King of the Jungle King

jungle king closeup

Sometime soon we’ll be heading down to the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park, N.J., which I just learned has an incredible collection of vintage pinball machines — including Jungle King (!), which devoured untold numbers of my precious quarters and God knows how many hours I should have spent studying at the small university I attended in western New York state.

Best of all, the museum isn’t really a museum! It’s open to the public. For an all-day admission fee of $20, pinball wizards such as myself get to play all day on machines, including the circa-1973 Jungle King!

During the somewhat hazy years I spent barely toiling in the fields of academe, my kingdom was the world of Jungle King. And I was the king of Jungle King.

Here’s what the Silver Ball Museum’s website has to say about Jungle King:

“The object of this game is to win extra balls. This is achieved each time the battery of 10 rollovers is made and then the free ball targets and rollovers light. Making the free ball resets the 10 rollovers once again. Doubling your bonus score when the ball drains is possible if the rollover at the top of the game is made. If you complete all four marked rollovers, the playfield opens the free ball gate and the kickback kicker lane to keep your current ball in play. Score, of course, is another variable in achieving a longer playing game.”

jungle king

Yes, indeed, the skills and thrills of Jungle King revolved around learning the tricks and moves necessary to win extra balls and extra games. I became remarkably adept, after investing many quarters in my Jungle King education and field training, at “catching” the silver balls with the flippers, waiting for the rollovers and targets to light up, and then unleashing a machine-gun-like barrage of pinballs at the free-ball and bonus score targets.

I got to the point where I could make one quarter and one game last for hours. Literally. Free ball after ball. Free game after free game. Setting the “New High Score” and then shattering my own world record (or at least the high-score record for the machine in the college student center).

I think I also remember cheering and adoring crowds, some of them holding up banners, and perhaps even the college’s marching band playing “Pinball Wizard” by The Who…

OK, wait…my college didn’t even have a marching band…maybe my memories have been magnified by the lens of time…On the other hand…

It is beyond dispute that I was the true king of Jungle King. I hereby decree and proclaim to my faithful subjects that sometime in the next few weeks I shall be traveling with the royal entourage to the Shores of Jersey to reclaim my pinball crown and, yes, to take back my rightful kingdom.

Pretenders to the crown, you have been warned.

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“Hair” turns gray-haired

There was a sweet nostalgia and a vague sadness and a squirmy embarrassment — and not a whiff of marijuana — in the air when my very groovy tie-dyed companion and I recently embarked with friends on a mind-blowing, far-out excursion into the Age of Aquarius and a production of the great hippie musical “Hair.”

A little history. When I was 13 years old, I somehow aced the admissions test and was accepted into the ivy-covered embrace of the prestigious Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, N.Y. While I was there, I wore penny loafers and sport jackets with sewn-on elbow patches. And my impressionable mind was shaped not as much by the teachings of Fordham Prep’s Jesuits as by as the happy fact that “The Prep” was located on the campus of Fordham University, where I witnessed demonstrations by the SDS and the Black Panthers, and where I one day wandered into the university bookstore and purchased the first record album I ever owned: The original Broadway cast recording of “Hair.”

Why was “Hair” my first record album? I suppose there was something stirring in my blood, a combination of teenage angst and youthful rebellion and righteous but silent anger and protest at the economic and racial injustices I already sensed in this country (maybe my not-quite-comfortable presence at the still mostly white and still mostly affluent prep school had something to do with this Yonkers boy’s angst). And I know I was very aware of the vague but real prospect of being drafted into the Vietnam War-era military five or six years down life’s road.

But back to the future:
As we sat in a New Jersey theater waiting for the Age of Aquarius to dawn once more, we amused ourselves by checking out the audience and commenting on how OLD many of them were; noted with gladness that at least one-third of the audience looked to be of high-school and college age or a little beyond; and wondered if the young cast of this production of “Hair” would “let the sunshine in” and take off their clothes during the notorious production number at the end of the first act.

