Bar Mitzvah Memories

    January 2009            
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My Socialist Bar Mitzvah

By Barry S. Willdorf

Fifty years ago, when the time came for my bar mitzvah, I was not given the opportunity to spout off from the bimah at the local synagogue like my contemporaries. My mother held that religion was the opiate of the masses and, determined to maintain a drug-free household, she contrived something she called a “socialist bar mitzvah.” What she had in mind was to show me that, when push came to shove, the captains of industry were still willing to grind their iron heels into the sons and daughters of our original pioneers. And so she cooked up a road trip into lands where, by her accounts, there yet dwelt original American serfs. We'd travel to Appalachia.

It was in the spring of 1958 that the four of us (for we were obliged to shlep along my little sister) with my father, whose personal opinion on all of this was that “it was a crock of shit” at the wheel, invaded the hills and hollers of West Virginia in Dad’s spanking new, black and chrome Mercury Turnpike Cruiser with its all-leather interior, electric windows and Massachusetts plates.

Consulting her AAA maps, Mom scrupulously avoided the busy red roads. Reluctantly settling for blue when all else failed, she took every opportunity to direct us onto the dotted lines the so-called “improved roads” — which meant that in some spots they’d put gravel over the dirt.

But as we bounced along from rut to rut, as we penetrating into the heartland habitat of the endangered American serf, Mom’s bravado began to waver. Gone was her self-assurance. In its place was anxiety, evident in her looks of concern when I strayed more than a few paces from the car. Soon she was passing up opportunities to browse roadside stands, though they were laden with enticing ciders and native produce. She was prodding us to hush whenever we settled into the worn-out booths of the area’s dilapidated “whites only” diners. And she was scolding us to remain invisible when my father negotiated for one of the region’s ubiquitous accommodations, a kerosene-lit cabin cum outhouse.

The days passed and though, from the back seat, I got to see ramshackle dwellings roll by, elders rocking and gumming on sagging porches and their smudged-faced, barefoot offspring frolicking in yards that looked like pig slop, the trip devolved into a something akin to a Disneyesque amusement ride where one never actually comes in contact with anything. Sure enough, the scenes whizzing past confirmed that there were indeed people in these United States that looked like the Yokums of Dogpatch. But what did they think? Were they the besotted mindless hillbillies that populated Al Capp’s comics or were they actually mighty revolutionaries simply biding their time until they got “The Party’s” call to assault the citadels of power? I began to have my doubts.

Then, despite her best efforts to insulate me from an in-depth inquiry, the hermetic seal was broken and the bitter pill of reality poked its ugly head right into our comfortable vehicle. My alternative rite-of-passage bore unexpected fruits.

The sun was already dipping in and out from behind a series of steep, denuded hills when my father rolled to a stop beside the pumps of one of those last-gas-for-fifty- miles service stations. “Couple bucks of hi-test,” he grunted in the direction of the proprietor while attempting to mask his thick Bronx accent.

The gaunt codger to whom my father directed this order squinted in an attempt to read our plates, making his nose curl into a hawk’s beak. A cheek bulged with what I knew ballplayers called “chaw.” He pushed off from his rocker in the shade where he'd been fanning himself with some newsprint and shuffled over to our shiny vehicle, scrutinizing its contents as if we were a box of chocolates and he was pondering his selection. “Two-a super,” he confirmed, taking the opportunity, now that his mouth was in gear, to squirt a brown gob of tobacco juice out of its corner.

It was then that my father noticed an ancient red Coke machine sputtering away on the fellow’s porch. He squeezed himself out from behind the wheel to investigate, returning a few moments later to report with evident delight: “They're still a nickel down here.”

Indeed, he’d discovered a backwater Shangri-La of pricing. In New York and Boston the nickel Coke was a thing of fading memory. How, I wondered, could they keep the prices so low here in Hicksville? It certainly wasn't volume.

Euphoric at this discovery, my father's generosity was exceptional and he sprang for twenty cents worth of the elixir. Moments later all four of us, little sister included, were in reverie, nursing our very own bottles of Coca Cola savoring that pause that refreshes so that even after the bumpkin had pumped out those eight gallons of his highest octane fuel we still had plenty of soda left in our bottles.

But lurking within our dalliance was hidden peril. The wholesale pricing had lifted my father's spirits to the point where he couldn’t resist the urge to wring additional considerations out of those two bucks. Heedless of the “know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” rule, he insisted the fellow check the oil, then the water levels in the radiator and battery and after that, the air in the tires. And still, when the proprietor appeared at our window, palm up, wanting to be paid, we'd not finished our drinks.

