Scranton Pennsylvania: Part One; Part Two
LC Van Savage
The Donkey in Scranton Pennsylvania
This is Part One of a two-part story about a terrific two days I just spent in yes, Scranton, Pennsylvania if you can believe that one might actually spend time there. My family and I went there to bury Papavan, Mongo’s father and my father in law, who’d been born there, a place he loved dearly, a place that stayed close to his heart all of his life. Even after he had to leave it he got back there as often as he possibly could just to walk around and visit and be there. And indeed it really was a remarkable two days in Scranton.
Stanley Algird Van Savage was 94 when he died, and had outlived all his friends and nearly all his relatives. We buried him on November 11th , Veteran’s Day. He was not a veteran. The army wouldn’t take him into World War II because he was a bit too old, and a lot 4F, something about a bad leg of which he never spoke. Besides, he also had a young family, relatives and ageing parents to care for, and he did that well. Papa had not a lot focuses in his life, but his biggest were work and family, and while he never became a wealthy man, he did a good job nonetheless with what he had.
Mongo and I, and 2 of our sons, Mark and Paul, drove to Scranton, getting there the afternoon before the next-day burial, so we decided to drive around Mongo’s old home town of Scranton, PA. It was nice. Our hotel was on a bluff overlooking the city, a bluff now covered with all the big, glittering businesses of our country; Staples, Barnes and Nobel, Home Depot, Sears, Wal-Mar, restaurants —everything. But fifty years ago Mongo drove me to that very same bluff in Papa’s 1948 black Mercury. The land there was empty then, and it’s where Mongo gave me my tiny engagement ring that night in that black Mercury. We could see slag heaps off in the distance, small clusters of blue flames dancing all over them. They, and my new ring, were beautiful to see. His mother, named Marion, (we called her Mamavan) gave Mongo her own engagement ring for him to give to me which he had reset, and I wore it the next day when we buried Papa, when we said goodbye to both of his parents forever. They now rest next to each other in a beautiful cemetery in Clarks Summit, PA.
Early that evening as Mongo drove us around his old haunts, we saw that those areas of Scranton were unchanged, shabby, and constant, representing the very best and strongest of America. It was a strange, weird time-warp and we could almost see exactly how Scranton had been when Papa and his family lived there. We saw Mongo’s unchanged high and junior high schools and the places where he’d worked and played, hiked and boy-scouted as a kid, all some distance from his homes, all walkable or bikable. (Mongo never owned a car until after we were married.) He showed us homes that had at one time begun to sink into the ground from being built on top of the miles and miles of coal mines below. He drove us under a small cement arched bridge, the same one he and I had driven beneath when we were engaged, and he honked and the sound echoed just as it had back in the 1950s when he told me to make a wish. He said it would come true. It did.
Papa had hand-built a tiny house for his family on Dean St. right between 2 sets of railroad tracks. The small family eventually settled away from that noisy location and moved up in the world to an old two family home on Wood St. and we saw that too, unchanged from when Mongo was a boy, as was the next two-family tiny home on Spring St. the place where Mongo and I, in 1963, brought our two babies, Erick and Mark, when we came home from the army in Germany. The kitchen stove burned wood and Mama had a wringer washer that crashed and bounced all over the kitchen while in use. It was comfortable there, small and tight, safe and good. Two bedrooms. One bath. Home.
And then on to the bigtime---the town of Chinchilla--- where Mama and Papa moved to a big house with an apple tree and a steep sleddable lawn out back, and a garage, a home large enough to accommodate the 5 grandchildren rapidly arriving in the 1960s. Pure luxury for them and perfect for all of us. It was the largest and best home they’d ever owned, and they didn’t have to share it with a family on the other side.
“I’d sure love to find ‘The Donkey,’” Mongo said casually as we drove around old Scranton that evening, learning about his old girlfriends, his very ethnic school chums, where he hiked and played and worked. Spellbound, we asked what he meant by “The Donkey,” and he explained it was a restaurant/bar somewhere in “the plot,” an area into which the Lackawanna River routinely overflowed when he was young.
“My father used to deliver eggs to that restaurant when we were kids,” he told us. “He got them from my Lithuanian grandparents’ farm which they bought after my grandfather couldn’t work in the coal mines any longer. And after we were born and grew up, my father would take us there ‘for a beer.’ Of course he had the beer. We had birch beer. I’d sure love to see it again.”
We drove around a lot more in the dusk, driving up and down old streets, seeing bars on many, many corners, Mongo telling us stories about many familiar landmarks, still extant. It was getting dark. Too late. The Donkey had probably been torn down decades ago.
But no! Right there, in The Plot, on a corner, in a worn and old residential area, there, suddenly, was The Donkey! We shouted! None of us could believe it! Unimposing, grey, insignificant in the dimming light, a small pink neon sign on the side read, “The Donkey.”
