The Happiest People in The World

Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 11.01.43 PMI guess any trip isn’t really over until after you unpack your suitcase, and I just unpacked mine.

Now that I’m back in my own bed, or was, until a few minutes ago, my experience of the last ten days is all starting to seem like some kind of strange dream. Not an especially bad dream, exactly. But a dream nevertheless, and a dream that I knew, even as I was having it, was a dream from which I would eventually awaken.

And in a little over a week, I did.

Prior to our trip to Denmark, I ran through my usual laundry list of depressing thoughts. The same ones that I experience every time we go anywhere on an airplane. I imagined being killed in a terrorist attack before we even left the airport or once airborne, sitting helplessly, strapped in my seat, as the plane carrying my family crashed into the sea.

“It’s safer than driving”, my wife explained to me, when I confessed to her of my growing sense of dread a day or two before leaving New Jersey.

She had a good point. Anyone who has ever been a passenger in a car driven by my wife could appreciate the wisdom of her statement.

As we boarded the flight, and I squeezed my overweight and uncontrollably aging corpulence into my seat, I felt somewhat relieved just thinking about her previous comment.

My wife and children  accompanied me on this trip– or maybe I accompanied them. At this stage of my life, I can never be too sure who is with whom.

After seven hours or so, the plane touched down and rolled to a stop. We claimed our bags and went through security without incident.

Glancing absentmindedly out the window of the taxi at some of the older buildings, many of which have ivy-covered walls and red tile roofs, I started to imagine myself in a movie about World War Two and I half-expected to see an occupying German soldiers around every corner.

In fact, everything seemed a little strange until the taxi from the airport pulled up at our destination and let us out at Tom Christensen’s Vej. A man in a light green shirt eating a banana exits the building just as our cab pulls up. I think to myself, “That must be Tom.”

The apartment in which we are staying is located on the top floor of an elongated seven-story structure and is reached by taking the small stainless steel elevator in the lobby or by climbing some white stone steps in the brightly-lit and graffiti-free sky-lit stairway. My sons take the elevator and my wife and I take the stairs. From then on, I always take the elevator and my wife walks down fourteen sets of  stairs. It annoys the children, but I like waiting on her, as it gives me an excuse to greet her warmly after being reunited after even so brief an absence.

The weather is near perfect. Lots of light and sky. The sun comes up a little after four in the morning and it is light out until about ten-thirty at night. The area in which our apartment building is located– and indeed our apartment building itself– seems to be undergoing some kind of major architectural re-design. Within a day or two of our arrival I see something move where before there was just light and air. It’s a steel pipe. A workman suddenly appears outside the balcony where the previous evening there had been only a precipitous drop. He is in the process of building a scaffolding on the rear of the building.

I sit in my underwear drinking my morning  coffee and peeling an orange. I try not to establish eye contact with the young man who is busily building a platform outside the window out of boards. I look up. He smiles at me briefly. Can’t say the people here aren’t friendly.

There are many large industrial-looking buildings under construction in our general area and pipes and large sections of uprooted chunks of asphalt are piled here and there. I toy with the idea of making art out of them in the middle of the empty parking lot, but then realize someone might arrest me.

It was how I always imagined life must be in the Soviet Union, even though we were in Scandinavia. Anywhere outside the United States might as well be Russia to me.

It isn’t as if the apartment buildings and other architectural structures designed for the inhabitants of this particular region of the world remind me of prisons, exactly.

The clean, modern straight lines of the structures I began seeing all around me seemed to have a decided emphasis on function and not ornate decoration. The more time one spends in this type of an environment, though, the more one starts to admire and appreciate the simple beauty and functionality of its design. Someone over there knows exactly what they’re doing design-wise. The whole impression is one of sublimation to the importance of, and in quiet service to people.

People are riding bicycles everywhere. There are wide lanes set apart from the main roads in which a good many people of all ages are bicycling here and there at a brisk pace, but not recklessly so. Little bells sit atop every set of handlebars and tinkle with a lovely frequency as the faster ones pass the slower ones. Turns are signaled with a casual outstretched arm. No one, even the people in the cars and trucks, seems to be in a particular rush to get wherever they are going. And there is no honking of horns as one might expect in a busy city. That would be impolite.

