Friday, February 29, 2008

Days of Glory

I commanded vast armies. Men of plastic and metal spread out before me in the sand and on my bedroom floor. My first soldiers were made of clothespins, the old fashioned wooden kind. I would insert one into the other, and presto! a cowboy on a horse or a mounted Indian brave or a line of cavalry on the move. Wooden clothespin Xs doing battle across the kitchen floor up the hallway and into my room.
Plastic cowboys and Indians would be next. They were three dimensional but kind of flat, and I mixed them in with whatever Uncle Pat would supply me from the junkyard.
There were these old metal soldiers he would bring me, a mixed bag of troops from World Wars I and II. They had feet that ended in round rims instead of bases, an odd collection of men that seemed out of place with their plastic counterparts. You could go to Woolworth's in Woodbury and still buy them. They would be lying in great glass-sided bins for a nickel a piece, but their time had come; the plastic age was upon us.
The best toy soldiers of the time came from Marx. My first Marx set was a space station that Uncle Pat brought to me. It was a fascinating toy. A tin lithographed space station with rockets and missiles and all kinds of control panels and gadgets that would fill any space cadet's dream. There were clear plastic space helmets for the astronauts and all kinds of weird looking aliens for them to do battle with.
Mom and Dad bought me a Robin Hood set complete with a castle, the merry men and silver knights for them to fight with. Robin and his men were green, and there was a Maid Marian figure for them to rescue from the clutches of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
You could get army men in cereal boxes, and these were usually made by Ideal and Tim-mee toys. Realistic, but not as good as Marx.
The ring hand soldiers were popular too. I had a pirate ship loaded with buccaneers. The ring hand guys had hands with open holes in them through which you could stick assorted weapons, like swords and guns and clubs. There were safari ring hand sets with Africans in red and yellow and black. There were shields and spears for you to place in their hands. The ring hand men were fun, but they were just toys compared to the troops from Louis Marx.
My friend Tommy Moore had what to me was the ultimate: a Marx Fort Apache set with plastic stockade complete with blockhouses and a tin headquarters building. Cavalrymen and pioneers and Indians. Plastic spring loaded cannons that shot little plastic shells; I couldn't wait to get over to his house for a day of Indian wars.
In 1960 I had saved some money of my own. Birthday and Christmas gifts it was, and I was determined to buy a Marx play set myself. I spent hours looking at the Sears catalog, dreaming of the day when I could have a Fort Apache or an Alamo of my very own. I didn't have much, maybe only seven or eight dollars, so I settled for a Wagon Train set, the basic one with only two or three wagons and a small band of Indians to attack them. There were figures representing the Ward Bond and Robert Horton characters too, so I was thrilled as only little boys can be.
There is no way to adequately describe opening a Marx play set. It is magic time. The cardboard box that you open slowly revealing the different components of the set that are wrapped individually in bags that are labeled with their contents. The excitement is just too much, your heart races as you open each bag and the little men come tumbling out.
I assembled my wagons,put them in a line and set up my Indians for the attack. I added my other cowboys and Indians, and I was set to re-enact every episode of Wagon Train I had ever seen. A day of joy indeed.
These were my early years as a general. My armies were small right now, but they would grow as the years went by. The American Revolution and the Alamo were yet to come; and my favorite, the Blue and the Gray of the Civil War still on the horizon.
Yes my armies would be vast. There would be tanks and guns and forts and wagons. I would fight in World War II and the prairies of the American west. The Civil War would be mine to re-create,legendary battles with Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.
Pirates and natives and knights in my hand.
Wars on the floor and out in the sand.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Of Pies And Puppets

