Posts filed under ‘memoir’

A QUESTION ABOUT MY PAST

Recently, a Mélange Books author asked questions of the authors with stories published in the anthology Curious Hearts. My question was, ‘Name the most famous person you had a face to face encounter with’. I thought I would share my response with you.

I pondered those considered ‘famous’ that I have met, and I came to a conclusion. Fame is relative. In some circles, a name wins instant recognition. In other circles, the same name would bring the response, “Who?”

For example, during my research career, while working at three medical schools, studying renal physiology I met many world famous nephrologists and scientists. However, unless you were familiar with the area, their names would be meaningless.

I volunteer at the Mid Atlantic Air Museum and work at their annual air show. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to shake hand with Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
I also met Robert Morgan, the pilot of the Memphis Belle one of the most famous bombers of World War II. But to the younger generation, these names might be meaningless.

Our local bookstore, The Chester County Book & Music Company, where I had a book signing for my novel, New Moon Rising, hosts many authors. There I met Jane Smiley, but if you’re not a reader that name will bring no recognition.

For seven years I lived in West Los Angeles while working at the UCLA School of Medicine. In that area of Los Angeles, you are constantly stumbling over celebrities.
One evening, while walking back from dinner with my wife and two friends, this literally occurred. It was in the early 1980’s, and as we walked home from dinner at a local restaurant, we walked past an eatery that was an expensive establishment. There, standing on the sidewalk all alone was a short old man smoking an immense cigar. We had just walked by George Burns.
My most memorable encounter occurred around 1980. I was single then and lived next to a very mysterious woman. She would leave Los Angeles for extended periods of time and ask me to pay her bills. The strange thing was; her return date was open-ended.
One summer Saturday afternoon, after a morning of fishing at Malibu Pier, she knocked at my door and asked for a ride. Clothed in an old sleeveless sweatshirt, I said sure. I loaded my neighbor and her luggage into my VW beetle. Following her directions, I soon found myself in the hills north of Sunset Blvd with my bug passing past mansions.
We pulled into a circular drive, announce our presence, and were met by servants. I brought my neighbor’s suitcase in, and while standing in the foyer, she came in. Wearing a bathrobe and a towel around her hair, strode Peggy Lee. My neighbor was going to be her companion while she was doing a show in New York.

Those are the famous people I have met, and as time marches on, their names fade into the past, to be replaced by those who now bask in glory, but will all too soon fade into the past themselves.
Walt Trizna

October 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm 1 comment

VACATIONS

With the snow melted, and winter about to come to an end, thoughts turn to spring, summer and, of course, summer vacations.  These are some of the memories of the summer vacations of my youth.

MEMOIR

VACATIONS

My wife, kids and I looked forward to our summer vacations. Every year, for the last several years, we have rented a house at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. It’s a short walk to a quiet expanse of beach, and during high tide, you can catch fish, crab and go boating in the estuary behind the house. We swim, take bike rides and we all read books, a lot of books. The house has a television, a recent ‘improvement’, but it is never tuned on during our stay. With the hectic lives all four of us lead throughout the year, this time to relax is vital. Now the girls are grown and have lives of their own, but we still go to Sunset Beach and welcome them to join us.
As a child, there were years when my family took no vacations, mainly due to the lack of money.
When I was a kid, summer vacation meant no school and months of totally unstructured time. There was the public pool for the really hot days; we would walk the mile or so to the pool in the late morning and stay until late afternoon, hanging out with friends from school. On cooler summer days, we would play games in the back yard. We also rode our bikes around the block on the sidewalk endless times; to ride on Newark’s narrow busy streets was a death sentence. And there were always books. Lazy summer mornings and afternoons sitting under the biggest tree in the yard lost in a book. Being able to read as long as I wanted, now that’s a vacation.
The spare dollars for vacations were few and far between; we did manage, however, to get a few days away from Newark. Most summers we just took an occasional day trip down the shore or to our favorite lake, at Cheesequake State Park.
Cheesequake was a small lake with a large sandy beach perfect for family outings. The lake was just a few miles from the ocean and I don’t know how the lake was fed, but it was a saltwater lake or at least a little brackish. It was a great kid’s lake, with a swimming area surrounded by floats, and not very deep. They did have a strange custom when someone reported a missing child on the beach. They had all the children get out of the lake and all the adults join hands, forming a line, and walk across the lake in the designated swimming area. If no one stepped on a body they assumed the child was not on the bottom of the lake and was probably at the playground or engaged in some other activity and still numbered among the living.
On those Sunday mornings when we were going to Cheesequake, we started early. The first mission was to get ice. Today we go to the local mega grocery store and buy a few bags of ice cubes. When I was a kid, things were quite different. Before we went on a picnic, the first stop was at the local icehouse. Once at the icehouse, we backed up to the loading dock for a block of ice to be brought out. Out would come a man grasping a block of ice with tongs. It was now time to get out the ice pick, back then everyone that went on a picnic owned an ice pick. It was dad’s job to carve up the ice fit the shards into our cooler.
Once that chore was accomplished, off we went, down route 22 to the New Jersey Parkway. Everyone knew that during the summer you did not go southbound on the New Jersey Parkway on a Friday night or Saturday morning. At that time, during the summer, the parkway was a huge very slow-moving parking lot. But on Sunday morning the road was empty. Of course coming home from the lake Sunday night might be a whole different story.
When we went to the lake we went for the day, the whole day, which meant all three meals. The gates opened at 8:00AM and we usually arrived there about twenty minutes before the park opened and joined the line of those with the like mindset waiting to get into the park. While we waited at the gate, breakfast was served, a hearty breakfast of donuts. Sometimes we would wait until the park opened and cook breakfast on the charcoal grill.
Once the gate opened, we raced to the parking lot at the head of the trail leading to the area where we liked to spend the day. The park was a beautiful place, with picnic tables under tall trees growing in the sandy South Jersey soil to keeping away the heat of summer. There were large fields around which the picnic tables were arranged for games and just running around. We would bring gloves and play catch and racquets for badminton.
After parking, we all began lugging our picnic gear to our table. The trip was usually an extended family effort with aunts, uncles and cousins sometimes coming along. This meant multiple cars and a vast amount of equipment that had to be carried to the table; after all, we were going to be there for the day. We were never unable to get a table, but the closer to the lake and the open fields, the better.
Usually a few of the kids were sent ahead to stake a claim on a table that had the perfect location. Then the adults came, and if they agreed on the spot, the initial wave of picnic equipment was deposited and everyone went back for another load. After some running around and exploring it would be approaching noon and time to start the charcoal fire. All the other tables had more or less the same schedule so soon the area was filled with smoke and the smells of cooking.
Once lunch was cooked, consumed and cleaned up, the kids ran around, dad read the papers and the women would talk. After a spell of playing and digesting, time enough to ensure that no one would sink to the bottom of the lake with cramps, it was time for a swim in the lake. This activity took up most of the afternoon and the hotter the afternoon, the more time spent swimming.
With swimming done and still time before dinner, we would hike around the lake or take a walk to harvest cattails. Then time for dinner, another fire was started, more food consumed, the area cleaned, and before long we were ready to go home. The process started in reverse but the loads were somewhat lighter and the stomachs were full. Once we made it to the parkway we were usually greeted by the endless lines of northbound traffic, the ride home lasting much longer than the ride to the lake.
We spent quite a few Sundays at Cheesequake State Park, weather permitting, and even at times when the weather didn’t permit. One Sunday morning, with the weather stormy with breaks in the rain, we decided to go for it. Once we set up our site it started to rain, but we were prepared and tied up a plastic drop cloth to a few of the surrounding trees for a makeshift canopy. Auntie Zushia came with us on this outing. She was my mother’s oldest sibling, had never married, and usually joined us on our Sunday morning adventures. Auntie Zushia found a spot right under the middle of the canopy and I sat off to one side and watched the water begin collect in the middle of our makeshift shelter. During one especially huge downpour enough water had collected to cause a huge tear right over her head. This was a story my family told over and over whenever we would go to the park,” Remember when ……….”
On another Sunday morning on a trip to Cheesequake, the result was something less than a picnic. We set out in our powder blue Ford station wagon. It had been sometime since we lost use of the old Chevy, my father having rolled it in a cemetery, but that is another story. We had the car packed to the brim with picnic essentials and Auntie Zushia in the back seat. With our ice pickup made, we began driving to the highway that would take us to Cheesequake and a day of fun when Auntie Zushia turned around and exclaimed, “They’re spraying for mosquitoes.” Now, they did spray for mosquitoes during the summer and when they did the trucks would put out great clouds of insect repellent, but they never sprayed on Sunday mornings. It did not take long to realize that Auntie Zushia was not seeing mosquito spray but huge clouds of blue smoke issuing from our tailpipe.
We drove immediately to the nearest gas station, one my dad frequented, not far from our house. Everyone in the car was hoping that it would be a quick fix and we’d be on our way. The attendant at the service station said that our modulator was gone and couldn’t be fixed that day. We were all in shock. Then to add insult to injury he added that we should leave the car doors open in case we should catch fire while trying to get home. The burgers cooked in the backyard just didn’t taste the same that day.
