Joseph William Perry Life Story

Chapter Two

We moved to New Hartford, a close suburb of Utica, in May, 1959. I was in fourth grade and I had to finish the school year in a new school. I remember the Point School in the New Hartford school system. It was a sixty-year-old building situated in the pointed piece of land formed by the divergence, at a narrow angle, of two main roads. The larger one of them was Genessee Street, which, if you followed it east, went downtown but if you followed it west about fifty miles, it would carry you to Syracuse where I was born. That doesn't seem far to a grownup but to a kid fifty miles is a long way. And in terms of memory it seemed even farther removed. If it had been chronologically only four years since we left Baldwinsville it seemed much longer to my soul. As I think of it now it surprises me that it was only four years; it seems like it should have been longer. Could I have changed from a real child into a false kid in only four years? Just now, after I typed the previous sentence I made a table to calculate the years and figure it out—starting with September, 1949 and taking into account that I started kindergarten in 1954, I paired up the calendar years opposite the school years. It proves out to less than four years. I was transformed from a vulnerable child—honest, able to express my emotions, needy, often exuberant—into a secretive kid—internalizing guilt, hiding my real needs, wearing a mask of self-sufficiency. I had come to the "age of accountability."

The age of accountability was a sort of de facto standard which defined the age at which a child can know its own guilt and thus make a decision to follow Christ. I have to reckon that I became accountable at or about age ten. (Really I can't put it later than that; I might should put it earlier.) The next two years seemed interminable—an infinite collection of church services, two on Sunday, one on Wednesday night, each of which (no exceptions) was closed with an invitation song. The preacher ended each sermon with the invitation, "Won't you come as we sing. . . " And my dad was usually the songleader. Of course I always thought the preacher was speaking directly to me and looking straight at me. The only defense I had in my own mind, as I tried to stare earnestly at the pages of the hymn-book, was to say to myself, 'I'm not old enough yet,' which I knew was a lie. And if I could successfully steel myself, standing and singing through three or four verses, I could say to myself, 'Next time I will do it.' And if I happened to have an aisle seat I could feel the pull much more strongly. Sometimes I thought, 'I almost went that time.' And sometimes the preacher implored even more fervently; it sticks in my memory with such intensity—he called for the last verse to be sung again . . . and maybe again even. It was really torturous. During this time the phrase 'conscience seared with a hot iron' was very meaningful to me.

I remember there was a married couple who came to our church every time the doors opened but were not members; they had not been baptized. Most everyone thought to themselves, 'Why won't they be baptized? They know they should.' I used to wonder how they could stand it. The guilt and anxiety they surely must face every week, every year, year after year, always coming to church but never being baptized.

As I look back and read the preceding paragraphs it strikes me that I didn't mention God or the love of Christ at all and I think, wait a minute—how does all that relate it to my walk with God? Maybe I should rewrite the last couple of paragraphs. But no—that's the thing about it; I wasn't feeling God's love inviting me. I was feeling the call of rightness, the call of religious acceptability, even of peer acceptance but not the call of God—or not much, definitely not consciously.

How could I hear the call of a God whose Voice I didn't know? Whose Voice I had forgotten.

I used to wonder how my church group could be sure it believed the right way. I used to wonder if we might actually be wrong and some of the other groups right. One thing I never questioned: Some were right and some were wrong; if we were right then they must be wrong, but if they were right then we could be wrong. During those years the only way I could rest my soul on that point was to throw the doubts to the back of my mind, stuff the anxiety and try to forget it. But I was a kid and I guess that was the only way I could think.

As I think about the preachers from my childhood and the other good people in the church, I have to think that if I met them today and spoke to them man to man they would probably ask me where I ever got such ideas and that they never meant to teach such things.

But, no kidding, the tradition of calling new believers and backsliders by means of an invitation song had a lot of strength to it. It was very powerful. I remember in later years knowing people who felt the need to walk the aisle every few weeks, finding reasons to feel guilty just because they needed shot of acceptance. When I was in college a guy named Mel who drove church bus walked the aisle to say he was sorry that he had been standing around fellowshipping too much when he knew in his heart he was supposed the get the bus started and get going. My cousins and I used to joke that we would have to go forward in church cause we flushed the toilet with the wrong hand.

