Ice Cream Camelot
by BJ Neblett
Copyright © 2013
When you are a boy of eleven you know everything: everything you need to know, everything you want to know, and a lot of stuff you don’t care about. The latter comes mostly from school and parents. The other stuff, the stuff much more important to the boy of eleven, comes from the street, from the guys you hang with—from friends. It comes from comic books and older brothers’ Playboy magazines; from JD Salinger and William Golding and Ray Bradbury; from Mickey Spillane under the covers with a flashlight; from movies and TV; and from just being eleven.
At eleven, a boy’s vision is a panoramic three hundred and sixty degrees. His mind is a sponge, his understanding instant. He loves and hates with the same over-abundance of enthusiasm. And he can switch between the two in less time than it takes to lose a prized Warren Spahn or Joe Oliver baseball card in a heated game of Match.
His world may stretch from the corner drugstore to the local hangout to the junior high; from the neighborhood pool to deep inside the woods he’s not suppose to enter, to the spooky old house that gets egged each Mischief Night. But to the eleven year old, this world includes the dusty frontier streets of Dodge City and the reddish, rusty surface of Mars. He covers his territory on his trusty two-wheeler that is at once a painted appaloosa or a thundering Indy race car.
The eleven-year-old boy lives for the moment and dreams of the future. Life is simple at eleven. Life is black and white. Life is good. Life is uncomplicated for the eleven-year-old boy.
Except for when it comes to the eleven-year-old girl. Then logic short circuits and the world becomes a melting ice cream cone of twenty-seven flavors, an impossible choice between apple pie and chocolate cake, between Roger Maris and Willie Mays.
This condition can be directly traced to a simply complex source: hormones. When freshly hatched hormones meet eleven-year-old logic, they beget a love child named confusion.
The eleven-year-old boy can figure out and understand anything—how to take apart his sister’s bicycle, what makes his mom crazy, the bare minimum it takes to appease his teacher. And how to sneak into a Saturday matinee, where to find the best returnable bottles, and shortcuts to just about anywhere.
He also knows how to make the entire fifth-grade class laugh out loud and how to strike out the school bully, thus humiliating him. These ploys are always good for impressing the eleven-year-old girl. But he doesn’t understand why he wants to impress her, only that he wants to—has to—needs to—impress her.
All of this is true. I know. I was an eleven-year-old boy. I lived in Camelot and ate the ice cream before it all melted, all twenty-seven flavors.
The lightly freckled, eleven-year-old object of my personal confusion appeared on the first day of school in 1961.
For some reason school always started on a Wednesday. Not on a Monday as logic might dictate, but on a Wednesday.
My eyes opened involuntarily to the sound of water running. Then off. Then running…
Dad was in the bathroom, shaving.
Men on TV rinsed their Gillette safety razors in the murky water pooling in the sink. My Uncle Jimmy used an electric razor: Close as a blade, twice as comfortable.
Not my dad. Seven days a week—an hour later on Sunday—it was push, pull, click, lock. Then shave… rinse… shave… rinse. Water running… Water off.
There was a slot in the back of the medicine cabinet where Dad ejected the used razor blades, push, pull, click, lock.
“Where do the razor blades go?”
“Down inside the wall.”
“What happens when the wall gets filled up?”
Dad gave me an incredulous look. Another question unanswered. Parents do that sometimes, give their kids the look and don’t answer. They want them to figure it out for themselves. Like the one about the first day of school.
Of all the adults I asked over the years, not one could give me a satisfactory answer. Some gave me the look.
Something about Labor Day and vacations and the school year. Then why do some schools begin before Labor Day?
I never figured it out for myself. But whatever the reason, it seemed to fit, seemed right. Like Thanksgiving always being on Thursday, only of course without the giving thanks—or the cranberries.
Push, pull, click, lock…
If I hurried, I could be next in the bathroom, before my sister. Mary, being two years older, had the larger bedroom, right next to the bathroom. I slept in there one time when my room was being painted. The toilet kept running and kept me awake until dad got up and went in and hit the handle. When my sister gets married in 1969 I’ll move into her room.
