Sunday, October 16, 2016


            With all my father’s skills and gifts, a positive pitch was not one of them, but that didn’t stop him from singing when he thought he was alone in the barn or the hayfield. His regulars were O How I hate to get up in the Morning, Over There, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, or his favorites, K-K-K Katy, and The Ballad of Casey Jones. He more than made up in gusto for whatever may have been lacking in pitch and meter.
            My mother’s fine soprano voice was ever-present in the home of my youth, most often singing old love songs such as Take me Home Again Kathleen, In the Gloaming, or often the show music of Victor Herbert, or from movies starring Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald or Deanna Durbin. As a family we often sang in three-part harmony when traveling on the road.
            In 1938 a skinny young Italian kid from neighboring Hoboken began to make a name for himself as a singing waiter at a roadhouse known as “The Rustic Cabin” in Englewood Cliffs, a few miles from our family home, on the New Jersey Palisades.  His name was Frank Sinatra, and along with Big Band names like Glen Miller, Jimmy & Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Sammy Kay ushered in the “Swing” era and a popular music movement which would vibrate for more than a decade, including the WWII years; years which brought about many melodic changes and a period of sentimentalism which colored both lyrics and genre. Music suddenly became the very heart and soul of America’s ability to cope with the challenge of a world-wide conflict touching every corner of daily life.
            The first American G.I.s to go to Europe were men of the U.S. Army Air Corps, landing in a
Britain already knee deep in war for three years, where they were singing songs like Goodnight Mother,
White Cliffs of Dover, The Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square and I Left my Heart at the Stage
Door Canteen.  American Band leaders Sammy Kaye and Glen Miller and singers Kate Smith and Lena
Horne soon joined the musical contingent which linked the two nations in a musical “cousinhood” which
straddled the Atlantic and more.
             In 1942 the country faced an unknowable stretch of total war against an implacable enemy, and a
generation of Americans were saying uncertain “good-bys” that touched their music: Don’t Sit Under the
Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me, I’ll be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places, and Mary
 Martin’s sad and sonorous I’ll Walk Alone. The beautifully harmonized Ink Spots gave us Don’t Get
Around Much Anymore, and Peggy Lee We’ll Meet Again, while there was something sadly final in the
words to I’ll Never Smile Again. Music caused us to smile, and laugh, and often to cry a little; old and
young; it made us “human” and that is no small thing.
            In the years immediately following VE Day and VJ Day popular music took wing, and Frank
Sinatra (old blue eyes) was bigger than ever. I was a Junior in a small Vermont High School where I was
 invited to help organize a dance band we named “Six Hits and a Miss” for obvious “sexist” reasons.
Ed Brown played alto Sax, “Tink” Camp tenor, Jack Soule was our drummer and his younger brother
Ronnie played trumpet. Our Clarinetist was young David Dillingham and Jean Brigham – the only true
Miss-- among us played the piano and kept us in key (and reasonably civilized.) My job as leader was to
walk around in front, my violin tucked under one arm while the other reminded the band of roughly what
 line we were on. At appropriate times I would play and even sing vocals. Jean and I chose numbers and
 set practice times. Our bi-weekly gig was the dance night at the North Randolph Grange Hall where in
addition to the modest emolument it gave me an excuse for not dancing.
            Our theme song was Blue Moon, but I think we brought much of our youthful volume and
enthusiasm to Ghost Riders in the Sky made famous by the full-throated Vaughn Monroe. Mona Lisa,
Goodnight Irene, and Harbor Lights were audience pleasers. A Tree in the Meadow as sung by Margaret
Whiting became my personal “signature song” as I too left for a faraway war with a deeply sentimental
attachment to all that I left behind and for the love songs I grew up with taking on a whole new
             When asked late in life why so many of his ballads had become enduring hits, Frank Sinatra
explained: “I don’t sing the notes, I sing the words.”
             Looking back at the thousands of words I have written about the people of the “greatest generation,” I find myself hoping that I have really written about the “music” of their passing.

Note: By my shaky calculations, only three of the high school-age “Hits” of 1950 are still with us.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


