My flight fascination began when I was 6. Up until that time, presents at Chanukah and birthdays were pretty sketchy. My mother, Mary, got an A for effort, but her gift suggestions were nixed by my father, David. I would hear him through the thin walls of our then two-bedroom house, saying things like: “Why reward them for being born? They should reward us for having them.” Or, “They don’t need an allowance when we buy them everything they need.” Eventually, Mary triumphed and we got a nickel a week for chores. To amuse himself, David offered us a lump sum settlement of $1.00/year in lieu of $.05/week. The deal sounded sweet to me and I readily took it.
David’s sister, my Aunt Judy, worked at Alexander’s Department store in Paramus, New Jersey. I remember Alexander’s well, as the building sported a giant abstract mural that I loved. This may have sparked my fascination with art. It was the work of Polish artist, Stefan Knapp (born 1921 – October 12, 1996) and looked exactly like this:
Alexander’s was shuttered years ago and the 200’ piece was mothballed somewhere in the bowels of New Jersey. A few segments come out for display from time to time, like when Chris Christy wants to impress dinner guests.
I’m not sure what Judy did at Alexander’s, as she was an odd (but lovely) bird. She wore large Liz Taylor sunglasses 24/7 and on special occasions, a tall black synthetic beehive wig. Judy was short and “sturdy” and the first manic depressive I knew. She had a persistent vocal tic that sounded like she was humming a Morse code message off key. Hearing my father’s rants about birthday presents, she and her husband, Uncle Dave Lipsitz, often came through for us with an employee discounted offering from Alexander’s. I’ll list them in chronological order and describe their importance to me.
Thursday, September 29, 1961: A high of 70 degrees F. Aunt Judy and Uncle Dave came over for a slice of frozen, “3-day old” Entemann’s Apricot Danish. My father would say “why buy fresh, if you’re just going to freeze it…”. By frozen, I mean frozen. The Entemanns went from stale, to frozen, to freezer burnt, before being plated on chipped white Russel Wright Iroquois plates. Still frozen and in original packing, these offerings could only be cut with our mustard-colored Sears electric knife, wielded like a chainsaw. The slow-to-thaw confection could only be swallowed with mouthfuls of hot Sanka, triggering a chemical reaction that caused the Danish to dissociate into dry, oily flakes and scales. A fork-full coated the mouth, teeth and tongue, resisting swallowing. If memory serves correctly, the Sanka needed two heaping scoops of Coffee Mate for the complete reaction. This may seem like trivia, but it is not.
Upon hearing the doorbell, my father would quickly retreat to his place under the Buick, where he would pretend to work on the car, but probably fell asleep. I never knew if he was hiding from Judy or Dave, or perhaps the hosting thing.
Uncle Dave, his brother-in-law, had a wallet so filled with yellowed, creased to destruction, newspaper clippings that it gave him a mild scoliosis. In this well-worn wallet was a virtual treasure trove of news articles, from the obscure to the ridiculous. In it were irrefutable “facts” regarding Route 80 controversies, and why the medical profession refuses to cure the common cold. Uncle Dave would hold up the clipping by the upper right edge and would smack it with the back of his left hand. Segments below the creases sometimes fluttered down to the table like leaves from a tree. He would say: “It’s a fact! Look right here…in black and white!”. Afterwards, Uncle Dave would gently gather up the fallen fragments and once home, tape it back together for a return to their wallet home.
As the clock hands slowly moved to 6:00 pm, Uncle Dave retreated to his car and came back with my birthday gift, pajamas with attached booties and a surprise wooden yo-yo inside. I tore into the Alexander’s packaging and grabbed the yo-yo. It was natural finish oak with a blue stripe and a white butcher string. I tried to make a loop for my finger and created a rudimentary hangman’s noose. Having only seen them on TV’s American Bandstand and Dobie Gillis, I was not sure how to yo-yo and threw it down hard. The string dislodged from the yo-yo’s central spool, sending it madly spinning and wobbling down the length of the kitchen, heading for my dog, Lady. Lady took cover under the ample legs of Aunt Judy. This sent Judy from telegraph humming to full on yelps : “D..D…DAYve…DAYve get him away! DAYve!” Meanwhile, my ring finger, still sporting the tight string, was turning white. Seeing this, my mother sprang up. Seeing the electric knife next to her elbow, I panicked and bolted to the basement, finding my father snoring under the Buick, still wearing his suit coat and tie from his day at the office. Not a tall man, the only thing I could see were his worn, brown wingtip shoes from Brooks Brothers.
