Archive for February, 2012

h1

Jim Crow, Football Hero

February 26, 2012

As another Black History Month comes to a close, I couldn’t help notice how little attention seems to be paid to it. At first thought this is a good thing, a sign that attitudes have changed enough so that the oversights of the past no longer exist. Then I think back to what occurred in my own classroom just a few short years ago, and I have serious doubts about that conclusion.

Martin Luther King freed the slaves. Jim Crow was a famous football player. There is still slavery in the South. These are amongst the many astounding pieces of “information” the adolescents in my classes possessed. How could this possibly be? How can one grow up in America, be educated for nine years in good schools, be constantly exposed to information in media of all kinds, and still be so in the dark about such a major element of our nation’s — and indeed the world’s — history, one which still has a profound effect on our country today?

As a Language Arts teacher, my curriculum included nonfiction literature, writing of many types (especially persuasive and expository), as well as research. We were also charged with the responsibility of something called “character education.” What better opportunity could present itself than the topics opened up through Black History Month? Killing two birds with one educational stone became part of my mission.

Sometimes the story of the African-American in this country from slavery through segregation became the subject of a research project. The goal was to learn the nuts and bolts of good research from note card production to documentation to final MLA format copy, a tool that would serve the students well the rest of their school years. Other times it became the fodder for a persuasive essay, another academic necessity and a primary focus of the state Language Arts test.

Along the way, these students were exposed, many for the first time it seems, to the horrors of the slave trade and the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. They expressed shock at the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured and the abject misery of the Middle Passage followed by a life as mere property. They were stunned and incredulous that a country which purported to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all could impose such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then, after the Civil War, supposedly free. I was glad for these reactions, for they are proper and fitting, but there was a positive side as well. The students were also inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice. They were encouraged by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds. They also wisely recognized that there is some work in this area still to be done, and that it was their generation who would be responsible for doing it.

It is always a mystery to teachers exactly what and how much their students take from their classes. It was my hope that both the language arts and the character lessons during Black History Month would be internalized and not be just another exercise in “school stuff” that needed to be completed and then forgotten. I saved copies of many of my students’ compositions, and as I reread them, I see sincerity in the reactions they had to what they learned. I trust it was real, for if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes,” we will need members of our society who take this to heart. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough hollow politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize its shortcomings and address them through meaningful action.  It is my wish that at least some of my students take their place on the front line of that ongoing battle.

Advertisements
h1

It’s Love Your Pet Day!

February 19, 2012

Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Today, February 20, is Love Your Pet Day. I realize that it is also Cherry Pie Day’ Day this year, but in spite of the relative deliciousness of this dessert, how special in the hearts of people can it really be? But a day to celebrate your pet? Come on, now.

Having a pet during one’s childhood is a cherished institution and a rite of passage for most American kids (and their parents who often end up taking care of them). There are pets of all kinds found in our households from the warm and furry to the feathered or scaled: cats, fish, birds, lizards, ferrets, snakes; you name it, and some kid probably has it.

Dogs, though, are by far the standard as evidenced by a walk through any neighborhood on a nice day. Our popular media reflects this too with a litany of favorite canine characters: Spot, Snoopy, Clifford, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Santa’s Little Helper, and Toto, to name a few. However, for various reasons (allergies, parental fear, small quarters) there exist those dogless homes with children still yearning for a creature to call their own, forcing those parents to resort to a Plan B of some sort. My home was one of those, and in my case, Plan B was Pew Pew.

Pew Pew was a duckling that arrived one Easter when I was about six. My sister and I were quite excited, though I don’t recall either of us asking for waterfowl of any kind. Nonetheless, Pew Pew took up residence in a makeshift pen in a corner of our already small dining room. I’m sure my mother was thrilled about this arrangement.

Now, ducks are probably not the best dog substitute. They are not predisposed to be walked on a leash, don’t like to be pet, and learning tricks like fetching or rolling over is quite beyond them. Quacking, waddling, eating, and pooping is their complete repertoire. They must depend on being endearingly cute to earn their keep. Their window for that is quite small.

