The summer of 1948 was a magical time for a ten-year-old boy living in north Buffalo. With my brother John and cousin Bill, we did a lot of things boys do during summer vacation. We also did a lot of things they shouldn’t do. On Depew Ave., a block from home, sat two residential lots where once large homes left foundations and concrete steps and little else to remind one of the Buffalo hey-day of the early 20th Century. An unpaved gravel driveway led to a six-car garage that still stood on one lot. The other lot was mostly overgrown with vegetation, a pair of concrete steps the only reminder of what use to be.
Enormous elm trees rose above lots, forty to fifty feet high, their branches full of dark green leaves that moved like waves in the breeze. Trees like them spread above our own street, joining above the center in an arch. The wonderment of a large tree stuck in my mind that summer and it never left. Hide n’seek was an after dinner adventure that tested our ingenuity. Good hiding places were always at a premium since we’d lived in the neighborhood for four years by then. Cousin Bill Cunningham found his best hiding places in those elm trees in the vacant lots at 245 Depew. Once, as I looked for my hiding place, I was called by an unseen hider, “Dan, Dan, I’m up here.” A way, way up in that tree was my cousin Bill, grinning, giggling at his success. He was at an elevation reserved for birds, or at least monkeys. I began climbing an adjacent tree. All the while I was comparing my elevation with his. The higher I got the more the limbs swayed in the breeze. I dared go no further, but Bill was easily another ten feet higher.
When at last we revealed our hiding place to the frustrated seeker, he said, “You guys are crazy. If you fell, they’d pick you up with blotters.” I guess he was right, but climbing became an obsession, almost a right of passage to manhood, a victory over fear and childhood. But for one exception, Bill’s overcoming of heights and fear never changed for the rest of that summer, more on that later. Without doubt, he was the tree-climbing champion of the world. Brother John found his best hiding place a few yards from the elm trees in the six-car garage. After climbing a telephone pole behind the garage, he noticed the roof of the garage had a large hole in it, perhaps three feet by two. Into the unknown of the attic space he went and onto a piece of 4 by 8 plywood. Days later he revealed his super secret place and it soon became our clubhouse.
We dragged all kinds of things up there, throw rugs, more plywood, flashlights, comic books and even candles. We ate lunches and drank Pepsi’s up there. The clubhouse was visited almost daily until the summer ended and we went back to school. One day was a little more memorable than the rest. Four or five of us were in that best of hiding places when a car drove half way up the driveway. Two women got out and approached the garage. As they talked we watched from above until they entered the garage, talking about the property. We froze. I was afraid my cousin Bill would break the silence with a good laugh bursting through his muffled mouth. He didn’t and our secrecy was maintained.
That summer we had two occurrences that I will call scrotal events. The first involved my friend Doug Godino. We were playing one-on-one football in another vacant lot up the street at 295 Depew. Yes, we really played one-on-one tackle football, no helmets, no pads, and no cups. I gave Doug my best shake and bake move on a kickoff return and he turned to recover and make the tackle from behind. My foot went into his groin when we hit the turf. Doug limped home and I didn’t see him until noon the next day. We approached each other from opposite directions on Parker Ave. At a distance I could see Doug was still limping, his legs spread apart like a bow-legged rodeo champ.
“My mother said I’m ruined for life,” whatever that meant. He then proceeded to show me the extent of his injury. In front of God and anyone driving by on Parker Ave. he showed me his swollen member. An enlarged purple vein looked like it could pop any second. I said, “Do you want an aspirin?”
The second scrotal event involved Cousin Bill. Doug’s father would only allow two guests at once to play a detective board game. We discussed the problem and Bill suggested John and I go and he’d find something to do for an hour. While we planned the apprehension of Torpedo Barone, Prune Face, and Flattop Jones, Bill found a tree to climb. It wasn’t a forty or fifty-footer, but an insignificant pear tree, a mere ten feet tall. When the board game ended we walked home to find that our cousin had been rushed to the hospital. When the facts were ferreted out, we learned that Bill had tried to leap from the pear tree to a nearby garage roof. Something went wrong and the champion tree climber straddled a picket fence. In the hospital, Bill’s father was weeping at his son’s bedside. That phrase came up again, “Ruined for life.”
