Easter Bonnet Blues

In the green and sun-dappled spring of my youth, Good Friday had a quiet reverence and still holiness that, to me, surpassed Easter itself. On Good Friday there were no cuddly bunnies or fuzzy yellow chicks or baskets of eggs and candy or stiff new clothes — Good Friday was about agony and death.


For the faithful, the hours from noon until three o’clock were spent in church on Good Friday, pondering Jesus’ sacrifice. Dr. Henry, the frock-coated minister at the First Methodist Church in our small South Jersey town, preached a clear and stinging message of Our Lord’s humiliation and death-by-torture throughout the three hours Christ hung on his Calvary cross. The minutes from noon until three o’clock ticked and echoed in a sacred hush that seem to flow out of the church doors and permeate the town itself.


Inside, Dr. Henry preached a bit more, and then rested, bowing his head in reverence and the fatigue of holy knowledge, while the massive organ played soft chords and the slanting rays of the sailing sun bathed the pulpit in a red glow through the stained glass window at his back.


Afterwards, blinking in the afternoon brightness, we silently filed out and went back to our daily lives.  Westcott’s Oyster House was crowded with churchgoers picking up large white bags of seafood for their evening meal. Greetings there were low, almost shy, the somber hours in church still with us.


Easter Sunday was given to the hosannas and hallelujahs of resurrection and the discovery of pastel eggs and chocolate bunnies in gay straw baskets. Easter Sunday was the donning of new outfits from head to toe. My greatest Easter outfit came from Robert Hall in Camden. Robert Hall was a chain of discount clothiers that featured what seemed to be acres of well-made clothes at decent prices, displayed on utilitarian pipe racks. The motto at Robert Hall  was “low overhead means low prices” and their bones were indeed bare.


This particular Robert Hall was later the scene of one of the great debacles of my youth. It was at Eleventh Street and Newton Avenue behind the Sears on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden. It was also across the street from my father’s  business, Old Reliable Supply and Equipment Company, named after the great Yankee righfielder, Tommy “Old Reliable” Henrich.


The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at Old Reliable, doing odd jobs and making deliveries in the pickup truck. One hot afternoon, my father told me to clean up the eyesore of a lot that adjoined the building. It was ugly: old tires, rusted shopping carts, and a waist-high tangle of nasty, prickly weeds and undergrowth that would have to be scythed down by hand in the summer heat. My father said to burn what trash was flammable and throw the rest out, and then left on a sales call. So I started a small fire, and began to hack at the small jungle, sweating and itching from the pollen-rich dust I was kicking up. I kept an eye that the fire didn’t spread, but then in the back of my mind I began to see that the fire would get rid of the thicket a lot faster and easier than I ever could. So when a small spark was blown onto the lot I let it go, thinking I could somehow control the fire as it did my work for me. Maybe, but not after a hot summer wind came whipping in and fanned the fire to every corner of the lot, flames roaring and snapping and big clouds of white smoke billowing all around – until they were blown almost miraculously into the open doors of Robert Hall and the customers and sales people came streaming out, choking and sputtering. The manager slammed the doors shut and came tearing over, screaming for someone to call the fire department.


My father actually followed the fire engines to the office on the return from his sales call, and it was all he could do to keep the Robert Hall manager from calling the cops on me while the firemen brought the blaze under control. When a fireman told my father that the paint had peeled from some of the cars parked near the lot, I thought he handled it pretty well. Thank God for insurance.


I was 14 when I got my finest Easter outfit at Robert Hall: a tan glen plaid double-breasted suit, blinding white shirt and a dark green silk tie with the hand-painted head of a horse on it. Hand-painted ties were very big back then. I had another one that had a picture of a man-of-war in full sail, and yet another that was the king of all hand-painted ties because it looked like the artist’s paint rag, a riot of colors and shapes all swirled and mixed in what was actually a very fetching fashion. Too sexy for Easter, though.


Easter at the First Methodist Church was glad rags and hand bags; everyone from the littlest kid in the nursery department to the hoariest member of the seniors section was decked out in creaking-new finery, head to foot. It was our Easter Parade, and we preened and strutted within the bounds of Christian modesty, and there was usually a consensus among the fashion conscious of who had the best outfits.


