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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mom pointed to the obvious bulge.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.