Thoughts on Life, Art, Photography, Technology, Teaching and Travel…..
The following stories I’ve written over the years about my childhood in New York. They are from my first book “Memoir” Einstein Place and Other Stories. I hope to be writing some new ones in the near future. Enjoy and comments are always welcome.
What is it about those times that haunt me – fascinate me – call out to me? It’s been forty five years since growing up in Smithtown, Long Island.
It was the tumultuous sixties and we didn’t even know it. We were too busy playing baseball, riding bikes, fishing, getting into mischief and building go-carts out of rusty, discarded lawn mower engines.
We were like extras in a B movie that ended abruptly. Looking back, all I have is a mental movie filled with disparate images.
Visual fragments, snap shots, vague hazy pictures of baseball cards, comic books, BB guns, sling shots, stick ball and army men. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, moon landings, lazy days at the beach, JFK, Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, Mickey Mantel, Willie Mays, the New York Yankees and all my friends who grew up with me in Smithtown, Long Island during the decade of the sixties.
These stories are my way of holding on – capturing and sharing those unique remnants of childhood one last time.
Fishing at Miller’s Pond
Johnny, Mike and I lived for the weekends! We crawled out of our beds at sunrise to dig fat juicy blood worms in my backyard before walking down the maple lined road to Miller’s Pond. Once at the pond, I meticulously guided my hook through the worm to catch the first fish of the day, usually a sunny, blue gill or shiner. If we didn’t have worms we took soft white bread and rolled it into tiny moist balls that fit snugly on the tip of our Number Six hooks. After catching a few silver shiners, I placed one on top of my green metal tackle box and cut it in half with my pocketknife. Guts hung out its side as I pierced the slimy fish with my hook.
It was time to go for a big catfish! That was the true mission of our childhood fishing trips to Miller’s Pond – to haul in a large black catfish “cattie” from the depths of the murky pond. We had always heard the legend of ‘Old Sam’ the giant catfish that lurked in the back of our minds. Maybe this was the day. I cast my line out past the lily pads in the middle of the pond and then propped the pole on my tackle box. It was a waiting game. I sat and watched the taut line for any suggestion of movement for hours on end. By noon, all our fishing poles were carefully lined across the shore of the pond on tackle boxes, broken branches or big rocks. We all watched and waited anxiously… then – all of a sudden a catfish would strike a rod and pull it towards the water! If it happened to be mine, I’d pull the rod hard behind my back to make sure that the catfish was hooked and then start reeling it in with my black Mitchell reel. A reel I still have and use to this day.
“Got One!” I screamed for all to hear. “I think he’s a big one!”
They never came in easy. A big catfish always tried to get you tangled in the lily pads, diving down into the mud and weeds. The trick was to reel in as fast as you could without giving the big black fish a chance to go deep. I’d pull the rod back and reel in hard and fast – pull back and reel until you see its black outline in the shallow water and then drag him to shore. Once on land, you had to be extremely careful about getting the hook out of its mouth. The usual technique was to pull needle nose pliers out of the tackle box and place your foot firmly on top of the fish as you push the hook in and than back out of its mouth. It didn’t take many catfish to make a great fish dinner.
After a good day of fishing at Miller’s, we’d walk home enthusiastically and bring a line of catties into the Bosco’s kitchen – holding our slimy trophies high for all to see.
Johnny and his dad – Mr. Bosco cleaned and cooked them for us on more than one occasion. One day we even took home a bucket of shiners and he cleaned and cooked them up in the oven as well – we didn’t get more than a bite of fish from each one but savored our catch.
The smell of catfish lingered in their kitchen for days after our feasts.
The Drive In Theater
I had many jobs growing up on Long Island but my favorite was that of Rampman at the local drive inn theater.
I know it sounds like the name of a weird comic book super hero, but in reality, I was nothing more than a glorified parking attendant carrying a shiny chrome flashlight, dressed in white denim overalls with my name embossed in bold red letters across my back.
My career as Rampman began the day after I was fired from a local steakhouse. It was my first day working as a busboy and I was a nervous wreck from busing tables in the crowded restaurant. I couldn’t do anything right!
First I dropped a tray filled with dirty plates as I carried them awkwardly through the swinging doors into the busy kitchen. After that fiasco the manager told me to clean Table Eight and I thought he meant the table with eight people sitting at it. The customers were enjoying dessert and coffee when I grabbed their plates off the table before giving them a chance to finish eating their cake and pie. Next thing I know the frustrated stocky Italian boss screamed at me across the kitchen,
“Yo…Keough, don’t show up no more for work, I’m in business to make money not offend customers.”
My only tip was a penny someone left in the glass ashtray for me. I wasn’t cut out to work in food service. I felt dejected as I hitchhiked home after losing my first real job the first day on the job.
Luckily, my neighbor Mr. Nelson and his son Donald picked me up that late Saturday afternoon in May of 1966. They were driving home after working at the drive inn theater Mr. Nelson managed. After sharing my pathetic story about my failed attempt at working in food service, Mr. Nelson offered me a job as a janitor, cleaning the field of the theater after school and on weekends. I was fourteen years old and gainfully employed… again.
Working at the drive inn was more than just a job – it was actually a great deal of fun, especially on Saturdays when Don and I cleaned the expansive field. The place was usually a wreck after Friday night double features, an endless sea of trash from one end of the parking lot to the other. We had an old beat up Chevy pick-up truck, vintage 1950’s or older that we used to haul a big green plastic trash container up and down the ramps. The truck was a three speed on the column and couldn’t go in reverse. Don and I and anyone else that may have been working with us carried poles with nails protruding out one end as we hung from the side of the truck and rode up and down the white pebbled rows. There were some types of trash we refused to touch and that’s where the poles came in. I thrust the nail into a popcorn container, hot dog roll, candy wrapper or condom (a big reason for the stick) and picked it up and tossed it into the container in one quick motion. We burned rubber and spun the truck around each aisle holding on for dear life, trash falling from the green container and back on the field. We didn’t care how long it took. After all, we were paid by the hour and where else could a fourteen year old kid drive like a maniac without a license?
There were 16 ramps – each one was over a quarter mile long. It was a damn lot of trash for 2 teenage goof balls to pick up on a Saturday. Sometimes there were more of us working on the weekends. Charlie Buitner, my brother Dennis or Mike Smith showed up for work on more than one occasion. but turnover was high and only a few of our friends or brothers stuck with the job for more than a month.
At one time or another every teenager in our neighborhood worked for Mr. Nelson at the Commack Drive Inn. Even though he was gruff and stern on the outside, he did try and give the kids he hired an opportunity to earn some money. Most quit however after a few weeks due to Mr. Nelson’s bad temper and constant complaining about not doing a good job cleaning the field and tearing up the truck.
Mr. Nelson was always yelling at his son Donald to cut his hair and quit smoking pot.
“When are you going to cut that greasy long hair?” He barked most every afternoon as we arrived at work. “I can smell pot on you… Dope head!” He never let up, “I want you to straighten up and fly right,” he pleaded in a desperate, frustrated mantra, ” When are you going to get your act together and start acting like a normal son?”
Don nodded sarcastically, rolling his eyes as he walked away from his Dad grumbling profanities under his breath.
“Screw you Dad – get off my damn back”
Mr. Nelson caught Donald on more than one occasion getting high behind the big white movie screen. Don had seven- foot pot plants growing behind the movie screen and his dad didn’t even notice them when he caught Don getting stoned during work. Don not only loved smoking pot he also had a green thumb for growing it.
