©2010 Bob Stockton. Adapted from 'Listening To Ghosts,' (Xlibris Press 2010) by Bob Stockton. All rights reserved.
I guess I was about eight years old when I first met Franny Gravatt. Franny's home was one block west from my home on Broad Street. I cannot remember exactly how or when that meeting first occurred, but meet and become friends we did. Franny was a wild kid even then. He was always getting into some scrape with the Township authorities. We began to pal around, getting into all kinds of neighborhood mischief. We egged cars and houses (we had stolen the eggs from a dairy truck parked outside the truck garage next door to my house). We stole candy and cheeses from the A&P supermarket on Broad Street, lifted comic books from Harry and Bill’s Rexall drug store and were a general pain to all and sundry that lived in that four or five block area that we called our neighborhood.
Franny and I took our local nuisance title to a new – and potentially criminal – level during the summer of 1949. We discovered that the telephone presented a new method of widening our mischievous horizons. At first it was just prank calls of the ‘Prince Albert in a Can’ variety but when we became bored with that we upped the ante. We began calling local businesses, ordering goods and services to be delivered to the lady who lived in a house across Broad Street from my home. Why we chose that particular house escapes me. I think it must have been that Franny and I could watch the goings on that our mischief had produced from the front porch of my house. Over the next several weeks a parade of coal trucks, roofing companies, taxicabs, baked goods – even a hearse – arrived at that poor woman’s home. Finally she called the cops. During the investigation by the police she stated that she had no idea who was responsible. She did notice that for the past couple of weeks while all of this was going on there were two neighborhood kids sitting on the front porch across the street watching the unwanted deliveries arrive.
Two patrolmen came across the street heading for my house. Franny and I had gone inside when we saw the patrol car arrive. He took off out the back door headed for parts unknown. I ran up to my bedroom in the attic and hid.
Mom arrived home from work at her usual 5:30 P.M. time followed shortly thereafter by the long arm of the law. The police informed Mom of the situation across the street that had been happening while she was at work. Mom asked them to come in and the third degree began. Terrified, I confessed all to the cops straight away, implicating Franny in the process. One cop shook his head. They knew that kid very well, they said. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in trouble and it was just a matter of time before he wound up in reform school at Jamesburg or worse. If I kept this up I’d be right there alongside him, one cop admonished.
I’m not sure why I didn’t go to juvenile court, but somehow the police were able to convince the victim not to press charges and my mother was able to settle with the merchants that were involved in the whole mess. She must have at least had to pay for the wedding cake. I wound up with a serious whipping from Mom with one of her belts assisting her, was grounded for the rest of the summer and forbidden to play with Francis Gravatt ever again. Would that I had heeded her
September arrived and I headed back to school. I was beginning fourth grade at Rowan School. My mother, grandmother and our boarder Hoppy all worked during the day so I suppose that I was a kind of prototype for the latchkey kids of today. I was on my own for about three hours every afternoon, free to roam the neighborhood or anywhere else I wanted as long as I was home by six o’clock for supper.
It was one of those September afternoons before supper that Franny Gravatt came by to see what I was up to. He asked how it had gone with the cops after the telephone incident and I filled him in as to the punishment that I had gotten. Franny said that his parents had just about beaten him bloody but that he was used to that as they had beaten him on any number of occasions in the past. He then wanted to know if I wanted to play a game of “Car Chicken” with him. I said sure.
And just how did one play the game I inquired?
My house, you may recall, fronted the south side of South Broad Street, a four lane street with the opposite lanes separated by a center grass median about three feet wide. The object of the “Car Chicken” game was to run from the curb to the median as closely as possible to an oncoming car without getting hit. Having safely reached the median, the second goal was to run back to the curb in the same fashion but allowing the next car to approach the runner even closer than the initial run to the median. Several skill sets were involved: the speed of the runner, determining the speed of the approaching vehicle and calculating the minimum distance between runner and car that would allow the runner to reach his destination safely. We navigated the oncoming traffic deftly (with the help of a few very irate motorists who had to jam on their brakes) for the first couple of runs. It was great fun. Fun, that is until Franny didn’t make it.
I had just made it back to the curb on a very close near miss, and I guess that Franny wanted to go one up on me. He started from the median dangerously close to a huge four door Chrysler
Motors car – I think it was a DeSoto – and the damn thing never slowed down. I can’t remember whether the driver had been drinking or was distracted or perhaps that Franny was banking on the driver braking, but I do remember the sound of that 3000 pound plus car hitting Franny at about forty miles per hour.
WHUMP! Franny went sailing down Broad Street for what must have been half a block, landing on the concrete pavement just in front of Joe Roche’s Sunoco gas station. Joe came running out and picked up Franny’s limp, motionless body, placed him gently on the sidewalk and went into the station to call an ambulance. Fortunately the volunteer fire department two blocks west had an ambulance service and the ambulance arrived within minutes, administered what aid they could
at the scene, then collected Franny and roared off to the hospital, sirens blaring. Franny had nearly every bone in his body broken and had sustained a life threatening head injury and concussion. The force of his brain slamming into his skull had produced inflammation so severe that a drain tube had to be inserted at the base of his skull. After several months in the hospital, he was discharged and went home to his family.
I lost track of Franny Gravatt after our game of ‘Car Chicken,’ but from time to time I would hear reports that he was in and out of Jamesburg Reformatory and finally winding up in state prison, serving time on a felony charge.
Some years later I ran into Franny while I was home on leave from the Navy. I guess it was 1965 or 1966. I had gone to a party with a friend and there was Franny. He had bulked up considerably while in prison and had that ‘hard time’ look about him that one often senses around ex cons. We spoke of that day fifteen years ago when the DeSoto had almost killed him. I asked what he had been doing since he was paroled and he told me he was the captain of a yacht! Apparently Franny had gone to work as a deck hand on the 64 foot motor yacht Lanran, owned by a local general practitioner, Dr. James Dodge. Dr. Dodge’s medical office and home were several blocks west on Broad Street, just next door to the Tilton Family Bakery. The practice was a successful one, and nearly everyone in the neighborhood that had any sort of ailment, acute or chronic, consulted the good doctor. Franny had worked his way up from deck hand to captain of the Lanran in short order, and frequently skippered the boat from the Trenton Marine Terminal to Fort Lauderdale with Dr. Dodge and a female companion aboard. Eventually Mrs. Dodge must have gotten wind of all this and a nasty divorce proceeding ensued with both parties battling for ownership of the boat. A court order was issued to the effect that the Lanran was to remain moored at the Marine Terminal while the divorce was being settled in court. Ignoring the court order, Dr. Dodge and Franny cast off all lines and got underway for Fort Lauderdale on August 9, 1967. Aboard the yacht with Dodge and Franny were deckhand Christopher Brooks, Beverly Minotti, 28 and Minotti’s three year old daughter Kimberly.
Warrants were issued for the arrest of Dr. Dodge and Franny, warrants which would never be served. On August 11, 1967 while transiting Cape Hatteras in heavy seas the Lanran broke up and sank. All aboard were lost except Brooks who clung to a piece of the wheelhouse for three days before being picked up by a passing freighter. Dr. Dodge, Ms. Minotti, her daughter and Franny were never found.
My boyhood friend Francis Gravatt was dead at twenty-eight