After a short musical interlude.
1950 was a fascinating year. It was filled with things planned and things not planned.
Planned: All of those young couples who were married at the end of World War II started having babies. The entire country along with it’s educational systems forgot about these kids until the first week of September when they all showed up for school. Every city in America scrambled to find desks and books. Van was the first one to attend our Alma Mater – Mary D Mitchell School.
Unplanned: On June 25th, the bad guys from North Korea invaded our buddies, South Korea. The USA was so shocked to be facing another war so soon – but we had signed this paper that said that if someone picked on South Korea, we would beat them up. But, there were so many people who were repulsed by the thought of war that we never called it that. We called it a “Police Action”. Whatever it was called, men still went off to kill each other.
Planned: On October 2nd, five newspapers formed a syndicate and published for the first time a comic strip by a young cartoonist named Charles Schultz. Soon the whole country had to find out what was happening to Charlie Brown and his friends and pet.
Unplanned: On July 13th The biggest name in baseball, Ted Williams, had emergency surgery to remove 5 bones from his elbow. This was a big story that day.
Planned: On that same day, July 13th, Betty and Bill Flanders announced the arrival of their second child. It was a big story for the Flanders clan.
When you bring a new personality into a family you never know what you are going to get. With Van, the Flanders’ added a quiet, forceful, passionate James Dean character. It is part genetics and part life experiences with a little ‘it is what it is’ thrown in as to what that baby will grow up to be.
I am sure that my Mom and Dad did not bargain for what they got with me.
Kids search for and try out many roles in their family. I soon found out that in the Bill and Betty Flanders family, I was a little black kid who wore hats and made everyone laugh. My Mom would have preferred a child piano prodigy or someone with an amazing voice to sing duets with her. She did get someone who learned how to take over a room and entertain, on his own terms.
It should not have been a surprise. For crying out loud, I spent five days a week meeting with my main mentor from 12:00 to 12:15.
Soupy taught me to be goofy and people would like you. He also showed me that you find a job you love and that will allow you to be you. Along the way be silly and laugh at your own jokes all of the time. I loved The Soup Man.
Van did not like my role and weirdness. Dad generally just shook his head and walked away. Mom kept asking me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I wanted to study, but I wanted to study why people laughed. I watched as others with Masters Degrees in comedy would show up on my little TV occasionally.
I did learn to work hard from my Dad and Van. Van was my first boss. He had a paper route for a long time. When he got tired of walking around carrying big newspaper bags he talked me into doing three streets at first. At the age of seven, I was employed with responsibilities and 25 papers to carry everyday. When Van was old enough to have a motorcycle he would fly around on his 15 streets throwing papers at house and mean dogs.
Van took off for the big money as soon as he could. He gave me the entire route and he went off to work at Krogers stocking shelves in the night. I was not carrying 75 papers around every day. My new gained money meant I could go to Woolworth’s and buy my own 45 RPM records. It also meant I became buff, for a 10-11 year old. All of that exercise made me a force to be reckoned with. (Not really, but it did come in handy for my first true fight).
To the left of 3240 Nordman was an empty lot. Next to the lot was the home of my good pal, Danny Pepper. Danny taught me how to play mumbly peg and the importance of having a small pocket knife available at all times. After-all, Danny could challenge you to a mumbly peg dual anytime day or night.
Behind that vacant lot lived our arch enemies: The Smashy Family. There were four brothers and one sister. And I swear, they looked like their name. You just had to look at any one of them and you would think, “I bet their name is Smashy”.
In it became a short cut from school or Buster’s Store for the school age Smashy’s to cut through our yard. This grave insult did not go unnoticed. Every time I would see a Smashy, it was legal for me to holler, “Hey, get out of our yard!” This set the stage for the famous “Larry Smashy Incident”.
One day I decided to set a trap for any trespassing Smashy after school. I recruited a school buddy to help me and we crouched behind our garbage barrels waiting for our dreaded neighbors. Soon, Jimmy and Larry Smashy came sauntering from our right flank. I had a pile of perfect throwing rocks and let loose with a mean shot that…well it hit the garage on the other side of our backyard. It definitely got the Smashy’s attention.
Larry let loose with a number of creative expletives and took cover. I took up my next missile and during my wind-up: thwack! Larry Smashy hit me in the side of the head with my own first salvo. That rotten Rat Fink (a very strong name in those days.) I was dazed, but madder than hell. I threw done my rock and charged the bastard.
Larry was 3 years older than I was. I did not care. He was in my yard and he had hit me in the head with a rock. We squared off in the middle of the 3240 backyard. Jimmy Smashy kept yelling at his brother to hit me. Larry and I circled each other and he pushed me a couple of times. He came in for another vicious shove, but he forgot, I had the strength of 10 kids. When he was close enough, I jumped and grabbed his head in the mother of all headlocks.
As I began to squeeze I applied 75 newspapers times five days a week times 3 years worth of pressure. Larry sort of flailed around and fell to the ground. I kept right with him. He swore and spit and kicked, I just kept squeezing more and more. This went on for a good 25 minutes and after he said “Uncle” and “I give -up” at least 57 times, I decided to squeeze for another 10 minutes.
With a calm, “Please let go of me, I won’t cut through your yard anymore,” I decided to let him go. The Smashy’s looked at me differently after that. And they stopped cutting through our yard..for about a week.
Growing up in that tiny yellow house there were wins and losses. Triumphs and miserable failures. One that eluded me for almost ten years was riding a bike. It was terribly embarrassing that try as much as he could, my Dad could not teach me to ride a bike. I could not get the hang of it. Finally I said, ‘I don’t need this, I like walking, walking is good for you.’
And now, the truth can be told. I didn’t need to ride a bike because when on one was looking, I would sneak out and take my Dad’s yellow tank for a spin. I was a precocious kid. Besides, comedians don’t ride bikes.
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