In March of this year I celebrated my 80th birthday in the warm and welcome company of my wife, my son, brothers and one remaining sister. I had invited them all fearing that perhaps several would be unable to attend. But I was pleasantly surprised to see them all there, with spouses and a couple of my nephews, save my brother Robert who lives in Germany. We shared a dinner at a restaurant very special to Bobbie and me – Gertrude’s, located in a heavenly location in Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden. And the next morning, all were able to join Bobbie and me and son Conrad and his fiancee Tara at the Scottsdale house for breakfast.
Now that I’m 80 years old and breathing the rarified octogenarian air enjoyed by but approximately five percent of the US male population, I must pause a moment, reflect and take note.
Looking back on these 80 years, there is much to regret – I should have made a different decision here; I should have worked harder on that; I should have been a better politician there. But that’s all over and whatever happened I cannot change any more than I can change the character or personality traits that influenced these decisions. And one more regret, the manifestations of which I still wrestle with today – I wish I had stopped to smell the roses more often, taken the time to relax, enjoy myself, sleep late, linger over my morning coffee, sit and read poetry or a novel. But it seems that I’ve been locked into a duty and task-driven existence that has controlled me with its weight and momentum.
But on the other hand there is much to feel good about. I’ve had a reasonably successful career and, while certainly not wealthy, own a few assets and have earned and enjoy a decent retirement. I’ve worked in education all my professional life, a field that I have loved and a fact that I’m quite proud of. All of my experiences dealing with children, parents and teachers for every one of those 45 years in education have brought me much joy and fulfillment.
I am thankful to say that physically I feel pretty good for a guy in that five percent. All the organs seem to be still working okay. Recent tests have revealed persistent elevated levels of cholesterol which I am trying to bring down. Other numbers have revealed some potential kidney problems, not uncommon as we age. And I continue to deal with the BPH problem with which I have wrestled for a decade or so. Additionally, recent tests related to my heart function have been satisfactory.
The large joints, despite (or maybe because of?) years of running in my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are working adequately. Yes, I am stiff from time to time and I still encounter pain in my left knee, on which I have had several surgeries over the years and now my right, which to now has never bothered me. The arthritis which assaulted me several years ago while in Vermont and to which I attributed to Lyme Disease is noticeable in several finger and toe joints and has likely affected the knees. Lyme tests (2) were negative but I am well aware of the capricious and inconsistent nature of Lyme test results and of Lyme disease itself, so I still have some lingering suspicion. At any rate, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees (for the most part) and ankles seem to be functioning despite occasional pain.
Thankfully I have exercised for most of my life. During my 30’s I got into running through my association with a good friend and managed to continue, mixing it with hiking, gym visits and other exercise to a greater or lesser degree through my 40’s and 50’s and into my 60’s. That bad left knee forced running from my life in my 70’s but I have managed through gym membership while in Arizona and some dumbbells and an elliptical machine in the basement TV room here in Vermont to keep the exercise up. Yes, on some days it’s absolutely the last thing I want to do but somehow I have forced myself to keep going and it’s been good for me. I do think that it’s an important reason for my relatively good health at this age now. As I enter the upper reaches of old age I have tried to heed the maxim promoted by a friend from my Scottsdale gym who, even while hobbling in three times a week on a cane, says, ”Ralph, at our age we just gotta keep moving”.
Weight is another thing entirely. Despite the exercise, I have always struggled with weight and have given in to a steady gain over the decades. Around 160 in my 20’s has grown to 170 in my 30’s, and given way to 180 plus in my 40’s to now, Presently I am striving to get down to 185 and it’s been tough going.
And one more thing about health at eighty. It could be my imagination but I really do discern a change in how doctors and other medical personnel deal with me. There appears to be a change in attitude – a reticence, resignation, nonchalance, disinterestedness, almost lackadaisicalness, when emerging or worsening health concerns appear. It’s rather like they are all thinking, “He’s 80 years old, what does he expect?” or “Improving this or that condition is unrealistic; things can only get worse – look at his age” “or “There’s little we can do about that – you’re 80 years old and your recuperative powers are limited”. Yes, it could be me thinking these thoughts and unfairly attributing them to the medical people but the feeling is unmistakably there, regardless of whom it is coming from.
A more positive aspect to dealing with medical problems at 80 is that my age gives me license to be more discerning and selective regarding the drugs that are prescribed for me. If the potential side effects of a particular drug, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, concern me, I can accept or reject the drug. I’ve made 80 already – that’s pretty good – I can accept the risk of taking or not taking that drug, or rejecting the drug entirely in favor of a more natural remedy that I think may work just as well. I mean, what can happen ? – I’ve already made 80.
And one more observation about turning 80. Decades ago, when certain frailties and concerning physical conditions first reared their heads, I worried about them perhaps developing into truly life altering or life threatening conditions as time went on. Well, it so happens that time did go on and the conditions did not get appreciably worse, nor did they seriously affect my quality of life, and (obviously) did not kill me. Here I’m talking about chronic conditions like Reynaud’s Disease, encounters with skin cancer (I’ve had two melanomas removed from my back), digestive problems, joint problems, heart concerns, clinical depression and others. Thank goodness, they’re all no worse or no greater concerns now at 80 than they were decades ago when first encountered. So basically, I’ve outlived the effects of those potentially life altering maladies.
And, when one turns 80 thoughts naturally turn to a radically diminished future and how many years of life remain. So of course, quite naturally, there are thoughts about death. A dear friend, also my age, mentioned that men turning 80 can generally look forward to about eight more years of life. He didn’t mention what the statistics say about the quality of that life – I would assume that a few of those additional eight years of “life” may consist of an inexorable spiral downward, rife with pain and deterioration of joints, organs and bodily functions. But after those eight years? Yes, death.
And what about beyond death? Is there anything there? I don’t share the religious faith that so many friends and family members profess – that somehow we live on or our souls live on after we die. This is all reflected in an earlier article I wrote about life and death so I won’t add to it. But some recent articles I’ve read make a lot of sense and add some additional dimensions to what I wrote earlier.
One, composed by that brilliant writer who authors “The Marginalian”, formerly “Brain Pickings”, Maria Popova, offers some really sensible and reasonable explanations in her article “What Happens When We Die”. In her article, Ms Popova quotes extensively from the work of physicist/poet/novelist Alan Lightman. When we die, whether we are buried or cremated, our remains, composed of the basic elements and their billions of atoms, are eventually scattered around the world and join the air, water, and plants which nurture further life. In that regard I guess, we are indeed immortal, but in a strikingly different way than theologians would have us believe.
Philosopher George Yancy, in a February 2022 posting of Truthout discusses the complexity of death and its contemplation, in the context of the almost (then) one million covid deaths in the US. He laments the tragic extinguishing of the unique and singular lives of so many people killed in the pandemic and otherwise. No one has come back from death to explain its mysteries to us; we strive to understand death exclusively from this side and can understand only that death is an essential part of life. It can be said that death defines life. Everything we know that lives, also dies. Yancy notes that all major religions are based on their own explanations of death: they attest to “our human capacity to be touched by the fact of death, to make sense of it, and to respond to its mystery in deep symbolic and discursively differential ways.” But despite its universality, death remains a mystery. And it’s interesting how, when we’re young, the notion of death rarely crosses our minds. It is only with the creeping infirmity and inevitability of old age that we begin to contemplate death, which is really the final phase of life.
I encountered the phrase, “what’s remembered lives” while watching the recent award winning movie “Nomadland” on a streaming channel and was affected by the notion. I was struck by the fact that my sister Barbara and my parents, and various close relatives and a few friends, though having passed away, are quite alive to me. I can hear their voices and their laughter, recognize their mannerisms and movements and enjoy their company and companionship….in my memory. But when I die, they die with me. Well, maybe not profound, but nevertheless interesting. They are alive to me in the individual idiosyncratic way in which I remember them. And they will live as long as my own capacity to recall them exists.
And I do wish so much that they, particularly my parents, as I deal with the travails of old age, were still alive to talk to. I long to ask how it was for them as they got older – how they felt about it, how they thought of their respective lives and their children’s. As I mentioned in another article, I wish that I had asked them so much more about their lives growing up in Missouri (Dad) and North Dakota (Mom), and much more about how they both came to meet in the Pillar of Fire church and schools. And I know little about their struggles as a young couple in the church and how the arrival of each child affected their lives and work.
But most affecting for me are the memories of my parents’ personalities – their voices, their laughs, their casual banter with each other as my parents and much later as retirees in their home in Westminster, Colorado. Very alive for me too is the feeling of security and love I felt when I was visiting. Dad never showed the love as demonstratively as Mom. He always maintained a comfortable (for him) distance, unlike the tactile love Mom always showed – the hugs and the kisses which she bestowed so liberally on all of us children.
I cried myself to sleep last night. Well…not exactly, but I did get a bit choked up and shed some tears. For some reason, instead of sleeping, I had begun thinking about how I would like to die, and decided that I would like Conrad and Bobbie next to me, holding my hands and reminiscing about our lives together. And thinking about those years together – the high points and the lows of our shared lives – is what brought the tears (and is bringing a few now as I type).
With Conrad, I would mention and invite his recollection of throwing a football back and forth between us in the back yard of our home at 4919 E Altadena in Scottsdale. What a thrill it was to me to see him reach up and grab the ball while in full stride…if my throw was a good one and had led him sufficiently. I would also remember with Conrad, while at the same house, during one of our memorable Christmases, of his joyfully opening a gift I had wrapped for him – a huge Costco-sized box of Cheez-Its.
And so many of our father-son trips together between Colorado and Arizona are very pleasant to remember. Like the time we camped in Canyonlands, I think in the Ford Explorer, then made hot chocolate to warm us in the cold morning on a little stove we had brought along. Or the several times we traveled in the pickup/camper while little Conrad played “coins” in the back or on the front seat. And of course our wonderful ultimate father-son experience – hiking the Grand Canyon down to Phantom Ranch, staying two nights, then hiking back, both directions on the South Kaibab Trail. Then too, our shared car trip right before he turned 16 from Frankfurt, Germany to Vienna, Austria and back, during which we visited the sights in Nuremberg, Munich, Salzberg and Vienna, including the Belvedere Museum and its collection of famed paintings by Klimpt, Kokochka and Schiele. And later that summer spending time with various Friedlys in Missouri, seeing the gravestone of his namesake, the first Conrad Friedly in the US. And what a thrill it’s always been to work hand in hand on special projects with him – I would ask him to recall helping me with the new floor in Scottsdale, with the basement renovation in Vermont while he was in law school there, and me assisting him with the new floor in his Gallup, New Mexico house. And I could go on and on.
And while holding Bobbie’s warm little hand, I would invite her to join me in recalling some of the precious highlights of our lives together – our first date after I had called her home and asked her out, horrifying her little daughter Liza, then seven years old, who knew me only as her elementary school principal. Then we’d recall our first trip west together, meeting my parents and brothers in Colorado for the first time, and our trip to the Grand Canyon, where we befriended briefly a little puppy that we encountered outside our cabin and where I proposed to her on a now-inaccessible promontory below Yaki Point. We’d recall together our marriage ceremony in Duxbury, Massachusetts, her parents and my parents attending and the loading of a 26 foot U-Haul with what we deemed as “keepers” and necessities gleaned from our two households. Then our “honeymoon” driving the U-Haul across the country to Arizona, later to be joined by Bobbie’s daughters and the formation of our first family home together at 3152 West Kings in Phoenix. And certainly, we’d share memories of Conrad’s birth, our move to the “horse property” home at 6340 W. Surrey in Glendale. And we’d recall together other highlights like the move to Scottsdale, our foray overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait, and all the exciting travels emanating from that and other overseas ventures. And I could go on and on.
But perhaps I won’t be this fortunate. It’s much more likely that like so many people, I will die suddenly with a heart attack, or in the the crushed metal and flame of an auto accident or like yet many others, slowly in a hospital bed succumbing to the ravages of some disease or in a haze of numbing drugs to relieve the pain of failing organs and physical deterioration.
In addition to thoughts outlined above, another thing that I’ve noticed about myself lately is that I’m spending more and more time thinking about the past and recalling significant events in my life, also likely a symptom of old age. Much of my communication and correspondence with old friends and relatives consists of recollection of events from our shared pasts, sometimes complemented with old photos, and opinions and observations about common acquaintances or former colleagues. And if congruence of political opinion allows, we may discuss the current state of politics in the context of what politics used to be when we were younger and should be today. I have to say that these connections have become most meaningful, almost essential, at the age of 80, part of clinging to my identity, my place in the world and my importance as all slip away in old age.
And with a past that stretches back for decades and a steadily diminishing future for us, the same tendency permeates the discourse between my wife and myself. While we dwell on the developing lives of our children from time to time, it does appear that we also linger on the past – our own and the childhoods of our children more and more with advancing age. We have a few aims for the future but certainly many fewer than we had in our younger days. And most focus on the immediate future – this summer, this fall, next year, but not much further. Oh, and it seems that we talk about the weather more than ever.
Since we travel back and forth between Arizona and Vermont, we’ve attached a few goals to those trips, achieving several this past spring – sharing Zion and Bryce National Parks for the first time, then also finally getting to see and enjoy Yellowstone. We still intend to see Yosemite and the Redwoods and get to the Pacific northwest while we’re still physically able, perhaps on next spring’s trip from Arizona to Vermont. Also at some point it would be very pleasant to travel through southern Canada east or west on one of these trips.
My own personal goals, hopes and aspirations during a steadily diminishing future center on maintaining and perhaps even improving our lives in these two homes in which we live and on reading and writing. But maintaining two homes gets increasingly challenging. I don’t look forward to improvement projects the way I used to when I was younger. And everyday home maintenance – cleaning, washing windows, repairing broken faucets, fixing roofs or painting walls and ceilings, gets very dreary and tiresome. Maintaining our gardens and lawn in Vermont too is sometimes a grind – I do get tired of planting trees, mulching the gardens and mowing the lawn.
Other activities used to include music but my arthritis has taken much of the pleasure out of playing the guitar so mostly I just listen. But they still include writing and those goals keep me going each day. I have 30-40 articles in various stages of completion so finishing them one by one, plus adding a few on other topics along the way, give me some tangible and achievable aims for the future. I know I’ll never be the writer I want to be but whatever I can produce gives me pride and pleasure and some motivation for the next attempt. And although I write primarily for myself, along the way a few other readers have enjoyed some of what I’ve written.
So this is where I am at 80 years old – still plugging along and trying to live as full and as complete a life as I am able, living day to day, week by week and month by month until we move back to Arizona, then its the same there until we move back here, always trying to live as best we can, squeezing some pleasure out of our day to day tasks, our occasional sightseeing, communication with children and travels. We’ll see how long it all lasts.
And finally, there’s a wonderful Cheryl Wheeler song about an elderly couple that seems in many ways to reflect what and where we are today. These few lines from “Quarter Moon” summarize much of what I’ve written above and provide a fitting conclusion for this article:
“And they speak about their lives as almost gone Waiting for the sunset From an old and distant dawn.”
I’m sick of it. The somber press conferences giving us the latest numbers of victims, adding those who succumbed in the hospital to those who died in the classrooms. The law enforcement announcements telling us that this or that aspect of the slaughter is “under investigation” or that they haven’t determined a “motive” just yet. Or later the details of exactly what kinds of weapons were used to commit the crime and create the carnage of bloody little bodies.
And I’ve also had enough of the endless video images of the flashing lights of police vehicles and ambulances and of the crime scene tape around areas where the murders took place. And the sickening parade of crowds of cops strutting around, conferring, trying to “piece together” exactly what happened, assembling a “timeline” of events and delivering tidbits of news to the press. Oh yes, and the endless stream of video showing them armored and armed with their own long guns, sprinting toward the scene (or were they running away in order to protect themselves?) one hour after the murderer entered the school, too late as usual to prevent the deaths but just in time to kill the “suspect” without putting themselves in danger.
And my God, how many “law enforcement” entities were involved in Uvalde – six, ten – in this incompetent performance? The town police force, Texas DPS, Border Patrol, County Sheriff’s Department, State Police, Texas Rangers, and even the FBI? And the school district had its very own police force, replete with its own “chief”? There they all were at the series of press conferences, all hapless and helpless, uniformed and uninformed, cowboy hats and cowboy boots, all armed to the teeth, admitting that they delayed for over an hour while the gunman shot a few more and victims bled out and died during the “golden hour” when their lives could have been saved.
And of course the parade of politicians wringing their hands and saying we have to do something, yet always unwilling to do anything at all for fear of turning off the spigots of gun money from corporate and gun rights organization sources supporting their reelection campaigns or offending the armed and tattooed bubbas who constitute the bulk of their voting base. And the endless laments of “this is not who we are” when we know good and well that this is exactly who we are – a nation of spineless fools who allow, no, actually seem to encourage, every idiot and damned fool in the country to own a gun. And I’ve had it with the stupid suggestions for protecting students like “hardening” schools, arming teachers, providing more guards or having “one entrance”. How does that last one work for a fire in the school, Senator Cruz?
And then the endless breast beating by dozens of corporate TV talking heads and commentators, all wondering if this is the last time we suffer such an event, or “what it’s going to take” to get Congress to act.
And then later, the sad pictures and sketches of the lives snuffed out in the bloom of childhood – this one enjoyed art, another had a thing for animals, this child made the honor roll, another was a baseball player. And we begin crying, along with the parents and relatives.
And again, our “comforter in chief”, ever-suffering President Biden, shuffling and doddering among the memorial displays and gesturing about one or another, visiting the bereaved and offering useless public cliches that are supposed to make us all feel better. Oh and thank God, “Dr. Jill” was along too, . And the never ending cliches of “thoughts and prayers”, the flags lowered to half-mast, the “moments of silence” and the candlelight vigils.
I mean, how many of these terrible mass shootings are we expected to countenance before we do something concrete, something meaningful, to stop them. When are we going to pass effective laws to keep guns out of the hands of idiots, fools and the mentally deranged. The statistics are staggering – the only nation in the world with more guns than people – four hundred million at present. Forty thousand gun deaths every year along with 400 mass shootings. And so far in 2022 we’ve had well over 200 mass shootings. And now for the first time more children dying from guns than from auto accidents. The rest of the world is aghast at our stupidity and spinelessness. When a mass shooting occurs in another country they do something about it, but not the US. “Exceptional” indeed.
Frankly I think that doing anything different is impossible anymore in this country. Guns are such an integral part of our lives in the US. Every law enforcement officer of whatever stripe, level or description has to have a gun, presumably as Wayne LaPierre asserted, to be that “good guy with a gun” to stop that “bad guy with a gun”. Actually we’d all be much safer if neither of them had a gun. And furthermore, what did the hundreds of good guys with guns milling about Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas do? Not a damned thing, until it was too late.
I can’t get out of my head the image of a queue of new Border Patrol or ICE recruits, most of course scraped from the bottom of the barrel as these agencies scramble to fill their authorized ranks, all lined up and one by one being presented with their guns, belts, holsters and ammunition. Yes, this is the real badge of law enforcement in America – the power to instantly kill and maim. Honestly, do these creeps really need guns? What are they going to do – shoot some poor immigrant striving to achieve a better life for his family? Shoot some poor mother as she struggles through the currents of the Rio Grande with her children? But there they are getting their guns. This is indeed a major part of the mass killing epidemic in our country – guns themselves and their prevalence, whether in the hands of the “good guys” or the “bad guys”.
The recklessness and randomness with which guns in the hands of the police are fired at hapless and helpless citizens is astonishing. Attempting to run away from the scene of a crime or reluctance or recalcitrance (or inability, as demonstrated when a policeman aimed five bullets at the body of a pregnant woman so instructed) to heed shouted police orders, should not result in execution. Examples of cops acting as judge, jury and executioner are far too numerous to list here but one recent incident which I cannot erase from my mind is this one, in which a poor, confused and probably inebriated immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrick Lyoya, tried to run away from a traffic stop arrest, was tackled by the cop and summarily executed with a single shot to the back of his head.
And there’s our august, brilliant, dignified black-robed justices of the Supreme Court. How do they feel when they know they are responsible too for this carnage – the bloody, lifeless bodies of innocent children in a school. These distinguished “jurists” have opened the legal floodgates for this torrent of guns. They have done so by striking down laws limiting ownership of guns and making it perfectly legal for gun manufacturers and gun rights organizations to buy their own congressmen (see my upcoming article “Screwed by SCOTUS”)
And accordingly our corrupt “lawmakers” in state legislatures and Congress go about the business of making it easier to own weapons of war, making it legal for any moron to carry a gun in public, into a restaurant or department store if the idiot wishes. And our Republican leaders in Congress persist in claiming that the real problem is mental illness and school safety, not the number of guns in our country. As a career educator I deplore the focus on “hardening” schools. Schools need to be open, warm and welcoming beacons to the communities they serve, not cold, austere and forbidding fortresses. And arming teachers, as our genius and wise sage ex-president Donald Trump suggested at the NRA Convention in Houston last Friday is ludicrous. Give me a break – teachers have more than enough responsibility in their increasingly demanding roles. They should not and cannot become armed guards as well. Placing armed personnel in schools has not increased safety but has only made schools more dangerous.
I’m sick of it all. This is not freedom, but tyranny of a different sort. I’m personally tyrannized by the omniscience of guns, the ease with which they can be purchased and the ease with which ammunition to load them can also be obtained. And please spare me all the banal platitudes about “responsible gun owners”. I mean, there’s got to be a limit on this too. How many guns does a “responsible gun owner” need? The same goes for “collectors”. How many of the 400 million guns in this country are owned by collectors and responsible gun owners or hunters? How many of the murderous killers of children in schools, patrons in shopping centers or supermarkets, music lovers at a country music concert have fallen into these categories. No, there are simply too many guns in this country….period.
Isn’t the primary duty of the state to protect its citizens? And wouldn’t the first among them be those least able to protect themselves – our children? Look at how our country has utterly failed at this primary task. And yet we have far more policemen and police departments per capita “serving and protecting” our society than any other developed country (see my upcoming article “Police State”). And perhaps it’s time to ask why we have so many policemen and why we are not any safer or better protected. Oh yes, the cops are out in droves to “keep order” during times of civic unrest, looking and acting far more like agents of a repressive state than protectors of lives and property. In Uvalde they were out in droves, directing traffic, cordoning off areas, doing crowd control and keeping parents from actively rescuing their children, even handcuffing one distraught mother, doing everything except going after the shooter. And yes, their guns were ever at the ready, to kill and injure. Wherever there are people demonstrating, exercising their constitutional right to “peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, there are the phalanxes of heavily armed policemen, replete with their weapons and vehicles of war, to “keep order”. Perhaps it’s time to ask what police really do for us, as Natasha Leonard noted in a recent article for The Intercept.
It might be appropriate to close with a grim reminder of what we have become – a nation of mass shootings which keep happening. On May 27 the Washington Post published a grim list of all the names of those who have died in mass shootings since Columbine, replete with telling photographs of ensuing grief and sadness, with the plea we have heard so many times before – Congress needs to pass sensible gun laws. Now.
What on earth do our Congressmen think when they consider this list? Might they think that something is wrong in our country? Something they need to address? My God, there’s Mitch McConnell again at a press conference, flanked as usual by his do-nothing fellow Republican “leaders” Senators Barrasso, Thune, Ernst and Blunt announcing again what they won’t do, deciding what legislation to block and when to use the filibuster. How long are we going to tolerate a Senate where all good legislation voted by the House goes to die?
Perhaps we just need to admit that our nation is in serious trouble. It is in a steady decline, totally unable to arrest its deterioration because its government is controlled by corporations and money and because of its foolish fealty to a constitution long overdue for a rewrite.
A recent video provided by my brother Charlie of flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida in the communities of Manville and Somerset, New Jersey, including the area in which I grew up, called Zarephath, has impressed upon me the urgency of completing this rather long article about my childhood in a church, the Pillar of Fire. I turn 80 years old this spring so likely many potential interested readers who may have shared some knowledge or experiences in the church may no longer be around. So I have opened the article once more, intending to finish it and publish it on my blog very soon.
I am writing this because it means a great deal to me to recall scenes of my childhood, all of which was spent in the embrace, or maybe better terms, the “grip” or “grasp”, of the Pillar of Fire Church and its educational, evangelical and broadcast ministries. At 79 years of age now, some of the memories are growing dim and many are fleeting, recalled but briefly in the context of others more vivid. The faces of the people near and dear to me back then and the scenes of Zarephath and the places my family lived are just as blurred and temporary as are the memories. Yet, when sitting alone, unencumbered and uninterrupted by current voices and sounds, memories come back more readily and clearly. I have tried to paint as accurate and as meaningful a picture as I can and I hope that contemporaries of mine who knew the Pillar of Fire and Zarephath might enjoy and relate to some of what I have written. Looking back on the experience, I might call it a labor of love or more precisely a task of recollection and reflection. I apologize for occasional redundancies in the article: Incidents and personalities may be mentioned from time to time in more than one context. I also apologize for a more detailed description or emphasis on one personality or family over another, more a matter of convenience and recall than preference or value judgement. I have also linked some names to published obituaries, when I could find them.
Pillar of Fire Church
The church was founded by a dynamic female preacher and evangelist, and “first female bishop” in the country, Alma White, in 1901. From modest beginnings in the Denver, Colorado area, the church, under her energetic leadership grew to encompass large tracts of land and multiple buildings at Belleview, Westminster, Colorado and in central New Jersey in the Zarephath area, later to include schools, colleges, radio stations, publishing facilities and dozens of properties in major cities and metropolitan areas across the country. A conservative offshoot of the Methodist church, the Pillar of Fire embraced austere dress – black or navy blue with white collars – and rejected bright colors and immodest styles. It also forbade the common vices of smoking tobacco and drinking any form of alcohol. This conservative and austere message extended to young people as well. Girls in its high schools were required to wear a modest tan and brown “uniform”; dancing of any kind and especially between the sexes was absolutely forbidden. Smoking, drinking, dancing, going to the movies and any romantic contact between the sexes were all deemed “sinful”.
