My Trip to Ernie

January 1, 2018

Ernie and me, circa 1943.

In his final days my younger brother Ernie did not—as Dylan Thomas wrote in his classic poem—”rage, rage, against the dimming of the light.” During his extended hospice care the only time he expressed anger about anything, least of all his dire situation, was when the Virginia traffic authorities tried to revoke his driving permit for backing into a handicapped sign in a parking lot. Ernie said that constituted a crime against his “God-given” right as an American citizen, and he wasn’t joking. But at least that story turned out well. After extensive eye, health and driving tests, his permit and tags were reinstated. And he kept driving for several months.

Ernie joked a lot. Sharp mind, witty mouth. And he was an excellent armature cartoonist. While he was in hospice care, he even suggested an idea for a gag cartoon and collaborated with me on it via our cellphones. Before sending it off to my distributor, cartoonstock.com, I also posted the finished product on this blog. If you check out his slightly dark gag you may understand how a person in Ernie’s circumstances—assuming a great sense of humor, might come up with such an idea.

When I visited Ernie very near the end of his life he took me on an “exiting” drive up the crazy windy roads from my home town of Covington, Virginia, to the Homestead Resort in Warm Springs. Even then, hunched down in his seat, his driving technique was mostly smooth and professional. Except, that is, the time he answered a call with the car in motion. I took a long beat and gently suggested that I’d appreciate it if he didn’t do it again. He didn’t, even though his phone signaled several times. He also drove back down the mountain with a short pullover at Falling Springs, Va., very near where our mother was born, so I could walk the short distance to view the beautiful 200-foot cascade. Ernie remained sitting in the car next to his mobile oxygen tank. Unlike in years past, the few steps to the view he loved were too many for him.

Ernie and I had been a creative team for a long time. That included a dish washing stint that began around ages six and eight. A year or two after the above picture was snapped, our mother began to stand us on kitchen chairs at the sink each day—sometimes twice a day—for our domestic chore; I’d wash and he’d dry.

No more chores with Ernie. I’ll never again talk with him on the phone once or twice a day, chat about this and that—family, baseball, and many other subjects. My younger brother (by 15 months), Ernest Berkley Sizemore, died one week before Thanksgiving on November 16, 2017.

Dylan Thomas, 19141953


Three-Minute Memoir

April 2, 2017

The Boys of Summer, 1954

By Jim Sizemore

1954sketchbookI’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.

Ernie1Meanwhile, 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. BS bs-md-backstory-1127-p1.jpgThen, 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 57:typingwas 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.

57:SFAirborn60+ 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.

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WPA Color, 1939-1943

February 1, 2015

Signs

When my bother, Vernon Leroy (Lee) Sizemore, retired from the military, he earned his living as a sign painter, a skill he had picked up in vocational high school and sharpened by—among other things—painting pin-up girls and fancy lettering on the noses of airplanes. In the years before his death, he was doing broadsheet window signs for grocery stores and night clubs. Some of his expert brush lettering signs were finished with glued-on glitter, especially those promoting bands and singers. Near the end of his life, he fell off a ladder while hanging an exterior sign and wound up with a severe right-side head injury. He was in a coma for months. Once he woke up, I visited him several times in Denver. He always had something interesting to say, riffs that would start O.K., then wander off into fantasy, not making much sense—but to my ears they were weird poetry. And when he drew Picasso-like portraits of people, me included, he always left the right side of the head blank. When I asked why, he said because that was the way they were.

Lee was a wonderful older brother. Because of all the good things he taught me during trips to museums and theaters, letting me tag along when he shined shoes in South Baltimore  bars, and schooling me in basic sign layout theory, I’ve dedicated this post to him.

(Click images to enlarge.)

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A collection of photographs like the ones above, on a wide range of subjects, are in the archives of FSA/OWI (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information). These rich color images, taken within three years of the invention of Kodachrome, serve to inspire as much as to document. To see more of them on this site, type “WPA color” into the small search window in the sidebar on the right of this page. For the complete collection, visit the WPA site by tapping the link in the sidebar box marked “Photography.”


