It Was The Music – Volume 3 – 1963 to 1965

By Cecil Hoge

In the last blog story on music in my life, I predicted that I would flunk out of college. Guess what? By the end of my second year at the University of Virginia, I did flunk out. That was in June of 1963.

1963 was a year of change…not only for me…but also for the country. In June, just as I was preparing to leave The University, John F. Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” at the Rathaus Schonberg and Jackie Kennedy was wowing Europeans one and all for her beauty and her verve. I was not paying much attention. We got through the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, when I still had some hope that I might not flunk out. As things turned out the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved in the country’s favor while my situation with the The University of Virginia was not.

“Surfin’ U.S.A.” was a hit that summer. Later in the year Peter, Paul and Mary released a song called “Blowin in the Wind” written by a fellow named Bob Dylan. It was almost as big a hit for them as “Puff, The Magic Dragon” which came out the same year. I wondered what that “Puff, the Magic Dragon” song was about…it sounded sweet and kind of mysterious. I missed the wacky tobacky reference altogether. Elvis was singing a song called “Devil in Disguise”. Music was changing, but just along the edges. The Beatles were just beginning to be popular. Bob Dylan released an album called “Free Wheeling Bob Dylan” and the Beatles came out with “She Loves Me”. There was change in the wind, but I was oblivious to it all.

What was I to do now that I had flunked out? I did what many young, red-blooded American lads would do in a similar situation. I hitchhiked to California. My plan was to find a new life, maybe become a surfer dude, hang ten on some waves and win fame and fortune as a great American novelist. Unfortunately, none of that came true.

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This is not quite me – I was a mite chubbier, but it captures my best hitchhiking dress.

I hitchhiked from Virginia to California and it was quite memorable. I gathered all the essentials – a small duffle bag with all the important stuff…a toothbrush, a razor,  hairbrush, a copy of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, some underwear, socks, 3 shirts, 2 pair of jeans and a bathing suit. In short, I was loaded for bear.

My first ride, from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, was with a famous architect. At least, he seemed to me that he must be famous, as he talked with great enthusiasm about his many projects which seemed to include roads, bridges and buildings. He had a bunch of rolled up architectural drawings in the back seat of his car and even let me take a look at some, which to my untrained eye looked pretty impressive.

I asked him why he was kind enough to pick me. Hitchhiking was a fairly common thing in 1963, but you often had to wait one or two hours for a ride. And I was mighty happy when, a half hour into my great journey West, I saw this guy slow down and pull off the road about 50 feet ahead of where I was practicing my best thumb action.

“I like to get a pulse on what is going on,” he said somewhat mysteriously. Somehow our conversation drifted to the twin facts that I had just flunked out of college and that he was on his way to Lynchburg to review a new building project…some corporate structure that he seemed very proud of.

When I told him about my year of failure, he was very supportive, “Some the best minds are not formed by college…the school of life is also a great teacher,” he said.

We had a fine conversation, talking about many things…the country growing up, things that were changing, or not changing,  young President Kennedy, and the new-fangled music coming out of England and America.

“That fellow Bob Dylan…his voice isn’t worth a damn,” the famous architect told me, “but he has some interesting things to say.”

It was a strange statement coming from a much older man. I really hadn’t listened to Bob Dylan, but I made a note to maybe give it a go sometime.

The architect pulled over and said, “I have to turn right here…good luck on the next 50 years.”

I got out, feeling kind of sad and alone with my dufflebag, on the deserted road. The sun was still fairly high, the day still warm in the way Virginia is in June. Bumblebees and butterflies were fluttering in the afternoon sun, farmer’s fields surrounded by wooden post fences loomed off on either side of the highway.

It took another hour and half to get another ride and that almost immediately turned into a disaster. The guy who pulled over seemed decent enough. I told him I was hitchhiking to California. He told me I was in luck, he was headed to St. Louis.

It was about 7 minutes into the ride that I noticed this guy un-zipping his fly. Not a good sign, I thought, but maybe the guy had some good explanation for what seemed like a strange action. A little bit later I realize that the guy did have an explanation and it was not an explanation that I wanted to know about.

In this day of sexual harassment, I guess you can say that I was sexually harassed by this guy. In any case, I was not buying what he was selling.

About 30 seconds after the reason this man un-zipped his fly became clear, I said; “Pull over here”.

“I thought you were going to California,” the man said.

“That was then, this is now, pull over here.”

I cannot say that the man seemed very happy about my attitude, but he did comply, even if he was quite disgruntled. I got out and found myself about 5 miles further down the same lonely road. So much for getting to St. Louis anytime soon.

I resumed my best thumb action but it was not working. First of all, in order to get a good response to thumb action, cars must pass by. And that seemed to happen only about every 20 minutes or so. After two hours, I just started walking. It turned out that this section of the road was rarely used. So I kept walking and the afternoon sun started to fall and cast shadows on the green fields that adorned the left and right sides of the highway. The mid-day heat gave way to somewhat cooler temperatures. That was the good news.

As far as my trusty thumb was concerned, it had gone on strike. When cars or trucks came by, I would turn around, stick out my thumb and try to look as presentable as possible. It was not working…the cars and trucks came and went. Six hours into this project, the sun had fallen and darkness had arrived and I was walking down a dark and lonely highway.

About that time I was thinking that this idea of hitchhiking to California for fame and fortune might not be such a good idea. I was seriously considering turning around and walking back to Charlottesville. That would have taken quite a bit time, presuming my hitchhiking luck did not improve…I was already about 120 miles from Charlottesville.

I was getting seriously tired and hungry. My hitch-hiking skills, once so sharp and effective, had turned sour on me and I was getting so discouraged that instead of turning around each time I heard an approaching car or truck, I would stick my thumb out while still walking forward. In my mind, any progress at that time was important even if I was only making about two and half miles per hour.

They say it is darkest before the dawn. But that night it was darkest around 9:45pm. It was not actually chilly at that time, but since I was wearing a knit short-sleeved shirt, it seemed chilly, especially after a big truck would woosh by. Talk about blowing in the wind…I was blowing in the wind and it was an ill wind filled with carbon dioxide and dirt and dust flung up from the road.

It was then my luck changed and I proved categorically that you can get a ride hitch-hiking even when you have not bothered to turn around. I am not quite sure how my thumb was visible on that dark and dank night, but a truck lumbered to a halt a few hundred feet ahead and I sprinted towards it with my last bit to energy.

Fortunately, the man driving the truck was not a pervert. In fact, he was a very nice older feller, a little bit heavy for his size, in late 50s or early 60s. He had a smile and a large, round face as I got in. Immediately, I was greeted with a Johnny Cash song on the radio…I was back in the land of hope. It seemed my new ride was a country music aficionado. He seemed like a regular guy, with soft, Southern drawl and a kind dignified face.

“Where you headed,” he asked.

“California,” I said.

“That ain’t here,” he said with a laugh, “I can get you to just outside St. Louis.”

“Anywhere down the road is great,” I said.

And so off we went to St. Louis. I was back on track.

By around 11 I was realizing that I had nothing to eat since a super egg breakfast in Charlottesville. That was a good 14 hours ago, so I was mighty hungry. Fortunately, great minds think alike…maybe I should say hungry stomachs can align. It turned out the man was also hungry, so we pulled into some truck service station and walked into a big diner that was part of the service center. A sandy-haired waitress came up to us as soon as we walked in.

“Where you wanna sit, Walt,” and almost instantly afterwards, “Who’s the kid?”

Anyway, we had a fine meal. Walt downed 3 or 4 cups of coffee and I matched him Coke for coffee. The burgers and fries were greasy and most delicious. Within an hour, we were back on the road.

I rode the next day and half with Walt. Country music was our constant background. The conversation was good, but a little depressing. Walt took to criticizing my hitchhiking to California.

“What you doing that for? You should be going home, with your tail between legs, fessing up and starting over. Hey, I never went to no college. I learned on the road of life. Running away ain’t the way to go.”

I tried my best to defend myself.

“I need to do this, Walt. I need to find my own way.”

“There is nothing wrong with finding your own way, but you ought to tell your folks.”

I kept silent on that point and we drove on into the night with more country music wailing away as we went. I have to say Walt was very kind and considerate and concerned about me doing the right thing. He told me he had a son who was hard to handle and it was problem and his wife had passed a few years earlier. He told me life on the road, hauling goods across America was the only life for him. He liked the freedom and the control of the work. He would make 2 or 3 cross-country runs and take one or two weeks off, go fishing, hang out at honkytonks, catch up with a lady or two in some lost town along the highway. Yes, Walt was old guy and I enjoyed every part of that truck-driving experience except the lecturing on going back home and starting over.

Johnny Cash was singing, “Ring of Fire” concerning certain passions a man and woman face. Loretta Lynn sang, “The Other Woman” talking about who was first to cheat on who, and Buck Owens singing, “Act Naturally” regarding becoming a big star and acting naturally.

Sometimes when Walt ran out of country stations, he would flip on a pop station and something weird would come on like Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I want to”. It was all good…..as Mr. Dylan was to say many years later.

We hauled down different roads, some back country, some major highways, winging our way to St. Louis. We went through Knoxville, down to Nashville and up to St. Louis and Walt let me out on a not so lonely road just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.  He left me off, wished me well and turned to go back towards the western side of St. Louis where his cargo was supposed to go.

Just before letting off, he said, “You headed West now, son. If you keep going you’ll make it to California.”

I was making progress. I waved goodbye And wished him well, and assumed my best hitch-hiking position at 4 pm. I was almost halfway out West. I was at the great gateway to the West. This just could work, I thought.

I caught a few short rides in the direction of Springfield, Missouri. None took me very far, about 20, 30 miles at a time. It was getting dark and noticed a sign for a local motel with a restaurant next door that said “Good eats”.  Luckily, the motel had a room and the eats was good. It was nice to sit down and have real meal. It seemed I was in a dry county, so my thirst for beer was not slaked. That said, I had a good night’s sleep, got up the next day with a whole new attitude, took a shower, had eggs over medium, sausage, grits and biscuits and headed out on the great highway of life, thinking, yeah, this just might work.

Not long afterward, I got a ride to the other side of Joplin Missouri and then, a little later, after exercising my best thumb action, I got the last ride to California. And what a ride it was. A seedy looking man in a big Chevy pulled off the road. I came running and he said, “Where you headed?”

“Malibu Beach, California,” I said.

By that time I had decided that Malibu was my official destination. There were so many choices open to a young enterprising man…surfer dude, actor, screen writer, novelist, busboy. The future was wide open, as Tom Petty was to sing many decades later.

“You are in luck, I can get you to San Diego.”

I hopped in, throwing my duffel bag in the back. I noticed that the center of the front seat was occupied by maps, a lunch box and a very large Thermos jug. This was good, in case the guy wanted to press his intentions on me, I had some obstacles in the way.

But,  I had nothing to worry about. The gentleman turned out to be a sleep-deprived short order cook. Hence the large thermos, which I learned was filled, as it should be, with coffee. He had shaggy black/gray short hair, a stubble beard and deep-sunken eyes. If I did not know better, he looked like he might have been wandering around the Bowery after two or three weeks on a Ripple wine diet. But, in truth, he turned out to be a reformed alcoholic who had substituted his consumption of alcohol with his consumption of coffee.

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This is a pretty good likeness of the guy who picked me up. Of course, I met him in his car so I can only imagine what he looked like in front of a stove.

Cooking eggs and sausage quick was his game and by the time we crossed the great plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, I had learned everything one needed to know about short order cooking.

“It’s hard work, it’s hot work. You are standing over a hot stove for hours, it’s sweaty and you drink gallons of water…when I was younger I used to drink gallons of beer, but I gave all that up…no more alcohol for me…you got to work fast if you are a short order cook because them orders keep coming, but it is good-paying work. It’s much better than bussing or waiting.”

This was probably more information than I needed to know, but he was in a talking mood and I guessed that was the real reason he picked me up. I quickly understood that listening was part of the price of getting a ride from Joplin, Missouri to San Diego, so I listened along and tried to be as respectful as I could. He also shared everything about the short order cooking trade. His employer was Howard Johnson’s, which, at the time, was the most successful motel/hotel chain in the U.S. He was coming from Wooster, Mass and he already was suffering from acute lack of sleep.

“I got to have someone to keep me awake,” and that also was part of the price of a free ride from Joplin, Missouri to San Diego. That was OK. I understood my mission and I soon found out that Burt was on his own mission.

“Why you headed to San Diego?” I naively asked. Almost immediately, I came to regret my question.

“I am going to pick up my son…the sonuva bitch ran out of money.”

I had a sense of future Deja Vu. Was that to be my fate?

“Why you headed out to Malibu?” he asked.

I pondered the question and came to the conclusion that a little creative fibbing was in order.

“I got a job waiting for me in Malibu. I am going to spend the summer with some friends out there and they got me lined up to be a busboy in big Malibu restaurant.”

“Ever been a busboy?” he asked, looking a little dubious at me with his deep sunk eyes.

“No,” I answered truthfully.

“It’s a shit job kid. You are the bottom of the bottom…you will be lucky if them waitresses share some tips with you. Most likely, they going shit all over you and give you nothing…no nooky, no money…not a goddamn dime.”

His eyes began to droop with tiredness and the car began to swerve, which is not a good thing when you are careening along in a big Chevy at 60 or 70 miles per hour. It must be remembered that at that time, American cars were not known for their tight steering controls. Driving a Chevy was more like driving a big boat…you kind of naturally swerved and that swerving was not helped by the fact that his sunken eyes were almost fully closed.

“Sir,” I said loudly, not knowing what else to call him, “you are falling asleep.”

That’s when he told me his name was Burt.

“Burt Tampone is the name.”

“Nice to know you Burt, my name is Cecil Hoge.”

“What kind of name is that,” He asked, now keeping careening to a minimum. I was happy to try and keep Burt awake and give him some family history…how my father’s name was Cecil and that was because my grandmother’s name was Cecile and how our family name came about. I even recited the little ditty my father had told me.

“Hog by name, hog by nature, changed to Hoge by legislature.”

I am guessing that Burt was beginning to think he was not on a need to know basis, but he took in my explanation fairly seamlessly and he kept driving, his eyes now open most of the time. And we kept plowing along down the road.

Most of the time, Burt kept the radio off. But every hour or so, he would check in on the news. The radio was talking about a mysterious airplane crash of DC-7 that went down in the Pacific Ocean somewhere off of British Columbia. Apparently, 101 people were lost. Most of the news was U.S. based, but even careening down that road there was talk of John Profuma, the British Minister, resigning because an affair with a young lady named Christine Keeler.

It seemed that Christine was a sexually active lady and she had also found favor with a Russian spy pumping her in more ways than one for info on her British boyfriend. And then there was the story about George Wallace trying to prevent blacks from enrolling in The University of Alabama. Apparently, the Governor thought that was against some cherished Southern tradition and I suppose it was. And then there was the story of two Russkis returning from space.

Occasionally, Burt would leave the news on for a little bit longer and some music would come on. That was a relief for me. On one of those occasions, “Please. please me” by the Beatles came on. It was not the deepest song every written, but it was a wonderfully vibrant and catchy tune.

As I soon came to learn, Burt’s mission to get to San Diego, was time sensitive. Apparently, his son’s money problems were rather dire, having just broken up with his wife, having been kicked out of his wife’s house, having almost zero money and presently living in some public park in San Diego. For this reason, Burt was planning not to sleep at all, except for an hour or two, when we would pull off the road just before falling asleep for the fifth time.

I became so concerned several times that I simply suggested he pull over while we both napped for an hour or two, for which he was only too happy to comply.

And sure enough, after a one or two hour nap we were wailing down the highway again, passing through Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, vast empty spaces, Amarillo, Texas and onward West. The trek across Texas is only recommended for the hardy. The miles flew by as we sped West, stopping only for some sandwiches and thermos fill ups and coke for me. We made ample progress and we did not stop when the sun went down, but kept going and going, with only an occasional stop for coffee, cokes and sandwiches. The only downside was that it was pretty hard to get any radio stations as we passed by some of the great stretches of road in Texas.

Two days of stubble adorned his face. He told me long stories of early hard-drinking days and how he had put that behind him. Burt said he used to drink 3 six packs of beer a day, but no longer.

It took us two full days to get to San Diego. Burt left me off at a Trailways Bus Terminal somewhere near the center of San Diego around 11 one morning. The sun was shining as it was supposed to in Sunny California. This made my life simple. I went into the terminal, chowed down on burger and fries, checked the bus schedule and got onto a bus heading past Malibu, my intended destination.

Seated next to me was a friendly looking young girl, seventeen or eighteen. On the way up the coast I got to talking with her and pretty soon I found myself getting friendly. It seemed we both had some things in common – the most being she was a girl who liked boys and I was a guy who liked girls. She had just finished high school and was planning to go to college. I had just flunked out of college and could tell her all the things to avoid…like classes. That led to a conversation about how much fun college was and the fact that I had just flunked out and that I was going to find fame and fortune in California.

Sally, that was her name, was heading further up the coast to a small town a couple of hundred miles above Malibu. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were making out. Happily, she brought along a blanket that was perfect for hanky panky. And so up the coast we sped, curving and swerving our way up old Route #1.

I was enthralled and when the bus driver called out Malibu, some hours later, I stayed on the bus. The bus driver called out Malibu again, muttering “I could have sworn someone was going to Malibu”. But, I stayed on the bus.

It was about two hours or so later when Sally suggested I come back to her home and meet her parents. Her home was only two more stops up Route #1. That sounded a little too serious to me. I decided that maybe love was not the answer. Shortly thereafter, I got off the bus promising to write her and hook up with her later that summer. That promise might have been fulfilled if I had gotten her last name and address. As it was, it turned out to be a short romance.

I got off the bus about 140 miles past my intended destination, went into the Trailways Bus Station and bought myself a bus ticket back down to Malibu Beach. About 5 hours later (two in the bus terminal, three on the bus), I got off in glorious Malibu.

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This what Malibu Beach looked like when I got there – and that looks like the restaurant that I tried to get a job as a busboy – it did not work out!

It was not what I expected. Coming from the East Coast and used to the beautiful scenic beaches of the Hamptons, I was shocked to see that there was a major highway running right along the Pacific Ocean. More than that there were all these small beach houses and motels and gas stations and traffic lights and traffic. That was the biggest surprise. There was a lot of traffic going up and down the highway. And the traffic was not moving that fast in either direction. It was all a stop and go mess.

It was not the secluded and elegant houses that I was used to with huge “cottages” surrounded beaches by high green hedges. In fact, there seemed to be no green at all. The mountains and hills that ringed the coast were high, sharp, brown and sandy. Where was the surfin’ safari, I wondered? In truth, I could see it right across the street. Because on the other side of the highway was the beach and blue ocean water of the Pacific with surfers, catching waves and some paddling out through waves, some out beyond the break, bobbing up and down, waiting for waves.

Yes, I was in the right place, but I felt lonely and homesick.

I started walking the highway in search of a place to stay. Before going further I probably should enlighten you about my financial situation. I had started off with what I thought was a King’s ransom – $127. It turned out even cokes and burgers in the 60s cost something and in just the three and half days I had taken to hitch-hike out to California, somehow I had spent $43. That left me with $84. I was still good, but obviously I was going to have find a place to stay and obviously I would have to eat.

Not far down the road was a motel on the right side of the road. I went in and talked to a big man behind the counter who had a surprisingly gentle and flighty voice. Rooms were $27. a night. Not bad, considering that the motel was just across the street from the ocean, although crossing the street seemed decidedly hazardous. I secured a room for the night, told the big man I was looking to find a job fast and asked if he knew anyplace looking for eager young workers. He suggested that maybe the restaurant across the street had something.

I took the key, carried my dufflebag back to my room and got myself organized to go look for a job. A shower, a shave and a change of clothes did wonders. By this time it was about five in the afternoon and the traffic going up and the down the coast kept up a steady hum. This California living, I thought, was mighty busy.

Re-invigorated I walked down to the restaurant to see what were the chances of getting a job…quick. This restaurant was on the ocean side of the highway which meant that I had to negotiate the traffic. That was made easier by the convenient placement of a traffic light just past the restaurant. The manager of the restaurant seemed decidedly upbeat. Yes, they did hire help and the summer high season was coming on so no doubt they would need someone soon. Maybe I could get a job as a busboy. I should stop by in a day or so and see if they were ready to pull the trigger on a new hire.

That was encouraging. So I went back to the motel room and had nice long satisfying sleep. The next day it was sunny, as I gather was the norm. I walked along the Highway for a few block and found a seedy looking Cafe and had a greasy egg breakfast with some hot, strong coffee. Afterward, I walked back toward the motel and then walked across the street to see the Pacific Ocean and fantastic Malibu Beach.

To my surprise, access to the fabulous and fantastic Malibu Beach was not that easy. I had to walk several blocks to find an actual access point to the beach. No matter, in a few minutes I was out on the great sandy beach that California was so famous for. I was surprised by a lot of things. One was the fact that the beach seemed to have a lot of people on it. That was not surprising considering that it was a perfectly beautiful day in the low 80s. I guess I had gotten the mistaken idea that Malibu was this open, wild and secluded beach where the mountains met the sea.

I was right about the mountains (well, maybe they were hills) meeting the sea. Otherwise the scene was far different from what I imagined. Lots of people walking and sitting and sunning themselves on the beach. Surfers, just as I imagined hanging out in clusters just beyond the surf break…some waiting for the right wave, some paddling through the surf, some actually catching waves, but even the ocean was more crowded than I thought with surfers seemingly fighting for a good position to catch a wave.

There was a big pier not far from where I walked onto the beach. It looked big and ugly, as if it should not really be there. But there it was and I can verify that because I walked down to it, found away up to a wooden boardwalk and walked out over the ocean. Along the pier, the further I got out there lots of fishermen, also seemingly fighting for a position to fish in the ocean. It all seemed kind of industrial and seedy to me, not like the scenic rock piers jutting out into to the ocean by Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton.

What also surprised me was how close the houses were to each other and how close they were to the ocean itself. It seemed to me that the natural beauty of the beach had been lost. No matter, fate had decided that I was not to stay in Malibu long.

As I walked along the beach, there were couples and groups lying down or sitting on the beach, usually with a transistor radio cranking out some music. And of course, the music of the time was playing. It being California, I heard plenty of Beach Boys tunes, including, of course, “Surfin’ Safari”. Other tunes of the time were blaring out of different radios. As you walked down the beach different tunes would rise up in your ears, only to fade away as walked on by.

That afternoon, I walked back by the restaurant to see if my job prospects had gotten any better. This time the manager seemed a little put out.

“Give it some time, kid, I said we might have something in a few days. 24 hours is not a few days.” he said.

I tied to express my best bus boy interest without seeming desperate. I got the feeling that my efforts to appear professional and somewhat disinterested did not quite come off.

When I got back to the room, I checked my resources. Somehow I was down to $36. It seemed that my daily expenses were evaporating before my very eyes. I tried to figure out how the money seemed to be leaking from pants, but I could not come up with an exact reason, although I was beginning to realize that if you try to eat three meals a day and pay for a motel room, money disappears surprisingly fast.

From there things went downhill fast. The motel manager told me he had a room for that night, which I boldly paid for, leaving me $9 of remaining capital. Things were getting serious. My California Dream was just not working out. I tried to get by as best I could. The motel manager said I could stay with him one night.

By this time, I was already getting suspicious.

“Well, I suppose you could stay with me,” he had said. I could tell from the tone of his voice that he seemed overly eager to help me. I asked to see where I might be staying.

“I got this really big bed. I promise to stay on my side.”

That did not sound promising.

He showed me the bed and yes, it was big, but he was also a big guy. I figured two “me too” moments in week was too much and I politely turned him down.

He offered me a second alternative, which was to sleep the next night in the laundry room. And that is the alternative I took.

But first I had a real run-in with the truth and I asked to make a collect call to my parents. It was humiliating, but given the circumstances, it seemed like my best solution. Strangely, they were happy to hear from me. It seemed that they were glad to know that I was still alive. When I told my father that I was in a bind in Malibu, he offered to wire some money the next day and get me an air ticket home. It was all very humiliating, but staying in Malibu was getting pretty stale.

So I ended spending one comfortable night in my own room and a considerably less comfortable night on a cot in the laundry room. The next day I went down to Western Union and collected $50 cash. And the day after that, after tossing and turning the night on a cot in the laundry room, I took a cab to the airport where my airline ticket was waiting for me. I had crashed and burned, but at least I had found a way out.

And that was the end of my West Coast adventure. In almost no time, I was back in New York, comfortably housed in my parents summer house in Southampton.

This of course led to a new crisis. What to do with the rest of my life? I decided I better give college a second try. This caused me to review the damage I had already caused my scholastic career. I decided the best way to get back into Mr. Jefferson’s University was to take a correspondence course in American History. American History was a requirement of The University and in my second year, I managed to fail Russian History, which I had taken on a whim. I really liked that course, but attendance in Russian History conflicted seriously with attendance at the Cavalier (the local pub of distinction), not to mention fraternity parties, which generally accounted for 5 days a week.

But no matter, I was back on the East Coast, back in Southampton, reorganizing my life for an ideal college career. I signed up for the American History course and took a job with Betty’s Taxi. This proved to be an ideal opportunity to meet weird people and to brush up on my American history. That was because, at Betty’s Taxi, you often had to wait one or two hours for a call to come in for a cab and, even then, you were not necessarily chosen because there were 3 drivers to choose from…Thomas Jefferson, Claude Haines and me.

I have written about my Betty’s Taxi experience in another blog story in Tangled Tales called “I Am Sorry About Thomas Jefferson”, so I will not go into all the details. Should you feel the desire to learn more, please check out that story. I will only say that the interludes between driving strange people to various parts of The Hamptons offered ample opportunity to take my American History correspondence course and still left my evenings free to peruse the pleasures of the Hamptons in the 60s.

In no time, the summer passed pleasantly and I found that not only did I have many eclectic driving experiences running people around the Hamptons, I successfully completed my correspondence course and even got an A- in the process. It is simply amazing what you can do if you apply yourself.

