What do football and symphonic music have in common?
In my case, the common denominator is the city of Philadelphia.
Last month I waxed a bit nostalgic about the championship Philadelphia Eagles of the late 1940s. That column elicited several letters and e-mail messages from people who remember those teams. One message came from the daughter of one of the Eagles’ star players, Pete Pihos.
Then the Philadelphia Orchestra came to town and delivered a stirring concert that had the audience on its feet, yelling “Bravo!”
The Philly Orchestra has been one of the best in the world for a long time. Their concert reminded me of the days when I was a young man who could only afford the cheapest seats in the Philadelphia Academy of Music, up so high that you almost needed oxygen by the time you’d climbed all those stairs.
But that stratospheric vantage point allowed me to see the entire orchestra, from conductor Eugene Ormandy to the timpanists who were ranged along the stage’s back wall. Nowadays I can afford seats down on the hall’s floor but I can’t see the whole orchestra from there.
The Academy of Music was built as a copy of La Scala, the opera house in Milan, Italy. The acoustics were just about perfect, even up in the cheap seats. To this day I remember the first time I head Tchaikowski’s violin concerto, with soloist Nathan Milstein. It’s still one of my favorite pieces of music.
Thinking about those bygone days, both the symphony orchestra and the professional football team, inevitably got me to reminisce about the neighborhood in South Philadelphia where I grew up.
It was a narrow street of row houses. A neighborhood of blue collar, working class families. Every child on the block obeyed any adult. Or else. In those days, corporal punishment was considered discipline, not child abuse.
South Philadelphia could be pretty rough. Growing up, we saw more Mafiosi in the neighborhood than police officers. The standing joke was that our high school newspaper had an obituary column.
That wasn’t true, of course, but it made us young punks feel tough. I worked on that newspaper all three years I was attending South Philadelphia High. That’s what got me started on a career in writing.
It was South Philadelphia High School for Boys, by the way. The L-shaped building took up two sides of a city block. The other two sides held South Philadelphia High School for Girls. The two buildings were separated by a barrier that Soviet Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev later used as a model for the Berlin Wall.
Most of my high school classmates spent their lives in the Philadelphia area. Several of them died young, violently.
I managed to get out. I had help. My tenth-grade English teacher, George Paravicini, recruited me for the school newspaper and started me writing. The director of the Fels Planetarium, Dr. I. M. Levitt, opened my eyes to the wonders of astronomy and astronautics.
I studied journalism at Temple University and just before graduation got a job on a suburban newspaper. When the U.S. government announced it would try to launch an artificial satellite into orbit, I talked myself into a job as a technical editor with the company that was building the rocket launcher, just outside of Baltimore.
One thing led to another. I became a published writer of science fiction. I spent more than a dozen years in New England. I visited my parents and siblings in Philadelphia, but never returned to live there again.
I did go back now and then to see the Mummers’ Parade on New Year’s Day.
Eventually I got tired of shoveling snow and moved to Florida, making my home in Naples.
Now and then my sister who still lives in suburban Philadelphia sends me pieces of nostalgia about “the good old days” in South Philly.
It’s pleasant to relive those old memories. But I wouldn’t want to go back to those days, even if I could. I’ve been fortunate enough to build a good life for myself and my loved ones.
Yet the Eagles and the Philadelphia Orchestra still bring back fond memories.
Ben Bova’s latest futuristic novel is FARSIDE, set on the side of the Moon that never faces Earth. His web site address is www,benbova.com.