Church, My Son
I was born one week before Christ so I had to go to a Lutheran Kindergarten. In September I was still only four but my mother said I was ready for school. I knew my letters and numbers and could write my name. I wanted a new adventure like riding on the big yellow school bus, but I had mixed feelings about leaving home. Mother was always making homemade apple pies and rolling the leftover pie dough into “Pigs in the Blanket.” On hot days, she would pull down the green window shades so my little brother and I could play with our ray guns in the dark, cool house. Sometimes we got to roller skate right through the living room, office, kitchen, and dining room. A complete circle, good as any roller rink. Everyday we listened to Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club on radio and then watched Arthur Godfrey on TV. He had this old guy named Frank Parker singing duets with Marion Marlowe. She looked like a China doll, black lacquered hair, heavy makeup painted on a face of white chalk, and a big beauty mark on her cheek.
The real problem with my going to school was age, or lack of it. As I mentioned, I was born a week before Jesus, December 18, so I was too young to start school in September. My mother wasn’t easily dissuaded by silly regulations. She said I was ready for school, so off I went. To a Lutheran Kindergarten. We weren’t Lutheran. In fact, my mother was from England so she was Anglican and my father was from Scotland so he was Presbyterian. We had already compromised by attending a Methodist church because it was closest to our house.
The Lutheran Kindergarten wasn’t so bad because my grandfather was the janitor there. He always put green oily sweeping compound all over the floors, then we walked around on them for a while before sweeping. That did a perfect job of picking up all the dust. Gdpa taught me to push a pushbroom. “Pushbrooms are for pushing," he would say.
During that year, I got kind of religious, maybe a little too religious for my parents. One night I had a very high fever, becoming delirious. Black cars were driving over my head, millions of them. Whiz, Whiz, Whiz. I might die. I kept repeating, “Don’t worry Mother, God will take care of me. He will take me to heaven.” That was too much religion for my mother. First Grade, public school.
I spent a lot of time at Gdpa and Gdma’s house because they lived right next door. I liked my grandparent’s house because everything was kept so perfect, quite unlike my house which was always topsy turvy because of my brother and me. Gdpa and I would work in his basement workshop making toy boats or playing English billiards, then watch TV in the livingroom. We liked “Friday Night Fights” with Ingemar Johansen or Sugar Ray Robinson or “Red Wing Hockey” with Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk. Gdpa would peel apples with his pocket knife, one continuous spiral of red unwinding off the apple. We would munch apples and talk hockey. Delicious.
There was a lot of newfangled food coming along at this time. Margarine was white, like lard, and came in a plastic bag with a red dot of food dye in it. It was my job to squeeze and squeeze the bag (carefully) to mix the color into the white stuff until it all turned yellow like butter. I think this was the dairy industry trying to fight the future.
Another thing was whipped cream in aerosol cans. One time, Gdma made one of her delicious desserts. The whole family waited in mouth watering anticipation as Gdpa tried to figure out how to use the new whipped cream. He didn’t know the can had to be facing upside down so he shook and shook the can, set it on the table and pressed the nozzle. WHOOSH! ALL THE CREAM shot onto the ceiling like skywriting. That was it for fake stuff in that house. The dairy industry had nothing to worry about at 30521 Seven Mile Road.
That same year, my grandmother died. That was really too bad because she was a real grandmother. She was quite small, had white hair, wore little wire grandmother glasses and dresses with small flowers on them. Whenever she went out in Gdpa’s 1941 Ford, she would wear a nice little hat and sensible Gdma shoes with short heels.
My grandfather became a little lonely after Gdma died. He would still work in his garden caring for currants and gooseberries and other things that seemed kind of English to me. My brother and I were most interested in Gdpa’s grapes. Every year in the fall, the grape arbors were loaded with purple concord grapes and we could pick them to sell by the roadside. Our road was four-lane, connecting Detroit with towns to the west. Cars whizzed by and some of those whizzing cars meant grape jam-makers. Bob and I would pick bushels of grapes and place them as near the road as we dared, and wait. We always wore spanking clean white aprons. Mother said this was good for business.
