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Tell Them I’m Not Home – out now!

Tell Them I'm Not Home

‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in the Olney section of North Philadelphia in the decade following World War II, a place not unlike Jean Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana of a decade earlier. The close-quarters life in a blue-collar neighborhood of row-house streets provided the author with a cast of characters, many funny, some scary, as well as a near-endless litany of stories. ‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a ticket back to the Olney & Philadelphia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a place as singular, colorful and as lost to today as Hapsburg Vienna or tenement New York.

Contact:
olney.memoir@gmail.com

More Info:
www.petebyrne.com

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Sample Chapters:

“The Glory That Was Rome
In neighborhoods like Olney, people sorted themselves out along a variety of fault lines. Phillies fans versus those who allied themselves with Connie Mack’s pitiful Athletics, those with Lionel Electric trains against those with American Flyers, the cheaper Father and Son shoes against the pricier Flagg Brothers, Luckies or Camels, and on and on and on. But the defining separation among the people who populated the neighborhood of my childhood was the religious split between Catholics and the Protestants. Among Catholics like us, the prevailing interpretation of Protestantism encompassed anyone who wasn’t a Catholic.  (Click here to continue…)

 

 “Happy Birthday Patsy Mullins”
I was coming down 5th Street when I met Eddie Matthews who was coming the other way. In the course of the kind of conversations that twelve-year-olds, newly minted twelve-year-olds, carry on, Eddie asked if I were going to Patsy Mullins’ birthday party. The question kind of bounced off me. Like what birthday party, and why would Patsy Mullins invite me to her birthday party? In the sexually segregated Irish, Latin, Roman Catholic world of late 1940’s Philadelphia where this conversation was taking place, I was very much aware of young Ms. Mullins. But although we were in the same grade in the same parish school, we had never exchanged more than a “Hi” when passing on the street. Seventh grade boys were on one floor of the school building and girls on the other. In all the years I had spent in the Incarnation of Our Lord parish school, I couldn’t remember any interaction between them and us. The seventh-grade girls could have been Albanians or Martians. (Click here to continue…)

“Kenny Bergman”
On Christmas Day, 1950, Kenny Bergman and I sat on his living room sofa smoking cigarettes. I was thirteen. Kenny’s mother was visible, working away in the kitchen. The house smelled of roasting turkey and the radio was on, Bing Crosby singing carols. On the other side of the room under the Christmas tree a set of American Flyer electric trains moved slowly around a platform filled with little houses, cars and mountain-paper tunnels. Each time the train emerged from the nearest tunnel, Kenny or I would raise his Daisy Targeteer BB pistol and aim for one of the glass Christmas tree ornaments he’d placed in a gondola or on a flat car. Several times, a smiling Mrs. Bergman walked through the living room. She never said a word. I thought I was in heaven. (Click here to continue…)

“Tell Them I’m Not Home”
I got in from school around three-thirty. At a quarter to four, the phone in the living room rings. “Oh shit,” I thought. As my mother moved to pick up the receiver, I shouted down from the landing, “tell them I’m not home, Mom. Tell them I’m not home.” I knew who was on the phone. It was Rudy Bederman, the assistant manager at the A & P on 5th Street, and I knew what he wanted. It was Thursday. I wasn’t scheduled to work until the next day, Friday. Somebody hadn’t shown up and they wanted me to fill in. I had nothing on my afternoon agenda other than walking over to Fairhill Street to hang out with the crowd at Geever’s candy store. My mother was not to be trusted in these matters. To impart a sense of urgency, I kept up my chant. “Mom! Mom! Tell them I’m not home.”  Unfortunately, in the seconds that my mother hesitated with the receiver in her hand, Rudy Bederman heard me shouting that I wasn’t home. (Click here to continue…)

 

“Do You Believe In Magic?”
In September 1954, my senior year of high school had just begun, just barely. I had flunked summer school, my third summer school in as many years. According to the rules that meant I wouldn’t be going back to my high school. I would have to go to a public school and repeat junior year. (Click here to continue…)

all content copyright Pete Byrne 2011

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The Great War and My Post-Modern Memory

imagesIf you’ve ever wondered in referencing a long ago book, whether or not you really had “gotten” what you’d read, then you might understand my decision to re-read certain books from my past. There are books, many read years ago, that have seriously influenced, for better or worse, how I think today. Recently, I began re-reading several of those works, particularly those centered on the events and consequences of the First World War, books whose decades-old ideas remain lodged in my mind.