Yes, they took off their clothes. And, yes, I enjoyed the show and still liked the music — the title song, “Aquarius,” “Good Morning, Starshine” “Where Do I Go,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “I’ve Got Life” “Frank Mills” “What a Piece of Work Is Man” and “Let the Sunshine In” still have a surprising emotional resonance.

But the audience reaction, at least what I sensed, was disconcerting , a sort of bland, happy-faced, homogenized, weren’t-we-young-and-crazy-and-hip, superficial, Disneyworld, pastel-tinted, self-satisfied response — the hippie generation’s idealism and energy giving way to tired generalities and sappy nostalgia.

Perhaps it’s inevitable….”Give me a head with hair/long, beautiful hair” is now “I used to have hair”…The Age of Aquarius is now the Age of Viagra commercials…”Let the sunshine in” has given way to “Let’s move to retirement community in Florida”…They who were once hippies now get hip replacements.

Maybe Pete Townsend and The Who were on to something when they sang about “My Generation” and Roger Daltrey declared “Hope I die before I get old!” I mean, look at Daltrey now, old and tired and hoarse. Look at the embarrassing and cringe-worthy spectacle as one of the two remaining Beatles — Ringo — walks out on stage and flashes the peace sign and the other surviving Beatle dyes his hair and leads arm-waving, he-used-to-know-better “Hey Jude” audience sing-alongs. Look at the 100-year-old Rolling Stones, looking like they’ve been let out of the crypt for just one more tour.

And look at the world and what things are like more than 45 years after “Hair” opened off Broadway in 1967. War, hatred, poverty and bigotry all survive and even thrive, ”

But there was still something good about seeing “Hair.” It’s hard to define, but maybe that long-haired poet Shakespeare said it best, in the lyrics adapted by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and set to music by Galt MacDermot: “What a piece of work is man…”

TIme and tide

Raritan River in Highland Park
Raritan River near Highland Park, N.J.

I’m down by the river, writing, when I suddenly hear “WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP!”

It’s a man with an eel in his hand. A long slithery, writhing eel. And he’s slamming the thing against a rock. WHOMP!

The river’s the Raritan River, which flows through central New Jersey on its way to Raritan Bay, which connects with both New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, depending on which way one turns at the point where river meets bay.

Route 1 bridge over Raritan River
Route 1 bridge over the Raritan River

It’s very New Jersey. Parts of the Raritan and its tributaries flow through lush countryside and deep dark woods. But the stretch where I’m sitting right now is within sight of a highway bridge which carries Route 1 over the river — Route 1, one of the nation’s busiest and ugliest roads, which runs from Maine all the way to Florida — and within earshot of the continual hum of highway traffic. I’m less than half-mile away from neighborhoods where street gangs rule and gunshots ring out at night. And downstream about a mile are a couple of landfills, including one which is now closed but was a Superfund cleanup site and which once leeched deadly PCBs into this river.

Downstream…but this is a tidal river, part-saltwater and part freshwater, and when the tide is high the water rushes up from there to here, and I think you’d have to be very ignorant or very crazy to eat anything that swims in these waters.

But the guy who just killed the eel says he eats them. He said he also catches catfish and striped bass in this river, and he eats those too.

Me, I prefer to come down here on occasion, not to fish, just to see what there is to see.

I just saw a fish jump out of the water, and there are lots of waterfowl here — Canada geese and ducks, of course, but also herons and egrets and other seashore birds.

And sometimes I get to see the rowing teams from Rutgers University and they glide past in their long and narrow vessels, rowing silently in unison, making hardly a splash, as they navigate between the banks of the old Raritan.

rutgers rowing
Rutgers rowers on the Raritan

All in all, it’s a pleasant place, a surprising oasis in the midst of shopping malls and highways and landfills.
But does that guy have to keep slamming that eel against the rocks?

