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


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


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


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

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


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


"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.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


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.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Magic of Trees

Woodbury Heights abounded in trees. Every street was lined with them. Streets were named after them: Walnut,Elm,Chestnut,Poplar and Oak. Woods dotted the place. Behind my house,behind the Gerbers,around the lake and up Freund's cliff. Walls of trees followed the streams and the railroad track.
There were maple trees along Walnut Ave. that had paper thin bark you could peel away revealing large, black and red ants. Catalpa trees with their long pods we called Johnny smokes.
Mrs. Olsen's yard had massive fir trees; giants in their time.
A giant fir tree in the Gerber's front yard that you could disappear into.
A special tree grew in our yard. An old maple tree a few yards from the back of the house. It was so wide it took several people's arms to encircle it. The bark was gray and black and would peel off in large solid chunks. Our maple was very old. So old in fact, that it was almost completely hollow inside, and the trunk had a large hole in it. A small child could stand inside it if they so dared. Inside were spider webs and ants and the smell of the ancients. Sunlight filtered down from the hollowed out branches.
The maple tree was where we gathered for picnics and summer birthdays. The sandbox was there, and the picnic table. On hot summer days we clustered in its shade with popsicles and coloring books and our cars and trucks. It stood for many years bearing witness to family events, card games , barbecues and lazy summer conversation. It was another of my life anchors, but it finally succumbed to age and insects and rot. A sad day when the old maple had to come down.
In the days of my youth, the trees were everywhere. The oaks in our front yard were our air conditioners in the summer heat and the cherry trees provided sweet juicy refreshment.
When we came home in the car on a particularly hot evening we always knew when we were home.
We could feel their cool, refreshing air.
A gift from the magic of the trees.

Long Walks With Mom

Mom didn't drive in the 50s, so she and I walked. Together we strolled down Walnut Ave. past the Olsen's and the Olglesby's and the Fleisch's and down to Trackie's store. Around the lake we'd go and take a break at the swings.
After Carl was born, our walks expanded farther out into the town; up Lake Ave. and down Glassboro Road. We'd travel to the Pioneer Food Store, a small grocery where I could get penny candy. We'd cross Glassboro Road and walk up Elm to the small post office,where I would stare at the bronze and glass doors of the PO boxes. At the time I believed that when you put a letter in the mailbox, pneumatic tubes sucked your letter to the post office, where it would be directed to other towns via some vast network of those same devices. Too much Captain Video I guess.
Across Elm and down Academy Ave. to that place called school, a place Mom said I'd soon have to go to to learn things. Past the school and back to Lake Ave. and across Glassboro Road to Walnut and home. We would talk and watch the cars and stare at the sky.
Carl was in his coach, a gray-brown steel hulk with white rubber wheels and giant springs that bounced the whole thing whenever it hit a bump.
Sometimes Whee-Zee came along, scampering across the lawns,running ahead sniffing and searching,then running back to urge us on.
We'd walk to Woodbury, three miles away,down Egg Harbor Road, Mom and Carl and Me. Past Rizzuto's farm and Lake Tract fire house,finally reaching the sidewalk at the Woodbury cemetery.
Woodbury is a city, a large town really, but it's the county seat, so there was a Woolworth's and a Kresge's and a real Acme supermarket, and a movie theatre. To me, it was Oz.
The biggest treat for me was when Mom would take us to the Sun-Ray drugstore. Sun-Ray had a lunch counter and booths in the back. I could get a most amazing lunch of a hamburger and French fries and a Coca Cola. If I had been especially good, a new comic book or two.
We would walk to Union Ave. to Nanny's house to wait for Pop-Pop to come home from work so he could drive us home in his truck. I could ride in the back,surrounded by the wooden panels rising up from the sides. I was really an Indian potentate riding his elephant; but only I knew that.
Soon I would travel those sidewalks alone,heading for school and visiting new found friends,trying not to step on the cracks so I wouldn't break my mother's back.
I would be older and on my own, but I'd never forget those long walks with mom.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Memorable 4th of July