The message to its many congregations was to rely on literal interpretation of Biblical text and prayer for guidance in daily life and strive toward first one work of grace and conversion – getting “saved”, and then a second, getting “sanctified”. The church encouraged current and potential members to give up all of their “worldly goods”, come and live in the church facilities and devote their talent and labor to growing and strengthening the church and “spreading the gospel”.
The Pillar of Fire, relied on monetary contributions from businesses and individuals, tuition and publishing receipts to sustain its work, variously described as “religious, educational and benevolent activities”. It provided the basic needs of food and housing to its rank and file workers but did not pay regular salaries and instead encouraged them to rely on “faith” and the munificence and grace of God to sustain them.
It could be called a town because it was a dot on the map like all the other New Jersey towns but it was really a collection of school buildings, dormitories, homes and work buildings constructed by the Pillar of Fire Church to support its multiple missions. It was home to Alma Preparatory School, Alma White College and Zarephath Bible Seminary as well as radio station WAWZ and a large publishing enterprise. Apparently it earned the title of “town” because it did contain a US Post Office. Zarephath was located off the “Canal Road” about three miles west of Bound Brook, New Jersey, with the majority of its buildings located on former farmland between the Millstone River and the Delaware and Raritan Canal. I can see each of the Zarephath buildings clearly in my mind and can recall a host of memories and experiences related to each of them.
“Liberty Hall” was a four story collection of high school classrooms and a large assembly room on the lower floors with dormitory rooms above on the third and fourth floors. A few single male church workers lived on the third floor and also performed the role of supervisor or preceptor for the boarding high school students living on the fourth floor. On the front was a large flat concrete porch adorned with a couple of benches, which served as a before school lounge area, where students hung out, flirted, joked, and guffawed before and between classes. I can remember students from those days, contemporary friends like Joe Wenger, Malcolm Grout and Arnold Walker, older students like Danny Oaks, Vincent Dellorto, the Weaver boys Glenn, Meredith and Richard, the Gross boys John, David, Joe and Daniel. And then there were the girls – my sister Barbara, of course, Genevieve Dobash, Phyllis Oakes, Phyllis Finlayson, Elaine Schissler, Lorinda Bartlett, Miriam Snelling, Margaret Hellyer, Eunice Wilson…. as well as many others. Also on the first floor of Liberty Hall in the back of the building were laundry facilities to take care of student and worker needs consisting of washers, dryers and a big steam press for ironing.
Three story “Columbia Hall” was the junior high location with classrooms on the first floor and girls dormitory rooms above. I remember the Junior High classroom especially well when Ruben Truitt and wife Irel were the teachers. One fond memory relating to this time in my life, 1953-1955, were the spontaneous winter ice skating breaks. On many of the cold, snowless days of deep winter, Mr. Truitt would simply take a break from school and we’d go to “the pond” near the Assembly Hall or to the canal, if it was thoroughly frozen, for a couple of hours of ice skating. Mr. Truitt was a great skater himself, while many of us were in various stages of skill development or did not skate at all. Nevertheless, off we’d go to indulge Mr. Truitt’s skating passion. In the basement of Columbia Hall were the church canning facilities, which I will discuss later in my section on food.
Between Columbia Hall and Liberty Hall was the Power House, a brick building containing the coal furnaces and big boilers that provided steam heat for virtually all of the buildings. There was also a prominent cylindrical brick smokestack that marked this facility’s location on the Zarephath campus as well as a nearby water tower.
The “Main Building” featured church offices and reception rooms along with the kitchen and dining facilities on its lower floors and girls dormitory rooms above. These three afore-mentioned buildings were constructed with distinctive cast concrete blocks that the church had evidently manufactured for its own use.
The “College Building” contained an auditorium for church services and daily gatherings for students, college classrooms, and broadcast studios for our radio station WAWZ. The top floor contained dorm rooms for students of Alma White College. This stately building was quite prominent, being the first encountered when entering the campus from Canal Road. The College Building also contained the library, used by both high school and college students. Most of the books I fell in love with as a child were borrowed from this facility.
On the north side of the campus next to the water tower was the fire station which contained a dated fire truck or two, manned by volunteers among church workers, who maintained and polished their firefighting skills with occasional drills. Above the truck bays was an apartment occupied by various church personnel. I recall that Mert Weaver and Jeannie Bradford lived there for a time after they were married and before leaving the church. Adjacent to the station and between the dike and Liberty Hall was a group of swings and a popular horseshoe area (pit?, pitch?, not sure what they’re called) used by students and adults. This area was was the brainchild of Kathleen White, Bishop Arthur White’s wife and so was named “Merrill Park”, after her middle name, which I would have to assume must have been her mother’s maiden name.
The “Publishing Building” contained the “store”(more about this facility later), the post office, printing presses, areas for Linotype machines and book binding and a shipping platform. The printing press room also contained my Dad’s barber chair, on which he gave 25 cent (or less, depending on one’s ability to pay) haircuts with his Oster hair clippers to many students and church people, while discussing the latest news and gossip. I provide a picture of the chair taken during a visit to Zarephath in 1999 later in this article.
On the west side of the complex was the “Frame Building”, containing apartments where various individuals lived, the house where the Stewarts lived and the “greenhouse” where flowers were raised for decorating church services as well as seedlings for the farm enterprise. The “garage” with its lift and gas pump was located on this side of the complex as well. Also a couple of buildings constructed of oblong tile blocks were on this side of the “town”. One contained the “bakery” where our wonderful whole wheat bread was baked by Mr. Nolke twice a week. I don’t recall what the other was used for – perhaps storage of some kind.
Also on the west side of Zarephath, between the canal and the aforementioned west side buildings was a large and well-kept athletic field containing a baseball diamond and backstop, where high school physical education classes were conducted and our annual “May Day” baseball contest between the high school and college was played. In the fall in deep left field we played touch football on a less than clearly marked football gridiron. Between this athletic field and the greenhouse area were a couple of tennis courts constructed in the middle 1950’s, which students and residents alike enjoyed.
Also in the mid-fifties a gymnasium building was constructed. Named after Nathaniel Wilson, the designer of the building and one of the church’s main engineers and architects, the Wilson Gym contained a basketball court and a swimming pool which were welcome additions to the church and school facilities.
In the early fifties the complex was encircled by “The Dike”, an earthen structure to hold back the periodic floods of the neighboring Millstone River. “Behind the dike” or “over the dike” were euphemisms for the favored secret trysting places for our teenage students, who unfortunately enjoyed absolutely no formally accepted or sanctioned boy-girl relationship opportunities. The “back road”, a dirt road going smoothly over the dike and winding through the fields and woods leading to the “Millwood” residence where the Wilson family lived and the “Weston Causeway”, about a mile away, also led to farm fields, the Murphy family house and my own old home at “Morningside”.
Between the major Zarephath school and maintenance buildings mentioned above and the canal were well tended lawns and flowerbeds and a network of cinder paths culminating at what we called “The Fountain”, an attractive circular stone-clad pond with water fountains in the middle. This area contained a few benches arrayed around the fountain and was a favorite gathering place for students, individuals and families enjoying the Zarephath grounds. I should mention that an elderly gentleman, Mr. George Bartlett, father of the George Bartlett who built the reputation of the church dairy farm, tended the lawns and flowerbeds on the Zarephath campus with expertise and obvious loving care.
Across the canal and beyond the “bridge house” where Mr. John Nolke and his wife lived were the Assembly Hall, the large auditorium building where Sunday church services were held, the WAWZ radio towers and transmitter building, and “the pond”, a lovely body of water that provided relaxation in the summer and excellent ice skating in the winter. Adjacent to the pond was a row of small cabins or cottages; several were home to members of the Walker family and one later the home of Sid Johnston, more about both later. Also, near the Assembly Hall, was the Zarephath cemetery, the final resting place of many Pillar of Fire workers and their families. I should mention that outside the Assembly Hall was a small ivy-covered stone open structure containing a couple of water fountains.
If instead of crossing Canal Road to the buildings and areas mentioned above, you had turned left toward Bound Brook, you passed a half-mile grove of maple and Colorado Blue Spruce trees planted between Zarephath and my first New Jersey home at “Lock Haven”. Further down Canal Road, you passed the McNear house and arrived at the complex of farm buildings called “Tabor”. Here was the center of the church farming operations with barns, corn cribs, a modern cooler for fruit storage, garage areas for the maintenance of tractors and so on. The Tabor house was occupied by the Wesley Gross family which I will describe in detail later.
Further down Canal Road was Mountain View, the church bishop’s New Jersey residence, a single story house, separate garage, a beautiful grape arbor area, stone retaining walls and well kept lawns. My father’s sister Ada Friedly spent many years at Mountain View tending to the needs of Bishop Arthur White, his wife Kathleen and their children and grandchildren.
Beyond Mountain View on the unpaved road that adjoined Canal Road as well as one of the residence’s driveways, was “Rosedale” the church’s modern dairy farm. Consisting of three modern barns, state of the art mechanical milking, manure removal, and milk processing systems, along with a prize Holstein herd, this enterprise was the pride of the church. Mr. George Bartlett, who lived with his family at the attractive Rosedale residence, was responsible for the success of the church’s dairy operation. However, his star shown too brightly for the ruling White family to countenance, so he was later demoted and put in charge of the greenhouses at Zarephath and Mr. Ezra Hellyer was assigned to the dairy, which under his supervision began a long slow descent. As I will detail later, Mr. Hellyer’s heart did not seem to be in dairy farming but in other areas – patrolling the Pillar of Fire areas as a quasi-law enforcement officer and later, after leaving the church, joining Somerset County politics.
I remember the Bartlett family at Rosedale very well. Children Jenora, Doris, Lorinda and Dwight, played prominent roles in my own childhood and memories of the church with Jenora marrying my Dad’s good friend Rea (Red) Crawford, beautiful Doris breaking hearts in our high school, freckled, pigtailed Lorinda (Lindy) being one of sister Barbara’s best friends over the years and Dwight, whose success with girls was legendary and the constant envy of kids like myself and my good friend Joe Wenger.
Further up this unpaved road was “Bethany boys home”, a large frame house which boarded boys too young for the Zarephath dormitories. Run by the Weaver family, Bethany provided rules and routines, good meals and sack lunches to take to school. I will never forget the envy I felt about the lunches of the kids from Bethany, which were always delicious, also occasionally contained cream puffs – yes, genuine, made from scratch cream puffs with sweet homemade whipped cream inside. Mrs. Weaver was a positive, motherly type whom the boys loved. Mr. Weaver provided some necessary discipline and stability and their sons, the afore-mentioned “Weaver Boys” – Glenn, Meredith (Mert) and Richard, provided some supervision, camaraderie and good examples for behavior and work habits. While envying the Bethany boys’ sack lunches brought to school, I also wished I could have participated in the renowned Friday (or was it Wednesday?) night “tomato pie” (pizza) feasts prepared for the boys by Mrs. Weaver. Friends Joe Wenger and Malcolm Grout were among many who began their Zarephath school experiences boarding with the Weavers at Bethany.
From the Rosedale dairy farm there were dirt roads that provided shortcuts to the Tabor farm area, which of course provided the hay and silage diet of the dairy cattle. There was one other residence along these dirt roads where the Charles Mowery family lived. Mr. Mowery worked for the farm enterprise while Mrs. Mowery became one of the Zarephath kitchen mainstays. Children Dennis, Robert and Darlene, were our classmates at the Bound Brook School. The Mowery family left the church at some point but I never knew why or where they went.
Continuing on Canal Road more or less east from Zarephath, you entered South Bound Brook, turned left, crossed over the Delaware and Raritan Canal, then over the Raritan River on a high steel truss bridge, went under the Jersey Central, Reading and Lehigh Valley railroad tracks and entered a small traffic circle where left took you on Main Street past the railroad station on the left, Effingers sporting goods, Klompus 5 & 10, then up Hamilton Street past the Brook Theater on your right and the drug store on your left. A right turn from the circle and then a quick left took you directly to what was known as the Bound Brook “Temple”, a multi-story building containing an auditorium where the Zarephath Sunday evening church service was conducted, and classrooms and various other facilities in the north side of the building. This building was built with the same type of cast concrete blocks used for the construction of the major buildings at Zarephath. I am sure that the machinery for casting them had been transported to Bound Brook to produce the bricks used there.
By the way, if you had turned right instead of left to cross the canal and the Raritan, you would have gone past some huge factories on your left, (one of which employed me in my youth), passed by some South Bound Brook residential areas and proceeded on to the town of New Brunswick, distinguished by the presence of the Men’s Colleges and Douglass College for women of Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey.
Bound Brook School
There is much to recall about going to school at the Bound Brook Temple, which all of we older children attended until my family was transferred in 1965 to the Westminster, Colorado Pillar of Fire facilities, called “Belleview”. There was a big set of swings on the playground as well as a “maypole”, a vertical steel pole with a revolving mechanism on top to which was attached ropes, which children grasped and swung around on as the wheel on top rotated. This contraption, also called a “giant stride”, provided great fun for us schoolchildren but it did not take long for the more daring and adventurous among us to make it somewhat dangerous: While five or six kids held on, another child would stand near the base and pull on his rope to make the maypole revolve faster, lifting the riders off the ground as the ropes they held onto would rise to approach the horizontal. Then the rider could let go and be thrown some distance outward, very exciting but causing more than a few bumps and bruises. So as I remember, after enjoying a heyday of high but risky use, the maypole was eventually removed from the school playground.
At the Bound Brook school I also met the pretty little girl who was to become my first wife, Elaine Ganska. She was an “outsider”, who usually attended the Sunday 11:00 Assembly Hall church services with her mother and whose family paid tuition for her to attend the school. I remember the heady, intoxicating feeling when I dared to kiss her on the cheek when her swing came close to mine once as we were on the swings together. So when we were a couple, we always remembered this incident fondly. Later, after a church service, maybe when I was eight or nine, again rather daringly, I thrust into her hand a wrapped birthday or Christmas gift, a bottle of Jergens lotion. Why lotion? Why Jergens? I really don’t know – maybe it was chosen on the advice of my older sister Barbara.
Another indelible memory from the Bound Brook School was the conduct of fire drills, very frightening to me because they involved the use of the rusty, rickety and frightening steel latticework fire escapes. Going down these from the third floor was frightening because not only did they seem unsafe with the weight of several dozen children and adults, but also seemed about to pull out from their flimsy attachment to the exterior walls. Also, you could see the frightening distance straight down to the ground through the bands of flaked paint and rusted steel. I will always remember the scene from the Oscar-winning movie “All the King’s Men”, based upon Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same name, about the life of Huey Long, when a school fire escape collapsed and several children were killed, which reminded me of the anxiety I had always felt on these Bound Brook Temple structures.
A related memory that I never forgot had to do with the long bridge over the Raritan River from South Bound Brook. This narrow two-lane bridge had recently had its flat, wooden plank and sheet steel roadway replaced with a more modern steel lattice surface, much more sturdy, and which made a pleasant hum as you drove over it. However, one day when there were huge spring rains in New Jersey, flooded Bound Brook streets inundated the underpass under the railroad tracks so the school bus let us off to walk with a teacher or two across the bridge, then through the underpass on its elevated walkway to reach the Bound Brook school. Looking straight down through the steel grating of the new roadway and glimpsing the muddy rushing and roiling waters of the flooded Raritan River was truly frightening. If sister Barbara were alive today, we could remember and share together this incident. I am sure she was as frightened as I, although, in typical big sister fashion, she likely calmly and bravely led the way for me, Elaine and Robert.
Other memories of the Bound Brook Pillar of Fire grade school involved the classrooms and the teachers. I vividly recall sitting in my classroom and looking out the window from my desk at the trains going by. There were the black passenger cars of the Jersey Central trains traveling back and forth with people commuting to New York City. I think they were pulled by steam engines at the time, then diesels, as the late 1940’s and early ’50’s saw the transition from steam to diesel. Then there were the sleek reddish colored trains of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. These big engines and trains fired my imagination with questions of who was on the trains, where were they going, where had they been, what else did they carry, and who were the skilled engineers that controlled the huge locomotives that pulled the trains. If my teachers knew about the time I spent daydreaming looking out the window, I am sure my seat would have been moved. Also I remember two boys that were at the Bethany Boys Home, Joe and Donald Kruger, the former for a time my sister Barbara’s special friend. On the school bus, Barbara would have me sit between her and Joe, so they could secretly hold hands with each other behind my back.
I can clearly recall some of the teachers who taught us at the Bound Brook school. Lydia Sanders, later to become Lydia Loyle and later still, principal of the school, started her teaching career there and handled several troublesome students with creative physical punishment. Ruth Dallenbach, a wonderful teacher later to become the wife of Frank Crawford, (more about these families later) also taught at the school. Miss Dallenbach’s prominent female attributes provoked me to draw some risqué pictures of her, which she discovered, embarrassingly took from me and likely shared with my parents.
And then there was the most notable teacher, also serving as principal, Mrs. Helen Wilson, wife of the church’s main engineer and architect, Nathaniel Wilson and mother of two schoolmates, Eunice and Warren. I don’t remember precisely what kind of teacher Mrs. Wilson was, but I do remember that she ran a small lunchtime retail candy enterprise out of her classroom. It was here that I used to occasionally buy Hershey bars, Clark bars, Oh-Henry’s, and a variety of penny candy, the most memorable one being “Kits”, which was a pack of four wrapped pieces of chocolate flavored taffy for only one cent. I don’t know precisely what Mrs. Wilson did with the profit from these candy sales, I am sure something good for her classroom or the whole school. But I do know I can attribute most of my serious dental problems over the years as having their origin right there at school from Mrs. Wilson’s candy business.
The Pillar of Fire “Bound Brook Temple” was also the site of the 7:00 Sunday evening church service, the first two being held at the “Assembly Hall” – one at 11:00 AM and the other at 3:00 PM. The Temple was also the site of our weekly “Children’s Hour” broadcasts over WAWZ, during which our group of church children would sing hymns and recite poems. The afore-mentioned Mrs. Helen Wilson, a very busy lady, was organizer and master of ceremonies for this weekly radio “show”. I remember looking forward to it very much each week, broadcast on Mondays at 6:30 PM. I remember also, that when older, I did not read but occasionally “told” Bible stories on the program, extracted from my reading Bible stories from my treasured “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible” and I remember getting a “fan mail” letter from a listener who was quite impressed. I thought I kept that letter but a recent search of my memorabilia files has failed to locate it.
The Sunday church services at Zarephath followed a pattern. Since they were broadcast on WAWZ, they began promptly on the hour – the morning service at 11:00 AM and the afternoon service at 3:00 PM. After stepping up to the microphone and welcoming everyone, whoever was leading the service would announce the hymn title and the page number in our “Cross and Crown” hymnal, and would lead the congregation in the singing of the hymn. After another hymn or two, a men’s “quartet” would be featured, this composed of four of our full-voiced church members. Regulars seemed to always be Mr. Nathaniel Wilson, singing a baritone part, and Mr. Norman Fournier, with his incredible tenor voice. More about these people later when I describe people and personalities in greater depth.
After the quartet piece one of the White family’s “stars” – daughter Arlene Lawrence or Pauline Dallenbach (or Connie, when she was still with the church) might be featured playing a hymn on the solo violin and perhaps singing a verse or two. More about the White family later as well. Incidentally I should mention that almost every church service in the Assembly Hall was graced by the inspired pipe organ playing of George Chambers. Mr. Chambers was a remarkably intelligent and supremely talented church worker who not only was a musical mainstay of the organization but contributed significantly to its printing enterprise by also operating a Linotype machine in the publishing building. As I noted in my article “Home Sweet Home”, Mr. Chambers, his wife Ann and children Allan and Celeste, were our neighbors in the “Morningside” home on the fertile floodplain of the Millstone River. Mr. Chambers, however, never received the recognition or praise for his remarkable talent that was provided so generously by the church membership to members of the “ruling family”, the Whites, and was never awarded his place in the spotlight, like Arlene and Pauline.
After Arlene or Pauline on the violin, the congregation might sing another hymn and then the band would play. Yes, we had a real brass band in church, composed of a somewhat meager collection of instruments, but enough to make considerable noise and generate some enthusiastic participatory rhythmic activity among a few congregation members – Mr. Oakes and Mr. Nolke come to mind. There was always someone playing the tuba or Sousaphone for the bass, several clarinets (my sister Barbara often played), trumpets or cornets (one played often by my friend, Joe Wenger), and percussion – bass drum and cymbals and snare drum. I occasionally played the snare drum in the Pillar of Fire Band and did the best I could, although I was obviously always at the novice level. Yes, I had taken a few drum lessons from someone in the church and my dad had made me a practice pad from a square chunk of oak board fastened to a foam rubber base and crowned with a black rubber pad nailed to the top of the wood, but despite a few lessons and faithful practice, I never got very good.
I will digress here and relate a snare drum incident that I remember very well. At “Camp Meeting” time in August, various Pillar of Fire people would be invited to form a brass band and assemble personnel and instruments on one of our school buses, festooned with an advertising banner, and tour nearby towns advertising the event. One of the most prominent and intelligent personalities in the church, Mr. Clifford Crawford, was leading this “touring ensemble” with his trumpet playing, through Bound Brook, Manville and Somerville one August day and Mr. Crawford, likely feeling some pain from my feeble efforts on the snare drum, took me aside afterward to explain some basics. Marches are always in certain tempos or times, he told me – either 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8. If it’s 2/4 or 4/4 the snare complements the bass drum by playing on the after beat; if the piece is 6/8, the snare plays on the beat. I never forgot this, coming from a musician of Mr. Crawford’s caliber, and am always conscious, when listening to a march, what the time is and where the snare drum beat should be.
Back to the band playing in our church services – there were always two selections, played in succession by the band – first a hymn, which had been composed in an appropriate cadence and thus could be played by our band, and second, a real marching band piece, maybe a Sousa march. When the march tune was chosen, I always hoped and prayed that it was not “Semper Fidelis” when I was playing because it featured a snare drum solo part, then joined by a dramatic trumpet accompaniment. I had neither the self confidence nor the skill to manage the solo snare part so thank God, that march was never chosen when I played the drum. And by the way, Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” is a perfect example of a 6/8 time march tune.
Another band instrument upon which I had some experience was the alto horn. I don’t remember exactly why I started lessons on this instrument – perhaps because the band needed it for balance, nor do I remember from whom I took lessons, but I found playing this instrument rather pleasant and easy because it did not play the melody and thus was much more simple, requiring playing significantly fewer notes. I don’t recall how many times I played this instrument during the church band pieces but I did feel great camaraderie with trumpet player friend Joe Wenger, as we not only played together but also joined to occasionally expel accumulated saliva from our brass instruments with open “spit valves” and healthy blasts of breath through the mouthpieces.
After the band selections, there was usually one more hymn sung by the congregation before the sermon was preached. These sermons usually lasted 20-30 minutes and were typically a long dissertation on lessons to be derived from a chosen bit of scripture. Sermons were delivered usually by Bishop Arthur White when he was in New Jersey, but more often by Reverend I. L. Wilson, one of the kindliest and most Godly men in the church, maybe Nathaniel Wilson (no relative) or any of the other Pillar of Fire intelligentsia. Then the service was wrapped up around noontime with a final hymn, and if the spirit prevailed, maybe an altar call. The other church services repeated the pattern but the 3:00 service at the Assembly Hall did not feature the band, nor did the Sunday evening event held at the Bound Brook Temple.
As a child I enjoyed most of these church service experiences. The hymns were beautiful and I enjoyed singing them along with everyone else. I enjoyed hearing the other musical features also, especially the band, well before I was old enough to participate. Many of the hymns we sang in church are forever part of my memory and bring tears to my eyes even today when I hear them sung. Most of these were old traditional Protestant hymns by Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Robert Lowry and others. We also sang hymns written by the founder of the church, Alma White, many of which were quite good, fashioned around the protestant hymn musical and poetic tradition.
There was one Pillar of Fire minister who was likely the best preacher I have ever heard – Willian O. Portune. And I mean best not necessarily from a scholarly point of view, although his knowledge of Biblical scripture was impressive, but best because of his passion and eloquence. I used to dread a church service where he delivered the sermon because he was extremely effective in making me feel guilty and sinful and badly in need of redemption. During his sermons he occasionally thundered, ”When you die and you stand before that great white throne and God points his finger at you….what will you say, what will you do?” And every time Reverend Portune pointed that finger it seemed as though he was pointing it directly at me. So accordingly I would break out in a nervous sweat, pull my shirt collar away from my neck and mop my brow. And if Reverend Portune’s passion happened to induce an “altar call” at the end of the service, when various people would stream up front to loudly and fervently pray, I would sometimes be induced, motivated or shamed (perhaps by family or friends) into joining them and pray as passionately as I could for salvation. But to my knowledge and awareness I was never thus blessed, no matter how energetically or fervently I prayed. After yet another such a futile effort, I would simply resume my worldly ways until the next time the spirit (or guilt or discomfort) convinced me to try again.
There were other religious services in the church as well. At Zarephath proper, every weekday for boarding students and selected others began with what was called “Morning Class”, a short half-hour service held at 7:15 in the “College Chapel”, when a couple of hymns were sung and a short talk was given, perhaps reminding students of certain duties or events. Some of the children from outlying families also attended. I recall that my sister Barbara attended from time to time, as well as myself and perhaps Elaine and Robert, primarily on Monday, when “reports” were given on Sunday sermons, where previously assigned students commented or elaborated upon some of the salient points or lessons drawn from the sermons.
