Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tenting Tonight on the Chautauqua Circuit

Marion Ballou Fisk entertained thousands with her lectures under Chautauqua tents. 
Her drawing of the campground illustrated one of America’s most famous songs.  
I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The reward came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent. 

I rushed to get in my PJs and pull the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans, but his father and mother taught him that it was ‘work first and play afterwards.’”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged. 

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

 “When the man was twenty-one years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little melodeon organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed.  But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written the night of his draft, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them.  But, the soldiers simply wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma— received him with joy in the kitchen. 

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice.

“At last they sang songs, and sometimes my father and mother joined him, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,
          Give us a song to cheer,
Our weary hearts, a song of home,
          And the friends we love so dear.

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
          Wishing for the war to cease,
Many are the hearts, looking for the right,
          To see the dawn of Peace.

                      Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,
                      Tenting on the old camp ground.

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house. 

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the United States week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when musical entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents.  In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all.  Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

St. Marks Place, I Knew You Well

The neighborhood store that invented the “egg cream” opened in the 1920s
became Gems Spa in 1957. To the right, is the Electric Circus.

Nothing in the late ‘60s was ever as invigorating as drinking an egg cream at Gems Spa on New York’s Second Ave while the city in July baked like a tray of lasagna.  Or, if it were Saturday, you could hang out at the St. Marks Bookstore, an inviting place where clerks might invite a homeless guy to sit for awhile before hitting the streets again.  Or, you could catch a re-run of Citizen Kane at the St. Marks Cinema built in 1914, where no one minded if you smoked in the balcony or discreetly sipped from a bottle of wine.  Evenings, there was often a free concert at Tomkins Square.  (If we were too tired to walk over, we could hear the music on our rooftop we called Tar Beach.)

 That was the Lower East Side, and it was paradise.  No one called it the East Village until the place gentrified decades later.  It was a city and a time when everything was possible as the Summer of Love rolled in.  Now, people say the dreams are gone, like my $65 a month shotgun flat on Bowery and Fifth St. with the bathtub in the kitchen, the 15-cent subway fare, the free rides on the Staten Island Ferry.  But, in a minute I’m going to tell you a secret about the “good old days.”

I had returned to the city after serving two years with the Army in Korea and Taiwan.  Life settled into a five-day rhythm of work at Western Electric’s Kearny Works where I edited employee publications.  I’d come home at night, take off my coat and tie and search out old friends — most of them artists who’d graduated Cooper Union and the Art Students League.  Our go-to place was the Dom, the hippest watering hole in the city.  The Dom had a quiet bar that must've been 80 feet long and, briefly, had a Scopitone, a video jukebox that showed 16 mm film clips to music.  Later, the building was home to The Balloon Farm where Frank Zappa played, and then The Electric Circus.

On The Night the Lights Went Out — Nov. 9, 1965 — I was stumbling crosstown in a newly purchased pair of shoes.  New York was really, really dark.  Boy Scouts materialized to voluntarily direct traffic.  I tripped over a grating and a stranger grabbed my arm, saying “Careful!”  After dinner in my apartment lit only by plumber candles, I found myself with a few pals at the Dom.  It too was bathed in darkness except for candles lining the bar.  Half a dozen Sony Walkmans were all tuned to WMGM’s Peter Tripp, “The Curly-headed Kid in the Third Row.”

 It wasn’t easy being an un-domesticated bachelor.  Meals were often taken at a corner deli with a bialy smothered in cream cheese, onions and pickled herring.  On Sunday mornings, I treated myself to a knish, hot dog and bottle of Rheingold at Yonah Shimmel’s on East Houston. 

With luck, there’d be a demonstration filling a street, the cause being peace, women’s lib or equal rights.  And, if you looked closely, you’d spot the poet Allen Ginsberg in his cardboard Uncle Sam hat.

All around, there was harmony, a community of kindred spirits that stretched from Fifth Avenue to the East River. 

Those days are gone, but maybe they’re better in memory than actuality.  The nice part is that happy people still hang out on St. Marks Place.  For many, the 1980s or ‘90s or Millennium are “the good old days.”  Those times of bright memories are whenever you remember that kiss you stole in the theater balcony or the jokes that were unbearably funny or just seeing the moon rise over the Manhattan Bridge.  Those days don’t mark a place or time; they’ve etched a place in your heart.  But there are still egg creams at Gems Spa.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Who Took the Man Out of the Mannequin?

Some four decades ago, my six-year-old son Billy howled that his pants scratched.  It was 8:24 a.m. and we had to be out of our apartment and on New York’s Avenue B bus in ten minutes.  No point in arguing.  Had to change the pants and get to school on time.  His Montessori school was crazier about punctuality than scholarship.           

