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Archive for March, 2007

Huckleberry Friends

Jimmy was a goof. He was a gangly kid, a couple years older than me, with crossed-eyes and flat feet and a crooked back and the demeanor of one of the Three Stooges. He had a brother Danny in my class at Ramona School, but I never tramped around with Danny as much as I did with Jimmy.

They lived in a ramshackle place in Carmelas, just down the street from the Mexican Store, a tiny little market on the highway that served the predominantly Hispanic half of our neighborhood. The Reeses were probably about as poor as we were, with several more kids to support, so Jimmy was always taking odd jobs here and there, wherever he could find one, yet I don’t think he ever left the house in the morning with a dime in his pockets.

I rarely if ever had to look for Jimmy. He was always hanging around our house, waiting for my brother and his friends to ditch him. They were pretty cruel with him by present-day standards, I suppose but Jimmy didn’t seem to mind much. He’d suffer their jibes and jabs, and entertain them with a few nyuk-nyuks, and every day he came back for more. I didn’t mind being ditched myself, nor did I mind his company after they all tore out to go chasing after girls at Knott’s Berry Farm or the beach. I did mind that Eddie left me with most of his half of the yardwork, but that didn’t stop me from chipping in my share of the profits for their gas money either. Besides, Eddie had asthma, and I didn’t.

The yardwork never took that long anyway. Most of the time we would pull a few weeds from around my dad’s rose bushes, that he had planted around the perimeter of the backyard. The hardest part was avoiding the dead fish-heads that he had buried, and swore up and down were fertilizing the soil. Mom, of course was happy if we just stayed out of the house for awhile. 

We always had bikes to ride, but most of the time Jimmy and I would just take off walking. Sometimes we went east to the “Big A,” the large new discount store about a mile down the highway, and he would tramp along beside me on his flat feet. I liked to go there because they had a wide selection of record albums that I couldn’t afford, but it was fun to look and make plans to save up for a new Beatle album. Other times we’d cross over the Santa Ana Freeway via the Shoemaker bridge and scout for pollywogs and frogs in the drainage ditches that ran alongside the interstate. But most of the time we would go the other direction, past the outdoor Harvester’s Market to Front Street, poking our way along the railroad tracks as we went in search of coins, bottles and other valuable litter.  Sometimes we’d stop in at the Salvation Army store, that I always imagined smelled like dead people’s homes, and I’d browse through all the old books and records looking for anything about the war. Then we’d go to the library.

It was a small library with a roof that leaked in the winter, and the books were arranged according to the Dewey Decimal system. Each time I would start on the same side at section  100, where the books about Philosophy and Religion were kept, and slowly make my way down each row, noting all of the books that I wanted to read one day.  I didn’t choose just any old book – over the years I had developed my own system of judging a book not just by its cover. My system involved many criteria, beginning with a cursory examination of the typography and layout of the book, but mostly the book had to be interesting and reflect a commanding knowledge of the subject matter by the author; I could usually tell that in the first few pages. I hated to see one of my books checked out though, because sometimes they never came back.  I’d take each book down from the shelf, and page through it, and sometimes try to read a few pages or a chapter. I remember one book in particular – a book about Philosophy with a red leather binding. It was written by a professor in England, and I remember it so vividly because it was one of the books that got checked out and never returned. Each chapter was about a different branch of Philosophy. The first chapter was titled Epistemology, and the first time I read it I didn’t know what it meant.  The writer explained that it was the theory of knowledge, and he outlined the subject and then proceeded to tell what each of the great philosophers had to say about the subject. There were other chapters on Ethics, Empiricism, Naturalism and many other philosophical  subjects that I could have used in my life. But one day it was gone, and I can’t recall the author’s name.

