Back The Tracks – Part 3 – Sticks & Stones

Philadelphia, PA. – Mid-1970s

Words were used differently back in the 70s. If someone called you gay, it was because you didn’t want to do something. (“Come on… don’t be gay.” Or, “Don’t be gay all your life.”) Or, if you wore something that seemed uncool. (“Those shoes look gay.”) Or, if it was something you just found unappealing. (“That’s so gay.”) I mean this as no offense to the LGBT community, it’s just how people spoke back then. Let’s not forget when gay meant that you were having a really good time 100 years ago. “It was a gay event.” It simply meant, “happy”.

Sadly, even the word faggot, was used as a derogatory comment against young males. It wasn’t meant to say he was a homosexual, it simply meant that he wasn’t brave or masculine. (“You little faggot!”) Maybe simply cowardice. But it never attacked his sexuality. At that age, we barely had any sexuality. We were just kids! Let’s face it, if you look up the word, faggot in the dictionary, it simply means, a bundle of sticks. If you look at the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 4th LP, there’s a photo of an old man with a faggot on his back.

If you accidentally threw or hit a ball onto a rooftop, you called chipsies on it’s return to you. Chipsies was sort of like staking a claim on something. Words like Nerd, came from the show Happy Days. A popular sitcom of the 70s. If you said something was”bad” it really meant it was “cool.” We took this from the black community. Another one we stole from them was saying, “Your Mom.” (Which was a brutal burn back then.) But even though the kids on the Brady Bunch said, “Groovy” we were already over that word and none of us ever used it. The word, “boogie” was something gross that came out of your nose, and later meant “dance” with the arrival of disco music. (Seems fitting to me) To “bogart” a joint was to be selfish with the smoke. The ‘boob tube” was a television set, because it was supposed to make you stupid from watching it too much. Later, girls wore tube tops and we guys called them boob tubes. So, who knows? We even had, chumps and space cadets. What a colorful vocabulary!

If you wore sneakers that were cheap or weren’t Converse Chuck Taylor’s, they were referred to as Bobos. No idea where this term came from. But I do remember there was a song about them.

Bobos! They make your feet feel fine.

Bobos! They only cost a dollar nine!

Bobos! They are for hobos. 

So get your bobos, and be a hobo, today!

Once, two sisters (Deneen and Melissa) who lived a few doors down from me were riding in the back of their mother’s station wagon and they were giving the finger to other motorists. (The middle finger. Flipping the bird) Their mother asked them where they learned such a vulgar gesture. They simply stated, “Charlie Wiedenmann taught us that.”

I was immediately scolded and sent to my room because I posed such a threat to their young impressionable minds. (Honestly, I never remember telling them about the middle finger) Framed again!

Another time a group of us were playing in their backyard. I was hanging from a branch and it broke. I was instantly grounded again.

There were also plenty of nicknames back then. I’ll try to remember some of them. There were these two brothers. They didn’t live on my street. Maybe a few blocks over. I think they were both paperboys. I don’t know the actual boy’s names, but I heard them referred to as “Whacko, and “Stinkitis.” I know for a fact that Whacko was our paperboy for a while. Because he used to come to the door collecting for the Evening Bulletin and seemed sort of out of it most of the time. Maybe he just hated his job.

We had Buddy Drew. He had a lovely sister named Nancy Drew. (Literary!) But Buddy’s real name was Wilbur. (I get calling him buddy, now) He sometimes hung out with the older boys up at the corner of Magee and Oakley streets. I think they went by the name, The MO gang. (Magee & Oakley) They weren’t technically a gang, just a group of friends who liked to hang out together. They would pass the time smoking cigs, listening to music in their cars, playing street hockey, or Wiffle ball. Buddy Drew was small, so when their hockey puck or ball would go down the sewer they would call upon his services. The guys would remove the manhole cover and suspend buddy by his ankles into the sewer and he would retrieve their ball. No big deal, and a valuable skill.

