KENNY AND KATHLEEN---A LOVE STORY
(With Apologies to Beauty and the Beast)
“If you stare at a frog long enough, it’ll look good…”
--Louise Kopko (my mother)
When asked if she thought my girlfriend was cute…..
The reason I quoted my mom above is two-fold. First is to show that she could be a cutting judge of personal appearance. Secondly, lest the reader think I am being overly mocking or even cruel to my eldest brother, Kenny in this story. Let me assure you, I am not.
In fact, most of what is written herein did not come from first-hand observation, but was related to me by the two women who loved him the most throughout his life, his own mother, and his wife. Ken himself also gave me his version of events.
Having said that, I am going to relate for posterity some amusing anecdotes that demonstrate that beauty is only skin deep, after all. And that not only does the ugly duckling sometimes turn out to be a beautiful swan, but sometimes a very rich swan. Here then, is my tale…..
I should preface this story with the happy ending…...Otherwise I shall probably do nothing but engender your utmost and quite unnecessary sympathy for my eldest brother, while at the same time losing that most essential commodity to a writer, your patient indulgence….
If you click back to the home page of this web site (for those of you reading this via electronic media) you will see the specimen this story is about. That’s him, smoking a brand of cigar neither you nor I can afford, while relaxing on his 37 foot sailboat.
As you can see, he grew into a reasonably handsome man. He is Princeton educated, with a Marquette MBA and recently retired from a fantastic career in the corporate world. In addition to many other personal goals, he has also achieved his goal of an early retirement.
He is financially secure, and has a wonderful family, including a beautiful wife, three successful (and good-looking) children and two absolutely beautiful granddaughters.
But you can read about all that on his web site. This is the tale of a time before the frog transformed into the prince.
Our mom was a beauty, in the classic Hollywood movie star sense. Her and my Aunt Thelma. They were identical twins who came of age in Paulsboro during World War Two. They looked exactly like Betty Grable, the famous pin-up girl and movie star of that era. I know this because I saw Betty Grable’s caricature once in Mad magazine, before I ever knew who she was, and it looked just like my mom and Aunt Thelma when they were younger.
They were considered the most beautiful girls in Paulsboro High (or outside Paulsboro High, for that matter) in their era, and everyone knew who “the Mattson twins” were. In fact, all my life, all I ever had to say was “my mother was a Mattson twin”, and whoever I was talking to instantly knew my mom and aunt. It was better than being the President’s son.
Now I understand why Mom wanted her kids “in the limelight” as she always said. She and her twin sister Thelma had tasted their share of it in their youth. Twin Betty Grable’s running around a little town like Paulsboro in the forties must have caused quite a sensation.
Flash forward to 1945. Mom is now married to Joe Michaelchuck, a young man just back from the war. Her glory days behind her, she is now embarking on a hard road aho’.
Her life - for the rest of it - will consist of two husbands, twelve kids, and some very tough times.
She is still a young beauty, her husband a strapping and ruggedly handsome man. They have their first child, my eldest brother, Joseph Kenneth. (Kenny to the family).
There is really no kind way to write about this. I will just lay out the facts as I heard them from Mom. Kenny was a homely child. As homely “as blue mud”, to quote Mom.
This was no doubt a source of some grief for Mom, as looks were always important to her. Proof of this is the fact that, whenever she took baby Kenny out for a walk in his stroller, she would cover the open area with a blanket, so no one who stopped her to look at her new baby could see what the new baby looked like. She said she was so embarrassed.
His large head came to a point, like the Coneheads in the old Saturday Night Live show. The doctor told her to rub his head every day, as the skull was still malleable, and that would help shape it back to normal.
So every day Mom rubbed Kenny’s head while she rocked him in the rocking chair (I’m convinced this is one of the reasons he turned out to be so highly intelligent, as the blood flow to his brain had to be several times that of the average baby).
Well, Mom did it. She faithfully reformed his head to normal shape. But there was no way for her to reform his face or that red hair. She would just have to live with it.
