Wednesday, June 27, 2007


You know how stuff sneaks up on you. How you know something but don't know something. Today Johanna and I got the deeply sad news that her friend Divina had died. Johanna had known Divina since they were teenagers in El Salvador. She was a strong and real presence in our lives. When Johanna's father passed away this February Divina was here for her. She passed away in May and no one knew how to get in touch with her friends or family. What a great land America is...we got a call from an investigator from the hospital today telling us the news. Telling us Divina was gone. I can still picture her whistling Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, It's off to work we go to get the dogs to go for a walk. They loved her. They knew she was here before we did.
Now she won't be here except in our hearts. Divina was a joy and a friend and gave Johanna a deep connection to her home. We both miss her with all our hearts. It's so sad that there is so little words can do when you lose a friend.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gone Daddy Gone

I haven’t posted in nearly ten days. Mostly since I ran out of pain killers. I spent a few rough nights trying to gut it out and finally on Thursday, slept through the night. Johanna and I spent the weekend enjoying the beautiful summer weather and yesterday, late in the afternoon, I went to the Bowery Poetry Club to honor one of my heroes.

Hersch Silverman, the bard of Bayonne, was the subject of a loving tribute by his poetic children. As Danny Shot said in his promo piece…”he’s the Grand Daddy-O of us all”. For us New Jersey poets that’s especially true. Danny and Eliot and I as well as many of our friends were all fans of Ginsberg and Kerouac and Corso and to be able to hang with Hersch was like being with them. But like us, Hersch stayed home. Instead of following his muse Hersch stayed in Bayonne, running the Beehive, and raising up two great kids. In the early eighties, following the death of his wife, he re-entered the world of poetry and we met him seemingly everywhere.

Danny and I published a lot of his work in Long Shot. Danny put out his volume “Lift Off” and Hersch was always a featured reader at our benefits. Listening to that man swing with words was just a rare joy. And he worked for a living! Not a bad thing to do cuz we were all working for a living. He was and is the man!

The night was great! Jazz and the poetry of jazz, Bob Holman’s wild words and music, a gorgeous duet with Hersch and Danny. Wild reworkings of Hersch’s words and Joel Lewis telling Hersch’s story. Of course, this being a gathering of New York poets there were poems that had nothing to do with Hersch and bad work and strange dissonant moments. But Steve Cannon was at the bar heckling with his little blonde helper and the bartenders were swift and the beer was cold and Danny’s sons Casey and Levi were hiding in a corner. It was a night of beat poetry in the most gone town on the south side of Jupiter, man. It was gone, daddy, gone. Like so many people that should have been in the room.

So, here’s a toast to Hersch and Bayonne and the Beehive. Here’s a nod to Allen and Gregory and Andy and Jack. Drink up my friends and drink deep!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Clay Hill

I've said we played in the woods at the end of Lincoln Avenue. But mostly we spent our time on Clay Hill. Clay Hill was the remnants of a washed out railroad trestle. At it's base in the Mantua Creek were the worn stumps of the railroad trestles. Where the railroad went and what it was for were long forgotten. It was just a hill in a small woods at the end of our street. Most of the forest there was new growth. The trees were less than twenty years old. We raced through them as though we were in a forest in an ancient world. To the left of Clay Hill were the swamps of the Mantua Creek. They resumed again some hundred yards away to the right till they reached their largest point right by the bridge between Wenonah and Mantua.
The swamps were filled with cattails and skunk cabbage and muskrats. I suppose there was other wild life but we paid little or no attention to it. The creek had catfish and some sunny's and a few smallmouth bass. It meandered it's slow way to the Delaware from a point a few miles from Wenonah. Once it had been larger but it had been dammed off by various developers over the years to make lakes and ponds and now was largely ignored by everyone but children.
For us it was heaven.
It was a world without parents or rules or a point. We fought wars on Clay Hill. We refought WWII. We fought WWIII. We saved the world from alien invasions. We eventually got up the courage to run through the swamps. We'd leap from hillock to hillock all the way to the railroad trestle by the Parker's house. We braved quick mud and mosquitoes and we were rangers in a guerilla war. My favorite Christmas present for many years was hip boots so I could run through the swamp.
We'd come home and my mother would send us into the basement to strip and clean. We smelled like swamp.
We smelled like skunk. All within two hundred feet of our homes. No adults went into the woods. No teenagers went into the woods. Just us and our ilk.
One day in a pitched battle between Chris DeHart and my friends I found myself staked out and had ants dropped on my chest. I was petrified with terror. My brother Ted raced home to get my father to save me. From what?
Terry nearly had his ear blown off by a firecracker on Clay Hill.
Kids were shoved from the top of Clay Hill on bikes and narrowly avoided spilling into the creek. For some reason none of us would swim in the creek. We'd sit for hours at the base of the hill and talk and talk and talk about bullshit. We speculated about everything. Where babies came from, what sex was, would we kill a man in battle. We argued about baseball and football and organized our mad events. Our theatrical presentations, our athletic games, all were hatched here or on my porch or in the DeHarts house or in Terry Flemings basement.
Clay Hill was as large as the world got at that time and place. It was huge and seemed to go forever. It had mystery, access, and privacy. It was perfect. We built forts in groves of sticker bushes. We made tree forts and dug foxholes. We dammed a stream further down by the old dump and flooded the woods for hundreds of yards. We were very busy but of course told no one about any of it. Till we were older, with kids of our own.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tommy Woods, Madelaine Pillings, and Me

