Sunday, December 30, 2007

Peer Pressure

Something began to change within me during my Second Grade year. My friend Lulu and her family had moved away a few years back, and another black family had moved in. For some reason I allowed the wall to go up. I didn’t cross the street and make friends with anyone; I obeyed the unwritten law. I waved hello and I was polite, but I wasn’t their neighbor. We peered at each other like North and South Korea, too afraid to cross our own personal DMZ.
Other families would come and go in the house across the street and they’d all be black and we’d never really know them and they’d never know us; we’d stick to our own kind like all Americans were supposed to.
I slowly gave in to prejudice. I was the worst kind, I stood silent even though I knew it was wrong and stupid, but I was a kid and I had to get along. The older kids had all kinds of names for the people who lived next to us in Jericho; coon and jungle bunny and tar baby, and of course- nigger. I had to laugh along and not say anything or I’d risk another punch in the nose, and the threat of even more violence. The wall was up and I’d help put it there, and it would be years before I’d help to knock it down.
I had joined the mob. I would laugh along when jokes were made about the girls who weren’t as pretty as Joyce and Sheila. I’d call the kids with glasses four-eyes, and the over-weight ones fatty, and I’d laugh with everybody else. We were kids and we were cruel, and we’d revel in that cruelty.
I guess I had forgotten. Forgotten that I was the target of the older kids in my neighborhood. Forgotten that I was their punching bag; the butt of all their jokes. Forgotten my friend Lulu.
I was just like everybody else, and I was dishing it out instead of taking it for a change.
It was just name-calling and having a bit of fun.
Anyway, I wasn’t hurting anybody, was I?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones.......

Sticks and Stones

Eeenie, meenie, miney, moe,
Catch a nigger by the toe
If he hollers let him go,
Eenie, eenie, meenie, miney moe.
Sticks and stones.

We all know what the grownups say,
A Jew is cheap And a dancer is fay.
We all live the American way,
Can’t do a thing ‘bout what I say.
Sticks and stones.

Eggheads, nimrods, four-eyed geeks
Fatso, beanpole and just plain freaks.
We all poke fun like most folks do,
It never really hurts till it’s done to you.
Sticks and stones.

Nancy and Timmy up in the tree,
K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
We make things up from what we see,
You never really heard what you heard from me.
Sticks and stones.

Retard,homo, dirty Red
We’d all be better off if they just were dead.
It may not be what the Good Book say,
We’re just livin’ the American way.
Sticks and stones.

Polacks, dagos, frogs and spics
Chinks and limeys, japs and micks.
Everybody comes here to be free,
Go back where you came from, you bother me.
Sticks and stones.

Eenie, meenie, miney, moe,
Catch that nigger by the toe.
We all make fun like most folks do,
It really really hurts when it’s done to you.
Sticks and stones.....

Current Events

Christmas would come and go like it always had in 1959. A new decade was upon us. The 1960s were coming, but the 1950s weren't over yet. We were still living that Ozzie and Harriet- nothing's ever wrong-let's all go to the malt shop perfect world we thought existed.
Questions would be asked, and the answers wouldn't be good enough anymore. That's the way it is wouldn't cut it.
Our white world of privilege would be challenged by those on the outside looking in.
General Eisenhower would leave the oval office and a younger man, a Catholic man who stood for action and an end to the excuses would become our president, and we looked to him to guide us into a brighter future.
Events would swirl around us as we walked to school and rode our bikes and scrambled through the playground. Most of it would pass us by. We were kids and our world was safe and predictable.
Birthdays and holidays, summer and Christmas, neighbors and friends. Life would go on for us like always. How could it be otherwise?
Like it or not, the world was coming, and it didn't always have a smile.
I'd get a new bike for my birthday that December. Another West German Rixe; bigger and this time it would be red. I'd have to wait until spring to try it out, more fussing and fuming, time to crash and burn.
I'd plow through Second Grade and watch cowboys and Leave It To Beaver on TV.
I'd try to ice skate, and I'd be as graceful as a sack of beans.
Whee-Zee would still be by my side and I'd still keep one eye open on the bedroom closet door.
There were bigger, scarier monsters out there, and the world would come close to unleashing them.
Walls would go up and some would come down.
We would pledge our allegiance each and every day, unshakable in our faith and our pride for our country.
We would be comfortable in that faith and that pride for several years until one fine, sunny November afternoon in Texas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bunkbeds

Like most boys who shared a bedroom, we had bunkbeds. Just like Wally and the Beaver. During the summer our beds were side by side, so we'd be cooler. My bed was in the corner underneath the windows, one side against the wall. Carl's bed was out towards the center of the room, nearest the closet with all its dark secrets. In the winter the beds were moved to the corner opposite my summer position and stacked one on top of the other. I was the oldest, so I got the top bunk. A small wooden slat was the only thing between me and the hardwood floor below, but I felt a lot safer up there; close to the ceiling and the wall to my left, the closet farther away and on the other side of the room. Carl was the youngest, and he had a bed wetting problem, so he'd have to settle for the bottom bunk for now.
Carl was four years old. He was not exactly what I expected in a little brother. Carl liked to get into things. Things like cupboards and climbing shelves and the insides of toys. He liked to take things apart, and after he was finished taking stuff apart he would lose interest in whatever it was and just leave a pile of junk behind. To my horror he would inherit my green Rixe bike, but somehow it survived him and moved on to my sister.
I had to mark the boxes my toys came in with warnings: Do Not Touch,Or Else! and Keep Your Hands Off-This Means You! If I hadn't I wouldn't still have my Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots or my Remco Barracuda Submarine.They'd be bits and pieces in some landfill now. Left to his own devices he probably would have dismantled the family car.
Punishment never seemed to faze him either. Oh sure he would cry when he got a spanking, and he certainly had the fear of Dad's hand across his rump, but it never took hold of him like it did with me. I went out of my way to be good, but Carl was intent on raising holy hell, finding trouble whenever he could.
As I've said placing him in the hall closet never worked. Carl liked dark places, and his refusal to come out of there exasperated Mom even more. He had his curly blond hair tweaked so many times it's a miracle he didn't develop a bald spot.
Carl really let me down at night, in our room, when it was dark and I needed him the most. He was always able to drift right off, without a care in the world. He liked the dark and it lulled him to sleep like the poppies in The Wizard of Oz.
I on the other hand always had trouble getting to sleep. I had too much on my mind, like school and what was on TV and what I was going to do the next day,and how pretty Sheila McLaughlin was, and yes,yes I'll admit it, I was afraid of the dark. Something in my brain had me convinced that horrible things were going to happen at night when the lights were all out. It didn't matter that I was safe in my own home with my parents and my dog, and forget about my brother, he was sleeping! I was counting on him to band together with me and defeat the horrible creature that lurked in our closet at night. But not him, no he was too busy counting sheep.
I devised ways of waking him up whenever my fears got the better of me and I just couldn't get to sleep. When our beds were side by side, I'd reach over and grab the corner of his blanket and slowly pull it off him. Little by little, inch by inch I'd pull until he woke up from the movement of the covers. He'd sit up, gather the sheet and the blanket back over himself and begin the drift back to sleep. Sometimes that would be enough for me, and I'd be able to relax enough to finally get to sleep. Some nights two or three times, and sometimes just for fun. When the bunks were stacked, I had to be a little more creative. I'd take a sock to bed with me, and I'd lean down as far as I could and tickle him on the tip of his nose. I had to be fast and subtle, and careful, or else I'd knock the safety bar down and wake everybody up. Some nights he wouldn't wake up no matter what I did.
I never told Carl about the creature in our bedroom closet. I didn't think I had to. I mean wasn't it obvious? Horrible creatures came out in the dark of night. Witches and ghosts and headless horsemen and goblins and all sorts of mean and nasty things. All kids knew that, right?
Not Carl.
He just didn't seem to care.
I guess it's better I didn't tell him about the creature in the closet.
He probably would have gone in there and slept with it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Joy To The World

I don’t think I truly believed anymore that Christmas in 1959. The Santa Claus at our family parties and who showed up briefly before bedtime on Christmas Eve sounded an awful lot like my Uncle Dan, and I’d seen the suit hanging in his bedroom. I was given some story about Santa needing helpers, but that didn’t ring true. The Santas in all the stores were different from each other too, so it was difficult for me to believe. No one in our family had a fireplace either, we had furnaces, so if Santa tried coming down our chimneys he’d end up incinerated in the basement.
That Christmas Eve would be like all the others. Our friends and neighbors and family would flow in and out of our house all evening, drinking and singing,laughing and eating. Our house was small, and there was no escaping the noise of celebration.
Putting two young boys to bed amid such din was impossible, but around ten o’clock or so to bed we had to go.I laid in my top bunk trying as hard as I could to try and fall asleep, but it was no use, I had to listen to the noise; the sounds of adults at play. Raucous conversation, songs off-key. The silence as a joke was told, and the bursts of laughter to follow. Cigarettes and liquor,glasses clinking, food and good cheer. I listened as hard as I could, but it was too difficult to understand anything with all the voices overlapping, their volume increasing.
After midnight most people had gone and the talk was quieter, the laughter less frequent. I heard the glasses in the sink as my Mom and Aunt Sis began cleaning up the kitchen and the living room.
Carl was oblivious. He had fallen asleep long ago, and I peered down at him, amazed that he could drift off so peacefully when there was so much to listen in on.
After all the friends and family had gone, just my parents in the kitchen, speaking in hushed tones, telling secrets I couldn’t hear. As they made their way down the hall towards our room, I turned to face the wall and pretended to be fast asleep.
Looking in on us, they satisfied themselves that we were off in dreamland, and then went straight to the task at hand.
I heard them climb the stairs to the attic, and sliding away the plywood that covered the stairwell. Their voices were still hushed, but animated, and I could tell they were having a lot of fun. The sound of paper rustling; the sound of presents! Up and down the steps they went, the joy in their voices rising. I listened the whole time as they placed our gifts around the tree, laughing and whispering. I don’t think I had ever heard my parents so happy as they were that night.
I assumed the sleeping position once again as they crept past, checking in on us once more before retiring to their room. Some muffled conversation, a few more laughs,then silence.
Santa Claus came that night, but he didn’t fly away. He fell asleep in the bedroom across the hall from mine.
Carl went to sleep that night,wrapped in blankets and dreams.
I was lucky.
I laid awake and smiled.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wax Paper and Warm Milk


