Sunday, March 20, 2005
It's mid-summer 1955. School is out. Looks like my beloved bums The Brooklyn Dodgers have a good shot at The Series. I can spend most of my time wandering around the local neighborhoods visiting my few friends, staying away from my home as much as possible. I should be happy. I'm not. Pop's been out of work for over a year. I think we're just about flat broke, although somehow the folks manage to "keep up appearances". Finally, he's landed a job as head editor for P.R. & Communications for a small electronic defense contractor. Even at ten years of age I know that he's going into a field he knows nothing about. Starting over at age 60. The job is in a place called New Hampshire. Mom showed me on the map. It sure looks a long way from New York. Great. I finally have a couple of friends and now we're moving. She says it's a nice country town in Massachusetts, up by the New Hampshire border. Pop says he and I'll be able to hunt and fish, he'll teach me how. I don't want to kill anything, and I can't stand to eat fish. We visited the town a few weeks ago. The interstate highway system does not yet exist. The trip took forever, mom and I driving in the old Packard up old route 12 through Hartford, in the rain, through the never ending stoplights. Stayed at some old run down inn in what will be our new town. There's nothing there but a couple of gas stations and two drug stores. No movie theatres, no candy stores, and as far as I can see no people. And no music! We had the car radio on when we drove the last leg of the trip. Boston stations. Lots of Al Martino, Rosemary Clooney and Vaughn Monroe. This place is gonna suck bigtime. I say goobye to my friends George and Alan. Cut through the woodlot and into my front yard. The big moving van is just about loaded, the three guys sitting on our front porch having a smoke and sandwiches mom made them. The head guy tells me they'll be done in a few minutes and that my mother wants me inside. I find her in my room packing a change of clothes. She' sitting on the floor. All the furniture is gone, the room empty. The radio! Where is it? She tells me not to worry. It's safely packed with my stuff in the van. Next she tells me that we'll be staying with some new friends in Massachusetts until the rental house is vacant. A Surprise! Seems she and Pop have managed to buy some land and will have a new house built. Says I'll love it. It will have a great big yard and is in the country. Lots of room to roam. I ask if there are any kids in the neighborhood. She tells me there is no neighborhood. Says I'll make new friends when school starts. It suddenly hits me. I'm gonna be the new kid at school. She reminds me that my sister will be starting college in the fall and not living at home. Let's see:
1/ We're moving to the middle of nowhere
2/ I 'll have no one to play with and be the "new kid" at school
3/ Pop wants me to kill animals and fish
4/ There'll be nothing on the radio but syrupy lovesongs and fluffy pop
5/ It's going to be just me caught in the middle of my folk's constant arguments
Where did I go wrong? What did I do to deserve this?
The car radio says the hurricane will definitely hit shore again, this time in Connecticut in about four hours. I see the first few drops of rain splatter on the windshield of the new Buick as mom drives through Hartford. The stoplights are starting to swing a little, the wind increasing. The warm humid air is blowing in through the vents, making me drowsy.
My cocker spaniel, Sandy, is running across the front yard towards me. I grab for him but he makes it past me and chases the milk truck down the street and around the corner. Mom enters my room and wakes me. He's been missing for days. She tells me the bad news, he's been hit by a car and is dead. I'm crying, sobbing.
" Honey, honey. Wake up. We're here." Slowly I come out of the dream, open my eyes. We're parked in a gravel driveway, in front of a barn attached to a big old white house. A man and woman come out a side door and approach the Buick. Mom gets out and gives them each a light hug, peck on the cheek. She calls me out. I shake hands with the man, Stormy. The lady, his wife, gives me a kiss on my forehead. They seem nice. Stormy gets the two suitcases out of the trunk. The women go into the house. He asks "me how was the trip?" I tell him I slept most of the way. We go into the house and he takes my suitcase, me in tow, up to a guestroom. Old wrought iron bed, a dresser and a table next to the bed. On the table is a lamp. And a radio. A HUGE radio, biggest I've ever seen except for our old floor model in the living room. Wow! A big glass front panel with multiple horizontal lines of frequency numbers. A telescopic antenna reaches almost to the ceiling. There' a gold metal name, Zenith, in blazing script attached to the grille cloth. I look at Stormy.
" It's a Zenith Trans-Oceanic. You can get stations from all over the world by switching to the different bands. London, Paris, Latin America, even Japan and Africa sometimes. Even hams" (whatever that is). "Works best for overseas reception late at night, when you're supposed to be asleep." I look in amazement at Stormy, all six feet two inches of him. He's a lot younger than pop, I guess about mom's age.
" There's a set of headphones in the table drawer. You plug them into that hole in the front and you can listen and no one else can hear." He gives me a knowing look and a wink. All right Stormy!
