Thursday, December 30, 2010

Idora Tucker: Christmas 1944

 This piece was written to read to the residents of Joslyn House, where many in our audience would have their own memories of this time. 

Christmas of 1944 was unique in my lifetime, and totally unlike any Christmas in my experience up to that time.  Our country was involved in WW II.  My husband was an army doctor, assigned to a troop transport, whose home port was San Francisco where I was living in order to be with him when his ship came into port from the Pacific War.  I was 23 years old, married for a few months more than three years.  My younger brother Charles, eighteen at the time, was in the Navy and stationed down the coast, close enough that he visited me fairly often.

It was common knowledge that our servicemen and women in all branches of the armed services would be a part of the invasion of Japan.  They were gradually fighting their way, island by island, toward Japan, with huge loss of men and materiel, so huge that we couldn’t bear to discuss the numbers.

The invasion of Japan was expected to be tremendous slaughter on both sides.  My husband, my brother, and my sister’s husband would all be a part of it.  That thought was always there, although we didn’t talk about it.

As Christmas approached, Charles and I realized that we would be a gathering of two.  There was no question of getting together with our family on the east coast.  The difficulties of the travel involved made that impossible.  All public transportation was needed to transport troops.  It also looked as if Ransom would be at sea. So Charles and I hunkered down to do the best we could, given our circumstances.

I am surprised that I remember so little of what we actually did to acknowledge that it was Christmas.  About all I remember is feeling rather lonely and lost, with that constant, underlying worry about what the future held.  Charles and I were accustomed to happy anticipation of Christmas.  At least, I was.  We were with our large family, often augmented by visiting relatives.  There was a large Christmas tree with gifts under the tree.  Did Charles and I have a tree in San Francisco?  I don’t remember.  We always had a feast that included extra goodies.  What did Charles and I eat?  Did I cook a nice meal?  I don’t remember that either.  Nor do I remember whether Charles bunked in for the night.  Sometimes he did, though he had to sleep on a couch not designed for sleeping, or on the floor. There was no extra lighting as that was strictly forbidden on both coasts during the war.

I was glad that Charles was there to spend Christmas with me.  It helped.  All in all, not one of the better Christmases in my memory. 


Monday, December 27, 2010

Charles Cooley: The Best Tree Ever

Christmas at the Randolph Center elementary school, 1930-something. The little red schoolhouse is now part of VTC. This piece is one of several that were read by the authors at a get-together at Joslynn House in Randolph last week.

“Tomorrow,” Mrs. Knight reminded us at the end of the school day,“you boys who are going after the tree must bring what you will need so that you will have it here when you start out. Don’t forget.”

We had been preparing for Christmas since Thanksgiving and for Herb and Bob Farnsworth, Olin Bradbury, Allen and Harrington McMurphy, Nelson Chadwick, Buddy Sawyer, Joe Lawsing and me this was one of the highlights. The rehearsals for the theatrical production that we would subject our parents to had become tedious and boring to most of us. The yearly allotment of colored paper that we called “construction paper” was nearly used up on the cutouts that we had stuck to the windows and hung from light fixtures. The week following Thanksgiving Peggy Bickford had decorated one section of the blackboard at the front of the classroom with a gorgeous rendering of a wreath drawn with colored chalk. The McMurphy boys had made arrangements with one of their neighbors to cut a tree from his woodlot for the school. What would ordinarily be considered extra curricular activity had gradually crowded out the primary tasks of elementary education by the last week before Christmas vacation. Getting the tree and setting it up for the girls to decorate would consume most of our time on the last two school days before Christmas vacation.

The next morning, when the last bell summoned us we rushed in to the classroom. Sleds were not permitted so they were left at the bottom of the steps but there were no rules covering saws, ropes and hatchets so we kept these as evidence that we hadn’t forgotten Mrs. Knight’s admonition of the day before. After the Lord’s Prayer and the salute to the flag Mrs. Knight sent the “tree detail” with a few stragglers off, reminding us that we should try to be back before noon. We set off in a noisy cavalcade down the East Bethel Road.

The McMurphy boys had done some scouting so when we got to the woods they led us to a tree that they represented as the best one for our purpose. “It’s not big enough,” Bob Farnsworth said. “Let’s look for a bigger one.” It was only fifteen feet tall and we were looking for a candidate for Rockefeller Plaza. Harrington said, “My dad said it was plenty big.” “Fathers always want to get little trees.” Joe observed. “We should look for a bigger one. We’ve got plenty of time. Mrs. Knight only said we should try to be back by noon. She didn’t say we had to.” As we looked at the tree it shrank before our eyes and the image of our classroom allowed for cumulus clouds floating below the ceiling. The discussion made a lot of sense and the weather was inviting more sylvan adventure. Herb stashed his Flexible Flyer sled near the entrance to the woodlot and we dispersed to explore.

Our activity began to stimulate our appetites after an hour of searching for the perfect tree and we began to think about what remained to be done before lunch time. Bob Farnsworth had located a tree that appeared to be a hybrid including some Sequoia heritage but it was near the back of the woodlot and the task of cutting it with the tools we had brought looked impossible even to us. We reconvened before the fifteen-foot specimen recommended by Mr. McMurphy. It was near the entrance to the woodlot and it did look well filled out and symmetric so we attacked it with a saw.

When it was down as many of us as there was room for got under it and tried to carry it. It was apparent that it was impossible to carry the tree on our shoulders as the branches tangled our feet and we couldn’t walk. We decided to drag it. Fortunately we had brought some ropes and we attached them to the trunk close to the bottom of the tree and commenced the march back up the hill to the school. Joe thought we should use the Flexible Flyer to support the bottom branches and protect them from wear and tear but after trying it out we decided it was too much trouble. The boys pulling the sled kept pulling it out from under the tree and after putting it back a few times we gave it up.

The road was nearly bare but the surface was frozen. We had good footing once we got to the road and we could take turns dragging the tree so we made pretty good time getting back to the school. But our search had consumed so much time that the other students had been reconvened following lunchtime. Our arrival with the tree rendered any semblance of order null and void.

No one had brought anything with which to fashion a stand to hold the tree upright but a reconnaissance in the basement yielded some scraps of board and a few nails. While Joe and I were looking for those the tree was ascending the stairs to the upstairs classroom. During the ascent it was noticed that the contact with the road had scraped one side of the tree down to “the bone.” “We’ll have to turn that side toward the wall,” Buddy said.

While the stand was being built and attached the cumulus clouds blew away and some skeptics began to comment that the tree was too tall. Nelson suggested that we should stand it up to see how much to cut off, if any.

After struggling with it for a few minutes Herb said, “We can’t stand it up unless we cut some of it off.” Olin grabbed a saw and took hold of the trunk of the tree a couple of feet below the top, preparing to cut off the top. “No, no Olin!” said Allen. “We have to cut it off at the bottom.”

“Then it won’t stand up.” But Herb was already prying the stand off and Olin began to see the light.

By the time we had made two reductions of the tree’s height and rebuilt the stand twice the tree was more or less upright and the worn side was rotated toward the wall so the girls could have at it. The first thing was finding enough string to guy the tree into a more vertical position. While the girls did this and started decorating, the lumberjacks ate their lunch it being nearly three o’clock. Tomorrow we would complete the decorations and come back in the evening with our parents to do what the adults referred to as “celebrating Christmas.” Poor Mrs. Knight had earned a Christmas vacation. But the most fun was getting that tree!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas

Yesterday a bunch of us went to Jocelyn House in Randolph for a Christmas reading and carol sing with a dozen-plus residents and staff members. One of our writers lives at Jocelyn House, which is a stone's throw from my house, and we love to go there because the atmosphere is so convivial, thanks in part to the kind and friendly staff. We were welcomed with a punchbowl and big plates of home-made cookies. A couple of friends from the River Bend chorus helped us out with the caroling, and John Jackson played Father Christmas. Charles took some pictures but I don't have them yet—the one above dates to the 1950s; it's my cousin Johnny, looking very starry-eyed, and his mother at the farmhouse in Randolph Center.