Besides Philosophy, I had earmarked many other books for future reference. There were books that taught foreign languages – even then I already knew I wanted to learn at least German and Russian. In the section on Mathematics, I had noted a whole string of books on Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry all the way up to Calculus. When I would peruse one of the Calculus texts, it felt as if I was gazing upon some sort of sacred language or book of tomes. The names of Newton, Descartes, Laplace, Riemann were magical names, that struck magical chords within me. Their equations were so advanced they needed new, funny-looking symbols to express them, and that piqued my curiosity. There were books on Chemistry and Physics on my list too, specifically books about space and rocketry, and Orbital Mechanics and Nuclear Physics – all the things I wanted to learn.

Meanwhile Jimmy would wander off by himself, and every now and then he’d bring something over to show me – a book with a humorous title like “Take it Away, Sam,” or that of a movie we’d just seen at the Norwalk Theatre. When I got to the 900’s, in the last row, where the books about history and especially WWII were shelved, he would join me and we would pull each book one by one, so as not to miss any new ones that might have slipped in, and we’d discuss them. I usually would check out three or four of them, but I don’t think I ever read them all. I read a lot of them, books like “God is my Copilot” and “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” and “Sink the Bismarck” and “Guadalcanal Diary,” that have over the years become my very favorites.  I read “The Great Escape” and saw the movie, and after that I couldn’t get enough books about escaped POWs – there was “Escape From Colditz,” where the men were incarcerated in an escape-proof medieval castle, and another called “The Wooden Horse,” where the prisoners dug a tunnel beneath a vaulting horse that they would carry into the exercise yard each day. I imagined what it must have been like to be shot down over Germany, wandering alone at night in a strange land to make my way to the English Channel or to Switzerland. I wondered why they always got caught though – why didn’t they just dig a hole and hide underground, until the Germans tired of looking for them? Years later, I read Simon Wiesenthal’s autobiography, and learned that at one point he did just that. He buried himself in the backyard of an old woman’s farm, and she would slip him food and water whenever she could.

I also read Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” and knew the story of how she and her family hid from the Nazis in Holland, and were captured and taken to a place called a concentration camp, but her story didn’t touch me like those of the POWs. I knew nothing about the Holocaust, or the Final Solution as it was called then, until I read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

One summer between 6th and 7th grades, I took a class and the teacher had a paperback copy sitting out on his desk that he had been reading. I had never seen such a thick book, and I asked him about it, and he told me that it was all about Hitler and the war,  and about how the Germans put all the Jews in concentration camps. He wouldn’t give me that book, but he lent me another about a man named Trachtenberg, who spent some time in one of the camps, and while he was there he thought up quick ways to perform mathematical calculations in his head. I tried to learn some of the techniques, but they were all just tricks that only worked in certain cases.

The idea of concentration camps fascinated me though, so one day I asked at the library if they had that book, and the librarian told me that it was on reserve and there was a long waiting list of readers. Afterwards I saw it at the Big A for $1.65, and I saved up and bought a copy for myself. I was a little disappointed with the book though – only a small portion of it dealt with the war itself, it being mostly about Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. And the concentration camps weren’t really places to think at all, but were brutal death camps. Why I wondered would anybody put Anne Frank in such a place? And what was so different about Jews, that they should deserve such treatment? The only people that I knew were Jews were in show business, like the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny and George Burns, and they made me laugh.

When we left the library, Jimmy and I would usually walk back on Firestone boulevard and stop for a soda or a burger at Norwalk Burger if we had the money. We’d sit and read our books and make plans for our next excursion. Until one day I heard my brother and his friends talking about how some of the older boys had stuffed Jimmy in a trash can at the high school. The next time he came over I just couldn’t face him – I asked my mom to tell him that I was busy.

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The other day I was watching the classic movie, The Great Escape, and it suddenly came to me, that the reason we won WWII was because of baseball. Try as they might, there’s no way the German guards could ever have broken Steve McQueen’s indomitable spirit in that prison camp, not even in the lonely confines of the “cooler,” so long as he had his glove and ball with him. And how many times have we seen one brave American soldier hurl a strike with a hand-grenade through a slit into an otherwise unassailable bunker, killing everyone inside and saving his buddies. I often think that if Adolf Hitler himself had come to know and understand baseball, had he learned to pitch instead of putsch, WWII and the Holocaust might have been avoided altogether.  How might the world have been different today, if Hitler had played baseball instead of politics.