A lot of blame went around but I never claimed any because it was Bill who suggested we go play the board game without him. And I never suggested he climb the pear tree or leap from it. Years later Bill accused John and me of abandonment. I think the indictment was linked to the words “you dirty rats.” I thought the only “dirty rats” in the episode were Torpedo Barone, Prune Face and Flattop Jones. Thankfully, Bill and Doug both fathered kids and that left the phrase “Ruined for life” to ring a bit hollow. Regardless of the blame, I did sympathize with both of them, especially after straddling a hardwood desk chair as I descended from the upper bunk of my freshman dorm. I wasn’t ruined for life either, it just felt like it. Collision occurred at the inside of my upper thigh, just an inch or so from being the “ruined for life.” The leg of the chair sheared off at a 30-degree angle.
Adjacent to the lot where we played one-on-one football, sat a magnificent stone house. It was vacant at the time, was renovated several years later, and is still in use today. Brother John found his way into it and we took several nights after sunset to explore it, kinda scary after dark. Hardwood trim abound. Large baseboards and ceiling molding were a source of delight even though the rooms were darkened. Bedrooms had floor cavities for storing valuables beneath the carpets and fireplaces graced almost every room. The basement was dry despite years of neglect. A sturdy tile roof and thick stonewalls kept the building from deteriorating while others in the neighborhood fell into ruin. In contrast, the house on the other side of the football field was torn down the following year. White or off-white brick veneer, it was magnificent. A curved drive way led to and from the front steps lending an aire of sophistication. Only the garage or carriage house remained. Occupants lived in the up stairs apartment for years after the house was gone. One tenant owned a classic Packard automobile that fit in perfectly to the once proud estate. A recent check on Google shows the carriage house still there with an addition in front of it.
My duties as an altar boy didn’t end for the summer. I served Mass either at St. Rose or at the Carmelite Convent in the morning and benediction at the convent in the evening. On several occasions my fellow server was Peter Nolan. He had just finished third grade and his first year as an altar boy. One evening we served together for benediction. I asked Peter to take the bells and I would handle the incense censer. When Peter rang the bells to notify the cloistered nuns to begin singing, he over did it. Normally a one second burst was sufficient. When Peter got to the eighth second he turned his head and smiled. He used at least ten seconds to notify the nuns. I often wondered what they thought of the over zealous ringing. Were they giggling back there behind the big black curtain? The next evening I relieved Peter of his bell ringing duties and he was to take the censer. As the priest ascended the steps to the altar, Peter says, “Dan, Dan.” I turned to see the censer arcing over Peter’s head, the chain buckling like a big kid going too high on a small swing. Only centrifugal force and the hand of God kept the burning charcoal from littering the sanctuary. Sixty-four years later I can laugh at it, back then I was horrified. Peter’s brother Mike expressed Peter’s altar service most aptly by calling him a liturgical turd.
That same wondrous summer Brother John led us into the latest fad- Jughead hats.
Jughead, the cartoon character from the Archie comics, wore a fedora with the brim trimmed down to a saw tooth of about one or one and a half inches. You then covered the dome with Wilkie campaign buttons, Dewey buttons or those of cartoon characters. Being the benefactor of a neighbor’s good will, I inherited several of those campaign buttons and wore them proudly. All I knew was that Thomas Dewey and Wendell Wilkie both lost. Loser buttons were cool. I took the Jughead hat to a new level. A comic book ad sold raccoon tails for $2.00. I ordered immediately and two weeks later I had a big fluffy coon tail. It hung from the back of the hat like Day Crockett. The others were envious and soon ordered theirs. Nobody got a big fluffy; they got small gnarly. They wore them anyway, but mine was cool and theirs weren’t.
September came and that meant school and football. God, how I loved football! We played on the school property lawn, bluegrass turf as good as any stadium in the country. In the choose-up to determine the teams, I could tackle and knock down passes, so I was a second round pick. The faster guys who could make long TD runs went first. The summer was soon forgotten and sixth grade began with the nun-from-hell who didn’t like me. In the 70’s the magnificent elm trees were stricken by the Dutch elm disease and taken down one by one until they were all gone. My old neighborhood had little eight foot maple trees planted to replace them. The coon tail got infested with maggots. The Jughead hat lost in time and new houses were built where the old magnificent ones used to be. I don’t know any family that lives in that old neighborhood, not one. It really is true…You can never go back.
(24 July 2013)
Both as a consultant and author, Charles Bonasera’s story-telling have motivated people to change patterns and resolve problems in their lives. All of his books contain valuable, practical lessons that people can easily apply to bettering and managing their lifestyles. He has also written a myriad of articles which can be found on his website at www.charlesmbonasera.com.