I mentioned Tommy Woods several postings back. He's the odd looking kid in my first and third grade photos. He seems twisted up just looking at him. I remember Tommy not because he was my friend or an acquaintance but because he was odd. Strange. He wasn't stupid. He was in our class after all and my classes in Wenonah Elementary were the smart classes. You'd think in a town this small it would be hard to separate children based on anything but we were separated. Based on abilities. Sometimes this was obvious. I could read easier and faster than other kids my age. I might have a lot of trouble playing dodgeball but I had no problems with Dick and Jane. Other kids had problems with things that were easy for me. Schools in the fifties and sixties segregated us to make our lives easier, better. I'm still not sure if this was good or bad. It wasn't always obvious at the time, although after some years even the dullest of us could figure it out.
But Tommy Woods was always in my classes. Tommy could barely figure out how to walk and chew gum. I can't remember any examples of his intellectual prowess. I can only assume that he tested high somewhere down the pike but that the tests errered on his social abilities. That left him meat for our games. We were cruel, viscious shitheads and Tommy Woods was our prey. Even for me Tommy Woods was an idiot. He was lost in social encounters. His clothes were odd, his abilities to interact with us were non-existent, in short he was fair game for everyone. Even geeks like me. Tommy got caught in his own chair at school. He had difficulty talking. He was odd.
Madelaine Pillings was equal meat for the opposite reason. She was everything Tommy couldn't hope to be. She was bright, socially able, and knew the rules. Too well. She was, in short, a teachers pet. She would rat you out in a heartbeat. That meant she was hated with every breath we had. She was like some wicked version of a Hollywood star dumped in our laps. Like Hayley Mills or Shelley Fabares but without their cunning. She didn't know how to appease us only adults. She could pick a side and she always picked the wrong side. She assumed that since adults ruled the roost they were the ones to pay attention to. Bad pick.
We vilified her relentlessly. Her clothes, her smile, her demeanor were all fair game. We hated her. Hated her more than we hated anything or anyone. I honestly can't think of anyone who played with her or went to her house for fun. She was doomed. Doomed.
You'd think the rough tough cream puff would have an ounce of compassion for misfits like Tommy or Madelaine. You'd think that and you'd be wrong. There is a pecking order everywhere in human society and these two chowderheads were at the bottom of ours. Worse than bullies or sociopaths. Worse than kids that set cats on fire. They were neither feared nor admired. My friend Terry sent a note about Milton Webb after my last posting. He expressed his distaste for how our little world didn't allow an ounce of compassion because of it's rigid conformity. Well, Tommy and Madelaine were the bottom of that society and suffered all the pains that we could inflict in all our myriad ways.
Not that we would beat them up, or steal from them, or deprive them of food or water. Only companionship and friendship and the worlds we provided each other. They were kept apart from us with a vehemence that was surprising and viscious and real.
Ask me anything about these two children and I can at most provide you with a few anecdotes making fun of them. Even our teachers made fun of them at times.
Here in this little town, with no problems, no worries, and pleasant surroundings we found a way to punish people with a cruelty that was unshakeable and unmerciful. We were more like monsters than we could understand. I might have been Atticus Finch in my dreams but in my real life I was a nasty little bigot. Ha ha ha.
We ran through the woods defending America from German troops and invading Russians and then each day in school punished the easiest marks we could find.
And it was fun.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Public Men and Women

I talked last of Ed Campbell. One of the few public role models we had as young boys and girls. You might ask who else we saw during the day in Wenonah in 1960. Not a great number of people but several, several. There was George Bowker and his wife Jane who ran the grocery in the middle of town. There was Tony Sacca who ran the butcher shop attached to Bowkers grocery. We had one police officer. His name escapes me but he lived at the end of Jefferson Street by the lake and his primary duty was helping us cross the street by the corner of Mantua and West Street each day coming and going from school. He was a pleasant enough man with little or no crime to combat.
The firemen in our town were volunteers. They were our fathers and neighbors and so, for the most part invisible except when a fire swept through a house or yard or on the 4th of July when they had an open fire house with beer and hot dogs and gave rides on the firetruck for children at the park.
There was G. Wayne Post who ran the men's store in town. He had a small business cleaning men's shirts as well and delivered my father's crisp white shirts each week in a cardboard box. This served two purposes, one my father looked sharp and two I had ample supplies of cardboard for school projects.
There were various men running a Sinclair gas station in the center of town, though Chuck Forsman ran the more popular establishment just across the Wenonah Creek in Mantua. Chuck dressed as a clown each 4th of July and puttered up and down Mantua Avenue on a small motor bike for the amusement of the children and himself.
There was the local librarian, who beginning in 1962 or so was my mother, Louise Wiler. Later Dot Nugent assisted her in her duties. There were, of course, the teachers and administration of the school, the post men and women, and a few other local businessmen. Among them was an insurance man, Don Mawson. Don's shop was on Mantua Avenue just before the gas station in the center of town. Don's best friend was Milton Webb.
Each morning and each afternoon we passed Don on the way to school. He was, how to say it, a fag. At least, that's how we described him. Young boys and girls with no real sense of what we were saying. He was unmarried, dressed well, and lived by himself, though he had one close friend, Milton Webb. Both men seemed vaguely effeminate, though by the standards of later years hardly flaming queens.
I don't know if Don was a vet but Milton was, having served honorably in the Korean War. Milton spent several years as a prisoner of war. Both men were ridiculed by us as figures of public humiliation. Both men lived honorably and bravely in a small town with small minds.
Milton Webb passed away several years ago, shorly before I returned to Wenonah, ill with AIDS. He died of natural causes and had many dear friends in the community. He was in many ways one of the town's historians and worked with a number of people in South Jersey to keep our mostly unremarkable history alive. My landlord in 2001, 2002, and 2003, Rachel Knisell admired him and his work on the town's history. He was active too in keeping the town green, helping to establish, along with Mr. Campbell, Mr. Eggert, the Middleton's, the Lentze's, and others a band of green woods around our town in the early 70's.
I don't know for certain if Milton Webb and Don Mawson were gay or homosexual, though, if Johanna were to have met them, I'm certain she would say yes. I'm sure she would say, "I can smell my people". Certainly, all the small, little bigots of my acquaintance, including myself, thought they were and worked tirelessly to make them feel unwanted and out of place.
When I came back home, sick with a disease that ravaged the gay world, I thought a great deal about Milton and Don and their world. There were a few more gay men and women in Wenonah by then. Some of them worked hard to help the sick and damaged beginning in the eighties. Their legacy was real and brave. But I can't help but think, that like Ed Campbell, Milton and Don were heroes too.
Milton was a war veteran just like Ed Campbell. He served honorably and then faced the Chinese in their camps. He braved far worse than a dozen or so idiot children ridiculing him behind his back. He involved himself in his world though his world often turned its back on him.
Courage is a funny thing. Role models take lots of shapes. There were lots of people in Wenonah when I was growing up but only two men that I could say seemed to be gay. Only one black family. No Jews. Six Catholic families. A town where being different was a curse.
I'm off to Wenonah again this year for the 4th of July. With luck I'll return with many pleasant memories and some pictures. Here are two from my memory. Ed Campbell racing down a soccer field, laughing and screaming at a bunch of ten year olds. Don Mawson on his porch, graciously saying good morning to us as we walked each day to school. Tall, dressed impeccably, enjoying a crisp fall day in a small town in southern New Jersey.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Ed Campbell