We did go on longer trips, not often, but on occasion we would pack up and go down the shore. Our usual shore destination was Seaside Heights, a small shore town towards the middle of the state. One summer, however, we got adventurous and went to Atlantic City. This was long before a reservation was required for every extended family outing. We just headed south and, when we were close to Atlantic City, began stopping at motels. My mother would go in and check out prices and conditions and soon our lodging for a few days was secured. We also discovered a nearby diner that served a great breakfast, eggs and French fries. Now is that a vacation breakfast or what. The highlight of that trip was a day spent on the Steel Pier. This was, in its time, a major tourist attraction. The exhibition hall contained displays that made a lasting impression on me. The time was the late fifties, early sixties, and the scourge of polio had just been conquered. I had an uncle who was crippled by polio; it was not an uncommon illness. There, in the hall, was an iron lung. I had seen pictures of them but had never seen one in real life. It resembled a cylindrical coffin and it breathed for those severely afflicted with the disease. At the time, this was a piece of recent history.
Another exhibit were two or three rusted hulks of old cars. Near the cars was a sign stating that these cars had been near a nuclear test blast. At this early age I knew nothing of radiation, half-lives and such, so I thought nothing of seeing these cars sitting there for public inspection. I often wonder what would have happened if someone had taken a Geiger counter to this attraction. Looking back, an iron lung and potentially radioactive cars were strange exhibits, but they held my attention.
But the attraction that made the Steel Pier famous was the diving horse. At the end of the pier was the diving tank. It looked like an above ground swimming pool and stood about eight feet tall and had a diameter of twenty or thirty feet. Into this pool, from a platform above, the horse jumped, ridden by a bathing suit-clad girl. This was the must see attraction for anyone who visited the Atlantic City Steel Pier.
* * *
I have mentioned before the characteristics of my father’s driving. He was not known as a lead foot so a trip to Atlantic City from Newark was quite an undertaking. But there once was a trip that we took that dwarfs our drive to Atlantic City. We took a trip, an epic journey, an odyssey to Tampa, Florida. We went there to visit my Uncle John, my father’s great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Uncle John was managing a sixty-four acre orange grove down near Tampa and asked us to visit. So we all piled into the Chevy and off we went. I don’t think I had ever been beyond the boarders of New Jersey up till then. This was also well before the age of the interstate, so we got to see the states we traveled through up close and personal.
I kid my girls that I have no accent at all, but in reality I have a ‘slight’ hint of a New Jersey accent. On this trip I encountered accents different from my own. We stopped at one place in Alabama for lunch and a man came in and started talking to one of the employees and I didn’t understand one word he said. We were definitely not in New Jersey anymore.
I have also mentioned that I love catching things and putting them into jars so for me, Florida was nirvana. Our car’s radiator collected insects bigger than any I had seen before. There were also lizards running around at my uncle’s place. One day we went for a swim in a small nearby lake. I was on the shore and my mom was in the water and I said, “Mom there’s a snake in the water behind you!” She thought I was kidding until she turned around. She flew out of the water and I had to be restrained from flying into the water to capture the reptile.
This long journey was a rarity and created in me a lasting impression. Our usual shore vacation destination was north of Atlantic City, Seaside Heights. It wasn’t every summer or every other summer that we had a chance to go there, but a week spent at Seaside Heights on Sumner Avenue was greatly anticipated.
A few years ago I took my family to Seaside Heights for a weekend just before Easter. You know, Thomas Wolff said it best. We drove down Sumner Avenue and all the small shore bungalows had been torn down. The area was a sea of parking lots and bars. Once again I had the chance to tell my wife, Joni, how it once was, how great a week at Seaside Heights was as she stood there not hearing the waves but the music roaring from the bars. The boardwalk, though, hadn’t changed much, we still had fun in the arcade and our girls enjoyed the merry-go-round.
When I was young, a week at Seaside Heights, a week at the shore was sheer enjoyment. Spending the day on the beach and the night on the boardwalk, going on the rides and playing miniature golf was the way to spend a vacation. There were times that, because of money and time constrictions, we took a daytrip to Seaside Heights. Those days we spent maximum time on the beach soaking up the sun and paying for it on the ride home with a case of ‘the disease’. By the end of the day, we were bright red and, sitting in the car going home, shaking like a leaf. Of course these were the days before fancy sun blocks, long before the little girl with her butt hanging out adorned Coppertone© billboards. How we are not all dead from melanoma is a small miracle. For protection from the sun we used a few drops of iodine in baby oil. We would baste each other on the beach, leaving an oil slick when we went in the water. The cure my mother used for ‘the disease’ was vinegar – don’t ask me why. By the end of the day the closest thing we resembled was a bright red salad.
But a week at Seaside Heights was great with a more realistic and slower approach to the perfect tan. Getting to the beach early while there was still room for a blanket near the water was the first mission of the day. Once that was accomplished we could relax, spending the morning swimming in the usually frigid water, taking walks under the boardwalk looking for the small shell casings beneath the shooting gallery. Lunchtime it was back to the house and after an hour or two returning to the beach until dinner. Back in the late fifties and early sixties, Navy blimps were still patrolling the waters. You would be sitting on the beach and hear this distant drone, look up, and there would be this large gray blimp majestically sailing overhead, sometimes appearing mysteriously from the low clouds of a summer’s morning.
Even rainy days were fun. I would save my pennies all year and then hit the arcade. They had a baseball game on the order of a pinball machine I played for five cents. As my score increased I accumulated free games so I could easily spend a long time playing for maybe a quarter. Then there were the claw machines full of charms and toys small enough so that the claw could actually lift something almost every time. I would go home from our vacation with a box-full of miniature false teeth and other valuable plastic charms.
There were also games of chance on the boardwalk. For a nickel or, if I wanted to cover a portion of the board, a quarter I could take a chance to win various prizes depending on the stand. My family always seemed to gravitate to the stands offering candy bars or bath towels. We would go home with boxes and armloads of each.
A week spent at the shore was an extended family affair, with cousins, aunts and uncles staying for the entire week or a few days. It was a chance to catch up on each other’s lives and share the summer experience.
Summer vacations are great, a great escape, but in reality one cannot escape his life and the burdens he carries along. But eventually, we must all return to the daily routine of life. Summer vacations, however, make that return a little more bearable.

