It’s Father’s Day this weekend and I am thinking about you. My faith is as not as strong as some of your other children so I don’t really know if I will ever see you again. But you do still live in the hearts and minds of those who love you and remember you.
My childhood memories of you include your hero-like qualities to the people and kids at Zarephath. From throwing hay bales to hitting a baseball, your strength was legendary. This strength was also demonstrated when you tossed little children or did your little trick of grasping little hands thrust back between the legs and flipping the child over and back on his or her feet.
You were very popular among the students you taught and the friends you had (my friends used to tell me how lucky I was to have you as a father). I remember also you holding forth while giving haircuts in the barber chair corner of the printery, the buzz of the Oster clippers tempered with the observations and repartee of standers-by and flavored by the pleasant greasy smell of printers ink from the presses.
I also remember your attempts to rid your gardens of groundhogs and crows and all the tricks you tried to triumph over them, from aiming your 16 gauge shotgun at a hole in the early morning until an unlucky groundhog poked his nose up, to dangling dead crows from a string on a stick to frighten the live ones away.
I recall with humor the time you came from Denver by bus for a visit to my home in New Brunswick with a paper bag of clothes, a huge Audobon bird book and half a binocular (a monocular?) strung around your neck (what must your fellow passengers have thought?!)
Some of my pleasantest memories were those I accumulated during adulthood on my summer trips to Denver to visit family. Being awakened by your early morning activity was really quite pleasant: from hearing you bang around with a shovel outside as you tended to flowers to hearing the rattle of the fenders on your bike as you returned from a trip to the college building to fetch milk.
I fondly recall the pleasure of sharing history with you. Even though we differed in our political views, we had wonderful discussions. I always felt close to you at those times when we discussed World War II or the Civil War. Of course, I could not match your knowledge of Winston Churchill so I mostly listened when his name came up. I guess I have made my own son the person in my life with whom I now share interest in history. For that I am so thankful, as you must have been for being able to share your interest with me.
Dad, I enjoyed your sense of humor. I never met anyone that appreciated Mark Twain the way you did. Reading funny bits from “Sketches Old and New” or gems from “Innocents Abroad” to you was truly precious and I enjoyed joining you in the uproarious laughter that followed. However, the hilarity you generated from making fun of or ridiculing other people is a somewhat less pleasant memory.
I have never known anyone with a more genuine affinity for the soil which you enjoyed and demonstrated your whole life. I can still smell the freshly plowed New Jersey soil which you cultivated so patiently, hopefully and expertly. I can also remember your prescient bent for organic farming, always rejecting chemical fertilizer for tons of cow manure to enrich the soil, with an occasional dash of chicken manure as well. Although I rebelled as a 14 year old at having to “plant lima beans eyes down”, most of my memories of you and farming were pleasant. From your efforts to make rows as straight as possible by training the muffler of the tractor firmly on a distant downfield fence post or tree, to your pride in your newly purchased Farmall Super A, to your pride in your sweet corn and “Jersey Belle” strawberries, to the smells and sounds of picking sweet corn in the early dawn in the fields on the Millstone River flood plain, I remember all very fondly because I was with you and I was helping you. You loved to grow flowers as well, especially dahlias, an obsession that began at Lock Haven with dahlia bulbs planted in the burned out stump in front of the house, and continued to planting dahlias around the Belleview house and buildings.
I remember how proud I was when you let me drive the new ’51 Chevy pickup into the garage at night, how crushed and ashamed I was when I erred and put a dent in the left front fender, and how relieved I was that you kept your anger and disappointment hidden. I also remember your kind effort to complement my saving for and purchase of a dream $1.99 fishing reel from Sears with a surprise fishing rod that I found on my bed one afternoon. And I remember the shame I felt when I foolishly and carelessly allowed that dream-come-true rod and reel to be stolen from me by a schoolmate and never recovered.
Very pleasurable to remember are the times on hot humid summer nights you used to take us on a drive around the township back roads with all of us in the back of the pickup truck. When an underpass was being constructed under the railroad in Manville, we used to drive over and check its progress. When little sister Elaine mistakenly called it the “underpants”, you teased her about it for months afterward.
And speaking of back roads, I felt so special to go with you several times to the Carfagnos’ home on one of those roads to watch the Papst Blue Ribbon Bouts on Wednesday night or Friday night boxing on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. These were the times I got to see Rocky Marciano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles and Sugar Ray Robinson, very special indeed.
Also, I enjoyed very much the times I and various other brothers and sisters accompanied you to the “Auction” (actually I think it was Packard’s Farmer’s Market) on Route 206 near Somerville on Wednesday nights or Friday nights. You sold sweet corn and vegetables wholesale to a vendor there and we kids were turned loose to visit the various booths and spend a little money. The books I purchased at the used book booth there still occupy a special place in my bookcase and in my heart.
Dad, I am sorry I was so difficult to raise. I was certainly not the ever obedient and obeisant eldest son you desired. We had numerous disagreements and arguments when I was a teenager during which we both lost our tempers. After being expelled from the church school in Denver as a high school senior, you drove all the way from New Jersey to bring me back (never saying a word to me) and did your best to successfully get me situated again. I am grateful for those efforts, which resulted in my living with Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil in Ohio, attending Wooster High School, and setting my life on a new course.
You seemed proud of me (but never said you were) when, after being accepted to Rutgers, you took me to the bookstore for my books, my dink (a beanie all freshmen were required to wear) and my tie (also required). But living in our chaotic home and commuting during those first years of college were difficult, as were the financial struggles. After losing my job at Ford because of my previously undetected scoliosis, a job which I expected to be my financial salvation, and after a bitter argument with you, I kissed my little brothers goodbye during the night and drove to Colorado with one of the family vehicles. I suppose you could have reported a theft and pressed charges. I am grateful that you did not.
Dad, although I often condemned you for consigning your family to a life in the Pillar of Fire church, perhaps I never properly appreciated the political tightrope you walked to keep us there. I often blamed you for not having the courage to leave and get us all out into the real world. I recall when I first went to teach for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and made good money teaching and paid only $50 per month for my very nice rental house. I urged you at that time to make the break. But you didn’t, or couldn’t. It is likely you thought that at least in the church the kids would always have food and a roof over their heads. I don’t think it was ever out of a true religious conviction that you kept us there but simply because you knew no other life.
It must have been difficult to accumulate money, any money at all, in those days in the church when we children were all quite young. I look back at the automatic washer we finally bought and the deep freeze, and realize that the money for those appliances came very dearly, from work in the “missionary field” or from raising and selling vegetables.
Along with these mostly pleasant memories, there are some sad ones too. Dad, I feel to this day the pain of hearing you extol the virtues of other young people. You were always commenting on someone’s uncommon strength, ability or intelligence or size of their hands, never realizing how much your thin oldest son (with smaller hands) craved some recognition too. You had favorites among your students in the classroom and even had favorites among your own children. This caused intense emotional pain for those not included in this favored group, among them me, and likely imposed a heavy emotional burden on those that were. You also enjoyed teasing your kids, I am not sure why. You can see a tearful Elaine, hurt by your teasing or a crying little Charlie in the old color slides and movies. I vividly recall another “teaser” that you enjoyed – extending a pencil to us and flipping it as we reached so we grasped your forefinger instead.
When things got difficult at home – Mom not feeling well, the house chaotic and confused, full of needy children, piles of dirty dishes and buckets of soiled diapers, you were not there to take responsibility, exercise leadership, lend a hand and set things right. You found all sorts of reasons and justifications to be at Zarephath for twelve or sixteen hours a day, taking courses, teaching, working or much of the time I think, just escaping. Much of household management became the responsibility of the older children, a job we secretly resented and from which we tried to escape, each in our own way. And I recall how badly our shabby and leaking house needed attention and instead you helped other people paint and reroof their houses.
This perpetual absence was symptomatic of a general neglect of Mom back in those days which all of us felt. We all missed so much a Mom and Dad together in love and support and both parents giving us love and support in turn. You left the church and your family once to make a point with the church management and worked for Nides Appliances in Denver for about six months. I can remember a buzz among us children in the morning as the word spread that you had returned during the night. You and Mom responded to a cautious tap on the bedroom door and we kids crowded in to welcome you back. The sweetest thing about this event was observing a very happy Mom and Dad in bed together. This is the only time I can remember seeing you this way and feeling the joy it gave me. I am happy that in your retirement years, and prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, you and Mom apparently drew closer together as a couple, although Mom always seemed the active and demonstrative provider of affection and you just the passive recipient.
Dad, I feel to this day an aching void inside me. I never experienced the joy of you hugging me or kissing me. Nor did I ever experience the joy of you telling me you loved me or that you were proud of me. I suppose much of my need to achieve was driven by this futile desire to obtain your love and approval, which never came. Oh yes, you apparently told others that you were proud of my educational and professional achievements but I would have given the world to hear it from you. But Dad, even though it does not dry my tears or fill that void, I do realize that you simply never learned from your own parents how to show love and approval to your children. I sense in you the same defiance of your father that I had of you and the same false empowerment from your mother that I got from mine and I sense that your father never hugged or kissed you, told you he loved you or was proud of you either. My youngest brother told me of a time when, your eyes filling with tears, you responded to him that you had done the best you could. And I am sure you did.
Dad, your last years were spent in confusion, desperation, madness and darkness from the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s disease. What a tragedy to see your fine mind totally destroyed and your engaging personality crumbled to nothing. How horrible to see a perfectly healthy elderly man, still with a good physique and no gray hair, not recognize his wife or children. I do remember an occasion, before any of us suspected what was happening, when I visited you and Mom in Colorado. You were both watching television as I entered the house and you both rose to greet me, but I could see from your eyes that you were startled and perhaps didn’t recognize me. However, you took cues from Mom and were properly cordial and civil. But I knew something was wrong.
I surely wish I could see you again Dad and talk heart to heart with you. I will never know really how you felt about me. I only know that, like you, I did the best I could, with the emotional, intellectual and physical qualities I inherited from you and Mom. If you ever wished that you could have been a better father, I certainly have wished I could have been a better son.
On Father’s Day I, your oldest son, in this torrent of mixed memories and emotions, remember you with love.
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.”
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 May. 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:
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.
A couple of days ago I was searching for a certain file in one of my “mementos” file boxes and happened to open several folders that contained hand-written letters. There they were – letters from my mother and from my father, written many years ago, letters from my brother Robert sent in the ’70’s from Heidelberg, Germany, where he still lives. There were wonderfully written letters from Dad’s brother Gene and his sister Burton, and even one written by my father to my mother early in their marriage. There were several wonderful letters, printed (and illustrated) in pencil, from my dear little brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stan that I have saved for these many years. And in another location, a nightstand drawer, is stored a letter from a dear friend of ours, now deceased, three pages long, perfectly written in her inimitable hand. And I can touch all these letters, feel them, turn them over, read and reread them, note and enjoy the differences in the paper, the ink used and in the handwriting styles. And in the unique handwriting of each person I can find traces of their personalities. Each person’s face and voice were easily recalled while reading these letters, knowing that each person’s hand and fingers actually touched the paper and held the pen as they wrote. There is an incredibly human quality in handwritten letters sadly missing in our communication today.
What a shame that those days of writing such letters to friends and loved ones seems to be forever gone. Yes, we might get more words written, sent and read, in today’s age of email and electronic messaging, but we have lost so much. We have lost the individuality conveyed on the written page and the personal quality of the writing. Indeed, even the content seemed to be conveyed more sensitively, lovingly and respectfully through actual handwriting. And back in those days, it was the only way to communicate – in writing. Yes, eventually some of us clacked out our letters on our noisy Smith Coronas or Remingtons, or enjoyed typing on electric typewriters, especially the then revolutionary IBM Selectric with its revolving “daisywheel” which not only made typing easy but also could erase our typos. But even a typed letter had more personality than an electronic message today. It was distinguished not only by the type itself and that occasional mistake but also by the choice of paper. And a friend or loved one’s actual fingers signed the letter, folded and secured it in the envelope, licked it, sealed it, addressed it, put the postage stamp on the envelope and dropped it into the mailbox. So in spite of the more impersonal typing, the writer still could share much of himself or herself with the reader.
But today, with all the methods of communication available to us, oddly at times it seems much more difficult to communicate. While email has remained my own favorite and most convenient method of exchanging personal news, opinion and impressions, many of my former email correspondents have veered into other methods, leaving me stranded. Some only call and seldom or never use email. Some have dropped both email and voice phone and instead exclusively message to my phone number. Others apparently exchange messages on Facebook, which I have never mastered and because of strong negative opinions about Facebook anyhow, simply do not care to learn. So if I need to communicate with someone, I am finding it increasingly difficult to remember if that particular person prefers a telephone call, an email message or what. And if I don’t remember accurately, that message may never be read because the email or the message was never noticed and so forever ignored.
For example, several people with whom I used to exchange emails seem now to restrict themselves exclusively to messaging, a method of communication which for me is relatively new. I have not yet come to enjoy this method since, being a fairly rapid and accurate typist, perhaps I just rebel at having to type with my thumbs on that small iPhone keyboard. Even when I go to messaging on my computer where I can type a message quickly the normal way, I often err when I hit “return” for a new paragraph, inadvertently sending what I have typed up to then and truncating the message. Also I have missed important messages from relatives or acquaintances who have chosen this method of communication. While I routinely check my email, I do not do the same for messages and if I miss that “ding” when a message arrives on my phone or miss the notification on the computer screen, then I may not get that message for days.
Another thing that bothers me about communication today is that many correspondents have almost entirely stopped using a greeting. I mean, when we write a traditional letter, typing it or using pen and paper, a greeting seems essential. We always begin with “Dear…….”, or the person’s name, or “Friends”, or something like that – we don’t simply start writing without acknowledging to whom we are writing. Yet today I receive so many messages and emails that simply start with the message. The sender has not bothered with the polite greeting or even my name at the beginning. A letter or message to my personal phone number or to my personal email address do not render a proper greeting redundant – I can’t help but feel ignored and a bit insulted. I know the sender may wish to get to the subject quickly but really, how much additional typing with the fingers (or thumbs) is required to make the message more personal and polite?
