Tuesday, May 10, 2016

If you’re not from here, you have yet to experience a county redneck wedding.  Just about every week in the local paper, there’s a photo of some couple—he’ll look like Quasimodo…or sometimes she will—and she’s this hippo dressed up in a full, formal wedding dress—living proof that out there somewhere, there’s somebody for everyone.  And then there’ll be this long—and I mean long—article, written illiterately by the bride’s mother, probably, about how “the bride, Mabel Loo Watkins, had a china shower (at the home of Brendetha Watkins) and a linen shower (hosted by Myrtle Watkins), followed by a Tupperware shower (at the home of Gailinda Martin Watkins) and a glassware shower (hosted by the entire Baptist Women’s Auxiliary of the County), and finally, a bath and shower shower (at the home of Agnes Lee Parkerinson Spittootle, the bride’s maternal grandmother).” 

     Then they’ll have a full regalia ceremony at the Holy Mother of the Divine Light and Eternal Flame Baptist Church, followed by a reception in the Fellowship Hall, where everyone eats sausage  biscuits and warm yellow potato salad and drinks that fruit punch with the green sherbet floating in some cleaned-up thing that the cows drink out of during the week.  Then the attendees all go back home, change out of their good, church-goin’ clothes and into overalls and shirts and go shovel pig or horse manure, while the happy bride and groom drive off to Richmond for a hot week at a Motel 6—“with indoor pool and sauna”--before they come back to store all the crap she got at the china shower (at the home of Brendetha Watkins) and a linen shower (hosted by Myrtle Watkins), followed by a Tupperware shower (at the home of Gailinda Martin Watkins) and a glassware shower (hosted by the entire Baptist Women’s Auxiliary of the County) and finally, a bath and shower shower (at the home of Agnes Lee Parkerinson Spittootle, the bride’s maternal grandmother) in one of those pre-fabricated, put-it-together-yourself (some assembly required) aluminum storage sheds that they’ll erect behind their two-bedroom rented trailer in the Route 605 Trailer Court, the one with the picturesque view of the rock quarry, the water tower, the sewage-treatment plant, and the billboard for Al’s Ford and Used Cars.
          Yeah, that’s what the typical wedding is like in our county.


     I was far away from home in the latter half of the Sixties, serving in the military, when my parents sold their first “starter” home and moved into the new split-level in the New Jersey suburbs.  So, not being there, I didn’t move with them…and neither did my boyhood companions, the Hardy boys.  Instead, they wound up on the curb at the end of the driveway in a large cardboard box, along with Chet, Biff, Tony…and even cranky old Aunt Gertrude.  My parents had evidently decided that I had become too old to read about the brothers and their chums and one more box loaded into the moving van would have been too many. 
     For the only child that I was – and still am --- they were like older brothers that I first discovered in fourth grade in the school library in an adventure called THE SINISTER SIGNPOST.  From then on, into high school, my request for every birthday, Christmas, and Easter, was a title that I had not yet read.  By the time they all found themselves in that box, waiting for the twice-a-week trash pickup, I had accumulated every volume, from THE TOWER TREASURE to THE CRISSCROSS SHADOW…all thirty-two books, the sum total of my collection.  And I must have read each one at least a half-dozen times – on rainy days, on nights when I was supposed to have been doing extra studying that I didn’t need to do…or when I just wanted to visit some old friends who were out “sleuthing.” So…why am I writing this?
     I would give anything to get those old books back, with their paper dust jackets that I carefully removed each time I began reading so they wouldn’t get torn.  I tried the newer versions with the blue bindings but the vocabulary had been “dumbed down” and the more recent ghostwriters lacked the descriptive flair that the originals, like Leslie Macfarlane, had demonstrated.  (One of the others, John Almquist, actually turned out to be one of my English professors at Montclair State while I was getting my degree in English and Comparative Literature.)
     What I would love to see (as would many other aging baby-boomers, I’m sure) is a commemorative box set, complete with original texts and dust jackets, something we could have to re-visit our childhoods.  Until that possibility becomes real, I will continue to scour old thrift stores and bookstores, looking for those old, brown-cloth covers.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Tale of the Old West...kind of....

