Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Heavy snows fell during January and February of 1961. One storm in particular dropped over a foot of snow, and it seemed like it would never melt away.
Billy Hills and I spent the day after trudging through deep drifts, sliding down the ravine to the creek behind Trackie's store. The climb back up was slippery; it was our own Mount Everest, and when we reached the summit we peered out upon the ballfields, now a sea of frozen white.
From our vantage point we imagined ourselves in a foxhole fighting off the human wave attacks of the Chinese in Korea. We fought them off as best we could until our ammo ran out, using snowballs as a last resort before retreating towards the lake.
We would have to cross the widest and deepest point of the lake that day, moving quickly, listening to the ice, hoping it wouldn't crack open and swallow us whole.
Up the hill and into the woods, becoming mountain men tracking game in the dead of winter, our eyes peeled for Indians or bears.
We'd circle round the lake, stopping once to consider making a burrow in a deep drift, but thinking better of it we kept on moving across the stream and through the Madden's yard and up Glenwood towards Walnut and my home.
We'd spend that whole day out in the freezing cold getting wet and red-faced, but we'd never notice because adventure called out and we had to answer.
Woodbury Heights in winter when covered in snow was every boy's fantasy come true.
Snowball fights in the woods and atop Freund's cliff. Sledding down Chestnut Hill or the Jersey Turnpike embankment on the other side of town. The woods around the lake became the Ardennes, and we fought the Germans as our fathers had done only a few years before. Crowds of people skating, and in the back of the lake the ice hockey games would last all day and into the night, someone always eager to take the place of somebody who had to go home.
You come home from a day in the cold all red-cheeks and runny-nosed. You come home and take off sloppy boots and thick socks, your pants are wet and so is the long underwear beneath them. Your thighs are red and your hands are too, and your hair sticks staight up when you pull off your hat.
You're welcomed home with Campbell's chicken noodle soup and a cup of hot chocolate served up by your mom.
You get washed up and into something warm, and retreat to your room for comic books and a warm blanket on your bed, and before you know it you've fallen asleep from all the actions of the day.
Yes,the winter of 1961 was long and it was harsh and it was cold, but it was fun for young boys and adventures years ago.
And always remember: never eat the yellow snow!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Kruschev Song

We sang this song on the way to school in Woodbury Heights. I believe we first sang it in 1961, to ease the tensions we all felt as a result of all the threats coming from the Russians.
Sing along, everybody!
(To the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed-Reindeer")

Kruschev the bald-headed Russian
Had a very shiny head.
And if you ever saw it,
You would even say it's red.
All of the other Russians,
Used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Kruschev
Join in any Russian games.
Then one foggy launching night,
The Russians came to say:
"Kruschev with your head so bright,
Won't you guide our sa-tel-lite?"
Then how the Russians loved him,
And they shouted out with glee,
"Kruschev the bald-headed Russian,
You'll go down in hi-sto-ry!"

Anybody else sing this?

Rockets And Commies And Chimps, Oh My!

The Russians got there first. In 1957 they launched the first successful satellite called Sputnik. To me it looked like a silver Christmas ornament with wires sticking out of it. What it did up there I hadn't a clue. We were supposed to be the world leaders in technology, and here these godless commies had put a metal beach ball into orbit! Was that thing spying on us? Would it tell the Russians where to drop their bombs? One more thing to duck and cover from?
In 1958 we put up a satellite of our own, Explorer, but it wasn't the same, we didn't get the glory. We were second best, so we had to play catch-up in a hurry. Astronauts were in training, and we looked forward to the day when the first American would fly into outer space. Captain Video and Flash Gordon, make room for real space men at last.
We all waited, and on January 31, 1961, the first American rocket would be launched into outer space. The astronaut would be called Ham, but he wasn't an astronaut, heck he wasn't even a man, it was a chimpanzee, what gives? We're waiting for men on the moon, a chance for Americans to get up there and show the world we're the best, and all we can do is shoot a monkey into the sky? What a gyp.
What we didn't know was that Ham was up there for a reason. He went into outer space to see if a lever could be pulled in a weightless environment, and in case anything went wrong, well then a chimp would be sacrificed and not a man. Something did go wrong, the capsule lost pressure, but Ham's space suit kept him alive, so the mission was important even if it did only last 16 minutes, and never orbited the earth. Take that, you dirty commies, America is on the move! So what if the Russians were first and they sent up dogs before we sent an ape, we'll show them. Any day now an American space man will be on his way to the moon.
In April of 1961 a man would orbit the earth. He would sail among the stars and sing a patriotic song and return to earth a hero.
It wasn't an astronaut and it wasn't an American. It was another Russian rocket, and they called their guys cosmonauts. Yuri Gagarin went around the earth and came back, and we wondered what the Russians would do next; what could they do to us now?
Twenty three days later an American would finally be launched into space. Alan Shepard would open the door, and that's about all he did. He didn't orbit the earth, he went up and came down in fifteen minutes. Is that the best we can do?
The space race was on, and one after another the rockets went up, placing satellites up above us all. Military ones, spying on us, information and weather satellites, Russian and then American, one by one, and I'd wonder how they stayed up there and how come they didn't crash into one another after all?
Then in July, another American, Gus Grissom would go, but only straight up and down, and his capsule would sink in the ocean, and a Russian would obit the earth again in August.
More satellites, more fear. It looked like the Russians would have the edge on us; that their missiles and rockets were better than ours, and soon they'd have missiles on the moon ready to blow up the entire planet.
President Kennedy would tell us that it would be our goal to have a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and he pledged that America would be first, that we would win this race to the heavens.
So more rockets would go up. Titan and Atlas, Jupiter and Thor. Mostly American ones now, from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, and it looked like the Russians would be forced from the skies.
On November 29, 1961 our eyes would look to the stars for the first American space craft to orbit the earth. Finally, we'd say. An American would circle the globe, and the Russians would eat our dust. But, it was another chimpanzee, Enos was his name, and once again we'd wonder; is this the best we can do?
Oh, Buck Rogers, where are you when we need you?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A New Year, The Same Fear

