Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pajama Game, Carousel, and Trashing Chandler: A Reader Remembers

John Jackson's second post about the renaissance of Randolph's music hall brought forth an email from Paul Bouchey, a theater professional who was lured to Randolph in 1972 by the goings-on at Chandler and became instrumental in its revival. "The years have indeed passed quickly," Paul wrote in his email, "but the memories of the project and the people remain strong and vivid. Your blog project is a great way for folks of all ages to reflect upon and share their lives with others. 'What is past is prologue.' "

Paul's email was a reminder of how many people have been brought together by this one institution. "The enthusiasm and dedication of people of every age and status in life in this small New England town were impressive indeed—and contagious," he recalled in a 2007 letter—copied in the email—to Herald editor M. Dickey Drysdale, then at work on a Chandler history (Not a Bad Seat in the House: Albert B. Chandler and His Marvelous Music Hall). "All of the activity surrounding Chandler became a cause celebre. If you said to anyone, 'I'll meet you at the hall,' there was no question as to which location you were referring. It was fast becoming a center for community focus and special attention. Furthermore, most everyone has a bit of the ham in them and an attraction to show biz. I met many wonderful and interesting people, from natives going back years to those who moved to Vermont to find a different, quieter, more traditional way of life. There were high school kids and farmers: salesmen and college professors; hippies and bankers; contractors and housewives; businessmen and teachers. I was invited to their homes for dinner, drew portraits of some, learned about sugarin', became enamoured of the Vermont accent (what accent?), experienced something of local politics—both public and personal—and basked in the aroma of old farmhouses being heated exclusively by woodburning stoves and fireplaces."

For the rest of Paul's letter to M. Dickey (including an account of the time he and others trashed the newly restored hall for an Oxydol commercial), click on "Read more," below.

Friday, March 26, 2010

From a Reader: The Pajama Game Auditions

Nancy MacDowell was still known as Nancy Brown, a Randolph Union High School senior, in 1972 when this photograph ran in the Herald. The scene is an audition for the Chandler Music Hall production of The Pajama Game; that's John Jackson, stage director, on the right. And in the center is . . . I'm sorry but I have no idea. Anybody? To read John's memoir about the grueling work that preceded the opening night of Pajama Game, click here.

Circus Kirk: The Show

The final installment of Joel Hannah's memoir about his two summers as a rigger with Circus Kirk. Like the high school kids who helped get Chandler back on its feet, Joel threw himself into the experience—working hard, playing hard, and learning a lot about life. The illustration above is from The Elephant Who Dreamed of Becoming a Ballerina, written and illustrated by Patrick "Tex" Texier, our resident cartoonist. The book is due out later this spring.

The show consisted of several short acts which kept us riggers busy pulling ropes and moving props. The traditional fare of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns moved the show along at a quick pace and the live band's circus music was always well-received. An elderly gentleman who lived near one of the lots had heard the afternoon performance and came to the evening show "just to see the band that had played a tune I hadn't heard since my childhood." This was the kind of response that made the day worthwhile. Large audiences were more fun. Nothing is more appreciated by a a circus performer than clapping and whistling during their act. Shows were much better and livelier when the performers are motivated by the crowd noise and smiles on children's faces. In contrast, poorly attended shows resulted in sloppy performances and dull attitudes.

Most of the acts were created out of the imagination of the performers. Not being professionals, the spirit, effort, and ability exhibited by these ordinary college students was no less than extraordinary. Acts of strength and determination stick in my mind. One individual learned to walk a high wire to the top of the tent, gradually moving further and further up the incline before falling. Only a small foam pad was available for catching him, and this was eventually removed. One of my fellow riggers, who learned to use a unicycle for a ladder, was given his own act; surprising everyone with his ability to balance on and jump over various props. The show was a series of personal abilities and efforts packaged into a cohesive group effort.

The whole experience occupies a special place in my heart despite the shortcomings: two summers of extremely hard work with little pay ($50 a week), terrible living conditions, and physical ailments to remind me as well: a vertebrae damaged after having a tent pole fall on it, a knee that acts up in wet weather due to a shot it took from an acrobat bouncing off of a trampoline. It's okay, a small price to pay for this kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Two years ago there was a reunion for members of the exclusive club of Circus Kirk workers over its ten-year history. Why yes, even "Doc" himself would be there to "make sure everything went on schedule." But traveling to Pennsylvania is not now as easy as it once was, and I settled for sending in a "where are you now" form. Memories of people and places flooded back to me.

