Archive for January, 2012

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How Muskie Came To Be

January 29, 2012

I’m not sure how common this is, but I am known to different groups of people by different names. This may recall that old comedy routine by Raymond J. Johnson (”You can call me Ray or you can call me Jay…”), but in my case it’s true. My immediate family calls me Bud. People I knew from the Peace Corps or coaching call me Don, and those who know me from my teaching days call me Donald. Then there is Muskie. Yes, Muskie.

How I came to be called Muskie is a rather roundabout story, one that I thought about today because of a load of wash I did. Let me explain…

I had just finished that load of wash — jeans — and caught in the lint trap were several tightly compressed wads of paper. I knew exactly what they were without even attempting to unwad them. They were the remnants of lists left  in the pockets of my Levi’s. Forgotten lists of things to do, things to buy, things to think about. This is not an uncommon occurrence. These lists are all over the place.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I began my obsession with lists. I think it has its roots in a psychasthenic condition that I first became aware of my freshman year of college, though its actual genesis was probably long before that somewhere in my screwy childhood.

I wasn’t actually familiar with the term psychasthenia before then. It is defined by Webster as “a neurotic state characterized especially by phobias, obsessions, or compulsions that one knows are irrational.” My college roommate Tony applied the label after a few months of living with me in the dorm and observing my actions. Each night before climbing up to the top bunk (Tony, who was on the heavy side and thus occupied the bottom bunk, would be gone from the room doing who-knows-what), I would fastidiously attend to my desktop. I would cross off the date just finished on the desk blotter calendar and neatly arrange the items that had been in my pocket on top of it: plastic comb parallel to pens in one corner, wallet aligned similarly with handkerchief in another, books for tomorrow’s classes piled precisely in the center. Anyone who has seen my desk lately would be amazed.

Tony, along with Bob, another guy from down the hall (more about him later), would take great pleasure in suddenly running in, scrambling up the items, and dashing out again knowing full well that I’d have to hop down and rearrange them. Sometimes they would return a short time later, and the whole process would be repeated. If they really wanted to get to me, they would cross off the next few days on the calendar, an act tantamount to war in my book. Pretty crazy, I know. I think they,  in what passed for good naturedness in the mind of a college freshman, were trying to change my weird ways, so I didn’t hold it against them. Much.

This became the first part of my initial college nickname: Psychasthenic. Since I was immersed in a period of spiritual flux (lasting the better part of the next forty years, as it turns out) which stood out somewhat prominently in my Catholic school setting, Agnostic was the second part. The third was an expletive common to all freshman college boys (and everyone else these days, so it seems) which I do not feel the need to specify. So there it was. Psychasthenic Agnostic Fool.

In a rare act of good sense, Bob decided this was not the best of nicknames. Not because of the expletive. That part he actually liked. No, it was something else…too long, not quite the right cachet, too many Latin derivatives. One day Bob had a flash of inspiration. A connoisseur of great literature, he drew upon his stock of references and came up with my new nickname: Muskie.

Muskie? What kind of literary reference is that, you ask? Well, The Deputy Dawg Show, of course. The time-honored Saturday morning cartoon created by that titan of TV animation, Ralph Bakshi, who later (I suppose I should be thankful) was responsible for Fritz the Cat. Now, I was only vaguely aware of the show, so when he came up with this idea, I asked him to explain. The setting of the show was Mississippi (I was from Jersey and Bob from Brooklyn), the characters were animals (including Moley Mole, Pig Newton, Ty Coon, and Vincent van Gopher) (again, I should be thankful), and the plot (what there was of it, anyway) involved petty crimes committed by these critters. None of this seemed relevant. At least P.A.F. made some logical sense.

“Why?” Bob retorted. “Because you look like Muskie Muskrat!” Of course. How could I have been so dense.

This was seemingly following a disturbing pattern. My previous nickname which had followed me all the way through elementary and junior high school and only began to wear off in high school was Mousie. Was I destined to remain entrenched in the realm of Rodentia? I remember when I was in Scouts, one of my adult leaders, the father of one of the perpetrators of the Mousie tag, reprimanded his son and the others. “I know you think it’s funny now, but these names have a habit of sticking.” Prophetic words, indeed.

