Grandpa: Something’s Burning

Today’s post is inspired by three guest contributors—Aunt Ar, Aunt El, and Dad. We all have memories related to Grandpa and his passion for Allied Chemical and setting things on fire. He was constantly discussing Allied happenings while bragging about being unaffected by all the chemicals he was exposed to over the years. I guess he thought he was like Superman, but in the end, he wasn’t.

One day, he brought us all out in the backyard for a lesson involving matches, fire extinguishers, and a garbage can lids. As I explained in Motor Vehicle Musings, the purpose of the lid was not just to demonstrate how to pass the automobile emissions test or to contain unpleasant odors. To Grandpa, this cover also served as excellent receptacle for an impressively grand fire whereby he could instruct us on the proper method to use a fire extinguisher.

While this happened long ago, knowing Grandpa, I am fairly certain that gasoline was used to start that fire. Once the flames had erupted, he pulled the pin, squeezed a trigger, and began to empty the canister of its powdery white contents. This lesson was definitely more entertaining than learning how to iron a shirt or change a diaper—lessons I learned from Grandma.

Grandpa also had a unique approach to lighting the charcoal grill when lighter fluid was unavailable. Dad remembers that Grandpa explained to him that he could use gasoline as a substitute accelerant. Grandpa stood back about three feet from the grill, tossed in match or two, and KA-BOOM, the flames shot high into the sky.

Aunt Ellen recalled a classic Grandpa moment which occurred on her birthday. After cooking the burgers, “I believe he turned up the flame with the lid down to burn off the stuck food maybe, and when he opened it up, there was a flash in his face and his eyebrows were burnt. He looked stunned and Mart said, “Hey Dad, do you want me to throw you in the pool?” That was so Grandpa and so Uncle Mart. I can just picture the moment.

For Aunt Arlene, her Grandpa “fire memory” involved music. “One time this song played on the radio. When we sang ‘Something’s Burning’, Dad said ‘what, what?’ From then on, whenever the song played, we sang, ‘something’s burning what, what’.

I suppose Grandpa heard them singing the song and thought they were warning him of a fire somewhere, so now they associate that song with him.

Oh, Dad! I miss you!

Church Back in the Day

Going to church today is vastly different from my childhood, and from what I have read, 1964 was when a very large line was drawn in the sand between the old and new mass. That was the year priests turned and faced the congregation, and parts of the service were now recited in English. As a young child,I recall going to church and not understanding a word the priest said because it was all spoken in Latin. Mass began with the words: “In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti”, which is translated as the familiar “In the name of the Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”.

This was all so mysterious and confusing to me, yet the entire congregation all knew how to respond with the familiar “Amen.” I remember hearing random phrases uttered and translating them into my own words. When the priest would say, “Dominus vobiscum” (The Lord be with you), the congregation would answer, “et cum spiritu tuo” (and also with you). In my head, I was absolutely convinced that we were being told God’s telephone number, “EC-220.”

I need to digress a bit. Growing up, all phone numbers began with an “exchange.” Ours was “Deerfield 4”, which was shortened to DE4. So our early telephone number began with “DE4”, followed by four digits. (No area codes then) So if you follow my logic as a little girl, you may understand why I thought the priest was informing us of God’s phone number. (Did I think it was in case of an emergency when prayer wasn’t fast enough to reach Him?)

I remember the aroma of incense permeating every corner of our church. On one occasion, I announced to the congregation in my playground voice, “I smell carrots.” Hearing that, and imagining those words coming from a small child’s mouth, I laugh now and hope Grandma felt the same way.

Back then, everyone dressed for church. No one ever crossed the threshold of our church wearing jeans, sneakers, sandals, or shorts. Such irreverent behavior would have you escorted to the nearest door. Men wore ties, and women were clothed in dresses, white gloves, and always, always, always, a hat. The hats were not simply a matter of style, but rather a requirement. If, by chance, you somehow did not have a hat, you would take a tissue and bobby-pin it onto your head. (I am not joking!)

No one was permitted to receive communion without fasting. I believe that the early rule forbade all food for three hours, and no liquids, except water, for one hour prior to receiving communion. That was difficult and was probably the reason Grandma was able to get us all out the door so early. Get up, go to church, and hurry home to have breakfast. And those were the days before Saturday evening masses were allowed to fulfill your “Sunday obligation.” No one considered complaining. You just did it because those were the rules.

First communion and first confession happened in first grade, and like your first communions, we all wore our little bridal outfits. I remember being so afraid of confession, and back then, they made you go often. How many sins does a six year old actually commit, and did you really keep track of the number of times you committed each sin? (Kelly, I am so sorry about literally pushing you into the confessional. I still harbor some guilt about that moment.)

