The Playing Fields of Wynnewood

My faithful reader Budd is eager for my revisits of my adolescence, since no doubt since it over-lapped with his. So here’s the next one. I never submitted this for publication, which suggests I had my doubts about it, but since a majority of my readers appear to be robots…

The Playing Fields of Wynnewood
Friends Central, which I attended from 4th through 12th grade (1951-60), believed in mens sana in corpore sano. So we had compulsory sports, fall, summer, spring.
This was fine with me. Sports were fun; proficiency was valued by the culture; and, among my classmates, seemed more important than, say, mastery of Latin. I wanted to be seen as a Regular Guy and accepted by the Right Crowd, and this seemed to require demonstrating athletic skill, of which, fortunately, I was not devoid. (Once, my fifth grade teacher asked us to list what qualities were most important in our choice of friends and, in recognition of the world I saw around me, I included “good in sports.” She either couldn’t comprehend the truth of this insight or censored it, for when translated onto her master list, it had become “good sport.”)
Baseball had initially been my favorite. But my career ended in 10th grade, when, having driven in the tying and winning runs of our opening game, our coach benched me for our second, as far as I could tell, only because Rickie Dickers had just come out for the team, and his father gave money to the school – while mine only muttered darkly in private about its cost, my underachievement, and what he was getting for his dollars. My principled response to the coach’s personnel decision – quitting – was probably not admired by the Athletic Department, but I never played baseball again.
Basketball I rejected for sounder reasons. I couldn’t shoot; I couldn’t dribble; I felt totally humiliated by the process. Every school, it seemed, had its tall, uncoordinated center, with glasses, and I was ours. In hindsight, had we a minimally competent coach, which we didn’t, I might have been instructed (nicely) to not shoot from further than one-foot from the basket, to grab rebounds, at which I had demonstrated some adeptness, and to immediately convey them to a guard, who would be properly positioned to receive outlet passes, as opposed to ours, who, for usefulness, might as well have been in the biology lab. I would have also been allowed to set picks, but that was a word I did not even hear uttered until my freshman year at Brandeis, a school not exactly known as a repository of jock wisdom.
Football became my best sport. But my career peaked in 10th grade, when I was a prototypical “Mad Stork” defensive end on an excellent JV team. I hardly played, deservedly so, the following year on an undefeated varsity, but in 12th grade, when I expected my star to rise, I scarcely saw greater action. I realize Forgiveness is an important virtue, but I am damned if I can get past Coach Gogg on my master list. I don’t know if his shunning me was due to my being Jewish or a “wise guy,” both of which were true, but suddenly fellows who had played behind me for four years were logging more minutes on the old gridiron than I was. (In Coach Gogg’s defense, I would note that the only other Jew on the team, when asked by me a few years ago, denied ever sensing any anti-Semitism directed toward him. But then, he was a “star,” and I was not, so I have not been led to eliminate all-other-things-being-equal…)
I replay the palpable injustice to this day in my head and gut, while others, academic and social, have morphed into smiles. It says more about me than anything else, I am certain, but I have yet to figure out what or why exactly. If I do, maybe I will let it go. Or maybe I will settle for the attar of wisdom to be derived from retaining Grudges.

Since writing this piece, I have discussed it with the noted theologian Benj DeMott. He provides the dispensation that “forgiveness does not apply to coaches of high school athletics.”


Cheese Steak

Okay, gang, back to my adolescence. This one is where these pieces all began. It appeared April 5, 2009, at, under the title “Steak Sandwiches, B.C.,” and, after reflection, I will concede that was an improvement over what I had submitted it as.