Muskie, which I hoped would eventually fade as Mousie did, has lasted until this day. My college friends still call me Muskie. My wife met me as Muskie (though she now only refers to me by it), and members of her family all call me Muskie (except for her Aunt Rosie, who couldn’t remember it and called me Wolfie). My niece and nephew, now twenty-one and eighteen, call me Uncle Muskie as do the now-adult children of my college friends. My buddy Frank’s numerous phone messages always raucously begin, “Hey, Musk!” I’m sure it will pop up in a eulogy eventually.

But again, I should be thankful. It beats the original P.A.F. and the possible alternatives like Moley or Fritz. And besides, I don’t really mind. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Bob didn’t say that. Some guy named Will did. William. The Bard. Well, you know.

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A Tale of Two Trails

January 21, 2012

So, snow has decided to return. Time for shoveling, bad driving conditions, and packed supermarkets. But a snowfall was not always cause for gloom and doom. In the eyes of a child, a day like today can be glorious.  I remember this as I think back to the snow-filled winter wonderlands of my childhood.

Winter can be a fantastic time for a kid, especially for one like me who lived across the street from a public park. A snowfall, especially a deep one like there so often seemed to be, signaled a day of unparalleled outdoor adventure. A quick breakfast and a hurried mandatory Mom-enforced bundling-up, and out the door I could go into a pristine white paradise.

Memorial Park lay between my house on New Bridge Road and Lincoln Elementary School. It consisted of several baseball fields, a kid’s playground, and a small woods bordering two sides. The path to Lincoln School cut across the side with the playground. This area was the backdrop for two particularly memorable events in the snowy winter of 1955.

Snow in the park on a Saturday morning pretty much meant a snow-angels-making, snowman-building, animal-track-following, getting-soaked-to-the-skin-and-changing-at-least-three-times kind of day. It was one of such snow-covered Saturdays when I went charging into the park to discover quite a bit of unusual activity along the school path. I ran over to investigate, and there, much to my surprise and delight, a snowman building contest was underway. I loved making snowmen, and I was quite good at it for a seven year old, thank you very much, even if I didn’t mind saying so myself.

Well, I dove right in, building my traditional three-tier snowman with speed and precision like I had never done before, stick arms and stone facial features all just so. This was my first contest, and by golly, I was sure that first place trophy would be mine. Unfortunately, two things conspired against me. The first was that the contest had to be entered beforehand, unbeknownst to me, and there was an age limit that I wouldn’t have qualified for even if I had known. The second was the massive galoshed foot of the teenage boy working next to me (constructing what was, in retrospect, a rather magnificent snow sculpture of the Mona Lisa). In the midst of an artistic perusal of his own partly finished sculpture, he stepped back–perhaps for better perspective–and crushed my masterpiece.

I stood in disbelief, lip quivering…how could this have possibly happened? What kind of lout would so disrespect the work of a fellow artist? Then came the tears, exploding forth out of my eyes in the finest example of projectile wailing ever to be seen this side of Dumont, my howls of despair rising from the deepest reserve of my injured little psyche.

The teenager, startled by this emotional explosion, realized that he was the cause and began a desperate and mostly unsuccessful attempt to console me by reconstructing my caved-in snowman, probably fearing some fierce retribution from a nearby parent. Seeing my hopes dashed and not knowing what else to do, I ran home, leaving a trail of tears in my snowy wake.

My mother was not overly impressed with my dilemma. She dispassionately explained to me as she stripped away my drenched snowsuit that I was not really in the contest and would have never had won anyway; not exactly the salve I needed at that moment even though she was right. Some warm milk and cookies were much more helpful, but I swore that next year I would return and snare the triumph I had just been so shamelessly denied.

That, as it turned out, was not to be. The contest was never held again. The trail I left through the white snow, however, was not to be the last.

Several snowfalls later that winter I had gotten off to a particularly early start. A couple of snow angels midway across the empty park seemed to bode well for a good morning’s activities. I got to the playground, still the only one around. The idea of trying out the snow-covered swings and merry-go-round were enticing, but first a quick climb on my personal favorite, the monkey bars. The air of danger was present as soon as the slipperiness of the bars under my gloved hands became apparent, but that didn’t stop me from my attempted ascent. About the fourth rung up, my face brushed lightly against the frigid metal, and I noticed a strange and unexpected sensation….stickiness. I stopped and touched the spot with my glove, expecting to find the remains of some other kid’s gum or lollipop. No, that wasn’t it. Another exploratory brush with my face, and there it was again.

