Mementos Background

The "Piont" Was Laughter

Sometimes when “The Tech Guy” podcast is at its wildest, it reminds me of an old favorite local television program, but the memories of that didn’t get kicked into a higher gear until a couple of weeks ago, when I found out WBOQ in Gloucester, MA, had a familiar voice manning the morning drive, the guy who was once one of the voices of New England.

This story starts with the “TV Guide.” The real “TV Guide,” that is, the one founded by Walter Annenberg, not today’s magazine-sized “People” knockoff that knocks off IQ points when you read it, but the digest-sized one with the glossy pages of national stories enfolding a unique black-and-white print center that differed depending on where you lived. The Northern New England edition didn’t look like the Southern New England one, and differed from the New York City edition as opposed to the Adirondak edition and the Buffalo edition and the Schenectady edition, the eastern Pennsylvania edition, etc. They each had their own channels with their own programming and their own ads, no cookie-cutter cable series in sight. Most of this local programming showed up early in the morning. The coastal editions had boating and surf reports, the Midwest its farm journals, the mountains their hunting and fishing shows. And among the public affairs programs in the New England (later the Southern New England) edition was a little program squirreled away on weekend mornings called Ask the Manager. I got curious about that listing one fall day in 1978 and decided to tune in. It was a love affair that lasted two decades and a change of venue during which I had my mother record the show for me.

WSBK-TV38, an independent station, premiered this simple little diversion sometime in the 1970s with the concept of having the station manager, for a half hour each week, answer viewer questions via letters read by an offscreen entity. The offscreen entity was “the voice of WSBK,” the distinct baritone notes of announcer Dana Hersey. Once you heard Dana’s voice you never mistook him for anyone else. So many letters came in asking to see the person behind the voice that Hersey finally ended up on stage as well.

For its fans, “ATM,” as it was affectionately called, became a weekly habit occasionally disguised as a vaudeville act. Perhaps manager Bill Flynn wanted a static question-and-answer show, but later managers Joseph Dimino and Daniel Berkery loosened up the format so that testy viewers often shot off letters asking the guys to “stop goofing off and answer the questions.”

Those fools. It was the goofing off that gave the show its charm. Really, how was one to keep a straight face week after week plodding through the weekly letter (sometimes it was multiple weekly letters) asking when the Three Stooges were coming back on (or if they were on, when they would be shown at a better hour). WSBK’s premiere attraction in the Boston market was the broadcast of the Red Sox and Boston Bruins cames, but they were Boston’s telecast address for the Stooges for years, and when Larry, Moe and Curly were missing, the audience got restless without their fix. The next most highly requested show was Hopalong Cassidy, and those of you who have seen Hoppy endlessly bouncing along on the new digital subchannels probably won’t understand the frustration of fans who couldn’t understand that at that time William Boyd’s estate was holding up the reruns. Some days most of the letters were an endless litany of “can you get [fill in the blank series],” so to break up the monotony, some joking was inevitable and some weekends we got it in spades, whether it was Dana’s snarky remarks or Joe getting Dana in trouble for alleged snarky remarks or Dan tossing a mini-basketball in a hoop to make decisions. Sometimes it was hard to get to “the piont” (a running gag engendered by a typo in a letter). Once in a while, the letter routine was broken up by an interview with someone in Boston broadcasting or featuring some new technology: one show was about the then-new process of colorizing black and white films. Another introduced those new home video recorders in both flavors, VHS and Beta. (Yeah, we know which one won now.)

Sometimes the ATM joke was on someone else, mostly on Cliff Allen, the good-natured producer of the show, who was ribbed for eating too many doughnuts or being “yes-man” to the current manager. Basset-eyed Sean McDonough, the sports reporter, promoted to the reader’s chair when Dana took a sabbatical, brought deadpan, and often deadly, straight-faced humor to his role. And lest you think ATM was a boys’ only club, Meg Lavigne, the assistant manager, gave as good as she got—but with Cliff as the reader, especially if Leslie Savage was sitting at the desk, the shows were a bit tamer. Often a bit of shakeup at the desk brought unexpected fruit. A couple of shows had Dana in the manager’s chair squaring off against Sean, and one totally undisciplined effort had Carla Nolan in the reader’s seat while she and Dana had trouble sticking to the letters. (Along with Dana, Carla contributed one unforgettable visual the day that Dan Berkery’s successor, Stu Tauber, was late for an ATM taping and walked into the studio still in his National Guard uniform. Both she and Dana promptly snapped to attention and gave him a salute. The crew howled.) One of the usually unseen fan favorites on ATM was Kim, the floor director. Kim was camera-shy and the letter writers and the cast were always trying to coax her on stage. Once she skittered out like a timid deer and fixed Joe’s microphone,  a major victory for her fan club.

The cast’s family lives often crept into the broadcasts. Joe used to needle Dana about his small flock of chickens (“If there was such thing as a Gucci chicken, Dana would have it.”) and eggs from the Hersey flock often made their way to Dan’s ten children. The show followed Cliff’s bid for selectman and Kim’s trip on a sailing vessel. Dana’s wedding photos were shown on the program and later snapshots of his children, and I still wonder what Dan’s daughters said after the broadcast of an ATM where he complained about the girls’ predeliction for leaving training bras hanging all over the bathroom. I’ve yet to get that imagined, horrified “Daddeeeeeee” shriek out of my head.

Two of the show’s fun traditions were the annual “tour of the station” and the yearly Christmas show. The former was anchored by Dana, who brought the camera outside of the building to answer the oft-posed “who was Leo Birmingham” question (WSBK was located at 83 Leo Birmingham Parkway, an address I once could recite in my sleep, complete with ZIP code) to show people the plaque for Birmingham, a state official. He then proceeded to walk “us” through the station, showing everyone from the accountants to the film editors to the lady who ran the Chyron graphics that superimposed words on the screen. There would always be something goofy when he came to the manager’s office: once it was out on the roof. Not to mention there was the time Dana turned a cartwheel in the hallway…

The Christmas shows could be plain or sumptuous, depending on the year, and by the second half of the show all pretense of answering questions was gone and gag gifts were distributed—one year Joe got back his own tie, another year Dan was presented with a “Movie Loft” (Dana’s other WSBK gig, announcing the nightly movies) mug that, of course, as general manager, he had authorized the purchase of. Usually the Christmas show was done on the standard ATM office set, with its stock desk and chairs and the fake books at the rear, with a Christmas tree and maybe some garland in attendance—one year low-cal goodies were spread out on the desk, another year Dan lost all interest in answering letters and started singing Christmas carols instead—but one particular year Joe and Dana filmed three shows on a Christmasy set with an artificial fireplace, a Christmas tree, and two big wing-backed armchairs. They were drinking plain old Hood’s eggnog during the three shows, and by the time the third rolled around had such a fit of the giggles that everyone suspected it was spiked.

