GEORGE S. WHITEMAN’S STUNNING COMING-OF-AGE MEMOIR, THE PERENNIAL FRESHMAN, WILL BE LOVED BY READERS OF ALL GENERATIONS FOR ITS HUMOR AND VIVID REMINDERS OF TIMES GONE BY. Two parents, unfit to raise gerbils, abandon two-year-old George in the loving arms of his Nana, only to snatch him away when he’s nine. It breaks his heart. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, everything is rationed, his mother is pregnant, and his folks are on the verge of divorce—or murder. They drag Georgie across forty-eight states only to virtually abandon him once again in the hedonistic center of the cosmos: Hollywood. There, amidst Satan’s disciples, he struggles for an identity that has not already been claimed. Since his teachers are either under contract or observation, the streets become his classroom. He trundles through dirt-poor puberty to adulthood living in an array of shacks, cellars and attics with a cast of characters befitting any “B” movie horror classic of the time. With a strong desire to put distance between him and the squalid past, he answers the clarion call to defend the American Way. Two years as a military conscript get him used to three hots and a cot, his first experience of eating abundant food and sleeping on sheets. In the 60s and 70s, cloaked in the guise of a famous Hollywood photographer, George S. Whiteman lives the Hollywood life he’d dreamed of: he designs and photographs album covers for the stars (Sammy Davis, Jr., Don McLean, The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, to mention only a few). But the homes, cars, money and women can’t heal the wounded nine year old. That will take years. The Perennial Freshman is the first ‘unauthorized autobiography’ of the three-part series, The Jester’s Court.
WRITTEN WITH SUPERB WIT AND INSIGHT, THE PERENNIAL FRESHMAN WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH OFTEN AND CRY OCCASIONALLY, BUT YOU WILL NEVER LOSE INTEREST.
Cover Design by George S. Whiteman Shelfstealers, Laredo, Tx
Praise for GEORGE S. WHITEMAN’S
THE PERENNIAL FRESHMAN “For many years I searched for George Whiteman, to no avail. I guess I was looking in the wrong places. I remember him as being the most creative photographer and designer that I ever worked with and I often wished I could have worked with him again. “Alan Livingston at Mediarts Records sent me to George's house for the cover of the American Pie album. Everything was so new to me then. The first thing George said was, "Let me see your thumb. I'm going to paint it." “After he painted my thumb and applied the star, he photographed what may be one of the most famous album covers ever. How can you forget a guy like this? I had no idea he was a writer. His writing is as creative and scintillating as the rest of his talents and personality.” —Don McLean, singer/songwriter (American Pie, Starry Night, and many more)
Copyright ÂŠ 2009 and 2012 by George S. Whiteman All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher, except in case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Published by SHELFSTEALERS, Inc., Laredo, Texas. Originally published in 2009 by AMADIS Publishing
Shelfstealers and the Shelfstealers colophon are registered trademarks of Shelfstealers, Inc.
For information contact: Shelfstealers, Inc., 220 N Zapata Hwy #11, Laredo, TX 78043. www.shelfstealers.com
Printed in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available upon request. ISBN: 978-1-61972-006-0
COVER DESIGN BY GEORGE S. WHITEMAN Book design by Sheryl Dunn and Marzena Romanowicz
First Edition 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
FRESHMAN a novel approach to an unauthorized autobiographical memoir
george s whiteman
SHELFSTEALERS LAREDO, TEXAS
For las mujeres . . . I couldnâ€™t have done it without you. You know who you are.
SAMSARA IN THE SIXTIES fade in...
am never late. Not that I’m anal or anything like that; I just have this quirk, possibly the only straight arrow in my quiver of Fletcher rejects—those metaphoric weapons that have been returning unexpectedly of late to nail me in the ass. The exception to my punctuality obsession is home, where I rarely seem to get at a reasonable hour, another rarity that has been increasing in frequency. Right now, I'm late, so late I qualify as absent. This is yet another condition that has, also of late, increased in frequency and duration. Unless you work a night shift, it’s difficult to rationalize going to bed with the birds jubilantly heralding the promise of dawn. One more little something I have come to dread. I'm sitting in my Bentley. Across the street, my house, with its dark Mediterranean seven thousand square feet, three stories, gives the appearance of a pink fortress dominating Royal Boulevard. I’ve always liked the sound of that: Boulevard de Royal. I’m not thinking about my wife and daughter sleeping safely within the thick masonry walls, but the chain-smoking fool in the Bentley who is nearly out of cigarettes and who lacks appetite or verve for anything without decadent excess. The fool who is out of plumb, and plumb out of lies and excuses for his actions and what he has become. Oh-oh, they’re here. The tormenting red fiend lounges by my left ear, truculent as usual, and my angelic life coach hovers by the right, her white worldweary wings sending cool sweet breath in my ear. What are you doing with your life? (Her voice is soft and compassionate.) He’s living it. Buzz off. You’re wasting yourself and squandering the happiness of those who care about you. You have all the answers. You figure it out and get back to us. You don’t face issues.
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Fuck you and the cloud you rode in on. Profanity—your defense for everything you don’t understand. How would you like your bloody wings set on fire? And I don’t need matches, you know. I’m not afraid of you or your threats. I have divine protection. Everyone’s afraid of me and they all have divine protection. But they’ve forgotten how to use it. Shut the fuck up. I’m still trying to figure it all out. Instead of piling more shit on my plate, tell me this: how the hell did I get this messed up? The police, who know me well but always view me with suspicion ever since I brandished a handgun in a traffic altercation, cruise by, shine a spotlight my way, and make subtle gestures easily interpreted as “What the hell are you doing sitting down here in your car at this hour? Go home!” A reasonable suggestion since the lights in other houses are flickering on, and the neighbors may soon become more alarmed at my presence than usual. For the first year they all assumed I was the hippy gardener or an outpatient living with benevolent relatives, but when I rode my radicalized motorcycle into a courtyard to vote in the presidential election—they freaked. “Lighten up, for Christ’s sake. Ain’t you ever seen a rich Hell’s Angel before?” Despite my regular outfit—fringed leather and booty from a Navajo pawnshop, a tie-dyed tanker shirt, long hair, a beard and cowboy boots—I convinced them I was a legitimate neighbor. They were dumb struck. “You’re a Republican? You own 1410 Royal? The Silliphant house? We—they spoke as one—didn’t know it had been for sale.” “It wasn’t for sale. Sterling gave me the house.” Not true, but fun. Having disturbed enough of the local peace for one dark misty morning, I drive the purring Bentley up palm-lined Royal Boulevard, right around the hill to the garages at the back to continue my self-searching. Unlike the agonizing twelve-step inventories to come, this is a cursory and delusional assessment. I back the black Bentley in between the black Mercedes-Benz 600 unstretched limo and the brand spanking new first edition white Ford Mustang convertible, my wheels for plebeian necessities' shopping—booze, Marlboros and essential floral apologies. The silver XKE Jaguar convertible lurks in my Hollywood photo studio, standing by for quick, often imperative, identity changes. Dotty’s dependable yellow Mercury station wagon—too long for the garage—stays parked outside ready to transport our precious daughter and ponysized Harlequin Great Dane to and from a suburban life that may have been ideal if not for the disruptive and unpredictable visits from yours truly. The automatic door groans closed, and I sit, reduced to smoking halfscorched butts from the ashtrays, with my leather seat in full recline and Miles Davis breezing sweet-muted tones to the mood. I consider leaving the motor running, but just for a fleeting instant—much too final. The third act of my drama, ‘SO THERE,’ is still in rough draft and the show must go on.
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So there, in the tarnished-pewter light of pending dawn, I muse.
* * * It had been a normal month at the office. Photo sessions: Lawrence Welk and the Lennon Sisters, John Wayne was a guest star, Jimi Hendrix and Cream at the Shrine Auditorium, a spur of the moment gig for Phil Specter—the Righteous Brothers’ début album. And the usual dozen or more pedestrian cash cow assignments—shooting sexy models perched on bales of hay for country western albums or posed with me by the Bentley with dark glasses, weapons in hand, icing the camera for a James Bond soundtrack and large format transparencies of cemetery statues for gospel compilation albums. The PR man at Forest Lawn called it “The Disneyland of Death.” Add to that miscellaneous design gigs: Sammy Davis’s logo for Ecology Records, follow-up promotion on the Beatles’ first album, and other clients: Three Dog Night, The Mamas and the Papas, Jim Croce, Pat Boone, Jimmy Rogers, etcetera. All in all, a good showing…come on, baby. Let the black ink flow. That’s the proud successful side of the ledger; the bright pages next to it are dark nocturnal columns, dense shadowed entries, often known as ghost bookkeeping. While outrageous and exciting, the figures are scribbled in red ink, very intense and indelible. Fortunately George S. Whiteman, Inc. is a privately held corporation. I only have to trial balance for myself and a higher source, yet to be named. My studio manager and soon to be partner—secretly married to an exgirlfriend—finds me hard to find after four o’clock. My wife, who had given up trying, now feigns slumber when I slide my ‘tom cat ass’ under the sheets. The Bentley’s monochromatic sand-colored headliner is a perfect neutral backdrop to replay the last blurred hours. I feel like a weatherman in a convalescent home. Oh, the wonders of self-medication and right brain aptitude.
* * * Quitting time, which is dictated by mood and blood alcohol level, was after a three-martini lunch. My client/companion, a semi foxy promotion lady, suggested we take the party to her place for dessert—knowing she bartered airplay with her lips, I assumed dessert was me. Flopped in her ‘flower-child’ living room, I perused issues of Vogue dating back to the Gibson Girls…for long enough to re-tile the bathroom… …where I found her butt-naked on the floor—face up and eyes wide open, her arms and legs spread attempting to hold back the walls, an effort that seemed to have failed. I checked her pulse, the medicine cabinet, and snapped off the harsh lights. She was not an appetizing sight.
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Let’s hear it for Quaaludes. Oh, no, they’re gone. I helped myself to a few lines of China White and moved on, to a recording session that was setting up in a studio not far from her place. I knew there would be a buffet of righteous drugs for the in-crowd, a card I carried with pride. Destination: downtown Burbank. The sound stage was an iffy two-star dive. Most legitimate studio musicians who had kicked multiple habits wouldn’t come within ten miles of the back door, which was reported to be a “No Narc” zone. I am Teflon coated—bust-proof— so after parking the car, in I went. A friend's familiar yellow vintage Gatsby convertible Rolls Royce was an all-clear signal. Alas, the session was stalled. The lead singer had locked herself in the ladies room, coughing up a lung and calling on her personal Venusian gods to smite all those present who had ceased to please her. Most of the coke that had been stepped on by a marching band was already up the noses of lackeys, serfs and roadies. My friend ushered me to the men’s room for a sample of his private reserve, which all we high rollers and village idiots carry somewhere on our person. I had long since stopped doing sneeze in the john after dropping a vial of expensive pharmaceutical-grade cocaine on the disgusting tile floor, and then spending five agonizing minutes on the potty thinking of ways to retrieve it. If it had been carpet, I might have come up with something. After a few snorts of lady and a few tokes of hash, chased down with frozen Jaegermeister smoothies, I got antsy and ready for a change of venue.