The Lone Ranger and Tonto were in a bar when a cowboy came in and hollered,
"Hey, anybody got a white horse parked outside?!"
The Lone Ranger looked up from his beer and said,
"Yeah, pardner, it's mine, why?" said the Lone Ranger.
"Well," the cowpoke said, "that noon sun is beatin' down on that thar horse and he looks like he's gonna pass out!"
With some concern, the Lone Ranger said,
"Thanks, pardner, I'll go put him in the shade if I can find some.
"No, Kemo Sabe," said Tonto, "me go run around Silver, wave arms in air, make fan, keep Silver cool."
"Well, thanks, Tonto," said the Lone Ranger as Tonto headed for the door.
About five minutes later, another cowboy came into the saloon and shouted,
"Hey, anybody got a white horse out front?"
"Yeah, pardner, it's mine, why?" asked the Lone Ranger.
"You left your injun running!" the fellow replied.

Crawling Down Memory Lane

There was a live kiddie cartoon show on from 4 to 5, Monday thru Friday, on Channel 13 out of Newark in the late 40's and early 50's that featured terrible silent cartoons starring Farmer Gray, a cat, and tons of mice...the show was called Junior Frolics, hosted by "Uncle Fred" Sayles... after sending in enough boxtops from cereal or something, I got to be on the show...my mother took us down to the station by bus from East Orange and we got there pretty early and I wanted to sit right next to Uncle Fred and whoever she talked to put me there...then the show started and out came this mostly bald guy in a shiny blue suit who announced that Uncle Fred was sick and he was subbing for him...then he sat right down next to me...with a really bad case of  nervous armpit odor mixed with stale cigarette stench...all I remember is he had a silver pinky ring with a fake blue star sapphire in it...when we got home, my grandmother was really mad at me because she said I had sat there for the whole hour with a pissed-off frown on my face....it would have been different if UNCLE FRED had been there! If you want to see how bad those early black-and-white cartoons were, Google UNCLE FRED JUNIOR FROLICS on YouTube and you should get a cartoon called "The Life of a Cat."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A former student asked me recently, “B., what’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?”  It wasn’t something that I’d been considering at the time, but after a few moments, here’s what I came up with:
In the spring of 1963 – my freshman year in college – Count Basie and his band came to Montclair State College.  I was supposed to meet Charley Blakely, a fellow freshman from North Bergen, and I did, but he was about ten minutes late and when we entered the large gym where the basketball games were played, it was about 8:15 and the place was jammed. 
They had the bleachers on both sides down but there didn’t seem to be a space anywhere.  Directly across from us (we were standing inside the lobby doors), against the back wall, Count Basie and the band were already putting the jazz into the New Jersey air.
“It doesn’t look like there’s a seat left. Whaddaya wanna do?” Charley asked me. “Shit, I don’t know,” I probably replied. “How come no one’s sitting on the floor?” he said. “You know they don’t want anyone to walk on that floor with shoes on,” I said. “But we’re both wearin’ tennis shoes,” Charley answered. (This was long before today’s hundred-dollar, glorified sneakers; you either wore black-and-white high-tops or white “tennis” shoes, even if you never picked up a racket.) “You wanna go sit in front of the band?” I suggested, without thinking much about it. “Yeah,” Charley said…and we started walking across the darkened gymnasium floor, knowing that every eye in the stands was probably watching us.
“If The Count looks at us like we’re a couple ‘o dickheads, I’m gonna die,” Charley whispered, voicing my exact thoughts.
Anyway, we got to the out-of-bounds or base line, right under where the basket and backboard had been raised, and we sat down, like in the lotus position.  The band was still blasting away, and off to the right, behind his piano, sat Count Basie, dressed in some kind of nautical outfit with a blue blazer and a white captain’s hat.  As I watched, he looked up from ‘tinkling the ivories,’ did that thing with his hand, like he was shooting a pistol, then gave us a nod and a wink, and went back to playing the piano. 
Within a minute, the entire stands had emptied out and there were about five thousand other MSC students sitting on the floor behind us.  We stayed there the entire concert, unwilling to lose our “seats.” 
When the band had played the last encore, I found a sheet of red poster board that had been stapled to a bulletin board on the back wall and tore a piece off and went over to ask The Count for his autograph.  He took a pen out of his blazer pocket and signed the piece of red cardboard and then, with a smile, kind of whispered, “Pretty gutsy move you boys made tonight.  I was ‘fraid they’d come drag you off the floor. I woulda told them to leave ya alone. You like jazz?”
After I stammered out some kind of “yes,” I shook his hand – he had rings on three fingers – and left. 
That autograph is still in my wife’s hope chest – don’t ask me why.  I guess that was the “coolest” thing I’ve ever done…unless someone reminds me of something “cooler.”


