Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Look At What I Saw

A hot summer night and I'm watching the Late Show on TV. My brother has fallen asleep so I'm the only one who's watching. One of my favorite things to do in the summer - watching old movies late at night, bathed in the gray-white glow of the television. Tonight it's a Tarzan movie, one I haven't seen before. It's Johnny Weissmuller, of course, he IS Tarzan, you know?

Anyway, the movie is called Tarzan and His Mate, and it's about a safari that comes into the jungle to find the elephants' grave yard and collect all the ivory there. Leading the safari is Harry Holt. He loves Jane and he's going to try and get her to come back to civilization with him. All the usual Tarzan stuff is going on, you know, the bad natives attacking the safari, wild animals and Cheetah and the Tarzan yell and all, but there's four minutes that really catch my attention.
Jane is in an evening gown that Harry Holt brought for her. She's looking all glamorous and pretty and everything, and she and Tarzan are going for a walk in the morning. They're walking on a big tree limb or a tree trunk or something that's over a pond, when suddenly Tarzan pushes Jane into the water.
Nothing unusual for Tarzan to do, but the dress catches on a branch, and lo and behold, Jane is naked! I'm not seeing things, am I? For a second I'm not too sure, but then yes - it's true, Jane is swimming underwater totally nude, and you - I mean - I can see everything! Jane is truly naked, and I'm the only one seeing it. Tarzan and Jane are swimming underwater. Jane grabs Tarzan by the shoulders and hangs on as they swim. Then she slides back and grabs Tarzan's feet and holds on as he pulls her along. They gracefully swim in a circle two times, and I can see Jane's breasts and I can see her behind, and I can see EVERYTHING, you know?
An eleven year old boy's fantasy come true!
Jane - NAKED!
I can't take my eyes off of the screen. I'm too entranced to wake up my brother.
I can't believe it, but there it is right on TV, right in my living room.
Four minutes of jungle erotic fantasy and I'm the only one to see it.
Ah, a warm summer night bathed in that gray-white glow.
Jane - Naked.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In The Belly Of The Beast - Part Three

We could have turned tail and ran away, but two things prevented us. If Mrs. Price really was a witch, she could have turned us all to stone or something. Then again, if we ran, she would have told our mothers what we were up to, and our mothers would have told our fathers, so we were stuck - we had to follow Mrs. Price.
Was she taking us to where she and John-John performed all of their secret rituals?
What was she going to show us, and how did she know we thought she was a witch?
As we walked along I noticed that the woods here behind Mrs. Price's house were a lot "neater" than the woods behind our house. There wasn't a lot of sticks and limbs lying on the ground. There wasn't a lot of leaves on the ground either. We were walking on a well-kept path, and so far I hadn't seen any animal heads.
When we reached a small clearing Mrs. Price stopped us and began to talk to us about stuff like mulch and compost, and taking care of trees and stuff. She told us how she and her son took all of the leaves and grass clippings and made fertilizer out of it. There were big mounds of dark soil and leaves and things, and Mrs. Price told us how plants needed organic food to grow better. We didn't know what the heck she was talking about, but she proceeded to lecture us about how to care for trees and how to clean up the woods.
She showed us a grove of bamboo growing in her woods. I was amazed at that. I thought bamboo only grew in the jungles in the South Pacific, like in all of the war movies I had seen on TV.
Then Mrs. Price showed us where she had buried some of her pets. It was a small, well-kept cemetery for a few cats and a dog.
The whole time Mrs. Price lectured us, John-John hovered around in the distance, never saying a word.
After what seemed like hours, Mrs. Price dismissed us with the promise that we would never trespass on her property again, and if we did want to walk in her woods, to please knock on her door and ask.
We scurried out of there, relieved that Mrs. Price hadn't turned us all to stone or called our parents.
I realized that Mark Gerber had pulled a fast one on me, and that he probably knew what was going on in Mrs. Price's yard all along. I'll bet you he even told her we all thought she was a witch. Yeah, I was the perfect sucker.
Mrs. Price was just an old school teacher living with her weird son, practicing some kind of all natural gardening or something.
It was kind of a let-down really. No witches' cauldron or strange altars, or secret rituals with magic spells, and no skull-lined forest floor. Nothing supernatural at all.
Just a weird old lady with peculiar habits who lived with her adult son who may or may not be "all there", and a gloomy-looking house in need of some paint and maybe some brighter light bulbs.
No Mrs. Price was not a witch after all.
But she sure was spooky.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