I had to stay at school to eat my lunch. I couldn't go home because the walk was too far and my mother didn't drive. Those of us who had to stay were consigned to a room in the basement of the school building; 10 or 15 wretched souls condemned to the purgatory of the lunchroom. When the noon bell rang most of our classmates got to run home where they could eat in the comfort of their kitchens, or in the living room where they could watch TV.The older kids, the Seventh and Eighth graders who had money were lucky enough to go to D'Arpino's Luncheonette for a submarine sandwich and a Coke, and a chance to just "hang out".
The lunchroom was small and without windows. They kept the milk there in those wax-coated paper cartons, and it always seemed a bit warm. That was white milk anyway, and I didn't drink white milk. I had to have chocolate milk. Chocolate or nothing, so I always had a lunch box with a thermos full of the brown elixir. Nestle's Quick or Hershey or Cocoa Marsh syrup was the only way I could get the juice of the cow down. Some kids only had the brown bag, so they were forced to drink their milk straight, warm and vile from the carton. Every now and then my mom would fill my thermos with soup, so I'd have to buy a carton of white milk and endure the horrid stuff if I wanted something to drink. Most of the time I'd pocket the nickel and get a big drink of water at the fountain after eating. White milk was for suckers. White milk was only good for cereal and nothing else, except making ice cream and cheese.
I usually had a cowboy lunch box,Gunsmoke or The Lone Ranger or Bonanza. Later on I'd have The Flintstones and The Jetsons. The 3D lunch box was my favorite kind, with the images popping off the sides of the box so you could trace them with your fingers. The thermos bottle was cool to look at too, more scenes of your favorite characters in action.
Lunch would be a sandwich of some kind, on white bread and wrapped in wax paper. Whatever I had it had to have mustard on it. None of that mayo stuff for me. Warm milk and warm mayonnaise for lunch? No way, you've got to be kidding. Along with my sandwich maybe some cookies or a Tastykake and always a piece of fruit. Usually an apple or a banana, and of course my chocolate milk.
Some kind of chemical reaction would take place inside your lunch box from the time your mother closed it up until the time you opened it. The odors from the lunch meat and the mustard and the fruit and the cookies would blend together with the metallic smell of the lunch box to create this bizarre funk that permeated the lunchroom. The brown baggers had a smell too, but without the added zing of the metal.
No vending machines, no candy or potato chips or sodas, just lunch from your mom.
We had half an hour to eat, and then it was out to the playground for 30 minutes of daylight and freedom. In the winter, or whenever the weather was bad, you were forced to endure yet another half hour in that dreary little room.
If you had some money and were really fast, you could run down to the Pioneer Store and get some candy or a Popsicle; a quick sugar fix to get you through the afternoon.
When I reached the Fifth Grade I could ride my bike more often in the warmer weather, so I could go home and escape from the limbo of the lunchroom.
Mom would learn to drive in 1963, but school was almost over,so I'd have to endure.
In 1964 the school was being remodeled, so we were sent to use the Catholic school rooms at St. Margaret's, which was farther away, so I carried my lunch once more.
Gateway Regional High School would be built right behind my house, just yards away, and I rejoiced,I'd come home for lunch at last!
But it was not to be. School policy mandated that all students had to stay in the building during lunch period, and I was condemned to lunch room purgatory, to my wax paper hell.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Longest Mile

Mark Gerber was one of those kids you could never figure out. One day he was a regular guy, and easy to get along with,the next day back to his old tricks; a worm and a weasel.
One day he decided to walk to school with me, a nice gesture, or so I thought. As we got nearer to the lake, he began telling me how we could get to school a lot faster if we took the shortcut up the path through Trackie’s property and across the ballfields to Helen Avenue.That would get us to Glassboro Road a lot quicker,he told me, and we could cross at Elm for the short block to school.
“No, we better not,” I told him, my parents’ voices at the back of my mind, reminding me to always be on time, always stay on the sidewalk the whole way to school.
He was persistent in that Eddie Haskell way of his; part snake charmer,part con man.
Against my better judgement I gave in to him and agreed to take his so-called shortcut. What could happen? We’re just going to go across the ballfields and up Helen Ave., what could possibly go wrong?
Well instead of crossing the ballfields, he decides to go along the stream telling me it was going to be even faster this way, just follow him and we’d be at school in no time.
I knew it was wrong and I should have turned back, but I kept going forward,following Mark through the soggy ground. The water from the mud was seeping into my shoes, and I began to slip and slide,slowing my progress. I fell once or twice, soiling the knees of my pants. All this time Mark was picking up the pace, crying out for me to hurry up, or else we’d be late.
LATE! No that could not be! I was NEVER late for school. Late was not a part of the Maddox vocabulary. My father would not abide it. I could not,would not be late for school.
EVER!
I walked faster trying not to slip anymore, and we reached the dry ground of Helen Avenue.Helen Avenue back then wasn’t quite a real street yet. It was a mixture of dust and gravel,no sidewalk to be seen. The dust on the road began to cling to the mud on my shoes, increasing my anger and discomfort.
By now Mark Gerber was far ahead of me,crossing Glassboro Road without looking back, leaving me for dead.
I began to run with all my might,quickly looking both ways at Glassboro Road, running faster still up Elm for the short block to Academy Ave.and the school.
I walked to the school as quickly as I could, noting that the playground was empty, that everyone was inside. I climbed those seven narrowing steps wet and muddy, mad and sweaty, my record of punctuality broken. I was late-a disgrace to my self and the honor of my family! I could feel the sting of the bat across my butt,the I-told-you-so's,the no TV tonight speech ringing in my brain. I cursed Mark Gerber and I cursed myself, as I tried to prepare some pitiful lie to pass off as an excuse.
But, as I entered my classroom, a miracle-the late bell sounded after I reached my desk and not before!
I was dirty and angry , but I wasn’t late.
No excuses needed. My on time record remained intact.
I paid the price for being stupid.
I was mad at Mark Gerber.
I was even madder at myself.
I would spend that day in soggy, muddy shoes and dirt on the knees of my pants.
During the Lord's Prayer I made a solemn vow.
I would stick to my trail on the sidewalks forever.
I'd listen to the voices of my parents running inside my brain.
And I would never walk to school with Mark Gerber again.
EVER.

September 1959: The Second Grade

Another year. A tougher one. We would get Mrs. Lamson, a no-nonsense very discipline- oriented teacher this year. The Woodbury Heights school district seemed to have a good cop/bad cop philosophy in their selections. First Grade the friendly teacher,Second Grade the strict disciplinarian, and so on.
Mrs. Lamson wasn't mean or anything, she just didn't encourage much joy in the learning process. She had short dark hair, and her makeup seemed a bit clownish to me. Too much lipstick,too much rouge. When she laughed or smiled,she exposed rows of very large teeth,which made her countenance a little more garish, a bit more severe. I think that behind the facade there lurked a much nicer person, but she was there to do her job and do it well. She never wrote a single comment about me on my report card, so I have no idea what she thought of me or how I progressed throughout that school year.
We would pledge allegiance to a new flag, 50 stars now, adding Alaska and Hawaii; two more state capitals to memorize. We'd watch Wee Willie Webber in the morning as we got ready for school. He'd show us cartoons and remind us what time it was; how much longer we had before we had to hit the trail. I'd sing "The Battle of New Orleans" on my way to class,imagining myself in the army with Andy Jackson in the lead.
My classmate Tommy Budd would draw amazing battle scenes composed entirely of stick figures. Massive armies engaged in storming fortresses,frontal assaults and cavalry charges. Tommy's stick figures had style and motion. He raised them to a level of high art. I would spend hours trying to imitate what he could do, but there was only one Tommy Budd: stick figure genius.
Once again I only managed a B in Physical education. Maybe they should have let me run more, or let me hit a Wiffle Ball, that would have shown them.
I know my handwriting was never quite up to par, so I only managed a solid B in that.
I could read almost anything now, and I didn't struggle too much with arithmetic, and nobody could touch me at spelling.

Our class program that year was an evening of singing and storytelling,some kind of operetta and a rhythm band selection. What the stories were about I can't remember, but somebody wore a costume consisting of three heads made out of paper bags. Three others wore paper bags over their heads as well. The rest of us banged cymbals and triangles and shook bells. I had the red rhythm sticks. You banged and scraped them together at the appropriate moments in the musical score. I was less than thrilled.
I would walk the same walk to school and back, marking time on the same old trail. But this year would be different. I didn't always walk alone. I would meet up with Tommy Madden or his brother Ricky, or sometimes I'd walk with Lora Carter and Patsy Mulin. The company was welcome and made the march less tedious,less routine.
Walking to school with friends for a change!
Nothing could be better.
At least you would think so....

