The Christmas of 1952 was one to remember. While I got a few of the things I'd asked for, I'd by no means received all of them. It seems my parents splurged instead on a gift for the entire family. We got a freaking TV!
Oh Man, now I wouldn't have to put up with Jimmy's whiny little sister while watching Saturday Morning cartoons! And put up with Jimmy's mother, who was always interrupting us. “Jimmy, do this. Jimmy, go do that.” I so much wanted to yell out “Mrs Grundle, eat a bug!” I didn't though. My mother didn't raise any stupid kids.
Our parents figured that this would be something to draw the family together. To bring us into the homogeneous unit that all parents dream of their families becoming. Well, good luck with that.
Let me give you an example. Dick got home from school. He didn't dilly dally but came right home to be in time for the fore runner of the American Bandstand, called Bob Horn's Bandstand, out of Philadelphia. Borrrring! Just teenagers twitching and spazzing to rock and roll. Didn't he realize that I'd already warmed up the set to watch Howdy Doody?
Buffalo Bob had just told Clara-bell the clown a joke, and Clara-bell made a laughing face and squeezed the bajezus out of his bicycle horn. That's how he laughed. Now, that stuff's funny. Twitching teenagers, not so much. And so when Dick switches channels, mid-joke, I launch myself outside to the clothes line where Mother's hanging laundry.
“MOTHER”, three octaves higher than normal, somewhere in the glass shattering range, “Dick won't let me watch Howdy Doody!”
“Oh for heaven's sake, Richard,” she yells through the open window, “ let your brother watch his cartoons!”
Dick comes out to the porch. “But Ma... it's Bandstand! It's BANDSTAND!”
“Oh for... mumble, mumble. Go watch it at Sheila's house! Isn't she always watching that show?”
“Oh yeah, yep, she sure is. Thanks Ma.” Bang, he's off the porch and has launched himself down the street.
Sheila's the girl that has that horse sized dog named mouse. Mom didn't really care for her because she figured the girl was kind of trampy. Evidently my brother does too, and so enjoys hanging around her. This is the girl he got caught in the back seat of our station-wagon with, trying to get to first base.
I think mother gave in on this instance just so she could get a little piece of mind. There's a light dusting of snow on the ground and our sheets are frozen to the wash lines. This happens to all the clothes in the winter. They still dry but it takes them a long time to sort of freeze-dry. They are on the line forever and so the laundry gets backed up.
Once a week my Mother and Father would load the pillowcases full of washed laundry into the Station-wagon and drive to a self service laundromat to dry the clothes. Sheets, because they were thin material and would dry in a couple of days, were still hung outdoors.
My father really debated getting mother a dryer as opposed to a television for the family. But mother insisted the money would be better spent for the family. In all reality though, I believe she enjoyed having my father with her to help her dry and fold the clothes. It took some of the chore off of her back and gave her some one-on-one time with him, away from us kids.
But evenings, the whole family would gather around the TV, and laugh and cry with such shows as The Texaco Star Theater, The Red Skelton Show, The Jack Benny Show, The Fireside Theatre and so many others. Shows that had graduated from the radio were just learning how to function anew on television.
Some things on TV weren't as good as their radio versions though, I didn't think. Take Jack Benny for instance. On the radio, his man Rochester would describe Mr Benny going down to his vault in the basement to get a dollar to pay the paperboy. He'd describe the steps through the moat, avoiding the alligators, etc. They couldn't put that on TV in front of a live audience.
Also, in those days, Rochester, and all other non white actors played the parts of bad guys or bumbling, lazy no-accounts. These were racist times, and the average white person just accepted the status quo, not thinking about the plight of the Negros, Asians, Latinos or other non-white races. I think that our society has only now started to get a conscience about race relations. And we still have a long, long way to go.
In time, television would become such a magnet, that families would even eat their meals in front of it. I know it eventually happened to us. You would have to eat in a restaurant in order to get everyone seated at a table and talking together. And today, even that doesn't work. People bring their entertainment with them in the way of mobile phones. So I really don't know if the invention of these electronic marvels was a blessing or a curse. Anyway, I digress.
January 20, 1953. My folks made me sit and watch the installation of General Dwight Eisenhower as President of the United States. We didn't have a lot of choice since it was on all three stations. I couldn't concentrate on it though because I was thinking about what sort of presents I'd receive in just 3 more days. I was going to be six years old! I'd already gotten used to the idea because I was telling people I was five and a half about 3 months after my fifth birthday. And by the time I was actually five and a half I was claiming to be six. I just couldn't grow up fast enough it seems. So the birthday came and went and seemed to mark no particular milestone in my life. Come September though, I would learn that six was the age I would start school. This would not make me a happy camper. My parents, for reasons unknown to me, had decided to have me skip kindergarten. Being born in winter would insure that I would always be about six months older than the average age in my classes. Perhaps Mother figured I needed some more maturing before I was ready for the hallowed halls of academia. But that was September and that was a lot of months away yet.