The only thing left in his bureau was bluejeans, cuffs falling into a tangle of loose threads, patches on both knees – one red and the other pink – from mill ends my wife Judy used to make a quilt.  Finished off with yellow work boots, it was a utilitarian outfit for a six-year-old to go conquer the world.  His school wasn’t like my school was. 

Back in rural Oregon, my mother forbade me to wear bluejeans to school.  No, they weren’t “denims” or “dungarees.”  They were bluejeans.  One word, unhyphenated.  And the middle class ethic dictated against wearing “play clothes” to school.  Mom insisted, “If we don’t set an example for the rest of the town, who will?  The newspaper publisher’s son?  Dr. Kauffman’s son?  Certainly not the farm children.”
At 8:24 that morning I was wearing a button down Oxford-cloth shirt, a rep tie and a blue wool suit.  My pants scratched too.   

“Wear the jeans,” I told Billy.  That made him happy.  And I envied him. 

And I envied the people who passed by my office on Third Avenue.  Back then, their Levi jackets were an artist’s canvas of embroidery, probably sewn lovingly by barefoot hipsters on Bleecker Street.  Their clothes didn’t scratch. 

Some years earlier I worked for Western Electric in Kearny, NJ.  This vast factory boasted more than 10,000 employees.  My job, among other tasks, was to interview retiring employees and sum up their expectations in 50 words of copy for the employee newspaper I edited.  After talking with one – any one – I might pass him in the hall two hours later and be totally unable to recognize him.  They wore gray (scratchy?) suits for their exit interview.  White socks.  Brown shoes.  Had short hair.  All seemed uniformly gray-skinned.  All said they were going to watch sports on TV and then putter around their gardens in Toms River.  So unless I associated each person with a mnemonic clue – a scar here, a missing finger there, a VFW pin in the lapel – I couldn’t recognize him in passing two hours later.  (The women were different.  Their curves and hairstyles made them individuals.) 

Another realization soon hit me.  In six months, I was also writing their obituaries.  My job was to chronicle both departures.  These people not only looked alike, they subscribed to the same short destinies. 

The U.S. Army had taught me, painfully, that one salutes the uniform, not the officer in it.  The nagging, unanswered question that stayed with me during those years was: Were they defensive about producing better uniforms than officers?  At the Bell System, people wore a company uniform, just as I’d worn a uniform at school.  One respected the uniform, not the student.  Not the employee.  Not the officer.  Not the person concealed in those clothes. 

I went home that night of the scratchy pants incident, and I hung up my suit from Macy’s on a varnished wooden hanger.  Then I pulled on my bluejeans and a blue T-shirt.  I stuck my feet into a pair of engineer boots that had cost me a buck in the summer of 1970 – hand-me-downs from a fellow landscaper.  I was eminently comfortable. 

Somewhere in Westchester County at that very moment there was a man – an acquaintance – who’d also changed.  He was the treasurer of a large, century-old corporation.  When he came home, he changed out of his five hundred dollar suit and into cowboy clothes.  A real costume, not just bluejeans.  Then, I suppose he sat down to read his mail. 

Perhaps his pants also scratched at work.
I mentioned this to my wife, and she said we were both looking for lost innocence.  Maybe, but I’d maintain the cowboy executive had psychological issues I don’t share.  At least people can’t say they don’t recognize him when he’s in the front yard looking like Roy Rogers.  They don’t say, “There goes old what’s-his name.”

When I’m in jeans the jeans are me. a blueprint of my character, a silhouette portrait of all my faults and perfections.  No pretense.  I wear them and the psyche doesn’t itch.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Short School Shopping List

Getting ready to go away to college used to be a rite of passage.  When I was a high school senior in the spring of ‘57, our mailbox at the house in Montclair began filling up with letters, circulars and catalogs advising me of absolute necessities to buy.  This would be a momentous departure from home.  There were requirements for stepping out into the real world. 

The personalized mailings from Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, Bamberger’s and Gimbel’s advised the class of 1961 that every boy needed at least one dark suit and one sport jacket, so my parents and I picked a day and dutifully drove into New York to shop. 

My dad first steered us to 23rd Street (23rd Street of all places!) to a clothier with a cardboard sign advertising “Horehair Petticoats.”  Remember the Archie Andrews fashion when girls needed to fill out their voluminous skirts?  I hope their petticoats were better than their sign making.  They found me a hounds tooth jacket from that discounter and it was hideous — but sale-priced!  Then up to 34th Street to Macy’s for a blue serge suit.  Macy’s was always the go-to store, knowing Bam’s would have whatever Macy’s didn’t offer.  My embarrassment was immense as the gray-haired sales lady tugged and pulled at my body to make sure the suit fit.  Cuffs would then be altered and the suit mailed home to avoid the sales tax. 

