Archive for October, 2011

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My Year in the Coal Bin

October 29, 2011

Most of my college years were spent in a dormitory. I don’t at all regret this, for it is there that I met some of my lifelong friends, and there that I had some strange and interesting experiences. However, my last year of college found me living in a converted coal bin in the basement of a tenement building in Newark. My run of strange and interesting experiences was destined to continue.

My girlfriend (who was my eventual wife) lived in this building her freshman year. It was owned by an old Polish woman named Mrs. Jasinski who lived in the front rooms on the second floor of the old-style railroad apartment. My girlfriend and her roommate rented a small room in the back, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with their rather intrusive landlady.

It was at this place where I first met my future wife’s parents. I had planned on stopping over for a quick visit before they arrived one Sunday afternoon. I was riding a friend’s motorcycle, a customized black 350 CC monster with no baffles in the muffler — not legal, but mighty loud. At the time I had long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache. I roared up the driveway to the back of the building to suddenly encounter my future in-laws who had arrived early, mouths agape at the sight of the guy their precious little girl was seeing. I can only imagine the conversation in that car on the way home.

The two girls were not thrilled rooming there, as it proved not to be the most convenient of arrangements. Sharing a kitchen and bathroom with Mrs. Jasinski caused all manner of conflict because of her various idiosyncratic rules and regulations. She also had a habit of rummaging through their belongings while they were home for the weekends. They moved out after one year.

I moved in the next, but several floors below. Why, one may wonder, would anyone want to live in a converted coal bin in a tenement basement? A fair question, to be sure. It was not for the drably painted cinder block walls and exposed pipes. It was not for the absence of a bathroom, nor for the tiny windows or bare light bulbs which contributed to the cave-like ambiance. It was certainly not for the noise from the apartment upstairs.

It was for the rent. Fifty dollars a month. That’s $12.50 a week. For a college senior in 1969 who was down to the end of his bank account, that was reason enough.

Home Sweet Coal Bin

Living there did have its perks. I had gotten to know Mrs. Jasinski during my visits with my girlfriend (which she would carefully monitor) the previous year. She kind of took a shining to younger men. I was student teaching at the time at an all girls Catholic high school nearby in Irvington and would often come home late from some activity or other. I would find waiting for me on the floor outside my coal bin door a wax paper covered plate. In it would be Mrs. Jasinski’s homemade golumpkis or pirogues covered with congealed fat.

My nickname back then was Muskie (given to me freshman year in the dorm because of my supposed resemblance to a cartoon character from Deputy Dog). When I would go upstairs to Mrs. Jasinski’s apartment to use the bathroom before bed (remember, no facilities in the coal bin), she would say to me in her drawn-out gravely voice (imagine an 85 year old Polish Kathleen Turner speaking), “Ooohh, Muuusskiee, you like the perooogiiis?”

Part way through the year, my great friend Rob, who went to Montclair State, moved in with me. On the down side, the jail-cell sized room didn’t leave much space to maneuver. But Rob was good company, and it did now make the split rent only $25.

Mrs. Jasinski really took a shining to Rob. I can still hear her crooning every time she’d see us; “Ooohh, Rrroooobbb, you come take a shower tonight, yeeesss?” Rob milked this for all it was worth. He was angling for a further reduction in rent, but it usually meant more cold greasy Polish food left at our door. But I’m convinced it was this relationship that one night saved our hides.

The family above us could be quite noisy. I usually ignored it, but one night it bothered Rob to the point of action. He turned up the stereo (I think it was Janis Joplin). Now, the fellow upstairs looked pretty much like Tony Soprano (and he may very well have been in the same business), so I urged Rob to forget it, but he was hell-bent on his mission. The noise upstairs increased. Rob escalated the situation by cranking up the music full blast, resulting in loud pounding coming from above. Rob then had the bright idea to make use of our tactical advantage of being in the basement, and he flipped off the circuit breakers to the offending party’s apartment. Thankfully Rob had the foresight to lock the door to the basement first, for the thunderous hollering and pounding testified to the fury we would have had to endure. Mrs. Jasinski got down there in record time (she was not a slim woman) to mollify the brute. They moved out shortly thereafter, and I have to believe it was because of the intercession of our amorous protector.

