I am happy that we had books in the house when I was a child and that I had parents that read and taught me the value of reading. A precious memory of my father is seeing him always sleeping with a book or a magazine on his chest. Mom too always encouraged us to read and also was an avid reader, particularly it seemed, of the Bible, The Reader’s Digest, religious tracts and nutrition books.
During my childhood we had two periodicals always in our home: Time magazine and The Reader’s Digest. I read them both thoroughly. Even after becoming a college student at Rutgers, I spent lots of time, too much as indicated by my grades, in the stacks looking at old bound issues of Time, which brought back many memories. I remember as a youngster reading an article about the singer Patti Page with a mesmerizing photo of her in a 1955 issue of Time and was able to find that same issue in the stacks at Rutgers.
In the Reader’s Digest I read most of the articles and certainly all of the jokes under the different headings: “Laughter is the Best Medicine”, “Humor in Uniform” and “Life in These United States”. I also read many of the condensed books at the end of each issue. Several affected me deeply, among them “Little Boy Lost”, about a little boy separated from his parents during World War II and miraculously reunited with his father again, and two autobiographical books by Ralph Moody: “Little Britches” and “Man of the Family”, in which a little boy helps his family make a living on a Colorado ranch and later at age 11 when the father dies, with hard work, ingenuity and the help of his brothers and sisters manages to support the family.
Both “Time” and “The Reader’s Digest” embraced an essentially conservative, patriotic, view of America, reflecting my parents’ political opinions. I too was a good little Republican for many years, also embracing the views reflected in “Time” editorials and “Reader’s Digest” article selection.
As a child in our first house in New Jersey, I became acquainted with the moralistic Sunday school books called “Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories”. They were all stories with morals, maybe a bit like religious Aesop’s Fables. In these stories, bad things happened to the little boy who lied to his mother; the little boy who helped his mother and took care of his brothers and sisters would find a ten dollar bill on the sidewalk. How hilarious to later read Mark Twain’s “Story of a Good Little Boy” and “Story of a Bad Little Boy” in which nothing happened they way it happened in the Sunday School books: the good boy never was rewarded but was beaten and chastised for his good deeds and the bad boy enjoyed what he had stolen and didn’t fall out of the tree and break his arm. Looking back, I really used to think I would find a treasure someplace when I helped around the house, with which I could provide my parents and my brothers and sisters a better life than they had. But it never happened.
When I was twelve years old, I received from my mother a volume of “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible”. This classic book went through countless editions over the years. My volume, which I still have, is the light blue cover 1947 edition. I read this book from cover to cover, even memorizing certain stories to tell on the “The “Children’s Hour” radio program over the church radio station, WAWZ. The illustrations in the book were wonderful and I can still see many in my mind’s eye today. And in these old editions of “Hurlbut’s” all the difficult Bible names had phonetic spellings in parentheses.
Also in the 1950’s, when they were visiting my parents and took a trip to New York City, I received a couple of books from my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil. One, called “American Statesmen” was not that interesting, but the other, titled “The Gudrun Lay”, was the story, in great prose as I remember, of Sigurd, Brynhild, Gudrun, Regin, Fafnir and the rest, and became a book that I read again and again. Unfortunately, that book has long disappeared and efforts to locate another volume have been futile. The closest I can get to it is “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” by J.R.R.Tolkien, very academic and certainly not the book I read and remember.
Undoubtedly the books that influenced me the most were a set of “The Book of Knowledge”, probably a 1941 edition. Each volume was arranged in sections called “books” themselves: The Book of Familiar Things, The Book of Stories, The Book of Golden Deeds, The Book of Men and Women, The Book of Literature and others. All the classic fairy tales and classic poems were in these books, as well as biographies, lots of history, answers to perennial questions (The Book of Wonder), explanations of manufacturing, descriptions of famous cities and buildings, information about plants and animals and, in short, just about anything one could think of or might be curious about.
I do not remember ever looking up certain topics. These were books you simply picked up and then quickly got involved in something compelling and couldn’t put down. And they were books that you would usually find strewn all over the house – rarely together on their shelf. Though solidly bound, this set of books eventually became beat up and ragged, a pleasant indication of heavy usage.
“The Book of Knowledge” contained my first King Arthur stories and I can still remember the dramatic illustrations of Sir Lancelot, Elaine of Astolat, Queen Guinevere, Sir Gawain, Sir Galahad and Sir Percival. It was where I found the long poems I memorized: “Robert of Lincoln” by William Cullen Bryant and “Darius Green and His Flying Machine” by John Townsend Trowbridge. They were where I first learned about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, about Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott, and about photosynthesis and combustion. Bringing these marvelous books into the lives of me and my brothers and sisters is a tribute to the care of my parents, although I know nothing of when and how they were obtained. “The Book of Knowledge” was simply always there as long as I can remember.
When I was about 12 years old I remember reading a book of my Dad’s that maybe I was not old enough to read – “Out of the Night” by Jan Valtin, a 1941 best seller about the career of a communist spy who was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. This book made a powerful impression on my young mind, maybe not all of it good. I developed an unreasonable fear of communism and its incarnation in the “Comintern” (Communist International) and a horror of torture, as described in the book. The latter memory came back to me in a big way recently when my own country and its leaders employed and even tried to rationalize torture, something that, when reading this book as a youngster, I could never have imagined.
I mentioned in an earlier post that my father used to take us kids with him to the “Auction” on Route 206 near Somerville, New Jersey where I often visited a used book booth and bought a few books that I enjoyed very much. It was there that I bought my “Three Musketeers” and “Twenty Years After” by Dumas, my Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”, Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”, each costing me considerably less than less than a dollar. “Innocents Abroad” was actually a first edition, in very good condition but I unfortunately had no sense of its value and proceeded to completely abuse it and wear it out. And “Great Expectations” has taken a beating too since I have read it at least three times. But all of these books I still have and keep together in the bookcase because of their special importance and meaning in my life.
Another part of my childhood reading life is worth mentioning. My mother always did her best to make sure we went to sleep at an appropriate time and there were many times she made me stop reading and turn the light out in the bedroom that I shared with my younger brothers. However, there was always a hall light on and she allowed the door to be open a bit to give us a bit of night light. So I cut the top off a Dutch Cleanser container and hung its shiny bottom circle from a nail on the wall above the dresser. When aimed properly this circle of reflective metal would provide a spot of light on my bed which illuminated page after page of forbidden post bedtime reading. What fun, reading while everyone else in the house was asleep in total peace and quiet – something I still enjoy immensely to this day.
So books were very important to me as a boy and are still are essential in my life. I enjoy so much standing in front of my bookcases appreciating and remembering. Books I have read are important but, so are the books I have not read. These are in special locations, beckoning to me, inviting me and demanding to be read. Since I am now in a late stage of my life and can reasonably speculate on how many years are left, I only hope and pray that there will be enough time. But sadly I know there will never be enough time since now, even this very day, I am reading reviews of newly published books that I add to my “must read” list. But no matter old I get, I hope I will always look forward to each new book experience with the same excitement and anticipation I enjoyed as a boy.
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.
I have a real obsession with faces. I see them everywhere. When gazing absentmindedly out of the bathroom window here in Vermont, suddenly a face will emerge from the irregularities in the grass on the lawn or from the bark on a tree. Yes, there are the two eyes, between them what passes for a nose and yes, below the nose is what could be a mouth. And sometimes there’s even the hair, a forehead or the ears or a chin. I don’t ever really look for a face but when my eyes will relax and go out of focus for a moment or two, it just sort of comes out. If I look away toward some other object in my view I may lose that particular face, but another may appear when looking a different direction or at a different surface. And when this occurs, it’s always a face, nothing else.
Faces are obviously important to me. If I meet a new person, perhaps the friend of a friend or a new service person who comes to my house to do a job, I will look intently at his or her face and eyes, trying to gauge what kind of person they are. I look for a kind, understanding face or perhaps one expressing respect, resolution or confidence. I think that faces are the passageway to the inside of a person and show what kind of person they are.
Now, from a developmental, evolutionary point of view, faces are even more important. We absorb a face into our memories, not a name, explaining why when we definitely remember a face we often forget the name. In ancient times, it was the face that identified a friend or foe, certainly not the name, reinforcing why faces are so important.
