Charlie Chambers’ (Incomplete) Memoir

5 Aug

This document was found in a rarely visited folder in the bowels of my father’s iMac shortly after his passing in October 2015. Simply titled “Outline” It looks like he started it soon after retiring and never came back to it. I don’t recall him ever mentioning it and there are no notations or revisions evident. The style is terse and factual, expected for a first draft and from a man who wrote technical documents for a living. Presenting to the Joint Chiefs pretty much requires a spare and factual writing style.

I have edited his prose lightly, mostly for clarity, trying to preserve his voice as much as possible.

Steve Chambers (oldest son) August 2017


My parents married in Plainfield, New Jersey, where my mother then lived with her parents, my mother and father immediately moved to Philadelphia so my father could start his new job with Commerce Clearing House a supplier of legal documents.

L to R: Rebecca Moore Winfield Chambers, George Chambers, Helen Chambers
L to R: Rebecca Moore Winfield Chambers, George Chambers, Helen Chambers

They honeymooned at The Homestead in Warm Springs, Virginia (presumably they got there by train). See photograph of the dining room there with the annotation “our table.” [Never found that photograph, too bad]

Charlie Chambers at 6 months (1929) with mother, Helen
Charlie Chambers at 6 months (1929) with mother, Helen

I was born in north of Philadelphia PA in Abington Township Hospital (which is still there). I first resided at Greenwood Terrace apartments; a block or two up on Greenwood avenue from the Jenkintown side of Jenkintown & Wyncote railroad station  (commuter line of the Reading RR) Bob as a baby almost went over the rail, six or seven stories up!

Charlie in a baby stroller
Charlie in a baby stroller

Mather Rd. Wyncote. Moved there from Greenwood Terrace probably in 1931 (I was two or three). The highlight of that period was the Icehouse fire. Mather Rd ended at Township Line Rd. which ran parallel to the RR tracks, a mile or so south of the J &W station. Just beyond Mather Rd, was the Icehouse, where they made Ice for the town’s iceboxes. It burnt spectacularly sometime during our occupancy at the Mather Rd apartment.

We moved to 214 Hewett Rd. Wyncote about 1933, where I lived ‘till I left for college in 1947. Dad rented the house for less than a year then bought for about $14,000.

214 Hewett Rd. Jenkintown, PA in 1934
214 Hewett Rd. Jenkintown, PA in 1934

A big house with a two-car garage, four bedroom two and a half baths. It had a wonderful attic, storage place in front, and playroom in back. But hot in summer and cold in winter. My brother and I shared a room with twin beds in the front of the house. In pix, on the right hand second floor.

Charlie and Bob in front of the family Deusenberg in 1931
Charlie and Bob in front of the family Deusenberg in 1931

The house had few modern amenities. No air conditioning in those days, coal furnace and hot water heater. The coal was in two large bins (one for furnace-sized coal; irregular chunks of anthracite two to three inches in size for the furnace, and small pieces, one to one and a half inches. The latter for the “bucket-a-day” hot water heater. Under a basement window a chute through which coal was delivered.

Charlie, and Bob with their mother Helen in 1934
Charlie, and Bob with their mother Helen in 1934

In winter, in the evening, dad had to “bank” the fire (this involves pushing all the coals to the back of the firebox so that it would burn slowly overnight). He then would add coal in the morning and get it going full blast again. Sometimes the fire would go out overnight, and he’d grrrrr and have to start the fire again in the morning. The furnace fed hot-water radiators in every room, we got an oil burner later, I believe sometime in the late 40s. Meantime, ashes were shoveled out of the furnace and hot water heater and left outside in bushel-basket sized galvanized steel containers which the ash man picked up once every week or two.  The ashes also served to help give the car traction on the driveway in icy weather.

Charlie with his Dad and Uncle (Dad's brother)
Charlie with his Dad and Uncle (Dad’s brother)

On cold mornings until the fire got going, we had a kerosene heater in the kitchen. It was a stand-alone, black sheet metal thing that stood two feet high or so and about a foot in diameter. There were strict orders that there was no fooling around in the kitchen for fear of knocking the thing over.

The ice box, literally an insulated box filled with ice, drained below the pantry. If you got ice cream…you ate it right away or it would melt. It was always a welcome surprise, usually on Sundays: Gunns ice cream store!

Wash tubs for clothes, in the pantry next to the icebox. At some point we upgraded to a washer with wringer and then hung clothes outside to dry.

