Friday, June 29, 2012

Go, Fourth! Part 2

The picture attached to today's blog entry was taken July 1969. I am about halfway to being seven years old.

I am standing next to my trusty Radio Flyer wagon, which, prior to my Schwinn bike, was my main mode of transportation back then. This tank was indestructible, and I can recall numerous times I would bend one knee into its payload space, use the other free leg to propel myself forward, and rocket down our street, trying to steer using the black handle that, owing to my position and lack of height, came roughly to my lower jaw, making any kind of movement with any kind of accuracy a total joke.

As we boomers are fond of saying: It's a miracle any of us survived our childhoods.

This picture was taken the morning of our community's Fourth of July parade. Our parade had the usual array of bands and Boy Scouts, of flags and veterans, and even a rag-tag band bleating out a half-hearted version of "The Washington Post March."

But it also included a competition for the kids in the neighborhood who marched in a number of categories, competing for prizes.

There were a number of brackets in which entries were possible. I remember Decorated Bicycle being a biggie. Mostly because it never took much effort to thread some red-white-and-blue streamers through the spokes of your Schwinn (be sure to wrap your sissybar and banana seat as well!) and ride forth.

There was also a float category, which is the one Mom always advised for us. "The bike category is always too crowded," she'd say, craftily plotting how to beat the odds. "Go for the floats! Fewer kids means a better chance for you to win."

And I believe there was a category for kids on foot, but this always seemed to be won by some girl whose mother, a seamstress from the old country, could fashion a Betsy Ross costume accurate to the thread count of the duster and the exact hue of dye for her flag as commissioned by the Minutemen.


On July 04 1969, the space race was in full swing, just on the cusp of Armstrong's landing some two weeks later. The space mania of the time coincided with an absolute stroke of good fortune -- and a healthy dose of imagination from Mom. Somewhere, somehow, she was able to put her hands on a discarded refrigerator box. Whether it came from one of her sisters or a neighbor who had invested in a new appliance, I can't remember.
I do recall spending hours on the back patio, spraying it silver, decorating it, nestling it into my wagon, and otherwise prepping for its Independence Day debut.

The nose-cone proved to be a challenge. The box's square top didn't exactly scream aerodynamic, so we took the flaps and cut them into trapezoids that were then duct-taped four to a side. Ah, the magic of duct tape!

But we still needed a pinnacle. And in a fit of inspiration, Mom took an empty bleach bottle, inverted it, cut off the bottom, and voila! It was ready for its foil heat-shield and installation.

As you can see, we weren't exactly up to the NASA standards for plumb, but hey, close enough for government work.

The only drawback to this massive creation was its lack of mobility. Not that it was heavy, but in my rickety wagon, as in my streaking down the street, steering was an issue.

No mind, we hauled it off to the starting point of the parade, found our age-appropriate category, and set forth.

As a side note, I do recall that my one brother was also a participant in this parade, in the dreaded bicycle category. But Mom used the opportunity to make the peacenik point that the war in Southeast Asia had gone on too long -- thank you, Mr. Nixon -- and that it was time to bring it to a close. So his bicycle had a small tableau in the front basket of two G.I. Joe action figures engaged in battle. And a cardboard sign behind them, advising "BRING OUR BOYS HOME!"

We wended our way through the neighborhoods, where crowds of people watched from the sidelines.

I do recall having some technical difficulties with that damned bleach bottle. Luckily, just like the real astronauts, I did have a ground crew, even though I can attribute the assistance more to luck than preparation. Just as my rocket's nose was threatening to tip over, I caught sight of an uncle in the crowds. I somehow expressed to him my plight and, glory be!, he had a spare roll of duct tape!

A few zips of tape, cut by nipping the raw edge with his teeth, and we were back in orbit!

With several hundred other competitors, we made our way to the local baseball field, where, armed with a sound system that never quite worked correctly, we would participate in a program that included a flag raising; the Pledge of Allegiance; the emotional playing of the National Anthem courtesy of a scratchy 45 rpm, amplified by the aforementioned lackluster sound system; and the Pièce de résistance, the awarding of the parade prizes.

I don't remember much about the ancillary pieces of this culmination of small-town patriotism. I was too excited to find out how we'd fared.

From the loudspeaker, the categories started being called, with winners trotting to center field to accept their accolades.

Soon it was time for my bracket.

And for just a second I stopped breathing.

And heard.

MY NAME called!!!

Our spacecraft had won!

I leapt forward, yanking the wagon behind me, and bounded across the grass, my winning entry clattering behind me.

And bouncing.

And teetering.

I was oblivious. I continued to run, arm stretched out behind me, fist locked on the handle of the wagon.

The clapping of the crowd filled my ears. I was delirious.

I had won! I had won! I was on the top of the world...


