On one clear day in the spring of 1932, a seven-year-old lad named Donald James Blattner declared, in stentorian tones, “I’m voting for Hoover!” His new friend, the six-year-old Ronald Neil Campbell, looked about him at the stage where the proclamation had been delivered, and dreams of it to this day. “It happened at the junction of the Boulevard and Lake Drive, Mountain Lakes, New Jersey,” you will be told. Should you have reason to correct Mr. Campbell for checking, or from simple curiosity. “Who would bother to make this up?” he is asking you. “I’m the Ronny and Mr. Blattner was/is Donny, and that’s all for now. Except for those who favor Donnie and Ronnie. (Mr. Campbell is getting a touch starchy these days.)
In any case, “Well,” Ronny thought quietly to himself, “What the hell is voting, and what has it got to do with Mom’s noisy old vacuum cleaner? Is it about grown-ups? Well, I’ll ask Dad.” (Asking Dad was an art, and not everyone found it to be a fruitful adventure.) A classics major in college, Dad seemed always to be seeking THE TRUTH, and never to mislead. It frightened me, but made me proud. The answer was “Free organized selection,” with a grunt. Hoover also received a grunt of his own, and Dad is probably grunting happily on his own free democratic cloud, humming A Wee Hoose on the Heather!, a Harry Lauder favorite on the musical stage in Scotland, London and New York around the turn of the century.
Back to business. I’m the Ronny. And for a number of years my compass was Donny. It all had started on that fateful Monday. I was doomed to face him empty, as usual, of facts, interest, wisdom or any equipment that might suggest equality. (That was inevitable, and never went away.) Donny understood. Of course. Which is why, after some eighty years, I am still not bothered about it, still grateful and still why I happily chuckle over his lifelong passion for ice cream, his mid-western politics and his deep humor and am still thinking every day about what he might be thinking if we still could ask him. But, I believe, I’m usually sure I know.
Let me try to explain. “Try” has its limits, but I’ll make an effort to clear the story of my life as an acolyte in The School of Growing Up in the Shadow of an Eager Teacher. The fact that we lived so easily close allowed for the crucial years from kindergarten through high school graduation — and to proceed easily with our growing up knowing both privacy and joyful mischief, while our unrecognized (early on) polar personalities sealed the deal. Forever. And that Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, seemed the very best choice for promised success.
We played bad tennis on the mayor’s court, closely surrounded by juicy Concord grapes that purpled our mouths, disgusting, at least, my mother. (I never heard from his mother.) We “borrowed” an Old Town canoe from a family known by the Blattner family and stroked her south to Island Beach, where my brother Jim was busy lifeguarding. Donny got a red Columbia bike, and I received a blue one three months later. (His birthday was three months and one year in advance of mine.) Clue: parents? Collaboration? I’m pretty sure about that, although nothing was ever said about it officially. And, more important, it didn’t matter. Although the Case of the Turtleneck Sweaters pretty nearly solved itself. This time I struck first. My mother had, for Christmas, found a shaker turtleneck sweater, dark green with a white and yellow stripe all around. I identified this stunning badge with Notre Dame, at the time the holy home of college football, other religions aside. The Four Horsemen ruled. Grantland Rice had said so. Within two weeks Donny appeared in a Navy blue turtleneck sweater adorned with a white and pale blue stripe. Parental interference (respondance?) had once more shown its loyalty to the Donny/Ronny Approvable Machine.
Once in a while we actually considered in advance just which of our potential schemes might turn out to cause most attention in the parent world without serious bone-breaking responses to spoil the fun. We got pretty good at that. Parents? Of course we sensed what was going on. Parents or not, we often found enjoyable ways to outflank expectable objections (for foolish real reasons, we assumed) and that turned out to offer permissible harvest in the pursuit of wholesome fun. Donny and Ronny style. A lot like Red Skelton, one of our favorites. “We dood it!”
Among these lines that lured us on our twin Columbias was the sand pit only a few hundred yards east of the Texaco station where Bob Kays pumped out depression gasoline at ten to thirteen cents per gallon (Can you sob over today’s crushing fuel prices?). The pit featured a stiff, hilly redoubt where local gunners and amateur soldiers tested their WWI 30/30 Springfields and new 22’s, even a few Daisy BB’s, against last year’s license plates and other handy junk. We came, however, not to defeat license plates and used tin cans (in some cases shattered bottles). We dug, for whatever prize I cannot to this day say, the lead slugs behind the shattered targets, and deep into the hard sand. At summer’s end we had the world’s finest collection of spent lead. I’m not quite sure of where the collection now resides, but I feel that, wherever it lies, snug in its canvas nail bag, it’s surely grateful for the efforts of two determined citizens, in a long-ago depression they never got to understand.
