Saturday, September 27, 2008

Slipping Into Summer

The Fourth Grade year is coming to an end. Before it’s over another American goes into space. On May 24th astronaut Scott Carpenter takes off from Cape Canaveral. He lifts off on a Thursday morning before eight o’clock, so I get to see the blast-off before I go to school. I forget about Wee Willie Webber and cartoons today, I’m watching a real space man leave the earth! The flight lasts five hours, so he’s splashing down just as we’re coming back from lunch. Carpenter performs scientific experiments and manually flies the capsule, and he’s the first American in space who gets to eat solid food. I figure we’ll be on the moon and on our way to Mars long before the Russians now.
At the beginning of June it’s announced on the news that Adolf Eichmann has been executed for crimes against humanity. One less monster in our closet.
12 people escape from East Berlin by tunneling under the wall. The East Germans are determined to be free.
I can’t wait for school to be over. I’m a lot smarter now and I have the report card to prove it, but my brain hurts from all that studying, so I’m looking forward to just being a kid for a while.
I’m still getting crew-cuts; my ill-fated attempt at letting my hair grow long a miserable failure. I’m sure my classmates had a good laugh at my expense, as I plastered my hair down with gallons of Vitalis and tube after tube of Bryl-Creem. I will look like an army recruit for many more years, my scalp remaining in the 1950s.
The May Fair, warm weather and our final tests of the year and we’re free to be free again. Time to enjoy the summer and wait for the new addition to our family.
I'll spend the next two months watching Mom’s belly getting bigger and bigger, wondering if we’ll have a boy or a girl. How does a baby fit in there, and how do they come out? It's a mystery to me.
Right now there’s lots of time for fun and adventure.
It’s summer in Woodbury Heights, and the livin’ is easy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Long Haul

Fourth Grade goes on and on. I work harder than ever; endless hours spent sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework under the single fluorescent light bulb, my eyes burning in their sockets. We’re treated more and more like adults by Mrs. Schoener, and she’s tougher on us than Mrs. Lee. I’m gonna end the year with good grades: straight A's in Reading, Spelling, Handwriting, Social Studies and Science. I get B's in English and Arithmetic. English gets rough in the Fourth Grade. We spend hours and hours diagramming sentences. It’s not enough that we can spell and know the definitions; no we have to take a sentence apart and identify everything in it. Subject, predicate, verb, adjectives and adverbs and diagonal lines pointing them out. How do we get through it all?
Arithmetic has never been one of my strong points. Sometimes I just stare at the numbers, unable to make sense of any of it. Long division, multiplication and fractions, and there are moments when I feel totally lost, my brain unable to function.
I’m one of the smart kids, but I don’t feel like I am. Maybe it’s my imagination, but kids like Joyce Hoefers and Sheila McLaughlin and Ann Trocolli seem to breeze through the year without any stress at all.
I begin to notice the leaders of our class. The boys take their cue from Don Vanneman, and there is no doubt that Joyce Hoefers is in command on the girls’ side of things.
Some of us are developing musical talents. Jimmy Matsuk plays classical guitar, Sheila can tickle the accordion, and Greg Jones plays the trumpet,I think. I consider learning to play an instrument, but whenever Mr. Lotstein tries teaching us musical notes, I don’t get it, and besides, I’d rather be outside running and playing instead of practicing music for hours indoors.
My best friend in Fourth Grade is Paul LaPann. We love toy soldiers and talking about the Civil War. We organize the war games with the other boys, and we fight all of the famous battles with toy guns and dirt bombs.
Paul’s mother has his birthday party at the Woodbury Lanes bowling alley on Route 45, and I find a new passion. I will spend many hours on the weekends with my friend Keith Madden and others at the bowling alley in later years. I’ll sleep over at Paul’s house and at Robbie McWilliams’ house as well.
I get a merit award for a drawing of a volcano for the school science fair, and I think this is the year our Cub Scout program comes to an end.
They don’t take individual photos of us this year. They take class pictures and put them in a sort of year book with a glossy cover. For whatever reason, my mother doesn’t buy it; I think because the pictures aren’t very good or something, so I have no picture of me and my classmates; Fourth Grade just images in my mind.
We may not be saying the Lord’s Prayer next year, there’s talk in the news that it may be unconstitutional, so we won’t have to pray anymore. A new high school might be built because the baby boom is in full swing, and Woodbury High won’t be able to handle all the kids coming along.
We’re growing up, Paul and Tommy and Nancy and the rest. Some of us are playing baseball, joining Girl Scouts and displaying musical talents. We’ve had a tough year and we can’t wait for summer and a chance to cut loose.
I can’t wait to go swimming at the lake and to ride my bike and play army all day with Paul and all the others. I don’t know if I’ll have a sister or a brother; I’ve got to wait until July or August, and I wonder how we’re going to find the room for another person in our house. I’ll imagine what going to the world’s fair would be like, and I can’t wait to stay up and watch Tarzan movies on the Late Show.
Come on summer.
Boy do I need a vacation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Crystal Ball

