Archive for September, 2011

h1

Little Darlin’

September 26, 2011

Music is a constant part of our modern lives. The radio is on in the car or the kitchen. Records, then tapes, CDs, and now MP3s are played everywhere. Even elevators and shopping malls contribute to the perpetual immersion. In this backdrop of music, certain songs tend to become connected to events in our  lives, embedded forever as part of our personal history in our brains. That song which brings back the summer when you first met him or her. The one when you broke up, the one from your  wedding. The one that makes you think of a special time or place in your life.

Little Darlin,’ the door-wop song made famous by the Diamonds in 1957, is one of those songs for me. I heard it while visiting a friend’s shore house this past weekend. Immediately my thoughts traveled back to that night in Catanduanes.

Catanduanes?

the bustling isle of Catanduanes

Yes, Catanduanes. Catanduanes is one of the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, this particular one located in relative isolation off the bottom tip of Luzon. It has two claims to fame. The first is its small rocky guardian islands honeycombed with caves in the volcanic rock, reputedly providing hiding places for pirates in years gone by. The other is that it’s smack in the path of fierce typhoons that sweep up through the Pacific. But for me its unique distinction was being the unlikely site of a reunion with a revered college friend.

John Dumm was two years ahead of me at Seton Hall and a member of a small group of intelligentsia in my dorm whom I admired and came to know. After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps. He was stationed on the other side of the world in the Philippines. We communicated a few times by mail while I was still in school.

As fate would have it, when I graduated and pursued my own Peace Corps dream, I was assigned to the Philippines as well. Despite the incredible coincidence (the Peace Corps was in 59 countries at the time), it seemed rather far-fetched to imagine our paths would cross there. I wasn’t even sure anymore exactly where in the country he currently was located.

As part of our initial in-country training, the new volunteers were sent out in small groups to visit an experienced volunteer to garner some insights into our new lives in the tropics.

“You’re going to ferry over to Catanduanes,” said our Provincial Director. “There’s a volunteer there who has been working on designing typhoon-proof schools, and I think you’ll learn a lot from him. His name’s John Dumm.”

Eureka! What were the chances!

PCV Sharon and fellow ferry passenger

John only knew that five of us newcomers were on our way, so when he saw me walking down the ramp from the ferry amidst the baskets of fruit and squawking chickens, surprise was the order of the day. After introductions to the other new volunteers, we spent time catching up over lunch in Virac, the port at which we landed.

Since John lived in a small house in the countryside, it had been arranged for us to stay in a hotel  in Virac, the capital of the province. Now, Virac is not exactly a cosmopolitan haven for nightlife. As a matter of fact, there was none, not the ideal place for a group of twenty-one year olds in search of a good time after an arduous  journey. But wait, you say, weren’t you in a hotel? Wasn’t this a capital city? Well, yes and yes, but in a backwater area of a third world country, so the reality didn’t quite live up to the terminology.

Therefore, we found ourselves on the verandah of the “hotel” with several chairs, a few bare light bulbs (having electricity at all was the one luxury afforded us), and, luckily, a large supply of San Miguel beer. There was also a record player with, for some unknown reason, only one record, an old American 45 RPM single. It happened to be an old favorite of mine from the 50’s, “Little Darling.”

As the night wore on and the San Miguel bottles emptied, “Little Darling” played on, over and over and over again. It was at first a bad joke, but as the hours marched on, it became a soundtrack to this surreal tropical night. By the time the refreshments had been exhausted and we stumbled to our beds, the song had woven itself into our psyches as though it were a thread in our very being.

So if you see me at a lounge or at a party with a faraway glazed look in my eyes and a strange bemused smirk and you hear, “Eye, yi-eye-eye-eye, Yi-eye-eye-eye, Ya-ya-ya-ahh, Little darlin’ (bop-bop-bop shoo-wah-wah), oh, little darlin’ (bop-bop-bop shoo-wah-wah), Oh-oh-oh where a-are you?” it is probably best just to leave me alone for a while. And maybe go get me a bottle of San Miguel.

h1

Sorry, George

September 18, 2011

army george

It all started out with a furnace. An improperly installed furnace, the one put in sixteen years ago in the addition to our house. We weren’t aware of this problem until the late night beeping of a recently installed carbon monoxide detector woke us up. The Public Service inspector who came told us the levels were high enough to have killed us had we not responded by opening the windows and calling them. This carbon monoxide situation could have occurred at any time, it seems, if the conditions were right, so we had to get a new furnace.

But this led to another unplanned result. In the process of clearing the necessary path in the cluttered disaster that is my basement for installers to get to the furnace, I came upon the many boxes of my father’s stamp collection. This prompted a long-delayed and often postponed decision: time for them to go.

