Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mystic Revelations

In the spring of 1965, around Easter, my mother decided that I should be baptized. My sister was going to be christened, so she figured to have a multiple ceremony which would include me, my brother Carl, Dad and Cheryl all together.
I couldn't figure this out. It didn't make any sense to me since I had stopped going to church altogether and I had made it quite clear to my mother that I didn't really believe in all of this god stuff. I guess she didn't take me seriously. Maybe she figured that if I had some of that magical holy water splashed on me that I'd see the light or something. I had a vague recollection of Dad going to church once or twice, but he was almost always working on Sunday, so he wasn't really a church-going man at all. Carl didn't care one way or the other, but I'm sure he'd rather stay in bed on Sunday morning, and little Cheryl is only two-and-a-half, so she doesn't get anything to say about it.
I never liked church or Sunday School. I didn't see the point of it all. To me these were interesting stories, but they were just as fantastic and as unbelievable as the super heroes in all of the comic books I read.
Rising from the dead, making miracles, getting swallowed by whales and destroying cities by blowing horns all sounded good, but come on, did they really think I'd believe all of that stuff?
I could learn just as much watching Davey and Goliath on TV, and I could stay in my pajamas.
I was always trying to be a good person and I didn't get into trouble much and my grades were good in school, so why did I have to give up a perfectly good Sunday morning just to listen to people telling me why I should be good? I mean, I already had that covered, you know?
I don't talk about religion to anyone. It seems if you tell people you don't believe in it that they don't take too kindly to you. We don't have a national religion in our country, it says so in our Constitution you know. We used to have to pray in school. It was a Christian prayer, and everyone was forced to say it no matter what they believed. We're supposed to be a country where everyone is free to believe what they like, so I say leave me alone when it comes to religion.
Maybe if we could be christened like the black Baptists from Jericho did it, I'd be more interested. They get together and stand in the lake down the street and sing songs and then you get dunked under the water. They always look like they're having a good time.
We have to get dressed up in our best clothes and go over to the Presbyterian Church on Elm Avenue and stand there while the minister prays or something, and then he's going to drop some water on our foreheads. Big deal.
What is this going to do, give me some sort of Christian force field or something? Will it make me a better person?
After it's all over I don't feel any different. I don't "see the light" or anything like that. I'd rather go home and get into my dungarees and a T-shirt, but no, we have to go around to all of the relatives now and tell them we're all official Christians now.
I guess this makes Mom feel better. I guess she thinks we're protected now or that we'll have a better chance of getting into heaven now that we've been watered.
I doubt it. My brother could still care less, and my little sister really doesn't know what's going on. My bet is that Dad will still stay away from church as much as possible, and there's no way I'm going, so I still don't see the point of it all.
So, keep the faith if you have to.
I'm doing fine by me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Just Getting By

Soon it will be 1965. 1964 was a mixed bag for me. The first half of the year I was still in Sixth Grade, still with my friends from Woodbury Heights and getting a little more confident. I was looking forward to the Seventh Grade until I learned that we'd be going to a new school with kids from three other towns. I never took to drastic changes very well. I preferred the familiar, and I would have liked two more years in Woodbury Heights Elementary School, being one of the older kids, sitting at the top of the roost.
Now I've got to go back to Gateway Regional High School. Six years maneuvering my way through those halls, avoiding the tough guys, anticipating the chocolate pudding and fruit cups being hurled my way in the cafeteria.
I dread gym class days. Recurring nightmares about forgetting my gym suit - humiliated by Mr. Williamson in front of the other guys in class. I hate gym class and yearn for the days of recess, plain and simple.
I did get to go to the World's Fair several times. Such a wonderful place, such promise for the future. I'm hoping everything I saw and learned there comes true. A world at peace filled with marvelous machines that will make life easier and more fulfilling for us all. Wouldn't that be something?
I'm getting good grades in my first year at Gateway, but I'm not having an easy time of it. I struggle at Math. I sweat out every test, the numbers swirling around in my brain. I excel whenever I have to stand in front of a class to give a book report or talk about history. I love public speaking, something which seems to scare the living daylights out of the others.
I'm not a popular person. I lack confidence in myself when it comes to the girls. I consider myself goofy-looking, a kind of Jerry Lewis in miniature, and it doesn't help to be practically the only boy left with this awful crew-cut hair.
I'm not tall or handsome like guys like Paul Albright. I don't join any of the athletic teams but I play sports all the time with kids after school. That's why I'm so skinny. I'm always running or riding my bike. I play football with Butch and Billy Clay and my brother and other kids. Whenever Paul LaPann, Billy Hills, Jim Matsuk and others ask me to join them at the old school for a game of basketball, I go. I'm not very good at it, but I play my best, even though they pretty much laugh at my efforts.
My best friend is still Steve Kay from Woodbury Heights. He and I play Avalon Hill war games and we still play with our Airfix toy soldiers down in his basement. Every once in a while Jack Wiler from Wenonah joins in with us when he can get a ride home.
I like Jack. He and I share a love of Marvel comic books and we talk about history a lot. Guys like Jack and Gary Lundquist are the type of boys I like to hang around with. They seem to know more about current affairs than I do, and I know they've read more books than me, so I strive to learn more and to read more so I can keep up with them.
It's a weird feeling going to Gateway Regional High School. I'm in Woodbury Heights but it doesn't feel like I'm a part of Woodbury Heights. It feels maybe like being in Berlin, you know? Like I'm in a separate zone peering over the wall or something. It's hard to explain but it's uncomfortable.
Six more years of this?
I hope it goes by quickly.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

I'll have a blue Christmas in 1964

It was difficult to get excited about Christmas. My Nanny Gardner had died the night before Thanksgiving, so that was a somber holiday for all of us. Now that Christmas is upon us I'm missing her presence even more. It's odd for me to go to her house now. Pop-Pop is still there, and soon Uncle Pat and Aunt Irene along with their kids Janet and Patti, will be moving in with him, but it's strange that it won't be Nanny's house any more.
Nanny's little dog Tippy does not take her death well either. She hides under Nanny's bed and won't come out for days. My mother finally coaxes her out, but she's not the same dog any longer. Tippy broods and cowers. She trembles when you try to pet her, and finally she begins snapping at everyone. Tippy gets more and more withdrawn and her temperament worsens. Eventually she is put to sleep.
I didn't go to Nanny's funeral. I just couldn't face looking at her dead body lying in a coffin. I stayed home from school that day, but no one and I mean no one could drag me to her funeral.
I ask for things for Christmas like I normally do. Some Airfix toy soldiers, the Afrika Korps board game from Avalon Hill and yes, I do ask for a G.I. Joe. Doesn't really matter to me anyhow. I'm not in a very festive mood.
Dad doesn't help matters very much. His choice of Christmas trees usually isn't very good, and this year he brings home the worst one yet. This thing doesn't even look like a tree it looks more like some hideous shrub, even more scraggly than ever. Mom and I decorate it but that doesn't help, it seems to emphasize its ugliness.
The only consolation for me is that I can escape Gateway Regional High School for a while, and hopefully it will snow over the holiday and I can lose myself in the thrill of sledding down Freund's Cliff. It's pretty cold on Christmas Eve so maybe there's a chance of some snow in our future.
No such luck. I wake up Christmas morning and find out it's almost sixty degrees outside. It feels like spring more than winter. The unusually warm weather makes the whole holiday seem ridiculous, and I feel like I should be playing baseball rather than singing about winter wonderlands.
The warm air sticks around for several days and even then it doesn't get really cold until almost New Years'. We get some rain mixed with wet snow, but that just makes things more miserable. It's gray and rainy on New Year's day too, so I'm tortured by the Mummers parade on TV. I have to retreat upstairs to my room and my piles of comic books, losing myself in the adventures of Spider Man and the X-Men and others.
This is not my favorite Christmas, not by a long shot.
Nanny's dead, our tree is ugly and the weather just stinks.
Who ever thought I'd look forward to getting back to school?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thanksgiving: 1964

My grandmother, my Mom's mother, who we all called Nanny, died. She died the night before Thanksgiving. She wasn't sick as far as I knew - she just died. Nanny seemed to know it, at least according to the grownups, because I heard them talking about how Nanny had gone shopping during the day and bought a goose to cook. "I don't know why I bought the damn thing," Nanny said, "I won't be alive to cook it." Sure enough, that evening she died.
The only death that had affected me up till now was when my dog Whee-Zee had to be put to sleep last year. I'm still upset about that, and now my Nanny has died. Death is hard to cope with. Our family won't be the same without Nanny Gardner.
No more food tricks. Nanny tried to fool you into eating and drinking things under assumed names. She would cook liver and try to con you into thinking it was steak.
She never got me with that one. I could always tell by the smell that it was liver, but she never stopped trying, never gave up the game.
A glass of Tang was orange juice, and a corn fritter was a pancake, but didn't she know we could tell the difference?
The worst thing she tried to pass off on us was A-Toast. A-Toast is a syrup that you mix with water - it's supposed to taste like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, but it doesn't. It tastes more like soda that's been sitting in a glass all night and now there's no fizz left. The stuff is made in Burlington County, and some people claim they like it. They put seltzer water or club soda in it and then they swear it tastes just like Coke or Pepsi, but to me the stuff is just plain horrible. Still, Nanny would keep trying to pull a fast one with it.
Nanny was eccentric. She was my fun grandmother, the one I liked to visit because it was always fun to go to her house.
Nanny belched. She belched real loud and didn't apologize for it.
Nanny had a blue Parakeet named Billy. Billy had the run of the house: oh, he had a cage, but Nanny left the door open for him so he could fly all around the house.
She had a yellow Canary too, but it was always kept in its cage.

No more Nanny Gardner?

When we go over to Nanny's house the day after Thanksgiving the place seems empty. There's a stillness to it that's never been there before. The big cuckoo clock in the kitchen sounds louder; there's an echo that I never noticed before. It's all too quiet.
Nanny's little terrier Tippy sits in her dog bed shivering. There's a deep sadness in her eyes. She can sense that Nanny is gone and doesn't know what to do except sit in her bed and shake with grief.
The big cuckoo clock tick-tocks louder and louder.
Nanny's not here to try and fool me or to give me candy mint leaves or lemon slices.
Tippy keeps shivering.
The clock keeps ticking.
There's no joy here anymore.
That clock keeps ticking.
I pet little Tippy and try to make her feel better.
She just shivers and looks even sadder.
There will be a funeral-Nanny's funeral.
I make up my mind that I will not go look at Nanny lying in a coffin.
No, I will not do that. I will not say good bye.
I'm going to be thirteen in a month, I'm supposed to be grown up now.
Grown up? What does that mean at a time like this?
I don't know enough to feel grown up, I don't know enough to help me cope with death.

Well,grown up or not I do know one thing: I miss my Nanny Gardner.