Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Kennedy Years

We've been watching "The Kennedys" on Reelz TV. The series was originally produced for the History Channel, but they declined to air it since they felt the producer was too harsh on the family, especially poppa Joe. They paint him as a controlling, micro-managing fanatic who would stop at nothing to get one of his sons elected President of the United States. It is rumored that, partly because she has a new book coming out on her family, Caroline Kennedy and the rest of the clan exerted pressure on A&E, the parent company of the History Channel, to yank the series because it portrayed her family as manipulating schemers. I found it ironic that in pulling the rug out from under this fine series, the Kennedys acted in exactly the way the producers characterized them in the show.

But I'm not out to bash the Kennedys; they have suffered enough. I really wanted to write about the crises I lived through during the Kennedy administration. I never really thought about it because it just seemed like part of growing up, but President John Kennedy faced some big time challenges in his short time in office. There were many issues facing the country, and it seemed unfair somehow that all would come to a head on JFK's watch. It was the height of the Cold War, with Russia and the United States circling like two Summo wrestlers over who would be the 800 pound gorilla in the world. Racial tensions were tearing the country apart, and the newly liberated island of Cuba, just 90 miles off our coast, was cozying up to the Russians. It seemed as if real life was playing out like in the movies Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May.

First. there was the crisis in Berlin. In November 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev issued an ultimatum giving the Western powers six months to agree to withdraw from Berlin and make it a free, demilitarized city. Kruschev and Eisenhower talked but no agreement was reached. In 1961, alarmed by the steady flow of citizens from to East to West Berlin, the border to West Berlin was closed and the Berlin Wall erected. President Kennedy responded by calling up nearly 150,000 National Guardsmen. My Army reserve was on alert but never activated. My pal Lefty from Hull Street was called up with his reserve unit and spent a year in North Carolina making Raleigh safe for Democracy. The Berlin Wall stood until the great Ronald Wilson Reagan made his famous: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech in 1987.

Most southern states had "separate but equal" rules for whites and blacks in the early sixties for schools and other public facilities. A black student named James Meredith, who had attended an all black junior college for two years, applied in 1960 to get a degree at the University of Mississippi. He was denied entry twice, with the leading opponent being the state governor, Ross Barnett. After winning a case brought on his behalf by the NAACP, Meredith thought the matter had been settled. But Governor Barnett, despite telling President Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy that he would stand aside, broke his word and incited the locals to riot, resulting in injuries and death. The Kennedys, infuriated at the betrayal, called in the National Guard who led Meredith through the university's door. This was a shameful incident in American history, and JFK, despite knowing he would lose Southern reelection votes, ultimately did the right thing.

With hardly time to catch his breath, Kennedy was up at bat again. In September 1962, after some unsuccessful operations by the U.S. to overthrow the Cuban regime (Bay of Pigs) the Cuban and Soviet governments began to surreptitiously build bases in Cuba for a number of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles with the ability to strike most of the continental United States. On October 14, 1962, a United States Air Force U-2 plane on a photoreconnaissance mission captured photographic proof of Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba. The U.S. announced that it would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed in Cuba and remove all offensive weapons. Cuba and the Soviets backed down after the United States agreed never to invade Cuba.

I voted for JFK when I was young and foolish, and a registered Democrat. I was greatly saddned when he was killed in 1963. Although history may have taken some of the bloom off the Camelot legend by revealing JFK's human frailties, I think he did a credible job in dealing with all the world-shaking crises he faced in so short a time. I have also gained a measure of respect for his brother Bobby. It was his job to play bad cop to JFK's good cop. Bobby was the hammer in JFK's velvet glove. Together they bullied and cajoled the Congress and the Cabinet, with able assistance from one of the world's greatest political persuaders, Lyndon Baines Johnson. I don't know how anyone stands up to the pressure of being the leader of the free world. I don't envy them their job of running this country, and though I often violently disagree with their policies, I applaud them for having the courage to try.


Children's Craniofacial Association 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Brooklyn's Champs-Élysées

A while back I wrote about Atlantic Avenue, one of the neighborhood streets that holds a lot of memories for me. Another is the majestic Eastern Parkway, a broad, tree-lined boulevard that starts around Bushwick Avenue and winds its way through a tangle of ethnic neighborhoods before ending at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park. When I was growing up in the Fifties, a drive along Eastern Parkway was our answer to a stroll along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The multi-laned street carried traffic from downtown Brooklyn to the Interboro (now called Jackie Robinson) Parkway, and along Atlantic Avenue onto the Belt and Southern State Parkways to the promised land, Long Island.

Eastern Parkway was the world's first six-lane highway, completed in 1874. It had divider islands that separated the main traffic lanes from the local streets. These were planted with beautiful trees and paved with grey stones, and we stood on them waiting for the light to change. For a kid, crossing Eastern Parkway was a big deal, and our parents would have had fits if they knew we were so bold as to try. Brownstone houses, apartment buildings, retail shops and storefront churches lined both sides of the street. In my time, Jews were the primary residents of the area with a scattering of Blacks. A few Orthodox Jews still stubbornly hang on in the Crown Heights section, and an uneasy peace exists between them and the Blacks, who are now the dominant culture.

I spent a good part of my 'yout' just off Eastern Parkway in Callahan and Kelly Park on Truxton Street. We walked from home and sometimes stopped off at the candy store to pick up a new Spaldeen ball, or maybe a bat from the broom factory where they sold thick, red or blue broom handles for fifteen cents. These made perfect stickball bats. We played at the handball courts, where an outline of home plate was painted the height of the strike zone. This was a good variation on street stickball because it only required two kids, a pitcher and a hitter. The area was enclosed by a chain-link fence, and depending where the batted ball hit the fence, it would be a single, double, triple or home run.

Heading along Eastern Parkway toward downtown Brooklyn, we'd pass the live chicken market. I always held my breath to avoid a choking smell that still lingers in my nightmares. There was a junk yard fronted by a run-down store window decorated with hub caps. They sold used car parts...remember this was in the day when people actually repaired their own cars. If you zigged off Eastern Parkway near Carlucci's restaurant where we ate after attending funerals, you could visit Our Lady of Loreto Church on Pacific and Sackman Streets, where I was baptized. There was Miranda's Beer Distributor where my father bought cases of Rhiengold and Piels beer for family celebrations. Farther down was the Eastern Parkway Arena where prize fights were held on Friday nights, and at other times it was used as a roller skating rink.

There were a number of nightclubs along Eastern Parkway, including one whose name escapes me, across from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. This club was patronized mostly by Blacks, and featured top-name entertainment. I went there a couple of times and, while I felt nervous being one of the few white guys at the bar, it was worth it to see acts like the Platters on stage. There was also a small Cabaret whose claim to fame was a real piano mounted on the roof above the doorway. This fascinated me and I went out of my way to look for it every time we drove by. Eastern Parkway ended at the Grand Army Plaza circle near the Brooklyn Museum and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. We just visited a Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Museum last week. Going back there is like time-traveling and somehow makes me feel young again.

I came across a website NewYork/BrooklynOld.htm that contains so many pictures of places in Brooklyn  that, unlike the Brooklyn Museum, are long gone. It gave me such pleasure to look at them because it's who I am. One of the nicest associations I have of the area is from a street that begins where Eastern Parkway ends...Union Street. It was there that a special girl with a small gap in her front teeth grew up at 909 Union Street. Before we were married I 'd drive along Eastern Parkway to pick her up for our dates. When we returned, her father was waiting at the second story window to be sure we didn't linger too long over our goodnights. Thank you Eastern Parkway for Callahan-Kelly Park, the skating rink, the piano on the roof, and for the best friend I have in the world.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Rear View Mirror

In the car today on the oldies station I heard Elvis Presley singing Hard Headed Woman. Suddenly I saw in my mind those wavy black and white lines they always used on old television shows to signal that a flashback was coming.

I'm playing a short center field the way I always did, daring opposing batters to hit it over my head. I'm twelve years old and, in my mind at least, there is no fly ball I can't run down. At the crack of the bat I instinctively take off in the direction I know the ball will be traveling. After a few long strides, without slowing down, I sneak a look over my shoulder to try to pick up the ball's flight. There it is, soaring toward the fence. I adjust my direction slightly and stick up my glove. I hear the thwack as it hits the webbing. I spin and throw hard on a line to third base. The runner who was going to tag up at second goes half-way to third and goes back. He gives me a grudging 'nice catch' nod as I trot back to my position. I'm good. My body is strong, my reflexes are quick, and I have that unshakable confidence unique to the young.

"Well a hard headed woman, a soft hearted man, been the cause of trouble ever since the world began, oh yeah...." is blaring out of the radio of my 1961 Chevy Impala. Heads turn because the car windows are rolled all the way down as I cruise along Cross Bay Boulevard past the Big Bow Wow Drive-In. I can smell the burgers and hot dogs on the summer breeze as I pull into the lot. I look good in my French-toe shoes, black chinos with the belt in back, and my pink and black shirt that laces-up the front. I take an admiring glance at myself in the gleaming finish of the black car before strolling to the miniature golf course to see if any of the guys are there. I wonder how any of the giggling girls, with their hair in giant rollers under bright aqua scarfs can resist me. I have that unshakable confidence unique to the young.

