Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dashing Through The Snow

There was snow on Christmas Eve in 1961. Not much, but just enough to satisfy those who thought that Christmas was only Christmas if it was white.
We prayed for snow as kids. It brought us new adventures, new ways of having fun and risking our lives. The center of all winter activity in Woodbury Heights was the lake area, extending out to include Freund's Cliff and Chestnut Hill. The lake was for ice skating and hockey. Swarms of adults and teenagers gliding along in the glow of streetlights and a fire built on the shore. There were those whose ability on the ice made us watch in awe as they danced in the glow of the moonlight. I was one of those awkward types. I could never get my ankles to co-operate, so I spent most of my time on the ice-well, on the ice.
Sledding was a different story. When I was a young boy I went sledding like most people in the Heights, down the steepest part of the street on Chestnut Hill. It seemed like the whole town was there when the street got really icy. It was especially fun at night. There were very few homes on that side of Chestnut Avenue back then, so you flew down the hill in the dark, increasing the thrill of it all. If you got going good and fast, you could make it to the little rise at the bottom, clear that and continue on down to Boundary Road. Then the long walk back up. Repeat this for an hour or two and you’re ready for hot chocolate and a deep sleep. This was the safe area for sledding, the family version. My brother Carl and I and my friend Keith Madden and others braved the tree-lined slopes of Freund's Cliff, parts of which had the ominous nickname,"Suicide Hill". We had one Flexible Flyer, but in my teens I was insane enough to prefer the metal Sno Disc. You sat in the center of your silver shield, held on to the straps and went down backwards, exposing yourself to bone cracking injuries of every type imaginable. The discs spun as you descended, increasing the likelihood of death or maiming. Once I actually hit full force the entire length of my spine into a sapling tree. For several minutes I thought that I had finally done it; my back was broken. After the shock wore off, I was up and hurling myself down the trail again. My brother had a vinyl coat which he sometimes used to propel himself. He would pull up the cloth collar, lie on his back and go down head first defying the odds. He did eventually break his foot and leg while sitting up dangling his legs over the side of the only real sled we had. We also had an old-fashioned wooden sled with wooden runners. It was really small. You could get your chest onto it, so you rode down with your legs bent up at the knees, steering by shifting your body weight. The rough trails of Freund’s Cliff shook that thing so much that the nails would be popping up and out by the time we were through.
Yeah, the sane people would use Chestnut Hill. Chestnut Hill was a safer sledding experience. Adults were there to supervise and it was a family event for the entire area. I would use Chestnut Hill when it was really icy, but the siren call of "Suicide Hill" and its inherent danger always drew me back for more.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tenth Christmas

I had no more illusions about Christmas. I knew our gifts would come from Mom and Dad, so it's easier to go to bed on Christmas Eve now. This may have been the year I started sitting with Mom after all the visitors had gone. Just like when I was born in '51. We sat admiring the hospital's tree that first Christmas Eve, and we would commemorate that event sitting in the living room watching the lights from our tree cast shadows on the walls and ceiling.
My birthday is coming too, and I'll be ten years old, so I've got to start growing up now. Lots of birthdays to go to; my classmates are hitting their tenth year on earth as well. I seem to remember having one birthday at my house with friends from school. Was it 1961? Seems right. I remember it was kind of a disaster, with ten year old boys running amok in our basement, and I was glad when it was all over and the savages had gone. I vaguely remember Mom muttering "Never again," or something to that effect.
No new bicycle this time, the red Rixe would have to last another year, at least.
This would be a Civil War Christmas for me. 1961 marked the 100th anniversary of the War Between the States, and I asked for all kinds of stuff related to Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.
The Golden Book of the Civil War,and Battle Cry-the Milton Bradley board game. Carl and I both asked for Johnny Reb Cannons, plastic replicas of field guns that shot black plastic cannon balls at your enemies-real or imagined.
Amazing toys coming out in 1961. Robot Commando-the plastic robot that shoots missiles out of its head. The ever popular Mattel Fanner 50 six-gun that fires Shootin' Shells. Jet fighter cockpits and Civil War carbines and plastic sabres. Marx would have the giant Blue and the Gray toy soldier playset, and I hoped to get that for sure. Crashmobile cars that you snapped together and turned them loose to fly apart when they smashed into the wall or the living room furniture. I don't know what the girls were asking for. Barbie's new boyfriend Ken, maybe? Toys for boys were exciting and violent and adventurous kinds of things, and we'd celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace asking for replicas of the weapons of war.
The new Christmas songs no longer seemed out of place. "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and "Jingle Bell Rock" and others had taken their place alongside the old familiar carols and were now a part of the tradition.
I still preferred a real Christmas tree. There were some folks putting up those new aluminum things, all silvery and decorated in one color, and how hideous they seemed to me. A lot like the people who decorated their homes with those blue lights; their houses looked depressing and gloomy in this season of good cheer.
More and more the cries that Christmas was becoming too commercialized, that the true meaning of the holiday was getting lost in all the hustle and bustle. The true meaning of it all was clear to us kids; time off from school and sleeping late and presents and hopefully enough snow on the ground to go sledding down Chestnut Hill.
This was that breathing space we all needed. A time to blow off steam and take a break from all the serious stuff in the world and at school. A time for wishing and parents laughing and our homes bright beacons welcoming us in from the cold.
Mom would paint Santa Claus on the living room window this year, and Carl and I would snooze away Christmas Eve in our bunk beds once more.
I didn't hear Mom and Dad getting the presents down from the attic this year.
I tried to, but sleep overwhelmed me.
I'm an old hand at this stuff now.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Propping Up The Dominoes

