My Old Kentucky Homesite

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Now Isn’t That Spatial?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 07/20/2010

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging much in the last week or so. That’s because I have no spatial sense.

Some of you may be saying, “What?” So I’ll explain.

First of all, you should know that I come by my lack of spatial sense honestly, through genetics. My father could get lost sliding from one end of the couch to the other. When he wanted to plan a car trip for the family, the only way he could read a map was to spread it out on the kitchen table and use a penny to stand for our Studebaker. Slowly, speaking aloud the exit numbers, he’d move the coin along the route. Every time he had to make a turn, he’d rotate the map, and say, “Let’s see. North is …?” Once we were actually in the car, he wouldn’t remember anything. At every junction, he’d shake his head in disbelief and say, “Do me something, but I could have sworn this was gonna be 87. Where’d 95 come from all of a sudden?”

My mother could never remember the numbers of the roads. She was not bad at reading maps, but whenever she opened one, she immediately got sidetracked by trying to figure out how to refold it. “Let’s see, the crease goes this way, but then it goes that way. Hmm.” She did, however, know landmarks, but only if they had any family history attached to them. “Watch for the Howard Johnson’s, and about two blocks before you get there, make a right.”

My father would say, reasonably enough I always thought, “How can I make a right before the goddamned Howard Johnson’s if I can’t see it yet, f’Chrissake?”

“Oh, you know that Howard Johnson’s. The one where Larry asked for a peach cone and they gave him pistachio by mistake?”

“I don’t remember that. What did I have?”

“Chocolate.”

My father always had chocolate, wherever we went. He was not very adventurous when it came to ice cream. Or adventures either, for that matter. “Don’t give me any landmarks. Just tell me a number. Or a name, at least.”

“The Hutch. We’ll watch for a sign that says the Hutch. I think it might be near that gas station where we once stopped to pee.”

“Oh, f’cryinoutloud. We always stop to pee. Is that where the Hutch is?”

“No, that’s where the sign is.”

In any case, my parents had no spatial sense, and neither do I. Which is why it was probably a dumb move on my part to buy the Chessmaster program.

When the software arrived about two weeks ago, I was automatically ranked at 900, based on my answers to a few simple questions, most of which involved my willingness to let my name be floated around the Internet as a potential sucker for sales pitches. The evil Chessmaster then started throwing virtual opponents at me, and it wasn’t long before I whittled myself down to the high negatives.

In the process, I did manage to learn a few simple precepts. Develop your muscles before bishops. Fight for control of Lincoln Center. Never play with queens too early. That knight on the rim’s named Jim. Watch out for forks and skewers (although other cooking utensils are OK). I’ve even memorized a few common openings: the Wild-Indian Defense, the Sicilian Mafia, the “Illegal Immigrant” Lopez (first round up all your opponent’s suspicious-looking pieces, then ask questions), and of course, the French Chef (hit ’em with a cleaver, and bon appétit).

But I now sit comfortably at around –1000, and I’m playing computeroid children, some of whom don’t know the difference between a rook and a Lego.

Maybe if the kids I battle were labeled by religious affiliation, I’d have an easier time trying to defeat them. I’m sure that if they were classified as representatives of the dark forces, I could probably work myself into a rage — at least at their fictional god-and-pawn-pushing parents. Instead, I feel avuncular. I tell myself: What would it do to Cassie’s poor little simulated ego if I checkmated her? Not that I can, mind you.

So that’s why I haven’t been blogging much lately. To make the world a better place, I’ve been single-handedly battling the cyber-tots. We cannot let the robots win!

Umm … please don’t hide your king in your mouth, sweetheart.

Posted in Memoirs, Puzzles and Games | 15 Comments »

Earworm Saturday #6

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 07/10/2010

The other day, a friend asked me if I remembered what my first earworm was. I sure do. It was Mrs. Bronstein playing “The Spinning Song” on her piano.