So we shall start to say goodbye, 1950s. It's a new decade after all, yet Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver are still on TV. Will that time ever let go?
There was heavy snow in 1961. It fell hard on Washington D.C. the night before John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, and there was talk of canceling his inauguration due to the weather. I would miss the importance of that speech, I was nine years old and too concerned with what I got for Christmas, and whether or not we'd get another snow day off from school. If only I had been a little older, then maybe I would have listened; maybe I would have learned.
President Eisenhower gave a speech, too. Before Senator Kennedy became our next President, Eisenhower talked to America, and he had a warning. He spoke of the dangers of a vast military-industrial complex taking control of the country. It would mean little to me and my classmates as we threw snowballs in the playground after school; just something the grown-ups needed to worry about.
We prayed the Lord's Prayer in school every day, without regard to the freedoms we pledged to, but there were rumblings about that. There were people beginning to complain that prayer in schools was unconstitutional, that freedom of religion also meant freedom from religion as well, and the battle lines were being drawn.
Black and white students would hop on buses and go down south to test the law, to see if integration would be tolerated, and there would be violence. I didn't, I couldn't understand any of it, and I would be uncomfortable about my feelings, and I'd remember my friend LuLu from years before.
A battle would be fought in a bay of pigs. Somewhere off in Cuba, we'd hear, and it was bungled. It was a secret mission, launched by our country by a reluctant president, and it did nothing more than send us all closer to nuclear war with the Russians. So we hid beneath our desks and covered our heads with our hands, and again we wondered if the end was coming for us all.
In a little country somewhere over there in Asia, trouble was brewing. It was a place we never heard of, but American soldiers and helicopters would be sent there, and we wondered what it was all about, how such a tiny place with jungles and rivers should concern us.
Yet, out of all this trouble, an idea was given form, and our country would give birth to a new cause; the cause of peace. President Kennedy created a new organization, The Peace Corps, he called it, and Americans would be called upon to help the sick, the poor and the disadvantaged of the world, without regard to political ideals. Hope instead of misery, pride instead of fear.
We would also look to the sky in this year of 1961.
The people of the world would look upon the heavens, and for the first time ever, men would be looking back, sitting among the stars.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Glad Tidings