When graduation time arrived, Rob and I packed up our meager belongings, loaded up his old Buick, and prepared to head out. Mrs. Jasinski seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I don’t know if the coal bin was ever rented out again; it probably wasn’t legal in the first place. However, of all the varied places I would end up living in my life, none could ever match the weird homeyness of my year in the coal bin.

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The Old Man in the Bed

October 25, 2011

The old man in the bed

made sounds

as he was about to begin

his journey.

The sound of his hammer

pounding

endless nails on the roofs

of New Jersey houses,

the sound of his hands

rustling

as he searched the closet shelf

for his hat each day before work,

the sound of coffee

percolating

in the old dented pot

early mornings on the stovetop,

the sound of the lawnmower

whirring

on the summer lawn he loved to tend

and the sprinkler

hissing

late into the firefly dusk;

then, finally,

the sound of silence

signaling

the journey had begun.

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Blood Wedding

October 21, 2011

It was to be a day of joy, the union of two good friends in marriage. When it began, I didn’t know fate would have my path cross that of a young man of such great ill fortune. I never even knew his name, but his spilled blood still stains my memory of that day.

Charlie and Lucy were to be wed in the chapel at Seton Hall University on the campus where my circle of friends had all met. Since I’d recently returned from overseas, I was in a period of transition, living in my childhood room at my parent’s house in Bergenfield. I had no car and thus was forced to take a complex and circuitous route to get to South Orange. This entailed a bus ride across the George Washington Bridge, a subway to 42nd Street, another bus from the Port Authority Terminal to Irvington, ending in a walk through Ivy Hill Park to the chapel in the center of campus.

The trip began uneventfully enough, but something went terribly awry. As the downtown A train was pulling into the 42nd St. station, it suddenly jolted to a squealing halt with most of the cars, including mine, not yet out of the tunnel. I could see through the window that the next car had made it into the station, so I went there. Since I was running late, I exited between cars despite the posted warning against doing so. As I stepped onto the platform, I saw him right there in front of me. It was an image I can’t forget.

The young man was awkwardly sitting on the floor next to the subway car in a huge pool of  blood. One leg was bent beneath him, the other pinned at the thigh between the platform and the subway car. His face was a ghastly white, his terrified eyes staring down in agonized disbelief, all the while rocking, rocking, and repeating trancelike in a low moan, “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” over and over again.

I stumbled back, both horrified and transfixed by the sight, as a transit cop rushed over and started applying a tourniquet. In numbed shock, I made my way up the steps to head for the bus terminal, peering back as a crowd gathered around the drama that was unfolding below. The bus ride to Irvington was a blur as the horrific scene replayed itself in my mind. Who was that poor guy? How could something like that happen? And so much blood — could he possibly survive?

Being with friends at the wedding was a good salve for my shaken soul, but I remained distracted. The following day, I hurried to the local newspaper vendor to buy a Daily News to see if there was any information about the incident. Indeed there was, buried way back on page 48.

The young man was from a small town in Pennsylvania. He had recently returned home unscathed from a tour of duty in Vietnam. To celebrate his safe return, he decided to go into the Big Apple, something he had never done in his short life. Finding himself on the wrong side of the track to go downtown and unfamiliar with the stairway system to cross over, he had jumped onto the tracks, run across (amazingly without contacting the deadly third rail), and was climbing up the platform wall when my train pulled in, pinning and crushing his leg. The article went on to say that the leg had to be amputated, but he was expected to survive.

As it turned out, Charlie and Lucy’s marriage did not survive, ending in divorce several years later, perhaps another victim of ill fate. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone could get through the extreme travails of war only to be maimed in that fashion back home and the odd manner in which I had come to witness it. I wonder sometimes what became of this young man, if he was bitter about what happened, or did he count his blessings to have lived.

I occasionally told this story to my students in school when discussing the role of fate in the play Romeo and Juliet. There are two sides to consider. The decisions of those involved can be seen as the direct cause of the consequences that followed. However, the series of events that placed them in the position in which they found themselves sometimes seems inexplicable but for destiny. Who knows for sure? Either way, my recollection of Charlie and Lucy’s wedding is forever entwined with the blood of an unfortunate young man on the platform of that New York subway station.

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The Vinegar Monk

October 16, 2011

This is a test.

What?

This is a test.

Whaddaya mean? What’s a test?

This. That. Everything.

Huh?!

Relax. It’s not like you’re Job, you know.

You mean… this… is a test?

Yes. If it helps, just think of it as practice. For the other ones. The harder ones.

Gulp…..

Perhaps if you spent a bit more time on your spiritual development?

Gulp….

In any event, I’ll be in touch.

Gulp….

 

Autumn had arrived. There were many events that signaled it beyond the changing of the foliage.

I had gotten off the phone with the doc, who got results from another round of tests and wanted to start me on another medication. What is this phase of life that we enter when our bodies start failing us?

Before that, I picked up from the shop our new-but-now-violated car ($1,342 violated) that was the target of an attempted theft. In my own driveway.

Before that, installed a motion sensor light by the driveway as a hopeful deterrent to further episodes (with the dubious side effect of shining into my neighbor’s bedroom window every time a breeze blows the surrounding trees).

But before that too was a weekend in the autumnal glory that is rural upstate New York (a long weekend, both of us playing hooky Monday). It was the occasion of my birthday and our anniversary, so we said what the heck and went. It was wonderful.

And before that was the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the last ever at Waterloo Village in northwest New Jersey (closed due to lack of state funding). It went out with a bang.

And even before that, it was Sidewalk Sale day in Montclair, and we, on our way to a craft fair in a park, stumbled upon it. My wife, an aficionado of such events, was off to the races, so I picked a nice bench on which to wait. Figuring she was good for at least an hour, I strolled over to the church, which was having a rummage sale on its lawn in conjunction with the sidewalk sale, and saw boxes of used books, three for a dollar; how can one go wrong? I thought I could find something to pass the time, and indeed I did, The Best American Essays of 2004. Perfect! I could read some shorter pieces without the kind of commitment I wasn’t ready to give to a novel.

I reclaimed my spot on the bench, flipped through the essays, and spotted an interesting title, “Bullet in my Neck,” noticing that it was by a poet I like, Gerald Stern. It seems that Stern and a female companion, who was driving, got lost leaving Newark airport on the way to a poetry reading and found themselves in the heart of Newark. They were stopped at a light. He looked over at her and saw that beyond her, outside her window, was a young guy with a gun pointed at her, about to squeeze the trigger. The gun misfired, but when he turned his head, he saw the guy outside his window, and his gun did not misfire. The bullet struck him in the neck. They raced off to find help and ended up at the hospital (where a guard tried to stop him from going in the wrong entrance). The bullet was lodged dangerously close to an artery, so the doctors decided it would be best to leave it be (hence the title of the essay). The heart of the essay was the aftermath of this event, the struggle with one’s desire to be understanding of the human conditions that cause such behavior versus the anger over what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-shoot-me-for, as I am now struggling with the milder what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-break-into-my-car-for.

At the Dodge festival several weeks later, I saw on the schedule that none other than the selfsame Gerald Stern was going to be reading. I attended his small-group session (somewhat ironically about poetry and disruption), and when it was over went up to him and told the story of reading his essay (my car not yet having been broken into). He was quite funny for a cantankerous old poet, and ended our brief conversation with, “And you know, the bullet is still  there!”

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

My wife Bernadette, ever the lover of esoteric cooking and food information, saw an article in the NY Times about a Benedictine monk who lived by himself in upstate New York making homemade vinegar (viewed by the outside world as a gourmet item). After it was decided that we would go away for the weekend, she went back to the article, and, Lo and Behold, that very monk’s monastery was in a town not so far from where we were going. We plotted various routes on Mapquest, and we found ourselves driving along country roads near LaGrangeville, NY, looking for the isolated sanctuary of the Vinegar Monk, which most of the locals, having been asked, had never heard of. Finally, in a small roadside convenience store a customer, looking for all the world like a Mountain Man, overheard my query to the clerk and pointed us in the right direction. Several miles later, there it was, a small sign at the entrance of a winding dirt road leading into the woods.

