My mother had three sisters and two brothers who survived childbirth. (I believe her parents had a couple of other children who didn't make it past infancy during the Depression.) The family of eight lived in a tiny house in Down Neck Newark that you would swear couldn't possibly house more than four people under any circumstances. But they made it work, God love them.
Mom and two of her sisters had their first babies all around the same time. They were all boys. One of them was me, Jackie. The other boys were Bobby and Bernie. Each one of us was named after his dad.
Bobby's and Bernie's parents got them out of Newark while the getting was good. Bernie's family headed off to the Philadelphia suburbs, where they lived in a nice little subdivision off Route 1. Bob's folks packed themselves off to California -- light years away, really -- where they re-settled in the San Fernando Valley.
Once those guys left town, we didn't see Bernie much, and of course we never saw Bobby at all. But Philly wasn't too far a drive, and every once in a while we'd head down that way to visit with the cousins. Bernie had two sisters, and I had a brother and a sister, and the party of 10 was always fun.
Being a kid and visiiting your cousins could be so odd. There were always the comparisons and the contrasts. We were the same in so many ways -- as I recall, Bernie and I have the same birthmark, and I think Bob might have it too -- and yet there were so many differences. Life in the suburbs was not the same as life on the sandlots in Newark. The food was a little blander in the 'burbs; the accent was different, especially the o's. And they had a garage, an actual garage, where your car was parked inside the building. But my mom and her sister had a lifetime of shared experiences and perspectives that rubbed off on all of us kids.
I remember that during the Newark race riots, when half the city was up in flames and it wasn't clear whether the violence was coming to our part of town, my parents quickly and quietly whisked us off to stay with the Philly relatives for a couple of nights. We came back to Newark when the coast was clear.
I can also recall Bernie and his family's horror when they would visit our house, and the huge jets roared overhead on their way to landings at the nearby (too nearby) Newark Airport. The engines were deafening -- all conversation in the house stopped for a good five to ten seconds until each plane passed -- and for hours on Sunday night the flights would be only a minute apart. The Pennsylvania relatives were downright frightened by this, not to mention what they must have felt about the public housing project half a block away. I'm sure they sped down the Turnpike with a sigh of relief when the day was over.
Once I got fully involved in high school, my trips to Bernie's stopped, and we grew far apart. But when I got my driver's license and was a young college guy still living at home, there was no reason why I couldn't hook up with my long lost cousin in the 'burbs for some hard core partying once in a while. And so I'd drive down there. We'd run over to the package store -- I think they were operated by the State of Pennsylvania in those days -- and pick up a couple of sixpacks of some wicked malt liquor in wide-mouth green bottles. Then we'd head back to the house for a friendly dinner with Aunt Terry, after which Bern and I would head up to his room with the six packs. There we'd listen to Led Zeppelin IV. "Black Dog," baby, over and over. And I think Humble Pie and the Who were in heavy rotation as well.
There were only a couple of weekends like this, but the one that sticks in my mind most clearly is the one that went down when Bobby came to visit. He was in the Army at that point, and stationed somewhere in Virginia or the Carolinas. He rode up to Jersey on a bus or a train, all by himself, to stay with my family. And on that Saturday afternoon, he and I hopped in my mom's car and took a spin down to Bernie's.
It was a special night, full of beer, laughs, and the mysteries of who the three of us were. There was a little snow on the ground, and after we got a nice rosy glow on, we headed down to the little park on the corner for a taste of late night sledding. As I recall, Bob hadn't seen snow in more than a decade at this point, but he got right into it as we took turns recklessly whipping down the hill. I remember, too, that there was a cute neighbor girl there with her kid sister. Even the older one was, at least for the time being, too young for Bernie. But you could tell that she liked him, and that there was potential there, in just a few more years. We talked with her for a while about a number of things, including the latest music, and she told Bernie that she really liked the song "I Think We're Alone Now."
Whoa. Quite a night.
Anyway, the stories of the recent snowstorms back east started me thinking about that fantastic sled party. And when "I Think We're Alone Now" came over the radio yesterday, I was right back there with Bernie, Bob, and that girl, whoever she was.
We're all around 50 years old now, and I must confess I'm totally out of touch with those guys. Bob and I spent a fair amount of time together over a couple of summers that I lived in LA, but that was in the mid-'70s, and we're almost strangers now. The last I saw him, for a few minutes in Vegas with our moms in tow, was maybe a decade ago. Bob looked strong, but I'm not sure I knew him any more. As for Bern, he sent me a photo of himself and his family a few years back, and darned if he didn't look a lot like me. We both have a lot of our maternal grandfather in us. Pop-Pop died when when we were 4, but the three of us probably know a little bit about him in our bones, because he is a part of us.
Perhaps it's time to reach out to those two. What with the internet at our disposal, there ought to be some way to commemorate, at least minimally, the 32nd (or whichever) anniversary of that night that we zoned out to "Stairway to Heaven."