Some cyclists don’t even bother with so little as a casual glance over their shoulder before cutting across a busy street where numerous small, modern cars could easily hit or run over and kill them. That would be even more impolite. And the Danes are a polite people who tolerate strangers in their midst.

And I felt strange.

The bicycles waiting for people to ride them are grouped in racks or abandoned haphazardly in small parking lots or leaning unlocked against fences. Some have toppled over and you have to step around them. I pick several up and place them back on their kickstands. “Once a marine, always a marine”. But in my case, once a boy scout, always a boy scout.

The only variable in the entire physical environment seems to be the Danes themselves. And here, it can be said that there is a surprising similarity in the beauty of their anthropomorphic physical design. I can start to understand to a certain degree why some of these people from this region of the world might have gotten the idea that they were superior to all the rest of us. Each person I see (with the exception of my own family, of course) seems to be better-looking and in better physical condition than the individual I just saw a moment or two before.

It’s amazing. I play this game silently with myself for about three minutes until I get too depressed to go on.

Denmark is a socialist democracy, but there are no large photographs or paintings of Bernie Sanders anywhere to be seen.

We went out for lunch and I asked the young man who was our waiter if he was a college student. He said, “No, I graduated from college already.”

I asked him how he likes his job. “I love my job,” he told me.

Later, I asked him, what was the custom regarding tipping. He told me that he was paid well enough that he did not need to be tipped. I took another sip of my Tuborg and looked around. People were continuing to walk the streets as if everything was normal.

Everywhere we went the people I saw and interacted with seemed under less stress and were calmly and quietly going about their lives. They regard me as if I am invisible. I check my reflection in a store window as I walk down the street just to make sure I am still there.

Someone told me the Danes are the happiest people in the world.

Suddenly, I think I know why.

They are not out of work– or struggling to find a decent job just to make ends meet or to pay for college for themselves or their children–or to pay medical bills or their real estate taxes–and their existence and self-worth are not predicated upon how much or how little money they are making.

I kind of wish the US was more like Denmark in that regard.

I don’t know if the Danes are the happiest people in the world, or not, but they seem happy enough to me.

His Dream Was To Work in Comics

 

