When I was a child I worked for my father, a part time farmer in New Jersey who raised what today would be called market crops, which included strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, lima beans, okra, eggplant, cantaloupe and squash. All of the children helped in this enterprise, the older ones assisting my father in planting, cultivating, weeding and picking and the younger ones selling produce at our little roadside stand.
Dad had an enviable and uncommon attachment to the soil which I never completely shared. While I will ever remember the sweet smell of freshly turned soil from a spade or a plow, the smell of dew laden cornstalks and the sound of twisting off ears of sweet corn, the taste of a juicy freshly picked New Jersey tomato, or the sweetness of a strawberry right off the vine, my love of the soil and the gifts it gave was never like his. I can remember rebelling and telling him that I didn’t want to spend my life “planting lima beans eyes down”, that I wanted more from life.
My father also had a peculiar attitude about work. If someone was sweating and breathing hard, if they used their muscles, he admired them because they “knew how to work”. The nature of the “work” did not matter, nor the results, nor whom the work benefitted. To my Dad, moving pianos was honorable work, stacking bales of hay was great work, hoeing weeds in the hot sun was worthy work. I can remember clearly that one of my brothers, a successful building contractor, described an employee using the words “he can really work!” – a legacy from our father no doubt. Although I did work hard as a boy I don’t think that I ever earned any “he can really work” accolades from my father, although another brother always did.
But the ethic of work was nevertheless firmly established and I always thought I should be working. So I did – I worked at a wide variety of jobs before finally earning my degree and committing myself to a career in education. Although it was sometimes difficult to obtain work (I can’t begin to tell how many hundreds of applications I have filled out over the years), I always kept trying until someone called and offered me the job. Also, I look back on my work history before education with great pleasure – I worked with good people, learned to appreciate all kinds of work and learned skills that I have used all my life.
My first job (for real, regular money, unlike working for my father) was with Van Chesky’s Nursery, a place close to my home that I had traveled past many times as a child. Mr. Van Chesky was an old Dutchman whose rows of healthy and carefully tended shrubs, trees and flowers had earned a substantial market in central New Jersey. My job was hoeing weeds down these long rows of plants for 75 cents an hour, actually not too bad for a young kid of 16 years old. This was familiar work too, having done the same for my father for no pay for a long time. I really enjoyed the work and happily cashed my first paycheck of $30.00 in one dollar bills, so that I had a huge wad of money that made me feel very successful and powerful.
Another job I had later in high school was painting for a local gentleman who suffered from “shell shock”, called PTSD today, evidently caused by combat in World War II. Sid Johnston was a big man with a head of snow white hair whose malady caused a number of nervous mannerisms – sudden movements (very bad when cutting in windows!), emphatic and varied wheezing noises and a colorful vocabulary of curse words, which punctuated and flavored our workday. Sid also had a curious attitude toward Catholic nuns whom he evidently felt had extraordinary powers. On our drives to a job, if encountering some nuns crossing the street in front of us or strolling on the sidewalk in town, an explosion of wheezing accompanied by a stream of colorful invective would result, and he would be convinced that somehow he would have a bad day – spill a bucket of paint, fall from a ladder, have a flat tire or encounter some other terrible misfortune.
But I learned valuable painting skills from Sid Johnston that I use to this day, some 55 years later. And recalling the days of working with him as well as with several other friends that he also employed, notably Joseph Wenger, my best friend in high school and Jack Vorhees, an older, college age friend (our employment was somewhat sporadic, depending on the jobs Sid would obtain), gives me pleasure today. Sid was a strange caricature of a troubled and wounded man who nevertheless had a big heart and a generous and ready checkbook when the account was flush.
During my high school years I also worked, again with Jack Vorhees, for a painting contractor in Plainfield, New Jersey. The jobs we worked were a combination of exterior and interior painting in the Plainfield area. Two things I recall about our boss. First, many of his paychecks bounced, requiring frantic calls to him, new checks written, and repeated trips to the bank which finally put our earnings in our pockets. And secondly, this contractor faked paint quality to increase his bottom line. An elderly lady had wanted her house interior painted with what was then the premium interior latex paint – DuPont Lucite. Our boss bought the cheapest latex paint he could find and then had Jack and I pour it into empty DuPont Lucite cans which we then used to paint this lady’s rooms.
After I graduated from high school and returned to New Jersey from Ohio I obtained a summer job at a dye company in Plainfield, New Jersey. The name of the company escapes me now but it was a small place which mixed dyes to color products manufactured by a variety of other companies, I believe mostly paint and plastic companies. I and the other employees worked at benches where we prepared shipments consisting of whatever colors and quantities were ordered. The dyes were contained in metal barrels and employees prepared orders by weight. Since the dyes were strong and concentrated, the quantities were accordingly rather small, so colors were weighed out and placed in specially labeled paper bags for shipment. In retrospect, working in this place during pre-OSHA times was likely quite dangerous. I can remember blowing my nose after work and being amazed at the multi-colored mucous that appeared in the tissue. I should probably have been very thankful that this job was short lived.
During the summer of 1960 I worked at the Westinghouse plant on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey which at that time manufactured television sets. The position was an assembly line expeditor, a job whose function was to make sure required parts were on the assembly line so that the line did not slow down or stop. So it was my task to make sure that the proper coils, capacitors, condensers, circuit boards, connectors, wire bundles, cases, knobs and other parts were on the line and available to workers assembling the television sets as they moved down the production line. On several occasions the quality control department would reject certain lots of parts and I when I could not locate quantities of approved parts, I was surprised to be directed to get these on the line anyhow, simply to keep it going. I recall the plant being toured by a group of Japanese people and I couldn’t help but think they must be chuckling to themselves at Westinghouse’s production methods. And knowing that rejected parts were still going into these television sets certainly determined that I would never buy a Westinghouse television.
Later I worked at the Union Carbide plant in South Bound Brook, New Jersey. This plant had had the distinction in the early 1950’s of manufacturing an early plastic called Bakelite, which at the time because of its non-conductive properties was used for telephone casings and radio cabinets. It was also used in the manufacture of many household items and children’s toys. At that time the term “Bakelite” was often used as a generic term for any kind of plastic, in much the same way that the name “Frigidaire” was commonly used instead of “refrigerator”. At the time I worked at Union Carbide, the area of the plant in which I worked manufactured rolls of vinyl covered fabric material known then as “naugahyde”. My work was to assist in the mixing and dying of the vinyl and operate the machinery that heated, extruded and pressed the vinyl material onto the base textile material and wound it into huge rolls for shipping. This was the first job I ever had which required rotating shifts – successive weeks of days 8-4:30, then afternoon-evenings 4-12:30 and after the nightshift 12-8:30, back to days. Frankly I don’t know how people do this. Days and afternoons were fine, but the night shift killed me. I simply could not sleep soundly enough during the day to get ready for a shift starting at 12:00 midnight. It’s no wonder that it’s still commonly called the “graveyard shift”.
Recently I saw a documentary on Free Speech TV called “Plastic Planet” which mentioned a link between exposure to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the material I worked with at Union Carbide and Reynaud’s Disease, also called Reynaud’s Phenomenon, a malady which affects my fingers and hands when I am cold. The problem first appeared in my mid-thirties and it’s quite likely that it is caused by my time at Union Carbide. I am sure that today, federal regulations require protection for workers from this potentially harmful exposure, but unfortunately I do not recall being required to wear any protective clothing, masks or gloves at the time I worked there.
In the summer of 1961 I had finished my sophomore year at Rutgers and was deeply in debt to the fraternity that I had been invited to join that year. In spite of waiting tables, doing dishes and whatever else I could do at the fraternity to defray my expenses, I still owed considerable money for meals and dues. So late that summer I was overjoyed to have obtained a job on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company’s Metuchen assembly plant.
Working at Ford was an incredible experience, seeming like it was on the front line of American industry. As a new employee, I worked at a variety of stations on the assembly line, mostly filling in for absent workers or workers who were on vacation. They ranged from screwing on nuts and bolts to installing window trim to applying some kind of substance to specified areas on the car bodies before painting. The duties at each assembly line station were carefully calibrated by time and motion studies to exactly fill the time each car came by, as I recall, every 90 seconds. So you had to really hustle, moving along with the car body doing whatever the job required, then dropping back to do the same tasks all over again during the next 90 seconds. The job was mind-numbing for its repetition and inherent boredom. So many times my mind would drift off and suddenly I couldn’t really remember whether I had gone through all the motions or not – doing the same thing every ninety seconds can freeze one’s awareness completely.
And since each set of tasks was meticulously structured to take exactly 90 seconds, when I was learning a job, it was really difficult to keep up, even working at top speed. If I fell behind I couldn’t call for someone to slow down or stop the line. I just worked in a frenzy, as fast as I could and if I fell behind and was following a given car up the line so far that I was in the next worker’s territory, I just had to skip a task in order to catch up and simply hope that someone in quality control would catch the skipped task later down the line.
I thought it really interesting that some car bodies had a metal disc hanging from the top, indicating that this particular car was going to be purchased by a plant worker. This circle was the sign to do an extra careful and thorough job on the car: the guys welding the bodies gave it double welds and so on.
I met some wonderful people while working at Ford. There were many highly educated Hungarian refugees on the line, since this was a few years after the Hungarian Revolution and many Hungarian emigrants had settled in nearby New Brunswick. I also recall a very bright man from North Carolina, Joe Sprinkle, who became a friend and confessed that during the mental paralysis imposed by endless repetition on the assembly line, he exercised his mind by composing poems and then writing them down during his breaks. And as I recall, they were pretty good poems.
This job was an opportunity to get to know unions a bit better also. I was a member of Local 980 of the United Auto Workers, which represented the 800 or so workers at the Metuchen plant and as a member, participated in several wildcat strikes. I guess I should not say participated, because I don’t recall ever knowing the causes. I just remember the assembly line slowing and then halting and the UAW shop steward telling me to stop working, leave the plant and join the other workers at the Union headquarters close by. I regretted the strikes because I lost my high hourly pay, about $2.70 per hour, for the time we were on strike. But it was pleasant to always feel part of something bigger and to share in the considerable power the UAW wielded.
I will never forget the distinctive smell the Ford plant had – a not unpleasant smell and best described as the odor of hot metal, that you got a first whiff of as you approached the plant and entered the parking lot. I can remember years later smelling this familiar odor if the wind was right while driving by the plant on Route 1 and having the memories of my time on the assembly line at Ford come flooding back. The cars we assembled then were Mercury Comets and Ford Falcons. The Metuchen Assembly Plant was to later make Mustangs for many years and had been assembling Ford F150 pickups before it finally closed in 2004.
Mixed with my mostly positive memories of this mass production assembly line job was the sad experience of being called to the personnel office and being informed that I would no longer be employed there. Back x-rays which were taken during the very thorough physical when I got the job, had finally come back, revealing that I had scoliosis, a condition which up to that time, I never knew I had. And since Ford feared that I perhaps could not perform up to their physical standards, or perhaps that I might injure myself on the job because of this condition, I was dismissed. This news dashed my dreams of saving enough money to return to school second semester, but at least I had been able to pay off my debt to the fraternity. The job had lasted only seven weeks but in that short time had provided a huge number of vivid and indelible memories.
After the trauma of losing my job at Ford and seeing my dreams of financial solvency dashed, I left New Jersey, moved to Colorado and found a job as a file clerk at the Navajo Freight Lines main headquarters on Santa Fe Drive in south Denver. This was a very boring clerical job, filing freight bills alphabetically and numerically in an area of high metal cabinets full of long file drawers. But the surroundings were pleasant, the job was easy, I worked with some very good people, and in this, my first clerical job, I could dress well. I will always remember several of my colleagues in this job – Barbara Erickson, a lovely girl from Iowa (or was it Kansas?), Trinket Barksdale, who lived in Broomfield, north of Denver, and a very good friend, Dwight Long, with whom I had a great relationship. Later, when I left Navajo Freight Lines, Dwight had also quit, so we drove back east in a little caravan – Dwight and his wife driving their two cars and I driving my ’62 Corvair. Dwight and Jeanette were returning to Pittsburgh and I of course was returning to New Jersey to resume school again.
While at Navajo Freight Lines I was involved in an interesting professional experience that I have often related to others. After serving as a file clerk for a number of months, a job opened up for a clerk-typist position which required a minimum typing speed of 30 words per minute. I could not type but badly wanted the raise that came with this possible promotion so applied for it anyhow, lying about my apocryphal typing skills. On a Friday I was informed I had the job providing I pass a typing test to be given on Monday. So that evening I rented a typewriter and bought a typing instruction book. By Sunday night and after about 30 hours of furious self-instruction and practice, I could type at about 40 words per minute. So I passed the typing test on Monday with flying colors and got the job. I guess I have often told that story as an example of being resourceful and tenacious, not as an example of lying and being forced to make good on the lie.
When I returned from Denver in 1962 I lived at home again (still chaotic but it was great seeing my little brothers again) and resumed my college career, enrolling in night school at Rutgers. I found a job working at Mack Truck Parts in Somerville, again a clerical job with various duties including typing. This center sent parts from its huge warehouse to Mack maintenance and repair facilities all over the country. The job itself was not very noteworthy and did not pay well but it kept me going as I started night school and searched for another job. The highlight of my time there was buying Mack t-shirts for my little brothers with the Mack bulldog trademark and the legend, “Built Like a Mack” on the front.
I do not recall if I found the next job at Nu-Car Carriers because Mack laid me off or because it was the higher paying job I was looking for, but at any rate sometime in 1962 I began working in the dispatch office for the company that transported new vehicles to dealerships across the east that were manufactured at the very same Ford plant at which I had worked a couple of years earlier. I enjoyed this job very much, not only because of the assembly line memories that returned with the hot metal smell occasionally wafting into the office from the adjacent plant, but because of the gracious people with whom I worked. The dispatcher, Dave Dowling, was an extraordinarily bright young man who enjoyed sharing his knowledge and views on every subject imaginable and with whom I had many stimulating conversations and arguments. Angelo (can’t remember his surname), the other main guy in the office, was a kind and sociable man with a great smile and sense of humor who teased me by posting my engagement announcement on our office bulletin board with his written comment, “and she makes more that he does!”, which was true.
At Nu Car Carriers, my job consisted of clerical duties relating to matching orders from Ford dealers spread along the east coast with the cars driven from the end of the plant assembly line to our storage lots. Vehicles were then queued up for loading onto our trucks and the loaded trucks were lined up for our drivers to board and drive to their dealer destinations.
From 1963 to 1965, while I was still going to school at night, I worked as an accounting clerk for Johns Manville Research, a facility in Finderne, New Jersey, a couple of miles from the big Johns Manville plant in Manville. In this position I simply made calculations with figures from different sources and prepared daily, weekly and monthly reports. It was here that I learned how to use a 10 key adding machine very efficiently without looking at the keys, a skill that, like typing or riding a bicycle, has never left me.
It was also in this job that I learned how to skillfully waste time. Since the job had a set number of periodic tasks, I got very good at them and found a little extra time on my hands. So I learned how to walk around the research facility with a pencil over my ear and a bunch of papers in my hands, looking like I was on a mission to obtains some facts or figures, but really going nowhere in particular, just having a good time finding out what was happening in different parts of the building and making some new friends.
I seem to recall all the people that I worked with in this office quite easily, even after more than 50 years, perhaps because this is where I worked when President Kennedy was assassinated and of course, like everyone else at that time, remember where I was and whom I was with. Mr. Leo Bartolonzo was our boss, the director of finance for Johns Manville Research. I remember being quite impressed with Mr. Bartolonzo because he was an art history major working in finance and as such, was a living example of the value and broad applicability of a liberal arts degree. He had a very attractive secretary, whose name I do not recall. Others in the office were Tony Pappas, my boss and Bob Mullen, another accountant, who also worked some evenings and weekends as a football referee in high school and college games. Pete Skierski was another accountant, as well as a young lady, Georgene Harding. I was in this office with these people when Tony’s wife called and gave him the tragic news about President Kennedy.
Everyone at Johns Manville Research was a pleasure to work with and I missed them all very much when I finally earned my bachelor’s degree and left for my first teaching job. It was at this time that Bob said to me, “Gee Ralph, you are leaving this eight to five job with two weeks of vacation a year, for a job working six hours a day and Christmas and spring breaks and all summer off, you lucky guy!” Right, Bob did not know, nor did I completely realize at the time, how wrong he was. Being “on stage” for six hours per day and keeping 30 or so little fourth graders interested and involved in their learning was infinitely more tiring than my eight to five days at Johns Manville Research. Plus evenings and weekends were always filled with grading papers, writing lesson plans, taking courses and writing papers. During my first year of teaching I was busier than I had ever been in my life. And “summers off”? I never had a summer off as an educator. I was always working, taking courses, earning a degree or taking district staff development courses.
Before I leave Johns Manville, I want to digress in order to describe a phenomenon relating to that corporation’s key ingredient in its products – asbestos. We lived on church property located about two miles from the main Johns Manville plant in neighboring Manville, New Jersey. One sunny morning in early summer we were shocked to wake up and see what looked like snow outside because the grass, trees and bushes everywhere were coated with a white fluffy substance. These white fluffy particles were asbestos which had mistakenly been somehow released from somewhere in the Johns Manville factory and had been blown our direction by the breeze. This summer “snow” disappeared quickly in the wind and rain so my family and I thought little of this incident at the time and were in fact amused. But years later it was chilling to learn about the deadly qualities of this then commonly used mineral and to realize that our proximity to the Johns Manville plant and direct exposure to asbestos in this incident presented a serious threat to our health. In addition, I have often thought of the many times I observed asbestos being experimented with at Johns Manville Research and have wondered if I will suffer any ill effects someday because of this exposure.
After I began teaching, even though I was working at my new profession full time and taking Masters Degree courses from Rutgers on the weekends and summers, I unfortunately found it necessary to augment the family income with part time work. One of the part time jobs I had was again working for a trucking company – Moore’s Trucking Company in Piscataway Township, New Jersey. This job began at 9:00 at night and could end anywhere from 11 or so to around 1:00 AM, depending on how many shipments were waiting on the docks, which determined how quickly the trucks could be loaded for the next day’s trips. I would usually try to take a nap when I got home from teaching so I would have the energy for this evening job. And when I came home late, it was sometimes very difficult to get to sleep so that I could do my little kids justice in the classroom. Since we had a veritable pharmacy in the bathroom cabinet back then, thanks to my spouse’s professional contact with drug company detail men, I got into the habit of taking a pill to relax me for the nap after teaching, then another pill to wake up to go to the evening job, sometimes a pill to go to sleep again, and then perhaps a pill to energize me for the day of teaching. I don’t recall exactly what these pills were but I guess they were in the families known as “uppers” and “downers”. Yes, and today I wonder what effect these drugs have had on my health at this point in my life.
During my first three years of teaching I also held two other part time jobs. For awhile I worked in the evenings for Morrison Steel in New Brunswick as an inventory clerk, going through piles of invoices and subtracting quantities of steel pieces that were sold – angles, channels, T’s, beams, pipes, plate, rolled steel and so on, from inventories. A pleasant man by the name of Tom, again I can’t recall the surname, taught me the job and worked with me on this task every evening. This job began at a specific time and was over at a specific time, so at least my sleep did not suffer.
The third job was working for a janitorial firm that cleaned offices every night. I reported for work nightly at an office building in New Brunswick and emptied waste baskets, dusted and mopped floors and cleaned bathrooms. I do remember being very surprised that the men’s bathroom was much easier to clean that the women’s because frankly, the women were much sloppier, something that I was not expecting. In this job I did learn some additional lifelong skills – how handy paper towels were to shine up sinks, fixtures and faucets and when you did it right, how quickly a bathroom could be made to sparkle.
All three of these jobs were, thankfully, short lived. During my first three years of teaching, thanks to boundless youthful energy, I was able to not only teach joyfully and successfully and increase our income successfully through these part time jobs but also complete a 46 credit Masters Degree at Rutgers which provided full certification as well as the degree, which I received in the spring of 1968.
I performed the one final non-education job in my life in 1971 after my year in Cambridge, Massachusetts attending Harvard University. I guess this was my most significant experience about being overqualified for certain jobs. During the last month of my year of school, my search for an administrative position was rewarded by being appointed Assistant Principal of Duxbury Elementary School in Duxbury, south of Boston. I was overjoyed to get this position in a pro-education community like Duxbury, but unfortunately the job did not start until August and having finished my year of school in June, I badly needed to find a way to earn some money to tide us over until my first Duxbury paycheck. I applied for many jobs but was turned down for all, I am sure because prospective employers knew my qualifications and rightfully decided that I would not stay. So in desperation, I took a job that required no degree, no experience, and unfortunately, no pride or self respect – door to door surveying and giving out free samples.
I recall that I was to ring the doorbell, introduce myself and inquire if I might ask a few questions and then leave some samples. Many times doors were not answered, or were slammed in my face. But those who were innocent enough, idle enough or lonely enough, did choose to answer the questions and receive my samples. This goody bag contained a variety of products, several of which I cannot recall, but I do remember Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid and Chipos, the former being a good product and really nothing much new, but the Chipos, I guess a forerunner of today’s highly processed Pringles, were a “new fashioned” potato chip made of “dried potato granules”, very tasty but probably not very nutritious.
So I and several colleagues loaded up our vehicles (a job requirement was to own a vehicle) at a depot in the morning and set out for residential sections of several towns west of Boston – I do remember that Dedham was one of them – and carve up these areas with code symbols that we wrote on the pavement with huge pieces of chalk in order to indicate if we had entered an area or had finished it. My God, what a job! When I looked at myself in the mirror in the morning and saw a man with a BA, an M.Ed and a Certificate of Advanced Study from very prestigious universities and then went out to survey unwilling people door to door distributing samples of Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid and Chipos, I had a tough time generating any self esteem. But I had to earn money somehow and this seemed the only way at the time.
So why do I think that this little autobiographical sketch of places I have worked in addition to my chosen profession of education is worth recounting? Well, I think that any one of these jobs and all considered collectively, gave me valuable insight into the general world of work and have provided an understanding of and sensitivity to the people who do different kinds of work. Experience on manufacturing assembly lines gave me firsthand knowledge of the principles of mass production and of the emotional stress of doing such jobs; the dangers I unwittingly encountered at Johns Manville, Union Carbide and the dye plant have made me aware of the need for government regulation to protect workers in the factories and citizens living nearby. Experiencing these different vocations has given me a strong sense of the honor of work, any kind of work, and of the necessity of different kinds of work being accomplished so that our society can function. Working in all these places has also convinced me that all work should be fairly rewarded. Working at any one of these jobs full time should have provided a decent living for anyone doing them. The rewards of worker productivity should be shared fairly with the worker, not go exclusively into the pockets of stockholders, managers and CEO’s. All workers, no matter what they do, should be treated honorably, since all this work, no matter who does it, is absolutely necessary.
And although I enjoyed all these jobs and learned a great deal from them, I am thankful that I found education as my real profession. Working with children, teachers and parents has been very rewarding but looking back over what now has become a reasonably long life, I am thankful too that I was able to experience so many other kinds of work and make those experiences important parts of my personal history.
During most of my senior year in high school I gave little or no thought to going to college. While in the high schools run by the church in which I was reared most of us assumed that we would go right on to Alma White College, right there on the same campus. It was only when I moved to stay with my Aunt and Uncle in Wooster, Ohio for my senior year that I was forced to consider what comes after high school.
Even while at Wooster High, my experience was so isolated from what classmates were experiencing it was pathetic. Due to my initial appearance when registering (striped pants, Wellington boots and ducktail haircut), I was put into some pretty low levels of classes. When January came around some test scores of mine must have come back because I was placed in proper Civics, English, Physics and math classes. Also I think I did pretty well in an annual test for seniors called the Kent State Scholarship Test. But I don’t recall ever visiting with a counselor about college or getting any help whatsoever from school. However, with my Aunt and Uncle’s help I did sign up for the College Boards which I took at Wooster College in the winter and then sent away for application materials for Rutgers University, my very own “local” (ten miles away from my New Jersey home) university. I was duly accepted, received my thick package of registration materials, filled them out, sent them in and was ready to begin when I rejoined my family in August.
My not visiting with any counselor at Wooster High was indeed unfortunate. I guess I was quite naive about academic counseling and never realized actually what role it performed or what help the service provided in the college application process. I only discovered during my sophomore year in talking to my friend Bryan Garruto who happened to mention to me that he had earned a New Jersey State scholarship that paid his tuition at Rutgers because of his College Board scores. You can imagine my chagrin and disappointment when I discovered that my scores were higher than his and I could have had my tuition paid for. I could have been freed of much of my financial struggle requiring me to borrow tuition money on a federal student loan and borrow money for books and other incidental expenses from my father. A visit to the student aid office at Rutgers revealed that, having missed the opportunity to apply before the start of my freshman year, I no longer qualified for this award.
Rutgers University is the state university of New Jersey with the main campus in New Brunswick and other big campuses in Camden and Newark. I didn’t know much about the school before attending – it was simply the university located in New Brunswick, the big town on the Raritan River located about ten miles from my home where we shopped once in awhile. But Rutgers has some unique distinctions – it is the eighth oldest university in the country, founded as Queens College in 1766, one of nine pre-American Revolution institutions of higher learning. More than 67,000 students are served by over 22,000 faculty and staff. And, if you are interested, the first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1866.
