Saturday, May 31, 2008

All The Right Notes

There was always music whirling around in my brain. It started with children's records- little red and yellow 45s that I played over and over; some of the songs still fresh in my memory. Mom bought the Pirates of Penzance on 45s, with a sleeve and booklet covered with illustrations. I would listen to Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, staring at the drawings, transported to a world full of pirates and damsels in distress.
I liked music at school, but I longed for something more substantial than "Row, Row,Row Your Boat" and "Oh, Susanna".
You see, our house was filled with music. My parents, without knowing it, gave me an appreciation for all kinds of music, a passion I have to this day. They listened to a wide and eclectic variety of musicians and singers, and we would have impromptu music appreciation nights whenever the mood would strike them.
It would just happen. Dad would somehow get home early on a Friday or Saturday night. He might bring home some pizza from Bruni's in Woodbury, or hamburgers and fries from the Steer Inn. The TV would be turned off, and the playing of records would begin.
The big old box TV was gone now and in its place was one of those console sets with the TV on one side and a record player/radio combination on the other. "Blond" furniture it was called, a yellowy off white kind of color that was extremely popular at the time.
We would play all kinds of stuff, a lot of country, but also Dixieland jazz, popular singers, rock and roll,classical,Broadway show tunes and the latest craze in the early sixties; folk music. We would progress from there into Hawaiian and later on the Spanish stylings of bands like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
Dad leaned more into the country side of things, so the sound of Hank Williams was as familiar to me as Old Macdonald. He was a big fan of Patsy Cline as well, and in 1961 her rendition of "Crazy" could be heard all the time, a title that suited the year so well. Then Dad would go completely in another direction and we'd spend hours listening to Harry Belafonte: "Hey Mr. tally man, tally me banana." After that would come The Brothers Four and The Kingston Trio. I so much wanted to sing "Tom Dooley" in school.
Mom liked Fats Domino and Eddy Arnold and Elvis and all the Broadway show tunes sung by people like Barbara Streisand. She also liked country music, "Western" music she would call it, or "Hillbilly" music, as Bluegrass was known by at the time.
They played ragtime and Dixieland jazz, a lot by a band called The Firehouse Five, rousing and wild stuff that I loved to listen to. The cool strains of Pete Fountain, and a collection of symphonies put out by RCA called The Listener's Digest, classical music on 45s; a dose of Beethoven and other grand composers to give us an evening of refinement.
They would listen over and over to Gale Garnett-"We'll Sing In The Sunshine"- I knew that song by heart having heard it so much.
Then all of a sudden Dad surprised us all and started on a Hawaiian kick, listening to island instrumentals. I guess it transported him on a vacation he couldn't afford at the time. It took hold of me as well, and I listen to Hawaiian slack-key guitar artists to this day.
There would be big band sounds and novelty songs like "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?" and Alan Sherman singing "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah".
We were our own Mitch Miller show, singing along and having a grand old time. LPs, 45s and old 78s stacked high above the turntable, and you never knew what was coming next.
So I would walk to school with Fats Domino urging me on with "I'm Walkin'" or Hank Williams crooning out "Jambalaya".
Maybe that's why I seemed preoccupied during music time at school. We were supposed to be singing "Home On The Range", but I was somewhere else.
I was on that banana boat in the harbor at Kingston Town.
"Daylight come an me wan' go home."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Goodbye Third Grade

The Third grade was over. Mrs. Lee was all I'd hoped her to be. She taught us well and we were ready for Fourth Grade. Most of us wished we could have Mrs. Lee for that too. I worked hard and finished the year with four A's and three B's. Mrs. Lee would comment: " It has been a real pleasure to have worked with Jimmy. He has a wonderful sense of values and sincere desire to get the most out of his work."
Thelma B. Lee

So I had made an impression. Mrs. Lee would have to deal with my brother Carl in a few years! Night and day Mrs. Lee, night and day.
Summer was coming and so were days at the lake and Fourth of July and playing army in the woods. A chance for us to watch the home run race and see another American astronaut go up into the sky. No duck and cover, no homework for a while. Let's skip stones on the lake and climb Freund's Cliff. Bike rides through town and toy soldiers in the sand. Another summer to run and play with Whee-Zee by my side. It would be another glorious time of year with nothing to spoil our fun, nothing more for us to fear. Or would it?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Game