A new brother or sister? If I could just see into the future, then I’d know for sure. But who could predict the future anyhow? There was a place where you could see the future in 1962, but I had no way of getting there. It was happening in Seattle at the Century 21 Exposition. Most people were calling it a world’s fair, but whatever you called it it was a glimpse into the world of tomorrow.
I read about it in Life Magazine of course, and it stirred my imagination. I couldn't believe the things they were predicting for all of us at the turn of the next century-less than 40 years away!
I'd love to go up to the top of that Space Needle, with its revolving observation deck,even though I'm still afraid of heights. A chance to see exhibits from countries all over the world, except the Communist ones of course.
We'll never get there, so I have to be content just reading about it and watching it on the TV. What an amazing future awaits us all.
We’re gonna ride in supersonic airplanes that fly around the world in minutes. Not only that, we’ll have flying cars and jetpacks to get us around. High-speed monorail trains like the one at the fair will whisk us all to work and to school, so we’ll hardly ever have to use cars.
The schools will be marvels themselves, with walls of air and floating tables and canvas roofs that move with the sun! We’ll never want to miss a day of learning again.
Telephones will have push-buttons instead of dials, and they won’t have wires. There’s even gonna be video phones so you can see who you’re talking to, just like in the movies.
We’ll have computers in our homes and kitchens will be fully automated, so our moms will hardly have to lift a finger. There’s gonna be wall-sized TVs and we’ll be able to watch movies in our living rooms.
The 21st century looks like a marvelous new world, and I’ll be there to see it. I can’t wait to have my own flying car and a movie theatre in my home, and a kitchen that does everything automatically.
2001: I can’t wait to see it all happen.
Hmmm...maybe they’ll invent a way to take pictures of babies before they’re born so you can tell if it’s a boy or a girl-now wouldn’t that be something?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pre-Natal Jitters

A sister! Carl and I could have a sister. A girl in the family! If it’s a girl where will she sleep? We only have two bedrooms, and our house is pretty small, so where will they put her? In Mom and Dad’s room? A girl! We’ll have baby dolls and dollhouses and Easy-Bake ovens and Barbies and all that girl stuff instead of more boys’ things. What are we going to do with her? She’ll be crawling on the floor for at least a year. How will I relate to her? She’s always going to be 11 years younger than I am! It’s not that I don’t have any experience dealing with younger kids. Our neighbor Susie Avis is five and she plays kickball with us and she gives Wiffle Ball a shot. She’s kinda like a sister to me and she’s OK and all, so I guess things will work out. But a baby! Crying and getting into things and acting all crazy; you can’t reason with a baby. I thought that stuff was over with. I’ve barely gotten Carl under control and now they hit me with this.
A sister! A girl! Wow!
I never saw it coming.
Wait a minute.
Mom really could have another boy.
A boy.
And he could be just like Carl, and he’d be getting into my stuff and taking things apart and getting into trouble, and acting crazy, and………..

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hoppin' Down The Bunny Trail

March was winding down and the warmth of spring embraced us all. I was waiting for Easter vacation and the chance to be free of school work. Easter is a weird holiday- at least it was for me. Another Jesus story wrapped up in candy and rabbit tales, but you couldn’t fool me, it was just an excuse to get us to go to church. I couldn’t have too much fun on Easter Sundays, because Mom would have us dress up in our suits to go visit our grandparents and other family members, so you couldn’t really enjoy yourself playing, ‘cause you’d get your good clothes all dirty. Lots of bored-to-death kids just standing around in stiff clothes with nothing to do.
I had had it with formal religion by now, and getting me to go to Sunday school was more trouble than it was worth, so Mom had pretty much given up trying.
The egg hunt in our living room would be the highlight of the day. Our moment of fun and then it’s dress clothes and our best behavior. No time to relax until later in the evening when we get home from visiting relatives and we can put on dungarees.
I would hope for solid chocolate rabbits in my basket. I hated coconut, but there always seemed to be a large coconut egg in there somewhere. This Easter Bunny character was no Santa Claus, that’s for sure!
Jelly beans- now whose idea were they, anyway, and what did all this have to do with Jesus getting crucified? We were supposed to be celebrating a miracle here, so why are we dyeing eggs and waiting for a rabbit to bring us candy and cellophane straw?
Jesus was kind of like all the super heroes in the comic books, you know? A misunderstood white guy with super powers battling evil. He had 12 sidekicks instead of one, and one of them couldn’t be trusted. Thing is, he knew everything that was going to happen to him, and he still goes to supper that night. He gave Ben-Hur a drink of water and healed a lot of people, and for all his good deeds he gets rewarded with a painful execution. And because of all that, a rabbit comes to our homes with baskets full of candy. No, I don’t get it. I never will. Spring, rebirth, resurrection and jelly beans, and a perfectly good day wasted, stuck in a suit of clothes.
I’d better get a solid chocolate rabbit so I can bite the ears off and enjoy that cocoa bean high. It’s a night of bad television and a reminder not to eat all our candy at once-(shades of Halloween). The good news is we get a week off from school and the weather is getting warm, so it’s outside for bike rides and playing war in the afternoon.
Another Easter goes by. We celebrate the wonder of resurrection drinking Heritage’s eggnog, eating ham and chocolate bunnies, watching Max Von Sydow and Jeffrey Hunter and other blue-eyed actors pretend to be Jesus on TV. The miracle remembered.
Mom getting me to go to Sunday school-now that would have been a miracle.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Announcement