We would sit on chairs behind the overflowing purple treasure and watch every car’s approach, Sometimes there was a lot of waiting before a true grape jam-maker would drive by. During the lulls, we would have Ford and Chevy counting contests. If a neighbor kid came by, he got Plymouths. There were never as many Plymouths. If a big Mack truck rumbled past, we would all jerk our arms up and down trying to get the truckdriver to pull his air horns. When he went “TOOT, TOOT," we would jump up and down, cheering wildly. Being young entrepreneurs was fun in those days.
Having fun was definitely a high priority for us kids but the noise level wasn’t always a joy shared by Gdpa. As I mentioned, he was somewhat lonely without Gdma, so would come to dinner at our house on Sundays after church. Bob and I were the Cisco Kid and Pancho or Hoppy and California or The Lone Ranger and Tonto which translated to continuous whoopin’ and hollerin’. When the decibels were “decibeling” in Gdpa’s ears, he had a wonderful expression to quiet us down, “Church, My Son.”
That usually did it for the noise, but unfortunately, Gdpa still had to endure the “spills.” For some reason, at every meal, I spilled something; milk, catsup, or Gdpa’s tea. It got so bad that Mother decided to punish me by making me mop the dining room linoleum after one mishap. Unfortunately, this backfired. As I mopped and mopped, she heard my little brother ask, “How come you get to mop?" I whispered to him, “If you want to mop, just spill your milk tonight.”
For a few years, “Church, My Son” was about the full extent of my religious training. The next religious experience came in the form of a pretty girl with big brown eyes and long, black hair. Her name was Barbara and she was the youngest daughter of an Italian family across the street. She was almost a mirage, a vision, an apparition. That big street was a river dividing countries, it was too dangerous for me to cross alone. Sometimes I would see Barbara way over there going to school.
She went to “Our Lady of Sorrows”, a Catholic school in the next town. Barbara didn’t look very sorrowful, but she did look different. She always wore a black and white uniform dress with black shoes and white socks. Whether those were the famous patent leather, “mirror” shoes that Catholics are always worrying about, I don’t know. I wouldn’t learn about that mystery for a few more years and, anyway, she was much too far away for me to be looking up anything.
Once in a while, I did go to Barbara’s house and she did come to mine. Our whole family would walk across the street together to see the Rossi’s garden. That often led to my dad and older brother sampling some of Mr. Rossi’s wine and that led to eating some of Mrs. Rossi’s spaghetti. They were the only Italian people I knew. All I could think was, how can they eat so much spaghetti? And after all that spaghetti, Mrs. Rossi carried in platters of chicken. At our house, spaghetti was supper. Here, it was just the first course.
Mrs. Rossi would bring Barbara to our house for my birthday parties. It was one week before Christmas, so we would put up the Christmas Tree in time for the party and eat chocolate cake and Neapolitan ice cream in the warm glow of Christmas light. Watching Barbara, her glasses and black hair aglow, became my definition of Catholic. I thought all Catholics were Italian and had black hair that glowed.
The next few years were progressively given over to the devil. Hoppy’s horse stayed more and more in the corral as my brother and I gave more attention to Rock n’ Roll. All the music we had in our house was my older sister’s 78s of big band music and operettas. All those records were piled high in a cupboard at the top of the bathroom closet now that she was married and living in a different house. Those records and a few scratchy “Miss Kate” children’s records that we could play on our little two-tone record player were it until “American Bandstand”. Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis changed everything. The “Killer’s” wavy hair flying everywhere as he murdered the piano, Fats Domino’s black fingers loaded with diamond rings as he rode up and down the keys. Man, this might be a shortcut to hell, but it sure was exciting.
Bob and I got white bucks with bunny bags (white suede shoes that you kept white by patting them with a powdery bag) and spent our paper route money on charcoal pants with pink stitching. The next time we went to a wedding reception, we danced fast dancing, crowds of people encircling us to see this new age crash into the staid, overstuffed Fifties.
