Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Holiday Display

The coming Christmas celebration gives me a moment to weigh in on one of the vexing issues of our day. The holiday display. We had one in Wenonah, in the park, on E. Mantua Ave, across from Margies. The Lion's Club erected it shortly after Thanksgiving and the display consisted of a creche (life size figures of Mary, Joseph, the Wisemen, and baby Jesus all 2 dimensional cutouts), several pine trees decorated with lights and carols piped through a sound system. There may have been Santa and some reindeer but I can't remember. I do remember baby Jesus.
It was cheesy and nice. It mostly had a place in our collective little hearts but as a sincere demonstration of the miracle of Christ's birth it might have been lacking. Not that I don't think piped in carols would have made the manger in that long ago Bethlehem a better place but really I would have preferred just reindeers and Santa and we could leave Jesus in church where he seemed to look a lot better.
Last year I visited Suzy Parker's folks in Townsend's Inlet after the 4th of July. Dewey, Suzy's dad, told us about one year, maybe three or four before my 5th grade celebration, when he was in charge of the music for the Lion's Club. He allowed a young woman whom he and his friends found attractive to pick the music for the display. She picked "Rockin Around the Christmas Tree".
Needless to say this did not go over well in little Wenonah. But listening to Dewey tell the story reminded me of how cool it used to be that just a dumb old rock and roll tune could set everybody into high dudgeon. We were blessed with our small town nincompoopery and it's crazy little battles.
I don't know that it matters whether Jesus is in the park on Christmas eve if he's made of colored pressboard. I do think it matters that he's in the hearts of people that profess to believe that's important. I believe that Christmas is a joyous holiday. The Druids, the Christians, the Jews, all of us knuckleheads shaking in the dark, lighting candles and singing songs. God Bless Us Everyone!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Margie's Luncheonette

Downtown Wenonah didn't have much in the way of shopping. There was a BP gas station on the corner of West & Mantua. Across the street was Bowker's grocery store and in the rear of Bowker's was Tony Sacca's meat market. Next to Bowker's was G. Wayne Post and a woman's hair salon. There was a bank further up North West Ave., the Farmer's and Mechanic's National Bank and next to the bank was a building that was first a police station and then a small store run by Mrs. Fleming and Alice Brangan, the Village Shoppe. Across the street on E. Mantua Ave. was another building that housed various businesses and a second where Margie's Luncheonette was located.
Margie's was the center of Wenonah. It was directly across from the park and almost dead center in town. It had a lunch counter, a magazine rack, several booths, school supplies, and a candy counter. It could be said to be almost heaven. In 5th Grade I was finally allowed to eat lunch at Margie's on rare occasions rather than returning home. This meant a grilled cheese or hamburger and a chocolate shake. It was also mega intimidating since all the "cool" kids ate and hung at Margie's. The counter was generally filled with local businessmen and the booths in the back with teenagers and 6th, 7th, & 8th graders. Most of my time in Margie's was spent not in the booths but at the candy counter or magazine rack. Comics and candy. A dual addiction. There was also a cooler filled with sodas on ice. Cokes and vanilla soda and grape and pineapple. You'd stick your hand deep into the cold water and pull out what you wanted. All for a dime.
Candy was still penny candy, which was good if your allowance was .25 cents. My particular favorites were jawbreakers and a sour english candy whose name escapes me. While staring at the counter and making your selection you would steal glances at the kids in the booths. Girls in cashmere sweaters and guys with leather jackets and pompadours. Cool kids cracking wise and all no doubt laughing at me in my cowlicked glory. The Gernaga brothers, the older DeHarts, the Brangans, Bobby McQuaide, and a dozen other kids all too cool for school were back in the booths blowing straws at each other and sucking down fountain drinks. Hanging out.
I was forbidden to hang out. I'm not exactly sure why but I do know that Earl Rowland was one of the kids in the back and he was a real bad egg. Ralph Parkinson and his crew were there as well. Some girls my age were there, Dolores Lorenz, Sandy Fay, Jane Shiflet. All fast girls. Way too fast for me who know idea what any of this meant.
So I'd get my two comics and five pieces of candy and walk slowly home through the gathering dark. Inventing fantasies where the girls would dig me and I'd save them from evil. Then I'd be the cool cat. Then they'd see. They'd know who I really was inside. The fantasies of young boys are deeply disturbing and I'll leave you now to contemplate my terrible revenge. If Bobby McQuaide and Stewart DeHart could hang me in a closet by a fan belt, well, fine. But soon they'd know who they were messing with. I was smart. I was brave. I weighed 65 pounds soaking wet. My hair stuck up in the back and my shoes were scuffed and worn. My shirts screamed loser. My pants had flannel lining in the winter. Oh they'd soon see who they were messing with, yes, indeed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Happy Birthdays and Gifts

So, tonight is my 56th birthday. Johanna is making a sopa de carne for her friends and I've eaten half a pepperoni pizza from Pizzamasters. I'm drinking champagne and reading the New York Times. I'm slightly whacked from the Infergen and a little tipsy.
What I'm not is forgetful. In 2001 I spent my 50th birthday throwing up. Danny and Patty came to visit me. I proceeded to puke vast quantities for most of the day. I weighed under 100 lbs. I was very, very cold all the time. My brother Mick's birthday gift to me was a warm throw blanket. Now my dog Cookie uses it to sleep in the evenings.
I may not feel 100%. But I weigh a lot more than 100lbs and while I get chilly I don't need a throw rug. I'm alive. God has given me a great and wonderful gift and I will fight with all my heart to be true to that gift.
So tonight I'm raising a glass of thanks and joy. Prosit. Cheers. Nostrovya. Salud. Lift one with me please my friends. It's the beginning of winter. If we all drink deep and sing loud the spring will come and then the summer and all this will be but a dream.
God bless everyone who helped me through my first illness. God bless all of you who hold me up now. Life is a rare blessing. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Interior Decorating

It's true that most houses were viewed for just a second from the porch. The exception was the houses of our friends. We spent lots of time in our friends homes and we were being taught lessons, about what rooms were for, about where we could go, and about what we could do.
My own home was decorated in a mix of hand me down furniture and store bought couches. The basic motif was "colonial". At least that's what my mom said it was. Lack of money meant some pieces of furniture were periodically repainted to fit some new color scheme my mom came up with. Some chairs were periodically reupholstered. Once in a while a new couch or chair came to the house from Sears or the furniture store. Once in a while. Not often. It was always a sensible piece. And it was "colonial".
My friend Terry Fleming's house was the exact opposite of ours. One of the few contemporary homes in our neighborhood it boasted fireplaces and a finished basement. The look was "modern". Probably Danish modern but I'm just guessing. There was a kidney shaped table made from weird wood. There were thick odd carpets. There were glasses in the cabinets with racy sayings on them and skimpily clad girls. Downstairs in the basement there was a slot machine that worked.
A slot machine! In Wenonah! You couldn't do anything bad in Wenonah but in the Flemings you could gamble. Sadly you couldn't keep your winnings but then you didn't have to use your own money either.
The basement had wood panelling as did the kitchen and small first living room. Everyone in the Fleming house slept late. Mick and I were up at 6am and banging on Terry's door at 7:30am. Mrs. Fleming would open the screen door and stare at us as though we were martians. Terry was asleep and that's where we should be. Boom. The door would shut and we would meander out to figure out what to do till 10am when Terry woke up.
Mrs Fleming was fascinating to me. The house was filled with the smell of her Toni hair treatments. She was a tall, loud, brassy Irish woman. Big hearted and filled with noise. The exact opposite of my house. Years later I met her sister. She had sung with the Dorsey brothers in the forties and was married to a NY stockbroker. Their son was "damaged" in Nam and spent his days flying a biplane. Their daughter worked at MOMA.
The Flemings went to clubs. The Latin Quarter. Philly. They drank and laughed. They were like grown ups on TV.
Mick and I would go back to our colonial home and bumble around with our soldiers or read some comics then back to Terry's and the slots. It was like going from Christmas in Connecticutt to Viva Las Vegas every day.

Friday, December 07, 2007

5th Grade Report Card

Well, here's my report card from 5th Grade. As you can see I'm doing quite a bit better than I was with Mr. McIntire. Also you'll note Mrs Fuller has nicer handwriting. After a year of hard, hard work 5th grade was proving to be cake.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Parker's Lake

The cold weather and light snow, as well as the coming holiday, remind me that in 5th grade I received my first pair of ice skates. As per usual my brother Mick received a pair as well. Mick got a pair of black figure skates and I got a pair of hockey skates. It's my guess that my parents had no idea of the difference between the two and that my father thought hockey skates might be more manly and make me feel more grown up. Or not.
In any case sometime in early Jan of 1963 my Aunt Gert (I believe this was the case though I could be wrong) took Mick and I to Parker's Lake to ice skate. Parker's Lake was the premier ice skating location in Wenonah. It had a dock for changing your shoes to skates and an island with a fire going all day and all night long. You walked the length of S. Clinton Ave and then down a long dirt road till you came to the lake. If it was frozen of course you just walked across to the dock. Above the dock, up a steep hill, was Dewey and Edna Parker's house. It was the childhood home of my friends Suzy, Danny, and Billy. Behind it Dewey ran his West Jersey Biological Supply business (the rat farm). But we could care less. For us all that mattered was the lake.
There were other lake's to skate on in Wenonah. At the end of Jefferson by the Wenonah lake was Davidson's lake, perfect size for ice hockey, and upstream from Parker's Lake was a much larger lake, Langston's. We didn't much go there till we were in our teens.Over in Sinnott Tract there was Sinnott's lake. We'd skate on any one of these lakes but during my youth everyone in town went to Parker's.
It's gone now. A hurricane in the 80's wiped out the dam and NJ DEP restrictions made it too costly to rebuild the dam so no more lake, no more skating.
In any case that cold January day my Aunt Gert dragged me and Mick and our brandy new skates down to the lake. This is probably going to come as a shock but I sucked at ice skating. Over the years I've attained a measure of competency so I don't look like a complete klutz but that afternoon was disaster piled upon disaster. Most of which were caused by the fact that no one with me, including Gert, knew how to skate on hockey skates. Everyone had figure skates. All over the ice people were executing twirls and figure eights, and tearing up clouds of ice with their toes. But hockey skates have no teeth on the tips of the skates. You stop on hockey skates like you do on ski's. Sideways. With edges. But no one knew that, least of all me.
So once again I was hurtling around on a new Christmas gift with no way of stopping. Except to fall face forward. I grew colder and colder. Mick got better and better. The day dragged forever. The young girls in my class skated around me like I was a lump of coal skittering across the ice.
I'd like to give you some epiphany here. Say that I at last mastered skating that day and executed a gorgeous turn and stop. But I didn't. I hurtled into the dock, banged my knees, cursed what little curses I knew and tore the skates from my feet. I'd be back the next day, and the next, and I sucked just as much.
There were some benefits to this little bit of torture but they bore no fruit till I was in my late teens. In the meantime I looked like the rough tough cream puff at a time when I wanted to glide like a god.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Sears Catalog