Also needed was a sturdy cardboard mailing box with a reversible mailing label so I could mail my dirty laundry back from Iowa to New Jersey for Mom to wash.  That exchange lasted six weeks before I went to the Laundromat and discovered “whites” and “colors” really should be separated or you’d end up with pink underwear.   

Grinnell College, the small school in Iowa where I was headed, advised freshmen to talk with prospective roommates so everyone in a threesome at our dormitory didn’t arrive with a 32-watt stereo set.  And, I was reminded, males were required to wear coats and ties for evening meals. 

Into the new footlocker (which I still have) went my Olympic portable typewriter, desk lamp, radio, blankets and a leather notebook with my initials.  My folks’ Samsonite suitcase was filled with T-shirts (white, no advertising or logos), dress shirts (button-down), and khakis (with belts in the back).   

I was on the top of the world as the 20th Century Limited pulled out of New York, taking me to a new life.  My education began with sartorial splendor, lasted one semester, and then the bluejeans took over.  I was in Iowa, for God’s sake!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Best State in America

I was probably in the fourth grade when our wacky teacher (the one who regaled us with stories of his epic drinking in the Navy) asked the class to write a short piece about “The Best State in America.”  Everybody but one chose Oregon; one student wrote about California.  I was ostracized for a week. 

Thing was, our family traveled every summer in the 1940s, driving throughout the Northwest or cross country in our ’39 Buick.  None of the my classmates had ever been farther than Idaho or Washington.   

We eagerly anticipated summer vacation as the family plotted a route to Glacier National Park (where we had a snowball fight on the Fourth of July), or the Grand Canyon (where my kid brother and I skipped along the wall a mile above the canyon floor), and because Dad was in love with the American Way of Life we hit every state capitol on the way. 

We didn’t have money for motels, but camping in parks was virtually free.  My folks had invested in Army surplus wooden cots (cost: one dollar), down-filled mummy sleeping bags (at 75 cents each) and a tarpaulin that once covered a deuce-and-a-half truck.  We’d tie a clothesline between two trees, my big brother would throw the tarp over the top and peg it down with more rope.  There was no privacy, but we’d look the other way when Mom and our grandma would change into pajamas. 

This was life at its best.  In Yellowstone, we scrambled into the Buick when a mama bear and two cubs tore into a neighboring campsite and emptied a carelessly-left ice chest of its meat and fruit.  In another park, we heard a scream at midnight when Mom and Grandma found a porcupine occupying the outhouse they wanted to use.  At an empty ranger’s cabin in Colorado, someone had left a magnificent collection of soda bottle caps that I desperately wanted to have but dared not steal.  The downside to that overnight occupation was the porcupine chewing at the cabin logs, keeping us awake all night long. 

These real-life adventures meshed perfectly with the Holling Clancy Holling books we read.  Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree in the Trail and Minn of the Mississippi.  Holling was a Michigan boy who, in the ‘20s, became a writer, artist and naturalist.  He canoed and camped, found edible foods in the wild and devised a breathing tube so he could lie under the Mississippi to record turtle activities.    

Sadly, today the glaciers are melting, there are traffic jams at the Grand Canyon, and no one seems to camp without microwave ovens and portable TVs.  The bears in Yellowstone have even been herded off for fear the tourists will get mauled. 

Memories of this earlier time prompted me to create a Web site ( to memorialize Holling and his wife.  I love sharing the anecdotes about the couple paying for their vacations in Texas by painting murals in a resort, about showing a Chamber of Commerce group how to make a fire using two dry sticks, and even teaching some Native Americans skills they’d forgotten.  I’m especially gratified when strangers e-mail me saying they believe they found a small picture Holling painted or the Army jacket he once wore or hand-forged knives given to Holling.  My mentor is a woman in her 70s in Leslie, Michigan, who curates a museum devoted to Holling, his writing and his art.  And the Holling artifacts that the Web site uncovers often end up in that museum.   

Thinking back to my fourth grade assignment now, I’d have to say there are 50 best states.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Signs of the Times

The child is the father of the man, or at least his own best teacher.  My own days in a small Oregon town were ominous at the end of a full decade of living.  That is, they were filled with omens, portents and symbols.  They were tokens as powerful as having a Lone Ranger pistol ring.  They were as mysterious as the flouroscope X-ray machine at the shoe store where we watched our toes wiggle while the salesman sought out our Buster Browns.
 We believed in 1946 that the dead cat we found in the bushes had died violently. Why else would its mouth have turned into that horrible rictus?  It was poisoned – and this was our nexus of fear:  To touch it would be death for us too.  Our mothers had told us not to touch strange things, hadn’t they? 