We would need something to take our minds off of all that was going on in the world in 1961. Something exciting.
We got it that year in the form of two New York Yankee ballplayers. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle would vie for the home run title of the American League, and at the same time they'd be in a race to see which one of them would break that most sacred record of all: Babe Ruth's home run output of 60 in one season.
I didn't know much about professional baseball then. I didn't pay any attention to it really. Sure, I knew about the Phillies and I played Wiffle Ball in our yard, and softball at school, but hardball, now that was a mystery to me.
My baseball/ WiffleBall field was our side yard, between our house and the Avises. First base was a cherry tree, second a bare patch in the lawn, third was the Avises' chimney and home plate another patch of dirt in the grass. The outfield was full of natural and man-made obstacles. Another cherry tree in left field, our old maple in right center, and the sand box and picnic table next to it. Let's see those major leaguers cope with that!
There were very few ground rules. You could catch a fly ball that got hung up in the tree branches and it would be considered an out, but if it ricocheted off of the windows of our houses it didn't count. Bouncing a ball off of the picnic table was fair, and you had to go around the forsythia bush coming in from third.
We had a variety of bats, too. First there was our original wooden Wiffle ball bat that looked a little like a broomstick. We had a broomstick as well. Those new plastic bats were out now, and we had a few of those. My secret weapon was a railroad brakeman's club. This was a heavy wooden affair that had a handle like a baseball bat, but it was flat at the business end, so if you hit the ball just right, it would go clear past the trees in the outfield and almost reach the woods at the end of the yard. It would wreak havoc on the ball too, so we used it sparingly.
The side yard would also serve as our kickball field and our badminton and volleyball courts. It's a miracle that we never broke one of our parents' windows.
I would read about the home run race in Life magazine. The affable Mickey Mantle, idol of American boys all over the country, and the soft spoken Maris, a mid-western boy who didn't get along well with the press. Babe Ruth was a giant, a baseball legend, and it seemed like no one wanted his record broken. 60 home runs in one season was the holy grail of all sports records, and there were those who didn't want The Babe dethroned. Roger Maris would get sick from the attention; even his hair would start falling out from all the pressure. Mickey Mantle would get injured and be out for several weeks, managing 54 homers by summer's end. Roger Maris would hit number 61 on the last day of the season, and still the press would not leave him alone. Ruth did it in 154 games, not 162, they'd say. The pitching was diluted from the league expanding from 8 teams to 10, so they tried to belittle his accomplishment even more.
I was fascinated by it all. I began to read more and more about baseball and its legends. I read biographies of Ruth and Cobb, studied the World Book encyclopedia, and learned about Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Yogi Berra. I was captivated by the great tradition of the New York Yankees and their dominance of the game. I'd become a baseball junkie over the next few years, reading whatever I could on the subject. My cousins would give me their old baseball cards from the 50s, and I'd begin collecting my own.
I'd get my first baseball mitt using S&H green stamps that Mom got going to the supermarket. It wasn't as good as a Wilson or a Rawlings, but it was my first, so I'd have to make do. I'd begin playing hardball in 1962, after school on the sandlot with my classmates. I never joined Little League. I watched the kids playing, and they let me play a few innings once, but I didn't like all the parents shouting, and the umpire deciding that I should have swung. I was a purist, I played for the love of the game, I played for fun and I could play all day long in the heat of a summer day.
I'd try playing in the Babe Ruth League as a teenager. My friends talked me into coming out and playing on the team. My first season I could hit, but my fielding sucked. When I played for fun with friends I was fine, but putting on a uniform and playing in front of a crowd that expected something from you destroyed my confidence, so my first season in organized ball wasn't a good one. The following spring Dad and my Uncle Bob hit millions of fly balls to me so that by the time tryouts came I could catch anything hit to me. I was confident in my fielding now. Trouble was, I worked so hard on my fielding that my hitting suffered, and my team mates had no confidence in me when I was at the plate. My life in organized baseball was less than satisfying.
Baseball itself became a passion for me in 1961. Maris and Mantle. Clemente and Banks. Bubblegum cards and By Saam on the radio, the Phillies on TV. The New York Yankees and home runs by the score. Let's forget about Castro and H-bombs; let's not duck and cover anymore.
Play ball!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Land Of The Free