Friday, December 14, 2007

An Unlikely Tutor

Mark Gerber and I weren’t always on the best of terms.
He told me Mrs. Price was a witch. He tried to hog my pedal car fire truck, so I hit him across the chest with my Wiffle Ball bat. He liked to call me a little baby who played with little baby toys, coveting those toys even as he said it. He could be your best pal one day, your mortal enemy the next. Who knows what his motives were. Maybe he was picked on by the kids his own age and took it out on me. He couldn’t pronounce his brother Billy’s name when he was small. It came out “Bull” instead of Bill, so he always called his older brother “Bull.” Even I teased him about that.
Imagine my surprise when one spring day in 1959 he decided he would teach me how to hit and catch a ball!
He even got his brother “Bull” to help out with my education.
He was watching my pitiful attempts at throwing up a Wiffle Ball and trying to hit it around the yard. I failed at almost every try.
I don’t know if Mark felt sorry or embarrassed for me, or if he felt that this would be a good way to torture me, but he came over to my yard and told me that he and his brother were going to teach me how to do it right.
They spent the better part of the day pitching Wiffle Balls at me, encouraging and laughing,demonstrating and observing. I must have swung that bat a million times or more. Every time I missed, Mark Gerber would have some kind of unkind remark waiting in the wings. His brother would just laugh and shake his head until I got it right. I thought I saw Mark wince every time I swung the bat, in remembrance of the fire truck incident the summer before.
When they were satisfied that I could hit reasonably well, they made me practice catching.
I went through the usual trials, closing my hands too soon, turning my head away and getting beaned.
More insults,more laughter at my expense.
After a few hours of this I wasn’t quite the embarrassment I had been, and they told me that with a little more practice, I'd be ready to play ball with them.
Mark Gerber, the Eddie Haskell in my world. He could be your pal or he could be a weasel and a worm.
He spent a day doing something nice. He helped me. He gave me confidence in something I wasn’t very good at when he could have been doing something else.
He taught me to how use a bat on a ball instead of on him.

Ambush On Glenwood Ave.

I had heard the unmistakable sound of boys at play when I'd stop at Glenwood Ave. on my trips to Trackie's store. I'd meet them all that summer in 1959.
Glenwood Ave. is a short walk from my house on Walnut. Down the street past the Lucas house and the Burgess' house and you're there. Turn left onto Glenwood, go past the Thomases and the Fishers and the Sullivans and you reach the home of my friends the Maddens.
I began my long relationship with the Madden family in the spring of 1959. Tommy Madden and I met on our walk to school, and discovered we were close in age. I was born in December which prevented me from going to Kindergarden in 1956, when Tommy started going to school.
The Madden's back yard was a wild and woolly place that bordered on the lake. Tall reeds and cattails and other types of tall grasses grew up from the banks of the lake in this area. There was also a large open field just past their long,low ranch house, which led to the woods that ringed the back part of the lake. Tommy and his brothers Ricky and Keith would show me the ways of their woods and the swampier area around the creek which fed the lake. We would climb the hills around it and venture up Freund's cliff, and into Tyler's woods.
They would show me how to fish for Sunnies,how to row a boat and how to go rake fishing.
Rake fishing was a young boy's delight. You take a good strong garden rake and wade along the banks of the lake,looking for a real muddy spot . Then you thrust your rake into the water and give it a good pull to see what wonders you could harvest. In all the muck and slime and goo you could find painted turtles, snails,baby eels and crayfish, all squirming and thrashing about. We were Lloyd Bridges on Sea Hunt or Marlin Perkins on a Wild Kingdom adventure all our own. Mud and water and catching wild things, what a day!
We would use the tall grassy areas for war games; a kind of hide and seek with guns. We were in the jungles of the South Pacific,the Japs against the marines.
One day, our side was waiting in ambush, perfectly concealed from the enemy. We lay silently among the reeds and grasses, listening as they approached,probing for us, their weapons at the ready. Beads of sweat formed upon our brows as we lay in anticipation,sure that the ensuing battle would result in a victory for our army. Closer they drew, searching this way and that, sensing the struggle to come. The moment was at hand; just a few more inches and we would strike, our fingers reaching for the triggers of our weapons....
Then, suddenly,one of our guys farted,exposing our position to the enemy!
They were upon us, striking us down one by one, our well-laid ambush shattered, our plan given away by one of our own passing gas.
We were totally defeated and the field was littered with our dead.
Our entire army was wiped out that day.
And we all died laughing.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

BUZZED


Men got their hair cut in barber shops in the 1950s. No salons, no stylists, just barbers- plain and simple. They always seemed to be Italians, too. Real men with names like Joe or Lou or Frank.
My barber shop was in Woodbury, a short walk from Nanny and Pop-Pop's house across the railroad tracks. It was a small, red brick, flat-roofed building owned by a man named Mike. Mike was a soft-spoken man. A nice guy with a mustache, and yes, he was Italian. I always wanted Mike to cut my hair. The other barber in the shop was named Lou or Joe. He was Italian too, and he also had a mustache. He didn't talk too much and he always had bad breath.
Mike's barber shop was a man's place. It smelled of hair tonic and talcum powder and cigar smoke. You sat waiting your turn- there were no appointments- in red vinyl chairs with chrome frames while looking at those prints of dogs playing poker and shooting pool. I read magazines I'd never seen before; magazines like Argosy:stories written by real men to be read by real men.
You sat in those reddish brown barber chairs with thick white trim, big wide head rests , heavy metal foot rests and thick padded arms. The chair was pumped up high like you were a car on some lift in a gas station's service bay.
The shop had little pictures of different types of haircuts you could get, but there were really only two: a regular cut where your hair was trimmed at the sides and left longer on top so you could comb it, or you had it clipped short all the way round.
When I got my hair cut it was always a crew cut, a flat top, a serviceman's buzz. My hair was unruly with four cowlicks that couldn't be tamed, wouldn't be parted, would never lie down. I always looked like some marine headed for a troop train on his way to boot camp. When that Lou or Joe guy cut it, I looked even worse.
When I was in the Fourth grade I decided that enough was enough, and I'd be like everyone else and get a regular hair cut and comb my hair and look less like a fuzzy-haired geek. I had it cut short on the sides and back and around my ears, and I was ready to part and comb my hair like a real man. Only thing was, my part wasn't straight, it was crooked and even worse than that, it was hard to find. Those darned cowlicks were ruining everything, and defeating my efforts to keep it combed down. There were no gels or mousses; just greasy stuff like Brylcreem or Vitalis, and a little dab wasn't gonna do it for me. I'd use the whole tube or bottle if I had to, and I did; plastering my hair down into a hard impenetrable shell that was impossible to move.
But those cow licks of mine were evil. They had a life of their own, and there was no taming them. On my walk to school they'd push their way up through the layers of grease and oil, so at the end of my trek I had four hairy horns protruding from my head. After a month of this insanity I abandoned my attempt at conforming and went back to getting scalped.
After I had my hair cut, Mike or Joe or Lou would trim the back of my neck with a real straight razor. I could hear the scraping of it as it removed the top layer of my skin. They'd slap some kind of stinging tonic on me, and brush me off in a cloud of talcum powder. No matter how much they brushed you off, your back and neck still itched from the thousands of little hairs still remaining.
There was just one more thing.
Before you could get out of the chair and pay the bill and be on your way they'd take this stuff, I don't know what it was, but it was pink and waxy and kind of greasy, and they'd rub it into the front row of my scalp.
When they were finished, it made the front of my hair stick straight up in the air.
Yeah, like I needed any help with that.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

35 Cents

That summer of 1959 would find me at The Wood Theatre in Woodbury. My first Saturday afternoon at the movies without my parents. The Wood Theatre is where we all went to see a movie indoors, with formality, not the outdoor ruggedness of the drive-in. It was a real movie palace, with a stage and velveteen seats. That strange and wonderful smell of mildew and popcorn and stale air conditioning. One big screen and a balcony that was only used when the house was full. We rarely bought our candy at the snack counter, opting to buy our Root Beer Barrels and Dots and Tootsie Rolls and Black Crows at the brown vending machine across the lobby. It was cheaper, and you didn't have to wait in line.
I went to my first matinee with my new friend Tommy Madden, a slightly older boy from Glenwood Ave., a short walk from our house on Walnut. We would see each other on our way to and from school, and towards the end of First Grade we had begun talking and walking together from time to time. The lake was in his backyard, and he and his brothers Ricky and Keith grew up steeped in its lore.
Even as a young boy I was a movie purist. I liked to watch in total silence, allowing the story to unfold and the images transport me to other worlds far away. Instead I was in a room of screaming, running popcorn-tossing maniacs, let loose upon the world like savages. No wonder their parents let them out for the day. These kids were crazy! If my mother were here she'd have a field day twisting kids' hair and yanking them outside to the sidewalk. I could only look on in amazement, knowing what would happen to me if I behaved like this.
There was some kind of magic show on stage at the beginning, but I couldn't really hear too much because of all the yelling and screaming.
Things calmed down a bit during the cartoons, where the violent behavior was limited to the screen.
The coming attractions brought on more screaming and running up and down the aisles, and the popcorn rained down from the balcony above.
Finally the main attraction, what we had all come to see. Ben-Hur: the story of a man unjustly accused by the Romans and sent to the galleys as a slave. Thrilling adventure,revenge and the story of Christ all unfolded before us for three hours.
There were brief outbursts of food fighting and restlessness in some spots, but the naval battle and the magnificent chariot race kept us all riveted in our seats.
At the movie's end there was cheering and yelling and the final tossing of candy and popcorn in the air, a mad rush to the light of day and into the cars of our parents. We'd recount the thrill of the chariot race for them, and all the gory details of the battle at sea.
We'd leave out the mushy parts and the serious parts, and the Jesus parts went over most of our heads. We'd also leave out how poorly most of us behaved.
All in all it was a marvelous day.
Violence and mayhem, and a Roman Circus all for thirty five cents.
And the movie was good too.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Identity