We were in awe of tramps, like the one who reputedly lived in the willow grove by the Northern Pacific tracks who carried a shotgun loaded with bacon rind.  Yes, bacon rind, my older brother explained, so he wouldn’t actually kill you when you were shot for intruding on his hideout.  We knew tramps left secret messages on our houses, messages hidden so carefully that only other gypsy tramp initiates could tell whether this house or that one would offer a welcome.

Every event, every glance, every crack in the sidewalk was filled with meaning.  Dogma was established by my friends in second grade.  “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.”  And, there was World War II revisionism, “No, no, if you step on a crack you’ll break Tojo’s back!”  And each of us guaranteed a little good luck by stamping on a Lucky Strike pack.
Shredded Wheat’s Straight Arrow cards taught us woodland lore and code.  Gene Autry engrained white-hat symbology in our psyches.  The house filled with yellowing newspapers where the old lady died taught us fear of the unknown.
But there was room for a cautious faith in the face of fear.  For one week in August, we watched smoke from a forest fire billow over the Coast Range to the west.  The Tillamook Burn brought ashes to our drinking water.  For days, we watched silently as pickup trucks filled with grimy fire suppression crews roared down Pacific Avenue.  Our world was threatened by something larger than our parents and teachers, but still there was an enduring faith:  Giant blimps, we believed, were going to carry us away if the fire blocked our escape route from town.
There were symbols as real as secret handclasps.  There was faith as unshakeable as knowing we would pass into the third grade.  And there was fear as indisputable as being dared to climb to the top of the sequoia tree in our yard.  The catechism was complete.
I discovered this world again in the I Ching when I was in my late twenties.  Casting the coins and consulting this Chinese oracle, I found that I was bound to wise children who lived thousands of years ago.  On New Year’s Day, the I Ching told me Po – the Splitting Apart.  “There are indications it will not be advantageous to make a movement in any direction whatsoever.”  The moon had been full the night before.  My wife caught the flu for the first time in years.  A dear friend had left New York City for the West Coast.
The signs came together.  The signs all showed a need to wait, to collect my psyche.  I planned for the time of waiting the I Ching said should come.  And, I survived that bleak month because I could read the signs.  The child had come of age.
Before I retired. I was sitting in my office looking at a penned note taped to the water fountain outside my door.  “Please do not throw coffee grinds in the water fountain because they clog the drain.”  Grinds?  It should be grounds.  The words are an uneven mixture of upper and lower case letters, as though he or she had labored at communicating, had struggled to reach an audience but was forced to use a strange, literate code.
Why hadn’t the writer simply drawn a picture of a coffee pot and then put an X through the picture?  Straight Arrow would have understood that at a glance.  Any tramp, any child would have comprehended the meaning.  But symbols are ignored as we roar through life in the high speed lane.
Hordes of beautiful children are ignoring the signs and being kept prisoner in the grownups I see.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Brace Beemer, Please Come Back

Brace Beemer, the voice of the Lone Ranger
from 1941 to1954.

My brother Billy and I were possessive about the family’s wooden, cathedral-shaped radio when I was ten and he was seven.  Sunday afternoons in the late 1940s meant “Gangbusters,” “The Shadow” and “The Cisco Kid” on KOIN out of Portland, Oregon.  But no show compared with “The Lone Ranger,” when Brace Beemer said, “Come on, Silver!  Let's go, big fellow!  Hi-yo Silver!  Away!” 

To make sure that no one intruded on our radio heroes, we hauled out a blanket, arranged two chairs and laid the blanket down to form a tent.

 The tent was an apse for our communion.  The RCA Victor was a temple with a softly lit yellow dial – an absolutely minuscule dial calibrated with numbers and hairline rules.  It had an AM band, an FM band carrying nothing but sighing of the ionosphere, and a short-wave band that connected us to a dimension filled with Teletype, ship-to-shore traffic, and strange ethereal tones.  Some of these messages had to be coming from Axis agents bent on invading the Pacific Northwest because we believed in Captain America. 

 But of course, the messages were indecipherable.  Not even the fastest Morse operator could tell what they meant – and we knew some pretty sharp Boy Scouts. 

The RCA had one other feature we called the mark of the bacon.  The “bacon” was graphic decoration, a series of parallel wavy lines at the end of the dial.  It was drawn the way a little kid would draw a piece of bacon.  We knew it could tell the listener he had penetrated to the very edge of the highest frequency.  Just as the speedometer on our ’39 Buick measured up to 120 miles per hour, we knew there was a reason for putting it there or else why was it drawn?

 The radio was memorable then and now.  No transistorized, plastic, extrusion-molded, super-heterodyne radio today could taste quite like that RCA – a yech-y taste of varnish that sent psychic tingles into some recess of the brain.  It tasted like your school desk when you had to put your head down during rest period in second grade. 

