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                I have shpilkes, a chronic case.  I have to admit it.  There’s nothing I can do about it.  The Yiddish term, shpilkes, simply means “needles”.  Colloquially, it came to mean “ants in the pants” or a desire to move about.  This could be a good thing or a bad thing.  If you’re concentrating on your upcoming bar exam, and the person next to you has a case of shpilkes, it’s a bad thing.  If you’re in an aisle seat on a red-eye flight and finally falling into a gentle, dream-filled sleep, and the nervous passenger next to you has shpilkes, it’s a bad thing.  If your to-do list is longer than your day, then a friend with shpilkes can be a good thing.                                                     

                  Shpilkes can be hard to trace genetically.  My great grandfather, Simon Glinor, crossed the Atlantic on his own for America in 1904.  It could have been shpilkes.  Or it could have been any one of the valid reasons Jews were leaving Russia.  The state-sponsored pogroms weren’t much fun.  Or Poppy may have avoided being conscripted for the Russo-Japanese War.  Family lore doesn’t include any hint of Simon’s wish to expand the Czarist Empire or his exhibiting any hatred of the Japanese.  And once he arrived in Philadelphia, he stayed put, working as a tailor and raising six children.

It’s equally doubtful that I picked up shpilkes from my parents.  They didn’t seek new adventures and seemed pretty satisfied with the usual trips, renting an apartment in Atlantic City every summer, spending a long weekend in the Catskills every winter, and taking us kids out of school and driving down to Florida for ten days every January.  For me, a week of sunshine was far preferable to the tedium of Philadelphia’s public schools.

Every Florida trip followed this predictable pattern: As we helped Dad remove his sweaty, tan work boots, he gave the Evening Bulletin sports page a quick glance, and muttered something under his breath about his hot tip running second- again.  The suspicion that there would be a quiet dinner hour was erased when Mom said, “Well, at least in a few weeks, you’ll be on vacation.”  With January approaching, we were preparing for our weeklong stay at the Cadillac Hotel in Miami Beach.  Every year, about the same time, when the meat business slowed down after the holidays, we loaded up the car and headed south.  The Lincoln Continental, a replacement required by the previous model’s ashtrays filling up with Dad’s cigar ashes, had plenty of trunk space and, in theory, enough room for three kids in the back seat.  To this day, my sister, Hedy, refutes this.  She never enjoyed the game where Steve would ask me, “What’d you eat for lunch, Rob?”  I’d answer, “A sandwich,” followed by the squeezing of our little sister.  When we tired of that, we could fall back on, “And what’d you have for dinner?”…. “Squash,” with the same result.  To Hedy’s regret, we equally reveled in having her search unsuccessfully for the fur on the Chesapeake Bay ferry boat.

Prior to the building of the Interstates, the twenty-four hour drive was punctuated with a hotel stop in one of the Carolinas. Dad would be behind the wheel the whole way except when Mom assisted in his peeling off a layer of clothes once we crossed the Florida state line.  (Then Mom could honestly report that she helped with the driving.)  On most trips, getting out of Georgia without a speeding ticket was cause for celebration.  There are always exceptions.

With regard to the speed limit, Dad held firm to the belief that state troopers will give you five miles per hour and allow you to take another five.  We were cruising at a modest sixty-nine miles an hour, so Dad was unconcerned when he spied a county sheriff in the rear view mirror.  His crooning of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” was soon interrupted by his tapping on the brake pedal as the patrol car got closer.   Within a few minutes, we were on the side of dusty Highway 17 with cars and trucks whizzing by, the drivers’ puzzled faces apparently asking, “How could you get caught here?  Everyone knows there’s a speed trap just before the Florida state line.”

The officer began with, “Didn’t y’all hear my sireeen?” and closed with, “Y’all can contest the charges on February twenty seven, or you can plead guilty right soon in front of the judge.”  Dad only had a week’s winter vacation, so there was really only one viable choice

Dad’s attempt to introduce a third option by opening his wallet and asking, “Officer, can I just pay the fine right now?” fell flat.  The portly officer grunted, adjusted his mirrored sun glasses, and bent a little closer.  Dad was thankful that the officer’s protruding belly prevented him from getting bad breath close.  The interval allowed false hope to build up before the question, “Sir, y’all attempting to bribe an officer of the law?”

“No, Sir.”  That was about as succinct as my father ever got.  The officer handed him a ninety dollar speeding ticket and asked us to follow him.  The burly, proud officer took my father’s Ten-Years-at-Fleekop’s-Wholesale-Meats wristwatch as collateral to ensure that we wouldn’t get separated.   The officer led us down an even dustier side road leading to Main Street, St. Mary’s, Georgia, where he was led into Bill’s Barber Shop.  The rest of us stretched our legs, and through the glass, we observed Bill the Barber remove his white linen smock, shake the gray hairs off of it, and replace it with a judge’s black judicial robe.  He presumably changed back after Dad handed over the money.  Mom brought us down Main Street to Woolworth’s to shop for penny candy.   Kids learn at a young age when not to ask for more details.

When Dad caught up with us, he suggested, “We’ll stop for gas as long as we’re here.”  After the sweets, the “Whites Only” restrooms at the station provided timely relief.

The full tank got us all the way to Miami Beach where the first stop was the ritualistic drinking of Dad’s pina colada at Lee’s Health Bar on Collins Avenue.  That’s when the vacation truly began.  This was followed by time at the beach and pool for the rest of us while Dad flitted from jai alai to the dog track and to Hialeah Park racetrack  The ninety dollars missing from his bankroll would barely be noticed.

 

 

Dad’s dream to retire in Florida was reinforced by visits to my aunts who lived in Pompano Beach.  Edna and Fran were different from our northern relatives, sporting sun tans, Bermuda shorts, and floppy hats all year long. They tended a flower garden and sipped martinis before dinner.  None of these habits were important to my dad.  I think he admired their zeal for life.

The annual jaunt to Florida was fun, certainly preferable and more educational than a week in Philadelphia’s public schools.  But they were hardly enough to bring about my case of shpilkes.  Maybe it started with my uncle, Booker.

Booker’s inability to pronounce “Victor” as a youngster was responsible for his nickname.  He was seventeen years younger than my dad and only a few years older than my brother and me.  We never called him “Uncle” as he was more of a contemporary.  I can’t call Booker a playmate because he never played.  No, he stuck to his studies and told jokes and sung song parodies that were over our heads.  His success at West Catholic High School helped him become the first in our family to attend college.  As a result, Booker acquired a wider world view.  At LaSalle College, he met and married Celia, who wore loose fitting, black clothes, and granny glasses.  Her long brown hair hid most of her face, so I cannot accurately comment on her looks.  I guess the young couple qualified as beatniks.

In the summer of 1967, the newlyweds were heading to Montreal for a long weekend.  I am not sure why, but they invited Steve and me to accompany them.  Maybe our presence could provide a buffer zone between the combatants if any disagreements arose.  My mom had some misgivings as she didn’t trust Booker’s Corvair.  Although it was an upgrade over the Vespa motor bike that he used to bring my grandmother to family gatherings, she asked, “Didn’t Walter Cronkite report about some safety issues with Corvairs?” But Booker, magma cum laude that he was, had done his homework.  On cue, he produced an article from “Car and Driver” magazine where a reporter, wearing a flame-retardant suit, repeatedly rear-ended a Corvair and was unable to cause the kind of accidents being reported by the CBS Evening News.  So Mom relented.  Grandma Mollie approved of the Corvair once she saw that the bucket seats weren’t really buckets, but plush faux leather.  I suspect that Dad bribed Booker because a long, hot, summer weekend without his two high school age sons might provide welcome relief.  Steve and I promised to behave.  Our first trip to a foreign country was set in motion.

I really didn’t know much about Montreal back in 1967.  I knew they had a hockey team with players whose names sounded more like French desserts than athletes.  I also knew Canadians from the Jersey shore. They wore short shorts and spoke French.  I had learned a few phrases from Miss Demarco’s French class back in Robert E. Lamberton elementary school.  I could say, “Bonjour,” and ask, “Quelle heure est-il?”  What could go wrong?

Celia was in charge of directions, relying on AAA’s maps and Booker’s scrawled notes based on suggestions from a Canadian friend.  She asked rhetorically,” Why do super intelligent people always have to have sloppy handwriting?”  The only problem was when we crossed the border and were looking for Highway 15A.  Celia insisted that the 15 led us straight to Montreal.  Booker produced a red beret from the glove box and corrected his wife. “C’est ‘Mon Ray AL’ now that we’re in Canada.”  At that point, Steve and I began to call him “Frenchie” behind his back.

Later on, when we couldn’t find Frontage Road A, Booker remembered that Canadians say “Eh” at the end of every phrase.  He commandeered the directions from Celia’s lap and crossed out the “A” at the end of every line.  After checking in at a motel, the plan was to get a good night’s sleep and head to the “Mon Re Al” Expo 67 the next morning.  I’d get a chance to spend the money I’d been earning flipping burgers at Mr. Ed’s Drive-In.  A dollar an hour salary went pretty far in the nineteen sixties.

Saturday’s festivities started at La Ronde amusement park, where Steve and I rode every jarring ride until our stamina was exhausted.  Booker suggested the Humor exhibit as a cheap, grounded alternative.  The exhibit featured political cartoons from around the world which Booker tried to explain to his politically naïve compatriots.  Celia, as Booker’s newly wedded wife, had to pretend to be interested in his explanations.  Steve and I had no conjugal obligations, so we edged along at our own pace.  I soon found myself in front of “Punch” magazine caricatures that I didn’t recognize.  I turned to look for Steve.  As I did, I was overwhelmed by the exotic allure of perfume.  It emanated from a statuesque, fashionably dressed girl perhaps a few years older than I.  I considered it improbable that she would be interested in me.

She stopped next to me, struck a dramatic pose, and appeared to be trying to interpret the same cartoon.  I immediately offered the best line I could imagine:  “Oh, hello.”  The mystery woman breathily replied, “Bonjour,” sounding like Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island”.  (I preferred the earthy Mary Ann, but I wasn’t going to complain.) I dug deep and mentally scrolled through everything I recalled from French class.  I knew the names of various fruits and vegetables, the lyrics to “La Plume de ma Tante” and “La Marseilaise” and the numbers une through vingt.  All were useless.  I sputtered, “Comment s’apellez?”

The pretty madamoiselle smiled and answered, “Je m’apelle Michelle.”  Things were falling into place perfectly!  Thanks to Paul McCartney, I now had another phrase or two I could use, although I didn’t know if Michelle was prepared to be called ”Ma Belle” after thirty seconds of my company.  I told her my name and continued pantomiming information.  I also drew upon the Spanish that had been reinforced during my recent Incarceration at Atlantic City High summer school mastering the language that I refused to learn during the regular school year.  With my family now gone from sight, I led Michelle back to La Ronde, where we took advantage of those attractions with minimal need for dialogue.

As darkness approached, Michelle indicated that she needed to return to the Hillel hostel.  Accompanying her seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do.  We rode the subway, where I hoped that the decibel level of the screeching wheels would give me an excuse not to parler francais too much.  I could not express my surprise to see that the train rode on quiet, rubber wheels.  What a concept!

We ambled through the streets of the Old City.  I spent my last few Canadian dollars at a street stall on a croissant with ham and cheese, which I shared.  A nearby concertina squeezed out a romantic melody.  Instinctively, I reached out to take hold of Michelle’s hand.  She accepted.  Now what?  If I could find the words, I considered asking Michelle to marry me and move to a place like Tibet, Tonga, or Timbuktu where we could learn to communicate in a new language favoring neither of us.  Michelle interrupted my dreams of faraway places to point out the steps leading up to her hostel.  In the evening darkness, I could barely make out the bilingual sign indicating that the doors would reopen at 8:00 the next morning.  There was no doorbell, and knocking brought no response.   I could not invite Michelle back to “my place” because I didn’t know its name or location.  I also lacked the funds to get us there.

Michelle motioned for me to follow her into the alley alongside the hostel.  We passed a few rats rummaging through the garbage cans.  These rodents were not the cute, whiskered lab rats who elicited sympathy when tenth grade biology students were forced to perform surgery on their carcasses.  These were what my classmates would call “ghetto rats,” large, bubonic plague carriers endemic to Norway before conquering the world.  Their shpilkes were genetic.  Their collective squeak turned to a squeal as we interrupted their late dinner.  Their look suggested they were fully capable of vengeance for my role in subjecting their cousins to experimentation, though I could honestly plead that my part was definitely involuntarily.

I caught sight of an overhead fire escape with its ladder a few feet out of reach.  Utilizing one of the trash cans as a support was a possibility, but I already was on the rats’ bad side. I was about to leap for the bottom rung when I noticed the counterweight dangling precariously above my head.  A newspaper headline appeared before my eyes: “Faceless Foreign Couple Found by Police in Dark Alley,” and I reconsidered.  Instead, we headed to the back porch where a distant street lamp emitted enough light for us to see a tattered sofa.  Michelle shrugged her shoulders as she placed its pillows on the floor.  She lay down with her back to me, and our romantic evening’s adventure ended with a gentle, “Bonsoir, cher Robert.”

I experienced a restless on-and-off sleep filled with Michelle’s perfume nearly overwhelming the moldy scent of the sofa and nearby garbage cans.  I rolled over to find Michelle’s long hair covering my eyes.  Except for the buzzing of an unseen transformer, the night was still.  The rats apparently moved on to dessert somewhere else.  When I observed the creaking of footsteps above us, I knew I had survived the night.  Michelle woke up with a lot to say.  The words I understood were mes ami, merci, and au revoir.  Unlike the Beatles’ “Michelle”, this budding dalliance would not end with an inconclusive fade-out.  I combed my hair, brushed my teeth with my fingernails, and returned to the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.  The exaltation of finding love, however fleeting, in a foreign country was waning, replaced by the reality of my situation.

Desperately needing a plan, I recalled that Booker spoke of touring the Old City on Sunday.  I could wander around, looking for his red beret above the crowd.  Surely, my family would be looking for me, though it was too early to begin my search as I was equally sure they’d take advantage of the free buffet breakfast at the motel first.  This glimmer of hope was dampened when I felt the first few raindrops fall from the increasingly graying sky.  I sought shelter under the canopy of a shuttered café, wondering if I could hitchhike south to Philadelphia with no money, my newly acquired driver’s license, and only the clothes I wore.  This is when Fate, the Shpilke gods, or old-fashioned good luck intervened.

An oddly shaped, tin can of a convertible pulled to a stop by the curb where I stood.  Before I could ask for assistance, the driver, a thirty-something brunette, said, “Pardonnez-moi,” and a lot of fast-paced French words I didn’t understand.  I wondered if I was starring in a “Twilight Zone” episode.  Was I destined to face a never-ending entourage of progressively older, good-looking foreigners, until I got to the headless specter of Marie Antoinette, who was unimpressed by my knowledge of petite pois et pommes de terre?  Was Rod Serling nearby, puffing on a cigarette, attempting to explain my situation to a baffled audience?

Or maybe plain old me, whose social life had previously consisted of poker games, the pool hall, and Brandywine Raceway, had found my niche.  Maybe my hitherto ordinary looks were considered exotic now that I had traveled to a foreign country.  Maybe I was a chick magnet after all!  I slicked my trace of a moustache into place and spoke a few words of English.  The driver asked, “Do you think you could help me with my top?” This mystery woman aroused my attention.  Then she explained that unrolling the top of her car was easier with two people.  “If it’s not straight, it leaks in the rain.”  We succeeded in getting the convertible top up with minimal effort.  She thanked me, then I turned on my not-really-crying-but-looking-like-I-needed-a-favor face.

She asked what was wrong, and I did my best not to make it sound like a Marx Brothers routine. “I need to get back to my family.”

“Oh, where are they?”

“They’re probably at the motel.”

“Which one?  Maybe I can take you there. I have a little spare time.”  I had to admit that I didn’t know the name.  “Do you know where the motel is, or what it looks like?”

“It looks like most motels.  It has a lobby, and a desk clerk.”  When we checked in, I had been too weary from the long drive to pay attention to seemingly insignificant images that might have helped.  I concentrated, and then remembered.  “It was on Frontage Road.”

She explained, “Frontage just means a side road off a highway.  Do you know which highway? Did you come up from the States?  It must be the 15.” At no time did she say, “Ah! Another stupid American,” but I’m sure she was thinking it.

After I mentioned that the motel was one of many behind a short chain-linked fence, her look was the first really positive sign of the morning.  “Come with me.  We’ll find it!”

During the ride, I learned that my new friend was named Yvette.  After a short drive, we found ourselves along a familiar fence.  I scanned the parking lots until I saw Booker’s white Corvair in front of the Quality Inn.  Yvette accompanied me to the desk to confirm that this was the right place.  I felt odd, asking, “Am I staying here?  My name is Allekotte.”

A few minutes later, we joined Booker, Celia, and Steve at the buffet breakfast.  Booker seemed relieved. “I was thinking of ways to break the news of your disappearance to your parents. We had no body to produce, so drowning in the St. Lawrence River or alien abduction were possibilities.”

Celia chimed in, “I was going to tell them you joined a commune.”  Looking to Booker she added, “I think about doing that sometimes.”  I didn’t know her well enough to know if she was joking.

At the buffet line, Steve confided, “I sort of knew where you were, but she looked a lot younger yesterday.  I told ‘Frenchie’ that she was about twenty.”  We decided to let Booker figure this one out for himself.  If he believed that I could add years to a woman’s age in one night, he might view me in a different light.

After breakfast, we all walked Yvette back to her car.  Frenchie, who had donned his beret on the way out, exclaimed, “Wow!  A Citroen 2CV!  I was thinking about importing one until I found out that Chevy came up with the Corvair to compete with the 2CV and the Beetle.  You see, I wanted to buy American, but I didn’t want to be part of Detroit’s planned obsolescence.”  Yvette, nonplussed, had the same non-reaction as the rest of us.  She excused herself, saying she was late for her morning mass.  She winked at me as she climbed into the driver’s seat.

I called out, “Merci.  Au revoir!” as Yvette drove off.  Frenchie suggested, “After we pack up, we’ll head to La Vielle Ville,” self-satisfied that all three of us had to be told it meant the Old City.  It looked very different the second time around, by daylight, and without Michelle to command my attention.  I didn’t think about her until the long ride back to Philadelphia.

What did I learn from my night of living dangerously?  A few words of French came back to me.  I was determined to take my eleventh grade French class seriously, not rebelling like I did the previous two years in Spanish class.  Besides, transforming the barely passing, slacker me into an honor student could mean the difference between four years of college or being drafted into the U.S. Army.  I learned that subways could be quiet and efficient.  A big city could be clean and inviting.  Canadians were, indeed, as nice as their reputations.  Seeing and doing new things could be fun and exciting.  But what about females?

Michelle was pretty and fun. She appeared to enjoy my company.  Trusting strangers had worked out all right so far.  Of course, Michelle or Yvette could have been the types you see in horror movies, femmes fatales who drug and incapacitate unsuspecting young men and sell their vital organs on the black market.  Many things could have gone wrong on my first foreign escapade.  But they didn’t.  Of course, I couldn’t disagree with anything Michelle said because we spoke different languages.

Instead of ending up in an Old City dumpster, my belief in people and my desire to meet them all over the world whenever I could were reinforced.  The rest of this memoir confirms this inescapable part of me.  My shpilkes remain a positive influence on everything I do.  Michelle taught me that the planet contained at least one young lady who shared my favorite personality trait.  Were there others?  How could I meet them?

 

 Chapter 32:  The Next Trip

I’ve got friends all over the world!

Katinka, our Norwegian friend, greeted us at the door, “Howdy.  Why don’t y’all come on in now?”  I was expecting Sonya Henie but got Ellie May Clampett instead.  I learned that our host had gleaned her English from country music with a lyrical twang accompanying everything she said.  We spoke more of Opryland than Oslo, and she wanted to know about my pilgrimage to Graceland.  “Did you meet Elvis?  Was Ann-Margaret there too?  Does he really eat fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches?  Does he shake like that when he’s not singing?”  My uninformed answers must have disappointed my new friend.

We chose our Scandinavian hosts from a host list, generally not really knowing where we were going.  They included a real live opera diva operating a combination mini-golf /drive-in theater, one of the first women to sail solo through many of the world’s waterways. We visited Ole, a writer of Sweden’s most famous texts on psychology.  He lectured me on the correct way to wash dishes: “Ve don’t stack dem.  Den ve haff to vash de top and de bottom, too.  Dis vastes vater!”

Getting from host to host was easy, as everyone seemed to know one another.  We hitch-hiked on isolated roads; and everyone with room in the vehicle stopped.  They invariably said things like, “Oh.  Bjorn lives by the second ski jump.  I can take you there,” or, “Anna lives in the house with the spruce trees on the roof by the salmon ladder.”

