Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On The Road

The New Jersey Turnpike stretches out before us. To me it looks like it runs to the end of the earth and beyond. We're cruising along in our 1960 Edsel. The Edsel is huge inside, there's room for me and Carl and little Cheryl Ann in the back seat and we're not even crowded. My sister can even climb up onto the shelf area under the back windshield to take a nap. I can rest my whole arm outside the window in a shallow gutter formed by the body style of the car. For its time the Edsel was a failure, and they don't even make them in 1964 anymore, but Dad got a good deal and the Edsel seems like a good car to me.
There's not much to look at when you drive the turnpike, so we pass the time trying to count how many out of state license plates we can spot.

It's going to be three hours I think before we get to the world's fair. New York City! Now Philadelphia is always a big thrill for me, but now we're going to where everything is happening. The city of the Yankees and the Statue of Liberty and all kinds of stores and night clubs and millions of people all jammed together. The fair itself is in a part of New York called Flushing. Flushing Meadows, I think. An odd name that twelve year old boys can have a field day with. It sounds like we're going to a large field filled with toilets or something.
I can't wait to get there. I've seen the pictures in LIFE magazine and Disneyland has shown some of the robots on TV. It's going to be a great adventure for all of us.
The highway seems to go on forever, and we're still counting license plates when the scenery changes from trees to buildings and then to large towns and then to cities. A long bridge takes us over what looks like marshes, and then it's going over a river and we're in New York City itself. There's cars everywhere, and we're moving faster and faster to keep up. Soon we're out of Manhattan and heading into Queens and on to Flushing and the fair.
We made it and the future is calling.
Can't wait to tell you all about it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

We're Off To See The Future

When they had the world's fair in Seattle it was too far away and too expensive for us to go. But now, just up the New Jersey Turnpike a new world's fair was happening. New York City is hosting the newest world's fair, and we're going!
Yep, Dad is packing us all up in the big new Edsel he bought and we're going to New York to see the fair.
I'd been reading about it in Life magazine and in the newspapers.

Walt Disney is building a lot of robots; he calls them audioanimatronics or something like that, and we'll see automated cave men and dinosaurs and characters that can move and talk like real human beings.
I'll be able to see a robot of Abraham Lincoln stand up and give a speech.
There's gonna be a giant ferris wheel shaped like a tire. The pictures look really cool. I won't go on that because of my fear of heights, but it will be neat to see it.
Wow, we're going to see the future and it's just a few hours away, just a long drive in the car!
Mom, Dad, Carl, Cheryl and me.
Let's get in the Edsel and drive.
I'll tell you all about it when we get back.

A Buzzing In Our Ears

It doesn't fill the news reports much, but it's there. Once in a while we hear things and names that are hard to pronounce. We saw a Buddhist monk set himself on fire right out in front of everybody, and there are rumors that President Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA and others in our government because he was going to have our soldiers come home.
President Johnson has vowed to continue the fight over there. Our soldiers are over there, but they're not called soldiers, they're called "advisers". They get killed no matter what they're called.
The people themselves don't seem to know what they want. The government we support keeps changing all of the time. Generals come and go, taking over in something called coups. Diem, Minh, Kahn - one by one claiming they are the next savior of their country.
We don't talk much about the place, not even in school during current event days.
But it's there all of the time.
Green Berets and Viet Cong. Hamlets and fire bases and helicopters and the Ho Chi-Minh trail.
Hanoi and Saigon are cities we hear a lot about now, and the Mekong is a river and bombs are falling in a country called Laos.
It's there all of the time, just a little noise in the background, but it's there.
It's a patrol in the jungle and a village head man being hung for all to see.
Water buffaloes and rice paddies and napalm dropping from the sky.
American planes and artillery backing up the soldiers from the south as they try to control their country from the communists from the north.
It's there all of the time, just a comment or two on the evening news.
Like a clock ticking that you barely even notice.