In The Belly Of The Beast - Part Two

Paul Avis, my brother Carl and I were about to cross a line. The invisible wall separating the real world from the sorcerer’s realm of Mrs. Price’s back yard. It wasn’t a yard, it was a dense stand of woods, and we had to see for ourselves if it was filled with the heads and skulls of cats and dogs. We were the Hardy Boys on another adventure, out to solve “The Mystery of Price’s Woods”, and to see for ourselves if Mrs. Price truly was a witch.
We stood in the no-man’s land of ground that was a part of Mr. Collins’ back yard, standing between the Gerber house and the woods.
We dared each other to be the first one in, but the fear and uncertainty held us back.
Finally, Paul Avis darted in and just as quickly came out, not enough time to see anything at all.
We giggled and laughed to pretend we weren’t nervous or frightened, but none of us were going in.
After a few moments we summoned up enough courage to begin entering the woods, trying not to make any noise whatsoever.
So far so good, and no signs of any dead animals yet, but we were just on the fringe, the deepest part of the woods ahead of us.
We crept forward silently, like Indians, and we could all feel our hearts beating faster and faster.

“What are you boys doing?”

The voice shattered the silence, and our instinct was to run, and we would have, but the voice called out once again.

“Don’t you boys go anywhere. You heard me. Stay right where you are.”

It was Mrs. Price herself, coming out of nowhere, and her voice was everywhere, and we froze in our tracks.

We froze out of fear, but also out of the respect we were taught to have for all adults, so we stood waiting to see what Mrs. Price had in store for us.

Mrs. Price was her usual grimy-looking self. Sweat-stained, hair askew, smudged up glasses, working gloves and all. She must have come up from out of the ground to have been able to surprise us so thoroughly, at least that’s how it seemed, and she was covered in enough dirt to make it seem possible.

She looked at us for a long time in silence, and asked us once again what we were doing on her property.

We gave her the usual reply young boys caught in the act of doing something they shouldn’t.

“Nothing, Mrs. Price. Just looking around is all.”

This was really awkward and really frightening. What was she going to do to us? Would she cast a spell on us all and make us disappear or something, or would she do that which we feared even more and call our mothers over to punish us?
She listened to our feeble excuses and stared at us a while more.

Finally, she said, “You boys think I’m a witch, don’t you?”

“Oh no, Mrs. Price, we don’t believe that,” we lied, “We never said you were a witch.”

“I know that’s what you boys think,” she said. She turned away from us and pointed towards the deepest part of the woods.

She turned back and looked us straight in the eyes, and said,

“Come with me boys, I’ve got something to show you.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In The Belly Of The Beast - Part One