Christmas,1960. About this time my mother's artistic leanings would compel her to begin a tradition of painting a Christmas theme on the picture window in the living room. Our outside decorations were always pretty spare; Dad was always at work, and I don't think he ever really enjoyed spending his leisure time hanging bulbs around the house. He would put up a few strings of those big old bulbs, the kind that would get really hot, and place them around the picture window. Sometimes he would hang up a strand across the front of the house, and maybe a few in the bushes, but that was it. A few years we had a spotlight in the front yard, but on the whole our outdoor display was pretty minimalist.
Mom, on the other hand, loved Christmas, and she decorated the inside of the house with as much stuff as she could find. Everything had holly printed on it, everything was red and green. We would hang our Christmas cards in rows on string across the kitchen wall or on one of the living room walls, an honor roll of calling cards from friends and neighbors that grew with each passing year.
Our Christmas tree was pretty scraggly - looking most years, at least until we got the decorations on it. Mom and I usually did the tree trimming. Dad would get the lights on, and we would take it from there. When we were through it was as beautiful as any Christmas tree could be. We had lots of antique ornaments, well, then they were just old, including my first baby rattle from when I was born; a jolly plastic Santa carrying his bag of toys. It's still on the tree every year.
As I said, Mom needed to express herself artistically, and Dad's idea of a front yard display wasn't up to snuff, so Mom got out her poster paints and went to work on her canvas of glass. The first year she did a Nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph looking down upon the baby Jesus. Later she would paint a jolly Santa Claus, then a Nativity scene again. She only did it for a few years, but I always thought it was really special, it was something nobody else had, and I was really proud of Mom and her painting.
The neatest present in our house that year was a Flintstones play set that my brother got. A plastic Bedrock village with a mat showing all the streets and places to put your cave houses. Little figures of Fred, Wilma, Betty and Barney, and Dino and other citizens of the town. Fred and Barney's cars were included, too. The way Carl treated his stuff meant that it wouldn't survive for long.
I got a set of army men, the tan ones against the green. I probably wished for an Alamo or a Fort Apache, but this would make do. I could always go over to Paul LaPann's house for other military adventures. No bikes this year; my red Rixe would suit me fine for a while longer.
I didn't really believe in Santa any more, but I went along for the ride. This may have been the year Uncle Dan began playing Santa, or maybe next year. He would be a welcome relief from the death mask St. Nick portrayed by Pop-Pop Gardner.
The best time, my favorite time at Christmas, would come again. The early evening joy of that well-deserved family nap. Dad in his vinyl recliner, Mom on the couch, and Carl and me and Whee-Zee on the living room floor, all joining in in a big Christmas snore.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nine Years Gone

November had come and gone. John F. Kennedy would be our next president, and the country buzzed with excitement. The news, as always went over our heads, because Christmas was coming, and the Sears Christmas Wishbook catalog would take center stage in our lives. There were claims that the election was stolen, that politicians in Chicago and Texas somehow "fixed" the voting, but nothing ever came of it; Mr. Nixon graciously conceded without a challenge.
There was other stuff in the news I didn't understand. A big commotion about Sammy Davis Jr. marrying a white woman. Apparently this upset a lot of people, and it was downright illegal in most states of the country. No one could explain to me why there were laws against people being in love. The adults said it was wrong for a black person to marry a white person, so I believed it was true.
Kirk Douglas made a movie called Spartacus, a story about a gladiator who led a slave rebellion against Rome itself. To me it was adventure, battle scenes and excitement. What I didn't understand was the fact that the script was written by Dalton Trumbo, a writer who had been blacklisted; forbidden to work in Hollywood because of his political views. Kirk Douglas took a stand and hired Mr. Trumbo and put his name in the credits, helping to put an end to political discrimination, and closing the door on the Joseph Mcarthy era once and for all. The rebellion part; the fight for freedom part, was a sign of things to come.
John Wayne made a movie about The Alamo, but we didn't buy it. Fess Parker was Davy Crockett, and that was that.
Jerry Lewis was still trying to be funny too, but he was beginning to look pretty pathetic, even to those of us who still liked him. Cinderfella? Come on.
We would go to Aunt Bette's farm for Thanksgiving, our family horde filling her big kitchen with laughter and good cheer. My mom and my aunts would gather there in early December, to bake the piles of Christmas cookies we all would share that season.
The winter of 1960-61 would be long and cold. Snow would fall, lots of it, and there would be skating and sledding and snow forts and hot Campbell's soup on a cold winter's day.
My ninth birthday, and like always a bit overshadowed by Christmas and the holiday rush, but I didn't mind, 'cause I'd get extra presents after all.
We'd take long walks in the snow, Whee-Zee and I.
I especially liked walking in a snowstorm at night, when you could stand in silence and feel the flakes coming down, just a whisper in your ear.
I'd lean my head back with eyes closed, and feel them landing and melting on my face.
After a while I'd open my eyes to the heavens and watch the swirling snowflakes fall, blinking as they landed on my eyelashes.
Just me, standing, and the world all covered in snow.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gentlemen, Be Seated

