Growing Up with Billy
By G.A. Cribari
I put my finger in the hole in the round dial on the phone and turned it all the way to the right and took my finger out and let go of the dial. Click, click, click, the dial went left and returned in place. O for Osbourne and repeated for S, 1, 1, 3, 6 and 8.
The phone began to ring. Ring, ring, ring, six times. When finally, a girl’s voice answered loudly, ‘Pronto’!
It must be Billy’s sister I thought. ‘What’s going on? Is Billy home?’
‘Ciao,’ she said, and in the background, ‘Billy it’s for you!’ When Billy answered I asked him why his sister answered the phone that way. He told me she was a jerk and the words meant ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Italian. ‘She thinks she’s Italian and speaks it all the time,’ he said.
I met Billy the year before on Christmas Day. I got up early that morning just before it got light. I thought I heard noises and loud talking. I rubbed my eyes, stretched and yawned, then slowly got out of bed. I went out the bedroom door and down the hallway to the dining room. It would be an understatement saying I was surprised at what I saw. The dining room table was piled with wrapped Christmas presents of various sizes.
‘Santa Claus’ was taking presents out of the closet and the plywood door leading to the very small attic was almost completely open. ‘Mrs. Claus’ was busy arranging Christmas presents underneath the ornament and tinsel decorated pine tree obtained from the Christmas Tree Forest just beyond our backyard.
Dad tried to make the best of the situation, explaining that he and Mom were just helping Santa who had just left. I was older now and I said ‘Aw, come on, there isn’t any Santa’. My parents confessed and asked me to quietly watch TV in the living room and not to tell my younger brother and sister the secret when they woke-up.
There were only two television stations available to watch and I used to pick my brother from the crib and watch Captain Kangaroo or the Mickey Mouse Club with him. Soon, they were up and excitedly finding and opening their presents.
My present was difficult to disguise. It was a new Schwinn bicycle. Months would have to pass before I could ride it. A white Christmas could be taken for granted and the winters in Western New York were intense and sometimes brutal. Lake Ontario and Lake Road in Webster were a ten minute walk North, through the woods that surrounded our dead-end street.
After playing with our new toys on the wrapping paper-strewn living room, Dad asked if we’d like to go to Grandma’s for Christmas afternoon dinner. Soon, we were bundled up with our winter coats and boots and getting into the family Chevy for the 15 minute ride to Grandma’s house in Seabreeze.
We turned right on the cul-de-sac where our street ended. Passing the dozen houses on the short street we arrived at Vosburg Road. Across the street was Thursam Park, with its party house and large outdoor pavilion. We turned right and headed toward Lake Road.
We went by a house on the right, owned by a man who had an observatory that looked like a miniature Mount Palomar. Dad took me to his house when there was a harvest moon and the view through the telescope was incredible. To the left was an old farm house with a barn that belonged to a lawyer who raised horses.
We reached Lake Road and the last house to the right was my uncle’s house. One of my five cousins was a sports hero whose basketball, baseball, football and track teams were undefeated. As we turned left on Lake Road the vast expanse of Lake Ontario between the trees was an incredible sight. The houses we now passed were mini-mansions set back from the road with stone fences and gates.
Next, on the left was where Bay Road ended at the lake. A few miles down Bay on the right was the small school where I went to kindergarten and the elementary school I know went to. The road now went down towards the two sandy peninsula strips that framed Irondequoit Bay and met at the outlet to Lake Ontario. As we approached the rickety wooden Bay Outlet Bridge on the right we passed the Sand Bar beer-joint where Dad and the carpenter next door went for beers after work. Just before we drove over the bridge was Billy’s house and an adjacent marina. We crossed the wooden outlet bridge and passed the two popular hotdog stands on the left. Vic and Irv’s was my Mom’s and my favorite, while Dad and my siblings preferred Don and Bob’s.
Hugging a hill behind the stands was a drive-in theater.
Lake Road basically ended with a short stretch of lake side cottages.
We took a left turn onto Culver Road where it ended at the lake. We went up a steep hill past the Fire Station and when we reached the summit a large old amusement park was to our left. It was called Dreamland or Seabreeze Park.
Near the entrance was a beautiful old carousel and towards the far end was a large rollercoaster called the Jackrabbit. There were also bumper-cars, a funhouse, and cool arcade games where you could shoot down Nazi and Jap planes with ‘machine guns’.
Grandma’s house was on Lynn Drive, almost directly across from the Park entrance. Dad took a right turn past the closed-for-the-season Ice Cream Custard stand and slid on the wet snow. As he reached the bottom of the steep hill he banked right and made a quick left imbedding the Chevy into the thick snow of his Mom’s driveway. He shut off the car and took out the keys and went to the trunk to get a snow shovel. He then re-started the car and turned up the heat and put the radio on. Snow removal and lawn work were two of many chores he took on for Grandma who was about 80 years old. Soon, there was a path out of the driveway along the large stone retaining wall and up the stone steps and sidewalk to the front porch.
In nice weather we usually went down the sidewalk to the left of the house and to a door in the back that went into the kitchen. Grandma was a great cook and this was the place she could be found. Today, we went into the front porch and entered the living room from there.
On the way into the house I went by one of my favorite sights. It was an old, oversize poster of classic airplanes. There were biplanes and the B-10 Bomber. The bright blue and yellow color schemes really were striking. The stars on the planes were old fashioned with a red circle in the middle of the white star.