As I recall, I would recite the commandments in my head, skipping over “thou shalt not commit adultery” and “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” because, well, I didn’t comprehend the meaning of adultery and I had no wife.  However, I did have parents to honor, but did I really know how many times I committed each crime? So I would decide on my list of sins to confess, and then add at least one more sin, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (translation: don’t lie) to compensate for not really knowing how many categories of sins I committed.

One final thought about religion did not occur in church, but is definitely church-related. Every day at school, either before or after the Pledge of Allegiance, we would all recite “The Lord’s Prayer.” My interpretation was that God’s name was Harold (“Harold be thy name”), and someone was taking us all to Penn Station (“lead us not into Penn Station”). I am confident that I was not alone with those beliefs. I was just taught to memorize the prayer but never given an explanation. Certain things you just accepted and never questioned.

You could always tell who in the class was Catholic and who was not, because the Catholic children would always stop short of reciting the prayer at “deliver us from evil”, while the rest would continue with “and thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” I was always confused, but that was how it was taught to us. Several years ago the Catholic Church finally decided to join the parade and now recites the little thing at the end like everyone else.

In 1962, just after the end of second grade, prayer in public school ended. I am not pointing this out to begin a political discussion or a discourse on the Constitution, because I only want to give you all a window into what life was back when I was young. No debates, please. Church was just different.

Karen and Maureen with grandmothers after first communion- 1962.
Karen and Maureen with grandmothers after first communion- 1962.

Lazy Summer Days

I was never was upset about our family vacations, or sometimes, lack of them.  I have fond memories of our times spent in Wildwood Crest at the Saratoga Inn, which was never much of a holiday for Grandma. For her, it was just a change of scenery. She not only packed our clothes and toiletries but also food to bring on the trip–and then went grocery shopping when we arrived.  We were quite cramped at that hotel, but somehow, I don’t recall that at all.  I just remember the fun.

We always had such a good time there. I remember some of my siblings casually strolling over to one of the nearby hotels for a poolside lunch, pretending they were staying there in order to grab a free hotdog.

We looked forward to the night when Grandma and Grandpa brought us to the Boardwalk for the rides, which I am sure was not nearly as entertaining for them as it was to the five of us.  It was there that I first experienced air travel, riding in a helicopter over the shoreline for $5.

Another memory was a night at Bertrand Island, which was an amusement park in nearby Lake Hopatcong. We’d pile into the station wagon, some fighting to sit in the “way back”. I was usually wedged in the front seat between Grandma and Grandpa.  Seatbelts were not invented yet, so anytime Grandpa had to stop quickly, Grandma would thrust her arm in front of me, ensuring that I would not go hurling through the front window. I still find myself doing that, on occasion, today.

I never went on the infamous rickety, wooden roller coaster at Bertrand Island, but I loved going on the Lost River, which was a boat ride that slowly meandered through a darkened tunnel. I was never very adventurous at amusement parks even as a kid.

Aunt Ar pointed out that we would set up Kool-Aid stands in front of the house to pay for the rides on nickel night at the amusement park. We’d sit at the curb for hours, yelling, “Get your iced-cold Kool-Aid”. It was an activity and a businesss–a real win-win! I suspect it wasn’t cold for long.

Thanks, Arlene, for the reminder.

Sadly, the park closed in 1983, swallowed up by bigger and better amusement parks and replaced with condominiums. I found a video, which depicts scenes from its heyday intermingled with photographs after its demise. I loved this video because of what Bertrand Island was, and hated it because of what it became.

But the best summertime activity was our backyard, above-ground pool. I always felt so lucky to have that pool which Grandpa assembled and then dismantled every year, sometimes converting the spot into a skating rink for us to use during the winter.  We were always allowed to invite our friends over for a swim, and since I had a June birthday, it was nice to sometimes have a swimming party to celebrate my special day.

I loved making “whirlpools” in it, and that is where I learned to swim and dive. On hot June days while school was still in session, Grandma would have our lunch awaiting us at the top of the pool ladder, so that we could cool down before we had to return to our stifling hot classrooms.

Another favorite activity was our slip-n-slide. While there was an element of danger involved, we all spent many happy hours playing on it and never considered the possibility of breaking an arm or a leg.

We never went on any vacations which involved air travel. No one I knew during that era ever did. The Jersey Shore was the furthest destination for our family. I have nothing but warm-hearted memories of my summers back then and only hope you all feel the same way.

Snowy Days

As a kid, I thought snow was the best—almost. It fell in line behind Christmas, my birthday, and summer vacation, but still, a big snowfall brought joy to my heart. It meant sleigh riding, snowmen, snow forts, snowball fights, and a day off from school.

