COFFEE TIME WITH SISTER WILHELMINA

     “Child, what are you drinking?”

     Usually, we could hear a nun approaching behind us. Those clacking rosaries and heavy footsteps gave children advance warning before the wrath of heaven descended upon their misdeeds. I must have been extra tired that day because I heard nothing, not even the rustling of the voluminous black habit Sister Wilhelmina wore. I was in the last seat near the back door of the classroom. Sister must have slipped into the hall and attacked from behind.

     Sister Wilhelmena was the oldest nun at St. John School, and the most petite. She was not my regular second grade teacher, but was the room monitor for First Friday breakfast period. Every first Friday of the month, the students attended Mass before classes began and were allowed a small breakfast afterwards at their desks. I brought my usual breakfast that morning, coffee and a Tastycake treat.

     Yes, I was a seven-year-old sugar and caffeine addict. 

     I remember drinking coffee as a toddler. By elementary school, I had a two cup a day habit. I drank the strong stuff, percolated, with a splash of milk. I’ve often wondered if I was self-medicating with the caffeine because coffee often averted my cluster migraine attacks when I was young. I’ve also wondered why my mother allowed me to drink coffee at such a young age, but times were different then, I suppose. 

     I had to admit it to Sister. She was looming behind me and staring at the open thermos. Our corner of the classroom was beginning to smell like a coffee shop.

     “Coffee, sister,” I whispered with my head down.

     No ruler descended. No ear was grabbed. 

     “My mother allows me to drink it,” I said, daring a glance at the nun.

     Sister Wilhelmena instructed me to wait a minute before I took another sip, then she slipped away. I sat frozen for an eternity. I didn’t look up, just sat staring at my cursed thermos. As if summoned by magic, a tiny porcelain teacup with pink roses appeared on my desk.  

     “Would you share just a cup, child?” Sister Wilhelmena whispered.

     My shaky hand poured the coffee into her teacup. Sister Wilhelmina savored each sip with her eyes closed, surely sending a prayer of gratitude to heaven. 

Philip Large. Detective, POW, and Newsboy

“Are you a praying man?” Detective Phil Large said as he hoisted the suspect by the collar and belt, then hung him, head-first, out of the third story window.

              “If you are, you better start praying now.” 

            According to the story told to me by a veteran detective in the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, the suspect confessed immediately. I was surprised, not that Phil might have dangled a man out the window, but that the suspect didn’t confess as soon as he entered the same room with my uncle. Philip Large, at six foot four, towered over everyone. His thick dark hair and “five o’clock” shadow added to his law and order mien. 

            I was scared of him! One of my earliest memories is my trying to crawl from one chair to another at my grandmother’s house without drawing the giant’s attention. (Yes, I said crawl, so I must have been a baby or a toddler at the time). The giant saw me and scooped me up into his arms with a great roar and a belly-tickle! I don’t have many memories of Uncle Phil because he died in 1964 after the degenerative disease ALS slowly and methodically paralyzed him. Seeing such a huge, tough legend-of-a-man rendered immobile in a wheelchair was more terrifying to me than were those belly-tickles. 

         The doctors thought that Phil’s years in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II might have triggered his disease. Phil was captured in Tunisia early in the war and was not released until his camp was liberated. His beloved father William died of appendicitis during Phil’s captivity, and the news devastated Phil.  When Phil arrived back in Camden, his own sister Irma walked past him on the street. She did not recognize her own brother because Phil had lost so much weight and looked so haggard. Irma told me that Phil, so gregarious and outgoing before the war, stayed inside the house with the shades drawn for weeks. 

            About ten years ago, I received a telephone call from an unknown woman. She found me through a newspaper interview I had given to a Courier Post reporter about World War II prisoners of war. The woman claimed that her late husband was captured in Tunisia with Uncle Phil. The husband had been seriously wounded, and Phil saved his life by carrying him across Tunisia, then Italy, then through German lines to POW Camp 3B near Stuttgart, Germany. 

            A few months later, I received a packet from a newspaper reporter filled with articles about Phil’s career. As a Camden City police officer and a Camden County detective, Phil cracked many cases and made notable arrests. My favorite story is an interview Uncle Phil gave to a reporter when he was sixteen. Phil had been selling newspapers on the corner of 3rdand Federal Streets in Camden since he was eight years old. According to the article, young Phil considered himself an entrepreneur and intended to carve out a career in the newspaper business. 

            The reporter noted that teenaged Phil was a keen observer of human nature. His mind was a mental notebook of hundreds of incidents and experiences. Phil had sage advice for the reporter and for us all:

“If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see that something is going on every minute, and there’s nothing that goes on but what you can learn a thing from it.”

. . . that’s what Phil said.