The hippest kid's show was on a Saturday afternoon. Yards would empty as we all rushed home in time to see it. This wasn't Sally Starr or Chief Halftown or even Gene London. No, Saturday afternoon was lunch time; Lunch Time With Soupy Sales.
Soupy was the cool show to watch. He told us old jokes at a frantic pace with his tongue in his cheek, winking at us the whole time. Soupy knew that everything he did was corny and silly, and he let us in on it.
I couldn't wait for White Fang and Black Tooth, the biggest dogs in the world who spoke in canine gibberish, their arms the only part of them we'd see. You knew that at the end of every skit with White Fang that Soupy would be slammed in the face with a pie, and that Black Tooth would pull him off-camera to smother him with loud, wet kisses. The whole time Soupy would be laughing and his crew would be laughing, Clyde Adler the puppeteer would be laughing, and we'd be laughing at how ridiculous it all was. For me and for everybody, it was one big inside joke that everyone could enjoy.
Soupy took the kids' show format and turned it upside down. He told jokes about celebrities that went way over our heads, but we could tell by the way he told them that something funny was going on.
He had puppets like a lot of other shows, but his were con artists and hipsters. White Fang was always trying to scam him out of money. Pookie the Lion would lip sing scat jazz, Motown and the blues, tell insult jokes and perform skits with Hippy the Hippo who never spoke at all.
A knock at the front door would bring all kinds of wacky visitors, and only their frantically waving hands would be seen.
Man at door: "You gotta help me! Oh, you gotta help me!"
Soupy: "Well, what's the matter?"
Man: "My wife thinks she's a chicken!"
Soupy; "So why don't you take her to a Psychiatrist?"
Man: "I would but we need the eggs!"
Soupy: "Get outta here!"
He had a pot belly stove in which husband and wife Hobart and Reba lived. They weren't seen, but they were heard.
Reba: "Show me a cow dressed in rags, and I'll show you a bum steer."
Hobart: "Cool it, Reba."
He had a Do Not Touch sign hanging by the front door. I'd wait and wait and finally he'd pull the plug out of the wall that the sign hung on, and water would come rushing out.
The Words of Wisdom board every week, just an excuse for another old pun.
" Show me an English policeman hitting someone, and I'll show you a Bobby socks."
"Now what do we mean by that?", Soupy would ask, and he'd explain away the tired old joke by eventually getting around to telling us that we should respect the police because they are our friends.
Of course it was the pies that made him famous. He would be slammed in the face, the back of the head, and both of his ears, by White Fang and Black Tooth and all the crazies who came knocking at his door. Celebrities would line up to be on his show just to be hit with a pie.
It was a cheesy set, tired old jokes, a frantic pace and a pie in the eye, and I loved it. America loved it.
No matter what we were doing on a Saturday, no matter how much fun we were having, we couldn't wait to answer the call.
"Hey kids, come on in, Soupy's on!"