After driving up the narrow road which was punctuated by small religious statuary on posts, we arrived at a farmhouse in a somewhat overgrown yard with dogs barking and chickens and cats running about, suspiciously eying these intruders of their bucolic world. The farmhouse (which had crosses on it; it must be the place) had no public looking “entrance,”  so we found ourselves standing around wondering what to do next when we heard tapping coming from one of the upstairs windows.

Moments later, Brother Victor-Antoine D’Avila-Latourrette appeared, bald headed and wearing a cassock and sandals, one’s very image of a monk. He invited us in, and we sat in his dark and rather musty parlor. He was genuinely hospitable in spite of being busy (“Please excuse me; I was making pesto sauce for the Christmas Festival”). He told us, in his slight French accent,  all about his vinegar making (using a twelfth-century recipe from France), the writing of the Times article, the interns from nearby Vassar who sporadically worked on the farm with him (and from where the writer of the Times article came), how he ended up being alone at the monastery, and what life was like on a small farm in upstate New York. He showed us his chapel, a simple but elegant stone-walled room off the back of the farmhouse, and then came the vinegar.

He had an assortment of bottles, some white, some red, several in “fancy” Christmas bottles (“Oh, they’re so hard to come by”). Bernadette was ready to buy, but he insisted that first we smell (Wow!!) and then taste using a teaspoon from his kitchen. And indeed this was special stuff, each handcrafted batch having its own distinct personality described with obvious love by Brother Victor. On a table were some old and dusty cookbooks which Bernadette discovered were written by him, a 1966 graduate of Columbia University. She bought one of them, too, with peasant recipes from France interspersed with homey religious quotes. Two of my favorites: “For a small reward a man will hurry away on a long journey, while for eternal life many will hardly take a single step.” (Thoms A Kempis) and “Three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes, anxiety over tomorrow’s problems, and ingratitude for today’s blessings.” (William Arthur Ward). One book, which I was tempted to get, was entitled Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.

At that point, Brother Victor, almost apologetically for what he seemed to consider his lapse of social grace, asked what our names were, and when he heard “Bernadette,” he became nothing short of ecstatic. It turns out that he was born not far from Lourdes, and his grandfather knew THE Bernadette. He ushered us back into the chapel to show us the special shrine he had for Saint Bernadette as well as other very old religious icons including an eleventh century statue of Mary. We then went outside to view the Grotto of Bernadette in front of the farmhouse, followed by a tour of his little farm (“Oh, I’m so glad I came out here with you; I left the water running in the hose for the sheep!”). He showed us the vegetable garden and the herb garden, all the while telling us stories of the difficulties of running the farm on his own and trying to make vinegar as well as keep up his religious life. He had been selling vinegar through the nearby Millbrook Winery, but it got to be too much. Once a prominent restauranteur from California had found out about him and wanted to fly him out (“But I’ve never been to California, I told him. I’m a monk; I don’t get out much”).

We finally bid him adieu and drove off in wonderment over the unexpected and magical interlude we had just experienced. Miles from New Jersey. Light years from Newark. The next two days were filled with walks through the beautiful autumn woods, drives past pastures with mellow cows and meandering stone walls, my upcoming rendezvous with medical consternation still days away.

Yes. The three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes (attempted car thefts, bullets in the neck), anxiety over tomorrow’s problems (the ever-increasing medications and the encroaching old age it symbolizes), and ingratitude for today’s blessings (Bernadette’s mysterious and ceaseless love, the golden leaves blowing about).

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

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I Know It’s Only Rock and Roll

October 9, 2011

Rock and Roll was born shortly after I was. We kind of grew up together (though use of the term “grow up,” for the both of us, is relative). Rock and Roll has been with me and a part of me from my earliest years, and it is still present as strong as ever as I enter my sixty-third year.