It being the holiday season it seems pertinent to mention the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The catalog came to us on a quarterly basis and in many ways was our primary shopping vehicle. School clothes, spring wardrobes, bathing suits. All from Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck. This is from a time when there were no shopping malls. When people had to go to Philadelphia to Wanamaker's to shop. There was an actual Sears and Roebuck store in beautiful downtown Camden but we rarely went there even though it was 20 minutes away.
But the catalog that mattered most was the Christmas catalog. It came out, as I recall, sometime in mid November and we eagerly grabbed it and began our gift choosing. Army men, Easy Bake Ovens, Chemistry Sets, dolls, football helmets, bikes, everything, everything was in the Sears catalog.
But they weren't just in the catalog. No, things were laid out so you could see just how great they were and how you could use them. These layouts were spectacular. The army men were storming the beaches, the tubes and vials of the chemistry set were bubbling with sinister potions, men and boys were playing energetic games of touch football in authentic NFL jerseys wearing authentic NFL helmets. The bikes had gear aplenty, rear view mirrors, dangly shit that hung off the hand grips, lights and mileage devices. It was mesmerizing. It also was perfect for pointing out exactly what you wanted to your clueless parents. Left to their own devices god knows what they might pick but with the Sears catalog you could clearly circle your first, second, and third choices.
The bulk of the catalog was in black and white but the cover was in glorious Christmas colors. It, more than any religious event, marked the beginning of the holiday season. Fuck Thanksgiving, fuck Advent, this was the real deal. And by arriving well before Thanksgiving it stretched out the gap between whatever day it was and Christmas to near unendurable lengths. Ninety years till Christmas, only sixteen thousand shopping days till Christmas. The gap between getting the catalog and the lighting of the tree on Christmas morning was the size of the Snake River canyon. Unfathomable.
So we'd soldier on, day after day after day, the only thing keeping our hopes alive the catalog. In the last weeks before Christmas we'd begin the hunt for hidden toys. This was hard on everyone. Usually the gifts arrived at the Post Office in town while we were in school so Mom had time to squirrel them away before we got home. Over the years their hiding places became more and more obvious. The problem was that if you found them you didn't really know whose gift anything was. It was as if God had created some cruel laboratory experiment in envy. Part of you would be pleased you found a gift, part would think it was for your brother and your parents hated you, then another part would hate yourself because you begrudged your brother a gift. Cruel cruel fate.
The only way your hopes and dreams would be revealed was on Christmas morning. Then we'd run down the stairs to see the tree ablaze with light, our parents in their robes and dozens of wrapped packages scattered about the room. At that instant you were sure you'd get everything you wanted. In that moment Christmas was glorious. It would inevitable come crashing down around you as you opened the gifts. Cold economic realities would raise their head. No radio controlled planes in the Wiler house. Yes, we'd get a set of army men but it was the second best set, yes, we'd get a chemistry set but not the complete set in the catalog. A little knowledge is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
Still and all there was always next Christmas. And at least we could use the Johnny Reb cannon to blow the Christmas balls off the tree one by one. Then there'd be turkey and a week of no school. Not bad, not bad.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Interferon and me

Remember when I got my spleen removed? Not so long ago, really. End of May. Anyway the reason for taking out a perfectly good, working organ was so I could tolerate the medicine for Hepatitis C. That would be Interferon. It's one great drug. You know how most drugs say they can cause skin irritation or diarrhea or shortness of breath? Well this little concoction has, as it's principal contraindication, SUICIDAL IDEATION AND SUICIDAL ACTUALIZATION, and it looks just like that, all in caps on the rather lengthy label. Nice.
The secondary problems are pleasant as well. Flu like symptoms. Anyway I started my interferon regimen last night and spent the next six hours shaking like a leaf in a storm. Teeth chattering, heart pumping, holy shit kind of "flu like symptom". Then I got up and went to work.
Tonight I do it again. You might be asking how long are you supposed to take this nasty drug Jack? 9-12 months I would reply. Every fucking day for 9-12 months I get to induce flu like symptoms. We'll leave off the drastic personality changes and the likelihood my red cells will all die or that my hair, such as it is, will fall out.
Still and all, the alternative is being dead. So my friends, to bed, to flu, to life!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The world of childhood is very, very small. One or two blocks, a school, some friends, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers, your sisters. Nothing much else. And as it shrinks smaller things grow. Like smells, like odors, like scents. Only an idiot wouldn't be on Proust's side. Of course his Madelaine's could conjure up a world. Of course.
But what smells and where. Start in our basement at 206 W. Mantua Ave. The chlordane wafting from beneath the porch, the smells of melting plastic toys over the ping pong table, the chemistry set and it's sulphur, the oil from the oil tank, the oil for the tools, the bleaches and soaps and detergents. The smell of Lava for removing the oil from the tools and the tank. Maybe the floor had just been painted deep red so there is the smell of the new oil based paint. The mildew. The cool rush of cold from the freezer and the smell of that cold as it fills your hot face on a summer's day. The smell of your dirty shirts and socks piled by the washing machine.
Then up the stairs and into the kitchen and of course there is the smell of food. But also the ever present cigarette smoke and the wax your mother applies to the linoleum and the dish detergent. Joy. And on the kitchen window sill there is an old ceramic bowl with an old, old hard boiled egg and one day the egg breaks and there is that dense sulphur too. And garbage on a hot summer day. Bacon frying on a Saturday morning and butter browning in the iron skillet to make scrambled eggs. On the holidays a turkey in the oven and stuffing and those glorious smells and then out the back door to the garage and the smells of all the things stacked there.
Around the garage the wisteria, purple and thick with scent driving the carpenter bees insane as each of them devour the garage. The tar of the roof shingles, the oil on the floor of the garage from the cars, the three in one oil for the bike chains, the smell of chrome polish, the odor of the wax candle as you rub it on your sleds runners. The paint cans, the cobwebs and dust, the dry smell of old, old wood, dry in the South Jersey heat.
Just to the side the smells of the vegetable garden, the rotting lettuce, the tomatoes thick with smell, the sweet corn, the deep rich brown earth, nearly black and thick with the scent of decay and rebirth, behind the garden the compost and the tree and the scents of barks and old rotting leaves. The air in fall always thick with the smell of rotting leaves.
When Johanna and I were in Barnsboro for Thanksgiving we sat and watched thousands of leaves swirling from the trees in the wind and she said it never smells like this in Jersey City and it never does. The smell of burning leaves mingled with the smell of the cigar from the man tending the fire in the street mixed with the scent of new macadam. Almost like licorice.
And grass and hay. New mown grass, piles of rotting grass, fresh uncut grass. Hay, and weeds, and skunk cabbage. Dead squirrels on a path. Dead mice under a log. The swamp smell of the creek and the creek mud. The smell of your wet woolen shirts and gloves.
The smell of your dog or your cat just in from the rain. The smell of the air just after a thunder storm. The smell just before it snows. The smell of the chlorine pool, the cedar lake water, the smells of my grandmother's paints.
Too many to name too many to remember.
Not enough time to sit back and inhale and recollect. They come rushing in like unwanted ghosts at inopportune moments. When I was very ill and lying in my bedroom I realized my room smelled just like it did when I was six. How odd. How unbidden. How unwanted.
The smells of your first sex and your first after shave and your first blood wiped from your nose in your first fight.
Breath them in. Breath them out. It's like watching or listening. Attend.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Yesterday was spent in the bosom of my family at my step brother Bobby Murphy's house in Barnsboro. He and his girlfriend Beth live there with Beth's son. It's a beautiful new home at the end of a long gravel driveway. Johanna and I drove down and after negotiating the NJ Turnpike and its traffic arrived at Mick's to meet Mick and my nephew Doug. From there it was on to my niece Louise house in Oak Valley to pick up Louise and her new husband Paul and their infant daughter Mackenzie. It was a warm Thanksgiving day and we arrived moments later at Bobby's. The house was full, my brother Ted and his children, Kelly, Mark, & Justin, my sister Mary, her husband Will, and their son Billy. And then all the Murphy's; Bobby and Beth, Kathleen and her husband Nick and their children, Nick & Victoria, John and his daughter Nicolle, Kenny and his wife Lori and their children, Owen and Gracie. Bah, humbug.
At any rate the garage had a tv in it with the football game on and there was a fridge stocked with beer and cheese and crackers and my sister's signature dip and veggies with other dips. Actually Kenny and Lori came just 45 minutes before the dinner but they were most welcome as they brought the two turkey's we would consume.
We drank and laughed and then sat down to the feast. My brother Mick was loud and big and funny as only Mick can be. He and I embarrassed Doug who was handsome and thoughtful. Johanna spent the night holding Mackenzie and looking beautiful. There were calls for more Beaujolais and beer and then the pies and coffee and more talk and laughter and then the sad parting.
It was a grand night.
Johanna and I drove back to Mick's where we couldn't sleep so at 11:30, a bit sobered up, I drove us home. Where we slept like babies with Cookie and Milo.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and most of all to Mick and Doug. You'll note your names occur more than anyone's. While I was in South Jersey Doug asked me why he was never in the blog. I reminded him it's primarily a memoir of my life in Wenonah in the early sixties. He said why don't you have me travel back in time and then I could be in it. Well, Doug, here you are and it's in 2007 and everyone is happy and there is no misery or sorrow and what could be better? What indeed?
God Bless us All! Remember those who have less than us and offer what you can, not just during the holidays, but all the year round.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

This has nothing to do with nothing. Everyone have a Happy Thanksgiving. It's a gorgeous morning in Jersey City and Johanna and I are off to Bobby Murphy's house for the Wiler/Murphy feast. We're gathering in Barnsboro for a great meal with people we love. May all of you have the same opportunity.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Enough serious crap. Let's move on to more important concerns. What to do during the cold months from January to March if you're a fifth grade boy. Models. And not Heidi Klum type models. No. Real, scale models of cars and aircraft carriers and monsters and superheroes. Testors glue and paint and instructions and newspapers strewn across a small desk under a little light at 8:30pm.
My first model was one my father gave me. A Sunbeam. That's this weird car made in the 60's that was half a Volkswagon, half a Fairlane. It was two toned, usually a pale blue with white. It was ugly and we owned one. It was the car my mother got to drive. I guess that's why he gave it to me. As per usual I was given the kit, the glue, and the paint and set to my own devices. Now, in fifth grade I was as awkward as I'd ever be which is to say unable to master any technical skill. Delicate was way beyond my fingers abilities. I could barely color within the lines. This meant I spent several days screaming and yelling at myself and begging my father for help till it was done.
My next model came that Christmas. The Visible Man. This was both an incredible gift and some horrible torture. It had ten zillion parts that had to be glued and painted and then carefully fitted together because it came apart! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as my father would say. My Visible Man resembled the Terminator in late stages of decay. Some parts were painted, some were not, I may have left out the liver. Glue was smeared all over the clear skin of the Visible Man making him more the translucent, smeary man.
I moved up in class. Hot Rods. These were gorgeous models by Aurora that required incredible amounts of patience and skill. I had none. My friend Terry had all of them and more in reserve. He could apparently assemble a model in ten minutes, not counting drying time, and it always looked just like in the magazines or on the box cover. Tommy Jenkins actually spray painted numerous layers of candy coated red on his cars. They gleamed like they were in a car show. The wheels moved. You could almost see some cool cat from California in a white t shirt sitting next to a leggy blonde in a huge bee hive.
Mine looked they'd gone cross country with the Joads.
Up to monsters. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy. Terry's looked real, mine like monsters, only gluey, misshapen attempts by pathetic, arrogant humans to take on the power of God. Stitched together, missing parts, dripping red everywhere except where it should be.
My room stank of glue and paint. My new desk was splattered with red and green and little hillocks of plastic cement. On the plus side one day Terry's mom found him almost passed out at his desk because he'd inhaled so much plastic cement fumes. That could never happen to me. Before that would have happened I'd have tossed the piece of shit plastic torture machine across the room in a fifth grade rage. Then I'd stalk downstairs and sit in my favorite chair reading Classic's Illustrated and sucking a jaw breaker in a stink of frustration. God, life was good.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I'm going to cheat today. Because it's important, because it matters. The last post was about what we didn't know about in the homes we entered. What we didn't know about, more than anything, was secrets and those secrets were sexual in nature. We didn't know because we were barely sexual. Because we were children. Maybe we had inklings but it was that and nothing more.
For everyone in Wenonah being sexual was to be a freak. Odd. You married and had children and they came from sex but how that happened was never spoken of. If you had sex and it had nothing to do with making a child it was even more unspoken. Of course there were affairs. Of course there were men and women that had sex. Teenagers, young adults, men and women with great longing, men and men and women and women. But you never spoke of any of this because to speak of this made you a freak. Like Mr. Webb.
Why should this bother me. I'm a grown man who has been a sexual being his whole life. I think sex is normal and natural and important. I've never shrunk from expressing my sexuality. My desires. My needs. That is a lie. Of course I have. I couldn't speak of anything outside of sex which wants a child. Not hetero or homo or any other sex. To think of desiring another for sexual reasons was unspeakable and to think that you might be a person who lives for those reasons. Well. You're a freak.
I live with a gorgeous, generous, person named Johanna. She is not a woman. She is anatomically a man. She is a woman. She is a man. She is everything you could want in a lifemate but according to the world in which I grew up she is a freak. And that makes me a freak by association.
When I came home to Wenonah, sick with AIDS, none of my childhood friends came to vist me. My family and a few neighbors, my friend Crystal and my landlord Rachel and my neighbor Mrs Seville were some of the few who said even hello. I was first angry, then saddened. They didn't come because I was different. First, I might die. Second, I was clearly gay, Third, I was nearby. We can all take pity on those in suffering at a distance but to do so with those nearby requires courage and strength most of don't possess. I walk by people everyday who are in deep pain. So, with my childhood friends.
Johanna came to me some months into my recovery and brought me two bunny rabbits. She relished the joys of a spring in Wenonah. It was not where she belonged but she felt it's great beauty.
In a week or two it will be World AIDS Day. People with far less resources and family than I are dying and suffering everyday throughout the globe because of shame and secrets. The simple fact of the matter is that the virus of AIDS doesn't give a fuck about you or your desires or needs or virtuousity. It's a virus. By virtue of your inaction or stupidity or lack of knowledge it finds a host and lives and thrives and the host dies. Or doesn't.
All of us can do each and everyone of our fellow human beings a great service by remembering this. We can spend a moment on World AIDS Day remembering someone or perhaps more people we've lost and we can commit to never allowing secrets, shame, and being other to destroy a life. We can reach out to people that aren't like us and realize that all of us are exactly the same. Naked. In the eyes of the Lord. In need of prayer and succor.
So please, this Thanksgiving, take a moment to reach out to the people nearest you and least like you and give them some small kindness. And then reach into your pockets and give to those who die from hunger and AIDS and cancer because people don't give.
We can all of us give, everyday, in every way.
God Bless and Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 08, 2007


One thing about money and work. It brought you into contact with a lot of people you didn't really know and more than that it took you into their homes. Not all the way into their homes, just into their homes. Usually just inside the front door. From there you got a glimpse of their lives. Just that. A glimpse.
Wenonah was made up primarily of Victorian homes and a scattering of homes built in the 1920's. On the northeast corner there was a development built in the fifties. But for the most part we're talking homes with porches and entry halls. What someone in a Jane Austen novel might call a parlor. My own house had it's front hallway, complete with a small bathroom which we called the powder room, and the stairs leading to the bedrooms. Just to the right was a living room with a bay window. When people came to visit they entered by this front door and hallway. When friends came they went to the back or side door.
So it was with me and my friends when we went to earn money. When we knew the people, or more precisely, their children we entered the home from the side door or the back door. In Terry Fleming's case the side door was the garage door, for instance. When we didn't we knocked or rang the bell at the front door. Some period of time would elapse and an adult would open the door a bit, perhaps a foot or two, and say hello and ask us what we wanted. We wanted work. But in asking we were also asking to look inside and look we would.
We'd peer around the adult for the secrets within. Most of the homes were a little dark, maybe that was just a trick of the light, or maybe it was a natural inclination to save electricity on the part of older people. The furniture might be old or modern. You almost never heard a tv in the background. There might be a dog barking at their side. The Marx's dog once leapt up and bit me on the elbow. Hard. Don't come in too far. You never know.
Some of the adults were well dressed, some disheveled. Sometimes a man would answer the door on a weekday and that was strange. Sometimes they would hide from you. Especially if you were collecting for the newspaper. You could hear them inside and you would ring and ring yet no adult would come to the door. That was an interesting lesson.
Sometimes a beautiful young wife or stunning teenage girl would answer the door. That was scary and wonderful all at once. The smells that came from inside were also always different. Musky, perfumes, lavender, pinesol, all the different smells of a house. All just drifting two or three feet away, just past a hulking adult figure asking what did you want after all. What indeed?
Why was the door not opened wide? Why wasn't it flung open? Why didn't they ask us in for a coke or a little talk? It was the rare person who would do such a thing. They had something we wanted and they weren't going to give it up easily. We would have to work hard for what we wanted. To get beyond that door and have them open their wallet or purse and pull out a few crumpled singles for our little hands. Maybe they thought we wanted something more. Maybe we did.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Money and Children

It's time for filthy lucre to raise it's head. You've gathered by now that my family was not rich but happy. Nonetheless there was not a lot of cash to go around. In, I believe, 3rd Grade I got my first allowance. 25 cents. Not a lot but much more than Mick's dime. At the time that would buy two comic books and five pieces of penny candy or one candy bar. My friends, for the most part, got a bit more. But I was fairly happy with this.
What I wasn't happy with was my father's new found insistence on work. Suddenly after we finished Church School on Saturdays we were enlisted in a number of "chores" to earn our meager allowances. Raking the lawn, taking out trash, scrubbing the kitchen floor. All tasks that we did poorly and begrudgingly.
By 5th Grade I was raking in 50-75 cents a week but had also discovered entreprenourship. We could earn money by doing chores for older folks in the neighborhood. And they paid way better than my father. Everyone in my family treated money differently. I spent like a drunken sailor on Saturday night. Mick hoarded and binged. Ted just hoarded. Mary Louise was too small to have any money.
But we did manage to save money to spend when we went to the shore each summer. Money to purchase toy soldiers and rides on the amusements, etc. But mostly we spent our money on frivolities. Spiderman, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Superman, wax candies, jawbreakers, twizzlers, sodas, etc, etc, etc.
I need to talk a bit more about how begrudgingly we performed our chores. My father would invariably grab a rake from our hands and rake the leaves himself screaming that this was the proper way to rake leaves. He was right. It was proper for him to rake leaves. Standing there shaking really wasn't hard work if you think about it. On the other hand we had a penchant for putting tasks off. This was particularly bad with snow shovelling. New fallen snow, even heavy, wet snow, is easily removed. Snow packed by dozens of travellers and frozen into slick patches of ice is not. We never learned our lesson and instead spent hours after school with an ice chopper going over small patches of concrete trying to free them of their ice.
On the plus side we had dough for baseball cards and we could pick up tons of cash by shovelling the Sacca's house. Sometimes even getting up to five dollars! Five, freaking, dollars. More money than I would see for weeks from my allowance.
Oh sure, we also got money from well intentioned relatives at Christmas and birthdays but that was always removed and placed in our savings accounts at the Farmer's and Mechanic's Bank. The Farmer's and Mechanic's Bank. Jesus. And we would have periodic flurries of collecting soda bottles from various families and trading them in at Margies for the deposit money. But mostly there was raking leaves, mowing lawns, and shovelling snow. Hard, hard work done fitfully and by surly little urchins. Wet cranky little dickheads.
It wasn't till sixth grade that I began my misadventures with newspaper routes. But they would come. They would come.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Chemistry Sets

My parents, like all the parents of their day and most likely like parents today, felt a need to improve our minds. We needed to learn and explore the world around us. Because they didn't actually observe what we did when we were in the world around us they supplemented the world with "educational" gifts. Sometimes these sucked. Like classical recordings. But sometimes they were marvelous. Like chemistry sets.
A chemistry set was the best birthday or Christmas gift you could receive short of an actual bb gun. Chemistry sets had beakers and test tubes and things to hold the test tubes and bunsen burners and most importantly...chemicals. Shit in it's purest form. Shit you mix up and use to ruin the world. You were Dr Frankenstein or Einstein or the inventor of the next best, great thing to be invented. Since none of my friends were engineers or inclined in that direction we had no real scientific method. We just mixed shit up and watched what happened. These were actual, real, potentially dangerous chemicals. Now they would come with a host of warnings. Then they came with nothing. Oh, wait...there was an instruction book that we never read.
So we took my chemistry set down to the basement. Set it on our play shelf and began to make poison gases and toxic fumes and potent liquids that would peel the finish off our furniture. Bubbling, smoking, egg shell stinking chemical messes.
We were in heaven. We might have been in Bhopal but to us it was heaven. Naturally we supplemented the meager amount of chemicals the kit came with by appropriating chemicals from our homes. Cleaning solvents, pesticides, paints, and other liquids that appeared similar in nature were added to the toxic brew. Oh the wonders of science.
Many of our skills would come in handy in college when we had to measure and sort various illegal substances but that was really the last time any of this would matter. What I learned was that shit stunk and that it was fun to mix shit up and set it on fire.
When I was working at my company Fleetrak I had the opportunity to work on a regular basis with engineers. These are very strange people who actually understand the inner workings of things. If an engineer gets a toy for Christmas he takes it apart to see how it works and then makes it work better. He does it in an orderly, logical manner. I've had engineers ask me what algorithm we were using in our GPS engine. I told him I didn't have any rhythm but if I did I wouldn't name it Al. He didn't laugh.
We were not engineers. We didn't follow any rules. We didn't try to learn anything. We weren't under the direct supervision of a parent or guardian and so we were more like imps in the machine. We just fucked with shit. And had fun. Lots and lots of fun.

JFK and all that

5th Grade is the year we began to understand the world. We were all fans of our president. He was young and he was cool and his wife was beautiful and he had two beautiful children. This was a time before the time we live in. The press allowed us to indulge in this fantasy. If he had a terrible back problem and was a womanizer and if his wife was not so very nice and if their marriage was less than perfect and if maybe he wasn't the best president in the world we'd never know because it wasn't good form to talk about such things in the press. Thanks be to God.
So me and Terry and Kenny and Bob picked up Our Weekly Reader and read about the latest events of the world. We learned how we should join the Peace Corps so we could help save the poor Africans from starvation and ignorance and we learned about how we should exercise and go on fifty mile hikes. This particular bit of presidential insanity somehow rubbed off on my old man who decided Mick and I were flabby little nincompoops. Nincompoops we may have been but flabby was far off the mark. I weighed all of 60 lbs in 5th grade and I may be stretching it at that. In my Sophomore year of high school I weighed in at a cool 115lbs without even trying. Mick was no better. Nonetheless my father challenged us to see how many push ups we could do. Not many, not many. Which led, somehow, to the Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Manual. A series of isometric and other calisthenic exercises which we were encouraged to indulge in on a daily basis. And like little puppies we did...for a while.
But being good little boys we also indoctrinated our friends and that led inexorably to the Wenonah Olympics. That's right. We staged our own Olympic games in Wenonah. Of course we didn't have a track and we didn't have a discus and we didn't have a shot to put and we had no arenas but we had willing acolytes (Ted and his little friends) and we had imaginations and we did the best we could under the circumstances. We ran the fifty yard dash and someone had a stop watch they borrowed from their dad. We had relay races. We tried as hard as we could using bamboo poles to do a pole vault. For some reason the pole vault more than any other Olympic or track and field event captivated us. We wanted with all our hearts to be able to launch ourselves twenty feet into the air and land on a soft cushion to the cheers of the crowd (Ted and his little friends).
Sadly we never got over three or four feet. We did a credible long jump and we enjoyed race walking because you looked like an idiot and we passed race walkers in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia so if adults could walk like idiots so could we. And we ran. But then we ran anyway all day long. It was the one thing we did beside ride bikes.
What did this running and jumping and cheering have to do with John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his bride and their two young children? To them, nothing. To us, everything. We were walking in their footsteps. We were playing touch football just like they did. We were active. We were committed. We believed. That's the key word here. Belief. Because now if you picked up Our Weekly Reader you'd say what a bunch of shit. You'd say this is just propaganda or hooey or nonsense. You wouldn't give a shit if they were building a great bridge from Staten Island to New York City because you'd be sweating the costs. You wouldn't care about bringing water to a small African village because you'd be worried about the ozone or the price of gas or your kid who's got a drug problem. But we believed. We believed we should be better. We believed we could be better. We believed that by dint of hard labor and imagination you could change the world. This was to have dire consequences but for now we were just a bunch of kids in dungarees racing around the block as fast as we could trying to be the best and fastest kid on the block.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ruthie Felch and the Man in the Woods

In 5th Grade we did not understand sex. Oh sure, one day the year before at Chris DeHarts we found out how babies were made. It seemed strange to us. How could your penis make a baby? I mean you pissed out of it. Did you pee into the girl? It didn't quite make sense but enough older boys (Stewart DeHart and Bobby McQuaide) had told us so we bought into the whole thing. We were interested in girls, like I said earlier, but it was all inchoate.
One day in school something odd happened. Our teacher came in the class to tell us Ruthie Felch had been molested by a man in the woods by the railroad tracks. She warned the girls to stay away from the woods. Molested. What did that mean?
There was much speculation and no clear facts. This was after all a time when no one talked about sex. Remember that we learned where babies came from because older boys told us. Having a parent or teacher explain this to you at 11 would be unthinkable.
That meant we were all at a loss to understand what actually had happened to Ruthie Felch. In fact, to this day I actually have no idea what happened. Was she raped? Did he expose himself? Did he touch her? No one but Ruthie and the teachers and the man know what happened.
But this incident brought a bit of darkness into our bright little town. Suddenly there was danger all around us. Much like the Soviet Union menacing our borders there were perverts in our back yards, lurking in our woods.
I had read a number of adult books by now, including "To Kill a Mockingbird", but when sex parts came up I just breezed by them. They made no sense. The author might as well have been describing strange habits of an alien race.
But still, there was a man in the woods. We all knew about the tramp who lived out by the Parker's at the dump. Boys said that he did bad things to them. What those things were we had no idea but we never went past the Parker's in our excursions in the woods. The dump behind the Parker's was by the side of the creek but our trips up the Mantua Creek all stopped at the railroad trestle. We had no wish to find out what the man might do.
So we'd run home from school and play our games and watch tv and go to sleep and dream untroubled dreams. No lurkers in the woods. No communists torturing our families. No danger anywhere in our happy sleep.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Danced Till a Quarter To Three

I’ve been to a hundred weddings, including two of my own. I’ve danced with women I don’t know and will never see again and had a wonderful time. I’ve danced to dj’s and bands from the fifties and punk bands (my wedding). I’ve eaten tons of bad food and watched people behave like chumps. At my second wedding my wife, Mary, made me leave after our dance because she couldn’t deal with people looking at her. The wedding band was so good that people on the streets in New Brunswick were dancing outside of our wedding but I was in our hotel room with my new wife. Commiserating.
On Saturday night my niece Louise married the father of her daughter. Her husband is Paul. The ceremony was sweet and brief and real. We went from there to the Hollywood Diner for beers and thence to the hall for the reception.
It was the best reception and wedding I’ve ever attended. I went with Johanna who was scared she wouldn’t be accepted. She said to me on the way if someone gives her shit we’re out. I said okay. As it turns out she was the hit of the night. We danced and danced. Johanna was dancing with an older Italian woman who’d just had a hip replacement. Everyone was happy. My brother Ted tried and failed to do a split. The music was perfect the food was divine and we rocked till we dropped. I almost never dance but I danced all night. With Johanna, with Louise.
It was a marvelous night. Young love is so special and weddings for young people even more special. Mick and his friend Greek and Johanna and Brian Moody another friend of Mick’s and their wives and Eileen sat up till all hours yelling and happy. God was smiling on us all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Girls Against Boys

So here we all are in Mrs. Fuller’s class. Girls and boys. Boys and girls. All next to each other. For some reason things seem different. Normally, at least up until now, boys were repulsed by girls. They were in the parlance of the times, icky. We were gross. But suddenly for some reason none of us could put a finger on we wanted them to think well of us.

Being boys we really didn’t know how to accomplish this and also because we couldn’t put a finger on it we were somewhat ambivalent about it. That resulted in mixed messages. I doubt seriously that any girl is really interested in skunk cabbages or dead frogs but for some reason we thought they might be. We suddenly felt okay with them playing games with us. Not all games but certain ones. Kick the Can and the Gun Game in particular. Also we moved the location of the games to their houses.

All of a sudden we were playing Kick the Can at the Collinge’s which was a half block from my house on W. Mantua Ave. Kathy lived next to the Cook’s on one side and Sharon Hoffman on the other. The games spilled through all three yards. The Collinge home had a large palazzo type front porch with rock walls and slate flooring and we were able to execute daring leaps to escape capture.

The Cook’s house had a small playhouse in the rear corner which was also an ideal hiding place. I think the main attraction of all these games was hiding in close proximity to young women. We weren’t sure what that would mean but we certainly looked forward to it.

I developed my first crushes on both Kathy and Sharon and they continued, switching from one to the other till the end of sixth grade. I’m still not certain which of them I preferred. Kathy was bright and Sharon was cuter so maybe it would have been better if they could have become one person. At any rate when I look at their picture I’m quite certain it was not their stylish outfits that drew me to them. Nor mine.

There were older girls who were far more attractive and even more scary. From Peggy Sacca to Cheryl Furey to Donna Hambrecht the world was filled with girls changing into women and really I had no way of coping.

I’d spend my afternoons on my paper route spinning elaborate fantasies about saving them from an invading Russian Army and taking them to live with me and my band of brave guerilla warriors in the swamps of the Mantua Creek. Of course the woodland there was roughly a hundred yards wide so I’m certain I would never have been found by determined Russian soldiers.

I’ll leave you then with me on my new red, Schwinn Typhoon. Riding one handed down Cherry Street with a basket of Woodbury Daily Times in a bag in the front. I rise up to toss one to the Fleming house and a Russian drops dead from my well thrown knife. Like a ghost I travel these mean streets. A vengeful, sexy, killing ghost. Alone. Cool. With a flannel shirt and lined dungarees and the sure knowledge I had to be home for dinner in a half hour.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Identification Issues

I should actually be saying something meaningful about Wenonah but instead I'll give a shout out to Terry Fleming who called roughly four hours after this went up to start puzzling over the names of people and to Bob Thomas who wrote to complain about my formatting...I guess I could rescan this photo but the reality is I made a pdf when I scanned it then had to change it to a jpg to upload it and, well, Bob can't make it as big as he'd like. I'll think about rescanning:)
Then this morning there was a very helpful post from Bonnie Mecholsky with Stanley Landis and Jane Shiflet's names and her correct spelling. How cool is that? Thanks to this blog and you guys I've now officially talked more with all of you in the past six months or so than I did over thirty years since we left Wenonah. There's a lot to be said for the internet.
Again, several folks from Gateway Class of 1970 are working on a reunion. Tentative date is July 5th and thanks to Greg Jones, tenative site is the Holiday Inn in Bridgeport. Greg thinks some of us will get smashed and not be able to move. I think he's probably right. On the other hand we could all rent limos to drive us home. Please send me your names and addresses if you see this so I can keep you up to date as the day nears.
Much as I'm petrified of going back to 1970 I think it will be fun.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mrs Fuller's Fifth Grade Class 1962-63

Top Row from left: Stanley Landis (thanks Bonnie), me (Jack Wiler), Tommy Jenkins, Bob Stokes, David Moffat, Terry Fleming (in a typical class photo pose), Ralph Leeds, David Earnhardt, Don Davis (though I could be wrong), Tim Sellen, Ken Fell, and Johnny Hindman
Middle Row from left: Christine Sabetta, Kathy Gillan (sp?) , Kathy Collinge, Sharon Hoffman, Suzy Parker, Bonnie Mecholsky (Thanks again Bonnie, let's hope I get this right in 6th grade), Caroline Stens, Nancy Garrison, June Lang, Irene Thomas, Barbara Conway, and Mrs Fuller (oddly enough)
Bottom Row from left: Madelaine Pillings, Susan Abbott, Margie Loving, Ruthie Felch, Michelle Smith, Dottie Chattin, Jane Shiflet (thanks Bonnie!), Elisa Contarino, Dolores Lorenz, Linda Smith

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fifth Grade

Fifth grade was different. I was entering new worlds. I was done with Mr. McIntire. My eyes were better. I was better read. I was happier. I was discovering girls and feeling like a different person. Fifth Grade begins not in the fall but in the summer. We belonged to the Wenonah Swim Club now. The swim club had it's heroes and heroines. Great swimmers that competed year round. My friend Terry's brothers and kids from Woodbury were stars in the world of swimming. They walked like gods across the grass of the club. Their parents played cards and perhaps sipped cocktails and we ran like maniacs about the pool. As usual my summer began with two weeks in Ocean City and then I returned to Wenonah. Hot and humid now. Deep greens and thick air. We'd ride our bikes to the pool and drink cokes and eat cheesesteaks and watch the teenagers, cool and serene.
We played our swim games, swim tag and we took diving lessons and we were still kids but we were changing. Learning. We showered in the shower before we went in the pool. We wore speedoes and we admired the kids that won meets. I wasn't a kid anymore. I wasn't a teenager either. I was a skinny kid watching how to be.
Then we rode our bikes to the school at the end of the summer to see where we'd be in the fall. Mrs. Fuller's class. Now we were all together. The kids who were smart. The kids who weren't in Ed Campbell's classes. Now we were treated differently. There were still classes well above us. All the way to 8th grade but that would change. In two years we would go to a new junior senior high school.
Suddenly what we had on our backs made a difference. All of a sudden we noticed girls and girls noticed us and we were all dancing an odd dance with no practice and no experience.
We started playing games in the summer nights with girls. We watched them intensely. We watched how some boys were smoother with girls. I always felt awkward. I guess in retrospect all of us did but it was intense for me. But still for two years my ability to know things seemed to make a difference with girls. They seemed to like me. And I like that.
Class was easier than Mr. McIntire. After him everything was cake. I knew the drill. I seemed almost magically to know how to write paragraphs and reports and make them the way teachers wanted. In fact, the thing that most amazes me is that I started to understand I knew what teachers liked.
Our games began to change. Our play began to become more focussed. We were being sucked into the world.
But not in a bad way. We were acknowledged for knowing what we knew. We were encouraged. We read our Weekly Reader and talked about it as though it mattered. We talked about elections. We talked about the world.
It was the oddest transformation and it accelerated exponentially over the next few years. But at least for a few years in Wenonah Public School it was sheltered. We all knew each other. Me and Tommy Jenkins and Kenny Fell and Ralph Leeds had a shared history that kept us kind to each other. We, jeez this sounds dumb, liked each other.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

What We Wore

Children in the early sixties resembled children in the early fifties who resembled children in the early forties. Look at our photo. With the exception of Tommy Jenkins we may have been in a photo from the dust bowl by Walker Evans. When we were out of school we wore dungarees and t shirts. Or sweatshirts. When we were in school dungarees were forbidden. Note I do not say "jeans". Thats because no one would have known what the fuck I was talking about. They were dungarees. These could be made seasonal by purchasing lined dungarees for winter.
We also wore flannel shirts in the winter. My Aunt Gert used to use our old flannel shirts to make flannel board presentations for her bible classes so at least there was another life for them. Flannel board presentations. Just thinking about that shit freaks me out. There are times when I feel like Henry Adams in the 1910. Besides all his other peculiarities Henry Adams lived from 1838-1918. This meant he went from sailing ships and horse drawn carts to airplanes, telephones, cars, and tanks all in one lifetime. He had some other shit going on as well and you should read his autobiography, called "The Education of Henry Adams".
Okay, so we're in flannel and denim and cotton. And for school we wear our "school clothes" which as I recall consist primarily of khaki pants and some sort of patterned shirt. Girls were fucked. They had to wear dresses and apparently the dresses had to be ugly. I don't possess the appropriate vocabulary to describe their dresses except to say they were uniformly ugly. Not one girl was cool. Not even Sandy Fay or Dolores Lorenz. Then they would join Brownies or Girl Scouts and get uglier more. That is a poor construction that accurately describes the terrible descent into fashion hell that takes place when you put on a Girl Scout or Brownie uniform. These uniforms are not even vaguely Hitler Youth. Whoever had the bright idea to put young girls in uniforms should be sentenced to a year as Naomi Campbell's personal assistant.
Tiny white collars, puffy skirts, plaids, little shoes, white socks. It must have been a curse to be a girl. At least our clothes were functional if dull. Sure we could have been midget accountants or garage mechanics but we could run and play and have fun pretty much the same as if we were wearing our "play" clothes.
Then there were our "church" clothes. This consisted of my only suit which was bought for me at Robert Hall. Here's my picture. Snappy is not the word for how cool I looked. Trapped, forlorn, and stupid might be adjectives that leap to mind.
The tie is a clip on. I learned to tie a tie when I was twenty eight. Before then it was clip on all the way. Much like the food we ate. If it was easy that's what you picked. Shoes. Shoes were from Ernie's Shoe Post in Mantua. Usually Buster Brown. "Does your shoe have a boy inside, what a funny place for a boy to hide. Does your shoe have a dog there too? A boy and a dog and a foot in a shoe. Well, the boy is Buster Brown and the dog is Tige his pet and they're really just a picture but it's fun to play pretend." This is an actual jingle played on TV and radio intended to trick us into buying these shoes. As though we had a choice. As though I could somehow cajole my mother into picking Buster Browns if there was something cheaper. Not going to happen. It might work with Frosted Flakes but not with shoes. Shoes were clothes and clothes were her game. We had no say in what went on our backs and feet. We trudged behind her each August and each April and she pulled stuff off racks and held it up and sent us into tiny rooms where we tried it on and then that's what we wore.
Not that I cared all that much. We had occasional flirtations with motorcycle jackets or Chuck Taylor All Stars but the bottom line was the only pieces of clothing I ever wanted were long johns and hip boots. Beyond that I could give a fuck. They all wore out and tore and got small and then my poor brother Ted had to wear them. Ha ha. Too bad for him.
This would all change in Seventh Grade. Let me close the door then gently on Mr. McIntire and Fourth Grade. It's time for Jack to begin his time as a teenager or near teenager. One door closes and the other opens. It's Fifth Grade and our teacher is Mrs. Fuller. We're seated in our class wearing our new fall school clothes.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Timmy & Surprise