My Cowboy Wallpaper

There are tattoos on the walls of my parents' house, but they are under the skin where no one can see. Buried under layers of paint and paneling and wallpaper. I know they're still there.
Despite the paneling in my old bedroom the walls are still covered with cowboys and Indians and wagon trains. They ride and rope and hunt on brightly colored paper; traces of my finger prints left behind.
A portrait of Whee-Zee done in pencil by my mother's hand still graces the drywall in the basement stairwell waiting to be seen again.
Under layers of paint on the living room wall stands a mural. A tranquil lake ringed by trees and a chain link fence. An inspiration painted by my mother so many years ago.
Asphalt siding and cedar shake still cover our house, encased in pale green aluminum.
The rough, lumpy drywall compound on the living room ceiling a testament to my father's persistence, as he built our house by day while working on the railroad at night.
Inside the attic walls the relics of my youth. Our sled on wheels and my brother's Roman battleship lie dormant after so many hours of joy.
Outside in the earth, the remains of pets gone by enrich the soil. My turtle King Tut, Carl's mice and perhaps a cat or two lie resting forevermore.
The last bit of bark from the old Maple tree mingles in the dirt around the butterfly bush, compost for a new generation.
Every now and then Mom digs up an errant toy soldier or an old plastic racing car, and the yard is alive again with the games of children.
And the sounds and the voices that hang in the air. The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, and the splashing in the pool.
Whee-Zee and Max and Buster running and barking in the yard.
The Olsens and the Avises and the Gerbers are all still there.
My brother's voice still calls out, carried on the wind, never forgotten.
This home,this ground,will always be me.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Crime and Punishment


You were punished in the 50s. No time outs, no use your inside voice: you were punished when you were bad. Going to your room was the prelude. Going to your room usually meant that sooner or later you would receive a painful reminder that your parents were in charge and that there was no negotiating.
Usually I would be punished for talking back to my mother or for fighting with my brother Carl. If it wasn't too serious, Mom would handle it all and Dad wouldn't hear a word about it. A spanking from Mom stung more than hurt, because most times her heart wasn't really into it.
We didn't misbehave outside of the home too much because Mom's form of justice was swift and to the point. Act up in a store and you found Mom grabbing a lock of your hair and twisting it tight as she led you out the door and into the car. No yelling or slapping, just a painful tug on your head and you were outta there. It didn't take long for you to know that you were expected to behave yourself in a store or a restaurant.
After she realized that her hand wasn't that intimidating to us, she began to use one of those wooden paddle ball handles. Without the ball, of course. That thing would leave you stinging for quite a while. Later she found a small piece of wood that was perfectly flat on one side. We called it "THE BAT". I even inscribed it thus with a pen. When the bat came out of the kitchen drawer you knew it was serious. Just a few quick swats across your butt was all it took for order to be restored.
I could be sent to my room for minor infractions, but that wasn't really punishment to me, because I could read or just lie on my bed, perfectly happy being alone. This would inevitably lead to my brother making faces at me, for which he would be punished if caught.
Mom had a special place for my brother when he was exceptionally evil. He would be banished to the hall closet until she thought he had had enough time to reflect and to learn from it. The only thing was; Carl liked it in there. He enjoyed being in a closed, dark space and wouldn't want to come out when Mom called "time's up." He was absolutely no help in dealing with the thing that lurked in our bedroom closet.
When you did something totally horrible, something that crossed a line your mother drew somewhere, your father would deal with it.
Fathers worked all day. They were subject to stresses and strains that we knew nothing about, and when they came home the last thing in the world they wanted to do was mete out justice to their disappointing offspring.
You cried when your mother told you she was going to tell your father what happened and you began crying when you heard the car pull in the drive. Dad's punishment was brief but decisive. A hard spanking and it hurt. It didn't happen often, and you tried awful hard not to bring it on yourself ever again.
Your mother yelled at you all day so you got used to her. You father's reprimands with all of their intensity would burn you to the core of your soul, and leave you a trembling mass of exposed nerves, hoping you'd never, ever have to endure his anger .
Your parents expected obedience and respect. Their disappointment in you was handled swiftly and with violence. Restrained violence for the most part, but it still hurt and it still embarrassed.
It was the way they were raised so it was all they knew. They tried their best. After a while there were no spankings, just yelling and scolding and lecturing. Television time and playing with your friends curtailed. A kinder,gentler parenting.
They told us it hurt them a lot more than it hurt us.
Maybe so, but boy did it ever sting.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Eat My Dust

The Fourth of July, 1959. The Woodbury Heights Jaycees would sponsor games at the ballfields and at the lake. First prize a dollar, second place fifty cents and third place a quarter. I wasn't a very good swimmer yet, so my mom took me to the ballfields to try my luck in the running events. I loved to run, and I had plenty of opportunities running with my dog Whee-Zee and through the fields of Aunt Bette's farm. All that walking with Mom had given me a strong pair of legs, and I was trying to keep pace with a four legged animal.
I had never formally raced anybody, at least not with prize money at stake, so I didn't know what to expect of myself.
I signed up for the hundred yard dash and waited for the race to begin.
They called out for the hundred and I quickly took my place at the starting line with all the other boys. A group of the older ones had formed and they spotted me in the line. It didn't take long for the insults to begin.
"What are you doing in this race?" "Who do you think you are, shrimp? You'll never beat anybody here.""You might as well go home."
I ignored them. I tried hard not to let them bother me.
"You see that kid over there,squirt?"
"That's Charlie Donner and he's the fastest kid in the Heights."
"Ain't nobody gonna beat Charlie Donner and you ain't gonna beat any of us, so give up right now."
I was mad and I was getting upset, but I wasn't going to cry and I wasn't going to give up. This wasn't Kindergarden anymore. I was determined to prove these guys wrong and beat that Charlie Donner kid and make them eat their words.
They continued their taunts until we were told to get ready.
I lined up, the snickering and the scoffing unabated.
"READY!"
I looked down the line and saw I was only a few shoulders away from Donner.
"GET SET!"
I was tense, but resolute as I stared down the field towards the finish line.
"GO!"
We were off and running. I did not stumble, I did not falter as I ran with all my might,quickly gaining speed. For the first few yards there was no one else around me, and I could hear some of the boys who were making fun of me cry out in disbelief.
Then all of a sudden there he was, the fabled Charlie Donner had caught up to me and we were running side by side. For a few moments I believed. I believed that I was going to beat this god, this winged Mercury and cross the finish line in triumph.
Seconds later he was ahead of me, and in a final burst of speed completely in the lead.
I tried real hard. I pumped my arms and urged my legs forward, but all I could see were the soles of Charlie Donner's shoes as he crossed the finish line.
A few seconds later I was across, chest heaving and sweat on my brow. One of the adults was pressing something into my palm. It was my prize, a silver half dollar, Ben Franklin in my hand!
Charlie Donner looked at me and said, "You can really run for a little kid."
The rest of the pack was left far behind and they all had to fight it out for a lousy quarter.
It didn't sink in until I looked down at the silver in my hand. Second place, second only to a legend, the fastest kid in the Heights, and for a while I had been in the lead, and he really had to try hard to beat me! It was my triumph! The laurels placed round my head. Charlie Donner was expected to win and he did, but not without effort, not without worry. I endured the taunts and the insults and I had crossed the line before the rest of them. The silver was mine and the day was sweet.
And everyone else watched the soles of my shoes.