I don’t remember what we fed Pew Pew, but it must have been pretty nutritious because he quickly outgrew his dining room pen. My dad sacrificed part of his tomato garden to create a fenced-in area out behind our garage. This had several benefits. It was roomier, did not involve stringent cleaning, and Pew Pew could waddle about and quack to his heart’s content without bothering my mother, though I’m sure our neighbors were none too pleased. The problem came when autumn rolled around and the question of what to do with Pew Pew in the winter arose. He was not about to make a return indoors as long as my mother had anything to do with it.

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

The first idea for solving this dilemma seemed simple enough. We would drive him across town to Coopers Pond and drop him off in the company of all the other ducks who made it their home. One afternoon we did just that. We brought him to the water’s edge, set him down, and turned to make a quick escape (in order to avoid a drawn-out goodbye, I supposed). Now Pew Pew could dwell in happiness with others of his kind.

The Cooper’s Pond ducks apparently never got that memo. They immediately set upon this uninvited intruder with much loud quacking and flapping and pecking. Pew Pew had no choice but to flee for his life. He waddled like I never saw him do before, almost beating us back to the car. In view of this unexpected turn of events, my parents were forced to relent, and Pew Pew had a reprieve.

This led to a second and more involved attempt several weeks later. We piled into the car with Pew Pew and drove away, this time to a farm in Long Island. Some arrangement had been made with the farm’s owners; I believe some distant cousin from the Long Island branch of the family knew them. After some final goodbyes, we drove off, never to see Pew Pew again. I’m glad I didn’t realize at the time that he’d most likely end up glazed on someone’s plate in a restaurant.

My pet void was filled a few years later. During a family outing at Palisades Amusement Park, I spotted a game of chance that drew me instantly to it because a) it seemed winnable and b) the prize was a goldfish. The object of the game was to throw a ping pong ball so it landed in one of the small fish bowls lined up on a shelf. Each was filled with colored water and had a goldfish occupying it, and the fish and bowl would be yours with a single successful toss. I don’t remember how many attempts it took (the mouths of the bowls were narrower than one would have expected), but by golly, I went home with a goldfish!

My joy of having a pet fish (who, in reality, did even less than Pew Pew, but a pet is a pet) was short-lived. The following weekend I went on a camping trip with my Boy Scout troop. I gave detailed instructions on the care and feeding of my fish to my mother. Upon my return on Sunday, the fish bowl was gone from its perch on a shelf in the kitchen and I was informed of the goldfish’s sudden demise. My suspicion (unfounded, of course — it was most likely the ingestion of the colored water in the bowl that did him in) was that my mom seized the opportunity of my absence and whacked the little fella.

Two parakeets came next, the first named Fudgie followed by another named Val, but they were “family pets,” so my connection to them was minimal. I must admit, they beat both Pew Pew and the goldfish by a mile when it came to being entertaining, but still I was not emotionally invested, as they say. The same was true for my sister’s two small turtles. I remember more about their clear plastic bowl with its clear plastic island and green plastic palm tree (I hope those guys liked plastic) than I do about the turtles themselves.

Then it happened. I got a real pet, one I actually wanted, a hamster named Scrappy. This small brown and white ball of fur came with a wire cage complete with exercise wheel and an inverted gravity-feed water bottle. I could hold him and let him climb up my arm. He could eat out of my hand and play on the table. I could watch him spin madly in his exercise wheel. This surpassed the combined  skills of all the previous pets. Best of all, I could tell he loved me when he looked up at me with his beady little black eyes, whiskers all atwitter. It was my job to feed him, clean his cage, and take care that he didn’t escape (the last one my mother was particularly emphatic about). And I did this religiously. Well, most of the time.

