Uncle Bill’s Stetson Fedora

Uncle Bill and Aunt Katherine Landy visit us at 1127 N. 19th Street in Camden NJ on Christmas Eve, 1956

            My job, when company arrived, was to take the guests’ hats and coats upstairs to my parents’ bed. All the men wore fedoras. All the women’s coats smelled of Chanel No. 5 or a popular Avon scent. On winter evenings, their damp fur collars smelled of wet snowflakes. I was supposed to lay the coats and hats carefully on the bed, but mostly just tossed them. 

            “Now, handle this hat very carefully,” my godfather Uncle Bill Landy would say. “It’s a Stetson, you know.” 

            I handled that hat like it was gold. I grew up with a lifelong reverence for Stetson hats.  I once asked my cousin if her dad’s hats were, in fact, Stetsons.

            “Are you kidding?” she said, adding that her dad would never have afforded a Stetson hat. 

            A few months ago, an elderly man with a dapper hat stood in front of me in line at the supermarket. On impulse, I asked him if he was wearing a Stetson. He responded that the hat was indeed a treasured Stetson, and decades old. He was so pleased that I recognized it. 

“I know a Stetson when I see one because my Uncle Bill always wore one,” I told him. 

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. 

The Off-Season

     When I was five years old, I was entrusted with a huge secret, one that no other child in the world could know: I knew what Santa Claus did in the off-season. 

     That’s right, I knew Santa’s summer disguise. I could spot him on the street, in a store, or at the race track. I never told another soul for almost 60 years. Santa’s secret has been safe with me until now.

     My wise and worldly Dzia Dzia, my Polish grandfather Watson Burdalski, introduced me to Santa in the off-season.  Dzia Dzia owned a produce store on Mt. Ephraim Avenue in Camden. Dzia Dzia loved to do something he called “playing the numbers.”  He included me in this game because I had learned my numbers, and he said I was very, very good at picking the correct ones.  Dzia Dzia also liked a game called “playing the horses,” but I did not learn to play that game until a year later, when I was six and could read something called a “racing sheet.” 

     One summer day, Dzia Dzia told me that Santa Claus was on his way.  If I were well behaved and did not speak out of turn, I could meet him. Santa would be in his disguise, not dressed in red.  

     And, Dzia Dzia cautioned, I must not tell anyone that I met Santa, especially my Daddy, because Daddy was a cop, and cops were not allowed to know the secret.

     I could barely contain my fear as a man in a gray suit and fedora strode into the store, carrying a worn brown leather briefcase. He smiled and tipped his hat to me. I nodded and muttered “hello, Pan”  (a Polish greeting for an older man).  I was scared, not only because I now knew the biggest secret in the world, but because this man, this tall, skinny man with the shiniest of shoes, he knew all. As the holiday carol goes, he knew when I slept, he knew when I awoke. He even knew if I were bad or good! I stared at those shiny, shiny shoes and didn’t dare look up.

     Santa and my grandfather spoke for a few minutes, laughed, then asked me for my favorite numbers. I don’t remember what I answered, but they seemed to like my picks. They went into the back of the store and told me to alert them if a customer arrived. A few minutes later, Santa left with a smile and another tip of his fedora. Dzia Dzia was very happy and said, “Santa brought Christmas.”

     However, Santa soon stopped bringing Christmas in the off-season. Santa started taking so much money from Dzia Dzia for these numbers games that the store shelves became empty. I would still help Dzia Dzia pick his numbers, and later his horses, but I was not good enough at the games to make Christmas happen in the springtime again. In time, Dzia Dzia grew ill from his diabetes, and the store eventually closed. So, my memory of Santa Claus is much different than yours. While most people remember his red outfit and white beard, I remember those shoes. Those shiny, shiny shoes.


by Deborah Large Fox

My dziadek, Watson (Wencel) Burdalski,
in his kitchen at 1545 Mt. Ephraim Avenue, Camden NJ
about 1950

            “Children should be seen and not heard.”

            To use another saying common to my parents’ generation, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that admonishment as a child, I’d be a rich woman. But I have since learned to be thankful for those mute occasions. I sat quietly in the background– an odd, quiet child registering sights and sounds and smells other people missed.

            Being out of sight, out of mind had its advantages. I was allowed to keep my Polish “Dzia Dzia” company while he worked in his produce store.  I sat quietly, watching, listening, smelling, sometimes tasting if permitted. And while I cannot recall dates or names without error, I do remember the shiny black patent leather shoes the local bookie wore, the feel of sawdust scrunching under my white Keds sneakers, and the smell of fresh fish on ice. If today I see a blank fish eye staring back at me at the supermarket, I freeze. I am five years old again, surreptitiously poking at the shiny fins and gills.

            What a time machine our senses are–memory keepers ready to transport us over years in an instant! I catch a whiff of cigar smoke outdoors, and I am sitting on Dzia Dzia’s lap.  I taste dill in a noveau cuisine restaurant dish, and I am at his dinner table, almost a half century ago, savoring every drop of his wild mushroom soup, forbidden to me when my parents were present, for no one knew what sidewalk crack spawned the possibly poisonous fungi. The smell of onions baking in butter produces a tear in my eye, but not from the vapors. My throat catches because I am suddenly in a Camden kitchen again, feeling the heat of the oven, smelling the sizzling chicken fat, rolling the bitter sauerkraut on my tongue. 

            Every fall, I buy a pomegranate.  The sight of its leathery skin evokes the feel of the red juice running down my fingers, the crunch of the seeds on my stained teeth, and the face of Dzia Dzia, smiling as he watched me devour every last juicy seed.  I place it on my windowsill and glance at it while I am cooking, and Dzia Dzia is with me still.