            In the latter decades of the 19th century and into the 20th, European immigrants to the New World most often traveled to American ports on ships of the Hamburg-American Lines, the premier German transportation giant of the day. On board they were probably introduced to meat meals consisting of beef which had been “processed” by smoking and salting to achieve a longer shelf life. On board it would be machine-chopped before preparation and serving and presented as “Hamburg Steak”. Since most passengers had debarked from Hamburg – many of them German themselves -- this was an entirely friendly bit of advertising.  New York City restaurants were quick to catch on and the label found a home.
            While it is a fact that pieces of meat of one kind or another clamped between two pieces of bread have been around for a long time, even as far back as Roman times, the “Hamburger” as conjured up in the mind of any “millennial” hearing the term today within the shadow of an overhead Yellow Arch is quite another matter. It was Edgar Waldo Ingram who saw a future in a sandwich built around a wedge of prepared chopped meat and onions deployed between two halves of a roll baked for the purpose and served with appropriate additions when he founded his White Castle restaurant chain in 1921. The first square meat and accompanying pickle combo were called “sliders” and sold for a nickel each.
            Ingram knew that the American public held a healthy distrust of chopped meat at the time and so designed his restaurants around gleaming white tiles and shiny metal to emphasis the concept of cleanliness and purity. (As a young boy on an errand to buy a pound or two of chopped meat from the butcher shop I was always cautioned to watch as Mr. Schuster pushed pieces of nice fresh red meat through the grinding machine. Pre-packaged meat would never have made the grade even in the 1930s.)
            White Castle outlets opened up in the mid-west and in the middle-Atlantic states proving “Billy” Ingram’s business acumen and introducing both the nickname hamburger and the concept of processed foods. Unlike the McDonald brothers who came along in the 1940s and who adopted the idea of selling franchises to individual operators (and endured a slow start) the White Castle operation remained family-owned-and-operated as it is today.
            My first hamburger sandwich took shape before my wondering eyes at a roadside restaurant in New Jersey when I was about 5 years old and I remember it to this day – especially the huge slice of onion floating on the bed of ketchup! At the same time I cannot recall ever seeing hamburgers made or eaten in a family setting in a home until after WWII and the arrival of the backyard charcoal grill. I have queried some of my contemporaries who agree. Our mothers used a lot of chopped meat or hamburger
at home in many dishes, from meatloaf to various casserole inventions, even as  individual hamburger patties and of course, meatballs; but not between buns as a true “hamburger.”
            I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago as my wife and I sat down at a newly-opened brewery pub at our favorite ocean-front getaway spot in coastal Oregon. I had come to test the veracity of the rave reviews of world class hamburgers I had overheard around town. After all, how much can one expect from a lowly hamburger? After not one, but two visits to sample and resample the exact same menu item – the Pelican Backyard Barbecue Burger – I had no choice but to hunt down the head chef for a long talk.
I found that beginning with free-range grass-fed beef raised to their specifications, and lofty croissant buns large enough to accommodate the multi-level interior: meat patty, tomato, arugula, a stack of crispy onion swirls, they added a flavor-rich jam  exuding wisps of smoked bacon and one of the pub’s finest malty products, a dark stout called Tsunami.
            Among all the attractions which draw us to this particular corner of the Pacific Northwest each year, I can now add one of the most bodacious burgers I have ever bitten into!

                     Sumptuous, succulent and layered with contrasting flavors, this one is a burger-champion.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


            As a farm boy from Vermont I can – on honest grounds -- lay claim to my right of membership in that fraternity known as bridge-watchers; not just everyday bridges you understand, but certainly when it comes to truss-built covered bridges. Early settlers in the new world learned quickly that bridges made of wood exposed to rain, snow, sun, wind and the vagaries of changing seasons had a short life, but when roofed over like a sturdy barn could outlive their builders. If you thought that snow was the enemy, you would be wrong. The folks actually had to shovel snow onto the roofed bridges to accommodate horse-drawn sled traffic for half the year.
            Since I was a teen-ager I have loved our country’s honest covered bridges and the notes of history which play like a serenade within the dark shadows of every one. It seems that these architectural wonders are infused from the hammering of the first peg and the crafting of the first joint with the very spiritual molecules from which stories, mysteries and tall tales are given birth.
            I know of many within whose secret silences marriage vows have been spoken, first kisses exchanged and important promises sworn. I have felt a shiver or two on a tall point of buttressed timber from which famous suicides were launched and I am no stranger to the midnight hauntings which are still said to make themselves felt on hand-fitted spans more than one-hundred years old. More than one highwayman favored a particular bridge as an easy ambush point for his night-time criminal enterprise, and I have personal knowledge of a notch several feet above the roadway where an illicit pack of camels would be safe from bad weather and prying eyes on one.
            My favorite Vermont covered bridge – The Bridge on the Green – has looked down on colorful flies cast by Sir Winston Churchill, President Dwight Eisenhower and a host of world-famous leaders testing their casting skills on The Battenkill, whose waters I trust were kinder to them than to me.
            The typical proud Vermonter might be surprised to learn that the State of Oregon was home to more than 450 covered bridges in their heyday, with an impressive number still surviving today. While I have hunted down and photographed most of Vermont’s still-intact 100, I am still working on their northwest cousins where I finally tracked down Number 50 on my Oregon list a week ago at a heavily-wooded, almost “hidden” location just a dozen twisting back-road miles from the Pacific Ocean. (Most of the Beaver State’s survivors are located further east, in the Willamette River valley.)
            The coastal village of Yachats (pronounced YA – hotz) in honor of a Native American tribe of hunter/gatherer/farmer people who prospered there long before the arrival of Europeans. The word actually means people who live at the foot of the mountains. Settlers who were attracted by the rich soil, green and semi-tropical countryside adjacent to ocean riches, and a friendly year-round climate moderated by warm ocean currents found themselves with the north fork of the Yachats river hindering community growth. In 1938, Otis Hamar, a noted bridge-builder contracted to solve the problem with a 42-foot covered bridge featuring a classic queen post truss. Over the years time and mishaps left things a bit ragged, so in 1989 the bridge was rehabilitated and re-dedicated in keeping with Oregon’s commitment to making the state’s covered bridges honored historic landmarks.
        The drive to the North Fork bridge site snakes beside the Yachats river beneath a canopy of    hundred-year old          
hemlocks covered with deep layers of forest-like moss.

For its sheer charm and magnificent setting, the Yachats North Fork bridge becomes one of my two favorite Oregon survivors, right alongside the Currin bridge in Oregon’s Lane County, home to 20 of the finest.

         The last covered bridge built by the legendary “Uncle Ote” Hamar shows off the craftsmanship of a “lost breed” of master-builders who never entered an Engineering classroom.