About Me

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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, April 1, 2016

SINGERS, SUPERHEROES, AND SONGS ON THE RADIO: My Life In Pop Culture, The 1960s [complete]

Previously serialized over nine posts, here is the complete first section of SINGERS, SUPERHEROES, AND SONGS ON THE RADIO:  My Life In Pop Culture, my reminiscence of listening to records and reading comic books while growing up in the 1960s and '70s.  This long first section covers the '60s (and change) as I remember them, from 1963 through the summer of 1970.  The series will resume eventually with tales of me in The Me Decade.  





PART 1

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My earliest memories go back as far as when I was three years old, watching my crib being dismantled and moved to permanent storage.  That would have been 1963.  I can also remember being a music fan since about that time, even before The Beatles played their first Ed Sullivan Show.  My Mom and Dad both worked, so I often traveled from our North Syracuse home to stay with my Godparents, my Aunt Connie and Uncle Nick, at their home in Westvale.  Uncle Nick's sister, my Aunt Anna, lived with them, which meant that Aunt Anna's record collection also lived with them.  Whenever I stayed with my Godparents, I would wait in the afternoon for Aunt Anna to come home from work; when she arrived, I would pounce with my regular daily request:  "Records, Aunt Anny!  Records!"

So music was my first passion.  I've been a music fan literally as far back as I can remember, so much so that as a toddler I would pick up random 45s from our home collection and pretend to play them on my hands; I'd memorized which label represented which record, so I was able to sing the appropriate song for each 45, even though I hadn't yet learned to read.  My other interests--cartoons (especially Popeye), Baron Daemon (Syracuse's popular local vampire TV host), hide-and-seek, even Mary Rose Tamborelli, the pretty little girl who lived across the street from Aunt Connie and Uncle Nick--could not compete with my love of "The Twist," "The Night They Invented Champagne," various Broadway show tunes, Percy freaking Faith, or whatever 45 caught my interest at the J.M. Fields department store.  Music ruled.  And music has remained a passion ever since.

1964, of course, belonged to The Beatles.  I didn't own any Beatles records; I didn't need to, because The Beatles were everywhere, and in a good way.  As I wrote in a previous blog entry:  I was four years old when The Beatles first visited America.  On paper, that means I was too young to have been a Beatles fan at the time, but who are we kidding?  In 1964, everyone knew The Beatles, even a four-year-old suburban kid, and especially a four-year-old suburban kid with teenaged siblings.  The Beatles were everywhere, on TV and on the radio (AND HOW on the radio!), on bubblegum cards, magazine covers, posters and a million miscellaneous Fabmania products--I had a Beatles wallet.  When A Hard Day's Night opened later that year, I was there at the North Drive-In in Cicero, NY to see The Beatles' cinematic debut--and all the girls in all the cars (including ours) were screaming at the screen.  COOL!, I thought.

Media exposure--and it never did seem like overexposure--made The Beatles a part of our everyday lives, delivered by their movies, their TV appearances, their press conferences and their Saturday morning cartoon TV series (a show that had no actual Beatle involvement, sure, but which nonetheless reinforced our already-formed public caricatures of John, Paul, George and Ringo).

My other passion is comic books--specifically, superhero comic books.  That interest doesn't go back quite as far as my love of music, but I can't recall exactly where or when it started, either.  The Popeye cartoons I loved on TV were, in a way, superhero stories, as were the Flash Gordon movie serial chapters that Baron Daemon showed on his afternoon TV show.  The Adventures Of Superman was still being shown in reruns, and I remember watching those, too.  (I also remember that I didn't realize that Clark Kent and Superman were [SPOILER ALERT!] the same person--let's face it, I was a dumbass.)

Everyone loved Superman.  C'mon--faster than a speeding bullet?  More powerful than a locomotive?  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?  Well, case closed.  I had older siblings--my brothers Art and Rob, and my sister Denise, whom I called Nina--and one of them must have brought comic books into the house at some time.

The earliest comic books I remember seeing were two from 1965, a Lois Lane reprint collection (80-Page Giant # 14), and the 16th issue of an odd DC Comics title called Metal Men.   My sister Nina probably read them both to me.  With the Lois Lane book, I was fascinated by seeing TV's Superman and his supporting cast in a comic book.  And I think I was particularly weirded out by one of the stories, "The Shocking Secret Of Lois Lane!," which depicted our poor Lois wearing a bulky iron mask to conceal the fact that her beautiful face had been magically turned into a cat's head.  Wayne Boring's claustrophobic art style seemed to make this extra creepy, all for added impact on this impressionable five-year-old.



Metal Men, by contrast, was just plain goofy fun:  bickering robots with super-powers and human personalities, saving the world from an outer-space invasion.  One panel from that Metal Men comic book became a classic fave rave in my house, as the Metal Men fought off robot termites, prompting the Metal Man named Mercury to quip, "You're not going to throw ME into an antipasto!"

                             
I laughed.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  For a long time thereafter, Nina would occasionally wrestle and tickle me, and threaten to throw me into an antipasto.  I think she may have finally stopped just after I graduated from college, but I wouldn't put it past her to try again, even now.  And I'd probably still squeal with laughter, just as I did when I was five.

These are happy, happy memories from 1965.  But '65 also gave me my first taste of heartbreak, when my Godmother, Aunt Connie, passed away.  Aunt Connie absolutely doted on me, and I was just crushed when she was gone.  The death of a loved one isn't easy to deal with at any age--really, I'm not all that much better at it now--but it's really hard for a little kid to understand and process.  The situation wasn't helped by the fact that I found out about Aunt Connie's death from some friends on the block, who blurted out the news to me before my parents had been able to figure out how to tell me themselves.

And I had a lot of trouble with this.  I spent the rest of the '60s living in fear that my parents would be taken from me, that I'd lose them just as I lost Aunt Connie.  Maybe this fear made me want to look for heroes, for powerful good guys who could protect little boys from the ravages of a cruel world.  I'm not sure I buy that explanation, but I dunno; if The Beatles' success in America is attributed in part to Americans seeking relief from the sorrow of JFK's assassination, maybe a kid from North Syracuse sought out superheroes to forget his own tears and sadness.

As this kid turned a weary six years old in 1966, a hero was coming.  All the way from Gotham City.
  

PART 2


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1965 was pop music's best year ever.  Exhibit A for that claim is the list of records that hit # 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart that year.  1964 was pretty great, too, and so was 1966, but every single one of Billboard's # 1 hits in '65 was, at the very least, a better-than-decent pop single, and many of them were out-and-out classics:  "I Feel Fine" by The Beatles; "Downtown" by Petula Clark; "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers; "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys; "My Girl" by The Temptations; "Eight Days A Week" by The Beatles; "Stop! In The Name Of Love" by The Supremes; "I'm Telling You Now" by Freddie and the Dreamers; "Game Of Love" by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders; "Mrs, Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter" by Herman's Hermits; "Ticket To Ride" by The Beatles; "Help Me, Rhonda" by The Beach Boys; "Back In My Arms Again" by The Supremes; "I Can't Help Myself" by The Four Tops; "Mr. Tambourine Man" by The Byrds; "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones; "I'm Henry VIII, I Am" by Herman's Hermits; "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher; "Help!" by The Beatles; Barry McGuire's epic everything-sucks anthem, "Eve Of Destruction;" "Hang On Sloopy" by The McCoys; "Yesterday" by The Beatles; "Get Off Of My Cloud" by The Rolling Stones; "I Hear A Symphony" by The Supremes; "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds; and "Over And Over" by The Dave Clark Five.