* * * The Palomino Club was very close but a very bad call. Randy cowboy bars do not lift the spirits of anyone with an IQ over that of a woodchuck. In the sixties the jukebox was still spilling sugarcoated shit about losses: lost love, jobs, trucks, best friends and dogs, best girls. After one frosty long-necked silver bullet, a Merle Haggard, two George Jones, and half a Patsy Kline—adios. The shitkicker hangout was blowing a perfect and very expensive high. The night was velvet smooth, cool, balmy and strangely still, a sultry combination that soon took hold of me. Usually being alone at that hour in those circumstances was not my first choice, but the Bentley felt full of old spirits—pilgrims of Route 66. Childhood ghosts perhaps. I was comfortable. In many ways my cars were surrogate homes, having temporarily traded my gypsy boots for driving moccasins. I rarely let someone drive my cars, but that night I let loose of the wheel…figuratively. Zen awareness arrives years down the line. Though I flirted with transcendental meditation, I wasn’t ready to feel that good all the time. Simply put, everything came together to move me to the zone: smooth sounds from the
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radio, the perfect blend of opiates, a tranquil night and a receptive awareness that was new to me. Clearly I was out there. I cruised Lankershim Boulevard past my former halls of higher learning— grades K through Crypt—the Valley and El Portal theaters—where movies wrote odd chapters in my personal bible and the radio shows scratched in the evens. The skuzzy Pepper Tree Motel, where Mom, Dad and me—a sister in the womb—first stayed after driving fabled Route 66 from New York during WW II (a lifetime ago) was surrendering to the assault of progress. My memory lane drive took in several apartments, the foster home where lasting resentments were fostered and Pickwick Swim Park where I worked my way through Hollywood High as a hunk-lifeguard. I drove by the adjacent drivein theater where all things new and wonderful happened, and along Valley Heart Drive past our house number one, where daughter Stacy was born. We, my ghosts and I, passed a few of the hovels they called homes, dives that are best forgotten. Then up the winding drive to the ‘Starlight Bowl’ and its commanding view of “The Valley.”
* * * From that pinnacle my mind took flight back in time when crushing loneliness was a way of life and night flying over the valley in dreams was one of my few real adventures. I ranged the sparkling landscape, counting the five grammar schools I attended and the shacks I was stashed in for the convenience of my estranged and deranged parents. And over the all too few brighter spots, those beacons that guided me from poverty to financial comfort and on to spiritual bankruptcy. The Royal abode now competes with a beachfront house in San Buena, Ventura, and a set of new friends who have yet to figure me out, although they reluctantly accept me because their kids say I’m cool. Soon Dotty and Stacy will be comfortable living there full time when my final stage husbandry rockets fizzle out. The Ventura lifestyle was a concept of reality that eluded me—upright citizens, good and safe schools, three-hundred-and-sixty-five normality, with the free-range maniac leading an annexed life that defied description. I landed. The young lovers’ steamy cars were thinning out, and a Burbank patrol car faced me. I returned a pleasant smile with my own cryptic message, “Goodnight, officers, and by the way the Hillside Strangler doesn’t drive a Bentley or look as chilling as I do.” I’m never disrespectful to those who serve and protect. One of my good friends is a Vice Cop in South Central Los Angeles, laying his ass on the line, only leaving the precinct for coffee and doughnuts. If I had departed Hollywood High with passing grades, I planned to don L.A. Blue. Scary. Goodnight, officers.
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I slunk along the hillside on Mountain Drive. Déjà vu gripped me. Twenty years ago, I sat on that corner and made a wish to escape from what few would call a callow life. I added another petition to the growing list of those Dear Lord, if you’re listening: Please. “Please, Sir, if you’re listening, someday I’d like a house just like one of these with a swimming pool. OK?”
* * * Mountain Drive hugs the Burbank hillside until converging on Royal Boulevard in Glendale. The manicured wish street is lined with charming early California Spanish style homes a third the size of my 1410 Royal. The garage floods with dawn’s copper glow. In the guest apartment below, Blair, our teenage majordomo, is rustling. He’s a treasure: maintains the pool, helps Dotty with heavy stuff and other responsibilities normal husbands usually see to, plus acts as babysitter, big brother and bodyguard to Stacy. I will learn much later that he was a consummate host. When Blair was sure we were out of town, he threw some legendary parties. Two then teenaged guests, Richard Kelty and Rick, the hippy rock-climbing owners of Big-Dog, filled me in and were surprised that I was surprised. “Blair told all the chicks it was his house.” Between Blair and Dotty’s father, Chet, Stacy is in good, steady masculine hands, a fact I will lament soon enough and for quite some time to come. In about twenty minutes Blair will be coming up to bring in the trash cans. I’ll stay put and let him discover and shepherd me in as well. It’s Saturday and I’m ready for some serious R&R, which to me stands for Rapprochement and Recovery. Dotty’s folks are joining us for dinner on Olvera Street, a good call. They have been showing some reluctance to be seen with me in public. Besides looking like a reasonably dressed skid row bum, I have stopped pretending to be normal. When sitting by the pool at night, even the bats stop flying about catching bugs, and hang out and watch me watching them, their beady red eyes awaiting instructions. Dotty notices it too but doesn’t say anything, though I know it makes her nervous, much the same way she felt when my pet iguana Ignacio crawled up to perch on my shoulder to share a bunch of grapes—creepy. The coming week is going to be frantic. Joey Adams wants me to meet his boss, Ray Charles, to assess the chemistry. Gene Norman, another velvet-voiced late-night DJ turned record executive, wants me to meet the flamboyant and terribly gay Frances Faye. Vee-Jay Records has a new batch of repackaging assignments, which means scores of pretty ladies to shoot and perhaps do other fun stuff with. On the dark side of the day planner, the Renaissance Pleasure Fair will be rolling in, and I’ll be welcomed behind the scenes in gypsy tents, yurts and wagons, warmed by glowing campfires—smoky fantastic atmosphere—with
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bawdy gaiety and tales of legends and lore, colorful yarns spun by my people, highway harlots, witches and warlocks alike. Yum-yum. There may be a cruel mistress of my dreams holding my tether, her green eyes sending cryptic messages of what the night could hold should I disobey and/or remain obedient. Either way I will be delightfully doomed, punished by a velvet lash laid on mercilessly—or something like that. Whatever. All signs pointed to dolce decadence.
