Sunday, June 29, 2014

Band Aid Park

Parents are so overprotective of their kids these days, they would shudder if they ever visited the playgrounds of my youth. It's not that our parents didn't worry about us, they just had to make do with the places available for kids to play. Our most frequented playground was in Callahan & Kelly Park, which lies at the northern edge of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville on Truxton Street, beneath the elevated "Broadway Line" subway. (For the record, "elevated subway" is an oxymoron.)

The park was large for a neighborhood playground, with baseball diamonds, basketball, handball and bocci courts, horseshoe throwing pits, picnic tables and of course the children's playground. Also, the park was lit at night, which made it great for summer evening activities. The playgrounds of today are designed and built to be "child-safe". The play areas are constructed of plastic with no sharp edges; hand rails are on every raised platform; even the floor is rubberized in case, heaven forbid, a child should fall down.

The Callahan & Kelly playground was a minefield of dangerous activities. Everything was made of steel that heated up in the mid-day sun; wood filled with skin-piercing splinters, and unforgiving concrete floors that did not treat kiddy knees and skulls kindly. The typical things to play on in every Brooklyn playground included swings, slides (called sliding ponds), see-saws and of course every parent's favorite, the dreaded monkey bars. There was also a wading pool, basically a concrete enclosure surrounded by steel bars, that was flooded by a series of sprinkler heads that surrounded the pool.

The swings were of two types, "kiddy" and what we called "the big swings". Except for being made of stainless steel, which on a hot day could nicely broil a small child in about five minutes, the kiddy swings were relatively safe. The big swings were another matter. Typically, one did not sit on them as intended, but rather stood up and pumped one's little legs to propel the swing higher and higher. There was no limit to how high the swings could go, and in the process of trying to impress one's friends, kids were known to fly well above the horizontal bar from which the swings were suspended. Another daredevil stunt was to have a friend sit on the swing while you stood on it and pumped the both of you into the stratosphere.

The slide or "sliding pond" as it came to be named by immigrants who remembered sliding on the winter ice in their native countries, was a big source of emergency room visits. Besides being able to make pancakes on its surface on a hot day, the slide featured other hazards. If the slide got sticky, say from someone spilling a Coke on it, the kid would slide a few feet, stick on the tacky surface, and tumble down the rest of the way, or worse, off the edge of the slide onto the friendly concrete floor. Climbing up the slide instead of using the ladder also resulted in frequent "owies" and souvenir band aids.

The see-saw (or teeter totter as it is known in Westchester) seems harmless enough. One child sits on either end and laughingly enjoys going up and down. Not in our playground. One fun prank was to quickly push down on your end just as the other kid was straddling his end to get on. This contributed to the steady flow of boys entering the priesthood in my neighborhood. It also kept our local dentists supplied with orthodontia work. Another gag was to first lower your end all the way, which naturally elevated the other kid as high as he could go. And then the fun part of suddenly jumping off your side and watching the kid on the other end come crashing down onto, you guessed it, the concrete floor. It is thought that the term "pain in the ass" originated from this practice.

And now, the king of kiddie playground injuries, the monkey bars. In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh sought to eliminate the Israelites by killing all their first-born sons. If only he had known about the monkey bars. The designer of this apparatus must have been horribly teased as a boy, and his vengeance was well wrought upon the sons of his tormentors. A pyramid-like structure about twenty feet high, built of steel pipes made to be climbed or swung from. Again, if used carefully, the monkey bars were safe enough. A rite of passage in our group, however, was to climb to the uppermost bars and stand on the top bars without holding on to anything. There are definitely kids walking around today who can't do long-division because their attempts to accomplish this feat failed miserably.

As for the wading pool, other than falling on the concrete floor, or getting hung up climbing the pointed, wrought iron fence, this was a relatively low risk activity. Of course if the park attendant or "parkie" as we called him didn't thoroughly sweep out the broken beer bottles from the night before, there could be stitches in your future, but on a hot day, we were prepared to take our chances. Kids in their bathing suits enjoyed sitting on the gushing sprinkler heads. If you haven't done this, it's hard to understand the feeling. It's why, even as adults in the jacuzzi, we gravitate to the inlet water jets just to recreate that thrill.