Another particularly amusing Christmas digression had “the guys”—Dan, Stu, Sean, Dana, and Cliff--sitting in a living room type set with a Christmas tree, just chatting what they were going to do for Christmas. Dana, of course, told about his usual pre-holiday expedition with a couple of close pals: they would go up to Freeport, Maine, have a nice dinner, and then, at midnight, do their shopping at L.L. Bean, which is open 24 hours. Dan would chat about his family’s “Christkindl” tradition: each one of the family would pull out the name of another family member out of a bowl right after Thanksgiving, and then would be that family member’s “Christkindl” until Christmas, doing nice things for them like folding their clothes, leaving them a chocolate, helping them with homework, etc. Sean then admitted he didn’t give gifts, only money, and when the rest of the guys turned on him, Stu just shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I’m Jewish.”

ATM was a WSBK fixture for years, and even had its imitators, the most famous being rival station WLVI’s Meet the Manager, which had two earnest hosts and no character whatsoever. Alas, time marched on and WSBK was bought by the old United Paramount Network. The barebones ATM set became covered in posters for UPN programming and very often the entire show was devoted to promoting said programming. More often the show was pre-empted for sports, then dwindled to once a month broadcast, and then took one last gasp in January of 1999. Sadly, a couple of weeks later ATM’s longtime producer Cliff Allen died of a heart attack.

So when, via that “newfangled thing” called Tune-In Radio, I listen while commuting in darkness to “Mornings with Dana and Mugs,” somewhere in the back of my mind, hearing to Dana Hersey trade banter between traffic reports and Jimmy Buffett, I can still recall those vintage Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings eagerly awaiting a new Ask the Manager and wondering what they’d be up to this week.

Miss it.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

More ATM and photos here.

A Song in My Heart

It's always startling to the sun worshipers, just emerging from their winter torpor and sprawling in the warm promise of spring, when, along with the crocuses and daffodils of late April, the Hallmark "Dream Book" also blossoms. For us fall worshipers and Christmas aficionadoes, this is a sign of hope that, after the stultifying suffocating nightmare that is summer, something better will come along, accompanying the cool weather.

So this year's Hallmark Keepsake Ornament Dream Book did pop up a few days ago, and in the wonderful way of memory, a page was turned, and a memory showed up, this time in a plastic reproduction like the one above right.

Let's cue that calendar photo montage and go back, back, to fifty years ago on the clock, when Star Trek and Mission: Impossible were shiny coins in the vault of television, and a bunch of fifth graders tumbled through the glass-paneled classroom door in one morning to find something new.

I'm not sure what the deal was. As I understood as well as a ten-year-old can, the Hammond Organ people were, as a magnanimous gesture all about getting more music in the classrooms (read in adult terms: tax writeoff), giving one of their home organs to a fifth grade in each school. I can't remember if we knew it was coming, but one morning there it was in the corner of Mrs. Grady's classroom, near the teacher's closet where she kept her coat and her supplies, a shiny brown piece of furniture with white and black keys and multicolor tabs and slides (the latter called that we learned were called "stops"), plus pedals below, with a bench, and sheet music, and even a set of headphones so a child could practice and not disturb his/her classmates.

Naturally we didn't get to step right up to the beast right away. At next music class we were supplied with paper keyboards, so we could learn where middle-C was, and how to make the common C, G, and D chords with our left hand. When Jane Trahey talked about playing "silent piano" at New Trends High School in The Trouble with Angels——a.k.a. Life With Mother Superior——I knew exactly what she was talking about. Unlike Trahey, however, we eventually graduated from the paper keyboard to the real thing.

First came the "baby" songs, with limited notes that trained the fingers in their positions and simple chords—C to G, and back again—and everyone's ears echoed the monotonous "Merrily We Roll Along" until we could play it in our sleep, and then we each graduated to more complicated pieces.

It was a happy hour if you were released from your studies to practice on the organ. You sat squarely on the bench, your feet dangling down to press the long grey pedals that supplied the bass, your left hand in a tilted claw over lower C (or G, or F), and the fingers of your right hand dancing in (hopefully) graceful motions to make the melody. With the headphones on, you were in your own little musical world—which could turn embarrassing when the teacher padded over to you, regretfully to touch your shoulder and remind you not to sing aloud as you practiced. Our lessons didn't touch at all on the stops, but when I had those private practice sessions I learned that if you manipulated them it changed the "voice" of the organ, and eventually I memorized a setting that made the organ sound almost like a harpsichord.

In the late spring a recital was planned from the ranks of the virtuosos, and would be presented not only to other students, but to the parents.

I was a shy doe back then, one who hated being conspicuous. I feared speaking in front of the class, even when I knew backwards-and-forwards the subject I was speaking about (the history recitation that Laura Ingalls Wilder has to do in Little Town on the Prairie would have made me mute with terror). My voice would tremble, I would stammer, my knees would knock, and my heart would have put Trini Lopez's hammer to shame. When we did the sixth grade Christmas play, Mrs. Shaw was sympathetic and kept me behind the scenes, choosing the actual story we were to perform and prompting at rehearsals. But Mrs. Grady was made of sterner stuff and wanted all children to learn to be comfortable making oral presentations.

Mother claims that I did not know I was going to have to perform in the organ recital, and that my voice showed real surprise when I had to step in front of that "huge" auditorium audience—at least I had a list I could look at and clutch in damp fingers—and announce the performers. If I was indeed surprised, I was doing the best avoidance of reality ever, because Mrs. Grady even had the organ wheeled into her office to listen to our recital practice sessions without bothering the other students, and before the recital I was in there practically daily. I was struggling with "My Wild Irish Rose," which had a wicked D-major (or D-minor, I forget) chord somewhere in the third or fourth verse. This was not a child-size organ, but one built for an adult, and I could hardly stretch and twitch my hand into the extended claw that was required to perform the maneuver. She had me play it until I hummed it constantly, and when I hear that song in my head, to this day I hear it in the jerky cadences I gave it sitting up on the wooden stage, half blinded by spotlights, trembling with every movement.

Mom and Dad toyed with buying me an organ, but the price was prohibitive and there was no space in our tiny Cape Cod for another piece of furniture, unless it was one of those tinny "table organs" that sounded like the organ grinder's monkey was trapped inside it. Plus, I really preferred reading, writing and drawing to the thought of weekly lessons and practicing an hour every night. I think I might have disappointed my godmother, who was a keen pianist and whose lovely music wafted out of the open windows of summer evenings.

