You Can’t Get to Heaven on The Frankford El

Thomas J. Lyons II Writes About Growing Up in Northeast Philadelphia

Sister Nativita's 8th grade class. Thomas Lyons II is front and center.

By Dave Duffin

As I sit reading You Can’t Get to Heaven on the Frankford El, the book by my pal at St. Martin of Tour’s Grade School in Philadelphia, I occasionally look up at the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean over the towers of San Francisco. I know where I am, but the book transports me back 3,000 miles and 60 years ago to a prosperous and respectful world that is sadly disappearing—rapidly. Tom tells the tales of humor, history and hi-jinks of the lads from the neighborhoods around Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

He documents and shows great respect for his hardworking ancestors from Ireland who came to America and settled in Philadelphia. He tells of his admiration and respect for the Immaculate Heart nuns at St. Martin’s and the Jesuits at St. Joe’s Prep and St. Joseph’s College.

The stories of the nuns include his astonishment that 35 nuns could organize the hourly mass movements of 2,000 students with their wooden “clickers.”

Contemporary teachers would faint at the thought of managing, let alone teaching, the 70-90 student class size of that era (with no teacher aides mind you). He mentions how a world-authority Jesuit can get assigned to teach Freshman Latin in a school of 800 and do so with vigor and appreciation.

There are enough Philly street game documents to give Bill Cosby material for a national tour. We played these games in the street every day. I especially liked “Wire Ball” (page. 118) that I’m sure disrupted many neighbor phone calls.

The (elevated train) Frankford El becomes a transportation artery for Tommy’s travels all over Philadelphia and outside the city to attend high school, college and visit new friends. It is hard to believe the freedom we had as kids in that time! Our families were aware of our travels but never seemed to mind. How does this compare with modern kids getting driven to school, soccer practice and the mall?

Tommy tells a great history of our gang of kids at St. Martin’s, on to his college days, starting his career and finally marriage to his wife Pat. He documents the key moments of American history of that era as a backdrop to all the chapters. An audio CD is included with a huge inventory of music and news events of the day. Included are JFK, MLK, Beatles, Bing Crosby and yes…Chubby Checker!

From the Greek (nostos – returning home and algos – pain) we have “nostalgia.” I have to admit it was very painful to read the book. As I mentioned, I’m 3,000 miles away from Tommy, Bobby Sullivan, Dave Young, Bill Delaney, my brother John and the rest of “the gang.” The masterful telling of the story brought me back to The Boulevard (Roosevelt Blvd.) where we had so many rich, cheerful and provident experiences. As I put the book down I realized I can’t go out in the street to play stick ball with them anymore.

At the very front of the photo on page 152 is an 8th grader at St. Martin’s. He is a masterful storyteller in the Irish tradition. His position in the class photo is prophetic indeed. All these years that incredibly cheerful soul carried our story in his heart and now it is in print and can be shared with others. Tommy Boy, you book drew a tear. May it do so for many others who were not lucky enough to be a Boulevard Boy.



  1. I remember some of you guys, the 2nd guy in that picture is my brother Bill, I am going to read the book, I know it’s going to be good.

Comments are closed.