It was 1948. I was in the second grade when my Mom came home from "the san" where she had been for almost four years with TB. She still wasn't completely well; she still had a lot of recuperating to do. I remember one day she was lying on a couch in a little room in our house we called the den. It had previously been a dentist's office for the original owner. I was always trying to be playful around my Mom. She didn't like that. She was always telling me "I was fresh." Anyway that day my Mom told me to leave her alone; she was in a "bad mood." That was the first time I'd ever heard that expression. Well, in retrospect it is understandable that she might have been in a bad mood. Her daughter, whom she hadn't seen since she was a baby, was five years old now and couldn't walk or talk. It was enough to depress anybody having to come home to that realization. The family was sort of belatedly having to admit that there was something seriously wrong with her, and she would require constant care perhaps for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, they didn't give up hope that she could learn to walk and talk ... some day.
This period from 1948 to 1955 when I graduated from elementary school was a pretty normal period in my life. It was the post war period, and it seemed like everyone was pursuing the American Dream. Other than the fact that my sister wasn't normal, we had a pretty normal family life. I remember that my Grandpa Lawrence would buy me comic books at the old general store in Vernon, and, after I read them, I'd resell them to my classmates at school. I even had a special place in the closet in third grade where I stored them. I was sort of a bad kid in third grade. Bobby Morris and I gave the teacher, Mrs. Wehner, a hard time. We flew paper airplanes around the room. One day she even broke down and cried at her desk. In later years I felt bad that we had given her such a hard time. She didn't stay in teaching for very long. I had been a bad kid in kindergarten. The good kids sat at table 3. They were the kids who knew how to keep their hands to themselves. Evidently, I didn't because I had to sit by myself at table 6. Some times I had to stand behind the piano, and once Mrs. Struble broke the yard stick on me. It didn't hurt getting hit with the yard stick because there was too much "give" in it, but getting hit with the ruler was another matter. It didn't give.
I remember I was sent to the principal's office twice. Of course, the principal was my Dad. Lucky for me, he wasn't there on either occasion. Tales used to spread around the school about my Dad's "electric switch" which he would use on you if you were really bad. He would take you to that dark cavern known as the boiler room which few kids ever got to see. That's where he kept the electric switch. Later I found out that the electric switch was all a fiction, and my Dad would point to the light switch on the wall and say, "There's the electric switch." Then he probably had a talk with the little offender and tried to motivate him or her to be a better little citizen.
There was a woods out back of our house. It must have been 3 or 4 square miles. It was good size. I explored that woods over the course of my childhood. One of the things I discovered was some huge blackberry bushes growing wild. I used to go there and gather blackberries. I remember going blackberrying there with my cousin, Peggy, when she'd come over for a few days. Later, her sister, Bette would come over, but she never made it through the night. She'd be so homesick that her mother had to come get her and take her home. I had to walk a certain path through the woods to get to my friend, Gary's, house. Usually, I was accompanied by my dog, Sandy, and one time even my cat, Buttercup, came with us. Gary and I went swimming in his pond or played knock out flies. I was a very active kid. I liked to be outdoors.
There were a lot of old roads and trails in that woods. It looked like it had had a previous history some time in another era. There was evidence of former fields which had since grown up with various sorts of trees: white birch, maple, pine. Rocks had been gathered along the edges of what once had been farmers' fields. I got to know various routes through the forest and some times even went across to the other side where my friend, Teddy Titman, had a pheasant farm. Guys used to come up from the city and pay money to Teddy's father to go and shoot pheasants. There was even a brook in those woods, actually more than one, but the one I remember the best was in a sort of chasm. It was neat to play around. In the winter icycles would form around the flowing water.
In the winter I loved to go sleigh riding in the fields around our house. I would start out in the woods and come down an old road, then make a sharp left hand turn and come out in a field that had an interesting topography that would allow me to take one of several routes. On my more adventurous days I would go further back in the woods and start out in one field and sled down almost the whole length of Lewisburg road to where it met Route 23, the main road. This entailed going under two barbed wire fences at rather high speed from one field to the next. In The last field there was a saddle so I would go up one side of the saddle and then come back down. These fields were all on Hilliard's property, but they never complained about me sleigh riding or hiking on their property. I felt I could go wherever I wanted to go. I used to hate those signs that said "Private Property. Keep Off" although there was a hideout at one extreme end of the woods that was reputed to be owned by the Mafia. That's one place where I honored the "Keep Out" signs.
