like yellow. My handicap was that I had not the slightest idea how to date a girl.
Dad bought a Dodge from Carl Hantwerker in Gloucester, NJ. (He was trying to sell cars but failed.) This was our first new car (about 1927). I learned to drive it before I was 16 and drove the four of us to Mt. Carmel where we picked up Mike's Godfather, Michael Orend, who went as far as Reading. He then left, either because of my bad driving or because he was afraid that Dad wanted to borrow money from him. He saw a Moose Lodge and left.
Father [bought] a headstone for mother's grave. It [caused] hard feelings between Dad and stepmother for several weeks. He started to drink wine. It was settled with a fur coat.
I was given an used erector set which I enjoyed very much, but Mike fell on it and received a life long scar in his cheek. Went to the Boulevard Sears and bought a mandolin which I never learned to play very well. I really wanted to get a guitar.
Dad [opened] another store in his old house on Wissahickon and Salos Streets in Manayunk, which only lasted for a few months. We both worked there at times. Dad [bought] me a store at 4063 Higbee Street. He hired a deaf butcher but because times were bad and I had no meat experience, I failed. Several people also stuck me with large bills which I threw away. So I went back to our store, but got depressed so much that I almost ran away to become a racetrack gambler. I had learned about horses from men that I had worked with in Apex. I had my bag all packed but couldn't go through with it. At 21 I was able to vote, and I didfor Roosevelt. Dad exchanged one of his unsalable homes for one on Master street, but rents were too hard to collect.
On my 21st birthday, Dad presented me with a 1933 Chevy Coupe with [a] rumble seat. In addition he paid $9 a month garage rent and $30 insurance. The car cost $600 and gas cost thirteen cents a gallon. I averaged over 25 mpg. I didn't really want or need a car. One Sunday morning on the way to Dover, Delaware, my car caught on fire on Huntington and Roosevelt Boulevard. An attendant from a gas station sprayed it with foam and put it out. Then I had the problem of replacing a battery cable. A policeman told me that it was against the law to sell such an item on Sunday. Somehow I got one and replaced it and continued on my way.
Mike, two friends, and I wanted to see the cherry blossoms in Washington, but it was a terrible drive through Philadelphia, Baltimore, and every little place in between. It was a 6 hour trip each way and we were worn out. The blossoms weren't out.
About 1936 Mike [took] a correspondence course in closed circuit TV. Someone had an idea that people would pay to see themselves on such a machine. There would be two in each building. In order to finish the course, Mike had to go to Chicago for a few months. The idea was not a success, but Mike didn't want to come home. I volunteered to go and get him with my little car. I stayed one night in Ohio and the next night I battled the heavy traffic of Michigan Boulevard to the place where he was staying with other boys. He wasn't in but when he did get in, he cried. But by morning he was ready to go home. I don't think we stopped [except] for gas and to [go to] stores so [that we could make] our own wild plum and other sandwiches.
Mike was happy to be home. He found out later that many of the boys were stranded with the machines and no money. But Mike benefitted from the electronics that he learned. Meanwhile between waiting on customers, he studied for a ham license and had his own station W3GNV whose signals were heard in foreign countries. Long after I was asleep he was still transmitting. He heard that the National Guard needed a radio man, so he joined and made sergeant. Quickly he rose to Lt. in the Signal Corp. and retired as Lt. Col. Meanwhile I taught Sunday School miserably and was also elected to the church council and sang in the men's choir.
In 1937 I traded my Chevy for a four cylinder Ford Sedan from Alvin Swenson. This was a more comfortable ride and roomy, so that Mike and his friends could go along. I spent four days in Wildwood with Ray Altman one summer. Another year I took Wanda Konschak for a four day vacation in total innocence at her Mother's suggestion. I was too naive to think of the possible implications. We stayed at Mrs. Brown's on Oak Street, had separate rooms, and paid our own way. [I] suffered terribly with an in grown toenail which grew out of the front of my toe.
In 1938 Mike and a girl friend fell off their bikes, and the girl had to go to Abington Hospital for face cuts. I took my car to him there, and he took her home. I pedaled his bike home. About this time I imagined myself in love with the other W. K. from Delaware and asked her to marry me. Naturally she turned me down as I was only considered a friend. I felt terribly foolish as I knew the whole family would hear about this. They did. [A friend, George] Egee introduced me to burlesque. I went but it was unbelievable to me that such places existed. This didn't do me any good. [I] had a date with a girl next door who unknown to me had a bad reputation. I took her to Willow Grove Park and we had an uneventful but nice evening. It took me months to discourage her after I realized my danger. [I also] had a movie date with Z. B. during one of the lonesome times. [I] enjoyed her company but wasn't ready for marriage even though her Mother and Grandmother did everything in their power to encourage me.
Dad had sold me the store and they moved to a farm in Langhorne on Hulmville Road. I had a room upstairs where I slept. I had no idea how to cook and had some terrible meals. On Sunday I would go to my folks for a good meal. I had various boys helping me in the store: Mike, Ed Tiese, Billy Konschak, Donald Graff, Bowser, and several other boys. On account of the war, workers were getting scarcer all of the time. Dad [got] me to buy a small house on Orthodox Street near the store. While in the Army, he sold it for me at a profit. Dad's health got bad and he came back to the store, but I was drafted, and he was able to sell the whole building and store to William Costello.
I did have a deferment but was inducted into the Army on October 14, 1942. On the 28th I had to leave. My father walked me to the draft board. I broke down and cried bitterly as I was leaving home for the first time at the age of 30. A few days before, Evelyn [Austin] and her Mother came around to wish me good luck, and as we shook hands our arms crossed. It was supposed to have an important meaning.
© John A. Matzko