Friday, June 1, 2007

"The East Oak Lane Boys": in their salad days

Looking sharp at the Lord Cheltenham Tavern, 1964
Mike Halloran, Steven Willoughby Jr, Carl Steinberg, Mickey Schwartz, Joe Reilly, Al Stein, Gaetano “Ace” Grappatino

One of the more colorful and somehow not so despicable of the many criminal outfits in Philadelphia history, the “East Oak Lane Boys” -- AKA “The Sturgis Playground Mob” -- came together as an enterprise in the summer of 1963. Most of them dropouts or expellees from Cardinal Dougherty High School or Olney High, this band of rascals started out as a multi-ethnic group of lazy idle young loafers who hung around the Sturgis Playground, mostly on the crabgrassy little hill on the west side that sloped down into Third Street and looked out over the noble broad expanse of the Oak Lane Reservoir. All of these young men lived with their parents in the surrounding neighborhood, in the modest semi-detached- or row-homes of a generation that had survived the Great Depression and World War II and escaped the crowded brownstones and noisome alleys of Kensington and Swampoodle to try for a better life in this relatively green and pleasant land just a few short miles to the north. The trouble with this group of young fellows was simple enough: they just didn’t want to work, or to do much of anything except to sleep a lot, eat, drink, cruise around in cars, and chase girls. In long confabs on that scrubby shoulder of ground outside the playground the boys would smoke their cigarettes and gab and talk about various fantastic schemes to make the money they required, if not to pay for their rent or meals (that’s what their parents were for), then to pay for beer and cigarettes, for snazzy sharkskin suits, for automobiles and for gas to power the automobiles so the lads could cruise around and try to pick up girls with little or no self-esteem.

It was Mickey Schwartz who came up with the plan that would bring the gang fortune and infamy. All those rich people who lived in the neighborhoods on the far side of the city limit of Cheltenham Avenue: these people didn’t stay at home on their tree-lined winding streets all summer -- no, they went on vacation, most of them for at least two weeks and many of them for longer. How many of these houses would be empty, especially in the months of July and August? And how much saleable loot would these foolish suburbanites leave lying around the empty house? Mickey and the boys took the two available clunkers they had among the seven guys in the group and they went on a reconnaissance mission through Cheltenham and Abington . Sure enough, many houses were dark, empty, inviting. The boys drove back to the playground and talked it over. These houses were ripe for the picking.

The next night the gang broke into their first house. This was their modus operandi that night, one which they would follow on all future jobs: One guy would stay in each of the two cars, one on either side of the target house, keeping lookout. Using army surplus walkie-talkies, they kept in contact with the other five lads who broke into the house through a rear window and quickly turned the residence over, looking for jewelry mostly but not failing to pick up the odd rare-stamp or coin collection or other easily fencible valuable object. Within five minutes they were out of the house, back into the cars and cruising quietly away.

That first night the boys hit four houses. Next day they took their swag downtown to Jeweler’s Row, to a second-floor wholesale firm called Schwinkelman’s. Art Schwinkelman was an uncle of Mickey Schwartz’s and the black sheep of the family, for the very good reason that he was “mob-connected”. Not to put too fine a point on it, Art Schwinkelman was a professional fence. He took the swag off the boys and gave them $250 back, in crumpled bills no larger than twenties. Not a lot of money even by the standards of 1963, but a lot of money indeed for these seven young fools.

Thus was the rest of the summer spent. Each night (telling their parents that they had jobs delivering advertising circulars) the boys would drive out to a different section of a different suburb and hit four empty houses. Every day following, one or two of the gang would take the loot down to Schwinkelman’s. As the boys got better at finding and recognizing good material, their pay-offs increased. By the end of August they were averaging a thousand dollars a day in proceeds. Still not really big money when split seven ways, but plenty for a group of guys who still lived with their parents and got three free meals every day of their lazy lives.

September came and vacation season gradually drew to a close. The boys decided to withdraw from their illegal activities for the nonce and to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Each boy now had his own new used car, the acquisition of which they explained to their parents by claiming that they had been out selling magazine subscriptions during the days that they actually spent going to ball games at Connie Mack or shooting pool and playing pinball. Another fall, winter and spring passed by, and, just as the time came when the boys were having trouble coming up with gas and beer money, summer arrived and with it vacations and ripe empty suburban houses.