There was a kid named Michael Hopper. He had the word, “Hop” on the back of his bicycle seat so that name stuck. And who can forget my neighbor from across the street named Steven with his amazing afro? He became known as Kink. (I always loved that name!)

I even remember my friend Michael had been called Brittle for awhile. But I don’t know why.  My friend Jimmy Hunsinger loved to perform magic shows at kid’s parties and had two different characters he became. “Jimbo the Clown, and The Great Hunsini”. Jimmy was always a very creative and industrial guy. He had business cards for his magic act at age 14!

Jimmy did the makeup for our Halloween costumes one year. I was Gene Simmons, My buddy Steve Peoples was Peter Criss, and Jimmy was Ace Frehley.

Halloween – Kiss & Make Up

There was a younger kid that always wanted to hang out with us. Sometimes we’d let him tag along but he couldn’t really go anywhere because his mom was really protective of him. He seemed like kind of a mama’s boy, but a sweet kid.

We’d all be hanging up in the treehouse and he’d wander down to the end of the lot and want to come up. We really didn’t want him around but we’d usually relent. Plus, he’d bring little boxes of cereal, so if the kid was bearing gifts he could hang.

Like any kid when you’re away from home for any period of time you ultimately have to go to the bathroom. We quickly learned to pee outside against a tree and it felt liberating to whip it out in the great outdoors and mark your territory like the dog you were.

But what if you had to go number two? This was rare but you had to be careful. Not so much with the act, but what to use to wipe your butt. You grab the wrong kind of leave from the wrong kind of plant, and you could end up with a whole new problem with your backside.

You could go home and do it, but most kids’ fear was, once they go into the house to do their business and their mom sees them, she’ll tell them to stay in. That was a bigger fear than anything else. It’s funny to me now but everybody worried about that. You’d have to stay in and possibly miss anything fun that your friends may have gotten into in your absence. I remember there was this one kid I knew who would accidentally wet himself because he held his pee in because he didn’t want to go home to pee and miss something. Crazy stuff!

So he has to go number two one day and doesn’t want to go home to do it for that very reason. We’re all up in the treehouse and we tell him to just go around the bushes behind a tree out of sight and drop trough and drop a deuce. He’s nervous about the whole ordeal but we assure him where he’s about to pinch a loaf there isn’t any poison ivy and the big leaves on the plants are okay to wipe your lily-white little butt with. It was either that or go home and stay in by your mom.

He chose to go in the bushes. So, after promising this kid we wouldn’t look, we sent him off into the hidden brush about 30 feet from the treehouse. We waited a minute for him to get firmly ensconced in the act and then proceed to throw stones at him from our treehouse arsenal. Now, don’t get me wrong, we never hit him. We just tossed pebbles in the general direction of where he was to freak him out while he was trying to go. (The same thing happened to all of us!)

It was hilarious and he took the hazing in stride.

Another time there was a bunch of us playing back the tracks and on the embankments around the rails and of course, we were all throwing rocks at stuff. Just dumb boy stuff. Well, this kid was there again, and lo and behold he gets beaned right in the back of the head with a rock.

It didn’t do any real damage, but his head was bleeding. Not really badly but whenever there was an injury, (And there were many) you got sent home to your mom. It was an unwritten law. Blood = Mom. So, we tell him he’ll be fine, but he should go home.

Doesn’t his mom come out and give me a bunch of crap about how my friend RJ threw the rock that hit her son, and that I was lying to protect him because he was my friend. I had no idea what she was talking about because I know RJ was standing on the embankment next to me and nowhere near where this kid was standing when he got hit. Frankly, I really have no idea who threw the rock that hit him. There was a bunch of kids down there. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. It could have glanced off a tree and struck him accidentally for all I know.

This is the nonsense we had to put up with all of the time because when you’re a young boy on the loose, there’s sure to be trouble. I’d love to hear some of my readers’ stories of them having nicknames or “getting in trouble.”

Some of the simplest lessons in life we learned as children. It’s good to know that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.

But in the information age we live in now, words can hurt and we must choose them wisely.