My third pass was a bit closer, and my lower lip stuck to the bar. How strange! Now, this was the mid 1950’s, and A Christmas Story had not yet made movie history, so I had no experience with what was to transpire. I began to pull away, but my lip did not follow. I pulled again, the lip stretching out to a length that would have made a Ubangi tribesman proud. At this point, panic struck. A quick glance around revealed no available help. My mom would expect me to be out here all morning. I was trapped!

So I did what any normal panicked seven year old would do; I yanked my head back and jumped off the monkey bars. Immediately a patch of crimson appeared in the snow at my feet. It took a few seconds to realize that it was my blood, but  when I did, I took off for home. The trail I left was visible this time, spots of red punctuating the footprints across the once fresh coat of snow.

My mother was at the door by the time I got there, so loud was my screaming. She pushed her ever-present dishtowel against my lip as she led me to the basement sink in order to bleed in relative safety and not sully the upstairs floor. She left me for a moment pathetically sobbing and holding the soggy dishtowel to my face. She returned with a clean cloth and bottle of vinegar. The vinegar-soaked cloth replaced the dishtowel, and I accepted it readily despite the intense stinging, assuming my mother was far better versed in the medicinal arts than I.

I don’t remember how long it took for my lip to heal, but I did learn, in spite of my sister’s chuckles and my father’s head shakes, a valuable lesson. Years later when I saw for the first time the scene in A Christmas Story when Flick engaged in his verbal duel with Schwartz, my stomach grew queasy, for I knew where this was going. And when Flick reentered the classroom with his gauze-wrapped tongue, I could only sigh in recognition of the chagrin of my comrade-in-pain.

A good friend recently told me that he read somewhere that nostalgia is the file that removes the rough edges from the good old days. Now that I think about it, this may indeed be the case. Perhaps my romanticized recollection of the winter snow was a bit premature, although after an afternoon of shoveling, I’ll take it.

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A Dream Examined

January 16, 2012

It is Martin Luther King Day, the time of year when sound bytes of “I have a dream” fill the airwaves and everyone pays lip service to some vague generalities surrounding a highly disputed American icon. School plays are presented, essay contests are held, and grandiose speeches are delivered.

Unfortunately, very little real thought is given to the heart of the matter. Regardless of how you want to regard Dr. King himself, what this is really about is the country itself. This should be a yearly opportunity to reexamine America’s essence, the dream of a nation founded on the principles of freedom, justice, and equality for all. Has America always lived up to these principles? Clearly not.

There have been many egregious breaches of this great social promise from the genocide of the Native American Indians to the legislated discrimination against Asians to slavery and its evil aftermath of segregation. Along the way some people of character and strength such as Dr. King devoted their efforts in often-futile and, for most,  little-publicized attempts to rectify the injustices. They should all be honored and recognized. It is a shame that any of them were needed in the first place.

It is far too easy for those who have ample freedom and prosperity to ignore the plight of those who don’t, and the desire of the haves to “protect what is theirs” is understandable, but to reconcile the existence of both groups within the framework of what America is supposed to be is problematic to me. Until this is resolved, we will not be all that we claim to be.

I have been many places in the world, and I do believe that this indeed is the greatest country. It is not great because of its material wealth, military might, or technological advantages. What makes it great is the opportunity afforded to all. But whenever this opportunity is denied, for whatever reason, it lessens the stature of America. Dr. King put it well when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So today — and every day — we need to examine this dream of a just and equal America and think about our obligation to do what is necessary to help this great country of ours fulfill its promise. To all. All of the time. If and when that happens, Dr. King’s dream and the dream of all fair-minded Americans will have finally been achieved.

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Peculiar People

January 9, 2012

There are many “celebratory” days in January (Fruitcake Toss Day, National Bird Day, Bean Day, Houseplant Appreciation Day, Blame Someone Else Day, and Penguin Awareness Day, to name a few), but my favorite has always been today, Peculiar People Day.

Perhaps that is so because I may very well be one myself. The most interesting people I know, have known, or know about certainly are. This is not in any way a derogatory assessment in my view. After all, just what does “peculiar” mean?

Various dictionaries offer the following synonyms: unusual, eccentric, odd, curious. I, for one, do not consider those adjectives to necessarily be problematic. Okay, so I left out strange and queer. The connotations for both are fraught with negative associations too ingrained to overcome. However, being someone who departs from the ordinary is, after all, so often considered to be a good thing.

