Cousin Capers and the Klan

Cousin Capers and the Klan
Aunt Millie worked in the business office of our school district, was single and owned a ’66 Mustang. That car was a beauty and she treasured and cherished it as much as anything she ever had. She also prized her relationship with her two 17-year-old nephews, my cousin John and yours truly. Having no children of her own, she spoiled us rotten, even allowing us the frequent use of her pure white, unblemished car with its black leather bucket seats. And in 1969 we felt pretty cocky riding around in that roadster and just looking cool. She loved her nephews more than the car. That was apparent. Not only did she never deny us the use of the valued stallion when we asked for permission to drive around, she would volunteer its services regularly. Like I said, we were spoiled, but we loved every second of it.

One day in the spring of our junior year, John proudly displayed the keys to that classic Ford during our school lunchtime. Actually, they were copies of the keys that he had made the last time Aunt Millie allowed him to use the wild horse. Seconds later, we were in those bucket seats, John at the helm, pulling out of the parking lot in the rear of our school (Forest Hills High School) building. I was riding shotgun, as the saying goes. And soon we were off for our half day, playing hooky.  

We were oblivious to the fact that the entire faculty, student body, administration and support staff knew that car well. And we never noticed that our biology teacher witnessed our escape. Rashly, not thinking again, we also forgot that we would be missed on the attendance rolls for our afternoon classes. Contrary to common sense, we foolishly thought we were too crafty to get caught.

After all, I was sporting some cool-ray sunglasses and a ball cap. And John was concealed under a set of shades and an authentic-looking replica of a WWII German helmet. He pulled that war gear down over his forehead, tugged up on his jacket collar, and peeled out of the parking lot, making our great escape. Steve McQueen would have been proud. Laughing hysterically, we couldn’t believe we got away with it.

Of course when Aunt Millie went to the parking lot a few hours later, with her set of keys in hand, there was no white Mustang there for her to drive home. The “living happily ever after” conclusion to this story never happened. And I’ll spare you the dying details.

Don’t even ask where I got the idea for Caper Two. (Two? Whom am I kidding?) I am lost for a logical explanation myself. Chalk it up to youth, exuberance, a carefree attitude, whatever you wish. Today, my wife might better describe it as immaturity.

With two large wooden beams (taken from old mining debris in the rock dump) balanced on my shoulder, I found myself hiking up a huge boney pile (scrap coal) located behind the PNA (Polish National Alliance) Club in Beaverdale. It was about 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, too dark to be seen, but not late enough for the town’s residents to be asleep. That was how it was planned.

John was right with me, lugging a five-gallon can of kerosene up the giant peak, overlooking town.

Within seconds, the beams were positioned to resemble a Christian cross, and soaked with the flammable fluid – all five gallons. With the ignition from a match, the night sky lit up like a stadium preparing for a Friday night football game. THE KLAN HAD RETURNED TO BEAVERDALE !

To the astonishment of all you readers, this was one time in many that I actually thought ahead – how were we going to get off that black mountain of coal in the dark, without killing ourselves while running full speed downhill? No need to agonize about that - the iridescence from the burning timbers was light aplenty. And our worries quickly turned to being seen rather than to see.

You may think this incident exemplified divine enlightenment, but we had no time to think about that. Before we knew it, we were off the boney pile and in the car, cruising the streets and admiring our pyrotechnics.

Those old beams must have been coated with creosote because they burned for a long while, giving us time to view the site from every block in town.

People were out in the streets, on the sidewalks, and on porches, all staring and pointing toward the bizarre burning on the hill. Private phone lines were not real common back in the day - so, I imagine the lines were tied up with the news that the KLAN had returned. 

[Author's note: How stupid were we?  We knew fully well that the KKK hated Jews and blacks, but never thought about the fact that they hated Catholics too.  And there we were, two Catholic boys, pulling a prank over a town of predominant Catholics to boot.] 

So much attention was being devoted to the scene, that we started to worry. Could we get into some serious trouble with this caper? Would we be guilty of a hate crime before there was any such thing? Although we had no intention of sending anyone in town a “not welcome” message, we didn’t know how the townspeople would perceive this. So, we left town in John’s ’49 bright yellow and white Packard and prayed that the cross might be completely burned by the time we returned.

The blaze eventually stopped, but not the spark of surprise in the community. The next day, Susie (my girlfriend at the time) told me that her grandma was really worried about the omen and what it meant. God Bless her. She probably remembered stories told long ago, when the Klan and the Blank Hand actually existed there.

My aunts and uncles too, heard about the cross burning the next day while going to mass of all places. The parishioners of St. Agnes’ and St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic churches were graced with the cross image, still on the hill where the inferno had taken place the evening before.

I asked Susie if she told her grandma anything about the incident. She said, “No, but I told my dad.” Imagine the droop in my facial lines upon hearing that – 200 years of aging in a fraction of a second. “He said it was funny, and he laughed about it,” she reassured me.

“Still, too close for comfort,” I thought.
The years passed by, but John and I seldom mentioned that caper. As time went on, we thought our actions would be viewed as more politically incorrect with the changes in attitude in society. And to be perfectly honest, we were not particularly proud of that escapade.

When our parents, families and Aunt Millie eventually became aware of our scheme, they too laughed. It was no big deal. Like Bo and Luke Duke - just two cousins having some harmless fun, while growing up together. It was never meant to be anything more than that.

And if any present residents of Beaverdale remember that night and have wondered for years as to what was going on – now you know. But, rest assured, the Klan never returned to town.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA