Mementos Background

Books I Have Loved

Title: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Author: Kate Douglas Wiggin
First Read: At Home
When: 1960s

It was my own fault. I was tidying up the spare room and glanced down in the bookcase there that holds my favorite books, and I couldn't resist picking it up, just to read the first paragraph or two. The next thing I knew, I was immersed again.

There are some things you may want to know about Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. First, like many books that are categorized as children's books (Black Beauty, Call of the Wild, Anne of Green Gables, Beautiful Joe, etc.) it wasn't written as a children's book. (This explains chapters like "Over the Teacups" and the almost-sermon closing to "A Change of Heart.") Not only that, it was one of the bestselling books of 1904. (Not children's book, mainstream book, along with The Crossing by Winston Churchill and eight others.) Jack London and Mark Twain were big fans. And if you think Rebecca is a "rip off" of Anne of Green Gables, think again: Anne came out five years later.

Oh, and if you've seen the 1930s Shirley Temple film by the same name, you haven't seen Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The only resemblance between the two pieces of media is a kid named Rebecca and an older woman named Miranda. There was a classic silent film of it, with Mary Pickford as Rebecca, but it's a madcap, unsatisfying one; the closest good Rebecca film I've seen was a 1978 British-produced four-part story that appeared on the PBS series Once Upon a Classic.

I first met Rebecca in the early 60s, via the reliable Whitman classics series (alas, not with the more accurate cover posted above, but the 60s one with her in a terrible blue dress). It's the story of Rebecca Rowena Randall, sent from her family's small struggling farm (widowed mother and six other children) to the care of her two spinster aunts, practical and intractable Aunt Miranda and sweeter but still practical Aunt Jane, so she can obtain an education and help pay off the family mortgage. I fell in love with loquacious, inventive, imaginative Rebecca, and felt sorry for her stuck under the strict thumb of dour, disapproving Aunt Miranda. I admired her spunk, her intelligence, and later her courage in facing the setbacks in her life. And who wouldn't want a good friend like Emma Jane or an inspirational teacher like Emily Maxwell? It was only as I was older that I appreciated the adult items in the story: Wiggins' emphasis on not losing your imagination and creativity as you get older, her examination of Miranda Sawyer's joyless life (and the one remark of Aurelia near the end of the book where you realize at one time Miranda had her own romantic dreams), the sheer pleasure Rebecca takes in life even after disappointments.

Some of it is old-fashioned now, and the notion that Adam Ladd might be romantically interested in Rebecca is rather creepy today seeing that he is twice her age. However, this was common practice in the 19th century when a woman was considered adult and marriageable at eighteen. Since it was a man's responsibility to care for the woman he married, she was supposed to marry someone who could provide a good living for her and their eventual family. At eighteen men were still considered boys. A smart woman married a man who was "established" with a good job or thriving business, which usually meant he would be at least in his late 20s. But I still re-read with delight, discovering afresh each time Rebecca's boundless ability to recover after the blows life deals her, how she remains uncowed by setbacks.

Did you know there was a sequel? No, I'm not talking about the dumbed-down Eric Wiggin [no relation!] trilogy that combined Rebecca and its sequel and then married Rebecca off to Adam Ladd in a fevor of preachy, overdone claptrap Christianity (in a book that was already Christian-based) that killed off significant characters and indiscriminately married those left to everyone else. Yuck. Read the real sequel, New Chronicles of Rebecca, which has further tales not only about our heroine, but about the Simpson family and what happened to Emma Jane, and even the mysterious reference made by Rebecca to dancing with Mr. Ladd at a "flag raising."

Sore Throats and Ice Cream

This morning I was hopping through broadcast channels and there was an episode of Family Affair about little Buffy having her tonsils out (and of course Uncle Bill and Mr. French were more strung out about it than either Buffy or her brother Jody). Buffy has no problem with going to the hospital and rides there in a taxi in one of her fetching designer outfits (later you could buy them in department stores), her doll Mrs. Beasley, and a cute little suitcase. Post surgery she writes cute messages on a little chalkboard because her throat was too sore for talking.

I'm not sure if the designer outfit and the taxi ride would have put any glamour on my tonsil experience.

Liberating kids from their tonsils seemed to be a cottage industry in the 1960s. I think doctors today hold off unless the situation is dire, but back then it seemed every kid on earth underwent a tonsillectomy, as well as having their adenoids extracted. I had frequent colds, and until my pediatrician realized I probably had an allergy, extracting the tonsils/adenoids combo seemed the way to cure the problem.

So, if it had to be done, it had to be done before I started school.

The gotcha back then for kids was the ice cream. You're five years old, and being sick wasn't fun—but in a way it was. You got to snuggle in blankets and watch TV on the sofa and eat chicken soup, and since Mom didn't work, you had her for company all day, and Liquiprim and alcohol rubdowns were the price you paid for all this luxury. Why would you want to go to a hospital—and unless you were one of those poor sick kids you saw in the St. Jude commercials or during the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon on Labor Day, you never saw the inside of one, because kids weren't allowed inside back then, not even if your mother or dad was there, but instead you had to stay with relatives—to "feel better" when you could eat chicken soup with rice and watch The Secret Storm with Mom?