Having taken some Masters level history courses at Rutgers, I guess Dad was happy with my choice and immediately began to take an interest. He took me in to the bookstore to buy my books for me and also my “dink” (a beanie hat that all freshmen were required to wear) and my navy blue and red (pardon me, scarlet) Rutgers tie, also required of freshmen.
During orientation week I attended, along with most of the other freshmen, an evening reception at the home of Dr. Mason Gross, the Rutgers president. I don’t remember much about how I got there – I could have driven in the family car or Dad could have taken me and picked me up later. After nibbling on snacks and grabbing a drink, I joined a very long line which moved slowly and finally moved you up for a greeting and handshake from Dr. Gross himself. What I remember most from this experience was simply the vastness of it all – so many people, so much confusion (for me probably, not for everyone else). And I remember a queasy feeling of displacement, of not belonging. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I knew nobody and was a stranger among a huge mob of other strangers.
During these first years of college I continued to live at home. More properly, I should say that I lived on campus and slept at home, because I was gone from the early morning until evening, spending my time between classes in the library, a facility which I got to know very well and became a retreat, a comfort for me. And my having to commute to school continued to exacerbate my feelings of discomfort and displacement. It also sharpened my resentment of students better off financially than I. They had the money to live on campus and enjoy college life and I did not. During these two years of full time study I never went to the university cafeteria once but instead bought my lunch and snacks from vendors who sold their fare from trucks parked on College Avenue and its side streets. I can remember many days sitting in the car shivering as I ate my cold sandwich and waited for my next class. Another place where I ate occasionally was a small restaurant run by a couple of Greek guys, Central Lunch on Albany Street in downtown New Brunswick. My standard choice here was a bowl of bean soup and a chili hotdog. I have never in my life tasted soup as good as this but I was convinced that the huge kettle was never really emptied – just new ingredients added from time to time to keep the kettle full – probably accounting for the aged flavor of the soup. Oh, and probably the most important reason I went there was that my lunch cost fifty cents – 25 cents for the hot dog and 25 for the soup.
The courses I took my first year were required of all College of Liberal Arts students: English comp, Western Civ, a basic math course, Economics, and a foreign language, in my case, German. Our big freshman class of about 1300 students was sliced up alphabetically for required classes so my acquaintances and friends included Billy Garbarini, Allan Fritz, Stephen Gottlieb, Bryan Garruto and other last names like Friedman and Goldstein. A grim fact circulating among us freshmen was that typically about half of every freshmen class “washed out” every year, so we always looked around at each other wondering who would or would not be there next year.
About some of the courses, the Western Civilization course was anchored by big lecture hall sessions presented by notables of the History Department, supplemented by smaller “recitation” sessions” usually taught by graduate assistants. However, I was fortunate to find my recitation section taught by one of the lecture hall stars and department luminaries, Dr. Peter Charanis, noted for his knowledge and writings about Ancient Greece, Rome and especially the Byzantine Empire. Dr. Charanis’ animated and colorful accounts of the dramatic careers of Justinian and Theodora were quite memorable.
Another memorable lecturer in the Western Civ course was Professor Henry Winkler (no, not the Henry Winkler portraying Fonzi on Happy Days!), the author of one of our texts and an excellent teacher. His famous lecture on Nazi Germany routinely drew over a thousand students, many not even registered for the course, to our modest-sized lecture hall, many equipped with tape recorders which they arrayed around the lectern. Dr. Winkler’s history was good, but what really drew the crowd was his theatrical delivery, punctuated with timely and dramatic sarcasm and contemptuous sneers, drawing ooh’s, ah’s, boos and cheers from his predominantly Jewish audience.
Another course that I remember well from my first year at Rutgers was Economics 220, taught by Dr. Alexander Balinky, not only a very knowledgable professor but an excellent teacher. Highlights from the course that I remember well were our textbooks: “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers” by Robert Heilbroner and “The Theory of Countervailing Power” by John Kenneth Galbraith, both of which I kept in my bookcase and referred to for many years. The first, along with Dr. Balinky’s lectures, offered me invaluable first encounters with the contributions of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Robert Malthus and John Maynard Keynes, much of which has remained with me and strongly influenced my opinions today. Galbraith’s book also made an indelible impression upon me which makes me lament the decline of labor unions in the US because their power, along with corporate and government power were an essential element of Galbraith’s theory.
Another highlight (or lowlight) from the course was not academic but is worth relating – my first and only encounter with large scale cheating in college. On the midterm exam day, instead of Dr. Balinky administering the test, a distinguished white-haired professor emeritus from the economics department arrived with the tests and an armful of bluebooks. He requested a couple of volunteers to collect the bluebooks when the course period ended and bring them over to the economics building, and then he left the room. Astonished, most of the students promptly opened their notebooks and texts to help with their test responses. Others of us did not and two of us – the aforementioned Bryan Garruto and I, after discussing the event, decided that we should share the incident with Dr. Balinky, which we did. Of course, at the next class, Balinky really let the whole class have it and reamed us out royally for betraying the confidence of the elderly professor who trusted us to be honorable, informed us that he was throwing out the bluebooks from that test and was administering another, more difficult exam at the next class. Looking back at the incident, I think that the decision to share what occurred with the professor was the right thing to do, although many students were irate that certain unknown students had chosen to “rat” on them. To my knowledge Dr. Balinky never pursued the incident any further, for example referring it to the Committee for Academic Dishonesty for action, perhaps because it was an isolated incident involving virtually the entire class.
The basic math course, Math 161-162, was very difficult and was an ego-crusher to someone like myself who had enjoyed success in math in high school and also was the proud owner and skilled operator of a high quality slide rule, the “hand held calculator” of the 1950’s. I had bought this prized instrument during my senior year of high school primarily for a trigonometry course and, snugly nestled in its nice leather case attached to my belt, was proudly displayed in the hallways of Wooster High. However, I struggled during the first semester of the course and barely passed with a “D” and then was totally overwhelmed second semester when I failed the course, putting myself on probation, perilously close joining the many others who were forced to leave after their freshman year. I will never forget the diminutive, manic little guy who taught the course, Dr. August Hercksher, whose explanations and examples left me completely befuddled. As I recall, there were many others who struggled with the course and failed it as well, offering some consolation. In retrospect, this course, along with English composition, must have been the courses that honed the freshman class down to size before advancing to the second year. Fortunately I did finally pass the course, taught by a different instructor when I repeated it during the summer and eked out a grade average that narrowly allowed me into my sophomore year.
And speaking of English composition, I was continually chagrinned to find that not only was I a mediocre math student but a mediocre English student as well, who hung his head sadly at every “unclear”, “cliche”, “illogical” or simply “???” scribbled by some graduate assistant in red pen on what I expected to be a stellar piece of writing. Fortunately, however, I didn’t fail the basic required English course as many others did but squeaked through with 3’s (equivalent to “C’s”) both semesters. A few other shocks that first year deserve recalling and recounting – my required freshman Physical Education classes and required ROTC. Everyone was required to take a swimming test during orientation week. When I arrived as scheduled, I was totally shocked to find that we were not allowed to wear bathing suits. Having to expose my entire skinny body, including private parts, to everyone else was deflating enough, but the ultimate shame was having to be fished out of the pool hanging on to the end of a bamboo pole proffered by one of the instructors (who did wear swim suits), after foundering midway on the required second lap in the pool. Thus I was consigned to beginning swimming instruction for my entire first semester, having to immerse myself in the cold pool water at the early 8:00 time of the class, especially shocking to the system after a chilly walk from my car. But most uncomfortable were all the unattractive naked male bodies and the potential genital pain or, God forbid, damage, when participating in the diving portion of the course. Fortunately, I passed beginning swimming and diving with flying colors and was involved in more pleasurable and more appropriately clothed sports during second semester.
And then there was ROTC, to which my introduction was being herded into a long line for the issuance of my uniform – wool worsted pants and fancy jacket with brass buttons, tan shirt, dress hat, plain toe GI shoes and black socks and black tie. The uniform fit well and looked sharp and wearing it was undeniably a boyhood dream come true. After being taught to properly heed drill commands “forward, march”, “column left” (or right), “halt”, “at ease”, and most welcome – “fall out”, we also learned how to march holding an M-1 rifle (bolt removed) on the right shoulder and later the basic rifle drills – “right shoulder – arms”, “present arms…” and the rest.
We gathered weekly for our initially pathetic efforts at precision drill at Buccleuch Park on Easton Avenue and adjacent to College Avenue in New Brunswick during the fall and spring of that first year. And since some of those days were quite hot and we had only our wool uniforms, our ranks were interspersed by a dozen or so cadets who had succumbed to the heat, fainted and “fell out” a bit early, before the official command to do so. And once a week during the year, we attended the classroom portion of our ROTC requirement, studying military “science” and history. Our ROTC unit also went on a long field trip to visit the huge Letterkenny Army Depot near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Yes, I was impressed by my first closeup looks at huge tanks, vehicles and guns and the hundreds of acres of similar armaments poised to repel invasions or to be transported overseas to “defend our freedom”.
Since Rutgers was a land-grant college, two years of ROTC was mandatory. However, sometime during 1960 ROTC became voluntary, so I took advantage and withdrew for my sophomore year, with few regrets. My brother Robert chose to take ROTC for his entire four years at Rutgers a few years later and served as an officer in Germany after his graduation. My aforementioned friend, Bryan Garruto, also chose to remain in ROTC. I should mention something about those valued friends like Bryan during my first year. Yes, they were guys I chatted and joked with before and after classes, but since I commuted to school, we never saw each other socially and never ate meals together. But they were fellow students whose fellowship I valued highly and whose company I sought at every opportunity, to alleviate the great loneliness I felt so acutely during that first year. Bryan was also a preceptor in one of the Rutgers dorms and would often appear bleary-eyed at morning classes because, as he put it, “the natives were restless last night”.
I know I could have eased the isolation that first year of college if I had involved myself in some extracurricular activities. It’s not that I didn’t’ want to – I truly didn’t know what I wanted. My enjoyment of music and singing did induce me to try out for the renowned Rutgers Glee Club, directed by legendary F. Austin (Soup) Walter. I did go to the Club office to set up a tryout, which involved replicating with my voice some simple one-finger melodies tapped out by Mr. Walter on his grand piano. I was crushed to be told that I didn’t make it – I guess my voice cracked on Walter’s high C (or was it a D or an A?). But at least I had tried. Since my friend Allan Fritz had tried out for and made the Rutgers baseball team, I briefly considered trying out myself. But thorough consideration of Allan’s long experience in high school, comparison to my own limited experience and the risk of more embarrassment after my Glee Club failure, dissuaded me from trying.
I did, however, involve myself in two cultural experiences that first year that were thrilling but lonely experiences. I bought a ticket and attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in our gymnasium. To see the famed Eugene Ormandy and this great orchestra live was a great thrill. Another time, after seeing it advertised, I bought a ticket and an express bus trip into New York City to see the famed Moiseyev Dancers from Russia, again thrilling but very lonely since I didn’t know anyone on the bus or at the performance.
I practically lived in the library during that first year of full time study. I was enchanted by the size of the place, the thousands of books and especially the shelves of bound periodicals. I spent many hours perusing old Time magazines, re-reading old familiar articles and contemporary articles published during World War II. I remember especially looking up one special 1955 issue of Time which included a picture of singer Patti Page with whose face and prominent décolletage I had fallen in love with at age 13. What an experience, what feelings, to see this picture again, there in the stacks of the Rutgers Library.
I was also pleased to find books by Mark Twain that were new to me and gave me much pleasure to read, among them “Sketches New and Old”, the stories in which I found hilarious. This book was illustrated by the same Twain illustrator, True Williams, whose incredible work I had enjoyed so much in my old and dogeared first edition of “Innocents Abroad”.
Along with many other students, I frequented the reserve room at the Library quite often to read assignments in books professors had placed on reserve. One memory associated with this area is that of a terribly crippled student who used to come often as well. Swinging an inflexible body on two crutches, he would approach the desk, get his book, tuck it between his arm and a crutch and approach a sofa. Then he would call for help from someone to lower his stiff body onto the sofa and place the crutches near him, where he would read his assignment. After reading he would again call for help and someone would come, tuck his crutches under his arms, lift him and his crutches to an upright position, pick up his book and tuck it between a crutch and his arm and he would be on his way to the desk and then to the outside. I helped him down and back up many times that year but never followed him outside to see how he got to and from the library. Also, for some reason, I never saw him around campus and was never in any of his classes. But I do clearly remember this man and how he bravely managed down there in the Reserve Room.
During those days in the library, my home away from home during my freshman year, I did lots of searching and lots of reading. But unfortunately little of the reading had anything to do with the courses I was taking, certainly explaining part of the reason I did so poorly that first year of college. I was getting a great education but paid a price in poor grades in my actual courses. Also, reflecting on that first year of college, I was terribly immature compared to my classmates, many of whom were military veterans. Here I was with my very parochial background, having just turned 17, quite lost on this huge campus among all these new experiences.
In addition, I am now convinced that I had a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder. When writing papers, listening to lectures and taking exams, my mind always wandered and I had difficulty paying attention. I was perplexed and upset as well by many classmates, who through their responses and questions clearly were my intellectual inferiors yet they always got much better grades than I on papers and tests. Clearly I was far less mature than many classmates but also could not focus or concentrate the way others could. After my year and a half working in Colorado after my sophomore year, I apparently had outgrown much of this ADD problem because I could concentrate so much better, as reflected in much better grades.
My loneliness and isolation on campus were considerably alleviated during my second year at Rutgers. Some time in the fall I was approached by a classmate by the name of Paul (can’t remember the last name) and invited to visit Theta Chi fraternity. After doing so, I was invited to pledge the fraternity, to me a really big deal. What a pleasure to realize that someone wanted me and valued my presence and companionship.
I was quite proud to be a fraternity pledge. In spite of the onerous tasks assigned to me such as memorizing parts of the Theta Chi manual and doing lots of favors for the brothers, it felt great to finally be a part of something and respectfully exchange greetings with my new friends at the house and elsewhere on campus. I selected a very dignified and distinguished senior, Jay Fein, as my pledge “father” to advise and help me as necessary. Another brother, Joe (can’t remember last name) made me memorize the first ten lines of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. I can still remember the first line – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” In the meantime I started eating my lunches and many dinners at the fraternity house, a real pleasure, in spite of the duties imposed on me as a pledge. These meals, however, cost money, so I reduced the cost by waiting tables and doing dishes as often as I could at the house. I also that year worked part time at Kendall Park Pharmacy, fairly close to New Brunswick to help with my expenses. However, I left school after my sophomore year with a sizable debt to Theta Chi which I was able to finally pay off that fall.
It was tradition at Theta Chi for the group of pledges to play a prank on the rest of the group – something that caused inconvenience and consternation, not destruction. So I borrowed my Dad’s pickup truck and at 2:00 or so at night sneaked into the fraternity house with the other pledges and quietly took all the fancy decorations off the walls of the house lounge room, took them to my house and put them in my garage. They were returned by us pledges after the proper amount of punishment was meted out to us by the brothers.
Later that fall, prior to our induction ceremony, we pledges were initiated or “hazed” by being made to wear burlap sacks with arm cutouts against our skin under our clothes, and required to stay awake for an entire weekend doing a series of onerous tasks, one of which included painting a hall and stairway. After the elaborate and very impressive ceremony inducting us a full-fledged “brothers” we celebrated in the party room in the basement which was outfitted with a full-fledged bar. Drinking that mug of beer with which we toasted our new status was my first experience with alcohol and for the first time I experienced the pleasant, exuberant and euphoric sensations induced by alcohol and thought of how foolish my parents and other church people were to oppose drinking and how much they had missed with their silly abstinence and sobriety.
The several fraternity parties that I attended that year were fabulous experiences that were brand new for me. The sound of live rock and roll music from the several bands that were hired for entertainment and dance was incredible. The music, the dancing and the camaraderie, lubricated and heightened by alcohol and the presence of a comely date (that a brother fixed me up with) created fabulous and memorable experiences for me.
I should also mention that the pain of my rejection for the Rutgers Glee Club was ameliorated somewhat by Theta Chi’s distinction as the “singing fraternity” at Rutgers. We almost always won the annual singing contest among the fraternities. I don’t know why, certainly singing ability was never a criterion for pledge invitations, but there was an ongoing interest in vocal harmony among the brothers at Theta Chi. We sang a lot together for no reason at all, so when the time came for vocal competition, we were ready. That spring of my sophomore year, we again won the contest hands down.
Another incident I remember well was the “Ugly Man Contest”, a considerably less notable competition among the Rutgers fraternities. When no hands went up at a dinnertime request for a volunteer and wishing to distinguish myself, I tendered my services. So I had the pleasure and the pain of being Theta Chi’s candidate for this undignified competition. But the preparation was not without pleasure. I accompanied a couple of brothers over to Douglass College, the women’s division of Rutgers, where their cute girlfriends and a couple of their attractive friends, provisioned by a few of their makeup kits, made my face over for the competition. I would like to think that making me up for an ugly man contest was a huge challenge for these girls, but I think that instead they looked me over and decided they had a pretty good head start for the process. I did not win the contest (thankfully!) but somewhere in the Theta Chi archives at 51 Mine Street is the picture of Ralph Friedly, the “Ugly Man” contestant for 1961.
My pledge group was rather small – as I remember there were five of us, of whom I remember two quite well – Gordon Moore and John Kelly. Gordon was a real gentleman and later became a teacher in neighboring Piscataway Township schools, eventually serving as a principal and then personnel director. I’ve had occasion to see Gordon’s name in print several times over the years. John I remember well for a different reason – I stole his cute, vivacious girlfriend from him. A bunch of us used to enjoy occasionally going to Staten Island where we could enjoy the lower New York drinking age. So over the Outerbridge Crossing from Elizabeth we’d go, to the first town, Tottenville, and then to the first big bar, the Totten Villa. One evening, John was accompanied by his date, Janet Domhoff, from nearby Carteret, and somehow, Janet and I ended up together. Janet was the first “outside”, that is, non-church, girlfriend I had ever introduced to my humble Zarephath home and introduced to my equally humble parents. I saw Janet off and on until my departure to Colorado in the fall of 1961. I don’t know what became of her – my Google searches have come up empty.
So in my second year of full time study at Rutgers I felt that I finally belonged there and had considerably widened my friendships through joining Theta Chi. I did considerably better in my courses as well, maybe growing out of my ADD cloudiness or just learning how to manage my time and study habits better. The best and probably the most transformative course during my sophomore year was “Masterpieces of French Literature in Translation”. This was a “dream course” because you carried a towering stack of paperback novels from the bookstore “English 420” bin, which included masterpieces like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, Stendahl’s “The Red and the Black”, Zola’s “Germinal” and many others. The professor who taught this marvelous course, Dr. Serge Sobolevitch, was a fabulous teacher. He was also a dedicated smoker, whose first act upon entering the classroom was to carefully arrange three packs of cigarettes on his desk – Camels, Winstons and Salems. Then he would chain smoke these regular, filtered and menthol cigarettes in succession, never stopping for the entire class period. And yes, both professors and students could smoke in class back then. I loved this course and valued the opportunity to become acquainted with these mighty French authors and their enduring works. It also propelled me on the way toward minoring in English.
I did comparatively well in other classes as well that academic year 1960-61. I took my required science course, choosing geology, which I did find quite interesting. The course included a field trip to examine notable geological formations, yes, even in New Jersey and nearby Pennsylvania. The year included two semesters of American history too. One of the required texts was “George Washington: Man and Monument” by Marcus Cunliffe, which I remember well for shattering all the myths about our first president popularized by Parson Weems. I also took my second year of German, finishing my language requirement. And I should add that my two years of German were a big disappointment. For someone who had two years of German in high school, this requirement should have been a pleasure and a breeze. But it was not – I think a “2” (the equivalent of a “B”) was the highest grade I got over the entire four semesters.
I left school after my sophomore year and searched for a job to pay off my debt, finally obtaining a good-paying job on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Metuchen, not too far from New Brunswick. As I recount in another article , I was soon laid off from that job because of a congenital defect in my back but did barely accumulate enough money to pay off my debt. I had not the resources that would allow me to return to school full time and could not face continuing to live at home so I left New Jersey for Denver, Colorado, where I remained for the next 18 or so months working as a clerk for Navajo Freight Lines.
When I returned to New Jersey I resumed work on my degree at night at Rutgers University College. While there I took some great upper level history courses and several more sweet advanced English courses with the stack of paperback novels as the texts. Having gotten married and settling into a full time accounting job at Johns Manville Research, my life became much more stable and I was able to summon the discipline and will to succeed in my courses, attending class, studying and writing during my evenings and weekends. One semester I took 13 credit hours of work, yet earned good grades in all the courses,. Some of the courses were perhaps not as demanding or as competitive as the courses taught at the Colleges for Men in which I had been enrolled my first two years from 1959 to 1961, since they were sometimes taught by retired professors working part time or new professors jockeying for a full time job, but they were still challenging and stimulating. Some of the advanced history and English courses were in fact scheduled and staffed to serve both the full time and the part time Rutgers student populations and thus were quite competitive.
During this time my brother Robert started at Rutgers and as a liberal arts student later majoring in music, likely struggled with some of the same bewilderment and confusion with which I struggled. However, there were some significant differences. First, Robert was likely smart enough to apply for and receive the Rutgers state tuition scholarship that I missed. And somehow Robert managed to live on campus and he also tried out for and was selected to a major sport, heavyweight varsity crew (or rowing). His abilities and dedication even earned him the distinction of rowing at the key stroke position. And as I mentioned in my first “Home Sweet Home” article, Robert lived in a small apartment, a converted storefront, right around the corner from where we lived on Easton Avenue for awhile. So Rob likely felt much more a part of college life and the Rutgers campus than I ever did. Furthermore, the close teamwork required by his crew commitment must have earned him some lasting friendships, as did perhaps his ROTC for all four years. While Rob was at Rutgers, I attended, along with our proud parents and other family members, many of his local varsity crew races on the Raritan River in New Brunswick and at Carnegie Lake in Princeton. When thinking of Robert’s Rutgers career, his living on campus and his rowing success, I am always struck with conflicting feelings of envy and admiration – Rob did what I could not do – live on campus, perform much better in his courses and even earn his way onto a varsity sports team. What qualities and abilities did he possess as a young man that I did not? Did he have more opportunities than I or was he more resolute and did he work much harder? Or maybe he was just brighter.
So in 1965 I was finally able to graduate with a BA in history and English and the handful of education credits that enabled me to obtain a temporary teaching certificate and begin my career in education. Although for many years I never really stopped going to school, earning two more degrees while working as an educator, I was happy to put those chaotic and stressful years of undergraduate education behind me. My 44 year career in education, which turned out to be no less chaotic and stressful, and my recent retirement have brought me to this point – sitting in my leather armchair during the early morning hours in the basement study of our little Vermont house reminiscing and writing. Why? I don’t really know. It just feels like what I should be doing at this late stage of my life. Dear reader, if you were able to get through the 6000 plus words of this ponderous and detailed tome, thank you for your patience and for allowing me to share this part of my life with you.
Reflecting on and writing about these difficult years moved me try to find out what happened to some of the dear friends from back then. I have to admit with some shame that I’ve never been good at maintaining friendships. Perhaps if I had stayed in New Jersey or remained in Massachusetts, things would have been different. Here in this beautiful green Vermont summer, my wife can gaze across the road at the house in which she grew up, changed a little now but still the same house. She can point to where her grandmother’s house was and where the barn and the “night pasture” were located. And she occasionally says hello to any one of several childhood friends from her elementary school days. I have no such opportunity. I have bounced around the country and the globe quite a bit in my life and have not cultivated those valuable roots and connections that others have. So most of my friendships have burned brightly and then were extinguished over time because of distance and years or my own carelessness. I could find no information on anyone I have mentioned from my days at Rutgers save Gordon Moore, whose name shows up in some googled documents, Stephen Gottlieb, who became a teacher and school administrator in the Plainfield, New Jersey area, and Bryan Garruto, who excelled in his undergraduate studies, served in the army, went to Rutgers law school, practiced law and became a judge. I learned all this from an obituary that I found on a Google search. Bryan passed away last spring.
I just read another review of the recent movie based on the life of Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light”, written and directed by Marc Abraham and starring Tom Hiddleston. And like most other reviews, it said that the movie was not worth seeing. The Rolling Stone review (one star) encapsulated the movie perfectly – other than the good performance by Hiddleston, the movie is “completely bogus”. And a review from Variety noted that, “Despite a thoroughly committed, impressive performance from Tom Hiddleston as Williams (and an even better one from Elizabeth Olsen as his first wife, Audrey), the film tackles the life of one of the 20th century’s most seminal musicians with all the passion of a stenographer, making for a dull, unfocused slog through what should have been an effortlessly cinematic story.” And finally having just seen the movie, I heartily agree with the reviews quoted above.
This is very disappointing because there are not many musical lives that could make a more dramatic movie than Hank’s: poor childhood in the deep south, absent father, strong mother, chronic physical ailment, loneliness, musical influence and growth, songwriting, multiple marriages and relationships, alcoholism, musical stardom, tragic early death, unfulfilled promise, rich musical legacy.
But even with Hank’s life providing such rich material for a great movie, there have been only three other movies about Hank, all at least as seriously flawed as “I Saw the Light”. The earliest, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, made in 1964, made the fatal mistakes of casting ever-preppy George Hamilton as Hank and engaging the services of Audrey Williams, Hank’s wife, as advisor. Audrey strove to make sure she was portrayed favorably throughout the movie, even magically showing up on the night he died. Despite Hamilton’s lip-synching, the music, performed by 15 year old Hank Williams Jr. is the movie’s best feature.
