Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dividing Line

We were cruising through the summer in 1961. The locusts and cicadas told us how hot the days would be. It was hot and humid long before the sun came up, even in the early hours when Dad was leaving for work. Life would be good these last few weeks before returning to school and the Fourth Grade. Ah summer. Not a care in the world.
We would wake up one Sunday, the 13th of August it was, to find out that the Communists, the East German ones this time, were creating a stir over in Berlin. They were closing off the border between their zone of the city and that of the west, provoking another confrontation between us and the Russians. A wall would go up, keeping West Germans out, but most importantly, keeping East Germans in. At first it was a barbed wire fence, brick barricades and rows of tanks at major checkpoints. All the trains and subways were stopped, and soldiers stood on opposite sides, wondering what would happen next.
The Russians, whose idea this was, didn't want people free to get out of their socialist "utopia". You see, thousands of East Germans were simply walking into West Germany and never coming back. They were seeking work and personal freedom, and their leaving was hurting the East German economy which wasn't so good in the first place.
The East Germans were telling us that it was an anti-fascist wall put up to protect East Germans from "capitalist terrorists"; to prevent spies from crossing over and creating unrest in their new society. They were preventing World War III, or so they said.
This was serious. We could hear the adults talk about it in hushed tones, and the evening newscasts talked of growing tensions and the threat of another war.
Would we fight the Russians over this? Would H-bombs be falling on Philadelphia and Fort Dix, wiping out me and everybody else in Woodbury Heights and all the rest of South Jersey? I couldn't say that "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer any more. I didn't want to get to that "if I should die before I wake" part, it was all too real now.
We watched on the news as the wall went up and listened to the Communists tell us how wonderful life was in East Germany; how their citizens needed protection from the evils of the Western Allies.
We saw East Germans escaping this "wonderful world". They jumped over the wire; even one of their border guards did it for all the world to see. A man drove up to one of the barriers, put the top down on his convertible, and slid beneath it. People would jump from the windows of buildings that were on the border line, and two families, the Wetzels and Strlzycks made a hot air balloon out of nylon and floated their way to freedom. So the barriers were lowered and windows blocked up and the sale of nylon fabric was prohibited.
Still, the East Germans persisted. Life over there was just the same as it was under the Nazis. Spying and informing on your friends and neighbors and your families was the norm, and the secret police were no different than the Gestapo. Work was hard to come by, and the economy was in ruins, so the Germans on the Eastern side of the wall were determined to cross, no matter what the cost.
I saw all of this on the nightly news. Walls going up to replace the wire. People crying and waving to their relatives on the other side. Russian and American tanks facing each other, wondering if they'd ever get the order to fire. Stories of spies being exchanged, and accusations flying. Would it end with missiles and bombs falling from the sky, and what did it all really mean?
How could this happen, I'd wonder.
Why would people do this to one another?
How could countries put up walls to keep people from going to work?
Walls so they couldn't live as they'd like?
Walls so they can't be free?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Summer, 1961

Nine and a half years old now and this summer I had more responsibilities. It was my job to feed my dog Whee-Zee, something I never considered a chore. I also had to take out the trash and empty the garbage. Your food scraps were put into a small metal pail that was put out every Sunday evening for the garbage men to pick up on Monday morning. All the garbage was hauled off to the pig farms in Deptford, adding to the horrible smell that would come drifting on the air down Egg Harbor Road. Taking out the garbage was disgusting; the pail would stink to high heaven, and often it would be crawling with a mass of ugly white maggots. You opened the lid, held your breath, dumped the slop and quickly covered the thing as fast as you could. I can still smell it. The paper trash would be taken down to the end of the yard and burned in a big metal drum. I wasn't allowed to set the fire yet, that would come next year, as well as learning how to mow the lawn.
When Dad was able to we would take long drives. We never knew where he was taking us; it was always "Come on, get in the car, we're going for a drive."
