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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

With unrepentant and oddly zombie-ish expressions, the two young lovers (or the two young actors hired to portray lovers) sit on the coffee table at 1107 Hope Street, as uncomfortably as if they were there in person.

They are here — like others in their space, before and after them — to tell the straitlaced elders of the Blumenau family about a problem they didn’t know they were supposed to be concerned about.

From the other side of the generation gap they stare, their blank faces promising little in the way of explanation or enlightenment.

But they must have something to tell the world:

They’re on the cover of Time.

August 21, 1972.

August 21, 1972. The young man, in particular, looks like Scorpio Murtlock.

On some levels, there is nothing about the August 21, 1972, cover of Time to set it apart from hundreds of other red-bordered covers from the same time period. I’m shamelessly using it because it’s attention-getting.

(Which, I imagine, is the reason Time created it in the first place.)

But on other levels, it makes a fine launching pad for a consideration of my grandfather’s relationship to mass media in general, and America’s largest news magazine in particular.

I’ve mentioned a few times that my grandpa worked as a draftsman at Time-Life in Stamford for many years.

He didn’t have any connection with the editorial side of the business; it wasn’t his job to rush off to Haiphong or Paris or Milwaukee on Henry Luce’s behalf to take the world’s ever-changing pulse.

Still, he was a faithful reader of the magazine. In fact, he held a lifetime subscription, courtesy of his longtime connection to the company.

(Time-Life arbitrarily canceled his “lifetime” subscription in the final year or two of his life, which was a rich source of black humor for a couple of weeks there.)

His grandson, in contrast, does not read the slimmed-down, dumbed-up mag that passes for Time these days.

For one thing, I have a very limited tolerance for Joel Stein. For another, I’ve discovered The Economist, which seems considerably more informative, comprehensive and adult than today’s Time.

And for a third, big trend stories — like “Sex & The Teenager” — tend to draw out my BS antennae. I rarely get very far into one before I start mentally punching jagged holes in the research, supporting evidence and conclusions.

It makes me wonder what attitude my grandpa took when he sat down to read stories like that in his latest copy of Time.

I think my grandpa trusted authority more than I do, and if an institution like Time magazine told him something, his default setting was to believe it — especially if he had no firsthand evidence to the contrary.

(There were no teenagers, sexy or otherwise, at 1107 Hope Street in the summer of 1972.)

But, he was not a stupid or credulous person. He had the analytical mind of an engineer, a tinkerer and a shade-tree mechanic, and I have to imagine he turned it to things beyond the merely mechanical.

When he sat down to stories like “Sex & The Teenager,” I wonder if he asked himself some of the base-level questions every consumer of mass media should ask themselves:

Who is telling me this?

Why are they telling me this?

What is their interest in telling me this?

How much of their evidence is one-off anecdotal, as compared to systematic study?

Do they answer opposing arguments with substance, or do they shrug them off?

Are they trying to influence me about the story’s importance through play and space? Is this subject truly as important — to me, and to society — as the story’s prominence would indicate?

And so on.

(Unfortunately, past cover stories from Time are only available to subscribers, so I can’t apply these questions to my own critical read of “Sex & The Teenager.” It might have been a decent story, for all I know … though I doubt it, kinda.)

The proper approach to mass media was just another of a million topics I never really covered with my grandfather.

So I can’t muster an honest guess on how he responded to lusty teenagers, or campaign finance, or the rise of skiing, or the troubled state of the Jesuits, or the bucolic joys of Minnesota, or any one of thousands of stories his favorite news magazine fed him over the years.

Perhaps he swallowed them all whole and unquestioned.

But I’m sure he read them with a decent degree of attention and concentration, anyway, which is a necessary prerequisite for critical thinking.

So I’ll leave him sitting in a comfortable chair in the front room … with the sound of traffic on Hope Street buzzing everpresent through the open window on a humid late-summer evening … furrowing his brow a little bit as he gets the word about Sex & The Teenager.

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Still making with the snapshots. The calendar entries will be back soon.

If last week’s Blumenau family snapshot is like a behavioral experiment — how will the members of a small group of people interpret or resist a request? — this week’s photo poses a different question:

How will the members of a small group of people respond to unexpected adversity?

The seven people in this picture are in a situation we’ve all been in at some point in our lives:

- They are arrayed in front of a camera that’s been set to go off via self-timer.

