Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Lives of Others

When I put up the last post I was disheartened. I realized as I wrote it that I knew nothing about the lives of the men and later women who protected our homes and property. Yes, I rode on the trucks and watched the parade and went home dutifully at 8:00 each evening but what it meant to have your life disrupted by a loud, insistent whistle, what it meant to perhaps see the home of one of your friends in ruin, those were things that meant nothing to me. And why should they. I was a fifth grade boy with a boys concerns. Cub Scouts, grades, book reports, games, baseball, all those things were important. Sure firemen seemed brave but that had been drilled into me constantly as a boy. Why it was a brave thing to be a fireman was not immediately apparent. This may seem dumb but the actual fact that you could die putting out a fire was not something that occurred to me. Burnt beyond recognition was not a phrase that would ring a bell with me. Yet the men who manned the trucks were for the most parts vets of the Korean Conflict and World War II. Many, if not all of them, had seen men "burnt beyond recognition" and far, far worse. Still when the whistle blew they pulled back the covers and rushed into danger.
But this rumination is not just about their bravery it is mostly about my ignorance. And the ignorance of most fifth grade boys and girls in South Jersey in 1963 in the second year of the Kennedy administration. Yes, we saw war on TV and read books about it but it was all a movie or a cartoon. After all, the Coyote always came back alive. And beyond our ignorance of real things like death and sorrow and ugliness there was our ignorance of the lives of adults. We knew precious little about what it meant to be a man or a woman. That was not on TV for the most part. I learned the facts of life in fifth grade from Chris DeHart on his porch. It seemed absurd. You stuck your wee wee in a girls wee wee and some milk came out and then she had a baby. You might as well believe the moon was made of green cheese. We were just a few years away from sexual maturity but centuries away from wisdom.
When our parents had parties we sat upstairs and listened to the Mills Brothers and Frank Sinatra and the loud, sudden laugh of a woman in her thirties. Raucous, rough sounds that were the sounds of a world so far from our own they might as well have been coming from India. Work was just a few chores. Raking leaves or pulling weeds or putting our clothes away. Our fathers left each morning and returned each night but what they did while they were gone bore no relation to anything we could imagine. Death? Oh, maybe your great grandmother might pass away or the grandmother of a friend but no one I knew had lost a brother or a sister or a father or a mother. But wait, I'm lying there. My mother and Aunt's distant relative (sort of a cousin), Madelaine, had lost her brother in a "tragic accident. They said he had hung from a rope on his bunk bed. Suicide? Accident? Who knew, because it was not talked about. It was mentioned among adults and then never spoken of again. That was how death moved in and out of our childhood. We romped through the quick mud in the swamp and rode our bikes no handed down Cherry Street and threw ourselves and our sleds down Cemetery Hill with no thoughts of death or injury or the future. There was only a huge and nearly perfect NOW and that was where we lived.
So, my apologies to all the firemen and women of Wenonah for not taking the time to really envision your lives. I am writing this primarily from my perspective as a child and so that leaves out pieces. Some of them we pick up along the way. Like sex or injury, but many of them won't happen to me until this part of the blog has faded into dust.

One request, if anyone reading this has a photo of the old Wenonah firehouse or Police Station please send it my way. I tried to find one on the net but apparently none exist. Thanks my faithful readers:)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Volunteer Firemen