When you back up all of the above with more '65 smashes by The Kinks, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, The Animals, The Turtles, The Beau Brummels, Buck Owens, The Who, The Vogues, Roger Miller, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, Gene Pitney, The Dixie Cups, The Ad Libs, Otis Redding, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Strangeloves, The Fortunes, Stevie Wonder, The Hollies, Jay and the Americans, The Sunrays, The Miracles, The Searchers, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, The Ivy League, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, Edwin Starr, Mavin Gaye, The Impressions, The Castaways, and a long list of others...well, you can understand why years later the British group The Barracudas saluted that miracle year with a song called "I Wish It Could Be 1965 Again."

(Oh, let's also throw in the fictional group The Wonders, and their faux-'65 hit "That Thing You Do!" Because we can.)

Oddly enough, I remember the music of 1964 with far more clarity than the music of '65.  Even though I was only four years old in '64, the pop culture juggernaut of The Beatles planted a huge, Cuban-heeled bootprint on the musical landscape; if you turned on a radio or a TV set in '64, you heard The Beatles, and you knew it.  I also remember The Dave Clark Five's "Bits And Pieces" from '64, but the only '65 records I remember contemporaneously are "Save Your Heart For Me" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, "Liar, Liar" by The Castaways, "King Of The Road" by Roger Miller, "Down In The Boondocks" by Billy Joe Royal, "Get Off Of My Cloud" by The Rolling Stones,  maybe some Herman's Hermits, and--of course!--the Whipped Cream & Other Delights LP by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  I mean, the record had a naked girl on the cover, slathered in (fake) whipped cream--of course I remember it!

But, as '65 became '66,  my very favorite record was a rock instrumental based on an Alka-Seltzer commercial, "No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach's In)" by The T-Bones.  I put this Liberty 45 on my parents' hi-fi and danced to it every day.



1966 would also bring new favorites by The Bobby Fuller Four ("I Fought The Law"), Nancy Sinatra ("These Boots Are Made For Walkin'"), The Mamas and the Papas ("Monday, Monday"), Tommy James and the Shondells ("Hanky Panky") and The Royal Guardsmen ("Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron"), as well as music from a new TV show called The Monkees, which debuted in September of '66.  We'll be discussing The Monkees in due time.

For me, however, music in 1966 had to make room for my newest addiction:  superheroes.  I've written about the effect the Batman TV show had on six-year-old me HERE ; for now, suffice it to say that Batman hooked me, body and soul, on costumed crimefighters.  Prior to 1966, my parents would occasionally take me to J.M. Fields department store, and allow me to pick out one or two 45s to bring home.

But no longer!  Now, I wanted to go to Sweetheart's Corner grocery store instead, and grab two superhero comic books off the spinner rack.  (Though Fields had opened a department specifically for Batman merchandise, so they didn't lose any money on my switch.)  This is a mere handful of the comic books I remember owning in 1966 and '67:

 




That big issue of Superboy # 129 right above?  That was my favorite comic book when I was a kid.  We'll discuss that one at length another time.

Although I obviously bought a lot of DC Comics--Batman!  Superman!  Superboy!--I was not opposed to picking up superhero books from other publishers.  I was 6 and 7; I didn't know there were different comics publishers.  My first Marvel comic book was probably Tales To Astonish # 80, co-starring The Sub-Mariner and The Incredible Hulk.  

When I was a kid, we spent time most summers in Southwest Missouri, where my mother had grown up, and where my grandparents still lived.  I remember being in a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri in the summer of '66, trying to decide between three comic books:

 

Mom told me to buy the Batman and be done.  I did pick up the Tales To Astonish a little later that same summer (at a small general store in Verona, Missouri), but never owned a copy of that issue of Justice League Of America until much, much later.  And I wouldn't read my first issue of JLA until the following summer.

But if a fluke kept me from discovering the Justice League, I did discover one superhero group while in Missouri that summer of 1966.  It was an older comic book, from 1965, but my sister Nina and cousin Cheryl had found a copy while out on a walk, and brought it back for me to read.  My superhero universe was about to get even bigger.
   

PART 3




  

 

A whole team of superheroes...?!  But...of course!

My first superhero team-up book was The Mighty Avengers # 13, published in 1965 but presented to me by my sister Nina and cousin Cheryl in the summer of '66.  Prior to that, I don't remember whether or not the notion of superheroes knowing other superheroes had yet occurred to me.  No, scratch that; at age six, I was at least aware that Batman and Superman knew each other, because I'd seen ads for an 80-Page Giant featuring the two together.  Since one of the scenes on the cover depicted them fighting each other, I presumed that Batman and Superman weren't buddies at all; I had even drawn my own homemade comic book, with a page showing a battered Superman sailing into the stratosphere after being slugged by the mighty Batman (and with Supes muttering to himself, "Darn that Batman!").  See, Frank Miller and Zack Snyder have nothing on me.



In retrospect, the idea that superheroes knew other superheroes probably wasn't really a revelation.  I'm sure I thought that Batman knew Popeye, who knew Flash Gordon, who knew Gilligan, who knew Bugs Bunny, who knew The Beatles, who knew Dick Tracy, who knew The Cisco Kid, who knew Samantha on Bewitched, and so on.  But that issue of The Mighty Avengers was the first time I'd seen the concept in action, and I loved it.  It didn't hurt that The Avengers themselves were five heroes I hadn't encountered before:  The Mighty Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, The Wasp, and Captain America.  I was particularly taken with Captain America, and I was thrilled as my Mom and I read about Cap battling the evil forces of Count Nefaria and the Maggia.




By the fall of 1966, the immense popularity of the Batman TV show inspired a superhero gold rush.  The Green Hornet joined Batman on ABC's prime-time TV schedule, and both heroes (and their partners) appeared in a TV comedy skit with Milton Berle.  On Saturday mornings, CBS added new cartoon Superman and Lone Ranger series, as well as series starring new heroes Space Ghost, Frankenstein, Jr., and The Impossibles.  CBS also imported Underdog from NBC.  (I forgot to mention Underdog previously; Underdog was certainly another of my early superhero favorites, as was Astro Boy, whose cartoon exploits were a highlight of Baron Daemon's weekday afternoon show on Channel 9 in Syracuse.)

The Marvel Superheroes also came to TV that fall, in a syndicated series of very short, very limited animation episodes adapted directly from the original Marvel comic book stories.  In Syracuse, they were shown on Channel 5's weekday afternoon show Jet Set, and they served me with a chance to learn much, much more about Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and The Incredible Hulk.  The Captain America theme song may have been my favorite music that year!





Batman himself headed to the big screen in '66, with a feature-film expansion of his TV show.  I recall being in the hospital, tonsils freshly excised, and reading an ad for the film in a comic book:  Batman and Robin versus The Joker, and The Penguin, and The Riddler, and Catwoman?!  I am so there!  We saw the film at the Hollywood Theater in Mattydale, NY, on a double-bill with a horror flick called The Reptile.  The Reptile played first, and I was so scared by that film that I wanted to try to crawl into the ashtray to escape the Snake People.  Nina said she was just as scared.  Luckily, the day was saved by Batman, as the Caped Crusader's cinematic adventure did not disappoint.