We could go to Woodbury by bus. Mom,Carl and I would walk down Walnut and up Lake to Glassboro Road where we could catch the Public Service bus and take that into town.
We called it the "Woody" bus for short. Mom still hadn't learned how to drive yet, and the bus was fun, and it sure beat walking. Riding the bus was something we took for granted in 1961. Young, old, black and white, lots of people rode the bus every day without a moment's thought.
I didn't know it at the time, but it wasn't so easy for black people to ride a bus in the southern part of the country. Oh, they could ride alright, but only in the back, and only in seats marked "colored only." There were strict rules about this, and you'd better pay attention to them if you knew what was good for you.
In May of 1961 I would see white people beating up a group of black and white bus passengers. It was on the evening news. The segregation laws were being tested. Apparently it was against the law to segregate people on the interstate highway system, but once you got down south, the Jim Crow laws took effect. I had no idea what all this talk of segregation was all about. When we rode the bus to Woodbury everyone sat pretty much where they wanted to. People sat with "their own kind" and all, but no one was forced to sit in any particular spot because of the color of their skin, and if you didn't want to sit next to somebody, well, you just didn't sit next to them and that was that.
What I saw on the news was pretty scary. People were being beaten up by angry mobs just because they wanted to sit together on a bus, black and white together. There were designated areas in the bus terminals too, and these people; these Freedom Riders they called themselves, were challenging the way things were. There were separate rest rooms and waiting rooms, and you could only go where the signs told you to be, and you didn't dare do otherwise.
It had been one hundred years since the Civil War began, and the hatreds still ran deep. I was watching a new Civil War right on TV, and it just didn't make sense at all. The National Guard would be called out to keep the peace in Alabama, and President Kennedy would say that this was of the "greatest concern" to him.
Nothing would be said to us about this in school. It was just ignored, and yet it was on the TV and in the papers. What would nine year olds understand? How could anyone explain this to us?
We would pledge allegiance to our flag and our country.
We would pray our Christian prayer each morning.
We stood believing we lived in a country where everyone was free.
And as we stood Americans were savagely beaten by other Americans simply because they wanted to choose where to sit on a bus and where they could go to pee.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


The school year would be almost over, the warmth of May had arrived. Time for a break from schoolwork and fire drills; let's put duck and cover aside for a while. Every Spring would come our reward-the excitement and adventure of the class trip!
We would go on field trips during the year, little visits to the Haines dairy farm or the Nike missile base, but these were short affairs and we'd still spend several hours back in the classroom. The school trip was special. It would last all day. It would be far from Woodbury Heights, and we'd ride on a great big bus. We'd be with that "other" grade as well, so we had a chance to hang out with the kids we hardly knew.
First we had to get that all important permission slip signed by one of our parents, usually your mother, because dad was always at work. Once you had that in your hot little hand you were in like Flynn, and you'd count the days till it seemed like the big event would never come.
Then the day would come and there we all were, 40 or 50 of us standing in line outside that big bus, answering roll call and shaking with excitement.
I always behaved myself. A lot of boys would fidget in line, shoving and pushing each other in that senseless display of young manhood. I couldn't behave that way, because I could feel my parents' eyes on me; they expected me to always show good manners outside the home. I must have seemed like such a goody two-shoes to some of my friends, always polite, always obeying the rules. Besides, some of our mothers would be chaperones, even my own, so the eyes of our parents were always upon us.
We'd board the bus, and there was always that same smell. What was it? A mixture of diesel fumes and air conditioning, the rubber floor and the aromas from all those packed lunches floating in the air. It was intoxicating.
We jostled for seats, hoping for a window. Maybe I'd sit with Billy Reim or Dave Hampel instead of Robbie McWilliams or Paul LaPann for a change. I would rather have sat with one of the prettiest girls, but that just wasn't done, no you waited until you were a teenager before showing any interest in the opposite sex.
We would listen to the rules: stick together, stay with your group, pay attention to the schedule and behave yourself at all times. Now let's have fun, everybody!
The roar of the engines, and off we'd go, a mass of laughing, yapping excited little crazy people.
We were out for adventure and the thrill of getting out of a day in school. We were supposed to be learning. We were learning how to socialize, how to experience the outside world, and maybe glean something from whatever museum we happened to visit.
You might learn that your best friend got car sick, and the bus ride caused them to spew all over everybody.
I learned that I was afraid of heights when we visited the Philadelphia Airport. We walked out on the roof of one of the buildings to observe the planes landing and taking off, and I felt this weird sensation take hold of me. It was several stories up, and my legs wouldn't move. I stood in the center of the observation platform while all l the rest of my classmates were at the edges. I just looked straight up at the sky, waiting for the teacher to tell us all to go back inside. I never told anyone; I couldn't tell anyone; I didn't understand my own fear.
The human heart at the Franklin Institute bothered me. It was dark inside, and it was beating; it reminded me of some bad horror movie plot, so I stayed away from that.
The Franklin Institute was always a mixture of wonder and disappointment. You could thrill to the giant steam locomotive in the railroad room and be mesmerized by the great pendulum, but it always seemed like a lot of the hands on exhibits were always out of order, so you could never really enjoy them. Thousands of little hands were wreaking havoc on the displays every day, so it's a wonder that they survived at all.
The Fels Planetarium was my favorite part of the Franklin Institute. The first time there you'd think, "hey, this is just a round room filled with chairs, how exciting could this be?". But then the lights would go out and I'd be staring at the night time sky, and I wished it would never be over. Just like standing in a snowstorm all by myself, just me and the stars in the sky.
The Philadelphia Zoo was fun but also sad. It is one of the oldest zoos in the world, and in the 50s and 60s it showed it. The cages were out-dated and the monkeys and gorillas looked exactly like what they were: imprisoned and in despair. Zoos hadn't adopted natural habitat displays yet, so for the most part we looked at caged beasts that wanted to be let out. I much preferred the Cohanzick Zoo in Bridgeton Park. It was informal and it didn't have many exotic animals, but it was a much happier place, and Dad would take us out on the lake in a canoe or a rowboat.
The time would come when we'd have to leave, and the round up would begin. There were always a few stragglers, the rough-housers and the totally clueless had to be collared and brought back into the fold, and we lined up to take our places back on the bus. The roll was called, the engines roared, and home we'd go, just as loud as when we started.
On the way home we talked about what we'd seen, or just looked out the windows reflecting on the day gone by. Maybe you became better acquainted with someone from the "other" grade, and found yourself a brand new best friend. You looked at what you bought at the gift shop and wondered if you made the right choice after all, and you hoped nobody would get motion sickness again. We arrived at the school and piled out to waiting parents sitting patiently in the family car, and we'd chatter on and on about the day's events the whole drive home.
Museums and zoos, farms and historic places; the smell of the bus and the long ride home.
Where will we go next year?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