Scrappy exploring the dining room table

My time with Scrappy was a happy one, marred only by two incidents, both of which were the result of my failure to properly execute my duties. The first was when he escaped through the unsecured door on his cage. He disappeared for a few days, causing my mother great distress, but then suddenly reappeared in the back of a closet. I attributed his return to him missing my tender care and not my sister’s theory that he was merely hungry. However, this was minor compared to the second incident which was catastrophic.

One particular day I hadn’t fed Scrappy on schedule, resulting in a harsh reprimand from my mother. I attempted to get his food, stored in the bottom cabinet of a freestanding cupboard, but in my shaken state, I pulled the doors too hard. The entire cupboard tipped over and the upper doors swung open unleashing a barrage of my mother’s prized wedding china which rained down and crashed all around me. I had never seen my mother so upset, and in her tearful rant she yelled something about “getting rid of that damned animal.” I dashed from the pile of shards (amazingly unscathed), snatched Scrappy from his cage, and ran crying into the garage, cowering in a corner in fear of losing my little friend. It took some major diplomacy on my father and sister’s part to placate my mother, but Scrappy avoided the threatened exile.

One Sunday morning I arose to get Scrappy from his cage. At first I didn’t see him, but then, amongst the wood shavings, I saw him on his side with his little pink feet sticking stiffly out. Scrappy had moved on to hamster heaven. I was crushed. He was honored with a tearful funeral in our backyard beneath the climbing rose bush which was the final resting place for all our pets (except for the poor goldfish, who I think got unceremoniously flushed). There were to be no more pets in my life after that.

I’m not sure if the many supposed life lessons accorded to pet ownership were learned or not when I was a kid. However, I’ve since come to understand during my years of reading student compositions how great and widespread the trauma is from the death of a pet. Perhaps these first encounters with unqualified love and inevitable departure are important to an early understanding of mortality. This is a tough lesson no matter when it occurs, and it is never easy to deal with emotionally. But there is the Yin of joy and companionship and that offsets the Yang of death, and it is the capacity to realize that balance which may be part of the critical foundation for a child’s future understanding. For most kids who had their own Scrappy experience whether it was a dog, cat, bird, or iguana, I think they would conclude it was better to have had their loving friend and lost them than to never have had them at all.

So tomorrow on Love Your Pet Day, think back to Rover or Fluffy or Pretty Boy. Lift a glass in appreciation of their memory. If you currently have a pet in your life, take the time to give him or her an extra pat or a special treat. After all, nobody loves you like your pet.

Unless, of course, it’s a duck.

h1

White Valentine’s Day, 1996

February 14, 2012

It snowed today,

February 14th,

a White Valentine’s.

Instead of the passion

of the wildly beating

romantic hearts,

Instead of the fragrant

red petals

of young lovers’ roses,

just the white snow

of a cold, harsh February day

and a young girl’s sad letter

about the dreams of the lonely

on White Valentine’s Day.

h1

The Strong Hold of Wrestling

February 12, 2012

As we head into the championship season of high school wrestling, I try to catch matches as often as I can at the high school in the district where I last taught. Several of my former students are having good seasons, and I get a kick out of watching them in a venue so completely different from my English classroom. As I sit in the stands before the match watching the mats being cleaned and taped and the athletes warming up or working off nervous energy, I inevitably think back to my own wrestling days.

I first got involved in wrestling because a few of my friends joined the high school team.  This was in the  early 1960’s just at the beginning of a wrestling surge in Bergen County. Bergenfield High School had a pair of terrific coaches: Sal Cascio, now a legend in the area, as the head coach, and Cosmo DiBartolo his assistant. Up to that time, this was a second class sport with little interest from the general high school populace. Sal Cascio changed that. He attracted a corps of dedicated kids and turned them into a powerhouse team with a large following in relatively short order.

