Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Miss Rheingold

"Vote vote for Miss Rheingold, the beer that is so extra dry.

Vote vote for Miss Rheingold, the babe so many millions try."

Well it went something like that anyway. Certainly the Miss Rheingold contest was one of the great events of my childhood. Especially the day me, my mother, and the Mills girls went to the Bergen Mall to see the contestants for this great honour. It was 1962.

I remember the seven contestants were all in the Sunday papers. Everyone had their opinions. I forget who I liked but I know she lost.

One day my mother announced that the contestants for the Miss Rheingold pageant were going to be a the Bergen Mall. Anybody want to come to see them?

My poor father had to work that day, so my mother, the Mills girls, my brother and I don't remember who else went to the Bergen Mall for the historic event. At the entrance to the shrine were thousands of people all awaiting the arrival of the girls. Then suddenly, a huge engine noise. Six motorcycles, ten police cars, and there they were.

A magnificent convertible and there sat the contestants for the great award. They got out of the car. What marvelous skirts! The older Mills girls said. My older brother was told to close his mouth before the insects attacked his tongue.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The 1964 Elections

The Republican convention came first at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Nelson Rockefeller was supposed to be nominated but then he got divorced and re-married. The job went to Barry Goldwater, a nice guy who was a ham radio operator and appeared on the Jack Paar show. At the convention they released gold balloons. The television commentators said the Republicans had fallen off a cliff.

The Democratic convention was held in Atlantic City. The sign on the wall of the Convention Center said "Let us continue". Mrs. Mills was a delegate and we tried to spot her on television but couldn't. Hubert Humphrey gave his famous "But not Senator Goldwater" speech. Johnson followed it up with his "And so do I" speech.

From reading this blog you can probably guess who I was for. Barry Goldwater. I loved being the conservative Republican of the family.

I got aid on this mission from an unlikely source. My mother invited some of her Texas kin-folk up for a few days and they were invited to a cook-out at the Mills. My mother's only male relative in the group went up to everyone and talked about why he liked Goldwater. "Johnson is serving up slop in a silver chalice. It is served up good but it's the same old slop. Now Goldwater is at least doing something to bring decency back to this country."

Johnson won the election. I didn't remain an arch conservative for long. After you get used to it, slop tastes good, if it's served up in a pretty enough plate.
Editors note: I changed the comments requirements so you can comment anonymously. So let's have some comments!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

AM Radio

I was always a big fan of AM radio as a kid. From the early sixties to the psychedelic era, when baby boomers got too sophisticated for the stuff and switched to FM, AM radio (sorry Frank Zappa, who called it "ugly radio") was on my regular diet, largely responsible for destroying my brain cells as a youth. As I got older, alcohol finished the job.

There was WABC, Murray the K on WINS and on cold crisp evenings I would wonder the dial for great stations such as WKBW in Buffalo and WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Here, there was the banter, the unending commercials, traffic reports. (Traffic reports were especially fun for those of us who didn't drive. It was a window into the secret world of adults).

In the area around New York you could also receive one of the great AM radio stations, WMCA. It was homier than WABC, had a larger play-list, and was so New York oriented that a kid from New Jersey could pretend for a moment that he was living in Queens.

I don't care what anybody says, the music on the radio in 1965 was a heap better than the stuff on today. Motown was at its prime, the English groups were starting to create a new music, and folk was starting to mature from its New Christy Minstrels phase. Just look at this list from this week in 1965. The scary part is I can probably sing most of the songs in the top 30!

A great television show at the time was Shindig. It featured the Beatles debuting "I'm a Loser" and in 1965 they almost dedicated a whole show to the Rolling Stones, with the band's own guest, Howlin' Wolf. At the end of the show the Rolling Stones introduced a new song. It was called "Satisfaction."
Going to band practice on a bicycle and listening to AM radio. That sums up the summer of 1965 for me. That and two weeks at No Be Bosco. Boy Scout camp we'll save for another installment.

Monday, May 21, 2007

New York has changed

Living close to New York it was not unusual to hear the typical New York conversation. This conversation, or one like it, took place in and about every major urban center in the United States. It dealt with change. And it dealt with change that wasn’t so good.

The great urban myth is that before World War II American cities were like small towns. You didn’t have to lock your doors. If you did anything wrong the people in the neighborhood would tell your parents and you would get whipped as soon as you got home. And you never would know who was the tattle tale.

