Thursday, March 17, 2016


            It was the summer between my 2nd and 3rd grade school years that the decision was made that I would leave my immediate family and go to live with my Aunt Molly and Uncle Arthur on the “other side of town.” Newly turned eight and in a very formative point in becoming Me I was devastated, as was – I would learn many years later – my father. I had not been consulted on all of this and all I was told by the decision-makers was that I was at “a difficult age”. As I pen this column I am 82 plus years old and I must confess nothing has really changed. I must still be at a “difficult age” and still not reconciled to that long ago twist of familial fate. I only mention it here as a bit of necessary background to the larger story. (And I am after all a teller of stories at this end of my life.)
            My Aunt Molly was my Mom’s older and childless sister while Uncle Arthur was a talented concert-level violinist, musician and composer. An immigrant from England where he had once played before the king and queen, he was very “British” to the core. Together they set out to make of me a proper, well-mannered and educated young gentleman. And a Master of the violin. While life with the Knowles was formal and scheduled it was not without compensations for which I am ever-thankful. I regularly went to great museums, historic landmarks, steamship rides on the Hudson, visits to the aquarium, zoos, Broadway musicals, Operas and concerts of the Great performers of the time. Arthur would take me to the dressing rooms backstage where I would shake hands with people like Artur Rubenstein, Yehudi Menuhin and others whose names were seen mostly on posters and in The New York Times by others.
            At “home” in the very English Knowles cottage with its formal garden of pink petunias through which one had to traverse to reach the front door, I would learn exactly (by measurement) how to set a formal table for dinner with lace tablecloth, shining silverware and folded napkins just right, and – of course – just how Ms. Emily Post told us we must behave before those who might honor us with their presence. Even afternoon Tea (always imported from Derbyshire) had its ritualized routine.
            My upstairs bedroom was opposite the “Music Room” and I awoke and went to sleep to the sound of the classics. It was there Arthur’s String Quartet practiced on Wednesdays and where I performed (once in the morning, again after homework) outside of lesson-times. Over the headboard of my bed (hand-carved from English Cherry by Arthur’s brother) hung photos of the King and Queen keeping company with portraits of the two princesses which I could see on the opposite wall while I said my prayers. Uncle Arthur would “play me to sleep” most nights.
            I was sharp enough to recognize that my uncle was not an inordinately happy man and that much of the time he seemed lost and far away in his thoughts. When my third grade school year was over and I went back to my own home for the summer I caught snatches of adult conversations and hushed phone calls between my Mom and her sister. Finally I was told Uncle Arthur was being treated for a “nervous breakdown” and had been advised to go away for a quiet rest. From those quiet whispered adult conversations I learned that my own attempts to learn how to whistle had offended Arthur’s “ear” for absolute pitch. The period of prescribed “rest” ended after a few (obviously disappointing) days and I heard a lot of tsk tsk tsks going around in our household.
            On August 2, 1943 Arthur Knowles took his own life during the very brief absence from the home of my Aunt Molly. Evidence showed that he had carefully, even elaborately, prepared every detail needed to carry out his well-planned departure, right down to the brown paper bag which would spare his wife a glimpse of his face on the open door of the gas oven. The doorbell had been disconnected to eliminate the spark which would have passed when Molly found the door locked. His rimless eye glasses were neatly folded on the kitchen table. To the family’s knowledge he left no message. He was 57.
             No one attempted to explain to me how this could have happened to me. I was ten years of age on that day, after which I would never again return to the “English” Cottage on Washington Avenue. To this day I detest the very perfume of petunias – especially pink ones.
            Fifty years later while writing my personal history, I reached the chapter where I had to tell the “Uncle Arthur Story”; this story. In that painful process I was forced to exhume some of my most painful – even long-suppressed – memories and examine them carefully. It finally gave me the insight to lay feelings to rest and to render to this “reluctant interim-father and mentor” the thanks he deserved. And to forgive him. And myself.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  If you – especially my brother Veterans – or someone you know are even thinking about a “voluntary departure” PLEASE GET HELP. Call 1-800-273-TALK  (You will be giving a gift to the hundreds who care about your presence here.)