As my parents house rental was being closed up for the summer, I had no choice but to go  to New York City and live with my parents at 330 East 63rd Street. Now, even though I had successfully passed my correspondence course, that was not enough to get back into the University of Virginia. They had higher standards and they informed me that having passed my course they would let me go to The University the next summer and take some more courses. And if I passed those courses, then I could go back as a full-time student the following Fall.

So, now I had a plan to get back in, but I still had to find something to do the fall, the winter and spring. That led me to getting a job as a mailboy at Nabisco. The mailroom, as you may know, has been the starting place of many a company man and surely if I kept at it, I could rise up the corporate ladder of The National Biscuit Company. The thing was, the person in the human resources department, recognized that I was a short-timer. I could tell she had a gut feeling I would return to college.

I tried to lie about it, but the lady was rather attractive and in end the I blabbed the truth and told her the whole story about flunking out, hitchhiking to California, working for Betty’s Taxi and taking an American History correspondence course. I even blabbed my improbable plan to get back in college. I assured her that it was unlikely my plan would work and if not, I would be the best damn mailboy they ever hired and in short order work my way up the corporate ladder and become a Cookie CEO in the years to come.

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This is picture of 425 Park Avenue in 1963 – Note the state of art vehicles!

I am pretty sure she didn’t believe my Nabisco dreams, but she hired me anyway and this gave me an interesting experience in the drab corporate world of Cookie sales. Learning the trade consisted of being in the mailroom located in the basement of the building with about sixteen other incompetents. We would chat and shout at one another and sort mail first by categories. Once we got the mail in a bunch of different bins, each signifying a department or a floor, we would then put the bin in a shopping cart. The bin had little folders, each subdivided into letters and envelopes, by either name, department or floor. We would take our shopping cart full of letters, envelopes and packages to the different floors or, if it was big enough, a different department.

I was assigned the fourth floor. So I would take my cart up to the fourth floor and I would wander around, trying to figure out who got what. At first, I blundered around a lot, but as I got to know “my route” I became more familiar with who was on the fourth floor. And most of the time, most of the people of the fourth floor got most of the mail. Occasionally, there would be a little mishap, like a letter falling on the floor while I was trying to chat up some of the younger and prettier secretaries. The mishap might mean that an envelope to two was lost for a day or two, or a week or two and just plain lost forever. Despite all, after a time, I became a pretty decent mailboy and pretty soon the fall of 1963 became the winter and spring of 1964.

Work during the day did not mean that there was no play during the evening. And so on evenings, I would go out with my rich buddies and we would hit the big city discotheques, jazz clubs and bars. Unfortunately, even though my income at Nabisco brought me in about $60. a week, money for nighttime activities was limited, considering I was contributing money each month to my parents (it was thought this would improve my character) and because drinks at L’Interdit, a hot discotheque of the time, charged about $4 or $5 a drink even in the lowly 60s. That meant that the money I had for palling around with rich kids was limited.

One of the things I also did around that time, was introduce myself to Mr. Bob Dylan. Not in person, of course…what I am talking is getting to know something about this new young guy who had voice that sounded like a croaking frog. So I bought “Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan”, an album released earlier the year before. After getting through the croaking frog voice, I realized that Bob had something to say and it came to me that this young man was talking directly to me. What I guessed I liked about Mr. Dylan was that his music made me kind of uneasy. It was as if he was channeling some kind of skill that mixed folk music with prophecy. I remember a particular song called, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. Bob’s message was a little different from the Surfin Safaris.

And almost immediately after hearing that song, a truly sad event occurred, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, at 12:30 pm in Dallas, Texas President John F. Kennedy was shot. They say that everyone remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I am an example of that being true. I was rolling around a mail cart on the fourth floor of the Nabisco building around 3:30 pm East Coast Time, when my supervisor came up and tapped me on the shoulder.

“The President has been shot. Everyone is being sent home.” he said.

At that moment it was not known what the Presidents condition was. I tried to ask my supervisor what he knew but he didn’t know anything other than his superiors had told him, that the President had been shot and everyone was to be sent home for the day.

I did not argue. Nabisco’s offices were located at 425 Park Avenue between 54th and 55th Street, a short walk to where my parents were living so I  walked over to my parents apartment and sat myself down in front of the TV. My parents were not yet home so I had a good long time to immerse myself in TV.

This is just one of the haunting images that just kept being played on TV and continually popped up in my mind

I remember the apartment seemed particularly dark and lonely that day. The apartment itself, with two bedrooms and a fairly decent sized living room and was never that bright to begin with, but on this somber day, it seemed particularly dreary, dark and desolate. I flipped through the channels watching Ed Silverman and Ron Cochron of ABC, Chet Huntley of NBC, Walter Cronkite of CBS try to explain the horrific event that had just occurred.

In between viewing the TV explanations of the assassination of President, I would periodically turn off the TV set and turn on the record player and listen in particular to Mr. Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s is a-Gonna fall”. It seemed to me that Bob had almost predicted our Good President’s assassination.

Within five minutes of me turning on the TV again, it was announced that John F. Kennedy had died from gunshot wounds. This was unthinkable to me…a 21 year old college flunky. I may have been kicked out of college, but I was basically optimistic about pretty much everything, and I was particularly optimistic about John F. Kennedy. He was older than me, but he seemed young and fresh and he had this aura of youth and invincibility and optimism about him.

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” he famously said when being sworn in, “ask what you can do for your country.”

At the time, I had the feeling that he was going to solve all of America’s problems. He was going to bring us together. He was going to heal us and he was going to be a great President.

And in truth, he had already done that when he led us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was a strange and terrifying time…a time when nuclear war seemed not only possible, but likely. I wrote about those 3 days in Volume #2 of It Was The Music and it was a scary time, when the world seemed on the brink of total destruction. There are no words to describe what those 3 days actually felt like. They were tense…tense like you are in a room and a guy has a gun and he is waving it at you and there is no place to hide. And Kennedy brought us safely through those few days and we had emerged with greater hope and a greater belief in the future.

All of America was shattered by the assassination on November 23, 1963. Suddenly, it was apparent that even the good can die. Suddenly, it was apparent that life takes unexpected turns. Suddenly, we knew chance played as big a role in the future as ability and youth. Suddenly, the optimism and hope of that brief Presidency was obliterated and we were left with sad and somber pictures of Jackie Kennedy hanging on tearfully to Lyndon Johnson while the new Prsident was sworn in. It was a tragic moment.

Like all terrible events that involve loss and despair after some months it subsided. But the feelings about it did not, they were always there. This new knowledge that something can go wrong, that the best of us can be destroyed was a new feeling that took literally years to subside.

Nabisco, aka, The National Biscuit Company, gave all of us a three day paid holiday to recover from JFK’s death. It was not enough, but it was well appreciated and for the next few days we all watched TV as the transition of power took place, and the funeral procession as it made its way from the Capital to the White House. We watched Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and other news people speak muffled words, trying to make some sense of it, trying to grab some meaning from a sad event that seemed impossible to conceive.

For me, at age 21, it was just impossible to understand. It just never occurred to me that a President of the United States, especially a young man, seemingly in the prime of his life, could ever be assassinated. Through the TV, I learned that 3 other Presidents had been assassinated. Of course, as mentioned above, I had just completed a course in American history and I had read just weeks earlier that Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley had been assassinated. But that was in a history book. Now I was watching it on TV and that experience of seeing the funeral on TV gave the word assassination and the event of John F. Kennedy’s death a special meaning.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the whole nation mourned the death of the President and that the whole nation, be they Democrat or Republican, came together to watch and mourn the death of our young President. Truly, it was a time when the whole country was shaken by an event that both sad and profound.

I went back to work, as did the rest of the country, and we all kind of started up again. This time with a new consciousness, a new sensibility, a new sense that you cannot control fate. The transition was relatively smooth with Lyndon Johnson, struggling at first like the rest of us, taking up his new position and of gradually leading the country on. Where we went is also history. Johnson went on to propose a War Against Poverty and to expand our involvement in Vietnam.

Me, I spent the remaining fall and winter working and going out with friends in New York City, exploring, drinking, having a basically carefree life, since I knew my job was temporary. The money I was giving my parents, which was token in itself, still left me with some actual cash to burn and burn it I did with my friends…in bars, in restaurants, in discotheques. It was an exciting time to run around as a young man in New York.

The fall of 1963 became the winter of 1964 which in turn became the spring of 1964.

In 1963 the Beatles first came on the American scene. By 1964 they had conquered the continent.

Douglas MacArthur died that year. He had famously promised to return when he had been kicked out of Korea. He was about as famous a general that existed at that time. The Beatles invasion of America came into full bloom and the Ford Car Company introduced the Mustang convertible. As I remember, gas was around $.25 per gallon and the Mustang cost just $2,368. That virtuous combination resulted in an explosion of Mustang sales.

I continued as mailboy up until the end of May. I was a pretty damn good mailboy, if I say so myself. And I had a heck of a good time gallivanting all over the city at night.

Pretty soon, I was back in Charlottesville, suffering through the already steaming summer temperatures. My father, who had also attended the University of Virginia, offered me the advice that he had received down there from an elderly black gentleman.

“Walk a little slower.”

And it seemed to me that everybody in Charlottesville took that advice. In fact, I often had the impression that I was walking through a thick, warm soup during that summer. One had the feeling of sleep-walking in slow motion.

Back in Charlottesville, knowledge of new music from England had taken hold. While the Beatles were singing about “A Hard Day’s Night”, the Rolling Stones had just come on to the scene with songs like “It’s All Over Now”. They seemed to be the polar opposite of the Beatles and they had a raw, new world sound that seemed to fit the new times that we were in.

At this early date, I could only think of The Stones as fascinating barbarians with a raw, down to earth sound. They had nasty long hair and they looked considerably shabbier than the Beatles. But music has a way of changing a person’s mind and that was the case with the Rolling Stones. At first I thought of them as this really nasty band that somehow had created some great sounding songs. I was sure that they were a one shot mistake, but as time went on, they came to be my absolute favorite band.

Back in Charlottesville, I fell into the slow swim of school and, unlike the my last previous year at the university, I took my courses seriously.

I took three courses, geometry, which I had previously failed and needed to get back in, geology, which I also needed, and English literature which I had also previously failed. Here I must defend myself. I did not fail that course because I did not know English literature. No, not at all, I was quite proficient in English literature and had even read many of the prescribed books. It is just that teachers are not in the habit of passing students that do not take the trouble to take their final exams. And unfortunately, I had scheduled a particularly good road trip before I was to take the above mentioned exam, and, as sometimes happened, fate intervened and prevented me from returning in time to take that final exam. I could blame it on a car breakdown that did slow my return, but a fearful hangover also had an influence on my absence.

No matter, I did much better the second time around. I did take the summer school final exam for English literature, Geology and Geometry. By the end of the summer I had completed and passed all three courses with two B+s and an A-. The A- was in English literature, proving the second time around is the trick. With these blisteringly fine grades, I was actually now able to get re-instated as a full-time student at the University of Virginia. In short, I was back on track.

There was only one problem with that. By the time I got these good grades and the University officially recognized those grades, they told me I was too late to get back in that fall. That meant, I had to wait out the fall, winter and summer to officially re-enroll.

This of course was a disappointment but I was always a late bloomer, so I took the news in stride. What did I do? I immediately headed up to Southampton and spent the waning days on the beach, surfing, playing tennis during the day, partying and dining out during the night. In short, I had blast for a few weeks before the shocking news settled in that I would have to find a job.

I called up my buddy Merrill Magowan and asked him to get me a job at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, which was what it was called then. Since Merrill was the grandson of Charles E. Merrill, the founder, I figured he could help me out getting a job. Now this is the same Merrill Magowan whose car I smashed into coming back from Charlotte Ford’s debutante party. Now Merrill always seemed pretty cool and friendly after that in spite of the fact that I had destroyed his car and ruined his golf date the next day.

In any case, when I got Merrill on the phone, he did not sound too enthusiastic about the prospect of recommending me to his famous company. Despite that, he said he would put in a word at the “HR Department”. I let him know that any help he could give would be greatly appreciated.  He asked me to call in a few days. And I did and the HR Department told me to come down to their offices on Wall Street and fill out the appropriate employee application.

I told them I had been kicked of college (which was true) and that I wanted to set my life on a new career course (which was half true) and that I planned to work for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith for the rest of my life (which was not true).

The skeptical lady said the only job she could offer me was a job in the Proxy Department. She didn’t think it was the greatest job but I said I had to start somewhere and maybe in time I could work my way up the great corporate ladder. I had no idea what the Proxy Department was, but I took the job.  She said that was the only opening that she felt she could assign me to at that time.

I was very grateful and asked the lady what the Proxy Department did. “It’s where they count the votes of stockholders.” That didn’t quite clear it up for me but I took the job anyway and started my job as a “proxy supervisor”. It sounded very important to me but it turned out that the title was somewhat misleading. The manager of the Proxy Department was more skeptical that I was a long-term employee prospect.

“I know what you are going to do,” he said, “after 12 months you are going to scoot your way back to college.”

Since I was already enrolled to go back to college, I thought I had come across some kind of corporate prophet. I tried to lie my way out of his prediction and said that it was my dream to become a Merrill Lynch man for the rest of my life.

“Fat chance,” said Charles, the Proxy Department manager, “Anyway, Steven will teach you the ropes.”

Steven turned out to be this really great guy with an Irish boiled red face and a broad smile. He took me under his wings and in no time I was counting paper ballots with the best of them. It turned out that “proxy supervisor” was a glorified term for paper stock ballot counter. The job basically consisted of opening envelopes, stacking ballots and then counting them by hand. High tech it was not.

There were computers in those early days, but they were reserved for more important work, like figuring out paychecks and keeping track of stock prices. Merrill Lynch had rooms filled with these giant computers, but even that entailed a certain amount of manual labor. People seemed to take stacks of what looked like 3″ high x 9″ long cards with a lot of holes and perforations in them from one end these giant box computers and move them to the other end where they seemed to be eaten by the computer. What happened thereafter I will never know.

Anyway, within a few weeks I was getting the hang of proxy game and me and my fellow employees would go out for lunch for drinks. Whether we went for lunch or for drinks after work, it usually amounted to same thing – drinks. We tried all the local hot spots…The Blarney Stone, a really seedy Irish bar that Steven favored because hot corn beef sandwiches came free with the beers, to some trendy bars/lunch places, to some high-end places such as Delmonico’s (that was my idea, having heard from rich kid friends it was the place to have lunch or dinner when on Wall Street). We even occasionally visited Fraunces Tavern where old George Washington once held court.

In short, I quickly acquired a lay of the land and while working was kind of a drag, gallivanting around the Wall Street area was a gas. The pay at Merrill Lunch was somewhat better than my pay at Nabisco, so now I could contribute more at home, and certainly I had more money enjoy my evenings in the city.

It turned out that Steven Donahue (that was his last name) was a truly fun guy who had a serious taste for booze. He would regularly knock back three or four beers at lunch and an uncountable quantity drinks and beers after work. He lived in New Jersey which meant he had to take a number subways and trains to get to work. Speaking of that, I also had to contend with transportation issues, experimenting with subways (always standing room only, but fast), buses (standing only with a view of daylight between buildings, but slow) and taxis (exceedingly pleasant, but often, also slow).

The previous summer, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred where Communist boats supposedly attacked U.S. ships and Congress had given had given President Johnson additional powers to expand our involvement in Vietnam.

I did not pay too much attention to that as I was too busy finishing up summer school.

By the spring of 1965 many things were happening in the country. The Vietnam War really started to heat up. In 1964 136 Americans had died in the Vietnam War. In February of 1965 we began launching air strikes on North Vietnam in earnest. By April, it was reported that we were regularly using napalm on the “Viet Cong”. By that time, young people were beginning to protest our involvement in Vietnam.

By June, American soldiers were officially authorized to fight alongside of their Vietnamese counterparts – it seemed the South Vietnamese soldiers lacked good old American discipline and get up & go. Surely, our boys would soon turn round the dismal performance of the South Vietnamese soldiers.

It was then that a strange event interceded with all my plans. Guess what came in the mail…a draft notice. This was a surprise since I was scheduled to go back to college in just a few months and college students were generally not called up for the draft.

It turned out that my case had fallen through the cracks, you might say. Sure I was scheduled to become a college student, but I wasn’t one yet. Hence, I was fully eligible for the draft. There was a lot of excitement then, many young people were fleeing to Canada to escape the draft. And, many were burning draft cards. Not me. I was horrified by the increasing daily death count in Vietnam that was being reported on TV each day. You could say that I thought that our involvement in Vietnam was a profound mistake, but that did not mean I was going to burn my draft card.

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This was the drab and depressing building itself. In 1969 it was blown and rendered unusable.

Given the fact that I did not plan to go to Canada or burn my draft card, I went down to 39 Whitehall Street, which was as depressing a building as you can imagine. It was gray and drab and a big box of place with many floors and many doors. This building was later made famous by Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant”. That song turned out to be a pretty exact description of my own experiences down on Whitehall Street.

I went into that building, showed my draft card and my draft notice and was sent to a line after which I was sent to another line, after which I was asked to go upstairs and get on another line, after which, I was sent to yet another line, and another. After which I was asked to go downstairs, take off my clothes and get on yet another line holding my clothes, after which I was poked, prodded, inspected and injected, just as Arlo’s song says.

All of this took 5 and half hours, with multiple trips up and down stairs. At the end, when I got into what seemed like the last line, a doctor put on a surgical glove and poked me a sensitive part of my anatomy and said, “Cough.”

I coughed and he said, “You got a hernia kid. You need to get that fixed one day. It is not a problem just now, but you should get fixed someday…you don’t want a hernia in your 60s or 70s.”  I was then sent over to, you may have guessed, The Group W Bench and there I sat for another two hours until somebody said all of us reprobates could go home.

I always wondered if that doctor took pity on me or if he really thought I had a hernia.

I did not go to another doctor until some years later who said I did have hernia and that I probably should get it taken care before it got serious. And yes, eventually, about ten years later I did.

So, how did I feel after going down to the Whitehall Street building? Well, fortunately, around that time there was a song that kind of captured my sentiments about the Whitehall building.

In the meantime, I had escaped the draft with no deliberate intention to do so. It seemed I was not fated to go to Vietnam. Surely, my life would have been different if I had gone. Maybe better, maybe worse.  I went back to the University of Virginia and eventually graduated. But that is another story and probably soon to be the subject of “It Was The Music – Volume #4”.

 

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On The Possible Corruption or Disruption of the Internet

If the internet goes down, I may have to get out of town!

By Cecil Hoge

My father was a man of media. That was in our family blood. My grandfather had an advertising agency in New York City during the early 1900s. It was called Huber Hoge Inc. and it was specialized in handling advertising for some very large companies and some not so large companies, like Standard Oil, Meyrowitz Optical, Smith and Wesson among others. My grandfather specialized in an early form of direct marketing advertising. That meant he conducted direct mail programs for these companies to build brand awareness or convince the public that Standard Oil or Meyrowitz or Smith and Wesson were these friendly hometown companies providing oil and gas, eyeglasses and guns at the lowest possible price and the best value.

My grandfather was also a man of media. He took a particular interest in following photography, which was then in its early stages of development. So he was a member of the New York Camera Club and a patron of the famous “291” art gallery where Paul Westin and Alfred Stieglitz showed their photographs along with a wide variety of other artists, including Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and others. He was an early subscriber to Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine, Camera Work. Photography was becoming an important part of advertising in those early days of marketing and my grandfather felt he had to follow the latest trends.

My grandfather taught my father and his other sons about the different forms of media of his day and about the unique brand of advertising that he was creating. And whatever he transferred to my father in knowledge and enthusiasm must have been very infectious because my father was a man of great enthusiasm and great optimism about the wonderful world of marketing and media. In my grandfather’s time, media consisted mostly of newspapers and magazines, but as 20th century advanced, it came to include radio, TV, cable and eventually the internet.

An early form of the internet that sent messages to people around the world in just minutes.

My grandfather’s advertising agency was successful in the 1920s and if you go back to old copies of something called Printer’s Ink, you can still find references to his advertising agency.  In 1929, the whole family had moved to a very nice and very large house in Scarsdale, New York. Two years later, the depression forced my grandfather to close his advertising agency and the whole family had to move out of the big house in Scarsdale and come back to the city to find someplace to stay.  Those years proved to be very difficult for the family.

My father, who had started his college career at the University of Virginia and had successfully passed through his first year, decided to come back home in the middle of second year. The depression was raging and my father felt it was his duty to give up college and partying and go to work.

“That was when your father put on the hair shirt,” said my uncle Francis. For those of you who do not know, putting on a hair shirt was a popular tradition in the Middle Ages when monks like to walk through towns whipping themselves on the back with chains and sharp, pointed steel balls. These same fellows, not content with bleeding to death, wore hair shirts in an effort to increase itching and to cleanse their souls while fleas bit their flesh and gave them the plague. You could say they were working out their frustrations. I am not quite sure how successful that system was.

So my father came back to New York City to pitch in and help the family finances and to learn how to earn an income. It must not have been an easy time in the depth of the depression. 25% of the population was unemployed, banks were failing everyday and his parents, my grand parents, were having to move from one grand apartment to another every 6 months for lack of funds. Fortunately, apartment buildings took a desperate view of the situation and decided it was better to let a good family pay almost no rent, at least for a short time, than to let crime ridden criminals and other low-lifes into the building at full rent. It was a period of strange principles.

This was the paper that my father first worked for. It was started in 1834 and disappeared in 1950.

My father got his marketing and advertising training by selling advertisements at a time when almost no advertisements were being bought. His first job was with The Sun, a New York paper that was started in 1834 and disappeared in 1950. At first, my father sold classified ads in The Sun. This was done mainly through telephone sales. If an account was a repeat advertiser and happened to be local, then my father might actually go to their place of business and try to sell them on more classified ads, person to person. Apparently, my father was fairly successful in this, even though he drew no actual salary and lived only on commissions. It seemed that the newspaper liked my father, and so he moved up to selling display ads. These were larger format ads usually with both words (copy as it is known in the trade) a pictures (art, as it euphemistically described).

That proved to be the beginning of a very long career for my father in advertising. He worked for The Sun for several years and then went on to sell advertising for the original Vanity Fair Magazine. That magazine was the scene of many an escapade. My father told me that it was run by a gentleman who was very fond of his drinks. Coming to the office and reporting sales successes or failures to this gentleman could be a very exciting and somewhat chaotic since the gentleman publisher was frequently in his cups. By 1936, that publication (the original Vanity Fair Magazine) disappeared. Times was tough during the depression, but my father was not discouraged.

My father told me if it was true that 25% of the working population had no jobs that meant it was also true that 75% of the working population had jobs.

“Hell,” my father said, “if 75% of people have jobs, there was no reason I cannot be in that 75%.”

I am not sure in this opioid addicted age that out of work folks today share my father’s enthusiasm or his same work ethic. No matter, after losing his job at Vanity Fair, my father went back to The Sun to sell more ads. Somehow, he and his family got through the depression years and survived physically and financially through that terrible period.

When World War II came along, everything changed.

“Suddenly,” my father said, “everyone had a job and the depression was over!”

And I guess it was so.

After the war, my father and his three brothers started an advertising agency which they named Huber Hoge and Sons. That agency, which had its offices at 699 Madison Avenue in New York City, enjoyed success and eventually grew to employ over 100 people. My father first specialized in newspaper and magazine advertising, but also became proficient in radio and TV advertising. So the media of the day included newspapers, magazines, radio and TV.

Over time, my father came to advertise his own products and in doing so he used all four of these media. When I came into the business we were selling a wide variety of the different products…pocket adding machines, ladies dress forms, paint brushes, Killer Joe Piro Dance lessons and fishing lures. While these products were wildly different, the one constant was my father’s adherence to advertising them. All were direct marketed through mail order advertising and most products were sold, one at a time, direct to the public.

When I came into the business, fishing lures had become the main part of the business, even though we continued to sell paint brushes, ladies dress forms and pocket adding machines. As time went on we found we could sell the fishing lures to retail and wholesale customers and that became, over time, the main business. And in the 1968, my father bought a little inflatable boat business and this also became a part of our sales. During my first years in the business, mail order was still the most important form of advertising.

As time went on and trade sales to retailers and wholesalers became more important, a part of our advertising was directed at promoting trade sales. This came primarily in the form of advertising in trade magazines and in running go to your dealer ads in newspapers. We did, from time to time, run TV and radio ads asking for people to send for a catalog or go to their dealer to actually buy our products. Throughout all these years, advertising was an ingrained value of the business and it was our belief that you had to promote products in order to successfully sell products.

In the 1970s my father backed away from our business and decided he wanted to be known what was then called a “mail order maven”. What was a “mail order maven”? In short, it was a person who knew a lot about the strange art of mail order.

What was so strange about mail order? You had to gamble money before you sold a product, sometimes even before you had a product. Few people had the confidence to do such a thing. However, if you did have the confidence, the belief and the starting money, it could be very, very rewarding. Perhaps, the most intriguing thing about mail order was the fact that you could start a business from zero and build it up to something substantial in a very short time. The key to that was having successful ad.

The only problem with having successful ads is that most ads failed. So that meant that you had to have something of a gambler’s spirit, understanding that 9 out of 10 times an ad failed, but sometimes, if the ad succeeded, it could bring very big rewards. And if you could look at your investment in mail order advertising as something of a gamble, realizing that most of the time the gamble would lose money and if you could be patient and try different things, you could occasionally find that mail order could be very profitable, very fast.

The trick to mail order was to lose little when you tested ads and to project big when you had a successful ad. It sounds simple, but in truth, like many things, it was tricky with it not always even being clear what was a successful ad. In many cases, you had to run several ads to truly understand whether an ad was truly profitable.

By the 1970s I had learned something of the strange art of mail order and, my father, sensing that I would never stand on my own in the business if not left to my own devices, kindly and altruistically backed out of our little family mail order business. That left me and stepmother to feud over the direction and shape of the business for the next 20 years. And that left my father plenty of time to become a true “mail order maven”.

