The Boys of Summer, 1954
By Jim Sizemore
I’m in my bedroom, lights out. It’s my mother’s third-floor apartment on Linden Avenue, two blocks south of North Avenue. Ernie Harwell’s words seem to float to me out of the glowing orange dial of my tabletop radio. The small fan next to it is set on high 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 okay, at last we finally have a big league team. Thank goodness the radio is loud enough to muffle the voices of my mother and her new boyfriend, William “Wild Bill” Denton. They are in their bedroom arguing about money.
Meanwhile, I peer out of my window 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 low enough to fit just below the lip of the windowsill. They’re covered by a white sheet, out of which an occasional pale body-part juts. I guess they’re trying to catch what little cool air there is. My one wish is that if I watch long enough, the sheet will magically work its way off and slide to the floor. 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.
(Click images to enlarge.)
In the summer of 1954 I was sixteen, my seventeenth birthday due in early October. When I was twelve, after many years of violent conflict, my parents had separated. Over the next four years I was farmed out to various relatives in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky—mostly 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. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It wasn’t long before I realized that “Mr. Denton,” as I called the small and wiry Wild Bill, was a problem. With regular construction work, he treated my mother and me pretty well. But a slack time in the building trades became an invitation to booze-ville for Mr. D. He needed my help with expenses, and seemed to resent me for it. I didn’t mind helping because 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. I easily earned 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 into the apartment was from my newspaper sales. I loved being able to help my mother financially. That summer—for the first time in my life—I felt like a grownup.
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. Denton must have overcome what common sense I had, and I bought a large hunting knife, complete with scabbard. “Just in case.” 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 at that 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 had to move on again. 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. My induction date was set for early October—all I needed do was to survive the rest of that summer.
On the nights my Baltimore O’s were far behind, I’d turn the radio off and go to sleep. Other times I’d leave it on, very low, and let Mr. Harwell’s southern-accented voice lull me to sleep. And there were those nights—the Orioles ahead or behind—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—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. When I sent my first batch of “work” to Ernie Harwell, care of WCBM, I didn’t expect much. I certainly didn’t expect Ernie’s voice, a day or so later, saying my name on the radio. He praised my cartoon idea and even the drawing. I was shocked.
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 Memorial Stadium. He even gave me a phone number to call for my free pass to the game of my choice. Plus 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, walking the steep ramp to the upper levels, running down the hallway to the broadcast booth. I knocked on the unmarked door and was admitted, out of breath and in an emotional fog. I know I spoke to Mr. Harwell, his partner Bailey Goss and a radio sound tech guy, but I don’t remember what anyone said. When the meeting was over—it seemed to have gone by so quickly—I do remember Mr. Harwell announcing 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 view 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 that first season, 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—I gained a glimmer of several career possibilities. 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. The one thing I do know is that I’m really curious to discover what it may be.
Copyright © 2017, Jim Sizemore.
This is an edited re-post.
Thanks to Florence Newman for her expert help on this essay.
I saw the bird pictured below two days ago at Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland. New to me, it must be way out of its normal range. If you know more about why it’s showing up around here, or in North America at all, please leave a comment below. Thanks.
(Click image to enlarge.)
|Native range of A. aegyptiaca|
Egyptian geese were considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians, and appeared in much of their artwork. They have been raised for food and extensively bred in parts of Africa since they were domesticated by the ancient Egyptians. Because of their popularity chiefly as ornamental bird, escapes are common and small feral populations have become established in Western Europe.
Read more at Wikipedia.
By Florence Newman
One summer when my friend Ellie and I were ten years old, we had a secret hiding place behind the trunk of a big oak tree that bordered Tom’s Creek Road, the street where I’d lived all my life. At the time, the road was a rural lane running out from the Blacksburg town limits into the countryside. On the vine-covered embankment beneath the tree, we had cleared a patch of dirt amid the weeds, an elevated alcove where we could crouch, invisible to passersby. If being the sole possessors of a private hide-away were not enough, we were thrilled that our spot lay only a hundred yards or so down from a small family cemetery and that it was backed by a wrought iron fence surrounding the overgrown gardens of the undoubtedly haunted Victorian house at the corner of Tom’s Creek and Price’s Fork Road.