Also, on Wednesday night in the same location, there was what we called “Testimony Meeting”, attended by many students as well as adults. After a few hymns, individuals arose and lined up at the microphone up front, to deliver a “testimony” – the relating of an incident or conflict which could illustrate the power of God in their lives. The experience was not easy because what one related had to be more or less factual, as well as significant in a religious faith way. In addition, it was somewhat difficult for some, myself certainly, to stand up in front of the audience and deliver an unscripted, impromptu speech, however short. I can recall especially while others lined up to deliver their testimony, sitting nervously in my seat feeling intense pressure to participate and desperately trying to think of an experience significant enough to describe and relate as my “testimony”.
I’ve mentioned that our little “town” of Zarephath had a post office. To serve this facility, the church had a small truck that went to and from Bound Brook twice a day to deliver and pick up mail at the train station, which evidently had a key postal facility. This truck, called the “mail rig”, was a 1940’s vintage Reo Speedwagon with a canvas cover stretched over the bed. The floor of the bed bore the cargo – usually several soiled canvas mailbags marked “US MAIL” but around the bed were fold-down seats for passengers. People from Zarephath would often hitch a ride on the mail rig into Bound Brook on the morning run, then do some shopping or conduct some business there and ride back on the afternoon trip. The primary driver of the “mail rig” was Mr. Schaeffer, although there were undoubtedly a few others.
I went with big sister Barbara several times to Bound Brook in this way and enjoyed my very first commercially prepared hot dog and hamburger there in a restaurant on Hamilton Street. Also on this street was the now famous landmark, the Brook Theater , where I also enjoyed my first real movies – a couple of westerns with one, I think, starring Audie Murphy. I was amazed at how the movies kept going and going. If you entered during the middle of one movie, you could sit through its completion, watch the second one in its entirety and then complete the first.
I have often referred to the Pillar of Fire church community as a little microcosm of communism where there was considerable application of Karl Marx’s maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Basic needs like housing and utilities were provided gratis by the church. My parents never owned any of the houses in which we lived and never paid rent or an electricity or heating bill. Also, basic nutrition was provided by the church. The Zarephath “store”, located in the Publishing Building mentioned earlier, purchased basic staples for weekly distribution to church families. I remember that we had a sturdy wooden box called our “order box” in the house, which once a week was delivered to the store with a list and was filled with requested basics and later picked up. We ordered such items as oatmeal (always Quaker Oats), corn flakes (Kelloggs), shortening, which was bulk Crisco or something like it, cheese, usually a big wedge of cheddar cut out of a large cheese “wheel”, peanut butter, again bulk – dipped from a very large container into an empty smaller container we provided in our order box. Other items were sugar, white or brown, flour – usually just the basic white variety, basic unsweetened cocoa, and many different kinds of bulk dried legumes – mainly navy, lima, and kidney beans. Milk was delivered early every couple of days from our dairy facility in stainless steel milk cans that we washed and put out for pickup at the next delivery. This was raw milk, never homogenized or pasteurized. Mom or someone else would pour it into glass jars to put in the refrigerator. Cream came to the top and was poured off for coffee or other uses. Mom was a faithful coffee drinker and always enjoyed that fresh cream in it every day. Other staples like potatoes, were obtained from storage facilities in the Main Building where the main kitchen was located or from coolers at Tabor.
The Zarephath store also provided these same basics to the central dining facility in the Main Building where cooks provided three meals a day to people who lived and worked there and to students who boarded there, with lunch likely being the largest meal, since it also included the day students attending school at Zarephath. Also, fresh fruit and vegetables were provided from the church farms for daily preparation and inclusion in meals when in season. In the basement of Columbia Hall was a large room where canning took place – seasonal fruits and vegetables were preserved, sometimes in jars, sometimes in large cans, for later use in institutional meals. Also, some of these canned items were available for our weekly orders from the store. I recall a hefty, cheerful and very hard working woman, Minnie Driver, who was apparently responsible for running this food canning enterprise.
Our neighbor on the long driveway to the “Morningside” house, Claude Murphy, was the official church farmer for summer vegetables, raised in the fertile fields of the Millstone River floodplain surrounding our respective homes. Dairy and orchard farming were centered at the Tabor farm and the Gross family appeared to have major responsibility for maintaining the substantial peach orchards and apple orchards as well as chicken flocks and egg gathering for family distribution through “the store” and supply to the main cooking facility. The Weaver family raised most of the field corn and alfalfa for the dairy. More about both of these families later when I discuss people and personalities in the church.
Also I should add that individual families in the church often maintained gardens and fields of vegetables in the summer to augment that which the church supplied. Certainly my family did so as well as the Weavers and Grosses. I should mention also that consumption of meat was frowned upon, even forbidden, in the church. Evidently our founder, Bishop Alma White, must have at some point become an Upton Sinclair acolyte and read his book, “The Jungle”. She herself wrote a book “Why I Do Nor Eat Meat” (still available on Amazon, look it up, can you believe it?), which was largely read by church personnel and a limited public. I can remember how delicious meat tasted to me when as a child I was treated to some beef or chicken at relatives’ homes, even more delectable because it was “forbidden”.
However, many families felt free to eat meat privately. I remember at our first New Jersey home, Lock Haven, that one Saturday morning, the house was filled with the wonderful smell of cooked chicken. Dad had evidently killed, cleaned and cooked a few chickens early that morning, and invited us to get up and enjoy his “Mulligan stew”, perhaps so named so that we would not tell anyone we actually had chicken. That was the first time I remember eating meat in our home.
The main dining facility at Zarephath of course never served meat. However, for protein, different varieties of beans were often served as were a variety of soy-based meat substitutes. Canned imitation meats from a company called Worthington, like “Yum” were sold in our store but were never part of the free weekly “order” of basics. But our school was part of the government school lunch program and since meat was available from a vendor under this program a church friend of my father’s ordered several dozen large bricks of frozen ground beef, a half dozen of so of which ended up in our deep freeze. We kids enjoyed cutting off slices, frying it for ourselves and reveling in the smell and taste of this delicious but officially forbidden food.
So even though most basic needs were supplied by the church, we still had to obtain other items necessary for day to day living which cost money and as intimated in a paragraph above, money was often hard to come by. My family often raised and sold chickens to obtain extra money. In the early 1960’s, Dad bought a Farmall Super A and necessary implements and got heavily into truck farming to raise extra money. He and we older children cultivated strawberries, sweetcorn, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, cantaloups and watermelons, which were sold at a little stand at the end of our driveway on Weston Causeway (now officially the “Manville Causeway” on Google maps) by little brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and even Stan. Before selling directly to the public, Dad had often sold sweet corn and other produce wholesale directly to vendors at the Packard’s farmers market and other outlets, including a large roadside stand on Route 22 near Whitehouse, New Jersey, who then sold to the public. I never knew how Dad made these deals with retailers but obviously he did, likely seeing how, if others profited from his wholesale produce, why not skip that step and sell retail himself – hence the roadside stand on the Weston Causeway.
Money was always an issue in the church when I was growing up despite gratis provisions by the church. I never knew exactly how church members were remunerated for their work for the church. I don’t know if salaries were paid – if they were, they were likely meager. Most people were pretty much on their own and earned money the best way they could. One of the standard ways money was earned by church personnel was in what was called the “missionary field”. This consisted of nighttime forays into local taverns and bars, usually on a Friday or Saturday night, attired in church regalia, for women the black dress with white collar and a somewhat odd black hat with wide ribbons around the neck ending in a tied broad bow; for men, the standard black or navy blue suit with black shirt and rigid white collar. Equipped with an armful of Pillar of Fire publications and a small circular money receptacle, these Pillar of Fire “missionaries” would enter the bar and solicit contributions in exchange presumably for a copy of the “Pillar of Fire” paper or “The Dry Legion”, the church’s anti-alcohol temperance publication.
A number of us family members or students as older teenagers occasionally drove these missionaries through New Jersey cities close to New York from bar to bar, starting around 8:00 and ending at midnight or so. We drove in the selected person’s own car or a church car that they had borrowed in return for a modest compensation of three to five dollars or so, usually paid in quarters collected in the smoky bars that night. My such experiences were limited to driving my Aunt Ada Friedly around the city of Hoboken in a black De Soto, maybe hers, maybe borrowed. Other young men, including friends Joe Wenger and Kenny Cope, often made a few dollars in this missionary “driver” role as well.
Money collected in this way was split according to a certain formula between the “missionary” and the church, after of course, the driver was paid. Such funds were an important part of church income, as well as often the only income, however meager, for the specific person. I couldn’t help but think what a terrible way this was to try to obtain some sort of income. It must have taken a great deal of courage for people like my aunt, dressed like they were, to enter bars full of happy drunks on a weekend night to beg money for the church and themselves. And I am sure that the proprietors and patrons of these bars did not appreciate the interruption of their nighttime revelry by these grim specters in black clothing hawking religious or temperance tomes. I can recall my aunt in the car after such an evening reeking of beer and tobacco smoke and relieved that she had survived the ordeal. In retrospect though, this activity did afford the church worker some sort of personal income, required for those necessities of daily life not supplied by the church.
The church income obtained through these “missionary” trips was likely trivial compared to that solicited from and donated by industries and businesses. There were church officials who instead of begging in bars for the church, went on scheduled visits to local businesses and industries to ask for contributions to support the education, radio and publishing ministries featured by the church, these significantly larger than the pittance contributed by people like my aunt. In fact some church members purportedly enriched themselves significantly by taking a larger cut of what was solicited and contributed than that to which they were entitled. However, these larger contributions were largely what enabled the church early in its history to purchase huge tracts of land in New Jersey and Colorado and to erect the buildings necessary to carry on church work.
Also the church subsisted significantly on “in kind” donations from various sources. The adjective “donated” was used pejoratively often in the church to describe any number of items, usually of substandard quality. Such merchandise was distributed free of charge to church members. I remember much of our clothing came from “donated” sources. Particularly memorable was literally a “bale” of donated double-kneed bluejeans that ended up with our family, factory seconds actually, rejected by their quality control for minor defects but still quite wearable. We boys in the Friedly family wore these jeans for years. Also at some time, the church was given a pile of naugahyde motorcycle jackets, several of which ended up with us. Here’s a picture at our Morningside house of my brother Charlie, with little brothers Richard, Glenn, and Stan, wearing one of them.
Some of our food items were also donated to the church and distributed to families through the store or the dining facilities. I can remember going with my father in our 1951 Chevy pickup truck a number of times on Friday nights (I think) to pick up several dozen pies from Jones Pies, a big bakery located in one of the many New Jersey cities across the Hudson from New York City. (Google reveals no such company, but I am convinced it was “Jones”). These pies were donated to the church because they were not sold in a timely fashion and could only be thrown out or given away. So after being delivered to the Zarephath kitchen facility, we took several home for the family. I remember still how tasty they were, even though “old”. Also, some pie surfaces showed traces of dust or soot, since they were not in boxes and were laid flat in the back of our truck. But never mind, scraped off and cleaned up, they still were delicious, and I was grateful.
My father also occasionally did the sort of “missionary” work described above to earn needed money for his ever growing family. But the best time for the family financially was when my father was working in the Zarephath post office, where he was paid quite well for that time and place. I believe that he may have been required to contribute a portion of his post office salary to the church but was allowed to keep enough of it so that for several years, the Friedly family was relatively well cared for. It was during this time that he was able to buy a brand new 1949 Chevrolet for the family and we experienced several of the best Christmases we ever had. I don’t know for sure but my impression is that he was required to leave this job because he was doing too well. The job then reverted to Emma Walls, our official “postmaster”.
This little fact was very important in the Pillar of Fire Church. If you did too well, if you stood out, if there was a chance your accomplishments or your erudition would eclipse that of a member of the White family that ruled the church, you would be moved to another job, assignment or location, usually lower or less desirable than that in which you excelled. I have already mentioned that the person responsible for the dramatic success and lofty reputation of our dairy operation was removed and put in charge of the Zarephath greenhouse. In the same way, I am sure that my father was asked to leave that post office job, and later, with the success of his personal truck farming enterprise in New Jersey, was asked to relocate to the Denver church headquarters in 1965. At that time I should note that the Friedly family became split in two, since Barbara, myself and Elaine had married and were living in nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania towns and Robert was serving in the army in Germany. Basically, Mom, Dad, Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stanley formed a reconstituted Friedly family in the Westminster, Colorado church community.
Perhaps I should make clear that my Dad’s efforts to make money through his post office job, which I think was part time, and his personal truck farming project, constituted additions to “regular” jobs he did for the church. Dad was primarily a teacher in the church’s schools, a job which he performed regularly for years, teaching history at Alma Preparatory School, the church’s high school at Zarephath, and philosophy at Alma White College, also at Zarephath. In addition he was prevailed upon to assist at the dairy on occasional weekends, where I used to go with him, help feed alfalfa and silage to the cattle as they stood secure in their stanchions being milked and then return home with some of the dairy’s delicious chocolate milk. Also, of course, Dad held forth as the resident barber at Zarephath in the press room of the publishing building, usually on Saturday mornings (I offer a picture of the barber chair he used later in this article).
Others in the church also held “regular” assignments – working in the printery turning out the “Pillar of Fire”, which was given out at our churches, mailed to subscribers and, as mentioned before, distributed in bars by our missionaries, left for information at more significant potential donor’s establishments; the “Pillar of Fire Junior”, the children’s publication, also distributed through subscription and used weekly at our Sunday School services, “Woman’s Chains”, the church’s “women’s lib” publication and “The Dry Legion”, the Pillar of Fire’s anti-alcohol temperance publication.
The printery, located in the Publishing Building, consisted of several Linotype machines, other areas where print was set, and another big room which contained, if I remember correctly, two huge printing presses, which printed the aforementioned periodic publications and books, written primarily by the church royalty, members of the White family, completed in another publishing building facility, our book bindery. Although I am sure there were more competent and creative writers in the church, (one was likely my own aunt, Ada Friedly), the Whites monopolized book authorship and publishing in the church. Alma White, the church founder and matriarch, published upwards of 30 books. Her son, Arthur K. White was author of a half dozen or so, including his pompous and self indulgent “Some White Family History”. Kathleen White, wife of Arthur, authored a temperance book strangely named “Drunk Stuff”. Pauline White Dallenbach and Arlene White Lawrence (I believe that both daughters had legitimate middle names but the name “White” supplanted them in order to brandish their lineage) contributed a couple of lightweight tomes to the White literary legacy: respectively “Dear Friends” and “Come Along”, both travel books with religious overtones. I might add that the apparently unlimited travel budgets of White family members which spawned these two books, were often bitterly questioned and critiqued by rank and file church members. Several hymnals, including the “Cross and Crown” hymnal were also published in the Zarephath printery and distributed to Pillar of Fire locations around the country.
Various church personnel performed a variety of other tasks for the organization. Several manned our radio station and its related facilities; some, already mentioned, were involved in food production, preparation and distribution. Others were groundskeepers, greenhouse workers, teachers, maintenance or utility workers. Some were engineers, architects or construction workers. Many of these individuals also mixed church service participation with their skill or profession, leading meetings, singing in a vocal group or preaching a sermon. My father also mixed this with his other professions – occasionally leading a service or preaching a sermon on Sundays for a sparse congregation at our Brooklyn church. I always felt that Dad was a little uncomfortable in this role. His sermons were scholarly, well researched and logical but always seemed to lack the passion and conviction that other preachers demonstrated in their delivery. Or maybe as his son, I was just being too critical.
However, the early Sunday morning trips to Brooklyn were wonderful. I will always remember the the drive over dense industrial New Jersey cities on the famed Pulaski Skyway, which brought us almost directly to the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. Then after emerging from the tunnel and making a quick trip across southern Manhattan, we crossed the East River on the Manhattan Bridge and entered Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue and then going directly to the church on Sterling Place. The ladies staffing the Brooklyn missionary home were quite hospitable and always prepared a delicious lunch for us. The caretaker of the Brooklyn Pillar of Fire Church, Mr. Wallace Lewis, was a bright, talkative elderly man. Unfortunately he lost his life when the church was destroyed in the notorious December 1960 crash of a United Airlines DC8 after an in air collision with another airliner. The church was never rebuilt.
The White Family
This might be as good a time as any to introduce my reader(s?) to the White family, the “royalty” of the Pillar of Fire Church. The church was founded in 1901 by Alma White, who was its first bishop and general superintendent. After her death in 1946, she was succeeded by her son, Arthur White, who ran the church as bishop and general superintendent during my childhood and youth until his death in 1981. Arthur’s wife, Kathleen (Staats), attained special status for her family through the marriage. Her sisters Helen, Ruth and Carolyn and brother William, always occupied positions of influence and authority in the church through this link. Ruth Staats was the principal of Zarephath schools when I was a child. Later attending the Pillar of Fire high school in Westminster, Colorado, I got to know Carolyn Staats, its principal. These individuals occupied these positions through being related to the White family, not because of any special administrative talent or intellectual ability. In essence, these were the “nobility” – handmaidens to the “royalty”. More details about the Staats family will be offered below.
Arthur and Kathleen White, as I am sure did the founder of the church, Alma White, always lived quite well and did not have to scrape together a living, depending on the capricious “God will provide” adage as so many other church members did, but lived serenely and confidently on the largesse of the church. I was never sure exactly how or how much money came into their hands but was very sure that the church’s considerable wealth and resources were totally controlled by the White family. In fact, for years Kathleen White acted as “Financial Agent” for the church. There were church members who served as accountants and record keepers, I am sure, but to my knowledge the church’s finances were never open for examination, audit, discussion or judgement by rank and file church members, though official audits required by the state were done routinely.
The White family lived in a choice residence at Belleview, the Westminster, Colorado church campus, called “Rose Hill” and in an attractive one-story home on the Zarephath, New Jersey land called “Mountain View”, mentioned earlier. Apartments were maintained by the church for the Whites at other church locations for use when they visited. In addition, church personnel took care of the dining and laundry needs of the family, as well as child rearing. My own aunt, Ada Friedly, who had unfortunately followed my father into the church, performed these kinds of tasks for the White family for virtually her entire life, also helping to care for the infants and young children of the next generation of White church royalty. At different times Ada cared for the households and children of Arlene Lawrence, Constance Brown and Pauline Dallenbach, the respective daughters of Bishop Arthur White and wife Kathleen. After the death of Arthur White, the oldest daughter, Arlene, served as general superintendent of the church for several years.
Arthur and Kathleen White were used to first class transportation also and always drove or were driven in new black Chryslers. Motivated by some veiled criticism of this fact, Bishop Arthur White always hastened to insist that the automobiles in question were always owned by the church, not him. And the luxurious residences were owned by the church as well. So what – they got to live in the swanky houses and drive the classy cars, no matter who owned them. This was their privilege as church royalty. It was not because of their intellect, educational accomplishments or management and leadership skills.
I should relate something about the men the White daughters Arlene, Constance and Pauline married. Jerry Lawrence, the husband of Arlene and father of my sister-in-law, Verona, was a big, jovial, personable man with a heavy southern drawl, attesting to his southern heritage, the state of Georgia. Jerry used to be a good friend and confidant of my father when they both were young workers in the church, but Jerry’s marriage into the White family fatally altered the relationship. Reverend Lawrence earned a doctorate in education from Columbia and became an influential faculty member and administrator at Alma White College and the sister institution in Colorado, Belleview College. They had two children, raised partially by my aunt, Ada Friedly – Arthur and Verona.
The second oldest of the White children, Horace, did not remain in the church. He enjoyed a distinguished career as a pilot flying for United Airlines and is still doing well in his California residence today….at the age of 102. Horace and his wife Evelyn chose not to have any children.
Constance, the middle White sister, did not remain in the church either and married David Brown, a former student in our schools who later worked for various educational testing companies. I only knew one of their three children – the oldest, Melanie – and that only because I had occasion to babysit her as a child. Others, among them Peter, I never knew but perhaps as infants.
Bob Dallenbach, from the Dallenbach family of East Brunswick, New Jersey, described below, unlike his siblings, remained in the church after attending its schools and married Pauline, the youngest of the White sisters. After earning a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado, he served in positions of authority in the church, including bishop and superintendent from 2000 to 2008. Bob and Pauline were parents to two children – Joel and Beth (Heidi) – the latter always a good friend of my Colorado brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stan.
There were other prominent families in the church, notable perhaps because of the family size or their position in the church or the relative importance of the responsibilities assigned them. One such family in the church was the Weavers, who lived at the Bethany house. Mrs. Weaver, as mentioned earlier, ran this large house which also served as a home away from home for boys boarding at the church who were too young for the Zarephath dormitories. As suggested earlier, Mrs. Weaver was beloved by many of her charges for her loving care and for her delicious meals and school lunches. Her husband, Harry Weaver, ran the Pillar Fire field farming enterprise – planting and harvesting the corn and baling the hay that fed our dairy cattle, the potatoes for the school cooking preparation, and maintaining the fleet of tractors and farm implements that were used. Their sons, the “Weaver boys”, Glenn, Meredith (Mert) and Richard were popular among the girls and known also for their macho exploits on our tractors and other farm machinery. All of the Weavers married women in the church – Glenn married Blanche Cather, Meredith married Jeannie Bradford and Richard married Marlene Walker. Something about the Bradfords and the Walkers will be provided below. Interestingly, my sister Barbara had the rare distinction of dating on one occasion or another, all three of the Weaver boys.
The Gross family occupies a very important position in my memory because through my sister Barbara’s marriage to the youngest boy in the family, Daniel, the family became ever entwined in my own life. John Gross was the oldest, then David, then Joseph. The Gross family was finally blessed by the arrival of a little girl, Martha. The Gross’s loomed large in Pillar of Fire affairs. Mr. Gross was a prominent church member who not only oversaw the orchard and poultry operations at “Tabor” but also served as an accomplished church service leader and as an Alma White College professor. Bespectacled John played a prominent role in farm and school activities, as did David, Joe and Daniel. All of the Grosses were prominent musicians as well, playing instruments in the band on Sundays and participating in solo or choral singing. Daniel, my dear sister Barbara’s future husband, was also a virtuoso on the organ, often playing for church services. I remember many instances of Daniel practicing on the organ in the Ray B. White Memorial Chapel, beautiful melodies pouring out at various times during the day. The Gross boys, including Daniel, also played an important role in the church’s publishing efforts, operating the Linotype machine, typesetting, editing and so on. John Gross married Mary Ann Hager, of the Hager church family; Joe married Florence Tomlin, of the Tomlin church family.
Mrs. Gross was afflicted by some kind of arthritis, perhaps rheumatoid arthritis, and with severely limited mobility, was a semi-invalid for the latter years of her life, which accounted for the Gross family leading a movement toward a more healthy diet for church members. Mr. Gross led a successful effort to use stone ground whole wheat flour for Mr. Nolke’s baking activities and led a church movement to reduce sugar in the meals prepared in our kitchen. As I recount in my article about sugar, Mr. Gross coined the term “white poison” for this unfortunately ubiquitous substance needlessly included in so many of our processed foods. And Daniel showed me how he and the family made homemade mayonnaise in their Oster blender with eggs, vinegar, oil, and no sugar. I also remember mowing the front lawn at the Gross’s Tabor residence in exchange for piano lessons from Daniel.
Earlier in this article I touched several times upon another important family, the Bartletts. George Bartlett was the power and the energy behind the Pillar of Fire dairy, which, under his leadership, became the stellar dairy of central New Jersey. The dairy building complex, called “Rosedale”, consisted of a pleasant home housing the Bartlett family and three modern barns, two the same size and forming the legs of an “H” with one smaller barn, the “bull barn”, placed between the two larger ones forming the crosspiece of the H: – the milk barn and the calf barn, all in service of the prize Holstein herd which fed on seasonal grass in adjacent pastures and in other seasons the alfalfa and silage provided by the field farm operation of the church. There was also a reservoir on the property used I presume for watering the herd, but also for swimming because I remember a diving board on it as well. The milk barn was equipped with all the modern machinery for feeding and removal of waste, the milking process and immediate cooling and refrigerated storage of the milk, was a source of pride for the church.
The rest of the Bartlett family were memorable as well – oldest child, Jenora, later to become the wife of “Red” Crawford (more about the Crawford family below) and serve as one of the church’s finest math teachers; comely Doris, who left the church in her twenties, after breaking a few young men’s hearts; gregarious and charming Lorinda (“Lindy”), one of my sister Barbara’s best friends, later to marry Mandrup (Buddy) Skeie, and of course, Dwight, whom my friend Joe Wenger and I always envied and admired for his prowess and success with girls. Parenthetically, I should mention that Joe’s and my envy of Dwight, reached its apogee when Dwight and Mert Weaver both bought motorcycles. Yes, these two guys cruising up and down Canal Road and around Zarephath and its environs on their noisy big Harleys was the final nail in the coffin of our success with the local girls. I mean, how could we compete?
And since I mentioned Red Crawford, here’s something about the rest of them. Mr. Clifford Crawford, mentioned earlier in my discourse about the band, was the father of some uniquely talented people. Clifford junior left the church as a young man and became a successful writer and photographer in the advertising business. Joan (I seem to remember her as “Joanne”), the lone girl in the family also left the church as a young woman. I remember her especially since she performed the piano accompaniment on the recording my mother and father made of Barbara and me singing and reciting poetry at nine and five years old respectively. Frank Crawford, who married Ruth Dallenbach (more about the Dallenbachs below) and became a millionaire through his company “Princeton Microfilm Corporation” and later lost it all as he evidently failed to keep pace with the digital revolution, and, of course, one of my father’s best friends, Rea (“Red”) Crawford, who managed Zarephath’s garage, which maintained and repaired vehicles and also provided gasoline from a lone pump nearby. Red Crawford was known for his jokes and sometimes unseemly and distasteful ridicule of certain people through clever imitation of speech or physical characteristics. I remember specifically, his imitation of the walk of George Chambers, the brilliant and talented organist mentioned earlier, who was apparently afflicted by a chronic back condition. Red Crawford also played key roles in the management of our church radio station and exhibited extensive knowledge and skill in the electronic side of the broadcasting business. Red’s obituary is here.
