Tag Archives: my childhood

Where ‘The Jersey Devil Lurks’

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I wish I could have found a full-color image of this painting. Unfortunately, the original was lost years ago, and this black-and-white is all I could get. In the original, the prevailing color scheme is a rather sinister yellow. I saw a color photo of it many, many years ago in Life Magazine, and never forgot it. I think I must have been ten years old or less.

If you’ve never passed through the Jersey Devil’s home territory, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, I can tell you there’s no other place quite like it. Technological progress left it behind early in the 19th century, the local economy shriveled up, most of the people moved away, and their towns, homes, and factories fell into ruin. The region is known for its odd place names–Ongs Hat, Double Trouble, Speedwell–and its sandy tracks that may or may not accommodate your car and may or may not lead somewhere, or nowhere. A part of it features large vistas of stunted pines that plays tricks on your eyes. You’d swear, from your vantage point on the road, that the pines were full-size. And then a child comes walking through them, and you startle because you think you’re seeing a giant little girl.

All in all, it’s just the kind of country the Jersey Devil would choose to live in, if it lives at all. No one knows. There’s only belief or disbelief.

But when you find yourself alone on one of those deserted, feeble imitations of a road, disbelief is a little harder to come by.

Memory Lane: At Home with Mommy and the Ironing

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One of my earliest memories came back to me this morning.

I’m not old enough yet to go to school. I’m sitting on the floor of our little sitting room, playing with blocks while my mother does her ironing. Because she’s a Giants fan, she has the ballgame on: we have one of those primitive TV sets with all the knobs, you’ve really got to fiddle with it, to get a good picture. The Giants are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers, and my mother carefully lists for me the many moral defects of the Dodgers–except for Roy Campanella: not a word against him!–and explains how no right-thinking person would ever root for them. And I don’t know why, but I love the smell of ironing, and the texture of the rug, and the grainy black-and-white picture on the screen… and my mother’s company.

The very best day I ever had at school was not as good as this. Nowhere near as good as this.

When an Accusation’s All It Takes

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Suddenly it seems everybody’s being accused of sexual harassment, tried in the newspapers, and declared guilty, all in the same day. Suddenly every man is Bill Clinton, or worse: you could be Al Franken, with a photo to prove it. Then again, you could be the Duke lacrosse team–innocent in fact, but treated as guilty.

I can relate to this. Here’s how it happened to me.

I’m in third grade. We’ve just been out for recess and have lined up to go back in. I’m standing in line, minding my own business.

Next to me the malicious little trouble-making punk, who shall remain nameless, raises his hand and tells the teacher, “Mrs. Chapman, Lee just called you a big ape.” It was completely untrue. But guess what–I got suspended from school. All it took was a simple accusation, not an iota of evidence required. Even my parents knew it wasn’t true; but the teacher and the principal didn’t care. And that suspension got carved in stone on my school record.

I can imagine how very much more serious it would have been, had the same thing happened to me as an adult in the workplace. Imagine if I were running for the Senate and the nooze media came out with, “This biggit abused his third-grade teacher!”

All right, some of the sexual misconduct allegations are true. And some of them aren’t.

And it’s very important to find out which are which.

Should I Get a Pogo Stick?

Hoping to replicate the joys of youth, I’ve been thinking about acquiring a pogo stick. Once upon a time, I was a regular Tanystropheus on pogo stick. If my mother had ever seen some of the tricks I did, she would have had conniptions. Hoping up and down the football bleachers, for instance: oh, she’d’ve loved that. I wonder if I’m daft enough to try again…

Memory Lane: Sir Lancelot

My mother was a voracious reader with a love of history and legend, and she passed it on to me. I grew up on stories of King Arthur and his knights, especially her two favorites, Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad. My brother and I had toy knights by those names: they wound up having a lot of adventures with animals, dinosaurs, cowboys, and cars.

In 1956-57 there was a TV show, Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which I made sure to watch. I remember particularly well an episode in which Sir Lancelot discovered an out-of-the-way Roman fort manned by legionaries who didn’t know the Roman Empire ended some hundred years ago. Very cool!

All these years later, thanks to my mother’s stories, I’m still a King Arthur buff, still reading and writing about him and his times. Someday I’ll have to tell you how I figured out how the story of the Sword in the Stone was very likely true, albeit somewhat garbled by the passage of centuries.

Oh, to put on my armor, sling that shield across my shoulder, hop up onto my mighty steed, snatch up my lance, and ride out on adventures! My mother lived long enough to see my Bell Mountain books in print: I hope she knows that she was the one who got me started.

Memory Lane: ‘Modern Farmer’

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You’re going to have to reach deep into your memory banks to find this–Modern Farmer, an early 1950s TV show that aired at 5 a.m. or 5:30 on Saturday mornings. It ran from 1950-1958, then went into syndication for many more years. My old friend George, finding nothing else to do, watched it the morning he had to report to the Army, having been drafted.

This show is so old, so obscure, that I couldn’t find any clips of it on youtube. It was, of course, about farmers and farming, and I have no idea why, when I was eight years old or so, I would get up to watch it. Maybe because Andy’s Gang came on next and I didn’t want to miss Froggy the Gremlin.

It wasn’t an irrelevant show. In those days there were still farms in our neighborhood, before Democrats paved them all over. There were farms nearby that went back all the way to the Revolutionary War and earlier, owned by farmers who fought for America’s independence from Britain. Fresh corn on the cob for supper? All I had to do was get on my bike and pedal for ten minutes, and bring home the corn in my basket.


