In a recent post, Don spoke of the extraordinary magical power of Summer. And indeed for us, those two months each year we spent at Lake Hopatcong were special. We were more care-free there than our lives in the city allowed for; there was a timeless fuzziness to it all, like a dream of what life could be but most of the time wasn’t. Even the kids we played with seemed to exist only there and only then. We never talked to them about our lives back in the city, and they never talked about what they did the other ten months of the year when they weren’t playing baseball in the sunshine with us. Our other lives ceased to exist, and only our time together mattered. I often thought when we left at the end of each season, all of them: Fat Ray, Skinny Ray, Georgie, Phillip, Joey, Crazy Mike, would just disappear into the woods and wait for us to return next year.
But not every moment was one of contentment. There were nights when the very woods we had played in that afternoon, looked foreboding; and the lake, any lake, looks different when the sun is gone from the sky. And there were those damned ghost stories always being told by Don and Chris, directly intended to send a little kid like me running for his Mom. I remember when Famous Monsters of Filmland, a very popular magazine devoted to the (mostly) Universal classic monster movies, had for one edition on it’s cover the lead character (played by a very young Oliver Reed) in “The Curse of the Werewolf”, which was based on the 1935 classic “Werewolf of London”. Anyway that face on that magazine cover frightened the crap out of me, so of course, I would find it under my covers when I went to bed or waiting for me at the breakfast table, thanks to Don’s big brother sense of humor. So all was not a feeling of security and bliss, but the only time I can remember when I faced a real threat, it was not from a Werewolf hiding in the woods across the road or the mad dog that my brother and cousin swore lived up the block and whose favorite snack was young boys. No, it was from a real-life teenage kid; a bully.
Far down Squire Road where it intersected with Durban Avenue was a whole other world, and though we walked through it almost every day we didn’t know anyone who lived there. One day walking back from the lake with Mom and Don, I saw a newcomer to the area; a teenager riding a new fancy bike. He had slicked back hair, Elvis-style, tight jeans, a cigarette tucked behind his ear, and a switchblade sticking out of his shiny pointed boots. He looked tough at least to a six-year-old kid. He just sat there atop his bike and watched us as we walked past and up the road to our house. Mom was talking and probably didn’t even notice him; Don glanced his way but that was all. But I kept my eye on him; there was something unfriendly about his stare.
Nervous suddenly, I started to sing out loud:
My, oh, my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way
It was a song from a Disney movie I had seen on television recently. Don and Mom looked at me questioningly, but Mom just smiled, and Don shook his head, convinced of his little brother’s nuttiness. The rest of the walk was uneventful but I was glad to get back home. I would not be venturing out alone to Durban Avenue any time soon, I thought to myself (as if anyone would allow me to anyway). I had made up my mind; I didn’t like that new kid down the block.
Well, it turns out I didn’t have to venture down the road to see that scary guy again. The very next day as I was sitting on the stairs waiting for Don and Mom to come down, he rode that big shiny bicycle right over to me.
I was immediately afraid and thought of running up the wooden steps to the porch.
“Hey kid,” he said.
I put on my best “who me?” expression but realized it wouldn’t work as I was the only kid around.
“Who you calling Zippy?”
Huh? What? Calling Zippy? Who called anyone Zippy? And then I remembered the song I sang while walking by him; the song I sang because I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, and I wanted to sing something happy. Did he think it was about him?
“What?” it was all I could think of to say; what was I going to do, ask if he had ever seen the Disney movie Song of the South? Clearly, he hadn’t.
“I don’t like being called Zippy”
Ok well, that was fair enough.
“I didn’t call you anything”
“Don’t get wise you little punk; I’ll kick your ass”
Ok so I was still afraid, but I have to admit that last line got me mad, even though I knew given the differences in our ages and sizes, he sure could kick my ass if he wanted to.
So I said what all little brothers say when threatened:
“I’ve got a big brother, and he can kick your ass!”
Now I had done it; nothing like volunteering someone else to do battle for you.
“You think your big brother can take me?” he asked with a sneer.
Oh well, I thought, may as well go all the way; in for a dime, in for a dollar – of course, it was Don’s dollar, but I replied:
“My big brother can take anyone!”
I could envision Don’s gaping mouth and wide eyes if he could hear his little brother volunteer him for battle. But hey that’s what big brothers were for right? I could see Zippy (hey he named himself didn’t he?) didn’t like my answer; he was full of himself, that much was evident, and as a newcomer to the neighborhood, he probably wanted to make his mark, as pathetic as that sounded.
“Well you tell your brother I will meet him this Friday night down by the swamp at seven o’clock. I’ll kick his ass first and then kick yours!”
Well, I couldn’t let that be the last word, could I? I shouted back:
“My brother asleep is tougher than you!!”
Well, it sounded good at the time. Zippy spat and rode off. I stood there thinking ok now how are you going to tell Don.
“What did he want?” Don’s voice made me jump; I hadn’t realized he had come down the stairs and joined me in the road.
“I think mostly to beat me up. He thinks I was making fun of him the other day.”
Don looked at me.
“Beat you up?! He’s five times your size. Where does he get off saying something like that?”