Let’s get one thing straight. The whole idea is a corruption. The Philly cheese steak is about as traditional as an aluminum Xmas tree.
When I had my first, fifty years ago, it was “Y’wanna getta steak?” Period. It meant meat, an Italian roll, onions – grease. Salt, pepper, hot sauce – and for the brave — chopped cherry peppers optional. The cheese – out of a can, by the way – came later.
They weren’t everywhere either. You needed a car to get them. And you just didn’t pick one up for lunch or after school or dinner. They were best ritualized. Usually, it went like this. You had nothing to do, so you went to Dewey’s – 48th & Spruce – and hung out – 15 cent cherry coke – “Poinciana” on the juke box – or, nice weather, you stood outside, and, maybe, Marty Yudoff came by in his ‘50 Studebaker and knew a party in Oxford Circle, so you and Max Garden and Gino DiPieta and Sam Blank chipped in $2.00 for gas and, only after the party, when no one had scored, no one had gotten lucky – which was out of the question really, anyway – no one even getting a date or a phone number – you went for steaks.
The place we went was Jim’s, 62nd & Noble. Jim’s was a classic steak place. Narrow as a cigar box. The grill along the north wall spattering with the meat and onions. The salt, pepper, hot sauce, napkins on the wall behind you. (A sign offering $75 if you could prove the what you ate came off any three-letter animal not spelled “cow.”) You stood in line. You paid your fifty cents. And no place to sit. Very important, no place to sit.
The great places all had one name – Jim’s, Lou’s (for meat ball subs), Nick’s (for roast beef), and Pat’s. (The exception was The White House, in Atlantic City, for hoagies. I knew guys drove the entire 120 miles for an Italian Meats Special.) Pat’s, on 9th, where Wharton crosses Passyunk, deserves a few words of its own.
Not only did Pat’s have no place to sit. You couldn’t even get inside. You stood on the sidewalk, under an overhang plastered with black-and-white photos of Pat with notable Philadelphians: Bobby Rydell; Gus Zernial; Pat with Gil Turner; with three of the Four Jays; and you ordered through a window. And ordering at Pat’s was really cool. You said, depending on your feelings about onions, “One with” or “One without.” And if you were really, really cool, you knew to say, “One with, inside out,” which meant “Scrape-the-bread-outta-the-roll.”
Cheese was not even in the conversation.

Bitter Orange

<To return to those thrilling days of yesteryear (my adolescence), here is one that appeared online at “The Broad Street Review,” under the title “The Square Jungle.” Its intro was lopped off, and I forget what else happened to it, but it did receive a nice reception.

Bitter Orange
“Did you know Blinky Palermo, the artist, took his name from Blinky Palermo, the gangster?” Bob Liss, the Herodotus of Hoops, asked me.
“Yes,” I said, “though I wouldn’t know a Blinky Palermo if it spat at me from the wall of MOMA. We must have read the same article in the Times.”
“Nope. This woman I’m seeing told me.”
“Did I ever tell you Blinky Palermo once gave my father a ride to my fathers-and-sons athletic awards dinner?”
“Not yet,” he said.

It was November 1955, and I was lettering in 105-pound football. That May, the Manayunk-born light heavyweight, Harold Johnson, who was so skilled and so dangerous he often had to go above his weight class to find opponents, had collapsed, seemingly without being struck hard enough to dent a lemon water ice, in the second round of a fight at the Arena with the Cuban heavyweight, Julio Mederos, a 4:1 underdog. Since Johnson had already collected the scalps of many of Mederos’s betters, including Ezzard Charles, Bob Satterfield, Nino Valdez, and Archie Moore (who, in fairness, it must be said, had four times skinned Johnson), this obliteration raised eyebrows, the most significant of which belonged to Pennsylvania’s first- term Democratic governor George Leader. Though Johnson explained he had been undone by a “bitter” pre-fight orange, handed him by a stranger, (its doping seemingly confirmed by the detection of barbiturates in Johnson’s urine), his license was lifted, and boxing was suspended in the commonwealth for 90 days until its purity could be restored. For this restoration, Leader ordered the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to investigate the fight, the fruit, and related matters.
The commission’s chairman was Jim Crowley, one of the fabled Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The Special Deputy Attorney General appointed to assist the investigation was the long-time Democratic leader of South Philadelphia’s 4th ward, my father. In his 20-plus years as an attorney, he had received several other plums from the party he served, but to my 13-year-old eyes, this was the coolest.
These hearings led to the questioning of Frank “Blinky” Palermo. In association with the Murder, Inc. alumnus, Frankie “Mr. Grey” Carbo, Palermo owned, controlled and/or managed a number of prominent pugilists, amassing great influence over who would fight whom, where, in exchange for what consideration, and, occasionally, with what result. He also ran Philadelphia’s largest numbers game, once maintaining its reputation for uncorruptibilty conducting a running gun battle with a welsher who owed him 75-cents. (I am unsure of his connection to either Johnson or Mederos; perhaps his general familiarity with the customs and practices of the industry made him appear someone likely to provide educative information.)
The Friday of my dinner, most likely due to Palermo’s reluctance to provide anything beyond references to the Fifth Amendment, the hearing ran late. My father, who had taken the train to Harrisburg, had no way to make it back in time for the bestowing of my letter. Hearing of his plight, Palermo, who’d arrived by Cadillac, offered my father door-to-door delivery, a courtesy from one sportsman to another. (One may question the ethics of an attorney accepting a favor from a gangster he is investigating, but if one is 13 and the attorney is one’s father, such questions infrequently occur.)
I don’t know what resulted from the hearing. Johnson won the light heavyweight title in 1962, at age 34, only to lose it to Willie Pastrano, another prohibitive underdog, a year later. Mederos returned to Cuba and obscurity. Palermo served 7 1/2 years for his part in some contractual negotiations which included two of his associates kicking the other negotiator nearly to death.. (He died in Philadelphia, at 91, in 1996.) And my father remained a Democratic Party loyalist, who was rewarded with a Common Pleas Court judgeship in 1965.
But before and after that, in commemoration of his service to the commission, he was able to command free tickets to the fights.

I was already a fan. At a time when neither the NBA nor NFL had much TV presence, boxing commanded prime time twice a week: the Wednesday Night Fights (sponsored by Pabst ) and the Friday Night Fights (Gillette). I saw many great brawls (Carter-Arujo, Carter-Collins, and Moore-Durelle are three I am sure of). I subscribed to Sport and S.I. and read Ring and Boxing and Wrestling. Bill Stern’s Favorite Boxing Stories was one of the first paperbacks I purchased. I could name every heavyweight champion in order. I could identify the Toy Bulldog and Wild Bull of the Pampas, the Manassa Mauler, Durable Dane, Fargo Express, Michigan Assassin, Boston Strong Boy, and Boston Tar Baby, Ruby Bob and Gentleman Jim, Jersey Joe, Li’l Artha, Hammering Henry, Slapsie Maxie, Two Ton Tony, the Black Uhlan and the Brown Bomber. I knew Stanley Ketchel was shot to death at 24 and Bummy Davis at 25; that Beau Jack ended up a shoeshine boy, Sam Langford blind and penniless, Joe Louis half-a-million in debt to the IRS, and Jack Johnson an attraction at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus.
None of these ends disturbed my dreams. I was a kid and “ends” were far away. They seemed part of the color and the drama of the sport. They were the way of men, and while I was on my way to becoming one, the full consequences of this development had not sunk in. You came out nobly with your shield or borne upon it. The bright lights poetically illuminated the center of the ring, while you returned to the darkness from which you’d come. In boxing, the best man won, no bad bounce to undo him, no teammates to weigh him down.
What could be fairer?

The first live fight I saw was from ringside, courtesy of my father’s connections, at Connie Mack Stadium, June 12, 1958. It was an all-Philadelphia gala. In the main event, the fading, formerly first-ranked welterweight Gil Turner was gifted a draw with the division’s rising star, Garnet “Sugar” Hart. On the undercard, the undefeated lightweight Len Mathews (10-0, with nine K.O.s) knocked the once formidable Henry “Toothpick” Brown into retirement in four. And in a battle of middleweights of whom few others wanted part, George “The Professor” Benton, a future Hall of Fame trainer, blasted Slim Jim Robinson through the ropes, unconscious, at my feet.
Over the next nine years, I saw fights at the Arena, the Blue Horizon, Convention Hall, and Atlantic City Convention Center. I saw Joey Giardello and Kitten Hayward, Bennie Briscoe and Gypsy Joe Harris, Von Clay and Don Warner, Leotis Martin and, after he emigrated from South Carolina, Joe Frazier. (I also once saw Palermo schmoozing in the Samsone Deli with his current tutee, Charles “Sonny” Liston. I did not interrupt the seminar to thank him for my father’s ride.) I read Hemingway and Liebling and, religiously, Jack McKinney in the Daily News. (I learned that Philadelphia fighters were known for (a) their left hooks and (b) shortening their productive years by beating each other up in gyms.) I was, I felt, earning my way into a brotherhood. I liked the chest-pounding suspense of awaiting decisions and the abrupt ends that could fall like guillotine blades before. I liked the smoke and the smell and the sweat flying when the heads snapped back. I liked the wised-up, sharp-suited men and flashy, bored women and imagining how their evenings would conclude. I liked that none of my friends shared my outre passion. I had taken these gifts from my father and layered myself with a distinctive depth.