March 17, 2010 at 6:26 pm Leave a comment

DOWNNECK ST. PATRICK’S DAY

MEMOIR

For the last two years, St. Patrick’s Day has held a special significance. I now work for Bewley Irish Imports, in the warehouse, packing orders for tea, oatmeal, pottery and other various products of the emerald isle. Needless to say, the month or so before this holiday is extremely busy. But as a kid growing up in Newark, the only significant occurrence associated with that holiday was the local parade.
Here is my remembrance.

DOWNNECK ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE

The section of Newark, New Jersey I called home was referred to as the ‘Downneck Section’, why, no one could ever explain. And on the Sunday afternoon, on or before St. Patrick’s Day, the residents of my street were treated to what had to have been the shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country.
Our local Catholic Church sponsored the parade. I could see the church’s steeple from my parlor window. It was that close. The parade had to be held on Sunday for between my house and the church stood Balentine Brewery. Weekdays were filled with the rumble of trucks quenching the thirst of a parched city. Sunday was a day of rest for the trucks, making the parade possible.
Magically, sometime before the parade, a green line appeared down the center of our street, the first harbinger of a gala event. I never witnessed this lines creation, but every year it materialized. Around one-thirty the residents began to gather on the sidewalk. We all walked out our front doors with anxious anticipation. The brewery and Catholic school took up one side of the street, multiple family houses stood opposite. Of course, there were always the annoying boys riding their bikes down the center of the blocked-off street before the parade began. I was proud to add to their number.
I assumed the parade began at the church. I never did discover where it finished.
There was always a band, not a school band, but one made up of adult men most of whom had almost mastered the instruments they were assigned. Before the band came a few ruddy-faced Irish men, decked out in their top hats, waving to the minuscule crowd. At the front of this procession were the parish priests. The parade took thirty seconds to pass. The procession turned the corner on to Ferry Street and marched on, melting into the Downneck neighborhood.

March 3, 2010 at 8:22 pm Leave a comment

COMIC BOOKS

MEMOIR

COMIC BOOKS

When I was around nine years old I remember making trips with my father to uptown Newark to visit bookstores to buy comic books.
The stores are now long gone, torn down and replaced by skyscrapers, but once there was a series of used bookstores, the only ones in the area, huddled together on Market Street, located where the uptown section of Newark began, just beyond Penn Station. Once you left my area of Newark and made your way to Penn Station. and under the elevated railroad you were uptown, heading toward Broad and Market, the heart of Newark.
Off I would go with my dad to buy comic books. The stores were ancient with cats perched in the dirty plate-glass windows. They were musty-smelling rooms filled with shelves piled with old books from the creaky hardwood floor to the grimy ceiling. This was my first experience visiting bookstores. During my youth, I received a gift from my mother; the love of books. She was a constant reader.
I love bookstores to this day, both old and new, and the smells of the used bookstores take me back to Market Street. The bookstores of Market Street had huge front windows crammed with books along with the before mentioned cats; the store overflowed with books. And somewhere in this maze of books were bags and bags of used comic books. The comics had their covers removed (which might have indicated something illegal) and sold for a nickel each or six for a quarter and we would buy them by the stack.
There would be romance comics for my mother, science fiction and action heroes for me and for the younger kids there would be Nancy, Donald Duck, Archie and more. We would bring home a bundle of comics, along with the musty smell of the store, sit around the kitchen table and divide them up.
Taking part of my stack of comics and hiding some in the bathroom for nature’s calls did not endear me to my family. There was a water pipe running from floor to ceiling on the outer wall and I would hide my comics rolled up and wedged between the pipe and the wall near the ceiling. Of course, they were in plain sight. I just assumed no one would ever look up.
At the age of nine comics were my entertainment; they were my entry to the world of reading and imagination. To this day I lose patience with computer games, get bored with TV and other electronic means of filling your day. But given a good book, I get lost for hours always needing to know what the next page holds.

February 13, 2010 at 10:58 pm Leave a comment

RIOTS

During my years in Newark I witnessed the good and the bad. This was the ugly.