“Hank Williams: the Show He Never Gave”, a low-budget Canadian film made in 1980 and shot in 16mm portrayed Hank on the night he died actually making it to the concert in Ohio and singing his best songs. The star, musician Sneezy Waters, actually did a great job of depicting Hank and singing his songs. It was nominated for the 1983 Tex Ritter Award at the Country Music Awards Show but lost out to Robert Duvall’s “Tender Mercies”. The movie never made it to the big screen and was limited to television and as a mythical tiny slice of Hank’s life fell far short of showing us the real Hank Williams.
“The Last Ride”, made in 2011, failed also as a fitting portrayal of Hank Williams. This low budget movie of Hank’s last three days alive, ending with the fatal car trip from Alabama to Canton, Ohio on New Years Eve 1952, is a cacophony of coughing, drinking and fighting that adds absolutely nothing to our knowledge of Williams and his music.
Obviously it seems that no one with a real love and understanding of his music and its roots has made a movie about Hank. Unfortunately all seem like cheap efforts to capitalize on the man’s legendary and tragic life without paying sufficient tribute to that life and awarding it the value it deserves.
I first heard Hank Williams when I was a 10 year old kid in New Jersey on “The Hometown Frolic” on Newark station WAAT deejayed by Don Larkin and was deeply affected by his voice and his songs. Hank’s music perfectly depicted loneliness and sadness and as a lonely boy in a huge, very confused and chaotic family his music touched me deeply.
Some years ago, still enjoying Hank’s music as well as that of Hank Jr. I bought Colin Escott’s fine “Hank Williams: The Biography” which I happily digested, and later seasoned with a lovely illustrated biography by the same author and Kira Florita titled, “Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway”. These books contained details of Williams’ life that I would consider essential to understanding him and consequently including in any movie about his dramatic life. Abraham’s film claimed to have been based on Escott’s book, republished under the title of “I Saw the Light”, but the most important features of the book, essential to understanding Hank’s life and music were obviously ignored. I have often speculated about what a really good movie about Hank Williams ought to include in order to really capture a life as special and as tragic as his. What kind of movie would I make about his life if I ever had that opportunity?
First, my movie would emphasize his boyhood much more. Hank’s childhood was a time of intense loneliness for him, having essentially an absentee father who was away working in lumber mills and on the railroad for weeks and months at a time. And when Hank was a young adult that same father, Lon, was still absent from his life, spending several decades in a VA hospital recovering from injuries received in the World War I. I would have included scenes of a very lonely little boy and a very lonely young man missing his father, sitting or walking alone, with some of his music in the background and scenes of him playing guitar and singing alone.
Hank also suffered from a painful congenital back condition called spina bifida occulta. Because of this condition he never involved himself in sports as other kids his age did, and as a youngster in an area of the country where physical strength and coordination was greatly valued, this weakness and frailty caused even more “apartness” and loneliness for Hank as a young boy and teenager. Take a look at some of the photographs of Hank as a young boy and observe the way he held himself, always standing somewhat crookedly in group pictures, likely because of this problem.
Hank and sister Irene
This back condition grew worse over the years and was probably as responsible for his heavy drinking as his aloneness and disappointment in love. So my Hank Williams movie would have paid much more attention to his physical condition and pain which exacerbated his isolation and loneliness. And I would have included scenes of him wistfully watching other young kids participating in sports and perhaps some scenes of he and his mother visiting a doctor seeking treatment and relief for the condition.
I also would have devoted much more script and screen time to his early musical experiences. Although neither parent was particularly talented in music, his mother, Lillie, did play the organ in church and Hank could recall with pleasure sitting with his mother as she played and singing along with her. Also as a boy, Hank became acquainted with Rufus Payne, a well known black street musician in Georgiana, his Alabama town, known as “Tee Tot”, who was said to have taught Hank his first guitar chords. These experiences, along with obtaining his first guitar, would have been essential parts of my movie. Scenes of little Hank singing with his mother and getting some lessons from Tee Tot would have been quite dramatic as would his commitment to music as a substitute for physical activities.
After his musical tutelage and experiences with Tee Tot, Hank began singing outside his mother’s boarding house for pennies, nickels and dimes, a great scene to include in a movie. Incidentally, some of Hank’s biographers have suggested that this house of his mother Lillie was perhaps just a little bit more than a “boarding” house and that other kinds of business transactions between lonely men and willing women were conducted to enhance her income. This possibility I would have subtly included in the movie as well – young Hank’s observance of such a sideline business would also have exacerbated his loneliness and feelings of being left out, and contributed to the passion and artistry in his future songwriting and performing.
Hank, Lillie, Irene and cousin J.C. McNeil
Biographer Escott also tries to shed some light on Hank Williams’ superb word-smithing skills, quite remarkable for a young man who did not even finish 8th grade. Escott claims that he obtained the inspiration for many of the words and phrases in
his songs from romance comic books that he read as a young man and continued to read into his adulthood and his prime songwriting years. In my movie about Hank I would have included key scenes of young Hank reading these sources, then writing and singing some lines. Some scenes of a young Hank in church soaking up some old gospel hymns also would have been very useful in explaining Hank’s passion for music and the well chosen word. The centrality of Hank Williams’ songwriting in his life would have been emphasized in my movie. And a singer performing and recording mostly his own songs was unique for the time since other country singers generally employed songs written by others. In this sense, Hank was certainly ahead of his time, since country singer-songwriters are now quite common.
Early “Drifting Cowboys” band, L-R Pee Wee Moultrie, Charlie Mays, Sue Taylor, Hey Adair, Hank
That Hank Williams was an alcoholic and that this condition damaged his career and his relationships is well known. What may be less well known is how his drinking habit began and how it was fostered. Scenes of a young Hank having his first drink at age 11 and drinking with young friends would be essential to my story as well as his later drinking as an adult being related as much to the physical back pain he suffered as well as the explosive relationships with the many women he knew. I would have included far fewer of the the arguments, fights, physical abuse, cursing and name-calling that constituted so many scenes from the recent “I Saw the Light” and more focus on the inexorable decline of his artistry.
My Hank Williams movie would have given much more attention to the influence of strong women in his life. The role of his mother Lillie would have been thoroughly explored, from her being essentially the sole support of the family during the absence and eventual incapacitation of his father Lon, to her playing the role of his first “manager” during his early success as a performer. His relationship with his first wife Audrey would have been more thoroughly considered as well. Audrey’s self deception as a talented singer would bear some deeper examination as well as the extended and painful conflict between Hank and her when she insisted on performing with him on the road and accompanying him on recordings. This conflict was completely disregarded in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” since she herself played an important role in the production of the movie, but emphasized ad nauseam in “I Saw the Light”. Really, Hank should never have compromised his artistry by including Audrey, but his struggle with the control of strong and influential women was integral to his life.
My Hank movie would also have developed a fuller picture of his rapid physical descent before his death. His being fired by the Grand Ole Opry, not showing up for many of his concerts, all symptomatic of his increasing reliance on alcohol and addiction to prescription painkillers, could have been portrayed much more sympathetically and clinically than in other movies of his life. The shame of his separation from the Grand Ole Opry to resuming Louisiana Hayride appearances to playing in small clubs like the ones he was headed toward in Charleston, West Virginia and in Canton, Ohio, in the days before he died, would have been dramatically related in my movie. Connected to this descent, the rapid, almost simultaneous, collapse of many of his sources of support – music publisher Fred Rose finally giving up on him. the departure of his own band, “The Drifting Cowboys”, leaving him to accompany other artists, would have played an important part as well. Furthermore, Hank’s forays into Hollywood and national television shows may have prompted sudden and serious feelings of inadequacy. Except for his driver, Charles Carr, Hank was truly alone on that last trip in the light blue Cadillac on New Years Eve 1952.
Hank and a young fan, circa 1950
Throughout my Hank Williams movie there would somehow have been included an ongoing recognition of and tribute to the popularity and immortality of his songs. Rarely has a songwriter been so often paid the ultimate tribute of having other artists record his songs. As examples, a recent check of “Jambalaya” on the iTunes store revealed no fewer than 30 versions of the song by different artists. My own digital music library features 14 recordings, from the gorgeous lilting rendition by the Carpenters, to a distinctly ’50’s pop version by Jo Stafford to more traditional versions by Freddy Fender, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. Consider “Cold, Cold Heart” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and try to count the myriad recordings of these songs, which include not only dozens of country artists but also notable interpretations from the likes of Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Norah Jones and Beck. Of course, Hank’s timeless “I Saw the Light” is by far his most recorded song and has become such a staple of the pop, gospel, country, folk and rock repertoires that quite often, listeners forget Williams wrote it and attribute it to a “traditional” origin instead. Over 150 songs are listed as having been written by Hank or Hank and an occasional collaborator, an amazing number for anyone, much less someone with such a limited education and painfully abbreviated life.
Audrey, Hank, hank Jr., Lycretia circa 1950
Finally, in my movie about Hank there would be a footnote collection of scenes about the death of Hank, his funeral and the legal tussles over his still substantial estate of song royalties. There would also be some of the inspirational story of his “lost” daughter whose acknowledgement and legal right to a share of this legacy was only recently established.
At Hank’s funeral, somewhere among Audrey, Hank Jr., sister Irene, mother Lillie and 25 thousand other mourners paying their last respects was Bobbie Jett, nine-months pregnant with Hank’s child. The baby girl was born two days later and immediately given to the care of Hank’s mother who after two years gave her up for adoption. This story, worthy of a country song or two by itself would be featured in this “footnote” as well. Perhaps my movie could begin with Hank’s death, his funeral, a flashback to the affair with Jett, something about te little girl’s adoption and life and finally discovering her famous father. Then the movie could proceed with the account of Hank’s early life.
Hank and family, 1949
So yes, Hank’s tragic life and his incredible music have been sold short in the several clumsy and exploitative attempts to successfully put it on the big screen. I wish terribly that I had the talent to write a proper screenplay about his life and even more, I wish I had the entertainment world connections to sell it to a producer and hire the right director to finally get a real Hank Williams movie up on the screen.
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.
Not long ago my sister Elaine reminded me of the date of our sister Barbara’s passing – April 27, 1984. I have always remembered Barbara’s birthday, May 26, but had forgotten exactly when she died, which was just a month short of her 46th birthday. When I think of her, I feel a void in my life that will never be filled. She had been not only my sister, but a friend and confidant for many years, someone with whom I shared good news and bad, success and failure, joy and sorrow.
Barbara was born in Salt Lake City, Utah at a Pillar of Fire Church home. Then the family of three moved to the church headquarters in New Jersey where Elaine and I were born. After an assignment at the Oakland, California church home we returned to New Jersey in early 1946, with Barb going on nine years old, me almost five, Elaine three and Robert an infant, to live in a church residence called Lock Haven. Already just a home of modest size, we shared it with an elderly couple, the Schisslers, in one separate part of the house and an elderly widower, Mr. Wittekind, in a furnished room upstairs. We occupied another area, large enough for the kitchen and eating area and living room on the first floor and upstairs a bathroom, Mom and Dad’s (and various infants’) room and small bedrooms for Barb and Elaine and for Robert, me and later Charlie, after he came along.
Since Barbara was almost four years older than me and was a girl, we were rarely playmates. She was more my boss or my teacher: giving advice and clarification, issuing deadlines, making sure jobs were done and so on. One of the common childhood chores was “scrubbing the bathroom, hall and stairs”, performed at different times by Barb, me or Elaine, with Barb always setting the standard and making sure the younger ones followed. With Barbara and Elaine on both sides of me, their common interests often bridged me, perhaps accounting for why I have always been a bit of a loner. However, I do remember taking some interest in a couple of their activities – playing with the furniture and figures in a dollhouse and playing with paper dolls. I remember helping Barbara cut out paper doll clothing, taking care not to cut through the little tabs which folded down to fasten the clothes to the doll figures. When we were little Barbara was often the one who made sure we got ready on school days and then led the way to catching the bus on time. Since Mom often was either pregnant or caring for little ones and Dad was absent much of the time, this help must have been greatly appreciated by her. Our home was always somewhat chaotic so each of us older children became very adept at carving out a little personal world of order and predictability. I remember Barbara being especially orderly, with clothing neatly arranged or put away in her area of the closet or her designated drawers of the dresser. A great memory from the Lock Haven days was listening to the big cabinet radio (Silvertone? Philco? Can’t remember) in the living room. On Saturday mornings Barbara and I would lie on the floor and listen to a show called “No School Today” featuring Big John and Sparky. Sparky, whose high pitched voice with clipped words and sentences was likely the taped and speeded up voice of Big John himself, opened the show by greeting by name all the children listening. Barb and I were thrilled to hear our names mentioned several times. Another show that we enjoyed was Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, a child oriented western show, that like all radio shows in the fifties was fabulous to listen to because so much was left to the imagination.
The church used to show “movies” on Saturday nights which was a real treat for us to attend. The word is in quotes because seeing real movies was not acceptable in the church. So these were 16 millimeter educational films for the most part, enhanced occasionally with a cartoon or a comedy. Mom’s rule was that we could not go unless we took a nap on Saturday afternoon, so we all made the effort. However, then as now, I simply could not take a nap so used to emerge from the bedroom unsteadily with my eyes half closed so as to appear as though I had just awakened. I was crushed when Barb saw through my ruse and exposed it to Mom, claiming I was just pretending, that I was only squinting and had not really slept.
An important event in Barbara’s childhood was raising a flock of ducks while at the Lock Haven house. On the house grounds there were several other buildings – a large barn, unused for the most part, a dozen or so bee hives and what we called the “bee house”, a small frame structure housing Mr. Wittekind’s bee-keeping equipment. Also there was a hexagonal wooden structure that became a home for Barb’s ducks. She raised them herself from downy little ducklings, feeding and watering them faithfully, so they became quite dear. I recall the sorrowful tears she shed the day when the ducks were sold for food.
Barbara always had a boyfriend or at least someone of the opposite sex in whom she was interested. And her pretty blond hair, ready smile and engaging personality assured that this attention was in most cases mutual. Such relationships among children and teenagers were frowned upon in the church schools we attended, so pursuit and conduct of these relationships and courting in general, had to be conducted surreptitiously. I enjoy recalling that when Barb was ten or eleven and I was six or seven, she had me sit between her and a boy named Joe Kruger so that they could hold hands behind my back without the bus driver or any of the children noticing. . As a little girl and on into her teens, Barbara was a big help to her mother, her sister and all her little brothers. She helped Mom with care of the children, washing and ironing clothes, house cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, canning and sewing. She developed marvelous sewing skills which she enjoyed practicing all of her life. As a student she used to sew her own brown and tan uniforms required by the schools and earned money by sewing uniforms for other girls. Also a good hairdresser, Barb during this time made a few dollars giving other high school girls permanents.
By this time the family had been moved to another church home, this one called “Morningside”, a house that we again shared with yet another family, the Chambers. This home was located in among some of the church crop fields, very fertile because they were on the floodplain of the Millstone River. As I recall, the move was necessary because of severe damage to the Lock Haven house by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. By this time there were two more additions to the family – Richard and Glenn.
As a teenager at the church high school, Barbara was very popular. She was well liked by everyone including her teachers and her friends. Barb was popular I think because she was generous – generous with her time, her good humor, her sympathy and her empathy. As noted above, she was always popular with boys, even going out over time with all three brothers from one local family, the Weavers. Another reason for her abundant friendships was that she was by nature an optimist, always looking for the good in a deed or event. Barb rarely said negative things about others and always preferred to look for the personal difficulties that caused someone to behave badly toward her. One fond teenage memory involving Barbara was when she babysat for a church family living across the fields from our house. This family had television, which we did not, so Barb occasionally invited me along to stay up late and watch the “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9 (this show’s intro and theme music I will forever remember). These were among my first movie experiences so I enjoyed these opportunities immensely. Several times Barb also invited a friend, Phyllis Finlayson, to come over as well to watch and swoon over Perry Como on his weekly show earlier in the evening. Sometime during Barb’s teenage years she began to have foot problems. While Mom was concerned and supported whatever measures Barb took, Dad was much more direct and blamed her problems on the “flats” that she and her teenage friends were wearing at that time, insisting that she wear unattractive and unfeminine lace-up oxfords, what we called at the time “Girl Scout shoes”, to give her feet more support. Wishing to assert herself, appear as attractive as possible and wear what she wanted, Barbara protested bitterly, but Dad insisted, bringing Barb to tears. The battle apparently ended in a draw since I can remember Barbara acceding to Dad’s dictum and wearing her lace-up oxfords but still wearing the flats as well, especially when the occasion required.
My love of reading was inspired in a large way by Barbara. When visiting the Zarephath library which served both the church high school and college, she was always ready to recommend staples of her favorite genre, animal stories. She loved reading the “Silver Chief” books there and on her recommendation I joyfully followed. Also I will always remember a favorite author of hers (I recalled the name instantly), Albert Payson Terhune, who I am sure was a favorite of hers for his famous book “Lad, a Dog”. We both also read and extensively talked about “Black Beauty”, a book that made both of us cry. But I do not remember questioning how a book about a horse could have been written in the first person. That strange fact never crossed our minds, we loved the story so much. Another book that we both loved and that Barb surely read first and then brought to my attention was “Smoky the Cowhorse”
After high school Barbara worked for a short time at the RCA plant near Somerville, New Jersey, which if I recall correctly, manufactured transistors. Barbara was obviously a good worker at the plant because she was advised by the union shop steward to slow down and not work so fast. My anti-union Republican parents loved to tell others about this incident.
I remember very fondly the times as an adult I visited Barbara and her family at her various homes in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I enjoyed so much the wonderful salads she would make and serve, full of all sorts of delicious greens, fruit, nuts, beans and other savory and healthy ingredients. Visiting Gross’ Natural Foods was always a thrill. Barbara introduced me to the Dr. Bronner’s products, notably the peppermint castile soap and the seasoning which was so good sprinkled on salads. Often her daughters would be helping out at the store as well and it was lovely to observe the expertise with which they would replenish stock or help customers.
But most of all, I enjoyed reminiscing about life and school at Zarephath, our little church town. We joyfully recalled social gatherings at “the fountain”, ice skating on the canal and the pond, what boy laced up which girl’s skates and who skated with whom. Barbara had a photograph album dedicated to her teenage years at ZA and I enjoyed so much when she got it out and we went through it page by page, picture by picture, remembering each person and specific incidents and occasions in which they were involved in our lives. Sadly, that album is now gone, neither her husband nor her daughters know its whereabouts. Her husband, however, did give to me a little stack of high school photos given to Barb by her high school friends, among them Genevieve Dobash, Phyllis Finlayson, Eunice Wilson, Lillian Hellyer, Miriam Snelling and Astrid Skeie. The messages to Barb on the back of the pictures are sweet and touching.
We joyfully shared memories of music in the church and the school, where everyone was expected to participate somehow in the musical life of both by singing in the chorus or playing a musical instrument. I remember the sound of Barbara practicing her clarinet and hearing her sing soprano or alto (her specialty) in the chorus. Of course Barbara, like most of us, took piano lessons as well. And we recalled the prayer meetings at the church, people getting “saved” or “sanctified” or simply “praying through” and thoughtfully mused on the guilt-driven nature of this process and about its veracity with certain individuals.
Barb and I drifted apart after high school as our lives moved in different directions. Barbara got married at 21 and embarked on a family life that had its share of both joys and sorrows. Two sweet little girls, Anna and Sheila, were born early in the marriage. Barb and Daniel hosted a wonderful Friedly family reunion at their Pennsylvania home in the summer of 1967. And they opened their successful business, Gross’ Natural Foods, in Lancaster in 1969. They were eventually blessed with other children – Rhonda, Robert and Brian.
But I know there were also times when there was serious hardship, stress and need. At Bethany Fellowship, a missionary training institution in Minnesota where they began their married life, there were struggles to provide the basic necessities, complicated by Barb’s first pregnancy. After the move to Pennsylvania there were times when Daniel was sick or injured and could not work, and Barbara had to clean houses with a baby on her back to make ends meet. There was of course the tragic hubris of wholesale rejection of modern medicine and exclusive reliance on diet, holistic practice and quackery smacking of the occult to cure illness that contributed to the heartbreaking death of baby Vernon, their third child and to the misdiagnosis and maltreatment of Barb’s serious knee problem. When a real doctor was finally consulted a cancer diagnosis was made, but too late to save her leg. This hubris also played a role in the failure to properly monitor Barb’s condition afterward, resulting in the eventual recurrence and spread of the cancer, which took her precious life in 1984.
But through all of these troubles and tragedies, Barbara remained strong and resilient, and rebounded from misfortune again and again. Even when she lost that limb, she continued to be positive and look on the bright side. And she never lost the ability to burst out with the precious hearty laugh that was her trademark. To the last, she was always loving, kind and generous to friends and loved ones. Her children reflect those strengths today.
I miss my sweet sister Barbara still, after all these years.
“Home is where the heart is”; “there’s no place like home”; “it’s so good to be home”. Yes, a home is important. In the words of George Carlin, it’s also a place to hold our “stuff”. And it’s also a place to sleep, to eat, to keep you out of the rain and cold, a place in which to feel secure, a space to share with loved ones, a place to enjoy and love. A home is cozy and comfortable.
Over my 75 years I’ve lived in many homes and looking back on them each place had an influence on me and was significant for me. And each home in which I have lived has provided indelible memories, mostly good. And when I visualize each place where I have lived I realize that it has provided something special to me – the unique experiences, the people with whom I lived, the feelings generated by daily life in that home. As such, the homes in which all of us have lived form an important biographical thread in the fabric of our lives. What follows is that thread for me, a narrative of places where I have lived, divided into three parts: Part I 1942 to 1972, Part II 1972 to 1983 and Part III 1983 until now. Here’s the first part.
Barbara and I at Sunset Farm 1942
I was born in Somerset Hospital in Somerville, New Jersey and as an infant lived on Sunset Farm, a residence and farm buildings owned by the church of which my parents were members. This place preceded my memory but visiting it as a young adult and seeing pictures taken there when I was very young enables me to speculate on what life was like there for my mother, already caring for four year old Barbara, with infant me and shortly after, another pregnancy and my sister Elaine, to be born while we lived there also.
Barbara, Elaine and I 1945 (note the wartime wood construction of the stroller and wheelbarrow)
In 1945 or so my family was assigned by church authorities to live at a church home in Oakland, California, where my brother Robert was born. At this house my memories began, with hazy impressions of a trip on the Oakland Bay Bridge with its multiple suspension spans, a tunnel and then multiple truss spans. I recall seeing somewhere from this bridge a Sherwin Williams sign with neon animation spilling paint down over a neon globe.
Elaine and I, 1946 or so
And at our house I recall spotlights filling the sky, maybe having something to do with the war with Japan. And I remember looking for pretty stones in an area between the rungs of a ladder lying where rain fell from the roof. I also recall as a little boy marching around an oval rug chanting “round round Hitler’s grave”. Apparently this ditty came from an Almanac Singers song in 1942 but I don’t remember how I came to know it. I also have a memory of clouds of fighter planes flying overhead, probably from a nearby Air Force base.
Barb, Elaine and I
The next home to which my family moved in 1946 or ’47 was a church home called “Lock Haven”, on Canal Road about a mile east of the little church community town called Zarephath, between the towns of Bound Brook and Manville, New Jersey. We shared this large rather ramshackle house of graying and peeling white wood siding with several others – an elderly couple, the Schisslers, and an elderly single man, Mr. Wittekind. We occupied the two floors in the main part of the house, with the Schisslers in the lower floor of an addition and Mr. Wittekind in a single room above.
Me, Rob, Barb and Elaine, forsythia and swings in background 1947 or so
Outside was a long cinder driveway meeting a gravel main driveway that went left to the barnyard of a large gray barn and to the “bee house” where Mr. Wittekind kept his bee equipment: some “smokers”, extra hives, beeswax frames and a large centrifuge. (I knew about this paraphernalia because after Mr. Wittekind’s passing, my Dad tried to take over and learn the bee business.) The gravel driveway to the right went downhill to Canal Road which to the left took you to Zarephath and beyond to Weston, Manville and Somerville or to the right to Bound Brook, South Bound Brook and towns beyond, like Dunellen, Plainfield or New Brunswick.
Robert outside the Lock Haven house with the forsythia
Around the house were maple trees, forsythia bushes, grass lawns and a large lilac bush, which you could actually enter and navigate little paths among the stems and branches. Adjacent to some large forsythias was a rusty and old but still serviceable set of swings which we kids enjoyed. There was also an incongruous small hexagonal building with maroon shingles on its exterior which my sister Barb used to raise her flock of ducks. The big barn was used for storing some church farm implements and stacks of bales of hay in the haymow. The haymow had that wonderful unique smell of old wood and hay, not readily describable but instantly recognizable and known only to people who have experienced barns in their lives.
Charlie and Elaine, Lock Haven barn in background
The driveway left extended beyond the beehives and bee house and eventually met a dirt road which left would take you to the Tabor (another church home which anchored the farm operations) peach and apple orchards and right would take you to past some hayfields on to Zarephath, our “church town” which I will describe elsewhere. That right turn would first take you over a culvert containing our little creek, in which I occasionally “fished” for non existent fish with a stick, a string and a piece of wire “hook”, while letting my mind run on about fishing and a thousand other things.