So the musical portion of my education finished, but on this spring morning the Hallmark catalog brought it all back for one more encore.

Books I Have Loved

Title: Understood Betsy
Author: Dorothy Canfield Fisher
First Read: Stadium Elementary School
When: 1960s

I've just finished reading, for probably the umpteenth time, this little gem from the prolific Fisher, who wrote with great fondness about the people of Vermont and her educational interest in the Montessori method of teaching. The book was published in 1917, but this year is actually celebrating its centenary first publication in 1916, in (of course) "St. Nicholas" magazine. Had it been written, even in a period format, today, I doubt it would contain so many of Fisher's sometimes pedantic little asides (like the one where she tries to explain what "personality" is) and would tell Betsy's story more directly. But don't dismiss all those little asides right away, for they give away important plot points as well!

As the book opens, Elizabeth Ann is a sickly, shy, and scared nine-year old. At six months old, after her parents' death in a car crash, she is adopted by her father's aunt Harriet and Harriet's daughter Frances, who believe they are rescuing the poor mite from her strict New England family on her mother's side. Frances, who Elizabeth Ann also calls "Aunt," immediately throws herself heart and soul into raising the orphan child, joining a Mother's Club and reading all the child-rearing literature she can get her hands on.

Today we would peg Aunt Frances as "a helicopter parent," but she does so much more damage: in her well-meaning attempts to nurture the little girl (revealing, in one of Fisher's asides, that Frances never thought her mother took enough of an interest in her), she has projected all her fears and prejudices onto the child. Elizabeth Ann can't go to school and back without being walked by Aunt Frances, takes lessons she doesn't want, and is afraid of nearly everything (especially that Aunt Frances is). She is literally smothered with love by a woman who secretly feels unloved. Then one day when Aunt Frances calls the doctor for Elizabeth Ann, Aunt Harriet makes the mistake of coughing. Next thing the sensitive child knows, Aunt Frances is absorbed in caring for her mother and planning to get her to a warm climate (the cough being indicative of tuberculosis, I'm pretty sure), while leaving Elizabeth Ann with some distant cousins who don't even want her.

But it is here at the end of chapter one that fate intervenes: Elizabeth Ann's cousins are in quarantine. With nowhere else to go, they decide to send her to the last place she would ever choose: to Vermont to live with "the awful Putney cousins" who actually force children to (gasp!) do chores like they are hired hands! Before she knows it, the little girl is on a train, on a cold January day, heading to meet three of the villains of her childhood nightmares, her mother's aunt Harriet and her Uncle Henry, and daughter Cousin Ann.

Yet Elizabeth Ann doesn't know that this will be her liberation. Once at Putney Farm, she will find confidence, health, and self-esteem as she is given the freedom to discover the world without the stultifying embrace of Aunt Frances. When Uncle Henry hands her the reins of the farm wagon and asks her to drive the team of horses home from the train depot, she is on her way in more ways than one.

The rest of the novel is filled with her delightful discovery of the farm, a new pet cat, a new school and classmates, the tiny child Molly for whom she will become a protector, and even charitable gestures like helping an impoverished classmate. With her we discover the joys of the one-room school, sugar-on-snow, and antique dolls, and some of those "awful chores" turn out to be fun (like making applesauce) and educational (like making butter in a dairy that was around during the Revolutionary War). Most importantly, she is embraced by a love which is total but not oppressive. As the story ends, she must make a difficult decision about what to do with the rest of her life.

Just writing about this book makes me smile. Yes, for today's audience, the narrative may be a bit stilted. But Betsy's story will eventually make you cry and cheer.


The local PBS station is running a special on folk music that is, of course, one big fundraising effort. I'd taken the dog outside to Rick Steves' talking about European festivals and returned to find the 1960s had returned: Judy Collins was singing "Both Sides Now." Wheeee. Childhood came rushing back. Between the sets of the special, they are hawking a four-CD set of classic folk.

My mind paused on "Puff the Magic Dragon."

Rewind. It's kindergarten or first grade. We're back in the 1960s, remember. No t-shirts, jeans, ratty sneakers in this classroom. The girls are in dresses or skirts and blouses, in tidy white anklets or leotards, depending on the time of year. The boys are in collared shirts, mostly button down, and pants with belts. Shoes are the usual footwear, with a smattering of clean sneakers among the boys (no mother worth her salt sent her kids to school in dirty clothes or footwear; the other mothers would talk) and patent leather for the more fastidious of the girls. Hair is short and neatly parted among the boys; the girls' hair, if not short, is pulled back tidily with barrettes or headbands.

The classroom is tidy, with wood-topped desks with metal legs and undercarriage. One wall of the classroom is three-quarters window, a row of which can be opened with a window pole on warm days. A flag is near the wooden teachers' desk. We start the day by standing to "The Star Spangled Banner" and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The blackboard (not a whiteboard, but a genuine chalkboard upon which the teacher uses colored chalk on special occasions) is topped with cards of alphabet letters and a corresponding picture: A for Apple, B for Ball (or Boat), C for Cat, etc. and a row of Arabic numerals. At the back of the classroom is a big corkboard that is decorated and redecorated by month: back to school with apples and slates in September, leaves and jack o'lanterns in October, and so on. There are also corkboards on the tilting doors that cover the coat closet, and on those the best papers of the week go: Allen got an A+ in spelling, Arlene got 100 in addition.

It's fingerpainting day, so we may actually be in older versions of our clothes. I can't remember if the teacher gave our mothers warning so that spills wouldn't stain good clothes. Whatever. We were swathed in big aprons anyway, and the floors were covered in newspaper on which we spread our big white sheets of fingerpainting paper. The teacher, an older woman (to us positively ancient, like our parents, although she was probably only in her 50s), has the bold bright blues and reds and yellows in big cans and pours out smaller portions for each pupil. accompany our artistic efforts, we have some music. This is supplied back then by the classic "school phonograph," a big, heavy "portable" unit with rough burlap on the case cover in a really ugly khaki brown. The teacher has a stack of 45 rpm records with songs suited for kids and starts with a favorite: "Puff the Magic Dragon."

I doubt that in those days we understood the full import of the song, but we understood enough about its melancholy theme: loss of innocence as we age. As we swept fingers through the gooey paint and spread it liberally over the white paper in abstract designs understandable only to its child creator, we sang along about Puff and Jackie Paper and how Puff went away when Jackie "made way for other toys."