 jack-arata
I was straightening up my studio today and going through some old paperwork, when I came across a Polaroid® photograph of a friend I once knew in New York.
I had lost track of him, but over the years that old photograph of him sitting on the steps of my place petting my dog, Homer, has re-surfaced many times.
Each time I came across it,  I would stop whatever I was doing and look at that old picture.
I felt a little bad that I had had a long, successful career in comics that I didn’t particulary want, while he had given up on his dream of working in comics and gone back to California to work the family farm.
In those days, I didn’t have many friends. I was living alone with my dog in a storefront in Lower Manhattan and doing freelance lettering for Harvey Comics for five dollars a page.
I had worked for Marvel for a year and a half, but quit my staff job to freelance, but the art director didn’t especially like me, it seems, and would not assign me any work. So I went over to Harvey Comics and started getting five-page stories to letter.
I first met Jack when I placed an ad on a bulletin board in the supermarket for a rocking chair I was selling. A young woman and her sister came to my place to see the chair.   When she realized that I was working in comics, she told me,
“You should meet our friend, Jack. He’s really interested in working in comics, too.”
I’ll admit, I wasn’t all that interested in working in comics at the time. I still thought of myself as a fine artist and dreamed of getting my work into a gallery in New York. I thought of comics as just a way of making some money to pay the rent until that happened.
The next day, I was lettering a Richie Rich story when there was a knock on my door.
The two sisters were back to pick up the chair and they had brought Jack with them to help carry it.
I never saw either one of them again, but Jack began showing up at my place regularly and just hanging out. Once in a while he seemed to have had a little too much to drink. But that didn’t bother me, sometimes I had a few too many beers, myself. I could relate to him.
He would often sleep on the couch. He didn’t talk much and spent a lot of time drawing from his imagination in his sketchbook while I lettered comics pages.
He’d have a beer with me or maybe two or three and occasionally something to eat, but he wasn’t much for conversation. But he was easy to get along with, and I enjoyed having him around.
One day he asked me if I could give him a ride in my truck back to his place in Dover, New Jersey.
I asked him, “How far is it,  Jack?”
“Not too far, just over the bridge”, he told me.
We drove up the West Side Highway and crossed the George Washington Bridge and drove and drove.
“Jesus–How much further is it, Jack?” , I asked.
“Not much further”, he said.
He was a man of few words.
Finally we arrived at The Joe Kubert School, which at one time, seemed to have been a sprawling estate of some rich person, but had been converted to dormitories and classrooms. Jack introduced me to a few of the guys there and then I drove back to New York City alone.
On one of his stays at my place, he had given me one of the drawings from his sketchbook.
I have it around here somewhere.
It depicted a man in a fedora hat. The man was looking down so you couldn’t really see his face. But I knew when I looked at the drawing that the man in the picture was Jack. He had his sleeves rolled up and he was busy unloading boxes of fruit from the back of a truck.
Over the years, whenever I would come across that drawing, I would think of Jack. I wondered how his life had turned out.
Today when I ran across the photo again after maybe ten or twelve years, I googled him. There was a photo of a middle aged man on my computer screen. It sort of looked like him, although it had been 40 years.
I clicked on it, thinking I’d send him a fb message.
It was his obituary. Jack died four or five years ago.
Apparently, he never married.
The newspaper said he “was a local apricot and peach farmer and talented artist and blended his old-fashioned rural lifestyle with his passion for comic book art, study of dinosaurs and love of science fiction. He was more than happy to keep up with the news of the day over early morning coffee with locals and daily lunches with friends.
I feel bad that I didn’t stay in touch with Jack, but, sometimes, the friends you make in life, like the years, have a way of just quietly slipping away.
But I am happy to know that he got together with “locals” early each morning at some coffee shop in Brentwood to talk over the events of the day and that he regularly had lunch with “friends” and probably made a decent living for himself as a farmer with peaches and apricots–
–just like the man in that drawing which he gave to me so many years ago.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

eliz-roomWas written by the poet Dylan Thomas who was born on the exact same day as Elizabeth R. Goodson. October 27, 1914. Over 102 years ago.

She was the third child of David Spencer Goodson and Nelle Cole Goodson and was born in the upstairs back bedroom of the old house at 210 West Hall Street in Savannah. When she was nearly four, her only sister was born. Her grandmother had come down from Atlanta to assist with the care of the children and she and her grandmother were sitting in the parlor when the doctor came in to deliver the baby. He was carrying a big black doctor’s bag.

“What’s in that bag?”, the little girl asked her grandmother.

“He’s bringing in the baby.” explained the old lady.

This no doubt pleased the little girl and put her mind at ease. Later on, she would find out where babies really came from and in her life she had three. Two of them are now old men by most people’s standards.

It’s a wonderful thing to have a mother and an even more wonderful thing to have a mother like “Aunt Sister”, or “Goody”, or “Bunk” or some of the other names by which she was affectionately known.

And no one ever had a mother like her.

And few for so long a time.

She was the type of mother who made children who knew her want her instead of the mother they had. She had a beautiful way of looking at the world and the people in it. She made people feel she really cared about them because she really did. She loved life and wanted others to share that joy with her. She was someone who had an iron faith in what was right and wrong and knew how to focus her energy on the good in the world. She embraced it. She saw the good in herself and in others and she built on that.

She was a teacher of children and she played the organ in the church.

When she was a young lady, she met a young man, a “Yankee” from New York, and loved him, and followed him all over the country as he went from place to place in pursuit of a successful career in the hospitality business. That man, to whom she was devoted to for the last 60 years of his life loved her back and knew better than anyone that of all the important decisions he had made in the course of his long life, that marrying her was the best one. Together and with a little help from the staffs of a number of hotels and resorts, they raised two fine sons.

