Author remembers Depression-era Fishtown

Joseph O. McLaugh­lin has writ­ten a book, "The Die is Cast," that re­calls life in Fishtown dec­ades ago.

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

Star Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­

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