However, to me the most memorable of the Crawfords was the senior Clifford Crawford, who was incredibly gregarious and friendly and always had a clever joke for the occasion. I still remember his mentioning of a “big wheel” in his hometown where he grew up by the name of Mr. Ferris. Mr. and Mrs. Crawford manned the Washington DC “missionary home” for the church, the place where we all stayed as a family during the several times we visited and toured the nation’s capital. Mr. Crawford was a superb musician on the trumpet and I used to look forward to seeing him and hearing him play when he and quiet and sedate Mrs. Crawford visited Zarephath for the annual “Camp Meeting” time in August. And I did mention him above as having advised me and straightened out my terrible drum playing.
I mentioned the Dallenbach family also somewhere above. This well to do family owned a sand company in East Brunswick, New Jersey. They were not church members but may have contributed financially to the church and did send their four children to our schools and served the church in various other ways. As I noted above, Robert Dallenbach stayed in the church, eventually marrying Pauline White, daughter of Bishop Arthur K. White, thus joining the royalty of the church, and later serving as bishop and superintendent. Martha and Ruth Dallenbach, the latter of whom I mentioned in my account of the Bound Brook school, attended and graduated from Pillar of Fire schools and served as teachers, Ruth later marrying Frank Crawford of the above mentioned Crawford family. Wally, the youngest of the Dallenbachs also graduated from our high school and went on to achieve national fame as an Indy race car driver with his son Wally Jr following in his footsteps. Martha Dallenbach Schlenk, the oldest of the siblings, just passed away in December 2021.
The Stewart family was important in the Pillar of Fire Church. Mr. Ash Stewart, known to everyone as “A. R.”, was I believe a “deacon” in the church and I remember him quite well as a distinguished, dignified church official, one at the “nobility” level, a notch below the White family. Daughters Phyllis and Lois I remember well. Phyllis, red-haired, personable and pretty, attended our schools and eventually left the church. I remember Phyllis especially because she gave me violin lessons for awhile. Lois became a stalwart in our schools, serving as a teacher and later principal of our “Alma Preparatory School” high school. I remember also Lois going with us and driving our 1949 Chevy on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the first leg of one of our summer trips to visit relatives in MIssouri and North Dakota. Sister Barbara and I were amazed at how fast she drove compared to Dad or Mom. Raindrops instead of going down the windshield went up, because of her speed. I believe that Lois went as far as the Pillar of Fire headquarters in Cincinnati, where we all must have stayed for the night before continuing west. Lois passed away in 2013. Her obituary is here.
The Hellyer family certainly deserves mention. Ezra Hellyer took over the Pillar of Fire dairy farm operation after George Bartlett was transferred to the nursery. Mr. Hellyer also occupied an informal position in the church as what perhaps could be termed our “constable”, a quasi law enforcement role. As I mention elsewhere in this article he patrolled our back roads often catching our teenaged lovers parking someplace in a car. He actually wore some sort of uniform festooned with a badge of some kind as well. Perhaps he did occupy a position of authority for Franklin Township or Somerset County.
The Hellyer children – Donald, Doris, Lillian, and Margaret – lived with the family at the Rosedale house, formerly occupied by the Bartlett family. The older children I remember by sight of course, but I did not deal with them in any significant way. Margaret, however, was my sister Barbara’s age so I saw much more of her. The “Children’s Hour” picture in another section of this article features a seated Margaret Hellyer and Anna May Snelling.
The Tomlin family occupies a special place in my recollections of church life. Wesley Tomlin and his wife Viola were stalwarts in the church, running missionary homes in various locations across the country. One of their daughters, Florence, married Joseph Gross, mentioned in my account of the Gross family. Second daughter Beatrice married another person prominent in the church schools in my youth, Richard Derbyshire. Both remained as workers in the church for most of their lives. There were three Tomlin sons – George, Luther and Mark. I know little about George; Luther I remember as a high school student much older than I, who was the best baseball player I had ever seen in the church. Apparently Luther was good enough to play professional minor league baseball for a number of years.
The son I knew best was Mark Tomlin. It was Mark who accompanied my father, his brother Gene and me to preside over my grandmother Friedly’s funeral in Missouri in 1957, as I noted in my article “Summer 1957” ). Mark was an incredibly talented man, a virtuoso on the trumpet, a wonderful singing voice, an eloquent speaker and gifted writer and publisher. It was Mark who greeted me, my wife Bobbie and son Conrad in the Publishing Building when brother in law Daniel Gross took us around a much-changed Zarephath during our visit in 1999 (see upcoming article “Summer of ’99”) and cordially chatted with us. Mark was a much loved and respected member of the Pillar of Fire church. He passed away in Landisberg, Pennsylvania a few years ago at the age of 86. Here is his obituary which includes a picture of Mark.
And the Walker family was very prominent in the Pillar of Fire. Mr. Walker, the head of the family, worked, I think, in the utility maintenance area on the campus involving perhaps, the powerhouse. Anyhow, the children remain more vividly in my memory and several played important role in my childhood: Dorothy, Rantz, Phyllis, Arnold and Marlene.
Phyllis was a contemporary of my sister Barbara although perhaps not in the same school grade. Arnold was a great athlete and I remember playing baseball and touch football with him many times. Marlene, several years younger than I, was personable, sociable and cute, eventually marrying the youngest of the “Weaver boys”, Richard. I’ve been told that they still live at Zarephath, in a house built next to our old house, “Lock Haven”. I remember Marlene particularly for her fashion statement – daring to wear a “sack dress” around Zarephath when they first became popular sometime in the 1950’s.
The Wolfram family occupied a lofty position in the church. I remember the two elder members of the family, Albert and Gertrude (related to church founder Alma White) and the two prominent sons, Donald and Orland. I recall Orland, the older of the two, as a stellar teacher and musician in the church. He never married to my knowledge, and eventually passed away in a central American country to which he had traveled as a missionary. Donald Wolfram was, I suppose, one of the church “nobility”, occupying positions of authority in our schools throughout his life. Dr. Wolfram married a lovely, charming woman with a radiant smile whom I remember well: Phyllis Hoffman, the only child of the Hoffman family, who ran one of our eastern missionary homes, perhaps in Philadelphia. Mr. Wolfram spent most of his church career in the Denver headquarters, where he preached regularly at Alma Temple in downtown Denver, ran Belleview College and anchored the band’s Sunday performances with his virtuoso trumpet playing (or was it trombone?). Later he also took over from Arlene Lawrence and served as general superintendent of the church from 1985 to 2000. As a youngster, I used to dread Dr. Wolfram’s sermons – although quite articulate and scholarly, his delivery was dry and professorial, lacking the feeling and passion necessary to hold my interest. I remember the two eldest Wolfram children, Suzanne and Phillip, fairly well and know that Suzanne continued working for the church for some years in varying capacities. I recall with pleasure the later encounters with Dr. Wolfram when I would attend Denver church services while visiting my parents. He was warm and cordial and always demonstrated great interest in my professional life.
And I should mention the Staats family that played such important roles in Pillar of Fire church affairs. Kathleen Staats was the wife of Bishop Arthur White, son the the founder, Alma White, so her stature in the church naturally guaranteed her siblings, Helen, Carolyn, Ruth and William, lofty perches as well. Ruth Staats I remember very well, since she was principal of Alma Preparatory School at Zarephath, the high school that I attended for three years. Sister Carolyn Staats occupied the corresponding position at Belleview Preparatory School in the Westminster, Colorado headquarters of the church. I don’t think Helen occupied any position in our schools but may have performed an important clerical and financial role in the church. While I remember Ruth as an energetic and competent leader of Alma Prep, Carolyn in contrast was a bit disorganized and flighty. While I’m not sure of her role in the church, Helen did present a somewhat somber and ponderous presence at our church services. Bill Staats ran the automotive shop, the “garage” at Belleview and was always affable, skilled and helpful in his head mechanic’s role in the church. Mr. Staats also demonstrated a wonderful singing voice in the “male quartet” performance and trombone playing skill in the band in Sunday church services. I knew Bill’s sons Edwin and Willard, both tall, good looking and older than I, from a distance, since they grew up on the Westminster, Colorado campus.
The Schissler family was important in the church during the time I was there with my family. When we moved from California in 1947 our family of six – Mom, Dad, Barbara, Elaine, Robert and I – were assigned to live at a house about a half mile from Zarephath called Lock Haven, described in my afore- referenced article “Home Sweet Home”. Also living in a different section of the house was an elderly couple the Schisslers, parents of the heads of several other Schissler families. Fred and wife Hazel were the parents of Lynn, Elaine and Fred Jr. Talented, intelligent and reserved Lynn played important roles in the church until leaving and working for various tech companies in the Denver area. Comely Elaine, more a contemporary of my sister Barbara, remained in the church eventually marrying Giles Cather and after Giles passed away, marrying another long standing church member, widower Sunday Sharpe. The youngest, Fred, several years younger than I, became one of my brother Robert’s best friends. Another Schissler son, Paul, was the father of Lowell, about my age, whom I got to know as a friend at Camp Meeting time and as a classmate in the fall of 1958 when I attended high school at the Belleview Pillar of Fire facility. Everett, another son, was about sister Barbara’s age and Marilyn, the daughter, eventually married Edwin Staats, son of above-mentioned Bill Staats. And Margaret, the sole Schissler daughter of Grandpa and Grandma Schissler, was the wife of Professor Norman Fournier and mother of Shirley (Renee) and Ronald. Other Schissler sons Otto and Henry, according to my memory, I did not know. More details about all are below.
And there are so many other familiar names that readily resurrect images of faces, sounds of voices and performance in various roles, that I enjoyed when growing up in the Pillar of Fire church. After a quick scan of the Zarephath Cemetery I can’t help but list some of the many names, each of which conjures up an image, a voice, a role in the Pillar of Fire Church of my youth: Barkman, Bartlett, Blue, Bradford, Chambers, Crawford, Cruver, Fournier, Frenkiel, Gilfillan, Hardman, Hibler, Ingler, Kubitz, Leyland, Mancini, Mossburg, Murphy, Nolke, Oakes, Ross, Sillett, Slack, Snelling, Stewart, Summers, Truitt, Urso, Vorhees, Walker, Weaver, Wilson, Wittekind, Yoder. All of these names are very meaningful to me but I can only take the time and space to briefly elaborate on but a few. “Blue” was Clark Blue, or Paul, who became June Moore’s husband.I will always remember June’s humorous and clever personality, which served her well as a teacher in our schools and as later a missionary in Liberia. “Fournier” means a distinguished, brilliant, talented man who died in a tragic accident and upon whose headstone is carved the touching legend – “His life an unfinished symphony”. The Fournier children, Shirley and Ronald, I remember well. Shirley, a onetime close friend of my brother Robert, married an old friend from my brief Belleview school days, Ivan Parr, who recently passed away.
Claude Murphy was the farmer whose home was near ours at Moningside and whose children – Elmer, Lester, Bessie and Naomi, I remember very well as teenagers or young adults. Mr. Earl Hibler, who ran our greenhouses mostly and also worked in the Zarephath store; I remember him being a little stingy with the ice cream on cones he prepared so I always hoped that Mr. Schaeffer was there – always a generous double dip for the same five cents. Clifford Ingler – a thin man with a shock of white hair, almost always dressed in black, energetically pursuing his work editing and publishing Pillar of Fire periodicals and books. Mr. David Gilfillan, our local fire chief, who also performed in the role of our local Republican Party ombudsman. Mr. Gilfillan would preside over certain “Morning Class” meetings to inform our people about upcoming local and national elections and recommend our ballot choices. Elsworth and Juanita Bradford, parents of two notable daughters – pretty Sylvia who married James Snelling, and charming Jeannie, who married Mert Weaver, the latter serving their entire lives with Christian missionary organizations. Mert passed away several years ago; Jeannie, I believe, still lives at Zarephath.
And similar close look at the names in the Belleview Cemetery does the same thing. There’s an image, a voice and what they did in the church: Cartee, Cather, Croucher, Entz, Hardman, Heger, Hopkins, Horner, Knight, Konkel, Loyle, Mason, McCaslin, Natress, Ogden, Plank, Portune, Rogers, Ruby, Schissler, Sharpe, Staats, Stumpp, Tomlin, Wolfe, Wolfram and so many others. And some brief elaboration on a few of these names – Glenn Cartee was a passionate preacher whom I remember playing his banjo at Camp Meeting Sunday School sessions and, how frightful and guilt inducing, talking about a great black vacant hole in the sky where sinners ended up. Yes, and this great black hole was growing larger and larger. Their daughter Bonnie was a friend of my sister Barbara. And the Mason family, patriarch Arvey Mason and wife Faye, and all of his children – Rosalee, Arvey Jr, Faye Ann, also a friend of my sister Barbara, Dick (childhood friend, my age but passed away early) and my own sister-in-law Glenda, brother Charlie’s wife, made a deep impression on me over the years.
Marguerite Stumpp was famed for her teaching at Belleview. Anyone who had her for a teacher remembered her as a strict, dedicated educator who expected and received the very best in behavior and academic performance from her students. I could record my memories of so many others whose names appear here but space and time do not allow.
There were a number of notable families who were not really members of the church but supportive of its mission through contributions, church service attendance and/or sending their children to our schools that I should mention, since they played an important part in my early life in the Pillar of Fire church. The common term for such families, for better of worse, was “outsiders”. One such family was the Carfagno family, whose boys Wayne and Norman (known also for some reason as “Shorty”, perhaps because his brother was very tall for his age) attended our elementary schools. I don’t remember either boy in our high school. But the Carfagnos occupy a special place in my memory because they would occasionally invite my Dad to their home on Schoolhouse Road, beyond Van Chesky Nursery and the Scheufle home and business to watch boxing on television. As noted elsewhere in this article, the church generally frowned on TV and it was a prohibitively expensive luxury for my family so my Dad appreciated those opportunities. I was privileged to accompany him from time to time and have very precious and vivid memories of seeing Jersey Joe Wallcott, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and others ply their craft on the Pabst Blue Ribbon bouts on Wednesday nights or on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on Friday evenings.
Another such family was the Skeie family. I do not remember Mr. or Mrs. Skeie ever attending our church services but all of their children, attractive and intelligent, attended our schools. Astrid, Margrethe, Mandrup (“Buddy”), Karen, are the names I remember. My brother Robert, I think, went out with Margrethe a few times, or perhaps it was Karen. I did go out with Astrid a time or two after I came back from Colorado in 1962 to resume my interrupted college attendance at Rutgers. As always, she was beautiful, dignified and sophisticated. As mentioned above, Buddy Skeie married Lorinda Bartlett and lives today in Amarillo, Texas and/or Garden City, Kansas. I know little to nothing about their lives – children and so on. But if google serves me right, both Buddy and Lindy are alive and well. Actually, today 11/23/21, I was joyfully reconnected with Buddy and Lindy, courtesy of an email I had sent to their church and Buddy’s persistence in responding. I look forward to sharing more with both of them as opportunities present themselves.
Also the Kaesler children from South Bound Brook, attended our schools. Al Kaesler was the oldest, then Billy, whom I remember well and Dickie, about my age, and a daughter, Ada Mae. There may have been one or two others that I am not remembering. I do remember that Billy Kaesler and Astrid Skeie were an item in our high school and that Billy played shortstop for our May Day high school baseball team, comparing his exploits to those of his hero, New York Yankee shortstop Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto.
Another day student I remember well was a good friend, Johnny Scheufle, who attended elementary school at the Bound Brook Temple with me. Johnny’s family owned a goose farm on Schoolhouse Road which produced down for powder puffs, pillows, comforters and the like. The older brother of Johnny, Karl Scheufle, would appear at Zarephath from time to time but did not attend our schools. Karl was mentally or emotionally handicapped in some way and we had no facilities or programs to help him. In fifth or sixth grade or so, Johnny was sent to Germany by his family to attend school there. He came back for a visit and his father called our family so that the two of us could get together again. Johnny was dressed in a very European fashion – shorts and sandals, which weren’t generally worn at that time, certainly not by me. He had changed a great deal and had seemingly become much more sophisticated so we discovered we had little to talk about. That visit was sadly the last time I saw or heard of Johnny Scheufle, one my very best childhood friends. One more thing about Johnny – he had a fabulous comic book collection, which I got to share and enjoy during infrequent visits to his home. One of them, ”The Man from Planet X” made an indelible, fearful impression upon my young mind.
Another “outsider” day student that I remember very well was Lily Kate Hoagland, who attended elementary school with me from elementary school at Bound Brook, all the way through Junior High at Zarephath. I had a terrible crush on Lily Kate at different times back then and have often wondered what became of her. And also there was Wanda Nicholson, who came from the same Watchung hills area as the Skeie family, – a very pretty blond-haired young lady, who my good high school friend Joe Wenger, was crazy about for a long time. And then another good friend would bear mention – Malcolm Grout, who like many others, first boarded at Bethany with the Weaver family and then later in the Liberty Hall dormitory. Very personable and clever, Malcolm was a always a pleasure to pal around with. And a very pretty young lady, Sandra Renner, originally from New Brunswick, I think, attended Zarephath schools as an “outside” day student. Sandra later married Gerald Finlayson, from the Finlayson church family. And of course, quite notably, my own future wife, Elaine Ganska, mentioned earlier, was a day student at Bound Brook and Zarephath schools as well. One more “outside” student attending Bound Brook school was a youngster with an engaging smile and quiet, modest personality, Michael Kravcak (not sure of the spelling) from South Bound Brook. I believe that Michael had a younger sister who attended for awhile as well. I do not recall Michael going on to attend junior high or high school at Zarephath.
Many other names and faces come readily to mind as I reflect on my young life in the Pillar of Fire – students from New York City who boarded at Zarephath or Bethany, including David (Mambo) Rivera, Randolfo (Monkey) Mendez, Vincent Dellorto (who briefly had something going with charming Doris Bartlett (and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why), Albert Hamm and James Edgar, both from somewhere in Pennsylvania. Also two dark eyed and dark haired pretty young ladies, Jean and Roberta Rukkila, from Trenton, New Jersey, as I recall. Jean later married my good friend Kenneth Cope, mentioned elsewhere in this article. Also I remember Robert Dougood, nicknamed by my father as “Benny”, had come to Zarephath to attend high school from the Pillar of Fire grade school in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Before I close this account of childhood memories of the Pillar of Fire, Zarephath, Belleview and related places, I should mention a couple of highlights – Camp Meeting and ice skating. Every August, the church would hold its “camp meeting” event at the world headquarters of the church right there in Zarephath. It was always an exciting time because people would come from all over the country and the world to participate in worship and in conferences and planning. Church services would be held daily at the Assembly Hall and conferences would be held among the royalty and nobility and representatives from far flung missionary homes to plan future strategy for the church. Meals would be served to the regulars and the visitors in the Main Building dining hall. Many of us younger students put in extra time helping in the kitchen or running dishes through the dishwasher. People whom you had not seen since last year or the year before were there to partake of meals or help in preparation or serving. It was at Camp Meeting time that I met and had fun with a few other church children my age, among them Bobby Bradford and Lowell Schissler.
On several occasions during Camp Meeting, the morning Sunday service congregation was treated to a performance by the “Kentucky Orchestra”. This was a loose configuration of a few talented Pillar of Fire members who played guitar and perhaps banjo and gave spirited renditions of several country gospel songs. The group’s vocals were anchored by the prominent superb baritone voice of Rae Sharpe, primarily a Belleview resident but a Camp Meeting visitor. Others participating were Zarephath’s Theodor Volz who played guitar quite well, and multi-talented Nathaniel Wilson. Some recordings of the Kentucky Orchestra were made available to church members. Participants varied I guess but Rae Sharpe was a necessary constant to the melodic, rhythmic and enthusiastic performances of this group, which incidentally got its name doubtlessly from the Kentucky roots of the church’s founder, Alma White.
One of the most exciting Camp Meeting occasions was when Reverend Wilbur Konkel and his wife came to Camp Meeting from England, bringing with them some lovely young women, who remained in the US and in the church, enchanting all they met with their charming British accents. I quickly became enamored of their adopted daughter, Pamela, exactly my age, who became a student in our schools. My dreams were shattered a few years later when she married Mr. Ronald Aldstadt, a longtime student and worker in the church. Later when they lived at the Pillar of Fire headquarters in Colorado, Ron sadly met with a sudden and violent death at the young age of 40. Many years after that incident, Pam married Red Crawford, who had long been alone after his wife Jenora’s passing. Red passed away in 2013. As far as I know Pam still lives at Belleview near to Ron’s and her son, Curtis.
The other two young ladies, the charming sisters Olive and Marjorie Kirkham, whom were perhaps wards of Reverend and Mrs. Konkel – I never knew the exact relationship or how they came to be with the Konkels – remained at Zarephath as well. Olive eventually married Reverend Robert Cruver and lived with him and their children for many years in our old church residence, Morningside. Marjorie married a great friend, Jack Vorhees, who had spent most of his life in the church and who was a special friend and mentor of myself and other young students, including my close friend, Joe Wenger. Jack sadly passed away in 1983 at the young age of 49. I believe that Marjorie still lives at Zarephath.
I should mention as well, another yearly event which was the highlight of our springtimes at Alma Preparatory School – May Day. It is ironic surely that our conservative church allowed this celebration on a day also celebrated as a rite of spring in old pagan religions in many European countries and by the International Communist Party to celebrate workers. But nevertheless this day of competitions, games, team sports and a special outdoor lunch was celebrated every May 1 at Zarephath, culminating in the annual high school vs. college baseball game.
A mere observer of the game for many years, I enjoyed watching the athletic prowess of many people whom I knew in other roles, and looked forward to the day when my own baseball skills developed sufficiently to allow me to be chosen to participate in this highlight May Day competition. This is the event that allowed me to enjoy watching the baseball prowess of afore-mentioned Luther Tomlin, who eventually played baseball professionally. The high school team was composed of the best players we could field each year, selected by one of our perennial athletes, Kenny Cope, who was a grade or two ahead of me in school. Kenny, at least at the time I could participate, took the responsibility of organizing the game and choosing someone to play each position. The position of pitcher was of course, all important. I can recall Dwight Bartlett’s pitching success during one such game, as well as that of Joe Wenger and of Kenny himself. Tom Hucker, a student of ours who later married Violet Horner and spent his life working for the church, had lost a leg below the knee as a teenager in an unfortunate accident but nevertheless performed admirably as one of the “college” pitchers. I remember a line drive bouncing off his wooden leg with a resounding thud. Even my father occasionally played on the college side and was evidently a fearsome hitter, with high school outfielders stationing themselves deeper in the outfield when he approached the plate. I do not, however remember Dad ever occupying defensive positions, which he doubtless must have, nor do I remember ever seeing him catch or throw, certainly not with me as a youngster as I perhaps noted in my article about him.
I do remember finally achieving my own dreams of playing in the renowned High School vs. College Mayday game. My bouncing a ball against the side of the Morningside house and catching the grounders that came back to me in my new JC Higgins mitt, until I got better and better eventually paid off since I was chosen by our head High School athlete, Kenny Cope, to play second base in the infield, a dream come true. I don’t remember any muffed ground balls or errant throws on that memorable day but I do remember getting on base and eventually scoring. I think I got to first on someone’s error, not a hit. I don’t recall whether I played in any other May Day games.
And also important was ice skating time every winter when first the pond by the Assembly Hall froze, followed by the Delaware and Raritan Canal and finally, and much less often, the Millstone River. When we students went ice skating, we broke somewhat free of the straitened social circumstances limiting interactions between the sexes, mainly because few to none of the old biddies or uptight old men who made sure we stayed sufficiently apart, were on the ice. We felt free to skate holding hands or with an arm around a girl we had our eyes on or show off our latest skating moves to a girl we wanted to impress. And if you were daring enough you might steal a quick kiss. And always whispered among us was which boy was lacing up which girl’s skates. I remember pangs of jealousy when afore mentioned long-time acquaintance and sometime heartthrob of mine, Lily Kate Hoagland, flirted with someone on the ice. Especially galling was the attention she paid to the previously mentioned David “Mambo” Rivera, a guy a several years ahead of us in high school.
All students from when I attended Pillar of Fire schools back in the 1950’s have fond memories of those times. During the very cold days and even colder nights that froze the ice, you were kept warm by your exertions. When the canal froze you could skate straight down it for several miles if you wished. You had to carry your blade protectors to walk around the bridges on the pavement and bank because the water was usually was not frozen under the bridges. However, the narrower canal limited the acrobatics that the much wider pond allowed. I can remember how thrilled I was to finally master what we called “cutting the bar”, more properly called the “crossover” I guess – while skating backwards, crossing one foot over the other to gain more and more speed – always better on the wider pond than the canal. I first learned to skate on an old pair of hockey skates which, because of the lack of an insole and a few protruding metal staples, made my feet bleed until padded by makeshift insoles made of corn flakes boxtops. The highlight of my teenage ice skating years was finally buying a brand new pair of Brooks figure skates, fabulous for learning different moves and reliable backward skating stops with the marvelous serrated toe of the blade. Also these skates had normal, well padded and reliable insoles.
The church at Zarephath held annual springtime and fall recreational events which involved most of the church families and many of its students, including the day or “outside” students. I can remember church outings at “Echo Lake” when I was a child, a large New Jersey county park close to the community of Mountainside, east on Route 22 from Plainfield. The highlight at this location was the availability of rental rowboats, on which Dad would take us. Apparently one time Dad either did not wish to indulge us children or, more likely didn’t have or didn’t wish to spend the money for a boat rental because there is a picture of us on the dock at Echo Lake in which neither myself nor sister Barbara look very happy. The others, Elaine and Robert, devoid of frowns, were perhaps too young to feel as deprived or as disgruntled as Barbara and I obviously did.
