Saturday, September 24, 2011

Time traveling, part 6

By 1966, dad had gotten his divinity degree from Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa., and was ordained into the ministry.

I was thinking at the time that it was pretty cool being a preacher's kid, as if somehow I could dip my hand into a pool of holy water at any sanctimonious moment. Or at least, had passing access to the occasional divine intervention, if not the actual holy grail. The best I could do, though, was walk through water and not on it, but that was still mostly good enough.

By now, I was a sophomore in high school and all kinds of things were happening. I spent two summers — in 1966 and the so called Summer of Love in 1967 (the start of my junior year) — working as the maintenance boy at the community swimming pool in Coopersburg, where we lived. I was almost a big shot. When school resumed that fall, people actually knew me.

This was probably the best job I ever had. I was responsible for cleaning the locker rooms (including the commodes) after hours, as well as picking up the trash from the lawn where people laid out their blankets to sun themselves. I had one of those sticks with a metal pick on the end of it to stab and collect paper cups and hot dog wrappers. I'm telling you, I was IT.

Southern Lehigh Community Pool, site of my first job.
Whatever loose coins I found on the grounds were mine and it greatly supplemented my income. In the '60s, you see, one or two dollars a day was significant cash. Occasionally, I'd even find an actual crumpled dollar bill, making me think I'd uncovered the Mother Lode.

In the mornings, before the pool opened, I was the guy who checked the pH level of the water and dumped in bags of alum or pot ash or whatever it was that prevented outbreaks of biological extermination. Turns out it was the pool that provided my true holy water.

I also showed I could be responsible in other ways. My parents and two younger brothers went on a two-week vacation to Canada, leaving me behind, alone, with the run of the house. The place — the parsonage — did not burn down.

I also learned to drive during this era and managed not to cause mass destruction on the highways. But I still pedaled my treasured 10-speed bicycle to most places.

And I had my first real girlfriend. I was badly smitten and thought I was in love forever. I didn't realize at the time that I had a severe case of raging hormones, which I had mistaken for love. But I told Peggy I loved her. We'd go to school sock hops (really, we had to take our shoes off to dance on the gym floor) and hold each other unlawfully close. We'd go to basketball games and huddle in the upper corner of the bleachers where we just knew we were invisible. Yes, we were THAT couple.

The relationship lasted into the fall, and by 1968, our family moved yet again. Dad became a bit disillusioned with church politics and went back to teaching, and so I spent my senior year making new friends in a new school in a new town. It was our fifth move in 17 years.

It was probably for the good, though. Over the years, I lost contact with Peggy. I looked for her at class reunions, but she never came. Then, at our 40th reunion, I met a friend who had Peggy's number. She was living in Minnesota.

And so, after working up my nerve, I called her. The conversation went something like this:

"This is Bruce. Bruce Wehrle."

I could tell she was a little dubious, but I told her about the reunion, some of her friends that were there. I asked her about her family — she had married a minister — and had a couple of kids. The conversation went fairly well for about 10 minutes, only a little bit erratic and awkward, and then she interrupted:

"Gotta go. The pizza is here and it's getting cold. Nice talking to you. Bye."


Hormones. Go figure.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Time traveling, part 5

Returning back to Pennsylvania, and specifically to the Lehigh Valley, signaled a coming of age for me, although I could not know it at the time.

We returned to Bethlehem, Pa., (of which Fountain Hill was basically a bedroom community) so that dad could attend Moravian Theological Seminary in preparation for a career in the ministry. Basically, this move meant we had come back home. Back to grandparents. Back to living in rickety old row homes. Back to Pennsylvania Dutch accents.

I was in the seventh grade and approaching my teenage years in 1963. My attempts to keep Kid Heaven alive were interrupted by injections of real life.

We actually lived on the campus of Moravian College, in a row home on Otis Place, in the thick of all that academia that somehow failed to rub off on me. Instead, I sawed off broom handles and peeled off the fuzzy cover of old tennis balls to reveal the perfectly pink rubber innards and replenish our supply of stick ball equipment.

Skateboarding was all the rage and in its infancy then, so I sawed a 2 x 4 to size (apparently I was dangerous with a handsaw) and attached the wheels of my dime-store roller skates to it, and became Tony Hawk before there was a Tony Hawk. No helmets, no knee pads, no elbow pads — I was scabbed and scarred all over, but it didn't matter.

Then, one Friday afternoon in November, just before school was to let out, the P.A. system asked us to pray for the president, who'd been shot in Dallas. It was shocking news, even for a 12-year-old. By the time I ran home from the early dismissal, Walter Cronkite told me the president was dead.

I became a news junkie — and a television junkie — from that day forward. It was all so unbelievable, with the most incredible yet to come — Jack Ruby shooting presumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live national TV.

Furthermore, the image of John-John saluting his dead father still haunts me. What the heck was happening?

There were no answers. There were the Beatles instead. Less than three months later, after amazing global hype, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Our family gathered around the black-and-white television set and snickered when the boys finally came on. Hair over their foreheads. Hair over their ears. Girls in the audience screaming breathlessly. We laughed. Clearly, this was a fad that wasn't going to last. What the heck was happening?

There was one more thing, and it had to manifest itself over the course of several decades to provide meaning.

But a year or so later, I met a high school student — he was five years older than me — who played American Legion baseball on the field across the street from us on the Moravian campus. His name was Jerry Zerfass. I was that pesky kid who hung around the field, picking up helmets and bats and doing other go-fer duties for the team until I got tired of it. But Jerry was nice to me and he quickly became my favorite player, and I rooted for him.

I knew him only for the summer. A few years later I remember asking somebody about him and was told he enlisted in the army and he thought Jerry was killed in Vietnam. I didn't give it much thought except to say "How sad" to myself. Over the years, his name even morphed to "Gary" in my mind.

But the other night I did this: I googled "Names on Vietnam Memorial" and got several alphabetical lists. I clicked on "Z" on one of them and searched for "Zerfass," not quite sure how to spell the name and not really expecting to find it.

But I did find it. And he was killed in Vietnam, on Jan. 16, 1967, one of the first of more than 58,000 deaths. It was no longer speculation (here). It was real. When I saw that, nearly 50 years later, I wept like a child.

I found another story (here) that gave details. He was shot in the chest by a sniper. When asked by another wounded friend if he was going to die, Jerry said, "Hell, no, I'm not going to die." And those were his last words. He was 20.

What the heck was happening?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time traveling, part 4

We lived in Portsmouth, NH, for nine months. Then we had to say farewell to the Yoken's Restaurant sign, the naval base, the Air Force base, the ocean, the spectacular autumn, the 10-foot snowdrifts, to Kid Heaven.

Dad had gotten a new job. He resumed teaching, unwilling to take a post, say in Guam, without being able to take his family with him.

So instead of Guam, we went to Connecticut. East Hartford, to be exact. It might as well have been Guam: New school, new friends, new neighbors, and all the uncertainty that comes with leaving an established 9-month comfort zone.

But it didn't take long for me to adapt. At least, I don't think it did. This was around 1960, I was nearly 10 years old, and my parents bought a house that was unlike anything I'd lived in before. It was a ranch house in a new development in the suburbs. I had my own room. The house was, well, modern. This was a different kind of heaven. Modern Heaven. We even had a fireplace.

At Christmas, we had one of those aluminum Christmas trees that was lit up by a color wheel. It was awesome. We were soooo incredibly modern.

But East Hartford came with a caveat or two. A few miles down the road, Pratt and Whitney built jet engines for military aircraft. Every so often, at any hour of the day, they'd test one of the engines that would end up in an F-104, and the whole neighborhood would rattle. Jet engines. I guess that put us in the fast lane.

I really don't remember that much about our place in Connecticut. We were near farmland that also had a substantial wooded area. So we had woods to explore, and in the winter, we had a pond practically in our back yard that was ideal for ice skating. My first pair of ice skates turned out to be hockey skates.

Did you know that they grow tobacco in Connecticut? (here).  I don't think many people know this, but the Hartford area is dotted with tobacco barns, or at least it was back then. It was New England quaint — I do remember that.

