Friday, June 01, 2007

1960 JFK Mary Lou and more

So it's 1960 and for the first time I'm aware of a presidential election. John F Kennedy is running against Richard Nixon and we watch the news and see the Kennedy's the Nixons and more. My mother is pregnant with my sister, Mary Louise. I'm in third grade and life in Wenonah is sweet.
I walk to school each day with my friends Terry and Dottie. I go to class with children I've known now for two years. We are friends in a way I hadn't experienced friends before. After 2nd grade I'm now closer to boys and girls a grade ahead. Chief among them Chris DeHart who lives down the block from me on South Lincoln. Chris has two older brothers, Tommy and Stewart and a southern mother, Clara. She's passed along a lot of her heritage to her children and they share many of her beliefs and ideals. Chris' father is in the family business, DeHart Trucks.
Terry has two older brothers as well, Mike and Tim. Mike and Tim are smart and handsome and cool in ways a geek like me can only vaguely comprehend. They make fun of me for reading all the time. I go to Terry's house to play early every weekend, when I wake up. Terry's family does not get up when Mick and I wake up. Everyone sleeps till 9 or 10 in the morning. Mrs. Fleming greets me at the door, a vision in hairspray and gruff Irish beauty. She can't figure out why in the world I'm awake.
At school we're excited when Kennedy is elected. A new generation with new visions has taken the reins of power. At least that's the way it feels to us little kids. We have long passionate arguments about civil rights and white flight. We're in third grade or fourth grade so these arguments are stupid to say the least. Chris takes the traditional southern view. If niggers move in his family will move out. Not that there was any chance of that happening but still we discuss it at length.
Meantime my brothers and I anticipate Mary's arrival. We're hoping for a fourth boy but I can bet my mother is praying for a girl. We were a handful. Mick and I and Ted drove her crazy. She was quiet and bookish and sweet. We were loud and insistent and out of control. Years later my Uncle Ed, my fathers brother, would tell he thought my father had no control of us.
We played football, tackle, in the backyard, with only the rudiments of understanding of the rules. We watched TV from 7:30 to 8:00 and went to bed. I read and read and read. It seems to me that I read To Kill a Mockingbird in third grade. That might be historically impossible and I have no intention of verifying that. But the central theme of the book, the battle against the poison that was racism and the heroism of black and white men and women in fighting it struck me with all the force it struck the rest of the nation.
I read the Hardy Boys too. Every last Hardy Boys book. My mother's brother, Al, had some of them in his collection from the forties. I ran through them in a few months. Roadsters and gangsters and smugglers and mysteries and all in New Jersey! The Hardy Boys were from a shore town in Northern New Jersey but from my perspective they were from strange place by the shore with cliffs and caves and violence. In Wenonah the only violence was child on child violence.
I began to learn to ride my bike. It being too big I had trouble stopping it so I adopted a strategy of running into curbs to stop. Mick and I launched our sibling rivalry in earnest. Each of us was what the other wanted to be and this would extend for years.
Mick was athletic and personable and funny. I was smart and awkward and I don't know what. We began a series of battles each day at breakfast. Mick would look at me across the table and start in. Bla, bla bla bla eh eh eh. Nonsense syllables that drove me crazy. I'd scream at him to stop and he'd do it more. My mother would say, ignore him and he'll stop. Might as well ask the sun not to come up. Ignore him? How? He was relentless in picking the scabs of my insecurities. I never figured out that it was me that made him nuts. We'd end up rolling around on the floor kicking and punching till our mother booted us out.
And out we went into the extended games we all played. We discovered the woods. Clay Hill and the Mantua Creek were just two blocks from our house and all of us spent hours there each afternoon. Walking through the woods imagining ourselves assaulted by dinosaurs or Russians or god knows what. Shooting our plastic guns at imaginary monsters and rolling for cover.
Chris invented most of the games. That was his forte. He saw more movies than any of us and when he'd return he'd tell us the stories and we'd reenact them. Frankenstein or Dracula, Wolfman, Liberty Valance. All of them elaborately choreographed plays Chris would direct. The two most intense were Frankenstein and Liberty Valance. Each of us would be assigned a role and Chris would give us lines and tell us when to enter. We revelled in the detail. Liberty Valance was my personal favorite because for once I wasn't a geek. I usually played the Jimmy Stewart character, Rance Stoddard. Chris was always Liberty Valance. Terry was John Wayne's character. Gary Condell played Pompey. My brother and his friends played everyone in the town.
Years later when I saw the film in Livingston College in Al LaValley's film class I was astounded to realize I knew all the dialogue. Chris had drilled it into us. Pompey hand me my gun.
We played with our school work. Walks to school had us telling stories based on our spelling words. We each tried to use our spelling words in elaborately crafted stories. Monsters and GI's and war figured heavily in everything we wrote. We tried to top each other with the best story till we forgot about the spelling words.
A note here...I've been away from the past for the last few weeks and am just getting back into 1960. It's odd to put yourself back again, especially when you're worried about the present. Forgive the disconnect. Bob Thomas has been helping put names to the picture. I hope to be done soon. In the meantime I'm going to post his most recent reconstruction and if any of you can help fill in the pieces I hope you will.

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