Friday, March 28, 2008


The air is fresh and crisp; when you walk you hear the crunching of dry leaves. It gets dark early now, so you've got to stay close to home in the evening; you've got to be in the house doing homework or watching the Flintstones on TV. On the weekends you play hide and go seek in the evening, and your cheeks are red from the cold. There's a smell in the air that wasn't there before, it's a freshness mixed with dying leaves and the smoke from burning them in the street. When you mow the lawn for the last few times the grass is wetter, the smell is sweeter. I wear flannel shirts and corduroy pants now, and a baseball jacket to ward off the Autumn chill.
When I run with Whee-Zee my eyes water from the sting in the air, and we all "blow smoke" with our breath as we wait outside the school.
Halloween is coming, and we pick out costumes, and dream about how much candy we'll haul. The candy is important, yes, but the real joy, the real thrill about Halloween is having your friends and neighbors try and guess who you are. You see, we're allowed inside, we've got a slower pace, and we want to know if we can fool everybody. We're here to trick, as well as treat.
"Do we know you?", they ask.
"Are you from this street?"
They note your body language and listen as you try to disguise your voice. The questions continue until somebody laughs a familiar laugh and the jig is up, or you've completely fooled your temporary hosts of the moment. I'd fool a lot of people in 1960. My mother would make a Raggedy Ann costume that covered your entire body, and nobody would believe that an almost nine year old boy would dress up like a girl's doll. Mom's costume would work great that year, and it kept me really warm, too. I had trouble seeing through the gauze in the eye holes, but what kid could see wearing those plastic face masks that had sharp edges and always seemed to be sliding around your face? We'd visit people close to home, down Walnut and up Lake, maybe a few people we knew on Glassboro Road, then back down Lake to Walnut and Glenwood and then home. Dad would have to stay home if he wasn't working; someone had to hand out the candy. We'd get home early so we could have a chance at handing out candy and guessing who ourselves; besides, you weren't allowed to pig out on everything anyway. I'd spread out my loot with my brother in our bedroom, looking for the best stuff, the REAL STUFF, you know, CHOCOLATE!! Hershey bars and Milky Ways and Three Musketeers. Forget that candy corn crap, I wanted the hard stuff, milk chocolate, and not that strange dark kind either. After assessing our hoard, Mom would confiscate it and dole it out a little at a time. At the end of the evening, the black kids from Jericho and New Sharon would swarm in, wearing old sheets as ghosts, or no costumes at all and carrying pillowcases loaded with candy. One day of the year we'd all be friendly; we'd all share a laugh, we'd all be people again.
After Halloween thoughts were turning towards Thanksgiving and Christmas, and for me a birthday. Would we have Thanksgiving at Aunt Bette's farm again, and what really neat present should I ask for for my ninth birthday? When will the Sears catalog come out, so we can all start wishing for everything inside? Will Mom have another toy demonstration again, so we can get some of those little paper cups filled with nuts and mints and M&Ms?
Will Kennedy be president, or will it be Nixon, and will the Russians make any more trouble for us?
It's that time of year, it's hustle and bustle, and it seems like Christmas will never come. We dream deep dreams. We dream of turkey and presents and the smell of pine. We dream of snow days and ice on the lake, and Christmas vacation that will be better than the last.
We march on through these last few months, with children's hopes and children's prayers.
And sweet fresh air and apple cheeks.
And the crunching of the leaves.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where Have All The Bullies Gone?

Woodbury Heights didn't have an official police force yet. Any real serious criminal activity was handled by the State Police or a call to the Deptford Police Department. What we did have were town marshals; everyday citizens who volunteered their time to help protect the public, just like our volunteer firemen. There wasn't too much going on in town back then anyway, we were a pretty quiet and peaceful place. Some of the Heights boys would get themselves in trouble by fist fighting and vandalism; the really hard cases would usually be given a choice: serve serious jail time or go into the army. It was rumored that that's what happened to Johnny Lucas just down the street from me. He was one of the local tough guys, one of the boys I'd have to keep an eye out for. He was a Greaser, with slicked back oily hair and a real dark complexion. Johnny and his father both had skin that was so dark that you weren't quite sure if they were black or white. Their front yard was decorated with old cars and parts of old cars. Mr. Lucas was a huge man with a giant lump protruding from his neck in between his shoulders. He looked mean and it was said that he had been a professional boxer at some time. I always walked by their house quickly, especially if old man Lucas was sitting outside on the front porch. I kept an eye out for Johnny, too. I don't remember him ever doing anything to me, but I wasn't taking any chances. Anyway it was rumored that Johnny Lucas did something bad, really bad. Stealing cars maybe. We heard he was given "a choice." He just disappeared, and then Mr. Lucas was gone, too.
