This poetic Valentine’s Day card was postmarked Perry Ill., 4 p.m., Feb. 13, 1911. The man who mailed it could expect that his beloved, “Birdie,” would have it in her hand the very next day—Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. In those days, first-class mail was delivered morning and afternoon and postcards required only a one-cent postage stamp. Note also that in this case the card was mailed and delivered sans street name or number. Small town—everyone knows everyone else—therefore, no street address required. What ever happened to that wonderful postal system? Well, for one thing, Time happened.
By Barbara Kaplan Bass
We found ourselves at a crossroads: which route should we take from Humboldt down to Sausalito, the next stop in our California adventure? 101 would be faster, more direct and purposeful, but we had just come from communing with the Giant Redwoods, which left us—so to speak—peaced-out. And it was Thoreau who said, “The swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot.” We weren’t exactly “afoot,” but we were open to exploring, taking the slower route, Thoreau’s spirit of exploration and Robert Frost’s “road less traveled” were guiding our way: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.”
We chose Route 1, a winding two laned road that would take us along the Pacific Coast. It was about an inch and a half on the map, not much out of the way. The few towns mentioned sounded alluring: Shelter Cove, Westport, Mendocino. We looked forward to breathtaking views of the Pacific coast, opportunities to explore virgin territory. Feeling adventurous, and maybe a bit overconfident, we headed away from the highway and drove south to the sea.
As we descended into this northern coastal forest, we discovered that we were farther from the ocean than expected. We would have to wait to glimpse the Pacific. When I put the nearest town into our GPS, we had another surprise: no cell service. What if there were an emergency? As we drove on, we noted sparsely placed call boxes located in small pull-off areas. Suppose we needed help and weren’t near these links to civilization?
Engulfed by the forest, we saw the last of the afternoon light filtering hazily through the towering trees. Then we noticed that the road had no shoulder. We hadn’t seen another car —or a place of business —since we began our descent. We soldiered not so merrily along, no longer feeling to be intrepid explorers out for an adventure.
As the sun began to sink behind the redwoods, we also realized that there were no streetlights on Route 1. Once the sun slipped below the horizon, we would be driving in pitch dark on a two-lane road with no shoulders, no cell service—only the occasional call box. It was then that our fuel gauge light began to flash on and off. We’re out of gas?
My husband put the car in neutral and let it coast on the downhill slope. Our little adventure had become a scary trip into the unknown. In the 51 years that we have known each other, we have never run out of fuel. “We ‘re not empty yet,” my husband said, as we coasted into the next pull-off. He pushed a few buttons on the callbox and the Highway Patrol answered. Hooray! Wait, what? “You won’t come until we are completely out of gas? What if we hit empty and we’re not near a callbox? How long will it take to reach us?”
As I think about this, we may have overreacted. What was the worst that might have happened? Anyway we could have flagged a passing motorist after perhaps an hour or two, then waited for the Highway Patrol to show up—or just spent the night in the pull-off. But these possibilities only occur to me in retrospect. Back in the forest, things looked bleak. However, right before we began scratching our last-will-and-testament into the paint on the car door, and drafting a final farewell note to our children, two “angels” appeared in a late model Ford: Claudia and her daughter, Christine. “Can we help you?” Why is it that when someone is kind to me, I start crying? I had been dry-eyed, but when these two Samaritans stopped to help us, I broke down in sobs. They didn’t have extra gas, but they promised to follow us to Westport, the first town on the map, just twenty miles away.
Their presence calmed us enough to continue, still mostly in neutral, still panicking on every upgrade, checking every few seconds for Claudia and Christine in our rear-view mirror—but we finally made it out of the forest and were treated to the magnificent view of the North Pacific Coast. I would like to say that the view made it worthwhile, but it didn’t. I still get palpitations thinking about what could have happened on that treacherous stretch of highway—bandits , Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers—they all haunt by dreams.
When we coasted into Westport, our sense of relief began to wane: a few scattered houses and no downtown. We may have been literally out of the woods but not figuratively. We pulled up alongside a lone citizen walking along the road and asked if there were a gas station in town. “No gas station,” he said, “but there’s a pump outside the general store,” and he pointed across the street and down the road. “There’s not another pump for 40 miles. That’s why they call it the ‘The Lost Coast.’”
Gas was $4.99 a gallon, but who cares? Hearing the gurgle of fuel through the hose was pure music, worth every penny. We waved goodbye to Claudia and Christine, blowing kisses of gratitude, and headed toward Mendocino with a full tank, relieved and now confident we would survive.
And we can still say that we have never run out of gas. We also learned that an inch and a half is not always an inch and a half—at least not on a map—and that there are helpers out there when we need them.
