Down in our basement we’d mimic the Beatles just like they were on Sullivan. I made replica guitars out of cutout cardboard accurate in every detail complete with knobs, frets and strings, coloring them in with pastels from my Jon Gnagy art set. I used my mom’s hairspray to fix the pastels to keep them from smearing and give the guitars a cool lacquered surface. I was always John, “the artistic one,” Wayne alternated between Paul and George and my brother Joe and one of Taylor twins would fill out the band. The twins would smuggle over one of their mother’s wigs, a Elizabeth Taylor kind of mop and press a wad of silly putty on their nose and took turns being Ringo. It was hilarious.
My parents never had much money to dole out but every now and then you’d manage get a quarter or fifty cents for something or another. I was a resourceful scrounger and kept a keen eye out for a glint of coinage lying about. I collected coke bottles I found along the road, you could get good money for the bottles if you had a box of them. I sold my duplicate Beatles cards at an inflated 5 cents a pop and made outrageous bets like I could walk across the room on my hands or drink a tablespoon of Tabasco sauce for a quarter. I could do it. When no one was looking, at my house or at neighbor’s, I’d take the liberty to search sofas for loose change in the deep crevasse back behind the cushions. It’s probably added up to hundreds of dollars over my lifetime.
When we had money, we headed to the railroad. There was a track not too far from Mechanics Valley Road. With Joe and my sisters in tow we’d follow it up about a mile (it was probably a half a mile, if that) until it came to one of our favorite places, the local candy store. You could buy plenty of candy for a quarter then because single candies were a penny and candy bars were a nickel or a dime. For 50 cents you could eat yourself sick. Inside a large glass counter there were three shelves of candy, on the top of the counter was an array of open boxes of gum, trading cards, candy bars and suckers. It was a treasure trove of candy. Overwhelming to behold, it was enough to drive you nuts as well as the proprietor who stood waiting impatiently behind the counter as your eyes darted back and forth while you hemmed and hawed and finally slobbered: “I’ll take one of them, two of those, —no three, a pack of this, a box of that, and so on. Your little brown bag would soon be filled to the brim with red hot dollars, Bazooka Gum, wax lips and candy necklaces for my sisters, Mallow Cups, Neccos, candy cigarettes, Pixy Sticks, black licorice twists, caramels and jawbreakers. Oh yeah … and two five-cent packs of Beatles cards with a powdery wedge of bubble gum in them. (I have to stop now — my teeth hurt thinking about it.) All that candy, all those cavities.
Later that year, I found out why people hate dentists.
I was paralyzed as I gripped the arms of the dentist chair. Pinned down by the dentist’s elbow, he held my jaw open with his thumb. My eyes closed at the sight of a frighteningly long needle headed into my mouth, straight into my gums and excruciatingly sensitive nerves. It killed me! He left the room while I laid there in rigor mortis recline. I blinked as tears streamed down my face and licked the inside of my mouth and wiped my tongue to see if there was blood. There wasn’t. The side of my face went totally numb, including my right eye. I grabbed a tiny dental mirror from his tray of torturous tools beside me and peered at my self through it. I looked like a very young Quasimodo.
The dentist returned and I watched nervously as he arranged the drilling bits, various pointy dental tools and cotton swabs on the tray beside me. He smelled of cigarettes and his nostrils were so hairy it looked like he had squirrels lodged up his nose. He held up the drill bit and revved it before going in. It buzzed in a high-pitched whine as he drilled out my cavities and packed them with silver fillings. After surviving that torture, like that wasn’t enough, I was lectured on my poor hygiene and excessive candy consumption.
“I better not see you back here any time soon!” the doctor warned.
I took that to heart and started brushing on a daily basis, sometimes twice. I still, miraculously, have that sweet tooth, re-filled a couple times since then.
We had been in North East for almost two years and our time was up. We would be moving down to Bainbridge Naval Base, six miles away in another month. Over the last few weeks I stayed over night at Wayne’s and the Taylor twin’s house as often as possible. We watched some our favorite shows— The Outer Limits, The Munsters and The Addams Family; the latter, two brand new shows that year. They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky…. You wouldn’t believe how many wise-ass kids sang that song at me through the years.