When I was growing up, my Saturday mornings always began with the sounds of that poor woman of indeterminate middle age — I referred to her as “old” back then (fuck me) — practicing her music. The headboard of my bed was separated from the sounding board of her upright piano by a thin wall of plaster between our apartments. Throughout my entire childhood, she never expanded her repertoire beyond the same two pieces, but she played them both with such gusto each week that I sometimes worried about her piano crashing through the wall and landing on my head. The one she always started with was a musette by J.S. Bach. Usually, she tried it once or twice, maybe three times at most, and that was that. I liked the way the tune played with rhythm (I didn’t learn the word “syncopation” until later), and even though Mrs. Bronstein almost always screwed up the middle section, she’d end with a flourish.

The other number was “The Spinning Song,” my ear-monster. I’ve subsequently found out that it was written by a 19th-century German actor named Albert Ellmenreich, but when I was a kid, I thought it might have been composed by Mr. Bronstein to drive his wife crazy. He was definitely that kind of guy. He wore a beret, f’Chrissake, and my father told me that he was a … shhhhh … socialist. My other theory was that some Jewish mother, maybe even mine, had commissioned the piece with the specific purpose of awakening her slugabed child in the Bronx.

In any case, Mrs. Bronstein never did get through “The Spinning Song,” even though she practiced it from the time I was about five until I was nearly eleven. Six years, and she never finished that goddamned thing. Because whenever she would hit a wrong note, she would start all over again from the beginning.

Boop-bah Boop-bah Boop-bah Boop-bah
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dih-TAHH.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dit-DUMM.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dih-TAHH.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dit-DUMM.
OOM-puh OOM-puh OOM-puh OOM-puh …
… Oh, no!

To this day, I can hum, whistle, or scat-sing the first twelve bars of that tune perfectly. But at precisely the same point in the thirteenth measure, every single time, Mrs. Bronstein’s fingers got hopelessly muddled. She’d approach that spot in the melody and I’d lie absolutely still, holding my breath, united with my neighbor in some kind of mystical mind-meld of uncertainty.

She never did manage to spit those notes out perfectly. After a few seconds of silence, during which time I always imagined her heaving a sigh from the innermost recesses of her tormented being, she would go back to the beginning and doggedly commence deedling once more. Fifteen, twenty times, occasionally thirty, until she gave up, but only for that session. The next Saturday morning, she’d be back at it again, tenaciously determined, the paradigm of optimistic persistence.

For the rest of the weekend, I’d find myself singing the nonsense syllables printed above, which I’ve always imagined to be the song’s lyrics. Once I was deedling to myself while bringing a bag of garbage to the incinerator, and Mrs. Bronstein happened to open her door.

“Oh,” she said, “I see you like good music.”

I never knew until today, when I listened to it on YouTube, how the rest of that damned thing went.  Here it is. So stick your computer behind your headboard and listen to just the beginning about fifteen or twenty times. Guess what: you’ll have grown yourself an earworm. Meet me at the incinerator, and we can hum a duet.

Posted in Earworms, Memoirs | 13 Comments »

So What Did Your Grandfather Invent?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 03/08/2010

Sometimes I get emails asking me: “Who the hell are you to tell us what you think?” Well, I may not be as important to Kentuckians as Lexington native George Clooney, but my ancestors were noteworthy. After all, my grandfather discovered the sundial.

At the time, he was about 82 years old, give or take a month. Grampops was living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where he spent a lot of hours hanging out near the ocean. His primary interest, he’d say in his thick Russian-Yiddish accent, was “lookink at vimmen. But the sky’s not so bed, too.”

No matter how long or how often he sat out on the sand, his skin color never changed from its Eastern European pallor. “Jews don’ boin, but ve also don’ ten.” That sounded very suspicious to me, so after I voiced enough skepticism to satisfy even him —Grampops was an atheist and an anarchist — he confessed that he always dressed himself up in long winter clothing. He chuckled as he admitted that he probably looked like “a heskymo vit a sun-het.” I could see him as a sort of lascivious Nanook of the North, cruising the ladies and chewing on blubber dipped in chicken fat.

I asked him why he didn’t wear a bathing suit like everyone else did. “I got sotch a terrific chest, dey nid a semple? Believe me, brains I got. Poisonality, I got. Maybe ivven a nice face. But a body like from Charles Hetlas, I don’ got. Who nidz it? At mein age, I’ll gonna peek up dumballs?”

