Friday, November 28, 2008

Autumn Calm

I and the rest of the world held our breath for two weeks that October in 1962. It was high noon and we stood face to face with the Russians, ready to fire nuclear missiles and drop H-bombs onto the world. We got lucky and cooler heads prevailed, and the earth kept on spinning.
I think the Russians knew we meant business. Didn’t we drop two A-bombs on Japan? That must have been on the minds of Kruschev and all the other leaders in the Kremlin. We actually did it once, and we’d probably do it again, so the Russians backed down.
It was time to heave a sigh of relief and get down to picking out a Halloween costume. Maybe I should dress up as Castro or Kruschev. Imagine my neighbors reactions to a communist boogeyman knocking on their doors! I could wave my arms or bang my shoe at them and they’d tremble with fear. How about a nuclear missile costume? It’s going to be hard trying to be scary this year.
I decide not to be a ghost or a ghoul or anything spooky. Mom has this great big trunk full of old clothes so I dig through that and I finally make up my mind. An old suit with a vest, a curly black wig and a derby and a cane, and suddenly I’m Charlie Chaplin. We’ve got some of those masks that just cover your nose and cheeks, with just an upper lip. They really change your face without covering it up, and the one I pick has a mustache, too. I’m out to make people laugh this year, we’ve all been frightened enough.
It rains on Halloween, but not enough to spoil the fun, and Carl and I haul in plenty of candy between us. I fool a lot of the neighbors, and they can’t guess it’s me. My Charlie Chaplin is a success.
November arrives cold and blustery, and the Russians are taking down their missile sites in Cuba. Steve Kay and I continue to play war around his house and through the grounds of the Episcopal church. A lot of our classmates don’t join in as much as they used to – they’re getting more interested in football, so our armies aren’t as large as they used to be, and our soldiers are a lot younger than they’ve been, but we fight on. We don’t act out that new war, the one over in Vietnam. We don’t quite understand it or what’s going on. Our soldiers are called “advisors” over there, like they don’t really exist or something, yet they go out into jungles and up into mountains fighting some guys they call Charlie. There’s a lot of Special Forces over there. They’re called Green Berets or something, and they’re supposed to be some kind of super soldiers, but we don’t hear much about them, so we fight the Civil War or World War II, battles we can understand.
November is leaf-raking time and I hate that job. We have big oak trees in our yard, and it seems like the leaves never stop falling. I’m spending too many Sundays raking those leathery old things. The only part of the job that’s fun is burning them in the curb. The oak leaves give off a dense black smoke. Maple and cherry leaves dry out fast, so they burn white smoke that doesn’t choke you. The oak leaves are never ending, and I rake and burn, rake and burn up to Thanksgiving. I’ll be thankful not to have to rake any more of these darn things.
Whee-Zee is doing OK. She’s very tired and old-looking, but she’s alive and that makes me happy. I can’t imagine losing her.
My little sister is the luckiest one of us all. She just gurgles and smiles and stuff. She doesn’t have to worry about bombs or missiles. Doesn’t matter to her that the world almost ended, and leaves have to be raked, or worry that our dog could have died.
Yeah, little Cheryl is lucky.
Christmas is coming and she’s just going along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dodging The Bullet

Tick, tick, tick, or so it seemed to me. Ever since October 22 I found it hard to sleep and not to think about the end of the world coming.

Tick, tick, tick, and the evening news showed more pictures of missile bases in Cuba.

On Friday, October 26, our destroyers stopped a Russian registered cargo ship, the Marcula and searched it, but no weapons were found, and the Russians threatened us with war.

Tick, tick, tick, and on Saturday the 27th, I saw on the news that one of our spy planes, one of those U-2 things, was shot down over Cuba. Our pilot, Rudolf Anderson, was killed. The Cubans are also shooting at our low-flying planes as well. The newspapers say that the army and marines in Florida are ready to invade Cuba at any minute. President Kennedy gives the Russians one last chance to get the missiles out of Cuba, or suffer the consequences. I don’t sleep a wink. I can’t even enjoy watching Gunsmoke. “If I should die before I wake”, I won’t say that, not tonight, not any more.

Sunday, October 28th, and the Russians agree to take their missiles out of Cuba if we promise not to invade it. Agreements are made, and the newscasters seem to relax; Walter Cronkite doesn’t sound so ominous anymore.