Me, Columbia bicycle and our ’49 Chevy
Across Canal Road from the house was “the canal”, our simple colloquialism for the Delaware and Raritan Canal, an old formerly important transportation artery constructed in the 1830’s connecting the Delaware River and the Raritan River and used for about a hundred years to transport cargo between Philadelphia and New York City. It was only later that I realized that the path on the canal bank that I knew as the “toe path” was really “tow path”, the path worn by the horses and mules that had towed barges on the canal. “The canal” played an important role in our lives during those years in Zarephath. I learned to swim in the canal, as well as doing my first real fishing. And in the winter, when the canal froze, you could ice skate all the way to Princeton, getting off the ice to walk around the bridges and locks between.
Elaine, Rob, me and Charlie, lilac bush in background
It was at Lock Haven that big sister Barbara raised her flock of ducks and Dad and Mom raised several flocks of chickens to sell. For some reason both Mom and Dad frowned on pets so there were never any dogs or cats to pet, love and take care of. But one time when Dad had a flock of speckled Plymouth Rock chickens there was one all-black chicken among them that got picked on all the time by the others for being different. I used to protect this chicken, put him under a crate to keep him safe and gave him his own food and water and he became, believe it or not, my pet, even coming to me when I called his name, “Blackie”. So, Tommy Smothers, you weren’t the only kid who had a pet chicken!
Me, Blackie, Elaine
The tall chimney over the kitchen and dining room of the Lock Haven house went down during Hurricane Hazel in 1955, thankfully not penetrating the roof, which likely accelerated our move to another church residence – “Morningside”, about a mile west of Zarephath. This house, which also served as the home of another family, the Chambers, was located among some flat, fertile fields, the floodplain between the Canal and the Millstone River, a tributary of the Raritan River.
This house was small for a family of our size. At Lock Haven Charlie had arrived, born at home and Richard also, right before we moved, making eight of us to fit into three upstairs bedrooms. Later an addition was built onto the house and Mom and Dad’s bedroom moved downstairs, making it a bit more tolerable for us six kids upstairs. Of course, while in this house, Glenn and Stan were added to the family making the final eight, so it was always crowded. I initially shared a bedroom with Robert and Charlie so the three of us became quite territorial, in order to share the space and the drawers of one dresser. Barbara and Elaine were in another bedroom.
Richard, Stan and Glenn at Morningside
The childhood memories that accumulated in this house were many, and included assembling serviceable bicycles from the pile of accumulated parts in the garage each spring and riding them on the many dirt roads in the immediate area, to participating in Dad’s truck farming operation, which blossomed into running a roadside stand on the “Weston Causeway”, the road between Canal Road and Weston Road into Manville. The stand was run by the younger kids, namely Charlie and Richard, while Rob and I and sometimes the girls helped with the planting, cultivation and harvesting of strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
Elaine outside, Millwood across the fields
Another fond memory was rocking my little brother Richard asleep in his wheeled baby basket while I listened to The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny and other popular radio shows from the 1950’s. Also I remember my Dad’s “It’s a girl!” joke when my brother Stan was born. After four boys in a row, all of us older kids had hoped for a little sister. But it was not to be, it was our last sibling, dear brother Stan instead.
Rob in back, Glenn, neighbor Celeste Chambers, Richard and Stan in front
While living at Morningside I made my first foray into radio and sound reproduction. It was there that I assembled a mail order crystal set, a rudimentary radio that picked up a signal from a connected bedspring antenna and was listened to on a set of headphones. I could not believe at the time that this little gadget actually picked up WOR from New York City as well as our local religious station, WAWZ. It was also at this house where as a teenager I assembled my first really good sound system – an Eico amplifier I built from a kit, a 15 inch Jensen coaxial speaker that I mounted in an old wooden radio cabinet, and an old Garrard turntable. It was on this system that I used to blast Rossinni’s William Tell Overture and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as well as Fats Domino and Little Richard.
Elaine and Charlie in front of Morningside house
The yard of this house also contained several symmetrical and eminently climbable maple trees, in one of which I fashioned a nice seat-back from baling twine in a fork of three branches high up in the tree. This became my redoubt in which to escape from the noise and chaos of my little brothers. Today looking back I can think of nothing more relaxing than climbing that tree with a sack of tomato sandwiches in my belt and a good book in my hand and settling back in that comfortable seat, reading my book, eating my sandwiches, feeling the tree gently sway and hearing the leaves rustle from a warm summer breeze, above it all, away from it all, in total privacy and relaxation. Yes, I could still hear the noise but I was above it all and thus quite removed.
Glenn, Richard, Stan, Murphys’ house in background
Other memories I associate with this house are a unreliable heating system which allowed the glass of water by my bed to freeze one winter night, and the several early spring floods we had. Being in the floodplain of the Millstone River, the area was vulnerable to flooding and we did experience a couple of these, when water ran down the cellar steps in a waterfall, causing havoc with Mom’s jars of canned fruit and vegetables and presenting a huge cleanup job when the flood subsided and water was pumped out. The house looked like an island in the middle of a huge lake and it was exciting to work with my brothers making rafts and then floating out into the deeper water.
Charlie among the maple trees 1960
“Morningside” was located about a mile away from the church headquarters town, Zarephath, and was conveniently reached on the Weston Canal Road or on the “back road” a road past “Millwood”, another church home, through the woods and over the dike (an earthen structure to protect Zarephath from the occasional Millstone River flooding and down into our little church “town”. And halfway along our long cinder driveway from the Weston Causeway was the home of the Murphy’s, another church family.
All six Friedly boys at the Morningside house, ’56 or ’57
In the fall of 1958 I was sent to the church school in Westminster, Colorado for my senior year of high school, got into some trouble there and in November was sent to live with my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil in Wooster, Ohio. The Wooster High School chapter of my life will be discussed elsewhere on this blog but in terms of a home, I lived in a really nice house, the first family home that my uncle, a general contractor, had built for his family. Built on a hillside in the farmland outside of Wooster, the basement of this beautiful house with real redwood siding was exposed in the back where you could enter and exit through a basement door. It also had a two car garage attached to the house by a breezeway. While there I lived in a comfortable basement bedroom with access to my own bathroom. I was with my Aunt and Uncle through my graduation and into most of July when my parents picked me up to return home to New Jersey and start college at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick. Before I left that summer I was able to work for Uncle Emil and receive firsthand a valuable introduction to basic carpentry skills, which I have used my whole life. I also painted, actually stained, the entire house before I left in August. I could not find a picture of this 1958 – 1959 home in my files.
During my first two years of college I again lived at home but obviously spent little time there since conditions were never appropriate to promote study and deep thought. I loved my little brothers but study there was impossible, so I spent most of the day and evening at Rutgers (see “Chaos: My Undergraduate Education”, to be published soon).
After my second year at Rutgers and after some disagreement with my father, I moved to Denver, Colorado and lived in several different apartments at 3001 Umatilla St. From here I could easily get on Speer Boulevard and then on Interstate 25 to get to my job at Navajo Freight Lines on South Santa Fe Drive. I began living there in a one room efficiency apartment where I slept on what was my couch during the day. After a couple of months I moved to a one bedroom unit with a roommate, John Griego. Later, having befriended a couple of Regis College students, Rich Byrne and Ken Adams, I moved into a three bedroom unit with them, all the while working at Navajo. Later that year, a couple of girls in another apartment whom we had befriended, Jerrilyn Rickey and Janice Goddard, joined me in deciding to leave the apartments and rent a furnished house. We did so in south Denver. I cannot remember the address but the experience of being in an actual house with these roommates was rather pleasant. Janice had a little baby girl so Janice, Jerrilyn and I seemed like an interesting little family. Eventually Janice and her little girl moved back to Alaska, Jerrilyn back to Montrose, Colorado and I rented my fourth residence during that year and a half in Denver, a small furnished apartment in central Denver. I don’t remember too much about this little place except that it was comfortable, furnished and conveniently located. Nor could I locate a picture of it in my files or elsewhere.
3001 Umatilla, Denver, Colorado
I returned from Denver in 1962 to live at home for awhile, found a job and resumed my education at Rutgers at night. After getting married in 1963, my wife Elaine and I lived in a one bedroom apartment adjacent to the Rutgers New Brunswick campus – 85 Easton Avenue. A half block away was a Rutgers gathering place called Olde Queens Tavern, very convenient for a quick hamburger or a take-out pizza. Adjusting to marriage, Elaine and I had some loud differences of opinion while in this apartment and I remember being shocked once, when lying on the bed during the day, that I could hear a phone being dialed by my next door neighbor – yes, the walls were that thin and I am sure my poor neighbor had heard all the anger and profanity that had passed between us. For awhile, my brother Robert, who had just started at Rutgers, lived around the corner from us in a small empty store-front that had been turned into a small apartment.
85 Easton Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ
About the time I graduated and began teaching, we moved into a new apartment complex at the junction of Route 18 and US 1 in New Brunswick – 200 Hoffman Boulevard. This apartment was convenient to my job at Irwin School in nearby East Brunswick but also convenient to a number of part time jobs I held at that time. Elaine had started work for a pediatrician, Dr. Hyman Gelbard, at about this time, whose office was also readily accessible. The apartment complex had a swimming pool perched right above the noise and exhaust from US Highway 1 which we used to enjoy, despite the fumes. I have not seen these apartments in many years but we entertained many guests while there, both friends and family.
While staying in the same complex, we later moved from our apartment in order to escape the noise from college student neighbors underneath us to another in the next building, only to find the same problem, this from the neighbor above us, forever fixing a powerful aversion to living next to, above or below anyone at all in an apartment house. It was at this time too when through Elaine and her contact with drug detail men, I began to take pills to sleep or pills to keep me alert (see “My World of Work”) as I worked a number of part time jobs, in addition to my full time job of teaching, to help make ends meet.
In 1968, after obtaining the job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we moved to Pinon Boarding School in Pinon, Arizona, a million miles from nowhere, right smack in the middle of the vast Navajo Reservation at the end of a 45 mile paved road west from Chinle. I recall vividly the Mayflower truck drivers’ comments when delivering our furniture to our primitive cinder block duplex on a mud-filled alley (can’t call it a “street”) in Pinon – “Are you guys out of your minds?” These were the same drivers who had picked up our furniture from our significantly more luxurious apartment home in New Jersey.
Pinon Trading Post 1969
One of the Navajo Reservation school complexes that one passed on the way from Chinle to Pinon was a new day school called Cottonwood, which had, in addition to new school buildings, a dozen or so brand new individual houses for teachers. Actually I had initially thought that this was our Pinon destination on the road from Chinle; it was disappointing that it was not and we had to go on – to old Pinon Boarding School, with the main school building a WPA – built structure and other buildings – the dormitories and residences – painted cinderblock. But our time in Pinon was indeed exciting and memorable. It was at Pinon Mercantile, the local trading post where I met a lifelong friend, Bill Malone, his lovely Navajo wife, Minnie, his stepson and his three little girls.
Bill Malone and daughters 1968
I had read about and finally got to meet the notable BIA school administrator, Wayne Holm, who at his school, Rock Point Boarding School, had formed the first functioning Navajo School Board and had instituted a number of innovative instructional strategies so I applied to be transferred to his school, close to a hundred miles from Pinon. Wayne said he wanted me so we packed up and moved again, this time at our expense and this time in a U-haul truck or a borrowed pickup truck. We moved to a nice single family 3-bedroom house, similar to those I had noticed at Cottonwood, in the residential area of Rock Point School, which cost us, as I recall, about $24 per bi-weekly paycheck. We paid for the utilities.
Rock Point School, housing in background
We were at Rock Rock Point for just one year, since I had applied for and was admitted to a post-masters program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. So we sold all of our furniture that had been carefully transported from New Jersey to Pinon and less carefully transported a year later from Pinon to Rock Point, packed what was left in our new VW Kombi and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we had been fortunate enough to get into Harvard married student housing, a high-rise near the Charles River called Peabody Terrace.
Peabody Terrace, Harvard married student housing
Our home here for one year, 11 Peabody Terrace, apartment 412, was a partially furnished studio apartment on one of the upper floors, where we had a table and chairs, a mattress on the floor, stereo equipment, LP records and books in a brick and board bookcase, a couch and a desk. I can’t really remember what we brought with us in our VW but it could not have been much – we certainly had stripped ourselves down to the bare essentials – maybe the desk and the table and chairs since we had sold our living room sectional couch, coffee and end tables to my friend Bill at Pinon and sold our beautiful Spanish “distressed finish” dark wood bedroom set to someone at Rock Point. Everything that mattered to us at that time was packed into our vehicle – essentially clothes, music and books. Also, our dog, Seymour, from the Rez, must have come with us because he was with us in Marshfield and Plympton, our next two residences, but I don’t remember traveling with him at all – must have been because he was such a good dog. Nor do I remember him in Cambridge. Maybe he was somewhere else at that time? But where? Did someone take care of him for us? I simply do not remember.
Finishing my year of school, I obtained my first school administrative job as Assistant Principal at Duxbury Elementary School in the south shore community of Duxbury, about 30 miles south of Boston. Our first move to this area was to a small furnished rental a couple of blocks from the beach in Marshfield, the next community north from Duxbury. A small two bedroom house without a garage, this place was ideal as we tried to settle down after the year of school in Cambridge.
After my first year in Duxbury, we bought our first house at 69 Ring Road in Plympton, Massachusetts, about a twenty minute drive to my job in Duxbury. The house was built by a local contractor and landowner who also sold building lots. It was quite modest sized, three bedrooms and one bath with attached two car garage, although to us it seemed very spacious. It was basically a ranch style and was covered with attractive New England style cedar shingle siding. We enjoyed this, our first real house, the first home that we actually owned. It was built on a two acre wooded lot and was located well off the road, hidden back among the trees. I recall a pleasant walk behind the house among some lovely hemlock trees, especially beautiful after a winter snowfall had decorated the branches. It was here that we replenished our furniture, buying much of it from Jordan Marsh warehouse in Quincy. Having built my first stereo amplifier made by Heathkit and the pair of KLH speakers bought while at 85 Easton Avenue in New Brunswick, it was at this house that I finally assembled and finished a beautifully designed music component console made by Furn-a-kit which held the amplifier, tuner and turntable with shelves and sliding enclosures for our LP records on each side.
Our house at 69 Ring Road, Plympton, Massachusetts
It was at this house where my brother Robert visited us from Germany, where he had made his home after serving as an officer in the Army. Accompanied by his girlfriend Helma, we enjoyed his visit very much. Rob also pitched in to assist in some landscaping outside and uphill from the house. As I remember it was a sort of rock retaining wall by the garage. Another memorable occasion was a surprise visit was from my cousin Sandy. We took him into Boston for a superb club concert by the incredibly rich-voiced blues singer Tracy Nelson.
This concludes the first section of “Home Sweet Home”. My memory, though pretty good for a guy my age, may have provided some inaccurate information, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if something needs to be corrected. All articles on this blog are really works in progress, anyhow. My second and third sections are written and will be published as soon as they can be illustrated.
In March of this year I celebrated my 80th birthday in the warm and welcome company of my wife, my son, brothers and one remaining sister. I had invited them all fearing that perhaps several would be unable to attend. But I was pleasantly surprised to see them all there, with spouses and a couple of my nephews, save my brother Robert who lives in Germany. We shared a dinner at a restaurant very special to Bobbie and me – Gertrude’s, located in a heavenly location in Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden. And the next morning, all were able to join Bobbie and me and son Conrad and his fiancee Tara at the Scottsdale house for breakfast.
Now that I’m 80 years old and breathing the rarified octogenarian air enjoyed by but approximately five percent of the US male population, I must pause a moment, reflect and take note.
Looking back on these 80 years, there is much to regret – I should have made a different decision here; I should have worked harder on that; I should have been a better politician there. But that’s all over and whatever happened I cannot change any more than I can change the character or personality traits that influenced these decisions. And one more regret, the manifestations of which I still wrestle with today – I wish I had stopped to smell the roses more often, taken the time to relax, enjoy myself, sleep late, linger over my morning coffee, sit and read poetry or a novel. But it seems that I’ve been locked into a duty and task-driven existence that has controlled me with its weight and momentum.
But on the other hand there is much to feel good about. I’ve had a reasonably successful career and, while certainly not wealthy, own a few assets and have earned and enjoy a decent retirement. I’ve worked in education all my professional life, a field that I have loved and a fact that I’m quite proud of. All of my experiences dealing with children, parents and teachers for every one of those 45 years in education have brought me much joy and fulfillment.
I am thankful to say that physically I feel pretty good for a guy in that five percent. All the organs seem to be still working okay. Recent tests have revealed persistent elevated levels of cholesterol which I am trying to bring down. Other numbers have revealed some potential kidney problems, not uncommon as we age. And I continue to deal with the BPH problem with which I have wrestled for a decade or so. Additionally, recent tests related to my heart function have been satisfactory.
The large joints, despite (or maybe because of?) years of running in my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are working adequately. Yes, I am stiff from time to time and I still encounter pain in my left knee, on which I have had several surgeries over the years and now my right, which to now has never bothered me. The arthritis which assaulted me several years ago while in Vermont and to which I attributed to Lyme Disease is noticeable in several finger and toe joints and has likely affected the knees. Lyme tests (2) were negative but I am well aware of the capricious and inconsistent nature of Lyme test results and of Lyme disease itself, so I still have some lingering suspicion. At any rate, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees (for the most part) and ankles seem to be functioning despite occasional pain.
Thankfully I have exercised for most of my life. During my 30’s I got into running through my association with a good friend and managed to continue, mixing it with hiking, gym visits and other exercise to a greater or lesser degree through my 40’s and 50’s and into my 60’s. That bad left knee forced running from my life in my 70’s but I have managed through gym membership while in Arizona and some dumbbells and an elliptical machine in the basement TV room here in Vermont to keep the exercise up. Yes, on some days it’s absolutely the last thing I want to do but somehow I have forced myself to keep going and it’s been good for me. I do think that it’s an important reason for my relatively good health at this age now. As I enter the upper reaches of old age I have tried to heed the maxim promoted by a friend from my Scottsdale gym who, even while hobbling in three times a week on a cane, says, ”Ralph, at our age we just gotta keep moving”.
Weight is another thing entirely. Despite the exercise, I have always struggled with weight and have given in to a steady gain over the decades. Around 160 in my 20’s has grown to 170 in my 30’s, and given way to 180 plus in my 40’s to now, Presently I am striving to get down to 185 and it’s been tough going.
And one more thing about health at eighty. It could be my imagination but I really do discern a change in how doctors and other medical personnel deal with me. There appears to be a change in attitude – a reticence, resignation, nonchalance, disinterestedness, almost lackadaisicalness, when emerging or worsening health concerns appear. It’s rather like they are all thinking, “He’s 80 years old, what does he expect?” or “Improving this or that condition is unrealistic; things can only get worse – look at his age” “or “There’s little we can do about that – you’re 80 years old and your recuperative powers are limited”. Yes, it could be me thinking these thoughts and unfairly attributing them to the medical people but the feeling is unmistakably there, regardless of whom it is coming from.
A more positive aspect to dealing with medical problems at 80 is that my age gives me license to be more discerning and selective regarding the drugs that are prescribed for me. If the potential side effects of a particular drug, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, concern me, I can accept or reject the drug. I’ve made 80 already – that’s pretty good – I can accept the risk of taking or not taking that drug, or rejecting the drug entirely in favor of a more natural remedy that I think may work just as well. I mean, what can happen ? – I’ve already made 80.
And one more observation about turning 80. Decades ago, when certain frailties and concerning physical conditions first reared their heads, I worried about them perhaps developing into truly life altering or life threatening conditions as time went on. Well, it so happens that time did go on and the conditions did not get appreciably worse, nor did they seriously affect my quality of life, and (obviously) did not kill me. Here I’m talking about chronic conditions like Reynaud’s Disease, encounters with skin cancer (I’ve had two melanomas removed from my back), digestive problems, joint problems, heart concerns, clinical depression and others. Thank goodness, they’re all no worse or no greater concerns now at 80 than they were decades ago when first encountered. So basically, I’ve outlived the effects of those potentially life altering maladies.
And, when one turns 80 thoughts naturally turn to a radically diminished future and how many years of life remain. So of course, quite naturally, there are thoughts about death. A dear friend, also my age, mentioned that men turning 80 can generally look forward to about eight more years of life. He didn’t mention what the statistics say about the quality of that life – I would assume that a few of those additional eight years of “life” may consist of an inexorable spiral downward, rife with pain and deterioration of joints, organs and bodily functions. But after those eight years? Yes, death.
And what about beyond death? Is there anything there? I don’t share the religious faith that so many friends and family members profess – that somehow we live on or our souls live on after we die. This is all reflected in an earlier article I wrote about life and death so I won’t add to it. But some recent articles I’ve read make a lot of sense and add some additional dimensions to what I wrote earlier.
One, composed by that brilliant writer who authors “The Marginalian”, formerly “Brain Pickings”, Maria Popova, offers some really sensible and reasonable explanations in her article “What Happens When We Die”. In her article, Ms Popova quotes extensively from the work of physicist/poet/novelist Alan Lightman. When we die, whether we are buried or cremated, our remains, composed of the basic elements and their billions of atoms, are eventually scattered around the world and join the air, water, and plants which nurture further life. In that regard I guess, we are indeed immortal, but in a strikingly different way than theologians would have us believe.
Philosopher George Yancy, in a February 2022 posting of Truthout discusses the complexity of death and its contemplation, in the context of the almost (then) one million covid deaths in the US. He laments the tragic extinguishing of the unique and singular lives of so many people killed in the pandemic and otherwise. No one has come back from death to explain its mysteries to us; we strive to understand death exclusively from this side and can understand only that death is an essential part of life. It can be said that death defines life. Everything we know that lives, also dies. Yancy notes that all major religions are based on their own explanations of death: they attest to “our human capacity to be touched by the fact of death, to make sense of it, and to respond to its mystery in deep symbolic and discursively differential ways.” But despite its universality, death remains a mystery. And it’s interesting how, when we’re young, the notion of death rarely crosses our minds. It is only with the creeping infirmity and inevitability of old age that we begin to contemplate death, which is really the final phase of life.
I encountered the phrase, “what’s remembered lives” while watching the recent award winning movie “Nomadland” on a streaming channel and was affected by the notion. I was struck by the fact that my sister Barbara and my parents, and various close relatives and a few friends, though having passed away, are quite alive to me. I can hear their voices and their laughter, recognize their mannerisms and movements and enjoy their company and companionship….in my memory. But when I die, they die with me. Well, maybe not profound, but nevertheless interesting. They are alive to me in the individual idiosyncratic way in which I remember them. And they will live as long as my own capacity to recall them exists.
And I do wish so much that they, particularly my parents, as I deal with the travails of old age, were still alive to talk to. I long to ask how it was for them as they got older – how they felt about it, how they thought of their respective lives and their children’s. As I mentioned in another article, I wish that I had asked them so much more about their lives growing up in Missouri (Dad) and North Dakota (Mom), and much more about how they both came to meet in the Pillar of Fire church and schools. And I know little about their struggles as a young couple in the church and how the arrival of each child affected their lives and work.
But most affecting for me are the memories of my parents’ personalities – their voices, their laughs, their casual banter with each other as my parents and much later as retirees in their home in Westminster, Colorado. Very alive for me too is the feeling of security and love I felt when I was visiting. Dad never showed the love as demonstratively as Mom. He always maintained a comfortable (for him) distance, unlike the tactile love Mom always showed – the hugs and the kisses which she bestowed so liberally on all of us children.
I cried myself to sleep last night. Well…not exactly, but I did get a bit choked up and shed some tears. For some reason, instead of sleeping, I had begun thinking about how I would like to die, and decided that I would like Conrad and Bobbie next to me, holding my hands and reminiscing about our lives together. And thinking about those years together – the high points and the lows of our shared lives – is what brought the tears (and is bringing a few now as I type).
With Conrad, I would mention and invite his recollection of throwing a football back and forth between us in the back yard of our home at 4919 E Altadena in Scottsdale. What a thrill it was to me to see him reach up and grab the ball while in full stride…if my throw was a good one and had led him sufficiently. I would also remember with Conrad, while at the same house, during one of our memorable Christmases, of his joyfully opening a gift I had wrapped for him – a huge Costco-sized box of Cheez-Its.
And so many of our father-son trips together between Colorado and Arizona are very pleasant to remember. Like the time we camped in Canyonlands, I think in the Ford Explorer, then made hot chocolate to warm us in the cold morning on a little stove we had brought along. Or the several times we traveled in the pickup/camper while little Conrad played “coins” in the back or on the front seat. And of course our wonderful ultimate father-son experience – hiking the Grand Canyon down to Phantom Ranch, staying two nights, then hiking back, both directions on the South Kaibab Trail. Then too, our shared car trip right before he turned 16 from Frankfurt, Germany to Vienna, Austria and back, during which we visited the sights in Nuremberg, Munich, Salzberg and Vienna, including the Belvedere Museum and its collection of famed paintings by Klimpt, Kokochka and Schiele. And later that summer spending time with various Friedlys in Missouri, seeing the gravestone of his namesake, the first Conrad Friedly in the US. And what a thrill it’s always been to work hand in hand on special projects with him – I would ask him to recall helping me with the new floor in Scottsdale, with the basement renovation in Vermont while he was in law school there, and me assisting him with the new floor in his Gallup, New Mexico house. And I could go on and on.
