Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Marshmallow Head and the Catnapping of the Century

When I was boy growing up in the Bronx, there were a lot of bullies in the neighborhood. Nowadays, the subject of bullying, with its many technological tentacles, is front and center—and rightfully so—but back in the 1970s, it was tolerated and largely ignored. In fact, all of us in the non-bully—and potentially bullied—class lived our lives with these individuals always on our radars and with the hope that we’d never get ensnared in their webs.

There was one particular bully entourage that will forever define, in my mind at least, what bullies and bully-ism are all about. This was, of course, in an era before cyber-bullying, and these boys did their dirty work in the bright light of day—and, yes, at night as well. Naturally, a band of bullies needed a leader of sorts, and this crew had one. I’d really like to mention his name—not to seek retribution forty years later for all his juvenile transgressions, but because it was the perfect moniker for a bruiser bullyboy who looked and acted as he did. I’ll just call him “Ted” for the time being, and he was a scary fellow, as were his underlings, one of whom used to stick firecrackers in pigeons you know whats and blow them up. I always thought Ted resembled an over-sized marshmallow—a “Mr. Marshmallow Head,” if you will, with curly locks and something of a porker’s nose. He was big, burly, and mean. One friend of mine recalled him as an Incredible Hulk type. Another old friend when asked if he remembered Ted, replied, “The bully?” So, take your pick, Mr. Marshmallow Head or the Incredible Hulk. He he was the last person any of us wanted in our lives in that colorfully raw snapshot in time.

I realize now that when I was very young—grade-school age—I exhibited more courage and more willingness to “boldly go” and take on a bully and his bullyboy brigade. Perhaps it was more naiveté than actual courage—youthful exuberance unleashed and unafraid. Well, less afraid. And I’m talking about “taking on” bullies in a roundabout, clandestine way, because I weighed ninety-nine pounds at the time. Yes, from bullyboy Ted’s perspective, I was a ninety-nine pound weakling. And years later—as a high school kid who tipped the scales at a whopping 115 pounds—the thought of doing what I did as an eleven year old seemed extraordinary to me, as it does now. What was I thinking?

Along with the bullies, there were a lot of stray cats in the old neighborhood. One of the more fecund females in town was named “Tiny,” and she belonged to a family up the block. Tiny had many male suitors and was the mother of a mother lode of kittens. All of us in our little clique loved Tiny and her always-expanding family, fed them pieces of white bread and saucers of milk—that’s what we did back then—and generally looked out for their well-being.

Then one day out of the blue, Ted and his bully underlings came down to our neck of the woods loaded for bear and started harvesting stray cats. They whisked away those that they could catch in a burlap sack, as I remember, while claiming to be concerned “cat people.” They even accused those in their way of “animal abuse.” In one of their roundups they snatched a young, very friendly cat that we had named “Goldy,” based on her color scheme. Ted and friends brought their collection of cats to a small lot wedged between a pre-war walkup apartment building and a neighborhood bowling alley on Broadway.

When combined with the passion of youth, love conquers all, I suppose, because my best friend and I ventured into Tedville, which was just up the hill from us, and found Goldy the cat in that very lot. We coaxed her out of this feline sanctuary of theirs and brought her back home, which was only a few blocks—but, really, seemed worlds apart—away. The bullyboys were down on us in short order, seeking the identity of the catnappers. I’ve always wondered what they had in mind for us, but fortunately the non-bully set had their version of omertà. So, while Ted and company didn’t return home with my head on the platter, they, sadly, had Goldy the cat in their clutches again. Ted had renamed her “Judy,” and I can still hear him saying, “We’re going to bring you home now, Judy.” I was only eleven years old and frightened out of my skin, but still remember thinking that “Judy” was a stupid name for a cat. And bully Ted’s tone of voice was also stupid—stupid and scary, a toxic combination.

I don’t know what became of Goldy and all those cats that were rounded up. Ted purported to be a cat lover and maybe he was. It wouldn’t be unprecedented that a Neanderthal brute liked cats. But considering who he and his partners in crime were, it seems a long shot that their motives were absolutely pure. I’m just happy that I went into enemy territory—risked life and limb in a manner of speaking—to do what an innocent kid who loved a cat thought was right. And I take some pride that Mr. Marshmallow Head never did solve the Catnapping of the Century.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Life of Brian

Like so many people in the here and now, I no longer watch a network newscast. I grew up with the likes of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Harry Reasoner as news anchors. It seemed for a long spell in the 1980s, 1990s, and into the new millennium that network news meant Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and nobody else. Whether it was real or imaginary, these network news anchors of the past had a certain gravitas that is sorely lacking now.

My oldest memory vis-à-vis the network news is watching the Huntley-Brinkley Report in my grandmother’s living room. She lived only a flight of stairs away, directly below me, and had a color television set when most people still had black-and-white TVs. It took a while to warm up, and you actually had to get up from the chair or sofa to change channels, which then amounted to about a dozen in total, but it was colorful indeed.

My brothers and I would “go downstairs” every night to watch television and especially enjoy whatever was presented in “living color,” It was a familiar and comforting ritual and I recall, on occasion, gearing up for an evening of prime-time TV watching while NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report neared its conclusion. Of course, the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley sign off had not only taken on a life of its own but become the stuff of legend: “Good night, Chet…Good night, David…and Goodnight from NBC News.” Huntley was stationed in New York and Brinkley, in Washington, D.C., and rarely saw one another in the flesh. They weren’t best buddies, either.

As a little boy, Huntley, Brinkley, et al—and the news they reported—seemed so much larger and so far, far removed from me. Of course, when I was six years old, the summer of 1968 meant playing with a spaldeen by day and catching lightning bugs by night. Can’t say I gave much thought to the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and rioting in streets, even when reported by Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley.

Times have certainly changed. For starters, I’m not six years old anymore. The network news and its anchors no longer mesmerize me. In fact, I rarely watched Brian Williams on his show. I probably saw more of him giving interviews to others. It boggles my mind that I guy in his position could tell such an overt lie to bolster his image as an intrepid reporter who is ever willing to put himself in harm’s way and, of course, to inflate the ratings of NBC Nightly News in what is now a dog-eat-dog business.

To disseminate such a tall tale—when so many people who were there knew it wasn’t true—doesn’t seem like such a smart move, either. Sooner or later you are going to be ratted out. And I’m not one who enjoys seeing people’s careers go down the tube for a verbal faux pas or one mistake in judgment. I believe we should all be judged by the totality of what we’ve been and what we’ve done. Political correctness is running amok and more insidious than ever. However, considering Brian Williams’ anchor position, I don’t see how he could ever get past this big fib—and it might even be a pattern—to be trusted and believed again. But I’m sure Brian will land some other position in the news business where he won’t have to worry about coming down with dysentery. He might, though, have to take a cut in pay.