The other day at work, we were talking about this past Super Bowl, then the upcoming NFL draft (May 8-10) until the topic shifted to our first childhood memories of football.
My earliest football recollection was part of a family weekend getaway that included the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland, (spring 1963). I remember how the tour guide made a big deal out of a shrine-like trophy case dedicated to Roger Staubach. I was unimpressed, (hey, I was eight...but maybe I sensed he would become a Dallas Cowboy).
A few months later, (September), my family visited central Pennsylvania. While in Hershey, my dad took us to the Philadelphia Eagles pre-season training camp.
On December 14th of that year, my grade school class trip was a New York Jets versus Buffalo Bills game at the Polo Grounds.
Two weeks after that Jets game, (after Christmas and through New Year’s Eve) my family vacationed at the Willows Hotel in Lakewood New Jersey. On the Sunday of that week, (December 29th), the NFL Championship Game was played, (four years later, the name was upgraded to the Super Bowl).
The Willows Hotel (there is NOTHING on the Internet to suggest it ever existed), was a six-story, Borscht Belt-styled resort in the middle of a city street, in a residential neighborhood. 1963 marked the second year we went there, (my parents expected to make this a yearly pilgrimage but somewhere in 1964, the place “accidentally” burned down).
I think what my folks liked the best was, the hotel had an organized day camp for kids. Once the children were exiled to Siberia for ten hours of
This camp, (designed for five through ten-year olds), was in a fairly large, bright and cheerful recreation room. However, it was sequestered far from the sight of hotel guests, down a dingy, dungeon-like hallway, in the most remote bowels of the basement, (the only thing further down that corridor was the exit that led to the garbage dumpsters).
Our first year, (1962), I felt imprisoned in that room. Other than a daily visit to the pool and our three meals, we spent our time within those four walls. Unfortunately there were no boys my age. So despite friendly supervision, tons of toys, group games and organized activities, in a short time, I was going stir crazy. Even worse, I had an accepting personality which meant, I wasn’t sharp enough to know I had a choice.
The second year (1963), I didn’t even want to go back to the Willows. But upon being dropped-off at their monotony day-care, I befriended, Robert Brown. We got tight quickly and before the first day’s lunch period, Robert, (on his own), confided in me that he was bored. I was so unsophisticated that he had to explain the meaning of the word. He said, “Let’s get out of here. I was here last year and I know where we can explore and have some real fun.” I said, “We’re NOT allowed.” He shrugged at me and walked (unimpeded by the counselors) out the door.
I saw Robert through the door’s little window. He encouraged me to come out with an enthusiastic wave but my folks had given me a laundry list of things to NOT do. Then I realized that leaving the playroom with a friend hadn’t made the list. I experienced a, “LEAVE IT TO BEAVER,” moment as I considered the trouble I could get into but when I saw the next activity was going to be cutting out paper dolls, I took the risk.
|"LEAVE IT TO BEAVER," AIRED 234 EPISODES FROM 1957-1963. JERRY MATHERS (above) AS THEODORE "BEAVER" CLEAVER WAS EASY FOR KIDS TO RELATE TO BECAUSE HE WAS THE EPITOME OF A DOPEY, NAIVE KID WHO REGULARLY MADE POOR DECISIONS.|
We were a few steps along our journey when Robert shocked me. He stopping me by thrusting his forearm into my chest, pointing to the ground with his other hand and exclaiming, “Watch out, it’s trap door!” I thought his little fantasy was hilarious. From that moment on, I was confident that this guy knew how to have a good time.
Robert said, “Wanna smell something really disgusting?” Luckily he wasn’t a weirdo because I enthusiastically said, “Yeah.” He led me through the Willows. At first, I was mortified that we’d get arrested for escaping "juvi hall" downstairs. But all the adults paid us no mind…we didn’t even get funny looks from hotel employees, (what a great feeling, it was like we were actual people).
I was led through the opulent ballroom where the adults had their meals, (the kiddie dining area was an ugly, claustrophobic, dimly lit room). On the other side of the dance floor, beyond the kitchen, we entered a hidden alcove and pushed through swinging doors. Robert opened the furthest door, as if he owned the place. It was a utility closet with a slop sink up front and neat rows of rain slickers, brooms, mops and scrub brushes hung from hooks. The floor was packed with vacuum cleaners, carpet sweepers, buckets, several pairs of gigantic rubber hip boots and vats of chemically enhanced cleansers. Up high, on the horseshoe-shaped shelf that rimmed the room, various other fluids like bleach and ammonia combined with everything else, to produce the worst, caustic stink imaginable. The odor was indeed horrendous and that made it great. I bet if we lingered, we would have lost some brain cells while catching a buzz.