From our treasure-laden Mines of Solomon by about a quarter of a mile west, on Bloomfield Avenue (now Route 46), lay La Paloma, a sort of rural highway Baghdad that served at night a lot of fifteen-cent beer to the strains of a pop-loaded jukebox to a crowd of noisy ten-cents-per-hour customers. I learned all this first hand around seven years later, but by daylight open on the roadside to a long counter with stools in front where a junior gourmet might park his red or blue bike in search of a divine five-cent hot dog. My first. Donny again. He knew everything, and was willing to share! Actually, eager.
If anyone should get the idea that I’m trying to make fun of Donny Blattner, then think again. He was one of the finest, kindest, generous, most intelligent guys on the planet. And remained that way, ‘til the end. I’m only making an effort to draw a picture of a friendship of two young boys who cared for each other, lost each other, found again in later years and lost again. It hurts. And in whatever time I still have, I’ll have to do it without him. And that hurts more.
The in-between years were rich in adventure and learning. Not always together any more, our front yard football games morphed into baseball games played with taped balls in the parking lot cleared at the Island Beach in the spring before the many cars turned up. The Packards. And the Rios, and the Pierce Arrows. And the Model A’s with their rumble seats.
Our relationship represented, in a way, an unintentional cultural clash among Manhattans: Manhattan, Kansas, the home of Kansas State University (Alma Mater of Donny’s dad), and the major metropolis of our area, New York City, and reports of his dinner conversations and mine. Both seemed, at the time, very colorful. Still do. Still are. Still tell a wonderful story. Of acceptance. And of understanding.
Some even funny. In our high school English class, our teacher, Ms. Mary Smedley, knew, looking for the answer to this or that, that she was on solid ground if she found in the crowd the willing and correct and always safe face of D. J. Blattner, arms raised confidently, who could be counted upon, not only to answer the question, but to explain why.
I was left with the Oxford English Dictionary, agreed upon by my family as the final word in regard to the intricacies of our language. Later a sixteen-year-old college student, my sister Joan, frequently won her dessert over feckless family members who challenged her at the table by finding in the battered OED bizarre pronunciations, and working them for her JELLO. Try “Banal”. Try “Banana”. You Lose.
Many years later at a memorial for Donny, his older brother Dave, an MIT graduate, asked me about my sister Joan, a classmate of his in 1940, and told me that she was the smartest girl he had ever known. Or one. His wife was standing by smiling. Sort of. Speaking of brothers, both Donny and I were lucky in the draw. Everybody deserves a big brother.
Each of us had one. This brings out the question, “What about those of us who only have a little brother?” This question is unanswerable because we only little brothers never get to experience the ecstasy… or the constant exasperation attached. So, in this case, we’re left with David and Jim. Not for long, though. Just long enough to satisfy lovable needs and salutes. Jim was older, seven years older — and brighter and stronger and, in every way, a lot more mechanically inclined. David, so far as I could, or can, know him, was every inch as scientifically oriented as anyone in my narrow universe. And as kind to his little brother’s riffraff friends as can be expected, and I now know, first hand, still is.
In the early and the middle of the thirties a new and welcome, and a necessary in most cases, came to roost in most homes in the borough, known as “Maids”, or in our house just plain “Help”. Many arrived on buses early in the morning, while others had agreed to staying over, with a weekly day-off. All, in addition to their responsibilities in the kitchen, cleaning of the house, and the laundry, faced the duties of childcare for one to five (in one-to-nine in one instance I remember) including discipline, duty/cleanliness and love at six dollars all for a week. Plus the wisdom of an NFL referee. And all this with a smile.
Mine were Daisy; Betty, later on. There were several, as you must expect. Donny’s was Sadie. A gem. And I think, forever.
How all this connects historical misery to my accidental affection for the time, the circumstance, and my memories of all the above that is gone. It is important to provide a father to whatever matters now. Honor. And more confusion.
Just why I’ve spun this small background reminder into the midst of a fond recall of two curious kids in a world itself confused, and about to change forever in its shape, its promise, its pain and its ugly truth. And then to learn that to cure all this was up to US! With all of our brothers and sisters, big and little. And that all of our Daisies and Sadies were swept away into shipyards and factories at decent wages. And public respect. All at once! And on magazine covers.
Came the war. We both went, but in every way, to opposite worlds. Geographically and in every area in regard to our relations and our fellow fellows, and in our official castes. I could not, for instance, be seen in public with my brother, and if the situation were to occur, with Donny.
Donny was a commissioned officer. After high school graduation he had applied for acceptance and education in the V-12 Navy College Training Program wherein he was, naturally, successful in every duty required, and commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy, assigned to a position aboard a Destroyer Escort and duty in the Atlantic Theater. Luckily, his college career was near home and at Columbia University, just across the Hudson. Years later I asked him what his choice of athletic contribution had been, he replied that he had been a cheerleader. “It was a lot of fun,” he replied. “And gave me a great position at all the games. And girls.” What a winner he was.
