Tag Archives: nostalgia

Memory Lane: The Great Estate

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I’m old enough now to wonder whether some of my childhood memories are really memories. I wonder if they’re only dreams.

Once upon a time there was a great estate in our neighborhood, complete with large in-ground swimming pool. Nobody but very rich people had those. There was a huge white house and all sorts of smaller buildings assembled around it, like chicks around the mother hen.

We called it “Oppenheim’s.” It’s possible that this wasn’t really its name, but that’s the name we had for it.

Oppenheim’s was separated from the ordinary homes on Juniper Street by a little stream, a bit of marshland, and just a few yards of spindly woods. I remember one day I managed to get to the opposite bank of the stream for a closer look at Oppenheim’s. One of the older kids started to pick on me, and a man came over from Oppenheim’s and chased him away.

And then one day Oppenheim’s was deserted. Suddenly no one lived there. That was the signal for my friends and me to cross over to the estate and run wild, exploring everything, pretending it was ours. We got into the big house. Oh, so many rooms! I think one was a ballroom. It was sort of like the house in a game of Clue, only without the billiard tables. We kept daring each other to swim in the pool; but summer had passed, and dead leaves increasingly blanketed the water and turned it dark and murky. No one took the dare.

And then the bulldozers came and tore it all down, gorgeous white house, outbuildings, stables, garage, and all. No more Oppenheim’s. In its place, a housing development–three or four blocks’ worth.

Patty and I have searched the Internet for any mention of the Oppenheim estate in our town, circa 1957, but have yet to find a single word about it. It’s like it never was. Like I’d only dreamed about it. Very vivid dreams, but no proof that they were anything but dreams.

A piece of my past is missing; and it’s not the only one. Around here, hardly anything has been left the way I remember it. This can be disconcerting. Much of what I knew is gone.

I wonder–if I dream a little deeper, can I find the way back to Oppenheim’s?

I’d like to thank that guy who chased away the bully.


Memory Lane: ‘Tales of Wells Fargo’

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I had to go to Wells Fargo today to do yet more paperwork for Aunt Joan’s very small estate. As I sat there at the banker’s desk, and he ran stuff through his computer, I got to thinking about one of the many TV westerns that I used to watch when I was a kid–including Tales of Wells Fargo, starring Dale Robertson as a Wells Fargo agent who went around having all sorts of adventures and foiling the bad guys. It ran from 1957 through 1962, complete with comic books and bubblegum cards.

I don’t know what I would’ve thought, back then, if I’d found out Wells Fargo is just a bank–a bank!–like any other bank: the last place in the world you’d go to, if you were looking for really colorful adventures. Oh, the crushing disappointment! It’d be like finding out that Tarzan was a greeter at Walmart. Or that Bat Masterson was a sportswriter for a newspaper. (Uh, dude–Bat really was a sportswriter… fap…)

It was all a lot more interesting, the way it was shown on TV.

Memory Lane: ‘The Adventures of Gunga Ram’

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When I was five or six years old, I used to get up awful early on Saturday morning so I could watch Andy’s Gang on our old black-and-white TV, with this little screen that was like a square porthole. And one of the highlights of the show was a serial, “The Adventures of Gunga Ram.”

Gunga Ram was a boy in India who had lots of cool adventures, mostly because he was helping the local maharajah out of assorted tight spots. These were taken from a movie called Sabaka, made in 1953 and converted into a serial in ’54.

What I wouldn’t have given to be friends with Gunga Ram! Complete with elephants and tigers, and even the odd cobra or two.

Some of this antique TV lit up my imagination, big-time. Jungle Jim! Ramar of the Jungle! Soldiers of Fortune! Fury! Wow, I couldn’t get enough of it! I wanted to know all about these places that served as settings for the stories on TV, and the people and the animals that really lived there, and the history, and the language–!

Oh, I know now that Sabaka only plugged in stock footage of India, the young actor who played Gunga Ram was Italian, most of it was shot around Los Angeles, and African lions don’t live in the jungle, after all–and Indian elephants aren’t normally found in Africa, even if they’ve got rubber attached to their ears to make them look like African elephants. Yes, I know it was all make-believe.

