Wednesday, October 21, 2015

7327. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 51)

(pt. 51)
I had a friend for a while, named Billy Bernath.
He lived, I'm not sure the name of the street
anymore, but I guess it was Lehigh, where it
dead-ends to the rear of the Post Office. He
was the third or fourth house on the north
side of the street. I spent lots of time with
him, early on, but really can't remember much.
We did some camping trips, with Boy Scouts,
Troop 73 I think, and he managed - while playing
with matches  -  to start a pretty good brushfire
at Camp Kilmer or Raritan Arsenel (in my day
then these places were still military encampments,
unlike today, where one is a corporate center and the
other is part of a college and part of government
poverty-employment projects  - which isn't really that
different from the military, in essence, though not in
practice. You compromise one hand away, you're sure
soon to lose the other one too). That raging fire got the
camp-out cancelled and had us all sent home early.
We laughed about it and just remained quiet. But
I always remember Billy, one day while his father
was driving us to some parade site, listening to a
classical radio station and commenting that I too
should listen and appreciate how all of the different
instruments, in such music, potentially discordant
and anarchic, manage to all come together, in a
harmonic convergence, and make somehow a
sensible music. No, he didn't say 'harmonic
convergence,' that's my phrase now; but you
have to understand what he meant by saying
whatever it was he said. I was pretty taken with
the remark  -  never having thought of it like that, and,
in point of fact actually, never having listened to music
like that, where that idea even came into play. Bobby
Darin singing 'Mack the Knife' was a far cry from this.
But anyway, Bill Bernath showed me a sensitivity
and a thoughtfulness that suddenly stopped the wheeze,
so to speak, the hacking empty noise that was any
cultural life in Avenel. Going to school everyday, in
assembly and such, we'd sing Santa Lucia, we'd sing
Old Black Joe, we'd sing She'll Be Coming Around the
Mountain, and we'd sing Camptown Races  -  everything
from Stephen Foster to Hoagy Carmichal, but in that vein,
at the same time, no one in school  -  not the music teacher
or the program director or the regular classroom teacher,
ever led us to the notion that these were old, 'Americana'
songs and that we were partaking of tradition and a
musical legacy be singing them. They were something
to be taken in and made a part of us. No one ever said
a word  -  which is why we'd end up listening to hip
schlockmeisters like Bobby Darin and Perry Como
and all the rest of that stupid bunch. Yeah, they all had
their back-stories  -  publicists and agents made crap up
to peddle their songs with. 'Perry Como was an Italian
barber who just a few years before was cutting hair and
singing to his customers. Now he's a big star.' That's
fairly indicative of the sort of glop I'm meaning  -  made
up stuff from the Brill Building, and from all those
recording-office strategies that plucked people out and
then forced them down the throats of others so they all
could stand to make a million while the rats at home
bought records they didn't know a thing about for a
buck twenty-five a pop. No one in school ever peppered
the air with truths. It was all program  -  if they were
going to do that they'd have to face off the ideas that
went with them : slave songs and turpitude, enslavement
and victimization, colonialism, exploitation, graft and
corruption. So, of course, we never got the truth. We
got the 'program', the party line, the dogma. These old
songs reeked of hurt and anger, which wan't supposed
to exist here, we were told, and the only complacency
they showed was the complacency of defeat and
subjugation. All those spirituals, we'd have to think
they were 'happy' songs, because that's what the dumb,
lying teachers told us. But they weren't happy songs at
all; they were 'American' songs, with the lights out, in
the dark, songs of defeat and prayerful resignation, the
songs of the lost and the beaten-down. If Rosa Parks
ever sang, these songs would have been her own
songs -  but to us, it was all ignored, and presented as a
potential pile of happy tunes, sung by nit-wit kids in
Assembly, the mouthed know-nothings of equally
exploited kids. Those schools were our camps, and we
were  -  literally, for 9 months of the year  -  inmates.
Nothing could be done because our own parents had
given up on everything, let it all slide and, with
resignation, turned it all over to 'Authority' to do it
for them. We were propagandized into our corners.
Why they had even bothered to fight World war II to
preserve the Freedom that they then so willingly
gave away, was always beyond me. My own father,
he never talked war stuff with me  -  only little tidbits
and stories of his tactics in getting by, joining the
Navy at sixteen by lying about his age, and leaving
school, in turn to do so. He'd talk about his days in
the South Pacific like it was some tour on a vacation
schooner, and then he'd casually mention the occasional
problem with kamikaze pilots and things they had to
shoot out of the sky. I'm sure all they needed was a
casino and some booze to have really been in Paradise.
What's a kid know about anything anyway? We
went straight ahead. Avenel was our ship, out there
and afloat. The only life-jackets we had were
ourselves and each other.
The guys we'd see out behind my house were 