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fifty Years Ago Today

       June 5, 1964: the last day of finals for the spring semester at Montclair State.   It's around ten o'clock that morning and I'm walking to my car, figuring I can get to work early and make some overtime that week.  That's when I was interrupted with a "Hey, stupid, where ya going?" from behind me.  Looking back, I see Dave heading for the same student parking lot.  He jogs up and asks the same question again.
        "Goin' to work, where else?"
        "Screw that!  Let's celebrate.  Get some beer and go swimmin'!" he counters.  I ask him where, since it's only June fifth and most of the lakes would be closed during the week, since public schools would be in session until the third week in June at least.
        He mentions a lake up Route 23 in Butler.  I tell him I don't have a suit or a towel and I want to make some overtime.
       "We can stop at my house an' I'll get you a towel.  You can wear one of Bob's (his younger brother by a couple years) suits.  Pick up a six-pack of Chug-a-Mugs.  We've gotta celebrate!"
       Well, the temptation was too great and anyway, it was a beautiful day, I was sure I had aced the English exam I'd just taken, and between five extra hours at E.J. Korvette's in West Orange or three cold Rheingolds, well, I followed him to his house where I left my car and off we went to the lake called McDonald's...which we found closed with a wire cable across the entrance.  Two more lakes farther up Route 23 were also closed.
       "This sucks!" I said, "take me back to your place so I can get to work."
       "Wait a minute, there's one more lake up ahead.  If that's closed, I'll take you back."
       A mile or two north was Sun Tan Lake...and the entrance was open. We drove in and looked around but all that was there was a Jeep on the highway side of the lake and next to it, some guy raking the sand.
       "It's not open, either," I said. "Just that guy doin' some maintenance an' he probably has the entrance open to go in and out."
      Dave reluctantly nodded and drove in far enough to make a U-turn.  That's when we saw a group of people on the opposite shore waving to us.
      "Wait!  It's open!" he shouted.
      "Naah, those are probably the kids of the owners who live in that white house up over there (on the hill above the lake)," I argued.
       Dave ignored me and drove his 1958 Ford over to that side.  Three girls in bathing suits came running up to the car: a chuibby brunette, a cute little blond, and another brunette on the thin side.  On a blanket sat a guy and behind him, something large and round, wrapped in towels, that reminded me of a statue of Buddha.
      "Hey, is this lake open?" Dave asked.
     "Yeah,"  the larger brunette said in an overly loud voice. "That guy over there (pointing to the one raking the sand next to the Jeep) will come over and get your money.  It's three bucks.  You can change in that building over there," she added, pointing to a cinderblock building a few yards away.
      Dave looked at me; I just shrugged.  So we drove over and parked next to the building, went in and changed into swim trunks.
      "I want the blond," he informed me. 
     "Fine.  Margot's coming home from Boston late tonight an' I've got no interest in some other babe," I told him.  Margot was my girlfriend from high school and was returning from her first full year at a two-year business school in Beantown, where her old man had sent her in hopes of our two-year romance dying because of the long-distance situation.  The last time I'd seen her was at Christmas, although we wrote each other almost daily.  Anyway....
       Going back outside and joining them on their blankets, we found out right away that the girls were all skipping school on Senior Skip Day at Clifton Senior High School.  We swam a little, played that "chicken game" where the girls sat on the guys' shoulders and tried to pull each other off; much to Dave's displeasure, the little blond chose to jump on me.  We went back to the beach blankets and talked, although I don't remember anything we talked about.  I think the girls were impressed that the two of us were "older" and "college boys," although it had never impressed me.  The problem was that after three hours of finishing our Rheingold and sharing their sandwiches, the little blond had plopped herself down next to me on the beach blanket each time,  much to the increased irritation of Dave, who had been stuck with the loud brunette.  I found out that the little blond was named Toni (the others were a girl named Danny -- for Danielle -- she was the loud, chubby one...and Jane, who was the girlfriend of the guy whose name was Charlie; he was home on leave from the Air Force).  The large person in the towels turned out to be the younger sister of Toni and she was wrapped up like that because she got sunburned easily and painfully.