I’ve already said that my neighbor Mrs. Price was pretty weird. Mrs. Price's house could hardly be seen, even when you walked past it in broad daylight. She and her son John were a mystery to us. We called John Price John-John: a childish name, because it seemed odd to us that a grown man would still be living with his mother, and his behavior was just as odd as hers.
Mark Gerber had told me long ago that Mrs. Price was a witch, and I believed him. It wasn't difficult to believe it either; Mrs. Price's actions gave rise to all sorts of rumors about her and her son. The Price house was our own version of the Bates Motel. It was dark and dirty, and it was obscured from view by trees and bushes and vines. An atmosphere of gloom hung over it, and when you passed by at night, only a pale 40 watt bulb dimly lit the front porch, and there was only the slightest hint of light on inside.
Mrs. Price was a retired English teacher. John-John was supposed to have been a very intelligent student when he was in school. As an adult he was seldom seen and never spoke to anyone. John Price was our Boo Radley, but we didn't dare go near the house to get a look inside.
Sometimes Mrs. Price would talk to my mother. She would comment on how nice and polite she thought Carl and I were, but at the same time condemn us for wanting to play in the woods. Mrs. Price was an environmentalist and very protective of her own woods, and she didn't like the idea of a bunch of wild kids climbing trees and building forts and just having a good time. I don't know what she thought we were doing in the woods, and anyways, the woods behind our house didn't even belong to her. The woods belonged to Mr. Rizzuto just down the street, and he didn't mind us being there, so what's the big deal anyhow?
Mrs. Price was odd and she acted odd and there were times when she literally appeared out of nowhere, as if she rose up out of the ground, and she'd scare the living daylight out of us all. She was always dressed in real thin dresses and dirty old sweaters. Her hands were always covered by the work gloves she wore, and her glasses always seemed smudged up. Her hair was always in need of combing, and the stockings on her legs were torn and grimy. She was a sight!
So you can see it wasn't hard to believe that Mrs. Price was a witch.
My neighbor Paul Avis invented even more outrageous stories, mostly about John-John. Paul was convinced that John-John roamed the streets at night looking for stray dogs and cats. He had seen John-John walking around one evening with a small sickle in his hand, and so his imagination just went wild. John-John was killing all the stray animals and cutting off their heads, to be used in strange ceremonies performed by him and his mother, somewhere in the woods behind their house. Mark Gerber confirmed all of this, and told us that the woods behind Mrs. Price's house was lined with the heads of all of the cats and dogs that John-John had caught. He told us that he had gone back there and seen it all with his own eyes.
One day our curiosity got the better of us, and we decided once and for all to see for ourselves whether or not Mrs. Price's back yard was full of animal heads.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Heading For Summer In '63

My Fifth Grade year will be my best so far at Woodbury Heights Elementary. Straight A's! No ifs ands or buts, I'm one of the smart kids now, and I've got the report card to prove it. My brother Carl is another story, but he doesn't care, he just wants to get by, and that's all he does.
One of the best things we did in Fifth Grade was to go to Philadelphia on one of our class trips. We didn't go to a museum or the zoo or even to the Liberty Bell. We went to a movie. They took us to see "How The West Was Won", in one of the big movie theatres in the city. I think it was the Boyd Theatre. It was one of those new Cinerama movies, with the picture split into three sections, and a really wide screen, so you felt like you were actually in the movie. There was a buffalo stampede, and the buffaloes ran towards you and then jumped over your head. We got to go see the movie because we had been studying early American History, so I guess it was OK to go see a movie about it. My favorite part of course, would be the Civil War part, but I was disappointed because it was only a few minutes' worth out of the whole picture. It wasn't a great movie, but it was exciting to go see it in the city, and the big screen and all the noise from the super sound system was unlike anything we'd experienced at the Wood Theatre back in New Jersey.
I will miss Fifth Grade. I think Mrs. Nolte was the nicest teacher I ever had, including Mrs. Lee. She made us all work hard, but she was a very calm lady and our classroom was a very comfortable place to be.
This will be our last year in that old familiar building. Our Sixth Grade will head over to the St. Margaret's Catholic School while they put a new addition onto Woodbury Heights Elementary. St. Margaret's is on the other side of town where one of the Southwoods housing developements is, so I've got a mile walk now. I'll be riding my black Rixe bike a lot when the weather is nice, and now that Mom has learned to drive, I won't have to wonder which neighbor will get me to school in bad weather anymore.
I'll leave Fifth Grade with a new best friend in Steve Kay, and I'll still have a crush on Susan Burns. It will be three months before I can capture her again in our games of Team Tag in the playground.
Summer will be strange for me this year. I won't have Whee-Zee to run with, no more faithful companion at my side.
My new bedroom will be built up in the attic, and Carl and I will decide to continue sharing a room.
We hear that the new high school will be called Gateway Regional High School, and it will be built in the fields behind our house, the fields that are part of Mr. Rizzuto's farm. Mr. Rizzuto lives on the Deptford side of Egg Harbor Road just a little ways down the street from us. The woods I've played in all my young life belong to him, and now that will be owned by the new school. My last chance to spend time there. My world of imagination will be behind a chain-link fence, another wall going up, so I'll have to use the woods around the lake and up on Freund's cliff from now on.
I can't wait for summer. Non-stop days of playing army and swimming in the lake. Mom can drive now, so that opens up a world of possibilities. Dad says he might take us to Gettysburg to see the battlefield, so I've got that to look forward to.
My little sister will be a year old in August, so that means two birthday party cook-outs this summer.
I'll have more jobs to do too. I won't be feeding the dog anymore, but I will have to start mowing the lawn on a regular basis. I've gotta take out the garbage and burn the trash, and help do the dishes, and anything else I'm told to do. I've heard stories about kids getting an allowance. An allowance? Not yet. Mom and Dad reward good behavior, but there's nothing formal. My father had to haul water from a stream every day when he lived in a two room shack in the woods in Maryland. You think I'm gonna ask for an allowance? Yeah, right.
I just hope they don't ask me to watch my little sister too much. She's almost past the diaper stage, and once was enough for me.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