- The camera, a high-precision assemblage of the best consumer imaging technology Japan has to offer, has gotten stuck.

- The people have waited – first patiently, then less and less so – for the shutter to fall, holding their poses and nursing their smiles.

- At long last, the camera master has given up and gone to fix the problem.

- And then, inevitably: Click.

Summer 1978.

Summer 1978.

Most of the family appears to be clinging to some semblance of their formal poses. They know in their bones that the camera will click as soon as they slacken. They are locked into a test of patience, a steely death-match that rewards its winners with the eternal appearance of calmness and composure.

My grandfather, the camera master, has done what camera masters have done in this situation since time eternal. Like a captain staying on the bridge as his ship takes on water, he is honoring a moral code. It is his duty to break his pose, walk toward the errant camera — and, inevitably, lose the death-match.

My father appears to have craned his head around and behind my mother’s to get a glimpse of the camera, as if that would allow him to diagnose what was wrong with it. In this moment of hubris, he has also lost the death-match.

(The little kid in the cutoffs, whose name is Kurt, has also let his concentration slip, but not as badly as his father and grandfather. And anyway, little kids get free passes in situations like this.)

Perhaps my grandpa’s control over his camera has slackened because he is not on Hope Street.

The setting for this photo is the backyard of my childhood home in Penfield, N.Y. The assemblage behind us is a temporary screened-in structure, erected in spring and dismantled in fall. It lives on in family lore as “the scream house” — not because it was used for the torture and dismemberment of passing hoboes, but because of a childish mispronunciation of “screen house.”

Finally, I cannot help but compare this week’s picture to last week’s, and note what 18 years did to my grandfather. Last week he looked virile; this week he looks old.

The years between 1960 and 1978 were busy, demanding and sometimes quite challenging for my grandpa.

(If you don’t know the details, click here and read forward. I suggest you set aside some time…)

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I’m taking intermittent breaks from the calendar entries to focus on some of my grandfather’s photographs, which tell just as many stories as the calendars do.

What we have here is a demonstration of how five individual people will interpret the same unambiguous request.

Summer 1960.

Summer 1960. In the back yard at 1107 Hope Street.

It looks like all five members of the Stamford Blumenaus are gathered around the table in perfect concord, at the same sort of al fresco dinner that millions of Americans will enjoy this month.

Here’s the story as I assemble it in my mind:

- My grandpa has set up the timer on his camera to get a genuine family photo, rather than yet another shot that has everybody but him in it.

We can gather this from, among other things, his side-saddle posture (which also gives us an excellent view of his work-stained khaki pants.)

He is either sitting that way because he doesn’t have time to get his legs swung in before the shutter clicks, or because sitting the “right” way will turn his back to the camera and detract from the shot he has in mind.

- In a radical departure, he seems to have urged the family to eat for the camera, to simulate a candid shot. This is not to be one of those sit-and-grin pictures; he wants a slice of life.

Certainly, his own posture leaves no doubt as to what he wants the rest of the family to do for the camera.

XXX

This hamburger has seconds to live.

Behind him is his teenage son, later to be my father. Young Rod seems perfectly fine with the paternal edict, stuffing something into his mouth for posterity.

My grandmother is less convinced. She is obligingly holding a piece of food — a cherry tomato? a strawberry? But her facial expression says: You people can be silly if you want. I’m not going along with these wacky ideas. I’ll eat after I hear the click.

Backyard Picnic Grandma

My great-grandma is old enough to remember when getting your picture taken meant putting on your Sunday dress and holding your breath for five hours. Eating for the camera is an unexpected convenience of modern life, and, judging from the slant of her mouth, she is content to join in.

Next to her is my future Aunt Elaine, a member of a budding generation of women who will go to college and hold jobs and do everything men can do, only better. Game for new experiences and adventures, she chomps right in.

Backyard Picnic Grossee Elaine

So, we have four eaters and one skeptic. That’s a pretty good percentage. I guess there’s a holdout in every crowd.

(I wonder if my grandpa saw the developed picture, looked at his wife and sighed in exasperation. It is possible.)

We will end this post as my grandparents appear to have ended the meal — with a pot of campfire-style grill-brewed coffee, the sort that today’s Starbucks-coddled generation would probably spit, horrified, into the weeds.

Want some?

Backyard Picnic Grill

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Wednesday, August 18, 1971, was a summer day like countless others on my grandfather’s calendars — humid and hazy, with a high of 88.

