Hide! Here Comes a Car!

We lived in a country area on Long Island (NY) from 1948 to 1957. It was and is still called Lloyd Neck or Lloyd’s Neck depending on which map you are looking at. There were huge estates on the Neck: Marshall Fields’, Mrs. Willis D. Wood, the Eberstadts (Target Rock) and a few others much smaller. Our place was 10+ acres which was gigantic to me but not like those other giants before property taxes turned the tide and jammed the not-quite quietus into the gizzard of the Gilded Age.

Marshall Fields’ Estate was a replica of a small English country town with individual homes for the families of his footmen, his chauffeurs, his dairymen, maids, guest homes, etc. Most of my playmates and schoolmates at Lloyd Harbor School were the children of his employees. His Caumsett Farms was a working dairy which did not exactly sell its fresh gallons at the Local A&P. I have no idea where all the milk went. It was a wealthy man’s hobby. It is all now this: http://www.nysparks.com/parks/23/details.aspx The homes of my pals are gone, turned into a parking lot.

Mrs. Wood’s Estate centered around a very large British-built fort and hundreds of acres and houses and converted stables and squash courts and ponds, and forest. There were stately homes all around, rented out by Mrs. Wood, a lovely old lady who took great pride in skippering her Atlantic sailboat in as many races as she could. When I was 10 I guessed she was about 90, but she could have been anywhere from 65 to 120 for all I knew. She had a limousine (a Buick I suspect—Cadillacs were tacky in that age) that had a small silver lamp on top (just an inch or two high) with a blue lamp, making it very special.

I have been told that her huge front lawn where my best friend Johnny and I played for hours was bought by Billy Joel where he built his house in the 70’s?

I don’t know if any of us in the under 15 set had a clue how graced, gifted and downright lucky we were to be living there at that time. The only two bad things that happened while we lived on Lloyd Neck (I mean really publicly bad that we knew about—I am sure there were all sorts of horrific things of a more personal nature—) were one, Maria A. dying of Lumbar Polio in 1950(?) and somewhere in there Allen Dulles’ Summer home burning down in a huge fire that was so big we could all get phone calls and drive over to watch it. (I don’t think any of us knew what a stinker he would turn out to be historically.)

Henry Fonda and his family lived on Lloyd Neck for two summers—once out near our house on the road up to the Eberstadts’ and once in another house down the road past Mrs. Wood’s. And my mother said Ogden Nash had a summer cottage with a tree house where he could sit and write funny verse. I never saw him. But Peter Fonda and I were great pals those couple of years. Oh, and Kent Smith spent a summer there too.

I was not exactly a student of sociology when I was in my youth and so I lived each year as it came along, paying little attention to the huge disparities between the salaries of some of our fathers and the fathers of our playmates who worked for Mrs. Wood or Marshall Field or Sir Ronald Tree, etc. I mean I knew we had more and better stuff and owned our house, but the subject rarely came up in the 3rd through the 7th grades while we went from playing soldiers and cowboys and explorers in the endless tracts of forest to chasing the Caumsett cows around with dreams of turning their milk green. We were more or less equals who laughed, played, giggled, and rolled down green hills that were literally covered in daffodils. We played on the same soccer, basketball and softball teams. We suffered the same insults from Mrs. Suydam, our teacher for the 3rd AND(!) the 4th grades. She did not go easy on the wealthier, better dressed children in her rooms. She made us all feel small except for the twins who were brilliant and, I reckon in retrospect, middle class.

The kids’ games moved on to other, older things and that is where life stuff got trickier. Some of us belonged to The Lloyd Neck Bath Club which was one of many dividing lines. Paddleball courts and swimming lessons and organized play cost lots of money that we apparently had because my father disappeared into New York City every morning. Some of us had fathers who owned sailboats and belonged to the Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club where we were given tennis lessons and were on Tennis Ladders. But that was the summer, not the school year. During the school year the class divisions didn’t show up so garishly and uncomfortably.