Then there was the Fourth of July parade in Randolph last year, an annual event for my family. I had heard that the circus was in town but paid little attention to people's remarks. It wasn't THE circus. I could never go back to Circus Kirk and wasn't about to go to some former competitor (we do go to see the Big Apple Circus every year, though, which reminds me of our little show) and kept my mouth shut.

While standing on the cubside watching the parade, I was surprised when the sound of circus music floated down the street. An elephant rounded the corner and approached. Boy, it sure did look familiar. No, I thought to myself, this is silly.

And then I saw him. "Frank!" I yelled to the astonishment of those around me. An elderly man dressed as a ringmaster stopped waving, turned around and caught my eye. It was the ticket master who had hired me so many years ago. "Come to the show tonight, Joel," he shouted. "Maybe we can sign you on." He turned back to wave to the crowd as I stood dumfounded, not knowing what to do.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

John Jackson: The Chandler Renaissance, Part 2

Theater hands are prodigiously hardworking, and Richard Emerson was no exception. The former technical director of New York's Circle in the Square, he arrived on the Chandler scene in the early seventies, a crucial moment in the hall's rebirth. Long-haired and bearded (the photograph below could easily depict a rigger for Circus Kirk), Richard was one of many yeomen who went without sleep to prepare the hall for opening night. The weeks that led up to Pajama Game were fraught with nail-biting suspense. I was too young to appreciate the massive amount of work these guys did, but I do recall the excitement they generated. "An air not unlike the first warm wind of spring was blowing through that great old building," my friend Nat Frothingham wrote after reading part one of John's Chandler memoir. "It was an awakening—also a moment of lovely generosity and great promise." 

Pajama Game was an okay show, but it didn't approach Brigadoon as an artistic event. It had interesting sets designed by Bob Brady, an architecture professor at VTC, good singing leads from the Randolph Singers, and better than average choreography. What makes Pajama Game memorable is the constellation of important developments that took place behind the scenes and put Chandler Music Hall on its way to restoration.

I think it all began with the retirement of Mr. Alderfer, the longtime music director for the Randolph Singers. I recruited Bob Miner, a physics teacher at VTC, to handle the music. He wanted to have a real orchestra. Chandler had an orchestra pit, but many years ago, when the hall was used as an auditorium for the old high school across the street, the original orchestra pit was covered up with new flooring. We investigated and found the old floor of the orchestra pit under the new flooring. The trouble was that the old floor of the orchestra pit was only a foot or two below the added flooring. Even with the new flooring removed, there wasn't enough room in the pit for musicians to sit under the edge of the stage. Heaven knows why it had been built that way, since there was plenty of room for a deeper pit.

Enter Richard Emerson. Richard was Bob Miner's brother-in-law and, until a short time before, had been the technical director of the Circle in the Square, an important off-Broadway theater in New York City. He was taking time off from his hectic life in New York, relaxing in the woods at Bob Miner's house in the wilderness on the Rabbit Track off the Chelsea Road. He took one look at Chandler and fell in love with it. (He also fell in love with the Randolph girls who didn't look like fashion models.)

Bob and Richard rigged beams from the stage to the auditorium floor and attached hoists to each of the beams where they passed over the pit. Cables were run through holes in the pit floor so that the weight of the floor could be supported by the beams. Then a new system of joists was built under the old floor of the pit so that the final position of the pit floor would accommodate the proposed orchestra. The next step was to cut all of the joists supporting the pit floor. At that point all of the weight of the pit floor was being supported by the beams. Finally, step by step, the pit floor was lowered onto the prepared support joists. I had previously found the old pit railing under the balcony. After that was reinstalled, we had the really useful orchestra pit you see today.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Joel Hannah: The Setup

When Joel Hannah signed on as a circus rigger in the summer of 1976, there was no way he could have known how much hard work was ahead of him. In the third installment of "Circus Kirk," he recalls the job of setting up and pulling down the circus tent. The video above shows how another little circus handled the same job. (The big leagues have way more manpower.) When you peruse YouTube, you find that the raising and lowering of circus tents constitutes its own genre, and from the number of views, it's safe to say that the big top continues to enthrall audiences with a magic all its own.