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One Slip…

Philadelphia, PA – 1969

I was 7 years old and in 2nd grade at Lawndale school. My teacher was Mrs. Koffler. She was like any other lady. When you’re really young anyone older than 12 years old looks like an adult. But I suspect Mrs. Koffler was in her mid to late twenties. A plain girl. Cat glasses with her straight blonde hair pulled straight back in a ponytail. Neatly dressed in the style of the day. Conservative sweaters and blouses, and always a nice skirt. She preferred patterns to solids. Always wore nude colored pantyhose. Comfortable shoes adorned her feet. Flats on most days. I suppose being on your feet much of the day dealing with a roomful of kids would tire any person out.

I remember Mrs. Koffler would sit at the front of the class and read to us sometimes. I remember she would sit cross-legged. I would be listening to the story with the other students and admire her legs. She was a young lady and I’m paying attention to the story, but her legs were distracting me.

I remember on occasion I would sometimes drop my crayon or pencil on the floor so I could bend down under my desk to pick it up, all the while stealing a glance at her well-turned gams.

Funny how you like certain things even as a young boy. You’re too young to even have any thoughts or actions in regard to sex. I know I didn’t find Mrs. Koffler attractive and didn’t even really like her. But I would still check out her legs. Odd, how things fire in the mind even when you’re very young. It doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still a vision you find pleasing.

I was a bright kid but found school in general an enormous bore. It felt more like a prison to me.

It was the time of day for us to do art. Which meant all sorts of supplies appear and an assignment given. I was always surprised that even art was structured in school. You got assignments. I get it. Draw a nice picture and give it to your parents to hang on the fridge. It’s Thanksgiving. Trace your hand and we’ll make it a turkey.

The one thing they never teach in school is creativity. Because they can’t. They can only give you exercises to develop it. Because they can’t do it and don’t even know what it really is. They’re just the hired help. You either have creativity or you don’t.

So, we’re all making something at our little desks with cloth felt and construction paper and Elmers glue. I always like Elmer’s glue. My favorite thing to do with it was to pour a small amount into my hand and spread it out across my palm. I would wait for it to dry and it became like an extra epidermis on my palm. I would slowly peel it off, and I felt like a snake molting its skin. I noticed that the glue made a beautiful impression on my tiny hand. I could see every detail of my palm on the sheet of dried glue. It even felt like skin when dry. I could see the fingerprints and everything perfectly. I used to wonder if this type of glue would ever have any practical applications for law enforcement or forensics. But what did I know? I was just playing with something I should have been slathering on the back of a piece of colored paper so I could affix it to something else. It was non-toxic so no one would die if they ate it. (Which I have done. It’s quite good and not nearly as salty a delicacy as Play-Doh)

I was nearly finished with my little mandatory art project and got up from my desk to throw away some scraps of paper. Maybe I was distracted by the ethereal beauty of my classmate, the lovely Donna McHugh with her blonde wavy hair and ice-blue eyes. But somehow as I rounded a desk I slipped on a piece of felt that had fallen to the floor along with other artistic detritus.

My head struck the edge of one of the desks, just between the suborbital foramen and the margin. (My left eyebrow)

I don’t remember actually striking the desk or any pain. I just remember someone getting me to my feet and walking me out of the class. (I think it was room 6) I was with this person, (Maybe Mrs. Koffler?) and I saw something I never saw before. As we walked down the hallway along the polished light hardwood floor, I watched as drops of bright red blood dripped away from my face and struck the floor. Big drops. Just every few feet as we quickly moved along. Drip….drip….drip.

We got to the school nurse’s office and whoever brought me in left. I simply obeyed the nurse’s orders. I wasn’t frightened. I wasn’t in any pain really. I just laid down on the little cot. I felt the white butcher paper crunch under me. I just wondered why would someone put paper on a bed.

She went to work on me with bandages and compression. My brow was apparently split open in a nasty gash. I never saw it and I suppose that’s a good thing. I’ve seen blood before. No big deal. Boys are always getting banged up in everyday life. It’s part of having wild fun. I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t see it because maybe that’s when the fear may have crept in.