And today, even phone calls have changed. A long distance phone call from a distant loved one used to be an important and treasured event for many reasons, among them – calls decades ago were quite expensive and therefore might have to be planned ahead – you needed to know that the person being called was home and available to receive the call. Also they were quite rare, in contrast to today, when one’s cell phone can call anywhere anytime and far more cheaply. But along with the increasing number of phone calls over all kinds of distances, has come a careless and cavalier attitude toward them.
Several people whom I routinely call, simply do not answer their phones, evidently preferring instead to let their phones take a message, intending I am sure, to call back later. In fact, with the plethora of crank robocalls today (where are our lazy legislators on this issue, pray tell?), I too have fallen into this habit. if I do not recognize the number or if a recognizable name or location does not appear on the screen, I will ignore the call, assuming that if it’s important, the caller will leave a message. But I have missed a number of important urgent calls when I have not picked up. It’s incredible how clever robocalls have become, many even beginning with my area code and first three digits of my phone number (used to mean the “exchange”) so I’m tempted to pick up and when I do, present a gift, another operative phone number – mine, to sell and share with other robocallers. I even got one the other day from Pakistan (yes, I am sure it was their prime minister seeking my advice on an important matter). At any rate, calling and not having the phone answered is frustrating but, referring back to a paragraph above, maybe the person I’m trying to contact happens to be a “messager” and simply prefers those instead of voice calls.
As far as communicating via Facebook, forget it. I have come to despise Facebook as much as I loath its slimy founder/CEO and its arrogant chief operating officer. And I have de-friended many former Facebook “friends” for posting distasteful political or religious opinions and I am sure the favor has been returned by many whom I may have offended. But frankly, I no longer wish to see posted pictures of restaurant meals, childhood pictures, ugly babies, frightful pets, posters, videos, selfies, and other typical Facebook fare, all pompous presentations aimed at obtaining that coveted comment or at least that little thumbs-up.
I’m presently trying to extricate myself from Facebook but have been surprised and a bit daunted with how difficult it is. Some second thoughts for sure – there are many old friends and dear relatives there on Facebook that I do not wish to lose touch with. I just wish I could stay in touch in a more pleasing and dignified, pre-Facebook fashion. So when I finally do successfully bid Facebook farewell, I certainly hope I will have all their phone numbers and email addresses available.
I have equally strong opinions about calls with “Facetime” a relatively new feature provided when calling on smartphones. Looking at a caller’s face in such sharp detail and from different angles and attitudes, especially with the wide angle lens drawing out of the face is really not all that pleasant, no matter how dear the caller. And I fully realize that the sharp focus of a smartphone camera on my aged and ravaged countenance conveyed to a beloved or respected caller is likely a very unpleasant experience as well.
So to me, the written or typed word or the familiar voice on the telephone are quite enough. Yes, and perhaps old fashioned, particularly in an age of so many other means of communication available to us in this digital age. Hey, I have heard about them but neither care nor desire to learn how to use them – Twitter, Viber, Slack, Telegram, Signal, Instagram, WhatsApp (both now absorbed by Facebook) and many more I am sure, most completely unfamiliar to me – again, so many ways to communicate but none of them quite as meaningful as the old hand-written letter or even the modern email letter. And finally, as an examination of typical Facebook content will quickly reveal, I really do think that it’s ironic in this day and age, when there are so many ways to communicate, that it seems that we have increasingly less and less to say.
Over the past year or so, I have been consumed with thoughts of death. These have not been fearful thoughts, nor necessarily sad thoughts, although life has to be sweeter by far than death. But we all live and die. This is the way of living things – we are born, we live and we die. From the simplest of life forms to the most complex, this is the inevitable progression. And if life is a continuum, a straight line from birth to death, I hope mine is reasonably long, I don’t want it cut short. And if life is a course between two points, birth and death, I am thankfully still on the minus side of that course, still alive, though headed inexorably toward that end point.
I guess that these thoughts hit me for the first time when I was reading “Colossus” a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb last year. Halfway though the book I was struck by the thought that these remarkable people – the brilliant theoreticians and scientists, the skilled administrators, the talented fabricators, the president who made it all happen, are not with us anymore. Their lives, if notable, have been chronicled, their material achievements are listed for us to see, but they themselves are gone…forever.
I have been reading biographies of famous people for many years but I have not necessarily thought of them as dying, or dead and gone. I was content to read about them and their lives and achievements but never was struck by the obvious fact that they are no longer with us. Why? I don’t know – maybe because I rarely thought about death itself – for me it was still such a long way off. I suppose that this change relates to my own old age and the now perceptible finiteness of my life. I was born, I grew, I was educated by school and experience. I lived and loved and became a father myself. But I will die – maybe sooner, maybe later…but I will die. In my younger days these thoughts rarely crossed my mind.
Another source for these thoughts and this piece of writing is the passing of a very close friend of ours, whose remarkable intellect, loving manner and vibrant personality are unforgettable. Even now, many months later, it is hard to imagine her gone. But is she really gone? Her appearance, her voice and her mannerisms are so alive in our memories, the memories of our children, who had the good fortune to know her, and in the memories of everyone else who knew her, that her absence is impossible to realize or accept.
In my mid-seventies now, I am grateful for my health. I am a trifle overweight, true, but I do still faithfully exercise on most mornings of the week. I watch what I eat, minimize the sugar and maximize the eggs and fresh (or frozen) vegetables and fruit. Foolishly, to treat a persistent sweet tooth, I still occasionally mix up and bake my favorite cookies, but amend the recipe by reducing the sugar and making it all dark brown, cancelling the chocolate bar and reducing the chocolate chips, using whole wheat flour and increasing the chopped nuts, while including almonds and hazelnuts. Then I ration my consumption by baking them small and keeping them frozen. Or if I’m feeling wiser, I’ll have an apple or some dried fruit if I am craving something sweet. And of course, likely not good for my health, l still have that scotch or red wine in the late afternoon.
And thank God, most of my body still works like it should. Yes the threat of personal embarrassment does rush me to the bathroom once in awhile and accordingly on long drives I consciously keep myself a bit dehydrated to minimize stops. I seem to be treating my hypothyroidism successfully and also treat a previously unknown bone density problem caused by that lazy thyroid gland with the necessary doses of minerals. I also am experiencing some lower back pain resulting from, I am told, deterioration of several vertebrae and a disc or two and some arthritis. Arthritis has also singled out a few key hand joints so I have tried to control inflammation by choosing certain foods and avoiding others. But on the whole, I think I’m doing ok. Thoseorgans and functions without which I cannot live – my brain, heart, lungs and digestive system, seem to be functioning quite well.
I have agood friend back in our Arizona community who is about ten years older than I who tells me that while his seventies were okay, his 80’s have been quite different. He can really feel hisbody giving out and maintaining this aging machine has become much more time and energy intensive in terms of doctor visits, scheduled medications, painstaking food shopping and preparation, and pursuit of required exercise.
One thing that bothers me a great deal as I have grown old is that time passes so much more quickly than I thought it would. When I was young, it seemed that Christmas or the end of the school year and summer would never come. My high school and college years dragged on interminably as did my twenties and thirties. And now since I am retired I thought time would really drag and these ”golden years” would really stretch out, but surprisingly it been just the opposite. I have never experienced the hours turning into days, the days to weeks, the weeks into months and then years more quickly than now, exactly when I want things to slow down.
I did a little research on this phenomenon and surprisingly the passage of time apparently speeds up with routine and sameness and slows down during growth and the acquisition of new experiences and learning. When you’re young every day brings something new and time stretches out. For example, think of how time seemed extended on that special vacation when you encountered new cultures, people, places and activities. And now during retirement when every day is more or less the same time passes more quickly. The new understandings, growth and learning acquired vicariously through movies and books, don’t have the same effect as real ones. I guess if I were wealthy enough to spend my retirement traveling and having those new experiences, these so-called “golden years” might pass much more slowly. But I’m not so I can’t and they don’t.
Some other thoughts and questions about my inexorable drift toward that final point on the continuum of life have occurred to me. What will I leave behind? Who will know that I’m gone? Who will grieve? What’s it all for? Will I be born again or just sleep forever, like I did before I was born and became conscious.
One thing for sure, I don’t want to leave a mess behind me. I don’t want a spouse, child, sibling or friend sifting through a pile of my possessions rolling their eyes and saying – “Why did he keep this? What in hell was he planning to do with these? Why so many books – did he really read them all or just collect them thinking he would eventually find the time? And these jeans and sneakers – did he really think he would live long enough to wear them out? Why didn’t he get rid of things instead of just lettingthem accumulate?”
I really want to clean up my life like my Swedish kinsfolk recommend and make things easier for those I leave behind. Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”, tells us what we need to do. I just hope that I can summon the energy and willpower sufficient to accomplish these recommended tasks when the time comes. But until then, I still have dreams of utilizing lots of my “stuff”, even now. But it’s so true – in recent months I am looking at certain possessions and asking myself why I keep them. I’m never going to use them so why are they here? Having moved so many times we took advantage of each move to thin out our possessions and make ourselves a little lighter and more portable. But here we are – two houses, Vermont and Arizona, both full to overflowing. So clearly there is work to be done before I reach the end of that line.
And what am I leaving behind in terms of a legacy of some sort? I don’t mean money or wealth – there’s precious little of either to leave to anyone anyhow. What I mean is a legacy of good works, good deeds that some people will remember, at least for a little while. I hope my career in education has enhanced many lives – I’ll never really know.But I hope that somewhere, somebody still remembers me and that my work on their behalf meant something in their lives. I was overjoyed to find that a few of my students from my first teaching job stumbled onto my article about them and still remembered me fondly, but surely there are many more from subsequent experiences, at least I hope so. And once in a great while I hear of someone I once supervised saying some good things about me as a school principal or superintendent. Well, as the Mac Wiseman song says, “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered”
And then there’s the question of who will grieve my passing. In addition to my wife and son and my brothers and remaining sister, whom I hope will have retained at least a few fond memories and perhaps mourn my absence, there may be a treasured friend or two who may feel the same. Because of bouncing around the world and the country so much and thus scattering my friends and acquaintances, I don’t think that my survivors will have to worry about an overflow crowd at the funeral, if they even bother to schedule one. And I have requested that my body be cremated and my ashes thrown to the breeze from Yaki Point at the Grand Canyon. So that part of the end promises to be simple and quick as well.
And as it winds down, I cannot escape wondering what it was all for – life I mean. What is our purpose here, other than survival and procreation? What happens when I stop breathing andlose consciousness forever? Will I be “born again” or will I just sleep forever. It certainly is difficult to accept that my life will end – bang, just like that – and there is nothing afterward. But in fact there was nothing before it so why should there be something after? Jim Holt, who pondered the question of “why does the world exist” in his book of the same name, wonders why there is “something rather than nothing”, and suggests that “the life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”
I envy my sister and brothers and my loving wife, who because of their religious faith, do not have to ponder these questions. They are secure in the knowledge and conviction that our purpose here on earth is to “glorify God” and that they will joyfully be greeted by loved ones on the “other side” after their death. Yes, Mom and Dad, and sister Barbara will be there, healthy and whole – I would love to believe this, but simply cannot. My religious faith has never been that strong. I mean will our loved and treasured pets be there too? And how about that rotten, worthless relative or that duplicitous subordinate who stabbed me in the back? Do I have to put up with them again on the “other side”? No, I think life might indeed just be a lovely experience with nothing before birth and nothing after death.
Well actually there is a littlebuilt-in immortality associated with my life. Because I have a son, parts of me, my DNA, my genes will go on living. I won’t know it but parts of me already present in my son will go on living in him and his children and in their children. This is wonderful to contemplate, but is this the purpose of life?
My parents are gone, their parents are gone . They live on my my life now and the lives of my brothers and surviving sister. But after we are gone, do our children remember them and keep them alive in their minds? My dear sister Barbara is gone but I can see her mannerisms and hear her voice in the movements and voices of her children. But how much of Barb will be left in her children’s children and in their children? And indeed, my wife’s recent addiction to discovering a multitude of previously unknown ancestors does make us wonder what fragments of their appearance and personality we display in our own.
I know I will die but I don’t know when or how. One often hears regarding someone’s sudden death – maybe a sudden fatal heart attack, perhaps a fatal auto accident or some type of dreadful explosion – “well, at least he didn’t suffer…” This I have taken to heart. I really don’t want to suffer. I’d like to die suddenly, instantaneously or perhaps in my sleep. I’ve gone to sleep, I’ve lost consciousness, I just don’t ever wake up. Easy and painless. But I don’t want to suffer the pain of illness and slow inexorable deterioration of my body or my mind. If I’m in pain, let me float into death on the soft clouds of psychotropic drugs. Or if I have my wits about me, please let me decide when I should die and allow those I love to do me this favor. They can hold my hand and kiss my cheek when I expire and before I go I can imagine them doing it. Also, I can tell them goodbye and tell them I love them. This is dying in dignity, enveloped by love and sweet memory: This is the way it should be.
I certainly don’t want to die struggling for life – fighting madly for a breath of air as I am drowning somewhere, or straining for oxygen as my lungs fail. Nor do I want to contend with the indignity of incontinence as I stumble toward death. When those senses and controls fail, I want my whole body, my heart, breathing apparatus and brain to fail as well. I certainly hope that our entire country permits assisted suicide eventually, as do most western European countries and several of our states. As our bodies deteriorate and we are engulfed in dreadful pain or our minds fail, I think that we or our loved ones should be able to decide when we die.
I suppose that it will be difficult for someone who has thrived on strength, order and “being in control” to relinquish control to someone else, even a loved one. But we all do, I guess, as we drift toward the inevitable end of our lives. Yet there may be some comfort in finally admitting that I can no longer continue being strong and in control. At some point it will be impossible and perhaps it will be a relief and a comfort to turn myself over to someone who is younger and stronger and can care for me. But I dread the day that they take the keys to the car away from me. I hope I have the good sense to realize that I can no longer drive safely and relinquish them voluntarily.