I used to love winter. It was my favorite season. Sometimes the snow melted a little and then froze so that the sleigh riding was extremely treacherous. There was a crust on the snow that wouldn't give in. You really went fast and it became an issue as to whether or not you would be able to stop when you got to the bottom of the hill. I developed a technique of jumping off my sled but holding on to it, and this usually slowed me down. Then I would jump back on again. But one day the snow was so slick even this didn't work. The field next to the one next to our house had a rather short sledding run and at the end was the usual barbed wire fence and then about a ten foot drop off to Lewisburg Road. Then the field continued downhill on the other side of the road. I was coming down that hill on the frozen ice so fast that I knew I couldn't stop so I jumped off the sled and let go of it. It sailed under the fence and across the road and all the way down the next hill. Fortunately, without the sled I stopped before I got to the fence.
Christmases were always great. My parents were always so good to me and gave me lots of presents. I remember one year I left a Coke for Santa Clause, and he left me a nickle in the bottle cap! Little things like that made my day. Of course, I believed in Santa Claus probably until I was 12. One day Harold Butler clued me in that there was no Santa Claus. He should have known because he lived in Butler's Alley, the ghetto of Sussex, and the poor kids there never got presents. That's one reason why on the last day of school before Christmas vacation, they bussed all the kids to the Sussex Theater for a movie and afterwards, Santa had a gift bag for everyone containing mainly fruit and nuts as I remember. Nevertheless, that was probably the only present the Butler's Alley kids ever got.
I could look forward to getting another accessory or car for my Lionel train. I was really into trains. My Grandfather Lawrence worked on the railroad. He was the station agent in Vernon, a one man shop. Every summer when I spent a week at their house, I'd spend one day with my grandfather at his station. My grandmother would pack a lunch on homemade bread. He'd have to stand along the tracks with a hoop on the end of a long stick with a note attached and hold it up for the engineer who would hook it with his arm as the old steam engine rumbled by.
My grandfather was a telegrapher. He had signals, semaphors and such that would have to be set corrrectly and he communicated using Morse code. There was an old cistern on the property in case the engine needed water in an emergency. After the engineer received the note, he'd throw the hoop out the train's window, and my grandfather and I would have to go and retrieve it. Some times it went in the brook and my grandfather would have to wade in to get it. Once in a while my grandfather had to throw the switch a little ways up the track so the train could pull over onto a siding. There was a passenger's waiting room at my Grandfather's station but there had been no passengers there in years. Only freight trains rumbled by. In the wairing room there was a poster featuring four streamliners lined up next to each other that gave the hint of modernity to the old station. Across the street was a little store where we'd go sometimes for an orange soda. My grandfather and I would walk sometimes the half mile or so from his house downhill to the station. Then we'd have to walk uphill to get home. He had an old car, a Terraplane, that he never drove more than 35 miles an hour.
In later years I would hike my grandfather's railroad, the Lehigh and Hudson, from his station all the way to Warwick, NY to the east and all the way to Franklin, NJ to the west. From Franklin I even continued all the way to the Delaware River and walked over the pedestrian bridge to Pennsylvania although not all in the same day. I hiked the rights of way of several railroads around northern Jersey. One day my foster sister, Shirley, and I hiked all the way to Pine Island, NY on the old rail line that ran by our house on Lewisburg Road. That was a hot day and it just about did Shirley in. The Papakating creek flowed adjacent to the rail line, and I hiked along it too to where it flowed into the Walkill.
My Lionel model railroad was a work in progress. I had managed to get a 4 by 8 sheet of plywood and another smaller piece at a yard sale, and I had the set-up in my room. There was barely enough room for my bed. I made scenery for my lay-out. I had a paper mache mountain, and I had used my woodburning set to make a retaining wall. I had Plasticville houses, a farm, a church and a station. I had made from scratch out of cardboard a townhouse like ones I had seen around the city. I had grass and ballast on the trackbed and fruit trees on the mountain. I had the automatic milk can car, the log car and the man on top of the box car that went flat on the roof when he hit the telltale which told him there was a tunnel coming up. My dad didn't have a lot of money so I had to settle for two of the smaller transformers but I had it rigged up so that I had two independent loops.They crossed onto the same track only briefly. One transformer controlled the inner loop and the other one, the outer loop. I had the tracks isolated electrically, but when the inner loop crossed over onto the outer loop, the train was briefly on the other transformer. Typically, I would have my passenger train on the inner loop and my freight train on the outer one or vice versa. It was frustrating when my inner loop train hit the switch to the outer loop because the train some times would stop. Then other times it would go through the switch without a hitch so to speak. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on. It was a conundrum but I finally figured out that if I plugged the two transformers into the wall a certain way everything would work correctly, and, if I reversed one of the plugs, the train would stop when it crossed over onto the other transformer. I had discovered that the electricity going to both loops had to be in phase in order for them to work correctly. It was from having solved this problem that I later decided to go into electrical engineering.
