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Posts Tagged ‘1963’

“Hoping that our youth may be persuaded to love and imitate the virtues of the men whose great names they have been accustomed, from the cradle, to lisp with veneration, I have long coveted to set these virtues before them.”
– Mason Locke Weems

This week we find ourselves in the retrospectively sunny world of JFK’s New Frontier, face to face with one of America’s enduring myths.

When first I looked at the calendar entry for February 22, 1963 — nine months to the day before Dallas — I squinted at the dotted apparition in the center.

What in the fresh hell is that supposed to be? I thought, sipping my Ward 8. There’s no plant or tree that looks so vibrant and alive in February in Connecticut. February is too late for holly berries, and too early for apples. What IS that?

And then I remembered a certain American legend involving an axe, and a fruit tree, and an honest little boy who grew up to have a federal holiday proclaimed in his honor.

February 22, 1963. Axe and boy not shown.

February 22, 1963. Axe, boy and ham dinner not shown.

Mason Locke Weems, the author who gave the world the cherry-tree story, is known today — to those who remember him at all — for never letting the truth get in the way of a saleable bit of hagiography.

The snippet of “biography” that gave the world the cherry-tree story can be read at Weems’ Wiki page. Project Gutenberg, meanwhile, gives us the texts of Weems’ biographies of Francis Marion and Benjamin Franklin.

(The Franklin bio is titled, “The Life of Benjamin Franklin. With Many Choice Anecdotes and admirable sayings of this great man never before published by any of his biographers.” Reminds me of the remarkable, unprecedented access Clifford Irving had to Howard Hughes.)

Here’s a choice bit from page one of the Franklin biography; I’ll buy a cherry pie for anyone who can stand to read the whole book:

Some men carry letters of recommendation in their looks, and some in their names. ‘Tis the lot but of few to inherit both of these advantages. The hero of this work was one of that favoured number. As to his physiognomy, there was in it such an air of wisdom and philanthropy, and consequently such an expression of majesty and sweetness, as charms, even in the commonest pictures of him. And for his name, every one acquainted with the old English history, must know, that Franklin stands for what we now mean by “Gentleman,” or “clever fellow.”

I find it interesting how a scrap of fiction, apparently made up out of whole cloth as Weems dipped his quill, could become an entrenched bit of national lore known to every generation of Americans.

Nowadays, everyone knows the cherry-tree story isn’t true. (This is not a recent development; I’m sure my grandpa knew this in February 1963.)

But everyone knows the story anyway. Even in the skeptical 21st century, when warts-and-all is the rule and presidents have feet of clay, this antiquated, hopelessly sunny legend still goes around.

Just to verify that schoolkids today still hear the cherry legend, I went upstairs and asked my kids, aged 14 and 11. They hastened to tell me it wasn’t true — but they’d both heard it. (Neither of them could quite remember when and where, which suggests it was some time ago.)

No matter what you think of the relative virtues of truth and falsehood, the eternal resilience of the story is kind of charming.

America’s stock of shared lore is like a patchwork quilt — Paul Bunyan in red plaid over here, steel-drivin’ John Henry in stark gray and black there, Johnny Appleseed in russet dapple in the corner … and a little boy with a white-flowered cherry tree right in the middle, one of the oldest and best-stitched patches of all, as if affixed by some wizened, winsome national grandma.

Taking the cherry tree out of the quilt now would just about require unraveling the whole thing. And Americans, even in the darkest of times, have never bought into that idea.

So Mason Weems’ bald-faced lie will probably outlast us all … as it outlasted our fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers.

I wonder whether any legends of our current crop of presidents — or any truths, for that matter — will last as long.

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Step back with us, won’t you, to a time when your triumphs and problems were your neighbors’ business

… when a series of rattling spins and clicks provided a dramatic prologue to every conversation …

… and when a hero to all sons of western New York was making convoluted, enigmatic introductions like this one every week on network television.

(There is a classic Blumenau family story involving Rod Serling, and perhaps someday I will tell it; but not now. There will be time enough at last.)

