It was about this time that Carl began to take special notice of young Gilbert, sensing in him a rare mixture of emotionalism and intelligence. Gilbert’s schoolteachers had frequently complained that he was not mixing with the other children as they thought he should, often spending his lunch periods and recesses sitting by himself and looking up at the sky rather than playing games or sports with the other children. He had proved himself to be a capable but indifferent student in the classroom, always completing his assignments as required, but showing little enthusiasm for them or desire to learn more. He would finish his reading, writing, or test quickly, then spend the rest of the period staring out the window. At the many student-teacher conferences to which his parents were dragged, Gilbert was questioned as to his behavior. He merely shrugged his shoulders and said that most of his fellow students were dull and uninteresting, and that he would rather spend his time thinking and planning for the future.
So, as 1961 rolled around, Carl began to spend more and more time with young Gilbert. They had lengthy conversations during which Carl discovered, among other things, that the boy had a vivid imagination. He loved stories and storytelling, almost instinctively. Since at that time Ben Allyn had no movie theater and television was considered only for news and educational programs, Carl had an idea.
The next Saturday he was home, Carl took Vanessa aside and told her that it was high time that Gilbert got some culture. Because of Carl’s frequent and lengthy business trips and Vanessa’s provincial small-town upbringing, the Hallenbeck family had rarely taken any trips together. Now Carl proposed that he take Gilbert into Philadelphia and show him the various museums and art galleries to see if anything struck his fancy. He was certainly getting nowhere in school, Carl reasoned.
Vanessa agreed that this was a good idea, and so around noon Carl went up to Gilbert’s room and knocked on the door. Getting no response, he opened the door and found Gilbert sitting on his bed as usual, gazing abstractedly out the open window at the profusion of maple trees. It was late summer and the air was breathlessly still and hot.
“Come on, son,” Carl said. “Let’s go for a ride.”
Gilbert’s eyes brightened. “Where we going, Dad?”
“You’ll see,” was all Carl would say.
Within a few minutes they were in Carl’s new DeSoto convertible, backing down the long, curving driveway. Carl put the top down and turned on the radio, then punched the button of a forbidden rock-and-roll station. Soon they were both singing along to “Peggy Sue”, Carl beating time on the steering wheel, Gilbert on the dashboard. Carl realized that he had not seen Gilbert so joyfully enthusiastic since Christmas.
Soon they reached Philadelphia. Without hesitation Carl drove downtown and turned onto South Market Street, only a few blocks from the concert hall on Race Street where Carl had first seen Vanessa. Within a few blocks they came to the Palace, one of the majestic old movie theaters that had been built shortly after the First World War. Its marquee advertised a western double feature starring Joel McCrea and Alan Ladd. Carl parked the DeSoto in a metered space across the street, put the top up, motioned for Gilbert to get out, and locked the car. Putting a quarter in the meter (good for four hours), he turned to Gilbert. Pointing at the theater across the street, he remarked casually, “Want to catch a movie?”
“You bet!” Gilbert replied, his eyes sparkling.
Carl took his son’s hand and they walked across the street to the Palace. Inside the air conditioning was deliciously cool, and the smell of freshly-popped popcorn mixed with the ancient musty odor of the thick carpeting was overwhelming. Carl led his son over to the ticket counter where he purchased a 50¢ adult ticket for himself and a 25¢ cent child ticket for Gilbert. Then they went over to the concession stand where Carl, for another fifty cents, bought two bags of popcorn, two fountain Dr. Peppers and a Baby Ruth candy bar for Gilbert.
As they entered the auditorium Carl checked his watch. It was 12:50 and the program was due to start at 1:00. The screen was still covered by the heavy red velvet curtains, the houselights were up, and only about half the seats were filled, so they had no trouble finding a couple of comfortable seats down front on the aisle. Smiling conspiratorially at each other, they waited for the show to begin. Almost immediately the houselights dimmed and the curtains parted to reveal a huge screen which immediately sprang to life with an ad for the concession stand, followed by a Merrie Melodies cartoon. Then the curtains closed again. Gilbert looked anxiously at his father, who signed to him to be patient. Sure enough, a few seconds later the curtains parted again and the titles for the first feature filled the screen. As the theme music washed over him, Gilbert’s jaw dropped. There, not twenty feet in front of him, huge cowboys, horses, mountains, and prairies in Technicolor and Cinemascope fairly danced across the huge screen. Gilbert sat there transfixed, his popcorn and Coke forgotten between his legs. He had never seen anything like it.