MEMOIR

RIOTS

It was a summer’s morning in 1967. The buses were running late, and I soon found out why. I think it was the lack of knowledge I had that morning that, helped in part, to make me the news junkie that I am today.
I was in college now, and had two summer jobs, I still had my job at the newsstand working my usual Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. I had also started a new job. With a strong interest in science, I was studying biochemistry in college and wanted to find a job where I could gain some kind of practical laboratory training. I wrote to all the hospitals I could think of in the Newark area and asked if there was a lab job available. To my great surprise I got a positive reply from Presbyterian Hospital and an offer to work in their hospital laboratory. I found out later that most of the summer positions went to doctor’s children, and at the last moment, someone decided that the job was not for them. I guess my letter must have shown up at just the right time.
When I reported for work at Presbyterian Hospital to begin my summer job, I was shown into one of many small rooms that made up the hospital laboratory and was giver the job of dipping urinalysis sticks into urine samples and told that someday I might be able to spin down the urine and look at it under the microscope. This was not the exciting summer job that would bring me the lab experience that I had hoped to gain. But beggars can’t be choosers so I decided to stick it out for the summer. After a few days of dipping into urine, someone came around the lab and asked for volunteers to go across the street and work in the Children’s Hospital that was affiliated with Presbyterian. I figured that the job could not get more boring than what I was doing now, so off I went.
After I had volunteered, people around me told me that I had made a major mistake and that soon I would see the error of my ways.
The next day I showed up for work at Children’s Hospital and asked for directions to the lab. When I found it, I was greeted not by a huge anonymous operation, but a rather small room with just a bench for each area such as urinalysis, hematology, along with microbiology and blood chemistry. The hospital was fairly small so I should have anticipated this but, of course, I didn’t. I did find out why I had been discouraged from coming to this lab. For there was no place to hide and you really had to work.
With a little training, I went from dipping urinalysis sticks to doing all the complete urinalysis for the hospital every day, making out the reports and initialing them. If the doctors only knew who W.T. was, would they have been surprised. After I was done with the urine, I would drift over to blood chemistries and with some training was soon reporting results from that bench. I was having a ball. And as the summer progressed and some of the technicians went on vacations, I was covering all the urinalysis and blood chemistries. This was also before the days of strict laboratory practices when dealing with human samples. I was mouth pipeting human serum and plasma with what are now old fashioned glass pipettes and of course wore no gloves, but I had a great time and felt I really contributed something because they were so short-staffed.
I began my workday at the hospital laboratory at 8 o’clock in the morning, worked till about four then went home, and on my days at the newsstand, had something to eat and worked at the newsstand from 6 to 11 P.M.
One morning when I knew I would be working both jobs, I prepared to go to work at the hospital. My main task was to have some breakfast and get to the bus stop on time. I seldom had time for the news. The buses ran fairly regularly, but for some reason today the bus was late – very late. Finally, when I did see the bus coming, my bus was part of a convoy of about four buses. So I got on, found a seat and was ready for the usual thirty to forty minute ride to work, but this ride would be different than any ride to work that I had had before.
As I rode past the intersection of Broad & Market Streets, and past the newsstand where I was to work that night, I could see flames rolling out of the storefronts of some of the nearby businesses. The streets were crowded with fire engines and police cars. The streets were unusually full of activity.
Once I made it to the hospital, I found out what was going on, riots had broken out in Newark, starting the night before in the downtown area. All that day I could look down on the street from the lab window and see convoys of state police cars and jeeps with mounted and manned machine guns, a truly eerie sight to witness in your hometown. During the workday, I called my boss at the newsstand and asked if he was going to stay open that night. At first he said he would but later changed his mind, much to my relief. I think that in all the years I worked there, this was the first time the newsstand had been closed without there being a major snowstorm.
That afternoon, instead of catching the bus home, my cousins called and asked if I would want to be picked up after work, that sounded pretty good to me. While riding home, I saw sandbag emplacements with machine guns in the middle of the downtown area. The city had changed – scarred forever. Anger that had long been buried rose into full view. I also found out the next day that a man had been shot and killed at my bus stop.
The nights in the Down Neck section were quiet for the next few days due to the curfew in effect for all of Newark. Our area of the city, being far from the riots, was like a ghost town. There was no activity on the streets at all.
I have not recently revisited the area of the riots, so I have no idea what the area looks like now. I do remember that for years after the riots, once the burned-out homes and stores were torn down, the lots remained vacant, whole city blocks where nothing existed, only the rubble of human folly, anger and injustice.
One can only imagine how lives were changed forever on that day that the buses ran late.

February 10, 2010 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

SUNDAY DRIVES

MEMOIR

 

SUNDAY DRIVES

There existed a tradition back years ago that has not survived to the present, at least not to the extent that it existed back then – the Sunday drive.  With today’s complex society and fast-paced lifestyles, to say nothing of gas prices, no one just drives for the sake of driving, unless you’re a teenager with a brand-new car.  Every time you get in the car there is a definite destination at the end of the trip.  But when I was a kid, many times the trip would start at home and finish at home with nothing in between except burning gas.

On Sunday afternoons my family would pile into the old Chevy and off we would go, unencumbered by seat belts, piled high with blankets if the drive was during the winter – which was rare.  The blankets were necessary because, back then, heaters were an option and our Chevy was a bare-bones model.  The route we took was more or less the same every week.  It got to where I would know when my father would turn, when we would change lanes, never straying from the usual Sunday afternoon course.

We would leave our house in the city and venture out into the ‘country’.  For me, the country was anywhere where the houses did not sit one beside the other, places with lawns and an occasional open field and a total lack of any kind of industry.  On our journey we would go, past housing developments and until finally sighting an open field or pasture. We would journey down roads bordered by store after store, but being Sunday, many of the stores were closed.  The only stores open for business were grocery and drug stores.

You see, these were the days of the ‘blue laws’ in New Jersey.  On Sunday, there were certain items you could buy and certain items you couldn’t.  For example, you could buy food but not any type of clothing.  We had these huge Wal Mart type stores that sold everything, the section that sold food was open but there were ropes across the aisles that sold clothes.  This could be the reason for Sunday drives!  You see malls did not yet exist – and if they had most of the stores would be closed or at least partially roped off.  We all know, especially those of us lucky enough to have teenagers, that the mall is The Destination.  There were also small shore communities that would, on Sundays, put sawhorses across the streets leading into town.  No cars allowed on the streets on Sunday.

Our journey would last long, hours, but they were never far.  My father was the opposite of a lead-footed driver.  He was more of a feather foot.  It was before the interstate highway system came into existence, so speedy travel did not exist as it does today and my father was not a fast driver.  There were times we would take a ride ‘down the shore’ towards Asbury Park.  My mother would pack a lunch and halfway there we would pull over onto the shoulder and eat, then continue on our trip.  When I was older, and started to drive, I would retrace this journey and it would take me less than an hour.