Setting up the variety of tents was a job which required everyone's undivided attention. The Big Top setup was begun by pulling three large aluminum poles into the air by a crew of as many people as were available and could fit on the rope. The canvas was hoisted to the top of these poles by a series of ropes and pulleys, again with brute strength. Smaller poles were inserted into the outer edge of the canvas and "tied off" to the stakes that had been driven moments before. Intermediate poles were put in place, side walls hung, and the tent was up: now to fill it.

Bleachers to hold 1,500 people were carried in piece by piece and assembled. Four other riggers and myself kept busy setting up props and driving stakes to secure the arial acts. By lunchtime everything was set. A brief repast led to a short siesta before the two o'clock performance.

The afternoon show was followed by a two-hour break and then supper. Most everybody took this time to explore the community, having only seen it in passing that morning. Shopping, sightseeing, and locating the local tavern were high on the list of things to do. We got used to the stares and remarks people made as we passed by, but generally the public was very friendly and interested in talking with us.

Tents were torn down after the evening performance and loaded onto the trucks for the next day's trip. Local kids were recruited for a couple of bucks to help take down the bleachers and load them. Their eagerness was considerable. We often had to turn them away, there were so many. By 11 p.m. most of the crew were either headed to bed or back to the local tavern to close it down.

I remember more than once at the end of the day, looking at the empty lot strewn with popcorn boxes and reflecting on the activity that had taken place there, being amazed that so much could come and go in such little time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sara Tucker: Happy Birthday, Mom!

Idora Tucker, the original member of the Hale Street Gang, is 89 years old today. Happy birthday, Mom! She says that from now on, when people ask her how old she is, she's going to say, "I'm in my ninetieth year." She's always been about ten steps ahead of average (she went to college at sixteen) and is the first one in our gang to have completed and published a memoir; her second will be available at Cover to Cover later this spring. So now she's rather sneakily infiltrating the ranks of the nonagenarians, figuring that if people are properly impressed, they'll give her a break when she wants to skip "Lift for Life" at the Senior Center and catch up on her reading instead. That's a joke—she reads more than anybody else I know except possibly Aunt Ruth. She also cooks at least one full meal a day, on average, which my husband and I consume; she keeps in touch with friends and family via telephone and email; she goes to the Farmstand (aka Chef's Market), Cover to Cover, Kimball Library, the Senior Center, and a few other places of her choosing. Tonight, she's going to celebrate her birthday by going to Bethany Church to hear her old friend Roger Bourassa talk about his peace-promoting trip to Palestine (Roger was Randolph's high-school principal back when Mom was in the teaching biz—a career that is the subject of a memoir in progress). On Sunday, we're having a big family gathering to kick off Mom's ninetieth year. She has a few birthday cards lined up on the dining room table, but to be honest, she has been rather quiet about this birthday, not wanting to advertise it. So I'm taking a risk here, but what the heck: Today, March 23, 2010, Idora Tucker enters her ninetieth year. Happy birthday, Mom!

PS to Jack Rowell: Thanks, buddy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cynthia Jackson: School Street Surprise

Back in the sixties, Rothia Fleming operated the only taxi service in Randolph, and her well-known rooming house at One School Street sheltered many a weary soul. In 1969, the Jackson family acquired the old house, built as a rectory in the heart of downtown. The location—and the connection to Rothia—made for some interesting encounters. Cynthia Jackson remembers one of them here. Cynthia, who has been with the Hale Street Gang from the beginning, is a writer of many moods—you never know from one week to the next whether she is going to move you to tears or laughter. Jack's portrait captures her mischievous side; this excerpt hints at her affinity for the absurd.

It was a Saturday morning in April 1970, and we had been living in Randolph for almost a year. Johnny had gone downstairs to the kitchen, Mindy was still sleeping, and Chris, contrary to his usual Saturday morning habit of sleeping late, was still out, having gotten up at 6 a.m. to learn his buddy’s newspaper route so he could fill in for him at some point. I was in the upstairs bedroom getting dressed when I heard the front door slam—Chris getting back, I thought. Then he proceeded to thump up the front stairs loudly enough to awaken the dead. Mindful of the still sleeping Mindy, I grabbed a robe and whipped out of our bedroom door, shushing as I went. Whoa! What to my wondering eyes should appear but a ragged old man with a wooden peg leg, bent nearly double as he struggled up the steep stairs toward me. At each step, he first stomped up with his good foot, then, grasping the peg leg behind the knee, swung it clear of the edge of the step and dropped it down with a jarring thump.