One fighter whose path interested me, for its intersections of talent and fortune, was the North Philadelphia welterweight Charley Scott. His early results – losing four of his first eight bouts – suggested he pursue other employment. But Scott persevered – at one point winning 14 of 16 – climaxing with a ninth round knockout of Sugar Hart at Convention Hall, in October 1959, in what boxing historian/archivist John DiSanto calls “one of the greatest Philly battles ever.” That win vaulted Scott to the top of the rankings, making him next in line for a shot at Don Jordan’s shaky grip on the championship belt. But two months later, in need of Christmas money, Scott went up to Madison Square Garden on short notice and lost 5-4-1 to Benny “Kid” Paret. Paret got the shot and the title – and was later killed in the ring, defending it against Emile Griffith, whom he had called a “maricon.”
Scott never recovered from his war with Hart. He lost four of his next five. (Hart lost three of four and quit the ring.) Scott embarked on an ill-fated Odyssey that took him through Australia, the Philippines, Boston, Vegas, Paris, Fresno, Honolulu, New Orleans, Oakland. He lost 20 of his last 30, nine of his last 10. He retired in October 1966.

I was then one month into my final year at Penn Law School. It seemed a critical time. It seemed two Baskervillian hounds were clawing for my throat. I feared becoming a lawyer would imprison me within a conformity I dreaded. I hoped to write but feared the effort would expose I had nothing to say. Finally, I applied to VISTA for time to think it out.
I also sought experiences and places outside the classroom and corporate world that fit me. I volunteered in the offices of legal aid and the public defender and, some weekend nights, rode in a patrol car to observe the law at street level. I never caught a violent crime or observed a kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs.
One April night, two young officers shoved a broad shouldered 30-year-old – he looked 40 – against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his stained slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had 62-cents and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out,” one officer said. “This guy was a fighter.”
Pete laughed. “What’s your name?”
“Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
He nodded.
I had seen him at Convention Hall the best night of his life. Now I saw him again. Grief and reason pin-wheeled in my head. He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce headed toward the ring.

VISTA sent me to Chicago. A year later, I came to Berkeley and moved in with the girl to whom I am still married. I have seen one live fight since, two ham-and-eggers mauling each other for ten rounds in Oakland. I never read another Ring. I can still name the heavyweight champions but only through Ali/Frazier. My passion for the sport had vanished. I had never recovered from standing this close to its too-frequent consequences and seen them bouncing shabby, thick-tongued, unzipped out the shutting door.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I relied heavily on http:// phillyboxinghistory. com. for career records, dates, places, and results of fights to check my memory against and to fill in its holes. Any errors are my own.

Bar Mitzvah, Boy!

This blog appeared, re-punctuated to its detriment, as “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” on line, in the January 29, 2010, Broadstreet Review. I have edited it to better fit the stream I have underway here.

In 1953, when I was in fourth grade at Friends’ Central, my father, partly because the contacts might help his law practice, and partly because three doses of Hebrew School a week might immunize me against the identity eroding effects of the Gentiles, who, for the first time, would form a majority of my associates, had our family join Beth Zion.
I thought this a terrible idea. I do not know when I learned the word “hypocrisy,” but once I did, I knew it applied. If religion was important, my pre-adolescent mind reasoned, why hadn’t we always belonged to a synagogue? If we were going to belong, why didn’t we attend services every weekend? Then there was the fact that, at nine or ten, I wanted to fit in with my new friends. I wanted to stay after school and play baseball. (My development seemed to cry louder for an ability to hit the curve than the mastery of any Four Questions.) I did not want to trek by Red Arrow and D bus, from the suburbs into Center City.
I also did not feature, once I arrived, facing the glistening novelty of finding myself stupid. I was placed with children who had already studied Hebrew for a year. I did fine learning about Abraham and Isaac and Judah Maccabee in our history text, which, sensibly, like all good things, was in English; but when it came to reading or writing or speaking those cryptic squiggles, I would have stood more chance wrestling, one-armed, Mr. Moto. (From four years attendance, I retain that “baruch” means “blessed” and “yelda” “girl” – unless it means “boy.”) The highlights of my matriculation were (a) Carol E., a classmate of great sophistication, explaining menstruation; (b) a take-no-crap teacher, recently emigrated from eastern Europe, hypnotizing Max Garden and setting him clucking like a chicken; and (c) cutting class one rainy afternoon, spotting Stan Musial and Red Schoendist in the lobby of a downtown movie theater, and having them autograph my lesson book. I was, otherwise, lost.