On the other hand, for me, I’m not seeing him or in any way in touch for the rest of the war and on. By the time of reunion we each had entered another life, the one of growing up Part III. And the life of Part IV. Post WWII had seen Donny a family man with a lovely young lady from, if I remember correctly, Englewood, New Jersey, living now and prospering in Princeton, performing God-knows-best what magical money-making wonders for us all, and raising smart children. Maybe, even improving quality in available ice cream. I had been invited to usher at the wedding, I recall, but was unable to accept because of such goings-on of the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps, and a geographical interference in the possibility of my presence. But I was really there. Being Ronny. Somehow in the ether. Smiling.
My own journey out of that war was less expected, but no less astonishing. And considered in the light of Donny’s seemingly automatically successful landing, mine seemed to be a series of “No thanks, try again.” Just to go to school. And I tried and tried, even with the Veterans’ Bill of Rights in the game. And when the one I wanted the most said “No” again I finally wrote to the Director of Admissions and explained that I wasn’t the person who had tried seventeen colleges and failed, that I was the person who from the beginning had wanted only the one he was now pursuing his dream, and having just now spent two years in an ugly war, always praying for a break. Only a chance. He wrote back, taking care to warn me that if I understood that I would begin under a severe probation, he and The Rhode Island School of Design would, no-nonsense, admit me. It was a trimester system, and the rest was a disaster. I had never felt so lost, not even in the Pacific Navy. But I caught on and made the Dean’s list in the second trimester and remained on it for the remains of my four-year stay there. I was even awarded the prize for my senior project, the Yearbook. Which helped me to greener pastures. I go through all this not to brag, but to illustrate how far a little thought may go into goodness to others who need it, and why, when I send to my RISD fund, I always include the name of Fred Ferry on the check because it would be understood by Donny.
Speaking of Donny, which I view as why I’m offering all these screeds about things that most people have had to deal with all their lives, I’m grateful for the life and generosity of people who are always looking over their shoulders not for inferiority, but for rookies who are rich in things and thoughts that enrich their own understanding and might admit their own needs. If it’s information or their offerings. Donny was hungry for this search. And said it out loud. To me. And now to you. As if you didn’t know.
Back to Donny and Ronny. In the post-war years we saw each other mostly at high school reunions, but at one of these occasions full of “How yah doin’?” and hugs and up-and-down scrutiny I learned that Donny had lost his bride. From an unforgiving disease.
As I write this salute to a friendship, I’m in the middle of a personal horrid event that affects directly no one reading, but probably finds its way into everyone’s world in one form or another, bringing pain and loss. And unfairness, which can eventually survive in some way, but never erase the damage. I’m not aware of anyone’s helplessness. It is rampant. But we’re still here. To deal with it and to absorb it. Donny, I borrow your loss as my own. Because it is.
And following that particular reunion, others occurred as if some mischievous djinn had arrived on a playful mission featuring the sudden appearance of color, smiles, and downright cheer. It brought with it determination and hope and forgiveness. And strength. And I, in the company of several other old friends, resolved to take advantage of the possibilities that had fallen our way. The ingredients were close and simple. In large part, I believe, us. And a mind that had long been a clue to everybody familiar with it. And captured. A gift for us. The use of the word us should not be taken as a sign of exclusion. It is a pure badge of loss. The combined members of the classes of ’43 and ’44, once a little over one hundred. Mountain Lakes High School has clearly grown larger but the people I’m talking about seem to be losing rapidly, and pickin’s is vanishin’.
So it’s us for now. A lot of football games at Princeton, a lot of cookouts, a lot of gatherings at this home or that have taken place in the last few years, and the usual reunions seem to be almost over, for us. But we can treasure the last sights of Donny Blattner, and his last few years in the company of a lovely and intelligent lady named Bette (also a ’44 who had also lost her spouse) who shared the football games, the real reunions and the backyards of the rest of us.
But he’s not all gone from me and the day in the spring in 1932 when I first got a dose of confidence, which kept turning up for eighty years of loving, sharing thoughts of playing two-man hockey on a little pond in the woods with our new CCM’s, and our climbing a gigantic boulder we named Indian Rock. And the lost bag of useless lead. Add our crafty arrangements to dine at each other’s homes. And our introduction to Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan courtesy of big brother Dave. And listening to the Joe Louis-Arturo Godoy fight. And the movies on Saturdays in Boonton or Denville. And mostly the outlandish bit he wrote about me in the Yearbook.
For all of those memories and a thousand more, I miss the best friend of all. (Never mind the awful neckties.) See you soon. Love,
Ronald Neil Campbell