Still, he seemed to have a surprisingly high degree of success with Eastern European “leddies” of a certain age. My father once asked him, “You’re having a lotta dates, huh, Pa?” Grampops responded, “Mm-yah, but dey don’ all vind up vere I vant dey should.” He wasn’t talking about the bedroom; he was actually referring to his kitchen. Grampops was a sucker for homemade gefilte fish.

But I was telling you about his discovery of the sundial.

It may not be true that “behind every great man there’s a woman,” but it was for Grampops. In fact, the female in question was literally breathing down his back when he got the idea for a sundial.

“So I’m sittink on a blenkit de odder morning. Dere’s a voom’n I know a coppel towels down de byeech, an’ she kips giving me an eye like she’s maybe takink an hex-ray. So I tink, vot’s vit dis crazy goil starink at me like I’m sotch a Castle Nova?’

For Grampops, being pursued reminded him too much of his experiences with the Cossacks. He liked to think that here in America, he was in charge of all romantic liasions. This particular woman, Ida was her name, had thrown herself at him on the beach a number of times, but he’d always metaphorically tossed her back into the ocean. She was not a gefilte he cared to catch.

“So Ida gets hup and starts comink over by me, vit a vink dat I should maybe get hall egg-sided from sotch a regular Jan Mensfeel. So I’m payink no attention, playing vit de send, follink arond vit a steek. ‘Oy,’ she says, ‘dat’s some beeg tveeg you got dere.’”

Ida’s conversational gambit didn’t work. Instead, she was treated to short dissertation on sticks, and shells, and seawood, and all the other kinds of wonderful debris available there for the taking if a person was trying to avoid feminine attention. “So before you could say Jackie Rubenstein, she goes avay.”

In the meantime, though, Grampops had become completely fascinated with the shadow cast by the stick as it stood upright where he’d shoved it into the sand. “It vas just like a clock. By mein reestvotch it sad a leetle afteh vun, and lo and be hole, de sheddow sad a leetle afteh vun, too.” At two o’clock, he looked again. “De sheddow moved! An’ guess vat it sad? Not four ah clock, not three o’clock, not iffen two-thoity. Two o’clock! On de button. Ho boy, I’m feelink like a real Thomas Elvis Hedison.”

As the sun continued its journey through the sky, the shadow imitated its course. Grampops watched in amazement. At the end of the day, he took his prize magic stick home.

“So,” he told me proudly, “the next day, I got a pants’l and a piss paper, and I drew meinself a byoodiful soicle vit numbers like a clock. An’ vit a leetle Alma’s glue, I put de steek in de meedle.” Then, proudly, he positioned his contraption in the window.

“It voiked. I discovered how to make a clock vit only steek.” Grampops now had something in common with the ancient Babylonians, besides being vamped by Ida. “If I nid to know de time, I just pick at mein vindow.”

But even the greatest geniuses have to deal with obstacles now and then. “It don’ voik so good at night or ven it’s rainink,” he complained. “So ho K, I’ll batter kip mein reest votch, too ”

That’s my pedigree, and the reason why I have the right to criticize those whose grandparents did not make any earth-shaking scientific discoveries. I’d write even more condescendingly, if I had the time. But I’ve worked on this post long enough, at least according to the stick in my window.

Posted in Memoirs, The Oys of Yiddish | 17 Comments »

The Mom Will See You Now

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 01/20/2010

Today, I went for a routine yearly checkup, my first with my new Lexington doctor.  I also asked him about a slight cough I have.

The doctor seemed like an able physician, a good and patient communicator, and a likeable guy. But my yardstick for the medical profession is Mom. Nobody is ever as thorough as she was.

Mom had studied medicine attentively. During the ’30s and the ’40s, she’d never missed a Dr. Kildare movie.  In the mid-‘50s, when I was well into my single-digits, she kept up-to-date with the latest breakthroughs in pathology by watching Medic every week.  She also had subscriptions to five or six different women’s magazines. Even though she religiously skipped the recipes and the household tips and the fashion spreads, she memorized every health article they published. Mom could rattle off ten things everyone needed to know about psoriasis, and five danger signals that your child was reading too many comic books. She also regularly thumbed through her much dog-eared paperback copy of Dr. Spock, in the hopes of being on guard against diseases  she’d never heard of.

