Smoke on the Water

(While National Novel Writing Month has passed, I've written the following in the style I was exploring during the month. While it is based on my general recollections of junior high school, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the memories.)

It was about forty years ago that I went to my first junior high school dance. It was around the time that my parents were breaking up and my mother drove me in old green Chevy pick up truck to the regional high school. With anticipation and apprehension, I dressed up in some nice school clothes. I didn’t have any fancy clothes to speak of, it wasn’t a fancy sort of dance, and I probably would have felt even more awkward if I had to where something nice. My older brothers, already in high school, and having been to various school dances made snide comments, and my younger sister, still in elementary school and a Partridge Family fan wanted to find some way that she could go on such a grand adventure. My mother sensed my uneasiness at the event, and told her to stay home as she drove me to the dance.

Back then, I was a nerd, before it was cool to be a nerd. I enjoyed talking about academic subjects, especially math. I had gone from playing clarinet in the school band to alto clarinet, on a journey that would lead me to saxophone, bagpipes, and any other instrument I could get my hands on. Yet actually performing, or for that matter, sufficiently practicing the clarinet, was something that terrified me, almost as much as talking to a girl, or letter her know that I liked her.

The drive to the school was a little over seven miles. It was fifteen minutes of just me and my mother. She tried to get me to talk about who would be there. I mentioned some of the boys that I thought would probably be there, but didn’t mention any of the girls, especially not mentioning the girls I thought were cute or hoped to dance with.

Like so many school dances, this one took place in the gymnasium. The room wax dark and decorated with crepe paper. Up near the front of the gym, the band was set up at the east end. I walked around a little the large room for a little bit to try and find my friends. Like all the boys, they were on the north side of the gym. We stood around and looked timidly across the floor to the south side where the girls were gathered in similar clusters. Some of the more popular and self possessed kids took to the dance floor. They seemed to be having a good time, and I longed to join.

We did not listen to much music at our house. There was an old radio in the corner of the kitchen that we would listen to on snowy mornings to hear if there was a school cancellation. We eventually got a small record player and we listened to records we checked out of the town library. My sister purchased a single or two, and it seemed like there would be weeks on end that I heard “If you’re going to San Francisco…” playing over and over on the record player.

I remember listening to the Beatles when we checked out one of there albums and I would mangle Hey Jude, horribly. Some of my neighbors, older boys that were closer friends with my brothers and played in one of the many typical high school bands, would endlessly try to get me to sing Hey Jude a little better, but I just couldn’t tell what I was doing wrong. I also listened to a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. “I am a rock” seemed to capture my social abilities of the time.

At the dance, there would be various songs that the band would play that would encourage me to ask a girl to dance. When “She was just seventeen” came on, my heart would go boom as I crossed the room to ask one of the girls to dance. I would be terrified that they would say no, and perhaps even more terrified that they would say yes. Yet instead of dancing through the night, we would dance one dance, and then awkwardly exchange niceties before retreating back to our respective sides of the gym.

Another song that I really liked to dance at in those says was “Smoke on the Water”. I didn’t know what the words were. I just recognized the four measure riff and anticipated singing along to the chorus, “Smoke on the water, fire in the sky”. When the familiar opening chords were played, I would walk across the floor and try to get someone to dance with me. I was more comfortable with this song. I could simply enjoy dancing to it, without worrying about everyone looking at me or what my partner might be thinking.

When the dance was over, my mother would pick me up in the green pickup truck for the long fifteen minute drive home. She would ask if I had fun and whom I danced with. I would mumble about having had a good time and maybe name a girl or two that I danced with.

The days have passed and my two eldest daughters have been through their school dances. Perhaps I was projecting, but it seemed like Mairead’s experiences at school dances mirrored my own. Miranda seemed to have a much better time at the dances and would be much more talkative afterwards.

All of these memories come to mind, as I visited a blog I enjoy today. The Modern Historian has blog posts about things that have happened this day in history. Today is the fortieth anniversary of the Montreux Casino fire in 1971 that smoke on the water is all about.

Instead of looking for the old grey portable record player we had as a kid, I typed “Smoke on the Water” into Spotify and listened to the original, as well as a bunch of interesting covers of it, from a workout video to a bagpipe cover.