Disneyworld and $5,000 vacations were off in the future. All we had were wood and steel and concrete, and we sure as hell made the most of them.

(Originally published  12/28/08)


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

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tony Boots

Because he worked a second job in a shoe store to help support his family, my father Anthony earned the colorful nickname “Tony Boots”. My Dad had a little Ralph Kramden in him; he was always looking for a get-rich quick scheme to supplement his modest income. Picking stocks was his specialty. Market experts kept tabs on which stocks my father bought so that they could rush out and sell. My long-suffering mother always rolled her eyes when Dad picked up the financial pages. Slow horses were another hobby of his. When we moved down the block from Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, I half expected to be evicted from our house any day. In real estate, his motto was “Buy High, Sell Low".

Although Dad may not have been the most astute financier, he was a good father...quick to tell a joke and enjoy a drink. He was a good-hearted, hard-working guy who almost always wore a suit and tie. Tony loved his sleep and stayed in bed until my mother practically rolled him onto the floor. In an effort to save time, he put his socks and belt in his jacket pocket and put them on when he got to work. Tony did his fatherly duty too. On the day I left to report for army boot camp, he walked with me to the subway station. As I was about to go down the steps, he pressed two condoms into my hand and said: "I guess by now you know what these are for". (Sex education was a brief affair in the 1960s.)

My father loved baseball, the New York Yankees in particular, and Joe DiMaggio above all. He liked the way Joe went about his business, quietly with no hot-dogging. Dad would watch the Yanks on TV, dutifully opening a quart of Ballantine Ale, in support of the team's sponsor. He kidded with the neighbors, who were mostly loyal Brooklyn Dodger fans, about how the Dodgers were perennial also-rans to the Yankees in the World Series. Tony was good at inserting the needle, especially after a few beers. Of course he never left the house when the Dodgers finally beat the Yanks in the '55 series...his victims would have hung him from a lamp post.

I will never forget one Christmas when I was around 12 years old, I dropped a hint for a new Don Larsen model Rawlings baseball glove that was in the window of Davega's sporting goods on Pitkin Avenue. It cost a lot of money, and my expectations for getting it were not high. Imagine my surprise when the very last gift I opened that Christmas turned out to be my glove. Only when I grew older did I realize what sacrifices my family must have made to get it for me. Thanks for everything Pop, especially for teaching me what it really means to be a father. 

(Originally published September 26, 2008)


Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, June 13, 2014

Milestones II

All humans enter this world at birth and leave it at death, hopefully going on to a better place where they have plasma TVs in every room and never heard of "The View". For me life was marked by certain events and rituals, the hallmarks of growing up in an Italian-American family. These were happy times, and as I think back on them I can recall the joy that each event inspired. Most of us pass through these gateways on our march through life, but for Italian-Americans, the flavor is a little different..something like putting fennel seed in your meatballs to make them a cut above the ordinary.

I was born the first child of Frances and Anthony Pantaleno in Unity Hospital in Brooklyn, New York on July 5, 1942. My parents named me James. They didn't give me a middle name because we couldn't afford one. I can just imagine the scene on Pacific Street when they brought me home. The anisette cookies and the bottle of Fleishman's Rye would have been out as family and friends filed in to see the baby and congratulate the parents. There probably was also an old woman in black performing some Italian black-magic ritual to ensure health and wealth for the baby. The spell was half effective.

In the second grade I received my first Holy Communion. This was a big event in Catholic-Italian households, although not as big as today when spending on communion parties exceeds what I spent on my wedding. We were drilled by our teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes in preparation for the event. Then, on the big day, we marched down the aisle in that magnificent church, boys on one side, girls on the other. The host was placed on our tongues while kneeling at the altar rail (no receiving communion in the hand back then) and we marched back to our assigned pews as our proud families looked on. It was customary to capture such special events for posterity in a formal studio portrait, which is shown at left.