Everybody took care of everybody. The Irish took care of the Irish. The Italians took care of the Italians. And the kids behaved or they would get into trouble.

After World War 2, the GI bill came along and increasingly Caucasians moved into the suburbs. When the new suburbanites came into the city or talked with people who still lived in the city, the talk was always about changes. Or more specifically “how the city has changed”.

Throughout the 60’s one heard the classic New York conversation.

“Mary, been back to Morris Heights lately?

“Oh, it’s changed. You wouldn’t believe how it’s changed. I almost cried the last time I was there. I told my sister, get out of this neighborhood. It’s changed!”

“Boy how East Tremont has changed. I used to love to shop at Goldstein’s. Can you believe old man Goldstein was robbed at gunpoint? Now, thanks be to God, he lives in Florida.”

“Tony was well into his sixties. Every Wednesday he used to go to New York on the bus to see his old friends. I told him; don’t go to New York no more. It’s changed. One day he went to New York and he didn’t come back.’

“I decided to visit my friends in the old neighborhood. Boy did I get a surprise. My best girlfriend is in jail and the other girl I used to hang out with: She became a drug addict and they found her body in a garbage can. Boy, New York has changed!”

If there was any message I got as a young person it was be careful when I went to New York. Kids in the city carry knives. My father knew he could never keep me away from New York. But at least I could get the hell out of there after dark.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

the Kennedy Assasination

The early sixties boded well for life in general. Americans would all have money. We would all be hip also. Men could grow beards in college, sing folk songs and be assured that after college they could easily obtain jobs in New York in the arts and in the publishing industry. All that was required was a piece of paper.
Negroes would obtain their rights and would be quickly merged into the middle class. There would be music, lots of government benefits, and grants for all ...but underneath the beards and berets, young people would respect their parents and their country and still go to church on Sunday and temple on Saturday if they were Jewish.
Somehow the thought that we didn't live in a perfect world, a world about to become the future world of the Jetsons, showed its ugly head on November 22, 1963. I didn't know it at the time.
I first heard about the assassination at Fanny Hillers School, where I was in the sixth grade. It was a nice day and we were playing touch football outside the school during gym class. Then some kid who had a transistor radio announced that Kennedy had been doing Christmas shopping and been shot in Texas. Soon afterwards, school was dismissed.
I was a junior leader, a highly prestigious position. I was in charge of the bicycle rack. Underused, still the bicycle rack had its share of customers, including a girl. The kids quickly discharged their bicycles and rode home before the Russian bombs descended. One young girl was picked up by her mother in front of my station.
"Why was Kennedy shot?" the crying girl asked.
"It has to do with the colored," the mother replied.
I went home and the Mills family was in my kitchen. Mrs. Mills was crying. Johnson was now president. My mother didn't say a word about this development.
On Monday we got off from school. My father sent me to the store to buy potato chips. Eating potato chips, the family watched the funeral procession of Jack Kennedy. My father drank beer. We drank soda. I still remember the taps guy missing the first bar. da da douey.....

Thursday, May 17, 2007

the Cuban Missile Crisis and Richard J. Hughes

I lived in a block growing up that was named after a prominent psychiatrist at Hackensack Hospital. Appropriately named. There were no boys on my block that didn't tower over me in age but there were two girlup the street that I played with. They were the Mills girls. One was two years older than me and one was two years younger than me. They were exciting people to be around and they had exciting imaginations. The older girl was a horse nut and the younger one was into politics and the movies. Every summer we had imaginary horse shows.

They dragged around a little red wagon that was emblazoned with campaign stickers supporting Democratic party candidates from New Jersey since 1958. There was the bumper sticker for Robert B. Meyner. There was the bumper sticker for Harrison A. Williams. There was, as should be expected, a few Kennedy stickers. The newest sticker they had was for Richard J. Hughes, who was, at that time, running for governor in New Jersey.

I always will remember the horse shows we had in the Mills backyard. And there were the happy summer hours shooting rubber arrows and listening to the older girl talk.

Come fall there was a big story in the neighborhood. The newly elected governor was making an appearance at the Young Democrats headquarters in Maywood, New Jersey. We waited an interminable time. There was a tv in the window of the headquarters. John F. Kennedy was on the tv and he was giving a speech about missiles being found in Cuba.

