Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Spring: 1963

The warmth of spring and the Fifth Grade is almost at an end. I like Mrs. Nolte, and I like the Fifth Grade. After Whee-Zee died I immerse myself in schoolwork.

I'm a knowledge junkie, and I like to read encyclopedias just for fun. Whenever we have to do reports, and we do a lot in Mrs. Nolte's class, I use the time to read about all kinds of stuff in the World Book Encyclopedia. I love the World Book. There's science and history, and biographies of famous people. There are pictures of all of the flags of the world, and geography and inventions and, well, just everything. We don't have the World Book at home, but we do have the Encyclopedia for Children that Mom gets for us at the Acme Supermarket. They're not as detailed as the World Book, and you can only buy them one at a time, but they're better than nothing. My mind absorbs all it can, and I remember almost everything, so I seem a lot smarter than I really am.
I'm still infatuated with Sue Burns. Girls are starting to seem a bit more important to me now. I can't explain it, but it matters to me. I'd especially like it if Sue Burns liked me back, but I'm too stupid and goofy to even tell her how I feel.
We play a game of tag in the playground, boys against the girls. Team tag, I think we called it. You try to capture all of the girls. Usually you tried to catch the girl you liked the best, and so I was always trying to catch Sue Burns. Your teammates would try to tag you when you were captured, so you could be free again. We played this game all spring, a kind of early mating ritual played out in the sand.
We'll be getting ready for the May Fair again, and we'll play softball at recess.
Don Vanneman and Joyce Hoefers are still the leaders in our class, and I'm still one of the last kids chosen when we pick for teams at kickball and such.
I'm working harder at my homework, and I'll get straight A's.
We hear that next year we'll be at the Saint Margaret's Catholic school building while they make a new wing for our school. We also hear that a new high school will be built in Woodbury Heights, so none of us will go to Woodbury High like the kids before us.
A new high school here in town. I wonder where they're going to build it?
I'm riding my new black West German Rixe bicycle, and when it's warm I ride home for lunch, so I don't always have to sit in that horrible little room in the basement so much.
There's lots of stuff going on in the world right now, stuff we don't talk about in our little school in our little town.
Right now we're getting ready for a May Fair, small town white kids without a care in the world.
Right now black kids our own age are getting ready to stare down police and endure the blasts from fire hoses and policemen's clubs and dogs as they march for freedom in Alabama.
Young East German kids are trying to figure out how to get across a wall of bricks and barbed wire, and kids in Vietnam are being forced out of their villages by Green Berets and the Vietcong.
Yeah, it's great to be an American alright.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Holidays from Maddox Corner



Stay tuned - there's still a lot left to tell about 1963. Whee-Zee is gone, and Fifth Grade is coming to a close. Summer is just around the corner, and after that the Sixth Grade, and of course we're approaching that awful day in November.

So, enjoy the holiday - but remember - we'll be back - we're just around the corner.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A New Civil War

On the evening news I see more black and white images.

A city in Alabama is what I see.


Birmingham, Alabama.
Black people in the streets protesting.

Civil disobedience is the phrase I hear. A man named Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for an end to injustice.



I see kids my own age, black kids, marching in protest.

I see police dogs attacking black people in the streets of Birmingham Alabama, and firemen blasting them with hoses.

I’ve been seeing these kinds of things on the news and in Life magazine for quite a while now, and I can’t understand it at all. Americans hating and beating other Americans just because they aren’t white.

I see fear and hatred on the evening news. Fear and hatred and violence in Birmingham, Alabama.

Can this be happening here in America? Land of the free, home of the brave?

Each day in school I’m taught to believe in America, to believe in the red, white and blue.
But there are these black and white pictures on the evening news.
The violence continues in Birmingham, Alabama.
These black and white pictures on the evening news.
Each day in school I’m taught to believe in America, to believe in the red, white and blue.
But there are these black and white pictures on the evening news.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Trial By Fire

It's a warm spring day and I'm sweating. Something I've been dreading has finally happened. I've been left in charge of my baby sister, and I think her diaper has to be changed!
Cheryl Ann is crying, and she has no interest in her bottle. That can only mean one thing - she's gone to the bathroom and I'm the only one here who can do anything about it.
I hope it's just pee. Pee you can deal with. Pee is just water. It smells bad, but not as bad as you-know-what, and I'd rather not deal with that.
I check Cheryl's diaper and my worst fears are realized. She's pooped herself. I can smell it, and it smells REALLY BAD!
Well, I can't let my sister sit around in a dirty diaper. I know I wouldn't want to be sitting in my own poop all afternoon, so I resolve to change her.
I've got a vague idea about what to do. Diapers go around the baby's butt and up and over the "private parts", and you pin the whole thing together. It's a triangle, right, and you just pin the ends of the triangle together. Piece of cake, really.
What I'm not prepared for is the odor when the diaper comes off. Whew! How can a little kid make such a stink? I get that diaper off and into the pail as quick as I can. Wiping poop off of a little baby that won't lie still makes me even more nervous. And what color is that poop, anyway? There isn't anything like that at Aunt Bette's farm, and they've got poop all over the place.
I get that off of her butt the best I can.
You know, I can see her "private parts". I try not to look, 'cause after all she's my sister, and I don't know if it's right to be doing that, but I do see the difference between boys and girls, but I don't stare or anything, 'cause I don't think it's right, but I guess they expected me to change my little sister if she messed herself, so where's that diaper anyway?
I sprinkle baby powder on her like confectioner's sugar, and I wonder if it's too much or too little, hey how would I know, you know?
The diaper is a little more complicated than it looks, and I feel like I'm gonna have to hog-tie my sister like a calf in a rodeo if she doesn't stop kicking her feet.
The diaper is around her somehow and I've got to pin it all together. I'm sweating even more,and my sister is squirming, and I don't want to jab her with the safety pin.
Somehow it all comes together, and I'm slipping those rubber pants on her and the deed is done.
It may not be neat and it may not be pretty, but my sister is dry and clean.
I hope my parents don't do this to me again.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reality Check

I’m walking home from school on a warm day in April. I’m coming to where Walnut meets Lake Avenue. It’s where I always take the dirt path shortcut instead of walking all the way to the corner. Walnut Avenue begins to curve around the lake here, just past Trackie’s store, and then it bends a little more as you pass Nancy Fleisch’s house. I can see straight up the sidewalk and through Mrs. Price’s Sleepy Hollow to where the end of our driveway is.
Wait a minute, I think I see a familiar form standing at the end of the driveway. Could it be? That brown, scary-looking, droopy-eared dog of mine?
Did they realize it was all a mistake, and that Whee-Zee could get better, so they brought her back home?
My heart soars, and I begin to run up Walnut Avenue as fast as my legs can take me.
I look up again, but there’s nothing standing in the driveway.
It was just a shadow playing tricks, just wishful thinking getting the better of me.
Whee-Zee is gone, I know that now.

Goodbye girl.
I will never forget you.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Most Terrible Day

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house watching my dog Whee-Zee go out the back door. She’s moving slowly, down those familiar back steps. Past the spot beneath the spigot on the wall where I feed her every night. Did she pause to look down there?

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house looking through the picture window of the living room. Whee-Zee is walking slowly up the driveway, her head hung down. She doesn’t look back.

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house looking at a gray truck sitting at the end of the driveway, its back doors open, and two men are waiting. The truck has letters on it, but I can’t read what they say.
This can’t be happening. My dog, my best friend in all the world is being taken away from me, from all of us, and I wish it weren’t true.

“Whee-Zee is dying”, they say.
“She will suffer more and more, and there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“She’ll be put to sleep, and she won’t feel any pain.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be in Heaven.”

I don’t care. Whee-Zee is my dog, my best friend, my protector. Who has the right to take her away?
She’s still breathing, she still looks at me with those big brown eyes, and she’s happy when I come home from school.
Who says she won’t feel any pain?

I want to run out the door and down those familiar back steps past the spot where I feed her and up the drive and put my arms around her and protect her from all of this, but I’m frozen where I stand. I’m terrified and angry, and my heart is in my throat. WHEE-ZEE! NO, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!

But it is. It is happening, and I’m watching it happen.

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house and I want to scream. I do scream. I scream deep within myself, from the pit of my soul I scream inside my head. I scream so hard and so loud inside that I almost shatter.

WHEE-ZEE!!!! NO!NO!NO!,NO!,NO!NO!,No,No,No,no,no,no,no,no,n......................

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house, looking through the picture window in the living room. I see my dog Whee-Zee get inside that sad-looking gray truck, and she never looks back. The doors of the truck are closed behind her. What is she thinking about all of this? Does she know?

NO!!!!!!!!

I want to run outside and pound on the doors of that truck and demand that they give me back my dog, that it’s all a mistake, a terrible, horrible mistake, but I’m frozen in terror.

NO!!!!!!!!!!!............