As we explored our diminutive domain on hands and knees, Ellie and I soon began finding bones: rib bones, vertebrae, even two or three skulls. They belonged to cats, which had long since shed their fur and flesh. We arranged the bones skeleton-style in rough approximation of cat anatomy and gradually added to our collection: fragile leg bones and tiny crania with pointed snouts that must have been mice, bird wings with bits of tendon and feather still attached, big soup bones sawed off at one end. Like good scientists (we fancied ourselves archeologists), we categorized and curated our discoveries on the dusty ground and conferred seriously, in whispers, about what we would do with them.
(Click images for larger versions.)
The fate of the collection was decided for us, and our secret world shattered, one morning when I awoke to the sound of heavy equipment on the road outside. The street was being widened and bulldozers were already gnawing away at the bank where the oak tree stood. I grabbed as many cardboard boxes as I could carry and ran down to the ruin of turned earth and broken branches, no doubt astonishing the county workers who weren’t expecting a small girl to scramble up and disappear into the bushes they were about to uproot. I threw handfuls of bones into my cardboard boxes, heedless of genus, species, or physiology, and hauled them back to my house. By the end of the day, the huge oak had been felled and chopped into pieces, the embankment had been leveled, and the verge had been cleared for a wider expanse of asphalt and, eventually, an actual cement sidewalk.
Throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, the bones remained in boxes in my basement. I’m not sure why Ellie and I never spread them out for display again. Perhaps the mystique was gone (especially after the old lady in the corner Victorian died and Animal Control came to empty her house and yard of dozens of feral and half-feral cats); perhaps my mother forbade it—although it’s a testimony to her tolerance that she let me keep them as long as she did. Even if I didn’t go through the boxes, however, I couldn’t throw the bones away, because I knew their provenance. Not, of course, the precise location where we had found each of them (we weren’t that good scientists), but their origin in that special place under that particular tree during a specific year of my childhood.
“Provenance” is a term usually associated with works of art or bottles of wine. Establishing the provenance of a painting—the artist, the time and place of production—often enhances its monetary value. For oenophiles, provenance has recently become associated with terroir, the idea that the soil, climate, periods of sun and shade, and other indefinable characteristics of the place the grapes were grown gives a wine its unique essence: the wine made from grapes grown on one side of a hill in Bordeaux tastes slightly different from a wine made from grapes grown on the other side. We don’t necessarily need to know the provenance of a painting or a Pinot Noir in order to appreciate them for the pleasure they bring us. But we also don’t doubt that the origin of a thing matters—or that everything comes from somewhere. Nihil ex nihilo, “nothing comes from nothing,” according to the ancient Greek philosophers (and more memorably, Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music). Every being on earth, living and non-living, came from some preexisting time, place, and substance. Provenance. Terroir. Whether red blood still throbs in its veins (or ever did), whether it has been reduced to bleached bones (or was always inorganic material), each terrestrial creature emerged on and from the earth.
Celestial bodies like the moon, on the other hand, seem suspended outside of time and place, ungrounded, lacking provenance. So we invent stories to explain where they came from. The Chomoru people of Guam, for instance, believed that the sun and moon came into being when Putan, the first man—who dwelt in the ether of space and happened to be omnipotent—felt he was about to die and instructed his sister, Fu’una, on the disposal of his corpse. When the time came, Fu’una, having inherited her brother’s limitless powers, carried out Putan’s last wishes:
With his body, she made the earth;
With his breast, she made the sky;
With his right eye, she made the sun;
With his left eye, she made the moon;
And with his eyebrows, she made the rainbows.
One Aztec creation myth holds that Coyolxauhqui, daughter of the earth goddess, Coatlique, conspired with her four hundred sisters and brothers to kill her mother, but at the last moment Coatlique gave birth to a fully armed warrior, Huitsopochtli, who saved her from her attackers, then cut off Coyolxauhqui’s head and flung it into the sky, where it became the moon. In another tale from Aztec mythology (there can never be too many), the gods held a council at which it was decided that two of their number should sacrifice themselves in order to resurrect as the sun and the moon. Two towers were constructed, fires were lit at their bases, and the chosen ones, wearing crowns and feathered robes, ascended to the platforms. After four days, they cast themselves into the flames and were consumed. The other gods waited beside the towers for another four days, until the sky filled with a terrifying red glow: the blinding sun appeared on one side of the sky, and the moon, equally bright, appeared on the other. To dim the moon’s brightness, one of the gods seized a rabbit and threw it onto the face of the moon, etching its shadow on the luminous sphere.