1959: Report Card

1959,my first real report card.I was graded, rated, appraised and elevated. On to the Second Grade! Mrs. Lozier would sum up my First Grade year: "I have enjoyed working with Jimmy. It has been a pleasure to have him in our group." Businesslike and uninspired.
I received four A's in the really important stuff: Reading, Language/Spelling, Handwriting and Numbers. B's in Social Studies and Science, Appreciation and Physical Education. Above average growth in my work and social habits, average in my health habits.
But what did all that really mean? What had I really learned that year? The A in numbers didn't say that I struggled hard to understand at first, especially telling time. It took me the longest while understanding those hands and numbers and the little lines in between, and how embarrassed I felt when it all finally "dawned" on me.
Reading and writing and spelling came easily to me, but my grades did not reflect the joy and exhilaration I felt being able to understand words.
Social Studies and Science would come to me in time, and so would the A's.
But Appreciation? Music was always flying around my brain. I could hear Fats Domino and Hank Williams and the Firehouse Five, and Spike Jones and the Ballad of Davy Crockett! Why didn't we sing that kind of music instead of the kiddie crap they fed us? And why did they push me up close to the microphone when we sang carols during the school Christmas pageant?
A "B" in Physical Education? We're talking dodge ball and kickball and musical chairs here! How did I mess up that?
Average growth in Health habits. I guess I was as clean as could be expected.
What had we learned of our classmates? Did any of them still feel the need to go to bed with the hall light on, and was there something hiding in their bedroom closets at night? "If I should die before I wake?", did any of us pick up on that?
Did anybody really buy that "duck and cover stuff" they told us, or did everybody know we were all going to be vaporized in an instant as the world was blown to pieces?
What of my friend Richie Hearn, who struggled to overcome that embarrassing stutter. How did he feel inside? How awful did that make his life?
Were the girls in my class any more confident than the boys? Did any of them endure teasing and taunting or the fear of being bullied?
Mrs. Marvin came to visit us once and our hopes began to rise, but no, she would not be coming back and we would never really know why.
We'd receive our report cards and we'd beam with pride at our A's and B's.
We knew how to read and write, how to spell and cipher.
We were the best and the brightest set loose for the summer to come back in the fall.
Our school year was over, our lessons we learned.
So much more we never even knew.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Heavy Metal

The playground was yellow/orange, packed hard by running,jumping children. Stones laid bare by scraping and sliding and falling. Thick metal bars,rough canvas seats and heavy wooden planks rising high in the air. We climbed and spun and slid and swung on apparatus designed as if in some medieval time without any regard for children. The sliding board so high you could get a nosebleed ascending the ladder,its surface gleaming steel searing hot from the rays of the sun.
The jungle gym of thin metal bars, a maze rising up to the sky, decorated with upside down children suspended from the knees, the rock hard ground daring you to fall.
See-saws made of inch thick planks that weighed a thousand pounds or more came crashing down to crack your spine if your partner jumped off without warning. Thick monkey bars you hand walked, pulling your arms from their sockets as you worked your way across,feet flailing in the air.
This round thing with rails; a whirling disc going faster and faster and the "witch hat", a spinning cone you had to hold on to with your body flying outwards,ever outwards almost weightless,faster and faster and please,God please don't make me let go.
The swings were safe you thought, but you went higher and higher and your stomach was dropping out, or rising up to meet your throat, the canvas cutting into your hide so you stopped yourself by ploughing furrows in the ground with your feet.
And through all this the running and the jumping and the screaming and the laughing. The scraping and scratching, bruised knees and scuffed hands, holes torn in pants and dirt in your shoes. It was murder, it was mayhem, it was chaos, it was hell.
And we couldn't wait to do it all over again.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Communion

We sat at desks worn smooth by children's hands, with empty inkwell holes, the past stained and etched into the wood. Floorboards planed from wooden chairs and the soles of countless shoes. The daily tapping on the blackboard, interrupted by the occasional screeching of chalk and a spine-tingling shiver throughout the room. A bell told us when to learn, when to eat, when to play and when to go home. We started the day solemnly with a pledge and a prayer; a yelling, laughing, running mob when the bell rang to go home. There were days that you prayed real hard, a warm sunny spring day you prayed for a fire drill just to get outside and away from the stiff,hard chairs. That first grade year we wrote with big thick pencils on manila paper with widely spaced blue lines;crude paper for awkward hands. We listened and learned,raised hands to answer and tried hard not to be called on when we didn't know. We struggled to concentrate even though the windows told us it was too nice a day to be inside and snow falling would bring us all to a standstill, eyes riveted to the sky in the hope that our day would end sooner.
Noon would be lunch and the playground's call to be tossed about on see-saws and swings,climbing monkey bars or shooting marbles on the ground. A chance to laugh and get a break from the seriousness of it all.
After noon would be the lighter stuff, reading and writing and song. Then recess and dodge ball, because no one our age could possibly sit still that long.
With recess done maybe some spelling or show and tell, to help us calm down and bring us back to order. The moans and groans when homework was assigned, the final act in our busy day. Then the bell-that glorious sound and the mad rush to the cloakroom,and the surge to the door. Our voices louder without order as we hit the sidewalks for the walk home. The school would stand quiet now, and await another day to be filled by the voices and the shuffling and the scraping of chairs. To be slowly worn smooth by the hands and the feet of children.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Trailblazing

Every day I'd walk those sidewalks, that familiar eight tenths of a mile. Down Walnut, up Lake, right turn at Glassboro Road to Asam. Across Glassboro Road up Asam to Academy and the school. Each and every square of concrete was known to me. Some heaved up from tree roots, others cracked every which way so that it was impossible not to break your mother's back. Some so cracked and shattered that you could kick big chunks of them out of your way, and others made of gravel and stones.
I'd walk the grate at the dam wall of the lake, the water rushing down on its journey under the street, falling into the creek on the other side of the road.
I knew every house and a lot of the people who lived in them. Some of those houses were my friends; the Avis' and the Olsens' and the Gerbers' homes smiled to me every morning, familiar and inviting. Others were not so friendly, behind their doors lurked some of the boys who'd like to taunt or tease or punch me in the nose.
Mrs. Price's house was ominous; it squinted at you from beneath its cloak of dirt and vines and trees.
There were other homes of people whose children I knew but nothing else about them. I had no idea if they were happy places filled with love and warmth like mine, or if they were sad places filled with anger and with worry. I noted them every day, their windows staring back at me, indifferent strangers, and I just a passing reflection. These homes were my landmarks,my mileposts marking time on the trail.
First Avis and Olsen,past Price's woods, the journey just begun. The danger zone of Lucas and Burgess, eyes on the alert, my pace quickened. Mulin,White and Fleisch, then Trackie's store and past the lake,almost halfway. Up Lake Avenue past Patton and Quinto to the Nichols' and finally Glassboro Road. The Voldish house and Tommy Moore's meant almost there. You reach Asam and Mr. Blorn the crossing guard for the last leg to school, past homes that had no names.
I walked a steady pace to class,with purpose,my father's voice reminding me to always be on time. With lunch box in one hand and my schoolbooks in the other I marched,in weather both good and bad. On really bad weather days I could ride in style with the Gerbers in their big car, or with Mr. Olsen and a chance to hear that wonderful Norwegian accent again.
The walk home was always lighter, a little quicker, with time for adventure and staring at the clouds in the sky. I could be an explorer come home from the sea or a line of soldiers on the march, eager for battle. There was time for broad jumping as many squares of sidewalk as I could, for skipping stones at the lake and peeling the bark off the trees. Sometimes Whee-Zee would meet me halfway, and the walk became a run. On the days I rode my bike, I was a blur in the windows,and in seconds I'd be gone.
We all marched our march on different paths,in wind and snow and sun.
From Clearview and Poplar, Chestnut and Oak, Glenwood and Fairview and Elm.
We marched in groups and some in pairs and single souls like me.
To school we marched to merge as one, marked by window panes and trees.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Christmas

Not Too Thrilled With Pop-Pop's Santa

I was born in December of 1951. Mom says there was a violent storm that night with raging winds and rain. In the 1950s you stayed in the hospital for several days so they were sure everything was all right. The bill from Memorial Hospital in Woodbury, New Jersey would be $103.00. Railroad insurance would cover $75.00 of that, and my father would pay $28.00 plus an additional dollar for my baby bracelet. I was my mother's special gift that year, and we spent Christmas Eve looking at the hospital's tree.They would bring me home Christmas day, Mom's favorite holiday of the year.
My first memory of Christmas is not a good one. My mother's father, who we called Pop-Pop, was playing Santa Claus for the family. I don't remember if he ho-ho-hoed or behaved really jolly, because I was scared to death of him. He was wearing this expressionless mask that covered his entire face, and to me it had the look of death, not joy.
Later Uncle Dan Amey would play Santa, and his portrayal was as grand and as eloquent as any Santa should be, with a beautiful red suit and magnificent flowing white beard. He was loud and jolly without any lifeless mask obscuring his face. I caught on rather quickly that this Santa was really my Uncle Dan, because hey, I recognized the voice and one year I saw the suit hanging in his house months before. He was good at being Santa and he really seemed to enjoy it, so I never let on to him that I knew.
Every Christmas was the same happy ritual. Friends and neighbors and relatives would file in and out of our little house all night long, our kitchen and living room filled with laughing and singing. It was tough to go to bed, you couldn't really sleep because you just had to listen to all the adults having such a good time. Around 1 AM or so, everyone would be gone, and I'd listen to Mom and Dad clean up a little until they crawled into bed in their room across the hall. With our house finally quiet and still I'd finally be able to drift off to sleep, so Santa could make his appointed rounds.
Christmas morning we'd open presents, and after that we'd visit our neighbors to see how Santa treated them. The showing of gifts was a rite all its own, the mother of the house presenting what each family member received as we oohed and aahed our appreciation.
Next we'd go to Grandmom and Grandpop Woodward's, and then on to Nanny and Pop-Pop's. After we paid our respects to the grandparents it was over to Aunt Sis and Uncle Dan's for their Christmas Day spread.
My favorite time of all would be late in the afternoon. We would head back home, tired from all the celebrating and the gifting. We would all take a family nap in the living room. My warmest and most cherished memories of Christmas are those times when I was lying on the living room floor sleeping off the holiday with my Mom and Dad and my dog Whee-Zee, and later on my brother and sister.
We were safe, we were warm, we were family.