Joel Hannah: The Life of a Rigger

Joel Hannah was a newly minted graduate of Randolph Union High School when he came home one hot June day in 1976 and told his mother that he'd joined the circus. Here is part two of Joel's memoir about his time with Circus Kirk. (Click here for part one.) The illustration below is by Tex. Joel's mother, Mary Jacobs, would like you to know that Joel went on to get a master's degree in education; no doubt this story encouraged later generations of middle- and high-school kids to be ready for the summer day when opportunity knocks.

Rigging is a job usually associated with large sailing vessels, working with hundreds of feet of hemp rope and tons of canvas. This is also true in the circus, except we transformed them every day into a 150-by-50-foot circus tent. The day did indeed start at 5 a.m., with the sound of a night stick rapping on the metal side of the tractor trailer in which me and nineteen other men were stacked in bunks. Hot nights usually found us sleeping outside in various locations to avoid the heat and stench of the confined sleeping area. Luckily, I was assigned a bunk near the door. "Come on, let's go—up and at 'em" was the reveille call as we swore back, pulling on our jeans and T-shirts.

The first order of business was to stumble over to the kitchen wagon to partake in a cup of heated leftover coffee the consistency of mud. A minor revolt of sorts occurred when one morning the coffee actually had a green tint, resulting in fresher brew, for a while. Washing up was equally painful, being accomplished at the water truck under a cold water faucet. If we were lucky, we would be close enough to a school or other facility where we could take advantage of the showers. This did not always turn out to be the luxury we expected, however, as one day we were all pumped up for a nice hot shower at a local school when screams from the locker room revealed that, being summer, there was no need for having the hot water turned on. (To continue reading, click on "Read more," below.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

John Jackson: Chandler Music Hall

I was a Chandler brat—in fact, I'm pretty sure I was one of the kids whom John mentions below in part one of his memoir about the renaissance of Randolph's old music hall, in which he played a key role. I remember the years when the hall saw little use, other than as a stage for town meeting and the annual Halloween parade (I was a fairy princess one year, a Dutch girl with a winged cap another). John's memoir about the Jackson family's introduction to Randolph and their delight in their new neighborhood is a reminder of the vitality that newcomers bring to a community. Another newcomer of the period, Nat Frothingham, directed me and several of the Jacksons in a Chandler production of Twelfth Night in the summer of '72. That's him in the photograph next to Virginia Reidy. Todd Vandegriek appeared in the choice role of Feste; his picture is after the jump. Here's John:

Cynthia and I and our two children, Mindy aged 15 and John Christopher aged 12, arrived in Randolph in early August 1969. Our first impressions were very positive. Taped to our front door at One School Street was an invitation to dinner after the movers left. Within days, the leader of the young people’s group at Bethany Church stopped by with the names and addresses of children of appropriate ages who he thought would be compatible with our two. We had moved quite a few times over the years and we had never had such a warm welcome.

It was a very few days later that Christopher came home in a state of excitement with the news that there was a big theater across the street from Bethany Church. I found out many years later that one of his new friends had shown him an unlocked window in the basement of the music hall through which they could crawl in and look around. Phil Hall, the minister at the time, saw them and went over and gave them a guided tour. Phil was a remarkable man. It’s no wonder he was popular with the church young people. I soon got my own guided tour and was struck by the possibilities. At that time, the hall had gone almost completely out of use and was in pretty bad shape. Everyone in our family had an interest in theater. None of us had had a lot of experience, just bits and pieces here and there, but we all began to dream about doing something about Chandler.

Mindy was the first to take positive steps. The following summer, she and some of her new friends, decided it would be fun to do some theater during vacation. I found out that the hall was under the supervision of three older members of the community, on behalf of the Board of Selectmen of the town. I talked to them and they gave more or less grudging permission if it was all right with the janitor. The children got some paint and began to brighten up the dressing room area. There was nothing but trouble from the janitor. He had a very strong sense of responsibility toward the hall and didn’t want to deal with the young people and he had no interest spending any more time there than he had in the past, which was very, very little. He made life miserable enough that the energy soon went out of the summer theater group and Chandler settled back into its moribund state. That same summer, the Randolph Singers did their annual production, The Student Prince, at the high school auditorium.

