Perspective/Memories from the past
William Domenico Hammonton
After pulling us over on S. Broad Street, the Philadelphia policeman got out of his paddy wagon, removed his hat, and peered inside the driver’s side window exclaiming, “What the hell is this? Who are you and where are you going? Do you know how many traffic violations I can cite you for?”
“Killer” Kilroy, our designated driver on this particular night, nervously informed the officer that we had left the Penn Palestra in route to our home on the LaSalle College campus in N. Philadelphia. Fortunately, the good-natured officer let us off with a stern warning to never again pretend we were responding to an emergency.
Straight out of the script for Animal House, the hilarious hijinks of our 1948 Buick hearse/ambulance, with the Mad Magazine caricatures on the wooden door panels, begs to be recalled more than a half century later as an example of an era when fun could be fun without consequences if it didn’t harm anyone.
Tired of taking the subway to S. Philly every time LaSalle played a Big Five contest at the famed Palestra, Joe Winters informed me and four dorm mates of an exceptional deal. For a mere $180, we could assume ownership of a used hearse/ambulance to transport us to the Penn campus on game nights. The deal was sealed.
No vehicles were permitted on campus so we scoped out a safe location on an adjacent street. The next order of business was to modify the interior by installing leather bus seats, black curtains, and a “cabinet” for beverages and other necessities.
Soon, our prized possession was the talk of the campus. We used the ambulance for all of the things that resourceful all-male college students of the day were most interested in---you guessed it!
We helped ourselves with the cost of gas by charging a modest fee to transport other students to the Palestra on game nights. We laughed ourselves silly at the cars in front of us pulling over to the side of Broad St at the sound of our wailing siren and flashing red lights.
Eventually, we needed an oil change. When we pulled into a garage near the 20th & Olney campus, the middle-aged owner nervously stuttered, “You don’t expect me to put that thing on my lift, do you?” We convinced him that it would be safe because we would hold it up, two in front, two in back, to prevent any see-sawing. Oil change was completed successfully as the owner wiped the sweat off his brow.
As time wore on, the notoriety of our unsightly possession reached the ears of the Dean of Students who summoned us to his office for an important meeting. Fearing the worst, we received a totally unexpected surprise. The dean asked us to enter our vehicle in the annual LaSalle College tap-off rally, which heralded the beginning of the Division 1 NCAA basketball season. The Explorers traditionally held a parade from its campus at 20th & Olney to Broad St and back. We worked out a skit involving an accident and an escaped hospital patient (me-see photo) that startled many observers who believed that our staged shenanigans were authentic.
Upon graduation, the vehicle was driven to Trumbull, Conn. by one of its co-owners after lots were cast for the privilege.
As that Philly cop advised us, we may have been guilty of various traffic violations, but we were woke to a different time when having fun did not include any forms of violence, vandalism, or hatred. We were merely ‘first responders’ enjoying, at the same time, the benefit of a college education.