I eventually worked at every job at the drive inn except manager. I cleaned the filthy bathrooms, scrubbed graffiti off walls, lipstick off the mirrors and dragged the large plastic trash can around the field picking up cans, bottles, candy wrappers, plastic cups, underwear…yes underwear, pink panties, boxers, you name it and I picked it up. One Saturday afternoon I found forty dollars inside an old leather wallet: one of the many perks of the job. Donald and I repaired broken speakers, painted the concession stand, directed traffic and fixed electrical shorts as angry theater goers honked their horns because the sound had blown out on half the field. A night didn’t go by when some drunken driver drove away with the speaker still attached to the side window.
Being a Rampman at the drive inn offered many opportunities to exert my power. I learned the ropes of the job from Joe, the oldest Rampman. He had a daytime job waxing floors and picked up extra money working nights at the theater. He was a holdover from the 50’s, greased back, jet-black hair and a white tee shirt with sleeves rolled up to the top of his thick shoulders. A pack of filterless Camels protruded from his sleeve. Joe arrived at work every night with a six pack of Schaefer beer he shared with the projectionist. Every once in a while he split a beer with me if I promised not to tell anyone. They sat in the projection booth drinking beer and thumbing through Playboy magazines. Joe took me under his wing and instructed me in the many duties of a Rampman. He taught me how to spot someone hiding in the trunk of a car, the art of repairing broken speakers and most importantly the proper way to direct traffic by holding the long narrow chrome flashlight with the long red plastic reflector high over my head.
I was fifteen years old with a walkie-talkie and a shiny flashlight patrolling the aisles of the field. I made sure cars were parked properly and watched for teenagers sneaking through the dilapidated wooden fence or jumping out of trunks in hopes of seeing a movie for free. It was mostly teenagers and college kids who drove into the theater alone with their car weighted down suspiciously in the back. A good Rampman could spot people sneaking into the theater every time. Fingerprints on the trunk of a dirty car were always a clue. So was the way tires flattened from the extra weight of kids scrunched up in the trunk. I’ve seen as many as five people get out of the trunk of a car after driving to a remote dark corner of the field. Once we waited for over an hour for someone to get out of a trunk of a big blue Buick, when all of a sudden the trunk popped open and a naked woman jumped out and ran into the car. The young driver put the gas pedal to the floor and drove out of the theater like a bat out of hell ripping the speaker from the pole. He must have known we were watching from our car in the back of the field. It got to be a game with us trying to catch people sneaking into the movie, something to pass the time and entertain us. It was also our way of making a few extra bucks. One of us would go to the driver of the car and offer a discount rate for the movie if we caught them red-handed. Most theatergoers took us up on the offer because we were always willing to bargain.
In the summer of 1970 the Commack Drive Inn played the movie version of Woodstock. Crowds of young people walked in procession across the ticket booth of the theater carrying multi-colored blankets, pillows and jugs of wine. It was the first time people walked into the drive inn instead of driving in cars. The ones that showed up in cars drove VW micro buses or beat up old vans. The entire field was scattered with a colorful array of young people wearing hippie beads, floppy hats and long hair all pretending to be at Woodstock. I saw the film so many times, it’s ingrained in my brain forever. It never failed, each night when Country Joe and the Fish performed their famous fish cheer at the end of the movie all the people in the theater yelled in unison along with the band.
“What’s that spell? F*&^%! What’s that spell? F*&^%! What’s that spell? F*&^%!”
The theater job kept me in pocket money during my high school and college years. I quit now and again trying other jobs such as landscaping and bar tending, but whenever I needed work I could always go back and get my job back as Rampman.
I can still see the oldest Rampman, Joe, with a long chrome flashlight in each hand directing traffic out of the theater after a busy Saturday night. Dust is flying up from the dirt field as two red lights sway back and forth overhead in rhythm with the cars as they zoom out of the theater on each side of him. He let the younger Rampmen perform most of the other jobs during the movie but he always stood with flashlights in hand at the back of the exit ramp poised for that mad dash out of the theater as the credits rolled down the screen.
Going to Idaho
Dad said we were going to Idaho. Taking a pop up camper and traveling cross-county to Yellowstone Park and then on to Idaho.
I didn’t even know where Idaho was. I didn’t remember studying Idaho in school, so I dug out the Atlas and looked it up. Idaho was on the other side of the country. We were going to drive our old brown Pontiac Catalina pulling a pop up camper across the country to Idaho. We had never done any real camping before but that didn’t seem to phase Dad.
I had no idea at the time why Dad decided on Idaho but that was where we were going for vacation and who knows…to scope the place out for a possible move. I learned later he believed getting away from the left-leaning (Liberal) Northeast was in the best interests of his family considering his conservative political ideology.
All the children in the family were excited about the new camper. Dad demonstrated how it worked after parking it in our back yard. He pulled out a big metal crank and stuck it into the side of the camper. In a few turns of the crank the tent part of the camper became noticeable and in a matter of minutes it was three times its size with orange canvas falling across the opposite sides of the camper.
We had a ball sleeping in it before leaving for our cross country excursion. It had foam beds on plywood, a portable sink, refrigerator, fold out table and cabinets. This was going to be the ultimate adventure for the Keough family.
Looking back, I don’t believe Mom was as enthused about the trip as Dad but went along with the travel scheme just the same.
The day of our departure got closer. I was excited because I had my learners permit and was going to help Dad with the driving. Luckily, the Pontiac had an automatic transmission. Neither of us realized how difficult it was driving and maneuvering the camper.
We made it off Long Island, over the Verrazano Bridge and out of the city. Dad drove the first leg of the trip. He planned to let me drive on the open country highways when there wasn’t a lot of traffic.
We drove all day to Pennsylvania and found our first campground. We were all tired of being in the car and looked forward to setting up camp. Soon after maneuvering the camper into the camp site reality took hold of my mother. She was completely out of her element and started to panic. I could see right away this was going to be a long trip.
We all tried to calm her down, assuring her things weren’t that bad. Dad and I started a camp fire, Mom pulled out the Coleman stove and cooking gear and some canned beans, vegetables and hot dogs. Very soon we were enjoying our first camping meal together. My sister Mary Ann and my little brother Terry were oblivious to Mom’s anxiety. They were in heaven relishing the new adventure. Dennis and I knew it wasn’t going to be all fun and games. Dad was too busy planning each day of the trip and keeping Mom from going over the edge to worry about anything else.
“We’re going to Idaho kids!” “Oh Boy,” – Mom must have been thinking. She wanted to be back in her own home, in her own bed, in her own kitchen but she tried to keep a positive attitude for the sake of the children.
There were always lots of things for the kids to do at the campgrounds. Dennis and I took the two little ones Mary and Terry exploring and fishing while Dad set-up camp and Mom figured out what we would eat. She wasn’t happy about all the canned pre-packaged food, but she did her best to be creative with it. Sometimes we ate in restaurants to give Mom a break. Dad was smart about that – he knew he had a time bomb on his hands ready to explode at any campground.
Actually by the time we arrived at majestic Yellowstone National Park Mom was getting into the swing of camping. She still didn’t like it but made the most of it under the circumstances. She developed her own routine for preparing meals and cooking – in addition to getting us all cleaned up and ready for bed. The park was full of bears, moose and elk. The bears even came up to our car begging for food. Dennis and I also fished at the Yellowstone Bridge for hours. We watched in awe as schools of big-speckled trout passed under the bridge. But they didn’t bite at our hooks. We were frustrated to say the least. We could see the fish but couldn’t catch them no matter what we used for bait. So many people threw bread and crackers into the water they weren’t hungry.