The RCA Victor disappeared when I was eleven, and a console came into our home, a large piece of furniture with a drop-leaf that let you roll out a combination tuner and 78 rpm record player.  The fabric over the lower half of the front covered an eight-inch speaker – the mother of all speakers.  On each side were tall narrow cupboards to store our records, the Mozart and Brahms albums Mom and Dad bought to introduce us to culture.  The William Tell Overture cueing the Lone Ranger wasn’t classical as much as it was, well, exciting.

The drop-leaf made a sort of tent, but we knew RCA had compromised.  The dial didn’t have short-wave and the sign of the bacon was missing.  Further, this guy Clayton Moore took over Brace Beemer’s role, and one of our first heroes disappeared from our lives.  Still, there was that white dog Nipper listening to his master’s voice.

As often happens, I grew up and so did Billy.  Family moves took place as our world came apart by going to Southern California, relocating to Montclair, New Jersey, and finally abandonment when the parents moved to Cherry Hill.  I reached escape velocity at age 17 and spun off to Iowa, Illinois and Massachusetts.  While I was in Korea, the radio was replaced by an imitation-woodgrain model the parents placed back in a corner behind an easy chair.  No one would want to taste that.  The RCA was consigned to the dining room, and the radio-record player removed to store wine glasses and a sticky half-empty bottle of sherry.  

Now, in a kind of time warp, old-time radio programs have returned to my computer.  I click into one of the many radio Internet sites.  Amos ‘n’ Andy come alive, the creaky door of the Inner Sanctum reopens, and the Lone Ranger rides again.

 Brace Beemer would understand what we almost lost.  He’s still out there somewhere, but he’ll come back when we really need him.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Immortality, Version 2.0

My family treated their ancestors the way you might set extra places at table.  My mother and grandmother passed along centuries-old advice and anecdotes about the Fisks, Ballous, Pierces, Hastings and Drapers at the kitchen sink as though it was something they’d seen on the Six O’clock News.  (“Yes,” one would exclaim, “William set a trap to catch the thief stealing his firewood.  He told the children he’d drilled the wood and put gunpowder inside.  Of course, children can’t keep a secret….”  Or, “The worst thing great-great-great grandpa Ezra’s third wife would say is, ‘Well, I pity him.’”)

My ancestors hover in the household like ghosts enjoying a summer vacation.

I’m descended from a New England family whose maternal forebears emigrated from England in the 1600s.  Because of this, I’ll let you know that New Englanders really do “use it up and wear it out” before anything is discarded.  I’ve unpacked a lot of their trunks, had boxes to sort through and albums to review.  It’s not unusual now to straighten up a room and stop to examine Great Grandpa Ballou’s letters from Fort Barrancas when he was with his Vermont Regiment, read postcards from Grandma Fisk invariably taking a train to another town where she’d lecture, or trip over the toleware candle sconces Great-Great-Grandpa Ezra Pierce played with as a child in 1816. 

 It’s more unsettling to look at the hair collection.  These are snippets of hair collected in the 19th century from the family members who had passed on.  They were carefully woven, knotted and tied in bows as keepsakes.  Each is identified on cards by name and dates bracketing their life.  While the cardboard is disintegrating, the hair might have come from sweeping up a barbershop floor yesterday.  This is not the sort of thing I can carry to the Antiques Road Show, so they’ve all gone into a single large envelope labeled “HAIR,” waiting for my children or grandchildren to decide what to do with this memorabilia of mortality.

My limited religious ruminations stop at the thought that we remain immortal until our last acquaintance passes on.  Death isn’t abrupt, but it does catch up eventually.  Given this dollar-store theology, I opt for saying you’re “alive” until you’re no longer remembered by anyone.  (It might help to have some rural legends, like firewood theft prevention, to pass along for posterity.) 
I’ll give proper due to statues in the town square collecting bird droppings and the tombstones moldering in the marble orchard.  But I can also suggest the World Wide Web is an option for immortality. 

Grandmother Fisk, for example, had been a lecturer on the Chautauqua Circuit in the first decades of the 20th century, traveling the country as America’s Foremost Cartoonist.  She drew pastel sketches while narrating her stories — patriotic, humorous and historic — before small-town audiences while.  By idly Googling her name, I discovered the University of Iowa had an extensive digital collection of Chautauqua information.  I called the archivist at the U of I libraries, who exclaimed, “We had the notes and programs and schedules, but we had no idea what the actual content of the programs involved!”  I was happy to donate her papers, photos, lecture notes and stories, which are now online.  Even better, she’s been given a new lease on life as students research women’s liberation and write their master’s theses.