I hadn't seen the Goss brothers, either. After one of them tried to steal my bike and I managed to get away, I had kept a sharp eye out for them. Whenever I saw one of them coming I'd turn quickly away in the opposite direction, never letting them get close to me again. Here in 1960, they were nowhere to be seen.
Dave Sullivan down on Glenwood next to my friends the Maddens was still considered one of the most dangerous guys to watch out for. Paul Thomas, too. I knew the Maddens, and these guys were their neighbors, so they pretty much left me alone. One time, they and a bunch of their henchmen had gathered in the field next to the Madden house. I was hanging out with Ricky Madden at the time, and against our better judgment, we wandered over to see what they were doing. Next thing we know the field is catching fire, and Paul Thomas is all up in my face shouting, "If you tell on us, we'll say that you were in on it, and you'll have to go to reform school with the rest of us!"
Now I don't know what made them think I was a squealer, or why they chose to threaten me like that, but I got out of there fast, thinking I'd have to lie low until this thing blew over. Ricky ran home with me, just as afraid; convinced that his house was going to be burned down along with the field, and there was nothing he could say about it, because he would go to jail or reform school with the rest of them.
Well the fire was put out pretty quickly, and it didn't take long for the marshals to determine who did it. I didn't have to go under the interrogation lamps or anything, and the Maddens' house didn't burn to the ground. But that moment of terror, the thought that I would be ratted out in a lie by those guys kept me far away from them after that.
T-Bone Basile was still a threat. He was Tommy Madden's friend and so was I, but that didn't matter to him. I think he was still sore at me for almost beating Charlie Donner in the fourth of July race. He was one of the ones I beat out for second place, and I think he was still nursing that grudge.
I was at the ballfields with Whee-Zee one time when T-Bone and his cronies saw me. For whatever reason, he wanted to pick a fight with me. He was taunting me and calling me names and threatening to do me bodily harm.
I stood my ground, and Whee-Zee stood with me, a low growl coming from deep inside her.
"Come near me and my dog will kill you!", I shouted. "You leave me alone and she'll leave you alone."
I picked up some rocks as insurance.
Whee-Zee was pretty scary - looking to begin with, and when she was angry, well you didn't want to mess with her.
T-Bone and his minions considered all this, and wisely decided to let the matter rest.
"You won't have that dog around all the time, you'll see." And they left.
Maybe Tommy Madden had a word with him, or maybe he had gotten a close look at how protective my dog was, I don't know, but he never really bothered me after that.
So here in 1960 the streets had gotten a little safer, I could walk with less fear. The older tough guys were moving on or moving out. I'd still keep Whee-Zee by my side as often as I could, and I always knew where the best rocks could be found, you know, just in case. The local neighborhood had gotten quiet for me, and I could breathe a sigh of relief. Well, for a while, anyway.
Someone new would be coming, and I'd have to face this guy every day at school...

A Call To Former Classmates

I need your help. Any former schoolmates out there with Woodbury Heights class photos from First Grade with Mrs. Lozier 1958-1959, Second Grade with Mrs. Lamson 1959-1960, and Fourth Grade with Mrs. Schoener 1961-1962, can you send me a copy? Send me your comments, too. Send me an E-mail/jpeg at the Gateway class reunion site:
Any pictures of Woodbury Heights during the 50s and 60s are welcome and appreciated.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Rockets' Red Glare And All That

Beyond the walls of our school, outside the boundaries of our town, above the knowledge in our heads, there was another America, another world. It had always existed, but we were unaware because no one dared to speak of such things. Battles were being fought over issues we couldn't understand, because the truth behind them had never been revealed to us.
Our teachers taught us well, but a lot of what they gave us was the Official Story, bedtime tales and myths to give us that warm and fuzzy feeling that adults felt we needed. The puny brains of children couldn't handle the complexities of the real world and all its problems.