I recall standing at the kitchen door, with a bright light illuminating the back yard, watching as the big, white puffy snowflakes piled on top of one another until it seemed deep enough to close school. In the morning, we would charge down our very steep staircase to listen to WMTR, the local radio station, hoping to hear the words, “Boonton public schools-closed”, uttered from the lips of the morning announcer.

Snow Storm in Boonton.
Snow Storm in Boonton.

What should we do that day? After Grandpa shoveled the driveway, and the plows made several passes down our street creating huge mounds of snow flanking the driveway, it was time to suit up and head outside.

Tricia and Karen- No Boots?
Tricia and Karen- No Boots?

We would grab a few shovels and burrow our way into the mountain of whiteness to create the most awesome hideaway—a snow fort. The potential danger that another snowplow could make a second pass down our street and entomb us in our icy fortress never occurred to us. We were lucky nothing happened.

There was a plethora of sledding routes to choose from: Down the driveway, down the street, or in the backyard. The hill behind our house was the location of choice—our Uncle Pat’s yard. We would follow one of two routes. The longest took us from the top of the yard, winding carefully past the pear tree in the middle of the path, and ending in either our yard or my grandmother’s adjacent yard. Having two houses at the end of the route proved particularly dangerous after an ice storm. I recall losing control of my sled and crashing into my grandma’s house one time, shattering her basement window in the process. I was afraid to tell her, but she was very forgiving.

The alternative route involved heading up the side of the hill, beginning at the top under the cherry trees, and aiming our sleds toward another neighbor’s yard. We would spend hours speeding down the slope, and then slowly climbing back up the hill again and again and again.

When the roads were clear enough for my parents to drive, we would often go to Aunt Marian’s house and ride our sleds with our cousins and their neighbors. This was more dangerous, because their street intersected another at the bottom of the hill. Sometimes, we would send a scout down to watch for cars. On one particular fun-filled day of sledding, my cousin Alan drew the unlucky straw, I guess, so he rode down to take up his post at the cross street.

The problem with being the spotter was that no one protected him. As I recall, Alan reached the bottom at the same time as a car. He was not seriously injured, but that ended that afternoon of fun.

Those were the days. Now that I live where snow is quite the spectacle because of its infrequency, I laugh at the ingenuity children use in creating vehicles to ride in the snow—garbage can lids, cardboard boxes, and Tupperware containers. I watch them play in the snow from my window and recall those distant days of my childhood with a smile and a bit of sadness as I think of those loved-ones who are now far away or gone.

Arlene and Billy Ready to Go
Arlene and Billy Ready to Go


Motor Vehicle Musings

As a kid, unlike all of you, I had no opinion of the DMV. It was something Grandpa took care of, because Grandma always said that cars were “his department.” As a professional chemist and perpetual schemer, Grandpa had opinions regarding how to pass the emissions inspections, and I guarantee his methods were unique and would probably be frowned upon by every inspector.

One day, before Dad’s annual visit to the local motor vehicle station, Grandpa pulled him aside and insisted he come out to the backyard for a demonstration on a guaranteed method on how to pass the test.

He removed the lids from two garbage cans and turned both upside down. Grandpa then proceeded to fill one with gasoline, the other with alcohol, and then tossed a lighted match into each one. He then instructed Dad to observe the resulting smoke from the two sources.  The alcohol fire produced no smoke. Finally, he repeated the experiment, this time using a mixture of gasoline and alcohol. Again, like the fire using pure alcohol, there was no smoke, so Grandpa concluded that the addition of alcohol would greatly reduce or eliminate any smoke. That was our scientist father! I recommend that you DO NOT do this.

Grandpa’s lesson and advice to Dad was to wait until the gasoline tank of his car was almost empty, and then add about a gallon of alcohol to the tank immediately before heading to the inspection station. After passing the inspection, Grandpa told Dad to proceed directly to a gas station to fill up his tank. This would dilute the alcohol and prevent damage to the engine. According to Grandpa, this would insure that, regardless of how much pollution an automobile would emit, his method would insure a pass. I think Grandpa missed the point of auto emission tests.

I never heard that story, or maybe I just forgot it. In any case, each year, as an adult, I would go on my annual pilgrimages to the DMV. I always worried I would fail (proof that Dad never taught me Grandpa’s proven method), and I always chose the worst time to go. The lines were consistently long, so I was convinced there was never a good time to have my car inspected.

Therefore, when I would go with the three of you, in preparation, we would stop at Toys R Us first. Each of you was permitted to choose one toy to entertain yourself. Still, it was torturous, so after that first visit to the DMV, whenever one of you misbehaved, rather than sending you to your room or making you go to bed earlier, I would threaten a trip to Motor Vehicles as punishment. “No, no, I’ll be good”, would be the unanimous response.

