In New Jersey
Back in my youth, families on the East Coast would board out their children while they sailed to Europe.
It sounds funny to say "sail to Europe," when you consider the throb of the Normandie or the Queen Mary in those years before our late lamented Second World War. But that is what they called it: "Sailing to Europe."
Now, I want you to remember Europe in 1938. I never did see it myself, but my family's 16mm. Kodak saw it and reported it to me. Switzerland and Italy and England and France and Holland. Didn't catch Germany. Not that year. Too much ranting and raving. Too many uniforms for a quiet vacation. But did get to see (later, in the colder winter) tulips and wooden shoes and dikes and windmills. Just like in the travel posters.
So the family boarded the towering hulk called the Normandie, and my sister and I were boarded out for the summer somewhere in New Jersey, with the Andersons.
I wish I could remember what they looked like, the Andersons. You would too, after you hear what I am going to tell you. But, bless me, all I can remember about Mr. Anderson is the rimless glasses, much like the ones I'm wearing. As for Mrs. Anderson, it was the false teeth. And me, in the bathroom, fascinated, mesmerized by the uppers in a jelly-glass of water, on the shelf. (If you want to symbolize the mystery of the adult world for a seven-year-old child, use a pair of false teeth, resting securely, just a half-a-bite, just out of reach, on the downstairs bathroom shelf. You and your giantism are a mystery to the five- or seven- or nine-year-old. We don't comprehend. That's why we passed off the mystery of the Andersons for so long.)
One day in a bright-hot, sun-washed summer in New Jersey, the lunch bell was rung for the fifteen summer-orphans. Only Robbie, black-haired and having too much fun, didn't hear it, didn't come. He wanted to hang, feet just missing the ground, another minute or so on the Jungle Gym.
So Mr. Anderson went out to where Robbie was hanging by his hands another minute on the Jungle Gym and told him something and Robbie continued to hang by his hands from the Jungle Gym for the whole lunch period with tears streaming from his large brown eyes. Robbie paid singular attention to the lunch-bell after that.
One morning, in that bright-washed summer in New Jersey, Ralph (taller than most) complained about the toast at breakfast. Claimed that Mrs. Anderson had burned the toast. Claimed that he didn't like burned toast. Every morning thereafter, Ralph ate breakfast standing up behind the pantry door, ate his breakfast of unbuttered burned toast. We heard no more complaints about burned toast from Ralph.
One noon, in that bright sun-rinsed sky-beautiful New Jersey summer, Mary climbed the stairs to the attic to study her math with Mrs. Anderson. In fact, Mary, a very bad student in math, climbed the stairs every noon to study math in the attic with Mrs. Anderson. And every day, we heard the impact of Mrs. Anderson's teaching, in the form of an old, hard, red slipper. "Ow, ow, ow," Mary would cry, resisting her math. And every afternoon, in that bright summer, Mary would come back from her hard math lesson, and we would gather around her to tell her how she sounded, as the words were being pounded in. "Ow, ow, ow," that's what we heard, we would tell her. She didn't say very much, didn't seem to hear us very much.
One day, in that beautiful sun-dashed summer in New Jersey...
One day... Oh, there's more, too much more. And sometimes, when you and I are sitting together in the Athenian Cafe, looking at the ferries squandering in and out of the bay, the sun fixed to die on the far mountains, I will tell you of all the strange deeds of that strange Anderson family on that strange far-away hill called my youth.
But I will tell you the one last story, which my sister and I told our parents, long after that long hot summer: told them so regularly and so consistently, that along about November, they looked at each other, and decided that child's imagination was child's imagination, but there are limits and...
...for two months, the Andersons were investigated quietly, and then for two months, very noisily, in a scandal that must have rocked the blue sky beautiful country of Central New Jersey...long after Mr. and Mrs. Anderson retired to jail, to mull over the various disciplines they had imposed on the various summer children, over a period of twenty years or so.
The last one I have, the one I can least forget, is the tale of the new boy, Paul, who arrived in mid-summer. If I can't remember anything else, I can remember that Paul --- shorter than anyone else --- was a fighter. He fought with his lungs, and his body, lustily and hard. Mr. Anderson put up with it for a week, long after Paul's mother had sailed away first class on the beautiful Queen Mary, for a beautiful summer in the Lake Country.
It was night. Dark night in New Jersey. Bedtime. Mary and I were brushing our teeth. Comparing the rapid spread of white tooth-paste foam from out our mouths into the metal of our water bowls. Next door, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, in concert, were trying to convince Paul to take some castor oil. Seems that living with the Andersons had affected his digestion.
Paul wasn't very interested, and opened his mouth to let us know of his lack of interest. Next thing we heard were some rather stiff noises which indicated to us in the know that Mr. Anderson had gotten his famous temper up. Then --- klunk, klunk, klunk --- we heard the suddenly terror-silent Paul being dragged down the hall. By the feet. To be thrown face-down in the bathtub.
I think --- although I am singularly reluctant to admit this --- that Mary and I, mouths still ringed with white tooth-paste, giggled at each other, because of the fact that we knew that Paul was learning a new and somewhat hard lesson about his summer parents.
But I could never forget, can never forget, will never forget you, Paul --- the smears of blood down the hallway, and on the edges of the white porcelain tub. And despite your battered face the next day, I kept thinking: "How strange, that Paul should have such a bad nose-bleed. How strange..."
How strange, that summer in the black-white heat of 1938. Families off taking pictures of wooden shoes and tulips. A frenetic man in uniform ranting through Germany. And fifteen children learning something new about the adult world in a beautiful sun-split summer in New Jersey.