"Now Adam told Eve, listen here to me, don't you let me catch you messin' round that apple tree, oh yeah..." I couldn't wait to get out of high school; college was definitely not for me. I'm in a dead-end job working as a bank clerk and thinking I have the world on a string. I'm pulling in a sweet $52 a week and spending twice that. The free checking account that the bank gives to every employee is my ticket to living beyond my means. Some of the bad checks I wrote are still out there bouncing. I soon discover credit cards and my finances worsen. As Tennessee Ernie said: Another day older and deeper in debt. My prospects are poor, but I'm having too much fun to realize it. I have that unshakable confidence unique to young.

"Now Samson told Delilah loud and clear, Keep your cotton pickin' fingers out my curly hair, oh yeah..." My best friend Rich has a girl he wants me to meet. She's a friend of his girlfriend JoAnn. Her name is Jasmine, she and JoAnn are classmates at Bishop McDonnell High School on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. We meet at JoAnn's house in Richmond Hill. Jasmine seems nice enough and we hit it off pretty well. I am especially impressed with her sense of humor; she laughs at all my jokes. I think we went to a movie and after that had a few dates, but we went our separate ways. Hey, why rush into anything, there are plenty of girls out there and most of them would be happy to date a guy like me. I have that unshakable confidence unique to the young.

"I got a woman, a head like a rock. If she ever went away I'd cry around the clock, oh yeah..." As the light changes and the guy behind me honks, I drift back to reality. I reflect on the ending to my story. It must have been divine intervention that brought me to my senses, and sent me back to the lovely Jasmine. Luckily she saw something in me that even I didn't know was there. She married me, and began the process of turning me into a better man. She sacrificed so that I could finish college at night, get a better job, and make a life for our family. I wanted so much to justify her faith in me.

Whatever I've accomplished in life, I owe to her. Even when I make mistakes she is always there to help me. The only way I can think of to repay her is by trying harder to be the kind of husband she deserves.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, April 4, 2011

What the Hell is a Gerund?

I recently started teaching a 3-day letter writing class for employees of my old company. These folks are senior customer service reps who must compose written replies to the more complicated inquiries and complaints the company receives, and also to letters written to the Public Service Commission or top executives. I knew going in that it would not be an easy class; if you haven't mastered the basics of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, etc. by the eighth grade, then that ship has sailed. My experience bore out my fears...luckily the company has hundreds of "canned" letters written for almost every imaginable occasion that its employees can use as is or modify slightly as necessary. This limits the amount of original writing they must do.

Going over the rules of grammar took me back to my school days at Our Lady of Lourdes in Brooklyn. Those teachers and Franciscan Brothers drilled us relentlessly from the first grade, and created a solid foundation in the English language that they continued to build on right on up through eighth grade. Starting at ground zero with the alphabet, there were printed white-on-green signs mounted above the blackboard that ran around the perimeter of the room. They contained examples of how to write every letter in upper and lower case script.

We learned the Palmer Method of script writing by doing exercises in making loops and whorls with our scratchy fountain pens, while the teachers stood over our shoulders. By pure, boring repetition we learned how to write out letters in a legible hand by the end of first grade. Today, teaching script writing to kids has become a major issue in grammar schools. "Helicopter Parents", so called because they hover over their children every moment of every day, are up in arms because little Ashley made a scowly face when she tried to write in script. Call out the guard, change the curriculum, my child is struggling and I can't bear to watch! Some pinhead actually wrote a book called: "Handwriting Without Tears". Puh-leeeeze.

By second grade we learned about capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. In third grade we hit the basic parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Then we moved on to prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, infinitives, and gerunds... gerunds, for God's sake. If you asked the average high school graduate what a gerund was, they would probably answer: a small, furry animal that lives in a cage and exercises on a wheel. We not only learned the parts of speech, but how to correctly use them in sentences. By third grade we were diagramming sentences showing their proper construction, the subject, verb, object and all modifiers. This was a foolproof way to learn grammar, but they don't teach it any more because it causes the kiddies to frown.

We took all the English we learned and we wrote. Essays, book reports, friendly letters, business letters...we had homework every night that involved writing out the answers to questions. Our answers had to be not only factually correct, but written logically, using correct spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. I'd bet money that in 1956, the English and writing skills we had after graduating eighth grade in a Catholic grammar school would surpass those of college grads today. Don't take that bet because you'd lose. One of the greatest deficiencies exhibited by modern day job seekers is the inability to write. It's a very sad legacy for young American adults that they can't write nearly as well as mid-Nineteenth Century kids with a fourth grade education.

So thank you Misses Langin, Ruffalo, Wall and Baumann; thank you Brothers Conrad, Francis, and Jude for beating that stuff into our young skulls. We didn't appreciate it then, but you were bestowing on us the priceless gift of literacy. Today we worry more about our kids being happy and having high self-esteem...those things are good up to a point, but can't help them find work if they are illiterate morons.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association