As a family, they struck out for  California in a white 1955 Ford Station wagon, sleeping under the stars along the way. They made it to the top of Pike’s Peak and felt the spray of Old Faithful together on their faces. She cooked scrambled eggs for them in Yosemite National Park and vienna sausages in a can over a Sterno stove in various motel rooms. She watched helplessly as they threw rocks into the Grand Canyon and at each other–and firecrackers from the upper floors of the hotel. She may not have seen the latter as she was busy playing hostess to the merrymakers and guests.

She cared about her sister and her mother and would spend weeks at a time visiting them. While back in her hometown she added to the excitement of her old friend’s lives just by being there. She was always loved by her friends and others wherever she went. And wherever she went she made it her home. She cared about her children and made it her business that they should have fun and interesting things to do growing up. She’d think nothing of stopping the car alongside a deserted highway in the wilds of The Everglades so that her children could jump out in search of ancient Indian burial sites. Alligators be damned!

Once, she was even rescued from a burning building by a fireman who carried her down the ladder on his shoulder. There was even a picture of it in the local newspaper. It was even fun to accompany her to the supermarket, because she was outgoing and friendly and wherever she was, she made it a better place just by her presence. She made people happy. She made them feel better about themselves. She made the world a better place, not by curing cancer or solving world hunger, but simply by being in it, and she wanted it to be a good place not just for her, but for the others around her and she did everything in her power to ensure that it was. And her power was her personality, her charm, her love and her iron will, her positive way of looking at life and her good heart.

She wanted it to be a good place for you, too.

And it is and forever will be.eliz-room

My First Time

screen-shot-2017-01-19-at-8-15-37-amIt was in late June of 1977 and I had been working in the Marvel Comics Bullpen for exactly six months when I was told the production manager wanted to see me. He had been looking at my hand-copied version of the entire first page of Webster’s Dictionary, complete with all the various forms of type, italic, bold, latin words, etc. which I had submitted to him as a sample in my not-so-subtle way of letting him know I was ready to receive a freelance assignment.

Big John Verpoorten was about 6’7″ and must have weighed over 400 pounds. I’ll admit, even after having been in the army ten years earlier, I was still somewhat intimidated, and even a bit apprehensive at the thought of going into his office. I’d worked just outside his door for half the year by that time, and I don’t think he had ever even looked at me, much less spoken to me.

The Big Man smoked a hefty “bulldog” pipe and could reduce a freelancer to a pool of yellow liquid with one look or comment.

But I was ready.

He was holding my sample page in one hand and looking at it in much the same way that I imagined a giant in a children’s book might look at an interesting leaf he had stooped down to pick up from the floor of an enchanted forest.

He uttered not a word, but with a puff or two from his pipe, gently put my page back down on his desk, then leaned over slightly and took a 17-page pencil job from a grey flat file. It had a rubber band around it. He held it out to me. As he did so, he looked directly at me. He didn’t have to tell me to do a good job on it.

I went back to my desk, sat down and resumed breathing.

I looked at the title page. It was a western story that took place in Las Vegas. There was a drawing of a big neon sign of a smiling cowboy that took up most of the page. It was by Herb Trimpe. The page itself was clean and looked as if the graphite drawing had somehow just magically appeared on it. There was no evidence that the artist had even touched the pages except with the tip of his pencil.

It was a Friday. I took it home and had my evil way with it over the weekend.

When I got to work on Monday morning, I walked into Big John’s office and handed him the completed job.

Again, he didn’t speak. He just looked at the pages and raised one eyebrow. I took that as a sign that he was pleased.

Over the 20 years or so I worked for Marvel, I lettered over eleven hundred more stories. I don’t remember most of them.

But they say you always remember your first.

The Dreamer

Long ago in that great, wild and creative urban wasteland that encompassed the area above Canal Street and below Houston Street, in a land called New York, there lived a scraggly, bearded rough-hewn individual bedecked all in black, shod in combat boots, with no visible means of support. A young man with no discernable attachments, except maybe to his art, who had, himself, some years before, kissed his mother goodbye, left kith and kin, and migrated North, from a warmer clime, to a cold and hard land–a land filled completely with strangers, millions of strangers, all in pursuit of a dream.

But it was HIS dream.

In those bygone days, as is still the case today, that area of the city was bounded on the East by Broadway and on the West by Sixth Avenue. Its main artery ran from South to North, just as the dreamer had run. It was known as West Broadway and forty years before he first trod its deserted streets, it had been the route of the Sixth Avenue Elevated.

It was a place dark and dank, of dusty warehouses with cast iron facades, streets with broken bottles and wind-blown paper trash, a place whose most numerous occupants scurried about on four legs or crawled silently on eight. Beady eyes glanced through dirty windows paying scant attention as elevated trains clattered past in both directions at all hours of the day and night.  

But that was then.

And now, it was an area that was slowly opening its eyes like an abusive alcoholic grandfather after a long and drunken sleep. The workers who had climbed stairs to manufacturing jobs in its buildings in its heyday and drawn their meagre paychecks and gone home to dirty-faced children at the end of a long day all lay dead in the graveyards of the outer boroughs.

And in time, the rats and the spiders, they too, were driven out by creatures that walked on two legs. For the most part, these were the outcasts, society’s rejects, those who didn’t fit in and marched to the sound of a different drummer, or a drummer that only they could hear, or, in some cases, to no drummer at all. And there were also those that did not march. Some people called them bums, others called them “hippies” or “odd” or “weirdoes“, or worse.

They called themselves artists.

They had made a pilgrimage to this cobblestoned corner of the city, just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River, in the shadow of the nineteen-sixties, from all across the world. Most were running away from something. Some were running toward something. They all had something in common. They sensed something inside themselves that told them they were different. They wanted to find out exactly how they were different, who they were, why they were here, what it all, in fact, meant, and to do that they knew they would first have to discover what kind of artist they were. They would have to make art. And they might have to suffer.

And they did.

Many would show their work in galleries. A few would go on to great success. Some would fall in love and have children. Some would get drunk or stoned. Some would get drunk AND stoned. A few would kill themselves or die of A.I.D.S. and some would return home never having found out.

Painting was big in those days and so were the paintings. A painter needed a large space with high ceilings to make large paintings and enough space to be able to step back and look at them from a distance. And running water and a toilet. And heat of some kind. And the place had to be affordable, too, so that one need not have to work all the time as a waiter or cabdriver or at some other menial job just to pay the rent.

And so the old loft buildings with their high ceilings and flaking paint and cracked plaster walls and leaking pipes and hissing radiators and their ghosts of women sewing corsets or making gloves and their cheap rents became their homes.

Orphan Fear

boys1950When I was about five years old,  I became convinced that my parents were going to send me to an orphanage.

They did argue a lot.

Their loud, frequent and contentious disputes made me nervous and I usually retreated into my room when it happened and closed the door so I wouldn’t have to hear them. I’d put the pillow over my head and cover my ears.

But it was impossible not to hear them. 

My mother and father seemed to be at odds on a number of issues. He couldn’t seem to understand why she couldn’t be the person he wanted her to be, rather than the person whom she was. And she couldn’t understand why he was so stubborn and set in his ways. She was thirteen years younger than he was.

Old people can be quite stubborn,” I thought.

It also didn’t help my anxiety regarding the tenuous and precarious nature of my relationship with them that my father complained to me about my mother. I was only five, after all, and just beginning to find my own place in the world.

On one particular train trip my father and I took to Jacksonville, Florida to visit his mother, my father confided to me about how frustrated and unhappy he was with my mother. I was only six or so, and after listening to his side of the story, I tried to cheerfully console him. I told him very earnestly and looked him right in the eyes while I said it, that I was sure he could find someone else, perhaps someone more to his liking.

But even this didn’t seem to satisfy him.

I remember one particular argument they had was over how many pairs of shoes my mother had. My father seemed to think that she had too many. They both worked, and she ran a business they owned together, but still he sought to control her. My mother was not the type of person to be controlled by anyone, much less my father, and once or twice she was not even able to control herself. If she had been, I wouldn’t be writing this.

But that’s another story.

I had heard of this thing called a “divorce” and had a vague notion of what that entailed. I loved both of them very much in my own way and wondered anxiously to myself which one I would eventually end up with.