Today is a Wednesday, not a hurrying day. Mondays are for hurrying, if you are the hurrying type. Some people are. I’m not.
You see, there is a natural order about things: peanut butter sandwiches are made with grape jelly, not strawberry. The toilet paper roll can go either way, over or under. School starts on Wednesday. You rush on Monday, maybe Tuesday morning, not Wednesday. Someday the wall will get filled up with used razor blades.
Grownups don’t seem to understand these things, at least not parents. Or they have forgotten, or don’t care. It’s a shame—being grown up seems to take something from a person.
No more water running.
Dad left the bathroom and headed downstairs. He switched on the white plastic Silvertone kitchen table radio. Everything in 1961 was made of plastic.
“WIP news time, 5:46 a.m.”
He’ll cook two fried eggs in butter, three pieces of bacon, juice, coffee, milk, and two slices of toast with butter. The broiler drawer on the gas oven squealed like one of grandpa’s piglets. It’s the same thing every morning.
In a couple of years dad will suffer a mild heart attack. He’ll change his eating habits a little. And he’ll start noticing some things again. When I return home from the Army in 1972, my parents will still be making toast in the gas oven’s broiler.
Maybe if they had bought a toaster they would have stayed married.
I could hear my sister in the bathroom. Mary’s the hurrying type most of the time. She’ll make a good parent. She already has the look.
It was too early to get up. Jerry Stevens hadn’t even come on yet. The transistor radio under my pillow was still switched on. I must have fallen asleep with it on again. Good thing I had a spare nine volt.
The radio was a surprise gift from my parents last Christmas. My sister got one, too. Her's was red, mine black plastic with silver trim and white dials, in a soft leather case. It was about the size of a pack of cigarettes, king size.
One night I came home from hanging out with the guys. Hanging out with the guys is important in an eleven-year-old boy’s life: the street corner or vacant lot or playground is his society, his clique, his water cooler. It’s an integral part of how a boy of eleven knows everything. The guys I hung out with were mostly older.
Arriving home, my mom met me at the door. I had a pack of Salem cigarettes in the breast pocket of my denim jacket.
Mom pointed to the obvious bulge. “What’s that?”
The black transistor radio with the built-in antenna became my prized possession. From the Christmas I received it in 1960, it never left me. It changed my life in several ways. I still have it.
The radio gave the time—one minute till six—then a legal ID. Those are the ones with the station’s call letters and transmitter location: every hour at the top of the hour—FCC regulations. My mind was set on being a radio DJ. Spin all the hits—another Alan Freed.
“WIBG radio 99, Lafayette Hills—Philadelphia, a Storer Broadcasting Company.”
It was news time. I switched off my radio and slipped it from the leather case to install a fresh battery. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the news; unlike most kids my age, I often listened.
One winter morning in 1959 the smell of Dad’s breakfast was too strong. If you joined him he’d cook for you, as long as you didn’t talk too much, so he could listen to the news. Dad didn’t seem to know or care anything about music. I came downstairs hoping he was still frying bacon. Peggy Sue flowed out of the white plastic table radio. Dad was listening to rock‘n’roll?
The song faded after a few seconds. The popular La Bamba segued in; then the music dissolved. “JP Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly, dead in an Iowa plane crash. This is 610, WIP.”
I was very aware of rock 'n' roll and familiar with Buddy Holly. My aunt Mary often looked after me till she died of breast cancer at a very young age. Mom’s kid sister never married. She smoked, worked in night clubs, and dated a cool guy named Dominick who carried a pistol, drove a big black Buick, and was connected. She loved him and loved music. I loved her. I can still see her influences on me today.
It was from my aunt that I learned about blues, jazz, bop, R&B, and, most of all, about rock ’n’ roll. My sister and I were already collecting 45’s. Wherever we went there was music: on the radio; the juke box; the record player; in Dominick’s car. It was music that my aunt loved, music that spoke to me, somehow made me feel special.