But then I have to remember another guy named Eddie who I knew in another of my hometowns. He went forward multiple times over the years to repent of his various sins—once to return to the fold after having sinned by playing in a rock band—then later I heard that he had killed himself. I have to conclude that even though you walk the aisle to find love it doesn't mean the people will love you; it also doesn't mean that you will necessarily have room in your heart to contain the love if they do give it to you. I think Mel portrayed the latter, but Eddie, I'm almost certain, was a case of the former.

I did go forward to be baptized. It was at the beginning of my seventh grade school year. I didn't struggle or hesitate, I didn't float down the aisle as I had daydreamed I would. I just walked. I guess I was just ready. Or maybe it was cause we were going to be flying on an airplane for a three month stay in Hawaii and I wanted to be saved in case the plane crashed. I don't really remember. I do remember our family friend, Ruby Harris, "Aunt Ruby" to my little sister, saying, "Welcome to God's family." That was sure good. Now I had a clear conscience (till the next time I sinned), I could take communion, and I could answer my grandpa, Yes.

New Hartford was a community that was two different kinds of towns. There was the village of New Hartford; then there was the township of New Hartford. I learned in social studies that in New York state there was no such thing, officially, as a "town." There were villages, townships, cities (I think) and counties. Whether the village of New Hartford was considered a part of the township I'm not sure, but I am sure that the township surrounded the village and included the tract houses, like ours, and farms also. I liked my neighborhood but I also like the village streets with older houses. When my gym teacher used to walk us to the playing field at the new school he used to say he didn't want to hear a peep out of us when we walked through the village. I guess I got the impression the village was kind of sacrosanct, a special place where people lived who stayed home all day and who were unaccustomed to the sound of rowdy junior high boys and who were willing and able, at the sound of such, to call the superintendent of schools and report us.

I did like walking to and in the village though, no kidding.

I liked my gym teacher, Mr. Anderson. He used to call me by my last name, without a Mr. before it, just my plain last name. I wasn't used to that and I told my dad, wondering why he would do that. Dad said he was called by his last name every day; it was perfectly alright. He was sure Mr. Anderson liked me. Mr. Anderson one day made us all sit down on the gym floor one day and gave us a written test on sports. I guess he had already given us a study sheet or something, anyway he said it was one third of our grade. The other two-thirds we got by just being there in gym every day. It was a true/false test. Fifty questions. He told us that half of the questions were true and half were false. So there was no reason for anyone to get less than a fifty on it, cause all you would have to do was put all true's or all false's and you would get a fifty on it. So if you attended class and got a fifty on the test you would pass gym.

(Teenagers today think my generation had it easy. How do I know? Well, I know for a fact that 112,000 eleventh graders in New Jersey think so and, as I think back about Mr. Anderson's gym class, I guess they were right. If you want to know how I know what 112,000 eleventh graders in New Jersey think, ask me and I'll tell you.)

If I remember correctly I took my chances on answering the questions from memory and I don't remember failing it so I guess I made the right choice.

My best friend in New Hartford was Scott Freeman. He lived a block away and we used to listen to a transistor radio together—in a certain spot in the yard where we could see if a certain girl came out of her house. One of us had a crush on her, I don't remember which. Or maybe it was that each of us accused the other of liking her. I don't even remember for sure who it was we were hoping to get a glimpse of. I guess it must have been one of the Shaheen girls. They came home every afternoon in their white shirts, vests and plaid skirts of the Catholic school. Scott was Jewish; I was Protestant (or rather protestant toward Protestants) but we didn't notice religion too much. A couple of years later when I learned Jewish people believe the Old Testament I was talking to Scott about it one day and he remarked, to my utter amazement and shock, that he didn't believe that stuff; he said they were all just stories. That was the beginning of the end for our friendship I guess. Not just that he was agnostic; he started smoking and walking down the street through the village with his arm around a girl at lunch time. He also succumbed to the d.a. hairstyle fad, put taps on his loafers so they would click, click, click down the hall in school and wore his shirt-tail out. If you want to know what a d.a. hairstyle is I will tell you that it required the use of copious amounts of Brylcreem or Vitalis; I will also say that it referred to the sculpted formation at the back of the head that appeared incidentally when the hair on both sides were combed straight back; and I must mention that "nice" kids, if they wanted to explain more clearly what d.a. meant, had to use the term duck-tail.