Marion Fisk, "Tenting Tonight"

I brought her father back to life as well with a piece of “true fiction.”  Grandma Fisk would tell me stories when I was a child curled up in her four-poster bed.  One recollection was about a famous song to come out of the Civil War, “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.”  This song made the name of its composer, Walter Kittredge, known all over our country.  Kittredge would visit her father — my Great-Grandpa Ballou — and together they’d sing “Tenting Tonight.”  The warmth of the “tent” formed by Grandma’s canopied bed and all those memories can still comfort me.  And perhaps even comfort her spirit if she’s sitting on the bedpost.  Just possibly, my great-grandfather, a loyal Union soldier, also would have a tear in his eye while tucked in snugly on the Web.

Long-dead ancestors have all come back as living memories to new generations, as alive as personalities as they were when the ladies chatted about them in the kitchen.  I’m looking now at an ambrotype portrait of my great-grandmother as a child in 1859.  In her penciled memoir, Mary Ballou wrote in the third person, “At 3 years of age her first picture was taken by a traveling photographer, Lawrence by name.  She sat in a borrowed high chair, belonging to Charlie Jones [a neighbor child].  Black it was with white line trimmings & a diagram on the back.  Her dress was pale orange with little white diamond patterns, low neck, short sleeves, and Mary was half afraid, but altogether curious to see the man put his head under a black cloth.  Mother was ill with typhoid fever, and Mary was recovering from the same.” 

Little Charlie Jones died from typhoid shortly afterwards, and I wonder who remembers him.  He never delivered a speech or wrote a letter, nor had his likeness captured in an ambrotype.  Just a tombstone marks his passing, or a post script on his parents’ marker, that makes small claim to his “immortality.”

 Those New Englanders who never threw anything away?  Mary saved a swatch of her dress.  More than 150 years later, the pale orange still has an otherworldly glow as I show it to my grandchildren. 

 Our poignant search for unfading, eternal life compels us to store school photos, snapshots and Daguerreotypes.  Those “Kodak moments” are a way to store time in a bottle.  The Internet now gives them greater universality.

 We can waltz through a live-for-the-moment future till the devil demands his due.  Then, the words of the dead become precious commodities.  But, there’s good news.  Our images and words can be archived, repeated and shared.  Their spirits can be invited to the dinner table.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Marilyn Monroe Loved Me

Can 11-year-old kids obsess over lovers who steal their small hearts?  Let me be honest; I did.  Worse yet, my love was far, far away.  There was another great, big world outside my hometown in Oregon, and it was called Hollywood.
My first infatuation was Betty Hutton after seeing her in The Greatest Show on Earth.  Betty was caught in a tug-of-war between Charlton Heston and Cornel Wilde in DeMille’s 1952 jaw-dropper.  She also tugged at my heart with her whiskey voice.
But, it was Marilyn who captured my heart.  She took up residency in my waking moments and crept into my night-time thoughts with her breathless voice.  (My heart beat faster when I heard she’d said, “Of course I had something on in bed.  The radio.”).  Her voluptuous figure.  (Nowadays, she would be a size 14.)  Her apparent innocence.  (But weren’t we all innocent then?)  And when I went to the barber shop — oh, rapture! — Marilyn was lying on her side, naked and white, in that incredible 1952 calendar.
It must have been a Hollywood fan magazine that catapulted me into action.  Photoplay and Confidential unveiled an exotic world beyond the reach of mortals and children.  An ad in one of them cried, “Send a letter to Marilyn and she’ll return a large, glossy, black and white photo.”  Cost?  Only a dollar.  And the photo would be signed by Marilyn.  Personally.
I had a dollar.  I had a lot of dollars because I pocketed more than $15 a month from delivering the Portland Oregonian to 50 subscribers every day before school.  My expenses were minimal — just Cokes and Snickers, BBs for my Red Ryder gun, movie tickets.  I could easily slip a dollar into an envelope and borrow a stamp from Mom’s purse.
Then I was struck with horror: Marilyn wasn’t going to pay any attention to an 11-year-old.  Not a kid in a dinky Oregon town.  Adults never paid attention to kids.  Not the barber, not my parents’ friends, not the pastor of our church.  Certainly not a Hollywood movie star.  My playground friends and I were scorned, disenfranchised, non-citizens of the world.
A week went by as I wrestled over being a non-person infected with a fever of desire.  Then the solution came to me.  I went into Dad’s desk and lifted a piece of his stationery.  It was crisp and white, and in blue letters carried his title as president of Pacific University.
Carefully, I practiced my penmanship before committing my request to Marilyn. 
“Dear Miss Monroe, I read your offer and would very much like to have your photograph.  I am one of your biggest fans and loved The Asphalt Jungle.  Enclosed is one dollar.”
Instead of ending with a “Cordially” or “Sincerely,” I signed the letter as an artist might.  “By Wally Giersbach.” 
I checked the mailbox hanging on our front porch every day when I got home from school.  Nothing.  And then.  More days of nothing.  I was beginning to think Marilyn didn’t care.  That she’d taken my money and left me to cry bitter tears.  Didn’t she once say, “If you're gonna be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty”?
One day, Dad came home from his office, eyeing me curiously.  “I have something that I think came to me by mistake,” he said.  “A letter for you.  From Marilyn Monroe.  In Hollywood.” 
Dad had intercepted my dream, exposing me as a stationery thief and an imposter.  Marilyn had mailed her photo and letter to Dad’s office, totally disregarding my instruction to send it my home.  How would a little kid know a woman might betray his trust?
I stood petrified.  Dumbly, I took the 9 x 12-inch envelope and read her cover note.  She said she was glad I was her fan, she appreciated my support, and she hoped I would see her in Niagara when it was released.  She signed the photo, “Love, Marilyn.”
“Son,” Dad said softly, “don’t use my stationery next time your write to your movie star friends.”  He gave me an odd look.  Mom tried to hide her mouth behind her hand.
Perhaps I prayed that night as I held the glossy print of Marilyn, looked deeply into her eyes, and analyzed her rotund signature, “Love, Marilyn.”  Or maybe I felt angry that I wasn’t grown up and respected as an adult who could write to anybody — President Truman or Gene Autry — and they’d listen. 
But I also said “Thank You” to some superior being.  For all the seven hells of embarrassment I’d been put through, I could snuggle under the covers with Marilyn. 