Thrilled, we parked, and went in---and again stepped back in time. Mongo said it was exactly the same, save for a TV set and a new juke box. A long bar was there, some people sitting drinking a beer, and in another room some empty booths for diners, old red cracked plastic seats. And surprisingly on the wall of each booth was a doorbell which customers could use to summon the barkeep to come in and take their drink orders. Mongo said that room was also completely unchanged, except for the specials on pink paper tacked in several places along the walls; “Deep fried Oreos, 4 for $3.”
Shannon the friendly, funny bar tender found an ancient photo for us to look at, showing many men seated at the bar, all who looked an awful lot like Papa, all smiling for the camera, all wearing worn, old fedoras. The owner Mike Malone found some old newspapers too from the 1940s, full of astonishingly inexpensive things like food and gas and houses. People listened with interest as we talked about why we were there and how we’d found the place.
It was simply surreal in The Donkey that evening. The place just can’t make a lot of money, but the owners want to keep it the way it is, a tiny, long narrow bar and restaurant on the corner of Grace and Brighton Streets, number 602 Grace St., in Scranton, PA where old and young timers can come in and have a beer and talk and laugh. We stood in that dimly lit place and felt close to Papa, thinking how so many decades before he’d walked through that very same door with his basket of eggs for the restaurant people. We enjoyed it so much and left reluctantly, driving off into the dark and looking back at that small, dull little building next to the Lackawanna River, with the pink neon sign on the side wall saying “The Donkey” next to another sign saying that the place would remain open “until closing.”
We had to get up early the next day to put our Papa’s ashes in the ground and to say goodbye to him even though I think we did that as we drove off that night, looking back at that small bar/restaurant, The Donkey, so full of sweet, fading memories.
Part Two - Burying Papa
This is the second part of a story about the death of our dear Papa, Stanley A. Van Savage, my father-in-law.
We’d said good-bye to Papa five years before we buried him at the cemetery at Clark’s Summit, PA on November 11th last. Alzheimer’s had taken over his smart brain and turned it to mush and all we could get from him were endless sentences with constantly repeated words at their ends, lots of strange stream-of-consciousness babblings. He didn’t know us at all, although when Mongo and I sat with him last fall, toward the end of our visit he turned to Mongo and asked him if he was working. It was a question Papa asked of everyone because work was what he relished the most out of life, what he did, who and what he was and thought, and after family, it was his most important reason for being. In fact in all his life, Papavan never really took any vacations if he could find part-time work to fill up those idle hours, to make a few more dollars to feed and care for his beloved wife Marion and their two sons.
He got to go to college for at least one year. Penn State, but there wasn’t enough money for that, so he left. He went to work, because for him, and for all people back then, work was it, you sought it, you did it and it was a privilege to get it.
In 1941 on a vacation to be spent from his job as a liquor store manager in Scranton he heard about an oystering job in the Long Island Sound in New York, so down he went, a young father from Scranton PA who’d worked on a railroad and a farm, who’d sold home-grown rhubarb from door to door at 11 years old, sold eggs to The Donkey restaurant in Scranton, who worked in a hardware store on weekends at 13, a gas station at night after that, a bartender in a speakeasy one summer when he was 18, bakeries, truck and cab driving --- anyplace he could to make a few bucks to help the family, -- off he went to rake up oysters from the bottom of the Sound and haul them off to some other part of the waterway. He never forgot the experience. He temped (only they didn’t call it “temping” back then) on vacations by working in an A&P warehouse, as a clerk at the local railroad station, at US Steel in New Jersey; the man heard about job openings, he went for them, got them and did them well.
But it wasn’t always about the money that he wandered around finding work away from his day-to-day job, although that was the most important to him; it was about satisfying his insatiable curiosity. Papa had to see everything he could. Didn’t matter where or what; he wanted to see it. What was mundane and boring to others was fascinating to him. He was incredibly gifted at silently vanishing from noisy family gatherings and showing up many hours later after his explorings were done, often to face the wrath of his dear wife.
They eloped back in 1931. Marion was living with her family and she always turned to wave goodbye to them as she walked to school in the mornings, but that morning, she didn’t turn, and they all idly wondered why. She was preoccupied you see, because that was to be her wedding day. She would play hooky from school so she could marry her adored Stanley that afternoon, and they had 55 years together before her death. She was 16 that day, he barely 20. The marriage was happy, strong and good, setting a very good example for all of us.
In my last column, I spoke of the homes Marion and Stan lived in, one built by Papa himself, still extant, squarely between two sets of railroad tracks. He worked on the railroad back then also, up in a tower on a platform where he’d hold out a big stick with a Y at its end which held a message on a piece of paper for the engineer in the speeding train. A metal arm would fly out from the train and snag the message. It was also Papa’s job to turn the huge cranks and levers to move the tracks into a new direction, a responsible job for strong men, and Papa was strong. He wasn’t big but his hands and arms were muscular and taut.