I always remember music being in my life. This came from my mother’s side, where many family members played instruments (my Uncle Joe professionally) and everybody sang. My mother learned to play piano by ear and was quite good. Any family gathering was an excuse for a spontaneous outbreak of music.

We had a large wooden cabinet radio/record player in the living room in our house on which my mother would play her thick, clunky old vinyl LPs of Mario Lanza, Perry Como, and Eddie Fisher. Repetition embedded some of these early songs forever in my brain (“When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that’s amore…” ). This fare was augmented by my own little collection of red vinyl Disney kiddie records, hits such as “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

The smaller cream-colored plastic Emerson radio in the kitchen was my initial conduit to the beginnings of what was to become Rock and Roll. We had no TV for the first decade of my life, so the radio was my portal to the entertainment world. At first the pop standards of the day caught my ear; Patience and Prudence (“got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now…”), Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” (which my sister and I performed in a neighbor’s garage show), and other such “safe” songs were typical. However, subversive inroads were being made by the likes of Bill Haley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Elvis.

I really got rolling when I got my own room. The normal procedure was for me to be sent there to do my homework. Instead, through the magic of the technological miracle of the transistor radio and earphones, I spent my time listening to the rock and roll shows of Murray the K and Mad Daddy and Cousin Brucie. I learned quite a bit, though not exactly what school had in mind. Ah, the lessons the Shirelles, Ronettes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Young Rascals taught me.

Captain of the submarine race watchers club

Shortly after the “British Invasion” occurred in the early 1960s, a musical battle developed between fans of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was kind of like the Yankees and the Mets. Even though John, Paul, George, and Ringo won most of the sales wars (and the hearts of teen girls), the Stones funkier blues based sound and bad-boy image had a hard-core following, too (I counted myself firmly in this camp). This time saw an odd proliferation of styles getting air time, from Motown to the British sound to bubblegum. But, as Dylan said, the times they were a’ changing.

Going off to college in 1966 plunged me headlong into these changes. FM radio became the primary vehicle for ground-breaking music during that time. The “free form” station WFMU from Upsala College was the “underground” station of choice, but WNEW was at the vanguard of this upheaval. A new wave of DJ’s came into being forging their own particular styles and shows: Jonathan Schwartz with his story-telling, Allison Steele, “the night-bird,” with her mysterious but soothing late night rambles, and Rosko and Scott Munie, the old guard joining the revolution. This is where I first heard the sprawling songs that ranged far beyond the limitations of AM radio’s restrictions both in time and subject matter: The Door’s “Light My Fire,” Richie Havens’ “Follow,” The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” Cream’s “Spoonful,” and Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Previously unheard of bands with crazy names exploded on the scene: Pearls Before Swine, 13th Floor Elevator, Procol Harum, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Electric Prunes, Strawberry Alarm Clock. Dorm rooms were bedecked with psychedelic posters, and the smell of incense was pervasive.

groovy, man

I couldn’t wait to create or at least mimic this music, and in my freshman year, the opportunity to learn how to play the guitar arrived in the form of a fellow freshman down the hall, Mike Collins (who, I later found out, was a receiver on the South River High School football team when Joe Theisman was the quarterback — pretty cool). He not only played but owned a guitar and agreed to teach me some basics. My first “song” was the repetitious bass line from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin.” I played that duh-duh-duh-duh, DUM over and over until my novice fingertips bled. Shortly thereafter, inexorably hooked, I headed to a New York hock shop and bought myself a cheap beat-up steel stringed acoustic guitar, warped neck and all. I learned some chords and started banging out every Dylan song I could master, not letting my lack of a good singing voice hold me back (much like him, some would say).

icon

An unexpected rock and roll source arose in the Student Center, a room set aside as a “music appreciation” room. It had a state of the art stereo system and sound proof walls. The intent, I suppose, was for a wide range of “wholesome” music to be enjoyed by all, but it was taken over by the “rock and roll element” who dominated it virtually from the time of its inception. These students would be found at all hours sprawled on the carpeted floor as Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, and especially the transcendent Jimi Hendrix washed over them. I must admit that I was often amongst them, further enriching my rock and roll heart.

