In those heady days after the end of World War II, when America soared on the wings of victory and the new prosperity of the 1950s replaced the grimness of the Depression, Gene Thomas and his brother, Val-a.k.a. Gonki-spent their childhood days playing in their middle-class neighborhood and having the adventures of their young lives.
Funny, sometimes sad, but always entertaining, Tales from the Tree House is a collection of short stories taken from the real life exploits of the Thomas brothers. Before the television took away the wonder of childhood play and exploration, the Thomas brothers became intimately familiar with their neighborhood, staying out late, embarking on daring adventures, and playing pranks on the unsuspecting.
Thomas's lively prose evokes the sounds and sights of a time and place now lost. Whether the brothers were snatching used beer bottles (worth a fortune in candy and soda pop money!) from the construction yard next door, digging for dinosaur bones in their backyard, or building a tree house in their old oak tree, Gene and Gonki never had to tell their mother that they were bored!
Reminisce about the good old days with Tales from the Tree House.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.27(d)|
|Age Range:||15 - 17 Years|
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Tales from the Tree House
By Gene Thomas
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gene Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUncle Jake
When my brother Gonki and I became aware of him, we knew Uncle Jake as the old man who was living in a spare room near the kitchen at my grandma's brownstone in Brooklyn. In those days, many families shared one brownstone building, which in our case belonged to my grandmother and grandfather. We called them Nana and Granpop.
Uncle Jake was a little man, barely five feet one. His small stature was typical of the Robinsons, my grandmother's people. He was the older brother of my grandmother but Gonki and I knew very little about him until we began to encounter him as we played around the house. Since Gonki and I were always willing to listen to stories of any kind, we found Uncle Jake right about the time he needed someone – anyone to share his life stories with. The quiet storytelling time we spent with Uncle Jake temporarily kept us out of all the mischief we would eventually get into; both in that brownstone, and later when we moved to Queens.
Uncle Jake was a dapper dresser and, as my mom told us later, quite the lady's man in his youth. But he never married and had no family other than his two sisters to rely on when times got tough. They were tough for Uncle Jake, who was refused military service in World War II because of his age; he was already in his 70s when war broke out. Any available civilian jobs were taken by younger people – especially women, who had no time for anyone who was not wearing a uniform or gainfully employed. My mom said that while he'd had a great job in the past as a Pullman porter, there was no such thing as a pension for those men, at least not when Uncle Jake was forced to retire.
So Uncle Jake had to live off his sisters and recount to them, or anyone else who would listen, his experiences traveling all over the country by rail before the Great Depression. When his meager savings were exhausted, Jake found fewer and fewer people willing to listen repeatedly to an old man's lifetime of stories. Gonki and I never saw any of that. By the time we were in his life, Uncle Jake was in his 80s and barely surviving in the harshness of Brooklyn in the post-war, baby boom era.
Even at his advanced age, Uncle Jake spent a lot of time walking the streets of Brooklyn in the old zoot suits that were in vogue back in the late '20s and early '30s in California.
But no one noticed this tiny little man wondering through the bustling crowds. The returning war veterans were scampering around looking for work while their new brides were coming to grips with being displaced from the factory jobs they had occupied during the war. Intersperse that with all the new babies being produced by every family all around the country and it was no coincidence that tiny little Uncle Jake was overlooked by everyone, including his own family.
The brownstone was a four-story building that housed four separate families: Nana and Granpop; my mom and dad, Gonki and me; my uncle Val and Aunt Marie and their child, my cousin Marie; and my Aunt O'Chee and Uncle Charlie. Nana's sister Angie and Uncle Jake occupied single rooms on different floors and were always a part of everyone's lives, whether we wanted them to be or not.
When Gonki, my cousin Marie, and I started to play around the house, we discovered Uncle Jake and his room near the kitchen. The wall of the room next to the kitchen had a two-foot mesh covering at the top which had probably been used at one time to allow smoke from a cook stove to dissipate into the main kitchen area and up through the chimney over the stove. The mesh was removable; that is, it rolled up and could be latched in place so the entire area above the wall was open. Uncle Jake had an old kerosene cook stove that he kept on the other side of that wall next to the door. He usually ate alone unless it was a holiday. My mom used to tell us to stay out of Uncle Jake's room because he didn't like little kids and we should only bother him when he came home from his long walks. What we discovered about Uncle Jake, though, was the exact opposite.
Uncle Jake loved kids and spent hours telling us about the places he'd been to and the people he'd seen on the trains as he traveled around the country. Almost all the names and places he spoke of were alien to us, but we liked to hear him talk about them anyway. Nonetheless, my mom and dad would tell us to "Stop bothering Uncle Jake. He might get mad at you." But we knew the only time Uncle Jake didn't want to be bothered was when the door to his room was closed and we could see the light in his room was out. I always got the sense that all of the adults in the family, especially my mom, didn't much care for Uncle Jake, although I never heard anyone speak badly of him.
