It’s (all) Who You Know

When I saw my first school, the Hamilton House, it looked so lonely on the barren dunes of Far Rockaway. I never got to eat my lunch that day because my mom had come back to fetch me so soon. Her frantic walk was framed by the tranquil Atlantic behind her.

Dressed in black, the head teacher, ‘flinty’ Mrs. Hamilton, towered behind me. As my mom, approached, Mrs. Hamilton tightened her ironwood claws into my tiny shoulders.

 

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My mom had questions: “Are you Mrs.Hamilton? Why did you call? Is my son okay? Where’s the young teacher that I talked to yesterday?”

“I’m Hamilton. It’s my school,” she said unhooking me. “Your boy is fine, but there is a problem. He borrrrrrres easily.”

“Really,” said my mom.

To prove Mrs. Hamilton’s point, I interrupted the conversation, “What’s that, mommy?” I asked, pointing to a stone statue that stood in the sandy path, knee high to my mom.

Mrs. Hamilton raised a long talon, “Pagans dumped that thing in my yard. That blasphemy is going into the trash, today.”

 

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“Ooooh, I like him,” my mom said. “This a statue of the Greek god of the sea, Freddy. His name is Poseidon. He looks very old.”

“Is he friendly?” I asked.

“You want to be his friend,” my mom said. “Mr. Poseidon can turn angry in a snap! Mom snapped her fingers. “He brings vengeance upon his enemies with great storms.”

“He’s ugly,” said Ms. Hamilton.

The sound of a large wave, pounding the shore, caught our attention. A strong breeze buffeted us with sand. Ms. Hamilton’s tight hair bun remained steadfast. It began to drizzle. Grasping her cane, Mrs. Hamilton said, “Please come inside, it seems that the weather is changing. What a world.”

As we entered the old house, Mrs. Hamilton  pointed to a painting on the wall. “That a picture my dead husband Dorian. It makes him look so old.” We followed her down the hall. “This morning, I gave little Freddy some time in our arts and crafts room to see if he had a creative streak.”

She’d locked me in the spare classroom, alone, because I kicked her in the shins — I was certain it was her. I was sure she was Dorothy’s Wicked Witch.

“He destroyed the room with three gallons of red paint meant for the outside. Come here, dearies.” She opened the door to the windowless art room.

My mom’s eyes widened and took in the panorama. “It looks like someone was murdered here,” she said, while I was thinking, more blood.

“We’ll never get this cleaned up! Your son may end up a housepainter like…ahem, that German feller with the little mustache. Look at this mess. I thought it over and well,” Mrs. Hamilton  said scratching the hairy mole on her chin, “You’ll have to find young Freddy another school. I think that he may be a danger to the other children.”

My mother looked around. There were no other children. “Where are the others?” Mom was staring at an old straw broom against a tall stack of red splattered boxes, labeled ‘Gingerbread Cookies.’

Nervous, my mom turned to me. “Freddy, tell your teacher that you’re sorry. Do it now.”

“Mommy! She hit me!” I lied, rubbing make-believe  tears.

“ Is that true, Freddy?” My mom stared at the harridan.

Before I could lie to my own mother, again, Ms. Hamilton said,“For such a little gentleman, Freddy tells very tall tales.” Then, adding an evil eye, she continued, “He’s got some imagination, I’m saying.”

“Are you calling my boy a liar? Just a few moments ago you called him a little Hitler!”

I kept my lip zipped as I was already in enough trouble.

“Let’s go.” Suddenly, my mother grabbed my hand and marched me away from the school, no doubt saving me from becoming one of Mrs. Hamilton’s gingerbread cookies. We were about to pass Poseidon when an idea struck me. I turned back to Mrs. Hamilton and said, “My mom says that you should be friendly to the statue!”

“If you sinners like that awful thing so much, take it home with you!”

My mom picked Poseidon up and held him in her arms like a newborn. “C’mon, Freddy.” She propelled us home, away from the Beach. She looked worried.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?”

Wind and rain had been building since we’d started walking. By the time we reached the tall brick stairway that led up to our house the rain began to sweep horizontally. The tall pine tree in front was rocking wildly. Mom rushed me up the stairs and into the hallway as the sky began to turn black. She turned to secure the potted plants, slipped on the top step, and cut open her ankle.

The wicked witch did this! I thought. Angry, I shook my stuffed dog at the lightning.

My mom had forgotten about my decorating and fibbing. She was in pain when she pushed me into my room. “Play your records, Freddy. I’ll be right back” She held back tears as she closed my door. At my bedroom window, I saw the churning clouds and, hidden within, the bearded face of Poseidon.

I ran to the front hall and hugged the statue. There and then I promised the god my prized Patti Page record, “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” if  he would help my mommy. I’d played the record two-thousand times and had already moved on to hipper music, ‘Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.’

Poseidon must have been a Patti Paige fan, because ten minutes later the sea god had washed the Hamilton School into the grey Atlantic wielding a mighty hurricane that bore my mom’s name, Claire.

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The next morning, the record, along with my record player, were gone from my room. The floor was wet and sandy. “Mommy!” I yelled, a little frightened. I calmed after recalling what I’d done.

My dad, tired, had returned from his business trip to find that the storm had washed our pine tree, westward into Jamaica Bay. After lunch, mom told dad about my mischief at the School and our hurricane adventure. Dad paused, stood up tall, removed the smelly cigar from his mouth and, looking down, told me that he was proud I’d learned a very important life lesson that he himself used in business.

“Lesson?” I asked, having no idea what a lesson was, or life was, or business was.

“When you need something done right, young man,” my dad said with a wink, “you must always, always go straight to the top.”

Freddy Deutsch, Age 4

Far Rockaway Beach, 1954