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  • James Eichenlaub

Wisdom Makes You Wary - Life Makes You Learn

Updated: Apr 7


The Agudath Achim synagogue on 17th Street was at one time very special to me. Our old house sits across the Street from it, and besides providing me some insight into the Jewish community as a young teen (I am not Jewish, it also brought me my first job and my first heartbreak.


The first time I entered the synagogue, someone put a yarmulka on my head and handed me a small book before escorting me to a seat. I was 12 years old at that time.


Our family expressed little or no belief in a god, so this was the period in which my spirituality began to blossom, so I intended to visit all of the churches in my neighborhood to see why they were all so different. For example, a Greek Orthodox church sat on the corner directly across from the synagogue; further down the Street was a massive First Baptist Church, and scattered about but within walking distance were also the Methodist, Episcopalian, and Seventh-day Adventists, to name a few. I didn't get to them all...and why should I? I discovered that they were all saying the same things in different ways, and it was the Jews alone who had something different to offer, and I wanted to see what it was. Boy, was I in for a surprise!


After the services ended, someone ushered me down a flight of stairs where, to my great amazement, was a bowling alley. If I recall correctly, there were six lanes, and they invited me to bowl duckpins with the other children. When the duckpin bowling finished, a man called me over and offered me a job setting up the bowling pins. There were no automatic pinsetters in the synagogue lanes, and the local goyim (gentile boys) were invited to work with the Jewish teens as "pin boys," i.e., to set up the pins for adult and youth leagues as well as activities like those I'd attended that day.


Perhaps he was a successful businessman, but the man who spoke to me asked me to take the job in such a way that I felt I was being honored by the offer. "Not many boys have the strength for it," he said, "But you! You look like you could handle any task, big or small!" Had I any muscles at the time, I would have flexed one or two of them out of sheer pride! The fact was, I didn't weigh much more than a bowling ball and was as skinny as a chicken leg, but I took the job anyway! Then I rushed home asked my mom if it was okay.

As a "pin boy," The pay rate was something like '50 cents per game and something else or so on...I cannot recall exactly. Just say, there was money involved, for which any teenage boy was willing to risk his life! There were also some tips included, and for the son of a waitress, whatever the amount, it was money more than none!


The job was fast-moving and exciting and lasted until one night, some months later, I was knocked unconscious by a wild pin. You know, being the 'tough guy' he knew I was and all that, I was usually alert enough to duck or let the pin bounce off me with only a bruise or two, but this particular wild pin came from several lanes over and put my lights out cold. After which, my mother made me quit. "No concussion is worth .50 cents a game!" she said. Unfortunately, mothers have no sense of value, and there went my lucrative income. (Where was she a few years later when I was on that aircraft carrier and nearly killed by an airplane?)


Though, after taking the job and dodging a few pins, the veteran pin-boys informed us, newbies, that some of the league bowlers made bets on who could launch pins high enough to knock us off our perches. Ergo, ever since the night that guy put my lights out, whenever I see a Jew with a bowling ball, I get out of the way! Mazeltov! That's been my motto! (No, that is NOT being anti-Semitic, I am just joking around! Some of the best Jews I know are my friends of mine! How's that for a goy?)

Then came the great embarrassment! As we all know, Jewish women are among the most beautiful on the planet. Well, one Saturday afternoon in late fall, services were letting out at Agudath Achim as I was riding my bicycle up and down the street in front of the synagogue. Standing there near the curb was a tall JAP (Jewish American Princess) with gorgeous black hair, green eyes, and the most intriguing freckles across the bridge of a petite pussycat nose that wrinkled in the cutest way when she smiled.


Well, I couldn't take my eyes off her. To my twelve-year-old brain, she looked like a movie queen on the set of her latest production, and I said to myself, "When I'm in high school, I want a girlfriend just like her." Of course, I imagined that I would be six-foot-two and at least 195lbs of sheer muscle with a stylish haircut and stylish clothes by high school. 'Then' she would wish she was with 'me'!