Yet children have always understood the truth, have always seen with open minds. Maybe if we had been taught the truth from the very beginning, the real world of 1960 wouldn't have been so shocking; so hard to understand.
We pledged allegiance to it every day. To freedom and justice. Had we understood it all maybe we would have questioned things. Things like praying a Christian prayer every day when we were supposed to be a nation of religious freedom, and that government had no right to force us to worship a certain way. We would have asked why people with darker skins than us needed laws passed so they could vote and go to college and to sit at a lunch counter at Woolworth's.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two, to find a passage to India, and to prove the world was round not flat, but what he really wanted was gold, and lots of it, and everybody knew the world was round to begin with. Besides, all those Indians would make wonderful slaves now, wouldn't they?
Who would tell us that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers who fought for the freedom of all men owned slaves? We would ignore the contributions of black men and women in our history the same way we would ignore them in the street. Live and let live, but stay away, and if you don't like it, you can go back to where you came from.
We did not know that our newest state, Hawaii, was stolen from its people by American businessmen and missionaries who thought they knew what was best.
Mexicans fought alongside Davy Crockett at the Alamo, because after all, Texas was Mexico, but someone decided to leave those little details out.
Bad people were Communists, plain and simple. Russians and Chinese were bad and evil godless creatures, because they believed the teachings of a man named Marx, and it wasn't Groucho. But it wasn't Communism we had to fear, it wasn't an economic state of mind that was the danger, it was dictatorship slapped with a veneer. It was the suppression of human rights that was the real enemy, and if we had been taught the truth we would have known that Americans were suffering too.
If we had known the truth, what Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson had done would have made sense. What the bus boycott in Alabama did would have inspired us. We would have cheered for Cassius Clay as he won the gold in the Rome Olympics.
John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency would have been more exciting. We would have hope for the future that maybe all the lies of the past might be laid to rest, and that something wonderful might be happening.
We saw a grown man, Nikita Kruschev, having a temper tantrum in front of the entire world, banging his shoe at the United Nations, carrying on because he and his nation were being criticized. What was that to us? Just a crazy Russian, an evil, godless Communist behaving badly, but if we knew the truth about him and his kind we truly would have understood the danger and why we had to worry about nuclear war.
It seemed to me that the world was going mad. People were going crazy and complaining for things they already had, at least that's what I'd been taught. This was America, right? We were the good guys, the land of the free, the home of the brave, weren't we? What had we done wrong, and why should we let those crazy Commies try and push us around? Couldn't we just blast them all to Kingdom Come and be done with it?
If only someone would just tell me.
Tell me the truth, tell us all the truth, then maybe we could see.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


We sang Old Macdonald in school. Those words had a deeper meaning for me than most kids. Farm sounds, sights and smells were all too familiar to me and my family. I was used to horses and cattle. Uncle Everett raised livestock to supplement his income, and his fields were used to grow feed for the animals. Uncle Everett had two horses; Ruby a tan mare, and Spade her mischievous black offspring. Spade was unpredictable at times; he might sneak up on you and butt you with his head or take a nip at you, so watch your back when he was around. Careful walking among the steers, too. one of them might want to butt up against you, and watch out if their tails were raised, 'cause you're on the receiving end of a stream of warm, liquid manure.
My cousin Charlie had two dogs, too, and I considered them with almost the same regard I had for Whee-Zee. There was gentle Snowy, a Dalmation, and Butch; a big wiry- haired mix of Collie and whatever. Butch looked like a big happy bear that was always smiling.
Aunt Bette and Uncle Everett's farm in Clarksboro was a gathering place for the entire family, and we'd all meet there every year to help Uncle Everett bale and store his hay.
By the time we all got there the hay was lying in the field, already cut and dried out by the sun. Uncle Everett would be in the lead, driving the tractor that towed the baling machine. Following behind on another tractor would be one of my uncles or one of Uncle Everett's brothers, towing the hay wagon. The dry grasses would be picked up by the baling machine. It would spit out the hay in dry, itchy blocks, bundled and ready to be tossed upon the wagon. Uncles and older male cousins would walk alongside the wagon and throw the heavy bales up to whoever was unlucky enough to be assigned the job of stacking them on it. It was an important job, making sure the bales were stacked just right, so they would shift properly with every bump in the fields and not come tumbling down. The stack would grow higher and higher, and those poor souls stacking the bales were painting themselves into a precarious corner. The last two men or boys on the wagon would ride atop the load to the barn, and begin the process in reverse, gradually reducing the stature of their wobbly tower.
