Archive for February, 2017

Memoir 2: A Brooklyn Kid, High School, College, The New York Times, and Donald Trump (of Queens).

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Despite my juvenile resistance to her urgings, I have to credit my junior year high school English teacher, Gaye Kelley Crocker, a flamboyant and frustrated actress who came to life in our classroom by insisting those of us under her tutelage would become devoted (by requirement) readers of The New York Times. She especially pressed upon us the columns of Brooks Atkinson, the renowned theater critic, who wielded his pen and opinions for 35 years as The Times’ judge of good and bad drama on and off Broadway.

I was a kid in Brooklyn, the youngest son of immigrants, a rabid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and enrolled in the closest high school of our neighborhood, Manual Training High School. As an institution at that time struggling with its erroneous association with trade schools, Manual sat in the then diverse neighborhood of Park Slope where the predominant students were sons and daughters of immigrant laborers and tradesmen who had little thought of, or encouragement toward, academia.

During my tenure there, the school slowly became earmarked as a “tough” school that harbored teenage gang members and had little standing as a place deemed college-preparatory. Its faculty seemed young and transient, and its curriculum seemed weighted heavily toward vocational and technical training with a few teacher-saints who fought the good fight for the liberal arts in English, Drama, and Art. Even Manual’s athletic teams were mediocre except for its talented swimming and diving squads.

Miss Crocker seemed a misfit, even in her literary specialty. But she taught us, through demand and determination, to turn to The New York Times for our submerged appreciation of drama and art.

In my working class family, the only newspaper my parents brought into the home was the New York Daily News. Its subtitle probably spoke best to its popularity with my parents: “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Neither of my parents was an active reader, but I often saw them perusing the Daily News.

For me, as a high schooler, the only access to The Times was the school library or my frequent trips to the Brooklyn Public Library just to read the newspapers. Of course, if Miss Crocker assigned a particular column of Atkinson’s, it cost me only a few cents to buy that day’s copy of The Times. (And I seem to remember she always had several copies of the newspaper–or at least clips of Atkinson’s columns–strewn about her desk.)

Thus I was introduced to the wider world of The New York Times, but it was in college that I got simple, step-by-step instruction in “How to read The New York Times,” from a young history teacher who stepped in for another teacher on Sabbatical to teach a sophomore elective class in current events.

Dr. Arno Willi Fred Kolz had grown into a pre-teen recruit of Hitler’s Youth Corps in Nazi Germany, but his family escaped and relocated to the United States during Kolz’ teen years before World War II erupted.

The opening week in Kolz’s class on current events was spent taking us through a guided tour of the massive edition of The Sunday New York Times, which in those days weighed in at approximately five or six pounds.

Kolz unwrapped the stack of newsprint and held up the front section of the folio paper with its signature gray front page of assorted headlines, subheadlines, and photos with captions. Then, with little fanfare, he folded back the front page and announced, “Always begin on page two!”

Along the bottom of page two, Kolz drew our attention for the next 50 minutes to the index of stories in the entire newspaper. The index gave capsule descriptions of every story and article in the paper. He taught us in 50 minutes how to read an entire edition of the Sunday Times and to become careful readers of important articles. (I think of Kolz and this lesson every time I scroll through the online Google News or the digital version of The Times.)

I recall thinking to myself after that first day in Kolz’ class, “Wow!” And from that moment I became an ardent fan of The New York Times. Later, I recall reflecting on what a wonderful gift this newspaper had become to this transformed German history teacher and how even more impressive was his passion for sharing this passion with his students.

Now, with Gaye Kelley Crocker and Arno Kolz waning memories, and my 40-year career as a journalist in “retirement,” I find myself driven to encourage others’ appreciation for The New York Times and its related family in “the media.”

[Currently, I’m motivated chiefly by the twittered rantings of another New York kid from Queens who seems to have never learned how to read the gray lady or any other good newspaper in this nation that honors and upholds the freedom and integrity of the press].

Memoir: Music and Me, with special Thanks to PS154

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

I’m not a musician; although, I have sung throughout my life in church choirs, college folk groups, and as an entertainer of my children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and others’ children.

