Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mark Gerber

My Pedal Car Fire Truck

I've already said that Mark Gerber could be a worm and a weasel. He'd told me that Mrs. Price was a witch, and with my imagination, I of course, believed him. After that I was haunted by a recurring dream which found me being chased by a witch all dressed in black. She was chasing me round and round the Gerber's house. The witch would hover over me and when I looked her in the face, it was the grimy face of Mrs. Price just inches from my own! I always woke up just before I was caught by her, heart pounding and body drenched in sweat. The hall light was no protection against my dream, and I would lie there in abject terror.
Mark Gerber was two years older than me. He was a skinny kid and sported the usual crew cut hair of most kids in that era. He always seemed to wear striped t-shirts.
Mark liked to tease me and call me baby and make fun of the toys I played with. He always wanted to play with those toys, and he coveted one thing in particular: my pedal car fire truck.
My fire truck was bright red with a white grill and windshield. Two white handles in the back held small wooden ladders hanging horizontally. There was a shiny silver bell mounted on the hood, and the words City Fire Dept. in white letters on the sides. It was my pride.
One day Mark got it into his head that denying me the use of my fire engine would just make his day. He got in it and drove it around and around my yard but would never get out. No matter how much I told him to, he just wouldn't budge. I lost all my patience with him and decided I had to go to my father.
"Mark won't let me use my fire engine!" I cried.
My father told me what to do. I don't believe that he really meant what he said, but he said to so I went back to do it.
Dad said, "Well, why don't you hit him with your bat." He must have thought that a 3 and a half year old boy understood the nuances of sarcasm.
I went back to where Mark was sitting in the fire truck.
"My Dad says to get out."
He wouldn't.
You have to remember I was a pretty obedient kid. My dad had just told me how to solve a problem so I was determined to do it.
Wiffle ball bats in those days were made of wood. They were kind of like a broom stick that vaguely resembled a baseball bat.
Mark wouldn't budge and I had been sent on a mission.
I picked up my bat, walked up to Mark and promptly hit him full force across his chest.
He was, quite naturally, taken completely by surprise. When the initial shock wore off, he screamed, got out of the truck and ran home crying.
My father heard all this and came running.
"What did you do that for?" he yelled.
"Cause you told me to."
I can't remember if I was punished or not. I don't remember if Mark's parents came over to discuss this with mine.
I do know that Mark Gerber didn't try to hog my toys again, especially the fire truck. He still teased me and he would still tell me wild and fantastic stories in order to scare me. He would still be a weasel and a worm.
But for once, in a brief and shining moment , I had gotten some revenge.
And I know that secretly my father had a really good laugh.
He still does today.

Monday, October 29, 2007

1953 And The Greatest Dog In The World

Nap Time With Whee-Zee

The best thing in the world happened in 1953. Something wonderful. A Boxer, my very own dog. Her name was Whee-Zee and she was so ugly she was pretty. She was my closest and dearest friend. She protected me from the legions of older kids who loved to terrorize the younger kids in town. Bullies named T-Bone and Tanker and Lucas and the infamous Goss Brothers. Whee-Zee was my armor, my shield. Raise your hand to me and feel her wrath. Whee-Zee went everywhere with me with total unconditional love. My companion in the woods and sleep-mate at nap time. In time she would love and protect my brother and our neighbors Susie and Paul Avis, but she was always my dog. Once when Whee-Zee was fed leftover spaghetti, Susie Avis decided to join her at the bowl. Most dogs would have growled their disapproval, but Wheez just moved over to give Susie some room.
Whee-Zee would try to follow me to school and I'd have to push and shove her back in the other direction. Some days her mind was her own, and there she was in the playground at the end of the day waiting for me.
She lived until I was 11. She eventually got so sick she had to be put to sleep. I can still feel the horror and the anguish watching her being taken away from me, head hung down, put into a van, never to be seen again.
I spent a long and lonely time in the woods and fields after that.
I still miss her deeply.

