Thursday, July 30, 2009

Body Language

My body is going crazy on me. There’s this struggle going on. The Maddox genes are fighting with the Boswell genes and they’re mixing it up with the Gardner genes who are trying to hold off the Knoll genes. I don’t know who I look like anymore. I’ve got bigger lips and my head looks longer. My face is erupting with acne and I’ve got hair above my upper lip, and my voice is changing. I’ve always looked a bit geeky, a bit like Jerry Lewis with this perpetual crew cut, but now I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not getting any taller like I figured, I’m still about five-foot-five. OK so maybe I’m five-foot-five and-a-half, but I’m not sprouting up like a lot of guys my age.
I’m skinny. Real skinny. I’m skinny ‘cause I never stop running or riding my bike or playing war over in Steve Kay’s yard. I’m always outside doing something, so I don’t have time to get fat. I do notice that I’m able to do those exercises in gym class a lot easier than I did when Mr. Williamson first started on us, and my arms and legs feel stronger. There’s not a lot of muscles on me, but I definitely feel stronger.
I got up one morning and looked in the mirror and I realized I had to start shaving. The hair above my upper lip was noticeable, a dark shadow beneath my nose. At first I used Dad’s electric shaver, but that never felt like it did the job, so I switch to a safety razor. I have to be careful not to cut myself or open up one of the pimples forming beneath my mustache. Mustache? I didn’t think it would come this quickly. As I’m scraping the hair from my upper lip I notice the fuzz on my cheeks is getting darker too. Pretty soon I’ll be shaving my whole face. Why do I need all this extra hair anyway? I don’t live in a cave somewhere. My legs are sprouting more hair too. What is this?
My scalp is dry. If I scratch my head I can cover a school book with a layer of white scales. I’ve got more dandruff than I know what to do with. This is just great, blotchy skin and mounds of dandruff and a face that’s changing shape. This is all I need. I’ll never get up the courage to talk to any girl I like now.
In my mind the eruptions on my face are gigantic, like I’ve got a volley ball-sized growth popping out of my nose. My brow is all red and bumpy, and why do pimples have to form right where I have to shave? This is painful. This is embarrassing. This is insane.
Hairy, bumpy, skinny and crew cut, and dandruff. I don’t need this at all.
I’ve got enough self-esteem issues without my body going wacky on me.
I’ll scrub my face and shampoo my hair. I’ll rub and rub and rub till my skin and scalp are raw, but it doesn’t do any good; my face erupts and my skin flakes off. In my mind I’m hideous and I wish I could wear a mask to school.
Yeah, I’ve heard about it, how your body goes through changes as you get older, but my body is going crazy and it’s driving me nuts!
How can I keep going to school looking like this?
I’m not even thirteen.
What’s going to happen to me then?
No, I don't need this.
I don't need this at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Changing Channels

The new school year also means the arrival of the latest television season. TV is starting to pull away from the 1950s a little more this year. Westerns don’t dominate the schedule like they used to. Most of the cowboy shows are called “adult” westerns, and most of them are an hour long. I think Rawhide is on mainly because people like the theme song, and why anyone would want to watch The Virginian is beyond me. Gunsmoke is still on Saturday nights and I never miss that. Marshall Dillon and the folks in Dodge City are old familiar friends.
My brother likes the Outer Limits. That show creeps me out, especially the beginning where they tell you they’re in control of your TV set, and that loud noise is buzzing in my ears. I go downstairs and watch something else when that’s on. The one time I do decide to stick around and watch it, it has these alien creatures that look like big ants that have human faces. Too weird for me. I don’t know how Carl can sleep after watching stuff like that.
Carl likes this new Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea show too. The actors in it seem phony to me, and the special effects and everything else about it looks cheesy. I’m not going to watch that one either.
Ozzie and Harriet are still on. Can you believe that? Dave and Ricky are all grown up and Ozzie still walks around in a sweater without any visible means of support. I guess he’s retired now, but from what? This year they show mostly re-runs of the older episodes, so it’s not quite as embarrassing as it has been. But why is it still on?
A lot of the older comedians are still on, but Red Skelton and Jack Benny are still funny. Lucy on the other hand, is not, and I don’t see why she’s still on, but for some reason or another she’s still popular. I don’t get it. Watching an old lady throw temper tantrums isn’t funny to me anymore, it’s just stupid.
There are several new shows on that are about people who are different. I like Bewitched. This guy marries a real pretty girl who turns out to be a witch. The only thing that bothers me about this show is that this guy doesn’t want his wife to use her powers. He wants her to be “normal”. Now everybody knows if you were married to somebody who had magical powers, you’d be asking them to do all kinds of neat stuff. TV always has to teach us a moral, like we’re always going to Sunday school or something.
There’s two more shows about people who are “different”. Two families trying to get along in the world even though their lifestyles don’t exactly fit in. They look different from everybody else too. The Munsters and the Addams family are really funny. What it would be like if the Frankenstein monster was living in a small town, or if an alternate world of ghouls and witches and other assorted freaks of nature moved in next door. The Addams family has an edge to them. Gomez and Morticia seem like they could get a kick out of doing something evil, and no one wants to mess with Lurch. I don’t like the actors who play their kids, though, especially that boy who plays Pugsley. He’s just plain awful.
I love the Munsters. Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis were on my favorite show of all time-Car 54, Where Are You?, and they’re great as Herman and Grandpa Munster. Fred Gwynne is all rubber-faced and goofy as Herman. I don’t think any other actor could play Herman and be as funny as Fred Gwynne. The Munsters is my favorite show this year.
TV has finally realized that there’s a new generation watching. Shindig is on on Wednesday nights at 8:30. It’s a live half hour show featuring all of the new rock n’ roll bands and they actually perform their hit songs instead of lip singing them. Every big group with a hit record is on the show, even the Beatles. The only rocker not on is Elvis, but he doesn’t seem as popular anymore. The Beatles are number one, and Diana Ross and the Supremes have a lot of hit records this year too. Elvis is taking a back seat to the British bands and the groups from Motown. I don’t watch Shindig too much ‘cause it’s on when the Beverly Hillbillies are, but I hear a lot of kids talking about it.
Carl is watching The Man From Uncle. It’s a spy show with a lot of gadgets and car chases. I guess it’s on because of that James Bond guy. I don’t like Robert Vaughn too much. I’d rather watch McHale’s Navy or Red Skelton.
There’s a lot of new shows on that I’m going to try. Twelve O’clock High, another World War II show about the B-17 bomber crews. I saw the movie with Gregory Peck, and I love watching war shows, so that will be on my schedule.
Donna Reed is still on, and so is My Three Sons, but they’ve pretty much worn out their welcome, and why oh why is Hazel still on? Can somebody tell me why that horrible show is still on?
Another show that catches my attention is a comedy show. It’s a lot of political satire and jokes about what’s going on today. It’s got that British guy David Frost on it. The show is called That Was The Week That Was, or TW3, and it’s pretty funny, but they keep pre-empting it for programs about the election, so most of the time I forget it’s on.
There is a show on that’s not very good, but I like it anyway. It’s the perfect show for young boys like me. The show is called My Living Doll, and it’s on Sunday night at 9:30. Robert Cummings is a guy who’s put in charge of an experimental robot. The thing is the robot is a beautiful woman, and she’s been programmed to do anything you tell her to do. The robot is played by Julie Newmar, one of the prettiest and sexiest women on TV at the time. I have to watch it every week just to look at Julie Newmar. Bob Cummings calls the robot Rhoda, and you operate Rhoda by pressing the freckles on her back! This show is the answer to every 12 and 13 year old boy with raging hormones dream. I know that every boy who watches this show is waiting for the day when Rhoda is told to take her clothes off. We know in our minds that this will never happen on TV, but we can dream, can’t we?
Who knows? Remember that Tarzan movie I saw? The one where Jane swims totally naked under water?
I saw that on TV now, didn’t I?

Monday, July 27, 2009

School Daze

I think the people who planned Gateway Regional High School are messing with our heads. They’ve taken kids from four different towns and thrown us all together in one building in some kind of bizarre science experiment. I feel like a lab rat in a maze, passing hundreds of strangers and every once in a while I see a familiar face but I can’t stop to say hi, I’ve got to keep moving and find the next classroom before the bell rings. Every hour or so it’s a race against time, rush-rush-rush, and don’t be late-don’t stop or take a time out to pee.
There are a few teachers I recognize. There’s Mr. Harvey and Mr. Culbertson from Woodbury Heights. I would have had them in Seventh or Eighth Grade if we had stayed in our old elementary school, but here I just see them going by me in the hall. Sometimes they smile and nod, acknowledging my existence. Fate has been kind to me as far as Language Arts and Social Studies. I get Mrs. Oglesby. Mrs. Oglesby lives six houses down from me on Walnut Avenue. She’s my neighbor! I passed her house every day on the way to school, and she knows my Mom and every Halloween I’ve stood in her living room while she tried to guess who I was. It’s good to have at least one familiar person as one of my teachers. There seem to be teachers from all four towns sprinkled in among us. I see some kids know Mrs. Conaway, my Homeroom and Reading class teacher. There are just enough teachers that we know to keep us all from getting too nervous about this place.
I and my classmates in 7C are expected to learn French. Why French, I wonder? How practical is French going to be for me? Who I am going to speak French to after school? German might be good, seeing as how my grandmother came from Austria, but French? Maybe if I lived near Canada or New Orleans French might be a good thing to know, but I live in South Jersey. There’s a lot of Italians in South Jersey, and Puerto Ricans, too, so maybe French isn’t the right way for us to go.
We spend a lot of time asking each other where the library is and introducing ourselves in French class. Miss Viola is our teacher, and she’s nice enough and pretty young and all, but maybe she could teach us more practical things to say. How about, “Where’s the bathroom?” or “Do you like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” Instead we practice introductions and tell each other we’re having sausages to eat, and how many times do we have to ask where the library is anyway? What is it with all these different ways to say the? Masculine, feminine and neuter? I never knew words could have a gender! Different endings for the same word, and there’s a formal way and an informal way to talk to each other. Hey, I’ve been speaking English for all my life, how do they expect me to understand all of this?
Miss Viola gives everyone the French equivalent of their first name. Except me. There is no French word for James, and John Camp already got Jean, which is the only thing close. Jack Wiler gets Jacques, the next best thing, so I have to settle for Pierre. Pierre? Why can’t she call me Louis? Louis is French, and that’s my middle name, but no, I have to settle for Pierre. If you ask me, this French class is a lot of merd.
Gym class is really tough. Mr. Williamson drills us like soldiers and then makes us do exercises until I feel like my veins are going to pop. Squats until my legs feel like over-stretched rubber bands. I’m in the push-up position, holding myself on my arms and toes as my arms wobble and the sweat is pouring into my eyes. Jumping jacks that last forever and we touch our toes until I feel like I’m going to pass out. Every once in a while somebody forgets their white socks or their jock strap, and Mr. Williamson reams them out in front of everybody like they’ve just committed some sort of mortal sin or something. The guys you feel most sorry for are the ones who forget to bring their gym suit to school that day. Mr. Williamson yells at them and makes them sit on the sidelines and watch us exercise, and ridicules them all throughout the period. I’m beginning to hate gym class.
I’m making some new friends in Gateway, but how friendly can you get with kids that live miles away and can only get here by bus? The guys from Wenonah are the closest, but it’s complicated if you want to hang out together. Your Mom has to drive you back and forth, or you can ride your bike, but you can’t be too close ‘cause you’re just so far away from each other.
Classes aren’t the same either. You don’t spend all day with the same teacher teaching you everything, and you don’t feel close to any of them. I like some of my teachers, and there's some I don’t care for. I guess I’m like everyone else, just muddling through, just trying to make it through the day.
I never used to watch the clock too much in Woodbury Heights Elementary School, but I stare at it every last period now. I can’t wait for the final bell. I’ve got a short walk home, so I’m there faster than anyone else.
Every day I take a quick nap after school. I rush upstairs and collapse on my bed and drift away. Thirty to forty minutes of bliss.
Free to let my muscles and my mind relax
Free to forget where the library is in France.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Phold

I didn’t know much about the Phillies until this year. I did know that the last time they had been in the World Series was 1950, a year before I was born, and the only other time was 1915, and both times they had been beaten.
This year, 1964, it was a different Phillies team altogether. They had been in first place most of the season, and now in September it looked like they were going to be the National League champions for sure. We all talked about it in school.
The Phillies were a young team, led by veteran outfielder Johnny Callison, revered by Phillies fans as much as Mickey Mantle was by Yankees fans in New York. My neighbors Butch and Billy Clay talked about how great Johnny Callison was all of the time. From what I had read in the Bulletin, they were right. Johnny Callison was hitting a ton of homers and he played an almost flawless right field. Yeah, the Phillies had a star in Johnny Callison alright.
The main thing that was different about the 1964 Phillies wasn’t just the players’ ages. They actually had a team that was made up of guys who were black, white and most of all, they had quite a few Latin-American ballplayers.
(left to right)Cookie Rojas, Johnny Callison, Richie Allen, Gene Mauch

There was a player who looked like he would be a superstar as well, and for the first time in the Phillies’ history, he was black.
Richie Allen was having a great year, and the Philadelphia papers and newscasts were all touting him as candidate for Rookie of the Year for the National League. He wasn’t the greatest third baseman, that’s for sure, but he was clobbering the ball. Allen was hitting for average, driving in runs, and blasting out just as many home runs as Johnny Callison. It was pretty amazing listening to white kids praising a black baseball player, especially a Phillie, but it was happening, right here, right now.
The Spanish-speaking players were fan favorites as well. Tony Gonzalez was one of the best center fielders in baseball, and little Cookie Rojas was proving that utility players were just as valuable as the regular guys. He was hitting the ball well too, batting close to .300 for most of the season.
Phillies fans weren’t used to success. It was expected that they’d lose every year. My father and all our neighbors never thought in a million years that the Phillies would stay in first place almost all summer long, but here they were on September 20th with a six and a half game lead and just twelve games left to go. All they have to do is win six games, that’s all. Just six games and the championship would be theirs.
But something happened. Some Phillies fans probably said it was bound to happen. Things began to unravel, and we saw it on TV and listened to it on the radio.
On September 21st the Phils lost a 1-0 game to the Reds because a utility infielder named Chico Ruiz decided to do the unexpected. He stole home plate all on his own. He just did it, surprising his manager and his teammates as much as he surprised the Phillies. From that night on and for nine more games, the Phillies just couldn’t win no matter how hard they tried.
They began making a lot of errors and balls that seemed routine would suddenly take a bad hop or hit a rock, and before they knew it, the other team was way ahead. It seemed like everyone stopped hitting except for Allen and Callison, and they couldn’t be expected to do it all.
For some reason or another, the Phillies manager, Gene Mauch, suddenly changed the way he used his pitchers. It seemed like all he wanted to do was play Jim Bunning and Chris Short, like Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp or even Rick Wise didn’t even exist. The sports announcers were all saying that Gene Mauch was wearing his best pitchers out, and the losses were piling up. The fans were losing their patience and their confidence, and they began to boo, and I mean boo.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on television. The Phillies were falling apart. I saw them blow big leads and fail to take advantage of every opportunity they had to win a game. It was like I was watching an entirely different team than what I had seen all summer. They had become what every Phillies fan had expected, a major-league disappointment.
Six games-that’s all they needed to win. They lost ten in a row, and now the St. Louis Cardinals were in first place with just two games left to play.
The Phillies still had a chance. If they could beat the Reds and the Cardinals lost to the Mets, then the Phils, Reds and Cardinals would end up in a three-way tie for first, leading to a playoff to see who would go to the World Series.
This was exciting to me, I don’t think this had ever happened before, a three way tie for first place. You could just feel the tension in my neighbors. The Clays were pretty rabid Phillies fans, and you could hear Mrs. Avis screaming at the television all during the losing streak.
Well, the Phils got lucky. On Friday, October 2, they squeezed out a 4-3 win over the Reds and the lowly Mets destroyed the Cards 15-5. All the Phillies had to do was win on Saturday and hope that the Mets could pull off another victory over the Cardinals.
Maybe it was just fate or bad luck or maybe just because it’s Philadelphia.
The Phils clobbered the Reds, 10-0.
But the Cardinals beat the Mets, 11-5.
Butch and Billy Clay were stunned.
Mrs. Avis was hoarse from all the yelling.
Phillies fans everywhere just couldn’t believe it.
The sportswriters were pointing their fingers.
I didn’t feel too bad, after all my team, the Yankees, were going to the World Series, and I figured they’d beat the pants off of the Cardinals, so that would even the score.
It was a shame what happened.
A season full of so much hope and so much promise.
For a change Phillies fans had an exciting season, but it ended the way all seasons had.
In bitter disappointment.
“There was no joy in Mudville......”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The 1964 Election

President Johnson is running for re-election this year. The only thing I know about it is that he's running against a senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater, and that the Democrats have their convention in Atlantic City. My parents watch the convention, and it's on all of the channels, so there's nothing on TV while the convention is going on.
There's a lot of name-calling. People accuse President Johnson of being corrupt, and that he fixed a lot of elections when he was running for office in Texas. Some people are saying that maybe he had something to do with President Kennedy's assassination. A lot of people don't like the fact that he's sending more and more soldiers over to Vietnam, and most white people don't like him because he's getting a lot of civil rights laws passed.
Senator Goldwater is being called a war-monger. He claims there's no shame in using whatever force is necessary in order to defeat the Communists. I don't like the way he looks. He looks spooky to me, and Lyndon Johnson is pretty creepy-looking too.
The election is beyond me. Political things just seem so complicated, you know? Who knows what to believe?
But one night I see this commercial for Lyndon Johnson, and it scares me to death. A lot of people are scared to death.
I have trouble sleeping after seeing that commercial.
Suddenly I hope that Barry Goldwater isn't elected our next president, and President Johnson doesn't seem so spooky at all.