The trip took an unsuspected turn a few days after our arrival in Yellowstone. My sister Mary Ann started getting sick. At first it was just stomach cramps Mom attributed to the camping food but she got eventually got worse and whined through the night complaining about the intense pain. Neither of my parents expected nor was prepared for anything like this to happen.
The next morning we packed up camp, rolled down the camper and drove towards the west gate of the Park. Mary Ann moaned and groaned the entire time. Mom thought it was the canned food, but there came a point when her intuition told her my sister was sick – really sick.
As we drove we looked for a park ranger to ask for assistance. Dad somehow took a wrong turn and in a matter of minutes came upon the Yellowstone Medical Center. You can’t say God wasn’t looking out for us – especially my ailing sister. Dad pulled into the parking lot, turned off the car and lifted moaning Mary Ann out of the backseat. He rushed her inside and in a matter of hours the doctors performed emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Whew! What a lucky break but the camping trip as Dad planned it was essentially over. We would not be driving any further west to Idaho. Yellowstone was as far west as we traveled that vacation. We got to spend another week in the park while Mary Ann recovered and was able to ride back home. We were not meant to go to Idaho and I think my Mom was secretly relieved about the turn of events. Dennis, Terry and I had the run of the park until it was time to head home. We spent much of our time on that bridge trying to catch an ornery speckled trout. I don’t remember catching one but we had fun trying in addition to exploring the woods and watching the wildlife.
We spent most nights in on our return trip home in quaint, inexpensive motels. Mom wasn’t going to have her sick daughter camping out in a glorified tent. Dad let me drive across the desolate stretches of Middle America. I did fine behind the wheel except for my fear of big trucks passing me and causing the car to drift because of the camper. I also never mastered backing the camper into a parking place – Dad had to get behind the wheel to do the complicated maneuvering with the camper.
We did camp one night in Kansas and my brother Dennis stepped on a skunk behind the camper. The toxic smell lingered throughout the night and we didn’t let Dennis live it down.
The tires were getting bald to the point where we weren’t allowed on the toll roads until we got new tires. Dad had to drive the back roads until he could get two replaced at a backwoods service station.
It wasn’t long before we saw the Verrazano Bridge in the distance. We were almost home from the cross-country fiasco. At least that’s how Mom felt about the whole venture but she kept her feelings to herself. She hid her true feelings as best she could – for the sake of her children.
Just when we thought we were home free the car lunged and vibrated. Our Pontiac Catalina had a flat tire as soon as we got off the bridge and onto the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn. Luckily there was an emergency pull off as we exited the bridge and Dad immediately pulled into it. He removed the tire and went for help while we sat and looked out at the Hudson River relieved that we were only an hour’s drive from home.
Dad returned shortly with a tow-truck. The mechanic replaced our tire and sent us on our way home.
I still don’t know why Dad wanted to go to Idaho in the first place. That was our first and last family camping trip.
I never have made it to Idaho but every time I hear or read something about that state I think back to that camping trip from hell in 1968.
The Gold Coast
A motley assortment of long haired hippies in bell bottoms, torn and tattered Levi’s, army field jackets and granny dresses pulled up in multicolored vans and VW buses negotiating a dirt parking lot under faint clouds of pungent smoke. It was still the sixties as far as the clientele was concerned although it was actually 1971.
I worked my way through college as a bartender at the Gold Coast, a two story dilapidated turn of the century wooden building situated in the heart of St. James, Long Island. It wasn’t so much a bar as it was a hub for every sort of off beat character and activity in the county.
Strawberry Joe arrived at the bar most every night wearing a pajama shirt, hospital scrubs and flip-flops. A tall, lanky guy about 6’2” with a big toothy smile and crew cut, who sat solemnly at the bar until he started drinking Boonesfarm Strawberry Hill wine which gradually loosened him up. My younger brother Dennis told me Joe ate dog food mixed with chopped meat when he visited him one day in his low rent one room apartment. Joe worked as a janitor in a local hospital. He was just another casualty of the 60’s and the Vietnam War although Strawberry refused to discuss what happened to him over there. Once, after downing his second quart of cheap wine he mumbled something about killing six of our own guys by accident, but that was all we could get out of him.
Frankie was another regular at the Coast. Wearing a faded army jacket embellished with military insignia amidst a chest full of anti-war buttons, his dark brown hair fell below Sergeant Stripes peeking out from his tattered sleeves. Frankie’s main objectives were picking up girls and getting high. Not necessarily in that order. Frankie and his side-kick Mole Man drove a beat up old blue van and could be spotted most every night getting high behind the bar silhouetted through red white & blue curtains hanging from the back door of their van. Many of the young hippies visited his van before entering the bar.
I can’t leave out Bobby Quick from the motley menagerie. He was a sullen, almost depressive personality who came back from Vietnam with a dark empty look in his eyes. He sat at the corner of the bar night after night drinking mugs of dark beer, every once in a while mentioning something about motorcycles. He lived and breathed Harley Davidson’s. Bobby was a bike mechanic and didn’t think or care about anything else. He had jet black greasy hair combed back into duck tail and wore a black leather jacket, tight jeans and scuffed biker boots. Bobbie never smiled…not even a hint of one.
My younger brother Dennis sat at the polished mahogany bar with Bobby trying to con free beers out of me.
“Come on Patty…Just one more beer on the house” he pleaded jokingly holding his empty mug up in the air. Bobby chimed in dryly ” Yea man…how about a free one for your best customers.” If the boss wasn’t around I usually obliged them – it wasn’t hard being a hero at the Gold Coast.
Barry (the other bartender) and I had a big cowbell hanging from the wooden rafter of the bar. Every time we got a tip – one (or both) of us slammed the shit out of it with our hand. Barry and I placed empty beer mugs along the bar for tips, seeding them with a handful of dimes and quarters. Red-eyed wild men tossed change in them just to watch our bell ringing antics. When things were really hopping we mixed drinks and served beers to the beat of rock music blasting from the Wurlitzer taking turns rhythmically lurching to bang the tip bell. I’d mix seven tequila sours at a time to the beat of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. To this day I can’t here that song without thinking about that dingy place with sawdust floors and checkerboard tablecloths. The place buzzed with wild-eyed youths discussing music, Vietnam, Richard Nixon and dope.
“Come on, lets go out to my v an and get high between sets,” was a familiar litany throughout the evening.
The bartenders wore red plaid flannel shirts, bandanas and blue jeans. On Sundays we cooked hot dogs in dark beer and tequila and watched football on TV. Those hot dogs plumped up like big fat sausages boiled in that concoction. No one really watched the game – it was just an excuse to come out for a beer with friends.
Every evening we ran drink specials, fifty cent tequila or dollar pitcher night. The bar wasn’t a pretty sight after four or five hours of serving cheap shots of tequila washed down with tap beer. Mel…the burly bouncer stayed busy breaking up fights and dragging drunken students and edgy veterans out of the bar. Mondays we showed old 16mm movies. The Marx Brothers and Godzilla were everyone’s favorites. We played old films into the night while disheveled youths roared with laughter as they drank endless plastic cups of tap beer or cheap red jug wine.
