Monday, February 7, 2011

Chapter Seven - The Marlene Wars

Chapter Seven
The Marlene Wars
There were always reasons for the boys at Alameda Elementary School to pick sides. Of course the bullies were not that selective. Anybody weaker or smaller was fair game. But other than them, if it wasn’t an ethnic division, it was something like the smart ones against those of us who were dumb. Back in the World War II years, we could be called dumb since no one really cared about what was politically correct. We had more important things to worry about. Let’s just say, I was among the intellectually deprived.
We could also be divided by something as simple as where we lived, but then, not many rich kids attended Alameda, and there wasn’t much of a middle class, so that didn’t usually happen. There were probably other typical divisions, but us boys at Alameda discovered our own unique reason to end up on different sides. That reason was Marlene Bergman.
I still remember the way she looked in her skirt and the blouse that was always crisp and clean. Since it was 1943, girls seldom wore jeans, or, as we called them, Levis, especially not to school. She was the kind of girl you could pick out at a distance, pretty enough for me to know she was out of my league. She had long, flowing, blond hair—probably much prettier in my memories than in real life. But she acted like she was pretty and that was more than enough for us guys to be convinced.
The problem with Marlene was that all of us wanted to be her boyfriend, even those of us who knew it would never happen. But she did seem determined to add as many as she could to her list of ex-boyfriends. I realize now that the only ones on that list were the ones who were better looking. It seemed like one day she would be seen with one boy and then with someone else the following day. Sometimes it would be one boy in the morning and another one by the afternoon. Because of all this, it didn’t take long before the boys in the 5th and 6th grades were almost split down the middle—those who had been Marlene’s boyfriends and the rest of us who were still hoping.
My best friend, Bruce was on the A list which he wore like a badge until she dumped him, and when one of the other dumpees suggested that all the boys should agree not to pay any attention to Marlene, Bruce joined that effort. But there was a problem with that plan.
The rest of us were not ready to be taken out of the line-up before we had a chance to get up to bat. After all, I figured, because of this boycott, I might stand a better chance. I tried hard not to remember that she had never even said, “Hi” to me.
When Marlene found out what was going on, she made an all out effort to turn on the charm. It was powerful and I, for one, was not only convinced I would be next, but also that I would be the one to eliminate any need for a future line-up. I even remember feeling a little sorry for the others who were equally convinced. After all, the day after she found out about the boycott, she spoke to me. With a sweet smile, she said, “Hi, Johnny.” The only thing that kept it from being a momentous occasion was the fact that my name was Ronny. Oh well, I thought, she was looking at me when she said it.
So each one of us on the wanna-be list became Marlene’s army of protectors, which evolved into a confrontation between us and the wounded veterans. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of a contest, but it was developed after two fights broke out between the boys from both sides. I found out about the plan from Bruce.
“Are you going to fight?” he asked.
Someone has said that you are either a fighter or a lover. I’m not sure what they would call the third category that I was in. I took in an extra breath when I said, “Fight? Fight who?”
“You don’t know about the battle?’
I breathed a little easier and was intrigued. I certainly didn’t want to fight, at least not fight-FIGHT. However, since this was during the World War II era, we played a lot of war games, so I assumed he was talking about one of those. But this wasn’t the kind of battle Bruce was talking about. It was more like a contest with the A-list boys against the rest of us. Each of us were assigned a specific opponent and we were supposed to fight—actually to wrestle, until somebody was declared a winner when the loser said, “I give.” If the boys on the pro boycott team ended up with more winners than we did, then we had to agree to ignore Marlene. If we had more winners, then the boycott would be over. I have no idea who was in on the negotiations.
I never did like to wrestle because of the claustrophobic feeling it gave me when someone pinned me or held me down with their arm around my neck. However, I felt this was a matter of honor, and I was hoping Marlene would see that I was fighting for her, giving me a better chance to be her next boyfriend. The interesting thing is that I have no idea if Marlene even knew I was fighting, let alone that she actually saw me doing it. My opponent turned out to be my best friend, Bruce. We were friends, but we were supposed to do our duty. Since the teachers would have interfered, the battle took place after school, on somebody’s front lawn, two blocks from the school building.
