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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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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:

Solitude

(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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