Bob and Charlie paying Cowboys and Indians
Bob and Charlie playing Cowboys and Indians

There was no such thing as a garbage disposer; garbage was picked up once a week, really garbage, it was kept in an underground garbage can (maybe twenty gallons in size) just outside the back door; it had a cast iron top that opened with a foot pedal. Paper trash got burned in a wire incinerator in the back yard.

Milk etc. was delivered every few days in an electric-battery-powered truck. The milk was delicious and we always poured off the top two to three inches in the glass milk bottles that was the cream rising to the top for deserts.

Charlie with newborn Bob
Charlie with newborn Bob

We did have a gas stove and oven. But it was not natural gas, rather manufactured from coal and piped into the house.

Summers bring memories of the vendors that sold vegetables on the street. I particularly remember the Italian man who came along occasionally hollering strawBERRIES, strawberries, nice, fresh,  strawberries! Also a mobile knife-sharpener, I don’t recall if he was on foot or had a cart.

Charlie and Bob playing with dad
Charlie and Bob playing with dad

Throughout much of my childhood, my mother had a full-time maid. Her name was Amelia Robinson, and she worked six days a week at $6 a week. At a time when my father’s salary was running in the neighborhood of $100 a week; the going rate for a household servant was $5 per week, but my mother didn’t think that was enough, she paid Amelia $6.

Charlie and dad with their maid Amelia
Charlie and dad with their maid Amelia

Phoenixville Pa. Vacation: a country inn/boarding house. We spent several weeks there one summer when I was ten or eleven years old. At least part of the time my dad would go to work at his office in Philadelphia, and come out to the inn over the weekend. The place was run by the Rhodes family -they had a bunch of kids- and from one or more of the boys, my brother and I learned how to make model airplanes of balsa wood, covered with tissue paper. This was a hobby that took many of our hours in the years to follow.

Charlie and Bob
Charlie and Bob

The eldest Rhodes kid was a few years older than me, and nick-named Perk. Later in life I ran into him on Second Fleet staff on board the USS Newport News (a heavy cruiser, CA-148) when I was OEG rep in ‘62-’63. At that time he was no longer “Perk,” everyone called him “Dusty.”

One day in the summer of ’38 – ’39 while swimming at a nearby day camp, I almost drowned, was pulled out of the water by a counselor. Another time, my brother and I found some of my parent’s condoms. My mother found us blowing them up like balloons, and when asked what they were, told us they were for “experiments.”

Bob and Charlie with Mickey the family dog
Bob and Charlie with Mickey the family dog

Dinners At Home: The (pre-WW II) evening meal was almost always formal, in the dining room. Formal in the sense that the table was set as if for a dinner party, with a tablecloth, silver (plate) tableware, etc. My mother had a small bell on the table that she would ring when, for instance, it was time for desert, and Amelia would do the honors; remove the dirty dishes and bring in the desert.

Thanksgiving dinner 1939
Thanksgiving dinner 1939

When my grandfather McKillop (everyone called him Mac) would visit from New York (where he was than working) he and my Dad would have a drink at the table before eating. Typically it would be whiskey, in a small 2- or 3-oz shot glass, which after a “cheers” or “here’s lookin’ at ‘cha” they would quaff the shots more or less in unison, and make sour faces, which brought gales of laughter from my brother and me. We assumed the faces were for our benefit. Not so! We later found out. The whiskey was prohibition-era bootlegged, and really did taste terrible. Why did they drink it? Beats me.

Bob and Charlie with their maternal grandfather MacKillop
Bob and Charlie with their maternal grandfather MacKillop

Growing up with radio. There was no TV, I didn’t see TV until 1948-49; after high school. Instead, like many other families, had a large floor model radio in the living room (my brother later turned it into a liquor cabinet), and that’s where we listened to the 7:00 o’clock  news. H. V. Kaltenborn, and Edward R. Murrow are two names I remember. Also regular shows like Jack Benny and Fred Allen, very funny comedians. My brother and I would listen to a series of 15-minute radio shows between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M.: Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, Orphan Annie, I Love a Mystery, and a few others that I can’t remember. We fought over which shows to listen to just like our kids fought over which shows to watch on the TV.

Charlie and Bob
Charlie and Bob

School: My first school Kindergarten through second grade, was inside Thomas Williams Jr High School. It was only about 3 blocks away with a just few rooms for the little kids.  It was torn down in the 50s. One day (perhaps ’36-’39) walking home from school, I saw a flying machine of some kind (it made a big impression on me). In explaining it to my mom I was utterly at a loss for words. In retrospect it could have been an early helicopter, out of Pitcairn field in nearby Willow Grove PA., from Piasecki Aircraft Company.