1964-65 Bergenfield Mighty Mites JV wrestling team (me, middle of 2nd row)

Being on such a powerhouse had a downside, for the competition was extremely tough, especially in the lower weight  classes. At 110 pounds, I was halfway between two weight classes, 106 and 115, both of which were occupied by District Champs. I was destined to be a JV scrub, so I was not much a part of this powerful machine that ran roughshod over the other teams in our district. But in spite of the fact that I could never break through to the varsity, just partaking in the practices with the kind of daily competition I had to face and under the tutelage of great coaches gave me a solid background, enough to allow me to be on my college team at Seton Hall. Though my repertoire was not extensive, I had a pretty good double leg takedown and a killer switch, and once I mastered legs (moves centered around leg holds), I wasn’t half bad. However, my college career lasted only one season. My interests shifted, and I directed my time and energies elsewhere. I assumed that would be it for wrestling.

1966-67 Seton Hall Pirates (me, left end of bottom row, looking like half the team)

I was wrong. Years later when I was teaching in Newark, my career was revived, not as a wrestler, but as a coach. East Side High School had several turnovers in its coaches, and the position had even been manned for one season by the gym teacher at my middle school, but he wasn’t really a wrestler and looked for a replacement, so he asked me. Several former students on the team came to me with desperate  persuasion, and with probably not enough thought and a great deal of trepidation, I agreed.

The situation at East Side was unlike any I was familiar with. There were no assistant coaches, just me. The gym which had been used for wrestling was partly roofless and unusable because of ongoing construction. The mat, which was kept in the  roofless section, was caked with a thick layer of pigeon poop. If and when I ever got it cleaned, where was I to conduct practice? In the main entrance hall of the building, that’s where. This meant hauling the wrestling mats into and out of that area each day and suffering constant intrusions from anyone entering or exiting the building. The uniforms were a ragtag mixture of colors and styles and in various stages of disrepair. Not an ideal situation, especially for a rookie coach.

Then there was the matter of the wrestlers. There were only a few returning wrestlers, so we recruited as many newcomers as we could get our hands on (sometimes literally). Unlike most suburban high schools who drew their athletes from local recreation programs or organized area teams, these kids had no exposure whatsoever to the sport, at least not as it existed in high school. Pro “wrestling,” however, was quite well known. The first day the new kids would arrive, they’d ask where the wrestling ring was and whether or not they could wear costumes (“I wanna cape!” exclaimed one. “How about a cool leather mask?” asked another.) The Hispanic kids were all fans of Lucha Libre on channel 47 and wanted to specialize in diving off the ropes of the ring. What had I gotten myself into?!

Another area of concern was the schedule. Previous years of neglect, including not showing up at matches, had eroded the season to only a few matches with the other teams in Newark. One lesson I had learned well in high school was that good competition helped develop good wrestlers. I set out on fence-mending missions and ended up with an ambitious schedule for our rebuilding program, including surrounding schools such as Elizabeth, Linden, West Orange, Irvington, and St. Peters. I entered my team in tournaments in Kearny and at Pope Paul. The groundwork for the season had been laid.

Now to get the wrestlers ready. We practiced like crazy despite our makeshift facilities and shabby equipment. I employed as many of the routines as I could remember from my days at Bergenfield. We drilled and we drilled, and the kids started to come along. I wanted desperately to fill all twelve weight classes to avoid forfeit losses. That meant some raw recruits would have their baptism under fire. They may not have had much of a wrestling background when we started competing, but they were tough kids who would battle. If they only knew three moves, they learned to keep doing them and doing them hard. If you have to go down, go down swinging. I knew we had strength in our returnees at 101, 122, 141, and 188, so there would be role models to emulate and at least some points scored, but that wasn’t much to pin our hopes on. Amazingly, we opened the 1980 season with two wins in our first four matches. Unfortunately, we lost the rest, finishing at 2 – 9. There were some bright spots, though, with captain Fermin Mendez winning a City Championship at 101 and taking third in the districts and Darius Webster third in the city and second in the district at 188.