When there was a hot band we all danced like maniacs – sweating through our shirts while swinging around the red concrete support beam that cut through the middle of the dance floor. One of our favorite groups Saint Elmo’s Fire played rock fiddle music with a mad Irish beat. You couldn’t help dancing an insane jig to that wild and crazy fiddle. Song after song we swung and jumped around the dance floor bumping into one another and rattling the floor boards and rafters. The beer flowed and we sweat them out as fast as we poured them in.
We also competed in wild air guitar competitions as the regionally famous Good Rats rocked frantically into the night. People showed up with Louisville Sluggers and plastic whiffle ball bats to compete. No one came close to the stage antics of the lead singer but we all tried as he egged us on during each song.
Everyone lived for the moment at the coast. Sucking the marrow out of every minute of the night.
That was the year my childhood friend and softball team-mate Guy Loughrin was awarded money in a court case. I believe he’d gotten hit by a car walking home from school the previous year. It burned a hole in his pocket. He bought pitchers of beer for everyone on our team the entire summer. That was the kind of guy he was – money was to spend and enjoy. He loved dogs…music…played the clarinet and lived for sports. He always enhanced his drunken tales by pretending to be the actual person in the story. When Guy drank a few beers he recited lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet or imitated Marlon Brando performing scenes from On the Waterfront or Streetcar Named Desire. Once we went to a yuppie bar on my night off and Guy played pinball with his pants pulled down to his ankles. No one said anything to him. He just stood with his back to the crowd absorbed in the game with his curly brown hair glowing in the blinking neon lights.
Guy was drafted, but the Army couldn’t keep him in Basic Training. He escaped for short periods of time every chance he had, but still miraculously was awarded an Honorable Discharge.
Vietnam…the sixties in general, changed us forever. Whether we were drafted…volunteered or protested we were all impacted deeply by those times.
The Gold Coast was a place to have fun and escape for awhile and no longer exists.
Not even a hint of that old historic building remains on that corner in St. James. A red brick professional building has replaced it. I can’t drive through that intersection without thinking about those wildly surreal times.
Holy Family High School 1966 – 70 – Dedicated to the Memory of Harry Bickmann
I was very disappointed as I started high school. All my neighborhood friends were going to the local public High School in Smithtown and I was to attend Holy Family Catholic High School in Huntington – about 20 miles away. I wanted nothing to do with Catholic high school but had no choice – I took the entrance exam and even though did very poorly was accepted and placed in the low achiever class or what everyone called the dumb class. I was placed in class number fifteen. There were a total of sixteen classes with the only difference between class fifteen and sixteen being the language we learned. Spanish was taught to group fifteen and French to sixteen – we were all equally stupid according to the nuns and lay teachers and were treated accordingly.
At first, I didn’t realize every student that took the test was accepted, no matter how badly he or she performed. Holy Family was a big new school and needed lots of warm young bodies to pay the mortgage back to the Diocese. We were the charter ninth grade class of 1966. There were no grades ahead of us, which had its benefits compared to public school. We would always be the senior class even in ninth grade. I wasn’t at all pleased about leaving my neighborhood friends for another school or the prospect of making new friends. No amount of begging or arguing changed my parent’s minds – I was going to Holy Family Catholic School and that was final.
Catholic high school was a whole new world for me. Students wore uniforms and stern looking nuns in long black habits roamed the shiny locker lined corridors in search of any infractions of the school rules. If a girl had her plaid dress hiked even slightly above the knee it was first a stern warning and then off to the Principle’s office if it happened again. Guys absolutely could not let their hair grow over their shirt collars although with long hair the style of the decade, we kept the nuns very busy – busting us for long hair on a daily basis. It got to the point where they softened their stand on the hair rule.
The bus trip to Huntington was more of a daily excursion – taking as long as an hour to get to school some days. I started to make new friends during those long bus rides. Friends that eventually pulled me away from my rougher neighborhood crowd. At first I kept to myself because I quickly noticed that many of the kids on the bus knew each other from other neighborhoods or had attended Catholic primary school together. I didn’t know anyone except Michael Scriber who lived behind me on Maple Avenue. He was a brainy geek who sat in the front of the bus so he didn’t count. I soon got acquainted with a few kids from the ‘dumb’ class who also rode my bus.
We took our role as dumb kids seriously and wore it like a badge of honor. Harry Bickmann and Pat Coyle were both in Group Sixteen and neither wanted to attend Catholic school either, but were in the same boat as I – they were given no other option. I quickly developed friendships with Harry and Pat who in turn introduced me to some of the other kids from their respective neighborhoods. There was Gordon Sherland, Eddie Warren, Linda Draghi, Liz Biccina, Kathy Hershe and Jim Morressy who all attended Catholic primary together. It wasn’t long before I was included in the silly antics on the back of the bus. The back of the bus was where the action was – where the cool kids sat and devious plans were hatched. We even sneaked smokes by lighting up under the seat, taking big drags and quickly blowing smoke out the window when the bus driver wasn’t looking. It actually got to be fun riding the bus to school. . In fact…it was one of the best parts of my day. There was always enthusiastic talk about the latest bands, songs and singers. All the girls were crazy about the Beatles – especially Paul McCartney. The guys liked John Lennon, George or Ringo, The Dave Clark Five, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.
We all had to listen to Pat Coyle and his exaggerated surfing exploits. Day in and day out he incessantly bragged about rip curl, hanging five, catching big waves and the great surfers of the day. He was like a broken record and everyone got tired of his redundant, embellished stories that he told loudly for all to hear.
“Let me tell you about this wave I caught Sunday? I was sitting on my long board deep in the swell at Fire Ireland when all of a sudden this huge monster wave rolls up behind me, so I immediately jump up and rip into the curl like I was one with the wave man and then it crashes over me and I totally wiped out. It was awesome, so freaking cool man.”
He never quit until we started mocking him and making up stories about surfing and imitating his voice and inflections. That shut him up for awhile – but every so often he slipped and went back into his surfing sermons only to be stopped in his tracks with a resounding “here we go again dude!”
I eventually developed friendships with Pat Coyle, Gordon Sherland, Eddie Warren and Harry Bickman. It didn’t take long for me to ignore the neighborhood scene and get caught up in my new catholic high school friends and activities. From high school on, I stayed on the periphery of the neighborhood scene and lost touch with some of my Colonial Oaks friends although Johnny Bosco, Mike Smith and I still remained close throughout the decade of the sixties.
I found myself dividing my time between the neighborhood crowd and high school friends. I even tried including some of my better childhood friends like Mike Smith in my High School activities but it was a bad and uncomfortable fit, so I eventually stopped trying and found myself drifting further away from the old gang.
I also had a part-time job at the Drive-Inn Theater that kept me busy after school and on weekends. It wasn’t long before I fell out of the loop and favor with many of my early childhood chums.
I don’t have many vivid memories of high school other than the long rides on the bus, smoking in the bathroom, horsing around in study hall and assorted dances and sock hops in the big gym. We did have some big named bands play at our school like the Classics Four and Billy Joel – the entire school came out for these big events.
I wasn’t the greatest student although I secretly enjoyed English and History. I didn’t let on though. I had to live up to my role as one of the dumb kids. I just squeaked by in my classes, although especially enjoyed Sister Katherine’s English class. Reading had always been my escape for me being the chubby, redheaded kid. I loved the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Chronicles of Narnia and of course, my comics.