Dad peeled off a couple of bills and as the man shuffled off to ring up the sale, hit the gas. The next thing I heard was something that sounded like a rebel yell and then some more of the same. I peered out the back window where I was just able to make him out  running through the cloud of dust and gravel the Turnpike Cruiser was kicking up – a strap of his overalls flapping. Had we left something behind? Was this old codger attempting to warn us of an unknown hazard? As my father slowed and the dust began to settle, the answer was revealed –no, it was nothing like that. His face was grim. His jaw was set. He was charging toward us like an infantryman, with a double-barreled shotgun cradled across his chest.

I looked in the rearview mirror to see perspiration spreading over my father's brow. His fingers were gripping the steering wheel tightly. There was fear in his eyes the fear of the Jew in Gentile-land since time immemorial.

Was this curtains for Manny Willdorf? Would he be wacked with a load double 0 buck like his boyhood hero, the Bronx mobster, Dutch Schultz? Or were we in for a necktie party —a West Virginian version of the murder of Leo Frank, the Jew famously lynched in Georgia forty years earlier?

He rolled down his window and waited until the yokel came abreast of him, then gave the fellow a nervous shrug. My mother, uncharacteristically, had nothing to say. But the owner of the gas station was not similarly tongue-tied. “Now jus' hole on ther", Yankee,” he drawled, “hole dem gol-darn hosses.”

My eyes were drawn to the gun. I'd seen these double-barreled affairs before on TV. The guy who sat next to the stagecoach driver always had one. Enthralled, I noticed the old fellow's thumb resting on the hammer behind one of the barrels as he contemplated cocking the weapon. “Ahah,” I thought, not fully in touch with the delicacy of our predicament, “here at last is the real Appalachia. He must be one of those revolutionaries willing to pile up corpse upon corpse to unseat the capitalists and seize the reigns of power. Here's the real McCoy Mom's always talking about. We'll straighten this out in no time. All Mom has to explain is that we're socialists and revolutionaries just like him. No problem. Go ahead, Dad. Tell him that even though we have this new four-door black car that looks almost like a limousine, that you've got a college education and work as a white-collar engineer, tell him that we're his comrades.”


But such was not in my father’s game plan. Instead, he could only summon a sputtering, “What's wrong?”

“You run off without payin’ no deposit on them sodas you got. That's what's wrong, Yankee,” the hillbilly snarled. “You owe me eight cents, two each for them four bottles you lit out with. So you jus put them bottles back in the rack or gimme eight cents right now.”

My father sighed with relief. He wasn't getting lynched. “Sorry,” he said, smiling. “Just a misunderstanding.” But there was a hitch in his voice that I knew well. The buckshot-riddled ghost of Dutch Schultz was calling. I recognized that old deep-down reluctance he always had to part with a penny, especially urgent here, as this demand came from a yokel wanting eight cents in hard currency. “Try something,” the Dutchman whispered, and my father began to feel for an angle. “Look,” he said, “I got some empties in the trunk. How about I give you four of them so the kids can finish their drinks and we'll be on our way?”

The old man scratched the stubble on his chin while he considered the proposal. He didn't quite like it –knew he was dealing with a fast-talking Yankee bottle thief but he couldn't sniff out the game. “Les jus' see them bottles, Yankee.”

“Sure, sure,” said my father as he hauled his butt out of the car. He popped the trunk and there, to one side, was his wooden crate filled with coke bottles, a few of the large five-cent deposit kind and a slew of smaller two-centers.

The hillbilly peered inside and spat again. He knew the moonshine business all right and this smacked of something like it. He fretted with a hammer on his gun. He squinted. He frowned. Obviously not a man of words, he looked to be turning over in his mind the ones he intended to use. “Now I know what you been doin’ down here, Yankee. You been thievin’ our Coke bottles.”

I snickered. Could this backwater yokel really think that my father had actually earned a brand new Mercury by stealing empties from gas stations? But then, except for his exaggerated idea of the profit involved, the hick had struck pay dirt as to the truth of the matter.

The air was redolent with the tang of gun oil. My father stared at the weapon. The glaring sinister voids that were its pair of muzzles. The carved cross-hatching of its walnut stock, polished to the sheen of a recruit’s boot. The dust-free ebony barrel that sparkled like river rapids at sundown. If that gas station jockey loved anything in this world, it was that piece. It brought Dad to his senses. “Take some of the big ones,” he gulped. “Your choice.”

Not a greedy fellow, the West Virginian satisfied himself with a couple of the five-centers.

After we got home my father began telling everyone that he was so moved by this downtrodden worker’s distress, he gave the fellow an extra two cents, and everyone believed him.

While my “socialist bar mitzvah” didn’t teach me much in the way of Torah I got what I know about that elsewhere but I did manage to bring home some useful observations: You don't have to be educated to be smart. Schooling is not an inoculation against stupidity. If you bullshit well enough, there are plenty of people out there who won’t be able to distinguish it from the truth. And, it doesn't hurt to keep your shotgun well-oiled.


from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine