Back to Detroit, a drive down Oakman Boulevard and memories of better days for the city.
February 17, 2014
When I was growing up during the ’50s and ’60s, Oakman Blvd. was considered a special street in my mostly working class Dearborn neighborhood. That’s where the big homes—in English Tudor, Italianate, Dutch colonial and Spanish architecture—stood.
Doctors, dentists, businessmen, even an FBI agent lived on Oakman in those days. Legend has it that Mafia types connected a couple of the older homes with underground tunnels. And I recall one house where the owners invited us into their kitchen on Halloween night and served us hot dogs.
Divided by a landscaped island that at one time boasted unusual plants and trees from foreign countries, Oakman runs north and south from Michigan Ave. to Tireman in Dearborn, turns into a winding road as it crosses the border into Detroit, until it ends—or begins, depending upon one’s perspective—in Highland Park near Henry Ford’s old Model T plant, which still stands today.
My house on Tireman was three blocks west of Oakman. Next door lived Mickey and Billy Phillips. Billy was five years older than me, and when I was a gung-ho grade school basketball player, he was kind enough to let me tag along when he and a friend would drive Oakman Blvd. en route to the University of Detroit Memorial Building (now called Calahan Hall) for some big-time hoops.
Bursting with excitement as we made the trip, I would stare out the window of the Phillips’ family car, wondering who lived in those magnificent Oakman Blvd. homes, while anticipating the amazing college or high school basketball I would see that night in the building I still consider to be the best for watching games because of its intimacy and great sight lines.
Those were the days of U-D’s Dave DeBusschere who went on to play for the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and in 1996 was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. But it was the city championship games between the best of the Public School League and the best of the Catholic League that really turned me on.
Billy took me to see two of those championship games, in 1959 and 1960, both pitting Detroit Eastern with 7’0” center Reggie Harding, who would become the first player drafted into the NBA without playing college basketball, against Detroit Holy Redeemer with 6’10” Bill Chmielewski, who went on to play at Dayton and was named MVP of the 1962 National Invitational Tournament.
Those were also some of the last great days of the post-World War ll era for the city of Detroit—before the ‘67 riots, resentment caused by school bussing, deindustrialization, white flight, urban sprawl and a host of other problems that conspired to drain the city of its middle class.
I was in the Detroit area to compete in a bench press competition recently, and as I approached the city in my car I decided to get off the freeway and drive the old route we used to take home from U-D, via Oakman Blvd., back to Dearborn. As I passed the university on Livernois, it struck me that the street was devoid of students and that there were few retailers or bars that catered to them. A little further south of the campus I approached Oakman and made the right-hand turn onto it that I had made so many times during my adolescent years.
As I slowly drove its winding route, Oakman looked “tired” to me. I began to note aloud the security doors on many homes: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, yes…” I said as I drove the boulevard. Their prevalence was no surprise to me in a city that for decades has grappled with a persistent crime problem. When I reached the intersection of Grand River and Oakman, a thriving retail strip until the early ’70s when there was a Federal’s department store, Sears, Cunningham Drugs and more, I noticed boarded-up stores and the crumbling walls of urban decay. A few minutes down the road, when I crossed Wyoming Ave., I looked south and gazed upon acres of open land where Mackenzie High School, with its once distinctive blue and yellow Pewabic tile around the main entrance, stood until it was demolished in 2012.
Finally, when I crossed into Dearborn at the city’s border, Oakman Blvd. looked much as it did when I was a child, although there are fewer trees and shrubs growing on the island now and the area has undergone demographic changes in terms of ethnic composition, average household income, etc.
Some Detroit streets are in better shape than the Oakman Blvd. that winds through the city today. Many others are in far worse condition. And while both the city’s downtown and midtown areas continue to make forward progress as young people seeking an “urban experience” and who have no memory of “the riots” continue to move into lofts and apartments, Detroit’s neighborhoods are a different story. I suspect we’ll know they’ve made a comeback when Oakman Blvd. shows signs of energy once again and the number of security doors on its homes gives way to the beautiful wood doors hidden behind them.
I doubt that I’ll live long enough to see that happen. I hope I’m wrong.
There’s no secret to “The Secret.” As the nuns at St. Al’s used to say, “Have goals, work hard, think positively and good things will happen.”
January 29, 2014
Somewhere amid a recent flurry of e-mails between members of my extended family, my son Gordon wrote that he attributed getting his new job to the message in The Secret, the New York Times best seller by Rhonda Byrne. Essentially, the book’s message is this:
When you think positively and continuously envision the things you really want in life, the “law of natural attraction” eventually kicks in as you surround yourself with people, experiences, situations, etc. that help turn dreams into reality.
Fact is, Gordie’s sister, Lindsay, gave him a tip about an opening at the company where she works. He applied. He interviewed. He had the right background. He got the job.
And yet, one could argue that “the secret” did indeed work for him. He constantly envisioned the kind of position he wanted. He thought positively about it, day and night. He went after it. He engaged with people who could make it happen, his sister among them. And in the end, he got what he wanted.
I read The Secret when it was first published a few years ago. When I finished it, my reaction was, “Hell, I’ve known this all my life…this is what the nuns at St. Al’s were always preaching…this is what Coach Mackey was saying every day at basketball practice.”
I totally bought into their advice as a kid. By the time I was in the seventh grade I constantly dreamed about becoming a writer. I kept writing during grade school and high school. And in college, when my journalism professors edited my stuff and gave me Cs, I was convinced that “they didn’t get what I do.” So I took essay writing classes through the English department…and aced them. I read books about writing. I talked to writers about writing, including the editor of the Detroit Free Press. And then one day I got a job writing copy for the Auto Club of Michigan.
Similarly, when I was in high school, I began to think that I would not get married until I was 30 or more. Then, as a young adult, I started to envision that I would meet a woman who would have a frame of reference different from my own, someone who would be from a different place and change my life. I never told anyone these things, but they were always on my mind. Then one day at the age of 31, in a cab, in Guadaloupe, I met this nurse from Cleveland who grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. A year later she became my wife.
I could cite example after example of how outcomes I’ve envisioned and thought positively about have come true for me.
Coincidences? Self-fulfilling prophecies? ”The secret”? Who can say?
Certainly there’s no way that a goal and any amount of positive thinking was ever going to make up for my lack of skills and transform me into a major league baseball player. And “the secret” won’t cure someone diagnosed with cancer, although I suspect that it may be part of the solution.