Upstairs, things had calmed. Mary was firing up the electric knife for a second helping of the now sweaty, partly frozen Danish. Holding back tears over my broken yo-yo, Judy regained composure and implored me to try on the pajamas. Mary shot me a stern look and told me to put them on and get ready for bed. I retreated to the pink bathroom and donned the pajamas. Sitting on the toilet, I felt the soles of the booties but didn’t understand the purpose of the blue rubber nubs. It is a straight shot from the pink bathroom to the kitchen and I carefully planned my dramatic entrance. I wound up and took off like a shot, running down the hallway, planning to stop and slide from the kitchen threshold to the pink Formica amoeba-shaped banquette. The blue rubber nubs had other plans for me and gripped the faux terrazzo linoleum floor like powerful magnets. I was momentarily airborne until I was not, landing with a forced exhale and a head thump in front of my broken yo-yo and Judy’s legs. Our black dog Lady was startled to her feet and looked at me with a combination of pity and disappointment. My mother yanked me to my feet, instructing me to say, “good night and thank you for the pajamas”. Sporting a red linoleum friction burn on the right side of my face, I retired to my upper bunk-bed, completely humiliated, butcher string still dangling from my finger.
Saturday, September 29, 1964, a year later. We had highs of 66 degrees F. This was before the invention of Global Warming, so it was a perfect fall birthday. At 5:28 pm, the doorbell rang, our black dog Lady went into full alert mode, signaling Mary to rescue another Danish from its frozen grave. The only detail changed from the year before is David’s insistence that the grass needed to be cut right then. Before the kettle began singing, he was desperately pulling the start cord to the forest green Sears Craftsman lawnmower.
The coffee conversation was punctuated by small rocks or doll heads spitting out from the Craftsman, pelting the kitchen window. Uncle Dave interjected that that thing is going to “take someone’s eye out…mark my words!” Truth be told, the yard consisted of 77% small rocks and brown loose dirt, 13% leaves, 8 % weeds, 1% grass, 1% dolls heads and the occasional mushroom puff ball.
Judy urged Uncle Dave to retrieve my birthday gift. I peered into the Alexander’s bag and saw, to my horror…another pair of pajamas, but without a yo-yo or other toy! Unlike the previous pair with built-in booties, this was a fashionable two-piece ensemble, with a flannel button down collared shirt. The shirt and pants were festooned with small cowboy and Indian vignettes, including campfires, horses, spurs, wigwams, tomahawks and cowboy hats. I was sent to the pink bathroom with the gift and came out wearing it over my clothes, thinking myself quite dapper. Judy asked me if I always wore pajamas over my street clothes and I told her yes, that it made getting ready for school a snap. She asked Mary if that was true. Mary answered, “That’s my son!”.
Truth be told, I loved these pajamas so much, I wore the shirt to school the next Monday. It was my secret. I popped out of bed, changed into pants with tears at the knees, put on my black orthopedic shoes, brushed my hair and teeth and grabbed a pop-tart from the toaster. I had a mile and change to walk to school each day. The pop-tart, wrapped in a paper towel, would blister my fingertips during the first leg. When cool enough to handle, I would bite into a corner and be burnt first by the sugar frosting and a second time by the red or purple filling. For the final leg, I pulled dead skin from the roof of my mouth. On campus, I looked down at my flannel cowboy shirt with a confident smile. Before I sat down, my teacher, Mrs. Hunter, asked me if I forgot to take my pajamas off that morning. She said this in earshot of a girl crush and a few bullies. This was to be a long, red-faced day! My only relief was a trip to the nurse who took my temperature with a chemical tasting thermometer. She told me I was OK. She and I were friends as I was a “good customer” due to a “nervous” condition.
Tuesday, September 29th, 1964: We had a high of 67 degrees F. The doorbell rang at 4:37 pm and Judy and Dave tried to steer around Lady, who was jumping on Judy and running her stockings. Dave repeated “howz the boy…howz the boy…howz the boy?” My sister Susan repeated in turn “She’s a girl..She’s a girl…She’s a girl”. My father was in his downstairs office, developing X-rays.
