All the guys who hung out at 10th and Lowell in Whitman Park had nicknames. There were Moose, Winky, Dickie Doo - and a wiry fellow they called Muscles.
"That's because I didn't have any," explains Stan Bednarczyk, who's written and published My Wagging Tail, a detailed, deeply felt memoir about a Camden corner boy, the neighborhood he loved, and the man he became.
The author, now 81, grew up the youngest of five children of an immigrant Polish couple who spoke little English. He was shy, and he loved baseball, movies, and music, as well as Poznan Baking Co. pumpernickel, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, and the sports columnists in the Evening Bulletin.
Bednarczyk and his wife, Connie - married 56 years - are my neighbors in Haddon Heights, which is how I learned of My Wagging Tail. The book is available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. About that wry title, more in a moment.
During his 33-year career as a Camden letter carrier, Bednarczyk took a writing course at Camden County College in Blackwood. His byline occasionally appeared in the weekly Camden County Record and a Polish American publication.
But a decade ago, after Bednarczyk was diagnosed with cancer, what he called his "scribbling" took on a certain urgency.
"I didn't know how many years I had left," he says. "I started writing on loose-leaf . . . and the stories just flowed, one after another."
Like the memoir's opening chapter, which describes Bednarczyk's 1953 return to the rowhouse at 949 Jackson St. as an Army corporal freshly discharged after a tour of duty in Korea and Japan.
He was accustomed to exchanging manly handshakes with his father, Jozef, who surprised his son by welcoming home the soldier with "a long, emotional hug; my cheek rubbing against the sandpaper stubble of his face," Bednarczyk writes. "It was . . . the only time he showed that kind of sentiment."
The book covers the first 22 years of the author's life and includes a number of evocative scenes: Bednarczyk's mother, Katarzyna, playing baseball with him in her house dress; his confrontation with a nun at St. Joseph's High School; his realization that a clerk to whom he was bragging about Korea had lost an arm in World War II.
"I hadn't even seen any action," Bednarczyk says.
Though the Army chapters are well done, the author's rendering of pre- and postwar Camden - roaring industries, lively ethnic neighborhoods, safe streets - is the book's most powerful element.
"I was hanging out by our corner candy store, and I heard a car beep to me," Bednarczyk writes, setting a scene involving "Jersey Joe" Walcott, Camden's own heavyweight boxing champ.
"I turned around, and there he was, a beaming Jersey Joe in his tan Cadillac with a miniature crown and JJ#1 on the license plates, waving to me as he drove by."
He also describes the dozens of businesses that lined the "Polish Boardwalk," Mount Ephraim Avenue, where couples stopped at the Dainty Sweet Shop and kids went to matinees at the Liberty Theater.
Later, Bednarczyk writes, he and the rest of his corner crew wore suits and ties - their dates, dresses and high heels - for Saturday-night movies at the elegant Savar Theater downtown. That is, when they weren't going to dances at the Polish American Citizens Club, a neighborhood hot spot.
Eventually, the corner gang got jobs and steady girlfriends; Bednarczyk and Connie were married in 1958. They moved to Audubon the following year, and have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.
Connie, 77, typed up the book on the computer from her husband's longhand. Her cousin Tom Weiss of Cherry Hill helped with the editing.
"This is a legacy Stan has wanted to leave for his family," Connie says. "And he's finally had the chance to do it."
As for the title, Bednarczyk says he grew up trying to please people but slowly grew to understand he needed to be more assertive and less like a friendly pooch. "I realized I was chasing my own tail," he laughs.
Bednarczyk credits Connie ("the best thing that ever happened to me"), family, and faith with sustaining him throughout his struggle with cancer.
He hopes to be around for Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia next September, and he hopes people will read his book.
"I can't believe I did it," the author says. "I'm very proud of it."
He should be. It's a story well told - of a life well lived.