Part Two: Growing Old In Newtown

In my column last week, I shared some excerpts from my autobiographical book, Growing Old in Newtown. In this week’s column, I will continue what I started last week by sharing some selective and very memorable episodes of my upbringing. These amazing events are just as hilarious to me today as they were when they actually took place many decades ago.

The Sweet Tooth, the Toothache, and the Torture: The Night Big Dave Cried Like a Baby
My brother David, being the oldest, had certain responsibilities and privileges that none of the rest of us had. He was the next person in the hierarchy after my father and mother. It was an established rule that when they were not there, he was in charge, and everyone accepted that without any challenge or defiance. Even Marvin, who was three years younger and the next after David. gave homage to him as the elder brother. During the Christmas season, especially after Christmas Day, when many of the cakes had already been sliced into, Big Dave became the enforcer and the one who would allot how much everyone else could eat. He kept a close watch on the cakes and at times would even hide some. There was just one problem that he had to contend with. Despite all of his vigilance and careful effort to hide the cakes from everybody else, he could not hide the cakes from himself. Big Dave had an insatiable sweet tooth, and he would sneak and eat portions of the cakes, thinking that no one knew what he was doing. Of course, we did and caught him a few times red-handed. He would deny it was cake that he was eating and would artfully dispute us. However, he would eventually pay the penalty for lying. One night during the holidays just before New Year’s, everyone in the family was sound asleep. Suddenly we were awakened by terrible crying and groans. I knew it was Big Dave! His chickens had come to roost, but I felt sorry for him. Though he was the oldest, he cried and groaned worse than an infant baby. His sweet tooth had a cavity too! He agonized until no one could get any sleep. I remember my father yelling out, “Boy, go get some of that liniment out of the loft and put it on that tooth!” He quickly did what my father said, but it did not quickly ease the pain of the toothache. His cries into the early morning were so intense that I overheard my mother tell my father, “Jim, when morning comes, you are going to take my son to the doctor!” He did not challenge her idea (though he was from the old school and did not believe in going to the doctor unless it was absolutely necessary). The liniment helped Dave to stop groaning, and I was able to finally resume my sleep. However, I could not help but chuckle a little bit. After all, if he had not been so greedy—

The Fool on the Roof
As a young boy, I was always fascinated by drama whether it came from the pages of literature, the cinema, or television media. I would often find myself living vicariously through many of these fictional characters. To me, a good story starts with a great title. Take for instance the title Fiddler on the Roof. When I thought of a heading for this particular real-life incident that unfolded in my life when I was eight years of age, the reference Fiddler on the Roof struck me as very appropriate except for one slight, obvious change that defines the leading character in this drama. In an earlier chapter, I introduced you to Puny (whose real name was Fred Martin, Jr.). His father, Fred Martin, Sr., who was my great-uncle, had passed, and the family was receiving relatives and friends at their home. I was there with my mother. We called such events “the sitting up,” pronounced “setting” because folks would gather to sit, talk, and reminisce about the deceased. Daylight had given place to an eerie and thick darkness. As everyone sat in various parts of the house, there came a sudden and ghostly sound from the roof like the steps of a man, and the noise sent a wave of fear and horror throughout the entire place. Back then people were far more superstitious of the unknown than they are today. Things like ghosts and haunts (pronounced “haints”) were more believable, and the lack of outdoor lighting made them seem more real. My poor Aunt Mae, the wife of the deceased, was horrified. As the sound from the roof continued, a morbid sense of dread paralyzed the entire house. Finally, someone got up enough nerve to go out and investigate this bizarre phenomenon.
Was it the ghost of Uncle Fred? And if it was, why had he come back to haunt and scare us like that? Who would be next? Preston, my cousin, was bold enough to go outside. He looked up on the roof, and a very familiar face greeted him. It was his own brother, Benny, a renowned prankster, who was perpetrating this horrible and very coldhearted stunt. He showed no respect for the dead and no regard for the living. He was the one who would be remembered as a blooming idiot, the fool on the roof.

The Night
the Black Cat Defeated Mighty Mouse
A very bizarre incident transpired one day not long after midnight on Lucius Road. We had a black cat that had taken up at our house as a kitten. He was a tomcat and was one of the best pets we ever had. We did not give him a name. We simply called him the Black Cat. He was a prolific mouse killer. Before his arrival we had a serious infestation of rats in spite of all the traps and bait that we had put out. However, once he arrived and grew up, he became a living terror to these varmints who up till then would bite into and nibble off everything edible, leaving their filthy droppings everywhere. Though he did not exterminate all of them, he greatly decreased their annoying numbers. Nevertheless, after some time there appeared another rat in our house. This one was bigger and more destructive than any before him. Perhaps he came from the nearby woods or from beneath the wood pile, where rats often lived. He was nocturnal, a creature of the night that would intrude into our house in the late hours and early hours of the morning. Though we all had seen evidence of his presence, few had actually seen the beast. He made his entry during seasons when the black cat, being a tom, spent more and more time away from our house in pursuit of mating. So, while the cat was away, this wood rat had his run of the place. My father went through the expense and effort of setting a special large metal trap that proved to be useless. The rat would never take the bait. Somehow, he instinctively knew it was a trap. He eluded all our efforts to catch or kill him for a long time. Then his luck ran out. One night sometime after midnight our feline guardian abruptly appeared after he had been absent for many days. Call it fate. Call it an answer to prayers. Whatever you call it, it happened at the perfect time. He came face-to-face with this oversized wood rat, which was nearly as big as he was, and the fight of the decade was on. It was a battle between the species, a survival of the fittest. The clamor of their snarling, scratching, and tearing into each other’s flesh rang for some time. None of us dared to intervene in this life-and-death struggle as we heard them fighting. We knew that the black cat had returned, and we all hoped and prayed that he would be the victor.
When the noise of the battle finally ceased, and the family was able to fall asleep, I was eager for the morning to arrive to see who had actually won the battle. When the light of the sun awakened us, we hurried to inspect the battle site. To our utter amazement, we could not tell which of the two combatants had died. There were scattered pieces of flesh, guts, and hair lying upon the floor. I remember my father saying, “I can’t tell who won the fight or whether these are the remains of the cat or the rat.” We were mystified about that fight of fights … until one day after the battle royal the Black Cat showed up. He was battered, bruised, and severely wounded from the fight, but it was him. We should have welcomed him as a returning hero and found a vet to take him to, but we didn’t. He did not live long after that day, but he had done us a great service and defeated a formidable menace. Though his triumph would grow dim in my siblings as they grew older, I would never forget him. I would never forget the night that the Black Cat defeated Mighty Mouse.