So to get you to feel better about going to a hospital and staying overnight and having your tonsils out, they promised you all the ice cream you could eat. Ice cream for breakfast, and lunch, and supper if you wanted, because that was the best thing to soothe your throat after the surgery. C'mon, what kid's going to turn that down?

There's a sweet little commercial on here for Children's Hospital of Atlanta that shows a winsome little blonde girl calmly going into some type of hospital or outpatient clinic for surgery. The nurse is smiling and young and curtseys to the child like she is a princess, and the little girl is wheeled solemnly but trustingly down a hall as the parents look on. This must be a modern thing. I definitely was no little princess, just a short little girl with bobbed brown hair who still remembers being placed, not on a gurney by a smiling young medical assistant, but in a hospital room or some sort of supply room (I recall cupboards) that had been done over as a playroom with the addition of some toys and blocks. There were several other children there, and one by one, one of them would leave with a nurse and never come back. Apparently they thought kids our age (about five) wouldn't notice this troubling reduction, but trust me, we did. Little Mary left, and then little Tom, and they never came back. Could you imagine anything more fairy-tale nightmarish? Finally there were only two children left, a little boy and myself, and we knew what would happen the next time the nurse arrived. We quickly consulted. Now, off to one side of the room was a gurney with a sheet covering it, all the way to the floor. We crawled under it, convinced that we'd never be seen behind that sheet.

The expected nurse came, of course, and this time it was my turn, but I had to be fished out from under the gurney. I don't know if I was crying, but I sure wanted to if I wasn't. She pretty much had to drag me out.

After that it got hazy, but the one thing that starkly stands out is being laid down and secured on the operating table, with masked faces bobbing above me, and the big, dark, looming ether mask coming down on my face while a disembodied voice told me not to be afraid. It blotted out the light, and I remember struggling and crying and then blackness. I think most of my problems with anesthesia today come from having that horror-film image hovering in the back of my mind.

But it was finally over. I was lying in a big white hospital bed with the sorest throat ever. Everything in hospitals was white back then. Today the nurses and aides and techs wear colorful scrubs, even florals, or they are color-coded to the department the person is in. Nurses back then wore starched white dresses, white caps (possibly with a pop of color of a logo), white or light stockings with the seams very firmly straight upon their calves, and white shoes with soft crepe soles. (Doctors wore white in the operating room, but when they came to visit you in your room they were usually in a suit and tie.) The nurse did everything: she responded to the call button and tidied your bed and brought your pills, speaking in the standard soft voice. Back then hospitals were quiet unless you were in the emergency room. Visiting hours were only from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9, and only adults, as I mentioned, could visit. If you missed your mom you just had to cry until visiting hours arrived. And not much company because you had to pay for a television or radio or a telephone in your room.

My mother and father arrived that afternoon to find me crying. After the frightening waiting room and the sinister nurse and the terrifying ether cone, I wanted my ice cream, the promised ice cream, to sooth my painful throat. And all they were serving me was vanilla. Icky-tasting, nasty, gross vanilla! Not even Newport Creamery-quality vanilla, but the cheap bricks they served to you for dessert at weddings when they didn't have any Neapolitan. I ate nothing but chocolate (and an occasional coffee) and despised vanilla with all my heart. In vain they tried to explain this was all the hospital had. I refused to eat it and instead struggled to drink cold water.

What brought this all back? When Jody came down with tonsillitis at the end of the episode, they gave him chocolate. New York hospitals must have been swanker then, or Uncle Bill bankrolled it. Lucky Jody. Even all these years later, the five-year-old in me twinged in envy.

(And yeah, I still hate vanilla. 😐 )

Give Me a Keyboard That Clicks...

According to stories that have popped up on Facebook, typewriters are back "in." One story was accompanied by a photo of a Smith-Corona Galaxie Deluxe in gold, the same typewriter that I received as a much-coveted Christmas gift in 1971.

Oh, it was my old crush all over again.

I fell in love with words at a very young age. Even as the tiniest child I would ask my mother when she returned from a trip downtown "Did you bring me a book?" rather than "Did you bring me a toy?" From when I was midway through elementary school I ran through spiral-bound notebooks at an alarming rate, filling them with fantasy/spy/animal stories populated with all my favorite characters from television series, a place where Timmy and Lassie knew Maxwell Smart and John Monroe, plus later characters I created who were based on favorite actors like Michael Keating and Tom Baker. But my greatest wish was a typewriter.

Dad, however, was very insistent: I couldn't have a typewriter until I learned to type (it wasn't "keyboarding" in those days); he didn't want to see me hunched over like a vulture in hunt-and-peck mode. Happily, among the delights of ninth grade was typing class; everyone at Hugh B. Bain learned to type, even the boys who just took shop. Seated in front of gigantic Underwood manual typewriters, heavy, stolid, metal, and grey, Miss Rossi set us through exercises of "F-F-F-F space" and "J-J-J-J space" and so on, adding upper rows and lower rows and numbers and symbols until muscle memory took over our typing skills. We eventually surpassed "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" to incomprehensible sentences with plenty of Z's and X's and digits with dollar signs and percentages.

I discovered a handicap for myself early on: Miss Rossi would pass by my desk and admonish "Keep your fingers on the home keys!" Alas, these manual machines were made for full-grown women and men with large hands. My hands were always small and my fingers short and even my own classmates' hands were larger than mine; I simply could not hold down the shift key and still reach to keep my fingers on the home keys. When I demonstrated this to Miss Rossi she sighed, having no easy answers for puny hands, and told me to do the best I could. Plus typing on a manual typewriter was a lot like driving a car without power steering; you needed a lot of strength to keep it going. Talk about a ten-finger exercise (or rather a nine-finger one, as the left thumb was rather useless)!