I just know that a long time ago I bought into the idea of having goals and eliminating what motivational speakers call “stinkin’ thinkin’.” As I’ve always tried to make my kids understand, “If you think you can, maybe you will. If you think you can’t, you won’t.” That, for me, is the secret.
Everyone changes over time, but to what degree does a part of us remain the same?
January 20, 2014
I’m not the same person I was 10 or 15 years ago. During the last decade and a half I was fired twice. My home burned down. My children grew up. I became a house husband. And I moved across the state to west Michigan.
I’m sure that all those things changed me a bit.
And yet, I wonder to what degree I remain the same person I have always been.
I think that I still have a good sense of fair play. I still try to be inclusive of people who are different from me. And I’ve always felt extremely loyal to my family and friends.
Yet I’m sure I’m different in certain ways.
I’m not quite as patient as I used to be. I probably have a lower boiling point than I once had. And there are many things that interest me today that never interested me before.
I collect pudding stones, for example. And I go to cooking classes. I even took a shot at acting in a community play last fall. Who’d a thunk any of those things?
As the years have rolled by I have observed changes that have taken place in others, too.
When I think about some of my long-time friends, those from the neighborhood where I grew up, as well as some of my pals from college, I see former beer guzzlers who are now wine connoisseurs. Risk-takers who now seem cautious. And some who once leaned left who now lean right.
The more I think about it, I suspect that I sometimes confuse change with growth or development, processes that continue—or should continue, I think—until the day we die
The way I see it, we are all born with a certain essence. At some point in life we acquire a sense of self. At that point, we start becoming aware of our strengths and weaknesses, building upon the former while working on the latter. Thus we evolve over time, becoming the person we are capable of becoming.
A few years ago I got into a heated discussion with a friend from way back. I’ve long forgotten what we argued about, but it has stuck in my mind ever since when he vehemently disagreed with me about something and said, “I know you, Lenny…” as he lit into me, certain about his point of view.
I was rather stunned when he said that because, yes, I’m sure he understood me at the core, but at the same time I realized that he hadn’t really noticed how getting married, raising four children, the struggles of a career, etc.had changed some of my perspectives over time.
I’m convinced that I still have many of the same sensibilities that I had when I was a young person, perhaps even as a child, but I’d like to think that I’ve changed a tiny bit almost every day in the never ending quest to become a little more, a little better than I was the day before.
Five things I saw, heard or experienced on Christmas Eve that caused me to feel thankful for a wonderful life.
January 2, 2014
During the weeks leading up to Christmas, there was an open, emotional and enlightening internet discussion about depression among the cousins, aunts and uncles of my extended family. It made me realize how difficult the daily challenges of life can be for some people. It made me wish that I could help them.
The very least that I could do, I reasoned, was to empathize. And to be thankful that the “ups” have far outnumbered the “downs” in my own life. That’s when I decided to take 24 hours to be extra alert to the struggles that some people endure every day. Here are just five that I observed from the afternoon of December 23 through the afternoon of Christmas Eve:
- While driving across the state to the Detroit area, Debbie and I called Terry and Jane, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Delaware. That’s when we learned that it had been necessary for our niece, Leslie, to do Jane’s Christmas shopping since Jane, who has multiple myeloma, is recovering from a transplant of her own stem cells and must avoid crowds because her immune system has been weakened. Jane loves shopping. It’s one of her favorite things to do in life. I tried to imagine having her illness and how frustrating it must feel to be deprived of a simple pleasure such as shopping.
- The next morning, we had to make a quick trip to the office of a family friend who is an attorney. Along the way I stopped for a red light on the Telegraph Road service drive, before turning left onto I-96. That’s when I spotted a grizzled old man in raggedy clothes holding one of those hand-lettered cardboard signs that says “HOMELESS ANYTHING WILL HELP GOD BLESS” Now, I understand that a lot of street-corner people are winos scamming the public for their next bottle of muscatel. Even so, I wondered what events had transpired in the man’s life to bring him to that forsaken corner near the freeway that morning. Later, it bothered me that I hadn’t slipped him a dollar bill or some change. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
- During conversation at the office of our trust attorney, Debbie and I listened to a story about his nephew in Boston who has MS, three young children and a whacked-out ex-wife. Rather than allow the young man to pick up the kids early for the long drive to Detroit so the kids could spend time with their grandparents at Christmas time, the ex-wife held him to the letter of the court’s decision and would not release the children a minute earlier than the appointed 4 o’clock hour. Imagine having MS, having to endure 12 hours behind the wheel on a wintry drive to Detroit, while attending to the needs of three small children in the backseat…and finally arriving at your destination at 4 o’clock in the morning. Talk about the struggles of daily life.
- Back at my sister’s house, family members began to arrive for cocktails and conversation at mid afternoon, before the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. It’s a time when old friends also drop by to say “Merry Christmas.” Among them that day was one who has battled an addiction to alcohol for decades. He was certainly “appropriate” during the entire time of his visit, but it was obvious to all that he was “lit” when he exited out the back door. As I looked through the front window and watched him drive away in his truck, I thought about the loneliness he feels and his frustration at the inability to cope with the alcoholism that kicks his ass every day.
- Toward the end of the night, after dinner and the exchange of “white elephant” gifts, some singing and such, I sat relaxed in a chair pointed toward the basement steps. That’s when I observed my brother’s wife, Lisa, who has MS and her left leg in a brace, carefully negotiate the steps—one at a time—until she reached the bottom. Then, she slowly lowered herself to the floor, stretched out to pet our dog…and smiled. I wondered how many more steps she would have to carefully negotiate at home that night and on Christmas morning.
In the days when our traditional family Christmas Eve celebration was held at my parents’ house, at the end of the night my Dad would invariably kick back with a Manhattan in hand, contort his face for emphasis and proclaim, “I’ve had a wonderful life, and if I could do it all over again I wouldn’t change a damn thing.” I knew better. I knew he would change a lot of things, if he could. But I also knew what he was really trying to say—that in the main, he was thankful for what he had in life and for the way it had played out. Me too.
It takes some luck to survive one’s teenage years.
December 20, 2013
Every time I hear a break-your-heart story about teenagers killed in an automobile accident, my first thoughts are about the kids who were in the back seat.
In the wrong place at the wrong time.
Then I think back to all those times when it could have been me. Or my friends. Or worse, my kids. No question about it, surviving one’s adolescence requires a good measure of luck. Especially when stupid decisions are involved. Such as the ones I was a part of when my friends and I were young stallions.
