Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Spring: 1963

The warmth of spring and the Fifth Grade is almost at an end. I like Mrs. Nolte, and I like the Fifth Grade. After Whee-Zee died I immerse myself in schoolwork.

I'm a knowledge junkie, and I like to read encyclopedias just for fun. Whenever we have to do reports, and we do a lot in Mrs. Nolte's class, I use the time to read about all kinds of stuff in the World Book Encyclopedia. I love the World Book. There's science and history, and biographies of famous people. There are pictures of all of the flags of the world, and geography and inventions and, well, just everything. We don't have the World Book at home, but we do have the Encyclopedia for Children that Mom gets for us at the Acme Supermarket. They're not as detailed as the World Book, and you can only buy them one at a time, but they're better than nothing. My mind absorbs all it can, and I remember almost everything, so I seem a lot smarter than I really am.
I'm still infatuated with Sue Burns. Girls are starting to seem a bit more important to me now. I can't explain it, but it matters to me. I'd especially like it if Sue Burns liked me back, but I'm too stupid and goofy to even tell her how I feel.
We play a game of tag in the playground, boys against the girls. Team tag, I think we called it. You try to capture all of the girls. Usually you tried to catch the girl you liked the best, and so I was always trying to catch Sue Burns. Your teammates would try to tag you when you were captured, so you could be free again. We played this game all spring, a kind of early mating ritual played out in the sand.
We'll be getting ready for the May Fair again, and we'll play softball at recess.
Don Vanneman and Joyce Hoefers are still the leaders in our class, and I'm still one of the last kids chosen when we pick for teams at kickball and such.
I'm working harder at my homework, and I'll get straight A's.
We hear that next year we'll be at the Saint Margaret's Catholic school building while they make a new wing for our school. We also hear that a new high school will be built in Woodbury Heights, so none of us will go to Woodbury High like the kids before us.
A new high school here in town. I wonder where they're going to build it?
I'm riding my new black West German Rixe bicycle, and when it's warm I ride home for lunch, so I don't always have to sit in that horrible little room in the basement so much.
There's lots of stuff going on in the world right now, stuff we don't talk about in our little school in our little town.
Right now we're getting ready for a May Fair, small town white kids without a care in the world.
Right now black kids our own age are getting ready to stare down police and endure the blasts from fire hoses and policemen's clubs and dogs as they march for freedom in Alabama.
Young East German kids are trying to figure out how to get across a wall of bricks and barbed wire, and kids in Vietnam are being forced out of their villages by Green Berets and the Vietcong.
Yeah, it's great to be an American alright.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Holidays from Maddox Corner

Stay tuned - there's still a lot left to tell about 1963. Whee-Zee is gone, and Fifth Grade is coming to a close. Summer is just around the corner, and after that the Sixth Grade, and of course we're approaching that awful day in November.

So, enjoy the holiday - but remember - we'll be back - we're just around the corner.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A New Civil War

On the evening news I see more black and white images.

A city in Alabama is what I see.

Birmingham, Alabama.
Black people in the streets protesting.

Civil disobedience is the phrase I hear. A man named Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for an end to injustice.

I see kids my own age, black kids, marching in protest.

I see police dogs attacking black people in the streets of Birmingham Alabama, and firemen blasting them with hoses.

I’ve been seeing these kinds of things on the news and in Life magazine for quite a while now, and I can’t understand it at all. Americans hating and beating other Americans just because they aren’t white.

I see fear and hatred on the evening news. Fear and hatred and violence in Birmingham, Alabama.

Can this be happening here in America? Land of the free, home of the brave?

Each day in school I’m taught to believe in America, to believe in the red, white and blue.
But there are these black and white pictures on the evening news.
The violence continues in Birmingham, Alabama.
These black and white pictures on the evening news.
Each day in school I’m taught to believe in America, to believe in the red, white and blue.
But there are these black and white pictures on the evening news.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Trial By Fire