Are you experienced?

The Fillmore East had opened in New York, and many trips were made with my buddies during its heyday. One of them, Joe Duke, was captivated by Grace Slick of the San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane. On the way to one of their Fillmore shows, he made us stop so he could buy a rose, which this normally mild-mannered lad from Connecticut proceeded to throw on the stage as the band entered, wildly screaming “I love you Gracie!” Miss Slick, who clearly had been sleeping on her surrealistic pillow beforehand, was pretty much oblivious to this display of raw adulation so typical of rock and roll fandom. Another memorable Fillmore show featured The Doors who debuted their anti-war film for the song “The War Is Over.” Nobody could launch into a primal scream like Jim Morrison. This amazing venue afforded us the chance to see these great bands as well as a wide range of acts from Neil Young to Miles Davis to The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (who was carried in on a litter by torch-carrying half-naked bearers).

Graaacieee!

In the summer of 1969, the seminal concert of all rock and roll became part of music history: Woodstock. When it was first advertised, no one had an inkling of how huge a deal it would become. My good friend Peter, a true music junkie, and I bought tickets for the Sunday show, but by the time we left, it was announced that the Thruway had been closed. We ended up driving to south Jersey to a venue called the Music Tent in Lambertville to see Richie Havens, fresh off his Woodstock-opening triumph. That was the closest we got to “three days of  peace and music.”

sigh…what might have been

The first two years of the 70’s became an unusual hiatus as I lived eight thousand miles from home in the Philippines suffering through the likes of  local bands’ renditions of “Tiny Bubbles” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” Fortunately, friends sent me cassettes that kept me going: Marvin Gaye, the Grateful Dead, Hendrix and Buddy Miles in their Band of Gypsies.

Shortly after my return, a new onslaught of rock permutations was introduced to me. My temporary job consisted of loading pallets with batteries at a Ray-O-Vac warehouse in Englewood that had mostly West Indian employees. There I discovered the entrancing and hypnotic rhythm of reggae in its many varieties, from Toots and the Maytals to The Mighty Diamonds to the incomparable Bob Marley and the Wailers. The influence of this infectious sound later infiltrated a new British wave of ska bands like the Specials, the English Beat, and later The Clash.

Rock next exploded with the one-two punch of punk with the Brits (led by The Sex Pistols) and America’s own Ramones followed shortly thereafter by New Wave. The return to hard-driving, stripped-down, bare bones rock was merely the inevitable (and welcome) swing of the pendulum. This period introduced me to my all time favorite, Patti Smith.

The first time I heard Patti on the radio, I was painting my bedroom ceiling. As soon as “Gloria” started playing, I froze in my tracks. What was this? I had never heard anything quite like it before; I had to find out who this was. In the style of 70’s FM, this involved waiting for a long string of  songs to finish before having the artists revealed. Finally, there it was: The Patti Smith Group. When I later heard for the first time “Horses,” “Birdland,” and “Free Money,” I didn’t need to be so informed. Her unique music was riveting. Patti was the synthesis of all things I admired in rock, the poetic sensibility of Bob Dylan, the dramatic presentation of Jim Morrison, the wild abandon of Jimi Hendrix and the Stones. Along with John, a fellow fanatic, we attended every show possible, from a former dinner theater in Cedar Grove, NJ, to the uncharacteristically staid Princeton auditorium to her home turf at CBGBs in the city.  I remember one performance in particular at the opening of CBGB’s new venue, an actual theater (as opposed to the derelict dive bar of the original).  She went on stage and announced that she would sing “You Light Up My Life.”  The raucous audience voiced their objection to this Debbie Boone schmaltz, but she proceeded — with great gusto and more than a few expletives —  to explain why the song was worthy, in her opinion. “Hey, have you ever listened to the words?” she demanded. The impassioned delivery of the song that ensued made converts of them all. Unfortunately, the show was ended prematurely when the fire department stormed in and shut it down because of fire code violations (which made me wonder if they had been to the other establishment).