We were wide-eyed and trusting as we pledged allegiance every day. We placed our faith and our trust in our young new president. Our country would do the right thing and protect us and the world from all that was ugly and evil. President Kennedy began his first term in office with a covert operation against the Cubans, and it ended badly, an embarrassing incident that had no chance of succeeding. Here in December of 1961, Fidel Castro would declare himself a Marxist-Leninist, and Cuba would join the Communist world of nations, just 90 miles from our shore. Maybe now that the pretense was over, the tension between our countries would ease up a bit and we could forget about Cuba for a while.
Another part of the world was creeping into the news more and more, and our involvement there was growing. President Kennedy was determined to support the government of South Vietnam, however illegitimate it may have been. The Communists were growing stronger, and American military aid and "advisors" were heading over there in increasing numbers. Vietnam was a world unknown to us. They looked Chinese, but their language was different, and a lot of them spoke French, a legacy from their former occupiers. The Vietnamese were tough; they fought the Japanese in World War II and then they defeated the French, and now the Communists in the north were giving the South Vietnamese and us a very difficult time. For many years now we were just giving aid and advice to South Vietnam, but here in December it became a war for us. Troops and helicopters were going in to conduct combat operations as an independent American army.
It was another war against the spread of Communism. We were told that Southeast Asia was a row of dominoes waiting to be toppled over by the hand of the Communists, and we would be the ones to stop them. It was a war we did not understand. It was a war that would test our patriotism and our faith in government, and we'd watch it all on TV.
We had faith in our army and we were convinced we'd win the war easily.
Here in 1961 it was just beginning, and I and every other American boy never imagined that eventually we'd have to wonder, "will it take me?"
Vietnam would enter our homes and add new words and phrases to the national vocabulary, and put pictures in our minds we wished we never had to see.
Hanoi Hilton
Goodyear Sandals
Black Pajamas
Khe Sanh
Green Berets
Body Bags....

