Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
We all have them. I’d like to say there are two kinds of scars; internal and external, those you can see and those you can’t, but upon reflection I’d have to say that there is a limitless variety of scars a body can have. You can fill in the blanks here as to the specific categories of stigmata one can bear because scarring is a very subjective matter. There were at least five types of scars I accumulated during the 1972-73 year. As a point of reference, I should state that I’m Jewish and have been either a student or a teacher for most of my life so my years begin in September. If you include my unspoken unrequited infatuation with Jeanie Barmat, there are six varieties of scars, but that’s a topic for another story. My son Levi just asked me what I was writing about and I told him “scars,” and he said, “are you writing about your mom’s cooking?” OK, I suffered seven varieties of scars in 1972.
I. Acne Vulgaris
Technically speaking, Scar #1 began in 1971 and lasted well into the 1980s. Like many teenagers, I had acne, but unlike many teenagers, I had the worst case any doctor had ever seen. The only thing to compare it to is Charles Bukowski’s description in Ham on Rye. It started out innocently enough. My dad would drive me to Dr. Fried in Englewood, NJ every Saturday of my freshman year. The treatment would begin with a 30 second x-ray radiation treatment of the afflicted areas and then Dr. Fried would take out a dermatological instrument and go to work squeezing the pimples on my face and back. What I did not know was that Dr. Fried would use the same instrument on all his patients. Within two months I developed a staph infection which resulted in general fatigue, but worse, scabby lesions all over my face, back and chest.
My parents talked about suing the dermatologist for malpractice, but never got around to it. Somehow I wound up being referred to the 5th Avenue offices of world famous dermatologist Dr. Norman Ohrentreich. Dr. Ohrentreich was famous for being the inventor of the hair transplant and his clients at the time included hockey player Bobby Hull, Frank Sinatra and U.S. Senator Joe Biden. But I wasn’t there for hair plugs, my case of acne/staph infection was so severe, that the good doctor agreed to take my case for free if he could photograph my face and body to illustrate a series of articles for medical journals about the aggressive treatment of acne. You know the saying; publish or perish. My malady included huge boils erupting on an almost daily basis. I’m not talking about your garden variety pimple, but cysts that would spring up between my eyes or on the side of my jaw and disfigure the shape of my face. My torso was so ravaged that my friend Rusty affectionately called me PB for pizza back. The aggressive treatment included large doses of the steroid prednisone and the lancing of each individual boil with a scalpel, or lancet as it was called. This treatment (free though it was) went on for the next decade though high school and college.
Did I mention that the treatment hurt like hell? Sometimes the doctor, or one of his associates had the honor, but usually this regrettable task fell to one of the nurses. In the name of accuracy, I must point out that the Ohrentreich Medical Group had more than its fair share of young pretty nurses. Often, fantasy was the tool of choice for getting through the treatment. I would pretend that I was a captured American pilot being tortured by my nazi captors, but I was loyal to the end never giving any more information than my name, rank and serial number. Of course my mind often wandered off task and I wondered if the nurse would mind at all if I slid my hand up her miniskirted uniform as she jabbed me with a scalpel. It seemed well within the bounds of reason and fairness. If she simply shed her uniform and lanced my wounds in bra and panties, it definitely would have gone smoother. I think.
One Saturday, Melissa who was my favorite nurse, remarked to one of her assistants, ”Note this in the report, ‘patient has low pain threshold.’” This was the unkindest cut of all. First of all, I had spent the better part of two years worth of Saturdays in an intimate state of undress, pain, and arousal with her and she damn well knew my name. Secondly, it really did hurt. The scabs were so thoroughly infected that it would have bordered on intolerable had Melissa touched them with a feather. After this, the doctor came up with a new line of attack: freeze the boils with liquid nitrogen administered in a stumpy syringe (minus the needle) before lancing them. Believe me, the liquid nitrogen was no improvement. It felt as if someone was putting a cigarette out all over my face and body. This treatment went on for years, and a quick look at my face will show the results. To this day. I use beauty products designed for women to minimize the appearance of scarring on my face. It could have been worse. I guess.
I broke up with, no, my girlfriend in college broke up with me because I refused to take my shirt off while we were going at it. I thought she wouldn’t want to touch me if she saw the extent of the scarring. Nowadays, if someone comments on my scars, I’ll often say something like “there was a fire when I was 15, I don’t want to talk about it.” This works pretty well because a) I don’t have to talk about it, and b) it adds an aura of mystery to a rather mundane set of circumstances.