Johnny and Mike were still my best friends from the neighborhood, but Eddie Warren “Steady Eddie” a knick name he earned because he was smart and focused on his goal to become a doctor – soon became my best Catholic school friend. Don’t ask me why? He was in the smartest class and I was relegated to the loser group of lost causes, but we hit it off. Eddie lived at the edge of the housing development behind mine, so he was close by as well. It was just a matter of crossing Maple Avenue and cutting through a patch of woods to get to the back of his house. Eddie loved music and played lead guitar all through high school. Grades came easy to him even though he took the most difficult classes while I struggled by with Study Hall, Business Math, History and English. Geometry and Algebra were like exotic foreign languages to me, but Eddie cruised through them helping me whenever I asked. As ninth grade rolled by I spent more and more time with Eddie either at his house or mine. We listened to music in his room for hours or he practiced his guitar while I listened on. Eventually Eddie started a band with Pat Coyle on drums and we spent many afternoons and weekends just playing music. I played the trumpet but hated the instrument and my music teacher, who always poked me in the gut with a pencil to get me to hit the high notes. I just jumped in singing and playing tambourine whenever I knew the lyrics. ‘A Louie Loui – Ohhh Ohh – me gotta go’ or Gloria G L O R I A – Glo oo ria!!’ A ba ba ba ba ba aran – bababa baba baran!’ All the garage bands played the same songs with simple chords and lyrics. Eddie’s band was no different and practiced the same few songs over and over putting our own unique sound to them.
Eddie and his band actually got good enough to play at a few high school and church dances. I felt privileged being friends with the guys in the band and helped them set-up and break down after gigs.
Eddie didn’t have any trouble meeting and dating girls. He was a lean, handsome (smart) guy with a big smile and straight black hair that curved across his forehead along the line of his eyes. It constantly fell into his eyes but he threw it back with a quick almost rhythmic turn of his neck. I on the other hand, struggled in the dating department. Braces were added to the pink complexion and chubby frame, husky as Mom reminded me combined with the red hair and a stupid label. Girls didn’t seem to come running to Pinky back then. Although, I did go on the occasional date – my childhood romances were awkward and short-lived.
Our local Catholic Church St. Patrick’s, sponsored dances every Friday night called Youth Council. Many of my friends from the bus went to the dances that eventually became a big social event for both neighborhood and Catholic high teens. Only a few of my street pals came to the dances. They didn’t think church functions were cool and only made casual appearances to see what was going on – for the most part my ‘other friends’ hung out at Smithtown Pool Hall, the stores behind Colonial Oaks or went to their own dances at the public school. It was a constant dilemma trying to decide who to spend time with those High School years although I felt more included and accepted with my new high school pals who didn’t make fun of me as much for being chubby or having braces.
Harry Bickman, Pat Coyle, Gordon Sherland, Eddie Warren and I met an hour or so before Friday night youth council in the woods behind Miller’s Pond. Each week it was someone else’s turn to convince an older brother or friend of legal drinking age to buy us a few bottles of Ripple, preferably Pagan Pink. There was usually an older brother willing to purchase a few bottles of the cheap wine if the price was right. Sometimes we just stood in front of the liquor store and asked strangers to buy it for us. One way or another we usually made it back to the woods in time to pass the bottles around until they were empty and make our way laughing and walking the entire mile to St. Patrick’s Church.
Pat Coyle’s inability to hold his Ripple became legend in a short period of time. After just a few sips from the community bottle he’d start laughing and getting very silly. Don’t get me wrong – we all enjoyed the buzz and got stupid on occasion – with Pat it was like a scene from a well-rehearsed play.
“Ripple! Yea Ha! Riiiiiiiiiiple – I love this stuff. Let me have another sip of that Riiiiiplllllllle?” It got to the point where he acted like he had a buzz before we even started drinking so Gordon hatched the grape juice scheme. One night we filled an empty bottle of Ripple with grape juice and topped it off with Pagan Pink Ripple for color and taste. When Pat showed up for our Friday evening Ripple ritual we made sure he got his fill on the grape juice. It wasn’t long before he was hammered. “Rippple – you gotta love that Ripple – laughing, giggling and stumbling all the way to the dance with us snickering to ourselves. Pat never lived that night down and we didn’t let him forget it on the bus or at school. Whenever one of us bumped into him all we had to say was Ripple and his face got red and we’d bust out laughing. He knew he was a lightweight in the drinking department and Pat took the jokes and kidding in stride. He was a good-natured Irish kid and great fun to be around.
We planned camping and canoe trips for summers..
“Dinty Moore Stew! Do we have enough Dinty Moore for the trip?” Gordon screamed over his shoulder from the driver’s seat of his white ’68 Chevy. “You know how hungry we get climbing Balsam Mountain after a long drive.” Next to fishing and playing baseball, camping was my favorite thing to do those summers between 1966 and 1970. I went camping with most of the Ripple gang during those years but Gordon, Eddie and another friend from school, Mike Conte, were by far the best campers. They took camping more seriously than the others who just saw it as another opportunity to drink Ripple and get silly. We on the other hand graduated to blackberry brandy. According to Mike it kept you warm on those cold Catskill nights.
We piled into Gordon’s Chevy after a trip to the IGA for supplies. Tossed our tents and sleeping bags into the truck along with assorted camping gear and groceries and were off to the Catskills. After a three-hour drive to Balsam Mountain we parked the car at the entrance of a hiking trail – divided up the gear and food between us and tried to make it to the lean-to at the top of the mountain before dark. The three-sided wooden lean-tos were the best part of camping at Balsam and eliminated the need to pitch tents. They were roomy and kept us dry if it rained. On one memorable camping trip I had a terrible sty in my left eye from a sinus infection and looked like the young Cyclops. Eddie, Gordon and Mike made fun of it the entire hike up the mountain. I laughed it off hoping it would pop and the swelling go down. We arrived at the open rustic cabin at dusk – organized our things and rolled out the sleeping bags. There was a loft at the top of the lean-to that I called to be my sleeping spot. After some argument from the others I claimed it for the night. We dined on jumbo cans of Dinty Moore stew and cookies washed down with blackberry brandy. Talk about healthy eating. We had a raging fire going so Gordon decided to take a leak on it to put it out. Big mistake! Within seconds of his pee hitting the flames the worst smell imaginable hit the air gagging us and causing everyone to run from the camp. Gordon roared with laughter, kept on peeing and told us it wasn’t so bad. Eventually the fumes cleared and we walked slowly back to camp and got settled in for the night. I climbed up into my loft above the lean-to. It was a moonless windy night with a slight drizzle falling as we fell asleep. What must have been a few hours later I heard a noise by the fire and in a quick startled motion sat up and slammed my eye into the beam of the lean-to busting the sty wide open. A stream of thick yellow pus poured out from my eye as I screamed in pain. The other guys woke up and looked up at me in horror at what must have been a disgusting site. Puss and blood dripping down my dirty face.
“Did you see someone by the fire – did ja?” All three of them said no.
“I could have sworn I saw someone in dirty blue overalls on the outside of the lean-to.”
“What happened to your eye – you look like you got hit with in the face with a baseball bat.” Gordon said.
“It’s my sty – I hit the overhead beam when I heard someone outside the camp.”
We all slept nervously for the rest of the night as I lay in my loft my head throbbing with a constant dull pain. Fortunately it felt better when I got up in the morning. At least the pressure was off my eye from the sty draining. I spent the morning trying to convince the guys I saw something, so they made up the story of the Mountain Whoople who roams the Catskills in search of food and campers. They kidded me all morning.