How do you become a ” mail order maven”? You write several books on the “art” of mail order. That my father did. You interview and talk to almost all of the practitioners of this fine art, and that my father did. You go to conferences and meetings about mail order. That my father did..  You meet everyone who is anyone in the field. That my father did.

He, over time, became a recognized expert on the subject. And yes, my father was an expert on mail order and what was then being called direct marketing. His first book was called “Mail Order Moonlighting” and it turned out to be a kind of classic in the field. That was published by Ten Speed Press and within a few years, it had sold over one hundred thousand copies. My father went on to write several other books. Two other books – “Mail Order Know How” and “The First Hundred Years Are The Toughest”, one providing more pointers on how to get into the mail order business and the other chronicling the rise of Sears & Roebuck and the fall of Montgomery Ward, also enjoyed considerable success.

My father’s last book was called “The Electronic Marketing Manual”. This book, published by McGraw Hill, came out in 1993. It discussed new digital forms of marketing that were then coming into use. My father discussed CDs, magnetic tapes, e-mail transmission, electronic kiosks, telephone marketing and other forms of electronic marketing. Many of the things that my father predicted did not come true, but some did.

One of the things my father discussed in his book was online marketing. At the time, he called websites “online catalogs” because that is what they were known as at the time. In the direct marketing community, the internet was first foremost recognized as a simple extensions of print catalogs. Of course, websites were much more and became much more.

In the early 1990s, my brother, 29 years my younger, came into the business and became my partner. My brother had many ideas about transforming our business, not the least of which was to ditch the IBM 36 we had running our company records on and replacing it with a simpler software program and a collection of PCs to replace the old IBM 36 clunker. We had to have the “old clunker” hauled off to the dump because by that time no one wanted to buy a used IBM 36.

By 1995 we had a new PC based system, using a direct marketing and trade software program called Madi, to keep track of inquiries, orders, direct customers, trade customers, inventory and all other aspects of our business. That system, while completely re-written and re-designed, is still in place today.

Our father was an early and adamant prophet of the internet. He predicted that it would become the next big thing…replacing telegraph, phone, radio and TV. He was right. Not only could you send e-mails and text messages to friends and foes, but you could transmit orders, deposit credit card monies, print picking tickets, send wire transfers and get tracking numbers, transmit artwork for ads, check bank balances, buy stocks and bonds, get answers to strange and little asked questions, buy and sell things on websites that did exist before the 1990s.

As we moved into the early 1990s, our father was still a very active guy and while he did not direct our business, he still had a lot to say about what he thought would be good for our business. Having written an entire book on electronic marketing and several articles on the coming of the internet, he had some very strong opinions on what we should do. His absolute strongest opinion was that we should get on the internet. By 1994, a few companies were actually launching websites and my father came to the conclusion that this was the most exciting thing to happen in the last two centuries. Both my brother and I were somewhat more dubious about that opportunity.

We wondered, for example, why would anyone actually order from a computer screen? At the time, the majority (about 70%) of our “mail orders” were coming by telephone. The remainder of orders were coming the old-fashioned way, by the mail itself. It had taken almost 10 years to make the transition from physical mail orders to telephone orders, but that had happened.

My father was a very persistent man.

“You got to get on that God-damned internet,” was the way he put it time after time, morning, noon and night. The “God-damned” part of the description was really directed at us. He was frustrated with what he perceived as our incorrigible slowness. Now, in 1995, most companies did not have websites. Amazon.com was incorporated in 1994, but it’s website was not up and running until the spring of 1995. Very few smaller businesses, and we were most certainly a small business, had actually made a website and started selling online. It seemed a bold stretch for us to go forward and get on the internet.

Our father was still a very persistent man.

“Don’t you understand,” he would say, “This is just like the telegraph, just like the telephone, just like radio, just like TV…it is the new media that will change everything.”

My brother John and myself were not so sure. Yes, maybe it would be helpful and yes, maybe it would actually occasionally get orders.

In any case, in March of 1996, we listened to our father and we launched SeaEagle.com. Because we were afraid of scaring off trade customers and because we were dubious that anyone would actually order, we just put up a few product pages and an 800 number to call during office hours. We figured customers would naturally want to ask more questions and the best way to answer that need was to allow them to call us directly.

When I came into the business, this had just started to get the majority of orders.

And certainly, in that year, it did work. Customers did call in and customers did ask questions and customers did order. By the end of the year, we figured out that we had over $50,000 of orders from our SeaEagle.com website. This was not a significant part of our business, but it was enough to get our attention.

We thought the $50,000+ of new-found business was terrific. After all, the only thing required to set up a website, was some basic computer knowledge, some time, and my brother was able to provide both.

Our father did not think it was terrific.

“Why don’t you have an order page, you need a God-damned order cart. That’s what they call it”

Whenever my father thought he was dealing with a slow tool from a shed of slow tools, he used the adjective “God-damned”. He really did not mean to take the Lord’s name in vain and most of the time, he was a quiet spoken guy, extremely well-mannered, a true gentleman, but sometimes, when he got agitated or excited or frustrated the “God-damns” would come out.

“I spoke with that fellow Bezos, he uses an order cart. He told me you got to have a God-damned order cart.”

At the time, Amazon.com was just a website starting to sell books and Jeff Bezos, who perhaps always knew he was destined for fame and infinite wealth, was kind enough to take my father’s call and give an interview.

“Amazon is going like hell,” my father said.

That was another phrase my father used, “going like hell”. In his mind, “going like hell” was the ultimate compliment. It meant things were moving. It meant there was activity. It meant there was promotion going on. And in my father’s mind, there was nothing more interesting than promotion going on. In truth, he found the state of our business as completely boring. Yes, it was profitable. Yes, there were sales and some activity. But there was no real activity in the sense of active and aggressive promotion, just boring year after year sales and profits.

Well, my brother and I were not so sure about the internet thing. Yes, we could see that we were generating some orders, but was it a first time blip or was it the future?

Our father’s persistence and insistence drove us to expand the website and to put up the God-damned order cart. And for while, we had internal debate. Would people actually use the order cart? Would they order without asking questions first, would they order at night? These were the questions my brother and myself asked ourselves. My father of course had no questions about that. It was obvious to him that we needed to get the God-damned order cart up and start accepting orders directly online.

And so we did. And it took only about two weeks to learn my father and Jeff Bezos were right. We were surprised to find that in the second year we sold $326,000 of boats on the internet. And yes, people often did order without calling and asking a bunch of questions. And yes, people often did order a night. Who knew?

That was the beginning of the internet becoming a big part of our business. Every year thereafter, our internet sales grew. That is true to this day.

Today, we are still a relatively small business, but the internet has become an increasingly important part of our business. It represents about 50% of our total sales, 60% if you add phone orders coming over our internet based phone system. I am speaking of firect orders that came, one at a time, from individual consumers And if we thought about it, almost all of the remaining sales also came through the internet because we use something SPS Commerce to accept trade orders and almost all of those trade orders also get transmitted through the internet. So, in truth, we are almost 100% an internet based company. Yes, occasionally we still get a fax and actually have to manually input the order.

All the above is a way of saying that we have some knowledge about both the beginnings and the strengths of the internet. And all of the above leads me to thinking about what the future of the internet might be…not only the about its past history of constant growth, but also about its possible weaknesses and problems going forward.

One of things recently discussed about the internet is “net neutrality”. This is a fairly simply phrase that means that all people on internet, whether they be individuals, small companies, large companies, small organizations or large organizations, small countries or large countries, enjoy equal access to the internet. It may interest you to know that as I was writing this blog story, the FCC has just voted to repeal “net neutrality”.

For those of you who may not be following this somewhat arcane subject, “net neutrality” was repealed as of December 14th, 2017, by a 3 to 2 vote of the FCC. Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman appointed by the Trump Administration, has announced that the FCC should not be in the business of “micromanaging the internet”. So, it will now be legally possible for the great internet providers, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and a few other really large companies to charge higher or lower fees for faster or slower speeds on the internet. In addition, they will be able to “throttle down” (translation: slow down) the speeds of existing websites.

I worry about that. I think that is dangerous. I think that opens the door for larger companies to have faster internet speeds which they can easily pay for while smaller internet companies will either have to pay far more for the existing internet speeds they have or may be forced to accept far slower speeds on their websites. This, I think, could be harmful to smaller companies. In particular, this possibility could also prevent new companies from launching new businesses on the internet simply because they do not have the money to do so.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the advent of the internet is that it gave many new companies a new way to start their businesses. And it certainly gave many existing small companies like ourselves a way to have new business that otherwise they would not have. That may not be true in the future. It may be that the necessity of having fast internet access on your website may not be affordable. It may be that an internet provider might decide to slow down or halt the transmission of different websites, either for economic reasons or for content reasons.

I think the same huge internet providers that are able to charge higher prices for higher internet speeds could also use pricing as a weapon to discriminate against certain companies that they do not want to able to compete. Worse still, I think this power, the power to charge more or less for faster of slower transmission speeds, could also be used to stop or slow down websites that the government or someone in the government does not approve of.

Call me paranoid, if you will, but I think the end of “net neutrality” allows huge internet providers and possibly governments to discriminate by pricing and to literally “slow down” certain media or messages that either compete with their interests or that they simply do not like. I also feel the government or someone in the government could easily exert pressure on a large internet provider, let’s say a company like Verizon, and quietly suggest that some media organization, let’s say Fox News, should not be permitted to have the same internet speeds as perhaps another media concern, let’s say, CNN. Of course, given the present political climate I doubt these two examples are likely, but maybe, the reverse might be possible.

No matter, let’s just say that I am worried that the end of “net neutrality” could also “slow down” or block a free press. Moreover, in this environment, I think the individuals are also at risk. Perhaps, the speeds of e-mail could also be adjusted, according to the perceived views of a user or sender. Think of the possibilities. They are almost endless.

Call me paranoid, if you will, but I  would note that Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel, wrote: “Only the paranoid survive.”

So I will remain paranoid.

What will the end of “net neutrality” mean. I think it could mean the corruption of the internet itself. Imagine the many ways the internet effects and controls our lives today. Imagine what it might happen if some company or some government could arbitrarily control the speed of your internet access. What if it took you 10 minutes to load a web page you were interested in. What if your bank’s website took an hour to let you know how much money you had in your accounts? What if the New York Times took two hours to come up.

Admittedly, these are extreme examples of possibilities that I hope would never happen. But one thing is true if internet provider can slow down or speed up the loading speeds of an individual website, people will probably go to the faster websites and not go to the slower websites. I would call that the not the end of “net neutrality”, but the literal corruption of the internet itself.

To be fair, not everyone thinks the end of “net neutrality” is a bad thing. My brother, for example, thinks it will not have a big effect on our business. That is because he tells me that most of our data usage is taken up by videos and all our videos are hosted by YouTube. That would transfer that part of the problem to YouTube, which being owned by Google, is theoretically a large enough company to defend itself from an AT&T or Verizon or Comcast or some other large provider.

The next biggest usage of data on a website, besides videos, is photos. Our photos are hosted by a local internet company on our own company server. The space or data usage taken up by photos is far, far less than videos, which require very large bandwidth to load promptly and smoothly. My brother does not think the space or data usage taken up by our photos is significant enough to alter greatly our actual internet costs. And he points out, if they did, we could always move the photos to some really large cloud provider, like Microsoft or Amazon.

The last usage of significant space on a website is the actual html programming of our actual software running the website. This is minimal in comparison to the data usage taken up by either photos or pictures, but it is something that you need. In any case, my brother feels that we are not apt to personally be affected by the end of “net neutrality”.

I am willing to concede that my worries about this issue probably have more chance of affecting other companies…either new startups who find the cost of launching their new business is far too expensive, or existing media competitors of some of the really large internet providers, who also happen to also own competing media companies.

A couple of more points about “net neutrality” before I move on to even more paranoid concerns. Even though “net neutrality” was repealed just recently, it will be a long time before the demise of “net neutrality” actually takes place. For one thing, there will be a number of legal challenges brought against the repeal and that could reverse the repeal. For another, Congress could pass a law requiring that there be equal access and equal speeds available to all, whether they be simple consumers, small companies or truly gigantic companies. Finally, even if the repeal of “net neutrality” is upheld, it will probably take years for the true long-term effects to known and understood.

Finally, before moving on to more apocalyptic concerns, in an effort to be truly fair to this issue, I must mention that the Chairman of the FCC, Adjit Pai claims that the end of “net neutrality” will actually allow companies to more easily compete. The Wall Street Journal has also just written an editorial that echoes this opinion saying the end of “net neutrality” will clear the way for more competition and more innovation, freeing the FCC of being “a gatekeeper”. So there are legitimate opinions out there the repeal of “net neutrality” will actually make the internet better and allow more competition.

I do not buy that theory. My gut tells me this move is about power and control of the internet itself. I believe inevitably, if “net neutrality” is really ended, the internet will be less free, less innovative and subject to monopoly type pricing and possibly subject to governmental discrimination. And if that does happen, I would call that the corruption of the internet.

New York City during the 2003 Great Blackout – Could it happen again? And if so, for how long?

I now want to move on to other concerns about the internet – namely, the disruption of the internet itself. Early on, the internet was developed as a  “could not fail system” wherein it was said you might be able to bring down a small part of the internet for a short time, but, you would never, never, ever be able to bring down the entire internet itself.

Call me paranoid, but I disagree! I think it could be brought in a number of ways.

I would ask you simply to type in on Google the words “The Great Blackout”. You may be surprised to be confronted with a list:

  1. The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 – that occurred on November 9th, 1965, when portions of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ontario (Canada), Rhode Island, Vermont and New Jersey were without power for 13 hours, affecting 30,000,000 people. That resulted in 30,000,000 people being without any electrical power for 13 hours. Now the internet did not go dark then because there was no internet – other than an internal government internet system.
  2. The Great Blackout of 1977 – that blackout only affected New York City and some surrounding areas. It lasted for 2 days, July 13th & 14th, 1977. Some 10,000,000 people were affected and were without any electrical power. Again, this was before “the internet” existed as we know. And while the first e-mail transmission was sent out successfully in 1971, it general use did not become popular until the 1990s.
  3. The Great Blackout of 2003 – that blackout was the widest known blackout in the U.S., affecting North Eastern and MidWestern states. I would note it did affect cellular, e-mail and internet connections. So, not only did the electrical grid go down, but also cell phone and internet service and the ability to send e-mails. This blackout occurred August 14th, 2003 and affected 10,000,000 people in Ontario, Canada and 45,000,000 in the U.S.

I would like to note that these blackouts do not include blackouts that have been caused fairly regularly on a local basis by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, lightning or simple thunderstorms.

Now, it turns out that I have a friend who may be more paranoid than me. His name is Ron Foster, and his concern is a solar storm. He tells me sooner or later a solar storm is going to hit us and it will knock out the internet and all electrical connections, frying computer chips in everything from cars to toasters to microwaves to computers to cell phones. Not only is it going to knock out the internet, it is going to knock out our entire electrical grid. And it will not just be the Northeast or the Midwest, it will not just be the just the good old USA. No, the solar storm that Ron says is coming is going to knock out the electrical grid across the whole world.

Ron tells me we have been hit by solar storms in the past. In fact, in 1859, Ron tells me that we were hit by something called the “Carrington Event”. Now that solar storm (you can Google it) did not cause great damage for the simple reason there was no widespread electric grid to go down and the internet had not been invented. Apparently, there was another solar storm in 2012 that could have done a lot of damage, but luckily that solar storm missed the planet and did not cause widespread damage.

Anyway, Ron is a “prepper” – someone who prepares for catastrophic events. I got to know Ron when he called me up and told me he wanted to use one of our inflatable boats on the cover of one of his books. It is Ron’s opinion that our boats make great “bugout boats”. That is the term that preppers use to refer to vehicles that allow them to “bug out” safely when the lights go out and Google doesn’t Google. Ron has now written 3 books with our boats on the cover as the perfect “bugout” vehicles.

I do not know how much our boats may help you in the catastrophe that Ron has in mind – I worry someone might steal your “bugout” boat when you are not looking. Nor do I know when the next solar storm is going to hit us. It could be next week, it could be next year, it could be next century. It could be in 6,702 years.

In any case, that is not all that I worry about. “One Second After” is a book written by William R. Forstchen. It describes another possible catastrophe – one where a EMP (electro magnetic pulse) is emitted by a nuclear explosion over part of the U.S. and it goes on to describe the chaos that comes from such an event. This book features a foreword by Newt Gingrich who writes that this is a highly plausible event.

I do not know if Newt is correct, but I do know that as recently as a couple of months ago, Kim Jun Un threatened to set off a nuclear bomb over some American city to make the whole country go dark. I do not know how serious young Kim is about that, but I offer it up as evidence that there may be several ways for the internet could go dark.

Will this guy bring down the internet?

Above you will see another guy who might have the evil intention to bring down the internet. The guy above, a hacker for sure, might have such an intention. My guess is that he would not bring down the whole internet, figuring that it would be a lot more profitable to bring down some part of it, like, for example, a major airport or the northeast electrical grid or our President’s Twitter feed. Finally, I am thinking he would leave up a lot of the internet up because what would he have to do if was the internet was completely down? He is, after all, a computer geek and what good is a computer geek without the internet?

Me, I am more worried about World War III and laser beams. The way I figure it, there are only so many cans circling the globe. Those cans, aka “satellites”, provide the internet to the whole world and if a war did break out, it is my guess that some power – I cannot say or guess who – China, Russia, the U.S., India, Israel, Iran, England, France, North Korea – who knows – there are so many to choose from – but some power might seek to eliminate some other power’s access to the internet. And if I was betting man, I would suggest that laser beams would prove pretty damn effective in knocking down those cans. I might mention that satellites orbit this earth anywhere from 120 miles above the earth to 1200 miles above the ground, so they are not that far away. My theory is if you can shoot down a plane, you can shoot down a satellite.

So, to summarize: I think there are many ways that both our electrical grid and the internet could be knocked out and I do not know if that is a comet (in which case we will not need to worry because we and the planet will also be knocked out), or a solar storm or a super hurricane or a nuclear explosion during the outbreak of World War III or laser beams from a third world country.

Whatever the event, if something did knock out the internet, you can say bye, bye to Google, bye, bye to Amazon, bye, bye to your bank account, bye, bye to cell phones, bye, bye to reality TV – hey, it might not be so bad after all.

It is interesting to note at this point how right my father was about the internet. In fact, I think even he would have been surprised by how much the internet has crept into our daily life. I know as a relatively small business with 25 or so employees, how important that internet really is to our business. We process all our orders, we approve all credit cards, we deposit all checks, we print picking tickets, we print labels, we notify Fedex and UPS when we need more trucks, ship containers from and to China, England, Korea, Italy, Germany and yes, the good old USA. In short, it would be very difficult to survive a true disruption of the internet.

Presuming we actually lived through such an event and we were not attacked by either Zombies or starving citizens or maddened criminals, I do have an idea how our business would survive. We would go back to old-time mail order, back to the time my father was processing $50,000 of orders a week, opening envelopes, licking stamps, depositing paper checks, hand writing labels, walking or running or bicycling to the bank. Yes, we would do it the old-fashioned way, the way our Dad taught us how to do.

Of course, I would hope someone else could get analog phone lines, central heating, washing machines, automobiles and the AC going.

Let’s hope that the internet remains in place, up and running, faster, and better than ever, without corruption or disruption.

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In Praise of Thanksgiving

The Big Bird Is Ready!

 

By Cecil Hoge

In this dynamic, disconcerting, dyslexic, deluded, deficient, dysfunctional, dismal, delightful, decadent digital age, it is nice to think that there are still some normal family traditions that prevail. One of them is Thanksgiving.

My wife prepares for this annual event about 6 months before its actual occurrence. Much goes into her planning. Deciding on what size turkey, deciding on what relatives to invite, deciding if she is up to such an effort. Now in the case of this particular Thanksgiving, my wife let events overtake her.

She had proclaimed to me that this was to be our Thanksgiving, alone with just my son and herself. She came to this conclusion since she speculated that none of her sisters would attend. For this reason, she let her usual advance planning slide. Why, for example, order a turkey when there might only be three people to eat the turkey. I agreed with my wife’s logic, even if I was not convinced of the actual outcome. You might say that I had heard this kind of commentary before. Many is the family event that, not 15 minutes after the last family member left, that my wife said, never again.

As Thanksgiving drew close, my wife decided to invite 2 of our closest friends. That was one married couple, the Allens and they accepted. That meant we would be 5 for Thanksgiving. Since there are not many turkeys designed to be eaten by 5 people, my wife held off from ordering a turkey. My wife likes to buy things in advance. And when she does she tends to buy things in bulk, always proclaiming what a value the bulk purchase is. So in the case of this particular Thanksgiving, my wife, in a rare moment of indecision, did not prepare anything for Thanksgiving until about 6 weeks before.

Around that time, my wife began to get family remorse. Family remorse is kind of like buyer’s remorse, except it works in reverse. Instead of returning something, you take back something. So, in order not to make any long lost sisters feel left out she called each, knowing full well that they would say they could not make it because of other plans. So that is what my wife did. She called her two sisters and sure enough they both said there was no way that they could make it.

About this time, our two friends called to ask if they could bring along two of their daughters and a friend of the children. My wife immediately accepted knowing that we getting close to the required quantity for eating a turkey. So now the 5 were 8. And then one of her sisters called to say she and her husband could make it after all. That made 9.

Seeing the trend, we invited my brother John and his girlfriend, Figen. Voila, we were now 11. I could see a good-sized turkey coming down the pike. Then my wife’s sister called and asked if her son and girlfriend could tag along. That made 13. Then my wife, throwing caution to the wind, decided to invite her niece, her niece’s husband and her grand-niece. Now, we were up to 16. Suddenly, we were in traditional turkey fest territory.

That meant a flurry of ordering stuff from hin and yon. Since we no longer go to our local supermarket, that meant going online and ordering a vast array of different foods, condiments and drinks from the local food delivery service. The turkey itself was to be ordered from some special turkey farm and my wife, always in fear of coming up short when it comes to food, ordered a 24 lb. turkey.

Events were moving fast, duties were being divided up. My wife would handle the turkey, the string beans, stuffing, gravy, salad and some of the deserts etc., while my wife’s friend, Donna, would handle the mashed potatoes, turnips a different kind of stuffing,  and most importantly, the sweet potatoes garnished with melted marshmallows, and more of the deserts. I was getting hungry just thinking about all these wonderful preparations.

During this period of preparation, I was left free to attend to work and paddling on the water when it was warm enough. To be sure, I was warned that there would major duties coming up. I was assigned buying the wine and picking up various needed supplies. If you think I got off scot-free, think again because there were other unwritten duties to be accomplished. These included pulling out various cooking utensils and cooking devices from dark, rarely explored areas of our basement. It also meant gathering chairs of various descriptions, sweeping the porches of recently fallen leaves, removing garden utensils from the garden and placing them in other dark places in the basement.

That was not the half of it. The summer furniture had to be covered or removed to the basement…that included the 2 rocking chairs and table chairs for the outside table. The pool implements that had been left on the back porch had to be removed and again placed in the nether regions of the basement. The long-lost electric pump had to be found and then placed on the pool cover and excess water had to be drained away. In short, the Honey Do duties never seemed to end.

Four weeks before Thanksgiving, my wife and her friend kicked to high gear, ordering pies galore, cookies, cakes…and other foods with high caloric values. In between, I was being sent off for various jobs…clearing the porches, sweeping the porches, gathering firewood, filling the bird feeder with seed, bringing up long-lost coolers from the basement to augment the space for chilled food that would not fit in the two quite large refrigerators that were always on duty.

I know you may minimize my duties and say that the real work was done by my wife and most probably she would agree, but to me, in between going to an office each day of the week, trying to get a reasonable amount of exercise on a regular basis, this all seemed like quite a lot.

But as things will, time passed and we came closer and closer to the actual event. I successfully completed most of my assigned tasks and was able to secure the wine on the evening before Thanksgiving.

The morning of the day itself, I knew any attempt to veer off into some other preferred activity, like scanning e-mails or going for a freezing paddle, would be hopeless, so I resigned myself to the duties before me. And I also wisely asked my wife periodically what else I might do, knowing full well that I would probably be presented more new duties.

My wife demonstrating the fine art of mushroom peeling

And so it was that I found myself peeling mushrooms. To tell you the truth, I never heard of anyone peeling mushrooms and I had apparently successfully navigated 75 years of life without ever peeling a mushroom or even hearing about anyone else peeling a mushroom or, perhaps, I just conveniently forgot that people peeled mushrooms. Whatever. My wife explained that you have to peel mushrooms, especially on Thanksgiving, and so I was obliged to learn the art. By the way, the mushrooms were to be used in the gravy and in the stuffing, which was all news to me.

Peeling mushrooms is not as difficult as one would think. It was a two-step process. First, you have to remove the inner stem. Then you have to peel from the inside of the inner circle where the stem was. You can do it with your thumb and forefinger or you can do it with a knife. Either way, you grab a flap of the outer mushroom and peel away. It is kind of like peeling an onion without tears or the smell. You pull off one layer and underneath is another layer without any of the scum and dirt that was on the outer layer.

If I say so myself, after a few minutes of practice, I got pretty proficient. I was plucking out stems, peeling layers of the mushroom like real pro in about 30 minutes, which was just about the time it took to get through the allotted batch of mushrooms that my wife had designated for Thanksgiving.

After that task proved so easy, I foolishly volunteered for the next task at hand. This turned out to be slicing string beans. Now I cannot claim I never heard of slicing string beans. It seems to me I have actually done that from time to time. So I sat down with my wife and we both sliced string beans for the next 20 to 30 minutes. My wife explained that we would not have to do this if the string beans were fresh out of a garden. No, in that case, all you would have to do would be wash the string beans and snap off the ends. But in this case, the string beans did not come from the garden – they came in a nice hermetically sealed plastic bags.

My beautifully cut string beans

The bag said they were pre-washed, but my wife, always a stickler for cleanliness, insisted on washing them again and then slicing them. It was important to slice off the ends of the string beans at an angle. I am not sure why, but my wife assured me it was important and like an obedient husband, I followed my wife’s instructions to the T. Within 30 minutes we had sliced all the string beans and my wife pronounced our task completed.