We attempted to get to Trondheim in the Land of the Midnight Sun but decided to retreat when the few passing cars were too full to allow space for us and our backpacks.  As we crossed the road, an antique, dusty hearse rattled to a stop.  We heard three college age men chanting, “Dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock” repeatedly.  Afterward, a disc jockey announced, “Elvis Presley døde i dag i en alder av førtito.”  This was followed by “Hound Dog,” Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Burning Love”.  When each song ended with the same Norwegian announcement, I exclaimed to Bette, “How about that?  Not only do we get a ride as soon as we cross the road, but they have an ‘All Elvis, All-the-Time’ station.”

The driver corrected me as he translated, “No. They’re saying that Elvis Presley died today at the age of forty two.”   I was surprised but not devastated.  The King’s music was enjoyable and fun listening, though I never accepted him as the Savior.  His untimely death helped teach me my first Norwegian phrase, but it wouldn’t be useful after that day.  And it wasn’t even a good pick-up line.

Our tickets to Europe included a free stopover in Iceland.  Our new friend, Ingrid Helmutsdottir, met us at the American-run airport (a perk of Iceland’s being strategically placed on top of the mid-Atlantic ridge).  By law, everyone’s name ends with –son or –dottir, necessitating the telephone book’s having to list occupations alongside surnames.

As a welcome gift, Ingrid invited us to Gullfoss, the waterfall where two tectonic plates are driving the New and Old Worlds further apart, for a traditional Icelandic picnic.  She used the geysers to boil eggs and sausages.  For dessert, fresh bananas grown in her thermally heated greenhouse were offered.

Ingrid suggested we visit the Westman Islands.  I recalled the film, Season of Fire, I had shown at school where the locals came out every morning to shovel volcanic ash in the same way we shovel snowdrifts at home.  Their snow plows had sculpted an improved harbor to increase their capacity to harvest the surrounding seas.  Though the five hour ferry ride was bouncy, it was worth the trip.  The lava was no longer flowing from Heimaey, but it felt warm to the touch.  Half of the town was inhabited, the other half a ghost town with hardened lava covering it, a modern day Pompeii with no tourists but us.

Back on the mainland, Ingrid directed us to one of the earth’s few remaining land-based whaling stations.  I developed an interest in the bloody business when I taught Judy Blume’s Blubber and Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing.  My photos of flensers’ hacking away knee deep inside of putrid, steaming whale carcasses would make my teaching more memorable.  The workers’ blasé attitudes suggested that they didn’t see many tourists.

Iceland

The only Icelandic experience I regret is my sampling a certain dessert.  It looked innocent enough: gleaming, shivering, and yellow.  When Ingrid placed it in front of me, I thought, Jell-O: Bill Cosby’s favorite. I can handle that.  But as soon as it reached my taste buds, I gagged as politely and indiscreetly as possible.  Ingrid inquired, “Haven’t you tried aspic before?  It’s a traditional Scandinavian dessert.”  It gave me an explanation why the Vikings left home so often.

I pretended to cough and spit the spoonful into my napkin.  When Bette realized that I had lost my ability to speak, she asked, “What’s aspic?”

“It’s made with fish stock, gelatin, and salt.”  It probably wouldn’t have been as bad if I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for Jell-O, thinking I’d be surreptitiously swishing it around in my mouth for a while to allow the taste of the main course, herring, to dissipate.  Bette covered for me between laughs as I headed off to the toilet to ensure that my tongue was still functioning.  Boiled fish stock for dessert?  I sat a while, fearing that tuna fish ice pops will be served next.

A summer in Japan included a free stopover in Hawaii where our Maui host began his day by hunting down a wild pig that was addicted to his crops.  Did you know Hawaii had wild pigs?  I didn’t.

Our diminutive Japanese host, Megumi, greeted us at the door with packaged yukata in hand.  The one-size-fits-all bath robes barely covered my pubic hair.  Would I have to wear them in front of my new friend?  I knew that I couldn’t cross my legs as displaying the bottom of the feet is taboo in many Asian cultures.

My dilemma was solved when Megumi led us to the guest house where she indicated that it is time for the onsen.  Was it an insult or just a cultural difference that she strongly suggested we take a bath before conversing with her?  I removed the plastic cover to reveal a steaming tub, already filled to the brim with the water from the last few bathers. I was aware that we should lather up and rinse before entering the tub from my time teaching at Philadelphia’s Civic Center Museum, but my large American body sent half of the water to the floor.  Megumi was polite enough not to mention it.

After hearing that I was a drummer, Megumi invited us to the evening’s Nebuta Festival and requested that I join her neighborhood band.  I donned another yukata, one that covered enough of me to prevent arrest for indecent exposure.  Shortly after, I was head and shoulders above the band of parading drummers. I quickly learned that one doesn’t just play the large rolling kettle drum.  I threw myself into it with the enthusiasm of a samurai in battle.  Keeping up with the rhythmic chants was easy except the long bamboo drum sticks vibrated in my clenched fists every time I contacted the drum.  My hands were bleeding within five minutes.  Host Megumi suggested two solutions: A first aid kit was utilized immediately, as well as a substitute, genuine local drummer, drafted well before we were within earshot of the judges’ stand.

Blog 2 004

My Unsuccessful Audition

Back in the U.S., we were warmly greeted by Al and Linda.  Twenty miles of dusty, narrow, unpaved roads led to their sprawling cattle ranch.  Horse-lovers Micole and Alana took advantage of the opportunity to participate in a real round-up.  Since I get saddle sores after fifteen minutes, and Bette doesn’t like having only a twelve hundred pound animal between her and the earth, we offered to assist in other ways.  We volunteered to play ranch hands for the day.  Al instructed, “You see those depressions along the perimeter of the pen?  Young bulls prowl along the fence to mark their territory.  The depressions they create cause the fencing to collapse, so we need somebody to roll tires into place to provide a border between the bulls and the fencing.  It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it.  I just picked up a truckload of recycled tires yesterday.  Interested?”  I looked around and observe no one named “somebody”.

I thought back on tires like those I’ve changed over the years, just before they become backyard swings.  How difficult could the job be?  But the tires in Al’s truck were from eighteen wheelers and tractors, big enough to set myself into and roll into oblivion.  Like many of life’s tasks, it was fun for fifteen minutes or so, but we soon felt stiff, sore, and dirty.  We switched to clearing tangled tumbleweeds from the barbed wire.  We had to look to one another and admit that, even though I’ve worn Wrangler jeans since I was old enough to choose my own clothes, we were city slickers.  I was thankful that my ancestors left the family farm behind in Kirkhellen, Germany.

The roads leading to the pens were newly paved, a far cry from those we bounced along to get to Al.  I mentioned my surprise to Al.  He wryly answered, “I should thank you for those roads.”  I asked for an explanation.  “Well, the Feds need places to store their MX missiles.  I offered my land, and they just have to build roads to get to the missiles in care of emergency.  At taxpayer expense, of course.  So I thank you.”  He added with a smile, “My peacenik bride, Linda, and some of her cohorts once chained herself and friends to the security fence in protest of one of our incursions overseas.  I forget which war it was.”

One road led to a ghost town straight out of Little House on the Prairie.  Pointing to an abandoned house, Al said, “This is where my grandparents struggled to raise rhubarb. That old windmill is still clanging and bringing water to the cattle.  We got some dinosaur fossils nearby.  I’m negotiating with the Japanese.  They want to open a theme park, but the location’s a little remote for most people.  I’ve got a paleontologist lined up in case the deal falls through.”

For dinner, Al proudly served the prime cuts from the ranch’s finest Black Angus. He had been saving them like a fine wine for a special occasion.  Though mostly vegetarian, I have to admit it was tasty.  I reminded myself that Mohandas Gandhi himself dined on steak while attending a London University, and he turned out all right.

We headed south to a trailer home in Mesa Verde National Park.  It belonged to a ranger who provided an after-hours personal tour of the ruins.  I hit my head on a low ceiling. Ancient Anasazi voices called out to me, but I am unsure what they are saying.  Where was Carlos Castaneda when I needed him?

A New Orleans host’s address included the letters “PH”.  We located the place within a renovated cotton mill in the warehouse district.   There we learned that “PH” stood for penthouse.  Our host asked, “Do you plan on going over to Jazzfest?”  Of course, we did; but we nonchalantly waited to see if they had any alternative plans for us.  He added, “We have VIP tickets that include backstage passes to Pearl Jam.  We won’t be using them.  If you want them, they’re yours.”  We were also invited to test out some new recipes in the nearby gourmet restaurant where their daughter worked as a chef.  I didn’t admit that I was ignorant of Pearl Jam’s music, but I can be a fast learner when free passes are involved.

Mississippi was low on our lists of places to visit, but we made a stopover after the festival.  “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi” came to mind from my childhood as a way of counting down in touch football or hide-and-seek.  In college, I was force-fed William Faulkner, whose sentences were as long and convoluted as the genealogies of his characters.  As we grew older, we had Mississippi Burning and Weather Channel Gulf Coast hurricane reports as sad Mississippi reference points.  But there we were, visiting Mennonites, Larry and Maxine, in a one-horse town two hours north of Jackson. Some of my preconceived images rang true: catfish were jumping.  We waited out the afternoon thunderstorms on a wrap-around porch.  We visited a massive headstone proudly memorializing the grave of a KKK Grand Cyclops.  We walked the site where Andrew Jackson betrayed his former allies, the Choctaw, expelling them to Indian Country in Oklahoma.  After a home-cooked Southern dinner, a boyhood dream was realized.  Larry invited me to operate a real tractor!

The guest house was in a former dormitory of a “Colored Girls School”, indicated by the faded sign over the door.  Victims of domestic abuse and Hurricane Katrina sought refuge there.  Two teenage boys whose parents wouldn’t let them attend the neighborhood public school because “they might mix with the wrong people” served as farmhands.  We discussed racial politics as I taught them to install ceiling fans.  They learned of my first crush, an untouchable Black cheerleader, and of my many friends who abandoned Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School for the same reason.  They told me, “Philadelphia, Mississippi is just up the road a piece.”  Afterward, Larry pointed out the swamp where the Freedom Riders were found.

But I also envisioned hope. Immediately after Larry pointed out the cannon outside the polling station which was set up as a reminder that it still may not be safe for some Mississippians to vote, we stopped for coffee in a fully integrated internet café.  We met many people like our hosts who are trying to eradicate the stereotypes and injustices of the past.

By now, you wonder: How do two public schoolteachers get to experience so much of the world on our meager salaries?  Here’s the roundabout answer:

I was thinking that Halloween parties never get old.  I must have had a few beers because I found myself dancing.  At least, it was a version of me bouncing across our parlor parquet dance floor.  I was an unconvincing Aunt Jemima, well-padded and brown-faced long before it became unfashionable at best and racist at worst for white people to revel in costume as Black people.  Despite my uneven skin tone, other men at the party found my get-up attractive.  Liberace groped me every time he sashayed by.  And Herve Villachaise, an odd combination of the “This Old House” and “Fantasy Island” hosts, bedecked with a loose belt full of carpentry tools, salaciously whispered “De Plane” every time we passed.  It was hard to take him seriously because, groveling on knee pads, he only came up to Jemima’s voluminous waist.  I was considering writing a transvestite version of Black Like Me when a mysterious woman, face obscured behind a peacock-feathered, Mardi Gras mask, asked me to dance.  (Women are even more mystifying on October 31.)  I accepted.  Halfway through “Boogie Nights”, she bellowed, “Don’t you recognize me?”  How could I?  The flashing discount disco lights allowed only occasional glimpses of her bright blue eyes.  The thumping bass line made recognition of familiar voices impossible.

Summoning my increasingly diminishing perceptive powers, I responded, “I don’t know who you are, but I might have seen that dress at a party on Ninth Street three or four years ago.”  Bette taught me that women like to hear about their clothes.

“That was my party on Ninth Street!”  I had a good excuse for sketchy recollections because that Halloween bash was my first real date with Bette.  All other celebrants remained far off in the background.  “It’s me, Nini!”

Not wanting to admit to my faulty memory, I followed up, shouting, “Where have you been?”

“I left Penn Treaty to travel around the world for three years!”

I understood the leaving Penn Treaty part.  Most staff members left as soon as they could.   I adjusted my bra strap as I asked, “How did you travel for three years on your small salary?”  I thought I heard the words “working the galley on a shrimp boat in Austria” and “joining service”, but I nodded as if I heard everything.  A trio of ninja brandishing nunchaku gliding across the dance floor captured my attention.  Were they invited?  Would they become the guests who hang around well after the music ends, too drunk to help straighten up?  I concentrated and remembered the numbers, 9-1-1, hoping I’d be able to recall them if the situation warranted.  Desperately needing to board a new train of thought, I excused myself and headed toward the dining room bar.

I reviewed the short conversation with Nini as Bette and I sleepily rehashed the party the next morning, only I called her Tugboat Nini.  “I talked to her, too.  Only it’s not ‘Nini’.  It’s Mimi.  And she worked on a shrimp boat in Australia.  You don’t remember her from Penn Treaty?”

Ah.  Australia made more sense.  I was having trouble imagining the Von Trappe’s kids’ pulling marionette strings and singing, “High on a hill stood a lonely shrimper….”  The masks and the alcohol-in-the-blood level provided convenient excuses for my lack of attention to detail.  “And it’s Servas.  S-E-R-V-A-S, not ‘service’, but that’s what it means in Esperanto.  Mimi (M-I-M-I) told me about it too.  It does sound too good to be true.  She said that she stayed with people in fourteen different countries for free.”  Many Halloween party conversations sound incredibly intelligent and witty at the time, but seem pretty inane upon sober reflection.  We pledged to find out more about Servas the following week.

A phone call and subsequent letter led to an interviewer in a renovated carriage house on a side street in center city Philadelphia.  Maybe I should have worn something dressier than Wranglers.  I wondered if Servas was only for rich people.  We soon discovered that the interview process was to help us decide if Servas was right for us.

The concept is surprisingly simple.  People around the open their homes to travelers.  No money is exchanged between traveler and host.  What we give is time.  What we show is an interest in learning about differing cultures.   What we hope for is peace because people who know and respect one another are less like to declare war on one another.  Though Servas provides (almost) free accommodation, its members want it to be known as a peace organization.  After signing up, we bought discounted Icelandic Air round trip tickets to Luxembourg and requested host lists for Scandinavia.  Each detailed contact information and brief personal descriptions.  We sought those who spoke English.  The meetings described at the start of this chapter were all Servas visits.  We’ve been traveling with the organization since 1978.

I also got to fulfill every traveler’s dream of writing travel articles.  It began inauspiciously with a phone call. A Southerner drawled, “Do you think you might want to join our Board of Directors?  You’ve been recommended as a strong candidate.”  That only meant that I attended a few meetings out of curiosity.

“I don’t know.”  I confessed, “I’m not very good at finance or technology, so I don’t think I’d be of much use.”

“Ah, don’t you mind about that. Commitment to the organization is the most important qualification.”  I volunteered, and within a few years was Board Chair.  It may sound like an impressive title, but it mostly meant that, during conference calls, I got to tell longwinded board members what everyone else was thinking, that it was time to move on.

I represented U.S. Servas at the 2009 international conference in Argentina.  It was held in Mar de Plata, a summer resort as pretty as its name.  Unfortunately, the limited Servas budget precluded that we meet in early spring complete with wind and driving rain, so we had to imagine how nice it could have been.  My greatest impression was that Servas was run democratically.  Yearly membership fees go toward having the poorer member nations attend the tri-annual conference.  The talkative group, representing fifty countries, discussed and voted upon policy and budget.

After the meeting, Bette and I put the Argentina host list to good use.  We started in Bariloche, the gateway to Patagonia.  The Andean ski resort is the get-away destination for every single high school senior in the country.  The reveling Argentinians make one feel very old or very young.  Thanks to power of google, we caught up with a long lost Allekotte, a nuclear physicist.  Our great grandfathers were cousins who took different ships out of Hamburg.  I could have been a gaucho pronouncing my last name “A-ja-ko-tay”.

Bette found a woman named “Gevertz” in the host list.  We visited and asked if she might be related to Bette.  She answered, “I hope not, for your sake.  You wouldn’t want to be a part of my family.  Most of my relatives have mental problems.”  And she would know because she worked as a tango therapist, telling us, “It takes a lot of trust in your partner to do the tango properly.”

Many years ago, circa 5 B.C. (Before Children) we visited Nepal as part of an around-the-world-in-a-summer trip.  A guide pointed out Mount Everest’s location.  He may have been telling the truth, but we could not be sure because of the seasonal dense fog.   We promised ourselves a return trip.

In post-retirement, we are free to travel in seasons other than summer. We reconsidered places like Nepal.  We had written to Servas hosts prior to the previous trip, but the Nepalese postal service was notoriously unreliable.  The internet makes planning easier, but was Nepal safe for American tourists?  The U.S. State Department had been issuing warnings to stay clear of Nepal because of Maoist terrorist activities.

We e-mailed eight hosts and got positive replies from six.  As it turned out, all six had Indian backgrounds.  They all lived with extended families with daughter-in-laws following the Nepalese custom of moving in with the in-laws.   Most rented out the ground floor and lived on the two or three stories above.  The rooftops were used for excellent dining al fresco, hanging laundry, and viewing the snow-capped Himalayas.

We made daytime visits to the two hosts who could not accommodate us overnight.  Bishwa escorted me on the back of his motorbike and bounced along occasionally paved roads to Bhaktapur’s Durban Square to see ancient carvings of Kama Sutra positions.  The second, Rajinder, invited us to his son’s coming of age initiation, but the impending national day of inaction made getting there difficult.  Assuring us that we would be safe, he sent a driver to get us.  We trusted Rajindar’s judgment and were rewarded accordingly.

We were consumed by the strong allure of incense as soon as we arrived.  Then we witnessed a naked adolescent boy surrounded by chanting swamis’ tossing holy water and rose petals over him.  This continued for half an hour.  I am sure that the events were highly significant among Hindus, but we had no clue what they mean.  Once the initiate became a man and put his clothes on, the entire village provided trays of food, and we happily joined the buffet line.

In between a series of Servas visits, we bathed with the royal elephant herd in Chitwan National Park and trekked.  The groundwork began when we contacted Peter Owens (from our summer in northern Pakistan).  His home base had become Kathmandu.  A series of e-mail conversations ensued.

“Hi, Peter.  Remember us?  You led us and our two young girls through Pakistan about ten years ago?  The kids are now in college, so we are thinking about coming to Nepal.  Are you still leading trips?  Can you get us into a group that’s not in too much of a hurry?  You may remember we can be pretty slow.”

“I left Pakistan a few years ago.  Too many weapons and occasional fanatics.  Bad combination.  I’ll let the tribes fight over it without me.”  Peter explained that Kathmandu is his full-time home base (when he wasn’t heading back to the U.S. for a dose of medicine or the New York Metropolitan Opera). He added, “I’m no longer leading treks, but I’m still organizing them.  Some of your old guides are still working for me.” Peter provided good paying jobs and benefits in a land where unemployment is nearly fifty percent.  “And I’m setting up an American couple about your age.  They stop to take lots of pictures, so you can easily keep up with them.”

I asked, “Speaking of weapons and fanatics, should we have safety concerns?  The State Department—“   If it had been a conversation instead of e-mail, Peter would have interrupted me.

“The so-called ‘Maoists’ come from the villages.  They wouldn’t know Mao if they fell over him.  They can’t read anything, let alone Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.  They just charge a fee (I call it a toll.) when trekkers use the trail they maintain between their villages.  Since the government also charges fees, they feel entitled to a piece of the pie, especially since the government fees go to buy weapons to suppress them.” Peter assured us that his guides carry receipts showing that he had paid off the right people (just like in Pakistan); we should have no problems.  “But you may get delayed at the airport when you’re leaving.”

I asked for an explanation.  “Your names will be on the trekking permits, and the officials know I pay off the Maoists.  So, technically, I’m supporting terrorism.  They may delay you, hoping for a bribe.  Just wait them out.  They want to go home to their families as much as you want to get on the plane.  They’ll give in.”

The “guerillas” we met along the way engaged us in trade at the markets, rented out sparse lodgings, prepared Western-style meals like pizza, apple pie, and cheese omelets, and participated in chess tournaments organized by our guides.  No one asked for toll money.  All flashed wide Nepalese smiles.

The State Department recommended avoiding large gatherings, political rallies, and all roads during national strikes.  They also suggested keeping a low profile and not making our western background obvious.  We knew that since the average Nepali is barely five feet tall, following the last request would not be possible.  But thanks to help from our Servas hosts, we find Nepal to be friendly, exotic, and not too logistically challenging. Closing our eyes during the hairpin turns along the arduous Himalayan bus rides allowed us time to reflect upon our new Servas friends.

In between our trips to Nepal, we took the girls to sanitary, English speaking New Zealand.  New Zealand is Nepal with money.  Like Nepal, the bus system and a good day’s walk can get you almost everywhere, except the roads in New Zealand were well paved and had guard rails! The drivers did not appear to be suicidal and relying on reincarnation in case of a fatal accident.  The bus seats were covered with sheepskin cushions, and the drivers delivered mail, newspapers, and fresh meat along the way.  They made unscheduled stops, providing riders a chance to perform group hugs around giant kauri trees.   The Waitomo Caves served as a bus depot where tourists can walk through caverns lit by glow worms between rides.

As in other countries, our hosts led us to new experiences.  In Hawera, we witnessed the birth of twin lambs and met the world’s number one Elvis fan, winner of many international trivia contests.  His home was a miniature version of Graceland filled with memorabilia and trophies in recognition of his celebrity status.  We discussed the King.  Upon returning to Philadelphia, I sent him some of my parents’ old 45’s.

In Napier, an art deco town rebuilt after the 1930’s earthquake, we clawed through the sand for shellfish and ground them into a pipi fritter breakfast.  I should have known better when our host invited me to join a friendly rugby game.  I couldn’t forget my American football training and constantly had to be reminded not to block for the runner.  I think the locals enjoyed seeing me shed blood a few minutes into the game.  The “friendly” part didn’t start until intermission when the chocolate flavored Imperial Stout ale was rolled out.  I don’t remember how I played after the intermission.

Many people, embedded in a lifetime of negativity, ask if there have been any bad Servas visits.  Though I look back upon a few fondly, I’ll relate the stories and let the reader decide if they were negative experiences.

In Hong Kong, we stayed in the New Territories with a quail farmer.  In impeccable English, he calmly related that he had once been a university professor but was forced into farming after spending years in a re-education camp.  We thought of many follow-up questions but didn’t get to ask because every time we saw our host, he was bounding by with a plastic bag full of dead birds.  The farm may have had avian flu before the disease had a name.  The rest of the family spent their day swatting flies (thick as the raisins on a Pennsylvania Dutch cinnamon bun) from every flat surface on the farm.  The flies were then recycled into bird seed.

We were ecstatic to see the mosquito netting over the guest bed, especially after noting that the window frames lacked glass.  I fell into a gentle sleep despite the constant buzzing of numerous winged creatures until I rudely awakened by Bette’s blood curdling scream.  Like most people, she has the occasional nightmare and she’ll say, “Whew.  That was rough!” But this scream seemed to come from a Halloween movie.  It was too dark to see, so Bette shouted, “Rob.  There’s something on my head!”  I shook the netting, and we heard “Caw! Caw” as a crow flew away.  This was the first of three times where we broke the Servas mandatory two-night stay rule.  Our host provided directions to a “Retired Seamen’s Hostel” not far from the Night Market.  We recovered amidst ancient Chinese mariners while he tended to his diminishing covey.

In Estonia, we were instructed to take the daily bus to an isolated area outside of Tartu where our host would meet us.  She drove another twenty minutes into the woods on a dirt road barely wider than her Saab.  We spent the first night talking, drinking, laughing, playing with the kids, and other standard Servas stuff.  Early the next morning, after our hosts left for work, we found a note.  “We are sorry.  Our pump broke, and I won’t be able to work on it until tomorrow.  There is drinking water, but you must not flush the toilets or take a shower.  Thank you.  See you about 6:00 tonight.”

Not trusting our rebellious digestive systems, we wrote a response: “Thanks for hosting us.  We hope you don’t mind that we decided to go see Lake Peipsi.” We knew it is to the east.  Our guidebook described the village of Kallaste as a transcendent tourist mecca popular with Russians living across the border.  We decided to try hitchhiking.  If we didn’t get a ride, we could always return to our hosts and tear up the note.

Our first problem was we didn’t know which way to go.  The labyrinth of woods was identical in every direction.  I offered, “Maybe there’s an intersection nearby.  We can head out and take any ride.”  Bette didn’t say anything, but her look suggested that she had no better ideas.  I carried both suitcases as wheels don’t roll too well on gravel roads.  Bette applied many coats of insect repellant as we traipsed along to the buzzing of Estonia’s many hummingbird-sized mosquitos.

We held a mini-celebration when we happened upon an intersecting narrow road.  We waited, used the encompassing woods as toilets, and waited some more.  Finally, we smelled diesel exhaust, then heard, and then observed a rusty Soviet era Lada puttering to a halt.  The driver, straight from central casting with a Lech Walesa moustache and loose-fitting, striped, gondolier shirt, didn’t speak English.  I knew few Estonian or Russian phrases, so I showed the driver a map with Kallaste, the town we sought along the lake.  He understood, reached through the window, and opened a clanging door from the outside, removed a dozen, aromatic smoked fish from the rear seat, placed them in the trunk, and motioned for us to hop in.

Bette maneuvered her way into the back seat, and my two companions, by trial and error, discovered a common language, German.  Our driver spoke it as, perhaps a fifth language, and Bette knew enough Yiddish to convey basic ideas.  I followed along as best I could while keeping my nose to the partially opened window in an effort to combat the lethal combination of fumes and fish.

Our driver emphatically dangled a mangled right hand and pantomimed that had been a fisherman forced into sales.  With his good hand, he produced a picture of his family and haltingly counted out his daughters’ ages.  We stopped in numerous villages where he sold fish to market peddlers.  By the time we got to Kallaste, it was late afternoon and a misty rain blanketed the quaint town.  Our fishmonger friend pulled to a stop at the closed tourist office.  To show our appreciation for our deliverance, I handed him a five euro note.  In return, he wrapped a hefty smoked bream in newspaper and handed it to me.  I smiled and said, “Danke. Das Vadanya.”  We checked the bus schedule, noted the time of the single mid-afternoon bus on the following day, and proceeded downhill toward the village.

The guidebooks were accurate in their assessment: the town had a mystical Chagall quality about it, but there was no mention of its shutting down after the summer season.  Other than a few workmen tapping away on a rooftop, it appeared to be deserted.  By picking up a few provisions in the general store, we knew we wouldn’t starve. The owner pointed us toward a lakeside bed and breakfast featuring the luring aroma of a woodstove.  We asked about a room.  The wrinkled, heavily rouged landlady apologetically played Estonian charades and called for her young grandson to act as interpreter.  He made it clear that he had better things to do, as he explained “No room tonight.  She, go tonight.  I, school tomorrow.”

Not knowing how to respond, I freed the fish from its newspaper wrap.  Grandma’s blue-shadowed eyes widened as she spoke rapid Estonian.  Grandson translated, “She, cook you.” I excused his lack of verbs and prepositions, assuming that we were not to be starring in a remake of “Hansel and Gretel”.

I explained “No.  She can keep the fish for herself.”  After some familial Estonian negotiating, we were escorted to a small room.  Grandson directed, “You, Room.  Shower.  Hot water, no.  Food, no.  Tomorrow, you go.”  We had a deal!

After munching on our store-bought yoghurt, cheese, and pumpernickel, we passed numerous clapboard houses and hiked along the gently lapping shores of Lake Peipsi. The rugged coastline was punctuated with caves where prehistoric fishermen painted clay hieroglyphs of their catches.  We approached a cemetery with Coptic crosses adorning the grave stones. When the rain returned, we cautiously entered an onion-domed church. It wouldn’t be a restful visit as there were no pews.  A bearded priest, barely visible through the haze emanating from enough burning incense to heat the village, emitted guttural prayers sounding like those I previously heard in Eyes Wide Shut.  The sopranos, cloistered behind a wall, weakly chanted repetitive Latin phrases.  I snuck a peek through the smog to see if they were high heeled and naked like the hookers in the Kubrick film.  Disappointment.  The tourist in me viewed the ceremony as spooky and spectral rather than spiritual.

We returned to the bed and breakfast and slept very well.  After another round of yoghurt, cheese, and dry, day-old pumpernickel, we returned to the road.  I sketched a “Tartu” sign to reinforce the image that, despite being at Lake Peipsi in the off-season, we really did have somewhere to go in life.  We were astonished when a large RV stopped beside us.  The passenger window rolled down and a smiling woman said, “You can hop in the back with the boys.”

Tartu

It never gets old.

The boys were two young, round-faced, blond Slavs who apparently welcomed our company.   Simultaneously they held out their arms and repeated the only English words they knew, “Zombie killers!  Zombie assassins!”  I studied their parents and found them to be quite ordinary with no stab wounds or disfigurements.  No apparent blood stains.  We joined what we hoped was a game, alternating the shooting of imaginary weapons, faking our own deaths, and miraculously coming back to life to chat with their parents who told us they were heading to a historic castle, half-way to our destination of Tartu.  After a tour, some tea, and a thank you, we returned to the road and accepted an uneventful ride back to Tartu.IMG_9194   Bette and the Estonian Killer Zombie family

Our only other one-night Servas stand was in a hilly mountain town in Argentina.  Carlos, using staccato English, had e-mailed specific directions.  “Get off bus.  Cross street.  Take path along river.  Look out for canes.”  Canes?  Maybe it was a retirement village.  Carlos’s words seemed within the realm of possibility until we realized that we would be arriving at dusk.  We did our best to drag our bags along what we hoped was the correct path.   But with a thickening, threatening darkness hiding any hint of civilization, we had to feel our way back toward the only hotel in town.  The proprietor, hosting a family dinner, seemed surprised to have guests.  We phoned Carlos and got an incomprehensible recorded message.  We paid for the room and joined the savory Argentinean barbecue.  Sensing no alternative but hunger, this was another time when I was forced to temporarily bid adieu to my vegetarian beliefs.

We slept soundly until awakened by a knock at the door. It was Carlos, our perspective host.  He asked “Didn’t you get my last text?  I wrote I would meet you at the bus in Cordoba.”  We had not yet joined the world of texting.

As our host drove us to La Casa Carlos. I asked about the canes.  Carlos explained, “Don’t you hear them?  Everyone here owns a cane, but they are harmless.”  We finally figured out that Carlos was using the Latin “canus” for the upscale neighborhood’s many watchdogs.  He was also happy that the barking dogs, as well as town’s name, didn’t scare us off.

Bette inquired, “Why?  What does ‘Salsipuedes’ mean?

“Salsipuedes? Leave, if you are able.” Do I remember hearing that in a Three Stooges movie?

Carlos offers a rational, historical explanation: “The original settlers wanted to keep the place to themselves.”

Besides asking about bad trips, people often ask, “What was your favorite trip, the best place you’ve ever been?”

That’s a much easier question.  The answer is always, “The next trip is always the best one.  How can I be so sure?  I have friends all over the world!”

Chapter 32:  The Next Trip

I’ve got friends all over the world!

Katinka, our Norwegian friend, greeted us at the door, “Howdy.  Why don’t y’all come on in now?”  I was expecting Sonya Henie but got Ellie May Clampett instead.  I learned that our host had gleaned her English from country music with a lyrical twang accompanying everything she said.  We spoke more of Opryland than Oslo, and she wanted to know about my pilgrimage to Graceland.  “Did you meet Elvis?  Was Ann-Margaret there too?  Does he really eat fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches?  Does he shake like that when he’s not singing?”  My uninformed answers must have disappointed my new friend.

We chose our Scandinavian hosts from a host list, generally not really knowing where we were going.  They included a real live opera diva operating a combination mini-golf /drive-in theater, one of the first women to sail solo through many of the world’s waterways. We visited Ole, a writer of Sweden’s most famous texts on psychology.  He lectured me on the correct way to wash dishes: “Ve don’t stack dem.  Den ve haff to vash de top and de bottom, too.  Dis vastes vater!”

Getting from host to host was easy, as everyone seemed to know one another.  We hitch-hiked on isolated roads; and everyone with room in the vehicle stopped.  They invariably said things like, “Oh.  Bjorn lives by the second ski jump.  I can take you there,” or, “Anna lives in the house with the spruce trees on the roof by the salmon ladder.”

We attempted to get to Trondheim in the Land of the Midnight Sun but decided to retreat when the few passing cars were too full to allow space for us and our backpacks.  As we crossed the road, an antique, dusty hearse rattled to a stop.  We heard three college age men chanting, “Dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock” repeatedly.  Afterward, a disc jockey announced, “Elvis Presley døde i dag i en alder av førtito.”  This was followed by “Hound Dog,” Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Burning Love”.  When each song ended with the same Norwegian announcement, I exclaimed to Bette, “How about that?  Not only do we get a ride as soon as we cross the road, but they have an ‘All Elvis, All-the-Time’ station.”

The driver corrected me as he translated, “No. They’re saying that Elvis Presley died today at the age of forty two.”   I was surprised but not devastated.  The King’s music was enjoyable and fun listening, though I never accepted him as the Savior.  His untimely death helped teach me my first Norwegian phrase, but it wouldn’t be useful after that day.  And it wasn’t even a good pick-up line.

Our tickets to Europe included a free stopover in Iceland.  Our new friend, Ingrid Helmutsdottir, met us at the American-run airport (a perk of Iceland’s being strategically placed on top of the mid-Atlantic ridge).  By law, everyone’s name ends with –son or –dottir, necessitating the telephone book’s having to list occupations alongside surnames.

As a welcome gift, Ingrid invited us to Gullfoss, the waterfall where two tectonic plates are driving the New and Old Worlds further apart, for a traditional Icelandic picnic.  She used the geysers to boil eggs and sausages.  For dessert, fresh bananas grown in her thermally heated greenhouse were offered.

Ingrid suggested we visit the Westman Islands.  I recalled the film, Season of Fire, I had shown at school where the locals came out every morning to shovel volcanic ash in the same way we shovel snowdrifts at home.  Their snow plows had sculpted an improved harbor to increase their capacity to harvest the surrounding seas.  Though the five hour ferry ride was bouncy, it was worth the trip.  The lava was no longer flowing from Heimaey, but it felt warm to the touch.  Half of the town was inhabited, the other half a ghost town with hardened lava covering it, a modern day Pompeii with no tourists but us.

Back on the mainland, Ingrid directed us to one of the earth’s few remaining land-based whaling stations.  I developed an interest in the bloody business when I taught Judy Blume’s Blubber and Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing.  My photos of flensers’ hacking away knee deep inside of putrid, steaming whale carcasses would make my teaching more memorable.  The workers’ blasé attitudes suggested that they didn’t see many tourists.

Iceland

The only Icelandic experience I regret is my sampling a certain dessert.  It looked innocent enough: gleaming, shivering, and yellow.  When Ingrid placed it in front of me, I thought, Jell-O: Bill Cosby’s favorite. I can handle that.  But as soon as it reached my taste buds, I gagged as politely and indiscreetly as possible.  Ingrid inquired, “Haven’t you tried aspic before?  It’s a traditional Scandinavian dessert.”  It gave me an explanation why the Vikings left home so often.

I pretended to cough and spit the spoonful into my napkin.  When Bette realized that I had lost my ability to speak, she asked, “What’s aspic?”

“It’s made with fish stock, gelatin, and salt.”  It probably wouldn’t have been as bad if I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for Jell-O, thinking I’d be surreptitiously swishing it around in my mouth for a while to allow the taste of the main course, herring, to dissipate.  Bette covered for me between laughs as I headed off to the toilet to ensure that my tongue was still functioning.  Boiled fish stock for dessert?  I sat a while, fearing that tuna fish ice pops will be served next.

A summer in Japan included a free stopover in Hawaii where our Maui host began his day by hunting down a wild pig that was addicted to his crops.  Did you know Hawaii had wild pigs?  I didn’t.

Our diminutive Japanese host, Megumi, greeted us at the door with packaged yukata in hand.  The one-size-fits-all bath robes barely covered my pubic hair.  Would I have to wear them in front of my new friend?  I knew that I couldn’t cross my legs as displaying the bottom of the feet is taboo in many Asian cultures.

My dilemma was solved when Megumi led us to the guest house where she indicated that it is time for the onsen.  Was it an insult or just a cultural difference that she strongly suggested we take a bath before conversing with her?  I removed the plastic cover to reveal a steaming tub, already filled to the brim with the water from the last few bathers. I was aware that we should lather up and rinse before entering the tub from my time teaching at Philadelphia’s Civic Center Museum, but my large American body sent half of the water to the floor.  Megumi was polite enough not to mention it.

After hearing that I was a drummer, Megumi invited us to the evening’s Nebuta Festival and requested that I join her neighborhood band.  I donned another yukata, one that covered enough of me to prevent arrest for indecent exposure.  Shortly after, I was head and shoulders above the band of parading drummers. I quickly learned that one doesn’t just play the large rolling kettle drum.  I threw myself into it with the enthusiasm of a samurai in battle.  Keeping up with the rhythmic chants was easy except the long bamboo drum sticks vibrated in my clenched fists every time I contacted the drum.  My hands were bleeding within five minutes.  Host Megumi suggested two solutions: A first aid kit was utilized immediately, as well as a substitute, genuine local drummer, drafted well before we were within earshot of the judges’ stand.

Blog 2 004

My Unsuccessful Audition

Back in the U.S., we were warmly greeted by Al and Linda.  Twenty miles of dusty, narrow, unpaved roads led to their sprawling cattle ranch.  Horse-lovers Micole and Alana took advantage of the opportunity to participate in a real round-up.  Since I get saddle sores after fifteen minutes, and Bette doesn’t like having only a twelve hundred pound animal between her and the earth, we offered to assist in other ways.  We volunteered to play ranch hands for the day.  Al instructed, “You see those depressions along the perimeter of the pen?  Young bulls prowl along the fence to mark their territory.  The depressions they create cause the fencing to collapse, so we need somebody to roll tires into place to provide a border between the bulls and the fencing.  It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it.  I just picked up a truckload of recycled tires yesterday.  Interested?”  I looked around and observe no one named “somebody”.

I thought back on tires like those I’ve changed over the years, just before they become backyard swings.  How difficult could the job be?  But the tires in Al’s truck were from eighteen wheelers and tractors, big enough to set myself into and roll into oblivion.  Like many of life’s tasks, it was fun for fifteen minutes or so, but we soon felt stiff, sore, and dirty.  We switched to clearing tangled tumbleweeds from the barbed wire.  We had to look to one another and admit that, even though I’ve worn Wrangler jeans since I was old enough to choose my own clothes, we were city slickers.  I was thankful that my ancestors left the family farm behind in Kirkhellen, Germany.

The roads leading to the pens were newly paved, a far cry from those we bounced along to get to Al.  I mentioned my surprise to Al.  He wryly answered, “I should thank you for those roads.”  I asked for an explanation.  “Well, the Feds need places to store their MX missiles.  I offered my land, and they just have to build roads to get to the missiles in care of emergency.  At taxpayer expense, of course.  So I thank you.”  He added with a smile, “My peacenik bride, Linda, and some of her cohorts once chained herself and friends to the security fence in protest of one of our incursions overseas.  I forget which war it was.”

One road led to a ghost town straight out of Little House on the Prairie.  Pointing to an abandoned house, Al said, “This is where my grandparents struggled to raise rhubarb. That old windmill is still clanging and bringing water to the cattle.  We got some dinosaur fossils nearby.  I’m negotiating with the Japanese.  They want to open a theme park, but the location’s a little remote for most people.  I’ve got a paleontologist lined up in case the deal falls through.”

For dinner, Al proudly served the prime cuts from the ranch’s finest Black Angus. He had been saving them like a fine wine for a special occasion.  Though mostly vegetarian, I have to admit it was tasty.  I reminded myself that Mohandas Gandhi himself dined on steak while attending a London University, and he turned out all right.

We headed south to a trailer home in Mesa Verde National Park.  It belonged to a ranger who provided an after-hours personal tour of the ruins.  I hit my head on a low ceiling. Ancient Anasazi voices called out to me, but I am unsure what they are saying.  Where was Carlos Castaneda when I needed him?

A New Orleans host’s address included the letters “PH”.  We located the place within a renovated cotton mill in the warehouse district.   There we learned that “PH” stood for penthouse.  Our host asked, “Do you plan on going over to Jazzfest?”  Of course, we did; but we nonchalantly waited to see if they had any alternative plans for us.  He added, “We have VIP tickets that include backstage passes to Pearl Jam.  We won’t be using them.  If you want them, they’re yours.”  We were also invited to test out some new recipes in the nearby gourmet restaurant where their daughter worked as a chef.  I didn’t admit that I was ignorant of Pearl Jam’s music, but I can be a fast learner when free passes are involved.