Of Thee I Sing

“......with liberty and justice for all.”
So we pledged each and every day. We had every reason to believe it was true. Our homes were warm and clean, we had toys and food; every comfort our parents could provide. No one refused to serve us or keep us from the front of a bus- just because. We did not have to defer to anyone, we could go anywhere we pleased- just because.
South Jersey wasn’t Alabama or Mississippi. It wasn’t the back roads of the deep south, but it may as well have been. The shacks of the black families of Jericho and New Sharon echoed the poverty and social stigma of the sharecroppers in Louisiana or Tennessee. We passed through these communities in our family car, but we wouldn’t notice, we’d never see. There were walls in this country; invisible, insidious boundaries we did not dare to cross.
The Puerto Ricans who worked the farms were also invisible. They were labor and should be grateful for whatever came their way. We passed them by as they toiled in the soil and the sun without giving them a moment’s pause.
The ignorance and the hatred was passed down to us from our parents’ parents’ parents and beyond that, a legacy that was understood: that’s just the way it is.
We prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, without regard to anyone’s beliefs, no concern for Jews or Muslims or atheists. In public school everyone was a Christian, like it or not.
Religious and public leaders railed against our culture. Rock n’ Roll was the “devil’s music”, it was “nigger music,” and listening to it would make your sons and daughters rutting, savage beasts.
Comic books created juvenile delinquents, and so did wearing dungarees and T-shirts.
We could save ourselves from a nuclear bomb by ducking under our desks or lying in a ditch. Radiation wouldn’t hurt you as long as you lay low and covered your head with your hands.
Lucy Ricardo couldn’t say she was pregnant on TV, lest we realized that she and Ricky were sexual beings.
Cigarettes were good for you. Doctors and movie stars told us so.
There were dirty little secrets in every family tree, hushed up to maintain propriety.
But we were changing. Without knowing, our parents were molding us to be different, to believe in the spirit of America. Our teachers opened our minds to the world, and gave us the intelligence we needed to begin making all the right choices, and to reject the hypocrisy and the ignorance. Television, that vast wasteland, would open our eyes to the harshest of realities. More and more of us would stand up in the decade to come and deny the lies and the glossed over truths of our happy youth, and the monsters in our nation’s closet would come tumbling out for all the world to see.

Friday, November 23, 2007

First Grade


September,1958
This second year of school would be First Grade,as if Kindergarden never really happened.It would be different,not just half a day, but early morning until late afternoon! How could I cope, how would any of us make it through such confinement? No more snack time or nap time and play time would be just like every other lesson. School would be serious now.
Our teacher was Mrs. Marvin, the wife of the Episcopal priest in our town. She was a very nice lady that we all liked very much, but she was taken ill early on and had to leave. Her illness was never explained to us, something adults did back then. Grownups believed that things of a serious nature should be kept secret, that we needn't be unduly upset, so Mrs. Marvin became a mystery to us. Her son John was our classmate and even he was at a loss to explain.
A Mrs. Cogill substituted for a while, until it became known that Mrs. Marvin could not come back at all.
Mrs. Lozier became our permanent teacher for most of the year. She was a competent, if uninspiring teacher, strikingly different than Mrs. Marvin, whose return we all wished for.
We were learning now; numbers and social studies, and reading. Reading, my favorite subject. Understanding the printed word opened up the entire world to me. Comic books and the funny papers became more than just colorful pictures. Every Sunday I could follow the adventures of Prince Valiant and the Phantom on my own. I loved words and now I was learning to spell and to write and to comprehend.
We forged ahead that year, me and Joyce and Judy and Tommy, and newcomers from the morning Kindergarden class. Our minds were stretching, brains absorbing, taking in words and music, science, numbers and song.
Under Mrs. Lozier's stewardship the world would begin to open up for us, there was nothing we couldn't come to understand.
Except the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Marvin.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

WAFFLES

An aroma would wake you on a Saturday morning and you knew it was a special day. The sweet smell of butter and sugar and eggs toasting and bacon frying on the stove pulling you out of bed. The sound of batter being stirred and poured sizzling and bubbling onto a hot pan.Crisp golden brown waffles or pancakes soft and fluffy, the sure sign that Dad would be home today, all day and not just sleeping. The Pennsylvania Railroad would do without him for twenty four hours and he’d be all ours again.This would be a special weekend, starting with early morning breakfast made by our father.
My Dad worked long hours on the railroad, determined to make a success of himself and to make sure Mom would never, ever have to go to work. The deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II pushed him on. Twelve, fourteen, even sixteen hour shifts were the norm, and often he would not even be able to come home for days at a time. He would start out as a clerk, then yardmaster and eventually train master. He was a hard taskmaster, and his trains would run on time. His children would not live in a two room shack without running water and Christmas would be more than an orange and a piece of candy. Our home would be modest and spare, but it would be warm and clean and full of love.
Those special weekends would be drives in the car, a trip to the Berlin flea market, or Cowtown, or a day at Aunt Bette’s farm. Nights would be a pizza from Bruni’s in Woodbury or a double feature at the drive-in movies. These days were a treasure and they were few and far between.
Dad missed most evening meals with us. His past was hard and at times he was possessed of a quick and frightening temper. I did not suffer too many spankings, but those I did I will long remember.
He expected obedience and respect and good behavior.
He did not give of his emotions lightly, he did not wear his heart on his sleeve.
He worked long and hard and he provided.
And he made us waffles.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

God and Me

It had to come sooner or later. The God thing. Mom tried to make me a good Christian, a Presbyterian to be exact. It didn't take.
Oh, I tried, believe me, I tried. I went to Sunday School two years in a row without missing; I have the pins to prove it. You see the Presbyterians gave out little medals to the kids who never missed a Sunday. My friend Billy Reim had a chest full of those pins, like some general with a cluster of campaign ribbons on his uniform.
I figured that since we said the Lord's Prayer every day in school that we were covered. It was sort of like a Christian Pledge of Allegiance, so why did I need to go to Sunday School? Sunday was a day of rest, right? So, give it a rest.
I had a hard time with the whole heaven thing. I mean I would stare and stare at the sky, but all I could see were clouds and birds and the sun, no angels or pearly gates.
The message was a good one, I thought. Peace and love and brotherhood, but I only saw white people in the church and only white kids in Sunday School, and when I heard adults speak of "colored" people I didn't hear much love in their voices.
I liked the singing. The singing was good; very inspiring music in the Presbyterian church.
Sermons I didn't need. Mom and Dad were teaching me to be a good person, to share and obey my elders and learn my lessons at school, so I was already getting the message. Besides, I could watch Davey and Goliath on TV if I wanted a morality lesson and it was much more interesting.
I did like that David and Goliath story. The little guy wins out over the big brute. That one really hit home.
And why did God have a dress code? How come I had to wear a suit and tie and be all uncomfortable? Wouldn't God forgive us if we came to Sunday School in our dungarees?
There was always too much contradiction for me to understand it all. You had to have faith in something you couldn't smell or touch or see, and I guess I just didn't have it.
I even went to Vacation Bible School two summers in a row, but I went mainly for the chocolate milk and pretzels they had at snack time.
So after two straight years of Sunday School I began to slack off until eventually I never went back.
I noticed that I wasn't struck down by lightning or visited by any plagues or hosts of locusts, so I figured that God must have been OK with my decision.
And I really did like the music.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How I Learned To Respect Women

I can't remember exactly which summer it was, '59 or '60, but the rest is crystal clear. I learned a most valuable worldly lesson that day. It was an education and a humiliation. A lesson in respect and that old adage: never judge a book by its cover.
It is often said that in the repressed and carefree 1950s that kids didn't know about sex. That's not exactly true. We didn't know what lovemaking was or how a baby was born, but we certainly had a primitive knowledge of sex appeal.
Little girls knew they liked boys who were "cute," and try as we may to think of girls as "icky," we boys knew we wanted to be near the pretty ones.
If a girl was pretty and also able to run and catch and kick like a boy too, then she was even more desirable to be around.
I had always liked girls. They were my playmates. First LuLu, then Ruthie and after Kindergarden, Nancy and Patsy and Lora. I played high/low water with my girl cousins, so I was surrounded by women as I grew up. It was when you were around boys that you learned that liking and playing with girls was yucky and being a sissy. Didn't matter to me; I liked girls.
I lacked the knowledge of how to tell someone I liked them. What did you say? What did you do?
On a brilliant summer day at the lake I thought I found out.
I liked Joyce Hoefers. I mean I REALLY LIKED Joyce. We had been classmates since Kindergarden and I worshiped her from afar. She was one of those pretty girls who could play like one of the boys, and I always wanted to be in her company. I just did not know how to tell her.
I noticed that boys were splashing and teasing girls they liked. Sometimes a boy would grab the girl he liked and duck her under the water, a flirtatious gesture designed to show her how much he cared. Often the girl would come up for air protesting and slapping, but then the two of them would run away together laughing about the matter.
"That was it!", I realized. I had to show Joyce that I liked her by being the tough guy. I would grab her and throw her under the water in a manly display of admiration, and then she would laugh about it knowing she had captured my heart.
I approached her in the shallows at the edge of the beach and grabbed her from behind, preparing to push her under.
Everything after that is a blur....
Just as I went to push Joyce under, she pulled free, yelled "No you don't!", and in seconds I was being dunked not once, not twice, but three times over. As I came up for air I could see her walking away hurling even more anger in my direction.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen! She was supposed to give in to me and laugh it all off and she would know that I truly liked her! I was humiliated. I was destroyed.
I looked around expecting to see everyone on the beach pointing their fingers at me and laughing at my sorry self. The weird thing was, it seemed like no one had even noticed, like it all happened in another dimension; "The Embarrassment Zone."
I picked myself up and went up to the top of the wall to sit and ponder.
How could this have happened? A girl did this to me. A girl!
But this was not just any girl and I should have known better.
I should have been myself and not have been afraid. I should have been smart enough to walk up to her and say : "I like you Joyce." I didn't and I got my butt kicked.
I learned my lesson that day and from then on I held a profound respect for all women.
I still liked Joyce.
I still admired her from afar.
I mean REALLY afar.

