Monthly Archives: March 2014

Summer School at East High – Junior English

So owing to my failure to pass sophomore English, and my foolish decision to not immediately repeat the course in summer school, I was required to take Junior English in the summer session between my junior and senior years at East High. What I hadn’t anticipated when I made the choice was my discovery of reading for pleasure. As it turned out, Junior English was devoted entirely to creative writing, and since my “awakening” I’ve always regretted not taking this course for an entire school year.

The primary instructor of Junior English was my homeroom teacher, now Mrs. Hess, so I felt a bit of a rapport, having been in her homeroom for every school day for three years. It turned out that I enjoyed the class very much, and having Mrs. Hess as the teacher helped greatly to make that so.

Having finally gotten started, I was reading a number of authors in those days; some good, some, in retrospect, not so much. I attempted War and Peace, and Wuthering Heights, but decided to put them aside for later. I read all of the James Bond novels, by Ian Fleming, and the violence-filled mysteries of Mickey Spillane, and a number of mysteries by an author named Carter Brown. These last were, I confess, initially chosen for the sexy cover pictures on the paperbacks, but surprisingly turned out to be quite appropriate for a 16-year-old; not in content, so much, but in reading level.

So I was somewhat familiar with the mystery novel, and when the assignment was given to “write a short story”, this was the genre I selected. I don’t recall the title, and I didn’t keep a copy, but the story itself was an old saw — a murder in an English manor house (Cretin Manor), with a number of suspects.

What I do recall was that in all likelihood it was absolutely dreadful. I also recall the effort I put into it. Realizing that I was required to lead the reader to the solution, rather than just announcing it on the final page, I spent a great deal of time attempting to insert various clues into the narrative. The exercise certainly gave me an appreciation for the effort and skill required to do what I had failed to do, to produce a good story.

… And Not So Good Books

Reading The Black Rose opened up to me the world of books, and also reminded me of books I had actually enjoyed in the past.  But, I also had a couple of bad experiences regarding books. Very near the end of my 4th grade school year at Bardwell, I had not turned in a required final book report. I not only had not turned in a report, I had not read a book. I had, of course, read and reported on several books through the school year, but spring was upon us and I guess I just couldn’t be bothered with this last assignment.

I was told that the penalty for failing to turn in the report was to not pass 4th grade, and to be held back for an encore performance next year. To a nine-year-old this is about the worst imaginable happenstance. But time was running out, and to compound my problem, the school library was closed, and so I was in something of a panic.

But fate stepped in, smiled briefly upon me, and a one-day delay in the deadline allowed me to go to the library, find a book, speed read it — without benefit of training, I might add — and write the report. Not a good report, I must admit, but acceptable. They didn’t really want to hold me back, and aside from the book report, truly had no other reason to do so. But you can rail against cruel fate all you want, when you are nine years old, rules are rules.

In a reprise of my 4th grade experience, as the spring semester of sophomore English was drawing down, a final assignment was to read, and to report on, yes, a book. This situation was hauntingly familiar, and in fact I did try. But in this case, it wasn’t just any book, it was “Silas Marner”, by George Eliot. Yes, I say again, I tried. But I’m not sure if there is a more ponderous and incomprehensible novel in the entirety of English literature than Silas Marner. And frankly, Victorian feminist writings would never come to be among my favorites.

It quickly became clear that this was, for me at least, an impossible task. With just days left, my teacher, in an effort to help, offered an alternative. However, in the few days I had left, “A Tale of Two Cities” turned out to be just as daunting and the inevitable result was that I failed sophomore English; and by the rules of the day, not just the semester, but the entire year.  I was given the choice of re-taking the course in summer school, or repeating all of sophomore English in my Junior year, thus postponing the burden of summer school for a whole year. I chose the latter, and this, as I would come to realize, was a mistake.

A few years later I discovered, to my dismay, that there were such things as “Cliff’s Notes”, which were readily available and offered a complete synopsis of whatever impossible reading task you might be assigned; in other words, a book report. My first thought, as I tipped my head and cried out to the heavens was, “Why didn’t anyone tell me!”

Jennings Terrace and Hicksatomic

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AN EVENT OF some significance occurred in Aurora on Friday, March 13, 1959. A large plot of land between LaSalle Street and Broadway, bounded by North Avenue was the location of Jennings Terrace. Officially a “Chartered nonprofit home for elderly persons”, the facility was commonly referred to as the “Old Folks Home”. The large, old-fashioned, very institutional looking building was completed in 1856. A five-story stone structure, sans the original attic and high steeply sloping roof, it was consumed in spectacular fashion by fire on that fateful Friday the 13th.

Waldo Jr. High was located on higher ground than was Jennings Terrace, and not too far away, so I got a pretty good view of the smoke and activity, including a couple of buzzing helicopters, from the large upper floor window of the principle’s anteroom, where I was spending the afternoon; having done something (?) wrong.

Aside from the tragedy of the fire (four elderly residents perished in the blaze), what I remember most about the intersection of Broadway and North Avenue was the new gas station across the street. In those days, this was called a filling station, or more properly a service station (for reasons obvious at the time, and rather less so today).

The service station on the SE corner of North and Broadway, was part of the Hick’s Oil Company chain of discount gas stations; the only one  in Aurora, and which was identified to the world by its new name, announced in large neon letters; “HICKSATOMIC”. In the 1950s any reference to atomic, and by extension atomic bomb, meant power. So I’m sure the name was deemed enticing as a source of fuel.