* * * My introduction to members of the Pleasure Fair came as serendipitous boons often do—from left field—a location my woo-woo friends refer to as ‘the fucking cosmos.’ Sherri had tentatively called it quits to test the waters of Santa Barbara and to find someone less married than I. An interesting criterion: as a husband and father, few were less married than I was. She left Burbank and her secure, good paying job in a dental office to chop organic stuff in a natural food restaurant (she makes friends easily), and moved in with a local artist named Mariah. In the musical, Paint Your Wagon, beside my theme song, “Wanderin’ Star,” is “They Call the Wind Mariah.” Mariah was a glass blower; that’s all I knew about her. Sherri rarely described other women in detail. Also she rarely gave notice when dropping by the studio for a lube and tune-up. This time it was my turn to make the ninety-minute drive for a service call. The date had been set several weeks in advance and we hadn’t spoken since. Mariah’s cottage was a nineteen twenties clapboard Santa Barbara charmer, perched on a hill above State Street, the posh main drag west to the blue Pacific. A set expertly decorated for a documentary about ‘Peace and Love, and War is not good for children and other living things,’ with a botanical atmosphere one would expect of Rip Van Winkle’s garden, post coma. The yellow note on the screen door read, “Come in—I’m in the shower— Mariah’s due home any minute—Love, Pilar,” which sounded more like a command than a signature. Sherri/Pilar had assumed a new name for her new identity and location. Dropping a name didn’t surprise me; Pilar didn’t travel with excess baggage. Like friends. All the doors off the living/dining/solarium were closed, but there was ample eye candy to keep someone busy for days. With my absorbent vision I did the feast in ten minutes. Mariah was talented and a tasteful collector of antiques and furnishings, best described as Annie Hall Tiffany eclectic; anything but modern. Judging from photographs, she was easy on the eyes, and I’m a sucker for backlit honey blondes. Before I heard a peep from Pilar, Mariah and her six cats arrived home. “I didn’t expect you to be here until much later.” She was surprised and flustered. “As you can see, I just came from the studio.”
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I also possess instant filter vision—the artist’s editorial eye. Despite her spattered protective glasses, her hair stuffed under a black bandana and denim clothes that had seen a month of better days, she looked fine. “Is Sherri still here? I mean Pilar?” Still? That was an interesting choice of words. “Far as I know she’s in the bathroom.” Mariah shyly begged for a few minutes to freshen up, assuring me she wouldn’t take long; the bathroom couldn’t accommodate two. After a hurried “Can I get you anything?,” I was alone once more to ponder the new arrival and question the old I had come to see. In my handbook of criteria, a blond in sullied bib overalls will eclipse two brunettes in birthday suits any day of the week. My scoundrel-scheme wheels were turning. Mariah reappeared before Pilar, and in the few minutes absence had transformed, proving once again that less is more. The car door and wind chimes announcing a new arrival mercifully aborted the pregnant pause. Joshua—God forgive me—was a pitifully ill-prepared addition to the cast: reed thin with moist, innocent gray eyes that bordered on newborn stupid. He was a person in need: he needed a hair stylist and someone to pluck the facial whiskers I assumed he prayed would grow into a beard more profuse than a Greek washerwoman’s. He needed handshaking lessons as well. My elitist judgmental list was growing. I couldn’t help wondering what this lame putz was doing here. He was too clean and dressed too colorfully to be the gardener, and didn’t possess tools or the basic acumen to oil a screen door, plus only a fool would let him touch anything of value in the house. The few minutes of silence made him edgy, so he rolled a dubbie, lit up and offered it around. No takers? No problem; toke—toke—choke—choke. Jesus Christ, he can’t even smoke a joint without convulsing. He wasn’t a half-wit relative. Mariah’s look of apologetic disbelief made that patently clear. Drawers and doors slammed. One opened and Pilar appeared. She was Pilar—the old Sherri had gone someplace else, though it sounded like Sherri when she said, “Hi . . . you look good. You met Joshua? Good. So . . . we’re running late.” An air kiss, a hug, and Sherri and the bookend were gone. Mariah watched for my reaction, as did I. So that’s what “still” meant. “What just happened here?” I asked. She let go as well, took a deep breath and brought me up to speed while skillfully uncorking a dusty bottle of BV, George de Latour private reserve. It seems Sherri/Pilar, stealthily tracking Mister Right, slid under Mister Right-Now after work a few days ago. Sherri/Pilar is a control freak; she will swim around the Channel Islands to avoid confrontation. Ergo, if you deny a problem exists, why waste time and energy thinking of ways to fix it?
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Made perfect sense to me and nine-tenths of the people in Hollywood, who assume AA is an abbreviation for the Automobile Association of America. Bottom line: I’d been traded to a new mistress—the heady stuff of dreams. Without counsel or a tribal hearing, like chattel I was now the property of a talented glass-blowing blonde whose pneumatic talents were as formidable in the boudoir as at a glory hole in her studio. Sherri would rue the day. She rued it the next day and wanted to reverse the exchange. No refunds or exchanges for dropped old shoes. That inspiring event secured my pass to backstage Pleasure Fair, whose name alone wreaks havoc with a libertine’s imagination.
* * * Blair is heading my way and I’ve heard enough conversation. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people not in the car at the time, so many in fact, I’ve started carrying a phone receiver as a prop to avoid looking like a nutcase jabbering in traffic. (There weren’t many car phones at the time.) I also transport a store mannequin in the back seat of the Mercedes. Dotty calls her Phyllis. Phyllis lost her legs in a skiing accident in San Moritz and likes to wear Audrey Hepburn dark glasses, an Isadora Duncan silk scarf and a Greta Garbo slouchy hat. I adore her but she treats me like a lackey. Soon she will dump me but leave her right hand as a cruel reminder, though it’s not good for much but waving good-bye. In minutes the boys will meet in the breezeway. Blair, in his it’s too damn early teenage stupor, will trudge up to collect the trashcans. Oz, my Great Harlequin Dane and slobbering soul mate, will lope the thirty-four tiled stairs to see if the paper has come. He won’t fetch it; he’ll just make sure it’s there. Oz has one trick, studly stupid—three guesses who taught him that, and the first two don’t count. It’s clear Kismet that a Joker would have a checkered dimwit Harlequin for a mascot. When we encounter one another, Oz will tuck tail and race ahead to warn the others, who will be comfortably clad in protective flannel Kevlar for the sane. Dotty will be serving the princess, who will be dipping de-crusted toast in a soft boiled egg yolk, mesmerized by Captain Kangaroo. They may or may not look up when I enter, despite the fact I’m in a trendy costume and probably smell like something not of this world. I, like so many under-worked and over-played fathers, will check with my answering service, shuffle the mail, give them both an invisible man kiss on the cheek, and another weekend with Donna Reed, Pebbles and Dracula begins. All journeys start with a first step, one you may not recall taking.