We were walking away when Robert said, “Before our next adventure, we should give ourselves codenames. From now on, I’m Comet and you’re Ajax.” I liked having an “X” in my name. In fact, the whole secret identity angle was so cool, I thought I would burst.
At lunch it got better because no one could figure out why we were calling ourselves moronic names. Then some skinny red-headed six-year old with grape jelly all over his mouth said, “I wanna join your club, I’ll be Clorox.” Robert told him, “You’re too young, scram!” I said, “Yeah, beat it...but we’ll still call you Clorox.” Clorox's voice cracked as he griped, "G-g-gee whiz fellas..." Robert roared, "Don't go away mad...just go away!"
In no time, this huge hotel was our playground. We screwed around on the elevator and raced up and down the fancy steps until Robert led me to the casino (card room). Then we sang on the theater’s stage and ran around backstage and banged on some drums. In the dressing room, I sat in a big leather chair in front of a mirror lined with little light bulbs and said, “Let’s pretend we’re movie stars.” Robert called me an idiot and added, “Everything we’re doing is pretend...” I didn’t complain about his tone but that was strike one.
Every corner of the Willows was investigated and nobody interfered with our escapades. My imagination was taken to a happy place as we played; hunters on safari, pirates, astronauts, gunslingers in the Wild West and reenacted the TV show “COMBAT.”
My favorite was playing mountain climbers. Behind the bar there was a curtain that led to a sunken lounge. We used that five-foot drop to climb up and we also pushed a sofa underneath to jump down onto. Too bad with all our heightened heroic insights and inventiveness, we couldn’t figure out a way to go back one month in time, to save JFK.
Another Achilles heel in Comet’s (Robert’s) repertoire was the redundancy of the trap door routine. It was still funny the second time especially because we were actually on a stage (where you’d expect to see one) but by the fourth time, I was ready to smack him.
The next morning we were hanging out in the lobby. It had snowed the night before and we were looking out the majestic front window jonesing to play outside. I was thinking if my fearless leader was really special, we’d be building a snowman instead of gawking at the winter wonderland with our tongues hanging out. However, the deeper issue was I was tired of taking orders from Robert. If I could come up with a definitive idea then I could turn the tables and boss him around. I was sad because my creative impulses came up empty.
That’s when Robert pulled another rabbit out of his hat and spouted, “Follow me.” He led to me the front desk and said, “Let’s grab a bunch of post cards.” It seemed harmless so after he took some, so did I.
We meandered to the newsstand as he counted our bounty and said, “We have twenty. If we knock on every door in the hotel and sell them for a penny apiece, we’ll each have a dime to spend in there.” He was pointing at the candy dsplay as I thought; This was pure genius. How did I ever doubt this guy?
We started at the top floor. We got plenty of dirty looks while disturbing the pajama-clad masses. By the time we got to the third floor, we hadn’t made any sales. Robert pulled his trap door stunt on me again. I was ready to kill him but a couple came out of their room. Robert propositioned them. The man ignored him and the woman sarcastically said, “Cute.”
I was giving Robert the evil eye so he hurried to knock on another door. A pleasant, older lady (maybe thirty) clutching her robe tightly closed heard his spiel. She said, “Are you going door-to-door?” We crowed, “Yeah!” I said, “We want to earn enough to buy stuff at the gift shop.” She said, “I’ll give you some money but only if you stop playing this game.” We said, “Okay.” Sternly she said, “Promise.” We were happily nodding as she gave Robert a nickel and shut the door.
Robert and I were disappointed in our "take" and puzzled because neither of us was clever enough to fairly split our pay. He whined, “This isn’t enough for my candy bar.” I sighed, “I wanted a coke.” Robert said in wonderment, “You’re allowed to drink soda?” I shrugged, “Yeah.” He said, “Wowie-whoa-wee…I never tried one.” This was hard to believe so I asked, “What do you drink at dinner?” He said, “Water, sometimes milk.” I contorted my face so he defensively added, “In the summer when he have barbecues, I get lemonade or iced tea.” I said, “That’s nuts. Your father drinks water and milk too?” He said, “No, my parents drink yucky wine.” In a whisper he added, “It’s for adults only.” Not to be outdone, I said, “Yeah, yeah I know what wine is…” But of course I wasn't really sure. Either way, this would be the chink in his armor I was looking for.
I said, “If you want a coke, follow me. Just remember, we might get in trouble.” He was excited as he said, “Ajax, take me to your buried treasure trove.” I was thrilled as he followed me past the front desk and through the heavy, black glass door to the bar. I knew it was closed during the day from when we played mountain climbers there, (that's when I had noticed gazillions of unattended, full soda bottles).
