Dream Car

The whole idea was for the five of us to hitchhike to Delmar with the 100 dollars we’d bummed from Tony the Source, pay for the model A coupe, get it out of the old lady’s garage and push it the ahh, 20 miles or so back to Chris’s back yard, soup the buggy up with Candy Apple red, win Hot Rod of the Year and a few important drag races, use the money to pay for college, then get high-paying jobs from which we could change the course of history to our liking. Simple.

None of this, except the hundred dollars and the garage part, was discussed or even thought about at the living edge of our teenage minds in the hours and miles we went into the darkness before we at last pulled open the creaking doors of the old garage back there among the big trees – in the movie the background music would be Maybelline by the immortal Chuck – and brought to the light the object of our odyssey on that hot summer night in 1957, but the dream was there and we all felt it to the core, it had drawn us to this place.

If the movie was made right now, we’d all be played by overage actors overdoing young in a smartass young director’s conception of what teens in the fifties – who attended the actual birth of rock’n’roll for godsake, to say nothing of all that followed – were really like, but the whole thing would be such a crock and we’d know it, sitting here graying along with the balding, paunching audience, watching our characters hitchhiking out there with the clothes and the music chronology all screwed up, what a ripoff, what do those punky hollywood whippersnappers care about getting eternity right?

‘Cause we were really there, we knew how it really was, there was just Sun records and Chess and a few others, don’t let me get too far off the track here. For good background music, just also hear Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Screamin Jay, the Coasters, Lloyd Price, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and a dozen or so others, Carl Perkins, Ronnie Hawkins, the Diamonds, Mickey and Sylvia, the Silhouettes completing the air around us On the Road to the garage way out in Delmar and back, and the adventures that befell us along our journey.

As for threads: no dumb, square, uncool short-sleeved shirts with birds or dogs on them for godsake from way back in the late forties, might as well be off by a hundred years, back when the director’s grandfather was working on his third divorce. For any up-and-coming director who wasn’t there but might really care about authenticity, for shoes we wore cordovan ducks or baby ducks or crepe-sole desert boots or converse all stars. All key style items in season. Fruit boots too. We all had DA’s and rat tails or Balboas maybe, since this was summer. Definitely no wimpy whiteside haircuts look like Eisenhower. Greasers all.

T-shirts, Levi’s or black, white or tan chinos, rat-tail comb in the back pocket. Used often. Especially on street corners. Oh yeah. Richie Valens. The Del Vikings. Frankie Lyman. The Bobettes: maybe a little earlier, but definitely there. The Beatniks were thriving down in the basements of NYC and elsewhere, wearing berets, shades, sandals and digging jazz, selling paintings on the street, getting high on pot, wine, espresso, reading poems of the cool kind in the souped-up, bebop night.

We were gonna make a world like that too, only way moreso, more like we wanted. You know how it is when you’re young and absolutely right, perfectly on track for the first time ever in history, we knew it deep in our Dreamlover hearts, as proven in the music our parents hated, which would ruin us they were sure, and in our craving the fast cars of our dreams that would take us away, cigarette packs in the rolled-up T-shirt sleeve. We were on the mark alright, but in fact we had no idea what a Model-T the world was. – Of course: Bill Haley. – And always will be, as each generation steps up to the old garage with its dreams and opens the doors on reality.

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Hot Chicks, Cool guys

I received a link in my email the other day, via my account at Classmates, to some fotos of my high school class reunion that had been posted by a classmate whom I remember as a very cool guy. I went to see, and was gutrocked to realize that it’s been nearly 50 years since we all graduated.

The fotos were ones he’d taken at the Cardinal McCloskey Memorial High School Class of 1958 reunion, held somewhere back in the old home town that I haven’t visited in over 15 years, and only a couple of times in the last 40 years. I left and never went back, essentially, though I took a mindful of fond memories with me.

The Class of ’58 had had 132 grads in it as I recall– a few straight arrows, but mostly troublemakers in one way or another – that was the ’50s after all – and we were all rebels with or without causes, the oh-so-hot chicks with the tight skirts, come-hither makeup and wannatouch hairdos, and the cool guys with the greased-up rat tail hair, pegged pants and cordovan ducks, movin’ and shakin’ to Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Coasters, among dozens of others there in the background on the way to our own places in the big world out there, where the bond of all we’d we shared would link us always, no matter what…

But at the near 50th reunion, according to the fotos only a few of those rebels showed up, about a dozen of each sex, and the hot chicks are grandmas now, with comfortable slacks, little makeup and practical hairdos, a new kind of ‘hot’ we teens hadn’t foreseen at all, and the rat-tailed guys are grandpas now, bald or wearing hats and soft shoes in a new kind of cool…

Amazing though, how the mind remembers faces and the memories associated with them, even after 50 years and countless worlds, the pranks we played, the trouble we got into, the juvenilities we talked about with such earnestness, we bubbling cauldrons of adolescence– and then to realize that all the things that were so heartfully important back then turned out to be mere wisps of dreams of ephemera relative to what the future was actually made of and actually spelled out for us after all, that got us here to what it all became, as it always does in its ceaseless ways, and if we had known back then what our futures would be, would we have been willing to go there?

In my case, the answer is a resounding YES! And judging by the smiling faces in those fotos, the answer was the same for my classmates… It turned out to be true: that bond we shared was still there and holding, even after nearly 50 years of future, traveled in our separate ways.

The Class of ’58 for life. Cool.

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Silver Plane

Maybe it was Jo Stafford’s voice on those summer nights, singing from the open doors of VFW Post 6776, “Fly the ocean in a silver plane, see the ocean when it’s wet with rain,” wafting through our bedroom window next door in those anxious and mysteriously heart-filling times, maybe it was those words that got me started, flew me this far – or maybe that secret is deep in the genes, of putting a foot down and not keeping it there for a lifetime – but whence ever it came, at some point the yearning to travel began to speak in me–

And now, here on an autumn mountainside in Japan, out on the deck with a glass of wine after a day of turning the garden and splitting some firewood I’ve just listened to that song again – thanks to you, Mick – for the first time in more than 50 years, and felt that same sensation, a deep recollection of that early yearning, right here in my own present life on the other side of the world, in a bamboo jungle wet with rain–

Maybe the song, maybe the simply genetic desire to wander, to not stay in place– but I marvel now at how that tune evokes exactly what it did then, when the silver plane flew only in a song – as though the past were truly present – Those nights when mystic wings would over and over fly across the air and into my unlived heart, though no one we knew was going anywhere– I would– I would go somewhere, on a silver plane.

You Belong To Me by Jo Stafford

First posted on original site on Saturday, October 9, 2010

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Crazy Man, Crazy

That was the summer of our odyssey, the summer of 1953, the summer that Crazy Man, Crazy byBill Haley with Haley’s Comets” was a huge jukebox hit at the bar on the grounds of the cottage rental place on Warner Lake in upstate New York, where that prelude to Rock Around the Clock rocked the summer air over and over day and night, especially Saturday night, during the month we stayed that summer before the divorce. That was also where we heard the mythic tale of the lady who not so long before had drowned in her big ball gown when the motorboat she was in capsized coming back late at night from a dance at a pavilion across the Lake.

As if to demonstrate, one morning that summer a small boat laden to the gunnels with fully dressed wide folks roared from the local dock out onto the Lake and sank, as the sudden thrust of the outboard motor pushed the stern down the last inch to Swamped; but since it was clear daylight the group were soon rescued. A crowd of wet wide men and women is a memorable sight as they clamber dripping onto a rickety dock.

Someone fishing from the same dock caught a BIG snapping turtle that was really pissed at what the world was doing to it with this fishhook amid this crowd around of staring faces and all the poking sticks and the pointing of vulnerable fingers. Speaking of fishing, I knew where to get the best earthworms, lots of big fat earthworms to sell to the fishermen at a good price, so I always had some ready cash, I caught tons of crayfish too. (Dave?) Ludwig was there as well, I remember that, I also think he lived on Morton Ave., his family was staying in a nearby cabin; we met and were BFF that summer, the way kids are, and never met again.

I remember like yesterday the big lightning storm, when lightning struck in a blinding blue flash of ozone right next to our cabin window while we were eating dinner, and at night in order to fall asleep with Crazy Man, Crazy blasting out of the jukebox till the wee hours, Mick and I playing our fallasleep games in the big saggy bed, asking each other things like What color is Tuesday? (Blue, for me.) No, Tuesday is brown! Yeah? Then what color is 5? (Orange, for me.) And November? This was also where we invented a new fallasleep game, in which we had to alternately whistle each note of a common Irish jig and never made it past the first five or six notes without exploding into laughter and, eventually, sleep.

Then in the mornings, close along the lakeshore swam small black clouds of baby catfish like mobs of lost punctuation in the shallow sunwarmed waters, begging to be caught, and we obliged, every day being chased away by Old Mr. Decay (after the then-popular tv toothpaste commercial), in the real world D.K. “Harris” or something on his hand-lettered road sign; sold bait and such, a grumpy old man who owned lakeshore property we were always invading in our fishing and other quests, so much stuff happening all the time, too much to fit in, even for zippy kids like us.

Then one day when we had more jarfuls of baby catfish and pans full of crayfish than we knew what to do with, we heard from someone about an old pen factory somewhere around there that had been abandoned since back before the war, which at that time had ended only 8 years ago (!). So one clear, hottening summer morning we set off to find the newly legendary factory, without a map, just the second or thirdhand word that it was out there somewhere in this general area of the State was enough for us to turn it into a treasure hunt. Crazy Man, Crazy.

There were four of us who set out on the odyssey: me, Mick, ?Eugene? (I think he was there, and at least one other kid; you see the way history can get bent, over time) and there were many twistings and turnings on the way: who-knows-why lefts, no-real-reason-rights, go-backs and go-arounds, we had no idea where we were headed and soon got hot, tired, hungry and thirsty, I’ll tell you; no one else was out in that heat, it was a long glaring day, but by a late afternoon miracle of some kind that happens on kidquests (see The Goonies), we found the rusty fallingdown hulk of a place and, scattered in the tall weeds all around, long lengths of mother-of-pearly and other pen barrels made out of celluloid… like the old Esterbrooks of that time… like King Solomon’s Mines it was, all those mounds of emeralds, sapphires and rubies lying here and there, gleaming in the high grass around the rusting collapse of these old buildings, way out here in the middle of nowhere…

How did they choose this location? Why a pen-barrel factory way out here? Who built it? Were questions never even thought of by us at the time, let alone asked or answered (though I’d love to know the story now), but we headed back carrying shoulderfuls of clacking bundles of long, bright, multicolored gems of no use whatever that anyone could think of other than for pen barrels, What in the world you gonna do with those things, the adults we passed would ask, but to us those dusty tubes were priceless with that beauty only kids can see, that adults have lost the ability to perceive, or have traded for other things–

Well, for your information those tubes made the biggest drinking straws you ever saw, you could drink from across the room. They also had impressive squirting power when drinking was reversed, made great dueling swords and fishing poles, and furnished great lessons in physics (major spitballs anyone?) and chemistry, to say nothing of pyrotechnics, since they turned out to be supergreat fireworks. Any of you grownups ever light the end of a two-meter long celluloid pen barrel?

Crazy Man Crazy by Bill Haley and the Comets

First posted on original site on Thursday, March 4, 2010

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Yo-Yo Possibilities

That mystic scent is in the air, that primal provocation from out of the earth itself, that tells me even at my age to dig out the bag of marbles from wherever I put it last year and, with that intense ardor native to childhood, polish up the catseyes and immies, puries and steelies, then go out and dig my heel into some springsoft earth for potsies – next to a sidewalk is good – or take a stick and engrave a circle on a flat piece of ground and rustle up some serious play-for-keeps ringsies, with no dropsies or stompsies– or I could dust off my silver and gold yo-yo and practice Sleeping and Rock the Cradle and Walk the Dog, essential skills every one, because soon the Philippine yo-yo champs will be coming for their spring visit to the candy but yo-yo store over by school, where they’ll stand outside for an afternoon and chat with the bouncy crowd of yo-yo fans who’ll come from all over the neighborhood, the champs will do some new tricks, teach some old tricks, amaze us all with the yo-yo possibilities of life, maybe even carve some palm trees into the sides of my yo-yo, impart some tropical magic for doing those new tricks, what excitement, Spring is here…

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Time Slow, Life Rich

We grew up in a US time when horses were still used to deliver milk and baked goods, and collect recyclables (generically called ‘rags’ back then)… It was a slow time, when summer days were a week long, and to get from Saturday lunch to the starting bars of the first Looney Tunes of the Saturday matinee with 25 cartoons and cowboy double-feature took about 3 days.

There was no tv then, so all we could do in the living room was live. That was mostly at night. During the day, if not at school daydreaming out the windows we were always out playing, up to many miles away, on foot or bicycle, often taking our lunch with us. The radio was in the kitchen, for listening to after dinner or while doing the drudgery of homework while Mom did the ironing.

The only apparatus in the living room was the big clunky iron telephone you had to dial, then wait for the dial to roll clickingly back till you could whirl in the next number but there were only 5 numbers in those days, since there were about 2 billion people in the world and only a tiny portion in Albany. My Brady/McTeague grandfather, an electrician for the phone company, had one of the standing phones with the earpiece on a side hook and the dial at the bottom, like in all the old black-and-white fast-paced newspaper movies. “Get me the desk!” Things began to change palpably when the phone numbers started getting longer. Where I live now my number is 10 digits long, 15 or more if you’re calling from another country.

We had no Victrola, as phonographs (itself a neoarchaism now!) were called back then; the only person in the family who had a Victrola was my Robinson/Kelly grandfather, a NYCRR conductor, who had a then merely quaint wind-up one in his basement, with a big morning glory megaphone where the sound came out. Next to the whizzing green felt turntable it had a little metal cupful of playing needles like headless finishing nails that lasted about an hour and were attached to the tone arm by vising them in place with a knurled knob.

The living room in those days was where guests sat and chatted or Dad read the newspaper in the big red easy chair under the standing lamp by the window after dinner. On really rainy days when we had friends over or went to their house, we played in the living room: checkers, cards (War was a favorite), chess, Monopoly, Clue, Go to the Head of the Class… but when the weather was even remotely tolerable (in winter there were no limits) and we didn’t have measles or mumps or whooping cough we would never in a million years have stayed inside, we’d be out somewhere exploring, playing, finding stuff to do all day long, even into dark in summer, home only to eat then out again, except for the detested but implacable Saturday night bath.

Each of those days was about a week long. The school year was about a decade in length, but seemed longer. I remember one time at the end of summer vacation realizing it would be 9 months till summer vacation, an impossible duration, as time-distant as the Civil War, which had ended only 80 years before, when great grandma was a teenager. Then at the start of summer vacation, school was almost 3 months away, in the heart an essentially unending length of time, though we knew better.

Comics were a new thing then too, this was only a few years after the first Batman, the only copy in existence now a crumbling million-dollar item. I used to own millions of dollars worth of comics at today’s prices, bought them for dimes I got doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, original Donald Ducks, Little Lulu, Mad, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and all the many others, read ’em and tossed ’em in a pile, filled my wagon and went trading comics in the neighborhood.

It wasn’t a better world in many ways, there was more manifest prejudice, for example, and pollution was the norm– litter wasn’t even a full-blown concept yet (the word ‘litterbug’ was the winner of a contest to give the phenomenon a name), and though age and nostalgia likely play a big part in my perspective, it seems from here that many of the technoadvances we now enjoy have been achieved at the cost of time’s depth and richness. The journey is where the treasures are.

In a Tarzan movie I saw one long-gone Saturday afternoon, Tarzan is shown a movie on a screen set up in the big white hunter’s jungle camp; on the screen Tarzan sees a train rushing at him and panics. “That train in the picture can go from coast to coast in three days,” explains the civilized white guy. “What for?” asks Tarzan.

In so many ways, those were the days.

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Tall Enough to Tell the Tale

You’ve got me there, Bob (see previous post); but as I’ve been saying more and more frequently lately, it seems to be the names that go first. That means I’ve got a lot of nameless faces floating around in my head these days, but I’ve learned to cherish the memories, with or without the names. I do remember that face vividly, though, and also remember his parents – and that ’50 Chevy – very well.

I also recall spending an afternoon fishing with him from a rowboat out on the still, cold waters of Brant Lake in the Adirondacks. He was a true character, full of piss and vinegar; and unless my mind is telling tall tales on his behalf, I believe he landed what looked to be a pretty good-sized smallmouth bass that day. Of course, I was far more excited about it than he was; perhaps it looked much smaller to him?

I have a much clearer memory, though, of the dart sticking out of the back of my hand at the Delaware Tavern than I do of the legendary “turkey” moment, for understandable reasons. Not only did it dampen my love for the world of darts (a tough blow for one raised in bars), but to this day I have mixed feelings about the memory itself.

It seems that initially the crowd of revelers greeted my childish mistake – foolishly reaching for darts on the board while someone sober enough to stand but too drunk to see, was about to launch his shoulder-fired missile – with a roar of laughter. Time and the blessed imagination of the Irish, however, have given me a better ending.

As I stood there staring at my impaled hand – Christ-like, virtually nailed to the board – I calmly reached up and drew out the offending projectile, jammed it into the bullseye, and walked slowly back to my seat, droplets of blood tracing my footsteps to the table.

The silence in the room was palpable; but its vacuum was suddenly replaced by a deafening roar of cheering, clapping and the stamping of feet, quickly erasing any vestiges of shame left in my heart. Clutching my bloodied hand with the other, and lifting my head to the onlooking crowd, I whispered hoarsely, ‘Don’t worry, my friends; it’s only a flesh wound.’

How do you remember it? Did I leave anything out?

Author’s note, added the following day: I was lying in bed last night, about to drift off to dreamland, when suddenly the ceiling above my bed opened up to reveal a vast midnight sky filled to overflowing with glittering stars. From deep within a bank of silvery clouds came a voice, saying “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby Van Buren!” Then I fell into a deep and restful sleep until the room was once again full of sunlight. Morpheus always seems to do his best work in that twilight zone between wakefulness and the semicoma of deep sleep.

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Hey Mick, got a question for ya–

Remember Chark and Lilian Van Buren, who lived across the street from us and VFW Post 6776, had a then supercool salmon and gray Chevy (1950? another question) and their son X one night hit a turkey on the dartboard at THE dartboardly perfect moment and the house went wild (not the time you got a dart in your hand, I think; kindly elaborate on the dart-in-hand memory and its fringes)– But my question is: what was the name of the son?

(He had one of the first motorbicycles in Albany that I know of, he explained it to me in front of Einstein’s Pharmacy – early 1940s)

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We know how it is, we elder superheroes.

We know because we remember. That’s what it’s all about, in the end: remembering.

We remember how it was– sure, we used to move at the speed of light, but we didn’t let it go to our heads too much, that was the key: we learned how to handle the gift.

And a great gift it was, to Shazam our way out of any situation, or fly whenever we wanted, just like Captain Marvel or Superman with only a magic cape stolen from the bathroom tied around our neck as we whizzed down the street on foot or bike, looking back to see the supergarment flowing out behind us as we flew through the surrendering air, some of us even tried it out of a second floor or higher window but hyperreality has its limits, even for superheroes with x-ray eyes.

Anyway we didn’t fear tall buildings, we could walk fencetops, we could leap broad chasms at a single bound if we had our Keds on and yeah, we used to fly from branch to branch of high trees as good as Tarzan with a slingshot in our pocket and even if we fell we got up and carried on toward our date with destiny, maybe with a cast on, but time travel was easy then, we were superheroes – born that way, like all kids are in their own fashion – invulnerable of course, we boys in my case, no matter how fast we were flying, except against mumps, measles, girls and other forms of kryptonite.

We all remember the dashing and heroic era, our time of swords and capes, six guns and pen knives, slingshots and peashooters, all the need there was in the world of then that required our presence and our attention: the woods and the waters, the dark, the haunted and high places, the things that could explode, the creatures in distress needing rescue in that world where we could run down the stairs like water and cartwheel at will and roll down hills like logs and jump higher, skate faster than anybody, then later in those early years stay out all night and swing from chandeliers on our way to world-saving in between dates with ladies in distress who caused cartwheels in our hearts…

We had our shot when it was our turn, we did our duty when it counted, we saved the world all by ourselves, did our bit to get to now and now it’s time to rest, to remember, advise the new superheroes how to handle their gift, tell them of the do’s and don’ts we’ve learned by heart, tell our tales of the intrepid, sit back, have a sip, dig up some more treasure, try to eat an apple…

We can still fly, by the way. Hand me that towel…

Posted in Captain Marvel, kids, superheroes, Superman, Tarzan | 9 Comments

leaving a room

room one:

It was not that I was a bad child, but it was clear early on that I seemed to have a gift for mischief. Consider, for instance, the quiet summer morning in 1944, a day when my father was probably busy taking out machine gun positions in the forests of Germany, while my mother was attempting to hold down the front lines at home. I had just been sent to bed for disturbing the peace. We all had to pitch in and do our part.

Only two and still in diapers, I had been incarcerated for over-reacting to an injustice perpetrated on me by my older brother: he had thrown my stuffed monkey off the front porch. Outraged that insult had been added to injury, I chose this moment to escape from my crib and climb out the bedroom window to rescue my little comrade, still lying, broken, on the sidewalk below.

Hanging only by my fingertips, I seemed to have no fear I’d come tumbling down, apparently lacking a grip on the gravity of the situation. Once out the window, I couldn’t quite figure out how to get down; but I wasn’t about to let that stop me: rock-a-bye baby be damned, I was going to retrieve that monkey.

Fortunately for me, though, my mother had grown suspicious when the bedroom suddenly grew silent, and after discovering the empty crib she spied my tiny fingers digging into the second-story windowsill and reeled me in. It would prove to be the beginning of a lifelong pattern.

room two:

I must have been staring at that page for a good ten minutes. It was as blank as my mind, except for name, date, subject, school, up there at the top. Nothing else to add. Or subtract. Or multiply. An algebra test may work for others, but it sure didn’t work for me. I walked up and handed the empty page to Sister Ann Marie, walked out into the hallways of Cardinal McCloskey High, and who do I bump into but the Principal, Father Turner, on his way to mail some letters.

“What are you doing out here, son? Class just started ten minutes ago.”

“Well, Father, I finished my algebra test early.”

“Come with me,” he said. “I’m going out to mail some letters.” Father Turner, a man given to few words, was utterly silent as we walked all the way down the hill to the mailbox. We then walked back up the hill in the deepening silence, and as we approached the school steps, he turned to me and said, “Go empty your locker, and don’t come back again.”, an eerie echo of Jesus’ words to the adulterous woman, “Go, and sin no more.”, except for the complete absence of Christ’s love. It would be my last day as a Roman Catholic.

room three:

Bag in hand, all earthly possessions but my Gretsch drums and Zildjian cymbals inside, I kiss my mother goodbye and, in what would prove to be my final (and least convincing) James Dean walk, head down the filthy housing project hallway to the stairs. Just before descending into the inferno, I turn to see my mother crying in the doorway, now reduced to a sagging silhouette.

Both boys now in the Air Force, off to God knows where. It was a near-fatal blow for her, I knew; all the men in her life were now gone. No one left at home now but my thirteen-year old sister, Suzi, and her. I was leaving on a silver plane.

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Hormones on the Range

Today, I shall briefly address that deep and timeless puzzle of life that involves growing up as a young boy (in my case during the 1940s-50s), going to a favorite movie theater on a Saturday afternoon at any time of year and there having to sit through the disgusting sight of my favorite hard-ridin’, hard drinkin’, quick-drawin’ cowboy hero slowly but surely getting roped in despite his matching pair of pearl-handled six-guns, being all smarmy and shucksy and even sometimes kissing a grownup girl to the yucks and boos and retchings of the nearly all male prepubescent Saturday double-feature audience, who either averted their eyes or showered the screen with a hail of popcorn, Raisinets, Milk Duds, Necco Wafers, Junior Mints, Jujubes, Juicy Fruits, Good and Plenties, Mason Dots, Mary Janes, Black Crows and whatever other anti-smarm ammo they had at hand. Weren’t these movies made for guys? Like us? What the heck did girls have to do with it anyway? Why did they always have to make movies with long, icky scenes like this in them, where the hero’s heroism just melts away before our disappointed eyes? Didn’t the moviemakers know what life was really like?

Nothing in that young and intensely male universe was more deeply disturbing, worrisome and revolting than seeing Tom Mix or Gene Autry or Lash Larue or Whip Wilson or Hopalong Cassidy (Roy Rogers too, but he was already married, so it was too late anyway; he had Trigger though, and at least he never kissed his wife) getting all weak-kneed around a perfumy-curly girl who couldn’t fast draw to save her life, or even throw a baseball right!

What was going on here, what was all this romance stuff, why were our heroes doing this, we used to wonder en masse in those velvet seats in the boo-filled darkness, not yet having even an inkling of the vast herd of longhorns that was about to stampede through our bodies and minds, leaving our boyhoods back there somewhere in the dust of the heroic wild west; no knowledge that you too, cowboy – ace pitcher, fast-ridin’ Delaware Avenue gunslinger that you were – would soon be getting all smarmy and weak-kneed yourself, stammering like a lovesick cowboy in front of the girl of your dreams of the moment…

From the present promontory of my life, though, even as a once-upon-a-time hero and gunslinger I simply can’t remember what it felt like to be so hormonally innocent, revolted at the sight of a kiss…

And to think we all expected to go on like that forever…

Posted in Black Crows, boyhood, Gene Autry, Good and Plenty, heroes, Hopalong Cassidy, Jujubes, Mary Janes, Mason Dots, Milk Duds, Necco Wafers, Raisinets, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Wild West | 4 Comments

Fearful Sweetness

Jesus, it suddenly hit me, they were all down there in that basement, just after the war and the survivors were home, the spring of ’46. Even now I can hear the yakkety-yak, the striking darts, the cackle and gab, smell the beer, deviled eggs and cement dust, perfume, cologne, fresh clothing, cigarettes and cigars, the grownups with their drink-smoke breath leaning down to me now and then to tell me how I’ve grown, even as I look at the photo 60 years later. That was back in the days when the generations drank together, and all the guys and their wives, relatives and friends rented this place, this joint’s basement, where one afternoon they drank beer and shot darts, danced and got drunk and took photos like this for the kids to look at one far-away day as grownups, when the war and all the personal destruction that followed had long been spun out into the rusted gossamer that is history, me here today with only little-kid memories of all these people, who look a lot younger than they did then, the women quite girlish now that I’m well past their captured age; the elder, once-ancient folks in the photo are only as old as me now, and with beers in their hands they’re standing there around the folding chairs, on one of which sits my mother not much older than my daughter is today, and with a look of such now-obvious anxiety on Mom’s face – it’s taken me this much life to see it – she must have sensed even then, surrounded only by Dad’s friends and relatives, how alone she was and was going to be, how without allies in that group of jovial-looking characters, and though she never told me such a thing I must have sensed it in her all along, known it without knowing, as children do, for what I remember most strongly about that afternoon – like the short-lived attempt at familyhood that followed – was the mood that filled it, of fearful sweetness, of an unnamed goldenness going away, a mood like dust motes in a sunbeam on a paper-thin afternoon, and it cuts me with the edge of half a century that despite all the fears and all the joys in the photo, not one person in it is now living, to tell me more about what I feel…

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Swing Low, Sweet Pontiac

In the fall of 1963, I was a young airman stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York. I had recently returned from a tour of duty just outside Istanbul, Turkey and the Rome/Utica area just didn’t have quite enough magnetic pull to keep me in town on weekends. I often hitchhiked the Thruway to Albany, not just because it was my home town, but because it was a place that had a hell of a lot more going on.

On one of those Friday afternoons I was standing roadside with a buddy of mine, a fellow airman, for what seemed to be a very long time. In hitchhiking, as in everything else, there are good days and there are bad days. Things were not going well on this one, and we were growing discouraged. Finally, though, this fairly ordinary-looking Pontiac sedan pulled over and we grabbed our bags and took off down the road and jumped in; me up front riding shotgun, Pete climbing into the back seat.

After rolling along in silence for a while someone finally broke the ice, and then all three of us began rambling on about everything under the sun. Being guys, we eventually stumbled upon the subject of baseball. Our driver mentioned in passing that he used to play the game himself, a remark that went unnoticed for awhile, and we continued to rattle on and on about facts, figures, heroes, etc. Besides, we had all played baseball in the past, hadn’t we?