Until the entire rocket tipped over and landed in a heap of crepe paper, cardboard, foil, and duct tape.

I didn't see this happen. I heard it. And I felt it, as the wagon and its payload became a heap of disappointment that I was now dragging across the dusty infield.

The crowd gasped. The Emcee, seeing my distressed, called forward to me: "It's okay, son. Come on!"

And so I left the wagon behind and ran to the dais. I was still greeted with firm handshakes, backpats, and big grins, so any disappointment I may have felt by the accident was quickly overcome.

I got a crisp $20 bill for my entry.

And when the Emcee asked me what I was going to do with the money and shoved the live mic in my face for the response, I came out with this: "My mother's birthday is tomorrow, and I'm going to buy her a birthday present!"


The rest of that morning is something of a blur. Somehow, my parents, I'm sure, managed to collect our dashed pile of patriotic pride and get it back in the car. And for what it's worth, my brother's decorated bike didn't win a thing.

So although my rocket was no longer soaring in the clouds, my spirits sure were.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Go, Fourth!

I am a sucker for a good fireworks show.

There's something about standing in a large crowd and looking skyward, waiting for that first shot of color and noise to rip apart the darkness, that fills me with both joy and awe.

My mother's birthday was July 05. Each year, on the Fourth, we'd have a big cookout in our back yard, partly to celebrate Independence Day and partly to mark her birthday. This was a major event as marked by a couple of deep-seated traditions, one of which was Dad cooking outside.

Dad hated cooking outside ("Why would I haul all the stuff from the kitchen to the yard, just to prep a meal and eat out there, just to haul it all back inside and clean it up?"). But for this event, he relented and would drag out the tiny hibachi grill, fill it with briquettes, douse the black squares with lighter fluid, and, to our pyromanical glee, ignite the pile into a mini-mushroom cloud of flame.

But after dinner, the real magic started.

We lived with walking distance of a huge tract of community land that had space for four baseball fields, one at each corner.

Each year, the local fire house staged an impressive fireworks display in this field.

And best of all, we had easy access. Whereas other viewers had to deal with the traffic snarls (and cranky back-seat kids) associated with entry/exit into the neighborhood (and parking), we merely left our backyard, walked half a block to the field, and were set.

The sunlight would eventually start to loosen its hold on the day, turning pale yellow, then gold, then orange. And each color progression ramped up the excitement level.

As the sun disappeared altogether and the sky turned purple on its way to black, the technicians would test-fire a shot or two, to gauge the wind, I suppose. But when these singular streaks of light would launch for the sky, everyone's attention was immediately focused upward, hoping that it signaled the start of the show.

Alas, it was just a test shot.

But eventually, the initial salvo would begin and the explosions and bursts of color were a wonder to behold.

I loved every minute. The different shapes. The chrysanthemums. The screamers. The cascades. The waterfalls. And the thundering impact of the shells, which left dots on the inside of the eyeballs from their bright explosions. And thuds in the pit of the stomach.

Best of all -- and this factor seems to be gone from modern-day firework displays -- this show always included a ground display or two. This would be an array of sparklers or pinwheels that were lit at ground-level rather than being launched into the sky. I most remember the formation of an American flag, blazing in red, white, and blue glory. Or a bald eagle. Or some other patriotic image.

Not sure what has happened to these displays. But they seem to be absent from most modern-day shows.

I believe it was Dad who taught me that the quality of a fireworks show can be judged by the number of times the color blue is represented. Apparently, according to him, the chemical mix required to burn as blue is the most expensive; therefore, the more blue, the more the outlay for the show.

The finale was always the best. Shot after shot in quick succession, until the sky was painted from horizon to the moon with a kaleidoscope of hues. And those explosions, where the displaced air pressure would cause the cuffs of my shirt and shorts to twitch in response.

And then. Silence. Followed quickly by a rousing cheer.

The neighborhood fireworks show was a beloved tradition when I was a kid.

But it wasn't a permanent one.

It was eventually cancelled by the community, much to my bitter disappointment. Some neighbors whose properties bordered the field complained about safety issues, and although I could see their point, it didn't make sense to me as a kid. After all, how much safer could you get than a fireworks display sponsored by a fire house?!?!?

But my love of fireworks stuck and remains to this day. No matter where or when, I'm always eager to see those magnificent, earth-shattering lights in the sky. If we're driving along and see one in the distance, I'll always pull over and gaze, ignoring the clock or the kids' complaints in the back ("Fireworks are boring!").

The community we now live in sponsors a yearly show on July 04, and again, it's a walkable distance to attend (it's amazing to me how many echoes of my own childhood continue to reverberate in my adulthood). And we go every year. Even our elder-teen who complains ("Fireworks are boring!").

Things haven't changed much with pyrotechnics over the decades. Sure, the days of men running with torches to light physical fuses have been replaced by computer-fired methods, but the centuries-old attraction of colorful explosions against a canvas at night remains.