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The Experimental Memoir - Day 27

It was a foggy grey morning as I tried to get out of bed. Assorted aches and pains made it hard to get going and I was rushed when I finally got up. Our dog Wesley was playing outside. The neighbors’ dog, Avery had come over and the two were playing. This morning, a third dog was in the yard, an English Mastiff belonging to some other neighbors. I showered quickly and headed off to church.

On the way, I listened to a segment on the radio about a man who had lost most of his short term and long term memory. He had been an accomplished musician and researchers ran a set of experiments to find that while his ability to remember many things had been drastically diminished, his ability to remember music was only slightly impaired. They spoke about using this to help him put back together parts of his life, such as musical reminders to take medication or musical associations with certain people. This made me think of Peter and the wolf.

For the past month, I’ve been writing a lot about memory. I haven’t talked so much about remembering things other than words, events and facts, other that a brief literary reference to remembering a Madeleine. I’ve spoken about how people have complemented me on my memory and asked if I had a photographic memory. In many things, I do have a strong memory of facts and events, but my memory is not photographic, and I’ve had difficulties memorizing things by rote.

Musical themes are a different type of memory. They come back at odd times. The playful theme from Peter in the Wolf comes back to me as I write this. There is a song, by David Mallett that comes to mind as I write this as well. It starts off

I knew this place, I knew it well,
Every sound and every smell

The song leads me to another song, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s “Gentle Arms Of Eden”. The sounds and smells as memories of home.

One year, my spring term in college started on the Monday after Easter. I rode with some classmates from Connecticut out to Ohio. We stopped at lunch for our Easter Dinner, surrounded by truckers at a truckstop in the middle of Pennsylvania. I remember the colored Easter Egg that came with the meal. It was the first time I had dinner on a major holiday away from home. It seemed somehow bleak; incomplete.

My mind wandered to Easters at home. The small colored wicker basket filled with artificial green plastic grass, on which were placed various candies. I remembered one Easter when while we were at Church, our big white Samoyed dog, got into the basket. When we got home, he was multicolored in many pastels shades. It was disappointing to lose the candy, but it was funny as well. I thought that perhaps what was missing at the truckstop was the familial, but I now think there was something else missing.

Years later, Kim and I spent our first Thanksgiving together. We had been dating for about five months. Half way through that time, Kim’s mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. No one seemed up for the big traditional Thanksgiving gathering at Kim’s grandparent’s house. Kim and I went up to New Hampshire and had a nice Thanksgiving dinner at an Inn in Vermont. The food was very good, but there was also something missing there. In that case, what was missed most was Kim’s mother and the big family gathering around her. Yet there was also something else.

It came home to me this Thanksgiving. Kim’s parents had just returned from a trip abroad, and were not up for Thanksgiving dinner there. So, we had Thanksgiving dinner at a small local diner. This is a diner that Kim’s family has gone to for ages, and is one of the first places Fiona ate out at, as well as being the place she has probably gone out to eat more often than any other place.

The dinner was good; nothing to complain about but nothing to rave about either. Again, something was missing. I didn’t realize what it was until we had home baked Thanksgiving dinner a couple days later. Walking in the house, you were overwhelmed by the smell of the turkey that had been baking in the oven for hours, mixed with the whiff of pumpkin pies that had been baked earlier. Memories are more than just thoughts and words. They are sounds and smells.

At dinner this evening, I spoke with Fiona about music. We talked about key signatures and time signatures. We looked at staves and notes and talked about their names.

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Five Kernels of Corn

(For those just joining in, this month I've been writing an experimental memoir as part of National Novel Writing Month. Today's entry includes political commentary so I'm sharing it more broadly.)

It was a period of prosperity and protest. I would sit in the hard wood pews of the big white First Congregational Church and look out over the quad to the student union of an ivy league college. It was the world I grew up in. In the evenings, on our small black and white television, we would hear Walter Cronkite tell his viewers how many U.S. troops had died in Vietnam that day. A few years later, he would be telling us about how many U.S. students had died in the United States protesting that war. Yet Vietnam and Kent State were worlds away to an elementary school kid raised by fairly conservative parents.

We were still going to church in those days. My mother would bake bread for communion. This was the Protestant style of communion, with grape juice in little shot glasses and small cubes of bread my mother had baked. Years later, my father left the church because of its opposition to the war in Vietnam. He had a square peace sign on the back of his truck proclaiming Peace thru Victory and had supported Barry Goldwater.