The Minotaur lurking at the end of this labyrinth was my bar mitzvah, an experience destined to limn Goya-esq depth into the term “travesty.” Once lessons began, my voice proved as incapable of carrying a tune as Richard Nixon an ADA-friendly precinct. Cantor Mandleblatt, a friendly and decent man, offered the dispensation that I might read my haftorah portion. But my reading was so strained and imbecilic, he was forced to reduce it by three quarters. I mean, I could sound out the letters, but I had no clue whether I was producing noun or verb or preposition. Emphasis? intonation? rhythm? I was at sea on a raft of squawks. The only portion of the experience that provided pleasure was reading “Battle Cry” in the back seat of my father’s Lincoln as we cruised toward the synagogue on my performance day – distracting myself with the adventures of “Andy,” “Danny” and “Ski” as the blue-and-white chromed tumbil headed toward the guillotine. I suppose I understood that the pass:fail ratio I faced was more propitious than, say, that of those aspirants-for-manhood sent by their tribes into the wilderness, armed only with a dagger, and told to retrieve the heart of a grizzly. But if, as we crossed the South Street Bridge, I had been offered a penknife, Center City, and Weimaraner as an option, I am not sure how I would have jumped.
Of the event, I recall mercifully little. No cabbages were thrown by the assembled Levins and Levines. No guffaws issued from the Rothmans and Rosenbaums. Neither Kelner nor Kelmer nor Kessler nor Katz demanded the re-attachment of my foreskin. This was a time before circus tests were required for post-ceremony festivities or acrobatic troupes deemed necessary to entertain the assembled, so everyone marched upstairs for a modest luncheon. I was released to a table with neighborhood friends, who, their own days of reckoning looming, regarded me as if I was departing Guadalcanal as they were wading ashore, and a few from FCS, who had come to experience another sect’s rituals like Margaret Meade to Pago Pago. I worked the room, and Buick dealers and GE distributors, car wash owners and cold cuts magnates thrust envelopes into my hand or pocket.

Even from the perspective five decades has provided, my passage seems to have had little to do with who I was – or was slated to become. Some things I found painful, like inoculations, or demeaning, like having to wait an extra year for my driver’s license, I am now fully – or in the latter case, mostly – able to credit to my parents acting in my best interests. But my bar mitzvah still seems mandated solely by my father’s need to shape me in his image. A part of him scorned his friends who’d discharged their sons from this obligation. It seemed to taint them with a weakness he would not allow others to perceive in him.
My father had come out of 10th & Baimbridge at a time when ethnicity drafted one into bloodier wars than it would me after we’d reached 46th & Pine. It had denied him jobs and barred him from clubs and taught him that, when our family stopped for the night on automobile trips, to send my mother into the motel to ask for a room because her eyes were blue. He took pride in how he had established himself in the face of these blows and constrictions, and he would not have his son drawn further from whom he perceived himself to be than seemed absolutely necessary. “Jewish boys don’t hunt,” he told me, when I came back from FCS one evening, asking for a .22 rifle like certain privileged classmates. “Jewish boys don’t play football,” he told me in fifth grade, when that option became available as a fall sport. By eighth grade, he’d changed his mind there; but my bar mitzvah had been non-negotiable, occasioned no second thoughts, stood a banner planted in the sand.
It does not surprise me now to think, given the cloak of infallibility within which my father presented himself in all matters, from the worth of Adlai Stevenson to the uselessness of Del Ennis in clutch situations, that despite my protestations, I may have adopted a portion of his belief as to the significance of the ceremony in question. For I also recall that when, following its conclusion, my family having flown to Coral Gables, on my first day in the Atlantic, a Portugese Man o’ War lanced me squarely on the tuchis, the pain nearly convinced me that there was a God, that a recording of my performance had just reached him, and this had been his fitting, critical judgment.

Matinees and Memories

While we’re on cultural influences on the pre-adolescent — not to mention SEX — here’s one that first appeared in “Perspectives in Incongruity” (2012) and then, if my CV is correct, “That Floating Bridge” (2013), both edited by Benj DeMott and both published by TransAction Press.

