Posted by: JDM..... | March 21, 2013

Brain Moraine………

Random cerebral debris from a mature citizen (pffft…)….

We were talking about the things people with more than a few miles on them talk about, the way things used to be. It’s a topic of eternal interest, spontaneously picked up by successive generations. I guess it’s our turn.

I remember taking my grandfather for a drive at sixteen in my father’s Mid-Life Crisismobile, a sporty turquoise and white 1958 Ford with a 305 cubic inch eight cylinder engine and a four barrel carburetor big enough to take a bath in. It got eight miles per gallon on a good day, which was any day I wasn’t behind the wheel, but that was irrelevant back then. What mattered was how fast one could go, how quickly one could attain that velocity, and how many feet of melted rubber one could leave on the roadway when the light turned green. Grandpa wasn’t pleased, and I learned all about the nineteen teens, not driving faster than a horse could trot, and other tidbits of sage wisdom based on the experiences of a generation of former adolescents more recently experiencing baldness and multiple degenerative diseases. That wasn’t the first time he had delivered that sermon, I’m certain. I recall hearing some family lore about an uncle rolling the family barge over back in the twenties.

Odd, how we can’t wait to be endorsed as “adults” and, once so anointed, immediately set about the business of rehashing romanticized versions of Innocent Childhood, and boasting under an obviously phony veil of mature remorse about the not-so-innocent (but usually forgivable) rebellions of adolescence.

It annoys me sometimes when a ball from the yard next door rebounds from the siding of our house. My geriatric neighbors of the fifties and sixties, long since gone, undoubtedly had issues to be annoyed about as well. I wonder now if they might have been shaking their heads while remembering way-back-when and wondering what their neighborhood nicknames might have been. Smirking.

Shenanigans, pranks, and generally frowned upon behaviors aside, there really are differences between the brief years of one’s youth and the extended tenure of Grownupsville. In the case of my own story, the archives are divided into two chapters: the pre-teen years, and the teen years.

The environment of my first pre-teen experience unfolded as a small, coastal New England village dripping with Colonial history and maritime traditions. The air smelled of lobster bait and oakum, and the children and grandchildren of Clipper Ship era sea captains enjoyed the mansions and inherited wealth brought home by their ancestors on wooden ships driven by the wind. I didn’t live on “that side of town”, but the family had an “in” there because of friends and we spent many summer days collecting starfish and shells among the rocks, swimming from the private wharf of our host, and enjoying the coastal waters aboard one of his two boats, a forty foot motor launch and a 31 foot sloop. The thing I suppose I am most grateful for is that I was completely unaware at the time of just how fortunate I was to be exposed to that lifestyle on a personal level. It was just the way things were. No big deal.

I saw things in that world that no longer exist, except in literature and film. I like to write about them, I like to talk about them. I loved my grandfather’s stories, even when they were buried within the context of a scolding. He was an artist and had a way of presenting things that I could connect with. Windows to the past are important.

Time has a way of “improving” an unwritten story or unpainted picture, smoothing the rough edges and adding a bit of pizzazz to the flat areas on occasion, and I am no more immune to those tide-like forces of unintended embellishment than the next man, but the underlying truths remain untouched. We had an iceman, for example. He didn’t deliver ice to us, but he would park in front of our house to make nearby deliveries. The dust was still in the air from WW II at the time of my earliest memories, and plenty of families still used an “icebox” instead of an electric refrigerator. He would park his flatbed stake truck loaded with large blocks of ice at the curb, where it always dripped a continuous stream of melt-off. He wore an odd looking rubber apron that covered his shoulder, and he would reach under the tarp with a great pair of steel tongs to grasp one of the foot square cubes of ice before swinging it with a grunt onto his back. Hunched over, he would then carry his burden to its destination, sometimes making his way down the steps of the ally next to our house to the street below. My mother found him offensive for some reason, and despised him. Our dog, with typical fluff ball puppy enthusiasm and grandiosity, loudly passed that sentiment along from the side yard.

Not everyone had a motor vehicle then, so soon after the end of the war. Gasoline and many food items were still being rationed. It was 1950 before my father bought a used 1941 Ford. Before that, we walked everywhere, or rode with someone who owned a car. Peddlers and street vendors conducted business on foot, by bicycle, pushcart, or horse drawn wagon.

There was the Scissors Grinder who would slowly make his way up our street with his cart, calling out his trade to the right and left, allowing time for housewives to gather their utensils and bring them out for sharpening on his big stone wheel.

Who, in a fishing town buys fish from a grocery store instead of a fish market?

There were street vendors of many kinds in those days, including the “Catnip Man”, who I remember as being somewhat Dickensian in appearance and a local character. A “Rag Man” made his way around town collecting unwanted rags and scraps of cloth, which he sold somewhere to be reused, probably in the manufacture of paper. Meat, fish, and vegetables were also sold in this manner, though I remember walking with my mother to the fish market and butcher shop downtown for those items. I know my father and his best friend, who we called “Uncle”, still had a Victory Garden, but I don’t remember it. Supermarkets were not yet widespread then, and were essentially unknown in small town America. Small, local specialty shops were the norm. We did have a grocery store on the other side of town, but the small shops were closer for small purchases. Besides, who in a fishing town buys fish from a grocery store instead of a fish market?

Life was simple, but of course, that has a different meaning at age six than it does more than six decades later, and via hindsight. Nevertheless, it was a different sort of complexity and a different pace.

My next pre-teen environment was thousand miles away, in a small mid-western town where my accent was “funny” and I learned the importance of the letter “R”, among other things. I met two boys who had dark brown skin and short curly black hair, something I had not encountered before. They spoke oddly, were dirt poor, and stuck close by one another. I learned a new word that year also, one that referred to them, and even in the early fifties was frowned upon. The first time I tried it out, on the playground at recess, I earned a punch in the nose and a roll-around in the dirt for my effort, …..and I made two new friends.