This was hard for me. I don’t want to let go. I knew very well, and had for the many years that the collection sat in my house, that I would never tend to it properly as George had hoped, but the emotional attachment (and guilt) was too strong to do anything other than move it from one storage spot to the next, the last being their unceremonious depositing in the basement. My wife argued logically and ultimately successfully that a) they would get ruined eventually down there, b) I would never become an aficionado, and, checkmate, c) my father would rather have seen them go to someone who would appreciate them than have them rot away downstairs.

Deep sigh. I hauled to the car the many bags of albums, first day covers, cigar boxes overflowing with catalogued and partly catalogued loose stamps, and sheets of mint issues, all sheathed in the loving care which my father gave the collection that he and his brother had gotten from their father and to which he intended to devote his full attention in retirement. A stroke, however, short-circuited all his best-laid plans.

The assembled lot was brought to a very Nordic looking collector/dealer at Northland International Trading. He looked through all of the stuff, noting (rather cruelly, I thought, under the circumstances) that most of it was “junk,” and then delivered the final dagger in the form of money, shadowy images of Judas lurking in my head. I did salvage some items that had family history or sentimental value such as addressed envelopes from long dead relatives in Sweden and England. However, I left there with a very empty feeling.

A moral to the story? Probably not. It’s just change. Change, the eye of the storm that wreaks havoc upon one’s emotional weather. People enter our lives — change. People leave our lives — change. We get older — change. We move, we get different jobs, we watch the incomprehensible events of the world swirling around us — change. The minor events — the loss of my father’s beloved stamp collection — just serve to crystalize the inevitable and relentless nature of the beast. One starts with a bad furnace and ends with the parting of a piece of the past, of a father’s dream. One is playing, a carefree child in the park, and ends up sitting alone in his sixties reflectively mourning the loss of his father’s stamps.

My father captured this idea simply but profoundly one day late in his life. He said, “I look down and see these hands. They’re the hands of an old man. Then I realize that they’re mine.” Now it is I who find myself looking at my hands.

So, I’m sorry, George. Sorry that you never had the chance to finally do what you wanted after a life of hard work. Sorry that I was unable to take proper care of something so dear to you.

Sorry, George, but though it’s sometimes bitter, it’s just change.

h1

Ruth, Imogene, and a Simple Twist of Fate

September 10, 2011

I don’t think I ever really had girlfriends, at least not in the traditional sense. There were, however, girls whose journeys through life became entangled with mine for brief periods through, I believe, fate (I was far too inept to have accomplished it on my own). This is the story of one such girl that had an odd twist to it. This is the story of Ruth.

I met Ruth during my freshman year at college. Our relationship was quite unexpected and totally inexplicable. I think I was pretty much of a dorky guy. She was, to put it simply, a knockout. If we were cars, I would have been someone’s beat-up old nondescript brown Buick. Ruth was a sleek new Lamborghini. How I ever ended up with her is beyond me.

We met through a friend that knew her from high school, and the details of our initial encounter are foggy at best. But there are several episodes of our time together that are still crystal clear.

I had been newly exposed to the world of jazz through my roommate, who was a jazz drummer. I listened to every album I could get my hands on. New York City was a hotbed of jazz, and it was just a short ride away. I read that Thelonious Monk was playing at the Village Vanguard, so I asked Ruth if she’d like to go.

Now, I was not a “dater” in any sense of the word, nor was I very sophisticated about what a night in the city entailed. I had never been to the Vanguard, either, so each step of the way was a new discovery. Like paying an exorbitant amount to park. Like realizing there were such things as cover charges and minimums. The show itself was terrific, and I even had a chance encounter with Monk in the men’s room. Of course Ruth looked fabulous. But when the check came, I didn’t have enough cash. It was beginning to feel like one of those scenes in a Woody Allen movie with the bumbling protagonist stammering his way through excuses and being physically tossed out of the joint. Ruth, however, immediately perceived the quandary I was in and, in her cool manner, slipped me the necessary money. She had saved my hide, and better yet, didn’t even make a big deal about it on the way home. What a gal!

Another memorable evening occurred during New Year’s Eve. My parents, quite uncharacteristically, decided to have a party in our decidedly 1950’s Goodwill decor basement. I was living on campus, and my life there was quite separate from that of home, so no one had met Ruth or even heard of her until I announced that I was bringing her. The “guests” were an odd assortment of relatives and neighbors, mostly older, and when I walked in with Ruth, mouths literally dropped (and perhaps a drink if I remember correctly). I even heard a “Va-va-voom” uttered by one of my rather intoxicated uncles in the back. Ah, the stories that must have been told far into the night after we departed.

Later that spring, Ruth suddenly moved to Florida. She wrote to me sporadically. Once, in a creative attempt to keep the flames of our relationship burning, I wrote her a poem/letter on a napkin. That was a big hit, but after a few months, I didn’t hear from her again.

