Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's Beginning to Look - Faintly - Like Christmas

It’s beginning to look – faintly – like Christmas. Faintly, because in my hometown downtown and throughout most of my neighborhood, people whose hearts are brimming with holiday cheer and environmental responsibility are stringing energy efficient, low-wattage, LED Christmas lights in an attempt to demonstrate both their seasonal spirit and their social conscience.

It wasn’t like that when we were growing up Downriver. About half the warmth we felt during the holiday season was from the love of family and friends; the other half was generated by the Christmas lights that decorated our homes inside and out!

Big bulbs – maybe 10 or 15 watts - and they were bright. So bright that we had to squint when we looked at our Christmas tree, or drove downtown with mom and dad to ooooh and aaaah at the light display. And they were hot. My favorites – Bubble-Lites – were hot enough to, well, boil the stuff inside them that made the bubbles!

Current social standards would label the lights we grew up loving as “dangerous” and “irresponsible.”

Dangerous? Well, a couple generations before we were kids, families were lighting their living room Christmas trees with candles; so, I call our lights a big improvement in home safety.

Irresponsible? OK, really, how much fossil fuel did we actually squander between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day back in the 50s and 60s? Don’t try to tell me that today’s Global Warming crisis began when I was a kid, in Riverview, helping dad string Noma outdoor lights (equipped with “Safety Plug” technology!) through the bushes in front of our house on Hinton.

I know … I have to accept that times have changed. The only place I can find the lights we grew up with is eBay, and maybe the Henry Ford Museum. So, I’ll take my kids downtown one evening this week to uuuuh and aaaah at the light display.

Uuuuh and aaaah?!”

Yep – I’ll say, “uuuuh, I think they’re lit, kids …” and then “… aaaah, there they are!” when our eyes adjust enough to the darkness to be able to make them out.

This season, may your days be merry and bright!

Bubble-Lites were my favorite - hot enough to boil the stuff inside!

Dad strung Noma outdoor lights in the bushes out front; my job - check the bulbs.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Remembering Jerry and his "Kids"

When you walk through a storm,
Hold your head up high,
And don’t be afraid of the dark.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon, hosted by Jerry Lewis has been a part of our Labor Days for all our lives – literally. Jerry hosted the first (aired locally in New York) in 1952. In 1966, the event went national and became a part of our culture.

For 19 hours, starting Sunday evening and running through the night, Jerry hosted a cast of singers, comics, actors and some “celebrities” who were pretty much just the previous generation’s Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians; all focused on raising funds for MDA, and reminding viewers to “call the number on your screen.”

I remember dad stopping to watch comedian Jack Carter, who he (for some reason) thought was “… full of real knee-slappers!” Mom always found time to dreamily watch Tony Orlando sing. Dad would grumble that Orlando “needed a haircut” – while ogling Tony’s back-ups, “Dawn,” of course.

My brother and I would sometimes sneak out of bed in the middle of the night (really, early Labor Day morning), quietly slip into the living room and turn on the TV, with the volume low, just to experience the wonder of something actually on TV at that hour. Remember, that was long before 24/7 cable and satellite networks; when after midnight you only found a test pattern, or static.

As kids, MDA was close to our hearts earlier in the summer, too. We’d send away for an MDA “Backyard Carnival Kit” and create a midway full of games built from corrugated cardboard boxes and featuring refreshments like Mrs. Podolack’s chocolate chip cookies and homemade lemonade with not quite enough sugar. Our motivation was somewhat self-centered, though. We really just wanted to be some of the kids invited to appear on the local broadcast, proudly showing the bucket of money we’d raised for “Jerry’s Kids” and being invited by Sir Graves Ghastly to dramatically dump our donation into the fish tank full of cash. Never happened.

Maybe it was a reflection of the economic level of the neighborhood where we grew up in Riverview, but we never raised more than a few bucks, which we just put into an envelope and mailed to the MDA P.O. Box. A few weeks later, we always got a “thank you” note from Jerry Lewis himself, complete with a printed facsimile of his signature.