railroad workers  -  not the conductors and things,
these were the guys with the chains, cranes and 
levers, the 'work-trains' that would come by and 
do things : changing wooden railroad ties, iron rails, 
stones beneath, the entire ongoing maintenance
and care process. They worked; they had to time 
things between trains; guys with signal poles and 
sticks with letters and numbers  -  flashing signals 
when trains would be approaching, and at the 
same time signaling the  passing trains about 
the ongoing work. They always had cigarettes, 
and worked head down, sternly and busily. It
was all one-piece-at-a-time work. Now it's all
done differently  -  I've watched along my 
Princeton commutes; there are entire rail-bed
machines now made for this, lifting and replacing 
an entire section at a time; the ties are no longer
wood but instead a poured and molded concrete.
Air guns and sounders are used for signalling. It's
new and efficient now  -  all those old processes 
are gone. The cigarettes too. I've been told by
varied WWII military vets and such  - my father
included  -  that the US Military used to promote
these things -   dispensing cigarettes freely or nearly
free. 'They gave us two things, always; cigarettes 
and condoms.' Nice to know that aspect of R&R
was taken care of  -  I never knew if that meant
rest and recreation or rest and rehabilitation. 
Somewhere there must have been thousands 
of women, around the globe, in their own 
'service' too. Thanks, Uncle Sam.
In the 1970's when I'd bought a piece of property
and an old farmhouse, 12 acres and a barn, out past
Scranton, PA  -  75 miles due west, in fact  -  my
father used to always comment, as we drove past 
Scranton, or past signs for it : 'Scranton! Biggest
whorehouse on the east coast.'  It was nowhere
near the east coast, but he used to always say how,
in his early Navy days, for R&R, they'd be bused to
Scranton, for the ladies, I guess. Then he was shipped
to San Francisco, he said, for an afternoon, basically, 
then to Hawaii, and then onto his ship, and off to the
South Pacific. He was a gunnery captain on a
battleship-tender. Which is just what it sounds like;
a heavily-armed slightly smaller and more manueverable,
supply ship for the other battleships floating about.
Like the Shop-Rite truck, sort of, delivering the
re-supplies to the battleships, of their rice and cereal,
water, juice, meats, toilet paper, bags, tissues, and
everything else you cam name. Probably not condoms.
My father's ship would first be loaded up, somewhere  -  
I'm not sure and never found out, in port, or at sea too,
whatever. They took fire, had to dodge kamikazes, etc.
The most interesting this was  -  and unbelievably this
is how my ftaher first got hooked up with upholstery
as a craft (GI BILL, after the service, to an upholstery
school somewhere)  -  that they'd also pick up from these
ships they supplied, whatever dead bodies they had. He'd
have to sew them up in canvas burial sacks, for the 
burial-at-sea ceremonies. Essentially they'd mumble 
some prayers over the guy's bag and then heave him
into the ocean. Now that must have been real fun;
glad I wasn't there. My father used to talk about those
big, curved sewing needles he'd use on the burlap or 
canvas or whatever those sacks for burial were. He was
also a gunnery captain, shipboard  -  meaning he had his
own flank of shipboard armaments, any number of 16
or 32 millimeter machine gun things, and some guys
under him that he had to supervise for combat at sea.
That's really all I ever heard about  -  I'd think about
stuff like that when I was traipsing around Avenel : what
the other men did, how their experiences went, (if they'd
ever been bused to Scranton?), where they were in the war.
Back in the 50's there was some sort of cliched entertainment
thing with little kids saying 'so tell me what YOU did in the
war, daddy.' I was meant as a support-booster for guys who 
fought, and a way to socially ostracize those who didn't.
They'd have no stories to tell, and their kids then were
supposed to think less of them. Beats me. Jeez, if that's
the case in this neighborhood, just make something up.
Everything's so different now. That was all about an 
undercurrent, too, of 'catching out' the gay guy  -  he'd have
been too weak-kneed or flimsy to have fought, was usually
then a conscientious objector, and no service record to
speak of. That sneaky bias is long gone. Now, in the
other direction, it's like everyone wants to be gay, for
pity's sake. It's 'cool'  -  so neat, so happy, so privileged 
and fastidious. Most of these train guys, working 
the tracks, they were probably vets then  -  tough and
quiet and all steeled up. I don't know like who if any
of my friends ended up 'gay'  -  we never knew about 
that stuff, and just never asked. It didn't concern us.
We all sort of knew Mr. Roloff was, but who cared  -  
he was very obvious. All those Andes Brothers and
Mt. Wintergrass, living alone together in one of those
new apartments. Who knew what? That's all today's
world stuff now  -  concern and acceptance, and all 
that. I'd off rather had a bullet to the head, back then,
than have to worry about that stuff. Avenel was the
kind of place for that  -  we were tough and shameless,
and most of our sweaters and things were knit and 
sewn, you can bet, with steel thread.
PHOTO  -  This is the Brill Building, where all those 1950's and 60's songwriting
schlockmeisters  went to work each day, churning out their words and tunes.

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