In my precious former profession, education, when interviewing teachers, I became accustomed to paying attention to teaching candidates’ faces, always looking for an expressive countenance, because I had noted over my career that the most successful teachers were those whose faces were mobile and expressive, who “wore their hearts on their sleeves” and were able to show children how they felt. Teachers with expressive faces were always the best disciplinarians. Their faces showed students that they cared, through easily showing pleasure, disappointment, surprise, concern and humor through their faces and body language. I have always claimed that good teachers control their children with the raised eyebrow, not the raised voice. Children inherently want to please us and we have to constantly demonstrate an appropriate response.
As an elementary principal I supervised many teachers over the years who never had a single discipline problem and also had a few that failed utterly at running good cooperative, joyful classrooms. Or one group of children would be “full of troublemakers” according to their teacher that year but the exact same group would go on to the next grade and be the “best class I’ve ever had” to another teacher. Why? The teacher’s expressive face, demeanor and body language, but especially the face, meant the difference.
With regard to remembering faces I should relate an amazing story about face recognition. Many years ago while at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, I was struck with the familiarity of the face of a waitress working there. I knew that face from somewhere in the past but could not remember where or how. After glimpsing her several more times as she conducted her job and noting her voice and body language I finally decided that I must know her from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was convinced that she had been a cashier at the Harvard Coop, where I regularly went to buy LP records for many years after I had been a graduate student. She specifically had manned a cash register in the record department. But….how could this be, how could I be sure, after being so far removed from that Massachusetts memory, both in distance and in time? How could that face belong to someone whom I encountered in this somewhat insignificant role at least five years ago in the past at a place over two thousand miles removed from Tucson?
Upon mentioning this conviction to my wife, who shook her head in surprise and disbelief, claiming that I had to be mistaken, I resolved to approach the young lady and ask her about my strong belief that she once worked in the record department at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally summoning my courage, approaching her and asking the question, she beamed with surprise and pride and said that yes, she had worked for several years in precisely that establishment before moving to Tucson. Absolutely amazing, the depth, power and memorability of a face. Oh sure, the fact that his young lady was attractive probably had something to do with my memory of her, but nevertheless, I will forever be amazed at this incident.
And speaking of faces, I have to discuss that of our President, Joe Biden. Listen, I’m awfully happy that he won the presidency. I shudder to think what our country would have been in for had our fascist friend Donald Trump won a second term. But of course I would much rather have had Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as our leader because of their authentic “for the people” propensities so evident in their careers and campaign proposals.
Unfortunately there is little authenticity to former machine politician Joe Biden who for 34 years represented the Cayman Island-like state of Delaware, save the now hackneyed declaration that “he’s a good man” and that he is genuinely empathetic because he has “suffered loss”. Indeed, losing the loved ones President Biden has lost over the years would soften the hardest of hearts and souls and he wears the empathy badge quite genuinely. And I do think that he genuinely cares.
And during this horrible pandemic that has now killed well above half a million of our citizens and thousands more world wide, it has been wonderful to have a leader who can say the right words to us, to be a credible “comforter in chief” as it were. His recent speech on the subject, sympathizing with those millions who have lost loved ones, was impressive, made even more so by knowledge of his personal experience with loss.
But when watching our president during any kind of emotional outpouring, something is missing. Perhaps I’m being petty, but I don’t see Joe’s face reflecting any anguish, sadness or empathy. Whether he has been outlining legislative goals on the campaign trail, accepting the results of the election, or extolling the virtues of the nation and pledging to uphold its values during his inauguration speech, Joe’s expression is pretty much the same – the same beady eyes, the same immobile mouth, turned down at the corners in a perpetual grimace, and of course, the same blindingly white teeth, big and lots of them…when he smiles.
As I noted above in a different context, I think the face is everything in human communication. The frown, the raised eyebrows, the smile, the knitted brow, the eye roll, the clenched teeth, can often convey emotion and understanding that words cannot and can certainly punctuate words and phrases and give them emphasis, additional meaning and emotional impact. Look again at President Biden’s speech about the pandemic – the words are perfect and quite meaningful, but we are left hanging without validation from his expressionless face.
Now, we should ask why is this? Why is our president’s face so empty of expression…of whatever kind? Anger, laughter? When looking back at the many pictures and videos of Joe in the past, it is clear that his face has changed – dramatically. Remember his famous aside to President Obama after the Affordable Care Act became law? “This is a big f——-g deal!”, he chortled in the president’s ear, his whole face smiling and reflecting his glee.
Other pictures and videos from his many years in the Senate, show a face full of expression, able to show sarcasm, surprise, concern, or embarrassment quite easily. Actually, even when then Senator Biden ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2015, his face was fine. But something happened to that face between his run against Clinton and his run for the Democratic nomination in 2019.
Now, we all know about the vanity of politicians and Joe Biden was never an exception. As a balding senator, in fact the victim of a very unseemly process, where the hair seemed to thin severely but uniformly, no bald spot or receding hairline for Joe, his vanity response was his famous hair plugs – swiped from his neck and various other places where the hair was thick and then inserted into his scalp. Okay, baldness assaults the best of us and we all deal with it in different ways, including the famous “comb over” (https://ralphfriedly.com/2016/07/04/the-comb-over/). But Senator Biden’s answer for his problem was quite radical and obviously quite expensive.
Well, all this was fine – we got used to the “hair plug look”, but why mess with the face. Joe’s face, aside from a sagging double chin or wattle, was always fine. His smile and his hearty laugh were always engaging, as my son Conrad can attest, when Vice President Biden visited with and thanked his Peace Corps group in Jordan in 2008. Really, Biden’s engaging personality, favorably supported by those expressive characteristics, was one of his finest attributes. But apparently his vanity expanded unwisely well beyond those hair plugs after he ran against Clinton in 2015. It was during his run against Sanders and Warren for the Democratic nomination, that his supporters and we voters noticed a fundamentally altered face and its resulting negative characteristics.
Yes, Joe Biden is old. Hmm, well maybe not so old since he was born in the same year I was, 1942. I’m already 79; President Biden will turn 79 in November. But he is without doubt the oldest person to become a US president. The closest to him was Donald Trump, who when he was elected in 2016, was 70 years old. But to me that’s not a good enough reason to change an engaging and expressive face to one that’s most times a complete cypher, in an ill advised effort to look younger. His wife, “Dr. Jill”, should have advised against it.
But President Biden, a devoted exerciser, is trying to ensure that his body is up to the exhausting role of US President. He’s been known to challenge opponents to push-up contests, among them President Trump. And yes, he would have easily won. But in my humble opinion he should also have exercised, not excised, his charming and distinguishing facial characteristics, retaining the expressive face of the “lunch bucket Joe” that we grew to respect and love as Senator and Vice President.
Another story about facial expression that I wanted to share but that would not fit easily into any of the above, concerns a Mark Twain book, me and my father.
I mentioned in another article that many of my favorite books were purchased at a used book booth at Packard’s Farmers Market on route 206 in Somerset County, New Jersey when I was a youngster. One of them, an ornately bound first edition of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”, was quite special. I remembered some clever illustrations in the book dealing with interpretation of facial expressions that I wanted to consider for this article but of course this precious book was on a bookshelf in my study in Scottsdale so I abandoned the idea.
But, would you believe it, after idly typing the title and author into google, a scanned version of exactly my first edition came up and after looking through the chapters and pages, I found the exact page, illustration and text that I wanted. Both the illustration and Twain’s text describing the expressions caused lots of uproarious laughter from both me and my father when sharing them. They still don’t exactly fit into the article but here they are, along with the text – I hope you enjoy them:
There is an old story that Matthews, the actor, was once lauding the ability of the human face to express the passions and emotions hidden in the breast. He said the countenance could disclose what was passing in the heart plainer than the tongue could.
“Now”, he said, “Observe my face – what does it express?”
“Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?”
“Stuff! It means terror! This!”
“Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!”
“Oh perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!”
Air travel is fairly common for me now at this point in my life. It has become routine and despite the delay and humiliation regularly dished out by the “Transportation Security Administration” (more about that later) it is quite convenient. In addition, air travel has steadily become cheaper as airlines have become deregulated. But on the minus side, the cramped seats, my usual proximity to a crying baby or a blabbermouth adult who insists on carrying on a one sided conversation about himself and his exploits in life, can make air travel miserable. For these occasions I usually carry earplugs which, when inserted do not shut out all the noise but do significantly suppress the roar of the engines and the ambient noise around me. And while they do not entirely shut out the blabbermouth and the crying baby, their insertion is a pretty clear sign to others that I don’t want to participate or listen. I just want to be left alone with the newspaper or the book that I’m reading.
I must reluctantly admit that I had never been in an airplane until my early thirties, when I flew in an airliner chartered by the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association taking participants from Massachusetts and adjacent states to the National Association of Elementary School Principals convention in Anaheim, California. On this trip I was chagrinned to realize how much flying experience other participants seemed to have that I did not. As if the breathtaking acceleration and take-off right over the threatening waves of Boston harbor weren’t alarming enough for a first-time flyer, I have to confess that I was startled and fearful when I saw the wings flexing as the plane took off. Honestly I guess I thought that a plane’s wings were fixed and totally rigid. I interpreted the flexing as a sign of airframe weakness and feared that these bending wings were about to snap.
This memorable first flight also featured, courtesy of the Association, an open bar for most of the flight, which most of us enjoyed, particularly the group of principals from Maine, who apparently had not been out of the woods in years and imbibed rather recklessly. I didn’t drink that much but apparently enough to help me embarrass myself toward the end of the flight when flying over the Grand Canyon. As we did so, the pilot invited us over the intercom to take a look at the Canyon out of the left side of the plane, but when everyone left their seats on the right and dashed to the left side to lean over those seated and gape out of the windows, I yelled out in a panic, “No, no, don’t, it’s going to tip!” Everyone looked at me in astonishment and shook their heads sadly. Evidently I visualized that plane as a boat – if everyone went to one side, it would indeed tip. I definitely did not realize that the wings held up the fuselage in the middle quite reliably, regardless of how weight was distributed within it. Anyhow, I took considerable ribbing from my colleagues for the rest of the trip and on the return flight as well.
Thankfully with more flying experience over the years I did not embarrass myself like that again. Certainly the greatest amount of experience was accumulated when we moved overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait for four years and then later spending several years in Izmir, Turkey. Then flying became very common, even habitual. The management of the American School of Kuwait obtained bids from different international airlines for the transportation of its newly recruited teachers from their country of origin to Kuwait and to their homes and back in the summer. Thus, while in Kuwait we were able to sample Alitalia one year, then Lufthansa and also Air France. All were good and offered the opportunity of pausing for a few days or a week in one of their hub cities. Thus we were able to enjoy Rome for a week or so on the way back to the US on Alitalia, Paris another time while traveling on Air France, and Frankfort and nearby Heidelberg while on Lufthansa. Later while in Turkey traveling on Lufthansa became the standard because of its convenient service between Izmir and Munich and then on to the US.
Of all these airlines, Lufthansa became my favorite. Lufthansa aircraft appeared spotlessly clean and very well maintained. The meals were delicious and bountiful and you could enhance them with liberal glasses of delicious German wine. One of the best memories for me of all those trips on Lufthansa was the welcome sight of a comely flight attendant strolling up and down the aisle offering refills from a bottle of white wine in her left hand and a bottle of red in her right. And as alluded to a few lines above, while there may have been a trace of doubt about the mechanical reliability of a plane maintained in Italy, France or some other country, there was never any doubt about the reliability of a plane maintained in Germany. Many years later, when our air travel became much less frequent, we used the considerable Lufthansa miles accumulated when flying back and forth from Kuwait and Turkey, when we flew to Italy to enjoy Venice and Florence and when we traveled to Jordan to visit our son Conrad when he was serving in the Peace Corps. And again on both trips – after a delicious meal there was the attractive flight attendant perfectly balanced by the bottles of white and red in either hand offering to refill your glass. We finally polished off the last of the miles with a very enjoyable two week visit to Kauai, Hawaii flying on United Airlines.
But I have had some pretty unnerving experiences flying as well. While overseas on our way to a teachers meeting somewhere we flew in what was perhaps the worst airplane we had ever experienced – a vintage Jordanian Airlines two engined jet, maybe a Boeing 737, that was in awfully poor condition. The stained and ripped seats, torn curtains, and loose, rattling plastic trim, did not inspire any kind of confidence. But this dilapidated plane thankfully must have been mechanically sound because it landed us safely in Amman without incident, provoking a collective sigh of relief and providing an opportunity for our armpits and palms dry off a little.
Another stressful experience occurred right before we left Kuwait. when we finally responded to an ongoing invitation from one of our wealthy Indian parents to travel to acquaint ourselves with her country by staying in her “farmhouse” near Delhi and touring nearby cities. We finally planned to do this immediately prior to our final departure from Kuwait, planning a one week stay in what turned out to be a huge country mansion with a swimming pool, not a “farmhouse”. Well after our tours of the cities of India’s “golden triangle” – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and focusing on our return we were harshly reminded of a sacred rule in overseas air travel – “confirming” return flights. Even if you had a bona fine reservation and the flight was paid for, passengers still had to call and confirm the flight or else there was the possibility of losing the reservation entirely. Well, while we knew this, we didn’t always remember. Our driver, who worked for the lady who owned the home at which we stayed, delivered us to the airport just fine, laden with our suitcases packed with mementos and spices from our tours and when trying to check in we found that our reservations had simply disappeared. I had forgotten to confirm the return flights. Shaking with anxiety, heart pounding and shirt drenched with nervous perspiration, I presented out tickets and pled our case with several agents and was finally able to obtain seats on a return flight that delivered us to Kuwait in plenty of time for our flight to the US the next evening. I never did and still don’t understand why and how reservations could be cancelled even though tickets were bought and paid for.
But wait, that’s not all – the story and the stress continue. We had our tickets back to the US on BOAC, the airline with whom our school had contracted that summer, waiting for us at home with our packed and waiting suitcases. However, on the morning of the evening we were scheduled to leave we found that BOAC did not transport animals and we had three cats that we were taking back to Arizona, including our treasured Birman, “Monet”. So quickly we found seats on Lufthansa which did still carry animals in the cargo hold, but Lufthansa would not transport animals on flights terminating in Phoenix because of the heat. However, they could still be shipped to Los Angeles. So we changed the tickets to a Los Angeles destination where we all disembarked and collected our luggage and the cat cages. I booked a flight to Phoenix for later in the day for Conrad, Bobbie’s mother and me and the bulk of the luggage. We then called Liza, Bobbie’s daughter who was then living in Los Angeles for some help so Liza picked up her mother and the animals and drove them to Phoenix to meet with the rest of us.
The most frightening airport I have ever experienced is Tribhuyan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, in which we landed and took off twice, first on the international flight originating in Kuwait and second, on a local flight for a special trekking experience in Pokhara, Nepal. The airport in Kathmandu is of course in the same valley as the city, deep enough so that the plane had to make a rapid and steep descent from over the mountains surrounding the valley down to properly “catch” the runway at a point sufficient to allow a safe distance to slow and stop the plane. And when taking off, the plane had to accelerate very dramatically in order to gain altitude adequateto clear those same high mountains. It was almost like the plane had to nose dive down after clearing the mountains in order to land and had to almost “blast off” to clear the mountains upon takeoff.
Another concern relating to the final takeoff when we left Nepal is that our suitcases were absolutely bulging with gifts and mementos we had bought in this fantastic city and were considerably overweight. So for the first time in my life (and happily the last) I risked actually bribing an airport official to allow us to take them on. Yes, for a twenty dollar bill, the guy routinely tagged them and put them on the conveyor, no more questions asked or concerns expressed. However, the extra heft of our overweight bags in the hold made me even more nervous about the takeoff. What if our illegally heavy bags caused the plane to be just over the weight limit required to clear the mountains? Well, thank God, the plane took off just fine,accelerated at that terribly steep angle and successfully got us out of the valley and back home to Kuwait.