When I turned 5 or so, Uncle Jake started to invite my brother, cousin Marie and a couple of other kids from the neighborhood to come to the kitchen to watch him put on makeshift plays based on stories like the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He would use the mesh above the kitchen wall as his stage while he stood on a table and used old dolls to act out the different characters in his "plays." His stories were so entertaining that sometimes the adults sat in and listened. They laughed just as loud as we kids did – sometimes even louder. I do believe Uncle Jake was encouraged by the attention the adults were paying to his performances, because before long he started to add more flourishes to his plays. A later "flourish" taken from my mom's closet proved to be his undoing and brought his stage career in the kitchen to an abrupt end.
One of my favorite stories was the one about the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. Uncle Jake used a burlap bag sewn together to make ears and buttons to represent the eyes of the Big Bad Wolf. At the end of the story, when the three little pigs had made their way to the third pig's house made of brick, the wolf was tricked into coming down the chimney and wound up in the caldron and was scalded to death. That usually ended with Uncle Jake making noises as if the wolf were being boiled alive. For little kids, that was both scary and exciting. I'm not sure how the adults took it when they were watching. All they ever did was clap and laugh out loud at the ending.
What brought Uncle Jake's performances to an abrupt end was his use of my mom's fur stole, an ugly looking simulated fox stole with a head and four paws that wrapped around the neck and somehow clipped together. When my mom saw her stole come over the wall and into the caldron, which by the way was actually full of boiling hot water, she went nuts. The fur had no sooner hit the water when she screamed and lurched for the fur, pulling it right out of the steaming water. While her hands were burning, they were nowhere near how hot she was at Uncle Jake for using her stole as a prop. Everyone but my mom was clapping and laughing. We all thought the stole was a great idea and wanted to see an encore, but my mom was having none of that. By now she was so agitated that my dad and the other adults were trying to calm her down while ushering us kids out of the kitchen. It took quite a while before my mom finally did calm down, but that was the last performance Uncle Jake ever gave.
Uncle Jake was used to cooking his own meals in his room off of the kitchen, but he also used the kerosene stove for heating his little room. Many times Nana would come down to his room after he went to sleep and turn off the stove before it ran out of kerosene. Sometimes the wind would blow the back door in the kitchen open. When it did, things got blown over – heavy things, like kerosene lanterns and cook stoves....
Several people in the house heard the crash and the wind blowing through the house, but no one bothered to investigate whether the house was okay. No one that is, except Uncle Jake.
What I found out some years later was that Uncle Jake thought his stove had fallen onto the floor in his room and had gotten up to fix it. What he discovered was that a kerosene lantern that was still lit was lying on the floor of the kitchen, leaking fuel onto an old rug. By now, both the rug and a nearby towel had caught fire and were threatening to create a blaze that would eventually engulf the entire building and with it, everyone in it who was still asleep.
According to my mother's account, verified by Nana, Uncle Jake grabbed the lantern, the burning rug and towel in his bare hands and took the whole burning mess out the back door and away from the house. In the process, the leaking kerosene splashed over his legs and arms and ignited. In a matter of moments, Uncle Jake was engulfed in flames and rolling around on the ground in the backyard, trying to put himself out. By now, Nana had come downstairs and through the kitchen to the back door. As soon as she saw what was happening, Nana raced back inside screaming for everyone to wake up while she searched around for a blanket to smother the flames now covering most of Uncle Jake's body. By the time she had the flames out, Uncle Jake was unconscious. Within a few minutes an ambulance arrived, and Uncle Jake was taken to the hospital.
It was some time before any of the family was allowed to see Uncle Jake. He had been burned over 90% of his body, and nearly all his burns were third degree. The doctors said there was no chance he would survive burns that extensive. In fact, they were surprised he had survived as long as he had.
What they also said, however, was that had Uncle Jake not done what he did, it was very likely all of us would have been involved in a massive fire that surely would have taken many of our lives as well!
My mom was the last person to see Uncle Jake alive. When she walked into his room, she saw him peering out through one eye of his bandaged head. He could not speak or even move, the burns were so extensive. Uncle Jake died shortly after my mom entered the room.
For years after that, whenever the family gathered for Thanksgiving or any other large get together, my mom would once again tell everyone the story of how Uncle Jake had carried the burning kerosene lantern out of the house and saved us all. From the day all the families moved away from 715 Halsey Street and went our separate ways, my mom never allowed anyone else to tell that story.
As we got older, some of us theorized that mom suffered from an acute attack of conscience because it was she who, after all, had put an end to Uncle Jake's performances when he used that mangy old stole of hers to perform for the only family he ever knew – and, as it turned out, the family he gave his life for.
Uncle Jake was indeed a family hero. Until his death we all had no idea how much he loved all the busy young people around him – people who only knew him as the little old man in the zoot suit who lived in the spare room near the kitchen.
Granpop and the Pipe
When my brother Gonki and I were very young, around 5 or 6, our grandfather had already lived the major portion of his life. He was, in our minds, a very old man.
We were still living with our family in a four-story brownstone a year or so before my mom and dad bought a house in Jamaica, Queens and vacated the top floor. But there were many days when our grandfather – we called him Granpop – was left alone to watch us. It wasn't as though he were really watching us; by then Valentine C. Jones was in his late 80s, incontinent, and barely able to stay awake more than a few hours at a time.