“He’s a jerk, just forget about him.” I thought a little reverse psychology was in order.
“The Hell I am going to forget about him,” he said, his eyes squinting at the receding figure.
“Don’t tell Dad” I said. Hell, getting beat up is one thing; if Dad heard what Zippy had said to me, they wouldn’t find his body for years!
“No, you’re right- we’ll handle this ourselves,” Don said.
Ok, deep breath; it’s now or never.
“He said he wanted to meet on Friday; I kind of told him I had a big brother that was tougher than him.”
Don said nothing for a moment, surely knowing what I would have said, what any kid would say.
I told him. He simply nodded.
As you can imagine the upcoming event was the talk of our little group of friends (after of course I blabbed all about it to them the next day). The excitement grew.
Georgie: “Wow a showdown huh?”
Fat Ray: “He looks tough that kid”
Skinny Ray: “Don can take him”
Phillip: “I don’t know; did you see his hair?”
Crazy Mikey: “What the hell does his hair have to do with anything!?”
Joey: “That punk!”
Phillip: “I thought Rob was the punk.”
Joey: “Stupid! Rob’s our friend; Zippy’s the punk – haven’t you been listening to anything?”
Phillip: “Oh yeah right”
Georgie: “And he smokes.”
Skinny Ray: “So do you.”
Georgie: “If you rat me out, so help me….!”
Crazy Mikey: “Would you all stop being so stupid?!”
Coming from Crazy Mike, that was quite the question. I stood there saying nothing, glad Don wasn’t around. Friday loomed.
It was a beautiful evening that Friday. Don and I stood at the edge of a field that bordered the swamp on one side and the woods on the other. Our backs were to the woods, as we looked down Squire Road.
“Maybe he won’t come,” I said.
Don was staring into the distance.
“He’ll come” He answered. “As a matter of fact, that looks like him now.”
And sure enough, a figure on a bike was approaching. In a few minutes he was in front of us, hair slicked back, as usual, wearing those tight pants and a starched blue shirt, and shiny pointed boots. The expected cigarette sat on his right ear, and he smelled of Vitalis. My throat had gone dry and my stomach turned over.
“You the punks brother?” Zippy asked, motioning to me with his chin as he dismounted the bike. Don remained silent, staring at him; finally said:
“No…..I am Roberts brother.”
Jesus, I thought, how could he come up with a cool line like that at a time like this? Zippy looked momentarily confused, not being the brightest bulb in the box. In a moment his brow cleared, as he understood. He took a step forward.
“You think you can take me?” Zippy asked with a nasty smile.
“Guess you are going to find out,” Don answered calmly. Where did he come up with these lines!??
Don stepped forward as well; they were just feet apart. I started to look for a nearby rock. I was small but there was no way this guy was going to hurt my brother. But Don didn’t seem concerned at all.
It was then that I saw Zippy’s gaze shift to the woods behind us, a scowl crossing his face.
“Too chicken to face me alone huh?” he said.
What was he talking about? Then I turned and saw our friends, Phillip, Georgie, Skinny Ray, Fat Ray, Joey and Crazy Mike emerging from the darkness of the woods to stand behind us. Don turned once quickly, smiled at them, then turned back to Zippy.
“Just some friends. They won’t interfere.” He said.
“Yea right.” Zippy responded, his face looked flush and one of those fancy boots was suddenly tapping a nervous beat.
“I invited them here,” Don said, “to watch the fun.”
Well, that did it. Zippy must have been thinking what the hell did I get myself into? Don’s expression never changed, none of our friends said a word, just stood staring. Zippy didn’t look so cool anymore, he started to look like a scared kid in a situation that was getting out of hand; not at all the way he had envisioned the meeting. I started to feel tears of pride and gratitude well up in my eyes. To be completely honest I don’t know to this day if our friends showed up to help or just to watch a good fight, but at that moment I didn’t care, and it didn’t matter.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Zippy even sounded different now. No one answered.
“What I said…..to the pun…..to your brother” he stammered.
Don just stared. Zippy got back on his bike.
“I’m going now and you better not try to stop me!”
His face was blotched and teary now, and I knew as I watched him ride away, we wouldn’t be seeing too much of old Zippy anymore. Only then did I see Don’s shoulders relax. The gang behind us, being the goofs they were, started hooting and hollering after the figure in the distance.
“Oh, Zipppppy! Zippity Do Dah Darlin’”
“Woo Hoo Zippy Doo- where ya running off too so soon?”
“Zip Sweetheart…..oh Zip….”
Then they broke into hysterical laughter. All I could feel was relief. Don walked over to shake hands and pat the backs of our friends, and I thought at that moment, these were better friends than I had ever realized. When Don walked back over, I looked at him and said:
He smiled, mussed my hair, said:
“Piece of cake.”
Turning back to the group, he called:
“Ok guys, enough light for one more game!”
All of them ran off to get their gloves and bats, and in a few moments, we were all carefree kids again, playing the game we loved. I saw the first few bats dart from the trees as the sun called it a day; the sounds of our little band of brothers playing ball echoed into the encroaching darkness, and this time I didn’t feel afraid.
With friends like these…….with a brother like that…….
Life was good.