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Pilfering Peter and the TKO
by Don Drewniak

When war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, I was seven-years old. I completed first grade two weeks earlier while attending the Laurel Lake Elementary School in Fall River, Massachusetts, and was blissfully unaware of world events. It was my maternal grandfather who first made me aware of the conflict in Korea. That would prove to be the first of many lessons at “Grandpa John’s School of the Real World.

Grandpa John was born in Poland in 1891 and christened John Lenartowicz. He immigrated to the United States shortly after the turn of the century and found work in a cotton mill in Westport, Massachusetts, a town located southeast of Fall River. It was there that he met Zofia Monastynska, a Ukrainian immigrant who was to be his wife for over sixty years.

Although born in Poland, and Lenartowicz was a Polish surname, Grandpa John spoke Ukrainian and claimed to be Ukrainian. The family changed its last name during the 1930s to Lenartowick in order, as my mother told me years later, to make it sound “less Polish.”

Fall River was one of the leading manufacturing cities, if not the leading manufacturing city, of cotton goods on the planet from about 1870 to the early 1920s. As a result, both of my future grandparents were able to find work in the city’s cotton mills. Fall River’s population was approximately 120,000 at the time.

Upon marriage in 1915, the couple moved into a small apartment located at 431 Globe Street in Fall River. It consisted of a combination dining/living room, two bedrooms, a tiny pantry, and a “bathroom” with nothing more than a toilet and a sink.

Dating back to the Great Depression through the early 1950s, toilet paper was rarely used. In place of a holder for toilet paper, there was an L-shaped hook onto which roughly six-inch by six-inch pieces of paper cut from newspapers were punched into place.

Baths were taken in a large, circular metal tub that my grandfather hauled up from the basement. Water was poured into the tub from pots that were heated on a combination coal and wood stove. The stove dominated the small dining/living room both in its size and its importance, as it was used for both cooking and heating of the apartment.

There were no houses across the street. Instead, there was a series of mills, some made of brick and some of granite quarried in Fall River. They were set back no more than two hundred feet from Globe Street. Directly in front of the apartment was an enormous brick chimney located approximately twenty feet from the opposite side of the street. It was more than three times the height of their tenement house.

I often imagined the chimney collapsing and burying me in a tomb of bricks. With the advent of the Godzilla movies in the mid-50s, I pictured Godzilla destroying the chimney along with the rest of Fall River. That is, I pictured that happening until I found out Godzilla was an actor in a rubber suit crushing and destroying cardboard models of buildings, bridges, trains and power lines

The apartment was sufficient in size for the newlyweds, but not once they brought three children into the world — Antone (1916), Catherine, my mother-to-be (1919), and Stanley (1921). With my grandmother, Zofia (commonly called Sophie), no longer able to work because of child-rearing duties, the financial responsibilities devolved solely to Grandpa John.

Jobs began to disappear and wages remained flat or decreased. Even before the Great Depression, the family could not afford the cost of a larger apartment.

Fall River’s economy was heavily dependent on the manufacturing of cotton textiles, in particular cotton-print cloth. During its high point, it was home to over one hundred twenty cotton-textile mills. At the close of World War I, the number of such mills had dropped to a still impressive forty-nine.

Unfortunately, the city witnessed a rapid decline in its textile industry beginning in the early 1920s. To save on transportation costs and to avail themselves of cheap labor, textile-manufacturing companies began building mills in the South. To compound the problem for Northeast cotton-manufacturing cities like Fall River, these mills featured new equipment that was far more efficient than the 19th century equipment of their aging Northeast counterparts.

The number of textile mills prior to the start of World War II in the city dwindled to seventeen. A few of these managed to continue through the War and into the 1950s.

The house in which the family lived consisted of two side-by-side, bottom-floor and upper-floor apartments. My grandparents lived in one of the bottom units. Above them lived Grandpa John’s arch-enemies, my grandmother’s sister, Pelalia (changed to Pauline) and her husband, Peter. They had one child, a boy, John, who was born in 1922.

By 1950, I came to understand that Grandpa John would have nothing to do with them. According to my mother, she could not remember either one ever being allowed to step into my grandparents’ apartment. Unfortunately, I never had the presence of mind to ask her why.


Above each second-floor apartent were four attic rooms, two of which belonged to my grandparents. One was used for storage. The other became my grandfather’s second bedroom after the birth of their third child. The only external ventilation was a window no larger than three feet by two feet. Lighting consisted of a single bulb dangling from the ceiling. Heating was non-existent. For approximately twenty years, Grandpa John spent many nights sleeping in the cold during the winter months, and enduring heat and humidity in the summer.

Grandma Sophie was no more than four feet, ten inches in height and probably never weighed more than ninety pounds. Her sister, who was called Titka (Ukrainian for aunt) by my mother and her brothers, was about eight inches taller and, in her later years, close to twice her weight.

It wasn’t until I approached my teenage years that I found the name Titka to be amusing. Her husband, Peter, barely topped five feet in height.

Below the two apartments was a dirt-floor cellar. It included a community room that, to the best of my recollection, was usually empty except for two bathing tubs that were stored there when not in use. In addition, there were two padlocked rooms, one for each family. Both rooms included coal bins.

Grandpa John came home early one day from work and discovered Peter stealing coal from his bin. He had a substantial size and strength advantage and also possessed a temper. As a result, he gave his brother-in-law a just short of a hospital-visit beating.

Neither family ever had automobiles, nor did they get telephones until a year or two later. Titka walked to a nearby police station to file a complaint.

The investigating officer was an acquaintance of my grandfather as they both frequented the Knickerbocker Cafe, a nearby watering hole. After speaking briefly with the two principals, he informed Peter that he was guilty of burglary and Grandpa John had the right to defend his property. Titka and Peter dropped their complaint. Peter was ordered to return the coal he had taken. He ended up returning appreciably more than he stole as Grandpa John exaggerated the amount that had been expropriated.