We had a neighbor down the road, a friend of the family, who I called Uncle Al. He had retired early from teaching shop, I think, down in the city. A lot of people came to Wantage Township to escape from the city, and he was one of them. Uncle Al was a junk dealer; he bought and sold various items. I remember my Dad and I went with him once to the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn where Uncle Al bought a load of canvases. To this day I get a shudder when I think of the Gowanus Canal reputed and probably talked up by my Dad and Uncle Al to be a "tough neighborhood." We went on a lot of adventures with Uncle Al. He had relatives that had a little cottage on Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts. We went there several times on vacations. It was a scary place. The Atlantic Ocean was out the front door. A bay was out the back door, and you had to ford a little stream even to get onto this narrow peninsula. Every decade or so a hurricane would wash all the little cottages off the beach across the bay and up onto the main land. One time Uncle Al's relatives even had to swim for it to get out after their car stalled crossing the swollen little stream.
Uncle Al would go down to the fishing district in New Bedford and, since he had connections, get a wash tub full of fish which we took home with us in Uncle Al's old station wagon. They stunk the whole way, but they sure tasted good! One time when we were there two of the workmen had gotten into a fight and the one had taken his long sharp knife which he used to filet the fish and slashed the other one's arm which he had raised to protect himself. The slasher had said that he was only playacting, that he had never intended to slash the other guy, but his raising his arm caused it to get in the way of the knife. Somebody said, "Get him a paper towel or something!" I think he needed a lot more than a paper towel by the looks of all that blood gushing out of his arm.
Uncle Al had a wife who visited him on weekends - Caroline, I think her name was. The rest of the time he was a batchelor. She worked down in the city during the week. I think they preferred it this way. I used to mow Uncle Al's lawn for 50 cents a week, and sometimes I'd see her down there and she'd wave hello. I think Uncle Al was a little bit lonely and that's why he stopped into our house so much. He would give my Mom little colored glasses and trinkets that he had acquired in the course of his junk dealing. Uncle Al always went to the Presbyterian church where we went and always sat by himself in a pew wearing a white tie. Somebody said that he wore that white tie in honor of his mother.
As my train layout got more sophisticated, I had the need for remote operated switches. I just had manual switches. However, we didn't have the money for the remote switches. Like the big transformer, they were simply out of the question. I read an article in one of my train magazines about how you could convert a manual switch to a remotely operated one. It involved building a little box with levers attached to fishing line and then you'd run the fishing line underneath the table and up to the switch. First you had to disable the switch from its normal operation so that it moved freely between the two positions - open with tension and closed by spring action. Then you'd attach the fishing line so that you could pull the lever and it would open the switch. When you released the lever it would spring back to the closed position. It was important to keep enough tension on the fishing line so that the switch would open all the way. I prevailed on Uncle Al to help me build this little box. I remember he was a little reluctant; I don't know why. He had a reputation of being pretty handy with tools. The project turned out to be a big success, and I had the equivalent of remote controlled switches which worked great in my layout. Only they were mechanically instead of electrically operated.
Another dilemma I had was that I needed a mail car for my passenger train. Somehow I had gotten ahold of two passenger cars, but a proper passenger train needed a mail car as well. As it was out of the question to buy one (they were too expensive), I built one myself from a kit. Then the problem was that I needed trucks - the wheels that go underneath. So one day my Dad agreed to take me to Newark where I had located a train store that would sell me the trucks. I remember it was a rainy day, but it was neat spending the whole day with my Dad and going to get the trucks I needed to complete the project. We probably stopped at White Castle for a hamburger too which made the day a very special occasion. The only problem was that we had to pay as much for the trucks as it would have cost to buy the mail car in the first place. Oh well, live and learn, but it was a special day with my Dad.