But on this day, the lurid orange sun had to share space in my grandpa’s hand-drawn sky with a foreboding sign of the times.

August 18, 1971.

August 18, 1971. The Mets and Yanks, both in fourth place, win.

The threat of environmental pollution, so long ignored, was becoming inescapable by August of 1971.

News programs were making note of the growing crisis. On the very night of Aug. 18, David Brinkley reported for nearly five minutes on NBC’s Nightly News about a group of schoolchildren who wrote letters about pollution to U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. (The kids presumably saw Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, as a sympathetic ear.)

TV watchers that month were also seeing one of the most famous public service announcements of all time, launched in April to coincide with the second Earth Day.

Seen through skeptical 21st-century eyes, the ad stumbles because of its lack of authenticity. It’s now known that lead actor Iron Eyes Cody was the son of Sicilian immigrants to Louisiana, and had as much Native American blood as Joe DiMaggio.

The use of Native American imagery to make a point also rankles. America has never really taken care of its original residents — in fact, we’ve kinda screwed them at every turn — but we’re glad to trot them out to make a point in a big ad campaign.

None of that seemed to bother viewers much at the time. The PSA resonated so well, and was so talked-about, that it ran for 15 years. I remember seeing it, and you probably do too:

Of course, the message about pollution’s dangers didn’t have to come via the TV. My grandfather might have noticed it just by looking out his window.

According to newspaper reports, the state health department issued an air pollution watch for Fairfield County on the 18th because of a stagnant high-pressure weather system extending from the Midwest to New York. It was the first such alert of the summer in the county; a similar alert was declared in New York City.

The weather system was expected to remain in place through the weekend, trapping pollution in the air.

Officials called on residents and businesses to cut unnecessary combustion — such as driving — and said they might require a major power plant in the area to switch to low-sulfur fuel.

I don’t know how long the alert lasted, or whether my family took any action to curb its infinitessimal share of Fairfield County’s smog.

I do know that my grandpa’s calendar entry for the following Sunday makes no mention of smog, pollution or clouds. I’ll take that as a positive indicator.

Man’s inhumanity to the environment remained a top news story well after the smog lifted in southwestern Connecticut.

Just two days after this calendar entry, a U.S. Navy refueling ship accidentally dumped 1,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, fouling the beach at President Nixon’s oceanside California retreat.

And air pollution issues continued to show up on my grandpa’s calendars year ’round, not just in the thick of summer.

February 10, 1972. An air inversion is ...

February 10, 1972. An air inversion is the same weather pattern that contributed to trapping pollution in August of 1971.

 

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Only about two hours before I sat down to type this, I went down the stairs and into my modest backyard garden, where my jalapeno plants had been busy.

I spent several minutes there, picking enough sun-ripened deep green fruit to fill both hands (and I have big Gil Hodges-style meathooks … as I said, my jalapeno plants had been busy.)

Then I marched my takings upstairs, mixed them with some vinegar and kosher salt, and made a tall jar of vaguely Tabascoid hot sauce that should enliven my food for some time to come if I can keep from sneaking spoonfuls between meals.

July 26, 2014.

July 26, 2014.

It is at times like this that I feel sorry for people who don’t have space to garden, and mildly contemptuous of people who have land but don’t plant anything in it.

I do not deserve to stand on any gardening soapbox — my ‘penos seem to thrive on little more than sun, rain and benign neglect.

But really, it doesn’t take hours of back-breaking labor to grow just a few herbs, fruits or vegetables. They’ll add flavor to your table, while giving you a sense of pride and accomplishment beyond your actual effort.

My grandpa was a real gardener — much more committed and hard-working than I’ve ever been.

This week’s calendar entry finds him both investing time in his garden,¬†and profiting from it.

(I assume “dust toms” means “apply some sort of fertilizer and/or insect repellent to one’s tomatoes.” I similarly assume “1 lb Beans” means “Picked 16 ounces of beans.”)

I bet those beans tasted good, if my grandma didn’t boil the hell out of them, or something similarly ill-advised.

And, I bet my grandpa took pride in harvesting and eating them.

Just like I’m going to savor each spoonful of homemade jalapeno sauce I ladle onto my ice-cream sundaes.

July 26, 1975.

July 26, 1975. Mets win in extras; Yanks lose.

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