The song ended. The teacher inclined hands to the phonograph, to whisk the disk away for another.

"No!" we protested. "Play it again! Please!"

And this is what we said, every time the song ended. For a half hour, or maybe 45 minutes, we fingerpainted our dreams and hummed along to "Puff the Magic Dragon." I don't remember what precious masterpiece I painted that day, or whether it was brought home to Mom or posted on the corkboard bulletin board, but to this day "Puff" brings back the sharp smell of fingerpaint, the rustle of paper, the faint scritch-scritch-scritch of a well-played record, the flash of plaid and blue and red of classmates' clothes, and a patient teacher who understood a child's attachment to a timeless song.

A Sideboard Always Full

When I turned to page 64 I literally yelped.

I call them my "Christmas porn," the magazines I buy over the holidays just to look at the lush, colorful decorations. Each of the seasons have their colors, but I love the festive hues and the sparkle of Christmas most of all. I usually skip the "Better Homes & Gardens" type periodicals and go in for the glam: a lot for the British magazines, but also things like the "cottage journals." The particular magazine I was looking through was "Holiday Home," filled with marvelous expensive things I could never afford in a lifetime (many which I wouldn't want anyway), lush homes, and even more plush furnishings.

And then I saw this, and it all came flooding back.

My grandfather's (Dad's father) house was built in 1920, when Dad was seven years old, so it was middle-aged when I first knew it and venerable the last time I saw it ten years ago, a Dutch Colonial with a steeply pitched roof to each side interrupted by long gables. It underwent very little redecorating over the years; oh, some wallpaper vanished and the candle wall sconces with it, and somewhere along the line the original kitchen cabinets were replaced with trendy 50s metal ones. The sole bathroom in the house had the original fixtures: black-and-white floor tiles, X-shaped white ceramic faucet handles, a showerless tub. The hardwood floors were scuffed and bowed; the wallpaper up to the second story grimy where numerous hands had reached for assistance on the walls; the stair treads hollowed from footfalls. But it never mattered to me because it was a place where the past intersected with the present, an effect I wrote about in "The Magic House." It was never more so evident on Christmas, when the tree was hung with vintage clear ornaments from World War II, bubble lights, "big bulbs," and waterfalls of tinsel, but even on ordinary days the passage to the past was a very thin veil through which I hungrily peered, trying to make my way to that other side.

So when I turned the page and saw the selfsame sideboard that sat in Grandpa's cellar, covered with a large grey Nativity set, you can imagine how my memories went spiraling back. I have deliberately mirror imaged the illustration to show you the sideboard just the way it would have looked when we entered the house through the outside cellar door, on the left against the wall. It was the first thing you saw when you entered, and at Christmas it was a thing of glory, covered with a big potted poinsettia cradled in red or green foil wrap, flanked on either side by platters of the Italian cookies my Auntie Margaret had been baking for hours: round brown-purple wine biscuits, biscotti-shaped pale almond bars and chocolate-colored molasses cookies, and round golden butterballs rolled in confectioners' sugar (a.k.a. Danish wedding cookies or Mexican wedding cookies). Scattered among the cookies would be tiny boxed individual torrone (Italian nougat candy) with Italian motifs and Hershey's kisses, and a dish of riotous rainbows known as "Christmas candy" and another of Italian hard candy molded in the shapes of slices of oranges, tangerines, and lemons and wrapped in foil picturing the respective fruit. Since horizontal surfaces always gather items, you might find the occasional wrapped Christmas gift there, or tossed aside gloves, house keys, and the usual other homey house items. In the drawers and cupboards below were kept tablecloths and napkins for all seasons, bowls and vases.

Other times of the year called for different decor. During non-holiday times, it might be paper napkins, tobacco tins, tossed-aside mail, a rolled up newspaper, cigar boxes. On Valentine's Day a big heart-shaped box of candy might lay there, tempting a small girl with a sweet tooth. During the summer, ripening tomatoes from Grandpa's flourishing garden perched on the sills of the two small windows which flanked either end of the sideboard like soldiers on patrol, and any overflow would make its way to the sideboard. If it were the season for fresh-picked vegetables, a paper bag of them would be waiting there for us to take home when we left: fat fragrant tomatoes, stolid green zucchini, long emerald cucumbers, fresh garlic, heady onions. At Thanksgiving, the sideboard played host to bowls of mixed nuts in the shell, filberts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, and the tarnished silver nutcrackers older than I was, and butternut squash and pumpkin pies with their shiny orangy-brown tops and fluted crust leaving the faint aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg everywhere. There might be a vase of zinnias in the fall or roses in summer, but always in the spring there would be a big jarful of soft grey pussy willows, cut live from the branches, so cuddly and rabbit's-foot-like that they would be irresistible to pet.

Oh, and then it was Easter, and the cookie platters were back, with a wee difference. The heavier cookies were gone and strewn among the wine biscuits and butterballs were egg biscuits, light as a feather and pale brown, coated on top with just the faintest suggestion of white icing, all flecked with a pinch of multicolor sprinkles. Instead of Hershey kisses accompanying the little torrone boxes in their colorful Italian designs, there were small chocolate eggs in Easter pastel finery and occasionally a smattering of jellybeans. It was the time of year for rice pie, and one or two would be waiting there for company, set on the table to be cut into soft sweet pieces and accompanied by the fragrant coffee that always seemed to be percolating on the stove. Bobbing their white heads over it all would be the waxy, pristine branches of the Easter lilies set in a pot with purple or pink or blue foil around it, nodding a spring greeting.

I think of chalk pictures and Mary Poppins, and wish I knew some way to reach into that picture, touch the sideboard, be transported just one more time...

"There's a Place for Each Small One--God Planned It That Way..."

This originally appeared in the Christmas TV History blog as a "Christmas in July" entry in 2014:

The story of The Small One and I go way back. Really way back, to a time when speeds were lower and cars were heavier, and the best place to be on the traditional “Sunday drive” was sitting between Dad and Mom on the broad front seat of a ‘50's Pontiac, snuggled against Mom while we listened to the last vestiges of old-time radio: NBC’s Monitor, the original Gunsmoke with William Conrad as Matt Dillon, and those others struggling against television’s relentless tide.

Except at Christmas. Those late December Sundays and few days before Christmas were still reserved for Christmas stories, and for many years after radio had abandoned itself to all-music/all-news formats, one radio station in town (I believe it was WJAR or perhaps WPRO) still played those well-loved stories on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and it was those broadcasts I remember, Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Jack Benny Christmas shopping...but especially the tale of a boy and his elderly donkey Small One, retold year after year by Bing Crosby.

