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.