Kenny grew and Mom had more children. One of them was my sister, Donnis, who said she was afraid Kenny was “so homely, he would never have a girlfriend”…...She said she always felt sorry for him.
Well, this did not deter Ken Michaelchuck, no sir. Our family lived in Gibbstown at this time (1960). In eighth grade the big dances at the DuPont club in Gibbstown were just the place for a young buck to meet a nice girl. And a Paulsboro girl, at that….Paulsboro girls of this era were reputed to be “fast”, and though this was not true, this false reputation preceded them. Kenny had high hopes.
Almost as high as his black pants. These “High Water” pants were a bit short in the leg, showing off his white socks. He wore black loafers with a white lightning stripe on each side. A white shirt with a red sweater vest completed the ensemble. Kenny was resplendent in his new outfit. His red hair was cut into a crew cut (or “flat-top”) and he wore thick black-rimmed glasses. The red hair clashed with the red sweater vest.
If you can imagine the Teen-age Frankenstein wearing glasses, you will have some idea of young Kathleen’s reaction as Kenny surprised her from behind….
Kathleen was talking with her friend, Rosemary Alexander (whom she had danced with most of the night, so much for Paulsboro girls being “fast”….) Frankie (I mean Kenny) walked up to Kathleen (his future wife and mother of their three children) tapped her on the shoulder and asked her for a dance. As Kathleen tells it, her back was to him. She turned around and took one quick glance at the sight before her, scanning him from his haircut to his loafers. Instant rejection.
“NO!” she tersely refused, then turned quickly back to her girlfriend. Kenny shuffled away, devastated and embarrassed. But not as embarrassed as his future bride-to-be….
“I hope no one saw THAT come up to me!” she groaned to her girlfriend. Then the two of them continued to dance to the rock and roll records. Better to dance with a girlfriend than be seen dancing with (or even TALKING to ) a geek like that….
Kenny saved face by telling the other guys at the dance that he hadn’t REALLY wanted to dance with Kathleen. He just thought he’d ask her. That’s all….
Kenny’s walk home to Troy Avenue that night was the loneliest walk of his young life.
Flash forward one year. Our family moves from Gibbstown to Paulsboro. 722 Billings Ave. The girl of his eighth grade dreams, Kathleen Faulkner, lives at 721 Billings. Directly across the street! She’s practically the girl next door….
True love will never be denied, cannot be stopped, can never die….
Kenny watches his beloved often from his upstairs window (according to Mom)…. And nature, once so cruel to him it was almost as if he were her own private joke, begins to show compassion. Kenny fills out, begins to play High School football, becomes a football hero….
Kathleen takes notice of the newly rugged boy across the street. He not only plays football, but he’s smart, too. (She didn’t say handsome….) She falls in love with him, (he was already smitten from that awful night in eighth grade) and today, over forty years later, they truly have lived happily ever after….(They were married in St. Paul’s Methodist church in 1968, just a few blocks from where Kenny used to gaze at her from his upstairs window….)
Kenny describes the story like a live version of that old Charles Atlas ad in the comic books. The geek gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but pumps up, comes back, and kicks butt….
As an endnote, I have to add that as Ken grew to maturity, he did lose the homely appearance, becoming the handsome middle aged man he is today. I am not kidding when I tell you that there is one old black and white photo of him in his youth where he really looks like the Frankenstein Monster. And not just the Monster as it appeared in the original film, but the version from the sequel, after it had been burned in the fire. (The fact that all this is a legendary source of humor in our family reveals something about our family’s sense of humor….We really are NOT that shallow. No, REALLY, we’re not…)
In nature, the metamorphosis is a common occurrence. Ugly caterpillar becomes beautiful butterfly…Common seed becomes beautiful flower…
Perhaps my brother Kenny just simply grew out of that ugly duckling phase.
Or perhaps ‘twas Beauty killed the Beast….
Copyright 2004 by Kevin Kopko
This page was last edited on 03/3/2007