Maybe I can get some sleep now. I can decide what to wear for Halloween. What is it about Halloween time and the Communists, anyways? Why do they always seem to start something every year at the end of October? How are we going to scare anyone now?
The good news is that it looks like the world isn’t going to end tomorrow.
What’s even better, it looks like Whee-Zee is recovering!!
Still time girl.
Still time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Time Bomb

"Now I lay me down to sleep...." Many of us recited that prayer at bedtime. I had stopped doing that - I didn't like the way it sounded at the end.

All summer long ships were sailing into the Caribbean, into its warm blue/green waters making their way into the harbors of Cuba. Lots of Russian ships. Our navy was watching. My cousin Danny watched them from the deck of his destroyer.
He saw Russian merchant vessels with their decks loaded down with big crates covered up in canvas. The newspapers said that a large amount of Russian soldiers were now in Cuba, and Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and all the other news men on TV were wondering what was going on down there.

What did I know about it? Cuba this and Cuba that. For years now it seemed that everything bad in the world somehow got all tangled up with that island so close to our shore.

The images I saw, the black and white and gray pictures of Castro. Always pointing his finger in the air and blaming America for all the problems in the world.
There he was hugging Nikita Kruschev and telling the world he was now a Communist, and the Russians were his only friends in the world. America was out to get him and he wasn't going to allow another Bay of Pigs happen again, so he was letting the Russians come and train his army.

Black and white and gray images of Russian ships at sea.

One Monday night in October, the 22nd it was, as I was getting ready to watch TV, President Kennedy came on to talk to the country. One of our U-2 spy planes had taken pictures of missile bases on Cuba, he said. He showed us pictures of them.

Black and white and gray images of trucks and tents and airplanes. White letters pointing out the missiles and the barracks of soldiers.

These were Russian missiles and Russian soldiers, and the missiles were capable of striking deep into our country. President Kennedy then told us that the missiles were nuclear ones. Nuclear missiles aimed right at us just ninety miles away. The President declared that he would regard any missile fired at us from Cuba as an act of war coming from the Russians, and that we would strike back at them. He was ordering a quarantine around Cuba, and our navy was going to stop and search all ships to make sure they weren't bringing in more weapons. He scared the bejeezus out of me and probably everybody else in the world.

It was hard to sleep that night.

Black and white and gray images of atomic bombs going off. The force of a nuclear blast destroying everything in its path would play over and over again in my mind.

On the way to school we sang the Kruschev song, something to help us laugh it all off, but in the back of our minds we feared the worst, and we had more air-raid drills to remind us all of the danger.

Black and white and gray images of American navy ships following a Russian submarine.
More photos of Russian missile sites, and the U.N. building, and stories about U-2 spy planes. Thousands of soldiers being sent to Florida, and would the Russians allow us to search their ships peacefully?

Tick, tick, tick, it seemed to me.

And then the day came.

Black and white and gray images of Russian ships, with their decks jammed with great big crates, and we were going to stop them.

Tick, tick, tick, it seemed to me.

"..if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Something's Not Right With Whee-Zee

This short-haired scary-looking dog has been by my side since I was a small boy with no understanding of the world around me. This droopy-eared, one tooth protruding stubby-tailed creature who would do anything to protect me. My most trusted friend and companion who taught me more about love and loyalty than any person in my life so far.
My dog is sick, and my parents tell me it’s serious. They tell me boxers can have heart attacks just like people, so we’ll have to hope and pray that Whee-Zee will get better.
Wheez is older and grayer. Her energy isn’t always there, but she is always glad to be with me and my family. She was about two or three years old when Dad brought her home, so now in people years she’s older than my grandparents.
We don’t run together much anymore, but that’s OK, it’s comforting just to have her around. Every now and then she’s her old self, and we go for long walks, and she might even chase a stick or two.
There are these black pouch-like things growing on her legs, and my parents take Whee-Zee to the doctor to have them removed. Sometimes she can’t keep her food down when I feed her, and I feel so helpless watching her as she throws up after eating. I put my arms around her and I try not to cry.
I don’t know if it’s prayer or good luck or what, but Whee-Zee starts to feel better. She looks a lot older now, and she’s not as strong, but she’s alive. My parents warn me that she might not stay that way, but I don’t want to think about that. No, Whee-Zee is going to be OK, she’s just got to be.
Please girl. Please get better.
You’ve just got to..

Friday, November 14, 2008

Higher Education

It was a warm and sunny morning that first day of October, the kind of day when you didn’t mind walking to school. Here in South Jersey we were enjoying “Indian Summer”; mild sunny days that made it difficult to concentrate in class. I walked those tree-lined streets without a care in the world, on to school, and climbed those stairs with all my classmates. We sat as roll was taken, the sun’s rays bright and warm, streaming through those great big windows. Then we stood as always to pledge allegiance to the red white and blue in the corner of the room.