Sometime in the Spring I think it was that Mom gave us the news. She tells Carl and me that she's going to have a baby, sometime in July or August maybe.
Another baby?
"Well where are we going to put it," I wonder?
Our house is pretty small and there's only two bedrooms and only one bathroom, and I'm tired of "holding" it already if you please. We just don't have the room!
Will this kid get put in with me and Carl?
Somebody else getting into my stuff!
There's going to be lots of crying. How are we supposed to get any sleep with a baby around? Did anybody think of that? And what about all those smelly old diapers?
I'm going to be eleven soon, what am I going to do with a little kid in diapers and rubber pants running around the house?
By the time this kid is old enough to understand anything, I'll be a teenager.
I'll be a teenager with a little brother who can barely read!
I don't know what Carl is thinking. He shows very little interest.
Another baby brother to take care of. What if this one is a bigger handful than Carl?
This is mind-boggling.
Will I have to baby-sit?
Another screaming, scheming, can't-sit-still-and-never-behave baby brother!
Uh-oh, wait a minute.
Oh boy, I forgot.
This brand new baby brother could wind up being a girl!

Friday, September 12, 2008

In Like A Lion

I was always hoping for snow. Lots of the white stuff so I could have another precious day off from school. We got a few storms in February, and I was able to go sledding down Chestnut Hhill, but we didn't have many snow days. It was the beginning of March, and we began to think of spring and warmer weather.
"Just one more snow would be nice," I thought.
A big enough storm to cancel school for a day so I could sled and build a snow fort and read Fantastic Four comic books all afternoon.
The weather man was saying there was some snow coming our way, possibly on March 6th, and it could be a big one.
Little did we know how big it would really be.
Several storm fronts came together that week, and the east coast would be pounded by wind and rain and snow and the sea.
It started out as rain and wind in Woodbury Heights that Tuedsday, March 6th, but quickly changed over to snow. The wind howled over thirty miles an hour and pounded our little house without mercy. It snowed on into Wednesday as well, and the winds picked up even more, and everything was covered in a dense blanket of snow and freezing rain.
We saw on the news how the Jersey shore was taking a terrible beating. They were getting rain down there, but the winds and the high tides were tearing down houses and the boardwalks. Tiny communities like Sea Isle City and Strathmere had to be evacuated; peoples' houses were smashed by the wind and some were even carried out to sea, bobbing on the waves. The boardwalk in Atlantic City was being shredded in spots, and even the famous Steel Pier was damaged by it all. A navy destroyer, the USS Monssen, was sent aground on Long Beach Island; everywhere along the shore there were scenes of horrible destruction.
We had to leave our house as well. The snow and freezing rain had covered the power lines, and trees had fallen over and knocked the wires down too. We had no electricity, so there was no heat, so Mom and Carl and I went to Nanny and Pop-Pop's house where the coal-fired furnace would protect us from the cold. Dad would stay behind with Whee-Zee, keeping warm as best they could, guarding the house and making sure the pipes didn't freeze.
This was more than I bargained for. There wouldn't be any sledding or snowball fights in this weather, you couldn't move in all the ice and snow, and you felt bad for all those people who lost their homes down the shore.
We stayed at Nanny's house for two or three days. It snowed a little more and then it rained and then the sun began to shine, and things began to move. It got warmer, so there was fog and melting snow, and everything was one big mess.
I got my wish, there wasn't any school for a couple of days, but I couldn't enjoy it; I wasn't in my house with my dog and all my stuff, and it seemed like the world had been turned upside down and inside out.
It was a frightening five days, and for many other people in South Jersey and Virginia and North Carolina and towns all along the east coast it was a most terrible time indeed. Houses smashed, lives shattered, loved ones killed. It would be remembered as The Great Atlantic Storm, or the Ash Wednesday Storm, and it wouldn't be forgotten by those who lived through it.
I saw the destruction on the evening news and I was grateful that I didn't live down the shore.
I'd been cold and I'd been scared, but I knew I was one of the lucky ones.
I was going home.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Up and Away

