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RON COHEN: FROM HIS NEW BOOK
Ron Cohen
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Ron Cohen

Archived stories HERE

Posted 05.10.16
Near Washington DC

RON COHEN

[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This is an excerpt from Ron Cohen's forthcoming memoir, "Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast: Love Letters to My Grandkids". Cohen retired after four decades with United Press International and Gannett News Service, and is the author of the award-winning "Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival" He was running UPI's Washington bureau when President Reagan was shot.

Doris and the Broken Leg

Doris Kraus, my classmate at Nassau School in East Orange, N.J., was a sweet girl whose parents came from Germany. It was kind of exotic having a German-American friend during World War II, when every adult we knew was saying bad things about those awful "Krauts." But you couldn't regard her wildly bouncing blond curls and her shy smile and think anything except, "How cute!"

One day, in fifth grade, she was absent and our teacher, Miss Hood, delivered stunning news: Doris had been hit by a car on Central Avenue while walking home from school. The bones in her right leg were shattered, and she probably would miss a couple months of class.

"We need a volunteer to bring her homework to her, someone who lives not too far from the hospital," said Miss Hood.

My hand shot up. I liked Doris. A lot. And I kinda thought she "liked" me back.

East Orange General Hospital is vvirtually on the same block where I live, I tell my teacher. I am perfect for the job.

Carrying our books that day after school, I visited her room in the very hospital where, a couple of decades later, my daughters, Rachel and Jennifer, would be born.

I was stunned when I saw my little friend. Tiny Doris, all but swallowed up in her enormous hospital bed, was a prisoner of cranks and pulleys and wires. Her poor leg disappeared in a plaster cast that reached her hip. What a torture chamber!

It wasn't easy maneuvering around this mechanical monstrosity to explain the homework assignments. I was embarrassed for her, and left quickly after dropping her books on the bed.

But I returned next day and the next, every school day for three weeks. Less awkward each time, I stayed longer and longer. She was an industrious student with nothing else to do during long hours of hospital isolation. Each afternoon I brought her new assignments and picked up the completed work for Miss Hood to grade.

When they discharged Doris, doctors warned her against putting too much weight on the reconstructed leg. She could not leave her apartment for another four or five weeks -- almost to the end of the school year.

Thus did it come to pass that Miss Hood needed a replacement volunteer for after-school homework delivery. Someone who lived near the Krauses.

My raised hand drew her raised eyebrow. Didn't Doris live on South Harrison Street, at least a mile out of my way, she asked?

"Milton Strauss lives right next door to Doris. Perhaps it would be easier for him to carry her homework."

Rats! Milton Strauss!

Kraus and Strauss.

My warped and hormones-addled young mind conjured a euphonious Kraus and Strauss wedding in a few years, myself seated broken-hearted on the sidelines like a lump of liverwurst.

I stood no chance against Milton. He was tall and ruggedly handsome, with a chiseled nose, a strong, square jaw. Plus a shock of blond hair, just like Doris. A perfect match, even I had to concede.

Me? Even in elementary school, the first trace of the hereditary Cohen widow's peak was painfully apparent. A cold-hearted classmate once thus described my profile: "His forehead is like a ski slope, and his nose just keeps on going."

Milton was quiet and studious, I was loud and not so. A few weeks earlier he had beaten me by a nose -- even with my Cyrano de Bergerac advantage -- in the 100-yard dash, the featured event at the Nassau School Spring Gym Jamboree.

Before finishing my tale of Doris, let me tell you a little bit about the aftermath of that race. As runner-up, I also had won a large, orange block-letter "N." I rushed home from school so my mom could sew and I could have my very own "letter sweater."

Walking into the apartment, I proudly brandished the "N" as if it were an acceptance letter from Yale. Millie seemed underwhelmed.

"I'll sew it on, but I don't see the big deal."

No big deal? Didn't she remember back several centuries to her own teen years, when athletes wearing varsity letter sweaters strutted the halls of Newark's Barringer High, legions of cute teenage girls trailing, starry-eyed, in their wake?

"I bet you're not even all that fast," she said. "I bet I could beat you."

Was she nuts? This pitiable antique dared challenge Mr. Nassau School Hundred-Yard-Dash-Runner-Up? Absolutely not. How could I embarrass my mom like that?

