Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Three Sams

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by Robert Giles

About 1965 my friend started calling me “Sam”. I guess he got tired of “Bob”. Maybe he just liked making up names. He called his mother “Babe” and his father “Uncle Joe”.

I figured turnabout was fair play. We started calling one another “Sam” and almost forgot our true identities.

I first met Jean at the Baden Little League field on the bleachers sitting near the end - second row down from the top. She held a cherry Popsicle. Sam already knew her. His attentions were romantic.

She was watching her little brothers play for my old team. I think Jean’s Dad was the coach. Jean’s Dad had played semi-pro baseball in his youth. So had her uncle – he had almost made it to the big leagues.

I don’t know who won the game.

Jean was pretty. She had brunette hair worn in a popular style – cropped short at the back of the neck but with plenty of body up top, bangs in front and two sharp points swinging at you from the area of her ear lobes.

Jean had no trouble with conversation and always had something interesting to say. She noticed right away that my friend and I called each other “Sam”. We couldn’t satisfactorily explain why. She didn’t press the question – she just had one request.

“Why don’t you call me “Sam” too? That would be cool.”

It sounded cool to us too. That’s how we became the three Sams.

“Sam, what do you want to do tonight?”

“I don’t know, Sam, what do you want to do tonight?”

We frequently had the same problem as Ernie Borgnine and his friend in “Marty”. We didn’t know what we wanted to do.

“Let’s go up over the hill and see Sam.”

We headed up Dearborn Street and down Essex and through the Guttison Homes to the “projects”. That’s where Sam lived – in a neat concrete block house above the little league field.

If Sam was home, she would usually come out and the three of us would sit on the steps that led down to the sidewalk along Harmony Road. There was a railing made from metal pipe along one side of the steps. It was a short flight – maybe a half-dozen concrete steps.

We would sit there and talk until after it got dark.

“You know that song of Howling Wolf’s – ‘Smokestack Lightning’? Sam asked. “I wonder if he was singing about those flashing lights on top of the smokestacks.”

“Maybe. There’s a steel mill on the south side of Chicago near where Howling Wolf hangs out. I bet they have the same kind of smokestacks and lights at the South Side Works.”

The lights flashed back and forth in a zigzag fashion – “They sure do look like little lightning flashes”.

“They have to put those lights on smokestacks because they are so tall that airplanes might crash into them. Even in the daytime sometimes there is so much smoke a pilot might not see them.”

“I like the way he starts to howl in that song. Oh, wha hoo, hoo.” Sam tried in vain to sing like Howling Wolf.

“Well, I better go home. “Fang” doesn't like me sitting out here with boys even in the daytime. She says it “doesn't look nice”. “Fang” was Sam’s name for her mother.

Sam’s taste in music was a little different than ours. She really liked Jan & Dean and the whole California surf thing.

One time we went inside and she played a new album she had by a guy named Rod McKuen. Rod read or sang his poems in a flat voice reminiscent of Chet Baker, the jazz trumpet player and singer, himself a chilled-out Californian. The poems were accompanied by the recorded sounds of the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t surf music, it was the surf itself.

Sam knew I liked poetry so she insisted I take the album home which I politely did. I found I would go right to sleep by the third cut in on either side. There was something about the squawk of seabirds that made me drowsy.

I did like one song of McKuen’s – I’m not sure if it was on Sam’s album – “Jean” – the theme song from the movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”.

Jean, Jean, you're young and alive
Come out of your half-dreamed dream
And run, if you will, to the top of the hill
Open your arms, bonnie Jean

I’m not sure how the lyrics related to Miss Brodie’s story, but that is true of a lot of movie theme songs. Maybe they don’t want to give away too much of the plot.

I liked the words to that song though – very romantic – maybe that is the link to Jean Brodie. But I don’t think she was so much a romantic as an eccentric – really daft in that understated British way that lulls you and keeps you guessing. All that stuff about her “prime” – she was over-the-hill and couldn’t see it - until her favorite young disciple betrayed her.

I started to date one of Sam’s classmates at Mount Galitzin Academy. The other Sam was going steady with a girl in our class at Ambridge High School. We still hung out with Sam as much as we could. We stayed friends.

Sam laughed when we told her about going to the North Park skating rink. A girl named Jane had invited the other Sam along on her skate date even though he had broken his ankle and was on crutches. Sam invited me in turn – he had to have some company sitting by the ice in his cast, didn’t he? What better company for someone lame than someone who didn’t know how to skate?

Imagine how surprised the guy was when Sam and I climbed into the back seat of his car? I don't think he spoke one word all the way out to North Park. I'm sure that was his last date with Jane.

Why she just didn’t say “no” to the guy in the first place I’ll never tell. She must have been afraid of him.

Sam was always developing sudden crushes on boys – it may be a pathology endemic among girls that attend convent schools. One night she asked us if we knew the good-looking guy who worked at the Isaly store in Byersdale.

“You mean the athletic-looking guy with the wavy dark-brown hair – a little bit shy?”

“That’s him – who is he?”

“That’s my brother.”

Sam asked my brother to the prom at Mount Galitzin. We double-dated. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. For one thing, it solved my transportation problem. My brother had his license.

My brother had started dating someone else and never reciprocated Sam’s attention by asking her out on another date. Just as suddenly she got moony over one of the basketball players on the Ambridge High Championship Basketball Team. He wasn’t a starter on the team.

“Why do you want to go out with a second-stringer?” we teased. Besides they weren't champions yet – they had quite a few games to go. “That guy may end up a nobody on a second-rate team.”
Sam was undeterred. Once she made up her mind, she was tenacious. She had to have her champion.

I think Sam and the second-stringer did wind up dating for a while. We weren’t jealous. We had girl friends of our own.

Another thing Sam could never let go of was her surfer-beach-Pacific Ocean dream. She loved the Beach Boys. Sam and I were R&B devotees. We tried to turn her and she did start to dig a little Stax and Motown, only to revert to form when something new blew in from the west, like “The Endless Summer”, a movie about a bunch of surfers who traveled the globe searching for the “perfect wave”.

Somehow Sam cajoled us into taking her to see the movie, which was more a “mockumentary” than a real movie. I have one thing to say about “The Endless Summer” – it did seem endless. Once you’ve seen one hotdogger hang ten all the way in to shore riding the crest of a gnarly wave, well, who wants to see that again? Paddle out, surf in, don’t wipe out and live to do it over again.

Besides, wasn’t that quest-for-perfection hook already used in “The Glenn Miller Story”.

Sam’s Dad lost his job in perhaps the first mill closure to hit contemporary Ambridge. She was studying to be a nurse. The other Sam and I had started college. I guess things were pretty shaky at Sam’s house until her Dad landed a new job.

We still managed to get together once every couple of months. Sam would be home on weekends. Sometimes we rode back to school with her on Sunday evenings, her mother at the wheel. It was a long time back and forth in the car.

We got to know “Fang” pretty well. She wasn’t so bad, really.

The next thing we knew Sam had a nursing job in Pittsburgh. The other Sam was in the Military Police, of all things – out in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was about to take a job in Baltimore.

We weren’t surprised a few years later when we heard that Sam had moved to Hawaii. She had made it real. When she seized on an idea, like I said, she was tenacious. I don’t know for sure if she ever climbed on a surf board, but I bet she did.

Me, I never go near the beach. All that water. It’s worse than a desert.

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