When I was a boy, my father took me to westerns (“Whispering Smith,” “Red River”) and my mother to musicals and Disneys ( “Easter Parade,” “So Dear to My Heart”).
But once I entered fourth grade (1951), my parents decided I was old enough to attend Saturday matinees alone. In my neighborhood, the Nixon and State, both on 52nd Street, between Chestnut and Market, had them, but I usually went to City Line Center. My Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther’s cookie-cutter row house in the new neighborhood of Overbrook Park backed up on Cobb’s Creek Golf Course. My father would play 18 holes with cronies. My mother and aunt would prepare spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. And I would spend the afternoon transfixed by the bright screen in the dark.
Admission was ten cents. That bought you a short, a serial chapter, three cartoons, a double feature, and, if you were so inclined, the opportunity to stay through the early show of what was playing evenings. Popcorn was a dime and candy bars a nickle. That was how I spent four uninterrupted hours a week for three years.
During those years, that was the most time I spent on any waking activity unsupervised by parents or teachers. It was a time to laugh (“Knock on Wood’” “Son of Paleface”), to duck behind the seat ahead, covering one’s ears in fear (the flying monkeys in “Wizard of Oz,” “the minefield in “Steel Helmet”), to be indoctrinated (good guys always win, the F.B.I. was our friend), to hoot and holler and toss paper cups from the balcony, to cheer one’s preferences and, unconsciously, add definition to one’s still embryonic self.
The movie star to whom I most cathected during this period was the Burt Lancaster of “The Flame and the Arrow,” “Ten Tall Men,” and “The Crimson Pirate.”
Lancaster had been born, blonde and blue-eyed Irish, in East Harlem, the son of a postal clerk, in December 1913. A six-foot-one basketball star at the academically select DeWitt Clinton High School, he had developed an interest in painting, singing and theater at the Union Settlement House. It offered him a partial scholarship to NYU in return for his continuing to coach and work there. One afternoon, Lancaster spotted a man exercising on the stationary bars and convinced a neighborhood pal, Nick (“Little Dempsey”) Cuccia, a five-foot-two, heavily muscled eighth grade drop out, to take lessons with him. By 1932, “Lang and Cravat” had developed a gymnastic act that carried them through the Depression, working one-ring circuses, fairs, carnivals, and burlesque houses. During World War II, Lancaster served in Army Special Forces, entertaining troops in North Africa and Italy.
In 1945, following his transfer stateside, someone in an elevator spotted Lancaster, and, on the basis of his looks alone, offered him a reading for a Broadway play. During a preview of that play at Philadelphia’s Locust Theater, an agent for Hal Wallis, an independent producer at Paramount, signed him to a movie contract. “A Sound of Hunting” closed after two weeks, and Lancaster left for Hollywood.
The Lancaster I met had already been in about a dozen, mostly black-and-white noir films. The most notable were “The Killers” (his debut), “Sorry, Wrong Number,” and “Criss-Cross,” all of which were deemed too murky, shadowy, gloom-ridden for kiddies on Saturday afternoons. We got him resplendent, in full color, shirt often off (displaying his 41″ chest), muscles gleaming, eyes twinkling, a smile wider and whiter that Lambert Glacier, a vision of heroic male perfection, one of the brightest of Hollywood’s post-World War II stars, dazzling us in the slim mirror of time before Brando and Dean re-calibrated our vision.

