Two narratives intertwine in The Chenango Kid. One is the personal story of the author, Roger Miller, who grew up on Chenango Street, a main artery of the medium-sized industrial city of Binghamton, New York, in the 1950s. The second is the larger story of the 1950s. Each narrative enlarges upon the other. Many elements make up the personal: a devastating house fire; a single mother who liked to work and to frequent taverns; a father, mystified by life, less devoted to work than to benignly stalking his son; a half-sister long unknown; a drunken and/or crazy uncle or two; a boyhood paradise in the hills of Pennsylvania; and a passion for reading and art. All in all an unconventionally conventional working-class youth. The Chenango Kid also connects Chenango Street to the wider world of the Fifties, a vibrant, explosive decade in art, literature, music, movies, and television—making it The Decade That Never Ends. The popular culture of no other ten-year span in the century continues to exert its influence as strongly or to be revived as often as that of the 1950s.
So there we were on that cold gray December afternoon in 1949, walking home north on Chenango Street from Christopher Columbus School, me, Louise, and Louise’s friend Francine. I don’t know if that really was the girl’s name, but Louise had a good friend and Francine sounds like the name she might have had. Big, soft, slowly drifting flakes fell onto Louise’s and Francine’s headscarves as they walked along, heads bent toward each other, arms cradling textbooks and notebooks—not that either was what you might call a scholar—and talking animatedly. I trudged alongside them, puffy in my thick winter coat and with the earflaps on my cap dangling loose around my ears, truculent at being ignored and letting out an occasional “Wee-zee!” for attention. “What?” Louise finally snapped, turning abruptly to face me on the snow-covered sidewalk. “Will you for God’s sake stop dinging me?” “Dinging me.” She got that from our mother, who was always saying that. “You weren’t listening to me. I asked if you’d take me to see Abbott and Costello. The new one with that Frankenstein guy.” “No, you little pest,” Louise said, walking again. “They’re stupid. Besides, you’re old enough to go by yourself. Go with your snot-nosed little friends.” It’s true. I could have gone by myself. Kids regularly went to “the show,” alone or in groups, without adult supervision in those days. Beforehand we stopped in at the Karamel Korn (it may or may not have been spelled that way) shop on the corner of Henry and Chenango to load up on cheap kiddie komestibles to take into the theater, which did not ban “outside” food as theaters try to do today “I don’t have any money.” “So how am I supposed to get you in, for crying out loud? On my looks? Ask Ma for some money. Turn in some milk bottles for the deposits.” “I already did. There’s none left. I can’t find any more.” “That’s tough titty, then. Maybe Santa will bring you a movie ticket.” Despite her sarcasm and belligerence, Louise was protective of me. The year before, in a fury, she broke the nose of an older boy who had pushed me down and rubbed my face in the snow. It cost Ma almost one hundred dollars in medical reimbursement to the boy’s angry parents. The parents would have sued for other damages, too, but they knew a bloodless turnip when they saw one. “Here we are,” Louise said. We had reached Francine’s entrance to the Moon Block. “You want to come up for a while?” Francine asked. “You can see our Christmas tree. We just put it up last night. It’s pretty nice. My Dad’s not home yet. I think my Mom’s over to my grandma’s.” “Sure. Might’s well. I can’t stay long, though. Ma wants me to feed the ball-and-chain here.” She nodded her head in my direction. I scrunched up my face at her. “God,” Francine said as they turned toward the door, “I hope we don’t run into that creep Lonny.” Lonny was in the eighth grade with Louise and Francine. He also lived on the second floor, though in an apartment on another side of the building. Francine’s family lived in an apartment on the third floor on the same side. “He’s always creeping around,” Francine continued. They started up the stairs. “I hate to go past his door. I think he watches for you. He’s always trying to sneak a peek up my skirt whenever I go up or down the stairs, pretending he just happened to be there by accident. He’s a disgusting little pervert.” “Louise,” I said, bringing up the rear as they reached the landing, “what’s a pervert?” “Never mind. You’ll find out soon enough.” Francine, leading the way, looked back at Louise and the two girls broke into snorts of laughter. “What’s so funny?” I asked. Once the three of us were walking along the banks of the Chenango River and I darted away to pick up what I thought was a deflated white balloon lying in the grass. “Don’t touch that!” Louise shouted at me. “That’s what men put on their willies!” I’m sure I must have asked why men did that, because they gave out a loud, conspiratorial burst of laughter, just like today’s.
Roger K. Miller, author of the novels Invisible Hero and Dragon in Amber, was a newspaper writer and editor for more than thirty years. He is a freelance writer and critic whose work has appeared in numerous metropolitan newspapers and other publications. He and his wife Nancy, parents of three grown children, live in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.