Years went by. I graduated, went overseas in the Peace Corps, came back, and began both my teaching career and married life. Years turned into decades. Ruth was firmly and irrevocably in the past. Or so I thought.

Each June at the school in which I taught an award was given to one graduating student, second in prestige only to Valedictorian. It’s in honor of a legendary principal of the school (the one, as a matter of fact, who hired me–another exercise in fate those who know of my life are familiar with) who was known for her kindness to all and an intense belief in the betterment of oneself through education regardless of the obstacles. Not a stray dog or cat would go uncared for in the vicinity of the school, and she had a special place in her heart for those who exhibited such kindness themselves. I had been in charge of this award since its inception years ago, and one of my duties was to write and deliver the presentation speech at graduation.

This particular year when the staff met to nominate students for this award, one name came up immediately and repeatedly. She was an extraordinary young lady, the sweetest, kindest, most genuine kid you could ever imagine. As soon as Imogene’s name came up, there was little further discussion needed. Everyone loved Imogene. Everyone admired and respected her for the humble way she had risen to the top of the very tough mountain she had to climb. She had been raised by her grandmother because of a difficult situation within her family. Imogene won the award, and I was glad, for it would be a pleasure to write and deliver this speech.

Graduation night. The students marched in. Imogene was in the front row, directly in front of the podium on the stage. It was time to present the award, the students not knowing ahead of time who had won. As I delivered my speech, I saw Imogene, listening intently as she always did to everything. I saw her grandmother sitting in the parents’ section. And when I finally announced her name, I watched the stunned look on her face as she sat there (someone so pure as she never would think she is the winner). Her fellow students cheered from the heart, for they knew how worthy she was even if she didn’t. As she walked up in disbelief, the auditorium spontaneously stood in an ovation. I could have swept her up in my arms and hugged her.

The scene after the students marched out to Pomp and Circumstance was always a madhouse as parents, faculty, students, and assorted relatives and friends packed the hallway on the way to the cookie and juice “reception” that followed in the cafeteria, so I didn’t get to speak to Imogene or her grandmother. During the course of the year, I had gotten to know her grandmother, who in her own quiet way watched over Imogene like a mother bear over her cub. I remember the first time I met the woman at Back to School night for the parents in September. She came up to me after the session was over and introduced herself (not by her name, but as “Imogene’s grandmother”) and exhorted me, kindly but with an unmistakable inner strength, to take good care of her little girl. The day after graduation, she sent an e-mail thanking me.

I e-mailed her back, thanking her and telling her again how strongly I felt about this wonderful kid she had raised. The secretary had told me that she wanted a copy of the speech I delivered, so I included that. School ended, and off I went to my annual Cape Cod interlude. Once home, I checked my e-mail to find this:

“Dear Mr. Daborn:

This is something I want to share with you: I have a sister-in-law whom I adore.  She is beautiful and brilliant.  She means so much to me.  It’s not often that you get an in-law in life that you love unconditionally.  I e-mailed her your speech.  Life is so strange.  And at times we do see that  we are spiritually connected.  She happens to love Imogene a lot. I know you like Imogene too.  My sister-in-law, Ruth, told me that she dated a young man that was a Freshman in Seton Hall University who went into the Peace Corps  and he was one of the nicest men she ever met.  Why he even bought her tickets to a jazz concert because he knew she loved jazz.  She remembers going to his home on New Years Eve. She would not be surprised if he became a teacher.  He had it in him so to speak.   She moved away to Florida.  Her last name was Francis, Ruth Francis.  Ring a bell? She said your speech was eloquent and so well written.  Since she is a very good writer, take that as a compliment.  Imogene getting you as a teacher was not only luck but meant to be.  Thank you so much. “

I nearly fell out of the chair! Fate had woven this pattern with such an intricate and surprising design. I wrote her back, telling her that indeed I was that freshman at Seton Hall, and that I remembered Ruth clearly. I asked that my regards be sent along and concurred that fate is often at work in strange and unusual ways. Grandmother responded one more time, giving me a brief history of the forty-some years since I had known Ruth, how she moved to Florida, married the grandmother’s younger brother and became part of a husband-wife comedy team (this sounds like a Vonnegut novel) but then realized the financial instability and went into advertising, ending up as executive vice-president of a big agency (she was responsible for the Verizon “can you hear me now” campaign). At one point the grandmother was thinking about having her come in to school and speak to the class on how to make TV commercials.

“Wouldn’t that have been something!” she said.

Yes, indeed, it would have.

h1

Dirty Hands

September 7, 2011

Look,

I’m a teacher.

My hands don’t get dirty.