For a long time, Woodbury Heights did not have a police force. This is not to say we weren't protected from criminal activity, no, you could call the Deptford Police or the State Police for something really serious. For the most part our crime, such as it was, was handled by the town marshals. Our marshals were volunteers, men who spent their spare time guarding Woodbury Heights from criminals the same way men volunteered to be firemen. Your next door neighbors were trained to be citizen lawmen, so the police in our town truly were your friends.
Funding for such an organization was hard to come by. I'm sure there was some tax and/or grant money available, but hey, we're talking the 1950s and early 60s here, so people were pretty much left to their own devices.
The marshals had to raise money just like the firemen, and one of the ways they did it was to have a minstrel show every year.
What's that you say, a minstrel show? You mean white folks dressed and made up to look like black folks, cavorting on stage in all their stereotypical glory?
Yes sir, our moms and dads, friends and neighbors would get together and make themselves up in black face and put on an honest to goodness, totally politically incorrect minstrel show.
At the time white people thought nothing of this. Most of them didn't see themselves as racist or harming anyone, they thought that it was all harmless fun making sport of Negroes as they danced and sang and told jokes upon the stage. It was, to them, a re-creation of an American tradition, a legacy passed down by extremely popular entertainers such as Al Jolson, who became famous singing in black face makeup.
So there I'd be, in our school auditorium, where we pledged allegiance to liberty and justice every day watching my mom and our neighbors and our friends from all over town pretend to be funny black people.
It was all there, too. The white interlocutor, or master of ceremonies, would come out and sing the opening song, and then call the proceedings to order with the phrase: "Gentlemen, be seated.", and a semi-circle of white black men would form for joke telling. On either end of "The Line" would be Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, and they would trade off jokes and puns with Mr. Interlocutor in dat broken English we's all bin 'spectin' dem to sez.
There would be huge production numbers with the whole cast singing such songs as "My Old Kentucky Home," "Swanee" and of course, "De Camptown Races":Doo-Dah!
The show was good, too. I mean here were all our friends and families, just amateurs, but they sang and danced with all the talent and professionalism of a show on Broadway. It was all in good fun, but it was all at the expense of others.
This went on for eight or ten years until complaints were made, I presume by the local chapter of the NAACP. This was a shock to the sensibilities of our local minstrel players. Someone actually had the nerve to complain that they didn't like their race being ridiculed on a stage in a public school for all the world to see. The idea that this show could be offensive to anyone never dawned on them. White people were used to getting their way, and now they were being challenged by people who just "didn't know their place."
Anyway, the shows were deemed offensive and of violating the civil rights of others, so the minstrel shows were discontinued. Our local peace officers would obey the law, however grudgingly.
Instead of a minstrel show, there would be a variety show and our friends and neighbors would get up on stage and dance and sing and tell jokes and be just as entertaining as before.
Some would say that it just wasn't the same, that without the black face and the Jim Crow jokes and the southern charm of it all, that the shows lacked a certain luster, that maybe the fire had gone out. But things had to change, the world had to change, and Woodbury Heights had to change along with it, and what we saw up on that stage in those minstrel shows may have been funny and may have been grand, but they were wrong, no matter how well-intentioned.
So the minstrel show was gone and the variety shows went on, and what we saw then were our moms and dads, friends and neighbors, up there on that stage entertaining us as themselves for all the world to see.
Isn't that the way it should have always been?

Monday, April 7, 2008

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

I thought I had that question answered. For the last 28 years, anyway. When I was a boy I could have said lots of things: cowboy, soldier, astronaut, you name it. Now after 56 years I must decide once again- What do I want to be? In my high school yearbook I said that I wanted to be either an actor, a writer or a politician. I've been an actor and I may be once again. I am a writer of sorts, hopefully to those of you who are reading this on a regular basis. If I decide to become a politician, well, somebody slap me if they see me try.
I am trying to decide right now what kind of job training to take in order for an old guy like me to land a career instead of just a job, that's why the posts have kind of come to a standstill. They will continue, as soon as my thoughts can focus.
I have been adding more photos, so hunt around the blog and you'll find them. If you are a former classmate, or if you grew up in Woodbury Heights the same time as me, add some thoughts of your own, it's your story too.
And maybe you can tell me - What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

New Photos

Hi. Just to let you all know, I'll be adding more and more photos to the blog. I've acquired a new and more powerful computer as well as a scanner, so more pictures will start to populate the posts. I've added photos to Ancient History, Third Grade, A Memorable Fourth of July, and my theme photo is with me and Whee-Zee, of course. There might be some other new ones around: The Smell of Bread is one. Look around, re-read stuff, and put in some comments if it brings back memories you'd like to share. C'mon all you Heights people, I know you're out there. Check out Jack Wiler's blog also. His stories and mine are weaving in and out of each other, so stay tuned to both. Let's all wish Jack good luck next weekend. He'll be performing a one-man show in NYC based upon his two volumes of poetry. It should be an exciting evening. Break a leg, Jack!