Howdy Doody and Me

I have no clue why all these very early memories have hit me over the past few weeks, but this is another.

As in my entry entitled “Crayons”, this memory takes me back to kindergarten.

There was a very popular kid show running on television at the time called the Howdy Doodie show.

(Following is how Wikipedia describes the show)

“Howdy Doody is an American children’s television program (with circus and Western frontier themes) and telecast on the NBC network in the United States from December 27, 1947, until September 24, 1960. It was a pioneer in children’s television programming and set the pattern for many similar shows. One of the first television series produced at NBC in Rockefeller Center, in Studio 3A, it was also a pioneer in early color production as NBC (at the time owned by TV maker RCA) used the show in part to sell color television sets in the 1950s.”

I was a HUGE Howdy Doody fan and only severe sickness would keep from watching the weekly show on our small black and white television.

A guy by the name of Bob Smith was the host of the show. All of us kids that watched the show ( it is my understanding that it remains the most successful kids show in television history) knew Bob Smith ad “Buffalo Bob” . This was a reference both to the historical American frontier character Buffalo Bill and Smith’s hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.). At first, the set was supposed to be a circus tent but soon was changed to a western town. Smith wore cowboy clothes, as did the marionette and star Howdy Doody.

As stated above, I was addicted to this show, as was my only friend at the time, Richard Z. In addition to Howdy and Buffalo Bob, there was quite the “cast of characters “ that made up this show including:

Phineas Bluster, Princess Summer FallWinterSpring, FlubaDub and Clarabell the Clown. There were many others, but these are the ones I remember the best. Howdy and Buffalo Bob had two nemeses, so to speak, Phineas Bluster and the Mysterious Mr. X. They would cause all kinds of havoc on the show and many episodes ended with Howdy and Buffalo Bob in some kind of predicament because of the antics of these two. Obviously, this kept us kids waiting in high anticipation for the next episode to see how our hero’s got out of the “fix” they were left in.

An ongoing struggle for the good guys would be finding that the props or the set had been “messed with” at the close of the show. This would leave Buffalo Bob and Howdy befuddled as to what happened to a chair, their cowboy boots, desk, curtains…. anything that was a fixture. One such series in the case of tampering with the shows set had to do with the curtains.

At the start of every show (as with most live variety shows of the day) the host would emerge from behind some plush stage curtains that would open after the host was announced. In this case, it was something like; “and now, kids all across America ….. HERE’s Buffalo Bob”!!! Loud cheers from the kids in the live audience and Buffalo Bob would step from behind the opening curtains revealing the set for the day.

Well, the set up for the this particular “ end of show” challenge was that the mystery “bad guys” had taken down the beautiful, plush curtains and replaced them with old, shabby, torn curtains. The closing of the show was Buffalo Bob frantically pushing aside the shabby curtains, looking for the plush curtains that opened the show. This was the plot for quite some time, and those of us kids watching the show on TV (remember how young we were) were both amazed and frightened that some bad guy was messing with our heroes.

As I mentioned, the show itself was filmed at NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, literally in walking distance from our apartment at the time. I have no recollection as to how it came about, but somehow Richard Z’s mom got us tickets to be part of the live audience for an upcoming show! This was the promised land! I was going to be on the Howdy Doody show!!

Each week I would sit in front of our television and watch the live audience in awe. I wondered what it would be like to be one of those lucky kids in the audience clapping and cheering for Howdy and Buffalo Bob and booing and hissing at the bad guys. I was certain that it would never happen. Then one day, mom tells me I’m going to be one of those kids… Me and Richard Z were going to be in the live audience! I don’t think it registered at first, but when it did, I remember running around the apartment screaming; “ I’m going to be one on the Howdy Doody Show!!!! I’m going to be on the Howdy Doody Show!!!!”

In hindsight, I believe it was at this point Dad starting planning on having another child.

I can not describe the excitement I felt the day of the show. I know I didn’t sleep a wink the night before; the anticipation was incredible.

By the time we were actually there, in the audience with all the other kids, the excitement was at a fever pitch. I looked at Richard Z and he looked at me. We didn’t exchange a word, but the look said;

“We are really here, aren’t we!” When the lights went down I thought my heart would pop out of my chest. Then the announcer’s voice, booming across the set. “OK, kids everywhere! Are you ready??!” Screams from all of us… ancient television cameras panning the audience. Richard Z was screaming, I was screaming all the kids were screaming.

Announcer: “IT’s HOODY DOODY TIME!

Screams get louder.

Announcer: “KIDS ALL ACROSS AMERICA… HERE’S BUFFALO BOB SMITH!!!!”

The plush curtains open, and there, right in front of us, live, not on television was Buffalo Bob! I could not believe it and I don’t have a clue when I stopped screaming.

The rest of the show was a fog, I remember nothing of it other than Buffalo Bob, and of course, Howdy on stage. I was mesmerized.

However, I do remember the end of the show. Please recall the plot of the nice curtains being replaced by ragged ones by the “villains?” This was highly anticipated; would we, the live audience, see the bag guys ripping down the nice curtains and replace them with rags???

This was the one thing about being in the live studio audience that proved to be negative. After the last commercial, before Buffalo Bob came out to say goodbye and to find the curtains again ruined and replaced, we witnessed the stagehands simply draw back the nice curtains and, open, in their place, the ragged ones.

Buffalo Bob came out to say goodbye and was, as usual shocked and dismayed to find the torn and patched curtains. He frantically looked all over the set, completely confused. As I mentioned, it always had us who were watching on television amazed and frightened…., but now….. we saw what really happened. A bit of the magic was gone.

Even in kindergarten, growing up came with some consequences.

But! Here we are… a lifetime from that day at NBC studios. I still see the set, I still hear the excited screams of the kids, I still see Richard Z’s face.

All in all, a wonderful, beautiful, unforgettable Cobblestone Dream.

 

Don.

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Hide and Seek

Cousin Chris lived in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey (after his family moved from Brooklyn), which was about a twenty-minute drive from the bungalow in Hopatcong. Our families were close, and we visited often.

The house was quite a bit larger than the bungalow, as it was their primary all-year-round residence, and while it was all on one level, it had hallways, many rooms, and a finished basement. In that basement was everything you could want in a recreational area: a ping pong table, a pool table, a piano, even a puppet theater.

We would visit typically on a Saturday night after dinner; the adults would settle in the den to watch television, with coffee and cake – I remember a favorite being Mission: Impossible, and us kids would go down to the basement to play a board game (never-ending Monopoly) or play a game of billiards (of which I was particularly bad at), all the while listening to Cousin Brucie spin the latest pop hits.

But every once in a while we would play Hide and Seek. The house was perfect for it with its nooks and crannies, dark corners, and long hallways.

Now is a good time to remind you that I was considerably younger than my brother or my cousin, and playing a game like Hide and Seek was a perfect opportunity for them to play tricks on me and try to scare me. It turns out however they needn’t bother; I could do that to myself pretty darn well.

Cue the puppet theater.