That completed extra-curricular duties on Thanksgiving. My wife said I could now go back to the more manly tasks of setting out chairs in the living room and setting up the drink table just outside the door the dining room to the porch.

All these domestic duties reminded me of my Uncle Hamilton referred to as “the division of duties between a man and a woman”. A couple of things have to be understood about my uncle Ham. He came from a time when the division of duties between men and women were regarded somewhat differently. In my uncle’s mind, the man’s duty consisted of providing an income and housing for his wife and family while the wife’s duty consisted of taking care of kids and the home and being sure that all domestic tasks were done.

Of course, that is not quite the way it worked out within his own family. In fact, his wife was more generally bringing in the majority of income, although there were times in his career that he did bring in a good income for his family. Later in life, however, it turned out that his wife had a real gift for business management and she ended up being the social director of the Museum of Modern Art, which meant that sometimes I got invited to these bigwig celeb parties and almost always my uncle got to come, sip scotch whiskey, smoke Camel cigarettes and talk about his prowess on the tennis court at those same parties.

My uncle Hamilton was not a man from this presently politically correct period. He liked to talk about what he referred to as “the new crop”.

“There is a new crop that comes along every…it is the way of world and it is wonderful.”

What he was referring to was beautiful young ladies coming of age. Hamilton was a great admirer of beautiful ladies. He was also a true gentlemen. He did not walk into rooms that ladies present in his bathrobe or without his bathrobe. Nor did he have a button installed in some room that locked a door and prevented young ladies from escaping his attentions. No, Hamilton was gentleman of the old school. Yes, he would ogle beautiful young ladies, smile at them, chat them up, while standing in a handsome Tweed jacket and Lilly Pulitzer pants, sipping his scotch and pulling on a Camel cigarette.

It seems that I have strayed from the subject at hand.

Returning to my own situation this Thanksgiving, it was understood that I was there to help out with gathering materials and goods for the gathering, but generally I was left out of physical preparations of vegetables and turkey and stuffing. This for a good reason…because I was not very good at cooking things and moreover I lacked the management skills to do such things on any kind of schedule.

So peeling mushrooms and slicing string beans were generally out of my wheelhouse. That said, I thought that I did a magnificent job and I am pretty sure my wife was happy to get some real, down in the trenches help with the cooking preparations. Perhaps more importantly, just the physical acts of peeling mushrooms and slicing string beans gave me a true sense of being useful and helping with getting the Thanksgiving bounty on the table. Best of all, in a little under an hour, I had completed these duties and could return to more manly duties, such as crumpling newspapers and putting sticks and logs in the fireplace.

By 11 a.m. our friends the Allens had arrived complete with their set of supplies. This included sweet potatoes glazed with marshmallows, turnips, cookies and more pies. I put their pies next to the several other pies we had along with several banana bread offerings my wife had made.

That of course was interrupted by various impromptu duties which seemed to arise every few minutes to move tables, carry sodas outside to the drink table, set up chairs and put soda, seltzer, white wine in the two over large coolers used to augment our two completely loaded refrigerators. We did get some time to sit and chit-chat and eventually we even received permission to bring out some cheese and other crudities.

By 11 o’clock the first guests began to arrive. Strangely enough this was well before the predicted arrival of guests. My wife, who likes to start things early predicted her family members would arrive between 2 and 3. But she was wrong. First to come after the Allens was my wife’s nephew, Sam, and his girlfriend, Jennifer. Shortly, thereafter my wife’s sister along with her husband, Steve. Then came the two daughters of the Allens, Deloris and Jasmine, and their friend. All of this brought more new duties…hanging up coats, lighting the fire, getting drinks, bringing out cheese plates, crackers, veggies plates and other crudities. And of course, it gave me and Chuck a chance to dig into some of these early eats, which, I am proud to say, we did with relish.

As time went on, more guests began to arrive…Bernadette, Sam’s sister, her husband, Stephen, and Stefanie, their 16-year-old daughter. Dutifully, I would hang up coats, take drink orders, pass around the crudities plate. By and by, my brother, John, and Figen, his girlfriend arrived. Again, I hung up coats and took drink orders.

Around 3:00, we all sat down and began to eat.

Before doing so, I had to attempt to carve the turkey. That is another activity that is out of my wheelhouse, but I tried my best. My wife’s father was an excellent carver of turkey and other meats. Me not so much. Since my wife’s father had passed on and was not present, I had to do my best to fill his illustrious shoes. Understandably, my carving was not good enough and was either too thick or too thin slices.  I will never claim to be a good carver. Alas, it was my duty to provide and provide I did, even if 90% of the slices were not perfect.

So we had two tables set for the guests to sit down at and a long table where the food was laid out and a drink table just outside the dining room door. This large food table included a large list of traditional foods. Turkey, of course, stuffing, of course, mashed potatoes, of course, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows, string beans, mushrooms, salad, gravy by the gallons, cranberries, cranberry sauce, biscuits, banana bread, butter, plates and utensils for all of the above and so on.

When everybody had gotten together all of the food they could possibly heap on their plates, we all sat down. I gave a little speech saying that this had not been the easiest year, citing my wife’s and my son, Joshua’s operations, repeated doctor visits and other difficulties. In spite of all, I said we managed to get through and were very grateful. In summary, I said we had much to be thankful about and I was grateful we had this opportunity to gather as family and friends. And so I gave thanks to the Lord for letting all this happen and then I sat down and we all dug in.

Well, as in Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant, we had everything we ever wanted, excepting Alice of course. Everyone ate too much and then everyone came back for seconds. After the big dinner, the 6 pies (my wife claims that I have been exaggerating the true number)and cookies were brought out (I had lost count) and all imbibed in more high calorie dishes. After dinner and dessert was finally finished, we all sat in the living room, told tales, reminisced about the last year and this year, laughed and cried, chatted and yelled and generally had a fine old-time.

When the time came for the guests to leave, they all did so respectfully and lovingly, hugging each other, vowing to see each other more often during the next year. In short, we all had a truly fine Thanksgiving.

Eventually, after loading and unloading the dishwasher about 7 times, gathering plates, putting away plates, gathering glasses and putting away glasses, filling several garbage cans with the leftover residue, everyone left and my wife, I and our son were left in the peace and quiet of our home.

Of course, any Thanksgiving dinner is an undertaking and this was no different. And no doubt, my wife was responsible for about 90% of the work and planning. Nevertheless, I felt a warm feeling, thinking that in my limited way, I had contributed and that the evening had gone, just as should, happily and merrily, enjoyed by all.

All of this got me to thinking that family gatherings and Thanksgiving in particular are very underrated. So this is a story in praise of Thanksgiving.

This was not the actual group that came, but it is a recent Thanksgiving picture and some of the folks in this picture were at the Thanksgiving described above.

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The City After Many A Year

Now called Baker Street Pub, this was the original location of TGIF Friday’s – the chain survived, the founding bar did not!

By Cecil Hoge

It has been some time since I visited New York City for more than a few hours at a time. In the last several years I have visited Chinese, Korean and other American cities more often and for longer periods of time. And that is strange for two reasons. One, I live 60 miles from New York City. Two, New York is the city of my birth.

So when the chance came up for me to visit the city with my wife for a few days, I was hoping that there might be some time to see some of the changes that have taken place…what was new and what was old. Because the primary reason for coming to the city was to be with my son while he stayed at Memorial Sloan Kettering for a few days, there would be very little time for running around and investigating the city.

The city has not really changed that much since I was born there. There are still some 8 million people living there. It is still the financial center of the America. It is still America’s biggest city. And yes, it is still The Big Apple. Of course, there are the new buildings…occupying spaces that were either empty or previously filled by older buildings. And yes, the times and the vibes the city gives off have changed.

When I was born at Doctor’s Hospital opposite Gracie Mansion, the country was already in World War II. I suppose those times must have been full of doubt and fear and for my parents, a newly married couple, it must have been a leap of faith to have a child just as the United States was getting fully committed to the worldwide war. And I suppose until World War II was resolved in our favor, there must have been a pall of fear and anxiety hanging over the city as the war went on.

I do not remember what that felt like. I was just too young. I do remember my first experiences in the city. Growing up in NYC as I did for the first 11 years of my life in a rent-controlled apartment building at 520 East 90th, life in the city was endlessly interesting. Taxi cabs, subways buses, walking many city blocks…all became 2nd nature to me, although I quickly developed a prejudice for the cabs that would scoot you around the city, even if my parents would not trust me to take a cab until I got to the ripe old age of 10.

After the first 11 years at 520 East 90th, we moved to more gracious uptown digs, 1215 Fifth Avenue. That was on 102nd and Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from where Harlem started. This was convenient because I had an aunt and uncle on 94th and Madison and another aunt and uncle at 1150 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 96th and 5th and a grandmother on 97th between Madison and Fifth. So almost all members of my immediate family were within walking distance.

Our apartment was on the 9th floor of this building

1215 Fifth Avenue was pretty fancy apartment building at the time. I notice that today there are 3 pending sales for apartments in the building, all in 4 million plus range, so I guess the building and the apartments are still pretty nice. We had a 3 bedroom spread on the 9th floor, with pretty nice corner living room over-looking Central Park and a real nice dining room for entertaining. I remember a rather glorious 12th birthday when my mother hired a real live magician to perform at my birthday.

I remember trying new things in that building – one hobby that I tried was kiting toilet paper. There were some serious wind drafts coming off of Central Park and a buddy and myself got the bright idea of flying toilet paper out of my ninth floor bedroom window. Imagine toilet paper going up and down and all around, floating and fluttering like white paper dragons over Central Park. It was really quite an impressive site. This probably would be frowned on today and when my mother discovered this new hobby she abruptly shut it and me down.

This is a picture of a corner apartment in 1215 Avenue like ours – I do not remember our living room looking quite like this, but it was sImilar. My bedroom window was around the corner.

Because kiting toilet paper was no longer an option, my best buddy and I got the bright idea to try dropping water bombs on pedestrians. It was quite amazing to see the reaction of pedestrians when one landed nearby. It made an incredibly loud noise and we could see some of the local New Yorkers were really frightened by this. I can say it is probably an excellent fact that none of the water bombs ever hit anyone, considering they were dropped from the 9th floor and gravity is a pretty impressive force.

Now we thought this was a perfectly harmless occupation, far less likely to get the attention that kiting toilet paper got. Fortunately, I found very quickly that it was dangerous to those below and to me personally. The very evening of the very day I learned to water bomb pedestrians, I chose to try dropping what I thought was a perfectly harmless water bomb on a cop who happened to be riding a horse. In those days, cops used to patrol the streets in the city on horses and it happened that one was conveniently riding below my window. The sound of the explosion was quite impressive, especially to the cop since it was my nearest miss. Neither the cop nor the horse seemed to appreciate my prank. The horse reared up, almost throwing the cop off of his mount. I looked down on this event and almost immediately the cop looked up. I sensed even from the ninth floor that the cop was not happy.

I immediately did the smart thing. I closed my window, hopped in bed and buried my head under the covers. That did not stop the cop from arriving at our apartment door along with an associate. Fortunately, my mother answered the door, assured the two cops that nobody in our apartment had dropped said water bomb. She even went on to invite the cops in and let them scan my bedroom to show that I had been asleep. Of course, my head and body was buried deep under the covers and the cops, who no doubt knew that I was the guilty party, gave up their quest to incarcerate. That experience left me with a deep appreciation of gravity. For some years thereafter I regularly had dreams of hitting cops and other pedestrians with water bombs. These dreams were quite frightening and it occurred to me that if had kept up my hobby I might well have killed someone.

Some of the many food carts along the street

Let me get back to the story at hand…our visit to New York City. We reserved a room at a comfortable, but antiseptic hotel called the Affina Gardens. It was on 64th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Since my parents had an apartment years earlier around the corner at 330 East 63rd, I was familiar with the neighborhood, even if I had not visited for a number of years.

The first thing I noticed in what I will call the new New York City is the proliferation of fast food places…little self-serve cafes where one can walk in, order a sandwich and a coffee or soda and then sit at a bare table where one can watch the passersbys. And then there was also the army of tall carts clogging up various streets selling fruits, sandwiches, Cuban, Mexican, Chinese, Dominican, African specialties. Some are truly excellent and no doubt I would test some of them if I had more time or if I was inclined to get food from a cart.

But I am spoiled former New Yorker who likes to sit down and be attended to in a restaurant or a bar. In any case, there is not to be much of that on this trip. I am here to be at the bedside of my son. The first couple of days were fully occupied getting my son checked in to the hospital, checking into the nearby hotel and staying bedside until he got through his procedure. I can say, if staying in and around a hospital is ever good, everything did go well.

By third day, I was able to take some walks each day in the neighborhood of Memorial Sloan Kettering. The particular section of the hospital where my son was located was at 1275 York, which is on 68th and York Avenue. This was quite familiar to me because as mentioned, 50 years ago, my parents had an apartment at 330 East 63rd Street, just a few blocks away.

The street and apartment building where I used to live with my parents over 50 years ago, only 5 blocks from Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital

The second thing that I noticed on my walks, in addition to the many new fast food places, was how truly universal the use of cell phones was in the city now. I know this true everywhere now, but in the city it seemed more so. Everybody was either talking on a cell, texting on a cell, carrying cell phone in their hand as they ambled down the street or accessing information on a cell phone as they were walking down the street. And the sheer number of different human body forms, male or female, was truly impressive…young, old, thin, fat, white, black, Asian, South American, Mexican, Islamic, Hindu, African. Of course, that is to be expected in this digital age. However, I remembered a time when people walked down the street without seemingly talking to themselves or pressing fingers against slim, little rectangles as they bumped into street signs or stepped off curbs or crossed in front of buses.

Now coming from the suburbs on Long Island, we of course see plenty of folks on cell phones. Mostly, we see people chatting on the their cell phones in cars, at traffic lights, speeding down the highway, motoring through school zones. Occasionally, we see ladies or guys walking along the road on their power walks chatting to someone or riding a bike with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the cell or sitting on a curb texting some lost lover. Or we see them walking through malls, guys and gals, talking to former lovers, long lost friends or everyday buddies, happily or unhappily chatting away.

What was different about cell phone use in the city was the sheer volume and multiplicity of different humans on cell phones. I noticed cell phone use seemed particularly important for cyclists. I saw bicyclists on cell phones in every conceivable condition or situation, some riding no hands on the wheel happily chatting away, leaning this way and that in an effort to steer through the crowds of pedestrians, other cyclists, cars and buses, some with one hand on the handlebar and one hand on the cell, some stopped at a light texting before it turned green, some smoking a cigarette with one hand while talking with the other hand as they yawed their way down the very crowded bicycle lane, trusting that their bike would navigate itself by their telekinetic powers. I saw cyclists with messenger bags, chatting on one cell and texting on another, weaving through the multitudes with remarkable confidence considering that were not steering. I saw bicycles attached to delivery carts powering take-out orders to their intended destinations, again, while chatting, texting, accessing ball scores, checking in with the markets. Yes, it was big doings in the big city.

And that was just people on bikes. Of course, there were also bus drivers, truck drivers, car drivers, taxi drivers, Uber & Lyft drivers on cell phones, delivery men on cell phones, policemen on cell phones, food cart owners on cell phones, construction workers on cell phones, old grandmothers and grandfathers on cell phones, American Indians on cell phones, Indian Indians on cell phones, 6 year olds on cell phones, 2 year olds on cell phones – in this case, friendly mothers usually held the cell phones while the 2 year olds gurgled and giggled and dribbled.

I saw a one-armed, one-legged black gentleman in a wheelchair on Second Avenue between 73rd and 74th on a cell phone industriously smoking a cigarette with two fingers of his remaining hand while pecking out text messages with one finger of the same hand while occasionally picking up a playing card for the solitaire card game that was laid out on tray attached to his wheelchair. How he managed all this was pretty impressive. Yes, I concluded New Yorkers are very attached to their cell phones.

In looking at the ebb and flow of humanity that walked the streets of Manhattan, I could only wonder if the city has become more or less diverse. It was hard for me to tell, remembering how diverse it was years ago and seeing the great multiplicity in front of me in the city after many a year. And while I cannot say if the city is more diverse, I do think the mix of diversity has changed.

A few things stand out. I saw more Islamic style ladies walking the streets. I also saw more Islamic style ladies in the halls of Memorial Sloan Kettering…some are nurse’s and doctors…some are patients. I saw more Spanish speaking folks. I saw less hippies – in fact, I can’t recall seeing any hippies. No, the folks of today’s New York City are much more buttoned up. Much more together.

I Do Not Recall Seeing This Gentleman

I do not remember seeing Moondog. For those who don’t remember, Moondog was an interesting presence on the city scene, standing as he would on 54th and Park in Viking helmet with a giant spear humming eerie dissonant sounds. In fact, I do not remember seeing anyone who even remotely looked like Moondog, but I can only guess that the city still has some strange and interesting characters. That said, I sense the city streets were missing the outstanding weirdos of days gone by. It seems to me that the city has gentrified itself in the years since I stopped living and visiting there.

I did see a lot more Chinese ladies and guys both in the hospital and out on the streets. Some, I suppose some of them are long time residents of many years…others seem to be newcomers…either urban professionals working in business and finance or young doctors, some or many, perhaps, students.

Whatever the reason, there does seem to be a definite increase in Chinese folks, which if you ask me, is a benefit. I also think it is quite logical since Chinese are the most populous people on the planet and now have surpassed Americans as the greatest travelers on earth. You even see a few old Chinese guys who look like they worked in the fields in Shandong province picking apples, gnarled and thin from years of labor in the fields or a long life of smoking opium. Then you also see elderly Chinese men in dark, well-tailored business suits with expensive understated ties, sometimes accompanied by their wives walking one or two feet behind them.

Then there are the smartly dressed sporty Chinese guys in pressed and new cleaned jeans and snazzy multi-colored sneakers with their cells either close at hand or in a nearby pocket. Let us not forget the striking and beautiful young student Chinese girls and professional tech ladies…they are on their cells scanning markets, accessing Google on all matters of interest, doing studies on the decadent American culture or living the decadent and free American life, studying their contact list for ditched or retrieved lovers. Whoever they really are, they all seem very aware and energetic and on top of their game.

Then there are the huge numbers of Indians (not American Indians, but Indian Indians) and again they have population on their side. They come in all sizes, all ages and all professions…little hunch-backed Indian ladies, prosperous business suited doctors, young students, tall, stunning young Indian ladies, with sharp elongated faces framed with dark straight hanging, meticulous groomed hair. I saw many Indians on the first few days of walking around the East Side of Manhattan.

After the third day in the city, our son was feeling good enough for my wife and I to go to lunch at some of the local places and me to branch out on my walks in this city of my birth.

My wife and I had lunch in an Irish pub called Sullivan’s. It was only a few blocks from the hospital. For some reason, my wife was looking forward to a Shepard’s Pie. Having had that delicacy about 50 more times than I ever wanted to in boarding school, my dislike of that delicacy had not waned. I opted for a flat iron steak. I can verify that the use of the word iron was well chosen because my steak was definitely on the tough side. My wife did not have much kinder things to say about her Shepard’s Pie, although she did say the beer that came with it was excellent. The fault was ours of course – who goes to an Irish pub to eat?

It was at Sullivan’s that a fortunate thing happened. You may not consider it so and certainly my wife did not consider so, but as my wife was digging into her not very tasty Shepard’s Pie, she realized that she had lost her cell phone. In this day and age, the loss of cell is almost equivalent to the loss of a close personal friend. The remorse, the recrimination and the investigation that followed to determine what happened caused quite a few tense and troubling hours for my wife.

And then a miracle occurred. We reported the loss of the cell phone to an Apple app for that and lo and behold, that evening, I got a call on my cell from an  AT&T office. It turned out that my wife’s cell phone was now residing downtown at 82 Wall Street. How it got there is anybody’s guess. The best we can figure is that my wife dropped it on the street outside the hospital and then some bystander picked it up, perhaps, on their way to Wall Street, perhaps, hoping to access some secret information that would impoverish my wife and reward the hacker. Anyway, whoever picked it up ended up dropping my wife’s cell phone off at the 82 Wall Street AT&T office. If they were a hacker, they were a very considerate hacker.

That necessitated a trip downtown the next day to retrieve my wife’s cell. Testing my memory of where Wall Street was, I got to direct a Spanish taxi driver down the FDR Drive to Wall Street – I was very proud. Because it was Saturday, there was some kind of street fair selling various Spanish, Korean and Middle Eastern delicacies. For that reason, Water Street was closed. 82 Wall Street happened to be at the corner of Wall Street and Water Street, a few blocks away. So I got out of the cab.

That required me to walk a few blocks on Water Street to Wall Street. I passed dozens of Chinese, Korean and European tourists taking selfies of themselves, with numerous family members feasting on delicacies from carts parked on the closed street. Wall Street was just a few blocks down, so I kept walking by the assorted tourists. This gets me again asking myself if New York is more diverse today than it was when I grew up in the city.

I still have not made up my mind on that question – the best I can answer is it is diverse in a different way.

I got to the nearly empty AT&T office at the corner of Water Street and Wall Street where 3 young sharpie salesmen seemed eager to sell me a new cell phone. Their enthusiasm diminished when they realized that I was there to collect a lost cell phone. That said they helpfully suggested it must be in safe Number 1. A young man went off and looked in a room off to side suggesting I stand by the door to be out the rush of real customers who were nowhere to be seen.

He emerged to announce that it must be in safe Number 2 which unfortunately was locked and could only be opened by the nice manager lady who would arrive around 1pm or in about two and half hours. That seemed disconcerting so I ask the salesman to check with the other two sharpie salesman where my wife’s cell phone might be. He went away, asked a few questions and came back to announce no luck…then he tried to reach the nice manager lady by phone – she apparently was employing her cell phone’s power off feature.

I then called my wife to announce the three possibilities:

1. Hang around Wall Street – I was already forming a plan to use the extra time to walk to the new World Trade Center – and bring back the phone after 1pm.
2. Take a cab back and then take another cab back three hours later, pick up the phone and take a 3rd cab back – as you may understand that was not my favored option.
3. Give up the effort and come back to the hospital in defeat. While perfectly all right with me, I was pretty sure this was not an option that would fly with my dear wife.

Given the above, I gave my wife a summary of the 3 options while I plotted my visit to the World Trade Center which I had not seen since it collapsed. Halfway through the call an ample young black lady walked out a back room asking,

“Did I hear something about a lost cell phone? I have it.”

The story ended well, although I would have not minded checking out the new World Trade Center and the memorial to 2001. The last time I had visited that area, I stayed at a Marriot hotel a few blocks from the World Trade Center. My brother came in to the city and we had some giant steaks at Morton’s. Coming back from dinner, I walked in the small city below in search of socks and a shirt. Six weeks later the hotel, Morton’s, the World Trade Center and much of the underground city below had collapsed from the 911 attack.

In any case, on this trip I would not have an opportunity to check out the reconstructed World Trade Center and the surrounding area. Within in minutes I back in a cab with my wife’s cell phone and an Islamic cab driver who was either getting instructions of how to take me to 68th and York Avenue or plotting some terrorist attack or considering whether I was kidnap material. The cab driver happily conversed throughout the trip back in some Middle Eastern language that I did not understand or recognize. However, he delivered me quickly and efficiently to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital without kidnapping or proceeding with some terror plot. I was most happy.

My wife was also happy to have her cell phone a few minutes later.

The next two days were uneventful. My son was getting better every day and every day I took a somewhat longer walk to investigate the old streets that I used to know so well. And my wife and I would end going to dinner together after our day at the hospital. In this way we got to taste some other non Irish spots. We found a very nice Italian restaurant where we had some pretty decent Italian fare. The next day we ended up in a very simple, but quite decent American steak house that does not seemed to have changed since it opened in 1950. The food was not great but the wood paneling and the close musty atmosphere made swear I had gone to this same restaurant with my parents in the 1950s.

My father’s old office building, presently surrounded by scaffolding and high end stores.

That nostalgic dinner made me decide to cruise by my father’s old offices the next day. That was 699 Madison Avenue. In the 1950s he had an advertising agency called Huber Hoge & Sons that occupied the top 3 floors of the building. At the peak of its prosperity, my father over 100 people working for him. I remember as a kid visiting those offices quite regularly.

The high point of each trip was a pass through visit to the Gabor jewelry shop which located on the bottom floor to the left as you came into the building in a space now occupied by Jimmy Choo shoes. If my mother was dragging me along on a visit to my father’s office, we would always take a quick detour into the Gabor sisters shop, my mother checking out the latest offerings from the Gabor sisters and getting their advice and wisdom on marriage – a subject that the Gabor sisters were in a good position to opine upon. I did not know it that time, but my father’s marriage was on rocks and about to explode. On those visits, I was not concerned with the state of my mother’s marriage to my father which I thought had been ordained in heaven. Rather, I was too busy checking out the ample and lush figures of the Gabor sisters, which even from the point of a 12 year old, were very impressive.

Upstairs in the offices of my father’s advertising agency, everything was organized chaos. People were going in and out of offices, taking the elevator to different floors, sometimes running up and down the stairs if there was not enough time to take the elevator. My father had state of the art offices with people busily doing layouts, pasting down type and photographs. Everything was done at the last minute, even though everything took far longer to do, so ads that took two weeks to complete would be messengered across town to make some magazine or newspaper deadlines minutes before they closed. For those interested in such things, I can say it is almost the same today, although it often only takes minutes to complete an ad and e-mail a PDF minutes before various publications or websites needed the artwork or info to close or to make a post.

This was state of the art in my father’s day.

There were two machines that I rather liked in my father’s offices. One was the Dictaphone which was on my father’s desk. It recorded letters that my father spoke into it. It had some kind of flat paper-like material that went around in a circle and recorded his voice. It was beauty of a machine and my father would have used it a lot more if he wasn’t always in such a rush. So, most of the time, rather using this state of the art “time-saver”, my father dictated to poor Millie Clock, who was my father’s secretary, because usually my father could not spare the time to separately record his letter.