And while holding Bobbie’s warm little hand, I would invite her to join me in recalling some of the precious highlights of our lives together – our first date after I had called her home and asked her out, horrifying her little daughter Liza, then seven years old, who knew me only as her elementary school principal. Then we’d recall our first trip west together, meeting my parents and brothers in Colorado for the first time, and our trip to the Grand Canyon, where we befriended briefly a little puppy that we encountered outside our cabin and where I proposed to her on a now-inaccessible promontory below Yaki Point. We’d recall together our marriage ceremony in Duxbury, Massachusetts, her parents and my parents attending and the loading of a 26 foot U-Haul with what we deemed as “keepers” and necessities gleaned from our two households. Then our “honeymoon” driving the U-Haul across the country to Arizona, later to be joined by Bobbie’s daughters and the formation of our first family home together at 3152 West Kings in Phoenix. And certainly, we’d share memories of Conrad’s birth, our move to the “horse property” home at 6340 W. Surrey in Glendale. And we’d recall together other highlights like the move to Scottsdale, our foray overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait, and all the exciting travels emanating from that and other overseas ventures. And I could go on and on.
But perhaps I won’t be this fortunate. It’s much more likely that like so many people, I will die suddenly with a heart attack, or in the the crushed metal and flame of an auto accident or like yet many others, slowly in a hospital bed succumbing to the ravages of some disease or in a haze of numbing drugs to relieve the pain of failing organs and physical deterioration.
In addition to thoughts outlined above, another thing that I’ve noticed about myself lately is that I’m spending more and more time thinking about the past and recalling significant events in my life, also likely a symptom of old age. Much of my communication and correspondence with old friends and relatives consists of recollection of events from our shared pasts, sometimes complemented with old photos, and opinions and observations about common acquaintances or former colleagues. And if congruence of political opinion allows, we may discuss the current state of politics in the context of what politics used to be when we were younger and should be today. I have to say that these connections have become most meaningful, almost essential, at the age of 80, part of clinging to my identity, my place in the world and my importance as all slip away in old age.
And with a past that stretches back for decades and a steadily diminishing future for us, the same tendency permeates the discourse between my wife and myself. While we dwell on the developing lives of our children from time to time, it does appear that we also linger on the past – our own and the childhoods of our children more and more with advancing age. We have a few aims for the future but certainly many fewer than we had in our younger days. And most focus on the immediate future – this summer, this fall, next year, but not much further. Oh, and it seems that we talk about the weather more than ever.
Since we travel back and forth between Arizona and Vermont, we’ve attached a few goals to those trips, achieving several this past spring – sharing Zion and Bryce National Parks for the first time, then also finally getting to see and enjoy Yellowstone. We still intend to see Yosemite and the Redwoods and get to the Pacific northwest while we’re still physically able, perhaps on next spring’s trip from Arizona to Vermont. Also at some point it would be very pleasant to travel through southern Canada east or west on one of these trips.
My own personal goals, hopes and aspirations during a steadily diminishing future center on maintaining and perhaps even improving our lives in these two homes in which we live and on reading and writing. But maintaining two homes gets increasingly challenging. I don’t look forward to improvement projects the way I used to when I was younger. And everyday home maintenance – cleaning, washing windows, repairing broken faucets, fixing roofs or painting walls and ceilings, gets very dreary and tiresome. Maintaining our gardens and lawn in Vermont too is sometimes a grind – I do get tired of planting trees, mulching the gardens and mowing the lawn.
Other activities used to include music but my arthritis has taken much of the pleasure out of playing the guitar so mostly I just listen. But they still include writing and those goals keep me going each day. I have 30-40 articles in various stages of completion so finishing them one by one, plus adding a few on other topics along the way, give me some tangible and achievable aims for the future. I know I’ll never be the writer I want to be but whatever I can produce gives me pride and pleasure and some motivation for the next attempt. And although I write primarily for myself, along the way a few other readers have enjoyed some of what I’ve written.
So this is where I am at 80 years old – still plugging along and trying to live as full and as complete a life as I am able, living day to day, week by week and month by month until we move back to Arizona, then its the same there until we move back here, always trying to live as best we can, squeezing some pleasure out of our day to day tasks, our occasional sightseeing, communication with children and travels. We’ll see how long it all lasts.
And finally, there’s a wonderful Cheryl Wheeler song about an elderly couple that seems in many ways to reflect what and where we are today. These few lines from “Quarter Moon” summarize much of what I’ve written above and provide a fitting conclusion for this article:
“And they speak about their lives as almost gone Waiting for the sunset From an old and distant dawn.”
I’m sick of it. The somber press conferences giving us the latest numbers of victims, adding those who succumbed in the hospital to those who died in the classrooms. The law enforcement announcements telling us that this or that aspect of the slaughter is “under investigation” or that they haven’t determined a “motive” just yet. Or later the details of exactly what kinds of weapons were used to commit the crime and create the carnage of bloody little bodies.
And I’ve also had enough of the endless video images of the flashing lights of police vehicles and ambulances and of the crime scene tape around areas where the murders took place. And the sickening parade of crowds of cops strutting around, conferring, trying to “piece together” exactly what happened, assembling a “timeline” of events and delivering tidbits of news to the press. Oh yes, and the endless stream of video showing them armored and armed with their own long guns, sprinting toward the scene (or were they running away in order to protect themselves?) one hour after the murderer entered the school, too late as usual to prevent the deaths but just in time to kill the “suspect” without putting themselves in danger.
And my God, how many “law enforcement” entities were involved in Uvalde – six, ten – in this incompetent performance? The town police force, Texas DPS, Border Patrol, County Sheriff’s Department, State Police, Texas Rangers, and even the FBI? And the school district had its very own police force, replete with its own “chief”? There they all were at the series of press conferences, all hapless and helpless, uniformed and uninformed, cowboy hats and cowboy boots, all armed to the teeth, admitting that they delayed for over an hour while the gunman shot a few more and victims bled out and died during the “golden hour” when their lives could have been saved. The tragic story of the one Uvalde teacher who survived, provides a dramatic account of police cowardice and delay.
And a couple of other things about the Uvalde disaster bear mentioning. First, I was incensed to see police officers performing a task better suited to almost any other citizens of Uvalde – that of taking bouquets of flowers, tender loving handwritten notes and signs from mourners and placing them among the dozens of mementos already there. Why the police? It seemed almost sacrilegious to me to have these heavily armed “protectors” who had failed the children and teachers of Robb Elementary, performing such a sensitive and loving task.
And why were they allowed or required to perform this task? Oh, I presume because the areas near the school were roped off, “protected” areas reserved for police “investigation”? Why was this pray tell? If I were a parent of a child killed in this dreadful incident or another school parent whose child had thankfully been spared, I would not want a policemen handling or even touching the memorial my child had thoughtfully prepared to pay tribute to a friend or favorite teacher who had died in this fusillade of bullets. Please, if indeed these areas around the school had to be roped off, the town authorities should have allowed clergy, colleagues of slain teachers or other citizens to perform this solemn duty, not a cop.
And of course the parade of politicians wringing their hands and saying we have to do something, yet always unwilling to do anything at all for fear of turning off the spigots of gun money from corporate and gun rights organization sources supporting their reelection campaigns or offending the armed and tattooed bubbas who constitute the bulk of their voting base. And the endless laments of “this is not who we are” when we know good and well that this is exactly who we are – a nation of spineless fools who allow, no, actually seem to encourage, every idiot and damned fool in the country to own a gun. And I’ve had it with the stupid suggestions for protecting students like “hardening” schools, arming teachers, providing more guards or having “one entrance”. How does that last one work for a fire in the school, Senator Cruz?
And then the endless breast beating by dozens of corporate TV talking heads and commentators, all wondering if this is the last time we suffer such an event, or “what it’s going to take” to get Congress to act.
And then later, the sad pictures and sketches of the lives snuffed out in the bloom of childhood – this one enjoyed art, another had a thing for animals, this child made the honor roll, another was a baseball player. And we begin crying, along with the parents and relatives.
And again, our “comforter in chief”, ever-suffering President Biden, shuffling and doddering among the memorial displays and gesturing about one or another, visiting the bereaved and offering useless public cliches that are supposed to make us all feel better. Oh and thank God, “Dr. Jill” was along too, . And the never ending cliches of “thoughts and prayers”, the flags lowered to half-mast, the “moments of silence” and the candlelight vigils.
I mean, how many of these terrible mass shootings are we expected to countenance before we do something concrete, something meaningful, to stop them. When are we going to pass effective laws to keep guns out of the hands of idiots, fools and the mentally deranged. The statistics are staggering – the only nation in the world with more guns than people – four hundred million at present. Forty thousand gun deaths every year along with 400 mass shootings. And so far in 2022 we’ve had well over 200 mass shootings. And now for the first time more children dying from guns than from auto accidents. The rest of the world is aghast at our stupidity and spinelessness. When a mass shooting occurs in another country they do something about it, but not the US. “Exceptional” indeed.
Frankly I think that doing anything different is impossible anymore in this country. Guns are such an integral part of our lives in the US. Every law enforcement officer of whatever stripe, level or description has to have a gun, presumably as Wayne LaPierre asserted, to be that “good guy with a gun” to stop that “bad guy with a gun”. Actually we’d all be much safer if neither of them had a gun. And furthermore, what did the hundreds of good guys with guns milling about Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas do? Not a damned thing, until it was too late.
I can’t get out of my head the image of a queue of new Border Patrol or ICE recruits, most of course scraped from the bottom of the barrel as these agencies scramble to fill their authorized ranks, all lined up and one by one being presented with their guns, belts, holsters and ammunition. Yes, this is the real badge of law enforcement in America – the power to instantly kill and maim. Honestly, do these creeps really need guns? What are they going to do – shoot some poor immigrant striving to achieve a better life for his family? Shoot some poor mother as she struggles through the currents of the Rio Grande with her children? But there they are getting their guns. This is indeed a major part of the mass killing epidemic in our country – guns themselves and their prevalence, whether in the hands of the “good guys” or the “bad guys”.
The recklessness and randomness with which guns in the hands of the police are fired at hapless and helpless citizens is astonishing. Attempting to run away from the scene of a crime or reluctance or recalcitrance (or inability, as demonstrated when a policeman aimed five bullets at the body of a pregnant woman so instructed) to heed shouted police orders, should not result in execution. Examples of cops acting as judge, jury and executioner are far too numerous to list here but one recent incident which I cannot erase from my mind is this one, in which a poor, confused and probably inebriated immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrick Lyoya, tried to run away from a traffic stop arrest, was tackled by the cop and summarily executed with a single shot to the back of his head.
And there’s our august, brilliant, dignified black-robed justices of the Supreme Court. How do they feel when they know they are responsible too for this carnage – the bloody, lifeless bodies of innocent children in a school. These distinguished “jurists” have opened the legal floodgates for this torrent of guns. They have done so by striking down laws limiting ownership of guns and making it perfectly legal for gun manufacturers and gun rights organizations to buy their own congressmen (see my upcoming article “Screwed by SCOTUS”)
And accordingly our corrupt “lawmakers” in state legislatures and Congress go about the business of making it easier to own weapons of war, making it legal for any moron to carry a gun in public, into a restaurant or department store if the idiot wishes. And our Republican leaders in Congress persist in claiming that the real problem is mental illness and school safety, not the number of guns in our country. As a career educator I deplore the focus on “hardening” schools. Schools need to be open, warm and welcoming beacons to the communities they serve, not cold, austere and forbidding fortresses. And arming teachers, as our genius and wise sage ex-president Donald Trump suggested at the NRA Convention in Houston last Friday is ludicrous. Give me a break – teachers have more than enough responsibility in their increasingly demanding roles. They should not and cannot become armed guards as well. Placing armed personnel in schools has not increased safety but has only made schools more dangerous.
I’m sick of it all. This is not freedom, but tyranny of a different sort. I’m personally tyrannized by the omniscience of guns, the ease with which they can be purchased and the ease with which ammunition to load them can also be obtained. And please spare me all the banal platitudes about “responsible gun owners”. I mean, there’s got to be a limit on this too. How many guns does a “responsible gun owner” need? The same goes for “collectors”. How many of the 400 million guns in this country are owned by collectors and responsible gun owners or hunters? How many of the murderous killers of children in schools, patrons in shopping centers or supermarkets, music lovers at a country music concert have fallen into these categories. No, there are simply too many guns in this country….period.
Isn’t the primary duty of the state to protect its citizens? And wouldn’t the first among them be those least able to protect themselves – our children? Look at how our country has utterly failed at this primary task. And yet we have far more policemen and police departments per capita “serving and protecting” our society than any other developed country (see my upcoming article “Police State”). And perhaps it’s time to ask why we have so many policemen and why we are not any safer or better protected. Oh yes, the cops are out in droves to “keep order” during times of civic unrest, looking and acting far more like agents of a repressive state than protectors of lives and property. In Uvalde they were out in droves, directing traffic, cordoning off areas, doing crowd control and keeping parents from actively rescuing their children, even handcuffing one distraught mother, doing everything except going after the shooter. And yes, their guns were ever at the ready, to kill and injure. Wherever there are people demonstrating, exercising their constitutional right to “peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, there are the phalanxes of heavily armed policemen, replete with their weapons and vehicles of war, to “keep order”. Perhaps it’s time to ask what police really do for us, as Natasha Leonard noted in a recent article for The Intercept.
It might be appropriate to close with a grim reminder of what we have become – a nation of mass shootings which keep happening. On May 27 the Washington Post published a grim list of all the names of those who have died in mass shootings since Columbine, replete with telling photographs of ensuing grief and sadness, with the plea we have heard so many times before – Congress needs to pass sensible gun laws. Now.
What on earth do our Congressmen think when they consider this list? Might they think that something is wrong in our country? Something they need to address? My God, there’s Mitch McConnell again at a press conference, flanked as usual by his do-nothing fellow Republican “leaders” Senators Barrasso, Thune, Ernst and Blunt announcing again what they won’t do, deciding what legislation to block and when to use the filibuster. How long are we going to tolerate a Senate where all good legislation voted by the House goes to die?
Perhaps we just need to admit that our nation is in serious trouble. It is in a steady decline, totally unable to arrest its deterioration because its government is controlled by corporations and money and because of its foolish fealty to a constitution long overdue for a rewrite.
A recent video provided by my brother Charlie of flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida in the communities of Manville and Somerset, New Jersey, including the area in which I grew up, called Zarephath, has impressed upon me the urgency of completing this rather long article about my childhood in a church, the Pillar of Fire. I turn 80 years old this spring so likely many potential interested readers who may have shared some knowledge or experiences in the church may no longer be around. So I have opened the article once more, intending to finish it and publish it on my blog very soon.
I am writing this because it means a great deal to me to recall scenes of my childhood, all of which was spent in the embrace, or maybe better terms, the “grip” or “grasp”, of the Pillar of Fire Church and its educational, evangelical and broadcast ministries. At 79 years of age now, some of the memories are growing dim and many are fleeting, recalled but briefly in the context of others more vivid. The faces of the people near and dear to me back then and the scenes of Zarephath and the places my family lived are just as blurred and temporary as are the memories. Yet, when sitting alone, unencumbered and uninterrupted by current voices and sounds, memories come back more readily and clearly. I have tried to paint as accurate and as meaningful a picture as I can and I hope that contemporaries of mine who knew the Pillar of Fire and Zarephath might enjoy and relate to some of what I have written. Looking back on the experience, I might call it a labor of love or more precisely a task of recollection and reflection. I apologize for occasional redundancies in the article: Incidents and personalities may be mentioned from time to time in more than one context. I also apologize for a more detailed description or emphasis on one personality or family over another, more a matter of convenience and recall than preference or value judgement. I have also linked some names to published obituaries, when I could find them.
Pillar of Fire Church
The church was founded by a dynamic female preacher and evangelist, and “first female bishop” in the country, Alma White, in 1901. From modest beginnings in the Denver, Colorado area, the church, under her energetic leadership grew to encompass large tracts of land and multiple buildings at Belleview, Westminster, Colorado and in central New Jersey in the Zarephath area, later to include schools, colleges, radio stations, publishing facilities and dozens of properties in major cities and metropolitan areas across the country. A conservative offshoot of the Methodist church, the Pillar of Fire embraced austere dress – black or navy blue with white collars – and rejected bright colors and immodest styles. It also forbade the common vices of smoking tobacco and drinking any form of alcohol. This conservative and austere message extended to young people as well. Girls in its high schools were required to wear a modest tan and brown “uniform”; dancing of any kind and especially between the sexes was absolutely forbidden. Smoking, drinking, dancing, going to the movies and any romantic contact between the sexes were all deemed “sinful”.
The message to its many congregations was to rely on literal interpretation of Biblical text and prayer for guidance in daily life and strive toward first one work of grace and conversion – getting “saved”, and then a second, getting “sanctified”. The church encouraged current and potential members to give up all of their “worldly goods”, come and live in the church facilities and devote their talent and labor to growing and strengthening the church and “spreading the gospel”.
The Pillar of Fire, relied on monetary contributions from businesses and individuals, tuition and publishing receipts to sustain its work, variously described as “religious, educational and benevolent activities”. It provided the basic needs of food and housing to its rank and file workers but did not pay regular salaries and instead encouraged them to rely on “faith” and the munificence and grace of God to sustain them.
It could be called a town because it was a dot on the map like all the other New Jersey towns but it was really a collection of school buildings, dormitories, homes and work buildings constructed by the Pillar of Fire Church to support its multiple missions. It was home to Alma Preparatory School, Alma White College and Zarephath Bible Seminary as well as radio station WAWZ and a large publishing enterprise. Apparently it earned the title of “town” because it did contain a US Post Office. Zarephath was located off the “Canal Road” about three miles west of Bound Brook, New Jersey, with the majority of its buildings located on former farmland between the Millstone River and the Delaware and Raritan Canal. I can see each of the Zarephath buildings clearly in my mind and can recall a host of memories and experiences related to each of them.
“Liberty Hall” was a four story collection of high school classrooms and a large assembly room on the lower floors with dormitory rooms above on the third and fourth floors. A few single male church workers lived on the third floor and also performed the role of supervisor or preceptor for the boarding high school students living on the fourth floor. On the front was a large flat concrete porch adorned with a couple of benches, which served as a before school lounge area, where students hung out, flirted, joked, and guffawed before and between classes. I can remember students from those days, contemporary friends like Joe Wenger, Malcolm Grout and Arnold Walker, older students like Danny Oaks, Vincent Dellorto, the Weaver boys Glenn, Meredith and Richard, the Gross boys John, David, Joe and Daniel. And then there were the girls – my sister Barbara, of course, Genevieve Dobash, Phyllis Oakes, Phyllis Finlayson, Elaine Schissler, Lorinda Bartlett, Miriam Snelling, Margaret Hellyer, Eunice Wilson…. as well as many others. Also on the first floor of Liberty Hall in the back of the building were laundry facilities to take care of student and worker needs consisting of washers, dryers and a big steam press for ironing.
Three story “Columbia Hall” was the junior high location with classrooms on the first floor and girls dormitory rooms above. I remember the Junior High classroom especially well when Ruben Truitt and wife Irel were the teachers. One fond memory relating to this time in my life, 1953-1955, were the spontaneous winter ice skating breaks. On many of the cold, snowless days of deep winter, Mr. Truitt would simply take a break from school and we’d go to “the pond” near the Assembly Hall or to the canal, if it was thoroughly frozen, for a couple of hours of ice skating. Mr. Truitt was a great skater himself, while many of us were in various stages of skill development or did not skate at all. Nevertheless, off we’d go to indulge Mr. Truitt’s skating passion. In the basement of Columbia Hall were the church canning facilities, which I will discuss later in my section on food.
Between Columbia Hall and Liberty Hall was the Power House, a brick building containing the coal furnaces and big boilers that provided steam heat for virtually all of the buildings. There was also a prominent cylindrical brick smokestack that marked this facility’s location on the Zarephath campus as well as a nearby water tower.
The “Main Building” featured church offices and reception rooms along with the kitchen and dining facilities on its lower floors and girls dormitory rooms above. These three afore-mentioned buildings were constructed with distinctive cast concrete blocks that the church had evidently manufactured for its own use.
The “College Building” contained an auditorium for church services and daily gatherings for students, college classrooms, and broadcast studios for our radio station WAWZ. The top floor contained dorm rooms for students of Alma White College. This stately building was quite prominent, being the first encountered when entering the campus from Canal Road. The College Building also contained the library, used by both high school and college students. Most of the books I fell in love with as a child were borrowed from this facility.
On the north side of the campus next to the water tower was the fire station which contained a dated fire truck or two, manned by volunteers among church workers, who maintained and polished their firefighting skills with occasional drills. Above the truck bays was an apartment occupied by various church personnel. I recall that Mert Weaver and Jeannie Bradford lived there for a time after they were married and before leaving the church. Adjacent to the station and between the dike and Liberty Hall was a group of swings and a popular horseshoe area (pit?, pitch?, not sure what they’re called) used by students and adults. This area was was the brainchild of Kathleen White, Bishop Arthur White’s wife and so was named “Merrill Park”, after her middle name, which I would have to assume must have been her mother’s maiden name.
The “Publishing Building” contained the “store”(more about this facility later), the post office, printing presses, areas for Linotype machines and book binding and a shipping platform. The printing press room also contained my Dad’s barber chair, on which he gave 25 cent (or less, depending on one’s ability to pay) haircuts with his Oster hair clippers to many students and church people, while discussing the latest news and gossip. I provide a picture of the chair taken during a visit to Zarephath in 1999 later in this article.
On the west side of the complex was the “Frame Building”, containing apartments where various individuals lived, the house where the Stewarts lived and the “greenhouse” where flowers were raised for decorating church services as well as seedlings for the farm enterprise. The “garage” with its lift and gas pump was located on this side of the complex as well. Also a couple of buildings constructed of oblong tile blocks were on this side of the “town”. One contained the “bakery” where our wonderful whole wheat bread was baked by Mr. Nolke twice a week. I don’t recall what the other was used for – perhaps storage of some kind.
Also on the west side of Zarephath, between the canal and the aforementioned west side buildings was a large and well-kept athletic field containing a baseball diamond and backstop, where high school physical education classes were conducted and our annual “May Day” baseball contest between the high school and college was played. In the fall in deep left field we played touch football on a less than clearly marked football gridiron. Between this athletic field and the greenhouse area were a couple of tennis courts constructed in the middle 1950’s, which students and residents alike enjoyed.
Also in the mid-fifties a gymnasium building was constructed. Named after Nathaniel Wilson, the designer of the building and one of the church’s main engineers and architects, the Wilson Gym contained a basketball court and a swimming pool which were welcome additions to the church and school facilities.
In the early fifties the complex was encircled by “The Dike”, an earthen structure to hold back the periodic floods of the neighboring Millstone River. “Behind the dike” or “over the dike” were euphemisms for the favored secret trysting places for our teenage students, who unfortunately enjoyed absolutely no formally accepted or sanctioned boy-girl relationship opportunities. The “back road”, a dirt road going smoothly over the dike and winding through the fields and woods leading to the “Millwood” residence where the Wilson family lived and the “Weston Causeway”, about a mile away, also led to farm fields, the Murphy family house and my own old home at “Morningside”.
Between the major Zarephath school and maintenance buildings mentioned above and the canal were well tended lawns and flowerbeds and a network of cinder paths culminating at what we called “The Fountain”, an attractive circular stone-clad pond with water fountains in the middle. This area contained a few benches arrayed around the fountain and was a favorite gathering place for students, individuals and families enjoying the Zarephath grounds. I should mention that an elderly gentleman, Mr. George Bartlett, father of the George Bartlett who built the reputation of the church dairy farm, tended the lawns and flowerbeds on the Zarephath campus with expertise and obvious loving care.
Across the canal and beyond the “bridge house” where Mr. John Nolke and his wife lived were the Assembly Hall, the large auditorium building where Sunday church services were held, the WAWZ radio towers and transmitter building, and “the pond”, a lovely body of water that provided relaxation in the summer and excellent ice skating in the winter. Adjacent to the pond was a row of small cabins or cottages; several were home to members of the Walker family and one later the home of Sid Johnston, more about both later. Also, near the Assembly Hall, was the Zarephath cemetery, the final resting place of many Pillar of Fire workers and their families. I should mention that outside the Assembly Hall was a small ivy-covered stone open structure containing a couple of water fountains.
If instead of crossing Canal Road to the buildings and areas mentioned above, you had turned left toward Bound Brook, you passed a half-mile grove of maple and Colorado Blue Spruce trees planted between Zarephath and my first New Jersey home at “Lock Haven”. Further down Canal Road, you passed the McNear house and arrived at the complex of farm buildings called “Tabor”. Here was the center of the church farming operations with barns, corn cribs, a modern cooler for fruit storage, garage areas for the maintenance of tractors and so on. The Tabor house was occupied by the Wesley Gross family which I will describe in detail later.
Further down Canal Road was Mountain View, the church bishop’s New Jersey residence, a single story house, separate garage, a beautiful grape arbor area, stone retaining walls and well kept lawns. My father’s sister Ada Friedly spent many years at Mountain View tending to the needs of Bishop Arthur White, his wife Kathleen and their children and grandchildren.