        Sometime around noon, Toni had asked me if I wanted to take a walk so we followed some kind of nature trail around the small lake.  What I had begun to marvel at was that I could talk to her very easily, without feeling as if I had to act "cool" or make up some bullshit to impress her, the way I'd usually felt when I first met a girl.  After all, Margot was only my second girlfriend, the first having been stolen from me by divorce and the state of Maryland (you can read about it in my novel, FOR GLORIA, WHEREVER YOU ARE).  And much to my dismay and surprise, by the time we were making our way back to the rest of the gang, I found her hand had found its way into mine.  Talk about feeling guilty!
         Around two, I told Dave I needed to get back to my car so I could get to work by three, so we said our goodbyes and went into the building to get back into our clothes.  He bitched at me the whole time about being stuck listening to Danny "babble on and on about nothing." 
        "Whaddaya want me to do?!  Toni just kept sittin' down next to me!" I grumbled as I rolled up Bob's swim trunks in the borrowed towel.  "I told ya that Margot's coming home tonight.  Goin' swimming was your idea, remember?!"
       "Yeah, well, you got a girlfriend, I don't at the moment!  That Toni has a really nice ass and Danny's got no tits at all, if you didn't notice!" he snapped.  I had noticed that Danny, for all her chubbiness, was really lacking in the chest area.  I hadn't noticed Toni's rear, however.
       "Fine, let's go, okay?!" I growled, having a lot of other thoughts racing through my mind all of a sudden.
       The two girls were standing next to Dave's car when we exited the building.  We said our goodbyes and thanked them again for sharing their ham-and-tomato sandwiches with us.  He started the car and we headed out the gravel drive toward the highway.  We were halfway there when I suddenly shouted "Stop!"
       "Huh?!" he said.
       "Stop the fucking car!" I shouted again.  He slammed on the brakes and then looked at me.
      "You forget something back there?!" Dave asked with a frown.
      "Yeah!" I said.  Digging in his glove compartment, I found a matchbook and a ballpoint and jumped out of the car.  I ran back to where Toni and Danny were still standing, now with frowns on their faces.
      Walking up to Toni, and cleared my throat, I think, because I seem to recall that it was suddenly dry.
      "Uhh, do you think I could have your phone number...umm...to call you sometime?" I stammered.
      She just smiled and told me what it was.  I wrote it down on the inside of the matchbook.  I guess I said "thanks" and trotted back to the car.
      "What the hell was that all about?!" Dave asked as I closed my door and put his pen back in the glove compartment.
      "Asked her for her number," I explained rather lamely.
      "You what?! I thought your fucking girlfriend is comin' home tonight an' you're not interested in anyone else!" he yelled as he put the car in gear and spun gravel until we hit the asphalt of Route 23.
       Between the confusion in my mind and the guilty feelings I was experiencing, it took me five days to call her to ask if I could take her out.  It took another month of secretly seeing her before I broke it off with Margot.  And the rest is history.
       If I hadn't gone swimming that day, our paths would never have crossed.  I lived in Livingston, she lived in Clifton, miles apart with only my college in between. 

        And the rest is history...a long, fifty-year history that'll have to wait for the next stories.  But every time I taught Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" in my high-school English classes, I always told this story.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


 When childhood still held a certain amount of innocence....

When I was about eight or nine, at the dinner table one night, I asked my parents what a lesbian was, having encountered the word in my reading.  There was a stunned silence except for my two older brothers and sister, who either had milk spurting from their noses or were choking on their food.  The bulging eyes and the silence of my parents was odd because my father considered himself the font of knowledge.  Realizing that something was extraordinarily wrong, after dinner I consulted the dictionary.  The next night, to save myself further embarrassment, I told them all, with a happy smile, that I had discovered that a lesbian was an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos, and this resulted in the same milk episode and stunned stares, but I felt vindicated…although I didn’t know what vindicated meant, either. 

I was a young child…or a not-quite-old boy…when I saw these large letters on the sides of milk cartons in our family fridge: HOMO (which, of course, stood for HOMOgenized)…but having recently heard more-informed friends (who were blessed with OLDER brothers who could explain things that parents wouldn’t) …and seeing those letters and having heard those same classmates calling other guys “Homo!  Homo!” made me not want to drink any more milk…