June 11, 1963

It was June and Fifth Grade was coming to a close. Time to think of summer. Time not to think of serious things for a while. Mrs. Nolte had other ideas. She wanted us to think real hard about what we wanted to do when we grew up. She had us write it down. What did any eleven year old really know about what they wanted to do when they got older? There were so many choices, so how could you pick something?
I picked what I knew, or what I thought I knew. My head was filled with patriotism and soldiers and playing army, so I picked what I knew. I would go to West Point and when I was finished there I would either stay in the army and protect my country, or become a historian and explore all of battlefields and the ruins of historical places in other lands. I was sure of my convictions.

On June 11, 1963, other people’s convictions were being tested. We watched them on the evening news.
In that far-off little country called Vietnam, a place none of us understood, a war was going on between the Communists in the north, and the government we protected in the south. What we didn’t know was that there was another war within that war, a lot like what was going on in our country. It was a war of religious prejudice. The rulers of South Vietnam were mostly Catholics, and they were treating the Buddhists the same way black Americans were being treated here. It was too complicated for an eleven year old goofball like me to truly understand. I didn’t really understand the prejudice in our own country, or how it affected people’s lives, even though I was watching all of the turmoil as it happened on the TV in my living room.
One thing that day caught my attention like no other. That night on the news was the sight of a man sitting in the street in Vietnam. The man was a Buddhist monk, and he was protesting against the treatment of Buddhists by his government. Just like the black people I’d seen in Alabama, except this man’s protest was dramatically different.
This monk had himself doused with gasoline and then he lit a match an deliberately set himself on fire.
He burned himself to death for all the world to see, and the world watched in horror, we all saw it on TV.
The monk died silently, burning to death without screaming or moving.
He had the strength of his convictions.

That same day in Alabama, two black Americans wanted to go to college. James Hood and Vivian Monroe were going to enroll in the University of Alabama. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was totally against racial integration. He had made a speech denouncing integration at the beginning of the year, and now he stood in the doorway of the school, trying to prevent two of his fellow citizens from entering. He would not have moved at all if it weren’t for the U.S. Marshals and the Deputy United States Attorney General and the Alabama National Guard to convince him.
George Wallace moved aside, and the University of Alabama would have its first black students. James Hood and Vivian Monroe had the strength of their convictions.
George Wallace backed away from his.
That night President Kennedy gave a speech. It was a speech about equal rights for all Americans. He told us that racial prejudice no longer had a place in the United States. He reminded us all that America was founded on the principle that all people were equal, and that everyone should be treated fairly. President Kennedy would ask the Congress to pass Civil Rights laws that would guarantee everyone in America equal treatment. President Kennedy’s views were not popular with a lot of white Americans, but he had been elected as the choice of hope and a brighter future, and now he was standing by his belief in a better America for everybody.
It was an important day, that June 11 in 1963.
What did I make of it?
I was certainly shocked at watching a man burn himself to death, but I didn’t understand it at all. I could never understand why white people down south were so against black people sitting in school with them, and why they were willing to go to such great lengths to prevent it. Most likely I watched President Kennedy’s speech, and even though I heard it I probably didn’t listen. A lot of Americans weren’t listening, especially white ones.
I was probably mad that one of my favorite TV shows, Combat, wasn’t on because the President was giving another boring speech, and jeez, when is it going to be over, anyway? What do you want from an eleven year old? I can barely change my sister’s diaper, you know?

Friday, January 9, 2009

In Memoriam

Former neighbor and childhood friend, and sometime nemesis.

Mark Gerber