Surviving Gateway

I started out my first few days at Gateway a little intimidated by it all, but after a while I got used to the routine, and I was making a few new friends. Most of my new friends were the smarter kids in school. There’s this guy from Westville named Grant Karsner who seems like he could be Mr. Peabody from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Grant is really good with math, something I struggle with. I’m getting to know another kid from Westville. Bruce Zahn is his name. He’s smaller than me and kinda quiet-the soft-spoken type.
I was right about Jack Wiler from Wenonah. He and I share a lot of the same interests. We talk about Marvel Comic books-which artists we like and which super heroes are our favorites. Jack likes history too, so I’ve found somebody else other than Steve Kay I can talk to about World War II and all the other wars I like to read about.
My locker mate, Gary Lundquist keeps pumping me for information about all the girls from Woodbury Heights. I’d like to help him out, but I really don’t know much about them personally, only from what I know when we’re in school. I can tell him that Joyce Hoefers is as good an athlete as any boy and she’s a nice person, except if you’re trying to dunk her under the water, then watch out! I agree with him that Sheila McLaughlin is pretty, and once again I don’t know too much about her as a person. I like Gary, he’s good at making jokes and he seems real intelligent when he speaks. He’s kind of like a junior William F. Buckley; a mini-intellectual. I seem to be able to make him laugh real hard sometimes. Gary tells me he’s interested in a girl from my class that I hardly ever spoke to, Debbie Pryzwara. Her father is working on his house or something, and he thinks that he’d like to get to know her. I tell him that Debbie was kinda quiet and shy in school, and I don’t live on her side of town. I tell Gary he should ask Don Vanneman about Debbie-he lives across the street from her. Whether or not he acts on my advice, I’ll never know. I do know he’s also interested in Sue Burns, the girl I’ve always had a huge crush on. I’m too awkward and shy to ever tell Sue Burns I like her. I thought that I’d get up enough courage to talk to her now that we’re in high school and all, but I don’t.
There are lots and lots of pretty girls to meet and admire. They’re everywhere, but what does that matter to me? I’m this skinny awkward goofball with a crew cut. I look more and more like Jerry Lewis the longer I keep getting my hair cut this way, but I don’t have a choice, that’s how my parents tell me to get it cut, so that’s that. Anyway, when I tried to let my hair grow long a few years ago it was a disaster. It’s better to get it cut off than plastering it down with a whole bottle of hair tonic.
I decide that I’m going to join the school newspaper. I have an interest in writing, and I used to pretend that I ran a newspaper when I was younger. They make me the sports editor. Sports? I don’t know much about sports at all. I know about baseball mostly. I’ve played football in the yard but I don’t know much else about it and I know absolutely nothing about basketball. The few times I’ve tried to play basketball with Jimmy Matsuk and Paul LaPann and some of the others I was just horrible, so I’ve stayed away from it.
Mr. Harvey is the basketball coach. I know Mr. Harvey from Woodbury Heights Elementary school, so it will be easy to talk to him. I write down a whole bunch of questions for Mr. Harvey about the upcoming basketball season and how he thinks the team will do. Most of my questions are pretty open-ended, so he can be free to answer them in any way, and I won’t look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Mr. Harvey answers all my questions and then some, so I’ve got a lot of good material for my article about the boys’ basketball team. The only thing is, when the newspaper is finally printed, most of our news is so old that nobody really cares about reading it. After Christmas vacation I lose interest and quit the paper.
A lot of kids are choosing activities to join. Football, basketball, field hockey, cheerleading, color guard; everyone is picking something.
I’m not a jock, my athletic abilities usually provoke laughter rather than admiration, so I join the Chess Club. My neighbor Mr. Olsen taught me how to play chess. I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved listening to him speak to me in his Norwegian accent, so I tried the best I could. Since chess is a military game I figured it would grow on me, but somehow my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the subtleties of the strategy, and I couldn’t see the moves ahead of time like you’re supposed to. I lost pretty much all of the time. Years later my long time friend Keith Madden and I would play chess almost every day and every day he would beat me. One day I noticed that I was doing very well against him, and it looked like I was going to win. Keith had reached a point in the game where his next move would decide whether or not I could beat him. I figured he could see that I could win and make the right move to prevent it. To my surprise he didn’t, and the next thing I know I’m calling out Checkmate!
Keith couldn’t believe his eyes. I think he studied the board for at least twenty minutes before conceding the game. I didn’t believe it either.
I didn’t join anything else. I wasn’t confident enough to try out for sports, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time practicing a musical instrument, so band was out for me. Good thing too, because kids who were in the band seemed to have been placed in a whole different category of nerddom. I never understood why though. I always envied people who could play an instrument. Playing one of those horns or reed instruments is hard to do, and you have to practice as much as any athlete, so I never understood why kids in the band were ridiculed so much.
I was keeping my head down, trying not to get noticed, just flowing along and trying to get good grades. I sat at the lunch table with guys like Bruce Zahn and Grant Karsner, Ken Fell and Ralph Leeds and Jack Wiler. I had pretty much lost touch with most of the boys I went to school with in Woodbury Heights, except for Steve Kay. He and I pretty much kept to ourselves, and after school we contented ourselves with playing Avalon Hill war games and moving Airfix toy soldiers around on the desert we built in his basement.
I’m getting by OK so far. My grades are good and I’ve made a few new friends. Maybe this new school isn’t so bad after all.
Well, I’ve still gotta survive gym class. And let's not forget the cafeteria.
We’ll see.
We'll see.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lunchtime at Gateway