Another nifty device that my father had and I thought was the Cat’s Meow, was a tube transport system between offices. It worked like this. My father would try to call some employee who was on another floor and invariably the phone would be busy because even in the 1950s people loved to talk on the phone. No problem, my father would scribble some little note, usually no more that three words (i.e. “come to me”). He would tear off the note from the yellow pad that he was invariably writing on, roll up the ragged strip of paper, insert in a nearby tube and then plop the tube into a nearby hole in his desk and press a button with a number denoting the destination.

It was then that the magic began. The tube would suddenly disappear with an audible “whoosh”, sucked away to some unseen destination by some unseen entity. And then, if all went well, some fellow would appear in the office in a few minutes, usually carrying wide mechanicals for some desperately needed ad. My father would glance over mechanicals or rough layout or type-written documents and hand them back with further instructions. Now, sometimes something even cooler would happen. Another tube would come rocketing back with some short scribble inside like “see you in 20”. I thought it was all magic and wonder.

Flash forward 63 years later and what do I find?

Not only does the building still stand but the front entrance is just down from Hermes with Jimmy Choo occupying two storefronts on either side of the entrance. Things must be good at 699 Madison Avenue. Down the block are a whole bunch of very uppity stores in either direction. It is all very She-She with world famous high end brand stores as far as the eye can see…I am sure that the Gabor sisters and my mother would totally approve, although my father might have had something to say about the excessive and unnecessary display of useless wealth. Not so my mother, whose favorite store was Cartier and her favorite bar the Carlyle. Some things never change.

Nello in a spot I think was formerly occupied by Hamburger Heaven – note the snazzy vehicle out front – times is good on Madison Avenue.

Across the street a very nice looking restaurant, Nello, seems to be occupying the space that I remember Hamburger Heaven. The restaurant looks very nice with outside tables and some kind of parking attendants. I did note a very pricey looking sports car out front, so I am guessing this restaurant commands pretty robust prices. I would also guess the food is better than Hamburger Heaven, although those hamburgers truly were heaven.

My trip to New York was significant for all the places I did not go and for the fact that most of the time I was just in the 60s and 70s on the East Side. This is understandable because I was on hospital duty with my wife and my most important mission was to see that my son’s procedure and treatment went well.

So my wife and I did not take a Sunday walk in Central Park – I would have been curious if steel bands still played on Sunny fall days and whether the smell of marijuana would confront us every now and then as we walked through the park. I think that if I did go for walk I would have found serious joggers and bicyclists plying their healthy arts and absence of the scent of marijuana.

I would have liked to go down the village and see what was like. I would have liked to drop into McSorley’s to check out the local ales. I would have liked to go to some of the city’s museums and see what was on offering (maybe, Tutankhamen was coming back for a re-run). I would have liked to walked on the High Line. I would have liked to listen to music at some of the city’s many venues, I would have liked to explore some late night clubs and see what celebs were hanging out. Alas, it was not to be…there would be no Stork Club, no El Morroco, no L’interdit, no Ondine’s, no Max’s Kansas City, no CBGB, no Mudd Club…and I would not have time to check out their replacements.

il vagabondo, no longer in it’s former glory, closed for sale. Where will the bocci ball players go?

That said, I did get some time to continue my wanderings in the East 60s and 70s. Along the way, I stumbled across a long lost and favorite restaurant. Alas, it was closed or no doubt I would have taken my wife there the very evening I re-discovered it. But closed it was. Forever, I was told. A very well heeled young man saw me taking the above picture and took upon himself to hand me flyer from Cushman Wakefield. He thought I might be interested in purchasing the brownstone which included the restaurant. Even better than that, he informed me, the adjoining brownstone was also for sale – I could get a two for one price. I handed him the flyer back and told him not sell the two brownstones for a penny less than forty five million. I could not tell from his expression whether he was heartened or disappointed with that figure.

I did get to ask the young man what had happened to il vagabondo? It had closed in June he told me and now the building was for sale. I asked him if the bocci ball court was included. He began to get reanimated and said, yes, of course, the bocci ball court was included. You could turn the whole thing into your personal pleasure palace with the next door brownstone and after twenty or thirty million of fix up costs you would have yourself some boss digs. And then sensing that might be a little out of my budget range, he suggested a lowball alternative where I could have some nifty apartment above the restaurant and get some new trendy restaurant to take over the restaurant area. He was so convincing, I almost made an offer.

Anyway, he seemed like an exceedingly nice young man, wearing a suit and tie that cost no less than four grand, no doubt brought up by a very good family, who must have thought if he was not going to be a billionaire Wall Streeter, he could always sell some property in the city. I wished the young man well, while I lamented the plight of the bocci ball players who would now be forced to play in some local park where it might rain and where there were no lights to illuminate their evening games. I also would miss the wonderful waiters from il vagabondo who would come up to you and recite the whole menu without giving any opportunity to read a menu. It was always very impressive and the food was always good.

I walked around a little more the last two days before we went back to the country. The bars and restaurants…Friday’s, Maxwell’s Plum and yes, il vagabondo were all gone. It seemed their replacements had shifted a little closer to the Queensboro Bridge. There was a trendy looking Mexican place around 65th where people seemed to happy to wait outside for the next shift – I am thinking either the food or the tequila must have been very good. Friday’s, as noted at the beginning of this story, had morphed in The Baker Street Pub. From the outside it looked less crowded and more, how do I put it, authentic…no that is not the word. I suppose it does good business.

What was left of the old neighborhood that I remember? I can name one structure that seemed to be identical. It is not actually that impressive, but it was something that did not look like much had been done with it. Without further adieu, here it is:

Yes, the Avis Car Rental looks exactly like it did 50 years ago, although the cars are slightly different. Perhaps, it should be selected by the New York Historical Society for permanent preservation.

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Breaking News: I Talk to Swans – Charles and Monique Tell All

Charles The Swan

By Cecil Hoge

For 20 years or so I have been trying to talk to swans. They seem very intelligent and it was natural to me to try and communicate in some manner. In the process of paddling several days a week for over 40 years, you see a lot of birds on the water and swans are the largest birds you see and the least disconcerted by humans.

Now, I never thought you could actually talk to swans. I began by simply talking to swans in English. I know this does not make sense, but I felt somehow swans were very intelligent creatures and they would like me to talk to them and I thought maybe they might even understand me.

So, the first thing I would say is, “Hello, Mr. Swan,”  and then because I was never sure whether I was addressing a Mrs. Swan, I would go on to add, “And hello also if you are a Mrs. Swan.”

Sometimes, I would ask how he or she was doing, “I hope all is well Mr. or Mrs. Swan. I hope you are having a good day.”

I always had the sense the swans actually understood something of what I was trying to say. As the years went by, I added to my repertoire of one-sided conversation, telling them how good they looked, talking about what a good or bad weather day it was and sometimes giving them weather report that I thought might be of interest.

“It’s going to rain today,” I would tell them, “It might look beautiful to you now, but you wait, a little later, it is going to rain.”

The swans always seemed non-plussed about this, as if they already knew the information I was providing them with. That did not stop me. I went on providing them weather reports every day and since I paddle pretty much all year around that was a lot of weather reports. Little did I know that they really appreciated my efforts to provide them with this information, even though they already knew what kind of weather was on the way.

About ten years ago, I expanded my efforts to communicate and began to talk Swanese. Now, in truth, even to this day, I do not understand Swanese, but I did notice that swans make various kinds of noises, some of which were high-pitched screeches, others of which were low-throated squawks and quacks. So that is what I tried to do. At first my Swanese was pretty darn poor. Whatever sound I made did not sound remotely like the sounds that the swans nearby made.

But I kept at it and gradually I came to make sounds that I thought were a little closer to real Swanese. At first, the swans elegantly ignored me, cruising by as if I did not exist. But as time went by I got the feeling that they were warming up to me. Occasionally, one or two of the swans would give a schreech or a squawk or a quack in response. This made me feel my Swanese was getting better. Little did I know that my Swanese was really awful, but I did not find that out until years later.

Fifteen or twenty years went by with me saying hello in English, nodding, saluting the swans, squawking and schreeching and quacking in an effort to get to know swans better. I felt that I was making progress. I even felt that some of the local swans were coming to have some real respect for me. That turned out to be off the mark.

One day something strange and wonderful and truly unbelievable happened. I was paddling by a couple of swans when I heard not one, but two voices.

“I am tired of this charade, let’s speak to the stupid creature,” said one voice. It was a male voice, very assured and refined, not loud, but plainly audible.

“Charles, Mon Dieu,” said a female voice with a French accent, “You are not supposed to talk to zee humans.”

I turned towards the sound of the two voices and I saw nothing. Nothing, that is except two swans gliding quietly nearby Stone Bridge. Stone Bridge is a washed out bridge from the 1800s, the only remnants of which are left on the Strong’s Neck side of Little Bay.

Charles and Monique by Stone Bridge

Then I saw something, one the swans opened its mouth and began speaking to me…in English. You can only imagine my astonishment.

“Human creature,” it said in a deep authoritative voice, “we appreciate your efforts to speak to us, even if they are truly pathetic. I suggest you speak English to us so we can understand each other. God knows your “Swanese” is about as bad as it could be. My name is Charles and this is my bride of many years, Monique.”

I was quite surprised when this swan referred to “Swanese”. That was a term I thought I had coined and yet somehow this swan seemed familiar with my phrase.

“Really Charles,” said the other voice. This voice was female, lilting, sexy and somewhat sardonic, “I wonder why you bother. You know from experience how pathetic humans truly are.”

“Now, wait a minute, what do you mean humans are pathetic?” I said, already trying to defend my species, feeling particularly stupid because I was talking to two swans.

Monique was withering in her sultry way.

“Mon Dieu, zee imbecile speaks.”

“Don’t be so hard on him, my dear, you were human once.”

“That was in the court of Louis Quatorze,” I almost thought I could see a coy smile from the lady swan, “now that was a human worthy of the name.”

“My dear, that is enough of that…you do not have to go into your decadent past.”

I was beginning to feel I was some kind of a fifth wheel.

“Wait just a moment…what do you think is wrong with humans.”

I had never seen a swan giggle, but I swear that was what Monique was doing. She made a wierd movement and placed the tip of one of her wings in front of her mouth (or beak, as I should say), as if she was trying to hide something and then she kind of giggled and squeaked in delight.

“What is wrong with humans…the list is soo long the tide will go out before I finish it.”

I was outraged. I had to stand up and defend my species.

“Now, wait a minute.  I have been paddling by swans on this bay for almost 50 years and after trying to speak to you swans for the last 20 years, the first thing that you say to me is how pathetic humans are.”

Charles spoke up first in his steady, patient voice, “Don’t be so dismayed, we were both humans at one time and we know of your many failings. They come with the species. You cannot help it.”

“My failings, what are talking about?” I said, thinking what a strange experience this was…first to speaking English to two swans…second, being lectured like a child.

Monique was the first to respond,

“First and foremost, little man, you are screwing zee planet up 6 ways to Sunday. Look at this bay, Moron, it is full of algae and empty of almost anything living. Almost no fish, no minnows, no crabs, no clams, no oysters…what the hell do expect us to eat. We used to be able to eat gloriously here. Fortunately, if you eat the algae before it turns brown it does have some nutritional value, even if it is full of pollutants.”

“Now, Monique, do not be so hard on the creature. He doesn’t know the bay is dying?”

“Wait just a minute, all this is too much. First, you speak English, then you immediately launch into a tirade against humans.”

“First of all,” I went on, “Monique tell me why you speak with a French accent.”

I know this was not really pertinent, but I was really curious.

“Because I am a French swan you idiot and because I was once a French human. French swans and French humans are the smartest, most intelligent creatures to walk the face of the earth, you moron. Mon Dieu, zee idiot is beyond education.”

Obviously, Monique had an attitude problem. Fortunately, Charles came to my rescue.

“Do not worry yourself about Monique. She tends to be a little bit, how do say, stuck up.”

Just then another swan came splashing down just a few feet in front of us. You could tell this swan was not fully grown because its coloring was still a faded gray brown and not yet fully white.

“Don’t be alarmed, it is only our son Albert. Albert, this is that weird human who keeps trying  to talk to us. I decided to make his day and talk English.”

Albert came cruising right up to me. I was pretty sure he was going to attack, but at the last moment he slowed and made small circle around me, obviously checking me out.

“He doesn’t look that stupid,” was all Albert had to say.

“For a human, that is.”

I must say this was some strange introduction to the true world of swans.

And then Albert suddenly started flapping his wings and headed off in the direction of a lone swan a few hundred feet away. Albert made a tremendous amount of noise with his wings flapping over the water. He did not actually take off. Rather, he made a beeline for the lone swan. As soon as Albert got close, the other swan started to flap wings, apparently in a desperate attempt to avoid Albert.

“Mon Dieu, will zee boy ever learn? He is after Charlotte again. Charles, you really must do something. He is going to die if he does not get some nooky. Remember, my dear, love makes zee world go round.”

Charles gave a swan sigh which seemed to say “Do I have to”.

And then Charles cranked up his wings and began flapping in the direction of Albert and Charlotte.

In parting, he said, “We will take up this conversation at a later date.” And then off he went after Albert who he almost crashed into, forcing Albert to divert his course towards the swan who was apparently called Charlotte. It was all pretty weird.

Monique turned to me.

“The boy is incorrigible. We keep telling him, give love a chance, but Albert has no patience for chance, he wants it now and he wants it bad. He is worse than Charles was when he was a young swan…oh la la. I can tell you, there is nothing worse than a horny swan when you are not in the mood. Of course, zee lady always reserves the right to change her mind.”

I would swear she gave a sly smile, as if contemplating the joys of a lady changing her mind.

“That’s what Albert is hoping for.”

Well, I was outraged. This kind of attitude would never be allowed in the human world, except maybe at some High Tech Startups.

“So, you are lecturing me, while your son is trying to impose his ways on a lady swan.”

Monique looked perturbed.

“This conversation is over” she said and then cruised to Stone Bridge where a gang of several other swans were pruning themselves and relaxing.

The gang at Stone Bridge

I could take a hint and I continued my paddle, my head reeling by all the startling revelations. Swans could speak English. Who knew? Some swans had been humans before. Who knew? I continued to paddle into the next bay, pondering all that I had heard and learned. I needed to find out more about this.

After getting back home, I thought about telling my wife and perhaps some other close friends, but what would they say? The guy has gone off the deep end, the guy has lost his marbles? Dust in the attic has dimmed his bulb? So I kept my mouth shut and just kept thinking about this truly strange episode.

A couple of days later I was out again paddling. I had completely forgotten my swan encounters, but as I was passing stone bridge, I heard a familiar voice.

“I see you are out for another paddle. Perhaps, now we can continue our conversation.”

Almost immediately another voice chimed. It was coquettish with a now familiar French accent. It almost gay and happy.

“Oh, Merdehead is here again to defend the human race. As if it could be defended.”

Monique sounded curiously upbeat. I had the feeling that in spite of her harsh language she had taken a liking to me.

I decided to go on the attack.

“Look, white feathered lady, what do you have to boast about?” I said.

Charles immediately came in on my side, “You see my dear, I told you he might prove more alert than you thought.”

I am not sure I felt fully complimented by being called alert, but it was better than being called Merdehead.

“So tell me, what is it about swans that makes you so high and mighty?”

“I have seen clouds from both sides now.” Monique said mysteriously.

The reference seemed strange, remembering the Joni Mitchell song of that name.

“What are you talking about?”

“I am just saying this isn’t my first rodeo, dufus dear.”

She had an endearing way of insulting someone. You almost felt like it was a privilege to be scorned by her.

I must say I was particularly confused about her conversation referencing rodeos. How would a swan know about a rodeo? Especially a French swan who grew up as a human in the court of Versailles. I didn’t think they had rodeos back then. It was all too confusing. Fortunately, Charles came to my rescue.

“Do not be mislead by my lovely lady swan. She can’t help following everything humans do, even if it has been several hundred years since she has participated. Me, I take a longer view of these things, especially since I have not been human for over 1200 years.”

Information was coming at me so fast that I had a hard time comprehending all that Charles and Monique were saying. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued, so I had to ask.

“Just how do keep up on human events?” I asked.

“The internet, of course.” Monique butted in, “You would think the moron was born 200 years ago.”

“The internet…how could you know about the internet?”

“Mon Dieu,” Monique said in a gay, cheerful voice, “I begin to wonder how stupid humans have become. Maybe, we are just talking to an aberrant specimen.”

“What is your problem, Monique? Why are you so impatient with me.”

“Perhaps, I can help explain.” Charles interrupted, “as you may have read, swans and many other birds have an internal radar system. This allows us to fly great distances…over barren land, over Arctic wastes…over wide seas without seeing land for long periods. Our internal radar allows to know where we are going.

“Not all birds are as intelligent as swans.”

“Swans are the most intelligent, most beautiful and most elegant birds in the world,” Monique put in.

“A lot of birds,” Charles continued, “are like some of your fellow human beings. Slow, fixed in their ways, unable to think about or consider different ways or new things. So most birds do not have the intelligence or understanding of swans. Swans have a very highly developed sense of radar. This not only helps us fly thousands of miles out of sight of land, it also enabled us to learn about human technological developments.

“In the 1930s, when radio transmission became widespread, swans learned how to listen in on radio frequencies. At first, this was all very confusing for us. All we heard was all this gibberish that was coming out of radios. We thought it was some kind of static caused by the atmosphere. We did notice that some of it was music and some of it was just people talking. Of course, when swans first heard all of this, it was not clear what was what. It all seemed like just a bunch of noise…some of it was musical…some of it was pleasing…and most of it was just noise.

“But because swans happened to be one of the bird species chosen for re-incarnation, some of the swans had been human and they recognized various voice patterns and, of course, they understood some of what they heard was music.

“Now humans that had been re-incarnated as swans did not at first recognize their human origins. They had been reborn as swans and that is what they thought they were. But over time, many of these swans had a strange sense of deja vu…they felt as if they had been there before. This led to a lively discussion in Swanese, as you call our language, of just what these sounds they were hearing were all about. Some swans said they could almost understand the words and the music. So that is when our great enlightenment began.”

I listened to Charles with a strong sense of disbelief. Surely, this could not be true…surely swans could not listen to radio shows…surely swans could not learn about our music and our languages. And yet, there were Charles and Monique floating not more than 6′ away from me, talking in English, telling me this incredible story.

“Well,” Charles continued, “You can imagine our surprise when certain swans began to fully understand the words and the music they heard on radios. Now a lot of this did not make sense…commercials advertising the benefits of hair tonics…Amos and Andy talking in Blackface…Guy Lombardo and his orchestra…Louis Armstrong and all that jazz…there were many things that seemed strange, but the swans that had been human began to remember their past and in some cases, they began to remember the very words they used when they were human. You can imagine the disruption all this caused, but in a way, we were beginning to understand life in a way that it had never been understood by swans.”

Now this was getting truly weird, but I was transfixed by Charles’ explanation which, as hard as it was to believe, did make sense.

“So by the time TV came along, all of these transmissions began to be understandable and we quickly found that we were capable of accessing any kind of TV program we wanted…Kukla, Fran and Ollie…Milton Berle…Captain Video… We saw it all and yes, we realized these programs were incredibly simple and crude and, of course, much of it was truly stupid, but those of us who had been humans, remembered that many stupid things happened during their human lives, so it was not so surprising. TV, it seemed, was a kind of chewing gum for the eyes…it was just something to do without much meaning.”

“By the time the 60s had rolled around, we were getting used to checking out TV a few times a day,” Monique piped in, “And Ooh La La, that Marilyn Monroe was some looker and Jackie Kennedy had some sense of style…that was a lady…but who knew those two beautiful women were both after the same man…and what a hunk he was…too bad the mafia shot him, he was my kind of President.”

Just then a seagull came crashing down on the water. The bird hit the water so hard my kayak was splashed.

“Dis da one?” The bird said in what sounded like a Brooklyn accent.

“Yes, this is the human I have chosen to speak to, Tommy” said Charles majestically. “Cecil, this is Tommy.”

I was surprised when Charles refered to me for the first time by my first name. “How did you know my name?”

Charles was very patient, if somewhat irritated, “We went through that…we can read minds…of course, we know your first name, as well as your last, as well as your Social Security number and the numbers and any expiration dates of your five separate credit cards you have in your wallet.”

“Ooh la la, I do miss zee beautiful clothes. When we first were an item, Louis used to give me the most beautiful ermines and diamonds.”

“Dear, do we have to keep reliving your human times…you know they are not going to end well.”

“Do ya got food?” The seagull asked as it began cruise around me in a circle.

Things were getting weirder. Talking swans was one thing, but a seagull with a Brooklyn accent was too much.

“Why do you talk with a Brooklyn accent?” I asked

“Whadda ya mean, I’m from Brooklyn, dodo head.” Apparently, birds do not have much respect for humans or perhaps it was just me.

“You are a seagull from Brooklyn?”

“Not even close. I am seagull from South Africa, but before that I was a human.  I grew up in Brooklyn.”

“How did you get to Setauket from South Africa,” I asked.

“I flew across da sea, ya loser,” and then the seagull turned to Charles and started making screeching sounds like I had heard seagulls make when flying over a beach. Charles started squawking, chirping and quacking back in a high voice. Soon Monique was flapping her wings, clucking and squawking and quacking. I gather I must be the subject of their conversation.

“Just what are you birds talking about?” I asked.

“Well,” Charles replied in English, “we are talking about you, just as you were thinking.”

This diverted my train of thought, “What do mean, just as I was thinking?”

I forgotten that swans could read minds.

“Look Dimwit,” Monique injected in her sweet, but spiteful voice, “if we can listen to radio, watch TV and access the Internet, why don’t you believe us when we tell you we can scan you mind whenever we feel like.”

“I told you he was a moron,” Monique said cheerfully, “it’s just like having our personal court jester. C’est magnifique!”

And then she added, “Of course we can access the Internet, how else would I keep track of today’s celebs?”

“You keep track of today’s celebs?”

“Mais oui, zee dimwit does not know I like zee gossip. How you say, gossip makes zee world go round. Ooh la, la…I like zee Brad Pitt. I cannot wait to find out who he will hook up with after ditching zee Angelina.”

“Really, my dear,” interjected Charles, “must you always chitchat about those awful Hollywood people…they are truly below you.”

“But my darling they are so interesting…I just love their weaknesses.”

Charles seemed to be disgusted by the turn in the conversation and began to cruise off.

All this getting too much for me when a gang of Canada geese came in for a landing not twenty feet from where we were conversing. The Canada geese immediately formed a line and started to cruise around my kayak. There must have been twenty or more geese.

I felt like I was at a bird convention. Normally Canada geese are very shy, flying away at the slightest paddle motion as I would paddle by. And when they did fly, they always would make a giant racket, first by clucking and squawking and then flying off in cacophonous roar of flapping wings and splashing water.

But at this moment they did not show the slightest fear of me. Rather they seemed to want to confront me. The geese cruised around me in a wide, menacing circle. Monique and the seagull were inside the circle. The geese began squawking and quacking and clucking. Monique and the seagull began making different bird noises in response.

The seagull turned to me and said, “Geez, they think you are some kinda genius. A human who talks to swans. Monique, da broad, is settin’ them straight…it’s a case of swans and a seagull talkin’ to a dumbass human. You sure you’re not carryin’ any food?”

Trying to keep up with all the bird goings on, I responded, “No, I did not know I going to meet a seagull from Brooklyn.”

“I’m a seagull from South Africa, dumbass. Or I was for a while. Yeah, I did work in Brooklyn when I was a human. I worked in a shipyard.”

That piqued my curiosity.

“When did you work in that shipyard?”

“1906 to 1917…I met my maker in France during World War I. After that it was off to bird world in South Africa. I was a seagull the first few times, then I became an Albatross, crossed the great Atlantic and settled in Brooklyn again. That didn’t last long…a poacher got me, da bastad, but I had the last laugh…I came back as a seagull and moved out on an island to where all the tree huggers hang out…that way I could be pretty sure I would not get blown away again.”

And while the story of the seagull living different lives at different times was fascinating, I was more interested in his seagull story of having worked in a shipyard.

“Which shipyard did you work in?” I asked.

“Shewan Shipyards, we did the repairs for the Atlantic fleet.”

“I know, my grandfather owned it.”

“Da bastad, he was a hard-ass.”

“If his name was Edwin Shewan…he almost got me killed about 5 times. Lifting battleships is not for ninnies. It was tough work and you could get killed in them days.”

Now I was getting really interested. This was a part of my family history that I knew something about, but not much.

“Tell me more. What was the shipyard like?”

“They was 40 acres right on the harbor, just as you come in to New York Harbor. It was a choice spot right where 26th, 25th and 24th streets come down to da water. We was 2,000 guys and your grandfather Edwin and James. They was big drinkers and high rollers for them days. They both had several yachts moored out on Long Island. Your grandfather was a real boozer. You could tell da time of day by his whiskey bottle behind his big mahogany desk.”

“I still have his desk,” I put in. “It’s about all that is left from his shipyard.”

“Good for you, bozo. Anyway, your Grandpa was a gnarly old bastard, especially after a half a bottle of whiskey. But I will give him this. He was always straight with me, even if he was always giving me jobs I couldn’t finish. And they was dangerous jobs. You had to be on your toes or you was apt to lose your toes.”

“Anyway, he was straight with me. He advised me to stay on the job and said he could get me a draft deferment. I wouldn’t hear of it and off I went to France. 6 months later I was splatted into 50 pieces and I went to seagull land in South Africa. Never regretted it though. I liked being seagulls and an albatross. It’s much easier than being a stupid human. Life is simple as a bird, complicated as a human.”

With that, the seagull flew away…the conversation apparently over. This left me with Monique and about 25 Canada geese. The geese were still cruising around me in a big circle giving me the once over.

“Don’t be worried about Tommy,” Charles said sympathetically as he came gliding up to us, “he tends to be rough sort, but he tells you like it is.”