I was her star patient, a weeny who was always “coming down” with something, or “just getting over” something, or actually being sick with something.  In our house, we were never just sick; we were always sick with something.  Something specific, something that had a name.  These titles were very important to Mom because in order to know the proper treatment, it was crucial that she correctly identify the illness.

“Mom, what do I have?”

Mom could distinguish between a bug and a virus, the grippe and the flu, “mostly allergies” and “a touch of the croup.”  Her distinctions weren’t scientific; they were based on how often, how hard, and how far I sneezed.  When she was really ensconced in Doctor Mode, we might even discuss the color and consistency of my phlegm.

A stuffed nose was usually the first signal that my body was under siege.  I’d sit sniffling and snuffling at the dinner table, trying to reclaim my dripping mucus.  Mom would scream at me, “Stop shnoobling it in.”  I always thought “shnooble” was a Yiddish word.  It wasn’t until I was eleven that I finally learned the truth: it was just an onomatopoeic nonsense term that Mom made up.  It finally dawned on me that whenever I used “shnooble” in a sentence, nobody but my immediate family understood what I was talking about.

Dad would finally bang his coffee cup down and glare at me.  With disgust in his voice, he’d yell, “F’Chrissake, where’s your handkerchief?  Blow that damn thing, already, willya? ”

“I’m sick!” I’d answer.  “Don’t holler.”

That was Mom’s cue to spring into action.  She’d scrunch up her eyebrows, purse her lips, and rub her chin the way bad actors do to show they’re thinking. Then she’d ask me a battery of diagnostic questions.

“Do you have a sore throat?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?  Does it hurt when you swallow? Even a teensy little bit?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt at all.  You wanna see me swallow?  I can swallow all day if you want and it won’t hurt.”

“Lemme see if it’s red.  Come over here in the light.”

I hated coming over here in the light.  That meant tilting my head back at a torturous angle and opening my mouth wide enough for Mom to wheel a gurney down my throat.

“Do I have to?  Can’t you just look from there?”

Dad usually jumped to my defense. I was fooled into thinking he did it because he was my pal.  In reality, he just couldn’t deal with Mom’s professionalism.

“What are you, Honey?” he’d ask.  “Dr. Jekyll?  Just give him an aspirin and a handkerchief, f’cryinoutloud.”

But Mom had taken the Hippocratic oath, or, to be more precise, the “Good Housekeeping” pledge.  As she grabbed me by the arms and pulled me under the light, she’d answer Dad.  “Can’t you see I’m working here?  Butt out.”

Then to me: “Your throat’s a little red.  How do your ears feel?”

“OK.”

“Do you have an earache?”

“No.”

Mom would jerk her jaw back and forth. “Are you sure?  It doesn’t hurt when you go like this?”

“I told you it doesn’t hurt.”

“You’re not going like this.  Go like this and then tell me.”

I’d give a couple of half-hearted yawns.

“So?  Do your ears hurt?”

“Now my jaw hurts.”

“Well, that’s natural when you go like that.  How about your ears?  We’re talking about them.”

“They don’t hurt.  They feel perfect.”

“Is your hearing stopped up?”

“What?”

“IS YOUR HEARING STOPPED UP?”

“I was only kidding.  I heard you the first time.”

“Lemme look in your ears.  Come back here in the light.”

Mom would have eagerly eyeballed every orifice I had if Dad didn’t say, “Oh, leave him alone, f’Chrissake.  He’s just a snotnosed kid with a cold. ” Dad was jealous of Medic.

“Honey, you’re not the doctor here.  Go watch Million Dollar Movie, ’cause you’re not helping anything.”

One of the reasons that my parents had an effective relationship was that Dad always recognized a Mom order when he heard it.  The next thing he was supposed to do was rise obediently, shake his head at both mother and son, mumble “it’s like a skit on Milton Berle,” and lumber toward the living-room couch.  Which is exactly what he always did, even years after Milton Berle had gone off the air.

When he was safely out of the room, Mom resumed. “Your ears look waxy to me. When’s the last time you washed them?”

“Yesterday.” (Lie.)

“Did you wrap your finger in a washcloth and go inside?”

“Yeah.” (Lie)

“Which finger did you use? Not your thumb, right? And not your pinky?”

“No, just one of my regular fingers.”

“OK. Do you have a headache? Even a small pain above your eyes could be sinus.”