Hopes and dreams are necessary to life so no matter how old we get so we need to keep them alive. We should always have a must-read book at our side and a must-do project in front of us. When we stop striving and stop dreaming, we’re done. We dream all our lives – we dream of perfect love and perfect happiness; we dream of having enough money to do anything we want; we dream of the perfect house, that perfect place; we dream offinding answers to life’s eternal questions – why are we here? Where do we go when we die? And I hope at age 76 that I can and will still dream. I think when we stop dreaming, stop hoping, stop trying, then we are really finished, even if our bodies keep going.
I have had my little set of dreams, yes. And I am happy to say that some have been realized, but so many have not and I know now, will not. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (see upcoming article “The Grand Canyon and Me”); I’ve stood on the highest mountain in Arizona – Mount Humphries in the San Francisco Peaks; I’ve traveled to Ireland twice, Germany several times, driven from Frankfurt to Vienna…and back, seen so many historical sites in Turkey, seen the pyramids, the sphinx, Luxor and the Valley of Kings in Egypt, been on a safari in Africa, walked the streets of Dublin, London, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Isdtanbul, Delhi, Bangkok and Katmandu. Thank God, thank God for all this. But many dreams still remain.
Some of those dreams yet unfulfilled – camping for weeks among the red rocks of Canyonlands, Sedona and southern Utah; camping in a wheat field in Kansas or North Dakota on a windy night; taking a “blue cruise” – sailing on the beautiful warm blue Aegean off the coasts of Turkey and Greece; traveling to certain other countries that have fascinated me – like Russia or the country of my kin, Sweden; art museums that I’ve missed – the Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, to name a couple. I’ve seen virtually nothing of other countries in my own hemisphere – I would love to explore Mexico and Central and South America. I’ve never seen the Redwoods, Seattle, or Yellowstone. I have never lived by the sea, even for a little while, not even in a trailer. To listen to the waves constantly, have them wake you up and put you to sleep would be such a thrill. And to daily see the water stretching out to the horizon to meet the sky would be so liberating and inspiring.
One of the tragedies of death is the disappearance forever of the knowledge and experience accumulated. We indeed are lifelong learners, absorbing new information, new facts and valuable lessons our whole life. And then when we die it’s all gone. So I guess that’s what all this is – a legacy of some kind, certainly not one as rich and as lasting as those left by many a scientist, novelist, poet or composer but the best I can do – some reflections on family, life, politics, and the world. I write so that some of my experiences and therefore some of me might live on. My son, who’s very busy and involved in his own life and career, reads little of this now. But I hope when I am gone, that he will hold me close once in awhile by choosing to read some more of what I’ve written. And perhaps he will choose to share it with his children.
In spite of accounts of “near death” experiences, death itself continues to be a mystery. Perhaps reviewing Socrates’ opinion on death would be an appropriate way to end this piece: ”To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”
Today I noted in the NYTimes that two of my heroes have passed away. One of my favorite novelists, Philip Roth, author of so many great novels, including my favorite of his, “The Human Stain”, died yesterday. And Richard Goodwin, liberal speechwriter extraordinaire, whose golden words spoken by the Kennedys, Johnson and so many others also passed away. Yes, we all die, but what a legacy both of these people left. Read their work and you will agree.
I have recently read a very interesting book with which I first became acquainted through reviews in the NY Times and the NY Review of Books – Robert J. Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living Since the Civil War”.
Mr. Gordon’s book is a fascinating mixture of economics and history which describes in great detail through prose, numbers and graphs the growth of the economy and the corresponding improvement in the standard of living in mainly what he calls the “special century” from 1870 to 1970. The main point of the book is to demonstrate that the improvement in the standard of living since the Civil War until about 1970 was huge and, despite our faith in continued progress through the benefits of technology, neither can nor will ever happen again. Gordon names “five great inventions” of this particular century – electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication – any one of which, he asserts, had a far greater impact on our standard of living than the recent IT revolution.
Professor Gordon sketches for us what life was like right after the civil war and compares this to life in 1970. By that year homes had central heating, electric lighting, toilets and electrical appliances to assist with household chores. We had automobiles, paved roads and telephones and performed our work in comfortable environments. We dressed in clothing that we bought from stores and ate fresh or well preserved food from supermarkets. If you could take people living then back to 1870, they would find city streets knee deep in horse manure, extensive travel very difficult or almost impossible, homes dark and cold. If you were a man you did backbreaking manual labor for a living; if a woman, you worked dawn to dusk washing clothes with a washboard in water you carried and cooked over a wood or coal stove. You had no fruit or vegetables in the winter and the meat and milk you bought could be bad. Your children were often ill or died of disease because there were no medicines to make them well. You carried in water to be heated for bathing in a tub. Your bathroom was a cold outhouse or a chamber pots emptied outside into the streets or fields. The contrast between 1870 and 1970 was quite stark, almost black and white, in terms of how people lived.
In reading this fascinating book and its descriptions of what life was like before the “five great inventions”, I couldn’t help but think of my parents and grandparents and what they experienced growing up. My Dad and Mom were both born in 1915, pretty much right in the middle of this “special century”, both into large farming families – Dad one of six children in Missouri and Colorado and Mom one of seven in North Dakota. I certainly wish Dad and Mom were alive today so that I could develop a more complete picture of what their lives were like as children and through them, what their parents’ lives had been like growing up.
Ralph and Ida Friedly wedding day, both 21
I remember my father telling us children that he walked three miles to school every day when he was young. I’d like to know – on what kind of roads? Did anyone have automobiles or were his neighbors limited to horses and carriages? I do know that as a boy on the farm in Versailles, Missouri, he plowed fields and planted and cultivated crops with teams of horses or mules. Also I remember visiting the Missouri farm as a child and, looking back, I don’t remember the house having bathrooms. There was a primitive outhouse with an old Sears catalogue hanging on the wall from which you could rip a few pages to clean yourself up. Instead of a bath or shower, you cleaned up with a sponge bath in a protected area of the kitchen.
Audra Frances (Arnold) 15 and Conrad Adam Friedly 26 in 1913
I wonder when my father’s family got electricity and how they lived without it when he was a child. I presume kerosene lamps provided the light and a wood cooking stove or a pot bellied stove provided some heat in the wintertime. And I presume that one’s body on top of and beneath a featherbed, with the bodies of brothers and sisters close by, was enough to keep warm in the unheated bedrooms of that day.
My grandfather, Conrad Adam Friedly, lost his farm in Versailles, Missouri in 1927 and moved the family to a farm on the plains of Colorado, east of Denver where the family tried again to make a go of it. I know little of these circumstances – if the farm in Missouri was lost, what means did the family have to buy a farm in Colorado? Or did they rent the farm or just work on a farm? My grandfather later moved back to Missouri with what remained of his family to the farm he used to own. How and when did that happen?
Friedly family circa 1926 Dad second from right
More to the point and considering the book I read which raised all the questions, what was life like for them in Missouri, then Colorado, then Missouri again? Professor Gordon stresses that even while cities and towns across the country were making progress with electric lighting, bathrooms, sewage and running water, farms, especially in the rural south, lagged far behind the rest of the country. Looking at my father’s situation, I would have to assume that outhouses, carrying cooking and cleaning water, bathing in the kitchen, kerosene lamps, wood or coal stoves for cooking and heating were exactly what he had in his youth.
Dad at Belleview, Pillar of Fire church, 15 or so
Gordon points out that there were differences between rural areas and suburban/city areas in how quickly these modern conveniences were provided. I would have liked to compare Dad’s primitive, hard-scrabble farm life in Missouri, which indeed was the south, to Mom’s prairie farming life in North Dakota, on the northern plains when they were both little children in the 1920’s. What do they remember about how their houses were heated, about bathing? Going to the bathroom? Running water? When did their families obtain their first tractor and put the mules and horses out to pasture? When did each family obtain their first automobile? How were their crops harvested? What were their dietary staples and how was most of their food preserved? I do remember Dad talking about butchering hogs and hams hanging in the smokehouse. And I know that farm families at that time “canned” food in the summer for consumption in the winter, filling and sealing mason jars, then “cooking” the sealed jars in huge pots of boiling water on top of a wood stove. Wait a minute, there was no wood on the treeless prairie plains of North Dakota. What was the fuel they used for heating and cooking?
Four generations 1941: Standing Dad, Mom and Dad’s parents, Audra and Conrad; seated George and Ida Arnold, Fred and Donnie Friedly with Barbara, 3 years old.
What was school like for Mom and Dad when they were children? What memorable teachers did they have? Did they obtain their respective love of reading and desire for learning from them or from their parents? Mom’s parents were not educated but nevertheless obviously instilled a love of learning in their children. I know Uncle Arnold had a college degree and of course Uncle Emil, and finally Mom. Who else?
Nels and Anna Baxstrom, Mom’s parents
I would love to ask the same questions of my father, were he still alive today. What do you remember of your teachers when you were a child? Does any one remain in your mind as a special inspiration? I suspect that Dad would claim that his love of learning began when, as a youth of 14, he left his family home and cast his lot with the Pillar of Fire church. And I know that Dad would eagerly tell me about one teacher in his Pillar of Fire experience as a high school student who inspired him – Agnes Kubitz, whom I remember too as a gentle, soft spoken, dignified, white haired teacher. I believe that she may have still been teaching at Zarephath when our sister Barbara was in high school.
Gordon makes a point of describing how clothing was sewn by hand in many families. Did both my Dad’s and Mom’s families have to purchase cloth from local stores and then sew their own clothing? Mom was an accomplished seamstress, perhaps this is why. When exactly did they begin to buy ready made clothing from department stores or from mail order catalogs? I certainly wish Mom and Dad were alive so that I could better understand this and so many other aspects of their childhoods and through that knowledge better understand them and myself.
Baxstrom family circa 1928, Ida (mom) second from left
I miss my parents for other reasons as well. Charles Ralph Friedly, my father, and Ida Marie Baxstrom, my mother, were not perfect people by any means. As noted in my article about him, Dad was rarely home when I was little. He fled family responsibilities by being busy teaching school in the Pillar of Fire Church’s Alma Preparatory School, or taking taking courses at Alma White College, both at nearby Zarephath. As noted in that article, Dad also pursued several part time vocations – such as serving as the community barber, with his faithful Oster hair clipper at hand, by serving as pastor at other nearby Pillar of Fire churches, like the one in Brooklyn, New York and by farming and selling his produce. But Dad had an awesome intellect that I never properly appreciated, my perception being clouded by my bitterness and resentment caused by his frequent absences. I wish he were here now so I could get his take on for example, today’s Republican Party. Even though a faithful member and supporter of the Republican Party (he even attended the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago), I would fancy that Dad had a great deal of sympathy for the less fortunate and for the common working man. What would he think of the Republican Party today compared to that of his day, exemplified by these provisions in the Republican platform of 1956:
1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities;
2. Protect Social Security;
3. Provide asylum for refugees;
4. Extend minimum wage;
5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people;
6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union;
7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.
What would he think about the perennial Republican tax cuts for the wealthy and attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? I know that he was constantly surprised and pleased by his own Social Security check which, though small, arrived faithfully every month, from that same Federal government that his political party liked to condemn.
Emil, Elma and Ida Baxstrom circa 1932
I would love to ask my mother more about how her family came to send virtually all of its children at one time or another to the Pillar of Fire schools in Denver, where Mom and Dad eventually met in high school. I know that Mr. Clarence Yoder, somehow a church member, owned a quarter of land adjacent to the Baxstrom farm in North Dakota. But why and how exactly did Mr. Yoder wield such influence on Mom’s family? And who was primarily responsible for the final decision – her mother or her father? I know one brother, her youngest, Uncle Emil, left the Pillar of Fire in disgust after a few months there, calling the church a “cult”. How did the others feel? How did my mom really feel about the church? I do know that Dad’s parents adamantly disagreed about the church – his mother embracing it and backing Dad’s decision to leave his family for the church at 14. I wonder if Mom’s parents had conflicting opinions as well.
Baxstrom women Ruth, Elma, Ida (mom) and their mother Anna, maybe 1930
And I would like to ask my mother about how she developed her affinity for music which exerted such a pervasive influence on all of us children? Did they sing a lot in her little Mylo school? In her Lutheran church when she was a child? Did her parents also enjoy music at home? Did they have a piano in the house? Who played it? How did she learn “Star of the East”, that song on the piano which became her trademark? Incidentally, thanks to the magic of Google, I was surprised to learn that this song was actually a Christmas carol, has beautiful lyrics and was recorded on the B-side of a Christmas record by Judy Garland.
And Dad, too, enjoyed music, enjoyed singing, which surely influenced all of us as well. Where did that come from? What church did he and his family attend when he was a child in Missouri and in Colorado? I know I could have asked many of these questions to some of Dad’s siblings when they were alive. But they are all gone now too and I didn’t ask. So I will never find out.
All the questions outlined above could have been extended to what Mom and Dad knew of their own parents’ childhood. What Mom knew about the difficulties of everyday life faced by her Swedish parents, Nels Baxstrom and Anna Jonsson, when they were children would have been very interesting. Also, I would like to have known what Dad knew of the daily challenges faced by his parents, Conrad Adam Friedly and Audra Arnold and their respective families when they were growing up. I just didn’t ask Mom and Dad these questions and regret it very much today.
So I miss my parents more than ever and at age 75 I’m wondering why. Right now I’m attempting to prepare a huge page of the Friedly Family with Mom and Dad, their birthdates and birthplaces on top and their children and progeny listed in order below, replete with birth dates, occupations and so on. Ralph and Ida Friedly would have been so pleased and proud to see this extensive list of individuals who, with an assist from the infusion of other rich blood, descended directly from them, and have pursued such a huge variety of careers and vocations.
It hit me the other day, during one of my early morning reveries, during which I seem to think most clearly and write most fluently, that perhaps the reason I miss my parents so much now, is that I’m getting on in years myself and have a clearer sense of my own mortality. Mom and Dad did indeed pass away but they continue to live richly in my mind. With the inevitable end of my consciousness, they will finally fade away completely for me. So along with a final goodby to my own loved ones, it will be a final farewell to Mom and Dad as well. They are missed.
During most of my senior year in high school I gave little or no thought to going to college. While in the high schools run by the church in which I was reared most of us assumed that we would go right on to Alma White College, right there on the same campus. It was only when I moved to stay with my Aunt and Uncle in Wooster, Ohio for my senior year that I was forced to consider what comes after high school.
