Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Brace Beemer, Please Come Back

Brace Beemer, the voice of the Lone Ranger
from 1941 to1954.

My brother Billy and I were possessive about the family’s wooden, cathedral-shaped radio when I was ten and he was seven.  Sunday afternoons in the late 1940s meant “Gangbusters,” “The Shadow” and “The Cisco Kid” on KOIN out of Portland, Oregon.  But no show compared with “The Lone Ranger,” when Brace Beemer said, “Come on, Silver!  Let's go, big fellow!  Hi-yo Silver!  Away!” 

To make sure that no one intruded on our radio heroes, we hauled out a blanket, arranged two chairs and laid the blanket down to form a tent.

 The tent was an apse for our communion.  The RCA Victor was a temple with a softly lit yellow dial – an absolutely minuscule dial calibrated with numbers and hairline rules.  It had an AM band, an FM band carrying nothing but sighing of the ionosphere, and a short-wave band that connected us to a dimension filled with Teletype, ship-to-shore traffic, and strange ethereal tones.  Some of these messages had to be coming from Axis agents bent on invading the Pacific Northwest because we believed in Captain America. 

 But of course, the messages were indecipherable.  Not even the fastest Morse operator could tell what they meant – and we knew some pretty sharp Boy Scouts. 

The RCA had one other feature we called the mark of the bacon.  The “bacon” was graphic decoration, a series of parallel wavy lines at the end of the dial.  It was drawn the way a little kid would draw a piece of bacon.  We knew it could tell the listener he had penetrated to the very edge of the highest frequency.  Just as the speedometer on our ’39 Buick measured up to 120 miles per hour, we knew there was a reason for putting it there or else why was it drawn?

 The radio was memorable then and now.  No transistorized, plastic, extrusion-molded, super-heterodyne radio today could taste quite like that RCA – a yech-y taste of varnish that sent psychic tingles into some recess of the brain.  It tasted like your school desk when you had to put your head down during rest period in second grade. 

The RCA Victor disappeared when I was eleven, and a console came into our home, a large piece of furniture with a drop-leaf that let you roll out a combination tuner and 78 rpm record player.  The fabric over the lower half of the front covered an eight-inch speaker – the mother of all speakers.  On each side were tall narrow cupboards to store our records, the Mozart and Brahms albums Mom and Dad bought to introduce us to culture.  The William Tell Overture cueing the Lone Ranger wasn’t classical as much as it was, well, exciting.

The drop-leaf made a sort of tent, but we knew RCA had compromised.  The dial didn’t have short-wave and the sign of the bacon was missing.  Further, this guy Clayton Moore took over Brace Beemer’s role, and one of our first heroes disappeared from our lives.  Still, there was that white dog Nipper listening to his master’s voice.

As often happens, I grew up and so did Billy.  Family moves took place as our world came apart by going to Southern California, relocating to Montclair, New Jersey, and finally abandonment when the parents moved to Cherry Hill.  I reached escape velocity at age 17 and spun off to Iowa, Illinois and Massachusetts.  While I was in Korea, the radio was replaced by an imitation-woodgrain model the parents placed back in a corner behind an easy chair.  No one would want to taste that.  The RCA was consigned to the dining room, and the radio-record player removed to store wine glasses and a sticky half-empty bottle of sherry.  

Now, in a kind of time warp, old-time radio programs have returned to my computer.  I click into one of the many radio Internet sites.  Amos ‘n’ Andy come alive, the creaky door of the Inner Sanctum reopens, and the Lone Ranger rides again.

 Brace Beemer would understand what we almost lost.  He’s still out there somewhere, but he’ll come back when we really need him.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Immortality, Version 2.0

My family treated their ancestors the way you might set extra places at table.  My mother and grandmother passed along centuries-old advice and anecdotes about the Fisks, Ballous, Pierces, Hastings and Drapers at the kitchen sink as though it was something they’d seen on the Six O’clock News.  (“Yes,” one would exclaim, “William set a trap to catch the thief stealing his firewood.  He told the children he’d drilled the wood and put gunpowder inside.  Of course, children can’t keep a secret….”  Or, “The worst thing great-great-great grandpa Ezra’s third wife would say is, ‘Well, I pity him.’”)