Moving there provided me with my first airplane ride, most of which I slept through. It was on an old propeller driven TWA Constellation, if I remember correctly. My mother, sister, and I flew to our new home while my father drove our 1941 Ford the thousand miles from New England, nearly all of it except the 160 miles of the less than ten years old Pennsylvania Turnpike over two lane rural roads and three lane “highways”.

….live TV….no outtakes.

My father bought our first television there, a small “portable” with a screen not much bigger than 12 inches. It received broadcasts on two or three channels with the help of a set of “rabbit ears” sitting on top of it serving as an antenna. Everything was in black and white and aired “live”. Nothing was pre-recorded in those days, so any forgotten lines, collapsing backdrops, and impulsive or ill timed off color remarks were shared with early TV viewers. Programming was limited, each day beginning and ending with the national anthem. Before coming to life in the morning or shutting down in the evening, and during unfilled time slots in between during the day, a “test pattern” filled the screen and the only sound was the constant hiss of white noise. It was wonderful! Watching Television was a family event. They didn’t buy their first color TV until I went off to college.

We didn’t always lock the doors in those days, and still felt safe. A neighborhood was an extended family. Children went out unescorted and unchaperoned on Halloween. We played in the street. We roamed. Each family had its unique call, bell, or whistle to summon the kids home for supper or because it was bedtime. My father could whistle loudly enough to catch our attention several blocks distant. The only time we were indoors during the summer was when it rained, unless we decided to strip down to a pair of shorts and run around stomping in puddles and mud holes.

Culture shock…….

We lived in that town, which I affectionately call “Mayberry”, for a mere six years before my father’s work brought him back east where I spent my Teen years in a Philadelphia suburb. That environment was a culture shock, even more than the move west had been half a lifetime earlier. This time, it wasn’t just a lateral move to a place with a different accent and a handful of minor idiosyncrasies. Arriving in the Philadelphia area on the crest of a pubescent tsunami about to hit and change my world forever, I had left a school of some 190 students, grades 7-12, and walked into one with more than 3,000.

My adolescent environment from the late fifties through the early sixties provided me with good memories, even though I know it rarely seemed so at the time. It was a decent area in which to grow up, a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood where my sisters and I were among the few that didn’t have to wear uniforms to school. I had a younger sister by then, too, born when we had lived in the mid-west.

Life was still of the Richie Cunningham-Happy Days flavor during my teens. We played in the street, roamed far and wide, and explored our world. Oddly enough, it was after we moved to an urban area that I developed a passionate interest in the woods and in wildlife. A stream ran through the immediate area, and the land behind the houses across the street was an undeveloped expanse of woodland where I explored, fished, camped out, trapped, and hunted rabbits with a bow. On the flip side, my friends and I would ride the trolley, the “El”, and the subway into the center of the city just for fun. I never felt unsafe, although I was well aware that there were areas where one just did not wander.

I got my first job there, in 1958 for a dollar an hour. I was fourteen, and my parents had to sign a state form allowing me to work.

Summer nights and Doo-Wop in the air.

I remember “The Clock”, a small brick utilities building surrounded by shrubs and sporting a cupola with a clock in it. It was located at the edge of the parking lot at the local shopping center. Today it would be called a “strip mall”. The Clock was the gathering place for teens and wanna-bes. The boys smoked cigarettes and showed off for the girls. The older ones showed off their cars, if they had one, and sometimes one of them might hide some beer in the bushes. Summer nights, it was the place to be, and Doo-Wop occasionally filled the air. It was across from the “corner drug store” where, at a younger age we had hung out at the soda fountain and the comic book rack.

The end of high school brought with it the beginning of Vietnam and everything that whole era brought to our culture, our society, and especially to my generation. The Civil Rights movement had been gaining momentum for a few years then, and was beginning to erupt into violence. I watched the post WW II fifties, with its air of growth, widespread opulence, freedom, and national pride, ……..die. At my feet. Just as my peers and I were preparing to step out into the world to seek our fortunes.

While I had some fantastic experiences and did some memorable things during my late adolescence and early adulthood, I don’t romanticize the Sixties. We saw the assassination of a United States President, and later of his brother, the former Attorney General who was running for the Presidency himself. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and he wasn’t the first Civil Rights activist to be cut down. We watched nightly body counts on the evening news, hoping a friend or loved one wasn’t among them. All too often, they were. The idea of Equal Rights was catching on, and it wasn’t being expressed in the please and thank you language we had all learned. It was a time of murder, fire in the streets, and American military aiming their weapons at American people on American soil as well as at enemies a half a world away.

It was the Age of Id.

Rebellion was in the air, so of course those of the younger generation living in Academia instead of the jungles of Southeast Asia brought it to the fore with a bit more fervor than the usual and traditionally winked at acting out of College Kid notoriety. Madras sports jackets became rumpled fatigues, crew cuts became pony tails, Afros, and untended compost heaps. Values and manners were reinvented, or simply tossed aside to clear space for the devil-may-care, if it feels good do it aura of the Age of Id.

The rest of the time between then and now was taken up by my adult life, although thankfully, significant portions of it were never approached in a particularly mature or adult manner. Those days provide me with a few things to snicker about when I don’t feel like wallowing in nostalgia any more and yet don’t have the P and V to convert some stunt running through my mind into something to snicker about when I’m sitting around in some Home drooling on myself.

 

~-~* * *~-~

 

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Responses

  1. Excellent! ❤

  2. Brought back memories!! It sure was a different world back then.


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