It always seemed to be really hot at baling time. And humid, too. As if the sun couldn't wait to make the job a lot harder, a lot sweatier.
While the men worked in the field my aunts and grandparents and older female cousins would be getting the food ready for the massive cookout that would take place later in the afternoon. Fresh Jersey tomatoes and sweet corn, hot dogs and hamburgers, grilled chicken, and sometimes maybe a goat roasting on a spit. Watermelon and cantaloupes, nectarines and peaches, and Richman's ice cream from down in Woodstown. Lots and lots of good food, Jersey fresh long before it became a slogan.
Softball in the field with dried cow pies as bases, but be careful running the base paths, because we might have missed some of the fresher ones. All of us younger kids would be playing tag or hide and go seek in the barns,playing with the dogs, or just watching all of the commotion.
The highlight of the day would be hayrides. Our hayrides would be different from what you normally see in the movies. We weren't in a wagon being pulled lazily down a dirt road by an old horse. Uncle Everett had an old Dodge truck that had all but the cab removed. A wooden flatbed was built on it, the doors and rear window of the cab were taken off, and it was used as an all-purpose utility vehicle for carrying things all around the fields.
Hay would be laid upon the flatbed, and we'd all pile on for a ride through the fields. Whoever was driving would make sure they hit as many bumps and rough patches as possible, and we'd all have to hang on as best we could. That would be for the little kids and the eldest and the ladies. After their ride, the real thrills would begin. The bravest, or maybe the craziest of us all would get on board and try to hang on while the truck was driven faster and over the biggest bumps in the fields. You would be tossed up and down, sliding back and forth with the hay, holding on for dear life as the truck tore its way across the fields. The object, of course, was to see how many of us could stay on, how many of us would be thrown off, left behind in the dust, as the truck sped on with its load of laughing, sliding fools. It was a fitting end to a long day of hard work, good food and family cheer.
We'd sleep soundly that night, all of us. Tired from the work, red from the sun, itchy from the hay, and full from all the food.
I couldn't wait for next year and another chance to hang on, another thrill ride through the fields of hay.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

All God's Children Got Guns

We fought with more than toy soldiers. Children were provided with an endless array of weapons with which to play. Hubley, Mattel, Marx, Daisy and Nichols meant as much to us as Colt, Smith and Wesson and Remington did to adults.
War was my favorite game. I led many a charge at Gettysburg, swept the plains as the cavalry and the Sioux. The woods around the lake were the jungles of Guadalcanal; the great woodlands of the French and Indian wars. World War I was fought in the field behind the Gerbers' yard; the woods in my back yard the scene of battles throughout history.
Hubley would provide us with some amazing hand guns. My most prized set of Hubleys were two matching flintlock pistols which I carried aboard my pirate ship on the Spanish Main, and I used them to shoot down the Mexicans in those last few desperate minutes at the Alamo.
Mattel came out with some of the most realistic rifles and pistols in the 50s and 60s. The Shootin' Shell series that fired bullets. The tip of the bullet was plastic which you pressed down into the cartridge. A Greenie Stick-M cap was stuck on the back of the shell. You were provided with a weapon that sounded out as you fired, plastic slugs flying towards your enemy. The Fanner 50 was a prized posession, with a real leather holster you could strap down to perfect your gunfighter's quick draw. I had the Mattel Derringer belt buckle. It looked like a large buckle with a Derringer pistol engraved on it. Looks can be deceiving. When you puffed out your belly the derringer would pop out of the buckle, firing a plastic Shootin' Shell at your unsuspecting target. Too cool, too cool. There were cowboy weapons of every type, including replicas of all the guns we saw on our favorite TV shows.
The Daisy air rifle was coveted by everyone. Only a few lucky souls had them. You could jam the gun into the ground, plugging up the barrel, so that when you cocked and fired your victim would get smacked with a wad of dirt.
My friend Robbie McWilliams had a Marx World War II machine gun mounted on a tripod. That thing was amazing, with realistic sound and an ammunition belt that fed the gun while you fired. Mattel and Marx put out Thompson machine guns, and there were plenty of plastic M-1 Garands to round out our arsenal for re-creating the second world war.