The readings were wonderful—I don't have time to post them now, because I need to finish up my Christmas shopping and visit with Ellen and Susan Reid, old friends who are stopping by this afternoon for tea.

Thank you, Jocelyn House, for a lovely party. Next: Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Estelle Therrien: Television Comes to Town

In 1952, TV came to town. For four years we had tried different TV people and checked various salesmen in an attempt to receive a TV signal at our farm. Nothing! There were hills on both sides of us, so the experts kept saying we would never get TV at our house. Of course, people in the surrounding hills were able to get a signal just fine. The experts would come, see the high ground all around us, and give the same verdict: No way would the signal come through. Each time my husband would suggest that they should try putting an antenna on our garage roof, and each time they said it would be of no use, the signal could not come through. After several of the experts had pointed this "fact" out, my husband finally stood his ground and said, "Try it anyway."

Watching from the kitchen window and seeing what was going on, I decided to invite them all to come in for coffee and some fresh doughnuts. I didn't have to ask them twice. Several doughnuts and cups of coffee later, they went back to work and decided to try the garage idea, and voila! It worked! It was four o'clock and one of my favorite female singers, Kate Smith, was singing "God Bless America." The workers had warned us that if we did get a signal, we'd only get New Hampshire. My husband didn't want New Hampshire, he wanted NBC, which was coming in just fine with our antenna on our garage roof! We were delighted, but looking back, it wasn't altogether a good thing: The day the TV came was the day the family circle was broken; from then on the TV had precedence.

We were only the second family in Brookfield to get TV, so it wasn't too surprising that it acted as magnet for kids and adults, too. Our kids had chores to do after school, but the neighborhood kids who didn't live on farms came over to watch afternoon TV while our kids did their chores. Our girls had chores as well as the boys, but their household chores took less time than the boys' barn and farmyard chores. With my "the quicker you get them done, the quicker you can watch" echoing in their ears, chores were done in no time and they were free to enjoy the soaps, which at that time each lasted only fifteen minutes.

Our whole family enjoyed watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings and Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights. The kids got to stay up to watch these shows, but as soon as they were over, I'd say, "Kiss your father good-night and off you go to bed." We all broke up when one night as they were trooping out Little Roland went over and, putting his arms around the TV, planted a big kiss on the announcer's face.

Thursday nights, wrestling was on, and most of the folks on our road arrived, popcorn in hand, to enjoy watching it with us. It made for quite a roomful. The schoolteacher, indicating the crowd, commented, "You're getting pushed out of your house, aren't you?" Seats were at a premium but, never at a loss for ideas, my husband created a little theater. He built a sturdy wooden platform, brought it into the house, and fastened down on it . . . three back seats reclaimed from old cars. Problem solved, comfortably and at little expense.

Sometimes I miss the old shows: Hit Parade; Have Gun, Will Travel; Dodge City (Matt Dillon): I Love Lucy, and, later, when we got more channels, Across the Fence. After a few years, our TV got a little temperamental and we had to whack it once in a while to make it behave. Ten-year-old susan, responding to the flickering TV as she had seen the adults do, gave it such a good whack that the TV light shaped like a tiger that sat on top of the TV, took flight and crashed into pieces as it landed on the floor, no great loss.

Photos: From top, Paul-W/Creative Commons; John Atherton/Creative Commons.

John Jackson: Christmas Memories

John and Cynthia Jackson.

Looking back over seventy years, I often have trouble separating Christmas stories from Thanksgiving stories, but some things stand out. One involves presents. There were many wonderful things about Christmas at the Jackson house but presents weren't one of them. In common with most of my working-class friends, it seemed like we got nothing but clothes. That's not entirely fair. There was usually a package of little metal figures, sometimes cowboys, sometimes soldiers—very useful for battles fought over the patterns on the living room rug. I say not entirely fair because I know that there were years when I got a wagon, or a bicycle and even, one year, the best and most wonderful Flexible Flyer sled in the world. But what I remember most is the clothes. After appreciating the clothes as best I could, I would go out and walk up to Bucky Bartlett's house.