Patti Smith

Rock and I are both six decades down the road, and we are still alive and kicking. As time has passed, the door opened as it always has to further evolution. There are still surprises around the next corner and pleasures in looking back. In the famous and pertinent words of the Stones, “I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.” Perhaps I will not be quite as able to keep up with the beat or be aware of the latest trends, but as the new generations come of age, each with their own contributions to this American institution, the music will live on, and that makes me happy.

You can say that again!

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The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

October 1, 2011

teaching ESL in a barrio school

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier … the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes….”  John F. Kennedy, 1960

The Peace Corps turned 50 this year, a momentous event in my estimation for an enterprise many thought would never last past its first year. Since its birth in 1961, two hundred thousand Americans have served in 139 countries around the world. I am proud to say that I am one of them.

The organization was in its ninth year of existence when I joined in 1970 and was undergoing some growing pains, as was I in my twenty-first year of existence, so we were a good match. It was a perfect direction for me in which to go to channel both my idealism and sense of adventure.

The seeds were sown when I was in high school. I had admired the feeling of the era of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot even if I didn’t fully understand it, but reading a novel about the Peace Corps entitled The Zinzin Road by Fletcher Knebel crystallized much of my amorphous desire to do good in the world. In my senior year of college, I sent out my application, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In March of 1970 I received a letter from Joseph Blatchford, the director at the time, telling me I had been accepted to become a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher in Micronesia. I could barely contain my excitement. I rushed off to the nearest atlas to see where I would be spending the next two years of my life. However, in April my assignment was changed to the Philippines, a place I knew a bit more about since my father had served there as a soldier in World War II.

When I told my parents what I had done and where I was going, they were somewhat befuddled. After all, they hadn’t sent me to college to go off on some crazy escapade. What about getting a job and starting a career? In my view, there was plenty of time for that, and they reluctantly accepted my decision.

I must say, I had not given thorough consideration to what I’d be leaving behind: my home, family, friends, and girlfriend, not to mention electricity, running water, a refrigerator full of food, changing seasons, reliable transportation, and a relatively predictable existence. I had no idea of what to expect, and yet I relished that very idea.

After some difficult good-byes, I reported to the staging point in Philadelphia in June. Our group then left for our tropical assignment training site — in Vermont, of all places. The next three months would be spent in intensive language instruction (mine was Bicol), cultural training, and applying teaching techniques to our unique task. Since I was to be an ESL teacher / teacher-trainer, the third month was spent in Montreal, Canada, practicing English teaching skills on the French-speaking populace who were in the midst of an anti-English movement.

We bussed to New York City the weekend before the long flight to Manila, and I took the opportunity to go home for a final farewell. The night before departing, I was informed that I had to shave off my beard. “It’s too radical looking,” I was told. “No Castro look-alikes will be allowed on the plane.” The next morning I headed out — beardless — with the rest of Philippines Group 39 to Kennedy airport, appropriately enough, to board the then-new 747.

Punctuated by an overnight stop in Tokyo, our journey ended at Manila airport, and we stepped out into our first blast of tropical heat. What followed was a whirlwind of orientations, meetings, and in-country training. Finally our group split up and ventured forth to our assignments.

The ensuing two years were an invigorating, frustrating, magical, frightful, and absolutely incomparable procession of experiences and adventures that resulted in a critical period of growth for me and friendships that have lasted until this day. I can not even begin to put into words how valuable this part of my life was. It altered my view of the world, my country, and myself, and the effect of this experience is a singular and essential part of who I am.

I did not intend to sound like a recruiter, though I would certainly encourage those who find the idea intriguing to seriously look into it. It is a life-changing experience in several ways. That there are countless individuals in those 139 countries around our planet who have changed for the better because of the Peace Corps presence in their lives is without question. Perhaps an even greater change, though, occurred in the two hundred thousand of us who were volunteers in this visionary program.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. I firmly believe that each of us that serves helps further the cause of education, health, justice, and peace in this world by those single steps. We aren’t there yet, but as long as there are people who are willing to believe in the possibility, however remote it may sometimes seem, I shall hold onto hope.

the future