All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Back behind our house in Berkley was a large cemetery, very large. I remember hills and valleys. And over several hills and down in a small deep valley was a pond that froze over in the winter. And if the snow was shoveled from a portion of it, it was suitable for ice-skating. I recall being taken there by some older kids. Girls in the neighborhood used to do things like playing teachers, or mommies, or baby-sitters, and that meant that they would include really little kids, like me, in their games.
One of the older kids carried a snow shovel, while from my mitten-clad hand there dangled a pair of shiny metal skates. They had twin runners, widely spaced, and clipped onto my shoes to be held in place by leather straps. I could barely skate. Nonetheless, I remember shuffling around that little rink, deep in a crevasse in the cemetery, which lay, that day, beneath a blanket of new fallen snow.
But, what I remember most of all was getting there, walking through the cemetery. I had no idea what the cemetery was, but I knew that it was “something”. I remember the walk through the snow, which was rather deep, and the boot tracks, and the bare trees. There were no gravestones in that part of the cemetery; it was empty, then, 60 years ago. I imagine it is filled today. Yes, I had no idea what a cemetery was, and no concept of death. And there were no gravestones to be seen on that wintry day. But I knew that there was “Something”. And I remember that walk. And even now, I can see my little Goulashes kicking through the pristine virgin snow, and the way it flew and flurried as I trudged along, leaving tracks behind me. The snow, that day, was dry and fluffy and sparkled in the sunlight, like a million tiny diamonds. Yes, it was the walk, just the walk through the cemetery that I remember clearly.
Around that time, I had a dream that, like many of the dreams and nightmares of my earliest years, remains more vivid in my memory than things that happened in the waking world. One evening, a long time before the dream occurred, my father came home with a gift for me. It was a large wooden puppet theatre. He was often getting me stuff like that. He got it from the Salvation Army or Good Will, or whatever the equivalent of that was then. I remember it well, as it later moved to Seven Mile Road with us, when I was just about to enter second grade, and remained in our garage for many years.
It was actually a Marionette Theatre, and quite a somber object with some age on it. It was essentially a shiny black lacquered box, about three feet long by two feet deep and wide. There was a simple proscenium in the front and a dark red velvet curtain that opened and closed by means of a string on two pulleys. Apart from that, there was nothing, just an empty box open on the top, all painted black, highly polished on the outside and flat black on the interior. It was devoid of any decoration or cheer.
Along with it, he presented me with two "puppets". They weren't really puppets, but carnival prizes. One was a clay skeleton with springs for arms and legs, wearing a little tutu made of bedraggled dark brown rabbit fur. And the other was similar, only it was Donald Duck in full color. Each dangled from a single piece of black elastic, tied to a small wire ring.
I remember that very night; my parents sat before the stage, and watched my first puppet show. Donald and the Skeleton both were wildly dangled as their little spring appendages wiggled madly in a crazy dance. I can't remember any subsequent performances. The Puppet stage was more like a toy chest than a theatre, and it soon began to be used as one. But, I must have put on other plays at other times, because evidence of that remained on stage in our garage.
One of the most wonderful things I ever got my little hands on for a dime was the Fantasia Punch-out Book. The year had to be 1940. I was three; too young to see the film, too young to punch out the punch-out book on my own, so my parents helped me. In my exuberance, I tore the head off the tiny black centaurette, trying to extract her from the page. I cried and cried, traumatized by shame and sadness. I never forgave myself for that act of ineptitude; even now, I still regret it.
The most wonderful part of the Fantasia Punch Out is its beautiful background, with the mythological countryside of "Beethoven's 6th" and a Maxfield Parrish-like blue sky. Zeus himself, king of the Gods, peers over a fluffy cloud. Stars twinkle in the cardboard sky. I still have one, today, a Fantasia Punch-out Book, exactly like that first one, all set up and complete in a showcase of its own downstairs. It is one of the few things from my childhood that still holds magic for me now.
Sometime, after that first performance, in which Donald danced with Death against a background of black, I took the beautiful starry background from the Fantasia Punch-out Book and permanently affixed it to the plain black panel of my somber puppet theatre. It glowed like a jewel, in its dramatic setting of black. In the years that followed, I never failed to admire it, and wish I still had the rest of the missing paper pieces, whenever I caught sight of it way up high, abandoned atop a pile of storage boxes in the garage on Seven Mile Road.
There was a section of the cemetery that ran for a long way alongside Woodward Avenue, with a tall pointed wrought iron fence all around it, and a massive ornate gate in the very middle. The vast area inside the fence sloped gently upward in the center to become, almost, a hill. Somewhere behind this hill lay the deserted place of dips and valleys, and the secret pond that became an Ice skating rink in winter. But the main part, visible from the road and rising in the middle, was not deserted. It was covered with a city of graves, grass covered mounds, like well made beds. Some had headboards, others were only flat stone pillows, and all were arranged, side by side in neat rows, like a well planted garden.
I had no idea what they were, or what this place was for. And I had never been in this part of the grounds. But I had seen it from outside the fence, usually while passing in a car, for there would be no reason to walk along this long and deserted stretch of Woodward Avenue. But I knew it was called the Cemetery, and I knew that it was "Something".
The following dream has remained in my memory, all my life, for it entails a mystery of sorts. The mystery is subtle, complex, and somewhat prophetic. I had this dream when I was only four. And I swear I did not know, then, what the Cemetery was for. But the dream tells me otherwise. And the mystery is: Did I know the dreadful secret of the Cemetery? And, if so, how did I know it? For, I had never been told, and something I sensed in the demeanor of the kids, who took me with them through the silent snow in winter, led me to never ask.
The Dream: It Is Night, and I am alone, atop the high hill in the Cemetery. It is neither winter nor summer. I see the fence all around and the majestic gate in the center, beyond it is the road, Woodward Avenue. An occasional car with headlights passes. But I see no people. I am sitting upright in the polished ebony Puppet Theatre. It is too short to permit me to lie down, or even straighten out my legs. Nothing happens, really; I just sit there, alone in an ocean of darkness, wondering why I am there.
Then far away, oh so very far away, in the far northeastern corner of the Cemetery, beyond the fence there is an intersection and a few streetlights. And there, diagonally across the intersection on the corner, brightly lit, but deserted, is a Gas Station. And the gas station has a Neon Sign on a pole. Outlined upon it in bright neon tubing are the images of Mickey Mouse in red, and Donald Duck in blue. They flicker intermittently in simple two-position neon animation. That's It! There is no more……
But there is one thing; something that I have experienced occasionally, and only, alas, in dreams, and it fascinates me. I would call it Altered Perception, the ability to see in a way that exceeds and defies the laws of physics. In this instance, sitting there alone in the puppet theatre, which, of course, was a coffin, although, I had never seen or heard of such a thing, I was able to see great distances. And at the same time, see those distant objects with a clarity that only being up close could afford me, in the waking world.
This altered perception is hard to describe. The cemetery in the dream appeared, in fact, much larger than it was in life. And I was able to see farther than I had ever seen before. I was not frightened; I was just there! It would just be speculation to guess, now as an adult, at what I thought and felt. But I felt “Something”. And I know that the distant neon sign offered me a chilling ray of hope and comfort, shining like a friendly beacon, in the utter isolation of the lonely night.