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.

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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.

War of 1812

March 14, 2016

FtMac-GROUP-BlogClick image to enlarge. These four cartoon characters, among others, were created to represent actual people who were somehow involved in the battle to defend Fort McHenry from the British on September 12-14, 1814. Three years ago, the images were published in a Jr. Rangers booklet at the fort. This composite image is now available for printing on mugs, t-shirts, and various other products at: zazzle.com.


Baltimore’s Under Armour Shamed

August 21, 2015

For awhile now the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters has unfurled an attractive—and very bold—banner to respectively protest some of the hiring practices of Under Armour. You can see the banner most work-day mornings at the company’s global headquarters on Key Highway Extended, in Locust Point. While you’re there, you may want to have a chat with the workers, and pick up one of the flyers with more details about the disbute. Or, you can simply click on the copy of the flyer at the end of this post; it’s well-designed, very short, and to the point.

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lzURflyer(Click flyer and photos to enlarge.)

Hip Shots

April 22, 2015

Alleys

By Shawn Sizemore

(Click images to enlarge.)

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The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames exposed the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below.

Copyright © 2015, Shawn Sizemore


Hip Shots

June 28, 2014

South Baltimore Little League

Fort Avenue Parade—April 3, 2014

(Click images for larger views.)

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The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below.

Copyright © 2014 Jim Sizemore.

Three-Minute Memior

June 23, 2014

Rock Fish, Rob Roy’s and Miss Annie

By Jim Sizemore

(Click images for larger versions.)

33Annie

Mt. Vernon Restaurant, 904 North Charles Street

Baltimore, Maryland, 1970s.

220px-Rob_Roy_CocktailAnnie was my favorite waitress. I never learned her last name, but once or twice every-other week during the decade or more that I dined at the Mt. Vernon—usually alone— she took very good care of me. Almost every time, I ordered a whole baked rock fish (aka: striped bass, head and tail removed), with mashed potatoes and gravy, and either a small house salad or green beans. Or, in season, perhaps I’d have corn on the cob. And to top it off, I’d have a sweet Rob Roy (scotch and vermouth garnished with a brilliant red maraschino cherry), served in a fancy cocktail glass. The Rob Roy made me feel sort of sophisticated. At the end of each meal, without fail, Annie would look at my plate, smile and shake her head. Then she’d say with mock horror, “You didn’t finish your potatoes!?”

I’m now at the age when I can’t always trust my memory, but because of the good times I spent there I have a pretty clear recall for the Mt. Vernon interior. In fact, I recently found a yellow-ish clipping in my files from the Baltimore Sun Magazine dated February 11, 1973, against which I can test my braincell retention.

Dorsey:Sun-2:11:73The Dining With John Dorsey column provides this description of the Mt. Vernon interior: “One long, high ceilinged room that probably hasn’t been changed since the Thirties, with a bar in front, booths down both sides and tables in the middle. Nobody sits at the tables unless the booths are full. The lighting is uncompromisingly bright, but at least not fluorescent. There is wooden paneling about half-way up the walls, and there is a mirror on the wall in each booth; I don’t know why. What this does, though, is give you odd perspectives. For instance, by looking in the mirror across the room and one booth up, you can see what the people two booths away on your side are eating—or if you’re a lip reader you can take in their conversation. I’ve always thought this presented good spy story possibilities.”

That’s how I remember the room, too, and I especially like Dorsey’s bit about the odd booth-to-booth visuals provided by the small mirrors, something I was taken with and pondered myself; I would only add that they were diamond-shaped. I never wrote a spy story, but did pen a bad boy-girl “breakup” short story, complete with Hemingway-esque dialogue, set in a restaurant much like the Mt. Vernon. I used John Dorsey’s descriptions to what I imagined was good effect. In my story, though, I also observed that there were coat hooks attached to each of the wooden booths; in cold weather the hooks were laden with thick winter coats, scarfs, and piled-on hats, giving the room an even more crowded and homey feel.

Here are a few John Dorsey quotes about the quality of the food at the non-fictional Mt. Vernon: “The house specialty is a lamb shish kebab, served with rice and Greek salad. The lamb is sometimes tough, but usually well marinated and one can be thankful that it isn’t beef; the rice is thoroughly forgettable . . . . The shrimp cocktail, accompanied by the hottest sauce I have ever encountered in a restaurant (be warned), were delectable. But I must say I think shrimp are getting to be a luxury few people can afford anymore. Four medium-large ones for $1.75 is pretty stiff . . . . the vegetables you might as well forget . . . . the string beans I will pass over, and you would be wise to do the same. The salads, though, are always fresh and crisp.” 

Of course Mr. Dorsey ends with a description of dessert, one which happened to be my favorite: “We looked forward to our rice pudding . . . and were disappointed. It had little character and no raisins. The coffee was as always only pretty good, but they never seem to mind filling up your cup again. The bill for our dinner, with a drink apiece before, was something less than $13 before tip. Not really cheap, but not bad.”

And he finishes with a short, damning-with-faint-praise, editorial comment: “I like the Mount Vernon, but it’s hard to say just why. It’s even harder to recommend it. Let’s just say if you don’t mind it when the waitress calls you “dear” as long as she’s cheerful, you might give it a try.”

Ah, yes, I have fond memories of those prices! And the food, by my non-professional standards, was wonderful. But of course my fondest memories are of Annie. She was a warm, clever woman; a great talker, too—and I would now say sort of motherly. As for the comment about my uneaten mashed potatoes—always delivered as an exclamation and a question—that was her little running joke. Hearing her repeat it as if on cue each time I ate at the Mt. Vernon had a soothing effect; it made me feel—well—right at home. And which I now realize, or at least suspect, was Annie’s generous idea all the time.

Postscript: The pictures below depict exterior and interior views of Marie Louise Bistro, which is the current incarnation of 904 North Charles Street, in all its rehabbed glory. It’s a very nice place these days and I’ve eaten there with friends several times. But as good as the food is, as pretty as the setting is—and this should be no surprise after reading my short essay—it’s just not the same.

slide0Doodlemeister is looking for short first-person observations up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style, for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you saw, experienced—or simply thought about—please contact us by e-mail at jimscartoons@aol.com

Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore

Hip Shots

June 3, 2014

Flag Change XXV

By Jim Sizemore

(Click images for larger views.)

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The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below.

Copyright © 2014 Jim Sizemore.