Even while at Wooster High, my experience was so isolated from what classmates were experiencing it was pathetic. Due to my initial appearance when registering (striped pants, Wellington boots and ducktail haircut), I was put into some pretty low levels of classes. When January came around some test scores of mine must have come back because I was placed in proper Civics, English, Physics and math classes. Also I think I did pretty well in an annual test for seniors called the Kent State Scholarship Test. But I don’t recall ever visiting with a counselor about college or getting any help whatsoever from school. However, with my Aunt and Uncle’s help I did sign up for the College Boards which I took at Wooster College in the winter and then sent away for application materials for Rutgers University, my very own “local” (ten miles away from my New Jersey home) university. I was duly accepted, received my thick package of registration materials, filled them out, sent them in and was ready to begin when I rejoined my family in August.
My not visiting with any counselor at Wooster High was indeed unfortunate. I guess I was quite naive about academic counseling and never realized actually what role it performed or what help the service provided in the college application process. I only discovered during my sophomore year in talking to my friend Bryan Garruto who happened to mention to me that he had earned a New Jersey State scholarship that paid his tuition at Rutgers because of his College Board scores. You can imagine my chagrin and disappointment when I discovered that my scores were higher than his and I could have had my tuition paid for. I could have been freed of much of my financial struggle requiring me to borrow tuition money on a federal student loan and borrow money for books and other incidental expenses from my father. A visit to the student aid office at Rutgers revealed that, having missed the opportunity to apply before the start of my freshman year, I no longer qualified for this award.
Rutgers University is the state university of New Jersey with the main campus in New Brunswick and other big campuses in Camden and Newark. I didn’t know much about the school before attending – it was simply the university located in New Brunswick, the big town on the Raritan River located about ten miles from my home where we shopped once in awhile. But Rutgers has some unique distinctions – it is the eighth oldest university in the country, founded as Queens College in 1766, one of nine pre-American Revolution institutions of higher learning. More than 67,000 students are served by over 22,000 faculty and staff. And, if you are interested, the first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1866.
Having taken some Masters level history courses at Rutgers, I guess Dad was happy with my choice and immediately began to take an interest. He took me in to the bookstore to buy my books for me and also my “dink” (a beanie hat that all freshmen were required to wear) and my navy blue and red (pardon me, scarlet) Rutgers tie, also required of freshmen.
During orientation week I attended, along with most of the other freshmen, an evening reception at the home of Dr. Mason Gross, the Rutgers president. I don’t remember much about how I got there – I could have driven in the family car or Dad could have taken me and picked me up later. After nibbling on snacks and grabbing a drink, I joined a very long line which moved slowly and finally moved you up for a greeting and handshake from Dr. Gross himself. What I remember most from this experience was simply the vastness of it all – so many people, so much confusion (for me probably, not for everyone else). And I remember a queasy feeling of displacement, of not belonging. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I knew nobody and was a stranger among a huge mob of other strangers.
During these first years of college I continued to live at home. More properly, I should say that I lived on campus and slept at home, because I was gone from the early morning until evening, spending my time between classes in the library, a facility which I got to know very well and became a retreat, a comfort for me. And my having to commute to school continued to exacerbate my feelings of discomfort and displacement. It also sharpened my resentment of students better off financially than I. They had the money to live on campus and enjoy college life and I did not. During these two years of full time study I never went to the university cafeteria once but instead bought my lunch and snacks from vendors who sold their fare from trucks parked on College Avenue and its side streets. I can remember many days sitting in the car shivering as I ate my cold sandwich and waited for my next class. Another place where I ate occasionally was a small restaurant run by a couple of Greek guys, Central Lunch on Albany Street in downtown New Brunswick. My standard choice here was a bowl of bean soup and a chili hotdog. I have never in my life tasted soup as good as this but I was convinced that the huge kettle was never really emptied – just new ingredients added from time to time to keep the kettle full – probably accounting for the aged flavor of the soup. Oh, and probably the most important reason I went there was that my lunch cost fifty cents – 25 cents for the hot dog and 25 for the soup.
The courses I took my first year were required of all College of Liberal Arts students: English comp, Western Civ, a basic math course, Economics, and a foreign language, in my case, German. Our big freshman class of about 1300 students was sliced up alphabetically for required classes so my acquaintances and friends included Billy Garbarini, Allan Fritz, Stephen Gottlieb, Bryan Garruto and other last names like Friedman and Goldstein. A grim fact circulating among us freshmen was that typically about half of every freshmen class “washed out” every year, so we always looked around at each other wondering who would or would not be there next year.
About some of the courses, the Western Civilization course was anchored by big lecture hall sessions presented by notables of the History Department, supplemented by smaller “recitation” sessions” usually taught by graduate assistants. However, I was fortunate to find my recitation section taught by one of the lecture hall stars and department luminaries, Dr. Peter Charanis, noted for his knowledge and writings about Ancient Greece, Rome and especially the Byzantine Empire. Dr. Charanis’ animated and colorful accounts of the dramatic careers of Justinian and Theodora were quite memorable.
Another memorable lecturer in the Western Civ course was Professor Henry Winkler (no, not the Henry Winkler portraying Fonzi on Happy Days!), the author of one of our texts and an excellent teacher. His famous lecture on Nazi Germany routinely drew over a thousand students, many not even registered for the course, to our modest-sized lecture hall, many equipped with tape recorders which they arrayed around the lectern. Dr. Winkler’s history was good, but what really drew the crowd was his theatrical delivery, punctuated with timely and dramatic sarcasm and contemptuous sneers, drawing ooh’s, ah’s, boos and cheers from his predominantly Jewish audience.
Another course that I remember well from my first year at Rutgers was Economics 220, taught by Dr. Alexander Balinky, not only a very knowledgable professor but an excellent teacher. Highlights from the course that I remember well were our textbooks: “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers” by Robert Heilbroner and “The Theory of Countervailing Power” by John Kenneth Galbraith, both of which I kept in my bookcase and referred to for many years. The first, along with Dr. Balinky’s lectures, offered me invaluable first encounters with the contributions of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Robert Malthus and John Maynard Keynes, much of which has remained with me and strongly influenced my opinions today. Galbraith’s book also made an indelible impression upon me which makes me lament the decline of labor unions in the US because their power, along with corporate and government power were an essential element of Galbraith’s theory.
Another highlight (or lowlight) from the course was not academic but is worth relating – my first and only encounter with large scale cheating in college. On the midterm exam day, instead of Dr. Balinky administering the test, a distinguished white-haired professor emeritus from the economics department arrived with the tests and an armful of bluebooks. He requested a couple of volunteers to collect the bluebooks when the course period ended and bring them over to the economics building, and then he left the room. Astonished, most of the students promptly opened their notebooks and texts to help with their test responses. Others of us did not and two of us – the aforementioned Bryan Garruto and I, after discussing the event, decided that we should share the incident with Dr. Balinky, which we did. Of course, at the next class, Balinky really let the whole class have it and reamed us out royally for betraying the confidence of the elderly professor who trusted us to be honorable, informed us that he was throwing out the bluebooks from that test and was administering another, more difficult exam at the next class. Looking back at the incident, I think that the decision to share what occurred with the professor was the right thing to do, although many students were irate that certain unknown students had chosen to “rat” on them. To my knowledge Dr. Balinky never pursued the incident any further, for example referring it to the Committee for Academic Dishonesty for action, perhaps because it was an isolated incident involving virtually the entire class.
The basic math course, Math 161-162, was very difficult and was an ego-crusher to someone like myself who had enjoyed success in math in high school and also was the proud owner and skilled operator of a high quality slide rule, the “hand held calculator” of the 1950’s. I had bought this prized instrument during my senior year of high school primarily for a trigonometry course and, snugly nestled in its nice leather case attached to my belt, was proudly displayed in the hallways of Wooster High. However, I struggled during the first semester of the course and barely passed with a “D” and then was totally overwhelmed second semester when I failed the course, putting myself on probation, perilously close joining the many others who were forced to leave after their freshman year. I will never forget the diminutive, manic little guy who taught the course, Dr. August Hercksher, whose explanations and examples left me completely befuddled. As I recall, there were many others who struggled with the course and failed it as well, offering some consolation. In retrospect, this course, along with English composition, must have been the courses that honed the freshman class down to size before advancing to the second year. Fortunately I did finally pass the course, taught by a different instructor when I repeated it during the summer and eked out a grade average that narrowly allowed me into my sophomore year.
And speaking of English composition, I was continually chagrinned to find that not only was I a mediocre math student but a mediocre English student as well, who hung his head sadly at every “unclear”, “cliche”, “illogical” or simply “???” scribbled by some graduate assistant in red pen on what I expected to be a stellar piece of writing. Fortunately, however, I didn’t fail the basic required English course as many others did but squeaked through with 3’s (equivalent to “C’s”) both semesters. A few other shocks that first year deserve recalling and recounting – my required freshman Physical Education classes and required ROTC. Everyone was required to take a swimming test during orientation week. When I arrived as scheduled, I was totally shocked to find that we were not allowed to wear bathing suits. Having to expose my entire skinny body, including private parts, to everyone else was deflating enough, but the ultimate shame was having to be fished out of the pool hanging on to the end of a bamboo pole proffered by one of the instructors (who did wear swim suits), after foundering midway on the required second lap in the pool. Thus I was consigned to beginning swimming instruction for my entire first semester, having to immerse myself in the cold pool water at the early 8:00 time of the class, especially shocking to the system after a chilly walk from my car. But most uncomfortable were all the unattractive naked male bodies and the potential genital pain or, God forbid, damage, when participating in the diving portion of the course. Fortunately, I passed beginning swimming and diving with flying colors and was involved in more pleasurable and more appropriately clothed sports during second semester.
And then there was ROTC, to which my introduction was being herded into a long line for the issuance of my uniform – wool worsted pants and fancy jacket with brass buttons, tan shirt, dress hat, plain toe GI shoes and black socks and black tie. The uniform fit well and looked sharp and wearing it was undeniably a boyhood dream come true. After being taught to properly heed drill commands “forward, march”, “column left” (or right), “halt”, “at ease”, and most welcome – “fall out”, we also learned how to march holding an M-1 rifle (bolt removed) on the right shoulder and later the basic rifle drills – “right shoulder – arms”, “present arms…” and the rest.
We gathered weekly for our initially pathetic efforts at precision drill at Buccleuch Park on Easton Avenue and adjacent to College Avenue in New Brunswick during the fall and spring of that first year. And since some of those days were quite hot and we had only our wool uniforms, our ranks were interspersed by a dozen or so cadets who had succumbed to the heat, fainted and “fell out” a bit early, before the official command to do so. And once a week during the year, we attended the classroom portion of our ROTC requirement, studying military “science” and history. Our ROTC unit also went on a long field trip to visit the huge Letterkenny Army Depot near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Yes, I was impressed by my first closeup looks at huge tanks, vehicles and guns and the hundreds of acres of similar armaments poised to repel invasions or to be transported overseas to “defend our freedom”.
Since Rutgers was a land-grant college, two years of ROTC was mandatory. However, sometime during 1960 ROTC became voluntary, so I took advantage and withdrew for my sophomore year, with few regrets. My brother Robert chose to take ROTC for his entire four years at Rutgers a few years later and served as an officer in Germany after his graduation. My aforementioned friend, Bryan Garruto, also chose to remain in ROTC. I should mention something about those valued friends like Bryan during my first year. Yes, they were guys I chatted and joked with before and after classes, but since I commuted to school, we never saw each other socially and never ate meals together. But they were fellow students whose fellowship I valued highly and whose company I sought at every opportunity, to alleviate the great loneliness I felt so acutely during that first year. Bryan was also a preceptor in one of the Rutgers dorms and would often appear bleary-eyed at morning classes because, as he put it, “the natives were restless last night”.
I know I could have eased the isolation that first year of college if I had involved myself in some extracurricular activities. It’s not that I didn’t’ want to – I truly didn’t know what I wanted. My enjoyment of music and singing did induce me to try out for the renowned Rutgers Glee Club, directed by legendary F. Austin (Soup) Walter. I did go to the Club office to set up a tryout, which involved replicating with my voice some simple one-finger melodies tapped out by Mr. Walter on his grand piano. I was crushed to be told that I didn’t make it – I guess my voice cracked on Walter’s high C (or was it a D or an A?). But at least I had tried. Since my friend Allan Fritz had tried out for and made the Rutgers baseball team, I briefly considered trying out myself. But thorough consideration of Allan’s long experience in high school, comparison to my own limited experience and the risk of more embarrassment after my Glee Club failure, dissuaded me from trying.
I did, however, involve myself in two cultural experiences that first year that were thrilling but lonely experiences. I bought a ticket and attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in our gymnasium. To see the famed Eugene Ormandy and this great orchestra live was a great thrill. Another time, after seeing it advertised, I bought a ticket and an express bus trip into New York City to see the famed Moiseyev Dancers from Russia, again thrilling but very lonely since I didn’t know anyone on the bus or at the performance.
I practically lived in the library during that first year of full time study. I was enchanted by the size of the place, the thousands of books and especially the shelves of bound periodicals. I spent many hours perusing old Time magazines, re-reading old familiar articles and contemporary articles published during World War II. I remember especially looking up one special 1955 issue of Time which included a picture of singer Patti Page with whose face and prominent décolletage I had fallen in love with at age 13. What an experience, what feelings, to see this picture again, there in the stacks of the Rutgers Library.
I was also pleased to find books by Mark Twain that were new to me and gave me much pleasure to read, among them “Sketches New and Old”, the stories in which I found hilarious. This book was illustrated by the same Twain illustrator, True Williams, whose incredible work I had enjoyed so much in my old and dogeared first edition of “Innocents Abroad”.