In 1978, Disney brought the story of The Small One to film as a half-hour short preceding the re-release of Pinocchio. It was thought an odd choice for Disney, since they usually avoided stories with references to religion, but the story itself was pure Disney: the age-old tale of the friendship between a child and an animal. In The Small One, an unnamed Judean lad has made a pet of one of his father’s work animals, an aged donkey who finds it increasingly difficult to carry loads of firewood. When the impoverished woodcutter finally tells his son that he can no longer afford to keep Small One if he can’t work and will be taking the donkey into town to sell, the grieving boy offers to do the task himself, determined to find his friend a good home.

And there, onscreen, was the story I remembered from those Christmas Eves years before: the boy’s relationship with Small One, lovingly detailed in play and teamwork; the heart-stopping moment where the boy realizes that there is only one destiny for his pet; their adventures in town, enlivened by the jaunty but cynical “Merchant’s Song”; the final despair that ends in hope when a man named Joseph chooses Small One to carry his wife to Bethlehem. The story is bookended by Don Bluth’s plaintive “Small One” song, which still reduces me to puddling goo each time I play the DVD.

The Small One is a tale of friendship that can be watched in a secular manner as the story of a boy and his pet, or as a story of faith and the first Christmas. But—if I can bear to close my eyes to the lovely animation that long—I can almost, almost turn the clock back to another Christmas story, one of spindly pine trees draped with lead tinsel to fill in the “bald spots,” “big bulb” Christmas lights and vintage 1950s ornaments, the rich scents of molasses and almonds while baking cookies, Christmas Mass with the music of the choir and the organ at full joyful throttle, long-playing records dispensing Perry Como and Nat King Cole, visits to Grandpa with the whole family celebrating in the warm cozy cellar—but most of all of being warm and happy next to Mom as the hum of the car wheels and the lullaby of The Small One take me off to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The original story by Charles Tazewell.

The Bing Crosby version.

"I Know What Those Are..."

When James first saw Leia as a puppy, he met her mother, a purebred beagle, and was told her father was a cocker spaniel. She was a charmingly sweet dog all her life, "so laid back she was falling over," as in the filksong, an amiable lady who was content to simply rest at James' feet or lie next to his craft room as he was working, but if there was cocker spaniel in her anywhere, it was submerged under more powerful genes. I believe her mom had an active social life at that time. ☺ Leia's huge lopped-down ears that gave her her name (because they looked like the doggie equivalent of Princess Leia's earmuffs) turned into equally enormous stand-up ears (with whimsical voices we used to ask her if she could get the BBC) and she ended up resembling a half-size German Shepherd, with the black saddle upon brown.

One Christmas Eve I had some errands to do, but Leia was acting particularly droopy. We were going to leave her alone the next day, and I took pity on her. It was a nice cool day, unlike at least one Christmas when I flew home to Rhode Island and it was 70°F when the plane took off, so I had no qualms spreading a towel over the back seat and having her lie there as I drove around doing my errands. She loved car rides. I remember dropping off some gifts at the Elder house and getting gasoline, with Leia happily lying on the seat of "Shadow," my Dodge Omni, lolling her tongue and occasionally sitting up when I came to a stop so she could peer out the window.

I had one final errand somewhere, and I'm not sure where, but I was going there by way of Windy Hill Road. As you near Cobb Parkway, there's a spot where a QuikTrip gas station stands now, but back then it was an empty field that fronted the Sleepy Hollow Kennel, a boarding and training facility. Traffic was backed up at the traffic light and I had the leisure to note with interest that on this grassy landscape someone had erected a living Nativity. There was a wooden stable set up, and, although the people playing the Biblical characters were not yet there, the livestock was already situated. A donkey was tethered near the stable, near a sign advertising the Living Nativity later that evening, and in front of it were several sheep, cropping at hay bales that had been left out for them.

I heard Leia's claws scrabble on the door and since traffic was stopped dead I could look back at her, and when I did, I burst out laughing. There she was, staring at those sheep with an intensity that nearly burned through the glass. Her mouth was parted a little, but she wasn't doggy "smiling," it was almost if she looked astonished. This was the dog who as a half-grown youngling already brought up with a litter of kittens went to "Auntie Anne" to narc on Buttercup for moving her latest litter. And who, as she got older, tried to herd the kittens. And now she was giving the sheep the one over with a sort of half-dawning recognition in her eye. You could almost see thought balloons coming from her, as if she were a character from "the funnies.": "I know what those are! They're...they're...I know what those are! I'm supposed to do something with them, but I can't remember what. But I do know what those are..."

Then the light changed and the car moved and she went back to being laid-back Leia again, but I still remember that Christmas Eve when all her little buried sheepdog instincts came through.

The House Without a Christmas Tree

Remember these? They were all the rage in the 1970s. People bought them ready-made, or, even more popular, bought a whiteware version which they then glazed at a "ceramics" class, and everyone's tree was fired in a big communal kiln. Then you would add the plastic colored "lights" and the star, and the entire tree would glow from an ordinary light bulb set within the tree. Some families added them to their other Christmas decorations, set on a china cabinet or breaking up a row of volumes on a bookshelf or used as a nightlight in a hallway.

For others...

The house next door to us was a big two-story home that had been built in the 1920s, and the land surrounding it, including our lot and the house on the corner as well as the land across the street, belonged to my godmother's family, the Danellas. My godmother grew up in the house and was part of the first class to graduate from Hugh B. Bain Junior High School in the last years of the 20s, and later she lived there with her mother and her husband, with her brother, sister-in-law, and niece living upstairs.

When her family sold that land and our house was built there, Mom and Dad must have found the two families next door good neighbors as well. My mother's mother quickly made friends with my godmother's mother, although both women struggled to understand one another as they were from different regions of Italy and the dialects were often quite disparate. In the empty lot next door that still belonged to the Danella family, an enormous vegetable garden grew each year, and there were pear and plum trees along the driveway, and a grape arbor in the small back yard. My godfather, Angelo Montella, was our fuel oil dealer, a genial, moon-faced man who was a soft touch for animals like my mother. If it were up to the two of them, they would have taken in every stray cat in the neighborhood. My godmother, Lillian Danella Montella, was a matter-of-fact, sensible woman. She kept an immaculate house despite the fact that she worked, went to the hairdresser once a week, and nursed her mother through her last years. Mother came to trust "Padina Lillian" ("Padina" being what you called your godmother if you're Italian) and when I was born she and Padine Angelo became my godmother.

