Sunday, March 22, 2015

Concrete Charlie

Noting the passing of former football great Chuck Bednarik.

Suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s had a distinctive, small town feel. Most of the men in the unincorporated hamlet of Southampton were veterans, moving into tiny single story homes (base price $8000) as they built post-war lives. Telephone service still involved "party lines," shared service among four or five homes. Telephone numbers began with the exchange name - hence ours was "EL (for Elmwood) 7-4630." The first July 4th parade my father marched in was attended by most of the townspeople, who also constituted the marchers. "We marched and then ran back to be the crowd for the other fellows," my dad said. At one event he introduced me to a man who billed himself as "Hitler's favorite P-47 pilot." Two combat missions, twice shot down. He was captured after his second crash. He still bore the scars where his face had struck the gun sight.

Television - three channels on a black and white RCA set. The National Football League was still building a following, so TV money was a fraction of what it is today. Often, games were "blacked out" locally because there were still tickets remaining. It was not unusual for our beloved Eagles to be playing a big game at Franklin Field in front of enough empty seats that it was not broadcast by the Philadelphia station. My enterprising father bought the biggest antenna he could find, securing it to our roof during a snow storm, so that he could pick up stations in New Jersey.

Among our heroes was a man named Chuck Bednarik, number 60. He had been born in Pennsylvania, flew combat missions over Germany as a B-24 waist gunner and returned home to attend college. He was a football player, drafted by the Eagles, and played both offense and defense, on the field the entire sixty minutes. His fierce style dominated games, helping the Eagles to championships. My father, of course, revered the man. It is family legend that my late brother Dave's first words were "Chuck Bednarik."

Concrete Charlie? Football players enjoyed modest salaries, even the stars. In the off season Bednarik sold concrete, (according to Dad) at the plant by the railroad tracks on 2nd Street Pike. He mentioned it every time we drove by, I suppose lest we would forget.

Bednarik died this week in a nursing home, reportedly suffering that ubiquitous disease of former football players - Alzheimer's. He is yet another veteran to pass, men from a different era when star athletes at the top of their game might also work down the street in the off season selling concrete.

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