My ancestors hover in the household like ghosts enjoying a summer vacation.

I’m descended from a New England family whose maternal forebears emigrated from England in the 1600s.  Because of this, I’ll let you know that New Englanders really do “use it up and wear it out” before anything is discarded.  I’ve unpacked a lot of their trunks, had boxes to sort through and albums to review.  It’s not unusual now to straighten up a room and stop to examine Great Grandpa Ballou’s letters from Fort Barrancas when he was with his Vermont Regiment, read postcards from Grandma Fisk invariably taking a train to another town where she’d lecture, or trip over the toleware candle sconces Great-Great-Grandpa Ezra Pierce played with as a child in 1816. 

 It’s more unsettling to look at the hair collection.  These are snippets of hair collected in the 19th century from the family members who had passed on.  They were carefully woven, knotted and tied in bows as keepsakes.  Each is identified on cards by name and dates bracketing their life.  While the cardboard is disintegrating, the hair might have come from sweeping up a barbershop floor yesterday.  This is not the sort of thing I can carry to the Antiques Road Show, so they’ve all gone into a single large envelope labeled “HAIR,” waiting for my children or grandchildren to decide what to do with this memorabilia of mortality.

My limited religious ruminations stop at the thought that we remain immortal until our last acquaintance passes on.  Death isn’t abrupt, but it does catch up eventually.  Given this dollar-store theology, I opt for saying you’re “alive” until you’re no longer remembered by anyone.  (It might help to have some rural legends, like firewood theft prevention, to pass along for posterity.) 
I’ll give proper due to statues in the town square collecting bird droppings and the tombstones moldering in the marble orchard.  But I can also suggest the World Wide Web is an option for immortality. 

Grandmother Fisk, for example, had been a lecturer on the Chautauqua Circuit in the first decades of the 20th century, traveling the country as America’s Foremost Cartoonist.  She drew pastel sketches while narrating her stories — patriotic, humorous and historic — before small-town audiences while.  By idly Googling her name, I discovered the University of Iowa had an extensive digital collection of Chautauqua information.  I called the archivist at the U of I libraries, who exclaimed, “We had the notes and programs and schedules, but we had no idea what the actual content of the programs involved!”  I was happy to donate her papers, photos, lecture notes and stories, which are now online.  Even better, she’s been given a new lease on life as students research women’s liberation and write their master’s theses.

Marion Fisk, "Tenting Tonight"

I brought her father back to life as well with a piece of “true fiction.”  Grandma Fisk would tell me stories when I was a child curled up in her four-poster bed.  One recollection was about a famous song to come out of the Civil War, “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.”  This song made the name of its composer, Walter Kittredge, known all over our country.  Kittredge would visit her father — my Great-Grandpa Ballou — and together they’d sing “Tenting Tonight.”  The warmth of the “tent” formed by Grandma’s canopied bed and all those memories can still comfort me.  And perhaps even comfort her spirit if she’s sitting on the bedpost.  Just possibly, my great-grandfather, a loyal Union soldier, also would have a tear in his eye while tucked in snugly on the Web.

Long-dead ancestors have all come back as living memories to new generations, as alive as personalities as they were when the ladies chatted about them in the kitchen.  I’m looking now at an ambrotype portrait of my great-grandmother as a child in 1859.  In her penciled memoir, Mary Ballou wrote in the third person, “At 3 years of age her first picture was taken by a traveling photographer, Lawrence by name.  She sat in a borrowed high chair, belonging to Charlie Jones [a neighbor child].  Black it was with white line trimmings & a diagram on the back.  Her dress was pale orange with little white diamond patterns, low neck, short sleeves, and Mary was half afraid, but altogether curious to see the man put his head under a black cloth.  Mother was ill with typhoid fever, and Mary was recovering from the same.” 

Little Charlie Jones died from typhoid shortly afterwards, and I wonder who remembers him.  He never delivered a speech or wrote a letter, nor had his likeness captured in an ambrotype.  Just a tombstone marks his passing, or a post script on his parents’ marker, that makes small claim to his “immortality.”

