When I was a kid there was a pond—I don’t remember the name exactly, something like Pauldeen’s, and since it’s probably now a condo unit research showed up nothing—halfway between our home on LaRue Dr. and the Southdown Shopping Center. Even then, in the 1960s, it was polluted, with a foul stench in the summer and no fish to be found, although I did once nab a snapping turtle. In the wintertime it froze over, at a time when winter was winter, and neighborhood kids would skate for hours, and if anyone pulled a Harry Bailey I was unaware of it. I was a clod on ice skates; they were uncomfortable, gave me blisters and it was embarrassing to keep falling down. I gave up after half a dozen unintentional pratfalls. On the other hand, my brother Gary, a star athlete (college lacrosse scholarship), might twirl on the ice for six hours, playing pick-up hockey with his buddies. He saved up for some cool skates, had a good stick and if he was ever injured kept it to himself. I know he kept all his teeth.
The picture above is of my Uncle Joe at 15 (left) and a friend mugging for the camera somewhere near my grandparents’ Bronx home. (I’ve mentioned before that the homestead wasn’t far from Yankee Stadium, opened in 1923, and Joe and Uncle Pete—maybe my mom, too—went to some of those games with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri, and excuse the repetition but it still flips me out.) The clothes of the two teens stand out—the newsboy caps, neckties (!), striped knee socks, knickers, winter coats that’d make vintage rags collectors drool today—as do the tanks masquerading as cars in the background.
I’ve long been fascinated by the fantasy of time travel (wish I believed, but don’t, and that’s better left to science fiction writers and over-stimulated scientists), so it’s not a surprise that one of my favorite TV shows was The Time Tunnel, which ran on ABC (1966-67) and was cancelled after just one year—and 30 episodes—when James Darren and Robert Colbert would enter a Gyro Gearloose contraption, float around and arrive at historic events like the French Revolution, Custer’s Last Stand, the Alamo, and hang out with Marco Polo and Robin Hood. On occasion, I’ll daydream and wonder what period of history I’d like to transport to—for a year, although it’d be just a suspended second of my current life.
The Bronx-style Americana of the above picture is a decade that would be low on my list. The exact year can be deciphered from the clues below, but aside from some memorable music and movies, I’d skip ahead, maybe to 1948 in Manhattan (my most common thought) or, as I ponder this, a year living in a smart townhouse in Greenwich Village in 1957. As a man nearing middle age, say 32, of means and some literary/journalistic repute, I’d get the dailies early in the morning (even if I’d been at the Apollo or Vanguard the night before, seeing the likes of Little Richard, Buddy Holly—the first white performer at the Apollo, booked by a promoter who thought he was black—Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane), pop on the TV, brew some Maxwell House and make a few calls before heading to the office around 11, and adjourning for lunch at one, kibbitzing with sources, peers and at least once a week meeting my wife Melissa (who also made trip back to ’57) at some swanky Upper East Side restaurant. Staying at home on a quiet night, Steve Allen and Jack Paar were on the air, as well as M Squad and Perry Mason. I wouldn’t be a beatnik, but as an enthusiastic observer of everything cultural and political that would be apparent not many years later, I’d stop in at the local clubs, maybe smoke a reefer in an alley, and have good-rockin’/howling/cantankerous party.
Look at these clues to figure out what year it is: Colonel Sanders opens his first finger lickin’ good outlet in Kentucky; Jean-Luc Godard is born; the Empire State Building begins construction; Hostess Twinkies are invented; Betty Boop premiers in film Dizzy Dishes; John Barth is born and William Howard Taft dies; Sigmund Freud authors Civilizations and its Discontents; Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg release their first Hollywood collaboration; The Hayes Code for films was instituted; and the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023