I first read George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic “The Strange Death of Liberal England” in 1969, a beautifully and wittily literate survey of the political, social and imperial crises of Edwardian England. The book is as good a read in 2009, as it had been in 1969. Particularly gripping is Dangerfield’s treatment of how the now largely unknown Ulster Crisis of 1914, and the threat of civil war in Ireland, were considered a more imminent danger in most British minds of the day than the impending conflict with Imperial Germany.

Two works of the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs “Historical Consciousness,” 1968, and “The Passing of the Modern Age,” 1970,” have kept my head spinning over the intervening decades since my first readings. Lukacs’ voice – learned, dazzlingly intelligent and wonderfully eccentric – continues to resonate and inform so many of my own attempts to decode and come to grips with the meaning of history itself.

For years, I’d question and second guess myself as to whether or not I had actually “gotten” the essential elements of Lukacs’ many then, and still, unconventional theses. Going back into his writings was somewhat reassuring as well as rewarding. It was not difficult to doubt my own thinking when, for example, Lukacs would cite at length and in depth things like the role of Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle” to argue for the primacy of history among intellectual disciplines. Heady stuff, indeed.

Another “bowl-me-over” reading experience from my past was Paul Fussell’s much-cited 1975 National Book Award winner, “The Great War and Modern Memory.” In an examination of English literature just before, during and following the First World War, Fussell makes a case that the events of 1914-1918 destroyed much more than the crowned dynasties of Europe. They also, he claims, blew away the intellectual supports of English literature up to that point. The underlying literary assumptions of a pre-1914 world – a naïve optimism in the benign powers of science, the smug innocence that presumed a future of continuing human progress – were no longer sustainable by 1918. Fussell then traces the origins of the irony that became the dominant tone of literary English directly to the war, and particularly to Britain’s experience of the war.

A plausible case can be made for looping Fussell’s “Great War…” back into Lukacs’ “Passing…”, and one could perhaps even point to a specific date for that passing of an age, July 1, 1916. On that first day of the First Battle of the Somme, a confident, all-volunteer British Army went over-the-top to decide the issues of Europe once and for all. At the end of that first day, the British Army had suffered over 57,000 casualties. The total casualties for the continuing battle topped 1.5 million. Nothing in the English-speaking world has ever been the same.

In this recessional re-reading of selected books from my past, I’ve come to recognize that those long-ago writings of people like George Dangerfield, John Lukacs and Paul Fussell, each from their own disparate perspectives, have provided a matrix or screen that in some way helped me to sort out and order an ensuing forty or more years of steady reading in early Twentieth-Century European history.

At this writing, my mind is being knocked about by a re-reading of William Irwin Thompson’s 1967, “The Imagination of an Insurrection, Dublin, Easter 1916.” A posting is almost certain to follow.

Finally, A Must-Read for Hockey Fans

Print“Blue Ice, And Other Stories from the Rink” a short-story collection by Frank Ewert is probably the best thing to come out of hockey since the elimination of the rule against the two-line pass. Ewert, a young Canadian writer of great ability, and a hockey player since the age of five, has an understanding of and a love for the game that comes through in every one of the six jewel-like and eminently readable stories.

In his introduction to “Blue Ice,” Ewert notes a Canadian tradition of “Hockey Literature.” I would argue that point, citing that while there’s lots of hockey writing in Canada, there seems to be damned little literature. In fact, I believe Ewert’s “Blue Ice” is the first literary fiction with hockey at its core since Peter LaSalle’s 1989 short-story collection, “Hockey Sur Glace,” and LaSalle is an American. That’s twenty years in between of a hockey literature populated almost entirely by fan books, team sagas and accounts of great games.