Card that Charlie got after taking a ride in an Autogiro
Card that Charlie got after taking a ride in an Autogiro

Once out of 2nd grade it was on to Wyncote Elementary for third through sixth grade. That building no longer houses a school, in the 90s it had been turned into law offices.

In classes meals were handled differently. You ordered lunch mid-morning by a show of hands (soup, sandwich, milk -white or chocolate-). Woe betide the unfortunate kid who ordered and didn’t get (or vice versa). There I developed a lifelong hatred of tomato soup!

My sixth grade teacher was a Mrs. Hartmann, and she liked to say that she was a “hard man.” Presumably to cow the kids into behaving.

Sixth grade classmate Marilyn Turner regularly informed on me, to the teacher, saying  that ”Charlie Chambers is drawing airplanes again Mrs. Hartmann…” in a (I recall) simpering kind of a voice.

Charlie and his classmates at Wyncote Elementary School
Charlie and his classmates at Wyncote Elementary School

After sixth grade I went to Thomas Williams Junior High School. The same building where we had gone to Kindergarten through second. There I had my first experience with anti-Semitism (which I didn’t know to call it at the time). The victim was one Martin Apfelbaum, who was mercilessly teased by one kid: “Jew-boy, Jew-boy… kike” etc. The kid took it without a peep. I tried to help, with I don’t remember how much success. If the teacher was aware of it she did nothing.

Charlie and Bob in Cub Scout uniforms with parents and paternal grandmother
Charlie and Bob in Cub Scout uniforms with parents and paternal grandmother

In the schools in our area were a substantial number of children of immigrant Italian families, mostly I believe, from Sicily. I remember a house being built in the neighborhood with Italians working as laborers and stone-masons. Orlando Pelicot. was a big, fat kid, and was never very attentive. Spent most of his time looking out the window, and day-dreaming. Always, when the teacher would call out “Orlando!” He would always respond, “who me?”

Charlie school portrait from Nov 1941, just before his 13th birthday
Charlie school portrait from Nov 1941, just before his 13th birthday

My mother had always complained about the schools in our area though Bob and I hadn’t any complaints that I remember. In any case, starting in eighth grade, I was sent to a private school some distance away (in Germantown, an old section of Philadelphia) called Germantown Friends School. My brother followed a year or two later (he was two years behind me in school, though only 15 months younger.

Charlie and Bob all dressed up
Charlie and Bob all dressed up

Some Family cars I recall: A late-20s model Studebaker.

See pix of brother Bob and me;

Bob and Charlie in front of the Family Studebaker, 1931
Bob and Charlie in front of the Family Studebaker, 1931

Later we had ’36 Ford 4-door sedan. I had one of the same model late in college. One summer, in this car the family, including my grandmother Rebecca Winfield Chambers, drove to a vacation spot not far beyond Chicago, Ill. It took us three days, and 2 flat tires! A trip that might take you a day and a half by car these days. Then in late November of 1941 dad bought a new ’42 Oldsmobile. This featured the brand new Hydramatic drive, the first automatic transmission from GM. The car was bought just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entry into WW-II. Fortuitous for our family as new cars became unavailable after that.

Grandmother Chambers with George and Helen Chambers, Charlie's parents
Grandmother Chambers with George and Helen Chambers, Charlie’s parents

Dad’s job. As long as we lived in Wyncote, he was with a company called Commerce Clearing House, or CCH. This company published what were called “law services”. Huge loose-leaf bound books. The set that dealt with the U.S. tax code (10 or so volumes), for instance, contained all of the law itself, all of the IRS regulations that went along with it, as well as all of the associated case-law, judicial rulings, etc; they were updated periodically with mail-out replacement or additional sheets. For many years, he was a salesman, and at some point was appointed eastern-division sales manager. Dad worked all through the depression (1932-1940s) A lucky man! My vague recollection is that he made around $5000 a year in those days. He retired in 1963, making about $14,000.

George Chambers
George Chambers

Grandfather Mac (Charles McKillop my maternal grandfater) We called him Baba.

Grandmother Chambers (Rebecca Winfield Chambers, my paternal grandmother), whom we called Namah…visited for a week or so perhaps once a year.

Grandfather Mac, George, Helen and Grandmother Chambers with Charlie and Bob
Grandfather Mac, George, Helen and Grandmother Chambers with Charlie and Bob

Grandfather Chambers (John Sylvanus Chambers my paternal grandfather), whom we saw infrequently perhaps 5-6 times total in my lifetime. Apparently separated from his wife (Rebecca) for many years, and (according to my mother) because of his mother-in-law’s dislike of him

Charlie and Bob with his paternal Grandparents
Charlie and Bob with his paternal Grandparents

The Germantown Friends School experience. Most of the teachers were of the kind that one remembers for a lifetime. Virtually all retired soon after I graduated, since my brother, who came two years later had none of them. One, Mr. Domi (short for Domincovitch, senior English teacher) died early in my senior year.

