The Randolph Herald's "Editorial/Comment" this week is a tribute to Hale Street Gang alum John Jackson. Herald editor M. Dickey Drysdale gave me permission to reprint it here:
Not many people leave a mark on their communities as clear and imposing as the Main Street monument left by Randolph's John Jackson, who died Saturday at the age of 83.
Jackson accomplished many things, as his obituary on the opposite page makes clear, and he was also one of the most fascinating conversationalists Randolph has seen, a man who never lost his sense of adventure. And his greatest adventure came in rescuing Chandler Music Hall from the decay and neglect that nearly led to its demolition.
His fascination with Chandler began soon after he moved his family to a first house on School Street. His 11-year-old son came home one day with the exciting news that there was an old music hall next door.
From that moment, Chandler Music Hall became John Jackson's passion and compulsion. Under his leadership, the brand new Randolph Singers agreed to produce the musical "Brigadoon" in the hall in February. Snow was coming through cracks in the walls and had to be swept from the stage before rehearsals. The electrical system was so inadequate that Jackson had to supplement it by using flashlights for stage lighting, as he described in a memorable 2002 interview with Greg Sharrow for the Vermont Folklife Center.
In the next few years, Jackson plunged into the nitty-gritty of renovation, tunneling through four feet of concrete to bring upgraded electric service, building an orchestra pit, driving to New York at 20-below zero to procure used stage curtains from a Broadway show.
But he also devised a long-term strategy. By convincing the Randolph Singers to stage yearly musicals at the hall (with the constant help of Francis "Red" Hartigan), he created a fundraising stream while at the same time developing enthusiasm and loyalty for the hall among audience members and participants. He organized that enthusiasm into a new organization, the Friends of Chandler.
Jackson also displayed a sharp political acumen when faced with the reluctance of the town-appointed trustees of the hall, who were uneasy about the Friends' ambitious agenda. All of the trustees resigned within a year, and Jackson was asked to replace them with people who shared his own sense of adventure.
In the restoration of Randolph's cultural gem, John Jackson eventually had lots of help from other talented and dedicated people, including Chandler's current leadership, but he's the one who got the ball rolling and pushed it well along the road. The community owes him its thanks.
Our dear friend John Jackson, one of the 12 founding members of the Hale Street Gang, died Saturday at his home in Randolph. His wife, Cynthia, and their two children, Mindy and Chris, were at his side. John wrote two years ago about the hard choices he was facing after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Two weeks ago, I learned from mutual friends that his time was running out. It is hard to believe that the youngest member of our original group has left us, and so soon after my mother's death.
John was only 81 when he joined our memoir-writing group in the fall of 2009. He was in what we always refer to as "the Tuesday group," which also included Charles Cooley, Ruth Godfrey, D'Ann Fago, and Margaret Egerton. Margaret was then 99, almost a generation older than John, an age gap that was especially obvious when they compared memories of World War II: John was a mere teenager at the time, and remembered helping his dad, a WWI vet, watch for enemy planes from a lookout station on New York's Walkill River; Margaret was in her early thirties, unmarried, and so desperate to leave home that she was preparing to join the WACs.
John's life story touched me deeply. He never seemed to hesitate before an opportunity to enjoy life to its fullest. He often wrote about the influences that caused his world to expand—a steamboat trip with his grandmother, an unforgettable date with the pretty girl who worked behind the Fanny Farmer candy counter. He wrote about travel and music, key friendships, and, most moving of all, his experiences as a son, a husband, and a father. The last time I spoke with him, in July, he called to say he had nearly finished his book-length memoir and was wondering if I'd have time to print it this fall.
The Tuesday group had loads of fun together. How I miss those days. There's a little 4-min video on YouTube that we made during the winter of 2009–10, in which John comes in at the end with a joke about two bears and a nudist colony. (To see it, click here.)
I remember one Tuesday when John and Margaret just happened to mention the same Irish folk song in their readings. Pretty soon, we were all sitting around the table, spontaneously singing:
Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low, And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go, Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long, Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song, Comes Love's old sweet song.
