FRESH YARN presents:
It was Labor Day weekend, 1977. I should have been in our rickety above ground swimming pool. I was avoiding it because my mom was in there, waiting. She was trying to toughen me up for second grade and always wanted to play "The Dunking Game." I had just flunked another swimming class at the Scranton YMCA and had been told in Catechism class that you could drown in a bathtub, so I stayed inside the house fetching beers for my Irish uncles.
and Uncle Paulie sold Hart Schaffner and Marx suits to the doctors and
lawyers in town, so they always dressed "sharp." Uncle Frankie
was a mechanic and looked just like Frank Sinatra. Everybody said so.
They were my Rat Pack and I was their mascot. Since I was half Italian,
they liked to call me "the little spaghetti bender." My uncles
all shared a casino-flavored wit that was informed by occasional visits
to Atlantic City to see Don Rickles.
This was a little confusing. During my first few Telethons I was under the impression that Jerry Lewis had personally sired an entire generation of cripples. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and Ed McMahon were like the cripples' doting uncles who liked to tip a few. But even after I figured out that Jerry's Kids were not actually Jerry's kids, the telethon was still my favorite show ever.
"The tele-ton" they all used to call it. My family has a few of these special pronunciations. The consonant blend "th" that is lost from "teleton" is recovered in the mispronunciation of the word "phanthom." Inexplicably, the word souvenir becomes "silveneer" in the family dialect. So my mother might say, "Instead of watching the teleton this year we went to see The Phanthom of the Opera and shopped for silveneers."
sit around and watch the teleton all through that long weekend. Top drawer
entertainment all in one variety show live from Las Vegas. And those heart
rending stories of the children in wheelchairs. First you would see the
video presentation of a crippled boy in the middle of a large green field
as a voice-over of his parents would play. They would talk about how Tommy
couldn't run and play like the other kids. Wheelchair Tommy was laughing
in the field as butterflies flitted into the frame. He was lit softly,
like an aging diva. Then we would be back in Vegas, on stage with Jerry
and there was Tommy wheeling out to meet him. Tearing up, Jerry would
lean down to hug Tommy with one arm as he held the microphone in the other
hand. Jerry never broke eye contact with the audience, offering up his
face as the conduit of pathos we had come to rely upon every September.
Then he would snap to attention and madly yell, "Tympani!" which
meant that he wanted a drum roll which meant that he wanted Ed McMahon
to read the new total of money raised for his kids. The total appeared
on a glittery scoreboard where the numbers would fly around until they
arrived at the appropriate destination. Like a slot machine.
We never gave any money. In my family we took the adage "Charity begins at home" to the next level. Charity began and ended at home for us. The one exception to this that I remember was that Labor Day weekend when I was seven. My parents dragged me away from the television and took me to the Muscular Dystrophy Carnival. This was an event run by WNEP TV 16 -- The News Station, the Northeastern Pennsylvania affiliate of The Love Network. The Carnival took place in open fields near Avoca International Airport. It was quite a scene there near the runways. There were throngs of people playing games and riding rides and eating fun foods like funnel cake which we all called Pizza Frite. And all of the money went to Jerry's Kids. As a child I was afraid of crowds, rides and carnival games. The best-case scenario for me was a quick Pizza Frite and back in the car and home to Jerry and the kids. I might miss Deano singing "That's Amore" or a video package of a little crippled girl watching ballet class.
But in an instant my perspective changed. I could see in the distance a crowd gathering around one of those flatbed trailers that convert into stages for the display of local celebrities. And there she was, the local celebrity that held on to my imagination with a grip that rivaled Jerry Lewis': Miss Judy. She hosted the morning cartoon show Hatchy Milatchy. Miss Judy was probably in her early forties then and she had a teenage daughter, but her look was crafted in the virginal image of Snow White. Her hair was jet black, her skin a brilliant white and her dress was a Seventh Avenue knock-off of the original Disney design. She presided over the magical land of Hatchy Milatchy where the ground was made of rubber.
run and you fall
On your birthday you would tune into Hatchy Milatchy and Miss Judy would say "Happy Birthday to Mark Rizzo in the Bellevue section of Scranton. He's four years old today. Now Mark, if you look under the brown plaid sofa in the living room, I think that you will like what you find." And of course, miraculously, there it was! Under the sofa was the plastic rifle that shot ping pong balls! Just what I wanted. Miss Judy had conjured it. She could see things ordinary people couldn't. She could make things happen. And her magic was all good. Years later we learned that Miss Judy's daughter was a drug addict and everyone in my family thought this was really funny. To this day I get upset when they bring it up.