Dave already had in hand my gift, unwrapped and only half concealed by the Alexander’s bag. It was a FISHING POLE! A Zebco 107 model, no less.
Between the vacuum-packed cellophane and the backing cardboard was my first fishing pole! I was speechless with simultaneous guilt and gratitude. I managed a nearly inaudible “for me?”. Mary pried the Sears electric knife from my trembling hand just in time and freed the rod and reel for me with cuticle scissors, which she kept at the kitchen phone desk. On the cardboard was a cartoon picture of a freckled Cub Scout, holding the pole with a dangling fish. The fish was alive and by the looks of it, darn happy to be hooked. If one followed the asterisk down to the small print, one could read that the reel and pole were for entertainment purposes only and not meant for fishing. The line had a hook already attached. The hook was oversized and without a barb. It was so dull that if I accidentally caught somebody in the eye with it, they might say something like “do I have an eyelash in my eye?” I scotch-taped a small rock from the yard on the hook and casted it again and again. Actually only twice, before it broke. I came back to the house empty-handed. No happy fish, no unconscious squirrel. Nothing! It was my habit then to destroy, throw out or bury things that I broke. Despite being junk, the pole would not snap in half and was too big to bury in our hard and rocky soil. It would be too obvious in the garbage can, so it ended up in the attic, only to be burnt up in a house fire, decades later.
Wednesday, September 29th, 1965: We had a high of 48 degrees F and would have laughed at anyone talking about Global Warming! What are you talking about, we said, It’s nippy as heck out there! Are you crazy? Still, crazy things were happening! There were ever more flavors of pop-tarts and Eggo toaster waffles were now in most refrigerators, living next to Buitonni Toasterinos toaster pizzas. The latter had the ability to deliver black external char AND mouth-burning cheese with a still frozen central disk. Lest you think our kitchen only had a freezer, an electric knife, and a toaster, we had other appliances, including a space-ship-shaped rotisserie, an aluminum pressure cooker with a dancing top, and a suite of Popeil products, including the Chop-O-Matic and Dial-O-Matic. If only I had the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, I could catch dinner from the Passaic River while my sisters entertained my mother, belting out tunes on our Mr. Microphone.
This was also the year US quarters were no longer solid silver alloy, but instead a copper sandwich. In other words, things were falling apart.
Judy was wearing sagging nylons with multiple runs. She told Mary that she wears this very pair only when visiting us because of our dog. My mother, not really listening, responded: “That’s nice!”.
“What’s in the bag, Uncle Dave?” I ask. He answers “Whoz a good buoy…whooz a goo boy…whooz a goo buoy”? I suggest “me?”. He pats Lady and said, “Happy birthday, Steven!”.
I ask Mary for the cuticle scissors and dig into the packaging. The clear cellophane frontage yielded easily and moments later, I had an easy-to-operate Banner Camera, complete with a roll of 16 exposure black and white film! Before the Entemann’s was on the plate, I had shot the entire roll and begged my mother to take the film to Sussmann’s pharmacy for processing.
This WAS a big deal. Our front yard was documented! 14 days later, the pictures came back in an envelope. It was miraculous! I could identify a few blurry things that existed in real life! Thus was born my lifelong passion for photography. Truth be told, I have upgraded a few times since and now shoot with a top of the line professional Banner Camera. I never saved those old photographs, so instead did a google search for “Worst photograph ever taken”.
This photo I found on Tumblr by a blogger named Moominsean. It was taken by a toy camera. The tree branches look very New Jersey and the dog strongly resembles Lady. Note that if my initial pictures looked half this good, I would have dropped out of 3rd grade to pursue my true calling.
Thursday, September 29, 1966: We had a high of 63 degrees F. You are probably wondering by now “Where is this story going!?”. The more patient may simply be wondering “When is the doorbell going to ring?” or “Will Aunt Judy have more runs in her stockings?” “Does Dave’s wallet still fit in his pocket?” Let me cut to the chase. Judy and Dave were taking their grandson, Peter Block, to a train museum. We share the same birthday, although Peter is a year older. It turns out Uncle Dave and Aunt Judy wouldn’t be dropping by and there would be no present. Understandable, grandson trumps nephew, and I was old enough to accept this cruel fact of life. I realized now that each year, they briefly dropped by, ate their Entemann’s, brought my gift and left for quality time with Peter and his family.