"Comet," I said, "Looky here." Behind the bar, piled into a corner were cases of soda. But none of this cornucopia was Coca-Cola. I read off the labels, tonic, seltzer, ginger ale and quinine water. Robert said, “Which flavor should we have?” If I chose the ginger ale, life would have been peachy…but instead, like the "X" in Ajax, I was attracted by “Q” of quinine water. Robert followed suit. Simultaneously we gagged from the awfulness. Except he dropped his bottle and the glass smashed on the ground into a million pieces...we ran away.
Robert wasn’t pleased with me. He reasserted his position as commander and chief and announced that the soda fiasco made him feel like a criminal. When we got to the kid’s dining room, he poked his head into the kitchen and asked a lady for chocolate milk. He was so bold. I could never imagine asking for something between meals. She asked me if I wanted some too. My pride was deflated so I declined the offer. Robert was given a tall glass of white milk and an industrial strength-sized can of Bosco chocolate syrup. It drove me crazy as he poured in too much and drank the overly dark, sweet elixir for the soul, in two huge gulps. He was wiping his chocolate milk mustache off as he decreed that we keep a low-profile back at the kid jail.
For the rest of the day, Robert turned his attention to Clorox. That was fine with me...especially, (to the delight of the six-year old), when the trap door hokum was performed.
My parents made me get dressed up that night to see the show. The juggler was okay, I liked the comedian but the lady singing at the end was terrible. When she was done, I saw Robert across the way, whooping it up screaming, “More, more, more.” If I ever thought that kid was a jack-ass, I doubled it.
Despite my independent nature, I had no options. I tried to attach myself to two nine-year olds but they were complete nerds, (and no self respecting ten-year old would be caught spending their time in a camp full of babies). At the same time, it didn't take long for Comet to realize that Clorox didn't have much to offer.
So after breakfast, on the morning of the Championship Football game, the dynamic duo of Comet and Ajax were back out on the loose. We stumbled into the lobby while it buzzed with adult activity. Robert and I watched men during a golf putting contest. During a lull, I asked the social director if I could give it a try. He said, “Sure kid.” My ego swelled like never before when I noticed Robert’s look of admiration.
I had a big audience as I took the putter. But instead of just taking my shot, I laid face-down on the carpet and made it look like I was examining the lay of the land, (like golfers do on TV). I could tell my antics were appreciated as some men encouraged me to get a hole-in-one. I failed miserably, of course, but the social director asked everyone to give me a round of applause.
Green-eyed Robert was patting my back when a gray-haired woman called out to me, “Boy, come here boy.” My guilty conscious made me feel like I was in trouble as Robert vamoosed the other way. The old lady summoned me over, pointed behind the divan she was perched on and said, “I dropped my silver dollar, could you get it for me?” In seconds, I crawled under and retrieved the big, old coin. I was walking away when she said, “Come back, I want to give you a little something for your troubles.” She was fishing through her small change purse as I peered over and saw the envy on Robert’s face. She said, “Aha, here it is.” She looked me straight in the eye, pressed a coin into my palm and squeezed both her hands on top of it. “Young man,” she said, “I want to thank you ever so much.” I had images of power and sugarplum fairies dancing in my mind as I thanked her back.
I was glowing inside and out, as I hustled towards jealous Robert. He was so pissed that he scurried away before I opened my hand and discovered it was a just a damned nickel. We were reunited after lunch. I had lied and said that the woman gave me quarter and that I would treat him to two pieces of gum, (that’s all my last two-cents could buy).
Robert accepted my generosity but he didn’t like kowtowing to a subordinate. Outside the gift shop, a huge crowd was watching the football game on a small TV, (it was set high atop a cart on wheels for all to see). There was a lot of excitement because the hometown New York Giants were playing the Chicago Bears. Robert said, “Let’s watch.” Even if I wanted to, I was too short to see over all the adults blocking my view. But in reality, I wasn’t interested. Robert said, “My father, is Ed Brown. He used to be the Chicago Bears quarterback.” I thought he was trying to put me in my place by bragging about nonsense, (I was certain of it because earlier that year, I told SLW that my father was a baseball player named Jake Gibbs).
Robert backed-up his story by pushing me towards his mother and interrupted her conversation with other women, “Mom, Ajax doesn’t believe dad’s name is Ed.” She said, “That’s right, dear. Robert’s daddy is always on TV. You ever watch, “MR. ED?”