Like so many of our great American ball-players, Hitler was a country boy too, born in a rural part of Austria on the Inn river just before the turn of the century. He struggled as a youth, in fact, he later wrote a book titled “Mein Kampf,” which means my struggle or battle. Struggling is what ballplayers do best – when they go 0 for 30 at the start of a season, they don’t panic because they know it is just a slump, and they will soon break out of it. In Vienna Hitler studied to become an architect, but the Hapsburg world wasn’t ready for his neo-classical Roman knock-off ideas, so he headed north to Germany where folks were less imaginative. There he sat, dejected and no less unappreciated, while across the ocean American baseball fans screamed for unimaginative, Romanesque structures like Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth built, where they could buy hot dogs and cool beer, and the calls of “get your programs” and “kill d’ bum” would echo for miles off the marble walls.

Hitler was a little guy, and we know from historical documents that he had good speed. He served in WWI in the German Army as a runner and was twice decorated for valor. And with a name like “Hit”-ler, he had lead-off written all over him. Had he packed his things after the war and followed the trail of emigrants north to Bremen, instead of stopping off in Munich for a beer, he would surely have found himself sitting in good company in steerage on a boat headed for the United States reading a  copy of the New York Times – Sports page. And if Hitler got a kick out of seeing Paris for the first time, just think how excited the budding megalomaniac would have been to see the majestic skyscrapers of New York City appear over the horizon.

Sailing across the wide Atlantic Ocean would surely have been a humbling experience for him, and seeing that mighty Colossus, the Statue of Liberty standing in the harbor, with her lamp extended would have put a lump in his throat. It might even have cured the morbid anti-semitism festering inside him, when he read those great words written by a Jewish-American poet, Emma Lazarus that stand at the foot of the statue, words of welcome even for him.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And she might have added, I’ll reserve a seat for them at Ebbet’s Field.

It might be said that all roads in America lead to Chicago, where the Cubs and the Sox play, but Hitler would have wanted better beer than the Pabst Blue Ribbon at the Chicago World’s Fair. If you go practically any direction out of Chicago you’re gonna end up in Wisconsin, and from there any German worth his hops could find his way to Milwaukee, the beer capital of America.  As a young German immigrant ball-player Hitler would have found himself struggling once again but in good company, and eventually he would have made it out of Milwaukee to Pawtucket or Altoona, or Pittsburgh where the real beer drinkers grow their bellies.

Pittsburgh was where Wagner played. Hitler loved to listen to Wagner, but that was another Wagner. This son of Bavarian immigrants Wagner was the greatest shortstop to ever play the game and had a lifetime batting average of .327. Honus Wagner was inarguably the toughest guy to ever play ball, and Hitler would have had to look no further for evidence of a master race. Ty Cobb was tough, and probably had a lot of Aryan in him too, but when they met in combat for the first and only time, Cobb left town with a bloody mouth. It is little wonder that Honus Wagner’s tobacco trading card is the card most highly coveted by collectors today and recently sold for 2.35 million dollars at auction. And I’m keeping mine, so don’t ask me!

honus-wagner-card

Sadly Hitler couldn’t have seen the great Honus Wagner play, even if he wanted to. He retired in 1917, though a lot of his records were still around. But who’s to say that, in this land of opportunity Hitler might not have cornered the market on Wagner’s trading card, picking them up practically for peanuts (or Cracker Jack). Eventually Hitler would have become a manager though. He was destined for that, being such a natural-born Fuehrer and leader of men. His tirades out on the field would have become legendary, and his long-winded post-game speeches would have filled pages and pages of script. Instead of despising him, we would celebrate him today in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, along with Miller Huggins, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver, and all the other great, more vituperative Managers. 