Mississippi was low on our lists of places to visit, but we made a stopover after the festival.  “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi” came to mind from my childhood as a way of counting down in touch football or hide-and-seek.  In college, I was force-fed William Faulkner, whose sentences were as long and convoluted as the genealogies of his characters.  As we grew older, we had Mississippi Burning and Weather Channel Gulf Coast hurricane reports as sad Mississippi reference points.  But there we were, visiting Mennonites, Larry and Maxine, in a one-horse town two hours north of Jackson. Some of my preconceived images rang true: catfish were jumping.  We waited out the afternoon thunderstorms on a wrap-around porch.  We visited a massive headstone proudly memorializing the grave of a KKK Grand Cyclops.  We walked the site where Andrew Jackson betrayed his former allies, the Choctaw, expelling them to Indian Country in Oklahoma.  After a home-cooked Southern dinner, a boyhood dream was realized.  Larry invited me to operate a real tractor!

The guest house was in a former dormitory of a “Colored Girls School”, indicated by the faded sign over the door.  Victims of domestic abuse and Hurricane Katrina sought refuge there.  Two teenage boys whose parents wouldn’t let them attend the neighborhood public school because “they might mix with the wrong people” served as farmhands.  We discussed racial politics as I taught them to install ceiling fans.  They learned of my first crush, an untouchable Black cheerleader, and of my many friends who abandoned Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School for the same reason.  They told me, “Philadelphia, Mississippi is just up the road a piece.”  Afterward, Larry pointed out the swamp where the Freedom Riders were found.

But I also envisioned hope. Immediately after Larry pointed out the cannon outside the polling station which was set up as a reminder that it still may not be safe for some Mississippians to vote, we stopped for coffee in a fully integrated internet café.  We met many people like our hosts who are trying to eradicate the stereotypes and injustices of the past.

By now, you wonder: How do two public schoolteachers get to experience so much of the world on our meager salaries?  Here’s the roundabout answer:

I was thinking that Halloween parties never get old.  I must have had a few beers because I found myself dancing.  At least, it was a version of me bouncing across our parlor parquet dance floor.  I was an unconvincing Aunt Jemima, well-padded and brown-faced long before it became unfashionable at best and racist at worst for white people to revel in costume as Black people.  Despite my uneven skin tone, other men at the party found my get-up attractive.  Liberace groped me every time he sashayed by.  And Herve Villachaise, an odd combination of the “This Old House” and “Fantasy Island” hosts, bedecked with a loose belt full of carpentry tools, salaciously whispered “De Plane” every time we passed.  It was hard to take him seriously because, groveling on knee pads, he only came up to Jemima’s voluminous waist.  I was considering writing a transvestite version of Black Like Me when a mysterious woman, face obscured behind a peacock-feathered, Mardi Gras mask, asked me to dance.  (Women are even more mystifying on October 31.)  I accepted.  Halfway through “Boogie Nights”, she bellowed, “Don’t you recognize me?”  How could I?  The flashing discount disco lights allowed only occasional glimpses of her bright blue eyes.  The thumping bass line made recognition of familiar voices impossible.

Summoning my increasingly diminishing perceptive powers, I responded, “I don’t know who you are, but I might have seen that dress at a party on Ninth Street three or four years ago.”  Bette taught me that women like to hear about their clothes.

“That was my party on Ninth Street!”  I had a good excuse for sketchy recollections because that Halloween bash was my first real date with Bette.  All other celebrants remained far off in the background.  “It’s me, Nini!”

Not wanting to admit to my faulty memory, I followed up, shouting, “Where have you been?”

“I left Penn Treaty to travel around the world for three years!”

I understood the leaving Penn Treaty part.  Most staff members left as soon as they could.   I adjusted my bra strap as I asked, “How did you travel for three years on your small salary?”  I thought I heard the words “working the galley on a shrimp boat in Austria” and “joining service”, but I nodded as if I heard everything.  A trio of ninja brandishing nunchaku gliding across the dance floor captured my attention.  Were they invited?  Would they become the guests who hang around well after the music ends, too drunk to help straighten up?  I concentrated and remembered the numbers, 9-1-1, hoping I’d be able to recall them if the situation warranted.  Desperately needing to board a new train of thought, I excused myself and headed toward the dining room bar.

I reviewed the short conversation with Nini as Bette and I sleepily rehashed the party the next morning, only I called her Tugboat Nini.  “I talked to her, too.  Only it’s not ‘Nini’.  It’s Mimi.  And she worked on a shrimp boat in Australia.  You don’t remember her from Penn Treaty?”

Ah.  Australia made more sense.  I was having trouble imagining the Von Trappe’s kids’ pulling marionette strings and singing, “High on a hill stood a lonely shrimper….”  The masks and the alcohol-in-the-blood level provided convenient excuses for my lack of attention to detail.  “And it’s Servas.  S-E-R-V-A-S, not ‘service’, but that’s what it means in Esperanto.  Mimi (M-I-M-I) told me about it too.  It does sound too good to be true.  She said that she stayed with people in fourteen different countries for free.”  Many Halloween party conversations sound incredibly intelligent and witty at the time, but seem pretty inane upon sober reflection.  We pledged to find out more about Servas the following week.

A phone call and subsequent letter led to an interviewer in a renovated carriage house on a side street in center city Philadelphia.  Maybe I should have worn something dressier than Wranglers.  I wondered if Servas was only for rich people.  We soon discovered that the interview process was to help us decide if Servas was right for us.

The concept is surprisingly simple.  People around the open their homes to travelers.  No money is exchanged between traveler and host.  What we give is time.  What we show is an interest in learning about differing cultures.   What we hope for is peace because people who know and respect one another are less like to declare war on one another.  Though Servas provides (almost) free accommodation, its members want it to be known as a peace organization.  After signing up, we bought discounted Icelandic Air round trip tickets to Luxembourg and requested host lists for Scandinavia.  Each detailed contact information and brief personal descriptions.  We sought those who spoke English.  The meetings described at the start of this chapter were all Servas visits.  We’ve been traveling with the organization since 1978.

I also got to fulfill every traveler’s dream of writing travel articles.  It began inauspiciously with a phone call. A Southerner drawled, “Do you think you might want to join our Board of Directors?  You’ve been recommended as a strong candidate.”  That only meant that I attended a few meetings out of curiosity.

“I don’t know.”  I confessed, “I’m not very good at finance or technology, so I don’t think I’d be of much use.”

“Ah, don’t you mind about that. Commitment to the organization is the most important qualification.”  I volunteered, and within a few years was Board Chair.  It may sound like an impressive title, but it mostly meant that, during conference calls, I got to tell longwinded board members what everyone else was thinking, that it was time to move on.

I represented U.S. Servas at the 2009 international conference in Argentina.  It was held in Mar de Plata, a summer resort as pretty as its name.  Unfortunately, the limited Servas budget precluded that we meet in early spring complete with wind and driving rain, so we had to imagine how nice it could have been.  My greatest impression was that Servas was run democratically.  Yearly membership fees go toward having the poorer member nations attend the tri-annual conference.  The talkative group, representing fifty countries, discussed and voted upon policy and budget.

After the meeting, Bette and I put the Argentina host list to good use.  We started in Bariloche, the gateway to Patagonia.  The Andean ski resort is the get-away destination for every single high school senior in the country.  The reveling Argentinians make one feel very old or very young.  Thanks to power of google, we caught up with a long lost Allekotte, a nuclear physicist.  Our great grandfathers were cousins who took different ships out of Hamburg.  I could have been a gaucho pronouncing my last name “A-ja-ko-tay”.

Bette found a woman named “Gevertz” in the host list.  We visited and asked if she might be related to Bette.  She answered, “I hope not, for your sake.  You wouldn’t want to be a part of my family.  Most of my relatives have mental problems.”  And she would know because she worked as a tango therapist, telling us, “It takes a lot of trust in your partner to do the tango properly.”

Many years ago, circa 5 B.C. (Before Children) we visited Nepal as part of an around-the-world-in-a-summer trip.  A guide pointed out Mount Everest’s location.  He may have been telling the truth, but we could not be sure because of the seasonal dense fog.   We promised ourselves a return trip.

In post-retirement, we are free to travel in seasons other than summer. We reconsidered places like Nepal.  We had written to Servas hosts prior to the previous trip, but the Nepalese postal service was notoriously unreliable.  The internet makes planning easier, but was Nepal safe for American tourists?  The U.S. State Department had been issuing warnings to stay clear of Nepal because of Maoist terrorist activities.

We e-mailed eight hosts and got positive replies from six.  As it turned out, all six had Indian backgrounds.  They all lived with extended families with daughter-in-laws following the Nepalese custom of moving in with the in-laws.   Most rented out the ground floor and lived on the two or three stories above.  The rooftops were used for excellent dining al fresco, hanging laundry, and viewing the snow-capped Himalayas.

We made daytime visits to the two hosts who could not accommodate us overnight.  Bishwa escorted me on the back of his motorbike and bounced along occasionally paved roads to Bhaktapur’s Durban Square to see ancient carvings of Kama Sutra positions.  The second, Rajinder, invited us to his son’s coming of age initiation, but the impending national day of inaction made getting there difficult.  Assuring us that we would be safe, he sent a driver to get us.  We trusted Rajindar’s judgment and were rewarded accordingly.

We were consumed by the strong allure of incense as soon as we arrived.  Then we witnessed a naked adolescent boy surrounded by chanting swamis’ tossing holy water and rose petals over him.  This continued for half an hour.  I am sure that the events were highly significant among Hindus, but we had no clue what they mean.  Once the initiate became a man and put his clothes on, the entire village provided trays of food, and we happily joined the buffet line.

In between a series of Servas visits, we bathed with the royal elephant herd in Chitwan National Park and trekked.  The groundwork began when we contacted Peter Owens (from our summer in northern Pakistan).  His home base had become Kathmandu.  A series of e-mail conversations ensued.

“Hi, Peter.  Remember us?  You led us and our two young girls through Pakistan about ten years ago?  The kids are now in college, so we are thinking about coming to Nepal.  Are you still leading trips?  Can you get us into a group that’s not in too much of a hurry?  You may remember we can be pretty slow.”

“I left Pakistan a few years ago.  Too many weapons and occasional fanatics.  Bad combination.  I’ll let the tribes fight over it without me.”  Peter explained that Kathmandu is his full-time home base (when he wasn’t heading back to the U.S. for a dose of medicine or the New York Metropolitan Opera). He added, “I’m no longer leading treks, but I’m still organizing them.  Some of your old guides are still working for me.” Peter provided good paying jobs and benefits in a land where unemployment is nearly fifty percent.  “And I’m setting up an American couple about your age.  They stop to take lots of pictures, so you can easily keep up with them.”

I asked, “Speaking of weapons and fanatics, should we have safety concerns?  The State Department—“   If it had been a conversation instead of e-mail, Peter would have interrupted me.

“The so-called ‘Maoists’ come from the villages.  They wouldn’t know Mao if they fell over him.  They can’t read anything, let alone Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.  They just charge a fee (I call it a toll.) when trekkers use the trail they maintain between their villages.  Since the government also charges fees, they feel entitled to a piece of the pie, especially since the government fees go to buy weapons to suppress them.” Peter assured us that his guides carry receipts showing that he had paid off the right people (just like in Pakistan); we should have no problems.  “But you may get delayed at the airport when you’re leaving.”

I asked for an explanation.  “Your names will be on the trekking permits, and the officials know I pay off the Maoists.  So, technically, I’m supporting terrorism.  They may delay you, hoping for a bribe.  Just wait them out.  They want to go home to their families as much as you want to get on the plane.  They’ll give in.”

The “guerillas” we met along the way engaged us in trade at the markets, rented out sparse lodgings, prepared Western-style meals like pizza, apple pie, and cheese omelets, and participated in chess tournaments organized by our guides.  No one asked for toll money.  All flashed wide Nepalese smiles.

The State Department recommended avoiding large gatherings, political rallies, and all roads during national strikes.  They also suggested keeping a low profile and not making our western background obvious.  We knew that since the average Nepali is barely five feet tall, following the last request would not be possible.  But thanks to help from our Servas hosts, we find Nepal to be friendly, exotic, and not too logistically challenging. Closing our eyes during the hairpin turns along the arduous Himalayan bus rides allowed us time to reflect upon our new Servas friends.

In between our trips to Nepal, we took the girls to sanitary, English speaking New Zealand.  New Zealand is Nepal with money.  Like Nepal, the bus system and a good day’s walk can get you almost everywhere, except the roads in New Zealand were well paved and had guard rails! The drivers did not appear to be suicidal and relying on reincarnation in case of a fatal accident.  The bus seats were covered with sheepskin cushions, and the drivers delivered mail, newspapers, and fresh meat along the way.  They made unscheduled stops, providing riders a chance to perform group hugs around giant kauri trees.   The Waitomo Caves served as a bus depot where tourists can walk through caverns lit by glow worms between rides.

As in other countries, our hosts led us to new experiences.  In Hawera, we witnessed the birth of twin lambs and met the world’s number one Elvis fan, winner of many international trivia contests.  His home was a miniature version of Graceland filled with memorabilia and trophies in recognition of his celebrity status.  We discussed the King.  Upon returning to Philadelphia, I sent him some of my parents’ old 45’s.

In Napier, an art deco town rebuilt after the 1930’s earthquake, we clawed through the sand for shellfish and ground them into a pipi fritter breakfast.  I should have known better when our host invited me to join a friendly rugby game.  I couldn’t forget my American football training and constantly had to be reminded not to block for the runner.  I think the locals enjoyed seeing me shed blood a few minutes into the game.  The “friendly” part didn’t start until intermission when the chocolate flavored Imperial Stout ale was rolled out.  I don’t remember how I played after the intermission.

Many people, embedded in a lifetime of negativity, ask if there have been any bad Servas visits.  Though I look back upon a few fondly, I’ll relate the stories and let the reader decide if they were negative experiences.

In Hong Kong, we stayed in the New Territories with a quail farmer.  In impeccable English, he calmly related that he had once been a university professor but was forced into farming after spending years in a re-education camp.  We thought of many follow-up questions but didn’t get to ask because every time we saw our host, he was bounding by with a plastic bag full of dead birds.  The farm may have had avian flu before the disease had a name.  The rest of the family spent their day swatting flies (thick as the raisins on a Pennsylvania Dutch cinnamon bun) from every flat surface on the farm.  The flies were then recycled into bird seed.

We were ecstatic to see the mosquito netting over the guest bed, especially after noting that the window frames lacked glass.  I fell into a gentle sleep despite the constant buzzing of numerous winged creatures until I rudely awakened by Bette’s blood curdling scream.  Like most people, she has the occasional nightmare and she’ll say, “Whew.  That was rough!” But this scream seemed to come from a Halloween movie.  It was too dark to see, so Bette shouted, “Rob.  There’s something on my head!”  I shook the netting, and we heard “Caw! Caw” as a crow flew away.  This was the first of three times where we broke the Servas mandatory two-night stay rule.  Our host provided directions to a “Retired Seamen’s Hostel” not far from the Night Market.  We recovered amidst ancient Chinese mariners while he tended to his diminishing covey.

In Estonia, we were instructed to take the daily bus to an isolated area outside of Tartu where our host would meet us.  She drove another twenty minutes into the woods on a dirt road barely wider than her Saab.  We spent the first night talking, drinking, laughing, playing with the kids, and other standard Servas stuff.  Early the next morning, after our hosts left for work, we found a note.  “We are sorry.  Our pump broke, and I won’t be able to work on it until tomorrow.  There is drinking water, but you must not flush the toilets or take a shower.  Thank you.  See you about 6:00 tonight.”

Not trusting our rebellious digestive systems, we wrote a response: “Thanks for hosting us.  We hope you don’t mind that we decided to go see Lake Peipsi.” We knew it is to the east.  Our guidebook described the village of Kallaste as a transcendent tourist mecca popular with Russians living across the border.  We decided to try hitchhiking.  If we didn’t get a ride, we could always return to our hosts and tear up the note.

Our first problem was we didn’t know which way to go.  The labyrinth of woods was identical in every direction.  I offered, “Maybe there’s an intersection nearby.  We can head out and take any ride.”  Bette didn’t say anything, but her look suggested that she had no better ideas.  I carried both suitcases as wheels don’t roll too well on gravel roads.  Bette applied many coats of insect repellant as we traipsed along to the buzzing of Estonia’s many hummingbird-sized mosquitos.

We held a mini-celebration when we happened upon an intersecting narrow road.  We waited, used the encompassing woods as toilets, and waited some more.  Finally, we smelled diesel exhaust, then heard, and then observed a rusty Soviet era Lada puttering to a halt.  The driver, straight from central casting with a Lech Walesa moustache and loose-fitting, striped, gondolier shirt, didn’t speak English.  I knew few Estonian or Russian phrases, so I showed the driver a map with Kallaste, the town we sought along the lake.  He understood, reached through the window, and opened a clanging door from the outside, removed a dozen, aromatic smoked fish from the rear seat, placed them in the trunk, and motioned for us to hop in.

Bette maneuvered her way into the back seat, and my two companions, by trial and error, discovered a common language, German.  Our driver spoke it as, perhaps a fifth language, and Bette knew enough Yiddish to convey basic ideas.  I followed along as best I could while keeping my nose to the partially opened window in an effort to combat the lethal combination of fumes and fish.

Our driver emphatically dangled a mangled right hand and pantomimed that had been a fisherman forced into sales.  With his good hand, he produced a picture of his family and haltingly counted out his daughters’ ages.  We stopped in numerous villages where he sold fish to market peddlers.  By the time we got to Kallaste, it was late afternoon and a misty rain blanketed the quaint town.  Our fishmonger friend pulled to a stop at the closed tourist office.  To show our appreciation for our deliverance, I handed him a five euro note.  In return, he wrapped a hefty smoked bream in newspaper and handed it to me.  I smiled and said, “Danke. Das Vadanya.”  We checked the bus schedule, noted the time of the single mid-afternoon bus on the following day, and proceeded downhill toward the village.

The guidebooks were accurate in their assessment: the town had a mystical Chagall quality about it, but there was no mention of its shutting down after the summer season.  Other than a few workmen tapping away on a rooftop, it appeared to be deserted.  By picking up a few provisions in the general store, we knew we wouldn’t starve. The owner pointed us toward a lakeside bed and breakfast featuring the luring aroma of a woodstove.  We asked about a room.  The wrinkled, heavily rouged landlady apologetically played Estonian charades and called for her young grandson to act as interpreter.  He made it clear that he had better things to do, as he explained “No room tonight.  She, go tonight.  I, school tomorrow.”

Not knowing how to respond, I freed the fish from its newspaper wrap.  Grandma’s blue-shadowed eyes widened as she spoke rapid Estonian.  Grandson translated, “She, cook you.” I excused his lack of verbs and prepositions, assuming that we were not to be starring in a remake of “Hansel and Gretel”.

I explained “No.  She can keep the fish for herself.”  After some familial Estonian negotiating, we were escorted to a small room.  Grandson directed, “You, Room.  Shower.  Hot water, no.  Food, no.  Tomorrow, you go.”  We had a deal!

After munching on our store-bought yoghurt, cheese, and pumpernickel, we passed numerous clapboard houses and hiked along the gently lapping shores of Lake Peipsi. The rugged coastline was punctuated with caves where prehistoric fishermen painted clay hieroglyphs of their catches.  We approached a cemetery with Coptic crosses adorning the grave stones. When the rain returned, we cautiously entered an onion-domed church. It wouldn’t be a restful visit as there were no pews.  A bearded priest, barely visible through the haze emanating from enough burning incense to heat the village, emitted guttural prayers sounding like those I previously heard in Eyes Wide Shut.  The sopranos, cloistered behind a wall, weakly chanted repetitive Latin phrases.  I snuck a peek through the smog to see if they were high heeled and naked like the hookers in the Kubrick film.  Disappointment.  The tourist in me viewed the ceremony as spooky and spectral rather than spiritual.

We returned to the bed and breakfast and slept very well.  After another round of yoghurt, cheese, and dry, day-old pumpernickel, we returned to the road.  I sketched a “Tartu” sign to reinforce the image that, despite being at Lake Peipsi in the off-season, we really did have somewhere to go in life.  We were astonished when a large RV stopped beside us.  The passenger window rolled down and a smiling woman said, “You can hop in the back with the boys.”

Tartu                                                                                  It never gets old.

The boys were two young, round-faced, blond Slavs who apparently welcomed our company.   Simultaneously they held out their arms and repeated the only English words they knew, “Zombie killers!  Zombie assassins!”  I studied their parents and found them to be quite ordinary with no stab wounds or disfigurements.  No apparent blood stains.  We joined what we hoped was a game, alternating the shooting of imaginary weapons, faking our own deaths, and miraculously coming back to life to chat with their parents who told us they were heading to a historic castle, half-way to our destination of Tartu.  After a tour, some tea, and a thank you, we returned to the road and accepted an uneventful ride back to Tartu.