My Neighbors

My immediate neighbors were all white, but culturally diverse. Our first next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman named Mr. Murphy. He was an Irishman and that's about all I remember.
Behind us across Egg Harbor Road on the Deptford side was Mrs. McGregor, also Irish. She was a very gregarious lady who wore glasses and spoke in a wonderful Irish brogue. She always seemed to be laughing. I can hear her laughing now sitting in our kitchen having a cup of tea with Mom.
Immediately across Walnut Ave. were the Arans. They had two sons, Gene and D.D.. I don't think I ever knew what D.D.'s name really was. He was a lot older than me anyway, so he posed no real threat. Gene on the other hand, took great pleasure in teasing me. He was about three years older, and in the 50's that's what older kids did. Next to the Arans were the Gerbers and their two sons, Billy and Mark. Billy was also several years my senior and so didn't pay much attention to me. Mark Gerber was our version of Eddie Haskell; nice and polite to your parents, a worm and a weasel to you. More about him another time. Next came the Collins family. They were a friendly couple that I don't remember too much about, except that Mr. Collins would drink and play cards in my yard with my father and the other neighbors. Next to Mr. Murphy were the Olsens,Arthur and Sophie, a Norwegian couple with very strong Scandanavian accents.
Mr. Olsen had a very rich melodious voice. I always liked they way he said my name: "Yiim."
Sophie Olsen was a little stern and very particular about her yard. It was meticulous in every detail. Well swept sidewalk, immaculate flower gardens and a well-kept hedge all around their yard. You did not mess with Sophie's yard! The Olsens had two children, Arthur Jr. and Sylvia. They were much older than me. Sophie and Arthur Sr. seemed much older than everybody.
I think Mr. Murphy died in his house.
The new neighbors to buy his house were Glenn and Alvina Avis. They were of Polish descent, and Mrs. Avis became Mom's friend. Alvina was closer in age to my mom, so they had a lot in common. Mrs. Avis was a pretty blond with a fiery Eastern European disposition. Mr. Avis was a self-employed landscaper who was kind of quiet. When they cleaned out the attic in their new home they found a still for making whiskey in it. I guess that's the reason old Mr. Murphy was so secretive.
The oddest neighbor was Mrs. Price. She lived next to the Collins family directly across the street from the Olsens. Mrs. Price was a retired schoolteacher and an environmentalist way before her time. Her house was foreboding. It was obscured by trees and covered in moss and dirt and grime. Mrs. Price always looked like she was covered in moss and dirt and grime. Sometimes it seemed that she would rise up out of the ground as you walked past her house. Her home was surrounded by a dense woods and she also owned a large wooded lot across the street next to the Olsens. The property was downright scary. You never walked past her house after dark, you ran, because that was Sleepy Hollow, and when you ran you didn't look back until you got home. Mrs. Price had a son who lived with her named John-John. You didn't see him much but when you did you saw a bespectacled thin man with sharp features. John-John was a will-o-the wisp. He was gone in a flash. I believe he was mentally ill. At the time to us he was just plain freaky.
Mom would tell me that there was nothing to fear about Mrs. Price and John-John. They were people who cared more about plants and animals than people, that's all. Nothing to worry about.
And then Mark Gerber told me that Mrs. Price was a witch.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Scared All The Time

Lots of things scared me when I was young. The witch in Snow White haunted my sleep for months after seeing that movie. Locomotives with all their noise and size, terrified me, and I was the son of a railroad man! There was something in my bedroom closet at night, I just knew it and nothing mom or dad could say would change that. I had to go to bed with the hall light on. The hall light repelled whatever it was like garlic repelled Dracula. I did not like Halloween much at first, because hey, we're celebrating what scares the bejeezus out of us! Amusement rides; roller coasters, forget it man. They still scare me.
It was dark at night where we lived. Really dark. Egg harbor Road didn't get a lot of traffic at night back then, but when I awoke in the middle of the night and my parents had turned off the hall light, I would pray that cars would come by so their lights would illuminate the room.
The Headless Horseman-why did they let me watch that? Just what a kid needs before they go to sleep, a headless body on a horse with a sword chasing you down for your head. Sweet dreams-I don't think so.
Later on, the nuclear threat scared everybody. You could tell the grownups were scared, so you were scared even more.
As a young boy girls were always my playmates, so I wasn't afraid of them then. High school changed all that. I considered myself awkward and goofy looking, so I never dated because I just knew I'd be laughed at.
I realize now that most fear back then was just my imagination getting the better of me, or just fear of the unknown.
But I know there was something in the closet.

Life Anchors

Everyone has anchors in their lives. They are things,places and people that keep you steady and firmly placed on this earth. When you lose one,you tend to spin out of control a little until you reset your bearings.
I still have one of my anchors from my earliest youth. My stuffed dog Rusty. Rusty slept with me,listened to my dreams and kept me safe from the monsters in the closet. He was a good extra pillow, too. Rusty knows more about me than anyone, and he's not telling.
I've lost two very important anchors; my brother Carl and my cousin Charlie both died young men. I went off course for a long time after their deaths, and my steering is still a little wobbly.
My childhood home is a huge anchor. It's where all the love and arguments,the sweating over homework, the praying for snow days, all the stuff that formed one's life still hangs in the air. Mom and dad are getting older and they talk of having to move out. The day that anchor is no longer firmly planted will be traumatic for me. I know it's coming. I hope I can stay the course.
Maybe Rusty can help me steer.