Treading The Boards

There are defining moments in everyone's life. You discover something about yourself that you didn't realize or maybe you had a hunch, but put it off to the side.
I had always had a good imagination. My imaginary friends were legion, and I talked aloud in different voices as I ran through my yard.
I was so good at it that my father would ask Mom:"Mary, who's he talking to out there?"
Later on when I had my brother and my neighbor Paul Avis as companions, I'd make up stories that we'd act out. Little plays based on movies and TV shows I'd seen.
We fought Indians and pirates. We were Tarzan in the trees and a wagon train out on the prairies. As more younger kids came into the neighborhood, my little adventures got more and more complex, and we acted out impromptu plays that I made up as the day went along.
So here in the final months of Sixth Grade I find myself in a play. It's a story about a princess and an evil knight. The evil knight is out to take control of the kingdom or something, but anyway I get the part of this bad guy, and I'm thrilled to death.
Janice Martin is the princess. She's sort of a prima donna type of person, and most of the boys don't like her very much. She's over-bearing and bossy and kind of snobby during the rehearsals, and some of the guys are planning something to get back at her.
This is the first time I've ever done anything that's scripted. I mean I have to memorize lines and all, and I'm not sure if I can or not. I do know that I'm having a lot of fun playing the bad guy, and I can't wait for rehearsal days.
For most of the time it's all just play-acting, you know, nothing's for real, just kids reciting their lines and going through the motions. Then one day it happens. There's a moment in the play when my character demands things from the princess and her father the king, and all of a sudden I'm into it. My voice rises and I feel the anger and the evil I'm supposed to portray. Then I stamp my foot really hard to make a point, and everyone jumps. I've startled everybody and they're believing that I'm really an evil knight. I feel the thrill of being a convincing actor.
This is really cool for me. I've memorized most of Bill Cosby's routines and drive my relatives nuts reciting them over and over when they come for a visit, but this is different. I'm not copying anyone else, this has come from somewhere deep inside me.
I AM the evil knight. My performance inspires the others to be better, and soon our little play seems more and more like something real.
Janice Martin is still insufferable though, and there is a plan to get even with her.
Some of the guys will put thumbtacks on her "throne" during the performance. Just enough to cause her a little discomfort and maybe make her forget her lines. We can tell by the look on her face every time she sits down that the tacks are making their presence felt, but we've got to hand it to her, Janice carries on like a trooper. After the performance is over she lifts up the crepe paper on the seat and sees the tacks. The guys try not to laugh and give their little plot away.
Our performance is a success, and the other classes give us a wonderful ovation.
I feel good about myself and my ability to act up on the stage.
I had wondered if I could do something like that before, and now I knew.
All I had to do was put my foot down.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pulp Friends

They sat on the floor of our room neatly stacked. Familiar friends on a rainy Saturday or a cold snowy day in the winter. I bought them at the newsstand in Woodbury and at the Luncheonette in Woodbury Heights. Uncle Pat brought them to me by the dozens, and there were those with the covers torn in half that we got at the Berlin Farmer's Market.
Their smell was unmistakable. Pulp paper and ink, the perfume of my youth. Heroes and villains, cartoons and satire, and I hoarded them like Midas' gold.
Superman - Batman - Justice League of America. Lost Worlds - Turok, Son of Stone. Fightin' Army, Fightin' Navy, Fightin' Marines. Our Army at War, The Haunted Tank, and Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos.
Superheroes and super villains all sat in the corner of my room. I read them over and over and over again. They were a welcome comfort when you were home with the flu, and one of the best unexpected presents just for being good.
Ant-Man, Giant Man. Wonder Woman and Blue Beetle. The Fantastic Four and Spider Man and the unpredictable Hulk.
Alter-egos and secret hideouts. Fortresses of solitude and underground caverns beneath storied mansions. Capes and tights and Pow! Bam! Boom!
Kid Colt, Outlaw. Two Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid. Cowboys and Indians and army and navy and the marines.
Classics Illustrated could make you feel like you'd read all the best books in the world without having to.
Little Dot. Little Audrey. Little Lotta. Richie Rich. Wendy the Good Little Witch.
Casper and Spooky. Archie and Jughead and Betty and Veronica.
Thor and Tales of Asgard. Dr. Strange the mystic. BlackHawk and his fighter planes.
Tales to Astonish. Tales of anything.
Mad magazine and Cracked.
Kirby and Ditko. Kubert and Kane. Severin and Ayres. Artists and inkers.
The smell of pulp paper and ink. Lurid covers that were often more exciting than what was inside.
Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.
The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern and the Metal Men.
Sub-Mariner, Daredevil,Iron Man and the X-men.
The Silver Surfer and Galactus.
Who was better, Marvel or DC or Charlton? Who was the greatest super hero, and would you trade me the first Spider Man for the first five Fantastic Fours?
Spider Man or Superman? Batman or the Flash?
The funny ones the war ones or the serious ones?
They were all my friends, stacked in the corners of my room.

