Posts Tagged ‘connecticut’

I mentioned last week I’d probably divert from the calendar entries for a few, and write a couple posts based primarily on my grandpa’s photos. Indeed.

Two years ago around this time, I wrote a post about a gorgeous, timeless heat-of-summer photo my grandpa captured.

Most likely, it was taken July 31, 1975, during a visit to Cove Island Park, a public park in Stamford overlooking Long Island Sound.

The picture I wrote about isn’t the only great photo my grandfather took on that trip. Y’all wanna click on this and look at it full-size for a minute:


(Yes, there is a honkin’ big hair-thing in the photo, probably an artifact of the scanning process. I look at it from a Zen perspective: All things manmade must have a fault somewhere, or else they wouldn’t be manmade. Look past it, out toward the eternal sea.)

I am guessing the woman in the picture — laboriously dressed to block the sun, even on a 90-degree day — is my grandmother. She would have dressed like that to go to the beach.

And, since the original calendar entry mentions “lunch at Cove Island,” it’s possible that the bag or basket in her hand has a couple sammiches in it. It’s not a large bag, but my grandparents were not gluttonous.

I’m not hung up on literal reproduction of the day’s events, though. What I like is the story between the lines.

Check out the woman in long sleeves and pants, separated by both height and distance from the faraway figures on the beach.

She is so close to freedom and relaxation and pleasure, she can practically reach out and touch it. And yet, it is not hers to have.

Her clothing and posture suggest a certain fundamental ambivalence about it. She has deliberately brought herself to the place of sun- and sea-worship, but has come prepared to deny herself any participation.

Down on the beach, practically at the photo’s center, is a young family — what looks like two parents and a small child — suggesting fertility, vigor and action. Up on the viewing deck is a single person, suggesting stillness, confinement and loneliness. Is youth a release? The image suggests so.

Both a fence and a road separate the woman from the beach. In the endless dichotomy between civilization and nature, man and wilderness, she is staying firmly planted in the known, sanitized, well-defined world of settled life.

There is no visible threat to keep the woman on the deck away from the beach. No riptides; no thunderclouds; no crush of towel-to-towel, shoulder-to-shoulder bathers.

She just chooses not to go, even though the grass beckons with a wonderful deep green, and the sky presents a tapestry of deep blue dotted with cumulus white.

Also note, while we’re at it, the rich marine blue color of the observation deck. It’s sorta like a copy of the ocean … a flat, tamed version of the sea in which even the likes of my grandma can feel comfortable parking her feet.

I am sure my grandparents eventually made their way down to the beach, got comfortable after a fashion, and enjoyed their lunch.

But in this single fall of the shutter are more complicated possibilities.

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High school prom season’s pretty well over, at least where I live. It looks like the local newspapers have squeezed out their very last prom photo galleries.

(I used to work for a chain of weekly papers in Massachusetts that considered local proms to be a big annual rite of passage and a must-cover. I escaped having to cover my town’s prom by the simple method of getting married and going on my honeymoon at the right time. Worked like a charm. I could only play that card once, of course … but by the following May, I’d gotten another job. That worked too.)

I don’t mind writing about proms, if I don’t actually have to go stand around and ask teenagers mushmouthed questions.

So this week, I’ll finally write about a prom … but from a different angle than I would have taken as a journalist.

This week, the story’s not about the kids. It’s about the grown-ups who pick up a couple bucks making their big night special.

June 2, 1962. Appropriately, this photo is No. 622 in its batch.

June 2, 1962. Yanks cruise to a win; Mets stumble to two losses.

Just a year removed from high school himself, my dad got hired to play the Darien High School prom, Darien being the town just to the east of Stamford.

The concept of live musicians at a high school prom seems alien to me. In my youth, the soundtrack to prom was provided by a DJ spinning the hits of the fortnight, just as they were heard on the radio.

(The local morning-radio jock who spun at Penfield High’s proms a quarter-century ago is apparently still on Top 40 radio in Rochester. Wonder how many proms he’s been to.)

My dad says the musical menu at Darien High was a mix of swing tunes (i.e., “Satin Doll”), standard ballads and waltzes (think “Blue Moon” or “I’m In The Mood For Love”); a few of what he calls “ethnic” Italian and Polish tunes (I’m guessing the Tarantella, but I might be wrong); and a couple of rock n’ roll instrumentals.

Now, the members of the Darien High Class of ’62 probably didn’t spend a lot of time listening to “I’m In The Mood For Love” of their own accord.