1942 - ABAFT
CALLOW DAYS IN EDEN An out-of-family experience
oth my parents died before I was born—it was an undisputed legend for close to a decade. During the first seven-plus maybe eight years of life, I was certain I had been abandoned by wicked gypsies and was being raised by a sweet little old lady sprung from the pages of Mother Goose. The gods could not have been more benevolent in their choice of doorsteps. Nana, my rescuer, and I holed up in a picturesque colonial town in upstate New York, secluded, but with several convenient avenues of escape: a major river, two broad creeks and a hub for rail transportation, and as a last resort, the dense forests. I was assured the forests were cleared of pesky savages several years back, but I didn’t believe it. A picture book depicting the ferocity of the red-skinned devils kept me clear of shadowy woodlands: ‘they eat children, you know.’ Kingston, New York was founded by the Dutch, populated by English (limies), Irish (micks), Germans (krauts) and a few French (frogs) who had drifted down from Canada (alternative ethnic references courtesy of my Uncle Duke). Kingston was a central stage for the American Revolution, named, as were many King’s towns, for King George, the nutcase. Shortly before I came on the scene, my hometown was a frequent rendezvous for Ben Franklin and General George Washington, two of our founding fathers; thus my dubbing, George, the hip name in the thirties but depressingly lame by the fifties. I’ve never been fond of the handle. Georgie was the name my cherubesque Fairy Grandmother Nana used. She chirped in varying tones and pitch, according to her menopausal pendulum, or my “little Dickens” antics. If I acted really silly, she said I was a little touched in the head.
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Nana was all things to me. Avatar and abundant source of unconditional love, she was tender and forgiving, as loyal as a lioness, and her bosom pillowed my early tenuous years. She had reared three boys, my father Hank being the youngest and most accomplished ne’er do-well and charter member of the Depression’s walking wounded. In those early formative years, Nana was wise to keep Hank and his teenage wife away from her Georgie; they would have a lifetime to mess up my head. It’s been said, “Children are the vessels into which parents pour their venom.” Scary thought but my cup was imperviously brimming with honey.
* * * Nana and her sweetie pie, Ben, nested over a German/Hebrew bakery, and the aromas could be punishing. We were post-Depression, church-mouse poor, living at number One Liberty Street on the corner of Broadway Boulevard. Instead of looking up at the outside world, I viewed my somewhat diminutive domain from above, an unusual perspective. If a parade took place, as it often did, it marched to the tempo of my rattle. Something surely got hardwired back then . . . to this day a parade can reduce me to tears, and if there is just one bagpipe, I’m a sniveling wreck. Governors, mayors and President Roosevelt rode in open Packard Phaetons along Broadway, but only the cars left an impression. This was truly Main Street America, and I had a front-row balcony seat in my corner bedroom window where latent appetites were fomented. At night, when all cosmic channels were open, the headlights from passing cars cruised across my ceiling, beckoning my imagination. The Lackawanna Phoebe Snow passed under the nearby wood trestle. The rumbling chug and clickety clacking steel-on-steel rocked my bed and lulled my soul. In the twilight zone before slumber, I was taken completely. Our whistle whispered until we were far away from sleeping Kingston, a haunting augury etched in my DNA. For most of my life I would be troubled by itchy feet, thought to be a curse at the time, but fortunately the curse was left to fester— some pain reminds you that you’re still alive. Clear memories registered sometime between six and seven. My prior recollections have been augmented by spun yarns, experiences and my ability to cut through the crap, cut to the chase, trust the wisdom of wounds and believe my own eyes. Old photos speak volumes; box Brownies seldom lie. Kingston, New York was a boyhood dream location. It nestled between two waterways flowing down from Canada. Trains ran north and south along the river and traversed my kingdom east to west, traveling from the Hudson River to the great unknown, where the sun’s last glow was chased by an earthy-scented cool blanket of blue. It was a time when steel rails were the web of “R” commerce (the Iron Internet) and teams of chanting raw-boned gandy dancers performed tech support.
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Kingston had sweet water lakes in the nearby mountains marbled with scores of clear, potable streams, swimming holes replete with mud wallows, rope swings and secret ponds, with turtles, tadpoles, sunfish, salamanders and snakes to swallow them whole. I liked that. And bugs. Fireflies to trap in glass jars and marvel at their blinking behinds. June bugs to corral, tether on thread and launch to fly overhead in circles. And slimy six-inch night crawlers to tug from the damp earth and plop in little girls’ hair. I liked that even more. There were chestnut trees to climb and abandoned century-old brick buildings to capture and hold as forts and castles, defended ‘till death,’ or at least supper time. No damsels in distress. Girls were the sworn enemy. Horse-drawn carts clomped over the cobblestone and asphalt streets delivering block ice for the icebox. Ice was hauled down from the lakes in winter and stored in colossal dank wooden sheds through the warm months until a fresh tasty supply came. With the cold snap came the black coal, dispensed down a long polished metal slide to the chilly dark cellar, both off-limits to me. Nana cooked on a coal and wood-burning stove that today would probably be worth a king’s ransom at an “Antique Road Show.” Magic happened on that black iron top and behind the scorched enameled doors of the ovens. I was not allowed within a country mile of the stove after Nana tripped over me and splattered hot bacon grease on my head. The kitchen floor was no longer my playpen. I still see the round, charred covers and the shiny, spring-like handle that was not a plaything. I attribute my increasing hair loss to the scalding. The town Junkman, whose disheveled appearance mirrored his trade, pushed a groaning handcart with wood and iron wagon wheels, an awesome thing brimming with every discarded treasure imaginable. He banged on an iron triangle, bellowing his raspy chant, “Old things fixed, good as new. You buy from me; I’ll take from you. I buy-sell-trade, cash on the barrelhead.” They were hard times for some, and folks gladly paid for cast-off and repaired items: toasters and lamps, tables and chairs, bicycles and baby carriages. I think they were called perambulators. If some defeated object had a flicker of life left in it, deft hands coaxed it on ‘til it was plum spent.’ Our few family heirlooms were not display items. The Junkman must have made a fair-to-midlin’ living. His house was bigger than ours, and the cluttered backyard was a vast shadowy forbidden paradise, securely fenced with the rusty skeletons of long-dead spring mattresses. I thought being a junkman must be an interesting business, or at least a fascinating sideline. He appeared to be happy; he sang and talked to himself or anyone within earshot, and he had a lot of neat stuff—‘stuff ’ being the operative word. Kingston, New York, was, and by all reports still is, upstate. That’s what Empire Staters call any place that’s not ‘The City’ of Manhattan. There is no south New York.