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Bette and the Estonian Killer Zombie Family

Our only other one-night Servas stand was in a hilly mountain town in Argentina.  Carlos, using staccato English, had e-mailed specific directions.  “Get off bus.  Cross street.  Take path along river.  Look out for canes.”  Canes?  Maybe it was a retirement village.  Carlos’s words seemed within the realm of possibility until we realized that we would be arriving at dusk.  We did our best to drag our bags along what we hoped was the correct path.   But with a thickening, threatening darkness hiding any hint of civilization, we had to feel our way back toward the only hotel in town.  The proprietor, hosting a family dinner, seemed surprised to have guests.  We phoned Carlos and got an incomprehensible recorded message.  We paid for the room and joined the savory Argentinean barbecue.  Sensing no alternative but hunger, this was another time when I was forced to temporarily bid adieu to my vegetarian beliefs.

We slept soundly until awakened by a knock at the door. It was Carlos, our perspective host.  He asked “Didn’t you get my last text?  I wrote I would meet you at the bus in Cordoba.”  We had not yet joined the world of texting.

As our host drove us to La Casa Carlos. I asked about the canes.  Carlos explained, “Don’t you hear them?  Everyone here owns a cane, but they are harmless.”  We finally figured out that Carlos was using the Latin “canus” for the upscale neighborhood’s many watchdogs.  He was also happy that the barking dogs, as well as town’s name, didn’t scare us off.

Bette inquired, “Why?  What does ‘Salsipuedes’ mean?

“Salsipuedes? Leave, if you are able.” Do I remember hearing that in a Three Stooges movie?

Carlos offers a rational, historical explanation: “The original settlers wanted to keep the place to themselves.”

Besides asking about bad trips, people often ask, “What was your favorite trip, the best place you’ve ever been?”

That’s a much easier question.  The answer is always, “The next trip is always the best one.  How can I be so sure?  I have friends all over the world!”

Teaching Evolution

 

When someone asks what kind of work I did before retirement, I boast that I was a middle school teacher.  I truly believe that facing middle school students one hundred and eighty-five days a year for thirty-three years renders me infallible.  The questioner generally narrows his eyes, tilts his head, and quizzically views me with a mixture of awe, respect, and perhaps sympathy, but never envy.  “What subject?” is a sensible follow-up question.  I am never asked why I left the profession.

“I taught in an alternative school, so I did a little bit of everything.  My last term’s classes were called Young Lawyers, Language Banquet, Showtime, and Just Japan.”  Then I have to explain, “No, it was not a private school.”  If I sense I’ve piqued some interest, I’ll attempt to explain how a Philadelphia public school allowed, and even encouraged, an English major to teach such disparate subjects.  You, the reader, must be interested in the answer, since you’ve arrived at chapter thirteen.  If not, move on to the Chapter Fourteen.  I will definitely be retired by then.

 

Toward the end of my disaster-free first year at AMY (Alternative for Middle Years) school, I entered the staff lounge seeking adult conversation.  A heated discussion was taking place.  Jay, a paunchy Black math teacher complained, “How can they do this to us?”

“They” were the School District of Philadelphia.  “This” was a directive: They were forcing us to divide our math classes by grade groups and use a standard curriculum.  Brahim (a.k.a. Bernie), a self-described scientific socialist, asked, “What’s going to happen to 3-D Math? Kids love it. And what about my Architecture course, and Sports Math?” AMY students were accustomed to choosing their classes according to their interests, and teachers were expected to develop new courses to add to our impressive catalogue.

Jay added, “No one wants a class full of nothing but squirming sixth graders, especially at the end of the day.  The way it is now, the new kids get their cues on how to behave from the eighth graders and fall into line.  It’s like having veteran ball players controlling a locker room, allowing the coach more time to game plan instead of wasting time on discipline.”  The district’s thinking was that the city’s standardized test scores were becoming a bigger part of the application process for the select high schools.  Our students would be exposed to new material during the test, placing them in an unfair position.

Dennis, our counselor argued, “We only have ninety eighth graders.  I always make sure they get into the best schools.”

When Brahim threatened to resign (for the two hundredth time), Tony Day, the sage of AMY who had been there since the school’s inception, looked up from his rice cake and bean sprout lunch and proposed, “Maybe we can take the sixth graders off of everyone else’s hands.”

How?  The question was answered with a question: “Does anyone want to work with me, taking on all the new kids, like a school within a school?”  Though no details were supplied, it reminded me of the old mini-school from early in my career.  I volunteered and immediately became part of a nebulous group labeled “Team Six”.  When I asked Tony about the curriculum, my new partner, eternally optimistic, told me, “Don’t worry.  We’ll figure it out, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they’re reading, writing, thinking, and learning.”  Brahim, always seeking autonomy, signed on.  So did Jay.  The plan morphed into the four of us taking all of the sixth graders every day after lunch.  We had a schedule, but no curricula.

With 1988 being an Olympic year, coming up with our first unit of study was easy.  Students chose projects that interested them and subsequently taught the rest of us what they had learned.  Topics included the proposed Black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, the Munich Massacre, the 1936 Olympics and Jessie Owens. (After viewing the Nazi propaganda film, Olympiad, we invited its director, Leni Riefenstahl, as a guest speaker, but she didn’t respond.)  This is where super-student Suzy Ensuliaman got to construct her Olympic sports venue.

Team Six continued for a few years until one day when I couldn’t help hearing furniture being tossed in the next classroom.  Jay was about to knock out sixth grader, Lawrence Torin.  Lawrence, a lanky sixth grader whose voice was irritatingly stuck in the screeches of puberty, had a knack for getting under people’s fingernails. (I first suspected he was trouble when he told me that he had no nickname.  “My name is Lawrence,” was forever accompanied by an angry Marlon Brando scowl, minus the dimples.)  Lawrence was barricading himself in the corner of the classroom for protection.  The student witnesses did not intervene because they, too, would have loved to see a bloody, unconscious Lawrence lying peacefully on the floor.  I positioned myself between Jay and his sparring partner, hustled Jay away, and whispered, “He’s not worth it, Jay.  You’re risking your career.”

Jay smiled with the satisfied smirk of a serial killer and answered, “I was thinking of leaving anyway.  This will be just icing on my retirement cake.”  By that time, Doc Richardson arrived, and the fight was declared a draw by all.  There would be no rematch because shortly after, thinking that tropical fish were less trouble than sixth graders, Jay left teaching to manage an aquarium.  Brahim moved onto to creating science courses.  Tony and I decided to stay together teaching Team courses, only we made them available to all of AMY’s students.  Students who liked the format stayed with us term after term.

We were rolling along, enjoying ourselves until Tony announced his retirement.  At least he was officially leaving the school system, though he planned to come in each day and take part in the aspects of the job he liked: counseling individuals, coaching budding writers, and overseeing AMY’s student newspaper.  He had written his final evaluation.

Would Tony’s new role mean the end of Team classes?  Identifying a new partner would be a challenge because it’s like a marriage: You have to know when to talk, when to listen; when to act, and when to wait and see if things will blow over; when to use a carrot, and when to use a proverbial stick.  I knew someone who was already the ideal partner I sought, but she was teaching across the city, in Germantown close to home at AMY Northwest, our sister school.  Fortunately (for me) Bette had just been acquitted of making racist remarks and may have been open to a change of scenery.  She confessed, “I’d love to get out of there, but I don’t want it to look like I’m running away.  They may see that as a weakness, or a confession of guilt.  And I’m still waiting for the staff to show me full support.”

I sprinkled the subject of Tony’s retirement into many conversations and hoped for the occasional sign that Bette’s resistance may be wearing down.  Our prayers were answered when the principal of AMY Northwest, like principals Joe Doyle and “Dizzy” Dean before her, surprised Bette by eliminating her position from the roster. As a reward for the farcical charges, Bette was placed at the top of the list for teachers’ seeking transfers.  As luck would have it, AMY school’s new principal, Eileen Dwell, had attended Fels Junior High with Bette in the 1960’s.  They used to chat when stopping by their lockers.  I put on my roster builder and union representative hats and worked with Eileen, creating an overly ambitious reading specialist position, knowing that no one but Bette would apply.

Thanks to false accusations of racism and a gentleman’s “pedalogical” concerns, AMY welcomed a new face for the fall trimester.   I had a new teaching partner; and, once again, we could bounce lesson plan ideas off one another as we pedaled through the streets of Philadelphia.   Bette had a fresh start without need of a Race Card. Her teaching skills, good intentions, and personality would be enough. We began to teach a Team class covering a different part of the world every trimester, looking closely at the lives of children.

An annual rite of spring appeared in the form of a letter from the IRS.  The auditors challenged the amount we spent on educational travel, by far the biggest chunk of our budget.  Once a year, I journeyed to the William Green Federal Building on Sixth Street right across from Independence Hall, bringing AMY’s course catalogue, our Team syllabi, travel photographs, magazines, games, and other artifacts.  Each time, I wore the auditor down, and the case against us was dismissed.  Or the inquisitor just decided that the I.R.S. could spend its time more wisely by going after bigger tax cheats.

 

Our union newspaper ran an ad seeking Philadelphia teachers looking for a free trip to Japan.  We researched and learned that an anonymous Japanese yakuza (organized crime boss) wanted to improve his image by becoming a philanthropist.  He treated thirty teachers, including Bette and me, to a first class tour where we met religious leaders, artists, politicians, writers, and other movers and shakers of Japan.  All we had to do in return was create a Team course called “Just Japan”.

The highlight of the term occurred when we broke the class into two groups.  My group used my study guide to plow through various sections of Hiroshima in order to script and present a Jerry Springer-style talk show. Guests included the five survivors featured in the book, the pilot of the Enola Gay, veterans, and President Harry Truman. We utilized archival U.S. government footage of Hiroshima’s destruction.  Planted audience members shouted out diverse opinions of the decision to drop an atomic bomb in the middle of a crowded city.

Bette’s half of the class dramatized The Year of Impossible Goodbyes, the story of a multi-generational Korean family during the harsh Japanese occupation.  As a result of the course, our students would never think of all Asians as being the same. Bette and I felt that history is often taught without regard to lives of ordinary people, but with all of our Team classes, we sought materials that would help history become relevant and therefore memorable.  And if students acquired a distaste for war, that would be a bonus.

One day at lunch, our counselor, Dennis, handed me an announcement and asked, “Do you want to attend a Temple University leap conference?”

“What’s Temple University leap?”  That’s not a trio of words I usually run together.”

Dennis explained that LEAP was an acronym for “legal education and participation”.  I consented when I heard that a substitute teacher and lunch would be provided.  As a result, I discovered a previously hidden world where teachers develop and share interesting, lively civics lessons.  The proliferation of judge shows on television taught me that most people sought a better understanding of the law.  As a result, I created a generation of “Young Lawyers”.

On the first day of each term, I whet appetites by asking for general questions.  My intentionally frustrating answers: “We’ll get to your privacy rights when we study the fourth amendment in week seven,” or “You’ll learn what’s required to win a civil lawsuit the final week of the term.”  The livelier parts of the course followed a fairly dry, detailed review of the Constitution.  And because students had to learn to persuade and listen to one another, courtroom procedure was part of my introduction. They needed to pass a “bar exam” entitling them to play the roles of lawyers when we got to the mock trials.  Each passed exam became a shingle displayed on the classroom wall.

For all mock trials, students were required to outline the evidence in order to write a closing argument (utilizing higher order thinking skills- my Penn State method course instructors would be proud!) at the end of each case.  When word got out that “Young Lawyers” was a lot of work but worth the effort, I usually had a group of self-motivated learners enabling me to feel like a real teacher.

We visited Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center to observe homicide trials.  Most cases involved drugs, a love triangle, or both.  Students were surprised to see that the lawyers chatted and joked when the jury was in recess, not like on television where they act like they’re ready to kill one another.  During the lunch recess, we cruised past the holding cells in the building’s basement.  No “tough love” lectures were needed to emphasize the moral of the story.  The obvious lesson was that, unless you were here on an academic mission, this was a place to avoid.  Only once did I receive a surprise greeting from one of an ex-students awaiting trial.  He had elected not to enroll in Young Lawyers, depriving him of the opportunity to learn that murdering a pizza delivery guy is a bad career move.

 

Meanwhile, Micole and Alana were enrolled at Mount Airy’s Henry School.  Like AMY, it was a desegregation school designed to keep middle class children enrolled in Philadelphia public schools. Every morning, a gathering of white families would congregate outside our neighborhood’s Kelly School for the yellow bus.  The girls quickly discovered their favorite part of Henry School.  Every spring, the school presented a complete production of a different Broadway play.  Our little song and dance girls acquired roles in “Oklahoma” and “Bye Bye Birdie”.

I too was dabbling in theater with an elective course called “Soap”.  Students wrote vignettes based on teenage problems and performed them for the rest of the school in our first floor multi-purpose room.  By the end of the term, we attempted to bring the differing plots together with varying success.  The material, though fun, was amateurish compared to what I saw at Henry and often in questionable taste as we incorporated topical current events into the show.  The friendly, neighborhood abortion clinic, pedophiles, and an unscrupulous minister worked their way into our drama.  To save on costly paper and provide as little evidence as possible if “trouble” arose, each actor was handed only the lines he or she needed for a scene.  Fortunately for me, like Shakespeare’s works, no original scripts remain.

When I volunteered to play the drums for the Henry School shows, I marveled at the director’s ability to get two hundred participants, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, to flow in one direction, all working for the good of the show.  I was called in during the final week of after school rehearsals, carefully dragging my old Ludwig drum set from our damp basement behind me.   I had prepared by studiously listening to my scratchy, old “South Pacific” album.  The director asked me to tone down my performances, so as not to overshadow the cast.  As I watched adolescent boys wearing coconut shell bras rehearse “There is Nothing like a Dame” for the sixth time, I wondered if I could create a musical theater program at AMY.  The talent was there, but I faced a lack of resources, parental support, a theater, and my own limited musical ability and directing experience.  The one thing AMY had going for it was our flexibility in planning a roster.

Ricardo Martin, AMY’s music teacher, left to form the Rainbow Company at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater. Rumor has it that he left under auspicious circumstances.  He called to ask if we could fit a musical theater program into our school.  I volunteered, once again, not knowing where this was heading.

The first reward was a day off to meet with the Rainbow Company representatives. I knew they were well funded when we lunched at Bookbinder’s Original seafood restaurant.

The director, a short, squat Black woman with stringy, thinning hair, introduced herself as Miss Dianne.  (I was happy to hear that she worked behind the scenes.)  She explained her few rules: “You’ll work with Miss Pat to get me a script.  It’s my job to get the show onto the stage.  Now don’t you go giving me no dancing elephants or plane crashes.  I know what the Rainbow Company can do.  I know the budget.  I know the props.  You just get me a script in six weeks.  I’ll take it from there.”  Miss Dianne stepped aside as Miss Pat returned from a cigarette break.

After unsuccessfully attempting to constrain a cough, Miss Pat began.  “I’ll be at your school twice a week for six weeks.  If your kids want to see and hear their words and ideas on a real stage performed by professionals, we can make it happen.  All we ask for is a commitment from you and your students.  I’ll bring contracts for them and their parents to sign.  They can also audition for parts.  And don’t worry about the songs.  You’ll write the lyrics and let us know how you want it to sound.  Our musical director takes it from there.”

At our first writing session, three ideas were suggested: a ghost story, a war setting, and a cautionary tale of a bullied boy.  Somehow, Miss Pat combined the three and came up with a musical featuring a bullied victim encountering his deceased Vietnam vet grandfather in a haunted house.  It was original, and it worked!

The second year, we produced a musical about an abusive mother called “The Perfect Family”.

The grant was to last for three years.  For our third show, we wanted to try something different.  Some of the Showtime students had seen the French detective farce, The Tall Blond Man with the One Brown Shoe in our Team Europe class.  They suggested we write a moody, film noire piece about a detective working on a long dead cold case who discovers that she, herself, is the missing person.  The climax called for her to reunite with her estranged mother.  At a writing session, Miss Pat asked, “How are we going to get them together?  What possible reason would Mom have for contacting a daughter she abandoned thirty years before?”

Numerous ideas were considered, but none obtained a consensus until someone suggested, “Maybe the mother is dying, and she needs to make a connection while she still has time.”  Miss Pat smiled with the satisfaction of a teacher who knows the secret of leading students somewhere and having them believe they arrived on their own.

Her rarely displayed smile made more sense during one of the ensuing rehearsals.  Miss Pat had stepped outside for another cigarette break and caught up to me as she returned, “I’m glad this is going so well.  It’s my last show.”

I responded, “I’m sorry it’s just a three-year grant. We started out pretty good, and we’re getting better and better.”

Miss Pat looked me in the eye.  This took me by surprise as she was usually coolly detached and focused on script writing.  After three years of working together, I hardly knew her.  She repeated, “No. This is my last show.”  I have inoperable lung cancer. The doctors have given me six months.”

An affirmative hug might have been in order, but the well-established distance between us was hard to breech.  I had no response except for a weak, “If there’s anything I can do….” Miss Pat nodded toward the rehearsal and said, “You and your class are doing plenty.  Maybe you don’t realize it, but you’re doing a lot for me already.”  Her comment became even more appropriate when she added, “That’s my daughter, Ebony, playing the detective.”

 

My agreeing to take the Holocaust tour of Israel and Poland mandated that I would make the subject part of my curriculum.  At the end of my Holocaust Literature term, the students combined the most memorable sections of all of the books to create a script called “Danielle’s Story.”  The idea was borrowed from an exhibit at Washington’s Holocaust Museum.  I asked my new student teacher, Karen Thoma, who had given up on the legal profession to become a teacher, if we were plagiarizing.  She advised, “Since there’s no profit involved, don’t worry about it.” About the same time, Karen casually mentioned her background in theater and skill as a pianist.  Voila! “Danielle’s Story” became possibly the world’s first Holocaust musical.

We manipulated the school’s roster to team up on “Showtime”, a favorite with performers and our audiences.  All that was missing was a theater as AMY’s “gymatorium” was utilized all day for physical education classes.

More good timing: The union newspaper ran an article mentioning that Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater was looking for an introduction into city schools.  Again, I volunteered.  With student labor, we designed and built a stage in the underused multi-purpose room. Walnut Street provided permanent lighting and gallons of black paint.  They brought us to their warehouse where we found curtains and perspective props. AMY’s school custodian overlooked the contractual provision that regulated who could handle a paintbrush or a hammer in public schools.

Later in the term, I attended a Holocaust educators’ workshop.  While lunching with the authors of Ten Thousand Children (a book about German Jewish children being sent off to England to escape the rise of the Nazis but having to leave their parents behind) I proposed turning their Kindertransport stories into a musical.  I was surprised when the authors agreed.  I transferred one song “Shall We Stay?” (dramatizing a family’s difficult decision to send their children overseas) from “Danielle’s Story”; Karen and I composed a few others.  Walnut Street Theater provided professional expertise.  We had a short, successful run.

When a teaching position opened over the summer, we were happy with AMY’s designation as a school where we could select staff members.  Karen interviewed and was appointed, and “Showtime” became a permanent fixture on our roster.

If you work at something for thirty three years, you’re supposed to be pretty skilled at it.  I generally took it in stride when people said I was a good teacher.  I credited time and the wisdom to evolve as I encountered new ideas.

 

What could drive a pair of happy, successful, likable teachers into early retirement?  Four letters: NCLB (No Child Left Behind).  Though the law may have had idealistic, altruistic intentions, those four letters spelled trouble for AMY school.  Our general unspoken policy had been to stay quiet and hope the powers-that-be didn’t notice what we were doing.

A provision of NCLB required that teachers must be certified in the area we teach.  Sensible and innocent enough, but it meant that I had to take a Praxis exam to prove my ability to teach social studies.  It didn’t matter that my principals had been giving me rave reviews for thirty years.  It didn’t matter that I had received Teacher of the Year and Holocaust Educator of the Year commendations.  I saved a few bucks by eschewing the strongly suggested preparatory courses because I had faith in my abilities.  (I also applied and was accepted to fly out to a posh St. Louis hotel to sit on the committee that created the rubric for grading the exam.  NCLB had friends in high places.)  My Praxis test score was 100.  I had paid a few hundred dollars to gain the necessary certification to continue teaching “Young Lawyers” and Team classes.