Sometime during that first year, I joined the Randolph Singers. What with settling into the new house and getting used to a new job, I hadn’t gotten involved with The Student Prince. After the show, I was approached by members of the singers about a problem they had. Bill Whitney, the stage director of their summer shows, had just retired from teaching at Randolph Union High School. They knew of my interest in theater and they wanted to know if I would take on the job of stage director for their next show. We discussed the possibilities and I eventually said that I would if the new show would be Brigadoon and if they would agree to doing the show in Chandler Music Hall. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really have no memory of how it happened but we decided to put the show on in February!

It would take a book to chronicle all the trials and tribulations of getting that show on the boards. For starters, there were only 60 amps of power available in the hall, including the house lights. The only technical lighting equipment was an ancient rheostat about a foot in diameter that dimmed the footlights. If one tried to use it, it tended to throw sparks and blow out the building fuse. The attic had numerous buckets scattered around to catch the drips from the leaking roof. The back wall of the stage had loosely fitting windows and structural cracks that did little to keep the weather outside. On at least one occasion we had to sweep snow off the stage before rehearsal.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joel Hannah: Circus Kirk

Joel’s mother, Mary Jacobs, has written about the time her son brought an entire circus home to dinner (you can see her movie “Feeding a Circus” on YouTube). The following is the first installment of Joel’s own memoir, written in 1992, about his two summers as a rigger with Circus Kirk. He later went on to college and a master’s degree, worked as an electrical engineer with the Digital Corporation for nine years, taught math and science at Winooski Middle School for five years, and math and physics at Mount Abraham High in Bristol for eleven years. The illustrations are by Tex (our resident cartoonist happens to love old cars). Mary says the '64 Plymouth looks an awful lot like the one Joel used to drive.

It was the kind of hot summer day where the sweat just pours out of you, and I had just spent the morning pitching bales into a hayloft. Sitting in the parking lot of the local bowling alley, quenching my thirst with a cold beer, I watched the work in progress in the field across the street. “I hear they’re looking for help,” my buddy laughed. “Maybe we should sign up.” He was joking, but I felt a surge of adrenaline, straightening my spine and quickening my thinking.

Parking my dented and abused ’64 Plymouth at the edge of the ball field, I walked slowly towards a beehive of activity in which people and animals were moving in every direction, busily preparing for something very unfamiliar to me. I stood in awe at the entrance of the main tent as three men took turns at pounding a stake into the ground. This was one of the skills that I would take home with me afterwards—the round swing of a sledge hammer, a feat few woodchoppers know. (Besides splitting wood, it comes in handy at the Tunbridge Fair every year, where I can easily ring the bell every time, and pay a dollar for a ten-cent cigar.)

Keeping an eye on the work in progress, I looked around for someone to talk to.

There is a time in everyone’s life when they are restless, yearning for something to fill a void, looking for a sign, an opportunity, to change the course of their present condition. Fifteen years ago I had found that opportunity which would release my pent-up frustration from the day-in, day-out complacency of the past 12 years of school.

Everyone has heard the story about the boy who ran away with the circus, and many may have fantasized of doing it themselves, but few have had the chance or will to follow through. Not that I planned on joining a traveling circus and sideshow; it just kind of happened. I showed up at the site one day and the rest is what follows. (click below to continue reading)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Charles Cooley: Grampa, Buddy, and Me

I grew up hearing stories about Grandma and Grandpa Small, my great-grandparents. My uncle Charles remembers them here. You can see the 2-minute video we made of his memoir on YouTube.
I was three years old when the stock market crash of October 1929 triggered the depression that affected the economy of the world for a decade. As a result, my Grandfather Small was laid off from his job in a machine shop in Claremont, New Hampshire. He never had another regular job. He must have been nearly sixty years old when he, Grandma Small, Aunt Hilda, and her son, Buddy, came to live at our farm. I think the consequence of my Grandfather Small’s unemployment was one of the first ways that the depression affected our family.