What is it about Cuba? It seemed to me that for a good part of my young life, our country was obsessed by it. Fidel Castro was always in the news, shaking his fist, waving a cigar, and complaining that the United States was out to get him and his country.
I could never understand it. Wasn't Castro a hero? Didn't he overthrow a ruthless dictator who had suspended his country's constitution? When Castro first took over it seemed like everyone was happy about it. I remember watching Jack Paar do a special report about the Cuban revolutionaries; even interviewing Castro in Havana right after they took control of the government.
Fidel Castro spoke of reforming Cuba, giving land back to the people, and improving the school system so everyone could read and write. He talked about health care for everyone and an end to segregation. It sounded to me like Fidel Castro was someone who stood for freedom and justice, and wasn't that what we pledged allegiance to in school?
I was confused, to say the least. Why did so many Cubans leave the country and come to the United States? Did they like their dictator? Were they against education and health care?
Our government didn't seem to like Castro at all. He had nationalized the telephone company and thrown out the gangsters who ran the casinos and nightclubs. He was a socialist, whatever that was, and that seemed to upset a lot of people.
What did any of this mean to me? We were taught that our forefathers fought the British so we could be free to decide for ourselves. Why was it that the Cubans weren't allowed to do the same?
President Eisenhower had broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba,and now President Kennedy seemed disturbed by that island and its leader.
Castro was talking to the Russians. It seemed like the more we got upset with him the closer he got to the Communists. There was talk that Castro was going to become a Communist, so we'd better do something about it.
So on April 17th we saw on the news that Cuban exiles had invaded the island with the purpose of overthrowing Castro and his followers. It was all so confusing. Blurry images of men on a beach, ships on fire out at sea, and Castro commanding his troops for a counter attack.
It was somewhere called the Bay of Pigs. In my mind's eye I imagined a beach with hogs on it, running from soldiers, squealing with fear.
In two days it would be over, and more black and white images of men surrendering, hardly looking like soldiers at all.
President Kennedy would be on the TV trying to explain it to the world. The CIA, you remember them, don't you? Well, they were behind it. We just weren't going to let that darn Castro have his way, that's all.
It seems that the CIA was training Cuban exiles in Guatemala and Florida. They would invade Cuba and the people there would rise up and support them and throw Castro out for good. It didn't happen. "Reliable intelligence", the CIA would tell the president.
President Kennedy really didn't want to get America caught up in this. He changed a lot of the plans to make it look like we weren't involved, but the world wasn't stupid, and now he had to explain why the United States was invading a small country in a sneak attack; just using others to do the dirty work. He had to explain why and how it failed.
We would hear more and more about Cuba in the coming year. There would be stories in the press that we were trying to assassinate Castro, even making deals with the Mafia to get it done.
I stood in school and pledged allegiance to my country. I believed that we were the good guys, and we stood for all that was right in the world. This Cuban thing I couldn't understand. We would go to war with an island just because some guy who smoked cigars and wore army clothes wanted to run his country the way he saw fit?
An island that grew sugar cane and tobacco,were they really that much of a threat to us all?
Would we ever stop worrying about Cuba?
What's next, I wonder?