I remember trotting across our driveway to her house on errands, to visit on holidays and on her birthday, which was August, and when I was tiny her mother "Zia Maria" and Victoria's mother "Zia Maria Antonia" (Victoria and her mother lived on the opposite side of the chain link fence from the old Speedway which separated our properties) would babysit me if Mother had to do an errand. In the summer she would come home to find me enthroned in one of the Adirondak chairs under the grape arbor, eating cantaloupe and grapes, and plums and pears from the trees.

My godparents never had children, and I was never nosy enough to inquire if they regretted it or not. It wasn't my place. But I always worried about them at Christmas, for they never had a Christmas tree. My godmother explained gently that they didn't really need a tree, they had no children. Trees were for families.

This didn't mean their house didn't have a festive air at all during the holidays. In our neighborhood front doors were only for company; in fact in winter, many people, like us, blocked up our door for the winter, which is why you would drive about New England in those days in February and still see Christmas bells, wreaths, spray snow, and other decorations on front doors. So you entered Padina's house through the side door, a big, stolid wooden door painted green, the entrance to the cellar on the very left, and up a short flight of steps to the back door (next to this door were the stairs to go upstairs to the apartment where Jimmy, Dotty, and Cindy lived). There would be something Christmasy on the door, a little wreath, perhaps, or a couple of Christmas cards. The door opened directly to the kitchen, which was, when I originally knew it, very old fashioned, with beadboard all around and a vintage gas stove against the left wall with a chimney pipe which went into the wall. For many years Zia Maria's rocker was right under the back window.

In the middle of the room was the kitchen table and there might be a Christmasy tablecloth or a little centerpiece, perhaps some curtains that were less summery than before. To either side of the door was a bedroom, and at the very corner of the kitchen was the glass-paned door with the glass doorknob that led into the formal dining room with the parlor and Padina's piano beyond. (The parlor was almost never used except at night when Padina might play her piano; in summer when the windows were open the classical pieces she played floated out the windows like heavenly birdsong.) I never knew them to keep a television in the parlor; after Zia Maria died, they made one of the bedrooms into a den and had the TV there, formerly it was always in the kitchen and so were they.

I loved that glass door. Just seeing Padina's neat-as-pin dining room, something we had no room for, and the shadowy parlor with the beautiful spinet beyond and all the lovely old woodwork was like looking into a magic world. At Christmas my godparents tacked up all their Christmas cards around that glass door and made it more magical still. But I was still always sorry that they had no beautiful Christmas tree to look at.

One Christmas season, and I have forgotten what year it was, or how old I was, Padina beckoned me in the house. The cards were already bedecking the glass door as she opened it and ushered me into the dining room, where it was cool and dim. Then she clicked a switch and the top of the buffet glowed with color. "There," she said matter-of-factly, but with slight amusement somewhere in the background, "do you feel better?" Set between the candlesticks was a ceramic tree that she had bought, or perhaps had been given, I don't recall longer. The details have blurred—did it have snow on the tips of its branches? or was the star large or small? the bulbs differently shaped?—but I remember the happy spectrum of color and the comfort of knowing they finally had a tree. It wasn't a big tree, nor one with shiny ornaments, or traditional tinsel icicles. But it was a Christmas tree, and in some way it was enough.

Surprise and Remembrance

When you were Italian and Catholic, Sundays always began with Mass.

You wore your best for church in the 1940s. One particular Sunday morning a young woman living in Providence, RI, in the Federal Hill neighborhood overlooking the downtown shopping area, then largely an Italian neighborhood, was dressing for Mass. Like most young women of the time, she took pride in dressing in the latest fashion. It was a cold December day, so she probably donned a long-sleeved blouse and a wool skirt, or perhaps a woolen dress. She would carefully pull up silk stockings, fastened in body-twisting motions to a garter belt, and then check and recheck in the mirror that her seams were straight. A prink here and a tiny careful tug there made it just so. Feet then slipped high-heeled pumps. She fixed her short wavy dark hair in the latest style, then made up her face, patting on just the tiniest bit of rouge and the bright red lipstick of the time.

Her parents also were dressed in their best for church, as well as her younger brother, slim and natty in his suit. They probably walked to church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, bundling their coats around them. Women wore dressy hats back then, but not the type that kept your ears warm; instead they were cute little creations in bright colors perched on top of your head, tilted at a saucy angle, some with decorative veils, others with a jeweled brooch. Gloves were also in fashion, sleek leather or perhaps thick wool for a Sunday eighteen days before Christmas. In church you would be elbow to elbow with others in wool coats, snug scarves, and fur collars. Presumably some of the coats had just come out of  storage and along with the scent of women's cologne and Old Spice was the faint trace of camphor. Sunday Mass was full of music and incense, the service in majestic Latin, the choir in full throat along with the pipes of the organ. It was Advent and the priest would be in vestments of violet touched with gold and white.

Post service, despite the winter wind, you would stand and talk with your friends for a few minutes until the lure of Sunday dinner took you home. If you wanted to receive Communion, you couldn't eat breakfast, so it was a particularly hungry family who arrived home. Putting on patterned full aprons to cover their Sunday dresses, the young woman and her mother boiled macaroni, tossed a big green salad with oil and vinegar, and stirred up the "gravy" that had been simmering on the back of the stove, redolent of tomatoes and garlic and meatballs. The table set, they gathered around, said grace, and enjoyed their Sunday dinner along with Italian bread fresh from the neighborhood bakery and some type of dessert, perhaps a lemon square or a sfogliatelle.

Sunday afternoon for this working-class family was for visiting or for a movie. Our young lady's father settled before the radio set, perhaps to listen to a football game or a concert. Younger brother went out to see "his girl." If he was flush they might go to the movies and have an ice cream sundae afterwards. Perhaps this Sunday they might only visit at her mother's house.

Our young woman and her mother set out to visit a cousin who lived nearby. Of course they walked; no one jumped in a car back then for distances of a few blocks. They bundled up against the cold with scarves and kerchiefs, strolling the sidewalk that lined the steps leading up to the triple-deckers and the duplexes.

As they passed the house of a friend, an upstairs window flew open, and a woman's head emerged. She was wildly excited, called out the name of the young woman and her mother. She wanted to know...had they heard the news on the radio?

They were astonished. No, they had left the house before Papa turned on the radio. What was wrong?

This was how my mother and my grandmother learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor. They rushed up the stairs of their cousin's house, only to hear the awful first bulletins on the radio. The newscasters' words were in English and Mother had to translate for her mother. She did so with tears in her eyes, for every woman who heard the news that day interpreted the terrible truth in one way: that their sons and brothers and fiances and husbands would be going to war.