At Thanksgiving, we would sign hymns, like “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hand and voices”. We would sing about gathering together to ask the Lord’s blessing. On our way home, we would sign about going to Grandmother’s house, even though there were no snowy woods to go through.

It was a world of Robert Frost and Norman Rockwell. It was a world where the pilgrims looked large, and many could trace their families back to the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Traditions were strong and important. We were not like the well off families living in town. We lived up on the top of Henderson Road, a ride from town. Later, it would make it more difficult taking the late bus home from band, which would drop me off a mile and a half from my house. I would wear cast off clothing, from older brothers or friends in the church with older kids. We would shop the Women’s Exchange for used clothes for the kids and at factory outlets that were really part of an old factory, and not a trendy shopping mall.

Kids used to make fun of me for what I wore, but that too, just seemed like part of daily life.

At Halloween, we would dress up in whatever costumes my mother could make and visit our neighbors. Several were elderly and it was an important time for them to have visitors. I kept trick or treating for years, partly just because I knew it was important, and I would sit down and talk with them as they offered me an apple. At some point we started trick or treating for Unicef. Living on a poor section of the hill, we didn’t bring in as much as my friends who lived downtown near the nice houses, but it was important for each of us to do our part.

When Thanksgiving came around, we would get a little envelope at church that we would bring home. It was very much like the pledge envelope that we would put our nickels and dimes in for church. Back then, it was important for even young folks to learn to give a little bit back to their church and to their community.

Yet the envelope that we would bring home was different. We would save it until Thanksgiving Day, and then open it. Inside would be five kernels of corn. We would open the little envelopes and hear about how the early pilgrims had had to ration food and were unsure if they would make it through the winter. We would hear about how through hard work, cooperation, and through kindness shown to them by the natives they made it through the winter. It was a time of moral stories around the family table.

Thanksgiving was not about opulence and abundance, it was about survival, and although I never thought of myself as coming from a poor family, uncertain about where the next meal came from, it was part of my family history. My father’s father had died when my father was twelve and they face difficult times. My mother had lived through The Depression on a small New England farm beside the Connecticut River. The second hand clothes I wore were simply the way everyone got clothes, I thought.

Looking back at those days from today’s lens, it seems so different. Some have started to point out that Thanksgiving is not a day for Native American’s to be thankful. The settlers brought with them disease and war and wrecked havoc on Native American life. Others have drawn contrasts between what happened when the Europeans came to North America and people trying to enter our country today.

Yet it seems as if the key point of the debate is being missed. Those pilgrims facing hunger and possible death, as represented by the five kernels of corn, survived because the people already in the land helped them out. Perhaps we should be more like those Native Americans, and instead of building a larger fence, and passing laws to make it more difficult for the new comers to our country, we should be helping them out.

Likewise, the five kernels of corn should be a reminder for us to be thankful, not for the new flat screen television that we had to fight for Thursday evening amidst a large crowd of shoppers, but for the simple sustenance we receive in difficult times.

Connecticut soup kitchens, which provide today’s equivalent of five kernels of corn, lost food to spoilage as a result of the power outage. The needs for food of the hungry increase in our state even as donations go down.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw a tweet from a church in Bridgeport, inviting anyone and everyone who would be thankful for a hot meal to come enjoy a free Thanksgiving day feast, complete with roast turkey and all the trimmings. I retweeted the message because it occurred to me that the meal in the church hall in Bridgeport would probably be closer to an authentic Thanksgiving meal that the large feast immortalized in the painting by Norman Rockwell.

My mind wandered to those dour old Pilgrims who came to this country out of love of God, and not the love of money that dominates so much of the political discourse. I thought of those who knew that the key to survival was the ability to cooperate with one another and help them out, and not to take advantage of ones neighbor. I thought of those for whom giving back to their community was a Godly responsibility.

Where have we gone wrong? My idyllic childhood faded as my parents separated. Some blame the demise of the American family on our decline; the lack of dinner time discussions about five kernels of corn. That seems a bit facile and incomplete. What caused the American family to decline in the first place? Even if that is the case, what can we do now to revive our country?

