THAT NIGHT, THE MUSIC, MY FATHER….REGRETS….

Don’t recall my age, don’t know where I and my parents were coming from, or how it happened that we were listening to classical music, but something came on the radio that enthralled me. It was after dark, that I recall.

I was, perhaps, ten years old. I asked to stay in the car in the driveway listening to the piece — and, no, I don’t recall what piece of music it was. But I lay across the seat listening. Then my father came out to say he’d found the radio station on which the piece was playing, but I said, no, Dad, I’d like to stay here, listening to it. (Was the engine on? Was I wearing down the battery?) Dad said, okay. It must have mystified but perhaps delighted him that I should love a piece of classical music so much — he who’s taste in music ran almost exclusively to Lawrence Welk and who liked only “nice, smooth music…” but who loved the “Warsaw Concerto” and owned it on a red, translucent .45 disc and listened to it repeatedly and hated it that, in the Hitchcock movie, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”(one of the very few movies we saw together) the attempted assassination inside the opera house interrupted the beautiful music in progress….

No, I don’t recall the title of the music or anything about it. But I can see my father, in his kind tolerance, walking out of our house and coming out to the driveway to the youngest son who came seven years after the other children and who mystified him and with whom he had an overly formal and perhaps distant relationship. I see him before that, inside our house, going to the trouble to find that radio station, only to have me say I’d rather stay in the car, of all places, and keep listening.

Thank you, Dad. For that moment, Forgive me for not loving and appareciating you more during your too short life. And how I wish I had gone on developing, truly developing that love of the greatest music, not the pop idyles of the pedestrian hours over all the years, and stayed with the piano, sunk down into life’s riches where all things truly worthy of loving and learning live.

THE WOMAN ON THE TOKYO TRAIN

This is about the woman, a young woman, that I saw on the Tokyo commuter rail taking me from busy Tokyo station to the station where I would catch a taxi back to Tachikawa Air Base. That’s where I was staying in a pleasant little, single-person dwelling on the base during a two-week temporary duty leave. In truth, “temporary duty leave” was merely the technical designation for the trip a military member might make from their base in Korea to Japan for, essentially, a vacation. For some it might be for duty. For me and others, it was just a two-week vacation, a break.

As I recall it was rush hour. I’d gone into Tokyo just to look around. I could not begin to recall just where I went or what I did on that particular day. It was September, 1970. I was a standing strap-hanger in a nearly full, though not jam-packed car. Japanese trains were clean, in my memory, and commuters polite, perhaps especially to a non-Japanese visitor. But I did not interact with anyone on this particular trip. I was glad it wasn’t more crowded.

Meanwhile, the train sped through the sprawling miles of densely packed fringes of metropolitan Tokyo, all fascinatingly terraced or stacked to accommodate one of the most populous cities in the world. I don’t recall, on that particular trip –standing in the middle as I was — much of what we passed. None of it, really. My eyes were fixed on the people and I only recall that young woman

She was sitting right before me. She was wearing a light top coat. She was somewhat heavy set, had long black hair. Her eyes were downcast. Never once did I see her look up. She was pressed in between other commuters and they would rise to get off, others would sit down — at least I seem to remember that. That would be the likely flow of traffic on a commuteer train.

The point is that she never once looked up, paid no attention to the movement around her — not at every stop where her body and the bodies of those beside her might sway barely perceptibly with the inertia of the train slowing, stopping, then starting up again. She was unmoving; she just stared down. There might have been a purse on her lap, her hands folded around it.

Then I noticed a tear streaming down her cheek. Then another…and another…. She did not wipe them away. She was immersed in a private sorrow and did not wish it to be known or to be observed. But, of course, I was observing this and wondered, why — why was she crying? I didn’t get the sense anyone on either side of her noticed that she was crying. (Perhaps they did and, in polite Japanese fashion, ignored the fact.) What was laying on the mind and heart of this young woman, perhaps a little older than me, perhaps headed home from work in Tokyo, for whom this commute might have been a daily routine while for me it was part of a joyous, solitary, exotic adventure in a strange land? I would not pass this way again, not likely. I haven’t been back to Japan….I recall and certainly have forgotten many details about those two weeks, visiting monuments and famous streets. I have not forgotten this small moment.

I could only surmise at the cause of her sorrow: trouble at work, trouble at home, broken romance, a death in the family, or of a friend, a bad medical diagnosis….

Of course, for some, a nameless but intense melancholy can come unexpectedly and overwhelm every other emotion unexpectedly. Like a tsunami…

In overly idle moments before this same laptop, I have recently watched on Youtube wobbly, terrifying cell phone video of a tsunami overwhelming Japanese seafront neighborhoods, people in shock, shouting and running for their lives, boats, cars and houses being swept away. Massive catastrophe, massive terror and sorrow. It is not, please God, likely that most of us in America will experience that particular character of catastrope in our lifetime. Such hazards are most often a potential reality for people living in South Asian regions where many of us Americans could only imagine living. But then — earthquakes that trigger tsunamie could strike either coast, especially the California coast….

And here in America, this summer– and even in the last couple of days — there have been sudden, extraordinary, deadly wild fires to the west, cutting through neighborhoods, consuming houses in minuters, trapping and killing people. And the floods! Horrible flooding in Kentucky. Shocking, unexpected, life destroying and mind-altering misfortunes that change lives forever. …

But I feel this was no grand sorrow I was witnessing on that Tokyo train. Just one of life penetrating small sorrows. But enough to make this young woman sit quietly crying on a public conveyance.