But swing and standards were seen as posh, and well-suited to a big occasion. In my dad’s words:

It doesn’t surprise me that the Darien prom committee chose standard swing and old dance music for their prom.  That was normal; although we listened to rock ’n roll 24/7 and loved it, many high school proms featured big bands covering the swing music of the 30’s – somehow that was “special.”  It does surprise me that Darien, being a good bit tonier than Stamford/Hope Street, would hire the Joe Denicola Quintet for their prom.

So who was the Joe Denicola Quintet, you might be asking?

Apparently they worked regularly around the Stamford area back in the early ’60s. The band was usually a quartet, but sometimes hired my dad when they needed a sax player.

My dad playing saxophone on TV, early 1961.

My dad playing saxophone on TV, early 1961.

Their roster, as my dad recalls it:

– Joe on bass. Joe was 2 years ahead of me at Stamford High, and we played in the jazz band together one year.  And because of my natural ear I could fit in with his band pretty readily, there being no music, ever!
        – “Shaves” on drums (perhaps he was a barber?  Dunno).  He was a very good, tasty, natural drummer who swung and kept great time.
        – A solid trombonist whose name escapes me.  He was a cobbler (shoemaker and fixer) by trade, who played basic stuff and played it well.  Iron trombone chops; great tone and endurance!
        – Rudy on amplified accordion (!!!).  Rudy was a little headstrong but did what he did well.  And sometimes played too loud.  But then again, “audible” is too loud for an accordion!

None of these guys ever went to college.  But they had played together for quite a while and did what they did well.  None of them sang; they may have hired a vocalist for a bigger gig.

I can just about see these guys in my mind — Shaves the Drummer, in particular. What a great nickname. That guy deserves a larger chapter in the history of American music than has thus far been granted him.

Also, I wonder whether any American accordionist of the past 25 years has gigged on prom night. Now that’s an anachronism, even more so than the idea of swing music and standards on prom night. It would take a prom committee with cojones of iron to hire an accordionist in the Age of Auto-Tune.

Anyway, my dad’s memory suggests that the Joe Denicola Quintet might only have been an intermission band. He thinks Darien High hired a singer and full orchestra to provide the bulk of the music, and hired these local guys just to fill in the breaks. (In his words: Smart money would say that the Joe Denicola Quintet was NOT the headliner at the prom.)

That seems to me like quite a length to go to. But Darien was (and is) a pretty well-heeled place, and if they wanted two bands at prom, they could probably have afforded it.

(I also find it droll to think my dad entertained those hardcore few who refused to stop dancing just because the orchestra wanted a break. “Not done shaking ass, kids? Here comes the Joe Denicola Quintet. No parking on the dancefloor!”)

My dad doesn’t seem to remember anything unusual, regrettable or embarrassing about the gig.

So I’m guessing the Darien High ’62 prom went as intended; the kids got all the music they could hold; and Shaves the Drummer picked up a little extra beer money.

As it should be.

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Time to get in the car. Grab a seat by the window, and settle in. This is going to be a long, long blog post.

The good news? You don’t have to buckle up if you want. This is 1975, you see.

Specifically, it’s Friday, May 23, 1975. My grandparents and great-grandma are about to spend (almost) 10 hours (mostly) in a car, driving from the southwestern edge of Connecticut to (almost) the shores of Lake Ontario.

And we’re all going to ride with them, as I re-create the sights and sounds of an all-day interstate car trip with the Blumenau family elders as faithfully as I can.

Don’t worry — you’ll get a chance to pee.

May 23, 1975.

May 23, 1975. Yanks and Mets win.

Your vehicle for the trip will be a 1969 Ford Fairlane 500, somewhere between cream and pale green in color. It was extensively described in this earlier post, if you want to go have a look at it. It’s reliable and well-kept, though the vinyl upholstery might get a little squirmworthy after seven or eight hours on a sunny day. There is, of course, no air conditioning.

(My grandpa — he’ll do all the driving — has one of those plastic seat inserts that cab drivers use to get just the tiniest bit of airspace between one’s arse and the vinyl. Being The Man has its perks.)

Your fellow passengers will be my grandmother, Corine, in the front seat and my great-grandma, Pauline (known in the family as Grossee, short for the German Grossmutter) in the back. There’s plenty of room; you can stretch your legs.

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step on the gas pedal.

And this journey starts on the back roads — specifically, on Long Ridge Road (a.k.a. Connecticut Route 104), which my grandfather takes across the Rippowam and Mianus rivers and over the state line, roughly 13 miles to the little town of Bedford, New York.

Once in wealthy Westchester County, the roads gradually start to get bigger. State Route 172 westbound from Bedford feeds into Route 684 northbound, which connects in turn to Interstate 84.