After all that flying during my overseas career, interestingly the worst flying experience of my life was just last summer when traveling from Vermont to Phoenix for an important dental appointment. I had boarded a Southwest flight in the morning which was to go from Albany, New York to Chicago and then to Phoenix. Shortly after takeoff the pilot informed us that Midway Airport in Chicago was fogged in so the plane would land in Cleveland until the fog cleared. At the time, I did not realize it but the pilot should have also said …”or until passengers can be rerouted”. So after disembarking the plane I waited with my fellow passengers for some word as to what was next. When the fog cleared, were we supposed to re-board the flight and get on our way to Chicago? Of course there was the real concern then that even if this were to eventually take place, would we get to Chicago in time to catch our connecting flights, including my flight to Phoenix. So I milled about nervously with other passengers from Albany and waited.
But in the meantime, unknown to me, some passengers were actively seeking other alternatives to reach their final destinations. Eventually the announcement was made that my flight to Chicago was cancelled. Other flights to Chicago were full and while nervously exploring what else I could do, I found out that the flight from Chicago to Phoenix for which I was booked had already left. By then I was really concerned and wondered why Southwest was not more active in taking care of its passengers. Even if I successfully found an empty seat and rebooked for Phoenix via Los Angeles, Denver or Albuquerque, it didn’t look like I was going to get to Phoenix until the next day, too late for my appointment. Suddenly I recognized a family which had been seated near me on the flight from Albany, also bound for Phoenix as I was, in line for a flight to Tucson so quickly I had a Southwest agent change my final destination from Phoenix to Tucson and successfully boarded that flight. I reminded myself that Southwest also maintained a schedule of shuttle flights between Tucson and Phoenix so I reasoned that it shouldn’t be too tough to grab one of these and easily get to Phoenix.
However,upon arriving in Tucson with just my backpack (I had no idea where my suitcase was at that point), I discovered that it wasn’t Southwest that maintained the shuttle flights but American Airlines. Finally finding my way to American’s counters I was told that several of those hourly flights were cancelled and to get on the remaining early evening flight would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $300. Heck, I’m not doing that, it was more than the entire Southwest flight had cost, so what should I do? OK, I’ll rent a car and drive to Phoenix. Accordingly I rented the least expensive car I could find that could be taken one way to Phoenix, picked up the car and got on Interstate 10 from Tucson to Phoenix. Arriving in Phoenix two hours later, I first had to find a gas station to bring the car’s fuel gauge back up, then find the airport rental car facility which is now located several miles from the airport itself, return the car and catch the shuttle bus from the car rental facility to Terminal Four in Sky Harbor Airport where Southwest was located. The first thing I did upon arriving was to check with unclaimed baggage at Southwest – no Ralph Friedly bag. After inquiring, I was told that it would likely be on the next flight from Chicago, to arrive in an hour or so. So I waited for that next flight from Chicago and yes, there was my bag on the conveyer belt. Finally, suitcase in hand I showed up at the SuperShuttle desk for my ride home and was delivered to my house at around 9:00 PM, actually midnight on my body clock since I had gained three hours with the time change. I had originally been scheduled to arrive in Phoenix early in the afternoon after about seven hours of flying, airport wait time and the time change. Instead, it had taken about eighteen hours. But I had a good night’s sleep and was on time for my dentist appointment.
Looking back on this experience, the stress of which probably shortened by life by a couple of years, I still don’t really know what I should have done and despite my extensive air travel experience, was obviously quite naive about these kinds of contingencies. The only thing I can think of is that I should have been far more assertive with Southwest and insisted that they take care of me. But ever since, when flying on Southwest between Albany and Phoenix, I have been careful to avoid Chicago.
A critical aspect in flying today is dealing with airport security, the beloved TSA. Rightfully instituted after the dreadful incidents of 9/11 and thankfully as a Federal agency and not a private one, as demanded by numerous congressmen and their lobbyists, I still have a considerable apprehension and dread when boarding airplanes. First, I heartily agree with the comedian who joked that TSA recruits were people who were likely ridiculed or beaten up while in high school because they wield their considerable power with such vengeful abandon, seeming to sadistically maximize and apparently enjoy the inconvenience and embarrassment they cause passengers.
There have been times when, after scanning my identification, I am whisked through security, but mysteriously there are other times when I have been subjected to absolute maximum scrutiny. On a recent trip from Philadelphia to Phoenix, my spouse was rushed right through, no lines, no shoe removal, bingo, she was approved for flight. But there I was, confined to the interminable lines where I had to remove my shoes (thank you, Richard Reid) and the lady in front of me her sandals (hey, TSA guy in the blue shirt – what on earth could she be hiding in those thin flimsy sandals?). And of course I had to take my laptop out of its case and put it in a plastic box separate from the shoes. But I was loudly reprimanded when I attempted to put my cell phone in the same box and was also loudly reprimanded when I failed to empty all my pockets, even the shirt pocket containing nothing more than a couple of 3 x 5 cards, and was loudly reminded to place those meager items in yet another separate box. On top of that I was placed in the body scanning booth and asked to lift my arms up while I was electronically scanned from head to toe. And if that wasn’t enough, I was subjected to the ultimate indignity – a groping by a blue shirted, rubber gloved TSA teenager just in case I was hiding a knife, gun or explosives in a remote body recess that had escaped detection by the body scanner. I was totally mystified, to have gone from what looked like routine pre-approval to being treated like a bonafide terrorism suspect. Can it be that I’ve been marked by the TSA because of some of my incendiary unpatriotic blog entries? My God, I’ll have to tone them down a bit I guess. But I suppose I should be thankful for the TSA. They do a good job keeping us safe and exhibit considerable patience when dealing with disgruntled, disagreeable passengers like me.
I have to say that, while airlines today do have their problems, all considered, you can’t beat the speed and convenience of air travel. I am getting fed up with these boring and stressful automobile trips between Arizona and Vermont to which we are limited because of my spouse’s canine friend that must accompany us. Yes, listening to recorded books on the trips makes them somewhat more bearable but still they are a huge drain on my increasingly limited energy and time. And the trips seem to get more expensive each time we travel, and the motels at which we stay get more expensive as well, not to mention less hospitable.
So I am looking diligently for a reliable used car small enough to fit in our substandard garage space here in Vermont, and assuming that our canine friend will not be with us forever, someday we will definitely be flying back and forth between these two beloved homes, in spite of potential TSA abuse and weather or scheduling contingencies. At least these trips will be quick.
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 read a column last weekend by my second favorite New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan (favorite – Paul Krugman) in which, after going through a list of potential Democratic candidates for president in 2020 and discarding them one by one, he finally settles on “building a better Biden”. Timothy, I’m not so sure, no, in fact I am sure – settling for Biden would be sheer folly.
During the 2016 campaign, like many desperate Democrats, I sadly realized the inadequacy of the Hillary Clinton campaign. From the meaningless slogan “Stronger Together” to her glaring Wall Street ties to her inability to articulate a Democratic vision for the country or even a reason why she was running for president, her campaign was hopelessly shallow. Yet, like many, I was shocked at her loss, especially the narrowness of it, losing the electoral vote in several key states by a mere collective 40,000 votes. But those key states – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, will matter just as much in the next election and so Democrats have to consider what kind of candidate could have won these states in 2016 and will take them in 2020.
Also like many other Democrats who followed the 2016 election closely, I could easily have visualized Bernie Sanders beating Trump soundly in these key states, just like the polls indicated. Bernie’s genuineness and his authentic rage at the both the Democratic and Republican donor-based establishments perfectly reflected the anger and desperation of the many voters in these states that threw the election to Trump. Also, during the late phases of the election and certainly reflecting on this dreadful loss afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that Joe Biden, with his blue collar Scranton, Pennsylvania roots, could also have honestly articulated and reflected the insecurity, outrage and resentment felt by so many disaffected voters in these key states. So I don’t entirely disagree with columnist Timothy Egan. However, I think he misses several important points, some serious and some superficial but no less important.
