Archive for Family

Memories of Growing Up: My Flat, Warm Soda

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I grew up in a household where my parents kept a supply of soda in a cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. I can picture a dozen cans or so — Coke, of course, but also RC and other cola varieties. On rare occasions, orange Fanta or Dr. Pepper. But usually it was Coke, never Pepsi, and it was always available for anyone with a thirst, though it was understood that we, the kids, shouldn’t go crazy over the stuff. It was a treat. Even in the 60s we understood that Coke wasn’t actually “it,” despite the advertising slogan. We knew soda wasn’t good for us — it would “rot your teeth” — though we hadn’t yet come to the place where we thought of soda and sugar as devil incarnates.
We had neighbors across the street, the Charles family who moved onto Adelphi Road in the early 70s with three boys: Jeffrey, David, and Eric. As I recall, and this seems astonishing to me now, they drank soda at the family dinner table. I was always a little awed by that. There were also wild rumors, recently substantiated, claiming the Charles boys were provided cans of Coke in their school lunchboxes. That was not the case in our house. We drank cow’s milk, purchased in school in those little cardboard containers that were so difficult to open. Sure, you pushed the cardboard back, carefully squeezed the edges, and the carton popped open to form a diamond-shaped spout for easy access. But other times the cardboard would get soggy and smushy and we’d require aid from a volunteer lunch monitor. Help us!
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Or, embarrassed and frustrated, we’d give up entirely, tossing the whole sorry mess into the trash can. By digressing thus, I mean only to point out by comparison that my family, the statistically average Prellers, were not an extreme soda house. We were — I thought then, and still think today — pretty normal. Well within range of standard suburban deviations. But how I marveled at the Charles’s. Soda at dinner. Imagine that.
 
So, yes, cans of soda were always available at 1720 Adelphi Road when I was kid, kept under the sink alongside the standard cleaning fluids, the scrub brushes and the Spic and Span, Mr. Clean and the spare rolls of Brawny and everything else. Our soda, warmly waiting. We didn’t keep it refrigerated. Perhaps that was a function of available space. Seven children and one refrigerator, maybe there wasn’t room. But years later, half a century later, when my parents rattled around in a big house in Southampton — “Near the dump,” my mother often pointed out, just so you didn’t get the idea that the Prellers were getting fancy — they still kept their soda in a side cupboard. Old habits. If you wanted your soda cold, and of course you did, you added ice.
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By the Southampton days, a late-80s, post-retirement home built after all seven kids had finished school, my parents enjoyed the happy convenience of an ice maker. The periodic muffled clunk of freshly frozen cubes crashing into the ice container like so many fallen soldiers. Our freezer at work, forming a steady supply for our liquid-filled pleasures. Whereas ice in my younger days was a challenge. Even a few cubes required effort. We wrestled with metal ice trays, frozen and sticky to the touch, loudly banged them on counter tops, muttered and fumed. We yanked up the metal lever to crack the frozen ice and loosen the cubes from their metallic walls. The process never work perfectly, some cubes would fail to free themselves, stuck, unyielding. Others shattered and chipped, a different sort of defeat. We sought perfect cubes, not the chips and slivers and broken bits which melted too quickly. We learned the trick of running warm water over the tray to loosen the cubes. Then it was time for the refilling of the tray with tap water, the careful steady insertion back into the freezer. It would become ice tomorrow. The circle of life. When events ran properly, no sudden cocktail parties or makeshift lemonade stands, we enjoyed an efficient circulation of trays in various stages of newly filled, to “getting there,” to frozen solid.
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Maybe because of all this effort, the pure hassle of it, I preferred my soda warm. And flat. Hot and syrupy and without bubbles. So I developed a strategy. This secret, unspoken thing I did. At a very young age, a time when I still liked crawling under things and into dark places, I would slyly remove a can of soda from the kitchen and take it under a corner desk in what we called the “play room.” I would open the can — was it a pop-up ring? or a feat accomplished with a can opener?, I can’t recall —  and hide the soda on a back shelf. A day would go by, or a week, and I’d return to my flat, hot soda in the secret dark. So good, such a private pleasure, sweetly delicious. Nobody knew.
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That was my soda world in late 1960s America. Each year when I look up anew, that world seems farther and farther away.

Father’s Day Tribute: Dad Used to Cover the Lawn with Horse Manure & Other Atrocities

 

NOTE: I first posted this on my blog back in 2011. Figured it was worth bringing back today, as we warm up for the weekend ahead.

Dad was the father of seven children, a veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific. After the war, he graduated from Boston University in two and half years, because why in the world would anybody want to waste another minute in school. There was a life to be lived, a brass ring to grab, things to do. Let’s get on with it.

It was a different time, a different generation.

Dad settled with my mother on Long Island, became an insurance man, started having kids rapid fire in the Catholic fashion, built a business. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. On rare weekend days I’d tag along when my father needed to pop into his rented office on Wantagh Avenue for an hour or two. We never specialized in father-and-son type stuff, whatever that was, and I’m sure the word bonding did not apply to relationships back in those days, only glue, but I do recall those trips to his office. Dad’s place of business offered that most wondrous of commodities, office supplies — electric typewriters, staplers, a copier, boxes of paper clips and, best of all, tracing paper.

I marveled at its magical properties. Dad didn’t part with his supply easily, that stuff cost money, so I was thrilled and grateful whenever he brought a stack home. Those are nice memories for me, a lifetime away. I sometimes wonder: Whatever happened to that kid? That boy with the tracing paper? Where’d he go?

From around that time, somewhere in the mid 60’s, another day presses forward for attention. One spring morning we set off together — in the hazy gauze of remembrance, just me and dad — to a farm somewhere. Because dad knew a guy, a customer who had a stable and a few horses. He possessed, in others words, shit to spare. And the price was right.

I must have  been about five or six years old at the time, no older. We got to the farm, out east on Long Island probably, and I stood around while my father chatted with the owner of the place. Maybe I looked into the stable, fearfully eyed the horses. Did I want to feed one of them an apple? No, I did not. I was shy, watchful and quiet. Eventually my dad keyed open the car truck, borrowed a shovel, and filled it to the brim with horse manure. I stood by, mystified, awestruck. Trunk full, steam rising, we headed back home, where I watched my father spread the still semi-moist shit around the front lawn. It was good for the grass, he explained. Nature’s fertilizer.

My older brothers and sisters recall those times with profound mortification. Imagine the embarrassment they felt, the acute stabbing horror, especially those of a certain age, when the opinion of one’s peers meant only everything. I can’t say this plainly enough: My brothers hated it when dad spread horse shit on the front lawn — even worse, on hot days it smelled like holy hell, the stink filling your nostrils — and yet my father performed the same ritual every year.

And here’s the thing about my dad, really the essential memory of him. He didn’t care. Alan J. Preller simply did not give a hoot what anybody thought. He never did. He embarrassed us, he ticked off people, annoyed relatives, said what he thought and did what he did. Dad lived on his own terms, remarkably indifferent to opinion. And if that made him impossible at times, well, so be it. He wasn’t trying to please anybody.

My father passed away a few years back, coincidentally enough while spreading fertilizer out on the front lawn in Southampton, where he retired. He had moved beyond horse manure by then, thank God, nowadays they’d hang you in Southampton for that, but there was still no way he was going to push around one of those crummy lawn spreaders. No, dad preferred a Maxwell House coffee can, dipping it into a big bag of fertilizer, sprinkling it imprecisely across the yard with a grand sweep of his arm. And to be honest, it’s more fun that way. Believe me, I know.

There he was out on the lawn, doing what he always did, and that’s when his heart gave out, when he fell, when my father left us.