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Searching for Soap

Time is a riptide pulling me inexorably back from the secure beach of things I’ve relied on for decades. Last week, for example, I began searching for a bar of shaving soap I could put in the dimestore mug I’ve used since my Dad passed away in 1981. The mug probably cost less than two bucks when Dad bought it decades earlier.

I ran my finger over the shelves at Walgreen’s, finally letting an associate help search through lotions and aftershaves and aerosol cans. Finally, we reached the same conclusion. “I guess we don’t have shaving soap,” she said in wonderment.

Not a problem. I had to go to the Freehold Mall to buy a birthday present for a friend. But Sephora, the slick, pricey cosmetics place my wife had introduced me on to was closed. I walked back to a place called the The Art of Shaving. I chose an after-shave gel for the friend and, hemming and hawing, decided on a cake of sandalwood soap. Getting it home, however, I discovered the three-inch-diameter cake wasn’t going to fit in Dad’s mug. Back I went to claim a credit on my Visa card. Then I zeroed in on a shop that had large, hand-drawn signs saying “SOAP.”

The place, called Lush or something similar, had a friendly clerk who smiled and said “No shaving soap.” Undeterred by the ultra-feminine appearance of this and other boutiques, I wandered in to L’Occitane.”

“Yes,” the chatty lady told me. “In fact, more people are coming to learn the elegance of straight razors and soaps and after-shaves.” And there was a bar of soap — but in a three-inch diameter size that would never fit Dad’s mug. She apologized. “No,” I replied, “I’m sorry. I guess I’m on a fool’s errand.” They were sorry too at Sephora, which had moved downstairs without telling anyone at the mall.

I drove the 20 miles back to Route 70 and parked at Rite Aid, a drugstore whose help always accuses me of having coupons that won’t scan (they do) or who demand my “Wellness Card.” But — hurray!— Rite Aid had shaving soap. One brand, called Van Der Hagen Scented Luxury Shave Soap, for $4.95 (actually made in Texas and a few cents cheaper with a Wellness Card). And, when I got home, I discovered it fit in Dad’s mug!

This isn’t an isolated instance of wondering where my familiar world has disappeared to. Last month, I wanted to record my stories and a few songs for my eight-year-old grandson. My 28-year-old had told me, “Grandpa, just use your phone!” But I couldn’t use my iPhone. It requires some kind of app, and how do you e-mail a disembodied voice to a kid?

I went to Best Buy for a tape recorder. Best Buy’s clerk said hesitantly, “There may be some in back. Go take a look.”

Sorry, but they had none. So, the default was to try Walmart, a store that overwhelms me with strange customers and clerks with blank looks on their face. Walmart makes me think I’ve entered a Stephen King novel. Sorry, three clerks told me in succession. “We haven’t seen tape recorders in years.”

Well, there was always my favorite store, Target, and there — there! — with all the games and odd electronic parts and plastic things to put in your ears was a miniature boombox. It played CDs, cassette tapes and had an AM/FM radio. Best part, it was only $29.95. But at home I discovered there was no condenser microphone. Just a tiny hole for me to insert my mic.

But my mic, which my wife had used to practice her English on the computer, didn’t work. Complaining about the unfairness of life and a world of disappearing media, a friend said nonchalantly, “Here, take my dad’s old Walkman. And here’re half a dozen tapes.” The Walkman was 20 years old, it worked perfectly, and now my eight-year-old goes to sleep at night listening to Grandpa sing “Back in the Saddle Again” and “The Frozen Logger.”