The advertising notion was defeated to some degree however, because most of the time, so it seemed, the central letters of the sign didn’t light up, and so the place was generally referred to as what the sign actually read. On those evening rides, if we were in the right part of town — perhaps heading for the Broadway Fruit Juice House for the rare but always hoped for malt — if we needed gas we might stop at  “HICK     MIC”.

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Generations

Thinking back to the “Red and Black Spot” makes me realize that I just missed much of what is nostalgically recalled as the 1950s. By this most people mean the late 50s, much as saying the 60s usually means the later, more turbulent part of that decade.

The 50s usually conjures images of poodle skirts, jalopies, sock hops, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Frankie Avalon, and the early Elvis. Saying that I missed this is not strictly true – I was there, and I experienced a lot of it; but I was too young to truly be a part of, and to fully grasp the era. We are defined, to a large degree I think, by the music of a narrow band of years – The music heard, in my case not so much from the old Philco radio, but on my phonograph, and from an AM radio in the dash board of a car (heard sometimes from the back seat).

A slightly older friend recounted to me, some years ago, that he was devastated when Elvis died, but felt no such emotion at the murder of John Lennon. My experience was precisely the opposite. While I was somewhat indifferent to the passage of the older Elvis, that December day in 1980 was, for me, truly the “Day The Music Died”.  Though separated from the cool cats of the 50’s by a very few years, our generation, the Baby Boomers, is defined not so much by “Love Me Tender”, but by “Love Me Do”.

To carry the thought a bit further, I care not at all for the grunts and growls of Bruce Springsteen, while friends, just a few years younger, think he’s terrific.

The Red & Black Spot

Our first day indoctrination into my new junior high environment at Waldo was a meeting, in the school’s auditorium, of the entire seventh grade class. The lecture included a reference to a place across the street called “The Red and Black Spot” (The name coming from the East High school colors – Red and Black).

What was now K. D. Waldo Jr High School had, until just a year or two prior been East Aurora High School, and the Red and Black Spot was a traditional after-school hangout, complete with tables, booths, and a juke box filled with the current musical innovation, Rock and Roll. When the new high school was built, and the older kids moved away, the dynamic of the neighborhood changed. The place was not considered to be an appropriate venue for 12 and 13 year olds, and did not survive for long.

It was still there, however, when I arrived in the fall of 1958. Many of my new classmates had older siblings who had very much liked the place, so the question was raised, and the official answer was simply to “stay away …” Being a (mostly) obedient lad, I can state that I never set foot in the establishment, so I can say no more about it.

Playing “Foto-Electric Football”

Evenings at my friend Bobby’s house in Moecherville were often spent playing — not often enough in my opinion as I loved playing it — an older game (introduced in 1941) called Foto Electric Football. This wasn’t the newer, similarly named, and rather stupid game featuring a miniature tin stadium which vibrated; sending 22 metal figures, one with the tiny felt football, in any and all directions.

The true Foto Electric Football was a game where two players, Offense and Defense, selected real plays and defensive schemes which were etched into cards These were then stacked onto a small light table. When the underlying screen was withdrawn, allowing light to shine through the play cards, the results were slowly revealed. Gains or losses were then represented on the game board, which of course looked like a gridiron, including ball position and down markers. I don’t recall if I won more than I lost, or if in fact I sucked at it, but I do remember how much fun we had.

A footnote: Bobby and I lost touch when we both went to Viet Nam at the same time, but to different places, with different services. Not too long ago a couple of things happened more or less simultaneously. Ebay provided me the opportunity to purchase a well preserved example of the original Foto Electric Football, and Facebook provided the means to re-connect. Which, after many years, we did. I was hopeful at the time for the chance to play a game or two. But, sadly, my friend passed away recently and the possibility is lost forever.

I am dedicating this post, and the one previous, recalling my memories of Moecherville, to my dear childhood friend Bobby, or as he was known to the world at large, Robert Hart.

 

My Friend Bobby

A childhood friend of my mother’s, Jean ____, her husband Jerry, two sons, and at the time, a very young daughter lived in a house in Moecherville.  Jerry was an Army veteran who shared similar experiences with my father. All in all, they were quite good friends of my parents, and the benefit to me of all this was that their younger son, Bobby was just my age, and to whom I had been introduced shortly after we were born. Needless to say, Bobby and I were also close friends. So I had yet another part of town which I enjoyed and felt comfortable; with a number of friends and acquaintances, and the opportunity to experience an altogether different neighborhood dynamic.

Ironically, as the houses were small, many of the yards were large, offering lots of room to run and play, and being when this was, the neighborhood was overrun with kids more or less my age. Moecherville was, like most neighborhoods in those days, a textbook example of the Baby Boom in action.

My mother visited her friend often enough, and the couples occasionally went out on Friday or Saturday nights, so I spent many days and a fair number of evenings, and overnights at my friend’s house; playing games and sharing Bobby’s bunk bed, while his surly and disdainful older brother Punkin’ (Jerry Jr.) slept above. Looking back, Jerry Jr. may have been a pretty good guy, but as a newly minted teenager, he was far too cool be nice to his little brother – at least in front of me.