Our cafeteria isn't quite ready for us when we first start school. We have to bring our lunches and eat in our homerooms for a while. The cafeteria itself is a makeshift gymnasium, perfect for calisthenics and close-order drill. We also play "Crab Soccer", a game played with a giant canvas ball. We sit on the floor with our arms behind us, pulling ourselves with our legs. You can only kick the ball, you can't touch it with your hands, and it's a welcome relief from all those muscle-bending exercises.
It takes a while, but the cafeteria is finished, and lunch periods can begin. The cafeteria lacks any ambiance at all. It's just a big open room with bare cinder block walls painted a kind of institutional green. Long tables in rows that remind me of the mess halls in prison movies or movies about boot camp in the army.
It's loud in the cafeteria. Dozens of voices chattering away all at once, a sudden change from the relative quiet of our classrooms.
When they begin serving us food, or at least their idea of food, it seems like most of the time we're served something made of ground beef and starch. Sloppy Joes, beef-a-roni, or chili with beans. The pizza is unlike any pizza I've ever eaten. We pour the grease off of it before even trying to eat it. Most kids eat the French fries and the hot dogs. Lunch costs 35 cents. There is a moment in time that is somewhat surreal. They serve something called Turkey On A Stick. What it is I couldn't say for sure. There's some kind of fried glob of what looks like a meat product on the end of one of those pointed wooden skewers that you usually have a candied apple on. Who thought any of us would want to eat this? I steer clear of that concoction, and it disappears from the menu rather quickly. What were they thinking with that one?
You can get an ice cream sandwich for a dime, and after a while that pretty much consists of my lunch until I start bringing my own again.
There's not much in the way of fruits or vegetables, and the small fruit cups they do have usually end up being used as missiles. The grapes, mostly and sometimes the pudding. Somebody always seems to feel the need to toss some grapes during lunch period. I guess being cooped up in the building all day creates so much tension in some of us that the only way they can release it is by throwing food.
I don't like the cafeteria. There's this unofficial pecking order in there. Nerds like me are clustered together for safety's sake, where we can talk about TV shows and comic books. We're inevitably the target of the food throwers at some point; everyone knows that nerds don't fight back.
The popular kids, the "beautiful people" are in their own section,as are the jocks and the greasers and the tough guys. The least popular kids, the "Lost Souls", must find a table that will accept at least one of them.
I do not like lunch period. We can't leave the building for some reason. In elementary school we could go outside and play in the playground and get some fresh air for a while, but here in high school I feel trapped, and the feeling is made worse because my house is only minutes away. Who would be hurt by my walking home for lunch? Why can't we go outside for a few minutes? Do they think we'll all run away?
This is far worse than the little lunch room I had to endure at the Woodbury Heights Elementary School.
I'm going to have to put up with this for six years?
There's gotta be a way out of this.
There's just got to.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Only The Strong Survive

There’s no recess in high school. They call it Physical Education now. We call it gym class. It looks to me like almost every boy in the Seventh Grade is here. Our bodies are still developing, and most of us are skinny and gangly, barely a muscle showing. We’re all together in gym; the short and the tall, the tough guys and the wimps, the nerds and the jocks-nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
Our teacher is Mr. Williamson, all crew-cut and bluster. He is obsessed with us wearing ONLY our gym suits in class-there will be no exceptions. And we MUST wear white socks at all times, and jock straps-no underwear may peek out from your gym shorts.
Our gym suits are white T-shirts with Gateway in blue letters, and our shorts are blue with white letters. You can wear white or black sneakers, the color doesn’t matter, but you must wear sneakers. NO EXCEPTIONS!
Mr. Williamson treats us all like we’re Gomer Pyle. He screams at us. There will be no sympathy from Mr. Williamson. We all think of him as a maniac, a hard-nosed bully who gets his kicks out of making young boys feel even smaller than they are.
The gym isn’t finished yet. The floor hasn’t been laid down, so we have to use the cafeteria. Mr. Williamson lines us up military style, in squad formation.
He has us march in close-order drill. Left, idle left, idle left, right, left. Left, left, left, right left. And on and on and on.
I don’t mind the marching so much. It’s easy and you can’t really get embarrassed like you can trying to play some sport you’re no good at. We’re all on a level playing field just marching. It does feel kind of eerie though, as if he’s getting us ready for the military; preparing to ship us off to Vietnam.
The calisthenics are another thing altogether. Mr. Williamson has us doing push-ups and sit-ups and jumping jacks and all manner of body crunching exercises that push us all to the limit.
By the time gym class is over we’re sweaty and sore and we feel as if we’ve been in the Bataan Death March. We have to go back to regular classes after this.
The locker room is a crowded affair, and some guys are embarrassed to be seen naked by the rest of us. Some are so intimidated that they hold towels in front of themselves while taking a shower. I guess they never had to share a bath tub with a brother or a cousin or something.
Mr. Williamson makes it clear that EVERYONE must take a shower. EVERYONE!
It’s hell for the timid among us.
Mr. Williamson makes it clear that EVERYONE must have a lock for their gym locker.
As if someone would want to steal my gym shorts. I do not bring anything of value with me to school.
It’s an hour of “Lord of the Flies”, and then back to class.
I’m still sweating from it all even though I’ve had a shower.
The muscles in my arms and legs ache for the rest of the day. I can barely carry my textbooks.
I will hear Mr. Williamson’s voice in my sleep.
Physical Education they call it.
Three days a week.
Oh for another chance at recess.