We spent the day hiking around the top of the mountain and after lunch decided to climb to the top of the ranger’s fire tower. My claim to fame that weekend besides seeing the Mountain Whoople and busting my face wide open was taking a dump from the top of the fire tower. I climbed the metal ladder to the roof of the tower and dropped my pants and hung my white butt over the side. I was like a bombardier in a B-52. I took aim and dropped my load hanging from the top rail of the tower. Gordon, Mike and Eddie completely died from laughing so hard. In fact, we laughed all the way down the mountain – I laughed so hard my face got swollen from the busted sty. I didn’t care – we were camping.
Although the neighborhood kids didn’t call or come around the house as much during high school but I still managed to spend time with some of my closer buddies. I still loved to fish and play baseball. I stayed connected more sporadically but didn’t drop them altogether – we had too much history for that to happen. Fishing excursions, casual meetings at the stores and baseball games at Maple Avenue Park kept alive the friendships forged over the past seven years alive. I always found time to visit Mike and Johnny even if it was to catch up on childhood gossip.
There were other summer adventures with the high school crowd such as the great Delaware Water Gap Canoe Trip. Someone decided (Harry I think) that we should all go canoeing down the rapids of the Delaware River. It wasn’t long before the plans were made and Harry, Gordon, Eddie, Dennis, Dave Reaser and I were buying supplies and driving to the canoe rental and launch point on the river.
We had sleeping bags, camping food (that meant lots of Dinty Moore Stew), hot dogs, marshmallows, beans, soda and beer. Harry bought four cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and loaded them into our big red cooler. The food and other supplies were distributed evenly into three canoes. Harry was over six-foot with a stocky build. He played football on the high school team and weighed in excess of two hundred pounds. When he settled into the back of the canoe and placed the cooler in the middle it sunk low into the water. Add husky Pinky to the front of the canoe and you have the equivalent of a ‘low rider’ canoe.. Harry said it would be ok as long as we didn’t rock the canoe or make any drastic moves – I thought differently – especially knowing we had to navigate a series of white water rapids before getting to the camp site.
The morning started off fine. The sun was shining and the river was calm. We paddled lazily down the tree lined river every once in awhile pulling up to the other canoes to talk or pass around beers, snacks and soda. Dennis had to take a leak so he stood up in his canoe with Eddie relaxing in the back and before he knew it he was in the water. First casualty of the day. We all laughed – Dennis and Eddie changed shirts and we were off again towards the first set of rapids. As we approached the white water Harry said that no matter what happened I was not to lose the cooler of beer. He expressed his concern about our precarious situation in the water and that we must stay calm, keep the boat steady and move straightforward through the rapids. I just nodded from my kneeling position in the front of the boat with my back to him. The other two boats made it through with no problems and cheered for us from the calm water on the other side of the white water. We took a deep breath, entered the choppy waves and paddled like crazed maniacs through the white churning froth. “We made it!” I screamed. Whew! I felt a wave of relief pass through my body when Gordon yelled to us we had only passed through the easy rapids and Skinner’s Falls was up ahead and was much worse. Fear…that’s all I felt, pure paralyzing fear. Harry stayed upbeat and tried to convince me we could do it. After all, we made it through the first test and could do it again. He also reminded me about the cooler full of beer.
“Don’t loose it Pat! I’ll take care of everything else you just stay with the cooler. The rest of the trip will suck if we don’t have beer. Everyone is counting on you.”
That’s all I needed to hear as we paddled towards Skinner’s Fall’s. Don’t loose the beer. The hell with your body – just don’t let the beer sink to the bottom if we capsize. I was beginning to understand Harry’s priorities – it scared me but I took a deep breath and paddled directly into the middle of the churning white foam. I could see in the distance the other two canoes had successfully made it and were cheering from the clearing in the woods at the end of the falls. They had already beached their canoes and were watching us navigate the falls which was like being in a huge blender set to puree. We weren’t a third of the way down when we capsized. The mad paddling was futile – we were going in. The canoe was heavy and too low in the water to make it through – this became very obvious to both of as the first wave of cold water slammed into the side of the boat.
“You get the beer!” was all I heard as we hit the frigid water. I must have turned and grabbed the cooler as an involuntary response to keep Harry from killing me later. I sank like a rock but kept moving down the river. In what must have been only seconds but seemed like an eternity, I felt a big hand grab the back of my shirt. I was holding my breathe as my hands clutching that damn cooler for dear life. We somehow were pulled down the rapids by the force of the water, the guys were in the water immediately salvaging our gear. Harry had the canoe by one hand and me by the other. Nothing really mattered at this point – the beer was saved and we made it to the campsite for the night. Fires were lit and clothes dried as we sat with cold beers in our hands recounting the experience for Eddie, Dennis, Gordon and Dave. It didn’t take much to be a hero back then.
High school ended abruptly – yearbooks were signed and best buddies made pledges that we were friends for life no matter where it took us. Camping trips got less frequent, high school pals went off to college and I stayed home and commuted to a local technical college. I was in the dumb class with a mediocre average and didn’t think I could get accepted in a prestigious school like the others.
I stayed in touch with Eddie Warren until he went off to Medical School in Mexico. Something happened to “Steady Eddie” while he was there. He was supposed to get married to a girl we both dated but he eventually won over. That fell through after she went to see him and he broke it off. She came home heartbroken. The next thing I heard he is back home and extremely depressed. So depressed and troubled that he eventually took his own life.
We’ve all grown up and fulfilled our various destinies, Gordon’s my Dad’s accountant, Harry sells real estate in the Pocano’s, Pat Coyle is a mail carrier and Mike Conte is a horse trainer. Pinky…the dumb chubby kid teaches college. (This was written 7 years ago and I am aware Pat is now living somewhere in South Carolina and Harry is now deceased)
Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.
A morning doesn’t go by that I don’t glance over at the cheaply framed photograph of Johnny Bosco and me on my bedroom dresser amidst the religious symbols, statues, cards and assorted family snapshots. Vivid memories wash over me every time I look at that dark skinned Italian boy and I standing proudly in our blue suits and white ties with white carnations pinned to our lapels. We smiled for the camera with no thoughts of the future beyond fishing and getting out of our uncomfortable suits.
Johnny Bosco and I received our First Holy Communion at the little brick Catholic Church in Smithtown almost forty years ago. Nuns in their black habits shuffled methodically around the basement auditorium sticking white carnations in our lapels and straightening the girls’ crooked white veils. They lined us up, at the foot of the wooden stairs in that musty basement, girls on the left – boys on the right, in preparation for the procession around the chapel.
Sister Mary Catherine moving quickly from child to child, adjusting carnations skewed ties and wrinkled veils, making frantic last minute preparations for the first communion ceremony.
“Hurry up children! Be quiet and line up straight. Stop pulling at your ties. Girls, leave those veils alone. I want you all singing and standing up straight during the procession. Remember…God is watching!”
Mom peeked down the church stairs as Johnny and I pulled nervously at our white clip-on ties. She cupped her hand to her mouth and yelled,
“Patty! Make sure you fold your hands like Sister Mary Catherine taught you (folding her hands one over the other) when you go up for communion, remember not to let your teeth touch the Eucharist.”
The hymn we sang while solemnly walking in procession still rings in my mind when I think of that special day so many years ago.
‘Ave, ave, ave Maria, ave ave Maria eea……’ Every time I hear the Ave Maria I’m transported for a few brief moments to that early spring morning in 1960.