For us, the Labor Day Telethon wasn’t so much a part of the holiday, as it was a holiday within a holiday. Everything would come to a stop near 6 p.m., when Jerry would call for “… the final total …” I mean everything; grilling, street baseball, even card games on the porch, just stopped. We all collectively held our breath, along with Jerry, waiting for that magical number. And when the digits appeared – six, and sometimes seven, of them; Jerry would sigh and we’d all get a lump in our throats.

Then the strains of that familiar closing melody would begin … mom would shed a few happy tears, dad would say something like “… that man’s a saint,” and we’d watch Jerry take a seat on a stool, center stage and hoarsely sing;
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone.
You’ll never walk alone.

Well, times change. This year, the MDA Telethon is a six-hour event, and it’s not even on Labor Day, it runs from 6 p.m. ‘til midnight on Sunday. And Jerry’s not a part of it. I’ve read various reasons – Jerry, in his mid-80s, decided to “retire,” or MDA decided to “go in a different direction.” Ultimately, the reason doesn’t really matter. Fact is another part of our past has, well … passed.

Nonetheless, we’ll still take care of “Jerry’s Kids” (Which they will always be to us, right?); and thanks to the legacy of caring and giving that Jerry provided to our generation, we’ll never walk alone.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” 1945 – Rogers and Hammerstein

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Miss Just Getting Hurt

I miss getting hurt, instead of just hurting all the time. When we were kids, growing up Downriver, getting hurt and “healing up” was a natural, and practically never-ending, cycle. We’d skin our knees and they’d heal. We’d take a tumble from our bikes and the bruises would fade. Even playing sandlot baseball at Memorial Park, or street football (“Car!”) on Hinton, we’d twist an ankle or over-extend a muscle and in a day or two – if not just hours – we’d be as good as new.
Not so now. Seems now, I hurt all the time; and there’s darn little “healing up” that seems to take place anymore. My left shoulder has a permanent twinge, my right hand and wrist are forever numb from repetitive strain, and my right hip is a virtual weather station – sharp pain means rain’s coming, dull pain means, well, that I’m getting old.
One of my favorite Little Golden Books, “Doctor Dan the Bandage Man” (which still sits on my bookshelf), celebrated our ability to recover from those scrapes and bumps.
When Dan cut his finger playing cowboys with his pals in the yard, he ran crying into the house, “Why, that’s nothing to cry over,” Mother said when she saw the bright red spot. “We’ll wash it clean with soap and water, and bandage it up and it will be better than new.” And quick as a wink, it was. Yeah, 50 years ago, that was all of us too.
Over the past 10 days, I’m convinced that I’ve shoveled more snow than I’ve shoveled throughout the rest of my adult life cumulatively. And I have the aches and strains to prove it – and I expect to feel them until they’re replaced by the aches and strains brought on by my first round of spring yard chores.
In the closing pages of “Doctor Dan the Bandage Man,” Daddy is home from work on a Saturday, mowing the lawn, when he cuts his finger. Dan, learning a lesson from Mother, springs to action.
“Let me fix you up,” said Dan. “I know what to do. We’ll wash your finger clean and bandage it up and it will be better than new.”
“You’re a handy fellow to have around,” said Dad. And he shook Dan’s hand. “I have a new name for you. We’ll call you Doctor Dan, the Bandage Man.”
Well, Doctor Dan may have taken care of Dad’s scratch, but what that classic Little Golden Book didn’t warn us about was that Dad’s lower back pain was there to stay.
"Doctor Dan the Bandage Man" is a Little Golden Book, by Helen Gaspard; with illustrations by Corine Malvern. It was published by Simon and Schuster in 1950.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Everywhere you go,
Take a look in the five-and-ten, glistening once again,
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.

– Robert Meredith Willson

My favorite “five and ten” was Woolworth’s. It, like so many familiar places Downriver, used to transform at this time of year into a Christmas wonderland. Cotton snow trimmed the display cases, sometimes accented with sparkly silver dust that clung to our wool mittens much better than it did to the cotton snow. Woolworth’s was where Mom and Dad bought our Christmas staples – spare colored bulbs, replacement bubble lights, and pounds and pounds of lead tinsel to hang on our Christmas tree. It’s amazing that our generation ever amounted to anything, considering the amount of lead we must have absorbed through our fingertips each Yuletide season.

