Sunday, November 22, 2009

Happiness is an Empty Soda Bottle

We were in Dunkin Donuts today clutching coupons for free tuna sandwiches if we bought medium coffees. We did, and while sitting there eating our free sandwiches, I noticed a small boy excitedly jumping around waiting for his father to buy him an ice cream at the Baskin Robbins that shares the space with Dunkin Donuts. (I guess the theory here is that just in case the donuts alone are not enough to kill you, the ice cream will deliver the coupe de gras.) My point is that the anticipation of soon having an ice cream to eat was enough to make this young boy delirious with joy. As we get older, it takes a lot more to make us happy than it used to. It made me smile to think of the simple things that delighted me as a boy.

Today I hate snow and the thought of trying to drive around in it. When it snows in New York, people get behind the wheel and slip their brains into the glove compartment before pulling out to terrorize the rest of us. It was so different when I was a kid. The sight of fat, white snowflakes falling on a gray day meant we would soon be building snow forts, sledding down the hills, and having snowball fights while taking cover behind the parked cars. When my mother called me in for lunch, every crevice in my body was filled with melting snow. My lips were blue and I couldn't feel my toes as Mom peeled off the boots, snow pants, soaked gloves, and hat with the ear flaps. I was frozen to the bone and couldn't be happier.

Every once in a while, some unexpected cash would fall into my young life like manna from heaven, in the form of empty soda bottles that rewarded the bearer with a five-cent windfall. These were not easy to find, as people didn't disdain nickels in the Fifties; they took the bottles back themselves. If I came across a large Coke, Seven-Up or Hoffman soda bottle, it was off to the grocery store on Rockaway Avenue where the suspicious owner would always ask: "Did you buy that here". "Yes" I lied easily, desperately wanting that nickel. Then it was off to the candy store (after making a mental note to add the white lie to the "Venial Sin" category for that week's confession.

I was a good student at Our Lady of Lourdes school. I had a gift for memorizing things, which made hitting the books almost unnecessary. I tried to go to school prepared for that day's lessons, but sometimes I spent too much time reading comics or watching TV during the time I should have been doing homework. We all know that sinking feeling of walking into the classroom unprepared, and hoping the teacher doesn't call on us. When this happened to me, and it rarely did, I went on the offensive. When the teacher looked up for someone to answer a question, I would raise my hand and wave it around like mad. I developed this simple strategy after noticing that teachers generally did not call on kids with their hands up. It worked every time. Putting one over on the teacher shouldn't have made me happy, but it did.

Happiness came from trivial things like not getting hit when you knew you deserved it; having your sister take the fall for something you did; finding a great prize in your Cracker Jack box like a magnifying glass that you could turn into a solar death ray to incinerate ants. Seeing that kid in Dunkin Donuts today reminded me that joy is all around us if only we look for it through the eyes of a six-year old.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, November 7, 2009

John Philip Sousa Comes to Brooklyn

Woody Allen used to tell a joke about being in a marching band when he was in school, and how it was the band's dream to stay together after school and play lounges. It reminded me, as unlikely as it may seem for a poor kid from Brooklyn, of my days as a member of the marching band in Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school back in the 1950s. Looking back, I can't figure out how a school that charged practically nothing for tuition could afford to support a full-blown marching band with instruments, uniforms, and a band manager. I imagine our parents must have kicked in something, but it couldn't have been much since most of them were struggling just to make ends meet.

The band was something to behold. We had a full horn section (bugles, trombones, French horns and tubas, flutes, glockenspiels (a kind of portable xylophone), snare drums, base drums, standard bearers, baton twirlers and a drum major. Our uniforms were blue satin blouses with white trim, white pants with a blue stripe, and white hats (called shakos I believe) with a gold crest. The band manager, whose name I can't recall, was a dapper looking man with a Boston-Blackie moustache. He was married to a stunning blonde who showed up at all practice sessions, which accounted for our band's nearly perfect attendance record.

The band members were drawn from the kids in school, from fifth graders on up. We were asked what instruments we wanted to play, and somehow they taught us enough music to get by. I played what looked like a trumpet, but was actually called a bugle. It had a single valve parallel to the horn bell, unlike the trumpet which has three valves on top. I can still recall the beautiful, shiny horn sitting in its case with the blue velvet lining. We were responsible for maintaining our instruments, and mine always gleamed. I liked the smell of the Noxon metal polish my mother kept in the house for cleaning our imitation silver dinner wear.

We would march in local parades, mostly in Brooklyn. Once in a while we would get a gig out of the area, and all pile in a bus to visit these exotic places. I think we may have also competed against other school bands but I'm fuzzy about that. We had a limited musical repertoire, but all marching band songs sound alike after the first few numbers. We practiced in the school gym, learning not only how to play our instruments, but also how to march in formation...a skill which came in handy later in life during my army days. I can recall playing our blockbuster, a song called "The Thunderer" by John Philip Sousa, a marching band classic. Here it is sounding a lot better than when we played it.
YouTube - The Thunderer March by John Philip Sousa

My music career was pretty remarkable when you think about it. Not so much for my playing ability, which was just fair, but the fact that at a time when money was scarce, my little school somehow found a way to sponsor such a grand enterprise. It is mainly owing to a Catholic school's ability (even to this day) to squeeze three nickles out of a dime, that inner-city kids like me even had a chance to join a marching band. I think to save money, the church paid off our band leader in "plenary indulgences". (For non-Catholics this was a kind of "get out of jail free" card for any stretch you had to do in Purgatory before ascending into Heaven.)

I was a lucky kid. There were many good men and women like our band manager, the teachers who ran our summer day camp, the coaches of all our athletic teams, and the neighborhood librarians who suggested books to read...these good people gave their time for little compensation so that kids could be off the streets and out of trouble. They challenged our bodies and our minds to make us better, and in retrospect, I am so grateful. If it was within my power, I would grant them ALL a plenary indulgence so they could take the Easy Pass lane straight to Heaven.


Children's Craniofacial Association