The 2003 school year began like most with AMY’s staff sharing donuts supplied by the Home and School Association while reviewing our summer vacations.  The removal of jelly donut powder from my AMY polo shirt was interrupted when we received a shipment of hundreds of boxes containing required Language Arts materials and teaching guides to be used starting in two days. Every teacher welcomes new supplies, but the problem was that although the materials were shiny and new, this gift horse came with conditions.  They were mandated and dull.  Each grade had its own materials, ending the mixed grade grouping of our Team courses.  Each unit consisted of an isolated selection of literature along with grammar, word usage, punctuation, and vocabulary exercises.  We had supplemental CD’s, videos, artwork, and step-by-step instructions related to the theme.  Of course the pre-test, practice test, post-test, and retest were included.  New teachers may have been impressed with a wealth of materials making their lives easier, but this was overkill.

As Bette and I sorted through the boxes, my glazed apple cinnamon donut began to lose its sweetness.  What was to become of the fun, interesting units we honed over the last thirty years? “Just Japan” became just a memory, replaced on the roster by Seventh Grade Language Arts. All that effort was to be tossed aside and replaced by this endless morass at the cost of two hundred dollars per student.  Would our yakuza backer get word of our abandoning his homeland and put his criminal empire aside for a few days in order to torture us back into the fold?  Were Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai still looking for work?

A saving grace was that the Pennsylvania honchos had not yet agreed on a standard social studies curriculum. They could not easily decide what needed to be included.  Special interest groups lobbied for more African-American, Puerto Rican, and women’s history, Holocaust studies, and the contributions of Irish and Italian Americans.  Should the curriculum include Sally Hemings, Cesar Chavez, Jane Roe, or John Brown? The lack of standardized social studies tests gave “Young Lawyers” a reprieve.  Part of my teaching day remained satisfying, but the subject of early retirement began to creep into our conversations during our commutes back to Moorestown.

We had no fear of boredom because ten weeks of summer vacation had accustomed us to retirement mode every year.  We had no shortage of places to visit.  I knew I didn’t want to work until the day I died like my father and grandfathers, and Bette’s bout with leukemia definitely reminded us of our own mortality.  Those annual statements from the Pennsylvania Retirement System, revealing how much we could bring in without working, became more tantalizing every time we cracked open those weighty, glossy, dull textbooks or duplicated boring worksheets.

But in spite of those four letters, NCLB, hanging over our heads, we still liked teaching.  We looked forward to every day’s providing another chance to mold young minds and all the other clichés that drive idealistic, young people into the profession.

I recalled my conversion of Dr. Rivera a few years earlier.  Maybe he, or someone like him at the school board, would listen to reason and realize that AMY’s ways of doing things should be replicated instead of squashed.  After all, the “A” stood for “alternative”, and our ways had earned us a “Blue Ribbon School” designation.  Jim Murphy, our special education teacher, scanned the thirty-six page application and asked, “What’s it mean to be a Blue Ribbon School?  Can’t we just skip the application and call ourselves a Red Ribbon School?”  And there was the matter of a contractual provision where union members could vote to abrogate portions of the contract to improve individual schools.

This time the meeting was scheduled at AMY, so I anticipated a home court advantage.  I fortified myself with my numerous syllabi and AMY’s impressive course catalogue.  If needed, I could invite my adversary to my book closet to display the wealth of materials I had collected over thirty three years.  She could even meet AMY’s students who would freely offer testimony defending our school’s positive effects on their lives.

On my way to school, I recalled previous meetings in principals’ offices, beginning with the fifth grade me who accidentally tore a hole in the American flag.  I escaped serious punishment then and learned that the principal’s office was a place to avoid.  I succeeded until I became a union representative.  Then I was asked to represent teachers accused of various misdemeanors.

One was a substitute who reported to work so drunk that she might have been recorded on a Richter scale.  She explained, “Oh, thas my med-, med-, med- ication.”  I tried to remain the neutral party, merely there to confirm that her contractual rights were being upheld, but the medication smelled just like the kind of wine usually concealed by a wrinkled paper bag.  I merely observed and took notes.

I also represented a teacher who was a strong believer in animal rights.  After a PETA representative spoke to her class, students were encouraged to write letters to companies who utilized laboratory animals to test their products’ safety.  The letter writing campaign would have been more effective if a Gillette vice president did not telephone the principal to complain that one of the letters threatened to blow up the company’s headquarters.

Once I had to defend myself against the charge of insubordination, a catch-all phrase like “disorderly conduct” which administrators use when they can’t think of something more specific.

The affair started innocently enough with an American History lesson on Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line that changed the world by making the automobile available to the common working man.  I asked my students what they would pay for a Philadelphia hoagie sandwich.

“About three dollars.”

“And how much to you think the store pays for all that

stuff that goes into making a hoagie?”

“Maybe a dollar.”

This led to a fund raiser, a “Have It Your Way Two Dollar Hoagie Sale” where ninety percent of the school’s students and staff pre-ordered sandwiches prepared to their individual tastes. Considering that the competition was federally funded “space pack” school lunches, our success was not surprising.  Students did the math and decided how much inventory we needed to purchase.  I purchased latex gloves, caps, and hand sanitizer.

All went according to plan with my fourth mod students eager to play their parts on the assembly line until a recently appointed vice principal appeared.  He said, “Bob, may I speak to you in the hallway.”  The use of the nickname was supposed to show that he was there on a friendly mission, but those who know me know that I am never “Bob”.

“Sure.”  I resisted using the vice principal’s nickname, “Wiggy.”  Some students called him that because his toupee, resembling a rodent which had been dropped from above, matched his brownish green vintage high-finned Cadillac.

“Bob, I can’t let you go on with this hoagie sale.  There was a botulism outbreak at Howell Elementary last week, and we just can’t take a chance.”

I then detailed the safe restaurant practices which had previously been reviewed by the home economics teacher.  I informed Wiggy, “I managed a restaurant.  (I didn’t mention that I was paid $1.25 an hour to “manage” a fifteen-cent hamburger joint in the sixties.  No need for the whole truth sometimes.) You don’t have to worry.  Every health precaution has been taken.  We’ve collected money from three hundred people, including some members of the administration, who are counting on us for their lunch.  And take a look around.  I can’t return all of the meat, cheese, rolls-”

“I’m sorry, Bob, but I can’t let you go through with the sale.”

I thanked Wiggy for his concern.  After he waltzed away with an air that must be taught in administrators’ courses, a student asked, “Mr. A, what are we going to do?”

My ace in the hole: I knew that the sale was in my lesson plans which had been dutifully signed and approved by the principal, Doc Richardson.  I also knew that Doc rarely scrutinized the plans I submitted.  He once signed off on my Language Banquet class spending two days translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into Aramaic!  Like Henry Ford himself, I ordered, “Let’s get this assembly line rolling!”

The sale went well.  Customers were happy.  We raised money for the underfunded Home & School Association.  Every objective of my lesson was met.  And even though my fears of forever being known as “Botulism Bob” were allayed, I avoided Wiggy for the next few days.  Eventually I received notification that he wanted to meet with me in the principal’s office.  He threatened placing a negative report in my file.  I knew that files were destroyed at the end of each school year, so I didn’t worry.

As I entered the office I noticed a bead of sweat streaming down from what would have been Wiggy’s hairline if his toupee had been properly placed.  He rose, weakly shook my hand, and said, “Bob, I’m glad your sale went well, and there were no health problems as a result of your insubordination.  I spoke with Doc Richardson, and he’s agreed to let the matter drop.  You do not have to worry about repercussions.”  I smiled and performed a small, ritual victory dance once I cleared the doorway.

My final meeting in the principal’s office also began with another brief, cold handshake and an introduction:  “Good afternoon.  Stephanie Anderson from Analytics,” a division I didn’t know existed.  I introduced myself and, not knowing how much time I had, I asked if I could review what my typical teaching day was like.  Ms. Anderson listened, nodded occasionally, and generally looked as if she had somewhere else to be.  When I described my Language Banquet elective, Ms. Anderson asked her first question.  “Do you really think students can learn a new language every week?”

“Of course not, but they gain an appreciation of language itself, in addition to lessening their fear of learning a foreign language later on.  They gain a greater respect for people just learning English.  Developing lifelong learners is a stated school district objective.  And their spelling and vocabulary skills improve every day.”

Ms. Anderson cut short my intended lengthy description of Young Lawyers.  “Mr. Allekotte, you have provided much anecdotal evidence, but can you provide me with anything to validate what you say?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, the provisions of No Child Left Behind require evaluative tools to substantiate student improvement.  Do you have any pre- and post-test results to validate your opinions?”

“Of course not.  I’ve always believed that any time spent testing takes away from teaching time.”  I was proud to be quoting Tony Day.

Ms. Anderson’s response surprised me.  “Do you know that I represent Houghton-Mifflin Analytics?  My job is to ensure that our materials and your teaching conform to the standards required by the law.”  I saw her in a different light.  She should have been wearing an executioner’s mask as each provision of the law was driving another nail into AMY’s coffin.

I asked, “Can you help us develop tests to validate our successes?”

“I’m sorry.  That is not my department.”

Another question: “Are any schools exempt from the new standards?”

The answer was, “No.  Not public schools anyway.”

To quote the Grateful Dead, I was “Set up like a bowling pin.  Knocked down.  It gets to wearing thin.  They just won’t let you be.”  I dragged myself away from the meeting with the certainty that NCLB would spell the death of alternative public education.  If one of the goals was to drive experienced, costly, pro-union teachers into retirement, it was succeeding.  I had entered the meeting hoping to make Ms. Anderson envious of my students who envisioned themselves arguing cases before the Supreme Court.  I wanted her to observe the great things taking place at AMY school.

 

mismatch                                                                    Mismatch Day at AMY

 

Shortly after my meeting with Ms. Anderson, I submitted the required papers to join the ranks of former teachers.  I began to compose my retirement song to the tune of the obvious choice, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin,” the longest song I knew.

 

Teachin’, the one job for me.  Started way back in 1973,

And now, I’m finally free to just be movin’ on.

 

Followed my dear older brother to Penn Treaty,

Two hundreds kids and sixty two dollars a day.

Teachers, disgusted, most of the students, needy.

I joined a mini-school to do things my way.

 

Teachin’, but no one cared what I taught.

Youthfully I entertained and I fought.

Broke rules, and rarely got caught.  I just kept movin’ on.

 

A new reading teacher was in my brother’s position.

Got a notion to go check her out at lunch.

Asked her to sign a bicycle rider’s petition.

To this day, I’m glad I followed that hunch.

 

Wond’ring, she gave her autograph.

Thought I was part of the custodial staff

Thinking I’d be good for a laugh, and she’d be movin’ on.

 

Sometimes the kids would rattle my cage.

Blame it all on a Piaget stage.

Rememb’ring me when I was that age.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

 

What in the world ever became of laughter?

There is no room in the curriculum.

Fill them with facts, so they can recite them after.

Seems the goal of the plan is to keep them real dumb.

 

Bette, thirty years satisfied.

Even had fun teaching Genocide.

We never felt too frenzied or fried.  We just kept movin’ on.

 

Endless, senseless directives from our new bosses.

Like “Is there serious rigor displayed on your walls?”

My teaching guides are sprouting rare molds and mosses

While numerous kids are wandering through the halls.

 

Teachin’: Comply with Act 48*         (*PA version of NCLB).   Try our best to keep our school first-rate.

But really nothing’s changed ‘cept the date.

We just keep movin’ on.

 

Standard curriculum, every new thought from a text book.

I knew right away this was not for me.

Soon as we breathe, go right onto the next book.

By the way, did we make our AYP*?

(*adequate yearly progress- what a joke!)

 

Most days, I still felt pretty good.

Proud to be standing where I stood.

Would you leave there if you could?

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

 

Truckin’ onto Brigantine.

No uniforms, just faded, cut-off jeans.

No more pretending to be mean.

I’ll just be movin’ on.

 

At my farewell dinner, I planned to explain my decision to retire, but the din of late-night crowd in the chosen venue was so loud that the lyrics had to serve as my swan song.  I quit trying to out-yell noisy rooms decades ago.  Couples out for a romantic dinner or singles attempting to impress others at the bar did not want to be interrupted by me; and those who knew me already knew how I felt about leaving the profession.

I would have displayed the report card showing the seventh grade me.  I would have avowed my appreciation for those teachers who didn’t give up on this misbehaving young man who had his mind on his acne, his cowlick, wondering if he’d ever kiss a girl, and rethinking if he hid his lunch money in a secure place.  Anything but the seventh grade curriculum!  I would have thanked my country’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, for it was that fateful event (and my determination to avoid going there) that transformed me into an honor student overnight.

I thought I had retired, but Fate had another plan for me.  During AMY’s annual January ski trip, Bette damaged her meniscus with a tumble and was eligible to collect worker’s compensation until she recovered from the surgery.  I offered to spend my first few months of retirement as her substitute teacher.  I enjoyed covering her favorite classes, “Coming to America” (history through the study of immigrant groups), “Maps & More”, and an elective called “Manners”.

Bette returned in the spring, and Marie, our secretary, may have sensed that I wasn’t ready to say good-bye.  I agreed to move downstairs to cover classes for Jim Murphy’s autistic support program.  After thirty three years of teaching, I learned far more than I taught in this parallel universe.  Assisted by two aides, I witnessed a young man who continually warmed his right hand in his butt crack in between offers to shake hands with everyone he met.  Another finished his work as quickly as possible in order to spend time at a computer screen, identifying the year, make, model, and engine size of every car that came across the monitor.  The most interesting case was a twelve year-old with zero communication or social skills.  He spent much of the time rolling and sobbing on a gym mat.  The biggest triumph of the term was an aide’s getting him to indicate whether he preferred peanuts or raisins for his snack by pointing to a cupped hand.

By the end of the term, Bette submitted the set of forms needed to ride into the sunset with me.   I composed her retirement song to the tune of “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette”. (If you don’t know the tune and don’t feel like opening a YouTube tab, it also works well as a rap song.)

 

I’ve been known to have a heart of gold

And ladylike ways, I’ve been told.

The kind of gal who wouldn’t harm a flea.

But you don’t want to be on the street

If me and a certain character meet.

The man who first proposed NCLB.

 

I’ve witnessed teenage melodrama

And even survived leukemia’s trauma,

But there’s one thing I couldn’t overcome.

It seems that every new regulation

Brings me nothing but frustration

Making sure my students stay real dumb.

 

Teach, teach, teach: I’m in a bind.

Never a chance to use our minds.

If I meet George W. Bush,

I will kick him in the tush.

Then one fine day, we’ll all leave him behind.

 

 

After a lazy summer by the beach in Brigantine, I received a call from Marie.  “Rob, Troy’s going to be out for a few weeks at the start of the term.  Do you want to take his eighth grade American History courses?”  Troy had come to AMY as our student teacher and ended up being appointed.  As our only young male teacher, he worked hard and deserved his great success.  Like most new teachers, he was happy to have a wealth of materials at his disposal.  I considered returning, but regretted that social studies had become exclusively “history”.  Geography, culture, economics, music, civics, and tasty ethnic foods would have to be squeezed between endless names and dates and strategic battles.  And classes now traveled by grade, stratifying AMY’s once homogeneous population.   On the other hand, I knew the eighth grade students, and the subject of American History was right up my alley.

We could do without the salt, sea, and sand of the shore for a time, but the early morning sixty-five mile commute didn’t seem like fun.  Marie suggested I call Troy to see if we could work something out.  Troy told me, “We are heading out to Phoenix for a few weeks.  At least, I hope it’s only a few weeks.  Taylor’s finally getting her tumor removed.  Anyway, if you could sub, I’d know the kids will be in good hands, and my classroom won’t be destroyed.”  When I mentioned the long daily commute from the shore, Troy added, “I’ve got another idea.  Why don’t you and Bette house-sit for us?  That would solve your transportation problem and give me one less thing to worry about.”  I consented.

When I repeated the conversation to Bette, she asked, “What kind of surgery is Troy’s daughter having?”

“I don’t know.  Some kind of tumor.  I didn’t ask.”

“How could you not ask?  The man’s daughter is flying across the country for an operation, and you don’t ask about it!”

I apologized.  “Sorry.  I’ll ask next time.”  Bette returned to whatever she was doing, muttering something about men.  I didn’t ask her to speak up.

I visited my old book closet to dust off the “Young Lawyers” lessons I had left behind.  Like before, we reviewed the Constitution and prepared for mock trials.  Since they will cover the Civil War, I chose trials from that era.  I use the word “cover” because you can prove what’s been covered, whereas what has been learned often remains a mystery.

After reading an excerpt of the Gone with the Wind scene where Scarlett shoots a Yankee intruder in her hallway, I rewrote the scene from the soldier’s point of view.  The prosecution and defense teams received the two differing versions.  Simultaneously, two more groups prepared to put slavery on trial by recreating the 1857 Scott vs. Sandford Supreme Court case.  They invented friends of the court by using the actual narratives from To Be a Slave. The book also included well-worn defenses of slavery from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  I could sense the excitement mounting as students built their cases.  As my retirement loomed, at least I could go out with a bang of a courtroom gavel.

Most of Troy’s students looked forward to the upcoming week of trials.  But there were always exceptions.  As I tried to explain that Washington and Jefferson’s views on slavery were self-serving because their fortunes depended on free labor, I noticed a spitball war taking place between two familiar combatants, Barbara and Mark.  I had previously attempted to teach Barbara’s two sadistic older brothers who made her life miserable.  I recalled that Mark’s father had died suddenly during the winter.  His interest in school waned. If I had time the following week, I might share memories of my older brother and me tormenting our little sister but eventually coming to regret it.  I could tell Mark about hearing of my father’s dying when I was teaching in Scotland.

I noticed a lanky, pimpled, bespectacled boy leaning way too close to a girl resembling a young Michelle Obama.  They were sharing ideas to present to the Supreme Court.  I was reliving my first crush, and I was thankful that interracial dating has become not only accepted but fashionable. Another familiar face, Dan, stared out the window.  Maybe next week, I’ll learn why he preferred to spend a day hiding in a woodshed (yes- a woodshed, in Philadelphia) rather than AMY school.  I returned to the present when Alexis, wearing pink fluorescent socks and a matching bandana, approached my desk.  (It was “Dress Down Day”.  Alexis had paid a dollar for the right to express her individuality.)  She demurely asked, “Was Georgia under martial law at the time of Scarlett O’Hara’s act of self-defense?”  Questions like that made me feel like maybe I was retiring too early.  I spent the first part of the weekend glad to be part of the fray once again, but I was living in the past.  This type of learning was condemned to the past under NCLB.

What if the principal or school district honchos happened by and saw the ensuing lively debates? I could defend our detouring from the standard curriculum because topics such as of slavery, property rights, self-defense, and military law were being discussed.  This was much more fun than teaching the Civil War from a textbook.  That was how many in my age group studied- and forgot- too much history.  I imagined Ms. Anderson dropping by, congratulating me on my imaginative approach to social studies, and asking how to get her own children enrolled in AMY.  She’d pull magical strings and return AMY to its heyday!  She’d retire from Houghton-Mifflin after firing off an angry letter to the New York Times.

But on Sunday, Troy called.  “Rob, I have some news! We’re heading back tomorrow.  They had to delay Taylor’s operation because the surgeon is overbooked, and we have to wait a few more weeks.”  The bang ending my career was reduced to a whimper.  We cleaned Troy’s sheets, straightened up, and headed back to the shore to begin life as retirees.

A few weeks later, I stopped in to see how Karen was faring with “Showtime” rehearsals.  On the way, I observed class after class of students’ filling out worksheets, providing short answers that are easy for a teacher or computer to check.  Discussions were becoming relics of the past as students prepared for tests to prove that they were mastering the standard curricula.  I passed Troy’s American History class to witness another skirmish in Barbara and Mark’s spitball war.

By finally leaving No Child Left Behind far behind us, Bette and I were free to plan an off-season vacation.  We knew we would be heading somewhere to the west so we could visit Alana in Santa Barbara, a college she chose because it was rated the country’s most beautiful campus in a Newsweek poll and had a stellar acapella group.  Frequent visits were planned to help relieve our empty nest syndrome. At a travel agency, I picked up an Overseas Adventure Travel brochure just to get ideas.  Their top-of-the-line trips had always been too expensive and too ritzy for us, but I saw a promotional rate on a new itinerary to Vietnam that turned out to be cheaper than just booking a flight on our own.

Regretfully, Newsweek was accurate in its assessment of UCSB.  While weaving up U.S. One toward San Francisco, Bette and I marveled at the crashing waves, looked to one another, and lamented, “Getting Alana back East is not going to be easy.”  Twenty five years ago, my mother said the same thing after visiting my brother, Steve, in San Francisco. She was right.

We left the car in Steve’s driveway and headed to Vietnam, nearly as far away from NCLB as possible while still being on Earth.  We did our best to escape the aged O.A.T. tourists whenever the busy schedule allowed.  I mastered two words of the lyrical but challenging Vietnamese language, thit cho (dog meat).  I avoided fast food frankfurters as a precaution.