Plastic Civil War sabers and Roman short swords, rubber daggers and tomahawks for those of us who preferred the up close and personal thrill of hand-to-hand combat.
The Alamo was fought in Woodbury Heights. The kids from my side of town collected their arms and flags and marched across Glassboro Road to do battle with the other side of town. St. Margaret's Church and the Southwoods housing development were being built, and the huge mounds of construction dirt became the fabled mission of San Antonio. Those of us from The Lake side of town were, of course, the hated Mexicans. We dragged our Johnny Reb cannons, waved our banners made from railroad signal flags, and marched through the streets to the imagined strains of our military band.
We assaulted the heights of that earthen Alamo, repulsed time and again by a hail of dirt bombs and the tenacity of its brave defenders. A fistfight or two broke out, with claims that someone was tossing dirt bombs with rocks in them. Tempers were cooled, the arguments cut short, this was war, there was no time for fighting!
The defenders would taunt us, and push us back several times, but at the end of the day the Alamo was taken and the dirt bombs brushed off. The bugles sounded, and the field of battle was cleared. We marched in triumph back to Walnut and Glenwood and Lake Avenues, stopping off at Trackie's store for Tastykakes and sodas.
It was a day of glory.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Kennedy - Nixon Debate

As I went off to school in the fall of 1960, the country was caught in the grip of another presidential election. John F. Kennedy was creating a stir throughout the nation. Here was a young man, only in his forties, running for the highest office in the land, and he wasn't afraid to criticize our country and all its flaws. He was running against Richard M. Nixon, who had been our Vice-President, a man who stood for the way things were.
What did we kids know about it? Presidents and elections were mysteries to us. A president was someone you respected, the man who ran the country and all, but we had no idea what it was about, not really. What we saw and what we heard would bore us silly, and yet here we were arguing about who would be the better man for the job.
We knew who our parents were supporting, so that's who we thought should be president.
The arguments were a lot like the foolishness surrounding the age-old question young boys would always pose to each other: "Do you think your Dad could beat my Dad in a fight?" The question was always pointless, yet the argument would go on and on, leading nowhere until someone gave up in frustration, or a real fistfight would ensue. If our fathers had only known that in their sons' world they played the part of Roman gladiators, fighting to the death in endless combat, just to prove who had the better parent. We would have looked on as eager and as bloodthirsty as the mob in the Coliseum, waiting for that moment to turn our thumbs down and watch another father fall.
The election would be just as pointless for us. We would argue that Kennedy was better, no Nixon, according to the bumper sticker on our parents' car.
What did we know of the issues? We heard that John F. Kennedy was a Catholic, and that being so might be bad for the country. He might take orders from the Pope in Rome, or some such nonsense, but it meant nothing to me or my brother. Richard Nixon was a Commie hunter, a lawyer with a heavy five-o'clock shadow, and he had been Vice-President under General Eisenhower, and that's all we knew.
We did hear Senator Kennedy tell us that America was a great nation and that it could be even greater if we all just worked together. He talked about sending Americans all over the world to help the poor and the sick, a Peace Corps he called it. He talked about sending men into outer space to explore the stars and told us we had nothing to fear from the Communists because we were strong and we could be even stronger. We knew next to nothing about Richard Nixon. We saw a man with a scary face who seemed nervous and arrogant, with very little to say about the future.
I was a Kennedy man. Why? Because my Mom was going to vote for him, that's why. I think Dad was for Kennedy too, but you never really knew how Dad felt about such things, because he was at work most of the time.
So I joined in with the great debate that year. I stood in support of John F. Kennedy back in the day. Not because he was younger and more handsome. Not because he stood for something grand and noble, and not because he was leading the charge to make America and the world a better place to be.
No, I was a Kennedy man because Mom said so and besides, he could take that Nixon guy any day of the week.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Third Grade

Third Grade would be a whole new ball game. Mrs. Lee would be everything we'd heard. Up till now I was all A's and B's; I'd see something on my report card that I hadn't before; a C. For the first two marking periods my handwriting skills weren't the best, and Mrs. Lee wasn't about to let anyone slide. She was different from Mrs. Lamson, though. Mrs. Lee was all about achievement, and I remember a lot of laughter in the class, a lot of joy. Third Grade would be all about doing your best, with a teacher who inspired you.