I think Dad would read or hear about something that interested him and he would file it away in his mind, saving it for when he had a day off, and then off we'd all go to satisfy his curiosity. One of his surprise journeys took us to the Barnegat Lighthouse on the tip of Long Beach Island. Dad wanted to climb up to the top and gaze out over the ocean, hoping to give us all a thrill. It sounded exciting. A chance to get up high and look out across the sea to the end of the earth; maybe we could even spot England over the waves. A chance for adventure! I was a disappointment to my father that day. When I went inside and stared up at that winding, open metal staircase that seemed to go on forever so high and so fragile looking, my fear of heights took over me and I just couldn't move. There was no way I was climbing those stairs to an almost certain doom. Why don't they have elevators on these things! No, I had to be content with what I could see from the ground. Mom didn't go up either; she shared my fear of high places. I would be a flop at amusement parks as well. Dad would want to go on the roller coasters and all of the other rides that twisted and turned and went up to the sky, but not me, no that was not for me. The height and the G-forces scared and sickened me, and try as I might I could never find it in myself to enjoy it. I couldn't stand the feeling of my stomach dropping out, the rickety tracks suspended on such flimsy-looking supports; no the rides weren't for me. Any thoughts of becoming a jet fighter pilot or an astronaut were dashed beyond hope, I'd remain firmly on the ground.
We continued to play war. I could go over to Robbie McWilliam's house where he and Billy Hills and Richie Hearn and I would fight the battles of World War II over and over again. Robbie had a realistic looking machine gun on a tripod, and we would take turns mowing each other down assaulting the gun emplacement in frantic plastic bayonet charges.
Mom would try to revive my waning interest in the Lord again, and I would attend Vacation Bible School over at the Presbyterian Church. We'd do crafts like making Noah's Ark out of construction paper. They'd read us stories about Jesus and his disciples. We'd go outside and play tag and other games that didn't require any equipment. We were playing a form of tag where you had to run to the church wall for safety. The big glass windows of the basement rose up above us, and Robbie McWilliams raced back towards them a little too fast, so his arms went crashing through one. He screamed in terror and in pain, and the glass flew all around me. I remember him standing there screaming; his arms had this odd look as though they were covered in cottage cheese and ketchup. Our mothers quickly scooped him up and comforted him until the ambulance arrived. We wouldn't play that version of tag anymore. I didn't develop a new found interest in God or anything, but it was fun and it was something to do for two weeks, and- there was chocolate milk and pretzels! Real creamy chocolaty elixir in small glass bottles that was really cold and really really good. The salt from the pretzels enhanced the chocolate, and I couldn't wait for our daily dose of crunch and cream. Now that was a revelation!
Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were always in the news. By the Fourth of July Mickey had 39 home runs and Roger had 40, and the papers were abuzz with the details of their quest to break Babe Ruth's record. It seemed like a day didn't go by without one of them smacking another homer, and the Yanks just steamrolled their way through the American League. The Phillies? Oh the Phillies were just plain awful, losing107 and winning only 47. Johnny Callison hadn't developed yet, and Richie Allen was nowhere to be seen. A bad year for Phillies fans indeed.
Gus Grissom would go up into outer space and just as quickly come down without orbiting the earth, his capsule sinking to the ocean floor. Another embarrassment; it looked like we would never come close to what the Russians could do.
We would go on into the dog days of August and spend more time at the lake and riding our bikes down Chestnut hill to keep cool. The hottest time of the summer, the lazy days were here and our minds were free of school and anything else of a serious matter.
We could drift through August without a care in the world....

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Dad brought her home sometime in 1953. He got her from a lady who worked on the railroad. Whee-Zee wasn't perfect enough to be a show dog; when her tail and ears were clipped, there was some nerve damage, so one ear drooped and a tooth stuck out. The lady told Dad that she was too much to handle, so he agreed to bring her home to us.
She was and always will be the greatest gift Dad ever brought home to me. Whee-Zee became my loyal best friend, my protector and constant companion. Boxers have a reputation for being good around children, and Whee-Zee was no exception. My brother Carl and I could do whatever we wanted to her and she would take it all without complaint. If you put your finger in her ear or in the folds of her jowls, she didn't growl or snip-she'd slap that big wet tongue in your face. She would growl when you'd try and get the stick or ball she retrieved for you, but it was a playful sound, not uttered in anger.
Like all good dogs who've been in the family for years, she had become more than just a pet. She wasn't an animal we kept, she was an important member of the family; another kid in the brood.
Whee-Zee often had a mind of her own. Dogs weren't tied up in yards or put on leashes back then, at least I don't remember it that way. Most animals stayed on their own property, but every now and then Wheez would take it upon herself to do a little exploring on her own. She must have gotten scent of something good every once in a while, and she just had to find out what it was. She would be gone and we couldn't find her, and we'd be full of worry, and then the phone would ring. It was usually the Deptford police telling us they had her and would we be so kind as to come and pick her up. Dogs had collars and tags and were easy to identify, and the police took it all in stride and with a measure of understanding. Whee-Zee would be scolded, but of course to no avail, and if the mood struck her she'd be off on her own again, in search of who knows what.