“No.”

“Are you sure?  You don’t have any pressure around your temples?”

“I have no pains anywhere, Mom.  I feel great. ”

“Don’t tell me how you feel. Just answer my questions, because there’s a whole procedure. Lemme see your eyeballs.  Look up at the light.”

“Do I have to?  That really hurts my eyes.”

“A-ha!”

Mom was no ordinary medical wannabe; she was a specialist, a frustrated epidemiologist.  Her next task was to make me tell her the names of every kid I had played with at any time during the entire preceding month.  She’d order me to stay at the table, while she hit the telephone, calling around to all their mothers.  It was critically important to her that she track down the culprit who had infected me.

“Hi, Rachel.  How’s Shelley?”  If Mom looked disappointed, I knew the other kid was fine.  If Mom frowned somberly, but with a gloat underneath, I knew the other kid had something wrong with him, probably a fatal disease that I had caught. “Oh, that’s too bad.  I think Larry’s got it, too.  But we don’t seem to have any bowel problems here so far.  Hold on.”

She’d cup the receiver in her hand, and ask me detailed questions about my trips to the bathroom.  Mom made me describe my droppings as if I were an art critic; she was a master of fecal nuance.  She never trusted my reports, though.  Was I absolutely, a hundred percent certain that I didn’t have diarrhea?  Was I positively sure that I wasn’t constipated, even a little bit?  She always seemed to doubt my answers, as if I were trying to hide some fantastic secret up my rectum.

“Are you nauseous?  Shelley’s nauseous.”

“I’m not nauseous.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not nauseous and then the next thing we know you’ll be throwing up.  If you’re nauseous, admit it.”

“I’m not nauseous.”

“Does your stomach hurt?”

“No.”

“Show me where it doesn’t hurt.”

“It doesn’t hurt anywhere.”

“And you’re sure you’re not nauseous?”

“I thought we already did ‘nauseous.'”

“I’m just making sure.”

Then she’d start rubbing her hand back and forth across my forehead as if she were trying to build up enough static electricity to balance a balloon there.

“You feel warm to me.  I think you might have fever.  Go pull your pants down and lay on your bed.”

Being medically evacuated from the kitchen was serious business, a sign that you were too sick to be cured by just an office visit.

In the time it took me to follow her instructions, Mom was able to find the thermometer, douse it with about half a bottle of alcohol, and glob it with enough Vaseline to grease all my internal organs.  Then she’d take careful aim and shove it up my ass with such force that I’d imagine I could feel it coming out the other side.

“That’s not so bad, is it?”

“Ow.”

“What hurts?  Your head?  Your ears?  Your stomach?”

“My tush.”

“Sorry,” Mom would answer, not lifting her eyes from her watch.  The instrument had to be in for exactly three minutes, no more, no less.  A few seconds either way could lead to a mis-diagnosis.

Whenever we played this scene, Mom wound up making the same amazing discovery: I had a whopping fever of half a degree above normal.  She’d check Doctor Spock for corroboration on her evaluation.

“Am I sick?” I’d ask.

“Just a little cold,” she’d say. “We’ll rub you in with Vicks, and give you a spoon of Rem.”

My doctor today did his routine exam, then listened briefly to my chest. Unlike Mom’s inquisition, it took less than three hours. Although he didn’t suggest Vick’s, he did send me to the pharmacy to buy some recommended cough medicine.

“Is that it? We’re done?” I asked.

“Well, what else did you have in mind?” he countered.

I guess he didn’t need to know who I’d played with.

Posted in Memoirs, New to Kentucky | Leave a Comment »

Lions, and Tigers, and Pterodactyls – Oh, My!

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/18/2009

I’ve subscribed to a free list called birdky, on which people from all over the state of Kentucky write short emails whenever they spot an interesting bird. In the last few days, I’ve received three or four notes by bragging birders who have seen dozens of sandhill cranes flying overhead. At nearly four feet tall, sandhill cranes are among the largest birds in the United States. Their red crowns and grey plumage make them easy to identify from a distance, even for an ornithological idiot like me, who might otherwise just point upwards in awe and yell “Duck! Duck!” Not the noun, the verb.