Mrs. Lee was tough. My Social Studies grade went from an A to a B in the second marking period. Not too bad, I thought. In the comments space beneath my grade is a U. I was not giving it my best, Mrs. Lee would remark. Unsatisfactory effort, especially in my tests. She let you know and expected you to do more. I'd end the year with a solid A.
Even our report card was different. Kindergarden report cards were colorful affairs, with little stick figures representing the different subjects. First and Second Grade cards were a manila color, with a picture of the school on the front, resembling the crude paper we wrote on. From Third grade on our report cards would be white, they looked official, and across the top it let you know this was for real: PROGRESS REPORT TO PARENTS, underlined in bold. There would be no messing around from now on.
I'd pick up two new friends this year. Billy Hills would move into town, and he lived down the street on Lake Avenue, near the corner as it met Walnut.
Robbie McWilliams would come to the Heights, living over by Richie Hearn on Glassboro Road near Chestnut Hill. Four of my peers living close by, and I wouldn't have to cross over Glassboro Road to see them. More adventures, lots of toy soldiers, more company on the walk to school. My friendship with Paul Lapann would grow, and I'd begin to spend time with the guys over on the other side of town. Paul and I would share a love and fascination with the American Civil War and all kinds of toy soldiers. Paul had an Alamo set and a Ben-Hur set with Romans and chariots. We would fight all the wars throughout history together for the next three years.
I can't leave out the girls. Joyce Hoefers and Ann Trocolli. Patsy Mullin, Nancy Fleisch, Mary Lou Lewis and Diane Gabel, all back again. Nancy Carl would come over from the "other" grade to join us, and Lora Carter would still have a crush on me, a feeling that was never mutual. Lora lived down the street on Glenwood. She was tall for her age, and she always looked as if she had just stepped out of a beauty parlor. She "liked" me and wasn't afraid to show it, but i thought she was "stuck up" and snotty, so I avoided her like the plague. I was beginning to notice how pretty Sheila McLaughlin was too, but I always got the impression that I wasn't good enough for someone like her, so I admired her from afar like I did with Joyce. I was always a sucker for blonds in those days.
I'd walk the same trail but not always alone. My brother and Paul Avis would scamper ahead of me, and I'd meet up with Billy Hills along the way. He and I would walk home together, so the long march seemed to get shorter. Mark Gerber had pretty much disappeared from my life, and soon he and his family would move away. Mrs. Avis would learn to drive, and Mr. Avis would give us a ride to school in his panel truck when the weather was bad, reeking of gasoline and grass from the lawn mowers in the back.
We were changing, America was changing. John F. Kennedy was running for president, asking us all to look towards a brighter future and to share in the work that lay ahead. Americans were training to go into space, the Mercury Astronauts would capture our imagination in the year to come. Rock n Roll was here to stay, we were doing the Twist like we did last summer, and the cowboy was still king on TV. The H bomb still hung over our heads, and those evil Communists in Cuba and Russia still scared the living daylights out of us.
Most of the older kids who liked to bully us had moved on to other things, so I had less to fear as I walked or rode down Walnut Avenue, but I still took Whee-Zee along whenever I could; a little insurance never hurt.
Fifty stars on the flag, still a pledge and a prayer to start our day.
One foot stuck in the fifties, unable to let go of the past.
The other foot in the sixties, moving forward, moving fast.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Back To School; September 1960

Going back to Woodbury Heights Elementary in 1960 would be significant for two reasons.
1. I was going to have Third Grade with all my old friends in Mrs. Lee's class.
2. It was my brother Carl's first day of Kindergarden.
I was anxious to get back with my old pals Paul Lapann, Tommy Moore and Richie Hearn. I was eager to see Jimmy Matsuk and Greg Jones and Don Vanneman, and once again study at the feet of stick figure genius Tommy Budd. I couldn't wait to get to school to hear what they had all been up to over the summer. We had all heard what a great teacher Mrs. Lee was, so I was happy and excited at the chance to be in her class. I would be off to Third Grade in high hopes and great expectations.