In “Flame,” Lancaster plays Dardo, a free-spirited brigand in 12th century Lombardy, who after refusing to join a band of rebels against Frederick Barbarossa (“I depend on no one. Why should anyone depend on me?”), changes his mind once he realizes, “A man can’t live by himself alone.” In “Tall Men,” he plays Sgt. Mike Kincaid, a French Foreign Legionnaire in the Sahara, who assaults his commanding officer and then leads a squad of fellow outlaws to honor by besting an army of blood-thirsty Riffs. And in “Pirate,” he is Captain Vallo, scourge of the late 18th century Carribean, who initially spurns the entreaties of an island’s populace to aid their struggle for freedom (“You’ve got your world, and I’ve got mine”), only to change his mind when he recognizes, “All my life, I’ve witnessed injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency.” In “Burt Lancaster: An American Life,” his biographer Kate Buford views these tales of of common men struggling against their oppressors as blows against HUAC’s efforts to stifle leftist dissent in motion pictures. But while Lancaster was an early, fervent foe of the committee, she goes on to strongly suggest that, despite his later assertions to the contrary, he sought – and received – its clearance to continue his career, after authoring a confidential letter affirming his patriotism and anti-Communism.
In any event, though I was a junior-Stevensonian Democrat to whom that whole Family-of-Man thing appealed, I can’t say I came out of Lancaster’s movies whistling “L’internationale.” I was more impressed by his action sequences and way with women. In “Flame,” he wins Virginia Mayo, who plays the niece of the villainous Count Ulrich, by kidnaping her. In “Tall Men,” he wins Jody Lawrence, betrothed of the duplicitous Kayeed Hussein, through a similar wooing. And in “Pirate,” Eva Bartok, daughter of the insurrection’s leader, falls his way after he dupes her aboard his ship, planning to sell her to the authorities. All these ladies, given the opportunity, recognized Lancaster’s inner goodness; and while I lacked his chest and hair and grin, I was certain I just needed the chance to flash my soul to win such swoonings for myself.
Of course, I also lacked Lancaster’s swashbuckling chops. His films allowed ample opportunities for him to climb ropes and poles and walls and to perform vaults and throws, catches and back flips and somersaults, and for chandelier swinging, tightrope walking, and high bar mastery. He did almost all his own stunts; and in two of his films, “Flame” and “Pirate,” Cravat played his sidekick (Piccolo and Ojo, respectively), mute in both instances, since he could not unlearn his New Yawk accent, allowing them to reprise many of their act’s greatest hits. Such feats imbued the pictures with a buoyant humor and comic edge. The body count was leavened by prat falls and belly flops and water dousings. More foes were laid out by cartoonish head bonks than ghoulish eviscerations. No one but the most black-hearted ever screamed.
Explorations of my past, like this one, have taken a similar form. I select something in-the-now which had seemed important to me way-back-then, this importance established by my having clutched it in my memory over the intervening decades, rather than any of the countless other incidents that competed with it for attention. I amplify this memory through research in books or movies or Wikipedia or through conversations with friends. Then I theorize about what it was to these bars or basketball games, cheese steaks or comic books that kept them alive within me.
At this point, in this piece, I had expected to focus on a scene in “Ten Tall Men” which still resonates more vividly to me than any other scene in the movies I’ve mentioned. I saw this film at least three times, though not since 1954 or ‘55, and I had carried this scene with me through high school and college and law school, across a continent, and through a career, into retirement. I was as certain of its particulars as I was of the names of these schools or who had succeeded Eisenhower as president or how the city basketball championship had come out my senior year.
Then I gave the “Play” command to what my DVR had recorded.

In my memory, the sadistic Lt. Kreuger (Stephen Bekassy), having learned that his lady friend Mme. De la Tour (Mari Blanchard) has been dallying with Lancaster, goes to her apartment. When she opens the door, he slashes her across the face with his riding crop, disfiguring her for life with a bright red scar. But in the movie, Lancaster goes to Blanchard’s apartment, after an exchange of meaningful glances on the street. She opens the door. They passionately kiss. “My name’s Mike,” he says. The door closes. Now Bekassy rushes to the apartment. He finds Blanchard and Lancaster, not the least dishabille, having drinks. Bekassy strikes Blanchard bluntly with his crop (no slash, no cut, no scar). Lancaster decks him with one punch.
So where did my adaptation come from? Had the undeveloped, partially formed boy that I was considered Lancaster’s doorway kiss as much an assault as Bekassy’s doorway slash to which I seemingly converted it? At the film’s climax, Lancaster turns a flaming red poker against Sheikh Khalid. We never see flesh sizzle, but had I transplanted its presumed damage onto Blanchard to mark her as the scarlet woman her shameless behavior indicated her to be? As I was indulging myself in Saturday matinees, I was also immersing myself – against parental approval – in comics book of the era. In “Fired,”(Crime SuspenStories #17. June-July 1953), Patricia, a ranch owner, learns that Roy, a cowboy in her employ with whom she is romantically entangled, is two-timing her with a saloon singer. In the last panel, the story delivers a full frontal of Roy’s “blistered and charred” face after Patricia has stamped her Circle-Diamond brand upon it. Before the Comic Book Code of 1954, comics were freer than films to delve into sex and violence and consistently mix the two. Had I thought that “Fired”’s message perfectly suited “Tall Men” and grafted it thereto, where it bloomed unimpeded?.
Saturday matinees licensed one to sit in the dark and eat and think and imagine what one desired, free of outside monitoring. But when the lights went, the doors opened, and defenses returned, adjustments had to be made. What I knew about actual sexual behavior between actual men and women was scanty and ill-informed. But I had apparently ingested lessons that contemporary society was promoting. Sex was dangerous and, if uncontrolled, demanded punishment. Once I had left City Line, I had merely meted out what I deemed necessary to confine the urges I had loosed inside it. And I had learned my lesson well enough to be able to replay it upon command for years.
There are those today calling for a return to the values and order of the 1950s. I am not one.