Think about it. Some of the icons of our society who are most revered are, well, peculiar. Unusual. Eccentric. Odd. Often we love them, sometimes we may not, but in either case, they are hard to ignore.

Examine the evidence just in those who passed to the Great Beyond in 2011. Steve Jobs was nothing if not peculiar. It was his unusual way of thinking that produced such dynamic results. Those musicians who did not succumb to the pressure of replicating the “same old thing” to be successful such as Amy Winehouse, Poly Styrene, Bert Jansch, and Gil Scott-Heron contributed to their art because of it. The silver screen benefitted from the eccentricities of Sidney Lumet and Elizabeth Taylor as did television from the likes of Jack LaLanne and Andy Rooney. The culture could not help being aware of Jack Kevorkian and Christopher Hitchens who, agree or disagree with their ideas, provoked thought.

Why then are so many made to suffer for their peculiarities? It is ironic that in a country that purports to be the champion of individual freedom and respect for others that such a high premium is placed on conformity. Those amongst us who are different either by nature or by choice provide the diversity which most, in theory, accept as desirable. In practice, however, too often it is scorn and mockery that is their reward.

I am particularly reminded of this now because of one of the actors we lost last year, Cliff Robertson. He played the lead role (and won the Academy Award for best actor doing it) in the 1968 film Charly. For many years I used the story “Flowers For Algernon” (on which the movie was based) and selected scenes from the film to teach about this idea. In the story, Charlie Gordon was disdained and rejected at first because he was mentally slow, and then after an experimental operation on his brain, because he was brilliant. It seemingly wasn’t the reason he was different that caused his treatment; it was simply that he was different. Much interesting discussion usually followed, and my students always had some salient experiences of their own to relate in the follow-up composition they wrote called “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Even those who were the perpetrators of — or silent witnesses to — the  mistreatment of someone who was different recognized the moral shortcomings of their actions. Hopefully their reflection led to change for the better, but only time will tell.

So this is the day to perhaps reconsider your thoughts about all the peculiar people in our midst. Chances are, you may find something peculiar about yourself if you look hard enough. Even if you can’t, it might be time to acknowledge and appreciate your quirkier friends and family members. That is, of course, if they’re not off somewhere celebrating Measure Your Feet Day.

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Happy Birthday, 91

January 6, 2012

Today is Pop’s birthday. Pop is Tony, my father-in-law, who is turning 91. He is kind and gentle, a salt of the earth kind of man in its best possible sense. He lived through the Depression and was a soldier in World War II. He did masonry work, had his own small grocery store back in the 50’s, and worked as a butcher until he was into his 80’s.  He loves sports, especially golf, the Yankees, and the football Giants. He is husband, father, grandfather, brother, maker of homemade sausage, walker of impetuous Schnauzers, and folder of clothes. He has now undertaken perhaps his most important job, caretaker for Mary, his wife of sixty plus years, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Simply put, Pop is one hell of guy.

I write this because Pop is the kind of person who goes unnoticed, just another old-timer on line in the Shoprite or geezer driving too slowly down Main Street. And that is a shame, because his has been a life well lived, full of the struggles that made up the pursuit of the American dream by those of his generation. He followed the rules, worked hard, fulfilled his duties, and kept his faith and integrity intact while doing it. He is living history, someone with stories to tell, if only anyone would bother to listen.

I have known him since 1968 when I was the long-haired boyfriend on the motorcycle dating his daughter. God only knows what he thought of me then. However, over the years we have developed a bond of mutual respect.  Often times after helping him with some small chore or other around the house while the “girls” are otherwise occupied, he would tell me the stories of his past, especially of his army days during World War II, a singularly important period in the life of so many like him .

When his country needed him, he answered the call. After being inducted at Fort Dix, his outfit was taken by train to Camp Sibert in Alabama where he was shocked to see that there was nothing there when they arrived. They had to build their own camp. Being a northerner in the deep South was an even greater shock. A New Jersey boy, Tony was used to mingling with people of color. The negative reaction of those native to Dixie caught him totally off guard. At the completion of training, they returned north by train to Fort Drum before shipping out overseas. Pop was surprised and excited when the train rolled through his hometown, and he proudly pointed it out to his comrades.