Unfortunately, sandhill cranes do not come to backyard feeders, just as lions do not eat Meow Mix from a bowl labeled “Princess.” So you won’t see one (a sandhill crane or a lion) if your main contact with nature is the view through your sunroom window. My main contact with nature – really, my only contact with nature – is, in fact, the view through my sunroom window, and even that makes me sneeze. So my avian friends tend to be little guys, like sparrows, titmice, and misidentified squirrels, none of which is the kind of sighting that makes a person scream “Duck!”

My consolation is that I can still clearly conjure up my first encounter, back in the Bronx of my boyhood, with an enormous flying creature. It wasn’t a bird exactly, and you’d never find it on Audubon’s list of North American species, but I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. And it did make me scream.

Until that evening, I never fretted about being attacked from the sky, because I knew Mom was vigilant. She spent a lot of time imagining awful things that might happen to her children, and acted beforehand to prevent them. I was never allowed to have chunky peanut butter, even though I begged and begged her to change over from the boring “creamy smooth” kind. Mom was sure I would forget to chew the small pieces of nuts, and choke.

Pez fell into the same category. I was permitted to have a dispenser, but forbidden to fill it with candy. Instead, I was encouraged to use it as a puppet, opening and closing the lid to make it talk. What I usually had it say was, “Help! I’m empty!”

Besides gaggable foods, there were dozens of other perils lying in wait for me. Mom was constantly on the lookout for friends who were “bad influences.” In the Bronx of 1956, any kid who showed an ounce of independence was a potential corrupter. If Jerry went outside without a jacket before May 1, he was a bad influence. If Shelley stopped at the local bakery for an appetite-ruining cookie on the way home from school, he, too, was a bad influence. Stevie, who was the smartest child in my grade, maybe even the entire school, became, briefly, a bad influence because one day Mom saw him riding his tricycle faster than one mile per hour. He was forgiven only when she learned later that he was in a hurry to get home and kiss his mother hello.

Mom would have been horrified to discover that the other mothers thought her son was a bad influence because he was such a mama’s boy. In those days, people still believed that sissiness was contagious.

Wherever I went, Mom made sure that in my pocket I always carried a small card with my name, address, and phone number, as well as her name. “You never know,” she’d say. “What if you, God forbid, get run over. God forbid.”  Even when I was on my way to play at a friend’s house in the same building, she would remind me to take my identification.

“Do you have your ID card with you?”

“I’m just going over to Shelley’s to read comics. It’s raining. We’re not gonna go out. We’re just gonna sit around and trade Supermans. His mother knows your number.”

“Well, take it anyway. You could fall down the stairs on the way over. You’re not Superman.”

With all Mom’s concerns about my fragile physical and mental state, it was no surprise to Dad or me that she was dead-set against his taking me to see Rodan, a Japanese sci-fi movie about a rubber pterodactyl threatening Tokyo. For a weeny boy like me, it was definitely a trauma waiting to happen.

Dad dug in his heels. Sitting through a horror flick was a necessary rite-of-passage for a male child. F’Chrissake, he was about the same age when he and his buddies had gotten the crap scared out of them by Dracula and Frankenstein. A little healthy fear would make a man out of me.

“Don’t compare yourself to Larry,” my mother said. “You lived in Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn was considered the tough borough, the borough where Jewish boys grew up to form Murder, Inc. The Bronx was where Jewish boys grew up to form orthopedic shoes.

“He’s too young for a movie like that,” Mom insisted. “He still gets a nervous attack from the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.”

“Listen, Elaine,” Dad said, “don’t tell me about monkeys. When I was his age, I saw King Kong. But I survived, didn’t I? Let the kid grow up, f’cryinoutloud.”

Then, turning to me, he asked, “You’re not scared of some Judy Garland movie, are you, Mr. Cowardly Lion?”

“Um … no,” I replied, trying my best to shrug nonchalantly, although my heart began racing at the very thought of the winged creatures. “I just think they’re … um … ugly.”

“Well, they’re no worse than Uncle Jack, are they?”

Mom was adamant. “Keep Uncle Jack out of this. He’s not going, and that’s final.”

It looked like Mom would prevail. “That’s final” usually was. But Dad still had one trick up his sleeve; he played the Pansy Card. “You know, Elaine, you’re gonna turn him into a homo if you’re not careful. A good scare’ll give him some real balls.” Dad gestured to show the immense size he had in mind. “It’ll put some hair on his chest.”

