Story Time With Bomb: Long Days and Nervous Nights
Growing up in a relatively small Camden County South Jersey suburb 9 miles outside Center City Philadelphia, my parents both worked full-time while my little sister and I were looked after for quite literally the entire decade of the eighties (into the very early 90’s) before and after school in the approximately 7 AM to 5:30 PM time window during the week at the home of a local Irish Catholic family nearby that boasted ten children.
The mother of this nowadays unfathomable brood one day back in the late 70’s developed a brilliant idea to make some extra scratch on the side by watching other kids (as best you could in those numbers) seeing as how she had already essentially signed up for a life of being around the house watching her own via some off-the-books cash arrangements that today could probably be classified as “Day Care” as well as “Unlicensed”.
However I can say from my own anecdotal evidence and experience having just returned several minutes ago from a 4th of July family party at her youngest son’s house this weekend after 13 years in L.A. and about 36 years after my own dear mother first dropped myself and my infant sister off with this woman who would go on to become both of our second mother for the rest of her natural life prior to passing on two years ago:
There are some important life lessons that help develop your character that really can’t be taught or learned via the awarding of poker chips at Sylvan Learning Center or at that Montessori school where your own little Johnny or Jackie is currently learning to speak French.
This in-my-neighborhood/back-in-my-day quite legendary home was certainly an incubator for many of those alternate types of lessons.
At its peak of profitability and proliferation, in addition to the ten she had could have been I'd guesstimate twenty more children, this continued on for a hazy stretch then settled mostly into a smaller rotation before the end a decade, then eventually once most of the biological ten had already moved out and left the house or were preparing to do so the list of those who were "watched" had been whittled down eventually to just my little sister and I.
I credit that place among others during those formative years for not just building character but also helping to develop my high physical pain threshold since on any given day if I wasn't literally getting my ass kicked, I might be getting knocked around just trying to play football or participate in some of the other activities taking place outside with the bigger/older kids.
You also didn’t even need to be playing or have a stake in any of these games to find yourself victimized by all of this activity and competitive participation taking place around you.
When my own stint began over there at somewhere around age 4, I was too young to actually recall the Dick Vermeil Eagles or the All-Pro linebacker that led the Eagles’ defense to a 1980 Super Bowl before retiring following the Birds’ rise to the mountaintop (or a Super Bowl appearance, which remains to date the Philadelphia Eagle version of it) but I was made acutely aware of his existence especially on those occasions when I didn’t see it coming.
In fact, up until I was maybe 9 or 10 I had thought his last name was an actual English word you might have found in the dictionary if you are so inclined (my nephew at six probably would now have already been able to dispel this myth with a Google search). Bergy was a term that could be synonymous with being tackled because any time you heard someone call out “BERGY!” it was usually too late to slide or duck out of the way and your fate had been sealed while you were soon finding your body jarred in one direction or another while being hopefully solo-tackled to the grass out in the backyard or even more fortuitously onto one of the carpets or couches in the front room.
In this place, you were either getting Bergy-ied or doing the Bergy-ing. Meanwhile the gathered throng watched and someone would always be providing the play-by-play call for the rest of y’all.
While gaining membership into this rowdy flock could at times get rough, once earned this membership most certainly had its privileges. Because once you had done your penance to prove your salt and were down with the largest, toughest family in the neighborhood? It was a little like being in the mafia. We were now protected. Even all the older, bigger kids in our public school system knew that messing with me came with repercussions.
The family, within confines of home or in one of the adjoining yards along with the driveway where the basketball hoop hung, were allowed to whip my ass whenever it was deemed necessary. But nobody else in school from elementary through high school could.
So once our feet crossed the sidewalk outside of those home areas in any further direction, you didn’t want any problems. Because if I couldn’t handle you on my own first if any foe and I fought the fair one, then please believe, things would be getting unfair for you sometime in the very near future.
The benefit of the above really can’t be overstated, while as for all the tackling and the scrapping back at the house, there were even some other drawbacks beyond bruises:
Working a paper route I never saw a dime from, one fateful day I decided to go on strike to protest these unfair labor practices, this decision quickly resulted in me making a cherry snow cone in the cold ground via my nose for skipping that day's work on a snow-filled day off from school in order to chill and make snow angels in the front yard with the youngest daughter of the clan.
Perhaps it was that day when I learned that negotiation can be painful and any truly satisfying compromise can rarely be reached without a bit of sacrifice.