It stood against a far wall in the basement; it was about six feet high, four feet wide, painted a kind of powder blue. The bottom half of the front of it was solid, and the top, of course, was the “stage”, a platform behind curtains where the puppets would appear to act out whatever drama or comedy was on the bill that night. The back of it was where the puppeteer would crouch down out of sight and manipulate the hand puppets that were visible to the audience. Aunt Ruthie was an accomplished puppeteer and I remember her making those simple puppets –Punch & Judy, a policeman, a king, a thief and one sinister one that reminded me of Satan himself – come to life and delight young and old alike. There were also a couple of Marionettes suspended from the rafters, but they required a whole other skill set, one that Ruthie was equally adept at.

So back to Hide and Seek. Cousin Chris was chosen as the one to do the looking; Don and I would hide. Chris had to stay in the kitchen, eyes closed and count to one hundred Alligators. When it was time, Don nodded once to me and ran off out of the kitchen and down a dark hallway to one of the bedrooms. I slowly opened the basement door and descended into the darkness, the only light being the dim glow from the casement windows that looked out onto the lawn. I thought I was pretty clever, as Chris would never think that a scaredy-cat like me would choose the basement to hide in. But I would go one better than that.

I felt across the room until I found the puppet theater. I was small enough that I could slide behind it without having to move it; I was doing good, not making a sound, proud of my choice of hiding place. I mean what was more ingenious than hiding in a dark basement, in a crawlspace behind a theater with………puppets.

“Ready or not – Here I come”. I heard Chris shout out, and his footsteps took him in a distant direction.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I could be in that box for a long time. Maybe he wouldn’t even look down in the basement! But it was too late for second-guessing. So there I was trying not to make a sound, of course needing to pee almost immediately, and suddenly not liking all those plastic dead painted eyes that surrounded me. I started to think about an old movie I had seen where a young girl hides herself behind a curtain while playing this same game, only to find another young boy who she didn’t recognize, already behind the curtain. It turned out of course that the young boy was a ghost, and she and the audience didn’t realize it until later. Way to go, Rob, good thinking to remember a scary movie at a time like this…….and then there was that Twilight Zone one where the puppet comes to life…..and …..then…..

Just then I heard the door at the top of the stairs open and heard both Chris and Don’s voices. Chris must have found Don easily and now they were both looking for me. I heard their footsteps on the stairs.

“I say you’re wrong – no way he would come down here.”

“Well, maybe he’s braver than you think”.

“Rob?? Get real”.

I stayed completely still; they had reached the bottom of the stairs, headed for the pool table and the piano beyond. Cold and getting colder, I thought happily. Wait….what was that?…..that noise like fabric moving……Clack!….plastic….plastic hitting plastic!! The puppets!!!!

Don’t be a fool, I told myself, you are just making yourself nuts…you must have made the things move – now stay still and don’t make a sound. They will never find you! Just stay calm……I felt a draught…where had that come from?…….Clack! there is was again! I didn’t touch anything I told myself; yes you did, my other self told myself. I looked up, saw the dangling legs of the marionettes, thought I saw eyes move, was that one smiling at me?!!

“What was that?” I heard Chris say.

“What was what? I didn’t hear anything”. Don responded.

“Maybe he’s in the closet”.

A door opening.

“Nope – not there.”

“I tell ya – he’s upstairs somewhere.”

“Yeah maybe you’re right….let’s go.”

Go?! I thought – Go and leave me down here with these demon puppets??!!

Clack…Clack….Moving….they’re moving….that one is smiling at me….what’s that I feel, something at my neck…..a hand…. A plastic painted hand!!….. I had to get out…now.

I didn’t bother to squeeze out the way I had gotten in – I shot straight up, banging my head into the stage above, flailing my arms, trying to shake off the hands that were trying to grab me….I could feel the theater start to teeter…fall forward….

“AHHHHHHHH” I screamed, falling.

Don jumped out of his skin, spinning around to see his little brother emerging from the theater, covered in painted faces and garish outfits, hands, limbs flying everywhere.

“AHHHHHHHH!!!” he screamed.

Chris, who had gotten to the top of the stairs, came running down to the sight of Don batting away a flying hand puppet, screaming at the top of his lungs, and me sprawled on top of what was left of the theater, surrounded by torn curtains, cracked plastic, and splintered wood.

“AHHHHHHHHHHH!!” Chris screamed.

It was a puppet apocalypse.

The sounds of footsteps running above; the grown-ups one minute were watching Jim Phelps and company take down some foreign dictator, and the next minute hearing wood crashing and kids screaming coming from the basement. They arrived within moments.

“What’s going on? – Is everyone ok?” Calm, caring Uncle Vincent.

“These kids….these crazy kids!!” Dad- who else?

Eventually, everyone calmed down. It soon became apparent to everyone what had happened. I felt horrible about what I had done to the puppet theater and of course, started to cry. Before the first tear hit the ground, Mom and Aunt Ruthie were hugging me.

“Rob – it’s Ok…we can fix it….don’t worry…it’s ok…as long as you aren’t hurt…don’t worry about it”

Well, besides a few scrapes and bruises, I wasn’t hurt, at least not physically. But I was embarrassed, and feeling pretty stupid. We all started to make our way up the stairs, Don giving me a look that said “what a knucklehead”. And I guess I was, scaring myself like that. But it was a good hiding spot; they never would have found me.

It was quite a sight we left behind that night. Broken wood, shreds of costume, painted plastic faces and limbs, all strewn across the basement floor.

Just another Saturday night made possible by a way too vivid imagination, and a nagging, dangling fear.

Lesson learned: monsters not needed, bogeyman needn’t apply, ghosts, goblins, zombies, vampires, demons of any denomination, go back whence you came.

I got this covered all by myself.

Rob.

 

Back to School and Mixed Emotions

Its that time of year again. The time when kids are heading back to school. It seems to have come quicker this year, but I believe I say that every year. Summer doesn’t last as long as it used to when we were kids, does it? Dad always told us that the older you get, the quicker time goes. Of course, I always thought he was crazy. Not so much anymore.

I live in Texas now and school actually started back up on August 15th. You know, when the temperature is still 108 degrees here. Go figure.

Growing up in New York, we didn’t go back to school until early September, usually after labor day. September is my memory of “back to school”, and, while Fall had not yet descended upon those streets of Cobblestone, it was nowhere near 108 degrees. Of course, back in the day, the schools were not air-conditioned, so starting anytime before September would have been “cruel and unusual punishment.” Geez, even with EVERYTHING air-conditioned in southeast Texas, I think going back to school in the middle of August is sadistic! Then again, there are not any real “ seasons” in this part of Texas and I really do miss those seasons. Here is just disgustingly hot, really hot, pretty damned warm and for two weeks; “hey, it got cold”.

My memories of going back to school at PS 41 were always very mixed. As I’ve told you ad nauseam, I was an insecure kid and hated being away from Mom. My recollections today take me back to 4th grade when I was afraid of everything. Thus, the prospect of trying to make friends, fit in and not be the subject of what would now be called bullying basically had me in a state of constant nervousness. I wondered if I would get a nice teacher? As luck would have it, as I entered 4th grade, I found out I was going to have Mrs.C., a teacher with the reputation of being very strict and downright mean. This terrified me even more. As it turned out, Mrs. C was strict and she could be tough, but she was only that way to the kids who were mean to other kids or to the kids who showed her no respect. She watched over the weaker ones, the intimidated ones, the ones that had “that look” in their eyes. More about that in a bit.