While the transformation of Woolworth’s was dramatic; it was the transformation of the most unlikely places that I remember – and miss – the most.

The National Supermarket was, most of the year, my least favorite destination. After Thanksgiving, however, my pals and I begged to go along with our parents on grocery shopping trips. We wandered along the dairy and frozen food cases, with our necks stretched and contorted as we stared upward in awe at the array of toys by long-gone American toymakers like Deluxe, Topper and Ideal displayed high above us on the supermarket top shelves. Jimmy Jets, Playmobiles, Battlewagons and Secret Sam Spy Cases topped our Christmas lists.

Even Clay’s Sinclair Station reflected a little North Pole d├ęcor with its evergreen rope hung in the windows and wound around the sign pole out front, accented by red bows and berries. And, in addition to S&H Green Stamps, Dad used to get a free Christmas ornament with every fill-up between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I remember driving home, cradling one of those little glass treasures in my palms and thinking such a beautiful piece of artistry must have come directly from Santa’s workshop.

Woolworth’s is a retail history footnote, the only toys in supermarkets now are related to gourmet cooking, and “Holiday Countdown” instant lottery tickets are the most festive item we’ll find at our local gas stations.

A lot has changed about Christmastime Downriver since those magical seasons of our childhoods. But some things – the really important ones – maybe not so much as it seems.

My family and I will be bringing down Christmas decorations from the attic soon, and I know that at the very bottom of a boxed marked “ornaments,” wrapped in tissue paper and an old yellowed sheet of newspaper, is a small, faded glass ornament that I held in my hands on a drive home from Clay’s more than 50 years ago. It long ago lost all its sparkles and its shine, but when I hang it on my tree, it’ll be looking a lot like Christmas – in my home and in my heart.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fill ‘er Up – with Memories

I stopped at a local gas station last Saturday morning with my two daughters – the oldest driving, thanks to her newly-issued permit. She slipped from behind the wheel and headed into the gas station/convenience store with her sister – the same one we’ve been going to since they were both in car seats – in search of their usual gas station fare; a bottle of pop, a snack, and maybe a pack of gum for later.

As I watched them go in, and began pumping gas, my memories carried me up the road several miles and back in time several decades – to Clay’s Sinclair Station.

Clay ran the place with his “boys,” and it was a regular stop for my dad and me at least a couple of times a week. I don’t remember Clay’s last name. Don’t know that I ever knew it, really – same for the names of his “boys.” There were two of them, and teamed with their dad, they were like a pit crew to every neighborhood car that stopped to gas-up. That’s what dad always called it. We never “stopped for gas,” or “went to get gas,” we always stopped to “gas-up.”

Before the engine of dad’s ’55 Chevy sputtered to a full stop, one of the boys always had the hood up to check the oil and water; and the other set the pump and washed the windshield. Clay’s job was, my dad always said, to “… chew the fat with the paying customers.” In the few minutes it took the boys to tend to the Chevy, he and dad caught up with all the local sports, shared stories about working for a living, and managed a couple of comments each about “the old ball-and-chain.”

Clay’s wasn’t a place to get snacks or gum; although there was an old Coke machine out front that dispensed those little 7 ounce bottles of pop for a nickel – but only part of the year, because in the winter it was unplugged and emptied, so the pop wouldn’t freeze. And, now that I think about it, you could get gum – but it was from a penny gumball machine put there by the local Rotary Club.

Clay’s was the place you went for gas, oil, and “good used tires,” and “reliable batteries” – as the sign in the window promised. And there were some bonuses, too – S&H Green Stamps and, once in a while, “special edition drinking glasses” – one free with each fill-up of 10 gallons or more.

I was snapped back to the present by the “thunk” of the gas pump stopping and by the voices of my daughters – they brought me a Diet Mountain Dew – urging me to hurry up, so we could get going to where ever it was that was so urgent for them to get that morning.

I hung the nozzle back on the pump, screwed on the gas cap, took the receipt from the slot, and made my way around my car – to the passenger door – as my daughter started the engine.