My mom was going to have a baby. I would have a brother or a sister somehow. How it was to happen I hadn't a clue. Then all of a sudden I'm hauled off to Nanny and Pop-Pop's and told not to worry, it will only be a few days and then we'd all be together again with a new baby. I had to leave Whee-Zee behind. I'd be sleeping in a strange bed in a room without my cowboy wall paper. I loved Nanny and Pop-Pop, but what were the rules? Visiting and playing there were one thing, but living there?
Nanny's house was radically different from ours. Her house was crammed with old dark furniture, and everything seemed covered with doilies. She had a large cuckoo clock whose ticking made me feel like the house had its own peculiar heartbeat. The fun stuff was all there too. The toys from Pop-Pop and Uncle Pat and Nanny was a delight all her own.
There were so many grandchildren for her to remember that when she tried to call your name it would go something like this: "Billy,uh Charlie,uh Danny,uh,JIMMY, come with me." She would get to you sooner or later.
Nanny had a pet parakeet named Billy. Billy had the freedom of the house, and he perched wherever the action would be. He talked and chattered and preened. He'd land on Nanny's shoulder and give her a kiss. Billy could say,"Pretty boy,pretty boy." He'd land on your shoulder,inch up closer and then bite your ear!
Nanny would continue to try and con you into eating food under assumed names.
She'd tell you liver was steak, Tang was orange juice, corn fritters were pancakes, and she tried to pass off corn syrup for maple syrup. She would burp,too. I mean belch really loud with no excuses.
In Nanny's eyes all her grandchildren could do no wrong, so if you had to stay somewhere,Nanny's was the place to be.
I could sleep and eat at Aunt Sissy's house too. That meant I could sleep with my older cousins Danny and Kenny and Ronnie. Their bedroom was on the third floor,garret-like and full of big boy trophies and model cars and airplanes they had built. I could play half ball and ride bikes and play war with a whole new band of kids, and there were even dogs to play with too.
That first day was the Fourth of July. The special significance of that holiday was lost on me then, it would take on a different one in the years to come.
That evening Nanny was walking me down to Aunt Sis's house when a train began to come down the nearby railroad tracks. I was petrified. "Hurry up Nanny!" I cried. I knew that monster thing was going to leave its tracks and come crashing down on me. I scrambled up the front steps to Aunt Sis's, leaving Nanny far behind. Later that evening when the sky was dark the fireworks went off and scared the crap out of me even more.
The next morning came the news; I had a baby brother. They would name him Carl, after Uncle Pat. Uncle Pat's real name was Carl, he was nicknamed Pat because he was born around St. Patrick's Day.
A brother! A playmate! Somebody to share in my world.
He would be born on a day of celebration and fireworks exploding in the sky.
His life would be like those fireworks.
He would burst into life, shine briefly on the earth, and just as quickly, he'd be gone.


