Friday, December 31, 2010

The Legend of Gooney McFarland


That's Gooney on the right, posing for his legion of fans at his disastrous wedding reception at the VFW


(In response to hundreds of cards and letters we present this very special re-broadcast of one of our perennial holiday favorites. )

Every neighborhood has one: the neighborhood nut-case; Olney back in the day distinguished itself by boasting dozens of neighborhood nut-cases at any given time. Every block had its nut-case, sometimes every house on the block had its nut-case, and indeed often there were heroic semidetached- and row-homes harboring more than one nutcase, or even a whole roistering clan of nut-cases. Lots of nut-cases in Olney. But in this land of the insane no one was less sane, and no one more feared, reviled, ridiculed, and defamed than one Martin de Pours McFarland, better known simply as “Gooney”.

Gooney McFarland (born in 1950 in one of those "new" houses on Wentz Street, right by the Heintz factory) always seemed to get there first. He first got arrested at the age of eight, for breaking a window of Zapf’s music store and trying to steal one of their brand-new electric semi-hollowbody Gibson guitars. The young Gooney was a major Elvis fan at the time and he wanted his own guitar, so that he could learn how to play it and become a rock and roll sex king. Good thing for Gooney, his father, Frank X. McFarland, was a policeman. And Mr. McFarland’s job continued to be a good thing in the subsequent career of the young scalawag (although Gooney's career proved to be far from a good thing for that of the elder Mr. McFarland). It was solely because of the exploits of this young and then not-so-young madman that Officer McFarland was never promoted above the rank of patrolman, this proud ex-marine, this hardworking Joe who put himself through LaSalle College on the GI Bill while working fulltime as a cop, this staunch Catholic who fathered nine children (all of them good kids, except for the middle one, you-know-who).

First of the gang to be arrested, Gooney racked up many other firsts. In 1963 he became the first kid on the block to try pills. He had noticed the slick-suited boys from the “Harrowgate Mob” hanging around the corners of the Heintz factory compound. These guys were cool, with their skinny ties from Krass Brothers and their pennyloafers from Thom McAn, and Gooney wanted to be like them. The Harrowgate hoods soon had the young Gooney running back and forth across the street to double-shifting Heintz workers parked in their junkers, handing over little bags of pills in exchange for hard cash, which he would run back and deliver to the Harrowgate boys in one of their souped-up Thunderbirds. The Harrowgates were always wired to the gills, and of course Gooney, who would have jumped off the Betsy Ross Bridge if the Harrowgates were jumping too, tried a sample of the product, loved it, and became at the tender age of twelve the neighborhood's youngest drug addict, with a special love for the uppers called “Pink Footballs”. Alas, perhaps it was the drug that made Gooney so bold as to begin stealing from his heroes, shorting them on both pills and cash. But if Gooney was always a bold thief, he was never really a good thief. He couldn’t do anything quietly, the concept of discretion was alien and hateful to him, and he could not stand not to boast to one and all of any new crime he had committed. So it took the Harrowgate Mob about two whole days to realize that this little brat was ripping them off. They beat him up and then tossed him down that trash-filled gorge in the woods across Front Street from Cardinal Dougherty High School. But what did Gooney care, after he finally awoke in Einstein Hospital the next day? This would be just another one of the many stories he could bore people with his whole life.

First to get busted and take pills, first to get the last piece of shit beaten absolutely out of his wiry little form, Gooney was the first to try pot as well; the first in the neighborhood to sell pot; the first to get busted for selling pot; and the first to get sent down to Juvie, despite all the best efforts of the beleaguered Officer McFarland. Down at the Detention Center at 100 W. Coulter Street, Gooney became the first kid ever to attempt escape from the roof, trying to rappel down on a clothesline that turned out to reach only to within 50 feet of the ground.

After six more months in the hospital the now permanently-limping Gooney was released and sent back to the familial mini-manse on Wentz Street. Officer McFarland, a long-time usher at St. Helena’s Church (in which capacity he was a colleague of Olney's poet laureate Arnold Schnabel), amazingly was able to talk the priests at Cardinal Dougherty High into admitting Gooney as a freshman in the fall of 1966. He was put into the lowest academic section (Section 20, “the Vegetables” as the “Brains” in Sections 1-3 cruelly dubbed them), but even the easygoing courses in this nether-region (Basic Shop, Basic Phys. Ed., Basic Numbers and an English course based on the “Dr. Seuss” books) proved beyond the limits of his attention. He drew all Fs that first semester, but this didn’t bother Gooney because he had scored in those months another first: first kid in the neighborhood to try LSD.

The incredibly patient Principal Father Dean allowed Gooney one more semester to try and buckle down and straighten out. Gooney got four Fs again. Who gets Fs in Phys Ed, anyway? Who flunks a course where the most rigorous reading assignment is “The Cat in the Hat”? A daily tripping Gooney McFarland, that’s who.