But what of my brother? How was he going to react? The first day of school went badly for me. I cried. I was a spectacle. I was a scene. Would Carl embarrass my mother the way I had? Would Mom spend the morning sitting in the Luncheonette crying and worrying about him they way she had with me? Would they walk home in silence together, one in embarrassment and the other in anger and with worry?
I wondered about it all as I forced down my Rice Krispies at the kitchen table.
Well, this is the thing, I mean this is how it all went down.
My brother, he gets gets washed and dressed, comes to the kitchen table where he gulps down a bowl of cereal. He looks at Mom and says, "I don't need you to go to school with me."
He hops down from his chair and rushes out the door, picking up our neighbor Paul Avis along the way. They're off and running before I can get out the door.
I can't believe this.
I think Mom can't believe this.
I'm completely dumbfounded.
Five year olds; who can figure them out?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Riding The Rails

Trains have always been an important part of my life. My Dad worked on the old Pennsylvania Railroad line, staying with it as it became the Penn-Central, and finally Conrail. The railroad clothed and fed us, paid the mortgage, and kept my Dad employed for forty years. The money was good, the perks even better, and the pension plan has kept my parents secure in their old age.
A special day for me and my brother would be a trip to whatever section of Philadelphia Dad was assigned to. We would be allowed to climb up into the cab of a yard locomotive and get a short ride, thrilling to the sounds and power of the diesel engine. We could go inside a real working caboose and talk to the brakemen and conductors; this was the real deal, no tourist attraction, and we were proud of our father who was in charge of a small part of it all.
Naturally we had train sets, every railroad family did. The big Lionel ones,or Marx or American Flyer with the triple rail tracks, and locomotives that actually puffed smoke as they chugged along the line. Every Christmas the trains would be set up, circling trees or filling basements with elaborate layouts that rivaled real life in minute detail.
Woodbury Heights has a place in model railroad history. John N. Tyler and James P. Thomas would move their business, Mantua Metal Products, to Grandview Avenue in 1933. It all began as a company that made small motors designed to power toy boats and trains. In 1937 they decided to produce their own line of HO gauge trains in ready to run and kit form, and the company that would later become TYCO was born.
Everyone in town referred to the company as Mantua Metals, and it was a source of pride in the community. During World War II, train manufacturing was suspended, and the company made precision instruments for the war effort, earning an award for manufacturing excellence.
After the war model railroading began to gain in popularity, and during the late 1950s the plant was expanded, running three shifts and providing jobs for our neighbors and folks in the surrounding communities. Mantua Metal Products was a significant part of the local economy.
In the late 60s Mantua Metals became TYCO Industries, and by 1970 they would sell out to Consolidated Foods, and our local legend and its jobs would be shipped overseas in order to compete in the changing world market. The Tyler family would try to revive the company in 1977, under the Mantua brand name, lasting until 2001.
Mantua and TYCO trains were never taken seriously by HO train enthusiasts. They were considered toys, but they were popular. John Tyler created trains for people to enjoy and to have fun with, and the public responded with enthusiasm.
We had several TYCO locomotives and lots of rolling stock. Steam engines and diesels set up on two 4x8 foot sheets of plywood in the basement. Our city and railroad yards were populated with buildings made by Revell and Plasticville and Atlas. We spent hours laying track and putting down the artificial grass and trees made of lichen, painting roads and building trestles. We pushed our trains to the limit, turning the throttle up as fast as it could go until the locomotives would careen off the track when negotiating a curve. Staged train wrecks and head on crashes, and wars fought with Airfix toy soldiers kept us down in the basement for hours on end. TYCO trains may not have been the best, but they were fun and our friends and neighbors built them. They were known nation wide and for a time they came from our little town, yeah, right here in Woodbury Heights, New Jersey, and nowhere else in the world.
All aboard!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Grabbing Summer In 1960

Can you feel it? Can you still taste it? Summer as a kid. 1960 was the year I embraced childhood tighter than I ever had. I would be nine years old in December. My tenth year was coming, and with it more responsibilities, more would be expected of me.
Summer is that glorious time. When tastes, sounds and smells are heightened. You're free of school and serious stuff. You're free to enjoy life and the simplest of its pleasures.
Sitting on the curb and licking the chocolate icing of a Tastykake from its wax paper wrapper. The cool icy rush from a Fudgsicle as it freezes your tongue and drips over your fingers. Hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, sweet Jersey tomatoes and fresh, white corn on the cob.