What I didn’t talk about in my last post about pets was my feelings about my cats. What they meant to me. I loved those little guys. They each had their own personalities and they seemed to love me back in the way cats love you back.
Remember, they did come home every day. In Wenonah in 1961 you just let your cat out the back door in the morning and it ran around all day long and came home when it wanted. Pretty much that was true of dogs as well. My friend Terry’s dog Susie wandered the neighborhood for years. Half blind with what looked like five tails she meandered around from kid to kid, yard to yard, always coming back to Terry’s garage.
Same with Surprise and Timmy. Each night they came to our room and laid down on the beds with Mick and I. I can remember with utter clarity sitting on the edge of the bed watching one particularly terrible thunderstorm with Surprise. She lay next to me purring contentedly while lightning and thunder shook the sky and rain poured down in thick sheets.
My mother would go to the Tony Sacca’s butcher shop once a week and buy them liver. They ate canned food and drank milk. No water. No dry food. No feline leukemia. They were fierce animals that craved our companionship and we honored them.
My Nonny Glading hated cats. When she came to visit she’d shoo them out of the house with a broom or pour water on them. She swore they’d smother Mary Lou in her bed by trying to drink the milk off her lips.
There was one other animal in my life that meant the world to me. My father’s mother and father had an Irish Setter named Happy. He was in their family when I was born and lived well into my youth. He let me tug his ears and flop on his side while he lay on the floor. He was a great and handsome animal in the way dogs are great and handsome.
This love of pets led me to get a dog in my twenties. A lab retriever. Named Boo. Actually Boobs a Lot after the Fugs song “You’ve got to like boobs a lot”. My ex-wife Kathy named her but she was my dog to the bottom of both of our hearts. Just before Boo died my girl friend at the time bought me another lab, Lucy. When we split up I got a beautiful Rottweiler, Lulu. Now I have two wild dogs running through my apartment…Cookie and Milo. Cookie’s a lab and Milo is a shelter dog and they both enrich my life in ways I can’t understand. Linda has two dogs, Ike, a Newfie, and Tina a runt lab and I love them too. God, dogs and cats are wonderful. Too bad for the toad.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Pets were a big, big part of being a kid in Wenonah and most likely all of 1960's America. God only knows why. Pets of all shapes and sizes. Mice and cats and rats and hamsters and guinea pigs and dogs and horses and ant farms and sea monkeys. Our homes were littered with pets of one kind or another. Okay, snakes were few and far usually had to find one in the woods and bring it home and then after a few days in a cardboard box your mother would make you let it go. But after that everything was a pet...toads and frogs, box turtles, birds limping around with broken wings, bunny rabbits, everything...literally everything. Our backyard was a vast pet cemetery. Small wooden crosses over graves filled with rotting creatures.
Most of my pets were of the conventional variety. We had two cats for many years, Timmy and Surprise. Surprise was the oldest and Timmy the youngest. Each of them was actually a purloined cat. They showed up at our back porch and we fed them and then they were ours. They were with us until 7th grade. That's when my mother found out we were allergic to them. Then they were sent to a "farm". This is a euphemism rarely used but essentially my mother lied and had them slicked at the vets.
We had a few half hearted attempts at dogs but my father didn't do dogs well and dogs are a grown man's job, even in Wenonah. We had a dalmation that died of distemper and a shaggy dog my dad brought home from a gas station on Admiral Wilson Blvd in Camden. He lasted not much longer than the dalmation. Towards the end of my time in Wenonah my mother found out poodles are relatively allergen free so we had two small poodles. They hated my brothers and I but loved my mother.
Mostly we loved the cats. Who were killing us.
Of course we had turtles and tropical fish and we'd save various dying wild animals and all that but really it was the cats to which we had a real connection. I remember to this day the horror of finding Timmy on the back porch one day after he'd been gone a couple days. He'd been shot by a hunter and his left rear leg was shattered by buckshot. We took him to the vet and he recovered but it was a rare brush with death in our little happy world.
Which leads me inexplicably to our experiments with the toad. One day Chris and Terry and Gary and Mick and I and who knows who else found a toad and decided to test it's endurance levels. We buried it in a box for an hour. It survived. For two hours. Survival. Three, four, five, ten hours and still it's beating heart pumped life.
Then overnight. Surely that would kill this lousy toad. But no it rose from it's shoebox grave heart beating strong. Ugly, gray mottled monster. Stronger, smarter, more worldly than we crushed it with the back of a shovel.
Life is short and pets come and go. I have had five dogs now over the years that I treasure as I would a child. Still, I raised up that spade and crushed that little toad with all my might. Later we set fires in the basement. Ha ha

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Childhood Illness

In fourth grade my body broke. Not on purpose and not through any fault of my own. My childhood asthma became much worse, probably aggravated by our cats and my parents smoking. On top of that in an effort to help me with my studies my father got me a desk lamp to help me do my homework.
Unfortunately the light bulb in the desk lamp was not a standard bulb but a UV bulb. Hours working under the UV bulb caused damage to my eyes. No one could figure out why my eyes were being damaged. We went to the doctor again and again until after several months one doctor listened to my stupid complaint that it was the light from the desk lamp. For weeks I'd been wearing sunglasses to deal with my eyes sensitity to light. The doctor said, what kind of bulb is in the lamp and when we told him we solved the problem.
That didn't solve the asthma dilemma. I spent most of fourth grade in a haze caused by the only drugs available for asthmatics at the time. Epineprine. It stopped the asthma but made me a zombie. Concentrating was difficult if not impossible. But I was a kid. You don't blame drugs when you're a kid. You just soldier on. So I went to class and floated in a numb state through the year. And as I've already said it was a hard year.
In retrospect I would have been better without my cats. In retrospect my father should have known what kind of bulb was in the desk lamp but in that place at that time there was really only me bumbling around with a terrible breathing disease wearing sunglasses and struggling to be a good kid.
You'd think this would prepare you for stuff. But it didn't. It only meant I had to lay in bed while my friends were playing and I was wheezing. I had trouble reading because of my eyes. It was a fourth grade disaster.
We changed the bulbs. In the next several years we found an allergist. I got allergy shots. My asthma vanished for the most part. But for two or three years the only place I felt safe was in my house reading. Not a bad place because I loved books. My parents taught me how wonderful they were and they were indeed life saving.
In books I could breath. In books I could see. In books I was smart and resourceful and brave. In real life I was a skinny kid who got picked last and barely made the baseball team.
On top of all this I wet the bed. This would become a major impediment when I joined Boy Scouts but for now it was just an embarrassment that meant I couldn't stay over at my friends house.
What do you do with this? As a grown up I'm comfortable talking about it. As a fourth grader I felt like a monster trapped in his room. A skinny troll unable to be like anyone else. Only in comics and in books was I alive.
Years later when I became truly ill this was a help. I think I'd prefer that I hadn't had the training. Just as I'd prefer I hadn't gotten ill with AIDS. Shit happens and it has it's benefits but all things considered you might wish you had a pick.
Theodore Roosevelt was my hero because he was an asthmatic as a young boy and he exercised and fought back. I used his example to try to get better. Now I think that just by dint of labor you can't fix anything. But then it served it's purpose. I had a goal. Not to be sick. Not to be limited. To be like everyone else.
What I never asked was what was everyone else like. What were the trials they faced.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Music of Fourth Grade

You could say there was no music. You'd be wrong of course. On our trips to my grandmothers my parents listened to WIP. Their station. Sinatra, the Mill's Brothers, Mancini, Dean Martin. You could say in 4th grade I didn't get music and then you'd be right. I didn't. My parents bought us records of folk music and classical recordings and we'd play them on the radio/hi fi in the second living room. They had Mitch Miller's Sing a Long With Mitch and the records they bought that I guess they thought would connect me with music.
On one level it worked. I know all the words to John Henry. I know the words to Erie Canal. When I hear the new Springsteen sessions in Dublin it's like being in the living room listening to that stuff over and over. But really, I could have cared less. Music meant almost nothing to me. But it was everywhere. The Mills Brothers singing "cross the river from the Alamo was a Pinto pony...", the theme to Hatari, the distant sounds of rock and roll which to us 4th graders might well have been the sounds you hear on a tv on in a room you walk through.
We paid no attention but it was everywhere. We knew about Elvis. When we took music the teacher would invariably try to talk about Elvis but we were totally befuddled. This was a town where music, classical, folk, rock, experimental, popular was confined to background noise for young people.
My parents might be swaying to Frank. They might know about the new Tony Bennett. But me? I knew nothing. I was a knucklehead, soaking in the noise of the radio in the backseat of the Chevy on the way home from Nonny's. In the Still of the Night, See the Pyramids along the nile all sounds filling the back seat. Watching the houses as we drove home. To Wenonah.
Where we went upstairs to our rooms to listen to the crickets chirping. Buddy Holly had no place there. Not yet.
We sang in school. We heard music all the time. But none of it mattered.
In less than ten years that would all change. I imagine for some young men and women in Wenonah it had already started to change. Otherwise why would our music teacher be talking about blue suede shoes and Gene Krupa? For a little while music was only the thrum of baseball cards on our bike's spokes, or the themes of TV shows we loved. But in a few short years it would grab us by the back of our necks and drag us into a world we didn't even know existed.
Be Bob a Lula. Rock Around the Clock. I boogied in my room and I boogied in the hall, I boogied in my fingers and I wiped it on the wall. She walked up two flights two flights more. Rock around the clock tonight. Rock around the clock. Yakkety Yak don't talk back.
Next year the Beatles came to America and stuff starts to get interesting.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cemetery Hill