Computerization and technology now allow more precise firings, which has led to an increased ability to synchronize shows to music. It's a great effect and can increase the power of the emotional response to fireworks.

For example, Disney uses a blend of music, imagery, and fireworks to close Epcot's operating hours every day. The first time I saw "Illuminations, Reflections of Earth," it brought me literally to tears, swept away by the sheer power and emotion of the combo. Even hearing the music, without the visuals, can cause the hair on the back of my neck to stand on-end.

The one thing I insist on with fireworks, however, is attendance. Fireworks displays are absolutely magical in person.

And lame-lame-lame on television.

Maybe it's the knowledge that you're there with family and friends, huddled on a blanket in the cool grass, grateful that the heat of an early July afternoon has ebbed away, giddy with excitement over that first volley.

Maybe it's the thrill of seeing thousands of faces lit by the backwash of light, turning them in unison to blue, green, orange, white.

Maybe it's the percussive whump that signals a new shot, followed by a corkscrewing streak of light hundreds of feet up, a pyrotechnic tadpole that the bursts open into a flowering shower of color for all to see.

Maybe it's the comic sight of the kids who jam fingers in their ears to protect against the earth-shaking booms that follow.

It's probably all of it.

All of it together.

Whatever it is, I will be right there in the dark with you. Smile plastered on my face. Eyes bright. Oooh-ing and Aaah-ing.

No more test-shots. Let the show begin!

Monday, June 25, 2012


My mother's parents are a bit of a mystery to me.

I do not remember my mother's mother. She died in a freakish accident when I was in utero. She drowned just off the beach in Brigantine, NJ.

My mother's father was a large, loud Irishman. But my memories of him are clouded by his illness—we'd now call it dementia—that often left him belligerent and a little scary for a kid to interact with.

My Dad’s dad, my Pop-pop, looms hugely in my recollections of my childhood.

I’m sure my memory of him is absolutely colored by the mist of time and sentiment. I’m sure he had his bad days, his failures, his faults. But as kids, we never saw them. All we saw was the impish man who was quick with his stories, complete with G-rated variations for when the kids were around, which was often; generous with his laugh; firm with his handshake; and straightforward with his opinions.

He’s gone now. Cut down by cancer in the mid-1980s. A crappy ending to a guy who deserved better.

But the stories remain.

For instance, I closely associate him in my mind with the New Jersey shore.

My parents fell in love with The Shore, and we rented the same apartment there for decades: 3859 Asbury Avenue, Second Floor, Ocean City, New Jersey.

This was a ramshackle apartment, two bedrooms, and not one amenity that the multimillion-dollar shore homes nowadays sport. The furniture was Early American Garage Sale, and the apartment had no washer-dryer facilities, no color TV, and no air-conditioning. The carpet was threadbare, the artwork that adorned the walls was of the paint-by-number seascape variety, and daily, we had to puff our way up a rickety staircase, perhaps two-dozen steps or so, for entry and exit.

But we loved it. Every square inch.

And much of the fun of this second-floor hideaway came when Nana, Pop-pop, and Grammom would come to visit. "Grammom" was my father's father's mother. My great-grandmother.

Eight of us huddled in this nest, sweating away, escaping to the beach and the surf at every opportunity, partaking of shore delights like boardwalk rides and salt-water taffy, having the time of our lives.

Pop loved the shore. I’m certain that my own dad received his appreciation for the beach from his father, just as he passed it down to me. Pop’s shore-stories were doozies:

  • He’d talk about, when he and Nana were dating, they would take the train from Philadelphia to Atlantic City for day trips. And how visitors rented swimsuits. Woolen swim suits. He described the unique challenge of trying to shimmy into a wet, woolen swimsuit—wet because, more often than not, a renter had just vacated the same suit moments before and returned it to the vendor for re-rent. 

  • And how once, in Atlantic City, he was almost ticketed for indecent exposure. He’d been fishing that morning and agreed to catch up with the rest of the family on the beach in the afternoon. For convenience’s sake, he wore his bathing suit under his fishing outfit. When he arrived at the beach and began to lower his pants, a nearby group of women were so shocked and dismayed at the apparent flashing that was about to assault their virginal eyes, they ran to a policeman on the boardwalk. Pop had a lot of explaining to do that day. 

  • And how, when he and Nana (Dad's mother; his wife) and their friends would go to Atlantic City and spend the day on the beach, they would then use one of the many available bathhouses to change and “walk the boards” at night. Strolling the various shops and piers on the boardwalk in those days required full dress: jacket, tie, and straw hat for men; long dresses and parasols for the ladies. Easter Sunday, too, was a big day for the boardwalk for Nana and Pop-pop, dressed to the nines for a Boardwalk Easter Parade right out of the MGM musical. 