Sure I had my imaginary world and a host of older cousins and LuLu to play with. There was my faithful companion Whee-Zee, and soon my own little baby brother. Even Mark Gerber was a friend of sorts; there were days when he could be downright sociable.
Baby boomers like me were lucky. We experienced the golden age of The Tube. We sat transfixed in the gray-white glow of huge television sets with rabbit ear antennas and channel selectors that resembled the dials on the door of a safe. Other dials behind the main channel selector and on the opposite side of the TV were turned to improve the contrast and the clarity and the focus.
I was the remote control.
We laughed and laughed at Lucy and marveled at Captain Video. Kids adventures like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie reinforced the conviction that all one needed in life was the friendship of a loyal dog and everything would be ok in the world.
The cowboy show was king. The thrilling adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Gene Autry. Marshall Dillon and Wyatt Earp dispatching the bad guys every week.
There was a lot of imaginative local programming for kids coming out of Philadelphia at the time. First came Willie the Worm, a puppet made from an old hose and some goggles who introduced cartoons.
Happy the Clown with his marching sticks; blue ends or red ends? I hope you're feeling fine today, good morning Mr. Mike, boop boop! Bertie the Bunyip with Sir Guy de Guy the fox and Fussy and Gussy. I refused to go to Sunday school because hey, I mean Bertie is on. Pete's Gang with Uncle Pete Boyle who drew pictures on huge sheets of paper and told the stories behind them. Later would come Gene London and Wee Willie Webber and of course everyone's favorite, Sally Starr.
We reveled in Popeye and Hunky and Spunky, Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda.
The old Our Gang Comedies showed us a glimpse of the past. Somehow kids back then were more tolerant, it seemed. There was Farina and Stymie, black faces in a sea of white. Just like my friend LuLu. They were part of the gang; no invisible walls, no parents keeping them away.
Our Gang would influence my thinking. Every kid could be your friend. There were no niggers or kikes or wops or spics. Just potential pals.
Kids story records were big too.Bright yellow and red 45 rpms that told fairy tales in music and verse. "I'm a big red fire engine, and I clang clang clang as I roll along."
Another of my favorites was a children's version of the Pirates of Penzance. I didn't quite understand it all, but it was about pirates and the artwork in the book sleeve intrigued me.
The other stuff on TV, the harsh stuff went by us back then. The sinister visage of Joseph Mcarthy, the war in Korea and other Cold War hysteria hadn't quite hit home yet. All we needed was fantasy and imagination.
I had Mom and Dad and Whee-Zee and my green Rixe bike and an imagination. The real world could pass us all by. What else did I need?
A baby brother maybe?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Aunt Sis and Uncle Dan

Aunt Sis and Uncle Dan Amey lived on Union Ave. in Woodbury just a few doors down from Nanny and Pop-Pop.
Aunt Sis was my mom's older sister Bertha. Bertha, a good Germanic name. I think she preferred her nickname, Sis or Sissy. My Aunt Sissy was different from mom and her other sisters Bette and Helen. Aunt Sis wasn't afraid to do anything as far as I could tell. I was always impressed that she drove a car when most of the women in our family didn't. She had a distinctive gravelly voice,dark hair and a dark complexion. Once when I was older and sitting on my grandparents' porch, Pop-Pop told me that we had American Indians in our family bloodline. If you looked carefully at Aunt Sis and Uncle Pat, you got a feeling that maybe it was true. Aunt Sis and Uncle Dan had five children. Danny,Barbara,Diane,Kenny and Ronnie. They were all older than me of course, but they always treated me like one of the family and not a baby.
They let me play high/low water and hide and seek and half ball in the street. Once they all played King Arthur with all their friends in the neighborhood and I was allowed to join in. Thanks to Uncle Pat I was fully armored.
Aunt Sis's house was full of 1950's kitsch.One of those ketchup dispensers that looked like a tomato. They had a black cat clock whose eyes and tail moved back and forth.Those aluminum cups in jewel-like colors of yellow,green, blue and purple and bubble lights on the Christmas tree.
Their family was loud and raucous. Dinner time was orchestrated chaos with lots of talking and the passing of plates.
Uncle Dan was a loud and heavy-set man. He was the kind of guy who was never embarrassed to tell anyone his opinion. He laughed loud and he also giggled. Uncle Dan's personality was as broad as he was, and for some people he was difficult to take. Sometimes he was a little scary, but he was also capable of great acts of kindness.
When it came to candy, Uncle Dan was the man. He kept a great big bowl next to his chair in their living room, and it was always full of some of the best treats . Kraft caramels and fudgies. Tootsie Rolls and Mary Janes. Sometimes it was filled with Dentyne gum. That bowl was just like him; you never knew what to expect.
He raised rabbits in their back yard. He had a pet skunk. He bought Chihuahuas.Yeah, you just never knew.
Their sons would play all kinds of sports and Aunt Sis and Uncle Dan would drive them and their team mates to all the games in their station wagon. Lots of times they would take me along. It was too cool to ride in the back of a station wagon with older boys who didn't want to use me as the butt of their jokes.
The Ameys were loud and crazy and all crowded together in that narrow little house, and they'd let me stay there one week in July of 1955.
The week my brother Carl was born.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