Hitler would have been a favorite with the fans in Pittsburgh, because he was all about offense. Attack, attack, attack. That would have been his motto. And the fans in Pennsylvania love that. But he would not have been so popular with the sports writers there – some of them like to see pitching and solid defense too. Hitler was not good at defense and wouldn’t have listened to his coaches. So years later there would have been no great defensive players in the Pirate system like Roberto Clemente, no Bill Mazeroski.

And nobody but nobody could have outslugged the Yankees in the 1920’s anyway. When the Bronx Bombers, Ruth and Gehrig came to town, it would have been Goetterdaemmerung all over again. Which goes to prove, there’s just no getting around history.

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Spring

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal;
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,—
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride.

I have a lantana bush outside my bedroom window that attracts hummingbirds better than any feeder on the market. It’s a pretty bush in the Spring-time, when it first begins to bloom, when it is bursting with red, orange and yellow flora and humming with a rich and varied assortment of fauna. Emily Dickinson would have a field day with it.

To mis-quote Cole Porter, birds love it, bees love it, and I suppose even educated fleas love it. Everybody loves it but me, I guess, when it becomes overgrown in the late summer and I have to crawl in there and trim it before it breaks something. Afterwards, my arms get all red and puffy looking, and itch terribly, but the effect is only temporary. The lady across the street gave the plant to my mother many years ago, when, like me, she discovered that she was allergic to it.

My little hummingbird especially loves that lantana bush, which is why I haven’t just dragged it out. Every spring for as long as I can remember, I have seen him there every day, hovering over the bush and spinning on an invisible axis like a little gyroscope, his wings beating at the speed of sound, his long proboscis focussed on a flower siphoning off the pollen. Then off he flits, in a rush of cochineal, heaven only knows where. Usually I wait until the winter to trim the bush back, but one year, thinking that he had already gone, I cut off all the flowers a little too early. Sure enough, that afternoon I saw him, staring confusedly at the nearly bare bush, but he managed to find one flower to pollenate, and then off he went. The next day he was working over at our morning glory vines alongside another old friend, the black bee.

When I was little everybody used to always tell me to be careful of the black bees, even though they don’t appear to have any kind of stinger. But I was always more afraid of the wasps that inhabited the hedge that grew between our house and that of Mrs. Hensley. It was a toss-up which was the meaner of the two – the wasps with their thin, jet-black bodies and golden wings, and their mud-daub nests, or the old woman with her sharp nose and dishevelled reddish brown hair. She was a widow, with two very attractive daughters, that she treated disparately different. Jane was a tall, buxom blonde, and Lorene a petite brunette. Whenever I had to get into the backyard, I would just duck my head and run for it.

After we moved into the house next door, I no longer had to deal with either the black wasps or Mrs. Hensley, but we did inherit a new wasp. Every spring I would find a new hive under the front eaves of the house, and one or two yellow wasps. I was leery of them, but over the years I think they have kept away the killer, or africanized bees. Every so often, I used to see strangely vicious, sleeker looking bees than the regular honeybees nosing about, and large swarms of bees on the move, but not anymore. I’m not sure if that is because of the wasps or the birds.

Over the course of a year a lot of different birds pass through our town, and some seem to be permanent residents. Each morning when I am in the bathroom, a family of sparrow-like birds that I recognize will gather out on the telephone wire. I think they like to hear me sing when I am in the shower. And when I go outside in the morning, I usually scare off one or two of the big black-birds that loiter there. One year, after a big storm with rain and high winds, I thought I heard a bob-white. And last year, for the first time, a little blue jaybird of some sort showed up in our backyard. He must have had a nest in one of the trees behind our garage, because every time I tried to go back there he would dive down and warn me away. Not long after that, I saw him sitting on the telephone wire, accompanied by a little replicant of himself. After that, whenever he saw me mowing the front lawn, he would venture out of the backyard and perch on the house, or the chain-link fence of our next door neighbor, and after I mowed each row, he would come along behind me and peck at the grass for any exposed insects. He and his family stayed around for most of the baseball season last year, and I hope to see them both again soon, this spring, when my hummingbird comes back.

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