" Thanks Mr. Williamson!"
"Call me Stormy."
"You're welcome kid". We shake hands.
"Better wash up. Your dad'll be home soon and dinner's almost ready. Bathroom's down the hall on the left."
I look at him, confused. " My dad's staying here?"
"Didn't you mom tell you? Now that you two are here he gave up his hotel and will be staying with us. He bought you a .22 rifle. He and I are gonna teach you to shoot targets up in the field behind the house. Just targets, no animals. Don't believe in killing animals, except for game birds and then only for food once or twice a year. Come on down to the kitchen when you're done."
I'm tired. The trip, the roast beef dinner and apple pie, seeing pop again and realizing how much I missed him. He seems much happier than I remember, and he and I talked. No lecture, no orders, just talk. Everyone seems to get along ok, even some joking and laughing.
I plug in the headphones and turn on the radio. I figure out how to switch bands to AM and, just for fun, try to tune in WINS from New York. I got it! The signal strength varies a little, but there it is! Alan Freed, the music! I get into bed and turn off the lamp. The room has a faint orange-red glow from the Zenith's big tubes emanating light through the cooling vents. Maybe life up here won't be so bad after all. My eyes start to close, the Clover's rendition of "One Mint Julep" coming through the headphones. I'm asleep.
His name's Putnam Bishop. "Call me Putt, everyone does". He's two years my senior. We're in the driveway behind his house which sits at the top of a small open hill surrounded by empty fields. My mom's inside having tea with Putt's mother. I've never seen anything like this. Putt's 12 years old and proudly shows me his two "field cars". We are in the front seat of a dilapidated '47 Chevrolet Wood Panel station wagon, it's back half of the roof mostly rotted off. Putt's showing me how to shift gears, what the clutch does and which pedals are the brake, the gas. He pumps the gas pedal a couple of time, turns the key and hits the starter button. The starter groans, then whines. The engine shudders to life, the car shakes. He blips the throttle a couple of times and pushes in the choke. Hits the gas again and the engine roars, the exhaust, unmuffled, makes a loud "Varoooommm". This is great, exciting! He backs the car up, then shifts into 1st and heads down the hill following the bare tracks he's made through the grass. Hits 2nd and we roar down the hill. Putt expertly hits the brakes, then yanks the wheel to the left as he floors the gas pedal. The nose of the wagon turns, the back end slides around and we start back up the hill to complete our first lap on Putt's homemade track. Oh, man! I can't believe it. He's twelve, has his own car and even knows how to drive. And his parent's allow it! He mows the front lawn and does chores around the house and gets a couple of bucks a week. He bought the wagon from a junkyard the next town over for $15, the 38 Ford coupe which is in much better shape for $22. He says he and his dad are hopping up the flathead V8 for when he gets his driver's license in 4 years. I don't have any idea what he's talking about but I sure want to learn what a flathead V8 and "hopping up" mean.
Now we're on the flat driveway. Putt has me behind the wheel, my left leg shaking with nervousness as I hold the clutch pedal firmly on the floor. I give the Chevy a little gas, slowly let the clutch out and the car moves forward! I let the clutch out all the way. We stall. I try a few more times and get it right. 30 minutes later I'm chugging up and down the hill. At the end of an hour I'm shifting, braking, and sliding the rear end around at the bottom of the hill. I'm not as good as Putt at this, but he says I'm learning fast.
I can drive! I'm not going to turn 11 for 3 more months, and I can drive! Mrs. Bishop and my mom come out on the patio. Mom sees me driving the Chevy up and down the hill. I drive to the top and expertly come to a stop near the patio. Turn off the engine, set the brake and get out. Mom loooks at me, her jaw dropped, eyes glazed in amazement.
" How do you know how to drive?"
"Putt just taught me."
She turns and looks in wonder at Putt's mom.
"It's ok Estelle. That old fliver can't get up much speed in this field. Putt's been driving since he was 8. He knows what he's doing. Bruce will be fine. Looks like he's a quick learner."
Mom looks at me uncertainly, them at Putt who flashes her a winning smile. Finally she sighs.
"Ok. I guess it's ok. Thank Putt for teaching you. We've got to get home." She laughs. "I'll drive."
We pull into the driveway of the rental house. I hop out. "I'm going over to Betsy's."
"Ok, but be home in an hour for dinner."
I head across our yard to the neighbor's, ring the doorbell. Betsy's dad answers the ring, beer in hand.
"Hi Mr. Burl. Is Betsy home?"
" She's down in the basement playing those damn Rock & Roll records. Go on down. And close the basement door while you're at it".