So it was Friday and the official day of my 6th birthday. Jimmy had spent Thursday night and we slept in sleeping bags on the living-room carpet. Mother made pancakes and bacon for breakfast. Dick bought me a whoopee cushion as a birthday gift and he set it on our Father's chair. Father came into the kitchen, yawning, and sat down. There was a tremendous flatulence sound and me and Jimmy and Dick were on the ground, we were laughing so hard. Dad just looked up at our Mother and said “Francine, excuse yourself.” Talk about the laughter going through the roof. Mother was laughing so hard she said she peed a little. Somehow, I think Father knew that cushion was on his chair before he sat down.
I really don't remember the toys I received on that birthday other than a pair of skates. Jimmy had a pair and so I wanted to be able to skate with him.
I mentioned I had a friend named Craig that was older than me. In fact, he was four years older than I was. I originally became friends with his younger brother Barry who was seven to my five. But Craig wasn't a popular kid with other guys his own age and so he hung out with Barry's friends. Craig also wasn't popular with my Mother because he had a kind of a potty mouth. I considered that a plus because I was always up for an interesting conversation.
A new kid named Randolph ended up in Craig's 4th grade classroom. He was way bigger than the other kids in his grade and a year older as well. Looking at him you would guess that he had slipped a grade or so and probably had a couple of married cousins in his background.
Now, since Craig was fair sized for a 9 year old, Randolph decided to use him to show his new class mates that he was now the top dog. While Craig had a big mouth he was actually a pussy cat. My brother called him a candy ass. That upset me when Dick said it so I retorted, “Well, if his ass is candy, why don't you lick it?” That earned me the finger.
During the first recess, this throwback to the Paleolithic started poking poor Craig in the chest, trying to make him lose his temper. He found the necessary number of pokes to cause Craig to shove back. Then Carl wrapped his arms around Craig's neck and threw him to the ground where he then commenced to slap and poke and humiliate him until he cried uncle. As you probably remember, fighting at this age primarily consisted of wrestling matches to assert dominance. I could just visualize Craig bawling out of an embarrassment so deep that he didn't want to go back inside after recess. He walked home instead.
Craig's Mom marched him back to school for a conference with the teacher and principal. The other kids, who'd witnessed the action on the playground, had already told the teacher what had happened. The result for Randolph was a one week suspension and the reputation that he wanted as being a bad ass. The result for my friend Craig was lowered self esteem. And the result for me was to hate a bully that I'd never even met for what he did to my friend.
Craig's best friend, Steven, lived across the street from our family. I was riding my bike up and down the street and noticed Steven and Craig sitting out on the lawn, talking. Steven hadn't seen me without training wheels on my bike yet so I wanted to show off a little. I went whizzing past his yard and reared back so that my front wheel came off the pavement. In my mind it was very impressive stunt but, in actuality, I'd only raised up about two inches and for less than a second. Coming back down I got kind of wobbly and ended up butt over teakettle on Steven's lawn.
The boys picked me up, dusted me off and checked over my bike. Nothing broken and just a slightly bent pride. I asked what was up and got a rendition, from Simon, about poor Craig's altercation at school. The three of us ended up kicking around for awhile and then I got called to dinner.
I told my brother Dick what had happened to Craig. Now Dick had always pushed Craig away whenever he came over to our house looking for me. He did this on direction of my mother. But when he heard that Craig had been bullied, he changed his mind about the kid. Dick decided he was going to teach Craig, and me, some self defense moves.
Craig was still over at Simon's so Dick sent me to fetch him. We had another couple hours of daylight left and my brother wanted to get started. At first Craig didn't want to come over because he was scared of Dick. But I told him what Dick wanted to do for us. He relented but was nervous.
Dick had us in the back yard, where Mom couldn't see us hanging out together. The grass was yellow and January cold, but the snow had all evaporated. Dick decided we should all take off our shoes. I suppose he had visions of oriental fighting from his comic books and figured they should be done barefoot. Then he shows us some fake judo moves he likely made up. After he steps on a winter resistant, Goat-head sticker, we were quickly back in our shoes.
I knew this was all crap, because I knew exactly what my brother's fighting style consisted of. His method of fighting was to start swinging like a dervish and get in a million punches before the other guy even gets his fists up. It was a simple but effective style and he named it the “rat-a-tat-tat”. He said it was because he was bringing a machine gun to a fist fight.