But first, I think that the Democratic Party has to get away from crying about why they lost the presidency. It wasn’t because of Russia or because of Comey or any of the many other petty reasons stated by Democrats. It’s because they had no message, ran a bad candidate and were, pure and simple, beaten by money. Oh sure, Hillary outspent Trump by a considerable margin overall but millions of billionaire donor dollars (read Koch, Adelson, Singer et al) were poured into the afore-mentioned states during the last months of the campaign and the Democratic candidate didn’t even bother to campaign seriously in them.
Secondly, the lack of a convincing Democratic message lost the election for Hillary Clinton. In moving right over the years, illustrated by husband Bill’s sellout to Republicans and corporations by “changing welfare as we know it” and in embracing NAFTA, there was little that Democrats could convincingly say to address the insecurity of blue collar workers who had seen their unions, jobs and middle class hopes continue to disappear over the Bush and Obama years. Yes, Obama was the quintessential corporate Democrat, only disguised in black clothing. He sold out his country and his party with a continuation of the shrinking of unions and stagnation of wages and consequent diminishment of the middle class. And Hillary couldn’t ever dissociate from these Democratic trends, in fact she personified a perpetuation of them.
As Mr. Egan demonstrated in his column, it’s not difficult to sort through that grab bag of potential candidates. And there’s no shortage of such accounts by other pundits. So I will do the same, with several changes. Joe Biden does not distinguish himself in my list and I would like to suggest several “dark horses” – excellent choices that the other lists, Egan’s included, do not contain. And yes, I’ll use some extremely superficial reasons for rejecting a few otherwise substantial candidates, like age, blackness, voice and hair. Listen, please don’t dismiss hair – history tells us that Americans prefer political figures with hair. Our society views hair loss as a liability, and given a choice, Americans will pick the person with better hair. The days of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson are gone – substance has given way to image.
Also, I should mention that it’s still way too early to be looking to 2020. Much could change between now and then. Some Democrats who test the water may find it unwelcoming, others will fall by the wayside for other reasons, some of which I will articulate below. But one of these people will be the Democratic nominee and very likely our president. So join me in taking a look at them:
Bernie Sanders – our hero, told it like it was, didn’t pull punches, accepted no billionaire donor money or PAC money, right on target with his policies and programs, knows what the country needs, likely would have become our president except for the Democratic establishment led by the Clintons. But unfortunately will be too old by 2020.
Elizabeth Warren – believes and says the right things but comes across as way too impatient, exasperated and whiny.
Kamala Harris – attractive, intelligent, well connected, but way too California and way too new. And a “black” woman? I don’t think so.…and I don’t think black voters will think so either. And too tied to the Democratic establishment.
Chris Murphy – too young, unseasoned, inexperienced and too linked to his single favorite issue – gun control.
Sherrod Brown – genuinely liberal in his beliefs and legislative stands but always seems too angry. Plus something is wrong with his voice. (like I saidsome serious reasons to accept or reject candidates and some superficial but real)
Cory Booker – pretty good candidate but manic mannerisms – bulging eyes, talks too fast and always seems ready to explode. Also some pretty tight ties with Wall Street money which would hurt him. Also is single – why? – may be an issue here of some kind? But, thank God…he’s really black, unlike Kamela and Eric.
Terry McAuliffe – a great Virginia governor with some notable progressive accomplishments. But much too tied to the Clintons and would be picked apart by the opposition over the long haul. Too bad because he’s good looking and has great hair.
Kirsten Gillebrand – has recently placed herself alongside of or maybe even to the left of Bernie on some issues. But is still a legitimate candidate to break the glass ceiling in many ways that Hillary was not. But ties to Wall Street could hurt her.
Andrew Cuomo – well connected and would likely run a strong campaign. But he has lurched right or left for so long, depending on the headwinds, that he seems without principle. Right now he’s lurching left to counter his quite liberal primary opponent.
Eric Holder – not a bad choice but his liberal credentials are cloudy and he’s tied to big money. And he’s not black. Or maybe just black like Kamala.
Jay Inslee – Washington governor with impeccable progressive credentials – not many negatives here but then he has that “west coast” stigma, although in this case at least it’s not California.
John Hickenlooper –great Colorado governor and former entrepreneur with a record of liberal achievements which have helped turn his state fairly blue, but (shallow) is his name a handicap? So easily ridiculed, don’t you think? Hickenloopy, Hickenpooper, Chickencooper, etc.
Martin O’Malley – a good guy but weakened by overexposure during the 2016 Democratic primaries. And hasn’t done much since then.
Tim Caine – an establishment candidate whose liberal credentials are dubious – rather a Republican in Democrat’s clothing. Also, forever soiled by his association and unsuccessful campaign with Hillary Clinton.
Oprah Winfrey, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Cuban – forget all of these. They’e rich entertainers, not public servants. That’s what we have now and Democrats don’t need this. Nor do they need
Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg – yes, I can’t believe that these two pompous Facebook billionaires – he of the weaponized social media tech platform and she of the egotistical self-help books (see my upcoming article “The Great Books”), have been mentioned seriously by the pundits.
Julian Castro, Mitch Landrieu, Eric Garcetti, Deval Patrick – regardless of their very real liberal bona fides, none of these have the national stature and profile necessary to be the formidable candidate that the Democrats need.
Joe Biden – sorry Mr. Egan, but I just can’t take your suggestion seriously. He’s too old. Period. He came to Congress with fellow freshman Jesse Helms when the presiding officer of the Senate was vice president Spiro Agnew and while Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were dating in law school. Oh yes, he could break another “glass ceiling” by being the oldest president-elect in history but he couldn’t reasonable consider a second term, and who wants a president who’s an immediate lame duck? Plus, good old Joe has been known to be a little bit creepy and “handsy” over the years and as a drug warrior, incarceration hawk and death penalty proponent, he has been on the wrong side of more than a few legislative issues. And his cavalier treatment of Anita Hill’s harassment claims was responsible for the ascension of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Add to this that he is long gone from his humble blue collar Scranton roots and has ever been an eager supporter of the big money Delaware financial institutions, which have generously contributed to all of his campaigns. So, Timothy, Joe Biden is not only way too old but way too tarnished. And all this would be mercilessly highlighted by Republicans should, God forbid, he becomes the Democratic nominee. Yet there he sits, right on top of most pundits’ lists, including yours. My gosh, I forgot to mention his hair – the worst imaginable – hair transplants – bad enough, but they don’t even follow the natural lines of male pattern baldness. Superficial yes, but enough….goodbye, Joe.
So, there you have the complete list, except for whom I would expect to be the strongest candidates, any one of whom has more honesty and genuine liberal credentials than any of the above save my Bernie Sanders. Why these great Democrats have been overlooked beats me. Let’s take a look at them:
Sheldon Whitehouse – ok, first let’s first be superficial – the junior Senator from Rhode Island has got great hair, really great hair. And how could an American presidential candidate ever have a catchier last name than “Whitehouse” – unless his name happens to be “Sheldon President”? Not hard to imagine what campaign slogans could be inspired by this name. Now let’s be substantive. Mr. Whitehouse has impeccable credentials. Public service is in his veins – he grew up in a diplomatic family with both father and grandfather in the foreign service as ambassadors. Mr. Whitehouse exudes intelligence, gravitas and substance and went to the right schools – St. Pauls and Yale. He has also written the requisite book – but not the typical book about himself and his views on the issues and the world. “Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy” is a passionate and scholarly treatise on two of the most important issues faced by our country and the world today – corporate money in politics and climate change, and how they relate and intersect. The book has been written about in the New Yorker and discussed by its author in a great Book TV interview on C-Span. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Senator Whitehouse has authored another book – “On Virtues: Quotations and Insight to Live a Full, Honorable, and Truly American Life”.
Bill De Blasio – the mayor of New York City has impeccable liberal credentials and a stellar record of progress such as providing free universal pre-kindergarten for the city’s children, financed by a tax on the wealthy and significant progress in creating middle and low income housing. Mr. De Blasio said of Sanders, who swore him in for his second term, “From the bottom of my heart, the American political process will never be the same because of what you started,” He could do much more as mayor but but he has been handicapped by his greatest rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo. And on the superficial yet important side, Mr DeBlasio is tall, has great hair, is married to a realblack woman and has bi-racial children. And he rides the subway to work each day, chatting with his constituents and finding out firsthand what’s on their minds. Mr. Mayor has not yet written the requisite book, but unlike many candidates who have, has had several very complimentary books written about him.