Aunt Bette's Farm

I was really lucky. My Aunt Bette, mom's sister, had a farm in Clarksboro NJ. My Uncle Everett worked at the Mobil refinery in the day, and farmed in the early morning and evenings, and all weekend. The best part of all was my cousin Charlie. He was the only cousin I had that was the same age as me and he was a boy and he lived on a farm! That was beyond cool. He was my brother before my brother Carl was born. Together we were Davy Crockett, Zorro,The Lone Ranger and every other cowboy we saw on television. Aunt Bette and Uncle Everett let me stay overnight a lot on weekends.
Uncle Everett was a real cowboy. He had ridden in rodeos and worked at the Cowtown rodeo in Woodstown every Saturday night.The kids on his side of the family called him Uncle Buck.
People worry today about e-coli bacteria. Back then on the farm we were covered in it. Everywhere you went on the farm there was some kind of animal spoor. You learned to steer clear of the cattle when their tails went up, knowing full well a liquid stream of cowshit was about to flow. Horse manure came out dry in little brown segments that reminded me of giant Tootsie Roll pieces. We used cow pies for bases when we played baseball in the field. We never got sick from any of it.
Aunt Bette was kind and gentle and unassuming. Her house was another gathering point of our family clan. Every Christmas all my aunts would head to the farm and make tons of Christmas cookies. They would chatter and tease and bake dozens and dozens of sugar cookies, chocolate chips,peanut butter and oatmeal,gingerbread men and all the other holiday favorites. All the cousins would be outside running through the fields or playing hide and seek in the barns, with that distinctive odor of hay and animal musk and manure. As the cookies piled up the wonderful smells of baking would begin to make their way outdoors,leading to the inevitable cries of "Can we have some,please?"
Aunt Bette was famous for her molasses cookies. They are a family legend as well as her macaroni and cheese. Aunt Bette was food and hospitality. The farm was adventure and family hayrides, massive Thanksgiving dinners and Easter egg hunts in the spring.
The farm was also more woods. Charlie and I were great hunters trekking the forests scouting for Indians. The farm was a pond way off in the farthest field where on a hot summer's day you could cool off after adventures in the woods.
Later, as we got older, my cousin Charlie would try to teach me how to drive. We were ten at the time. By then he was driving tractors and the flatbed truck they used in the fields. It was too cool to have a ten year old cousin who already knew how to drive. I was doing pretty well until I came up to one of the gates. I forgot to hit the clutch or something, and we crashed into the fence, bending the post. I, of course feared for my life cause Uncle Everett was a hard working man, and no hard working man was going to stand for having his fence damaged. Charlie just went to work and straightened everything up so it kinda looked like nothing happened. He took it all with a laugh and assured me no one would ever know. We never told anyone about it for a long time, but I've got a feeling that somehow Uncle Everett always knew.

My First Worldly Lesson

Even loners need a friend. When I said all the kids my age didn't live close enough to me, I meant that all the white kids my age did not live close to me. Across the street from me on a point between Egg Harbor Road,Walnut Ave. and Boundary Line Road lived a little girl named LuLu. LuLu and her family were black. Across the street was the town of Deptford, but as far as racial lines were concerned, it may as well have been the moon. I did not know what prejudice was. All I knew was that across the street was somebody my age, so I might as well get acquainted. Mom was a little more tolerant than most, and for whatever reason she would take me across the street and let me play with LuLu. We talked and sat on the swings and played in the sand. We played with her dolls and my cars and trucks.
When I wanted to see LuLu, I stood in my yard and called out, "Hey little colored girl, will you come out and play?"
My mother, upon hearing this rushed out admonishing me never to call her that. Somehow it was wrong for me to repeat the words I'd heard her use. My father and uncles used other words for black people. Fortunately for LuLu and her family's sake I never repeated those. I could not understand my mother's reaction that day and I can never understand the irrational hatred many members of my family had and still have towards black Americans to this day. I didn't care what a kid was as long as they wanted to be my friend. LuLu and I were two small hands trying to reach across a great divide we knew nothing about. We were friends and my young life was all the richer for it. Eventually LuLu and Her family moved away,and I stood in my front yard with no one to call to.
I hope you remember me.