I could forage all day in Woodbury Heights, living off the land from its natural abundance. Blackberry bushes were everywhere, growing wild along Boundary Road and the ballfields, their rich, dark musky taste, those pesky seeds sticking to your teeth. A pear tree in the Gerber's yard; the sweet red cherries in my yard and the Avises' next door. We had an old apple tree in the center of our back yard. It was a magic tree. It was magical because someone had placed an old horse shoe in the crook of a branch, and the tree had grown around it. The shoe was embedded in the tree, and I was convinced that it somehow endowed our apple tree with mystic powers. The apples themselves were somewhat sour all the time, so the magic didn't help them very much. Patsy Mullin's yard had a mulberry tree, just like the school, and I remember a wild strawberry patch somewhere in town that we raided with impunity.
I would seek solace in the backwoods area of the lake. It was quiet there, mossy and soft, the sound of the stream flowing towards the lake, watching waterbugs skim its surface.
The crunching of leaves as I'd climb up the hill and then ascend Freund's Cliff to lie in the moss beneath the trees.
The Phillies game over the radio, listening to By Saam and Bill Campbell give the play by play, the game drifting on the hot air as my Dad and Mr. Avis and Mr. Olsen and others played cards at the picnic table under the old maple, drinking beer and swapping stories.
On the hottest of summer nights the air would carry the smell from the pig farms down the road in New Sharon.
"The pigs are ripe tonight," we'd exclaim, and I'd wonder how the people who lived and worked there could stand it.
Summer was a time when black people were allowed to use the lake. The Baptist Church from Jericho would get permission to use the lake for their baptismal ceremonies. We would gather at the bank and watch as they donned their white robes, in sharp contrast to their black and brown bodies. Some of us watched in amusement and some of us with respect as they sang their hymns and dunked their souls, shouting,
"I see the light!"
"Praise Jesus!"
Once a year they could save their souls, but they weren't allowed to swim.
The Fourth of July parade with the Bonsal Blues American Legion Band, decked out in powder blue uniforms, white belts and helmets. Maybe the Pitman Hobo band in their patched up clothing, an antique car and a Nike missile. It was a small parade, mostly people from town waving at each other, but it was our parade; it was our community.
Can you hear it? The crickets and cicadas, the locusts on a really hot and humid night, and early in the morning announcing how warm the day would be.
The musky mildewed scent of the canvas of your pup tent as you camped out in the back yard, never really getting to sleep because it was too exciting and every noise scared you to death.
The thrill of staying up really late because you went to the drive-in for a double feature or you'd lie in the grass and watch the meteors streak across the sky.
The thunderstorms would roar and the sky would crack, and when it was over it would be hotter and more humid than it was before.
Snowballs made by my cousins Kenny and Ronnie. Scraped from blocks of ice carted around in a wagon, sweet cherry syrup staining your lips and tongue a crimson red.
Long drives in the country in big cars left over from the 50s. Seats like couches and dashboards made of chrome and metal with radios that glowed warm in the night.
Heat lightning flickering and hide and seek at dusk. Lightning bugs in the evening, honeybees on the clover in the afternoon sun.
Bike rides down Chestnut Hill and around the lake, the cool air of the trees a welcome relief from the heat of the day.
The first day of swimming at the lake, descending those steps and staking your claim in the sand. The first plunge from the sliding board; staying in the water till your teeth began to chatter and your lips would turn blue.
Just to run. Run with my dog Whee-Zee as fast as we could, down Walnut and to the ballfields and back again. Some evenings Dad and I would take Wheez to the lake and she could jump in and get a swim when no one was around.
Summer would wind down and you could feel school coming. We would walk to the school to see the class postings on those big white doors; a chance to see which teacher you would get, and if your classmates would be the same as last year. I worried all summer, despite all the joys. Would I get Mrs. Lee for Third Grade? Would I be with my friends Paul Lapann and Tommy Moore and Richie Hearn?
The powers in my apple tree must have worked. I climbed those stairs that day in August, and there on the list beneath Paul Lapann and Mary Lou Lewis and before Jimmy Matsuk was my name, right where it belonged. My name along with all my other friends from the years before.
And the best part of all, under the heading on the list:
Third Grade - teacher: Mrs. Lee.