Bottom line, back to school was always a time of high anxiety and nervousness for me. As summer drew to a close, the anxiety increased. Seasons were very defined in the Northeast; one could almost “feel” summer coming to an end. The mornings were a bit cooler and the shadows fell differently in the afternoon. Even the “scent” of the air changed. All these subtle, but distinct changes were catalysts for my mood to change from relaxed, free and safe to nervous, tense, insecure.

However, I mentioned mixed emotions. There was “another side of the coin”. Perhaps not enough to counter the fear and appreciation, but enough to put a dent in them.

The changing seasons, especially when fall finally hit in force; the changing color of the few trees, the shorter days, the cooler temperatures, all meant the holidays were on their way. Holidays were fun times, family times, safe times. A time of high anticipation and expectation. Riding closely on the return to school was Halloween, then, only a month later Thanksgiving then, of course, Christmas. How I looked forward to those! There, in a nutshell, were the mixed emotions. The fear, anxiety, nervousness followed by a time of hope and happiness. To this day, the” back to school” bell triggers many of these same, tucked away emotions.

A final word. I mentioned Mrs. C, my 4th-grade teacher. I feared being in her class because of her “reputation “. She proved to be one of the good ones. While never abandoning her position as “ teacher” and disciplinarian, she cared for the weaker ones, such as myself. She was always aware of my “look”; she knew if I was being picked on or was apprehensive about a class activity. She was not simply aware, she tried to do something about it. Perhaps it was just a word of encouragement or even a slight pat on my back. She let me know she was watching.

Just this week I spoke to a teacher friend of mine who spoke about the need for us to have our eyes open at all times. Look for the kids sitting by themselves at lunch, look for the ones who don’t seem excited by the coming holidays…… look for the ones with “the look.” We never know what’s going on in those vulnerable, little lives. Great advice for ALL of us from a caring teacher.

Well, it’s only 106 here in Texas today…..school buses rolling …fall must be coming soon, no? Where is my sweater?

Mixed emotions.

Don

Confession

It was and I assume still is, an important part of the Catholic Church ritual. In the small chance, someone is not familiar with it, it was something that had to be done in a specific way before you could receive Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday. It was something we, as kids, did on Saturday afternoons in our church, St. Bernards, on 14th Street where we normally went to Sunday service. And it was what it sounds like: you had to verbally confess the sins you had committed that week to a Priest. There were two Confessional boxes on either side of the main entrance to the church. They were high wooden structures with two compartments. The one you, as a worthless sinner went into had a bench to kneel on. The Priest, in the other compartment, got a seat and I would not have been surprised if it had a wet bar in there as well. Confessions usually started around 4PM ensuring the Priest had plenty of time to get back to cocktail hour at the Rectory. We would arrive early and sit in a pew waiting for the Priest’s arrival. When he entered the church, he disappeared into his side of the box, closed the door and awaited the first heathen. It mattered what Priest you got too; you see how it worked was you told him your sins, and depending on the severity or the number of them, he would assign you a number of prayers to say to cleanse your soul, say for instance ten Hail Marys or five Our Fathers. Some Priests were brutal and you would be mumbling prayers for hours afterward; others, the good ones, probably didn’t listen anyway and let you off easy.

So, the Priest went in, then you followed. You closed the door, knelt down in the darkness and waited. At first, nothing happened. Then you heard the sound of a panel being slid back. You could faintly make out the figure on the other side of an old dented screen. And for me, it was the exact same script every time.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“Yes, my son? And how have you sinned?”

My answer was always the same as well. Since I lived such a sheltered and uneventful life, I could only come up with:

“I lied, and I disobeyed my Mother and Father”.

Years later, when I had some really juicy doozies to confess I still went with those two sure-fire hits. Let’s face it, those were pretty low ball. What kid didn’t lie and disobey his Mother and Father; heck that’s what being a kid demanded. Invariably the Priest would say:

“You shouldn’t lie my son, and you shouldn’t disobey your Mother and Father”

Ok, so scintillating conversation it wasn’t, but it was evidently necessary.

“That will be ten Hail Marys”

“Thank you, Father”.

And then I got the hell out of that sweltering box as fast as I could.

Returning to the pew to do my penance, every once in awhile I would be entertained by hearing the Priest exclaim:

“You did what?!”

After the next sinner had gone in. He evidently had a much more interesting life than I did.

Of course, as a teenager, I stopped going, both to Mass and Confession. I remember one incident that confirmed I had made the right choice.

Years later, my friend Mike and I were attending the St. Gennaro Feast downtown, an annual celebration of one’s faith in God and one’s love of a sausage, pepper and onion sandwich. The church, of course, was open for Confessions and on a lark, we decided it might be fun to go in. That gives you an idea of our sense of humor. It was either that or shoot a water gun at a clown’s open mouth in order to get the balloon on his head to pop. I went first and stuck to the tried and true. As the Priest couldn’t see that I was a college-aged guy, my sins still worked. He decided how many prayers I had to say, I said yea right, be seeing you and got out of there. Not much had changed. I went out to the street to smoke a cigarette as Mike took his turn.

When he emerged, it was clear something was wrong; his face was flushed and he was obviously disturbed.

“What the hell happened?” I asked.

At first he just shook his head, not wanting to talk about it, but eventually, I wore him down and found out what happened. He must have said something like he disrespected a girl or something like that; totally benign and knowing Mike probably not anything that made it to the category of “sin”. But I guess this Priest was a little desperate for details.

“Did you touch her?” he had apparently asked.
“Did you feel her in a sinful way; her body…did you touch her body?”

Ok game over, Mike decided and left the pervert to speak to an empty box. I didn’t blame him one bit for being disturbed by the event. Hell, I am surprised he didn’t punch the jerk right through the screen!

Screw this shit, we decided. The next time we confess to someone it will be each other, a loved one, or a family member but not a damned Priest. Let them get their jollies somewhere else (and unfortunately, many of them evidently did).

I don’t go to churches much anymore, maybe an occasional wedding or a funeral (same difference) but the last time I was in one I felt uneasy. At first, I put it down to just being in unfamiliar surroundings but it was something more than that; I felt like I was being watched. I looked around and saw the expected: stain glass windows, statues, candles and then my eyes came to rest on the Confessional box.

Bingo!

They still stood there, like depraved sentinels, dark and foreboding, patiently waiting for the next poor deluded dope who thought he needed to mindlessly recite prayers in order to be considered good in God’s eyes again. I, at that moment, had this fantasy of grabbing an ax from somewhere and chopping the damned thing to splinters. If I had, I have no doubt I would have heard the cheers from kids for miles around.

But instead, when it was time to leave, I simply walked out and avoiding looking at it again. Leaving the holy darkness behind, I walked out into the clear sunshine of a rational day.