I was still wearing my new Robert Hall Easter suit after church and Sunday school, when my friend Burton Marles and I walked down by the creek on the way home to smoke some of the Lucky Strikes he had pinched from his father. It was a glorious day, the sun bright and the air soft and laden with the new smells of grass and buds and the life starting to stir in the water. The world was sweet with resurrection.


We walked and smoked and horsed around in the edgy way of boys, not fully trusting  each other in our budding strength and manhood, testing each other with jabs and shoves every so often.


Presently we came upon a fisherman, crouched intently over his rod, peering into the water. It was a kid our age, Eugene “Oogie” Orowitz, who would later become the actor Michael Landon, and who lived in a handsome brick house on the drive that curved along the creek. He looked around, gestured for us to be quiet, and pointed into the water. The biggest golden carp I had ever seen was hovering near the bottom, just about to take the sunfish that Oogie was using for bait. Closer and closer the giant carp inched, while the three of us remained transfixed at the unfolding drama. Then, suddenly, silent and sinister, a black water snake came curling along the creek’s surface close to the bank where we were standing. When we looked back down, the monster carp was gone.


Oogie let out a roar of anger and hefted a nearby log over his head and sprinted along the bank until he caught up to the offending snake and then slammed the log down on it, dashing its head open while the body flopped and squirmed in the water for a few seconds and then the whole mess floated off downstream. Satisfied, Oogie went back to his fishing. There must have been some kind of religious significance in a Jewish kid bashing a serpent on Easter Sunday.


When I was 16, I didn’t get what would have turned out to be my last Easter suit as the result of an adventure on Philadelphia’s South Street. The hippest street in town at that time was chockablock with men’s clothiers like the legendary Krass Bros., where Benny Krass practically invented the ten-second commercial with memorable rejoinders like “If you didn’t buy your suit at Krass Bros., you wuz robbed!”


Shopping on South Street was indeed an adventure then. The clothing salesmen hung in front of their stores, sizing up passersby, and when they saw a hot prospect they’d strike, actually steering the mark into the store by the arm, all the way keeping up a steady stream of salesmen’s patois about the wonderful clothing that was in store just inside the door.


This Saturday afternoon, we took our business to the whimsically-named Big-Hearted Jim’s when we knew the store would be crowded. This venture involved me and two associates, and our business was definitely of the monkey variety. The one kid’s father had a tailor shop, and our plan was that we would triple-team the salesman: my buddies would keep “our” salesman busy while I surreptitiously picked out the suit I wanted and put a slit in the lining with a razor blade I had in my pocket. Then I would mosey around some more and make my way back to that suit and indicate I wanted it. On the way to the changing room, I would notice the slit and bring it to the salesman’s attention, who would hopefully give me a discount for the imperfection and even have it stitched up while they did the alterations. If they didn’t mend it, my pal’s father the tailor would. My boys told me they’d pulled this caper a couple times already at other stores on South Street and it had worked like a charm: they’d gotten $10 off at one store and $15 at another.


They should have called that store Big-Eyed Jim’s instead of Big-Hearted Jim’s because I never got to make my move. Maybe the other places where my friends had pulled the scam before had put out the word, but everywhere I went someone was not too subtly watching me. Finally, disgusted, I shrugged to my buddies and we left. On our way out, the salesman caught my eye, winked, and said, “Happy Easter.”


Easter that year was rainy and chilly, but my father nonetheless piled us all into the car after church for our annual Easter drive to the shore. When we moaned about the bad weather, he said, “It’ll probably be sunny down the shore,” which turned our moaning to hoots of derision and disbelief.


We rode through the rainy streets of Wildwood, still chiding my father for the weather, but he was always happy at the shore and just smiled. “Those people don’t care,” he said, pointing to the boardwalk where we could see people in their Easter duds strolling along, albeit hunched into the wind and rain under umbrellas.


As we made the turn to go over the Great Channel bridge into Stone Harbor, the sky began to lighten as if a curtain was being pulled back and suddenly the sun was shining in all its glory and the clouds fleeing out to sea. It was like the first day of creation. Then, before our eyes, faintly at first, and then with the majesty and clarity only nature can provide,  a rainbow etched itself into the sky, its awesome arc bending from island to island like a bridge made of softly dazzling lights. My father pulled over and we all just sat and looked, rapt. Other cars pulled up. Presently people began to get out and line the berm under the warming sun. Everyone was smiling up at the rainbow and some of the little kids were pointing at it.


“Easter colors, mommy!” a little girl called. “God painted the sky with Easter colors!”


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