It was just a guy from the neighborhood, someone Rich Porco had never noticed before. Porco, head of the Mummers Comic Division and a longtime member of the Murray Comic Club, had been part of his club's effort to send packages of small sundries and nonperishable food to troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We feel a sense of responsibility here, that we wouldn't, maybe, be able to have a Mummers Parade if it weren't for people who fight for our freedom," said Porco.
A few days before Christmas last year, Porco said, he got a thank-you card from one of the anonymous fellows who had gotten one of his packages. Turns out he lived on South 11th Street, not far from where Porco does.
" 'Maybe I will come and have a beer with you some day on 11th,' is what the guy wrote," said Porco. "I had tears in my eyes. And you know what, darned if not too long after New Year's Day, there was a knock on my door and here was the soldier thanking me. No, I told him, thank you."
Murray has decided to dedicate its performances this year to the active military in Asia and has spent the past 12 months trying to provide those soldiers with some of the things the Army can't.
Though several members had been sending monetary donations and boxes of sundries on their own, the club started more of a coordinated effort during its annual meeting in April. Club officers asked everyone to bring some kind of item - razors or hand-sanitizer or powdered-drink mix or a phone card - something that would be difficult to get in Iraq or Afghanistan. For each contribution, they got an extra raffle ticket or a discount on something.
That got the ball rolling, according to club member Jay Polakoff, who has since moved that ball along in bigger ways. Polakoff said that the club found out that it is difficult to just send boxes of things to troops overseas, that the Army usually requires specific names of recipients.
After various tries, Polakoff found a couple of venues. The first was a Pennsylvania National Guard contingent, the 56th Striker Brigade, which was stationed in a remote part of Iraq. He was able to get a local chaplain to oversee the delivery there of at least 25 boxes of sundries.
Then, through a colonel he knew, he found an unusual unit, the Freedom Rest.
"This is where they send people who have been in conflict and then seem high-risk emotionally," said Polakoff. "The Army sends them immediately to Baghdad to rest for 48 hours. But they come there with only their uniforms and whatever they have from the field, so they need practically everything."
Thus, he said, the packages of soap or razors or even granola bars take on an almost emergency status.
The 56th Striker Brigade has shown its appreciation by sending Murray its ceremonial U.S. flag. In turn, Murray has asked the Striker Brigade's color guard to lead the club on the street on New Year's Day, prominently displaying the flag.
Polakoff, who has won a Mummers' Top Ten prize the last 11 years as a single comic, said the whole effort has snowballed. Donations come in constantly, either in money or in items, and he hopes to have a festival of some sort in late January or February in conjunction with perhaps a radio station and supermarket.
"You know how it is: People are enthusiastic to donate during the holidays, but when New Year's is over, they take a break and maybe forget about this sort of thing," said Polakoff, who grew up in West Oak Lane, and now lives in Huntingdon Valley and works in administration at Penn State's Great Valley campus.
"We want to not lose that enthusiasm," he said. "We need to support these people all year, and we are just thankful here at Murray that we have the opportunity to do so."