Memory Lane: ‘Soldier Boy’

Something, some spirit, called up this song from deep in my memory–a vision of a summer day, and a trip to the shore with my grandparents (it would be my introduction to surf-fishing)… with Soldier Boy, by The Shirelles, playing on the car radio. And oh, how I wanted to be back there again!

I grew up in a world of men and women. Now it’s a world dominated by freaks and villains who deny there ever was a past. Nothing good existed until they came along!

I can at least get back for two minutes or so. All aboard for the Jersey Shore, 1962.

Willie Mays Forever!

Belay the nooze, enough’s enough! I’m going to write about something that has always made me happy, and hopefully give you some pleasure, too.

“Unknowable” and I were chatting about celebrity, hero worship, and idolatry–they’re all related, aren’t they?–and I brought up the subject of… Willie Mays. To me, the greatest athlete that I ever saw.

Among other things, Willie was famous for this one play during the 1954 World Series. I was five years old. Anyhow, they were playing at the old Polo Grounds, where center field was about the size of a Jersey township, and Vic Wertz smashed a screaming fly ball to the deepest part of center field. A real moon shot. At this point, let the video speak for itself.

Willie lit up my childhood. He was my hero. But y’know what? I never felt the urge to delve into his personal life. I have made a conscious choice to remember him solely for the things I saw him do on the ballfield; and those are things that still give me deep aesthetic pleasure 67 years later. I think it’s the same kind of pleasure art lovers get, or music lovers, from their favorite masterpieces. Willie Mays in center field was the baseball equivalent of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Yeah! Sitting on the floor in our sitting room, playing with my grandpa’s blocks that he handed down to me, while my mother did the ironing while watching the Giants’ game on TV. That’s a memory that gives me joy!

Baseball isn’t what it was, not by a long shot; I no longer care for it. But I do care for my memories: and for a good few of those I say, “Thanks, Willie!”

Memory Lane: ‘Death Valley Days’

I just loved the opening theme of Death Valley Days–that haunting bugle solo. And there was something evocative in that distant view of the 20-mule team.

And then, of course, Rosemary DeCamp would come on with another ad for 20-Mule Team Borax, whatever that was, and the spell would be broken.

Death Valley Days first aired in 1952 and ran to 1970. In 1964-65 future President Ronald Reagan was the host (he quit to run for governor of California, which he eventually achieved).

Memory Lane: Favorite Board Games

The Value of Board Games – WOW! Children's Museum

We didn’t have hi-tech fancy electronic videos back in the Bronze Age, but we did have board games. And with summer waning, my friends and I knew it was time to dust off our favorite games. (I’m not counting Monopoly or chess, because we played those all year round.)

My cousins had Clue. “Col. Mustard in the Kitchen with the Candlestick!” I think the first game we learned to play was Chutes and Ladders. Look at the picture–there’s Stratego. You love it when they blow themselves up on the hidden mines, trying to capture your flag.

Candy Land. Sorry. Pachesi. Mille Bournes (oh, yeah!). Settlers of Catan (for adults). Go to the Head of the Class (did any of you ever play that?).

I’d love to hear what your favorite board games were–or are. They come in mighty handy when the weather’s not cooperating.

But I suspect that to enjoy them properly, you have to not have a cell phone.

High School Chemistry and Me

High School Students Doing Chemistry Lab Experiment Stock Photo - Download  Image Now - iStock

I don’t know why they made me take chemistry in junior high and high school. I never got it. Never came anywhere close to getting it.

High school chemistry was worse. Because I had done so well on other subjects that had absolutely nothing to do with chemistry, I was rewarded by being placed, the next year, in the advanced chemistry class! Along with kids who built their own computers. You got an extra grade point just for being there, so all my F’s were transformed into D’s. Can you give me hallelujah?

And at the end of the year, the dreaded Lab Final. It counted for half your grade. And it was do or die. Mr. Dennison handed each of us a small sample of an unknown substance, and we had two hours to identify it. If you were right, you got an A on the final. If you were wrong… bye-bye.

Now, I had no way to go about identifying the tiny bit of white powder that had been doled out to me. Confectioner’s sugar? Baking powder? Itching powder? How the hell do I know? You were supposed to subject the material to various laboratory tests–but I couldn’t remember how to do any of those tests, or what they meant, etc. etc.

Oh! Wait! I remembered one single thing from eighth grade chemistry! Just one. “This is the flame test for sodium,” I remember Mr. Buckelew saying. It was the only freakin’ thing I remembered in two whole years of chemistry. It didn’t even rise to being a lucky guess.

So I performed the flame test for Sodium. Waddaya know?? That’s what it was! Sodium fugazi or something. I wrote it down and handed it in. Only ten minutes had gone by since the exam started.

You should’ve seen the look the teacher gave me when he saw my correct answer scrawled across the page. He knew I didn’t know! And now I’d ruined his whole testing regimen. His format hadn’t accounted for a lucky guess by an almost total ignoramus.

