The Ghost of Christmas Past

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The thing I remember about Christmas: Me and my little brother slept in the same bedroom, and we’d always wake up on Christmas morning about two hours before it got light. It was still pitch-dark outside, but we were so excited we couldn’t go back to sleep. And we were under express orders not to go downstairs until Mom and Dad got up. So that was a LONG two hours. Sometimes we couldn’t contain ourselves so we’d knock on our parent’s bedroom door and ask them if they were awake yet. Which pissed them off.

Finally — after several lifetimes — they called us to come downstairs. We’d go charging down the stairs to the living room, and there it was — this mountain of presents around the Christmas tree. And what a magnificent sight that was!!

There were five kids in our family. And we’re all in our pajamas, and mom and dad are sitting there in their bathrobes, Dad slurping on his coffee trying to wake up. 

We weren’t one of those families who immediately tore open all our presents in a feeding frenzy. We had this ritual we went through every year. We each had a red stocking with our names on it hanging on the mantel, and the first thing we did was take them down and open them up. They were loaded with candy and little toys and knick-knacks. 

Then, one-by-one, we’d open the presents that we children had bought. “First let’s all open all the presents from Peter.” And so forth.

And then the big moment. We each had a pile of about eight presents from our parents, numbered from one to eight. From the smallest present to the biggest present. And we’d open them up one by one. “OK, everybody open up present number one.” And so forth. The first couple of presents were usually pretty dull. New socks or new mittens, stuff like that. But they got progressively better as we moved up the numbers. And the big number eight present was usually the one thing we wanted most of all. So my parents milked it for all the excitement they could get.

By the time we were done, the living room was a mountain of ripped-open wrapping paper and ribbons piled half-way up the Christmas tree. And we’re all playing away with our new toys and eating all the primo candy bars, and generally it was a pretty merry Christmas every year at our household.

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!!

Image result for custer TV showWhen I was a little kid in the 1960s the only TV shows my mother wouldn’t let me watch was The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (she thought they had something to do with the occult and were possibly satanic) and the Custer TV show.

It annoyed me that my mother wouldn’t let me watch the Custer show. Because the kids I hung out with at school used to watch it, and they’d all discuss the latest episode the next day in the cafeteria at lunch. So I felt like I was out of the loop. But my mother was adamant. No Custer. “I don’t like that they portray someone like THAT as a hero,” she said, in an uncharacteristically serious tone.

My mother felt it was “demeaning” in its depiction of Indians (as they were called back then). Which was odd. Because in all the years growing up that was the only time I ever heard her voice an opinion on the Indian issue. Her grandfather was a full-blooded Iraquoian Indian. And she was a quarter Indian and had an Indian maiden name, which is still on my birth certificate to this day. But she never really talking about it while I was growing up.

I think maybe because, when I was growing up in the late-50s, early-60s, America was such a homogenized culture — it was nearly 90% white. And there was a lot of pressure to fit into this mass culture. “The Conformist 50s” as they came to be known. And you deviated from the norm at your own risk. The complete opposite of today’s fragmented culture where everyone is proclaiming “identity politics” (and everyone is just as desperate to conform to THAT, ha ha).

When I was a little kid I used to play “Cowboys and Indians” like all the other kids. But none of us kids looked at it as a good guy-bad guy thing. We all respected the Noble Injuns just as much as the Cowboys. Because we knew they were the underdogs and were vastly out-numbered. And they were more like “rebels” than “outlaws.” And we all respected how they could put their ear to the ground and hear the Calvary coming, or send smoke signals (how cool was THAT?), and how they used every part of the buffalo, and especially how they were so quiet and stealthy that they could sneak up to you in the woods without disturbing a pebble and slit your throat. And what kid didn’t want to live in one of those awesome teepees. Not to mention smoking the old peace pipe.

The story of what happened to my family is largely the story of what eventually happened to Native Americans in the U.S. They weren’t so much assimilated as they were absorbed. 70% of Native Americans marry outside their race. The highest percentage by far of any race in the U.S. What happened in my family is fairly typical. My mother’s grandfather was a full-blooded Native American. But by the time it got to me four generations later that aspect had pretty much been washed out.

Happy Indigenous People’s Day, everybody!!

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Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!!

Image result for custer TV show

When I was a little kid in the 1960s the only TV shows my mother wouldn’t let me watch was The Twighlight Zone and The Outer Limits (she thought they had something to do with the occult and were possibly satanic) and the Custer TV show.