To impress her, I began showing off my exceptional bike-riding skills. I became Don Quixote on my valiant steed! Pulling wheel stands (my steed rearing), doing sharp and snappy turns in the middle of the Street (my steed in battle), and then I sped past her with no hands on the handlebars in a final, desperate maneuver to ensure that she noticed me and what I was all about (me being stupid).


To my amazement, as I passed close by her and her parents, she looked directly at me and smiled. Or at least I think she did. Imagination is often a good thing is it not? Locking my eyes to hers and returning her smile as I passed, I failed to pay attention to anything else. An instant later, right in mid-flirt, I found myself in a heap on the Street as I rode old Rocinante directly into the back of a parked car.


Bruised and embarrassed in both body and soul, I scrambled to my feet as the entire crowd, including her parents, stopped and stared. Rocinante was severely damaged, maybe even dead, and all of my dreams of romance with movie stars and muscular high school days crashed there with me. My stomach churned as I sadly limped away on a twisted ankle, a bruised forehead, brush burned hands and elbows, and a bent and broken horse hanging from my shoulder.


The tide turns, and heartache is in the making.


The lot where the squirrel house once stood!

Months later, this story took a very ironic turn. As teenage boys will do, I was a tree climber, and having lived in the Pennsylvania hills for those many years, building tree houses became a popular pastime for me.


So in the early spring of 64, back when James Bond was ruling the big screen, and Julie Andrews was running around the hills that were alive with music, I was squirreled away in the tree cabin near the alleyway next to our home. Suddenly, there was a knock on my trunk! Well, not an actual knock; more like a friend's voice calling out to me from below. "Hey, Jim! You up there?" Removing the acorns from my cheek pouches, I fluffed my tail and peeked out the opening in the floor. (Okay, enough of the squirrel metaphor, sorry!)


Looking down the trunk, there below stood that same amazing girl I'd seen in front of the synagogue. Next to her was my friend and another pretty girl he held close as he rested his arm across her shoulders. I don't recall, actually, if I climbed down, jumped, or just flew the fifteen or so feet from the platform, but within a very few seconds, I stood before her with glassy eyes, sweaty hair, and a dirt-covered face. Ignoring totally the other two next to her.


"This is Melinda!" he said. "She's looking for someone to go with her to the Saint. Peter and Paul festival on 18th Street. You wanna go along?" (I hope I wasn't slobbering or anything gross!) Staring numbly at her face, I nearly did a 'happy pee' circle right there in the ally. Dressed in jeans and a light-colored blouse with that same debutant smile that killed Roscenate, I was so captivated that I could barely breathe; The decision took less than a millisecond as I just nodded my head in agreement and instantly transported myself to the house to bathe and change clothes.

We walked next to one another up eighteenth-street to the festival lot, and although I don't recall what it was we talked about, I'm sure it was interesting because, by the time we arrived, she was still walking next to me! The evening passed far too quickly, and during our first ride on "The Scrambler," we were pushed so tightly together as we whirled around and around in nauseating happiness that she and I ended up as steadies (as the saying was back then).


She was very mature for her age, the exact opposite of me, which made her look years older than me, and is why I believe her wonderful mother, Betty, permitted our friendship, even though I was a goy. Of course, given my size and physical development at the time, I presented about as much danger to her daughter as a blind eunuch in a chastity belt, not to mention the fact that I had no intention or desire to dishonor Melinda in any way.


So, as it turned out, Melinda was my first passionate kiss, my first heart-shredding romance, and holding her was to hold a dream that stepped out of a movie and into my arms—a post-pubescent fantasy of adolescence and the stirring of my first desire for the love of a girl. Like the blooming of my spirituality, my heart was opening, and, for the first time, I was beginning to take stock of who I was and what I might be in the future.


Unfortunately, neither of us could foresee the pain that was waiting for us. Like the memory of a nightmare from which one has just awakened: you know it was terrible, you shake and feel fear, but after a short time you cannot recall the exact details of it all, and so it went as this first encounter with infatuation, or what I felt sure was true love for someone, came to a sudden and disastrous end.