But I walked out with a passing grade in chemistry!

And never went anywhere near it ever again.

They Came Out in the Rain

Eastern Box Turtle Care Sheet - Reptiles Magazine

It’s raining today–a quiet, steady rain–and it brings me back to a vivid memory of my childhood.

We lived right next door to the woods, and sometimes when it rained, box turtles would come out of the woods and parade across our back yard. Because I was such a little child, I remember them as being eye-poppingly large turtles.

We had a screened-in back porch, with a glider. My mother liked to read out there on rainy days. And I remember her calling excitedly, “Oh, come and look! Come and see the turtles!”

And there they’d be, strolling across our back yard in the rain. Usually three or them at once. We thought they must be a family; but box turtles don’t live in family groups. It was just a few turtles doing the same thing.

Where were they going, and why? Was it always the same couple of turtles? Our little woods was rich in wildlife. My friend and I once saw a huge enormous horned owl who scared us silly. And with all the wild blackberry patches, there were always plenty of turtles.

It hardly needs to be said that the lovely little woodland, with its turtles and blackberries, has been erased by developers and politicians who say They Protect The Planet and Look Out For The Public Interest by enriching themselves and screwing everybody else.

But it was a beautiful world, the way God made it.

Memory Lane: “Clothe the Animals”

In 1959 a kooky character called “G. Clifford Prout” appeared on the Today Show to launch his “Clothe the Animals” campaign (

It was a hoax engineered by an inveterate hoaxster, Alan Abel. Nevertheless, some 50,000 Americans signed up to support his phony campaign.

What does that tell us about our national credulity quotient? Or did a lot of those people sign up just to be part of the gag?

At any rate, we had some laughs about it on the playground.

I’m afraid our populace has grown a bit more daft since then.


‘Memory Lane: A Sound of Summer, 1960’

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All this, and Mel Allen in the broadcast booth!

“Hey, getcha cold beer!” How many times did I hear that, growing up?

Memory Lane: A Sound of Summer, 1960

Daytime baseball, New York Yankee games brought to you by Ballantine Beer, brewed right here in New Jersey. And next door on the ballfield, the crack of the bat. I love that sound! Another memory: standing outside the fence, watching the batter–and discovering that he hits the ball before I hear the crack. Kind of a physic lesson.

It was great to be 12 years old in 1960!

Memory Lane: Geography Lessons

1950s World map vintage world travel map wall map school map. $19.95, via  Etsy. | Wall maps, World map, Travel maps

Out sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Thomas, used to teach us geography by handing out lists of places that we never heard of, which we were to locate on a map and write some general description of where they were.

I found Tannu Tuva right away, knowing from my stamp collecting album that it nestled somewhere on top of Mongolia. But Heligoland? Where the dickens was Heligoland? No one could find it! We began to suspect Mr. Thomas of introducing made-up fictional places into the list.

But no–he hadn’t done that. Heligoland turned out to be a real place: an island in–yup!–the Heligoland Bight. Which connects with the North Sea. I very much doubt there’s anybody who was in that class who has forgotten where Heligoland is.

This exercise kind of grew on me. I came to take pleasure in exotic names of faraway places. My friends marveled at my knowledge of capital cities (“How the heck did he know the capital of Malta?”). All this stuff, all over the world. Salt deserts of Persia. Tien Shan Mountains. Great Slave Lake. Elephant Island. The White Sea.

How cool is all this stuff? Maps still fascinate me.

But I think I’m talking about a bygone time.

Sanity Break: Old-Fashioned Natural History

The Golden Treasury of Natural History by Bertha Morris Parker: Very Good  Hardcover w/ Jacket (1952) | JDBFamily

One of the glories of my childhood was The Golden Treasury of National History by Bertha Morris Parker, copyright 1952. That painting of the plesiosaur (above) is one of my all-time favorite pictures. Hours and hours and hours I spent in that book! And it left me with a lifelong fascination for animals past and present.

Patty got me a used copy for my birthday last year, and I resort to it sometimes when I’m feeling stressed, tired, or just hung out to dry. I did that today.

Okay, a lot of the science in the book–especially with regard to life in the distant prehistoric past–is hooey. Even as our science today will be tomorrow’s hooey. I don’t blame Bertha Morris Parker, whose work I admire very much. She had to go with the science that she had. But really, I doubt the giant ground sloths went extinct because they never found a comfortable place to rest their claws. Or that dinosaurs vanished because they just didn’t have enough sense to adapt to changing conditions. It was 1952 settled science.

What I love here is the vastness and the intricacy of God’s creation, the enduring mysteries of life on earth, and the overwhelming “Wow!” factor I find in giant prehistoric animals. And happy childhood memories are a plus–my Uncle Bernie reading to me from the book and having the devil’s own time trying to pronounce the dinosaurs’ name: and me not correcting him because I loved him and knew that he was reading to me because he loved his brother’s children.

And now I’m getting a little teary-eyed, so I guess I’d better stop.