I especially remember:

  • Breuniger, math teacher, who early, stirred my interest in Math
  • Platt, who taught a 10th grade course in Anthropology, engendered in me a lifelong interest in paleontology, evolution, etc.
  • Poley, English teacher, whose reading of Shakespeare and poetry…with all the voices and gestures stirred most of the kids
  • Bennet, chemistry and physics teacher, who would probably be seen in public as a “gray person*”, but who knew how to engage us kids in his subjects.
  • Price, history teacher, an elf-like personality who loved history and engendered a love for it it in the kids.
  • Fowler, the principal, an outwardly stern and formidable man, to whom I paid a number of unwilling visits.

*In this case I believe dad is referring to slang of the time that refers to seemingly un-educated, people.

The school had a fine singing teacher in Miss Brewer, who put on a Gilbert and Sullivan production every two years. One of my classmates went on to do Gilbert and Sullivan professionally after playing the lead in Mikado in senior year.  Miss Brewer brought me to the conclusion that I’d never met a music teacher I liked. The reason? I couldn’t sing worth a damn, but wanted to, she discouraged me.

There were 52 kids in my class, divided into boy’s and girl’s homerooms. But most classes were integrated (boys with girls). The enlightened Quakers, in opposition to custom at the time, encouraged attendance by Jews. There were only a handful at the school at the time, perhaps three or four. One of whom donated a million dollars to GFS in the 1990s. One of them was Jack Thalheimer, my best friend. Dad and Jack lost touch in later years and he passed away some six months before dad. However Quaker enlightenment, however liberal in the admission of Jews, didn’t go so far as admitting people of color at the time.

Teenage Charlie and Bob with Mom
Teenage Charlie and Bob with Mom

As students at Germantown Friends School we went to meeting (Quaker church) every Thursday for a couple of hours (actually probably more like 30 minutes), and sat in silence for the duration. Usually one or more of the teachers and/or a church elder might say a few words, as the spirit moved them! Boys and girls were segregated. We sat on hard wood pews arranged to minimize eye contact between adjacent blocks of pews (can’t imagine why!)

Every day after school, all students were required to attend “field,” athletics until 4:30 or 5PM. The actual field where this took place was about a mile’s walk from the school itself. After that I got home via trolley and train, a 45-min trip, perhaps more.

In my Senior year I earned a football letter. As a 140 pound right guard I was the lightest guy in the line, but not by much, big league stuff!

I have always harbored fond recollections of my Germantown Friends School experience and kept in touch with a number of people over the years.

[In fact Dad ran into a woman who had graduated a couple of years earlier than he from Germantown Friends School at the Retirement home he spent the last couple of years of his life at.]

Summer Jobs were the varied lot a kid could get in those days, at a Drug Store, Restaurant, Contractor, Boiler repair company.

[Dad mentioned that one of his jobs was at manual labor. He would have to fill a “hod” (a long-handled box filled with bricks or mortar) and then climb a ladder and deliver it to the workmen who were laying the bricks. He developed a lot of strength and balance doing that,

At the restaurant, he word in a variety of jobs back of the house and loved telling the story of the time he was responsible for the food deliveries with strict instructions to turn away any substandard food that comes in. Sure enough a greengrocer arrives with the vegetables that were ordered. Dad grabs one of the green beans out of the bushel or two that was there, tested the freshness of the bean like he was taught (bend it round your finger and it better snap right in half!) and the bean wrapped itself right around his finger with nary a snap. So he sent the beans back much to the amazement of the greengrocer who was dumfounded by the temerity of some kid turning down his green beans.]

Charlie's High School graduation portrait
Charlie’s High School graduation portrait

College. I didn’t apply until the last minute and ended up for my first two years at Wesley Jr. College in Dover, Delaware. After that I ended up at a four year university, which my oldest son attended in the 1970s.

That school was American University. I did a lot of Physics and a lot of Math. Much of it from a wonderful old professor named Dr. Shenton. And in one of those physics classes met Dave Coulter, who had a major influence on my life.

Charlie with broken leg in front of his dorm at American University
Charlie with broken leg in front of his dorm at American University

First it was building Hi-Fi amplifiers (designed by Coulter) for one of the earliest purveyors of such equipment (Schrader Sound)…Naval Research Laboratory Sound Division. I started there in Jan or Feb 1952 and did some interesting early work on analogue computers, digital computers: ”weren’t likely to be practical” NRL’s early vacuum-tube ENIAC was started around that time, it was huge!