As we stood to recite our pledge, a young man in Mississippi was walking to school. His walk was not as pleasant as mine. This young man had to be escorted to college by federal marshals, amid the jeers and threats from all of his fellow students. His name was James Meredith, and he was going to attend the University of Mississippi, but he wasn’t wanted there. Was James Meredith a criminal? Was he a communist spy or something? No, James Meredith was an American, a black American, and his fellow citizens were against black Americans entering their school.
President Kennedy had to order that federal marshals escort James Meredith to class. National Guard troops were called out, because the people down there were determined to prevent a black man from integrating their school. Thousands of white people began to riot, and to shoot at the marshals, and so two people were killed and scores were wounded, and hundreds were arrested. More soldiers had to be sent into Mississippi, and more people would be arrested before some sense of order was restored. James Meredith made it to his first class that day, that fine sunny day in October, risking his life just to go to school.

I stood that day, hand over my heart along with my classmates, the sun shining bright upon us all. So earnest we were, so believing, as we spoke the words we said every day to the red white and blue in the corner of the room: “.....with liberty and justice for all.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Around The Dial

School had begun and the days of summer were coming to an end. I and everyone else would sprint out the door when the final bell had rung, eager to get in a few hours’ play before dinner and homework. Soon the days would be getting shorter, and our evenings would be spent in front of the television.
I eagerly awaited the fall preview edition of TV Guide. Packed full of information about all the new shows, and what may be happening in all of our old favorites. I pored over the TV Guide, looking for the programs that I thought would be worth watching, making mental notes and fixing the schedules in my mind.
Lots of new shows coming in 1962. A lot of shows that were past their prime, and I couldn’t figure out why they were still on. Lucy was funny once, but now she was pretty pathetic, and she was out of touch with what was funny, and yet they’re giving her a new show. How good can she be without Ricky and Fred? Ozzie and Harriet was completely awful, and we still couldn’t figure out exactly what Ozzie did for a living. Wally was kind of creepy by now, a grown man trying to look like a teenager when he should be trying to get a life for goodness sake. Jerry Mathers had lost his charm, and now he was just plain awkward.
Most of the animated shows were canceled, but we’ll still have the Flintstones on Friday night, and two new cartoons are coming on. The Jetsons and their world of the future, and the pun-laden adventures of a little kid named Beany and his friend Cecil the sea-sick sea serpent.
My favorite show, Car 54, Where Are You? is coming back on Sunday nights, and I can’t wait to see Toody and Muldoon make a mess of things in the Bronx once more. They help to make going to bed early for school a little easier.
One new show coming on has caught my attention. Combat! on ABC is going to be about American GIs in World War II, and I can’t wait for that to come on. Dad had been in the war, and if he was home at night to watch it, maybe he can tell me how realistic it is. World War II on TV! Tuesday nights at 7:30; gotta have my homework done early. Oh yeah, ABC has another show called the Gallant Men about an army squad in Italy in World War II. Gotta catch that one.
There’s gonna be a show called Mr. Ed, about a talking horse who only speaks to his owner. Sounds a lot like those Francis the Talking Mule movies I saw on TV over the summer. Might be worth a look.
I think I’ll watch another show taking place during the second world war. This one’s a comedy about PT boats. McHale’s Navy sounds kinda like Sgt. Bilko, so that one oughtta be good.
I guess I’ll try watching this new show about hillbillies moving to Beverly Hills. They strike it rich by finding oil on their property and so they move to a mansion or something. That might be funny, we’ll have to see.
I’ll still be getting advice from all those familiar TV fathers. Andy Taylor, Lucas McCain, Ward Cleaver, Steve Douglas and Jim Anderson, not to mention the off-the wall dads on the Danny Thomas Show and Dobie’s father Herbert T. Gillis. If only our real fathers were as wise and as funny as these guys. If only they had as much time to spend with us.
I still can’t stay up to watch Candid Camera on Sunday night unless there’s a holiday or Christmas vacation, so I have to catch that in the summer.
There’s still Gunsmoke and Wagon Train, and some people really like Bonanza, but most of the time I only watch it if it’s about Hoss Cartwright, ‘cause then it’s pretty funny.
I hope Jonathan Winters will show up on the Jack Paar Show more often, and I still don’t understand how shows like Hazel and Dennis the Menace stay on the air. Jay North looks like he’s 14 and he’s supposed to be playing a little kid like my brother! Jeez, give me a break.
I’ll have to be content with reading the TV Guide preview edition over and over and memorizing the schedules until October when the new shows come on. Let’s hope this new season is a good one.
There’s Jack Benny and Red Skelton on Tuesdays, Have Gun, Will Travel just before Gunsmoke, Dick Van Dyke on Wednesday, maybe Mom will let me stay up to see The Untouchables now.....