I talk with my kids at the dinner table, and I’m sure they roll their eyes as much as I rolled mine when I was their age. We no longer have Walter Cronkite telling us all we need to know about the days’ news, and perhaps we need each of us to tell the news. Perhaps Walter Cronkite and the dinner time discussions are merging into a new form, the blog post. Yet I look at a lot of the blog, and I’m not so sure.

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The Experimental Memoir - Day 25 Thanksgiving, part 2

I don’t have a lot of recollections of Thanksgiving meals when I first moved to Connecticut. I can vaguely imagine what they were like, sitting at the large table in the dining room of the old house in Stamford. They most likely were the standard faire; turkey, potatoes, corn, green beans, and carrots. Other parts of the activities around Thanksgiving are easier to remember.

Stamford started having an annual pre-Thanksgiving day parade while we lived in Stamford, and we would go down to it. It was on Sundays and we would go down right after church. There are several major north south roads heading down from North Stamford into Stamford. However, they would get really congested as you got closer to the parade. We would typically take back roads in North Stamford to head east before heading south. We could then find parking to the East of the parade, and not a far walk from it. Often we would watch the parade on Atlantic, Bedford of Summer Streets. It was often cold and we would bundle up. There would be the street vendors and many times, we would see friends, especially the girls classmates and their families.

A few weeks later, we would head downtown again to see Santa Claus repel down the side of one of the buildings in the downtown district. The trip down and the parking, the crowds, venders and friends were often the same.

One year, we were invited down to a party on West Seventy Seventh Street in Manhattan the night before Thanksgiving. A coworker’s parents lived in a nice apartment overlooking the American Museum of Natural History and the streets where all the balloons were inflated. On our way to the party, I showed Kim and the girls where I had lived when Mairead was born. It was just around the corner at West Seventy Eighth Street. We looked at various stores that had been my stomping ground before trying to get to the party. The street was blocked off, and we had to speak with a police officer about the details of the party we were going to. It was crowded but uneventful.

When Kim and I met, she was living in Guilford, and I learned about Gozzi’s Turkey Farm. I’ve always been predisposed to buying from local vendors whenever possible, so it was great to find a local turkey farm. To make things all the more enjoyable, every year at Thanksgiving, they color several of the turkeys bright florescent colors, pink, green, blue, orange, yellow, and probably a few other colors. It has always been great fun to go pick up the Thanksgiving turkey and look at the ones who had been spared to become part of a colorful display.

We’ve also sought to purchase Connecticut raised ducks and geese, but that’s always been a challenge. One year, we found a farm claiming to sell Connecticut geese, but when we got the goose, the package said it was from Pennsylvania. Another time, we got a goose but it had been poorly butchered. None of the giblets were in the goose and it was a very lean goose. Some people might like their goose this way, but an important part of our tradition has been to make a pate out of the liver, and to rend the fat for cooking. Connecticut has recently passed new laws to make it easier for people to get produce straight from the farms, so hopefully, this will result in better options for geese and ducks going forward.

As a side note, I read a tweet the other day from a Minnesota politician talking about how Minnesota provides more turkeys to the United States than any other state. I assume she was talking about Thanksgiving Dinners, and not about some of her fellow Minnesotan politicians. That works out to be a trip of about 1500 miles. This doesn’t seem especially efficient.

This carries over to other forms of shopping. We buy Christmas trees raised on local Connecticut farms. We gather up the whole family to traipse out to the farm, hike up and down the hills in search of the perfect Christmas Tree. When the oldest girls were young, I would read them “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” about a family in Appalachia during World War I. The father was off at war and the mother and daughter headed off into the mountains to pick the perfect Christmas Tree. It was a balsam fir, known for their fragrance.

So, every year, we head out to find our own perfect Christmas Tree. We try to get a Balsam fir, or if not, a fir fairly similar. Years later, Kim noted how I often seem to get sick around the holidays; congestion, runny nose. She suggested that perhaps it is an allergy to the Christmas Tree. I suspect this is the case, but having an aromatic tree, even if it causes me a little suffering, is worth it, so I just stock up on decongestants before getting the tree.

Our pumpkin gathering is, likewise, a holiday family tradition, including a hayride, and sometimes, when there is enough time and money, getting lost in a corn maze. This is followed by a stop to the cider mill for fresh hot spiced cider and cider donuts.