It annoyed me that my mother wouldn’t let me watch the Custer show. Because the kids I hung out with at school used to watch it, and they’d all discuss the latest episode the next day in the cafeteria at lunch. So I felt like I was out of the loop. But my mother was adamant. No Custer. “I don’t like that they portray someone like THAT as a hero,” she said, in an uncharacteristically serious tone.

My mother felt it was “demeaning” in its depiction of Indians (as they were called back then). Which was odd. Because in all the years growing up that was the only time I ever heard her voice an opinion on the Indian issue. Her grandfather was a full-blooded Iraquoian Indian. And she was a quarter Indian and had an Indian maiden name, which is still on my birth certificate to this day. But she never really talking about it while I was growing up.

I think maybe because, when I was growing up in the late-50s, early-60s, America was such a homogenized culture — it was nearly 90% white. And there was a lot of pressure to fit into this mass culture. “The Conformist 50s” as they came to be known. And you deviated from the norm at your own risk. The complete opposite of today’s fragmented culture where everyone is proclaiming “identity politics” (and everyone is just as desperate to conform to THAT, ha ha).

When I was a little kid I used to play “Cowboys and Indians” like all the other kids. But none of us kids looked at it as a good guy-bad guy thing. We all respected the Noble Injuns just as much as the Cowboys. Because we knew they were the underdogs and were vastly out-numbered. And they were more like “rebels” than “outlaws.” And we all respected how they could put their ear to the ground and hear the Calvary coming, or send smoke signals (how cool was THAT?), and how they used every part of the buffalo, and especially how they were so quiet and stealthy that they could sneak up to you in the woods without disturbing a pebble and slit your throat. And what kid didn’t want to live in one of those awesome teepees. Not to mention smoking the old peace pipe.

The story of what happened to my family is largely the story of what eventually happened to Native Americans in the U.S. They weren’t so much assimilated as they were absorbed. 70% of Native Americans marry outside their race. The highest percentage by far of any race in the U.S. What happened in my family is fairly typical. My mother’s grandfather was a full-blooded Native American. But by the time it got to me four generations later that aspect had pretty much been washed out.

Happy Indigenous People’s Day, everybody!!

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Halloween in High Bridge

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I lived next door to this church for 7 years. From 1961 to 1968. From kindergarten through 6th grade. It was the best home I ever had. My life actually seemed normal back then. A feeling that wouldn’t last.

Anyways, I’ve been thinking of memories of my father. There were 7 of us in the Backwords family. Mom, Dad, and 5 brats. So the family car was always a VW bus, because there were enough seats in it for the whole family to pile into when we went on family trips. And the bus used to be parked in front of our house. This one Halloween night, this older high school kid who was a bit of a local tough soaped up all the windows of the bus as a Halloween prank. Well, my father caught him in the act. He collared the kid and told him he better wash off the soap or he’d be in big trouble. My Dad brought out a bucket of water and some rags and watched over the kid until he had repaired all the damage. I remember looking out the window of our house and watching the action. And I felt proud of my father. Like he was standing tall, protecting the family from harm.

Just a memory from the ancient past.

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Happy Father’s Day

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What do you get the God who has everything??

 

.My father was a Methodist minister. And when I saw this card in the window of the card shop, I had to send it to him for Father’s Day.  It was appropriate for several reason.  Because he was a minister.  And because he used to paint versions of this painting back when I was a kid.

Like most children, I had a hard time sitting through an hour-long church service. And my father’s sermons were no exception.  But he did develop one good shtick. Before he was a preacher he’d been a commercial artist.  So he had some artistic skills.  So he used to put on these special church services called “Chalk Talks.”  He’d be up there on stage by the pulpit with his easel.  And during the course of the hour-long service he would do a chalk drawing of a Biblical scene.

And while he was painting, different people would get up there and read Biblical passages or give testimonials, and musicians would play songs, and the choir would sing.  So it was a pretty varied show.  It was kind of fascinating for average people to see a piece of art being created right before their eyes. And my father had it timed so he’d be finishing the picture just as the service was coming to a close.

Then, after he finished the chalk drawing, the lights would go out.  The church would go completely dark. And then my Dad would start turning on different lights attached to his easel.  He painted the picture with fluorescent-colored chalk.  So the picture would change before people’s eyes as the different day-glo colors popped up.  Then for the grand finale, my Dad would utter a few solemn and profound profundities (ha ha).  And then the lights would go on and the crowd would go wild.  Followed by backstage scenes of groupies, drugs and debauchery (kidding).