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fifth Grade

I will take the same old trail to school again this year, but I will ride my bike more often in the warmer weather, so I'm gonna be able to come home for lunch once in a while. What a relief!
The Four Seasons have a hit song on the radio that I can't get out of my mind, and it plays over and over again in my head as I travel to school. It's called "Sherry Baby", reminding me of my new little sister. The high-pitch nasal sound of Frankie Valli pierces my brain, but the song won't let me be.
I wonder what Fifth Grade will be like. Will Mrs. Nolte be as tough on us as Mrs. Schoener was? I hope we don't have to spend hours and hours analyzing sentences any more. How hard will arithmetic be this year?
There's a lot in the news about abolishing prayer in school this year. There are people arguing that prayer in school is unconstitutional, and that not everyone is a Christian, and our country has no official religion. Some of the people against prayer are called atheists, and I haven't realized it yet, but that's what I'm becoming. Us kids don't understand it all, but you know, some of my classmates could be Jewish, so they're being forced to pray a Christian prayer against their will, so maybe it's not right after all. I used to be a Presbyterian, and I know some of my friends are Catholic, because every Easter time they get their foreheads smeared with ashes for whatever reason. There are kids with unusual last names, too, so who knows what kind of god they pray to. Oh well, it's too complicated for me to sort out. Makes no difference to me, as long as somebody wants to be my friend, I don't care who they pray to.
Mrs. Nolte turns out to be a pretty nice lady, a lot like Mrs. Lee. Mrs. Nolte is kinda like one of your favorite aunts, so it's easy to learn. Our class is relaxed, and we laugh a lot in between all the learning. Fifth Grade is gonna be OK.
After one of the first parent/teacher's meetings Mom comes home to tell me that Mrs. Nolte lives on Cohawkin Road near Aunt Bette and Uncle Everett. From now on I look for her every time we visit the farm.
Whee-Zee doesn't follow me to school anymore. She's getting old and slower, and she stays near my sister. Every now and then she's her old self, and she has all her energy back. It's always comforting to see her in the distance, waiting for me at the end of the driveway, shaking with delight as I pet her on the head when I get home.
Fifth Grade,1962
Front row, left to right:
Christine Lawrence, Carol Nelson, Mary Lou Lewis, Paul LaPann, Janice Martin, Diana Gabel, Susan Burns. Second row, L-R: Me, Linda Hankin, Sheila McLaughlin, Jimmy Matsuk, Ann Trocolli, Bradley Lloyd. Third row, L-R: Mrs. Nolte, Judy Hampton, Joyce Hoefers, Tommy Moore, Billy Hills, Nancy Fleisch, Richie Hearn. Back Row, L-R: Don Vanneman, Debbie Pryzwara, Greg Jones, Lora Carter, Patsy Mullin, Steve Kay.

I don't know what it is, but I'm getting straight A's right off the bat here in Fifth Grade. My brain is working overtime, but I'm not struggling this year, and for the first time I actually feel like I'm one of the smarter kids in school.
The new boy in class is Steve Kay, and he's from Canada. Actually, his parents are Canadian; he was born in the United States, so he's a citizen of both countries. His father is the Episcopal priest in town, and just like John Marvin, he and I become good friends. He's interested in history and war just like Paul and me, and we use his yard and the grounds of the Episcopal Church as our battlefields. There are many Sundays when the sounds of children at war are heard immediately after services. Father Kay is a very patient man.
I begin to notice the new girl in our class. Sue Burns is her name, and I find myself thinking about her more and more. Joyce and Sheila are still very pretty, and all the boys have crushes on them, but this Susan Burns is beginning to get to me.
The first part of September is here and the weather is warm and we'll swelter in our classroom. I've got a new friend and my brain is clicking and life is good.

And somewhere out in the warm waters of the Caribbean, from the deck of his ship my cousin Danny watches Russian cargo ships carrying their goods to Cuba.......