I guess the big deal about Connecticut was that I was old enough to start finding out who I was. I think by the time I was in the fifth grade I was becoming vaguely aware of girls. I do recall I was once chosen by the teacher to draw a Christmas mural (I had a modicum of artistic talent — apparently I'm a right-side brainer who is left-handed, which I'm told is some kind of perfect storm for an ability to make stuff up) on the bulletin board that stretched across the back wall of the room. I could appoint two others in the class to help me — so I picked the kid who I felt had the artistic talent to complement my own, and then I picked a girl for whom I had an incurable crush and who couldn't draw water through a straw. It showed on the mural. Two-thirds of the completed project were excellent, while one-third of it looked like a Friz Freleng cartoon. Ever since, my life in the company of women I find myself attracted to has always revolved around the way my heart beats in their presence. I suspect that reality actually may go a long way to explain why my heart is in a-fib now. Yes, I'm certain it all started in the fifth grade.

But even this didn't last. We stayed in Connecticut for two years. Then dad felt — or heard — the calling to enter the ministry.

So it was back to Bethlehem, Pa., and another series of adventures.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time traveling, part 3

What makes such an impression that it stays in the mind forever?

A lover? A meal? A place on the map? A place in the heart?

In the fall of 1959, my father quit his teaching job in Fountain Hill, Pa., to take a position with the American Red Cross. His first posting turned out to be Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H.

I was 8 years old and except for a couple of brief forays to the beach in Wildwood, N.J., and a weekend trip to Washington DC, I'd never been much further than the playground across the street. The playground was my world.

So I guess moving to Portsmouth was kind of intimidating. I must have blocked out a lot of it from my memory because I don't recall the moving van, the mountain of furniture, the packing up of clothes — heck, I don't even remember getting in the way. I don't even recall the drive to Portsmouth.

What I do remember, when we finally got there in the autumn darkness, was passing a restaurant on Route 1 that had a really neat neon sign. It was the image of a smiling blue whale, shooting a spout of water through its blowhole, with colorful lights proclaiming "Thar she blows." It was Yoken's "Thar she blows" Restaurant. Yep. That was its proper name.

This neon sign has provided a lifetime of memories.
And I was mesmerized by that neon sign.

Because this was an era steeped in the Cold War, Portsmouth was a military town with a historic naval yard (John Paul Jones once lived in Portsmouth, and the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was signed at the naval base) that was protected by the F-100s and the B-47s of Pease Air Force Base.

I can only imagine how many nuclear devices were stored in the ammo dumps that dotted the air base.

I'm pretty sure at 8 years old, I didn't much care about nuclear bombs.

Pease is where dad was stationed. Sometimes, when he came home for lunch, he'd bring warm French bread fresh from the base bakery, and our lunch would be nothing more than that delicious bread slathered in jam and real butter.

But Yoken's was the primary gathering place in Portsmouth, the place where civic organizations had their monthly meetings, the place where families gathered for good, inexpensive seafood dinners. It was a special treat for our family to eat there and it was my great and rare opportunity to see the spouting whale.

If I thought the playground in Fountain Hill was Kid Heaven, I soon learned that Portsmouth offered its own enticements.

On Veteran's Day, they opened Pease Air Force Base to the public and we got to climb all over planes and helicopters. When summer arrived, we made daily trips to nearby Rye or Hampton Beach, just a few miles away, and frolicked in the cold Atlantic water until our lips turned blue. We didn't care. It's where I learned to body surf.

In the fall, Portsmouth became shrouded in spectacular New England foliage. This is when I became an unrepentant New Anglophile. In the winter, we had snow drifts so high they reached the second story of our three-story duplex.

It was unbelievable.

But it didn't last. It couldn't. Less than nine months later, dad quit the Red Cross and went back to teaching, this time taking a job in East Hartford, Conn.

But the memory of Portsmouth remained ingrained. Decades later I took my wife there on our honeymoon, and we've made several return visits, each time stopping for a meal at Yoken's and a chance for me to pay homage to the whale.

One day, a few years ago, Kim was surfing the Internet and I heard her, from the other room, exclaim, "Oh, no!"

"What now," I wondered.

"They closed down Yoken's," she said.

It was true. A local institution that had survived more than half a century was gone. So was the Air Force base, now turned into a small commuter airport. A Google GPS overhead view from Jupiter or somewhere shows the restaurant building has been razed, with nothing more than an empty parking lot to mark the memories. That, and a neon sign covered with a tarp.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Time traveling, part 2

My education in baseball began in the mid-1950s, most likely around the summer of 1958 and again in the summer of 1959.

That makes me 7 and 8 years old, respectively.

And I can thank Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., for that obsession. You see, they're the people who provided us baby boomers with the wildly popular baseball trading cards that now, more than 60 and 70 years later, are so much in demand by collectors. Especially the Mickey Mantle cards.