As I recall it, the same friend who introduced us, who, by the way, was also far more mature than I, came to me and somehow led me to believe that Melinda secretly saw, or was seeing, someone else. She, according to him, wanted a boyfriend more like him, someone more mature, and he felt that I should be aware of this. Of course, I assumed that he was referring to himself being the egoist and selfish person he was, so I did not know at the time that he was making this up or simply offering an opinion. Regardless of his intentions, it crushed me in so many ways that, looking at myself in the mirror, I could understand why she would think so.


At the time, I weighed less than a hundred pounds and was insufficiently constructed to have a physical relationship with anyone, which caused me profound embarrassment and shame. Who and what I was relative to her maturity and beauty, and more importantly, relative to the other guys my age and older, caused me to feel that there was simply no way I deserved a girl like her.


Whether or not I thought about it at the time, which I most likely did, I recall the evening that she and I went to the movie theater where I sat with my arm proudly wrapped around her shoulders. As we sat there, some older boys spotted us when they came to their seats and sitting in front of us; they made fun throughout the movie. "Hey honey," one said, "after you take your little brother home, how about going out with me?" I wanted to tear his throat out, but I was no match against even one of them, let alone three.


Thinking of such things, my hurt and embarrassment deepened, and I essentially hid from her and refused to speak to her again. Besides giving me her heart (which I selfishly failed to appreciate), she had also given me a beautiful silver bracelet that was returned to her by 'my friend' hammered and smashed in a sickening gesture of our breakup. Something that I have no recollection of having done but have to assume it so. In a similar sense, it was an action that also crushed her heart and left me, to this day, filled with remorse and shame.


That was nearly sixty years ago, and to this day, that shame and regret never left me, despite the fact, and given the circumstances, I don't see any possibility that it could have turned out differently. She was more emotionally and physically mature, and in my mind, too far out of my reach. It wasn't until I returned home from the Navy in 1974 that I saw her once more, very briefly, during which time we said a cold and hurtful hello. She walked away, and we have not seen one another since.


It wasn't until sometime after the breakup that I learned that neither he nor any other guy saw Melinda, and I began to unravel and understand what kind of "friend" I had. The same one who introduced me to her was the same one that brought my deficiencies to my attention, the same person who made me doubt Melinda and, worse yet, doubt myself. In fact, shortly after Melinda, I met another girl, and that one he not only stole from me but seduced her into a physical relationship that I walked in on. Oh, my aching ego! My confidence never recovered.


Things changed for me in 1967 when I was introduced to my future wife, Kate. Captivated by her pixie-like sweetness and mesmerized by her silky-brown, short hair that curled beneath her ears into a small loop toward her jawline. The hairstyle perfectly framed the gorgeous little face that stole my heart, and that evening we went to the drive-in theater where she and I 'listened' to the movie Lawrence of Arabia as we fell in love.


In December of that same year, our first son was born, and we were required to wait three more years before we could marry. In need of employment, I enlisted in the Navy in 1969 and finished high school while in boot camp, after which I continued groveling and begging until she agreed, and we married in February of 1971, the year our second child of the four was born. The Navy trained me as an electronics technician which carried me through the remainder of my working career.


The final twist to this story is that after my marriage and while I was away at sea, that very same "friend" once more tried to sabotage my relationship when he attempted to seduce my wife. I cannot herein divulge the details, but suffice it to say he was not successful as she threatened him with physical harm or worse should he ever try again.


So I must say that those early learning experiences made me wiser in my future dealings with people, especially when it comes to who my friends are. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer! No, thank you! It's too difficult to tell them apart. The only other friend I had besides him is also a part of history and for reasons similar but totally different. On the other hand, Melinda was much more than a friend and one that I will always regret how badly I treated.


So, my only remaining BFF is the one to whom I am married and have been with ever since. A relationship spanning nearly sixty years, with four grown and successful children while she and I live together in our happy retirement villa here in Florida as we together watch the world pass us by.


Valuable lessons have proven wisdom makes you wary, and life forces you to learn.

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