After the tour, we booked a trip to Angkor Watt, the complex featured in our Junior Scholastic Southeast Asia texts using Cambodian currency. As we watched the sun set over the sprawling complex, a ten year old girl, carrying a tray of Pepsi Cola, approached us.  She asked, “Where you from?”  After I answered, she asked, “What state you from?”

I answered, “New Jersey and Florida.”

My new friend recited, “New Jersey.  Capital Tren-ton.

Florida.  Capital Tall-a-hass-ee.”

I told her, “I’m still not a fan of Pepsi Cola. Too much sugar.”

She frowned and whimpered, “Don’t you make my brown eyes blue.”  What sales technique!  Transaction completed!  Her mastery of English (and the languages of every other tourist nearby) brought to mind many of the students I had taught.  I wished they had all been so motivated.  As I sipped the cool drink, I stifled thoughts of how what we were learning could have contributed nicely to a Team Asia class.  Teaching was out of my system, until….

The next summer, I telephoned Marie, to see if any per diem substitute work might be available for the upcoming term.  I agreed to a three-week social studies position subbing for the teacher who replaced me.  He was due to return from his National Guard tour of duty in Iraq.  Easy money.  I could teach the new curriculum in my sleep.  I would make phone calls and find a place to stay in the city.

I was surprised when I received a follow-up call from Marie.  “Rob, I submitted your name for the position, but the computer wouldn’t let me.  When I called Human Resources, they said that you were removed from the list.  Apparently if you want to sub this year, the NCLB rules stipulate that you’ll have to pass a background check, a police check, and also get a child abuse clearance.”  I needed to provide the government’s assurance that I wouldn’t molest the adolescents that I had been teaching for the past thirty three years.  A little research revealed that these hurdles would set me back a hundred dollars or so.  This was another side industry milking the NCLB regulations.  I declined.  I told Marie, “Looks like I’ll just be movin’ on.”

 

As a final farewell, Bette and I attended AMY’s graduation ceremonies.  We joined the rest of the staff on the front row.  Troy attended with Taylor, who showed no effects of her recent surgery except an uneven haircut.  We should not have been surprised that there was no mention of our retirements or of our combined thirty years of service to the school.  But one student, Colleen, sporting spiked hair, black and white, prison-striped panty hose, and a tattoo commemorating her promotion to high school, stopped me afterward.  She asked, “Mr. A., back in sixth grade, when we were learning about Family Court, you told us a riddle.  Then you said, you couldn’t say the answer until after we graduated.”  Waving her diploma, Colleen added, “Now I’ve graduated; and I’m still wondering, what’s the answer?”

I apologized for my lack of memory and said, “You’ll have to remind me.  What’s the question?”

“Why did Mickey Mouse divorce Minnie?”

“Oh,” I recalled.  “She was fucking Goofy.” Thus, my teaching career ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with sharing a laugh over a slightly obscene, old joke; but no joke is old if you haven’t heard it.

 

I left my course outlines and materials neatly filed in cabinets.  My sets of Young Lawyers books, Berlitz language guides, and Team materials remain stacked in the book closet.  Those who sold a bill of goods of teaching and testing materials to the school district rendered my stash useless.  But, there’s always hope.  I believe that every pendulum swings back and forth.  Experienced teachers know never to discard any old lessons.  When NCLB is repealed, some curious new teacher will perform an archeological dig into my book closet and file cabinets and discover the wealth that an ancient civilization left behind.  A Digital Age scholar will unearth these relics of the Paper Age and fill in some link in the evolution of teaching.

That teacher won’t be Troy, as he bid farewell to the School District of Philadelphia and gladly accepted an alternative education administrative position in Florida.

Thanks to the advent of social media, I don’t have to rely on my questionable memory to recall my contribution to society. Through the magic of Facebook, I keep an eye on thousands of former students.  Occasionally, I read their posts.  Barbara writes of her own bouts with her rambunctious two year-old.  Mark served two tours of duty in Iraq before becoming a police officer.  Colleen serves drinks at a yuppie bar in New Hope, Pennsylvania and has made certain that my Mickey Mouse riddle lives on.  Stephanie sends me a photo she took with the mayor of Philadelphia.  She is part of the city’s legal team.  In her hand is a copy of the Constitution she received as a Young Lawyer.  Alexis writes, “Mr. A. although I am majoring in electrical engineering at Drexel, I am minoring in education.  When we discuss good teaching practices, I talk about you.”

And my favorite comment is from Eric, a merchant marine stationed at McMurdo Base in Antarctica: “Mr. A, you were the biggest influence in my life.  Next to Ronald Reagan.”

 

Where’s Waldo?  He’s retired.

Chapter Thirteen: Teaching Evolution

When someone asks what kind of work I did before retirement, I boast that I was a middle school teacher. I truly believe that facing middle school students one hundred and eighty-five days a year for thirty-three years renders me infallible. The questioner generally narrows his eyes, tilts his head, and quizzically views me with a mixture of awe, respect, and perhaps sympathy, but never envy. “What subject?” is a sensible follow-up question. I am never asked why I left the profession.
“I taught in an alternative school, so I did a little bit of everything. My last term’s classes were called Young Lawyers, Language Banquet, Showtime, and Just Japan.” Then I have to explain, “No, it was not a private school.” If I sense I’ve piqued some interest, I’ll attempt to explain how a Philadelphia public school allowed, and even encouraged, an English major to teach such disparate subjects. You, the reader, must be interested in the answer, since you’ve arrived at chapter thirteen. If not, move on to the Chapter Fourteen. I will definitely be retired by then.

Toward the end of my disaster-free first year at AMY (Alternative for Middle Years) school, I entered the staff lounge seeking adult conversation. A heated discussion was taking place. Jay, a paunchy Black math teacher complained, “How can they do this to us?”
“They” were the School District of Philadelphia. “This” was a directive: They were forcing us to divide our math classes by grade groups and use a standard curriculum. Brahim (a.k.a. Bernie), a self-described scientific socialist, asked, “What’s going to happen to 3-D Math? Kids love it. And what about my Architecture course, and Sports Math?” AMY students were accustomed to choosing their classes according to their interests, and teachers were expected to develop new courses to add to our impressive catalogue.
Jay added, “No one wants a class full of nothing but squirming sixth graders, especially at the end of the day. The way it is now, the new kids get their cues on how to behave from the eighth graders and fall into line. It’s like having veteran ball players controlling a locker room, allowing the coach more time to game plan instead of wasting time on discipline.” The district’s thinking was that the city’s standardized test scores were becoming a bigger part of the application process for the select high schools. Our students would be exposed to new material during the test, placing them in an unfair position.
Dennis, our counselor argued, “We only have ninety eighth graders. I always make sure they get into the best schools.”
When Brahim threatened to resign (for the two hundredth time), Tony Day, the sage of AMY who had been there since the school’s inception, looked up from his rice cake and bean sprout lunch and proposed, “Maybe we can take the sixth graders off of everyone else’s hands.”
How? The question was answered with a question: “Does anyone want to work with me, taking on all the new kids, like a school within a school?” Though no details were supplied, it reminded me of the old mini-school from early in my career. I volunteered and immediately became part of a nebulous group labeled “Team Six”. When I asked Tony about the curriculum, my new partner, eternally optimistic, told me, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they’re reading, writing, thinking, and learning.” Brahim, always seeking autonomy, signed on. So did Jay. The plan morphed into the four of us taking all of the sixth graders every day after lunch. We had a schedule, but no curricula.
With 1988 being an Olympic year, coming up with our first unit of study was easy. Students chose projects that interested them and subsequently taught the rest of us what they had learned. Topics included the proposed Black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, the Munich Massacre, the 1936 Olympics and Jessie Owens. (After viewing the Nazi propaganda film, Olympiad, we invited its director, Leni Riefenstahl, as a guest speaker, but she didn’t respond.) This is where super-student Suzy Ensuliaman got to construct her Olympic sports venue.
Team Six continued for a few years until one day when I couldn’t help hearing furniture being tossed in the next classroom. Jay was about to knock out sixth grader, Lawrence Torin. Lawrence, a lanky sixth grader whose voice was irritatingly stuck in the screeches of puberty, had a knack for getting under people’s fingernails. (I first suspected he was trouble when he told me that he had no nickname. “My name is Lawrence,” was forever accompanied by an angry Marlon Brando scowl, minus the dimples.) Lawrence was barricading himself in the corner of the classroom for protection. The student witnesses did not intervene because they, too, would have loved to see a bloody, unconscious Lawrence lying peacefully on the floor. I positioned myself between Jay and his sparring partner, hustled Jay away, and whispered, “He’s not worth it, Jay. You’re risking your career.”
Jay smiled with the satisfied smirk of a serial killer and answered, “I was thinking of leaving anyway. This will be just icing on my retirement cake.” By that time, Doc Richardson arrived, and the fight was declared a draw by all. There would be no rematch because shortly after, thinking that tropical fish were less trouble than sixth graders, Jay left teaching to manage an aquarium. Brahim moved onto to creating science courses. Tony and I decided to stay together teaching Team courses, only we made them available to all of AMY’s students. Students who liked the format stayed with us term after term.
We were rolling along, enjoying ourselves until Tony announced his retirement. At least he was officially leaving the school system, though he planned to come in each day and take part in the aspects of the job he liked: counseling individuals, coaching budding writers, and overseeing AMY’s student newspaper. He had written his final evaluation.
Would Tony’s new role mean the end of Team classes? Identifying a new partner would be a challenge because it’s like a marriage: You have to know when to talk, when to listen; when to act, and when to wait and see if things will blow over; when to use a carrot, and when to use a proverbial stick. I knew someone who was already the ideal partner I sought, but she was teaching across the city, in Germantown close to home at AMY Northwest, our sister school. Fortunately (for me) Bette had just been acquitted of making racist remarks and may have been open to a change of scenery. She confessed, “I’d love to get out of there, but I don’t want it to look like I’m running away. They may see that as a weakness, or a confession of guilt. And I’m still waiting for the staff to show me full support.”
I sprinkled the subject of Tony’s retirement into many conversations and hoped for the occasional sign that Bette’s resistance may be wearing down. Our prayers were answered when the principal of AMY Northwest, like principals Joe Doyle and “Dizzy” Dean before her, surprised Bette by eliminating her position from the roster. As a reward for the farcical charges, Bette was placed at the top of the list for teachers’ seeking transfers. As luck would have it, AMY school’s new principal, Eileen Dwell, had attended Fels Junior High with Bette in the 1960’s. They used to chat when stopping by their lockers. I put on my roster builder and union representative hats and worked with Eileen, creating an overly ambitious reading specialist position, knowing that no one but Bette would apply.
Thanks to false accusations of racism and a gentleman’s “pedalogical” concerns, AMY welcomed a new face for the fall trimester. I had a new teaching partner; and, once again, we could bounce lesson plan ideas off one another as we pedaled through the streets of Philadelphia. Bette had a fresh start without need of a Race Card. Her teaching skills, good intentions, and personality would be enough. We began to teach a Team class covering a different part of the world every trimester, looking closely at the lives of children.
An annual rite of spring appeared in the form of a letter from the IRS. The auditors challenged the amount we spent on educational travel, by far the biggest chunk of our budget. Once a year, I journeyed to the William Green Federal Building on Sixth Street right across from Independence Hall, bringing AMY’s course catalogue, our Team syllabi, travel photographs, magazines, games, and other artifacts. Each time, I wore the auditor down, and the case against us was dismissed. Or the inquisitor just decided that the I.R.S. could spend its time more wisely by going after bigger tax cheats.

Our union newspaper ran an ad seeking Philadelphia teachers looking for a free trip to Japan. We researched and learned that an anonymous Japanese yakuza (organized crime boss) wanted to improve his image by becoming a philanthropist. He treated thirty teachers, including Bette and me, to a first class tour where we met religious leaders, artists, politicians, writers, and other movers and shakers of Japan. All we had to do in return was create a Team course called “Just Japan”.
The highlight of the term occurred when we broke the class into two groups. My group used my study guide to plow through various sections of Hiroshima in order to script and present a Jerry Springer-style talk show. Guests included the five survivors featured in the book, the pilot of the Enola Gay, veterans, and President Harry Truman. We utilized archival U.S. government footage of Hiroshima’s destruction. Planted audience members shouted out diverse opinions of the decision to drop an atomic bomb in the middle of a crowded city.
Bette’s half of the class dramatized The Year of Impossible Goodbyes, the story of a multi-generational Korean family during the harsh Japanese occupation. As a result of the course, our students would never think of all Asians as being the same. Bette and I felt that history is often taught without regard to lives of ordinary people, but with all of our Team classes, we sought materials that would help history become relevant and therefore memorable. And if students acquired a distaste for war, that would be a bonus.
One day at lunch, our counselor, Dennis, handed me an announcement and asked, “Do you want to attend a Temple University leap conference?”
“What’s Temple University leap?” That’s not a trio of words I usually run together.”
Dennis explained that LEAP was an acronym for “legal education and participation”. I consented when I heard that a substitute teacher and lunch would be provided. As a result, I discovered a previously hidden world where teachers develop and share interesting, lively civics lessons. The proliferation of judge shows on television taught me that most people sought a better understanding of the law. As a result, I created a generation of “Young Lawyers”.
On the first day of each term, I whet appetites by asking for general questions. My intentionally frustrating answers: “We’ll get to your privacy rights when we study the fourth amendment in week seven,” or “You’ll learn what’s required to win a civil lawsuit the final week of the term.” The livelier parts of the course followed a fairly dry, detailed review of the Constitution. And because students had to learn to persuade and listen to one another, courtroom procedure was part of my introduction. They needed to pass a “bar exam” entitling them to play the roles of lawyers when we got to the mock trials. Each passed exam became a shingle displayed on the classroom wall.
For all mock trials, students were required to outline the evidence in order to write a closing argument (utilizing higher order thinking skills- my Penn State method course instructors would be proud!) at the end of each case. When word got out that “Young Lawyers” was a lot of work but worth the effort, I usually had a group of self-motivated learners enabling me to feel like a real teacher.
We visited Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center to observe homicide trials. Most cases involved drugs, a love triangle, or both. Students were surprised to see that the lawyers chatted and joked when the jury was in recess, not like on television where they act like they’re ready to kill one another. During the lunch recess, we cruised past the holding cells in the building’s basement. No “tough love” lectures were needed to emphasize the moral of the story. The obvious lesson was that, unless you were here on an academic mission, this was a place to avoid. Only once did I receive a surprise greeting from one of an ex-students awaiting trial. He had elected not to enroll in Young Lawyers, depriving him of the opportunity to learn that murdering a pizza delivery guy is a bad career move.

Meanwhile, Micole and Alana were enrolled at Mount Airy’s Henry School. Like AMY, it was a desegregation school designed to keep middle class children enrolled in Philadelphia public schools. Every morning, a gathering of white families would congregate outside our neighborhood’s Kelly School for the yellow bus. The girls quickly discovered their favorite part of Henry School. Every spring, the school presented a complete production of a different Broadway play. Our little song and dance girls acquired roles in “Oklahoma” and “Bye Bye Birdie”.
I too was dabbling in theater with an elective course called “Soap”. Students wrote vignettes based on teenage problems and performed them for the rest of the school in our first floor multi-purpose room. By the end of the term, we attempted to bring the differing plots together with varying success. The material, though fun, was amateurish compared to what I saw at Henry and often in questionable taste as we incorporated topical current events into the show. The friendly, neighborhood abortion clinic, pedophiles, and an unscrupulous minister worked their way into our drama. To save on costly paper and provide as little evidence as possible if “trouble” arose, each actor was handed only the lines he or she needed for a scene. Fortunately for me, like Shakespeare’s works, no original scripts remain.
When I volunteered to play the drums for the Henry School shows, I marveled at the director’s ability to get two hundred participants, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, to flow in one direction, all working for the good of the show. I was called in during the final week of after school rehearsals, carefully dragging my old Ludwig drum set from our damp basement behind me. I had prepared by studiously listening to my scratchy, old “South Pacific” album. The director asked me to tone down my performances, so as not to overshadow the cast. As I watched adolescent boys wearing coconut shell bras rehearse “There is Nothing like a Dame” for the sixth time, I wondered if I could create a musical theater program at AMY. The talent was there, but I faced a lack of resources, parental support, a theater, and my own limited musical ability and directing experience. The one thing AMY had going for it was our flexibility in planning a roster.
Ricardo Martin, AMY’s music teacher, left to form the Rainbow Company at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater. Rumor has it that he left under auspicious circumstances. He called to ask if we could fit a musical theater program into our school. I volunteered, once again, not knowing where this was heading.
The first reward was a day off to meet with the Rainbow Company representatives. I knew they were well funded when we lunched at Bookbinder’s Original seafood restaurant.
The director, a short, squat Black woman with stringy, thinning hair, introduced herself as Miss Dianne. (I was happy to hear that she worked behind the scenes.) She explained her few rules: “You’ll work with Miss Pat to get me a script. It’s my job to get the show onto the stage. Now don’t you go giving me no dancing elephants or plane crashes. I know what the Rainbow Company can do. I know the budget. I know the props. You just get me a script in six weeks. I’ll take it from there.” Miss Dianne stepped aside as Miss Pat returned from a cigarette break.
After unsuccessfully attempting to constrain a cough, Miss Pat began. “I’ll be at your school twice a week for six weeks. If your kids want to see and hear their words and ideas on a real stage performed by professionals, we can make it happen. All we ask for is a commitment from you and your students. I’ll bring contracts for them and their parents to sign. They can also audition for parts. And don’t worry about the songs. You’ll write the lyrics and let us know how you want it to sound. Our musical director takes it from there.”
At our first writing session, three ideas were suggested: a ghost story, a war setting, and a cautionary tale of a bullied boy. Somehow, Miss Pat combined the three and came up with a musical featuring a bullied victim encountering his deceased Vietnam vet grandfather in a haunted house. It was original, and it worked!
The second year, we produced a musical about an abusive mother called “The Perfect Family”.
The grant was to last for three years. For our third show, we wanted to try something different. Some of the Showtime students had seen the French detective farce, The Tall Blond Man with the One Brown Shoe in our Team Europe class. They suggested we write a moody, film noire piece about a detective working on a long dead cold case who discovers that she, herself, is the missing person. The climax called for her to reunite with her estranged mother. At a writing session, Miss Pat asked, “How are we going to get them together? What possible reason would Mom have for contacting a daughter she abandoned thirty years before?”
Numerous ideas were considered, but none obtained a consensus until someone suggested, “Maybe the mother is dying, and she needs to make a connection while she still has time.” Miss Pat smiled with the satisfaction of a teacher who knows the secret of leading students somewhere and having them believe they arrived on their own.
Her rarely displayed smile made more sense during one of the ensuing rehearsals. Miss Pat had stepped outside for another cigarette break and caught up to me as she returned, “I’m glad this is going so well. It’s my last show.”
I responded, “I’m sorry it’s just a three-year grant. We started out pretty good, and we’re getting better and better.”
Miss Pat looked me in the eye. This took me by surprise as she was usually coolly detached and focused on script writing. After three years of working together, I hardly knew her. She repeated, “No. This is my last show.” I have inoperable lung cancer. The doctors have given me six months.”
An affirmative hug might have been in order, but the well-established distance between us was hard to breech. I had no response except for a weak, “If there’s anything I can do….” Miss Pat nodded toward the rehearsal and said, “You and your class are doing plenty. Maybe you don’t realize it, but you’re doing a lot for me already.” Her comment became even more appropriate when she added, “That’s my daughter, Ebony, playing the detective.”

My agreeing to take the Holocaust tour of Israel and Poland mandated that I would make the subject part of my curriculum. At the end of my Holocaust Literature term, the students combined the most memorable sections of all of the books to create a script called “Danielle’s Story.” The idea was borrowed from an exhibit at Washington’s Holocaust Museum. I asked my new student teacher, Karen Thoma, who had given up on the legal profession to become a teacher, if we were plagiarizing. She advised, “Since there’s no profit involved, don’t worry about it.” About the same time, Karen casually mentioned her background in theater and skill as a pianist. Voila! “Danielle’s Story” became possibly the world’s first Holocaust musical.
We manipulated the school’s roster to team up on “Showtime”, a favorite with performers and our audiences. All that was missing was a theater as AMY’s “gymatorium” was utilized all day for physical education classes.
More good timing: The union newspaper ran an article mentioning that Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater was looking for an introduction into city schools. Again, I volunteered. With student labor, we designed and built a stage in the underused multi-purpose room. Walnut Street provided permanent lighting and gallons of black paint. They brought us to their warehouse where we found curtains and perspective props. AMY’s school custodian overlooked the contractual provision that regulated who could handle a paintbrush or a hammer in public schools.
Later in the term, I attended a Holocaust educators’ workshop. While lunching with the authors of Ten Thousand Children (a book about German Jewish children being sent off to England to escape the rise of the Nazis but having to leave their parents behind) I proposed turning their Kindertransport stories into a musical. I was surprised when the authors agreed. I transferred one song “Shall We Stay?” (dramatizing a family’s difficult decision to send their children overseas) from “Danielle’s Story”; Karen and I composed a few others. Walnut Street Theater provided professional expertise. We had a short, successful run.
When a teaching position opened over the summer, we were happy with AMY’s designation as a school where we could select staff members. Karen interviewed and was appointed, and “Showtime” became a permanent fixture on our roster.
If you work at something for thirty three years, you’re supposed to be pretty skilled at it. I generally took it in stride when people said I was a good teacher. I credited time and the wisdom to evolve as I encountered new ideas.