Buddy was about six months younger than I was and we became very fond of one another. Grandpa was always doing something that we could “help” him with. He had a garden with a lot of the kind of hand work at which kids could make themselves useful. He kept a small flock of hens and cut wood to heat his house. My grandfather did most of the work that these projects required by hand so we could at least be safe with him even if we weren’t much help. He was always patient and careful, so I expect our mothers felt we were in good hands. I think we learned how to do many things that way. When we got tired or bored or cold we could go into the house where my grandmother or Aunt Hilda always seemed to have something tasty to snack on. (continued below)

The barn where Grandpa kept his hens had a loft where we put grass and weeds we had dried pretending to make hay. The henhouse had a floor with space under it that became infested with rats. Grandpa stopped off all the rat holes except one. Periodically we would have a “rat hunt.” Grandpa would wait until dark when the hens were on the roosts and the rats came out from under the floor to feast on the grain intended for the hens. At the proper time Grandpa would rush into the henhouse with his little dog named Tag. Grandpa would block off the one remaining rat hole while Tag set about slaughtering the rats. Buddy and I rushed around helping Tag find the rats with flashlights. It wasn’t unusual to kill fifty or more rats in a hunt so there must have been hundreds of them under the floor. I don’t think Buddy and I had any idea how much the rats cost. To us, the hunts were great sport, so the thought of eradicating them never occurred to us. I know Tag enjoyed them and I suspect Grandpa got some satisfaction from them because he never made much progress ratproofing the barn until I got old enough to tear out the old floor and install a concrete one in its place. That was about fifteen years later.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One-Minute Movie: D'Ann's Studio

D'Ann Fago is both an artist and a writer. She lives and works in an old farmhouse that overlooks a view of the Vermont hills framed by stands of white birch trees; faded Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze outside her studio window. I spent the afternoon there on Sunday. When I arrived, D'Ann was sitting in a lawn chair soaking up the rays of the pale March sun. She was dressed entirely in various shades of blue, down to her cobalt blue sunglasses. She looked bright and exotic, but I could see she was having one of her tired days. "You're all blue," I said. "Inside and out," she said, smiling one of her million-dollar smiles. She had just returned from a walk up the muddy dirt road behind her house with her two trekking poles. We spent a couple of peaceful hours in her studio, and I made a very amateur attempt to photograph her work so that others could see it. I've included a small sample in the one-minute video below. D'Ann works in a wide variety of styles and mediums, and I especially love her dreamlike views of New York City, where she used to live. I'll upload some of them in our next little video. Maybe by then I can figure out how to show the vertical canvases more effectively!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mary Jacobs: A Spring Day at Travis

As Americans, we at the Randolph Senior Center have had our lives shaped by war. Margaret Egerton was six years old when she was stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic by the outbreak of World War I. John Jackson has written about the lingering effects of the same war on his father, a diver who dismantled underwater mines. All twelve of the Hale Street writers remember World War II as a wrenching experience; many were young newlyweds at the time, their lives thrown into turmoil as husbands were called up to serve. My mother, Idora (shown above with my father and Grandma Small), has written at length about that period of her life; look for her memoir Wartime at Cover to Cover this spring. Decade after decade, American women have waited anxiously for news of husbands, sons, and grandsons serving in combat overseas. Here, Mary Jacobs tells about a day at Travis Air Force Base that remains sharp in her memory. "Cookie" is her friend Barbara "Cookie" Campbell, also a Hale Street memoirist—many of Mary's stories include her.

The Vietnam war officially ended January 27, 1973. Vietnam released 590 prisoners by April 1 and the last U.S. troops left March 29. But the war was not over for the families of MIAs. Where were their husbands, fathers, brothers, and other family members that were listed only as missing in action? Were they still prisoners, or dead?
In the spring of 1973, Cookie and I were visiting my son John at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. North Vietnam had released the remains of seven MIAs and they had been flown to Hawaii for identification and were now being returned to the U.S. to their families for burial. John came home one evening and said he had obtained permission for us to attend the ceremony at the Air Force base.
It was mid afternoon and we stood on the edge of the tarmac with military officers in full uniform, a few veterans wearing their old uniforms, and several families with small children and babies. Off the end of the runway were seven waiting hearses. (continued)

Monday, March 8, 2010

By Ruth on Her 86th Birthday: A Bedtime Prayer

Since Ruth wrote the following little poem about dying, she has watched countless episodes of Little People Big World, climbed the steps of Kimball Library too many times, had a hip replacement, sung with the choir at St. John's on many a Sunday, and written approximately a gazillion words of delicious prose. She is still very much alive. Her sense of humor is responsible for much of the laughter that emanates from the Senior Center craft room on Tuesday afternoons; Jack Rowell captured its arch component in the photo above. Remarkably, in the 55 years I've known my aunt I have never been able to detect a hint of meanness in her, even though she was a schoolteacher, raised three boys, saw two husbands into the grave, and now shares her house with one of the most spoiled little dogs I've ever met. Here, she looks at death as the ultimate in a series of adventures that begins with being born. It is so like her to make her "prayer" a letter of comfort for those we leave behind:

"If I should die before I wake" (better before than after!)
I left this note for you to take.
I've done my time in this worldly place,
And now it's time to live in space.