The Five Key's "Wisdom of a Fool" is is playing on the phonograph. Betsy is eleven and what you'd call prematurily pubescent. She's got bumps under her sweater and the hips and butt of a girl three years her senior. We shuffle to the slow grind of the music, holding each other tightly. There's in ache in my crotch as I rub up against her pelvis. The record ends. We step apart. I glance at my new watch. Almost six o'clock.
"I gotta go Betts. The old man must be home by now and it's suppertime."
"Ok. Let's walk to school together tomorrow, ok? It's 1st day and I'll introduce you to the kids."
"Sure. I'd like that. Thanks."
Betsy graps me, gives me a hug and a big smooch. "See you tomorrow."
I'm lying in bed, listening to Alan Freed on the Philco. Let's see. In the last month I've learned to drive, found two kids who know about rock & roll, got my first girlfriend (with bumps!), learned to shoot a gun, and can ride my bike into town to hang out at the gas station of my choice and talk to the pump jockey or hang at the soda fountain at either drug store.
Maybe this new life won't suck after all.
That's all for today. Stay tuned and meet The Crusaders, go racing and experience the "first time".
Saturday, March 19, 2005
Mid-winter 1953. A New York City suburb. Snow falling, swirling up against the bedroom window, illuminated by a street lamp against the darkness of the late night. The incessant afternoon piano practice of my much older sister has long since ended. The incessant bickering and arguing of my parents has ceased a few moments ago as they fall asleep. Finally, mercifully, the house is quiet except for creaking when the wind gusts, and the soft tapping of the blown snow against the window. And the Philco. I lay back against my pillow and pull the blankets up under my chin, my face basking in the orange-red glow from the tubes. The radio was my Big Gift for Christmas. It's shiny black bakelite case and pressboard rear panel contained a world of wonder. Sergeant Preston and his dog King, Boston Blackie, Crime Busters and Racket Squad, Burns &Allen, and more provided early evening relief from my daily bout of 4th grade homework; gave me things to ponder while my parents squabbled through yet another dinner, my sister and I eating in stony silence. I reach up to the AM radio on the shelf above my bed and slowly, carefully turn the dial to an obscure, low power station from Harlem. The signal is fairly strong tonight, must be the weather. The sound of a capella Rhythm & Blues emanates from the Philco's 4 inch speaker. The tight harmonies and soulful tenor leads of standard ballads intermixed with uptempo tunes. The occasional bridge featuring a few jazzy guitar riffs or a moaning, sometimes wailing Bop based saxaphone. All this is wonderfully strange and foreign to a little white kid from the suburbs. Somehow it just seems right. Somehow it fills me with a warmth and frees my mind of youthful problems caused by being the youngest kid on the block. I memorize all the arrangements, all the words to all the songs without even trying. It just happens. I sing the leads and sometimes the 2nd tenor or baritone part, often just in my head, sometimes softly into my pillow. By spring I have noticed a change in the music. At first subtle, the change is now becoming more pronounced, and more prevalant. More often the singing is backed by a piano, drums and sax, sometimes a guitar. More and more the compositions are a simple three chord progression, the beat a more elemental, every other note. The harmony remains tight, but the lead on the upbeat tunes loses much of the beautiful runs and counterpoints of the recent past. The overall effect is louder, simpler and faster. I love it. It is now 1954. I'm still glued to the radio at night, but now its tuned to WINS( "ten-ten wins New York"). There's a disc jockey who takes call-in dedication requests for songs to be played ( "this one's for Joey T. from Angie in the Bronx. She wants to know 'do you really love me' "). Calls come in from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens. Soon the calls are also coming from Flushing out on Long Island, even from New Jersey, even Westchester where I live. The D.J. is named Alan Freed and he names this new version of R&B Rock and Roll. And, Holy Cow! It's no longer just blacks singing this stuff. Now there's Puerto Rican groups, even white Italian kids. Even girls! Wow! Now I even hear some of the songs on the major stations, although they are usually overly orchestrated and sung by some white soloist or group. The fundamental beat and simplicity is missing. The cover version inevitably sucks. I begin to realize that adults (at least white adults) just don't get it. Wait a minute. What's this? It's Saturday night and my sister is home watching Your Hit Parade. I'm mildly curious when they start the Top Ten countdown. Suddenly there it is! Earth Angel at number 7 in the nation! Some square looking white dude in a suit is doing a good job of wrecking the song and the violins are ridiculous, but the song is number 7. A few months later Sh-Boom makes it to #1. The cross over version by the Crew Cuts heads the charts, but the original version by the Chords reachers number 9 on the pop charts, not just the R&B charts. Rock & Roll is on its way. That's it for today's posting. Next time learn what happens when a New York kid moves to a hick country town in New England and starts driving, singing and loving all before age 11.