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.