Then, for some reason, it occurred to me to ask exactly what he meant when he said he used to play baseball. Well, he said, I started out playing in high school, then went on to play in the minor leagues. Wow, we said in unison, did you ever make it to the majors? Yeah, I was in the majors for a while. Holy cow! This was getting interesting. Real interesting.

The Thruway can seem like one long endless ribbon of road when you have no one to talk to, but on this one particular autumn evening, I was completely unaware of the outside world. It was just getting dark, and before continuing his story, he slowly reached down to turn the lights on. His face, now illuminated by the dashboard, revealed the unmistakable signs of mischief: an impish little grin at the corners of his mouth and a twinkle in his eye.

I thought he was going to string us along for a while, just for laughs, then admit he was joking. It would have been a pretty damn good laugh, too, because he had us – hook, line and sinker. OK, OK, spill the beans; who’d you play for? The New York Giants, he said quietly. The New York freaking Giants? Are you kidding me? You played for the Giants? You mean the farm team? No, I was in the majors for a few years. Really? What’s your name? Robert. Robert Thomson.

Hmm, that didn’t ring any bells with either of us, and for a few seconds there we were all suspended in this agonizing silence; and then, all of a sudden, it hit us! You couldn’t… possibly… be… Bobby Thomson? Yep, that’s what they used to call me.

Holy Jumpin’ Jesus! Bobby Thomson! The man who hit the most famous home run in the entire history of the universe; the home run so famous they called it ‘the shot heard round the world.’ We were stunned. Speechless. To this day I don’t remember very clearly what happened after that; I recall the two of us going nuts and jabbering a mile a minute for a while, then settling down to listen, enraptured, to all the details of that day, from the man who had lived them; how he had no memory of running the bases, how he threw up as soon as he reached the locker room, and on and on into the night. We were in the hallowed presence of the biggest Giant in the world.

It was one of the great rides of my life, despite the fact that he had broken my heart when that ball soared over the fence in the last out of the last inning of the final playoff game for the 1951 National League pennant. Though he had delivered a crushing blow to every fan of the long-suffering Brooklyn Dodgers that year, there was no way around the fact that it was a moment of high national drama, a lightning bolt across the American sky, a crowning moment in baseball history. When it happened, I broke down and cried. I was 9-years old.

But on this particular night, I relived it with him, I rejoiced with him. Why? Because the Dodgers, the team I had earned several bloody noses defending as a youth, had finally paid me back for my undying loyalty just a few years earlier by moving the team to Los Angeles, California. The final indignation came when Ebbets Field was torn down and that hallowed ground was covered with high-rise apartment buildings.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would one day be riding shotgun for the very man who had hit that pitch. But here I was, not only riding alongside him, but cheering for him, celebrating with him. It was all very clear to me; I had finally been avenged. Go, Bobby, go, Bobby, Go!

Posted in Baseball, Bobby Thomson, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, The 50s | 2 Comments

Men at Arms

Dad kept the Luger up in the attic in a box he never opened, as far as I know, but other than that he would never have a gun in the house. He never hunted, never bought a gun, never allowed us to have guns, not even BB guns, never spoke of the stuff in the box, and left it behind when one late summer afternoon in 1954 as he sat in the family car beside the VFW Post he called us kids over and hugged us hard, then drove away weeping and never came back.

Dad had been the lateborn youngest (and so the family darling) of four kids: Ed, Alice, Jim and Frank. We lost contact with that half of the family when we had to move down into the slums not long after Dad drove away. All three brothers had volunteered for the Army when the war started, Dad when I was three and Mick was just a year old. I remember watching from my sub-tabletop eye level in the kitchen of our tiny apartment as Mom packed rationed wartime luxuries like chocolate and jam into a box to send to Dad in the winter in Belgium, whatever that was. I recall it so well because I was tragically upset that all those treasures were just– being sent away! I wonder now if Dad ever received them that winter in the Ardennes… Fortunately, all three sons returned home safely, but none of them ever said a word about their experiences.

Now that I’m older than Dad ever got to be, and having served in the military myself, and having read many books about that part of the war Dad fought through, I look back upon that handsome, intelligent young man as a tragic figure, like so many of his fellow WWII veterans. His joys, his ambitions, his essential goodness and sensitivity had all been war-twisted into a chaos of personal confusion and aimless rage that no one then understood or could share but his buddies at the VFW Post he founded and first commanded, then moved his family next door to.

That way he could quickly be with his fellow soldiers, the only ones in their world who knew what they’d all been through, who shared that same distant weariness in the eyes from the relentless horrors they’d beheld as young men, horrors that had scarred their souls and that in time killed so many of them with whiskey or pistols or cars into trees. They were all still in the same life-or-death mode that some managed to bury at least partially in the graveyard of their past, all just trying to survive for any length of time, there in that beery foxhole of camaraderie from whose open doors all those dreamy summer songs wafted in the sweet torture of what might have been… Mona Lisa, You Belong to Me, Wheel of Fortune, How High the Moon…

Also scattered in that attic box were dozens of war photos of Sherman tanks crushing through German villages, blowing out walls of houses and shops amid smoke and piles of rubble; and
stark photos of dead Nazi soldiers twisted frozen in the snows of Hurtgen Forest; there was the pristine black Luger in its black leather holster (we never did know whether it was loaded), an engraved German officer’s bayonet with the grease still on it, a big red swastika flag with bold ink signatures all over it, and other things I no longer remember. When our world collapsed after Dad drove away I don’t know what happened to all the stuff in the box, except for the Luger, which one day in the remnants of childhood bliss I took outside to use in playing cops and robbers. Likely some flabbergasted neighbor lady communicated her shock to Mom, who gave the Luger to a gun club her cousin belonged to, and the bayonet to my uncle in the country, where I learned years later my cousins wore it out on farm chores like digging up potatoes…
One autumn day in 1950 or so, when I was about 10, Dad and his VFW buddy Pete S. let me go with them when they took Pete’s M1 Garand (the kind they’d both carried during the war) and a heavy box of cartridges, drove out into the countryside somewhere, set up some tin cans against a hillside and started shooting. I’d never heard a real high-powered rifle up-close before; each explosion was for me a shock of the war, roaring from the same kind of gun that had killed the Nazi soldiers in the attic… later would come the images of men, women and children lying in heaps all over Europe; blood, smoke, shrapnel and ruins everywhere amid smoldering wastes that had been populous cities, towns and villages– there was hell in those rifle booms, a hell no soldiers ever spoke of…

None of the other fathers who had come home from the war ever talked about it either, never told how part of their hearts and souls had been left on a bloody field, though all the kids begged them for some tales. Later, while reading books on the Battle of the Bulge, watching documentaries about the European theater, seeing photos of the aftermath of a notorious massacre or watching elderly men who had been there and were now a part of history pause to wipe away tears as they told at last of the long gauntlet of horrors they had passed through, I wondered each time: is that where Dad was? Is that where those photos of the frozen soldiers were taken? Is that Dad in that column there, head down, marching through the Ardennes Forest snows when I was 4 years old? Was that the village in the tank battle photos? Is this where Mom was sending those packages I cried over?

I used to plead with Dad to tell me some war stories and there must have been many, as the look on his face implied when my questions forced his mind back to those times, but all he ever said was that he’d been a radio man (the one the enemy would try to kill first), and I remember the checkered 99th Infantry Division patch on the shoulder of his uniform when he was dressing for a parade. I also recall his once describing a fighter-bomber trying to land a bomb in a cave on the side of a steep cliff somewhere, another time he said he’d been to the Eagle’s Nest, and that was all he ever told. In a documentary I saw not long ago, about US soldiers rummaging through Hitler’s abandoned mountain bunker I looked for Dad, thought I’d see him any minute, as a young soldier; maybe that was him, but the film was faded, the past gets grainy, hard to see…

Saving Private Ryan depicted only two hours of the heart’s deepest darkness those guys had gone through 24 hours a day for months on end, divorced from life, living as targets, friends blasted to bits before their eyes in the death-dealing cold until those who survived came home, emerging from a nightmare in the furthest pit of living hell into all that was sweetness and light, all that was smiling and prosperous as they stepped out of death and into the welcoming arms of a bountiful America, but each of them carried within himself that scouring nightmare that could never be erased, and they had only each other to silently share the unspeakable they had been part of, still smoldering here amid the clear air and sunshine of what once would have been natural ambition in young men like these, but now among hometown streets with flowers edging the trim lawns of tidy houses, and on through the falling leaves of autumn and beyond, they were the only ones who knew the other side of this warm reality, so they clung together and never said a word about whence they had come, what they had seen, what they had done; they drank together and held together and never said a word: not to their families, not to friends or associates, not even to each other, about the dark visions they carried inside– never, there amid all this growing happiness they had offered their lives to defend but could not fully share in or enjoy, heroes that they were, being always among the faces they had seen blown to fragments in an instant, there in the smiling faces of their children who kept asking, Did you kill anybody in the war, Dad?

Posted in 99th Infantry Division, Battle of the Bulge, US Army, WWII | 7 Comments

We Interrupt This Program…

..to bring you an important bulletin.

Nearly two years ago, while Bob was visiting from Japan, he and I were sitting out on the back deck of my home in Desert Hot Springs, just shootin’ the breeze, reminiscin’ about our past adventures, drinkin’ a little yellowtail, one memory-salvo triggering another like fireworks on the 4th of July until the wee, wee hours of the morning. Then one of us – Bob, I think – said, ‘This is such great stuff. We should do this online, start a blog site where we send it all out into the blogosphere, rather than having it blown away by the desert wind and end up as a dust storm in the Mojave.’

‘Hell, yes,’ I said, ‘Let’s do it. We’ll call it The Blog Brothers, and we’ll start with our earliest memories, and one after another, we’ll swap stories just like we’re sittin’ out here on the deck; except you’ll be on one side of the planet and I’ll be on the other. After all, with the internet, who needs geography?’ Thus was TBB born. The first post, called First Press Conference, was published on October 14, 2005, and included a photo of the two of us taken early in our hellraising careers.

The basic idea was that each of us in turn would gather together as many of our glittering memories as possible and present them in a somewhat linear, chronological way, without being too constrictive. At times the collaboration felt like a ping pong game in slow motion; one volley following another in close succession. The trajectory began with some of our earliest memories, and proceeded forward in time fairly consistently for quite a while.

Then, from out the blue, I suddenly rocketed forward in time by posting the first of my tales from a war zone called Manhattan, where I drove a cab in the late sixties. I knew it was pretty intense stuff, but I felt I had to get it out before my memories had faded. They were a bit fragile, as you will see. After the second installment, I began to think I had somehow changed the focus of the site, and by the third, I was certain that I had. It was as though I had taken a bone-jarring hairturn in a speeding yellow cab. Sorry, folks.

Since then, Bob and I have been discussing where to go from here. The original focus was supposed to be on our years together, and there were still many more tales to be told before those days ended. We both agreed that it would be best to pull the Instant Karma series off TBB, leaving behind links to a site where that part of my story will continue. The story gets pretty harrowing, and would leave a kind of radioactive dust over all the earlier, fonder memories. So, as of today, we will resume the tales of our adventures up to that fateful day when our trails led us in very different directions.

I’m actually looking forward to that day myself. I’ll finally begin to learn a bit more about Bob’s later adventures around the globe, some of which I haven’t heard to this day. In the meanwhile, let’s get back to the mythical city of Albany, capital of the Empire State. There’s a lot to do, and there’s no big hurry. As I said to Bob on the phone the other day, the only deadline we have for this project is that it has to be finished before we die. Now that’s a deadline I can live with.

The Instant Karma series will now continue on a new site, called KarmaDance. Enjoy (if that’s the right word); I’ll be updating it as I get the stories done.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Let There Be Soul!

In the beginning the music was formless and void,
and a great emptiness went forth across the airwaves.
All that could be heard therein was Patti Page,
Theresa Brewer and Frankie Laine.

Then God said, “Let there be rhythm, let there be blues!”;
and His spirit went forth across the airwaves

in the form of Chuck Willis, Ray Charles and LaVerne Baker.
And God saw that what he had made was good, very good;
and He began to replace the old with the new.

Thus God had provided man with soul,
and from that day forth, man and his descendants
would groove upon the earth.
Then God rested,
for He had grown weary from all the dancing He had done.

It must be difficult for younger people who’ve lived their entire lives in the aftermath of that glorious earthquake, to have any sense at all of what it was like living in a world without Soul, an entire universe void of Rock and Roll. It must seem to them as though it had always existed, but it didn’t. There was a time…

… back in the late 40s and early fifties, when I was a young boy, not long before those sonic booms arrived, that there would be an occasional hint of the approaching storm* coming from radios and jukeboxes, but those intimations were mere anomalies; the first few pieces of a grand mosaic. Those were still innocent times; I was still an innocent child, singing along with Mitch Miller and the Gang, or barking in time with the song, How much is that doggie in the window? (arf! arf!) Really. I’m not kidding. We all did. Until we were saved by Rock and Roll.

Until that magic moment I simply didn’t know what I was missing; but looking back, I can see that it was nothing less than two worlds passing in the midnight hour. The earlier world had its charms, and precious little in the way of threats or dangers. The war had ended, we had won, our fathers had returned as heroes (those that were lucky enough to come home; my father was one of them), and we lived our sunny days in a nice, comfortable home in a quiet neighborhood. If we were the Cleavers, I was the Beaver. We were alive long before Beavis arrived, in a time when no one in the land was called Butthead. Like I said, it had its charms.

From the day I arrived on this earth, I had always found my greatest joy and comfort in music. Even as a little boy, I could be found singing and dancing around the house like a musical whirligig. Songs eminated endlessly from the big radio in the living room, when radios were still furniture; songs like Peg O’My Heart by the Harmonicats, or Ghost Riders In the Sky by Vaughn Monroe. Being Irish, of course, I had the added good fortune of spending much of my youth in bars, listening to all the latest pop tunes of the late 40s and early 50s, my face pressed against the glass chamber of the jukebox, as if longing to somehow get inside, to be closer to the source.

When Rock and Roll hit the planet, though, for me it was like an earthquake. As God and good fortune would have it, I was twice-blessed: for this new, pulsing and throbbing sound was let loose upon the land at the same moment that my hormones kicked in. I was 13 in the Year of Our Lord, 1955, when I first heard Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets blasting forth from the speakers outside a tavern on Nassau Lake where our family had rented a cabin for the summer. My brother and I were in the midst of one our endless, effusive displays of brotherly love, tenderly pitching rocks at each other in the dark, when our world suddenly shifted on its axis. Life would never be the same.

It was only later that I learned that Rock and Roll was created by simply putting a white face on a form of music that had been around for years, a genre once known as “race music,” later to be marketed as Rhythm and Blues, primarily to black audiences. Blissfully unaware of any of this, I was content with this exciting new sound, until I began to hear the real thing.

Little Richard burst upon the scene with Tutti Frutti, Fats Domino hit with Ain’t That A Shame, Chuck Berry sang Maybelline, and by that time I was clean outta sight, somewhere near seventh heaven. From that point on, there was a flood of Black Rock, later morphing into Soul, from Bo Diddly to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Johnny Otis, Jackie Wilson – it just kept comin’, like the rain that lifted Noah’s Ark. I was already in a state of ecstasy, gladly skipping over Elvis, Eddy Cochran and Gene Vincent in search of Huey “Piano” Smith singing Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu, or Speedo by the Cadillacs, spinnin’ that radio dial.

By the time we were old enough to drive, we started heading out to Thatcher Park at night to park at the overlook, and with a clear sky between us and Buffalo, NY, we could catch WKBW and listen to the finest of musical diamonds in their purest form: rough, raw, sexy and thumping with a groove like nothing else on earth. It was the beginning of soul music, brother, and we were pulling it right down outta heaven.

Ray Charles, James Brown, Johnny Ace, The Impressions, Barrett Strong, The Falcons, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Hank Ballard, Maurice Williams, Sam Cooke, Smoky and The Miracles – we would sit until late into the night with the top down, staring at the stars, radio blasting, talking only between songs.

Like many things in life, it is almost impossible to describe what those moments were like. Suffice it to say that it was like discovering a whole new world, a sparkling new universe. Perhaps Van Morrison said it best: it stoned me to my soul, stoned me just like jelly roll, stoned me just like goin’ home….
And, man, was it good to be back home.

*That inkling could be heard in songs like How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1953, Earth Angel by the Penguins, and Sh-Boom by the Crew-Cuts in the following year, 1954. The widely-acknowledged breakthrough song was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets the following year, in 1955.

Photos, from the top: Patti Page at CBS Studio 50 in NY, Doris Day, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Chuck Willis, Laverne Baker, and, last but not least, Little Richard.

Posted in Americana, Pop Music, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul, the 40s, The 50s | 9 Comments

The Salamander Legacy

I remember the summer back in 1951 or so when we discovered there were big numbers of salamanders and snakes in the woods behind PS 23 up on Whitehall Road, the same woods whence I shot out that inviting streetlight with my beloved slingshot, the same woods where Mick and his fellow perpetrators (I don’t know where I was that day) hid out after the great unfinished-Thruway Conflagration (about which major event Mick thus far remains mum herein, for some reason, even though the statute of limitations has almost certainly long expired) and the same woods where later I finally found a public-access monocot plant (Solomon’s Seal) for the monocot/dicot specimen requirement assigned by my civilian but still noxious natural science teacher at Vincentian Institute where I did my first year of high school and one Sunday afternoon when I was home alone hurriedly prepped the specimen folders using Dad’s art tools and got ink all over but only got 1 out of a possible 30 points from the unimaginative teacher… Solomon’s seal is a beautiful plant though… You see what happens when one gets talking about the mystic woods up behind PS 23?

Anyway, starting in late Spring/early Summer while school was still in session, Mick and I and the Olander Twins would head up there into the woods – definitely not when we should be in school, it wasn’t hookey, no way, that would be unthinkable, could only have been a weekend or a holiday, we haloed ones would never miss a precious and delight-filled sunny day in class at St. James Institute; imagine skipping school just to catch wild animals – and caught red salamanders from under the rocks and put them in our pockets, we also caught a lot of snakes, a small one of which I put in a Sucrets box and took to school, let it crawl around on my desk with its salamander friend.

Each time we went into those woods our salamander-snagging expertise grew, until one day we went up there with a big cardboard box full of high-quality dirt to keep our catch in, for as any great hunter knows, one is loathe to part with a redback salamander one has caught legitimately by hand through sheer cunning and lightning speed; such skills must have their trophies. Plus the salamanders were so cute with those bulgy little black eyes and smiley faces, but even better they were free, and best of all their tails came off and wriggled for a long time and really freaked the girls out, which was great. The snakes were aces at their jobs too; my secret heart-throb Diane Finn was gratifyingly horrified at the sudden snake and salamander on her desk. Such are the enigmatic thrills of boyhood.

To get back to that day– when we brought the boxful of forest dirt and salamanders home to the yard of our house on Delaware Avenue we counted our catch and found that we were collectively richer by a staggering 146 salamanders, a new world record that I believe still stands in the pre-teen category. Despite the obvious gold-medalness of the event, however, Mom (for reasons known only to moms) refused to allow us to bring the box into the house (not even into our bedroom!), even when we widened our eyes and looked as sad as we could. We would have loved to have those cute little salamanders crawling all over everything all the time, we would have named every one of them within a year or two. Having no other choice, we did the next best thing and tossed the box under the back porch where we could keep our little red treasures close by, and immediately forgot all about them.

Some time later, when one day I remembered our cardboard vault full of salamanders, I crabbed under the porch to check on our wealth and found that time and the weather had pretty much destroyed the cardboard box, and that every single one of our living treasures had wriggled off into the wild, where living treasures do best. Thus it was that Mick and I and the Olander twins so radically altered the salamander biomass of that region of Delaware Avenue. Now all you salamander-rich folks who live there know who to thank.

Posted in salamanders slingshots delaware vincentian saintjames hookey biomass halos monocot dicot boyhood snakes PS23 worldrecord | 6 Comments

My Part in the Greatest Election Upset in American History

When Dad and his buds took me to my first Albany Senators baseball game not long after he came back from the war I must have been about 5, and still couldn’t crack open a peanut by myself, so I and my paper bag of peanuts probably drove Dad and his buds crazy helping me open them just as their guy hit a double or something. I remember there was one player on the Senators who had only his right arm; the other he had lost in the war. He could still hit the ball a good distance, though.

The baseball game was interesting, I guess, but the stadium was even moreso; I’d never seen anything like it, and wandered around, looking. I didn’t know much about baseball in those days, since I’d been living with Mom and aunts for the duration of the war (which at that point had been half my life), so there was no baseball or talk of baseball. The men were all off in the war or working overtime, so my wartime neighborhood was mostly populated by little kids and moms, grandmas and aunts with their hands way full.

But the postwar stadium on that sweltering summer day was filled with guys, most of them not long back from the slaughter, savoring survival and yearning for a real down-home ballgame, drinking beer out of paper cups and yelling for the Albany Senators. Not knowing a Senator from a congressman, I took my peanuts and wandered down to the infield screen for a closer look, stared at the action awhile, trying to figure out exactly what was so exciting as to cause all these grown men to yell like that and curse the umpires so bitterly. (I learned most of my impressive battery of umpire curses that day.)

Finally I gave up trying to figure it all out right then and there, turned from the screen and found myself face to face with a strange man sitting there in a front row seat right behind the plate, wearing a suit and tie in that heat, with a high forehead, an unusual hair arrangement at the top of it and an unbecoming mustache, all in a combination I’d never seen before, so I stared kind of hard at him.

He smiled in reply, revealing a slightly gap-toothed situation there, reached out a hand and patted me on the head. Everyone for some distance around chuckled with appreciation. All very odd. I ran back to Dad and his buds. Why is everybody laughing, I asked. That was Governor Dewey just patted you on the head. Governor? Dewey? Neither meant anything at all to me, and no grownup explanation seemed to help. All I could do was put that in my wonder basket, along with baseball games and peanut shells.

Then one day, by the time I could crack open peanuts and was playing baseball, I saw Grandpa Brady wearing a Dewey button in his lapel, must’ve been just before the Truman-Dewey election of 1948. Dewey was a shoo-in everyone said, and carried New York, but famously lost the election, though he did beat Thurmond. Still, Dewey did do one thing memorable to me, aside from patting me on the head at the ball game (thereby augmenting his portion of the heavily Democratic Albany vote): he pushed through the legislation that some years later enabled us kids to enjoy Pipe City for just one summer day. Of which more later, when it gets written.

Posted in albany, Baseball, Democrats, Dewey, new york, peanuts, politics, Republican, Senators, States Rights, Thurmond, Truman, WWII | 5 Comments

The Big Wind Chill

Mick’s icy post brings back other memories, like the one I’m about to relate. This was back before the wimpy things they call winters today, this was in the time of diamond winters, when the Albany streets were always icyslick unless the snow was up to here. As if that weren’t enough, the wind tunnel of the upper Hudson Valley rendered the Capital City close kin to Siberia, with a wind chill factor that shot the temp down to only 50 below or so when it was warm, in which atmosphere we’d stand at night on Elm Street corners being supercool in our thin nylon jackets, no hats, no gloves, being wind chill cool. “All you have to do is relax your shoulders.”

We thought of it as hardening ourselves against the elements. Which attitude served pretty well in the city, and even the country, specifically the country along historic country road 9J, the two-lane highway that will forever run south from Rensselaer along the east shore of the Hudson River. I call the 9J historic not only because it is, but also because of all the personal history it holds for Mick and I, as anyone who has read these sketchy chronicles can attest, with much more to come.

To get to the story. We were good in both city and country winters, as long as we stayed there and didn’t tempt fate. But tempting fate was part of our natures it seems, as I look back now from the promontory of all those winters. At the heart of one of the Hope-diamond winters of the mid-1950s, I and my cousins Jackie and Teddy, and a fourth guy who might have been Mick, with frost on our eyebrows were hitchhiking north on 9J back to my cousins’ house – we hitched everywhere in those days; all the regular drivers along the route (especially the Staat’s Express truck drivers) would pick us up – this time, though, it was a dairy farmer and helpers in his pickup, delivering milk to the dairy plant upriver. There was no room for us in the cab and the back was full of milk cans, but it was a ride and we were hard as diamonds; we all clambered up and sat atop the cans.

Then the dairyman took off on business doing about 60mph, and as our asses began to freeze to the icing milk cans our torsos stuck right up there in the hyperArctic wind, where there was nothing between us and absolute zero but our outer surfaces. When we were dropped off about 15 minutes later as icemen, it was hard to break free of the milk cans and then to get get down to the ground; when we tried to walk, we crackled; we had much to say but couldn’t talk, our jaws were frozen shut; our ears went “ting” if you struck them with an icy finger. Clanking against each other, we staggered through the warm snow up to the house and inside where it was really hot and we could melt and let the pain begin to roll us around in puddles on the floor.

We all subsequently managed to father children, though, so maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remember.

Posted in albany, elm street, fatherhood, ice, new york, route 9J, siberia, staat's express, wind chill, winter | 3 Comments

Cool On Ice

In the process of writing a piece on skateboarding recently, I found myself at a distinct disadvantage: being much older, I had little or no experience of the world of the skateboarder, a world which may as well have unfolded on another planet as far as I was concerned. In the heyday of street skating, I was living an idyllic life in the suburbs, busy raising three young daughters, each of whom pointedly ignored all the Tonka trucks and bulldozers I bought them, preferring to brush the hair on their Barbies, for some weird reason. It was a girl’s world; skateboards did not exist.

Casting about to find a way into the mind of the skateboarder, though, I stumbled upon a most valuable insight: I actually was a skater in my youth: an ice skater. As a young inner city boy, I had pretty much the same attitude and behavior as the dudes of So-Cal who put wheels on their surfboards and hit the ground rolling back in the 70s, later to be known as skateboarders. We had the same lust for thrills, chills and spills, the same yearning to kick ass, and the same mad willingness of the truly immortal to just let it fly, regardless of how many pieces you were in when you landed. Wheels, blades – who cares? It was the need for speed. Kind of a guy thing.

There was this big public park practically in our backyard in Albany; looking at it from the kitchen window of our third floor apartment on Elm Street, it appeared to be one great big bowl scooped out of the center of the city- the flat bottom of which served as a football and baseball field in the summer, then transformed into an ice skating rink in the winter. This was one big glassy surface, man, at least to a kid; it seemed to be a mile wide, and we made use of every square inch of it, every free minute of the day. At night it was not unusual to have a bonfire going along the edge to rest and warm up and crow about our exploits.

There was no end to the contests we invented, either, to find new thrills, improve our skills, and to polish our manly credentials. Rubber tires were used to create obstacle courses and hurdles, the stack gaining another tire after each contestant succeeded in jumping it. The task was basically to avoid experiencing the feeling of metal blades hitting rubber in midflight with nothing between you and the ice below but a knitted cap; all while exhibiting a sense of style, of course.

There were a number of kids, mostly younger kids and girls, who just skated, doing figure 8s, spins, loops and other things to occupy their time. A few played hockey, but that was not for us. It seemed too boring, and required playing by an elaborate set of rules. If we had enough manpower, we would prefer to play a game of Head On, which consisted of dozens of skaters on two teams, each starting from one side of the field, who, at the cry of HEAD ONNNN! would launch a high-speed charge across the expanse of ice at one another, the collision in the middle resembling nothing so much as a war scene from Braveheart. As in war, the last one standing was the winner.

But to give you some idea of the true scope of our madness, I will tell you a tale of unmatched bravery, with a bit of bravado, a touch of humor, a pinch of stupidity, and a whole lot of pain.

We awoke one morning to the dazzling sight of a historic ice storm in the city, back in the days when winter could still be expected to behave like winter, and such things were extremely rare. Trees were down, the power was out, the city had been brought to a standstill. Most miraculously, the schools were closed. Bob and I, of course, immediately realized the full potential of the moment, the magical gift we had been given: the entire town had been turned into a skating rink!!! We quickly grabbed our skates and ran out the door to round up some of our skating buddies.

While cruising through the empty streets, we soon recognized a simple but heretofore unrealized fact that, unlike the surface of a skating rink, many streets in our neighborhood sloped down toward the Hudson River, and you could actually ski down them. In fact, someone suggested, if you could find the right streets, you could . . actually . . fly. I don’t recall who thought of it first, but suddenly we all looked at one another in a state of electric ecstasy: lying right behind us were the numerous sidewalks of Lincoln Park, many running straight down hill and ending at the icy lake at the bottom. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What the hell are we waiting for?

We soon found ourselves flying at speeds only dreamed of by other skaters of the world; we were downhill racers with nothing beneath us but metal and ice, crouched for minimum wind resistance, well on our way to establishing new land speed records. But the records were never to be recorded, and are now lost to history. Besides, even if we had succeeded, we ourselves would later smash it more than a decade later, as Bob so beautifully chronicles in his recent post, The Right Stuff. Little did it matter if we did this in a vacuum, though; it was really about the adrenaline. The intoxicating thrill of speed and, oh yeah, the danger.

After each successful run and subsequent laborious return to the top of the hill, we would choose to see who went first. The lead-off run would then set a speed and distance for the rest of us to try to measure up to, and hopefully surpass. On what would turn out to be our last run, Larry won the first slot. He set off tightly coiled down a particularly steep and curvy piece of crystallized concrete. Trouble started about halfway down the hill, though, when his blade hit a crack in the ice, setting him off balance for a split second. That split second sealed his fate.

As he struggled to correct this problem, his skates went out from under him, he hit the ice-coated surface hard, and now found himself flying down the hill in a sitting position, with very little to slow him but the blades of his skates. But it was too late. We knew something was horribly wrong when we heard the scream, a sound like nothing we had ever heard coming from his lips, as he contin
ued to hurtle down the hill. We all instantly set off after him, now a mountain rescue team, to learn what had happened, and tend to our fallen comrade.

Midway down that hill, some anonymous saboteur had thoughtlessly shattered a soda bottle on the sidewalk, just for kicks, I would assume, being somewhat familiar with the phenomenon. Pieces of it were still lying on the concrete when the storm hit, and were now frozen solid to the ground; embedded knives fixed in place as though by Satan, ready to yield maximum pain to its first unsuspecting victim. One particular piece is still seared (frozen?) into my memory: the bottom of the bottle, base down, with several jagged, razor-sharp mountain peaks jutting out of the surface of the ice. Larry hit that thing doing at least forty miles an hour, with nothing to protect him but a pair of well-worn Levi jeans. They may be tough, but they ain’t that tough.

Hours later, as we all sat around the hospital waiting room waiting for him to be stitched back together, we couldn’t help but crack a few jokes about the event, as boys will. It’s an ancient coping mechanism, I believe; probably having helped many a caveboy to get through the night after a particularly bad encounter with a mastodon or sabre-toothed tiger. A number of jokes involved various body parts, as I recall, and what may or may not have become of Larry had he hit the glass just an inch or two in either direction, but I won’t go into those details here. Suffice it to say that Larry is living happily ever after, married, with children. ‘Nuff said.

Afterthought: All of this, I suppose, was written by the inner boy that dwells within an aging man; a man grateful to this day that he survived the antics of the boy’s days of glory, long since past. If you listen real close, though, you can still hear the little guy jumping up and down, shouting, Hey, all you California skating dudes, them skateboards ain’t nothin’ when the only price you got to pay for a mistake is a few scrapes and bruises and maybe a broken bone or two. You ain’t done a goddam thing ’til you come to New York and break the land speed record on a mountain of glass, and pay the full price with half your ass.

Ok, that’s it. I’ve had just about enough! Go over there, sit down and be quiet. I don’t want to hear another sound out of you. See, he just hasn’t learned yet what the aging man has long since learned: that you can’t be immortal forever.

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The Migration of the Anglo-Saxons

To provide a bit more visual context for the previous story, I offer this photo, taken roughly within the same timeframe of those events, with an additional bonus: it includes our trusted steed, the unsinkable ’57 GMC panel truck which carried us to some of our greatest adventures from Maine to Cape Cod, from the Catskills to the Adirondacks. Winter or summer, she never let us down. Why, we were actually pre-testing the future retirement lifestyle of a bunch of RV’ers, and livin’ our own Kerouac On-the-Road fantasy all at the same time. One of these days we will document the final moments of the old chariot, since she went out in such a blaze of glory.

The photo was taken as we were about to depart for Rendall’s wedding, probably in the summer of ’66. Rendall, also known fondly as Grendel of the Moors, until this moment was a roommate in the infamous cellar beat pad in Albany, which, like the fine mold growing on its rugs, will produce its own stories on these very pages, in due time. That’s me on the left, Rendall in the middle, Bob on the right. Was it really that long ago?

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The Right Stuff

Most people still believe that no toboggan has ever broken the sound barrier. Mick, Marty and I are the only ones who know the true facts of the matter, because together we pushed the toboggan envelope further than it has ever been pushed. There was no one else around at the time, though, so details of that historic occasion are confined to our fading memories, and this humble record of that fateful day. You are therefore asked to pay close attention, since I’m only going to go through this once because of the adrenalin rushes and trembling.

The toboggan ignorance that generally prevailed in the previous century – the early sixties in fact, that unequaled decade – was understandable, since the “sound barrier” was still a relatively new concept in the public mind, as was “heat of reentry.” Neither of these phenomena had ever been associated with toboggans, but only because destiny had never before brought together, in the right place and at the right time, the right conditions (i.e., completely icy) and the right men (i.e., completely iced). The Guinness boys weren’t there that day because their Book of Records was still just a wee thing; anyway we weren’t drinking stout and there was nothing in their book about toboggans.

The new world toboggan speed record required a steep ski slope, completely abandoned by perceptive skiers because of perilously icy conditions, and a toboggan manned by young men full of the right stuff. Things were coming together in that way the universe has with icebergs, unsinkable ships, mountains, college students, what have you. Mick says there were only 3 of us rounding out the wouldabeen Guinness Book crew that day: he, I and the ever-ready Marty, but somehow I can’t believe only three of us were that crazy. Surely there must have been more… I have the feeling that there were 4, maybe even 5 tobogganauts aboard, but amnesia has its place. So if you were that fourth or even fifth fellow, please get in touch. I remember Marty was there, because of how far he went beyond our terminus. I remember Mick was there, because of his supersonic torso. I remember I was there, because the ice of fear does not die.

I would have thought Mac was there, we were staying at his family’s lodge in New Hampshire, but I asked Mick recently and he said Mac was too sane to have gone up that ice mountain with us, which seems plausible, he being a perceptive skier. At this latterly point in my life it’s hard for me to do retrospective sanity assessment with any accuracy; it all looks insane from here. What the hell were we thinking, I can ask now, without feeling too fogeyish. We’re all of us men of steel, until one day we regain consciousness and from then on know instinctively that certain actions are not of benefit; the mere recollection of some of them can even induce adrenalin rushes and trembling, so let me get this over with.

It had been flashcold that weekend so we’d spent a lot of time indoors, warming up with our dates and losing perspective on outdoor reality. None of us were skiers (apart from Mac); as city boys we were ice skaters, so in ski country we pretty much stayed in by the fire and partied. But then late in the afternoon of our last day there, rendered dauntless by spiritual consumption we decided that before we departed we had to go out there just one time and show the mountain who was who and what was what, giving no thought to any substantial impact of who against what. There was a toboggan in the loft, so we guys took it out (women are smarter at pretty much all stages of life) and determined to test ourselves against the worst the mountain could throw at us, which, if you think about it in retrospect or at any time without scotch, is quite a lot.

When we arrived in full readiness at the bottom of our Slope of Destiny (a series of gleaming, undulating grades at what in my mind’s eye now looks like about a 75-degree angle), it appeared to our happified eyes like a big, beautifully decorated and fun-inviting piece of cake frosted in bright, hard icing. Perfect for skating. I don’t know how we climbed the ski run, but we were ice guys, and well experienced with toboggans (always in snow, however), at Lincoln Park, Bowlie’s Hill, Synagogue Hill and other speedy slopes around Albany. So there at the top of the run we set up for our one long sunset ride on the historic toboggan: Marty in front, Mick behind him, me at the rear.

We had just pushed off onto the steep glaze and were roaring downward when doubts began to set in as things began to get blurry, the way they do when you get up past 5 Gs; then came the boom as we passed Mach 1 and events began to occur exponentially. My subjective impression was that we lost control even before we went hypersonic, when a brightening glow began to issue from the front of the toboggan as the atmospheric friction corona began to surround us in a womb of light. I suppose that individually we were screaming things like “LEAN LEFT!” “LEAN RIGHT!” “O, GOD!!” and whatnot, mewlings erased by the sonic booms.

The entire launch and reentry took a fraction of a picosecond, if memory serves, setting a new world record; had nothing stood in our way we might have sped on till early summer. If there’d been anything like a ski jump at the end we might even have left orbit, but as I’ve indicated the mountain headed down. Actually the mountain just stood there unmoving while we went down, setting the de facto – but uncertified – toboggan speed record that has never since been broken or even approached, and I doubt ever will be, given the combined requirements.

As we neared our terminus, one of those old existential questions arose: Why are there concrete stanchions at the bottom of the Slope of Destiny? Beguiled by the scotch and ice of the moment we had failed to notice, down there where the slope administrators would have been working at the time, had they too been insane, a series of concrete stanchions whose purpose even now eludes me. Panzer defense? In a nice, powdery, skiing kind of snow, even the swiftest skiers could stop well before reaching those tank stoppers, but on solid ice like we were enjoying, once you go hypersonic on a toboggan there is no stopping short of the state line, unless you encounter a mountain or its equivalent.

Just before coming to the deadest stop any of us can recall, we’d all been leaning hard right, in vain seeking to avoid our Stanchion of Destiny, which rapidly grew in size and importance until we met it broadside with the toboggan’s left edge, closely followed by my 20G left thigh, an impact compounded by Mick’s supersonic torso, while Marty wound up in Vermont I believe it was, as Mick and I, still smoking from the heat of reentry, rolled around on the ice howling and unable to rise. Actually, I was doing all the howling; Mick was unable to howl, or breathe at all very much.

While Marty thumbed a ride back to New Hampshire, Mick and I were taken to a doctor, where it was proclaimed a miracle that my femur was intact (eat your heart out, Schwarzenegger), though my left thigh muscle was rendered non-functional for weeks. The impact of Mick’s torso upon my knee had broken three of his left ribs. He was taped up tight and gasped well into springtime; I was given a cane with which to hobble from class to class like I was already much older than I am now.

We were young, we were insane, what can I say; that’s part of what college is all about, and we completed Downside 101 in a single afternoon. But tobogganing itself remains golden in memory, since we survived. Even now, we survive.

God must have been watching that day and been blown away at the quantity of right stuff in those young rapscallions down there, and decided in her kindness not to let us become the landscape pancakes we seemed determined to be, but to let us off with minor but painful injuries and actual futures, filled with opportunities to avoid the icy slopes of life insofar as possible forevermore. And so we have. To my knowledge not one of us, even with the right stuff, has ever tobogganed down an iced-over ski run again.


Posted in college, corona, dating, enlightenment, hypersonic behavior, mach, madness, new hampshire, reentry, scotch, skiing, toboggans, vacation | 8 Comments

Merry Christmas To All, And To All A Goodnight!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,
by Henry John Yeend King; 1855 – 1924
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The Motorcycle Painting

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The Convergence of the Twain

None of our gang have ever shared this historic moment with anyone before because… well… it reflects negatively on the collective cool of the young gods we were then. But now that we’re senior gods and our coolness has tenure, I feel that at last I can lay this legend before the world in all its factual detail.

Events of this quality take a long, long time to come to be; everything has to be just right, the vectors involved are countless. It takes time to get all the cosmic elements set up so that they’re precisely in place, as destiny requires. Fate is very fussy that way. We’re talking centuries here, even millennia. In 1652, less than 200 years after Columbus kickstarted the whole American adventure, Albany was founded, but it took another 304 or 305 years before the funniest thing that ever happened on the northwest corner of State and Broadway could happen.

And since no one of however devious a mind could have anticipated such an occurrence, there were no journalists on hand to report the occasion, no steadicam helicopters hovering overhead to capture it all on film, so it has been left to me to chronicle that unprecedented event all these decades later, I having survived thus far for this purpose, hopefully among other, nobler purposes.

The players in this unsung historical vignette were myself, Mick, George Calhoun and Marty Zakis, four of the coolest guys on the coolest part of Elm Street, which no longer exists since, after we left, the locality saw no point in continuing. We were strutting southward on the west side of Broadway toward State street, four abreast in a group of native coolness – as was our wont in those heady days of nascent rock and roll, with life in general on the cutting edge of truth and reality – when suddenly before us was a prosperous probably banker/trader type gentleman having likely just closed a very big deal in pork belly futures or something of equally elative power and hastily on his way to another important meeting, who instead of proceeding prosperously on his way was jumping up and down in an unusual manner, with what an instant ago had been a long, hand-rolled cigar, but that was now only an inch long, protruding from his startled lips. The end of the expensive cigar was shattered and splayed like a cheap firecracker, the gentleman himself wide-eyed and gagging because, as it turned out, the greater part of his valuable handrolled cigar had been shoved down his throat by Marty’s right ear.

Another key element in this event is coolness. You know what cool is, you’ve been there, you know what it is to be cool, even when things are hot, and if you’ve since lived your life in certain key refined ways, you’re still cool, like Mick, George and I– for at this point I have to exclude Marty from those hallowed halls pro tem, since the glowing but absent embers of said fine cigar were now residing deep in said ear, said Marty also jumping up and down, somewhat in the fashion of the prosperously dressed banker but more in the manner of one attempting to get water out of an ear, though in Marty’s case the searing flames of hell, Marty leaping more frantically and painfully than the banker while loudly cursing, only as one does in such a unique situation, particularly since – although there is no precedent in all of history to go by, even Columbus didn’t know this – one is loathe to poke any of one’s fingers into an ear that is crammed to the lobe with the redhot embers of an expensive handrolled cigar, even if it is one’s own ear.

Marty was no exception to this rule he himself was establishing at that very moment on the corner of State and Broadway, swatting at the offending organ as it listened to itself crackle and burn. Having thus fled the halls of cool, Marty leaped in several directions of no escape, for our ears follow us closely wherever we go. Head tilted he jabbed at the fiery ear in great haste, said ear the while emitting impressive showers of fine handrolled cigar sparks, sort of like a roman candle in reverse, while the formerly prosperous-looking businessman, who now resembled Oliver Hardy just as the closing credits begin to roll, danced a special kind of crosseyed jig while trying to extract a long and expensive handrolled cigar from his throat without touching the short hot fragment that still protruded, as Mick, George and I did our part by simply rolling on the sidewalk clutching our guts.

After some effort the banker was able to remove the surprisingly long cigar from his throat and go on his way – with a genuine urban legend to hoarsely relate at the meeting – and Marty could stand upright in a wobbly fashion, though his ear was still smoking, as we headed for Woolworth’s to ask the lady at the soda counter if we could have a glass of water to pour in our friend’s ear.

The next day Marty couldn’t hear out of the ear because it was blistered shut, though by then it had became the stuff of legend as a source of helpless laughter up and down Elm Street, laughter the ear itself was able to hear in only a few days.

For the full impact though you just had to be there, and not be Marty.

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The Midnight Ride of Danny McNabb

EVERY NOW AND THEN I get it into my head to make a list of certain things I’ve done in my life. There’s a sense of satisfaction to be gained by stacking up a bunch of items that are normally scattered out over a lifetime, then sitting back and giving them a good long look. Some of them invariably get you thinking, and the patterns that emerge can even give you a new insight or two. Could be anything, like all the cars I’ve ever owned, or all the houses I’ve lived in, or maybe all the girls I’ve slept with. Some of them turn out to be pretty long lists.

My latest is a review of all the close calls I’ve had; those adrenaline-soaked moments when I’ve come within a cat’s whisker of dying. Considering how I’ve lived my life, I suspected there might be quite a few of them, and, truth be told, I wanted to see if I was getting close to number nine. While pondering that list, a long ago memory of one of those moments came back with a rush, buried all these years. Suddenly I recalled someone who had been my best friend for all of six months in my freshman year in high school. The mysterious Danny McNabb.

He claimed to be Scotch-Irish and Protestant, but his parents didn’t mind if he went to a Catholic school. Apparently he didn’t mind either. The first time I saw him was when he strolled into my class at Cathedral Academy in the middle of a school day, and sat down with a sly smile on his face as Sister Marie Frances explained to the rest of us that his family had just moved here from California. You could see right away he was not your average Catholic schoolboy; he was cocky, worldly, brazen; like there was nothing that could faze him. Here he was, a stranger dropped into a strange land, and he seemed to find the whole thing vaguely amusing.

The nuns must’ve thought they could win him over, bring him into the fold, so to speak; but it was clear from that first day it would never happen. His mind was elsewhere; he was merely tolerating his current situation and was not about to get with the program. What sealed the deal was, when he learned I held the title of Mister Detention for having set a record in that particular department, he began to join me there on a more or less regular basis. We were a bad influence on each other, Father Benson said.

His family was renting a big house on the opposite rim of that great big bowl of green known as Lincoln Park, and I soon got used to making my way over there at all times of the day and night. His parents, who were never home, seemed to be some kind of rich nomads. There was all this stuff just laying around: diamond-studded jewelry, fur coats, leather furniture, you name it. They had more things in that house than I had ever seen in my life, and Danny had the run of the place. He claimed to have lived in every state in the union. There were pictures of him with Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, things like that. The best part about that house, though, was that we seemed to always have it to ourselves. We threw a few wild parties now and then and drank whatever we wanted from the bar in the dining room. It was at one of these jamborees that we made local history.

I was feeling a little drunk, souldancing in the kitchen to the silky sound of The Five Satins with my girlfriend, when I heard a voice behind me, shouting, Get ’em up, Brady, reach for the sky! I turned to see old Danny boy himself, swaying on his feet, a rifle aimed somewhere in the vicinity of my head.

Put the gun down, you asshole.

No, no, put your hands up, Brady, c’mon.

I’m not kidding Danny. Put the gun down.

Put down the fuckin’ gun before you fuckin’ kill somebody, someone shouted. He lowered the gun.

Hey, I was only fooling, it’s not really loaded. Besides, the safety’s on, see?

BLAM!!! A circle of smoke rolled through the kitchen, followed by a stunned silence. The bullet passed through the trash can and lodged itself in the floor below. In the sti-i-i-ll… o-o-o-f… the ni-i-ight, ending in the background. I lunged at Danny, pushing him up against the wall.

You stupid sonofabitch! You could have blown my fuckin’ head off! Are you crazy?

He just laughed in my face. Like I said, nothing fazed him.

Hey, take it easy, man. it wasn’t your time to go.

I let go of his shirt, walked out the door and headed back across the park, suddenly sober as a judge and shakin’ like a leaf. A couple of days later I went back over there and rang the bell for what seemed like an hour. Finally, a neighbor came out on the porch and yelled over at me that the whole lot of them had moved out in the middle of the night, and no one knew where they went. The very next day, she said, a couple of Federal Marshalls were in the neighborhood looking for them.

I had always wondered where they got all their money; Danny said that his father worked for some big company, which also seemed to explain their nomadic life. The jewelry and the furs and the pocketfuls of cash took on a whole new meaning, though, as I began to think back over the last few months. In the end, I concluded that they must have been a family of gypsies, forever on the run, one step ahead of the law; though I’ll probably never know for sure. It does seem to be the most logical explanation, though, the more I think about it. They just seemed to disappear right off the face of the earth, and last I heard, criminals aren’t eligible for the rapture. If they did make it up there, though, you can bet your bottom dollar they sure as hell would have cleared out of heaven a long, long time ago.

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The Island

It was just about the time when That’s Alright, Mama and Rock Around the Clock were hitting the airwaves with sonic dynamite; Mick and I were nouveau-poor city boys and brand-new teens, a tough combination. The cool older guys with Luckies or Camels in their rolled-up t-shirt sleeves had suicide knobs with bathing-beauty pictures in them on the steering wheels of their souped-up late 40’s Fords, Chevies and Mercs; the world was a cool place and getting cooler, thanks to all of us. We were ready for anything, and of course it came along.

Being city boys, on city summer nights we’d just hang out on a stoop or a corner, now and then wander the streets looking for city girls, the world’s best pizza and whatever else new youth looked for on a balmy night back in those days. But when in one of those souped-up cars we headed out of the city and followed route 9J down along the Hudson River on visits to our cousins’ riverside house, we were happily out of our element; country kids do different things in their country nights.

So when one evening a bunch of us just ambled from our cousins’ house on down toward the river shore to where one of the country guys said he’d left a rowboat he’d ‘found,’ we had no idea what we were gladly getting into; we were just heading for the river at sunset, no particular reason, look at a boat, row around, something, anything is great fun at that age except school, and sure enough there was a real rowboat there, quite a big rowboat, and right where no rowboats ever were, which didn’t seem the least bit suspicious to me, anyway a hot rowboat is nothing like a hot car.

Besides, for me all such considerations were erased by the power of the moment: the river scene was like those sepia photos from Civil War days with the mist and the silver light, the calm of the water, and out there across that sheet of silver was the brown-black sliver of the southern end of the island looking like a hundred years ago or so, backed with the crazy-orange of sunset like the fading edge of a dream, the island I’d gazed at so many times as a kid growing up in summers here on this side of the river. I’d always wondered what was over there.

The four or five of us got in the boat and rowed out on the calm water for a while of splashy hijinx until, the island being the only tempting destination within miles, we pulled onto its shore at the very edge of darkness, got out as quietly as any band of night marauders, pushed through the undergrowth that edged the water and found ourselves on the edge of miles of the biggest cornfield this city boy had ever seen, all the more surreal for the starkly diminishing golden light. Absolutely silent. No one around. No one lived there. The workers had all gone home. What’s more, the rows and rows of rows were dotted here and there at regular intervals with quadruple-sized burlap bags of just-harvested corn where the big harvester combine had left them, dropped right there before us, as if from heaven, in the unattended silence. Giant bags full of fresh-picked corn all along the hundreds, thousands of corn rows…

You recall how it is in any diminishing light, when the ember of temptation emerges in a group of teenagers, moreso for new teenagers and especially guys, double-especially on their own – like we were on this mysterious, corn-rich island – how that ember ignites out of nowhere, flares up and wavers, then sometimes dies, but more often blooms into a solid flame that lights up the nights of early adolescence? Well in a matter of moments we were as dedicated as any well-paid laborers you ever saw, each shouldering one of those big bags of sweet-smelling corn to the boat, then going back for more until the water was up to the gunnels, but it was calm water, we were skinny; we could make it back across the placid river.

And so we did, quicker and quieter than we’d come. When we reached the home shore our fellow island raiders lugged their big bags off into the dark and home; we lugged ours back to the car trunk and back into the city, where we took what we could eat, then sold the rest to the happy-to-have-really-fresh-corn owner of the Busy Bee supermarket across the street from us on the corner of Hudson Avenue and South Swan Street, where the concrete western edge of Rocky’s Folly stands now. We had some food, we had some money, we made some history out of what we had, like memories out of sweet golden nights…

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The Spy Who Came In From the Cold War

AT THE THRESHOLD OF THE SIXTIES – the same year, in fact, that JFK became president – I joined the Air Force. Bob had joined a couple of years earlier, studied Chinese at Yale, and was diligently gathering intelligence in the nightclubs of Okinawa. I was so impressed with this escape plan that I began to consider it for myself. After all, what did I have to lose? I had just squeaked through high school, broken up with my girlfriend, had no job prospects and didn’t have a clue as to what to do with my life. I was adrift in the world. Unable to bear a single minute more of nothing to do, I decided to go see this movie that everyone was talking about, a new Hitchcock film called Psycho. I could still catch a matinee at the Palace theater if I could just peel myself off the bank steps.

Perhaps the subtext of this film came a bit too close to my own desperate need to get out of town, I’m not really sure, but I began to get the uncomfortable sense that it was time to get my life in order by the time Marion Crane arrived at the Bates Motel, and I knew I had to take some kind of action after her heart-stopping episode in the shower. By the time her car disappeared beneath the surface of the pond, I had already decided to throw my fate to the wind. I had decided, like my brother before me, to become an international spy.

After slowly savoring my last piece of buttered popcorn, I left the theater and headed down Broadway to the Air Force recruiting center. Within weeks I was standing on the steaming tarmac at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, with twenty or so other clueless recruits, awaiting the ritual shearing and precison herding exercises to follow, which would soon crush any romantic notions I had about being in the military. I had given up a heat wave in purgatory for the flames of hell.

I never did make it to Yale, but wound up studying Russian at Syracuse University, then shipping out to western Turkey to eavesdrop on Russian military activities from across the Black Sea. Situated on an old World War II British air base, our mission was to search out, tape and transcribe any radio transmissions of the Soviet military which might be relevant to NATO security interests. On our own free time, we were allowed to search out, communicate with, and date any women in Istanbul who might be relevant to our own personal interests. We threw ourselves into both missions with great abandon.

Regarding the intelligence gathering, there were a few memorable moments in what was, for the most part, a rather humdrum, monotonous activity; spinning the radio dials, listening to the metallic chatter of Russian bomber pilots on a midnight practice run over Novosibirsk, with an occasional colorful outburst of Russian profanity to keep us awake. One of those moments, however, threw everything we were doing into stark relief, revealing for a brief moment the deadly serious nature of our activities.

On October 16, 1962, JFK learned that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba, and suddenly every movement, every sound coming from the Soviet Union was a matter of life and death for the entire world. This was no longer a game, comrades. For nearly two weeks, our listening post was like the war room in Dr. Strangelove, every soul engaged in a mad and desperate effort to pinpoint and decipher what it was those damn Russkies were thinking and doing.

In the midst of this drama, word began to spread that the steel barrels now surrounding our building contained explosives, and that our commanding officer was under direct orders to blow the place up – with us in it – if the Russkies started to come over the Black Sea. We were top-secret, code-savvy human data banks that the military brass apparently couldn’t afford to have fall into enemy hands. Needless to say, we were shocked to learn that we were expendable, that our own government would do this to us. It had a profound effect on the War Room, making the situation even more surreal.

Emotions reached a fever pitch by the 27th, when General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff (and the model for General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove), neglected to enforce Kennedy’s orders to suspend all overflights, and a U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba and another nearly intercepted over Siberia. Russia’s missile-laden ships were steaming toward Cuba where we had set up a blockade; the irresistable force would meet the immovable object by the morning of the 28th. The world’s two superpowers were eyeball to eyeball, and no one appeared to be backing down.

I worked the midnight shift that night, and every single one of us were convinced that there would be no world to go back to when our shift ended. We spent the night sitting around, flipping the dial from the Voice of America to Radio Free Europe, waiting for them to go dead, signaling that we wouldn’t make it home to say goodbye to our loved ones, that we would never make it to Paris or Rome. Then, just before dawn, a cheer went up when it was announced over the loudspeakers that Khrushchev had caved; they had struck a deal with us, the installations would be dismantled. We could start planning our trip to Paris.

My career as an international spy ended the following summer, just after we completed tracking Vostok 6, the satellite carrying Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, Russia’s first female cosmonaut. On the third night of the flight, we suddenly realized she would be flying right over our outpost. We all filed outside and stood in silent witness as the glow of her spacecraft made its way through the stars overhead, finally disappearing over the Sea of Marmora. It was another of those surreal Cold War moments: a group of young American soldiers standing on the soil of the old Ottoman Empire on a clear, moonless night, connected in some mysterious way with the cluster of Soviet cosmonauts hurtling through space directly above us. In spite of the vast distances and differences, we knew somehow we had shared a profound historical moment, though we would never meet them face to face. A few days later I would be back in the States, soon to begin another kind of war.

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The Ratty Sneakers of Happiness

Even out here in countryside Japan there comes a pre-summer time in a boy’s father’s life that the boy’s mother knows little of, when said father looks at his prepubescent son’s awesomely ratty sneakers and with a tear in his eye remembers the equivalently ratty sneakers of his own distant American boyhood when, as summer approached, a sacred desire filled the boy that filled those sneakers, for a new and racy pair thereof in which to run faster and jump farther than ever before toward the summer and the life that loomed, and so it is that the father takes his son into the big city to buy a summer-new pair of really good sneakers, maybe some white high-top Converse All Stars like the father himself used to wear, that got so authentically dirty real quick as he recalls, or maybe a pair of Jack whatsisnames, it was a long time ago runs through his mind as he enters the airplane-hangar-like supersneaker store and his son beelines toward the aerospacefully bioengineered ergonomico-scientific footwear touted by an eight-foot-tall black man whose cutout stands in the corner pointing at the footwear with big looklike dollar signs in his eyes and the son says this is what I want, and the father checks the price and cancels that dream of restoring a ’55 Corvette; after all, the kid wants shoes endorsed by a guy who zips a knobbly rubber ball through a hoop 15-20 times on a few good nights a year and for that makes more money in a single season than the father will in his entire life, so why not give the guy the father’s salary? At least maybe the son will drool with gratitude, and gratitude drool is worth its weight in gold to the suddenly unmonied father of any gimme-gimme teenager, so the father springs for it, and the son walks out of the store wearing the monetary equivalent of four top-of-the-line snow tires on each foot, and the basketball player can take an extra bimbo out for burritos down in Cancun, and the boy’s mother gets to say YOU PAID HOW MUCH FOR A PAIR OF WHAT and within a month or so its ratty sneakers all over again and the father can’t help but think how wonderful it is that life relentlessly supplies us with ways to make so many people happy, over and over again like this.

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The Mansion of Beer

Mick, the destruction of Elm Street – and all that heart of Albany now erased – calls for some fine-tuned recollection on our part; we’ve got to do some glimpses of Elm street history here as we remember it, so I’ll begin with a portion of what Rockefeller destroyed, a neighborhood institution I’ve recalled many times, the Dobler Brewery (which we aimed at with our home runs – Pete Zakis was the only one to ever hit it, as I recall – and which I broke into after it closed down) and what we knew locally as the Dobler Mansion. Erected adjacent to the brewery on the corner of Elm and South Swan streets, it was a true mansion– built shortly after the Civil War, I believe. It stood right on the southwestern edge of what is now (the concrete wall of) Albany Mall.

The Dobler Mansion was the neighborhood’s mansion, something we were all tacitly proud of having in our vicinity. (The only drawback to the brewery’s presence was that several times a month the local air was all but replaced by the cloying smell of malt being unloaded…) The name Dobler played a big part in the psyche of the neighborhood, which was also the latterly neighborhood of William Kennedy who – oddly – makes no mention of the brewery in his otherwise quite detailed and excellent book O Albany (see sidebar).

At one point in our frequent movings we lived in an Elm Street brownstone just a couple doors east of the Mansion, where the brewmaster lived and where I used to deliver the Knickerbocker News every weekday evening. I got inside on Saturday mornings when I collected the weekly newspaper fee. The mansion interior was a quiet vision of old wealth and earlier times: polished mahogany staircase and railing, chandeliers, stained glass windows, velvet curtains, ornate doorways to other richly furnished rooms– a few steps out of my own poor life into another possible world. I shudder to think of all that beauty falling to the wrecking ball… The brewmaster’s elegant wife was a kindly lady and always gave me a generous tip, even though by that time the company was already tanking, as tv took hold and big-beer advertising began to rule the business.
Must’ve been 1959-60 they finally closed down. I was the only one in the neighborhood (that I know of) to get into the brewery after it closed and before it was demolished. One afternoon in the spring or summer of 1960, while on military leave, I climbed from the back porch of our third-floor apartment, scaled the back fence, somehow got into the abandoned brewery and had the run of the place. It had been cleared out hastily; what remained had by then been left lying for some months in the big, silent white rooms. Nothing of what I saw was of particular interest to me, excepting what I realized was a laboratory: I remember wondering what a lab was doing in a brewery, but of course they were always chemically monitoring the beer… Nor was there anything among that equipment or other detritus that to me was worth taking away (what do we know of history at that age), except from the laboratory a small full wooden canister labeled “Magnesium,” of which related adventure more in a later post…

That heart of old Albany now lives only in our memories…

Related links: Tour, Genealogy

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Edifice Rex

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY (the width of a planet for you, Bob; a mere continent for me), in the heart of the Empire State, there lived a little king. On one particularly warm and sunny spring day, the little king received a beautiful princess, visiting from a distant land, and as they rode together in an open carriage to his palace, the princess noted the general disrepair of the streets and buildings thereabouts. Then the little king became ashamed and vowed to build something monumental in its place, something befitting the grandeur of his kingliness, something visiting dignitaries would find much pleasure in – something, in short, which would make the little king look big. Well, at least a little bigger. Thus began one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in the history of the kingdom.

The year was 1959, the town was Albany, and the little king was Nelson A. Rockefeller, newly-elected Governor of New York State. Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands was on a diplomatic visit to honor the Dutch heritage of the city and to meet the new governor, and their ride took them through an area known as the Center Square district on their way to the Governor’s Mansion in the south end of the city. The urban renewal project which resulted from that ride would be called the Empire State Plaza (the “South Mall” to locals), and it would eventually disrupt thousands of lives, destroy the heart of the city, cost a king’s ransom, and haunt Rocky for years to come. But what is that to a king?

In 1962, the State Legislature appropriated the funds for the project, and city crews began demolishing all of the homes and businesses in a forty-block area between Eagle and Swan Streets, a total of 95 acres of land. William Kennedy wrote in O Albany! that clearing these neighborhoods caused the “destruction of 1150 structures, most of them private dwellings, and the displacement of 3600 households – over 9000 people; many black, many Italians and Jews, many old, many poor.” After almost two years of demolition and clearing, construction finally began in 1964.

Although we had moved out of that neighborhood before the destruction got underway, I can still remember coming home from the Air Force as a young man and looking out over the desolate landscape that was once a vibrant community, a melting pot in the best American sense, now reduced to a collage of fading memories: Nino, fresh off the boat from Italy, patiently repeating the choicest swear words we could come up with to prepare him for life in America; gathering around a Latvian feast with Marty and his family, their homeland stolen first by the Germans and then by the Russians; or days spent teasing the beautiful young Sofia, whose family had escaped the Hungarian Uprising, and who from then on would occupy the American dreams of many a young Elm Street boy.

Then there was Mrs. Matzen, a salty old German woman who had worked all her adult life as a nurse, saved enough money to buy a home on Elm Street, and then spent years renovating it by herself on weekends. Though the house was a gleaming jewel by the time it was finished, she herself was nearly crippled by arthritis in the process, and for her effort she was given a modest check by the State and ordered to move out. Not surprisingly, she refused. The Albany police arrived one dismal day and whisked her away to an undisclosed location, and, in my mind, sealed the Rockefeller legacy forever. ‘Let them eat concrete’, shouted the little king.

Within in a few years we would become card-carrying counter-cultural crusaders, tilting at the windmills of the “military-industrial complex”, inspired in part by the wanton sacrifice of our beloved city neighborhood on the altar of a billionaire’s ego. There was some justice to be had though, for those who were willing to wait; Rocky would one day die of a heart attack in the arms of his intern in an office in Manhattan; a fitting end for someone who wreaked so much havoc with his erections.

I imagine we are not unlike millions whose cities were destroyed by the ravages of war: there comes a day of reckoning when you realize you must make peace with the past, or remain at war with it for the rest of your life. Perhaps that’s why we live in two of the most beautiful cities in the world, as a form of compensation for the destruction of our roots. As for the gleaming monolith which replaced them, it has since become a big tourist attraction, I understand; but sadly, few who stroll beside those marble-clad pools and fountains will ever know about the miracle that was Elm Street in the 1950s, and that, my friend, is a cryin’ damn shame.

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Don’t You Dare Laugh

Remember how when you were a kid the funniest place on earth was church? Where you could not laugh under pain of mortal sin so you just had to laugh, even though nothing was funny except that you couldn’t stop laughing?

That held true for me too, until Grandpa Robinson’s funeral when my new laff record was set, that stands unequaled to this day. Grandpa himself was a funny guy, full of stories and riddles that went way back. Descended from a New York harbor tugboat captain, he lived in Rensselaer and worked his whole life as a conductor on the busy New York Central Railroad, so he had an eclectic take on things. He was always closer to us kids in mood than he was to the grownups around us anyway, and given his quirky sense of humor, there’s no doubt in my mind that he was behind what happened on the day of his funeral.

As this local history (being recorded for the first time here) would have it, Grandpa passed away peacefully in his sleep one night, aged somewhere in his eighties, and I and five other grandsons had been chosen to be Grandpa’s pallbearers. The oldest of us, and focus of this little tale, was Billy, an Elvis type macho ladies man, aged 17 or so, muscular and very cool; then there was I, about 15, and the other key member of the cast, my cousin Jimmy, then about 14.

The side-splitting aspect of this sad day had its seeds in the funeral service held right around the corner from Grandpa’s house, in St. John’s church, where we were all formally edgy anyway, having been plunged thus from our adolescent separateness and utter coolness into a proto-adult unit that at once not only had to function unusually in church, but to perform complex religious tasks as a cool sort of god squad. I can hear Grandpa chuckling now.

After we’d gotten through the long service without a hitch and had carried the casket to the hearse in all seriousness, the long procession of cars wound slowly through the streets to the gravesite in the cemetery atop the highest hill in Rensselaer. It must have been in February or March, because it was a crisp blue and very windy day, with especially strong gusts where we were high up beside the Hudson River, whose valley forms the great wind tunnel of the northeast that with a mere flick of a breezy whisper could carry a man down State Street hill, dangling from his umbrella.

The six of us had borne the casket to the grave, and were then assigned the task of go-getting the many floral wreaths from all the funeral vehicles that had followed the hearse (Grandpa had a lot of buddies). One by one we’d traverse the windy distance to one of the vehicles, reach up to receive a wreath that was handed down to us by a tuxedoed funeral parlor worker atop the vehicle, wrestle the bundle of flowers back through the stiff and frisky gusts to the graveside, then return for another differently shaped arrangement, all in the utmost of somber formality, as the relatives gathered and waited by the graveside… well… gravely.

On one of our latter trips, Billy was just ahead of Jimmy and I, and as he reached up in all macho readiness to manhandle one of the biggest wreaths on his own, arms wide to receive it, a very large wreath indeed – with a lot of varicolored daisies on it, as I recall most vividly – the Grandpa-driven wind ripped the wreath right out of the worker’s hands and flung it full-force against Billy’s entire body, enveloping him and his pompadour in flailing flowers, only his legs sticking out at the bottom, his arms still reaching out on either side, ready to receive the wreath…

Before our eyes, cool Billy had been transformed into a silly walking flower arrangement. Staggering rather, for he was blinded by blossoms and generally under the control of the wind, which was so devilish in pressing the wreath against him that he instantly didn’t know where anything was and his arms couldn’t find the wreath edge in all that flower softness that was wrapping itself more and more snugly around him, so he became a sort of self-contained event beneath the stark sky of that Fellini morning, a wreath of daisies dancing there before us in all formality, on legs of Billy.

From within the flowers came a petal-muffled plea that was hard to hear in all the wind, especially when doubled over, as Jimmy and I were. Tears flowing, we at last managed to turn the wreath around against the the wind and extract Billy, who then just stood there pawing at his eyes, ghastly eyes with long white, pink and purple lashes that flapped in the wind like a Mae West nightmare: from each lid hung a floppy fringe of daisy petals.

Billy had been hit by the cloud of flowers with his eyes wide open, and had no idea what was blinding him… he groped at his tearing orbs. From the depths of our own eye-rivers, Jimmy and I reached up and, one by one, gingerly plucked the daisy petals from Billy’s eyelids…’ he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me…’ it was all very formal, apart from the breaks for bentover hysteria. Then we grabbed the last wreaths and headed back to where everyone and the priest was waiting in somber graveside silence, to begin the final service…

If you’ve ever been shot out of a cannon 60 times a minute you have some small idea of what was happening to our innards as we stood there, ramrod straight, new young men beside our grandfather’s grave. Tears running down our cheeks, Jimmy and I pressed hankies to our eyes, bodies shuddering, snorting with deep emotion. And as if Grandpa hadn’t done enough already, across the open grave from us stood Billy, daisies in his shattered hair, his eyes red and teary, still redolent of flower petals. Our feelings knew no limits, really.

I remember Aunt Mary looking at us kind of funny, with a puzzled ‘they really loved their grandfather…’ look on her face, but what can you say at such a sorrowful time… Most of the folks assumed, since we cried more than anybody there, that Jimmy and I were devastated. And we were. To the core. But not with grief or loss; we were moved to a higher level.

We were appreciating Grandpa.

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The Parcheesi Plot

Ah, the hours whiled away on the Parcheesi board as a youth. I haven’t played the game in years, but I can still remember the sound and feel of the dice rattling in the leather cup, the chok-chok of the pieces hitting the board, the heated arguments over who moved and who didn’t, the utter disappointment when a rival won, and the sheer elation when one of my pieces roared down the red carpet leading to the inner chamber.

Parcheesi, also known as the Royal Game of India, is descended from the game of Pachisi, which originated in India around 500 BC. When played by Indian royalty on a specially prepared lawn on the palace grounds back in the day, slave girls were actually used as pawns and moved about the board by royal command. Though not quite as colorful, the red, blue, green and yellow plastic pieces used in the modern game are a little more practical, though not as much fun to lift.

Parcheesi is also a descendant of the ancient Cross and Circle games, whose boards were designed with mystical symbols in mind; in this case the layout includes a mandala showing Heaven and Earth, or the self surrounded by the four directions of the Universe. Could the hypnotic effect of staring for hours at a mandala have been used to initiate unsuspecting children into mysticism in the 1950s, bearing fruit only a decade later when we all became hippies and began painting similar mandalas on our VW busses? Mere coincidence? I think not. Someone should look into this.

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Wild Strawberries

There are moments in every life that stand as treasures in the heart, riches that are savored throughout the life to its end. When I was 8 or 9 years old, we set out one late 1940s summer afternoon on one of our exploratory tangents off of the Yellow Brick Road and across the pastures of the Norman’s Kill Dairy Farm. The Olander twins were with us, I remember. We used to start out on those cross-country expeditions with no plan, just bring some fingerfood and water and head in a new direction to discover what was there in the world. What an ancient drive that is…

As the sun rose toward noon and the day got hotter while we traveled back and forth all over the landscape the way kids do in their rummaging progress, we ran out of food and out of water, but we didn’t care; this was the time of life when the thrill of the new could defeat hunger and thirst for quite a while, so we went on, and late that afternoon made our great discovery: a broad pond filled with frogs, turtles, fish and frogs’ eggs! And it was all ours! Right there in a dell amidst rolling meadows arched by a blue sky, we could take off our shoes and wade, and be in heaven.

Then one of us made an even more welcome discovery: one whole hillside was blanketed in ripe wild strawberries! For the next long time we crawled around on all fours, hungry and thirsty animals gathering and eating those beautiful, puckery-sweet (and best of all, free) little juicy rubies. When we’d eaten enough to have the patience, we’d save up the tiny red nuggets of sensual magic until we had a good handful, then shove them all in at once and lie down to gaze at the sky while chewing into a deliciousness that rose beyond reach as it became us…

Later on, that berry-fueled walk took us to other new places, a further bend in the Norman’s Kill river we’d never visited, the railroad tracks that followed the river in those parts; and at one point beside them, while walking along the tracks back toward home we saw, as in a different world, below the railbed beside the river – and seemingly isolated thereby from all else – a shanty town for workers from the bottom of the railroad hierarchy. It was a drab village of tarpaper shacks clustered together on a bare dusty tract of land in the searing sun, so as to be close to whatever job the residents did, not all that long after the depression. It was a dismal sight; I stood looking for a long time, as though at things not meant to be seen. Even though I hadn’t much of a past of my own yet, I was very saddened that people lived like this in the modern world.

Little did I know how untested yet was my sadness, or the depths of my own future, soon to be just as starkly contrasted with the highlight of wild strawberries we enjoyed that day. I hope the ragged children I saw there so long ago found wild strawberries in their own way, as I had…

I’ve never been back to that pond or its strawberry hillside, though in one way or another I’ve visited there every day of my life since then…

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Football In the Side Pocket

Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word to you -just one word.”
Ben: “Yes sir.”
Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”
Ben: “Yes I am.”
Mr. McGuire: “‘Plastics.'”
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– From The Graduate, 1967

The Albany Billiard Ball Company, founded in 1868 by John Wesley, the American inventor of celluloid, is possibly the earliest successful plastics firm and certainly one of the oldest plastics companies in the world. Celluloid became a substitute for ivory in the manufacturing of billiard balls, and the Hyatt “composition” ball, with a celluloid base, dominated the sport until the 1960s. The company is the only major billiard ball firm in the United States.

Mick: Bob, remember all the times, good and bad, we had around the old Albany Billiard Ball Company on Delaware Avenue? It had to be one of the best places a boy could ever dream of having in his neighborhood: a huge, manicured lawn (looking way too much like a football field), an oval driveway ringed with bushes (looking way too much like a race track), and out back, barrels filled with the most interesting stuff you could ever imagine (we were budding explorers who happened to stumble upon the site where modern plastic was born; we just didn’t know it at the time). I have no recollection of anyone ever coming out and telling us to stop playing football on the lawn, or to stop racing our bicycles in the driveway. Did they recognize our potential as future chroniclers of those times, and decide, somewhere in the top offices, to give us carte blanche?

: Yes, that was the finest of lawns, cared for with a fine-toothed mower. I remember seeing that lawn from the car window one sunny day after Dad came back from the war and we were going somewhere, probably out to Thatcher Park; to me at 4 it was mesmerizingly green, smooth and vast. I can still summon up that vision and all the formless post-infancy feelings of portent that went with it…

Many the sunny day indeed we played there, me you, the Olander twins and whoever else we could gather in a bunch for a day, we’d play tackle, touch and slow-motion football, and “chicken” as we called it, plus there were celluloid scrap piles galore out back to whet our inventive appetites. There was also a very interesting chain hoist at the side loading gate, with which we would take turns slowly lifting each other up by the belt. We left Eddie dangling there for a while one afternoon.

As for being chased away, Mick, you were young then, and as the older brother I generally kept an eye out, sounded the alarm and took the heat, which is perhaps why you don’t recall the elderly groundskeeper and general factotum who used to come shuffling out the front door shaking his fist at us on a key fourth down and saying inaudible things to chase us away when we played there on summer workdays. (On weekends the lawn was ours and we sampled heaven.) Being an elderly gent however, he could never catch us, since the lawn was so big and we generally played at the furthest distance from him, on the lawn’s far corner next to Jerry Romano’s house, so we’d just race off and wait until the fistshaker went back in again, then resume our play. Never saw a single billiard ball come out of the place, though…

Mick: I can still recall the smell and sound of those long hours in the summer twilight, charging the enemy lines like we were Johnny Unitas, muscling on until either someone actually won the game or it was too dark to see the ball. In the chicken fights (perhaps universal to young boys everywhere, perhaps not) big guys would carry little guys on their shoulders, and, staggering around as a group of makeshift giants, fight the Battle of Armageddon. The last pair standing won. I was always on top, being a shrimp, but considered it one of the few perks of smallhood, since after all, I was the Gladiator, and the guy I rode in on, my trusted steed.

By the way, wasn’t it on the very same lawn that we fought our arch-enemies, the dreaded R Twins, to near death? Or, well, sort of?

You got me there, Mick, you’ll have to fill in the details of that battle. I’d won my battle with the R twins years before that, back on Mountain Street, so they weren’t a dread of mine; whatever came after in that regard was for me foregone. As to the Billiard Ball Lawn, in that part of my mind where I spend my past I still now and then lie down on that soft cool fragrant surface. As perfect as an Augusta fairway it was, no doubt a source of great pride to the community, but especially to that Michaelangelo of a groundskeeper who could never catch us, yet kept the lawn pristine on our behalf, a spotless green playground just waiting there ready for play whenever we were.

No doubt that lawn was inviting to all, but no adult would ever think of walking on it, or of spreading out a cloth for an ideal picnic, but for us kids with summer play coming out of our ears it wasn’t a matter of choice, the park up behind PS 23 was ragged and full of kids, but here was our Eden. We recognized that perfection and knew what it was: it was a cosmic directive, and we obeyed. Golden times on that green, that Elsyian Field, conspicuously consumed. Wonder if it’s a WalMart parking lot yet.

Mick: Golden times, indeed, and no Wal-Mart yet, that I know of. As for the dreaded R twins, all I remember is a battle in which I was being whipped mercilessly with the buckled strap of a leather cap; perhaps it was all a bad dream… a dream that would disappear instantly I’m sure, if I could just stretch out on that Elysian Field once more.

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Twilight of the Trolley

I remember sitting at our little table on the second story porch overlooking Second Avenue sometime around dusk on a summer evening, having milk and cookies and watching the sparks fly from the overhead cable as the trollies went by. To me it seemed as magical as a Fourth of July fireworks display; even more beautiful, perhaps, because not only was it coming from a train rumbling and screeching past the house, but the train was actually stopping at the front door. We would jump up and peer over the porch rail to see passengers stepping out of the glowing coach and onto the curb. Magic of the highest order.

My only other memory of the Albany trolley is my fear of stepping on the rails when crossing the street, because I heard that you could be electrocuted if you did and, of course, die a horrible death, instantly, and be terribly disfigured, and nobody would attend your funeral, and you would pass from this earth unloved and unwanted, and… wonder where that idea came from?

Albany saw its first trolley in 1881, and the last one rolled down Second Avenue on Saturday, August 10, 1946. I was four years old. The automobile had become so popular that they were no longer profitable, and the United Traction company decided to replace them all with busses. You could still see the steel tracks on cobblestone streets all over town for many years, though, as in the photo above. One by one they were covered over with asphalt, and re-appeared only once, during the filming of William Kennedy’s book, Ironweed, when they recreated the old trolley system on a section of Broadway. It helped to keep those back porch memories alive.

By the way, the trolley in the photo is passing through the heart of downtown Albany, the intersection of State and Pearl Streets, probably sometime in the 1930s, perhaps headed for Second Avenue. In the background on the right you can see John G. Myers department store, which was to play a major part in our lives, the story of which will be told in some future post, I’m sure.

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The Softball of Death

How could I not I remember when, as a boy of 10 or so on one of those summer VFW clambakes Dad used to take the family to, I was playing softball with the men – I suppose they were trying to make a man of me – I hit the ball, ran hard for first and the strong peg from short hit me solidly on the left temple.

All the men said it was ok, no big deal, the way men in ballgames do after a few beers and heavy action in the hot sun, with steamed clams, corn on the cob and more beer in the offing, but none of them knew what I knew: that Jimmy P’s older brother, one of the godly older guys of those childhood days, had recently died in his sleep after being struck on the temple by a baseball thrown to first.

None of the men – though all had just returned from horrors of war unimaginable on the directly personal level – knew that, even as I stood there safe on first, the shadow of death was falling over me in the golden sunlight: I could see the grinning skull beneath the hood of darkness that this very night would come for me, that would take me into its bony embrace; none but I knew that this was my last day on earth, this moment – and this – and this – each the last of its kind, ticking away unstoppable…

The men went on playing in carefree survivor cameraderie as I stood there dying toward the night that would come as surely as all ends come. I had no words to say to their words, felt no joy in their joy, it was all over for me, my number was up; I beheld the mere veneer that being was, all this play and heedlessness of what was truly going on always in the depths of moments, a mere ten years of life passing before my eyes, a state of mind that went on until I realized once more that all the soda at the clambake was free!

My life has been gravy ever since.

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The Lineup

The usual suspects:
Bob, Pat Villani, and Mick, probably during one of those real winters of the late 1940s, when the snow could very well be over your head when you rolled out in the morning, wearing so many layers that you couldn’t afford to fall down.

As I recall, several very large people forced us to line up for this mug shot, interrupting the important work at hand: snowball velocity testing, planning sessions with the Snow Fort Commission, and lab experiments in the creation of yellow snow. By the way, Bob and I were cleared of all charges. The guy in the middle was detained for dressing funny.

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The Empress of Penny Candy

We thought nothing special of her at the time, as is the way of little kids, who’ve not yet seen how few and far apart are the genuinely heartfelt kindnesses of the world. We boys would be playing in the park or catching lizards, frogs and snakes, or chasing girls, or getting into whatever of the many forms of mischief we could manage, when one of us would pause, jingle his pocket pennies and say “Let’s go to Mary Myer’s!”

Mary lived in a house just down the street on the opposite side from the flower lady. There were a lot of such ladies who lived alone after the war. Mary’s was a regular house on the block, nothing special outside, no sign, nothing to hint of the cornucopia that awaited inside in the form of all the penny candy varieties that could be yours if you just walked down the empty concrete driveway and opened the wooden door on the side of the house at the back, went in and climbed the 2 or 3 steps to the inner door that was always open and waiting. That was the door to Mary Myers’ pantry, a kids’ version of heaven in the neighborhood.

Mary was the very image of her role in presiding over the sweet delights of all the neighborhood kids. A pleasant woman with granny glasses and graying hair, she was the greatest exemplar of patience I’ve ever seen: she was our Empress of Penny Candy. As befit that title, Mary was up to date on all the latest in sweet treats and tricks from around the civilized world, from bubble gum cigars and red wax lips (and mustaches) to jaw breakers with a coriander seed at the center that you’d reach after a few pleasantly exhausting hours.

We’d stand there for long times, eager eyes roving over the many dozens of tasty items laid out invitingly in that tiny room, on shelves that rose to a heaven only Mary could reach. We took our time, jingling our pennies in anticipation, pondering the meaning of our growing universe as expressed in the form of (all honorifics must be capitalized) Candy Buttons (on paper strips), BB Bats, Kits, Mary Janes, Marshmallow Peanuts, Mexican Hats, Root Beer Barrels, Maple Cremes, Popcorn Squares, Chocolate Babies, Sour Balls, Red and Black Licorice sticks, Peppermint Sticks and Whirls, Red Hot Dollars, Bolsters, Orange Wax Whistles, Candy Cigarettes, Fireballs, Spearmint Leaves, Tootsie rolls, Orange Slices, Nonpareils, Wax Soda Bottles, Bazooka Bubble Gum (and that arch-competitor Dubble-Bubble), Licorice Pipes and the many other penny candies that are enshrined up there in the Penny Candy Hall of Fame.

When one of us had at last made his mind up about an item, Mary would place the carefully chosen choice into that kid’s little paper bag among the many other little paper bags she held in one hand, one bag for each of us, while keeping track of all the 1-cent, 1-, 2-, 3- or 4-for-1-cent and 2-cent items in each bag and answering fastfire questions about prices and new stuff.

Sometimes there were 6 or 7 or even more of us crowded into that small space (not counting Mary), noisy with shared delight and the exchange of valuable information on the flavor, texture, duration, function, general value etc. of various items – all the high-tech candy parameters – each of us with anywhere from 2 to 12 cents to spend (what a rich day was a 12-cent day!) so we’d take longer than bankers to decide, till at last we’d choose, then often unchoose – then rechoose – without a thought for Mary standing there waiting.

Or we’d ask her questions or for a glass of water and then all go into Mary’s kitchen, Mary as patient and smiling as any of the highest saints, for saint she was and full of grace, and brought many sweet blessings upon us. She was our special mother in that neighborhood.

She’d stand for what must’ve been hours each day as our variously raucous hordes descended upon her home and interrupted whatever she was doing at the moment; she’d hover there among us with that Mary smile upon her face, all the more remarkable as I look back from all the world I’ve seen since.

That was in the late forties and early fifties. Many years later, long after we’d moved away and after I’d graduated from college, one of my new buddies happened to have also grown up in that neighborhood – though for some reason we’d never met when we were kids – and one day when our reminiscences turned to the old neighborhood, we both lit up at the name of Mary Myers and set off to visit those streets of long ago. On our walk, we strolled up the old familiar driveway, opened the old door—and Mary Myers was still there! Of course she remembered us. We bought some penny candy and talked about old times.

As all the paths of my subsequent life have led in other directions, I haven’t been back to the old neighborhood in the 35 years since that day. So from all this time away, thank you, Mary, from us all, for your candy store and all those lovingly presented choices, but far moreso for all those even sweeter and longerlasting memories of kindness.

The delight of your little store is with me even now.

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Half Moon Rising

A little bit of Albany history…

By the beginning of the 20th century, Albany had become an important, versatile transportation center connecting major markets throughout the Northeast, just as the railroads were beginning to surpass riverboats as the primary mode of transportation. The Delaware & Hudson Railroad company, one of the largest in the country, responded to this boom by building one of the most elegant buildings in the State of New York for its headquarters. Overlooking the mighty Hudson on one side, and surrounding a beautiful green plaza on the other, it formed the focal point of lower State Street, with the New York State Capital building in full view at the upper end.

At the time the new building was being conceived, it was common to look to specific precedents in the architecture of the past for inspiration. Thus, Architect Marcus T. Reynolds selected the Guild Hall of the Cloth Makers in Ypres, Belgium (also known as the Cloth Hall) as the primary model for the new building. Begun in 1205 and completed in the 15th Century, its architectural style was early Flemish Gothic. By coincidence, the Cloth Hall at Ypres was destroyed by German artillary fire in November of 1914, shortly after work was begun on its counterpart in Albany.

To commemorate Henry Hudson’s trip up the river in 1609, Reynolds chose a model of Hudson’s ship, the “Half Moon” as the crowning ornament of the central tower of the new building. Regularly refinished in goldleaf, this landmark is the largest working weathervane in North America, measuring seven feet long and nearly ten feet high, and sails high above the Albany skyline to this day.

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School of Hard Rocks, Part II

On the way to my first day at Schuyler I had to walk past McCloskey High, and felt a twinge of shame and sadness as I waved and said hello to a number of good friends and former fellow students. It also didn’t help that I had to retrace the walk that Father Turner and I had taken just a few days earlier, and probably would have to take every school day from now on. There was some comfort in the fact that I was wearing jeans to school for the first time in my life, though; after all, I had just won my freedom, hadn’t I? And wasn’t this the first of many rewards? Well, like many things in life, turns out it wasn’t necessarily so.

I would soon learn that my tough guy status was not directly transferable to other schools, especially if that school is the end of the line for troubled kids, a place where wiseguys were a dime a dozen. My bargain-basement bravado would soon be tested by barbarians at the school gates; I would be mingling with some of Albany’s meanest and baddest boys, and they had no respect for illusions.

Sitting in the same class with legendary figures like Hiawatha White, a gang leader whose feats in battle had earned him his name and elevated him to near-mythical status in the South End, or the Sumo-sized Charlie Smith, who once picked up a manhole cover and caved in a guy’s head with it during a fight in front of Sad Sam’s Bar on Sheridan Avenue, was enough to take the wind right out of my sails. In English class I would sit next to the leader of a motorcycle gang called The Outlaws who had recently been spotted gnawing a pig’s head while sitting on his Harley in Thatcher Park, and would keep engine parts under his desk. Mongols. Huns. Philistines. I thought wistfully of my run-ins with Father Turner and Sister Marie Frances, but there was no way back.

This might be a good place to point out that in the 1950s, these soon-to-be-lionized characters weren’t called ‘Greasers’; they were called ‘Hoods’, a shortened version of ‘hoodlum’, a term popularized during the Gangster Era in the 1930s. They were the guys who came to school with greased-back hair, wearing denim jeans and a white t-shirt with rolled up sleeves, a red nylon jacket ala James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, or motorcycle jacket and boots like Marlon in The Wild One. They were not universally loved and admired back then, either; they were outcasts, rebels, troublemakers. They weren’t nice guys. In fact, they didn’t get to date cheerleaders until they were transformed by Hollywood in the 1970s, in movies like Grease and The Lords of Flatbush, into cultural heroes.

Philip Schuyler did seem a bit strange at first; nearly everyone was on time, teachers were treated with respect, the halls were quiet and orderly… not at all what I expected. Where was the blackboard jungle, where rebellious youth decided things, and we could come and go as we pleased? When I asked the usual suspects while copping a smoke in the boy’s room, all I got for an answer was, You’ll find out if you ever get sent to the Principal’s Office. Now, I had already met Ben Becker, and I could see why you wouldn’t want to tangle with him. A former pro boxer who had discovered and trained Sugar Ray Robinson, among others, he parted the hallway crowds like the Red Sea when he ventured out of his office.

One morning when I walked into my homeroom about 20 minutes late, Mr. Sheehy confronted me about it. I told him just what he could do with himself, and he grabbed my jacket and led me firmly down the hall to the Principal’s Office, where I had to cool my heels for at least an hour and build up a good head of steam. Finally the secretary informed me, with an odd look, I thought, that the Principal was ready to see me. Ben Becker sat behind his massive oak desk for a full minute or so, without moving or saying a word. He just sat there looking at me, as though he were psyching me out before the battle began. Then he began to explain what he expected of the students at Philip Schuyler, and when he finished he asked me to tell him what it was that I expected from him. Nothing, I said. Then, silence.

Now the one other crucial bit of information I had learned in the boy’s room was that if he began to fold the pinky on his left hand (which apparently didn’t work well without boxing gloves on), that I might as well start saying my prayers. Of course, until that moment, I didn’t believe a word of it. Besides, I had the role of a tough guy in this movie. Then, well, hell’s bells, if he wasn’t tucking that little finger in and walking around the desk. I must have still had a look of complete disbelief on my face when the blow came. I hit the floor like a useless sack of potatoes. The next thing I knew the secretary was giving me a drink of water.

In April, 1967, Time magazine wrote of Ben Becker’s accomplishments at Philip Schuyler High School in a piece entitled Academy of Hard Cases: “Schuyler is not an ordinary high school, nor is Becker an ordinary principal. Located in Albany’s slum-ridden South End, it is an academy for hard cases… many of the students come from broken homes, still others are dropouts from other schools… Becker himself has a broken nose, scar tissue around his eyes—and a brain-jolting jab in his fists. A boy who abuses a teacher will be challenged by his principal to a quiet meeting behind closed doors. The problem is usually solved after Becker flattens the youth with a left cross… No Problem Kids. Backed by the Albany Board of Education, Becker has proved that tough but fair discipline is a remarkable impetus to learning.”

I was never sent to his office again. I went on to graduate a few years later, made it out of the slums by joining the Air Force, where I became a Russian linguist in the Intelligence Service, and later a college professor. Many a time I have recalled that day, and tried to calculate how much I owed him. Never could figure that one out, but it must amount to quite a bit. In my senior year, Ben took a leave of absence to take a group of young men to Rome, Italy, where one of them won a gold medal in boxing. His name was Cassius Clay.

I hear tales to this day of inner city schools that are completely out of control, schools in which teachers are insulted and even physically assaulted by their students, and I think of Ben Becker. Whether it was giving his camel’s hair coat to a student who came to school in winter without one, or keeping a closet full of prom dresses for some of the poorer students who might not otherwise be able to attend, Becker influenced an untold number of lives for t
he better, with his own unique philosophy of tough love and high expectations. Mine, I can proudly say, was one of them. Me, Sugar Ray, and Cassius Clay.

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The Same Spring

Springtime now and that magic scent is in the air, that rising perfume of softening earth and newcoming life that still tells me, even 60 years later – even in Japan – that it’s time for me and my buddies to drag out and polish all our marbles – handfuls of cat’s eyes and immies and puries and alleys and steelies (the most majestic and intimidating steelies came from kids whose dads worked on the railroad), and what a sight it was to behold, when the treasure of last year’s marbles came cascading from can or bag into your hand!

In that moment Spring returned, the marbles bringing again to their possessors the mystic heft and power alive in that rainbow gleam; with that mysteriously delicious clacking together in bag or hand, a kid’s marbles foretold whole seasons of potency yet unfathomed, they augured fun and victory and marble-trading and all the other stuff that goes to filling life in new Spring hearts…

Then one day on the way home from school, right beside the sidewalk or anywhere else there was a reasonably flat piece of bare earth, with one heel you’d dig a just-right-sized hole in the new Springsoft ground for Holies, get down in the dirt and begin to play according to ancient but arcanely flexible rules that everyone seemed to know and agree on yet had never learned, and whole seasons of afternoons would slip magically away…

That same playtime perfume also tells me as it always has that it’s time to dust off the yo-yo (mine was silver with a gold stripe) and practice sleeping and the cradle and walk-the-dog and loop-the-loop and all the other yo-yo moves on the way to yo-yo pro-dom before the Philippino yo-yo stars came to the yo-yo store to stand for an afternoon and show us how it’s really done, then demonstrate in kid-jaw-dropping fashion all the new tricks there are in the vast yo-yo book, completely absorbing the kidcrowd in their yo-yoing virtuosity; then at the end of the show, for a small fee they’d carve something special into the sides of your yo-yo (while carefully maintaining its balance), like a far-away island where a palm tree with coconuts on it waved in the tropical breeze, and how that yo-yo would do magic for the next few weeks, though never as good as the guys in front of the yo-yo store on that one afternoon each Spring…

And now from the vantage of age I look at the same Spring sky as then, and say: Thanks for all the marbles and yo-yos…

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Hot Rod Fever

Blandly mother
takes him strolling
by railroad and by river
-he’s the son of the absconded
hot rod angel-
and he imagines cars
and rides them in his dreams

xxx– from Wild Orphan by Allen Ginsberg

I was daydreaming about current events while Mrs. Taylor droned on and on about American History, I think, in the middle of an unseasonably warm spring afternoon. This particular dream involved a ’32 Ford coupe with 16 coats of hand-rubbed cherry red lacquer, a Chevy V8 engine with dual carbs, fat slicks in the back, laker pipes and moon hubcaps all around. Visions of rolled and pleated white naugahyde danced in my head. My dream car was gestating.

All well and good, as far as dreams go, but I knew it would never go much further. My dream life had become quite active since my father left for California and we ended up in the South End of Albany, on welfare. Life was tough, but dreams were free, and it was a great way to improve upon a badly-designed universe. Not that the Designer was paying much attention, mind you, but I was already working on the rough sketches with pencil and paper. Like many dreamers before me, I was a damn good artist.

When things were coming apart, when the dull and the incomprehensible conspired against me, I could always slip into a chopped and channeled roadster, examine the curves of a 550 Spyder, or catch the gleam in the eye of a radically altered ’49 Merc, like the one dad drove away in. There was no reason to hurry in this parallel world; it might take me a whole week of study halls to capture the reflections on a chrome hubcap. The angle of a Firestone tire turning into a curve would be studied with the same intensity that Michelangelo contemplated the dome of the Basilica di San Pietro, with the results just as satisfying.

The stripped-down street rod itself was a work of minimalist art; it was rebellious, dangerous, and sexy; it spoke of power, freedom, individualism and innovation, and like many of America’s most enduring cultural icons, it was born in the mythical land of California.

When the war ended in 1945, hundreds of young men returned home with newfound mechanical skills and a burning desire to build their dream cars. In the backyards and garages of Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank, they took things into their own hands and created some of the most innovative machines ever to run a redlight. Although racing them was initially confined to dry desert lakebeds, street racing soon caught on in other parts of the country, and the hot rod became a fixture on the list of America’s social problems, right up there with juvenile delinquency and teenage gangs. Like the rock music that blasted from its radio, it quickly became a symbol for the dark side of American youth, and an early sign of the cultural revolution to follow. I was solidly hooked. They were rockin’ my dreams.

Then one day I saw an ad in the paper for a 1930 Model A 5-window coupe, selling for a measly one hundred dollars. I didn’t have the money to buy it, of course, but I knew where I could get it. Tony Donahue was several years older than us, worked for the New York Central railroad, had a Magnavox hi-fi and an impressive record collection. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time at his house. As a drummer with my own band, I spoke rock’n’roll fluently, and had become his de facto music consultant. Since he would usually pick up just about anything I’d recommend, it was, in a sense, my record collection as much as his. I decided to try and parlay this power into a major move into the magical world of hotrodding.

A few days later I was behind the wheel of a Model A, hooked to the bumper of Tony’s ’54 Ford Glasstop Victoria, weaving our way through Albany traffic. It was tricky business with a rope. I had to stay completely on top of things in order to hit the brakes as soon as his brake lights went on. At this one intersection, though, somebody pulled out in front of him thinking he had time to stop. The margin of error was very slim; I never even got my foot on the brake pedal before I smashed head-on into his beautiful coral paintjob. We limped the rest of the way to Chris Hoffman’s garage, but the damage had been done. If we thought it was going to be difficult to begin building our masterpiece before the accident, it had suddenly become impossible.

The dream didn’t die immediately, however. We would regularly gather at the garage for planning meetings, which usually consisted of each of us getting a turn sitting behind the wheel with a Lucky Strike in our mouth, arm resting on the window, rolled-up sleeves and a far away look in our eyes. This lasted a couple of months before we finally gave up the dream and handed the car over to a real master, Bobby Hennig, who eventually turned it into something we could all look at wistfully as it crawled down Elm Street with a low rumbling sound. For me, it was back to the drawing board, where I was already working on a few new dreams.

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The End of the Dark Ages

Back in 1956, when it had been dark for over a thousand years, a primal scream to match the one that had been building in the breasts of white America since way before the Middle Ages pulsed out over local airwaves and touched like the outstretched finger of God the straining antennae of thousands of carfuls of yearning teenagers who were cruising the unending highways of darkness, searching for something in the cosmos to nourish their hungry hearts.


Across the benighted land, a million nimble teenage car radio operators’ fingers tuned in to that miracle; they knew that scream: that was the scream so long pent up in their very own souls, the scream passed down unscreamed through silent generations gone before, a scream given voice at last by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a favor to us all, and cast upon that evening’s airwaves by the hand of the Hound, a late night deejay out of Buffalo (later pallidly imitated by Wolfman Jack); and lo, the million tuned-in fingers turned tens of thousands of car radio volume knobs as far to the right as they would go, filling the night air to overflowing at last, for all the silently hungry country, with the breathtakingly unrestrained tones of I Put a SSSpell on You, Becaaaauu-hauuusse You’re Mi-hiiine!!!

Into tens of thousands of young hearts poured the true sound of illumination, pushing the soulpedal right to the floor; in less than four bars the Dark Ages were gone forever, and sky-high decibels of genuine righteousness went screaming down the highways of the world.

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School of Hard Rocks

I must have been staring at that page for a good ten minutes. It remained as blank as my mind, except for the few shards of information I was able to scratch out at the top: name, date, subject, school. There was nothing else to add. Or subtract. Or multiply. A mid-term test in algebra and I couldn’t answer a single damn question; in fact, didn’t know the first thing about it, and didn’t care. So, rather than sit and stare at it for another forty minutes, I walked to the front of the room, handed the empty page to Sister Ann Marie, and walked out into the hallways of Cardinal McCloskey High. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in my young, sin-soaked life.

No sooner had I closed the door than I heard a voice behind me, “Where do you think you’re going?”, and realized it was the one person I didn’t expect to run into: The Principal. “Come with me;”, he said. “I’m going out to mail some letters.” Father Turner, a stern man given to few words, was utterly silent as we walked past the Governor’s mansion, home of Nelson Rockefeller, and down the hill to the mailbox on the corner. We then walked back up the hill in the deepening silence, and upon reaching the stairs, he turned to me and said, “Go empty your locker, and don’t come back here again.”, an eerie echo of Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.”, except for the complete absence of Christ’s love. For the first time in recent memory, I actually obeyed.

My mother, poor soul, had just gotten me back into school three days earlier after a scandalous event the weekend before. A friend and I had showed up at the dance on Saturday night with a bottle of bourbon, and before you could say Shake it, baby, Shake it!, had gotten pretty toasted. One of us (I swear to God I don’t know who to this day) got the brilliant idea to slash Father Gillespie’s tires, for some odd reason; perhaps to impress the girls. Being the only ones on the gym floor who could barely stand up (let alone dance), however, proved to be a dead giveaway, and the Albany police had to chauffeur me home, again.

Now, why had I become such a problem? Perhaps it was because Father Turner had not long before turned a deaf ear to Mom’s pleas for mercy, after informing her that she had been excommunicated on the grounds of divorce. It seemed to me that God Himself had deserted us in our hour of greatest need, yet I was expected to respect and obey His minions without question. This was more than any self-respecting angry young man should have to put up with; they would have to put me on the rack first. Fortunately, I escaped before they got around to it; I was accepted at the only school that would take me: Philip Schuyler High School, the end of the line for many, an unapologetically pagan school which, if I recall correctly, was ranked just above Sing Sing, and located in what would someday be known as the Inner City. My one consolation was that I would now be able to wear jeans to school. Rock with me, baby; my official term in office as a Juvenile Delinquent had just begun.

To be continued…..

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Cold Warriors

“…and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

The World Set Free, H.G.Wells, 1914

I can still recall standing on the couch next to Mom, looking out the window of our second floor apartment, amazed at the spectacle below, not fully understanding that it was a true historic moment, but quite able to feel the excitement of it all. Benny Goodman was blaring from a speaker outside Dyers’ grocery store and the streets were filled with a surging crowd of dancing, kissing, hugging, deliriously happy people. “The war is over, honey;”, Mom said, “Daddy’s coming home.”

That moment would prove to be the high point of a long, slow slide into another kind of war, though – a much colder kind of war which would eventually permeate our cozy little world, and one day lead each of us to opposite sides of the planet in defense of the Motherland. In the meanwhile, however, we would have to make do with confronting our new enemies, The Commies, in comic books, movies, and backyard battles.

Once Uncle Joe had The Bomb, my friends, fear and paranoia spread throughout the land. We now had to learn how to ‘duck and cover’ in our classrooms at St. James (a lot of good that would do), and began to read stories in the Times-Union about people building bomb shelters in their backyards. There were air raid drills, when sirens throughout the city would alert all good citizens that it was time to either be ducking and covering at home, or finding their assigned air raid shelters. I was once out alone on the streets during one of these exercises; it was like being in a B-movie about the end of the world.

Much later, as budding young bohemians grown used to the threat of annihilation, we would spend endless summer days filled with angst and longing on the steps of the National Commercial Bank on Pearl Street, bumming Lucky Strikes and typically savoring a page from Gregory Corso’s ‘Bomb’, torn out and stashed in Marty’s wallet, to be retrieved at exceptionally fertile moments. Lines from that poem still reverberate in my head….

Turtles exploding over Istanbul
The jaguar’s flying foot
Soon to sink in arctic snow
Penguins plunged against the Sphinx

There was a rich, dark comfort in those words, like hot whiskey in the belly. We were young men living in the face of doom, surrounded by the empty faces of a dying world as it drifted toward oblivion. We were impatient, irreverent, too smart for our own good; and, some might say, we just wanted to get laid.

Little did we suspect that the bomb had already come and gone. A nuclear cloud, blown all the way from a test site in Nevada, passed over Albany in April of 1953* and collided with a bank of thunderstorms, dumping its deadly contents on us unawares. As full-blooded teenagers, we knew instinctively that the world was doomed; we just couldn’t see, taste, smell or feel the scope of it, nor have any inkling that it was already in our midst. We were waiting for the big bang; we didn’t know it would arrive like an x-ray. But we were cool.

*The nuclear cloud was from a surface shot called SIMON, conducted on April 25, 1953 as part of a series of atomic tests at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. The fallout reached upstate New York thirty-six hours after the detonation, where a thunderstorm brought it to earth in an area estimated to be about 7000 square miles, centering on Albany. A nuclear physicist writing in Science magazine calculated that the thyroids of 10,000 infants in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area could have received from 10 to 30 rads from the radioiodine in their milk, which was contaminated by the fallout – enough to produce from 10 to 100 cases of thyroid cancer over the next 20 years. SIMON had exceeded its expected yield by up to 43 kilotons, nearly four times the yield of Hiroshima.

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The Jelly Donut of Nothingness

Anyone over 30 knows that the human mind and soul carry around all the cravings you often don’t even realize you still have (as any former smoker can tell you); those silent and unnourished (usually) embers remain with you always.

This happens in an especially big way when you leave your culture, with all its attendant ingrained traditional cravings, and go live for any major length of time in another culture, particularly one as radically different as Japan is.

There in that new culture, amidst a full spectrum of unrecognized indigenous cravings, you carry around your old cravings unawares, that eat away at your virtual vitals for decades, like termites at the finest woods, until one day as in my case some majestic tree topples in the jungle of your passions and lets in some light– I know the metaphor has gone wild but that’s the nature of craving– and you realize for example, with startling intensity, that you haven’t had a genuine jelly donut in 50 years…

By genuine jelly donut I don’t mean the standard six-pack, machine-gunned jelly donuts you can probably still get in convenience stores in the US (in Japan, forget even that); I am referring, with head duly bowed, to the truly epiphanic jelly donut that Baker Bill used to fashion by hand in his ramshackle bakery in between his tipsy visits to the World’s Fair bar and pizzeria across the street, and don’t get me started on World’s Fair pizzas, the way Eddie the pizza guy used to make them, back when I was a teenager… You see?

You see? Old cravings, popping up one by one wherever in the world I go, with the World’s Fair pizzeria long gone and Baker Bill even longer gone, so even if I went back to my home town my cravings would be of no avail.

Fact is, cravings don’t do much good, especially when satisfied, which is an excellent reason to leave them behind; but even so, I’d sure like to walk into Baker Bill’s kitchen just one more time and fill up on jelly donuts, then wander across the street to the World’s Fair, 25 cents for a slice a foot wide…

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Fin de Cycle, Part Deux

Bob, you and I were coming out of a Saturday matinee at the Delaware Theater back in ’52 (no doubt after seeing a film in which the good guys got the bad guys) when we discovered that my bike was no longer waiting faithfully in the alley beside the theater, as it always had in the past. I was, to put it mildly, devastated. In fact, it was a turning point in my young life, a moment in which recent events that had made no sense suddenly crystallized into a deep sense of loss. It was my High Noon; a moment of reckoning. I knew that I would never see my bike again, that life would never be the same. My bike had come to symbolize everything I wanted to hold onto, and couldn’t.

I wasn’t alone in my longing. The bicycle as an object of devotion can be traced back through the latter part of the twentieth century, in fact, in books such as Henry Miller’s My Bike and Other Friends, or William Saroyan’s The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, a work in which the author claims that he rode his bicycle so hard that he frequently broke chains, loosened spokes and twisted handlebars. Films such as The Bicycle Thief by director Vittorio De Sica, or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure by Tim Burton, also explore this sometimes irrational attachment to bicycles. In De Sica’s film, the bike is the pivotal element in a struggle for survival, even redemption, by someone living in the crushing poverty of post-WWII Italy. For Pee Wee, on the other hand, comfortably settled in a suburban paradise, the loss of his bike seems no less than the heartbreak of separation from his closest friend. He, in fact, desires his bike above all human relationships.

I have no recollection of what I did after losing my bike that day. I am sure we looked for it for a while, but my heart had already given up; the weight of recent events had made it impossible for me to go off on a heroic quest to recover it, as did the films’ protagonists. My story would not have a happy ending, and I would have no father to bond with in the midst of tragedy; our family was in a downward spiral, and there would be no more bicycles.

Suffice it to say that that is where the adventures ended for me. I was cut loose, I had to walk home, and in fact, had to walk everywhere from that day on. A few months earlier, Dad had packed up his yellow and black ’49 Mercury, sat behind the wheel for a few minutes crying, handed me a dollar bill and told me to be a good boy and mind my mother, then drove off into the sunset, not to be seen around those parts for many, many years. I suppose the blow didn’t really hit me until my bike disappeared, when suddenly I realized that the most important things in my life were gone forever. It was now an undeniable truth that you could not depend on anything or anyone, and, as the wheel of life turned ever so slowly, it would be a long, long while before that lesson could be undone. It would not be long, however, before we left the Golden Age of youth and, destined for a time of testing, moved to the South End of Albany, with all of its stories, some far harsher, yet to be told.

Evidence of the impact of that event surfaced years later during the days when I was an artist living in Manhattan, painting giant pop images of bicycles, motorcycles, trucks – in fact, anything with wheels. This must have satisfied a subconscious longing for the freedom I once had, cruising down Mapleridge Avenue or the glorious Yellow Brick Road. But paint, however beguiling, was no substitute for the real thing. I still missed my bike.
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Life as Part of a Bike

Yes, Mick, it must have been the artist in you that inspired you at that young age to be the first of us to hotrod your bike, take the fenders off, chop and channel and the like, a look that would one day (as with the Frisbee) be thanklessly co-opted and called the “mountain bike.” Though not too young to be in love, we were much too young to patent. Anyway, for a while you had the fastest bike in that part of the east, as the drag races down Mapleridge Avenue quickly verified (Who was that fast rider?), and as commemorated by your virtual bronze plaque in the 505 Delaware Avenue Bikers’ Hall of Fame (second floor, first bedroom on the left).

As for the bike in my own life, it just so happens that in my PureLandMountain post this morning I told of seguing into memories of my trusty scarlet Columbia with ivory pinstriping and then checked in here to find you reminiscing about your bike… (Are we really twins, and you just gestated an extra year and a half ?)

I soon stripped my own bike down to the elementals too, always seeking to maintain that rolling edge; then one day when bike-visiting our cousin Johnny Robinson, Pat Villani and I stopped on the way home at a relative of his who ran an auto reupholstering shop; in about ten minutes he had my ragged bike seat glowing in miraculously really genuine-looking leopardskin, and I didn’t sit down on my bike for days to show it off, it was like Sheena herself riding double with me. More tales there too, but please continue…

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Fin de Cycle

It was 1952, the year that Gary Cooper took back Hadleyville and left his badge in the dirt as he left town in High Noon. The theme song, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’, became a top ten hit, a foreshadow of things to come. In Washington, Senator Joseph McCarthy continued his crusade against the commies as a wave of anti-communist paranoia swept the country. Rock’n’Roll hadn’t been invented yet, and the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, four games to three. I was ten years old, and the signs were everywhere.

The year started out ok from my perspective. I knew there was a lot going on above me in the strange world of tall people, but I was somehow able to fly below the radar, just out of shootin’ range. I was doing well in school, pulling down straight A’s. It helped that I had the one great teacher I would encounter during my long slog through grade school, Sister Marie Frances. She was so tiny her feet didn’t reach the floor when she sat at her desk, but she was larger than life; bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm, and perhaps the greatest single factor in my later decision to become an artist. By the end of the school year, I was convinced I was the next Michelangelo.

I was also lovesick as a puppy over Mary Lane, a fetching blond who was practically the girl next door, and who, with her friends, would join us in nightly ‘make out’ parties on her front porch, where we polished up our kissing technique in games of Post Office and Spin the Bottle. What was great about it, aside from the journey into outer space, was the fact that you would get instant group critiques: whispering and laughter from the opposing team after a particularly sloppy or overly long effort, failure to breathe properly, liplock – that sort of thing. Humbling, but extremely helpful in later life.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I was leading up to telling you about my bike; my closest friend, my trusted steed, my ticket to ride, my instant escape from all troubles. It was my way to reach the sky by flying down the yellow brick road at forty miles an hour, it was the rush of a bone-crushing ride down the capital steps at full speed, it was a bombing run down Mapleridge Avenue and a terror-filled flight through the woods. It was a way into big trouble, but it was also a lightning-fast escape. Out West, I hear, they hang men for even thinking of messing with another man’s bike. As I would soon learn, however, it didn’t amount to a hill of beans back East.

To be continued…

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Here’s To You, Mrs. Robinson

Bob, I have to correct something, just for the record. In an earlier post, The One True Church, I offhandedly remarked that Shirley Connell was my second great love; Dodo Einstein, Albert’s daughter, being the first. Wrong.

My real first love was Mom, that beautiful movie star of a mother, whom I remember gazing up at, moonstruck, as a wee lad. All little boys fall in love with their mothers, I suppose, but she made it so easy.

This newspaper clipping shows her as a young, vivacious waitress, time and location unknown, echoing my earliest memories of her.

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Inventing the Frisbee®

Ah, there is so much, so much… But in a comment, Mick, you mentioned the dump, that seminal source that later led to so many dumps, so here I go with the first rummage…

The major dump in our area was down off Morton Avenue, on the site where Cardinal McCloskey Memorial High School now stands (the original, brand-new CCMHS that I graduated from, built on Elm Street in about 1956, was torn down just a few years afterward to build Rockefeller’s folly, the Albany Mall, which stands now in all its glory about where our various subsequent residences once did, with exception of the one I’m about to mention, on Hudson and South Swan); the dump was landfilling in one of the ravines that traversed the old layout of Albany. A more notorious ravine was the one we moved to in our tragic decline from the glories of Delaware Avenue to the desolate corner of Hudson and South Swan. That used to be the old execution grounds of early Albany: “Take ’em into the ravine and hang ’em…” A lot of nasty folks died ingloriously right about where our bedroom was, I reckon…

Ah yes: the dump, the early template of our eclecticism. That was where we could find old appliances worth a fortune today, old magazines that could ransom ten kings today, old comics I could have retired on years ago, old radios, earphones, batteries wires and sundry other items, you name them, for example the miraculously pristine statue of Saint Patrick I found and took home as a holy treasure. (What do indoctrinated kids know about the future? Those comics would have been way better than a plaster of paris idol that who knows where the hell it is today.) St. Pat was however absent his crookstaff, which God soon provided in the form of a deformed noodle that miraculously appeared in a bag of spaghetti in our pantry, strengthening my faith and proving that God also works through pasta, as Italians and Italian food lovers have always known.

That dump was also where Speed Harris and I invented the Frisbee®. Yes, it was in 1949 (the true birthdate of that world-renowned icon) that in the dump I found the lid® to an institutional mayonnaise jar® and Speed and I began skimming it back and forth to each other over longer and longer distances just to watch it hover magically as we walked home one quiet summer evening.