Three basic activities occupied my time during the summer of 1972. Primarily, I walked or rode my bike around town hoping against hope that I would run into one of the 3 girls who sat at my lab table in biology. Fantasies of Nan, Christine and Rose occupied a great deal of my waking consciousness, usually involving my heroic rescuing of any which one of them from a truly apocalyptic threat, escaping barely alive but with enough vigor left to engage in round of slow sweaty lovemaking (often in the school bathroom) before departing this mortal coil and passing on to another state of existence. If I had been fortunate enough to run into Nan, Christine or Rose on one of my daily sojourns around town, I don’t know what I would have said or done, probably just smile, mumble “hi,” and move on. But it was a moot point as these girls were out of my league and out of my horny male pubescent circle of friends.
That summer I also went to the Eastern Track and Field Sports Village somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania at the recommendation of my cross country coach, Mr. Norman Fink. During my freshman year our cross country team won the New Jersey State Championship. We were a team of about thirty brave, intrepid harriers and I have to admit I was about twenty-fifth best, but nonetheless we all were state champions. If you were to visit Dumont High School today, you would see my name on a plaque on a wall of the Sports Hall of Fame because in 1991(the 20th anniversary of our feat) the team was inducted en masse. But I digress. Back in 1972, our coach suggested that a few of us scrubs go to track camp to learn how to run and to build some muscle.
The other thing I did that summer was learn how to box. The first Ali-Frazier battle had been fought a year earlier and boxing was huge all across America. Dumont Recreation had a summer boxing league and I thought, “what the hell, maybe I’d learn to defend myself,” so I signed up. Surprisingly, I took to boxing. I didn’t like to get hit (because it hurt my acne) which in a way made me a better boxer because I was aggressive punching wildly and quickly so that my opponent didn’t have much time to counter against the onslaught. While boxing I was pretty much always 100% in the moment, alert enough to hear my father yelling “keep your guard up, thumbs tucked in.” Dad liked to watch me box, I think because it pleased him to see his only son show some measure of toughness in my easy going non confrontational life. I also danced around a lot, taking to heart Muhammed Ali’s motto “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” so that if my opponent had any hopes of hitting me he’d have to catch me first. Granted, I weighed about 120 pounds soaking wet so most of my opponents were 6th or 7th graders. Through July and August I chalked up an impressive 5-0 record, and in so doing developed a bit of confidence if not exactly a killer instinct. It was August of 1972 that I first recognized the look of fear in another human beings eyes.
I beat everyone in my weight class rather easily. The director of the program figured everyone would be best served if I moved up in weight class and boxed kids my own age. My first match in my new weight class was against Don Palino a kid a year older who tormented me when I was in 7th grade. Don was a weird kid. He moved to Dumont from Virginia as an eighth grader and got the nickname Johnny Reb even though I think he was half black. At some point during his first year in Dumont, Don brought in to school really dirty pictures that he had stolen from his older sister Mimi’s drawer of her naked and playing with herself. These were the first pornographic pictures that any of us had ever seen, and this made Don quite popular with all of us. Don was a really fast runner and he liked to fight. Though he was wiry he thought nothing of taking on any kid in the school. He even got into a fight with Mr. Barlow our none too bright gym teacher during a particularly heated game of slam bang. For some reason, Don hated me, I can’t figure out why. To this day I am shocked when I find out that someone, whether it be a student, a fellow teacher, or another writer dislikes happy go lucky me.
I was looking forward to fighting Don, because after all, I was 5-0 and I could hold my own. The bell rang, I put up my guard, and within perhaps a second and a half I saw a gloved fist smash into my nose accompanied simultaneously by a low grunt (Don) and a squishing sound (my nose). If you ever saw Raging Bull starring Robert Deniro, think of the slow motion fight sequence against Sugar Ray Robinson. From the moment of impact, I saw blood splashing in front of my eyes and onto Don’s shirt. I offered a weak left jab that glanced off Don’s shoulder and then there were people in the ring including my father. Someone wanted to call an ambulance, but my dad insisted that he would take me to Holy Name Hospital.
My broken nose was reset, packed and bandaged. When he came into the emergency room I noticed how pale and shaken my dad looked. Later that night, as I lay in bed I heard my mom scolding him about how she “wanted an end to this foolishness.” About a week later I ran into Rose at Uncle Franks Pizza and she wanted to know why the black eye and all the bandages. I explained that I broke my nose boxing at Dumont Rec. “Poor thing,” was all she offered. By the third week in September Rose was Don’s steady girlfriend.