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house, staring out of the picture window in the living room, looking at the end of the driveway where a sad-looking gray truck once stood.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bad Signs

I know it’s selfish of me, but I consider Whee-Zee my dog. Sure, everybody in the family loves her and she loves them, but still, I consider her MY dog. She’s been with me for as long as I can remember things, going back to when I was two years old.
Wheez is about 12 or 13 now, and that makes her older than even my grandparents in people years. My years have been shared by an ugly brown boxer who would sacrifice her own life to protect me and my family.
I’m worried about Whee-Zee. She’s gotten sick again. Every time I feed her in the evening she throws up and her body shakes, and she walks away from her food looking sadder and sadder. There’s nothing I can do except lay on the floor and pet her and hope I’m making her feel better.
She’s getting weaker, and so Dad takes her to the doctor. She got better the last time, so I’m hoping for the best.
Mom and Dad look serious when Whee-Zee comes home. They speak quietly, and there’s sadness in their voices.
I don’t know what a stroke is. Isn’t that something that happens to people?
I think I hear them say things like “She’ll only keep on suffering”, and “It will be hard on all of us”, but I don’t hear everything clearly.
My dog is sick, but doctors can make things better, can’t they? I mean, every time I get sick the doctor cures me, can’t they cure my dog? Sure they can, I know it.
Whee-Zee is sick, but she’s still walking and breathing and she looks at me with that look of affection she’s always had.
People get better, and Whee-Zee, well she’s just like a person, you know?
Mom and Dad tell us that “something will have to be done”, that Whee-Zee will just continue to get weaker and suffer even more.
What will HAVE to be done? What are they talking about?
It can’t be what I think it is, can it?
“Put her out of her misery”?
What are Mom and Dad thinking?
I know it sounds selfish, but I’ve always considered Whee-Zee MY dog.
Just what are Mom and Dad thinking?
MY dog – my best friend, and now she’s sick and I know she’ll get better.
Won’t you girl?
Won’t you?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Movin' On Up

The yard we have on our corner in Woodbury Heights is pretty big, and we can extend that by going into the woods. If you include the Avis’ yard next door, it’s even bigger. I’m on the Gerber’s property a lot too, so my world is quite large.
Our house, on the other hand, is pretty small. It’s gotten a lot smaller now that there are six of us. When it was just Mom and Dad and me and Whee-Zee, well, there was plenty of room. Carl came along and we all had to make extra room, and now we’ve got to find some place to put my little baby sister.
Everything is on the first floor. You enter our house by the back door. It’s really the side door, but we call it the back one. Everybody but strangers come in the back door and through the kitchen. The kitchen isn’t very big, and when there’s more than four people in there it gets pretty cramped. When Dad has card games on Saturday nights, it sounds like there’s a hundred people in the kitchen.
The living room isn’t too big either, but we cram friends and neighbors and relatives in there on Christmas Eve and other festive times, and somehow they all seem to fit.
There’s only one bathroom. There’s a lot of waiting your turn, a lot of “holding it”, if you know what I mean.
Me and Carl have our bedroom right next to the bathroom. We each have a bed, a bureau apiece, and we both have an army footlocker to keep toys in. There’s also a little desk that has those cubby holes in it to hold lots of little things. Of course, we have a closet. You know, THE CLOSET, the one that has a life of its own. I know I’m older now and I should know better, but I swear there’s something in there at night. Stay over some time and listen. At least I don’t sleep with the hall light on anymore. That week at Aunt Bette’s farm cured me of that.
Mom and Dad’s room is across the hall, and that’s that.
We do have a basement. The cellar as we like to call it. The cellar is cool in the summer and pretty warm in the winter. It’s a place for us to run around in when it rains, a place to have birthday parties and New Year’s Eve parties, and other family get-togethers. We set up our model trains down there, and I build my models on the old bar that Dad brought home. It’s red and curved, and us kids play Western Saloon around it.
There is an attic, but it isn’t finished. It’s a wide open space that seems enormous to me when I’m up there. The floor just has plywood placed around where Mom and Dad store things. My old hobby horse is up there, and Carl’s old baby coach, and there’s a cedar chest. The attic is where Mom and Dad hide our Christmas presents, and where they put other junk that we don’t have any room for.
So where are we going to put Cheryl Ann? She’s a girl, and little girls can’t share bedrooms with their brothers. We can’t have the bunk beds up all year. It would be too hot for me to sleep so close to the ceiling in the summer.
Mom and Dad tell us that when the weather gets warm that they will have the attic converted into bedrooms and storage space for us. Me and Carl will move upstairs and Cheryl will get our old room.
Upstairs! We’re gonna move upstairs. It’s exciting and scary all at the same time. We have a choice of separate rooms, or we can share a room like we do now, and we’ll have an extra bedroom.
I have to think about this. Moving upstairs, away from the comforting sight of Whee-Zee sleeping in the hall. She’s too old to climb the stairs.
The ceiling’s gonna be too low for our bunk beds, so the thrill of my winter hideout will be gone forever.
I’ll be far away from that pesky closet and all of its dark secrets.
There’s gonna be a new closet to contend with. Maybe this one won’t be a dark hole to the spirit world, and I’ll be able to sleep with both eyes closed.
I think I’m gonna like this new room upstairs.
I just hope they build us a bathroom, those stairs are pretty steep.
I don’t want to be “holdin’ it” all night, you know?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Separate But Equal

1963. So here I am, eleven years old. I go to school where I pledge allegiance and sing songs that praise my country and extol its virtues. But what am I becoming? I believe in the land of the free and the home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all. I believe that any one can grow up to be president, and that America is the greatest country in the world. I’m a red-white-and-blue, Yankee doodle dandy, dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue American. Yes sir, that’s me. But.....
I’m being molded. Despite all my beliefs in America and to the flag and all that, I’ve learned how to hate. It’s imperceptible, but it’s there, and if it’s not downright hate, it’s fear. Fear of anyone different from me. Especially black people. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not like what’s going on down south. There are no “colored only” signs, and black and white kids go to school together in Woodbury and Deptford, and they can sit at the counter in Woolworth’s. I ride the bus to Woodbury and sit next to black kids my own age, and no one beats me for it.
Things are changing. This summer you would find black kids fishing at our lake, standing right beside me and my friend Keith. They would tag along with us as we went rake fishing along the banks and share in our harvest of turtles and such. The Jericho Baptist Church would still have its baptisms in the waters of our lake as well, but there are no black people swimming or lying on our beach.
I’m taught to believe that everyone is equal, and yet I can ignore our “colored” neighbors across the street, the house where my very first friend and playmate Lulu once lived, she herself a little “colored” girl.
It bothers me sometimes. I don’t truly understand the why. It’s not like I’m some eleven year old philosopher or something. My classmates and I don’t discuss racial matters on the playground at school, heck, we barely talk to the girls in our class. It’s just that that song from Sunday school still resonates in my brain: “Jesus loves the little children....be they yellow, black or white...” I can’t make sense of it.
I’m being molded. I and everyone else here in Woodbury Heights. Taught by parents and grandparents and friends and relatives who still carry the old fears and ideas of the past. Our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, older cousins and our neighbors clutter up their minds in fear and mistrust, and no one can say why. They carry their thoughts and fears on their sleeves, but it is getting diluted. It’s in my back pocket. I don’t always feel it, but it’s there.
I don’t like this hating thing.
I know it’s not right, but it’s there.
I didn’t learn it in school, it’s what the “real world” taught me, and I see it on TV.
I don’t like this hating thing.

Will it always be with me?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Peace On Earth

How long it seemed, the waiting for Christmas to come after the Thanksgiving holiday was over. I pored over the Sears catalog, wishing for every toy soldier set in there. My belief in Santa long gone, and I was turning eleven on the 20th of December. I wouldn’t expect much this year. I’ve got a baby sister in the house now, so there will be less money to spread around.
Snow falls early this December, even though it’s warm at the beginning of the month. I won’t get straight A’s at the end of the marking period. I slip to a B in English and Arithmetic, so I guess I’m paying more attention to TV and the coming holiday.
Who among us can concentrate with the promise of snow and presents on the way?
I really hope I’ll get the Marx Civil War play set this year. Paul LaPann has it, and it’s amazing. Confederates and Yankees, cannons and a stone bridge, and figures of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, and a tin lithographed southern mansion. That’s for me!
Milton Bradley has another American Heritage game out. Broadside, a naval battle board game, so I’ll ask for that. Carl wants the Beany and Cecil game that has a puppet of Cecil. It’s one of those ones that talk when you pull a string on the side of it. Cecil gives you spoken clues as you navigate around the board.
The toy ads are coming fast and furious, and everything looks great on TV. How to decide? What to choose?
My birthday comes, and snow comes with it, and it’s looking more and more like we’ll be having a white Christmas this year. I get my one big birthday gift from Mom and Dad, and yep, you guessed it, I get another West German Rixe bicycle. This one is black, with gull-wing handlebars and one of those mouse-trap clamp things on the back. It looks fast. It’s a 26 inch, and I can’t wait for spring and warm weather, though I know I’ll go through the same frustrations trying to ride it.
We’ve got a lot of Christmas cards this year, strung along the wall of the living room, rows and rows of them, a proud reminder of all the friends and family we have.
Mom will paint a jolly Santa on the picture window in the living room, and Dad will string a few lights on the bushes and across the front of the house.
We get snow for Christmas, and all is well with me and my family in our little house on the corner in Woodbury Heights.
A white Christmas, presents, a new bike and time off from school, and best of all my dog Whee-Zee is still with us.
Still time for that Christmas nap on the living room rug girl.
Still time for us to snore.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Autumn Calm