After about two years, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t cracked up to be an electronics engineer. Coulter and a very good friend of his, and later mine, Johnnie Walton, had an almost intuitive understanding of electronic circuits. And I didn’t see myself moving toward that ability. And since I’d always had a yen to be in the Navy, I joined the Officer Candidate School program at Newport R.I.

Charlie's OCS graduation portrait
Charlie’s OCS graduation portrait

Officer Candidate School. I remember sailor’s uniforms and it being a real chicken-shit operation where I spent 16 weeks of my life from January 1954 and finished in May that same year. There were Eight weeks of communications school as an Ensign. I was then ordered to Key West, Florida to a command called SURASDEVDET, SADD, or the Surface Anti-Submarine Development Detachment. I always presumed that I was assigned there because of my Navy Research Lab experience (but perhaps I’m giving the Navy too much credit). In any case, it was a fortuitous assignment as I met some Operations Evaluations Group representatives. It was a civilian group that advised the Navy. And ended up where I would spend the rest of my career.

Charlie's Navy portrait October 1955
Charlie’s Navy portrait October 1955

I joined OEG immediately after I got out of the Navy. Met my future wife Barbara during this period (in 1955) Got married in March of 1956 and our first son, Stephen Robert, was born at the Key West Naval Hospital.

Charlie and Barbara on the beach in Florida
Charlie and Barbara on the beach in Florida

The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA).  Started out as the Operations Evaluation Group (OEG) which I joined out of the Navy in July 1957

A big part of the job was field assignments. These took me to bases in China Lake CA, Norfolk and Quantico VA, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii (in 1967 and then again in 1973), and then lots of exercises onboard Navy ships. These were two and three week drills including reconstruction, analysis and report writing.

It was during one such exercise in our first trip to Hawaii when dad was assigned to the USS Forrestal. This was in July of 1967. When an accident set off one of the rockets on an F-4 Phantom jet. In the subsequent fires and explosions 134 people lost their lives. It seems that Dad was in his quarters at the rear of the ship when all of this happened. To this day I can remember my mother’s tearful recounting of what she had heard and that she did not know until just then, days after she had heard of the explosions and deaths, that our father was OK.

 

One of several photographs Charlie took after the Forrestal disaster in 1967
One of several photographs Charlie took after the Forrestal disaster in 1967

I was on ships out of Norfolk, the Caribbean, San Diego, Hawaii, and, much later (in fact my final field assignment with CAN/OEG) at Eglin AFB in Fort Walton Beach FL. As well as overseas. This included the Philippines, the Mediterranean, Norway. I considered myself fortunate in getting into the Aegis program in the early ‘80s

Automobiles:

  • 1949 at American University. I had a 1934 Ford Victoria two-door sedan. I discarded the wire wheels for white-painted disk wheels.

Dad in Florida during a college trip
Dad in Florida during a college trip

  • 1950-ish: a 1936 Ford 4-door sedan, bought from a departing friend Dave Mahoney. I had this car through employment at NRL (1952 – 1954), and a few months at OCS (Feb – May 1954), at Newport RI. Eventually this car was sold for me by my parents.
  • At Key West, FL, in the Navy a British Racing green 1954 or 55 MG TF-1500, with wire wheels. Sold to a Navy Captain soon after getting married.

Charlie with his MG-TF
Charlie with his MG-TF

  • Then a 1955-1956 Chevrolet BelAir 4-door sedan that belonged to Barbara and a much better car for a new family.
  • Shortly after moving to Springfield VA we bought a 1962 Volkswagen Microbus for Barbara and a Dodge Dart (named “miles”) bought from Jim Gasser.
  • Then there was a 1968 Chevrolet four-door station wagon. Bought in Flint Michigan, enroute home from field assignment in Hawaii.
  • Shortly after our return from our second Hawaii field assignment there was a green 1975 Volvo 245 DL.
  • Since then there was always a Volvo in the family, sometimes two.
  • And I drove several VW bugs over the years until giving them up for something a bit more comfortable.

This is where the outline of dad’s memoir ended. Obviously unfinished and likely done sometime in the mid 1990s. You will note that most of the pictures are of the “smile for the camera” type. Very few spontaneous pictures, unfortunately.

 

Charlie newspaper clipping from July 4 1984
Charlie newspaper clipping from July 4 1984
Barbara and Charlie in front of home, mid 70s
Barbara and Charlie in front of home, mid 70s
Barbara and Charlie, halloween, early 70s
Barbara and Charlie, halloween, early 70s

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