We'd get phone calls from Mr. Kinkle down by the lake as well. Whee-Zee liked to swim, and hey-there's this big 'ol lake down the street, so it was only natural for her to want to head on down and take a dip. Thing is, dogs weren't allowed and her face was kinda scary, so she'd cause a commotion down there on the beach.
"Mrs. Maddox," Mr. Kinkle would begin, "Could you come down and get your dog, please? She's scaring all the children."
Wheez just wanted to be sociable and take a swim with everybody, but they all took a dim view of this, so Mom would have to trudge down to the lake and bring her back, scolding her all the way.
Whee-Zee was a person, and she liked to do what people like to do. Ice cream, for instance. Whee-Zee loved ice cream, and she developed a rapport with one of the soft serve guys who came around in the summer. This was before Mr. Softee. This truck had a Polar bear on it. I never did remember the name of the company, to us it was always the Polar Bear man. Anyway, the Polar Bear man liked Whee-Zee, so he always gave her a small vanilla cone each time he came our way. If he wasn't quick enough, she'd climb up into the truck looking for it. She always got her own cone when we went out for frozen custard as well, gobbling it up from the floor of the car.
The couch was her favorite place to catch a nap, but only when we weren't home. Mom did not allow dogs up on the furniture, but whenever we would go out for the day and she was left inside, we could always hear that familiar thump of her hitting the floor as she quickly jumped off the sofa before we came through the kitchen door.
Beer was another guilty pleasure of hers. Our yard was the site of many a family cookout, especially the Fourth of July, and a keg or two of beer was always placed under the old maple tree. Whee-Zee would position herself near the spot on the ground beneath the tap, licking up whatever was missed. I don't think she ever got too drunk from it, but there was one time when she seemed a little unsteady on her legs. Usually my parents would shoo her away before she could drink too much.
Whee-Zee used to like to lay in the middle of Walnut Avenue sometimes. I guess it was because the street was cool on a warm day. There was lots of shade, and that must have been the nicest spot for her. Many a motorist who turned the corner off of Egg Harbor Road was greeted by the sight of a scary-looking brown lump in the middle of the street. Mom would have to come out and drag her into the yard, swatting her behind and lecturing her on the dangers of lying about in the road.
She usually always listened to me, but there were some days that she just didn't want me to go off to school, and she would follow me all the way to Glassboro Road. I would stop and yell and push her back, and maybe swat her on the rump, and finally she'd reluctantly turn back, giving me that oh so sad expression that Boxers are so good at. Most of the time she'd go home, but some days she'd be sitting there at the school, waiting to walk me home.
She ate everything-dog food, people food-you name it she ate it. I know, it was now my job to feed her. Except pickles. She couldn't or wouldn't eat pickles. You'd put one in her mouth, and she'd give you this puzzled look, and then it would come sliding out to the ground. No, no pickles for Whee-Zee.
As I've said, Wheez was my armor and my shield. She would protect me and my family from danger. Once, a man was prowling around our house early in the morning, say 2 AM. I think Dad had gotten home about an hour or so before that and had let Whee-Zee outside. This poor guy didn't know our dog was lurking in the yard, but he soon found out. Whee-Zee snarled and growled and showed her teeth and pinned this guy to the side of the house, and kept him there until my parents came out to investigate. The man was petrified and gave some lame excuse that he was lost and was going to ask for directions, and quickly apologized and went on his way. Whatever he was doing, he would never do it in our yard again.
Mrs. Olsen accused my brother and our neighbor Paul Avis of running though her flower beds one day. They were out in the sand pile when she confronted them. She was yelling and accusing; they had ruined her flowers-there were footprints all over the beds, and she knew it was them. They were denying it and yelling back. Whee-Zee was nearby and getting closer to all the commotion. Mom was coming out of the house to see what was going on. I could sense that something bad could really happen any minute; that Sophie Olsen may get out of control. Well, she began to raise her hand to my brother and Paul, and as she did, I could see the hairs on Whee-Zee's back begin to stand on end. A low growl began to come up from deep within her, and a snarl formed on her lips. We all seemed to freeze, and Sophie's hand hung in the air. Mom and I began to say the same thing.