Other locations for church outings that I remember well were Johnson Park in Highland Park, New Jersey, across the Raritan River from Rutgers University and New Brunswick. At these occasions, the food preparation people would bring the ingredients for a pleasant picnic lunch featuring perhaps potato salad, baked beans, sandwiches and for dessert, Dixie cup ice creams, brought to the location still frozen in dry ice. I remember especially that the bottom of the Dixie cup container lids featured pictures of movie stars and how exciting it was to find out which star was featured on your lid and comparing to what other children found on theirs. It seems that a wrapped flat wooden spoon to employ eating the ice cream was also attached to the Dixie Cup container somehow, maybe to the bottom.
Another favorite location for these spring or fall affairs was Washington Crossing State Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Perhaps these were more school trips than family outings, since I remember them mainly as perhaps an older elementary school, junior high or high school student. They were truly exciting and memorable occasions. One reason they were exciting is that the boys traveled to the location in the open back of a large truck on which you could climb and cling to the side of the truck and feel the wind as the truck moved, a mode of transportation certainly not legal today. As I recall, the girls used to travel in a more dignified manner in one of our school buses. Again, there would be the delicious picnic lunch served on paper plates with disposable wooden spoons or forks.
The highlight of these trips was hiking through the woods up to the top of a big hill to find “Bowman’s Tower”. Apparently the hill was Bowmans Hill so the proper name was “Bowman’s Hill Tower”, but no matter, after climbing what seemed like a couple hundred concrete stairs to the top of this 125 foot stone structure, you emerged onto a concrete platform from which you could enjoy an expansive view of the area, including the winding Delaware River and a few of its bridges. Quite vivid in my memory is the frightening feeling of looking straight down from the parapet of this structure. Perhaps that’s when I developed my intense fear of heights which I still wrestle with today. Especially frightening in a vicarious way was watching Daniel Gross actually hoisting himself onto the parapet and actually walking around the viewing platform, horrifying other observers with fear that he would fall. I know that Daniel was trying to impress the girls there, especially my sister Barbara. Evidently he was successful because Daniel eventually became my brother-in-law. From googling a few photos of the tower, it’s still there and still looks the same now, 60-70 years later, except that the interior stairway is now enclosed and the parapet is topped by a steel grate to prevent ascension, both good safety measures.
This would be as good a place as any to describe social interaction between the sexes at Pillar of Fire Zarephath schools. It is important to remember that we did not have what would normally be considered to be opportunities for healthy contact. There were no dances, dancing was viewed as sinful, and certainly there was not anything which could be termed “dating”. When you were still too young to drive and did not have a car, you perhaps met a girl “over the dike”, in a nice trysting place behind some trees or bushes, to embrace and indulge in a few daring kisses or some even more daring touches. Or you arranged a lunchtime meeting in some vacant basement in some of the buildings. One of these favorite locations I and some old friends can recall is the basement of the Publishing Building, entered from a loading dock on the side of the building. Yes, there you waited for her to come or maybe she was already there waiting in the darkness for you. But you met, talked, embraced, maybe kissed if you were lucky, or maybe felt some forbidden area of the body if you were even luckier.
At the afore-mentioned school outings, especially remembered at Washington Crossing State Park, students might get away from the group to pair up, take a walk or hike together, or obtain a forbidden hug or a kiss when sufficiently distant from the main group. I was too young to remember any such activity at Echo Lake or Johnson Park, but I do remember many occasions at the Washington Crossing outings when student gossip buzzed with sightings of who was with whom, who was seen holding hands with whom or who was seen embracing and kissing with whom.
When older and armed with a drivers license and a car of your own or a borrowed family car, a young man could properly “date” a young Pillar of Fire lady: perhaps going out for a hamburger or going to the movies. But usually the car presented a more private and secure means for necking or something even more intimate while parked on one of the Zarephath area’s dirt back roads. These “dates” however, were not without risk. During a few of my years as a Zarephath teenager, a few of these memorable back road events were rudely interrupted and forever marred by our self proclaimed “law enforcement” officer, Mr. Ezra Hellyer, whose unnerving flashing lights and blinding flashlight would startle you back to reality. I really do think that Mr. Hellyer got some private satisfaction himself sneaking around late at night to interrupt these rare and wonderful events.
One other memory connected to relationships at Zarephath I should mention is “Central”. The church organization had a phone number that I will always remember – Eliot 6 – 0102, in today’s parlance, 356-0102, that connected to a switchboard, called “Central”, located in a room on the second floor of the “Main Building”. From this switchboard, the caller could request connection to “the Friedlys”, or other family name, or to the corresponding location, e.g. “Rosedale”, “the store”, “post office” or “garage”. And of course if trying to call a girl, the attempt could be thwarted by whomever was manning the switchboard. Or if fortune was smiling on you that day, the very girl you wanted to talk to was herself managing the switchboard. This system was of course open to all kinds of abuse. Calls could be interrupted or listened to, calls could be denied if the desired location was “busy”, and so on. But dealing with Central was a memorable experience.
Addendum: From my still unpublished article “Summer of 1999”
As noted in my article of the same name, part of that incredible “Summer of 1999” trip, I took wife Bobbie and son Conrad for a brief visit to the Rutgers University area in New Brunswick, New Jersey, changed so much from when I attended Rutgers but still there, its basics intact – the Raritan River, Johnson Park, Easton Avenue, College Avenue, Hamilton Street, Albany Street, Livingston Avenue and so on.
We then took some time for their first visit to Zarephath and my first in many decades. I couldn’t believe how much the whole area had changed – much was barely recognizable. However, we did get off of I-287 onto the old Canal Road and saw Lock Haven where we used to live when we first arrived from California in 1947. And there was the “bridge house” where the Nolke’s used to live, marking the location of the bridge over the Delaware and Raritan Canal into the little Zarephath community. We parked the car and began walking around and ran into, of all people, my brother in law, Barbara’s husband, Daniel Gross. I didn’t know that Daniel had returned to Zarephath but there he was, as talkative and as engaging as ever and quite eager to show us around. There were all the old familiar buildings, certainly in need of attention and repair. We visited the Publishing Building first and encountered another old friend and stalwart of the church, Mr. Mark Tomlin. And in the printing press room, there was Dad’s old barber chair, still there after all those years. I didn’t know if anyone was still using it, but there it was, so I took Conrad’s picture alongside it.
At Daniel’s suggestion we also visited Mrs. Weaver, the wonderful lady who used to take care of the Bethany house and the young boys who boarded there, now living in an apartment in what we used to know as the “Frame Building”. Very stooped with age now, she was nevertheless very happy to see me and to meet Bobbie and Conrad. We reminisced a bit about some of the boys she cared for, including my old teenage friend, Joe Wenger, whose memory for her was very positive. I think that Mrs. Weaver passed away the year after my visit, so I was very happy to have had the opportunity to visit with her.
After saying goodbye to Daniel, we toured a bit more of the Zarephath area, seeing our old home, Morningside and seeing the Millwood house where the Wilsons used to live and the apartment attached to the big garage near the house where the Crouchers had lived and where my sister Barbara occasionally babysat. After the Crouchers left this dwelling, it was occupied by the Marvin Sharpe family, with Rosalee Sharpe, the mother, being my brother Charlie’s wife Glenda’s oldest sister. We also visited the Assembly Hall, now in a bad state of repair and not presently used and made a quick trip to the church cemetery, where so many names familiar to me adorn the gravestones.
That late afternoon we visited also with old friend Kenny Cope and his wife Jean (Rukkila). There was obviously much to reminisce about with Kenny too, particularly playing baseball on the expansive mowed grass field that we knew so well. During our trip out to dinner with Ken and Jean, Ken told Conrad about a fabulous catch of a fly ball I had made running in full stride in left field with my back to home plate. I didn’t remember the catch but was happy to replant this memory in my brain to compliment my modest physical ability and coordination as a baseball player.
Addendum: Zarephath, Alma Preparatory School Reunion 2003
One of the biggest regrets in my life was not being able to attend a remarkable gathering of Pillar of Fire schools attendees, graduates, veterans or whatever you wish to call them, at Zarephath in August of 2003. I had accepted the position as Headmaster of Isikkent School in Izmir, Turkey, and had to report to my new job on August 1, the same day as the reunion. So this incredible opportunity to reconnect with so many people I had missed and wondered about for so many years, was lost. The founders and organizers of this event did a remarkable job of contacting hundreds of people, now living in many different locations across the US, who had attended school at Bound Brook, Zarephath or Belleview.
One of the founders of the event, Mary Ann Gross, wife of John Gross, did send me the loose leaf notebook containing reminiscences and updated personal information of many of those who were able to attend and it has been a pleasure to look through the book and remember so many of the people who had attended the reunion and who had contributed to the book.
Others with whom I am still in touch, like Joe Wenger, and who was able to attend have graciously shared much information with me about the many others attending. I regret so much not being able to shake hands and reminisce with old classmates like Malcolm Grout, who, as a “Bethany Boy” does appear in my photo above of Helen Wilson’s class at Bound Brook. Others, like Dickie and Ada Mae Kaesler from the old South Bound Brook Kaesler family were there, as were Dwight, Doris and Lorinda Bartlett, along with Lindy’s spouse, Buddy Skeie, from the Skeie family which I mentioned somewhere above as well. And my old brother in law, Daniel Gross, as well as his brothers Joseph and John (and David?) were in attendance. How I would have loved to see all these dear people and tour the old buildings and grounds that we once shared and knew so well.
Mr. Lynn Schissler, of the Schissler family, also apparently attended for, courtesy of Joe Wenger, who sent me a copy, I am in possession of a remarkable photo DVD that he put together featuring many pictures of students, teachers, missionaries and other notables from the old days at Zarephath, including the buildings, student groups, and even ice skating scenes. And he includes a section called “Creaks and Groans” featuring photos taken, apparently, at the 2003 reunion described above. It was initially difficult for me to identify many of the people, although eventually, many of the faces I once knew did emerge and become recognizable.
Addendum: October 2019 visit
I just concluded another, and perhaps my final, visit to Zarephath, this past fall, October 2019. And I found it, as the last, bittersweet – wonderful to see the old remnants of that childhood life so long ago but distressing to see how much everything had changed. Our old homes, Lock Haven and Morningside are still standing and look better than they did when the Friedly family occupied them. The Lock Haven barn is no longer there but in its place now stands an attractive house, presumably occupied by former Pillar of Fire workers. The “Morningside” house still stands all by itself among the farm fields of the Millstone River floodplain that my dad and Mr. Murphy used to till. And north of the house is still the same garage and next to it, believe it or not, was the chicken house I remember so well and wrote about in a recently published short story. Across the fields there was Millwood, where the Wilsons lived, still looking good and that garage and apartment across the drive from it, where the Crouchers and later the Sharpes used to live. We had driven to Millwood and then to Morningside on the old “back road”, past what may be the old “Frame Building” and the “Stewart House”, then over the dike and through the woods from Zarephath.
Zarephath itself looked alright – someone’s been keeping the grounds up but of course Liberty Hall is still boarded up and the Publishing building, totally repainted looks completely different. Something about a “Spanish Mission” was posted above the main door. But this former nerve center of the church, housing the entire publishing operation, the post office and the “store” was a shell of its former self. The ball field looked just like it used to, except the tennis courts and greenhouses beyond center and right field are no longer there. Red Crawford’s “garage” and gas pump are now missing, as are the twin tile block buildings, one of which housed Mr. Nolke’s “bakery”.
The “College Building” still stands majestically, greeting any visitors coming over the canal bridge, but reputedly having been severely inundated during the last Millstone River flooding, is no longer usable, as some broken and un-replaced windowpanes of the chapel indicate. The college library and classrooms, WAWZ recording studios are surely gone. It appears that some of the upper rooms that we knew as college dormitory rooms, may still be employed as dwellings for a few people but I could not tell.
Columbia Hall and the Main Building appeared to be still used for some purposes, but it was not clear for what. At least they were not boarded up. The “Wilson Gym” appeared to be unused as well but at least is, like the others, still standing. At my suggestion, Bobbie and I parked the car by the Main Building and strolled to the “Fountain”. Although much changed and apparently no longer functioning, it was not difficult to close my eyes and again see all of the familiar faces and forms lounging on the benches that used to be there and hear the conversation and laughter. There is another building now constructed adjacent to the Fountain that evidently serves a current purpose. That building, maybe a library, came after my time and perhaps is still usable, despite being subjected to the same disastrous flooding as all of the others.
The cemetery was as usual, very touching. Bobbie was patient with me recalling all the faces, voices and roles played by so many of the wonderful people interred there. That little tour consumed significant time. The Assembly Hall is still there but has some broken windows and appears to be full of stored junk. The pond where we used to ice skate still looks large and lovely.
I couldn’t believe the size of that new mega church that’s been built and I guess still carries a bit of the old P of F message to some quite large congregations. It and the grounds it occupies are quite impressive.
The Church Today
When growing up in the Pillar of Fire Church during the 1950’s and 60’s, it often seemed as though the church and its schools had become static and were not growing or thriving. I don’t have figures for school enrollment, church membership or service attendance over those years or the decades since, but I would certainly guess that the church had met its apex and had begun a downturn. There were many older people still manning the church and its activities but very few new young people to help out and no new energy or new ideas. Many of the children of church families, seeing no prospect for personal growth through recognition or utilization of their talents, left, creating a serious “brain drain” for the church. The only new members seemed to be a few random misfits and freeloaders. And there never seemed to be a long range plan or a vision for the future of the organization. Moreover, to my knowledge there was never an honest solicitation of opinion and ideas from the grassroots membership of the church. The family based management and leadership of the church was suffocating and stultifying and certainly not conducive to either change or growth.
The ruling family occasionally tried to inject energy and dynamism into the church organization, once by renaming it the Pillar of Fire “movement”, which did little more than inspire not a few derogatory comparisons with bodily functions. Obviously merely embellishing the name of this moribund organization was not enough to energize it. Personality cult at the top, a narrow, “one way” view of religion and lack of a financial structure to care for its workers and distribute resources fairly and equitably further retarded the development of the church.
The church always being run by the Whites or members of their extended family, was never conducive to growth and good health. New ideas were not welcomed, church service attendance shrank and school enrollment diminished. It ceased publishing its periodicals and books. The church began living off the proceeds of real estate sales and land leases, essentially cashing in its investments instead of accelerating its base of support or creating new sources of revenue.
And these investments had been considerable. At its apex the Pillar of Fire Church, in addition to the major properties at Zarephath, New Jersey and Westminster, Colorado, owned upwards of 50 substantial properties in major cities across the country, from Trenton, New Jersey to Detroit, Michigan, to Oakland, California. Most of these properties scattered across the country were described as “missionary homes” and were occupied by various families or individuals stationed there to “spread the gospel” and carry on the work of the church. But virtually all of these properties were sold off one by one, when no one could be found to staff them and the proceeds were required to sustain what remained of the church.
In addition the church had to deal with much of its history and background that violated precepts that most modern churches embraced – ecumenicalism, racial equality and economic justice. In its early days there was an unsavory association with the Ku Klux Klan which at that time, in the early 1920’s, was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. In fact the founder of the church had written several complimentary books about the Klan, illustrated by Branford Clark. So the church, to survive, had to reinvent itself, constrict its activities and divorce itself from much of its history.
Thus today the old Pillar of Fire organization is gone and now calls itself the “Pillar Ministries”. Upon googling this name and finding the new organization’s website, I was comforted to see some familiar names and faces among the board members. There was Joseph Gross of the old Gross family described above, still serving as president, having taken over from Robert Dallenbach in 2008. And there, of all people was my old flame, Pamela Crawford (nee Alstadt, Konkel), serving as secretary of the newly reconstituted organization. The White family and its progeny no longer control any aspect of the church, another necessary parting of the ways. I could find little about Pillar Ministry governance but hopefully the reconstituted church has embraced democratic management and has rejected any semblance of family rule. But interestingly, though renouncing much of its Pillar of Fire past, Pillar Ministries does note that its founding was in fact in 1901, the year Alma White founded the church, so the separation from its past is not quite complete. And apparently, the name “Aldstadt” has replaced that of the Whites in most of the decisions regarding the management and disposition of property and other church assets at the Belleview, Westminster, Colorado location causing a great deal of disillusionment among the few remaining church workers there.
“Pillar Ministries” presides over just a few of the former facilities, evidently an effort to shrink the church to a more manageable size and retain some of its more successful elements. It has retained its three radio stations – WAWZ FM in New Jersey, now renamed “Star 99.1”, WAKW FM in Cincinnati, Ohio, now called “STAR 93.3 and KPOF AM in Westminster, Colorado. All of these stations are quite successful, broadcasting a steady diet of typical Christian evangelical Protestant fare, not the Pillar of Fire church offerings typically provided during my childhood. However, the New Jersey station does evidently broadcast live services from Zarephath Christian Church.
Pillar Ministries has broken with its Pillar of Fire past also in its maintenance of schools. From the many schools maintained throughout its former holdings, there are now but two, both K-8 schools. One is located at the old Belleview location in Westminster, Colorado – Belleview Christian School, and one in its Pacifica, California location – Pacific Bay Christian School. All the schools mentioned so often earlier in this article – in Bound Brook and in Zarephath, simply are no more. The old church’s efforts at higher education – Alma While College and Zarephath Bible Seminary at Zarephath and Belleview College in Westminster, have been abandoned also. The new “Pillar College” in Newark, N. J. is not associated with Pillar Ministries, but does acknowledge its roots in the old Pillar of Fire Church and its Zarephath Bible Seminary located at Zarephath.
And where there were many Pillar of Fire church congregations throughout the country, there are now but five – the new Zarephath Christian Church, Invictus Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, Coastside Community Church in Pacifica, California, Highland Park Christian Church in Los Angeles, and Radiant Hill Church at the old Belleview, Westminster, Colorado location. So the church has reinvented itself, focusing on the three radio stations and the schools and churches mentioned above.
The history of the church seems to have been in three phases – first, the energy and growth momentum under dynamic founder Alma White which formed a nucleus of energetic and dedicated workers who built and manned churches, farms, schools and radio stations; second, stagnation, paralysis and constriction under Arthur White and various members of his family who led the church after he died; and, finally, renaming, restructuring, rejecting family control and maintaining and strengthening the few successful enterprises that remained. All of the superintendents who succeeded founder Bishop Alma White: her son Bishop Arthur K. White (from 1946 to 1981), his daughter, Arlene White Lawrence (1981-1984), Donald Justin Wolfram (1985-2000), Robert B. Dallenbach (2000-2008), presided over decline and disintegration of the church, without ever finding the means, formulating the vision and the plan and providing the leadership to turn it around again. The most recent superintendent, Joseph Gross (2008-present), at least has reformed and restructured what was left to give it the means necessary for future survival.
This paralysis and ennui that haunted the late church were certainly unfortunate. The Pillar of Fire church had a solid foundation – thousands of acres of land in New Jersey and Colorado, numerous other properties in cities across the country, three radio stations, numerous schools, campuses and buildings and hundreds of dedicated and energetic workers. Though perhaps even starting out ahead long ago in 1901, it was overtaken by and could not keep up with other evangelical organizations which quickly learned how to use television and the internet to their advantage. With progressive leadership and forward thinking the Pillar of Fire could have competed successfully, perhaps even exceeded the rapid growth of other evangelical organizations like those of Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and many others. This to me is the ultimate irony – the failure of the Pillar of Fire church during a boom of Christian evangelical growth and influence: Falwell’s Liberty University and Robertson’s Regent University thriving while Alma White College, Zarephath Bible Seminary and Belleview College slowly died.
I need to add some final thoughts about this article and its subject. Any reader can no doubt perceive a note of bitterness that flavors much of the narrative. Indeed, bitterness, envy, dissatisfaction, frustration, sadness, resignation and more, describe the church and its people, especially in its later years – those with which I was acquainted. And all because of one family ruling the enterprise. Dozens of ambitious young people left the church after realizing that their talents and energy would never be utilized adequately. Others who remained chafed under the ruling family, finally realizing that their personal ambitions would never be realized. Thus the church spawned a host of very emotionally stunted and incomplete people, whether they stayed or left. Many who joined the church young never felt that they could succeed on their own outside the church. One example was likely my father, who left home to join the church at age 14 and never knew any other kind of life.
And finally, I wonder how much anger, resentment, dysfunction, relationship and marital trauma was caused by the Pillar of Fire Church’s denial of the need for healthy relationships between the boys and girls in its charge. There was never an admission of the need for such relationships but instead much denial – total blindness to the needs of young people to learn how to relate to one another in a healthy and wholesome way. And of course, having declared so many aspects of normal living “sinful”, I wonder about how much guilt Pillar of Fire youngsters were induced to feel as they encountered these through their adolescence and young lives maturing both in and outside of the church.
Yet growing up in the Pillar of Fire was a rare and wonderful experience. How can I explain the continued influence in my life of a childhood there now at almost 80 years old. How can I explain the value of the precious shared experiences of students, so many named above, attending its schools or growing up in its families. All of us shared something unique and valuable – the warm embrace of the limited world and the closeted existence defined by the church and its people. Whoever walks through the Zarephath or Belleview cemeteries cannot but be deeply affected by the names and the recollected images and sounds they provoke. The joy at so many “veterans” of life in the Pillar of Fire meeting again and sharing those experiences at the Zarephath Reunion back in 2003 must have been something to behold and experience.
And who can explain why so many Pillar of Fire alumni have gravitated toward each other in relationships and marriage. Time and space do not allow me to list all the former Pillar of Fire members who have married others, even when forging lives and careers outside of the church and having social contacts with many other people. The reason has to simply be that those shared experiences have formed a unique and durable bond among all who spent their youth in the Pillar of Fire church, almost like a shared DNA. My parents, Ralph and Ida, met as high school students in the church and, sharing so many common experiences, married in the church. And although my parents spent their entire lives in the church, it was not easy. Dad struggled with money and security in the church yet never summoned sufficient courage to leave, while Mom suffered silently wishing often that she was not there and was free of the church and its stresses like her sister Alma and several of her brothers who, despite attending the church’s schools in Colorado as did my mother, chose to leave and forge a life in the real world.
Thus this massive, confused, detailed and I am sure occasionally redundant and sometimes contradictory collection of memories from my childhood draws to a close. It will engender little interest from those not acquainted with my family members or the church in which they grew up except as a curiosity. But I am hoping that reading it will be enjoyable and meaningful to any remaining potential readers who did work for the Pillar of Fire or attend its schools and church services.
I have compiled a list of additional resources about the church which may be of interest to the reader:
Zarephath Cemetery with all the memorable names along with photographs of headstones:
Yes, just the other night, watching Monday Night Football, there was that horrible TV commercial featuring a pathetic Joe Namath and his “Medicare Coverage Helpline”. And early this morning, while working out at my local gym, three of the six TV screens displaying programming from six different channels were simultaneously showing similar commercials in various stages of play.
Are you as sick as I am of these TV commercials featuring Namath or other washed-up celebrities like former “Good Times” star J. J. Walker of “dyn-o-mite!” fame, long-retired boxer George Foreman, or now bonafide Blue Origin “astronaut” Willian Shatner, (for whom no testimonial fee is too small, having shilled for dozens of corporations over the years) offering to “eliminate copays, provide eyeglasses, dental care, dentures, transportation, meals, even to put money back into your Social Security check”?
And these irritating TV commercials have only scratched the surface of the flood of other invitations to call the “Medicare Advantage Hotline” or to obtain your Medicare through Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Humana, the healthcare corporate behemoth, United Healthcare, or a mere upstart like WellCare, based in Florida. Even in little old Vermont, our second “home state”, another upstart is soliciting for medicare advantage enrollment. Yes, “from two trusted names – UVM Health and MVP Healthcare” comes “a new kind of Medicare Advantage plan” – UVM Health Advantage, bolstered also by the tired cliche trope “You spoke. We listened.” I seriously doubt that any opinions were either solicited or heeded and I don’t think that the healthcare vultures are listening. This new Vermont company was simply intent on grabbing yet another chunk of the hefty profits accruing to companies offering Medicare Advantage plans.
I have received a flood of Medicare Advantage invitations in my daily dose of junk mail, random emails and even the other day, an invitation from my own credit union:
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And a pop up ad on my computer this morning invited me to “Compare Medicare”, that is, to “compare top rated medicare plans”. What? I thought that Medicare was a government program started by President Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic majority back in 1965. I thought that everyone when turning 65 or whatever the age is now, could stop worrying about medical insurance from their employers, or worrying about ceilings on coverage, pre-existing conditions and all the limitations that private insurers place in their plans. I thought that Medicare was a government program which we all helped pay for through our income taxes and deductions from our Social Security stipends. How on earth did private insurers get into “providing Medicare”?
Why this flood of solicitations and advertisements, obviously quite expensive, to solicit your purchase and enrollment in Medicare Advantage? And what is medicare advantage anyway. Why are we taught to think that now, rather than enrolling directly in Medicare when we reach the qualifying age, we should instead rush to Humana, Aetna or any one of hundreds, now maybe thousands of companies advertising “Medicare Advantage”? How did a Federal program become so corporatized? Well, there’s an easy answer to that question – profit. And moreover, it’s profit from direct government subsidies, the best kind – not properly earned profit, the result of comprehensive research, increased investments, new products or a daring business plan – just government money – direct from taxpayers to corporate coffers.
How did Medicare Advantage begin? Well, the seeds were planted by President Clinton with his “Medicare Choice” legislation, part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Then after spending much of his two terms trying to privatize Social Security and Medicare, George W. Bush did the next best thing to Medicare with the “Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, formalized Medicare Part D and replaced “Choice” with “Medicare Advantage”. Accordingly “risk adjusted” large batch payments then began a year later, paying private companies to take care of Medicare-eligible enrollees. So this semi-privatization of Medicare has thrived, enrolling more and more people because of the massive advertising blitz described above.