Dad and I had several rather epic disagreements over the years, and the typewriter for Christmas became one of them. The budget in our household being very tight, Dad wanted to buy me a Royal portable, which was a perfectly serviceable model (legions of reporters on the battlefield, like Ernie Pyle, would type out World War II reports on battered Royal portables while mortars exploded overhead and bullets hissed by) and would only cost $80. I, however, had been casting covetous eyes at the typewriters at Ann & Hope [think Kmart, the Rhode Island version] for many years now and had set my heart on a Smith-Corona Galaxie Deluxe as pictured above, mainly because it had the newest keyboard, one with a number 1 and an exclamation point key.

Younger keyboard users will not remember, and their older counterparts may have forgotten, that the QWERTY layout changed in just a short time, from when I learned to type in 1971 and when I returned to school for a year in 1981. Note the typewriter above has the quotation mark over the 2 and the apostrophe over the 8. On the key to the right of the colon and semicolon, where now the quotation mark and apostrophe reside, is the at sign (@) and the cent sign (¢). The asterisk (*), which is now over the 8, was instead over the dash, and the underscore (_), now over the dash, was over the 6. The caret (^), now over the 6, did not even appear. However, there was a bigger difference; up until the 70s, most typewriters did not have a key for 1 and !. Instead you typed a small letter "l" for 1 and if you must type an exclamation point—a habit our English teachers steadily tried to break us of—you typed a period, then backspaced and typed the apostrophe. Me, I wanted that 1 and ! key. Dad demurred that he did not have the extra money. I said I'd save it myself, and that's what I did, and handed it over to him soon after my birthday, and on Christmas morning that shiny gold Galaxie Deluxe (in a hard-sided case that made this "portable" typewriter weigh a ton) was under the tree. (I wanted the blue one, but one can't have everything.)

"Writ" served me faithfully until I fell under the spell of an electric Smith-Corona in Murray's [think Best Buy, Rhode Island style] around 1980. I have forgotten the model number, but this typewriter came in both pica and elite type, and having fallen in love with the latter in high school, I was determined to lay my hot little fingers on the elite version. Its other fascination was that it was the first typewriter after the venerable IBM Selectric to have a changeable "ball" so you could type in different typefaces. It practically made me giddy; I could actually type with italics instead of having to underline words to emphasize them or talk about book titles.

(Wait...rewind...pica and elite? Typewriters, of course, did not have proportional type like computers. Your standard typewriter for years wrote in one typeface, the durable Courier, at 10 pitch, in other words 10 characters per inch, and no more and no less than ten. Elite typewriters still used Courier, but a slightly smaller version at 12 characters per inch. Intoxicating to someone who wanted to put more words on the same amount of paper. I was working by then and I did buy that typewriter, and I enjoyed it so that I named it "Treasure," who typed out innumerable letters to friends and several hopeful manuscripts.)

Times change. I later bought an electronic typewriter at Lechmere (for the short time that Massachusetts institution was here in Georgia before it closed), but ended up not using it much because suddenly it was the age of the computer. Using a Commodore 64, a daisy-wheel printer (a creature which composed letters from tiny dots of ink in cacophonous and headache-inducing noise), and a primitive word processing software called Paperclip, I took my first steps into word processing. Next at work came Wang dedicated word processors, with an amazing thing inside them, a "Winchester" disk. This meant you could save, and correct, anything you typed, without having to resort to a floppy disk drive. Finally came a succession of homemade PCs. Back in those days, you could buy "clicky" and "nonclicky" keyboards, and the nice feedback of the "clicky" version helped you hark back to the halcyon days of the sharp snick-snick-snick of metal typebars against the platen [roller], but eventually those mostly disappeared, leaving you with mushy versions including the dreaded "chiclet" keyboard.

But it was with fond memories of Writ and Treasure and several years of IBM Selectrics at work before automation consumed the office that I recently visited MicroCenter with a handful of gift cards kindly given to me upon my retirement and bought a gaming keyboard, the last bastion of the "clicky" generation. Sitting there with the familiar bounce under my fingers and click in my ears, the years fall away. It's suddenly a pleasure again to type.

So Many Notebooks, So Little Time

I have never gotten over my childhood delight in stationery counters.

My first encounters were at the stationery counters at Newberry's five-and-ten. This was my special store when I was small, because they sold all the inexpensive (29¢) Whitman books down in the toy department. With great anticipation I would take the escalator downstairs to see if there was a new book based on Lassie or a new Donna Parker book, prepared to clutch it in my arms and plead "Please, Mom?" As I got older and learned to write, I would prowl the back end of the store as well, near the bakery, where they kept the paper and pens. Hardbound composition books, spiral bound notebooks in various sizes, lined pads of paper, account books, all stacked up in tempting piles, and overhead, hung on dull metal hooks on evenly-holed masonite board, were rows of pens: Bic, PaperMate, and more, and then lines of crayon boxes, eight, sixteen, twenty four of Crayolas and another off brand. One didn't buy the off brand; the waxy colors were insipid and greasy, and nothing smelled like a Crayola. I mostly didn't have any money, but I did stand staring at those notebooks and dreaming of all the stories I could write in them.