I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time with my Dad because he was always out at meetings. He was President of the Hospital Board. He had those meetings. Then he had PTA meetings, Masonic Lodge meetings - all kinds of meetings. He'd go away to conventions, but he always brought home a present for me. I didn't mind that my Dad was away so much; I never held it against him, but he apologized to me later in life at the "19th hole" on a golf course (that's where you sit and have a beer) and advised me to be around more for my own daughter than he was for me. I remember saying to my Dad "You were OK" which was high praise coming from me since in later years my Dad and I had tangled about the War in Vietnam among a lot of other things. My Dad had taken up golf after his first heart attack. He graduated from going to meetings almost every night to taking care of himself, losing weight and getting some exercise. But unlike me he wasn't driven to it. In some ways he was luckier, but in others he paid a price. I'm driven to exercise, but as a by-product I have always been super healthy.
One of the things my Dad and I did do together was the garden. My Dad always planted a huge garden and I helped him plant it. Then there was the cultivating, watering etc. We harvested a lot of lima beans, Luther Hill corn, string beans, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables which we cooked and froze so we had fresh vegetables all year long. My Dad would also get 50 day old chicks most years which usually ended up in the freezer too. My Mom would bake pies, cinnamon rolls and brownies for the freezer so that she could prepare a whole meal in a minimum amount of time because everything was right there in the freezer.
In fourth grade I had Mrs. Moyes, and it turned out that I went from being a problem child to being a fairly well behaved kid. But sitting in class was a challenge for me. I'm glad I went to school before the age of ritalin because they probably would have diagnosed me as Attention Deficit Disorder and drugged me. But we usually had a play period in the morning and we got to play outside on our lunch hour. This is the only thing that made it possible for me to sit through the rest of the day. We'd play knock out flies in the parking lot even in the dead of winter when the whole playground was frozen over. I needed those play periods. Then I would ususally play outside shooting baskets or something until my Mom called me in for dinner. In those days there wasn't much traffic and I'd ride my bike everywhere. When I was older I rode my 3 speed all the way to Newton to My Grandma Clark's house - 16 miles - in an hour.
But I started to realize that if I wasn't able to play baseball or basketball or sleigh ride or go hiking I didn't feel right. I was probably in the eighth grade before I came to the realization that I needed exercise in order to feel right and to enable me to concentrate on school work. It was an important realization and would have a lot to do with maintaining my sanity in later years, not to mention the demands of being a student and having to concentrate on intellectual activities. It was the beginning of the realization that I needed to be in the brier patch. I needed to work hard, especially physically. While a normal person aspired to not have to work, I needed to work in order to be happy, in order to concentrate and do intellectual work and to excel at that. I couldn't just sit around and do nothing. It would drive me nuts. So I relate to Brer Rabbit. Anyone else it would be the last thing they wanted - to be thrown in the brier patch. For him and me - well, we weren't normal. Too much leisure time not working drove me nuts and caused me a lot of psychological pain and unpleasantness. I couldn't deal with it. What most people try to avoid, I had to embrace in order to feel OK about myself. It's part of being a depressive and using lifestyle - instead of drugs - to manage it. I was just starting to figure that out. It was a hard life lesson.
Before there was a dedicated music teacher at Wantage School there was a woman, Miss Kimble, who used to come in a few days a week and give piano lessons. She also played for the assembly programs and arranged for little skits for some of the kids. I was involved in a lot of Miss Kimble's skits. I did a little song and dance routine with Carol Anderson once. We had a little group with four boys that auditioned for Ted Mack's Amateur Hour. The neat things about these little skits was that usually I got called out of class to rehearse for them. Then one day Miss Kimble called me to rehearse but instead of rehearsing out of class she wanted me to rehearse on my lunch hour. I remember I got quite indignant at the thought of missing my lunch hour where I got to blow off steam playing outside, and I wasn't very nice to Miss Kimble which I regret. Anyway that was the end of my skits with Miss Kimble. She never asked me to do anything again and who could blame her?
The next year we got a regular music teacher, Mr. Geist. I was involved in the whole music program - chorus and band. I played trumpet. I was Mr. Geist's first student to take private lessons. He had been on the road with the big bands and decided to come off the road, settle down, get a teaching job and raise a family. He had a new wife, Renee. My Dad gave him his first job as a teacher and later he moved to Springfield, NJ where he was a music teacher until he retired. I remember he had me play Bob Haggart's "What's New" in the assembly program. I even did a little bit of (prerehearsed) improvising. Later music would take an important place in my life as I became a semi-professional jazz musician and concert promoter. But mainly it was a quest to learn how to play the trumpet and to learn what was and is a very sophisticated and complex music. Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown were my favorite players and learning about jazz and the people who played it became a consuming passion. Mr. Geist got me started on this road, and it was an important one for me to travel because it calmed my demons and gave me something to live for and aspire to when my outlook on life was at its darkest.
Mr. Geist and I are still friends although I call him Morty now. I know he likes to be called Mr. Geist and all his former students call him that except me. But I decided some years ago that I would call everybody by their first name unless they were at least 30 years older than me or I was addressing them in court or something like that. I never liked to be called Mr. Lawrence, and my daughter's friends always called me John when they were growing up. I guess that's part of the informality of the West Coast as opposed to the East Coast. Mr. Geist is only about 15 years older than me, and he doesn't seem to take offense at the fact that I call him Morty.
Music and exercise took on an increasing significance as I grew older. But my parents emphasized the importance of education. Naturally, since they were both educators. My Dad was the principal of Wantage Consolidated School where I went to elementary school. He later became superintendant of the Sussex-Wantage school district. My Mom, having been a teacher before she met my Dad, later went back to teaching after a 12 year hiatus during which she was raising my sister and me and recovering from TB. My Mom one day told me that if I studied real hard and was the best student that when I graduated I would get a lot of prizes. She told me I could be valdictorian. My Mom didn't waste a lot of words or elaborate a great deal, but that became my aspiration - to be valdictorian and get all those prizes. I fully endorsed my parents' trip about education. It justified my existence and gave me a raison d'etre. It was fine with me as long as I could have my "play periods." I was really involved in Little league baseball and loved to play basketball and couldn't really study unless I got to work off my excess energy. Luckily, this all worked out and there was no conflict so everything was pretty harmonious. I was fully into my parents' trip and wanted to go to college like they had. Like a lot of people I thought a college diploma would guarantee that I had a better life and made more money. Seemed like a good plan to me.
In the fifth grade I started to take notice of girls, rather of one girl in particular. Ginny Lee had just moved to our neck of the woods that year, and I started to get the picture that she liked me. It seems she had a locket and there were some secret words written inside. They said "Johnny & Ginny." I was smitten. I don't know why. I was never really attracted to any of the other little girls in our class up till that time. But she was the archtypical blue eyed blonde that I would be attracted to for the rest of my life although there have been a few brunettes along the way too. Somehow I really fell for her. Some of the other girls suggested that I should give Ginny a ring. So I asked my mother if she had a ring I could give Ginny. She found one in a little box and I presented it to Ginny. She liked it, but a couple days later I found out that under the cardboard ring holder in the little box there had been another ring which Ginny found and this one she liked a whole lot better. This ring all the little girls oohed and ahhed over; this ring was really special. When I told my mother about the second ring, she realized that this was her special ring that she thought she had lost and she just had to have it back. I had to ask Ginny for the ring back. How embarrassing!
Our relationship didn't last long. We had one special day when Gary Stires and I rode our bikes over to Ginny's house and then Ginny and her friend, Peggy Van der Goot, Gary and I took off on our bicycles with our lunches for the day riding around on all the back country roads. It was a fun day. We ate our lunch by the side of the road. We waded in a stream. Somebody got the idea of going over to Peggy Van der Goot's barn, and we were on our way there, when Mrs. Lee found us on a dirt road and told us that my Dad had called and that I had to come home right away. Too bad for me. Who knows what might have happened in Peggy Van der Goot's hay mow.
It didn't work out between Ginny and me. She moved on; I was stuck. I was probably too immature for her, and I wasn't always nice. It was depressing, but life went on. I did get to be valdictorian and played "To the Colors" on my cornet at the graduation ceremonies. I won all the prizes for getting the highest marks in all the classes. It came to a grand total of $2.50 - $.50 per class - hardly worth it. I had put in a lot of time and hard work, child labor in fact. It was the culimination of one phase in a long career as a student which would go on until I was almost 30 - a long hard road which in the final analysis wasn't really worth it. I thought it would put me in the position that I would always have a job if I wanted one. It would enhance my freedom, my ability to pick and choose. It didn't work out that way. Instead I would one day find myself being turned down for a job because I was "overqualified."
Graduating from Wantage was the end of one chapter of my life. My Mom had tried to get me into a prep school because they didn't like the local high school. My Dad had been principal there for two years, and it didn't work out. He was lucky to get his old job back at Wantage. I don't know what the problem was with Sussex High School. Maybe it wasn't accredited or something. But a lot of students graduated from there and went on to illustrious careers. I did receive a scholarship to Phillips Academy Andover so I was about to embark on what turned out to be the worst three years of my life. My Mom went back to work as a teacher and I went to Andover and was awarded the prize for having received the highest marks on the entrance examination.
California Free Press