Monday, March 14, 2016


            October is garlic planting time, and so, since this year we had planned a vacation trip to coastal Oregon, we decided to stop in Baker City to meet the folks from whom we would be taking delivery of this year’s planting supply. The young mother who greeted us on a farm property she and her husband were rehabilitating, was delighted to welcome us. With five children – the youngest of whom was a precocious 2-year old daughter who followed us around – she was obviously one busy lady, personally operating a very active mail-order garlic business with a national clientele and freeing her husband to attend to a contracting business which took him away from home much of the time. Ushering us into her home she warned us that it was a “mess”.
            As we sat talking in her dining nook, I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander (discreetly I hoped) around the open area surrounding the kitchen and sitting room. On one side of the kitchen sink I saw a food dryer, on the other a pressure canner – both clearly in daily or regular use – while filled baskets of fruit and late garden vegetables waited nearby. Newly-baked loaves of bread cooled on racks and a wire-basket of eggs from their free-ranging flock had just been gathered. I could also see a sewing machine with work-in-process draped over a nearby table and colorful bobbins on an adjacent shelf. A desktop computer sat, surrounded with opened envelopes – probably with garlic orders (this business lady admitted that a personal note went out with every order – many of them east coast customers.)
            Later I followed her down a steep hand-made ladder into a dug root cellar to select and bag the four varieties of garlic bulbs we had decided on, and where I caught an eyeful of garden harvest and preserved goods still waiting to be shelved when time permitted. Bins of perfectly hand-cleaned and labeled garlic bulbs were everywhere, the planting crop separated from the culinary versions. (Larger bulbs are preferred by growers while smaller ones are more appropriate for chefs and home cooks.)
            When finished with “business” (she insisted on a discount which was altogether too generous,) we sat in her backyard talking about self-reliant living where her two-year-old clung to me like an adopted grand-daughter. “Once every three months” she apologized, “I drive to a Wal-Mart for the things we need but don’t grow, and we hold that list to a minimum.”
            As we drove away from the waving mother and daughter, I felt sheepish about leaving behind a gift copy of my book about self sufficiency. “How ridiculous” I told my wife, “we are the ones who should be taking lessons from Brooke!”
            Truth be told, I did find myself rejuvenated by the reminder that there really are young families like this one who still do care enough about clinging to a lifestyle which is often no more than a fond memory, in this case, on the very farm Brooke had grown up on in an earlier time and which had come up for sale at just the right time.
            Many memories of my own were conjured up during this pleasant visit in rural Oregon. The somewhat similar family farm and lifestyle which had surrounded my own teenage years came fully to mind as I recalled how it had passed from family hands to outside ownership for a mere pittance to my aging mother; one of the great misgivings of my life and one more consequence of an era in which parents often failed to communicate the facts of “family business” to their offspring.
             I have to confess to a moment of envy as we drove away from that country garlic farm that lovely October afternoon; a farm where really the most important crop was not garlic, but a happy family

Sunday, March 6, 2016


            More and more these days I take it upon myself to wear my black veteran’s hat when running errands round about. Not only is it a way of displaying the pride I feel personally in being an American veteran, but as a surviving representative of millions from a generation passing from view at the rate of thousands every day. (Fifty percent of my Korean War comrades are already gone.) An added and invaluable side benefit accrues as a result of the dozens of conversations that arise from the practice virtually every day. I and those fellow Vets who wear those proud symbols invite others to pause and think for an instant about the things we all have to be grateful for; an oft-heard comment is “thank you for being willing to show your pride”.
            Shopping at a Wal-Mart store last week I was approached by another “old-timer” who pointed at my cap as he put his hand out “Ahh Korea” he said, “I was there too.” We compared some details of our respective time and places of service, and then he added almost casually, “I was in World War Two also, serving with the 40th Division across Italy”. I looked at him with a new respect, thinking he doesn’t look old enough. Posing that question caused him to give off a big smile. “Why I’m 99,” he announced almost joyfully; “I gave my country 27 years of my life!” I was honored to render a hand salute to Sergeant Spendlove before moving on in an America still free thanks to a phalanx of men and women such as he.
            By some quirk of unspoken communication, veterans seem able to recognize each other even without some symbolic attire.  My wife and I were enjoying lunch at a well-known local restaurant one day. From my angle in our booth I observed just kitty-corner from us an older, disabled gentleman similarly engaged. I couldn’t help but notice him looking at me with uncommon interest from time to time. I was wearing no identifiable headgear on this occasion. As the couple rose to leave, his wife helping her husband into his walker, they headed right for our booth. Placing one hand on my shoulder he asked warmly “where and in which branch did you serve?” After a nice exchange of information, I asked him how he had identified me. All he could say was, “I knew as you walked in and the way you handled yourself the whole time.” It was not the first time I have had that experience, often with roles reversed.
            Among veterans of the American Civil War there emerged a comment of special respect when referring to another combat veteran: “He is one who has seen the elephant” they would say. In “soldier speak” the reference carved out a special niche of honor for those who had seen frontline combat. In those days traveling circuses were not all that common, nor was the likelihood of getting to see the largest of its animal stars. It was a way of paying a special compliment in public knowing that only other veterans nearby would recognize the meaning.
            As a small boy I knew veterans of the Spanish-American War, including an uncle who had ridden with Teddy Roosevelt, and of course World War I, including my own father, his twin brother and others in our town including Louie Meyer who had fought for the Boche. Later I would study under teachers who suffered from poison gas attacks all their life. Then there were those men with white beards, wearing black “slouch” hats with the emblems “GAR” as they rode by in parades; “Lincoln’s Boys”. Members of the Grand Army of the Republic.
            I have noted that at least 50% of all the young men who stop to shake my hand and say “thank you” turn out to be veterans of the Gulf Wars today when I press them. They are serious, sincere and unmistakable bearers of that true sense of brotherhood which knows no generational boundary. They make me proud all over again.
             I have worn out one black hat and now have a new one.