Some parts of your childhood are better left in the darkness, where they belong.

Rob.

Crayons; The colors of my mind…

I know, somewhat of an unusual name for a post, but this one just snuck up on me.

I was on Facebook a few days ago and noticed a post from a friend speaking to the fact that they were already purchasing school supplies. In the photo was a box of crayons, and that was the trigger.

My mind raced back a lifetime, to a memory from Mrs. Kroysers’ Kindergarten and 1st-grade classes at P.S. 41 on 11th street in NY.

You know from previous posts that my early school years were not good for me. I was frightened to be away from Mom, picked on by other kids, insecure, intimidated and anxious. Basically, an overall mess; to the point of becoming physically ill before being walked to school by mom. I’m certain it was my body reacting to all the anxiety going on in my mind. This was a daily occurrence.
There were, however, two bright spots in my day; Mrs. Kroyser and her reading and art portion of the day. Mrs. Kroyser was a kind, older teacher with grey hair always worn in a tight bun. She cared about “ her kids”, something that was apparent even to a wreck such as me. She had a kind and soothing smile and, in hindsight, I know she did her best to quell my fear and anxiety.

I loved “story time” when she would read to us from children’s books. After her reading, she would teach us to view, understand and read some of the words in the stories by ourselves. The story seemed to always include two small children that were about my age. They had a dog named “Spot” and they ran and played and had adventures all day! I wanted to be like those children in the story… they always appeared to be having fun, the sun was always shinning.

I believe Story Time with Mrs. Kroyser was the very tiny spark that led to a burning love of books and reading that has lasted literally a lifetime for me.
After Story Time came “Drawing Time” or “Art time.” How I loved to hear the words; “alright now, let’s take out our crayons.”

Now was my time to create! I couldn’t write yet, but I had pictures in my mind. Pictures of children and dogs and trees and sun and stars and cats and ships and cars. Pictures that made me happy and safe and secure, and now, I could put those “ mind pictures “ on a beautiful, big thick sheet of art paper. A blank sheet. I liked that. Mrs. Kroyser would move around the room giving each of us one of these big, beautiful, white sheets of paper. The possibilities were endless. Most of the time she would gently guide us on what we should draw, saying things such as ;
“ Today we read about the children going to the country to play…draw what you think the county looks like. What would you like to be doing in the country”

I imagine she could almost feel the little minds racing in the room as our imaginations went into overdrive.

The desks we sat at were basically small tables, each seating two children. The child sitting next to you was always referred to as your neighbor. The tables had small drawers where we would keep our crayons and snacks brought from home. The moment we heard “ take out your crayons”, little hands all across the room reached into the small drawers and withdrew our individual box of crayons. These crayons were prized possessions. They were my gateway into another world with very few barriers. If I wanted my trees to be red, so be it, red they were. I could make it snowing or raining or sunny. I always seemed to choose sunny. It was fun drawing the sun.

I don’t remember her name, but I recall that my neighbor was a little girl. She was neither nice nor mean to me… she just was there. We didn’t talk much, but she never was mean either, so that was a positive. I remember a few things about her. She had long, light brown hair that she wore in a ponytail and she was left-handed. I was fascinated by her being able to draw with her left hand, as I could barely open a door with mine. She drew the most amazing horses! Horses of all colors and sizes, but all perfectly proportioned. All her horses had “puppy dog” eyes. I loved watching her beautiful horses come alive right next to me.

But, what I remember most was her crayons! She had the biggest box of crayons I had ever seen! There were 48 crayons in her box! Every color imaginable plus all different shades of colors. I was in awe. I had a box of 8 crayons with the very basic colors; red, blue, green, yellow, brown, orange and of course black and white.

Please understand this is not a “poor me” thing. Even at this young age, I was well aware that we, as a family, struggled to make ends meet. Dad worked all hours, and any hours to take care of his family. Mom was always upfront and honest with us about this. The small eight pack of crayons was all we could afford; that was the reality. I honestly don’t remember ever being envious of my neighbor and wishing and longing for the big box of crayons that she had. I was simply in awe of them. As I sneaked quick glances at all the colors, I imagined what I would draw if I had them. I didn’t look with disdain on my small eight crayon box, I simply imagined what I could do with more colors to tell my picture story. It even made me a bit more creative… I figured out how to make a gray and a pink out of what I had. ( life lesson there?)

One day, my neighbor caught me stealing a glance at her crayons. Without saying a word, she pushed the box closer to me and whispered. “We can share if you like”.

I didn’t respond, I was so taken aback. I think I borrowed one crayon from her that day. It was a gold color….. I wanted my sun to be gold. I don’t think I thanked my neighbor.

Wouldn’t it be cool if she were still with us and reading this blog? I would love to imagine that as true.

Wherever you are, neighbor, thank you.

My sun was a beautiful gold that day because you shared your crayons.

-Don

Connecticut Memories…

Thought this would be a nice follow up to Don’s last post. I wrote it months ago waiting for the right time; seems like this is it.

Connecticut Memories……………

Aunt Mildred and Uncle San had a country home in Taconic Connecticut, a beautiful place nestled on the Massachusetts border. I am not sure what year they purchased the home and the land, but they added to it over the years, and there are old photographs of San, Uncle Dick and Dad breaking their collective backs to build a fish pond out in front of the home.

We would go to the house at Thanksgiving very early on, along with Uncle Dick, Aunt Mary, our cousins Lorraine and Robin, and going way way back Aunt Flo and Uncle Joe. I don’t have too many memories of my times there with Flo and Joe because Joe died at a very early age and I was just too young to remember him well but there are some vague ones floating around in my mind. And he became immortal with one great line.

The house was a classic country home, the genesis of which was a small colonial-era stone structure with a kitchen and dining room on the ground level and two bedrooms on the second floor. In time a breezeway, formal dining room, living room, recreation room, and extra bedrooms would be added, so my last memories of the place were of a large sprawling expanse of a house that could in the right circumstances, as Don pointed out, be downright scary.

Besides Thanksgiving, our the usually went for a week in the summertime as well. Back then the area was pretty rural, with a few more large stone homes in walking distance, but mostly it was horse and dairy farms; and there were lots and lots of deer everywhere. This, of course, delighted me no end as a little city kid, but just as today some people value their geraniums more than they do a beautiful creature like that, it was hunting country as well. Uncle San kept a couple of rifles hanging on the stone wall in the large dining room above a huge fireplace. There was also one of those long horns that you hear at horse shows to trumpet the arrival of a fancy coach or signal the start of a fox hunt. Thankfully I never witnessed a fox hunt as you can guess whose side I would be on in that one so the only use the horn or trumpet or whatever you call it got was when Uncle Joe was up extra early and wanted company. He would sound the thing and wake the nearby dead.

We would take many walks through the countryside each of us children being allowed to choose one of Uncle San’s wooden walking sticks and we were allowed to visit the cows and sheep in the surrounding farms. Kinda cool for a city kid. These walks were usually before breakfast which was a big meal then, and Aunt Mildred would never attend them, given her role as hostess and also because she was rather large and had trouble walking. As our crowd walked back to the house one morning, Joe would utter that immortal line I referred to. Mildred waited at the top of the steps as we came around a turn in the road, he quietly said to us, so that Uncle San couldn’t hear:

“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot – it’s Mildred, not a deer!”