Later they walked home. People were out on the street now, talking about the news. Some men boasted they would enlist the very next day. Others looked troubled. Women wept. How could one go home and sit in their living rooms or their kitchens, and drink coffee when this had happened? Just sit around and listen to the radio?

It was as if their thoughts coalesced into one. Grandpa rose from his chair and donned coat and hat to join his wife and his daughter, and they walked back to church. The doors were always open and one by one, in small groups or in lines of family members, they filed in, some crying, some still stunned. The church was warm with steam heat and still held the odor of incense from earlier Masses, plus the perpetual scent of the candles burning in rows upon rows in metal stands that clustered around the altar, flickering red and blue and gold in their jewel-bright glass candle holders. From the rectory the priests came out, one by one, their surplices still askew, to hold hands, to comfort, to pray.

Mother told me that story so many times that it is almost as if I were there myself, burned into me like my own memory. World War II, a quarter century earlier, was as real to me as Vietnam already boiling up under the children of the 1960s. Each time I hear Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech I still get gooseflesh. I can feel the December cold on my legs, smell the warm candles at church, hear the weeping of the mothers and the sisters and the wives. I know what they lost but will never know the total depth of that feeling on December 7, 1941.

"Tell the Story About..."

One can't grow up in Rhode Island, or at least couldn't grow up when I did, without hearing stories about the hurricane of 1938. We we were raised with the older folks comparing that storm with each new hurricane or nor'easter which came along. There were several close contenders, including Carol, the one in 1954 which I "remembered" simply because of the softcover "Hurricane Book" we kept in the attic, comparing the devastation in that year against photos from 1938. The strong hurricane I actually did remember was Donna in 1963; we lost power for three days plus shingles from the roof, and the chimney cracked because the television antenna was fastened to it and it being blown about and torn apart by the winds shifted the bricks out of position. The power eventually came back on with the blat of the television and the rattling of the refrigerator motor, and my first comment was typical of a 60s seven-year-old: "Oh, goody, now I can watch TV!" We had a close call in the late 1970s when I was working at Trifari, but the worst it did was strew tree branches all over the Parkway that took me from I-195 to the building on Pawtucket Avenue.

The 1938 hurricane stayed in everyone's memory because it was a heartbreaker. It might as well have been Galveston 38 years earlier. No warnings were given because the Weather Bureau considered it unlikely that the hurricane would make landfall where it did. "Hurricanes don't hit New England," the head of the Bureau said, despite history to the contrary. When a junior meteorologist plotted the path of the storm and asked if people shouldn't be warned, this same bullheaded superior said no, that New Englanders wouldn't listen to it anyway. The stories are frightening and fascinating: a family who rode out the storm riding a portion of their attic which was swept inland by the storm surge, ten Baptist ladies having their annual picnic who could not escape the waves and were all drowned, the couple who married despite Providence flooding below them. Providence was jackhammered by the storm; at one point the water downtown was 14 feet deep, a level memorialized by a brass plaque on the old Providence Journal building. Providence was built on a marsh and the city stunk of rotting plants and sewage as the waters receded—then the looters showed up as the sun set. One woman drowned in her car in a parking lot only yards from safety. Rowboats floated through the streets. One memory that stayed with many people were the mournful tooting of automobile horns from cars with electrical systems that had short-circuited when swallowed by water.

My parents and their families lived through this terrible storm, but many were not so fortunate. Six hundred and eighty people from Long Island to eastern Massachusetts died and $4.7 billion dollars (in today's money) damage was done. The hurricane crushed homes, lighthouses, and fishing fleets. The train from New York to Boston was nearly overwhelmed by the storm surge. The wind and rain even did damage inland: it destroyed 25 percent of Vermont's maple trees and ruined lumbering in New Hampshire. Traditional New England towns with tree-lined streets and church steeples were changed forever.

From the time I was very small, I remember being a history addict. Mother and Dad watched a lot of older movies, including old war movies, and I knew my father (not to mention numerous uncles and cousins) had fought during World War II. I was brought up in a scrapbook full of old photographs, memories of radio series, and the life stories of D'Ambras and Lanzis who came before me. To me, World War II and the Depression weren't just words in history books; they were as alive as the Beatles and Vietnam were to my generation. Dad showed me his war photographs and told me about working from the time he was fourteen and playing hooky from English class and how he learned to swim in Dyer's Pond (someone basically threw him in the water and let him make his way to shore). Mom told me about her best friend Dora and poor Pat who got "poomonia" and growing up on Federal Hill, but two of her stories were my favorites.

"Tell me the story about the hurricane, Mommy."

My mother was 21 that year and working at Coro, the noted costume jewelry factory, as a "gluer-in" (she put all those tiny little colored stones in place with tweezers and patience). She'd been working since she was 17, having missed most of eleventh grade to care for my grandmother, who had contracted "coal dust lungs" when my grandfather was working in the mines in Lafferty, Ohio. They had moved specifically in 1924 to get my grandmother away from the dust, but she had never recovered completely. Mom brought most of her salary home to her parents, but dressed smartly if economically in the fashions of the time. Because so many people walked home for lunch, it was truly a "lunch hour" and Mom and her co-workers would wash up and eat their sandwiches as they hurried to a nearby bowling alley where they could bowl a game or two during their break.

Wednesday, September 21, was a typical workday to begin with, but as the afternoon wore on the wind picked up and clouds came boiling in. As she worked at her bench, occasionally she would glance sideways to the vast plate glass windows that made up one wall of the big room, and saw debris blowing past. Curious, when her break was called, instead of talking with the other "girls," she went to the window and leaned forward to figure out what was going on. "There were bricks flying by," she told me in chilling tones just as she told her co-workers a few minutes later, bricks from the factory chimney, bits of wood from window frames, stones, tree branches stripped of leaves, and the leaves themselves in wild, swirling gusts of wind. She was assured it was just a bad storm as the rain began and lashed the plate glass, for surely there would have been something on the radio if it were something worse! Despite the lights, the room grew darker and darker, and they could hear the wind howling outside. Finally at four, the height of the storm, the power failed and they were told to go home. Coro's building sat directly on the edge of downtown Providence and normally all Mom did was walk across what was later the land covered by I-95 and up Broadway through the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill until she reached the house on Belknap Street. Luckily the husband of one of her co-workers, who also regularly walked home, had arrived to pick her up, and with the wind turning umbrellas inside out and the rain slashing down, agreed to give her a ride home.