Grandma answered the door and invited us in. First, we took off our shoes and lined them in a neat row on the porch. The delightful smell of a multi-course meal filled my nose. In the living room were two of my uncles from Webster. One lived close to us and worked at Kodak like Dad, and the other owned a car garage on East Ridge Road not far from the Webster village. When visiting him it was clear why the road was named Ridge. The top of the brick building housed his auto-repair shop. Underneath, built into the back side of the ridge, were his family’s living quarters, complete with a patio sheltered from the noise of the very busy highway.
Another uncle had a PhD in Chemistry and worked for DuPont. His family in Delaware wouldn’t be coming-up this year because two of his four children had Chicken Pox.
Christmas was always a joyous time, however, there was a constant hint of sadness. Of Grandma’s ten children there was an uncle I would never meet. He was shot dead by a sniper during the Battle of the Buldge in WWII.
On an antique marble top table next to a Tiffany-style lamp was a 6″ x 9″ framed photograph of my uncle in uniform. It has left a lasting impression and his death is something Gram never got over.
Grandma came over to me and said she needed my help. She was about 80 years old and a little frail. She took my hand and led me into the kitchen and as we passed two plates full Christmas cookies she paused. Saying she didn’t want me to spoil my appetite, I got my choice of either pizelle, which looked like a small waffle, or a vanilla cookie with white frosting.
I chose a star shaped white cookie which was heavier and sweeter. We then went to the cellar steps. They were in a foyer one step down from the kitchen and opposite the back porch door. Linking arms, Grandma and I carefully descended to the basement. While gram got some onions and peppers, I inspected the elaborate bar with its colorful decorative mosaic tiled floor. The basement had been used as a Speakeasy during Prohibition.
Grandma suspected Grandpa of taking his boat onto Lake Ontario and fishing barrels of liquor out of the water that rum-runners from Canada had jettisoned. Grandpa however, always had fish to bring home and stuck to his story of ‘just fishing.’ I only met Grandpa once. Shortly after I was born at Highland Hospital my parents took me to his hospital room to show him their new first-born. He passed away shortly afterwards.
We went back upstairs and joined the family for Christmas dinner. Afterwards, my aunt, who lived with Gram and drove for her, said Grandma wanted to go see her friend Rose Spengler. She suggested my Dad follow her over and told me Rose had a grandson my age that I could meet.
We went outside and got into the car and backed out into the street. My aunt drove out of the garage and started up the hill. It was snowing now with no wind. The thick snowflakes looked like the snow-globe on Grandma’s windowsill when it was turned over. We got to the top of the hill. We turned left and went by the vacant and snow covered amusement park on the right. As we started down the large, steep hill, Lake Ontario looked so large you could almost reach out and touch it.
As we got closer to lake level the lake began to disappear through trees and the railroad tracks. Soon, we went by the hot dog stands on the right. Vic and Irv’s was closed with a Merry X-Mas sign on the door nd Don and Bob’s had several tako-out customers.
We followed my aunt and Gram over the narrow wooden bridge and past a marina and turned right into the Spengler’s driveway. We got out of the car and went into the house. Gram was with her friend, Grandma Spengler, and I went over and said hello and got a big hug. Then I met Mr. and Mrs. Spengler and shook their hands. They were very nice, friendly people and they said I should meet their son Billy. They called upstairs for Billy to come down and he yelled back firmly that he was busy and that I should come upstairs to see him.
I climbed the stairs and found Billy in his room sitting at a desk. Strewn across his bed were various opened Christmas presents with wrapping paper. Billy was holding the last unopened Christmas present. It was long and thin. He asked if I’d like to see what his Dad had given him. I said ‘sure’ and ‘everyone knew there wasn’t a Santa Claus’.
He took off the red and green paper with reindeer revealing a Red Ryder Daisy BB gun.
He said now he could be just like Chuck Connors from the Rifleman. He told me that show and Have Gun Will Travel were his favorite shows on tv and asked me what mine were. Billy was intense and serious so I didn’t want to say I still watched Saturday morning cartoons. To sound cool I told him my favorite show was The Twilight Zone and to give it some edge I said my uncle from Delaware wouldn’t let me watch it when I stayed with him. I told him one of my favorite places was the Webster Public Library and that I loved looking around taking out the interesting books there. I had taken out an art book numerous times which had beautiful pictures by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. I would stare endlessly in disbelief at the painting’s incredible detail and fantastic imagination it revealed.
My dad was in the Air Force in World War II and I had a strong interest in aviation. I told Billy there was a book that illustrated every plane of every country used in World War II. The pictures were line drawings of the plane’s side view. In the German section was a large jet bomber with four engines and swept forward wings!
Billy said he liked that stuff too. He pulled out a library book from his desk drawer and opened it, flipping the pages to show me the photos. It was a book of secret German jets and rockets. One of the photos was very striking and he stopped so I could take it in. It was a photo of a bizarre winged V-2 rocket.
Seeing my amazed reaction Billy asked if I would like the picture. Before I could reply Billy took out a razor blade from the desk’s top drawer and sliced the page out of the book and handed it to me. At the same time he took out an envelope of his Catholic School portraits and gave me one of the miniatures.
At this time my parents called up and told me it was time to go. Billy wrote his phone number on his photo and I promised to call him soon…to be continued
Professor G.A. Cribari is a science fiction writer, raconteur, cosmologist, sommelier, and independent historian – among other things. He lives in Center City.