Finally Richard J. Hughes arrived in a car. He had the reddest face I ever saw. My mother said that was because he had high blood pressure. He shook a few hands and autographed the Mills wagon. I always thought after that that governors always had reddish faces.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Civil War Reenactments

One of the fads of the early sixties, in addition to hula hoops and the twist, was Civil War battle reenactments. Every day that passed that was one hundred years from an event in that tragic war was celebrated with reenactments, picnics, festivals and other activities. My family was not immune to the Civil War contagion and in July of 1960 my father enlisted another family for the cause. In the Briggs station wagon went both families, kids feet hanging out the back, bound for Manasses Virginia. Going to watch men die a second time in the First Battle of Masasses, better known as the first Battle of Bull Run.

At the motel in Virginia the maid started talking to my mother and my mother revealed we were going to the reenactment. The maid said, "Sit out in that hot sun? Y'all must be hard up for something to do!" I was greatly impressed by that statement and repeated it many times during the following year.

The two families enjoyed the reenactment, passing out ice cubes to the other celebrants. We were all committed loyalists to the United States of America (except for one Southern loyalist).
This was a major victory for the South, albeit one of a small number. It was exciting to see Stonewall Jackson route the Yankees. "Just a home run in the first inning," said Mr. Briggs.
Editor's note: Let's keep those comments coming!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Miss Watson and the Beatles

I first heard about the Beatles when Jack Paar announced on his Friday night show that he would show a film of a new British craze called the Beatles. The next week he showed a year old film of them singing "Some Other Guy". According the Jack Paar, they had long hair and when they shook their heads the girls screamed. Always an Anglophile, he was a bit surprised to see British teenagers behaving that way.

Little by little it built up. The radio stations started playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand". In an animated discussion on the Christmas day in the park behind Fanny Hillers School, my cousin and his dog, Rex, my big brother, and myself talked about the Beatles. The consensus was that they were going to be the next Elvis.

They arrived in the United States and the radio stations all promoted it heavily. There was a rumour that George Harrison would not go on the Ed Sullivan Show because he had the flu. They were staying at the Plaza Hotel and their were crowds outside the hotel.
The big night finally came. The family all gathered in front of the tv to watch Ed Sullivan. The sound was terrible and you could hardly hear them over the screaming girls. My mother said that the record company paid them to scream like that.

Miss Watson was our eighty-five year old school teacher. She evaluated the Beatles before the class and said that they were "clean cut" and that she liked them. Little did she know that three years later there would be throngs of rowdy kids with long hair and dirty blue jeans sitting in the nations parks, taking drugs, having sex, and listening to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Editors note, so you don't miss anything, "Albums" is newer than "Astronauts", but appears behind it. Apparently the blogs are sorted by the date of the first draft, not the date they are published.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

the Astronaut

Not long after the inauguration of Kennedy there was a feature article in the New York Herald Tribune on the astronauts. The question at hand was "Who would be the first to launch?" I ran down to the workbench where my father was working and asked the old man the same question. I was a John Glenn supporter myself.

"Probably it won't be John Glenn," he said. "Eisenhower was an Army man and he would have given the job to Glenn, since he was from the Army. Kennedy is a Navy man and I would guess the first astronaut will be a Navy man."

He was right. Alan Shepard, a Navy man, was the first man in space.

One cold morning I arrived at Fanny Hillers school and all the students were herded into the auditorium. A tv was set up with the countdown for Shepard's launch. Television. I didn't know they knew about television at Fanny Hillers.

The countdown was very dramatic. One hundred seven, one hundred six....Sort of like sex, the countdown is often more rewarding than the activities after liftoff.

I remember, vaguely, the Alan Shepard and John Glenn ticker tape parades in
New York that were on television. My mother proudly pointed out that as Vice President, Lyndon Johnson outranked Mayor Wagner and that this was reflected in the order of the cars on the parade route.

Wally Schirra's moment came later. A native of Oradell, he was born in Hackensack and he had a motorcade through Bergen County, ending at the county court house. After an interminable wait the cars finally came down Main Street. The same street I had marched in as a Cub Scout. Walter Schirra spoke. He had bright red hair. He was the only astronaut I ever saw in person.