Thankfully, South Carolina does not care if we end up like China with alarming-levels of air pollution. There are no requirements here for any vehicle inspections whatsoever! Look out lungs!

Beauty Torture- First Perm

I found a picture which I am sharing with you, because it is an example of the beauty routine I was forced to endure as a very young child. You are very fortunate that you were children born in the eighties and were not subjected to this periodic form of womanly torture. I am guessing that I was approximately five years old when this photo was taken.

Alan, Karen, and Billy- about 1960
Alan, Karen, and Billy- about 1960

The curlers you see in my hair were the result of what was known at that time as the greatest invention to women—the Toni home permanent. It was a long process, and as the mother of three girls, I wonder how I was able to endure the awful procedure at such a young age.

First Grandma washed my hair, then she wrapped thin little papers around sectioned-off strands of hair before rolling them on tiny little rods. Next, the most god-awful-smelling solution in the world was dabbed on each curler (it was a cross between rotten eggs and a dead body), and then you waited for the curls to set. This was probably when this photo, the only one I have with Billy and Alan, was taken:

The next step was to wash my hair (in the kitchen sink), apply a neutralizing solution, and then wait again before Grandma finally removed the curlers. As fans of Legally Blonde, you all know that Grandma could not wash my hair for forty-eight hours. So I had to continue to endure that smell, although it was a bit weaker than when wet. I was such a good little girl!

For years, I continued to put up with Grandma and Toni until I was old enough to curl my own hair. At that time, I would go to bed every single night with curlers in my hair. This was clearly not very comfortable but for me, but it was a better choice than a day with Toni. (Yes, the smell was that bad!)

I continued to do this through my college years. In fact, I recall one night when I wanted to visit my friend, Sue, who lived at the other side of campus. In order to avoid being attacked, my friend Karen and I devised a strategy, which was to roll our hair in curlers (to look ugly and unappealing to all potential assailants), and grab a couple of baseball bats. Our plan worked, because we are both still alive today to tell the tale. I wonder if she remembers that story.

So girls, consider yourselves lucky that you were able to have all your hair treatments done by professionals in salons instead of by Mom in the kitchen.

Addiction to “The Show”- Who’s to Blame?

Growing up, Grandma was never a slave to the soaps. With five kids and a job, how could she? My grandmother, however, had her own set of daily soap operas which she rarely missed. Those were the days long before the invention of video tapes and DVRs, so she always had to be home to watch her stories.

Our family now has our own soap which we watch or record on a daily basis—“the show”, aka “The Young and the Restless.” I am now in my thirty-first year watching it, and two of you have been fans since you were little. How did this all begin?

I recall that during my sophomore year in college, the girls across the hall watched the Y&R, which was just shortly after it began in 1973. Not me, even though I had a television in my dorm room and, as a math major without lots of reading assignments, plenty of time to invest in one or more daily shows.

It was not until Kelly was born that I got sucked into the happenings of the Abbotts and Chancellors of Genoa City, Wisconsin by Grandma, but you all know that. You also know grandma’s introduction to “the show” had something to do with Aunt Lorraine’s mother, but you don’t know the details. So for the background, I contacted my cousin Tricia, who filled me in on her grandma, known to her grandchildren as Nana—Mrs. Zimmerman to the other cousins.

Here is what Tricia had to say:

I don’t remember the Y&R addiction, but yes, Nana was living with my parents at that point.  She definitely had vision issues and was supposedly legally blind, but if you wrote down something different than what she wanted, somehow she knew!  She was also supposed to use a walker and get assistance using the stairs, but she would just toss the walker or cane down the stairs and come down after it, scary!!

My mom was working and reached out to your mom to come over and check on her during the day.  Mom would make lunch and put it into the small fridge in Nana’s room and then your mom would come over and “visit” for a bit.  She was not checking up on Nana, no, no, no!  Just visiting!  Of course after the first few times Nana got mad that my mother thought she needed someone to babysit her.

So Grandma would visit Mrs. Zimmerman each day, and because of her vision problems, Grandma would explain to her what was going on during the show.  I’m not certain how long this went on, but it was long enough to reel in Grandma. By the time she came to help me shortly after Kelly was born, she was an addict, and when she returned home two weeks later, I was now a junkie as well.

Kelly would come home from first grade, and Jamie, who was just in pre-school, would fill her in on the latest storyline, which at that time, involved one of the many kidnappings occurring over the lifetime of the show..

The stories are cheesy, but still we watch. Grandma quit years ago because she said she was tired of listening to Sharon crying. Well, as we all know, Sharon is still crying twenty-one years later but we have been unable to break the habit. What is wrong with us?

Jamie at book signing with the late Jeanne Cooper--Katherine Chancellor from the Y&R
Jamie at book signing with the late Jeanne Cooper–Katherine Chancellor from the Y&R