As much as I loved (and still love) The Green Hornet series, the new Fall '66 TV show that had the most lasting impact on my life was The Monkees, a show chronicling the misadventures of a struggling quartet of would-be rock 'n' roll stars.  Nina hooked me on it by describing it as "like Batman, except with a guitar instead of a bat."  Good enough for me!  I watched the show, and was a big fan of Davy Jones, in particular.  I think it was my brother Art who wound up buying the first two Monkees albums, so there was always Monkees music available to play in the house from that point on.  I eventually became an even bigger Monkees fan later on, when CBS picked up the show for Saturday morning/early afternoon reruns, beginning in 1969.  By the mid-'70s, The Monkees had secured a permanent position as one of my all-time favorite groups.

1966 ended with the best Christmas present I could have asked for:  Captain Action!  Captain Action was a superhero doll (if the term "action figure" existed, I don't remember hearing it) from Ideal, which was cool enough.  But even cooler--and more lucrative for Ideal--was Captain Action's ability to change into nine other superheroes!  Not made-up Ideal superheroes--real superheroes!  Captain Action could become Batman!  Superman!  Captain America!  Aquaman!  The Phantom!  The Lone Ranger!  Flash Gordon!  Steve Canyon!  And Sgt. Fury!  It was a cross-company licensing extravaganza that could never be duplicated today.  On Christmas eve, at the annual family Christmas get-together (held that year at the house of my Uncle Tot and Aunt Marian, rather than at Aunt Mary and Uncle Mike's house, the regular site for this annual gathering), my aunts and uncles gave me all of the individual superhero costumes except Sgt. Fury.  I received the Sgt. Fury costume and the main Captain Action figure from Santa Claus the next morning.  I'm guessing ol' Kris Kringle must have asked Mom and Dad to coordinate gifts with the aunts and uncles--he's pretty efficient, that St. Nick.

                                

In 1967, my favorite song was "California Nights" by Lesley Gore.  I'm not sure whether or not I had a crush on Ms. Gore (though I think I did have a crush on Nancy Sinatra), but I loved that song, and I received the California Nights album as a birthday gift.  Worlds collided pleasantly when Lesley Gore made a guest appearance on Batman, playing Catwoman's sidekick Pussycat and lip-syncing "California Nights" (which may be where I first heard the song).  I wrote more about Lesley Gore here

In addition to The Monkees' music, the only other 1967 hit that sticks out in my memory is "Happy Together" by The Turtles; I liked that song, but my Mom thought I liked it even more than I did, possibly just because I knew (and mentioned) the title and artist.  I was not aware of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album at all.

Music definitely took a backseat to superheroes in my world circa 1967.  I played with my Captain Action doll and my Creepy Crawlers creations, and made up superhero scenarios for these toys and knickknacks to live out.  I read comic books as often as possible, amassing a collection of four-color adventures starring The Justice League of America, The Fantastic Four, The Fab 4, The Shield, The Web, The Black Hood, Nick Fury, Dial H For Hero, Aquaman, Superman, Daredevil, Plastic Man, The Challengers of the Unknown, The Amazing Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Teen Titans, Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, Dr. Strange, Hawkman, The Flash, Dr. Solar: Man Of The Atom, The Atom, Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, The Inferior Five, The Spectre, and Magnus, Robot Fighter.  Also Super Goof, the superheroic incarnation of Disney fave Goofy. (I can't remember if I'd discovered Charlton Comics' line of Action-Heroes in '67, or if I found out about them later; at some point, I became a big fan of The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Peacemaker, Judo Master, The Sentinels, The Question, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, so I want to at least mention them here.  I do know that I didn't discover Tower's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents until much later.)

                                              

The Avengers had changed membership between my visits with them, as Thor and Iron Man had left, and Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch had joined; Captain America remained--to me, it wouldn't have been The Avengers without Cap--and so had The Wasp and Giant-Man (the latter now called Goliath, and yeah, dumbass little me didn't realize Goliath and Giant-Man were the same guy).

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Oh, and the Justice League?  My first issue of JLA guest-starred The Justice Society of America in the first part of that summer's annual JLA/JSA crossover.  I had passed on buying part 2 of the '66 JLA/JSA event the previous summer, but it would be a much-anticipated annual highlight for me from that point on.

 

We didn't visit Missouri that summer.  We did have a 4th of July family picnic in our backyard (I bought my second issue of JLA that day at Sweethearts Corner).  Dad didn't usually accompany us on the trips to Missouri, but he did go with us on our summer '67 trip, to a cabin owned by a friend of Dad's.  In Missouri, my grandparents had gotten me interested in fishing, so Dad bought a fishing license to continue with that endeavor.  We didn't realize until we'd arrived that the cabin was located across the state line, in Vermont.  Dad may have grumbled silently, but he bought a Vermont fishing license, and he and I went out fishing on a row boat.  I don't remember if we caught anything, but I remember being out on the water with my Dad.  Decades later, when Dad was in hospice care, trying to thank me for some simple thing, like bringing him a strawberry milkshake, I reminded him of that day out fishing on the water in Vermont, and told him he'd accrued more than enough bonus points to cover a strawberry milkshake.

(I don't think I picked up many comics on that trip--maybe an issue of World's Finest Comics or Superman--and we certainly didn't buy any records.  But we did find a book of song lyrics at the cabin, and it contained the lyrics to one of my past favorites, "Blame It On The Bossa Nova."  And I think it was on that trip that I picked up a four-pack of Batman posters drawn by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson.  One of those images has become iconic among Batfans.)

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In the fall of '67, DC Comics expanded its TV presence with The Superman-Aquaman Hour Of Adventure, a one-hour Saturday morning cartoon series combining Superman and Superboy episodes from 1966's The New Adventures Of Superman with new Aquaman cartoons, plus more new cartoons from a rotating cast of DC superheroes:  The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom, The Teen Titans (minus Robin the Boy Wonder, whose agent couldn't get him out of his ABC contract), and even The Justice League of America (minus Batman, for reasons cited above; also minus the other JLA members--Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter--that didn't have solo cartoons in the Superman/Aquaman Hour, and minus Aquaman because...well, just 'cuz).

So 1967 ended, and we welcomed '68 secure in the knowledge that Syracuse and its suburbs were more than adequately protected from evildoers.  Good thing.  Because there would be a lot of evil afoot in 1968.


(Yeah, I know--this is from a 1969 comic book.  Bear with me--it's for effect!)

PART 4

                              

Trouble.  In 1968, even a clueless eight-year-old kid in the Syracuse suburbs could sense there was something not quite right going on in the world.

I didn't watch the news.  I didn't read the newspapers, except maybe to catch up with The Phantom and Family Circus and Dennis The Menace on the comics page.  But I was at least dimly aware that there was a war going on in Viet Nam.  I'd heard that there had been riots somewhere.  I knew there was racial unrest.  I knew there was a drug problem.  And there were hippies.  What was up with hippies?

My family was relatively untouched by the war.  A few years back, while away at school in Fredonia, my brother Rob had been in a terrible car accident; he was one of the lucky ones who survived the crash, but he sustained injuries that still bother him, a lot, even today.  Uncle Sam did not want Rob.  My oldest brother, Art, had problems with his legs that should have likewise precluded any notion of military service.  But some hardass in the draft system didn't agree, so Art had to put everything in his life on hold and go through this awful process of preparing for conscription.  Somewhere, farther down this New Recruit assembly line, a person with authority and brains took one look at Art's leg and said, "How did you get this far?!"  Rejected.  There would be no Cafarelli boys fighting in 'Nam.

I was oblivious to all of this.  I don't recall hearing about any of it until years later, listening to my Dad tell stories.  Dad was always proud of Art--Mom and Dad were always proud of all their kids, really, even the oddball youngest one--and Dad was pissed that Art had to go through all of that unnecessary nonsense, when there was simply no way Art was ever gonna be a soldier, no chance in hell he could pass the physical.  Dad had nearly infinite patience in most situations; he had no patience for fools, and he certainly had no patience for how the draft had disrupted Art's life for no real reason.