A seagull who knew my grandfather in another life. Talk about a small world! Not to mention a weird world.

“Tommy c’est magnifique,” echoed Monique.

By this time, I was on bird overload, so I said goodbye to Charles, Monique and the 25 Canada geese.

“Au Revoir, fair feathered friends,” we’re my actual words, as I paddled away.

“Au Revoir, mon Cheri.” Monique sang out gaily. Maybe Monique was going soft on me.

A week later I went down to my dock, intending to paddle. I was getting ready to put my kayak in the water when I heard this crashing, flapping, splashing sound behind me. I looked over to where the sounds came from and saw that Albert had just come in for a hard landing and was cruising right up to my dock.

“Can we talk?” which is a pretty strange statement coming from a young swan. I noticed that Albert’s coloring had become a little more white since I had seen him. I surmised he was coming into his full swan hood – if that is the correct phrase.

“What do want to talk about?” I asked.

“I am having girl problems. I really like Margaret and then there is Sally and Susan. I really like all of them, but I can’t make up mind. And worse than that, none of them want to let me have my way with them.”

I pondered Albert’s problems.

“First of all, Albert, I thought swans were monogamous. How come you going after 3 different lady swans?”

“Hey, I am a young guy swan and mother has always said that I should not make up mind too soon. Besides, young male swans play the field just like humans. It’s true later on swans become monogamous, but that does not mean we don’t get to play around when we are young.”

“OK, I understand that, but maybe going after 3 girl swans at the same time is not very diplomatic. Maybe, you should concentrate on one of the three. I don’t think girls like to think they are just one of many.”

Albert thought this over as he cruised back and forth next to my dock.

“The trouble is none of them are giving out.”

I thought this over for a while.

“Well, I do not know how swans feel about this, but in the human world, ladies like you to take some time. They don’t like to be rushed. And they don’t like thinking it’s just about sex. They like to think there is a lot more to the relationship. So in the human world, we have to establish a relationship, we have to do nice little things, like bring little gifts or flowers, go for walks on the beach, see a movie. Girls like to think you are not just interested in there bodies. Later, when you’ve got their trust and interest, the tables might turn and they might become very interested in sex, but with humans it often takes time.

“I don’t know what you have to do with your lady swan friends, maybe you need to cruise around with them, talk with them and try to do things they are interested in.”

All of this seemed very foreign to Albert and I could almost see a frown coming over his swan face. Then something seemed to click, as if the information had just been down-loaded. Almost immediately, he nodded his head, said thanks and flew off, taking about 75 feet of frantically flapping his wings and splashing water until he finally got airborne.

I did not think much of my encounter with Albert. Several days later I was out paddling when Charles and Monique cruised up to me. I was just passing the outer Setauket Bay, paddling along the scenic shore. It was quite beautiful there and almost looks as it must have before Europeans came to this country. Most of the houses were hidden by summer growth of trees and vegetation and the beach had a lonely, pristine appearance. It was only the muddy brown appearance of the water that reminded you that the clarity of the water was indeed different.

“Mon Cheri, I know I have often called you a dimwit and that is fair because after all you are human and all humans are dimwits, but I want to thank you for talking to Albert. He is a changed swan, much more assured and the lady swans are noticing. Ooh la la, the Sally swan is all over him now…they are a real item. All that boy needed was a little nooky.”

It was a strange rambling conversation, especially coming from a lady swan, but I took it as a compliment.

“I am glad if I was able to be of assistance.” I said, feeling closer to Monique even if I was a little surprised by her brash slang.

Almost immediately 7 terns came swooping down from nowhere and began to hover in front of me.

“Mon Dieu, zee 7 Female Furies are here, ooh la la.” Monique said.

“They always want to have their say, my dear,” put in Charles.

I did not know what she and Charles were talking about until I put 2 and 2 together, or perhaps, I should say until I put 7 and 7 together. I saw the 7 terns who were hovering in front of me. Now, my normal name for terns is helicopter birds because they like to hover about 15 or 20 feet above the water flapping their wings frantically and then dive down and snag an unsuspecting minnow. It was only after realizing that there were 7 terns flapping their wings directly in front of me, hovering in the air not thirty feet away, that they must be the 7 Female Furies.

The 7 female furies appeared.

“Honey do!” Said one with the minnow in her mouth.

“Whatever,” said another.

“Melancholy is the woman,” said a third.

“Love is the answer,” said a fourth.

“Stand by your male,” said a fifth.

“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” said a sixth.

“Never sign a prenup,” said the seventh.

And then as quickly as they came and hovered, they ascended up a few hundred feet and flew away.

“What was that?” I asked Charles.

“Monique just told you, they were the 7 Female Furies.”

“What bird ever signed a prenup or got a diamond?” I asked.

“You foolish boy, birds are not so different than zee humans. I love zee pearls and when I was with Louis Quatorze I loved zee rubies and zee ermines. And besides a lot of those birds were ladies in an earlier life…some were sexy ladies too.”

It did not make sense to me. It was a topsy, turvy world that I had stumbled upon. I could not understand the meaning of talking swans and hovering terns – aka, the 7 Female Furies.

“All this is too much for me,” I said to Charles and Monique and I paddled off to ponder the meaning of it all.

When I got home, I thought about all that I had heard and learned from Charles and Monique. I really wanted to tell someone and ask them what they thought, but every time I came close to telling the truth to my wife or a good friend or my brother, I backed off because I knew they would think that I lost my mind. So I kept quiet and I thought about all the I had and seen. What did it all mean? Talking swans, a seagull from Brooklyn via South Africa, hovering terns giving advice against signing prenups. What did it all mean?

KongMing comes to say hello.

Two days later something even stranger occurred. I went down to go for a paddle when I heard this voice.

“The human has always been a failure. In my life I tried to bring together the Han, but despite many battles, despite the victory at Red Cliffs, despite my magic, despite the 8 fold maneuver, despite winning many a battle, despite killing hundreds of thousands by fire, I was not able to unite the empire. Such was my fate that my body gave out before my task could be accomplished.”

Now here was the strange part. I heard these words in my head, but I could not understand from where they came. I looked around and the only thing I saw was a great white heron in a tree opposite my dock.

“Yes, I am KongMing and I am a great white heron.”

“But you are not moving your beak,” I wanted to say mouth, but beak seemed more technically correct.

“I have no need to move my beak, human. I can communicate by thought.”

These were strange words, but only by hearing them in your head and realizing that they did not exist outside of your head was far stranger. It seemed that the bird was right, he could communicate simply by implanting thoughts in my brain, I heard it loud and clear. But why was he talking to me?

“Because Charles told me he had begun conversation with you, human.”

Again, I made the strange realization that this bird was answering a thought of mine that I had not spoken. This was scary.

“You need not fear, human, I am but a bird and I will pass away just like you.”

And then without further adieu, the bird continued to speak in my head.

“Life is but a brief period of transition from one state to another. Death is what we all do. We come, we go. The greatest weapon is fire. The greatest gift wisdom. The greatest strength understanding. The greatest strategy deception.”

That was all the bird said and then he flew off. As he flew away he issued a strange squawk and released a white stream of defecation. What did that mean?

A few days later I was paddling by Stone Bridge and saw Charles, Monique and several other swans. In truth, I was not able to recognize Charles and Monique individually. All swans look alike to me. But when Charles spoke up, I recognized him immediately.

“Human, we hope you are enjoying your paddle. We prefer to see humans paddling. We hate to see humans motor around in their great speedboats, towing their young behind them.”

“That’s knee-boarding,” I said.

“Whatever it is, it’s loud and we don’t like it. And we especially do not like JetSkis. Why must you burn fossil fuels to churn up water and make noise?”

“Humans have to have their fun. Besides, I’m a paddler.”

“We would prefer it if all humans would just paddle.”

I decided to paddle on, figuring that I had defended the Mastercrafts folks as much as I could and had not implemented myself in further blame.

A few days later and I saw Charles, Monique and Albert all gliding along quietly.

“Hello Charles, hello Monique, hello Albert…how’s the love life going?”

I heard a huff from Charles, a giggle from Monique and saw Albert sneak a smirk.

“Pretty well, actually,” Albert.

“Son, you know what I have told you about boasting…we do not approve it in this family.”

I could tell by the earnestness and firmness in Charles voice that he was not pleased by his son’s enthusiasm.

“No bluster in this family,” Monique said, “Not like your president.”

This immediately led to another line of thought.

“What do you mean not like my president?” I asked.

“Well, your president does have a tendency to boast.” Charles added, “in my day, I never believed in bluster. Maybe, firm words followed by firm action, but never bluster followed by more bluster.”

“Charles, call a spade a spade, his president is an asshole.” Monique added. I wish you could have been there to hear this lady swan pronounce the word asshole. She deliberately extended the vulgar word. It sounded more like ace-hoole.

“My president is an asshole?” I repeated in disbelief.

“I kind of like him,” said Albert. “He says what he means, he uses Twitter and he likes to go after the ladies…he can’t be all bad.”

I can only say that I felt like a distant traveler who had fallen into a strange new world.

“So what do you think of your president?” Charles asked me.

I was on the spot and felt I had to answer.

“Well, I am a little bit afraid. He makes a lot of promises, but I do not see how he can keep them all. And I worry sometimes that his talk might get us into a war.”

“You see, my dear, the human sometimes thinks.”

Monique turned her head and beak toward me. I thought I detected a sly smile.

“Yes, it may be possible there is something in that head. But take it from me, your president is zee ace-hoole!”

“I still like him,” said Albert.

“We shall see…his term has not run out.” said Charles.

I was getting uncomfortable by this turn to politics.

“Let’s talk about this later,” I said.

Just before I was about to renew my paddling, 7 Crows came flying in for a landing on the lone tree on Stone Bridge. It was a strange sight.

The 7 male furies gathering on Stone Bridge.

“Cecil, I think the 7 Male Furies have something to say to you,” said Charles.

“Me first,” said the first crow.

“The boy with the biggest toys wins,” said the second crow.

“God is great,” said the third.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said the fourth.

“My country right or wrong,” said the fifth.

“Better right than compromise,” said the sixth.

“Better to die rich and lose your soul,” said the 7th.

And just as suddenly as they came, the seven crows flew off, creating seven shadows on the water below before flapping away.

“Pay them no mind,” said Monique, “That’s the way they roll.”

It was all getting too weird for me. I paddled off, trying to comprehend as I glided by familiar waters and familiar scenery. The stranger these events got and the more I heard from Charles, Monique and other birds, the more it seemed impossible to relate my experiences to my wife or other friends.

In talking to Charles and Monique I found that I had many questions to ask. And perhaps, quite understandably, it seemed that Charles and Monique also had many questions to ask me. This led to a series of long conversations over the next months. Almost every time I would go for a paddle, about four or five times a week, I would run into Charles and Monique, usually in the back bay or by Stone Bridge or out in Setauket Bay on my way to Port Jefferson Harbor.

It seemed that Charles was most interested to know what I thought about the present period of time and politics. Monique, on the other hand, seemed more fixated on what I thought of present fashions and customs.

In truth, we talked of many things, current events, past history, the state of the environment, the health of the waterways. For me, I had a lot of questions on how it was that swans seemed to have lived previous lives. I explained that humans generally do not remember or think they had previous lives.

Charles was quite adamant of the subject.

“Of course, humans have previous lives,” said Charles, “they just don’t remember them. And if they get to live other lives as animals or birds, they remember it, but they cannot tell about it. We do not know why, but humans seem to be the only creatures that do not remember their previous lives…and yet they are they are able to talk to words each other. Birds and animals have always been able to talk to one another, but they never could speak words. Some birds, because of their internal radar, learned English and other languages, first from Radio and TV, then from the Internet…it was that knowledge that allows us to speak and be aware of humans and understand what they were up to. We were surprised and then concerned.”

That made me curious, “What were you concerned about?”

“Mon Dieu,” interjected Monique, “just when you think zee dimwit is beginning to understand something, he says something so stupid, you almost want to give up on zee human.”

“Well, what Monique is trying to say, we see you covering the earth, crowding out all other animals and birds, we see you dominating the land and the waterways and we see you despoiling it all. Frankly, that is why we choose to remain birds…we doubt the future of humans…at best you will make life intolerable for yourselves and all other living creatures, at worst you will destroy all life.”

“Zee humans do not have the ability to destroy all life, they can only destroy human life.”

You can gather from these comments that Charles and Monique were not optimistic about us humans.

“What do you expect?” I asked, “we are the dominant species.”

“Yes, for now, but not for long,” Charles answered, “there are many things we liked about being human. Being able to build things, being able to use tools, being able to talk to one another, writing poetry, novels, making films, these can be great achievements.”

“Don’t get me on the subject of films,” Monique injected, “only a few films are any good…of course, some French films…that is because French people are zee best humans, a few Indian and Chinese films and some old American and English films are good. The rest is zee crap. Especially the stuff from zee Hollywood. Mon Dieu, such pretty people making such crap…I don’t know why they do it.”

“Well, my dear, there some good films even today, but you are right. Mostly, it is fake explosions, stupid laughter and regurgitated boy meets girl stories. Yes, mostly, it just bad, not worth taking the time to see.”

Time and again I would cite films and novels that I thought worthy. Most of the time, Charles and Monique were not impressed, saying it had all been done several hundred years previously. How could a film have been done better several hundred years ago. I would ask. And they would counter, of course, films were not done better, but the plots for films had all been done several hundred years ago and they have been used and reused in today’s films.

The thing that seemed strange about what Charles and Monique were concerned about, were not the things I or most humans I knew were concerned about. Monique could, for example, go on for hours about the quality of the water in the bays.

“You’ve screwed it up,” she would say, “the bottom of the bays are all green with algae. The sand worms cannot do their good work because their sun is blocked by the algae, the waters are dark and murky and polluted. The shellfish are gone or dying. You have poisoned all the bays.”

“How did I poison the bays,” I would ask.

And then Monique would really let me have it.

“You wash your clothes with soap and detergent. Where do think that water goes? You build your houses on every piece of land surrounding the bays, you defecate and pee incredible amounts and all that waste goes into your so-called sewers which leak and seep into the bays. You fertilize farms and lawns and gardens with an incredible array of harmful chemicals. You spray insecticides on everything. All those chemicals run off into the bays. You drive cars that belch carbon monoxide that goes into the air before coming down into the bays as poisonous gas particles. You fly airplanes above that give off burn airplane fuel and rain down on us as chemical particles…there is no end to the damage and harm you cause. The very bays you paddle on are dead and diseased. They may look beautiful and healthy to you, but they are not. Yes, there are some birds and animals that survive that, but most life is being harmed by your actions.”

“My lady is quite correct on this issue…she may remember rubies and ermines and gay parties when she was human, but as a swan she knows the truth. And the truth is that humans are failing. When we were humans we had some very nice things, but that when the world was younger and there were a lot less people…but we do not want to go back to being humans…there is no future in it.”

“What do you mean? You said yourself that humans are the most successful animal species ever. We dominate the world. How can there be no future?”

“It is very simple,” continued Charles, “humans are taking up more and more space, over populating and over polluting the earth. Something must give…and when it does, life for humans will get worse. That is why Monique and I have no intentions of becoming human again. We do not want the stress.”

I was truly perplexed by Charles saying swans did not want the stress. I tried to counter Charles’s and Monique’s arguments…we live in the greatest period of history, we are surrounded by all sorts of marvels…central heating, central air, running hot and cold water, radio, TV, Internet, airplanes to fly on, cars to drive in, movies to see, restaurants, bars, theaters…truly humans have it all. But here were 2 nay-saying swans right in front of me disputing all that I had read and had been taught. I did not know to say.

“This is all too strange for me.”

Now I first met Charles and Monique and Albert in the spring. As time went on Albert’s feathers became pure white and he reached full male swan-hood. As far I could tell, Albert was still playing the field. The only way frankly I could tell Albert was playing around was that I noticed that some of the swans swimming along were different sizes…some small, some medium, some almost as large as Albert. And of course, I was not really able to tell the sex of the swans accompanying Albert, but often the ladies would speak to me directly.

They had heard that I had given Albert some advice…apparently Albert had told his lady friends of my advice and, all in all, I gather they appreciated me talking over Albert’s lady issues. One or two of these ladies were kind enough to say to me that they saw a real change in Albert. He was more patient, not so eager to attack and conquer, more likely to hang back and wait for the right moment. So, Albert and his ladies seemed very happy.

I gather young male swans are permitted a period of time to play the field and make up their mind. How long Albert got to play the field, I never did find out, because, as I am about to relate, my conversation with swans ended in October. It had begun in April and by October it came to a sudden and complete halt.

But before the end of My Swans Conversations, some other strange things happened. I met Bess the Hummingbird. She turned out to be a real romantic. She told me in a former life she had been a match-maker in the Court of Tsar Peter, so she was naturally inclined toward love and romance. Bess was an incredibly tiny bird. Charles introduced me one day when I happened to be near the cove in Setauket Bay that leads out into Port Jefferson Bay. We were near the shore, when I heard Charles say, “Hello, Bess.”

“Hi Sweetie,” Monique said almost simultaneously. And I saw this little blur of a bird hover in front of Charles and then dart over to hover in front of Monique. Monique and Bess seemed to knock beaks together. It was strange…this large lady swan with this tiny bird hovering a few inches from Monique’s beak. I saw the little bird dip her tiny, needlelike beak and Monique raise her much larger, blunter beak. For a brief moment the little beak touched ever so lightly the big beak…that was their hello.

And Bess flew over me and that was quite disconcerting. You do not know how scary a 2″ bird can be until it is flapping its wings six inches from your nose. Happily, Bess did not choose to touch my nose with her beak.

For a tiny bird, she had a booming voice.

“What be this,” she asked.

“This be a human,” I answered.

I thought I was being pretty clever and it must have been the case because immediately the little 2″ bird giggled. I would like to note while Bess’s body was only 2″, her wingspan was a solid 4″, so she was more intimidating than you might think. And if you are still thinking there is nothing scary about 2″ bird with a 4″ wingspan, imagine those wings are flapping a mile a second and think of it as a giant bumblebee 6″ from your nose. I guarantee you would be scared.

It turned out that there was really nothing to be scared about. Bess turned out to be all mush. She was love and lace, peppering me with constant questions about me and my wife, asking all sorts of personal questions I will not repeat, telling me I immediately needed go out and buy my wife flowers every day. This little bird was convinced that all we need is love, sweet love and she never wasted a minute not recommending it.

I also got to meet Luigi and Isadora, two Kingfishers that hung out in my little cove where my dock is. So every time I either put in my kayak or took out my kayak they would zoom around squeaking all sorts of derogatory comments.

“Here comes the swan talker,” Luigi would say.

“Hey swan talker, why don’t you catch some minnows for us.”

Luigi and Isadora were not much interested in conversation. Food was their true love…anything that was live…minnows, tiny crabs, flies, beetles, grasshoppers…if it moved they munched it. I tried to interest them in some bread.

“We don’t want your bread, man.” said Luigi

“Bread don’t move…what’s the sense of that?” asked Isadora.

I tried to ply those Kingfishers with bread, bits of beacon, some artichoke hearts…everything was a failure, until I put some bread in my minnow trap. That attracted a bunch of minnows. When I dumped the wire basket filled with minnows, Luigi and Isadora swooped instantly down and wiped those minnows out before the minnows had a chance to expire from lack of air. There was nothing left but some minnow eyes and fin parts drying on the dock. The dock was speckled with blood and minnow bits in less than 30 seconds.

All summer long I would paddle out and have discussions and conversations with Charles and Monique. As time went on, I really do think that Monique took a shine to me. She began to greet me with “Mon Cheri,” each time we met. It was nice to get so close and friendly with the local sea birds. I was not to know how brief and how rare my conversations would be.

One day I was paddling in the back part of Setauket Bay and I came upon a big rock. Just then KongMing landed on the rock.

KongMing gives his sermon on a rock

“Still here human,” I heard in my head, “still talking with Charles and family I understand…that is not long to last…you shall soon learn.”

And then KongMing began a strange monologue.

“All things are in flux.

All life is the same.

Nothing will remain.

Nothing will disappear.

The Empire, long united, will divide.

The Empire, long divided, will unite.

Thus it has always been.”

And then KongMing the Great White Heron flew off.

A few days later Charles and Monique glided into my little cove while I was pulling out my kayak.

“We have something to tell you,” said Charles, “we had a meeting – a swan convention. It has been decided that we can no longer talk to you. The Great Swan Council has determined that it is unnatural for swans to talk English to you. I knew it was a breach of protocol, I just did not know how many swan feathers it would ruffle. The decision is immutable…we must never speak after today. We are sorry. We have come to like you, but from this day forth, we can never speak.”

“Mon Cheri Dimwit, I too am sorry for this. I enjoyed our conversations. I most appreciate your little talk with Albert. He really appreciated your words. It is strange that the human words helped a swan to change. Maybe, there is more hope for your species. Ces’t la Vie. Au Revoir.”

With that Charles and Monique turned and glided their way out of my little cove.

“Wait a minute,” I called out as they glided away, “you never told me who Charles was in his earlier life.”

“That’s easy Mon Cheri, what starts with Charles and rhymes with Champagne.”

With that, Charles and Monique glided elegantly and silently out of my little cove, leaving a little trail of disturbed water behind them where they had paddled.

Author’s Note: It was some time after the strange events described above that I decided to to set down the experiences above in a blog story. This seemed the best way to tell the story. Reading it now, it seems even more unbelievable. I cannot help that. I can only say that I have tried, as best I can, to describe my conversations with swans and other birds.

PostScript: Shortly after publishing this blog story I received a strange e-mail from KongMing. It read:

Human!

I have had chance to review your blog story which does tell things that actually transpired. I was little disappointed with your photography and thought that I should send you a better rendering of myself. This was done by the artist James Audubon some time ago. It shows me in the full maturity of my third life as a Great White Heron.

While the rendering much better captures my essence, I cannot say it was painless. That was due to the fact that the artist, James Audubon, who was a great artist, decided it was easier to paint me after he had shot me. This caused me physical pain and loss of face. A great general and premier should not get shot in life. I certainly would have preferred if Mr. Audubon had been a great photographer rather than a great hunter, but such is my fate that the artist worked before the advent of really excellent hi resolution cameras. I had to wait until my sixth life as a Great White Heron to see the portrait below – when I happened to find it on the Internet.

Sincerely, KongMing, now in my seventh life as a Great White Heron

 

 

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The Age of Buffalo Chips

A Pile of Buffalo Chips – aka Kansas Coal

By Cecil Hoge

My brother, who happens to be almost 30 years younger than me, is under the impression that my generation was worthless and the source of many of today’s problems. My generation, according to my brother, was composed of loose-living, weak-minded liberals befuddled by drugs and a lack of a work ethic. He may be right.

I admit my generation, like all generations, had many faults and it was certainly true that many of our ideas went off the deep end. In particular, my brother has cited the wide scale drug use of my generation as an example of just how misguided we were. I cannot deny that my generation took drugs…lots of drugs…and those drugs, in many cases, had truly harmful effects. I cannot deny that our lackadaisical approach to life and some of our beliefs were wrong or, at best, misplaced.

That said, I cannot help but believe that the present period suffers from faults of its own. Specifically, I think this is The Age of Buffalo Chips. What are Buffalo Chips you may ask? Well, since this is a family type blog, I prefer not to call a spade a spade when it might be considered vulgar and profane. Therefore, I am not calling this The Age of Bullsh–t and I am not fully spelling out that crude term.

If you still have further questions about what I mean by The Age of Buffalo Chips, try to imagine you are an American pioneer setting up a homestead on the Great American Prairie. There were not many trees on that prairie. And during the winter it got cold and nasty. So how did they heat their mud brick homesteads. Well, Buffalo Chips of course.

What exactly were Buffalo Chips. Well, Buffalos, like humans, have to go the bathroom. And Buffalos did not have the modern advantages of present Americans, namely, indoor plumbing. So Buffalos did the thing that came naturally to them. They pooped on the prairie. And Buffalo poop, after being left out on the prairie tended to dry out. So Buffalo Chips were dried out Buffalo Poops. And fortunately for the first American settlers on the prairie, the Buffalos pooped a lot. Why, you may ask? It turned out that when the Buffalo Poop dried out and became Buffalo Chips, those chips burned nice and slow and made very good firewood where there was no other firewood.

I have no reports as to whether Buffalo Chips smelled when they burned. If you are interested to learn, you will have to organize a seance with some American pioneers who lived on the prairie or try burning Buffalo Chips yourself. Hint: Buffalo Chips may be hard to locate in this day and age.

Lady with a Load of BCs

So Buffalo Chips were used in the same way coal was and heated many of the first homes on the American Prairie before indoor heating and plumbing came into wide use. You could say that Buffalo Chips were the same as bullsh–t, even if Buffalos were not exactly Bulls. That is what I mean when I say this is The Age of Buffalo Chips.

My calling this The Age of Buffalo Chips does not tell you exactly why I am using that phrase, so I wish to go further into my explanation. First and foremost, I would like to say that while my generation did indulge in drugs and other intoxicants, it seems to me that the present generation is stoned out of its mind – translation: acting as if they were taking heavy drugs. How so, you may ask? Not in the sense that the present generation is actually taking drugs, although the recent emergence of head shops in my little town of Port Jefferson would argue that some youngsters are still into Wacky Tabacky.

I do hear a lot of talk about “Opiods” and heroin addiction, especially in those depressed mid-west towns that voted for our present President. But those people are not stoned out their mind in the sense that I am talking about. I am talking about the people who look and talk completely straight, as if they have never taken a drug or a drop of alcohol in all their life. I am talking about groups of people,..business leaders, politicians, pundits, experts, economists, statisticians, prognosticators, lawyers, stock market analysts, big company marketers who are not taking drugs or “Opiods” or heroin. I am talking about a generation of business and political leaders who I think are “stoned out of their heads”.

Let me give you an example of  The Age of Buffalo Chips. There is a company that is presently running an advertising campaign on a product that is supposed to help people lower their blood sugar levels. The commercial begins with a guy walking dog. There is one problem – the dog is refusing to move. I guess what this is saying is that the guy is being held back from walking his dog. You can see that from the commercial. The dog is obviously not co-operating, and I suppose the point of that is that something in the guy’s body is not complying.