"Sophie, I think you'd better put your hand down slowly and right now."
The growl coming from Whee-Zee had stopped her cold, and the warning from me and Mom took effect, and Sophie slowly, ever so slowly put her hand down and gingerly walked back to her yard, mumbling something to herself. Sophie would never threaten one of us like that again. It was close, it was something we didn't want to see, but like I said, Whee-Zee was our armor, she was our shield.
She would let us tease her, she let us put plastic flowers on her head at Easter. She let Susie Avis eat from her bowl at supper time.
She was scary-looking, but to me she was beautiful. My constant companion, my sleep-mate at nap time, my loyal friend and protector. She was indeed the greatest dog in the world.
She was getting older now, in this year of 1961, a little slower, a little grayer.
Still time girl.
Still time for us to run.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Funny People

We had much to fear in the year of 1961. Communists were everywhere. Russian ones and Chinese, too.
Eastern Europe was blocked off from the rest of the world by an iron curtain, so they told us. I remember seeing an animated film on TV showing this curtain going up, and I believed it really existed; that if you went to Europe when you got to the border of West Germany you'd actually come up against an iron wall of some type, keeping everyone away.
Now it looked like we would have Cuban Communists just 90 miles off shore, and our soldiers were still over in South Korea, keeping an eye on the Communists from the north.
And what about that little country-somewhere over there in Southeast Asia was it? A country that the French got kicked out of. Someplace called Vietnam. The Communists were making trouble there too.
The nuclear bomb hung over all of our heads. The end of the world could come at any moment, heralded by sirens and that harsh moan of the warning signal on the TV. Our last moments on earth spent staring at the walls of our school, or bent beneath the desks in our classrooms.
We needed to laugh and there were plenty of men and women with the talent and the personality to take our minds off of all the worries in the world. The greatest crop of stand-up comedians would parade before us on TV, brightening our lives with laughter. As children of the time we saw most of them on the Ed Sullivan Show; the other programs of the day would be on way past our bed times.
The oldest and greatest were still there, showing us that truly good comedy never goes out of style. We could still see Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle and George Burns and Gracie Allen, proving that old could still be good.
A new crop of comedians were grabbing the stage. Some were edgy and political, and some spoke of the gentler times of childhood. Black comedians could talk about racism, and women were finally able to present their point of view. This new generation of comedians would change our ideas about what was funny, and many of them would have a dramatic impact on the future of comedy in movies, on TV and in the nightclubs all over the world.
So I offer up a roster of some of the best minds and practitioners of the art of comedy. The folks who made us laugh with one-liners, insults, timely commentary on the political and racial issues of the day, and just plain craziness. I'm sure I'll miss a few, so feel free to add your own. Here's to the ladies and gentlemen who gave us the ability to laugh at the world and at ourselves during a time when it seemed as though the whole world was going mad.
Jack Benny
Henny Youngman
Milton Berle
Bob Hope
Phyllis Diller
Bill Cosby
Woody Allen
Selma Diamond
Jonathan Winters
Moms Mabley
Burns and Allen
Victor Borge
Bob Newhart
Don Rickles
Godfrey Cambridge
Joan Rivers
The Smothers Brothers
Lenny Bruce
Totie Fields
Dick Gregory
Allen and Rossi
Rodney Dangerfield
George Carlin
Mike Nichols and Elaine May
Mort Sahl
Minnie Pearl
Stiller and Meara
Their gift to us is priceless.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Look close. Make sure you see. Look deep into the mirror and tell me who's looking back. Is it your father's nose, your mother's eyes? The thoughts you have-do they come from your grandfather or a great aunt who passed on long ago?
When I whistle it's my mom doing dishes at the kitchen sink. When I laugh a hearty laugh it's Dad in there, and when I giggle my brother Carl comes back to life. If I belch out loud, well please forgive me, but it's Nanny letting me know she's still there.
When I ride my bike that childhood joy that rushes through me; is it Uncle Pat calling, urging me on, convincing me to never ever truly grow up?
When I prefer to be left alone, that desire to be apart from the world must be Grandmom Woodward speaking, or is it Dad's real father coming out from behind the shadows?
Where does that fear come from, and why have we let it hold us back?
When I'm stubborn, is it Mom or is it Dad, or is it a little of both, or is it a legacy of stubbornness, coming from way back, from someone I'll never know?