But we were lucky.  I can't speak for my siblings, but I don't remember hearing of anyone in our circle of family or friends who had to serve in Viet Nam.  I was eight, and had no opinion on the war.  I suppose, if someone had asked me at the time, that I would have said I supported a war to fight Communism.  That would have seemed like the proper comic-book thing to say.  It would have been wrong, but then again, there were a lot of people older and smarter than me who were just as wrong about the war in early '68.

I doubt that I knew who Martin Luther King, Jr. was.  But when Dr. King was assassinated, that bad news traveled fast.  Schools were closed on the day of King's funeral; I recall getting ready to play outside, putting on my red baseball cap, but pausing to watch the TV coverage of Dr. King's memorial service.  I felt sad.  I was still going to go outside and play, but I needed to stop, just for a few seconds, and pay my own silent respects to the slain civil rights leader.  Later in the year, when Bobby Kennedy was shot, my friend Sharon Doyle tried to organize the neighborhood kids for a parade around our block, offering prayers for Senator Kennedy's recovery.  But Kennedy had passed before we even finished making our signs.  We could have used some superheroes in '68.


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Nonetheless, the superhero boom was dying.  The Green Hornet TV series had failed, and was long gone after its first-season cancellation in '67.  Batman's third season had tried to recapture its earlier success, cutting back from a twice-a-week schedule to the standard weekly deal, and adding the character of Batgirl (played by the absolutely gorgeous Yvonne Craig) to lure viewers back to Gotham City; all efforts were for naught, as Batman was cancelled in the Spring of 1968.  The Monkees was also cancelled at about the same time.

For all that, though, 1968 was almost like my annus mirabilis, sort of.  It was the final act of second grade, and I was the teacher's pet.  During that school year, Mrs. Paredes selected me to recite a report she'd written on Yale University for the school-wide morning announcements.  She also cast me in the lead role as Robert Louis Stevenson in our class play.  Let's face it:  I was adorable. (Elizabeth, my co-star in the play, certainly thought I was adorable, and she made sure everyone knew it.)

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Even if the general public had tired of superheroes, I still couldn't get enough of them.  I was amassing a collection, and loving every page of every Marvel or DC (or other!) comic book I could lay hands on.  I think my favorite was The Legion Of Super-Heroes, a huge group of teen-aged superheroes in the 30th Century.  I mean, if you like superheroes, what could be better than more superheroes?  The usually-serialized adventures in Marvel Comics sometimes made it to difficult to keep up with what was going on--I missed far more issues than I actually got to read--but I remember an issue of The Fantastic Four that guest-starred Daredevil, Thor, and Spider-Man.  Man, that was something else!  I didn't really know anything yet about the writers and artists who created comic books--I may have known who Stan Lee was--but the artwork on this issue seemed like it could break free on its own, allowing the heroes to continue their battle on the quiet streets of North Syracuse. Jack Kirby.  There was a reason he was called King Kirby.

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(I'd also developed a taste for Nancy Drew novels, and an interest in Greek and Roman mythology.  I had been obsessed with studying snakes and other reptiles--so much so that Mrs. Paredes had ordered me to start reading up on a different subject already--but a nightmare about snakes put a sudden end to that interest.)
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 Looking back, it seems odd that I don't remember more about 1968's music.  The Beatles had fallen completely off my radar, so I certainly didn't know The White Album, and don't recall even hearing "Hey Jude" or "Revolution" (though I must have).  It's for damn sure I didn't know about The Monkees' movie Head.  The only song from '68 that jumps out immediately in my memory is "Bend Me, Shape Me" by The American Breed.  Jeez, did I listen to the radio in 1968?  I'm sure I did.  But the memory of it isn't there.

But I do remember the comic books.

For the summer of 1968, rather than just spending a few weeks in Missouri, Mom and I would spend almost the entire summer away from Syracuse.  For the long trip, I was allowed to pick out eight new comic books, with the caveat that I could not read them before the trip.  I remember two of them specifically:



(I honored my contract, and did not read any of these comics until after we left Syracuse.  I sure did spend a lot of time admiring the covers, though.)

Unlike previous Missouri sojourns, my California kin the Stouts--Aunt Betty, Uncle Charlie, and cousins Cheryl and Mark--would not be in the Show-Me State at all that summer.  I considered Mark to be my best friend in the world, even though we saw each other with such infrequence.  Mark's absence meant that I had no other kids to play with in Missouri; when it came to keeping myself entertained, I was pretty much on my own.

There were frequent fishing trips, and some of my time was occupied with daily swimming lessons.  I loved the public pool in Aurora, and I transitioned from being a not-terribly-good swimmer to suddenly being...well, competent.  I was not a good swimming student initially, and I think my two teen-aged female swimming instructors were frustrated with my lack of progress.  I very clearly remember the slightly shocked glance they exchanged with each other when I suddenly, unexpectedly, just got it, and took off, swimming proficiently for the very first time.  I never had trouble with swimming again.

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My swimming instructor.  No, wait--that's Yvonne Craig again.  Sorry!
Given all of this free time, my comics-buying budget was expanded considerably.  Comic books were still a mere 12 cents, 25 cents for giant issues, and Mom gave me an adequate supply of quarters to feed my addiction.


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Then, as now, I thought this stuff was the pinnacle of superhero excitement, and I would be hard-pressed to pick out a favorite, or even a few favorites.  The annual JLA/JSA team-up was terrific, and it introduced the Silver Age incarnation of The Red Tornado.  Avengers Annual # 2 pitted the then-current Avengers against the original Avengers in an alternate-world clash that implicitly linked my first exposure to The Avengers (in Missouri, in 1966) with what I was reading in 1968; it was, I think, also the first time I realized that The Hulk had once been a member of The Avengers--from that point on, I wished that The Hulk could re-join the assembled Avengers on a permanent basis.  The lead story in the Superman 30th Anniversary 80-Page Giant made me weep over the tragic fate of the heroic Hyperman, while the Bizarro Giant tickled me endlessly.  In the pages of The Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby were simply at the top of their game.  The big Marvel Super Heroes issues mixed new lead adventures with obscure reprints from Marvel's archives.  And Not Brand Echh? Hilarious! I quoted goofy lines from that constantly.  I still do!                  
          

Back at my grandparents' house in Verona, I filled a notebook with drawings for my own imaginary comic books.  I concocted hypothetical adventures for existing DC and Marvel characters, and also wrote and drew a story starring a group of my own superhero creations, who imaginatively called themselves "The Avengers."  Yep, I was litigation just waiting to happen.  (That crayon-colored creation is long gone, but I know it also featured a group of super-villains, of whom the only dastardly baddies I can recall are Agent X and The Bolshevik Bat.)  I also expanded the membership of Marvel's real Avengers to include The Hulk, Spider-Man, and even Not Brand Echh's silly Forbush-Man.

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(I also found a World War I helmet at the house, and used it to pretend I was the Golden Age Flash, who was featured in that summer's Justice League-Justice Society team-up.  Somewhat less fun was the other thing I found and played with:  what I presumed was a little toy shot gun.  My grandparents saw that and took it away immediately.  It was not loaded.)

What was already quite a summer would soon expand even more.  I have no idea if it was planned from the get-go, or if it was an idea that generated spontaneously over the early course of that summer.  But the word came down from the adults in charge:  we would be seeing the Stouts, after all.  In California!  Get in the car, Carl.
                   