It's a warm spring day and I'm sweating. Something I've been dreading has finally happened. I've been left in charge of my baby sister, and I think her diaper has to be changed!
Cheryl Ann is crying, and she has no interest in her bottle. That can only mean one thing - she's gone to the bathroom and I'm the only one here who can do anything about it.
I hope it's just pee. Pee you can deal with. Pee is just water. It smells bad, but not as bad as you-know-what, and I'd rather not deal with that.
I check Cheryl's diaper and my worst fears are realized. She's pooped herself. I can smell it, and it smells REALLY BAD!
Well, I can't let my sister sit around in a dirty diaper. I know I wouldn't want to be sitting in my own poop all afternoon, so I resolve to change her.
I've got a vague idea about what to do. Diapers go around the baby's butt and up and over the "private parts", and you pin the whole thing together. It's a triangle, right, and you just pin the ends of the triangle together. Piece of cake, really.
What I'm not prepared for is the odor when the diaper comes off. Whew! How can a little kid make such a stink? I get that diaper off and into the pail as quick as I can. Wiping poop off of a little baby that won't lie still makes me even more nervous. And what color is that poop, anyway? There isn't anything like that at Aunt Bette's farm, and they've got poop all over the place.
I get that off of her butt the best I can.
You know, I can see her "private parts". I try not to look, 'cause after all she's my sister, and I don't know if it's right to be doing that, but I do see the difference between boys and girls, but I don't stare or anything, 'cause I don't think it's right, but I guess they expected me to change my little sister if she messed herself, so where's that diaper anyway?
I sprinkle baby powder on her like confectioner's sugar, and I wonder if it's too much or too little, hey how would I know, you know?
The diaper is a little more complicated than it looks, and I feel like I'm gonna have to hog-tie my sister like a calf in a rodeo if she doesn't stop kicking her feet.
The diaper is around her somehow and I've got to pin it all together. I'm sweating even more,and my sister is squirming, and I don't want to jab her with the safety pin.
Somehow it all comes together, and I'm slipping those rubber pants on her and the deed is done.
It may not be neat and it may not be pretty, but my sister is dry and clean.
I hope my parents don't do this to me again.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reality Check

I’m walking home from school on a warm day in April. I’m coming to where Walnut meets Lake Avenue. It’s where I always take the dirt path shortcut instead of walking all the way to the corner. Walnut Avenue begins to curve around the lake here, just past Trackie’s store, and then it bends a little more as you pass Nancy Fleisch’s house. I can see straight up the sidewalk and through Mrs. Price’s Sleepy Hollow to where the end of our driveway is.
Wait a minute, I think I see a familiar form standing at the end of the driveway. Could it be? That brown, scary-looking, droopy-eared dog of mine?
Did they realize it was all a mistake, and that Whee-Zee could get better, so they brought her back home?
My heart soars, and I begin to run up Walnut Avenue as fast as my legs can take me.
I look up again, but there’s nothing standing in the driveway.
It was just a shadow playing tricks, just wishful thinking getting the better of me.
Whee-Zee is gone, I know that now.

Goodbye girl.
I will never forget you.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Most Terrible Day

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house watching my dog Whee-Zee go out the back door. She’s moving slowly, down those familiar back steps. Past the spot beneath the spigot on the wall where I feed her every night. Did she pause to look down there?

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house looking through the picture window of the living room. Whee-Zee is walking slowly up the driveway, her head hung down. She doesn’t look back.

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house looking at a gray truck sitting at the end of the driveway, its back doors open, and two men are waiting. The truck has letters on it, but I can’t read what they say.
This can’t be happening. My dog, my best friend in all the world is being taken away from me, from all of us, and I wish it weren’t true.

“Whee-Zee is dying”, they say.
“She will suffer more and more, and there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“She’ll be put to sleep, and she won’t feel any pain.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be in Heaven.”

I don’t care. Whee-Zee is my dog, my best friend, my protector. Who has the right to take her away?
She’s still breathing, she still looks at me with those big brown eyes, and she’s happy when I come home from school.
Who says she won’t feel any pain?

I want to run out the door and down those familiar back steps past the spot where I feed her and up the drive and put my arms around her and protect her from all of this, but I’m frozen where I stand. I’m terrified and angry, and my heart is in my throat. WHEE-ZEE! NO, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!

But it is. It is happening, and I’m watching it happen.

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house and I want to scream. I do scream. I scream deep within myself, from the pit of my soul I scream inside my head. I scream so hard and so loud inside that I almost shatter.

WHEE-ZEE!!!! NO!NO!NO!,NO!,NO!NO!,No,No,No,no,no,no,no,no,n......................

I’m standing in the hallway of our little house, looking through the picture window in the living room. I see my dog Whee-Zee get inside that sad-looking gray truck, and she never looks back. The doors of the truck are closed behind her. What is she thinking about all of this? Does she know?


I want to run outside and pound on the doors of that truck and demand that they give me back my dog, that it’s all a mistake, a terrible, horrible mistake, but I’m frozen in terror.