Needless to say, Mildred and San wanted to know why us kids were all trying so valiantly not to laugh at breakfast.

But as I said Joe left us early and Flo never came herself again in my memory at least. We still went and enjoyed our visits even though food-wise there was a problem. In the basement of the house was a large freezer and shelves for canned goods. Mildred was a believer in freezing leftovers more sane people would throw in the trash or give to a hog.
So when it came to planning dinner, and Mom and Mary would suggest a run to one of the many very nice farmers’ markets, Mildred would object as she said there was all the food we needed in the basement.

Now Mildred was no cook; that was clear from the get-go, but even a bad cook can make a passable meal with good ingredients. But when you start with food that was moldy when you froze it five years ago, you can count on not having a gastronomic treat at the dinner table. We all, adults and children, sat smiling complimenting her on corn that was undercooked, beans that smelled like they had been baked weeks ago, meat that a leather shoe would give a good run for its money, and the vegetables…well, forget about them. Dessert was cream pies, freshly defrosted and about ten years old. The only thing that I found myself eating was bread and butter and lots of it, though of course, I was under orders to eat everything and like it. What was needed was a dog with a death wish, that we could feed under the table and get rid of the junk. And in fact, Lorraine and Robin did get a dog one year and brought him and yes he was the recipient of lots of things I wouldn’t touch. One particular dinner, however, my brother and I and Cousin Lorraine watched in stunned silence as Cousin Robin took seconds and thirds of the granite corn and moldy greens. Later when we were alone we all asked him the obvious question:
“Are you fucking nuts? What was up with all the food?! And his answer shamed us. Turns out he was taking one for the team. “ I figured,” he said, “If we didn’t eat it all tonight, as bad as it was, she would just feed it to us again tomorrow night and it would be one day worse.” Gotta hand it to him. I couldn’t have done it. Later he showed us the rolls of Tums he evidently bought wholesale, popping them continuously all day long.

And then there was the memorable night Mildred wanted to take us all to see a wholesome family film, The Song of Norway. To this day I hate that film; get ill when I hear the soundtrack (thankfully not often). Mildred, however, hummed along the whole time embarrassing us even in the empty theater and I would guess maybe Mom and Mary liked it. But I remember having my first thoughts of what would someday be called “going postal”.

But the evening was not all lost for on the way home, a strange thing occurred which to this day we cannot explain. The roads around us were lonely two-lane country ones, with no light except what the moon and your car’s headlights gave you. We were the only car on the road as we drove back to the house until suddenly there appeared a pair of headlights behind us, gaining fast. Within seconds a car was tailgating us, but it never honked, or more logically tried to go around us. At least at first. And then in a flash it did; it shot out into the other lane quickly overtook us, got in front of us……and slowed down. Dad was in the front passenger seat and didn’t like that at all. No wonder. And then to add some more madness to the scene we happened to be passing a cemetery and up ahead on the side of the road was one lone man waving and pointing the way into the graveyard as if to say “ this way in…room for a few more”. Ok, now we were scared or at least I remember Lorraine and I were scared. The car in front continued to slow, forcing Mildred to slow. Now why she didn’t just go around it, I don’t know but it’s a good question. In hindsight what was probably happening was there was something going on in the cemetery, one hopes legal and of this world, and the guy out front was waving in the car in front of us, and not us at all. But who was thinking clearly at that point? Dad, being the Marine he was decided on a tactic. He simply said.

“Don’t stop Mildred…just ram right through him” meaning the car ahead.

To which we in the back seat were like: “Ummm…hellooo.. wait maybe we don’t need to do that” but who was listening to us kids? And honestly I think Mildred would have done it; the car was a huge station wagon with enough horsepower and real metal to probably have accomplished it, but why anyone would choose that line of action was beyond me. I remember at the time thinking:’ Note to self – maybe don’t always take Dad’s advice”.

Anyway the crisis was averted. The car ahead indeed calmly turned into the cemetery, the guy waving him in disappeared and all of a sudden we were the only car on the lonely country road again.

When we got home, Mildred broke out the brandy and even us kids got a small taste, as we sat around the kitchen table. I remember Cousin Robin’s hands shaking as he took the glass to his mouth. And I don’t blame him one damn bit. It was devilish odd as they say, and we heard no more about it though we scoured the newspapers, and listened to the radio to hear something about a project going on in the nearby cemetery. But nothing.

Maybe it wasn’t legal.

Or of this world.

So no neat ending to that story, except I slept well that night having discovered my love for brandy.

If only the next day at dinner, we were allowed a glass or two, the boiled beef would have gone down a little easier.

-Rob

Scream; My version

It was sometime in the early spring. I’m not sure I remember how old I was; perhaps 11 or 12; definitely pre-teen.

Rob and I have both referred to our Aunt Mildred and Uncle Sans’ house in Connecticut in previous posts; this is where we spent many Thanksgivings in our early years. However, Thanksgiving was not the only time we would get to enjoy visiting this large home in the woods of Taconic, Ct.

On occasion, our Aunt and Uncle would invite a good portion of the extended family there for a long weekend in the spring or summer. This was the situation with the Spring in question. Rob, myself, mom and dad, our cousins, Lorraine and Robin with their parents, and our Aunt Fil were invited for the weekend. We always enjoyed our time there. Great fun with beloved family, acres of woods to run and play in, a nice sized pond stocked with various fish and a large house to explore and marvel at. It promised to be another fun-filled weekend.

As was customary, we would leave the city and get there after dark on Friday night. That was a highlight because of the excitement of the drive, seeing our cousins and getting settled in the house. We were never forced to go to bed too early when there and we would play inside and out until we were too tired to stand.

Saturday was much the same with everyone meeting in the dining room for a fun breakfast of New York bagels, Italian bread, and pastries. As soon as breakfast was over the adults did whatever adults do, we kids would head outside for a day of fun and adventure in the woods surrounding the house.

On this particular Saturday, Aunt Mildred decided that we would go to dinner in the nearby town of Great Barrington. Don’t hold me to that name, but I think that was the name of the town. After treating everyone with dinner, she thought that perhaps we would all go to a movie. It sounded wonderful to everyone but me. Remember that I mentioned my age; I was getting very close to those troubling years known as “the teens”. I was already starting to exhibit some of the traits of those interesting years. Hanging out in public with the entire family was not considered “cool” and I was trying very hard ( and very unsuccessfully) to be cool.

Thus, I decided that I didn’t want to join the group and that I would rather just stay home and “watch television”.

Mom was, of course, definitely against it, but after much discussion and talk with dad and other family members, she acquiesced to the “he’s not a baby anymore, if he wants to stay, we should let him” argument.

I remember Rob giving me a look that said;” are you sure you want to stay in this house by yourself??” He, more than anyone knew that I was afraid of my own shadow under normal conditions…. but, staying here? In this house? In the woods? Not a good idea. But!, hey, I was almost a teenager and I was “cool”, right? This would be a piece of cake.

