Saturday, 21 May 2011

What I got for Christmas in 1949

This photo was taken in St. Giles Hospital in Brooklyn, my home for nine months following the polio epidemic of the summer of 1949. Do you recognize my Santa Claus? His career was just beginning then, so he wasn't yet famous. Eventually he would become such a beloved figure there's now a park, a school, and a bridge named after him. Those wanting to play the guessing game should stop reading here.

Old Brooklyn Dodger fans already know it's Gil Hodges.

If the photographer had followed me for another half-hour or so, he would have found me in the semi-private room to which I had just been assigned, along with my new roommate, a black kid named Freddie.

Until then I'd been residing in the boys' ward, where I had my radio, my Victrola, and the 78s Dad would buy for me. Thus equipped, when time allowed, I became the self-appointed disc jockey of the ward, complete with smart commentary while I changed records. This wasn't much of a stretch from my career plan at the time, which was to be the Dodgers' play-by-play radio man, if not their first-baseman.

Musically speaking, my daily DJ program for the boys wasn't all that scintillating. My record collection consisted of the top pop hits of the day, as dictated by Martin Block every Saturday morning on WNEW. By the end of 1949 the swing era was moribund in white America. Pop music was in a pathetic state, having declined to the point where the top hits were insipid novelties or sappy ballads. (For a rundown of the dreary hit songs of that season, see my previous post "Wild Bill Meets Rag Mop.") I think the most swinging record in my collection was Bing Crosby's Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy.

So the first days of the dawning 1950s found me in a semi-private room with my new friend Freddie. I never learned why we were chosen to receive such a boon, or who paired us up. I suspect a kindly Irish nurse who took a liking to us and once took a snapshot of us together. We didn't know why we'd gotten the room; we just considered it a terrific Christmas present.

Freddie was a couple of years older. I never asked him what his medical problem was; I can't recall that we ever discussed the unfortunate circumstances that had thrown us together in this hospital at this time. I do remember that we bantered a lot, listened to records, and generally hit it off. Like fellow-prisoners-of-war, I imagine, we had a common, unspoken understanding of the main task at hand: to make the best of a crappy situation.

Freddie and I especially enjoyed "riffing" on jokes, usually the same old jokes. The nurses couldn't understand why we laughed at the same jokes every day; this only added to our pleasure in running our routines into the ground. For example, Freddie would insist that his uncle was some kind of famous piano player, and I'd say something like, "Yeah, right, and my uncle is Harry Houdini." It was part of our daily shtick. Freddy: "My uncle's a piano player." Me: "Getoutahere!" (For the uninitiated, "getoutahere" is Brooklynese for: "I'm sorry, dear friend, but I doubt the veracity of your statement, as it lacks the corroborative detail needed to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.")

Meanwhile the boys in the big ward weren't denied my daily DJ program of pop hits; Freddie and I and my Victrola and 78s would spent part of each day there. After a while I noticed that while I was busy spinning platters Freddie and a few of his black friends were listening to a radio way down at the other end of the ward. One day my curiosity got the better of me and I wheeled myself over to see what they were listening to. I saw that their radio was tuned to part of the dial that was terra incognita to me.

Until then my radio universe was WEAF, 660 on the dial, where NBC network shows like Jack Benny's could be found; WOR 710 where Superman was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; WJZ 770 where The Lone Ranger returned us to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and where The Shadow was able to cloud men's minds so they could not see him; WHN 1050 where Red Barber and Connie Desmond described the Dodger games; and WNEW 1130 where Martin Block presided over the Make-Believe Ballroom. But now, thanks to Freddie and his friends, I had discovered a new world on the radio dial, to the right of WNEW 1130, where I had never strayed before. I know for a certainty that none of my boyhood friends in all-white Bay Ridge had ever been there. This new world was WLIB 1190, where the disc jockey was Joe Bostic.

I was thunderstruck: the records Bostic was playing were so much better than anything I had. I remember Dontcha Go 'Way Mad and Sugarfoot Rag by Ella Fitzgerald and Sy Oliver; Limehouse Blues and I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You) by Lionel Hampton and the Hamptonians; Harry James' Back Beat Boogie; September in the Rain and Nothing But D. Best by George Shearing; For You, My Love by Nat "King" Cole and Nellie Lutcher; records by the Jimmy Lunceford and Lucky Millinder bands, as well as "TD" and "JD," as Bostic called the Dorsey brothers; Caldonia by Sugar Chile Robinson; Baby, It's Cold Outside and The Hucklebuck by Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Page; Tippin' In, Cherry, and Don't Cry, Baby by "the twentieth-century Gabriel" Erskine Hawkins. Many of these records found their way, via Dad, into my collection.

With these new acquisitions my daily DJ programs took on a new, more pungent flavor. From then on, the boys' ward was rockin'. There were a few weeks there when I thought Erskine Hawkins' Corn Bread and Hawk's Boogie were the hottest things ever put on wax. The one time I went too far was during the loud, honking, r&b-style tenor saxophone solo in the middle of the Cole-Lutcher For You, My Love, played at top volume. A highly irritated nurse told me in no uncertain terms to turn it down and never play that record again. I did play the record again, when the nurse wasn't on duty, but I still can't listen to that solo without feeling somebody's going to yell at me.

One day while Mom and Dad were visiting, Freddie again pulled his "my uncle is a piano player" gag and I decided to call his bluff. I asked him for the name of this alleged uncle, so Dad could pick up pick up one of his records. "Ha!" I said to myself, "I've got him now." Freddie gave us a name we didn't recognize.

To my amazement, next visit Dad brought in a record with Freddie's uncle's name on it. The label, yellow and black and new to me, said Atlantic on it. One side was I Can't Give You Anything But Love; the other side was Skylark.

Freddie hadn't been kidding after all: his uncle was a piano player, one for whom my admiration has only grown through the years. It's an admiration not based on sanitized, sentimentalized memories of an early chapter of my life. It's based on music. I may still get nostalgic when I hear Erskine Hawkins records but I no longer mistake them for masterworks. On the other hand, the more I listen to Freddie's uncle the more I'm convinced that he's one of the true originals and geniuses of jazz history: an endlessly inventive, swinging improviser, daring harmonist, individualist, composer, and rhapsodist without equal.

I didn't realize it then but something new and valuable had been added to my life, transforming and enriching it immeasurably, forever.

Freddie and I got out of the hospital about the same time, in early June 1950. That's when the nurse took the snapshot. He visited me once in Bay Ridge, then we lost touch. It took me many, many years to realize how much I owe to him, starting with the record Dad brought me that day in the hospital.
Thank you, Freddie.


  1. I hope Freddie -- or his children -- reads this! He should know what a gift he gave you.

  2. You brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for this post, Papa.

  3. I've hoped you would write about this for a long time. You told it so well that I could see it all in my mind's eye. I've always wished that we could somehow find Freddie Garner....