The Lake

Every June it would happen. School was out and the sun began to hint at summer. The great caravans of mothers and children would wind their way down the sidewalks pulling red wagons,pushing baby coaches beneath the canopy of our beloved trees. Older kids herding the youngest stragglers along as our mothers gossiped among themselves. Wagons loaded down with towels and lunches and beach toys. The smallest kids rode in style in their coaches as if royalty in sedan chairs. Kids old enough to be on their own in packs of bicycles soaring through the streets and the luckiest kids of all were chauffeured by mothers who had learned to drive a car. We were all headed to the one place that would give us refuge from the sweltering heat of a glorious summer day: The Lake.
Its official name is Glen Lake, but to everyone it's The Lake. Our own resort just down the street. A quick walk and an even shorter bike ride away. I passed the lake every day on my way to school, never missing a chance to skip stones or to just stand and look, anticipating the summer to come.
In late May or early June Mom would get our beach tags, thick little plastic colored squares with your own private number that you'd fasten to your suit with the thickest safety pin you could find.
The first really hot day would come, and Mom and Mrs. Avis would load up the wagons and the baby coach and off we'd all trek, bumping down the sidewalk prepared for our day in the sun.
Whee-Zee couldn't come, but she didn't mind because she would be free to sneak in the living room and sleep on the couch, her favorite guilty pleasure when we weren't around.
You arrived at the lake and descended the steps to stake your claim on the small sandy beach. The best spots were close to the green concrete block retaining wall which provided cooling shade from the rays of the afternoon sun.
The beach would be a mass of children and mothers, a patchwork quilt of towels and blankets, buckets and shovels, and teenagers in the throes of adolescent love.
Little kids and moms would be in the roped off area, the shallow part, so the life guard could really keep his eye on you,and your mom was close at hand.
Woodbury Heights Lake 1960. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Tice

There was a giant sliding board, the first thrill ride in your youth.
The pier with its diving board was for the older kids and adults. When you could prove to the lifeguard that you were able to swim, you could break free from the shallows and go under the rope into the deeper waters and out to THE RAFT. The raft was a wooden square floating on barrels. Older kids and adults would swim out to it, climb up out of the water and lie in the sun. Teenagers would steal kisses behind the barrels down below. When you could swim out to the raft you had passed another rite of passage, another badge of honor.
You would stay in the water till your lips would turn blue and your teeth began to chatter, and then your mother would ban you from the water for at least an hour. We would warm ourselves sitting on top of the wall or swinging on the swings,or building castles in the sand at the water's edge.
We'd have our lunch at the picnic table under the trees near the back of the lake, where the stream that fed it emerged from the woods. Of course you had to wait an hour before going back in the water, or else your body would contort itself in a massive attack of cramps.
After several hours of this your mother would speak the words you didn't want to hear; "Pack up, it's time to go home." Despite all our pleas,we'd gather everything and everybody and begin the march home.
We'd stop at Trackie's store for a soda or a popsicle, jealously gazing at the ones still there having fun.
When we got home we'd take long lazy naps, exhausted from the swimming and the sliding and the swinging.
We learned at the lake.We learned fun. We learned community. We found friends. We found love.
One summer I would learn one of the most valuable and lasting lessons I'd ever need.

Friday, November 16, 2007

SUMMERTIME!


"No more pencils
No more books.
No more teachers'
Dirty looks."
School was out and I made it through my first year. Kindergarden was just a trial run,preparing us for the real learning to come. Miss Pedrick would sum it all up on my report card: "Jimmy seems to be enjoying himself more now than previously. He smiles quite often and enjoys playing and working with other children. He should make a good first-grader. Promoted to First Grade!!"
I passed muster. I got along and made the grade, but now summer was here and I was ready for FREEDOM!.
In 1958 we would sing the "One-Eyed Flying Purple People Eater" song. Little Richard would be wailing out "Good Golly, Miss Molly", and "Fever" by Peggy Lee would smolder over the airwaves.
Hula Hoops became a national craze, everybody twisting and gyrating to keep the plastic rings in motion.
More cowboy shows added to the list of old favorites: Have Gun,Will Travel,Broken Arrow and Zorro, the fox so cunning and free!
I identified with Beaver Cleaver. His fears and confusion were mine. He was trying to cope and feel his way along just like we were.
We had new next door neighbors; the Avis family and they had a little boy the same age as my brother. I would set the pace for them and be in charge of my own pecking order for a change.
The girls I had noticed on my errands for Mom were now my friends from school. Nancy and Patsy,and a girl from the morning class,Lora Carter.
The fourth of July had a double meaning now, a holiday and a birthday for my brother, time for a big family cookout under the old maple tree in our yard.
More time to ride my bike and run with Whee-Zee,more time for Aunt Bette's farm.
Pick up sticks, Cootie and Candyland on the picnic table, cars and trucks and toy soldiers in the sand.
After dark we would catch fireflies. We'd lie in the grass and count every star in the sky. On nights when it was especially hot, we'd sleep in the living room on railroad mattresses. We'd leave the front door open so cool air from the oak trees would filter in through the screen door. We'd cope with the heat and humidity the best we could.
And like everyone else in town, the long hot summer would mean days at the lake.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Woodbury Heights Elementary

A typical small town school of wood,mortar and brick built in 1925. A solid structure with big multi-paned windows and wide white doors. We ascended the seven narrowing concrete steps to pass through those doors to receive our gift of learning.

It was the wood sounding our footsteps, echoing our voices as we pledged and sang and recited. The warm wood of the cloakroom and the scent of wet clothes on a cold snowy day,the pushing and shoving as we struggled to remove our coats and hats and galoshes. Great big windows letting us know that a snowstorm had arrived to cut the day short or that a glorious sunny day beckoned us to come and play. Windows so large the upper sash had to be pulled open by using a heavy brass-hooked pole. A long, wide window sill displaying class projects, and bulletin boards covered with our assignments. We learned to duck and cover or stand in the basement to "protect" ourselves from the atom bomb. Marbles and tag in the playground and dodge ball at recess. School assemblies and class productions in that small auditorium, voices resounding in the warmth of wood. Every spring was Mayfair, each class presenting a different theme. Chalk dust in the air as you cleaned the erasers and the sweet smell of the papers from the mimeograph machine. Hopes of becoming a Safety and wearing the yellow belt of honor. We saved our pennies in the Farmer's and Mechanics Bank and drank milk from wax coated paper cartons. We were safe from the world and its problems as we laughed and listened and learned. Bonds of friendship forever forged and never forgotten. Floorboards worn smooth from the trampling and the marching and the scuffing. Voices in song slowly fading.
Echoes.....

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kindergarden


The second day of school was different. I would walk by myself. I did not go gently or willingly, and Whee-Zee could not follow along. My class was the afternoon one, so at least I could sleep in and hope that Mom would forget all about it. No such luck. There she was telling me to get dressed, it was time for lunch and then get off to school.
I went out the door protesting that I didn't want to go, it was awful and she couldn't make me.
Mom just stood there with "The Look" in full force, that unmistakable expression telling me to get moving or else your father would have to deal with it. Dad's long arm of the law would be a spanking, and I didn't need that right now, so off I went.
The school was a little less than a mile away, and during my walks there with Mom the time just flew by. Now I was on a chain gang, shuffling my way back to the prison's walls.
The older kids in the playground didn't make it any easier, taunting me and my new classmates as we waited outside for class to begin.
"Kindergarden baby, stick your head in gravy. Wash it out with applesauce and show it to the navy," they chanted. I felt bad enough, but being insulted by a rhyme I couldn't quite understand made it worse. I wasn't happy about it but at least I didn't cry like the day before.
We sat in those little baby chairs around little baby tables. We would learn the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer.
Our Teacher was Miss Pedrick. She was young and blond and very pretty. She was our own Miss Crabtree, stealing our hearts with her charm. With her as our tutor we would make crafts,sing songs and learn to get along with others.
My favorite thing in class was a large mat printed to look like a town, with streets and buildings and trees. We had cars and trucks to drive around those streets. I was in my element there!
Snack time was OK, but I felt that rest time was totally unnecessary while the sun was still shining.
There were 14 of us in the class, 6 boys and 8 girls.
Paul Vanderfleet,Richie Hearn,Tommy Moore,Tommy Budd,Mark Leightcap and I made up the male portion of class.
Mark Leightcap was the brazen one of us. He was so smitten by Miss Pedrick that he would sneak up on her when she was reading to us and kiss her on the cheek. Richie Hearn was kind of quiet. He was quiet because he had an embarrassing stutter, which would get worse as he got older. Richie and I would become fast friends until his family moved to Wenonah,a small town just a short way down Glassboro Road. We'd meet again in High School. Tommy Moore was a good guy and I would go to play at his house many times. Tommy Budd was the class clown, and Paul Vanderfleet a happy-go-lucky kid who was always smiling. And in this corner, me, Mr. Serious, trying to get the lay of the land.
Kit Kuntz, Nancy Fleisch, Sheron Wakely, Patsy Mulin,Sheila Mclaughlin,Joyce Hoefers,Ann Trocolli and Judy Hampton were the girls.
Kit was like Paul Vanderfleet, always happy. Sheron and Patsy were tall for their age. Nancy and Ann were the type of girls you really liked; feminine with just enough tom-boy attitude. Judy Hampton was the cute one. Everybody liked Judy. Sheila and Joyce were the pretty ones. They were both blond and attractive, but that's where the similarities ended. Sheila always had a bit of an attitude, a little haughty, a little high and mighty. Joyce Hoefers on the other hand, was a stunner, a natural beauty with a personality to match. A pretty girl who could hold her own with the boys at recess. If you didn't have a crush on Joyce, there was something wrong with you. Later on she would teach me a valuable life lesson.
My second day at school went a little better. I didn't cry,and I joined in without too much sulking. I realized these kids were alright to be around, and most of all Miss Pedrick was a real looker.
The third day was easy. I was up and at em', got dressed and ate my lunch and was out the door with nary a glance back at my mother.
I was doin' fine. It was gonna be OK now.
If only I could get that gravy out of my hair.

