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Birthday Bomb

by Artie Richard

Of all the birthdays that I have endured lo these many years, one stands out like. . . OK I’ll say it, a sore thumb. I don’t know where or with whom the plot was originally hatched, but I have an idea.

In our group, or gang, whichever you prefer, it was not a standing ritual to treat a member to an all-night, all-expenses-paid, 18th birthday event. It cannot be because I was more beloved among my motley crew. There must have been some other reason. Indeed it would prove to be so.

For clarity it appears to be time for some introductions. Just who were these miscreants? Well, first and foremost was John Kauffner, yes the big brother of our esteemed webmaster. It might be well to point out, for those who may be new to cyber-stuff, a female webmaster has nothing at all to do with bondage nor whips nor leather nor any of that kinky stuff. It is just an unfortunate similarity on terminology. I know the lady a long time; she’s cool. Getting back to introductions, there was Billy Hankinson.

Bill was a big Sinatra fan before it was fashionable for a guy to be. He would brag on how his big cousin Rita was one of the original Frankie fans. I spent more non-gang hours with Billy than with anybody except John. I will not be able to write much, ever, about our escapades for reasons of statutes of limitations. Billy was especially comforting when John went into the Navy, supposedly to be a frogman. In reality he hated mud, mosquitoes and also had formed the notion that he looked more dashing in blue than in brown.

Eric Nordgren was, and apparently still is, first generation Swedish. Like John he is real bright. He was quiet and laid back but hated cats. We never really knew why, but he "heaved a rock" (his words) at every one he saw. His grandfather had been an Olympic skiing champion. Eric had a stoop in front of his house so it became a natural meeting place. I especially recall the meeting right after the dropping of the first Atom Bomb, but that’s another tale. He is, so far, the only crew member who has visited here in Texas but does not remember his hatred of cats. Strange.

Then there were the "Bruce Twins" , Katzer and Spiegelberg. They were the same in many ways but totally opposite in others. There was not much middle ground. Often one would make a remark that no one else understood but the other Bruce would shoot him a knowing glance. Katzer could, at times, be very refined (by our standards) and I believe was the first of the crew to begin smoking a pipe. When a few of us went to pipe smoking, Katzer showed up with a curved one. Spiegelberg was an Indian in a German’s body. He saw himself as Thunder Cloud or, more properly, Crazy Horse. He is said to have owned the full deal; headdress, buckskins, bows, arrows, lance, moccasins, etc. Once, while we were doing what we called "camping", I saw him do a very impressive dance around a large fire complete with sound effects.

Tom Zengel lived in the house right behind me and we went to the same high school together though he was a year ahead. His house was the scene of the poker and pinochle games that raged for a while among the gang. Tom was very, very, picky about everything but especially about his model railroad stuff that he was forever building. Tom was both a rabid non-smoker and lozenge-sucker so there were always plenty of Sucret boxes for ashtrays for the rest of us.

Whenever he left the room we would slide open the little doors on his little freight cars and deposit some "freight" in the form of cigarette butts. Drove him up the wall. Need I add the original idea was John’s. It may be appropriate here to apologize for our barbarous behavior. Sorry Tom.

Teddy Relay and John Beneck were a pair. They entered the crew as a pair, friends of long standing. Teddy was a graceful acrobat, John too. One of the glues that held the group together in the beginning was gymnastics. I had a high bar in my yard. Someone else had a trampoline, someone else parallel bars, like that. Teddy and John were very proficient in everything acrobatic. Teddy’s role model (we called it hero) the person he would have liked to be was Gene Kelly. Failing that he would settle for Burt Lancaster or maybe Mario Lanza. 

John Beneck was a true straight shooter. Not a dishonest bone in his body but you never got to really know him completely. Totally without humor or guile he was a very private guy. I not only liked him but I respected him. John would never put a butt in Tom’s freight car even if he smoked.

