To Grasses Greener

CHAPTER 1 – To Grasses Greener 1941- 54

In between, that’s my generation. Born during the War in 1941, having one foot in old pre-war world and the other hesitant foot in the post-war Baby Boomer generation.

1943: Mum and Dad and me at new housing estate in Orakei, Auckland.

My earliest memory was going to see an American submarine and, later, in 1946 to see Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition in Auckland Harbour, memories reinforced by my parents’ fascination for things American, a fascination which later took flesh by their decision to immigrate to America when I was seven. In the meantime I lived a sickly life at the back of the Urgent Pharmacy on Newton Rd, Auckland: a cold, dank, dark home, which was brought alive by my vivacious mother, Grace, in her quest for warmth and happiness. She enjoyed dressing me in costumes: a pirate, The Phantom, an American Indian.

Yet my most vivid memories were of suffering osteomyelitis in my leg from a fall, in hospital with endless penicillin injections in my pin-cushioned backside while wearing an “iron boot” on my lower leg; and later having a thumb sew back on; of having operations on my tonsils and adenoids and the nauseous memory of the smell of chloroform; of constant coughs and sniffles and my eternal “runny” nose: so much so, that my mother made me wear a balaclava to school to the malicious delight of my class at school. And this was at a time when New Zealand schoolchildren wore bare feet skating on icy frost with their bare feet on the way to school, and wore light shorts and singlets, summer and winter. A balaclava? What a sissy.

Many family photos show me At The Beach – I do not actually remember those sunny days, except for almost drowning at Piha Beach in a tidal pool and being rescued by the Shones, friends of our family.

But a normal family life I was not to have, for my father, Eric, and mother, soon began their quest for grasses greener: starting with Australia. One trip was to Sydney as a six-year-old, on one of the last TEAL commercial flying boats between Auckland and Sydney Harbours: the Short S-30. And another to Melbourne on the famous passenger liner, the Wanganella. The Tasman Sea was so rough one night, I was the only one who appeared for breakfast in the vast empty dining room.

We were in Australia long enough for me to attend school. This was my first experience of religion.

There I was, sitting in the statue-lined corridor of a Catholic school while my mother and father sought permission for me to attend. We weren’t Catholics and apparently, I was not to attend. My mother asked me what I thought of the place and that perhaps I wouldn’t like it. It would be too strange for me. I guess I agreed. So… no school for me. Songs which linger in my memory in the 1940s – “The Loveliest Night of the Year” and “Now is the Hour.”

And then months later, we were off to Canada.

Grasses Not So Green

Toronto, Canada, 1948-51, was filled with “DPs” – Displaced Persons, refugees from war-torn Europe. So, here we were: middle-class New Zealand citizens, English-speaking members of the Commonwealth, living in lousy tenement houses, among Latvians, Hungarians, Estonians, and Poles, with me learning unsuccessfully how to wrestle – always the one on my back with arms tightly pinned – bullied, learning how to pinch fruit with a gang from street stalls, and how to pitch a softball. Mother gave birth to my brother, Paul, and father worked in drug stores to save money for the expedition to the USA.

At least I was dressed warmly for the damp, cold, Toronto winter; warmer than in snow-free Auckland winters.

Our two years residency in Canada gave us entry to the USA – and heading westward to LA we went, in a brand-new 1951, Detroit Ford “twin-spinner” with trailer attached, along Highway 61, indeed.

And the sun shined.

Our Twin-Spinner Ford

Science Education by Sci-Fi

I read my way across the continent: Sci-Fi short stories and novels, Korean war comics filled with “Die Commie Bastard!”, MiG15s and Sabre Jet fighters, and horror comics from the “Vault”. I was right in the middle of The Golden Age of Sci-Fi, the Atom Bomb, and UFOs. The thoughts of Heinlein, Hubbard, Asimov, Van Vogt, et al, became my real education, my own adventure. There were the big questions: What is man? What is life? Is there life on other planets? all leading my imagination into the realms of astronomy, astrophysics, space and time.

Meanwhile, my parents struggled with life in Trailer Parks, AA maps, casual Drug Store work, and finding America was not quite so beautiful.

Along a New Mexico highway – “See the Rattlesnakes. Free!” So we stopped and I saw the sleepy drugged rattlesnakes. My parents vanished to the back of the store. Flustered and angry half an hour later, “We lost $60.” They were set up by an Indian bead game. “Just a small bet – oh look you’ve won $5. Luck is on your side. Now put a little more down and you could win big.” Mother called out as we drove off “Gambling is illegal in New Mexico. We’ll see about that!” So off as fast as a car and trailer could go into the afternoon sun to Albuquerque. We arrived at the police station and there was the store owner greeting us with $60 cash in his hand and perhaps the bulge of a gun. We took the money and counted our blessings.

In the Mohave Desert, Dad produced a .22 rifle and introduced me to shooting rabbits at dawn. If only we could have done that every day of my life.

The year in Garvey Road, Flatbush, LA? I have not one memory of school in LA, except learning to put my hand on my heart and sing “America, America” in front of the Stars and Stripes. Memorable were the excursions to Mount Palomar Observatory or to Knotts Berry Farm.