But I enjoyed it!

Beware the Valley of Fatigue

[Disclaimer: I loved Welch’s Grape Juice as a boy and I still drink it today: grapes grown here in America by local farmers.]

Here my memory has played a trick on me. I could’ve sworn the “valley of fatigue” commercials were for Geritol, but it turns out they were for Welch’s Grape Juice. I do remember us kids warning each other about the perils of the Valley of Fatigue.

The commercial is from 1960, and Welch’s is still going strong.

Speaking of fatigue, this morning it’s 20 degrees outside, which strikes me as cold. But I saw a man coming out of the supermarket wearing short shorts and flip-flops–no socks, no shoes, no cover for bare legs and bare feet. Am I turning into one of those old men who can never get warm, or was this guy some kind of nut?

Memory Lane: Campfire Tales

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This cold weather makes me think of summery things: to wit, tales around the campfire at YMCA summer camp, where I spent two weeks when I was, I think, eleven years old. These tales were told at night, in the woods, around a roaring fire, by a counselor gifted in the art. Here are three I still remember.

“The Creeping Sand” was a patch of quicksand with a malevolent mind of its own. It crept (of course!) up on you and suddenly attached itself to you, and you couldn’t shake it off and it slowly engulfed you–which made it grow. I don’t remember how they got rid of it.

“The Hairy Kid” grew into what we would call a Bigfoot, nowadays. He grew a lot faster than the other kids and was covered with thick black hair from head to foot. He had a very nasty temper, and eventually he ran away to hide out in the woods, where he preyed on hikers and campers. At the climax of this tale, another counselor leaped out of the dark with a roar and freaked us all out.

“The Hairy Hand”–they had a thing about excess hair, these counselors–was somehow severed from a murderer and went on murdering without him. The hand was really good at silently sneaking up on its victims and suddenly seizing them by the throat. This little tale gave me a couple of whooping great nightmares, but again I can’t remember how it ended.

For all I know, the hairy hand, the hairy kid, and the creeping sand are all still out there, lurking in the woods around the Y camp. (Shudder)

Memory Lane: Venus Paradise Colored Pencil Set

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So there you were, expecting a real wowser of a snowstorm that would have kept the schools closed on Monday and led to a glorious day of sledding and snowball fights–but all it did was rain. What to do with your Sunday afternoon?

I loved these Venus Paradise pencil sets. Each set came with a raft of colored pencils and a bunch of pictures to color by number–always with a wonderful result, if you didn’t make careless mistakes. The pictures we got back then were complicated and it took a couple of hours to color one in. But it was worth it!

I don’t think these are available anymore, and I wonder if kids today would have the patience to enjoy them. After all, it’s not electronic. And no mayhem. Just really nice pictures of ducks flying over the cattails in a marsh, or a scenic covered bridge on a sunny day in the fall–stuff like that. All you needed was a pencil sharpener, and a bit of peace and quiet. There are still some similar toys around, but once you fell in love with Venus Paradise, nothing else would do.

I’ve still got some of the pencils, but the pictures are, alas, long gone.

Memory Lane: Running Boards

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When I was a little boy, there were still cars with running boards. In the photo, that’s the wood-colored board between the front and back fenders and below the door. The man across the street from us had a car with running boards, although he soon replaced it with a newer model that didn’t have them. And of course a lot of the cars I saw on TV had running boards–some with riders standing on them. That’s how I knew what they were for.

Today some SUVs have running boards, but their purpose is to help you climb into the car.  The original running boards were for extra passengers.

If your imagination is up to the challenge, you can give yourself quite a good case of the horrors by imagining yourself perched on a running board and clinging to the car door for dear life as it barrels down the Garden State Parkway at 70 mph. That will also help you to understand why no one does this anymore.

I don’t remember anyone actually riding on Mr. Rankin’s running board, so the custom had probably already gone out of use. But if they ever needed to transport eight cops in a four-seater squad car, that was went the running boards came into their own–on small-screen TV, in glorious black and white.