Modern astronomers and physicists tell their own stories: the moon was blasted from the Earth by the impact of a giant protoplanet; long before that, stars and galaxies were formed when atoms of hydrogen, helium, and lithium coalesced under the force of gravity; some 14 billion years ago, a single point contained all the matter in the universe, until a sudden, violent expansion—the Big Bang—sent primordial bits and pieces spinning into the void.
We have no stories for non-being, for what existed prior to the Beginning: we literally cannot imagine it. In our minds, one body inevitably begets another. Nihil ex nihilo. To everything its provenance. Scientific American recently reported that one of Saturn’s rings has apparently spawned a “moonlet,” as particles on the ring’s outer edge, drawn together by gravitational pull, have congealed into the seed-pearl of a future moon. The moonlet may grow large enough to migrate out of the ring and become a separate satellite of Saturn. Or it may be pulverized by asteroids plowing their oblivious course through the cosmos. Or it may disintegrate on its own into ice crystals that drift slowly apart, like disembodied vertebrae relinquishing their bonds.
Copyright © 2014, Florence Newman
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.
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By Jim Sizemore
On August 26, 1981, I wrote a longish letter to my niece, with whom I’d been corresponding for some time. What follows is an edited draft of the short note in that letter about one of my yearly visits to Ocean City, Maryland. The original draft also includes the doodle, below. (Click image to view a larger version.)
When we arrived at Ocean City last Saturday the weather was crummy; rain, wind, etc. It was like that all afternoon and evening and it was cold, too. By Sunday morning the rain had stopped but it was still overcast. Mid-morning showed a little sun between the clouds and by the afternoon it was beautiful; bright sun and clear, Kodachrome-blue sky and big white-capped surf. It’s been like that since.
I’m here with some friends and their kids—a boy and girl, ages 14 and 15—who happen to be the same ages as my son and his male friend, who are also here. So everyone has someone to play with. Last night the adults dined and shopped and strolled on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, just 16 miles north of here. Who knows—or wants to know—what the kids did?
Each weekend the rental units quickly empty out and fill right back up. Pale families arrive and tan families depart. Car doors and trunk lids pop open and suitcases, boxes, bags, coolers, folding chairs, beach towels, are packed in or pulled out. The air is full of greetings and goodbyes. The people leaving seem more relieved than rested. For better or worse, they have survived an intense week of togetherness and are now ready to return to the normal routine of everybody going their own way, doing their own things. Leisure, they have learned, can produce its own kind of pressure and they’ve had enough of it for this year.
The folks arriving, on the other hand, can’t wait for an early morning walk on the beach. Joggers, all sizes and shapes—with few exceptions grim-faced—separate into groups; some run on more or less solid ground, others prefer the shifting sand. Gulls scavenge near the water’s edge and casually turn their backs on human walkers. Surf fishermen, who never seem to catch anything, stand like sentinels with their poles pointing to England.
In the afternoon small airplanes, one every ten or fifteen minutes it seems, fly perhaps a hundred yards beyond the beach and a couple of hundred feet above the ocean, trailing commercial messages. (There’s no escape from the big bad Ad Man!) One banner, reading “MELLOW ROCK,” advertises a local radio station. The phrase seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. An attractive young woman yells to a macho boy in a bikini brief: “The water’s too rough.” He: “Rough, yes, but wonderful, too.” With that, chest out, he struts into the sea.
Now it’s late afternoon, around dinner time. Fewer human bodies still on the beach: some ugly, most average, a few beautiful. As you stand very still at the fringe of the surf, the ebbing water pulls the sand from under your toes and soon you are ankle-deep in the wet grains. Meanwhile, back at the beach house, aggressive black flies hang out at the screen door, demanding entrance.
Your uncle Jim.