So, late afternoon, everyone packed into two cars and headed for an enjoyable dinner and movie in Great Barrington. I watched them pull out of the driveway and felt “empowered!” Here I was, by myself, no one to tell me what to do, when to eat, ( of course the fridge was always busting at the seams with food, this was an Italian family, after all), what to watch. It was just me, on my own; I had arrived at the “coolness” starting gate.

The first thing I did was sit on the front porch and simply take in the scenery. It was quite beautiful. The yard extended for a good distance in the front on the house, with the before mentioned pond in the foreground. Beyond that, the beautiful woods and the magnificent trees that populated it. The other three sides of the house were also surrounded by these woods. In the distance, from the front porch, one could clearly see some of the mountains of New Hampshire. I sat and just relaxed, taking in this beautiful contrast to the concrete and asphalt of the inner city. When the sun began to slowly descend behind the mountains, I decided to go in and grab a bite to eat.

I raided the fridge and had some lasagna, meatballs, bread and a few cannolis. It felt good to make whatever I wanted and eat whenever I wanted. After doing a semi-adequate job of cleaning up I strolled to the large living room. This room was decorated in American rustic and had the feel of being a nicely built cabin. There were three shotguns mounted over the mantle of the large fireplace and next to them the trophy head of a large buck with impressive antlers. I’m pretty sure that the trophy head had come with the house, as my uncle was not really much of a hunter.

However, I hope you get the feel of the room. The lights were shaped like lanterns adding to the rustic feel. I then decided I was really going to be cool by sneaking a sip of the whiskey my Uncle Santino used to make the Manhattans that would be sipped by the adults before dinner. I was always impressed with the beautiful bottles he had that held the Whiskey. Bottles with an ornate style that said “old west”. I remove the top of one of the bottles and took a nice big slug…. and thought I was going to die. I gagged and coughed and could barely breathe for at least five minutes. So much for the cool kid having a drink while the parents were gone. I ran to the fridge and downed two small bottles of ginger ale before I felt normal again.

I strolled back to the living room and looked back out to the front yard through the large picture window. It was then that I noticed that it wasn’t quite looking as beautiful as it had earlier when the sun was still up. It had faded behind the trees now and the yard was semi-dark. Shadows fell where before was clarity and the woods had dramatically darkened. It had gotten very quiet. It suddenly had a “scary” feel to it.

I, being the cool kid that I was, began turning on more lights. I looked at the clock. Crap it was only seven…. it would be hours before they were home.
Television! That was the answer! I would go back to the family room and turn on some TV. That would keep my mind off the growing darkness and the woods that were now infringing on my “safe space”.

So, flicking lights on as I went, I made my way to the family room. As I mentioned, this was a big house, and one had to pass through a number of other rooms to get to your destination. My heart had definitely quickened as I made my way, turning on every light that I passed, on my way to the family room.

I moved a chair close to the old black and white television and turned it on. Remember, back in the day, there were only a few stations to choose from, so it didn’t take long. The first station had some sort of variety show that I had no interest in, the second station had “the Twilight Zone”. This was not good. The music alone scared me. Then there was a scene with some evil-looking doll whose head turned menacingly toward the viewer. That’s all she wrote. If I had had a brick in my hand I would have thrown it through the screen! With eyes closed as much as possible, I turned the television off and practically ran back to the living room.

Darkness had fallen now and the outside lawn looked ominous. There was one lone outside light near the pond, but that did nothing to help my growing fear. To be honest it added to the building fright. As I peered out of the window looking toward the pond… “what is that?! It looks like a person standing there! Just standing there starring into the living room!” I moved away from the window, convinced there was some madman standing near the pond….. looking at the house … waiting to make his move.

So, by now I am hearing things as well. A noise? A sound? Were that footsteps I heard? Coming from upstairs??? It can’t be! I am here alone, being cool. I had to use the restroom… I had to pee really bad (terror will make one do that).

One problem…. bathroom is upstairs… where I heard the footsteps!!! Probably that damned doll walking around from the twilight zone!!! What now?
Wait! There is another restroom! Downstairs! In the cellar! The fruit cellar!
Are you kidding me??? The fruit cellar??? It’s either upstairs with the twilight zone doll walking around or down in the fruit cellar with…… have you seen Physco??? Yea, down there with her!!!

I’m doomed.

Back to the family room, I run…. by now, I have every available light on in the house. The madman by the pond has moved… probably close to the front door by now…. the evil doll upstairs is still moving around….. head-turning in all grotesque positions. The corpse is rocking back and forth in her chair in the fruit cellar. I will hold this pee in until it comes out of my ears!!!

Then, another sound…. what was that??? Cars!!!! I hear cars!!!!! They are home. Thank you, God!

I quickly run through the house, shutting off the lights….I go and flop in a chair in the family room and turn on the television ( to anything but the Twilight Zone).
I lounge back into the chair to look as relaxed as possible. Everyone starts coming in and the feeling of relief and safety is absolutely overwhelming( of course, I don’t show that.

Mom asks how I did.

I tell her everything is good and I had a good time. ( with a straight face, no less)
She says she was worried about me. I laugh( thinking about the mad man near the pond.)

I say I really have to use the restroom and casually get up and walk slowly towards the stairs( can’t let them see me about to wet my pants). I make it to the restroom, knowing that all is safe now because my family is home. The doll walking around upstairs has gone quiet.

I casually walk back downstairs where everyone is gathered in the living room talking about the dinner and the movie. Rob looks at me…. a little kid looking at his older brother. His look says…. “wow, you stayed here alone! How cool….”
My heart says…

“if only you knew…”

-Don

dad scream

7 Eleven

In life, as I have mentioned, you make decisions that at the time seem logical, and sound, only to find out that they were really poor, misguided ones. As I also know I mentioned, one of the stupidest I have ever made was to leave New York City in the mid-’80s. That was a biggie; New York is like some sort of gelatinous mass that closes up after you and never lets you back in – it is like you were never there; it does fine without you.

But that wasn’t the first time I made that stupid mistake; oh no, I had done that years before in 1978, after graduating college. Proving that you can be stupid many times over in a relatively short period of time, instead of continuing my education, going for another degree that would ensure a prosperous career, I chose to seek out a new beginning (number 215 if anyone’s counting). I was lazy, not wanting any student debt (I had a scholarship to Fordham) so took my brother up on his offer to go live with him in Virginia and see if life was better there. He, his wife and two adorable children were living in Colonial Heights. So off I went on Amtrak, leaving a sobbing Mother and a baffled Father behind.

Don was working for Pepsi at the time, and through his connections was able to get me a job interview with the Southland Corporation, with the intent of getting into the Manager Training program. Now if you don’t recognize the name Southland, you certainly will recognize what the company ran – the very popular (at the time), 7 Eleven convenience stores. But while management positions were certainly available, one of the practices of the company was to bring everyone up through the ranks. Yes, that meant working in an actual 7 Eleven. And yes, that also meant wearing one of those ridiculous paper orange and white hats, and the equally stupid orange and white jacket that all employees wore. I started to feel my first doubts.

