Niagara Gazette

August 21, 2013

BRADBERRY: Remembering the summer of '63

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It was nearly the end of summer, 1963.

News of the planned March on Washington had re-awakened my curiosity about my condition, my freedom to do, to have, to expect more than I had.

I was 16 years old; like the season, my youth was drawing to a close just as everything I thought I knew was changing; Michael Debakey implanted an artificial heart in a human, the Supreme Court ruled that the public schools could no longer require the recitation of Lords Prayer, Pope John XXIII died, and within months, the President of the United States would be assassinated.

Reflecting on what I recall as the final days of my innocent youth, those blissful years before everything suddenly changed, I like to remember to truly good times with my best friend, Tommy.

I remember it as if it was yesterday, but it was more than 50 years ago, Tommy and I had decided two years earlier to run away; we wanted to seek adventure, to save the world; after almost two summers of planning, mapping and packing, it was time.

Our Boy Scout knapsacks filled to capacity, our stomachs full of Spam and peanut butter, we were ready to head off into the wild gray yonder.

It was dangerous stuff for sure, we determined; coming close to putting our eyes out, a fear that we had all been brought up to believe would be the certain result of defying our parents most dire warnings.

But we were protected.

Around our necks we wore cloth scapulars with pictures of saints, blessed by the Monsignor Ormsby himself, and sold directly to us for less than a dollar each by the Sister Marys. We were immune to danger, we could not die, we had rosaries around our necks and St. Christopher medals in our pockets.

Factory explosions were common to us. The hot, heavy summer air, thick with burnt chemical ashes and diamond-hard grit permanently stained Mom ‘s clean white sheets as well as our young lungs as we hung out in our backyards, oblivious to the damage to our health which, for some of us would become perfectly obvious decades later, too late to avoid, too late to fix.

Our long hot Kool Aid chilled summer days were regularly marked by the wail of screaming sirens plodding down 24th Street on their way to Buffalo Avenue, their courageous firemen hanging casually on as the trucks.

Sometimes, they’d come right down our street. The noise was exciting. The flashing lights and flurry of people from the surrounding neighborhoods gave us a morbid sense of festivity. Seeing the evacuated men dazed and half-conscious, oxygen masks dangling from their heads, became an almost daily event that we looked forward to, childishly unaware of the seriousness of the situation and the mens’ injuries.

It was the ‘60s; the world was changing faster than ever before. Up until then, Mustangs were horses, Beatles were bugs, and girls were silly.

Tommy and I had begun to lose interest in shooting marbles and other childish games as our fascination with cars, music and girls grew stronger by the hour.

I even let my baby brother, David have my collection, including my prized cat-eye, which my sister Linda had swallowed the year before. I had braved the indignity of retrieving it. Somehow, having completely passed all the way through her digestive system, it had picked up what I considered near magical game-winning powers, and thus it became one of my prize possessions before I ceremoniously handed it to him with a stern warning to keep it and all marbles away from Linda and to never put that one in his mouth!

I even gave away my Superman and Archie comic books, the whole collection! I traded my baseball cards and stacks of Bazooka gum wrapper “funnies” for a cookout kit and a can of Sterno from an enterprising Polish kid who went to Saint Stanislaus School.

We had formed a solid business alliance. I sold to him used “autographed” prayer books, Bibles (signed by the Pope for an extra 50 cents), and other paraphernalia that I found in the lost-and-found room at the back of the Our Lady of the Rosary Church; in turn, he sold to me all kinds of goodies he found in his Dad’s garage.

Tommy and I had no idea how differently things would turn out when we finally set out early one morning headed for the Grand Island Bridge on our way to the future.

We did not get far, in fact we made it back home before dark without anyone noticing that we had left, but the long walk and our very long talks along the way made me more determined than ever to try to get to the March on Washington by August 28, 1963.

Contact Bill Bradberry at bill.bradberry@yahoo.com