Once upon a time, nearly a half-century ago, I was a smart kid and a good boy; the kind that teachers loved and parents admonished their kids to emulate. "Why can't you be more like Marc?" they would lament.
I was also rotund, crew cut, clothed by Sears, and wore goofy, thick glasses. Oh, sure, kids respected me because I always seemed to do the right thing and won science fairs and essay contests. "Respected" meant that you usually did not get picked on by the bullies. But, being "respected" was a curse of childhood en route to adolescence - first to be solicited for help with homework, last to be chosen for the team or at the dance.
I can honestly say that no one ever wanted to be me. That was my role in life - to covet Jerry Weiss's well-greased pompadour, Bruce Berg's surly sneer, Sidney Baskin's dance-floor moves, Eddie Jacobson's deft shmoozing of the girls, Barry Levine's belches-on-command. In early adolescence, that was what really mattered.
But, once there was a day . . .
Holiday pageants at my synagogue's Hebrew School were not wimpy, lame "I-have-a-little-dreidel" events. They were productions by Ziegfeld. Harry Kessler, frustrated castoff of the Yiddish stage, went on to become tyrannical Hebrew school principal with the persona of Bob Fosse. We sang and danced, recited and postured, rose and fell, all at his command.
That Chanukah, I was ordained by doting teachers and Mr. Kessler (whom we dubbed in Hebrew "Kessler Ha-Ra" -"Kessler the Terrible") to play no less than Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Chanukah story. Lengthy soliloquies were to be memorized, all in rhyme. In deference to late-50's minimalism, my only props were to be a sword and shield. They could be purchased, the note instructed my parents, from a toy store on Chicago Jewry's main shopping drag, Devon Avenue.
To my father, may he rest in peace, the toy store option was patently unacceptable. As nimble at woodworking as I am incompetent, nothing short of a custom-made sword and shield would suffice for his only child. He crafted them so masterfully: The sword was an authentic oriental scimitar, nearly a yard long, custom-fitted handle grip, meticulously beveled edges, gilded in antiqued silver, highlighted in navy blue. The shield, painstakingly bowed, edges burnished, also gilded in silver and highlighted in blue, emblazoned with a perfectly centered and symmetrical Star of David.
That Sunday of the pageant, I arrived at Hebrew school immensely proud. Yet I was intimidated by the magnificence of the sword and shield that my dad had so lovingly crafted, unworthy of such splendid weaponry. Some little part of me felt - God, how clearly I remember that feeling! - that they belonged in less clumsy, more dexterous hands.
My classmates, however, were awestruck by the sword and shield's splendor. Boy, were they neat. Boy, they were envious. Could they see them up close? Could they touch them? Could they borrow them? Could they trade marbles and baseball cards for them?
I ascended the pulpit-cum-theatrical-stage to recite my lines just slightly more confident of myself than ever before. I raised my sword and recited with Maccabean bravado, "Here I come to keep my date/With you and your people to celebrate . . . "And, for a day, a fleeting moment, everybody wanted to be Marc Wilson.
I wish I had kept them as heirlooms, but I have no idea of whatever became of my wondrous sword and shield. Likely lost in the shuffle of one family relocation or another, doffed off to the trash by my self-effacing dad as "just another project."
I do, however, have one snapshot of me that day, taken by a very proud father of a very proud son, my head held atypically high, sword and shield in hand. If you ask me, I may dig out the photo and show it to you.
Moralists and psychoanalysts will tell you that true confidence must emanate from within. Right. Right. But, what a marvelous feeling it is every now and then, especially in fragile youth, to be the envied, not the envier.
Then, remember what Paul Simon wrote:
Time it was, and what a time it was,
It was a time of innocence, a time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be years,
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories,
They're all that's left you . . .