It was the time of the Invasion of Sicily, so his unit boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic, part of a large convoy, where a problem much greater than the rampant seasickness occurred.  His ship, the Washington, developed engine trouble and was left behind by the convoy which could not be delayed in its mission. Pop said he stood on the deck with a sinking feeling watching the convoy shrink and then disappear on the horizon. The only thing he could see in the vast, swaying ocean was a single small destroyer which circled his ship to protect it from enemy submarines while the repairs were being made. After a seeming eternity, the Washington proceeded at full steam and rejoined the convoy, making an eventual landing in North Africa.

Pop described his year in North Africa with awe, both for the exotic nature of the places — Casablanca, Tunis, Oran, Bizerte — as well as the surrealistic experiences, which reminded me at times of Catch 22. One job his outfit had was to guard the Italian prisoners who had surrendered (quite gladly, as he remembered). Since Tony was of Italian heritage, he became the translator. He told me of the practice of sending some of the Italian prisoners to the perimeter with unloaded rifles to “guard” the camp and reminisced about watching German bombers attempting to destroy the American ships in Lake Bizerte that had gathered in preparation for the upcoming assault on Sicily. He said the anti-aircraft fire bursting in the air looked like fireworks.

Pop’s next stop was Italy, where he spent the following year. The Army employed something known as Temporary Furloughs during this time, but his unit didn’t get any. Pop asked his Lieutenant about it and was told to go to the Commanding Officer who agreed that this should be remedied, and they decided to pull one name put of a hat. It was Pop! He got to go back to the States. Being stationed at an American camp did not mean luxury, though; there was still rationing going on. In order to get more to eat, Pop would volunteer to work in the kitchen.

Soon after, the war in Europe ended, but Pop worried that he’d now get shipped to the Pacific. Asked about his education, he replied that he took a commercial course in high school. They found out he could type, so he got a job typing up furloughs in an office and didn’t have to go to the Pacific after all. And best yet, he got to go home on weekends. Pop said he was never so happy to have paid attention in that typing class.

After the war, like so many of his era, raising a family and buying a home became the priority. Most of Pop’s family were involved in the building trades, so they each helped the other out building houses in Middlesex County. A son and daughter grew up in the one he built, were educated, got married, and moved away. It is in this small brick house that Pop and Mary still live amongst the memories and artifacts their children left behind.

But those two children remained deeply involved in Pop and Mary’s life. Sunday dinner together has been a long-standing tradition, and Christmas at their house is legendary. My niece and nephew were cared for by them as my brother and sister-in-law pursued their careers. For fifteen summers, we would go on family vacations. The eight of us — Pop and Mary, my brother-in-law and his wife, my niece and nephew, and my wife and I — would head off to places Pop had only heard about before; other than his army years, he didn’t travel much. The great National Parks and wilderness areas west of the Mississippi were our early destinations: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, the Grand Tetons, Arches, Mesa Verde, Denali. Exotic islands followed with trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean, and even the Greek Isles of the Mediterranean. In spite of their increasing age and decreasing stamina, Tony and Mary were real troupers, joining us in all but the most strenuous activities.

Pop loves to talk to folks. Everywhere we went, he would strike up conversations with strangers, especially if they were wearing a Yankee cap. He would chat amiably about the weather or the food or golf. He got a real kick out of it and would tell us about the people he had met over supper. He did the same on the frequent senior citizen trips to Atlantic City or even in the doctor’s office.

I don’t think Pop ever had a meal he didn’t like. He raved about the buffet in the Atlantic City casinos, the “gourmet fare” on the cruise ships, dinners out in restaurants on special occasions or just in the local diner on Route 22, and especially the dishes that his daughter or daughter-in-law prepared. He is now doing the cooking at home (my mother-in-law was a fabulous cook before her illness), often asking my wife for tips and then calling her later on that night to tell her how terrific it turned out.

Things have changed considerably over the years. We don’t go on vacations together anymore. Pop has given up bowling and golf. There are newfangled gadgets that confuse him (the High Def TV, or high tech TV, as he calls it, is a particular nemesis). He worries about driving at night, operating the medical equipment in the house correctly, the numerous official-looking letters from banks and insurance companies. But he soldiers on.

Ninety-one. I cannot imagine what that must be like. But as I watch Pop deal with all the difficulties of his present existence, I feel fortunate to have the chance to observe someone attempting to overcome the unforeseen obstacles that have arisen with the grit and grace and heart that he has shown. He may not have been a general or a senator or a scientist, but he is a great man none-the-less, and I am proud to know him.

Happy birthday, Pop. May there be many more to come. You  deserve them.

Pop and his favorite niece