Bob Thomas suggested I write a bit about the Wenonah Volunteer Fire Dept. since I had just covered the Police Dept. When I was in fifth grade the firehouse was a two story building on South West Ave. It was a white building and the one fire truck was kept on the first floor with the second floor functioning as a social hall for the volunteer firemen and other community functions. On Election Day the first floor was where the voting took place. On top of the firehouse was a loud whistle which was sounded to summon the volunteers should there be a fire. You could hear it everywhere in town. The number of whistles indicated (at least this is what us chowderheaded kids thought) the severity of the fire. It also was sounded at 8:00pm each evening to tell all the children to go home. It was called the Eight O'Clock Whistle. On the 4th of July it was sounded to let everyone know the parade was about to begin. It was also supposed to be sounded as an air raid siren. There would be tests of the air raid function when we were young and if we were in school we either a) got under our desks and put our hands over our heads or b) went into the hall to do "duck and cover". I guess this made people feel safe. I know that in fifth grade we were fairly certain that if there were a real nuclear war we would be toast by the time the dopey whistle went off. We lived about ten or so miles from Philadelphia and the US Navy Yard as well as some of the largest oil refineries and chemical plants on the east coast. There was a Nike missile base in Pitman and it seemed like the Russians would probably know to hit Philly. We read John Hersey's "Hiroshima" and that was just a little bomb. An H Bomb would cook us all. But still we did as we were told.
I wasn't the child of a volunteer fireman so my experiences with the fire department were limited to rides on the truck on the 4th and watching the volunteers speeding to the firehouse when there was a siren. My brother Ted joined the department as a young man and it was then that I found out that one big feature of being a volunteer fireman was that you hung around and drank beer. That probably explains much of the appeal in a town like Wenonah, with no bars and lots of young married men with children. Plus every once in awhile you got to put out a brush fire or a fire in a kitchen. Bob reminds me that Ed Campbell would leave school for fires and return covered in soot and smelling of smoke.
I don't recall anyone ever dying in a fire in Wenonah. I actually don't recall any really big fires. But still there were fires and danger and men willing to help for no pay at all. They still do. In a bigger firehouse with two trucks (at least) and serious training and probably the same amount of beer.
I go to the firehouse each 4th of July to drink beer and meet old friends and remember the good old days. We watch the parade and try to egg the firemen into pulling their sirens. They're not supposed to but they do anyway.
It's kind of strange that a town as small as Wenonah was divided up in little ways. I don't know much about the holiday displays and the care and work that went into them because my father wasn't in the Lion's Club (until much later) and whatever danger the men who volunteered to fight fires faced is something I know nothing about because my father wasn't a fireman. But divided up or not divided still men got together for business or pleasure or to help their town and did it all for free. For free.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Law Enforcement in Wenonah

There was a comment a few weeks back from a woman whose father was a former Chief of Police in Wenonah. There haven't been all that many Police Chief's in Wenonah. When I was young the Chief was Chief Haines. He lived in a home across the dirt road from the Wenonah Lake. He was a likeable guy whose primary job, so far as we kids could figure was acting as occasional crossing guard at Mantua Avenue. I'm sure he had other duties but honestly, crime was not a big issue in Wenonah until the late sixties and even then it was kind of tame.
When I got sick and went back to Wenonah they were just finishing the new Municipal building. Previously it was in the Fire House at the rear on the 2nd floor. Before that the Police Department was a two room building next to the Farmer's and Mechanic's Bank that eventually became the Village Shoppe. The Village Shoppe was owned by my friend Terry's mom, Mrs. Fleming.
You get the picture. We're talking lazy days with not much to do. Still this is a regular town with regular people which means there was domestic violence, drunk driving, even drug abuse. Every once in awhile a team of burglars would target homes in Wenonah over a two or three week period. Then there were black people and other undesirables walking through town. They'd be subjected to an interrogation to determine their destination and intent and sent on their way.
Any major crimes in Wenonah were for the most part swept under the rug. Which is not to say that there was no punishment only that the punishment might not involve jail time and might mean you got to move your ass out of town.
Still, there was the occasional radar trap on Mantua Avenue, speed limit 25 and built for 50. We'd sit on the bus bench at Lincoln and Mantua Ave and wave to the soon to be ticketed. Just behind them the old man we knew as "Parnelli" would speed through town at a blistering 7 miles an hour. Who's to say committed the greater crime?
Teenagers would occasionally act up and commit acts of vandalism. Eventually there was a Juvenile Board that would assess penalties for the crimes and misdemeanors of the malcontents that crossed it's threshold. Maybe you got caught soaping windows on Mischief Night, or trashed an empty house, or got caught drinking your folks liquor. Chief Haines would drag you in and you and your parents would stand one night in front of a group of people who would decide your fate.
Sometimes I think the worst punishment was that you would have to stay in Wenonah forever. Other times I think it was that you would be banished forever. Either one was a curse.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Getting Sick in 1960