WPA Color, 1939-1943

January 23, 2015

Kids

The first photograph in this WPA (Works Progressive Administration) series is a time machine, shooting me back 70 years. We did a lot of “visiting” between families in the mountains of south-western Virginia in the late 1930s, 40s and 50s. It was a social event, entertainment, a cheap vacation. But at those gatherings it always seemed there were too many kids and too few beds. So I spent my share of time taking a quick nap after being played-out, sprawled out like the group in this image. Or, with the addition of a thin blanket, down for the night with lots of close company. Being somewhat shy, perhaps like the wide-eyed girl in the photograph, I was usually the last one to go to sleep and the first to wake up. But always, whomever we were visiting, my family was made to feel welcome. And when the time came to go home, our host’s warm sendoff usually went something like:  “You’ll come back real soon.”

(Click images to enlarge.)

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A collection of photographs like the ones above, on a wide range of subjects, are in the archives of FSA/OWI (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information). These rich color images, taken within three years of the invention of Kodachrome, serve to inspire as much as to document. To see more of them on this site, type “WPA color” into the small search window in the sidebar on the right of this page. For the complete collection, visit the WPA site by tapping the link in the sidebar box marked “Photography.”


Three-Minute Memoir

October 27, 2014

Another Pittsburgh Romance

By Jo-Ann Pilardi

In memory of Albert “Ab” Logan, 1943-2014

(Click images for larger views.) 
lzjo-ann gradEighth Grade Graduation, Epiphany School, 1955
Three images below: 16th Birthday Party, 1957

Ab Logan’s humorous tale for Baltimore’s “Stoop” storytelling series about his first romantic kiss, in seventh grade during a game of post office at a friend’s birthday party, was evocative of a “post office moment” of my own. Mine happened also in Pittsburgh, but in fifth grade during my tenth birthday party. What follows is a report of the event, as best I can recall it, across these many years.

lzJo-Ann1Setting: On or about June 9, 1951, in the apartment of our family of five (it grew to six later) on Marion Street, in a section of Pittsburgh close to Downtown called Uptown. Our apartment had only three rooms, but as my mother always said, “They’re large rooms.” And they were. A folding screen divided the bedroom into halves; my parents’ territory was on the street side, and the area where my sisters and I slept was in the interior. Regina and I were on a double bed and Sandra on a twin.

lzJo-Ann2Partygoers: At my birthday party that day would have been the usual suspects, no doubt sparkling in their party clothes: my two sisters Sandra and Regina (five and six at the time) and any cousins close in age to me; my neighborhood was cousin-crowded. Cousins Richie, Ronnie, Lanny, Eugene, Tony, and maybe Barbara Ann would have been there, and possibly Tony, Sonny and Doreen. At the time, we all took for granted the physical closeness of our extended family—and ours wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood. It was the sort of urban neighborhood disappearing in America: full of kids who know each other and know, at pretty much every second, where any one of the others is; full of parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents, everyone vigilant—for good or ill—about what the kids are doing and where they are. I miss it deeply, to this day. Also in attendance at the party were my friends from the neighborhood (Monica, Ronnie, Buzzy, Jeepie) and a few from my school, Epiphany Grade School.

I can deduce who the Epiphany School crowd would have been but cannot remember exactly. No photographs remain of the inauspicious day. But with certainty, I remember one person, Joseph C., because I was head over heels nuts about him. He had large, deep-set blue-green eyes spangled with long black lashes, and his hair was jet black. His skin was fair. When I heard the traditional Irish tune, “The Wild Colonial Boy,” I thought of Joseph, for no particular reason except that its high Gaelic beauty—carried by both its melody and lyrics—represented the fair Joseph to me. Herewith its first verse:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name
He was born and raised in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine
He was his father’s only son, his mother’s pride and joy
And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.