On that Tokyo train, where east was meeting west in that moment, everything, including the way people interact or register joy or sorrow, might well have been conditions by culturally distinct conventions and therefore be different from anything I might have recognized or expected. But here I felt sure I was seeing a quietly crying woman who could have been any one of us.

Should I have tapped her shoulder, given a wordless, trans-cultural expression of sympathy? No, that plainly would have been wrong. She clearly did not want that attention — would have been embarrassed.

When the train reached my stop, she was, if I recall accurately, more alone on that long train seat, eyes still cast downward, unmoving. Wherever she was going, it was farther out in the suburbs than where I was going. What if I’d had a sprig of flowers! (Ridiculous notion!) What if I could have dropped it in her lap before I moved to the door? Seen her glance up at my departing form, smiling…? This is almost vanity to think such things!

But again…

What if I had spoke Japanese –many westerners in Japan do — and could have leaned over and uttered some consoling word in her ear?

For all I know, this normally laudable American entiment might have violated some Asian shibbolith — who knows? Whatever…

This was fifty-two years ago this month. I didn’t mean to write so much about it. A simple sorrow, simply observed would have been better.

But I hope that was the most transitory of sorrows for that young woman. Who knows? Perhaps it had lifted and vanished by the time she reached her destination. A good little cry, and it was over. I hope so. I hope, if she’s still alive, she has had a happy, fulfilling life.

Living or dead, I’m thinking of her, obviouly. And praying for her. And while I remember the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower, The Ginza…I will also always remember the young woman on the Tokyo train.

1 SEPTEMBER, 1970

Dear Mom,

It is Tuesday night and it’s raining like crazy. I’m typing in the orderly room and I hear rain beating down on the roof. Our switchboard operator is listening to the radio. The televison blew up the other night. All this sounds dull I know but I’m quite content.

Peggy wrote me a nice letter, says, what is all this stuff about danger? If it’s actually worring you, mom, let me say that I’m hardly in any danger out here. This is not a vital military area, was never contested in the war and, while there are lots of Korean Marines here , there are no American fighing units within several miles. (Don’t worry — if we needed anything, there’s always the Air Force and these R.O.K. Marines are rough and tought and a wild bunch — good fighters. Our nearest American units are a 7-man U.S. Marine Advisory detatchment just across the bridge on the mainland, a Hawk Missile batterey about twenty miles down that miserable dirt road, then there is the whole General Support complex in the Seoul area, the Second and Seventh Infantry Divisions (the actual fighting units) are located on the central part of the DMZ (inland). This is where things sometimes get hot and dangerous and where incidents occur….oh, yes, we have infiltrators comong on the island. But I’m as unaware of that as you are that someone right now is being murdered in Neponset Circle. I’m far safer here than I’d probably be at Time Square and 42nd Street, or walking across Boston Common at night looking like I have a few dollars in my wallet….We all have our hiding places picked….This is an interesting and fairly attractive area — not the treeless, barbed wire DMZ. This is about as close as you can get to the enemy without having much motive to feel endangered…The only way it’s dangerous is because the road is rough and you might land in a rice paddy if y ou’re not careful and there are women and chidren and dogs and oxen ad ducks and chicken every inch of the way. I make it an adventure. I’m looking for the smoothest possible ride on the worst possible road.

You mentioned typhoon season. We caught the tail of one last night that came in off the Yellow Sea. I’m afraid I caught it worst of all riding back from Seoul in an open jeep. This rain tonight might be a hangover from the big storm which is gone farther out to sea now as far as I know.

End of September 1. I’m tired and I’m going to brave the rain down to the barracks and to my warm bunk. The rain’s really beating down now.

More about typhoons, etc., tomorrow.

Love, Greg

MARK IS 60

My nephew Mark O’Hara, young, it seemed, just yesterday, turned 60 today. He was born August 25, 1962. On that night ( believe he was born at night), I was sitting on Jimmy Sweeney’s back steps on McKone Street, Dorchester, watching some kids play cards and thinking how I didn’t seem to have the gumption to join in. Would I look like someone who didn’t know how to play cards? How did the word get to me that I was an uncle again? Did I already know this fact? This was my sister’s fourth child. She would have one more, Kathy, in February, 1964.

As for Jimmy Sweeney, who, like me, was 16, my memory moves to an early summer’s day the following year. I joined him and, I think, Peter Ivans and Billy Martin and maybe somebody else in a walk across an empty field and under the Southeast Expressway from the First Boston 10-Pin Bowling Alley. It was dark, but we were going to go swimming. I was always trying to fit in. And I really didn’t quite fit in.

Jimmy was talking about the girls that hung out with us. He had Kathy Graham from Westglow Street as a girlfriend in those days. It’s interesting. I’d had a crush on Kathy in the 6th grade. Jimmy was talking spiritedly about how “they (the girls) wanted “it” but were afraid of it.” I think all of us were afraid of “it” in those days. I’m not even sure, being very naive and sheltered, that I was sure what “it” was. And none of us, I suspect, had had “it” at that point and my own sense was that “it” was something you had only under sacred, marital circumstances. My reticense on that score was extreme. I was afraid of “it”, too, I guess. (It would be about six years before –under very non-marital, immoral circumstances — “it” came about for me — that circumstances would converge in my restive, advancing, virginal life that I would, for pay, in the tenderloin called An Jung-ri outside the gates of Camp Humphrey, Pyong-Taek, Republic of Korea — partake of “it”, twice in one night. It was a terrible way to be introduced to something so sacred.