The dialog throughout “Blue Ice” has the the feel of effortless authenticity, always the fruit of talent and painstaking work. The atmosphere of the game, playing it, thinking about it, talking it, are delivered glitch-free. Ewert creates likeable, believably flawed, multi-dimensional characters with voices that reflect their self-awareness, like Wade, the narrator of the opening story, “The Protector.” A matter-of-fact junior hockey role player of limited talents, Wade explains his job of using physical intimidation to shield his team’s star player, a former friend Wade now can’t stand, and by doing so keeps his own place on the team.

The title story “Blue Ice” goes in unexpected directions. In what might have been just another sweet boy/girl unrequited puppy love story, Danny is the struggling goalie for his school’s contending hockey team. The tale turns when his once harmless, vicarious romantic dreams begin to threaten his team’s chances.

On their surface, the stories in Blue Ice might seem light, easy and commonplace, but under the ease of the story-telling, there is an implicit stable of serious themes. The half-American kid, Trevor, in the “Canadian,” his U.S.-born Mom “says the word ‘roof‘ funny,” over-compensates in his defense of “Canada’s Game.” And the three hungover Calgary Flames fans of “The Cup” in lamenting their team’s loss in the Cup finals to a Florida-based team, further address the issues of Canadian insecurity about the migration of hockey away from its roots. The usurpation of Canada’s game by a dominant American market, the rising ascendancy of European and American players and the failure of Canadian teams to bring home the Cup, seems to have undermined Canada’s sense of itself. Don Cherry nows makes news by demeaning any non-Canadian success in hockey, think Alex Ovechkin. Even a revered figure like Wayne Gretzky has been coming off sourly chauvinistic in his defensive “our game” public comments. Ewert very effectively captures this collective Canadian unease over the future of their national game.

In “Taking the Man,” Ewert tells a story of a player’s creative on-ice solution in dealing with a petty, arbitrary and egotistical official, and does so without ever explaining the hockey rule being exploited. Ewert assumes slyly and correctly that the reader already knows that a referee calling a penalty can’t blow play dead until a player on the offending team takes control of the puck. it may be “inside baseball,” but it’s fun when you realize exactly what is happening out on the ice.

And if as a non-hockey playing reader, you wish to get some idea of what it feels like to rush up the ice one-on-one against a defending goalie, Ewert includes a two-page gem titled “A Breakway.” You are inside the head of an uncertain skater named David who finds himself with a puck on his stick and nothing but open ice between himself and the goaltender.

I’d recommend that “Blue Ice” be declared a Canadian National Treasure.” Okay, it’s not the Stanley Cup, but it is first-rate literature that just happen to be about hockey. Here’s hoping Frank Ewert has lots more books in him.

My Updike Problem

imagesThe Updike tributes in the current New Yorker magazine have left me a bit shaken, in particular the lengthy selection of excerpts from his years of writing. They are so good, so apparently, effortlessly masterful that I can only for a moment say to myself, “that’s it, there’s no point in my continuing on in this conceit that I might in any way, write.”

Several early Updike short stories are vivid parts of my interior landscape. A & P is one. But aside from meeting an affable and courteous John Updike at a Philadelphia Library Author Event, my strongest remembrance of him will remain a short New Yorker piece of several years ago. Writing about his waking up in the night after returning from a long trip away, China as I remember it, he describes his standing alone, downstairs in his newly unfamiliar and darkened house. He reflects upon his awareness of the growing imminence of his own death. Strong stuff, all the stronger for being delivered in his exquisite, elegant, matter-of-fact style.

I had never been able to get into his longer works, one of the Rabbit books was my limit. I have always wondered why, and have chalked it up to a blind spot on my part. But upon reading the Updike obits, I’ve begun to believe that his vision of the world and mine were mutually exclusive in ways that the fluency, the genius of his style couldn’t bridge. I am referring to his support for the war in Vietnam. I can only say that he may have been right and I may have been wrong, but I remain unable to grant him that. And possibly, I sensed that buried inside his literary worldview lay the bases for his acquiescence in, his acceptance of something as catastrophic, irredeemable and nationally self-destructive as that war.

John Updike’s America, while infinitely better explicated than virtually any other, was not and could never be my country.

Shhhh! A Library Memory

log12The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran photos of several of the neighborhood public libraries slated for closing due to the City’s current budget crisis. One of those libraries is the Logan branch, and the sight of that old, classical facade sent sixty year-old memories washing over me. 

Until 1949, the Olney section of North Philadelphia where we lived had no library. As newly-minted ten-year-old in the early Fall of 1947, I learned, from several of my fifth-grade classmates at the Incarnation of Our Lord parochial school, that there was a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library system within walking distance of our neighborhood. If you went there, you could get a library card, and if you had a library card, you could borrow books on all kinds of neat stuff, real books, not comic books. There were even books about the recent war, a subject I was slightly batty about. 

I somehow scoped out directions from our street to the Logan Branch Library on Wagner Avenue, wherever that happened to be. After school, on a mild overcast September afternoon, without telling my mother where I was going, I set out to find this promised land of cerebral wonders, this library, whatever a library was. 

The context of my life until then was one of physical boundaries set by the fact that we didn’t have a car, not all that unusual in Olney in the late nineteen-forties. But it meant wherever I had been outside our immediate neighborhood had been dictated by the bus, trolley and subway-elevated routes of the local transit company. Heading off for this mysterious library place, I had only a vague intimation of just where it was I was going.

 

Walking west from Fifth Street on the Fishers Avenue sidewalk, I was still on reasonably familiar territory. When I went under the railroad overpass at Seventh Street, everything began to change. The row houses resembled those on most of the streets I knew, and yet they somehow they were different. In fact everything was different. I began feeling like I was sliding through the looking glass. I remember turning and looking back toward Fifth Street for reassurance, and then continuing forward into the unknown.

Five blocks out, at Tenth Street, I had been told to go to the right. The street here was partially paved with bricks something that added to my feelings of exotic exploration. To my amazement a large factory building proclaimed itself the home of Fleer’s Double Bubble Chewing Gum. That the prized Double Bubble I had been purchasing at Sam’s Variety Store on Fifth Street was manufactured less than a mile from my home came to me as a mind-altering revelation. 

Not knowing whether I was closing in on, or still miles from, from my destination, I continued warily along the tree-lined and heavily shaded residential streets hoping for a sighting of this book-laden White Whale of my imagination. I had already passed a large white-columned building hidden in a park like setting before I turned and read the sign announcing the Logan Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Clueless as to library protocols, I wandered past the front desk and began walking up and down the aisles gawking at the book-laden shelves trying to force some sort of order to emerge. Stopping at a row of low shelving, I began browsing a stack of yellow-bordered magazines with cover titles of “The National Geographic.” 

I was seated on the floor with seven or eight National Geographics strewn about me when a large lady hovered over me and said that I had to leave the adult section of the library for the children’s section. I could have stayed right there with those magazines until the place closed for the night. 

I found the children’s section of the library thin gruel indeed. The fairy tales, the large-format cuddly animal books and the so-called children’s storybooks left me stone cold. I was accustomed to stronger stuff. At ten years old, I was already a habitué of the Sunday afternoon B-movie double-features and addicted to the network evening radio drama shows. Within a year I would have a paper route that introduced me, at age eleven, to a lifelong habit of daily newspaper reading.

 I never returned to the Logan Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, and other than a cursory visit to our own Olney Branch that opened in 1949, I never went back into a library at all until well into my high school years.  One afternoon, at the age of sixteen, almost as an afterthought, I wandered into the Olney library, got a card and casually began checking out books. Ironically, while I had little or no interest in my schoolwork, my reading quickly became almost obsessive, and remains to this day, a central fact of my life to this day. Go figure.

Not That It really Matters

Last night, I sent a letter to the Editor of The New Yorker. I believed I had found a photo caption mistake in a piece on the letters of Norman Mailer. 

The photo caption in question reads, “Mailer in 1944 (left)…before being shipped to the Pacific.” In the photo itself, a young, uniformed and seriously tough-looking Mailer looks up at the camera, a cigarette juts from his lips. The caption is obviously in error because on the left breast of his army uniform shirt, he’s wearing a “Combat Infantryman’s Badge.” That badge is awarded to infantrymen after they sustain a requisite number of days, weeks, months in combat. The picture must have been taken upon his return to the Pacific or the caption is incorrect. 