These days, when I’m particularly infuriating — insensitive, implacable, impossible — my exasperated wife, Lisa, will proclaim that I’m becoming just like my father.  I won’t listen to anyone, I’ll just do whatever I want. And as I age, it only gets worse. That’s her complaint. The funny thing is, I always hear it as a compliment.

Happy Father’s Day, folks. A good day to pull some weeds, mow the lawn, tend the garden and then, like my father often did, wander into the kitchen, reach into the bottom cabinet where he kept the bottle of Dewar’s, and announce, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Here’s to you, old man. Cheers and memories.

Miss you!

If My Siblings Were Album Covers

I’m the youngest of seven children. I grew up with a rich inheritance of music. As my brothers and sisters went off to college and other experiences, many of their albums found their way upstairs in the crappy stereo cabinet, their divergent tastes all mashed together. It was amazing, and I’m still in awe of that great motherload of music I got to hear at any early age.

One game I played a lot involved a small garbage can set up on a table and a wadded up piece of paper. I’d pretend — for hours, it seemed — to be players on the New York Knicks. I’d invent elaborate games, acting out shots, keeping score. I was Dave Debusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley. That classic 1969-70 team. And all the while, I rocked the house. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Donovan, Spooky Tooth, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, on and on, endlessly.

Proust can have his madeleine cake. But in terms of generating memories, there’s nothing for me like the associations that come with specific songs and albums. Today I decided to show one album cover for each sibling. Not necessarily their favorite, or most representative, but one that always brings them to mind.

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My brother Neal was a Dylan fanatic, and definitely my most influential brother when it came to music. He loved to sing, something that the rest of us never attempted. He was singular in that regard. This album always makes me think of him. Could have gone with early Dylan or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

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I can’t hear this great album without flashing on my brother Al. I also remember him talking to me about Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Problem is, Al’s not really a Hendrix guy.

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This one is slippery. Compared to Neal, Billy didn’t have super refined tastes from what I recall. He kind of bounced around, listening to whatever. I do remember his red-and-white box of 45s, which I loved flipping through. But this album will always remind me of a specific day. It was Billy’s return from Vietnam. He came home with a great stereo system, as so many soldiers did, including a “light box” that flashed along to the music. A bunch of his friends and I, his adoring and much younger little brother, crowded into his bedroom when he played this album. Hey, yours is no, yours is no disgrace.

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Almost went with Dan Fogelberg here. Or James Taylor. Jean definitely had the classic teenage sister tastes — the sensitive songwriters — along with her Richard Brautigan novels. I still have a soft spot for most of it. Even the dreaded Fogelberg.

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Kind of a cheat here. Barbara in my mind was the least musical, in that I find it hard to recall her ever being particularly enthusiastic about any particular album. She did have this fantastic collection of 50s records — “Oldies But Goodies” — and I enjoyed playing those fun songs over and over again. “Alley Oop!”

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My brother John introduced me to this album. I remember him telling me about it, and playing it for me. I also remember playing the Doors “Waiting for the Sun” album in his bedroom, acting out “The Unknown Soldier” in front of a mirror, falling on his bed at the sound of the gunshot. I did that a lot. Just a little boy playing with his brother’s records.

It occurs to me now that I still love all those albums. It’s partly transference, I’m sure. When I play some of this music, I hear my life reverberating back like a distant echo in the hills. Just lucky, I guess. Let the good times roll.

Gavin, Baseball, Six Innings, Championship Games, etc.

RE-POST: This was originally posted back in August, 2010, and I’m sharing it again because winter is on the wane. My thoughts turn to baseball. Maybe yours do, too. I wanted to tell this little behind-the-scenes story to my baseball book, an ALA Notable, Six Innings. You might even want to buy a copy (who am I kidding?).

 

I don’t like to brag, but.

Look at this kid, will ya.

That’s Gavin, right around his 11th birthday, back in June/July. We endured a heartbreaking All-Star experience and I had to let time pass before revisiting it.