It’s hard to imagine why the image of a third-grader with freakishly large testicles and body fur won Mom over, but she finally said OK. With conditions. She made Dad promise that we’d take the bus instead of walking to the theater. “He’s a little afraid of the dark, and besides, you never know who’s out there.” She made us swear that we wouldn’t even think about popcorn. “It could get stuck in his throat. Yours too, Murray.” And she couldn’t resist a parting zinger at Dad: “Go ahead and put some hair on his chest, but if my child has nightmares for the rest of his life, it’ll be on your head.” Which is exactly where Dad needed some hair, so he was gonna be winner whatever happened.

The short bus ride over to the RKO Marble Hill was an emotional journey; one moment I was euphoric about my venture into manhood, the next moment I was panicked that I might wet myself in terror. At Mom’s urging, I had already used the bathroom twice before we walked out the door, but I was worried that there was still some residual fear-pee waiting to be released. I had learned in the schoolyard the story of the boy who had pissed out all his internal organs during The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I dreaded the possibility of losing my essence in an ignominious series of puddles.

Once inside the movie house, we headed upstairs. Dad always staked out territory at the extreme end of the last row of the balcony, where he could smoke or snore without any disturbance. The rest of the people in the theater were teenagers on dates, busy with anatomy lessons.

Monster movies of the ’50s followed a formula. You never got to see the critter until the picture was about two-thirds over. Then he would make some half-hearted attempt to eat a major city, until a human (yay!) figured out a way to blow him up.

But I had no clue about the routine. As Dad sat beside me, contemplating his eyelids, I watched the story unfold and worried about bladder control. A piece of popcorn was lodged in a back tooth; I was sure that if the sight of the monster didn’t immediately kill me with fright, it would cause the kernel to pry loose and cut off my breathing.

And then — oh no!

“Dad? Wake up. I have to go to the bathroom.”

He was not one to coddle me. In those innocent days, you could still send a small boy to urinate by himself, so he gave me explicit instructions for how to get to and from the men’s room. I could hear the blood pumping through my head as I raced down what seemed like a million steps, ran into the toilet, whipped myself out in record speed, and peed as if I were in time trials. Mom always taught me not to “force it,” I could rupture something, but this was a crisis situation.

Ominous music came roaring out of the speakers as I hurried back to my seat. I dared not look at the screen, but I dared not ignore it either. It wasn’t until I had gotten entirely into the theater’s darkness that Rodan surfaced.

“DAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”

“I’m here!” A cigarette beacon shone in the distance.

“It’s RODAAAAAAAAAAN!”

Adolescent boys are extremely witty, and so the theater filled with echoes of “DAAAAAAAAD! RODAAAAAAN! Watch out, little boy, it’s gonna EAT you! Oh, no, a big CHICK-ENNN!” This was the only downbeat necessary to start a huge clucking chorus. Some of the clucks were meant to be parodies of Rodan, but many more of them were meant to be me.

“Look, it’s no worse than Uncle Jack,” Dad argued. If we had stayed, I would have learned that our species always wins. But my eyes were shut tight, my hands were over my ears, and my air passages were blocked by a handful of popcorn basketballs. I told Dad I had a bad bellyache.

During the ride home, I calmed down slightly. But I did sneak peeks out the bus’s rear window to make sure we weren’t being followed by any monsters. Dad put on an act, but I could tell that he was afraid, too. Mom was going to kill him.

“Let’s not tell your mother, huh? Just say you had a good time. OK?”

Mom was waiting for us. “Short movie,” she commented.

“Well,” Dad answered, “how long does it take to tell about a big bird?”

Mom looked me over until she had satisfied herself that nothing was wet or broken. “So?” she asked me. “Were you scared?”

“Not really,” Dad said, quickly. “But I think he’s got those winged monkeys in better perspective now.”

That was more than five decades ago, and I still haven’t seen any airborne simians. But I do have high hopes of spotting a flock of sandhill cranes one of these days. I trust they’ll be better looking than Uncle Jack.