But all and all, it was a pretty effective bit of show biz.  And different churches in the area would hire my Dad to do the gig at their churches.

So anyways, Happy Father’s Day to the all the Fathers out there!

It was 50 years ago today!!! The Summer of Backwords

 

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fb_img_1490752087244.jpgSince everybody is going on and on with all these “It was 50 years ago today” stories — as we wind our way through that utterly fabulous decade that was “The Sixties” — I thought I’d celebrate the 50th Anniversary of when I was 10 years old. Or, as it’s more commonly known in legend and lore, the Summer of Backwords.

It was June 27, 1967. And, needless to say, I was 10 years old. I had just graduated from the 5th grade. And this would be one of the best summers of my life. I still felt normal back then. A feeling that would last for another year. And then never to return.

My favorite TV shows were “Batman” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E..” My favorite band was the Beatles (“Penny Lane” was their latest hit). And my favorite comic book was Spiderman and MAD magazine. My favorite sports team — oddly — was the San Francisco Warriors basketball team (even though I lived in a little town in the middle of the cow fields of New Jersey, the church league basketball team I played on was the Warriors, which is why I rooted for the Warriors — Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond would battle Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer and the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals later that year).

I had a big gang of friends that I ran with back then. And I was somewhat the leader of the gang (at least that’s how I remember it). And we roved all over town on our banana-seat bicycles like a pack of wild animals. I was the smallest and youngest in my class. But I was generally respected by all (at least that’s how I remember it). My childhood was like a cross between “Leave It to Beaver” and “Spanky and Our Gang.” And I loved every minute of it. I was at the peak of my joy. By 1968 it would mostly be all downhill after that

What can I say? I peaked early.

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High Bridge High School

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The old, red brick building that was High Bridge High School. I went to school there from kindergarten through 4th grade (1960-1965). I can still vividly picture in my mind all the classrooms, the hallways, the gym.

Behind the school was a big asphalt playground, with swings, slide, jungle gym and a full-court basketball court. My favorite place in the universe.

We had noon recess at the playground. And that was always wild — hundreds of kids running around screaming and laughing, playing in the sandbox, soaring on the swings. Usually there’d be a big kickball game going. I still remember the time this one kid kicked the kickball 50 feet in the air and it went right into the basketball basket. A perfect swish. A one-in-a-million shot. We were all stunned by that one.

I remember another kickball game in the 4th grade. Herby Cole got into an altercation with this tough kid at 2nd base. And the tough kid punched Herby in the mouth and knocked Herby’s front teeth out (the tough kid was wearing a big metal ring which I guess was like a brass knuckle). I remember I had to meet with the principal in a back room with Herby and the tough kid. We sat at this big table and gave our accounts of the incident (I was an eye witness). The tough kid ended up getting suspended and I don’t remember seeing him ever again.

Beyond the playground was the railroad tracks. And on the other side of the tracks was my house. I could see the b-ball court from my backyard. So I always knew if there was any action going on. I had a big gang of kids that I ran with back then. Lester and Buddy and Hoffy. And they’d usually be there.

I moved away from High Bridge after the 6th grade in 1968. When I graduated from high school in 1974 the first thing I did that summer was hitch-hike back to High Bridge. And the first place I went to was that great playground of my youth. I was surprised, and disappointed, that I didn’t recognize any of the kids that were playing at the basketball court. It was a whole new gang of kids. For some reason I half-expected that Lester and Buddy and Hoffy would still be playing there. Which was stupid of me. But there you go.

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Home is where the hiraeth is

When I graduated from high school, age 17, one of the first things I did that summer of 1974 was hitch-hike back to my childhood town.  I knocked on the door of the house where I used to live when I was a little kid.  I asked the people who lived there if I could take one last look.  They were very nice.  They gave me a guided tour of the whole house.  Every room bringing back a hundred memories.

I lived in that house for seven years from age 5 to age 11.  Which can be a long time when you’re a kid.  We moved suddenly, and inexplicably (nothing in my family history was ever clear) in the summer of 1968 when I was 11.  But I can still clearly see in my mind,  every room, every closet, and every cupboard in that house.  Every nook and cranny.

My bedroom was on the second floor .  From my window I could see our backyard, and the railroad tracks beyond that, and the old brick high school beyond that, with the playground and basketball courts.  It was about as idyllic a view as a little kid could ever want.

I still dream about that house all the time.  I guess my urge to get back there was some kind of return-to-the-womb drive.

 

I Google-searched around and actually came across a photo of my old childhood house. You can see a little bit of it, the house right next-door to this church.