I used to comb my hair just so too. I didn't have a d.a. but I did use ample amounts of Brylcreem or, lacking that, whatever I could get ahold of. Once, panic-stricken to find some semi-gooey material to put on my hair, I found in the cabinet some kind of baby shampoo; my friend Scott must have been embarrassed to death to know his friend had to resort to such a thing. To be perfectly frank, I kid you not, I used to comb my hair just like Ronald Reagan. Maybe Pat Boone combed like that too, but I admired Ronald Reagan. Mind you, this was long before he was President. I used to see him on t.v., on the General Electric Theatre. He was the host every week. He was the official spokesman for G.E. and my dad also worked for G.E. So, I guess there was a valid connection. My dad was able to slick his hair back and make it stay in place without the aid of goops or creams or oils but I couldn't. Ronald Reagan combed his in that beautiful wave—not slicked down, not too high like a greaser, just a nice semi-tall wave. That's what I liked. I wore it like that till I was in the twelfth grade. Recently I had an email contact with a kid I knew in tenth grade. He said he remembered I had good hair. Actually, he had even better; his was one monosculpted mountain with no part whatsoever, just all mounded up and straight back. Then, in the twelfth grade I moved to a new place and I went to new school. For a few days I went with my "pompadour" but I thought I had better change with the times so I made the decision. I remember perfectly, just like it was yesterday, the day I sloughed over into the "dry look." I left my grandma's house and went to school feeling like everyone was looking at me—but after that day: what a relief, no more hair cream. No more panic if I ran out.

To put the grease issue in historical perspective (for the benefit of those interested in a wider world-view) I quit greasing in '66 but the fab four quit greasing in '62 (according to Leslie Anne, my Beatle-fan wife). I guess I was always a bit behind the times. Today I get a haircut annually at least—whether I need it or not. For the record, I never used men's hair-spray or mousse. So don't ask me.

I didn't say much about my younger brother. Maybe that's cause he and I were so close. Or maybe it's cause he and I were not very close—I don't know. He was two years and two months younger than I. He was always there. We used to wrestle and struggle with each other quite a bit. He was a notorious pincher; his fingers were so powerful and he could speed-pinch—both hands at once. Mercifully he didn't do power-pinches. He rarely grabbed mounds of flesh and he didn't twist the flesh. What I did to him I don't remember. I'm sure I had my cruelties. Maybe I should email him in Alaska and ask him; maybe I shouldn't. I guess I will just wait for him to volunteer the information.

Charlie was quite a money-saver. I remember way back when I got a quarter for allowance and he got fifteen cents (older got more). I spent mine on baseball cards and candy. My brother saved up seven dollars and bought a pearwood recorder. That was quite a feat. I still don't save money. If I need something I just have to wait till I happen to get enough money all at once. My brother still saves and is able to help people out when they need it.

I forgot to write that I was a cub scout. Also I wanted to take clarinet, but my mouth was wrong so they talked me into flute, but the flute class was all girls but me and so I quit. I can still taste that flute. I used to ice-skate but when I discovered skiing I quit skating; after all you couldn't have such spectacular falls on the ice as you could on the slopes. And ice-skaters couldn't slide up a hill hanging on to a rope-tow. A rope-tow—that's the original vehicle for pulling skiers up a hill. It's most fun when there is no one else on it and it is dragging the ground and you have to hold up the whole weight of that inch thick, ice-encrusted thing yourself. The first time I went to go on it my dad instructed me to grab it "real slow." So I went up to it and waited, "real slow," before I grabbed it. First thing I knew I had ahold of it, I was off my feet dragging my skiis behind me. It was dragging me up the hill and dad was hollering, "Let go! Let go!" If I were explaining rope-tows to someone today I would say, "Use your hands as a clutch, gradually grasping it tighter as you go. Your speed will increase gradually and you won't be jerked off your feet." But dad knew I didn't know anything about clutches then so he didn't explain it to me that way. My greatest moment in the sport of skiing came when a kid I respected told me that I fell like an expert.