The lid made a nice noise, too, when we bounced it off the road in mid-flight, prototyping so many of those Frisbee® tricks, little suspecting that Walter Frederick Morrison, who “invented” theFrisbee in 1950 (note date proximity) and later successfully marketed it through Wham-o®, was driving slowly past at the time, seeking a way to make trillions of dollars with no credit whatsoever to me and Speed. Such is life. Speed and I were not consulted and had no idea that Morrison had purloined our device until the “technical marvel” of the Frisbee® came out. At the age of ten I didn’t have a lawyer. (All the many other versions of the origins of the Frisbee® are mere spin, to conceal these facts.) Even now I still have to put the ® after the name. But least I experienced the miracle of spaghetti and got a statue of Saint Patrick, wherever the hell he is.

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The One True Church

Fly the ocean in a silver plane,

See the jungle when it’s wet with rain,
Just remember till you’re home again,
You belong to me

True enough; you were for one brief, shining moment, a tadpole holier than moi. Even though my heart was often in the right place, my feet, for some reason, were often elsewhere. You would likely have found me as an eager young acolyte, basking in the empyreal glow of the Mighty Wurlitzer, wide-eyed and reverent before the tabernacle as the spinning wafer teased out a piece of paradise itself. Unlike over at St. James church, I could get to heaven on a buffalo nickle.

It was our true sanctuary in those days, the kind of place where holiness was measured by the hearts of its brethren. We never had to be coerced to attend services; we volunteered, often begged to attend; and if I’m not mistaken, we may have even occasionally had to be ushered out (had we been too devout, too penitent?). No surplice and starched collar here; we were received as God’s children just as we were, and if anyone ever judged us, they always seemed to err on the side of the angels. Besides, their cross was a lot prettier; it had an eagle on it with arrows in its talons. It was the kind of cross a boy could brag about. You know what I’m talking about, Bob; the home of the bravest of souls, the Sheehy-Palmer VFW Post, #6776.

It was right next door; we could see it from our bedroom window. We would fall asleep to the sound of music and laughter, and then roll out of bed in the morning to load up our wagon with their deposit bottles before you could say ‘banana split’. It was where we could play darts if we wanted to, which could be dangerous at times: I remember a dart sticking out of my wrist as I reached up to pull mine off the board. Was that you, by the way?

I believe the Post was named after Shirley Connell’s brother, one of the brave souls who died in WWII. Shirley, who lived across the street, happened to be my second love (my first was Dodo Einstein, who worked the soda fountain at her father Albert’s pharmacy; she used to ply me with root beer floats to win my heart; it worked). I remember sitting at her dining room table for hours tapping away at her gleaming black Royal typewriter, creating fantabulous stories over which she would then feign delight, melting my tender heart. I could never seem to win her away from her husband Tom, though.

Looking back, one can see that it must have been difficult for Dad, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, to return to the States and resume a normal life as though nothing had changed, after living through horrors we can only imagine. That is why we lived within spitting distance of the Post; his war buddies were the only people who understood, and the VFW Post was indeed their sanctuary, and became for us, our home close to home.

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Across the Street from Heaven

Bob, just to add another touch of celestial glory to your story, I present these images of the very sights you and I would have beheld 1) on our way into St. James Church on a Sunday morning, our minds and hearts lifted up to God, and 2) the florist shop directly across the street from the church, whose magnolia blossoms beckoned us toward the bakery a few doors down, where we would celebrate our faith with largesse that never made it into the collection basket. In the background is the Delaware Station firehouse.

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Holier Than Thou

So much of the aforegoing makes us look so rough-and-tumble, Mick, but as you remember, we could be holy as hell when necessary. However, as to our transcendant piety in the early days (sort of the acquired obverse of our instinctive natures) I believe I was holier than thou (wow, I actually got a chance to say that!), being at that time not only an altar boy of the utmost apparent sanctity – apart from minor commissions like leaving the altar rail doors unlocked for communion supplicants to lean upon (for an unstoppable intramass chuckle with Owen, my altarcrewmate) or trying during retreat to hit the altar bell with my slingshot – but also a choirboy with the purest of altos, aimed straight at heaven. With eyes turned fully Godward I conjured a mean reverence, let me tell you. Somewhere in some Albany basement, attic or garage there must be a picture of me and my fellow altar/choir crewmembers looking our externally holiest.

This general illusion of preadolescent saintliness was amplified by the black cassock and white linen surplice I wore with the big floppy black bow tie over the tall celluloid collar I used to get cleaned across the street from St. James at the steamy Chinese laundry that as far as I knew specialized in altar boy collars. It was next to the bakery where early in the morning we got the best crumb buns in the world so far, to have with cocoa after communion. (Actually there was a shotgun pharmacy in between, where I got my lime lollipops and jujubes.) What an international fragrance filled that little Chinese laundry when you stepped into the steamy, laundry-jammed room and the smiling Chinese grandpa, who never said much, would take your numbered ticket and hand you your perfectly laundered, freshly starched, tall white altarboy collar (little did we know we were wearing the sacerdotal duds of the middle ages, when people walled themselves in even more than they do now…)

And then stepping next door into the bakery, back when they still used their own genuine yeast in their breads and pastries, then kneaded the precious goodies by hand and watched them bake like babies growing, they cared so much because they were selling directly to those who bought their goods and shared in the delight, the bakers lived in the neighborhood and had a direct stake in its happiness, as did all the other store owners around there, except maybe the A&P, which seemed a little ritzy to me then… How I’d love to walk around in it just as it was back then right now, though…

To get back to the cocoa: appropriate to the hellish metaphor involved, the cocoa was brewed down in the basement of St. James by a volunteer horde of big sadistic Catholic grandmothers dressed in white, inventors of a new and cryptic form of suffering, who stood cackling around giant steaming cauldrons whence they served to us slavering communicant kids – who therefore hadn’t eaten anything since dinner the day before and now had to eat breakfast in about 5 minutes before class (is there anything hungrier than a kid after communion who’s had fresh crumb buns in his school bag for over an hour?) – big heavy white mugs of cocoa that had been boiled until hot enough to scald God. There were many blessed blistered palates those mornings, borne in saintly silence throughout the day, and it wasn’t from taking communion with a sinful soul…

At any rate, like all who grow on multiple levels, I was soon confronted with a moral dilemma. Being as I was a permanent fixture on the Sacred Bleeding Heart of Christ Total Shitlist (offshoot of the Legion of Decency) for my various altarian escapades, it was one day announced before all in class that I and one other similarly grievous altarian would have to serve evening mass every night from now until Christmas or be drummed out of the corps. As God had of course planned it, however, the announcement was given only a week or so before the pagan event of Halloween, so it was basically a choice between God and bags of free candy with all my friends out in the autumn dark of truly ancient realities. God lost, big time, as she knew she would. In another post-Halloween announcement before the class, I was officially removed from the list of Kids God Loves and put on the list of Kids Needing Miracles.

Needless to say, I survived the experience, and still have hopes for some kind of heaven following the mortal one I’ve variously known. I did like that surplice, though; I can’t stand buttoned collars anymore, let alone any kind of tie. Also, I’ve preferred my cocoa lukewarm ever since… and those crumb buns, man, they were all the proof of God I ever needed, really. They don’t make them like that any more.

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Young Rascals

Bob, I felt it was important to include the only photo I could find of the scene of the crime; that is, the Carl’s house in Schodack Landing. Oddly enough, it happens to be a double exposure, which to me feels even closer to the dreamlike quality of memory. Standing in the back row, from left to right, are: Jackie, me, Billy, you, Maryanne and Mikey. Don’t know who the other two kids are. Look closely and you can see the railroad ‘bridge in the distance’, and in front of it, the River Road.

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Through the Looking-Glass

Maybe the combined talents of Ansel Adams and Vincent vanGogh could have captured enough of the imagic of that full-moonlit night on the sleek frozen river to merit mounting on a wall in a room somewhere with flash lighting, but as for the night itself, all it was and meant, forget it.

That mythic experience took place 50 years ago now, when things were less crowded in general (we were then being taught in school that the world population was 2 billion people); but even so, skating was never as uncrowded as it was that night on the river. My memory of it is tinged with the feeling of going out into the icicle-air of no streetlights like we had in the city, the only-the-moonlight of the countryside, the long glass river a mirror blown clear of snow by winter winds, and the feeling involved in sitting on the banks and lacing up before we actually began skating on a diamond…

All our previous growing-up skating had been fanatically done on artificial city park ponds that were flooded each winter by the fire department, as in Lincoln Park, or earlier for us, the small playground rink up behind Public School 23 (near where I’d shot out the streetlight). But though we had grand and frantic times on those rinks, they were always crowded and the ice rough and well used, with edges in every direction.

Every deep skater’s dream is to skate on ice as smooth as the top of a diamond for as far as they want to, without crowds around; we were in that dream come true, we were gliding through skaters’ heaven on the river that night, could have skated a good part of the way to New York City if we’d wanted, being young and lithe and full of strength and energy in that moment’s paradise as we were, on that gleaming highway between shore and island, gathering a lifetime’s worth of memory in a single night…

One of the things I remember most intensely was the power of that moon way up there in the dark blue night air among the stars, and how it lit up the ice, silversleek as far as the eye could see downriver, our skates making that special gem-quality ice sound of fresh perfection that all skaters yearn for, that deep, crisp, unchecked boom to the bladed feet as we moved along smoothly as ever we had in our lives: we could go and go, skate along this silver mirror as far as our hearts desired, twirling and swooping, racing and gliding then scraping to a halt in splendid sprays of white and going on again, miles and miles — it was the paradise of ice, until a few miles along I plunged through the mirror.

I’d skated over toward shore, probably in my usual way daring the ice, when the ice took up the challenge and one of my legs went through about up to my thigh. The water was only about as cold as liquid nitrogen, nothing for a teenager of those days. I managed to roll myself out and skate onto the thicker ice toward the center of the river with one pantsleg icicling fast. I kept warm by skating hard, not wanting the experience to end. For a while after I was the one who fell through the ice on the river that night, but I’ve always thought of it as the night I skated on a diamond river, stretching out unending beneath the high full moon like the magic road to this whole lifetime…

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Railroad Man

Bob, one of the best ways I can think of to honor the man is to post a poem from your book, Further on This Floating Bridge of Dreams, which sure do him proud. Thanks for the green light.

Old Tracy
bent and toothless
black as coal
railroad roustabout
from the first highball sign:
“I been in all the 48
‘fore you was born.
Worked American 4-4-0’s
way back in the nineties,
went through on Prairies, Berkshires
ten-wheelers, Santa Fe’s Mohawks
(counting the tips of his knobbly fingers)
the New York Central
Empire State Express 999
even that Union Pacific ‘Big Boy”
twenty four wheels, 6000 horsepower
(out puff the buckled cheeks, each eye
a headlight)
by god, she was a engine!
Go straight uppa mount’n,
pull the mount’n up behind.”

In his shack down by the New
York Central Hudson River tracks,
in the coal-stove heat,
curly-cornered photographs
held crackling streets alive with carriages and drays
and black-suited, stovepiped, substantial folks
on trains with puffing engines
gone on down the line.

We snuck some brandy
played some lantern-light poker
while he told us stories
of the country in his head
train sounds in the night
hand to his ear
in the doorway.

Years later
back from some travels
I heard he’d been found the winter before
fire gone out;
whole life on the railroad.

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Back to the River of Dreams

Using what little willpower I have left, I am nailing some of those pandora’s lids back on for a moment, so that we can return to the river of dreams (called Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk by the Mahicans, the mighty Hudson by others), lest an important piece of mythohistory be left behind. This one, a simple, staggeringly beautiful memory, begs revisiting; one which, thinking about it today, I find myself wondering if it really happened at all.

I can still see the four of us (me, you, Jackie and Teddy) in Aunt Madeleine’s kitchen after dinner on a deep winter’s night in January, somewhere in the early fifties. We are babbling excitedly as we prepare to head out into the bitter cold for an adventure we had been anticipating for days. We wrestle ourselves into just enough warm clothing to make it possible to stay warm and still be able to move, then put on our ice skates.

Jackie has decided that the river is frozen through; the ice is now safe and smooth enough for us to travel, by the light of a full moon, downriver several miles to visit a place that until now had been kept hidden from us, a place they had been hinting at for days, a place that only a few people on earth even knew about. We were going to visit old Tracy’s cabin.

Gliding on the moonlit surface of one of America’s great rivers was magic enough, but when the starry silence was ruptured by a New York Central express train thundering along the banks just a hundred yards away, it was a moment of surpassing awe. Passengers traveling upstate from Manhattan could be seen through the steamy windows of a dining car as it raced by in the night. We stood for a moment in the moonlight, hardly able to speak, then skated on in silence.

After some distance we came upon a marshy area along the riverbank, frozen into the ice and dusted with newfallen snow. A small, squat wooden building sat tucked into the shore, hard by the railroad tracks, a warm glow from the windows reflected on the icy river, tufts of smoke rising from a makeshift metal chimney in the roof. In spite of the frigid temperature, our race downriver had made us surprisingly warm. Someone must have heard us crunching up the riverbank, and when the door opened, we entered another world, another time.

Inside that shack was the magic of times gone by, and the old black man in the overalls who shared it all with us that night, for all I knew, could have been Uncle Remus, or Dan’l, the ex-slave who taught Mark Twain how to tell a good story. There was a glow in that room, and it wasn’t just the pot-bellied stove or the kerosene lanterns. After taking off our coats and sweaters, we settled in around the fire for a night of story-telling, as if in a dream. Sipping hot tea and brandy, we sat and listened to tale upon tale of Tracy’s long life on the railroad and the river. We passed around faded photos of Albany underwater in the Great Flood of 1913, of horse-drawn liveries arriving at Union Station; we witnessed train following train, carrying long-gone friends, rich and poor.

Then, suddenly, Tracy stood up and said, “Ok, time fo’ the likrish stick!”. While this sounded like a great idea to me at the time, I noticed that Jackie and Teddy were trying desperately to keep from laughing, so I became more than a little apprehensive. Tracy then went to a cupboard and brought out a long, black, shiny stick and handed it to me with an air of mock gravity and a twinkle in his eye. “Go ‘head, take a lick,” he said. With no way out, I closed my eyes and ran my tongue tenuously along the “likrish stick”, and as I did, the room filled with laughter. Opening my eyes, I said, “What’s so damned funny?” “That’s a bull’s dick!”, came the reply, and then more laughter. I had been initiated into Tracy’s river family, one of the most elite clubs in the world.

I don’t remember skating back up the river that night, but I’m sure when we finally got to bed I sank into my pillow with a little bluebird on my shoulder, singing lullabies in my ear as I drifted off to yet another dreamland. Once again, it seemed, we had stepped out of the twentieth century and come back to tell the tale. By the way, it’s stories like this that have caused my kids to think I grew up in the Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes I think they might just be right.

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The Torch of Cool

During the Inquisition that was my high school days, now way back there in mythohistory along with Achilles, the Battle of Thermopylae and all that other stuff I’ve forgotten about ever since, I remember being puzzled as to why the grownups, in the microseconds I gave it any thought, were so revolted by my super-slick D.A. haircut with rat-tail, my cherry-red sweater-vest with the black-gray-and-white-striped border over my knockout black shirt with the gold front panel tucked into my supercool slim-belted 14-inch pegged white flannel slacks with rat-tail comb in the back pocket and cuffs breaking perfectly on my high-sided ox-blood cordovan ducks with a diamond shine. The attitude of the nearly dead was a closed book to me. But in the fundamental certainty that unites all teenagers I was sure that anyway the old was gone forever and the new was here to stay. This was it. The style was set in stone.

I’d be wearing pegged pants and cordovan ducks and a DA haircut when I was 80, and my kids and their kids would too, all the way to the end of time, because who would ever need more than life requires, which is this: to be the coolest of the cool for as long as you live? And when one light-years-distant day I had miraculously reached the ancient age of 65, I wouldn’t have to go through all these weird reactions toward the familiarly cool duds of the new era.

But now that I’ve passed that half-century mark once so far away, the hair’s a bit thin for a DA and rat-tail, even if I had the desire, not to mention the time, the grease or the warped sense of history to create one; and pegged pants, I’d have to let them out at the waist and thighs, probably even the ankles; and red sweater vest over black and gold-panel shirt, forget it, I haven’t got the time, let alone the interest, to defend clothes like that. Besides, I haven’t seen a pair of cordovan ducks for nearly 50 years now, and anyway what the hell would I want to look like a 50’s teenager in my 60s for? And who would know but other 60-year olds from Elm Street, which is also gone?

Besides, now that I’ve passed my Achilles equivalency, and had hands-on experience with the Thermopylae factor, and having realized all too clearly that I myself am now one of the nearly dead– in other words, now that I perceive (as only the nearly dead can) the fingerpoppin’ transience of things, especially teenagers, and teenage fads, I stop and look at the teenagers grungeing along around me, the girls with hair like they’ve just been saved from drowning, and the guys with hair like somebody stomped through wet concrete, their bodies layered in sweats to here, hanging out of these pants you could catch a cow in one leg of that end cuffless just past the knees, and wearing shoes my great-grandfather for godsake would have thought the ultimate in style and I can’t help it: I want to say something corrective to the daughters of today as they sag along like 14-year-old bag ladies, I want to say something dissuasive to the sons as they slag down the street like the ultimate rag men, but what for? Teenagers can’t hear.

So instead, like King Lear I cry to the darkening sky, ‘Whatever happened to coolness?’ Of the rains and the winds I ask, ‘Where is the cool of yesteryear?’ But the weather does not answer, any more than it did for Lear or my father or his father before him, when they too stood stumped on the doorstep and watched their kids fade out of reach in some incomprehensible fashion, and it comes to me that each new group, in stepping out thus, flares then in its one bright brief moment of flaming youth before growing into age, which in its turn carries the torch of the one true cool to eternity; that maybe only great-grandfathers in the great beyond can look at what kids wear nowadays and smile, smile at how it has all come round again, just like they’d always known it would, to one the true style, the cool that is in heaven.

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Ducklore Galore

Bob, thoroughly enjoyed reliving our last great bridge adventure, and I do believe you can rightly claim to be the only one to have done it wearing baby ducks; or at least the only one who lived to tell the tale. My guess is I was wearing Keds, but the details escape me this late in life. It seems you’ve opened a Pandora’s shoebox in my head, though, for I’ve been obessively scouring the web for a glimpse of that legendary shoe and I, too, have come up empty. Could they have been a purely local phenom, and gotten lost in the closet of history? Say it ain’t so, Joe.

For what it’s worth, I’ve brought out a pair of shoes that might be more like what you’re looking for; they’re very comfortable, and they seem to resemble those cordovan beauties you mentioned. Try ’em on, walk around, see how you like ’em. For what it’s worth more, I have a bit of cordovan trivia for you, then I’m moving on to more esoteric ducklore.

Genuine Shell Cordovan, the most non-porous leather known, is distinguished by its lustrous waxy finish, superior durability and suppleness, readily conforming to the shape of the wearer’s foot. It is a soft, fine-grained, colored leather produced mainly from the shell of a horse butt, and is known for taking on a rich lustre that improves with wear and polishing. The name derives from Córdoba, Spain, where the leather was first produced.

The shell of a horse butt? Who knew horse butts came in a shell? Be that as it may, it’s a damn good thing the word wasn’t out on Elm Street, or the shine would have been off those puppies right quick. We thought they were ducks.

Now let’s delve deeper into duck history: let’s examine the legendary D.A. haircut, the haircut that launched a thousand greaser movies and tv shows and set the terms for teenage manhood for years to come. The haircut that became a worldwide symbol of teenage resistance, that enabled us to break loose from those deadly men’s haircuts of the fifties and, for all we know, led to the Beatles’ moptops and on into hippie longhair legend. We do know that from the fifties on, the greaser was the hero and the jock became the nerd. It was a simple formula: the bad boys got the girls. We surfed on that wave, baby, and we rode it all the way to shore.

The initals, of course, stand for duck’s ass, which is what this cut resembles more than anything else on earth. How someone could have invented it, I don’t know, but I do know that there had to be a Catholic school somewhere in his past. During my own tenure as a Catholic schoolboy, I learned, among other things, that nothing drove the nuns nuts more than a D.A. haircut, including pegged pants. Your hair had to be long and well-oiled, and it took great effort and care to keep it all in place for an entire day, requiring many trips to the boy’s room. Some were Brylcreem men, others wore Vitalis, but I was down with Dixie Peach Pomade. Way down.

I’ll never forget the day when Sister Clotilda (her real assumed name; boy, did we have fun with that one) was walking up and down the aisles during a test and as she came up behind me she must have been driven into a sexual frenzy and, losing all control, grabbed me by the duck’s ass, yanked me out of my seat and dragged me to the front of the classroom, berating me passionately all the while for my degenerate ways. I didn’t really mind her grabbin’ at me that way, but what really pissed me off was, man, she really messed up my freakin’ D.A.! I forgive her, though, because I’m now old enough to understand what a powerful effect it must have had on her; after all, look what Travolta’s D.A. did to Olivia Newton-John. Of course, I would have preferred Olivia, but hey. Grease is the word.

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Bridge Adventure Redux, with Ducks

Not the bird kind, the shoe kind, where you use the upper case: Cordovan Ducks. (Even now, that phrase has a godly ring to it.) History. Cordovan Ducks, the NY teen male footwear of the gods that I sported in the 1950s. They and their fashion sequel, Baby Ducks, both purchased in their turn with my own hard-earned paper-route money and worn with maximum Pride of Teen, were the stuff of life to me. I carried my own shoe polish everywhere I went and shined my Ducks whenever there was a smudge (or at least as often as I combed my hair) to keep those beauties as pristine as Cordovan Ducks had always to be in yesterworld. Needless to say, I wore no other footwear and woe to any who came near those gem-quality surfaces.

Faithful readers of these humble chronicles are by now likely wondering why in the world I’m talking about shoes (particularly, in this case, Baby Ducks, the more mature teen form of the deific shoe) in connection with a bridge. It is because I must establish the flawless qualities of Baby Ducks and the slickness of their ironlike soles – to say nothing of a necessary touch of 1950s fashion (since unequaled, in my opinion) – before I begin this brief tale. And because when we “did” the bridge for probably the last time I was wearing – you guessed it – Baby Ducks.

It was a very cold, clear and windy fall day in 1956 or ’57 when we set out, the mixed country/city boy gang of us, to do the bridge one more time. We conducted some requisite general teen-dallying on the bridge proper, doing that nothing in particular we always did to use up the time we had in such vast quantities, then we headed across the bridge on the under-catwalk, leaping and fearless as usual. When we reached the other side, in quest of continued variety one among us noted that there were steps heading up along the arching span itself (see Mick’s photo), which towered another 30 or 40 (?) feet above the tracks.

There was no question posed, we didn’t stand there discussing any chickeny dos or don’ts, there were no wimpy whys and why-nots, no shilly-shally shall wes; no, we set out at once, as one person heavenward, to climb beyond the steps onto open steel and cross that mother of a bridge at the very top because it was there, because out across that rivet-studded, no catwalk, no-handrail top was our test, our arms-as-at-our-sides-as-possible manly challenge, and we would do it cold, right out of the moment’s box, in a strong icy wind above the implacable tracks to the right and the whitecapped water far, far below the bluest of skies…

By the time we reached the top of the first arch – which was the ‘easier’ part because we were walking into the direction of our leaning – there was no turning back, which would be much harder, and not only for the sequential turnarounds required (and who would turn first?); we would also then have to do what lay ahead in any case: walk down a slippery slope in slick shoes, leaning backward. So we walked on, murmerless.

There at the top was indeed the test we each were after: Can I stand here buffeted by the wind, keep my balance and look around me at the majesty of this broad perspective that now and forever belongs to me by virtue of conquest, or will I fall to my knees in a quivering teenage mass and cling to cold steel for dear life, calling to god and my mother or anybody please to deliver me from this slick, windy hell I don’t deserve, I’ll be a good boy? And then we headed up the central, larger arch.

Since I’m writing this, you know I survived, and that insanity has many forms. And that Mick survived too (though I’m not really sure about his choice of footwear that day). Amazingly, in fact, all the other guys survived, though I don’t know where they are now or if they’re writing or thinking about that afternoon, or what their footwear was then, either. Yes, thanks be to God and her motherly oversight we all made it across, over the very tops of the bridge, and didn’t sweat it a bit, at least in my case until some 40 years later and beyond, when every once in a while I wake up in the middle of the night – always in slick Baby Ducks atop one bridge arch or another – and pray that I may get back to peaceful sleep, I’ll be a good boy.

Important interpolation: Some laments are bigger than others. I Googled “Cordovan Ducks” so I could get a photo of actual Cordovan Ducks to use with this post, Ducks must certainly be in some hip, rock-and-roll-remembering rich guy’s collection, or certainly in a world-class museum like the Prado (since Cordoba’s in Spain) or a cool art gallery like the Guggenheim or the Getty, or in one of Warhol’s collections – he was negative-hip actually, but still I can imagine him secretly yearning for a pair of genuine Cordovan Ducks as cool validation… Or how about a photo from a museum of cultural essentials or a compendium of the history/ style/rock and roll/spirit/epitome of the 1950s or something, one of the coolest durations of at least the last millennium, but there were only two mentions of “Cordovan Ducks” in the entire cyberarchives, and both were from my blog, PureLandMountain.com. Pathetic. You’d think the world would do better with such crucial aspects of its heritage. The photo I finally had to settle for, though acceptably in the shoe ballpark, and Cordovan, is in no way a Duck, so do not be misled.

It’s all up to me now, I guess, Cordovan Duckwise. I don’t know what to say about how history disappears not only so fast, but so completely, unlike genuine memories.

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trust your instinct, kid…

“‘Imagine a Bridge in the Distance” was one of the most evocative, scene-setting, best titles ever and went perfectly with that first heart-stopping photo!! Carried you right headlong into the tale!! How come you changed it? How come you took that way from me and everybody? Huh? Huh? Blue Steel Rollin could serve beautifully for any of your numerous pending RR-related memoirs, but there’s only one bridge with that beauty you just built… you gotta trust your instinct, kid…”

That was taken from an email I received from Bob this morning after he discovered my late-night title change in the preceding 2-part series. Out of respect for my older brother and his more advanced literary sensibilities, I have restored the original title, even though this necessitates the mothballing of “Blue Steel Rollin””, a title which would have done the late Woody Guthrie proud. He’s right; the bridge is the thing. There are some tales itching to be told which might live up to the promise of that secondary, slightly more seductive title, but until that inspiration comes along, it’s being shunted off to the railroad yards. Much obliged, Bob.

In the process of making that change, however, a conflict developed in the republishing which caused the loss of several of our readers’ comments, and to the authors, I apologize. If there is some way to restore them, I welcome it.

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Imagine a Bridge in the Distance, Part II

Being light, agile and foolhardy enough to make the aforementioned leaps, we eventually arrived at our destination: the top of the first of a line of massive concrete pylons (see image in Part I) stretching across the Hudson River, holding up both bridge and train at a height of 135 feet. In other words, we were looking down at the river from the top of a 13-story building, and we were actually beneath the railroad tracks; they were perhaps 3 or 4 feet above our heads; we could probably touch them if we had any desire to stand on one another’s shoulders. Between the ties you could see the bright blue summer sky.

The five of us – you and I, Jacky, Teddy and farmboy/part-time daredevil, Charlie P – sat there for awhile, collecting our collective breath and chattering wildly about the ships going past underneath, when suddenly Jackie interrupted: “Shhhhhh! Train coming!” We sat there transfixed as a low and distant rumble became more and more distinct, soon turning into a ground-shaking roar. As I sat frozen to my square foot of concrete, the entire universe began to tremble; the bridge, the pylon, the ties, the rails, even the sky was turned into a roaring, thundering, rattling crescendo until the train broke forth above us and shook us to the bone. We were in an absolute fire-and-brimstone hell, sucked into a tornado that wouldn’t let go (funny how tornado survivors always say it sounds like a freight train). I was certain we would all die; there was no way out. We were being run over by a train.

Just as I dared to look up at this flying beast, I was struck by what seemed at the time to be a mortal blow. I had no idea what had happened, but it felt like my face had been attacked by a flying jellyfish. In fact, a large blob of axle grease, jettisoned from the train’s underbelly, somehow flew miraculously between the ties to find my face at the exact moment when I lifted my unsuspecting head. My head, like the prophets of old, had been anointed with oil.