Beyond Mountain View on the unpaved road that adjoined Canal Road as well as one of the residence’s driveways, was “Rosedale” the church’s modern dairy farm. Consisting of three modern barns, state of the art mechanical milking, manure removal, and milk processing systems, along with a prize Holstein herd, this enterprise was the pride of the church. Mr. George Bartlett, who lived with his family at the attractive Rosedale residence, was responsible for the success of the church’s dairy operation. However, his star shown too brightly for the ruling White family to countenance, so he was later demoted and put in charge of the greenhouses at Zarephath and Mr. Ezra Hellyer was assigned to the dairy, which under his supervision began a long slow descent. As I will detail later, Mr. Hellyer’s heart did not seem to be in dairy farming but in other areas – patrolling the Pillar of Fire areas as a quasi-law enforcement officer and later, after leaving the church, joining Somerset County politics.
I remember the Bartlett family at Rosedale very well. Children Jenora, Doris, Lorinda and Dwight, played prominent roles in my own childhood and memories of the church with Jenora marrying my Dad’s good friend Rea (Red) Crawford, beautiful Doris breaking hearts in our high school, freckled, pigtailed Lorinda (Lindy) being one of sister Barbara’s best friends over the years and Dwight, whose success with girls was legendary and the constant envy of kids like myself and my good friend Joe Wenger.
Further up this unpaved road was “Bethany boys home”, a large frame house which boarded boys too young for the Zarephath dormitories. Run by the Weaver family, Bethany provided rules and routines, good meals and sack lunches to take to school. I will never forget the envy I felt about the lunches of the kids from Bethany, which were always delicious, also occasionally contained cream puffs – yes, genuine, made from scratch cream puffs with sweet homemade whipped cream inside. Mrs. Weaver was a positive, motherly type whom the boys loved. Mr. Weaver provided some necessary discipline and stability and their sons, the afore-mentioned “Weaver Boys” – Glenn, Meredith (Mert) and Richard, provided some supervision, camaraderie and good examples for behavior and work habits. While envying the Bethany boys’ sack lunches brought to school, I also wished I could have participated in the renowned Friday (or was it Wednesday?) night “tomato pie” (pizza) feasts prepared for the boys by Mrs. Weaver. Friends Joe Wenger and Malcolm Grout were among many who began their Zarephath school experiences boarding with the Weavers at Bethany.
From the Rosedale dairy farm there were dirt roads that provided shortcuts to the Tabor farm area, which of course provided the hay and silage diet of the dairy cattle. There was one other residence along these dirt roads where the Charles Mowery family lived. Mr. Mowery worked for the farm enterprise while Mrs. Mowery became one of the Zarephath kitchen mainstays. Children Dennis, Robert and Darlene, were our classmates at the Bound Brook School. The Mowery family left the church at some point but I never knew why or where they went.
Continuing on Canal Road more or less east from Zarephath, you entered South Bound Brook, turned left, crossed over the Delaware and Raritan Canal, then over the Raritan River on a high steel truss bridge, went under the Jersey Central, Reading and Lehigh Valley railroad tracks and entered a small traffic circle where left took you on Main Street past the railroad station on the left, Effingers sporting goods, Klompus 5 & 10, then up Hamilton Street past the Brook Theater on your right and the drug store on your left. A right turn from the circle and then a quick left took you directly to what was known as the Bound Brook “Temple”, a multi-story building containing an auditorium where the Zarephath Sunday evening church service was conducted, and classrooms and various other facilities in the north side of the building. This building was built with the same type of cast concrete blocks used for the construction of the major buildings at Zarephath. I am sure that the machinery for casting them had been transported to Bound Brook to produce the bricks used there.
By the way, if you had turned right instead of left to cross the canal and the Raritan, you would have gone past some huge factories on your left, (one of which employed me in my youth), passed by some South Bound Brook residential areas and proceeded on to the town of New Brunswick, distinguished by the presence of the Men’s Colleges and Douglass College for women of Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey.
Bound Brook School
There is much to recall about going to school at the Bound Brook Temple, which all of we older children attended until my family was transferred in 1965 to the Westminster, Colorado Pillar of Fire facilities, called “Belleview”. There was a big set of swings on the playground as well as a “maypole”, a vertical steel pole with a revolving mechanism on top to which was attached ropes, which children grasped and swung around on as the wheel on top rotated. This contraption, also called a “giant stride”, provided great fun for us schoolchildren but it did not take long for the more daring and adventurous among us to make it somewhat dangerous: While five or six kids held on, another child would stand near the base and pull on his rope to make the maypole revolve faster, lifting the riders off the ground as the ropes they held onto would rise to approach the horizontal. Then the rider could let go and be thrown some distance outward, very exciting but causing more than a few bumps and bruises. So as I remember, after enjoying a heyday of high but risky use, the maypole was eventually removed from the school playground.
At the Bound Brook school I also met the pretty little girl who was to become my first wife, Elaine Ganska. She was an “outsider”, who usually attended the Sunday 11:00 Assembly Hall church services with her mother and whose family paid tuition for her to attend the school. I remember the heady, intoxicating feeling when I dared to kiss her on the cheek when her swing came close to mine once as we were on the swings together. So when we were a couple, we always remembered this incident fondly. Later, after a church service, maybe when I was eight or nine, again rather daringly, I thrust into her hand a wrapped birthday or Christmas gift, a bottle of Jergens lotion. Why lotion? Why Jergens? I really don’t know – maybe it was chosen on the advice of my older sister Barbara.
Another indelible memory from the Bound Brook School was the conduct of fire drills, very frightening to me because they involved the use of the rusty, rickety and frightening steel latticework fire escapes. Going down these from the third floor was frightening because not only did they seem unsafe with the weight of several dozen children and adults, but also seemed about to pull out from their flimsy attachment to the exterior walls. Also, you could see the frightening distance straight down to the ground through the bands of flaked paint and rusted steel. I will always remember the scene from the Oscar-winning movie “All the King’s Men”, based upon Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same name, about the life of Huey Long, when a school fire escape collapsed and several children were killed, which reminded me of the anxiety I had always felt on these Bound Brook Temple structures.
A related memory that I never forgot had to do with the long bridge over the Raritan River from South Bound Brook. This narrow two-lane bridge had recently had its flat, wooden plank and sheet steel roadway replaced with a more modern steel lattice surface, much more sturdy, and which made a pleasant hum as you drove over it. However, one day when there were huge spring rains in New Jersey, flooded Bound Brook streets inundated the underpass under the railroad tracks so the school bus let us off to walk with a teacher or two across the bridge, then through the underpass on its elevated walkway to reach the Bound Brook school. Looking straight down through the steel grating of the new roadway and glimpsing the muddy rushing and roiling waters of the flooded Raritan River was truly frightening. If sister Barbara were alive today, we could remember and share together this incident. I am sure she was as frightened as I, although, in typical big sister fashion, she likely calmly and bravely led the way for me, Elaine and Robert.
Other memories of the Bound Brook Pillar of Fire grade school involved the classrooms and the teachers. I vividly recall sitting in my classroom and looking out the window from my desk at the trains going by. There were the black passenger cars of the Jersey Central trains traveling back and forth with people commuting to New York City. I think they were pulled by steam engines at the time, then diesels, as the late 1940’s and early ’50’s saw the transition from steam to diesel. Then there were the sleek reddish colored trains of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. These big engines and trains fired my imagination with questions of who was on the trains, where were they going, where had they been, what else did they carry, and who were the skilled engineers that controlled the huge locomotives that pulled the trains. If my teachers knew about the time I spent daydreaming looking out the window, I am sure my seat would have been moved. Also I remember two boys that were at the Bethany Boys Home, Joe and Donald Kruger, the former for a time my sister Barbara’s special friend. On the school bus, Barbara would have me sit between her and Joe, so they could secretly hold hands with each other behind my back.
I can clearly recall some of the teachers who taught us at the Bound Brook school. Lydia Sanders, later to become Lydia Loyle and later still, principal of the school, started her teaching career there and handled several troublesome students with creative physical punishment. Ruth Dallenbach, a wonderful teacher later to become the wife of Frank Crawford, (more about these families later) also taught at the school. Miss Dallenbach’s prominent female attributes provoked me to draw some risqué pictures of her, which she discovered, embarrassingly took from me and likely shared with my parents.
And then there was the most notable teacher, also serving as principal, Mrs. Helen Wilson, wife of the church’s main engineer and architect, Nathaniel Wilson and mother of two schoolmates, Eunice and Warren. I don’t remember precisely what kind of teacher Mrs. Wilson was, but I do remember that she ran a small lunchtime retail candy enterprise out of her classroom. It was here that I used to occasionally buy Hershey bars, Clark bars, Oh-Henry’s, and a variety of penny candy, the most memorable one being “Kits”, which was a pack of four wrapped pieces of chocolate flavored taffy for only one cent. I don’t know precisely what Mrs. Wilson did with the profit from these candy sales, I am sure something good for her classroom or the whole school. But I do know I can attribute most of my serious dental problems over the years as having their origin right there at school from Mrs. Wilson’s candy business.
The Pillar of Fire “Bound Brook Temple” was also the site of the 7:00 Sunday evening church service, the first two being held at the “Assembly Hall” – one at 11:00 AM and the other at 3:00 PM. The Temple was also the site of our weekly “Children’s Hour” broadcasts over WAWZ, during which our group of church children would sing hymns and recite poems. The afore-mentioned Mrs. Helen Wilson, a very busy lady, was organizer and master of ceremonies for this weekly radio “show”. I remember looking forward to it very much each week, broadcast on Mondays at 6:30 PM. I remember also, that when older, I did not read but occasionally “told” Bible stories on the program, extracted from my reading Bible stories from my treasured “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible” and I remember getting a “fan mail” letter from a listener who was quite impressed. I thought I kept that letter but a recent search of my memorabilia files has failed to locate it.
The Sunday church services at Zarephath followed a pattern. Since they were broadcast on WAWZ, they began promptly on the hour – the morning service at 11:00 AM and the afternoon service at 3:00 PM. After stepping up to the microphone and welcoming everyone, whoever was leading the service would announce the hymn title and the page number in our “Cross and Crown” hymnal, and would lead the congregation in the singing of the hymn. After another hymn or two, a men’s “quartet” would be featured, this composed of four of our full-voiced church members. Regulars seemed to always be Mr. Nathaniel Wilson, singing a baritone part, and Mr. Norman Fournier, with his incredible tenor voice. More about these people later when I describe people and personalities in greater depth.
After the quartet piece one of the White family’s “stars” – daughter Arlene Lawrence or Pauline Dallenbach (or Connie, when she was still with the church) might be featured playing a hymn on the solo violin and perhaps singing a verse or two. More about the White family later as well. Incidentally I should mention that almost every church service in the Assembly Hall was graced by the inspired pipe organ playing of George Chambers. Mr. Chambers was a remarkably intelligent and supremely talented church worker who not only was a musical mainstay of the organization but contributed significantly to its printing enterprise by also operating a Linotype machine in the publishing building. As I noted in my article “Home Sweet Home”, Mr. Chambers, his wife Ann and children Allan and Celeste, were our neighbors in the “Morningside” home on the fertile floodplain of the Millstone River. Mr. Chambers, however, never received the recognition or praise for his remarkable talent that was provided so generously by the church membership to members of the “ruling family”, the Whites, and was never awarded his place in the spotlight, like Arlene and Pauline.
After Arlene or Pauline on the violin, the congregation might sing another hymn and then the band would play. Yes, we had a real brass band in church, composed of a somewhat meager collection of instruments, but enough to make considerable noise and generate some enthusiastic participatory rhythmic activity among a few congregation members – Mr. Oakes and Mr. Nolke come to mind. There was always someone playing the tuba or Sousaphone for the bass, several clarinets (my sister Barbara often played), trumpets or cornets (one played often by my friend, Joe Wenger), and percussion – bass drum and cymbals and snare drum. I occasionally played the snare drum in the Pillar of Fire Band and did the best I could, although I was obviously always at the novice level. Yes, I had taken a few drum lessons from someone in the church and my dad had made me a practice pad from a square chunk of oak board fastened to a foam rubber base and crowned with a black rubber pad nailed to the top of the wood, but despite a few lessons and faithful practice, I never got very good.
I will digress here and relate a snare drum incident that I remember very well. At “Camp Meeting” time in August, various Pillar of Fire people would be invited to form a brass band and assemble personnel and instruments on one of our school buses, festooned with an advertising banner, and tour nearby towns advertising the event. One of the most prominent and intelligent personalities in the church, Mr. Clifford Crawford, was leading this “touring ensemble” with his trumpet playing, through Bound Brook, Manville and Somerville one August day and Mr. Crawford, likely feeling some pain from my feeble efforts on the snare drum, took me aside afterward to explain some basics. Marches are always in certain tempos or times, he told me – either 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8. If it’s 2/4 or 4/4 the snare complements the bass drum by playing on the after beat; if the piece is 6/8, the snare plays on the beat. I never forgot this, coming from a musician of Mr. Crawford’s caliber, and am always conscious, when listening to a march, what the time is and where the snare drum beat should be.
Back to the band playing in our church services – there were always two selections, played in succession by the band – first a hymn, which had been composed in an appropriate cadence and thus could be played by our band, and second, a real marching band piece, maybe a Sousa march. When the march tune was chosen, I always hoped and prayed that it was not “Semper Fidelis” when I was playing because it featured a snare drum solo part, then joined by a dramatic trumpet accompaniment. I had neither the self confidence nor the skill to manage the solo snare part so thank God, that march was never chosen when I played the drum. And by the way, Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” is a perfect example of a 6/8 time march tune.
Another band instrument upon which I had some experience was the alto horn. I don’t remember exactly why I started lessons on this instrument – perhaps because the band needed it for balance, nor do I remember from whom I took lessons, but I found playing this instrument rather pleasant and easy because it did not play the melody and thus was much more simple, requiring playing significantly fewer notes. I don’t recall how many times I played this instrument during the church band pieces but I did feel great camaraderie with trumpet player friend Joe Wenger, as we not only played together but also joined to occasionally expel accumulated saliva from our brass instruments with open “spit valves” and healthy blasts of breath through the mouthpieces.
After the band selections, there was usually one more hymn sung by the congregation before the sermon was preached. These sermons usually lasted 20-30 minutes and were typically a long dissertation on lessons to be derived from a chosen bit of scripture. Sermons were delivered usually by Bishop Arthur White when he was in New Jersey, but more often by Reverend I. L. Wilson, one of the kindliest and most Godly men in the church, maybe Nathaniel Wilson (no relative) or any of the other Pillar of Fire intelligentsia. Then the service was wrapped up around noontime with a final hymn, and if the spirit prevailed, maybe an altar call. The other church services repeated the pattern but the 3:00 service at the Assembly Hall did not feature the band, nor did the Sunday evening event held at the Bound Brook Temple.
As a child I enjoyed most of these church service experiences. The hymns were beautiful and I enjoyed singing them along with everyone else. I enjoyed hearing the other musical features also, especially the band, well before I was old enough to participate. Many of the hymns we sang in church are forever part of my memory and bring tears to my eyes even today when I hear them sung. Most of these were old traditional Protestant hymns by Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Robert Lowry and others. We also sang hymns written by the founder of the church, Alma White, many of which were quite good, fashioned around the protestant hymn musical and poetic tradition.
There was one Pillar of Fire minister who was likely the best preacher I have ever heard – Willian O. Portune. And I mean best not necessarily from a scholarly point of view, although his knowledge of Biblical scripture was impressive, but best because of his passion and eloquence. I used to dread a church service where he delivered the sermon because he was extremely effective in making me feel guilty and sinful and badly in need of redemption. During his sermons he occasionally thundered, ”When you die and you stand before that great white throne and God points his finger at you….what will you say, what will you do?” And every time Reverend Portune pointed that finger it seemed as though he was pointing it directly at me. So accordingly I would break out in a nervous sweat, pull my shirt collar away from my neck and mop my brow. And if Reverend Portune’s passion happened to induce an “altar call” at the end of the service, when various people would stream up front to loudly and fervently pray, I would sometimes be induced, motivated or shamed (perhaps by family or friends) into joining them and pray as passionately as I could for salvation. But to my knowledge and awareness I was never thus blessed, no matter how energetically or fervently I prayed. After yet another such a futile effort, I would simply resume my worldly ways until the next time the spirit (or guilt or discomfort) convinced me to try again.
There were other religious services in the church as well. At Zarephath proper, every weekday for boarding students and selected others began with what was called “Morning Class”, a short half-hour service held at 7:15 in the “College Chapel”, when a couple of hymns were sung and a short talk was given, perhaps reminding students of certain duties or events. Some of the children from outlying families also attended. I recall that my sister Barbara attended from time to time, as well as myself and perhaps Elaine and Robert, primarily on Monday, when “reports” were given on Sunday sermons, where previously assigned students commented or elaborated upon some of the salient points or lessons drawn from the sermons.
Also, on Wednesday night in the same location, there was what we called “Testimony Meeting”, attended by many students as well as adults. After a few hymns, individuals arose and lined up at the microphone up front, to deliver a “testimony” – the relating of an incident or conflict which could illustrate the power of God in their lives. The experience was not easy because what one related had to be more or less factual, as well as significant in a religious faith way. In addition, it was somewhat difficult for some, myself certainly, to stand up in front of the audience and deliver an unscripted, impromptu speech, however short. I can recall especially while others lined up to deliver their testimony, sitting nervously in my seat feeling intense pressure to participate and desperately trying to think of an experience significant enough to describe and relate as my “testimony”.
I’ve mentioned that our little “town” of Zarephath had a post office. To serve this facility, the church had a small truck that went to and from Bound Brook twice a day to deliver and pick up mail at the train station, which evidently had a key postal facility. This truck, called the “mail rig”, was a 1940’s vintage Reo Speedwagon with a canvas cover stretched over the bed. The floor of the bed bore the cargo – usually several soiled canvas mailbags marked “US MAIL” but around the bed were fold-down seats for passengers. People from Zarephath would often hitch a ride on the mail rig into Bound Brook on the morning run, then do some shopping or conduct some business there and ride back on the afternoon trip. The primary driver of the “mail rig” was Mr. Schaeffer, although there were undoubtedly a few others.
I went with big sister Barbara several times to Bound Brook in this way and enjoyed my very first commercially prepared hot dog and hamburger there in a restaurant on Hamilton Street. Also on this street was the now famous landmark, the Brook Theater , where I also enjoyed my first real movies – a couple of westerns with one, I think, starring Audie Murphy. I was amazed at how the movies kept going and going. If you entered during the middle of one movie, you could sit through its completion, watch the second one in its entirety and then complete the first.
I have often referred to the Pillar of Fire church community as a little microcosm of communism where there was considerable application of Karl Marx’s maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Basic needs like housing and utilities were provided gratis by the church. My parents never owned any of the houses in which we lived and never paid rent or an electricity or heating bill. Also, basic nutrition was provided by the church. The Zarephath “store”, located in the Publishing Building mentioned earlier, purchased basic staples for weekly distribution to church families. I remember that we had a sturdy wooden box called our “order box” in the house, which once a week was delivered to the store with a list and was filled with requested basics and later picked up. We ordered such items as oatmeal (always Quaker Oats), corn flakes (Kelloggs), shortening, which was bulk Crisco or something like it, cheese, usually a big wedge of cheddar cut out of a large cheese “wheel”, peanut butter, again bulk – dipped from a very large container into an empty smaller container we provided in our order box. Other items were sugar, white or brown, flour – usually just the basic white variety, basic unsweetened cocoa, and many different kinds of bulk dried legumes – mainly navy, lima, and kidney beans. Milk was delivered early every couple of days from our dairy facility in stainless steel milk cans that we washed and put out for pickup at the next delivery. This was raw milk, never homogenized or pasteurized. Mom or someone else would pour it into glass jars to put in the refrigerator. Cream came to the top and was poured off for coffee or other uses. Mom was a faithful coffee drinker and always enjoyed that fresh cream in it every day. Other staples like potatoes, were obtained from storage facilities in the Main Building where the main kitchen was located or from coolers at Tabor.
The Zarephath store also provided these same basics to the central dining facility in the Main Building where cooks provided three meals a day to people who lived and worked there and to students who boarded there, with lunch likely being the largest meal, since it also included the day students attending school at Zarephath. Also, fresh fruit and vegetables were provided from the church farms for daily preparation and inclusion in meals when in season. In the basement of Columbia Hall was a large room where canning took place – seasonal fruits and vegetables were preserved, sometimes in jars, sometimes in large cans, for later use in institutional meals. Also, some of these canned items were available for our weekly orders from the store. I recall a hefty, cheerful and very hard working woman, Minnie Driver, who was apparently responsible for running this food canning enterprise.
Our neighbor on the long driveway to the “Morningside” house, Claude Murphy, was the official church farmer for summer vegetables, raised in the fertile fields of the Millstone River floodplain surrounding our respective homes. Dairy and orchard farming were centered at the Tabor farm and the Gross family appeared to have major responsibility for maintaining the substantial peach orchards and apple orchards as well as chicken flocks and egg gathering for family distribution through “the store” and supply to the main cooking facility. The Weaver family raised most of the field corn and alfalfa for the dairy. More about both of these families later when I discuss people and personalities in the church.
Also I should add that individual families in the church often maintained gardens and fields of vegetables in the summer to augment that which the church supplied. Certainly my family did so as well as the Weavers and Grosses. I should mention also that consumption of meat was frowned upon, even forbidden, in the church. Evidently our founder, Bishop Alma White, must have at some point become an Upton Sinclair acolyte and read his book, “The Jungle”. She herself wrote a book “Why I Do Nor Eat Meat” (still available on Amazon, look it up, can you believe it?), which was largely read by church personnel and a limited public. I can remember how delicious meat tasted to me when as a child I was treated to some beef or chicken at relatives’ homes, even more delectable because it was “forbidden”.
However, many families felt free to eat meat privately. I remember at our first New Jersey home, Lock Haven, that one Saturday morning, the house was filled with the wonderful smell of cooked chicken. Dad had evidently killed, cleaned and cooked a few chickens early that morning, and invited us to get up and enjoy his “Mulligan stew”, perhaps so named so that we would not tell anyone we actually had chicken. That was the first time I remember eating meat in our home.
The main dining facility at Zarephath of course never served meat. However, for protein, different varieties of beans were often served as were a variety of soy-based meat substitutes. Canned imitation meats from a company called Worthington, like “Yum” were sold in our store but were never part of the free weekly “order” of basics. But our school was part of the government school lunch program and since meat was available from a vendor under this program a church friend of my father’s ordered several dozen large bricks of frozen ground beef, a half dozen of so of which ended up in our deep freeze. We kids enjoyed cutting off slices, frying it for ourselves and reveling in the smell and taste of this delicious but officially forbidden food.
So even though most basic needs were supplied by the church, we still had to obtain other items necessary for day to day living which cost money and as intimated in a paragraph above, money was often hard to come by. My family often raised and sold chickens to obtain extra money. In the early 1960’s, Dad bought a Farmall Super A and necessary implements and got heavily into truck farming to raise extra money. He and we older children cultivated strawberries, sweetcorn, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, cantaloups and watermelons, which were sold at a little stand at the end of our driveway on Weston Causeway (now officially the “Manville Causeway” on Google maps) by little brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and even Stan. Before selling directly to the public, Dad had often sold sweet corn and other produce wholesale directly to vendors at the Packard’s farmers market and other outlets, including a large roadside stand on Route 22 near Whitehouse, New Jersey, who then sold to the public. I never knew how Dad made these deals with retailers but obviously he did, likely seeing how, if others profited from his wholesale produce, why not skip that step and sell retail himself – hence the roadside stand on the Weston Causeway.
Money was always an issue in the church when I was growing up despite gratis provisions by the church. I never knew exactly how church members were remunerated for their work for the church. I don’t know if salaries were paid – if they were, they were likely meager. Most people were pretty much on their own and earned money the best way they could. One of the standard ways money was earned by church personnel was in what was called the “missionary field”. This consisted of nighttime forays into local taverns and bars, usually on a Friday or Saturday night, attired in church regalia, for women the black dress with white collar and a somewhat odd black hat with wide ribbons around the neck ending in a tied broad bow; for men, the standard black or navy blue suit with black shirt and rigid white collar. Equipped with an armful of Pillar of Fire publications and a small circular money receptacle, these Pillar of Fire “missionaries” would enter the bar and solicit contributions in exchange presumably for a copy of the “Pillar of Fire” paper or “The Dry Legion”, the church’s anti-alcohol temperance publication.
A number of us family members or students as older teenagers occasionally drove these missionaries through New Jersey cities close to New York from bar to bar, starting around 8:00 and ending at midnight or so. We drove in the selected person’s own car or a church car that they had borrowed in return for a modest compensation of three to five dollars or so, usually paid in quarters collected in the smoky bars that night. My such experiences were limited to driving my Aunt Ada Friedly around the city of Hoboken in a black De Soto, maybe hers, maybe borrowed. Other young men, including friends Joe Wenger and Kenny Cope, often made a few dollars in this missionary “driver” role as well.
Money collected in this way was split according to a certain formula between the “missionary” and the church, after of course, the driver was paid. Such funds were an important part of church income, as well as often the only income, however meager, for the specific person. I couldn’t help but think what a terrible way this was to try to obtain some sort of income. It must have taken a great deal of courage for people like my aunt, dressed like they were, to enter bars full of happy drunks on a weekend night to beg money for the church and themselves. And I am sure that the proprietors and patrons of these bars did not appreciate the interruption of their nighttime revelry by these grim specters in black clothing hawking religious or temperance tomes. I can recall my aunt in the car after such an evening reeking of beer and tobacco smoke and relieved that she had survived the ordeal. In retrospect though, this activity did afford the church worker some sort of personal income, required for those necessities of daily life not supplied by the church.