At the Muscular Dystrophy Carnival, Miss Judy shone like a beacon atop that flatbed. The late summer sun bathed her in a light more flattering than wheelchair Tommy's. "Miss Judy!" I cried out. "Hey Lady!" my dad echoed in his best Jerry Lewis. He took me on his shoulders and left my mom behind, she still laughing at his Jerry imitation until she realized that he left her holding three half-eaten Pizza Frites. It was a mob scene. As I bounced closer to Miss Judy I could see that she was collecting small bills for Jerry's Kids in a big yellow bucket embossed with the letters MDA and a caricature of Jerry. My dad chugged ahead, weaving through the crowd with grace and power, employing stutter steps and stiff arms on the road to Judy. At about the three-yard line the dogpile became too thick to penetrate. My father put a dollar bill in my hands, hoisted me off of his shoulders and began to angle me, head first, toward the bucket. I was completely terrified. I felt my limbs go stiff as he flew me over the heads of children and parents and closer and closer to Miss Judy's bucket. Then our eyes met. Miss Judy smiled as I held the dollar over the bucket and went slack in the jaw. I may have been drooling. Though I could see her pores through the thick coat of pancake makeup she wore, I was in complete awe and unable to move. My father's arms must have been getting tired from holding me at such an awkward angle above his head because he gave me a little shake and urged me to "drop the dollar in the bucket already." I let go of the dollar and as it floated into her bucket, Miss Judy's face turned sad. She grabbed my hand and my body stiffened even further. "We are gonna find a cure for you and soon, sweetie" she whispered. My dad, exhausted, pulled me away from Miss Judy's soft grasp and as I disappeared back into the crowd in my father's arms I could still see Miss Judy looking out in my direction with the most pitiful expression I have ever seen. She was bathing me in her pity. Yet I could feel nothing but terror. Miss Judy had looked into my eyes, indeed into my very soul and saw the truth. I was one of Jerry's Kids. Just as she had known that there was a ping pong ball rifle hiding under the couch, Miss Judy knew that under my skin was hidden Muscular Dystrophy.
the teleton stumbled tipsily toward Monday evening and the final "Tympani!"
Charo had just done the coochie-coochie and Nadia Comaneci was now demonstrating
the uneven bars to some crippled kids. They were buying Jerry time. He
had spaghetti legs and blurred vision by now, a heavyweight in the final
round of a fight with the champ. They used to go fifteen rounds then,
the heavyweights. And Jerry was nothing if not a heavy hitter. I lay on
my stomach, holding my head in my hands, a few feet away from the television.
Pretending everything was normal. But it wasn't. My mind was racing. I
had been experiencing pain in my joints all summer but never said a word
to anyone. Our family motto has always been "Suck It Up" and
every time my knees ached I heard the lyrics to the Melissa Manchester
song that my parents would sing along with on long drives:
That's when it came. The final "Tympani!" The drum roll lasted longer on this one and the suspense was maddening. Now we would find out if Jerry had outdone last year's total. The numbers flipped and flipped until they landed on 42209727. Confetti rained down on the tally, the band played a brassy yet sentimental flourish and the number 42209727 burned itself into my brain. "Yeah!" Jerry sounded his highest note of the entire 22-hour entertainment marathon because 42209727 crushed last year's total. He had hung on to win by a knockout. The confetti stopped coming, the lights dimmed and the band played the intro to Jerry's closing number. Singing did not come easily to Jerry, but when he connected to the material emotionally he was absolutely riveting:
Tears were streaming down Jerry's cheeks through the final refrain. It was too much for me. I ran from the living room to my bedroom (maybe the last good run left in my addled legs), buried my face in my brown bedspread and wailed.
My mother tore in after me. "What's wrong, honey?" she demanded, shaking my stiff little body. In a voice that rode the primal wave of my sobs, I shouted, "I DON'T WANT TO BE ONE OF JERRY'S KIDS."
As she coaxed
out my tale of hypochondria and patiently explained the phenomenon of
growing pains, my mother rocked me in her arms. From the kitchen I could
hear the comforting sound of beer cans popping open. My dad stuck his
head in the doorway and smiled his antic smile. I looked into my mother's
eyes and saw the same intense look of pity that Miss Judy had lavished
upon me at the Muscular Dystrophy Carnival. And as my mother's lips continued
to move, sounding out my reprieve, my muscles relaxed and I sank into
her pity like a warm bath.
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