PART 5


Typical California girl circa 1968.  Oops--sorry, that's Yvonne Craig again.  My bad!
In 1968, I was not a terrific traveler.  I was okay on a plane or a train, but I tended to get carsick.  So putting this queasy-feeling eight-year-old into a car for a trek from Southwest Missouri to Fremont, California was a daunting task.  It certainly frustrated my grandfather, who probably wanted to make better time than he was able to make with this chubby New York kid retching through every state along the way.

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But we made it.  We didn't get our kicks on Route 66 (we were traveling north on the outbound journey), but we got there somehow, over the course of three days.  We stopped in Colorado, where I waded in a Rocky Mountain stream that was so frigid it made my ankles hurt; the water from that stream was cold and pure-tasting, and it made me feel better.  I recall stopping for the night in Salt Lake City, where all of the buildings seemed to be covered with stinkbugs.  At some roadside stop, I picked up a book called Poisonous Dwellers Of The Desert.  And I remember Grampa's station wagon parking in a driveway, and groggy little me wondering:  Where am I?  And who are these people greeting us?  And Mom answering, "Don't you recognize your cousin Mark?"

California.  Of course I recognized Mark.  It was time to wake up, and set foot in the Golden State.

Mark and I were pals.  I was almost a year older than him--still am!--but he was my favorite person.  Although there were times I could be a bit overbearing (and that was entirely my fault), we generally got along great.  We spent that time in California playing secret agents, worrying about (largely imaginary) poisonous insects, imitating Tiny Tim (whose shrill, falsetto rendition of "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" was a source of much mocking merriment), and watching reruns of both the Marvel Super Heroes cartoons and The Adventures Of Superman.  I hadn't seen the live action Superman in years, and I was delighted to re-acquaint myself with George Reeves' wonderful portrayal of the Man of Steel.  I ate tacos for the first time; I hated them, but I have since revised that opinion (and how!).  Cousin Cheryl also introduced me to a Mad magazine knock-off called Rude.  I don't believe I ever saw another issue of that.

                               

As noted above, the Stouts lived in Fremont, which is in the Bay Area.  While there, we visited the aquarium in San Francisco--cool!!   I got to see stingrays and manatees!  At the aquarium, my grandmother was standing by herself when a young male adult of hirsute description came up to her and asked, "Excuse me, ma'am. Are you a hippie?" Grandma stammered an answer of some sort, but the young hairball scampered away quickly when the rest of us approached.  The presumption among us was that Grandma's fuzzy new friend was about to mug her.  (In my mind, and in my memory, that guy was Charlie Manson.  Never mind that Manson was then nearly 400 miles to the South, in the Los Angeles area; don't bother trying to out-think a junior detective.)

But, speaking of Southern California, that was our next destination.  Split up between Grampa's station wagon and Uncle Charlie's car, our combined Missouri and New York group joined the Stouts for a trip to visit my Great-Grandmother Engel.  It remains the only time I've ever been in Southern California, and it was the only time I ever saw my great-grandmother.  She had remarried, and her husband gave me a set of bongo drums, which I still have.  At night, we looked at the stars through his telescope.  And we spent one magical day at Disneyland.

But, the morning after our Disneyland visit, it was time for the Stouts to return home to Fremont.  We remained in SoCal for a few more days.  I wasn't without an age-matched peer for long, as a female cousin I'd never met also joined us at that time.  I think her name was Laurie, and I don't remember much about her.  My only remaining memories of her are a dismissive note she wrote to me (saying "I only like you to play with"), and a vivid memory of walking with her to a nearby store.  At the store, I saw an Aquaman comic book that I really wanted, and she got pissed, warning me that if I bought it, she'd walk back to Grandma Engel's house without me.  Of course I bought it. We walked back separately.

                              


(This Aquaman book was an early chapter in a long serial--an unusual undertaking for DC Comics at the time--detailing Aquaman's search for his kidnapped wife, Mera.  I didn't get to read the whole thing until many years later, but it became one of my all-time favorite superhero runs:  quirky-but-engaging writing by Steve Skeates, absolutely gorgeous artwork by the great Jim Aparo, irresistible covers by Nick Cardy [Cardy is possibly my all-time favorite comics artist], and all of it overseen amiably by editor Dick Giordano.  Sorry, Laurie; buying Aquaman was well worth drawing your ire.)

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My cousin Laurie.  Well...maybe not.
There was a family picnic, where I saw many, many people with whom I shared some familial bond. I had--and still have--no clue who they were.  But Grampa told me to go say hi to my cousins, so I obediently went over to this big group of kids and said, "Hi, cousins!"  That is all I remember about that day.  I'm pretty sure we ate fried chicken.

And then it was time for us to return to Missouri.  We packed up the station wagon, and hit the road as dusk approached, hoping for cooler nighttime weather as we crossed the desert.  Shortly after we started out, we passed a drive-in movie theater; it was playing the 1966 Batman movie.  I could see Batman and Robin on the screen, racing on the water in their Batboat.  I wanted to stop.  Grampa did not agree.

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They were heading west.  We were heading east.
I slept through the desert portion of the journey.  Upon waking, I was told that I was fortunate to have been asleep, because it had really been hot in the desert, even at night. We drove through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.  Grampa begrudgingly agreed to stop at a roadside tourist attraction, just so I could see a rattlesnake in a cage.  I would have to agree with him that it really wasn't worth stopping.

Back in Missouri, with time for another trip or two to the pool in Aurora, and for maybe another few comic books off the spinner rack at Ramey's Grocery Store.  But the summer was ending, and we were soon on a plane back to Syracuse.






(Even in 1968, I couldn't get 'em all.  The above comic books are four of the many that got away.)

Arriving home, I was immediately hit with unwelcome news:  the Doyles, our neighbors from two houses over, were moving to Liverpool.  Like...now.  Sharon and her brothers had been my friends since the dawn of memory.  I hated to see them go.  Hated it.  It wasn't the first time I'd lost touch with a friend--Dave Pratt had already moved to faraway Toledo, Ohio, and I never did see Mary Rose Tamborelli again after Aunt Connie died--but this hurt.  For you out-of-towners, I should mention that Liverpool was just another Northern suburb of Syracuse; the Doyles weren't exactly moving to East Berlin.  But it was farther than I could ride on a bike, and that was...well, that was it.  We remained in touch for a bit.  I stayed at the Doyles' house in Liverpool one weekend in 1969, but time, tide, and different schools pulled us apart.  I ran into Sharon once or twice when we were teens, and a few times as adults; aside from the unfortunate circumstance of their dad's calling hours a couple of years ago, I haven't seen Sharon's brothers since we were all kids.  I never imagined that we would grow up apart from each other.

Third grade beckoned.  It was a Presidential election year, so we were all asked to vote in a poll at school.  I remembered hearing my brother Rob take a public opinion poll recently; asked to state his political party, Rob answered "Liberal."  Well, I was always eager to be more like my brother.  Looking at the choices presented, neither Republican Richard Nixon nor Democrat Hubert Humphrey seemed quite right, so I tried to emulate Rob by voting for the third choice; I voted for George Wallace.  I don't think that's quite how Rob would have voted.

How I should have voted.
Nixon won the class poll, and as goes Bear Road Elementary School, so goes the nation. Mom and Dad voted for Humphrey.  They always were smart folks, my Mom and Dad.