I'd seen him use this on one of Billy's friends. The guy was teasing Dick and generally getting under his skin. Now, since my brother Dick was on the short side, appearing macho was a necessary part of growing up for him. Bullies don't tend to pick on you when they know you'll rain punches down on them with animal like ferocity. I'm sure he only had to prove this capability a couple of times before even the slowest droolers caught on. The result was that he only had two or three fights all the way through school.
His propensity for giving ass whippings had the unintended benefits of also protecting our older brother as well. Billy, older than Dick by two years, was more of a lover than a fighter. Since Dick was small, he attracted bullies like swamp water attracts mosquitoes. His fists would whorl-wind their way through some neanderthal looking guy with a King Kong complex and end any future attentions from the bully types. And, since most bullies are cowards at heart, the bullies in Billy's classes didn't want to pick on Billy and find out if he was anything like his little brother. As it was, though, I was so far behind these two in school that no one remembered Dick whenever I made it to their school. I had to make my own reputation.
But, let's get back to poor Craig and his bully. He can't just stay in the classroom during recess, afraid of being attacked again. Besides, he needed to regain a bunch of self esteem that was stolen from him. So he was really concentrating on what Dick was showing us.
“All right. I'm gonna show you the one-two punch. This will be your primary go to, understand?”
“Yessss..” I said, with an added “but what's a primary, and what's a go to?”
“Christ! It means this will be your main fighting method. You are going to jump right up close to the guy and punch him, hard, in the nose with one fist and then with the other. That's what I mean by a 'one-two punch'. Get it?”
We both nod our heads yes and he then positions our arms and fists in the fighting stance he wants us to take. I admit he has us standing and positioned very professional like. I'd seen the movie “The Champ” on TV, so I knew a professional fighting stance.
“Now, I'm gonna hold one hand up in front of each of you and I want you to hit it as hard as you can. Hit it first with the fist you're holding next to your chin and then hit it with the other fist. We both practice that for about a dozen swings.
“Okay, not bad. Now, just as fast as you throw a punch, bring that arm back again and get it ready to throw another punch. It's like cocking a pistol. You should be able to throw a bunch of punches real quick. Practice hitting hard and hitting quick. Got that?”
We both nodded our heads. We were developing a rhythm. One-two, one-two, one-two.
“Looking good, both of you.” And he's shaking his hands in the air because they have to be stinging by now.
“Final lesson. If you throw enough punches fast enough and hard enough at his face, he's going to move his hands up to try and protect himself. This is going to leave his belly wide open for some gut punches. Put your whole body into the gut punches and finish him off.”
That was Friday evening. Craig came over and practiced with Dick for a couple of hours on both Saturday and Sunday. Dick said he was finally throwing some powerful punches. You could see his self confidence growing by the way he would smile back at my brother's compliments. Monday he went back to school and Randolph was due back from suspension.
My brothers were in school. Craig was in school. I was at home wishing I could be a little birdie on the playground at Craig's school. He said he was going to thump on Randolph's chest until Randolph tried to jump him. Man-oh-man I wanted to be there for that.
When Dick got home from school he told me to hop on his handlebars. We were going to ride over to Craig's house and find out what happened. I climbed on and we were there in no time. We weren't the only ones there either. Two kids about Craig's age and from his class were there also. It seems Craig was no longer being shunned by his classmates. He had kicked the school bully's ass and was now everyone's new, best friend.
Craig just stood outside his house with an embarrassed, red faced grin, while the other boys regaled us of his exploits. Randolf had figured he'd make a repeat performance of the show he'd put on the prior week. He walked up to Craig and commenced to poke him in the chest. He only got one poke in though and Craig landed two punches on the guy's nose before he even realized he'd been hit.
You remember how I mentioned that kids this age normally just get into wrestling matches? Well, evidently Randolph was still thinking along those same lines when his nose started to sting and then he tasted blood. They said he reached a hand up to his nose and pulled it back with blood on it. But before he could react to this new realization, Craig started in on him in earnest.
One-two, one-two, one-two. Randolph threw his hands up to protect his face and Craig started aiming for the bread basket. One-two, one-two, one-two.
Randolph bent over in a “woosh” of expelled air, dropped to his knees, and started yelling “uncle, uncle, uncle!”
As quick as it started it was all over. Craig was a new playground champion! Everyone wanted to be friends with the hero. The boys told us that some girls had made up a song and were singing it next recess:
“Randolph the red nosed bully, had a very bloody nose,” this to the tune of a Christmas carol.