But there we were, about four of us, walking over to Tenean Beach,our little city beach, in the dark, Jimmy talking about “it.”

Once there, once in our bathing suits that must have been under our clothes, we were all a little skittish about the dark water at fairly high tide in the enclosed urban inlet that was Dorchester Bay whose actual relationship to the reality of the open ocean seemed as remote as a puddle might be to the Great Lakes. It was Jimmy Sweeney who suddenly, boldly made for the water, running and spashing up to his waist, then diving. We followed. Then everybody moved over to the high old wooden pilings of the old Lawley Shipyard at the far end of the beach and Jimmy and Peter and others climbed up and I, again typically, stayed in the water below, too timid to climb up and balance on the large, oil-soaked old beam. Somebody said, “it’s okay, don’t worry, stay there” to me. Maybe it was Jimmy. That made me feel better, accepted.

And I guess we dried off — did we have towels? — and that was that. I probably went home. We all went home. It was the night of June 5, 1963, early summer.

The next day I was at my post outside the Elm Farm supermarket down behind my Neponset Avenue house where I loaded groceries in cars. Greg Burke with another kid (don’t recall who) came running across the parking lot and said to me, “Greg, Jimmy Sweeney is dead.”

What?

It was June 6, 1963, my sister Anne’s 4th wedding anniversary. D-Day, too, of course. But it was also the day of the funeral, I believe, for Pope John XIII. Catholic Schools were out. Jimmy Sweeney went to a public school (English). He played hookie to join his Catholic school friends in order to go diving and swimming down at the old remnants of the railroad bridge that once crossed the Neponset River south of the Neponset River Bridge. It’s all gone now, and was fairly dangerous. Jimmy had leaped or dove into the water and one of the other kids –I’ve been told — cannonballed him, just horsing around. There was a collision. Jimmy didn’t come up. It must have been a terrible moment. He must have been knocked unconscious. Police were eventually summoned by someone (who is still around who was there that day?) and a diver named Pasquale pulled Jimmy out of the river. That was according to a small item in the newspaper headlined BRIDGE DIVE KILLS DORCHESTER YOUTH.

But was it a dive, or the dive on top of him? There was a wake and a big funeral and burial at Holyhood Cemetery way off in Brookline, real foreign territory for us Dorchester kids — but it’s where the Kennedy parents are buried, and some of the children, and former Mayor Maurice Tobin, and my maternal grandmother. I’ve never been back to Jimmy’s grave. On the job once, I did show a young phographer the Kennedy grave, impressing him, I’m sure. And I looked for–and found — my grandmother’s grave up the hill.

But that’s the memory thread that comes out when I think of the night of August 25, 1962, the birthday of Mark Aherne, 60 tonight.

It’s midnight, the clock gong is ringing in the parlor. It’s August 26, the day I had my last drink of alcohol in 1987. My 35th anniversary then.

Every day is something, isn’t it?

A “CLOSE” ENCOUNTER OF THE “STARTLING” KIND.

Don’t think you have to watch the whole grainy 16 mm pageant, but I’d like to share a fascinating black & white video fossil I found, to my astonishment, floating around Youtube. It’s from the most memorable, beautiful, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic– though, for me, ultimately complicated, even painful — summer of 1964 in the Great Lakes. I was 17.

I’m not in the video, for various reasons. But I see many familiar young lost faces, spawning a lot of memories. And at least one future-famous person can be seen singing about a brighter tomorrow. She is Glenn Close — you’ll find her about 27 minutes in. (NOTE: the video may start in the middle…just scroll it back to the start and the introduction by the daughter of Cecil B. DeMille. Glenn is the pretty, preppy natural blond next to the older, guitar-strumming blond with the more dramatically blond 60s hairdo.)

This is a full recording of a teenage musical called “Space is So Startling,” performed by attendees of The Conference for Tomorrow’s America, a youth leadership conference held on Mackinac Island, Michigan. (Tomorrow’s America is here, of course, and space is more “startling” than ever. Note the Webb Telescope pictures. But we weren’t destined to live in the perfect moral universe these idealistic teen colleagues of mine were trying to sing into existence 58 summer ago. Just think of the morally complex universe of “Fatal Attraction” etc. that awaited the future Glenn Close.)

Glenn Close was a shy, talented, dedicated WASPY teen from Greenwich, CT. at the time. Along with her parents, she was devoted to the worldwide Moral ReArmament movement, the sponsors of the conference. She and her family left the MRA movement, deciding it was a cult. She rarely speaks of that period of her life. About ten years ago, I managed to contact her father, who was conference physician and a beautiful man. We chatted about those times, briefly. He was writing books, and sent me all of them. He’s now deceased.

I broke away from the conference after two short months — being pressured into leadership roles of a program that seemed superficial and propagandistic, discouraged contrary or questioning attitudes and felt quasi-religous. I already had a religion. I was also falling into deep mourning over the loss of my father who died the day after I gave a speech on behalf of American youth in honor of the late JFK at the end of May. It was that speech that broght me to the attention of conference organizers. The pressure and the grief was crushing me. But there were very good people in the movement, including a pair of Gold Medal Olympic rowers, playwrights, performers. I had many fervid, slightly contentious chats with 19-year-old Catalina Quinn, daughter of Anthony Quinn. Her snarky, precocious 11-year-old sister, upon hearing my name, Greg Wayland, insisted on calling me, “Grey Wasteland.” Ha!