There was, however, one detour that we kids loved. On our Sunday drives, we would occasionally make a stop at the doughnut man’s bus.  This was before there were any doughnut store chains.  This made the outing a great joy for everyone. The man had bought a school bus and converted it into a mobile doughnut shop – complete with cooking facilities.  He parked his brown and white school bus on the shoulder of a four-lane highway – always the same place of course – and sell doughnuts, either plain or powdered sugar.  How we kids loved those doughnuts, most of the time still warm.  One of the kids would get out with mom to go up to the window to make the doughnut purchase. If he saw a kid, he would present the buyer with a bag of doughnut pieces – mistakes that occurred during the doughnut making.  And of course the bag of doughnut pieces was free.  I know people like that still exist.  Business people whose bottom line is to see a child’s eyes light up, but they are few and far between.

The other destination that might be visited was the driving range.  This stop I could never figure out – not to this day.  Here was my father, a toggler in a tannery, who to the best of my knowledge, had never even been on a golf course, stopping to hit some golf balls.  I never even saw my father play miniature golf, but there were the Triznas at the driving range hitting buckets of balls.  I of course would aim for the jeep driving around with its protective cage gathering the golf balls, later on I actually would hit for distance.  I can’t remember how long our driving range phase lasted, a few months, maybe a year, but it soon slipped into the past.  As we got older we kids played miniature golf.  But after our driving range phase was over, my father did not pick up a golf club again.

February 5, 2010 at 8:27 pm Leave a comment

GRANDPARENTS

MEMOIR

GRANDPARENTS

My father’s mother and father lived only a few miles from us in Hillside, New Jersey. But driving from Newark to their house was like entering a different world.
They came to this country from Czechoslovakia, although my father’s birth certificate listed his parent’s home country as Hungary. The boarders of European countries frequently changed in the beginning of the twentieth century thanks to World War I. They brought with them one daughter and first settled in Newark and then moved to Hillside, which was where my father was raised.
Hillside is a quiet community composed of one and two family houses giving it a less dense population than my area of Newark. It had some industry, Bristol Myers had a plant located along the main street of this small community, but for the most part it was a quiet place to live. And even though my grandparent’s street ran perpendicular to the Bristol Myers location, there was very little through traffic. It was a quiet street and to me a place of refuge.
My grandparents owned a double lot with a small house on one side and a garden and lawn on the other. My grandmother loved flowers, especially roses. I recall two long rows of flowers with space between for tending and weeding. The garden area facing the street was where the rose bushes grew. She had a large assortment of types and whenever we visited we usually came away with a bouquet of roses.
We would visit on summer evenings after we were finished with supper. After driving for ten or fifteen minutes, we would be parked in front of their house. Now, in reality, we would be visiting only my grandmother for my grandfather would be fast asleep. Every day of the year, for as long as I could remember, he would be in bed by five o’clock. He would have an early dinner then go into the cellar for his one cigarette and his one bottle of beer for the day, then off to bed. When we arrived, we would pull out the chairs stored under the back stairs and talk with my grandmother, watching the evening approach and looking out at the lightning bugs.
Life was slow-paced there. You didn’t feel the underlying tenseness that you felt many times while walking Newark’s streets. Even as a young boy I could feel the relaxation coming on as we entered Hillside.
When I was perhaps ten years old, I started going to my grandparents for summer vacations. I was the only child in my family to do this. I would pack my things and spend a week in Hillside, an oasis to me, a change of pace from the city life in Newark.
There were a few boys my age that lived on my grandparent’s street. My first few summers there I spent in the garden catching butterflies by day and lightning bugs at night. During the summer, even in Newark, the bathroom window would be crammed with jars full of various insects and spiders – all for the study of a pre teenage boy. But after a couple of years catching insects in my grandparent’s yard, I ventured out onto their street and made friends with a couple of the other kids in the neighborhood. Then one summer I spent most of my week on the other kid’s front porches, just hanging out, talking and spitting. For some reason they all spit a lot and I acquired the habit.
Another favorite pastime of my vacations in Hillside was walks with my grandfather. We would set out for long walks in the neighborhood or sometimes we would walk to Weequahic Park, more than a mile away, so this was a real adventure. He must have been in his 70’s by then. He always seemed to be rather formally dressed for walks with dark pants and dress shirts, no shorts and tee shirts for grandpa. And he always wore high-topped shoes that would crunch small stones on the sidewalk, for some reason that crunching sound has stayed with me all these years, the confident step of an elderly man who knew the way, and allowed me to follow. His eyesight was poor, the result of his profession, an engraver. He also had this way of clearing his throat whenever he was about to say something
On our long walks we would talk, but I never got to know my grandfather, not really know him, he never talked about himself. This was long before men were supposed to bear their souls, beat drums and hug. The same was true of my father, never really talked much about what was important to him in his own life, and to some extent the same is true with me. Many times, when there is something really important to me I tend not to discuss it; although I’m sure my children would agree that I can beat a subject to death over dinner. But sometimes the overwhelming daily grind and my personality get in the way of really communicating. So looking back on those walks and my life with my father, I am truly their grandson and son.

A POEM FOR MY GRANDMOTHER

ROSES

Roses were her love,

Great flowing rainbows of pink, red and white.

Her children, their children would come

And each take home

A fist full of gaily-colored affection.

Roses were her love,

And when rest had finally come from roses

Roses were hers,

Elegant creations of empty colors

Looking out on empty eyes.

Roses were her love,

And now her small garden

Has yet to discover

A rose.