Eastern Track and Field Sports Village was a camp where some of the best high school athletes from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania went to hone their skills. I wasn’t one of them, but I learned a few tricks that made me a better runner. It’s also where I got Plantars Warts on both my heels. Plantars warts might not sound like the most debilitating injury to beset a young man, but coupled with my staph infection, they turned into mini cauliflower shaped growths that took over the entire heel of each foot. I couldn’t walk.
At the beginning of September, I went to Englewood Hospital for the surgical removal of the Plantars Warts. The doctor used a surgical instrument that looked like an apple corer that dug a hole about the size of a penny from the surface of the heel all the way to the bone. I was on crutches through September and had to walk with a cane until Christmas. My Cross country season was over before it began. Same with track. Between my staph infection, broken nose, broken thumb, and disabled feet I missed the entire year of gym.
I still have xcars on each heal though they are hard and callused over. On certain days when I am tired after a long day of work or of walking they will throb with a dull pain that moves up my calves knees and thighs causing leg weariness I will pay Levi two dollars a foot to massage them with the emphasis on the heels. My wife shakes her head and sucks her teeth at my apparent self indulgence, but I think it’s a good way for my son to earn a few quick bucks. About once a year I’ll splurge and go to Chinatown for an hour session of reflexology.
Johnny Eager died on Wednesday October 18, 1972. When talking about those days, I sometimes exaggerate and call Johnny Eager my best friend. He wasn’t really. But he was a good friend. I’ll also call him my guardian angel. He was. Is. John lived across the street and over two houses at 28 Forest Road. He had two older brothers, one of whom was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam and another who was rumored to be a junky who was not allowed to set foot in Dumont or he would be shot. John was one of, if not the coolest kid in town. He played drums in various bands in the area and the girls loved him. He liked to say “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. John loved to fight. One of the reasons I got involved with boxing was because John went. He was sort of a hippie, he had long hair, he smoked pot, but more so he was an old fashioned greaser. He loved to rumble, and he loved his car.
Those of us who lived on Forest Road hung out at Bedford Park. In suburban New Jersey we didn’t have gangs, but we had parks. A park was your home turf and one’s park was to be defended at all costs. What park you hung out at was determined by where you lived, and where you lived was determined by your parent’s social class. Pretty much all of Dumont was Irish or Italian working class, yet there were still different economic strata. For some reason, the older greasers liked to come to Bedford Park and terrorize us younger hippies. I remember greasy Frankie Haddolin pulling up in his GTO, getting out clutching a pair of hedge clippers and chasing my friend Rusty threatening to cut his hair so he looks like a man. On mischief night they would chase us with cans of Nair and tube socks filled with cement instead of flour. You don’t want to know what they called Billy Roach, the only black kid our age in Dumont.
John was the King of Bedford Park. He may have been a greaser, but he was by no means averse to fighting other greasers. As a matter of fact, he relished the opportunity. Needless to say, John was the sort of person you wanted to stay on the good side of. We spent much time flattering him and always shared our liquor and pot. John carried drumsticks in his back pocket, and on occasion would use our heads as a drum kit, but we never minded. Anyone between the ages of 8 and 18 who lived on our block or hung out at Bedford Park was safe. All it took was a word, and John was on it. He would drive through town, and before he could drive, ride his bike looking for the perpetrators. If his efforts were fruitless, he would settle on someone who was friends with the offending party and beat the shit out of him. Johnny Eager was a good friend to have. After his death, none of our lives were the same and old scores were settled with a vengeance.
He died when the car he was driving on an upstate beer run smashed into a telephone pole on Route 303. He and his two passengers were killed instantly. We found out about it the next day in school. After the Vice Principal announced the tragedy over the loudspeaker, the entire school fell into a state of shock. About a minute after the announcement, I bolted out of homeroom and ran to the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall and cried like a baby. After a few minutes I pulled myself together. As I was leaving, I punched the door with all my might catching my thumb between the door and the frame. I didn’t feel a thing. It was Nan who asked me during 5th period lunch what was wrong with my hand. My thumb was purple and bent at an odd angle behind the back of my hand. Nan walked me to the nurse’s office, my dad was called and he drove me to Englewood Hospital to get my thumb set and put in a splint. My parents let me take the next two days off from school. Walking with a cane is not all that difficult. Walking with a cane with a broken thumb is a challenge indeed.