Johnny and I wanted the whole thing to be over so we could go fishing after mass. Dad pulled us aside after the ceremony and took pictures of us in front of the tiny brick chapel. He sent me a copy of that old color photograph when my son Adam received his first communion almost ten years ago.
That old photograph stayed buried in the bottom of a drawer until recently, when I discovered it in a stained brown envelope while moving into my new apartment. It has much more meaning since the divorce, in fact… little things I once took for granted or overlooked are more precious and important now that I’m single and accepting middle age.
I had another very special childhood friend by the name of Mike Smith. We explored every inch of the woods behind our neighborhood, Colonial Oaks and shared endless childhood escapades. Mike and I were in the same class for the first three years we lived in Smithtown. We sat together in the back of the big yellow school bus, laughing hysterically while teasing the bus driver we nicknamed Chiquita Banana. Don’t ask me why – I think it had something to do with the big, wild, flowered hats she wore.
Mike, Johnny and I were like brothers. Riding bikes, playing ball, camping out under makeshift tents, shooting bb guns and, of course, playing army in the thick woods behind our neighborhood.
If I close my eyes and concentrate, all of those wonderful sounds, sights and experiences of my youth come back to me so clearly.
I see Mike riding his metallic silver Stingray bike with the high handlebars popping wheelies every few yards. He could hold his front wheel up while riding all the way down our street. Always with that shit-eating grin plastered across his round freckled face.
“Whatcha doin Patty? Wanna ride bikes to the stores? I pinched two cigarettes from my mom’s pack – we just need some matches. Let’s grab a pack at the Deli and smoke’m in the woods behind the IGA.”
Mike said in his high pitched nasal voice touched with that Brooklyn accent. “Or we can go to our tree fort in Spooks Pond, nobody will catch us there,” he’d say in a mischievous tone. His mom smoked Raleigh’s and mine smoked Lark’s.
I hated the taste of both brands but smoked them anyway to be cool, at least I thought.
I can’t believe Johnny is dead! John and his wife Nancy were asleep in their bed when a man, broke into a basement window in their home. The murderous intruder stole silently up the steps to their bedroom. First he shot John in the head at close range. Then he killed Nancy.
Mike died a few years before Johnny. He ran his own business repairing foreign cars. He was always great with engines! Mike built countless go carts and mini-bikes from discarded lawn mowers. I can still see him crouched in one of his wooden go carts, flying down the street with feet propped on a two by four where he mounted recycled rubber wheels – as his hands clutched a frayed rope trying desperately to steer the crazy contraption.
Nobody is quite sure why Mike died. Mom hinted that he may have committed suicide. Mike apparently had marital problems and was living in his shop. One cold night he started up a car, closed the garage doors and went to sleep in the back seat. He never woke up. My sister Mary Ann told me his youngest son placed a toy matchbox car in the coffin before it was sealed shut like the ones we played with as children. I couldn’t make the funeral to say goodbye. We’d somehow fell out of touch. Although I always meant to visit him whenever I was on Long Island. I never did.
I still can’t believe the boys I played army with – the boys I rode bikes with – my two best childhood friends are dead.
Johnny and Mike were my blood brothers. We even cut ourselves with a pocketknife and performed the ritual of exchanging blood from our fingers.
“You’re not serious Johnny!”, Mike gasped – eyes bulging out of his round head as he watched Johnny cut his index finger with his black handled Boy Scout knife. “Don’t worry Mikey! It’s sharp as a razor blade and it won’t hurt much – come on, let me cut your finger so we can be blood brothers – Patty…you’re gonna do it with us aren’t ya?” “Sure!” I said, “It doesn’t hurt much, does it Johnny?” “Naww! Ok… let’s press our fingers together and clasp hands. There – brothers for life!”
The faded picture of Johnny and we stands out on my dusty bedroom dresser a constant reminder of my childhood friend – my blood brother for life!
Shoes were always a major problem for me growing up. I don’t know why shoes were a big issue for my mom – but they were! When I was about twelve; all my friends wore black pointy shoes with two-inch heels, just like the Beatles. They were called Beatle Boots. Mom hated them and forbade me to buy shoes with a point or heel. She called them dancing shoes.
She raved on and on about it whenever the subject came up,
“Dancin shoes…they look like dancin shoes. With those thin soles we’ll have to buy new ones in two weeks as hard as you play.”
When it came time to buy a new pair, I talked Mom into letting me go to Penny’s Department Store to purchase the shoes. She made it very clear that I was not to come home with pointy shoes.
“If you come home with dancin shoes I’ll send you back so fast it ‘ll make your head spin,” she said, as I left out the back door of our Colonial style home.
I learned many years later that when I left, Mom immediately called Penny’s department store and ordered the shoe salesman not to sell me pointy sh oes. No matter what, he was to help me find practical school shoes that would last.
I walked the mile to Smithtown cutting through the woods and strode confidently into Penny’s. The shoe section was tucked in the back of the store. I walked quickly to the racks like a man with a mission. After examining a variety of footwear I came across a pair of black shoes that had a slight heel with a little bit of a point to them.
‘Could I get away with these?’ I asked myself.
The salesman approached apprehensively and asked if he could be of assistance. I showed him the shoes I liked and he immediately tried to talk me out of them.
You don’t want those son…you need something more sturdy and durable. How about these desert boots? He held them up to his face, smiling ear to ear like he was doing a TV commercial.
I stuck to my guns with the persistence of a soldier in battle.
“Yes! These are the ones I want! – How much?” I asked pulling a crumpled twenty-dollar bill out of my pants pocket. I made him sell me the shoes.
They were a little tight for my feet but certainly the style of the day. I could finally be cool wearing these I thought. I tried convincing myself Mom would be happy with my purchase but something gnawed at me all the way home. It was getting dark as I walked with shoebox in hand down the maple lined road. As I entered the side door my mother stood with arms folded like a drill sergeant in the glowing florescent light of the kitchen. When I opened the box and pulled my shiny new black shoes out of the tissue paper Mother gasped, then sighed.
“Oh Patty…what did I tell you!”
She immediately launched into a tirade and told me to go back to Penny’s and return the shoes.
“No ifs ands or buts. Just do it!”
No amount of convincing or pleading changed her mind. Dad drove me in total silence as I exchanged them for a pair of brown suede hush puppies.
What a trade off!
I never did get to buy a pair of dancin shoes and I never did quite “fit in” with the rest of the crowd.
The Phone Call
I got the call on Saturday morning as soon as I walked into the house from my racquetball workout. It was Mom and she whispered in a serious voice she had something important to tell me. The tone of her speech was somber and I detected something was very wrong.
“Grandma is dead,” she said in a matter of fact yet somber way. “I don’t want you getting upset and driving all the way to New York. She died peacefully and had a long happy life. There is really nothing to be sad about except that she will be deeply missed by her family.”
I couldn’t respond for a moment; it didn’t sink in. All I could think of was the little nursery rhyme she sang to us throughout our childhood.
“Oats and beans and barleyO, oats and beans and barleyO, some for you, some for me, oats and beans and barleyO.”
I visualized her wrinkled, smiling face and those puffy cream colored hands always folded with the large black rosary beads entwined between her fingers. I pictured her as she looked when I was a child growing up on Long Island. She prayed constantly all of her life and was the most devoted and spiritual person I had ever known. I could almost hear her calling me with that high pitched Brooklyn accent to come into the house as I played in the street with my childhood friends. A wave of memories rushed through my mind and I felt an overwhelming sadness and nostalgia at the same time.
