The Boys of Summer, 1954
By Jim Sizemore
I’m in my bedroom, lights off. It’s my mother’s third-floor two-bedroom apartment on Linden Avenue, just two blocks south of North Avenue. Ernie Harwell’s Georgia-accented words seem to come to me out of the glowing orange dial of my tabletop radio. The small fan next to it is set on high speed, but with scant effect in the humid heat. Ernie is telling me — play-by-play — that our new Baltimore Orioles are losing another game at Memorial Stadium. But that’s OK. The only thing that matters is that we finally have a team of pros in town.
My radio is tuned to WCBM. The sound is just loud enough to mask the voices of my mother and her new boyfriend, William “Wild Bill” Fenton. They’re in their bedroom arguing about . . . whatever. The actual words are too garbled to make out. Meanwhile, I peer out my window and down at the couple across the street in their second floor apartment, rolling around on what appears to be a daybed. It can’t be a regular bed because it’s too low and fits just below the lip of the windowsill—the idea being, I guess, to catch what little cool air there is. They’re covered by a white sheet, out of which an occasional pale body-part juts, reflecting dim light from the street. My one wish is that somehow, if I watch long enough, the sheet will magically work its way off and slide to the floor. And if it does it’s their fault. They must believe, like radio’s Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow, that they have “the power to cloud men’s minds,” making them all but invisible.
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In the summer of 1954 I was sixteen going on seventeen—my 17th birthday due in early October. When I was twelve, after many years of often-violent conflict, my parents had separated. Over the next five years I was farmed out to various relatives in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, where I lived mostly with my three half-sisters’ families. But now I wanted to control my own fate, and had worked my way back to Baltimore to share my mother’s home. At the time it seemed like a good idea.
It wasn’t long before I realized that “Mr. Fenton,” as I called the small and wiry Wild Bill, was a problem. With regular work, and only occasional heavy drinking, he treated my mother and me pretty well. But that summer was a slack time in the building trades—and an invitation to big-time booze-ville. So he needed my help with expenses, and seemed to resent me for it. I didn’t mind helping because at the time I sold lots of newspapers out of a large green newsstand where North and Linden Avenues met—a dynamic corner with several streetcar and bus routes converging. It was reasonable that I pitch in because I earned good money, easily enough to help with food. At times I even managed part of the rent money. In fact, there were weeks when the only cash coming in was from my newspaper sales.
I loved the North Avenue street scene, especially at night, with its crowds of people, movies theaters, shops, and Nate’s and Leon’s, a locally famous deli known for its good food and fancy neon signs. After night ball games you would often find baseball players mingling there with politicians and exotic dancers. And I especially loved the work itself. I had hawked papers on several corners in South Baltimore since I was eleven, so I knew the game. I‘d hop on and off streetcars and buses, work my way front to back, flip newsprint out from under my arm yelling “Read-All-About-It!” headlines to entice customers. I’d collect coins and greenbacks and make change from the cloth moneybag hanging from a thin strap diagonally across my chest. After a block or two, I’d buzz out the back door and catch another streetcar or bus back to the corner; I sold papers coming and going. To me, it was more play than labor. Most important, I loved being able to help my mother financially. That summer—for the first time in my life—I felt like a grownup.
All that said, I was edgy about our living arrangement. My mother was right back in a situation similar to the one we had experienced with my father, and once more I felt powerless to protect her. At some point, concern about the fights with Mr. Fenton must have overcome what common sense I had developed, and I bought a large hunting knife, complete with scabbard. “Just in case,” I thought. One sweltering evening, during an extra-mean fight when he grabbed her—or at least grabbed at her—it all happened too fast for me to be sure—I wound up face to face with Wild Bill. It was all very confused; I was in some sort of frenetic daze. Mostly I remember forcing myself in between them, he and I spitting out blasts of profanity. Despite my bad case of the shakes, I somehow found the courage to pull my shirttail up to display the weapon, and the action slowed to a sweat-like trickle. Then my mother’s desperate pleas from the sidelines shut our little scene completely down.
The very next morning, my mother sat me down for The Talk. We quickly agreed it was time for a change—that I should, that I had to, move on again. I figured that my only good option was the military, but since by law I was still a minor, she had to sign so I could enlist. And of course she did. Now, my mind focused in early October—all I needed do was to survive the rest of that summer.
On the nights my Baltimore O’s were far behind, and I was tired from work, I’d turn off the radio and go to sleep. Other times I’d leave it on, very low, and let Mr. Harwell’s smooth voice and the hum of the fan lull me to sleep. And then there were those nights—the Orioles ahead or behind, it didn’t matter which—when I was just too wound-up to nod off. Then, inspired by the drawings of the Morning Sun cartoonist, Jim Hartzell—especially his animated Oriole Bird sketches—I’d try to make up a cartoon about the game I’d just heard on the radio—the drama and frustration and elation of it all. I’m sure the images—the best of which I would eventually find the courage to send to Ernie Harwell—were crude and amateurish, little more than sketches, doodle-like. But I worked hard to make the ideas better than the visuals—cleverer and, I hoped, funnier. Of course they were never near the professional quality of a Jim Hartzell cartoon. Up to then, my only art training had been finger-painting in elementary school. Later, in order to get even a spotty formal education at local art schools and with an expensive correspondence course, I’d have to use the G. I. Bill. When I sent my first batch of “work” to Ernie Harwell, care of WCBM, I didn’t expect much. I certainly didn’t expect, a few days later, Ernie’s voice saying my name on the radio. And then he went on and on to describe and praise my cartoon idea—even the drawing. I was shocked.
Only a few nights later, after I’d mailed in more drawings, Mr. Harwell shocked me again. Again he spoke to me by name, and praised my work. But this time he also invited me to visit him at Memorial Stadium. He even gave me a phone number to call for my free pass to the game of my choice. And then came the biggest prize of all—a special pass that would get me into the broadcast booth. On the appointed day I remember being at the stadium, leaning forward as I walked the steep ramp to the upper levels. Then I must have run down the hallway to the booth, knocked on the plain, unmarked door, and was admitted. I was out of breath, and being in a fog of sorts, I remember little else. I know I spoke to Mr. Harwell and Bailey Goss, also a tech guy. But I don’t remember what any of us said. All I know is that when the meeting was over—it seemed to have gone so quickly—Mr. Harwell said to his radio audience: “This young man is going into the army in October, and I’m very proud of him, as we all should be.” Then, winking at me, he smartly saluted.
60 years on, I see the summer of 1954 as a mash-up of bad and good. Sure, I lost the dream of a fresh start with my mother, but on the other hand I learned that—to coin a cliché—growing up simply means moving on. And yes, the Orioles lost 100 games, winning only 57. But, thanks to those O’s being there for me, and Mr. Harwell’s encouragement, and discovering the cartoon work of Jim Hartzell—plus moving on to three years of interesting military experiences such as learning to type, packing mules and jumping out of airplanes—I gained a glimmer of several career possibilities. (Wait, scratch the mules.) So . . . even today, I’m still on the path to—to what? Well, for one thing, I think I’m smart enough now to know that it’s always too soon to speculate about what may come next. But the one thing I do know for sure is that, no matter what, I’m really curious to find out . . .
Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore.
Thanks to Florence Newman for expert editorial help on this essay.