I can still see and hear us—D'Ann, Ruth, Charles, Margaret, and John—sitting around the table in the craft room on a gray winter afternoon, swaying slightly from side to side as we sang the refrain of that impossibly sentimental old song. It is one of my favorite HSG moments.
Thank you, John, for the tremendous spirit and dedication you brought to our writing group, and for the many ways in which you graced our community. Your capacity to enjoy the good things in life—jazz! fish! love! corny jokes!—is an inspiration to me.
This account of my Alaskan road trip with open-water swimmer Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica, was first published in Westways magazine in 1993. In Part 1, an editor for Four-Wheeler magazine taught us how to drive off-road. Then, for some crazy reason, the folks at Mitsubishi entrusted us with a brand-new Montero, with which we set out from Anchorage on a 2,000-mile road trip just as winter was setting in. In Part 2, we are on our way north toward Fairbanks, and starting to go a little nuts from the tension and boredom of all those lonely miles with no one to talk to but each other. Mad Dog and Booh were the names we gave ourselves when we wrote up the piece. In reality, we referred to each other most often during the trip (and still do) as "Lynnems" and "Sarams," because of the honorific "Ms." that was printed on our plane tickets: CoxLynnems and TuckerSarams.
The George Parks Highway is a lonesome stretch of road, especially in the winter. On its way to Fairbanks, it crosses mile after mile of barren tundra and hundreds upon hundreds of creeks, many with sinister names: Troublesome, Slime, Hard Luck. Mad Dog and Booh stopped only once—for gas and coffee and a trip to the outhouse (temperature: 0 degrees F) at a little store right next to a white igloo-shaped building the size of a barn, which someone told them had been for sale for the past 10 years.
The sun began to set when they were still a hundred miles from Fairbanks. Except for an occasional truck, they were pretty much alone on the highway. They were just outside of Ester (an old mining town and home of the Malemute Saloon) and whiling away the time by practicing dog and cat noises, when a giant shape—no, two giant shapes—loomed from the side of the road.
"Moose!" yelled Mad Dog, swerving to the left and stomping on the brakes.
The moose vanished into the black of night. Mad Dog was furiously blinking her headlights.
"What are you doing?" asked Booh.
"I'm warning other motorists. Get on the radio."
"I want to report a moose sighting."
That was when they realized that neither one of them knew how to work the CB. Lynne is fearless in the water—sharks, ice floes, nothing fazes her. But she was right scared of the many dangers presented by the Alaskan wilderness. Moose were high on her list of things to watch out for. Another footnote: By this time, we had spent hours alone together in the car, and were both starting to get a little unhinged, not to mention testy.
When they came to the Ester Volunteer Fire Department, Mad Dog pulled over.
"We ought to tell somebody," she said, cutting the engine.
"They're going to laugh at you. People around here see moose all the time." But Mad Dog had already sprung from the driver's seat.
"Don't you want to come in?"
"I'll wait here."
After 10 minutes, Mad Dog came back out. "They weigh between a ton-and-a-half and two tons, and it's common to have them up there on the road."
"See? I told you."
At the Sophie Station Hotel in Fairbanks, they asked the desk clerk if he knew how to operate a CB radio. He threw up his hands: "Just press the button and yell "Help!"
The next day, they paid a visit to Mad Dog's cousin Brenda in Fairbanks. "You should take the Steese up to Arctic Circle Hot Springs," Cousin Brenda said. North of Fairbanks, the Steese Highway—gravel except for the first 44 miles—runs 150 miles through gold country before dead-ending at Circle (30 miles beyond the hot springs), on the Yukon River. Circle is so named because the miners who founded it erroneously believed it was within the Artic Circle, which is actually 50 miles to the north.
The road expires at a sign that reads The End of the World.
Cousin Brenda told them about 80-mile-per-hour winds that could flick a car off Eagle Summit, the road's highest point, and weather that could turn suddenly, stranding travelers in a blizzard, their cars clinging to an invisible road on the edge of the mountain with nothing ahead but a wall of white. Mad Dog flashed Booh a big grin.