“That Addams Family has two d’s!” I’d come back with.
My friends and I were into monsters — big time. We loved to watch the horror classics— Frankenstein, The Wolfman, Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon to name a few. We paged through copies of Famous Monsters Magazine and marveled at the behind the scenes photos of monster movie making magic. It was terror-ific. We stared in awe at pictures of Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and the great Boris Karloff enduring hours in the make up chair or clowning around the set. As an artist, I had a deep appreciation for the artistry of special effects.
For Halloween that year I was the Wolfman, well technically, Wolfboy. I saved hair clippings from recent haircuts and pasted it to my face. I painted my eyes and tip of my nose black with my watercolor set and slipped on a set of wax candy fangs. My face itched something terrible and the teeth kind of melted, but I was convinced I looked just as scary as Lon Chaney Jr. ever did.
One of my last memories of North East was Wayne Dean’s ninth birthday party. It was a big shindig. Every Dean from miles around was there for the celebration. His parents, his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were all in attendance. It was outside on a warm fall afternoon as we stood around a cloth covered picnic table filled with plates, cups, party hats and a big punch bowl with scoops of sherbet floating in a sea of foamy cream. In the center of the table was a large chocolate cake with Wayne’s name decorating the top of it in yellow and blue confectionary script surrounded by barber-striped candles. On a fold out table next to the picnic table was a pile of presents so big I thought the table would collapse at any second. Wayne sat at the big table in front of the cake grinning as he eyed the presents, by the looks of it, equal to a good Christmas haul. The candles were lit then re-lit in the uncooperative wind. With a nod of her head Mrs. Dean gave the official go ahead as the crowd sang a rousing and enthusiastic “Happy Birthday To You.” I joined the chorus and waited patiently for the last refrain.
“Happy Birthday to you…” I continued singing: “You look like a monkey and yah act like one too!”
That…I have to say… did not go over too well. It was met with scornful glares and total silence. If a cricket had been chirping in a nearby field you’d have heard it. It was one of those uncomfortable moments when you try to laugh it off, force a feeble laugh, clear your throat and feel the twitching smirk melt off your face as you stand there in your pointy birthday hat feeling like a jerk.
Wayne smiled, rolled his eyes back and shook his head before blowing out the candles. I stared down, not daring to look up as I took my seat at the table. I was handed a plate with an extremely small slice of cake. It wasn’t a total disaster because the cake was really good and Wayne loved his present. I gave him an Aurora Monster model kit of The Wolf Man with a human skull at his feet. He told me it was his favorite but I knew he was being polite. The best one, hands down, was the Beatles second album, A Hard Days Night. We waited until the crowd broke up and slipped by them as they settled in front of the TV inside to watch a college football game. Wayne and I ran up stairs to listen to the album.
Although we didn’t make it down this year, my son Jude and I stop in North East occasionally on our way to the Susquehanna Flats to fish for Striper. We go by Harry’s Bait and Barber Shop … really, and get bloodworms and shiners before we head out, still hoping to catch a big one. On the wall above the bubbling minnow and eel troughs is a bulletin board pinned with photos of fishermen with their BIG fish. I study the faces to see if any of them resemble a Wayne Dean of my own age.
There’s a stop and go place in Perryville, right before you cross the bridge to Havre de Grace, where we put in at the public boat ramp. On one of our visits there I was talking to the cashier all friendly-like and casually mentioned I’d lived in North East as a kid — and did she happen to know Wayne Dean! She smiled and said, “Yeah, he’s still around. Wayne sometimes stops in for a coffee on his way to work. He works for the railroad.”
We promised to write and stay in touch but never did. I figured I’d never see him or the Taylor twins again. That’s the way it was when you were a Navy brat. I’ve had a lot of great friends over the years but out of habit I’d lose touch and let the time lapse as well as the friendship.