But I went to training classes and learned the business; everyone was very friendly and helpful and seemed pleased to have me there; I even made some friends. In time I graduated from 7 Eleven University and was ready to be assigned to a store.

The one they chose for me was in Dinwiddie County, which at the time was in the middle of nowhere, so I had to get a used car (a whole other story there for another time) to drive the miles from the house to the store. And better and better, after shadowing employees for a week or two, I was given the midnight to 8 AM shift, as most of the stores were open twenty-four hours.

Hey, I wanted something different right? A new life?? Well, this was about as different as you could get from Greenwich Village and my job selling ballet shoes to Broadway performers at Capezio’s.

When I do stupid, I do stupid.

But it was Virginia, cradle of the Civil War which I was an avid student of, and I was spending time with my brother which was good…..but that orange and white hat…..Geez.

Each store had a video camera that scanned the store floor, back and forth, back and forth continuously all day and night, its images broadcasted to a monitor in a back room no one paid any attention to. As I stood behind the counter, ringing up Big Gulps and overcooked hot dogs, I would watch it, counting how many seconds it took to be back looking at me. After a couple of days of study, I had it down pretty well: after it left the cashier station, it took almost a minute and ten seconds before it came back my way. So I used that information to my advantage. I was the only one in the store (who else would they give that shift to except the new guy?), so when that camera swerved and I was safely out of viewing range, I would grab a pack of Funny Bones from the nearby rack, tear it open and shove both cakes in my mouth!! I didn’t have much money (what a surprise!) so couldn’t afford meals of my own, so those minutes were precious. I got so good I could take down two packs in my allotted time, and of course, there was always the kneel down to tie your shoelace routine.

The place was poorly run; the Manager didn’t ever think about how he kept running out of Drakes Cakes with no cash to show for their disappearance! Maybe he considered it just the cost of doing business, and he knew everyone had their own favorite treat to devour when they weren’t on camera.

The store also had a couple of gas pumps out front and for the time, a new system of ordering gas where when the customer drove up; the employee inside would hit a button on a console and ask how much of what kind of gas they wanted. The customer would then hit a button on a little black box attached to a nearby pole and respond; the employee would then release the gas to the appropriate pump. Like I said at the time downright revolutionary!!

But being in the middle of nowhere, and it being a new system, people sometimes got confused. Like the time an older fellow got out of his used beat up pick up truck and squinted into the glare of the overhead lights. I hit my button and asked:

“Can I help you? What kind of gas and how much please?”

Well that poor old feller was a bit startled by hearing a voice come out of a gas pump, and not noticing the little black box with the “Speak” button on it, he picked up the nozzle from one of the tanks, turned it to his face and started talking back into it!!

I tried a few times to correct him while stifling my laughter:

“No sir, not there… please don’t point that at your face…sir overhead…the box with the button…sir please.”

I wasn’t in New York anymore, that was for sure.

But there were highlights…besides the free Funny Bones, there were lots of pretty girls intrigued with a good looking guy (well I was then) from the big city…I played that up big and it worked every time! And I got a lot of reading done during my shift as the population of Dinwiddie County wasn’t huge, so the store didn’t get a lot of traffic at night; maybe a State Trooper looking for a cup of coffee, or some guy coming home from shift work who needed a stale ham sandwich.

And then there was the beer. You see the 7 Elevens there sold beer. There was a huge refrigerator case filled with six packs of Bud and Miller (the preferred beer of the region), but you see it was illegal to sell beer in the state of Virginia after Midnight, so we had these big chains with padlocks, that we would run through the fridge door handles so that no one could open them. I had the keys to the locks. What could go wrong right?

The first time I worked the night shift alone, the manager showed me where he kept a shotgun under the cashier counter.

“Anyone tries breaking into the beer, this’ll stop them”

He must have noticed my wide eyes and look of disbelief.

“You ever fire one of these before?” he asked.

I shook my head; no I hadn’t.

“You ever fire anything?”

Another shake of my head. He started to look disgusted.

“Ya mean to tell me you never been hunting?”

This time I spoke up:

“I don’t believe in killing innocent defense-less animals”

Well, that about did it. He just shook his head, but to his credit, he continued with his lesson.

“Well this is loaded; you just pick it up, cock it and pull the trigger.”

He shook his head again as he left, probably hoping I would accidentally blow my sissy head off. But the thought of shooting someone to defend some six packs of Miller seemed insane to me. I mean really, a Miller?? Maybe a Gaffel Kolsch…..

Well, you knew it had to happen right? One night not too long after, I was busy eating my Funny Bones and sipping my Big Gulp when around 2 AM two guys came in, a bit unsteady on their feet and head straight for the beer case. Damn, I thought, here we go. Immediately I hit the call button under the counter which signaled the closest State Police car that there might be a problem at the store. The two guys were trying to open the door to the beer, and not getting the idea of the chains rattling every time they did. They both started cursing, finally realizing the door wasn’t opening. They weren’t going to get in without the keys to the locks. And I had the keys. And a shotgun. Their attention finally turned to me in my bright Orange and White outfit.

“Hey you, we want some beer man.”

In my official 7-Eleven voice I answered:

“Sorry Guys; we stop selling at Midnight; State Law.”

“What the fuck you mean you stop selling beer??”

Lord; another genius.

“It’s the law,” I said “Sorry”.

They looked at each other, and the second guy just shrugged. Good I thought, just go would you, and where was that State cop??

But of course Genius starts walking towards me.

“You got the keys?”

When in doubt, lie.

“What me? No way! You think they would give me the keys to the beer? Only the manager has them.”

And at that moment I wish he did. Number Two starts for the door, but Genius isn’t about to leave and I guess I couldn’t blame him – I could have used a cold one right about then myself.

“You’re lying,” Genius said and I started to get afraid.

“You think they would leave the keys with a peon like me?”

Keep working it, I told myself but I think I confused him with peon.

“I don’t care what you are, gimme the goddamn keys!”

Looking back on it, I was amazed I didn’t just open the beer case myself and share a few with these guys. But no, I was a loyal employee of the Southland Corporation. I just shook my head –was that the sound of a car pulling up in the driveway? Genius started for the counter again, now thoroughly pissed off, besides being shit-faced.

“You guys just go,” I said, “I don’t want any trouble here.”

I dropped my hand below the counter.

“Whatcha going do? Shoot me? Yer too Chicken Shit!”

Well, I sure had to agree with him there but somehow managed to say:

“Maybe”

And that at least stopped him for a moment. I actually did put my hand on the shotgun but that was as far as I was going to go but I hoped he didn’t know that.

“Well, maybe I’ll shoot you.” Genius said.

Now that put a different light on the situation; didn’t think he might have a gun too! And as I had never used a firearm before I knew who would be on the losing end of a shootout.

And then I heard the bells that jingled when the front door opened.

“Any problem here boys?”

The Trooper must have been six two at least; his right hand rested on his oversized holster. Genius smiled a sloppy grin, said:

“No sir, just having a friendly talk is all”

The Trooper looked my way, saw a frightened kid from the city, and answered:

“Well, that’s nice that is. Let’s just keep it friendly – you boys here to buy something?”