I can't remember you, because I'm dead,
But you can remember me
I can't tell you "My soul to take"
It has gone with me, you see.

I didn't "die of a belly ache"
My time here just ran out.
So have a good laugh, keep a smile on your face,
While my ashes gaily dance in space.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

D'Ann Fago: The Other Side

D'Ann grew up in a world where segregation was the norm, and yet it did not seem normal to her. Her memoir-in-progress shows the Jim Crow south through the eyes of a sensitive and often lonely child, one who identified with society's marginalized people. Coal miners, sharecroppers, the very old, the very poor—such people appear over and over again in her work. She was still a girl when she picked up her sketchpad and headed into unfamiliar parts of Lexington, Kentucky, to study prostitutes and drifters.

D'Ann's childhood included many long train rides between Lexington and cities throughout the South—trips that reconnected her, temporarily, with her parents and older sister, who lived a nomadic existence during the hard years of the Depression. The photographer Marion Post Wolcott captured the solitary figure above in Mississippi in 1939. In the places D'Ann visited, such scenes would have been common. In the following passage, I see so clearly the defiant little person who would become the artist, writer, and friend I know today:

One time my grandmother and I were going to Arkansas to visit my parents in Calico Rock, and I became aware of the large “Colored” and “White” signs outside waiting rooms and restrooms. It was that way on the train, too. There was a colored section and a white section. And I’d very often sit in the colored section, because it didn’t matter, and actually the blacks I spoke to were more fun to talk to than the rest of the people.

It was a long trip on a day coach—very bumpy and kinda dirty. We had to stop frequently and change trains. We got off in some little hick town and I wanted to find a place for my grandmother, who was in her eighties, to sit down and rest. We went into the first waiting room, which I clearly saw was marked “Colored,” but I didn’t give a hoot. We were settling in and relaxing before the next train came through. All of a sudden, I was aware of these eyes going right through me. I could actually feel those blooming eyes. I looked up and the station agent was beckoning to me from his barred window. I went over to him, and he said, “You’re in the wrong room.” (continued)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Margaret Egerton: The Great War

I met Margaret at Kimball Library about a year ago, but I had been hearing about her for years. Margaret is the graceful and athletic 99-year-old we often see driving around Randolph on her way to water aerobics class at Shape or bridge at the Senior Center or a discussion of Ecclesiastes at St. Johns. In her youth, she won tennis tournaments and danced up a storm—hers has been a life on the move. When I asked her one day if she could tell me the secret to a long and happy life, she thought for a moment and then said, "To love." Her memoir-in-progress is a reflection on both present and past. The following is an excerpt from an early chapter. Margaret was a six-year-old on her way to England to visit relatives when the German blockade made her return to America impossible. She and her mother and brother spent the years of "the Great War" in England, while her father remained behind in Cleveland. The photograph is from a later period, but I chose it for its awesome quality—it suggests to me why the German zeppelins of that time were so greatly feared, as Margaret's memoir attests:

For many years now my thoughts are filled with a sense of gratitude. Living so long has created a sense of wonder at my good fortune and a feeling of deep thankfulness. I am surrounded with beauty and loving relationships with family and friends. Also I have a feeling of being so close to the edge of the mystery of my life.

I was born in 1910. My father was a groundskeeper and chauffeur for a rich Clevelander, who had a walled estate at the top of a hill that became known as Cleveland Heights, which was a fast-growing suburb east of downtown Cleveland. My mother hated her exile from England and finally convinced my father to return. We sold our home and purchased tickets for the crossing. Unfortunately, these plans were made without any forethought about the war until after the sinking of a passenger ship caught in the German blockade surrounding the British Isles. My father was still an English citizen, and as soon as he reached England he would have been drafted into the army and taken into the trenches in France. He therefore canceled his ticket, and in 1915 mother, my brother, and I sailed for “home.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why I Love Jack Rowell

