by Frank Reilly
I was seven years old when America was bell-bottoming its way out of the 1960s and I was obsessed with the TV game show Concentration. Maybe you remember it.
The focal point of Concentration was its game board, which covered an entire wall. The board was composed of thirty square tiles laid out in neat rows, each of them consecutively numbered. Contestants would choose any two of the numbers and the tiles they were on were flipped to display pictures of two prizes. If they were an identical match, the contestant would get that prize along with the chance to win it all by solving a visual picture-puzzle that was slowly revealed as the game progressed.
The game of Concentration was mainly about memory. Do you remember what prize is under each number? Can you recall them when that prize’s pair appears at a tile-flip somewhere down the line?
As a second-grader, I was frail and bookish. Concentration gave me a social arena in which I could thrive, a title I could compete for and win.
As summer recess approached that year, I was faced with the same options as all my classmates. Too young for sleep-away camp, I still had the option of a day camp. For boys they were mainly sports-themed. A baseball camp, a basketball camp. A football camp and hockey camp. This was decades before the nerds among us were enticed with robotics or computer programming camps. The young eggheads of my generation would gladly endure an endless, solitary summer rather than suffer the indignity of a dropped fly ball or a sadly arcing free throw that barely kissed the rim.
Instead, we’d line up at the local library – pale and bespectacled – and be handed a punch card for the Summer Reading Program. Each book we read earned another hole-punch. Each hole-punch represented a deeper plunge into the recesses of our overactive minds. For kids who thought too much to begin with, this was movement in exactly the wrong direction.
My dominance at the home-game version of Concentration motivated me to break the mold, to cast off the shackles of the silent library and shout loudly on my own behalf.
I got to work during the last week of school, meticulously hand-crafting twenty-five fliers in colored pencil for my classmates. Each one a heartfelt invitation to join me in my living room that summer for the first ever Concentration Camp.
Pressed between books or stowed in the pockets of back packs, my invitations made their way to twenty-five homes in suburban Long Island, New York. One each to the Greenblatt family, to the Schoenfelds, to the Levins and Levines, the Cohens and Feldmans.
# # #
Through my twenties, my standard line about my childhood and the neighborhood I grew up in was that “I was raised by Jews.” Which was true. I always said it with genuine affection. My Catholic family and I lived within walking distance of two synagogues, two delicatessens and a top shelf bagelry.
At thirteen, I wore out my three-piece, corduroy leisure suit, which was purchased exclusively for bar mitzvah duty. My Jewish friends and their families cast a beam of joyous light that helped me to navigate my often brutally provincial home town. Of course, if I were to tweet “raised by Jews” today, goy that I am, I would be digitally drawn and quartered.
The idea that I could even think to say it has to be laid at the feet of the people who forged my sensibilities: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Allen Sherman. Laughter is at the heart of Judaism. It bubbles up and through a formidable history. Laughter through tears. Laughter in defiance.
Despite everything, we choose to laugh.
A credo I carry with me to this day.
I was in no position to make that realization as a boy. I just knew funny. And I wanted to emulate it. In high school English class, I did a dramatic reading of Allen Sherman’s “The Streets of Miami” – a Weird Al Yankovitch-type satirical reworking of the classic cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo” – but Sherman’s take was about a traveling salesman who is fleeced by his business partner:
As I wander out on the streets of Miami,
I said to mine self, “this is some fancy town”…
It got laughs from everyone except one classmate who called me out for perpetuating a stereotype. He was right, of course. Who was Allen Sherman to write it? And who the hell was I to read it aloud?
I couldn’t tell you who I was back then. But I can tell you where I was. I was living in a safe and nurturing and adult society. One where young people were seen for who they could be as much as for who they were, despite the occasional childish detour. A place where adults took on the burden of tolerance.
# # #
My father answered the phone right before dinner on the night my Concentration Camp invites reached those twenty-five homes, the long, coiled cord wrapping around his legs and draping over his wingtips.
“Well, good evening, Mrs. Katz. How’s little Noah? No, it’s no intrusion at all.”
There followed a series of “mmm-hmm”s and “I see”s peppered through with a few bemused “you don’t say”s. But mostly it was my father listening.
After he wished Mrs. Katz a good night and hung up, he made his way to me, frowning. Then he took a knee so he could meet me eye-to-eye and he laid his hand gently on my shoulder.
# # #
My Concentration Camp actually came to be. No one called it that, of course. In the days leading up to our first get together, my mom and dad had a number of tense conversations with neighborhood parents, each one eventually transitioning to laughter.
“I’m gonna hold onto that invitation, Janet Reilly!” said Mrs. Baumgarten.
“Blackmail!” my mother cried, her eyes and smile wide. “That’ll teach the little pisher!”
Five or six of us kids would gather together on any given Wednesday that summer and huddle around the plastic Concentration game board, remembering like crazy. Most parents, mothers usually, would drop their kids and run, off to newly-acquired jobs where their worlds expanded straight into the 70s, their second incomes magically manifesting summer bungalow rentals, second cars, divorce attorneys.
One mouse of a kid, Eli, who was so timid and soft-spoken I can’t recall hearing – never mind remembering – his last name, would be escorted every week by his grandmother, Sadie. It didn’t take much to convince Sadie to stay when they showed up that first day and she was reliably there every week from then on, cradling her tea cup and saucer on the sofa’s armrest while Eli circled the coffee table, trying and failing to get a decent look at the game board between all those dungareed asses.
Sadie wasn’t very old for a grandmother. She was maybe in her early fifties. I caught a glimpse of the string of numbers tattooed on her forearm just once, liberated from beneath a long sleeve as she reached out to grab Eli’s belt loop on his third trip to the cookie plate. Looking back on it, the fact that she even had a grandson was an astounding testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Sadie didn’t say much of anything that I can recall. She did look at me, though, long and hard. That I remember clearly. Her personal history required vigilance, even of a second grader. Maybe more so with me. What kind of dark messenger was I, after all? Me and my Concentration Camp. What had I been taught? What was I reflecting?
To her, as those Wednesdays accrued, likely only this: play the game, match the pictures, solve the puzzle. A frothy diversion. But mainly, remember.
While she was likely trying her best to forget. I was another reminder that forgetting is a mistake. But she let me play my game. They all did. Without rancor.
What a glorious gift to the innocent.