But these seemingly interminable flood of advertisements are essentially dishonest and purposely deceiving. When you enroll in a Medicare Advantage program you are essentially dis-enrolling from Medicare itself, giving up all the protections of this government program and placing yourself at the mercy of a health insurance corporation whose sole objective is profit, not keeping you well, although indeed your continued good health means profit for them since they will not be paying very much on your behalf from the money they are receiving from Medicare. However, if you get sick, it’s another story. Let’s look at how Medicare Advantage works.
When you leave Medicare, yes, you have to file your treasured Medicare card away, that card that you waited your whole life to obtain, that card which banished all worries about the effects of chronic illness and fears of potential bankruptcy, that card which finally rescued you from the vagaries of employer provided private insurance and made you more like a Swede or a Dane or a Canadian in that finally, with Medicare your healthcare became a right, not a privilege. Finally, that government which you supported all your working life with your tax dollars is going to return the favor and take care of you and your health with Social Security and Medicare.
So….you file away your Medicare card and sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan. Technically that private insurance company is supposed to provide everything traditional Medicare gives you – that’s part of the bargain. But read the fine print, dig into the details and you will find caveats for your care: huge out of pocket maximums, limits on which doctors you can see and the areas in which you can see them. And God help you if you get seriously ill. This is when medicare advantage enrollees discover the real limitations of the program they are relying upon. Forget the promise of “0 copays” – you will run up a huge bill seeing specialists. Diagnostic tests and lab services will cost a lot. And surgery and hospital costs are exorbitant as well, all totally glossed over in the commercials we see.
You see, when you are in Medicare Advantage, instead of Medicare taking care of you, Medicare pays the corporation for taking care of you. And how much do they pay? Well, it averages about a thousand dollars per month so if you stay healthy, the corporation puts this into their pockets, sends dividends to its investors and provides bonuses for its executives and CEO. Great business plan.
But this amount can vary based upon what’s called a “risk score”. If the Medicare Advantage company can claim that a percentage of its enrollees are high risk, maybe chronically ill, maybe showing signs of heart trouble or at risk for diabetes or kidney problems, then they can increase the risk score and obtain more money from Medicare.
Many Medicare Advantage programs provide a once a year “home visit” by a registered nurse as a “benefit” of the program. However, these often redundant visits, ostensibly to keep you well, have another purpose – to discover previously hidden conditions or propensities with enrollees so that the overall risk score can be raised. And many of these visits do exactly that.
Okay, you find yourself quite ill, needing repeated tests of all kinds, repeated hospital stays and multiple visits to specialists and you are going broke and approaching bankruptcy, even while enrolled in a Medicare Advantage program, and you wish to return to traditional Medicare. Well, it’s really not that easy. First, you have to wait until the next “open enrollment” season rolls around. Second, you need a “medigap” policy that will cover what traditional Medicare does not, and if ill, it could cost you much more than if you had purchased the coverage when you first enrolled in Medicare.
And what about the other benefits promised in the myriad TV commercials we’re forced to watch.Yes, dental, vision and hearing coverage, plus “transportation and meals”. Well, all of these are quite meager and subject to severe limitations, such as a maximum amount per year, or per procedure in the case of dental. And the hearing benefit may cover tests but hearing aids may be limited to a specific amount per multiple year period which comes nowhere near paying the full cost. “Transportation and meals?” Read the fine print.
Other problems with Medicare Advantage are simply that it costs taxpayers far more than traditional Medicare, even factoring in the monthly premium most enrollees pay. And this significant step toward total privatization of Medicare again exposes, just like Obamacare, the folly of using government money to pay corporations for what the government could do much more cost effectively. Basically the question to ask is this – why should taxpayer money be devoted to providing profit for corporations and filling the pockets of their investors and CEO’s? Again, it’s a pretty simple procedure – moving money from Medicare to hospitals and health providers to take care of the elderly. Why have the middlemen raking in their profit to do exactly the same thing?
But all these millions of dollars invested in the TV ads, the print ads, the mailings, email pop-ups and the rest, have really paid off for our for-profit healthcare industry. In 2020, private insurance companies offered an estimated 3,148 Medicare Advantage plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). And of those that Kaiser reported, the following are the companies that welcomed the most Medicare Advantage enrollees in 2020:
BCBS plans: 15%
CVS (Aetna): 11%
Kaiser Permanente: 7%
So this tsunami of advertising has really paid off and after this year’s inundation during “open enrollment” we can rest assured that next year’s will be worse. And we can also assume that millions more elderly qualifying for Medicare will have signed over their healthcare to a for-profit corporation.
But guess what, many of these deceptive ads will not stop, even though the Medicare “open enrollment” period ended December 7. Because for the next few months, although those eligible for Medicare cannot any longer register for Medicare Advantage or move back into original Medicare, if already enrolled, you can switch from one “advantage” program to another. That period is until March 31. So I do expect many of these deceptive ads to continue. We shall see.
For those concerned with continued privatization and corporatization of the already largely for-profit US healthcare system, there is another nefarious plot being carried out as I write and as you read.
Near the end of the Trump administration the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) decided to begin a program, with no input from Medicare enrollees and no oversight from Congress, a program called DC (direct contracting). In fact, this program has provoked barely a whisper in the media, though it has healthcare corporations and Wall Street private equity firms “lined up like pigs at a trough”, all eager to get their filthy hands on some more taxpayer money and further privatize our healthcare systems. So far 53 companies have signed up as DCE’s (Direct Contracting Entities) to administer the program – a mix of healthcare corporations and private equity firms.
Already, without them realizing it, thousands of Medicare enrollees who thought they were enrolled in traditional Medicare, have been quietly and subtly moved into this program, along with their primary care physicians, with the promise of greater Medicare reimbursements for the doctors and more “managed” and “focused” care for the patient. In reality, the program does little to nothing to improve care. What it clearly does is raise the Medicare price for taxpayers and give money to private companies.
What all this boils down to is just what do the American people want for a healthcare program for the elderly. Do they want a no profit government program or do they want a program farmed out to corporations who make profit from the government funds they receive. I know where the American people are. It’s their legislators in Congress who are the problem because private healthcare corporations have been contributing to their PAC’s and reelection funds for decades, corruptly buying their support. We should be furious about this – our legislators should be fighting for us but they’re not. What a country! What a political system! Thank God for the few legislators and the organizations that are fighting back on our behalf – organizations like PNHP (Physicians for a National Health Program) and legislators like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal.
And we need to ask about the role of this special Medicare office, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI). Truly it seems that their role is simply to surely and steadily turn Medicare over to corporations, while increasing the outflow of Medicare money to pad their pockets and increase their profits. What kind of “innovation” is this anyhow? This office needs to be investigated by Congress and I guarantee that they’ll find that the office is populated by ex- corporate healthcare executive doing everything they can to help their former employers and waiting until the Washington revolving door spits them out again to repopulate the healthcare industry.
Many of my articles have been based on what I perceive as something wrong with our society, politics, priorities and the like. But sometimes the complaint, problem or suggested solution is too limited for a whole article most of which seem to be in the 1500-2500 word range, so I include it in an article about several topics which I have called my “rants”: the first one and the second. And, having made a little list of my latest complaints and issues, each too limited for a full article, I am offering to my reader(s) “yet another rant”.
First, I have to complain about the the sorry state of health information in the US. We saw this early in the pandemic from the Trump administration’s disgraceful handling of essential information. First, we experienced the cover-up of the severity and deadliness of the pandemic from the chief executive himself, then during dozens of presidential press conferences we were treated to exhortations to treat infections with disinfectants and the like while qualified medical personnel stood by, mentally rolling their eyes in disbelief and wringing their hands in frustration, never themselves offering us anything more concrete than masks, “social distancing” and hand washing. And they couldn’t even agree on the best kind of mask or tell us where they were available. I clearly remember the panic my wife and I felt when absolutely no masks were available anywhere and we were reduced to madly fashioning some from whatever we could find, including sewing a few primitive cloth masks on her sewing machine. In retrospect I don’t know why medical authorities could not have sent several good masks to every citizen, certainly preventing a significant number of infections and saving many lives.
And smooth-talking HHS secretary and former Eli Lily big pharma executive Alex Azar (a perfect example of the “revolving door” between government and private employment) frequently disagreed or talked over and around Trump CDC director Robert Redfield. Then we cringed to see how Redfield sacrificed himself and the lofty reputation of his agency on the altar of Trump by acquiescing to politics, watering down recommendations to mere suggestions, overruling scientists and generally destroying the integrity of his agency and public trust in it.
And we aren’t a whole lot better off right now, with obscenely wealthy corporations like Pfizer apparently running the show and hapless and helpless CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stumbling through her public pronouncements. Early on, with reckless and needless hyperbole, she warned that COVID may be “just a few mutations” away from being able “to evade our vaccine in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death.” Then she decided to overrule her own agency’s advisory panel and recommend boosters for workers whose jobs require often interacting with the public.
On related matters with booster shots, she first called for boosters for vaccinated people who were over 65 or who had compromised immune systems or other chronic conditions. Now it’s boosters for everyone except children. Oh, I forgot, first it was Pfizer boosters only – then eventually, after panicking those who had received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, approving those boosters, or, without supporting detail, it was okay go ahead and “mix or match”. Of course with Pfizer calling the shots (pardon the pun) one might wonder what CDC’s relationship with Pfizer really is. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the entity first calling for boosters at all was Pfizer itself, not the CDC. And it was Pfizer and not our government that first announced suitability of their vaccine for children. Hmmm, lots more shots…lots more money for profits, stockholders and CEO. And I’ve already noted in an earlier article that Pfizer fancies itself a quasi government entity, bustling all over the world making deals with foreign governments for vaccine sales, totally independent of the US State Department or federal health agencies.
But it’s not only during the “covid age” when we’ve been misled by our well funded and supposedly brilliant and far-reaching health authorities. Remember the “low fat” recommendations that were supposed to save us from cholesterol, clogged arteries and heart attacks? What happened to that? All of us scrambled madly to avoid fat in our diets. But not a word was said about sugar, the much more likely cause of heart problems than fat as I recounted in my article about sugar. And we suddenly found out that many fats were actually good for us. Really? Why did that take so long?
And then there were the warnings that one of the most nutritious natural foods available to us – simple, everyday eggs – were responsible for cholesterol and clogged arteries, so many of us, including myself, compromised our nutrition by dramatically reducing egg consumption. In fact I recall foolishly boasting to my cardiologist (back when I had one) that I was down to eating just one or two eggs a week.
Yet another example of bad information was the almost universal advice that all of we older people who feared heart attacks should consider taking low dose aspirin every day. Yes, I’m sure the king of aspirin manufacturing, Bayer, influenced this decision – look at all the money they made. Well just recently the CDC reversed itself on this too, because apparently the potential harm of daily intake of low dose aspirin is likely to outweigh any benefits. And why did they just discover this – now, after all these years?
And remember the old “food pyramid” published by the Department of Agriculture to help us with wise food choices? Debuting in 1992, its broad base suggested lots of refined carbohydrates, the middle recommended meat and milk items and fats were confined to the narrow pyramid tip – all of it lousy (and dangerous) advice since we know now how beneficial many fats are and how dangerous refined carbs are. After many revisions over the years, most very misleading and ultimately useless, it’s been replaced by the “plate” – introduced by Michelle Obama and corporate farm advocate Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak (incidentally now still plying his corporate craft in the same position for the Biden administration) – perhaps a slight improvement but ultimately of only marginal utility. Yet both the succession of “pyramids” and “plates” were presented to millions of school children as the nutritional gospel. Poor, innocent kids.
Another issue I have to complain about (again? I think I complained in another recent article) is our corporatization of the fight against the covid pandemic. The worst aspect of the behavior of these corporate behemoths raking in billions in profits is that they have refused to share their patents or formulae for covid vaccines with the world, choosing instead to market them to countries willing to cough up the millions necessary to buy enough doses to vaccinate their populations. Especially egregious is Moderna’s refusal, since their vaccine was developed with the support of millions of federal dollars from the NHA, along with the knowledge and expertise of many NHA scientists. This might be a good place to note that in a 1955 interview, American virologist Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, was asked who owned the patent. He replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” No one became fabulously rich developing, distributing and administering the polio vaccine. And now?
Moderna, the company that never manufactured anything of consequence before the pandemic, has now placed five newly minted billionaires on the Forbes 500 richest list. And guess what, a full forty new billionaires from other companies have been created from the fight against the pandemic. What should have been a cooperative nonprofit effort by governments all over the world has turned out to be a wild corporate competition for riches and a bonanza for these greedy forty.
Why on earth didn’t we nationalize these greedy corporations and have the government manufacture the masks, the personal protective equipment, the billions of vaccine doses needed all over the world and send it all to poor nations completely free? We all knew that if the whole world did not get vaccinated we would see deadly variants emerge. And sure enough, South Africa, with its less than 30 percent vaccination rate, has presented the world with the Omicron variant threat. Will we now shift into high gear and vaccinate the world? As long a corporations are calling the shots (again – pardon the pun), I think not. Rich countries are at fault for the formation and spread of this latest covid variant – failure to curb corporate greed, read Pfizer and Moderns, and vaccinate the whole world. We could have stopped it and did not.
It might be worth noting that poor, humble little Cuba, wracked by cruel unnecessary US economic sanctions, has all by itself, manufactured effective covid vaccines that it plans to share with the world. Yes, Cuba’s public medical sector, note “public”, no corporations or profit involved, with its strong commitment to public health, has successfully manufactured its own vaccines. One hundred percent of its population has now had at least once dose and the country has reopened its schools and businesses and is now open for tourism as well. What a contrast to our own country where public health and vaccines are a commodity, to be bought and sold, and to be profited from.
Also related to the sorry state of health matters in our beloved country is the fact that the cost of Medicare, deducted from our Social Security checks, is going up. Yes, because the FDA has recklessly and irresponsibly approved a frightfully expensive and likely useless drug, Aduhelm, to treat Alzheimers, which will cost $56,000 a year, Medicare Part B is increasing its monthly premium from $148.50 to $170.10 in 2022, in case prescribing this drug, which experts say should cost no more than $8000 per year, causes a huge bump in Medicare drug spending.
And another item – Republican obstructionism. I can visualize Republican Representatives and Senators getting up in the morning, getting ready for work, and going in and having a simple and stress-free day – not much effort, no thought – just obstruction. If you are a Republican legislator, you don’t really have to come up with ideas, programs or policies to help the country or to assist your constituents. You just have to come into your office and decide what and how to obstruct that day. Pretty simple job description, isn’t it? Honestly, when is the last time you heard or read of a big Republican legislative program? You’d pretty much have to go back to Trump’s infamous “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” in 2017, which did not help anyone except the wealthy and corporations. Otherwise it’s been obstruction all the way. Yet amazingly this intellectually bankrupt political party, a minority party mind you, is poised to take over both houses of Congress in 2022 and because of voter suppression and gerrymandering I am sure will assume the presidency in 2024.
As part of this obstructionism and non-governing, I have to add the question of why we seem to be the only industrialized nation on earth that regularly brings itself to the point of financial collapse by threatening to refuse to raise the “debt ceiling” or “pass the spending bill” or whatever, potentially leading the US government to default on its debts and cause an implosion of world credit markets. This unrelenting political and financial brinkmanship is practiced periodically by Republicans as blackmail to achieve certain objectives, this time to prevent Biden’s vaccine mandates from being imposed.
And I have a few things to say about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Why is she so revered, worshipped and venerated? If I read another article about how wonderful it was that she shared a love of opera with and even attended performances with fellow justice Antonin Scalia, I’ll be sick. In spite of her notable work as a jurist on issues like gender equity and women’s rights, to me her greatest legacy is her arrogance resulting in opening the door and keeping it open for a generation long conservative majority on the court by staying on the Court for far too long despite her body telling her again and again that she needed to retire. Her first encounter with cancer came in 1999 and even after several more bouts and declaring herself “cancer free” in 2020 she finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer later that year, enabling President Donald Trump to appoint Amy Conan Barrett, his third Supreme Court Justice.
If Ginsberg had been a little less arrogant and had listened to her body and her doctors, President Barack Obama could have appointed her replacement. Thus to me, Ginsberg’s most lasting legacy was her sense of superiority, of her indispensability. “I’ve said many times that I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam,” Ginsburg said in RBG, after she was asked about the calls for her to retire. “And when I can’t, that will be the time I will step down.” Well there were many times during her struggles with cancer that she could not do her job “full steam” and should have stepped down but her insufferable pride and hubris kept her there long enough for her replacement to be named by a Republican president. So when I think of Ginsberg, I don’t think of her legal ability or her importance on the Court. I can only see her foolish self-centered pride.
On another very important current issue, I cannot believe that my own Democratic Party is messing around with the SALT deduction. This limit on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted from federal taxable income was the sole progressive element of Donald Trump’s infamous “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, likely included in the legislation to “get back” at high tax blue states where state and local taxes were high enough to make a difference on some wealthy taxpayers federal income tax obligations. But now, to appease effected high income taxpayers, donors I am sure, in their states, many Democratic senators have proposed canceling or adjusting this limit. Corporate Democrat Senator Bob Menendez has even referred to it as “the SALT cap nightmare for 99% of NJ families”, a blatant lie, since the cap effects just the most wealthy. But I am furious that any Democrats at all are behind the push to raise or abandon this limit since doing so is quite simply a tax cut for the wealthy.
Another long standing gripe I have is with our Congress pouring money into the Pentagon. The last insult was a short time ago when Congress gave our reckless and feckless military not only all of its latest budget request of $715 billion but also added an unsolicited allotment of another $25.5 billion. And these are the same people that cry about the deficit and wring their hands because there’s no money with which to expand Medicare or provide paid family leave or free community college. The United States spends more on its military that the next 11 highest nations combined, an absolutely incredible fact. And our Pentagon spending is never audited. Our mindless largesse is pretty much a blank check for these uniformed fools to spend any way they wish. And has our vaunted military won any wars recently?
And also making me quite angry is that this monstrous bill for “defense” is deemed a “must pass” by our Congress, while Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill is being whittled down to nothing in an effort to please “King Coal” Manchin and self-styled “maverick”, Kyrsten Sinema.
And related to the military, I have had to sit through the few NFL games I chose to watch recently and look at a host of coaches, Gatorade boys and various other hangers-on sporting expensive military garb for their “Salute to Service”. What nonsense. Precious few players, coaches and other personnel have ever served in the military. That “privilege”, since the military abandoned the draft, mostly falls to the poor, the marginalized, immigrants, Native Americans and people of color. So is all this hoopla to ease their guilty consciences? What about the cost of the military jet flyovers, the cost of all the clothing? I wrote about this deplorable practice a long time ago, December 2017 to be exact, and can’t believe the NFL is still doing it. Again, as my article suggested – why not give this monstrous pile of superfluous clothing or the money it took to buy it to the needy or to the Salvation Army or other worthy charity? Or why not honor some segments of society that are involved in helping and building, not killing and destroying – like perhaps teachers, Doctors without Borders or Peace Corps volunteers. What a terrible waste of resources….and it is still going on.
I would also like to say a few words to Republicans who are so concerned about government spending and inflation. Interesting how no one was concerned when a gaping hole was blown in the budget with Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, a piece of legislation which really cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, not you and I and which did not create any jobs. Instead of investing and hiring more people, corporations indulged in stock buybacks with their newfound bonanza. It’s demand that induces corporations to invest and hire anyhow, not enormous profits.
I’m no economist but here’s my take on the causes of recent inflation and how to rein it in. First, there was a huge amount of pent-up demand stored in the economy because of the covid pandemic. People didn’t go to restaurants, to the movies or to live performances. Shopping malls were dead zones. While they still ordered some hard goods over the internet and kept the “essential workers” at the post office, Fedex and UPS busy, the net result was that they had tons of money left over, augmented by the checks from the federal government covid relief programs, sitting in their accounts. And as a result, production of all sorts of goods, even agricultural products, slowed. Now that things have loosened up, people are trying to spend this money, putting a serious strain on production and distribution of goods and thus temporarily raising prices.
Another reason we are wrestling with inflation now and Republicans and Larry Summers are gleefully pointing their fingers at Democratic spending bills, is that indeed we have spent a great deal of money on fighting the pandemic and on keeping the economy strong. But we have not raised taxes at all to pay for these programs. Thus, yes indeed, there is a great deal of money sloshing around the economy chasing too few goods right now. Increased taxation, particularly of corporations and the wealthy, would reduce it. But curiously, the Democrats seem reluctant to raise taxes on those most able to pay, on those who have profited mightily from the pandemic. I find it quite interesting that after the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the Trump “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” of 2017, the Democratic Party, even when in power, has never chosen or never been able to restore them to their former levels. Even Biden’s much ballyhooed Infrastructure and Build Back Better bill, have not been funded anywhere near completely but instead by a few half hearted inadequate increases on corporations and the wealthy and some wishful thinking about what a boost in IRS funding would yield from wealthy cheaters.
In addition, vastly more industries have monopolized in recent years, making it much easier for them to raise prices arbitrarily to increase their bottom line for their investors and their overpaid CEO’s. It’s absolutely astonishing that our government has given up on fighting monopoly and concentration of production and distribution. As a sample, check out the stats in this important publication.
Another thing that really annoys me and should upset everyone else are the continual attacks on the US Postal Service mostly by our Republican friends. The complaints about subsidies for this essential service and calls for it to be “profitable” do not make any sense to me. The Post Office performs an essential service for us. What it charges via stamps and fees for mail processing and delivery defrays a significant portion of that expense and if that’s not enough to pay its bills, the federal government plugs the holes. And why shouldn’t it – the post office serves the whole country. In small towns it serves as place where people meet, chat and gossip while they deliver or pick up their mail. I oppose the continual shrill Republican calls to privatize the Post Office, as if that were any kind of solution. Oh sure, let’s privatize the post office and stuff the pockets of a “Post Office Corporation”, its new stockholders and CEO.
If we are serious about increasing Post Office revenue and making it more self sufficient, we need to consider restoring a role it enjoyed from 1911 to 1967 – providing banking services to customers through the Postal Services Savings System. Many other countries still provide banking services through their post offices. We also need to take a look at how domestic shipping prohibitions and restrictions limit revenue and provide opportunities for competitors like Fedex and UPS. We do not need to reduce costs and increase revenue by cutting personnel and slowing down delivery, as Trump holdover Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is trying to do.
Another item – I am so overjoyed that we now have a “Space Force” general – yes, replete with uniform, lots of medals and a high salary. Don’t believe me? Check out a recent Washington Post column by Josh Rogin. Yes, we not only have divided the entire world into “Combatant Commands”, like European Command, Central Command and a bunch of others covering the entire globe, but, lucky for us, our Defense Department has added a “Space Force” command and now we have a real Space Force general. I am sure before too long we’ll be conducting yet another cold war with China and Russia in outer space as they “attack our space assets” and we have to stock space with bigger and better “assets”. Really I had a hard time telling whether Rogin was writing his article with tongue in cheek. But I guess he was serious, demonstrating once again how sacrosanct the military is to both our Congress and our media. Oh, my God, Space General David Thompson cries that “US satellites are being attacked every day!” We need to retaliate!
And yet another example of Republican hypocrisy – individual rights and sanctity of the body when refusing covid vaccines, yet not where abortion rights are concerned. A woman’s right to control her body is okay if she’s refusing a vaccine and endangering herself and those around her, but is not acceptable when she’s pregnant by rape or incest or her health is threatened by pregnancy or childbirth. Incredible how the far right so selectively yells, “My body, my choice”. And furthermore, how is it that the far right is so reverential about life from conception to birth, yet so non-caring about supporting life afterward – promoting a culture of violence, flooding the country with guns and the world with military weaponry, supporting an obscene Pentagon budget and cheering the death penalty, while making war on medicine and universal healthcare, popular gun safety laws, housing for the indigent and a most spare and basic safety net for our citizens.
Thus concludes my latest “rant”. Yes, of course, I’m angry and upset about many other things that I experience daily or read or watch in the media but I’ll have to save those for another time. Oh wait, sorry, I have to mention this one. Recently my wife and I have summoned the courage to purchase tickets and venture out for a couple of concerts, our first since the pandemic began. And while announcements were quite consistent in requiring proof of vaccination to enter and mask wearing during the concerts, we were both terribly upset to see about half of the audience remove their masks upon finding their seats and sitting down. Why? And why didn’t the concert authorities insist that masks be kept on. These unserious and careless acts permeate other activities as well. Simple shopping trips in our area have also revealed a reckless mix of mask wearing or not, both by employees and customers, confounding and contradicting what should be a collective unified struggle against this dreadful pandemic. Very disturbing indeed. But what to do? Where to start?
On the day I plan to publish this article, I was subjected to a news report that again made me very angry, so I have to end with a comment on the issue it raised – that of human rights. The US has decided not to award diplomatic recognition to the Winter Olympics in China, although our athletes may attend and compete. Why? Because of China’s “human rights record”. Please… spare me. How dare we condemn the human rights record of any nation while we turn a blind eye to the everyday human rights abuses of our “staunchest ally”, Israel. This rogue nation goes on murdering and maiming Palestinians and stealing their land, homes and livelihoods every single day, with complete impunity. American politicians at every level remain two faced and hypocritical about human rights, fearing that by raising a voice or finger against Israel might turn off the money spigot that funds their campaigns. So no more talk about the human rights abuses in China unless we also talk about them in Israel.
From a very early age we were taught about voting and how whoever gets the most votes wins. Oh yes, when running for class president, whoever got the most votes won. And my New Jersey governor won because he received the most votes and the senators and representatives who represented my state in Congress were sent to Washington because they got more votes than their opponents. Thus power is bestowed on those who receive the most votes in an election.
But wait…why is this not true on a national level? Chief executives in every democracy in the world win and serve their people when they receive more votes than other candidates. In every democracy, that is, except ours. Our former chief executive, Donald Trump, came in second. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, won far more votes that he did. And in 2000 Al Gore received more popular votes than George W. Bush. Yes, the reason Gore and Clinton lost was the dreadful Electoral College with its state by state “winner take all” rules set up by our genius “founding fathers”. Perhaps if we could have included some “founding mothers” in that august group that wrote the US Constitution, their sense of fairness could have prevailed and our presidents would have been elected with the popular vote. Just think if Gore has been elected instead of Bush. The trillions of dollars and thousands of lives wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan wars would still be with us. And I am sure we would be leading the world in saving the climate as well, considering Gore’s long held convictions concerning climate change.