Gateway: The First Day

A warm September day this first day of school. My first day in Gateway Regional High School just a few yards down the road from my home.
I don't have to rush to get ready, the school is right behind my house, so I stay in bed for as long as I can, savoring the last minutes of summer vacation.
There is no way to prepare for this, to be thrown into a new building with hundreds of other kids from four different towns, four different worlds.
I and everyone else will be creating something new in this rectangle of bricks and mortar, rising up from what used to be Mr. Rizzuto's field.
It wasn't long ago that Paul Avis and my brother and I ventured out into this field as the Bulldog Patrol, our army platoon, ready to take on the Nazis. Mr. Rizzuto spotted us and mistook us for older boys armed with BB guns, and he came roaring at us full speed in his pick up truck.
"Let me see those guns," he barked.
"You boys better not be huntin' out here."
"No sir, I said, "they're just training rifles. You can't load them with anything. They're not real."
Mr. Rizzuto grunted, and satisfying himself that we weren't out to kill anything, he rode off, warning us to be careful.
We did not enter the field again after that encounter.
I walk past what's left of the woods behind my house,the woods where I used to roam all day long. I'm walking in the shoulder of Egg Harbor Road towards that field where Mr. Rizzuto didn't want us to play. It's hot, but the trek won't last very long.
Yellow buses zoom past me, hauling the kids from Wenonah. I can hear them laughing and yelling and talking as they pass me by.
Cars and buses are pulling into the parking lot, and the grounds in front of the school are filled with kids waiting for the first bell to ring.
Is everyone as nervous as I am? Not too many of my classmates from the Heights are in class 7C. I'm not comfortable about this. I don't like letting go of things that are safe and familiar. What if the kids in my class are all smarter than me, or if I'm somehow put into a class of all wise guys or something? Will I be looked upon as a nerd, once again the only boy still sporting a crew cut?
The bell rings and we flow into the building. I've got to find room 214, that's my homeroom; the teacher will be a Mrs. Conaway.
We're directed where to go,and I'm caught up in a current of bodies all trying to find their way home. I feel like I'm in one of those science experiments where they put a mouse in a maze and I'm looking for a piece of cheese, except there's hundreds of other mice getting in my way, and I'll never be able to see the cheese through all these bodies.
Somehow I find room 214, and Mrs.Conaway who's standing outside the door like all the other teachers. She says hello and tells me where to sit, and I take my place and get a look at my new surroundings.
Everything is new. Our desks aren't really desks, they're more like little tables attached to orange/red plastic seats by chrome-plated tubes. More tubes underneath the seat are where you store your books when you don't need them. Not much room under there, and your feet are likely to kick them off if you're not careful. The clock is new, and the flag and the walls and the blackboard-which isn't black anymore, it's a kind of green color.
There's a speaker on the wall and someone is constantly making announcements.
We all have to stand for the National Anthem and to say the Pledge of Allegiance-the whole school all at once-along with that voice coming over the PA system in the wall.
I find out that Homeroom is where they take roll and give out information. It's where our lockers will be, just outside in the hall. Two people share a locker. My locker mate will be this guy from Westville, a kid named Gary Lundquist. He wears glasses and he looks a lot smarter than me. He seems a lot more outgoing than I am, and he's already talking to everybody, making wise cracks the whole time.
Mrs. Conaway tells us that in a few minutes first period will begin, and the bell will ring and we'll all have to wander the halls looking for our next classroom.
Wandering and searching. Wandering and searching. A river of children flowing through the halls. Every once in a while you see someone from your home town and you call out to them but you can't stop, you're caught up in the current, lost souls looking for classrooms.
It will go on like this all day. Wandering, searching. Books piled up in your arms. Meeting new kids and looking for old familiar faces. Lunch in the cafeteria sitting at long tables that look like the ones in those old James Cagney prison movies.
Parts of the school aren't finished yet. The gym's not done, so we'll have to use the cafeteria. The auditorium isn't finished and some of the biology labs aren't either.
I'm not comfortable this first day of school, but it goes by quickly. I don't have time to think about it too much with all the scrambling about and looking at schedules and learning locker combinations and carrying all those books. Bells ringing and announcements over the PA system. Lots of new teachers and a river of children to contend with.
Before you know it the school day is over and I'm back in Homeroom waiting for the final bell to ring.
I made it! It wasn't too horrible, but it was a bit overwhelming. I hardly saw any of my former Woodbury Heights classmates all day. It looks like I'm the only boy from the Heights in class 7C. Who decided that and why?
I think I'm going to like my locker mate, this Gary Lundquist kid from Westville. He's in class 7C as well, so I see him most of the day. There's this other guy named John, but he prefers Jack. He's from Wenonah and I kinda see some of myself in him. I heard him talking about Marvel comic books and it sounds like he likes history just like I do, so I think he and I could be friends. Lots of new last names.
Albright, Banks, Camp, Chattin, Fell and Leeds. I'll sit behind Lundquist in most of my classes. Stens, Stokes, Wernig, Williams, Wiler and Zahn. New names, new faces. New everything.
Kids empty the building at the end of the day, rushing down Helen Avenue back into Woodbury Heights; boarding the buses for Westville, National Park and Wenonah.
It's a short walk for me, up out of the field and past the woods, past the places I used to roam. Past the places where Mr. Rizzuto didn't want us to play.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I thought I'd take a time out to tell those of you who are reading that my previous post, Thinking Hard, is number 200. Two hundred short stories, free verse, notes, and once in a while a little venting. I never thought I'd get this far. There have been times when I thought I had run out of gas or family problems have gotten so pressing that I'd just throw in the towel. Anyway, here I am and where I'll go from here is anyone's guess. If you're a regular reader, thank you. Thanks to those four who like the blog enough to sign on as regular followers. Jess, Bob Thomas, Bob Smith and Alan.
Special thanks to my wife Patty for her support, and to Jack Wiler for daring me to write again. I have received e-mails from people who grew up in Woodbury Heights telling me how much they've enjoyed my stories and the memories I've brought back to life. Thanks to John, Janice, and Joyce and all the others. Thanks to everyone I've mentioned in the blog, you've all been good sports, and I haven't received any threatening letters. I need to sit back for a while and gather my thoughts. I've also got to find a job - my unemployment benefits won't last forever you know. What I'd like is for anyone who reads the blog to put up a comment or even a question you may have for me. I think it would be nice to see the Maddox Corner "community" and what you're all thinking. So send me your comments and questions. I'll be happy to respond. Give me some time and the "Gateway Era" shall begin. Thanks again for reading. Stay tuned.