Since I've been sick maybe this is an opportunity to talk about being sick.
When I was young I was sick often. Mostly asthma. But also all the routine illnesses that were a fact of life in the fifties and sixties: measles, mumps, chicken pox, 24 hour flu, 48 hour flu, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and more. A horrible litany of illness waiting to claim our frail bodies. The sad part was, we couldn't wait to get measles and shit!
You got enormous days out of school, bragging rights for the most dire disease, your parents bought you comics and were nice to you. Hell. getting sick was almost a good thing! So good, in fact, that we soon figured out faking it. And it didn't take a genius to realize a good day for a sore throat was the day you had a math test.
It must have been weird for our parents to wake up one morning and realize we were 45 lb con men.
What a terrible loss for them. Innocent sick infant one day, malingering liar the next. Surely they saw where this all might lead, jail, divorce, disgrace and dishonor.
But for the moment there was only lying in your bed with a Superman or Justice League of America and buttered sugar cinnamon toast and a cup of tea. Bliss. Later, when you were feeling "better" you could go downstairs and watch I Love Lucy reruns or Truth or Consequences or The Price is Right. Then lunch, soup, and back to bed you poor boy.
At dinner you might feel like a criminal or a liar with your brothers staring at you but who cared. The only real down side to being sick in grammar school was going to bed really early.
Unfortunately fake sick days had a bad habit of biting you in the ass. Because you still had to turn in the book report, take the math quiz, write the history essay. In other words you were just deferring your own complete and abject failure to complete what you should have completed.
So, you slogged your way into school and got your crummy grade and then several days later got chastised for your poor study habits and inability to understand the times tables or whatever. But in your heart it was almost worth it. Almost.
And what of real illness? What of true disastrous childhood diseases. Well, like sex and race they were squirreled away in each families private closet. Retarded children, cancer, operations, all of these were known and not known. Talked about and not talked about. Girls went away for three month vacations in their teens. Kids left for awhile and never came back and often their families left as well. A void.
But then there were other real illnesses that were mega real and glorious. Third Grade. Jack. Stomach flu. What would now be called a Novovirus. Then...24 hour stomach flu. But more than that it's me in the sixth row, suddenly nauseous, holding up my hand to go to the bathroom and Mrs Ferrara doesn't see for years, decades. Then she calls on me and I lurch to the fifth row, the fourth, the second, and then it blows. A vast projectile vomit that lives forever in the lives of my classmates. They sent everyone home the class stunk so bad. Poor Nick had to clean up vomit for two rows. Jesus. That was the flu.
So now, when I'm home feeling guilty about being sick and wondering when I can go back to work, I remember fifth grade. I'm coughing, I'm sure my throat is scratchy, I don't feel well at all. My mom asks how I am and I croak back, OK. We'll see in the morning and then I know I'm home free, good to go, sick as a dog, out of school, no class tomorrow, mom loves me, bless us oh lord for these thy gifts.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in the world; Sort of

Sorry it's been a few days. I went off the Hep C meds 12/31 but came down with the flu on the 3rd of January. I've been sick as a dog since. On the plus side I feel almost alive now and am already thinking about my next post, my next poem, and my new play. God Bless this world.
Stay tuned cats and kittens we're still in the mix! It's time for cars that turn into boats, JFK and Camelot, more fifth grade and Easter and that's just in the next month. Who knows, I may throw in Negroes, Jews, and Quakers into the pot just to see how it tastes.
Happy New Year! God Bless America! Yay Obama! Hooray for Hillary! Vote for John McCain! A vote for Fred Thompson is a vote for Law and Order!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008 and on beyond zebra

You've probably wondered what happened to me and my posts. Well, it wasn't Christmas or New Years...it was Infergen. The meds for the hep c wiped my holiday spirit, energy, appetite, and apparently my platelets yet again. I'm off the meds for a bit while we evaluate what's the what.
In the meantime to anyone who didn't hear from me or Johanna over the holidays please accept our apologies. You are in our hearts.
God Bless You all and Happy, Happy New Year!