Memory Lane: ‘Kukla, Fran, and Ollie’

This takes us a long way down Memory Lane. These days it’s hard to imagine that a little series built around a clown, a dragon, and a cheery young woman would turn into a major hit. Indeed, in 2009 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Kukla, Frank, and Ollie.

Kukla the clown and Ollie the dragon, puppets, engaged in gentle banter and funny songs with Fran Allison, the only live human in the show–and people just plain loved it. The show ran from 1947 through 1957. Watching it is one of my earliest childhood memories. But it was even more popular among adults than children.

And would you believe it was all ad-libbed? No foolin’. Fran had experience as a live radio comedian, so she was up to the challenge. I wonder if anybody could successfully do a show like that today.

Well, what could be more benign and harmless? I like benign and harmless–and we could use more of it. Lots more.

Memory Lane: ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’

Spring is here: and the sunny weather yesterday called up memories of the playground on a weekend morning, an afternoon by the pond–they kept calling it a lake, but oh-come-now–in Roosevelt Park, and… this. Hernando’s Hideaway.

It was on the radio a lot when I was a boy. This treatment by Archie Bleyer is only one of several. My father would have the radio on while he tinkered on his workbench, or cut his sons’ hair; and this was one of the songs you often heard. It comes from a 1954 hit musical, The Pajama Game… and is about a speakeasy–let me now quote Wikipedia–“where Al Capone hid out from the Chicago police before turning into a supper club.” Pretty neat trick, Al. No wonder they couldn’t find you!

There weren’t many songs back then that had castanets in them. Maybe that’s why I remember this one so well.

And somehow everything was cleaner…

Memory Lane: Everybody’s Friend

Old Brown Dog Sitting Profile Us Stock Photo (Edit Now) 621670361

When I was a boy, we lived next door to a widow woman, Mrs. Thomas, who was loved by all. We kids did errands for her, and our fathers trimmed her hedge and mowed her lawn. She had a big back yard which was always available to us as a play area.

And she had an old brown dog named Brownie. We lived on a dead-end street, with low traffic, and Brownie had the run of the neighborhood. He was everybody’s friend, and welcome everywhere.

If you were feeling blue, and sitting on the steps, moping, somehow Brownie always found you and would sit down beside you to keep you company–and before long, you felt… better! He had a gift for that.

Yeah, I know, it’s a bygone era, blah-blah. But you know something? All these years later, I still love Brownie. Remembering him always brings light to the darkness of an evil age.

Every neighborhood should have a dog like Brownie.

Memory Lane: A Mad Libs Christmas Party

Mad Libs – The World's Greatest Word Game

I don’t know why, but this happy memory washed over me this morning.

Family Christmas party, years ago, everybody still alive and healthy, the whole bunch of us crammed into Grandpa’s living room–to this day I don’t know how we fit. And just for the heck of it, we played some Mad Libs.

If you’ve never played this crazy game, well, it’s easy. You have a short story full of blanks, and the only thing the players know is vague clues to help them choose a word to go into the blank–like “noun,” “adjective,” “exclamation,” etc. All they do is supply a word for each blank.

And so you wind up with sentences like “Mikey hiccuped all the way to the moron‘s office and then asked to shame the bloated but still prehensile senator.

The story I read to my family at the party was about bird-watching, but by the rules of Mad Libs, they didn’t know that. I asked for nouns and adjectives and other details, and they provided them.

That’s how we wound up with a “ruling junta” in Baltimore pursuing a “yellow-bellied crotch sucker.” And other equally silly formulae.

And oh, did everybody laugh! I thought my mother was going to plotz. We laughed till tears ran down our cheeks.

I wish I could invite some of you over for Mad Libs. I could guarantee a good time!

Memory Lane: The ‘Peter Gunn’ Theme

I never saw Peter Gunn because it was 1958, I was nine years old, and my folks sent me to bed well before the show came on. But the sounds of television used to filter up the stairs to my bedroom, and there was just no way I was going to sleep through Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme music. If this was not one of the all-time great TV themes, I don’t know what was.

I was usually still awake anyway, reading Uncle Scrooge, Mickey Mouse, and Archie comics by flashlight–and the light went kind of orangey as the battery ran down. Not good for my eyes.

I heard a lot of great theme music in those days. And Mancini was the greatest of them all.

Memory Lane: Russian Bulldog

The Brontosaurus Is Back - Scientific American

I couldn’t find a picture that was even close to what I want to write about here–the once-upon-a-time children’s game that my friends and I called “Russian bulldog.” Just try to find a picture of kids playing without uniforms, without coaches, without every single ethnicity self-consciously included. It can’t be done. Look, I’ve got a picture of a Brontosaurus. But no Russian bulldog.

The game was simplicity itself. No equipment needed. No supervision. No freakin’ sponsor! Somebody’s back yard would do for a field. And you needed was five or six kids.

One would be the Russian bulldog. I have no idea how it got that name. He’d stand in the middle of the field and the others would try to run to the opposite end of the field. He would try to tackle somebody; and whoever he succeeded in bringing down would remain on the field with him as Bulldog No. 2. The rest of the kids would then run down the field again, this time trying to avoid two tacklers. The game would go on until there was just one kid left untackled, and he’d be the Russian bulldog in the next game.

We were really into this game, in my neighborhood, at around the ages of 12-13. We played it a lot. And although it consisted of tackling, and running into each other at top speed, nobody ever got hurt. Maybe because we didn’t wear any equipment.

Did you play Russian bulldog with your friends? And if you did, what did you call it?