For example, there was the one that Garry, Bo and I collectively made in 1963, during my sophomore year in high school, after a basketball game at St. Al’s. We had been walking through freshly fallen snow on our way to Bo’s house for a late-night snack when we stopped under a streetlight and began to stare at his parents’ second-floor bedroom. All the lights in the house were out. The folks were already in bed.
Then it came to us.
Find the keys to the Bozynskies’ family car. Open the garage door. Push the ol’ ‘58 Merc down the driveway so as not to make a sound. Start the vehicle in the street. And take off.
Which we did. And headed straight for Toledo. With a bottle of Bali Hai Bo had previously stashed in the bushes behind his house. None of us had a driver’s license. So Garry, who had some experience behind the wheel of his older brother’s Volkswagen, was elected to drive.
It ordinarily took an hour to motor from Dearborn to Toledo where 18-year-olds in those days could legally buy 3.2 beer. (I can’t account for the logic of our intended destination since Bo was 15, Garry and I had just turned 16 and none of us had fake ID.) Because of the weather, it took 30 minutes just to make it to I-75, On the freeway, the snow—now mixed with rain—began to fall harder, covering the road with a slippery glop.
Then suddenly, Garry lost control of the car. We did a couple of 360s and came to a stop against the guardrail separating the high-speed lanes on the expressway. I have no idea how many vehicles swerved to avoid us because visibility was essentially zero through our slush-covered windows. Cushioned by snow piled up against the barrier, the car was undamaged. Fortunately, Garry was able to get the Merc rolling again, turned around at the next exit and headed for home.
Back at Bo’s house, we opened the garage door, drove the car up the driveway, killed the engine and allowed the momentum of the vehicle to carry us back into the garage.
But for the grace of God…
Then there was the time about a year later when Garry and I, as well as my lifelong buddy Tony, were part of an even stupider teenage decision.
One afternoon while Mr. and Mrs. Adams were visiting relatives, Tony, knowing where to find the key to his Dad’s locked gun rack, grabbed Mr. Adams’ shotgun and some shells. The three of us then drove out to a piece of wooded property that Mr. Adams owned in Canton before the state acquired it for an entrance ramp to I-275.
We loaded the gun and took turns bagging sparrows and the occasional cardinal. I aimed one shot over the hindquarters of a stray dog. Yet all we really knew about firearms was what we picked up from watching cowboys on TV. One careless move and we could have been the lead story on the 11 o’clock news that night.
The three of us were all class officers at one time or another during high school. We were good students, good athletes—kids with bright, promising futures who the nuns called “leaders.” Which proves absolutely nothing except that we were damn lucky not to have led ourselves into a terrible tragedy.
Forty years later, my sense of invincibility had long since disappeared when my cell phone rang one night while driving home in heavy traffic on Dixie Highway in Clarkston.
"Daddy, I had an accident. It’s terrible…" my 16-year-old daughter Erin frantically screamed on the other end.
With her twin sister, Lindsay, and three other girls in the car on their way to a concert, Erin was broadsided while pulling out into traffic on the edge of town. No stupid decisions had been made. No alcohol was involved. Just the inexperience of a young driver. And after I sped to the crash site, after sprinting the equivalent of a city block to reach the flashing lights of the police car and ambulance, I found five beautiful, young girls shaken but unscathed. They had been lucky. The car had been totaled. And after pausing for a moment to collect myself on the scene, I realized that it takes some luck for a father to survive a child’s teenage years, too.
I swear I’m not a “creeper;” I just like seeing life lived through the windows of the homes in my neighborhood at night.
December 9, 2013
I have this thing about curtains, drapes, shades and blinds. I don’t particularly care for them. When we lived on a dirt road in Clarkston, surrounded by tall oak trees, I finally convinced Debbie toward the end of our time there to get rid of the window coverings hanging in our family room.
"With all these trees, no one can see into here anyway," I protested. "So what’s the point?"
In Grand Haven, where we live now, an unusually high percentage of people keep their window coverings open to the world when the sun goes down at night.
Perhaps it has something to do with the general perception of safety in our neighborhood. Perhaps it’s because Grand Haven is a Lake Michigan resort town where an “at-the-beach” mentality is in the air during the nicer months of the year.
All I know is that I am strangely energized by it.
I recall a particularly beautiful Friday evening in the fall when I was returning home from a walk near the waterfront with my dog. I passed a small white house with the curtains wide open. The living room emanated a golden glow. As I walked by, through the windows I could plainly see an older couple sipping wine. Talking. Living life.
On the next block, I passed the side of a corner house where the curtains were wide open. I could clearly see into the dining room where a middle-aged couple seemed to be entertaining a guest at a candlelight dinner.
I then turned left, and through a front window I could see a young family eating pizza together at their kitchen table. On the last leg of my walk I was able to see into many of the older homes in the area, built at the turn of the last century, with their wooden staircases, paneled entryways and wide moldings around the interior doors.
It’s difficult to explain, but life seems so good to me at moments such as that.
Being able to see into a home or apartment at night has long done that to me. I recall being on a business trip in Chicago during the early ’90s, walking the streets of Lincoln Park one evening after dinner, and seeing young hipsters through window after window of practically every “graystone” on the block—on their feet or at a table, cocktails in hand, laughing, bobbing their heads to music in brightly lit apartments—seemingly unconcerned about closing themselves off to the eyes of the world.
I even prefer bars and restaurants with uncovered windows—the bigger the better—that let in the light or enable me too look out to life on the street. Same for stores with expansive windows that seem to say “Hey, this is what we do here…come inside.”
Obviously, In some neighborhoods, even so called “good neighborhoods,” it isn’t smart to leave the curtains open in the evening, advertising one’s possessions to street jackals who may be on the prowl. And some neighborhoods, of course, are so tough that the people who live in them feel compelled to keep their curtains closed all day. And I think back to how stunned I was on the first night of my first trip to Poland in 1984 when our hosts got up and stealthily closed the drapes in their living room when the topic of conversation turned to criticism of the country’s communist government at the time.
Perhaps that is why I like being able to see life being lived through uncovered windows when I’m on the street at night. I know this much: I try never to take for granted that I live in a place where I feel free to exercise the option of keeping the curtains open when the sun goes down.
I have long preferred college football and basketball to the pros, but I’m uncomfortable with the way big money is changing them.
November 25, 2013
There was a time when I could name every starting player—on both offense and defense—for the Detroit Lions. I haven’t been able to do that for I don’t know how long.
I used to know the starting five for the Detroit Pistons every year, too. Now, I wouldn’t recognize Rodney Stuckey if he walked into my living room because I haven’t watched a Pistons game in five years.