I and the rest of the world held our breath for two weeks that October in 1962. It was high noon and we stood face to face with the Russians, ready to fire nuclear missiles and drop H-bombs onto the world. We got lucky and cooler heads prevailed, and the earth kept on spinning.
I think the Russians knew we meant business. Didn’t we drop two A-bombs on Japan? That must have been on the minds of Kruschev and all the other leaders in the Kremlin. We actually did it once, and we’d probably do it again, so the Russians backed down.
It was time to heave a sigh of relief and get down to picking out a Halloween costume. Maybe I should dress up as Castro or Kruschev. Imagine my neighbors reactions to a communist boogeyman knocking on their doors! I could wave my arms or bang my shoe at them and they’d tremble with fear. How about a nuclear missile costume? It’s going to be hard trying to be scary this year.
I decide not to be a ghost or a ghoul or anything spooky. Mom has this great big trunk full of old clothes so I dig through that and I finally make up my mind. An old suit with a vest, a curly black wig and a derby and a cane, and suddenly I’m Charlie Chaplin. We’ve got some of those masks that just cover your nose and cheeks, with just an upper lip. They really change your face without covering it up, and the one I pick has a mustache, too. I’m out to make people laugh this year, we’ve all been frightened enough.
It rains on Halloween, but not enough to spoil the fun, and Carl and I haul in plenty of candy between us. I fool a lot of the neighbors, and they can’t guess it’s me. My Charlie Chaplin is a success.
November arrives cold and blustery, and the Russians are taking down their missile sites in Cuba. Steve Kay and I continue to play war around his house and through the grounds of the Episcopal church. A lot of our classmates don’t join in as much as they used to – they’re getting more interested in football, so our armies aren’t as large as they used to be, and our soldiers are a lot younger than they’ve been, but we fight on. We don’t act out that new war, the one over in Vietnam. We don’t quite understand it or what’s going on. Our soldiers are called “advisors” over there, like they don’t really exist or something, yet they go out into jungles and up into mountains fighting some guys they call Charlie. There’s a lot of Special Forces over there. They’re called Green Berets or something, and they’re supposed to be some kind of super soldiers, but we don’t hear much about them, so we fight the Civil War or World War II, battles we can understand.
November is leaf-raking time and I hate that job. We have big oak trees in our yard, and it seems like the leaves never stop falling. I’m spending too many Sundays raking those leathery old things. The only part of the job that’s fun is burning them in the curb. The oak leaves give off a dense black smoke. Maple and cherry leaves dry out fast, so they burn white smoke that doesn’t choke you. The oak leaves are never ending, and I rake and burn, rake and burn up to Thanksgiving. I’ll be thankful not to have to rake any more of these darn things.
Whee-Zee is doing OK. She’s very tired and old-looking, but she’s alive and that makes me happy. I can’t imagine losing her.
My little sister is the luckiest one of us all. She just gurgles and smiles and stuff. She doesn’t have to worry about bombs or missiles. Doesn’t matter to her that the world almost ended, and leaves have to be raked, or worry that our dog could have died.
Yeah, little Cheryl is lucky.
Christmas is coming and she’s just going along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dodging The Bullet

Tick, tick, tick, or so it seemed to me. Ever since October 22 I found it hard to sleep and not to think about the end of the world coming.

Tick, tick, tick, and the evening news showed more pictures of missile bases in Cuba.

On Friday, October 26, our destroyers stopped a Russian registered cargo ship, the Marcula and searched it, but no weapons were found, and the Russians threatened us with war.

Tick, tick, tick, and on Saturday the 27th, I saw on the news that one of our spy planes, one of those U-2 things, was shot down over Cuba. Our pilot, Rudolf Anderson, was killed. The Cubans are also shooting at our low-flying planes as well. The newspapers say that the army and marines in Florida are ready to invade Cuba at any minute. President Kennedy gives the Russians one last chance to get the missiles out of Cuba, or suffer the consequences. I don’t sleep a wink. I can’t even enjoy watching Gunsmoke. “If I should die before I wake”...no, I won’t say that, not tonight, not any more.

Sunday, October 28th, and the Russians agree to take their missiles out of Cuba if we promise not to invade it. Agreements are made, and the newscasters seem to relax; Walter Cronkite doesn’t sound so ominous anymore.

Maybe I can get some sleep now. I can decide what to wear for Halloween. What is it about Halloween time and the Communists, anyways? Why do they always seem to start something every year at the end of October? How are we going to scare anyone now?
The good news is that it looks like the world isn’t going to end tomorrow.
What’s even better, it looks like Whee-Zee is recovering!!
Still time girl.
Still time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Time Bomb

"Now I lay me down to sleep...." Many of us recited that prayer at bedtime. I had stopped doing that - I didn't like the way it sounded at the end.

All summer long ships were sailing into the Caribbean, into its warm blue/green waters making their way into the harbors of Cuba. Lots of Russian ships. Our navy was watching. My cousin Danny watched them from the deck of his destroyer.
He saw Russian merchant vessels with their decks loaded down with big crates covered up in canvas. The newspapers said that a large amount of Russian soldiers were now in Cuba, and Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and all the other news men on TV were wondering what was going on down there.

What did I know about it? Cuba this and Cuba that. For years now it seemed that everything bad in the world somehow got all tangled up with that island so close to our shore.

The images I saw, the black and white and gray pictures of Castro. Always pointing his finger in the air and blaming America for all the problems in the world.
There he was hugging Nikita Kruschev and telling the world he was now a Communist, and the Russians were his only friends in the world. America was out to get him and he wasn't going to allow another Bay of Pigs happen again, so he was letting the Russians come and train his army.

Black and white and gray images of Russian ships at sea.

One Monday night in October, the 22nd it was, as I was getting ready to watch TV, President Kennedy came on to talk to the country. One of our U-2 spy planes had taken pictures of missile bases on Cuba, he said. He showed us pictures of them.

Black and white and gray images of trucks and tents and airplanes. White letters pointing out the missiles and the barracks of soldiers.

These were Russian missiles and Russian soldiers, and the missiles were capable of striking deep into our country. President Kennedy then told us that the missiles were nuclear ones. Nuclear missiles aimed right at us just ninety miles away. The President declared that he would regard any missile fired at us from Cuba as an act of war coming from the Russians, and that we would strike back at them. He was ordering a quarantine around Cuba, and our navy was going to stop and search all ships to make sure they weren't bringing in more weapons. He scared the bejeezus out of me and probably everybody else in the world.

It was hard to sleep that night.

Black and white and gray images of atomic bombs going off. The force of a nuclear blast destroying everything in its path would play over and over again in my mind.



On the way to school we sang the Kruschev song, something to help us laugh it all off, but in the back of our minds we feared the worst, and we had more air-raid drills to remind us all of the danger.

Black and white and gray images of American navy ships following a Russian submarine.
More photos of Russian missile sites, and the U.N. building, and stories about U-2 spy planes. Thousands of soldiers being sent to Florida, and would the Russians allow us to search their ships peacefully?

Tick, tick, tick, it seemed to me.

And then the day came.

Black and white and gray images of Russian ships, with their decks jammed with great big crates, and we were going to stop them.

Tick, tick, tick, it seemed to me.

"..if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Something's Not Right With Whee-Zee

This short-haired scary-looking dog has been by my side since I was a small boy with no understanding of the world around me. This droopy-eared, one tooth protruding stubby-tailed creature who would do anything to protect me. My most trusted friend and companion who taught me more about love and loyalty than any person in my life so far.
My dog is sick, and my parents tell me it’s serious. They tell me boxers can have heart attacks just like people, so we’ll have to hope and pray that Whee-Zee will get better.
Wheez is older and grayer. Her energy isn’t always there, but she is always glad to be with me and my family. She was about two or three years old when Dad brought her home, so now in people years she’s older than my grandparents.
We don’t run together much anymore, but that’s OK, it’s comforting just to have her around. Every now and then she’s her old self, and we go for long walks, and she might even chase a stick or two.
There are these black pouch-like things growing on her legs, and my parents take Whee-Zee to the doctor to have them removed. Sometimes she can’t keep her food down when I feed her, and I feel so helpless watching her as she throws up after eating. I put my arms around her and I try not to cry.
I don’t know if it’s prayer or good luck or what, but Whee-Zee starts to feel better. She looks a lot older now, and she’s not as strong, but she’s alive. My parents warn me that she might not stay that way, but I don’t want to think about that. No, Whee-Zee is going to be OK, she’s just got to be.
Please girl. Please get better.
You’ve just got to..

Friday, November 14, 2008

Higher Education

It was a warm and sunny morning that first day of October, the kind of day when you didn’t mind walking to school. Here in South Jersey we were enjoying “Indian Summer”; mild sunny days that made it difficult to concentrate in class. I walked those tree-lined streets without a care in the world, on to school, and climbed those stairs with all my classmates. We sat as roll was taken, the sun’s rays bright and warm, streaming through those great big windows. Then we stood as always to pledge allegiance to the red white and blue in the corner of the room.

As we stood to recite our pledge, a young man in Mississippi was walking to school. His walk was not as pleasant as mine. This young man had to be escorted to college by federal marshals, amid the jeers and threats from all of his fellow students. His name was James Meredith, and he was going to attend the University of Mississippi, but he wasn’t wanted there. Was James Meredith a criminal? Was he a communist spy or something? No, James Meredith was an American, a black American, and his fellow citizens were against black Americans entering their school.
President Kennedy had to order that federal marshals escort James Meredith to class. National Guard troops were called out, because the people down there were determined to prevent a black man from integrating their school. Thousands of white people began to riot, and to shoot at the marshals, and so two people were killed and scores were wounded, and hundreds were arrested. More soldiers had to be sent into Mississippi, and more people would be arrested before some sense of order was restored. James Meredith made it to his first class that day, that fine sunny day in October, risking his life just to go to school.

I stood that day, hand over my heart along with my classmates, the sun shining bright upon us all. So earnest we were, so believing, as we spoke the words we said every day to the red white and blue in the corner of the room: “.....with liberty and justice for all.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Around The Dial

School had begun and the days of summer were coming to an end. I and everyone else would sprint out the door when the final bell had rung, eager to get in a few hours’ play before dinner and homework. Soon the days would be getting shorter, and our evenings would be spent in front of the television.
I eagerly awaited the fall preview edition of TV Guide. Packed full of information about all the new shows, and what may be happening in all of our old favorites. I pored over the TV Guide, looking for the programs that I thought would be worth watching, making mental notes and fixing the schedules in my mind.
Lots of new shows coming in 1962. A lot of shows that were past their prime, and I couldn’t figure out why they were still on. Lucy was funny once, but now she was pretty pathetic, and she was out of touch with what was funny, and yet they’re giving her a new show. How good can she be without Ricky and Fred? Ozzie and Harriet was completely awful, and we still couldn’t figure out exactly what Ozzie did for a living. Wally was kind of creepy by now, a grown man trying to look like a teenager when he should be trying to get a life for goodness sake. Jerry Mathers had lost his charm, and now he was just plain awkward.
Most of the animated shows were canceled, but we’ll still have the Flintstones on Friday night, and two new cartoons are coming on. The Jetsons and their world of the future, and the pun-laden adventures of a little kid named Beany and his friend Cecil the sea-sick sea serpent.
My favorite show, Car 54, Where Are You? is coming back on Sunday nights, and I can’t wait to see Toody and Muldoon make a mess of things in the Bronx once more. They help to make going to bed early for school a little easier.
One new show coming on has caught my attention. Combat! on ABC is going to be about American GIs in World War II, and I can’t wait for that to come on. Dad had been in the war, and if he was home at night to watch it, maybe he can tell me how realistic it is. World War II on TV! Tuesday nights at 7:30; gotta have my homework done early. Oh yeah, ABC has another show called the Gallant Men about an army squad in Italy in World War II. Gotta catch that one.
There’s gonna be a show called Mr. Ed, about a talking horse who only speaks to his owner. Sounds a lot like those Francis the Talking Mule movies I saw on TV over the summer. Might be worth a look.
I think I’ll watch another show taking place during the second world war. This one’s a comedy about PT boats. McHale’s Navy sounds kinda like Sgt. Bilko, so that one oughtta be good.
I guess I’ll try watching this new show about hillbillies moving to Beverly Hills. They strike it rich by finding oil on their property and so they move to a mansion or something. That might be funny, we’ll have to see.
I’ll still be getting advice from all those familiar TV fathers. Andy Taylor, Lucas McCain, Ward Cleaver, Steve Douglas and Jim Anderson, not to mention the off-the wall dads on the Danny Thomas Show and Dobie’s father Herbert T. Gillis. If only our real fathers were as wise and as funny as these guys. If only they had as much time to spend with us.
I still can’t stay up to watch Candid Camera on Sunday night unless there’s a holiday or Christmas vacation, so I have to catch that in the summer.
There’s still Gunsmoke and Wagon Train, and some people really like Bonanza, but most of the time I only watch it if it’s about Hoss Cartwright, ‘cause then it’s pretty funny.
I hope Jonathan Winters will show up on the Jack Paar Show more often, and I still don’t understand how shows like Hazel and Dennis the Menace stay on the air. Jay North looks like he’s 14 and he’s supposed to be playing a little kid like my brother! Jeez, give me a break.
I’ll have to be content with reading the TV Guide preview edition over and over and memorizing the schedules until October when the new shows come on. Let’s hope this new season is a good one.
There’s Jack Benny and Red Skelton on Tuesdays, Have Gun, Will Travel just before Gunsmoke, Dick Van Dyke on Wednesday, maybe Mom will let me stay up to see The Untouchables now.....

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fifth Grade

I will take the same old trail to school again this year, but I will ride my bike more often in the warmer weather, so I'm gonna be able to come home for lunch once in a while. What a relief!
The Four Seasons have a hit song on the radio that I can't get out of my mind, and it plays over and over again in my head as I travel to school. It's called "Sherry Baby", reminding me of my new little sister. The high-pitch nasal sound of Frankie Valli pierces my brain, but the song won't let me be.
I wonder what Fifth Grade will be like. Will Mrs. Nolte be as tough on us as Mrs. Schoener was? I hope we don't have to spend hours and hours analyzing sentences any more. How hard will arithmetic be this year?
There's a lot in the news about abolishing prayer in school this year. There are people arguing that prayer in school is unconstitutional, and that not everyone is a Christian, and our country has no official religion. Some of the people against prayer are called atheists, and I haven't realized it yet, but that's what I'm becoming. Us kids don't understand it all, but you know, some of my classmates could be Jewish, so they're being forced to pray a Christian prayer against their will, so maybe it's not right after all. I used to be a Presbyterian, and I know some of my friends are Catholic, because every Easter time they get their foreheads smeared with ashes for whatever reason. There are kids with unusual last names, too, so who knows what kind of god they pray to. Oh well, it's too complicated for me to sort out. Makes no difference to me, as long as somebody wants to be my friend, I don't care who they pray to.
Mrs. Nolte turns out to be a pretty nice lady, a lot like Mrs. Lee. Mrs. Nolte is kinda like one of your favorite aunts, so it's easy to learn. Our class is relaxed, and we laugh a lot in between all the learning. Fifth Grade is gonna be OK.
After one of the first parent/teacher's meetings Mom comes home to tell me that Mrs. Nolte lives on Cohawkin Road near Aunt Bette and Uncle Everett. From now on I look for her every time we visit the farm.
Whee-Zee doesn't follow me to school anymore. She's getting old and slower, and she stays near my sister. Every now and then she's her old self, and she has all her energy back. It's always comforting to see her in the distance, waiting for me at the end of the driveway, shaking with delight as I pet her on the head when I get home.
Fifth Grade,1962
Front row, left to right:
Christine Lawrence, Carol Nelson, Mary Lou Lewis, Paul LaPann, Janice Martin, Diana Gabel, Susan Burns. Second row, L-R: Me, Linda Hankin, Sheila McLaughlin, Jimmy Matsuk, Ann Trocolli, Bradley Lloyd. Third row, L-R: Mrs. Nolte, Judy Hampton, Joyce Hoefers, Tommy Moore, Billy Hills, Nancy Fleisch, Richie Hearn. Back Row, L-R: Don Vanneman, Debbie Pryzwara, Greg Jones, Lora Carter, Patsy Mullin, Steve Kay.


I don't know what it is, but I'm getting straight A's right off the bat here in Fifth Grade. My brain is working overtime, but I'm not struggling this year, and for the first time I actually feel like I'm one of the smarter kids in school.
The new boy in class is Steve Kay, and he's from Canada. Actually, his parents are Canadian; he was born in the United States, so he's a citizen of both countries. His father is the Episcopal priest in town, and just like John Marvin, he and I become good friends. He's interested in history and war just like Paul and me, and we use his yard and the grounds of the Episcopal Church as our battlefields. There are many Sundays when the sounds of children at war are heard immediately after services. Father Kay is a very patient man.
I begin to notice the new girl in our class. Sue Burns is her name, and I find myself thinking about her more and more. Joyce and Sheila are still very pretty, and all the boys have crushes on them, but this Susan Burns is beginning to get to me.
The first part of September is here and the weather is warm and we'll swelter in our classroom. I've got a new friend and my brain is clicking and life is good.

And somewhere out in the warm waters of the Caribbean, from the deck of his ship my cousin Danny watches Russian cargo ships carrying their goods to Cuba.......