Posted in Memoirs, Old Movies, Watching Birds | 2 Comments »

Nice Food

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 11/20/2009

Today, I found a sandwich shop in Lexington that serves authentic chopped liver, very like the kind I used to wish my grandmother made when I was growing up in the Bronx. My friends’ grandmothers made terrific chopped liver, loaded with plenty of onions and chicken fat and even gribenes, which are kind of like fried pork rinds except without the pork.

But Nanny’s version of chopped liver was mostly Crisco. In fact, everything Nanny made was mostly Crisco. She just shaped it differently for matzo balls, for potato pancakes, for noodle kugel. When I crossed the street to visit her for lunch, I didn’t always know exactly what ingredients would be in the food she prepared. But I did know that whatever it was, I’d be belching it up for a week.

“Why aren’t you eating that? It’s nice food. Whatsa matter, you don’t like chopped liver all of a sudden? Who doesn’t like chopped liver? Are you crazy, or what?”

“It’s mostly Crisco.”

“Very funny. Remind me to laugh later, when I loosen my girdle so I don’t hurt my sides. Whattaya talking? There’s plenty of liver there. Show me where there’s not liver. And since when did you become a food critic at seven years old?”

“I just don’t like the way it tastes.”

“What’s to taste? It’s chopped liver. How do you think it’s supposed to taste, like a Hershey bar? It’s nice.”

I always wondered: How could food be nice? It could be delicious or disgusting; it could even be beautiful or bad-looking. But nice? Food has no personality.

“You always liked my cooking. Didn’t you always like my cooking? You always liked my cooking. And you know why? Because what I serve you is much nicer than a fancy restaurant. Maybe you don’t get a cloth napkin with other people’s shmutz all over it, but by my house, you eat good. So go criticize a cafeteria and write it up in the newspaper and I’ll buy a copy and frame it over the couch. In the meantime, eat!”

I’d push my food around the plate until I was able to fool myself into thinking that it looked as if I’d consumed most of it.

“What are you, a sculptor? Eat. You need some crackers? Here, put your liver on crackers. They’ll help the poison go down, and we can both die happy.”

“I don’t like those crackers. They’re too salty.”

“That’s why they call them Saltines. What should they be, peppery? Let me see if I have some Pepperines. Or maybe you want some Chocolatechips-ines? If they made those, I’d give them to you, believe me. But all they make is Saltines, because that’s what normal people like.”

For dessert, we’d always have Jell-O. Nanny kept bowls of it pre-made in her refrigerator, lying in ambush for me. She bought boxes and boxes of whatever kind was on sale, as long as it was in the berry group. Strawberry. Raspberry. Cherry. Black Cherry. Black Raspberry. We never had orange or lemon – they were abominations. Lime, in particular, was “way too goyish; Jews don’t care for it.” No explanation given. Maybe she’d read somewhere that Hitler liked it.

“I’ve got a surprise for dessert. Guess what it is. I bet you can’t. Should I tell you?”

“Jell-O, right? What flavor?”

“Red.”

“They’re all red. Can’t you tell me what flavor it is?”

“What’s the difference? It’s red. Strawberry, raspberry, something like that. You always love Jell-O, so whattaya hockin’ me with flavors? It’s nice.”

“Why don’t we ever have lime?”

“I don’t like lime. You like lime? You don’t like lime. Whoever heard of chopped liver and then lime Jell-O? Tell me: how does that go together? Lime is goyish.”

“How can a flavor be a religion?”

“Listen, smart guy. If you can’t figure it out, don’t ask. Believe me, lime is plenty goyish, and on top of that, it’s gassy. They should cook it with a Tum mixed in. So don’t noodj me about lime. You want the Jell-O, it’s in the Frigidaire. You don’t want the Jell-O, leave it. Who cares, goyish or not? I buy red. It wouldn’t kill you to have a little Jell-O, but do what you want. I’m only your grandmother, so what do I know?”

I always took a bowl of the stuff. Because even though I wouldn’t give Nanny the satisfaction of telling her, I secretly loved Jell-O. I still do. In fact, the next time I stop into Stanley J’s Deli for a nice sandwich, I’ll have to see if they carry my favorite flavor: red. It goes great with chopped liver.

Posted in Food and Drink, Memoirs, Nanny, New to Kentucky, The Oys of Yiddish | 8 Comments »