It wasn't always easy to concentrate in school. Many of us would have preferred being outside all day having fun out in the fresh air. It would be especially difficult paying attention to Mrs. Schoener on this day in February in 1962. February 20th, to be exact. Snow had been falling since the 19th, not enough to close the school, but enough to make us hope for an early end to the day. I could feel Chestnut Hill calling me; the street was just right for a day of sledding and hot chocolate and snowball fights in the woods.
We struggled in the cloak room, pulling off stubborn galoshes and soaking wet coats; our socks still damp in our shoes. We sat staring out at the falling snow, each of us praying for a blizzard.
Something else had our attention as well. A rocket stood waiting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, with an astronaut inside, yes a real live American space man and not a chimpanzee, either.
John Glenn was his name, and he had been waiting a long time for his ride above the earth. The mission had been postponed several times due to fuel leaks and bad weather and other problems. Many of our rockets had failed to take off, and some had exploded, so John Glenn had to wait until things got worked out. There was always the chance that something could go wrong, so NASA was doing its best to make sure everything was OK.
I sat at my desk wondering all sorts of things. What was it like to sit in that tiny capsule, and how did you go to the bathroom after all? Did the astronauts really drink Tang, and did they hate it just as much as I did? What was being weightless like? I bet it was a lot like when I flew in my dreams, just floating along without a care in the world, watching the planet sail by. What did they eat and just what did one do while sitting in a space capsule all alone?
I don't remember if they brought a TV into the classroom or not, it always felt like TV was something school refused to recognize; that the real world didn't exist somehow and teachers never watched TV, or at least they didn't admit to it.
So John Glenn sat waiting and he'd have to wait a little more, because one of the bolts on the hatch was defective so it would have to be replaced.
I sat waiting, hoping for a miracle, wishing that the snow would fall so hard that we'd be let go early so I could launch myself down an icy street on a wooden rocket with blades of steel.
Around 10 o'clock the news was spread throughout the school: John Glenn blasted off and made it into outer space, and he'd orbit the earth, no fifteen minute up and down practice ride this time. We did it! An American in space! Going around and around the world just like the Russians. Maybe I can get to see the splashdown when I get home from school.
We don't get to go home early, and we don't get to see John Glenn land in the sea, not live, anyway. I'll have to see it on the news.
But on the way home I get to thinking.
A man was in space today, an American after all.
High above all the troubles and the worries, looking down from the stars.
An American!
Maybe President Kennedy is right and we'll be going to the moon.
Watch out Russia.
Yeah, we're not monkeying around any more.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ha tenido sufficiente de Cuba!

Back to school. Back to the Fourth grade in this year of 1962. I walked that walk, the same old trail in the snow and the cold of early January. In my mind I could hear that song that was on the radio all the time. "A Wimoweh, A Wimoweh, the Lion Sleeps tonight." One of those songs that would cling to your brain and not let go, and it swirled inside me as I trudged along the way.
Not enough snow would fall to cancel school, so the walk was sloppy and wet. Then the weather played games with us, climbing up into the 40's and then the 50's, and I'd arrive at school soaking in sweat, covered in flannel and corduroy.
I began to hear more and more about Cuba and that Castro guy again. What is it about that island, anyways?
President Kennedy was angry that Castro had declared himself a Communist, and now he was signing treaties with Russia, so they could trade things. Sugar for wheat, or something like that. Cuba was a threat to us now, the President said. Ninety miles from our shore. I guess they could throw their cigars at us. Castro was afraid we might try to invade his country again, so he was making friends with Kruschev, poking his finger in the air and blaming us for all of Cuba's woes. There were stories that Castro wanted to play baseball in America when he was young. Why don't we give him a tryout with the Dodgers or the Yankees? Maybe that would calm him down.
Cuba was getting kicked out of the Organization of the American States, whatever that was, and now President Kennedy was saying we wouldn't trade with Cuba anymore, something called an embargo. A lot like that old playground saying; "I'm taking my ball and going home, and I'm not going to play with you anymore." Our countries stood sticking their tongues out at each other across the water.
I don't want to hear about Cuba anymore. I don't want to look at Fidel Castro or hear President Kennedy tell us all how bad he is. Things kind of calm down later in February, and I'm thinking that it's all over now, that Cuba will just go away and mind its own business and we'll forget all about them.
I meet some kid from Cuba. His family is friends with Billy Hills' family, and he's going to spend some time with us in Fourth Grade. He's thin and kind of awkward, and everyone calls him Chico. We notice he's kind of naive, and when he plays softball with us he runs to third base when he gets a hit. I thought these Cubans knew how to play ball! When Fourth grade is over, Chico is gone.
My cousin Danny is in the navy, and his ship is patroling off the coast of Cuba, making sure nobody from our country is trading with them. He watches as Russian ships sail by with their cargo on deck; big crates shrouded in canvas.
Must be lots of wheat and tools and other things.
Must be just the things the Cubans need.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Turn The Page