Jack was at least ten years away from getting his wisdom teeth when he began taking pictures for the Herald, back when M. Dickey was a cub reporter. It's a good thing he loves to fly-fish or we might have lost him to Nashville or L.A. In December, he set up a photo shoot at the Randolph Senior Center and spent three days photographing the Hale Street Gang. The writers were pretty dubious about the shoot (it was my idea and they were too polite to say no), but Jack made us feel like rock stars! The writers fell in love with him. So then Jack began telling his famous friends about us, and pretty soon Steve Zind from Vermont Public Radio called. You can see Jack's pictures and hear Steve's report for Vermont Edition in the video below. (Be patient: There are several seconds of black before the video starts.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Town Meeting Extra: Remembering Harry Cooley

Yesterday was Town Meeting Day in Randolph, and Chandler Music Hall was packed. As I squeezed into a backrow seat, I remembered sitting in the balcony with my friends back when the first Tuesday in March meant a day off from school. For much of the sixties and seventies, my grandfather, Harry Cooley, was the town moderator, and as a teenager I was always afraid he would quiz me on what I had learned at Town Meeting that year, so I tried really hard to pay attention to a discussion packed with such obscure terms as "general fund" and "equipment depreciation." My grandfather, who had the kind of dry wit for which Vermont farmers are famous, used to say something now and then that would fill the hall with laughter; inevitably, his little Town Meeting jokes went right over my head.

Harry loved Randolph—its history, its people—and he loved being part of its political milieu. He also liked to perform. After yesterday's meeting, I thought it would be fun to post my mother's portrait of her dad on today's blog—from it, you can see the kind of person who would have enjoyed the moderator's role, which requires some pretty nimble footwork. It helps to be unflappable and a bit of a ham; Grampa was both. The text below is taken verbatim from a talk my mother, Idora Tucker, gave at her church on Father's Day 1991, five years after Harry died at Gifford Hospital at the age of 93. The photograph after the jump is of Harry and Hilda Sawyer, his sister-in-law, who loved to clown around as much as he did (although what they are doing in the photograph is anybody's guess):

What does one say in five minutes about a life which spanned 93 years? Some of you know my father as one active in local and state government, a local history buff, a sometimes writer. I know him also as the head of a family, who taught his children about life largely through exampe. I'm going to use my allotted time to tell you a couple of stories which illustrate my point.

Dad became a farmer because that's what he wanted to do. In his growing-up years, many boys became farmers because they didn't know what else to do. Dad was a good student and his parents encouraged him to go to college, but he chose to be a farmer because that was what he loved. No matter how long the hours or hos physically demanding the work, he never complained about it. He enjoyed it, and from him I learned that even the most menial kinds of work can be rewarding and enjoyable. We see too little of that these days. Dad eventually reached the point when he could no longer do the hard work of a farmer, but he continued to enjoy his garden and his berry patch throughout his lifetime.

Within a few years Dad added to his already full workload a second job of teaching young men to become farmers. He did this in one form or another until he was into his sixties. He used to hire his students to work for him on the farm, teaching them by example the workings of a family farm. I know that he enjoyed some aspects of his teaching, but it was definitely a job for money, not like working the farm. And he did not like correcting papers, partly because his students were less than accomplished in written expression. (After the jump: A typical day for Dad; what he did for fun; a lesson about prejudice)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Idora Tucker: Mrs. Gifford Makes a House Call

My parents moved into 36 Highland Avenue in November 1945, and my mother has lived here ever since. When I was growing up, the household included five children, one great-aunt, and at various times dogs, cats, turtles, rabbits, gerbils, parakeets, snakes, and a crow. In the beginning, however, it was just the two of them: a young married couple eager to experience normal life after four long years of war. The downstairs floor of the house was divided in two: One half was my father's office. (The picture above was taken some years later, after my father had moved his office to the new White River Valley Clinic.) My mother's memoir begins:

My guest and I are sitting in what will become our dining room. The room is very sparsely furnished, and we are seated on two Montgomery Ward chairs brought in from the kitchen. The reason that I am entertaining in this room is that our living room is on the second floor. Most of the first floor is taken up by the doctor's office. My guest has declined my invitation to go upstairs to the living room, as that would take us through the front hall, temporarily the doctor's waiting room. For that reason she has entered through the back door, the kitchen door, where our new puppy is at present protesting loudly at being shut in the kitchen. This is making me very nervous. Furthermore, the legs of the chair on which my guest is seated have come unglued, and under Mrs. Gifford's considerable bulk are gradually spreading further and further apart. I am afraid they will let her down on the bare floor.