New Heroes

It was on a rainy Saturday afternoon in November of 1961 when I first saw it. My neighbor Paul Avis had picked up some new comics in Camden, and this one was different. The cover featured a quartet of superheroes battling a green creature who was coming up from beneath the sidewalks. One of the quartet was a human torch, another could stretch his body into any shape he wished. Rounding out the group was a woman who could become invisible, and the fourth was some kind of superhuman thing with orange lumpy skin and the strength of Hercules.
The artwork had a raw quality, it wasn't slick like the comics from DC, the most popular of the day. This was the start of something new, and I was one of the few to see it: the very first issue of The Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four was a story for our age, the Atomic Age-The Space Age. They were testing a rocket ship in outer space, and were exposed to cosmic rays. The radiation endowed them with powers beyond those of mortal men, so their status in the world was an accident. They chose to use their powers for the good of mankind, and a comic book legend, a comic book universe, was born.
Reed Richards- leader of the group. A bit too serious, a little dull. His power was the ability to stretch his body into all kinds of shapes, reminiscent of Plastic Man from the DC line. Reed would be known as Mr. Fantastic.
Sue Storm/Richards- Sue would become Reed's wife. Hers was the power to become invisible, so she would be known of course, as Invisible Girl.
Johnny Storm- Sue's teenage brother. Johnny's body became engulfed in flames. He would become The Human Torch.
Ben Grimm- Their loyal friend. A test pilot whose body was turned into a grotesque mass of orange lumps, endowed with superhuman strength. He would call himself The Thing.
This was a new comic book company- Marvel it was called.
For years I had been reading their western titles under the Atlas brand name.
Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, Ringo Kid, they all had Kid in the name. There were also some odd and rather scary-looking titles that we sometimes picked up. Journey into Mystery, and Strange Tales. The covers were kind of lurid, so I tended to stay away from those. Millie The Model? No, that was a girl's comic, and besides, it was pretty lame, a lot like Archie and Jughead.
I didn't realize it at the time, but during the summer I had read the very first Marvel comic, another find from Paul Avis. Amazing Adventures it was called, and there was a dinosaur on the cover. They weren't on the newsstand in Woodbury yet, so I only got hold of them when Paul would come back from his visits to Camden.
The Fantastic Four would stir our imagination. The art by Jack Kirby and the witty dialogue from Stan Lee. Marvel would talk to its readers, and there would be letters pages with snappy answers from the editors. Deadly villains like Doctor Doom, and cosmic ones like Galactus. The Silver Surfer would come sailing through the galaxy, and the Sub-Mariner would be reborn.
Jack Kirby's art would get more astounding and complex with each issue, and Stan's plot lines would have us clamoring for more.
It was the dawn of a new age, and I was there from the beginning, eagerly awaiting new characters and stories from the Marvel Bullpen.
They wouldn't be long in coming.
One of them would be amazing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Lots of things were hazardous to us. We inhaled second hand smoke like nobody's business. Seemed like every adult you knew smoked; I even rode to the store on my Rixe to pick them up for my mother. Smoking was good for you, or so we were told, so no one thought much about it. Funny,'cause cigarettes were referred to as "cancer sticks" and "coffin nails", so people knew the truth, they just chose to ignore it.
We drove around in great big cars fueled with leaded gasoline without seat belts or airbags to protect us. There was lead in paint and probably in all of the toys we played with as well. When the mosquito trucks drove through our neighborhoods in the summer, kids would follow along, riding in the fog, inhaling DDT and heaven knows what else was in the mix. People did lots of crazy, stupid things that were dangerous without any regard of the risks involved.
There was one crazy thing people did that was really dangerous. They did it willingly, and some would travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to do it.
You would have to go to Las Vegas, you know, where adults went to drink and gamble and watch the Rat Pack do its thing up on the stage.
Las Vegas was known as "Sin City", because you could go there and do things that were illegal or at least considered immoral in the rest of the country. Las Vegas was also known as "Atomic City", because you could go out into the desert and watch something: something earth-shattering. You could gaze upon the awe-inspiring, extremely mind-blowing spectacle of a nuclear bomb exploding.
This was the era of atmospheric nuclear testing. Hydrogen bombs going off in the Nevada desert, or on islands in the Pacific with such unlikely names as Bikini and Christmas. From the late 1940s up until 1962 they would go off, and human beings were more than eager to offer themselves up as willing guinea pigs just to get a glimpse of a nuclear blast.
Armageddon as a tourist attraction! Stand in the glow, feel the force of the blast and get covered in radioactive dust. The thrill of a lifetime!
I guess no one thought that nuclear fallout was harmful. They showed us movies of soldiers who were covered in fallout dust, smiling as it was brushed off with a broom. Just sweep it away like pollen, nothing more to worry about, nothing to lose sleep over, anyway.
The bombs went off in Nevada, and Russia, and in the south Pacific too. They lit up the skies in the South Atlantic, over Australia and remote areas of North Africa.
The Russians had exploded the biggest bomb of all, the Tsar Bomba, a 50 megaton monster just to show the world who was boss. They were going to make it 100 megatons, but even they were afraid of that; most of the radiation would fall on the Soviet Union, so they cut it in half.
Russia, America, France, the United Nations and eventually China were exploding nuclear weapons into our atmosphere, the consequences be damned. The radioactive dust would be carried on the winds, falling to earth willy-nilly, landing on us all without regard to race, creed or color or nationality.
We didn't feel it.
We couldn't see it.
But it was there, it was everywhere.
Spores carried on the wind.
Seeds of a bitter harvest sown.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Halloween Twentyfour-Seven