South Jersey doesn't get much snow. Maybe a few storms of 4 to 6 inches a year. When I was young it was a particularly snowy era but not really and truly deep snows. In Jersey City in 1996 we got over three feet of snow. That never happened in Wenonah. But we cherished snow. We lived for snow. We waited for it from December till March and it always seemed to come.
When it came we went sledding. You might recall that I've said Wenonah is relatively flat. Flat is not really the word for it. Devoid of contours would be more appropriate. There was only one real hill near Wenonah and that was in Mantua in the cemetery named Wenonah. It was just across the Mantua Creek and every kid from Mantua and Wenonah flocked there once there was an inch or two of snow. There were three main sled ways in the cemetery. The steepest had no graves and led directly to the woods and beyond the creek. The second was just to the right and had a few strategically placed headstones for your slaloming pleasure. The third was the road that wound through the cemetery. The road wasn't always idyllic but since snow was sparce but cold was not the snow would freeze and present an crazy iced run to hell.
The minute snow started falling we'd pull our Flexible Flyer's and Flying Saucers out of garages and wax them up. Then legions of bundled up nitwits would head down Mantua Avenue to the Wenonah Cemetery for the joy of hurtling downhill at breakneck speeds on iron and wood.
Each winter gave up it's own delights. Deep snow here that allowed you to surf standing up on your sled. Icey roads that let you run headlong for hundreds of yards down the road. Snows that let us build ramps so when you got to the end you'd soar, oh, maybe a foot or two in the air, before you crashed like a knucklehead into the brush.
Little kids with older brothers, parents in cars with young kids, teenagers, all of us flocked to the cemetery. To fly like wild people in the snow. Cold as hell, terrible mittens that never kept you warm, jeans soaked in snow and soggy long johns and down and up we'd plunge.
Cold and sun and snow all around us. Ignoring, not really even noticing the headstones of our forebears all around us. When my mother died my father bought a plot overlooking the creek for them both. When I was very ill I went to visit my mother's grave but couldn't find it. But I could see every route our sleds took! I could see us proud as lions standing on our sleds jetting to our doom.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


We loved our bicycles. We lived on our bicycles. Everywhere we went we went on bicycles. Schwinn's and Rahleighs. English and American. Big ass old school one speed bikes with fat tires that had one up hill speed...slow and one downhill We put baseball cards on them to make noises as they fluttered in the spokes. We shined the chrome and cleaned them and oiled them and knew how to patch tires and change tubes.
We rode our bikes up and down the streets of Wenonah, to and from school, to the pool and back. We rode them in snow and rain and sun. We rode them in wild packs of boys, carrying fake plastic and wooden rifles prepared for war in the woods of Wenonah. We rode them with complete abandon.
I vividly recall riding down Cherry St. by Terry Fleming's house en route to Clay Hill for a game of guns one beautiful summer afternoon. We were all riding no handed and shooting our imaginary enemies as we rode. Suddenly my front tire blew. Pow! The bike bucked up a foot or two in the air then came down and sent me skidding down newly macadamed Cherry St. In seconds I was covered in scrapes and the scrapes were filled with tar and stone and dirt and blood. A passerby asked if I was okay and of course we all assured him I was. Then we ran home as fast as we could to my house. I burst into the living room where my father and my Uncle Al were drinking glasses of whiskey and stood in front of them. Blood was running down all my extremities and my face. They laughed and laughed and laughed. Then I shrieked and burst into tears. Up to then I hadn't cried at all. I was being a man. But seeing my father and my Uncle laughing at me left me bereft. I cried and cried; they laughed and laughed.
Then my mother got out the Hydrogen Peroxide and the bandaids and went to work. In a few workmanlike minutes I was covered in bandages and smarting from the burn of the peroxide. My friends were yelling outside so out I went. We had a game to play.
We played one terrible game called the Bike Game. In this game Stewart DeHart and Bobby McQuaide and maybe Jackie Brangan would ride their bikes back and forth in Lincoln Ave in front of the DeHart residence. We huddled in the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street. At their command we ran across the street and they tried to run us down. It was the most terrifying thing I've ever done. No one of us was a winner. We were all mauled and bloody and ridiculed. It was all we could do to get them to stop playing and let us go home.
We organized bike races. Older boys delivered their newspapers on their bikes. All around town bikes were scattered like leaves in front of houses where children lived. We customized our bikes. We loved our bikes.
One day we rode our bikes from Wenonah to Woodbury. Seven miles. Up Mantua Avenue, left on Glassboro Road and all the way into Woodbury. We bought sandwiches and ice cream and sodas and rode back. We were proud little explorers. Then our mothers found out and that was our last bike hike till seventh grade.
In the days before we turned 17 bikes were our only freedom and we loved them. If they were animals they would have loved us back.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Other things we ate; with apologies to Bob Thomas

Bob reminds me of the fact that South Jersey is the home of the Jersey tomato, sweet corn, ungodly peaches and more fresh produce than you can shake a stick at from July till Sept. My mother and father were not monsters. Yes we got fresh tomatoes and corn all summer long. In fact we grew out own in the digging yard several years. I should and will talk more about that later.
To this day I love going home so I can buy bushels of tomatoes for next to nothing that cost bundles of dough from the same farms in the Greenmarket. I was cranky and hungry last night and could only remember the honey loaf. Thank God for the tomatoes, the apples, the peaches, the corn, the lima beans. That's right fresh lima beans...all summer long. Poor Mick. Poor Jack. Now I have to say something. I love lima beans. Ha ha.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Things We Ate

I'm starving tonight. I just came off a stomach flu and didn't eat at all yesterday and tonight, although I've eaten 5 times, I'm still hungry so I thought I should talk about the food we ate in Wenonah.
It was horrible. It was regular. For breakfast every day my mother made us Tang and we had pop tarts. Before pop tarts we ate Frosted Flakes or Cocoa Krispies, or Rice Krispies, or Corn Flakes but it all sucked. Then for lunch we had sandwiches made from this fake ham. I can't remember the name but it will come to me by the end of this post. We drank milk with every meal except after Memorial Day when we had iced tea until Labor Day. Then it was back to milk.
At dinner we had a succession of dull dishes. Tuna casseroles every Friday (we were Catholic), frozen beef in frozen sauce, chicken croquettes, lima beans.
Lima beans.
The cursed vegetable of my youth. My brother Mick may have vomited up lima beans on at least twelve occasions. And we had no dog to feed the food we hated to under the table. It was eat or die. Once a week my mother would make a dish we liked, say cheese steak sandwiches. She would make eight cheese steak sandwiches for six people. Which meant if you were hungry you had to eat fast to get one of the two left over sandwiches. It was a race to hell. Sometimes I won, sometimes Mick won. Ted always lost.
My father loved chipped beef on toast. I have no idea why he felt this was a good thing to eat. But my mother loved him so we ate it. And we had spaghetti. From a can. Not spaghetti O's but close. When I got to college and had to make my first meal for my roomates I went to make spaghetti with Ragu and my roomate Shelley corrected me. She said, no, this is how you make spaghetti sauce. I had to learn how to cut onions and peppers. I learned that there is a thing called a garlic clove.
Some of this was because we weren't well off. My mother had to struggle to make ends meet. This was something I was unaware of at the time. Some of it was because my mother was a lousy cook. She was. A lousy cook.
My grandmother Glading, Nonny Glading, was on the other hand a great cook. She made us meals each weekend that were marvelous. Truly stunning. Fresh ingredients, meat from the butcher, cooked slow and with care. We had Yorkshire Pudding and roasts that were ungodly. Then we went home to honey loaf. That was the name of the fake ham. Honey loaf. Call it what you want but it was fake ham. Not ham on the sandwiches at Nonny's house carved off the ham with mayo and mustard and crusty bread.
My Nonny Wiler, while she didn't cook, served great meals as well. The best roasts I've ever had. Rich and full of flavor. I've never had a roast beef like she served...ever. We sopped the blood up from the cutting board on pieces of white bread with butter. That's the one thing on all my tables when I was young. A loaf of white bread. A pitcher of milk. A quarter pound of butter.
But all of them, my mother, my grandmothers, my uncles could roast Turkeys. They all knew how to make stuffing. They all knew how to fill us up one day in November with food that made you sleepy and happy. And at the end we had Breyer's ice cream with Creme de minthe and sat back happy. The last pieces of mince pie sitting on our plates. Too tired to argue. Too happy to fight. Years later I had the opportunity to serve Christmas and Thanksgiving meals like those. They are and were a gift. Whether you make them or eat at them. I ate with friends in Staten Island one Thanksgiving and they served LeSeour brand baby peas just like my mother and my grandmother, and they had creamed onions, and there was some dumb ass squash soup but who cared. There was cranberry sauce and wine and beer and people laughing.
So the food was lousy but we fought over those cheese steaks. My mother made iced tea from scratch. The mashed potatoes were on every table, with or without gravy. My brothers and I were arguing. We fought and fought and yelled and we sat together every day at dinner. Like a family.
Yesterday I made barbequed chicken for my friends Oscar and Douglas and Louisa and Frank and Johanna. They made beans with jamon and rice and drank Corona and laughed and smoked weed and I went to bed early with the flu. Could you ask for more?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Grace Paley

Grace Paley is dead. I read the news in the Times this morning. I'd met Ms Paley a few times at the Frost Place over the years and had the chance to hear a distinctive American voice. Grace was living in Vermont when I met her but she was all New York City. A beautiful voice filled with the rhythms of New York. Strong and clear. She was to have read this summer with Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and Galway Kinnell but her failing health kept her away. Her absence that day was a deep and palpable thing. All of the poets that read are men and women confronting the end of their lives in real life and in verse. It was a wonderful afternoon of stunning power.
Losing a voice in American letters is never a good thing. Tonight I was listening to my ipod shuffle and Robert Frost came on. Right after Bruce Springsteen and right before Dave Brubeck. How wonderful. His clear and distinct reading of Stopping by Woods was a little gift on a hot summers night. Maybe you can remember a poetry reading that took your breath away. Maybe after hearing some poet in a bar or a barn or on a stage you stumbled out into the night thinking this is what poetry is about.
Losing those voices is such a sad thing. Keeping them in our hearts is all we have. Raise a glass to dear Grace. Wish her well on her journey. Hers was a voice that could not be stopped. It sings forever, like all the best writers. We lose great people every day. Fathers, mothers, friends, children. It's always sad and it's inevitable but that doesn't take away the sting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Famous Monsters of Filmland and Comics