practice on the funky old East Side mats

My second year was daunting because we lost our four experienced guys to graduation, so we headed into season two with a young but enthusiastic group. Several of the second year kids really showed tremendous improvement after taking their lumps in their first season. In spite of our youth, we improved to 3 – 8 with the JV going 6 – 3. Our soph 115 pounder, Senen Pitaluga, took first in the Christmas tournament and a newcomer, a Cuban boy named Alcides Mendoza who had just come to the country in the Mariel boat lift, won the Kearny Freshman Tournament at 135. The previous year, 45 out of the 59 individual matches won were won by the graduating seniors. This year we again had 59 individual wins, but now only 14 by seniors. The future was looking brighter for the Red Raiders of East Side.

the 1981-82 East Side Red Raiders

I started off the third season with high hopes, but the grind of trying to coach a Varsity, JV, and Freshman team by myself while battling with an unresponsive administration caught up to me. Between schoolwork, practice, and wrestling meets, I had no time for anything else. I was exhausted and rapidly burning out. Luckily, a former heavyweight who was now working as a DJ started coming around to help out at practice, so I promoted the idea of him taking over. Since his business was slow at the time, he agreed. Though it was a needed change, in a way I was sorry to leave. I would like to have seen it through at least until my original group had finished their senior year, but that was not meant to be.

I have no regrets looking back at my time as a wrestler and a wrestling coach. There are many valuable lessons to be learned on the mat that translate to life. It is competition at its most elemental, just you and your opponent with only your own strength, skill, and wits on which to rely. The importance of good preparation becomes clear, for adversity can make an instant appearance during a match, and you need to learn to be able to anticipate it and react to it. Sometimes you will do so successfully and sometimes not, but either way, going through it makes you mentally tougher.

A wrestling match is only six minutes in duration. That may not seem like a long time, but those who have done it know how demanding it is. In a tough match, you use every ounce of strength and every bit of energy you have. It can be grueling, but in the end, win or lose, you come away with something of value. Anyone who has wrestled will understand this. Those who haven’t may just scratch their heads. But all the strenuous workouts and regulating weight and pressure-filled matches will result in individuals of stronger resolve, I promise you that. And that is something that lasts a lifetime.

h1

Scout’s Honor

February 8, 2012

the Cub (me) and the Cadet, West Point

Today is the birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. It was born in this country in 1910, though its beginnings trace back to England and the organization started by Robert Baden-Powell. It may seem odd, but I choose to acknowledge this day because Scouting was a huge part of my life growing up, one which has influenced me to this day.

Yep, I was a Boy Scout. Some of you may have been, too. Others may be scowling at the very idea. I realize that there are many impressions of what Scouting is. To one of my friends, the Boy Scouts of America is nothing more than a neo-fascist anti-diversity subversive association of chauvinist American youth. Others think of it as a bunch of nerdy kids tying knots and helping little old ladies cross the street (whether they want to go or not). I suppose in certain cases there may be some small element of truth to these, but that was not at all my experience with scouting.

I was in the Scouts for the better part of my youth, starting with the Cub Scouts when I was in elementary school all the way through Explorers in high school. It was such a positive experience for me not only because of the friendships formed and the many memorable activities we did together, but because of the leaders that we had.

The first of my Scout leaders was the dynamic and creative mother of two of my classmates, twins named George and Steven. I still remember the den meetings in the basement of her house on Wilbur Road in Bergenfield where we spent much of our time learning about the intricacies of arts and crafts and the wonders of the natural world. We traveled to New York to see the circus and to West Point to explore the military academy. I’m sure there were the organizational necessities as well like memorizing The Scout Law and such, but all I remember is that it was fun, and the reason for that was our wonderful leader.

our "den mother" Mrs. Dolainski teaching us Cubs to skate

My good fortune continued when I graduated to Boy Scouts where one of our leaders was a rather robust ex-Navy man who made Troop 176 the most active around. We would go on weekend camping trips once a month in the wooded parklands of the tri-state area. One summer he began what was called our  “Great Adventure” trip, a week-long expedition to destinations both distant and exotic for a twelve-year-old, such as Cape Cod and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As if that were not enough outdoor adventure, there was the week at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in Sussex County each summer.