As the child of immigrants from an outport in northeastern Newfoundland, I learned endless versions of sea shanties and comic folk tunes. I retain the choruses of “I’se the B’y”, “Lukey’s Boat,” and “Squid-Jiggin’ Ground,” taught to me by Newfoundland aunts and cousins.

As a 12-year-old, I sang two solos at my only sister’s wedding; 25 or so years after that I sang the same songs at the wedding of my only niece. I sang the “Anniversary Waltz” at a celebration of my parents’ 25th anniversary when I was 13.

Despite growing up in Brooklyn, I secretly became an avid listener to country music broadcast from New Jersey throughout my teens. I learned the songs of Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Faron Young, Jimmy Rodgers, and Webb Pierce, and later the songs of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Don Williams, Ed Bruce, and several others. As I often tell friends, I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 1000 country songs.

As a collegian, influenced by the folk revival, I favored The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Judy Collins. Later, I became a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, and Odetta. Later, I was a connoisseur of more obscure folk purists such as Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett, and Ann Mayo Muir, along with John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and the Nova Scotian Stan Rogers. Also, when my wife and I began our family while living in Northern Vermont, Canadian television introduced me to Raffi, Fred Penner, Connie Caldor, and the Alberta cowboy that Ian Tyson had become.

In my senior year of college, I did folk concerts with a five-member group called “The Cellar-Dwellers and the Girl Upstairs” (four guys and a girl accompanied by a guitar, an upright double-bass, a tambourine, and me on the baritone ukelele).

Alongside this country-folk bias, I kept up with the songs of rock ‘n’ roll, and I never forgot most of the gospel songs I learned in church that were favorites of my mother and father. So my adult tastes moved understandably toward bluegrass gospel sung by artists such as Doyle Lawson, Joe Val, The Seldom Scene, and Ricky Skaggs along with Tony Rice.

I have entertained children and others with my almost verbatim renditions of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” “The Rock Island Line,” and “The Ladies of the Harem of the Court of King Caractacus,” and I can do a decent job on “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” which my father loved to hear.

But this litany of my music favorites obscures the most significant musical experience of my life: sitting in “Music Appreciation” classes at PS 154 in Brooklyn, also known as the Windsor School (located in Windsor Terrace). Under the tutelage of my upper-grade teachers, M. K. Seward, Sylvia Bradley, Ethel R. Convery, and two other lower-grade teachers whose names I forget but who served as skilled accompanists and tutors, I absorbed the wonders of classical music.

In this class, our instructors used “lyric pneumonics” to aid our learning of well-known classical pieces. Thus, decades later I still listen to and repeat by singing:

–“Barcarolle, from Tales of Hoffman, written by Offenbach, bum-bum“;
–“Morning was dawning, as Peer Gynt was yawning from under a statue of Grieg”;
–Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act 3 of his opera Lohengrin:  “Lo-oh-oh-engrin came to wed the fair Elsa . . .” [they never played the bridal chorus in class!];
–the subtle “Largo” from the second movement of Symphony No. 9 from “The New World,” by Anton Dvorak, which our teachers repeatedly played and to which we sang “to a rose, to a rose, to a wild, wild, rose”; and
–Handel’s magnificent organ piece of the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, for which we had no lyrics, but the organ was a singular giveaway for our identification of this classic.

Incidentally, I spent an hour or two reviewing these pieces as I wrote this memoir, and I noted my teachers’ preferences for wedding music!

And, of course, they did surrender to our childishness in allowing us to bounce in PS 154’s auditorium seats as if mounted on stallions as we galloped to the not-so-subtle “Finale” from the William Tell Overture by Rossini. Most of us recognized this piece because of our familiarity with that masked cowboy hero of radio, The Lone Ranger. For this, our teachers did not employ pneumonics, but lots of shushing as spontaneous exclamations of “Hi-yo Silver, away” rang out around the auditorium.

I have to conclude that music, while not my profession, is embedded in my consciousness, and that my eclectic taste is rooted in Newfoundland, cowboys, hippies, church choirs, balladeers, troubadours, and The Windsor School’s music appreciation classes.

Thanks to you all!