Friday, November 9, 2007

September 1957

The time had come. The day I had heard about. I would go to school. Mom said I would like it, it would be fun and there would be lots of kids all my own age. They would teach me all kinds of things I needed to know and new games to play.
Mom and dad took me out and bought me new clothes and shoes. These would now be my "school clothes," stuff I wouldn't wear out in the yard or in the woods.
It would be fun and it would be good for me. It would be some kind of "garden."
So mom dressed me up in the school clothes and off we walked. I knew the route from our previous journeys, but this walk was different. This walk was solemn. This walk had purpose.
And Whee-Zee had to stay behind.
Outside the school we all stood, the mothers and kids, waiting and eying each other up and down.
"How long will this take? What will happen in there? Why can't I just stay home?" I thought.
A bell sounded, the teachers came out and led us all in in single file.
Our mothers met the teacher and after all the introductions were done, all the moms began to leave.
That's when I began to cry. I bawled and I wailed and I protested. "You can't leave me here!" I cried. I was an embarrassment, a spectacle, a scene.
Mom tried to calm me down and set me straight. "You're going to behave yourself and stay here and go to school and I will be back to get you. Now calm down." And then she left.
I did not calm down inside. I was shaken to the core. I was in a room with strangers left on my own to cope. Sure I played with other kids and my cousins, but mom was always close, always near. Whee-Zee wasn't by my side to protect me. Who were these people? What if they didn't like me, what if I didn't like them? What a gyp.
I think I sulked a lot the rest of that day. I had the look of a cornered animal. I was determined not to enjoy myself, to prove to them that I did not belong.
We had singing time,play time,story time,snack time and nap time. I played along the best I could, and finally it was go home time.
I left that place breathing the air of freedom, and mom was outside to meet me.
A short discussion with the teacher. "He'll do just fine, don't you worry, Mrs. Maddox," I heard her say.
I knew my mom was mad and mortified and worried for me, and not much else was said between us the rest of that day.
We were going home! Back to Carl and Whee-Zee and the comfort of my yard. Enough was enough, let sanity reign.
Except tomorrow I'd have to do it all over again......

King of the Wild Frontier

1955: the year of my brother and the year of Davy Crockett! A three episode series on Disneyland takes my generation by storm. Thrilling adventures of the true blue American hero and icon. Like millions of other kids I sat transfixed in front of the TV as Davy fought Injuns and river pirates and the Mexican army. I had my share of Crockett merchandise; coonskin cap,moccasins,t-shirt and pajamas. The woods in my back yard became my personal wild frontier with Indians lurking behind every tree. Davy was honest and noble and brave. He was also mortal, dying a warrior's death at the battle of the Alamo. Here was something new for us, a hero who could die. But he would never really die in our eyes. He was legend, he was America.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was preparing myself for the changes to come. New responsibilities that came with being the older brother, and riding my bike on errands to the store for my mom.
I began to notice the other kids on my street, almost all of them girls. If I stopped at the corner of Glenwood and Walnut I could hear the unmistakable sound of boys at play farther down the street. I couldn't see them, but I knew they were there.
We made new friends across the street in Deptford. Kids my age named Ruthie and Alan and Jackie. New worlds. New games. I was networking.
Something else was happening. A new rhythm, a beat, the new pulse of America. It was beginning to take hold of the country, pouring from the radio and jukeboxes and my cousins' 45s. Rock and roll, the music that would steal our very soul was poundin' rhythm in our brain. Music that screamed and wailed and shouted S-E-X! Songs sung by new voices; black voices, and their message was loud and clear. These young men couldn't be served in the malt shops and diners and roadside cafes, but their voices were there. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino,Frankie Lyman and The Teenagers, and Little Richard leading them all in wild abandon. "Good Golly Miss Molly, sure like to ball! Whooooo!"
I was too young to really comprehend it all, but I was taking it all in as it swirled around me. Even I knew this music was different. It was fast,it was loud, it was free. I could watch my cousins dancing to the sound like the kids on American Bandstand. The rhythm was taking hold of me and the rest of my generation, pulling us through the decades to come.
I still had my long walks with mom and Whee-Zee at my side. I crossed Egg Harbor Road and brought new people into my life. My baby brother gave me a sense of purpose. America was beginning to dance to a new and crazy beat.
I stood at the edge of a brand new wilderness in my Davy Crockett hat prepared for something that was coming and a new message in my brain.
A whop bop a-loo whop A whop Bam Boo.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Running The Gauntlet

The 1950s was a time of violence. There was a pecking order, and I was at the bottom. Small, younger kids like me were the perfect target. My side of town was populated by bullies; older boys who took a particular delight in teasing and intimidating kids they perceived as helpless. These guys weren't "The Fonz;" they were mean and they didn't hesitate to show it. They'd insult you and call you names or try to steal your bike. A quick shove or punch in the arm to get you to fight back so they could really tear into you. I was punched in the nose so many times that I had chronic nosebleeds for a time as I got older. The more I got hit in the nose the angrier I got deep inside my soul. The rage inside me grew, but there wasn't much you could do about it except ride fast or bring Whee-Zee along whenever possible. I tended to avoid kids who liked to rough-house a lot.
As these boys got older they took their violence out of Woodbury Heights, picking fights with other towns. They took a certain sick pride talking about how they "beat up the niggers" in Jericho, a small black community next to ours.
Once I gained a small victory over one of them. One of the Goss brothers, two siblings from Park Ave. who had especially evil reputations, tried to get my Rixe bike away from me. I was sitting on the bank of the lake minding my own business when he approached me.
"I think I'll take that bike of yours for a ride," he demanded.
By this time I had had enough, and I knew if I gave in to him I'd probably never see my bike again.
"Leave my bike alone."
I could hear myself standing up to him, hardly believing it was happening.
Goss brushed me aside and went to grab my Rixe.
"I said you can't have it!" I protested, and proceeded to grab his wrist.
Goss grabbed both my wrists and began to twirl me around, preparing to let me fly into the waters of the lake.
Something crystallized in my brain. It happened quickly, a lightning reflex. I grabbed hold of his forearms and wouldn't let go, so the more he spun the more he lost his balance from the weight of my body hanging on.
One more turn and suddenly Goss is in the lake and I'm flying the other way, landing on the ground! Seconds later I'm on my bike tearing up Walnut Ave., leaving the cursing Goss behind.
My heart never pounded so fast. My brain reeled.
I had a satisfied laugh. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
My eyes were peeled for him after that, and he never got the chance to catch me again.
Good thing he didn't punch me in the nose.

New Responsibilities


I was the oldest son now, the big brother. My brother Carl had blue eyes, like me. He had blond hair, not like me. It would be up to me to teach him the ways of the woods and how to play with trucks in the sand. For now, he just kind of lay there not doing much of anything. One day I figured he must be hungry, so I gave him some bread. A lot of bread. I didn't know that babies couldn't chew,and that they would choke on something like bread, so I fed Carl the bread. Lucky for him mom was nearby and prevented any real damage. I could tell from my mother's reaction that I shouldn't feed Carl bread anymore. Worldly lesson number two: Do Not Feed Your Baby Brother Bread; He Will Choke!
I had to start re-thinking things. It wouldn't be MY room anymore, it would be OUR room. Maybe together we could keep whatever was in the bedroom closet at bay. There was enough love from mom and dad to go around, so no problem there. Whee-Zee, well sure I'd share her, but she'd still be MY dog.
Mom would need my help from now on. I'd help carry the laundry and keep my room tidy and I'd have to keep an eye on Carl while mom was cleaning and cooking.
Best of all I would be running errands on my Rixe. I was ready at a moment's notice to speed down to Trackie's store. Little Jimmy's Messenger Service, that's me. I could be the Pony Express, dodging Indians and robbers all the way down Walnut Ave. and back.
I would try to be a good big brother. My parents were counting on me to be the responsible one, the obedient one, the good one.
Carl, on the other hand, would be a handful at times. He could always manage to find some way to get himself in trouble. He would pour bleach over his head, get his leg caught in the wheel well of my fire truck, and just mess with my stuff.
Like all brothers we would argue and tease, call each other mean and nasty things. There would be a lot of punching and kicking and yelling.
We'd share a bedroom and pets and comic books and friends, and even though he'd drive me crazy over and over and over, I never ever stuffed his face with bread again.