I’m assuming they called my mother first. She didn’t drive so I’m sure she then called my father who worked at the Provident National Bank over on Cottman street.

I remember lying on the little cot when my father walked into the nurse’s office. He was wearing his overcoat and of course his hat. My father always wore a hat. He wore a hat beyond when it was no longer fashionable. He stayed right in the late sixties with his style. He told me that if he wore his style long enough it would come back again. (It later did!)

It was weird to see my father at school. Only moms haunted the school. Not dads. They were all at work every day.

The nurse had stopped the bleeding and had me bandaged up pretty good. My father lifted me up into his arms and carried me out of the school. I liked being carried by my dad. You feel safe in your dad’s arms. His cold coat. His rough face. His aftershave. All safe and familiar. Strong. He’s going to take care of this.

He carried me outside and put me in the back seat of the VW minibus. He asked that I lie down and be still, but hold on. I don’t know how long the ride was. Everything seems long when you’re little. Time is a crazy thing when you’re young. But time is relative. If you’re 50 years old and something’s going to happen in 6 months, that’s no time at all based on how long you’ve been on Earth. But if you were 5 years old and someone told you that Christmas was 6 months away, that’s 1/10 of your entire life. That feels like forever!

Anyway, we get to the hospital. I don’t remember going in or anything about the place. Just that everything was bright white. They laid me down on a bigger bed. (More butcher paper) The doctor came in and looked at my head. I remember him saying he was going to give me a few stitches. I’d never seen stitches except on the Frankenstein monster in the movies. Would it be a long black line, with shorter lines going across it like in a cartoon? Is that what they really looked like?

I know my dad stayed in the room the whole time. I remember looking up while the doctor went to work on me. He had a curved needle and thread. I guess my head had been hurting and the tiny little pricks really didn’t bother me at all for some reason. You’d think with my anxiety I’d have been freaking out, but anxiety is the fear of what might happen. This already happened. The doctor was just patching me up. I felt totally calm.

The doctor told me that he had put 12 stitches in my head.

It didn’t take long, and within no time my dad was taking me out of there. I don’t remember if I sat up or laid down on the way home.

Whenever any of the kids in the family had a cold they obviously stayed home from school. Sure you were coughing and sneezing and were just generally uncomfortable. But the cool thing was, we had a convertible sofa in our living room. We never used it for guests. We only used it when the kids were sick. My mom would open it up, prop up the head, and grab some pillows and a blanket. It was right in front of the TV. So getting sick wasn’t really that bad. getting your temperature taken and eating gross medicine was a bit unpleasant, but you got to watch TV all day and not go to school. Oh, and your mom waits on you hand and foot. Brilliant day.

Soup. Toast. All the fixings!

So, dad gets me home and my mom already has the sickbed ready. I got in my pajamas and hopped right in. I had a bandage on my head so my sisters couldn’t see my injury or my stitches. I remember it being described as a little black eyebrow above my real one.

Everyone was making a fuss over me and I was happy to be home. I just relaxed on the bed with my two sisters around me in the room as we watched TV.

I guess my dad had left for a short while because for about a half-hour I didn’t see him. But he soon returned and handed me a big bag. I opened it and inside it was a box full of little plastic spacemen! They were red white and blue and in all different positions. (Just like army men) I was very grateful to receive such a bounty. It wasn’t Christmas. I had simply slipped and busted my head open.

“Charles was so brave today. He never cried and laid perfectly still during the entire process. I’m really proud of him.”

I’ll never forget that.

Physical pain isn’t so bad. It’s mental cruelty and wickedness at the hands of others that make me cry. That’s an enduring pain.

A week or so later they took me to our local doctor. Dr. Alexander removed the stitches once the wound had completely healed. “The other doctor said he gave you 12 stitches, well  I just took out 13,” he said.

Seems like a more appropriate number in regard to what had happened to me that day. The doctor did a terrific job on my injury that day. The scar is so light you’d never know I had one. I’d have to bring up the story and show it to you.

And if we ever meet, I will.


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