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I was ready for summer. Nine months of a joyless Second Grade had taken its toll and I was ready for freedom and adventure. This would be the last summer I'd spend without seeing any of my classmates. All but Richie Hearn and Tommy Moore lived on the other side of Glassboro Road and across the railroad tracks; for now my parents wouldn't let me out that far on my own. I might see one or two of them at the lake, but for the most part my playmates for the summer would be my brother Carl and our next door neighbor Paul Avis. I might see Tommy Madden once in a while, but he was getting older, heading for Fourth Grade, and hanging around with a little kid like me wasn't cool anymore. Mark Gerber might play Wiffle Ball with us, but even he began to disappear from my life; closing in on his teen age years.
Once again our little corner of Woodbury Heights would be my world of imagination, only this time my friends would be real. Dad wouldn't have to ask my mother who I was talking to out there; it wouldn't just be me and all the voices I made up for my imaginary friends; it would be Carl and Paul following my lead.
We would be Rogers Rangers fighting the French and Indian War in the woods. I would drill Paul and my brother, making them march in close order and stand at attention as I inspected their muskets made of stout sturdy sticks that fell from the trees.
The movies were my inspiration, we fought at Pork Chop Hill, searched for The Northwest Passage and battled the pirates of Treasure Island. We screamed like Tarzan in the trees and crossed the prairies in our own Wagon Train.
The Avis' picnic table would make a good Sherman tank, I thought, so I made plans to board up the sides and cut a hole in the top for our turret made out of an old barbecue grill, but no, I wasn't allowed to go that far, so our imaginations had to make do.
We had our sand pile under the old maple where we pushed and shoved our Tonka and Buddy L trucks, and I set up vast armies of toy soldiers for us to do battle with. Paul and Carl would eventually get tired of my supervision and wander off to do whatever it was that five year olds wanted to do.
I could go down to the ballfields and run with Whee-Zee, or hop on my bike to soar down Chestnut Hill. Rainy days were comic book days and Mr. Potato Head with real potatoes. Play Dough modeling clay and Colorforms and toy soldiers in the basement.
Was the summer more hot and humid back then? It seemed so. Thunderstorms were common. Huge thunderclouds and teeming rains and the asphalt sizzled and when it was over the streets were live with steam. Mrs. McGregor and Mrs. Aran would come to our house to sit in the kitchen with Mom until the storms were over and the power came back on. Whee-Zee would hide under the kitchen table and shiver; the only time I'd see her afraid of anything.
The hottest days we'd trek down to the lake for swimming and sand castles and I'd keep a respectful distance from Joyce Hoefers and any other girl I took a liking to.
Kool-Aid and coloring books under the maple tree. Go Fish and Old Maid at the picnic table, a big Fourth of July barbecue and birthday party for Carl.
Warm nights at the Starlite or the Parkway drive-in theatres, hamburgers and French fries at the Steer Inn or the Golden Point.
I could stay up late and watch shows like The Untouchables and Candid Camera, stuff I could only listen to from my bed on school nights.
My last years to be a little kid, to enjoy total, unadulterated freedom. Soon there would be chores; I'd actually have to work, but no not yet, the summer would still be mine. The world would become an angry place, and men would sail to the stars; a new president called out to the world for change.
But for now it was my time.
It was every kid's time.
Time to walk in the sun.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Brief Hiatus

For those of you following the story, and I know there are a few of you, the real world has come crashing down around me. I have been laid off from the place where I worked for 28 years, so I am a bit distracted right now. The story will continue, soon I hope. I just need to clear my mind and focus. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Sally Starr

There were a lot of good childrens' programs coming out of Philadelphia in the 50s and 60s. Hosted by people with imagination and the ability to captivate their young audiences. Most of all, they seemed to be genuine in their feelings towards children.
From 1955 to 1971, no one did it better than Sally Starr.
Every kid in the Delaware Valley would be tuned in to channel 6 every evening between 6 and 7 PM, and later from 4 to 6PM, to watch Popeye Theatre hosted by a pretty young woman in a cowgirl dress decorated in fringe and sequined stars. She wore sixguns and a wide brimmed Stetson hat, and that smile, that wide, welcoming smile.
At first Sally showed old westerns of movie legends like Gene Autry, but they soon gave way to Popeye cartoons and endless showings of The Three stooges. Every day I would hope that she would run the old black and white Popeyes, from the Fleischer Studio days, and be disappointed when the later ones without imagination and lousy animation would come on.
We'd all sit back and wait for the incredibly violent and wacky adventures of everyone's favorite trio of morons, The Three Stooges, listening to Aunt Sally remind us not to do the things the Stooges did at home. We couldn't wait to see Moe, Larry and Curly repeat the same antics over and over, and we'd be disappointed when it was a "Shemp" or a "Joe" or a "Curley Joe."
Sally was live each and every day, reading cards and letters from her adoring fans. She was there every weekday evening for us, telling stories and bringing on live guests like Chuck Connors of The Rifleman, and even The Stooges themselves.
What all of us kids didn't know was that Sally was a radio pioneer. She was one of the first successful female disc jockeys, and she had a singing career that even included singing with rocker Bill Haley and The Comets.
She was known for her charity work and for dozens and dozens of personal appearances all over the Philadelphia and South Jersey area. If you are lucky to see her now, you will be impressed by how down to earth and genuinely friendly she really is. You can tell that she has always appreciated the love all of us have had for her.
What will last is her smile and the blown kisses and the feeling of warmth she gave us all.
Whether showing us cartoons or The Stooges, Ramar of the Jungle, or Clutch Cargo, or talking about her horse named Pal, she will always be loved and remembered by us all.
Forever, Our Gal Sal.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Goodbye Mrs. Lamson, I Hardly Knew Ye