Would it be my mother, with her great laugh and free-spending, fun-loving ways? She did go to the movies a lot. I liked movies. She even bought me popcorn and a drink.

Or would it be my father, a somewhat reserved, but fun-loving man, who dressed well and took me to church on Sundays, the very church he and my mother were married in fifteen years before, although I think that might have been the last time my mother had been there.

My father seemed to enjoy nothing more than driving down to Florida to visit his mother or sisters. My mother never accompanied us on a single one of those trips. Something else which my father seemed to resent and could not understand. He was a different person when my mother wasn’t around. A happier person. He was more relaxed, more himself.

More free.

Then I thought about the old lady who lived next door to us. I wondered what life would be like with her. She and my mother’s mother had been friends for many years before my father and mother and I came to live with my grandmother in the little brick house on 51st Street. Mrs. Draughon, as everyone called her, for that was her name, was soft-spoken and kind and seemed always to have a white apron strung around her flowery print dress. When I was a child and playing in the driveway between our houses, she would frequently beckon to me to come to the white picket fence that separated her property from ours so that she could hand me a basket of hot biscuits, fresh from her oven, which she had covered with a red-and-white checkered napkin, and she bade me to give them to my grandmother who had fallen and broken her hip and was confined to bed or to her wheelchair.

Yes, I could be quite happy with Mrs. Draughon and it would be quite simple to move all my things over to her house since she was right next door. The thought of it gave me some relief from my worries.

Then those letters started coming.

I used to meet the letter carrier on the front porch and go through the mail and remove the letters from Father Flanagan of Boys Town in Nebraska. But those letters kept on coming, now, it seemed even with more frequency than before. There was a picture of a Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan, on the outside of the envelope and the return address was a place called Boys Town, in Nebraska. I didn’t know a thing about Nebraska, except that they grew corn there and there were probably a lot of farms. I didn’t like the idea of getting up before the sun had come up, especially to milk a cow.

Having lived my entire life as an only child, I did not relish the idea of living in a big orphanage and taking my meals in a big mess hall and sleeping in a large dormitory with hundreds of other boys.

So I made those letters disappear.

The top drawer of my father’s dresser was a constant source of wonder and amusement, especially on a rainy day–or on any day, really. There were old pocket knives, an occassional pack of Dixie Boy firecrackers, old watches that didn’t work, old sets of car keys with tiny flashlights attached to them. Brass keys to God-knows-what. Just the kinds of things to keep a boy’s imagination happily engaged for hours. And there were matches. Little books of matches which had been taken as souvenirs from various restaurants and places he had been.

Those matches were very conveniently placed for one who might be in urgent need of them in order to burn some unwanted correspondence from Nebraska out in the lane back behind the house.

Years went by, and the letters stopped coming.

But the arguments continued.

Just when I was starting to feel a bit more secure, my mother informed me that Mrs. Carter, another old lady who was friends with my grandmother, would be coming in a day or two to take me out to Bethesda, the local orphanage for boys on the outskirts of town. Horrified  and rendered speechless at the idea, nevertheless, in a day or so, I found myself dressed up in my Sunday best and in the passenger seat of an old blue car being driven by an old woman with reddish brown hair whose face reminded me of nothing so much as a chicken. A happy chicken, I’ll admit, but a chicken nevertheless. I nervously asked the lady chicken why I was being taken to the orphanage.

Purportedly it was so that I could,  “…see how the orphans celebrated Christmas.”

I had expressed no such curiosity about the celebratory habits of orphans to anyone and strongly suspected that I knew the real reason I was being taken there.

They wanted to interview me to see if I would fit in.

I was determined to be uncooperative when the time came.