This year, along with my friend Andy, I coached a team of ten-year-olds in the District 13 All-Star Tournament. We played five games and found ourselves in the Championship Game — a scenario not much different than what I wrote about in the book, Six Innings (now in paperback).

As it turns out, that was the problem. Six innings. Would it were five.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Gavin really shined in this tournament, played the best baseball of his life. Pitched a shutout, fielded great, hit a ton. He was focused and he cared and somehow it all came together for him.

As a parent, you love ’em whether they strike out or hit a double. And let me tell you — it’s easier when they hit the double.

So there he was on the mound to start the Championship Game against our talented arch-rivals. It was a tense game, all the boys felt it, and nerves got the best of many of them. Both sides made errors. By the top of the 6th, we were on top, 10-6. Gavin had pitched with poise and determination, but after throwing five full innings and 75 pitches, the Little League maximum for boys his age, it was time to turn the ball over to someone else.

We had a four run lead. We needed three more outs.

paperback-cover-six-inningsNever happened. Our rivals exploded for 11 runs (!) in the 6th — it was the longest, most brutal inning of my coaching career — and we fell, 17-10, with an ignoble thud. Gavin was seriously bummed. For my part, I slept less than two hours that night. Just tossed and turned and replayed it all in my head, over and over. It was a week before I could walk without a limp.

When you write a book, you can get that last out, the boy can kiss the girl, you can pick any ending you want. Real life, that’s a tougher thing.

So let’s look at that scene from Six Innings one more time . . .

Max takes the sign, nods, understands. He wants me to climb the ladder.

One last time, Max Young is alone in his daydreams, throwing against an imaginary hitter in a game of his own invention. He is the author and the instrument, the pitcher and the ball, the beginning and the end.

Max rocks back into his windup, he drives forward, the ball leaves his fingertips, comes in high and hard and true.

Angel Tatis hits nothing but air. Swing and a miss.

That’s it. Game over.

Max drops to his knees, flings his glove high into the sky. All the boys rush the mound, shouting, screaming, piling on . . . .

Sigh.

BOY: A Poem

A couple of boys I know.

A couple of boys I know.

Funny, I just discovered this poem in an old file. Never printed a copy, never thought about it again, though I can faintly recall writing it a few years back. I don’t write many poems anymore, though I used to write them often. My first love as a writer, in fact, and certainly a good education for any aspiring wordsmith. As Donald Trump says, “Even bad poems can teach us bigly.” In this case, I surely figured, not good enough, and rolled on. Like usual. I’m not sure I’m even okay with the idea of attaching the word “poem” to this rambling meditation-slash-manifesto. But today, before I think better of it, I’m going to take this forgotten thing down off the shelf and place it before you. Kick it, pull it apart, ignore it, whatever. Because what are blogs for? My poem, “Boy.” 

 

BOY, by James Preller

 

I am a boy.

I can pee standing up.

Some days my dad knows

exactly how I feel.

Other days, it’s my mom

who understands.

I am more than farts and fire trucks.

Though I won’t deny — 

farts are funny

and fire trucks are cool,

especially if they let you

scamper up,

wear the hat,

and blast the horn.

I am more than

rocks and spitballs,

dirt and hammers —

though I am that, too.

I am boy

and I am friend,

tustled head

and wicked grin.

I am sweetness,

I am love,

I am trees in the wind,

kites crossing a pale blue sky

like the billowing sails

of pirate ships at sea.

I am pieces of bright glass

found by the curb,

jagged things,

bee stings and

dead birds and fascinating bugs,

cars and dinosaurs

and trampolines.

I love secret places to hide

and spy

and see unseen, invisible

to every eye.

I am boy,

so much more

than cupcakes

and rainbows, farts

and firetrucks,

but I’m those things, too.

I am laughter and I am love.

I am boy.

 

My cousin Billy and yours truly, 1968.

My cousin Billy and yours truly, 1968.