This week 50 years ago, we find the youth of 1107 Hope Street celebrating a victory distinctly of its time and place:

Sept. 11, 1963.

Sept. 11, 1963. Whitey Ford and Alvin Jackson cruise to complete-game wins for New York’s baseball teams, who are, respectively, in first place by 13 games and in last by 39 1/2.

Ah, yes, the days when all phones were anchored on desks or walls — and if you wanted another one, you had to have Ma Bell’s minions come put it in. My dad remembers:

I do know that AT&T was a total monopoly when I was growing up, and they owned your phone and the wiring and all, and you rented it each month.  If you wanted two phones, you paid more and rented two phones.  And they could tell from some electrical measurement if you had doctored your system (added an illegal phone).

For many years, the only phone at 1107 Hope Street lived on my grandfather’s desk, in a niche on the first floor just outside the kitchen. There wasn’t much in the way of privacy.

My dad: I would wander across the street to Springdale Methodist Church to telephone girls to ask them out on dates because I didn’t want anyone to hear!

My aunt: Your grandfather and father once had a lot of fun making noise while I was attempting to talk to a male caller. I don’t recall nagging to get another phone, but I probably should have, if only for the privacy reason.

My aunt on the phone, circa 1958.

My aunt on the phone, circa 1958.

Of course, what the kids saw as a lack of privacy, the adults saw as an opportunity. My grandparents used to time my aunt’s phone calls with a kitchen timer and bell, to keep her from tying up the line for too long. (My aunt says she would tiptoe into the kitchen and turn the timer back to buy more time on the phone.)

Finally, in the fall of 1963, my grandparents agreed to end the phone wars and have a second phone (not a second line; just a second phone) installed on the second floor, in the hallway between the bedrooms and bathroom.

It wasn’t a concession to the kids, but a way to make their own lives easier.

My dad: Think about it: they were getting older, and at that time there was no voice recording, so if you didn’t make it downstairs in time, you missed the call and spent the next 3 hours wondering who called!  I think that’s all there was behind it.

My aunt: As your grandparents only splurged on items for practical reasons, I too believe the second phone was installed because your grandparents found it more difficult to sprint  down the stairs to answer the phone.

October 1980. There was a small cabinet in the hall between my great-grandma's and grandparents' bedrooms, with a phone on top. My great-grandma is marking her 94th birthday with a phone call to someone, sitting on a clothes hamper. The door behind her leads to my grandparents' bedroom, I believe.

I’ve used this pic before. Here’s my great-grandma using the upstairs phone on her 94th birthday in October 1980. The phone is almost certainly a Western Electric Model 500 — in black, as you can see.

I do not know whether my grandpa — a tinkerer and a curious sort — ever figured out how to dial one phone from the other, creating his own benign variation on the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house scenario. It sounds like the kind of thing he would have taken advantage of to save himself a trip up or down the stairs.

I also do not know whether my grandfather ever owned an answering machine. I cannot for the life of me remember his ever having one.

(The one thing I do remember about my grandparents was that my grandma was deaf as a stone post, and her hearing aid used to whistle when she was on the phone, maybe ’cause she’d cranked it up high. I can still hear the sound.)

By the time my family left 1107 Hope, Ma Bell was no longer a monopoly, and the company’s hold on phone installation had been relaxed.

I don’t remember for sure, but I think my grandfolks’ subsequent home in the Rochester area might even have had *three* phones — one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom area and one in the basement.

I dunno if that’s true, though. Sounds awfully profligate for people who clung so strictly to a single phone for so many years.

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I wouldn’t have thought my grandpa had much in common with the hard-drinking, abusive protagonists of “Mad Men,” but it seems like we cross their paths a lot here on Hope Street.

First, Don Draper showed up in our ode to the two New Yorks of the 1960s. Then, we made a Mohawk Airlines reference a couple of weeks ago.

And today, my grandpa’s calendar makes note of an event referenced in the third-season “Mad Men” episode “Seven Twenty Three.”

July 20, 1963.