The culprits involved in my 18th. birthday event were, to the best of my memory, John (Kauffner not Beneck) Eric (because he had the car) Billy, Tommy, and probably at least one Bruce. The whole thing is a bit hazy. Now it must be said here that I was only an average drinker but had acquired many hours practice, like a pilot acquires air hours.

It came to pass that it was announced that I was to be taken out on the evening of my 18th. and would not be allowed to touch my wallet. Furthermore, I would be plied with drink of my choice until I could not move. I guess they figured, how long could it take, the cheapskates.

The first stop was McQuillan’s, a local watering hole. An older guy that we knew from the neighborhood was tending bar. I started drinking from the left end of the liquor shelf and progressed to the right. One of each. I don’t even know what the hell most of them were. It soon became painfully clear to my chums that things were not going as planned. They got bored with this place and Billy suggested a place called The Studio. Of course they never figured that I would survive the first place so there was not a backup plan.

The Studio was fine except that it was not on our usual turf. As I drank more and got unbearably obnoxious we became unwelcome to some of the regulars who didn’t know any of us save Billy. It was because they knew him that we were able to exit The Studio unscathed. That’s what they tell me. I was still vertical and communicating, more or less. Finally it was Billy again who suggested Schultz’s Bar on Coney Island Ave. and Ave O, our home away from home where we were appreciated.

We had been patrons of Schultz’s for about a year and Donald Schultz, the owner/bartender was a good friend. When Billy had found a girl friend from the neighborhood he had set me up with her girl friend. When the romances were over we still frequented the bar always with friends a few years older. So we never got carded. When the guys explained the problem, namely that I would not go down, Don said, with a truly satanic grin, "Don’t worry I’ll make him a Schultz’s Bomb. He’ll go down" This was a serious $2.00 concoction which began with the pouring of about 8 oz. of Burgundy into a shaker. Then Don would turn his back and add several other unknown ingredients. To the best of my knowledge, and I believe I would have heard about such an event, no one had ever drunk two Bombs.

So my good buddies, their change purses getting anemic, sprang for the Bomb. They knew it was the last resort. They had long since switched to beer or 7-Up to avoid going broke. We were not rich guys. I remember sitting on the familiar bar stool and having the Bomb set on the bar before me. One of the guys said "He’ll never forget his 18th. birthday." I took the huge tankard in both hands and began drinking. At the same time Don put two and two together. He was not slow and later became a very successful NYPD detective. Suddenly it hit him that I had been coming to his establishment for a year and now, only now, was celebrating my 18th. birthday.

I do not remember going down. All I do remember is being on the floor tangled up in the stool. That floor was always foul around closing time.

There I was down there with the cigar and cigarette butts and worse. The brass spittoon had become a thing of the past. Get the picture? It gave new meaning to the phrase - Down and Dirty.

I do NOT think that Don hit me. The guys swear that he didn’t. I believe it was the Bomb that hit me. Either way, I got hit. There must have been a great sigh of relief from my cronies. The nightmare was over for them but not for me. The next thing I remember is being on the floor in the back of Eric’s car. John and somebody else had their feet resting on me. They must have thought that I was out. It was at this point that the true agenda became clear. I heard John’s voice "I got an idea lets drive him to Philadelphia and leave him on the ground by the Liberty Bell with train fare in his pocket." Who believes that this just came to him? Obviously it had been planned, probably since my 17th. birthday. I still like to think it was because the others were too decent to vote the plan in, and not that they didn’t have the $7.50 train fare or the round trip gas money.

For whatever reason I was driven home and carried, stiff as a board, into the house. God knows what time it was but since my grandmother, Molly, kept the same kind of hours I did it was she who accepted the body. She is supposed to have asked "He’s not dead is he?"

The reply "Naa, only drunk. where do you want him up in his room?"

Molly - "Just leave him there on the floor. Oh God, another drunk in the family."

Actually we did have a lot of people in the family who liked the grape but no alcoholics. That term had not yet come into vogue.

Time: exact 3 Oct.1952

Last changed: June 28, 2002

Bruce S., John, and Eric


Bill Hankinson


Tom Zengel