When I lose my temper, I know it's my father, and I remind myself so.
I look at the portrait of my Pop-Pop Gardner and I see the face of my cousin Ronnie, and in an early photograph of him, just the slightest hint of me, so I know we're all the same.
My cousin Charlie smiles up from the family album, and when he does, there I am, just as happy as he.
Listen close, and when you sing do you hear your mother's voice, and when you decide not to buy that television until it goes on sale, well is that your parents thinking, always reminding you to spend your money wisely and well?
What do you like and what do you hate? How do you view the world you see?
Where does it all come from and from whom?
We don't notice it all when we're nine years old.
We don't quite know just what we are and where we've come from or who we're going to be.
But deep inside it's not just you.
It's them: it's all your family.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You

Fidel Castro was a mystery in 1961. At first it seemed like he was a hero. He and his followers had overthrown a ruthless dictator who had ruled Cuba without regard for its constitution or the rights of its people. Castro spoke about returning land to the people,restoring human rights. He called for universal health care and a better education for everyone in his country. He talked about liberty and justice for all. How could we not admire him?
Castro would surprise us all here in America. In his first speech after the overthrow of the government, he spoke out against the United States. He said, "This time, fortunately for Cuba, the revolution will achieve its true objective. It will not be like 1898, when the Americans came and made themselves masters of the country."
This confused a lot of Americans. Haven't we always been the leaders of the free world? Didn't we support the cause of freedom all over the planet? Why was Fidel Castro so angry at us, and why was he making friends with the Russians?
After taking over the country, Castro's government began to confiscate corporations owned by foreigners, and a lot of those businesses were American. He threw out the American gangsters who ran the nightclubs and casinos, and controlled the prostitution trade.
President Eisenhower was confused. He didn't understand what was going on in Cuba.
He would state: " Here is a country that, you would believe on the basis of our history, would be one of our friends.....You would think they would want good relationships. I don't know exactly what the difficulty is."
If our president couldn't figure it out, then how could anyone in America understand?
Fidel Castro wanted to make Cuba an island of Communism. Evil, godless Communism right on our doorstep, and no one could figure out why.
No one could figure out why because the reasons had all been forgotten, and those who knew why weren't telling. What had happened, and what was Castro talking about? What was it about the year of 1898 that bothered him so?
Well, you see, in 1898 America went to war with Spain. We wanted control of Cuba. Cuban revolutionaries were beginning to gain control over their country from their Spanish rulers, and they were talking about social reforms, especially land redistribution. A lot of that land was owned by American businessmen, and they didn't want their apple cart pushed over. The battleship Maine blew up in the harbor of Havana, and it was believed the Spanish were responsible. President McKinley was determined to go to war with Spain on the pretext of restoring freedom to the Cuban people, but what he and his supporters truly wanted was control of the island for business and military reasons. True freedom in Cuba, with Cubans actually running their own country was no longer an option. This is not, of course, what the Cubans were told. The Cubans were afraid that if the Americans intervened that they would be absorbed by the United States; that they would have no control over their own country.
There were people in America that did not want us to get involved in the affairs of others, and public sentiment was against sending our troops to help people who didn't want our assistance.
So an amendment was proposed by Senator Henry Teller of Colorado. His amendment would declare that " the people of the island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent." The amendment ended with a solemn pledge. We pledged that after helping the Cuban people get rid of their Spanish rulers, we, the United States would "leave the government and control of the island to its people."
We did not keep our promise to the Cuban people. As soon as the short little war was over, we denied the Cubans everything. Americans took full credit for winning the war. We denounced the Cubans as ineffective and incompetent, despite the fact that they were close to throwing out the Spanish on their own. The Teller Amendment was called unwise and ill-advised, and that the Cuban people were not capable of ruling on their own. Now Cuba was in American hands, occupied by American troops, ruled by American laws.
In 1900 the Platt Amendment was formulated. This Amendment would give the United States military bases in Cuba. It would give us the right to veto any treaty between Cuba and any other country. It allowed the Cubans the right to govern themselves as long as the United States approved of any decision they made. The Cubans "accepted" this amendment, and the American occupation was over.
From then on Cuba would be controlled by dictators propped up by American business interests and American guns. In 1959 it all came to an end when Castro and his army defeated the American-supported dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
Fidel Castro would stand before the world and proclaim Cuba to be free, once and for all. He would declare that Cuba was now rid of American influence, and the Cuban people would choose their own destiny. He would blame the United States for all its troubles, and he told us to keep out of Cuba's affairs once and for all.
And we just couldn't understand why now, could we?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pulp Heroes and X-Ray Specs

We held them in our hands, the smell of pulp and ink rising from their pages. Exciting adventures and the antics of little kids, friendly ghosts and funny animals. The wild west, World War II and the Korean War exploded right before our eyes. Caped crusaders flew through the sky, battling enemies with powers just as mighty as their own. There was horror, there was humor, and there was war. Our friends were teenagers and cowboys, super heroes and detectives, and we could have them all for a pocketful of change.
The comic book was king when it came to reading. I would lose myself between the pages of all of the costumed crime fighters of the day. Superman, Batman, The Flash. Aquaman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman and The Justice League of America. I had them all, piles and piles of them, stacked neatly in my room. When it came to comic books, Uncle Pat was my hero. He would bring them home from the Woodbury dump and give them all to me and my brother Carl. Besides all of the DC superheroes he would bring me Our Army At War with Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, The Haunted Tank, and Enemy Ace. There were Charlton comics and Dell/Gold Key, and Harvey as well. Mad magazine, and Blackhawk. Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, and something I never saw before; a huge comic book that was all of the collected stories of Dick Tracy, from the very beginning. It would be one of my favorites.
I had all of the "Li'l" comics, too. Li'l Dot, Little Audrey, Li'l Lotta, and Richie Rich, the Poor Little Rich Boy.
Comics were a passion-no, they were an obsession, and it was just as thrilling hunting them down as it was reading them. I had Uncle Pat and Pop-Pop Gardner for my main source of supply, and there was the Woodbury Newsstand near the railroad tracks when we could get to town. The aroma of that place was wonderful. Pulp paper and ink. The smell of ink from the covers of all the comics and the magazines and the stacks of newspapers. It was a drug, it was a siren's call. I couldn't wait for the weekend and a trip to the Berlin Farmer's Market. There was a vendor who sold paperbacks and magazines, and tons of comic books. In the early sixties you could get five for a quarter. The top half of the cover would be torn off, but that didn't matter, FIVE comics for a quarter instead of 10 or 12 cents a piece. This was the mother lode when it came to buying comics. You could get a good deal at the Cowtown flea market in Woodstown too, but I always liked the Berlin Market for its selection. There was a little shop in South Woodbury that sold ice cream and candy, and there was a huge pile of old comics in the front window area that you could rummage through. All the comics were a nickel, and the covers weren't torn in half. You could find unusual stuff there. Sad Sack, The Blue Beetle, old Tastee-Freeze books, and comics I never heard of before. I was always looking for new sources.
In between the stories of our favorite heroes was the most amazing advertising. There were always ads that promised to make you into a he-man with muscles upon muscles with which you could impress the girls. Kids! Make money selling GRIT, America's family newspaper. Did anyone ever do that? Sea monkeys and greeting cards, cheap plastic soldiers-thousands of them for only a dollar! The joke and novelty page was always my favorite. The X-ray Specs: see through your skin and look at your bones! Tempting, always tempting, but you knew it was too good to be true.
I would spend hours and hours on a rainy afternoon going through my hoard. We read them over and over, their pages dog-eared and worn from it all. Mine were neatly stacked, Carl's in a pile in some corner of the room until Mom would have us clean it up.
I loved the Classics Illustrated comics as well. I would read The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, The Red Badge of Courage and a host of famous books long before reading the real thing. Classics Illustrated fueled the fire, and inspired me to read more as I got older.
There were incredible adventure stories. Turok-Son of Stone, the adventures of an American Indian who gets stuck in a lost valley populated by dinosaurs. Unusual characters like the Metal Men, Star Spangled War Stories featuring tales of soldiers in World War II also fighting dinosaurs!
I pored over each panel, I studied the drawing styles and tried to copy them. Sometimes I was successful, but more often than not my drawings were crude and awkward.
We did not preserve our comics in mylar sleeves or plastic coffins. We read them over and over and over. We traded them and argued over who was mightier, Batman or Superman, The Green Lantern or Hawkman. Who was funnier? Baby Huey or Casper the Friendly Ghost? The covers were often more thrilling than the book itself, and the ads were mostly scams to get money from the pockets of children and young adults.
It was cheap entertainment, a way to spend a rainy day or a hot summer afternoon.