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Summer Plays Out

There’s still a few weeks left to enjoy the summer. Some time to go swimming at the lake, and to ride my bike around town.
This summer’s big movie was “Hatari!” starring John Wayne and Red Buttons as men who capture big game animals in Africa for zoos around the world. Exciting stuff watching them chase rhinos in jeeps and small trucks, using ropes and pure adrenalin. The “elephant walk” music from that movie would be on the radio and TV all summer, one of those tunes that played over and over again in your brain.
A new type of trading card came out this year, and I’d scour the town for empty soda bottles so I could get enough deposit money to buy them. The Civil War News cards were out, helping celebrate another centennial year of the War Between the States. Just like baseball cards packed with gum, except these cards depicted famous battles and other events in a lurid comic book style that just thrilled me to death. The back of each one was printed with details of the event or person portrayed on the card, and I spent all summer trying to collect each and every one.
There isn’t much to hear about Cuba lately, and let’s hope it stays that way. As a matter of fact, the only thing Cuban in the news is about the two new players on the Phillies, Tony Taylor and Tony Gonzales. They, along with Johnny Callison, are finally giving Phillies fans something to cheer about. The Phils finish seventh due to the talents of these younger players, and the fact that the National League has expanded to ten teams. The New York Mets play horribly, finishing last, and the other new team, the Houston Colt 45s coming in ninth. Even the Cubs play poorly, so the Phillies climb out of the cellar, and Dad and the neighbors pay more attention to the games on the radio as they play Pinochle in the shade of the old maple tree.
Paul Avis comes by with a new comic book. It’s one of those Marvel ones, an anthology series that has changed its title. The book had been called “Amazing Adult Fantasy”, but this month it’s just “Amazing Fantasy”, and on the cover is a character in a suit that looks like a spider web. Inside the pages of this comic is a story that captures our imagination. Peter Parker is a high school student, not much older than me, and he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, granting him all the powers of a spider magnified a thousand fold. Peter Parker uses his new powers to become a professional wrestler, and decides he will go into show business. A superhero who is a teenager, and who is a nerd in real life! This comic is good, really good, and I try to get Paul to trade it to me, but he won’t budge. This is an anthology series, so maybe this Spiderman character will never show up again. I’ll keep trying to get Paul to trade it.
As Labor Day approaches, I head over to school to take a look at the class postings on the front doors. I’ll have Mrs. Nolte for the Fifth Grade this year. She’s supposed to be a good teacher and a nice lady, so I’m pleased by that. All but two names on my class list are familiar to me. There’s a Stephen Kay and a Susan Burns on the list. I wonder what they’ll be like?
Just like everyone else, I’ll have to go shopping for school clothes in Woodbury and a trip to Ernie’s Shoe Post over on Route 45.
Summer will end with a cookout and standing around the barbecue grill one last time roasting marshmallows over the coals, wondering what the new school year will bring.
That last night of freedom,reluctantly answering our parents’ calls, the official sound of summer's end:
“Time to come in now. Time to get ready for school.”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On A Warm Day In August

It’s a Friday, the 17th of August, a warm and humid day. It’s muggy in South Jersey, one of those days when nothing seems to move. What shall we do today? It’s awfully hot, isn’t it?

Over in East Berlin two young men have decided what they will do today. They have decided to escape into West Berlin by making a dash across the dead zone and climbing over the six foot wall to freedom.
Helmut Kulbeik and his friend, eighteen year old Peter Fechter believe they’ve found a weak spot in the Berlin wall. They are construction workers working close to the wall and they’ve spotted an area where they think the guards won’t be able to see them crossing.
The night before they sleep in a carpenter’s shed. Their plan is simple; jump from the window into the dead zone, make a run to the wall and climb over before anyone notices.
In the morning they watch as the guards make their rounds. When all looks clear they jump and begin their escape. Helmut reaches the wall and climbs over into the West and freedom.
Just as Peter begins climbing, he is spotted by the guards and is fired upon. He is hit in the pelvis and falls backwards into the dead zone, where he lies in full view of the guards on both sides of the wall.
He screams out for help, but no one moves.
The American soldiers are ordered not to do anything, and the East German guards fear that if they do anything they will be shot at by the Americans.
West Germans begin gathering at the wall. They want to help Peter Fechter, but guns are pointed at them. All anyone does is watch, while journalists take pictures.When a German reporter asks American soldiers why they do not help Peter Fechter, one GI replies: "This is not our problem."
Peter Fechter slowly bleeds to death, crying out for help, and in an hour his life is over. The West Germans do the only thing they can. They scream and throw rocks at the East German guards and hurl insults at the American soldiers. They riot and fight with their own police, venting their frustrations.

It’s a hot and muggy day today, this Friday in August in South Jersey in 1962.
Awfully hot.
What do you think we should do?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Homecoming

My new little sister's name is Cheryl Ann. Where does that name come from? I find out that it's my Dad's idea. There was a TV show called "Waterfront" that came on between 1954 and 1956 starring Preston Foster as a tugboat captain in Los Angeles. I guess it made an impression on Dad; I don't seem to remember the show much at all. Anyway, he names my sister after a tugboat on a TV show - Cheryl Ann. Mom wanted to call her Cheryl August as a compromise, but Dad wins this one.
When I get home from the farm I find my sister in her crib in my bedroom. I'm assured by Mom that it's only temporary, and Cheryl will sleep in their room at night. She's a baby, so I won't have much to do with her right now.
My aunts and uncles and neighbors file in and out, oohing and aahing their approval. Carl and I find ourselves making baby-talk noises to her, and she laughs back at us.
I guess she'll be crawling around the house before we know it, and then she'll be zooming around in one of those wheeled things with a canvas seat, crashing into the walls and the furniture.
My sister is small and we call her "Pebbles" like in the Flintstones.
There's five of us in this small house now, six if you're counting Whee-Zee, and we are.
Whee-Zee knows there's someone helpless in the family.
She may be old and tired and not as fast anymore, but she knows her duty.
She takes up her post on the floor underneath my sister's crib, ready to protect another young life.
Another one of the family.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I'm Walkin'

I was angry and nervous and upset, and now my intestines had seized up like they were filled with cement. I couldn’t go to the bathroom no matter how much I tried. That’s all I need, one more thing to worry about.
Tuesday would be just as hot, just as humid as Monday, and the day would pass by in slow motion. I took a walk into the fields with Snowy. I pet Ruby and Spade while I fed them apples. Horses just stand there all day in the heat, snorting and flicking their tails at the flies.
At least the hunting dogs are in the shade all day, and they clamor for attention as I walk by. Ruby and Spade follow me, looking for more apples, but they get wise and head back to the water trough.
The steers are huddled together like they always are, looking at me with suspicious eyes. They’re always afraid. I wonder if they know that soon they will be sent to the slaughterhouse, ending up as steaks and hamburgers on somebody’s barbecue grill. Some of them even have names, which is kinda sad really. How can you give an animal a name while all the time you’re just planning on killing it? A few are brave enough to let me approach them and rub their heads and scratch them behind the ears, and they press their big wet noses on me in appreciation. As soon as I make a sudden move they scatter, just as scared, just as timid as always.
The day drags on and then it’s evening, and I try to get to sleep, but I’m uncomfortable and irritated because I’m all stopped up. The one bathroom in the house is on the first floor at the bottom of that long steep staircase, increasing the level of my anxiety. Maybe Wednesday will be better.
Things aren’t better. It’s hot again and I just can’t take the boredom anymore. I try to convince Charlie into going out to the woods and playing army or cowboys and Indians, or getting out his toy trucks and tractors, but he isn’t interested. His Cousin Marvin comes over and he’s all attitude. He makes fun of all of my ideas about what to do today. He calls me a sissy for wanting to play with toy soldiers or pretending to be a cowboy, and it feels like all he wants to do is pick a fight with me. I try to ignore him, but he won’t let up and he won’t go away. It’s getting hotter and so is my temper, but I don’t want to fight, I just want to do something other than stand around in this heat.
Marvin continues to make fun of me, and I make up my mind to just ignore him, but he won’t let up, and then the unexpected happens. Charlie is laughing at what Marvin is saying about me, and at my pathetic attempts at defending myself. What is this? My favorite cousin, my almost brother is laughing along with Marvin and his insults. That’s it. That’s all I can stand. My brain is reeling. I’m incensed. I’m tired and angry and I’m constipated and I’m bored, and I DON’T WANT TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!!!
No more poop and heat and flies. No more horrible smells. No more dust, and now Charlie is laughing at me. I WANT TO GO HOME AND I WANT TO GO HOME NOW!
I turn away from Charlie and Marvin and Carl. I begin walking down Cohawkin Road. I know the way and I’m determined to get away from here. Up Cohawkin Road to King’s Highway and straight into Woodbury. I can go to Nanny and Pop-Pop’s house or Aunt Sis’s house, and somebody will give me a ride home. I can do it, I know I can; didn’t Mom and I walk all over town? Heck, I walked to Woodbury and back when I was a little kid, so I know I can walk home now. Walking is easy. It’s one foot in front of the other and before you know it, you’re home.
I hear Charlie calling for me to come back, and I hear Carl crying. Aunt Bette is at the end of the driveway calling for me, and soon Charlie is in front of me on his bike, apologizing and begging me to come back. I don’t want to, but I turn around and go back to the farm. Everybody is upset, and the rest of the day is like being in some weird state of suspended animation.
That evening some phone calls are made. Aunt Bette tells me and Carl that Mom and our new sister will be coming home on Thursday and that Dad will come and get us on Friday, one day earlier than was planned.
I can’t wait, but I’ll just have to be patient. I need to go home and see Whee-Zee and sleep in my own room where the bathroom is right next door. I gotta go swimming and see my friends and neighbors-even Mark Gerber would be a welcome sight right now. One more day and Dad will come and take us home.
Thursday can’t go by quick enough. It’s raining, and the temperature is cooling off, and we’re stuck in the house for most of the day, but that’s alright, ‘cause tomorrow we’re going home!
Just before noon on Friday Dad arrives and we say good-bye to Aunt Bette and Charlie. Charlie and I have patched things up, and I still love the farm and all, but I’ve had enough of it for a while, and I can’t wait to leave.
I begin to relax on the way home. Things are gonna be OK now, especially if I can finally go to the bathroom. Home. Back with Mom and Dad and Whee-Zee and all our neighbors. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, we’ve got a little sister, too.
“What’s her name, Dad?” I don’t remember anyone telling us yet.
“We named her Cheryl,” he says. “Your sister’s name is Cheryl Ann.”
“Cheryl Ann, huh?” I wonder where they got that name? We don’t have anybody else named that in the family. I’ll have to ask Mom how she came up with that one.
Hey everybody,there’s a new kid in town.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Homesick