Another time I accidentally ran over the back ends of a girl's skis. She had been standing near the bottom of the hill with a boy and the boy said "Hey guy!" I hurried away, ashamed. They had a P.A. system at that ski place and I kept expecting to get called into some interrogation room or other to answer for the crime of having skied over the back ends of a pretty girl's skiis but I wasn't.

I forgot to write that I liked to sing and the music teacher asked me to come to choir. I mumbled something that she took as an affirmative and then I didn't come. She asked me in class why I didn't come so I said, "I don't want to be in choir." After class my friend Sal Gambino kept saying in a whining, mimicking voice, "I don't want to be in choir." So I just told him, "Well, I don't." I wish I had.

For the life of me I can't remember the name of my fifth grade teacher but my sixth grade teacher was Mr. Ledden. He was my first man teacher, besides P.E. Mr. Ledden was quite a man; he had a deep, firm voice. He was strict, though not overly so, not mean. He called me on the carpet once when he found out I had gotten some answers from another student. It wasn't a test; it wasn't even graded homework. We were "correcting our homework" and I asked my neighbor what the answer was. Mr. Ledden said it was cheating and he made such an impression on me that I don't think I ever allowed myself to look on another person's paper again, for any reason. That was the only time he said anything like that to me. He was an affirming, caring man. I heard in later years that he had gone to seminary to be a Methodist minister. I remember at sixth grade graduation after we had marched to Pomp and Circumstance—hearing Mr. Ledden as he stood behind us as we sang America. He had a strong melodious voice. Several of the kids heard him singing and turned around to see who it was. He wasn't in our music class, you see, and so we had never heard him sing.

In seventh grade we went to the junior high and so we changed classes. We didn't have the same teacher all day and as a result we weren't influenced so deeply by each teacher. We had these class periods punctuated by mad, crowded rushes to locker and then to another class. I was in that same school building three years; that was the longest of any of my schools. The junior and senior high schools had different areas but they were under the same roof. I felt really grown up. I got to go out for track and run on the same track as the high school guys.

Some major memories of junior high were Teaberry chewing gum, Mallo cup candy with cut-out play coins on the cardboard and getting to eat lunch off-campus. My friends, Jeff Weinstein, Lee Piper and I used to hurry down to the Lester Farms dairy store/lunch counter to get either an order of fries or a hot dog with a cherry Coke for thirty-five cents. Our school lunch was thirty five cents and so that's what we got from our parents for lunch. We couldn't get a hamburger cause that would bump it over thirty-five cents if I remember right. I think also I kept it from my parents that I was going off campus for lunch. That would entail far too much explaining. Well, before we discovered Lester Farms we were just queuing up for donuts at the Chicago Market, ice cream sandwiches and chewing gum at the drug store. Maybe french fries and cherry Coke was a step up from there. Poor waitress, though, we didn't have money for a tip.

It occurs to me you might want to hear about air raid drills. Young people in particular might think it rather quaint. I remember fire drills and normal air raid drills from early on, beginning in elementary school, I guess. For a fire drill we were just marched out of the building into the parking lot or playground, but for an air raid drill in the earlier years we had to get under our desks. In the late fifties we had to line up either in the hallways against the lockers or in the lowest place in the school, like the gym. We had to cover our heads with our arms, close our eyes and not peek. Then one day we were told that there would be a new kind of air raid drill on a particular day. They even sent home a note to parents about it. We had to walk silently all the way home from school on that day. It was no fun. We had to walk on a prescribed route in groups. We couldn't talk to our friends. It was really serious. I think that drill was during the time we were worried about the missiles in Cuba. I wasn't worried or anxious. I was just glad to be home early.

It is said that everyone remembers where they were when they heard President Kennedy was shot. I see in my mind a view of the school from a particular position on the sidewalk. I don't remember who told me, just that view of the school yard. Then after a day or two I was at home watching the t.v. They must have pre-empted the regular shows or I'm sure I would have been watching my favorite show. Anyway, there was a view of these guys bringing out Lee Harvey Oswald. Of course I was interested. But then this guy, Jack Ruby, shot him while I watched. I suppose I was one of millions who saw that—but I was just twelve years old.

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Photo of Josephus Aloysius (alias Joseph Perry) by John Randall Moody
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