Halloween would come and go in 1961, and we'd check out our candy hoard to see how many good pieces we'd gotten. Milky Ways and Clark Bars, Fifth Avenues and Three Musketeers. Good N' Plenty, Bonomo Turkish Taffy and Tootsie Rolls. Some people gave us apples, which didn't thrill us all too much, and I never understood the allure of candy corn at all. The real horror of Halloween, at least for me, was getting something with coconut in it. No Mounds Bars for me, if you please!
Yeah. Halloween was over, for most people anyway. Here in our little neighborhood we had a constant reminder of all things dark and spooky.
Just a few doors down on the other side of the street stood the house of Mrs. Price and her rarely seen son John-John.
Mrs. Price was weird. She was a retired English teacher who lived close to nature. So close to nature that it was difficult to distinguish her from the soil at times. Just past the Gerbers' and the Collin's houses her property cast a dark shadow. It was our Sleepy Hollow; a dense patch of woods on each side of the street, with Mrs. Price's house the grim centerpiece of it all. Grimy is the kindest thing you could say about it. It was obscured by the trees and the vines; you could see the front door and a bit of the porch, but that was about it. During the day you could safely walk by as long as you quickened your pace. Every once in a while Mrs. Price would appear as if coming right up out of the ground. She was just there in an old dirty dress and sweater, staring at you through the smudged-up lenses of her eyeglasses, her hair unkempt, her stockings dirty and torn. We were convinced she was a witch-Mark Gerber told us she was, and he should know, he lived closest to her.
You didn't knock on her door at Halloween. The lone 40 watt bulb did not invite you, and there never seemed to be any other lights on within the house. The old incandescent street lamp gave the house and woods an eerie glow, providing just enough light to get you past in the evening.
The sidewalk was crumbling and shattered; you couldn't roller skate through there even if you wanted to, and you rode your bike as fast as you could after dark; convinced that the Headless Horseman was waiting nearby.
We didn't see John-John Price very much, so he was even more mysterious, which gave rise to wilder tales about him. We were convinced that John-John roamed the streets at night, sickle in hand, in search of stray cats and dogs which he would kill and then behead, carrying his gruesome trophies back home. It was rumored that the woods behind their house were decorated with the skulls of the unfortunate animals that he had caught; that they were part of some weird Wican rituals they performed in the dead of night. If they weren't witches or sorcerers then they were Druids at least, and some sort of Stonehenge was cloaked behind the trees and the bushes and the vines.
In this world of H-bombs and nuclear missiles, how could there be anything scarier than the annihilation of the planet?
Well, I tell you my friends, it was right there, just a few doors down, heading into town, and the horror was our neighbor.
Be careful when the sun goes down!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

October Fright

It was the scary part of the year, when ghosts and goblins, witches and spirits roamed the evenings of October. We’d spend the last half of the month trying to decide what we would be on All Hallow’s Eve. The girls might be witches or princesses, or Barbie, or a prima ballerina all dressed in white. Boys would be vampires or Frankenstein’s monster, or ghosts or soldiers all clad in green.
Would we fool the neighbors when we visited their homes? Would they identify us, or would we trick as well as treat? Would they see through our bluff as we stood facing them in their living rooms and hallways, and would we frighten them when we came knocking at their door?
Just a few days before Halloween in 1961, on October 27, the Communists in East Germany would play a guessing game of their own. They were stopping our diplomats and searching their papers, checking for their identities and making a scene. That real-life goblin, Nikita Kruschev, was still threatening to blow us all up with H-bombs, all the while talking about peaceful co-existence with the non-communist world.
There was a lot of tension in Berlin, and American troops were on the alert, waiting for something to happen. Russian tanks appeared at Checkpoint Charlie, just yards away from the border line between East and West Berlin. American tanks were rushed to the scene, and a face off began and the world would begin to wonder if this was the beginning of the end.
The tanks would sit and we all worried. Would some nervous young soldier accidentally pull the trigger and set off World War III? Would H-bombs and missiles fall just because some government officials were insulted by being asked who they were?
The hours ticked by and the diplomats talked and the tanks stood ready to answer the call to war. Somehow Halloween didn’t seem all that important right now; running around like ghosts and ghouls didn’t hold the same appeal.
On October 28th, the tanks began to back up a few feet at a time, until they were all back at their bases, and the crisis was over. The world had missed a bullet one more time.
We could go back to planning our night of fun, hoping to haul in the biggest bags of candy ever.
The Russians weren’t finished; they had one more trick up their sleeve. On the morning of October 30th, they set off a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb, the biggest nuclear weapon ever built. It contained more power than all of the explosives used in World War II. They called it the King of Bombs, or Tsar Bomba. Krushev told us that this bomb would show the world who was boss. The Tsar Bomba was so powerful that its fireball touched the earth and almost reached the plane it was dropped from. It would destroy everything in its path, and there was a fear that it would destroy the Russian bomber and its crew along with it. What of the fallout? How much nuclear radiation would be spread all over the world from just one bomb? Duck and cover? You’ve got to be kidding!
Did Krushev know about Mischief Night? Was this his way of t-papering the world? Soaping windows and “egging” cars; flaming bags of dog-poo and ringing doorbells couldn’t stand up to bombs that could destroy everything.
So what to choose for Halloween in 1961?
What to wear and what to be?
How can you scare your neighbors and friends,
When the end of the world can be seen?

Friday, August 1, 2008

My Brother And School

Carl didn't think much about school, and his report cards showed it. He had a cavalier attitude. A passing grade was good enough for him. He had gotten through Kindergarden, and now he was in the First Grade.
He summed it all up one afternoon when he got home.
He was learning how to read and now he could write his name.
Carl looked at Mom and said, "I don't need that place anymore."
From then on he'd settle for just getting by.
I guess he knew Dad would have a railroad job waiting for him.
For Carl school was just like a freight train sitting on a siding; he was waiting for the tracks to clear so he could head on up the line.