I've neglected something truly important in my youth. Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor and publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Our favorite magazine. We ran to Margie's luncheonette to buy each months issue. It detailed the great and near great horror films of the 20's, 30's, 40's, and 50's. It was a beautiful mixed up hodge podge of memorbilia by a man who loved horror movies. Today I read in the Times that Ray Bradbury's first work was published by Forrest in the late 30's. He loved monster movies and we loved them with him.
Our personal favorite was The Thing that Came From Outer Space. A movie that scared the shit out of us. But Forrest turned us on to Ed Wood and Frankenstein with equal approval. He didn't diss Ed Wood as an oddball. Plan Nine from Outer Space was as important as any Bela Lugosi film. We were mesmerized.
Chris had seen one of the Frankenstein films and we acted it out in the shell of a house under construction at the end of Jefferson Street. Gary Condell was the Monster. Chris was Baron von Frankenstein. We were various particpants in the drama. We all knew how to act even though we'd never seen the movies.
Which brings me to comic books. We devoured them. First, Superman and Batman and the Flash and the Justice League of America, but then Marvel Comics. I bought the first issue of Spiderman as a birthday gift for Ted but took it back. It was too good for him. We devoured all of them. The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Dr. Strange. It was a wide world open for the taking. All on display in Margies once a month.
We all wanted x ray specs. I suspect some of us ordered sea monkeys. I know my friend Jack Shephard filled out the forms so he could be an artist!
There were no real monsters in Wenonah. We lurched like Frankenstein in half completed basements. We assembled like frightened villagers to destroy the monster but really nothing was there. It was a joy. A pleasure.
We mounted a play the summer of 1962 to mimic the movies we'd read about but never saw. Gary Condell was the monster. Chris the mad scientist. One of us, who knows who the hero. We wrote a script, sold tickets and were prepared to sell refreshments. Then Joel Cook saw the monster in rehearsal. He was terrified. He ran home in hysterical tears. His parents shut down the production before it ever happened. Little Ed Wood's stymied in our artistry. Mick and I were punished and banished to our rooms. We sat and ate the candy we were going to sell while our friends played outside.
Oh, the vagaries of the artistic life!
But still, perhaps there were aliens among us. Perhaps we were at risk of imminent demise.
Perhaps the siren of the fire whistle might portend more than a minor fire in a kitchen somewhere in town.
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Now we're talking.
Now it's all real.
Now all the duck and cover nonsense made sense.
Now everytime we heard the fire whistle it meant that Russian missiles were streaking our way. And when they detonated we'd have hell to pay. Zombies walking among us. No food. Horror.
All the stories we made up on the way to school seemed to get a little pale. A little shallow. Maybe we were children in a world not quite so safe.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Death and Football

September of 1961 brought another change in my life. In September my grandfather Wiler died. He’d been ill from Emphysema for many years but over the last few months of that summer he took a turn for the worse. Emphysema is a progressive chronic illness that can take years to kill you but when it does it comes on quickly. Technically my grandfather probably died from a heart attack, since his heart would have had to work twice as hard to get enough oxygen from his damaged lungs.
He’d been a life long smoker and that coupled with a stint in the mines as a young man along with a genetic predisposition to Emphysema was all it took. That fall we were involved in a venture of our own and his death, while anticipated, barely brushed me. One day men were lugging oxygen tanks up the porch to his room, the next he was gone.
He’d loved Mick and Ted and I but his illness prevented him from being much fun around us. He was a distant figure to us, unlike my grandmother, and I had no real feelings about him or his death. His wife, my Dad’s mother, was another story.
My grandparents had moved to Wenonah when my grandfather became ill and needed more care. They bought a house up the block from us on the corner of W. Mantua and S. Jefferson. It was one of the earliest homes in Wenonah and had been owned by the Cattell family, a South Jersey family with deep roots. The house still had the original barn behind it, now used as a garage.
Mick and I played in the garage whenever we could. It held secret passages built by other children long ago and you could jump out the hayloft onto a compost heap below. One half of the garage held my grandmothers gardening tools and insecticides. She was an avid gardener and worked hard at it. As a consequence the smell of DDT and Dieldrin filled the barn. Dusts and concentrates sat in heavy brown glass jars on her work bench. When I went to work as an exterminator I recognized those smells immediately.
In the house, on the sunporch, was where she painted. She was a painter of landscapes and still lives and worked in oils with a knife. Her work was extraordinary but devoid of life. Bare empty warehouses, telephone poles, crumbling chimneys in an empty field. Brilliant and cold and scary. The room smelled of oil paints.
In the next room was the dining room and just off it the kitchen. My grandmother didn’t cook and a succession of maids and cooks kept house for her.
My brothers and I were a source of constant irritation with our yelling and noise and roistering. As a consequence we were generally banished to the outdoors at family gatherings.
So here we are in September of 1961 and what am I really involved in. Football. My friends and I have started a football team. The Wenonah Hawks. We've had lemonade sales and raised money to buy uniforms. We've recruited enough boys to fill out a full football team. We found a coach, a man who was a boyfriend of one of my neighbors, Al Frank. We've begun to practice each day. We are a bunch of little kids with no organization that formed a football team in a town with no organized football program and we challenged the local midget football teams. There were teams in Deptford, Mullica Hill, and Center City. We played them all. We played in a 110lb league despite the fact that only Ted Glenn, our center, weighed 110 pounds. Our defensive end, Chuck Lake, might have weighed 65 pounds on a good day. All I cared about that fall was our team and our practices and our games. My grandfather died and my clearest memory of his death is the smell of hay from the knees of my pants from football practice as I watched the technicians delivering oxygen tanks to my dying grandfather.
Our team was pretty good, and very small but we made it to the Lions Bowl in Glassboro that year where we played the champions from Mullica Hill. A boy we knew from Woodbury, Jim Coombs was on the team. They were large and hard and the game was played in January on a frozen field in Glassboro. We got our asses handed to us.
It was wonderful.
So, yes, my grandfather was dead. And yes, my grandmother remained. But we had football glory. Skinny little geeks in green jerseys covered in blood and grass mixing it up with the big boys. And we did it all ourselves. Me, Chris, Gary Condell, Terry Fleming, my brother Mick, Herbie Danner, Ted Glenn. We were hard. We were strong. It was glorious. Not unlike the poems we memorized.
After the Lions Bowl there was a banquet we were invited to. The Mullica Hill team had tough black kids on their team. They all got up at the end on the stage and danced the Pony. We all knew we couldn't dance the Pony but we could hold our own on a frozen field in Glassboro.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Twilight Zone, Spelling, and Poetry

In 4th Grade my bed time was 8:00pm. Maybe 8:30 on a special night. This was good for my parents and bad for me. Everyone I knew stayed up later. They got to watch shows I only knew from their stories or from listening to the tv from my upstairs bedroom when my parents were watching in the 2nd living room. We had, like all our friends, a black and white tv. We got three stations. 3, 6, & 10. My favorite show was Combat but the show I most wanted to see was the Twilight Zone. It was on after my bedtime so I never saw it till I was older but I heard shards, in pieces. This was a show that answered all my story telling needs.
On the way to school the day after a Twilight Zone episode Terry or Chris would tell us about last nights show. About the tank battalion trapped at Custer's Last Stand. About Burgess Meredith in the ruins of WWWIII losing his glasses. About the slot machine that haunted a gambler. Brilliant stories told on the way to school in the fall and winter and spring. The walk to school took perhaps twenty minutes. Eight or nine blocks. Two different routes. On the way to school we usually walked up Mantua Ave and crossed at the proper corner by the park. On the way home we trekked over the railroad bridge and down West Street. All the time telling stories. On the way out the stories of the tv on the way back the stories we invented.
In 4th grade Mr. McIntire made us use our spelling words in a narrative. A story. Each of us tried hard to use the lessons of the Twilight Zone to top the other. Stories of O'Henry filled with irony. Stories of gore and death. Stories to scare ourselves. After a while we stopped caring about the spelling words and cared only about the stories. It was a challenge to top each other. Like poetasters or slam poets or screen writers we wanted to be the best at what we did. I can't remember any of our stories but I know where they all came from.
In 4th and 5th grades and I think in 3rd we were given little yellow booklets with popular poems. Poems from the late 1800's and early 1900's that had a place in the popular imagination. The Frost is O'er the Pumpkin, Trees, etc, etc, etc. We were required to memorize one of these each week and recite them to our peers in class. This too became a challenge. Especially when we were given leave to expand our selections. To move out from the little pamphlets and into the books of poetry that might be in our homes. We were boys. So we found Rudyard Kipling and Stevenson and Tennyson. We craved the poems of gore and horror and tried to top each other with tougher and gorier poems to recite. I memorized The Charge of the Light Brigade and Gunga Din. I mastered The Highwayman. All to top my friends. To show them I was the man.
What an odd pastime. Middle class white kids in the 60's memorizing the heroic dramas of English poets. For glory. For honor. For power.
Years later I read my own poetry out loud at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I had never read my own work out loud. I was, I guess, petrified with terror. But I'd done this before. I knew the drill. When I finished the drunk crowd of Puerto Ricans gave me a standing ovation. I knew it was the thing I wanted to do again more than anything else. The same night a professor of mine read and was booed off the stage. Of course. She didn't know the drill. She was interested in her work, in it's care and concerns. She didn't understand that when you stand up in front of people and read you've got an obligation to deliver. It didn't have to be loud. It didn't have to be hard to understand. It almost didn't have to be good. What it had to be was better than the last poem they heard. Like our stories. Like the poems we chose to memorize. Who knew that Mr. McIntire was preparing me to be a poet. Who knew he was teaching me to love words. Who knew that five little kids walking down the street in Wenonah were learning to be artists.
Not all of us are artists in our real lives. Chris worked for automotive interests. Terry works for health care interests. My brother is in law enforcement. But all of us know how to tell a story and engage an audience and we want that audience to listen and attend.
They always do.