P.S.–Patty found this antique photo of English schoolboys playing a game called British Bulldog–very similar to Russian bulldog, only the kids get tagged instead of tackled. Here’s the picture.

We'll bring back British Bulldog | British bulldog, Bulldog game, My  childhood memories



Memory Lane: Dinosaurs vs. Skyscrapers

Image result for images of miller company toy dinosaurs

These were among my very favorite toys as a kid–Miller Co. wax dinosaurs. I’m so glad I still have two of them left–a big Stegosaurus and a smaller one. These wax toys had a regrettable tendency to break. I’ll bet the Dimetrodon’s and Triceratops’ tails broke off while they were taking this picture.

Our snow is turning into slush today–but not to worry, we’ve got some more snow in our forecast–and if I were ten years old, today I’d be building skyscrapers with our plastic skyscraper kit and working out stories involving dinosaurs and skyscrapers. We also had a Cape Canaveral play set whose rockets came in very handy when you had to defend the skyscrapers. A rubber-tipped Atlas rocket would take out even a Tyrannosaur with a direct hit. But I usually rooted for the dinosaurs, so they had spring-powered missiles, too.

Ah, the imagination! Cavemen lined up on the roof of a skyscraper, armed with rocks and spears, fending off a giant Pterodactyl, commanded by a plastic figurine of Davy Crockett–even the movies couldn’t match it. With Sir Lancelot riding out in armor to do battle with creatures he supposed, not unreasonably, to be dragons.

These stories could go on all the way to suppertime.

We didn’t need video games.

Memory Lane: Plastic Skyscraper Kit

Image result for images of plastic skyscraper kit

Nobody likes to go outside in freezing rain. A day like today brings back memories of a plastic skyscraper kit my brother used to have. It was nowhere near as fancy as the one in the picture above, but it had hundreds of pieces and it certainly sufficed.

My brother and I used to try to construct buildings that would use all the pieces in the kit. That would keep us busy for a while. You started with a composite wood base and built up from there. It had room for two skyscrapers, which we could connect with walkways. By and by the building would become inhabited by dinosaurs, cavemen, and wild animals, and adventures would follow.

The pieces interlocked, no glue involved, you could always take a building apart and make another one. That was the only way you could get the Brontosaurus out. Hours of fun.

Lego still exists, so there must be kids out there who have the attention span required to build an elaborate plastic skyscraper. Such a peaceful, soothing game to play! Grandma used to hope that one or both of us would grow up to be engineers who built bridges. She had to settle for plastic skyscrapers. And so did we–but they sufficed. They did indeed.

No, I Mean They’re **Really** Crazy!

Image result for images of explosion on the moon

Oops! Sorry about that!

“Watchman” mentioned an abortive, once-upon-a-time “plan to blow up the moon,” and a certain boyhood memory came roaring back to me. It must be said that back in 1958 there really was a plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on the moon ( It was called Project A119, under the aegis of the Air Force. The Russians had a similar plan. The purpose of both was to stage “a show of force.”

And it was supposed to be a secret, only acknowledged in 2000 after 45 years of denial.

Cut to Edgar School playground, 1958: I’m nine years old, and my friends and I are discussing–in tones of awe and quiet fear–you guessed it!–“a secret plan to blow up the moon.” And I said, “Every time they talk about it, there are these dubular clouds that appear on Mars.” I have no idea what a “dubular cloud” was supposed to be, and no memory of how I’d ever come to hear about it.

But a secret? What kind of top military secret is bandied about by 9-year-old kids on the playground? My wife, a little older than I, says everybody knew about it–and flat-out didn’t like it, not a bit. Which is why the project got canceled, according to Wikipedia.

What were these Air Force willies thinking??? Did they have any clear idea of what would happen if they did this? Not bloody likely! Thank you, O God, that cooler heads prevailed. As in “Oops! Big chunks of the Moon are now hurtling toward the earth! Gee, who knew that would happen?”

A study of history will reveal an inexhaustible supply of wackos in high places. If the Lord were not in charge, we wouldn’t last a week.

When I Discovered Fantasy…

2 Pellucidar books by Edgar Rice Burroughs - Ace F-158 F-280 | eBay

I was 13 years old when a friend lent me his copy of Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs–adventures in the inside-out world of the hollow earth, complete with dinosaurs and monsters–and it blew me away. I had no idea there were books like this! I couldn’t get enough of them. Happily for me, ERB wrote dozens of books. I’ve still got ’em (paperback price: 35 cents!), and I still read ’em from time to time.

Burroughs introduced me to other worlds, pure fantasy, anything goes. Just like Tarzan went to Pellucidar once.

But then in high school, sophomore year, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, and oh, brother! This took fantasy fiction a notch higher. I find it bordering on the impossible, to describe how much I enjoyed it. I spent the next ten or twelve years of my life trying to write a fantasy like Tolkien’s. What the heck, everybody else seemed to be doing it–you never saw so many unsatisfying imitations published.

I learned an awful lot about writing by reading and re-reading Burroughs and Tolkien. I also learned to give up trying to imitate them, and just write like myself: took more than a few years to learn how to do that, too. The end result is my Bell Mountain series.

I envy those of you, out there, who’ll someday discover top-flight fantasy, as I did, and just go to town on it. I know reading isn’t as fashionable as it once was. But as much as I love movies, there’s nothing better than a roaring good book. No special effects genius, no cast of actors, no director can ever quite match what that special book can do with your imagination.

Does it serve God? Does it give God the glory? I’d say that depends on what the reader does with it. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and I’m sure he hoped his books would do that. Just as I’m sure that for many readers, they did.