I must return to Robert Frost here – a different poem, but an insight into our experience: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”
Barbara Kaplan Bass was a member of the English Department at Towson University for 43 years, teaching writing and American literature before retiring last June. She is now enjoying the luxury of spending time reading and writing and traveling. She is currently working on a book of essays—one for each year of her life—for her three granddaughters.
Me and the Big Guy
By Jim Sizemore
It’s the early1960s. I’m driving home west to east on Northern Parkway from my GS-2 clerical job at SSA Headquarters in Woodlawn. We live in a small apartment in a new duplex on a street of old homes in Hamilton. That “we’ includes my wife and toddler son, but I’m also talking about “The Big Guy” who lives downstairs. That’s my nickname for him. He and his wife moved in after we did. My wife and I have a one-bedroom and she’s pregnant with our second son. Once home, my little family and I will sit down to a pleasant dinner. But, as usual, I’m really looking forward to later in the evening when my son is in bed, my wife relaxing and watching TV. That’s when The Big Guy usually calls me down to his apartment for several games of darts. He has his own dartboard and we play almost every night.
The Big Guy, who is 6’ 4’’and 230 pounds, is super-competitive. Me, I’m 5’ 8” and 150 pounds on a good day, but I can be pretty competitive myself—depending on the game. And I love darts. I get the idea that the Big Guy has too much time on his hands—which in his case translates into to plenty of time to practice darts. That’s because he’s sort of out of work—recovering from an injury to his shoulder. (Not the shoulder of his dart-throwing arm, thank goodness.) I guess being home with very limited physical or social activity all day, he’s ready for company—sort of lonely, you might say. So he asks often and I often agree. After many months, “competitive” or not, he still hasn’t managed to beat me at darts.
My darts friend is Jackie Burkett, a Baltimore Colt rookie. You may have heard of him. His wife, a very attractive “Southern Belle” is also a Jackie. They’re from Alabama. They met as kids in high school and both graduated from Auburn University. He was a star in all kinds of college sports, especially football—big-time famous at that. He was drafted by the Baltimore Colts as a linebacker, but was injured in a pre-season game. Jackie had surgery on his shoulder at Union Memorial Hospital on 33rd Street. My wife and I visited him there. We are all about the same age, so young, so very married, and we are pretty close. In fact, my wife’s parents are godparents for one of their kids. So what is he doing in my neighborhood at all? Well, rookie footballers don’t make a lot of money, so they tend to live in modest local areas with the rest of we civilians. Which is kind of nice.
Tonight’s dart game begins as usual; Jackie is full of fun and fire, joking around. It always starts this way. I’m thinking he’s over-confident as usual, despite or because of all of his lengthy practice sessions. I have no reason not to think that it will end as usual, too—after three or four games, me the big winner. But tonight the first game is very close—too close for comfort—and I only pull it out at the very end. The second game I also win. Game three? There is no game three tonight. Jackie has lost interest. This has not been his evening, and it’s even worse than usual. His stance is off, lower arm not level, his release point inconsistent, his follow-through nonexistent. So of course he loses again. After only two games, Jackie seems to somehow shrink in size. Not really sink, of course, but his shoulders slump when he loses. And with me he always loses at darts.
The next night Jackie suggests another activity altogether. He loves golf almost as much as football, and is really, really good at it—as I come to find out. Out of the blue, Jackie asks me to go along with him to a local driving range to, as he says, “slam a bucket” of balls. I have never hit a golf ball in my life, but with my natural physical ability/agility—darts, of course, and military marching moves: Right Face, Left Face, About Face, etc.—I figure I’ll be right at home. At least I’ll not make a fool of myself with the golf challenge. Long story short, I make a fool of myself. Jackie’s golf balls, even the weak drives, travel 200+ yards. He slams some in a straight line 300+ yards. All of mine, if I manage to make contact at all, trickle off the tee.
Many years have passed since we lived in Hamilton. My toddler and his brother are now grown men with their own families. I have Grandchildren and even a couple of great-grandchildren. My wife and I split up after a too-short marriage and I’ve lived many places and worn a number of hats in the interim. Jackie Burkett, well, he went on to play for the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys. He co-owned a restaurant in New Orleans and was the marketing executive for an engineering firm. In politics, he became the Fort Walton County Commissioner. And his marriage remained intact throughout his life, his children and grandchildren close. Anyway you look at it, Jackie proved to be a winner.
As for me, it’s still all about the darts.
Thanks to Florence Newman who helped me shape this essay—suggesting changes and additions to greatly improve it. She understood what I was trying to do and helped me do it. Flo is another big winner in my life.
Postscript: It saddens me to report that Jackie Burkett died from leukemia, September 1, 2017, age 80.
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.