Glenn Close is seen here performing with the Green Glenn Singers. She was the Glenn; the Green was Kathi Green, the tall, ponytailed, daughter of West Side Story orchestrator Johnny Green.

I was, as I said, 17 that summer, headed into my senior year of high school in South Boston. The conference, combined with the death of my father, were life-altering events for me.

Stumbling on this video was, for me, like biting into a madeleine. Suddenly I’m Proust with vivid (if black and white) ghosts all around — and happy, colorful memories, too — being master of ceremonies of a showboat that traveled around to lakefront Michigan cities, and having African-American and Native-American roommates, meeting kids and interesting, multi-ethnic, accomplished adults from around the world, including Ghandi’s grandson. World-battered calebs and swells saw MRA as a lifeboat in their often morally dubious world. It was good in many ways. It morphed into the positive, idealistic traveling show, Up With People! — now also defunct.

Someday I’ll write a book about that summer. Ah..I think I just did. Sorry. Enjoy seeing Glenn and company. (I always hoped I’d get to talk to Glenn about that summer…closest I ever got was the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston at which I was a reporter. She was there, but, alas, our paths never crossed. She is a brilliant actor — and miles and lightyears (speaking of space) from the Straits of Mackinac (pron. Mackinaw).

Here’s the link…posted on YouTube by somebody, I wonder who? Remember, ignore any ad, scroll to the start:

YOUTUB

A PARIS FRAGMENT

June 17, 1966 I arrived in Paris. That was fifty-six years ago today. I was 19. I had traveled by train from Brussels to Paris’s Gare du Nord with a couple I’d met on the Norwegian freighter Black Hawk which had carried us and six other passengers across the Atlantic and docked that same day in Antwerp. It was approaching dusk when we arrived in Paris. It was my first and, so far, my only visit to the City of Light. My first recognizeable Parisian sighting was the famous Church of the Sacred Heart (Sacre Coeur) atop Monmartre as the train passed below it. Minutes later, we were under the cover of station’s rail siding. I bid my traveling companions farewell amid the bright, echoing turmoil of the terminal. I don’t recall where they were headed from there, but I knew it was time to part. The man’s name was Les Rabkin, 31-years-old. He and his wife Karen were headed on to immediate points elsewhere, unremembered by me. If they planned to stay in Paris, which, I suppose at that hour, was more than likely, I think I understood that I was excess baggage on their personal journey at that point and I think Les, when he vigorously grasped my hand for goodbye, welcomed my discrete acknowledgement of that reality, though it was probably obvious to them that I was overwhelmed, disoriented and, for the moment, afraid of my surroundings. But it was time for me to set out on my own.

It seems not that long ago — though, in fact, it might already be ten years ago — that I managed to locate and reconnect with Les. He was Jewish, living, I believe, in Seattle, his long-time home, though his prematurely gray-flecked beard and slightly brash manner made him seem less a creature of the Northwest than of the New York burroughs. I say that with affection. I do believe he was a New Yorker, though I may be misremembering.

Les had a long-standing relationship with an international agency that resettled Jews in Israel. That’s how I found him after plugging his name into the Internet. He and his gentile wife Karen, on that day in Paris, had a visa for travel through the Soviet Union. Their adventerous itinerary called for them ultimately to keep on traveling and wind up in Israel and spend several months in a Kibbutz until June 1967. It is for this reason that they were very much on my mind, once back in the States, when the Six Day War broke out in that very month and year. I long wondered about their fate. But I’d taken no contact information from Les and Karen at our parting, as became my subsequent habit with other people I met during that summer of Contental travel. I guess I assumed our train station goodbye was final.

All I really knew about Les and Karen’s marriage is that it was joined at a Manhattan party on the same night they met. They were, in that sense and others, two pure creatures of the epicurian spirit of the 1960s. And Les, jokingly but not without a degree of serious conviction, thought of himself as a “citizen of the world.”

Karen was not a great deal older than me. (I’ve written about Les and Karen in my “essential” post elswhere in this blog called, Continental Summer.) To both her and Les, I seemed a likeable but very conventional late teenager bound for a conventional life — wife, job, children, home in the suburbs. Perhaps it might have been better for me had that been my actual destiny. I suspect I became more of a wanderer than either Les or Karen. But I know both of them very soon wandered away from that impulsive marriage. Les told me that much when we reconnected.

When I found Les, I introduced myself to him and seemed to stir up vague memories of that voyage and subsquent land journey . He seemed delighted to hear from me. First and foremost, upon my inquiry, he told me they were, indeed, in Israel for the Six Day War but had weathered it without incident, though on one occasion, with planes overhead, Less worried whether they were Egyptian or Israeli, and he reported seeing many abandoned tanks in the desert. If I wondered about both their political pedigree of the time, Les shared the fact that their kibbutz was of a very unorthodox, liberal variety and had even assigned a place of honor to a portrait of “Uncle Joe” — meaning Josef Stalin. Small wonder they were eager for their visit to the Soviet Union, though I can’t imagine Karen was all that comforatable in Israel. I could not, during our too-brief exchange, really get a sense whether Les’s liberal politics had modified at all. But he was certainly, given his vocation, remained devoted to Israel and assuring its future.

We had only about three email exchanges, none of which I can locate. But I told him of my memory of sailing away from New York and seeing in the misty distance the famous Ambrose Light Ship that now sits dockside at South Seaport in Manhattan — and that, with my only son, born to me out of wedlock, I had, a few years before, eaten lunch together with the Light Ship just yards away from us. (I recall, with my son, feeling most unconventional and, looking out to sea, thinking of Karen’s assessment of my 19-year-old self.)

Les wrote back that he thought this was a very nice memory. He had re-married, at least once, was currently married to a woman young enough to have a mother still living whom he was going to visit. She might have been living in Florida.

I promised Les I’d go to a friends house and have her scan the pictures I’d taken of us aboard the Black Hawk– for old time’s sake. I think he was anxious to see them. But it happened that on the only day I arranged for the trip to that friends house, she informed me, with the pictures in hand, that the scanner wasn’t working that day. That was galling. I never got around to trying again.

Then, much time passed and there was no further contact with Les — my fault. He’d even mentioned he might get to Boston on other business some day (I was still living near my native Boston at that point) and that we might get together.

At some point a few years ago, I went looking for Less again — may have written, without getting a response. Then I learned that he had died. His picture, quite recognizable to me, was posted with an obituary and tributes from lifelong friends, of which I was not one. If his ex-wife Karen is still alive, I have no way to find her, her last name doubtless having changed, possibly many times. She’s probably long forgotten me.

So — remembering that first day in Paris, June 17, 1966 on this June 17, 2022. May you rest in peace, Les. I so much wish we’d had a chance to share more shipboard memories, share those pictures.

It’s 4:41 p.m. in Paris. Trains are pulling in and out of the Gare du Nord. Many greetings and departures. New memories for summer travelers in a complex and dangerous world far different from the post-WWII hour in which I said goodbye to two practical strangers with whom I’d spent nine tender days at sea.

The light, the days change. Sea changes, all changes….

It is 10:45 a.m….10:46 am….11 a.m…..

NEW YEAR’S EVE (TIMES GONE BY)

It is New Year’s Eve again. I’ve marked the occasion, entirely inadvertently, by joining myself to the end-of-year headlines about a spike in the latest coronavirus variation — at this, the end of a second year of the pandemic. I came back from a Christmas trip to Atlanta with a miserable case of it, but, truly, on this New Year’s Eve morning, can say, gratefully, that the sickness that broke out on Monday has devolved, on this Friday morning, to something like a slight case of hay fever, nothing more. Thank you, God. Not that I didn’t hope and fully expect to avoid it, having been pretty careful. But there were one or two gatherings –one in particular –where I had reason to believe I’d been exposed. And this new strain, while manifestly less virulent, is apparently more contageous.

But I’ll go on taking medication, and relax today. What else is there to do, except, maybe, buy food — and try not to think about the future in which, in each new “future” I keep repeating the soul-killing mistakes and habits of the past? One can hope and pray for changes, and the courage to make them.

But I digress, as usual…

And, of course, I’m glad I got all three vaccines to keep the globe-trotting microscopic invaders from Wohan from finding my anatomy more hospitable.

Memory, now, begins to serve me again, as it does this time of year. My parents, Bill and Jo Wayland, had many struggles, being so different from one another. But they had a circle of friends — my father’s circle more than my mothers’s — with whom they shared their social times. I’m guessing it might have been New Year’s Eve, 1959 into 1960 (the beginning of that new decade that would sharply rupture our national history and self-understanding) when they held a New Year’s Eve Party at the house. Or perhaps it was 1960 into ’61. Memory is NOT serving me entirely here. Would that it were, for nostalgia commands a degree of accuracy before I can be comfortable with all the attendant details.

In any event, the party venue would have been our little house on Neponset Avenue, Dorchester. And I do mean — little. The ground floor portion, exclusive of the kitchen, accommodated the party’s full action and was not more than 300 square feet, if that. But this would be a modest gathering. Yes, they intended to dance – to music from LPs played on a hi-fi console. Of course, it would be to the vanilla strains of Lawrence Welk or Guy Lombardo or, at the wilder end of things, Glen Gray and his Casaloma Orchestra. I believe Glen had a number in his repertoire called, “The Casaloma Stomp”. But my parents and their friends were not inclined to stomp, or, very often, even tap their toes. No Count Basie, Woody Herman or Benny Goodman for them. (My father found Benny Goodman’s” One O’Clock Jump”, when I chanced to play it, tiresome, repetative and back alley exotic. It was jazz, and he deplored jazz, presumably for its visceral invitation to hedonism of the body and tonal anarchy of the soul. He liked, as he often said, “nice, smooth music.” I guess you’d call it, clean music. He and his friends were not swingers, except to the degree that Lawrence Welk swung, as he did from time to time — L.W. was a pro whose “champaigne music” arrangements featured flawless, disciplined, if overly bland harmonies that ingenously, now that I think about it, perfectly replicated the bubbles that floated around the studio during his telecasts — but, again, I digress. But one more thing, a musical footnote: my father loved “The Warsaw Concerto”, owned it as a clear red plastic 45 rpm recording, and listend to it often.)

I was in an upstairs room that New Year’s Eve evening — my relatively new bedroom, being the room my 21-year-old sister had abandoned when she was married the previous June, or, if my dating is wrong, perhaps two Junes before. But I forced to date this from 1949-into-1960 and hope I’m remembering well. Therefore — my sister Anne was living not far away, already pregnant with her first child. I expect she and husband, 23-year-old Joe O’Hara, were passing the night uneventfully, living very nearby. Brothers Bill, Doug and Ron still called the attic bunk beds above my room home. They were out for the evening, ages 26 (Bill) and Ron and Doug (twins, both twenty as of that December 12). They had their own friends. I, therefore, was, as of November 27, the family’s only teenager — again, all of this assuming I have the year right — 1960. (If it was 1960, my parents, the previous April 19th, had held a 25th wedding anniversary party for themselves at the house; perhaps it was decided that a second party in that intimtate space of the house they’d owned since 1941 wouldn’t hurt. And it seems to me I was still in elementary school, not graduating until June of 1961.

I sat in pajamas bathrobe after a bath, watching Jack Parr on the Tonight Show in black and white. I recall doing that. But I’m wondering, did I always have a TV in my room? I don’t think so. But I know that’s how I passed the evening. I was 13 at most, an innocent when it came to nightlife.

As the evening progressed, the boisterousness mounted below me. But these friends of my parents were never riotous in their pursuit of fun. Joe and ‘Lil Sullivan from nearby Newhall Street, Joe and Marge Clough from nearby Pearce Avenue (if memory serves me), Jim and Barb Allen, also from Pearce Avenue, Ralph Wheeler and his wife, who also lived nearby, once operated the small First National Store at Pope’s Hill where my father went weekly to get our “order” of groceries, Bill Lewis and his wife were from somewhere nearby…only Waldo Banks and his wife Katty came from far away — Malden, Mass. Unless Ed Deveney and his wife were there from Sharon. These were all members of my father’s card party as well. None, with rare exception, ever drank to excess. All were devoutly and charitably Catholic. They were transit train starters, contractors, salesmen, clerks, small business owners.

There was no Rockin’ New Year’s Eve in those days. The culture was still tame and adult-oriented. The baby-boomer generation, my generation, had yet to seize all the reins. At midnight, you’d hear Guy Lombardo and those oleaginenous saxaphones (that’s the only adjective I can come up with to describe them right now) blaring forth from the rooftop ballroom of — was it the Waldorf in New York? There would be a dance floor crowded with grandees in tuxedos and silly paper hats and shiny faces, glancing up either in emboldened inebriatioin or sober embarrassment at the live television camera as they swayed, stumbled or jostled about in time to the music, and there would be a mob in Time Square which would be large but, I suspect, nowhere as huge as, over time, it would become in that urban epicenter. While bright and light-clustered then, it still hadn’t acquired the sensory overloading brilliance and wattage of the era of racing, light emitting diodes, or, thankfully, the paranoia of the Age of Terror — and Jack Parr would have stood up to embrace his few celebrity guests, some, like him, long erased from the popular memory, as his bandleader and his orchestra spewed out Auld Lang Syne…and nowhere would you see that montage of carnal, uninhibited, face- munching kisses. And almost every ‘swell’ and super-celebrity who’ll fill the brilliantly colorful rocking and rolling fiber-optic “air” waves tonight had yet to be born on this black-and-white long ago night. (And Dick Clark is still dead, though he seemed eternal.)

And, on that night, my parents suddenly appeared together at the doorway of my bedroom and came in to wish me a happy new year where I sat in my little chair. I will always remember that. Dad, healthy that night, would be invaded only a few short years later by an aggressive prostate cancer. It mystified and privately depressed us all, not least of all Dad himself — that this should be happening to him at the very time he might finally have been gaining a little financial independence and traction — profit-sharing at his job, a new supervisory role at the coal and oil company that his employer of some forty years, Glendale Coal and Oil, had acquired.

We never spoke of the imminent death. He never fully confronted it. Who could, coming as it did at such a time? Only now, these many years later, after the death at age 78 of his daughter — the only one of his five children whose weddings he would be alive to attend — have I begun finally to mourn, contemplate and explore my feelings about that death of this devoutly Catholic man who seemed to lack the consolation of his faith as his end neared. My mother would live on until August 5, 1986, a sorrowing and solitary widowhood, but one in which the wives of those card-party husbands would be her steady and loyal support and companions, even if, tempermentally, they were worlds apart from this Irish-born, melancholy, often troubled and literate woman with the retiring and sadly unself-confident mind and soul of a poet.

Auld Lang Syne ….Times Gone By

That Robert Burns lyric doesn’t translate lucidly into English in the mouths of the millions who will chorus it tonight at midnight, giving way to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, John Lennon’s “Imagine” (that Utopian twaddle from the mind of a Brit who trusted the New York streets until the moment he died violently on one of them), or whatever else is cued up on the Big Box Machines.

That anthem begins with an interogative: “Should auld (old) acquaintance(s) be forgot and never brought to mind?”

I guess the answer is, no. Bring them all to mind. Let them swarm, for in the cold, drab light of January, we shall be swimming once again in the bickering, unthinking muddle.

But for the balance of the day, I’ll be fighting off my virus and remembering — that party at 210 (those partying souls are long gone now) — and every moment of my life, and your life.

It is noon, exactly, December 31, 2021. Twelve hours left in the old year.

Happy New Year.

“LOOK AT THE CRYSTALS!”

I suddenly find myself, only an hour advanced from the night’s sleep on this late October morning, thinking of a fine and innocent moment with a childhood friend, long lost, named Lorraine. It had snowed….we were walking. There were — crystals.

Meanwhile, each moment is nudging me further away from memory of those crystals into this new day; I sit here, exterior darkness only slowly lifting on the street with the falsely evocative name Caribbean Way, as I hear of a great, raging Nor’easter sweeping into New England. It is full of rain, not snow.

But I have known these damp autumnal Nor’easters, have seen them batter the window pane, had them lash my face, seep into my shoes. They can do harm, but like all weather, they can cleanse, rupture, gray over and necessarily, in nature’s way, sweep away the humdrum routines and securities of the average sunny day. Oh, if only that were all they flood and blow down and sweep away!

To paraphrase Tolstoy: all fair and sunny days are alike, but stormy days are stormy in their own way.

In the darkness without, I hear the bleating of the truck backing into the ugly utility area one door down. It is trash day. I must put out the trash.

In exactly one moment, the little hockey puck-size automatic voice machine in the dining area will send the pleasant, comforting disembodied, faux-human voice of a faux-human named Alexa — send it throughout this tin and vinyl space announcing the weather for this Florida day

There, I hear it…..

Right now in Largo, it is 54 degrees. Today’s forecast calls for mostly sunny weather, with a high of 84 and a low of 62 degrees.

So, at last, it is cooling here in the subtropics. The dank, relentless, unchanging heat of the five-month summer may at last be breaking, for the moment.

Another sunny day.

As for the lingering darkness — darkness, like cool weather, can be a comfort in Florida, for it sometimes seems a clime in which, like the prison cells of savage miscreants, the lights are always left on so the guards can keep an eye on them. But that is only my perception. There is a fair amount of ragged, private beauty here, too, between the macadam and utility areas. And who doesn’t like a sunny day?

The fact is, people, like raindrops, are pouring down on this ‘paradise.’ Or, escaping to it. I did. Or I tried to. To escape, that is. But, as the old saying would have it, you can run but you can’t hide — from life.

Good grief!

I had not meant to write so much. I had meant only simply to write of that moment with little Lorraine, my friend.

Her name was Lorraine Peters. Her older sister, friend to my teenage sister, was Anne. Both girls were red-headed with freckles, like my sister. On that winter’s day, we both would have been wearing winter coats. We were, perhaps, nine-years-old, maybe ten. I don’t recall how we happened to be together on a winter’s evening walking down steep, snow-covered Pope’s Hill Street to the corner of what had once been a dirt road named Sewell Street but was now a paved street named Salina Road. ( A far cry from Caribbean Way.) I lived a half block to west on Neponset Avenue. Lorraine lived perhaps two hundred yards to the southeast across an empty field on Freeport Street.

If the field was still there and not yet built over with a supermarket, or perhaps a supermarket under construction, then it was perhaps winter, 1957. I can’t be sure. Can’t pinpoint it.

It was time for both Lorraine and me to be home for supper, I’m sure.

The snow was fresh, the air clear and cold. The new snowfall — it had only been a moderate snowstorm, perhaps four or five inches — would soon be soiled with city grime, sand and dog urine. But now, it was pure and blue in the new darkness. And there had been enough of it, and apparently enough wind, to form little banks on street corners.

Lorraine would have been wearing a stocking cap. She was not pretty. No, rather plain, but very nice.

Had we been sledding on Pope’s Hill? Did we have our sleds with us? Was it before or after Christmas? I don’t recall. Lorraine was an intelligent little girl. Mature, good company. But I was not often in her company.

Suddenly, at the corner of Selina and Pope’s Hill (a short street likely named for some long-ago Yankee merchant long before we Irish moved to the neighborhood), Lorraine and I paused to admire a little bank of the new snow. It glowed — was there a dim street light nearby or was it after dinner already and a full moon was illuminating this bank of whiteness?

Or did that snow bank just seem to glow of its own cold magical inner essence? The fragile glow of the beautiful.

And suddenly I heard Lorraine in her high, buoyant voice say, “look at the crystals!”

She was talking of those pinpoints of light, like a starry firmament, that are the property of all freshly fallen snow.

And the pure essence of being civilized, springing up among people even so young as we were, is the capacity to discern beauty in nature, and to note it to another human.

Had I been with one of my young male friends, would he have pointed out that sparkle imbedded in the new-fallen snow? Were we young boys quite that “civilized” yet? Wasn’t it in the feminine nature to see it and, more especially, to note it? Am I permitted to speculate in these contentious times that the feminine spirit might well be the vanguard of civilization? For a snowbank should never just be — a snowbank.

Look at the crystals!

Yes, everyone. Look!

Even for Lorraine to see that glow and to name it “crystals” was to leave a crystalline impression on my nine (or ten) year old imagination.

I believe we parted soon thereafter. Perhaps we were pulling our sleds.

Over the next few years, Lorraine and Anne Peters from Freeport Street would be a presence in my young world, though I did not see that much of either of them and Lorraine was not among my immediate friends.

Then one day, well before I became an adult, the Peters family moved away.

But my sister Anne was one who, throughout her life — especially after the advent of the internet age — seemed to strive to re-connect with lost, almost forgotten neighbors. And while she was closer in age to Anne Peters, and knew her better, she received one day — I forget how or why — an internet correspondence from Lorraine Peters who was now living somewhere like Connecticut.

An exchange continued for a period between them. I know I mentioned to my sister that vivid moment of the snowy crystals and, as I sit here (with the sun up now behind the blinds, the day advancing), I hope she somehow passed that observation on to Lorraine, though I doubt she would have recalled that shared moment that made such an impression on me.

Then one day my sister informed me that she’d learned from Lorraine that she was mortally ill, probably with cancer. She would have been in her sixties, not that terribly old, probably married with children, even grandchildren. News of her death followed soon thereafter. The girl who’d seen the crystals was gone.

Five Septembers ago, my sister also fell mortally ill (with cancer) and left us. Therefore any further details about how she came to be in contact with Lorraine Peters is gone. So much left the world with my sister.

But that crystalline childhood moment remains, fleeting as that vanished snowbank, imbedded in memory. A young girl’s sensitive awareness, leading to an instant of shared perception. A civilizing bond in the early hours of two lives.

God rest you, Lorraine. Thank you for the crystals. Though I am in Florida, I will always long to see the winter’s first snow. I must see it again, with all its hazards. I must not forget you, my little neighbor, as, at this hour, in the year 2021, rain and wind assault the bare corner of Selena and Pope’s Hill Street, and washes the odd candy wrapper down the gutters in the gray light.

By the way, it’s not trash day. That’s tomorrow.

JOE “RED” O’HARA

Today is his birthday.

The doorbell rang one spring evening at 210 Neponset Avenue. It was — 1957? I think so. Or was it 1956?

I was in the kitchen. I was ten. Or, was I nine?

I was probably just putting something away, a dish or something. I don’t know. I’ll never remember how I happened to be standing in view of the front door at that moment. But when the bell rang I had a clear view the twenty feet to the open front door. On the other side of the storm door stood a red-headed young man, athletic looking in a short-sleeve shirt. My memory makes it plaid or red. He was glancing back toward the street. My sister was upstairs getting ready for her date. My parents were not around for some reason, nor were my three brothers.

I opened the door for him. He’d come for my sister. We went into our small living room and I sat down on the couch with him. He talked to me, showed genuine interest in me. I was a little shy, but I liked this guy, this new date of my 18-year-old sister.

He would have been 85 today. He had been in decline since my sister’s death, September 23, 2016. They had been living just south of where I’ve put myself now in Florida. I expected to see a good deal of him after moving her two years ago. I saw him only twice. The pandemic saw to that. He was not the strong, vigorous, vital man we all had known, mostly wheelchair bound.

I prayed for him exclusively today at Mass. I miss him. His children miss him the most.

And if I dwell on that long-ago moment in that little house, I think sadly of how very, very long ago it was, and how much has gone and how many have gone and how little lies ahead.

He was a stranger until that moment. I have many very special sisters-in-law. But Joe O’Hara was the first new member of the family — am I right?

Memories.

On that very day, somewhere, maybe houses away, or just blocks away, memories and personal epochs were ending for someone. Just moments and perhaps block from here now, people who will be together for fifty years into this century, long after I’m gone, are just meeting. New stories are beginning. On and on and over and over it goes. Time.

I should stop here…..all so prosaic. Another time.

Happy birthday, Joe.

Time….

A BOY, A LETTER, A JOURNEY…

Pull from a pile of paper this September evening, a long-ago July memory:

July 24, 1966, Sunday

Innsbruck, Austria

Dear Mom,

I leave for Lucerne in the morning. I don’t suppose that anything you sent me there if you spelled the city’s name as I did — without its final “e” — will be delayed (mea culpa.)

After Lucerne and possibly a brief stay in Zurich, I will head for Munich, Germany — again only for a brief stay. I have heard so much in my travels about Munich’s joyous and boisterous beer halls that I simply must have a look for myself.

I should leave Munich on about the 28th. I will then attempt to make a brief stay in Amsterdam. — another place highly recommended by fellow travelers.

At any rate, I must be in Rotterdam by August 1, if I am to get my bearings in time to catch the boat on August 2nd.

At present, my plans for the return are simply this: I will sail from Rotterdam on or about August 2nd ( I expect there will be no delay this time — the Groote Beer is a passenger ship committed to a schedule. The voyage should last about nine days; I should arrive in New York about August 11. Upon arriving, I will call home and advise you of my plan for reaching Boston. If my funds seem dangerously low at the time of my Rotterdam debarkation, I will have you wire me enough money to pay a U.S. plane or train fare. My funds at present, however, are quite well.

I left Vienna late last night for Innsbruck. This morning, I awoke in a first class compartment and found the window of the train beaded with cold rain (there has been much rain in Europe over the past week). I knelt up and slid down the window of the train. There before me in the driven rain was a massive mountain peak — my first view of the Alps. The top of it was cloaked in clouds, the bottom was thick with pines and the furrows of ski trails.

You who love the Austrian landscape depicted in The Sound of Music would have loved as well the view I had of it this morning — despite the rain. So high were we that clouds drifted like smoke over the rich green fields. The field were filled with clover and small shacks housing thick billows of hay. It was a wonderful sight. I must admit that I have had momentary compunctions over one point of this journey. I had not planned to buy gift for anyone on this trip, and so I have not. But in Florence, a city where anyone may bargain on the straw market for cameos, leather goods and whatnot — as most tourists do — I felt I should not pass up the opportunity to bring home authentic souvenirs for one and all. But I bought nothing — how could I store them? What and for whom should I buy? So be it.

SEND NEXT LETTER TO ROTTERDAM AMERICAN EXPRESS

I will receive any and all Lucerne mail tomorrow JULY 25, 1966.

SO LONG FOR NOW.

Love,

Greg

I actually did buy my brothers some good Dutch cigars and bought Delft salt and pepper shakers (if memory serves me) for my mother. I had bought a very nice leather billfold in Florence — for myself. It was a beauty. I wonder what ever happened to it. I hope I gave it to one of my brothers.

I had only $500 for the whole trip.

I have many European memories such as this, preserved in letters. Only when a news station sent me to Rome to cover the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II in April, 2005 did I ever return. There’s always the future. But the Europe of 1966, only twenty-one years after the war, still recovering from that cataclysm but still at peace, still relatively cheap to travel and still four decades from the coming terror, viruses and dubious waves of immigration — that Europe is gone.

I’ll keep my memories.