  • And when we’d complain about shore traffic, how, when he was a kid, there were no bridges over the Delaware River. Ferries carried cars from the Pennsylvania side to the New Jersey side, and on Sunday nights in July and August, the line of cars waiting for these ferries would stretch for miles, sunburnt kids snoring in rumble seats in flivver after flivver. 

  • And how once, on a return train trip to Philadelphia from a day of crabbing—with a creel full of snapping, clawing, crustaceans—one of the critters escaped and began scuttling down the center aisle. And how this escapee eventually made his displeasure at being removed from his briny home known by clamping down on the Achilles’ tendon of a unsuspecting passenger, who let loose with a scream that sent the entire car into turmoil. 
But Pop wasn’t all about what had happened long-ago at the shore. He was also a part of what was happening right there and during these shore vacations. The shore with Pop was the ultimate. It was a place we already loved, augmented, if that’s even possible, by an element—him—that made it even more fun.

Pop rose early at the shore, and while on vacation with us there, he had a morning ritual that we didn’t much understand: Without fail, before his breakfast, he had a shot of what I think was Scotch but that he referred to only as “hooch.” He did this only on vacation at the shore (not that he was a teetotaler, but he certainly didn’t drink every day—much less every morning!), and when asked why, he always supplied the same answer: “It gets rid of the collywobbles.”

Now, we kids never knew what the collywobbles were, and we were sure that none of us had been afflicted with them, but Pop was convinced that “the water” at the shore would give them to you unless you fought them off with hooch.

“But Pop, you’ve never gotten the collywobbles at the shore!” we’d point out.

“See? It works!” he’d counter.

Some mornings, post-hootch, Pop and Dad would go surf fishing. In the morning darkness (they didn’t want to turn lights on and risk waking everyone), the two of them would stumble around the tiny apartment, stage-whispering (they didn’t want to talk full-voice and risk waking everyone).

The 3859 apartment had a battered chest of drawers in the living room. One of the drawers in this chest was infamous for the loud raspberry it issued at every pull: “Braaaaaap!”

And without fail, this drawer would be assigned to Pop for storage of his clothing and other travel items.

So he and Dad would flounder around, dressing quickly, gathering their fishing gear, knocking into furniture, and shushing each other. And with the predictability of Fibber McGee’s closet, Pop would invariably pull that drawer: “Braaaaaap!” If we weren’t awakened by the din of them trying to be so quiet, the screech of chest would be the kicker.

Thank goodness they were trying to be quiet!

One murky morning, he and Dad arose, bumbled through their dressing, took all the paraphernalia out and readied it, grimaced at the “Braaaaaap!” that shattered the early morning silence, and headed out the door. Just before stepping out onto the back porch, Pop grabbed his fishing hat, a brimmed, flat-topped yellow oval of well-loved “lucky” cloth.

Mom was awake at that point (how could she not be?), and she watched them from the window next to her bed. They made their way across the alley and then across the far street and were headed to a set of stairs that bridged the bulkhead to the beach, long fishing poles and tackle-boxes bobbing with every step.

To the west, the sky was dark and ominous. As soon as the intrepid fishermen reached the top step, just prior to their descent to the beach, an earth-shattering bolt of lightning electrified the island. And, worse, the skies opened with teeming gray rain.

They turned on their heels and immediately became players in a Laurel and Hardy short. They valiantly tried to maneuver their fishing poles around each other to navigate the about-face and then scrambled back down the handful of steps and scurried back to the apartment, sloshing through the sheets of rain that were pounding down.

Drenched, they took to the huge staircase at flank speed, thundering up quickly in an attempt to escape the deluge. They exploded into the kitchen, drenched to the skin, and dropped their tackle boxes and poles in a heap.

They stood there in silence for a moment, catching their breath and recovering from the shock of the cold rain.

“Not a very good beach day, I’m afraid,” Pop wisecracked. And as he did, he tipped his head forward and a small rivulet of rainwater drained from the flat-top of his fishing hat, pouring onto his shoes in a long, noisy patter.

The sleeping arrangements at 3859 were cramped at best. Mom and Dad had the “master” bedroom, such that it was, and the second bedroom held my brothers, Nana, and Grammom.

That left Pop and me in the living room.

The living room at 3859 was equipped with a sofa-bed, but the term should be applied loosely. That piece of furniture failed both as a sofa and as a bed. As a sofa, the seat cushions sagged miserably. We have numerous photos of the gang of us seated there, slumped cheek-to-cheek. What these photos don’t reveal is that our close proximity wasn’t staged for the camera or the result of a harmonious moment of family unity; it was, instead, a natural outcome of the limp cushions and battle-fatigued springs!