I’m still familiar with the roster of the Detroit Tigers every summer, but there was a time when I could name many of the starting players on every American League team. I haven’t been able to do that in decades.
Professional sports just don’t mean as much to me as they once did.
Too many teams. Too many games. Too many players who jump from team to team. And the seasons are so long that during some months of the year, all four major pro sports (football, baseball, basketball and hockey) are playing their games at the same time. Who can keep up with it all?
It’s all about the money, of course.
I’m not sure how much is too much for an athlete to make. But c’mon, Yankee free agent Robinson Cano, for example, is reportedly seeking a ten-year, $300 million contract.* Seems practically immoral to me.
I have preferred college sports to the pros for many years now, whether live or on TV. The sights, smells, traditions and emotional build-up that go with a big game on a football Saturday is, in my judgement, one of the most fun things a person can experience in life. I love seeing a partisan fan speed around campus on a motorized beer cooler, or listening to a strolling group of glee club members singing the Michigan State fight song while I’m downing a sloppy Joe and a bottle of Rolling Rock at the tailgate of my car.
And even if I’m watching, say, Wisconsin football or Duke basketball on the tube, I get “pumped” by the sound of a college band rocking it in the stands, the zaniness of any student section and the emotion of passionate alumni and fans.
I just don’t have the time to stay up on the pros because beyond following what happens on the field or on the court, it’s all that I can do to stay knowledgeable about which high school athletes my alma mater is recruiting, how the players on the team are developing and knowing a little bit about what’s going on at the other Big Ten schools so that I can better understand how my school measures up in comparison.
However, “big money” began to alter collegiate sports years ago, and I am increasingly uneasy about it.
Today, instead of a manageable ten-game game schedule, college football seasons have increased to 13 games (including a bowl game). Fourteen if you play in a conference title game. And 15 if you make it to the national championship. Instead of a handful of highly anticipated college bowl games on January 1, there are a glut of bowls—over 30 of them—during the last two weeks of December. And the national championship game, God forbid, is now played on a Monday night—more “eyeballs” for TV, of course—rather than on New Year’s Day, which for decades was a fabulous holiday tradition.
Until the ’70s, practically all college football games were played at one o’clock in the afternoon. It made for perfect Saturdays in the fall. You could plan out your day and get to and from the game within a reasonable time frame. Or, if you were watching a game on TV at home, you could run some errands in the morning, rake the leaves after the game and then get primed for Saturday night. But the television networks and college presidents determined that more money could be made by scheduling games at 12 noon and 3:30 pm. Televised night games came soon after that.
Trouble is, noon games mean that many college football fans, who generally come from all over a particular state, have to be on the road by dawn to have enough time to load the car with game-day provisions, set up their tailgates and enjoy the campus atmosphere before they walk to the stadium. And by the time you get back to your car and off campus four hours after the start of a 3:30 game, you’re making the long drive home in the dead of night.
The argument in favor of longer college football seasons, all the televised games and the proliferation of “flea bag” bowls—not to mention up to 40 college basketball games a year—is that college football and basketball, the two major revenue-producing sports, must support 25 or so other sports—fencing, soccer, track, lacrosse, tennis, wrestling, rowing, etc.—for both men and women on most major college campuses.
I get that. And for a long time I bought into it. But now there are facilities wars going on across the country (“My basketball practice building is bigger than your basketball practice building…”) often costing hundreds of millions of dollars. When it comes to television contracts, the Pac 12 signed a $3 billion deal—that’s billion—with ESPN and Fox a couple of years ago. And now there is serious discussion that the time has come to pay college athletes. Not good, says I.
I toured the Skandalaris Center, part of the football complex at MSU, a few years ago and walked out of the weight “room,” the size of a small city block, in utter amazement at the amount, size and sophistication of the equipment employed to build the bodies of young Spartan athletes. I’ve had the opportunity to see a couple of games in the luxury suites at Michigan State—with their stuffed, green leather chairs, high-def TVs, and kitchenettes overflowing with serious food and cold beverages. And now my school is building an addition to the north end of the stadium with state-of-the-art locker rooms for the players, coaches and officials; special media facilities for post-game press conferences and a dedicated lounge for hosting high school recruits.
I love the facilities. I want my school to be among those at the forefront of collegiate athletics. But where does the spending for all this stuff stop? How is one’s school to match resources with such modern-day football factories as Alabama, Texas or Ohio State? The price of a ticket to get inside a college football stadium on some campuses is now $80 a pop. Beyond that, season ticket holders at many schools have to pay a yearly licensing fee just for the “right” to purchase season tickets.
I am thoroughly conflicted by it all. Not only because of the obscene amount of money required for schools to “compete” but because of what it’s doing to student-athletes. Or is it athlete-students? During the football or basketball season it’s a full-time job for them—40 hours a week spent practicing, training in the weight room, conditioning, going over film, studying the play book, team meetings and more.
Thus it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue against paying players who are worth so much to the value of a university’s brand, who attract so much publicity for their schools and who enable major college coaches to command seven-figure salaries.
All I know is that big bucks spoiled pro sports for me years ago. Money tarnished the beauty of the Olympic games for me, too. I mean who wants to see LeBron James and a bunch of NBA all stars beat up on Slovenia? I cannot imagine that I will ever not love Spartan green, but I fear that college sports in general will be despoiled by the color of money.
*Cano eventually signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners.
Our dogs didn’t always listen to our commands, but they always listened to our problems.
November 4, 2013
Sometimes, when Debbie and I look back on our time together, we recall certain family events as having occurred during the “Angela years,” or the “Erma years,” or the “Wanda years.”
Angela and Erma were the names of our first two dogs; Wanda (“the Wonder Dog”) is the name of our current pet.
We’ve had three females, all with “human” names. Debbie has never been a fan of male dogs because of their propensity for “humping” and “lifting their legs.” So when we picked out our first puppy from a litter of Golden Retrievers back in 1980, “Angelo,” the name I had selected for what I assumed would be a male pet, became “Angela.”
Angela was our first “child,” having come along four or five years before our son Nick. She was light-colored with a beautiful coat, smart and could be trusted to roam the house all day without making a “mess,” although one time she chewed the bottom rung of a dining room chair, and on another occasion chewed the slats of an old wooden seat I had salvaged from a late ’70s remodel of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.