Lower School

I had a good three years.
I had fun with my friends. (My two closest and I formed OYLTO, a Treaty Organization, utilizing the first letters of our last names. NOTE: Since I have a history of fictionalizing my friends’s names, I have fictionalized their initials too.) I played soccer ineptly and baseball semi-eptly. I gave a my generation’s definitive interpretation of the villainous, one-eyed Duke of Coffin Castle, in our fifth grade (unauthorized) adaptation of James Thurber’s “The Thirteen Clocks.” (This performance was slightly sullied by my overlooking my decision to raise my eye patch between acts and re-don my glasses and then resuming my portrayal with my glasses in place and my eye patch in the middle of my forehead.)
I received less critical acclaim when, my spirited, if thoroughly off-key audition performance of “The Halls of Montezuma” failed to win me a seat in the school chorus, and I was cast to stand mute as Joseph in a Nativity scene tableau, while nearly everyone else among my contemporaries sang Christmas carols. My father, among the aisle-sitters, was most critical in his assessment of finding his son in this role.

Friends’ Central’s grades ran, top-to-bottom, “Outstanding,” “Above Usual,” “Usual,” “Below Usual,” and “Seriously Below Usual.” I got “O”s in Reading, Literary Appreciation, Written Composition. I got “A”s in Oral Composition, Arithmetic, and Social Studies, for which I recall composing papers on Peru and Albania, researched entirely in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Jr. I got “U”s in Art, Crafts, Music, and Phys. Ed. So I obviously pre3maturely concentrated on the Core Curriculum aspects of the process.
Even more noteworthy were my teachers’ comments. From the start, I was identified as someone “not… working to (his) full ability,” a judgment whose accuracy I would confirm throughout my academic life. I needed to improve “self-control” and “neatness.” I did not pay attention to “detail.” I lacked “organization.” I was “careless,” easily distracted” and, in class, “disturbing.” [On the other hand, Miss Griffiths, who taught me both in fifth and sixth grades and who penned most of those complaints, also complimented my “fine sense of humor,” “incisive comments,” and “mature grasp of current affairs.” I was, she concluded, “a stimulating person to teach.”]
Each report card afforded space for parents to reply. My mother took the opportunity to note how pleased she was at my “progress” and how I seemed “to be enjoying school…” (Adele, on reading these comments, said they raised my mother even further in her estimation for her ability “to focus on the important things.”)
My father did not commit his thoughts to paper. But he was free with them around the dinner table. Public schools had been fine for him. And if I did not do better at FCS, he would yank me out.


As I said (See blog of August 19), I liked Friends’ Central.
Lea School (Grades K – 8) was in a grim grey building. Friends’ Central’s Lower School (Grades K – 6) was in an unimposing one that may have been an estate’s stable or barn. (The Upper School, grades 7 – 12) , elsewhere on the grounds, had been the estate owner’s much grander home.) Lea divided each grade by September and January admissions of 30 0r 40 students per class. FCS’s classes had two 20-student sections. (By the Upper School, there would be an additional section.) Lea School had a macadam playground, where we played softball and varieties of stickball against each other. FCS had fields for soccer, football and baseball, and we competed against other schools. It had two gyms and Lea School none.
My Lea School classes had been predominantly Jewish, maybe a half-dozen gentiles, of whom three or four were black. My FCS class had no blacks and six or seven Jews. (My graduation class of 69 had one black and 15 Jews, which was more than enough for it to be known as “the Jewish Quaker school” among its competitors.) Unlike most private schools in the area, it was co-ed. In my fourth grade class photo, I am the tallest child and the only one with glasses.
Initially, FCS had rejected me. (My father has suspected anti-Semitism.) But just before classes began, a slot opened, and after the intervention of a prominent Quaker – the father of my blonde friend across the street (See blog of August 17), it was offered to me. I was delighted. I had loved those fields. (There was even a patch of woods, with a creek through it.) I liked my classmates and felt comfortable with them. I read the same books – the Hardy Boys and the Landmark Series. I wore the same Davy Crockett and Civil War caps. I was sent from the room to stand in the hall for disruptive behavior enough times to prove myself a regular guy. I could smack an underhand toss over the fence. (Trouble would develop when we switched to hard balls fired overhand.)
I knew from movies and comic books that private schools were not looked upon favorably in some circles. Nor, for that matter, were kids in glasses. These downsides had not yet manifested. The Jewish part had even scantier relevance.