George Robert Bartlett, Bucky's father, was Walden's most prominent lawyer. He was also a major figure in my father's circle of friends. I've mentioned in previous memoirs that Pop had a remarkable intelligence and a personality that made him many friends, crossing class boundaries in our small town. "Bob" as he was widely known, had built a small office building in town. It had his office on the first floor, which I remember as being wonderfully classy with an atmosphere like an English club with dark wooden Venetian blinds. In the back was a dental office for his father-in-law, Dr. Ward. Upstairs was an apartment for his executive secretary. My mother and father had a job maintaining the first floor, working many nights and weekends. During the depression, my father had occasional work serving legal papers for Bob, usually borrowing his car since we didn't have one. That sounds like he was an employee, which he was, but their relationship extended to fishing trips to the Adirondacks and the seashore. He even offered to help Pop adopt a daughter if he really wanted one.

What drew me to the Bartlett house, just a short walk away, were the wonderful presents. It seemed to me that anything Bucky wanted, he got. It not only included the most wonderful toys but even extended to an aviary in the back yard when Bucky got interested in pigeons. Not just ordinary pigeons but fancy pouters, rollers, and ones with fancy plumage. And there was the boathouse on the bank of the river. It was the only structure on the entire riverbank and it contained two canoes, the only ones I had ever seen up close. I remember a small pointed tower with a wire to a little airplane that flew in circles around the tower. Somehow you could make it speed up, slow down and even go up and down a little bit. There was always the best of assorted sports equipment. The Bartlett side lawn was the sight of vicious games of tackle football, of course with no pads or uniforms. Bucky was smart, an outstanding athlete, handsome almost to the point of prettiness, and of course the apple of his father's eye. As you can well guess, I fantasized about being Bucky instead of poor me.

Fast forward ten years or so. Because of a small difference in our ages, Bucky was one year ahead of me in school. In his senior year, he was captain of the football team and president of the student council. The night of his senior prom, he went home early feeling quite ill. It was 1945 and long before the Salk vaccine. Many people had mild cases of infantile paralysis, sometimes not even realizing they had it. Bucky's was a severe case. When I first went to see him in the hospital, he was in an iron lung. That was a large metal cylinder pressurized to help the patient breathe when his diaphragm was paralyzed. Fortunately, he recovered enough to breathe on his own, but he was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Contrary to what you might think, it didn't completely ruin his life. He went on to graduate from law school, take over the law firm, marry, and have a family. But, as you might also guess, I stopped wishing that I were him.

Cookie Campbell: "N" Is for Noël

Idora Tucker, Cookie Campbell, and Mary Jacobs. Photo by Jack Rowell.

Sometimes we all need a good rant. Last week it was Cookie's turn. I think we all kind of appreciated the following--Christmas being the way it is. The "two books" Cookie mentions are those she is reading for the two different book groups she attends monthly, "My Kitchens" is a reference to the piece she's working on for the writers' group, and the books she's wrapping as Christmas gifts are copies of the one she wrote (My Annie).