Thinking Hard

There's so much on my mind now that summer is almost over. I look through the chain-link fence and stare at Gateway Regional High School rising up just past the trees. What will it be like, I wonder?
So much to think about this summer.

Will the Phillies stay in first place? It looks like they've got a lock on the championship, so it's a good bet they'll play the Yankees in the World Series. I'm hoping the Phillies make it. It would be neat to see them play against Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. Maybe there'll be a home run slug fest with Johnny Callison and Richie Allen challenging Mickey and Roger and Joe Pepitone. The Yankees in Connie Mack Stadium! I bet Dad could get us tickets for that.

I think more about the war in Vietnam. I still don't understand it too much. I can't tell if anyone is winning or not. Seems like every time the news comes on there's a new leader of South Vietnam, and President Johnson keeps sending more of our soldiers over there. The war is getting bigger all because an American destroyer called the Maddox was attacked by little patrol boats or something. I wonder who the Maddox was named after? I don't have any relatives I know of named Maddox. All of my Dad's family is called Woodward 'cause his father died and Dad really never knew him. I hope our family doesn't get blamed for getting us deeper into war. I don't think I'll have to go and fight over there. I'll be thirteen at the end of the year and in five more years I'll have to register for the draft. The war will be over by then I think. At least I hope so. I play war a lot and I like to watch war movies, but I'm no dummy. I know what war is and I don't think I want any part of this one. I don't want to die in a jungle somewhere far away.

One night near the end of August we hear about a riot in Philadelphia. We're watching John Facenda on Channel 10 talking about black people going crazy in North Philadelphia. It seems it all started when a black lady's car stalled out in the middle of the street,and when some policemen tried to get her to move it an argument broke out. It got worse after that and a crowd gathered, and the lady was arrested, and then a rumor started. The rumor was that a pregnant black lady was beaten to death, but that didn't really happen but it didn't matter, everyone went crazy and started breaking into stores and starting fires and just going nuts. We watched the violence on the local news. The police just stood by and didn't do much. Lots of black people got arrested and lots and lots of stores were destroyed. Police brutality was the cause of this, a lot of people said. I couldn't understand this the same way I couldn't understand Vietnam, but it was just across the river, and it was frightening. People just spinning out of control, right here, so close to home. North Philadelphia is where the Phillies play ball. I don't think Dad will get us tickets for the World Series now.

In a few days I'll walk a few yards down Egg Harbor Road to a new school, to a whole new world. What will that world be like, I wonder?
Mom will drag us around to Kresge's and W.T.Grants and Ernie's Shoe Post and I'll try on clothes and shoes until I can't stand it anymore. We'll go to Woolworth's and buy pencils and paper and I have to get a three ring binder notebook for some reason or another.

I'm still wondering what homeroom is all about. It's not a class but we'll have a homeroom teacher. I don't get it.
A different teacher for each subject, and kids from four different towns.
What will they be like, I wonder?

Soon now. Soon.

I'll put on my new plaid shirt and my new khaki pants and the collar will itch and my new shoes will feel tight on my feet and I'll be uncomfortable just walking those few yards down the road.

Soon now. Soon.

I hope I'm ready for this.