at Kitty Hawk, Wright Brothers memorial

The third and final phase of scouting was the Explorers. We were a small group of maybe six, but again because of a committed and active leader, the experience was terrific. He was the father of the oldest guy in our unit, Dickie. Both he and his dad, Dick senior, were car guys, and that was very cool. Better yet, they had a small cabin upstate New York at Lake George, not in the touristy southern tip of the lake, but further north outside the tiny town of Graphite on a wooded hillside overlooking the lake. We’d go up there for weekends. In the summer we’d swim and fish and try our hand (rather unsuccessfully) at water skiing. In the fall we’d hike through the woods, leaves crunching underfoot as we looked for deer and other wildlife. In the winter it would be massive snowball fights and cross-country skiing. Some kids would ask why we still bothered being in Scouts. One trip up to that cabin would have answered the question with finality.

at Valley Forge, pant leg rolled up (swell, huh?), Nash Rambler (!) in background

There are so many memories wrapped up in Scouts, and as I look at the items I’ve saved, they come tumbling back: the merit badges worked for and earned from swimming to camping to soil and water conservation and the real knowledge acquired from doing them, the all-night vigil in the cold at Valley Forge to better understand what it was like for the soldiers of the American Revolution, the discovery of new and different places and the rich diversity of our land and its history, the friends and the adventures (and misadventures) we shared during our wonder years.

artifacts of my Scouting life

The Boy Scout handbook (which I still have) says, “Yes, it’s fun to be a Scout — to hike, to camp, to live in the open…to swim and paddle a canoe…to follow in the footsteps of pioneers who led the way into the wilderness…to look up at the stars and dream.” After listening to others who had a less than satisfying Scout experience, I am ever grateful that my Scouting life lived up to that description in the handbook. My appreciation for the efforts of Mrs. Dolainski, Mr. Harriman, and Mr. Frazier to make this so has grown over the years. Each of them sowed the seeds in me for my love of learning about nature and the outdoors and seeking out new places to explore.

I hope that there still are kids receiving this same inspiration. I know it may sound corny, but being in the Boy Scouts was responsible to a great degree in forming my character. The Scout Oath pointed the way:

“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…to help other people at all times…to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

These are traditional values that seem old-fashioned, but to me they are the bedrock of a simple code of being, a way of life worth following. Though admittedly there have been some lapses, I have always tried to follow it. And I still try my best to do so. Scout’s honor.

Camp No-Be-B0-Sco, 1962

h1

My Cousin Bobby

February 5, 2012

Bobby as I first knew him in Brooklyn

My cousin Bobby was one of the most unforgettable characters from my childhood. He was an enigma to me, a seeming hoodlum with an engaging personality and a problem-filled life. He had tattoos, the kind that were done with your own needles and some ink. He had an air of danger about him that I found both frightening and fascinating.

Bobby was the son of my mother’s sister Josephine who died when Bobby was young. I don’t know much about the  circumstances of her death or the absence of his father. Those things were not topics discussed around us. I did know that he had a bad reputation. I had never known anyone with one of those. From what I could piece together of the story, he had severely injured another boy in his neighborhood with a rock, apparently causing permanent medical problems as well as legal ones for Bobby.

Bobby had been taken in by my grandma and grandpa. He had a small room in the front of their railroad apartment in Brooklyn, and entering it was like being in the inner sanctum of a vagabond teenage gypsy. There was contraband of all sorts — hub caps and transistor radio parts and a switchblade —  quite exotic to a sheltered Jersey boy like me. It made me, just a kid, feel special being invited in, suddenly privy to a world that I knew nothing of. Sometimes he would take my sister and I around the corner and down a few blocks on 13th Ave. to get some Italian ice, an urban adventure unparalleled in my meager suburban experience. It was in Brooklyn where I had most of my interactions with Bobby.