My Mom didn’t allow pets when I was growing up, so having a dog like Angela was a totally new experience for me. I never anticipated “talking to the dog” as much as I did with her. She would turn her head, as if to understand, when I fretted aloud about an upcoming presentation while getting ready for work in the morning. Angela heard it all from Debbie and me in the early years of our marriage—about our problems starting a family, career decisions, leaving our old neighborhood in Detroit, etc. She always listened. And, of course, she never judged.
By 1990, when we moved into the house we built in Clarkston, Angela was showing signs of old age. Her facial hair had turned gray, she had lost her zip, and mostly she just laid around all day. So one evening we brought home “Erma,” a black puppy whose Golden Retriever mother had been “jumped” by a stray, to keep Angela company. Our kids were in elementary school at the time and named her after a character in the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie.
It was great how Erma would walk our kids up the driveway every morning and wait with them until they boarded the bus for school. Then she’d walk back down to the house, sadly so it seemed, only to sprint energetically back up the drive to greet them at the road when the bus brought them back home in the afternoon. She was really smart, although she once chewed the insoles out of a pair of Nick’s Doc Martens and wrung the necks of a few woodchucks that wandered onto our property. When the family would gather at the table for dinner and Erma came begging, all we had to do was say, “Erma, we’re eating.” And she’d amble off to the kitchen to lay down obediently until we were done.
Those were good days for our family. Debbie was able to be a stay-at-home Mom; things were going great for me at my job; and ol’ Erma was always around, taking in the commotion of our six-person household.
By the time the kids were in their teens, Erma had become a fixture at the back door of our house, laying there all day during her old age. Then one afternoon, while Debbie and I were in Naples, celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, we received a call that Erma had died. It was left to my old friend, Bernie Reuter, to bury her in the woods behind our house.
A few months later we spotted an ad in the Detroit News describing a litter of puppies that had been mothered by a Rottweiler and fathered by a chocolate lab. It sounded like an interesting mix, and so that day we brought home a fluffy, black female that our daughter Erin named “Wanda.”
Truth be told, Wanda holds the most special of special places we have in our hearts for all three of the dogs we’ve had. She was home alone, attached to a long lead outside, waiting for Nick to return from work, on the day that a fallen tree hit a power line, triggering a surge that caused the fire that destroyed our home. She was discovered—and saved, thank God—by an off-duty firefighter who noticed smoke coming from the front porch of our house.
Wanda lived with us at three different temporary residences before we finally moved permanently to our Grand Haven home. Many times she laid at our feet, attentively listening, as we agonized over what to do to make a comeback from our tragedy. Since then, she has rarely let us out of her sight. We sense that she remembers watching the inferno from the top of the hill at our neighbor’s home after her rescue.
I can certainly understand how having a dog—or any kind of pet—isn’t necessarily for everyone. But with the way Debbie and I are wired, needing a pet like Wanda to talk to in the morning while making coffee, or to question, rhetorically, about what to wear on Saturday night, I can’t imagine us ever living without a dog in our house.
We’ve had three fabulous family companions, but it’s sad to think that there inevitably will be a fourth because a time will come when Wanda won’t be there in the room with us when we get up in the morning or when we go to bed at night.
My co-worker at the paint factory probably had it right: America hasn’t been the same since the day that Oswald shot Kennedy.
October 22, 2013
During the summer of 1967, after my sophomore year in college, I worked the afternoon shift in the “bull gang” at Rinshed-Mason, an old-line Detroit company that made automotive finishes for the Big Three. One day I was assigned to assist a veteran worker, a stocky, barrel-chested black guy, filling 55-gallon drums with some sort of highly flammable liquid. I can’t recall his name, but I remember he offered an opinion about the country that was spot-on at the time and still rings true today.
We were having some great conversation as we did our work. He was telling me about his wife and children. How much he loved to play chess. And how years earlier he had finished second in his engineering class at a school in Indiana but was unable to get a job in his field because he was black.
He struck me as being an obviously bright guy with an interesting take on the world. I was waiting for an opening to ask him whether he had ever played football when he said something that hit me like the former linebacker I took him to be:
"Things were really cookin’ in this country when John Kennedy was President," he said. "We were on our way to the moon. We were going to put the Russians in their place. And we were going to fix the black-white thing. Then Oswald shot Kennedy, and America lost the belief that it could solve any problem it faced. It’ll be a hundred years before we have another President like him."
I was only 16 years old, a junior at St. Alphonusus High School in 1963, when Father Granger’s voice came over the PA to announce that President Kennedy had been shot—killed by an assassin’s bullet. Maybe I was naive. Perhaps I was a blindly optimistic teenager, but until that moment, it seemed as though there was almost universal faith in the young, charismatic leader of our country and confidence in our government to be an instrument of positive change.
By the time my co-worker in the paint factory made his pronouncement about the effect of Kennedy’s death on the nation, America was in a tailspin: Practically all of my friends who did not attend college had been drafted into the service to fight a war in which few young people believed. We were just weeks away from the riots in Detroit, one of the worst civil disturbances in the history of our country. And it seems as though it’s been one major problem after another ever since, with diminishing national confidence about building for the future.
Today, with the country having just come off a partial shutdown of the federal government because members of Congress can’t—or won’t— master the art of compromise, some pundits contend that the lack of trust in government and the erosion of faith in our social institutions is a generational thing that started in the late ’60s or early ’70s, triggered by Vietnam and Watergate.
Maybe so, but I suspect that the anonymous factory worker who I helped fill 55-gallon drums back in ‘67 at Rinshed-Mason may have been more correct when he suggested that America lost its confidence in the ability to act collectively for the common good the day that President Kennedy died. JFK had only led the country for little more than two years at the time of his death, so perhaps he’d have ultimately done some things that would have caused us to remember his presidency less fondly. And, of course, we know now that he was a flawed man when it came to matters in his private life.
But in my time, I can’t think of another national leader who could inspire people of every political persuasion to get things done in the manner our 35th President. We sure could use someone like that today.
Most people would get the premise of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” I’m not so sure about our congressional leaders, however.
October 7, 2013
I was browsing the shelves of an old-book store recently when I came across a paperback copy of ”All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum. I’d been meaning to read it for years because the title puts into words a feeling that I’ve harbored for a long, long time. So I picked it up. For a buck, no less.
When I opened up the book before falling asleep one night, I was surprised to discover that its title actually comes from an essay, the first of a collection of essays in the book. Although the piece is little more than 500 words long, it’s full of all the lessons that most of us learned at a very young age:
"Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess…" And about a dozen other little pieces of wisdom.