And then, when we began to turn 13 those of us of privilege were taken around to look at boarding schools up north in Connecticut and Massachusetts because that was the deal. Reaching the last two years of Lloyd Harbor School meant soon we might be forced to go on to Toaz Jr. High in Huntington where the pedagogical landscape changed so drastically that it was unheard of for one of “our crowd” to attend. I don’t know any of the children of my parents’ pals who thereupon wound up at Huntington High because H.H. would not have prepared us for Harvard, Yale or Princeton. My sister was already at Radcliffe and my older brother was on the fast track to Harvard. (In 1958 I would go to Yale, the Ivy mixed gender Trifecta—minus Princeton.)

We had no idea that our playmates all knew we would be leaving as soon as the specter of Toaz Junior High came upon the horizon. All the birthday parties, the dances, the Halloween contests, Cub and Boy Scouts and tag games in the woods had a shelf life because that was just the way it was. We would all disappear, leaving our pals of so many years to paddle alone against the sociological tide or surf to happier destinies with lower targets. It just never occurred to me to forecast the dramatically uncomfortable tectonic shift that would sunder us. (Had I gone to Toaz I would never have been able to write the word “sunder’ with a straight face.) I didn’t know that I would be so busy trying to fit into boarding school life that I would shittily forget the pals I left behind. That I would find them less than thrilled to see me return for limited personal appearances at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Summer.

I should have been really really bothered but my parents had taught me from the ground up that this was the way life was. I might think it unfair or wrong but… There were inalterable classes of society and only a few upstarts rose above their upraising. Q.E.D.: the world was an orderly place and there was no point in swimming against the tide. (Let us not forget that both our parents were born before 1913 in New Orleans, Louisiana. They grew up with Prohibition, legalized racism, lynching and The Klan, though my father assured us no one in our family were ever Klansmen. Our folks assumed that each race was good at something and should pretty much stay at their present skill levels.) We were in The New York Social Register and that carried with it unwritten rules for conduct and lots of hiding family skeletons.
TO BE CONTINUED….

OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

The great and hugely original Jonathan Winters used to do a bit he called his vest pocket Broadway musical. It was a deliciously loving one man send-up of musicals of the 40’s and 50’s with a male lead who sounded like John Raitt on steroids. This All-American butch leading man was a farm boy who dreamed (musically) of going to the big city where he’d get a job at an aircraft factory. “Why, I’ll work on a plane that’s already finished,” Winters cooed. His aria promised he’d have a stamp pad and put a stamp on the aluminum and send the bird up into the sky.

Something in my crazy adolescent brain loved the idea of working on a project that was already finished. As a result, much of my adult life was spent learning over and over again that nobody would ever pay me to pretend to work on something other people had already made.

The big writers, millionaires, entrepreneurs and movie stars of my youth were all grownups, most of whom had spent years as apprentices, working their way up the stairway to career heaven. Very few of them worked on planes that were already finished.

Sad to say, the last 20 years or so have seen the old system turned on its head. Evidently the youth market has gobbled up movies, music, electronics, and publishing to the point where it appears that some kings and queens of stardom are making Jonathan Winters’ dream come true. Heaven forefend that I resent the apparently foreshortened path Lindsay Lohan took in a Jetstream-fueled version of Judy Garland’s sad trajectory….

But, as I scan the culture at large, I sense a widespread youth assumption that stardom and billionaireness is one 8×10 glossy or one improvised hip-hop poem or IPhone app away from anyone. (Shades of the old myth that any child can grow up to be President.) Law school grads want six figures to start, tall high-schoolers go to sleep dreaming of multi million dollar graduation presents from the NBA, and anyone who doesn’t run a major TV network by age 30 is a failure.

In some ways I guess my childhood friend Peter Fonda was in on the ground floor of the revolution with his pal Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider– an indie smash that heralded phase one of the grownups asking (instead of telling) the kids what was going to be a hit….

I wish these early bloomers, as my late mom would have called them, would stop making it look so easy, giving their peers and younger fans the mistaken impression that learning the craft (whatever it might be), making loads of mistakes, working like a mad demon, failing in public, and internalizing a host of unknowables, can be skipped.

But, then, I was told many years ago that any sentence that begins with the words “I wish” was the height of immaturity.

I still have a lot of growing up to do.

Evidently.