The next big milestone was Confirmation, which I received in the sixth grade. This is the next step in a Catholic boy's development. The event required that all boys buy a dark blue suit. My mother took me to Klein's on Union Square in Manhattan, where we bought a suit sized so big (so I wouldn't outgrow it too quickly) that I think I wore it to my first job interview. We were allowed to choose a "Confirmation Name" and I chose Philip in tribute to my good friend and next-door neighbor. My grandmother pulled me aside when we got home from church and slipped me a quarter tied up in a handkerchief. (Note the column I'm standing next to is the same as for my Communion picture. Thank you, Roma Studios.)

At age 24, I married Jasmine, the love of my life. We had dated for a while after being introduced by friends, but then separated for a few years. At the wedding of those friends, Jasmine was the maid of honor and I was the best man. I didn't let her get away a second time. I had brought girls home before, but this time my mother pulled me aside and said: "This is the one". How can a boy argue with his mother. We were wed at St. Francis Xavier church in Brooklyn followed by a rousing reception at The Pisa, on 86th Street. Pictured with us is the couple who introduced us all those years ago on a trip to Italy. I owe them a lot.

Less than ten months after the wedding, (hey, we're Italian) our daughter Laura was born. She was the most beautiful little girl I ever saw. Four years later came our son Michael, who arrived after a thrill-packed, police-escorted ride to the hospital. After another four year interval, our youngest son Matthew was born to complete our family. (We always kidded that the four years between each child was our college tuition payment plan). In time, son-in-law Malcolm, daughter-in-law Alicia, and daughter-in-law to be (this September) Tara joined the family. Our granddaughter Ava arrived in 2003, and immediately took over all family operations, and our second granddaughter, Priscilla, was born this past January. We have been blessed. As the Italians say, "Alla famiglia".

P.S.  I won't be around to write about the last milestone in my life. Somebody please say something nice.

(Originally published November 14, 2009)


Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Rain in Spain

I hate rainy days. I know I shouldn't because the earth could not survive without rain, but I hate it anyhow. This feeling goes back to my childhood when rainy days meant staying in the house and driving my poor mother crazy. You have to remember that at least for part of my childhood, we had no TV. There were no video games, no computers, no smart phones or DVDs...all that stood between you and crushing boredom were the toys you had, like an erector set, cowboy and Indian action figures or model trains. There were times when even these were not enough, and you would wail in that whiny voice that all mothers have come to know and hate: "Moooooooom, there's NOTHING to do!" (For full effect this would be accompanied by stamping your feet loudly as you trailed behind your long-suffering mother.)

Frances, my mother, was pretty creative at distracting me with simple diversions. "Why don't you sort out my buttons", mom would say. She had a big glass canister full of buttons that she would take down from the shelf. She would then supply me with baby food jars and have me sort the buttons by size and color. Even as a child, I was someone who appreciated method and order, so I would dutifully sit there absorbed in my task. My mom always made a fuss when I was done an hour later. "Oh you're such a help to me" she would say, and reward me with some milk and Graham crackers or, on a good day, chocolate Mallomars. It never dawned on me that each time mom asked me to do this, the buttons wound up back in the big glass canister again. Hey, I said I was orderly, not smart.

Sometimes if she wasn't busy, she would sit down with me for arts and crafts. We would make carnations out of tissues and bobby pins. I was amazed at how much like real flowers these things looked, especially if we had pink tissues. Mom would pin one in her dark hair when we were done and I thought she looked so pretty. Another favorite pastime was to cut shapes out of paper like hearts or crosses. We would use a pencil to darken around the outline of the shapes, and then, after laying them on a clean sheet of paper, use our finger to rub outward completely around the graphite edges so that when you lifted the cutout shape away, a perfect image could be seen on the clean sheet in a kind of halo effect. A sample is shown at left, taken from a page in my grammar school graduation album dated January 17, 1956. Mom wrote: "Jimmy, May our Blessed Mother Always Guide and Protect You", from Mother. Fran also slipped in a plug for my Dad's shoe store: "Always Shop Beck".