The sofa’s second significant drawback as a sitting device was its material: “stylish” 1950s-vogue vinyl. In the heat of those August evenings, we who sat thereupon to watch TV or read often stuck fast to the back, virtually sealed in place by gluey sweat.

But it was a loser as a bed, too, being nicknamed “the rack” by those of us who endured 8–10 hours of darkness spread-eagle upon it, chasing elusive sleep while its center support bar threatened to cut through not only the mattress but also a few vertebrae, like a wire through a block of cheese.

Pop and I faced this torture-chamber device nightly. Sleep was often difficult, but the exhaustion that resulted from a day of running, swimming, playing, biking, hiking, and other shore-time activities usually prevailed, allowing us to be carried away… eventually.

There were times, though, when staying asleep was a challenge. One simmering night, Pop and I were snoring away, when the dark, quiet apartment exploded with a blinding flash of lightning. It was as if the Almighty were wielding a camera with a flash attachment the size of Cincinnati. Within seconds, this awe-inspiring illumination was punctuated by a bone-rattling boom of thunder that tossed us from the sofa-bed and sent us scrambling.

The apartment was being blown with a gale force; every one of the window shades was at full attention, standing 90o out. Newspapers, comic books, magazine sheets, and other loose items were being tossed willy-nilly by its power.

We dashed for the windows, but before we could reach them, the rain started, a virtual wall of water descending from the sky in a gush.

The storm stomped and marched outside our tiny apartment like a monster from a Stephen King story.

Sleeping on The Rack was bad enough. Sleeping on the rack with Armageddon right outside our windows was impossible.

We huddled in that dark apartment feeling like we were the only people alive and watched the hellish night. Eventually, the storm passed, and sometime before dawn, sleep carried us away.

One of my favorite “chores” with Pop—something we did, just he and I, just about every morning on vacation—was walk to a nearby bakery for “cakes.” I never understood that terminology, but it was a catch-all for various breakfast goodies like donuts and cinnamon buns and such. Cakes.

The bakery was an old-time German bakery using old-time German recipes and staffed with old-time German workers, the Leuschner Family. Oompah music played in the background, and the counter-help wore traditional German garb and still carried their hard-clipped Teutonic accents with them. Intricate cuckoo clocks hung on the walls. Being an old-time German himself, Pop loved it there.

I accompanied him not only because it was a fun thing to do and because what we brought home was always delicious but also because it was financially advantageous to do so.

First off, when Pop announced that we were going, Dad would slip me some money, whispering, “I want this to be my treat. Pop paid for cakes yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Don’t let him pay for them today.”

“Okay Dad,” I’d say, pocketing the $10 bill he pressed into my palm.

And on the way, just about the time we could breathe in air that was thickening with the scent of sugar and flour and shortening and fruit spreads and nuts, Pop would ask, “Did your father give you money for cakes?”

“Yup, Pop-pop, he did.”

“Well, let’s reach a little agreement, you and I: Let’s have you keep that money in your pocket for the boardwalk tonight or for some ice cream or a kite or whatever you want. And let’s just tell your dad we used his money for the cakes. And instead of using your money, we’ll use mine. Okay?”

Well that was certainly okay with me!

The other fortuitous occurrence that would happen on these walks is that he’d find money. Or rather, he’d direct me to find money.

We’d walk along the sidewalk, and he’d point to the gutter: “Danny, there’s a dollar bill. Go get it.” “Danny, there’s a fifty-cent piece. Pick it up.” “Danny, is that a quarter by the storm drain? It’s yours.”

I was always in disbelief. The guy’s luck was incredible.

In my teen years, I caught on: Pop planted those bills. On the walk to the bakery, he’d surreptitiously drop a bill here and a coin there. So that on the walk from the bakery, I’d reap the benefits. But those were teenage sensibilities, brought on by a relationship that had developed beyond the Pop-pop stage and onto the Pop stage. In the realm of Pop-pop, he was as mystical and magical as any storybook creation.

Butter cake. I remember huge family discussions revolving around the Leuschner Dutch Oven Bakery’s butter cake. We would be in the store, me with my nose pressed up on the glass, selecting cream donuts, coconut donuts, chocolate-sprinkled donuts. And Pop would ask: “What about a butter cake? Should we get one for dessert for dinner tonight.”

“I don’t know, Pop-pop. We had one last night…”

“Yeah, wasn’t it delicious?” And to the counter girl serving us: “Throw a butter cake into that bag, why don’tcha?”

And after we returned home, Mom or Dad would inspect the booty. “Another butter cake?”

Pop beamed: “Ooh, that counter-girl. I told her not to put one in our bag! Danny, how did the counter-girl screw up our order again?” He would nudge me conspiratorially.

“I don’t know, Pop-pop…”

“Oh, I remember,” he said. “Butter cake was free today with any purchase,” he lied.

Many evening meals at our beach bungalow of my boyhood ended with butter cake.