Next year it was off to the brutal grey corridors of the dreaded Olney High for our young hero. Little afraid of the striding African American teen gangs the Clang Gang and the Moroccans, Gooney blithely befriended the black kids, even affecting their mannerisms, dialect and mode of dress. He soon became the Clang Gang’s liaison-drugrunner to the school’s white kids. The Clang Gang had apparently not heard of Gooney’s treachery a few years before with the white Harrowgate Mob. But they soon experienced a similar treachery, and one day Gooney was sent sailing, flailing his arms and screaming bloody murder, out of a third floor window of Olney High.

Eight months in the hospital and young Gooney was back on the street, or at least back in his parents’ house, where he spent several months watching TV (Sally Starr's Popeye Theater was his favorite) and getting his strength back.

The year was 1968, and every young man in his right mind was doing everything he possibly could to avoid the draft and Vietnam. Gooney of course on his 18th birthday took the subway downtown and volunteered for the marines at their recruiting office at Broad and Cherry. His services were refused by the USMC, on grounds both physical, educational, and most of all, psychological. Gooney marched right over to the army office and was soon frog-marched right out again and ordered never to darken their doors again. The army was desperate for manpower in that awful year but not quite that desperate. The distraught Gooney went wandering down to the low bars by the docks. In one of these reeking hellholes he met some off-duty sailors from the naval base; words were exchanged, he was taken outside and soundly thrashed, then tossed down into a forty-foot deep urban renewal excavation. So it was off to the hospital again for the patriotic young Gooney, who only wanted to serve, or at any rate who only wanted to, as he put it, “kick ass for my country”, but who instead got his own ass kicked by his country’s servicemen.

So it went for Gooney. When he had sufficiently recovered his old man got him a job as a slag shoveler at the neighboring Heintz plant. Gooney lasted almost a month. Next up was a good job as a janitor at the Tastykake factory, and Gooney managed to last three months there. During his tenure at Tastykake a young assembly line-worker named Barbara “Babbles” Boylan for some mysterious reason or reasons took a shine to the manic, hobbling, broken-nosed Gooney McFarland. She became "in the family way", there was a very hurried wedding at St. Helena’s, followed by a drunken riot at the reception at the VFW on Chew Street; and Gooney, instead of heading off to the planned honeymoon in Wildwood, spent the next six weeks in the hospital, followed by six months' convalescence at Holmesburg Prison on four counts of aggravated assault and battery.

Released, Gooney moved into the Rosemar Street rowhome of his pregnant young wife. Mr. Boylan got Gooney a job as an apprentice roofer. On his fifth day at work, while eating a hoagie and drinking a pint can of Ortlieb's and dangling his feet off the edge of the roof of a 75-foot high warehouse in Kensington, Gooney somehow managed to fall off.

After recovering once more, Gooney flat-out refused ever to work again. He applied for a disability pension, and his father and his father-in-law (thinking only of his new baby boy and his poor wife Babbles) pulled some strings with the local Democratic party bigwigs, and Gooney was awarded a modest disability allotment.

Gooney now spent his days in the bars, any bars that would have him, but primarily the Green Parrot, the Huddle, Pat’s Tavern, and occasionally even Smith’s way over on Broad Street, never visiting the same bar two days in a row lest he wear out his always tenuous welcome.

One day he walked out of the Green Parrot, took all his clothes off (it was December, and snowing) and went across 5th Street to Fisher Park, where he proceeded to roll down Dead Man’s Hill, over and over again.

It required six patrolmen to get Gooney into a paddy wagon, and his next permanent address was the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, in the Great Northeast section of Philadelphia, an institution popularly known simply as “Byberry”, or “the looney bin.”

Here at Byberry he achieved perhaps the most difficult of his many “firsts”. He became the first and only inmate in Byberry’s long and inglorious history to escape from the “Violently Insane” ward.

Somehow Gooney removed not only the wire mesh but the steel bars from his fourth floor window. No one knows how. There were no tools found and the mesh and bars seemed somehow simply to have been ripped with main force from the granite window frame. This time there was no rope however, merely two sheets knotted together and seventy-five feet of empty space below the end of them.

Gooney was found the next morning on the front stoop of his parents’ semi-detached on Wentz Street, clad only in his bloodied and soiled hospital pajamas and slippers, with both his legs broken and his skull fractured.

When he awoke from his coma a week later his first words were, “Am I dead yet?”

Incredibly, no. Perhaps it was Mr. Elwood Smith, the venerable proprietor of Smith’s Restaurant at Broad and Olney, who summed up Gooney McFarland best: “Some guys you got to beat into the grave with a stick.”


(Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for listings of links to other "Tales From the O-Zone". You might also enjoy our serialization of Railroad Train to Heaven, the complete and unexpurgated memoirs of Arnold Schnabel, Olney's beloved "Rhyming Brakeman".)

And now, performing Gooney McFarland's favorite song, The Honeycombs, featuring the fabulously coiffed Honey Lantree on the drums:

4 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

Such a great photo and Gooney's adventures get more detailed all the time. What a character, a far cry from Arnold, Buddy, and Dick, but definitely worth knowing.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, I think it could safely said of Gooney what Lady Caroline Lamb said of Lord Byron: "Mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across your blog, and I really enjoyed the stories about Olney.

But what ever happened to Gooney McFarland?

Dan Leo said...

They say that Gooney still limps through the streets of Olney -- but only at night!