The chicken lady parked her car near a large brick building that seemed like some kind of castle– or prison, maybe. She took my hand and led me up the steps and we entered through a large open door into the biggest room I had ever seen. There was a huge Christmas tree set up in the middle of the room with thousands of lights on it and many presents underneath and I could hear the sound of voices, many voices in unison, boy’s voices—orphan voices— and the orphans were singing as they began to slowly descend a large spiral staircase one step at a time–directly toward me and the chicken lady. Each orphan boy wore a  white shirt, and in his hands each boy held a white candle which illuminated his orphan face. These were the faces of the unloved, the motherless and fatherless children. With each step, the singing, unloved faces came closer and closer to mine. My heart began to beat with a sudden ferocity. I thought it might burst. I quickly let go of the chicken-lady’s hand and raced for the door. Not quite running, but not quite walking.

She let me go.

In about ten minutes, she walked back to the car and found me waiting there for her. We got in and she drove me back home. If we talked at all on the way back home, it wasn’t very much. I felt ashamed of myself and guilty that I had two parents–even if they did argue a lot and were secretly conspiring to get rid of me.

She parked her old blue car in front of the house and we got out and went inside. She went back to the rear bedroom to talk with my grandmother. I wasn’t really sure what they were talking about, or if it involved me, because I went straight to my room and closed the door and locked it.

If they were going to put me in an orphanage, next time they were going to have to break the door down and take me out by force.

You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

lincoln-standing72

It was the Christmas of 1960 and John F. Kennedy had just been elected president. The 1950’s were over, and along with them, my boyhood.

The 1960’s were just beginning, along with my teen years, and there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the country and in my growing body. I was 13, then, and a boy scout. That year, I received an interesting present from my aunt.

It was a green book with a sturdy cardboard cover and a couple of pages with little circular slots in them for pennies. It was designed and manufactured to be sold to coin collectors. Under each of the circular holes was printed a different date for that particular coin as well as the total number of coins that were minted that year at the various mints, Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.

To advance up the ladder of success as a Boy Scout one has to earn merit badges. These merit badges are worn on a sash across your chest at special public events and during certain ceremonial occasions. They too, are round, and colorful, and are awarded based upon the achievement of a certain level of competence, experience and expertise on a wide variety of subjects. There were merit badges for hiking, cooking, camping, good citizenship, beekeeping and coin collecting. Each merit badge had a different graphic image on it.

George Linsky, 21, the assistant scoutmaster of Troop 108 was an Eagle Scout, as high as one could rise in the scouts, and had many merit badges across his chest. So did Doug Lang, another older boy of fifteen or sixteen. He was a Life Scout, one level below Eagle.

As an only child, who always wanted an older brother, I looked up to and admired both of these young men. In my adolescent mind, those merit badges were the teenage equivalent of having a chest full of medals, the kind of decorations that are awarded to heroic soldiers  in a war. Anyone who wore medals like that on his chest was a person to be admired and respected.

When I was a young boy, I had seen such soldiers from World War I and World War II marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in my hometown. I had seen the proud looks on the faces of other men and women, ordinary citizens, who lined the parade route and applauded and shouted out their gratitude to the heroes as they marched by.

I secretly hoped, and desperately wanted people to look at me like that one day.

In the meantime, I figured I might as well earn some merit badges. I determined to start with some of the easier ones, like stamp collecting and coin collecting. So my aunt’s gift to me came at a very opportune time in my life.

I went through the few pennies in my pocket and through those of my father when he came home from work, looking to fill the empty slots in the book. I went into my grandmother’s room and together we looked through her little black silk purse with the brass snaps on it. I climbed a small step ladder in my parents’ bedroom closet and went through each of my mother’s various pocketbooks, which she kept on a high shelf. I filled a few more slots in the book. 

On Saturdays, I would ride my bike to my mother’s place of business and she would let me go through the coins in the cash register. In this manner, I was able to fill a good number of empty slots in the green album with the gold lettering on the cover that spelled out the words LINCOLN CENTS, 1909-1959.

Within a few weeks, I was completely obsessed with finding pennies to fill the empty slots in the book. It was becoming increasing difficult to do so, and required my looking through many more coins and in more places than usual.

I began hitting neighborhood stores, a beauty salon and a dry cleaning establishment down the street.  Some merchants seemed to want to lock the door when they saw me coming, while others were friendly and helpful.