Meanwhile, the commercial is discussing the difficulties of controlling your blood sugar level if you have diabetes. It goes on to show some kind of instrument that seems to be both an injection system and medicine holding system. This system seems to be able to assist you injecting yourself with some kind of chemical (presumably to control your blood sugar) and at the same time, it seems to have enough medicine in it to give you multiple injections over a period of time. That seems to be the gist of both the instrument and the medicine. At that point, the commercial says, in so many words, that this is an easier way to control your blood sugar level, something very important for people with Diabetes.

Man and his dog, now walking

Pretty soon that commercial moves on to show the guy now walking his dog, who mysteriously gets up, presumably now because his master has used the mysterious instrument and injected the medicine. As he is walking along the guy begins to kind of dance. We can tell he is happy. Things are going better. The dog is walking with him…oh happy day. Then the guy ditches the dog and seems to be dancing through a park past picnic tables and happy park people.

At that point the commercial begins to list a litany of potential side effects from the medicine and we hear this list of problems that might occur…shortness of breath, wheezing, constipation, heart palpitations, diarrhea, bad breath, cancer, hernia, seizures, internal bleeding…I am not sure if this list is a complete or accurate list, but it gives you a feeling of the commercial. Meanwhile, the guy gets happier and happier, wiggling and waggling, shimmying and shagging his way through the park, dancing away, dancing around picnic tables, smiling at everybody and everything, with happier and happier music as the list of potential ailments goes on.

This guy is so happy that he mows lawns in circles!

Then the guy moves to an office, presumably one where he works, dancing through the office aisles, around desks, past other workers, with get happy music. In the background, the list of possible side effects ends with a fatal heart attack or stroke and then moves swiftly on to the many advantages of this remarkable new system. The final few seconds of the commercial show the guy mowing his lawn in circles while the announcer provides the sensible advice that it is perhaps good to consult your doctor about using this delightful new system, advising you prudently if you have a history tuberculosis, heart disease, liver disease or several other ailments that it is probably best to stay from this new miracle system.

I, not having Diabetes or a problem with blood sugar level, do not pay too close attention to this commercial. I am guessing that this kind of marketing does work, not only because it seems to be running almost every night, but also because there seem to be many other medicines running commercials at the same time touting different medical benefits, while each listing several dozen possible side effects. I offer the man walking his dog commercial as a prime example of The Age of Buffalo Chips.

1 Buffalo Chip Up Close and Personal

Another example of The Age of Buffalo Chips is politicians, some on the left, some on the right, telling us about a proper solution to a problem that they know never has a chance of ever being accepted. So, for example, Democrats today love to talk before TV cameras and say that we need to improve and enhance Obamacare. Now these politicians know of course that a new Republican President of the United States was just elected on the promise of abolishing Obamacare. And they know the Republicans now control The Senate, The Congress and most States in the country and that the Republicans have sworn, cross their hearts, to abolish Obamacare. Therefore, these Democrats know, clearly, absolutely, without any question or doubt, that there is not the slightest chance of Obamacare being improved or enhanced. And yet they say quite earnestly in front of cameras that this is what we should do.

So why do they go on TV and recommend something that there is absolutely no possibility of getting done? Simply because they want to put their faces in front of cameras and show their constituents that they are doing something that will never get adopted. Truly, this is an example of The Age of Buffalo Chips.

But fear not, this is a beloved technique of both parties. When the Democrats were in power and they had passed Obamacare, the Republicans proudly got up and said they would abolish Obamacare. Now they knew they had no way to abolish Obamacare with so many Democrats in Congress and in the Senate. But that did not stop them from getting up in front of cameras and saying and recommending what we should do.

And now, after they did get elected, after the Republicans did gain control of the Senate, the Congress and many state governments, these same Republicans cannot agree to adopt the very changes that swore they would put in place when they knew they could not do it. Truly, another prime example of Buffalo Chips.

Sustenance in the The Age of Buffalo Chips

While we are on the subject of TV through cable or satellite, I would like to mention that once upon a time TV was free. Now, you did not have many channels and in the beginning it was just black and white. As time went on, TVs moved from black and white to color and the number of stations gradually increased. Pretty soon it was almost 10.

There were still a number of problems with early TV. The channel selection was quite limited – there were a few local channels and a few national network channels. And then there were the advertisements. There were lots of advertisements.

The worst problem with TV of that time (the late 1940s and the early 1950s) was the fact that you had to physically change the channels. It makes me break out in a sweat just thinking about it. You had to get up, walk to the TV and turn it on. After that you still had to turn the channel dial, while standing at the TV. When you decided what station you wanted, you would select it and walk back fifteen or twenty feet and sit down. And most of the time you watched that station for the next one or two hours.

If you wanted to change a station, you had to get up, walk over to the TV and turn the channel dial to the new station you wanted. Then you had to walk back and sit down and watch that channel until you wanted to change it again. Truly, watching TV in those days was exhausting. And if you happened to be a channel surfer in those days and if there were as many channels as there are today, you would never need to worry about going to the gym because the exercise you would get changing channels would greater than the best gym workout.

We live in an age of progress and we can thank the good Lord for the invention of the remote. The first remotes were developed in 1950, but at the time you had to have a wire that ran from the TV back to your remote by the easy chair you were sitting on. This was a true danger because someone could trip over it on their way to get more chips or another beer. But progress waits for no man and in 1955 the first wireless remotes were developed and mankind, or at least many Americans, were freed from the need of wires.

Very early on there were attempts to have cable systems for TV, but these were only very limited. That was because no one wanted to pay for cable. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s it was widely believed that TV would always be free.

But that is not what happened. In the early 1970s cable systems came into wide use based on the promise of commercial free TV. And for some years, cable TV was mostly commercial free, but you did pay for it. In the early days it was $10 or $15 a month. But as time passed and the cable networks saw new opportunities, the cost for cable went up and commercials began to work their way into cable TV programming. So by the 1980s people found themselves paying more for cable TV and watching just as many commercials as when TV was free.

Of course, because progress is always progressing, the number of cable TV programs was greatly enlarged. First to 30 or 40 stations, then 50 or 80 stations and then to hundreds of stations and soon to thousands. And that resulted in exponentially more channels to run commercials on.

It must be admitted, even by the most enthusiastic TV viewers, that the quality of these new programs was not always as high as the original programs that first aired when there were only two or three stations and when TV was completely free. And given the fact that instead of dozens of Tv commercials, you no had tens of thousands of TV commercials to work your way through. But, if channel quantity is a good indication of value, the cost per program became minimal and the opportunity to watch commercials became infinite.

So what cable TV offers today is a vast array of channel choices, some with good programming, good movies, some with myriad reality and Buffalo Chip programming and all with a sea of commercials for viewer to suffer through.

Given that we are in The Age of Buffalo Chips, all of this makes perfect sense.

Now my brother tells me that there are lots of new free digital programming available where the programming is much better and the commercials are either non-existent or at least far less. So this is a really good thing. Recently, my brother tried to convert his cable, internet and phone programming to just the internet. It sounds simple but this is a no no in cable land. I gather it took about three days and twelve hours in voicemail hell to obtain a talking, living person on the phone who said they might, just might, be able to do that although they absolutely recommended against making such a terrible decision as unbundling, since my brother would lose access all the wonderful programming cable, phone and internet that Verizon offered.

It is not clear if my brother John finally succeeded, but it is clear he is working his way through a giant pile of Buffalo Chips.

Let us move on to another field of activity…economics. Today we have a several cable or network shows reviewing and gleaning over and interpreting and pontificating on economic events on a daily basis and if one listens carefully to what these ladies and gentlemen say, one looks into the very heart of Buffalo Chips and sees that it is brown and dried out and, unlike the real buffalo chips, not even useful for heating homes.

What do these ladies and gentlemen of the dismal science tell us. Buffalo Chips is the answer.

Let’s make a few observations:

When the stock market goes down, the pundits interviewed tell us on the various national financial shows, that now is the time for “bottom fishing”. Oh, certainly, a few pundits are enlisted to say there may be some “risks” going forward, but then other pundits are interviewed immediately afterwards who point out that “the smart money” is “buying the dip”. Yes, we are told, at the time of maximum risk, the bold investor, the smart investor, the truly genius investor, is going into the market is…”bottom fishing”, “buying the dip” and surely, making a killing.

When the stock market is going up, the same pundits interviewed tells us about “the GoldiLocks economy” – that is when the business may not seem that great (for example, like today), but is still staggering upwards, while interest rates are held in check, while the Fed is still holding off raising interest rates too much, while the stock market continues to log increase after increase, though for no apparent reason. And so the pundits being interviewed always say the stock valuations are not really that high, even if they are higher than at any time in the last 150 years. Why? Because we are in a “GoldiLocks economy”.

And what happens if the “GoldiLocks economy” continues for years and the stock market goes up year after year and business stays about the same for year after year, as it has, for example, for the last seven years. Then these same pundits talk about “momentum” and “missing momentum”. Do you really want to miss the momentum when the economy continues to grow at a small rate and the stock market continues to surge upwards? Surely then, we are on the verge of a new boom, surely productivity is about to increase and there will be a growth rate that defies all others.

And yet, it does seem, when one looks at the stock market and the economy, that the stock market goes up 19% while the actual economy goes up 2.3%. Does that make sense. Not actually, unless, of course, you happen to be in The Age of Buffalo Chips. Then, it makes perfect sense.

I might slightly divert this discourse and mention that in recent years large corporations have discovered if they gobble up other companies and buy their own stock and downsize the overall number of their employees, they can see their stock valuations go up and they can show ever greater profits, even if the sales of all the individual companies they bought and own are declining. How does that work? In brief it works great for the brilliant business leaders of the company who draw millions and millions for their personal annual income. It does not work so well, however, if you are employed in any of these great corporations because there is a real possibility that you will be downsized. That is what is known as creative accounting in The Age of Buffalo Chips.

A Nice Toasty Fire To Gather Round!

This might be a good time to give my personal opinion of what happened in the collapse of 2007 & 2008. First of all, I wish to warn you that my opinion is most likely not held by many people and so, it should be considered just what it is, an opinion.

Here is what I think happened: The United States of America went bankrupt in 2007 and 2008. Now we all know that America did not declare bankruptcy in those years, so what I am talking about is a bit of a secret. I think when the Bush Administration (they were ending their administration just as the great collapse was starting) came to understand the true ramifications of what actually happened, they quickly and correctly understood that they could not tell the American public what actually happened. Why, because if they did, 50 or more million people might have been thrown out of work.

So they did the best thing they could: they lied. They said that the problem was only a temporary disruption and the government began writing blank checks to all the corporations that got us into trouble. I want to say something in favor of the Bush Administration: I believe they had absolutely no choice and they did the right thing. Yes, they could have let all the over large businesses that got us into trouble go bankrupt, but that would have resulted in another Great Depression and truly another 50,000,000 plus people would have lost their jobs and the government would have had no way to assist those people or deal with that problem.

So the government wrote checks and issued bonds for trillions of dollars to solve the problem. How did they do it? The Federal Reserve Bank simply purchased with bonds vast seas of bad, failing assets held by the companies that caused the problem. Now there was no actual money that existed for this. The American Government simply created funds, literally printing money or issuing bonds to purchase bad assets. They then took these bad assets off of the books of the companies that caused the problem and said they were now on the books of the Government. The total of those bad assets presently total $4,500,000,000. It is a big pile of Buffalo Chips.

In addition, the Government literally gave money directly to many of the same companies that got us into trouble. So the huge companies that created the problem were given cash to keep going in addition having most of their bad assets taken off of their books.

What do I think was the cause of all these problems and why was it so difficult a problem? I think it was one word: Leverage. For most of the 80s, all of the 90s and up through 2007, the new generation of financial experts were figuring out new and creative ways to create more and more leverage.

Let’s go back a bit. In the early 1900s, banks and stock brokerage firms lent money on the basis of having about 15% in hard assets and raising 85% in loans, stocks and bonds. The assumption at the time was that not all your loans could go bad at once and if you had 15% in hard assets, it was relatively safe to raise money in loans or stocks or bonds for 85% more. That worked pretty well up until 1920 and then banks and stock brokerage companies got together and figured out new ways for their customers to buy stocks, real estate and other bad investments while putting only a small amount money down.

That worked great as long as the stock market and real estate was going up, but when they went down many investors found they suddenly had to put up money they did not have. That, in essence, was the problem that the country faced when the Great Crash and the Great Depression began in 1929. It was also, by the way, the reason for the Glass-Steagall Act of 1934 which forbid commercial banks and investment firms from working together.

In the 1980s, when once again the stock exchanges began to truly recover from the terrible losses of the 1930s, the young people going into financial markets began to figure out new ways to gamble on investments. All sorts of new opportunities were created to invest and in doing so it became possible to greatly increase the money raised from hard assets. So, instead of having 15% in hard assets and raising 85%, it became possible to raise 99% from 1% in hard assets. Most of those people were still from my generation.

That was only the beginning of the trend of the rise of leverage. New younger guys and gals came on to the scene. They had borrowed money to get through college and they now found themselves starting careers with substantial college debts. Admittedly, this was nothing like the college debts as of May, 2017, which presently happens to be 1.4 trillion dollars. Let me write that number out – $1,400,000,000 owed by 44 million college student borrowers. Anyway, the next generation of younger guys and gals saw that stock market and investment businesses were prospering and they decided to join the prosperity train.

Now these young guys and gals were starting out with debts from college so they wanted to figure out new ways to create for more opportunity for themselves. And what better way to do that than to increase leverage. This allowed more money to be raised from the same assets so more investments could be offered and everybody could profit. And this generally worked really well all through the 90s. And by the end of century, Glass-Steagall was revoked and leverage surged ahead to become more like a half of one percent assets with 99.5% of all monies raised from that. If anybody had cared to think about that they would have realized that there was no there there.

When the 2000s began, colleges began to really get really expensive and each new class indebted themselves more. So it should come as no surprise that the newest generations of college students looked around to see where the best opportunities for enrichment were. Everybody could see that was in the go-go investment and stock brokerage and merger/acquisition companies, not to mention the formerly conservative banks who leaped into the game by selling stocks and bonds, gambling in currency markets and offering home mortgages and car loans to people who could not pay them back.

By the year 2007, things were beginning to fray a bit. The Age of Buffalo Chips was becoming evident. People were buying homes and cars and boats that they could not afford and it was all on credit made possible by, you guessed it, leverage. By this time, the money raised in mortgages, subprime loans, stock investments, real estate, government buildings was about 1500 times the actual value of hard assets available to borrow from. Houston, we have a problem. It seems there is no there there. Ooops.

I do not think the Bush Administration or the Clinton Administration before it ever saw this coming. To be sure, some people did see it coming – one only has to read Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short”, to know, without question that some people knew what was happening and made investments to counter what they knew would occur.

Now the gurus and the pundits and the economists interviewed after the collapse of the stock market and the economy all, almost to a man or a gal, said that no one could have foreseen or predicted the collapse of 2007/2008. But of course that is just another example of Buffalo Chips since there are still hard copies of “The Big Short” out there to directly contradict all those gurus and pundits and economists who, by the way, are still pontificating today about the glories of our stock market.

Anyway, when the Bush Administration did realize what had happened, the first thing they knew and understood was that they could not actually say that America had gone bankrupt. And frankly, this was a necessity. So they did their best and they printed a lot of money, wrote a lot of checks and bailed out the people who had created the problem because they knew if they didn’t a new Great Depression would arrive.

And shortly after, when the Obama Administration came to power and also came to realize the full extent of the problem, they also did essentially the same thing. They continued to pay off the people who caused the problem. And this is because the alternative was just too tough. In doing so, they also bailed out the American Car Industry, with the exception of Ford, who happened to be reasonably, well-funded. I believe this allowed us to get to the present period with a minimum of pain, but with a totally lackluster economy and it did, we must admit, save the majority of the American car industry.

Of course, today, 10 years after the collapse, we are still in a kind of economic haze of tepid survival. Today’s politicians lie about that. Maybe because they do not know better, maybe just because they want to be elected, maybe because they do know better. Whatever the reason, the economy is what it is because of the events we have passed through and because of the failure and collapse of leverage. At least, that is what I think.

I would also like to interject another opinion of mine here – that is, that America’s stock markets are rigged. Just how they are rigged I am not quite sure. I am guessing it is a combination of people and companies with faster computers than the computers used by the leading American stock exchanges, of computer generated algorithms that favor certain companies and certain trends and of many financial institutions working loosely together. Again, that is only my opinion and, like all opinions, it may be wrong.

But fear not, this is The Age of Buffalo Chips. As we speak, new, younger financial wizards are out there trying figure out new ways to increase leverage and to make money where there is no there there.

Moving on from the economy and back to TV, it is important to note that once upon a time, before The Age of Buffalo Chips, news organizations tried to report on news without taking sides. That is hard to realize in this era of “Fake News” and biased news where cable, radio and TV networks take sides and report the news with specific agendas. Our President says the main stream media is the enemy because they are distributors of “Fake News”. And surely it is true that the mainstream is biased because no matter the news organization, each has a point of view.

For example, surely CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and CNN are all left leaning, pro-Democratic and decisively against Mr. Trump and the Republicans. And if it were not for Fox News, you would have to say that all the mainstream media is decisively against Trump and the Republicans. A curious fact is that Fox News spends a significant amount of time saying that the mainstream media is completely biased against Trump and the Republicans. And that would be true if it were not for the fact that Fox News is the most watched and the most popular mainstream news media in the United States.

So the truth of the matter is that the most popular mainstream media, Fox News, has made a career of calling all the other mainstream media biased. At the same time, most of the rest of the mainstream media – CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and CNN – spends a lot of time calling Fox News biased and “Fake News”.

Both sides in this debate are 100% right. All media outlets have their own agendas and they are all, one and all, biased. And that also goes for newspapers and radio stations and the Internet in all its many forms.

I remember a time when the national media networks felt that they should only report the news and they should not take sides. I am thinking of Walter Cronkite and many other newscasters who at least seemed to be reporting what happened without saying what or who is wrong or right. Perhaps, my memory of that time is hazy or rose-colored. In any case, that era is long gone. We are now in The Age of Buffalo Chips.

I would like to say that I do not like The Age of Buffalo Chips. I would prefer news organizations to be responsible, but they are not. So, what is one to do? In my opinion, it is to look at the many different agendas and listen to the “news” as they report it and then make up your own mind and decide for yourself what is true, what is not true and what is Buffalo Chips.

This is not easy and I think it means listening to many sides and then reading history, thinking about all the different news reports and then making up your mind. It is my opinion, in The Age of Buffalo Chips, you have to think for yourself, decide for yourself and yes, make up your own damn mind.

Now as long as I am discussing this present period, I think it might be useful to consider lawyers. A lot of things have been said about people of that profession and almost universally, most of what has been said is negative. This is understandable when one sees some of the ads on TV for lawyers.

Whether it be Mesothelioma, Asbestos poisoning, or some terrible ailment caused by a wonder drug that has laid low a portion of the population, lawyers never seem to be at a loss to offer their services. In the old days, when advertising for legal services were forbidden or frowned upon, some lawyers were described as ambulance chasers. But the times have changed and there are much bigger bucks to be made.

Consider the prominent ads of the renowned firm, Yuckem, Suckem and Shuckem – I may have misspelled their name slightly. Their ads flood prime time TV. If you or some relative of yours has had the misfortune to contract Mesothelioma, leukemia, psoriasis, or some other disease that may or may not be related to some blockbuster drug, please apply to Yuckem, Suckem and Shuckem. They are the heroes of the people, they can get you big money, which, of course, is your God-given right to have.

Now perhaps the above is an example of what our President calls “Truthful Hyperbole”. Perhaps, there is no such firm as Yuckem, Suchem and Shuckem. You decide that. As far as I am concerned, this is just another example of The Age Buffalo Chips.

Perhaps This Is A Good Time To Reconsider This Lady

In reading this blog story I realize that I may have said many negative things about this period. I would like to mention some truly positive things about what I am calling The Age of Buffalo Chips. Perhaps the best starting point for that is the lady shown above. Let us consider her life when she and presumably her husband first arrived on the plains of Kansas to settle and make a new home in what was then the West.

Truly, her life and her husband’s life was not easy. We know from the picture above that she had adequate heating materials and she was strong enough to handle a wheel barrow. We can presume that she and her husband had access to water somewhere nearby. How far she or he had to carry the water we do not know. What seems sure is that she or her husband did not have indoor plumbing, did not have oil, gas or electric heating, did not have AC to cool the little homestead on those hot summer days on the Great American Prairie. Nor did they have a washing machine or a dishwasher, so house-keeping was not easy and starting out on the lone prairie involved struggle and endless hours of physically back-breaking work for she, her husband and her children.

Yes, they might have had a horse or a mule or a goat or a cow to provide some limited transportation, help with the plowing  or give the family some milk. They might have had some chickens or pigs to tend to and slaughter and eat. We can be sure they did not enjoy the modern benefits of an automobile that propelled them air-conditioned or heated according to the time of year back and forth to a supermarket packed with a myriad choice of meats, vegetables or sweets. A trip to town, where ever it was, might have taken many hours and the fare available to buy…be it hardware or foodstuffs or blankets and sheets…must have been limited.

Nor did our lady enjoy the creature comforts of the digital age. She could not call her children to remind them about soccer practice, she could not listen to songs on the radio or view soap or reality shows on TV. And most of all, she could not call her lady friends or perhaps even her boyfriend on the side and tell them or him her troubles and excitements and accomplishments of the day.

Yes, there are many enhancements and improvements in our life today in what I am calling the The Age of Buffalo Chips. There is much to be thankful about, there are many things that were issues for our ancestors that are not issues for us. So, the The Age of Buffalo Chips may be a period full of bullsh–t, but it also an age of privilege and wonder.

Perhaps the most wondrous example of this period is the ability to search for information on the web. Admittedly, sometimes it is hard to understand what is true and accurate because the choice and range of information available is truly mind-boggling. I am thinking specifically of a resource like Wikipedia. It is admittedly not the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it is a remarkable tool. Because it is an open source, ever-changing, ever-expanding media – kind of like our universe. It is not easy to be sure that everything is true and accurate. That said, it is resource that can be consulted at a moment’s notice almost anyplace at almost any time for free to check or counter-check some information.

I think the ability to access many websites for news, the weather or other desired information is a another remarkable advantage only made possible by the Internet and smart cell phones. The two combined provide us with a vast sea of portable, transmittable data and information. We can check things, verify things, look up things, photograph, record and video people and moments in our life. We can write notes, stories, novels, histories and even lowly blog stories. In truth, The Age of Buffalo Chips, as befuddling and confusing as it is, is also The Age of Great Possible Enlightenment.

It is great because there is an enormous amount of information available to access. It is possible because we carry around a tool, the smart phone, that can instantly access almost any kind of information. And that is possible because there is something called the Internet.

Of course, being possible also implies that it can be also be impossible. That is because in The Age of Buffalo Chips we are the ones who must inform ourselves and that means all of us must be willing and capable to stay informed, to judge for ourselves the information presented to us and to be able to determine the truth within. And that my friends is not always easy in The Age of Buffalo Chips.

 

 

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It Was The Music – Volume #2 – 1960-1963

A black gentleman who rolled Beethoven

By Cecil Hoge

In 1960 things were changing in the country fast. Blacks were integrating luncheonettes and riding buses in the front. Protest marches were beginning and some blacks were getting shot. John F. Kennedy was in the process of beating Hupert Humphrey on his way to best Richard Nixon. Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoe in the UN and I was still at Portsmouth Priory School. Summer was still reserved for Southampton.

In 1960, the popular songs of the day were mostly concerned with love. The Everly Brothers were singing about being “Cathy’s Clown”, Elvis was trying to close a deal in “It’s Now or Never” and The Drifters were singing “Save The Last Dance for Me”. But other things were happening – folk music and jazz music were getting more acceptance from my generation. Me and my classmates were listening to it all, trying to make up our minds about what was good and what was not.

image

St. Thomas Aquinas, bright shining star of the Catholic Church

At Portsmouth the good monks were teaching me about St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinius and the principle philosophies and religions of the world. So I was learning about hedonism, epicureanism, Polytheism, Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Of course, the monks’ viewpoint might have been a little skewed. Christianity is good, they said, the others are bad, they said. Of course, the monks were high IQ guys so they did it in a very high-minded way.

It went something like this: Hedonism is a simple dullard’s philosophy – pain is bad, pleasure is good – it leads to being a simple gross guy with no style – a drunkard, a sex fiend, a glutton. Epicureanism is one step above hedonism – you get to savor your food, slow it down, moderate your booze intake, enjoy stuff as you go – but, in the end, it is just the same thing, a pig with some paint on it, a dead end, an empty promise that leads to hell without hope of God or redemption.

Polytheism was a whole different can of wax for the Benedictines. It led, they said, to idolatry and the worship of the Golden Calf, Bacchus and Dionysus. There were a lot of different guys and gals who were gods and they tended to fight and be jealous of each other, so it was kind of hard to follow. Some were pretty good looking and tended to cause a lot of trouble. I have to say that Bacchus and Dionysus sounded like interesting fellows, but the good monks seemed to give them short shrift, saying they were just a couple of hedonists dressed as gods.

Regarding Christianity, having dog in that fight, the monks had a specific view. Christianity is the one true religion and provides the big payoff – provided you are good. And, by the way, they meant Catholic Christianianity. Not Eastern Christianity (a left turn off the true road), not Protestantism, not Episcopalianism, not Presbyterianism, and certainly not Baptists, all of whom the good monks regarded as misguided heretics. And in case you did not know it, Benedictine monks are, they said, the smartest, most noble and most correct guys wearing the black cloth and the white collar on planet earth. The good monks went on to explain that other forms of Christianity were just like movie reruns – never as good as the original. Yeah, they said more than that, but this is a blog story about music.

