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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Today’s Gag

July 14, 2015

SWEAT-Blog

To buy reprint and/or other rights for this cartoon, visit my archives at cartoonstock.com, and jantoo.com. You may also have this cartoon reproduced on mugs, t-shirts and other products. Here’s the link: zazzle.com/mugtoons/products

Copyright © 2015 Jim Sizemore.

Today’s Gag

November 28, 2014

1411Lunch-BlogTo buy reprint and/or other rights for this cartoon, visit my archives at cartoonstock.com, and jantoo.com. Buy a selection of my gag cartoons reproduced on mugs, t-shirts and other products at: zazzle.com/mugtoons/products

Copyright © 2014 Jim Sizemore.

Cover Art

May 3, 2014

Below is the base illustration for a Maryland Family Magazine cover. Just below that, we see the published cover. To view more of my illustration examples, click the “Illustration” tab at the top of this page.

lzMFMCover3EPSON scanner image

Copyright ©  2014, Jim Sizemore

The Falconer Building

July 31, 2013

Bats, Bugs and Drunks

Miss Rita, the older woman at the desk next to mine, is asking personal questions. That’s something she does every night. I’m 22 years old and this is my first serious job since being FalconerBldgdischarged from the Army, two years ago. The inquiring Miss Rita and I are clerks in the Social Security Administration — I’m a new hire and she’s my trainer. We are working the 4:00 P. M. to 12:30 A. M. shift on the seventh floor of the Falconer Building at 414 Water Street in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the harbor. The year is 1959, deep summer, and I’ve made a new friend.

The windows are open, three huge floor fans blowing at full power. If the temperature in the Falconer Building rises above 90 degrees, we’ll be sent home. Miss Rita and I sit in the cross-ventilation and flip SS-5 cards and scribble name and date-of-birth changes into huge metal-covered ledgers, delighted with each others company. Form SS-5This photo of an actual Form SS-5 shows a Miss Apgar requesting that her name be changed to Mrs. Lake. (Click images for larger views.)

The evening passes to the rhythm of turning pages: flip, flip, scribble, flip, flip, scribble, scribble, flip. Against the background of dirty brick walls, scores of other clerks’ bend to the identical task. The oily aroma of Baltimore harbor wafts in the windows and, when the wind shifts, pungent odors come from the nearby wholesale fish market. The whirring fans cool our necks and blow the occasional card from desk to floor. The strange sound of bat wings flutter in one window and out another. There is a gentle rustling noise as rat’s forage for sandwich crumbs in waste baskets.

At the moment, Miss Rita’s job is to introduce me to the mysteries of entry-level clerking in the Numerical Register Section of SSA — and, it seems, to trade work information for personal tidbits. With anyone else her intimate prying might be offensive, but, somehow — I guess because of her odd sense of humor — it’s just harmless fun. Miss Rita’s constant stream of chatter, spiced with sexy double meanings, makes the long evenings of repetitive work bearable. In fact, they are downright entertaining. Anyway, in my case, there is not much of a private life to expose — I ‘m still in the process of trying to develop one. Somehow I manage to keep Miss Rita interested by making up outrageous but plausible tales about my exploits. She seems to especially enjoy the lies (these days we might call them “creative non-fictions”) that I tell about the erotic adventures of my mother, a born-again Christian, who would have been shocked if she knew that her son used her fictional life for creative inspiration. Perhaps Miss Rita identifies with my stories because she and my mother are about the same age.

On my first night in the Falconer Building — one of several rental properties which comprise the original 1936posterSSA headquarters — Miss Rita gives me the grand tour. She points out the freight elevator which, she says, I can use at peak load times during shift changes, when the passenger elevator is often overwhelmed. She shows me the stairs and says they’re handy because the freight elevator only goes to the 5th floor. She doesn’t comment on the empty booze bottles in the stairwell, nor does she explain the sleeping drunk. Our “cafeteria” is located by the elevator door on the 4th floor. That is, at 9 o’clock each evening an old man gets off the elevator and stands there selling cold sandwiches out of a large cardboard box. Finally, Miss Rita gives me a booklet explaining what is expected of me in terms of production and conduct. The publication also has a small map showing the location of the men’s room and fire exits. I can use the restroom anytime, Miss Rita says, provided it isn’t too often.

As we young male clerks arrive early for the evening shift, we often gather to watch strippers sunbathing on the low roof of the nearby Gayety Show Bar, the keystone of Baltimore’s infamous “Block” of sleazy nightclubs clustered nearby. When the women are up there relaxing between shows we all go a little crazy. The younger clerks in the Numerical Register Section — male and female — are friendly, and I am quickly drawn into a sort of loose-knit social club. After our shift finishes at 12:30 A. M., few of us want to go home to bed — we’re still too primed with youthful energy — so most nights a meeting is called for a party or card game at someone’s home or apartment. Or we go out on a sort of group date, which usually involves bar-hopping, the only form of entertainment available at that hour. Some nights we simply cruise the city and talk until dawn at an all night diner. Often, I drop into bed at first light or later, sleep until two in the afternoon, then get up to start the work/play cycle again. Some of my new friends have been living this way for several years, but the fun will last only a few months for me. I have “EOD’d” (Entered On Duty) at the end of an era. The whole of SSA’s scattered downtown headquarters is scheduled to consolidate in a modern complex in the western suburbs of Baltimore in January of 1960, only a few months hence.

Well before we leave the city, though, it comes to pass that my social life is greatly enriched as a direct result of information provided by Miss Rita. She tells me that a particular young lady, another Numerical Register clerk, is interested in me beyond mere friendship, and before long I am involved in my first “adult” relationship. I reward Miss Rita by continuing my stories, now more fact than fiction, and much more titillating than ever. I even expand the scope of the tales to include many of my young and ever-horny (at least in my creative telling) coworkers. And I notice that Miss Rita’s interest in our escapades become more intense the closer I stick to real life, which I take as a literary lesson. So as I become a better clerk, I also sharpen my narratives. Miss Rita especially likes to hear my juiced-up versions of our nocturnal forays to various “hillbilly” bars and other hotspots around town, and the house parties that follow into the wee hours, many of them ending in sleep overs. These stories require scant embellishment.

All of this happened more than a half-century ago. I spent 29 years with the Social Security Administration, taking an early retirement in 1988. Not long after the SSA headquarters moved to the suburbs, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping pages and scribbling in ledgers, so I took advantage of the Korean G. I. Bill and enrolled in evening art classes. That led to a temporary job in SSA’s drafting department, which in turn got me through what I called “the back door” of their large art department —where my first assignment was to help produce the original Medicare Handbook.

Living and working in the suburbs was O. K., but I never again had an experience quite so rich in character, or characters, or that made such an intense impression on me, as those nights in downtown Baltimore, flipping SS-5 cards and trading punch-lines with Miss Rita.

This is an edited re-post from October 17, 2009

Copyright © 2013, Jim Sizemore

Hip Shots

September 21, 2012

Clouds V

By Jim Sizemore

(Click images for larger views.)

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. This feature will appear most Fridays.

 

Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

Hip Shots

January 13, 2012

Beached II

By Isabel Perl

(Click images for larger views.)

The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com 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 can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. This feature will appear most Fridays.

Copyright © 2012 Isabel Perl.