As we squared off, facing each other, smiling just a little, I had already begun to lose heart for the whole idea. Deep inside, my honest self was telling me Marlene would never pick me no matter what I did—not even if blood was involved. So, when Bruce pinned me down, with his arm around my neck, it didn’t take long for me to come up with a way out. Laying there with my face pressed against the grass, trying to breath, I said, “I gotta’ go. If I come home late from school my mom will get mad.”
“Do you give up?” Bruce said.
“No, but I have to go home.” I tried to make it sound as logical as possible.
I don’t quite remember how I finally talked him into letting me go. But he agreed that we could finish our part of the battle the next day. But it never happened. In fact, neither army claimed victory. We all kind of lost interest in the whole idea, and eventually most of the boys went on with their lives, some of us waiting patiently to be chosen by Marlene. But you know what? I don’t even know whatever happened to Marlene Bergman. When I went on to junior high school she wasn’t there.
I wonder if she remembers the boycott.

Chapter Six - From Cherokee & Beyond

It is interesting to me that when I have a surge of nostalgia I usually think of the years when we were living on South Cherokee. And yet, we lived there from 1938 to 1943, a little over five years. From Cherokee we moved to 48 West Nevada and lived there from 1943 until 1950, a little over seven years. I suppose Cherokee has a little extra appeal to my memories because they were during my younger years.
Our years on Nevada probably have as many good memories that are eventful because this was kind of a second phase in my growing up years. The house on Nevada was completely different than the one on Cherokee. In the first place, it had a basement, which included the bedroom where my brothers and I slept. Since there was only one light in the ceiling of our bedroom, we had to feel our way down the stairs and into our room or when we had to get up in the middle of the night, there were times when we would stub our bare toes on something. So we rigged our own version of a remote control. We tied a string to the chain hanging from the ceiling light that split in two different directions. One string hung by the entrance to our room and the other we could reach from our beds.
There was a large, unfinished room, which served as a laundry and furnace room. At the opposite end from our bedroom were two rooms, a workshop and a coal bin. The furnace burned coal and was equipped with a stoker that automatically fed the coal into the furnace. For us, this was more or less state of the art because we only had to fill the stoker about every other day in the wintertime.
One of the main differences in this house was that it also had a bathtub. After taking a bath in the number 3 washtub for five years, the bathtub was a real joy. The upstairs consisted of a kitchen with a breakfast nook, a gas stove for cooking which meant that the house could be kept cool in the summertime. The bathroom door was next to the kitchen and in the back corner bedroom was my parents bedroom. On the other side of the bathroom was a walk-in pantry, the size of which some women today would like to have.
In the front of the house was the living room and my sister’s bedroom was next to it. At the front entrance was a very small foyer, just big enough to put my mother’s piano. On the piano was a wind-up mantel clock that had a scary sounding gong that counted out the particular hour.
Now that I am able to look back with more mature objectivity, I can see that my sister was the one who sacrificed her privacy more than the rest of us. By the time she had her own bedroom on Nevada, she was already 14-years-old and, even then that bedroom wasn’t much bigger than some of the walk-in closets of today.
In those days, I thought of my sister as an aggravating, bossy pest. But, once again, I realize now that even though she probably enjoyed telling us what to do, she was also very proud and protective of her brothers.
As a family, we always liked to tell the story about how, when were on Nevada, she would come to the front door, see us playing in the vacant lot across the street and yell, “Jackie, Davy and Ronny!” Then, before we could answer, she would slam the door. I think it must have aggravated me more than my brothers. They were probably wise enough to know that she would not be yelling at us unless she had the full authority of our mother behind her. But I just didn’t like to be told what to do, especially by a sibling. So, the scene would go something like this: She would open the door, yell, then slam the door and I would yell back, “What?” There would be a slight pause and I scream, “What!” again. Then I would say to my brothers, “She makes me so mad! She thinks she’s our mother!” After all of that, we would always go in and it was always my mother who told her to call us. I still didn’t like it.
When we moved we had to force Pal into my Uncle Neville’s car and then, when we got to the new house, he wouldn’t come in. We finally tied a rope to his collar and drag him in. After sleeping in our bedroom the first night, he was no longer afraid to come in.