Once Newberry's has gone to the big department store in the sky, my new haunts were Grants and Woolworth's. After Newberry's their selections seemed tawdry, the pens and pads not so numerous, joined by flimsy plastic protractors and thin metal compasses that were required for school back then, and a few lines of rulers. However, one tradition remained: each Christmas I would set down 67 carefully hoarded cents and buy myself a new box of 68 Crayola crayons (because Mom could never quite understand why 48 colors were Just Not Enough). Across the street in Woolworth's another dollar or two bought me a blank calendar, which I would draw for the upcoming year illustrating my own stories. It was something fun to do in the sweet vacation days between Christmas and New Year.

Next I made the acquaintance of college-ruled notebooks, which meant whatever stories I was writing could be longer. I didn't abandon the wider-ruled notebooks, about 8x7, but after that they were relegated to short stories; the newer, smaller notebooks with their narrow lines, about 7x5, were for longer stories—real books, in my mind. These were, at first, very difficult to find, until I found a treasure trove at Thall's Drug Store on Reservoir Avenue. The original layout of the small store had the stationery on a curved aisle, where I could usually gloat over all the notebooks in peace. (Thall's remained a favorite until they closed, but I never did quite forgive them for going to the supermarket layout of straight aisles; the original was so much cozier.) They had a particular kind that worked the best. (When they stopped carrying them, I had to hunt further afield; thank goodness for Douglas Drugs!)

After picking out a notebook, then came the best part: evenings sitting cross-legged on my bed cozying up in the winter or with the windows thrown open in the summer waiting for a gasp of a breeze, or watching television on the sofa with my lap desk, writing a new story and illustrating it every few pages. I never wrote "girly" stories about clothes and boys, even when I reached the supposedly difficult teens. My stories were all proper adventures, populated by adults and kids, with spies, hairsbreadth adventures, impossible odds, and obligatory talking animals with great "Lassie to the rescue"-type endings. Not Beatrix Potter animals who wore clothes and recited rhymes, but dogs and horses who took part in the adventures but still acted like dogs and horses. All of them were friends, and, even more than that, were "family by choice." It didn't matter if you had a bad past and now wanted to do good, or had a physical problem, or were just having a bad time. Every one was ohana, as they later said in Lilo and Stitch, and that “...means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

And because it was a book, a real book, I made sure the story ended with two sheets of paper left in the notebook. When I was done writing I would unbend one end of the spiral wire that kept the pages together and unwind it. This way I could take the two spare pages to make a front and back cover, the titles carefully lettered with my happily hoarded Flair pens and the back cover with a short synopsis of the story, just like a proper book. I'd carefully letter the title on the spine in black and color it, then put the spiral back in and Scotch tape the covers on.

One of my rare stationery treats was the downtown store for "E.L. Freeman, Stationer." It was lettered in gold on the door of their store that was either on Weybosset or Westminster Street, away from the hustle of the department stores and the shoe stores and the five-and-tens. With the proliferation of Office Depot and Staples, I'm not sure stores like this even exist any longer. It was where the businesses downtown—the doctors, the lawyers, the accountants, City Hall, the department stores' business offices, etc.—ordered their personalized stationery and bought executive writing instruments. You wouldn't find Bic pens in Freeman's, no sir! They carried Cross Pens, fresh from the factory outside the city, or British and French fountain pens, and you could have them engraved, or purchase them with an elegant pen holder and have that engraved.

When you walked into the store the first scent that hit you was that delectable odor of fine paper, a beautiful perfume only equaled by that of a bookstore. Paper samples were arranged along one wall. You ordered letterhead stationery here, for your store typist to enter correspondence on, with matching envelopes, suitably return addressed. In the rear were leather-covered ledgers for both single and double-column accounting, appointment books, staff-lined music books, fine notebooks ready to be emblazoned with your company name. This is where I went on my yearly odyssey, when I outgrew the locked diaries they sold in Woolworth's, to buy a new datebook/diary for the coming year. They were bright-red covered, a whole map of empty days ahead to fill with events of your life, whether it be crowing over a week in Lake George or crying over the death of a pet. The important things of your life set down for remembrance.

The Flairs come from Sam's Club now, and the diaries and the "proper books" sleep in Xerox-paper boxes, but every once in a while a row of pens or a pile of notebooks will take me back to Newberry's shelves or the sweet, sweet scent of Freeman's.

Reprint: "Shopping for Memories"

(Memory brought back by hunting up stationery items today.)

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve taking the bus downtown. We’d do it at least once during Christmas, winter, and Easter vacation, and at least twice during the summer, and it was always something to look forward to, despite declining fortunes (as a cynical teenager I used to refer to taking “the bus UP Cranston Street to watch the neighborhood run DOWN”). In the early sixties there was a chirpy radio jingle about Providence being “Southern New England’s largest shopping center”; by the late seventies “downcity” looked like a once proud dowager gone to seed.