After an overly long period of laughing and scraping, we were ready to move on. Back onto the catwalk to head further out over the river, presumably to get a better view of things. We were on a roll, and getting cocky. As we reached mid-river we spotted a small, single-engine plane flying downriver towards the bridge. He was awfully low, flying just above the water. As he got closer, we began to get a bit nervous. “He’s gonna hit the bridge!”, “He’s way too low; he’s gotta pull up!” This little rocket was headed right for us, and before we knew it we were standing bolt upright looking straight down at the most beautiful little plane, waving to the pilot who smiled as he flew beneath us, not more than 20 or 30 feet below. In less than an hour we had been run over by a train, and flown under by a plane. These country boys sure knew how to rock and roll, and rock and roll hadn’t even been invented yet. But the fun wasn’t over.

We managed to climb up onto the tracks at that point, and with no trains in sight, began to toss whatever odd objects we could find into the river below. As I recall, it took a disturbingly long time for those objects to hit the water. Charlie spied a very large freighter heading down toward us, probably from the Port of Albany, and instantly conceived of a brilliant plan; a plan that could only be hatched in the great, wild, lawless country we now inhabited. We would all stand on the downriver side of the bridge and wait for the ship to come through. At the moment the bow appeared, we would all start to piss down the middle of the deck and whoever could make it all the way to the stern would win.

Five very intense young boys began their masterpiece on cue, and all went considerably well until they reached midship. At that point it became clear that a good portion of the crew was taking a leisurely break on deck, sitting about smoking, laughing and talking. All of a sudden it began to rain right down the middle of their conversation, and a very strange rain it was. Five lines of precipitation streaked down their backs, legs and heads, probably even putting out a cigarette or two, but there was nothing they could do but stand up and shake their fists and curse at us in some foreign language, all to no avail. We were petering out one by one as called for by the rules, and of course, Charlie the mastermind won the challenge.

It has occurred to me that it may have been a Turkish ship we strafed that day, because many years later I was sleeping on the deck of a ferry on my way to Istanbul when I awoke to a burning sensation on my right arm. After putting out a cigarette which had burrowed itself into my coatsleeve, I looked up to find that I was surrounded by a group of Turkish soldiers, all laughing at my misfortune. I remember that one of them had a particularly intense look of satisfaction on his face. Could it be?

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On the Road

Beautiful, Mick. Talk about evocation. That bridge lives in my mind as an icon of all that can be conquered if you survive (one of our Albany friends, who later worked on maintaining the bridge, fell to his death from it, as finely detailed to us by one of the locals), and I’ll let you go on with your tale of our bridge adventures; but just as if we were remeniscing in person, already there are several points regarding which I have my embellishment brush immediately at hand, and John’s store is one of them.

John’s was the only ’emporium’ within many miles of our cousins Jackie and Teddie’s house on Route 9J, the original old road along the east side of the river. Aunt Madeleine would now and then send us all to John’s, a mile north of the house, for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of hours of peace and quiet. “Always walk facing traffic,” she’d say, as she sent us off. A mile was the distance you’d walk for a Camel in those days, but we did it for Aunt Madeleine’s Luckies. And the exploratory fun involved.

Psychologically, though, a mile was a huge distance for us, not because we had short legs or it was all that far (we hiked much further distances all the time), but because of the summer-shimmering highway and how long it takes 4 or more pre-teen boys to traverse the distance with all the fascinating distractions that lay between.

But at last, thirsting and exhausted from walking five miles in the space of one and spending a day in the time of an hour, and with the whole return distance yet ahead we’d arrive at John’s, ready to party with our leftover pennies, as soon as he heard us and came down from the house. John’s Store, with its old solitary gas pump, was the only source of gas along that stretch of road, but even so I don’t remember anyone else ever being in the store at the same time we were there; it was a very small shop at the foot of the steep slope up from the narrow, dusty pulloff.

Slantways across the slope to the left of the store a wooden stairway led up to John’s weathered house. (The store/house layout was somewhat like the motel/house arrangement in Psycho.) We’d yell and John would come moseying down, a gentle solitary man who for whatever reason preferred to eke out a living there occasionally selling gas and the soda and snacks of those days. Years before, Route 9J had been superseded by route 9W as the state had grown away from the riverside, which was now traveled mainly by the New York Central Railroad line to NYC.

So only locals and local deliverers passed John’s place on the old two-lane highway, and he was always delighted when our cluster of kids would suddenly drop in on summer afternoons to spend a while looking at stuff and talking. How I’d love to step in there just once more. He had one of those primitive slot machines that you’d drop a precious penny into the top of (nickel or dime if you were rich) and the coin would bounce around on the pins for a few thrilling seconds, and if it came out where you hoped with both fists it would, you’d get 10 times your money back in merchandise. From what we had left after losing enough to still buy soda, I’d always get birch beer or crème soda, my favorites, and be no less contented than if I’d won it. John’s was always a bargain.

Over time, John’s store (what was his last name? I seem to recall it began with an ‘S’) became a magical terminus for guykids like us on the road along the river, and it never left my mind. In my world travels over the many years since, I’d been back there mentally numerous times, so one summer afternoon about 40 years later, when I was staying with you in Castleton and I had our cousin Cathy’s pickup while she stayed in Albany, I went off on my own to find John’s place once more.

I knew right were it had always been, beside the railroad bridge whose photo begins your post that begot this one. I drove back and forth several times past what must have been the spot with the bridge overshadowing, but there was no visible sign that anything at all had ever existed on the now completely overgrown hillside; there wasn’t even a pulloff anymore. (Which now makes me wonder how in the world John had ever chosen the site for a store… that would be a fascinating story in itself…) But even though it was a sweltering summer day – as it always had been when we went to John’s – I wasn’t going to come all this way, from all those places through all those years, to be denied. I stopped the pickup at about the place I thought the store must have been and climbed into the thickening woods there…

Many meters up on the hillside I found parts of an old woodstove and scraps of decayed timber that must have been the house; I edged down from there to where the little store must have been and searched around, but there was nothing anymore except the fun I remembered. So I stood in the woods with my eyes closed and put a few pennies in the slot before plunging my hand into the ice-cold water for one last birch beer. With it I toasted John, for all he’d meant to us.

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Imagine a Bridge in the Distance

Bob, it’s high time we took a side trip down the Hudson River to Schodack Landing, a place you mentioned in an earlier blog (The Gun That Won the Imagination); a place not far in miles, but an entire universe away from our comfortable world on Delaware Avenue. This was a land where country boys actually lived the kind of hair-raising adventures that us city boys could only dream of, the kind of adventures that mothers should never, ever, hear about.

Fortunately for us, we seemed to spend a good deal of time there during the dog days of summer (Mom needed a break?). Our cousins lived right on the river, and from the front porch we could see Schodack Island, ancient haunt of the Mohicans; and before that, running right along the riverbank, were the New York Central railroad tracks (Grandpa Robinson was a conductor on the 5 o’clock run to New York City, you may recall; we’d lie on the grass and wait for him to open the back door and wave as he went by); just in front of the house was the river road, a ribbon of hot concrete. As we awoke each morning, there it was arrayed before us: the road, the tracks, the river, the island, and off in the distance, the old Castleton Bridge, where trains coming from the Selkirk Yards crossed the Hudson River on their way to Boston or New York. More inviting paths to danger and adventure couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world, and who better to set out upon them each day than a band of pirates and wild Indians such as us?

Sparks started flying as soon as we arrived from the city, when our cousins (mostly boys our age) and their band of brothers would drag us out into day or night to launch one hell-raising mission or another. Country boys, it seemed, were well-organized and committed to their mischief; not a day would pass but that they weren’t dreaming up some new way to ravage the countryside (city boys, on the other hand, were known to waste hours just trying to decide whether they even wanted to do something). It may have been boredom, it may have been that they were often far from the prying eyes of adults; or it could be as simple as the fact that there were virtually no police. Anywhere. For miles. We had somehow arrived in the legendary land of the lawless.

One fine day we set out to conquer the Castleton Bridge. We began by riding our bikes several miles up the river road to its base, conserving the rest of our energy for what lay ahead. We would leave our bikes at a dusty little shack beneath the bridge, where old John’s country store held the greatest reward a tired and thirsty cowpoke could ever imagine after a hard day’s ride: a big, red, beat-up old soda cooler full of ice and water, with dozens of glittering bottles suspended just beneath the surface. It was a tricky enterprise, though: you had to choose your soda in advance, because there was no time to decide once your hand was beneath the surface of the frigid waters. One could almost hear the faint strains of “Nearer, my God, to Thee” in the background as you plunged into the deep; there was no surer path to heaven than an icy cream soda on a mid-summer Hudson River morning.

At the top of the hill, the bridge stretches out as far as the eye can see. The river glistens far below. “There are only two ways to cross it,” our country comrades explained; “you can make a go of it on the tracks, but if a train comes while you’re out there, there’s nowhere to go but down.” The other option, which didn’t appear to be a whole lot better, was to use the catwalk suspended just below the sides of the bridge, consisting of an endless line of six-foot marble slabs a couple of inches thick and suspended by a steel grid. They were hair-raising enough to walk on, but absolutely heart-stopping when, further out on the bridge, we began to realize that quite a few of them were missing and the choice each time was to jump to the next one and move on, or chicken out and go back. The further out we went, the greater the distance to the landscape below, the harder it was to jump. But there was no turning around; we were city boys.

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My Winchester ’73 – Part II

[Spoilers herein: Read Part I first]

There are moments in a boy’s life – generally summer or autumn evening moments –when he is walking home alone, worn to his essence at the end of a day’s all-out play, his heart as always overflowing with all the possibilities vouchsafed him by the universe, that give his life the extra lift that causes him to reach instinctively for his slingshot as he looks around for optimally exciting targets in the endlessly questing hunt that is the very reason for such moments…

That was the kind of evening it was, with cool prussian-blue sky and whispers of night air through crisping tree leaves, when all is otherwise silent, folks are at dinner and the streets are empty, leaving a young boy to nothing but his own devices at a time when the world is entirely his de facto oyster; he looks upward…

It had also been at evening a few weeks before, when I’d first shot out the naked streetlight bulb above that dark corner by our hangout woods, the corner didn’t even merit a streetlight cover, just a big open light bulb up there on a pole like a giant great idea, that called to me like a Buffalo to Bill, that made such a satisfying POP! when struck dead on with a slung marble, plunging the whole corner into true darkness of my own making… through which I then walked – much larger for the one-shot achievement, Annie Oakley’s little brother – home to dinner on time, all in a boy’s day’s work.

As I headed home past the house on the corner, the only house on that corner, hidden away in a now (thanks to my slingwork) even darker grove of trees, someone called to me from the darkness there. It was a woman’s voice, calling me, little boy. I went through the hedge into the darkness. On the low house porch a woman stood in the light from the half-closed doorway; all I could see was a silhouette. She said she’d seen me shoot out the light. The time before too. I was nailed. She invited me in to talk about it. I followed her inside. She was older than my mother but younger than my grandmother.

When she opened the door my jaw fell. From out of the darkness I had never seen an inside of a house like that inside of a house. Flowers were everywhere, bright flowers of every color: on the walls, hanging from the ceilings, on the floors, in other rooms, on the table; there were bits of flowers all over the chairs, scraps of flowers on the floors, flowers in vases, tall flowers and bouquets and… I stood there dazed with guilt amidst all these flowers, I stood there speechless, staring, waiting for the scolding.

But it didn’t come. Instead she asked me why I had shot out the streetlight. I explained the idea of it, the Buffalo Billness of it, the need for a guy to keep his aim and so on, all that I’d understood to be true thus far, which at that moment somehow didn’t seem to be enough. I understood nothing of housefuls of flowers. She seemed to understand, she didn’t look angry. She explained to me that she lived alone – no, she wasn’t married, no, she had no children – and she made flowers for a living. And living up here on the edge of the woods alone like this, she liked to have that street corner light on so she felt better.

Then at my question she smiled and showed me how she made flowers out of crepe paper, silk, all sorts of materials I’d never seen before, that in her hands changed from whatever they were to what flowers are. She made roses, petunias, poppies, lilies, irises, they were there all around her, filling that house on the corner behind the trees, and all this time I’d had no idea.

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was indeed awed at her being a sort of goddess who could make flowers, but at the time I was mostly grateful to her for not turning me in. I never shot out that streetlight again; in fact I once stopped a slinger friend from shooting it out. We moved away as our fortunes declined not long after, so I never saw or spoke with the lady again, but I always remembered her. It wasn’t until many years of growth later that I finally realized what she had really given me that night: an entire house full of flowers, forever.

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The Night I Saw Santa

Ah yes, the night I saw Santa. Each Christmas eve, I remember, Mom and Dad would set out coffee and donuts for Santa to scarf down complacently after unloading everything except my Red Ryder BB gun. I remember I gave him a hard time about that when I saw him, mouth full of coffee, powdered donut sugar on his nose and all in his beard, I gave him what for but he fudged, wouldn’t go against our parent’s wishes even if I gave him my slingshot. So much for Santa; I knew then that Mom and Dad were really in charge.

I recall that spirited exchange every year at about this time, though I get to bed early these days so I no longer see the old gent. I do leave him some plain green tea and a Japanese dessert that’s rather neutral-tasting (by Western standards; you can’t get genuine old-fashioned donuts here), but he never touches it and I don’t blame him, when he can still get traditional donuts and coffee somewhere else on earth. I’m almost as old as he is now, so I suppose anyhow he’s cut way back on the desserts.

From over here across the Pacific, on this snowy-mountain Christmas eve I have to say how wonderful it is even at this age to have a little brother with whom to share the magic of knowing that there really is a Santa Claus. Sorry I couldn’t wake you up that night, Mick. But maybe if you stay awake tonight…

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Santa Says Hello

Every year at about this time, we get out the boxes of Christmas decorations, and every year at about this time I receive a gift from the ghost of Christmas past. For some reason I am always surprised, even though it is the same gift every year. The story begins on Christmas eve, 1945.

You may recall, Bob, that we had taken a solemn vow that night to stay up and wait for Santa, due in around midnight, no matter how difficult that might be. We would somehow keep each other awake until the magic moment, then go out and say our hellos; we were sure he wouldn’t mind, in fact he’d be downright glad to see us, regardless of what Mom might think.

The next thing I knew, you were shaking me and whispering, “Mick, Mick, wake up! Santa was here; he came at midnight, but you were sound asleep and I couldn’t wake you up so I had to go out and help him and then we sat in the kitchen for hours having milk and cookies and talking and then he left and I got to watch the sleigh and reindeer fly off into the sky and he waved goodbye and yelled Merry Christmas and I tried to wake you up but you wouldn’t wake up!”

To say I was crushed would be an understatement. Through my tears I said, “No, no, no it’s not true, you’re lying, you never saw Santa, you’re lying!”. You responded, “I can prove he was here. He lost one of his boots going up the chimney, and I found it. See, it proves he was here.” Then you pulled out the most magical object I had ever seen in my tiny little life. Santa’s boot.

Years later I realized that it wasn’t his boot at all, of course. It was a red plastic boot which probably had contained candy or some such goodies. At that moment, though, it had an aura of inestimable magic; and every year, when I open one of the boxes, I am caught off guard by that aura, still lingering after all these years. I’m sure that if you saw me at one of those moments, you’d still see the wide-eyed wonder of a little boy.

Thanks, Bob, for my never-ending Christmas present.

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Life on the Hudson

From 1863 to 1948, the Hudson River Day Line transported passengers along the Hudson River to points between New York City and Albany. Known for the elegance and speed of its steamboats, the Day Line was a popular way to travel, whether you were off on a day’s outing, embarking on a summer retreat, or just needed to reach a destination downriver. I can remember boarding the steamship Robert Fulton, which plied the waters between Albany and New York and closely resembled its sister ship, the Alexander Hamilton (seen above), which carried tourists from New York City to Bear Mountain in its day.

Bob, I have a few fragmented memories of the Day Line, and I’m sure, as a big brother, you can embellish on those memories. Feel free to fill in the blanks. I remember standing in the bustling ticket office (which later became L’Auberge des Fouges restaurant, where Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of New York State, would someday be dining on your salads), and staring down at the beautiful marble mosaic of the Half Moon, the ship that brought Henry Hudson himself to the mythical city-to-be. I also remember standing on one of the rear decks when we were finally underway, watching passengers toss pennies into a then-crystalline river, where as many as a dozen young boys dove to retrieve them. I had to be only three or four years old at the time. I sit here marveling over the fact that as children born into the twentieth century, we had the opportunity to taste the nineteenth, and then write about it in the twenty-first. Mark Twain must be watching over us, smiling.

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Being Software

As navigator and colleague in those autumnal sorties, I should add to the aforegoing a key technological discovery on our part that enabled the clean getaways whence we could safely turn and watch our flamework: we somehow discovered that we could delay ignition for crucial extra seconds by wetting the matchhead with saliva. I can still taste the excitement of those matches. It is through such research and development, and intrepid application of the results, that society advances into a future where the streets are still full of leaves but the kids are all indoors and I haven’t seen a spool in decades.

Yeah, we kids were forced by circumstances to create our own means of having fun in the daytime and the nighttime, entertainment not yet being handed on a liquid crystal platter to everyone within mindshot… Minds weren’t yet plugins; we were our own software.

But it seems to me, Mick, that it was just you and I who did (or instigated) these things; I don’t recall ever ‘walking into’ any such events already under way; maybe you do? The Case of the Flaming Thruway comes to mind as a possible exception, though I’m not sure the statute of limitation has expired on that one, so I’ll say no more…

We were mad kid scientists and the world was our laboratory. We climbed, we dug, we exploded, we explored, we built, we created, we mixed, we tore down, we carved, we sped, we sharpened, we dove, we plunged, we tested everything. And everything met our requirements. We certified the world as a worthy app.

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The Firebombing of Mapleridge Avenue

Yes, Bob, your slingshot legacy stands unchallenged, near as I can tell. Had we been born into an Indian village as we so often dreamed, you would have had an honored seat in the sweat lodge, right up there alongside the elders. Many a marble found its mark, but then so did many a rock, punch, kick, and well-chosen word, in both directions. We were boys through and through, and pretty damn creative and obstreperous ones at that. If I’m not mistaken, Mark Twain found much of his material for Huckleberry Finn in such goings on.

Born into a world war as we were, though, we were naturally immersed in its zeitgeist; we simply absorbed it and reinvented it to suit our needs. Books, newsreels, movies, radio, comics, even a father who had gone off to war and come back a hero (and remained in close communion with his fellow heroes at the VFW Post): there was a great deal of material to work with in those days. We fought cattle rustlers and injuns on the plains, germans and japs on the hills and in the trenches, survived by our wits alone in the jungles of the Normanskill (mostly summers and weekends), and even found time to attend school at St. James Institute now and then. The Delaware Avenue Era was a boy’s dream, and though we little suspected it at the time, the best part of it would be ending soon enough.

Among the many memorable events of that era for me were the bombing raids that we conducted during at least one of those autumns back in the early fifties. We had actually conceived of a way to emulate the great raids of World War II right in our own neighborhood, with simple materials that we found around the house. And though I believe we invented this technique ourselves, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were little Japanese and German boys bombing London and New York in their neighborhoods as well at the time.

We began with a wooden thread spool, a large one, about three inches long, without the thread. Then we took a thick, heavy rubber band, cut it into a single strand and attached each of the ends to either side of one of the holes in the spool with a carpet tack, so that it wrapped tightly around the other end, covering the hole. Slide a wooden kitchen match into the other end, head facing out, and pull it back in the rubber band, and you have a long range bombing device. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Every autumn, leaves would begin falling from the maple trees lining Mapleridge Avenue, and as those leaves were raked and swept into the street (for collection?), our reconnaisance team would monitor conditions while we would patiently wait for the perfect moment to launch our mission. The leaves had to be dry, the piles had to be large, and there could be no cars. It should also be noted that Mapleridge Ave was only one block long.

When the moment arrived, we would gear up, roll out the red Schwinn bike, and, with me in bombing position astride the bars and you, Bob, in the pilot’s seat, we would launch our raid. Heading west from Delaware, cruising low and slow near the center of the street, we began to strike our targets. Pulling back on the first match as far as it would go in the spool, and aiming just in front of the pile, I’d release. The match would hit the rough surface of the asphalt and ignite, bouncing fully aflame into the mountain of dry leaves, and do its work. Then on to the next pile.

When we reached the end of the street, we’d stop and look back for one last look at a street ablaze, and, enemy bases destroyed, fly home down by way of Simpson and Albion before the enemy fire engines arrived. Now, looking back, I am willing to admit it was probably more Little Rascals than Jimmy Doolittle, but we did the best we could with limited resources, and no one else seemed to be stepping forward to defend us against our foes. We had to go in there and do the work with whatever means was at hand. It seems to me that kids today are at a real disadvantage compared to us, though; behavior such as this would not even be considered, and they are forced to carry out all of their missions in digital format. I feel sorry for them, but perhaps it’s better that way.

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Hey, Wild Bob, wait for me!

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My Winchester ’73

For a kid with no Red Ryder BB gun, defenseless in the world, there was only one recourse. I don’t remember specifically who my hero was , that nameless elder gentleman somewhere one summer (I salute him now, where he is in heaven) who kindly took the time and pains to show me step by step how to make the finest slingshot a boy could make with his own hands, the Winchester ’73 of slingshots, which I painted green because that was the only paint in the cellar.

From selecting the finest wood (cherry, in this case, from a big backyard tree I knew well of) in the optimally forked shape and precisely incising the bark to receive the slings, using only genuine rubber (bicycle inner tubes) – not synthetic rubber (car inner tubes), which looked good and a lot of kids used, with wimpy results – and a soft but stout leather tongue from a good workboot (the local dumps, as they so often did, came in handy here), all tied together with strong cord, ultimately to propel the finest of ammunition: pocketfuls of pristine catseyes I’d won playing marbles with Paul G who lived on Mapleridge and had the finest marble collection around, housed in a big, beautiful red pipe-tobacco can with a handled lid.

My Winchester went with me everywhere, slung just right in my back pocket for the quick draw that was key to a shotslinger’s survival. Maybe I’m not proud of all the things I did with my sidearm; I’ll be the first to admit that there are times in a boy’s life when issues of morality take a back seat, for whatever reason: maybe you’re in love, maybe you’re angry, hungry or tired, maybe it’s growing pains and there’s always the social struggle… maybe if time could be reversed for a moment I’d take back some of those things, done out of childhood emotion, curiosity or ignorance – which are pretty much aspects of the same thing – but I’ll keep the pride I took in my accuracy. And I’ll keep the notches in the handle.

One thing I wouldn’t take back (and that I can admit to now, the statute of limitations having expired about 50 years ago), even though it involved twice breaking the solitary streetlight on a corner that darkened impressively with one shot from the concealment of the woods not far from Mary Myer’s candy store, was the second time I broke the light, and the life-changing moments that transpired afterward.

It’s getting dark now; maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.

[Part II here.]

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The Adventure of the Flying Deer took place, as I recall, in the woods behind Graceland Cemetery, not far from Bowley’s [sp?] Hill, (another child-famous place, then soon to be under the Thruway), site of the Snow Crust Incident and the Gold Ring Mystery, among others hopefully to be chronicled here.

Eddie and Joey Olander and I had been tramping around in the woods that morning searching for bear tracks and beating the woods, hopefully driving the bear toward you while you guarded against any escape. (We older guys always got the good jobs.) We drove out the buck instead, which you let get away, for crying out loud.

I can still feel the edgeless awe with which you shared the flying deer experience. A lot more awe than we’d ever felt in church. From our very early days indian lore and the magic of the wild had been a complete way of being for us, a way influenced around then by the Straight Arrow ‘Injun-uity’ cards we used to collect from Nabisco Shredded Wheat cereal boxes. We used to do indian stuff every chance we got: sneak silently through the woods, run long distances breathing just through the nose, making hatchets and bows and arrows, chipping flint etc. Survival stuff. And we did manage to survive.

It wasn’t till about 50 years later that Aunt Madeleine [my mother’s older sister] finally confided to me that our grandmother’s mother had been a “squaw,” as she put it. When I asked her why in the world, given Mick’s and my passion for things indian all those years (a lot of our escapades were headquartered at her house), she had never told me this. “It was always an embarrassing family secret,” she said.

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Crossing Delaware

e were such brave warriors back then, prepared at the first hint of danger to strap on a six-gun, slap on some war paint, dust off the sling shot, and march into battle. We never knew where the next deadly challenge might take place, but we would know the call when it came: a low whistle outside the bedroom window, or an insistent, solitary crow cawing in the backyard, and we were gone, like thieves in the night.

One summer morning we awoke to the news that a black bear had been seen wandering along Delaware Avenue, and, glancing quickly at each other across the breakfast table, we knew that this was a moment when we had to spring into action. We had to save not only our own family, but the entire neighborhood, from this menace. Perhaps the entire city.

Excusing ourselves with as little fuss as possible, we wandered casually into our bedroom, closed the door and began to gather everything we would need to track down and eliminate one very large black bear. Combat boots, hunting knives, knapsacks, a compass, a magnifying glass (to study bear tracks, of course), and canteens to be filled with ice cold water.

After making several sandwiches and stuffing them in our knapsacks, we said our farewells and headed out to round up the Olander twins and a few others to complete the expedition. Soon we were marching into the woods, brothers in buckskin, savages to the bone.

We had trekked for about an hour when we sat down starved and exhausted on a tree that had fallen across the trail, to eat pemmican and wild berries (or was it peanut butter and jelly?). After discussing our new strategy to spread out in the woods and surround the bear, thus guaranteeing his annihilation, everyone began heading further down the trail, leaving me behind to close up the rear to prevent any chance of escape.

I hadn’t waited very long when I heard shouts coming from somewhere downtrail, and, reaching for my hunting knife, I turned in time to see a full-grown buck deer, probably an eight-pointer, galloping straight at me. I was frozen, transfixed, not knowing what to do, and, not having the time to do it anyway, I just sat there. Just before he reached me, he lifted off and soared over my head like one of Santa’s reindeer, landing gracefully on the other side, running full tilt down the trail and into the woods.

In the clamoring excitement of your return, I remember thinking that a young Indian brave would have received his adult name from an event such as this, and Flying Deer, I decided, would suit me just fine. And though we never did see the bear, we returned home as triumphant hunters, for we had experienced a supernatural event in that forest, and the spirit of the deer would be with us forever.

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Ghost in the Glass

Under that bridge across the Normanskill was where I first heard the word “television,” at the same time as I saw my very first television, which looked something like the one at left, a 1949 model. Must have been around then that I saw it. I remember the cabinet as being longer and narrower though…

Strictly a radio/movie kid, on that occasion I was playing with kids whose father I guess belonged briefly to Sheehy-Palmer VFW Post #6776, of which Dad was one of the founders and the first Commander (as per the photo below). I probably met the kids at a Post event and went down to their house to play, the only time I ever went there, I guess they must have moved away not long after. They lived under (or very nearly under) the bridge in a very ramshackle house, but there right at the front of their living room was what they called a “television.” It had a round screen, with a magnifying lens in front.

They turned it on to show me, and ve-e-r-r-r-y slowly there appeared a ghost in the glass, a blurry movement of light I couldn’t make out in the day, especially up close. It seemed to work, though, and to be different from movies, but it wasn’t entertaining, whatever it was. I was not impressed. We went outside to play. Within just a few years, though, I’d be hanging around other kids houses that had TVs, in hopes of getting even a single glimmer of Howdy Doody.

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Our Own Private Oz

The Yellow Brick Road, the old Delaware Turnpike, runs south from the hamlet of Normansville to Elsmere, and was abandoned in 1863. We took it over in 1951. The two bridges over the Normanskill Creek can be seen below, where many a boyish adventure was had.

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Not the Yellow Brick Road, the Other One

I think it might have been Speed Harris. His mother would have killed me if she’d known, but I think he survived pretty much unscathed since he somehow landed on me and eventually became a lawyer, so she never found out. Good thing, too; she was mad enough at me when I finally succeeded in making gunpowder in her basement.

This was all brought back to me by the primally evocative photo you posted earlier, Mick, of the Normanskill Bridge, not the big new upper one, but the old original lower one, that passers-through never saw but that we local kids knew like the yards that had apple trees. (And more tales we have yet to tell, in these hallowed chronicles, of all that transpired down there along the river…[cue theremin])

Our favorite road down to the river, the Yellow Brick Road that went down on the right, we took because it made such a great motor noise against our bike tires. But it was long and curvy and slow. When we weren’t just meandering and wanted to get down to the river urgently – to fish or something – we’d use the old road, that went straight down to the left, and was pretty much unmaintained.