I meet Tyrone Powell.

The film “Pony Soldier” was being shot out in the desert. And there mother and father could get right up close to a real live movie star: Tyrone Powell. After two days, they got permission for me to try out for a part as an Hopi Indian boy playing a form of Badminton in the background of a scene. All the set crew needed was to spray-paint me brown all over. Big expectations here, excitement grew, I could be in a Hollywood film. But, the film was in colour and my eyes are blue. That was the end of that little promise of Hollywood immortality for me and my parents.

Faded Green Grass

My parents’ dream was starting to fade. Maybe “things” would be better in Arizona?

So, off we went to the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, Montezuma’s Village; and eventually, mother and father found a promising friendship with a Prescott Valley family, up in the cool, forested mountains among old Indian arrowheads. Invited for supper, we arrived close to sunset. I was briefly shown the family’s proud new car. Mum and dad went inside. I just stood there astonished at this car. Full plush interior, shiny chrome, a full array of weird dashboard instruments which screamed to be touched – a real spaceship!

I wonder what happens if I push that button? Oh, it pops out. Mmmm… feels hot. Test it on the seat cover. Whoops! a hot whiff of smoke and a nice round scorched hole appeared on these plush seats. So that’s how a cigarette lighter works.

I immediately sat down in the centre of the seat, stubbornly, firmly covering my shame, determined to sit forever on this spot. I ignored the distant call for supper, and the next, and the next, but now it was darker. Angrily I was called again and in the darkness sinfully came to dinner, among light, pleasant, friendly people among whom was a kind, sweet 11-year-old girl. The next day in our trailer I heard dim murmurings of “hundreds of dollars” and “never invited back” before my mother’s very first unfriendly and very first “most-disappointed” interview with me.

This event seemed to herald an acceleration of discontent with America. Would Houston, Texas, be better? Would father do better by learning a new skill? Lessons from ICS in engineering draughting appeared at night in our trailer. Six months in Houston was the nadir – dad worked as a labourer, and we lived on beans and more beans. Would prospects in Miami be better? So east and south we went to the Gulf of Mexico, sidling past New Orleans.

I hunted grass snakes with the local trailer park boys; ran amid hundreds of large crabs scuttling on waveless Gulf beaches; heard tales of stingrays in the sea, and alligators in the swamps. Three months at a new school in Miami taught me how pleasurable life and learning at school could be. A Portuguese-Man-O-War in my face in the waves off Miami Beach taught me just how painful life could be.

Perhaps New York would be better? Coney Island meant living in a tenement with “cooties” and among bed bugs, but also Coney Island rides. Such childish delights with the Big Dipper, the Gravity Spinner, the Parachute Jump and I fast becoming a dead-eye slug-gun shooter.

But murmurings became heated. Return to Toronto? Give up the right to American citizenship? To Toronto, we returned in 1954.

Green Forest Hills, Toronto

Father was fortunate to get work as a pharmacist in Rexall’s Drug Store in Toronto’s Forest Hill, a rich, well-established Jewish area. Life seemed to settle: I attended Forest Hill Junior High, learnt to iceskate, played hockey, raced bikes, found friends, explored trams, saw Dracula meets Frankenstein, the Werewolf and Frankenstein meet Dracula, meet Abbott and Costello… at continuous session movies among the pall of cigarette smoke.

Dad and I in a Toronto Winter

School was fun. Our music teacher enthusiastically taught us 12-year-olds the plot and music of “Aida”. I blossomed. My water-colour painting of a toboggan ride even made the 1954 National Art Exhibition for schoolchildren.

I watched black and white TV of the pop charts acted out by puppets, endless Milton Berle and Jack Benny comedies; and saw, on TV, the first H-Bomb explosion at Bikini Island.

In our flat above the drug store, while they cared for little Paul, mum and dad listened to Terry’s Theme from “Limelight”, to the “Fantasy Impromptu” by Chopin, and to Italian tenor Gigli’s “Rigoletto.” And I, I was smitten by Ingrid Bergman’s “Joan of Arc.” Yet behind these 1954 nights, dwelt the yearning sadness of Terry’s Theme intertwining itself into my memory.

An Anglican Choirboy

And religious belief slowly entered my life.

At Forest Junior High, there were only three non-Jewish boys in my class. It was strange on Jewish festival days – just the three of us in class. One of us, John Craig, the local Anglican vicar’s son, of Grace Church on the Hill, invited me to church, and I went, met his family, was duly baptised, enrolled in the boys’ choir, became an official chorister, and took lessons in singing at St James Cathedral. Singing descant soprano to beautifully written traditional church music was a kind of joy I was not to feel again for half a century.

I felt at home for the first time in my life, but I could detect an unsaid separation from my parents. My parents’ agnosticism was sorely tested: “If it’s REALLY what you want, then it’s … mmm… all right with us.”

One day in September, 1954, I came home from school, and went to greet mum in her bedroom. Her eyes stared at me. I shook her. She did not move. Mother was dead.

Mother very proud in home-made ballgown.
Grace Phillips. May She Rest in Peace.
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto.

 

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