Monday morning arrived hotter and even more humid. I awake before Carl and Charlie, peering out from under the tent towards the house. It must be after seven, because Uncle Everett is getting into his truck and going to work. We won’t have to face him until supper.
All male adults are intimidating, but Uncle Everett even more so. I don’t see my dad much because he’s at work a lot, but when he’s home he does laugh and relax sometimes. Uncle Everett never relaxes. I hardly ever see him laugh. He’s got a cabinet full of rifles, and every fall he goes out to the “deer woods” and hunts. Uncle Everett is somebody who actually goes out and kills animals in the woods, and runs farm equipment. He rode horses in rodeos and works non-stop. He’s just not a laid-back guy, and to a 10 year old, he can be pretty scary, so I walk softly around him and do as I’m told.
Aunt Bette scolds us about the fire at breakfast, and gives us Uncle Everett’s list of chores. Not much more than what we’ve been doing, so I guess he’s not as mad at us as I thought. I guess we’re off the hook.
The temperature climbs into the nineties, so we take it easy after the chores are done. The fields are dry and dusty, and the farm smells rise with the temperature. The odors and the flies are starting to get to me, and I think more and more about home and Woodbury Heights.
There’s no Trackie’s or 7-11, or any store nearby. Cohawkin road has no sidewalks, it’s rural, and it’s not lined with trees. My Cousin Charlie has no friends close by, just his other cousins, so we don’t have enough kids for a game of baseball or kickball, and the only place to ride bikes is in the fields. Heat, flies, dust and poop of all kinds, and now it’s just plain boring.
I realize that Charlie is a lot different now than just a few years ago. Must be from all the work he has to do and the isolation he lives in. He doesn’t seem to have much of an imagination like I do, and he seems uninterested in toys, even the ones he has.
He does come up with an idea.
“How’s about I teach you how to drive the flatbed truck out in the fields?” he asks.
This sounds like an adventure, so of course I say yes.
Charlie and Carl and I pile into the truck and head out into the fields. When we’re far enough from the house he tells me to get into the driver’s seat.
I do OK for a while. Driving on a straight dirt road at about twenty miles an hour is pretty easy, even though I’m kinda small and can’t see too well over the steering wheel. The steering wheel is huge in my hands, and I can barely reach the pedals. When we come up to one of the gates I forget to hit the clutch or something, and the truck rolls into the fencepost, bending it and part of the gate. In my mind’s eye I blow it all out of proportion. I see a tangled mass of destruction, when in reality it’s just a little dent in the iron gate, and the post can be pulled back up and straightened with some wire. I’m shaking, thinking this is it, Uncle Everett will have my head and mount it on the wall like one of the deer he shot – a trophy: “Yeah, had to shoot the boy, he was too damn dumb for his own good.”
Charlie just laughs the whole thing off, and the three of us put things back in order. As we pull away and head to the house I keep looking back at that gate, and it mocks me and it just doesn’t look the same, and I know for sure that Uncle Everett will know that something happened to it. Charlie tells me that it looks like one of the steers banged into it, so don’t worry. But I will worry, I can’t help it, that’s me.
I’m all shook up, and I can’t relax the rest of the day. When Uncle Everett gets home he makes his usual rounds in the fields. My heart pounds in my head, and I know he’ll come back and ask what happened to the fence. I’m lucky, I guess. He says nothing at the dinner table, and I’m relieved. Charlie was right, we covered our tracks pretty good, no one will ever know.
It will be a really hot night, and the bedrooms are all upstairs, so it’s even warmer up there. I miss my old maple tree, and I miss the lake and the coolness of the woods and the moss on Freund’s cliff. I like coming to the farm. I love Aunt Bette and Charlie, and even though I’m a little scared of Uncle Everett, he’s really an OK guy, but I want to go home. I don’t like the smells, and I don’t like the flies, and I miss my Mom and Dad and Whee-Zee. I want to get on my bike and soar down Chestnut Hill and play war with Paul LaPann and the others, but it’s only Monday night, and I’ve got to be here till Saturday.
What’s worse, even though I’m surrounded by it, it’s the one thing I can’t seem to do anymore: poop.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ring Of Fire

We waited for evening to fall. With the daylight fading, we began to start our campfire. Some brush and dry twigs at first, and when it started to blaze, all three of us tossed branches and larger limbs onto the flames. It wasn’t quite big enough, so Carl and Charlie and I gathered more and more fuel. Small logs, large limbs, chunks of bark, and dry hay from the field, even a cow pie or two. The fire grew in intensity, and the flames climbed higher and higher into the growing darkness.
I don’t know what it was, but we had become entranced by the orange-yellow glow, and we continued to pile more and more wood onto the campfire. The flames were getting closer to the lowest branches of the trees around us, and we just cried, “More wood!”, “More wood!”
We were dancing around the fire and yelling like the Indians we’d seen in the movies, or like the African natives in all the Tarzan pictures. Three wild boys who could not be tamed. We whirled and screamed and danced and tossed more and more wood, until the heat and the glow resembled a blast furnace.
We were howling and the dogs were howling. It was primitive, and we were intoxicated; entranced by the flames and the heat and the glow. Dancing and yelling, dancing and yelling, and the outside world no longer existed. The cave men couldn’t have been more primeval. We were Lords of the Flies without knowing, an island of savages unto ourselves. Nothing could disturb our reverie.

Except.....

A pair of headlights was bearing down on us, coming from the direction of the house. The three of us stopped in our tracks and watched as they drew near. It was Uncle Everett roaring across the field in the old flatbed truck, heading straight for us and our campfire.
“What in the hell do you boys think you’re doing?!!!!,” he yelled. What are you trying to do, burn the whole damn place down?”
You knew adults were really angry when the four letter words started coming out. They shook us into reality.
“Now, you get this fire under control.” Don’t you put anymore wood on it and keep an eye on it before you all try going to sleep.” I’ll be watching from the house to make sure.”
“Jesus Christ,” he cried. “You boys are old enough to know better.”
And then he roared off.
So the three of us composed ourselves and kept watch as the flames slowly died down, Uncle Everett’s words echoing in our ears, each of us wondering what he may have in store for us tomorrow. Snowy and Speck calmed down, watching the fire with us.
When it was just a mass of glowing embers we threw some dirt on it and took a last look towards the house in the distance, making sure that the lights were out and hoping that Uncle Everett was fast asleep.
We piled into the tent, a tangle of boys and dogs squirming and fussing, each one trying to find that perfect spot, that comfortable place that would bring on much needed sleep.
It took us a while to get settled. We had been savages after all. Primitive men that could not be tamed-Keepers of the fire.
We slept with smiles on our faces and flames in our hearts.
Wild Things, not young boys, accompanied by wolves, not dogs.
Wild Things, that's what we were.
Yeah......Wild Things.
At least until tomorrow.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sunday On The Farm