While it sometimes seems that things have changed so much, it’s really not the case, you know? Clay’s Sinclair Station, and everything about it, may be just a memory from my childhood; but I realized that I was doing exactly what my dad and I did on all those Saturday mornings Downriver for so many years – making little everyday memories that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Remember when 'Trick or Treat' MEANT 'Trick or Treat'?

Halloween isn’t a big deal to my kids. Halloween parties are. Each of my daughters is going to two parties, and they’re hosting one jointly at home.

Heck, back when we were growing up Downriver, in the ‘60s, Halloween WAS a party! A one-night street party that stretched for blocks in every direction – just for us kids. We ruled that night – one of the few we were allowed out past the full illumination of the street lights – dashing from one front door to another, shouting “Trick or Treat!” while trembling adults with bowls of sweets huddled behind closed doors, ready to offer us treats as tribute to escape our dreaded trickery!

Ahhh … and there was trickery for those who failed to provide us treats. Awful, sometimes unimaginable horrors … soap (yes, I said soap!) on screen doors, overturned trash cans – their contents spilled like entrails, and, in the most horrid of cases, eggs on aluminum siding!

Yes, devils we were, when our sugar hunger was not fed!

My kids and their friends make a short, token outing on Halloween night. I guess it’s all they can manage after two nights of partying. They lethargically wander from door to door and they knock – yes, knock – or worse, they ring a doorbell, and only when someone appears at the door do they offer a feeble, half-mumbled “trick or treat” – knowing full well that they’re getting a treat, and the adult at the door knowing full well that the kids are standing there without a single trick up their sleeves to back up their unconvincing ultimatum.

So, friends, when lethargic trick-or-treaters like my kids and their friends show up at your door on Sunday night, toss them a treat; but when you do, remember what it was like for us all those years ago … adrenaline driving us from door to door through the darkness in our Ben Cooper costumes, sweat collecting under our plastic masks, and treat yourself to a few Kit Kat bars.

And, before your sugar buzz subsides, run outside under the cover of darkness and soap that cranky neighbor’s screen door!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tramps Like Us, Baby We Were Born to … WHAT?!

Dion and the Belmonts convinced the guys and me that we could grow up to be "Wanderers."

When the guys and I were growing up Downriver back in the 1960s, none of us really had to think about what we were going to do when we grew up. Well, that’s not completely true. Some of us thought about being the next Bart Starr or Rocky Colavito, and one of us thought about being the next Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, but that was dream stuff. Year after year, what we were going to actually do was vaguely shaped by our favorite singers, at each stage of our lives.
As kids, Dion encouraged us to be Wanderers. Hey, what 12 year old guy couldn’t identify with a lifestyle that would let him “… roam from town to town, goin’ through life without a care … with my two fists of iron, and I’m goin’ nowhere …”
Yeah! We wanted to be Wanderers and roam around, around, around, around … 
Then, as teens, Bob Seger convinced us that we could be a “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and his lyrics sounded like they were written with us guys in mind. “Ain’t good lookin’, but ya’ know I ain’t shy, ain’t afraid to look a girl in the eye …”
Well, maybe we couldn’t actually look a girl directly in the eye, but they knew we were lookin’ at ‘em! And it was the chorus that summed up the life we were going to lead anyway, “… Then I got to ramble, ramblin’ man; Lord I got to gamble, gamblin’ man …” 
As young men, just beginning to find our place in the world, Bruce Springsteen provided our theme song and the soundtrack to our restless years when he sang, “… Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap, a suicide rap … we gotta’ get out while we’re young, ‘cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run!”
Turns out, most of us really were born to run. Born to run a stamping press, or a hi-lo, or a cash register, or even a laptop computer; right in that town that threaten to “… rip the bones” from our collective backs. We also were born to give bike riding lessons and help with homework, and say “you’re right dear,” to our spouses – even when we have no idea what we’re wrong about. 
So where are Dion and Bob and Bruce now? I guess there’s no commercial appeal for songs about what we’ve actually become! Well, Neven, Joe, Fred, Larry, Mark – all the would-be Wanderers, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Men – all the Downriver tramps like us – here’s at least one verse we can call our own …
"Baby this life rips the pay from our grasp,
It’s a debt trap, a suicide lap
We gotta’ hang on as long as we can,
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to … pay the mortgage!"