During the early ’50s, when I was in Miss Grauman’s kindergarten class at Lowrey School, I used to like to ride the tricycles that could be found in a designated area of her classroom. However, a small group of the same kids usually got to them first every day. Not fair, I thought. But Miss Grauman soon set up an equitable rotation for their use, and we all abided by it.
I never hit anyone in kindergarten. In fact, I don’t remember anyone ever doing that. And whether we pulled out a set of blocks or one of the old stereoscopes that enabled us to see images in 3D, it was supposed to be put back when we were done playing with it. It was one of the first lessons we learned.
Just last week, when reminiscing about my Dad’s excessive drinking, I wrote that “I knew a drunk when I saw one by the time I was in kindergarten.” I could recognize a jerk, too. Or a good person, for that matter.
Kids can distinguish between right from wrong at a very early age. And they can be pretty perceptive.
I suspect that anyone who grows up with at least a little bit of structure at home and attends a decent school—as I assume that most members of Congress did—learns the kind of lessons that most of us learned as juveniles.
And yet, as adults, our brains have a tendency to go haywire.
As I write this, we see our senators and members of the House being petulant, refusing to talk to each other, unable to compromise over a continuing resolution to fund our government, resulting in a partial federal shutdown.
Perhaps members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives should read “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” because, as Fulghum says, imagine “if all governments had a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up after their own mess.”
He even suggests that the world would be a better place if we all had milk and cookies at about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankies for a nap. I don’t know about that, but I’d sure like to see our congressional leaders step outside their ideological boxes and have a couple of pops together at the end of every day. Maybe if they did that they’d get to know each other better—you know, see the human side—and be able to deal with each other in a way that would actually enable them to get something accomplished.
It seems elementary to me.
Having grown up in a drinking culture, perhaps I was too easy on my Dad in the assessment of his “problem.”
October 1, 2013
The first place I can remember living as a child during the early ’50s was an upper flat on St. John St., between Martin and Parkinson, in a Polish neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. Next door, in the middle of the block, was a tiny bar called Franko’s, attached to the front of an old, wooden house. A half-block away was Our Lady Queen of Angels, the Catholic church on Martin, where my parents were married after World War II. Across the street was Stempien’s Bar.
It was my Mom’s old neighborhood. My Dad came from one much like it around 23rd and Buchanan. They were the kind of neighborhoods that proliferated in old Midwest industrial cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago since before the time of the Great Depression until the suburbanization of America. You know, “a bar or church on every corner.”
As I often say, one of my most vivid memories as a kid is the Sunday afternoon visits to the homes of my grandparents where, invariably, there was a fifth of whiskey in the middle of the table and a bottle of beer in the hand of every adult male.
By the time I was in kindergarten I knew “a drunk” when I saw one. My Dad was not a drunk.
I believe it was 1951 that our family moved into a new brick home that my Mom and Dad built at 13ll7 Tireman in Dearborn. Originally settled by German immigrant farmers, the area at that time was a melting pot of ethnic groups—Polish, Italian, Irish, Scotch, German and more. There were a dozen kids living on every block. Practically none of the mothers worked outside the home. Most of the fathers were war veterans with a high school education, if that, and worked for either an auto company or an auto supplier. Some of them, like my Dad, were self-employed.
Having come from ethnic enclaves of their own where family gatherings involving alcohol were the primary way folks socialized, almost all of the fathers I knew in Dearborn drank. Our next-door neighbor on Tireman, Mr. Phillips—who had changed his Polish last name—favored Manhattans. Around the corner on Reuter, Mr. Conflitti—who my Dad referred to as “the Dago”—preferred Wild Turkey bourbon. My father drank shots of Canadian Club whiskey, before eventually graduating to Seagram’s VO.
The three of them all bowled for years in the St. Alphonsus Holy Name League. I can recall many late Monday nights, while my sisters and I were supposed to be asleep before school in the morning, that I could hear “Bill,” “Angelo” and my Dad laughing loudly around the table in our kitchen while pounding drinks—my mother trying unsuccessfully to get some food into their stomachs—after a night of bowling and beers at Mercury Lanes.
So, yes, I came from a drinking culture. And it seemed perfectly normal to me.
My Dad worked extremely hard every day—unloading, moving, cutting, and polishing eight-foot slabs of marble in a cold, dank, dusty, dimly lit shop in a cement-block building along an alley on the east side of Detroit. He liked to stop at the bar after work and reward himself with a “fast one”—which usually meant two or three, of course—before coming home for dinner. Sometimes he seemed normal when he walked through the door. Sometimes he was “charged up.”
During the prime of his life, my Dad went either fishing on Lake St. Clair or to the Detroit Race Course to play the ponies practically every Saturday. He rarely drank while doing those things, but he usually stopped at the bar afterwards. Sometimes he drank heavily, and I could tell when he came home “oiled up.”
In the ’50s, my Dad was very active at his VFW post. In the ’60s he joined the Alhambra, a charitable organization dedicated to helping “retarded children,” as kids with special needs were called in those days. Both organizations held large, festive picnics; big Christmas parties; huge annual fundraising events; and, of course, monthly meetings—where the drinks flowed. In the 25 or 30 years that my Dad was active in his Alhambra “caravan,” he continuously held the position of “Master of the Oasis”—the guy who secures the booze for all the functions.
Everybody knew that my Dad “liked his drinks.”
But he never drank alone at home. Oh, if a friend or relative stopped by to visit, he would bark out to my mother, “Josephine, get ‘the bottle.’” And there it appeared—that fifth of whiskey in the middle of the kitchen table whenever we had company.
My Dad never missed a day of work due to drinking, either. He never drank at work or during lunch time. He didn’t act goofy when he got drunk. Booze didn’t transform him from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. And he didn’t get physical. But it did change him, and it could make him angry. In fact, I’ve long suspected that the reason my Dad was so hard on me as a kid—often belittling me—was alcohol lingering in his system.
And then there were the shouting matches between my Mom and Dad. Not every day. Not every week. But every few months, especially during the years of my Dad’s heaviest drinking when he was a tough, hard-nosed, small businessman. They occurred because my Mom would get furious with my Dad for getting behind the wheel “in that condition.” My Dad never laid a hand on my mother, but on a few occasions he seemed on the verge of it as I lay in bed at night, straining to hear every word of their confrontation, envisioning their contorted faces as they argued loudly in the brightly lit kitchen of our house. My sister Betty tells of the time when she was a teenager—I was already away at college—that she charged down the stairs from her bedroom, stepped between my folks, and, with her arms thrust behind her as if to protect my Mom, screamed at my Dad, “You’ll have to come through me before you get to her.”