That night I had the strangest dream. I dreamt that Rusty and I went to Johnny Eager’s funeral at Frech Funeral Home in Dumont. I was wearing a velvet suit. Many of the kids from school were there. All of Bedford Park was there. Teachers were there. But many members of my extended family were there as well. My Brother in Law Leo was there. So were his parents, Paul and Bronia. Uncle Kurt and Aunt Elizabeth. My sister Carol’s best friend Ann. “What are you doing at Johnny Eager’s funeral?” I asked each individual. The answer was always the same “I’m here to pay my respects.”
My father died on Friday, October 20th. I’d like to say that it started out as a normal day, but I can’t. Since I had the day off from school, I slept until about 9 in the morning. When I woke up, Dad was still sleeping. He had retired in September after working 30 plus years as a machinist at Bendix (an aerospace company). When I was little I marveled how anyone could have a job where they had to get up at 6 in the morning. When he came home around 4:30 he would take an hour nap before dinner and I would often fall asleep next to him. I usually got up at 7 on school days and since his retirement Dad was always at the kitchen table o greet me. As a matter of fact, he was my alarm clock. So it was odd that he was still sleeping. I wanted to wake him, but Mom said “Shh let him rest, he’s been so tired lately.”
At lunchtime, I hobbled to the front gate at school and talked a few of my friends into cutting the afternoon and going to the McGovern rally in Hackensack. Dad drove Mom, me, Rusty, Phil and Dave to the event in front of the county courthouse which was packed with thousands of supporters, including many teenagers who had cut school to be part of history. George McGovern spoke sensibly and eloquently to thunderous applause. After he was done speaking, my father leaned into me, “He’s going to do it. I can feel it, he can win.”
At 5 o’clock we went to Johnny Eager’s wake. I fought with my parents about what I was going to wear, but in the end I prevailed and went in a flannel shirt and jeans. We hung around for about 20 minutes, my parents joining the adults from the neighborhood and me joining my friends from Bedford Park. Before leaving, I paid my respects at the open coffin. Johnny didn’t look real, he looked like a figure at a wax museum. I had never seen a dead body before. Neither of my parents came up to the casket.
At about 9:15 my mother and I were in her room watching Love American Style when we heard a thump in the kitchen. After asking each other “what was that,” but not really wanting to look until the commercial break, I went to see what the noise was. Dad was on the floor, sort of in the fetal position. I yelled “Dad wake up!” but he didn’t move. I kept yelling before shaking him but all I heard was a rattling sound, sort of like snoring but coming from his throat. His eyes were open but unseeing and his skin was cold. Mom came in and she started screaming “No! No! as I tried to get Dad back in his chair. I knew he was dead, but I thought I had to try to make him alive, somehow. Mom called an ambulance, and then my sister and brother in law (Carol and Leo) who lived 3 blocks away. The ambulance and Carol and Leo arrived at the same time. I watched as they pumped his chest and applied the electricity to no avail. They eventually gave up and covered him with a sheet as we waited for a doctor to come and pronounce him dead.
By this time, the entire block was outside standing in front of our driveway in the flashing ambulance light. My mother and sister were in the living room hugging each other and crying. Leo and I went into the driveway to tell the neighbors. “What happened? Is everything okay?” Neither Leo nor I knew what to say. Finally I blurted out “My dad’s dead. He just died.” A low murmur filled the crowd followed by an “Oh my God.” I think it was Mrs. Eager. Then people started hugging each other and crying and for some reason I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t cry. I just stood there alone not knowing what to do or say. Finally, Judy Conti the older girl who lived next door came to me and hugged me tightly while sobbing hysterically. I held her and told her “It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.” My mantra for the rest of the night.
The funeral was on Sunday, October 22, 1972 at the Gutterman Musicant Funeral Parlor in Hackensack followed by burial at Beth-El Cemetary in Paramus. I wore a blue velvet jacket and a white shirt and black slacks. It was just like my dream, with pretty much the same cast of characters, but this time I didn’t have to ask anyone “what are you doing here?”
My cat Bootsy died on November 20, 1972, one month after my father. I woke up and petted my cat who usually found his way into my bed sometime in the night. He was cold and stiff. Just dead. I wanted to cry but didn’t.
On November 7, 1972 Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in the largest landslide in election history.
It’s gonna be okay.