Two movies, two cartoons, a newsreel, and a selected short subject later, they walked out of the theater into the still-bright, still-hot late summer sunshine. “Well, what did you think?” Carl remarked, the first words either of them had spoken since the program had begun nearly four hours ago.
“That was terrific, Dad!” enthused Gilbert, still blinking his eyes in the harsh sunlight.
Carl rubbed his expanding belly thoughtfully. “All that shooting gave me an appetite. Want to get a bite to eat?”
Gilbert frowned. “But what about Mom? She’ll be cooking a big dinner today.”
Now Vanessa, though an accomplished cook, could never be mistaken for an adventurous one. Her meals were almost invariably the foods of her Scandinavian forebears, slightly modified to fit the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. They consisted mainly of boiled or baked meats and chicken, together with boiled root vegetables varied by green vegetables during the growing season. Thus the fare that Gilbert and his brothers and sisters had grown up with was nourishing but had an uninteresting sameness to it.
“Don’t worry about your mom,” said Carl, tousling the boy’s hair. “It’ll be all right.”
He proceeded to lead Gilbert around the corner to a little place called Sammy’s Diner that he frequented when he was in town. It was a small place, with four spacious booths containing tables topped with Formica, and wide red-leather seats lining the wall on each side of the entrance. The only other seats were a dozen red-leather padded chrome stools surrounding an L-shaped counter. As most of the booths were already occupied by giggling teenage couples sipping Cokes or sharing sodas with two straws, Carl and his son seated themselves on a couple of stools at the counter near the cash register. Within a few minutes a beefy unshaven middle-aged man wearing a paper cook’s hat and a long grease-stained apron came out of the kitchen, wiping his large hairy hands on his apron as he approached. “Oh, hi Carl,” he said, extending a paw. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah,” replied Carl, shaking the man’s hand. “Guess it’s been awhile.” He clapped Gilbert on the shoulder. “Want you to meet my oldest son, Gilbert. He’s eleven now. This is Sammy, Gilbert. Say hello.”
The boy extended his hand and said formally, “I’m very glad to meet you, Mr. Sammy.”
Sammy chuckled and shook the boy’s hand gently. “I sure ain’t no mister, son, just plain Sammy to you.” He turned to Carl. “So what’ll it be? Your usual?”
“Yeah,” replied Carl and glanced at the boy. “Better make it two.”
“Comin’ right up,” grinned Sammy and vanished again into the kitchen.
Within a few minutes Sammy returned with two large glasses of fountain Coca-Cola. Within another ten he brought out two plastic baskets, each containing a giant cheeseburger with everything, surrounded by piles of thick-cut French fries. Gilbert’s eyes were as big as saucers, and he looked at his father questioningly.
“Go ahead, son, dig in!” said Carl expansively, his mouth already full of burger.
So Gilbert did. He thought it was the most delicious meal he had ever eaten and told Sammy so.
Sammy just laughed. “Guess he don’t get out much,” he remarked to Carl.
“Yeah, I guess not.” He looked at Sammy seriously. “But that’s gonna change.”
For dessert Carl had a thick wedge of apple pie, while Gilbert had a thick chocolate milkshake.
After paying the bill and including a large tip, and saying so long to Sammy, father and son strolled contentedly back to the DeSoto. Carl had just put the top down and was about to climb into the car, when Gilbert ran up to him and threw his arms around his father’s waist. “Thanks, Dad,” he said, then got into the car, yawned, and curled up on the passenger’s seat beside Carl, who stroked his head gently for a moment, but said nothing. The boy was already asleep as Carl started the car and drove home, Gilbert not waking until they had turned into the driveway of Maple Mansion.
“Now remember,” Carl cautioned Gilbert sternly as they got out of the car, “we went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.” He gave Gilbert a few names of famous artists to mention to his mother and they went inside. Vanessa was all smiles at their arrival, and when Gilbert mumbled something about Rembrandt’s brush strokes and Van Gogh’s composition, she fairly beamed.
“Naturally I had to feed him,” Carl told her with studied nonchalance.
“That’s okay, honey,” she replied, patting the boy on the head. “You just yell if you want anything.”
Gilbert quickly excused himself and ran upstairs to finish his nap.
Thus began a ritual that would last through Gilbert’s high school years. Every weekend Carl was home, he would drive Gilbert into Philadelphia for a double feature and a cheeseburger. Gilbert loved them all—Westerns, Cops-and-Robbers, Sci-Fi, Horror—anything with action and interesting characters. Carl wisely steered him away from Romances, as he wasn’t too fond of them himself.