I guess Speed and I must have been in a hurry to get down to the river; that was probably about the time I’d discovered rock crystals in the shale cliffs on the north bank: that was like finding diamonds in the rough, and time was a wastin’!

Anyway, there we were on my bike, Speed on the crossbar, streaking down that steep-grade hill at top speed when my purple jacket, which I’d lain across the front fender to protect it from Speed sitting on it, suddenly caught in the spokes and Speed and I were early astronauts, together leaving vapor trails as we continued down the hill toward re-entry, landing and coming to rest at last in a tangle of arms and legs amid the rough gravel and chunky potholes.

It was a painful experience for me, especially for my right forearm; but from here, now that I know I survived, I’m glad it happened. If it hadn’t, I’d never have remembered that day. Thanks for the bridge, Mick.

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The Gun that Won the Imagination

Mick you did it again, you did it again, you always do that: you stick one magic phrase somewhere innocuously in the middle of your post somewhere for me to find and it evokes a rush back to wells of emotion I haven’t slaked that particular ancient thirst from in 50 or 60 years, and this time the phrase was “Red Ryder BB Gun.”

Upon reading it I vortexed back to when my entire 10-year-old being was devoted to getting a Red Ryder BB Gun, that strong, sleek, repeating-action rawhide-thonged beauty that would save anything in peril; that New York prairie equalizer that would carry me safely into the future, intrepid boy…

The ads were in or on the back of every comic, to meditate on in that post-comic reverie of all the adventures awaiting a boy who owned one of these beauties and I begged Dad to get me one, pestered him, I was saving my pennies but dollars were beyond heaven and Dad had dollars I’d seen them in his hands so I became a mosquito in the shape of a boy, focused on that one and only forever desire of mine (this being prepuberty): I showed him the ads, I pointed out the low price, the beauty the sleekness, the way in which it all led perfectly to the future…

But he would have none of it. Wouldn’t entertain it for even a moment. He was just back from the World War, where he’d spent three years and all his innocence, beheld to the soul what guns can do; he’d survived the Battle of the Bulge and beyond into the heart of horror, had all those photos of frozen German soldiers with the luger and the Nazi officer’s bayonet and the multi-signatured Nazi flag in the cardboard box in the attic that he never opened, that indeed when he left, he left behind…

So I never did get a Red Ryder BB Gun, which from this perspective was, I think, a wise decision on Dad’s part…

All the more magical, therefore, were my trips to the country house of our cousins Jackie and Teddy, down on the Hudson River above Schodack (across from the long island where we used to steal corn), right in the middle of timeless indian hunting grounds. Every kid in that region had a bb gun, there was always an extra to be had for me to use and off we’d go, hunting intensely, never getting anything but what fun it was, what adventures, and then came puberty.

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Yeah, I remember Graceland Cemetery. Elvis’ ghost still hovers at the gate, I hear. You may also remember Paul, the caretaker’s son, who one Christmas morning sat and shot out every one of the ornaments on their Christmas tree with his new Red Ryder bb gun. It must have been tough to grow up in a cemetery.

There is one other story about the place that has been around for years, often called The Bride of Graceland Cemetery, authenticity unverified.

One evening a man was driving past the cemetery in the rain and spotted a young woman standing by the gates wearing a wedding dress. He stopped and asked her if she was alright and offered her a ride. Once she was in the car, he gave her his coat to help keep her warm, but when they arrived at the house where she said she lived, she left without returning his coat.

The next day he returned to the house to get the coat and an older woman answered the door. When he told her the story and asked for his coat, she said that was impossible, for her daughter had been dead for years. He didn’t believe her, thinking that she may have been too embarassed about the previous day’s strange events, and that there must be more to the story. Eventually the woman gave him detailed directions to her daughter’s grave and told him to go and see for himself.

When he got to the grave, his coat was draped over the gravestone.

I love stories with a happy ending.

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The Newspaper of the Living Dead

You forgot to mention one other place on that route, Mick:

At last we’ve got some weather I can call cold, I who grew up in upstate New York just south of the north pole where winter weather meant daggery January winds racing howling down from the north with ice in their teeth as we teens stood thin-clad on the thickly rimed streetcorners at night bein cool, hangin out, it just doesn’t seem to get that cold any more, a situation that frequently prompts my intro: “Why when I was a boy…,” begetting that roll of the teenage eyes in the vicinity “Oh no, not that story again, about the weather…”

Yeah, and when I was 9 years old my brother and I used to take turns going out at 5 a.m. in NY winter blizzards to deliver the morning newspaper before going off to school, and those were blizzards like you don’t see anymore. One place we used to deliver the papers to, in the heart of wintry darkness, was the big old cemetery out beyond the edge of town.

None of the dead subscribed, but the cemetery caretaker did, and he lived in the big old Addams family type caretaker’s mansion with its pointy spires and tall narrow windows, right in the middle of the very big graveyard beyond the high, creaking, speartipped, slowly opening cast iron gate, through which you went alone down the long wide deep-snow walk in the dark beneath the high arching bare-limbed, howling and arm-waving elm trees, toward the big plate-glass-windowed doors that glowed with a sinister nightlight there in the distance through the screaming wind that spit snowflakes in your face; and right from the first screech of that heavy gate there began to sound from the lower depths of the house an infernal howling, a devilish moaning, long and lowing, yearning for the flesh of a young paperboy…

What ghosts must live here after all these years would race unbidden through my 9-year-old mind surrounded by graves, the keepers of the air brushing my face with the whispering touch of the dead…

That soul-chilling yowl was the eccentric caretaker’s herd of Great Dane hellhounds, each twice my height on its hind legs, yearning pent up all night in the silent house until there was my sound…

Then as I approached their home the hounds arose from the cellar depths and began their clacking galloping howling traversal of the long wood-floored corridor leading from the back of the house to the front door, timing their journey perfectly in the dim light of winter dawn so that just as I reached the doorway and was about to place the newspaper on the doormat safely out of reach of the drifting snow, all those massive front paws would strike the giant plate glass windows of the doors like bearclawed catcher’s mitts and send a whang of a bonging gong shuddering thoughout the dead-air house and me and the immediate universe and the dogs would commence to boom their deep bass roar-bellows over and over, slavering the glass, embodying the ice-toothed morning air as I turned and hastened toward the gate, thankful that again the glass had held, that once more I was beyond the monsters’ reach, at least until another wintry dawn…

Those were interesting times… And that was cold that was cold… You don’t get weather like that anymore…

Why, when I was a boy…

[posted an earlier version of this on PureLandMountain.com]

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The Prince and the Papers

I remember those long, delicious evenings buried in piles of comic books, then loading them into the wagon for the trek home, where the marathon would soon begin. After reading Captain Midnight, Plastic Man and Batman late into the night, one of us would be up early the next morning, filling the same wagon with newspapers to start the paper route. I remember many a cold, snowy morning that you would take on that task when I was too sick (or tired) to get out of bed.

We delivered the Times-Union to most of the houses on Delaware Avenue from the VFW Post all the way out to the Normanskill Creek (inset), and side streets connecting. It was a long haul made easier by the reward at the end of that journey: the Schermerhorn Nursing Home, where for many of the ancient residents we were the only children in the world, and were thus received like heirs to the throne of England. (It was the same nursing home, by the way, where we would visit our great grandmother on her 103rd birthday.)

Though it was great fun to be the center of such attention, I must confess that my little capitalist heart was often focused on the money that was showered upon us (we were so cute!), and how I would spend it next door at DeRossi’s grocery store, home of the most delectable treats a little prince could imagine. Whichever of us had the route, according to my phonographic memory, the other always got some of the loot. Ahh, those banana nut cakes.

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Comic Frames

Oh the magic of comics – hard-bought with pennies gathered from little tasks and errands – how those bright pages could fill a kidmind… and then the delight on later rainy days of phoning other comic-laden kids to find somebody who wanted to trade comics (Billy Cullen and Davie Nolan had great collections), then gathering your whole own collection together to bring to the other kid’s house (the trade instigator always did the traveling), when he’d go through your stack and set aside the definites and the maybes while you did the same with his stack.

Then you’d both go through it all again to be sure, while maybe his kid sister or brother hung around being a pain in the proceedings, then you’d both count your final tally of definites for trading and he’d have say 15 definites with 6 maybes, you’d have 17 definites with 9 maybes, when would come the delicate part of the negotiations and considerations (do I really want this one, these are new comics, these are beatup, this is a double issue), carefully balancing the trade right down to rips and dogears.

Sometimes things would reach an impasse, you’d implacably want only 12 of his, while he definitely wanted more of yours, so he’d drag out his toybox and offer you a boat or a car or something.

Then back home on the bike with the comics safe in the basket and soon after in your mind.

Things were clearly framed in those days.

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Captain Marvel Eyebrows

As a kid I would always hear from a certain person, slightly older than me, that I had eyebrows just like Captain Marvel, and though it made me feel a bit self-conscious, I secretly turned it into a link with my invincible hero and it thenceforth provided me with an extra measure of mystical protection.

Not long after, feeling those invisible oats, I started chasing two pretty little girls down Second Avenue with an earthworm in my hand. I figured my job was nearly done when they cut down Hampton Street toward their house; little did I know that they were about to unleash a life form that was further up the food chain than mine.

Just as they reached their front porch, the door flew open and a German Shepherd the size of a race horse came flying out, fangs all a-gleamin’. “Sic ’em, Sinbad!”, one of them ordered, and I was off like a rocket, just a few steps ahead of the beast as I shot out into the street. I never saw the car coming.

In the next instant I was sitting in a magical flying chair, soaring into the sky as if in a dream. I hit the ground running, all the way home and up the stairs, doors tightly locked and covers over my head. I had escaped the jaws of death. Hadn’t even thought about the car.

Finally screwing up the courage to look out the living room window, I couldn’t believe what I saw. A crowd had gathered, and among the crowd were police cars, an ambulance, and various officials who were busy talking to a woman (the driver of the car, as it turns out). They were all looking up at me.

I don’t remember letting them in, but soon the living room was filled with people, and the medical folks were doing all sorts of tests on me to see what kind of damage the car had done. They found none. Captain Marvel’s sidekick would live to see another day.

While all of this was going on, you, Bob, walked into the living room, utterly amazed, holding three brand new comic books. It was a moment of such gravity that you held them out to me and said, “Here, you read them first.” This had never happened before, and perhaps not since. But you had provided the perfect medicine, for I was soon lost in other, more important adventures; the dog, the worm, the car, were all suddenly things of the past.

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Iceberg Looming

Funny, I remember the Fellini scene as well, with the ice looming up before me. I may have been on a tricycle but don’t remember. My head had a way of finding hard objects, though, so I may have been propelled by some invisible force. The work of sorcerers, most likely.

I thought they were still delivering ice to homes which still had iceboxes, it still being the Great Ice Age, just before the Great Age of Refrigeration. My daughters think I grew up in the Little House on the Prairie when they hear stories such as this, or the one you mentioned about Freihofer’s bread wagon. But do tell it anyway.

By the way, I never knew that was Mom in background. Sue would have been about a year old.

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Sometimes Never

I was 7, you were right around 6. So much, so much to bounce off of in these photos I haven’t seen in sometimes 50 years, sometimes never. I remember your constant double black eyes, how all the grownups used to comment on them first thing; gained you quite a rep, as I recall. I remember thinking that you might have them forever. I also remember the block of ice onto which I pushed you, as if in a scene byFellini; were you on a tricycle? Probably my tricycle, thus the push! I believe you already had eyes of blackness at the time (from the plunge off of Villani’s porch?) and this sort of made them a regular feature.

But questions loom: What was a block of ice doing out on the sidewalk in front of Einstein’s? Was this before or after I launched you down the long hall stairs in the baby carriage? Whence, really, the push? We knew so little of each other then…

Still, dig that jaunty, inyerface, hands-stylishly-in-pockets pose in your previous post, at the age of 5 or so. Already you were the way you are, me already the way I am here in Japan (pointlessly). You smilingly in the party mood at Pat Villani’s birthday party. I remember having suddenly to wear these weird hats out of nowhere among full-grownly female women (the men were always at work); birthday parties always were (and still are) baffling to me, as you can tell by the concentration of attention on my face, in childhood quest of some underlying element of truth to all this dubious ceremony with only caloric reward…

Is that Mom in the background, holding Sue?

That might well have been the summer you stampeded the Freihofer’s bread wagon horse with a fully chewed piece of Dubble-Bubble and got away clean.

What curious tykes we are still…

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Improbable Wizards

The Blog Brothers at Pat Villani’s birthday party, 1948.

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Bad Luck and a Very Hard Head

I certainly understand your response to that photo of Dad; I had many of the same feelings when I saw it. Though it appears to be a previously unseen picture, however, it is actually a detail from a photo that’s been in the family for many years (1). Through the miracle of Photoshop, we are seeing him up close for the first time. It was taken on the day he was sworn in as Commander of the Sheehy-Palmer VFW Post (a place which will get greater coverage in future ‘posts’), and is significant not just because of his handsome face, but because, one, you are in it and I’m not, and two, it captures your almost supernatural ability to appear angelic in public (2).

Aside from blatant firstborn son favoritism, though, one likely reason I’m not in it can be seen in another picture taken at that event (3). Notice the two black eyes, the ones I had for almost a year, all due to a series of unfortunate events which befell me in those dark days. This sordid tale begins, as I recall, when you pushed me into a block of ice in front of Einstein’s drug store (by the way, how did he find time to run a drug store and do all of that relativity stuff? And why did he name his daughter Dodo? What a sense of humor that guy had).

Then, just as those first two shiners were fading away, I fell (or was I pushed?) off Pat Villani’s front porch, thus delivering the second set. The final beauties were bestowed from on high when a towering construction of chairs and other objects collapsed under me just as my fingers reached the key hanging over the door in our apartment, apparently in a bungled escape attempt. (Had Mom locked me in for some reason?) Two things are clear, though: I had a run of bad luck, and a very hard head. This would be evident in other periods of my life as well.

The only other memory I have of the day in the photos is walking down Delaware Avenue with you, Mom and Sue, you mocking me all the way because I couldn’t say Colonial, the name of the restaurant where the event was being held. A few minutes later there you were, all angelic.

One other bit of history: The building these events took place in now houses a Vietnamese restaurant named My Linh, where my daughter Nell worked for several years after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York. I’m sure she will be amused by this scene from the Brady brothers saga.

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From the Heights of Age

Sitting in the loft of my house on a mountainside in central Japan, far from my childhood in much more than years, I turned on the computer and there in your previous post was Dad just as I remember him, 40 years younger than I am now, him already gone from this world 25 years– what a shock it was, seeing his face just as I remember it from 60 years ago, his face that was exactly that way and that young for so brief a time, that John Wayne of a face that in all its handsomeness and strength came home to us from the war and walked into our living room, where you recoiled at this sudden male in our house being so familiar, you saying “Who is that?”

You were only a year or so old when Dad left for the war in Europe; I remember probably the last time he was with us before that, one icy cold morning while we lived on Southern Boulevard, when from the ground floor back door I watched with all a child’s pride as Mom came gorgeously down the back stairs in her long red silver-fox-collared coat, Dad just behind her so splendid in his uniform, must have been going to some celebration before he went off to war…

I remember later in that same house Mom now and again packing boxes of special things to send to Dad somewhere in Germany, she explaining that he couldn’t get these things there and would be very glad to have them, me feeling upset that she was sending jams, chocolate and other precious things away forever… (She’d later laughingly tell me so many times as a child the story of how I had one day hidden a can of peaches that she’d never been able to find…)

Seeing Dad’s youthful face now in this photo that I think I’ve never seen before (from deep in one of Mom’s collections somewhere?), that face that for 60 years I hadn’t seen as it was then, I knew it at once from somewhere deep in my heart I haven’t visited for a long time. I sat and stared at him over the 60 years since, from so many worlds away, remembering, seeing your face and mine in his own young one, the way I used to sometimes in the mirror, back when I was his age…

I told him of my joys, my regrets, and thanked and forgave him.

And Mick, thanks for the surprise.

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One Morning After the War

I remember the Luger well. Darth Vader himself would later tap into its dark power, which was mesmerizing to us even at that tender age.

Brings to mind my memory of meeting dad for the first time when I was three years old, early one morning after the war had ended, you and I asleep on the daybed in the living room over Einstein’s drug store.

In the thin morning light of my memory, the sound of knocking at the door roused us out of our sleep. We awoke to see a soldier, duffel bag on his shoulder and ribbons on his chest, standing in the doorway. “Hi, boys.”, he said, and I started to cry. I was scared to death. I had no idea who this man was, but he seemed to know us. He sat down on the bed while you tried to calm me down; Mom came running into the room.

The memory fades at this point. As usual, you will have to fill in the blanks.

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Two Very Live Boys

Indeed I do remember that poem and the impact on my boybrain of its paradoxes, but I only remember hearing the first four lines – from a slightly older and more worldly kid – and being enthralled by it where I stood, with pockets full of slingshot, pebbles and lizards; then sometime later I heard the two lines about the deaf policeman, which gave me a sense that the poem was somehow growing along with me; the last lines I never knew of before until I read them for the first time right here on the reunification of disjointed time that is The Blog Brothers.

What strikes me most about the poem now is how oddly predictive it was of all the death we defied over the years until finally arriving largely intact here on the elder shores of sanity. I know boys in general go through some hair-raising stunts, usually involving cars (there were a lot of those in our history too, and many friends who were suddenly no longer with us); in our case, though, the stunts involved just about everything two hyperinventive young guys could think of. Which may not be all that unusual for a couple of smartass curious males, close in age, who are pretty much let run free from childhood on.

These days, though, recollection of those moments makes me break out in a cold sweat, which is conveniently warming at my age, eases my now pointless cold feet (where were they when I needed them?) and makes all the more precious the fact that we have survived.

One very warming example is the morning we found that beautiful Luger in the attic…

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Night of the Living Dead Boys

Convenient memory lapses aside, I know who tossed the monkey, and I salute you for it, brother. You’re right up there with Jacques Tourneur, the French director who provided me with another favorite mental melodrama (see Post-Cinematic Stress Syndrome). I do have a question regarding one of the details in your version, though. I had always thought that the woman who lived next door saw me hanging out the window and called Mom on the phone. Hmmm. I suppose we could ask Aunt Dorothy.

Now let’s see if you can verify this one:

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys began to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise
and came to save the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this story is true,
ask the blind man, he saw it too.

I don’t actually remember this happening, but I tend to believe it, because it sounds like something we might do. Whaddaya think?

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Confessions of a Monkey Tosser

Although I don’t remember any specifics at all in re the tossed monkey caper, and although this should not be construed as an actual confession, I somehow believe it must have been me who tossed the monkey: not only because it sounds like something I’d do, and not only because you and I did such things to each other along our early way, but also because you beaned me with one of your damned alphabet blocks (those things hurt) and nobody grownup did anything about it (that I remember clearly; injustice leaves permanent scars).

The resulting window derring-do made you a family legend, in any case, for which you likely have me to thank. Good thing Aunt Dorothy came along when she did, though, to spot your tiny fingers digging into that second-story windowsill. As I say, I don’t remember a thing about the monkey, though allegorically I do remember the real eggshell Humpty-Dumpty that Dad had made (before he went off to Germany, where at about that time he was taking part in the Battle of the Bulge) that was hanging on our bedroom wall… I remember so much else from that time on Mountain Street during the war years, which memories I shall delve into here from time to time as they epiphanize, for example the cranial oleomargarine escapade…

As to the tree house, some years later we had built one in the tree out back of the Post on Delaware Avenue and were so excited we begged Mom to let us stay home from school one Friday and play in it, which we did with another hookeying kid (Eddie V?), who, when he came out back to join in the aerial fun, told me that a boy had just come to our front door. I ran out there to see if it was somebody else playing hookey and found that it was goody-two-shoes John M from St. James grammar school, who had been sent by the fearsome Mother Superior Terror of God Incarnate, who devilishly suspected shenanigans on our part (both of us sick at the same time??) Actually, it was the only time we’d ever done that. We were good, if dangerous, students.

I arrived breathless at the front door just as Mom at the top of the stairs was assuring unctuous John that you and I were extremely sick in bed. There was no way smarmalot John would ever cover for us. We were doomed. That whole weekend was spent in the black depths and roiling bowels of doom. Nothing much happened on Monday, though; I’d have remembered if it had been anything like the hell I expected.

Just goes to show that even in retrospect, hookey is way more memorable than school.

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screaming monkeys

Agreed, those were awfully dark thoughts being foisted upon millions of innocent souls, and sad to say, it goes on to this day. It seems, though, that we were somehow inoculated against those ideas, and were able to take the sting out of most of them through our own brand of precociousness. Consider, for instance, the image of me climbing out of my crib and through the (second story) bedroom window on Mountain Street to rescue my poor stuffed monkey, who was still lying on the sidewalk after being thrown to his death from the front porch a few minutes earlier. Hanging by my fingertips, I displayed no fear of heights, no fear that I would come tumbling down, and absolutely no understanding of the gravity of the situation. Rock-a-bye baby be damned, I was going to retrieve that monkey. The perpetrator was never apprehended, by the way, and I believe the statute of limitations has passed for first degree monkey murder, in case you are still tormented by the case.

I rummaged through my memory bank on the Tree House Hooky Caper and came up empty; someone else must have beaten me to that particular safe deposit box. Gimme the facts, brother.

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Now I Lay Me down to Sleep

To say nothing of saying each night before you go alone into the big darkness ruled by the monster in the closet:

“If I should die before I wake…”

Teaching your otherwise healthy young self that you might die every night doesn’t do much for a positive outlook. And then it’s off to Catholic school in the morning.

Judging from all the cruelty and violence in the old nursery rhymes and fairy tales that kids used to be sent off into dreamland by, and the subliminal cruelty that attended childrearing of old (“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” “Children should be seen and not heard ” etc.) adults of yore didn’t really like children very much, considered them merely undeveloped adults. Good thing in a way, Mick, you and I were given the relative freedom we had.

Though I do remember vividly that time we got caught playing hooky in our tree house…

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It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Speaking of scaring children, why was that baby’s cradle up in the treetop? Why couldn’t some responsible adult go up and rescue that poor kid before the bough broke, and, most importantly, why the hell have parents been using it to scare millions of innocents as they drift off to sleep for the past several hundred years? Someone must be held accountable for the long term damage this has done. Can’t we get some sort of reparations for this?
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Mick emailed me not long ago asking if I remembered a movie we’d seen as kids, and what was the name of it, where the young girl was killed by a black panther at her mother’s door and Oh yes, I remembered it alright, having never forgotten it: I can still see those scenes.

I’d thought about that movie for years too, looked for it under various titles and later advanced search, but to no avail. And there it lay, hidden in us both all that time, though we never mentioned it again until nearly 60 years had passed. And then, through the grace of Tivo… I can still feel the little two of us trying to disappear in our big movie seats, clutching our milk duds and raisinettes as that blood trickled under the doorway… what an impression on tiny minds!

I think that movie is at the root of every movie scare of mine since then, and a few others not movie related. I later realized that it was even the root of a surreal scary story I wrote some years ago, called The Key, that began:

“You can’t bear to watch in black and white as the lovely young woman prepares to enter the darkness beneath the overhead walk to retrieve the key that fell from her bag and dropped through the cracks in the boards while she was waiting to enter the theater showing the horror movie based on events that took place in this very alleyway, which looks in the movie just as it looks now; in fact the young woman herself, in her very becoming reticence, looks alarmingly like the actress who was murdered so horribly in the movie,…” in which the tale turns upon its teller who is in fact the victim, much as Mick and I in those movie seats when I was 6 or 7, he 5 or 6.

The power of the old silver screen, and the figures upon it, so much bigger than we were, so much deeper than we daily go…

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Post-Cinematic Stress Syndrome

As a boy I was haunted by a dream in which a black panther was on the loose in our apartment over Einstein’s drug store and had killed everyone else in the family, while I remained hidden in a clothes hamper behind the bathroom door. The dream always ended, mercifully, just as he discovered my hiding place. These scenes were somehow connected with a movie I had seen as a child, though until last week I couldn’t be sure that the movie had actually existed.

In my fragmented memories of the movie, a sultry flamenco dancer performs to the haunting sound of castanets, a panther terrorizes a small village at night, and a teenage girl is stalked by the beast on her way home in the dark. When she arrives screaming at her front door, her parents, too afraid to let her in, watch in horror as her blood oozes under the door.

I had searched the movie guides for years for anything with the word ‘cat’ or ‘panther’ in it, but to no avail, little suspecting all the while that a black panther is actually a type of leopard. It wasn’t until I tivo’d a movie called ‘The Leopard Man’ that I finally solved the mystery.

The movie turned out to be a small masterpiece, filmed in 1943 by French director Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures. A pioneer in ‘atmospheric’ horror movies, he was heavily influenced by the techniques and ideas of film-noir, which explains the lasting power and undue influence of this film on my childhood psyche; he scared the be-Jesus out of me simply by suggesting the most unspeakable horror. By the way, what was I doing at that movie at that age?

So, at last I get to lift a glass of good spirits to Mr. Tourneur, in deep appreciation for his dark and lasting influence on my life. After all, without the early challenges I received from him, I may not have been prepared to deal with the even greater horrors that would occur in the years to come.

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Ah yes, the birth of Sue. We now had a little sister to think of. That changed it all to the much stronger triangle and gave us male demons the necessary counterweight. When Sue was about to be born I was shipped off unknowing to Aunt Madeleine’s house on the Hudson River just above Schodack, where I had a great time with cousins Jackie and Teddy and their counrty friends for what seemed like an unusually long time (it was during summer vacation, when normally I’d just visit them for weekends); then one morning we were all suddenly driving back upriver when I asked Madeleine why I had to go home and she said: “You have a baby sister now!” and my entire universe changed in some subtle way I can still recall but have never fathomed: a new life had entered the world who was related to me, and who was my SISTER. And although Sue (a genuine baby boomer) was 7 years younger than I and so never became an indictable member of our conspiracy, what a difference the fact of her has made, all down the years since that day.

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A Tale of Two Beginnings

A couple of stories centered around the beginnings of things. One about me, one about Sue. First, me, of course.

From the beginning of me I heard that Dad was trying to find his new baby boy among a crowd of newborns in the nursery window when a nurse pointed out my smiling face. “He looks like a real Irish Mick.”, he said. The nurse promptly put a sign with that very name on the side of my bassinet, and though another slip of paper somewhere said Francis Joseph Brady, Jr., from that moment on my real name was Mick. Truth be told, there were many moments in my young life when I was grateful for that name, especially during the painfully long run of Francis The Talking Mule on television in the fifties, and the occasional focus on St. Francis of Assissi in religion class. (I would later change my name legally to Mick during my brief career as a professional artist, primarily so that I could cash all the checks. There were four, I think. It was also during this transition that I began to consider the meaning of my new name, and suddenly realized how different it might have been if my family had been black.)

The other tale is from my memory of Sue’s birth. The buildup was intense: I was going to have a sister! We would run and play; she would sit, captivated, as I performed my latest interpretation of Beer Barrel Polka and other selections for her; and then she would run down to Einstein’s and get me a box of nonpareils and a root beer float, out of gratitude, most likely. I had big plans for her.

When the big day arrived I was shipped off to stay at Aunt Mary’s (Where were you shipped, Bob? I don’t remember you being there.), and seemed to be stuck there for about a week. When I finally arrived home, Mom was sitting on the living room couch with a little white bundle next to her. I walked in, looked down at my new sister, and said with deep disappointment, “That little thing?”, and walked out of the room.

Sue, the truth is you filled the void from that moment on, and before long you were forced to listen to many a song and dance while (s)trapped in your highchair, with no means of escape. Any fears that I may have permanently damaged your musical sensibility were finally erased many years later when I heard you and Cheri sing the entire soprano sax solo from My Favorite Things, something even Coltrane himself probably couldn’t have done. You still owe me that root beer float, though.

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Man, I remember that photo shoot in the living room over Einstein’s drug store on the corner of Second and Delaware – must’ve been late 1947, when Sue in the center on Mom’s lap was just a newborn, I on the left was going on 7 years old and you on the right had just turned 5. Looks like you and I just couldn’t wait for the shoot to be over so we could get back to dumping margarine on each other’s heads and hanging from bedroom windows by our fingertips. By the look in our eyes we can see the future coming, and we’re ready for any move it makes…

Mom looks so young, a lot like Kasumi looks now…

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First Press Conference

Mother, dear mother, may God give you wings,
For your two little boys tend to complicate things.

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Technorati Profile

Technorati Profile

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