Gavin Newsom – the Lieutenant Governor of California has movie star good looks, and genuine Democratic credentials. His linkage with one of the greatest governing families in California history, his mentor Jerry Brown and father Pat Brown, doesn’t hurt, although just the fact of where he is from, could. Right now he’s focused on succeeding Brown as governor of California so It might be better for him to wait, but he has built a lofty reputation and has momentum going forward. Claims he will not run but many other candidates over the years, when they felt that forces enabling and requiring them to run were coalescing, have eagerly swallowed those words. Mr. Newsom also has the required book, “Citizenville”, about how citizens can use digital tools to improve participation in and effectiveness of democracy. And oh yes, he is tall and has great hair.
So there is the complete list – I don’t think I’ve forgotten anybody. Nobody knows who will ultimately be nominated by our feckless party, which seems always to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, I fervently hope that whoever it is will exhibit not only the strength and resolve necessary to win but the intellect, honesty, humility, seriousness, dignity andsophistication, that are the precise opposite of the abomination that now inhabits the office, and will restore honor to the most important elective office in the world.
I grew up in a family with solid farm roots – Dad from a farming family in Missouri and Mom from one in North Dakota. I also married two spouses from farm families – one the daughter of a New Jersey truck farmer and the other the daughter of a Vermont dairy farmer. So I am steeped in farm values, habits and principles.
One of these is “make hay while the sun shines”, meaning that if the weather is good, you should be outside getting some work done. Or generally, when conditions are favorable, get something accomplished. You can’t plow or cultivate crops when it’s raining and the soil is soaked. You can’t harvest the wheat or the corn then either. Nor can you even do the wash and hang it on the clothesline to dry. So good weather requires you to get outside and get something useful done because the rain might come again tomorrow.
Growing up in the four seasons of New Jersey, this precept was demonstrated to me quite often by my parents, both of whom had obviously experienced the urgency of good weather. It was only on rainy days, or in the winter, that the pressure was not there. It’s winter – the hay has been cut, dried, baled and stacked, the wheat has been harvested and marketed, the corn has been cut and is in the bin, fruit and vegetables have been picked, peeled and canned, the potatoes and turnips are in the cellar, the wood is split and stacked, the coal bin is full, the stove is heating the house, you’re well provisioned and secure for the winter, so relax, read a book or listen to some music.
Unless of course you are a dairy farmer, as was my late father-in-law. These dedicated farmers had to milk the cows twice a day, every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. They also had to take care of the cattle year-round, making sure they were fed, healthy and comfortable. And then there were always calves to take care of. But at least in the wintertime there was somewhat less to do – at least the hay was in the mow and the silage in the silo.
So on sunny days, I have always felt uncomfortable about staying inside and involving myself in indoor tasks. I’m trying to read a book but the sun is shining in through the window and lighting up the page. Something is wrong here, this shouldn’t be. I should not be inside reading when the sun is shining. There has got to be some work outside to be doing. So I can’t concentrate properly and fail to appreciate or understand what I’m reading – the page and the words are blurred by guilt.
Before retirement, this feeling was minimized. After all, we weren’t farmers, we were educators, so we plied our craft rain or shine. No matter what the weather, the children came to school and their teachers taught them. The teaching and learning went on when the sun was shining or when it was raining or snowing. It was during retirement that this pull of the sunshine and the comfort of rain or snow became most obvious.
Retired, we began the practice of living for six months or so in the house we have owned in Scottsdale, Arizona since 2000. This home in Casa del Cielo, a subdivision of Scottsdale Ranch, is a “patio home” – tiny backyard, very close to other dwellings in the back and on both sides, separated by six foot walls. During the other six months we live in our little house in Dorset, Vermont, on the last little piece of my wife’s family’s dairy farm – 1.2 acres of grass, gardens, some woods and a brook.
So the only cold weather we now experience are the late spring and early fall of Vermont – both actually quite pleasant. In springtime we work on the house, repair some winter damage, rake leaves, dead twigs and branches and other accumulated winter detritus, while we watch the lawn turn from brown to green and harsh bare trees gradually become softly green with new springtime leaves. Then during the summer there is the actual work of living there – maybe some new gravel for the long driveway that needs to be purchased, delivered, dumped and spread; perhaps some new paint on the deck and the trim, and always the weekly grass mowing and related maintenance of the mowers. And my spouse is busy clearing dead vegetation from her gardens and planting, pulling weeds and mulching.
And now here in southern Arizona, we are experiencing our “winter” – some cloudy, cool and rainy days in November and December, but typically mostly sunny days starting with cool nights, perhaps an occasional frost, crisp mornings and then temperatures in the high 60’s and low 70’s. Later in January to April when we generally depart for Vermont, the weather has warmed considerably, The sun steadily rising in the southern sky becomes discernibly more intense as the days heat up to the high 70’s, 80’s and perhaps even the 90’s.
During this time, we watch the green citrus fruit on our six trees gradually ripen to yellow and orange and around Christmas we pick and enjoy our first sweet tangerines. And soon we need to strip the tree, refrigerate the fruit, eat as many as we can and give away bags of tangerines to friends and family. Later we pick the oranges and squeeze and freeze the juice. Finally, right before we return to Vermont, we pick all the grapefruit, eat what we can and pack the rest in boxes to bring back to Vermont, store in our cold basement garage, and share with friends and neighbors.
And in March, we systematically care for the trees by spreading measured quantities of citrus fertilizer around them, watering it into the desert landscape and hoping for a spring rain or two to finish the job. And all this while, my spouse is enjoying tending her flowers and feeding her birds, while I work on organizing the garage and maintaining our vehicles – making sure they are properly serviced and vacuumed, washed and waxed.
And here emerges the problem that I hinted at in my first several paragraphs. While here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I find it very difficult to read or write because of the abundant sunshine. Typically, the only time I can comfortably read or write is early in the morning before it gets light, or in the evening after the sun goes down. The rest of the time I am dealing with the pull of sunshine and the urge to get something done because the weather is good – maybe only a walk to the mailbox, a bicycle spin around the neighborhood, grocery shopping or a trip to Costco but I find it utterly impossible to read a book or write anything when it’s sunny outside. Even cleaning up the desk in my study is uncomfortable when I can see outside. So to get anything significant accomplished there, I keep the blinds drawn, blocking the outdoors and making the room as dark as possible.
Now in southern Arizona there is a time of the year, like winter in the east where I grew up, when you are comfortable being indoors doing some reading, writing or sewing and do not feel compelled to work outside, despite the lure of the constant sunshine. This is the summertime, when the heat here becomes unbearable. It is during these hot summer months that you draw the blinds, make sure the air conditioning is working properly and hunker down and relax because it’s too hot to do anything outside. You do your shopping or eating out early in the day or in the evening when the heat is more bearable but spend the rest of the day on indoor activities. This is the season in southern Arizona that resembles the winter in the east – the outdoor work is done, you did it when the weather was cooler, so it’s ok to stay inside now.
And in Vermont, where rainy and cloudy weather is much more common, it is truly much easier to work inside, not only doing some reading or writing, but also some interior painting or work reorganizing the basement or cleaning out the garage. But on sunny days, we are pulled outside like a magnet. Hey – forget those dishes in the sink, forget clearing off the kitchen counter, to hell with the dusty floors that cry out for vacuuming, avoid that full laundry hamper – just get outside and mow that grass, mulch that garden, pull those weeds, repair that fence, rake that driveway. Do something, for crying out loud. Well, if it’s all done, which is rare, do not remain inside but instead take that favorite walk around Scallop Drive, a lovely, colorful, and fragrant 2.2 mile walk north on Danby Mountain Road, then west uphill on Scallop Drive, south along the wooded mountainside, then east downhill to Danby Mountain Road again and home.
