by Maria Lagalante Schulz
My girls were so excited the other night because summer camp was starting. They’re looking forward to lots of swimming, trips to water parks, roller coaster rides, arcade visits, barbecues, Broadway shows, fishing expeditions and more.
This of course made me remember my own childhood summers. If I had gotten to do even one of the many things my girls are doing this summer, I would’ve been overjoyed because I never went to summer camp. Instead, we hid inside our houses in the heat of the day (even though none of us had air conditioning), only venturing outside after the sun was lower in the sky.
You didn’t really need camp in a house overrun by six active boys, two dogs, countless buddies, girl friends, and band mates. You could scare up a great game of running bases or ride your bike from Bayside to Flushing and back again. Roller skating, hockey shoot-outs, basketball, running through the sprinklers, games of catch and whiffle ball tournaments were all in the realm of possibility, provided it cooled down enough to lure everyone outside to the street to play.
It didn’t matter if the weather was hot or perfectly mild: certain things demanded that you stayed inside and watched television. Bob Barker on The Price is Right at 11 a.m. on Channel 2 was always riveting. Five days a week, Barker dispensed wise counsel to the shrieking contestants that hoped to guess the correct price of a bottle of Pledge or a box of Tide. If they could just control themselves long enough to think strategically—say, passing on the first showcase showdown prizes in the hopes that a NEW CAR or a chance to glimpse Big Ben or the Queen with a TRIP TO LONDON would be in the second showcase—you could see someone walk away with loads of cash and unbelievable prizes.
On the days that my father was home, he couldn’t help but bring down the general gaiety that a confetti-drenched, screaming contestant brought into our little lives. “You know,” he’d say, unable to deny the Accountant he played on work days, “I would never want to be on this show. You have any idea what kind of taxes they have to pay when they win all this stuff?”
Actually, I didn’t, but now that my father shared this bit of wisdom with me, I no longer saw the contestants as the luckiest people on earth. I saw them as fools who would probably have to sell everything they owned just to pay the taxes on that new boat they had been screaming and crying over.
My father did not bring us down when our next favorite show came on. The Gong Show aired at 12:30 on Channel 4, and I was ready for it with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand and a glass of chocolate milk in the other. My brothers, parents and I roared with laughter at the outrageous contestants who tap-danced, played the bongos, sang (badly), juggled, or swallowed fire sticks.
Some of the acts stand out in my memory because they were either so bad that I can’t forget them, or they were really good and got gonged anyway. I still feel terrible for the 5-year-old girl who tap-danced and sang beautifully, but got gonged when Anson Williams (AKA Potsy from Happy Days) said he couldn’t stand her because she was “too cute.”
There was always a panel of three “distinguished” judges that determined who would win and who would get gonged. This bizarre group included Jaye P. Morgan (who would eventually get banned from the show by the censors for flashing her breasts at the camera), Rip Torn, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr a.k.a. Klinger from M*A*S*H, Arte Johnson from Laugh-In fame, Anson Williams and, inexplicably, Rex Reed. Most of the judges laughed and gonged themselves silly, but Rex Reed took everything way too seriously.
From the bitter judges to the perennially chirpy and over-caffeinated Chuck Barris, this show was mean-spirited and often cruel. I loved it! I also loved when the band broke out into a lively DA DA DA DA DA DA, DA DA DA DA DA, DA DA DUH DUH DUH and Chuck Barris pointed to the curtains and said, with a look of sheer and utter joy, “It’s Gene Gene the Dancing Machine!”
Meanwhile, an older, chubby African American man named Gene Gene The Dancing Machine jiggled his way onstage and danced his heart out while people threw pillows, banjos, tires, or anything else they had handy from the wings onto the stage, while Gene Gene danced on, one fist raised exultantly towards the sky.
The appearance of The Unknown Comic was also a cause for great joy, even though his jokes were usually corny and not all that funny—but how could you not laugh at a guy who did his whole act with a paper bag over his head? Chuck Barris’s fake anger, the judges’ barreled-over laughter and the audience’s enthusiastic cheering just added to the fun.
Some days, everyone would be gonged and no one would win. Other days, there would be more than one winner. You never really knew how things would turn out, but it didn’t matter. When Chuck Barris came out to deliver the “highly unusual amount of $516.32” plus a Golden Gong Trophy to the winner, a dwarf would rush out and throw confetti while balloons dropped from the ceiling. On Fridays, he’d give the same cash prize to the Worst Act of the Week, plus a dirty tube sock.
With the credits still rolling, I jumped up and out the door for a game of whiffle ball with Jude, Chris and Joey. I didn’t have to worry about the bat being too heavy in whiffle ball, so I could hit like Babe Ruth. We played in our driveway, and if you hit the ball over Jude’s and Chris’s heads and it landed in Mrs. McGivney’s driveway, you had yourself a home run. Joey and I would play together against Jude and Chris, and while Joey pitched I tried to play the “outfield” that was our street. Every few pitches, I would yell ‘CAR CAR C-A-R’ and we’d have to suspend play to let the traffic pass.
The summer that I turned 4, Joey taught me how to ride a bike. He just said, “Get on and ride,” and I did. He didn’t really have to hold onto the back of the seat for long—I got the hang of it and rode down the alley behind our old house.