Along with many other students, I frequented the reserve room at the Library quite often to read assignments in books professors had placed on reserve. One memory associated with this area is that of a terribly crippled student who used to come often as well. Swinging an inflexible body on two crutches, he would approach the desk, get his book, tuck it between his arm and a crutch and approach a sofa. Then he would call for help from someone to lower his stiff body onto the sofa and place the crutches near him, where he would read his assignment. After reading he would again call for help and someone would come, tuck his crutches under his arms, lift him and his crutches to an upright position, pick up his book and tuck it between a crutch and his arm and he would be on his way to the desk and then to the outside. I helped him down and back up many times that year but never followed him outside to see how he got to and from the library. Also, for some reason, I never saw him around campus and was never in any of his classes. But I do clearly remember this man and how he bravely managed down there in the Reserve Room.
During those days in the library, my home away from home during my freshman year, I did lots of searching and lots of reading. But unfortunately little of the reading had anything to do with the courses I was taking, certainly explaining part of the reason I did so poorly that first year of college. I was getting a great education but paid a price in poor grades in my actual courses. Also, reflecting on that first year of college, I was terribly immature compared to my classmates, many of whom were military veterans. Here I was with my very parochial background, having just turned 17, quite lost on this huge campus among all these new experiences.
In addition, I am now convinced that I had a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder. When writing papers, listening to lectures and taking exams, my mind always wandered and I had difficulty paying attention. I was perplexed and upset as well by many classmates, who through their responses and questions clearly were my intellectual inferiors yet they always got much better grades than I on papers and tests. Clearly I was far less mature than many classmates but also could not focus or concentrate the way others could. After my year and a half working in Colorado after my sophomore year, I apparently had outgrown much of this ADD problem because I could concentrate so much better, as reflected in much better grades.
My loneliness and isolation on campus were considerably alleviated during my second year at Rutgers. Some time in the fall I was approached by a classmate by the name of Paul (can’t remember the last name) and invited to visit Theta Chi fraternity. After doing so, I was invited to pledge the fraternity, to me a really big deal. What a pleasure to realize that someone wanted me and valued my presence and companionship.
I was quite proud to be a fraternity pledge. In spite of the onerous tasks assigned to me such as memorizing parts of the Theta Chi manual and doing lots of favors for the brothers, it felt great to finally be a part of something and respectfully exchange greetings with my new friends at the house and elsewhere on campus. I selected a very dignified and distinguished senior, Jay Fein, as my pledge “father” to advise and help me as necessary. Another brother, Joe (can’t remember last name) made me memorize the first ten lines of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. I can still remember the first line – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” In the meantime I started eating my lunches and many dinners at the fraternity house, a real pleasure, in spite of the duties imposed on me as a pledge. These meals, however, cost money, so I reduced the cost by waiting tables and doing dishes as often as I could at the house. I also that year worked part time at Kendall Park Pharmacy, fairly close to New Brunswick to help with my expenses. However, I left school after my sophomore year with a sizable debt to Theta Chi which I was able to finally pay off that fall.
It was tradition at Theta Chi for the group of pledges to play a prank on the rest of the group – something that caused inconvenience and consternation, not destruction. So I borrowed my Dad’s pickup truck and at 2:00 or so at night sneaked into the fraternity house with the other pledges and quietly took all the fancy decorations off the walls of the house lounge room, took them to my house and put them in my garage. They were returned by us pledges after the proper amount of punishment was meted out to us by the brothers.
Later that fall, prior to our induction ceremony, we pledges were initiated or “hazed” by being made to wear burlap sacks with arm cutouts against our skin under our clothes, and required to stay awake for an entire weekend doing a series of onerous tasks, one of which included painting a hall and stairway. After the elaborate and very impressive ceremony inducting us a full-fledged “brothers” we celebrated in the party room in the basement which was outfitted with a full-fledged bar. Drinking that mug of beer with which we toasted our new status was my first experience with alcohol and for the first time I experienced the pleasant, exuberant and euphoric sensations induced by alcohol and thought of how foolish my parents and other church people were to oppose drinking and how much they had missed with their silly abstinence and sobriety.
The several fraternity parties that I attended that year were fabulous experiences that were brand new for me. The sound of live rock and roll music from the several bands that were hired for entertainment and dance was incredible. The music, the dancing and the camaraderie, lubricated and heightened by alcohol and the presence of a comely date (that a brother fixed me up with) created fabulous and memorable experiences for me.
I should also mention that the pain of my rejection for the Rutgers Glee Club was ameliorated somewhat by Theta Chi’s distinction as the “singing fraternity” at Rutgers. We almost always won the annual singing contest among the fraternities. I don’t know why, certainly singing ability was never a criterion for pledge invitations, but there was an ongoing interest in vocal harmony among the brothers at Theta Chi. We sang a lot together for no reason at all, so when the time came for vocal competition, we were ready. That spring of my sophomore year, we again won the contest hands down.
Another incident I remember well was the “Ugly Man Contest”, a considerably less notable competition among the Rutgers fraternities. When no hands went up at a dinnertime request for a volunteer and wishing to distinguish myself, I tendered my services. So I had the pleasure and the pain of being Theta Chi’s candidate for this undignified competition. But the preparation was not without pleasure. I accompanied a couple of brothers over to Douglass College, the women’s division of Rutgers, where their cute girlfriends and a couple of their attractive friends, provisioned by a few of their makeup kits, made my face over for the competition. I would like to think that making me up for an ugly man contest was a huge challenge for these girls, but I think that instead they looked me over and decided they had a pretty good head start for the process. I did not win the contest (thankfully!) but somewhere in the Theta Chi archives at 51 Mine Street is the picture of Ralph Friedly, the “Ugly Man” contestant for 1961.
My pledge group was rather small – as I remember there were five of us, of whom I remember two quite well – Gordon Moore and John Kelly. Gordon was a real gentleman and later became a teacher in neighboring Piscataway Township schools, eventually serving as a principal and then personnel director. I’ve had occasion to see Gordon’s name in print several times over the years. John I remember well for a different reason – I stole his cute, vivacious girlfriend from him. A bunch of us used to enjoy occasionally going to Staten Island where we could enjoy the lower New York drinking age. So over the Outerbridge Crossing from Elizabeth we’d go, to the first town, Tottenville, and then to the first big bar, the Totten Villa. One evening, John was accompanied by his date, Janet Domhoff, from nearby Carteret, and somehow, Janet and I ended up together. Janet was the first “outside”, that is, non-church, girlfriend I had ever introduced to my humble Zarephath home and introduced to my equally humble parents. I saw Janet off and on until my departure to Colorado in the fall of 1961. I don’t know what became of her – my Google searches have come up empty.
So in my second year of full time study at Rutgers I felt that I finally belonged there and had considerably widened my friendships through joining Theta Chi. I did considerably better in my courses as well, maybe growing out of my ADD cloudiness or just learning how to manage my time and study habits better. The best and probably the most transformative course during my sophomore year was “Masterpieces of French Literature in Translation”. This was a “dream course” because you carried a towering stack of paperback novels from the bookstore “English 420” bin, which included masterpieces like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, Stendahl’s “The Red and the Black”, Zola’s “Germinal” and many others. The professor who taught this marvelous course, Dr. Serge Sobolevitch, was a fabulous teacher. He was also a dedicated smoker, whose first act upon entering the classroom was to carefully arrange three packs of cigarettes on his desk – Camels, Winstons and Salems. Then he would chain smoke these regular, filtered and menthol cigarettes in succession, never stopping for the entire class period. And yes, both professors and students could smoke in class back then. I loved this course and valued the opportunity to become acquainted with these mighty French authors and their enduring works. It also propelled me on the way toward minoring in English.
I did comparatively well in other classes as well that academic year 1960-61. I took my required science course, choosing geology, which I did find quite interesting. The course included a field trip to examine notable geological formations, yes, even in New Jersey and nearby Pennsylvania. The year included two semesters of American history too. One of the required texts was “George Washington: Man and Monument” by Marcus Cunliffe, which I remember well for shattering all the myths about our first president popularized by Parson Weems. I also took my second year of German, finishing my language requirement. And I should add that my two years of German were a big disappointment. For someone who had two years of German in high school, this requirement should have been a pleasure and a breeze. But it was not – I think a “2” (the equivalent of a “B”) was the highest grade I got over the entire four semesters.
I left school after my sophomore year and searched for a job to pay off my debt, finally obtaining a good-paying job on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Metuchen, not too far from New Brunswick. As I recount in another article , I was soon laid off from that job because of a congenital defect in my back but did barely accumulate enough money to pay off my debt. I had not the resources that would allow me to return to school full time and could not face continuing to live at home so I left New Jersey for Denver, Colorado, where I remained for the next 18 or so months working as a clerk for Navajo Freight Lines.
When I returned to New Jersey I resumed work on my degree at night at Rutgers University College. While there I took some great upper level history courses and several more sweet advanced English courses with the stack of paperback novels as the texts. Having gotten married and settling into a full time accounting job at Johns Manville Research, my life became much more stable and I was able to summon the discipline and will to succeed in my courses, attending class, studying and writing during my evenings and weekends. One semester I took 13 credit hours of work, yet earned good grades in all the courses,. Some of the courses were perhaps not as demanding or as competitive as the courses taught at the Colleges for Men in which I had been enrolled my first two years from 1959 to 1961, since they were sometimes taught by retired professors working part time or new professors jockeying for a full time job, but they were still challenging and stimulating. Some of the advanced history and English courses were in fact scheduled and staffed to serve both the full time and the part time Rutgers student populations and thus were quite competitive.
During this time my brother Robert started at Rutgers and as a liberal arts student later majoring in music, likely struggled with some of the same bewilderment and confusion with which I struggled. However, there were some significant differences. First, Robert was likely smart enough to apply for and receive the Rutgers state tuition scholarship that I missed. And somehow Robert managed to live on campus and he also tried out for and was selected to a major sport, heavyweight varsity crew (or rowing). His abilities and dedication even earned him the distinction of rowing at the key stroke position. And as I mentioned in my first “Home Sweet Home” article, Robert lived in a small apartment, a converted storefront, right around the corner from where we lived on Easton Avenue for awhile. So Rob likely felt much more a part of college life and the Rutgers campus than I ever did. Furthermore, the close teamwork required by his crew commitment must have earned him some lasting friendships, as did perhaps his ROTC for all four years. While Rob was at Rutgers, I attended, along with our proud parents and other family members, many of his local varsity crew races on the Raritan River in New Brunswick and at Carnegie Lake in Princeton. When thinking of Robert’s Rutgers career, his living on campus and his rowing success, I am always struck with conflicting feelings of envy and admiration – Rob did what I could not do – live on campus, perform much better in his courses and even earn his way onto a varsity sports team. What qualities and abilities did he possess as a young man that I did not? Did he have more opportunities than I or was he more resolute and did he work much harder? Or maybe he was just brighter.
So in 1965 I was finally able to graduate with a BA in history and English and the handful of education credits that enabled me to obtain a temporary teaching certificate and begin my career in education. Although for many years I never really stopped going to school, earning two more degrees while working as an educator, I was happy to put those chaotic and stressful years of undergraduate education behind me. My 44 year career in education, which turned out to be no less chaotic and stressful, and my recent retirement have brought me to this point – sitting in my leather armchair during the early morning hours in the basement study of our little Vermont house reminiscing and writing. Why? I don’t really know. It just feels like what I should be doing at this late stage of my life. Dear reader, if you were able to get through the 6000 plus words of this ponderous and detailed tome, thank you for your patience and for allowing me to share this part of my life with you.
Reflecting on and writing about these difficult years moved me try to find out what happened to some of the dear friends from back then. I have to admit with some shame that I’ve never been good at maintaining friendships. Perhaps if I had stayed in New Jersey or remained in Massachusetts, things would have been different. Here in this beautiful green Vermont summer, my wife can gaze across the road at the house in which she grew up, changed a little now but still the same house. She can point to where her grandmother’s house was and where the barn and the “night pasture” were located. And she occasionally says hello to any one of several childhood friends from her elementary school days. I have no such opportunity. I have bounced around the country and the globe quite a bit in my life and have not cultivated those valuable roots and connections that others have. So most of my friendships have burned brightly and then were extinguished over time because of distance and years or my own carelessness. I could find no information on anyone I have mentioned from my days at Rutgers save Gordon Moore, whose name shows up in some googled documents, Stephen Gottlieb, who became a teacher and school administrator in the Plainfield, New Jersey area, and Bryan Garruto, who excelled in his undergraduate studies, served in the army, went to Rutgers law school, practiced law and became a judge. I learned all this from an obituary that I found on a Google search. Bryan passed away last spring.
“Home is where the heart is”; “there’s no place like home”; “it’s so good to be home”. Yes, a home is important. In the words of George Carlin, it’s also a place to hold our “stuff”. And it’s also a place to sleep, to eat, to keep you out of the rain and cold, a place in which to feel secure, a space to share with loved ones, a place to enjoy and love. A home is cozy and comfortable.
Over my 75 years I’ve lived in many homes and looking back on them each place had an influence on me and was significant for me. And each home in which I have lived has provided indelible memories, mostly good. And when I visualize each place where I have lived I realize that it has provided something special to me – the unique experiences, the people with whom I lived, the feelings generated by daily life in that home. As such, the homes in which all of us have lived form an important biographical thread in the fabric of our lives. What follows is that thread for me, a narrative of places where I have lived, divided into three parts: Part I 1942 to 1972, Part II 1972 to 1983 and Part III 1983 until now. Here’s the first part.
Barbara and I at Sunset Farm 1942
I was born in Somerset Hospital in Somerville, New Jersey and as an infant lived on Sunset Farm, a residence and farm buildings owned by the church of which my parents were members. This place preceded my memory but visiting it as a young adult and seeing pictures taken there when I was very young enables me to speculate on what life was like there for my mother, already caring for four year old Barbara, with infant me and shortly after, another pregnancy and my sister Elaine, to be born while we lived there also.
Barbara, Elaine and I 1945 (note the wartime wood construction of the stroller and wheelbarrow)
In 1945 or so my family was assigned by church authorities to live at a church home in Oakland, California, where my brother Robert was born. At this house my memories began, with hazy impressions of a trip on the Oakland Bay Bridge with its multiple suspension spans, a tunnel and then multiple truss spans. I recall seeing somewhere from this bridge a Sherwin Williams sign with neon animation spilling paint down over a neon globe.
