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,
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


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.
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.

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


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


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.
I looked down the line and saw I was only a few shoulders away from Donner.
I was tense, but resolute as I stared down the field towards the finish line.
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.