These excursions always started the same way; we’d be up to have breakfast with Dad, who rose at six and left the house by twenty past, after gulping a homemade eggnog and hot coffee. I drag myself out of bed at six these days, but on those downtown days was dressed, washed, and into the kitchen in a flash. I usually had an eggnog, too (it was the only way I would eat eggs willingly), for breakfast on other mornings, but not on these. We would hustle to get dressed, make the bed (heaven forbid we left the house without making the bed!), and walked the three blocks past Berkeley, Doane, and Clarendon Streets, on the corner of the last which was Tom's Superette, crossed the WPA-era concrete railroad bridge past the junkyard, walked past Harold Crook’s garage, the Hideaway Inn, and Cleary’s Dry Goods to wait for the bus on Cranston Street. On winter mornings the bus was invariably late and you’d stand there stamping your feet and sticking gloved hands deep in the pockets of your winter coat, the wind always finding a way down your coat collar despite a scarf. Later we had a bus stop across the street, and if we didn’t hustle we had to make the walk. This is how I learned to make a bed, complete with tucked sheets and rolled pillows, with no wrinkles under the spread, in 2 minutes and 14 seconds!

The bus chugged its way into Providence with many starts and stops, past the looming dirty brick walls of the old trolley barn on one side and the Narragansett Brewery on the other (trolley barns seem to have proliferated in Cranston; the Taco company was also located in an old trolley barn and my dad remembered another on Webster Avenue); under the overpass which was Route 10, through an old neighborhood of peeling triple-deckers and beer-sign dotted taps with their round brick windows, and the only A&P nearby; past the crenellated, fantasy-inspiring structure of the Cranston Armory and the sprawl of Central High School where Mom had gone back in the 1930s; and finally taking a sharp left at the Saints Peter and Paul Auditorium (I still recall a heart-stopping hard left there when they were building the auditorium, riding on a school bus going to the annual Rhode Island Philharmonic concert for the schoolchildren, where we were all certain we were going to be tossed into the maw of the building excavation), before trundling into downtown and getting off at Weybosset Street.

We hadn’t eaten breakfast because we were going to confession at St. Francis Chapel, then in an old brick building owned by Johnson & Wales business school. I preferred confession at St. Francis because they still let you do it the old way, where you said “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” rather than the new way we had learned in Catechism class where the priests asked you questions. We didn’t usually stay for the 7 a.m. Mass, but it was comfortable when we did, only a half-hour service in the small chapel downstairs, the air pleasant with the scents of incense and candles (in the winter wet wool coats and mothballs tended to be added to the mixture), older people who attended Mass daily around you, murmuring silently to themselves as they knelt with deeply bowed heads under kerchiefs or trilbys as they fingered beads while saying their Rosary.

Now that the solemn part of the day was over, we were free to have a rare treat: breakfast out. Today when I eat out each weekend it is hard to remember how very special this really was. Dad worked in a factory; later Mom went back to work, also in a factory—there wasn’t much money for dinners out. Big formal dinners at a restaurant where you dressed up in Sunday clothes, the kind with white tablecloths, wine glasses, and cloth napkins, were confined to holidays: Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Mom’s birthday. Occasionally on a Sunday we might grab a hot dog from a truck at the beach, get a burger at Burger Chef or go to Aunt Carrie’s or Rocky Point for clam cakes, or Gus’s at Oakland Beach for doughboys, but this was chiefly confined to summer. (Later Mom tired of lingering fish scent and she and my dad started getting fish sandwiches at McDonald’s on Friday. I despised fish, especially battered and fried, and would either have “rice and gravy”—white rice with Mom’s tomato sauce on it—or pork fried rice from Empress of China.)

But our special downtown breakfasts were always at the Crown Coffee Shop, in the lobby of the Crown Hotel. The waitresses wore little white caps and starched white aprons, and I had toast with real butter instead of the margarine at home. The seats were revolving stools which Mom would have to admonish me to stop spinning on. We’d be among mostly businessmen having a coffee and some eggs and toast before going to work, and professional women with their alligator purses and high heels. In the wintertime all would be hunched in woven overcoats, the ladies with fur collars, everyone with some sort of a hat. You might even see someone in a mink collar or a fox stole.

Breakfast was almost too leisurely, since we had to wait for the Outlet Company to open; they were the first store available, at 8:45 on the button, not a minute earlier, to my chagrin. If it wasn’t cold, we would go stand at the brass-and-glass doors with the other early shoppers, and I would press my nose on the glass like a kid in a candy store.

Once in the store I’d make a beeline to the book department while Mom did her shopping. Mom did something that would horrify parents today: she left me alone, at first in the toy department, then when I got older and had no interest in toys, in the book department, of department stores. I was not to move out of that department, nor talk to strangers, nor go anyplace with anyone unless it was a policeman. I didn’t move and didn’t talk, and it suited me just fine. I despised tagging after Mom as she shopped for clothes or shoes; I despised shopping for clothes and shoes for myself, even as a teenager, and did it only under duress—watching someone shopping for clothes or shoes was even more coma-inducing. Better in the book department at the Outlet, which was on the first floor next to the café, running caressing hands over hardback books we couldn’t afford, or spending three weeks squirreled allowance on a Get Smart book.

We had a regular route worked out. From the Outlet we would go to the Paperback Book store across the street. I can close my eyes and see the store exactly as it was—like Ebenezer Scrooge in the town he went to school in, I could “walk it blindfolded”—dark brown shelves tall enough to be over my reach, posters of everything from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to psychedelic Peter Max rainbows and glowing unicorns papering the ceiling end-to-end, books being sunned in the display window, the clerk in an elevated booth on the left, the mystery books in the far back right corner and the media-based books to the left under the clerk’s nose, the scent of bookprint everywhere. It was there I saw my first fanzine, out for sale with the regular books; it was pretty obvious the clerk was fannish.