Pop’s ability to find loose change and dollar bills (the ones he didn’t plant for the benefit of his grandson) was legendary. And during one trip to the boardwalk, it backfired on him.

Pop was walking with us on the boards, taking in the cool ocean breezes and engaging in some window-shopping. He was loosely holding my hand, when he happened to note a dollar bill stuck to one of the boards.

“Look at that! I found a—” His crow at his good fortune was interrupted by a quick, shrill whistle from a group of teenagers leaning innocently against the boardwalk railing. And in a z-z-zip that lasted only a blink, the bill disappeared into a crack between boards, just seconds before Pop could snag it.

The teens exploded in laughter.

Pop knew he had been victimized by a practical joke, and he chuckled confusedly, but his curiosity compelled him to find out exactly how he’d been bamboozled. He walked over to the teens, only to find a second crew emerging from beneath the boards—one of them with a dollar bill in hand.

He then made the necessary connections to figure out how he had been scammed: The undercover crew pushed the bill up in the slit between two boards and held it there. The above-ground pranksters watched for an innocent victim. Just when the bill was within reach, a warning whistle would issue forth, cueing the bill-holder to quickly pull the bait back to safety. The mark was left to quizzically wonder how his luck had escaped right before his eyes.

Once Pop was in on the trick, he stood there for quite a while after, watching other rubes fall for the sleight-of-hand and doubling over, with the teens, as the bill disappeared time after time.

He loved a good joke, especially a practical joke, and never so more than when it was on him!

I learned so much from my Pop-pop. How to laugh. How to tell stories. How to look for money in the gutter. How to love butter cake.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Falling in Love with the Dark

I love the movies.

Despite the annoyances that have plagued the movie-going experience, from the sticky floors and shredded seats of the 1970s to today's cell-phone-addicted teens--I still enjoy going to the movie theater to watch a movie.

It's the whole shared experience thing: Comedies are funnier in a crowd, even a crowd of strangers, where laughter can spread epidemically. Tear-jerkers are sadder in a community setting. Adventure tales are more rousing. Cartoons are brighter. It's all better in a theater.

My love of the movies can be traced--you guessed it--to when I was a kid.

My birthday is in December. Two days after Christmas, in fact. And that calendaric curse made it difficult for my parents to keep up with presents; after all, if Santa has just brought your heart's desire on December 25, what's left for December 27?

So they happened on the idea of turning my birthday into a chance to see a big-screen movie, downtown, in the mammoth movie palaces that were still hanging on (often by a thread) in the mid- to late-1960s. We would drive to the city, park the car, and wend our way into the theater. Afterward, we went out to eat, which was a major event because my frugal mother had a severe anti-restaurant bias, meaning that if she had invested the funds to keep our cupboards stocked at home, she saw no real reason to eat out.

All of which made my birthday a very big deal. Exactly the point.

My recollection of these experiences is that we always entered with the movie in medias res. Our selected feature had already started. We'd sit, the five of us, in the dark and try to catch up on the plot, but considering the epic was usually the latest animated gem from the Disney Studios, it wasn't that tough to figure out.

Why the movie was already in progress when we entered is a mystery to me. I used to think that movies back then were on a continuous-run schedule, playing on an endless loop through which audiences cycled every two hours or so.

The only other alternative is that we were late, but I'm discounting that explanation. Dad, an ex-Navy man, was never late for anything.

Regardless, we'd sit in front of a massive screen and give ourselves over to the color and whimsy and magic.

But when the film ended, I can remember complaining that we'd missed the beginning. And so we would beg Mom: "Can we stay 'til we came in?" Translation: can we watch from the opening credits to the point where we had entered and sat?

And the answer was a uniform yes. But once we reached that point, there was always a hushed discussion in the dark about whether we could stay beyond that point.

And in that begging and pleading, I remember the answer usually being a yes as well.

So I believe that is why a lot of the details of those films live so large in my memory: I saw them not once, but really, one and a half times.

The impact of this exposure didn't really make itself known to me until years later, when the era of videocassettes dawned and, as parents, we were treating our own kids to the animated Disney classics we had grown up on ourselves. In a viewing of The Jungle Book, I found myself quoting dialog, verbatim, that I hadn't heard since its original release in 1968. But that 1.5x through the film as a six year old apparently etched the details on my brain.

We had a local neighborhood theater, The Waverly, which was close enough to our home that the distance was walkable. I was a frequent attendee at The Waverly. Its better days were long behind it, but it still, as I recall, had a grand chandelier and an impressively wide screen, albeit stained here and there and bearing a hole or two from a raucously tossed Jujubee.

The Waverly still went through the motions of big-time movie presentations of its forebears, as the management continued to post lobby cards outside the box office. We would stare at these with wild anticipation of the mysteries they represented to unfold inside, and on the way out, they were one final reminder of the eye-popping stories we had beheld.

