(NOTE: My brother Ron turns 70 this week, and I'm reminded of his remarkable 16th birthday back in Philadelphia many years ago).
Being 16 years old in Philadelphia in the late 1950s had to be one of the coolest things ever, one of those generational defining moments that separate some of us from the rest of us. At least it was for my older brother. Whether it was cars or girls or hairstyles or clothes, my brother Ron and his teenage pals were at the epicenter of everything that was new and cool and copied.
And this was especially true with music, their rock and roll music.
Truth is, my brother and his crowd were so far up the food chain they were even too cool to go on American Bandstand. Now, admit it, that's pretty darn cool.
Lucky for me, during those few times when my brother didn't find me totally annoying or completely worth ignoring, I could bask in that glow a little myself, be allowed to reply to something that was said by one of his buddies, get patted on the head by one of their cute, bouffanted girlfriends, listen to them rehearse their own doo wap songs, or snap my fingers to Elvis, Jackie Wilson and all the negro groups with bird names.
As far as I could tell, the only real drawbacks to my brother's lofty teenage status were two -- he had a mother and a father. My parents were the ballast to his high wire act, tugging him back to earth because that's what they were supposed to do. And sometimes they pulled too hard or yanked him in the wrong way. That was something no self-respecting, 1959 Philadelphia teenager ever wanted to be reminded of.
Most of that generational back and forth wasn't so bad for my mom. Her biggest downside was that she wasn't cool. But since she was a mom and did all the proper mom things like feed us and sign our report cards and give us our allowance, she usually got a pass.
But it was different with our dad who had to act like he was the boss and tell us what we could and couldn't do. I don't think he liked playing that role but it came with the fatherhood territory so when he was around, he had to tell us how to behave. And if we didn't comply, well, this was the 1950s so the consequences weren't nice. That's why we almost always complied.
The other thing that seemed to be happening was that for every cool and neat thing going on in my brother's life -- from the wave in his hair to the supped-up cars his buddies drove to the songs he was writing and singing -- there was a corresponding negative in my dad's life whose hair was thinning, whose car barely made it around the block, and who regularly turned down the volume on our record player.
These worlds were on a collision course and sure enough they did collide on my brother's 16th birthday on January 23, 1959. It was a cold winter Saturday. My mom made his favorite dinner -- lamb chops -- and his favorite desert, lemon meringue pie. The pie wouldn't hold his candles very well, so we sang happy birthday and no sooner had my brother blown out the candles then he was out the door with Jimmy Porter, Tommy DeFelice and three girls.
Their destination was the PAL -- Police Athletic League -- dance, the place where all the other cool teenage Philly kids would be. Danny and the Juniors were playing and were supposedly switching labels to Dick Clark's Swan Records that night with the release of a new single. And all of this was happening on my brother's 16th birthday!
I don't remember much more of what happened since I was stuck at home and had to go to bed after "Gunsmoke." My parents were watching some movie on "The Late Show" and my brother was late. This wasn't going to be pretty.
I woke up to the sound of screeching tires, the shouts and giggles of teenage boys and girls, and car doors slamming. I went to the top of the stairs to see my dad standing in front of my brother in our tiny vestibule, not letting him come into the house. My mom was standing a little further back, looking like she wanted to hide behind something but couldn't.
My brother looked like a million bucks. His bright white shirt still sported a perfectly knotted stripped tie and his charcoal vest had a bright red rose pinned to the left side. He was holding a 45-RPM record in his hand, twirling it as my dad shouted stuff I had a hard time hearing. It didn't help that my brother was smiling the whole time.
My mother played referee and got between the two of them. Playing her best Perry Mason, she got my dad to agree to hear what my brother's explanation about what had happened and why he was late.
His words came cascading, he almost sang them, and all I could remember was "16 Candles, 16 candles, 16 candles." As I watched his testimony, followed by my father's cross examination, all I could hear was that song by the Crests which was at the top of the charts just then.
Peggy, my brother's girlfriend at the time, had made a special request of that song that night for my brother and had given him a copy of the record. The two of them got to hold hands, embrace, and dance arm in arm. In Philadelphia. At the Police Athletic League dance. Just the two of them. In a spotlight. On his 16th birthday.
I truly believed at that moment that my brother's life could only go downhill from there.
Our dad would have the last word, of course. Unimpressed with my brother's explanation, he grabbed the copy of "16 Candles," threw it down on the vestibule floor, and told my bother in no uncertain terms that that he would never go to another PAL dance. In fact, since he was kind of flustered, what he actually said to him was "You'll never go to another PAL dance on your 16th birthday."
My brother smiled at me when he passed me at the top of the stairs on his way to our bedroom. And he whispered low so my parents couldn't hear.
"I just did."