By the time she arrived home, the winds had done their work everywhere on wires once strung tightly on telephone poles, and both power and phones were out. Mom raced upstairs to find her own mother nearly hysterical with worry. Not only had she been afraid for my mother walking home, but my grandfather was not home. Back in those days the family had "lots" (allotments) on which they grew tomatoes, zucchini, snap peas, cucumbers, and carrots on Smith Street near what is now Rhode Island College, and grandpa had taken the bus up there that morning to go tend the garden. Mom assured her mother that Grandpa would get no more that wet and he was used to that as a former farm boy, although in her heart she was less than sure. "You know Papa can take care of himself," she told Grandma.

The wind had already died down and the storm done its worst when Grandpa arrived home, soaking wet and puzzled why everything was so dark. He had not been able to get a bus back from Smith Street and had walked over three miles home using only the clearing sky for lights. He didn't speak any English, so he hadn't been able to ask anyone he saw on the way home why the streetlights were out and the homes like blacker shadows against the black sky. It was only as word spread between the triple-deckers and the duplexes of Belknap Street that they understood what had happened.

Newsreel About the Damage

Everett Allen's A Wind to Shake the World 

History Channel's The Great Hurricane of 1938 

A Camera Copy of the American Experience episode

Our Flag Was Still There

Sometimes even a flag has a memory.

A few years after we moved into our first house, I told James I wanted a flagpole, one of the banner flagpoles, so it could also be used to hang seasonal banners and special ones for holidays. Accordingly, I used one of the frequent Michael's 40 percent off coupons to buy the mount, and another to buy the flagpole, and a third to purchase a summer banner. Later three more seasons would join the queue, and ones for Christmas, Easter, Hallowe'en, and Thanksgiving. James put up the mount one Saturday afternoon and we had our banner, waving summer hues over the front steps.

But I wanted a proper American flag, not a printed one, one that would last us for years to put up on Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, one with sewn stars and stripes. Michael's had a flag like this, but it was expensive, almost $40. We were on short commons in those days and it was a big bite to take from the budget.

Happily, Labor Day was coming up, and Michael's usually had 50 percent off coupons on that day. So on that afternoon of September 3, James and I made the trip to the store and came home with the coveted flag. I happily enjoyed thinking of the very next time we could put it up.

A week later, it was September 11, 2001.

And in the midst of watching the horrific carnage on television and sending tense messages to friends online whom I knew worked in New York City, I went in the kitchen drawer for a length of twine, took the flag outside, and used the string to mount the flag at half-staff, and there it swayed in the breeze, in all its terrible beauty.

The flag still flies each Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, but the twine remains where it was knotted on September 11.

Never forget.

God's Little Flashcubes

As I was walking Tucker in the half-light before nightfall, I watched the fireflies winking between the houses in the neighborhood and around the trees and shrubs that surround the retaining pond. One flew just under my nose and I cupped my hand and almost caught it as it flashed.

Nostalgia books talk about small children catching fireflies in the twilight, but I had never seen any in my life, at least until 1974.

Dad and Mom wanted to visit Washington, DC, in the 1970s, but Dad was wary about driving there, so we took a Colette bus tour instead. We had a wonderful time, and still remember the name of our guide, Nick, and our bus driver, Jerry. We saw many wonderful things, including Waltz of the Toreadors with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson at the Kennedy Center (opposite which was that fascinating building in the news, Watergate!). The bus tour vacation went so well, in fact, that we went on another tour in 1974, to the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Once again on a big comfy tour bus, me with our camera in hand and my travel diary (a big bound Strathmore art book) under my arm, we visited the rolling, verdant countryside around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, popping in at Roadside America, a fabulous miniature landscape and train layout built by all one family, just off I-78; the Hershey chocolate welcome center, with its ride showing you how chocolate is made and the sweet treats at the end; and of course to an obligatory Dutch feast, complete with our first taste of shoo fly pie, which I remembered from Lois Lenski's regional America novel, Shoo-Fly Girl. The thought still makes my teeth hurt (but boy, it was good).

But the event I remember best wasn't part of the tour.

The hotel we stayed at was a big white Colonial style structure in the middle of an oasis of gas stations and restaurants, surrounded by harrowed and corn-filled fields, farm houses filled with men, women, and children wearing black and white, and livestock. There was nothing much to do at night, but the place provided bicycles free of charge to the paying guests, and our tour guide, who was a good looking young man I'll call "Phil," noticed that a couple of the youngest tour members, one fifteen-year-old girl and a sixteen-year-old, were bored. He asked their parents and myself, since the rest of the tour members were forty and upwards, if they would give us permission to go on a bike ride with him after supper. We would just make a circle of the countryside where there was little traffic and come back well before dark. Sure, they said.

I was crazy to go. I'd only been riding a bike for three years and the prospect of being able to ride through a landscape beside the road between my house and my best friend's house was intoxicating. So Phil led his little parade of young ladies into the PennDutch countryside and we rode and rode. We whizzed past fields of crops thick and green, but not yet ready for harvest (it was the first week of July, when Trifari customarily closed down for vacation); herds of cows still thoughtfully chewing on the long stems of grass in their pastures even as the sun set, glossy black-and-white bodies dotting the landscape; farmers driving teams of horses home after a long day's worth of harrowing. Handsome brown Standardbred horses pulling Amish buggies passed us occasionally, a flicking whip dancing on the dashboard. We stopped to see a train car displayed from the Strasburg Rail Road collection, parked out in a field of corn next to a post-and-rail fence right out of Lassie, advertising the attraction—it had been used in the Barbra Streisand film Funny Girl.

I think Phil got lost. I cast anxious eyes as the sun went lower, and lower, turning into a blaze of red as it balanced on the rim of the horizon and then slowly melted into it, leaving bands of pink and orange to mark its passage. The darkening blue of the sky spread from east to west to swallow the last of the color, and one by one, little lamps were lit in the sky. I knew that back at the hotel, Mom was "making buttons" and Dad was probably starting to steam. And then I completely forgot everything else.

With open-mouthed awe I noticed that the sky wasn't the only place marked by stars. In the vast cornfields we kept passing, pale green flashes appeared and disappeared, winking in and out rhythmically, and I realized with delight that these were fireflies, my very first fireflies, just like in all those books I read. We stopped for a while for Phil to get his bearings and for us to take a breather, but I paid no attention to the company anymore. My eyes were hypnotized by those marvelous little sparks of light, dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, going off again and again like flashcubes at a wedding. Until another night in the future brought us the stars of Arizona, this was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I stared at the open field until the sight was burned into my memory.

Phil got us back, tired, perspiring, and breathless, to face an anxious and angry clot of parents, including mine. I suspect he may have gotten fired after that expedition. But I went to bed with a smile on my face and stars in my eyes, all unknowingly supplied by "God's little flashcubes."