Number Two, visibly shaken piped up:

“Pack of smokes.”

“Well, why don’t you just do that and be on your way?”

Clearly, even Genius didn’t want to take on a State cop; a scared kid behind the counter yea, but a State cop, no way.

And that was the end of it; no real harm done except to my dreams of a new life in Virginia. You can imagine my career at Southland didn’t advance much further. As a matter of fact, I didn’t last another two weeks. I turned in my paper hat and orange smock and never looked back.

There were no 7-Elevens in Manhattan at the time, but later in the mid-eighties, I went into one in Pennsylvania. The young guy behind the counter must have wondered why I was smiling so much as I made my purchase. The place was the same, overhead cameras and all; the same stupid uniform, the same Big Gulps, the same overcooked hot dogs. But that wasn’t why I was smiling; before leaving I noticed the display rack of snacks on the counter, and while there were plenty of Ring-Dings, Hostess Cupcakes, and cookies, there was only one Funny Bone package left on the shelf.

When I got back into the car, Leslie asked why I was smiling, after all, I had just gone to buy some ice at the local 7-Eleven.

She didn’t realize for a few moments, I had taken a trip back in time.

-Rob

Chemistry Fail

When I attended H.S in New York, Chemistry was a required class in the Catholic School System. Why this was “required” remains a mystery to me. In my day to day life, I don’t believe I have used Chemistry once since graduating High School a hundred years ago. I realize that I drink H2O and that’s about as far as my Chemistry class has taken me. Yet, for some reason, the Archdiocese of New York felt this should be a required course. So, in my Sophomore year, I found myself sitting in Mr. Carrs’ Classroom. Mr. Carr was one of the few teachers at Cardinal Hays HS who was not clergy. I didn’t fear him as much as I feared the guys in the white collars and black robes. I found myself identifying more with him. This was probably a mistake, in that, minus the white color and black robe, he was as tough and strict as any of the other Christian Brothers and Priests that taught us. My hope of identifying with him faded within the first week of class. He didn’t smile much and lived and breathed Chemistry. It was clearly his passion and I suppose he didn’t quite understand why others (me) were not quite as passionate.

I was lost from day one. If you thought I had a hard time with French, ( go back and read my blog about that disaster), you should have seen me in Chemistry class. Other than water and oxygen, ( impressive, eh?) I couldn’t grasp any of countless chemical symbols. H, He, Li, Be, Ne, Na, Mg…… on and on they went. I couldn’t even remember all the State symbols in the country and they wanted to know the symbols for a million different Chemicals? Why?? So that one day in the future, when I found myself at an important cocktail party, I could confidently walk up to a pretty girl and impress her by asking if she would like me to tell her the chemical symbol of Magnesium??? If I really wanted to knock her off her feet I could tell her that In addition to the letters for the element itself, I could add subscripts for ionization or oxidation state or other atomic detail. Talk about being a winning one-liner!

Needless to say, I didn’t do very well in this class. When not asking myself; “ Why am I here?” , I found myself staring out the classroom window at the Grand Concourse… knowing that in walking distance was Yankee Stadium! The ticket taker at the Stadium never once asked me if I could tell him the chemical symbol of Magnesium.

The Lab was always touted as the “ fun part” of Chemistry class. This was when one would get “hands on” experience with actual chemicals. Along with a Lab partner, you would mix various elements and witness the results, as well as observe the properties of the elements.

Everyone had a lab partner. Mine was a nice kid I will call Ed. Ed was one of those fascinated with Chemistry and he loved the class. All except the part about having me as his lab partner. I honestly believe he was fearful that I would accidentally blow him up or burn all his skin off. When we walked up to our lab table he invariably said something to the effect of;

“Don’t touch anything unless you ask me first, ok? For God’s sake .. put your gloves on!”

Ed was a very nice guy to put up with me and to be as patient as he was, but, when I met him he was about sixteen years old… when we completed our Chemistry year together, he was around thirty-two. Go figure. I may have been the cause of his PTSD.

It will not surprise you to hear that I failed the course miserably and thus was required to attend Summer School. This was a big deal for our family because I had single handily messed up a good portion of our summer. Instead of being with Mom and my brother in Lake Hopatcong, I would have to stay in the hot, nasty city with Dad while I completed my summer school program. I would miss being with Mom and Rob and they would miss me. ( Actually, I never asked Rob if he missed me at all…. that would be interesting to know.)

All this made Dad very unhappy and that was never a good thing. First, he was very angry that I had failed. He was totally convinced that “I had not put my mind to it” and that I was more interested in playing ball than in passing this class. Of course, he was right. Secondly, he was mad because I was messing up the summer, and again, he was right.

When one failed a class at Cardinal Hayes, a meeting with the parent and teacher was required, with the student present. Dad was determined to be the parent at this meeting and that did not bode well for me. This was unusual, in that Mom usually handled all this kind of school “stuff” because of Dads brutal work schedule. Him giving up an evening of rest to accompany me to the Bronx to visit with a teacher was not a good sign.

Rob kept telling me that “I was dead” and there “was no hope”. ( maybe he didn’t miss me?)

Dad was silent for most of the long subway ride to the school. His silence was another “not so great” sign. The one thing that was positive was when dad realized he would be meeting with a lay teacher rather than a Brother or Priest. We were old school Italian and the Brothers and Priests were viewed with a revenant awe. Dad would never really express his thoughts and feelings to clergy, but to a lay teacher? He was loaded for bear. ( Dad put some of the blame for my failure on the teacher because I had told him I didn’t understand a thing the teacher was saying. Dad was planning on letting him know this in no uncertain terms) .

Needless to say, I was pretty nervous when we arrived at the school that warm June evening. Subway rides in the heat were no fun, and we were both sweaty and uncomfortable when we got there.

We walked down the now empty halls to Mr. Carrs’ office in silence and waited in the outside office to be called. A large, empty school building has an ominous feel to it, and that was certainly what the whole situation felt like to me, Ominous.

We had not been waiting long when Mr. Carr appeared and politely asked us to come in. I began to get up and Dad put his right hand on my shoulder and pushed me back in the seat.

“You stay here… I want to talk to him alone first….”

Oh crap. My brother’s words rang in my mind. I was dead.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dad emerged from the office. He looked calm and not at all mad.

I wondered what the hell had happened, but I dared not say a word.

“Come on”, Dad said, we’re going home”.

He must have seen the confusion in my eyes because he simply said… “outside”.

We emerged unto the Grand Concourse exactly one hour after we arrived and I had no clue what had taken place. I ventured a curious glance at dad and I’ll never forget his words:

“ I just spent a half hour talking to your teacher. I didn’t understand a damned thing he was saying either. No wonder you failed ….do good in summer school.”
That was it. No other word was ever spoken about my failure, no other threat, no warnings, nothing. That was it. On the way home, we enjoyed an Italian Ice and talked about how crappy the Mets were playing.

Epilogue:
I aced summer school

-Don

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