January 8, 2012
I don’t recall ever feeling so carefree and content as I did after supper on hot summer evenings in the late 1950’s, when I would charge out the kitchen door to run amok and play in the street with my friends and fellow neighborhood miscreants. We played curb ball and stick ball, and catch a fly is up, rode our bikes, hit rocks across the street with sticks, and chased each other around in circles; keeping our ears tuned for the tell tale jingle jangle of bells, signaling the approach of the Good Humor truck, the highlight of those perfect twilights.
We called ourselves the “Reckless Riders” and on this particular evening we had assembled in the street in front of my next door neighbor Aaron Kornblath’s house for one of our ad hoc road rallies, where we would perform all sorts of dangerous and hare brained maneuvers on our bicycles until someone suffered a serious enough abrasion or contusion to warrant a time out, in which we’d sit on the curb throwing rocks or dirt bombs until the injured party returned.
I had gained acceptance as the youngest member of the Reckless Riders, as well as the considerable respect that came with it, two summers earlier at the age of three, for my ability to ride a tricycle on two wheels, which I accomplished by throwing my insignificant weight to one side or another; balancing precariously on the front wheel and one rear wheel. Within a year I had stepped up to a real two wheeler, but with the obligatory and demeaning training wheels. Impatient to lose those squeaky little appendages that were holding me back from being all that I could be, I persuaded my mother to remove them one afternoon and took off, peddling up the block in a freewheeling frenzy. After executing a less than graceful U turn at the dead end, and gliding back towards home with the wind rushing by; exhilarated by the sensation of freedom, I decided to take a shot at riding with no hands, like the big kids. The next sensation I felt was the freedom of flying head first over the handle bars, followed closely by the sensation of meeting the pavement face first, resulting in a frantic trip to the dentist in my mother’s big white Pontiac station wagon with the red leather interior that matched the blood gushing from my mouth. As she sped along weaving in and out of traffic with one hand on the wheel and the other casually dangling out the window; her almond shaped green eyes narrowed in concentration and shoulder length dyed blond hair buffeted about by the hot, humid mid day air swirling through the car, I realized where I got my Reckless Rider tendencies from, and why it had been so easy to convince her to take off those training wheels.
After the dentist dug around in my mouth with his big bare hairy digits for what seemed like hours, breathing heavily, alternately spraying blasts of cold water and compressed air while I choked on clumps of cotton and bitter antiseptics, my mother drove me home, racing through the streets with the same careless abandon that she had on the trip over.
Later that evening, after a supper of semi solid foods, I hurried out the door to show that bike who was boss, and to show my mangled face to my friends, regaling them with all of the gory details of my accident and the horrific pain endured at the hands of the sadistic dentist. “He was mean and hairy and it hurt like hell!” I told them, “But, his breath was worse.”
While reckless riding had its own inherent rewards, an ancillary benefit was the torture of Mindy and Sarah Jane Nussbaum, or as my father inexplicably called them, Dildock and Chicken Fat. Dildock, who was tall and skinny with tightly curled blond hair and squinty grey eyes, and her sister Chicken Fat, blessed with soft curly brown locks that fell below her shoulders and a perfectly symmetrical face accented by big blue eyes, lived across the street from Aaron and unlike the other neighborhood kids, they were not allowed out after supper to play in the street. They would look longingly out their kitchen window, whining and begging; fighting for their right to free assembly, while their parents screamed and scolded.
“Why not? Everyone else is.” would come the familiar refrain quickly followed by the predictable response.
“You’re not everyone else!”
“Because I said so!”
As the sounds of conflict spilled through the Nussbaum’s open windows, floating on the breeze among the leafy oaks and dogwoods, our reckless riding and rabble-rousing would rise to a fever pitch in the hopes of inciting further discord until finally, we were forced to take a break and sit on the curb throwing rocks and dirt bombs, awaiting the return of another fallen comrade while Dildock and Chicken Fat continued to plead their case from inside the walls of their upper middle class prison.
Years later I would see gauzy images of the Nussbaum sisters in my dreams, appearing as silhouetted figures in their kitchen window, and I wondered if those evenings were what led Chicken Fat to run away from home as a teenager and move to Oregon where she joined Jews for Jesus.
Also out risking life and limb in the oncoming darkness with me on this night was our de facto leader Aaron, Ira Katz, the irrepressible Barry Gruber, Todd Rosenberg or as we called him, Toad, and my dog Julius, a feisty terrier mix with a penchant for chasing anything that moved, as well as a prodigious appetite for garbage. We skidded into turns and jumped curbs while Julius chased and growled and grabbed at pant legs until at last we heard the sound of bells beckoning in the distance. Big bells that dangled from Good Humor truck’s canopy roof in a row of three, sounding out thick and rich as Eddie the ice cream man rang them rhythmically, like Morse code, JING, JING, JINGJINGJING.
We dropped our bikes at the curb and frantically waved our arms, making sure that Eddie didn’t pass us by, as if he didn’t know his route by rote, like an old milk horse. As he eased the bright white ice cream truck to a stop, it looked more like an armored vehicle, bulky and boxy with broad heavy doors and great gleaming latches that secured the valuable frozen cargo within.
Eddie stood up and smiled, looking like a superhero, dazzling in his starched white uniform and matching captains cap; shiny silver change dispenser secured to his belt. We all darted around clamoring for ice cream and jumping into the trucks open cockpit to ring the bells until Eddie good naturedly shooed us out. “Okay you crazy kids, who wants ice cream, huh? Everyone out who wants ice cream!”
Suddenly, I realized that in my haste to get out the house that evening, I had neglected to grab a quarter off the top of my father’s dresser. “Eddie, don’t leave”, I begged as I grabbed my bike and sped up my driveway, skidding to a stop by the front door, but not before crashing through the bottom pane of a three tiered glass window in the vestibule of the house.
Moments later all six feet two inches of my father appeared with a sixteen ounce can of Schaefer beer in his hand and malice an aforethought on his mind. According to the advertisements, Schafer was the one beer to have when you’re having more than one, and clearly my father with his crew cut hair, crooked teeth, and bloodshot eyes fit their target demographic. Before I could open my mouth he smacked me with a hard backhand across the side of my head and yelled “Get in the God Damn house”, as my mother deftly stepped between us.
Slipping past my parents to the kitchen door, I ducked inside and dashed down the long hallway of our contemporary ranch house to my bedroom, where I slugged the blow up Palooka Joe punching bag, before sitting on the floor with my back to the door, listening attentively as the sounds of my parents fighting seeped through the walls, and the bells of the Good Humor truck receded in the distance.
Startled by a knock on my window, I spun around and saw Barry standing there holding a Toasted Almond Good Humor bar with a couple of bites taken out of it, ice cream dripping down his hand.
“Hey Spider, come on out”, he said.
“I can’t, he won’t let me.”
“Out the window.”
I stood on the bed, dragged myself up and crawled out into the back yard where Julius waited patiently nearby, hoping that Barry would drop the ice cream. Barry handed me the Toasted Almond and we sat on the grass in silence, looking out over the hill that ran along the side of my house towards the woods across the street, passing it back and forth until only a sliver was left around the stick which I let Julius lick off and then marveled as he ate the stick itself.
“I gotta go,” Barry said. “See you tomorrow.”
He boosted me up and I climbed back in the window and lay on the bed, feeling a little bit less carefree and content than I had earlier that evening.
Robert is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is currently working on a collection of short stories titled “I’m not Spider”; tales of lost innocence in a bygone era, disillusionment, and delinquency.