Elaine and I, 1946 or so
And at our house I recall spotlights filling the sky, maybe having something to do with the war with Japan. And I remember looking for pretty stones in an area between the rungs of a ladder lying where rain fell from the roof. I also recall as a little boy marching around an oval rug chanting “round round Hitler’s grave”. Apparently this ditty came from an Almanac Singers song in 1942 but I don’t remember how I came to know it. I also have a memory of clouds of fighter planes flying overhead, probably from a nearby Air Force base.
Barb, Elaine and I
The next home to which my family moved in 1946 or ’47 was a church home called “Lock Haven”, on Canal Road about a mile east of the little church community town called Zarephath, between the towns of Bound Brook and Manville, New Jersey. We shared this large rather ramshackle house of graying and peeling white wood siding with several others – an elderly couple, the Schisslers, and an elderly single man, Mr. Wittekind. We occupied the two floors in the main part of the house, with the Schisslers in the lower floor of an addition and Mr. Wittekind in a single room above.
Me, Rob, Barb and Elaine, forsythia and swings in background 1947 or so
Outside was a long cinder driveway meeting a gravel main driveway that went left to the barnyard of a large gray barn and to the “bee house” where Mr. Wittekind kept his bee equipment: some “smokers”, extra hives, beeswax frames and a large centrifuge. (I knew about this paraphernalia because after Mr. Wittekind’s passing, my Dad tried to take over and learn the bee business.) The gravel driveway to the right went downhill to Canal Road which to the left took you to Zarephath and beyond to Weston, Manville and Somerville or to the right to Bound Brook, South Bound Brook and towns beyond, like Dunellen, Plainfield or New Brunswick.
Robert outside the Lock Haven house with the forsythia
Around the house were maple trees, forsythia bushes, grass lawns and a large lilac bush, which you could actually enter and navigate little paths among the stems and branches. Adjacent to some large forsythias was a rusty and old but still serviceable set of swings which we kids enjoyed. There was also an incongruous small hexagonal building with maroon shingles on its exterior which my sister Barb used to raise her flock of ducks. The big barn was used for storing some church farm implements and stacks of bales of hay in the haymow. The haymow had that wonderful unique smell of old wood and hay, not readily describable but instantly recognizable and known only to people who have experienced barns in their lives.
Charlie and Elaine, Lock Haven barn in background
The driveway left extended beyond the beehives and bee house and eventually met a dirt road which left would take you to the Tabor (another church home which anchored the farm operations) peach and apple orchards and right would take you to past some hayfields on to Zarephath, our “church town” which I will describe elsewhere. That right turn would first take you over a culvert containing our little creek, in which I occasionally “fished” for non existent fish with a stick, a string and a piece of wire “hook”, while letting my mind run on about fishing and a thousand other things.
Me, Columbia bicycle and our ’49 Chevy
Across Canal Road from the house was “the canal”, our simple colloquialism for the Delaware and Raritan Canal, an old formerly important transportation artery constructed in the 1830’s connecting the Delaware River and the Raritan River and used for about a hundred years to transport cargo between Philadelphia and New York City. It was only later that I realized that the path on the canal bank that I knew as the “toe path” was really “tow path”, the path worn by the horses and mules that had towed barges on the canal. “The canal” played an important role in our lives during those years in Zarephath. I learned to swim in the canal, as well as doing my first real fishing. And in the winter, when the canal froze, you could ice skate all the way to Princeton, getting off the ice to walk around the bridges and locks between.
Elaine, Rob, me and Charlie, lilac bush in background
It was at Lock Haven that big sister Barbara raised her flock of ducks and Dad and Mom raised several flocks of chickens to sell. For some reason both Mom and Dad frowned on pets so there were never any dogs or cats to pet, love and take care of. But one time when Dad had a flock of speckled Plymouth Rock chickens there was one all-black chicken among them that got picked on all the time by the others for being different. I used to protect this chicken, put him under a crate to keep him safe and gave him his own food and water and he became, believe it or not, my pet, even coming to me when I called his name, “Blackie”. So, Tommy Smothers, you weren’t the only kid who had a pet chicken!
Me, Blackie, Elaine
The tall chimney over the kitchen and dining room of the Lock Haven house went down during Hurricane Hazel in 1955, thankfully not penetrating the roof, which likely accelerated our move to another church residence – “Morningside”, about a mile west of Zarephath. This house, which also served as the home of another family, the Chambers, was located among some flat, fertile fields, the floodplain between the Canal and the Millstone River, a tributary of the Raritan River.
This house was small for a family of our size. At Lock Haven Charlie had arrived, born at home and Richard also, right before we moved, making eight of us to fit into three upstairs bedrooms. Later an addition was built onto the house and Mom and Dad’s bedroom moved downstairs, making it a bit more tolerable for us six kids upstairs. Of course, while in this house, Glenn and Stan were added to the family making the final eight, so it was always crowded. I initially shared a bedroom with Robert and Charlie so the three of us became quite territorial, in order to share the space and the drawers of one dresser. Barbara and Elaine were in another bedroom.
Richard, Stan and Glenn at Morningside
The childhood memories that accumulated in this house were many, and included assembling serviceable bicycles from the pile of accumulated parts in the garage each spring and riding them on the many dirt roads in the immediate area, to participating in Dad’s truck farming operation, which blossomed into running a roadside stand on the “Weston Causeway”, the road between Canal Road and Weston Road into Manville. The stand was run by the younger kids, namely Charlie and Richard, while Rob and I and sometimes the girls helped with the planting, cultivation and harvesting of strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
Elaine outside, Millwood across the fields
Another fond memory was rocking my little brother Richard asleep in his wheeled baby basket while I listened to The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny and other popular radio shows from the 1950’s. Also I remember my Dad’s “It’s a girl!” joke when my brother Stan was born. After four boys in a row, all of us older kids had hoped for a little sister. But it was not to be, it was our last sibling, dear brother Stan instead.
Rob in back, Glenn, neighbor Celeste Chambers, Richard and Stan in front
While living at Morningside I made my first foray into radio and sound reproduction. It was there that I assembled a mail order crystal set, a rudimentary radio that picked up a signal from a connected bedspring antenna and was listened to on a set of headphones. I could not believe at the time that this little gadget actually picked up WOR from New York City as well as our local religious station, WAWZ. It was also at this house where as a teenager I assembled my first really good sound system – an Eico amplifier I built from a kit, a 15 inch Jensen coaxial speaker that I mounted in an old wooden radio cabinet, and an old Garrard turntable. It was on this system that I used to blast Rossinni’s William Tell Overture and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as well as Fats Domino and Little Richard.
Elaine and Charlie in front of Morningside house
The yard of this house also contained several symmetrical and eminently climbable maple trees, in one of which I fashioned a nice seat-back from baling twine in a fork of three branches high up in the tree. This became my redoubt in which to escape from the noise and chaos of my little brothers. Today looking back I can think of nothing more relaxing than climbing that tree with a sack of tomato sandwiches in my belt and a good book in my hand and settling back in that comfortable seat, reading my book, eating my sandwiches, feeling the tree gently sway and hearing the leaves rustle from a warm summer breeze, above it all, away from it all, in total privacy and relaxation. Yes, I could still hear the noise but I was above it all and thus quite removed.
Glenn, Richard, Stan, Murphys’ house in background
Other memories I associate with this house are a unreliable heating system which allowed the glass of water by my bed to freeze one winter night, and the several early spring floods we had. Being in the floodplain of the Millstone River, the area was vulnerable to flooding and we did experience a couple of these, when water ran down the cellar steps in a waterfall, causing havoc with Mom’s jars of canned fruit and vegetables and presenting a huge cleanup job when the flood subsided and water was pumped out. The house looked like an island in the middle of a huge lake and it was exciting to work with my brothers making rafts and then floating out into the deeper water.
Charlie among the maple trees 1960
“Morningside” was located about a mile away from the church headquarters town, Zarephath, and was conveniently reached on the Weston Canal Road or on the “back road” a road past “Millwood”, another church home, through the woods and over the dike (an earthen structure to protect Zarephath from the occasional Millstone River flooding and down into our little church “town”. And halfway along our long cinder driveway from the Weston Causeway was the home of the Murphy’s, another church family.
All six Friedly boys at the Morningside house, ’56 or ’57
In the fall of 1958 I was sent to the church school in Westminster, Colorado for my senior year of high school, got into some trouble there and in November was sent to live with my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil in Wooster, Ohio. The Wooster High School chapter of my life will be discussed elsewhere on this blog but in terms of a home, I lived in a really nice house, the first family home that my uncle, a general contractor, had built for his family. Built on a hillside in the farmland outside of Wooster, the basement of this beautiful house with real redwood siding was exposed in the back where you could enter and exit through a basement door. It also had a two car garage attached to the house by a breezeway. While there I lived in a comfortable basement bedroom with access to my own bathroom. I was with my Aunt and Uncle through my graduation and into most of July when my parents picked me up to return home to New Jersey and start college at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick. Before I left that summer I was able to work for Uncle Emil and receive firsthand a valuable introduction to basic carpentry skills, which I have used my whole life. I also painted, actually stained, the entire house before I left in August. I could not find a picture of this 1958 – 1959 home in my files.
During my first two years of college I again lived at home but obviously spent little time there since conditions were never appropriate to promote study and deep thought. I loved my little brothers but study there was impossible, so I spent most of the day and evening at Rutgers (see “Chaos: My Undergraduate Education”, to be published soon).
After my second year at Rutgers and after some disagreement with my father, I moved to Denver, Colorado and lived in several different apartments at 3001 Umatilla St. From here I could easily get on Speer Boulevard and then on Interstate 25 to get to my job at Navajo Freight Lines on South Santa Fe Drive. I began living there in a one room efficiency apartment where I slept on what was my couch during the day. After a couple of months I moved to a one bedroom unit with a roommate, John Griego. Later, having befriended a couple of Regis College students, Rich Byrne and Ken Adams, I moved into a three bedroom unit with them, all the while working at Navajo. Later that year, a couple of girls in another apartment whom we had befriended, Jerrilyn Rickey and Janice Goddard, joined me in deciding to leave the apartments and rent a furnished house. We did so in south Denver. I cannot remember the address but the experience of being in an actual house with these roommates was rather pleasant. Janice had a little baby girl so Janice, Jerrilyn and I seemed like an interesting little family. Eventually Janice and her little girl moved back to Alaska, Jerrilyn back to Montrose, Colorado and I rented my fourth residence during that year and a half in Denver, a small furnished apartment in central Denver. I don’t remember too much about this little place except that it was comfortable, furnished and conveniently located. Nor could I locate a picture of it in my files or elsewhere.
3001 Umatilla, Denver, Colorado
I returned from Denver in 1962 to live at home for awhile, found a job and resumed my education at Rutgers at night. After getting married in 1963, my wife Elaine and I lived in a one bedroom apartment adjacent to the Rutgers New Brunswick campus – 85 Easton Avenue. A half block away was a Rutgers gathering place called Olde Queens Tavern, very convenient for a quick hamburger or a take-out pizza. Adjusting to marriage, Elaine and I had some loud differences of opinion while in this apartment and I remember being shocked once, when lying on the bed during the day, that I could hear a phone being dialed by my next door neighbor – yes, the walls were that thin and I am sure my poor neighbor had heard all the anger and profanity that had passed between us. For awhile, my brother Robert, who had just started at Rutgers, lived around the corner from us in a small empty store-front that had been turned into a small apartment.
85 Easton Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ
About the time I graduated and began teaching, we moved into a new apartment complex at the junction of Route 18 and US 1 in New Brunswick – 200 Hoffman Boulevard. This apartment was convenient to my job at Irwin School in nearby East Brunswick but also convenient to a number of part time jobs I held at that time. Elaine had started work for a pediatrician, Dr. Hyman Gelbard, at about this time, whose office was also readily accessible. The apartment complex had a swimming pool perched right above the noise and exhaust from US Highway 1 which we used to enjoy, despite the fumes. I have not seen these apartments in many years but we entertained many guests while there, both friends and family.
While staying in the same complex, we later moved from our apartment in order to escape the noise from college student neighbors underneath us to another in the next building, only to find the same problem, this from the neighbor above us, forever fixing a powerful aversion to living next to, above or below anyone at all in an apartment house. It was at this time too when through Elaine and her contact with drug detail men, I began to take pills to sleep or pills to keep me alert (see “My World of Work”) as I worked a number of part time jobs, in addition to my full time job of teaching, to help make ends meet.
In 1968, after obtaining the job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we moved to Pinon Boarding School in Pinon, Arizona, a million miles from nowhere, right smack in the middle of the vast Navajo Reservation at the end of a 45 mile paved road west from Chinle. I recall vividly the Mayflower truck drivers’ comments when delivering our furniture to our primitive cinder block duplex on a mud-filled alley (can’t call it a “street”) in Pinon – “Are you guys out of your minds?” These were the same drivers who had picked up our furniture from our significantly more luxurious apartment home in New Jersey.
Pinon Trading Post 1969
One of the Navajo Reservation school complexes that one passed on the way from Chinle to Pinon was a new day school called Cottonwood, which had, in addition to new school buildings, a dozen or so brand new individual houses for teachers. Actually I had initially thought that this was our Pinon destination on the road from Chinle; it was disappointing that it was not and we had to go on – to old Pinon Boarding School, with the main school building a WPA – built structure and other buildings – the dormitories and residences – painted cinderblock. But our time in Pinon was indeed exciting and memorable. It was at Pinon Mercantile, the local trading post where I met a lifelong friend, Bill Malone, his lovely Navajo wife, Minnie, his stepson and his three little girls.
Bill Malone and daughters 1968
I had read about and finally got to meet the notable BIA school administrator, Wayne Holm, who at his school, Rock Point Boarding School, had formed the first functioning Navajo School Board and had instituted a number of innovative instructional strategies so I applied to be transferred to his school, close to a hundred miles from Pinon. Wayne said he wanted me so we packed up and moved again, this time at our expense and this time in a U-haul truck or a borrowed pickup truck. We moved to a nice single family 3-bedroom house, similar to those I had noticed at Cottonwood, in the residential area of Rock Point School, which cost us, as I recall, about $24 per bi-weekly paycheck. We paid for the utilities.