Cousin Brenda frowned. "The more I think about it, the more I think you'd better not try it," she said. "I wouldn't want to be responsible."
"We'll be fine," said Mad Dog.
Suddenly, Cousin Brenda was pleading. "Don't go," she said. "It was a stupid idea. I'm sorry I suggested it." She was practically wringing her hands.
"We'll think about it," said Mad Dog.
They said good night and climbed into the Montero. Booh turned to Mad Dog. Mad Dog turned to Booh.
"Let's go!" they shouted in unison. They rolled down the street toward their hotel, yipping and yowling. Before Lynne and I left L.A., a friend of mine, a woman travel writer who had spent a lot of time in Alaska, had given us three pieces of advice about how to comport ourselves in our nation's northernest state: (1) No table dancing, (2) don't accept rides from strangers, and (3) beware of men with initials for names. By the time we finished our trip, we had broken two of the three rules. Read on to find out which two.
I started my blog when I was the sole youngster in a group of 80- and 90-year-olds who were writing down their life stories. It happened like this: In the fall of 2007, I left New York, where I was working as an editor for Conde Nast Traveler, and returned to my home town of Randolph, Vermont, to be closer to my mother, who was then 87. A year later, she and I started a memoir-writing group at the Randolph Senior Center. The initiative took flight, and has so far resulted not only in the publication of my own book, a memoir set in Tanzania, but in a dozen other books as well. My mother, Idora Tucker, died on July 15, 2012, leaving behind five published volumes recording important chapters of her life, as well as a thick notebook of unpublished writing. She and her contemporaries at the Senior Center have inspired countless others, including many of my generation, to write down their life stories. I hope you will be inspired by our blog to do the same.
To Order Our Books
To order our books, click on a cover. The link will take you to our e-store, and you can follow the steps from there. All titles are $10.95–$11.95, plus shipping.
Our House in Arusha, by Sara Tucker (Kindle edition, $2.99)
When an American traveler on her way to Kansas ends up in the Serengeti, her life gets a complete makeover. Within months, she is the wife of a French safari guide and the stepmother of an eleven-year-old. The year that follows is a test of courage and resilience as each member of the family struggles to make a place for himself in a tantalizing and dangerous world. Part love story, part adventure saga, Our House in Arusha explores the meaning of second chances.
An Ordinary Woman
Mothers are the core of our writing group. We would be nothing without them! All of the titles shown here were written by moms with their children in mind. Who knows—perhaps one will inspire your own mother to write a few words. Above: Ruth Godfrey is the one who keeps us laughing in the Tuesday memoir-writing group. Her book is that rare thing among modern memoirs—the story of a happy life.
The Hale Street Gang
Meet the Hale Street Gang, twelve senior citizens who gather every week in the village of Randolph, Vermont, to share their life stories. Most are in their eighties; the eldest is ninety-nine. Their clubhouse is the senior center, an elderly mansion in a fringy neighborhood south of the railroad tracks. Together, they weave a rich, lively, and intensely personal tale of twentieth-century America, its nexus a small town nestled in the Green Mountains.
The Hale Street Gang
In volume 2, we pay tribute to the many places in our past. Here you will find Downtown Randolph as it used to be (remember Merusi's Store? The Spot?) and Brookfield back when Jessie Fiske owned Green Trails—as well as Shanghai in the thirties, San Francisco in the forties, and New York City at the turn of the century (this one). The authors have all crossed paths at the Greater Randolph Senior Center, where we gather once a week to salute the flag, partake of Rose's meatloaf, and share our life stories. In A Sense of Place, we travel back through time to tell you where we've been.
I began my publishing career in the dark ages, before Google was born. When I was the copy chief at Cosmo, they were still using Wite-Out. Today, I write and publish my own work, thanks to the miracle of digital technology. I do most of my writing in Fontainebleau, France. My current book, An Irruption of Owls, is set in my hometown of Randolph, Vermont.