 Those New Englanders who never threw anything away?  Mary saved a swatch of her dress.  More than 150 years later, the pale orange still has an otherworldly glow as I show it to my grandchildren. 

 Our poignant search for unfading, eternal life compels us to store school photos, snapshots and Daguerreotypes.  Those “Kodak moments” are a way to store time in a bottle.  The Internet now gives them greater universality.

 We can waltz through a live-for-the-moment future till the devil demands his due.  Then, the words of the dead become precious commodities.  But, there’s good news.  Our images and words can be archived, repeated and shared.  Their spirits can be invited to the dinner table.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Marilyn Monroe Loved Me

Can 11-year-old kids obsess over lovers who steal their small hearts?  Let me be honest; I did.  Worse yet, my love was far, far away.  There was another great, big world outside my hometown in Oregon, and it was called Hollywood.
My first infatuation was Betty Hutton after seeing her in The Greatest Show on Earth.  Betty was caught in a tug-of-war between Charlton Heston and Cornel Wilde in DeMille’s 1952 jaw-dropper.  She also tugged at my heart with her whiskey voice.
But, it was Marilyn who captured my heart.  She took up residency in my waking moments and crept into my night-time thoughts with her breathless voice.  (My heart beat faster when I heard she’d said, “Of course I had something on in bed.  The radio.”).  Her voluptuous figure.  (Nowadays, she would be a size 14.)  Her apparent innocence.  (But weren’t we all innocent then?)  And when I went to the barber shop — oh, rapture! — Marilyn was lying on her side, naked and white, in that incredible 1952 calendar.
It must have been a Hollywood fan magazine that catapulted me into action.  Photoplay and Confidential unveiled an exotic world beyond the reach of mortals and children.  An ad in one of them cried, “Send a letter to Marilyn and she’ll return a large, glossy, black and white photo.”  Cost?  Only a dollar.  And the photo would be signed by Marilyn.  Personally.
I had a dollar.  I had a lot of dollars because I pocketed more than $15 a month from delivering the Portland Oregonian to 50 subscribers every day before school.  My expenses were minimal — just Cokes and Snickers, BBs for my Red Ryder gun, movie tickets.  I could easily slip a dollar into an envelope and borrow a stamp from Mom’s purse.
Then I was struck with horror: Marilyn wasn’t going to pay any attention to an 11-year-old.  Not a kid in a dinky Oregon town.  Adults never paid attention to kids.  Not the barber, not my parents’ friends, not the pastor of our church.  Certainly not a Hollywood movie star.  My playground friends and I were scorned, disenfranchised, non-citizens of the world.
A week went by as I wrestled over being a non-person infected with a fever of desire.  Then the solution came to me.  I went into Dad’s desk and lifted a piece of his stationery.  It was crisp and white, and in blue letters carried his title as president of Pacific University.
Carefully, I practiced my penmanship before committing my request to Marilyn. 
“Dear Miss Monroe, I read your offer and would very much like to have your photograph.  I am one of your biggest fans and loved The Asphalt Jungle.  Enclosed is one dollar.”
Instead of ending with a “Cordially” or “Sincerely,” I signed the letter as an artist might.  “By Wally Giersbach.” 
I checked the mailbox hanging on our front porch every day when I got home from school.  Nothing.  And then.  More days of nothing.  I was beginning to think Marilyn didn’t care.  That she’d taken my money and left me to cry bitter tears.  Didn’t she once say, “If you're gonna be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty”?
One day, Dad came home from his office, eyeing me curiously.  “I have something that I think came to me by mistake,” he said.  “A letter for you.  From Marilyn Monroe.  In Hollywood.” 
Dad had intercepted my dream, exposing me as a stationery thief and an imposter.  Marilyn had mailed her photo and letter to Dad’s office, totally disregarding my instruction to send it my home.  How would a little kid know a woman might betray his trust?
I stood petrified.  Dumbly, I took the 9 x 12-inch envelope and read her cover note.  She said she was glad I was her fan, she appreciated my support, and she hoped I would see her in Niagara when it was released.  She signed the photo, “Love, Marilyn.”
“Son,” Dad said softly, “don’t use my stationery next time your write to your movie star friends.”  He gave me an odd look.  Mom tried to hide her mouth behind her hand.
Perhaps I prayed that night as I held the glossy print of Marilyn, looked deeply into her eyes, and analyzed her rotund signature, “Love, Marilyn.”  Or maybe I felt angry that I wasn’t grown up and respected as an adult who could write to anybody — President Truman or Gene Autry — and they’d listen. 
But I also said “Thank You” to some superior being.  For all the seven hells of embarrassment I’d been put through, I could snuggle under the covers with Marilyn. 