Now, I really need a new phonograph needle to play my old 33’s and 78’s. But stores don’t even sell phonograph turntables anymore. Would they know what a needle is?

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Intrepid Stagecoach Mary

Stagecoach Mary Fields has several claims to fame, both admirable and notorious. She's best remembered, when remembered at all, as the second woman to officially carry the U.S. mail and the first African-American to do so. Of more notoriety, Mary shot a cowboy and created enough problems to get her kicked out of the nunnery where she had been staying.

Fields stood 6 feet tall and reputedly weighed about 200 pounds, liked to smoke cigars, and was said to be as "black as burnt over prairie." She often had a pistol strapped under her apron, carried a 10-gauge shotgun, and had a jug of whiskey by her side.

Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee about 1832, during Andrew Jackson's administration, she was freed with the Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike many slaves, Fields had learned to read and write. She then worked at the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne's wife, Josephine, died in 1883, Fields took the family's five children to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of the Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio.

Mother Mary Amadeus was sent to Montana the following year to establish St. Peter's Mission, a school for Native Americans west of the town of Cascade. When Fields learned that Mother Mary was ill with pneumonia, she hurried west to care for her. Mother Mary recovered, and Fields stayed on in Cascade to haul freight to keep the school functioning. She also chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, ending up as forewoman of the crew. When needed, she made supply runs to the train stop and even to Great Falls and Helena.

It was on one such run, Fields' wagon was attacked by wolves. The horses bolted and overturned the wagon. Anecdotal evidence says Fields kept the wolves away with her revolver and gun. At dawn's light, she got the freight to the school to the nuns' relief. In no small part, the nuns had invested $30 for the food and, when a keg of molasses was found to have broken Fields was docked a portion of her pay for the loss.

Native Americans in the area called her White Crow because "She acts like a white woman but has black skin." The local whites were a bit more mystified, and one schoolgirl is quoted as writing, "she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low foul creature."

Life went on for a decade until there were complaints and an incident with a disgruntled man that involved gunplay. It was widely recognized that Fields had a temper. The Great Falls Examiner, Cascade's newspaper, reported Fields broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.

A hired hand at the mission once bitched that she was earning $2 a month more than he, and why was she worth that being only an uppity colored woman? He voiced his gripe at the local saloon where Fields was a regular customer, and he complained directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger himself.

This made Fields' blood boil.   Next chance, Fields and the hired hand had a shootout behind the nunnery next to the sheep shed. She'd gone after the man simply to shoot him as he cleaned the latrine, figuring perhaps to dump his body there. She missed, he shot back and the fight was on! Bullets flew until both their guns were empty. The only blood spilled, however, came when one of Fields' bullets ricocheted and hit the man in the left buttock, ruining his new $1.85 trousers. Then the bullet passed through the bishop's laundry, ventilating his drawers and two white shirts that had been shipped from Boston the week before.

The bishop, incensed, ordered Fields to leave the convent.

Ever resourceful, and with the help of Mother Mary Amadeus, Fields opened a restaurant in Cascade. She was reputed to serve food to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. The restaurant went broke ten months later.

In spite of Fields being in her 60s in 1895, she was then hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of horses. She drove the horses and coach, along with her mule, Moses. This earned her the nickname of "Stagecoach Mary." When the Montana snows grew too deep for the coach to continue on a run, Mary would don snowshoes, shoulder the mail bags, and begin walking with Moses, never missing a day of work.

At the age of 72, Fields decided to slow down. The mission nuns helped her open a laundry service in Cascade. In addition, she tended her garden.

One customer, however, failed to pay up because she hadn't put extra starch into his shirt cuffs and collar. Hearing him in the street, Fields left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow. She told her drinking companions that the satisfaction from this act was worth more than what she was owed. The hapless customer also allowed that the tooth Fields knocked out was the one that had been giving him trouble. Both were satisfied.

Stagecoach Mary grew to become a respected figure in Cascade, and the town closed its school to celebrate her birthday. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to drink in saloons, Cascade's mayor granted her an exception.

When Mary wasn't cleaning, she babysat children, became friends with Gary Cooper, got free food and liquor wherever she went, and attended every home game the Cascade baseball team played. According to local sources, she gave flowers from her garden to any player who hit a home run, and would rain a fury of fire and profanity on any umpires who made a bad call against the home team. Despite her gruff exterior, Mary was also kind hearted, and so beloved by the townspeople Cascade that when her home burned down in the fire of 1912, everyone got together and built her a new one.

Fields died of liver problems in 1914 at the age of about 82. Actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote of her in Ebony magazine, "Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38."