July 20, 1963. The hip kids in the tri-state region are listening to “Fingertips Part 2,” “Surf City,” “Wipe Out,” “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” “Memphis” and “It’s My Party.”

I didn’t know it until I checked Wikipedia, but this particular solar eclipse seems to have captured the fancy of quite a few creative types.

The eclipse of Saturday, July 20, 1963, is a key plot point in the Stephen King novels Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, and is also described in John Updike’s novel Couples.

Charles Schulz devoted a week’s worth of “Peanuts” strips to it, as well. (The scrawled note at the bottom of the July 20 calendar entry seems to say something about “C brown.” But I don’t interpret that as a “Peanuts” reference. I don’t think Joe Shlabotnik’s biggest fan ever made it onto the family calendar.)

I don’t have any record of the eclipse providing artistic inspiration to my grandfather. I know of no photographs or paintings of his that depict it, aside from the nifty doodle on his calendar.

I would imagine he tried to take a look at it, though, using whatever the approved and recommended methods are to view an eclipse. With his interests in space and science, it would have been natural for him to check it out.

Isn’t looking through developed film one way to view an eclipse? God knows my grandpa had plenty of that around the house.

(This picture, which regrettably is not my grandfather’s, shows the lengths one American family went to to approach the challenge. And this picture shows how a couple of enterprising American businesses found a promotional opportunity in it.)

According to contemporary sources, only five solar eclipses were expected to be visible from North America between 1963 and 2025.  So, while I’d never heard of this event before, I can understand why it would be big news to those who were around at the time.

The day dawned cloudy, threatening to dash the hopes of countless amateur astronomers. It seems like people got a pretty good look anyway, though. An estimated 200,000 people flocked to Maine that weekend, Maine being one of only two places in the U.S. expected to see a full eclipse.

News reports at the time quoted Surgeon General Luther Terry telling Americans to “watch it on television” to avoid damaging their eyes.

Today, anyone with YouTube can see the eclipse. If you want to put a box over your head for the sake of historical verisimilitude, knock yourself out:

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I think, in the years before I knew him, my grandpa had a bit of an outdoorsy streak — just like  lots of other red-blooded American men.

He wasn’t the sort to swim in icy lakes at dawn, or shinny up a mountain bare-handed.

But, given the opportunity, I think he enjoyed a bit of roughing it out in the woods every now and again.I believe he spent most of his life in city settings — not among skyscrapers per se, but in closely developed neighborhoods — so maybe that explains why he liked to go get a few lungfuls of fresh air from time to time.

Give him a rustic cottage, and a rowboat, and a fire to grill over, and he could enjoy nature happily enough.

Either 1957 or '59, I believe, in the little western Massachusetts town of Becket.

Either 1957 or ’59, I believe, in the little western Massachusetts town of Becket. My grandpa is rowing; my grandma and aunt are enjoying the ride.

From the same trip to Becket: The family enjoys dinner out back of the cottage. Check out my grandfather in *shorts* -- a rare look for him.

From the same trip to Becket: The family enjoys dinner out back of the cottage. Check out my grandfather shirtless and in shorts. Both were rare looks for him, at least in my experience.

Living in Stamford didn’t give him quite the same opportunity to commune with nature. Sure, there were places he could go to enjoy the great outdoors. But the neighborhood where he lived was pretty well built-out and paved over.

Perhaps that was why he deemed a couple seasonal reminders of Mother Nature worth including on his calendar, 50 years ago this month.

March 2, 1963.

March 2, 1963.

If there’s a backstory here, and skunks were a regular part of life on Hope Street, I don’t know it. Perhaps my grandpa encountered one traipsing across the back yard and saw fit to record it.

Or maybe he read this factoid somewhere and decided to lift it for his own calendar. It does sound kinda like something you’d read in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Wiki, for what it’s worth, says that striped skunks don’t really hibernate so much as they go semi-dormant. And they can start breeding as early as mid-February. So this date doesn’t necessarily represent when skunks start to emerge. More likely, it’s when my grandpa first took notice of one.