There was one notable exception that stands out in my memory. Every so often my grandma and grandpa would come out to Jersey for a few days in the summer. My grandpa would get up early and dress as he did each day in a threadbare white shirt and a tie. He’d put on his straw fedora with the wide cloth band, stick his ever-present stogie in his mouth, and walk down the hill to Foster Village Shopping Center about a mile from our house. Foster Village was a 50’s style strip mall with a Grand Union supermarket, a stationery store, a barber shop, a liquor store, and a Chinese restaurant; not exactly the city, but it would do. Grandpa would go to the stationery store, buy a Daily News and a few cigars, and walk back again. Getting a lawn chair from our garage, he’d park himself on our front lawn — traffic whizzing by — puff on his cigar, and contentedly read the paper. As far as he was concerned, this was country life at its finest. Usually Bobby would remain in Brooklyn, staying with my Aunt Josie and Uncle Mike who lived downstairs from my grandparents. But one time, he came too.

Taking Bobby out of Brooklyn was like taking a fish out of water. He was a city boy through and through from his D.A. haircut to his pegged pants to his rough street way of speaking. There just wasn’t enough action for him in a small town like ours. Though I was young, even then I could tell he pretty much had free rein in doing what he wanted. However, this would not be the case at our house. Bobby was afraid of my father, who was a no-nonsense kind of guy when it came to behavior. He was also physically imposing, so Bobby felt he had to toe the line when his Uncle George was around.

Bobby and I went across the street that particular day to Memorial Field to hit a baseball around, something I could spend a prolonged amount of time doing even by myself. But Bobby tired of it quickly, so we headed over to the woods, a novelty to him, to poke around. He started smacking rocks with a stick, and I of course imitated him. Suddenly he hit one into his foot and vociferously dropped the F bomb. Now, I came from a household where no cursing was heard (other than a rare “damn” from my father when he’d slam his finger with a hammer), so this was the first time I’d heard this word. I could tell that it was a special word from the situation and the animated way in which he said it, one with some unknown but palpable power, and I repeated it.

At first Bobby laughed, so preposterous was the sound of this most taboo of words emanating from the mouth of his young country-bumpkin of a cousin. However, he immediately turned serious. He took me by the shoulders and, with eyes wide, demanded, “Don’t you ever say that no more!” I thought this was quite odd. I’d never seen him anything but carefree and self-assured. My immature mind intuitively realized that I somehow had the upper hand in this strange exchange, so I repeated it, and then repeated it again even louder. I could now see panic on his face. If his Uncle George ever heard this coming from me, he’d know exactly where I got it from, and it would be the end of Bobby. He now squeezed my shoulders even tighter and shook me. “I’m serious! Don’t say that no more!”

“Why?” I asked, surprised at the intensity of his reaction. “You said it!”

“Yeah, but that’s different. Don’t you say it. You gotta promise me.”

I knew this wasn’t a game anymore, so I promised.

“You swear?” he insisted, squeezing again.

“Yes! Yes! I swear!”

We headed back home, Bobby stewing in silent worry. “Really,” I said to reassure him. “I won’t say it.” And I didn’t, at least not until many years later, and never around my house.

When I became a teenager, I saw Bobby less and less frequently. I no longer went to my grandma’s in Brooklyn so often, and when I did, he usually wasn’t around. I think he bounced between dead-end jobs for a while, and then he joined the Army. I remember my father saying that maybe they could “straighten him out.”

Bobby ended up  going to Viet Nam. In the photo I have of him, his face looked different, the cockiness I was used to now gone. Sometimes stories would circulate at family gatherings about his sporadic troubles over there, not surprising given his history of difficulty dealing with authority. Eventually things came to a head, and he went AWOL. I don’t know exactly how that was resolved, but he ended up back in Brooklyn where he got married and finally settled down. After that, nothing.

I never really got to know Bobby as an adult. I have no idea of his current whereabouts. I feel strangely bad about that though it was quite beyond my control. I don’t know if he ever realized that I actually looked up to him as a kid. I think I’d like him to know that. Looking now at the few pictures I have of him, I can still hear his voice and his laugh and see the mischief in his eyes. To me he will always remain the tough Brooklyn kid with the broad smile who trouble always seemed to find.

Bobby in Nam