We might stop at Read-All, a narrow bookstore/card shop , or later at Strawberries, the record store, on Union Street on the way to Westminster Street, which, during most of my teenage years, was a no-traffic mall area, and here there were riches indeed. Until it closed in 1968, my favorite venue there was J.J. Newberry. The main level had a coffee shop, sundries, and stationery, and there was an upper level with clothes, but I made a beeline for the basement: toyland, children’s books, and hardware. Newberry’s main appeal was the Whitman books, cheap (29 cents in the 1960s) hardbacks with glossy covers that were either classic children’s books like Heidi, Call of the Wild, Little Women, etc. , serial books like Donna Parker, Ginny Gordon, the Timber Trail Riders, Trixie Belden, and more, or media-based tie-ins. All my Lassie books came from Newberry’s. (It was not the eldest of the “dime stores” downtown: a very shadowy, almost sepia recollection of the downtown Kresges, which closed when I was small, remains: a dim interior, with the old-fashioned wood-and-glass display cases and the shelves upon shelves behind the counters. If you wanted to see something, you asked the salesperson to get it down for you. The “toy department” was a collection of windup tin painted toys and rigid dolls and teddy bears.)

Two other “five and tens” were on Westminster Street, Woolworth and W.T. Grant. Woolworth I can remember as if it were yesterday, as it was the first thing I saw after walking down the stairs of the Alice Building wearing my new glasses at age nine. I looked at the classic brilliant red sign and exclaimed to my mother “Mommy, I didn’t know the world was so bright!” (I had been living in a watercolor nearsighted haze for some years and didn’t realize it, until my best friend spilled the beans: “Linda can’t read the blackboard at school!”) Woolworth’s was a sensory experience at any time of year—the scent of coffee and tuna sandwiches from the lunch counter at left, the wonderful odor of fresh popcorn, the bright candy in bins right up front, the shrill chirping of the parakeets from the rear of the store, bright seasonal geegaws from sand pails and plastic sunglasses to Easter baskets and stuffed rabbits to Hallowe’en pumpkins and noisemakers—but came into glory at Christmas with tinsel swags, ornament boxes, candy canes and multicolor “Christmas candy,” peppermint scent and sample perfumes, inexpensive toys, tissue-paper honeycomb bells, and Christmas carols playing in the background. Each of the five and tens at Christmas, especially Grant’s, had bins in the seasonal area where you could pick out individual figures for your nativity set: start with a base of the Holy Family, add the ox and the ass, some shepherds, the Three Kings, and then more figures: sheep, others offering gifts, the shepherd boy, the camels, the camel driver, a sheepdog…the possibilities and arrangements were endless.

At Grant’s, another lunch counter—all the stores had them at this time—and cosmetics, cream rinses, hair dye, toiletries, first aid. They had the best price on Crayola crayons, and each year I bought myself a fresh box with the distinctive Crayola odor paired with a Woolworth’s blank calendar pad to make and illustrate my own calendar for the year.

Westminster Street held more boring stores that I was obliged to tag into occasionally (clothing stores, of course)—Gladdings, Peerless, Cherry and Webb, Kennedys when dad needed a shirt—but there was one place I was never reluctant to go: Shepards. The big Shepard’s clock on Westminster Street was a meeting place to many, and Mom went to Shepards when she couldn’t find it anywhere else, a “dressy dress” for a wedding, pretty lingerie, stockings, a new purse, whatnot. Their book department was a nook on the first floor where I could peruse all the Marguerite Henry hardbacks to my heart’s content, wishing we could afford them, while I waited for Mom.

Invariably we would need to make a “pit stop,” and we did that in Shepard’s, for they had, not a tiny rest room perpetually out of toilet paper with stalls puddled with water, but a big ladies’ room that must have been something spectacular when the store was built, and was still impressive, especially to a kid from a tiny house in the suburbs. It even had an attendant. The dividing walls were made of glass bricks, and there were long counters with mirrors behind them where you could put your shopping bags down and fix your hair instead of at the sinks where you would get everything wet. People still “dressed up” to go downtown back then and you might even find older ladies adjusting fur stoles and replacing hatpins in big picture hats that you only saw in old magazines, checking their stocking seams.

We might go into Richleys, the little card shop that also sold gift items and small stuffed animals, or Pier Linen, where Mom coveted the cut crystal but never bought any, or Garr’s Fabrics. Garr’s was another place that had not changed in years; the walls were hung with satin drapery and formally dressed women helped you select thread and cut cloth for you. At Christmas I would go to Garr’s to buy ribbons as gifts for my stuffed animals.

