When Gerard Shields unveiled his new book this month about a veterans club in Kensington, he told a hundred people gathered there that if they have any issues with how they or their family members were portrayed, they should take it up with Joseph Manko.
Manko, a Navy veteran who fought in World War II, died at age 85 in 2006. But it was Manko’s posthumously discovered 360 pages of meticulous notes taken while sitting on a corner barstool for four decades at the Kensington Memorial AMVETS Post 146 that served as the basis for Shields’ book, The Good of the Order: America’s last 80 years through the eyes of one tiny veterans club.
“The night really belonged to one man,” Shields, 56, who grew up in Kensington, said after the book’s release party earlier this month. “Joe Manko.”
The book tells the story of a changing Kensington — specifically, the smaller neighborhood they call Flatiron within it — from the perspective of dozens of foul-mouthed, beer-drinking, mostly Irish, self-described “Kenzos” who considered Post 146 near Gaul and Sergeant Streets their second home for the last 70 years.
You could describe the post as a cheap bar. But its 40 veteran and 80 social members say it’s more than that: It’s a charitable organization, a sports league sponsor, and a neighborhood hang-out. The place has withstood years of financial challenges and major changes to the surrounding neighborhood, including seemingly endless construction to build new and bigger housing on the blocks in the vicinity.
While gentrification has jolted this part of Kensington (the members are adamant that it’s not Port Richmond, and definitely not Fishtown) and the opioid crisis ravages the areas around it, you wouldn’t know inside the post. Founded in 1947, the place is stuck in time. In his book, Shields describes it as “a throwback to neighborhood bars now transformed by the hipsters.”
“It’s like Cheers. The people haven’t changed,” said Edward Hepworth, 64, the steward of the Post and the caretaker of its grounds. “You go home and your stomach’s so sore from laughing.”
Hepworth — long known as “Heppy,” as most of the regulars have nicknames — is the one who found Manko’s notes. The files documented everything from the assassination of JFK to lengthy pranks played by the members of the club on each other.
While replacing a set of shelves last winter in the basement of the club, Hepworth noticed on the bottom shelf a box wrapped in plastic and labeled “Direct TV receiver.” He unwrapped it, pulled out a pile of bubble wrap and found three white binders. Hepworth, a truck driver, took the binders to work with him that day, and on breaks, he leafed through decades of stories about the club where he grew up.
He had found a gold mine. There were detailed records about which neighborhood teams won which sporting events. He found a photo of his uncle, George Ulmer, who Hepworth swears was one of the greatest softball players ever to step foot in Flatiron. He found a description of Flatiron itself, along with an undated, unofficial map that showed where those neighborhood lines were drawn.
He also found notes that described the origins of the club, including that those who founded it shelled out $2,350 for the property where the post still sits today. There were notes about outings to the former Connie Mack Stadium, about Santa Claus appearances for kids in the neighborhood, and about deaths of members of the club. He found notes about events that took place 50 years ago — even one when beer was apparently sold for five cents a glass.
(That’s not the case anymore, but Hepworth touts that a beer at the AMVETS will still only run you $2.75 — “Where else you gonna go in the city? You gonna go around the corner? It’s eight bucks.”)
Hepworth knew he stumbled on something special. He showed the books to Mike “Iggy” Przybyszewski, the leader of the house rock band, The Iggtones, and a Flatiron native who went to the AMVETS for the first time at age 6.
“The first thing I said,” Przybyszewski, 61, recalled, “was ‘Gerry’s gonna write a book about this.’ ”
Przybyszewski was prescient. His old friend Shields, a writer who grew up in Kensington but now lives in Silver Spring, Md., decided after seeing the notes that he’d write a short book about Post 146, the place he said serves as “the working man’s Prozac,” or just the place where his neighborhood friends would blow off steam.
Through his process, Shields interviewed dozens of men and women who grew up in that tiny club. He said he learned more about his own neighborhood than he ever expected, coming to the conclusion that Kensington residents have always been “people of peace, but also people of justice” — although sometimes that justice was “a punch in the eye.” They’re “irascible,” he said, because of their pride.
“In the city of Philadelphia, we were the white trash. We were the low class,” Shields said. “But we didn’t think that way. We thought it was the greatest place on the planet, because we were inside.”
As Kensington continues to change, the men and women who frequented Post 146 for their entire lives hope it remains a place where folks can have a cheap beer, support a community cause, and laugh too much.
Frank “Hoagie” Haas, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired truck driver who’s a member of the club, becomes borderline offended when asked whether he still lives in Flatiron, the area where he spent his whole life.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Haas said. “Even if I hit the million dollar lottery, I’d never move. This is where all my friends are.”