1955: New Horizons

My Green Rixe

The year 1955 would see some life-changing events for me. A two-wheeler bike and a baby brother.
My first two wheeled bike is green with wide chrome fenders and white balloon tires. It has bone white handle grips and a hand brake for the front tire as well as coaster brakes. On the handle bar stem is a shield with stylized wings and the name Rixe across it. It also says Made In West Germany. Over the back fender is one of those European mouse trap kind of things that you can clamp down on objects you want to take with you. It can still be seen in Woodbury Heights in my parents' basement. Some of the original parts are gone, but it's still there.
At first I rode with training wheels until the day came when dad decided I was too old for them anymore and I was going to ride like a man.
Up and down the driveway I would go with him or mom holding on to steady me. They would pick the right moment to let go, and I of course would fall to the ground immediately. Time and again they would repeat the routine, and time after time I would crash and burn. I had no patience back then, so I cried and I yelled and I wailed that I was no good and I would never get it right. I was disgusted. I could never ever ride that darned thing without the training wheels.
I believe my dad said something like, "Well if you can't ride it without the training wheels I guess you just won't ride it at all."
Whatever he said motivated me enough to try it again and again and again. I fell again and again and again. I fumed and I fussed again and again. Then all of I sudden, one more time I hopped on, pushed off, and started pedaling. I wobbled and I shook, but my course was pretty straight and lo and behold I was taming the green beast!
Soon I was riding like the wind. Up and down the sidewalk from our house to the Olsens' and back. Around and around the house and yard.
I knew I had arrived when my mom told me she wanted me to ride down the street to Trackie's store. An errand-the first rite of manhood. Mom watched me as I traveled down Walnut Ave. alone on my Rixe. I don't remember what she sent me for but I was proud when I got home. It was a good day to become a man.
On July 4th,1955, I would become a brother.

Uncle Pat

It's easy talking about my Uncle Pat. He was my favorite uncle when I was young. I never knew what Uncle Pat was going to bring me next. He was Mom's brother, and he worked at the Woodbury dump with Pop-Pop. Uncle Pat was a gentle man who wanted little out of life. All he needed was a steady job and a family to come home to. And beer. Uncle Pat loved his beer. And cigarettes. He had close- cropped hair and a dark complexion. Uncle Pat also had a drawl in his speech. Come to think of it, a lot of my family has some kind of accent that almost reminds you of a western or southern slow drawl. A South Jersey drawl, I guess.
Uncle Pat would always have some kind of wondrous new toys for me, stuff that was no longer found in the stores.
One time he brought me a shield. It was a metal replica of the shield that Prince Valiant carried. Prince Valiant was one of the most popular comic strips ever, drawn by the great illustrator Hal Foster.Magnificent tales of Vikings and King Arthur and his knights.
Along with the Prince Valiant shield he gave me a triangular shield and a sheet metal suit of armor. It was like a sandwich board. Two pieces of sheet metal painted to look like a knight's armor. You put your head through the top and secured it at the sides with some good strong string. I was ready to slay many a dragon.
Another great find he brought me was a Marx space station. Marx playsets were the cream of the crop. It was a tin lithographed space station with launch pads, rocket ships, astronauts and aliens. There were also all kinds of control panels and weird looking contraptions I could never figure out.
Uncle Pat never let go of the kid inside of him, and he shared that joy of childhood wonder with me. When I got older and learned to read, he would bring me stack upon stack of comic books.
He would also bring me army helmets and canteens and a sword that looked like it was from the American Revolution. When Uncle Pat pulled in the driveway, I always knew something exciting was in the wings.
"Got a beer,Mary?" was his usual greeting to my mother.
"Take a look at this, little Jim." usually came next.
During World War II Uncle Pat was in the Army in Italy.
He could not fight. He could not bring himself to kill. The army placed Uncle Pat on permanent KP, so he was able to feed men instead of destroying men.
Mom calls Uncle Pat a Lost Soul.
I call him a good one.