I’m standing in the hallway of our little house, staring out of the picture window in the living room, looking at the end of the driveway where a sad-looking gray truck once stood.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bad Signs

I know it’s selfish of me, but I consider Whee-Zee my dog. Sure, everybody in the family loves her and she loves them, but still, I consider her MY dog. She’s been with me for as long as I can remember things, going back to when I was two years old.
Wheez is about 12 or 13 now, and that makes her older than even my grandparents in people years. My years have been shared by an ugly brown boxer who would sacrifice her own life to protect me and my family.
I’m worried about Whee-Zee. She’s gotten sick again. Every time I feed her in the evening she throws up and her body shakes, and she walks away from her food looking sadder and sadder. There’s nothing I can do except lay on the floor and pet her and hope I’m making her feel better.
She’s getting weaker, and so Dad takes her to the doctor. She got better the last time, so I’m hoping for the best.
Mom and Dad look serious when Whee-Zee comes home. They speak quietly, and there’s sadness in their voices.
I don’t know what a stroke is. Isn’t that something that happens to people?
I think I hear them say things like “She’ll only keep on suffering”, and “It will be hard on all of us”, but I don’t hear everything clearly.
My dog is sick, but doctors can make things better, can’t they? I mean, every time I get sick the doctor cures me, can’t they cure my dog? Sure they can, I know it.
Whee-Zee is sick, but she’s still walking and breathing and she looks at me with that look of affection she’s always had.
People get better, and Whee-Zee, well she’s just like a person, you know?
Mom and Dad tell us that “something will have to be done”, that Whee-Zee will just continue to get weaker and suffer even more.
What will HAVE to be done? What are they talking about?
It can’t be what I think it is, can it?
“Put her out of her misery”?
What are Mom and Dad thinking?
I know it sounds selfish, but I’ve always considered Whee-Zee MY dog.
Just what are Mom and Dad thinking?
MY dog – my best friend, and now she’s sick and I know she’ll get better.
Won’t you girl?
Won’t you?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Movin' On Up

The yard we have on our corner in Woodbury Heights is pretty big, and we can extend that by going into the woods. If you include the Avis’ yard next door, it’s even bigger. I’m on the Gerber’s property a lot too, so my world is quite large.
Our house, on the other hand, is pretty small. It’s gotten a lot smaller now that there are six of us. When it was just Mom and Dad and me and Whee-Zee, well, there was plenty of room. Carl came along and we all had to make extra room, and now we’ve got to find some place to put my little baby sister.
Everything is on the first floor. You enter our house by the back door. It’s really the side door, but we call it the back one. Everybody but strangers come in the back door and through the kitchen. The kitchen isn’t very big, and when there’s more than four people in there it gets pretty cramped. When Dad has card games on Saturday nights, it sounds like there’s a hundred people in the kitchen.
The living room isn’t too big either, but we cram friends and neighbors and relatives in there on Christmas Eve and other festive times, and somehow they all seem to fit.
There’s only one bathroom. There’s a lot of waiting your turn, a lot of “holding it”, if you know what I mean.
Me and Carl have our bedroom right next to the bathroom. We each have a bed, a bureau apiece, and we both have an army footlocker to keep toys in. There’s also a little desk that has those cubby holes in it to hold lots of little things. Of course, we have a closet. You know, THE CLOSET, the one that has a life of its own. I know I’m older now and I should know better, but I swear there’s something in there at night. Stay over some time and listen. At least I don’t sleep with the hall light on anymore. That week at Aunt Bette’s farm cured me of that.
Mom and Dad’s room is across the hall, and that’s that.
We do have a basement. The cellar as we like to call it. The cellar is cool in the summer and pretty warm in the winter. It’s a place for us to run around in when it rains, a place to have birthday parties and New Year’s Eve parties, and other family get-togethers. We set up our model trains down there, and I build my models on the old bar that Dad brought home. It’s red and curved, and us kids play Western Saloon around it.
There is an attic, but it isn’t finished. It’s a wide open space that seems enormous to me when I’m up there. The floor just has plywood placed around where Mom and Dad store things. My old hobby horse is up there, and Carl’s old baby coach, and there’s a cedar chest. The attic is where Mom and Dad hide our Christmas presents, and where they put other junk that we don’t have any room for.
So where are we going to put Cheryl Ann? She’s a girl, and little girls can’t share bedrooms with their brothers. We can’t have the bunk beds up all year. It would be too hot for me to sleep so close to the ceiling in the summer.
Mom and Dad tell us that when the weather gets warm that they will have the attic converted into bedrooms and storage space for us. Me and Carl will move upstairs and Cheryl will get our old room.
Upstairs! We’re gonna move upstairs. It’s exciting and scary all at the same time. We have a choice of separate rooms, or we can share a room like we do now, and we’ll have an extra bedroom.
I have to think about this. Moving upstairs, away from the comforting sight of Whee-Zee sleeping in the hall. She’s too old to climb the stairs.
The ceiling’s gonna be too low for our bunk beds, so the thrill of my winter hideout will be gone forever.
I’ll be far away from that pesky closet and all of its dark secrets.
There’s gonna be a new closet to contend with. Maybe this one won’t be a dark hole to the spirit world, and I’ll be able to sleep with both eyes closed.
I think I’m gonna like this new room upstairs.
I just hope they build us a bathroom, those stairs are pretty steep.
I don’t want to be “holdin’ it” all night, you know?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Separate But Equal