"N" Is For Noël

No. It’s for right NOW. And now is running over. My plate is full. I’m running out of steam. I’m trying to read two books, find one for a future read, finish “M” is for My Kitchens. I must write, print and mail a Christmas note to my children and grandchildren (after I track down a few addresses). I need to wrap the books (this year’s Christmas gift) that haven’t been passed out yet, buy mailers and trudge to the post office. I’m supposed to be selling raffle tickets for the senior center - Vermont Castings gave us a gas grill as our main lure. If every member just bought one book and sold one book we’d be over the top. I’d like to decorate some but everything needs dusting or polishing before it can happen. And how much should I do? I don’t know when I’m going to Delaware or coming back, for that matter. Or exactly how I am going or coming. Three parties - Randolph House, Senior Center and NFSBank PPClub. I’ll try to beg off the Upper Valley Services one. Oh, and a special birthday party that I wouldn’t miss for the world … unless someone comes to take me south. Herb’s partner is having major surgery in a couple of days and my niece sent me a place I can Google and stop all the unwanted catalogues. I’m trying it. Hope it works. I hate to wear anything that I think I should pack for the holiday, but I hate to run around looking like a bag lady. I went to Chandler this afternoon for the Christmas concert. The first half was great. The second half was very classical and in Latin - I think. It was dark when we came out and I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Did a quick scan of the crowd and latched onto Pat, and she led me home. I’m so in the habit of going with Mary (who opted out for this one) that I forgot about my habit of “drifting.” That’s another story that Mary should tell. I haven’t done any cards. I bought them when Rite Aid had a great sale a couple of weeks ago. Very few go snail mail nowadays, but I leave one at each apartment here. And if I find a card that does not have a Christmas wish, just a holiday wish, I write one in. I do have some shopping to do. Five great grandchildren (three are biological and two were acquired) plus an eight-year-old grandson who belongs to my ex-daughter-in-law and her second husband. Annie needs things - actually she doesn’t need a thing, but she needs things to unwrap. At least she always has and I’m going on that fact. I did manage to sew Velcro on her robe this afternoon and I’ll give it to her at her ISA meeting tomorrow. Remember them? The review of last year’s accomplishments and the long and short term goals for next year? I have just turned on the printer. I don’t want to think about next year and goals. Jeannette just called from Waukesha with her granddaughter’s address and e-mail address in Ireland. Clayt’s Lizz is going hiking in Ireland and Clayt and I think it would be nice if the two met - providing the hike goes anywhere near where Meghan lives. So we need to get dates and itineraries and heaven knows what more they’ll think of. One of Jeannette’s friends came to Vermont - New Haven - for Thanksgiving and made her homesick telling her about Middlebury and Burlington and Stowe and the Trapp Family Lodge. Now that I’ve bored you to tears with this harangue I think I will print it, shut down for the night, finish the wine I poured for dinner and toddle off to bed. At least I hung up or put away all the laundry so I don’t have that to wrestle with.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Hale Street Gang Goes to the Statehouse

"Portraits in Writing" will leave Middlebury on December 18 and re-open in Montpelier on January 3. Jack Rowell's portraits will be hung in the Statehouse Cafeteria, a great place to be seen by people from all over the state. There will be a reception on January 11 at 3 p.m. IMPORTANT: You'll need a photo I.D. to get in. The audio portion will be delivered via cell phone. The handheld listening devices will accompany the show to the Chandler Gallery in Randolph, which opens on February 26.

Bonnie Fallon: Responsibility

"My mother queried my father: 
'Do you intend that your daughters
 grow up to be warriors?' 
I'll never forget his response."

Is taking responsibility a personality construct present at conception? If not, Mom and Dad got it embedded in me at an early age. Being the oldest daughter of three may have pressed the cognition. In any case, I have watched with amazement throughout my life the people who have no instinct for responsibility. Their inaction, when faced with the need for immediate decision making or effective preplanning, seems to stem from abject fear, or apathy.

One day during the winter of the fifth grade (my sisters then being first and third graders), we were walking the mile to school. Up rose, from behind a stone wall, a group of boys from my grade, pelting us with snowballs. The girls were scared.

When Dad got home from work, I told him about it. He took us outdoors even though supper was ready.

"George! Not now."

"It won't take long. They can't put up with this."

As he fashioned a target out of cardboard, he told me, "You have to meet boys on their terms and beat them at their own game."

He showed my sisters how to quickly make small, hard snowballs. He worked with me on my throwing ability. The idea was to focus my energy on efficient speed and accuracy. If my projectiles didn't get those boys in the kisser, I wasn't going to have any effect. About an hour's instruction on arm positioning and body stance to gain the most velocity was enough to have me hitting the bull's eye most of the time. The girls were so busy making snowballs for me that they hadn't time to think about their fear.