lzJo-Ann4But there were a variety of ways in which Joseph didn’t fit the song. Firstly, he was not named “Jack.” Nor was he raised in Ireland, nor was he an only child. But I felt it was entirely possible he lived in a place with royal resonance. Castlemaine. It would have made a good home for this prince among boys. Plus, Joseph was anything but wild. He was solid as a rock: a good student, a sensible kid, not a flirt and not a prude. He even had a whiff of humor about him. Thinking back on it, I also believe I sensed a class difference that appealed to me—he wore white shirts and dark pants (not the usual boy outfit at Epiphany) and just looked classy to my working-class self. (Mea culpa.) Somehow and in some way, he was different. (Diversity is good, right?) Joseph had joined our class during that fifth grade year . . . a very good year because of Joseph’s appearance, but also for some other reasons. The terrors of the two lay teachers we had in third and fourth grade were behind us; they’d taught us the multiplication tables by lining us up against the walls, boys on one side and girls on the other, flaunting and sometimes using their large wooden rulers to force those numbers into our little brains. In their place was Sister Jonathan, a lovely and sweet-natured young nun with a sense of humor and enormous patience. So, it was a very good year.

Post Office Plan: The goal for my birthday party, my fixation and obsession, was to kiss and be kissed by Joseph C., and I hoped the party games would cooperate. So after spin the bottle (no luck there), we started playing post office. In the intervening hour my number was called a few times, and I called the number of others a few times, but I had no luck in making the Joseph C. connection that I desperately sought. Then . . . finally . . . he called my number.

The Moment: The kissing booth (the “post office”) was set up behind the large door separating our living room and the hallway corridor. (The large white door can be seen in some of the photos shown in this article from my 16th birthday party.) Opening the door into the living room created an alcove where the kissing couple could have privacy. At the other side of the living room was the doorway into our large kitchen, from which my mother was managing the party’s food and games. Just as Joseph called my number, and as I started walking to the alcove, my mother charged into the living room: “The party’s over! It’s 5:30—time for everyone to go home.” Both I and my friends (who knew my goal for the day) pleaded with her to let it run for a few more minutes, but to my amazement, she couldn’t be dissuaded. The party was to run from 3:00 to 5:30, and that was it! And so: the party was over. I was to remain unkissed by the beautiful Joseph C. Years later, hearing my plaintive story about that day, my mother said she had no idea of what was happening at that point and certainly no intention to stop the important kiss. She had just decided to stop the party at the time she’d said it would end. I was the victim of the cruelest circumstance.

You’re thinking it couldn’t get worse. I thought so too. But it did. Joseph never re-appeared at Epiphany School that fall. We heard that his parents sent him to a boarding school. I was heartsick but also shocked, because the only people I knew who boarded anywhere were the few boys in our class (the super cool ones) living at St. Joseph’s Protectory, a foster home in the in the adjacent Hill District for kids whose families had “problems.” Joseph was not bound for that kind of boarding, I was sure. His boarding school would be the kind I’d read about in English novels. It might even have a name something like “Castlemaine.”

My disappointment and sadness at losing Joseph (in the party and in the school) continued for a long time. Look at me in my Eighth Grade Graduation picture (in this article—I’m the last on the right, front row) and tell me you don’t see signs of grief over the loss of Joseph C., three years before. (Or maybe it was just that silly hat I was wearing that made me feel so sad.) By my sixteenth birthday party, in 1957 (pictures in this article), there were no more games. I was going steady with Petey, a sweet green-eyed boy from the neighborhood, and we all can be seen conversing and comfortably dancing with each other (probably to an Elvis tune or maybe one by the Four Lads). We were on our way to adulthood, with its own awkwardness, foibles, and loves.

Copyright © 2014 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for a light tone. We’ll help you to edit and reduce the word count of your piece, if needed. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com

Scenic Graffiti III

October 12, 2014

I’m often in the Virginia mountains this time of year, on my way to visit relatives in Covington, near the West Virginia line. Following the two-lane Rt. 32 West, which runs from Lexington, Va., through Goshen Pass, on the way to Warm Springs, I pulled off as usual at the waist-high stone wall overlooking the Maury River, some 80 feet below. The view there is beautiful, but it’s hard to photograph scenic images without resorting to visual cliché. So when I visit this spot, rather than feature the natural beauty, I like to foreground the graffiti. New scribbles are added all the time. It has been three or four years since my last visit, so another update is in order. Same place, third time, fresh doodling. (To view the two earlier posts, just type “graffiti” in the window to the right and tap “search,” then scroll down a bit. To make it worth your while, the original post even ends with a little graffiti “punchline.”)

(Click images for larger views.)

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Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.