Prayers answered, wishes fulfilled. It snowed on December 31st, and again on New Year's Day, so I could get outside for snowball fights and sledding down Chestnut Hill. I wouldn't have to endure all twelve hours or more of the Mummers parade. Carl and I and Paul Avis could wear ourselves out in the cold and the wet, and come in for hot soup and warm naps, a fitting end to Christmas vacation. Maybe if it snows hard enough, we'll get an extra day!
I didn't quite get New Year's Eve. What was it we're celebrating again? Turning the page on the calendar? An old man and a baby with dates stamped on them? And what did Happy New Year mean to people? 1961 was a pretty scary year, so I guess people were hoping that 1962 would be better. The Russians had that giant bomb, and the Berlin Wall was getting stronger, and that crazy Kruschev guy was still threatening to blow us all up, so it looked to me that the new year wouldn't be all that different from what we just went through.
Adults seemed to get a big kick out of New Year's. Sometimes my parents would have a party down in the basement, and there would be a lot of noise and music and really loud laughter. People from the neighborhood and all my relatives would be flowing in and out, up and down the cellar steps, and they all just kept getting louder and louder. Carl and Whee-Zee and I were expected to go to sleep with all this racket going on, but it was just impossible. I was always awake when midnight came and the cheering began. I waited for something magical to happen, but it never did, and I wondered what all the fuss was about. The next morning was the next morning,except our house was a lot messier, with dirty glasses and ashtrays overflowing. Yeah, adults could really be sloppy when they had a mind to.
Some New Year's Eves Mom and Dad would go out to someplace like The Latin Casino or the Hawaiian Cottage in Cherry Hill, exotic-sounding places where kids weren't allowed. Carl and I would have a baby-sitter, usually one of our female cousins, eager to make some money, but probably not too thrilled to spend the evening taking care of two goofballs like us. The whole night would be one big game, with us trying to con Barbara or Diane or Judy into letting us stay up later than we were supposed to. Carl never really had any trouble going to sleep, but I never saw the point of going to bed on a holiday, especially when there was no school the next day.
Watching and listening to your parents get ready for their nights out was a whole ritual in itself. You had to tread softly and not get in their way, because going out and having fun seemed to put adults on edge, and the slightest thing could provoke them. We stayed out of their way as they prepared themselves for the evening.
Mom was in a frenzy, did her hair look alright? Sounds of the hair dryer and the smell of Aquanet in the air.
Dad's electric razor buzzing, and their frequent trips in and out of the bathroom.
The aroma of Kiwi shoe polish as I shined their shoes, and the scent of Old Spice lingering.
Last minute instructions to Carl and me, our promise to behave, and then they were gone, and we could all settle down. I was ten years old now, so maybe I could stay up late and watch the new year come in, watch that ball fall down and hope that the snow would really pile up. Yeah, lots and lots of snow, and maybe school would close and Christmas Vacation would go on a little longer.
Extra time to fire off our Johnny Reb cannons in the cellar. Time to play with the TYCO trains, or marathon games of Stratego. I could spend hours looking at the battle maps in my new Civil War book, and imagine how much fun I would have had if I had actually gotten that Marx Civil War toy soldier set.
So what's coming in the new year? More snow all winter, and freezing cold so the lake will stiffen up and the skaters will dance and the hockey games can go on all day and into the night?
I hope those darn Cubans will quiet down now and the Russians and the East Germans will just calm themselves and stop planning to blow up the world.
We all made enough noise on New Year's Eve. Let's have some peace and quiet for a while.
Let me have one more nap with Whee-Zee before going back to school and Fourth Grade.
Let's be quiet now, OK?
What's that noise I hear in the distance?
I thought I heard a baby cry.
Just my imagination I guess.