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Believing your hometown is extra special is clearly pandemic. I’ve watched Mexicans mist up talking about their villages, and upon seeing the village wondered what they missed most: the dirt floors and dirt streets or the mud brick huts with tin roofs? It’s where the heart is. My colonel Kingston looms large in the rearview mirror of memory; it’s a well-framed Norman Rockwell illustration, original text by Mark Twain. Nana imparted early Buddha wisdom in the form of a small ivory carving that had been her mother’s, the classic three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The lesson did not have staying power.
* * * Those callow days in Eden rendered a lasting portrait of a normal, though frugal, family life, with two loving parents of the Grand variety. Ben (the man of the house) was never cross. He left while it was still dark and returned when it was almost…and whistled a jaunty tune both ways. Grandma’s days were filled with chores and rituals with me at her side for all. I was about eye level with her paunchy elbows, which kept me on my toes. She was perpetual motion. Each morning, unless it was storming, Nana hung her long white hair over the back porch banister and brushed. She brushed and hummed songs from the old country: Brooklyn. She stroked and tugged and whistled while she wove two snow-white braids, and wound them around her head like a silk turban. If I didn’t lose patience and wander away, she would wet her fingers and plaster down my unruly cowlick. Everything she did to me, or for me, felt good . . . love was like that. Those were the days when Nana put something on my favorite thumb that tasted like cat poop, my diapers were made from scratchy old flour sacks, and po-po-powder was cornstarch. My ears stuck out so Nana was always smoothing them back, which gave me a headache, as did the sweet, canned evaporated milk she fed me by the quart. If my pipes got clogged or I looked cross-eyed, she force-fed a teaspoon of stinky fish oil down my gullet. If I sneezed, it was onion water and sugar. She called me a pill on infrequent occasions when I annoyed her by rousting her from her afternoon nap or snatching a piece of a jigsaw puzzle from her dithering fingers. I liked her affectionate pseudonyms: Pill, Little Dickens, Lovey, Snookums and Georgie Porgie. I liked being called Georgie. Nicknames were fashionable, and I wanted to be fashionable, or at least have a nickname. She played patty cake with my hands and sang an old rhyme . . . “Georgie Porgie, puddin’ and pie . . . kissed the girls and made them cry . . . and when the girls came out to play . . . Georgie Porgie ran away.” According to legend my first crib was an open valise (emphasis on open), another subliminal message to my psyche—live out of a suitcase, or two. Mother and Father were seldom in the picture—actually only in pictures. I have no memory of being under the same roof with the F. Scott Fitzgerald party animals.
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My father’s mother was my angel of mercy, guardian and teacher, bringer of food, Florence Nightingale and best friend. She taught me to embroider, make pancakes, peel an apple with one long loopy skin, draw pictures of birds and a rabbit, do jigsaw puzzles without looking at the box too often, sort of whistle, make a kazoo with a comb and toilet paper, play Chinese Checkers, cat’s cradle, and not dwell on the fact that my parents seemed to have better things to do than be my parents. Her boundless maternal goodness allowed me to depend on her completely. Those would prove to be my most secure-treasured years for a long time to come. Grandma was a tough act to follow and if memory serves, no one even tried. I meandered through naïve days like a yearling grazing on an open meadow while ominous forces were at work, planning to tear me from the bosom of my Sainted Granny and her cozy orbit. Sinister people would soon reappear to dislocate my life. Mom and Dad came back. They must have gotten bored. They sure as hell hadn’t grown up much. I think they already hated each other.
GOT NO KICKS ON ROUTE 66 Children will be children and so will a lot of parents; that’s why children and grandparents are natural allies.
TUDEBAKER: once a stylish automobile, the Detroit-bred great-grandson of the Conestoga covered wagon, and the iron heir. Our first prairie schooner. “Hot asphalt and black smoke, oh, please hear me cry. They’re hauling me westward—dear Lord, let me die. This humble prayer sung in duet—by Studie and I.” I shared the cramped back seat with one of our three recapped spare tires and everything else we owned that wouldn’t fit in the trunk or on the roof. Correction: everything they owned. I was forced to leave all that I cherished back home in Kingston with my only real treasure, Nana. There was my heroic, yet to be named sailboat, and an authentic cardboard radio show sound effects set Grandpa Murray gave me for Christmas. At the black and gray cardboard desk I could produce neat sound effects like train whistles, horses galloping, doors slamming, etcetera. Christmas day I drove my folks nuts. I liked that. I do remember that Studebaker. The two-door was of a dull, oxidized abandoned-gray, viciously mistreated and hauntingly odiferous. The miserable beast smelled of burning rubber, oil, and gas, with pungent traces of booze and wet animals, two and four-legged. Air conditioning was a wind wing; mine was cracked and stuck. There was a hole in the floorboards—that’s boards as in wood—that whistled a mournful tune with an Appalachian twang. It made unearthly sounds. Pa—he hated that name—called it the Studie; Ma (a.k.a. Bertha Lytle, Bertie, Bertha, Bertie Boop, Ma Bertie, Mother, Mom, Mommy dearest, depending upon my mood—or hers) called it everything else. I discovered new ways not to sit on a tire and that it’s more comfortable to sleep on a suitcase if you open it, but you’ll probably get yelled at.