January 9, 2010 at 4:08 pm Leave a comment

THE NEWARK DRIVE-IN

MEMOIR

THE NEWARK DRIVE IN

On the far eastern edge of Newark, tucked between the Jersey City and New York City bound bridges, stood the Newark Drive In. The drive in was directly under the flight path of nearby Newark Airport, which tended to make listening to the movie something of a challenge. When approaching the drive in, you were greeted by the swampy, musty smell of Newark Bay. A resident of ‘The Dumps’ (what the locals called the area surrounding the theater) added to the odors of its refineries and sewage treatment plants to the ambiance of the area.
The drive in was surrounded by a tall wooden fence marking its boundaries with a total lack of landscaping of any kind, being true to the Newark life style – bare essentials is all that you get.
On warm summer nights my family would pack into the old Chevy with food and pillows and head to the drive in. The smaller kids would already be in their pajamas in anticipation of not making it to the second movie of the double feature. Being the oldest, I was given the opportunity to sit up front and in those days of front seats being bench seats, providing plenty of room.
Arriving at the drive in just before dusk, my dad paid and was given the PIC and off we would go. PIC was an insect repellent product. It was a flat spiral affair. You lit the end and it would give off a pungent aroma daring mosquitoes to venture near. I really don’t know if it worked because we would also douse ourselves with insect repellent to ward off the visitors from the nearby swamps.
During this period, mosquito-borne encephalitis (sleeping sickness) was a constant threat. On summer nights in Newark, trucks would go through the city streets emitting clouds of insect repellent.
On these same summer nights in our flat, ineffective screens would keep all but the largest and dumbest insects out of our house. When all were in bed, my mother would walk the length of our flat spraying insect repellent while telling all of us to close our eyes. As we lay in bed, you could feel the particles of spray falling on your body.
Once in the theater, we’d find our spot and park the car at just the right angle on the mound that ran the length of the theater to get a perfect view of the screen for everyone. The smaller kids, in their pajamas, would head for the playground and run around till they couldn’t see what they were doing which also indicated that it was time for the movie to begin.
One movie I recall seeing was entitled Macabre. The movie was supposed to be so scary that you were issued a life insurance policy when you entered the drive in. It was good for the length of the movie and if you should be unlucky enough to die of a fright-induced heart attack during the movie you collected, or you next of kin anyway. The movie was a real bomb; the cartoon was scarier. I wondered though what would have happened if someone would have dropped dead of your usual run-of-the-mill heart attacks.
There was always an intermission between movies, time to advertise the goodies available at the snack bar. The screen would be full of dancing hot dogs and talking cups of soda all counting down the fifteen minutes till the next show. The audience was your typical Newark crowd, the women in their smocks and the dads in their handlebar tee shirts. They thrived on meat and potatoes, with hot dogs and sodas would be your typical snack. But one snack that was advertised every time I went to the drive in was Flavo Shrimp Rolls. The only place you could buy a Flavo Shrimp Roll was at the drive in, they did not exist outside their gates. I’m sure you could get other shrimp rolls someplace else in Newark, maybe in the small China Town on Mulberry Street, but I don’t think your typical Newark crowd ate many shrimp rolls. But up there on the screen, after the hot dogs had danced off you could see the cartoon characters lining up for their Flavo Shrimp Rolls. I think we actually bought one once, only once. It was a deep-fried affair running in grease. I would wonder who looked at the crowd coming into the drive in and said to himself, “These people will buy up Flavo Shrimp Rolls like there’s no tomorrow.”
The Newark Drive In is gone now, long gone. Last I heard, a movie theater stands where the drive in once existed. And I’m sure with the demise of the drive in went the opportunity for anyone to buy a Flavo Shrimp Roll.

January 6, 2010 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment

GARDENING

MEMOIR

GARDENING

I have always been amazed at the resilience of plants. There are those you can abuse and they come back stronger than ever. My small garden in Newark, New Jersey did not endure the harsh treatment I unknowingly subjected it to. But I enjoyed that patch of green and my small connection to nature.