Ancient History

Pop-Pop As A Mule Boy

My parents come from poor backgrounds. Depression era survivors who lived lives of deprivation I cannot imagine. My mother's family is descended from what are known in New Jersey as Pineys; people who lived in the vast tracts of pine forest that blanket a huge area of the central part of South Jersey. My mother's father we called Pop-Pop. He spent his boyhood as a mule driver on the canals along the Delaware River. One of my favorite photographs of him is as a young boy handling his mules. Mom's mother came from Austria when it was a part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was known to us all as Nanny. Nanny was great and wonderful. To know her was to know love and food and eccentricity. She had a gigantic black gas stove in her kitchen. She would let us cook hot dogs on forks held over the open flames of the burners. Nanny was always trying to put one over on you.

"Pancake?" she would ask, but you knew it was a corn fritter.
"Orange juice?" No,Nanny that's Tang, and you're not fooling me.
Pop-Pop had been many things in life: Policeman,iceman,muleboy, but when I was a kid he worked for the city of Woodbury at the town dump. He would bring home all kinds of toys that had been thrown out by stores and individuals. A visit to Nanny and Pop-Pop's was a fantastic day of adventure because you never knew what kind of stuff you would have to play with. My cousins and I played in their basement next to the coal furnace,getting black in the soot. We scrambled through the grape vines in the back yard and played house in the small shed farther back.
Nanny and Pop-Pop's was the center of our family. The hub in the wheel. We spent every Saturday night there, the whole family jammed into that small old house. Their kitchen was the center of the world and the grownups and older cousins gathered to play Bingo and Michigan Rummy and Po-Keeno. You knew you were grown up when you were invited to play the games instead of playing in the basement. It was warm, it was safe, it was family.
My father's family came from the hills of Maryland. His poverty was extreme. A two room shack was home for him. There was no running water; he had to haul it from the creek nearby. Dad never knew his own father. It's a story I cannot find out. My grandmother was a prim and proper pseudo southern belle who did not speak of improprieties. She was Grandmom and not as accessible as Nanny. She was aloof in her white gloved nature, at least in my eyes.
Dad's stepfather was Grandpop. He was a hill person, a farmer; an unskilled laborer who couldn't read. A stoic man I never knew too much about. Both my grandfathers were stoic men who showed little emotion to children.
The families all ended up in Woodbury, Gloucester County New Jersey.
My uncles were blue collar men. Baker,farmer,mechanic,bricklayer, municipal worker. My dad was a railroad man who was climbing up the ladder into the white collar world. Mom and all my aunts were of course stay- at- home mothers.
Dad survived the poverty and the Great Depression and World War II. He and Mom would move to Woodbury Heights and make a home for us, determined never to look poverty in the eye again. In time I would have a brother, the greatest dog in the world,and later on a sister. We were raised with love and discipline and a respect for family.
It was safe. It was warm. It was home.

Baby Steps

Sharing A Laugh With Mom

I spent a good deal of my life growing up in a small town in Southern New Jersey called Woodbury Heights. My childhood home is at one of the far ends of town, the corner of Walnut Ave. and Egg Harbor, now Tanyard, Road. It will always be my home. The Heights was a good place to grow up in the 50's and 60's; small town America with all its virtues. For a few years that corner was my own private world of imaginary friends whose voices I supplied. I was separated from all the kids my own age for a time, simply because they did not live close to me, so I invented my own. I do not remember their names, but we ran and chased each other all around my yard, fighting pirates and exploring the seven seas. Our yard was large; almost an acre, and we had woods bordering us in the back.
I loved the woods. The worlds one created were of story book creatures and Indians, the jungles of Africa and Brazil. It was my Sherwood Forest, and I its Robin Hood, free to spend the day robbing the rich barons who dared trespass my domain. I was master of it all until Mom called me in for supper.
"Soups' on!" was her cry, and the merry men would fade away.
I had to play outside most of the time when I was very young. My father was a railroad man who worked long night shifts at the time. He was always asleep during the day, so I had to be quiet indoors. I preferred my outside world where I was free to whoop and holler.
My world of isolation and imagination would affect my relationship with the outside world in the years to come. It was a world of my own making that I controlled. I became a loner in those years, always able to find something or invent something to do. I was never bored. I guess that's why I cried the first day of Kindergarten. I was being torn away from my Mom and my own private kingdom into a world of strangers and ways unknown to me.
Follow me down this path and we'll go on a journey of youth and memory. Of loyal dogs and shiny new bikes,brothers and friends, a world of joy and irony. Did I understand anything then? Do I know anything now?
Hop on my bike and we'll go for a ride.