Sunday morning was hotter and even more humid. We listened to Uncle Everett tell us what chores to do as we crunched our puffed rice cereal. We’ll have to feed and water the animals, comb the horses, clean out the dog pen, and muck out some of the stalls in the barn. It shouldn’t take too long with the three of us-uh, make that two of us. When it comes to chores, Carl is best at not doing them, so it’s up to Charlie and me to get them done.
As I eat my cereal, my cousin Charlie is having coffee. Coffee!? A ten-year old needs coffee? Gack! That crap is vile. How can Charlie drink it? It’s milk, mostly, but I don’t see the point of ever drinking it. That stuff is for adults and not for me.
The temperature is climbing, so we’d better get busy. Feeding the animals is easy, scraping up dog poop from a concrete pad isn’t fun, but doesn’t take too long. Combing the horses is a piece of cake. Mucking out the barn is another story, and if I had my choice, I’d rather not do it. We’re covered in hay and flies and poop by the time we’re through, and the stench of manure and animal musk has perfumed our bodies with a horrible funk. Time for showers and lunch. My brother is pretty clean; he conned his way into helping Aunt Bette pick vegetables from the garden.
You know, I’ve stayed overnight on the farm before, but the longer you’re here you notice that the smell of manure and moldy hay lingers on, and just gets worse as it gets hotter. The well water has a peculiar aroma all its own, and it mixes with the other odors, and I never feel clean. Everything smells “funny” including me, and I can’t get used to it.
It’s hotter here as well. Out in the fields it’s brutal, and the only shady spots are under the apple tree where the dog pen is, the few trees by the house, and the woods a long walk away. We could drive the flat bed truck out to the small pond, but it’s not very deep this time of year, and besides, it’s crawling with waterbugs.
After lunch the day is ours to do whatever we want. We’ll be sleeping out in the woods tonight, so later on we’ll begin setting up our campsite.
There’s a few mysteries on the farm. I already said that I’d never really seen Uncle Everett ride his horses. He’s got saddles, I know, I’ve seen them, but Ruby and Spade just roam the fields all day; no one ever rides them. I don’t get it. What’s the point of having horses if you’re not going to ride? I never get an answer.
Mr. Harbison is another mystery. He’s a man who rents rooms upstairs from Aunt Bette. All I’ve ever seen of him is the back of his head as he drives away in his old gray Chevrolet, and even that is rare. Maybe he’s a secret agent like that new James Bond guy in the movies. Maybe he’s an ex-Nazi scientist working for the CIA on a secret formula or something. All I know is that he comes and goes through the side door without being seen or heard, year after year.
There’s a stone well-house next to the main house, and I’ve never seen the door open once, not ever. The windows have paint on them, so it’s hard to see inside. The well-house would make a great pillbox from which to repel enemy soldiers, but it seems to be off-limits to everybody. What’s in there, I wonder?
Mrs. Poole, Uncle Everett’s mother, lives in one of those roundish silver-gray trailer homes next to one of the barns. She’s a lot like my grand mom Woodward; not very friendly, especially towards children. I stay away from her, which isn’t too difficult, ‘cause she hardly ever comes outside.
Uncle Everett’s brother and sister have houses next to his, so Charlie always has cousins around.
Right next door is his cousin Freddy. Freddy is a big kid, no, let’s face it, he’s really fat, and slightly older than me. Freddy has a great big Saint Bernard dog named King that they keep penned up. King is kept in a pen so he doesn’t run out onto Cohawkin Road and get killed. He’s a little unruly, a lot like Freddy. I feel sorry for King, it doesn’t seem right for any dog to be locked up with so much space to run in.
Next to Freddy is Uncle Everett’s brother and he has three kids, Terri, Tina and Marvin. Terri is the oldest and blond and kind of pretty. It’s easy to have a crush on her. Marvin is about a year older than me and Charlie, and he’s got an attitude problem. He kind of reminds me of Bradley Lloyd when Bradley was always trying to pick a fight with me. What’s Marvin’s problem, anyway? Tina is the youngest and always smiling. She spends a lot of time keeping Carl company.
We spend the afternoon trying to keep cool the best we can, in anticipation of the evening ahead.
After supper we gather up the tent and our blankets. Carl, Charlie and I and the dogs head down the field and into the woods where we pick out a spot to pitch the tent and build a fire.
With the tent set up and our firewood gathered, we wait for night to fall.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Rest Of That Saturday In August

Every Saturday night in the summer there’s a rodeo at Cowtown. It’s on Route 40 just outside Woodstown, not too far away from the Richman’s ice cream store. Cowtown isn’t a town, it’s a flea market/rodeo grounds, and Uncle Everett is there every night of the rodeo season. Carl and I are going along tonight, this humid evening in August, the day my sister is born. It’s been a heck of a day, not knowing what’s going to happen next, and now I’m going to watch cowboys ride wild bulls and horses under the evening sky.
I’ve been to the flea market before. Just a long shed-like building or two with people selling junk and T-shirts and used items that nobody wants anymore. Sometimes I find some decent comic books, but I prefer the Berlin Auction to this place.
The rodeo is right next to the flea market, its corrals painted a bright white with the Cowtown brand letters in red. There’s lots of horses and cattle and those scary-looking Brahma bulls behind the fences. The animals don’t seem to be all that wild as they graze on grass and hay, waiting to be ridden and roped. They seem to be just like the horses and cattle at Uncle Everett’s farm; the horses let you pet them, and the cattle are shy and skittish; afraid of the slightest movement.
I’m looking for some real cowboys, but these men and younger men look like the people who work the farms all over South Jersey. Sure, they’ve got the right hats and all, but they’re just guys in dungarees and plaid and denim shirts. A few of them look like the Marlboro man with leathery faces and deep channels in their skin, and they have funny accents even though most of them are from around here. I guess if you believe it enough, you’ll become a cowboy in time.
They all have little paper signs with numbers on them pinned to the backs of their shirts, so we all know who they are. There’s a few girls, too, mostly for barrel racing, whatever that is.
Around seven o’clock it all begins. There’ s a parade of all the contestants on horseback and lots of American flags. We stand for the National Anthem like at baseball games, and then it begins. At first it’s real exciting. There’s cattle wrestling and steer roping, but I start to wonder how much this has to hurt the animals. I’ve never seen my uncle twist the heads of any calves and throw them to the ground. I wouldn’t want my neck twisted like that, I’ll tell you. They rope the calves too and then slam them to the ground on their backs. Now I know that when I hit my back on that sapling tree when I was sledding that I thought I had broken it since it hurt so much, so it has to hurt these animals, doesn’t it?
The barrel racing is a break from the violence. The girls ride their horses in a pattern around barrels to see who can do it in the fastest time. This is a little more to my liking.
Of course the main events are the bronco busting and the Brahma bull riding, to see which riders can stay on these wild beasts as they buck and jump around the arena. You’ve got to admire these men as they hold on for dear life with only one hand. They’re tossed around like rag dolls, and they get thrown off and slammed into the ground, and they risk the chance of being trampled or kicked in the head. Their only protection are the rodeo clowns who use their bodies to distract the bulls. The clowns have a stack of tires they can dive into if they need to, but it’s just them out there, and those bulls are big and strong.
For a while I root for the cowboys, but it gets boring, and I notice that the saddles on the broncos look awfully tight, and the bulls have ropes pulled up under their private parts, and it just seems to me that if I was one of those animals I’d want to throw those guys off of me too.
My one consolation : the French fries are really good.
When is this thing going to end? It seems to go on forever, and I just don’t want to watch any more animals and men get tossed around. What is this, ancient Rome? Let’s go home already, I’m tired.
It’s been a long , long day this August the fourth of 1962. I want to go to bed and fly in my dreams.
The ride back to Clarksboro is an eternity, but we’re finally back at the farm.
It’s warm and humid, and I’ll sleep on the top bunk, close to the ceiling where it’s even hotter. Carl will be on the bottom, and Charlie will be in his own bed in the same room. I realize that hey, Carl’s birthday and our baby sister’s birthday are both on the fourth day of a month, and Dad and I have our birthdays on the twentieth day of a month. That’s pretty neat. I wonder if Whee-Zee was born on an eleventh day like Mom was.
A little sister, and new rifles and a morning stuck in limbo, and a night of ridin’ and ropin’ and veiled animal cruelty-some day, huh? I need some sleep for sure.
Hey, you know something? I don’t even know my new sister’s name!
You want to know something else?
Charlie doesn’t sleep with the hall light on.
What a day……

Thursday, October 9, 2008

That Same Saturday In August

I watched Dad and our turquoise-blue Comet drive off down Cohawkin Road. I couldn't understand any of it. Doesn't the baby come out as soon as you get to the hospital? Don't the doctors and nurses know what to do? I love my Aunt Bette and all, but why do we have to spend a whole week away from home? I'm trying to figure this stuff out when Aunt Bette calls us in for lunch.
She tells us we'll be going to Cowtown Rodeo tonight. The Rodeo? Real-life cowboys and cowgirls ropin' and ridin'? This sounds too good to be true, and my spirit lifts. Of course Aunt Bette's habit of dishing out generous portions of Richman's ice cream doesn't hurt either.
The farm is an amazing place for a young boy. Uncle Everett has two horses, and a herd of beef cattle. I've never understood how such large animals like steers are so skittish; just the slightest move from such a small-fry like myself can make them panic.Uncle Everett hardly ever rides his horses, I mean just about never. Ruby is an older horse so I can understand not riding her, but Spade is young and energetic, but he's pretty much left to just roam the fields without getting saddled up. It's a mystery to me.
Charlie's dog Snowy is as dear to me as Whee-Zee. She's a gentle Dalmation, and she likes to follow us around when we go off into the fields. You've got to watch out for her tail at times. It's real thick and when she's happy it wags a lot and it can whack you like nobody's business. It's good to have a dog like her around.
Uncle Everett is a little intimidating. He isn't mean or anything, it's just that he's always busy. Seems to me that he never stops working. All day he's at the Mobil refinery, and when he gets back he's doing stuff on the farm, barking orders and looking real tense. I never want to see what he's like when he gets really mad. Tonight he'll work at the Rodeo, too. He just never stops. No wonder he looks cranky all the time.
There are two main barns and a long shed that Uncle Everett parks his tractors in. The barns are covered in hay, and they're always dark inside. Giant cobwebs are everywhere, and the smell is unmistakable. Flies. Lots and lots of flies, and poop. Cow poop, horse poop, dog poop, cat poop and chicken poop. Poop is everywhere and the flies are loving it.
In the field closest to the house is a pen in which Uncle Everett keeps a bunch of hunting dogs. I think they're beagles. I've never seen them out of that cage. I don't know how they can stand being cooped up like that. They howl and quiver and lick you on the face when you press in close to the fence, desperate for some attention.
There's a small wooded area in the field just behind one of the barns, and Charlie tells me we're allowed to camp out there tomorrow night in his big army tent, and we're allowed to have a bonfire and everything! Snowy and her puppy Speck will sleep with us, so this should be really neat. We'll be just like Indians in the forest.
Well, I guess this should work out all right. Tonight we'll watch broncos and Bramah bulls and barrel racing and calf roping and those crazy rodeo clowns. Tomorrow night we sleep out in the woods with dogs and a blazing fire. And there's always Aunt Bette's food, especially her molasses cookies.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot.
My Dad called.
I got a baby sister.
Now how do you like that?
We've got a girl in the family.
Besides Mom, I mean.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Saturday Morning In August