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Summer Plays Out

There’s still a few weeks left to enjoy the summer. Some time to go swimming at the lake, and to ride my bike around town.
This summer’s big movie was “Hatari!” starring John Wayne and Red Buttons as men who capture big game animals in Africa for zoos around the world. Exciting stuff watching them chase rhinos in jeeps and small trucks, using ropes and pure adrenalin. The “elephant walk” music from that movie would be on the radio and TV all summer, one of those tunes that played over and over again in your brain.
A new type of trading card came out this year, and I’d scour the town for empty soda bottles so I could get enough deposit money to buy them. The Civil War News cards were out, helping celebrate another centennial year of the War Between the States. Just like baseball cards packed with gum, except these cards depicted famous battles and other events in a lurid comic book style that just thrilled me to death. The back of each one was printed with details of the event or person portrayed on the card, and I spent all summer trying to collect each and every one.
There isn’t much to hear about Cuba lately, and let’s hope it stays that way. As a matter of fact, the only thing Cuban in the news is about the two new players on the Phillies, Tony Taylor and Tony Gonzales. They, along with Johnny Callison, are finally giving Phillies fans something to cheer about. The Phils finish seventh due to the talents of these younger players, and the fact that the National League has expanded to ten teams. The New York Mets play horribly, finishing last, and the other new team, the Houston Colt 45s coming in ninth. Even the Cubs play poorly, so the Phillies climb out of the cellar, and Dad and the neighbors pay more attention to the games on the radio as they play Pinochle in the shade of the old maple tree.
Paul Avis comes by with a new comic book. It’s one of those Marvel ones, an anthology series that has changed its title. The book had been called “Amazing Adult Fantasy”, but this month it’s just “Amazing Fantasy”, and on the cover is a character in a suit that looks like a spider web. Inside the pages of this comic is a story that captures our imagination. Peter Parker is a high school student, not much older than me, and he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, granting him all the powers of a spider magnified a thousand fold. Peter Parker uses his new powers to become a professional wrestler, and decides he will go into show business. A superhero who is a teenager, and who is a nerd in real life! This comic is good, really good, and I try to get Paul to trade it to me, but he won’t budge. This is an anthology series, so maybe this Spiderman character will never show up again. I’ll keep trying to get Paul to trade it.
As Labor Day approaches, I head over to school to take a look at the class postings on the front doors. I’ll have Mrs. Nolte for the Fifth Grade this year. She’s supposed to be a good teacher and a nice lady, so I’m pleased by that. All but two names on my class list are familiar to me. There’s a Stephen Kay and a Susan Burns on the list. I wonder what they’ll be like?
Just like everyone else, I’ll have to go shopping for school clothes in Woodbury and a trip to Ernie’s Shoe Post over on Route 45.
Summer will end with a cookout and standing around the barbecue grill one last time roasting marshmallows over the coals, wondering what the new school year will bring.
That last night of freedom,reluctantly answering our parents’ calls, the official sound of summer's end:
“Time to come in now. Time to get ready for school.”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On A Warm Day In August

It’s a Friday, the 17th of August, a warm and humid day. It’s muggy in South Jersey, one of those days when nothing seems to move. What shall we do today? It’s awfully hot, isn’t it?

Over in East Berlin two young men have decided what they will do today. They have decided to escape into West Berlin by making a dash across the dead zone and climbing over the six foot wall to freedom.
Helmut Kulbeik and his friend, eighteen year old Peter Fechter believe they’ve found a weak spot in the Berlin wall. They are construction workers working close to the wall and they’ve spotted an area where they think the guards won’t be able to see them crossing.
The night before they sleep in a carpenter’s shed. Their plan is simple; jump from the window into the dead zone, make a run to the wall and climb over before anyone notices.
In the morning they watch as the guards make their rounds. When all looks clear they jump and begin their escape. Helmut reaches the wall and climbs over into the West and freedom.
Just as Peter begins climbing, he is spotted by the guards and is fired upon. He is hit in the pelvis and falls backwards into the dead zone, where he lies in full view of the guards on both sides of the wall.
He screams out for help, but no one moves.
The American soldiers are ordered not to do anything, and the East German guards fear that if they do anything they will be shot at by the Americans.
West Germans begin gathering at the wall. They want to help Peter Fechter, but guns are pointed at them. All anyone does is watch, while journalists take pictures.When a German reporter asks American soldiers why they do not help Peter Fechter, one GI replies: "This is not our problem."
Peter Fechter slowly bleeds to death, crying out for help, and in an hour his life is over. The West Germans do the only thing they can. They scream and throw rocks at the East German guards and hurl insults at the American soldiers. They riot and fight with their own police, venting their frustrations.

It’s a hot and muggy day today, this Friday in August in South Jersey in 1962.
Awfully hot.
What do you think we should do?