We can’t get those farms back. The farmers rest in our town’s most ancient cemetery, along with others who put their lives on the line to birth the United States of America. Across the parking lot from our apartment stands a house that was a tavern in the 18th century. A small battle was fought here; the wounded, patriots and redcoats alike, were brought there to be tended to. It was said the ghost of a wounded British officer used to walk up the stairs inside that house until sometime in the 1960s, when the famous psychic investigator Hans Holzer supposedly put to rest that troubled spirit. But the lady who lived there in the 1970s said the ghost still appeared occasionally. He did no harm, she said.

I like to think that Christ’s kingdom will have more farms than nail salons.


Memory Lane: Toy Horses

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See that beautiful palomino horse, rearing up on his hind legs? It was a popular toy in the 1950s, and I still have mine, and it’s still beautiful. They came in two different poses and several colors. In fact, I still have half a dozen of them. Each one came with a cowboy, a rather fragile saddle (that’s the green thing, and I’m afraid none of my saddles have survived), even more fragile reins and bridles, and a very tiny hat for the cowboy’s head. I still have one of the cowboys, but no hats.

My animal box that my father made for me is full of plastic horses of all different shapes and sizes. Like a lot of kids of that era, I was horse-crazy. On rainy days, indoors, or sunny days in the sandbox, I trotted out my horses and put them through adventures. What with all the westerns on TV at the time, that wasn’t hard to do. And the hours drifted by so pleasantly.

Castles made of my mother’s books, looming fortresses of sand–my horses had their work cut out for them. But those stories I made up for them always came out all right in the end. Soon I left off making up western stories and had my horses interacting with lions, elephants, and dinosaurs.

I wish I could line them up and take a picture for you. If you’re my age, you might spot some dear old friends among the crowd.

Video Treat: ‘The Mermaid,’ the Clancy Brothers

I learned this old, old folk song at summer camp, and have sung it around more than a few campfires since. There are a hundred minor variations, but the end of the story never changes. I do enjoy the Clancy Brothers’ rendition of it.

And maybe tomorrow I can get to work on typing up my book!

School Board Puts Lid on Homework

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In the secular humanist quest for an earthly paradise, no stone is small enough to be left unturned.

My hometown school board, as reported today in our local paper, has “enacted guidelines for assigning homework.” It seems the kiddies are all stressed out from too much homework, after a special committee worked on it for two whole years.

To quote from the news article by Claude Deltieure, “The recommended daily homework load is ten minutes per grade level”–ten minutes?–or a whopping 15 for reading. So a kid in 8th grade might be saddled with as much as 80 minutes per night, presuming all his teachers that day assigned homework.

It seems the board’s chief concern is “stress.” Homework is stressing out the kiddies.

No normal kid wants a load of homework. Back in the Bronze Age, when I went to school, you learned to do your homework efficiently, expeditiously, so you could move on to more important things, like playing stickball. Homework was just one of those things the adult world saddled you with. By the time I was in high school, I’d learned to finish almost all my homework in study hall.

As a teacher, I knew many teachers who hardly ever assigned homework–because, after all, they would have to read it and grade it. Most of my teachers went over the homework in class the next day, rather than take it home and grade it.

There’s something creepy about this whole drive to protect young people from stress of any kind, with all kinds of unavoidable stresses waiting for them in the world outside. Who’s going to tell their employers, when these kids grow up, “Only this much work, and not a minute more”?

My parents insisted that I do my homework, and helped when I needed it. As a boy, I would have loved to pass it up altogether. But doing it taught me how to work. And work can be stressful. You have to learn to handle it.

Well, easing way up on the homework will surely prepare these kids for collidge, and Play-Doh, and coloring books, and demonstrating for tampons in the men’s rest room, and shouting down, or assaulting, anyone whose opinions expose them to stress.

You could, of course, homeschool your kids and preserve their minds from the ravages of public education. But then we wouldn’t need school  boards with multi-million-dollar budgets.

Memory Lane: Halloween

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(This will be the first Halloween, in I don’t know how many decades, without Zacherley, “the Cool Ghoul,” who died a year ago tomorrow. He and his maniacal laugh worked right up to the end.)

Patty and I have just returned from a ride around town, looking at Halloween decorations. I can’t say much for Halloween as it is today–too much nastiness has seeped into it–but even so, it does call forth pleasant memories. Just to name a few:

The store windows in New Brunswick, all painted with Halloween scenes. My father used to take us there to marvel at them.

The huge, grey Victorian house catty-corner from the Y, peeling paint, grey boards, surrounded by encroaching stunted trees–with a yellow light in one of the windows on Halloween: and how we kids trick-or-treating used to scuttle past it in a hurry.

A nice little black and orange whistle I used to have, in the shape of two cute little owls.

My friend Bobby’s precocious imitation of Zacherley imitating Boris Karloff.

Bobbing for apples in a washtub in one of the many little grocery stores our town used to have. They’re all gone now. So are the apples.

Those special assorted Brach’s mallowcremes that only came out for Halloween–yellow, orange, brown, and honey-colored, shaped like pumpkins, cats, ears of corn, bats, witches, shocks of wheat, the Man in the Moon, etc. I loved those! They’re still around, but few stores seem to carry them.

Everybody coming to school in their Halloween costumes–quite a break in the routine.

Aunt Millie serving Halloween cookies and making spooky noises from some undisclosed location in the house. She always got into the spirit of any holiday.

The special, thick, 25-cent Halloween issue of Little Lulu.

These and other details I’ve stored up as memories of a good time, a fun time, wholesome, harmless, nothing to do with violent video games about shooting blood-crazed zombies… and at least I can still get mallowcremes, even if all the rest of it is gone for good. But at least it’s gone where this unhappy age can’t touch it anymore.

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