Some 80 years ago, close to midnight on sleepy Sunday evenings, the elevated train returning to Philadelphia from Atlantic City would pull up and stop right next to the third floor window of 2026 Trenton Ave.
From that window, children inside would shout to the train’s passengers, who would open the windows and throw out colorful pieces of saltwater taffy. For a moment, then, the children imaged sand beneath their feet, instead of cobblestones.
It was as close as they would get to the shore.
That’s the Fishtown Joseph O. McLaughlin remembers.
The nearly 88-year-old McLaughlin, who grew up in the neighborhood, recalls this and other memories of Depression-era Philadelphia, his World War II service and his family life in his book “The Die is Cast.”
After nearly seven years of writing, McLaughlin saw his work published, he said, about four months ago.
“I did it the hard way,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I’m not a good typist; I wrote on a yellow legal pad!”
And with the book at 258 pages, that’s a lot of legal pads.
McLaughlin, who now lives in Bethlehem, Pa. with his wife, Patricia, said he was inspired to write down his life experience after his wife’s father, a World War I veteran, passed away.
When he died, McLaughlin said, family members had many questions that went unanswered.
“So I said to my wife, ‘honey, this is not going to happen to me,’” he said. “I was writing it for my family.”
After suffering every aspiring writer’s plight — rejection notices from 50 agents — he struck gold with Pittsburg-based Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc.
“The Die is Cast” and two other books by McLaughlin are currently in the Library of Congress. One, a picture book, is a compilation of images developed from two rolls of film he came across during his service in the Army.
“I threw them [the rolls] in my duffle bag and carried them through the war,” he said. “Years later I developed them. They were pictures taken by a German solider of the German aspect of the war.”
He titled the book, “World War II, Another View.”
Growing up, McLaughlin also lived in houses on Arizona Street and Amber Street. One of nine children, he recalls his father’s work selling water ice from a pushcart and fruits and vegetables from a horse and wagon.
“We were poor,” McLaughlin said. “Everybody was poor, everybody needed something.”
His childhood, he said, was spent finding ways to get by in Fishtown. Still, he had fun.
“As kids, we had to do as we could,” he said. “To go to the theatre, we’d get enough money together to pay for one of our buddies—he’d go in and then open the back doors for us.”
Still, he said that his family did what they could to share with their neighbors. He said he father would come home and tell his mother to make up a dish of food for someone who had none.
“This was just something you did,” he said, adding that his family received similar gestures of goodwill—on Christmas morning, there would usually be a basket of food for the whole family on the front door step.
McLaughlin still has family and friends in Fishtown, though he said it’s different from the place he remembers.
“So many things go through your mind when you’re going down there,” he said. “Just driving around is an experience; when I was a kid there were very few people that owned a car, now you can’t find a parking space.”
He recalls attending Holy Name Church at 701 Gaul St., and walking past the Palmer Cemetery at Palmer and Memphis streets. He’d grab a few lilac branches hanging onto the sidewalk and bring them home to his mother, who would put them in a glass of water next to a statue of the Virgin Mary.
“Is it really stealing,” he said he would think, “If it’s for the Virgin Mary?”
McLaughlin is currently battling skin cancer with the help of his wife Patricia. He said he’s thrilled at the response his book has received after selling a few hundred copies.
The responses from people, he said, have been “beautiful, just wonderful.”
As for the title, he said it was inspired by his thoughts after enlisting in the Army. He was ruminating over the choice, worrying that his family might suffer without him, that things wouldn’t be the same when he returned.
“I kept driving myself crazy, then finally thought, ‘I already enlisted, so the die is cast.’”
Joseph O. McLaughlin’s book “The Die is Cast” is available on amazon.com.
Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.