During the warmer months, schedules permitting, we also try to pick various fruits and berries at pick your own farms in Connecticut. Fiona and I usually go out and pick fresh strawberries. The farm fresh strawberries and sweeter and tastier than anything you’ll find in most stores, however, even these don’t compare with the fresh wild strawberries I used to find in the woods near the house I grew up in. We’ve also made trips to go blueberry and raspberry picking. Like the strawberries, these are particularly good, but not the same as the berries from my youth.

For raspberries, we had a neighbor who had a small cultivated raspberry patch. We would go pick raspberries there. From blueberries, we would hike up onto Mount Greylock to various areas where wild blueberries grew in abundance and pick as many as we could. I don’t remember reading the book, Blueberries for Sal when I was young, but when I read it to my children, it brought back memories of picking berries up on Mount Greylock as a kid.

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The Experimental Memoir - Day 24 Thanksgiving, part 1

I believe I was seven years old when our family got its first television. It was Christmas and their was this big thing on a table next to the Christmas tree. It had a dark brownish green piece of glass in the front, some knobs on the upper right hand section of the front of it and was made of some sort of beige plastic. My siblings and I gathered around in wonder and amazement. I didn’t know what it was, but my older brothers did. They turned it on, spun the dial and eventually a snowy staticy image appeared. It was a drawing of a dog flying, out of the speaker, came the words, “Here I come to save the day…” I didn’t know what that meant, but my older brothers, whom I guess had seen televisions before at friends’ houses and probably had even seen the show, Underdog, knew that underdog was on the way.

My father didn’t have much use for television, and at best we would watch, “The FBI” or “The Wonderful World of Disney” as a family. More often, he would berate us for watching Gilligan’s Island, or Bewitched. There would be exceptions, such when The Wizard of Oz was on, or certain holiday specials. Although, it was many years before I learned that The Wizard of Oz wasn’t all in black and white.

We seemed to get a pass when Charlie Brown was on, and watching the Thanksgiving Day Parades was an acceptable activity.

We only got three channels back then, and ABC, NBC and CBS affiliate. We would gather around the television in the living room and watch as giant balloons were guided down the avenues of New York City. We would watch the bands. As a young kid, this spectacle was as remote as Oz, and also in black and white.

While we watched the parade, the turkey would be baking in the oven. This was in a day before self-basting turkeys and little plastic things that would pop up indicating that the turkey was done. To baste the turkey, my mother would cover it with strips of bacon. As the turkey cooked, the bacon cooked and the grease trickled down into the turkey meat, providing us with a moist, and nicely flavored turkey.

As the turkey cooked and our hunger grew, we would eat special food for the season, grapes, nuts, and celery stuffed with peanut butter and with cream cheese. Being a New England home, we grew up with all the rituals of Thanksgiving, stories of the pilgrims, five kernels of corn, and decorations made by kids in elementary school.

When I was older and went off to college, even though my parents and separated and my older siblings had headed out on their own, I always made it home for Thanksgiving. I went to college in Ohio and it was a long trip home. I would be tired, but the remnant of the family would celebrate Thanksgiving together. We too often forget that thanksgiving grew out of giving thanks more for making it through difficult times than for the abundance that followed.

After college, I moved to New York City, that black and white land of an Oz like Thanksgiving Day parade. Perhaps because the real parade could not recreate the magic of the small black and white image from my childhood, perhaps because I didn’t relish fighting the crowds, or more likely because I would head up to New England for Thanksgiving, I never made it to the parade.

One of my first roommates did. He worked in food service for CBS news and needed to make sure that all the crews covering the parade had sufficient food, coffee, and hot chocolate to make it through the long cold mornings broadcasting the parade. The first year I lived with him and a few other guys in an old spice factory in Brooklyn that had been partially converted into artists’ lofts, I stayed in the city and we had our own Thanksgiving dinner. I cooked the turkey similar to the way my mother had, with the exception that I didn’t know where to find the giblets. I had taken everything that had been put in the stomach cavity and stuffed the bird with a bread dressing. However, I didn’t know about the other place to look for the giblets, and they cooked in a plastic bag in the end of the turkey.

Later, when I moved to the Upper West Side, I would head over to the Museum of Natural History to watch the giant balloons being blown up. This had more of a magical feeling, in a Fellini-esque sort of way.

Still, I liked heading up to New England. My mother lives near a ski slope, so I would go up, spend the day skiing and then come home with a large appetite for Thanksgiving dinner.

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