One good thing about Election Night 1968:  one of the TV channels was running a double feature of The Beatles' first film A Hard Day's Night and a Jerry Lewis movie called Cinderfella.  I had seen both before, and was happy to see 'em again.  My Dad was not so happy when he and Mom got home and discovered I wasn't in bed yet.

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And Batman was back on TV again already!  The Dynamic Duo returned in the form of new cartoons (paired with 1966 Superman cartoons) on The Batman-Superman Hour.  Guess I wasn't the sole remaining superhero fan.

My miracle year of 1968 ended with the school Christmas Pageant.  Each year, Mrs. Richards' third grade class put on a production of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas; I'd seen at least one previous production.  I tried out for the lead role, growling and grimacing, bellowing meanness at the top of my lungs and throat, and from the bottom of my pitch-black soul.  I got the part.  And I killed. We put on several performances, at Bear Road and at other locations.  My performance was the buzz of North Syracuse.  My Dad--who never missed anything I did--had to work, and never got to see me as the Grinch.  But people--strangers--walked up to him the next day at the Post Office, and raved about this loud, expressive little kid they'd seen play the Grinch the night before.  I had laryngitis for a week, maybe more.  And I was legend.



(Laugh if you will--and you probably should--but my performance as the Grinch followed me around for years.  Literally.  In middle school, high school, even years later at a bar, when I went to see Joey Molland's Badfinger, people would randomly walk up to me and say, "Hey!  Weren't you the Grinch?"  Author Jeanne M. Cavelos was also in my class, and she played the role of the Grinch's sidekick, Max; when I saw her at a book-signing in the '90s, her friend Jamie (another classmate) looked up, saw me, and blurted out, "Are you Carl?  The Grinch?"  Jeanne also looked up, and said, "Oh my God, it is the Grinch!")

Mrs. Richards' third grade class used to perform How The Grinch Stole Christmas every single year. After my performance in 1968, she never staged the play again.  Annus mirabilis.  This was 1968.

President-Elect Richard M. Nixon

PART 6  
      

As the intro above suggests, I've spent most of this extended ramble talking about the music I heard and the comic books I read as a kid.  But BatmanThe Monkees, and The Green Hornet certainly weren't the only TV shows I watched in the '60s.  So, before we launch into the final part of my "Singers, Superheroes, And Songs On The Radio" coverage of the 1960s, we should pause and look at TV.

"Look at TV."  That was how our early reading primers referred to the act of soaking up cathode rays, presumably because "watching" was deemed too difficult a word for beginning readers to attempt.  We were pretty stupid little kids.  That was probably the result of all the TV we watched.

And we watched a lot of TV, in between adult exhortations to go outside and get some fresh air already.  (And, to be fair, we also spent a lot of time playing outside, as well. We played soldier, hide-and-seek, freeze tag, duck-duck-goose, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians (sic), Flash Gordon (the huge weeping willow in our back yard served as the neighborhood rocket ship), squat tag, and...um, TV tag.  Okay, maybe we did watch too much television.  But we were outside running all day, until a parent yelled out the kitchen door to order us home for supper.)

My earliest TV memories are of kid's shows like Captain KangarooRomper Room and the locally-produced classic Magic Toy Shop.  If you're my age, and you grew up in Syracuse, you for damn sure grew up watching Magic Toy Shopa weekday morning staple starring Eddie Flum Num, Merrily, Mr. Trolley, Twinkles the Clown, and The Play Lady; they spent a half hour each day singing songs, telling stories, drawing pictures, and usually showing one cartoon near the end of the show. And each show reminded us that a smile was the magic key that unlocked the magic door to the wonderful Magic Toy Shop

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Eddie Flum Num, Mr. Trolley, and Merrily
                                   
I also remember Shenanigans, a kids' game show which ran in '64 and '65, hosted by Stubby Kaye. Before product placement was recognized as a sin, Shenanigans was a direct shill for Milton-Bradley, and the TV game itself was a live-action board game.  The only thing I clearly remember about this was some goofy prize it offered:  an odd piece of plastic headgear, resembling horns, but basically clear tubes with little spheres inside; when the proud wearer tipped his or her head side to side, the spheres looked like they were passing through the cranium, ear to ear, to emerge on the other side.  You can snicker, but this is the kind of good ol' American know-how and technology that enabled us to beat the Russkies to the moon, pal.

I've mentioned Baron Daemon in previous posts.  Everyone in the neighborhood loved The Baron And His Buddies, as local TV host Mike Price donned fangs and black cape to become the silliest vampire in all the realms.  Mike Price was (and is) a true ham--and I mean that as a compliment--so the Baron and his gimble-brained sidekicks engaged in shameless schtick and slapstick, in between airings of cherished Astro Boy cartoons and Flash Gordon serial chapters.  As the Baron, Price even recorded and released a 45, "The Transylvania Twist," which remains the biggest-selling local single in Syracuse history.  I don't remember hearing it in the '60s, but it's obviously The Greatest Record Ever Made.




We all watched Popeye cartoons, in the afternoon and on Saturdays, on shows hosted by Denny Sullivan or Salty Sam.  Reruns gave us older shows, from Car 54, Where Are You? and The Adventures Of Superman to I Love LucyThe Cisco KidThe Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, and short films starring The Three Stooges.  In prime time, faves in the early-to-mid-'60s included Gilligan's IslandThe Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy ShowThe FlintstonesThe Beverly Hillbillies (and its kin, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres), The Jackie Gleason Show (a variety show featuring "The Honeymooners," Crazy Guggenheim, and The June Taylor Dancers), BewitchedLost In SpaceThat GirlF TroopThe MunstersThe Addams FamilyI Dream Of JeannieThe Andy Griffith ShowHogan's Heroes, and Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color.   Ooooo--and Get Smart!  Loved Get Smart!

There were also shows I knew about, but didn't necessarily watch at the time.  The Twilight Zone scared the livin' chicklets outta me.  I saw the occasional episode of The Avengers and Wild, Wild West, but didn't really pay much attention to either until later years.  Same story with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek, neither of which I watched much (if at all) in the '60s; I became a dedicated Trekkie via reruns in the '70s.

I enjoyed several short-lived shows, including The Pruitts Of Southampton (which changed its name to The Phyllis Diller Show, and still failed), It's About TimeMr. Terrific, and Run, Buddy, Run.  I never saw an episode of Captain Nice.  I must confess that I did watch My Mother, The Car, but I'm not terribly proud to admit that.  I don't remember ever seeing Shindig! or Hullabaloo, but we did watch Where The Action Is! and, of course, American Bandstand; I specifically remember watching Jefferson Airplane sing "Somebody To Love" on Bandstand.  And I watched pretty much every TV cartoon I could find.

A bit later in the decade, I dug The Good Guys (a sitcom co-starring Bob Denver of Gilligan's Island), The Smothers Brothers Comedy HourLaugh-InHere Come The Brides (with teen idol Bobby Sherman and the supercute Bridget Hanley) and He & She.  My favorite show during a brief period in the late '60s was The Guns Of Will Sonnett, a Western starring Walter Brennan (whom I remembered from an earlier sitcom called The Real McCoys).  I haven't seen The Guns Of Will Sonnett since its network days; some day, I might just shell out for the complete DVD collection of The Guns Of Will Sonnett, just to see how it compares to my golden memory of the show.

Oh, and I had a huge crush on both Ginger and Mary Ann.  Yeah, as if you didn't.
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PART 7
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I was always considered weird.  I will pause a moment so you can feign an appropriate level of shock and surprise.  But yeah, I was a square peg from the word go:  a dreamer, not terribly (or at all) athletic, disinterested in sports, overly sensitive, always singing a song or reading a book (or comic book).  My childhood was certainly not unhappy, but I felt more like Charlie Brown than, say, David Watts.