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The increasing metallic screeches and groans of the Studie were nothing compared to the growing shrill discord coming from the front seat. I found the popular radio show, The Bickersons, far less hilarious than either of my parents. My folks seemed to make up new names to call each other at every gas stop. I think griping kept them grounded. Before we got to the Pennsylvania Turnpike I had quadrupled my vocabulary of forbidden words. Traveling by automobile in the forties was considerably less comfortable, less trouble free “and really goddamn slow” (a Bertie quote) than it is now. Stops were frequent. Smoldering radiators needed quenching. Check. Gas tanks needed topping off. Check. I think Hank feared shutting off the engine. He pumped gas with it running and a cigarette smooched off to the side to keep the smoke from blinding both his watery blue eyes. Fill the water bag hanging off the hood ornament. Check. Tires. Check. Emergency gas can. Check. Georgie? He can take care of himself. Check. I had scribbled a note which I kept in my shoe. “If lost, this is Georgie. Please deliver to the nearest Orphan Asylum.” I liked the odds.
* * * It would be hard to imagine a poorer time to drive three thousand miles across the United States. A world war was raging and everything was in short supply or rationed. Grandpa Murray had bartered stacks of treasured ration books. You couldn’t buy gas, tires, nylons, sugar, coffee, etc. without stamps. I swiped a couple of the half-used chit books in case I was left at some desolate pit stop. I still have them, but it was years before I could look at the tattered booklets without getting the heebie-jeebies. Mommy dearest was several months pregnant and starting to show. When she wasn’t bitching about her back, her bladder, or barfing out the window, I was close to losing my lunch from cigarette smoke and belly-butterflies streaming out my gullet on sour-green burp clouds. If you think kids get antsy after a few hours in the back seat, try five days with a lunatic behind the wheel who swears it can be done in three. Pa, a.k.a. Hank, a.k.a. George Henry, had one experience driving the Brick Yard—the Indianapolis Speedway—and something got tweaked in his program. He drove at one speed—flat out. He thought the world was voice-activated: yell at it and see what happens. With a brown bag full of comic books, several packs of Black Jack and bubble gum, I was tranquilized. If Mommy was awake, she and Hank hardly skipped a beat in their bitching match, no matter where we were—diners, gas
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stops, or checked into an occasional motel. I’m sure there were several motels but I only remember one. Eager to escape the shrill railings and the developing drama of Ma and Pa, I flew around with Batman and Robin or kept tabs on Superman. I practiced yoga with Plastic Man and worked tirelessly to mimic Tarzan’s call. I covered my teeth with black chewing gum to look like I’d lost the front two, popped annoying bubbles and picked a hole in the upholstered seat until it was big enough to hide a stash of oyster crackers, sugar cubes and a few other things too disgusting to mention. With my nose buried in real adventure, I munched penny candy and jaw breakers, and read until I had to pee so bad my teeth hurt or I got carsick. I upchucked once in the brown bag, another time on the floor and once on a back window—I thought it was open.
* * * We crossed the “World’s Widest River” and reached a sprawling place called St. Louis where Hank directed his rage toward another “goddamnsonofabitch’n flat tire.” The more than occasional geyser smoldered from the open hood: timeouts good for an hour or so of intense exploring, while car and driver cooled down. I spent the glorious free time relearning to walk while flipping roadside junk and rocks in search of new bugs and crawly things. Burgeoning mommy Bertha would stretch out in my ‘rat’s nest’ with her puffy, purple bare feet out the window. Once I sat on the running board and tickled her foot with a feather. Once. In those happy-go-lucky days, believe it or don’t, people—usually men— actually took off the GDSOBFK’N tire, pulled the inner tube out, like gutting a burnt roasted pig using tire irons and other blacksmith tools, and patched the leak. To find leaking air, spittle works best. Swear at leak (rubber is multilingual so any language will do), scrape area around wet hole with the cheese grater top of the can, cut patch slightly larger than the hole, do not waste patching material (you’ll need more soon), rubber cement inner tube and patch, dry cement with a match, reverse earlier pig gutting steps while weeping, trembling and blaming the others, and voilá, you’re merrily on your way once more. I watched my father in this savage wrestling match at least one time for every year of his life—or so he said—before he stopped counting. I kept my distance while he slid under the car, pissing and moaning, positioned the jack, cranked the handle, wiped his brow, cleaned his thick glasses. Then the lug wrench went spinning and off came the wheel, nicking his knuckles in the “same goddamn place.” He was pitifully nearsighted and had to bring things right to his nose to see details. Once, he dripped rubber cement on his hand and set it on fire. He sorely wanted to bash someone or something. Lucky I was fast on my feet. (I don’t
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recall either of my parents laying a hand on me in anger and seldom with affection.) For years, the smell of rubber cement made me chuckle. Solo, Pa could turn changing a tire into a ‘Three Stooges’ routine. He thought he was every bit as funny as any Catskill comic on the circuit. He was not funny; he was delusional and taught me how to be both. Lesson one: learn to laugh at yourself. Laughter often renders the incident fixed in the memory. Watching my persecuted father convinced me tragedy is simply underdeveloped comedy . . . it’s all a matter of timing. He was a hapless perennial victim. From my back seat I playfully harped, “When are we going to have another flat tire, Daddy?” He parroted my question, “When are we going to have another flat tire, Daddy?” at every opportunity, for years to come. Like I said, he wasn’t funny. His repertoire was limited to less than a dozen tiresome, dated jokes with meaningless, interchangeable punch lines, leaving others wondering why the hell he was laughing. He was an aggressive, but skilled, road warrior. He would not teach me to drive. Mother had yet to learn, but enjoyed ruthlessly critiquing his skills. When stopped for repairs, she sat in a knot kicking her free leg while chain smoking and gazing back east as though she expected to be rescued at any moment. I had seen that same look in her eyes when she talked to Ben’s son, Bill Nickerson, a Gene Kelly look-alike. You remember Ben. He was my good-hearted stepgrandfather, though he and Nana never married. Shame on them.
* * * With nothing but time on her hands, Bertie set out to single-handedly dismantle Hank’s character, abilities and limited potential. When this campaign was afoot, she telegraphed its approach by making nice to me. When her attentions focused on the little sailor in the back seat, the Captain at the helm was about due for a bilgewater baptism. Often her scathing tsunami struck my father dumb. The resolute expression on his face made him appear to be carrying the Studie by wheel and door into the driving wind. (I became their go-between, a messenger boy.) It took a while for his frigid apathy to sink in and fear to take hold of Bertie. In their silences, the drone of the highway became a mournful wail on the wind, buffeting the captain and crew. I got so small I may have disappeared altogether. Even the Studebaker sensed a change in atmosphere. Keening sounds traversed the underbelly, like an angry spirit searching for the ideal haunt. The prewar automobile was delaminating.
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Hunkered down in my smelly rear bunker, the passing scenery a hypnotic blur, I spent time sprawled below window level roaming the sky for hours on end, experiencing billowing wind-driven clouds for the first time. When sitting upright, I read ‘Burma Shave’ signs out loud to a peevish audience. The radio was always on, even if the only sound was bees in a tin can or steel maracas echoing distant electric storms. I gathered a new group of friends and protectors who would be the most loyal pals for years to come: Amos ‘N Andy (white people playing very funny black people), Captain Midnight, and all the gang at Duffy’s Tavern, “Where the elite meet to eat.” My protectors even had my gloomy travel companions chuckling. Pa seemed courting some distant muse while Mother was okay with most every show I begged for hard enough. Two droll gentlemen brought on a pall of silence: Walter Winchell was a holy experience for my parents. I had no idea what was so fascinating about him or the other droner named Gabriel Heater. Glen Miller and Harry James spread a false-romantic euphoria and transported my folks to distant dance floors, probably in different cities. My parents became civil passengers sharing a seat. I liked Spike Jones best. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy started the ice melting. I mimicked Mortimer Snerd. Though aggravating my parents, I found it time-killing fun.
* * * It got hot enough to melt road tar. You can spend some quality time messing with those gooey black bubbles. At a gas stop, Pa pulled off a tarsickle from a maintenance truck, and we chewed the black crap until my jaw froze shut. Their stone silence soon gave way to a lean politeness. “You need to go?” “Soon.” “Anyone hungry?” “Me.” Pa eased off the gas pedal a tad but remained perched half out of the car, either holding the door shut with his arm or getting as far as possible from Mother without running alongside. I rode off with The Lone Ranger and Tonto, our faithful Indian guide, assisted Sherlock Holmes and the Whistler, and helped Mr. Keen trace lost persons. How do you lose a person? I didn’t want to know. Mother read—or rather flipped and scanned, thumbed from back to front, front to back—movie magazines until they were limp rags. They both inhaled more cigarette smoke than fresh air. Besides ration stamps and tires, Dad's dad, Grandpa Murray, had bartered and donated enough coffin nails for two round trips. War is hell.)
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Folks back home suspected Ma of going to California to break into “The Movies.” Wrong. It was Hank who had an itch for the flicks, a burning rash on his ‘baby in the family’ ego, a secret desire to replace Clark Gable. There was a slight resemblance to Gable for about a day and a half. Hank actually looked like the ‘30s bandleader, Paul Whiteman. We flopped in Route 66 motels that defied description. The tacky motels I struggled to sleep in resembled those I’ve seen in horror movies, where unfamiliar objects in the dark grow larger, darker and ominous, and where those other people made horrific noises all night. In the twilight zone, farts sounded like avalanches and coughs like cannon reports.
* * * The searing daylight hours lurched along at glacial speed, though the cloudless nights were magic. I discovered getting lost in the stars required no past experience. I saw the Milky Way for the first time. In a meditative semi-conscious state, in that noxious backseat cocoon, facets of my character took shape. I would forever be a restless soul, gazing at distant horizons with soft-focused anticipation. I needed a hug real bad, my own bed, home, Nana. You can come apart at the seams trying not to cry. You can break something, like a pressure valve or a heart. I think my tear ducts dried up. A lot of damage was caused on that trip, and all four of us would bear the wounds. Kids think they are the center of the universe, right? Perhaps they are. Maybe they come with two umbilical cords, one from the navel and one from the inherent ubiquitous consciousness—a string. Perhaps we cling to our connection to the cosmos until adults rewire us to their specifications, their expectations. What other sentient being has complicated everything so much? We are clearly flawed and seemingly one of the slowest of nature’s experiments to benefit from natural selection. The fruit fly self-corrects faster than we learn not to touch hot things, drop a load in our pants, or hurt each other for the sheer fun of it. Man is the cosmos contemplating itself, and the cosmos has a vested interest in how we behave and evolve. The energy that makes us up is on loan; like water, it adapts to different forms and purposes: mist, grinding ice, gentle rain to fill raging rivers, eager to rejoin Mother Ocean for a new assignment. Nature without interference doesn’t waste much. Are we the instruments of the great plan? Is our mission to desecrate the Earth and force migration to other planets? Has man done one thing to benefit this planet? Curing disease doesn’t count, nor do our tardy solutions to global warming or the blind rape of the Earth’s lungs or any other band-aid. Rant, rant, rant. Aaaah.
George S. Whiteman says that when you run his trial balance, the bottom line is about the same as everyone's: a lovely successful daughter and two superspecial grandsons, memories and friends to last several lifetimes, and a lower back ache which he considers payback for being a royal pain in many asses. He currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, happily married to his third wife Brigitte, whom he adores, quietly pursuing his creative passions: painting, writing, and making people laugh, whether they want to or not. Shelfstealers is honored to publish THE PERENNIAL FRESHMAN, the first in a three-part memoir, where George ‘comes of age.’ We’ll be releasing Part II – THE PETULANT SOPHOMORE, dealing with George’s hedonistic years in Hollywood, in 2013.
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