1963. So here I am, eleven years old. I go to school where I pledge allegiance and sing songs that praise my country and extol its virtues. But what am I becoming? I believe in the land of the free and the home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all. I believe that any one can grow up to be president, and that America is the greatest country in the world. I’m a red-white-and-blue, Yankee doodle dandy, dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue American. Yes sir, that’s me. But.....
I’m being molded. Despite all my beliefs in America and to the flag and all that, I’ve learned how to hate. It’s imperceptible, but it’s there, and if it’s not downright hate, it’s fear. Fear of anyone different from me. Especially black people. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not like what’s going on down south. There are no “colored only” signs, and black and white kids go to school together in Woodbury and Deptford, and they can sit at the counter in Woolworth’s. I ride the bus to Woodbury and sit next to black kids my own age, and no one beats me for it.
Things are changing. This summer you would find black kids fishing at our lake, standing right beside me and my friend Keith. They would tag along with us as we went rake fishing along the banks and share in our harvest of turtles and such. The Jericho Baptist Church would still have its baptisms in the waters of our lake as well, but there are no black people swimming or lying on our beach.
I’m taught to believe that everyone is equal, and yet I can ignore our “colored” neighbors across the street, the house where my very first friend and playmate Lulu once lived, she herself a little “colored” girl.
It bothers me sometimes. I don’t truly understand the why. It’s not like I’m some eleven year old philosopher or something. My classmates and I don’t discuss racial matters on the playground at school, heck, we barely talk to the girls in our class. It’s just that that song from Sunday school still resonates in my brain: “Jesus loves the little they yellow, black or white...” I can’t make sense of it.
I’m being molded. I and everyone else here in Woodbury Heights. Taught by parents and grandparents and friends and relatives who still carry the old fears and ideas of the past. Our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, older cousins and our neighbors clutter up their minds in fear and mistrust, and no one can say why. They carry their thoughts and fears on their sleeves, but it is getting diluted. It’s in my back pocket. I don’t always feel it, but it’s there.
I don’t like this hating thing.
I know it’s not right, but it’s there.
I didn’t learn it in school, it’s what the “real world” taught me, and I see it on TV.
I don’t like this hating thing.

Will it always be with me?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Peace On Earth

How long it seemed, the waiting for Christmas to come after the Thanksgiving holiday was over. I pored over the Sears catalog, wishing for every toy soldier set in there. My belief in Santa long gone, and I was turning eleven on the 20th of December. I wouldn’t expect much this year. I’ve got a baby sister in the house now, so there will be less money to spread around.
Snow falls early this December, even though it’s warm at the beginning of the month. I won’t get straight A’s at the end of the marking period. I slip to a B in English and Arithmetic, so I guess I’m paying more attention to TV and the coming holiday.
Who among us can concentrate with the promise of snow and presents on the way?
I really hope I’ll get the Marx Civil War play set this year. Paul LaPann has it, and it’s amazing. Confederates and Yankees, cannons and a stone bridge, and figures of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, and a tin lithographed southern mansion. That’s for me!
Milton Bradley has another American Heritage game out. Broadside, a naval battle board game, so I’ll ask for that. Carl wants the Beany and Cecil game that has a puppet of Cecil. It’s one of those ones that talk when you pull a string on the side of it. Cecil gives you spoken clues as you navigate around the board.
The toy ads are coming fast and furious, and everything looks great on TV. How to decide? What to choose?
My birthday comes, and snow comes with it, and it’s looking more and more like we’ll be having a white Christmas this year. I get my one big birthday gift from Mom and Dad, and yep, you guessed it, I get another West German Rixe bicycle. This one is black, with gull-wing handlebars and one of those mouse-trap clamp things on the back. It looks fast. It’s a 26 inch, and I can’t wait for spring and warm weather, though I know I’ll go through the same frustrations trying to ride it.
We’ve got a lot of Christmas cards this year, strung along the wall of the living room, rows and rows of them, a proud reminder of all the friends and family we have.
Mom will paint a jolly Santa on the picture window in the living room, and Dad will string a few lights on the bushes and across the front of the house.
We get snow for Christmas, and all is well with me and my family in our little house on the corner in Woodbury Heights.
A white Christmas, presents, a new bike and time off from school, and best of all my dog Whee-Zee is still with us.
Still time for that Christmas nap on the living room rug girl.
Still time for us to snore.