The Mayfair had come and gone. June was here and with it the joy of summer vacation. My strongest memories of Second Grade are getting my tonsils out, Mrs. Lamson's clown-like visage, and feeding silkworms.
I had my tonsils out sometime in the fall, in Camden at Cooper Hospital. I remember my mother sleeping by my side all night in a chair beside my bed. It was just like Bill Cosby said; they promised me ice cream, mounds and mounds of ice cream, but all I got was apricot juice. Thick, slimy, sickly sweet apricot juice. It would help to coat my throat the nurses would say. It just made me want to gag. I didn't get ice cream until I got home, and I can't stand the sight of apricot juice to this day.
I will always remember Mrs. Lamson as a heavily made up clown straight out of a Stephen King novel. Too much rouge, too much lipstick, and a frightening smile made of rows of gigantic teeth. The short black hair didn't help much either. All of us boys in the class felt that Mrs. Lamson liked the girls better than us, too. She did not write a single comment on my report card, not for either marking period, so I will never know what she thought of me or my achievements. Five A's and three B's ought to merit something. She must have liked teaching in Woodbury Heights, because my brother would have her for the Second Grade four years later. Once again there would be silence on Mrs. Lamson's part. Not a single word in my brother's report card, and his grades were atrocious! Who were you, Mrs. Lamson?
We had a class project in Second Grade. Mrs. Lamson decided we would raise silkworms. Why I don't know. Something about the cycle of life, I guess. Paul LaPann and I were chosen to feed the worms every day. Silkworms exist on mulberry trees, and there were two of them on the front lawn of the school. Every day after the pledge and the prayer, Paul and I would go out and collect mulberry leaves, shred them and sprinkle them into the fish tank containing the silkworms. They eventually formed cocoons, but I think they died inside and never became moths. I've come to find out that this is still a very popular project in grade schools today. May all your silkworms hatch into moths.
Mrs. Lamson taught us well, but without humor, without soul.
After a year of her we were all ready for the lake, and Fourth of July, and just plain fun, and live in the hope that Third Grade would be with Mrs. Lee.
No more pencils,
No more books.
No more Lamson's
Dirty looks.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Mayfair

A pole on the front lawn of the school with brightly colored ribbons trailing down from the top. Children dancing around the pole, a ribbon in their hand, weaving in and out, the ribbons intertwining down the shaft, wrapping the pole in the colors of spring. Our parents would sit around the parking lot as each class would perform its chosen theme. We'd sit in our classroom, excited and nervous as we awaited our turn to shine.
One year a square dance, the Virginia reel I believe. I think my partner was Nancy Fleisch, or maybe Ann Trocolli, with whom I dosie doed that day. Another year we were American Indians in paper feathers and headbands. We sang a song about grinding corn: "The squaws are grinding corn on flat rocks, hey ya, hey ya, ho. They grind the red corn on the flat rocks, hey ya, hey ya, ho. Red corn, white corn, and yellow corn, ya ho."
Another time we were lions in the circus, led around in a circle to the "Teddy Bears' Picnic" song by our tamers Greg Jones and Lora Carter, the tallest in our class. Paul LaPann and I were the "bad" lions. We misbehaved and wouldn't perform our tricks, and we'd play mischief on the others.
One after the other, from Kindergarden to Eighth Grade we'd sing and dance in the warm May sun, while our parents sat, proud and smiling.
I loved this yearly ritual. For weeks our recess would be play rehearsal instead of kickball, imagination instead of sport, and I looked forward to it passionately. A chance to act, to sing and entertain. A chance to take a bow and let the applause wash over me. A time of glory.
Hard candy sticks stuck in a lemon as a straw, and chocolate covered frozen bananas.
Face painting and baked goods, and the White Elephant table, where you could buy and sell stuff nobody wanted anymore.
A chance for us all to come together on a warm spring day, to breathe the fresh clean air and share in our community. A chance to forget about H-bombs and winter's chill and what will happen in the fall.
To sing and dance and just have fun.
Rejoice! Each and every one!