I-84 wends westbound through the quiet southern chunk of New York state between Westchester County and Woodstock, occasionally watched over by wary staties in ungainly yellow-and-blue Dodge Monacos. The Fairlane does nothing to attract their attention, and they take no notice of it.

Doing a responsible 60 mph or so, the Fairlane crosses the north-south Taconic Parkway in the company of Ramblers and Mercurys, then sits in a bottleneck until it finally gets a chance to  soar over the Hudson River on the 12-year-old but already overcrowded Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.

Around this time, you start to notice that the ride lacks for interpersonal stimulation.

My grandfather is largely content to focus on his duties as driver. My great-grandma — while ordinarily affable — clams up during car trips, reluctant to do anything that might distract the driver. And my grandmother’s bursts of chattiness are hindered by her deafness and the engine noise, which conspire to turn any conversation into an adventure.

For a time, the putative conversation turns to the Blumenaus’ beloved grandchildren — one four-and-a-half, the other not yet two — who are waiting for them in western New York. The kids are still at ages when life consists of one big discovery after another, and the members of the traveling party look forward to hearing about the latest.

At the otherwise unremarkable downstate town of Middletown, N.Y., my grandpa turns onto New York State Route 17.

Route 17 carries the big cream-colored car north through Catskills towns like Wurtsboro, Monticello and Liberty. Even at this late date, it is possible to see both billboards for Borscht Belt resorts and the fading resorts themselves from the highway. Billboards for Monticello Raceway are also frequent, some of which feature neon horses waiting for nightfall to come out and trot.

Route 17 flirts with the Pennsylvania state line in the towns of Hancock and Deposit, where my father was stranded for a night in April 1972 by an unseasonally heavy storm en route to Stamford to play organ at my Uncle T.J.’s wedding. No doubt that story comes up among the travelers.

Route 17 meets Route 81 North near the city of Binghamton, and my grandpa turns onto still another major interstate. Traffic is again heavy in spots: It’s Memorial Day weekend, and even in the early afternoon, people are trying to get somewhere else.

By this time, you and your fellow occupants of the Fairlane are hungry and need a break. Once back on a big highway, you start looking for an opportunity to get off the road. (Being frugal Yankees, my grandparents and great-grandmother have packed their own lunches, so the enticements of McDonald’s hold no appeal to them.)

Unfortunately, the nearest rest stop on northbound I-81 is several miles behind you, just north of the New York-Pennsylvania line. You have to wait 30-odd miles until the town of Homer, near the colleges-and-farms burg of Cortland, for a proper rest area.

Once there, you hit the bathroom, claim a shady picnic table and settle down to your delayed repast — ham sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise, apples, and a thermos full of lemonade. The family chats and eats without hurry, oblivious to the cars and trucks grinding past to their own destinations. You make a note to pack some sriracha for the return trip, to lend your sammich something resembling flavor.

At some length, everyone bundles themselves back into the waiting Fairlane. The windows have been closed, and the air has become hot and thick inside, and scented with vinyl. Fighting the urge to drowse, the family sets off again.

But only for a short time. This is 1975, after all, and you’re riding in an American car with at least a V6 engine in stop-start traffic. So my grandfather grabs the first opportunity to pull off the highway again and refill his tank at some small-town gas station, perhaps in a town like Homer, Tully or Preble. He pays cash.

The Fairlane creeps north gradually toward Syracuse. It is roughly 5:15 p.m. by the time you reach the Salt City, and Memorial Day traffic combines with the regular Friday-afternoon drive-time exodus to choke the roads.

The worst of it is leaving the city — not coming into it, as the Fairlane is — but as my grandpa hangs his final left turn onto the New York State Thruway westbound, the pace of traffic slows a bit.

From Syracuse it is a straight shot westbound to Rochester, the last real leg of the trip, roughly an hour-and-a-half in regular traffic. My grandfather, his right foot perhaps getting heavier, manages to make it in more or less that time. (Perhaps there is another bathroom break, quicker this time, somewhere along the Thruway.)

At 7 p.m. or so, as the skies hint at their eventual darkening, you get off at Thruway Exit 45, Route 490, Rochester.

And about 15 minutes later, my grandpa’s Fairlane  is in the driveway of his son’s suburban home at 50 Timberbrook Lane, Penfield. A late dinner and family comforts await. The trip is over.

Get out. Stretch your legs. Relax and enjoy.

In three days or so, you’ll be doing it again, the other way.