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Searching for Soap

Time is a riptide pulling me inexorably back from the secure beach of things I’ve relied on for decades. Last week, for example, I began searching for a bar of shaving soap I could put in the dimestore mug I’ve used since my Dad passed away in 1981. The mug probably cost less than two bucks when Dad bought it decades earlier.

I ran my finger over the shelves at Walgreen’s, finally letting an associate help search through lotions and aftershaves and aerosol cans. Finally, we reached the same conclusion. “I guess we don’t have shaving soap,” she said in wonderment.

Not a problem. I had to go to the Freehold Mall to buy a birthday present for a friend. But Sephora, the slick, pricey cosmetics place my wife had introduced me on to was closed. I walked back to a place called the The Art of Shaving. I chose an after-shave gel for the friend and, hemming and hawing, decided on a cake of sandalwood soap. Getting it home, however, I discovered the three-inch-diameter cake wasn’t going to fit in Dad’s mug. Back I went to claim a credit on my Visa card. Then I zeroed in on a shop that had large, hand-drawn signs saying “SOAP.”

The place, called Lush or something similar, had a friendly clerk who smiled and said “No shaving soap.” Undeterred by the ultra-feminine appearance of this and other boutiques, I wandered in to L’Occitane.”

“Yes,” the chatty lady told me. “In fact, more people are coming to learn the elegance of straight razors and soaps and after-shaves.” And there was a bar of soap — but in a three-inch diameter size that would never fit Dad’s mug. She apologized. “No,” I replied, “I’m sorry. I guess I’m on a fool’s errand.” They were sorry too at Sephora, which had moved downstairs without telling anyone at the mall.

I drove the 20 miles back to Route 70 and parked at Rite Aid, a drugstore whose help always accuses me of having coupons that won’t scan (they do) or who demand my “Wellness Card.” But — hurray!— Rite Aid had shaving soap. One brand, called Van Der Hagen Scented Luxury Shave Soap, for $4.95 (actually made in Texas and a few cents cheaper with a Wellness Card). And, when I got home, I discovered it fit in Dad’s mug!

This isn’t an isolated instance of wondering where my familiar world has disappeared to. Last month, I wanted to record my stories and a few songs for my eight-year-old grandson. My 28-year-old had told me, “Grandpa, just use your phone!” But I couldn’t use my iPhone. It requires some kind of app, and how do you e-mail a disembodied voice to a kid?

I went to Best Buy for a tape recorder. Best Buy’s clerk said hesitantly, “There may be some in back. Go take a look.”

Sorry, but they had none. So, the default was to try Walmart, a store that overwhelms me with strange customers and clerks with blank looks on their face. Walmart makes me think I’ve entered a Stephen King novel. Sorry, three clerks told me in succession. “We haven’t seen tape recorders in years.”

Well, there was always my favorite store, Target, and there — there! — with all the games and odd electronic parts and plastic things to put in your ears was a miniature boombox. It played CDs, cassette tapes and had an AM/FM radio. Best part, it was only $29.95. But at home I discovered there was no condenser microphone. Just a tiny hole for me to insert my mic.

But my mic, which my wife had used to practice her English on the computer, didn’t work. Complaining about the unfairness of life and a world of disappearing media, a friend said nonchalantly, “Here, take my dad’s old Walkman. And here’re half a dozen tapes.” The Walkman was 20 years old, it worked perfectly, and now my eight-year-old goes to sleep at night listening to Grandpa sing “Back in the Saddle Again” and “The Frozen Logger.”

Now, I really need a new phonograph needle to play my old 33’s and 78’s. But stores don’t even sell phonograph turntables anymore. Would they know what a needle is?