Our new house was located near two Denver landmarks on Broadway. One, the old Good Heart Laundry was about a half block down the alley from our house on the corner of Broadway and Dakota. That building is still there. The other landmark was the Montgomery Ward building which was a few blocks south on Broadway. It was torn down sometime during the 90’s I believe. In fact, just about every building and house on the west side of Broadway, with the exception of the laundry has been torn down, including our house.
One of our next door neighbors was an older lady, Mrs. Underwood. She probably stands out in my memory because she was such a nice lady. Sometimes people say that someone is grouchy because they are old. Mrs. Underwood was a contradiction to this premise and people like here have cause me to conclude that a grouchy old person was typically a grouchy young person. Of course the exception is when dementia is involved.
When it snowed, either Jack, Dave or I had the job of shoveling the sidewalks and this would automatically include Mrs. Underwood’s walks and the same was true when we mowed the lawn in the summer time. I wonder how many kids have this kind of opportunity today.
It didn’t take us long to get to know our neighbors on Nevada like we had on Cherokee. The main difference, however, was that the adults didn’t get out and play games at night like we did on Cherokee.
Moving from Cherokee to Nevada was the first time I had to go through the heartbreak involved in leaving friends behind. But, once again, looking back with the wisdom of years, I can see now that one heartbreak can open the door to other friends and other blessings. In my case, the move to the house on Nevada led me to the best friend I ever had outside of my family. In fact, as the years went by, he became like a brother to me. As my story continues, you will see his name come up again and again, many times directly involved in the events of my life, even after we became adults.
I actually met Bruce Graydon through another friend. In 1945, when we moved I was in the last part of 5th grade and I was enrolled at Alameda Elementary School on the corner of Bannock and Byers. The building is still there, but they turned it into a condominium several years ago. When I started at Alameda, one of my fellow 5th graders was a boy named Billy McGee. They had known each other before Bruce had moved away and went to another school. Shortly after that, he and his mother moved back to the Alameda school district and became a student there again. I actually met him during the summer before school started. Not only do I remember the time of year, but I remember the exact spot where we met. I was doing some kind of errand for my mother and I was walking north on the west side of Broadway just north of Nevada. Billy and Bruce were walking south on Broadway. Other than the introductions, I don’t remember what else took place on that occasion, but it began a friendship that, at this point, has lasted 67 years.
I’m not sure exactly how or why Bruce and I became such good friends. I think part of it was because he could make me laugh so easily. In my life there have been three people who have been able to make laugh easily. One was my brother Dave and the other two are my son, Bret and then Bruce. But beyond that, Bruce and I seemed to make a connection in several ways. Even when we had arguments, we resolved them very quickly.
One of the things I admired about Bruce during our time at Alameda Elementary School was the way he handled girls. While I was totally awkward around girls, almost afraid of them, he seemed to be totally at ease with them and girls seemed to be attracted by his “I don’t really care” attitude. We have many memories about our encounters with the opposite sex. Possibly the one that stands out is the “Marlene Wars.” We will take a look at this as we continue.

Wintertime Fun, Car Hit & Suspense

Wintertime provided its own opportunities for dangerous fun. The one that sticks out in my memory the most was hitching rides on the rear bumper of cars in the snow. Of course the old style bumpers made it much easier to have something hold on to. Back in those days plowing neighborhood streets didn’t usually Because of these conditions, a car would come down the road very slowly allowing us the time we need to grab the back bumper, squat down sliding along on our shoes. Sometimes we were able to ride this way for as long as a city block. There are many reasons why this was dangerous, but the one thing that happened a lot usually ended with nothing more than skinned knees, and sometimes knuckles. This happened when you hit a patch that wasn’t covered by snow and when our shoes hit the asphalt this had an immediate braking effect causing us to pitch forward on to our knees. Since it usually included holes in the knees of our jeans, it made it difficult to hide this from our mom. As a father and grandfather, I shudder to think about the other things that might have happened.
I will probably think of our other dangerously fun activities as my story continues—some of them when I was an adult.
At this point of trying to remember, I am wishing that I had started writing the biography sooner. Even though I spent 5 and a half years at Rosedale, I can’t remember many more events that took place during those years. But there are two other things I should probably share.