Several times mom called out, "George! Supper's getting cold." Once she queried, "Do you intend that your daughters grow up to be warriors?"

I'll never forget his response. "Yes! They need to be able to handle things."

The next day we trudged down North Road with alertness. I don't remember if I was afraid, but I was ready. Susie, the first grader, was scared. Leila was her stoic self.

"All you have to do is make me good snowballs fast," I coached.

There they were, behind their wall. We crouched down on the road side of the plowed low snowbank. The battle was on. The girls were great, and I was totally focused on blamming every one of them in the head.

Sixty years after the fact I don't know how many there were. Maybe six? It seemed like a phalanx. In fairly short order, they crept away from their wall. We were all late for school and had to stay after. Mom was furious. Dad was gleeful and congratulatory to all three of us. After all, a battle can't be fought without ammunition.

We never had any more trouble from boys. Pete Gilman and I shared leadership of our small class pack after that. How my delight that day in subduing the "enemy" jibes with my adult hatred and disgust with war in general is a mystery.

Charles Cooley: Humility

"I have always thought of myself
 as a humble person
 and sometimes I brag about it."
—Charles Cooley

Anyone who thinks that memoir-writing must be very serious business should see the Tuesday group in action. It's all I can do to maintain even a loose sort of order. (This classroom videos on our YouTube channel were all made by the Tuesday group—the Monday group meets at 8:30 am and is marginally more sober.) The following doesn't exactly qualify as memoir, which is the first thing Charles said when he read it to us last week. We didn't care; we were too busy laughing. You have to hear Charles reading this to get its full effect. Maybe one of these days I'll have time to record this and other readings. Patrick and I are opening up a little gallery and press on Merchant's Row in Randolph next year, and one of the things we want to do is record walk-ins, like StoryCorps does. Maybe Charles will assist us (he has a video camera, and we don't.) Here's his essay on humility:

It seems to me that since we can’t depend on candidates for government office to tell the truth consistently while they are campaigning we should look for indications of good character in their behavior. Contrapositively, we can reject bad behavior. Arrogance is bad behavior. I hope this is not a fleeting opinion that I formed during the Bush administration because I have in mind a solution. Modesty and humility are antidotes for arrogance. They are not quite the same thing because modesty can be cast to the four winds with your clothing, as it is in the Miss Universe competition, whereas humility doesn’t depend on your clothing.

I have always thought of myself as a humble person and I sometimes brag about it. To paraphrase Mark Twain or Max Schulmann, I conceal a great deal of intelligence and wisdom with a cloak of humility.   Maybe they put it the other way around but that’s the way I think it best describes my virtues. The evidence of my humility is overpowering. There are so many things that I might have done if I had been willing to acknowledge my potential instead of trying so hard to be the humble person that I would like to know better if I were someone else meeting me for the first time. I might have been a great warrior conquering all the bad arrogant dictators and setting their oppressed subjects free but great warriors have great enemies and few friends. They usually don’t even try to hide their arrogance.   In my formative years I intentionally behaved in such a way that I was considered stupid and lazy rather than smart and ambitious. That’s how humble I am.  My older sisters and parents tried to have me grow up to be a well organized, intelligent contributor to society but because I saw so clearly that this was not the way to be humble I successfully resisted and became what I am today much to their dismay.

If I were not such a humble person I would become a lobbyist and do what I could to promote an annual national competition to select the most humble person in the country.  The program could be modeled after the National Spelling Bee and would be called the National Humble Bee. The winner would travel around the world promoting humility in public appearances. High schools would adopt humility competition as a varsity sport and give up football as too dangerous and expensive. Universities would give scholarships to especially talented competitors in humility and form conferences to foster competition. I can even predict international competition in the Olympics. There is a great potential for a new industry to develop around such competition and I would become famous in spite of what my sisters think of me.