Bobby was my messenger. He was a big boy with a baby face. His hair was just a bunch of peach fuzz. From a distance, Bobby looked like Henry, the cartoon character who liked lollipops. Other kids would make fun of Bobby. When he became agitated, he would bite his hand and it would wobble in his mouth. I saw other boys push him around in the Boy’s bathroom and call him “weirdo” and “freak”. There was no privacy in the Horace Mann School bathrooms. The stalls didn’t even have doors.
I got into trouble for making fun of Bobby. He was easy to impersonate and my impersonation was a crowd pleaser for about fifteen minutes. My father, who had been the subject of ridicule throughout his childhood due to a leg brace that made him drag one foot behind the other…kids called him Frankenstein…suggested that instead of making light of my schoolmate’s handicap, I should get to know him better.
Bobby turned out to be a sweetheart. He loved music, especially Herman’s Hermits, and like me, Bobby was a romantic. We talked about TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Addams Family, and Honey West, and we talked about girls. Well, maybe I did all the talking.
I had a crush on a girl named Theresa Bentley. She had a smile that lit up the entire schoolyard. You could see it from a distance. Some girls played games like four square as if they were robots. They went through the motions with a blank look on their faces. Theresa looked like she was actually having fun. Other girls were shy, but Theresa would sing her favorite songs out loud, right there on the playground.
I, on the other hand, was prone to doing stupid stuff like dropping down on one knee and slurring the word, “Mammy”, in a Warner Brothers cartoon version of Al Jolson. Nobody told me that blackface comedy and Amos and Andy antics were inappropriate. After all, I was being raised by Nana whose world view was slightly skewed.
My father wasn’t exactly politically correct. He explained to me that Bobby wasn’t mentally retarded, he was physically retarded. Explaining behavior to children can be a slippery slope, even for an amateur psychologist like my father.
Bobby eventually moved away, but we kept in touch by phone. It was during one of our phone conversations that I learned Theresa’s current whereabouts. She was going to Allendale Elementary School. Bobby had seen her on the playground. I immediately conceived of a plot to connect with Theresa and Bobby would be my messenger.
As far as I knew, Theresa didn’t know me from Adam. I had girl friends, but I never had a girl friend and I didn’t know the first thing about dating. For some reason, my infatuation was powerful enough for me to call upon all my superpowers as bestowed upon me by television and comic books.
At some point, I had inherited a couple of hand me down shirts, one red, one green, that were made of an incredibly stretchy fabric. You could pull the sleeves to twice their length and they would retract to their original length when released. When I wore either of these shirts, I imaged myself akin to Mr. Fantastic, the leader of the Fantastic Four, who would stretch his body into various shapes when fighting crime. Also, I had seen an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Jack Carter kept referring to Rob as Stretch because he was so lanky. Stretch would become my nom de plume; eight year old irony.
The letter, as I remember, stated that Bobby was not the sender, only the messenger. I was an admirer who went to Theresa’s old school, Horace Mann, and I wanted to get to know her. I gave her my phone number and what I thought would be a good time to call me, and yes, I signed it Stretch.
I knew that Nana would not approve, so I sought out a romantic accomplice in my Grandmother. Unfortunately, she leaked my plan to Nana who had her own ideas about the affairs of boys and girls.
Bobby confirmed delivery, but at the last minute he had become frightened and wasn’t able to hand deliver my epistle. He dropped it at Theresa’s feet and fled. I imagined him hiding out in the bathroom until recess was over to avoid further confrontation and the third degree.
I awaited a response with eager anticipation. I knew that I would need to reveal my true identity, but I wasn’t sure what would happen next. What happened was Nana, sitting in her chair clutching the telephone, hell bent to extinguish the flame residing in my eight year old heart. When the phone rang, the first words out of her mouth were, “You must have the wrong number. There is nobody named Stretch here.” I was crushed. Once again, Nana stood between me and someone who I wanted to know.
Imagine my relief when Grandma scooped the phone from Nana’s grasp. “Is this Theresa? My name is Lorraine Jorgensen. My grandson, Michael…Michael Maginot…sent you that note.” She went into some detail before saying, “Would you like to speak to him.”
Nana was disgruntled, but for some reason her reign of terror had come to an end. I somehow managed to get it together enough to tell Theresa a little bit about myself and get her phone number. Grandma brought me a pen and some paper while Nana pretended to ignore my childish prattle, picking up her copy of the Tribune and pretending to read it.
One of the things Theresa missed about the neighborhood was the Summer Matinees at the Fairfax Theatre. She didn’t live that far away, so maybe we could meet at the movies. Eight, and anticipating my first date, I could hardly wait for school to get out and summer to begin.
In the spring of 1965, Uncle David spent a lot of time in the garage. Our animosity had mellowed a bit and we would watch musical shows like Hullaballoo and Shindig on a portable TV. Nana would not approve of all that jungle music in the living room, but the garage was a safe haven for girl groups and go-go dancers. More and more TV shows were being broadcast in color, but I didn’t have regular access to a color TV until the late 1970s. My TV world was black and white, but my movie world was a glorious Technicolor extravaganza.
Summer Matinees meant multiple cartoons and second run features that might appeal to the kids while providing parents a few hours of peace and quiet. Matinees were usually cheap relief for everyone . I remember waiting in the Fairfax lobby for Theresa in the summer of 1965. For awhile, it looked like I might have been stood up, but she finally arrived and we sat together. About two rows back, a bunch of kids that I knew from school made kissy faces or acted out the scenario where you yawn and let your arm wrap around the girl sitting next to you. I pretty much just sat and watched the movie. We didn’t even hold hands. After all the drama, especially with Nana and Grandma, this was enough.