In 1969, I had neither heard nor heard of "David Watts."  Nonetheless, this blog will never pass up on a chance to mention THE KINKS!
But in third grade, I began to feel something new and unfamiliar:  I began to feel as if I belonged.  It's a feeling I have never been able to recapture since then.

After our third grade production of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, 1969 began with a welcome return:  Batman!  With a tag line of "Holy 1969!," one of our local stations began rerunning the 1966-68 TV series on weekday afternoons.  Batman every day!  Maybe this new Nixon Administration was gonna turn out okay after all!



A Saturday morning TV cartoon series based on the popular Archie comic books had begun the previous fall.  I had read some Archie comic books (and the Sunday comic strip); it wasn't my preferred genre of superheroes, but I liked Archie well enough, I guess.  In retrospect, I'm surprised I never sampled Archie's own comic-book foray into superherodom, as the mighty Pureheart The Powerful (circa the 1966 Batman boom).

Still, I watched The Archie Show.  I think I was a bit put off by Veronica's unexpected Southern accent ("Archiekins!"), but it was fun.  And there was music!  The songs were catchy, engaging bubblegum (though I don't think I'd heard that term yet), and I would sing along with delight.  When The Archies had a # 1 hit record on the radio, the irresistible "Sugar, Sugar" was my favorite song, too.  Other than a few cardboard records cut off the backs of specially-marked boxes of Post breakfast cereals, I never owned any Archies records at the time; I own all of them now.

(Years later, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ron Dante, the lead singer on The Archies' records.  He was one of the nicest people I ever had the pleasure of interviewing.  Material from that interview was included in my "Informal History Of Bubblegum Music," which will be serialized on this blog in the near future.  Oh, and my current favorite comic book is--surprise!--Archie, though the book's tone today is more somber and serious [if you will] than the Archie of my youth.)





The summer of '69--no, that doesn't make me think of any specific song; why do you ask?--presented a real-life realization of those long-ago Flash Gordon adventures, as Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.  I experienced my first-ever shock of inflation when the price of a single comic book rose from the familiar 12 cents to a whompin', stompin' 15 cents per copy.  Oh, the humanity...!  Mom and I returned to Missouri, and then back to Syracuse for the start of fourth grade.

Bear Road Elementary School at that time housed grades K through 5th.  My fourth grade class was a double-classroom, with two teachers--Miss Lynch and Miss Burns--presiding over something like fifty to sixty kids.  That's crazy.  How they managed that without murdering one or more of us (as far as I know) is a mystery; how we managed to learn anything is equally mystifying.  But somehow, both statements are true.

I got along with, I think, all of my classmates.  We weren't all best buds, but I don't remember any specific rivalries or antagonism either.  It was the only time I ever shared a class with my friend Steve Goettel, who lived across the street from me; like Sharon Doyle, Steve had been my friend for as far back as I could remember.

Fourth grade was the best year I ever had in school.  I don't mean in terms of grades, but in terms of comfort, in terms of camaraderie and companionship...yes, in terms of belonging.  There was a kid in my class, Michael LaHair, who was the first person I ever met who was into comic books just as much as I was.  We got together at his house on Moon Valley Drive to trade comics, and we remained friends for a few years, until he too moved away.

Neither Michael LaHair nor I ever owned a copy of this 1941 comic book.
I developed a sudden and vast interest in World War II.  I don't know what prompted it, but it immediately became as pervasive an interest as snakes, astronomy, and mythology had once been in previous years.  A few times, I had to reassure adults (not my parents, by the way--they knew me way better than that) that my interest in learning more about WWII--especially the dictators--was in no way an indication that I was secretly a neo-Nazi or some other odious fascist sympathizer.  I just found the subject interesting.  (And I daresay I knew more about Neville Chamberlain as a ten-year-old in 1970 than right-wing dunderhead Kevin James knew about him during the 2008 presidential election.)

The book store at Bear Road--The Paperback Shack--implicitly embraced the philosophy that all reading is educational, so why not let kids read books they're interested in reading?  I got into something called Big Little Books, which were small-but-thick kids' books starring licensed characters, with pages of text alternating with pages of illustration.  I would later discover that BLBs predated comic books, with the first Big Little Books appearing in the 1930s, starring characters like Tailspin Tommy, Buck Rogers, and Captain Midnight.  My first BLB starred The Fantastic Four, and I subsequently purchased as many of them as I could.  Years later, I sold my BLB collection for rent money.  Wish I still had 'em!

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But more importantly, I had friends.  Some of my classmates thought I was funny, some of them liked my drawings...I was bordering on popular!  When the class put on a play for parents, I didn't have a part to play; somehow, I wound up horning in anyway, with an ad-libbed part about a student phoning home from college (and ending the conversation by saying he had to go "bean the Dean").  This was a big hit with my peers.  I had arrived.

My grades were, I guess, better than adequate.  My occasional struggles with math and science made it increasingly clear that I wasn't going to be a brilliant millionaire inventor/crimefighter like Iron Man, but reading and social studies were easy.  And that's where trouble planted its seed.

Tests indicated that I was reading at a ninth-grade level.  Now and forevermore, damn those tests to Hell.  It was decided that I needed more of a challenge; so, for reading, I was separated from the rest of my class.  I had my own, different reading textbook.  I had my own individual reading assignments.  I was...other.  No one in class gave me any kind of hard time about it, but it felt weird.  I was even asked to periodically leave my classroom, and visit another fourth-grade student in another classroom, so that I could tutor him.  That felt really weird.

All of the above would likely have still been okay, if not for the unfortunate decision that came next:  I would skip a grade.  Fifth grade?  Never heard of it.  It was sixth grade or bust.  And, since Bear Road only taught through the fifth grade, that meant I had to leave Bear Road a full year before my friends did.

This was a terrible idea.  Regrets?  I've had a few.  This was the biggest one.

                          

PART 8

                              


When The Beatles broke up in 1970, I was not aware that it happened.  If I'd known at the time, it would have been one more factor contributing to the growing sense of upheaval in my life.  I was ten years old.  And things were changing too goddamned fast.

As fourth grade ended in June, I was apprehensive about what awaited me in the fall, nervous about what it meant to leapfrog right over fifth grade, to leave all my friends in elementary school behind, and to be forced to start fresh in sixth grade--middle school!--in a new place, a new class, at a school where I would be one of the youngest students in the whole building.  Great.  And while Bear Road Elementary School was a mere half-mile walking distance from my house, Roxboro Road Middle School was in Mattydale, much too far for a ten-year-old to walk.  So it would be bus or bust. Wonderful.

It's worth noting that this situation was not forced upon me; I was given a choice to accept or decline the invitation to bypass fourth grade.  I was intimidated by the prospect of going directly to sixth grade--do not pass Go, do not collect a fifth-grade experience--but I reasoned with myself:  hey, this is an honor!  How could I possibly say no?  It was an offer I could not refuse.

I've made many unwise decisions in my life.  This was likely the worst of them.  Guess it was good to get that out of the way so early in the timeline.

But this was not the only seismic event rocking the Cafarelli household that summer. My sister Denise--by that time, I no longer called her Nina--had just graduated from high school.  She would be a freshman that fall at Adelphi University.  My sister would be leaving home.

Before Denise actually went matriculatin' her way out of North Syracuse, we took a drive downstate to visit the campus.  This was actually kind of exciting:  my first visit to New York City!  In 1970, I was of two minds about the Big Apple:  I knew it was a dirty, polluted place, rife with crime; I also knew it was the capital of the world.

By the age of ten, a lifetime of reading comic books had already instilled in me a pervasive, starry-eyed reverence for New York.  First of  all, New York was where (almost) all of the comic books came from, with both DC and Marvel headquartered in Manhattan.  In the comics themselves, most of the Marvel superheroes also lived in Manhattan; and, although DC favored fictional cities for its heroes to protect and serve, I think we all knew what city Superman's Metropolis and Batman's Gotham represented.

                                           

More importantly, the comics had convinced me of New York's vibrance: everything happened in New York!  The best, most exotic foods, the richest entertainment, and--oh yeah!--you could buy every current comic book imaginable at any of New York's 27 gazillion newsstands.  Heaven!

Little did I realize that Adelphi isn't actually in Manhattan; Adelphi is in Garden City, out on Long Island, so my introduction to the presumed wonders of The City That Never Sleeps would be deferred.  But there were still NYC TV stations available in our hotel room--and WPIX was rerunning The Adventures Of Superman!  Not only that, but commercials on PIX were teasing the very first episode of Superman, "Superman On Earth," to be shown the very next day!  Great Caesar's Ghost, this would be a treat!

Bad news from Syracuse put a stop to that.

That evening in the hotel, my parents sat with Denise and I, and gently told us that our Uncle Danny had passed away.  We would need to cut this trip short and return to Syracuse the next day.  We understood.  We watched TV in silence, as my eyes filled and I sat there on the hotel bed, weeping silently.  I had not been especially close to Uncle Danny, but he was my uncle, for God's sake.  It hurt so bad.  I tried to hide my little boy tears--I was on my way to sixth grade, dammit, and big boys don't cry--as my family politely and lovingly let me process my grief, without comment.  It's not like it was any easier for them.

Once again, comic books were my salvation.  Denise's boyfriend George was also moving on from high school, and I guess he felt it was time to let go of childish things. So he gave his entire comic book collection to his girlfriend's kid brother.  And it was a big collection of comics, two very tall stacks tied with twine, including a lot of key early Marvel books.  If they'd been in better condition, those books would have been worth a small fortune today.  But they were worn, tattered, and many were coverless--worthless to a collector.  Priceless to a fan.  These books had already been read and loved.  I would do the same.

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Somewhere in this time frame, I acquired two new interests. The first was baseball.  Dad loved baseball--he was a clubhouse manager for the Syracuse Chiefs, our local AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees--but I had never shown even the slightest interest.  But one day, just playing informal ball in my friend Dave Watkins' back yard, something clicked.  Just like that, I was a baseball fan.  I picked the Yankees as my team, played street and back yard ball as often as I could, and eventually joined Little League.  I was...well, "terrible" is probably unfair.  I could hit a little.  I could catch adequately, if not spectacularly.  But I simply could not throw--I had no throwing arm at all.  Dad worked with me patiently and diligently, but it was of no avail.  He would later look back and say firmly that he couldn't fault my effort--it may have been the first time I ever really demonstrated any determination to work hard at something--but that I just didn't have it.  I continued to love the game nonetheless, and it briefly rivaled comics as my main interest.  We'll speak more about baseball when this series resumes, and moves into the early '70s.

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My Topps Mickey Mantle poster.  My favorite player retired before I became a fan!  But I got to see Mickey Mantle hit a home run in the 1972 Old Timer's Day game at Yankee Stadium in 1972.
                      
The other interest? Heh, heh--Playboy.  Found my brother's stash, and promptly fell in love with Lorrie Menconi, Miss February 1969.  Among others.  I was fickle, but don't try to tell me this wasn't true love.

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Miss February 1969, and my (presumed) future wife in 1970.  Lorrie Menconi Cafarelli--nice ring to it!
That summer also included my first trip to Florida, as we flew to Pensacola to visit my Uncle Carl and his family.  I only remember two comic books from that trip (pictured below), but I remember fishing from a bridge.  Dad caught some kind of vicious-looking ribbon fish, or whatever the hell it was.  Dad was not a fisherman, but he generally put up with whatever situation his family put him in.  I also remember returning to Syracuse with an actual tan, probably the only tan I ever had in my life.

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 But, above everything else that happened that summer, an old interest reasserted its hold on me, and it has never let go.    Music was my first love; perhaps we'd drifted apart in the late '60s, but it was never far from my thoughts, like, ever.  In the summer of 1970, I began listening to the radio on my own--not just in the car, not just when someone else turned on a station he or she wanted to hear.  I became fond of listening to the radio at night, as I lay in bed, wondering where my dreams would take me, worrying about how the real world might ground me.  Mom and Dad objected to the notion of letting the radio play all night long, while I slept; over time, their objections withdrew, and my evening soundtrack was tacitly approved.  Music.  Whatever stations I listened to initially, I remember a mix of recent and not-quite-as-recent pop:  Bobby Sherman; Bobby Goldsboro's "The Straight Life," from 1968; Sandie Shaw; Three Dog Night; The Beatles.  The radio would be my friend--sometimes, it seemed, my only friend--for years to come.  It would be an exaggeration to say I listened to the radio every night from the summer of 1970 until I myself left for college seven years later; it would not be as much of an exaggeration as you think.

The early- to mid-'70s was AM radio's last golden era.  Decades later, I remain grateful that it was there for me when I needed it the most.

A "SINGERS, SUPERHEROES, AND SONGS ON THE RADIO" GALLERY

"Singers, Superheroes, And Songs On The Radio" has concluded its journey through the 1960s as I remember them.  The series will return in the near future, following me in The Me Decade from the fall of 1970 through...well, whenever I decide to stop, I guess! But before we leave the '60s behind, I offer this gallery of images I remember from that time period, from my earliest memories in 1963 through the summer before middle school in 1970.





(And, through eight posts [plus this image gallery] covering my memories of the '60s, I still never got around to mentioning Beanie & Cecil, Jonny Quest, Chickenman, "Terry" by Twinkle (on Tollie Records), cub scouts, Super 6, Secret Six, Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole, Zsa Zsa Gabor, The Four Seasons, trying (and failing!) to learn to play coronet, "Teen Queen Of The Week" by Freddy Cannon (on Swan Records), To Tell The Truth, Monster Movie Matinee, bowling alleys, hamburgers and milkshakes at Carrolls, Road Runner, The Singing Nun, The Flying Nun, my dog Bear, the jukebox at The Moose Club, Suburban Park, Rocky and Bullwinkle, "Ring Of Smoke" by Ben Colder (on MGM Records), the mumps, fistfights, my sister's appearance with Miss Lorraine's dance students on Romper Room, tales of What-A-Jolly Street in 365 Bedtime Stories by Nan Gilbert, Spirograph, Operation, Twister, Stratego, Motorific racing cars, the North Syracuse Public Library, Quisp and Quake, Jan and Dean's "Little Old Lady From Pasadena," my cherished Batman Signet paperback, my brief kindergarten romance with a girl named Susette, The Sword In The Stone, Deborah Walley, Where Monsters Dwell, the original Broadway cast LP of Carnival, Julie Sommars, Krypto and the Space Canine Patrol Agents, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, and Beatles VI.

Decades are large; they contain multitudes.  That was certainly true of my 1960s.)

                         
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WHEN WE RETURN:  See you in the '70s!  This series will pause for now, but we'll back with tales of me in The Me Decade, in SINGERS, SUPERHEROES, AND SONGS ON THE RADIO:  My Life In Pop Culture--The '70s.  Far out! 

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