One of my too-brief discoveries was a bookstore called Dana’s, which was very close to one of my other favorite stores, E.L. Freeman’s, the stationery shop. I used to wander Freeman’s in a happy daze, imagining all the stories that could be written on their different composition books, and I bought my diary, a red date-book, there every year. Dana’s was a basement shop quartered in the 1920s (or earlier) Wilcox Building with the lovely smoke-smutched white cornices and façade of that era. Once inside, the store smelled delightfully of old books. These were not simply old paperbacks as you would find in a used bookstore now, but vintage books, many of them dating back to the 19th century. These books were always fascinating, with their small size, colorful leather covers, and inlaid, curving fonts in gold. There was one corner where all of Lucy Fitch Perkins’ “Twins” books were lined up in a row; also glimpsed were bound issues of St. Nicholas and other children’s magazines. Alas, not a year after I discovered it, a fire in the top story of the Wilcox Building ruined Paradise. The books were untouched by fire, but the water and smoke ruined them. Soon after the blaze I stood at the iron railing at the sidewalk level, looking down into the bleak, locked, dark bookstore where the books lay smeared across the floor of the shop. I could never walk by there for years afterwards without wanting to cry.

One occasional treat, at least until 1970, would be a movie. There were still four movie theatres downtown during my elementary years, the big Lowes State which got the blockbuster films like Lawrence of Arabia and Cleopatra, the Strand which showed more controversial flicks like Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the RKO Albee which had things like Jerry Lewis movies, Westerns, comedies, and my favorite of all, the Majestic, which showed all the Disney films. The Majestic was a big white marble-like building that had started life as a vaudeville theatre; it still had the bathrooms downstairs as in a stage theatre, with a small box office and vending machines replacing most of the once-large lobby, but popcorn and candy was still available at a small stand, and you went through curtained arches to get to velvet-plush seats. A big red curtain opened just as the movie started, giving the old blue Disney “Buena Vista” logo a rippling, purplish cast. I saw Mary Poppins there, and Old Yeller, and Three Lives of Thomasina, and other wonderful Disney classics. Eventually the Loews became the Providence Performing Arts Center, the Strand turned into a “dirty movie” house and then died, the Albee became a parking lot; only the Majestic survives as the Trinity Repertory Theatre playhouse.

The final stop involved going past the Planters Peanut shop. I have forgotten in what small corner of what side street it was in, but all you had to do to find it was take a big sniff, as the roasting peanuts—yes, they did it right in the store!—could be smelled for blocks and led you directly there. Mom always bought peanut clusters for Dad and herself; I preferred my peanuts directly from the shell.

We would wait for the bus on the corner of Washington and Mathewson Streets, where my godfather Armand Azzoli had his shoe shop. This was a long, narrow store quite typical of the shoe stores of the time, smelling of fresh leather and shoe polish, a cozy place especially on a winter day, with a small room at the back where Armand could have his lunch or use the facilities. Tall ashtray stands were at either end of the leather seats with metal arms, since smoking was still popular in those days, and the shoeboxes went on shelves all the way to the ceiling. We’d go in to say hi, and sometimes to have Armand put taps on the heels of my shoes, since I tended to turn my ankle and wear them down on the sides. If it were very cold. Mom would stay inside, and I'd stand at the door craning my neck at the buses lining up outside.

I remember that we always crossed fingers for a certain bus. Before they instituted the Arlington #31 bus that went directly past our house, there were three buses, 31-A, -B, and –C, Oaklawn/Old Spring, one I’ve forgotten, and the Meshanicut bus. We would try to catch the 31-C Meshanicut bus because occasionally, instead of making the sharp right turn onto Cranston Street toward Dyer Avenue when it reached Gansett Avenue, it would go straight up Gansett instead and we could ask the driver to stop at Appleton Street. I think the direction had to do with the time of day, but we never figured it out. If it turned the corner, we just got out at the bus stop near DePrete’s hardware and trudged back the way we came. We were hungry and footsore—but it had been a glorious day nonetheless.

Reprint: "All Mine for the Summer"

     (I thought I'd repost this in honor of a friend of mine just getting a library job.)

Some people have neighborhood library stories—there are even some fictional ones, like Francie's experience in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But when I was growing up we lived between city libraries, a distance over a mile to both, so I visited them infrequently. The Auburn Library was near the high school, a mile and half distant, at that time in an old storefront on Rolfe Street, next to a shoe store. They generally had more up-to-date books (this being the late 1960s and early 1970s, those from the 1940s forward), but still not the ones I was looking for: I was wild about animals as a kid and wanted to read Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley and Jim Kjelgaard and Grosset and Dunlap's line of true dog stories. Alas, not there.

The Arlington Library, in the other direction up Cranston Street, past the Taco factory in the old brick trolley barn and the old wooden Hamilton Building (which went up in spectacular flames in my teen years; the original building, once a school, was where I had received my polio boosters), was a more venerable place. The present library is concrete and glass and metal; the old building had more charm, in rectangular brick with the heavy wooden doors and dark wooden shelves. The adult section, upstairs, seemed always gloomy and the volumes looked as dry as they seemed to me. Downstairs was the children's library, a truly antiquarian area with heavy dark tables and chairs, filled with none of the bright colors and shiny objects one now associates with children's sections in libraries. Today I would very much like to take a trip back in time and pore over the books on the shelves, since many of them dated back to the turn of the twentieth century. But back then, looking for modern children's books, all those dark volumes just made me grumpy. I once complained bitterly to my mother that the newest book they had there featured a young woman driving a car with a running board (yes, I knew what that was). My only favorite books there were the Thorton W. Burgess books about forest animals—The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse, The Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk, The Adventures of Lightfoot the Deer, etc.—and a book translated from the German about a police dog, Flax.