This morning, looking again at the photograph, I began to wonder, what if the caption was indeed correct and it was the picture that is wrong or misleading. What if Mailer had not yet seen combat? What if he is wearing an award that he is not entitled to wear? What if Mailer is posing? 

But then again, so what? Who in their life never struck an immodest or false posture, complete with bogus costuming? If Mailer is wearing the badge for effect, I believe his posing was aspirational. Mailer is telling the world how he saw himself at that moment before being shipped overseas and into war. He looks like he really believes and hopes that when he returns, dead, wounded or alive, it will be as a veteran infantryman who has done his part. Mailer did come under fire in the Philippines, as nasty a campaign as the Second World War offered, but he ended up a cook rather than a rifleman. 

If indeed, the photo caption is correct and it’s Norman who’s incorrect, it’s just one more reason that underlies why I always liked him. He was not only a fine writer, “The Executioner’s Song” should rank among the best writing of Twentieth Century America, but he was also the leading actor in the wild movie of his life. Much married, a prizefighting drinker and stoner who espoused passionately some awful causes – think Jake Abbott. – but a man who always participated with his foot to the floor. I fondly remember the campaign slogan of the Mailer/Breslin New York mayoralty run, “No More Bullshit.” 

The selection of Mailer’s letters in the October 6, 2008 issue of The New Yorker reveal his brilliance, his combativeness and also his capacity for friendship. They also cement the fact that he was one of the good guys.

 

On A Rainy Afternoon, You Might See Forever

endgame_v2_thumb3It’s a rainy afternoon and my mind keeps going back to a couple of books I browsed yesterday in Barnes and Noble. In the store’s History section, I  came across works by a guy I’d never heard of named Derrick Jensen. A bit apocalyptic, but reflecting a lot of my own conclusions about the reality of our existence in this time and this place. I scanned his two heavyweight  volumes, “Endgame” and “Resistance,” both dated 2006. I found little to argue with in Jensen’s premises or analysis. But his prescriptions, as with so much of his anarcho-environmentalism, seem to slide off into the New Age improbabilities and a romanticized idea of what a simpler life might actually be like. He seems enamored of the ways of Indigenous peoples, but from what I’ve read those cultures have more often than been awash in warfare and the enslavement of their perceived enemies. We are where we are, and there is no Garden to return to. I will probably succumb and buy his first volume, “Endgame,” just to see how close he comes to what I feel could be the unspoken truths of our times. 

I am old enough to remember the disasters of the past century when seemingly clear-cut, utopian, ideals were embraced. Since the cathartic events of 1989, the best arguments being made to fill the void left by the collapse of a messianic Left and to counter a resurgent Right, are that only the slow, messy and difficult palliative routines of liberal democracy offer anything like a way of getting along. And yet … the allure of some all-embracing, non-transcendent course always arises like a lost dream. In a Gary Larson cartoon a sheep raises its head above the flock and shouts, “Wait! We don’t have to be sheep. We can be more than sheep!” 

 As an invited guest for an overnighter this past week in a wealthy summer resort town, I looked out upon the hundreds if not thousands of (vacant in September) million-dollar and multi-million dollar second homes. Reconciling that reality against all of the poverty in the world, I was forced to conclude once again that nothing, nothing will ever change. One the premises Derrick Jensen lists to support his overall thesis of the unsustainability of a civilization based on industrial capitalism is that “rich people’s property is more valuable than poor people’s lives.” Try disagreeing with that one.  

Derrick Jensen could be just another nut in the much the same way that Jesus, William Blake, John Brown and Karl Marx were nuts. Having spent most of my seventy-plus years nurturing what I would like to believe is a disciplined, intellectual rigor, I always find myself, reluctantly forced on to the side of the rationalist, non-ideological conservative writers like Fritz Stern, Clive James and Tony Judt, who correctly, I am forced to admit, point to the massive bloodlettings of the twentieth-century as evidence of what happens when idealism is applied to the objective realities of the human condition. I wish I could believe otherwise, but I simply cannot. 

I Know already that I will purchase and read Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame.” But what’s probably more important to my own life than any new radically sweeping philosophy; political, economic or social, however convincing, is that the the Phillies clinched a National League playoff spot yesterday afternoon.