The chalk dust

is not like the indigo grit of the roofing tar

on my father’s hands

that took the magic globs

of Quickie to remove,

and the occasional paint or paste

can’t compare to the sawdust

caked on with sweat and blood.

Though I know it was his desire

for me to go beyond

his dirty hand blue collar world,

there was something lost.

These clean hands.

This new world.

h1

Looking Back at 9/11

September 4, 2011

ground zero

It is September, and in New Jersey another school year has just begun. There is now a new ritual for the returning students, an unfortunate one, for the anniversary of 9/11 awaits them shortly after they arrive. A new generation, most of whom had not even been born yet, will be asked to reflect on this abhorrent attack.

In the first several years following that terrible event, my students wrote about their memories of that day. They recalled the way they found out, how they and those around them reacted, and what they in their young minds thought had happened. In subsequent years when students were too young to remember themselves, they interviewed members of their family — some of whom worked right in the area and witnessed it firsthand — about their reactions and memories. This composition, far more than just an ordinary assignment, was a chance to reexamine feelings, analyze reactions, and reassess their understanding of this surreal and tragic occurrence. What they wrote was poignant, revealing, and sometimes startling, but always important, both to them and to me.

My own recollections remain abundantly clear, and I doubt they will ever fade.

The school at which I taught sat on a ridge on the other side of the Hudson River within sight of the New York skyline. That glorious September day seemed so full of promise as the unfolding of a new school year always did. The beauty of that morning with its clear blue sky belied what was about to occur.

My new class and I were getting to know each other and easing into the study of eighth grade English. During an early class, there was a call over the intercom for a student to come to the office accompanied by the hushed “oooo’s” of the other students, assuming some sort of transgression had been committed. Not such an unusual circumstance other than it was awfully early in the school year for such a thing to happen. A moment later there was another call, and then another. This was indeed unusual. No explanation was offered. As this process continued, the remaining students began looking questioningly at each other, sensing something was amiss, but what?

Shortly thereafter, the principal knocked at my door. She had an uncharacteristic troubled look on her face. When I opened the door, she motioned me into the hallway.

“An airplane has hit one of the Twin Towers. We’re calling down those students whose parents work there.”

She quickly left to deliver this information to the next room, and I returned to my class. The image I had was that of an accident, perhaps a small private plane from one of the nearby airports. Not having solid information and not wanting to bring about undue speculation, I did not relay this to the students still in my class. The remainder of the morning was subdued and uneasy.

Lunch period began at 11:20, and as I dismissed my class and was about to head downstairs, one of my colleagues rushing by whispered, “Go watch the news on the library TV. You’re not gonna believe this.”

She was right. As I walked in, the collapse of the towers was being rebroadcast. We all stared at the screen in stunned silence.

Many rumors had been circulating in the school yard at lunchtime, and some students who had gone home came back with various versions of what they had seen on TV. I tried to answer questions as honestly as possible but also with a vagueness generated by my own lack of knowledge. More and more students left, now being picked up by parents who wanted them home. The afternoon classes were a confused blur.

After dismissal, I stopped on the way home at Riverside Park a mile down the road from school. The park was empty save for an elderly dog walker or two. There was something very different about it, and I suddenly realized as I circled the park that the sky was empty. Normally there would be several planes a minute either coming or going to or from Newark International or JFK or Teterboro, their contrails crisscrossing the airspace over Lyndhurst. But now there were none, leaving a perceptible void. As I continued homeward on Route 21 along the Passaic River, a long dark plume of smoke paralleled my journey northward.

Once arriving home, all the incoming news was bad. New York was under lockdown. Hospitals were clearing the decks for the expected torrent of injured. I knew that my wife, a nurse at a major New York hospital, would not be coming home this night. Communication to her was impossible, so I sat alone, glued to the news broadcasts along with most of America.

Late that night she did manage to get a call through to me. I still remember the quiet somberness of her voice in her simple but telling statement: “Nobody came.”

In the aftermath, I heard of all the personal stories of the parents of our students, how one father helped carry a disabled coworker in a wheelchair down fifty flights of stairs, how several of them would have been there but for one twist of fate or another that made them late or kept them home that day. Not one of them perished. All, however, knew some of those who did.

This was one of those events, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK, that time does not erase from our collective or individual memories. Those who were old enough to be aware, especially living in this area, will always be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Certain specific details particular to each person are left like an imprint on our brains, the expression on a face, the tone of a voice.

I still have some copies of those students’ compositions. They are reminders of how those young minds tried to understand something beyond comprehension. I hope they too kept theirs. As time passes, they will be able to see again through their youthful eyes their perspective of that time, and these stories can be told and retold to future children and grandchildren, preserving what is now their own piece of living history of that shocking, unforgettable day.

9/11 memorials