I remember being at my grandmother’s, in front of her burly Dumont TV, watching Bandstand. This was when rock ’n’ roll was uncorrupted by big money, before the network took the show national. Aunt Mary would pull me up off the floor to dance along with the kids on the flickering black-and-white screen.
After my aunt’s death, my sister and I continued to tune in Dick Clark and American Bandstand. She liked to watch the dancers and see the guest stars. For me it was always the music.
My aunt provided the first piece of the puzzle that was my enigmatic life: music. My transistor radio was the key.
I think that February morning in 1959 was the first time I made a conscious effort to listen to the news. That evening my sister and I ate supper on the folding plastic TV trays in the den. John Facenda, Channel Ten’s stoic anchor, gave the news in his classic, baritone, authoritative announcer’s voice: a fire in west Philly, a shooting, an accident on the Schuylkill Expressway tying up the morning commute, Castro in Cuba.
Then there were haunting images of a private plane, what was left of it, smashed and tangled, up-ended against a barbed-wire fence. Three indistinguishable bodies lay scattered in the fresh snow, like discarded rags, the pilot dead in the cockpit.
The Evening Bulletin carried a front-page headline: Rock Stars Die in Plane Crash, and a half-page article with more pictures inside. My sister kept the newspaper clipping taped to her bedroom mirror till she graduated from high school.
I remember the news of the three young musicians’ deaths making me feel bad, empty. Aunt Mary had just recently passed away. The deaths of Holly, Valens, and the Bopper made me feel as I did when my aunt died. But I didn’t understand why.
I found myself listening to the news in the morning with Dad sometimes. I didn’t always know what I was hearing. Often I’d ask questions about what was being said. Dad would give me the look, not wishing to be disturbed. But later, after dinner, he’d point out an article in the Bulletin that pertained to my earlier question.
I learned to read the newspaper that way. I learned about the world, about war and crime, about the race for space and struggles going on in Cuba and some place called Southeast Asia, and about something called integration and segregation. Dad taught me many things this way, with the look and then helping me to figure it out for myself. But my young brain managed to adopt its own kind of twisted isolationist logic. I didn’t know anyone whose name appeared in the newspaper or on TV, not personally anyway. The victims of crimes and accidents, those who lived in other countries, even other states, weren’t important. They weren’t connected to me or my family or my friends. Therefore, their lives couldn’t have an impact on my own. I came to refer to them in my mind as background people. Things happened to them, not to me. Yet my aunt was gone, as were my mom’s dad and mom. And the tragic plane crash in Iowa stirred new, even more confused feelings inside of me, as did the titillating sounds and images flowing from my radio.
WIBG—Wibbage—didn’t do much news, mostly in the morning, and just enough to keep the FCC happy. What little they gave was short, concise, and usually of interest to me. I liked that. Mostly they just played the hits along with the “oldies,” a term newly coined by LA DJ Art Laboe. It was perfect. Not only did my little radio keep me up with all the hits, it filled me in on the great rock ’n’ roll I may have missed.
But as the 1960 campaigns and presidential election rolled around, I became fascinated by the grim, determined images on the nightly news. The interviews, the speeches, the promises, the accusations and counter charges, and the raucous, chaotic conventions with their balloons and banner waving and frantic calls to order, gavel hammering away, held my attention. Every evening the two icons—the elder, unshaven establishment, and the young, clean-cut, charismatic hopeful—debated the economy, world trade, isolationism, communism, and other topics new to me right there in my den. In the pre-Dallas fall of 1960 I was actually able to shake the hands of both Kennedy and Nixon, as each motored in turn through my welcoming little town.
The background people were beginning to spill over into my safe, comfortable, innocent existence.
The news, local and national, gradually became part of my young life. In the rapidly changing ’60s, it was hard to avoid. With true parental logic, my parents complained that if I could watch the news and read the newspaper, why couldn’t I do my homework and do better in school?
I didn’t give them the look. The answer was simple and clear: school was boring.