As it happens, the smell of skunk is one that I used to associate pretty strongly with Stamford. The drive from one set of grandparents’ house to the other took us through some wooded areas, and it was common to pick up a couple snootfuls of skunk along the way — especially when we made the drive at night.

I don’t mentally connect that smell with Stamford quite so strongly as I used to. But my childhood association of skunks with Stamford (and trips to the grandparents) may be one reason why I have always liked the smell of skunks.

(From a distance, that is. The smell of a skunk close up is ferociously nasty.)

So, yeah. What other natural phenomenon was capturing my grandpa’s attention in March 1963?

March 9, 1963.

March 9, 1963.

The spring maple sap run is a wonderfully New England thing to put on your calendar.

(The time of the sunset, while not specific to New England, is pretty sweet too. The days, they’re getting longer.)

I do not believe my grandparents actually did any maple sugaring or syrup-making. I can’t recall any mention of that in family history.

Plus, if I’m not mistaken, it’s messy work that requires the collection of a lot of sap — certainly more than the trees on my grandparents’ lot could muster.

Thanks to the blogosphere, I now know that it is possible to make maple syrup in Stamford, even if my family didn’t.

The excellent OmNomCT food blog, based in Fairfield County, recently wrote about the annual maple sugar weekend at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center. Apparently you can go there to learn about maple sugaring, buy locally made syrup, and even help judge a cooking contest in which local chefs put the syrup to creative use.

(Well, OK, you can’t do it this year, because the event happened March 2 and 3. But you can put it on your calendar for next year. I would if I lived there.)

Only about two weeks after the maple sap entry, my grandpa would have noted the formal start of spring on his calendar.

I wonder how long it took him after that to start daydreaming about grilling some burgers and hot dogs.

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Not long ago, on my other blog, I declared my intention to see Todd Rundgren when he goes out on tour later this year.

It embarrasses me to admit that my tastes in live music are, chronologically speaking, less hip or current than those of my grandparents.

This week’s calendar entry finds my grandparents going out to hear a legendary performer — a clarinet player whose musical style seems as ancient and distant to me as saddle shoes, ration cards and mock apple pie.

(A clarinet player, for Chrissake. Is there any instrument so redolent of soft-focus, geriatric Music Of Your Life as the clarinet?)

But fairness compels me to admit that Benny Goodman‘s commercial peak was 20 to 25 years behind him when my grandparents saw him perform on February 7, 1963.

If I see Todd Rundgren this summer, it will be (gack) a solid 40 years past the days when he was a rising young hitmaker.

For that matter, I already have a ticket to see Graham Parker and the Rumour in April — a group that, until last year, hadn’t recorded together in 32 years.

Game, set and match, grandparents.

February 7, 1963.

February 7, 1963.

Just to add to Benny Goodman’s hip credibility, he was the first bandleader to successfully and regularly employ an electric guitarist, Charlie Christian.

He was also among the first to integrate his band.

In 1938, Goodman headlined the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall — a breakthrough for the music into mainstream society. Oh, and he was also capable of playing classical pieces for clarinet and orchestra, too.

In other words, he wasn’t the syrupy big-band smoothie I tend to think of him as. He was an innovator, a giant figure in his style. (Rather more so than the performers I will probably see this year.)

Goodman was also a Stamford resident, which might explain why he happened to be playing at my dad’s alma mater, Stamford High School.

I’m not familiar enough with Goodman’s career and oeuvre to guess what he performed that night. My sense is that he either did the classical stuff or the swing stuff; I don’t know which side he was leaning toward in early 1963.

(Whatever it was, I imagine it was well-performed. Goodman’s Wiki profile indicates he didn’t have much tolerance for musical sloppiness. Neither did the Blumenau family, before I came along. So I’m sure my grandparents were satisfied with the quality of the performance.)

Here’s a sample of the sort of thing that might have been played. Christian, who died young, wouldn’t have been at the Stamford High gig. But the standard tune “Rose Room” might well have been on the menu:

Sounds — cough — pretty — choke — hip to me.

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