Rock Point School, housing in background
We were at Rock Rock Point for just one year, since I had applied for and was admitted to a post-masters program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. So we sold all of our furniture that had been carefully transported from New Jersey to Pinon and less carefully transported a year later from Pinon to Rock Point, packed what was left in our new VW Kombi and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we had been fortunate enough to get into Harvard married student housing, a high-rise near the Charles River called Peabody Terrace.
Peabody Terrace, Harvard married student housing
Our home here for one year, 11 Peabody Terrace, apartment 412, was a partially furnished studio apartment on one of the upper floors, where we had a table and chairs, a mattress on the floor, stereo equipment, LP records and books in a brick and board bookcase, a couch and a desk. I can’t really remember what we brought with us in our VW but it could not have been much – we certainly had stripped ourselves down to the bare essentials – maybe the desk and the table and chairs since we had sold our living room sectional couch, coffee and end tables to my friend Bill at Pinon and sold our beautiful Spanish “distressed finish” dark wood bedroom set to someone at Rock Point. Everything that mattered to us at that time was packed into our vehicle – essentially clothes, music and books. Also, our dog, Seymour, from the Rez, must have come with us because he was with us in Marshfield and Plympton, our next two residences, but I don’t remember traveling with him at all – must have been because he was such a good dog. Nor do I remember him in Cambridge. Maybe he was somewhere else at that time? But where? Did someone take care of him for us? I simply do not remember.
Finishing my year of school, I obtained my first school administrative job as Assistant Principal at Duxbury Elementary School in the south shore community of Duxbury, about 30 miles south of Boston. Our first move to this area was to a small furnished rental a couple of blocks from the beach in Marshfield, the next community north from Duxbury. A small two bedroom house without a garage, this place was ideal as we tried to settle down after the year of school in Cambridge.
After my first year in Duxbury, we bought our first house at 69 Ring Road in Plympton, Massachusetts, about a twenty minute drive to my job in Duxbury. The house was built by a local contractor and landowner who also sold building lots. It was quite modest sized, three bedrooms and one bath with attached two car garage, although to us it seemed very spacious. It was basically a ranch style and was covered with attractive New England style cedar shingle siding. We enjoyed this, our first real house, the first home that we actually owned. It was built on a two acre wooded lot and was located well off the road, hidden back among the trees. I recall a pleasant walk behind the house among some lovely hemlock trees, especially beautiful after a winter snowfall had decorated the branches. It was here that we replenished our furniture, buying much of it from Jordan Marsh warehouse in Quincy. Having built my first stereo amplifier made by Heathkit and the pair of KLH speakers bought while at 85 Easton Avenue in New Brunswick, it was at this house that I finally assembled and finished a beautifully designed music component console made by Furn-a-kit which held the amplifier, tuner and turntable with shelves and sliding enclosures for our LP records on each side.
Our house at 69 Ring Road, Plympton, Massachusetts
It was at this house where my brother Robert visited us from Germany, where he had made his home after serving as an officer in the Army. Accompanied by his girlfriend Helma, we enjoyed his visit very much. Rob also pitched in to assist in some landscaping outside and uphill from the house. As I remember it was a sort of rock retaining wall by the garage. Another memorable occasion was a surprise visit was from my cousin Sandy. We took him into Boston for a superb club concert by the incredibly rich-voiced blues singer Tracy Nelson.
This concludes the first section of “Home Sweet Home”. My memory, though pretty good for a guy my age, may have provided some inaccurate information, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if something needs to be corrected. All articles on this blog are really works in progress, anyhow. My second and third sections are written and will be published as soon as they can be illustrated.
I don’t really know how it was planned, maybe spur of the moment, but I don’t think I was heavily involved, maybe just expressed some interest, but I spent the summer of 1957 on the Baxstrom farm in Mylo, North Dakota, the little prairie town where my mother was born and raised.
In the spring of 1957 my Grandmother Friedly passed away from cancer at the age of 59. My father and his brother Gene, also living in New Jersey, Mr. Mark Tomlin, a young Pillar of Fire church minister, whom my grandmother had asked to conduct the funeral service before she died, and I, traveled by car from New Jersey to Missouri, leaving in the morning, driving all night and arriving at midday.
The funeral itself was conducted in a local church with Mr. Tomlin giving a very heartfelt eulogy, recounting my grandmother’s life, her conversion and relationship with the Pillar of Fire church. Details of the service I cannot remember clearly but I do recall joining in singing one favorite old country hymn that she had requested – “The Unclouded Day”. The funeral was attended by many relatives – my Dad’s surviving siblings Ada, Burton and of course, Gene, and a host of grandchildren who lived in the area. Also attending were many of Dad’s cousins from both the Friedly and Arnold sides of the family.
One cousin, whose name I cannot remember, drove me and my decrepit suitcase, to Kansas City, where he lived, and put me aboard a Greyhound bus, bound for Minneapolis, Minnesota. I rememberer the bus trip quite well – the overwhelming acrid smell of cigarette smoke in the bus, to which I, as an occasional teenage smoker, contributed. I remember catching little naps on the way and arriving in the Minneapolis bus station in the evening. My next bus connection, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, did not leave until the next morning, so I was stuck in Minneapolis for the night. I put my suitcase into one of those coin operated storage units and spent some time sitting on the benches in the bus station, reading magazines, dozing occasionally and killing time. Then, my first, and later, second, encounter with a predatory gay man occurred. An old man sat down next to me and asked me where I was going and proceeded to try to strike up a conversation. I put him off and he soon left me to my magazines. Seeking to kill more time, I left the bus station and walked toward a nearby all night movie theater that was showing “Gunfight at the OK Corral”. On the street I met the same man and he inquired as to my welfare, and actually reached up and brushed my hair back. This freaked me out so completely that I literally ran all the way to the theater, enjoyed watching the movie, came back to the bus station and resumed my long wait for my morning bus to Grand Forks. Thank God, I did not encounter this man again.
Reaching Grand Forks, I bought a ticket (honestly I don’t recall whether I made the arrangements or my parents or my Dad’s cousin, nor do I recall how I got from the bus station to the railroad station) for a train on the Great Northern Railroad from Grand Forks to Rugby, where my Uncle Clarence would pick me up. The train I boarded was not the fabled “Empire Builder”, which as an express train went right on by Grand Forks and Rugby, but the lesser known, more “local”, but still somewhat famous “Western Star”. I took this train in the afternoon, I think, got off in Rugby and was cheerfully greeted by my Uncle Clarence, the eldest of the Baxstrom siblings, of which my mother, Ida, was the second youngest. (Some typical scenes of North Dakota from the “Empire Builder”, now an Amtrak train)
After the long drive in Uncle Clarence’s truck and being greeted warmly by Grandma and Aunt Ruth I settled into to my new life in North Dakota. I slept in the same room as my Uncle Clarence, where we kept a “thunder mug” between the beds in case nature called during the night. There was a radio in the room also that we both listened to every evening – he to the local news and I to a music station from Winnipeg, Canada. I will forever remember the songs i heard that summer, among them Paul Anka’s “Diana”, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy”, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Hollly, and “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis. Terribly homesick for my parents and especially my little brothers, these songs and others kept me company that summer.
The assortment and the arrangement of the buildings on the Baxstrom farm was interesting. Adjacent to the house was a cistern which collected rainwater off the roof. My uncle and I used this water to clean up in a nearby wood frame building called the “wash house”. Here were tubs and basins for sponge baths, a mirror for shaving, the wringer washing machine for washing clothes and various other items related to keeping us and our garments clean. I don’t think I took a bath or a shower for the whole summer but kept clean, as did Uncle Clarence, with just sponge baths in the wash house. Oddly, the house did have a full bathroom and bath tub, installed there by Uncle Emil and (I think) Uncle Vernon, in 1953, when there was a family reunion held there. But the bathroom was evidently exclusively for the use of Grandma and Aunt Ruth. I never asked why, but looking back on it, that circumstance was indeed rather strange, not to mention, inconvenient for my Uncle and me.
Another building was the “cook car”, an oblong wooden building on wheels which used to be towed out into he fields during harvest time as the place where the women prepared the meals for the workmen to eat at a long table in this structure. My mom had many stories about what it was like to prepare and serve meals to a dozen or so hired men in the cook car. There was also a large coop for Aunt Ruth’s turkeys and nearby was a large garden area for vegetables. And across the road north of the farm was a large granary building in which bags of grain and seed were stored.
Barb and I in 1953
South and a little east of the house was the barn, which when my Mom was little, was used for milking the dairy cattle the family owned. I can remember when I was visiting in 1953, standing with my sister Barbara on top of a wagonload of hay waiting to be lifted and dumped in the haymow of the barn. At this time, my uncle had no dairy cattle but he did maintain a herd of beef cattle, Herefords, to be exact, in the pasture “out west”.
Another notable building was the outhouse, actually a rather modern and sturdy structure, apparently built by the WPA during the Roosevelt administration, which was a “two-holer” constructed above a very deep concrete lined pit. Real toilet paper holders by each place were a vast improvement on my Friedly grandparents’ Missouri outhouse’s Sears catalog, as were the hinged wood covers for each hole. Screened ventilation openings near the roof kept the air fresh inside and I do remember a haunting whistling noise from these openings from the constant prairie wind. This was the “bathroom” my Uncle and I used. A nice concrete sidewalk, constructed by my visiting Baxstrom uncles in 1953 and starting at the front gate connected the house, wash house and outhouse.
Directly west of the house was a workshop kind of building where tools were kept and tractors and other vehicles were parked when they were being repaired. The place had a very pleasant smell – a combination of gasoline, oil, grease, old wood, soil, and creosote. I can remember during one of our summer visits watching Grandpa Baxstrom sitting at a concrete grindstone, turning it with two oscillating pedals and sharpening an axe. A tin can of water with a hole punched in it with a 16 penny nail hanging out of it was suspended above the turning wheel and the water dripping from the nail onto the wheel kept it and whatever was being sharpened cool during the process. Otherwise, the activity produced a potentially dangerous shower of sparks.
When I first began helping Uncle Clarence, there was a hired man there also, living in a cabin west beyond the workshop, a hired man quarters on the west side of the main drive, back among some trees. Joe Martel was a Chippewa Indian from the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation near Dunseith. He had worked off and on for my uncle for a few years, I was told. Joe ate his meals with Uncle Clarence and I in the small dining area in the entryway of the house. One of the first tasks the three of us shared was to rebuild a long length of the fence in the pasture “out west”, as it was called. This quarter-section pasture was virgin North Dakota sod – about a foot thick tangle of grass roots, that you had to penetrate to sink a fence post. I remember Joe, peering down the fence, saying “a little nort” or “ a little more sowt” as a post and hole were located to be lined up with the others.
A week of so after my arrival, Joe was dismissed by Uncle Clarence, evidently because I was now the “hired man”. I felt pretty good that I was being counted upon to fill Joe’s shoes but some years later, I had heard that Joe who, like many other native Americans in the area, had a serious drinking problem, was found frozen to death in a snowstorm. I couldn’t help but think that I somehow shared some responsibility for this tragedy, having put him out of this job in 1957.
I enjoyed mealtimes that summer in North Dakota, not only because my Aunt Ruth was a good cook and made fabulous homemade bread and other baked goods, but also because there were four meals a day, not three. To this day I don’t know if it was a Baxstrom custom or a North Dakota farm custom but in the early morning you had breakfast, then at noon it was dinner, then around three or four o’clock, you broke for lunch, then after all the work was done for the day and you cleaned up, you had “supper” around seven. Breakfast, dinner and supper were full square meals, whereas “lunch” was more a few snacks – something to drink, maybe coffee or iced tea, and a sandwich or some summer sausage and bread. Sometimes a piece of Aunt Ruth’s rhubarb pie was served, or a few of her cookies. Anyhow, this mid-afternoon “meal” was most welcome as a break from a long afternoon of work. Interesting that Uncle Clarence and I always ate together, without Grandma and Aunt Ruth. They apparently always ate together at a table in the kitchen. I don’t remember ever sitting down as a whole “family” to a meal the entire summer I was there.
The dynamics of life there were interesting. My Uncle and Aunt, respectively the oldest and second oldest siblings in the Baxstrom family were never married. I don’t know why – aside from them both being properly crotchety and short-tempered as an old maid and bachelor are supposed to be, they both seemed entirely normal and certainly nice enough to attract a potential spouse. Uncle Clarence had worked a variety of jobs in his younger days, mainly as an oil field trucker, and apparently had returned home to keep the farm going after my Grandfather died in 1955. I know little of Aunt Ruth’s history, other than also becoming a fixture on the farm after Grandpa’s passing, to care for the house, plant and maintain the garden and see to Grandma’s needs. My Grandmother, a wonderfully warm and loving person, whose eyesight was compromised from cataracts, used to look at me close to her face and even feel my face and hair to “see” what I looked like.
The relationship between my Aunt and Uncle was tenuous. For the most part tolerant, it sometimes erupted in a storm of reproach, accusation, anger and raised voices, and in the case of my Uncle, a flood of colorful profanity. My Aunt raised a flock of turkeys that summer (and evidently every summer) whose presence around the farm would greatly irritate my Uncle, particularly when they would roost on his farm implements and soil them with their droppings. I can remember him chasing the turkeys off his equipment with a handful of gravel and a hail of curse words mixed with the frenzied wing-flapping and loud gobbling of the fleeing turkeys.
Other dynamics were noticeable as well. Another of my mother’s siblings, my Uncle Arnold, and his wife Alvida (actually I remember her name spelled Alveda but this spelling was featured in her obituary) lived in Mylo and farmed several quarters of land that he owned adjacent to the Baxstrom family farm land. There seemed to be some “bad blood” between Grandma, Ruth and Clarence and Arnold and Alvida. A couple of times that summer, when Uncle Arnold and I were on tractors on neighboring fields, he would stop his tractor, as did I, and we would walk across the field to greet one another and have a short conversation. While I was there Uncle Arnold was never invited to join us for a meal, nor did anyone in our household visit with him and Alvida. To this day, I don’t know precisely why because he was a very bright, educated and wonderfully warm, soft spoken and dignified man, but I would imagine it had to do with his wife, Alvida, who maybe was never really accepted by the rest of the family, or maybe it was the other way around. Aunt Alvida seemed to envelop and smother Arnold with her unseemly enthusiasm for religion and effusive and active love for her husband. I remember our family receiving snapshots of the two of them, with endearments written all over them and signed “The Mylo Lovebirds”. Perhaps some of this unseemly passion could be explained by their 17 year difference in age, Arnold 37 and Alvida 20 when they married. And maybe some of the estrangement could be explained by some likely sibling jealousy from Clarence and Ruth concerning Arnold and Alvida’s publicly passionate and happy marriage. They never had children and I never knew why. Uncle Arnold passed away in 2001 and Alvida in 2013.
