My barber was a real magician. His name was Larry and his business card had a picture of him with Harry Blackstone, the famous magician, on the back. Larry taught me a couple of tricks with rubber bands that I can still do today. After I saw Tony Curtiz portray Harry Houdini, I imagined myself an escape artist and would ask the neighbor girls, Jeannie and Julie to tie me up, so that I could demonstrate my prowess at getting untied. It’s a good thing I didn’t ask them to bury me, but the thought did cross my mind.
Jeannie and Julie lived with their mom, Mrs. Pace and their baby sister, Jody, in the duplex nextdoor to Nana’s house. I thought Mrs. Pace was very attractive and couldn’t keep my eyes off her. To my young eyes she was just as pretty as Stella Stevens or Ann-Margaret. Mr. Pace was in the military and seldom seen. I enjoyed the company of the Pace girls even when they teased me.
It was Jeannie who told me that everyone thought I was going to die when I had a long bout with pneumonia. When I was well again, Nana insisted that I take a taxi to school. It was totally insane since Horace Mann School was only a few blocks away, but it was a rainy day and Nana didn’t want me to have a relapse. I made the most of the situation by inviting my best friend, Rudy Franco, and the Pace girls to ride with me. It was a lot like arriving to school in a limo. While we waited for our cab, we all listened to my favorite Mickey Mouse Club album.
I was somewhat confused at how Annette could be so young on the TV show and so much older in the popular Beach Party movies. I hadn’t yet completely grasped the concept that the Mouseketeers were on their second run. I think my father explained it to me.
The taxi trips only lasted a few days, but it was fun arriving at school complete with an entourage, and a little like the Hollywood premieres I saw on TV, but I don’t remember anyone asking us for autographs, except in my dreams.
Nana made the worst sandwiches in the world. I didn’t like the bologna and her American cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread tasted horrible by lunchtime. I got into the habit of throwing my entire bagged lunch into a neighbor’s bushes each morning on the way to school. This must have gone on for about a month before the unlucky recipient of so many bad lunches contacted Nana. I can’t remember my punishment, but my father ended up putting out for hot lunches from then on.
Larry, the magic barber, had a room filled with tricks, and he was more than willing to sell them to his young patrons. I think I bought a magic light bulb from him. These were very popular thanks to Jackie Coogan who played Uncle Fester on The Addams Family TV show. More than once, he would stick a light bulb in his mouth, and powered by who knows what magical force, the light would light up. It’s a silly trick, but one I enjoyed sharing with my family and friends until my own magic light bulb lost its magical powers.
My childhood was filled with magical things. There was something strange and wonderful about the photo negatives kept in my grandmother’s dresser drawer and there was a shoebox of old pictures stashed under her bed that fascinated me too. I had seen ads for X-Ray Specs, glasses that would allow you to see what was under a girl’s dress or a man’s skeleton depending on which ad you were looking at. I never invested in these incredible items, but I discovered that I could achieve something just as interesting when I used a photographic negative to look at people in just the right backlit lighting situation.
Grandma once took me to visit an old woman who she had cared for. I think she was picking up her final check and that she thought I might be interested in meeting this old lady and seeing her house. The woman had puzzles everywhere. There were folding tables with several puzzles in progress and piles of puzzle boxes here and there. The lady gave me a few puzzles that she was done with. The woman also had glass filled kaleidoscopes and a stereo viewer that could be used to look at sets of old black and white photos in 3D.
Growing up, two of my favorite toys were Viewmaster stereo viewers and a Kenner Give-A-Show Projector. When the Give-A-Show broke, I got a Kenner Easy-Show Projector. I had a hand me down Erector Set, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and access to my father’s Lionel Train set. My father showed me how to use the train transformer to magnetize things and I became fascinated with how magnets attracted and repelled.
My Aunt Lorraine, first wife of my Uncle Ray, who was a school teacher, would buy me books for Christmas. Not the Golden Books, which could be bought at any grocery store, but challenging real books by E. B. White. Even though I struggled with the words, I loved the Garth Williams illustrations in Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
There was a cigar store a few blocks from Nana’s house that sold used comic books for five cents at the time when the going rate was twelve. Whenever I had a few nickels, I went there to peruse the stacks. Sometimes I would take a respite from my search for Superman, Batman, Spider Man, Thor, and the Fantastic Four to look at Famous Monsters of Filmland or the magazine collections of adult comics. The girly magazines were hidden away behind a curtain, but every once in awhile you could see the covers when men walked in or out. At the counter, you could buy cinnamon toothpicks, pixie stix, or gags and tricks from the Johnson-Smith Company. There were whoopee cushions, fake poop, and exploding cigarette loads, to name but a few of the items available to the selective shopper.
As mentioned previously, I wasn’t Nana’s only male house guest, my Uncle David, still a teenager when I was in elementary school, had his own room, when he wasn’t away at reform school. David was the classic early sixties juvenile delinquent. I may have been thought of as a little angel, but David aspired to being a Hell’s Angel. The closest he got to that, before doing a stint in Vietnam, was becoming a member of a bikers club called HOG, the Harley Owners Group. He even had a leather jacket with the HOG emblem on the back. It’s possible that he wasn’t actually a member and just borrowed a real members’ coat to impress girls.
In our early days of mutual animosity, David delighted in torturing me. And, I delighted in my revenge. Looking back, I can see where I may have been a rival for the attentions of David’s mother. Grandma certainly spent a lot of time with me. Perhaps, she had given up on David, who was always getting into trouble. David was always beating on me, and on one notable occasion eating a steak dinner while I ate liver.
The steak in question had been purchased specifically for me by my father, but Nana had decided that David, a growing boy, deserved it more than I. When I told my father that Nana had given David my steak he went through the roof. Nana didn’t care. She hated my father and talked about him behind his back, referring to him as a nail biter and worse.
David liked to hunt and fish. He even bought a falcon and kept it in the garage. He said that he was training it and if I got anywhere near it he would have it peck my eyes out. I was scared, but I loved watching him give the bird treats when it returned to his gloved hand after a flight. I would watch from the back window where it was safe.
David worked his way up from BB guns to shotguns, but before making the transition he shot me in the foot because he wanted the backyard all to himself. My revenge was to hit him over the head with a rubber mallet. It’s a good think I didn’t kill him.
My vengeance knew no bounds, I would hide outside and change channels on the TV using the remote control when he was trying to watch his favorite TV show, but the best revenge of all was when I filled his cigarettes with exploding loads that I purchased at the cigar store. When he had mellowed a bit, after Nam, he told me the whole story regarding my prank. The first explosion happened while he was flirting with the cashier at the Fairfax Theatre that was just down the hill from Nana’s house. He was very embarrassed. He ended up buying a loge ticket. In those days, you could smoke in the heavily upholstered loge seats. The second load went off during the movie and the usher was ready to throw him out. At that point, he figured it out and knew it was me who had set him up. I think Nana talked him out of getting me out of bed and giving me a spanking. His anger must have worn off by morning.