Growing UP

The spring of 1964. It's an awkward year for me and my classmates and for the country. That Cassius Clay guy, the boxer, he claims he's now a Muslim and he's changing his name to Muhammad Ali, so now everyone is confused. A lot of white Americans are confused. Scared too. White people are moving out of the cities and into small towns like mine, where they feel safe being surrounded by "their own kind". Black Americans are speaking out more and more, demanding the freedoms we're all supposed to be enjoying.
Malcolm X scares people. He's another black Muslim, and he's calling all white people devils and he says that black people should stop waiting for freedom and start fighting back-with bullets if necessary. He's a far cry from Martin Luther King, and even Dr. King frightens white people by standing up and protesting without violence.
It's hard for a twelve year old to understand any of this. There are black families living all around me and they ride the bus with us and eat at the counter in Woolworth's and sit next to me at the Wood Theatre on Saturday afternoons. There must be something to all of this, I've seen the violence in Alabama and other places on the news, and the adults talk in hushed tones about "coloreds" and how they should all go back to where they came from if they don't like it here.
I don't get it. I remember my friend Lulu from my earlier days in Woodbury Heights, and how we sat on the swings and played in the sand without a care in the world.
The cares of the world are starting to stare us all in the face now.
Me and my classmates are heading into our teenage years, and we're supposed to be "grown up" now. It's hard to let go of childish things.
I still enjoy comic books and toy soldiers and playing army in the woods. I like girls like I'm supposed to, but I'm too shy or dumb or something to express myself. Do my classmates feel the same way or are they comfortable with what's going on?
My best friend Steve Kay pretty much likes the same things I do, so I'm OK with him as my best pal.
We do take on more responsibilities this year. Steve gets a paper route delivering the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I'm mowing a lot of grass. My lawn is huge, and Dad bought the property across the street when the Leap family moved out. That yard is like a football field, and it takes me all day to cut that and my yard as well.
Mr. Olsen gets me a job taking care of an older lady's yard over on the other side of town. She's going to pay me 75 cents an hour to cut her grass and trim the bushes and rake and whatever else needs to be done. She's a friend of my scary neighbor Mrs. Price, and she teaches me about composting and organic gardening. She watches over me when I trim the bushes until she's satisfied that I'm doing it right. She's got this old orange lawn mower that looks ancient, and it doesn't want to start all of the time, and I'm constantly begging her to buy a new one, but she insists on holding on to it. I'll have to give up some of my Saturday mornings and afternoons when school is over, but I'll have silver in my pocket, and some folding money on a regular basis for the very first time. I don't have to go scrounging around for soda bottles any more.
I can see Gateway High School going up behind my house. What will that be like, I wonder? I guess I'll be separated from my old classmates. It will seem like we're not even in Woodbury Heights any more. My walk will only be a few minutes, and I won't even have a sidewalk to tread on.
This is strange, this growing up and being expected to change.
I wonder if I'm up to it.
I need Whee-Zee right now.