In the fall, right before the winter sets in and we leave Vermont, is when I feel the most intense influence of this farmer frame of mind. It’s October – the leaves have turned their stunning shades of red, yellow and orange, and have begun falling and, as they dry, begin blowing about the yard, accumulating in piles wherever the breeze drops them. My wife has cut her dead flower stems and collected what seeds she needs for the spring. She has dug up the bulbs she needs for planting next May. Her gardens are ready for the predictable onslaught of another harsh Vermont winter. And I have painstakingly cleaned up the mowers, changed the oil and air filters, disconnected the batteries, sharpened the blades and stowed them in the garage. I have carried the outdoor table and chairs from the deck and stacked them in the garage, cleaned up the barbecue, disconnected the propane tank and taken them there as well. I’ve carried the heavy steel milk cans from Bobbie’s father’s dairy farm, now painted a bold red and embellishing the entrances, porches and stairs of the house, into the garage and stacked them for the winter. All the rakes and shovels are hung and the big steel wheelbarrow is now in the garage too. I have turned off the outdoor spigots and opened the faucets so there is no residual water to freeze. And I have had the plumbing company come out and clean the boiler so it’s prepared and trustworthy for the winter.
But now what do we do? Instead of blowing the dust off those books, opening them to where we left off and settling down for a season of relaxing security inside a warm house while the cold wind and snow swirl outside, we pack some suitcases, box the big black books of cd’s and dvd’s, put our folders of receipts and records and my piles of journal articles in file boxes, pack them all carefully in the car and leave our snug house with everything done for the winter for the four day drive to Arizona. And there we do it all over again – contend with the eternal sunshine and the constant urge to get outside and do something, start getting up very early to get the reading and writing done and never experience that rare winter feeling of enjoying life inside looking out, reading a book, writing a letter or a poem, taking a nap, doing some sewing or baking some cookies, because all the outdoor work is done. We’ve left all that back in Vermont.
So now, avoiding the frigid winters in Vermont and the boiling summers in Arizona, there is little time to feel comfortable about being relaxed indoors and getting those indoor tasks completed. My spouse has been dragging her sewing machine back and forth between our two houses wondering why she never feels like sewing. And I drag my music and writing stuff back and forth wondering when I can focus my mind enough to get something significant completed. Well, having thought about it and experienced it, I know why. We are farm people drawn outside by good weather and happy to stay inside during less agreeable times. But going back and forth to obtain the best weather in both Vermont and Arizona and avoid the worst, we’re missing those special secure and relaxed indoor times entirely. However, I know we’ll experience them again someday, perhaps sooner than we think, because as we age, we’ll no longer be able to maintain two homes and will have to choose one to remain in year round. So again we’ll experience that secure and relaxing feeling during either a long Vermont winter or a hot Arizona summer – the outdoor work is done – relax and enjoy indoor activities.
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.
Our Interstate Highway System is an engineering marvel, now consisting of almost 48,000 miles of divided, multi-lane, limited access highways for vehicular traffic. Approved and funded by Congress in June of 1956, the original plan finally completed in 1991 and extended later, this transportation network was the realization of the dream of President Dwight Eisenhower. The need for such a system was planted in his mind when as a young officer in 1919 he participated in a slow, ponderous two month effort to move a military convoy across the country on the “Lincoln Highway”, now US30 and later when as the Supreme Allied Commander in 1945 was dazzled by the German autobahns. Embraced originally as a Cold War requirement to move weapons and armaments quickly across the country if necessary, the Interstate system has also proven to be not only a blessing for the auto traveler, but a boon to the trucking industry and as such, a perpetual thorn in the side of the railroad industry.
I remember traveling by car in the late 1950’s during early phases of construction. Interstate 44 was still mostly US66, I-70 was mixed with lengths of US40, and the only really significant length of speedy limited access expressway at the time was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “The Turnpike”, completed in the early 1950’s and now designated also as Interstate 76, demonstrated what travel across the country would ultimately become when the Interstate system was finally completed. And although a toll road, truck drivers and motorists were always happy to pay since the Turnpike made a formerly tedious drive across the Appalachians very quick and convenient.
While traveling across the country so much in recent years, I remain more thankful than not for these highways. Moving along quickly, munching on snacks, stopping only to fill up the vehicle and empty its occupants, making the time go by quickly by listening to recorded books, and arriving at that planned motel stop before dark, one can easily cover six or seven hundred miles (over 1000 km) a day, reaching the final destination with far less stress than when such a journey was predominantly on two lane highways.
However, in recent decades, this renowned network of high speed multi-lane roadways has become a mixed blessing. Even though I am still mostly moving along quickly, the thousands of huge trucks on the road are making the drive much less pleasurable and far more stressful and dangerous. Sometimes it seems as though our little car is the only such vehicle on the road. Looking ahead, all I can see are trucks and, glancing in the mirrors, that’s about all I can see behind me as well. And coming toward me in the other lanes are again….mostly trucks, with only a few cowed cars mixed in. There are about 15 million trucks on the road, and of these about two million are tractor-trailers. And while big trucks officially make up only a small percentage of all highway vehicles, they all unfortunately seem to travel the same Interstate highways that I do.
Often, when passing a line of these behemoths, I am forced to suddenly brake, take my car out of cruise control and destroy my momentum when one of them suddenly pulls out in front of me to attempt to “pass” several other trucks. Then I sit angrily behind it, poking along at far less than the speed limit, waiting for the truck to slowly, gradually pass the others and finally pull in so that I can regain my speed. So many times, I have been tempted to lean on my horn and render an obscene gesture to the offending truck driver as I resume my speed and momentum and pass him. But I angrily have to remind myself again that these guys really control the Interstate highways, not citizen motorists in little cars like me. Truck drivers pretty much do what they want because automobile drivers cannot challenge a 40 ton, multi-axled, 18 wheeled vehicle barreling along at better than 65 miles per hour.
Rest areas along our interstate highways are getting increasing frustrating to use. When the interstate system was first planned, rest stops were constructed at proper intervals as places for motorists to stretch, relax, shake off driver fatigue and drowsiness, visit a clean restroom and maybe eat a sandwich or two at a shaded picnic table. That’s all changed significantly with the advent of long haul trucks with built in sleeper cabs. Now, roadside rests look a lot more like truck stops, with rows of semi’s parked, day or night, with the drivers snug in their sleeper beds grabbing a few winks. Rest stops are now made more convenient for trucks, with “trucks only” parking areas, replete with elongated parking spaces for one way entry and egress. In fact, the most recently constructed rest areas that I’ve observed along the Interstates appear to be planned more for the accommodation of trucks rather than for automobiles. Also, entering or exiting a rest stop is increasingly difficult since a driver must often navigate among trucks which could not find a spot in the rest stop so are now parked on both shoulders of an exit or an entrance.
Truckers have not only taken over rest stops but also any other spaces available to them. For example, Interstate 40 through Texas and Oklahoma is interspersed not only with rest stops but also by “picnic areas”, more modestly sized spots where motorists and their families can ostensibly park and have a picnic at one of several nicely shaded tables. Well, forget it – any “picnic area” you see is packed with trucks, their drivers relaxing in their sleeper cabs. Horrible conditions for a family picnic for sure – the expensive tables and shades totally wasted. I have never observed a family having a picnic at one of these facilities and have never wondered why.
The same disorder also now infects “scenic overlooks” along the interstates, where special parking areas have been constructed so that motorists can stop, gaze at and perhaps photograph a scenic valley, mountain vista or village. Well forget that too – it’s not worth stopping to gaze enchanted and enthralled by a picturesque scene when you have to first weave your way among parked trucks to maybe find a parking place, then endanger your life by crossing the right of way, then shorten your life with lungfuls of diesel exhaust. The “scenic overlook” is packed with idling trucks and sleeping drivers.
Along some stretches of interstate highway, especially in the west, there occasionally are what I call “dead exits”, where interchanges have been constructed but are not connected to any existing highway or road, presumably waiting for a time when they will be needed. These are quite handy if you need to relieve yourself for you can get off of the highway, stand on the other side of your car and go in relative privacy, then hop back in, easily get back on the highway and be on your way. However, now these interchanges are populated by trucks arranged along both shoulders of the exit and entrance, with drivers sleeping. So my convenient “dead exits” now have joined roadside rests and picnic areas as rest spots for big trucks.