The church income obtained through these “missionary” trips was likely trivial compared to that solicited from and donated by industries and businesses. There were church officials who instead of begging in bars for the church, went on scheduled visits to local businesses and industries to ask for contributions to support the education, radio and publishing ministries featured by the church, these significantly larger than the pittance contributed by people like my aunt. In fact some church members purportedly enriched themselves significantly by taking a larger cut of what was solicited and contributed than that to which they were entitled. However, these larger contributions were largely what enabled the church early in its history to purchase huge tracts of land in New Jersey and Colorado and to erect the buildings necessary to carry on church work.
Also the church subsisted significantly on “in kind” donations from various sources. The adjective “donated” was used pejoratively often in the church to describe any number of items, usually of substandard quality. Such merchandise was distributed free of charge to church members. I remember much of our clothing came from “donated” sources. Particularly memorable was literally a “bale” of donated double-kneed bluejeans that ended up with our family, factory seconds actually, rejected by their quality control for minor defects but still quite wearable. We boys in the Friedly family wore these jeans for years. Also at some time, the church was given a pile of naugahyde motorcycle jackets, several of which ended up with us. Here’s a picture at our Morningside house of my brother Charlie, with little brothers Richard, Glenn, and Stan, wearing one of them.
Some of our food items were also donated to the church and distributed to families through the store or the dining facilities. I can remember going with my father in our 1951 Chevy pickup truck a number of times on Friday nights (I think) to pick up several dozen pies from Jones Pies, a big bakery located in one of the many New Jersey cities across the Hudson from New York City. (Google reveals no such company, but I am convinced it was “Jones”). These pies were donated to the church because they were not sold in a timely fashion and could only be thrown out or given away. So after being delivered to the Zarephath kitchen facility, we took several home for the family. I remember still how tasty they were, even though “old”. Also, some pie surfaces showed traces of dust or soot, since they were not in boxes and were laid flat in the back of our truck. But never mind, scraped off and cleaned up, they still were delicious, and I was grateful.
My father also occasionally did the sort of “missionary” work described above to earn needed money for his ever growing family. But the best time for the family financially was when my father was working in the Zarephath post office, where he was paid quite well for that time and place. I believe that he may have been required to contribute a portion of his post office salary to the church but was allowed to keep enough of it so that for several years, the Friedly family was relatively well cared for. It was during this time that he was able to buy a brand new 1949 Chevrolet for the family and we experienced several of the best Christmases we ever had. I don’t know for sure but my impression is that he was required to leave this job because he was doing too well. The job then reverted to Emma Walls, our official “postmaster”.
This little fact was very important in the Pillar of Fire Church. If you did too well, if you stood out, if there was a chance your accomplishments or your erudition would eclipse that of a member of the White family that ruled the church, you would be moved to another job, assignment or location, usually lower or less desirable than that in which you excelled. I have already mentioned that the person responsible for the dramatic success and lofty reputation of our dairy operation was removed and put in charge of the Zarephath greenhouse. In the same way, I am sure that my father was asked to leave that post office job, and later, with the success of his personal truck farming enterprise in New Jersey, was asked to relocate to the Denver church headquarters in 1965. At that time I should note that the Friedly family became split in two, since Barbara, myself and Elaine had married and were living in nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania towns and Robert was serving in the army in Germany. Basically, Mom, Dad, Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stanley formed a reconstituted Friedly family in the Westminster, Colorado church community.
Perhaps I should make clear that my Dad’s efforts to make money through his post office job, which I think was part time, and his personal truck farming project, constituted additions to “regular” jobs he did for the church. Dad was primarily a teacher in the church’s schools, a job which he performed regularly for years, teaching history at Alma Preparatory School, the church’s high school at Zarephath, and philosophy at Alma White College, also at Zarephath. In addition he was prevailed upon to assist at the dairy on occasional weekends, where I used to go with him, help feed alfalfa and silage to the cattle as they stood secure in their stanchions being milked and then return home with some of the dairy’s delicious chocolate milk. Also, of course, Dad held forth as the resident barber at Zarephath in the press room of the publishing building, usually on Saturday mornings (I offer a picture of the barber chair he used later in this article).
Others in the church also held “regular” assignments – working in the printery turning out the “Pillar of Fire”, which was given out at our churches, mailed to subscribers and, as mentioned before, distributed in bars by our missionaries, left for information at more significant potential donor’s establishments; the “Pillar of Fire Junior”, the children’s publication, also distributed through subscription and used weekly at our Sunday School services, “Woman’s Chains”, the church’s “women’s lib” publication and “The Dry Legion”, the Pillar of Fire’s anti-alcohol temperance publication.
The printery, located in the Publishing Building, consisted of several Linotype machines, other areas where print was set, and another big room which contained, if I remember correctly, two huge printing presses, which printed the aforementioned periodic publications and books, written primarily by the church royalty, members of the White family, completed in another publishing building facility, our book bindery. Although I am sure there were more competent and creative writers in the church, (one was likely my own aunt, Ada Friedly), the Whites monopolized book authorship and publishing in the church. Alma White, the church founder and matriarch, published upwards of 30 books. Her son, Arthur K. White was author of a half dozen or so, including his pompous and self indulgent “Some White Family History”. Kathleen White, wife of Arthur, authored a temperance book strangely named “Drunk Stuff”. Pauline White Dallenbach and Arlene White Lawrence (I believe that both daughters had legitimate middle names but the name “White” supplanted them in order to brandish their lineage) contributed a couple of lightweight tomes to the White literary legacy: respectively “Dear Friends” and “Come Along”, both travel books with religious overtones. I might add that the apparently unlimited travel budgets of White family members which spawned these two books, were often bitterly questioned and critiqued by rank and file church members. Several hymnals, including the “Cross and Crown” hymnal were also published in the Zarephath printery and distributed to Pillar of Fire locations around the country.
Various church personnel performed a variety of other tasks for the organization. Several manned our radio station and its related facilities; some, already mentioned, were involved in food production, preparation and distribution. Others were groundskeepers, greenhouse workers, teachers, maintenance or utility workers. Some were engineers, architects or construction workers. Many of these individuals also mixed church service participation with their skill or profession, leading meetings, singing in a vocal group or preaching a sermon. My father also mixed this with his other professions – occasionally leading a service or preaching a sermon on Sundays for a sparse congregation at our Brooklyn church. I always felt that Dad was a little uncomfortable in this role. His sermons were scholarly, well researched and logical but always seemed to lack the passion and conviction that other preachers demonstrated in their delivery. Or maybe as his son, I was just being too critical.
However, the early Sunday morning trips to Brooklyn were wonderful. I will always remember the the drive over dense industrial New Jersey cities on the famed Pulaski Skyway, which brought us almost directly to the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. Then after emerging from the tunnel and making a quick trip across southern Manhattan, we crossed the East River on the Manhattan Bridge and entered Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue and then going directly to the church on Sterling Place. The ladies staffing the Brooklyn missionary home were quite hospitable and always prepared a delicious lunch for us. The caretaker of the Brooklyn Pillar of Fire Church, Mr. Wallace Lewis, was a bright, talkative elderly man. Unfortunately he lost his life when the church was destroyed in the notorious December 1960 crash of a United Airlines DC8 after an in air collision with another airliner. The church was never rebuilt.
The White Family
This might be as good a time as any to introduce my reader(s?) to the White family, the “royalty” of the Pillar of Fire Church. The church was founded in 1901 by Alma White, who was its first bishop and general superintendent. After her death in 1946, she was succeeded by her son, Arthur White, who ran the church as bishop and general superintendent during my childhood and youth until his death in 1981. Arthur’s wife, Kathleen (Staats), attained special status for her family through the marriage. Her sisters Helen, Ruth and Carolyn and brother William, always occupied positions of influence and authority in the church through this link. Ruth Staats was the principal of Zarephath schools when I was a child. Later attending the Pillar of Fire high school in Westminster, Colorado, I got to know Carolyn Staats, its principal. These individuals occupied these positions through being related to the White family, not because of any special administrative talent or intellectual ability. In essence, these were the “nobility” – handmaidens to the “royalty”. More details about the Staats family will be offered below.
Arthur and Kathleen White, as I am sure did the founder of the church, Alma White, always lived quite well and did not have to scrape together a living, depending on the capricious “God will provide” adage as so many other church members did, but lived serenely and confidently on the largesse of the church. I was never sure exactly how or how much money came into their hands but was very sure that the church’s considerable wealth and resources were totally controlled by the White family. In fact, for years Kathleen White acted as “Financial Agent” for the church. There were church members who served as accountants and record keepers, I am sure, but to my knowledge the church’s finances were never open for examination, audit, discussion or judgement by rank and file church members, though official audits required by the state were done routinely.
The White family lived in a choice residence at Belleview, the Westminster, Colorado church campus, called “Rose Hill” and in an attractive one-story home on the Zarephath, New Jersey land called “Mountain View”, mentioned earlier. Apartments were maintained by the church for the Whites at other church locations for use when they visited. In addition, church personnel took care of the dining and laundry needs of the family, as well as child rearing. My own aunt, Ada Friedly, who had unfortunately followed my father into the church, performed these kinds of tasks for the White family for virtually her entire life, also helping to care for the infants and young children of the next generation of White church royalty. At different times Ada cared for the households and children of Arlene Lawrence, Constance Brown and Pauline Dallenbach, the respective daughters of Bishop Arthur White and wife Kathleen. After the death of Arthur White, the oldest daughter, Arlene, served as general superintendent of the church for several years.
Arthur and Kathleen White were used to first class transportation also and always drove or were driven in new black Chryslers. Motivated by some veiled criticism of this fact, Bishop Arthur White always hastened to insist that the automobiles in question were always owned by the church, not him. And the luxurious residences were owned by the church as well. So what – they got to live in the swanky houses and drive the classy cars, no matter who owned them. This was their privilege as church royalty. It was not because of their intellect, educational accomplishments or management and leadership skills.
I should relate something about the men the White daughters Arlene, Constance and Pauline married. Jerry Lawrence, the husband of Arlene and father of my sister-in-law, Verona, was a big, jovial, personable man with a heavy southern drawl, attesting to his southern heritage, the state of Georgia. Jerry used to be a good friend and confidant of my father when they both were young workers in the church, but Jerry’s marriage into the White family fatally altered the relationship. Reverend Lawrence earned a doctorate in education from Columbia and became an influential faculty member and administrator at Alma White College and the sister institution in Colorado, Belleview College. They had two children, raised partially by my aunt, Ada Friedly – Arthur and Verona.
The second oldest of the White children, Horace, did not remain in the church. He enjoyed a distinguished career as a pilot flying for United Airlines and is still doing well in his California residence today….at the age of 102. Horace and his wife Evelyn chose not to have any children.
Constance, the middle White sister, did not remain in the church either and married David Brown, a former student in our schools who later worked for various educational testing companies. I only knew one of their three children – the oldest, Melanie – and that only because I had occasion to babysit her as a child. Others, among them Peter, I never knew but perhaps as infants.
Bob Dallenbach, from the Dallenbach family of East Brunswick, New Jersey, described below, unlike his siblings, remained in the church after attending its schools and married Pauline, the youngest of the White sisters. After earning a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado, he served in positions of authority in the church, including bishop and superintendent from 2000 to 2008. Bob and Pauline were parents to two children – Joel and Beth (Heidi) – the latter always a good friend of my Colorado brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stan.
There were other prominent families in the church, notable perhaps because of the family size or their position in the church or the relative importance of the responsibilities assigned them. One such family in the church was the Weavers, who lived at the Bethany house. Mrs. Weaver, as mentioned earlier, ran this large house which also served as a home away from home for boys boarding at the church who were too young for the Zarephath dormitories. As suggested earlier, Mrs. Weaver was beloved by many of her charges for her loving care and for her delicious meals and school lunches. Her husband, Harry Weaver, ran the Pillar Fire field farming enterprise – planting and harvesting the corn and baling the hay that fed our dairy cattle, the potatoes for the school cooking preparation, and maintaining the fleet of tractors and farm implements that were used. Their sons, the “Weaver boys”, Glenn, Meredith (Mert) and Richard were popular among the girls and known also for their macho exploits on our tractors and other farm machinery. All of the Weavers married women in the church – Glenn married Blanche Cather, Meredith married Jeannie Bradford and Richard married Marlene Walker. Something about the Bradfords and the Walkers will be provided below. Interestingly, my sister Barbara had the rare distinction of dating on one occasion or another, all three of the Weaver boys.
The Gross family occupies a very important position in my memory because through my sister Barbara’s marriage to the youngest boy in the family, Daniel, the family became ever entwined in my own life. John Gross was the oldest, then David, then Joseph. The Gross family was finally blessed by the arrival of a little girl, Martha. The Gross’s loomed large in Pillar of Fire affairs. Mr. Gross was a prominent church member who not only oversaw the orchard and poultry operations at “Tabor” but also served as an accomplished church service leader and as an Alma White College professor. Bespectacled John played a prominent role in farm and school activities, as did David, Joe and Daniel. All of the Grosses were prominent musicians as well, playing instruments in the band on Sundays and participating in solo or choral singing. Daniel, my dear sister Barbara’s future husband, was also a virtuoso on the organ, often playing for church services. I remember many instances of Daniel practicing on the organ in the Ray B. White Memorial Chapel, beautiful melodies pouring out at various times during the day. The Gross boys, including Daniel, also played an important role in the church’s publishing efforts, operating the Linotype machine, typesetting, editing and so on. John Gross married Mary Ann Hager, of the Hager church family; Joe married Florence Tomlin, of the Tomlin church family.
Mrs. Gross was afflicted by some kind of arthritis, perhaps rheumatoid arthritis, and with severely limited mobility, was a semi-invalid for the latter years of her life, which accounted for the Gross family leading a movement toward a more healthy diet for church members. Mr. Gross led a successful effort to use stone ground whole wheat flour for Mr. Nolke’s baking activities and led a church movement to reduce sugar in the meals prepared in our kitchen. As I recount in my article about sugar, Mr. Gross coined the term “white poison” for this unfortunately ubiquitous substance needlessly included in so many of our processed foods. And Daniel showed me how he and the family made homemade mayonnaise in their Oster blender with eggs, vinegar, oil, and no sugar. I also remember mowing the front lawn at the Gross’s Tabor residence in exchange for piano lessons from Daniel.
Earlier in this article I touched several times upon another important family, the Bartletts. George Bartlett was the power and the energy behind the Pillar of Fire dairy, which, under his leadership, became the stellar dairy of central New Jersey. The dairy building complex, called “Rosedale”, consisted of a pleasant home housing the Bartlett family and three modern barns, two the same size and forming the legs of an “H” with one smaller barn, the “bull barn”, placed between the two larger ones forming the crosspiece of the H: – the milk barn and the calf barn, all in service of the prize Holstein herd which fed on seasonal grass in adjacent pastures and in other seasons the alfalfa and silage provided by the field farm operation of the church. There was also a reservoir on the property used I presume for watering the herd, but also for swimming because I remember a diving board on it as well. The milk barn was equipped with all the modern machinery for feeding and removal of waste, the milking process and immediate cooling and refrigerated storage of the milk, was a source of pride for the church.
The rest of the Bartlett family were memorable as well – oldest child, Jenora, later to become the wife of “Red” Crawford (more about the Crawford family below) and serve as one of the church’s finest math teachers; comely Doris, who left the church in her twenties, after breaking a few young men’s hearts; gregarious and charming Lorinda (“Lindy”), one of my sister Barbara’s best friends, later to marry Mandrup (Buddy) Skeie, and of course, Dwight, whom my friend Joe Wenger and I always envied and admired for his prowess and success with girls. Parenthetically, I should mention that Joe’s and my envy of Dwight, reached its apogee when Dwight and Mert Weaver both bought motorcycles. Yes, these two guys cruising up and down Canal Road and around Zarephath and its environs on their noisy big Harleys was the final nail in the coffin of our success with the local girls. I mean, how could we compete?
And since I mentioned Red Crawford, here’s something about the rest of them. Mr. Clifford Crawford, mentioned earlier in my discourse about the band, was the father of some uniquely talented people. Clifford junior left the church as a young man and became a successful writer and photographer in the advertising business. Joan (I seem to remember her as “Joanne”), the lone girl in the family also left the church as a young woman. I remember her especially since she performed the piano accompaniment on the recording my mother and father made of Barbara and me singing and reciting poetry at nine and five years old respectively. Frank Crawford, who married Ruth Dallenbach (more about the Dallenbachs below) and became a millionaire through his company “Princeton Microfilm Corporation” and later lost it all as he evidently failed to keep pace with the digital revolution, and, of course, one of my father’s best friends, Rea (“Red”) Crawford, who managed Zarephath’s garage, which maintained and repaired vehicles and also provided gasoline from a lone pump nearby. Red Crawford was known for his jokes and sometimes unseemly and distasteful ridicule of certain people through clever imitation of speech or physical characteristics. I remember specifically, his imitation of the walk of George Chambers, the brilliant and talented organist mentioned earlier, who was apparently afflicted by a chronic back condition. Red Crawford also played key roles in the management of our church radio station and exhibited extensive knowledge and skill in the electronic side of the broadcasting business. Red’s obituary is here.
However, to me the most memorable of the Crawfords was the senior Clifford Crawford, who was incredibly gregarious and friendly and always had a clever joke for the occasion. I still remember his mentioning of a “big wheel” in his hometown where he grew up by the name of Mr. Ferris. Mr. and Mrs. Crawford manned the Washington DC “missionary home” for the church, the place where we all stayed as a family during the several times we visited and toured the nation’s capital. Mr. Crawford was a superb musician on the trumpet and I used to look forward to seeing him and hearing him play when he and quiet and sedate Mrs. Crawford visited Zarephath for the annual “Camp Meeting” time in August. And I did mention him above as having advised me and straightened out my terrible drum playing.
I mentioned the Dallenbach family also somewhere above. This well to do family owned a sand company in East Brunswick, New Jersey. They were not church members but may have contributed financially to the church and did send their four children to our schools and served the church in various other ways. As I noted above, Robert Dallenbach stayed in the church, eventually marrying Pauline White, daughter of Bishop Arthur K. White, thus joining the royalty of the church, and later serving as bishop and superintendent. Martha and Ruth Dallenbach, the latter of whom I mentioned in my account of the Bound Brook school, attended and graduated from Pillar of Fire schools and served as teachers, Ruth later marrying Frank Crawford of the above mentioned Crawford family. Wally, the youngest of the Dallenbachs also graduated from our high school and went on to achieve national fame as an Indy race car driver with his son Wally Jr following in his footsteps. Martha Dallenbach Schlenk, the oldest of the siblings, just passed away in December 2021.
The Stewart family was important in the Pillar of Fire Church. Mr. Ash Stewart, known to everyone as “A. R.”, was I believe a “deacon” in the church and I remember him quite well as a distinguished, dignified church official, one at the “nobility” level, a notch below the White family. Daughters Phyllis and Lois I remember well. Phyllis, red-haired, personable and pretty, attended our schools and eventually left the church. I remember Phyllis especially because she gave me violin lessons for awhile. Lois became a stalwart in our schools, serving as a teacher and later principal of our “Alma Preparatory School” high school. I remember also Lois going with us and driving our 1949 Chevy on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the first leg of one of our summer trips to visit relatives in MIssouri and North Dakota. Sister Barbara and I were amazed at how fast she drove compared to Dad or Mom. Raindrops instead of going down the windshield went up, because of her speed. I believe that Lois went as far as the Pillar of Fire headquarters in Cincinnati, where we all must have stayed for the night before continuing west. Lois passed away in 2013. Her obituary is here.
The Hellyer family certainly deserves mention. Ezra Hellyer took over the Pillar of Fire dairy farm operation after George Bartlett was transferred to the nursery. Mr. Hellyer also occupied an informal position in the church as what perhaps could be termed our “constable”, a quasi law enforcement role. As I mention elsewhere in this article he patrolled our back roads often catching our teenaged lovers parking someplace in a car. He actually wore some sort of uniform festooned with a badge of some kind as well. Perhaps he did occupy a position of authority for Franklin Township or Somerset County.
The Hellyer children – Donald, Doris, Lillian, and Margaret – lived with the family at the Rosedale house, formerly occupied by the Bartlett family. The older children I remember by sight of course, but I did not deal with them in any significant way. Margaret, however, was my sister Barbara’s age so I saw much more of her. The “Children’s Hour” picture in another section of this article features a seated Margaret Hellyer and Anna May Snelling.
The Tomlin family occupies a special place in my recollections of church life. Wesley Tomlin and his wife Viola were stalwarts in the church, running missionary homes in various locations across the country. One of their daughters, Florence, married Joseph Gross, mentioned in my account of the Gross family. Second daughter Beatrice married another person prominent in the church schools in my youth, Richard Derbyshire. Both remained as workers in the church for most of their lives. There were three Tomlin sons – George, Luther and Mark. I know little about George; Luther I remember as a high school student much older than I, who was the best baseball player I had ever seen in the church. Apparently Luther was good enough to play professional minor league baseball for a number of years.
The son I knew best was Mark Tomlin. It was Mark who accompanied my father, his brother Gene and me to preside over my grandmother Friedly’s funeral in Missouri in 1957, as I noted in my article “Summer 1957” ). Mark was an incredibly talented man, a virtuoso on the trumpet, a wonderful singing voice, an eloquent speaker and gifted writer and publisher. It was Mark who greeted me, my wife Bobbie and son Conrad in the Publishing Building when brother in law Daniel Gross took us around a much-changed Zarephath during our visit in 1999 (see upcoming article “Summer of ’99”) and cordially chatted with us. Mark was a much loved and respected member of the Pillar of Fire church. He passed away in Landisberg, Pennsylvania a few years ago at the age of 86. Here is his obituary which includes a picture of Mark.
And the Walker family was very prominent in the Pillar of Fire. Mr. Walker, the head of the family, worked, I think, in the utility maintenance area on the campus involving perhaps, the powerhouse. Anyhow, the children remain more vividly in my memory and several played important role in my childhood: Dorothy, Rantz, Phyllis, Arnold and Marlene.
Phyllis was a contemporary of my sister Barbara although perhaps not in the same school grade. Arnold was a great athlete and I remember playing baseball and touch football with him many times. Marlene, several years younger than I, was personable, sociable and cute, eventually marrying the youngest of the “Weaver boys”, Richard. I’ve been told that they still live at Zarephath, in a house built next to our old house, “Lock Haven”. I remember Marlene particularly for her fashion statement – daring to wear a “sack dress” around Zarephath when they first became popular sometime in the 1950’s.
The Wolfram family occupied a lofty position in the church. I remember the two elder members of the family, Albert and Gertrude (related to church founder Alma White) and the two prominent sons, Donald and Orland. I recall Orland, the older of the two, as a stellar teacher and musician in the church. He never married to my knowledge, and eventually passed away in a central American country to which he had traveled as a missionary. Donald Wolfram was, I suppose, one of the church “nobility”, occupying positions of authority in our schools throughout his life. Dr. Wolfram married a lovely, charming woman with a radiant smile whom I remember well: Phyllis Hoffman, the only child of the Hoffman family, who ran one of our eastern missionary homes, perhaps in Philadelphia. Mr. Wolfram spent most of his church career in the Denver headquarters, where he preached regularly at Alma Temple in downtown Denver, ran Belleview College and anchored the band’s Sunday performances with his virtuoso trumpet playing (or was it trombone?). Later he also took over from Arlene Lawrence and served as general superintendent of the church from 1985 to 2000. As a youngster, I used to dread Dr. Wolfram’s sermons – although quite articulate and scholarly, his delivery was dry and professorial, lacking the feeling and passion necessary to hold my interest. I remember the two eldest Wolfram children, Suzanne and Phillip, fairly well and know that Suzanne continued working for the church for some years in varying capacities. I recall with pleasure the later encounters with Dr. Wolfram when I would attend Denver church services while visiting my parents. He was warm and cordial and always demonstrated great interest in my professional life.
And I should mention the Staats family that played such important roles in Pillar of Fire church affairs. Kathleen Staats was the wife of Bishop Arthur White, son the the founder, Alma White, so her stature in the church naturally guaranteed her siblings, Helen, Carolyn, Ruth and William, lofty perches as well. Ruth Staats I remember very well, since she was principal of Alma Preparatory School at Zarephath, the high school that I attended for three years. Sister Carolyn Staats occupied the corresponding position at Belleview Preparatory School in the Westminster, Colorado headquarters of the church. I don’t think Helen occupied any position in our schools but may have performed an important clerical and financial role in the church. While I remember Ruth as an energetic and competent leader of Alma Prep, Carolyn in contrast was a bit disorganized and flighty. While I’m not sure of her role in the church, Helen did present a somewhat somber and ponderous presence at our church services. Bill Staats ran the automotive shop, the “garage” at Belleview and was always affable, skilled and helpful in his head mechanic’s role in the church. Mr. Staats also demonstrated a wonderful singing voice in the “male quartet” performance and trombone playing skill in the band in Sunday church services. I knew Bill’s sons Edwin and Willard, both tall, good looking and older than I, from a distance, since they grew up on the Westminster, Colorado campus.