Have you ever stopped for a red light while driving and gazed over at the concrete median and there, against all odds, growing through a tiny flaw in the concrete is a plant? I am amazed to see how life persists even under the most adverse conditions. As a child in Newark I simulated those exact conditions, although I called it gardening.
The yard we had on Christie Street was actually quite large. Large enough to have kickball and baseball games, but then again, we were quite small. Once I was older, we would have barbecues on our charcoal grill, summer nights spent sitting on beach chairs on the hard-packed soil, enjoying burgers and hot dogs as we listening to the sound of the city as night closed the day.
Next to our house was the landlord’s house, which was a small two story one family dwelling with and alley running between the two houses. Behind the landlord’s house was a garden, fenced in. On the opposite side of this small house was a driveway, which was actually quite long, and when I was old enough to shovel snow, it seemed to become longer still.
Our yard was large enough to hold a couple of cars, with some scraggly patches of grass growing defiantly, despite the conditions. To the rear of the yard was a three-car garage, one of which my father rented, and this was the reason I was given the opportunity to shovel the driveway. Next to the garages, and beyond the area of the yard where we were permitted to play, was another fenced area where the residents were not allowed. An old glider swing back there, but nothing much more. At the edge of this restricted area was another small fenced space, about six feet by six feet, sheltering a small garden belonging to the old woman across the hall. She had mostly zinnias and marigolds and it was a great place to catch whatever butterflies found their way into our yard. I admired her garden. She was always out there tending her flowers, pulling weeds, tying up plants with wooden stake and old stockings, the traditional way of supporting tall plants back then.
One day the fence bordering the back of the yard came down and that area of the yard was no longer restricted. I’m not sure why the fence came down. The glider swing came down about the same time. Now a whole new area of the yard was available, an area perfect for a garden. With our landlady’s permission, my sisters and I started construction
The ground was as hard as concrete; there was a total lack of anything that resembled topsoil. So off we went in the old Chevy for some rich loam. We traveled a short distance to where my grandparents lived in Hillside. There was a little-used park along a stream not far from their house, and that is where we headed for our soil. We parked as close as we could and, armed with a shovel and several large containers, started digging up the bank of the stream.
Once our topsoil was obtained, my sisters and I framed out small areas. We each had an area about twenty to twenty-five square feet backing up to the fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s yard. We made a feeble attempt to turn the soil before adding the topsoil, but the product of our digging was only reddish soil and rock, so we dumped our topsoil on top of our little garden areas and started planting.
I was rather ambitious when I planted my garden. I bought tomato and pepper plants, planted carrot, beet and parsley seeds all in neat little rows. These poor plants and seeds did less than thrive. I grew everything in miniature. My beefsteak tomatoes were more like their cherry cousins, the plants barely needing any support at all. My peppers were the size of plums. And my carrots – I grew those tiny carrots that they feature in seed catalogs, ones as big as your pinky, but I in fact was going for the full-sized edition. Why I attempted to grow root crops in concrete-like soil is a mystery to me now. But I was proud of my little garden. When my sisters lost interest, the size of my garden grew. I watered and weeded the few limp weeds that dare take up residence amongst my crops and generally enjoyed the little area of green I had created out back.
Then one summer it happened, a true sign that I had truly established a growing zone in Newark, I was infested with insects. The leaves on my plants were full of holes. This phenomenon amazes me to this day. How you can grow a plant that is unknown to the area, yet an insect that specifically attacks that plant will find and destroy it. And so it went for my little plot in Newark. I purchased a powder that I thought might remedy the situation, and after a heavy dusting that left my plants white under the strong mid afternoon sun I read the directions. This pesticide was to be applied lightly and only during the cool of the evening, always avoiding exposing the plants to this killer during the heat of the afternoon. By nightfall, my whole garden was withered and dead. I eliminated my insect infestation and in the process eliminated my garden.
The next year I planted again with a new knowledge of pesticide use. I branched out to flowers, planting some morning glories in a corner of the yard near my garden, another small square of the yard taken over for horticulture.
I have my own yard now, much larger than the yard of my youth. I enjoy my vegetable garden and the flowers planted around the property, but there are days when I think back to my little plot in Newark where I teased life from the concrete soil.

December 4, 2009 at 7:02 pm 1 comment

THE DAY KENNEDY DIED

MEMOIR

November is the month of thanksgiving, when the weather no longer bounces between summer and winter, when the chill of fall sets in with a vengeance preparing us for the hard cold of winter. It is also the month John F. Kennedy died at the hands of an assassin.
During November 1963 I was a junior at East Side High School. I already had a deep interest in science and forfeited my study hall to work in the school biology lab. I designed an experiment to study Medallion heredity. The experiment required two black and two white mice, which I purchased, and began mating the mice in all the various combinations possible, trying to predict the color of the littermates. I soon ran out of space in the cellar where I was keeping my mouse colony and asked permission to move my many mice to school I pressed on, until I began seeing litters with brown siblings, something I had not anticipated. This brought an end to my experiment and an introduction to the unpredictability of science.
It was while I was working in the school lab one November Friday afternoon that someone came in and said that the president had been shot. I recall reacting to the news with horror and disbelief. The emotions of I felt will always stay with me, the sense of experiencing a moment that defied all logic, the vitality of our young president in jeopardy. I sensed that the world had changed; this quiet November afternoon would become a milestone in history. All I knew was that the president had been shot; there was still hope of survival as I headed home from school that day. But as I walked the mile and a half home from school, I saw something I shall never forget, something that dimmed my hope. On my way, I saw clusters of people standing on corners and most were crying. The residents of Newark are not known for their emotional displays so this sight was disturbing. It was the first signal I had that something was extremely wrong, that the world had changed, and not for the better.
When I reached home, my father was already there, not unusual for he began work early in the morning and was home before me most of the time. I would find him sitting in the kitchen with his beer and paper, but today he was in the parlor watching the TV and he was crying too, something I recalled seeing only once before. The last time I saw my father cry was when my mother lost a baby girl shortly after birth. Ironically, my sister died almost the same time the Kennedy’s lost their third child and also for the same reason, underdeveloped lungs. As my father sat weeping before the TV, he told me that the president had died.
The days that followed were surreal. Long before the age of cable and satellite dishes, there were only three major networks and a few independent New York stations broadcasting to Newark. All normal broadcasting ceased; TV carried nothing but news and insight into the assassination. On the radio, all normal programming came to a halt. The radio played nothing but somber music and news of the assassination. Everyone watched the news all weekend, watching history unfold before our eyes. Shortly after Kennedy died, Oswald was captured. The nation viewed live, the instrument of their sorrow. We watched Oswald’s murder at the hands of Jack Ruby, adding confusion on top of the misery. Everyone’s thoughts were in turmoil as these historic events concluded with JFK Jr. saluting his father’s casket.
The day Kennedy died; I learned something of the unpredictability of life.

November 10, 2009 at 9:21 pm Leave a comment

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