And what if Hillary Clinton had won the election in 2016? Yes, news of Bill prowling around the White House looking for things to do would not have been pleasant. But he could have been appointed by his wife the President to some new position, perhaps “Ambassador to the World” or something like that, just to keep him occupied and out of trouble. But our government institutions would have been left intact, we’d still be participating in the Paris accords for climate change and the Iran nuclear deal would still be extant. We’d still be serious players on the world stage. And the clown show led by Donald Trump and his entourage of fools and incompetents featuring Ivanka and Jared would not have occurred. And perhaps most important of all, the scourge of the Covid 19 pandemic could have been contained and hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.
But, because our country is ruled by a minority, the Republic Party and its leader Donald Trump had a grand time promoting disaster in Washington. How has this happened in a “democracy”, where the majority supposed to rule? Let’s take a look.
First of course is the aforementioned “Electoral College” method of electing our chief executive. Ostensibly put in place by our genius Founding Fathers to protect the power of small states, which it indeed does, in fact, this quirk of American presidential elections was put in place to also protect the power of slave states. The “three fifths person” designation for slaves was enough to give slave states enormous power in the Electoral College through significantly increasing their representation in the House of Representatives, even though these hundreds of thousands extra “3/5” people could not vote.
Also simply giving small state a minimum of three votes in the Electoral College, gave them an advantage. And the recent anomalies of George W. Bush becoming president even though his opponent Al Gore had a half-million more popular votes and Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote overwhelmingly yet losing to Donald Trump, has given the Republican Party tremendous power, even though a minority party at those times. Thus it’s no wonder that recent polls have revealed that a huge majority of Republicans want to retain the Electoral College, whereas a majority of Democrats want to elect our president with the popular vote.
Another negative aspect of the Electoral College is that it reveals the apparent uselessness of voting in certain states and the phenomenon of “swing states” in others. With the statewide “winner take all” character imposed by the Electoral College, if one votes in a presidential election in overwhelmingly Democratic New York or California or in overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming or Idaho, that vote, whether Republican or Democrat, does not matter much, since the result is largely already determined. But in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Florida, one’s vote is extremely valuable since the result could go either way. For example, my wife and I could have voted for president in Vermont last November. But why, since the state would vote overwhelmingly Democratic anyhow. So we made sure we voted in our home state of Arizona, which has become a “swing state” and really needed our Democratic vote. The simple result of all this is that is if the president were elected on a nationwide popular vote, every single vote would count and voters would eagerly participate, no matter where they lived. A Vermont vote would be every bit as valuable as an Arizona vote. There would be no “wasted” votes.
The perverse power of Republican minority rule is also exemplified in our Congress and the way it conducts its business. The membership of just one legislative body in Congress, the House of Representatives, is based upon population and is therefore quite democratic. The other, the Senate, since every state gets two senators, is terribly undemocratic, revealing the anomaly of tiny states like Wyoming or South Dakota having just as much power in the Senate as populous states like California and New York. Today, each Democratic Senator from California represents 371 million American citizens, while each Republican Senator from Wyoming represents but 289,000. On a macro level, the undemocratic nature of the Senate is illustrated by the fact that, now divided 50-50, Democratic Senators represent fully 42 million more citizens than the Republican half. In fact, though in control of the Senate many times since 1996, that year was the last that the Republican party actually represented a majority of Americans. Yet Senate Republicans, representing a minority of voters, have effectively blocked a hugely popular minimum wage bill and passed extremely unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
Another way that the Republican Party, a minority party, mind you, retains power is through gerrymandering. Over ten years ago, while the Democratic Party was foolishly focusing its resources into ensuring the reelection of Barack Obama, Republicans, led by Karl Rove and financed with millions of dollars from the Koch brothers and other right wing billionaires, wisely set their sights on control of state governments, especially state legislatures, which in most states have the power to draw legislative districts after each decennial national census. So after the 2010 census results, Republican legislatures across the country began some very serious gerrymandering, guaranteeing a growth in Republican House of Representatives seats that would last through multiple elections. So even in the House of Representatives, which is by far the more democratic of our two legislative houses, although millions more voters voted for Democrats than Republicans in 2020, Republicans dramatically increased their share of seats.
In the same way that my own part-time residence in a heavily Democratic state like Vermont renders my vote superfluous – whether I vote Democratic or Republican, either way it’s wasted, gerrymandering strives to render certain votes useless as well, by “packing” or “cracking” legislative districts in order to render them uncompetitive. Cracking involves breaking up groups of voters who usually vote a particular way in order to deny them the power of voting in a block. Packing involves drawing districts in such a way as to concentrate voters of one persuasion or another in such a way as to maximize “wasted” votes or to maximize the power of your party’s voteAnd now in 2021, it appears that Republicans, who again control most state legislatures and who again do so right after a census year, are perfectly positioned to take control of the House of Representatives in 2022, even though their total votes will likely not increase and may even decrease. The Republican controlled state legislatures are poised to take their new census information and very precisely and scientifically, create legislative districts across their states that will enable Republicans to win a majority of House seats with a minority of votes. Their plans are well outlined in this New York Magazine article. Ari Berman states for the article that “Republicans could pick up anywhere from six to 13 seats in the House of Representatives — enough to retake the House in 2022 — through its control of the redistricting process in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas alone”. No need to work hard to earn more votes, or come up with programs or policies that voters prefer – gerrymandering will be sufficient.
And additional examples were offered by NYTimes columnist Jamal Bouie who noted that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has passed a new map that would, in a state that is pretty much 50-50 Democratic and Republican, give it 10 of the states 14 congressional seats. In Ohio, a proposed map would provide Democrats with but two seats out of the 15 allotted to it after the 2020 census, only 13 percent of the total. And this in a state that is only slightly more Republican than Democratic. In both cases, these two states would have to achieve blowout, supermajorities of Democratic votes in order to be proportionately represented. Ari Berman’s prediction noted in the previous paragraph is already coming true. And the minority party’s triumph for Congressional dominance has already been determined as noted by a NYTimes article just this week And as if the Electoral College and gerrymandering were not enough, just the transfer of population from several norther “swing states” to Republican strongholds in the south as revealed in the new 2020 census, will further cement Republican minority strength in presidential and congressional elections.
One might reasonably ask why Democrat-controlled legislatures and Democratic governors are not doing the same thing right now – redrawing districts to make sure that they sent more Representatives to Congress. Well as it so happens, other than present efforts in Illinois and New York, when the Democratic Party controls state legislatures and the redistricting process, instead of drawing legislative districts to benefit their party, it instead tries to establish independent commissions to draw legislative districts. Thus by striving to be fair the Democratic Party is shooting itself in the foot.
Another way that we are ruled by a minority party is through voter suppression. Presently the Republican Party is doing everything it can to limit the votes of poor and minority voters. Under the guise of “election security”, promoted by the “big lie” – that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election and rampant voter fraud gave the election to his opponent, Republican controlled legislatures and Republican governors are making it more difficult to vote. They are doing so by limiting mail in voting, requiring specific types of identification for both in person and mail in voting, limiting voting days and a variety of other changes to make voting more difficult. Georgia has even made it a crime to bring water or food to a person in a long voting line. And who does voter suppression hurt the most? Poor voters and people of color, who usually voted Democratic, again helping the minority party, the Republicans.
In addition and much more serious is that many Republican-controlled state legislatures are changing how votes are counted and who does the counting. While typically a state’s voting operation is under the supervision of a secretary of state, some state legislatures are wresting control of elections from state and local election supervisors and placing it directly under their control. If this had been the case in Georgia in the 2020 election, the state legislature could have declared Trump the winner, instead of the steadfast Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger refusing to accommodate Trump as he did.
It’s important to note that simply because of the way the Electoral College is set up, with it being composed of electors equal to the Congressional delegation of individual states, even without all the shenanigans listed above, the minority party retains a 3.5 point advantage there. And in the Senate, because of each state having two senators and a minimum of one representative regardless of size, the minority party maintains a five point advantage. Thus, even after winning millions more votes that Republicans in 2018 and 2020, the Senate is evenly split and Democrats have but a narrow four-seat advantage in the House.
Yet another way the minority party is limiting the influence of the majority party is through packing the courts with conservative Republican judges, picked from the ranks of the Federalist Society. With the help of then majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump filled over 200 vacancies on the Federal bench, including 53 vacancies on Federal Appeals Courts. This was the highest total of any first term president since Jimmy Carter. And of course this includes the incredible number of three Supreme Court justices appointed by a single one-term president. Amazingly just two Republican presidents who were elected by a minority of the popular vote have appointed four of the justices on the Supreme Court, ensuring a conservative majority for at least a generation. And the Supreme Court, as the final arbiter in election law, has done its best to ensure minority rule, with far reaching decisions on the role of money in elections (it’s “free speech”, not corruption) and in voting rights enforcement, to name but two decisions which have further entrenched the minority party.
And finally, the filibuster, the Senate rule not in the Constitution, enables the minority party in an evenly divided Senate to repeatedly block any legislation it does not like, by requiring a 60 vote majority, very difficult or well nigh impossible to achieve in our evenly divided Senate. Consequently Republicans used it recently to block the Voting Rights Bill, called also the For the People Act, which would have constituted the largest federally mandated expansion of voting rights since the 1960’s. It would have standardized voting procedures in all states, allowing mail voting and same day registration, banned partisan gerrymandering, and limited the role of money in our elections by forcing super PAC’s to disclose major donors and creating a new public campaign financing system. Yet because of the filibuster, the Republicans in the Senate were able to keep the bill from even being debated on the floor.
So it should be obvious that America is indeed ruled by a minority – the Republican Party. And why? It’s pretty much our lousy constitution which badly needs to be changed. It established the Electoral College, determined that each state regardless of size should have two Senators and a minimum of one Representative. It allows anti-majority rules like the filibuster. It determined that elections, even federal elections, should be a state function and it made Supreme Court justice a lifetime job, subject to the vagaries of old age and death, regardless of who is in the White House or which party controls Congress. All these factors enable one political party, a minority, to effectively thwart the will of the people and wield majority power. If the US is to remain a democracy, this must change.
Why is it that in the United States of America we can’t ever seem to get anything completely done? We look at this problem or that problem and wrangle about how to “make it better” – like maybe “cut child poverty” or “increase the number of people who have ‘access’ to healthcare” but never decide to wipe out child poverty completely or cover all of our citizens with health insurance as so many other nations have succeeded in doing.
Not long ago, before he went on leave, in the New York Times was a column by likely the most caring of their stable of mostly great columnists, Nick Kristoff, who eloquently and sensitively describes the problem of child poverty in the United States and how President Joe Biden’s 1.9 trillion dollar American Rescue Plan will “cut child poverty in half”. Kristoff went on to quote Jason Furman, Harvard economist, asserting that Biden’s bill is the the “most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president”. He further goes on to speculate about whether we’re able to “shrink” child poverty.
So what’s wrong with all this? While the intention is truly honorable and greatly needed, it’s the use of words and phrases like “cut in half”, “reduce” and “shrink” that concern me. We never seem to come up with a plan to get rid of child poverty once and for all. Isn’t it possible to do this in the world’s richest country? I would certainly think so. Do Democrats and Republicans both deem child poverty unacceptable? I would think that they do and therefore we need to stop beating around the edges of this problem and attack it head on.
So perhaps we should ask why child poverty exists here in the richest nation in the world? And why do we insist on referring to “child poverty”rather than “poverty”? Does child poverty exist in well-to-do or middle class families. Or can children be well off in poor families? Of course not, so let’s stop separating “child poverty” from the larger and more real problem of family poverty. Why we have poor families, why we have poverty in the first place, is that simply we do not ensure that families have enough money to live honorably and securely. It’s the never-ending curse of “low wage jobs”, where the head of a family can work full time and still be poor, or that the head of a family can work multiple jobs or both parents can work and still not earn enough to keep a roof over the family and keep food on the table, much less take care of health and education needs.
I mean, how long can we continue to kick the poverty can down the road? President Johnson waged his “War on Poverty” well over 50 years ago and so many aspects of his program certainly did “reduce” poverty. But did it rid this wealthy country of the disgrace and shame of harboring minions of poor people, homeless people and sick people? No it did not. And direct efforts to “reduce” poverty ever since them have been cumbersome and incremental efforts limited by work requirements, means testing and the like rather than direst direct financial support. Even President Biden’s much ballyhooed antipoverty efforts lately have been defined by “tax credits”, providing help for those with jobs who actually file tax returns, but little or nothing for the extremely poor who do not have any regular income and thus cannot access tax credits.
If we are serious about taking care of our children and their families, we would attack the problem of “low wage jobs” directly so that anyone who worked 40 hours a week could afford decent housing and all the other advantages that enable one to live an honorable and hopeful life. And let’s stop listening to the excuses of business owners who say that increasing employee pay would “drive them out of business”. I say too bad. Any business that cannot pay a living wage to its workers should not be in business and should relinquish its role to other entities that can provide the same service while paying its employees reasonably.
For example, fast food companies have long protested increasing wages to a living level because they would have to raise prices of menu items. This is simply not true. In other developed countries fast food workers are paid a living wage and menu items have not skyrocketed. Apparently the fast food owner, franchisee, or corporation would simply have to be satisfied with less profit.
And unfortunately we have chosen yet another incremental program to “reduce hunger” in poor families – the food stamp program or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as it is now called. So rather than ensuring that families receive enough money to live properly, we accept their poverty but lend a hand to enhance their ability to purchase food for their families. Again, why the beating around the bush, helping people to live better while staying in poverty but never really getting ahead. SNAP’s official description underscores its incrementalist approach: “SNAPprovides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency”. Oh sure, how generous.
The same incremental principle has been applied when we try to even up the playing field in terms of internet access. Since poor families often cannot afford broadband connections, rather than make sure they have enough money to purchase this essential benefit, we instead provide yet another program to assist them. This proposed $50 per month subsidy for broadband connection for poor is merely one more source of assistance for poor families that can end or be withdrawn when the other political party is in power. This is no way to end poverty or end the curse of “low wage jobs”, the main cause of poverty.
And then there is the issue of healthcare incrementalism. President Obama’s signature major legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, despite its accolades, simply increases the number of people who could afford to buy medical insurance. It has expands coverage to more than 20 million Americans, cutting the uninsured rate to 10.9 percent in 2019 from 17.8 percent in 2010. It did so by expanding Medicaid to cover those with low incomes, and by subsidizing private insurance for people with higher earnings. There’s those words again – “increases”, “expands” and “subsidizes”.
And since it functions through the existing jungle of corporate control of healthcare, it does so through funneling more money to healthcare corporations, either directly, in order to “cover preexisting conditions” or something similar, or indirectly, by subsidizing purchasers of healthcare insurance. And, most significant of all, it does not, will not and will never cover everyone. As I noted in my article about Obamacare, it contains the seeds of its own destruction and ultimate demise, in that the only way it can “extend coverage” is by shelling out ever more money to insurance companies, which has to be definitely limited. There will always be “holes” in the Affordable Care Act, always be groups of people that will remain outside its coverage. Truly the only way to provide medical care to all US citizens without exception and from birth to death is through a single payer program like “Medicare for All” as so many other nations successfully provide.
And yet, despite Biden’s promise to provide a “public option” for those seeking health insurance, this effort has come to nothing. He insists that any effort to extend healthcare to more people will be done through “building on Obamacare”(there’s those incremental terms again – “extend”, “more” and “building”) This will never work since the whole objective of health insurance corporations is to increase profit, not cover all Americans. They will always be trying to limit coverage in some way or increase deductibles or maximums or copays.
And then there are other incremental programs that cover additional individuals but never everyone. One is the Children’s Health Insurance Program” or CHIP,, which was started during the Clinton administration as a halfway step to obscure the fact that Hillary Clinton’s proposed program for health insurance had miserably and spectacularly failed. Ostensibly, CHIP provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. In most states, thus, it constitutes only yet just another incremental approach to healthcare – covering only “some” children, but not their entire families.
Okay, right now people fortunate enough to have health insurance obtain it in myriad ways – Medicaid for the indigent, Medicare for the elderly, CHIP for children who qualify, medical insurance from employers for those who have jobs and whose employers provide it. Ah, but another problem – the apparently infinite variety of programs, higher or lower copays, higher or lower maximum reimbursements, limiting who or what can provide the care, and on and on – all are related to our profit based system and incremental approach. Why can’t all Americans be covered from birth to death, like Canada does, or Norway, or Finland, or every other developed country in the world – and at a much lower cost? How amazing it would be to simply go to the doctor or hospital, present your identification, get treated and go home, knowing that all providers were fairly compensated but that profit was not part of the system. And of course, Medicare itself is an incremental program, in that it does not provide for all of the health needs of our elderly population, containing the glaring holes of no coverage for hearing, vision or dental needs. This lack is now ostensibly being addressed by a dizzying array of “Medicare Advantage” programs, all provided by for profit corporations who reap those profits from overly generous reimbursements from the government. And their vaunted coverage of hearing, vision and dental needs is woefully insufficient.
And now there is childcare incrementalism – even if the “Reconciliation Bill” goes through entirely, it will only be “narrowing the gap” between what European countries pay for childcare and what the US pays. Reliable childcare is absolutely essential in an advanced nation like ours. Yet people struggle every day, just as my wife and I did when our children were young, to find reliable and reasonably priced childcare, when both parents choose to or must work. Rather than having to seek out childcare among neighbors, friends and relatives, Europeans are able to send their children to professionally run and staffed facilities provided by the state – what a difference from the risky, varying quality here in the “richest country in the world”. And that cost to a family is heavily subsidized by the state as well. But here, even with the long shot effort of Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation, which may never pass anyhow, we will only be partially crossing the chasm between what we have and should have. Again, an incrementalist approach to a serious social need.
And also consider our feeble efforts to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, even itself, though a big step, wholly insufficient to provide a decent life for its recipients. Our feckless Congress has steadily refused to raise the minimum wage and every single bill proposed or passed at the state level to do so raises it so gradually to that by the time anyone reaches $15, the effects of inflation will have rendered it already inadequate. Fifteen dollars an hour is in itself merely an incremental goal. If the present federal minimum wage of $7.25 was adjusted for inflation since its inception it would be $22 per hour now.
And I suppose that the most important example of the curse of incrementalism is our scattershot effort to fight the existential threat of a steadily and inexorably warming climate. Yes, we have some electric cars on the road, many more solar installations than ten years ago, and a steadily increasing number of “wind farms” on the plains, mountaintops and coasts of our country, but not nearly enough to make an impact on our shameful position as the number two carbon polluter in the world. And the country that is number one, China, has rapidly become our “rival” or our “enemy”, making necessary cooperation between the two to combat climate change all but impossible. And fossil fuel companies still enjoy privileged status among the “lawmakers” that inhabit our useless Congress and thus are still largely unregulated and still, would you believe it, subsidized by the US government. And President Biden’s “Build Back Better” program contains revolutionary legislation for the climate promising to “reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030” so is accordingly incrementalist at best. And even this incremental approach is apposed by “King Coal” Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. So unfortunately, this is the best that the world’s number two carbon emitter, the United States, can do. Michael T. Klare in a brilliant article for Tom Dispatch makes it crystal clear that for the world to save itself, China and the U.S. must unite as climate partners and lead the way for other nations to follow. If they do not, climate catastrophe is inevitable. We cannot any longer be incremental in this most important fight.
And then of course as a nation we have to contend with covid incrementalism. Certain elements of our society cannot seem to get it through their heads that we have required vaccination for serious diseases for decades, with nary a peep from anyone save the few rabid antivaxxers who are prepared to sacrifice the health of their children on the altar of misinformation and obstinance. When I was a child and the Salk polio vaccine and later the Sabin version became available, millions of thankful parents and children lined up to get immunized, with little concern about its origin or manufacturer or concerns about its efficacy. And I do not remember any of the corporate Pfizer – Moderna – Johnson & Johnson wrangling and profit seeking nor any politicization of vaccines that characterize the US struggle and dysfunction with covid 19 vaccines today. And, likely most important, there were successful efforts to immunize the entire world against this dreadful crippling disease so that today isolated cases of the disease lurk in but three countries – Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Covid 19 cannot be controlled until the entire world is vaccinated. But this effort is incremental at best since our government has chosen to protect the patents and formulae of the corporations who have developed the vaccines, despite their development being financed by billions in government subsidies. Many US citizens, including myself, have longed for this “richest country in the world” to lead in immunizing everyone everywhere, just as we did with polio vaccines. But instead we have decided to allow pharmaceutical corporations to selfishly maximize profits. Pfizer has in fact become a quasi government entity all by itself – negotiating sales of its vaccines directly with governments across the world independent of any US government role.
And finally, historically we’ve used incremental means to resolve racial segregation issues – school busing to integrate schools was really beating around the edges of the issue, rather than facing it head on and resolving issues like income disparity and racism that created segregated housing in the first place. We very badly need to address racial segregation head on which would include properly educating our population about slavery, Jim Crow and lynching in this country as well as our country’s and our hemisphere’s disgraceful genocide of its native population. Correction of our nation’s terrible inequality, especially evident in its black and other minority populations, would help too. And what about reparations? This whole issue is far to large to address here in one paragraph but we need to face it and solve it as a nation. Get it done once and for all.
And one more thing. The Democrats need to hire someone like Frank Luntz to help with their messaging. Why on earth have they always called this latest bill the “Build Back Better” bill, which has all the oomph of Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” or even more maddening and obfuscating, the “$3.5 Trillion Reconciliation Bill”. This bill contains hugely important and popular legislation that will help all Americans – like making Medicare covering vision, hearing and dental needs, establishing a universal pre-K program and a childcare program for all families, making community college free, a substantial push against climate change and much more. While some very popular provisions have already been cut, to garner more Congressional support, some better messaging would have likely had a very positive effect and the entire bill would have had a much better chance at surviving and becoming law.
We always knew when Dad and Mom had a fight. No one ever said anything, there were no raised voices, but the atmosphere in the house changed so that we all knew. It could be the heavy silence between them, or the silence of an otherwise gregarious father, or the concern and sadness in the face of a normally smiling mother. Or it could be big sister Barbara’s lowered voice and guarded conversation. Simply, we knew it was there.
Things were not going well financially. What little my father earned, he kept mostly for himself, and Mom did what she could to earn money for the family. Mostly, as I remember, she did this by raising chickens. Sometimes there were laying hens and we sold eggs door to door in the nearby towns. I must have cut a rather pathetic figure, meekly knocking on a stranger’s door and asking if they wanted to buy fresh eggs. Or sometimes there were chickens raised to sell for food, in which case strangers came to our door, responding to a sign at the end of the lane. Then we had to catch a couple of good looking pullets or roosters by the legs, tie them up and throw them in the customer’s car trunk. We never knew exactly what happened after that – only that a couple more chickens were sold and Mom had some money.
But to raise chickens required some limited capital investment, and Mom and Dad’s differences sometimes interfered with this. Before you could fatten the young ones to sell for meat or keep long enough to become laying hens, we needed to buy the chicken feed and ground oyster shells for calcium. If Mom had kept enough from egg or chicken sales, things were fine; if not, Dad was required to invest in the enterprise, often reluctantly. And if things were tough between them, he didn’t.
Once, we had gone through the entire process for raising chickens for sale – first ordering the chicks, which miraculously came in the mail straight to the local post office. Little fuzzy chirping, cheeping little creatures that had to be fed, watered and kept warm. Chicken mash was fed to them from flat containers, and they were watered from contrivances involving an inverted Mason jar full of water. They were kept warm by an electric light bulb and reflector dangling above them. Thus were they nurtured and fed and coaxed toward avian adolescence and adulthood to be sold as food or if kept long enough, as a source of food. There were the occasional casualties – the chick smaller than the rest, who gradually starved to death because of his inability to get close to the food, and, weakening, became further unable and finally expired. Or there was the chick which was different colored than the rest, who was picked on because of the difference and had to be clever to get the food he wanted, and who maybe became stronger doing so much running away from the rest.
One such chicken, a black chick in a litter of yellow, actually became a pet of sorts. Hard to believe that that little bird brain could so be trained but he actually came when called. Hollering “Blackie” would cause him to emerge from the bushes and come toward you to get picked up and petted, or to receive a dish of more special food served in a protected area like under an overturned crate.
But once when a flock of chickens was on its way to adulthood, in that stage of growing feathers and shedding the fuzz, that dreadful time in our family came again and we could all feel it. The air was heavy with apprehension, fear and questioning. We whispered to each other as if afraid that the sound of our voices would make things worse. Gradually it became clear that Mom had no more money for feed and Dad wasn’t going to help. And there were fifty plus ravenous chickens out in the chicken house with no food.
Chickens are excitable creatures. Even in the best and most relaxed of circumstances, a suddenly opened door or sudden noise will cause them cackle excitedly and to flap excitedly into the air raising clouds of noxious chicken house bedding and manure dust. So an egg gatherer or chicken feeder or waterer had to move slowly and stealthily. Hungry chickens who had ran out of food were even more excitable and ran toward their feeding dishes as they were newly supplied. Thirsty chickens knew when the water came and crowded madly around the waterers to get it as well.
But the behavior of our starving chickens was horrifying. A shadow on the window caused them to flock toward it and fly madly at the window and flap their wings against it. They ran wildly toward an opening door, in anticipation of feed. The slightest noise caused wild excitement of the expectation of food. The horror and the pity of this behavior in the face of hopelessness I never forgot. All of us felt helpless, afraid to get involved in why there was no feed, fearful of the fury of Dad, if challenged or questioned, or if sympathizing or taking sides with Mom. But there they were – chickens slowly starving to death and nothing offered for their relief. Whether there really was no money, or whether it just was refused for the purpose of feeding the chickens, we never knew. All we knew was that these creatures were starving to death.