‘She looks TERRIBLE in that gown!’

I used to be intelligent, maybe even an intellectual. For example, I read James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” while still in college. And I’ve been to several off-Broadway plays.

But now I spend my Friday evenings sitting in front of a television screen watching a program called “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.”

The premise: Young brides-to-be visit bridal-gown shops, one in New York City and one, for some reason, in Atlanta. They bring with them an entourage — best friends, members of the wedding party, mothers, future mothers-in-law, and even the occasional overprotective and prudish father, including one guy who kept saying that a gown his daughter had tried on was “showing too much of her skin.”

Assisted by store staff, the young women try on different dresses, then model them for friends and family who offers their comments and critiques — and catty remarks, insults and even the occasional threat.

And I happily join in:
“She looks awful in that dress!”
“I can’t believe she’s leaning toward the dress with all of those sequins!”
“Is she getting married or going to a costume party?”
“The ‘mermaid’ look just isn’t her. What the hell is she thinking?”

My companion looks at me, wonders whether she’s ruined me forever, then laughs and offers some comment of her own about the overbearing mother or the too-bubbly bride or the members of the bride’s entourage, who often closely resemble a school of barracudas.

I used to watch nothing on TV except PBS and baseball games. Now I watch “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.”

Maybe this either proves or disproves the theory of evolution. Maybe it just says something about the simple pleasure of sitting together and laughing about the latest episode of the human comedy. Maybe I should confess that I’ve also gotten into watching “Something Borrowed, Something New,” in which brides-to-be have to choose between wearing the wedding gown of their dreams – or wearing their mother’s or grandmother’s original wedding gown, altered and updated and tailored to fit a modern bride.

Or maybe I’ll re-read “Finnegan’s Wake” – while watching the next season of “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.”

Garden of life

A song Pete Seeger sings about gardening starts with these words: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make my garden grow, gonna mulch it deep and low, gonna make it fertile ground…” Pete has learned that much of life is about sowing, planting, cultivation, and reaping what ye sow.

I once had a big garden, a good-sized fenced-in plot, and there I grew tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, onions, basil, oregano, bush beans, snow peas, eggplant, carrots, spinach and lettuce. Mixed in with the vegetable beds were patches of wildflowers.

I kept at it for quite a few years, but my digging and weeding and harvesting crew dwindled until it was reduced to one person — me, and I couldn’t handle all of that weeding and maintenance on my own, so gradually the garden plot got smaller and smaller.

Then came a time of great turmoil and great change, and I was uprooted, and I found myself sometimes like a dandelion seed caught up in a gust, like a maple tree’s seed pod helicoptering to who-knows-where and God-knows-what, and the house and its two acres were sold, and for all I know the people who bought the house may now have a horseshoe pit on that rectangular plot where my garden once grew, or maybe they’e simply let it go to weeds and thistles and grasses and brambles.

Recently I have found myself again planting things, albeit on a much smaller scale: two tomato plants, four pepper plants, a couple of basil seedlings. I’ve also dug up a couple of beds for flowers, and I’ve pulled some weeds, and I’ve trimmed and fertilized two old rose bushes, and I’ve planted a few perennials – including an old-fashioned flower called bee balm, which attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and bees.

bee balm and snapdragons
Bee balm and snap dragons await the arrival of hummingbirds and butterflies and bees

It’s been good and familiar, to once more be breathing in the strong aroma of dirt and humus and garden manure, to again be reaching in to mix and blend and break up the soils. Pricking my hands on rosebush thorns. Getting my hands dirty. Looking at the plants every few days and being pleased to see that they’re still alive and have maybe even grown.

Inch by inch. Row by row. Gonna make this garden grow, this garden of delight. It has to do with cultivation — of hope, life and love. It has to do with nurturing and being nurtured. It’s about beauty, and the miracle of things that blossom, and deep gratitude for the things in life that bud and then burst into bloom.