And so, you might conclude that my Dad was an alcoholic. I was never so sure. Looking back, I’m still not entirely convinced today.
I never thought that my Dad had an alcohol “addiction.” He wasn’t the type to get “primed” before an Alhambra function, Thanksgiving Day dinner or family get-together. He was always “appropriate” going into them. Yet he liked being the center of attention—singing Polish songs, telling deer hunting stories—with a drink in his hand. Consequently, he often—but not always—got “loaded” by the end of the evening.
Actually, I thought that my Dad had an internal “on/off” switch. It’s just that he chose not to use it very often. Despite his many redeeming qualities—honesty, integrity and a charitable heart—he was selfish about his own pleasures, and my mother clearly suffered because of it. My “Uncle Joey,” by contrast, had no on/off switch. He drank so heavily, and it changed him so drastically, that my Aunt Jean left him. The booze eventually killed him. My brother-in-law Charlie had no on/off switch, either, and I doubt that he ever realized how close my sister Betty came to leaving him. He died due to cirrhosis of the liver.
My Dad often bragged about his intense will power. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” he would say. He stopped smoking cold turkey, for example, the day that his doctor put a scare in him about the scratchiness in his throat. And I contend that had our peak years as a family together occurred during the ’80s and ’90s—during the time of the women’s movement to which my mother was sympathetic—as opposed to during ’50s and ’60s—when women like my mother were subservient to their man—she would have seriously threatened to take us kids and leave my Dad because of his drinking. And I further contend had she done that, my Dad would have curtailed his drinking in a heartbeat.
I recently asked my brothers and sisters the following question: “Do you think, in your heart of hearts, that Dad was an alcoholic?”
My youngest brother, Paul, like me, considered our father to be an alcohol “abuser.” My brother Mark felt that our Dad was an alcoholic during the later years of his life, when he spent practically every afternoon drinking at the bar, before we took his keys away and he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. My sister Betty felt that our Dad was an alcoholic because his drinking created problems for our family. My sister Mary, who was on the fence in her assessment said, “Dad did not always drink to excess, but he did always drink.”
When my brothers, sisters and I reminisce about growing up at 13117 Tireman, we all conclude that it was a wonderful life. But I know this, and my Mom would certainly agree if she were still here with us today: My Dad would have been a better man had there been no alcohol in his life, or if, at the very least, he had been a moderate drinker. Ours would have been a happier household, too.
Getting up early was a “secret weapon” during my working years. I still find benefits in being a morning person.
September 17, 2013
I can’t remember the last time I watched David Letterman, Jay Leno or even the 11 o’clock news on TV. I’m always in bed at that hour. It’s what I do because I usually get up early every morning—“with the chickens,” as my mother used to say.
I discovered the early morning world in 1981, after I left the Automobile Club of Michigan to be a writer on the Chrysler account at Ross Roy.
The agency’s official hours were 9:00 to 5:00, but it was a shock to my system when I noticed most of the other writers and art directors strolling into the building at 9:30 or 9:45 every day. Then they’d hit the coffee machine and break down the previous night’s Tigers’ game. It would be 10 o’clock before they really got into their work.
I was uncomfortable, at first, with the slow-starting pace of “the Roy” because I had come from AAA’s Michigan Living department where it buzzed like a newsroom from jump. I was also surprised at how many of my agency colleagues worked until 7:00 p.m. or later to get all their work done. “When the hell do these people cut the grass”? I wondered.
Then one day, when I was bogged down with some catalog copy, I decided to come into the office at 7:00 a.m.to get an early start on my work. That was the day that I officially became a morning person.
With no one else in the building but the maintenance people, with no one talking sports or politics in the hallway, and without the phones ringing off the hook, I discovered that I was able to get almost as much writing done by 10 o’clock as I was ordinarily able to accomplish in an entire work day.
Thereafter, whenever I had a major piece to write or was buried in work, I’d arrive at my desk between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. Even with a reasonably light work load, I discovered that I liked being able to establish some momentum by coming in at eight o’clock. Plus, when Debbie and I started having kids, I found that being a morning person enabled me to get enough work done during the day so that I could be home in the evening with my family.
And I discovered some ancillary benefits to getting up early.
I found that I liked reading the morning Free Press with a hot cup of coffee or three at the crack of dawn. Recently, I discovered that the early morning is a great time to work on these essays. And for the last 30 years or so I have immensely enjoyed the quiet moments when I sit alone—often in the dark—“talking to myself,” sorting out life in my mind as the sun comes up.
Just last week I got out of bed on a humid morning at 5:45 a.m.; grabbed a cup of hot, black “mutha scratch;” walked out into the darkness of our side porch; sat down; and began to debate myself—about whether the universe was designed by a supreme power or whether it all just happened.
Getting up early and being alone with your thoughts in the still of the morning can do that to you. Try it. You might like it.
For me, the better question would have been, “Are you a Who person or a Guess Who person?”
September 9, 2013
I didn’t know quite what to say the first time someone asked me, “Are you a Beatles person or a Rolling Stones person?” The question, of course, presupposes that you favor one group over the other. However, anyone looking through my once considerable music collection—with many albums hunted down in musty old “record shops”—would conclude that I wasn’t a huge fan of either.
When I was in high school I bought Meet the Beatles, the group’s first U.S. release. However, between 1970, when I started collecting music in earnest, and 2010, when my entire collection of LPs and CDs went up in smoke, I bought exactly one Beatles album—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (20 years after it had been originally released)—and one Stones album—Some Girls, in 1978.
Taste in music, of course, is a very subjective thing. It can be a very emotional, very personal thing. I know it was for me.
Ever since I bought my first 45 in 1956, I have tended to favor doo wop, R&B, soul, funk and jazz—genres often lumped together under the label of “black music.”
That is not to say that I don’t like rock. I collected a lot of it over the years. It’s just that I tended to prefer groups with a keyboard or horn section—Chicago, the Average White Band and lesser known groups such as Kokomo or the Mighty Blue Kings. I also gravitated toward bands with Latin influences—Santana, Malo and War. I was just never particularly big on groups with “three guitars and a set of drums,” unless, that is, they also included a grand piano.
Which brings me to my favorite rock band of all time, the Guess Who from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
I must have owned eight or ten of their albums and two or three solo releases by the group’s front man and driving force, Burton Cummings. The cat could really sing, He was a master on the piano. And for the ten years that he wrote most of the group’s stuff, along with Randy Bachman (who left the band for Bachman-Turner Overdrive), I consistently discovered absolutely wonderful music—beyond such hits as Undun, Your Nashville Sneakers and Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon—on every Guess Who recording.