The Schissler family was important in the church during the time I was there with my family. When we moved from California in 1947 our family of six – Mom, Dad, Barbara, Elaine, Robert and I – were assigned to live at a house about a half mile from Zarephath called Lock Haven, described in my afore- referenced article “Home Sweet Home”. Also living in a different section of the house was an elderly couple the Schisslers, parents of the heads of several other Schissler families. Fred and wife Hazel were the parents of Lynn, Elaine and Fred Jr. Talented, intelligent and reserved Lynn played important roles in the church until leaving and working for various tech companies in the Denver area. Comely Elaine, more a contemporary of my sister Barbara, remained in the church eventually marrying Giles Cather and after Giles passed away, marrying another long standing church member, widower Sunday Sharpe. The youngest, Fred, several years younger than I, became one of my brother Robert’s best friends. Another Schissler son, Paul, was the father of Lowell, about my age, whom I got to know as a friend at Camp Meeting time and as a classmate in the fall of 1958 when I attended high school at the Belleview Pillar of Fire facility. Everett, another son, was about sister Barbara’s age and Marilyn, the daughter, eventually married Edwin Staats, son of above-mentioned Bill Staats. And Margaret, the sole Schissler daughter of Grandpa and Grandma Schissler, was the wife of Professor Norman Fournier and mother of Shirley (Renee) and Ronald. Other Schissler sons Otto and Henry, according to my memory, I did not know. More details about all are below.
And there are so many other familiar names that readily resurrect images of faces, sounds of voices and performance in various roles, that I enjoyed when growing up in the Pillar of Fire church. After a quick scan of the Zarephath Cemetery I can’t help but list some of the many names, each of which conjures up an image, a voice, a role in the Pillar of Fire Church of my youth: Barkman, Bartlett, Blue, Bradford, Chambers, Crawford, Cruver, Fournier, Frenkiel, Gilfillan, Hardman, Hibler, Ingler, Kubitz, Leyland, Mancini, Mossburg, Murphy, Nolke, Oakes, Ross, Sillett, Slack, Snelling, Stewart, Summers, Truitt, Urso, Vorhees, Walker, Weaver, Wilson, Wittekind, Yoder. All of these names are very meaningful to me but I can only take the time and space to briefly elaborate on but a few. “Blue” was Clark Blue, or Paul, who became June Moore’s husband.I will always remember June’s humorous and clever personality, which served her well as a teacher in our schools and as later a missionary in Liberia. “Fournier” means a distinguished, brilliant, talented man who died in a tragic accident and upon whose headstone is carved the touching legend – “His life an unfinished symphony”. The Fournier children, Shirley and Ronald, I remember well. Shirley, a onetime close friend of my brother Robert, married an old friend from my brief Belleview school days, Ivan Parr, who recently passed away.
Claude Murphy was the farmer whose home was near ours at Moningside and whose children – Elmer, Lester, Bessie and Naomi, I remember very well as teenagers or young adults. Mr. Earl Hibler, who ran our greenhouses mostly and also worked in the Zarephath store; I remember him being a little stingy with the ice cream on cones he prepared so I always hoped that Mr. Schaeffer was there – always a generous double dip for the same five cents. Clifford Ingler – a thin man with a shock of white hair, almost always dressed in black, energetically pursuing his work editing and publishing Pillar of Fire periodicals and books. Mr. David Gilfillan, our local fire chief, who also performed in the role of our local Republican Party ombudsman. Mr. Gilfillan would preside over certain “Morning Class” meetings to inform our people about upcoming local and national elections and recommend our ballot choices. Elsworth and Juanita Bradford, parents of two notable daughters – pretty Sylvia who married James Snelling, and charming Jeannie, who married Mert Weaver, the latter serving their entire lives with Christian missionary organizations. Mert passed away several years ago; Jeannie, I believe, still lives at Zarephath.
And similar close look at the names in the Belleview Cemetery does the same thing. There’s an image, a voice and what they did in the church: Cartee, Cather, Croucher, Entz, Hardman, Heger, Hopkins, Horner, Knight, Konkel, Loyle, Mason, McCaslin, Natress, Ogden, Plank, Portune, Rogers, Ruby, Schissler, Sharpe, Staats, Stumpp, Tomlin, Wolfe, Wolfram and so many others. And some brief elaboration on a few of these names – Glenn Cartee was a passionate preacher whom I remember playing his banjo at Camp Meeting Sunday School sessions and, how frightful and guilt inducing, talking about a great black vacant hole in the sky where sinners ended up. Yes, and this great black hole was growing larger and larger. Their daughter Bonnie was a friend of my sister Barbara. And the Mason family, patriarch Arvey Mason and wife Faye, and all of his children – Rosalee, Arvey Jr, Faye Ann, also a friend of my sister Barbara, Dick (childhood friend, my age but passed away early) and my own sister-in-law Glenda, brother Charlie’s wife, made a deep impression on me over the years.
Marguerite Stumpp was famed for her teaching at Belleview. Anyone who had her for a teacher remembered her as a strict, dedicated educator who expected and received the very best in behavior and academic performance from her students. I could record my memories of so many others whose names appear here but space and time do not allow.
There were a number of notable families who were not really members of the church but supportive of its mission through contributions, church service attendance and/or sending their children to our schools that I should mention, since they played an important part in my early life in the Pillar of Fire church. The common term for such families, for better of worse, was “outsiders”. One such family was the Carfagno family, whose boys Wayne and Norman (known also for some reason as “Shorty”, perhaps because his brother was very tall for his age) attended our elementary schools. I don’t remember either boy in our high school. But the Carfagnos occupy a special place in my memory because they would occasionally invite my Dad to their home on Schoolhouse Road, beyond Van Chesky Nursery and the Scheufle home and business to watch boxing on television. As noted elsewhere in this article, the church generally frowned on TV and it was a prohibitively expensive luxury for my family so my Dad appreciated those opportunities. I was privileged to accompany him from time to time and have very precious and vivid memories of seeing Jersey Joe Wallcott, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and others ply their craft on the Pabst Blue Ribbon bouts on Wednesday nights or on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on Friday evenings.
Another such family was the Skeie family. I do not remember Mr. or Mrs. Skeie ever attending our church services but all of their children, attractive and intelligent, attended our schools. Astrid, Margrethe, Mandrup (“Buddy”), Karen, are the names I remember. My brother Robert, I think, went out with Margrethe a few times, or perhaps it was Karen. I did go out with Astrid a time or two after I came back from Colorado in 1962 to resume my interrupted college attendance at Rutgers. As always, she was beautiful, dignified and sophisticated. As mentioned above, Buddy Skeie married Lorinda Bartlett and lives today in Amarillo, Texas and/or Garden City, Kansas. I know little to nothing about their lives – children and so on. But if google serves me right, both Buddy and Lindy are alive and well. Actually, today 11/23/21, I was joyfully reconnected with Buddy and Lindy, courtesy of an email I had sent to their church and Buddy’s persistence in responding. I look forward to sharing more with both of them as opportunities present themselves.
Also the Kaesler children from South Bound Brook, attended our schools. Al Kaesler was the oldest, then Billy, whom I remember well and Dickie, about my age, and a daughter, Ada 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:
Many of my articles have been based on what I perceive as something wrong with our society, politics, priorities and the like. But sometimes the complaint, problem or suggested solution is too limited for a whole article most of which seem to be in the 1500-2500 word range, so I include it in an article about several topics which I have called my “rants”: the first one and the second. And, having made a little list of my latest complaints and issues, each too limited for a full article, I am offering to my reader(s) “yet another rant”.
First, I have to complain about the the sorry state of health information in the US. We saw this early in the pandemic from the Trump administration’s disgraceful handling of essential information. First, we experienced the cover-up of the severity and deadliness of the pandemic from the chief executive himself, then during dozens of presidential press conferences we were treated to exhortations to treat infections with disinfectants and the like while qualified medical personnel stood by, mentally rolling their eyes in disbelief and wringing their hands in frustration, never themselves offering us anything more concrete than masks, “social distancing” and hand washing. And they couldn’t even agree on the best kind of mask or tell us where they were available. I clearly remember the panic my wife and I felt when absolutely no masks were available anywhere and we were reduced to madly fashioning some from whatever we could find, including sewing a few primitive cloth masks on her sewing machine. In retrospect I don’t know why medical authorities could not have sent several good masks to every citizen, certainly preventing a significant number of infections and saving many lives.
And smooth-talking HHS secretary and former Eli Lily big pharma executive Alex Azar (a perfect example of the “revolving door” between government and private employment) frequently disagreed or talked over and around Trump CDC director Robert Redfield. Then we cringed to see how Redfield sacrificed himself and the lofty reputation of his agency on the altar of Trump by acquiescing to politics, watering down recommendations to mere suggestions, overruling scientists and generally destroying the integrity of his agency and public trust in it.
And we aren’t a whole lot better off right now, with obscenely wealthy corporations like Pfizer apparently running the show and hapless and helpless CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stumbling through her public pronouncements. Early on, with reckless and needless hyperbole, she warned that COVID may be “just a few mutations” away from being able “to evade our vaccine in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death.” Then she decided to overrule her own agency’s advisory panel and recommend boosters for workers whose jobs require often interacting with the public.
On related matters with booster shots, she first called for boosters for vaccinated people who were over 65 or who had compromised immune systems or other chronic conditions. Now it’s boosters for everyone except children. Oh, I forgot, first it was Pfizer boosters only – then eventually, after panicking those who had received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, approving those boosters, or, without supporting detail, it was okay go ahead and “mix or match”. Of course with Pfizer calling the shots (pardon the pun) one might wonder what CDC’s relationship with Pfizer really is. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the entity first calling for boosters at all was Pfizer itself, not the CDC. And it was Pfizer and not our government that first announced suitability of their vaccine for children. Hmmm, lots more shots…lots more money for profits, stockholders and CEO. And I’ve already noted in an earlier article that Pfizer fancies itself a quasi government entity, bustling all over the world making deals with foreign governments for vaccine sales, totally independent of the US State Department or federal health agencies.
But it’s not only during the “covid age” when we’ve been misled by our well funded and supposedly brilliant and far-reaching health authorities. Remember the “low fat” recommendations that were supposed to save us from cholesterol, clogged arteries and heart attacks? What happened to that? All of us scrambled madly to avoid fat in our diets. But not a word was said about sugar, the much more likely cause of heart problems than fat as I recounted in my article about sugar. And we suddenly found out that many fats were actually good for us. Really? Why did that take so long?
And then there were the warnings that one of the most nutritious natural foods available to us – simple, everyday eggs – were responsible for cholesterol and clogged arteries, so many of us, including myself, compromised our nutrition by dramatically reducing egg consumption. In fact I recall foolishly boasting to my cardiologist (back when I had one) that I was down to eating just one or two eggs a week.
Yet another example of bad information was the almost universal advice that all of we older people who feared heart attacks should consider taking low dose aspirin every day. Yes, I’m sure the king of aspirin manufacturing, Bayer, influenced this decision – look at all the money they made. Well just recently the CDC reversed itself on this too, because apparently the potential harm of daily intake of low dose aspirin is likely to outweigh any benefits. And why did they just discover this – now, after all these years?
And remember the old “food pyramid” published by the Department of Agriculture to help us with wise food choices? Debuting in 1992, its broad base suggested lots of refined carbohydrates, the middle recommended meat and milk items and fats were confined to the narrow pyramid tip – all of it lousy (and dangerous) advice since we know now how beneficial many fats are and how dangerous refined carbs are. After many revisions over the years, most very misleading and ultimately useless, it’s been replaced by the “plate” – introduced by Michelle Obama and corporate farm advocate Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak (incidentally now still plying his corporate craft in the same position for the Biden administration) – perhaps a slight improvement but ultimately of only marginal utility. Yet both the succession of “pyramids” and “plates” were presented to millions of school children as the nutritional gospel. Poor, innocent kids.
Another issue I have to complain about (again? I think I complained in another recent article) is our corporatization of the fight against the covid pandemic. The worst aspect of the behavior of these corporate behemoths raking in billions in profits is that they have refused to share their patents or formulae for covid vaccines with the world, choosing instead to market them to countries willing to cough up the millions necessary to buy enough doses to vaccinate their populations. Especially egregious is Moderna’s refusal, since their vaccine was developed with the support of millions of federal dollars from the NHA, along with the knowledge and expertise of many NHA scientists. This might be a good place to note that in a 1955 interview, American virologist Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, was asked who owned the patent. He replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” No one became fabulously rich developing, distributing and administering the polio vaccine. And now?
Moderna, the company that never manufactured anything of consequence before the pandemic, has now placed five newly minted billionaires on the Forbes 500 richest list. And guess what, a full forty new billionaires from other companies have been created from the fight against the pandemic. What should have been a cooperative nonprofit effort by governments all over the world has turned out to be a wild corporate competition for riches and a bonanza for these greedy forty.
Why on earth didn’t we nationalize these greedy corporations and have the government manufacture the masks, the personal protective equipment, the billions of vaccine doses needed all over the world and send it all to poor nations completely free? We all knew that if the whole world did not get vaccinated we would see deadly variants emerge. And sure enough, South Africa, with its less than 30 percent vaccination rate, has presented the world with the Omicron variant threat. Will we now shift into high gear and vaccinate the world? As long a corporations are calling the shots (again – pardon the pun), I think not. Rich countries are at fault for the formation and spread of this latest covid variant – failure to curb corporate greed, read Pfizer and Moderns, and vaccinate the whole world. We could have stopped it and did not.
It might be worth noting that poor, humble little Cuba, wracked by cruel unnecessary US economic sanctions, has all by itself, manufactured effective covid vaccines that it plans to share with the world. Yes, Cuba’s public medical sector, note “public”, no corporations or profit involved, with its strong commitment to public health, has successfully manufactured its own vaccines. One hundred percent of its population has now had at least once dose and the country has reopened its schools and businesses and is now open for tourism as well. What a contrast to our own country where public health and vaccines are a commodity, to be bought and sold, and to be profited from.
Also related to the sorry state of health matters in our beloved country is the fact that the cost of Medicare, deducted from our Social Security checks, is going up. Yes, because the FDA has recklessly and irresponsibly approved a frightfully expensive and likely useless drug, Aduhelm, to treat Alzheimers, which will cost $56,000 a year, Medicare Part B is increasing its monthly premium from $148.50 to $170.10 in 2022, in case prescribing this drug, which experts say should cost no more than $8000 per year, causes a huge bump in Medicare drug spending.
And another item – Republican obstructionism. I can visualize Republican Representatives and Senators getting up in the morning, getting ready for work, and going in and having a simple and stress-free day – not much effort, no thought – just obstruction. If you are a Republican legislator, you don’t really have to come up with ideas, programs or policies to help the country or to assist your constituents. You just have to come into your office and decide what and how to obstruct that day. Pretty simple job description, isn’t it? Honestly, when is the last time you heard or read of a big Republican legislative program? You’d pretty much have to go back to Trump’s infamous “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” in 2017, which did not help anyone except the wealthy and corporations. Otherwise it’s been obstruction all the way. Yet amazingly this intellectually bankrupt political party, a minority party mind you, is poised to take over both houses of Congress in 2022 and because of voter suppression and gerrymandering I am sure will assume the presidency in 2024.
As part of this obstructionism and non-governing, I have to add the question of why we seem to be the only industrialized nation on earth that regularly brings itself to the point of financial collapse by threatening to refuse to raise the “debt ceiling” or “pass the spending bill” or whatever, potentially leading the US government to default on its debts and cause an implosion of world credit markets. This unrelenting political and financial brinkmanship is practiced periodically by Republicans as blackmail to achieve certain objectives, this time to prevent Biden’s vaccine mandates from being imposed.
And I have a few things to say about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Why is she so revered, worshipped and venerated? If I read another article about how wonderful it was that she shared a love of opera with and even attended performances with fellow justice Antonin Scalia, I’ll be sick. In spite of her notable work as a jurist on issues like gender equity and women’s rights, to me her greatest legacy is her arrogance resulting in opening the door and keeping it open for a generation long conservative majority on the court by staying on the Court for far too long despite her body telling her again and again that she needed to retire. Her first encounter with cancer came in 1999 and even after several more bouts and declaring herself “cancer free” in 2020 she finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer later that year, enabling President Donald Trump to appoint Amy Conan Barrett, his third Supreme Court Justice.
If Ginsberg had been a little less arrogant and had listened to her body and her doctors, President Barack Obama could have appointed her replacement. Thus to me, Ginsberg’s most lasting legacy was her sense of superiority, of her indispensability. “I’ve said many times that I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam,” Ginsburg said in RBG, after she was asked about the calls for her to retire. “And when I can’t, that will be the time I will step down.” Well there were many times during her struggles with cancer that she could not do her job “full steam” and should have stepped down but her insufferable pride and hubris kept her there long enough for her replacement to be named by a Republican president. So when I think of Ginsberg, I don’t think of her legal ability or her importance on the Court. I can only see her foolish self-centered pride.
On another very important current issue, I cannot believe that my own Democratic Party is messing around with the SALT deduction. This limit on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted from federal taxable income was the sole progressive element of Donald Trump’s infamous “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, likely included in the legislation to “get back” at high tax blue states where state and local taxes were high enough to make a difference on some wealthy taxpayers federal income tax obligations. But now, to appease effected high income taxpayers, donors I am sure, in their states, many Democratic senators have proposed canceling or adjusting this limit. Corporate Democrat Senator Bob Menendez has even referred to it as “the SALT cap nightmare for 99% of NJ families”, a blatant lie, since the cap effects just the most wealthy. But I am furious that any Democrats at all are behind the push to raise or abandon this limit since doing so is quite simply a tax cut for the wealthy.
Another long standing gripe I have is with our Congress pouring money into the Pentagon. The last insult was a short time ago when Congress gave our reckless and feckless military not only all of its latest budget request of $715 billion but also added an unsolicited allotment of another $25.5 billion. And these are the same people that cry about the deficit and wring their hands because there’s no money with which to expand Medicare or provide paid family leave or free community college. The United States spends more on its military that the next 11 highest nations combined, an absolutely incredible fact. And our Pentagon spending is never audited. Our mindless largesse is pretty much a blank check for these uniformed fools to spend any way they wish. And has our vaunted military won any wars recently?
And also making me quite angry is that this monstrous bill for “defense” is deemed a “must pass” by our Congress, while Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill is being whittled down to nothing in an effort to please “King Coal” Manchin and self-styled “maverick”, Kyrsten Sinema.
And related to the military, I have had to sit through the few NFL games I chose to watch recently and look at a host of coaches, Gatorade boys and various other hangers-on sporting expensive military garb for their “Salute to Service”. What nonsense. Precious few players, coaches and other personnel have ever served in the military. That “privilege”, since the military abandoned the draft, mostly falls to the poor, the marginalized, immigrants, Native Americans and people of color. So is all this hoopla to ease their guilty consciences? What about the cost of the military jet flyovers, the cost of all the clothing? I wrote about this deplorable practice a long time ago, December 2017 to be exact, and can’t believe the NFL is still doing it. Again, as my article suggested – why not give this monstrous pile of superfluous clothing or the money it took to buy it to the needy or to the Salvation Army or other worthy charity? Or why not honor some segments of society that are involved in helping and building, not killing and destroying – like perhaps teachers, Doctors without Borders or Peace Corps volunteers. What a terrible waste of resources….and it is still going on.
I would also like to say a few words to Republicans who are so concerned about government spending and inflation. Interesting how no one was concerned when a gaping hole was blown in the budget with Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, a piece of legislation which really cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, not you and I and which did not create any jobs. Instead of investing and hiring more people, corporations indulged in stock buybacks with their newfound bonanza. It’s demand that induces corporations to invest and hire anyhow, not enormous profits.
I’m no economist but here’s my take on the causes of recent inflation and how to rein it in. First, there was a huge amount of pent-up demand stored in the economy because of the covid pandemic. People didn’t go to restaurants, to the movies or to live performances. Shopping malls were dead zones. While they still ordered some hard goods over the internet and kept the “essential workers” at the post office, Fedex and UPS busy, the net result was that they had tons of money left over, augmented by the checks from the federal government covid relief programs, sitting in their accounts. And as a result, production of all sorts of goods, even agricultural products, slowed. Now that things have loosened up, people are trying to spend this money, putting a serious strain on production and distribution of goods and thus temporarily raising prices.
Another reason we are wrestling with inflation now and Republicans and Larry Summers are gleefully pointing their fingers at Democratic spending bills, is that indeed we have spent a great deal of money on fighting the pandemic and on keeping the economy strong. But we have not raised taxes at all to pay for these programs. Thus, yes indeed, there is a great deal of money sloshing around the economy chasing too few goods right now. Increased taxation, particularly of corporations and the wealthy, would reduce it. But curiously, the Democrats seem reluctant to raise taxes on those most able to pay, on those who have profited mightily from the pandemic. I find it quite interesting that after the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the Trump “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” of 2017, the Democratic Party, even when in power, has never chosen or never been able to restore them to their former levels. Even Biden’s much ballyhooed Infrastructure and Build Back Better bill, have not been funded anywhere near completely but instead by a few half hearted inadequate increases on corporations and the wealthy and some wishful thinking about what a boost in IRS funding would yield from wealthy cheaters.
In addition, vastly more industries have monopolized in recent years, making it much easier for them to raise prices arbitrarily to increase their bottom line for their investors and their overpaid CEO’s. It’s absolutely astonishing that our government has given up on fighting monopoly and concentration of production and distribution. As a sample, check out the stats in this important publication.
Another thing that really annoys me and should upset everyone else are the continual attacks on the US Postal Service mostly by our Republican friends. The complaints about subsidies for this essential service and calls for it to be “profitable” do not make any sense to me. The Post Office performs an essential service for us. What it charges via stamps and fees for mail processing and delivery defrays a significant portion of that expense and if that’s not enough to pay its bills, the federal government plugs the holes. And why shouldn’t it – the post office serves the whole country. In small towns it serves as place where people meet, chat and gossip while they deliver or pick up their mail. I oppose the continual shrill Republican calls to privatize the Post Office, as if that were any kind of solution. Oh sure, let’s privatize the post office and stuff the pockets of a “Post Office Corporation”, its new stockholders and CEO.
If we are serious about increasing Post Office revenue and making it more self sufficient, we need to consider restoring a role it enjoyed from 1911 to 1967 – providing banking services to customers through the Postal Services Savings System. Many other countries still provide banking services through their post offices. We also need to take a look at how domestic shipping prohibitions and restrictions limit revenue and provide opportunities for competitors like Fedex and UPS. We do not need to reduce costs and increase revenue by cutting personnel and slowing down delivery, as Trump holdover Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is trying to do.
Another item – I am so overjoyed that we now have a “Space Force” general – yes, replete with uniform, lots of medals and a high salary. Don’t believe me? Check out a recent Washington Post column by Josh Rogin. Yes, we not only have divided the entire world into “Combatant Commands”, like European Command, Central Command and a bunch of others covering the entire globe, but, lucky for us, our Defense Department has added a “Space Force” command and now we have a real Space Force general. I am sure before too long we’ll be conducting yet another cold war with China and Russia in outer space as they “attack our space assets” and we have to stock space with bigger and better “assets”. Really I had a hard time telling whether Rogin was writing his article with tongue in cheek. But I guess he was serious, demonstrating once again how sacrosanct the military is to both our Congress and our media. Oh, my God, Space General David Thompson cries that “US satellites are being attacked every day!” We need to retaliate!
And yet another example of Republican hypocrisy – individual rights and sanctity of the body when refusing covid vaccines, yet not where abortion rights are concerned. A woman’s right to control her body is okay if she’s refusing a vaccine and endangering herself and those around her, but is not acceptable when she’s pregnant by rape or incest or her health is threatened by pregnancy or childbirth. Incredible how the far right so selectively yells, “My body, my choice”. And furthermore, how is it that the far right is so reverential about life from conception to birth, yet so non-caring about supporting life afterward – promoting a culture of violence, flooding the country with guns and the world with military weaponry, supporting an obscene Pentagon budget and cheering the death penalty, while making war on medicine and universal healthcare, popular gun safety laws, housing for the indigent and a most spare and basic safety net for our citizens.
Thus concludes my latest “rant”. Yes, of course, I’m angry and upset about many other things that I experience daily or read or watch in the media but I’ll have to save those for another time. Oh wait, sorry, I have to mention this one. Recently my wife and I have summoned the courage to purchase tickets and venture out for a couple of concerts, our first since the pandemic began. And while announcements were quite consistent in requiring proof of vaccination to enter and mask wearing during the concerts, we were both terribly upset to see about half of the audience remove their masks upon finding their seats and sitting down. Why? And why didn’t the concert authorities insist that masks be kept on. These unserious and careless acts permeate other activities as well. Simple shopping trips in our area have also revealed a reckless mix of mask wearing or not, both by employees and customers, confounding and contradicting what should be a collective unified struggle against this dreadful pandemic. Very disturbing indeed. But what to do? Where to start?
On the day I plan to publish this article, I was subjected to a news report that again made me very angry, so I have to end with a comment on the issue it raised – that of human rights. The US has decided not to award diplomatic recognition to the Winter Olympics in China, although our athletes may attend and compete. Why? Because of China’s “human rights record”. Please… spare me. How dare we condemn the human rights record of any nation while we turn a blind eye to the everyday human rights abuses of our “staunchest ally”, Israel. This rogue nation goes on murdering and maiming Palestinians and stealing their land, homes and livelihoods every single day, with complete impunity. American politicians at every level remain two faced and hypocritical about human rights, fearing that by raising a voice or finger against Israel might turn off the money spigot that funds their campaigns. So no more talk about the human rights abuses in China unless we also talk about them in Israel.