Granpop had served a long time in the Merchant Marines and thus had traveled all over the world on ships ferrying goods and troops here and there. Some of his stories would enthrall Gonki and me for hours – even though sometimes Granpop would fall asleep right in the middle of telling one. It didn't matter though; Granpop was a lot of fun.
When he was feeling good, Granpop engaged us in light banter that we took to mean that he was angry with us. He wasn't, of course, and we could sense that. What he then would tell us was that we were acting badly and if we didn't straighten up, he'd say, "I'm gonna take my belt off to you boys and give you a good whippin'!" Our response was always, "You'll have to catch us first." Then we'd scamper away but come back to within range for him to try to lunge at us. He never once actually grabbed us; looking back on it, I'm sure it was never his intention to do so. But whenever we got close, he'd reach for his belt, slowly pull it out from its trouser loops and menacingly swing it over his head. Then, as we ran off laughing, he'd slowly shuffle after us in a gait designed to barely keep us in visual range. It was a big apartment with plenty of places for little boys to hide just enough to be visible to anyone searching for them. We'd play like that with Granpop until he tired and shuffled back to his old stiff-backed wooden chair and collapsed.
Granpop's exhaustion was a far cry from the stories of adventure on the high seas he told us. Granpop was always explaining how hard it was for "the colored man" to earn a living during those times and how blessed he felt to have landed a job that kept him out of the Jim Crow era of the United States. Back then, we had no idea who "Jim Crow" was. For the longest time, I thought it was some angry bad man that he knew.
He told us of some of the dangerous Atlantic Ocean crossings he witnessed as a young seaman. Once he said his ship was attacked and sunk by German cannons in the Mediterranean. He barely got into a lifeboat just before his ship exploded and went down.
Another time Granpop told how, in South America, he arrived late to the dock and saw his ship sailing off. His only option was to walk across the tip of South America and catch his ship on the east coast as it put into port a week or two later. When Granpop shared these stories, I felt as if I were there with him as he hacked his way through jungles, hitched rides and walked to meet his ship before it left him in South America for good.
As his past adventures began to fade from his lips and he lapsed into silent revere, we watched this old man use the bathroom on himself because he was too tired to get up and go to the bathroom, or even use the comfort pot sitting on the floor next to his chair. As children, we didn't understand the ravages of old age nor the embarrassment and discomfort our grandfather was going through. All we knew was that Granpop sure acted funny sometimes.
As he drifted towards the end of his life, Granpop's only pleasures besides sleeping and eating were drinking Old Granddad Whiskey with his only son, Val Jr., and smoking cheap cigars. Occasionally Granpop would cut one of his cigars into a one-inch chunk and stuff it into an old corn cob pipe he had. Either way, the smoke from those cigars made us sick to our stomachs. For, as he got older, Granpop no longer realized that the smoke from his tobacco had no place to go in the stuffy, closed living room where he sat most of the time. Most of the time our parents would tell us to stay in that living room with Granpop, and don't go out unless it was to use the bathroom.
One day Gonki and I decided we were going to do something about Granpop's smoke.
When we were growing up, kids used to buy things called loads. They were tiny pieces of gunpowder shaped in the form of a little tooth pick. I never really understood what their primary purpose was, but Gonki and I decided they were perfect for what we had in mind.
Every day right after lunch, Granpop would amble over to his chair and sit back, close his eyes and take a nap. We knew he was asleep when the snoring became so loud that our grandmother – we called her Nana – either came into the room and shook him awake or yelled from the door, "Val, wake up! You're shakin' the whole house down." On one fateful afternoon when everyone else was gone and we knew Granpop was asleep, Gonki and I hatched our plan.
Granpop always used to keep his cigars and pipe on the table next to his chair. The table had an old ashtray that he laid his pipe in and where he stubbed out those foul smelling cigars. Sometimes he would ask us to light his pipe or cigar for him – a chore we only halfheartedly wanted to do, considering the results. But on this day, our plan called for him to light his own pipe.
Excerpted from Tales from the Tree House by Gene Thomas Copyright © 2011 by Gene Thomas. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Granpop and the Pipe....................14
The Construction Yard Dogs....................20
Thanksgiving with Michelle, 5 & 10....................38
The Dinosaur Bone....................56
Pepper, Punch and Judy....................65
The Lone Ranger and Mickey Mouse....................71
Pea Shooters and Tree Houses....................89
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Tales from the Treehouse" is a straight-forward, episodic account of a piece of unique family history. The author takes us back to his days as a young boy living through adventures that today would be deemed at best fairly dangerous and at worst unthinkable. Whether exploring swamps (in Queens!) on a make-shift raft or filling their Grandfather's pipe with just a tiny bit of explosive, day-to-day life was anything but "normal." And yet, this is the life Gene and his brother Val knew. For a true piece of family history, which includes some fascinating rare photos, "Tales from the Treehouse" is the kind of document every family should own.