Of course, that knowledge was useless since I didn’t have a bike of my own. I still had a tiny red tricycle, even though it was way too small for me. My friend Nadine’s mom, Mary, gave me a big blue bike with white fenders that was clearly meant for someone twice my size, but I was so excited to have a bike that I tried to ride it anyway.
Since Joey had not just one, but two, bustling paper routes, he would often borrow my bike. I didn’t want to share my bike with Joey, but he would put me on the handlebars and take me for a spin around the neighborhood, which was always fun. That is, until the night when I was 8 and it wasn’t fun at all.
Our parents were heading out the door in a little while for another one of their Marriage Encounter nights. They would “dialog” and “share” with a room full of other married 70’s hipsters who thought that telling their significant other “everything” created deeper bonds. The fact that most of the people in the groups often quit and got divorced didn’t discourage my parents in the least.
As we raced out the door that night, my mother said: “now don’t go off the block.”
Normally, we would’ve just played a game of catch or ridden our roller skates up and down the block. But now that my mother said: “don’t go off the block,” leaving the block was the only thing that held any appeal for us.
“Re Re,” Joey said, “can I ride your bike?”
“But I want to ride my bike,” I replied.
“Get on the handlebars and I’ll take you for a ride.”
Riding with Joey was always a lot of fun. I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair and had perfected the art of sitting on the handlebars and out of harm’s way. Joey was a great bike rider and going places with him was an adventure, because everyone in the neighborhood would yell, “Hi Joe!” or “hey Leggo!” like I was out bike riding with the Mayor of Bayside. So, without asking where we were headed, I jumped on.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much point in bike riding if you couldn’t leave the block. I shouldn’t have worried too much. We were off the block in about two seconds, heading towards Bell Boulevard.
“Mom said we aren’t supposed to leave the block,” I said.
“Oh stop worrying,” Joey said. “How will she know?”
Just then, we hit a pothole and my food sprang off the wheel nut where I usually kept it. Before I could stop myself, my foot became lodged in the wheel.
Within five seconds, my right foot was caught in the spokes and I spun off the bike and smashed to the ground. Joey fell on top of me, and the bike landed on top of the both of us, with my foot still stuck in the spokes and twisted behind Joey’s back.
A man walking on Bell Boulevard saw us fall and came running to our sides.
“Oh my! Are you kids all right? Is your foot broken?”
I lay there in a daze. Between the throbbing in my ankle and the lack of oxygen in my lungs because Joey was using me as a giant pillow, I hurt all over. Once the man pulled my foot from the spokes and Joey was able to scramble off the ground, he pulled me to my aching feet.
“We’re fine, thanks mister.” Joey said.
“Let me call your parents,” the man said, as I tried to put my foot down and cried.
“No, she’ll be fine. Thanks anyway,” Joey said.
“My foot is killing me! I think it’s broken,” I said.
“Listen,” Joey whispered to me, “we’re not supposed to be off the block. If this guy tells mom and dad that he saw us crash on Bell Boulevard, we’re dead. Just climb back on the bike and I’ll take you home.”
I didn’t want to have my father, mother and brother mad at me, so I climbed on the bike and let Joey wheel me home.
Luckily, my parents were busy getting ready for their night out and Joey was able to get me situated on the couch.
“I need some ice,” I said, as I fought back tears.
“No ice until they leave,” Joey said, still panic-stricken that my father would find out. “But I will get you some ice cream.”
As my parents got ready to walk out the door, my mother noticed me sitting on the couch with my foot propped up. I tried to smile at her over my enormous bowl of ice cream.
“What have you got there?” my mother said, sensing that something was wrong.
“Joey made me an ice cream sundae,” I replied.
She turned to look at Joey, who was also enjoying some ice cream. Since we were sometimes unable to spend five minutes together inside of the house without one of us trying to strangle the other one, my mother didn’t know what to make of this sudden display of brotherly love.
“Okay.” My mother shrugged her shoulders since she couldn’t figure out what was wrong. “I will see you guys later.”
She walked out the door and I put the cold bowl on my ankle while Joey got the ice.
Hours later, my mother would solve the mystery when she came home and woke me, only to find that my ankle now resembled a tree trunk and I could barely walk.
Joey and I didn’t get in trouble for riding off the block, but I did get a badly sprained ankle that kept me off the handlebars for at least a week. Later that same summer, one of Joey’s customers gave him a lavender bike with a banana seat and a flowered basket on it since “that bike your sister rides looks too big for her.”
Joey and I did a swap, and I didn’t have to ride on the handlebars anymore.
The following summer, Joey tried to teach Chris how to ride my bike, which by that time had no brakes. But that’s another story….
It wasn’t exactly summer camp, but we sure had fun.
Joey’s Hot Fudge Sundae
We didn’t have Chunky Munky or the Perils of Praline in my house when we were kids, but that didn’t stop us from making some delicious sundaes.
1 scoop Vanilla ice cream
1 scoop Chocolate ice cream
1 scoop Strawberry ice cream
Magic Shell Fudge Sauce
Maraschino Cherry (optional. I opt out—they give me hives)
Place ice cream in a big cereal bowl. Add Fudge Sauce (it hardens a forms a cookie-like surface. Yum!). Add walnuts and Redi-Whip. Top with a cherry if you so desire.
So what did you do as a kid over your summer vacation? What was your favorite treat? Leave a comment below and let all of us Hungry Lifers know about it.