One is my friendship with Ray Hogman who lived a block north of us on Cherokee. He was an only child who spent a lot of time at our house because both of his parents worked. One thing in particular about him is that we argued a lot. Not only did he seem to know how to push my button, I think we enjoyed our arguments. The only time these disagreements would turn into something physical was when we resorted to pushing and wrestling. Even though I have to admit that I felt like it sometimes, we never actually hit each other. To give you some idea about how much he could aggravate me, I need to tell you how one of our arguments got me in trouble.
My parents never allowed any “bad” words of any kind. Not only did this include the euphemisms like heck, darn, etc. we couldn’t say “blast it” or “blast you.” On one occasion, we were playing in the front yard of my house and Ray did something that pushed me so far over the edge, I yelled, “Blast you, Ray!” Just as I finished that verbal explosion, my dad came around the corner of the house from the backyard. That day didn’t end well.
There was one particular weapon that I had that gave me an advantage he didn’t have. When he was a very small boy, he had fallen and cut his head just below the eyebrow above the eye. By the time I knew him, the permanent affect of this injury was already there, which caused his right eye to be slightly slanted. Of course this kind of scar had a stigma at that particular time in history. From the right profile, the scar gave him an oriental look, which, in most people’s mind, made him a “Jap,” especially if they didn’t know him. I knew this was a sore spot with him so I would call him, “Slant-eye,” when he made me angry. This was not only mean On my part, but it wasn’t fair because he didn’t have an equal insult for retaliation to use against me.
I probably wouldn’t be telling about this, except for how it led to one particular occasion when he was desperate to retaliate. It was about a year after I had been hit by the car and my accident was well-known in the neighborhood. If fact, I wore it like a badge, enjoying it when someone would say, “He had a fractured skull and a concussion of the brain.” I’m not sure why, but “concussion of the brain” seemed to make it sound worse. Anyway, on this one particular occasion, Ray had me angry enough to cause me to say, “You stupid, slant-eye!” Ray reacted immediately, pushing me to the ground.
“Don’t call me that!” he yelled, standing over me.
Being pushed to the ground insulted my dignity enough to cause me to repeat my meanness. “You’re a dumb, stupid slant-eye!” I said, looking up at him defiantly.
Ray sputtered in anger, standing over me with clinched fists. “Yeah, well you’re a dumb . . . you’re a dumb, stupid, . . . , a dumb, stupid, car-hit!”
I stared up at him and he stared back, both of us kind of frozen. I finally broke the spell with a frown that was slowly turning into a grin. “What?” I asked.
Still angry, Ray said, “A car-hit! You’re a car-hit!’
In quick order, my frown went to a grin and the grin to a laugh, until I rolled over on my side, saying, “Car-hit?” over and over, between laughs. Ray kept staring at me, obviously trying hard to keep a straight face. He was losing the battle.
I continued to roll back and forth laughing, “Car-hit! You called me a car-hit!”
Ray’s frown held out for another two seconds before he broke up too and soon, we were both laughing at each other laughing. From that day on, we continued to use car-hit as a joke, but I never call him slant-eye after that.
One of the highlights of our day was being able to listen to the radio—not like radio is today. This was during the golden age of the radio drama and comedies like “Fibber Magee & Molly.” In some ways I feel sorry for those who missed this era, having their imagination stifled by television. A television program is limited to what we see, whereas radio’s view was expanded by our mind's eye where there was no limit. When we heard Fibber Magee open his closet there was no way that television could compete with radio even when our eyes were closed. The dramas included shows like “Lux Presents Hollywood,” “One Man’s Family,” “I Love A Mystery,” “Intersanctum,” “Grand Central Station,” “Suspense,” “Let’s Pretend,” “Lights Out,” “Mister Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons,” etc. Our mother wouldn’t allow us to listen to some of these programs because of the nightmares they triggered. Just like when I went to see the movie, “The Mad Ghoul,” there was part of me that wanted to hear these shows. But, inevitably, I was always sorry at night when I went to bed and the lights were turned out. In those days there was no such thing as a night light.
In addition to “Fibber Magee & Molly,” there were other comedies like “Red Skelton,” “Burns & Allen,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” “Our Miss Brooks,” “Henry Aldrige,” “Amos & Andy,” etc.