They were cherished friends and thrilling tales, and they educated us too.
And soon, in this year of 1961, a new company would begin to tell us tales.
Tales at which we would truly marvel.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Parading In Style

I don't care much for parades. I have never been fond of them. They seem so pointless unless you are fortunate enough to be where a band is playing and not just marching. One thing I will admit: a parade should be seen in person and not on a TV screen if you wish to get the "full effect" of it all. Yes, a parade should be experienced and not viewed.
I've been in a few parades. It's more fun to be in the parade rather than standing on the curb watching it pass by, at least that's how I feel. It's always felt like organized people-watching with balloons and floats and a few bands tossed in for effect. Fire trucks with sirens wailing and politicians riding in limos waving to the crowd. Lots of waving in parades, and folks seem plum tickled to be doing it.
I've already expressed my dislike for the Mummers parade; seems sacrilegious coming from a South Jersey boy, but there you are.
I'd be in a parade in 1961. The Woodbury Heights Fourth of July parade to be exact. I'd be in the parade as a Cub Scout. Our den was supposed to march in it along with the Boy Scouts, but not enough of us showed up, so we all rode in the back of the scout troop's truck and, yep, you guessed it, waved at the people we rode by. They, of course, waved back with enthusiasm.
It was perfectly natural for all the waving in the Heights parade. Ours was a small affair, and you knew practically everyone in town, so it wasn't that phony type of waving so prevalent in say, the Miss America Parade, or when the Queen of England does that dopey "Royal" wave thing. No, we were saying hi to friends and neighbors; just one big hand-flapping love fest on America's birthday.
Our parade was simple. Civic groups like the Lions Club, boys and girls in their scout troops, the mayor waving from a car, of course. We might be lucky and have one or both of the local band favorites. First there was the Bonsal Blues, the band of the American Legion dressed in light blue uniforms with white belts and helmets. My classmate Greg Jones would march with them. The other band might be the Pitman Hobo Band, from the small town of Pitman just a few miles away down Glassboro Road. These guys dressed in old clothes designed to look like comic clown/hobos. Both bands are Gloucester County traditions, and perform in parades and at local events to this day.
We might have a Nike missile, symbol of our military readiness, towed down the street. It was supposed to make us all feel a little safer, and everyone would cheer as it rolled by. The volunteer firemen would ride out in their trucks and ring the bells and blast their sirens. Kids on bikes decorated with flags and red, white and blue ribbons, and maybe an antique car or two, and that was it. Nothing fancy, just friends and neighbors sharing a moment of patriotism and good cheer.
I'd get lucky in the year of 1962. I wouldn't have to march in this parade either. My Uncle Marshal was invited to drive his old-time car in our parade that year, and he let me and my brother Carl ride along with him. Uncle Marsh was a mechanic with Ace Motors Ford in Woodbury, and he was the family expert on all things automotive. If you needed advice about what was wrong with your car, Uncle Marshal was the man to call. He was a shade tree mechanic on his days off, and I remember watching him work on lots of cars in our yard back in the day.
His antique car was a 1914 Sphinx, a rare automobile built by a company that lasted only two years: 1914 to 1916. Uncle Marsh had completely restored it and he drove it in quite a few parades. I'd get to ride in it again in a much bigger parade held in Woodbury.
The Sphinx was a gray-blue color with a canvas roof. It had that old time look with spoked wheels and a body that had just evolved from a wagon. Big fenders and running boards and an engine that chugged instead of roared. It was too cool, and we were going to ride in it.
The Fourth of July of 1963 would be Carl's seventh birthday, and Mom decided he and I would dress alike in red shirts, blue slacks and white plastic imitation straw hats. We would be Yankee Doodle Dandies riding in our Uncle's old car, dressed like American flags. We waved like flags, too. Yeah, we waved at everybody and everybody waved back. We were royalty for a day, celebrities in our own minds, and it was grand. It was a day I'll always remember.
I'd ride with Uncle Marshal in the Woodbury Heights parade again, and once or twice in the Woodbury Day grand parade that marched for over an hour. We'd wave at hundreds of people in that one, strangers mostly, but every now and then a cheer would go up as we passed relatives or friends standing in a group, letting us know they were there, friendly faces in the crowd.
I haven't been in a parade in a long long time.
I haven't watched too many either.
But I still believe it's always more fun to be in a parade than watching one.
Fun to be riding the wave.