I ignored her when she called until she bribed me with ice cream and cake. Grandma’s Surprise she called it. A scoop of vanilla ice cream on toasted pound cake The taste of that ice cream saturated crisp yellow cake, brought me running home every time.
“I’ll get a flight to New York”, I said, “and yes, I want to be with the family for the funeral.” I said goodbye and hung up the phone. Grandma is dead, I said sadly to my wife and walked up the stairs to my studio and pulled out the old photo albums. I began rummaging through the old pictures of my childhood. They took on new meaning knowing an important chapter of my life had just ended.
Images of the old neighborhood flashed in front of me as I flipped through the old faded snap shots: Einstein Place, Colonial Oaks, Millers Pond, childhood friends, and all the relatives that came to visit us on Long Island from the city. Aunt Clara, Uncle Joe, Dad’s Mom Mimi and black and white photographs of me as a baby peeking over my carriage. Mom looked so young and beautiful in those old pictures with her long red hair and optimistic smile. The fifties and sixties seemed like another lifetime, a different time in a different place.
My earliest memory of Smithtown was driving into the new neighborhood and noticing the dirt roads and just how completely different everything was from Brooklyn. That newly built barn styled house on the expansive corner lot seemed so big compared to the little plots in the city. We played red light green light, touch football, hide and seek, curb ball, giant step and made tents out of blankets for sleeping out behind the house.
It was the tumultuous sixties and we didn’t even know it. We were too busy playing baseball, riding bikes, fishing and building go-carts out of rusty old discarded lawn mower engines.
We were like extras in a B movie that ended abruptly with me still sitting alone in the theater. Looking back at those times all I have left is a mental movie filled with disparate images.
My childhood buddy Mike Smith’s got an extra cigarette he stole from his mom’s pack, Kenny Hayes wants to shoot pool in his basement; his parents aren’t home and we can blast Jim Morrison’s “Light My Fire” while we play eight ball for quarters. Charlie Buitner has that new Pink Floyd album and a nickel bag hidden under his mattress, Don Nelson wants to go fishing to try out that Mitchell reel he got for his birthday. Kevin Campbell called about the ball game tonight at Maple Avenue Park, he says I have to catch. I hate being the catcher!
Fragments and snap shots are all I have, just visual fragments, vague ethereal images of baseball cards, comic books, BB guns, sling shots, stick ball and army men. Beatles, Rolling Stones, mowing lawns, lazy hot days at the beach, riding bikes, JFK, Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, Mickey Mantel, Willie Mays, the New York Yankees and all my friends who grew up with me in Colonial Oaks on Long Island during the sixties.
I can still hear my dad whistling for us to come to dinner. “Come and get your beans boys, come and get your beans.”
Through it all Grandma prayed. She prayed for her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, peace in the world, family members who had died and who knows what else. Like a religious statue in the corner of the living room, head tilted upwards, rosary beads moving rhythmically through her fingers she always devoted a part of her day to intense prayer. The world whirled around her and she never lost her spiritual focus or broke concentration.
Fleeting memories pass through my brain like video sequences from MTV.
Mini bikes, go-carts, kids playing ball in the street, exploring the woods at the edge of the neighborhood and plotting mischievous schemes in the garage.
Colonial Oaks and our street Einstein Place was our own little world in the sixties, a safe haven sheltered from the social and cultural tensions of the decade.
Childhood burned a lasting imprint on my heart and mind and Grandma’s death reminded me of those precious times for a few brief moments after Mom’s phone call.
I can still hear her singing in that high pitched Brooklyn accent…
“Oats and beans and barleyO, oats and beans and barleyO, some for you, some for me, oats and beans and barleyO.”
The Pine Tree
I blinked and childhood was over! One second I was a child living a carefree life and the next I’m shaving two days growth, staring in the mirror at a 55 year-old man with a thick white mustache, ruddy, weathered face and thinning red hair.
When I was 10 years old my best friend Mike Smith and I were playing in the woods behind our neighborhood when we noticed a small pine tree growing off the narrow dirt path. It was a beautiful little tree, full and very green. It came up to my dirty knee patches on my dungarees. There was something unique about that tree, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.
Look at that tree Mike! There aren’t many pine trees in these woods. I don’t remember ever seeing this one before.
“As much as we’ve walked this path I’m surprised we haven’t,” he said.
“Let’s dig it up and bring it home. “ I said enthusiastically.
“No, you go ahead. I’ve got to get home for supper.”
I rushed the quarter-mile home and grabbed a shovel and pail out of the garage. Dad kept the garden tools organized neatly against the garage wall behind two by four studs.
While heading back to the woods, Mom popped her head out the side door.
“Patty! Dinner’s almost ready,” she yelled in her high pitched voice.
“Be right back Ma!”
I jogged back to the woods and dug the little tree up with great care, making sure I saved plenty of dirt from its roots. Placing the little ball of dirt and roots into the old rusty bucket I struggled back with my heavy load. When I arrived home I had to wash up for dinner so I left the shovel and pail containing my pine tree in the back yard.
“Why are your clothes so dirty?” Mom asked as I ran through our little kitchen.
“I dug up a pine tree and I’m going to plant it in the back yard.”
“That’s nice, now hurry up and get ready for dinner.”
“What are we having?”
“Your favorite! Spaghetti.”
“Can I plant my tree after dinner?”
“We’ll see,” Mom sighed.
It was getting dark as I dug a hole at the corner of the yard where the garage and house came together. I pulled the long green hose out from its holder and put some water in the hole before lowering my sparse little tree gently into the ground. Once it was situated just right in the muddy hole, I threw the dirt back and patted around the base with the back of the shovel. I stood over the newly planted tree with a great sense of pride and accomplishment.
The pine tree grew up the side of the garage – In just a few years I could see the top of it from my bedroom window. The scruffy green pine was too close to the house but Dad, being the sensitive father that he was, didn’t have the heart to transplant it.
Every so often I glanced over at it when I was playing in the back yard. It made me feel good knowing something I had planted was growing so full, healthy and tall. When I was a sneaky teenager I occasionally climbed out my bedroom window and shimmied down the tree to hang out with my friends at night. It was a lot harder climbing up those flexible limbs than down. I even broke a few during those late night escapades. It still grew though, and I always referred to it as “my tree”. I found myself walking behind the garage just to check on it and watered it whenever the dirt around it looked dry.
We moved across town when I was seventeen and I had to leave the tree behind. It was too big and full to dig up and take with us. I never missed an opportunity to check it out whenever I went back to the neighborhood to see my friends.
“I can’t believe how big that tree has gotten Mike. Do you remember the day we found it?” I proudly reminisced to my old childhood buddy whenever I stopped by his house. You could see my towering scrub pine peaking over my old house from his front yard.
One day in the mid-seventies, while visiting the old neighborhood I noticed the tree had gotten bigger than the house. In fact it was planted so close it looked as though it was going to fall over the garage. I wondered to myself why the new owners never trimmed it back. I was amazed just how big that tree had gotten. It towered over the colonial styled suburban home like the vine from Jack and the Beanstalk.
That was the last time I ever saw my tree.
I went into the Army twelve years after planting it and after my discharge drove by the old house on Einstein Place to show my wife where I had grown up.
The tree was gone!
The house didn’t look the same. I got an empty feeling inside my gut and tried to explain what the tree meant to me, but it was difficult and painful. The words sounded corny and foolish.
It was like a piece of me had been removed that day.