She shot me the "look," what her Italian brothers and sisters, with respect and a little jealousy, called "mal' occhio."

Mildred's Mal'occhio. The Evil Eye.

"Okay, maybe we'll race someday," I muttered

"We'll race right now!"

When Millie got like that, don't argue. A lesson painfully learned and re-learned, even at my tender age.

We walked four floors down from our apartment to the backyard of 18 South Munn, where Millie stepped off about 50 yards like a football referee marking a penalty.

She threw down a dishtowel marking the finish line. Then, warming up by swinging her arms and twisting her trunk, she walked back to where I was standing, her regular flat shoes laughable next to my gleaming new white sneaks.

"I'll give you a head start," I offered. "I'll count to five, then I'll take off."

Again, the dreaded mal' occhio -- second time in five minutes. Perhaps a new Northern New Jersey record.

Okay, I thought, I will intentionally start slowly, so as not to beat her too badly. But she suddenly shouted "Go!" and shot off like Mercury, my only vista being the soles of her flats growing smaller and smaller.

She won by five yards, taunting me by theatrically slowing at the finish and twisting her head so I could see her fiendish grin . Millie had crushed her very own son. She would have crushed Milton Strauss. Heck, she might have crushed Jesse Owens.

I'll hand this to her. When I later showed my dad the sweater with the spiffy orange "N," Millie silently kept stirring the spaghetti gravy with no mention of my mortification.

"Nice going," Dad said. "You know, your mother was quite a runner in her day, too."

"Oh, yeah?" I said, confident that news of my humiliation never would pass my mom's lips. Nor mine.

Until now.

But back to Doris. I had volunteered to re-up for five more weeks of selfless humanitarianism, fearful my blonde cutie would end up with the married name Doris Kraus-Strauss.

I guess Miss Hood understood a bit about young love, because she agreed I could keep the after school gig until Doris was recovered enough to return to class.

But puppy love always fades as time marches on. After sixth grade my family moved to West Orange, to a new school system and brand new best friends. Even some new schoolboy crushes, passing notes to new cute girls and teasing them mercilessly, like schoolboys had been doing since the invention of puberty.

Doris was equally busy adjusting to junior high in East Orange, and a fresh supply of would-be beaus.

The new distance between us was small potatoes -- four miles from my house on Orange Mountain to her apartment, via Public Service bus No. 23. We might as well have been on different planets.

I didn't really even think about Doris again until the autumn of my junior year in high school -- the only season I wasn't involved in varsity sports. I really liked watching football, but play it? Nah, that was for oversized brutes from The Valley, with names ending in vowels. Jewish kids who lived on the mountain stuck to more intellectual sports like basketball and tennis, where fewer bones might be mashed to dust.

And I had just broken up with yet another fickle girl friend. No girl, no sports -- well, nature abhors a vacuum. Into my vacuum flickered memories of Doris Kraus. So I phoned.

It took her a few seconds to remember me after five years, but she accepted a movie date for Saturday night.

I took the 23 bus to South Harrison. The hallway outside Doris's flat was redolent of her mom's gut-busting German cooking. Magically transported back to fifth grade, I took a couple of deep whiffs and rang her bell.

A taller and far more mature version of my grade-school infatuation materialized. I tried to speak, but ... gibberish. Even worse, it was gibberish delivered in soprano.

I had overcome the problem of "voice change" several years earlier, so this had more to do with my brain cortex than my vocal cords. Girls who are "way more mature than you remember" often can have that effect on a teenager.

I happily collected my new Doris and we walked around the corner to the Palace Theater. I have long ago forgotten the name of the movie, but my recollection of holding hands with Doris for the very first time fetches a nostalgic smile six decades later.

Afterwards, we went to Eppes Essen ("Something to eat", in German), the best deli in the Oranges. Over pastrami and kosher dills, Doris and Ron tried to rekindle the old days.

She told me I had turned out "cute" (the little liar!). And she didn't have to be a genius to realize how bowled over I was by the new, vastly improved Doris. But the silences grew longer once we had exhausted memories of Nassau and the spring of the broken leg.

She had her new world, and I had mine. "Our" world existed no longer.

At her door, I softly kissed her cheek. Her perfume mingled pleasantly with the scent of spaetzle.

And I never saw Doris Kraus again.

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