It’s possible my mind’s playing loosey-goosey, at least today, but in recollection the last cookie-cutter birthday party my mom had for me at our house in Huntington was when I turned nine. As was the custom in the early-1960s, a paper bag modestly filled with candy and baseball cards was given to each of the dozen or so guests, after the softball and blowing out candles ritual was completed. I’d guess it was the usual crew at 123 LaRue Dr., but what’s most memorable, and still makes me gag, was later that night on the bunkbed I shared with my brother Gary, we were watching a sitcom and then I raced to the john and barfed for 15 excruciating minutes. Probably not uncommon: in my case it was the combination of too many Clark bars and four packs of the newly-introduced Sour Orange gum I’d consumed. The chewing gum was wretched but sweet—I never had it again—and the toilet bowl was a foreign and ugly mosaic that I had to clean up. Clark bars got a commuted sentence—hard to knock out a staple—but to this day I’m not tempted by any edible that has “sour” on the label or menu. The exception is tangy, not yet ripe plums, peaches and apples, and maybe a half-hearted effort at Chinese sweet & sour soup.
Several years later, I attended seven bar mitzvahs of sixth-grade pals who became men at 13 (although in that era, the time-worn definition of “becoming a man” wasn’t an option, unless my friends held back, and who did that?), and for the honor were required to read from the Torah, and in more religious families had to sing. Bruce Arbonies and I were booted from one temple by an official when we couldn’t contain our laughter upon hearing either Bobby Ringler or Jimmy Braun warbling at the front of the house. After five minutes in the penalty box we were re-admitted and then went on to the reception, which was always the highlight.
The picture above, snapped by one of my brothers, brings back not a single memory (although the date’s on the flip side). Complete erasure. I do know, from the looking at the assembled that it was after the completion of first grade—the school year ended on around my June 24th birthday—and I recognize most of the faces, but not a single activity that took place. Top left is Timmy Finnegan, whose family ran the popular Finnegan’s tavern in downtown Huntington, and he was a very nice kid who lived on the other—fancier—side of LaRue with whom I shared lunch several times as a kid. He wore glasses, which back then was, in common lingo, a “nerd alert,” but soft-spoken Timmy was cool. It was a drag that his Irish-Catholic parents yanked him out of Southdown Elementary School for a parochial school, and, as these fleeting friendships go, I’m not sure I ever saw him again.
Bobby Ringler, with whom I still stay in touch, stands fourth from the top, next to a fellow I can’t for the life of me identify. Maybe he was a ringer, someone imported to fatten up the crowd. I love the notion, but that wasn’t in Mom’s playbook. Fourth from the bottom is the late Matt Hazelwood, a smart and stand-up guy who lived on Preston St., just a hop through the woods. I remember one Friday night when Matt and a few other fellows—this was ninth grade—were out for a lark in town, with a sack of purloined bottles of beer, and out of nowhere Matt, with a smooth voice, sang, “Masturbation can be fun!” from the song “Sodomy” on the Hair soundtrack. Keep it to yourself, I thought, but his laughter was infectious. As it happened, in 1989 it turned out that his brother Joe was the disgraced captain of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and from what I gather it left a guilt-by-association stain on the family. Anyway, I found out in 2012 that Matt was an accomplished conductor in Colombia, among other locales—with more girth—and died suddenly at 57. That was no good.
I’m on the bottom row, second from the left, wearing what looks like a madras shirt, and next to the end of the bottom line is Kenny, a year older than me, and a neighbor, another kid I hung out a lot with when young, swinging from vines in the woods behind the houses at the top of the cul-de-sac, lighting firecrackers and playing touch football. His parents were odd ducks, devout Christian Scientists who didn’t believe much in hospitals. Outwardly, however, Don and Nan were extraordinarily friendly, and no one on our hill mouthed off about their religion. (At least that I know of: it could be they were gossiped about at cocktail parties by the adults.)
Kenny took a turn in Junior High, hanging with a rough crew, and he’d acknowledge me at recess, but was a little embarrassed since his new buddies were, if hardly strung-out, glue-sniffers and pill-poppers who turned up their noses at me, a straight-A seventh-grade student, dressed in jeans, desert boots and a short-sleeved white shirt, at 12, not yet even cognizant of marijuana’s sweet fragrance. No idea where Kenny is today: I hope (unlike Dicky Howard, to his right, who was killed at 30 in a car accident) he’s on top of his game and content with whatever his path led to.
Take a look at the clues to figure out what year it is: The Incredible Hulk #1 is released; The Ranger 4 spacecraft crashes into the moon; Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibit premiers in Los Angeles; The Rolling Stones make their debut in London, opening for Long John Baldry; Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl is published; The Village Voice benefits immensely from a long NYC newspaper strike; Titus Welliver is born and William Faulkner dies; Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain” is the top country single; the Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy” is #10 on Billboard’s year-end list; and Walter Lippmann wins the “International Reporting Pulitzer Prize.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023