Who would have thought that cardboard could be so enticing? Well, it certainly was back in the 50's. If memory serves, you could buy a pack of cards for a nickel. The pack usually included five cards and a flat little rectangle of sugary pink chewing gum that had an indescribable saccharine aroma. And it might as well have been hardtack. You'd pop that puppy in your mouth and start chewing. It took most of the day to actually get it malleable enough to call it chewing gum — in the mean time, mandibles locked and teeth rotted. But the gum wasn't the point. The cards were.

You could earn money to buy the cards by crossing the street to get to the playground in Fountain Hill and hunt for soft drink (hereafter known as "soda") bottles, for which you could redeem at the local corner market for actual hard cash. A penny per bottle, I think. Sometimes we'd have a wagon load of bottles, which we would redeem for packs of baseball cards. The bottles were as good as cash. We were pint-sized entrepreneurs.

During those two summers, I collected enough cards to fill several shoe boxes from end to end. The shoe box was a surprisingly effective container that seemed specifically designed to hold baseball cards. This was a perfect filing system. The more common players were kept up front, the more highly prized players, like Mantle and Yogi Berra, were kept in the back.

The 1959 Rocky Colavito Topps card.
The front of the cards showed photographs of the players — important in an era before mass television exposure — and printed on the back were their statistics for either the previous season, or for their career to that point. That's how I learned about baseball. That's where I learned to figure batting averages, on base percentages and earned run averages. It was the only arithmetic I understood.

Thinking back on it now, those baseball cards could have been the seed germ that began my career as a sports writer.

The cards offered other sources of creativity beyond looking at the players' profiles. They had value even then. You could trade them; say, for example, five Pumpsie Greens for an Al Kaline. You could trade with total strangers at the playground and feel satisfied with a deal well consummated.

Another way to get cards was to flip for them. You and a friend would take your shoe boxes full of cards, kneel about nine or 10 feet from a wall, and alternately take turns with precise wrist snaps flipping the cards against the wall, until a flipper's card landed on top of another card in the growing pile. When that happened, it was winner take all. You'd quit when your stash of cards was running low.

The reverse side of the Rocky Colavito Topps baseball card.
It was a little riskier to buy a pack of cards and flip for them on the spot, right after purchase, but that sometimes happened, too.

Sometimes, we'd take the cards of the more common players — never a star like Mantle — and attached them against the spokes of our bicycles. This made a really neat sound like a motorcycle — or so we imagined — while giving the card a half-life of about five minutes.

A subplot to all of this was a game I was taught by a neighbor — Dice League Baseball. You'd take a pair of dice and assign baseball results to each potential role of the dice. If you rolled snake eyes (two ones), it was a home run, a three was a single, a four was a double, everything else was either a strikeout, ground out or pop out, except for an 11, which was a base on balls, if I recall. No stolen bases, no passed balls, no errors.

I used little blue composition notebooks to record these games, playing an entire 154-game season, listing each player in the batting order of all eight teams in each league. I'd keep each player's batting average, RBIs and home runs. I spent hours each day doing this. It was an awesome thing for an 8-year-old, if perhaps a little twisted, to be playing paper games and keeping stats instead of actually playing real baseball, like Little League.

But I even tried that one time. The playground had a pre-Little League youth program, where I got to wear a uniform and everything. My dad, who was a school teacher then, spent one summer as playground director and thus served as the plate umpire for the league. I often just stood at the plate, watching the pitches lob by without swinging the bat, and he would call me out on strikes. I think those strikeouts were designed to be character-building lessons that showed me that family connections weren't always keys to success. I think.

Anyway, in the fall of 1959, dad quit teaching and joined the American Red Cross. He was sent to Portsmouth, N.H., and thus began another great adventure in my life.

But it was a traumatic experience. Somewhere in the moving and packing process, those shoe boxes of baseball cards were, well, discarded. So long, Yogi. Good-bye, Mickey.

The next time I bought baseball cards, I was in my 50s, and it cost me hundreds of dollars to recapture my youth. By now, there were not enough soda bottles in the world to redeem for baseball cards.

I even remember holding one of those 50-year-old cards to my nose, hoping against hope, to see if it still had the scent of bubble gum. But all I got was a whiff of stale cardboard and a heavy dose of ancient memories.