Dad loved movies. He was a big comedy fan, and would shake the house with his laughter when our TV stations ran the short films of W.C. Fields, the Pink Panther anthology, or the mega-farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Mom loved musicals, be they the sappy boy-meets-girl fare of the 1940s or the Broadway adaptations like The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady.

I remember watching retrospectives with them, chronicling movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and I was amazed that they could rattle of stars and roles without hesitation. Mom was an ace in ID'ing the particulars of the clips in That's Entertainment, and she'd call out names I'd never even heard of: Ann Miller, Rudy Vallee, John Gavin, Cyd Charisse.

Wanting to emulate their expertise, I decided to go to school on these people and their roles, and I began working my way through various filmographies, scanning the TV pages for a musical or a drama that I'd never seen before.

I remember having seen the infamous dance sequence Gene Kelly does in Singin in the Rain, tapping his way through a downpour, but I had never seen the entire film. Until our local PBS station ran it as part of a fundraising event. They ran Singin in the Rain at least a dozen times during that pledge drive, and I was drawn to every showing. I was amazed that the movie was so much more than one classic sequence; the entire film was a gem!

I took that experience and ran with it, discovering that Gone with the Wind, for example, was so much more than "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." And that Fantasia had a whole lot more to offer than just dancing mushrooms. And that Casablanca was full of great scenes, not just the one involving "As Time Goes By."

I ate up entire genres. Courtroom dramas, where Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind came into my consciousness. Westerns, where John Wayne in Rio Bravo leapt to the top of my favorites list. Hitchcock. Abbott and Costello. Fred Astaire. Cary Grant. Audrey Hepburn. Orson Welles. Robert Wise. Boris Karloff. Frank Capra. Their gifts and talents were all opened up to me.

I also started to gain appreciation for the current giants in the industry. I was 12 when a summer blockbuster--a little fish story called Jaws--took the country by storm. I was declared too young to see it, but my elder brothers were allowed, and I remember them emerging, shaken, from the theater at the Jersey shore (!) where they had braved the tale. The following December, I was finally taken to see Jaws by my parents, when it reached the $1 movies. I loved it and screamed along with the rest of the audience, even though the frosty temperatures outside made the possibility of being involved in a wayward shark attack quite distant. Dad laughed through the entire film, calling it "A rip off of Moby Dick."

Which I then put on my t0-see list.

The following year, we had Star Wars, and my 13-year-old self had never beheld such an engaging spectacle. I joined the legions of fans in line to view this space opera again and again, jumping to my feet and cheering the heroes at the destruction of the Death Star.

I'm fairly willing to say that that kind of phenomenon is virtually lost in the movies today. My Dad used to tell the story of seeing The Wizard of Oz upon its initial release, and he tried to explain the Aaa's that accompanied the transformation of  black and white Kansas to Technicolor Oz, but it never quite translated. 

The same goes for me as I try to explain the wonder and awe associated with the first episode of Star Wars on the summer screens of 1977. Today's audiences, who can watch blockbusters on their cell phone screens while waiting in line at the supermarket, just don't seem to get it.

The movies have changed a lot since then. IMAX brings back some of the jaw-dropping scope of those mega-hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s (I was scared to death at the tidal  wave in The Poseidon Adventure, sure that the tsunami was going to come right off the screen and sweep me away). And the latest edition of the 3D craze continues to prove that everything old is new again, especially in Hollywood.

And certainly the convenience of DVDs makes it possible to see many a long-forgotten treasure at home, in pristine condition, saved from oblivion by cutting-edge technology.

But how fun it would be to walk once more to The Waverly. Enter its doors and feel that rush of air-cooled luxury, especially appreciated after walking there on a scorching summer afternoon. A pause at the lobby cards to preview today's attraction. A schlump down into a comfortable seat. And wait for it... wait for it.... wait for it.... There it is: The lights are starting to dim and that football-field-sized velvet curtain is parting in the middle.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Confession: I Am a Scrabble-holic

I am addicted to Scrabble.

There, I've said it.

But I have a defense: I was indoctrinated into its world at a very young age.

My "enabler" into the realm of Double Letter Scores and Triple Word Scores was my mother, who also adored the game.

The problem was that until I came along and was old enough to play, she had no opponents. And this was long before an App could be downloaded to a phone to play with total strangers.

Scrabble was supposed to be a diversion for my mother and my father. Dad loved crossword puzzles (side note: he swept me into that obsession, and now each week, I attack the New York Times puzzle with abandon). Mom loved word games. And so Scrabble was supposed to be the common ground on which they met and competed.

Except that Dad hated Scrabble. He had no patience for it. Waiting an interminable amount of time for an opponent to toss down a few lettered tiles and tot up the score was the very definition of boredom to him.