One such person was the owner and operator of a small Mom and Pop grocery store in my neighborhood called Manuel’s Marketeria. It was the store where I had spent my very first nickel. I had purchased a small box of Animal Crackers. His store was conveniently located near the kindergarten I attended in the recreation room of the church, which was located a mere fifty feet from his door.

He was tall and thin and wore a white apron which was tied neatly in the back by a bowstring. He had a thick crop of wavy black hair and behind one ear he kept a yellow wooden pencil with which he would write out a receipt for everything he sold. He spoke little, but smiled easily and his facial expression was that of a man who, in his own mind, had just heard the punchline of a corny joke he repeatedly told to himself.

He was nice to me and more indulgent of, and friendly to children than most adults I knew. Some kids I knew even thought him naive or perhaps slow-witted and sought to take advantage of him by shoplifting small items from his store.

Once, Hank, the boy who lived next door, who was two years older, told me that anytime he needed money for the movies or to buy ice cream, or a model plane, he would sneak out back behind the grocery store where the man kept the glass soda bottles and take as many as he could carry around front and redeem them for 2 cents each from the store-owner.

You could do a lot with a quarter in those days. Even if it wasn’t yours.

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was going into the grocery store on a regular basis on my way home from school to buy candy or a bottle of soda. In Miss Guerry’s class, we learned that Abraham Lincoln had once run a small grocery store and since Mr. Manuel looked a lot like Mr. Lincoln, soon, the two of them became inextricably fused in my mind.

Then, after I began collecting coins, I would often stop into his store in the afternoon to look through the coins in his cash register.

One day, he told me that he had come across a very special coin that he thought I would be interested in.

He showed it to me. I had never seen anything like it. It was the size of a penny and was a dark chocolate brown in color. It had an eagle on the front that was in full flight and you could see all the feathers on its wings. The coin was dated 1857.

I told him that I would get a book on coins and find out what it was worth and that I was interested in buying it from him if I could afford it.

There were essentially two books we used to find the value of coins in those days. One was called The Red Book and listed the retail value of coins. The other was called The Blue Book and listed the wholesale value of coins, or the price a dealer might pay for a coin for resale.

The next day at school, I told a friend about the situation. I confided to him that I was going to be a little clever and show the man The Blue Book value of his coin– with the goal of buying it from him for a cheaper price.

My friend told me he had an even better idea.  

He had an old copy of The Blue Book from several years earlier in which the prices listed for coins were even lower. He suggested that I should take that book with me when I went to bargain with the man in the grocery store for his old coin. I went along with the idea without any reservations.

The next day, I took the old, out-dated Blue Book my friend had loaned me and two or three dollars I managed to somehow scrape together to the grocery store.

I found the man behind the counter in the area where the meat was sold.  He had a broom and a dustpan in one hand and he was sprinkling sawdust on the floor with the other. He greeted me in a friendly manner and he seemed to know why I had come. He took a break from his work to deal with me.

I followed him over to the cash register and he opened it and he took out his coin.

I told him the book said that the coin was listed as being worth $2.65. That was a lot of money for a penny in those days. He held the coin in his hand and asked me if he could see the book for a minute.

What could I do?

I handed him the book.

It was a thin book, dark blue in color. He looked at the cover of the book and read the title out loud. Then, he opened the book to the first page where I am quite sure he noticed the publication date: 1957.

Then he looked up at me and asked me, “Ricky…is this your book….?”

“Uhm. No, Sir…I borrowed it from a friend.” I said.

“Hmmm….I see…..” was all he said.

Then he looked up the coin in the book. The book said it was worth $2.65.

“I’ll give you three dollars for it, “ I blurted out, feeling quite guilty at having tried to deceive him, although he hadn’t questioned me about it.

“I’ll tell you what, “ he said, smiling at me and looking me straight in the eye.

“Do you have a penny on you….?” , he asked.

“Y-yes”, I replied, not sure where this line of questioning was leading.

“Well, then…..”, he said,  “I’ll trade you my penny for yours.” 

I reluctantly, and humbly, and sheepishly, with averted eyes, accepted his offer.

As many people know, a Boy Scout is friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

The Boy Scout Manual didn’t say anything about being honest.

And five out of nine ain’t so great, either.