Another rainy-day activity was playing with my homemade horse. My Aunt Anna took an old trestle table, padded it, and actually fastened on a hobby horse's head and tail. Cowboys were all the rage in the fifties, and I would play in our cellar for hours with my trusty steed. One favorite plot was to tear off thin strips of newspaper, stick them into the whitewashed cellar walls, and pretend they were dynamite fuses. I would use the box of wooden matches I had snuck downstairs to light the fuses, and then run like hell, leaping onto my horse to make my getaway before the explosion. Usually if I was quiet, mom left me alone, thankful I was not pestering her. One day though she got a whiff of the burning fuse and went ballistic. "Are you trying to burn down the house" she hollered. "Do you know what your father keeps down here?" Tony Boots, my dad, had an old dresser full of turpentine, paint thinner and other flammables. Needless to say, my dynamiting days were over.

Sometimes mom would get desperate if we had a rainy spell that lasted a few days. The buttons were sorted, the carnations were made, and the horse was just no fun without the threat of a major fire...what else would keep this kid busy for an hour? Once, at the end of her wits, she asked if I wanted to polish the andirons in our fake fireplace. It didn't sound like much fun, but mom was a wily one. She tricked me like Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence by making the job look irresistible. She took out the bottle of Noxon metal polish and a rag, and began buffing a small section of tarnished brass. Soon the spot was gleaming and I was hooked. I took the rag and must have worked for two hours on those damned things. The fireplace was cheesy, with faux logs that glowed if you plugged them in, but by the time I was done, we had the best andirons on the block.

My wife got to spend a lot of time trying to amuse our three kids on rainy days. You wonder what they'll remember about those days when they're grown. One day my wife asked my son Matt if he remembered playing Batman and Robin with her nearly every day. "Remember when we got dressed up and you were Batman and I was Robin and we played for hours?" she asked hopefully. "No" he said. Ah well.

(Originally published September 2009)


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

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fun With Dick and Jane

Caution: This post is for real old timers only. In an age when printed books as we know them are disappearing in favor of digital editions, I was remembering my parochial school days in the '40s and '50s when none of this electronic stuff had even been imagined. Books were valued and treated with loving care. Most households struggled to put food on the table, so for many, books were a luxury. We had a few well-thumbed volumes in our house, but most of the books I read came from the public library. My parents were too busy raising us and making ends meet to have much free time for reading. The first books I came in contact with were the "Dick and Jane" readers we were given in first grade. Although the idyllic lives led by Dick and Jane, their parents, their dog Spot and cat Tabby were so far removed from my own, I enjoyed reading the stories.

We received a new reader in every grade. The stories got more sophisticated as we were introduced to harder vocabulary words and more complex sentence structure. We stood up and read aloud in the classroom, with our teachers calling on each child to take a turn. If you mispronounced a word, the teacher would correct you, and so we learned. (Today's parents would probably be consulting attorneys to sue the school for publicly correcting their child in class.) The readers were given to you at the beginning of each term, and you were responsible for caring for them. I remember making book covers out of brown paper bags to help protect the book covers. You had to turn the books in at the end of the term, and God help you if there was any scribbled marks on the pages.

We also wrote with fountain pens, the kind you had to fill with ink. The pens had a rubber bladder that held about a day's worth of brilliant thoughts. We used blotters to blot the ink while it was still wet to keep it from smearing. All the local politicians handed out blotters with their campaign pictures on the reverse side of the blotting paper. We were required to use only blue-black ink in our pens. You were expected to fill your pen at home, but the teachers kept a supply of ink you could use if you ran out. Scripto made blue-black ink, but then a company called Waterman's began making inks in exotic colors like aqua and green, colors which were frowned upon in our school. Because the pens tended to leak, every boy at one time or other wore his blue-black badge of courage with honor.

I have a tablet, laptop, smart phone and a Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio, but like some old timers, I still like the feel and smell of real books.