I was confused. But the whole business made more sense when I said, “You must be the only person here rooting for the Bears.” He said, “Heck no.” “But you said your father…” Robert cut me off, “Used to be on the Bears, I said used to be! Now Ed Brown is on the Steelers…and they stink.” “So who do you root for?” He said, “The Cleveland Browns.” I said, “Heh?” He said, “I root for the Browns because they named the whole team after my family.” My head was spinning as I said, “What?” “You don’t think they named the team after my family? Then tell me, what is a Brown?” Dead silence. I was still mired in the double-talk when Robert continued, “Plus my Browns have the greatest player EVER, Jimmy BROWN.”
|JIMMY BROWN (1936-PRESENT) PLAYED HIS ENTIRE CAREER (1957-1965) WITH THE CLEVELAND BROWNS. HE WAS THE BEST RUNNING BACK I EVER SAW. BUT TO FURTHER SUPPORT ROBERT'S OPINION, IN 2002, THE SPORTING NEWS VOTED JIM BROWN, THE GREATEST NFL PLAYER...EVER!|
What a mistake, I went into attack mode. I thought I had the upper hand and stupidly said, “You’re a lair! You don’t know anything! His name isn’t Jimmy Brown! The greatest football player EVER is named TIMMY Brown. If you weren’t such a lying jerk, you’d know TIMMY BROWN plays for the Eagles…not the Browns.”
In the two days after the big game, my folks took my sister and I out of the hotel for sightseeing, ice skating and on a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the snowy woods. We also had dinner at a steakhouse called Peterson’s. I liked the full view of the chefs cooking and I was mesmerized by the flames shooting up from the grills. My folks and sister apparently got more enjoyment out of watching a drunken couple erotically pawing each other in the next booth.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, much to our mutual chagrin, Robert and I found ourselves conjoined at the hip again. We were near the front desk as I saw a TV actor checking in. I said, “Comet, look there’s Private Zimmerman from the, "PHIL SILVERS SHOW." Let’s get his autograph.” Robert sheepishly shook his head. I said, “C’mon let’s go.” He was star-struck and frozen stiff. I was thinking if Robert’s father was really a pro quarterback, then he wouldn’t be so bashful about approaching such a celebrity as Mickey Freeman, (I had to research him to remember his name).
|(second from the right), MICKEY FREEMAN (1917-2010) PORTRAYED PRIVATE FIELDING ZIMMERMAN, (1955-1959), IN 131 OF THE 138 EPISDES OF THE, "PHIL SILVERS SHOW." HE ALSO APPEARED ON TV's,"NAKED CITY," "LLOYD BRIDGES SHOW" AND "THE EQUALIZER."|
While I was negotiating the autograph, Mr. Freeman made me feel good by talking to me. Another man came by and engaged Freeman’s attention. I was slithering away when the second man said, “Hey Mickey, you think your friend here would want to get into show business?” The man talking to Freeman was the emcee of the big New Year’s Eve show. Freeman said something along the lines of, “Sure. But kid, make sure he pays you.”
On the wall next to the door that separated the bar from the showroom, I noticed the photos of famous people who performed there. I have no idea who the headliner was that night but I was absorbed in my own self-importance as if I merited equal billing. I shown where I was going to sit, (in the audience). Then I was told my cue that would signal when to come up and walk across the stage. I tingled in excitement as I was led through two, ten second rehearsals.
That night, I was sweating bullets waiting to spring into action. When it came, I walked across the stage to thunderous laughter. In just four seconds, I was a success!
The next day, I was sent to “help” my dad check-out. A few people were ahead of us. I was still in the warm afterglow of my stage debut as Robert come around the bend. He resented that I got Mickey Freeman’s autograph and was completely pissed-off that I got in the show. He tried to act natural and ignore me but my dad said, “Aren’t you going to say good-bye to your friend?”
I was all chatty as Robert did a slow burn. Then as if I choreographed the whole scenario, the emcee from the night before came out of the bar with another man. He spotted me, mussed my hair (no really, I had plenty back then) and patted my head like I was a puppy. Then he said some nice things about me to my dad. For Robert’s sake I blurted out, “You said I was going to get paid.” He knelt down face-to-face with me and smiled, “Sonny, how much do I owe you?” I said, “I want a coke.” The emcee told the other man, “Quick like a bunny, get my star a coke.” While the other man ran back to the bar, the emcee said before disappearing, “Happy New Year.” Seconds later, the man stormed out of the bar with my coke. Robert vanished too. I said to my father, “Where did my friend go?” Dad said, “That’s so nice, you were going to share the soda with him.” In my mind, I pictured Robert falling through a trap door as I took a deep slug of Coke. Then with great satisfaction I smirked, “Nah.”
At work, when I finished telling my friends about those early football memories I added, "Maybe I can find Robert on Facebook and offer to drop hom and the rest of the Browns off at the next Super Bowl."