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We quarreled when the rug was up. This went back to the threadbare days on the third floor, cold water for days, a walk in the park. Wan spring blossoms declared their independence. Garage doors paid forth their secrets onto muddy alleyways. The rug hung chilling and crooked off the back deck. And we quarreled.

“We cannot live the way you want,” I said, lighting a cigarette.

“You don’t want to,” she replied, her hand sidewise and angry on her front hip. “You just don’t want to.”

“Dammit,” I said, shushing the match with a wave of my wrist. “Let’s think about the money for a –”

” ‘Dammit!’ ” she exploded. “Always ‘dammit!’ What kind of home are we trying to build? Where did you learn respect?”

“Fine,” I would say, my voice tinged with the bitter cool of the spring breeze, and slip down the stairs …

… and there I was 30 years later, in a home with Japanese maples in the front yard and graduation gowns in the closets, success radiant from here to the avenue, the perfect backdrop to advertise life insurance and prudent mid-length sedans. And again the rug is up, soaking the sun off the back deck; and again we are arguing.

“Do you ever think about the consequences of your actions?” she challenges, her green eyes sparking.

“It was the right thing to do,” I sigh, tearing off a corner of the newspaper and twirling it into a ball between my fingers. “And to hell with the consequences.”

“We could lose everything. Everything,” she says, waving a nicotine-stained hand in the general direction of the kitchen.

I cannot resist the pounce: “Might we lose the blender? I could never face the LeRoys again if we lost the blender.”

She rises, fuming; but before she can speak I am out the door and down the back steps toward the garage. The lawn wants mowing, bless the all-silencing roar of the mower.

A wordless hour later, I am on the deck, rolling the rug into a semi-compliant log and muscling it back into the front room. It sprawls back into its familiar dimension, and in that instant, the afternoon light takes on an added warmth.

I am changing my undershirt and taking the afternoon pills when I hear her voice behind me: “I’m sorry. The way we get going sometimes, you’d never thought we’d been married this long.”

I do not say anything. There is nothing to say. We quarrel when the rug is up.

It has always been this way.

February 19, 1974. This work of purely speculative fiction inspired by no one in particular.

February 19, 1974. This work of purely speculative fiction inspired by no one in particular.

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I come from what I’d call a close-knit family. And, thinking about it, I think I owe some degree of that to geography.

My mom and dad grew up in the same city. They’re not from the same neighborhood, I don’t think — I’m pretty sure they didn’t go to high school together. But they both come from the same community.

(Mapquest tells me that the homes my grandparents lived in when I was a kid were less than two miles apart.)

This contributed to a cross-familial closeness that I’m not sure is present in families with broader geographical roots.

When I went to visit Stamford as a kid, we would stay with one set of grandparents, but always spend quality time with the other. The grandparents took turns hosting.

There was never a sense — at least not to me — that we had to work to balance our grandparental time, and never a sense that anyone felt left out. It seemed organic: A visit to one was a visit to both.

My parents’ parents also got along nicely. Again, maybe there were subtle tensions that a little kid wouldn’t catch; only my folks know for sure.

But by the time I came along, it was common for my dad’s folks to get invited to events on my mom’s side of the family, and for my mom’s folks to stop by Hope Street for a dinner or other occasion.

This week’s calendar entry features one such occasion — another link in the knot that binds a close-knit family together.

April 27, 1974.

April 27, 1974. The Yanks come out on the short end of a seven-hitter thrown by David Clyde, who is nineteen years and five days old.

The event, on an unseasonably warm day, was the wedding of my cousin John and his wife, Maria.

John is the son of my maternal grandpa’s brother. I don’t know as he was that close to my paternal grandparents. But by 1974 — seven years after my folks got married — those grandparents were woven strongly enough into the family fabric to get an invite to a wedding on the other side of the family.

Being in a close family has its obligations, of course. I imagine my paternal grandpa might have spent April 27, 1974, working in his garden or washing his car, rather than putting on a suit and going to a wedding.

Still — given the million ugly ways in which dysfunctional families can shatter and wound — it is infinitely better to have the obligations of a close family than the pains of a distant one.

I’m glad to report that John and Maria’s 40th anniversary is coming up this spring. They are grandparents themselves now, and just hosted their kids and grandkids at a family get-together a couple of weeks ago.

My mom and dad were there, too. All these years later, the family ties still exist.

This pic doesn't have

This pic doesn’t have anything to do with the family-ties narrative, but I’m adding it anyway ’cause it’s so great. This is my dad on April 27, 1974, outside Stamford’s Sacred Heart Church after the wedding. The violin is my mom’s, the briefcase probably has organ music in it, and the camera is well-protected against the elements.

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