The school library gave me much more satisfaction. It was in Stadium School that I fell in love with some of my earliest literary favorites: Kate Seredy's The Good Master and The Singing Tree, the Miss Pickerel (a spinster teacher) and Danny Dunn (a precocious boy inventor) series, the books about Henry Reed and his friend Midge Glass, Anne H. White's delightfully offbeat animal tales of The Story of Serapina (a cat with a prehensile tail), Junket the Dog Who Liked Everything Just So (an Airedale), and A Dog Called Scholar (a rambunctious Golden Retriever), Johnny Tremain, Clarence the TV Dog, and the book that drove my mother crazy trying to find it since it was out of print (she never was able to do so, but I did, years later), Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles, about a Texas family that open their hearts to an orphaned English cousin and her pet poodle. (I didn't realize until I purchased the book as an adult that this was the book that sparked my interest in obedience competitions; Juliet, the poodle, had a CDX and was working on her UD.)

But it was at Hugh B. Bain Junior High School (now Middle School), that I met the "famous ten." Bain had a policy that, if you were a responsible child who brought back your library books on time, and if you had your parents' consent, you could take ten books out of the library and keep them for the entire summer! This was richness to me. I had a good collection of books, but only paperbacks and cheap cellophane-covered Whitman books, which were all that we could afford. To have real hardback books in the house was a fabulous treat. Both summers, that of 1969 and 1970, I took the same ten books out, and for ten weeks they were mine, to read in my room at night, or at dinner (Mom never did enforce the "no books at dinner" rule most of the time; she was happy that I wanted to read and was never forced to do so), or in the parlor while watching television (since sometimes it would be on something I couldn't care a fig about, like Huntley and Brinkley (unless they were talking about the moon missions) or the local news.

Here are the ten. Have you read or heard of any of them?
  • The Story of Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss
  • What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge (one volume)
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy
  • Wyoming Summer by Mary O'Hara
  • The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee
  • Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow by Gladys Taber
  • The Morning of Mankind by Robert Silverberg
The Miller book was the only one out about Disney in those days; as a dedicated watcher of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday evenings on NBC, this was a natural for me. Now I have many more biographies of Disney, but this still brings back pleasant memories. The Family Nobody Wanted was Doss' story of her and her husband's adoption of multicultural children in the 1940s, when it Just Wasn't Done for blonde white people to adopt children of Hispanic, Native American, and Polynesian extraction. A sad commentary on the times was that the Dosses tried to adopt a half-German, half-African American war orphan in the late 1940s, and even a member of their own family responded with racial epithets.

The Katy books reminded me of Little Women and Alcott's other stories; headstrong Katy Carr wants to do great things, but is sidelined by an injury. The second book was especially entertaining because who could forget the mischievous "Rose Red," Katy and her sister Clover's classmate, and her pranks? I was amazed at the games the girls played during their club meetings, involving writing poetry "on demand"! And of course there was my very first Heinlein novel, one that of course involved another type of cleverness, including a precocious twelve-year-old girl. I must admit I had a crush on Spacesuit's hero, brainy and resourceful Kip Russell.

Till the day I die I will thank Judy Martini for recommending Wrinkle to me, opening a wonderful world of Madeleine L'Engle books in my future, including her adult novels and her religious nonfiction. What would I have done without the Crosswicks books to sustain me through my mom's cancer surgery? And here forty-five years later I still cry at the end of Wrinkle. Chestry, too, is a heartbreaker: the story of a privileged Hungarian boy growing up under the thumb of invading Nazis, keeping his father's most precious secrets, and in the end too loyal to give up the horse he loves.

Edge was a revelation of a book; I had never before read prose which had the rhythm and imagery of poetry. It was as if I were there at the Lee cottage, surrounded by Laurie's constantly working mother and sisters, participating in country fetes and reveling in the fragrantly blooming countryside. I loved the title, too: such expectation! What could that new day bring? It was only as an adult that I discovered the original title was Cider With Rosie, which seems much less imaginative and lyrical. O'Hara, too, made poetry with her words. She took a collection of her diaries, kept when she and her husband raised horses, ran a dairy, and had a summer camp for boys on a ranch in Wyoming; she later used those experiences to write My Friend Flicka and its sequels, but there is such beauty in her original writings, images burned on my brain to this day.

Especially Dogs was my first introduction to Gladys Taber, but as a young adult I resisted her other Stillmeadow books; I had nothing in common with that woman who kept house and cooked meals in Connecticut. It was only many years later, spotting two reprints in the Mystic Seaport Museum store, that I was to fall in love with all of Taber, a joyful affair.

The last book was my concession to one of my favorite sciences: biology left me cold and chemistry foiled me with too many formulas. But all those aspects of Earth Science (as it was called in eighth grade) I reveled in: astronomy, fossils, continental drift, uplift, brachiopods, the aurora, the tilt of the earth and the seasons, and my favorite of all, anthropology. There were other books I collected as I grew older, including the "Lucy" books, and the mention of Olduvai Gorge and/or the Leakeys or Lascaux on any program could make my ears prick up in interest, but this was my first anthropology book and it has a special meaning to me. Clovis points, middens, mammoth bones turned into tools—I was hooked. (Didn't realize until much later that this was the Robert Silverberg, the science fiction writer.)

Did anyone else have a school library that did this? If so, what were your books, all yours for the summer?

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.