So the Scrabble set that Mom purchased for him one Christmas early in their marriage was banished to the top shelf in our living room, where it lived--still with a Christmas to/from tag taped to the corner--with the orphaned mittens and the American Flags we only got out once a year on July 04.

Until the kids came along. Mom tried to interest my brothers in the game, but they had no stomach for it, either.

But with me, it caught fire. I think probably because I was more of an avid reader than they were.

Mom started small: We would play Scrabble Junior, where the words were predetermined on the board, and all that was required was to lay down the tiles in order. I remember them being about the size of flooring tiles, so when one spelled A-I-R-P-L-A-N-E, the resulting string of tiles was about the length of an actual jumbo jet.

But before long, she migrated me to "real" Scrabble. No funny pictures. No cutesy tiles. This was the real wooden racks and the faintly moldy-smelling cardboard board. I also remember that close by, Mom always had a gigantic dictionary--the one we used to prop up small kids (me!) at the Thanksgiving table to get them to the proper eating height. Many a potential war was settled by that book.

I don't really remember much detail of my time as a fledgling Scrabble player. It seems like I was born knowing how to play. But I'm guessing Mom started rather small. Bunch of two- and three-letter words.

And lots of help along the way.

To assist in play (and, as an ancillary benefit, to build vocabulary), we were allowed to "shop." The rules of shop were that I could sift through the dictionary and try to find playable words that coordinated with the tiles in my rack and the plays on the board. Mom did say that this activity was to be done in a reasonable amount of time, most often as she considered her own turn, so as to speed play along.

I probably shopped quite a lot.

I also learned quite a lot.

I know it expanded my vocabulary. And improved my spelling. And as I got better verbally, Mom threw another gauntlet down: I then had to keep score on a little score pad. So as an offshoot of play, my math skills were getting better, too.

I have such fond memories of this. During the summers, we would wile away the roasty afternoons (we had no air conditioner) in the living room, splayed out on the floor with a box fan stirring the humid air. Often, records were on the stereo, providing accompaniment to our battle of the words. And I well remember window-rattling thunderstorms coming through late on those afternoons, trying to break the grip of heat and humidity that threatened to strangle us.

Through it all, we'd click tiles, re-arrange racks, compliment each other on good plays, argue like dogs over controversial ones, and gloat over wins.

I also played upside-down. The spinning of the board through each turn was a logistical nightmare that usually resulted in scrambled tiles all over the board. So I decided to skip it. I had already developed the talent to be able to read upside-down; playing Scrabble upside-down was not much more of a challenge.

Over the years, as I improved, I eventually became skillful enough to beat my mother at Scrabble. She was a good sport about it, but in response, there were some modifications on our house rules. Initially, my shopping trips were limited to two per game. Then it became one per game. And then the boom was lowered: No more shopping.

My win/loss rate dipped somewhat with these additional challenges, but eventually, it started to climb again. Before long, I was beating her on a regular basis.

We then decided to make things more interesting. We'd subtract winner's score from loser's score and play for a penny a point in the difference. Pay up was at Christmastime, when it was presumed that the victor could use an extra buck or two. I remember Mom's debt rising to $20 or so and thoroughly enjoying the payoffs.

Mom played with her sisters, too. And my Aunt Jean (a family friend, not really an aunt) who Mom always characterized as a Scrabble whiz. To her glee, in a very high-stakes match (there was pride on the line), Mom beat Aunt Jean handily, probably because she had sharpened her own skills in the process of sharpening mine. 

One Christmas, I bought Mom the Delux Scrabble set. Oh, we were living the high-life then. The board had small indentations on each square, meaning that once a tile was placed, the likelihood of it being accidentally jarred out of place was reduced considerably. It also rotated, meaning that I no longer had to play upside-down. Didn't matter. I was so accustomed to it by then that I continued the habit.

I miss playing Scrabble with Mom.

She's gone, now. Even before the ravages of dementia took her life, they took her Scrabble skills. Just as they would eventually take every other skill from her. Such a waste. And so tragically sad.

But as I continue to play (on my Kindle, most often, for alas, I've been unable to interest any of my own clan in Scrabble), I can still hear her in my head, extolling the value in being able to rattle off two-letter words beginning with "e":

Eh, El, Em, En, Ex

And the joy of a word like qadi (a Muslim community) to use in the dire situation of having a "q" with no "u."

If heaven has box fans and stereo systems and rainy afternoons, I hope that one day I can look across a crossword-style board at a display of words that will never be used in ever day conversation and see her lying on her stomach, up on her elbows, chin in hand, legs crossed behind her, considering her next move.

That would be a D-E-L-I-G-H-T.

Which, on a Triple Word Score would equal 86 points (delight = 12; x 3 for the triple word is 36; + 50 for a seven-tile Bingo bonus = 86).