I also probably (no, let’s go with definitely) never would have become an altar boy at the Catholic church up the street if I hadn't been walking home from school late that one day without my usual trip to pick my sister up from kindergarten a few blocks beforehand, just as their youngest son was walking up the block heading up the block walking back in the opposite direction and then said "come on, my mom says our alter boy training starting in ten minutes" all while wanting a partner-in-crime and being as previously mentioned a fairly notoriously tough negotiator.
Then there was the time back in the school year of 1985 over a few particularly memorable series of weeks in which a rock band called The Hooters had been offered through 93.33 WMMR FM in Philadelphia to play a concert at the high school that won the radio-station contest.
While this prospect certainly paled in comparison to that random girl in Wyoming that had won the big contest MTV was offering at the time (bringing Prince & The Revolution to your town as a special guest of the winner with a limo ride to the gig with the full band Prince included at the apex of his post-'Purple Rain' fame) it was still being billed locally as a contest of much import as a result of The Hooters primarily building their incredibly lame band name in Philly clubs before inking a major label deal with marketing push that led to three or four hit singles and MTV rotation. Not to mention they had already before their major-label debut had much recent success writing plus playing on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘She’s So Unusual’ an album (Time After Time among them) which for a brief moment had put the funny-talking Queens native Cyndi (managed by Captain Lou Albano) into position to be neck-and-neck with Madonna in terms of pop success.
The radio contest consisted of writing '*Insert Local Philly/South Jersey High School Here*/WMMR ROCKS WITH THE HOOTERS' on 8'x10" index cards as many times as possible, in the end the high school with the highest count of bags/boxes/stacks of index cards with that slogan won the rights for The Hooters to perform at their high school.
Now our high school was 550 kids. Competing against schools like Central Bucks West in Doylestown or North Penn in Lansdale or Shawnee or Lenape in South Jersey, all of which had at least three or four thousand students themselves if not more.
To put it bluntly there was no way we were winning that shit.
But those long odds didn't matter over on Hopkins Avenue.
And so we were quickly put to work like children in Southeast Asian brand-name sneaker factories.
Every waking moment spent when I was not in school, sleeping or mercifully home with my parents during that stretch there was my little sister, myself and every non-high-school-attending-child/cousin/neighborhood-friend of the family sitting around the dining room table with WMMR on the radio scrawling ‘HMHS AND WMMR ROCKS WITH THE HOOTERS' on little yellow cards in black marker, even past the point when you're hands or elbows cramped up.
Kids were actually crying in protest, the promotion on the radio was incessant, the 'All You Zombies' single started to take on a nefarious connotation in my 9-year-old mind (my poor sister was only six so hopefully she was less willing or able to reflect on these themes back then as a result) while I looked around at us kids hunched over the table usually in the dining room that we never saw anyone actually use to eat at armed with Sharpies in our hands while the big kids made their rounds taking turns observing our work flow.
To this day I cannot hear that song today without experiencing PTSD or mental teleportation of sorts traveling back to that moment in mind, it's funny now but for the month that it was going on I was wishing that band (along with a slew of other people and things) had never existed.
And in the end to no one's surprise of course our high school didn't win, all this despite the dogged efforts of our makeshift sweatshop.
I didn't even find out that North Penn ended up winning the thing until about 20 years later when the conversation somehow organically came up on the message boards of a Philly group who now loom larger in terms of cultural impact. This for any wondering or unfamiliar being The Legendary Roots Crew on their online home founded in 1999 by Questlove & Angela Nissell filled with like-minded artists, taste-makers, die-hard faithful fans and skilled internet haters known as Okayplayer.
Perhaps in part due to the sweat equity carved out around that dining room table filled with kids not yet tall enough to ride even with guardian along the Lightning Loops roller coaster at Six Flags' Great Adventure, Tommy Conwell & The Young Rumblers brought themselves plus their one modest local rock-radio hit single (I'm Not Your Man) to the high school HMHS football field over the following summer. Then again maybe this booking was instead just the perfect marriage of mutual desperation between a group of scuffling pub-rockers trying to make it and budget planners from our local public Board of Education trying to do the same.
Either way, by a year later my right hand had long since stopped cramping and so the Young Rumblers would go on to become the first concert let alone rock & roll show that I ever witnessed and hey, we all gotta start somewhere.
When you're trying to find your way in a crowded house, you learn to be grateful for whatever you get, figure out how to function as a member of the team (unless you're ready to deal with the ramifications) and also never bother to do the math or run the data on the odds of arriving at a successful outcome, just be ready to dig in knowing your hands might get dirty.
And from my perspective any and all of those lessons are still far better to be learned taking those initial hits because they will hurt far less physically, mentally or emotionally at 9 or 10 than they will at 30.
Just keep your head on a swivel and then watch out for the Bergy.