Memory Lane: Goofy Stories

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I grew up in a large family, and as the first of the grandchildren, I got a lot of attention. It was all loving attention, but some of it was a little bit odd.

I’m thinking of certain things that certain adults told me that turned out to be quite untrue. For instance, Grammy (my daddy’s mother) told me never to swallow chewing gum because, if I did, a gum tree would grow inside me. I can’t say I believed that; but I did stop swallowing chewing gum.

When I went to kindergarten, I was upset at being away from home, so I cried. This encouraged the other kids to pick on me mercilessly, to make me cry some more, for their amusement–good old public schooling!–but Grandma (my mommy’s mother) had a solution. Watching the news on her small-screen TV, with me sitting on the floor by her feet, she pointed at the screen and said, “See that man? He’s never cried in all his life. And now he’s on television!” I forget which newscaster that was–it’ll come to me at 2 a.m. tonight.

Now, why did Grandma say that? Obviously I already had no chance to match the newsman’s level of stoicism, I’d already blown that. Even at five years old, I found that story a little hard to believe.

My grandmothers told me those weird stories for my good, because they loved me. It just seems, in retrospect, a funny way to show it.

How about you? Did you ever get any curious stories like that? If it’s not too embarrassing, please share! I’d hate to think I was the only one.

Memory Lane: Our Classic Department Stores

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When my mother shopped at Newberry’s in the 1950s, she often treated me to one of those wonderful wax dinosaurs by the Miller Company. A lot of towns had J.J. Newberry department stores.

I haven’t seen one in donkey’s years; and it’s not only Newberry’s that I don’t see around anymore. Several classic department stores have vanished from the landscape.

E.J. Korvette’s–great sporting goods department, I got my Wally Moon baseball glove there. Two Guys from Harrison: their pet department seemed to have trouble keeping the birds in their cages, which always fascinated me. Woolworth’s. Surely you had a Woolworth’s somewhere nearby. And W.T. Grant’s. As a child, these stores looked big to me; but I guess you’d have to call them medium-sized department stores. Or even small department stores.

Where have they gone? Replaced, I suppose, by Target and Wal-Mart. Replaced by the malls: who needs a not-that-big department store, when a mall offers you a whole bunch of specialty stores all under one roof?

Is Bamberger’s still in existence somewhere?

I enjoyed them all. Newberry’s had the best toys, and great Halloween stuff–what you’d expect from a chain that started out as a bunch of five-and-ten-cent stores– Two Guys the best pet department, and Woolworth’s the best candy. They weren’t so big as to be intimidating. You can practically hitch-hike from one department to another at Wal-Mart. Sometimes big is too big. Some of the big stores today seem like they could double as hangars at an airport. I never got that feeling at Newberry’s. But the last Newberry’s store, Wikipedia tells me, closed its doors in 2001.

And oh, for some Howard Johnson’s ice cream!


A Christmas Conspiracy

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Once upon a time, my brother and I were beguiled by Genuine Oriental Malay Throwing Knives they had for sale at Metuchen Center. I mean, what could be cooler than that? And besides, Christmas was coming! And the deadly knives were well within even our meager price range–a steal at 75 cents each. So we conspired to give each other Genuine Oriental Malay Throwing Knives as Christmas presents.

When the presents were unwrapped on Christmas morning, we earned some sour looks from the obvious source. But my mother needn’t have worried. The Genuine Oriental Malay Throwing Knives wouldn’t cut a piece of bread. I can only imagine what Genuine Occidental Malay Throwing Knives could do. And no matter how many times you threw your throwing knife at a tree, it always struck with a “Splat!” instead of with that satisfying “Thwunggg!” that you always hear in movies. It always, always hit the tree flat, never, never with the point.

As a self-defense weapon, these babies were perfectly useless. You’d have a better chance fending off attackers with ribald limericks. As projectiles, they were only very slightly better than plaster statues of Liberace.

But at least they were cheap!

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