I used to see a sign painted on the back of the trailers of long haul semi’s – something like “This vehicle pays $6000 a year in highway taxes”, as if we are supposed to feel sorry for the transportation company bearing such a burden. What the company’s sign doesn’t tell you is that, while indeed paying federal and state taxes as part of the cost of fuel they consume, their trucks cause far more damage to the highways than these meager fees could ever conceivably compensate for. It so happens that as the weight of a vehicle rises, potential road damage does not increase linearly but exponentially by a power of four. Thus a fully loaded rig does about as much damage as 9600 cars. When trucks are overloaded, as quite a few of them are, the damage is exponentially worse. For example, increasing a truck’s weight from the maximum 80,000 pounds to 90 results in a 42 percent increase in road wear: pavement designed to last 20 years wears out in seven. Trucking companies claim that while they represent only 11 percent of all vehicles on the road, they pay 35 percent of all road taxes. Big deal, because they surely cause 99 percent of all road damage. Clearly, if anything, big trucks should pay far more in road taxes than they do now. The highway taxes that I and millions of other motorists pay actually provide a gigantic subsidy to transportation companies. It should be noted that railroad trains do far less damage to public infrastructure. And furthermore, their fuel taxes don’t pay for the maintenance of railroad beds and rails. The railroads themselves do.
Another problem related to big trucks on the Interstate highways is the threat presented by the chunks and strips of cast-off tire tread that litter highway shoulders and right-of-ways. When my vision of the roadway has been limited by dusk, darkness or a huge truck in front of me, I have occasionally hit these big hunks of rubber and thought I had hit a two by four and seriously damaged the car. These unsightly road hazards are routinely cast off from improperly retreaded truck tires, purchased by an owner/operator presumably too cheap to buy proper new tires for his rig.
And there are serious problems with truck drivers themselves. When I was young and my mother and father would drive us children on long cross country trips to visit relatives, we were taught to think that truckers were the absolute best drivers on the road. Yes, back in the days of two lane highways, I guess we felt a camaraderie with truck drivers when after a big truck passed us, we would flash our lights to signify that he was clear to pull back in and he would blink his deck lights in acknowledgement – a pleasant little roadway “conversation” and exercise in highway etiquette. Unfortunately those days are long gone. Truck drivers today seem to instead exhibit a much more arrogant and aggressive attitude and very little politeness and consideration, much less any behavior that could be described as “highway etiquette”. And furthermore, they don’t seem all that competent or skilled. I have followed trucks that couldn’t seem to stay in their lanes and have veered into the left lane, then, overcorrecting, onto the shoulder. I have seen them pull in front of me without signaling and I have been cut off by truck drivers. Were they inattentive? Drowsy? Exhausted? Unskilled? Or maybe just plain stupid?
I have seen the mangled results of dozens of horrible collisions involving semi’s over the last several years and I have read about some very grim ones resulting in death, always of the people in the smaller vehicles, almost never in the trucks. Usually the truck driver, protected as he is, escapes injury or death, even if he is at fault. A recent well known example is the 2014 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike when a Walmart tractor/trailer moving at 65 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, rear-ended comedian Tracy Morgan’s travel van, killing comedian James McNair and causing severe injury to Morgan and several other passengers. Walmart driver Kevin Roper, who had driven from Georgia to Delaware to pick up his load and begin his shift, had not slept in 28 hours, survived the accident unharmed.
Walmart truck, Tracy Morgan’s van 2014
A few pertinent statistics – tractor-trailer crashes kill nearly 4000 Americans every year and injure more than 85,000. Since 2009 deaths involving big trucks have increased 17 percent and injuries by 28 percent. Six million vehicle crashes occurred in the US in 2014. Of those, 476,000 involved large trucks and buses – a 22 percent increase from the previous year. And there have been a steadily increasing number of truck driver violations. There were 326,818 violations noted during big rig roadside inspections in 2015. One of the most numerous was of truckers who failed to log, update, or provide accurate information regarding their record of duty status. Also there were 136,585 hours-of-service violations, where drivers violated their time limits. Many fatal truck crashes involve rear-end collisions. The Department of Transportation reported that in 2015 large trucks were involved in 27 percent of all fatal crashes in roadway work zones, even though they represent only about 10 percent of all highway traffic. These crashes are usually caused when trucks come up on vehicles stalled by the road work.
Part of the problem today with truckers is how they are paid – usually by the mile. And when you are paid for the distance you travel, you will do everything possible to drive as far as you can as fast as you can. Pay rates for a truck driver range around 50 cents per mile so covering four or five hundred miles a day yields a fairly decent day’s earnings. But again, payment by the mile induces drivers to abuse speed limits and the rules requiring rest stops at established intervals, thus dramatically increasing the chances of an accident.
With the trucking industry booming and always looking for drivers, I fear that they are scraping the bottom, as far as the ability and skill potential of drivers is concerned. And I am always surprised to see so many women driving big rigs today. So, admittedly sexist driver that I am, I do notice many “woman driver” characteristics exhibited increasingly by drivers of long-haul trucks, such as driving too slowly, or being indecisive and overly cautious or braking too often. Many times I have remarked in frustration, “that has to be a woman truck driver”, and, upon passing the offending truck and glancing at the driver, I see that I was right.
While large truck fatalities have been skyrocketing — jumping 26 percent between 2009 and 2015, the American Trucking Association and the transportation industry have tried to make things worse instead of better. As part of the 2015 highway funding bill, they tried to include an amendment allowing states to raise the present 80,000 pound limit for trucks to 91,000 pounds. In addition, to meet their perennial driver shortage, the trucking industry proposed lowering the minimum age of interstate drivers to 18. Highway safety advocates came out decisively against this proposal citing Transportation Department statistics that show drivers ages 18-20 are involved in 66 percent more fatal crashes than those above 21.
In a rare demonstration of common sense, the weight increase proposal was defeated and a compromise was struck on lowering the minimum age. Eighteen year olds were allowed to drive trucks within state boarders, maintaining the 21 year old age minimum for interstate driving. However, a pilot program proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)was approved that will allow a limited number of individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce if they have received specified heavy-vehicle driver training while in military service and are sponsored by a participating motor carrier. So now that the door for teenage long haul truckers has been cracked open, I am sure that the lobbying power of the trucking industry has the clout to open the door completely in the near future. Wow, teenagers driving tractor-trailers cross-country on the Interstates! Brilliant!
Yes, to me, there are far too many trucks on the road, and with the price of diesel fuel staying low, I feel there will be even more as time goes on. But when driving on Interstate 40 through New Mexico, I can’t help but contemplate the irony of the dozens of trucks carrying cargo right along side of Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe trains carrying so much more at a much lower cost. A freight train can move a ton of freight 484 miles on one gallon of fuel, while a truck can move the same ton only 80 miles on the same gallon. If so much more expensive then why is 70 percent of all freight transported by trucks? In addition to loading and delivery convenience, I am sure that massive government subsidy of highway infrastructure as exemplified in the Interstate System is a major reason.
In addition, because of this inefficiency, the carbon footprint of railroad transportation is one tenth that of trucks.
A John Steinbeck fan in my twenties, I happily added “Travels With Charley” to the list of his books I read. I later lived some of this book when I traveled with my “rez dog” Seymour, from New Jersey to Colorado, by way of Michigan’s upper peninsula, Duluth, Minnesota, across North Dakota to Miles City, Montana and then down through Wyoming to Denver, Colorado. I enjoyed the trip very much, enjoying wonderful scenery along the way, and couldn’t help thinking about Steinbeck’s statement (sometimes attributed to CBS’s Charles Kuralt https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/first.cfm ) about the Interstate Highway system. “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” How prescient he was, because that’s unfortunately true in my own experience. My seasonal 2500 mile trips between Arizona and Vermont have become incredibly boring, perhaps because of familiarity or the Interstates themselves, or maybe both. But when traveling either east or west, really, Steinbeck (or Kuralt) is right, I really don’t see a damned thing except the miles and miles of four or six lane highway stretching out in front of me, the thousands of trucks and that scattering of cars in front of me and behind me. The number of trucks will inexorably grow and our Interstates will become ever more crowded. Thank God for recorded books!