Third Grade you'll note was taught by a woman. A woman with a young son. First and Second as well were taught by women and Fifth and Sixth. Teaching was widely perceived as a woman's job in America in 1960. It was underpaid and the women who held the jobs were considered either to be in search of a husband or supplementing a man's income in the family. My world and Mick's and Terry's and Chris' was filled with women. We left for school without seeing our fathers. We returned from school to our mothers. Many of the men in town took the train to work in Philadelphia. We'd see them walking home just before dinner in their suits and hats. They were far away figures. We had yet to participate in organized sports. We had no coaches and few if any male teachers.
Wenonah Elementary had two exceptions, my Fourth Grade Teacher, Mr. McIntyre, and Ed Campbell. Ed Campbell was assigned the problem classes. The Second and Third graders that posed a difficulty. My classes were filled with good cooperative kids. Mr. Campbell's were filled with kids with learning problems, with discipline issues. It was thought that only a man could bring them in line.
Mr. Campbell was that man. He'd served in the Korean War. He was a father as well. But more than that he was a robust, energetic man who engaged his students in ways our teachers didn't. If a kid wasn't paying attention he'd toss an eraser at his head. Mike Smith, the younger brother of Michelle, was once hung out the window till he cooled down. He played football and soccer with us on our gravel schoolyard. Especially soccer. We played a robust game with few rules and lots of contact. The only referee was Mr. Campbell and unless you were a bully or a cheat you got away with everything within the rules. It was always a joy when we were allowed to join with his classes in soccer or football.
In summers he was a lifeguard at the Wenonah Lake. He'd plant himself on the raft in the middle of the lake and take on all challengers. We'd try to take the raft and he'd toss us off. He was a war hero and a man and everything we could want to be. He was fearless. Of course, he was dealing with boys and girls under the age of twelve so it's doubtful he was physically afraid of us.
You had the sense though that he expected better of you. That you could be a better man, a better person, a better scholar, by following in his footsteps. He was, most importantly, not our father. He didn't belittle you or make you feel stupid. He simply asked you to do the work you were assigned. He was never my teacher except in the way a male role model is for a young boy. Like my Uncle Al or my Uncle Ed he showed me the way to be a man.
It was a strange world not having men in it. Your father, my friends fathers, never involved themselves in our lives the way fathers do today. They came home, had a cocktail, ate dinner, asked you about your day, chatted with our mothers and went back to work. Their life was a mystery. But Ed Campbell was there with us daily. Striding the schoolyard like the cock of the walk. Loud, boisterous, argumentative, challenging.
In my town most of the men went to war. WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War were all a real part of the landscape. The county draft board was headed up by a man who lived in Wenonah. Nolan Cox. He lived in a large, dark Victorian home off the park. He seemed to take great pleasure in sending young men to battle.
Ed Campbell was one of the men of South Jersey who served and then came home to serve again in a largely woman's world. I have no idea how he might have felt working with the women in the school. He certainly never would speak of it. He seemed to say you should live your life as though every thing you do matters. As if it could all be gone in a second. We responded to that with an energy almost unchecked. Every boy, from the smartest, wimpiest among us to the most nasty, bullying thugs, loved him. And when he brought us together we played together. The private wars we had vanished in the joy of kicking a ball or tossing a football or stopping a run. My brother Mick had a good deal of trouble as a boy with scholastic endeavors but he worked hard for Ed Campbell. His friends and mine loved the man.
I can imagine Ed Campbell feeling diminished each time he saw a man step off the train at 5:40 after a days work in Philadelphia while he spent his days with boys and girls. I can imagine him trying to learn what drew him to this vocation. More than that I can remember going to his house each Halloween and having him take the time to guess who each and every one of us was beneath our monstrous masks and grotesqueries. He was never wrong. No one ever took the raft.
Maybe you think about your job and what it means. Maybe you have sons and daughters and try to raise them up right. Maybe you fret about the men and women who teach them each day.
But in Wenonah in 1960 no one worried about this. You went to work and did the work you had to do to feed your family. You came home and ate your dinner with your cold milk and bread and potatoes. You smiled at your children and asked how they were doing and probably barely listened to their half hearted recitations of the days events. You trusted your children's lives to women and a few men with little or no knowledge of who they were or what they did.
It still amazes me I know almost nothing of their lives. I know Miss Quigley married a few years after I left Second Grade and became Mrs. Scott. I know Mrs. Kaufman lived at the end of my block for twenty odd years but I never had an adult conversation with her till I was in my thirties on the 4th of July. I knew Mrs. Fuller's son Greg but nothing of her or her husband. But Mr. Campbell strides through my life like a God. Strong and brave and fierce. A man like I wanted to be. He made books seem less like the world of ladies and more like the world. Not a bad thing for a guy in a little town in South Jersey.

Third Grade Only One Girl Left Unnamed

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.