April Chill

We'd had enough of snow. We looked forward to spring in 1961. A time of warmth and the colors of flowers and buds on the trees. That fresh air smell and the calm of it all. Easter and candy and the promise of a brand new year.
The world would come knocking that April. Easter and Springtime would be put aside this year; a monster from the not too distant past would be on display for all the world to see, and a secret little war would come to an end in a bay on the coast of Cuba.
Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi concentration camp bureaucrat had been captured by the Israelis in Argentina in 1960. They brought him to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity. The trial would begin that April of 1961, and all the horrors of World War II would be on the minds of people all over the world once again.
The trial was broadcast live, and Eichmann was put in a bulletproof glass booth for all the world to see.
We would listen and learn that Eichmann was responsible for the deportation of Jews and other people the Nazis deemed undesirable. His task was to be efficient; he was to figure out the logistics of mass murder and to make it work.
Eichmann did not deny anything. He did not rant or rave or act in any way like a monster. He did not commit any crime, he would say. His defense, like so many other Nazis, was that he was merely following orders, that the murder of millions of men, women and children was just another day at the office, just another part of the daily routine. Eichmann showed the world that people who had been Nazis weren't necessarily raving lunatics or psychopaths; that ordinary people could be capable of the most evil acts imaginable.
Eichmann's trial would make some people in our government uncomfortable. We had been recruiting former Nazis into the CIA as spies, and wasn't that Werner Von Braun guy working over at NASA the man responsible for the rockets that bombed London? The CIA knew where Eichmann was, but they kept quiet about it because they didn't want attention drawn to themselves; they didn't want the world to know that our country was using former Nazis to help us fight the Communists.
It seemed that evil could be overlooked if you could make yourself useful.
So the world would watch the man in the glass booth and listen to all the witnesses recount the horrors of concentration camps and how Eichmann was an important cog in the Nazi machine.
He would shock the world by how common he was; how indifferent he was.
He showed the world that there could be monsters lurking in us all.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Life Lessons

I was always fascinated by warfare. I learned a lot about war from life. Life Magazine to be exact. The American Civil War had become a passion of mine, and in January of 1961 Life Magazine began a six part series on that subject.
Up until then my exposure to the conflict had been limited to what I could glean from Highlights For Children and My Weekly Reader, a few movies and the fanciful tales shown on Walt Disney.
But here between the pages of our weekly Life Magazine was the Civil War shown in magnificent period paintings and the stark black and white photos of Matthew Brady and his contemporaries. Articles about the battles and the generals and incidents I had never heard of.
I was hooked. Not only about the Civil War, but also about the world in general. Life Magazine would come to our home every week, with its wonderful photographs and fascinating stories about the human condition and the history of the planet, past and present. I was and still am an information junkie, and Life Magazine showed me the world with all its flaws and all of its wonders.
Life would teach me about the shame of racism. I wouldn't understand it all yet, but the pictures told me of violence and hatred in our country, in the land where we were all supposed to be free. Life Magazine would help me to see things as they really were, and more and more questions would form in my mind.
I would read about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and their quest to break the hallowed home run record of Babe Ruth. It would set me off to read about the great legends of baseball, and spark another passion in my life.
Life also helped to spread the false hope of surviving a nuclear holocaust. I remember stories about building fall-out shelters, and how to stock them with enough food and water and how to filter the air so you would be safe from all the radiation, so Life also taught me not to believe everything I read. I also didn't notice that most of the covers of Life Magazine showed a predominantly white world; it left the stories of the other peoples relegated to the inside. I guess America wasn't quite ready for diversity yet.
Life was my first exposure to the erotic as well. The alluring photos of Kim Novak and Marilyn Monroe, the cover with Yvette Mimieux in a bikini, Sophia Loren and all the great beautiful women of the world in glorious color for young boys to admire.
The communists were there as well. Castro would grace the cover many times over, and the troubles in Berlin and the tensions between India and China.
I could sail to outer space with the astronauts or go on safari in Africa. I was on the baseball diamond with the New York Yankees and standing guard at Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin. I could go all around the globe and under the sea and into the minds of the people of the world every week as I lay on the living room floor lost in the pages of a magazine.
Lost in the world of Life.