Dick and I grinningly pat Craig on his shoulder and then Dick rides me back home.
Dick's buddy Tharon, and a bunch of other guys, were over to the house a couple of days later, just hanging out with my brother. Dick wanted to show off how he'd taught his 6 year old brother to throw a punch. Tharon decided to play along and knelt down next to me. He held up his hands for me to punch at and had a grin on his face.
“Let's see what you can do, kid,” he says.
Now, I'd never liked Tharon. During all the times that Dick would tease me in front of his friends, Tharon would laugh and get a big kick out of it. He'd even join in when the opportunity arose.
So I ignored the hands he'd thrown up and did two rapid, one-two punches on the guy's nose instead! It snapped his head back and he fell over backwards. Tharon's nose started gushing and he jumped up and ran for our bathroom.
Dick and his other friends watched with a look of total surprise on their faces. Then, when Tharon took off running, they started howling in laughter. The wisecracks started coming thick and fast. When he came back out of the restroom his nostrils were packed with toilet tissue and he looked at my brother like “what the f***?” And that sent them all off again.
One of the boys said, “Don't worry, Tharon, if it looks like he's gonna beat you up again, we'll tell his mommy.” Then more gales of laughter and a sheepish looking Tharon.
Neither Dick nor Tharon tried to tease me around his friends from then on, as the friends decided I had earned their respect.
It seems as though Karma is sometimes on your side. And I had managed to give Tharon a Karma sandwich.
I went into the musical instrument selling business for a short while. I was the proud possessor of a kazoo and two cheap harmonicas. Now all my musical talent at this age was in my foot as I would attempt to stamp to some sort of a rhythm whilst breathing in and out on any of the three instruments.
I didn't practice any scales. I just blew the same notes over and over and over. I was after a rhythm to move to, while my imagination supplied the grander and loftier music. I was playing a symphony in a tone deaf world.
My marching band commenced out on my sidewalk, with me blowing on the kazoo. The two harmonicas were stuck into my belt like ammo packs. I was John Phillip Sousa and his famous marching band, all rolled into one.
“Snort-tweet, snort-tweet, snort-tweet, snort-tweet” in a cadence befitting my grandiose imagination. Up the sidewalk and down the sidewalk, up...
“Hey you! Hey kid! Come here!”
I look over towards the yard I'm passing by. It's an old fella that's hollering at me. He's stepped down from his front stoop and he's leaning, both hands, on his cane. I stop to see what he wants.
“That's a nice looking Kazoo you've got there. I'll give you a dollar for it.”
Hot dog! A dollar for a toy Kazoo I bought at Payless for ten cents! What a deal.
“You bet mister” and I walk over to him.
He reaches into his pocket, takes out a bill and hands it to me. I hand him the Kazoo.
“You can play other notes on it. I just played the one so the others are still unused.”
“I'll keep that in mind.” Then he turns and makes his way back inside.
I have to wave the bill around for the world to see and admire before I stick it into my pocket.
I pull out one of the harmonicas and take up the march once again. “Snort-tweet, snort-tweet, snort-tweet, snort-tweet” Up and down the sidewalk.
Passing by the old fella's house again I notice him staring out his front room window at me, a surprised expression on his face. Me and John Phillips continue marching by.
The return trip saw him standing just off his stoop again. He waves his cane at me. I wave back and continue on my way.
“Hold up there, young fella. Come on back here.”
I pause, like before, to give him opportunity to speak.
“That there is a fine harmonica. It would go well with the Kazoo I just purchased. Will you take a dollar for it?”
Would I? You bet mister, and...”
“I know, I know, it has a bunch of unused notes left on it because you only used the one.”
I nod my smiling head yes as we make our exchange.
Well, there is a third sale made that day. Yep, same fella, my last harmonica. The exchange went a little different this time. After he gives me the dollar he says some uncomplimentary things about me, my parents, my dog, my cat, my grandparents and my friends and a canoe trip he'd like to set me up on over a creek called shit.
I took it all in stride though. Dick says way, way worse things. This guy's old and probably cranky and needing a nap. I wave as he turns back inside.
The first thing I do is hop on my bike. I've got three whole dollars and I'm going to pedal to the corner market just a few blocks away. They have a turn table rack with toys hanging on it. I'm gonna buy enough tooters and tweeters for the old fella to start up his own band! He should be plenty pleased and I'm gonna to be rich.
Next week Grandma takes me to a ball game. I don't think the ball park wants me back there again. Hey write to me. My email is listed here somewhere. Don't make me hold my breath and turn blue. My address is email@example.com.