Everyday I would hurry through my paper route so I could watch some of American Bandstand. I wanted to keep track of those Philadelphia girls growing up, and OUT. Some beautiful girl with tons of peroxide blonde hair would say,“I give that an 86 because it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” We didn’t have any girls in our little town that looked like that. I would give her a 100 because she had everything growing for her. I didn’t know what all those parts were for, but it became my goal to find out.
Some of my first lessons toward that goal were in the form of music education. At parties, we would huddle around the 45 record player, straining to listen to all the words. Some songs were supposed to have “dirty words” in them. This was pretty hard to catch, but we always grinned just the same.
The first record that I ever bought was called “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”. It was by a rhythm and blues group called the “Robins”. Years later, I would name my daughter Robin and the beat up, oil smoking car that I embarrassingly drove around Eugene, was called “Smokey Joe”. I liked Frankie Lyman’s “Only Fools Fall In Love” and Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”. (I named my first black and white steer “Ivory Joe” in honor of his piano).
African American people were as new to me as Italian American people had been a few years earlier. The only experience I had was, about once a summer, on a particularly hot day when the sky above the road shimmered like a lake, a vision of little brown boys in khaki uniforms miraculously revealed itself from out of the “lake”. Slowly and quietly they marched along the roadside in their Boy Scout uniforms, passing our house in single file and, just as slowly, vanishing into the west. This seemed to happen about once a summer, always on the hottest day when you couldn’t keep the tiny bugs from flying around your eyes and landing on the sweat of your dirty neck. That was the day when the Boy Scouts walked by, the same kind of day that we would see a huge blimp slowly float through the summer clouds overhead. Both of those events were surreal visions to a kid way out in the Michigan countryside.
The only other time I would see African Americans was when my mother took Bob and me to downtown Detroit on the DSR bus. I remember thinking, everybody looks so different. Aren’t any Negro people pretty? Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
This new interest in R&B and Rock n’ Roll meant I had to get my paper route done faster. I decided I needed a motor scooter. The kid with the Detroit Times route had a red, Sears Allstate scooter. That sure looked better than any bike. I had enough money saved from having worked for four years, but my father kept saying no. All the “Aw gee Dads” didn’t make a dent. Finally he declared, “You can’t have a motor scooter. Those little wheels are too dangerous. If you are going to get anything, you have to get a motorcycle.”
“WHAT!" That was like Brer Rabbit saying, “Please don’t throw me in that briar patch.” Yes, my father was the police commissioner in our fast growing suburb and the motorcycle policeman had told him that a motorcycle was better. So, off we went to the same dealer in Detroit that our city bought their police bikes and, yes, I bought a brand new1957 gold Harley Davidson motorcycle. Fourteen years old and my own Harley. True, it wasn’t as big as the police bikes, but it was a Harley and it was mine. Man, a few years ago I couldn’t even cross the road. Now, I was the king of it.
A tricycle lets you go around the yard, a bicycle lets you go around the neighborhood, and a motorcycle lets you just go. First I was Howdy Doody, then Hopalong Cassidy, but now I was Marlon Brando, The Wild One. Soon more kids were getting motorcycles; another Harley, a BSA Bantam Major, a Triumph Terrier and a Tiger Cub, a whole array of bikes. We became the Lady Luck Motorcycle Club, complete with leather jackets emblazoned with a sexy lady holding a pair of dice.
This is paradise. We are traveling, we are on the road. We are the road, weaving back and forth across the yellow ribbon that carries us through the last half of the Twentieth Century. We ride away from the overstuffed Fifties of Eisenhower and Marilyn Monroe straight into the wind. Open the throttle more and more until the wind draws trails of tears across our cheeks. The white road markings blip faster and faster across our vision; BLIP, BLIP, BLIP. Images flash white against our retinas, strong, violent images that burn into our minds. The visions come faster and faster until their shock can no longer register. We scream down the highway toward another millenium.