RCA in New Jersey wanted to hire Papa at one time, and had he taken the job, the family wouldn’t have had to worry about money ever again, but he turned it down. He came from an old Lithuanian family and it was the custom that the son would stay in his home-town and take care of his parents. Papa had two sisters so the job was his. His Lithuanian parents lived in Scranton, and he honored the old custom and stayed there and cared for them and lived on a small salary from the liquor store. These immigrant people whose Lithuanian name was “translated” into Van Savage at Ellis Island, both worked very hard, coal mining, farming, doing, making it all happen, making America. We have a photo of Papa’s aged father Joseph standing grinning next to a gigantic tree he’d just felled, a large saw in his hand. The tree was at least a yard thick. These people never turned away from work and that’s what it was—just work. Not hard, not easy. Just necessary.
Papa eventually rose through the ranks in the liquor store business to become a District Supervisor, a job from which he retired, a job that required some travel that he loved, being an explorer in his heart. He joined the Masons in his fifties which was odd to all of us because he was not a joiner or a club guy, and was rather reclusive with a small cadre of old and good friends around him. He surprised all of us by loving being a Mason, and he became a Grand Master. And so it was with the Masons that he spent his remaining years on earth in a palatial place called The Masonic Home in Elizabethtown, PA. He’d likely never in his entire life thought he’d live out his life in such splendor. It is Versailles there; acres of well tended orchards and gardens, rolling hills, old elegant high-ceilinged rooms, hand-carved things everywhere, hundreds of grandfather clocks, organs, pianos, meals in a fabulous cavernous beautiful diningroom. Meals brought to one’s room when one was too ill to go to the dining room. Long wide tunnels so the residents could move from building to building in inclement weather. A well stocked library. Music, films, lectures, shopping trips, dances, parties, entertainment, games, activities, stores where the residents could buy for pennies all the clothes left behind by those who’d died, laundry service, hobbies ---everything anyone could want was at the Masonic Home. Papa’s room was sparse, as he liked it. No decoration. A completely unused TV set. His tiny, cracked transistor radio wrapped in tape next to his bed. A desk, small bathroom, a bed and two chairs. Everything he owned was stored in one small closet and dresser. He’d once owned an extensive and valuable coin collection years ago, but sold that so that he could come to Landstuhl Germany on a ship with Mamavan to visit Mongo and me while Mongo served in the US Army. He had nothing of any value at the Home having given it all to all of us, but he was a man of few wants and happiest in simplicity.
I remember seeing him run and leap up a long flight of stone steps at the Masonic Home as we walked, taking 2 or 3 at a clip. He was in such good health always and never seemed to age, his hair staying blond, his skin wrinkle-free, no fat on him anywhere. He never really indulged himself. I don’t know as I ever saw him even eat a bowl of ice cream, although he did sneak the occasional cigarette and thought no one knew. We did. His being decadent was pouring a bit of wine into a jelly glass and spreading apple sauce on a piece of bread to snack on even if he wasn’t hungry or thirsty in the middle of the afternoon, just for the wildness of it.
We buried Mongo’s father in a tiny grave next to Mama’s on that cold, wet day in Clark’s Summit last November, just the family gathered about, just as he’d like it. His favorite people were there, his two sons, their wives and his 5 beloved grandchildren, Erick, Mark, Paul, Lisa and Laura, now all grown, and one great-grandson Dylan. I know he’d been proud that all of us have led good, productive lives because of the legacy he and Mama had left us.
He’d been cremated at his request, and why a plastic bag was wrapped around that tiny urn to “keep it dry” nearly sent me into gales of uncontrollable laughter. I carried five white stones from the Maine coastline representing Mongo, our three boys and me to put on the urn in that little grave. He’d loved exploring Maine. It makes me feel good to know they’re in there with him forever, stones we held in our hands before we put them on his small white urn.
Stanley Van Savage taught us a lot. He was honest, had strong ethics, certainly a strong work ethic. He quietly showed everyone in his beloved family that all one had to do was do all the work, provide for the family, try to do the right thing always. He never spoke of these things; he showed us these things. I remember the last time we saw him at the Home before Alzheimer’s grabbed him. We knew something was coming—he was forgetting too much. But he was fine that day, proudly wearing his $2. Glen Plaid suit and 50 cent tie salvaged from the Masonic Home Store. He walked away from us, down a winding road on his way to the dining room for his dinner, and he didn’t look back. His legs were slightly bowed and he looked very small to me and I was sad seeing him disappear down that long roadway, knowing I’d never see him again like that. Off he went, looking only forward, curious to know what the evening would bring to him, what new things he’d discover about the world, from books, newspapers, from his pals at the Home, or just from walking about. He never stopped learning.
Papa showed us how to be and what to be, and it was to be the best one can. Just do the best. That’s all. And do the right thing. Work. He was perhaps not a really remarkable man in a world filled with so-called remarkable people. But he was to us.
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