Regarding other aberrant schools of thought: Islamism might have some points, they said, since it was derived from Abraham and Islamic folks did regard Christ as a kind of prophet, but those guys really went off the deep end and found themselves on the wrong trail…after all, who would believe believe you will be feted by virgins with breasts like melons when you get to heaven.

Another gentleman that we discussed.

Buddhism was started by a rich wierdo, a prince who for all of his early life was sheltered by his parents. They did not want Siddhartha to know about death. But as happens Siddhartha left his home and, in doing so, saw death and poverty. This made him sad and confused and he meditated for many years on the meaning of life. Siddhartha tried starving himself to see if that would bring enlightenment. It did not and Siddhartha came to believe that extreme aestheticism was not the answer. Siddhartha came to believe that you have listen to your inner soul and try to achieve a state of Nirvana and thus escape pain and death. His big point seemed to be that the bow should not be too tightly strung or too loosely strung, meaning that any extreme was not the answer. Rather the middle way was the answer. That seemed like good advice to me. The Benedictine monks did not have a high opinion of “Nirvana”, which they considered a kind of negation of life, but they did admit Siddhartha was a guy to be reckoned with.

Regarding Confucianism and Daoism, the good monks also admitted these two philosophies were pretty impressive and intricate from a distance, but said they led nowhere. Confucianism wasn’t even a religion, it was really just a discipline to run an empire. After all, didn’t Confucius say, “Do not worry about the heavens, there will be time enough to worry about the heavens when you die.” Regarding Daoism, they said they did not have much use for “the way is the way” and water is stronger than rock and other such contradictory conundrums. Who would believe, that God is in everything? Why, that would mean that God was water, rocks, air, clouds, sun, stars…the whole kit and caboodle…everywhere and anything.

I know many folks may not like what is said above, but I am only the reporter. I am telling you what the good monks told me. So, if you have gripe about their opinion, I suggest you get in a car, drive yourself up to Portsmouth, Rhode Island and go talk to the good monks about it. But I will tell you something, if you do go, you better put on your best thinking cap. Those Benedictine monks are the sharpest guys wearing the black cloth and the white collar on planet earth, trust me on that.

Since this blog story is about music, I will tell you that I took a very interesting course at Portsmouth Priory called the history of music. Of course, it was rather limited. It only took in music from about the 12th century on. It did not cover Roman music, Greek music, Egyptian music, not to mention Chinese music, Korean music, African music, Indian music. And I don’t remember learning about Mayan music. I am guessing the good monks did not have any recordings available of the other stuff.

Actually, the good monks did not have recordings from the 12th century either, but they did have some information about what kind of instruments were played in those times. Seeing that people around that time were just coming out of the dark ages and were dealing with plagues, depression, constant wars, murder and rape, the music was mostly vocals and harmonies, including Benedictine chants. They did have some instruments that were not very complex, one or two string affairs and some gourds to blow into and create hornlike sounds. Anyway, the monks did have some recordings of that. It sounded a lot like the monks doing their Benedictine chants at our 5:30 am masses.

I will not say that I hated 12th century music, but it sounded kind of simple and dreary to me – like going to mass at Portsmouth Priory at 5:30am. But the music course moved on fairly quickly to cover some Renaissance hits. Those ditties were positively great by comparison and seemed to be almost band like. And apparently the guys and gals of the Renaissance had 3 and 4 and more stringed instruments, horn instruments and other things like piano like instruments and even drums. Yes, even in the 1400s, they were beginning to rock.

Well, I really liked the music of the Rennaisance. Not that I was going to go out to actually buy an album of it, but it sounded pretty damn good, especially when compared Benedictine chants. My course in music moved onto the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century and eventually got to the 20th century. Going from simple English folk songs like “Greensleeves”, a haunting song about camp followers (aka, prostitutes) dating back to the 12th century. And then on to Renaissance dance music, to more orchestrated music of the following centuries, passing through Baroque music and onto Beethoven, Bach and other biggies of the classical world. I can’t say the high falutin’ music held me. Finally, they passed into what sounded like some bad modern music, before they came to jazz music, which the good monks disparaged as a lower form of music, but I really thought was great, especially the early hot and rude jazz of Dixieland.

Not only was I going to school and studying music in a general way, but I and all my classmates were developing our own musical tastes which were mostly centered on the popular music coming out at the time. We were listening still to the Everly Brothers who also came out with “Let it be Me”. Chubby Checker was singing about “The Twist” and Fats Domino was “Walking to New Orleans”. Elvis had another hit that year, “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.

About this time, other influences and sounds were being heard. I was listening to different kinds of jazz, not just Dixieland, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong from the 20s and 30s, but also new kinds of jazz, Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Theolonious Monk. And of course, we had heard as background while growing up the music of our parents, Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, big band music, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and many, many others.

As students, our dorm rooms echoed with different types of music…pretty much every student had a record player…so, from our rooms, you would hear archipelago singing, rock and roll, jazz, classical and folk music, dissonant jazz to Dixieland Jazz. I, like some others, took a liking to various “Folk Singers” – Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and others. We were too unsophisticated to listen to Woody Guthrie and other more authentic folk singers. We did not listen to much country music so you could say we were Hank Williams deaf and dumb. We were listening to Johnny Cash and some of the more popular country singers.

An interesting musical interlude occurred during Christmas break when my new German uncle (he was the brother  of my new stepmother) moved to New York and took me out one night with his best drinking buddy in New York. I had come home for the holidays. Now this was a time when I was still 17, in the winter of 1960, when I had sworn a sacred oath to my Benedictine monks not to drink alcoholic beverages for the rest of my life. My sacred oath did last until the summer of same year, when I came to conclusion that it might work for monks, but it would not work for me.

In any case, during my winter vacation, I got the opportunity to tag along with my new uncle and his best drinking buddy. Now, because I was honoring my sacred oath and because technically I was below drinking age in New York (an issue that had not always been an issue), I went out with my uncle Jackie, better known as Ernst Von Kalkreuth. Ernst had come to this country to find fame and fortune as a commercial artist – in Germany he had studied for this occupation. And as mentioned, Jackie, although brand new to the US, had some friends who had moved earlier to the States. And his friend Gottfried was one of them. Gottfried not only was a heavy drinker, he was a heavy smoker.

Now because Gottfried was in the States longer than Jackie, Gottfried was our official guide to New York that evening. So the first place we went to was Eddie Condon’s on 52nd Street. I remember they had some jazzy band that did not seem that terrific, but after an hour or two of listening with me quaffing down cokes and Jackie and Gottfried slugging beers and Gottfried chain-smoking cigarettes, it was decided that Eddie Condon’s was to antiseptic and so we headed downtown to place then unknown to me. Gottfried mentioned the name, the 5 Spot Cafe, and they paid up the check and we piled in a cab and headed downtown.

Although I did not know it, the 5 Spot Cafe was a pretty famous place where the hippest of the hip jazz musicians went and played and hung out. We got down there (it was in the Bowery) and we were lucky enough to get in and get a table. It seemed that Gottfried had friends in low places. So, we got a table about two feet from a piano, in the center of place. It was not big on decoration as I remember. In fact, the main decoration, as far as I could tell, was smoke. That suited Gottfried just fine, as he settled down in his chair and fired up his thirteenth cigarette of the evening.

At the piano was a rather famous black man, Thelonious Monk. Now, because I had heard recordings of Thelonious Monk at Portsmouth Priory, I was familiar with him and his music. Being about six feet away from the famous man himself I could hear the man real well, even if he looked more like a shade from the other world rather than a real human in that dense smoke. Jackie and Gottfried were now very happy. Gottfired got to tell Jackie mostly in German and occasionally in English what a great place the 5 Spot was, how great a musician Thelonoius was, what a great city New York was.

Jackie was saying that music was “verruckt” and did not make sense, but the beer was “ganz gut”. He was quaffing down Heinekens, if I remember. Jackie, although just a few weeks in America, had already decided that Budweiser was better renamed “Budwasser” – translation: Budwater.

I sat there, looking at their dim, but animated forms as they talked music, while Thelonious pluncked away at the piano dissonantly and someone played a horn mournfully. I couldn’t see too much in the room, the smoke hung over the place like Beijing or New Dehli. I can say this some 60 years later, I was never in smokier room than that evening, except, of course, a couple of times, during kareoke in Korea. I slurped down Coke after Coke, Jackie and Gottfried slugged down beer after beer, Gottfried fired up cigarette after cigarette. Thelonious Monk’s sets came and went and came back again.

I found that experience exhilarating, listening to the strange and dissonant sounds of the great Theolonius on the piano with the solo horn backing him up in sad, lingering tones. All in all, it was an exciting evening. I was fired up on sugar and caffeine and second hand smoke. Jackie and Gottfired were blazing a trail on beer and second smoke, with Gottfired leading the way with first hand smoke. Since I did not know what it smelled like, I am guessing mingled with the smoke of cigarettes was the smoke of marijuana. Maybe I am wrong, but by the time we rolled out of the old 5 Spot Cafe at 2:30 we were all more than a little high on something. Perhaps, it was the music.

Going back to school and the monks was somewhat of a come-down, although I got to tell my schoolmates what a great night I had listening to Thelonious Monk. There were a lot of smaltzy hits that year. “Teen Angel” was one, “Running Bear” was another. A guy named Bryan Hyland had a catchy song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. Strangely, the Kingston Trio had a minor hit with, you guessed it, that classic 12th century ballad, “Greensleeves”.

The summer of 1960 found me in the Hamptons staying in a rented monstrosity my aunt called “The Monster”. It was well-named since it had 26 bedrooms. About a quarter of mile from the ocean and a third of mile from the beach club, it held all four factions of our family and an equal number of house guests. On a big weekend there might be 40 or 50 people coming and going. It was so big, often you would not see fellow family members for days. They came, went to their rooms, got dressed for some event, went out and returned, often never having been seen. I am not quite sure how we got this house. I think it came about because a friend of the family was a real estate agent and the normal deal for that house fell through at the last moment. We were more than happy to fill the void at what was surely a distress price.

That summer the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy for President and Lyndon Johnson for Vice President. To me as a young kid just approaching drinking age, it seemed like a great thing that such a young, energetic and handsome man had been nominated. It seemed very hopeful to me. And speaking of approaching drinking age, I spent most of that summer sneaking into bars with my somewhat older friends.

Going back to Portsmouth Priory was a big comedown for me. I had had a blast of a summer, surfing, playing tennis, going to parties, sneaking into bars. The fall found me back in the land of the monks, getting up at 5:30 to go to mass and listening to Gregorian chants. During the day, I would attend classes and do all sorts of athletics in the afternoon.  We did still get our prescribed hour or so of American bandstand. We did, as seniors, also get our own single rooms, rather than sharing them with another classmate.

For the last four years of Portsmouth Priory, I spent all of my time trying to beef up with zero effect. As I was just turning 18 my weight was a magnificent 145 lbs. This had been a great struggle, starting in my first year at 125, and gaining about 5 lbs. each year. Of course, I was still growing, but I considered myself puny at 5′ 9″ and 140 lbs. as I entered my last year. I did everything I could think of to build up my body in that last year, playing soccer and tennis in the fall, hockey and squash in the winter, baseball, track and tennis in the spring. I even started doing sit-ups, chin-ups and push-ups every evening in my room.

Girls were almost an unknown thing at Portsmouth Priory. There were a few dances scheduled with some sister school not far from Portsmouth and we were allowed to write the young ladies after we had met them, so there was some correspondence. But nothing much happened except that 1960 gradually passed into 1961 and it dawned on me that I was going to either have to go to college or to work. Since I had never worked previously, the concept was unknown and out of the question. Fortunately, my father, having gone to the University of Virginia during the depression, was able to help me to get into that institution.

By June of 1961, I had built myself up to a magnificent 145 lbs and for the first time in my life I could say I was almost buff. This was accomplished by one or two hours of sports a day (soccer in the Fall, hockey in the winter and tennis in the spring) and one or two hours a day of calisthenics. As if that was not enough, I added chin-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups morning and night in my dorm room. I was pretty buff for a skinny dude and in probably the best shape of my life. That was not to last.

That summer, after graduation and before the big induction to college, I spent my summer with my rich kid friends, going to parties, laying on the beach and yes, surfing and playing tennis, but the emphasis was on fun, not on recreating my physique. Up in the morning by 10 or 11, down to the club by 12, laying on the beach and chatting with friends and fellow idlers. We would talk for hours, hang around in a rat pack and go out to bars and beach parties in the evening. It was indolence at it best, but I did hit the waves and play enough tennis to stay relatively mean and lean, finally, hitting the big 150 that summer and sprouting up another inch in the process.

That Fall I headed down to Charlottesville, the home of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Everyone called it the University and the dress was gentlemanly, with most students wearing jackets and ties. At the time, the University was about 10,000 students, with about nine thousand nine hundred being male. The fact that it was 99% male students was just about the only similarity between Portsmouth Priory and the University of Virginia was just about the only similarity. In every other respect, going to The University was different.

The first thing I discovered in this strange new world was that I could eat all the eggs and bacon I wanted at the University cafeteria each morning. At Portsmouth Priory, we were allotted small quantities of bad tasting, fairly well-balanced food. At the University of Virginia, you could heap any quantity of good tasting, high caloric food you wished on your plate. Moreover, you could come back for seconds.

The second thing I discovered was beer.

There was this place called The Cavalier, not co-incidentally named after the University’s football team, The Cavaliers. While I was not into to football, I did quickly get into the Cavalier. Every night I would go down to this local college dive and suck down 5 or 10 15 cent beers. Having come from a Benedictine monastery, I was unprepared for the freedom and access to the sins, the temptations, and the irresponsibility of “University” life.

In January of 1961, John F. Kennedy became President and there was a big space race going on. This race had started in 1957 when Russia sent a tin can called Sputnik up into “space”. Then there was a lot of concern about the “Russkis” getting the drop on us. The first guy to go up in space was Yuri Gragarian. He went up in April, 1961. But by May, 1961 we sent our first guy, Alan Shephard, up in “space”. He went up about 115 miles, cruised around a bit and came down. Bingo, we had upped the space race anti and showed we could get into the game.

Other things happening were not so successful. President Kennedy approved the Big of Pigs landing and some Cubans tried to retake Cuba. Fidel Castro, newly ensconced in power in Cuba did not like this idea. Nor, it seemed, did the Cuban people. In short order the Bay Pigs invasion failed and we had got a proverbial black eye over the incident. This was also the year that the Soviets tried to cut Berlin in half with a wall. Yes, this was the heart and soul of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was a much feared power.

And this was also the year that John F. Kennedy had chosen to send a few hundred U.S. personnel to Vietnam. From small acorns grow large oak trees. At the time the running argument was that the commies were overrunning the Far East, the French had lost their butts in Diem Bien Phu and if Vietnam was allowed to fall that whole part of the world would become part of Communist China.

What were the top songs in the heart and soul of the Cold War? Bobby Lewis had a single “Tossing and Turning”, Roy Orbison was “Crying” and “Running Scared” and Connie Francis was singing about “Where The Boys Are”. Another song, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was still sweeping the nation and starting a new dance craze. That came just in time for me because The Twist was easy to learn and it was the first dance music that I could actually master.

Meanwhile, back at the University, this boy was in the Cavalier pretty much every night, drinking 15 cent brews with no more than 3.2% alcoholic content. Considering the number of 15 cents beers I was knocking back, the 3.2% was a pretty good idea.

And what about school. Oh that. Well, I was going to classes most days…at least in the beginning. Classes were really easy because most of my first year courses covered ground already taught me in last year’s courses in Portsmouth Priory. You could say that the first year courses were just catching up to the courses taught me the year before. So, I kind of cruised through that year with Cs and Bs. It was a blast and I was having the time of my life…going to keg fraternities parties every weekend with bands playing songs like “My Ding a ling”. Now, Chuck didn’t record that song until 1972, but his version of it kind captures that fraternity band music popular at the time.

While I discussing lowball music and even lower ball fraternity parties, let me tell you a little about that. Most of the fraternities were located on Rugby Road and they were lined up in two long rows on each side of Rugby Road. On a weekend, girls and guys wandered up and down, staggered might be a more accurate word, wending their way from one fraternity house to the next. Each fraternity had one or two kegs going, each had a small band blasting out music. The downstairs of the fraternity houses was devoted to the band and a lot of people crowded on to an impossibly packed dance floor.

If you could wiggle your way through, with you and your date – and yes, while there were very few girls going to UVA, it was possible to get dates from some of the nearby girl colleges. And believe it or not, in between the eggs and the beer, I was getting the hang of lining up dates. When you came into a fraternity with your date, there was usually a little room off to the left or right set up with a couple of kegs of beer and sometimes a very large punch bowl of some severely alcoholic mixture. A popular beverage to mix into the punch was grain alcohol, along, of course, with rum, bourbon and gin. If you ever tried to take a sip of the grain alcohol unmixed, you would find that it would simply burn your tongue off. It was powerful stuff and so was the punch that was often served on Rugby Row.

I would note this was before national networks discussed the horror of binge drinking in colleges. In fact, it was before the word binge drinking came into use. So, I can say with absolute assurance that we were not binge drinkers because we did not know what the term meant. I would admit that we did drink a lot. I might even admit we drank too much.

Now for a kid coming from a Benedictine monastery this was an abrupt and dramatic change in lifestyle. Hello hedonism, goodbye Christianity and all sobriety and all common sense had left the building. At the time I attended, the University of Virginia was designated by none other than Playboy Magazine as the biggest drinking college in the U.S. I can tell you one thing about the University of Virginia, while we all considered ourselves to be gentlemen of high honor because we were at Mr. Jefferson’s University, we were equally concerned that nothing that had been committed to writing by such a prestigious magazine as Playboy be anything but 100% correct. So we worked very hard at maintaining our reputation. And yes, it was true, many of us were young drunken fools.

I will mention a famous incident that had occurred on Rugby Row two years prior to my arrival. It was a famous story of my time. Louis Armstrong and his band came to the University to give a concert. It seemed that just after the concert, a few fraternity boys, perhaps several sheets to the wind, wound their way backstage and suggested to Louis that he come play at their fraternity house on Rugby Row.

Now it seems that the frat boys had no money to offer Louis Armstrong except a couple of hundred bucks and all the whiskey he could drink. I doubt that the offer of a couple of hundred bucks was very persuasive, considering Louis was one of the most famous and well-paid musicians of his time. But no matter, Louis took a shine to the frat boys and the promise of unlimited hooch and said sure, he and few of his band would come over to the fraternity. True to his word, Louis Armstrong came over to the frat house, whose name I do not recall, and started playing.

It seemed that Louis was having a fine time and in several nano-seconds word spread on Rugby Row that Louis was giving an impromptu concert. That invited a surge in the population of this particular fraternity. It was kind of like the Walt Disney movie where the mops keep bringing more buckets of water and the basement fills to the brim with water. Only in this case, it was young, drunken guys and gals, all jumping up and down on the dance floor. Well, dance floors can only take so much and apparently, after hundreds of people crowding on to it, jumping up and down and a bacchic trance, the floor gave way.

But fear not, it seemed there were no actual fatalities and the collapse of the floor did not end in total disaster. Now, the strange thing about this is that Louis Armstrong apparently did not notice that the floor had caved in even though he was only a few feet from a newly formed cliff leading to the basement. He just kept playing. Whether he just did not notice or he thought it was not that unusual an event I do not know. In any case, it was a famous story of events that occurred two years before my arrival and it gives you some flavor of the place.

By the time my first break for Christmas vacation, I had managed to pick up a quick 15 lbs. That was the direct product of eggs and beacon in the morning, robust lunch and dinners, followed up by mucho beers at the Cavalier. So I went from buff to flabby and paunchy in just 3 months. So much so, that when I got up to New York, I found myself being chided for becoming “chubby”.

That winter, when in New York, we visited the then famous for moment, Peppermint Lounge, the home of Chubby Checker and the Twist. Fortunately, in spite my quickly added weight, I was able to twist with the best of them, twisting the night away.

Back at college, I found myself more than ever entranced by the seduction of eggs and beer, picking up another 10 lbs. This instant chubbiness, at first surprising, was now becoming embarrassing. This led me to fits of limited athletic activity which prevented further decline, but did not get rid of the 25 lbs. that I had already gained. I had so quickly applied this extra weight to my body that it literally altered my appearance. I began to look like a young John Belushi, chubby before my time.

Well, to make a long story a little bit shorter, I spent the first two years of college flunking out. That was not my goal, but it was my trajectory. The first year was deceptive because I did pretty well scholastically, if you call you doing pretty well, getting B minuses and C pluses doing pretty well.

By the second year, things really started to go South – as in falling apart. After all, I had already gone South to Virginia so you could say that the South was catching up to me in my second year. I was partying hard and regularly forgetting that I should be attending classes. And a funny thing happened somewhere in the second year, I discovered that the courses were considerably harder. In the first year, it had not been necessary to study because most of the required courses I was given I had already studied in prep school. Yes, I did study a little bit, but in that first year, the courses were really easy.

In the second year, things changed. Suddenly I was taking Geology courses and Chemistry courses about things I had never been taught. I have to say that I was very surprised and intrigued by Geology. I was astounded to learn that the earth was very, very old. It seemed that the earth billions of years old. And more than that it seemed that the Universe was even older…who knew. The good professor who taught Geology said the Universe was literally billions of years older.

This was all pretty strange to me, but even stranger to me was how the earth evolved. It seemed it started as molten rocks and gases about 5 billion years ago. Certainly, that was not what the good monks had said at Portsmouth Priory. They had said that the bible had said the earth was 10,000 years old, but not everybody believed that they said, so it probably best to think of the 10,000 years as “biblical time”. That was an expression for a long time, but since the people writing the bible could not count very high, the 10,000 number meant a really long time. I’ll say, like 4,950,000,000 years instead of 10,000 years.

And if Geology was strange, Chemistry was weirder and mostly incomprehensible. Today, I wish I listened more and I wish I had attended more Chemistry classes, but in 1962, it seemed difficult to understand. I opted for partying. To make sure my descent into bad grades would continue, I joined a fraternity, Chi Psi, and upped my partying game because now I was living with 32 like-minded revelers.

A lot of other things were happening in 1961 and 1962 besides me chubbing up and failing to maintain grades. The Russkis decided to heat up things by erecting a wall between East and West Berlin. This was surprising to me personally because I had been to Berlin a few years before and had driven back and forth between West and East Berlin directly. I wrote about that experience in “A Fog Rolls into Berlin and I Gain a Stepmother.” So I was very surprised by the fact that a city that I had visited was now officially divided by a wall. It had, of course, been divided between East and West Berlin, but when I went you could back and forth to each part. Now the Russkis had made that almost impossible.

About this time, Bob Dylan was beginning to make his run at fame and genius, with a deadpan voice and profound sense of wording. At that time, his raw voice and the pure folk songs that he sang did not sound like very impressive. Bob was yet to sing, “The Times Were A Changing” and he way far away from adding electronic guitars to his music. Nevertheless, the times were a changing…people were coming and going. Among the many passers on, Marilyn Munroe, beautiful tragic lady, overdosed from drugs at the age of 36.

In the fall of 1962, I was busily doing everything possible to flunk out. In October, a major world event occurred and that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy came on radio and television and told the American people that a nuclear war might occur that week. That seemed like another perfect excuse to cut classes, drink a lot of beer and ponder the state of the world. So for three days, that is pretty much what everybody in my fraternity did.

We stayed in our fraternity house, known as the The Lodge. Our fraternity, Chi Psi, was almost unique in not being on Rugby Road. It was located about two miles from Rugby Road and the school campus. Our fraternity had a nice black couple who looked after us – Billy and Ester – Ester did the cooking and Billy did the driving. We had a Volkswagon bus that Billy drove us around in. We also a wierd triangular swimming pool located down a hill, surrounded by pines trees. The trees regularly dropped great quantities of pine needles into our pool, but in the fall of 1962, we were the only fraternity that could claim to have a swimming pool and that was a mighty powerful claim even if our pool was full of pine needles and the occasional beer can.

So, there we were, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, all hunkered down at The Lodge, huddled around a crummy black and white TV set and a not so bad radio. This was a period when all of America literally stopped and gathered around TVs and radios, watching and listening to find out if the world would end.

I well remember discussing the crisis with my classmates and fraternity brothers. As we huddled around the TV and the radio, the conversation wandered to what what we all wanted to do. One by one, each of us told our dreams. One wanted to go into the Air Force – he did and 5 years later he killed himself by accident crashing into an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Another wanted to go to work for IBM – he did and to the best of my knowledge he worked there for about 25 years, before being down-sized. Yet another wanted to go into the secret service – apparently, he tried and did not get accepted – he went on to go into the infantry and served two in Vietnam.

I was the wierdo among the group – I said I wanted to design surfboards because I loved the ocean. That was true, but I never did design surfboards, at least not yet. Strangely, I did end up designing inflatable boats, kayaks and most strangely, stand up paddle boards, which are pretty close to surfboards. So you could say that in a way all our dreams, which we exposed to the world in heartfelt sincerity during those scary few days, came true. And hey, I still might design a few inflatable surfboards – it is on my bucket list.

So, imagine if you can, 10 or 12 frathouse brothers, sitting around a table, listening to a sad and partially defective black and white TV, listening to an almost decent radio, trying to glean information about whether world would continue. I remember those few days very clearly. There is nothing like the threat of the end of the world to help you focus. Even in the early months of that year, I kind of knew I was going to flunk out that year. The time discussing the Cuban Missle Crisis was a brief period of seriousness when we seriously discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of our life with the clear feeling that the rest of lives might only be the next three days. It was a strange period and perhaps strangest of all is how several of us correctly predicted our future life.

And while those three days seemed like they would never end, they did end and the Cuban Missile crisis passed. Russia withdrew the missiles from Cuba, the world took sigh and we went back to classes and partying. And yes, it did seem like flunking out of college was in my stars. And so as the year passed from 1962 to 1963 I found myself floundering and flunking and having a heck of a good time.

Author’s Note: “It Was The Music Volume #2” is the second blog story of a series of stories on the influence of music in my life. It is my intention to continue this series, but for the next few blog stories, I will return to some other stories.

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