The work I did for my Uncle varied from day to day but always included turning on and off the windmills – one near the barn in the small pasture where several younger cattle were kept and one in the big pasture “out west”, but the best, most exciting work, was sitting on a tractor pulling a harrow. Shortly before I got there that year, Uncle Clarence had bought a brand new John Deere 720 , a big, powerful two-cylinder diesel, for his field work. It was indeed an very exciting and pleasurable experience to drive this machine. First, it was huge, and to feel so close to its throbbing power, was thrilling. Second, it was easy to drive – it was the first tractor I had ever driven that had power steering, making a huge difference in how it handled. Also mentioned in the article were the two big John Deere model D’s we had – old but very powerful and still reliable. Also Uncle Clarence had a John Deere A which we used to bale hay and to cultivate a nearby field of corn. I earned a rare compliment from Uncle Clarence when, after we turned the row cultivators inward just a little and I used a daringly high gear to cultivate the corn, sufficient soil was thrown up against the cornstalks to completely choke out the weeds.
Pulling a huge, harrow up and down those expansive North Dakota fields, the ones we kept fallow, was indeed a thrilling experience. Often it would take as long as a half-hour to do a full course up and down the field. When the work was done you were often covered with a layer of black North Dakota soil which had settled on you from the cloud of dust which often accompanied the cultivator. North Dakota farm fields, very flat, present a broad endless vista and a glorious feeling of liberation and freedom. But their general lack of drainage results in their being punctuated with sloughs, occasional low, wet grassy areas, sometimes with a pond or small lake in the middle. These were areas around which you had to be very careful, in order to cultivate the arable land around them as closely as possible while avoiding getting so close as to get into the mud. Well, in one of our fields about a half mile from home, I was trying to get as close to the edge as possible to cultivate the maximum amount of soil but unfortunately got too close and suddenly saw the tractor’s tire treads filling with mud and the big wheels starting to spin. I raised the cultivator immediately reducing tractor’s load but it was a too late, the tractor sunk in right up to the drawbar resulting in absolutely no traction at all. I broke out into a cold nervous sweat, turned off the engine and walked all the way home with the bad news for Uncle Clarence. Wow, talk about the air turning blue with profanity. My mistake had evoked a real torrent. In a rage, with wheels spinning and dust flying, my uncle drove us back out to the tractor in the pickup truck, somehow unhitched the harrow, freed the tractor and then pulled the harrow out of the mud with a chain. After hitching back up, Uncle Clarence, still enraged, drove the tractor and harrow back to the farm at full speed with huge globs of mud flying from the deep tire treads while I slowly and ashamedly drove the truck back. After such incidents my punishment was a day or two of silence and no work assignments – retribution not easily borne in the limited confines of the farm.
Being banished to idleness was tough to take but the same thing happened more or less naturally on rainy days. Really on those days, if there was work to be done out in the barn or shop area, fine, I did it but usually any work out there was a little more technical and beyond my ability. So on most rainy days when I could not work outside I stayed inside and read. There was no shortage of reading material there on the farm. Uncle Clarence was an inveterate collector of National Geographic and Esquire magazines, which were stored in the washhouse attic and out in the hired man cabin. So I used to enjoy going through stacks of these during times I was idle. Particularly pleasurable in the old Esquires, especially for a 15 year old boy, were the gorgeous pinup pictures by the famed Alberto Vargas. Also in the living room of the house was a set of World War II photo books that I loved leafing through.
Uncle Clarence and his Hereford friends
Another memory relating to my time on the tractors tilling those expansive fields of rich black North Dakota prairie soil was enriching the experience by smoking a cigarette or two. I remember vividly how I lit my cigarette by placing it in my lips, then leaning close and sucking in while touching the end to the extremely hot exhaust manifold of the tractor engine. As a surreptitious smoker all through my teens, sneaking off with friends for a few puffs, that first taste of the smoke was uniquely rich and something I will never forget. I started smoking habitually in my late teens as a college student and office worker and through my 20’s and 30’s as an educator as well, finally kicking the habit in dramatic fashion at age 39 while a doctoral student in Arizona. Of course I never smoked openly in North Dakota, assuming my Aunt, Uncle and Grandmother would disapprove and share this news with my mother and father. This in spite of the fact that my Uncle was a devoted cigar smoker, smoking one end and chewing up the other of at least one every day while he worked around the farm.
The mention of Uncle Clarence and his cigars brings me to our Saturday nights, when Uncle Clarence and I would go out “on the town”. These occasions were quite special, starting with getting really cleaned up, shaved, dressed in “go to town” clothes, i.e., for me clean jeans and shirt, or as with Uncle Clarence, dress pants and shoes, a nice ironed shirt and a new cigar. Also, we spritzed ourselves with some Old Spice. Then off we’d go to Rollette or Rolla for a restaurant supper, maybe a haircut (along with Uncle Clarence’s perennial joke about his baldness – “don’t take much off the top”) , some gossip, usually weather or crop price news exchanged with farmer neighbors, some shopping, some ice cream and then the trip home. I think Uncle Clarence had usually used these occasions to visit a bar or two in these towns and maybe visit a female acquaintance, but my presence probably cramped his style so his nights on the town with me were quite staid and simple. He probably felt some responsibility to his sister, my Mom, to keep our town visits toned down.
Uncle Clarence ready for a night on the town
Uncle Clarence made a living on the farm for himself, Aunt Ruth and Grandma Baxstrom by raising wheat and cattle. That summer there was an extended drought that limited the supply of grass on our “out west” quarter section of virgin sod pasture. Accordingly Uncle Clarence scouted around for some additional pasture to rent and found some available land near Dunseith, in the “Turtle Mountains” a small town right next to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Mind you, these “mountains” would hardly qualify as hills in any other state than mostly flat North Dakota but the area was a little higher than our farm and therefore better watered. So Uncle Clarence rented a large area, maybe a quarter or so, already fenced and we moved the cattle, mostly Herefords, there for the rest of the summer. I remember when we were walking the borders of the new pasture land, good grass and a lot of scrub oak, we came upon a concrete pylon upon which was vertically engraved on one side “United States of America” and on the other “Dominion of Canada”.
One chilly clear summer night I was utterly dazzled by my first and only glimpse of the Northern Lights. Looking back I still marvel at this phenomenon – undulating pink-purple ribbons of light dancing across the sky in random patterns. If the daytime sun and the moon and stars of the night sky defied rational understanding by early mankind and gave rise to to mythological explanation, I can only imagine what the otherworldly sight of the northern lights provoked in their attempts at explanation. Truly I was thrilled beyond words at this sight, which occurred only on that particular night. It’s likely they appeared on others as well but that particular night I happened to be awake and outside.
It was while I was in North Dakota that I used some savings money for that great mail order that I described in my recent article about Sears and the clothing I got was perfect for my work. The engineer boots were perfect for farming as were the sturdy “Roebucks” jeans. And the girl I wanted to impress so badly that summer was Sharon Anfinson, whom I spotted at the Mylo Post Office one day and maybe caught a glimpse of a couple of other times. Blond haired and beautiful, I pined, ached and yearned for her all summer but to no avail. I understood that she and her family attended the Lutheran church in Mylo but we never went. And my feeble fantasies about getting introduced to her or introducing myself to her went nowhere. Uncle Clarence used to tease me about her occasionally, but why? Sadly I never even had the chance to meet her or talk with her.
North Dakota is a spring wheat state, in contrast to many states to its south which plant their wheat in the fall. Wheat is planted in April or so with it maturing and ready for harvest in mid August to early September. I participated in our harvest time that August, a time, if the weather was right, when every machine, every person, every pair of hands is focused on one thing – getting the wheat harvested and safely to sale or storage before the weather changed. And the harvesting operation began in the morning as soon as the dew dried and ended late at night before dew formed. Looking back on that important time I cannot remember whether Uncle Clarence used his own, rather old tractor-pulled combine, or contracted with a self-propelled combine equipped neighbor, Mr. Niemeyer, to do it, or employed one of the many “custom combine” operations that followed the wheat harvest across the country from south to north. I do know we did not use the really old power-take-off belt-driven threshing machine that was still on the farm, perched on its steel wheels. At any rate, we began in the morning and the harvested wheat was transported to Mylo in my uncle’s dump truck and behind a tractor in a towed wagon. The bright lights of the harvesting operation blazed in the fields until late that first night and the operation continued throughout the next day, completed in just two days. By the way, the combine earned that name because it combined the operation of the old reaper-binder machines and the threshing machine.
Me, Grandma, and my dear brothers and sisters August 1957
In late August on the summer of 1957, I was working in the granary across the road north of the house, when I saw the Friedly family’s brown and tan 1954 Chevy station wagon coming up the road and turning in at the gate. So excited that I burst into tears, I left what I was doing, bolted across the road and ran to greet my family, who had come to pick me up and take me home. I had known they were coming but didn’t know precisely when. I was so excited to see Mom and Dad and once again embrace my dear little brothers – there they all were – little Glenn, Richard, Stan and the larger little brothers Rob and Charlie, plus sweet sisters Elaine and Barbara. Yes, they were all there – with me in North Dakota. Thank God.
Little brother Glenn and Uncle Clarence on the 720
One little incident before we left together in the 1954 Chevy wagon, should be related. I was on the tractor, cultivating one of the huge fallow fields for one last time with my brother Charlie with me on the tractor. After finishing, I realized that I was missing my wallet out of my back pocket. Why I even had my wallet with me is a question I cannot answer, much less, how I had lost it. And why then, why not earlier in the summer? At any rate, since it had my money in it and a check Uncle Clarence had presented me with for the summer’s work, I was faced with looking for it among the acres of furrows of turned black earth. Charlie volunteered to help so up and down the long field we walked looking for my wallet. Who knows, it could have been buried by the harrow. But persistently up and down we went moving a little further in each time, like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But suddenly Charlie hollered, “ There it is!” And there it was. My sharp eyed little brother Charlie had spotted my wallet among those many acres of freshly turned soil. Unbelievable!
Glenn with the calf bottle, Stan in front seat with the real thing
Mom 42 and Grandma 77 in 1957
Before closing this article I should say something about our little North Dakota town of Mylo. I guess when the Baxstrom children were young the town was quite prosperous. I have seen pictures of my mother and classmates at her Mylo school. And I have heard from other Baxstrom relatives about the town many years ago. In 1957 when I was there, it was still bustling. There was a general store, a post office, a very active Lutheran church, a couple of dozen homes in the town, which included that of my Uncle Arnold and Aunt Alvida, and very important, a John Deere dealership right there on Main Street. Owned by a huge man called “Tiny” Wiemeyer, it served customers from many neighboring towns. My Uncle’s John Deere 720 was bought from “Tiny”. And in 1957 there still was a huge wooden grain elevator on the south side of town right next to the tracks of the Soo Line, the railroad that ran through town and from which I could hear occasional passing freight trains and train whistles. And that grain elevator did a thriving business, and not only at harvest time, for it was the place where local farmers purchased their seed, fertilizer, weed sprays and other items. On one of his visits, my brother Robert, who in his teens, incredibly had learned to ride a unicycle, shook up the little town when on a visit, took his unicycle out and rode it up and down main street, causing the locals to stop in their tracks, cease what they were doing, emerge from their vehicles and from their businesses to stare open mouthed and dumfounded at this incredible curiosity. Nothing quite like that had ever happened in this modest and quiet little town.
Ruth, Ida and Elma
Mylo School, Mom on right (I think)
Baxstrom family, Mom on left by her mother
Today the town of Mylo is depressingly empty. No more Lutheran church. The John Deere dealership had long ago moved to Rollette. The general store is long gone as are many of the residential houses in town. The grain elevator is no more and the Soo Line has disappeared, although on Google Earth, its old route through town can still be clearly seen. The present population of Mylo today is perhaps a dozen people, maybe that is even generous. So sad that this little prairie town, so dear to my mother and her siblings, is now for all intents and purposes, simply gone. Google Earth shows the “streets” in town, clearly labeled, but there is nothing on those streets. The north-south main street can be seen, as can the the farm itself (someone else’s now for the last 50 years or so, directly in line with main street, about a mile north from town. Actually, the farm’s attitude from main street reminds me that my Aunt Ruth used to use a pair of binoculars to peer at main street several times a day and would comment on who was where and doing what in town, with a memorable “Huh, there’s Mr.______ at the post office again – I wonder why two trips today….Huh, there’s Mrs.______ at the store, why she was just there yesterday, I wonder what she’s buying this time….Huh, there’s old Mrs. ______ at the post office…I thought she was still sick…” Etc. etc.
Ruth, Elma, Mom (Ida) and Grandma
A search of the Mylo cemetery shows these Baxstroms interred there. Interesting that Uncle Vernon, who spent most of his life in the state of Washington, chose (or his family chose for him) to be buried in the town where he was born. Aunt Alvida’s grave is in the Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran cemetery in her hometown of Adams, N.D. I was unable to discover where Uncle Arnold’s grave was located.
Baxstrom, Anna Christina Jonsson b. 1880 ~ d. 1967 (Grandma Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, Nels b. 1871 ~ d. 1955 (Grandpa Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, J. Clarence b. 1903 ~ d. 1981
Baxstrom, Ruth I. b. 1904 ~ d. 1977
Baxstrom, Vernon E. b. 1905 ~ d. 1979
Uncle Clarence and Aunt Ruth were in their early fifties when I was with them in 1957. Grandma Baxstrom was 77.
Aunt Ruth 61, me and Grandma 85 in North Dakota, 1965