Dad’s frequent absence at that time, and our collective pity and concern for the horrible plight of our chickens forced a decision. With Mom’s permission, I connected the garden hose to the exhaust pipe of our 51 Chevy pickup and ran it to the door of the chicken house. The mad activity of starving chickens at these signs of nearby movement, was quieted little by little as they succumbed to the poisonous exhaust and one by one flopped down to stillness. After an hour or so, a quick look inside revealed piles of prostrate, white feathered forms everywhere and no movement at all.
The dead chickens then had to be buried and that was my job also. After digging several large holes in the nearby cornfield, I loaded these dead chicken carcasses into a wheelbarrow and trip by trip dumped them into the holes to be buried. Having lifted many healthy chickens, it was terrible to see how little these dead creatures weighed. To avoid touching them, I used a pitchfork to load them and was surprised to see how easily the tines passed through the pitiful thin bodies – feathers, skin and bones, little more.
The job finished, the next thing to do was to try to start over and put this dreadful incident in the past. The situation between Mom and Dad seemed to get better, now that the chickens were gone. Although the traumatic incident remained with us for many years, this remained the major means for Mom to make money. And we waited for another shipment of little chicks to arrive.
I recently read a piece by Paul Krugman, long one of my favorite New York Times columnists, that really struck a special note for me. It was about the choices we have to make, many or most unnecessary and many very difficult.
Frankly I am really tired of being asked to compare and choose. Maybe it’s old age but I long for the simpler world that I once enjoyed when I lived in Kuwait and Turkey. First, I did not have to choose an internet provider. There was only one in these countries – very efficiently run, reasonably priced, extremely dependable and a very strong signal – and it was provided by the government. There was only one mobile phone provider as well – the government. And in both countries it was very good service – affordable and very dependable. I enjoyed great service and was very happy that I did not have to choose. And everybody around me – colleagues, friends and casual acquaintances were happy with the service as well and never mentioned that they wished for another provider so that they could compare and choose for themselves.fBut here in the good old USA we have to choose an internet and a telephone provider. And how to choose? What’s more important – the monthly charge or the minutes of usage? What about the number of lines? And how dependable is the service at this company or that? And how do I locate reliable criteria that allow me to compare? And what about purchasing a mobile phone? Do I do it through the mobile provider, purchase directly from the manufacturer or another source? That’s different from company to company as well and it’s damned difficult to weigh all of these variables against others and make the best choice.
While I knew little to nothing about auto insurance in Turkey – I drove a school provided car that was maintained and insured by the school, I did experience purchasing a car and required auto insurance while I lived in Kuwait. OK, what’s auto insurance? Nothing very complicated. You buy a service that pays for repairs in case of an accident and pays your medical bills if you get injured. But here in the US it does get complicated. What you get depends on who’s at fault – you or the other driver. Thus lawyers as well as the police need to get involved to determine who’s at fault and which insurance company pays what to whom. In Kuwait your own insurance paid for for car repairs or replacement and medical expenses for you, the other guy’s insurance paid for his car repairs or replacement and for his injuries. Fault was determined by the police and appropriate civil penalties were assessed. But no lawyers or other insurance companies were involved. Deductibles? All standard and determined by the state. Simple. No need to “compare”. There was only one insurance company.
I was always astonished at how little auto insurance cost in Kuwait. Hmm, could this be because I didn’t have to watch hours of TV commercials inviting me to “save 15 percent or more”, or save money through “bundling” your car and home insurance, or “customize insurance so that I pay only for what I need”? Have you, as I, ever wondered how much of the high cost of auto or home insurance results from the advertising costs inviting us to “compare”? Well, here are the top three offenders’ annual advertising budgets:
Geico $1.6 billion
Progressive $1.1 billion
State Farm $802 million
Just think if all this advertising money was put instead into reducing premiums. Also, why in the United States, are only corporations allowed to provide auto insurance and why should they make a profit for providing a service so essential and so simple? Honestly, I wish every day that the Federal government provided the insurance on my houses and cars and that profit, shareholders and multi-million dollar CEO salaries were not involved.
Also consider if you will the ridiculousness and impossibility of “healthcare choices”. President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” as it’s euphemisticly known, I consider to be one of his greatest failures because it formalized and institutionalized corporate profit as an integral part of healthcare in the US. Also, Obamacare signified the beginning of what has now become a complex jungle of healthcare choices.
And now, during “open enrollment”, we are invited to “compare” healthcare plans and select the “best for you”. How in hell do we do this? One plan offers a larger deductible, while charging smaller copays, while another offers smaller copays and smaller deductibles, but has a smaller maximum level of payments. Another features lower copays and lower deductibles but the monthly cost is more. Another seems to have lower copays, lower deductibles but doesn’t cover you out of state. You almost have to develop a spreadsheet and become an overnight math genius, to figure it all out.
And now for older people like myself and my wife, with so many healthcare corporations making huge profits off of “medicare advantage” scams, it gets even more complicated. A day never passes that we do not receive another advertisement in the mail inviting us to “get our medicare from Humana”, or from United Healthcare or Aetna. Why are these damned corporations allowed to provide medical insurance from a government program?
I get very nervous anyhow when I realize that my healthcare is being provided by a corporation, whose major reason for existence is to make a profit, no, to maximize profit so that shareholders will be happy and so that their CEO can be given millions. All the efforts to “keep you healthy and well” ring hollow, when the objective of any healthcare corporation is to make and increase profit. The CEO of United Healthcare, which provides my “Medicare Advantage” insurance through Arizona State Retirement received a yearly salary of almost $18 million in 2020. Pretty good for a company whose only job is to take money from companies and the government and shell it out to providers while keeping a pile for themselves for profit. What a business plan!
We need to stop this scattershot approach to healthcare and provide a single payer system like Canada’s or the United Kingdom’s that takes care of everyone from birth to death, pays doctors and hospitals well and takes corporations and their miserable profit motive out of the equation. We don’t need choice in healthcare. We just need to be taken care of. But this welcome scenario seems ever more distant here in the United States, when our government encourages a steadily greater corporate role in healthcare rather than limiting it.
And of course the issue of choice has taken hold in my former chosen profession – education. When I started in public education back in 1965, I was impressed by public schools. Everyone, rich and poor, black and white, native or immigrant, was there, getting a good education at public expense, in well funded schools and taught by well trained and well paid teachers. And this education took you through elementary, junior high and high school and from there you could go into the workforce with a good basic education or enter university with a good college prep education. Generally speaking, there was already choice in education: if you close you could pay tuition to a parochial school or if you were very wealthy you could send your child to a select private or boarding school.
But when the public school finance doors were opened to entrepreneurs and corporations who wanted to privatize public education and make profit from it, gradually, under the guise of “choice”, you could choose a for profit charter school for your child or a non profit charter school, both collecting public money, both likely not required to adhere to the same rules that regulate public schools. And the Supreme Court is prying open the coffers of public support for parochial schools. And how to choose? Again, weighing convenient transportation against teacher training requirements against curriculum requirements against class size, cost and a host of other variables is not easy. And I might add, should be unnecessary. Please give us back well funded public schools that can competently serve everyone.
The article by Paul Krugman that I referenced earlier in this piece also discussed the issue of utility choice, which has reared its ugly head in an increasing number of states with the flood of profit seeking, privatization and deregulation of public utilities. Time was when our electrical power and natural gas was provided by highly regulated, non profit public utility companies. The dreadful situation in Texas was mentioned where electricity is provided by a host of for-profit, highly deregulated and privatized electric companies, (likely including one called “Johnny’s Juice” – why not?), from which the consumer needs to choose. Yes, there are even Texas websites that advertise that they will help choose the “energy plan that’s right for you”. All of this deregulation helped cause the dreadful debacle in Texas during the winter of 2020, when unexpected cold caused power outages, disaster and death throughout the state, and electric bills of as high as $17,000 per month when your power stayed on. Krugman quotes the Texas Lieutenant Governor as saying this was the customer’s own fault for not “reading the fine print”. For God’s sake, I just want the lights to go on when I flip the switch and the heat to turn on when I raise the thermostat level. Spare me the “energy plan that’s right for me”! Profit should have no place in the provision of essential services for citizens.
We’re being killed by supermarket choices. Remember when you could buy “Bounce” dryer sheets in the laundry section to soften your laundry a little and make it smell good when taken out of the dryer? Well, in case you haven’t noticed there are now a few more choices. You can buy regular Bounce dryer sheet or Outdoor Fresh, or Unscented or Pet Hair and Lint Guard, scented or unscented, or Wrinkle Guard scented or unscented. Or you can “toss away wrinkles and static” with Wrinkle Guard Bounce dryer sheets. My God, what the heck to do. Well maybe I’ll just buy a box of each to stack and teeter on my laundry room shelf and I’ll just use what seems best at the time.Forget it….please, please, just the old original Bounce Dryer Sheets. They were fine
And how about something as simple as ketchup? Remember when you could simply buy Heinz ketchup – great tasting, lasted a long time in the fridge and perfect for that home cooked hamburger or hotdog. And you could buy it in the original bottle and pound or shake it madly upside down so that some would finally come out or buy the squeeze bottle, stored upside down to make it easier. Yes, I know it had the ubiquitous nasty additive, sugar, but it was still the old favorite Heinz Ketchup. But now in the supermarket you have to stand in front of the ketchup area, stroke your chin thoughtfully, shake your head impatiently, maybe check ingredients, compare prices and then try to decide among “no sugar added”, “simply-no artificial sweeteners”, “no salt added”, “blend of veggies”, “sweetened only with honey”, “hot and spicy”, “jalapeño”, or “sriracha”. What the hell, are these different kinds of ketchup necessary? Honestly, I don’t need these choices, never did and never will. To me, ketchup is ketchup. Any other flavors, enhancements or whatever, I can add myself. Why does shopping for something as simple as ketchup have to be so complicated? I have enough decisions to make during the course of a day. I don’t need ketchup choices.
These two examples merely scratch the surface of the choices in supermarkets today. Have you noticed how many varieties of my old favorite cold breakfast cereal, “Cheerios”, are now available? Check it out – what used to be good old fashioned whole grain oat cereal without added sugar, now not only has totally unnecessary sugar (see my article on sugar – “White Poison”), but also comes in a dozen different varieties, from “Maple” to “Apple Cinnamon” to “Chocolate” or “Fruity”, and all likely heavily sugared. This proliferation of choices has gotten completely out of hand. And just imagine the additional burden placed on the poor “essential worker” supermarket employees – how to handle and display all of these absolutely unneeded varieties.
And just this evening among the things on my supermarket list was the nutritious (as snacks go) snack cracker,” Triscuit”, which I have always liked because of their simplicity – actually shredded wheat with a little salt – ingredients: wheat, salt. However, I was bowled over by all of the new flavors of these snack crackers. There was “balsamic vinegar and basil”, “fire roasted tomato and olive oil”, “cracked pepper and olive oil”, “roasted garlic”, “four cheese and herb” and a few more, truly a staggering array of flavors from which it was very difficult to choose. I am sure all are great, but honestly, are all these flavors really necessary? Yet another example of having to choose. I wonder what other flavors the Triscuit people are working on now.
And before I finish I have to share consideration of how many TV choices there are for us today. From the simple offerings of just a few major networks in my youth, we have now gone to the hundreds of channels available from cable or satellite companies. And only in the last several years, these hundreds of channels have been significantly augmented by the availably of streaming devices which, if you are willing to pay, open the door to hundreds more choices. This dizzying array of choices not only make it difficult to choose but also introduce the new feeling of “what am I missing?” While I’m watching the interminable mix of news and comment of MSNBC, really a rehashing of the same old news by different anchors and commentators, I might be missing that great French movie that I’ve longed to see again. Or I’ve got to forfeit the news to hurriedly watch a movie on Netflix that’s leaving next week. Really, I’d be happy with the old major network offerings again. When I’ve finished watching Walter Cronkite (real news, real facts, without the embellishment of opinion people), I could watch Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore and then read a book and go to bed. Really, what’s on cable and streaming today is just too much.
Perhaps part of the “choice” dilemma is that I’m old now, feel the finiteness of time like never before, and would rather not waste time making so many unnecessary choices. But for younger people, busier than ever, working for a living and raising their families, it must be even more difficult to make these choices. I think they are a waste of time and completely unnecessary.
I can think of no worse thing to happen to a person than to lose one’s memory. The dreadful scourge of Alzheimer’s, which eventually took the life of my father, has to be far worse for anyone than the myriad diseases and deteriorative conditions that afflict the elderly. Personally I would prefer to be bedridden and immobile and still retain my mental faculties than be the picture of good health with a full head of still brown hair and not recognize either myself or my loved ones and not recall any of my personal history, which describes my father’s condition before he succumbed to a merciful death
Memory is such an amazing and necessary quality. It makes you alive by placing you solidly along a continuum of life experiences. And even more amazing is how it works. I don’t know what the scientific names for them are but I’ll simply call them short term memory and long term memory. At night when I am ready to go to sleep I often review the duties I should have completed to be ready for tomorrow. Did I make the coffee? Yes, I recall rinsing out the carafe, filling it with water and pouring the right amount into the chamber. I also remember specifically being extra careful to make the measurer level with coffee since it was a bit strong yesterday. Did I take my pills? Yes, I recall filling a glass of water and taking them. Are my clothes ready for when I get up? Yes, tomorrow I plan to exercise downstairs, so my shorts, t-shirt and sweatshirt are ready, and my sneakers are where they should be. OK, I remembered all those events. But will I remember them tomorrow or the next day? No, absolutely not, because somehow my brain says that I shouldn’t have to. Why would I remember these specific events for longer than a day? Not necessary, so I am allowed to forget them. So memories of these routine activities are soon gone and gone forever, making room apparently for activities and events of greater importance or more proximate in time
Apparently there is also something that we could call “temporary memory” as distinct from “short term memory” – those memories that our brain “dumps” periodically to make room for more permanent memories. Short term memory contains those incidents, feelings, impressions that one can remember from last week or last month, that may or may not become part of long term memory, as opposed to all the minutiae of routines, incidents, feelings, impressions, smells, etc that clutter our brains for a day or two and then are forgotten.
All memories when first formed are “short-term”. But over time, the physical representation of the memory in the brain becomes more stable through a process known as called consolidation. The stabilized memories then become “long-term” memories.
And my long term memory still is okay. When it’s quiet and there are no distractions and I am up alone in the early morning, my long term memory still functions quite well. Those childhood memories and impressions are still there. Those names of people I knew long ago, or worked with, still come back just fine. Yes, some names and faces are growing hazier with the passage of so much time (I’m 79 now), but for most purposes, my long term memory is working as well as my short term memory.
We are our memories. Our memories are our existence. Without our memories we are nothing. Our personalities and mannerisms are linked to memory. We are composed of all those events lodged in our memories. All those events – our childhood, our education, the trauma, the struggles, the losses and victories, come together and truly make us who we are. If all this is obliterated by disease or other incident, we essentially cease to be. We are nothing, although still perhaps still physically whole, because that essential quality, memory, is missing.
All of us, the children of Charles Ralph Friedly, our father, have to be very conscious of memory, I think, because of how Dad died. His wife, our mother, saw his memory and personality fade. She observed the growing helplessness and panic as he steadily lost the essence of himself. I am always asking myself (and I am sure my brothers and sister do the same) – can I remember what happened yesterday, the day before that? How about last week, last month? And do I remember the year before last? Hmmm, yes I can so for the time being I can rest easy. I don’t have Alzheimer’s…at least not yet. Yet, like most elderly people, there are times when I can’t remember the names of certain individuals, so I’m content to refer to that person for the time being as “what’s his name?’. Also, the names of certain objects escape me from time to time. So I’ll blurt out some nonsensical sentence like, “Does what’s his name still have that thing he bought years ago?” Or since these times are becoming somewhat more numerous, this inquiry becomes a more routine “Does whatsizname still have that whatchamacallit?” Yes, I know, a bit ridiculous but that’s old age coming on. I don’t think that it means the beginning of Alzheimer’s.
There was one time in my recent life, however, that I thought that my brain might be succumbing to some early signs of this dreadful condition. While in my last job, I experienced what I can only describe as a total memory blackout. The immediate circumstances I can’t recall. I may have been sitting in my office at my desk alone, shuffling through some papers or preparing to make a phone call. Or I might have been talking to someone sitting across from me or I may have been on the phone. But suddenly I was terrorized by the realization that I didn’t know who I was, where I was or what I was doing. I couldn’t even remember my own name. Some horrible mental cloud had momentarily obscured my actual existence. I had to look at some papers on my desk to find out my name, had to get my drivers license out of my wallet to see my face and realize that person’s face was really me. Yet nothing really clicked. The association of the name on the letter or the face and name on the driver’s license, the people in the family pictures on my desk, with me, the guy sitting helplessly at that desk, just was not there. The feeling of terror and shock that I didn’t know who I was, where I was and was suddenly nameless, was indescribable. My memory had stopped. Thank God, after a few minutes, this horrible feeling passed and all became normal again. But the experience was truly terrifying and I thought for awhile that this could mean the beginning for me of what happened to my father.
Looking back, I think that this frightening experience could have been the result of some kind of momentary blockage of blood flow in my brain. Maybe it was caused by something I ate, or didn’t eat. Maybe all those scotches at the end of the day were catching up with me. All kinds of things ran through my mind. But really I think that the extreme tension and stress I was experiencing at that time on my job were the real cause. I don’t know precisely how stress affects the brain and memory but it certainly can’t be good. So sifting through all the potential causes, this seems the most likely. I can’t begin to describe that period of time on this terrible job, in fact, over the several years since, I have done my best to forget it. But the stress to which I was subjected undoubtedly took a temporary toll on my health, both physical and mental.
As we get older, we seem to have more and more memory lapses or absent mindedness that worry us a great deal. However, most of these problems are commonplace and should not be a cause for worry. And we all have experienced them. A short article in an AARP publication lists them:
Blocking – can’t think of the name of that person or book or movie even though it’s right on the tip of my tongue.
Scrambling – remembering most of an event but not sure how or when it happened.
Fading away – you think you should remember something but cannot because too much time has elapsed and memory has been “swept away” by the brain to make room for more.
Struggling for retrieval – just met someone and already can’t remember the name, or the name of that movie or book you’re trying to recommend.
Muddled multitasking – getting so involved in a task that the first or second one is forgotten, e.g. something boiling away or overcooked on the stove while you are doing something else.
And then there is another interesting aspect to memory that was described in an article in the New York Review of Books , which I resurrected from my files to reference for this article – the phenomenon of “reconstructive memory”. This occurs when there is an incident in our past which may have indeed happened, but over time, we tend to inadvertently embellish with a little bit of fiction – details that fit the general configuration of that central memory and perhaps enhance it. Sometimes these embellishments add to the notability or daring of the deed or occurrence we remember, or they perhaps they are gathered and attached to that specific memory in order to enhance our perceptions of ourselves. Often these fabrications are exposed when siblings or friends may recall an event at which they were present in totally different ways. Their respective memories are not necessarily faulty: it’s just that their memories of this single event have been enhanced, diminished, or detailed by each’s idiosyncratic personal fictions. Or, as the author Oliver Sacks related, a particular memory may not be one’s own at all but may be adopted from another, as long as it fits neatly into a previous memory structure of sufficient strength and importance.
I have experienced this phenomenon several times myself. Detailed memories surrounding a certain traumatic event in my childhood or early adulthood have proven to be fallacious or at least richly embellished, since they were perceived in strikingly different ways by siblings or others present during the occurrence. I have lived with the notion that certain of my vivid memories are immutable and have been surprised by the fact that they are malleable. One group of such memories relate to Hurricane Hazel which struck the eastern seaboard, including my state of New Jersey in 1954 when I was 12 years old. My memories of a tall chimney crashing down on the house yet not penetrating the roof were refuted because when Hazel smote New Jersey our family no longer lived at that particular house. However, my memories of seeing the WAWZ (our church radio station) transmission towers blown down and lying in the fields was in fact corroborated by others. Perhaps I had mixed my hurricanes up and it was another that took down the chimney when we did in fact live at that house. But what I thought was an accurate recollection simply was not.
Another interesting thing about memory is how we can commit what one might call “accidental” or “unconscious” plagiarism or, certainly more comforting, “legal plagiarism”, when ideas clearly gleaned from others, perhaps from their writing or lectures, find a solid place in our own memories because they fit so well with our own previous experiences. Thus, these ideas, now embraced as our own, are called up to embellish and illustrate our own thought and writing and we never think to attribute them to others. All of us have experienced this phenomenon in one way or another. Particularly, much academic writing must be of this nature. A student of a particular discipline writing about a subject within that discipline is never alone. He may endeavor to attribute certain ideas to others, like all academics should, yet little of his thinking is truly original but is really just what has been distilled from all of his reading over the years and embraced as one’s own. The real challenge is where and how to distinguish and draw a line between what can readily be attributed to another and what is an amalgam of personal experiences and knowledge which cannot now be separated into what is truly personal and what has been gleaned from others.
Thus plagiarism can be honestly accidental. Who knows the sources of the “deep insights” or the “epiphanies” or “revelations” that I experience while thinking and writing in the early morning. Are they my own or have they been derived from something I’ve read earlier and adopted and adapted for my own? They certainly seem to be my own but referring back to the article by Sacks, I’m not really sure. Sacks calls these incidents “auto-plagiarism”, or more precisely, an even more technical term, “cryptomnesia”, which I could not even find in my dictionary.
Sacks relates a great example of this phenomenon – when George Harrison, of all people, was accused of plagiarism and was actually sued, when his song, “My Sweet Lord” was deemed too similar to another song, “He’s so Fine” by Ronnie Mack, recorded eight years earlier by The Chiffons. Indeed, listening to them both confirms great similarity in melody and refrain. But apparently the judge in the case, although finding Harrison guilty of plagiarism, generously deemed Harrison’s mistake not deliberate, casting it into the category of accidental or inadvertent plagiarism described above.
It might be useful to tie all of these notions about the malleability of memory, i.e. “reconstructive memory”, “auto” or “accidental” plagiarism together with a great quote from Sacks, offered by Nicole Krauss in her review of his book, Rivers of Consciousness – “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”
Sacks’ opinion deals directly with one of the dreadful negative effects of reconstructive memory – the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal convictions. Fully two thirds of wrongful convictions, those overturned by the introduction of DNA evidence, involve faulty eyewitness testimony. In these cases, “reconstructive” memory is faulty and may have been hastily adapted to fit a preconceived idea of the witness’s self importance.
This phenomenon has been illustrated by tests done on a variety of people. For example, multiple individuals are shown a video of a car crash, yet each observer sees something different than the others. One can’t remember the colors of the cars or which car entered the intersection first; another can’t tell which was going faster, whether a man or woman was driving, who was standing in the intersection or whether a bicycle was actually there, and so on.
Eyewitness memories are usually “contaminated” by the stress endured by someone involved in the incident or by previous remembered experiences. The uncommon and exaggerated excitement or shock of observing a certain occurrence can easily get in the way of accurate recollection of the event. “Lineup” identification processes are similarly fraught and unreliable.
A well documented example was featured in the New York Times a couple of years ago – the dreadful experience of Penny Beerntsen, who misidentified her assailant, resulting in his spending 18 years in prison before being cleared by DNA identification of several hairs of the assailant. The incident was described by Debra Tolchinsky in her short film and in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”, which features the story of her misidentified assailant without Beerntsen’s perspective.
Before closing this lengthy article I would like to mention several more remarkable characteristic of memory. One is outlined in Claudia Hammon’s fascinating article about time: that without memories of the past, we cannot exist in the present, nor can we predict a future for ourselves. When we think of the future – where we’ll be years hence, what kind of health we will enjoy, what we will be doing – all of this has to be considered in terms of the past and present. Evidently we employ the same part of our brain when considering the past and imagining the future. And it is this that allows us to consider different scenarios of the future before we decide which choice to make or road to take. This ability to simultaneously consider the past, present and future is what makes humans unique and is also what enables us to be creative and conceive and generate works of art. We’ve obviously known about this relationship between the past and the future for a long time, as Hammon reminds us that Aristotle “described memories not as archives of our lives, but as tools for imagining the future”.
And one other fascinating attribute of memory is recounted in Rosenfeld and Ziff’s article “Making Memories”, all based on a review of a book by Luke Dittrich about the famed patient “HM”, who had a part of his brain, specifically parts of the hippocampus removed. “HM”‘s unique condition and especially the nature of his memory loss spawned many useful studies of the brain and memory and the article discusses several of those.
It goes on to state that apparently all memories are subjective, idiosyncratic for the individual and tailored for that person’s unique “self”. In fact, for the memory to work properly it must have created a “self”, an image through which activities and events are actually lived and then remembered. This image of self also includes a three dimensional image of one’s body, dynamic and changing because of our movements, and created from sensory responses to those movements. With our eyes closed we have no problem touching a chosen part of our bodies in any attitude with the finger or hand. This “map” of the body explains why someone will remember a limb that has perhaps been removed and can actually feel it still there and even fancy yet touching it, though gone. The filtering of events through our unique body image ensures that memories of those events are subjective and are ours alone. Another experiencing the same event will over time and space remember it differently because of filtering it through their own self and image.
I have enjoyed this little jaunt “down memory lane” through the miracle and mysteries of memory itself and have found that the selected readings and attempts to digest and relate their content to myself and others dear to me have been stimulating and meaningful. What is rather sobering since I live now in old age is that, regardless of their quality and quantity and their value and meaning to me presently and to others, all those memories are but temporal. Certainly hard to conceive now, with my body and brain still functioning satisfactorily, that at the death of my body in the not too distant future, poof, all those precious memories will disappear.