Several years passed by, each with two months of assiduous burgling paying for a full ten months of loafing. The lads got a little older and a little softer and fatter, and in the summer of ’66 they discovered the rich joys of marijuana. Pot was great, but it was also a brand-new expense on top of the aforementioned beer and gasoline and cigarettes. That summer, to pay for their new addiction the boys decided to start hitting five houses each night instead of their customary four. What was one more house? Properly planned, this would entail perhaps only one extra half-hour’s work a night. They forgot two little things though: one -- they were now pot-heads, and two -- the milkman.

Any pot-head or acquaintance of a pot-head will not be surprised at how it all went down. Al Stein, Mike Halloran and Mickey Schwartz stood around in the master bedroom of the house, talking heatedly about who was the better pitcher, Jim Bunning or Chris Short. All the while Mickey held an unlocked jewelry box in his hands but did not open it. In the dining room Steve Willoughby and Joe Reilly stared obliviously at an open cabinet drawer, shimmering with silver and gold knives and forks and spoons, discussing who they’d rather make out with on “The Patty Duke Show”, Patty or Cathy. Out in the two lookout cars Ace Grappatino and Carl Steinberg were sound asleep. No one saw the milkman pulling into the house across the street from the target house. But the milkman, Joe Schwbanda, saw the two parked cars with slumped dark human forms in the drivers’seats. He continued on his rounds, but, encountering a police cruiser several blocks away, he reported the two suspicious cars. The police officer, Max Studebaker, drove slowly by the house. The two lookouts were still sound asleep and the boys inside were still deep in discussion. Officer Studebaker parked his car down the street and called for back-up. Within ten minutes our seven hoods were in handcuffs and on their way to the Cheltenham jail.

“The East Oak Lane Boys” (as the popular press dubbed them) were never indicted for any other crime, although police suspected them of having broken into some 500 or more houses in their three-and-one-half summers of pillage.

The boys were fortunate in pulling the Honorable Thomas Coogan as the presiding judge in their case. Judge Coogan just so happened to have grown up in “the old neighborhood” (Harrowgate) with Joe Reilly’s father, and a deal was proffered. They could take the case to trial and get two-to-five for burglary, or they could volunteer for this country’s proud armed forces. Figuring that they would have to get up early and make their own beds in either case, the boys conferred and decided to join the army. Well, some of them tried for the air force or the navy but it was only the army that would take them. Pulling family strings right and left, most of the boys managed to spend most of their hitches in Germany or Korea, and only Ace and Carl wound up having to go to Vietnam. Wiseguys to the bone, even there they managed to get over; Ace blackmailing his way into a cozy job unloading body bags in Saigon, and Carl forging some paperwork to magically promote himself to buck sergeant and into a supply job that consisted primarily of keeping the GIs in the Big Red One fully supplied with dynamite weed.

After their terms of enlistment were up the boys returned to their parents’ homes in East Oak Lane, and, older but only infinitesimally wiser, met again each evening on that weedy slope on the west side of Sturgis playground, passing joints and telling stories, gazing out at the deep still waters of the Oak Lane Reservoir, and planning their next big escapade.

(For more "Tales from the O-Zone" kindly turn to the lower right hand side of this page.)


Anonymous said...

...sounds like a screenplay to me!

Dan Leo said...

Yeah, where's Marty Scorsese when you really need him?

Anonymous said...

These guys just piss me off to no end. While the rest of us were going to Benediction, protecting Sturgis field from the undesirables of Olney High, and making legitimate money by stealing from our parents these indolent fucks were robbing homes.

This is the origin of all our problems in society.

Dan Leo said...

Say what you will, at least they showed a little enterprise. And after all, what were they doing really except performing that great American past-time of relieving some other sucker of his money.

Anonymous said...

awesome blog, do you have twitter or facebook? i will bookmark this page thanks. jasmin holzbauer

Dan Leo said...

Check the sidebar to the right, Jasmin, and you'll find links to Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for stopping by!