I was in a sound sleep--a comfortable sleep that was shattered by the voice of my father.
"Jimmy wake up," it said, "I'm taking your mom to the hospital."
"You and Carl wait here for me. Call Mrs. Avis if you need anything. I talked to her, so she's there if you need her."
I was groggy, and everything was happening in a slow-motion blur. It was so early that the sun wasn't up yet, and the sky was the pale gray color of the dawn. Before I knew it my parents were gone, everything was silent. It was an eerie silence, as if the world had suddenly stopped. There was no traffic sounds or birds singing, and my house felt empty. Whee-Zee was nervous and paced back and forth, so I let her outside for some room. Carl was oblivious, of course. He could sleep through anything.
Mrs. Avis called and asked if we were OK. Hey, I'm ten years old now, I think I can handle pouring out some bowls of cereal for Carl and me.
Carl wakes up and I tell him Mom is going to the hospital and we have to wait for Dad to get back to take us to Aunt Bette's.
I don't know what's happening, really. Mom is going into labor or something, and she's not even going to be in the hospital in Woodbury. We won't be able to see her or the new baby for several days; the whole thing is a mystery, and now the earth is standing still in silence under a gray and murky sky.
We wait for what seems like an eternity, an ever-lasting silence in our empty house. Then Dad pulls up in the Comet, and tells us that Mom is OK, but no baby yet, it may be a while. He says to get dressed, he's taking us somewhere before we go to Aunt Bette's farm.
It's a surprise, but my hopes are up when I see we're heading down Glassboro Road. My hunch is right; Dad is taking us to the Army-Navy store! We get our training rifles!
I'm beaming on the ride home.
The Bulldog Patrol is properly armed and ready.
We get back home and Whee-Zee is totally confused. She looks as though she's asking:
"Where's Mom?"
"What's going on around here?"
Carl and I gather up our things for the week at Aunt Bette's house. It's all so unreal despite the joy of getting our new rifles.
What's happening to Mom? We've got to leave Wheez behind, and she's not feeling too good right now, and what about the new baby, and why is it so quiet, and why can't we just stay here on our own?
The sun is up and the day is getting hot and humid, and we head for the farm, leaving Whee-Zee alone in the house. Dad says to leave the rifles behind, we'll have plenty of time to play with them when we get home.
We love Aunt Bette and can't wait to spend time with our cousin Charlie for a whole week on the farm, but it all feels so strange.
I stand in Aunt Bette's yard watching our father drive away.
I'm with my brother and my favorite Aunt and my favorite cousin, but I've never felt like this before.
I've never felt so completely alone.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

It's A Long, Hot Summer

The month of July is hot and humid, and since Mom is pregnant, we don't get to the lake too much. Once in a while we go with Mrs. Avis, but for the most part we have to stick to the yard. Dad buys this sprinkler thing that you attach to the garden hose, and we run through the spray to cool off. The wet grass provides us with a natural slip n' slide. Mom sits in the big metal wash tub that we use to keep sodas on ice for our cookouts, and we squirt her with the hose.
The Bulldog Patrol goes out on more missions, and we come back from the front lines without any casualties.
Paul and Carl and I build a long shaft-like structure in the woods behind my house out of plywood and two-by-fours. It becomes our prison camp escape tunnel and our space ship to mars. Some days it's a gold mine and other days just a place to hole up in and read comic books. We look out on the fields beyond the woods and begin planning an expedition.
We cover the entrance to the shaft with an old orange inflatable raft that doesn't inflate anymore, and this drives Sophie Olsen nuts. She claims that it glows at night, so it gives her the willies looking at it. This pleases us to no end.
There is a steady stream of kids in our yard. The Arans have moved and in their place is the Leap family. They're a little strange. The kids are kinda quiet and don't seem to know very much. When they come to one of our cookouts, they act like they've never seen a hamburger before. They become part of our little clan anyways.
I hang around with Keith Madden a little more, even though he's a little younger than I am. We go rake fishing along the banks of the lake, and I bring home a turtle. I name it King Tut, and we get one of those little plastic turtle pans with an island and a plastic palm tree. I like to catch flies and place them in the water and watch King Tut come up from under them and swallow them whole. King Tut lives for about a year in his artificial kingdom.
Keith introduces me to some other kids over on Lake Avenue. Joyce Patton is a pretty girl who has a big tree house in her back yard. This is a girl one should get to know! I find out there's a Filipino family in the Heights. The Quinto family live right near Joyce Patton. Sisters Marcie and Mabel, and their brother Terry. The first real sign of diversity in town.
Keith's sister Christine likes to come to our corner as well. Chrissy is a few years older than I am. She's mentally retarded, and she loves to come to our yard and sit on the swings and sing. Chrissy has her own world apart from us, but every now and then she joins in for a game of kickball. She's so comfortable in our yard that her Mom or one of her sisters has to come and drag her home for supper.
July seems to go on forever, and Mom is getting bigger and bigger and more uncomfortable. On one particularly hot and humid day she's complaining about how bad the weather is making her feel, and she wishes this baby would make up its mind and be born. I run into the house and get the plunger, and come back to force the baby out like a plug in a drain. I think it's funny; Mom is not amused. She'll have to go cool off in the washtub some more.
It's hard to get comfortable in all this humidity.
When is this baby gonna be born, anyway?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An Army of Children

Me and my brother Carl and our neighbor Paul Avis have formed ourselves into a squad of soldiers this summer. We've equipped ourselves from the Army-Navy store in Glassboro.
To me the store is Nirvana. Canteens, pup tents, practice hand grenades, uniforms; you name it, they've got it, and whenever we can we try to get our fathers to take us there.
Our uniforms are a hodgepodge mix of army shirts and dungarees. We all have packs and canteens. Paul and Carl have plastic helmets, and I have a real steel one that Uncle Pat found for me. I'm also wearing a World War I belt and canteen that he brought me as well.
The weapons we carry are a curious mix as well. There's one plastic M-1 Garand and an old Daisy air rifle that doesn't fire anymore. Paul has a wooden replica of a Springfield rifle that looks real, and we're jealous of him. At the Army-Navy store there are wooden training rifles with bolt actions and canvas slings. We ask our parents if we could get them, and we get the usual reply of "We'll see." Those rifles would really make our unit complete, and I'll obsess about them throughout most of July.
I'm the sergeant. I'm the oldest, so of course I'm in command. Dad was a sergeant in World War II, and I wear his old army shirt if I promise to be really careful with it. It's got this really neat patch of a black panther crushing a tank in its jaws, and Dad's sergeant's stripes on the sleeves. It's wool and it's itchy, so I don't wear it too often.
We call ourselves the Bulldog Patrol, and I find a cartoon of a bulldog wearing a spiked collar, which I copy. I place crossed bones beneath it, and our unit's emblem is complete. I draw the bulldog on each pack and the small flag we carry with a black Magic Marker.
We stuff our packs with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Tastycakes and maybe some fruit. Our canteens are filled with water and we're ready for our next mission.
In single file we march down Walnut Avenue, heading for Glenwood Ave. and the woods along the lake.
We enter the woods cautiously; there may be Germans hiding in the trees. The stream is forded and we make our way around the back of the lake towards the high ground. There's a deep pit half way up the hill, and we'll take cover here so the Krauts can't catch us by surprise.
The mission is going well, and soon we'll arrive at the prime objective: Freund's Cliff itself. We are to scale the cliff's face and take the summit in order to establish an observation post. We've got to get moving so the Germans don’t get there before us.
We’re in stealth mode now as we step out of the trees and onto Lake Avenue. Keeping to the side of the road we move slowly, on the lookout for snipers and passing cars.
Rounding the bend now and there it is; the imposing sight of Freund’s Cliff standing before us in the sunlight.
Moving quickly now we cross over Lake Avenue and into the woods, at the bottom of the sledding trails. The foliage is thicker here, so we move forward Indian style, tree to tree. Reaching the base of the cliff, we drop down and begin to crawl forward. We’re in the sand now, so we inch forward at a slow crawl. There hasn’t been any enemy fire yet, so we just might have gotten here first. Taking a big chance I order the patrol to stand up and begin our ascent towards the summit. The sand is a formidable opponent, and we slip and slide backwards the whole way up, hoping we haven’t crushed our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I fear that my chocolate Tastykakes have been flattened.
Reaching the edge of the cliff, we grab hold of tree roots that poke out of the ridge line and peer over. To our dismay we realize there are a few Nazis already there. We quickly take action. Paul and Carl toss their grenades, while I spray the area with my M-1. We pull ourselves over the edge and onto the moss, and then spread out between the trees. When the smoke clears not a German is found left standing, so it looks like our mission has been a complete success. We rest under the trees, looking down from our newly-won vantage point. We’ve taken the cliff and secured the area.
We open our packs and find them smeared with jelly and flattened bread and squashed fruit. To my dismay I find that my chocolate cupcakes are in bad shape, but I’ll eat them anyway.
We’re in control of the high ground; smashed lunches are a small price to pay for victory.