I came in from playing to find my father at the kitchen table with a frozen slice of Entemann’s, fork in one hand and Sears electric knife in the other. With his mouth full, he told me to go look for my present. I asked what he meant. Was I looking for a nickel? He was too absorbed by the pastry to answer. I stomped into his bedroom, rifled through his top drawer, past greasy ACE combs, a broken doorbell switch, dead AM pocket radios, spent batteries, and a plastic Camel cigarette case, finally to a small, yellow margarine tub filled with loose shirt pins and spare change. We knew this tub because it was next to the $10 dollar rolls of quarters which paid for milk and cookies at school. My sisters and I never actually spoke of this margarine tub bank, but all knew the telltale sign of a “bank raid”. The shirt pins gave us puncture wounds. Outsiders may have noticed and thought we were diabetic, testing our blood sugar. What bad luck Mary and David had with three diabetic children!
These puncture wounds often coincided with hot summer nights when the Good Humor Ice cream truck approached. With the repetitive music and bell dinging coming ever closer, we began salivating in unison, sometimes leaving spittle on top of my father’s dresser as we clawed coins away from the pins. Sometimes, I would casually pass a sister in the doorway of his bedroom, but mostly I found shirt-pins on the floor near the front door. Other times there were drops of blood, evidence of a tub raid. At the time, I wondered if our father ever wondered how we paid for Nutty Buddies or Rockets on our sporadic weekly allowance of .05 cents. Thinking back, I suspect the pins were there for his amusement.
Unpunctured, I returned to the pink Formica kitchen table with a dull nickel in my hand and eyes downward, offered a quiet “thank you for the present”. He told me to put the nickel back and to look in the trunk of his car.
It bears mentioning that this car was a fire engine red 1962 Buick Wildcat with a chromed central console shifter. It had MD plates and a zip gun with tear gas attached to the steering wheel column.
Let me explain the MD plates. In 1966, there were no emergency medicine docs at his inner-city charity hospital, Saint Joseph’s in Paterson, New Jersey. In the day, the ER would call the attending physician when their patients arrived. The MD plates were not only useful for parking in front of restaurants (where handicap spots now plague us) but also for unrepentant speeding. Speeding was meant to be towards the hospital. Sometimes police would even act as an escort. My father used this privilege liberally and often. I would sometimes be invited along if I had been helping him work on the car. Helping meant hold a flashlight (poorly) while he skinned his knuckles and broke frozen bolt heads off. After the eventual repair, we would find the nearest road pointing to Paterson and he would open it up. The Wildcat had a dial-able speed alert which he would set at 120 mph. Beyond this, an annoying buzz sound would come from somewhere in the dashboard. Upon hearing the buzz, David would laugh out loud, look at me and I would nervously laugh back.
One particular November in 1965, David was returning from a late night run to the ER. By his report, the MD plates must have caught the attention of some “negros”. They ran him onto the soft shoulder to “steal drugs”, but my father gunned it and fishtailed back onto the asphalt, leaving the would-be robbers only a pelted windshield, while a loud buzzing sound came from his dashboard. I was not there but imagine that David, a notoriously aggressive and poor driver, probably cut their car off, and they were looking for payback.
He recounteded this near-death experience to the highly racist Lieutenant Joseph Malarczyk who “owed his life to David”. Joe had crashed his squad car and was in a “bad way” when brought to the ER.
Lieutenant Malarczyk brought a trunk full of weapons for my father. There were blackjacks, brass knuckles, a snub-nosed Remington 38 caliber 9 shot revolver and a tear gas zip gun. David took the latter two, one for his closet and the other for the Wildcat.
The trunk release was in the glove box; a small white button to the left, surrounded by black velveteen textured fabric. On this birthday, I popped the trunk and lifted out an unwrapped red box with a picture of a boy ogling a toy helicopter. This was the coveted Hasbro Whirligig, complete with silver Eveready C cell batteries, a wired remote control, red light and rescue line with dull hook.
I was speechless! This would make up for everything! I wouldn’t need another toy for as long as I lived! I would bring it to school. The teacher would have me talk about it. Girls would be rapt with admiration and my enemies would rue the day they crossed the line, usually by stepping on my black orthopedic shoes.
“Steven”, my mother said: “You are NOT bringing that to school”. “But mom..!” I protested. This wasn’t an entirely convincing argument and it never left the house. But it did engender a fascination with flight and piloting.
To be continued…