I used to get so frustrated talking music with people who thought I surely meant the Who when I actually meant the Guess Who whenever bar talk came around to favorite rock groups. Perhaps I never gave the Who a sufficient chance, but to my ear, their early stuff—Happy Jack, I Can See For Miles and Pinball Wizard (one of the all-time-terribles, in my estimation)—sounded somehow adolescent to me. I was unable to get passed it and never paid much attention to the group again. Rolling Stone magazine once wrote, “Along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Who complete the holy trinity of British rock.”
I could never see it. Certainly, I never heard it. I’ll take the Guess Who every time. But as I said, taste in music is a very personal thing.
Oh, and just for the record, put me down as a Beatles person. In my opinion, Lennon and McCartney were one of the greatest songwriting duos of all time.
It was always my plan to live in Michigan, but I wish I could have worked in a foreign country for a while.
August 25, 2013
When I attended Michigan State University during the mid-to-late ’60s, my pals in the dorm would express surprise at how l looked forward to spending time with friends and family in Dearborn during the holidays and summer term. I was equally surprised when one of them said, “There’s nothing for me back home,” which pretty much summed up the prevailing attitude of the fellas on my floor in Abbot Hall.
Many of them came from small families and attended large public high schools, while I came from a large family and attended a small parochial school, which I suspect had something to do with our differing points of view.
As graduation approached, some of my college buds were surprised at my desire to return to Detroit to live and work. While I, on the other hand, was surprised that so many of them were determined to start new lives in faraway places—usually out West.
Consider the paths taken by three of my best friends and former roommates:
Eric Simandl (from “dynamic” Caro), with whom I lived at Abbot Hall during my first two years in college, moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now lives in Las Vegas. Rick Trail (from Midland), who I roomed with in apartments my last two years of school, moved to San Jose and eventually retired to Maui. Rick Budd (from Pittsburgh), who lived with us in the apartment during my senior year, worked in several areas of the country before settling down near Portland, Oregon.
Oh, I bummed around California for a few months after graduation from college with my old neighborhood buddy, Joe McCracken. It was an unforgettable experience that opened my eyes to many things, including what became a lifelong love affair with cities after living and working in San Francisco for a while. But the adventure only confirmed my desire to get back to my roots.
Life worked out much as I had hoped. I found a job as a copywriter at AAA; rocked the wild and crazy ’70s during my single years; and finally, while on a travel writing assignment for the Auto Club, met Debbie, the woman who would become my wife, in Guadaloupe of all places. We eventually had four great kids.
In 1984, however, I had an emotional, attitude-adjusting experience that altered my world view: On a whim, I and a family friend, John “Walker” Syzmanski, decided to join my folks on a two-week trip to Poland. We went back to the peasant villages from which my grandparents emigrated, as well as the area from which Walker’s family originally came. Our trip took place before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Not only did I learn profound lessons about what it meant to be truly poor in an Eastern European country, I experienced what it was like to live under Communist domination.
On my very first morning in Poland, I stood in awe of a basilica that was built in the 1300s—before America was even discovered. That night I drank cognac with a Polish army general and member of the Communist Party because it provided a good life for his family. We visited members of Walker’s family who were so poor that the floors of their home were made of dirt. We stayed for a few days at the home of my mother’s cousin, a house without indoor plumbing. Finally, at the farm in the village from which my paternal grandfather came as a young man in the early 1900s, my relatives insisted that we sleep in their beds while they slept on stacks of hay in the barn. Tears streamed from my eyes a few days later as I left them—people who previously had been nothing more to me than names on a piece of paper.
I made a second trip to Poland in 1994 with my sister Mary, brother-in-law Charlie and niece Anna. We joined my Dad, who had flown there a couple of weeks earlier, and connected once again with our relatives. But we also worked in trips to Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Krakow and Prague where I was blown away by the vibrancy of European cities, as well as the enviable lifestyles of their citizens.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, but if I could do it all over again, and if I were presented with the opportunity to take my family to Europe where we could live and I could work for a year or two, I would jump at the chance. The short time I was able to spend there during my peak years was rewarding for many reasons. Not the least of which was a better understanding of our place as Americans—and mine as a human being—in this world.
And here I thought it was Cat Stevens helping me to appreciate every new day. Wrong again about a piece of old music.
August 19, 2013
There’s a bell tower with clock atop the old First Reformed Church on the corner of Washington and Third Street in Grand Haven, about a block-and-a-half from where I live. The real bells are long gone, but the sound of its recorded ones “gong” the time every hour on the hour.
At 9:00 a.m., 12 noon and 6:00 p.m., the “bells” play music, too. During the first week that I moved here in 2011, I recognized the early piece as Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken.” I’m often on the street at that hour walking Wanda “the wonder dog,” and when I hear the unmistakable introduction to the tune, I usually start singing the opening lyrics to myself in my head:
Morning has broken, like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.
On the grayest, funkiest of days, it can cause me to pause and give thanks for even the most ordinary moments of life.
While walking the dog one recent morning, I ran into the guy who drew up the plan for our house, and when I happened to mention the music I hear every day on the street and how it makes me feel, he informed me that it was actually a Christian hymn from the ’30s, based on a Scottish melody called “Bunessan.”
Well “sonsagun,” as my old Scotch-Irish friend Joe McCracken used to say. It’s amazing to me how many beautiful old melodies are even older than I originally thought.
As a child in the mid ’50s, I grew up obsessed with the music of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I would constantly twist the radio dial and search local “record shops” for their latest release. As a result, I discovered many great, sometimes obscure recordings such as “The Way You Look Tonight” by the Jaguars. A few years later, in 1961, the Letterman had a hit with what I took to be a “cover” of the Jaguars’ tune. It wasn’t until 1999 when I bought a wonderful CD featuring covers of old standards by Bryan Ferry, including “The Way You Look Tonight,” that I learned that the tune had been originally performed by Fred Astaire in the 1936 movie “Swing Time” and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Similarly, it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I learned that all the big hits recorded by the early ’60s doo wop group called the Duprees (“You Belong To Me,” “My Own True Love,” “Have You Heard?”) were actually cover versions of songs originally recorded by artists from an earlier era. I’ve probably had hundreds of such musical discoveries in my lifetime.
It just goes to show that a good melody is a good melody, something I’m as thankful for as every waking moment.