What could drive a pair of happy, successful, likable teachers into early retirement? Four letters: NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Though the law may have had idealistic, altruistic intentions, those four letters spelled trouble for AMY school. Our general unspoken policy had been to stay quiet and hope the powers-that-be didn’t notice what we were doing.
A provision of NCLB required that teachers must be certified in the area we teach. Sensible and innocent enough, but it meant that I had to take a Praxis exam to prove my ability to teach social studies. It didn’t matter that my principals had been giving me rave reviews for thirty years. It didn’t matter that I had received Teacher of the Year and Holocaust Educator of the Year commendations. I saved a few bucks by eschewing the strongly suggested preparatory courses because I had faith in my abilities. (I also applied and was accepted to fly out to a posh St. Louis hotel to sit on the committee that created the rubric for grading the exam. NCLB had friends in high places.) My Praxis test score was 100. I had paid a few hundred dollars to gain the necessary certification to continue teaching “Young Lawyers” and Team classes.
The 2003 school year began like most with AMY’s staff sharing donuts supplied by the Home and School Association while reviewing our summer vacations. The removal of jelly donut powder from my AMY polo shirt was interrupted when we received a shipment of hundreds of boxes containing required Language Arts materials and teaching guides to be used starting in two days. Every teacher welcomes new supplies, but the problem was that although the materials were shiny and new, this gift horse came with conditions. They were mandated and dull. Each grade had its own materials, ending the mixed grade grouping of our Team courses. Each unit consisted of an isolated selection of literature along with grammar, word usage, punctuation, and vocabulary exercises. We had supplemental CD’s, videos, artwork, and step-by-step instructions related to the theme. Of course the pre-test, practice test, post-test, and retest were included. New teachers may have been impressed with a wealth of materials making their lives easier, but this was overkill.
As Bette and I sorted through the boxes, my glazed apple cinnamon donut began to lose its sweetness. What was to become of the fun, interesting units we honed over the last thirty years? “Just Japan” became just a memory, replaced on the roster by Seventh Grade Language Arts. All that effort was to be tossed aside and replaced by this endless morass at the cost of two hundred dollars per student. Would our yakuza backer get word of our abandoning his homeland and put his criminal empire aside for a few days in order to torture us back into the fold? Were Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai still looking for work?
A saving grace was that the Pennsylvania honchos had not yet agreed on a standard social studies curriculum. They could not easily decide what needed to be included. Special interest groups lobbied for more African-American, Puerto Rican, and women’s history, Holocaust studies, and the contributions of Irish and Italian Americans. Should the curriculum include Sally Hemings, Cesar Chavez, Jane Roe, or John Brown? The lack of standardized social studies tests gave “Young Lawyers” a reprieve. Part of my teaching day remained satisfying, but the subject of early retirement began to creep into our conversations during our commutes back to Moorestown.
We had no fear of boredom because ten weeks of summer vacation had accustomed us to retirement mode every year. We had no shortage of places to visit. I knew I didn’t want to work until the day I died like my father and grandfathers, and Bette’s bout with leukemia definitely reminded us of our own mortality. Those annual statements from the Pennsylvania Retirement System, revealing how much we could bring in without working, became more tantalizing every time we cracked open those weighty, glossy, dull textbooks or duplicated boring worksheets.
But in spite of those four letters, NCLB, hanging over our heads, we still liked teaching. We looked forward to every day’s providing another chance to mold young minds and all the other clichés that drive idealistic, young people into the profession.
I recalled my conversion of Dr. Rivera a few years earlier. Maybe he, or someone like him at the school board, would listen to reason and realize that AMY’s ways of doing things should be replicated instead of squashed. After all, the “A” stood for “alternative”, and our ways had earned us a “Blue Ribbon School” designation. Jim Murphy, our special education teacher, scanned the thirty-six page application and asked, “What’s it mean to be a Blue Ribbon School? Can’t we just skip the application and call ourselves a Red Ribbon School?” And there was the matter of a contractual provision where union members could vote to abrogate portions of the contract to improve individual schools.
This time the meeting was scheduled at AMY, so I anticipated a home court advantage. I fortified myself with my numerous syllabi and AMY’s impressive course catalogue. If needed, I could invite my adversary to my book closet to display the wealth of materials I had collected over thirty three years. She could even meet AMY’s students who would freely offer testimony defending our school’s positive effects on their lives.
On my way to school, I recalled previous meetings in principals’ offices, beginning with the fifth grade me who accidentally tore a hole in the American flag. I escaped serious punishment then and learned that the principal’s office was a place to avoid. I succeeded until I became a union representative. Then I was asked to represent teachers accused of various misdemeanors.
One was a substitute who reported to work so drunk that she might have been recorded on a Richter scale. She explained, “Oh, thas my med-, med-, med- ication.” I tried to remain the neutral party, merely there to confirm that her contractual rights were being upheld, but the medication smelled just like the kind of wine usually concealed by a wrinkled paper bag. I merely observed and took notes.
I also represented a teacher who was a strong believer in animal rights. After a PETA representative spoke to her class, students were encouraged to write letters to companies who utilized laboratory animals to test their products’ safety. The letter writing campaign would have been more effective if a Gillette vice president did not telephone the principal to complain that one of the letters threatened to blow up the company’s headquarters.
Once I had to defend myself against the charge of insubordination, a catch-all phrase like “disorderly conduct” which administrators use when they can’t think of something more specific.
The affair started innocently enough with an American History lesson on Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line that changed the world by making the automobile available to the common working man. I asked my students what they would pay for a Philadelphia hoagie sandwich.
“About three dollars.”
“And how much to you think the store pays for all that
stuff that goes into making a hoagie?”
“Maybe a dollar.”
This led to a fund raiser, a “Have It Your Way Two Dollar Hoagie Sale” where ninety percent of the school’s students and staff pre-ordered sandwiches prepared to their individual tastes. Considering that the competition was federally funded “space pack” school lunches, our success was not surprising. Students did the math and decided how much inventory we needed to purchase. I purchased latex gloves, caps, and hand sanitizer.
All went according to plan with my fourth mod students eager to play their parts on the assembly line until a recently appointed vice principal appeared. He said, “Bob, may I speak to you in the hallway.” The use of the nickname was supposed to show that he was there on a friendly mission, but those who know me know that I am never “Bob”.
“Sure.” I resisted using the vice principal’s nickname, “Wiggy.” Some students called him that because his toupee, resembling a rodent which had been dropped from above, matched his brownish green vintage high-finned Cadillac.
“Bob, I can’t let you go on with this hoagie sale. There was a botulism outbreak at Howell Elementary last week, and we just can’t take a chance.”
I then detailed the safe restaurant practices which had previously been reviewed by the home economics teacher. I informed Wiggy, “I managed a restaurant. (I didn’t mention that I was paid $1.25 an hour to “manage” a fifteen-cent hamburger joint in the sixties. No need for the whole truth sometimes.) You don’t have to worry. Every health precaution has been taken. We’ve collected money from three hundred people, including some members of the administration, who are counting on us for their lunch. And take a look around. I can’t return all of the meat, cheese, rolls-”
“I’m sorry, Bob, but I can’t let you go through with the sale.”
I thanked Wiggy for his concern. After he waltzed away with an air that must be taught in administrators’ courses, a student asked, “Mr. A, what are we going to do?”
My ace in the hole: I knew that the sale was in my lesson plans which had been dutifully signed and approved by the principal, Doc Richardson. I also knew that Doc rarely scrutinized the plans I submitted. He once signed off on my Language Banquet class spending two days translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into Aramaic! Like Henry Ford himself, I ordered, “Let’s get this assembly line rolling!”
The sale went well. Customers were happy. We raised money for the underfunded Home & School Association. Every objective of my lesson was met. And even though my fears of forever being known as “Botulism Bob” were allayed, I avoided Wiggy for the next few days. Eventually I received notification that he wanted to meet with me in the principal’s office. He threatened placing a negative report in my file. I knew that files were destroyed at the end of each school year, so I didn’t worry.
As I entered the office I noticed a bead of sweat streaming down from what would have been Wiggy’s hairline if his toupee had been properly placed. He rose, weakly shook my hand, and said, “Bob, I’m glad your sale went well, and there were no health problems as a result of your insubordination. I spoke with Doc Richardson, and he’s agreed to let the matter drop. You do not have to worry about repercussions.” I smiled and performed a small, ritual victory dance once I cleared the doorway.
My final meeting in the principal’s office also began with another brief, cold handshake and an introduction: “Good afternoon. Stephanie Anderson from Analytics,” a division I didn’t know existed. I introduced myself and, not knowing how much time I had, I asked if I could review what my typical teaching day was like. Ms. Anderson listened, nodded occasionally, and generally looked as if she had somewhere else to be. When I described my Language Banquet elective, Ms. Anderson asked her first question. “Do you really think students can learn a new language every week?”
“Of course not, but they gain an appreciation of language itself, in addition to lessening their fear of learning a foreign language later on. They gain a greater respect for people just learning English. Developing lifelong learners is a stated school district objective. And their spelling and vocabulary skills improve every day.”
Ms. Anderson cut short my intended lengthy description of Young Lawyers. “Mr. Allekotte, you have provided much anecdotal evidence, but can you provide me with anything to validate what you say?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the provisions of No Child Left Behind require evaluative tools to substantiate student improvement. Do you have any pre- and post-test results to validate your opinions?”
“Of course not. I’ve always believed that any time spent testing takes away from teaching time.” I was proud to be quoting Tony Day.
Ms. Anderson’s response surprised me. “Do you know that I represent Houghton-Mifflin Analytics? My job is to ensure that our materials and your teaching conform to the standards required by the law.” I saw her in a different light. She should have been wearing an executioner’s mask as each provision of the law was driving another nail into AMY’s coffin.
I asked, “Can you help us develop tests to validate our successes?”
“I’m sorry. That is not my department.”
Another question: “Are any schools exempt from the new standards?”
The answer was, “No. Not public schools anyway.”
To quote the Grateful Dead, I was “Set up like a bowling pin. Knocked down. It gets to wearing thin. They just won’t let you be.” I dragged myself away from the meeting with the certainty that NCLB would spell the death of alternative public education. If one of the goals was to drive experienced, costly, pro-union teachers into retirement, it was succeeding. I had entered the meeting hoping to make Ms. Anderson envious of my students who envisioned themselves arguing cases before the Supreme Court. I wanted her to observe the great things taking place at AMY school.
Mismatch Day at AMY

Shortly after my meeting with Ms. Anderson, I submitted the required papers to join the ranks of former teachers. I began to compose my retirement song to the tune of the obvious choice, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin,” the longest song I knew.

Teachin’, the one job for me. Started way back in 1973,
And now, I’m finally free to just be movin’ on.

Followed my dear older brother to Penn Treaty,
Two hundreds kids and sixty two dollars a day.
Teachers, disgusted, most of the students, needy.
I joined a mini-school to do things my way.

Teachin’, but no one cared what I taught.
Youthfully I entertained and I fought.
Broke rules, and rarely got caught. I just kept movin’ on.

A new reading teacher was in my brother’s position.
Got a notion to go check her out at lunch.
Asked her to sign a bicycle rider’s petition.
To this day, I’m glad I followed that hunch.

Wond’ring, she gave her autograph.
Thought I was part of the custodial staff
Thinking I’d be good for a laugh, and she’d be movin’ on.

Sometimes the kids would rattle my cage.
Blame it all on a Piaget stage.
Rememb’ring me when I was that age.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

What in the world ever became of laughter?
There is no room in the curriculum.
Fill them with facts, so they can recite them after.
Seems the goal of the plan is to keep them real dumb.

Bette, thirty years satisfied.
Even had fun teaching Genocide.
We never felt too frenzied or fried. We just kept movin’ on.

Endless, senseless directives from our new bosses.
Like “Is there serious rigor displayed on your walls?”
My teaching guides are sprouting rare molds and mosses
While numerous kids are wandering through the halls.

Teachin’: Comply with Act 48* (*PA version of NCLB). Try our best to keep our school first-rate.
But really nothing’s changed ‘cept the date.
We just keep movin’ on.

Standard curriculum, every new thought from a text book.
I knew right away this was not for me.
Soon as we breathe, go right onto the next book.
By the way, did we make our AYP*?
(*adequate yearly progress- what a joke!)

Most days, I still felt pretty good.
Proud to be standing where I stood.
Would you leave there if you could?
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Truckin’ onto Brigantine.
No uniforms, just faded, cut-off jeans.
No more pretending to be mean.
I’ll just be movin’ on.

“Remembering when I was that age” (My 7th grade report card)
At my farewell dinner, I planned to explain my decision to retire, but the din of late-night crowd in the chosen venue was so loud that the lyrics had to serve as my swan song. I quit trying to out-yell noisy rooms decades ago. Couples out for a romantic dinner or singles attempting to impress others at the bar did not want to be interrupted by me; and those who knew me already knew how I felt about leaving the profession.
I would have displayed the report card showing the seventh grade me. I would have avowed my appreciation for those teachers who didn’t give up on this misbehaving young man who had his mind on his acne, his cowlick, wondering if he’d ever kiss a girl, and rethinking if he hid his lunch money in a secure place. Anything but the seventh grade curriculum! I would have thanked my country’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, for it was that fateful event (and my determination to avoid going there) that transformed me into an honor student overnight.
I thought I had retired, but Fate had another plan for me. During AMY’s annual January ski trip, Bette damaged her meniscus with a tumble and was eligible to collect worker’s compensation until she recovered from the surgery. I offered to spend my first few months of retirement as her substitute teacher. I enjoyed covering her favorite classes, “Coming to America” (history through the study of immigrant groups), “Maps & More”, and an elective called “Manners”.
Bette returned in the spring, and Marie, our secretary, may have sensed that I wasn’t ready to say good-bye. I agreed to move downstairs to cover classes for Jim Murphy’s autistic support program. After thirty three years of teaching, I learned far more than I taught in this parallel universe. Assisted by two aides, I witnessed a young man who continually warmed his right hand in his butt crack in between offers to shake hands with everyone he met. Another finished his work as quickly as possible in order to spend time at a computer screen, identifying the year, make, model, and engine size of every car that came across the monitor. The most interesting case was a twelve year-old with zero communication or social skills. He spent much of the time rolling and sobbing on a gym mat. The biggest triumph of the term was an aide’s getting him to indicate whether he preferred peanuts or raisins for his snack by pointing to a cupped hand.
By the end of the term, Bette submitted the set of forms needed to ride into the sunset with me. I composed her retirement song to the tune of “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette”. (If you don’t know the tune and don’t feel like opening a YouTube tab, it also works well as a rap song.)

I’ve been known to have a heart of gold
And ladylike ways, I’ve been told.
The kind of gal who wouldn’t harm a flea.
But you don’t want to be on the street
If me and a certain character meet.
The man who first proposed NCLB.

I’ve witnessed teenage melodrama
And even survived leukemia’s trauma,
But there’s one thing I couldn’t overcome.
It seems that every new regulation
Brings me nothing but frustration
Making sure my students stay real dumb.

Teach, teach, teach: I’m in a bind.
Never a chance to use our minds.
If I meet George W. Bush,
I will kick him in the tush.
Then one fine day, we’ll all leave him behind.

After a lazy summer by the beach in Brigantine, I received a call from Marie. “Rob, Troy’s going to be out for a few weeks at the start of the term. Do you want to take his eighth grade American History courses?” Troy had come to AMY as our student teacher and ended up being appointed. As our only young male teacher, he worked hard and deserved his great success. Like most new teachers, he was happy to have a wealth of materials at his disposal. I considered returning, but regretted that social studies had become exclusively “history”. Geography, culture, economics, music, civics, and tasty ethnic foods would have to be squeezed between endless names and dates and strategic battles. And classes now traveled by grade, stratifying AMY’s once homogeneous population. On the other hand, I knew the eighth grade students, and the subject of American History was right up my alley.
We could do without the salt, sea, and sand of the shore for a time, but the early morning sixty-five mile commute didn’t seem like fun. Marie suggested I call Troy to see if we could work something out. Troy told me, “We are heading out to Phoenix for a few weeks. At least, I hope it’s only a few weeks. Taylor’s finally getting her tumor removed. Anyway, if you could sub, I’d know the kids will be in good hands, and my classroom won’t be destroyed.” When I mentioned the long daily commute from the shore, Troy added, “I’ve got another idea. Why don’t you and Bette house-sit for us? That would solve your transportation problem and give me one less thing to worry about.” I consented.
When I repeated the conversation to Bette, she asked, “What kind of surgery is Troy’s daughter having?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of tumor. I didn’t ask.”
“How could you not ask? The man’s daughter is flying across the country for an operation, and you don’t ask about it!”
I apologized. “Sorry. I’ll ask next time.” Bette returned to whatever she was doing, muttering something about men. I didn’t ask her to speak up.
I visited my old book closet to dust off the “Young Lawyers” lessons I had left behind. Like before, we reviewed the Constitution and prepared for mock trials. Since they will cover the Civil War, I chose trials from that era. I use the word “cover” because you can prove what’s been covered, whereas what has been learned often remains a mystery.
After reading an excerpt of the Gone with the Wind scene where Scarlett shoots a Yankee intruder in her hallway, I rewrote the scene from the soldier’s point of view. The prosecution and defense teams received the two differing versions. Simultaneously, two more groups prepared to put slavery on trial by recreating the 1857 Scott vs. Sandford Supreme Court case. They invented friends of the court by using the actual narratives from To Be a Slave. The book also included well-worn defenses of slavery from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. I could sense the excitement mounting as students built their cases. As my retirement loomed, at least I could go out with a bang of a courtroom gavel.
Most of Troy’s students looked forward to the upcoming week of trials. But there were always exceptions. As I tried to explain that Washington and Jefferson’s views on slavery were self-serving because their fortunes depended on free labor, I noticed a spitball war taking place between two familiar combatants, Barbara and Mark. I had previously attempted to teach Barbara’s two sadistic older brothers who made her life miserable. I recalled that Mark’s father had died suddenly during the winter. His interest in school waned. If I had time the following week, I might share memories of my older brother and me tormenting our little sister but eventually coming to regret it. I could tell Mark about hearing of my father’s dying when I was teaching in Scotland.
I noticed a lanky, pimpled, bespectacled boy leaning way too close to a girl resembling a young Michelle Obama. They were sharing ideas to present to the Supreme Court. I was reliving my first crush, and I was thankful that interracial dating has become not only accepted but fashionable. Another familiar face, Dan, stared out the window. Maybe next week, I’ll learn why he preferred to spend a day hiding in a woodshed (yes- a woodshed, in Philadelphia) rather than AMY school. I returned to the present when Alexis, wearing pink fluorescent socks and a matching bandana, approached my desk. (It was “Dress Down Day”. Alexis had paid a dollar for the right to express her individuality.) She demurely asked, “Was Georgia under martial law at the time of Scarlett O’Hara’s act of self-defense?” Questions like that made me feel like maybe I was retiring too early. I spent the first part of the weekend glad to be part of the fray once again, but I was living in the past. This type of learning was condemned to the past under NCLB.
What if the principal or school district honchos happened by and saw the ensuing lively debates? I could defend our detouring from the standard curriculum because topics such as of slavery, property rights, self-defense, and military law were being discussed. This was much more fun than teaching the Civil War from a textbook. That was how many in my age group studied- and forgot- too much history. I imagined Ms. Anderson dropping by, congratulating me on my imaginative approach to social studies, and asking how to get her own children enrolled in AMY. She’d pull magical strings and return AMY to its heyday! She’d retire from Houghton-Mifflin after firing off an angry letter to the New York Times.
But on Sunday, Troy called. “Rob, I have some news! We’re heading back tomorrow. They had to delay Taylor’s operation because the surgeon is overbooked, and we have to wait a few more weeks.” The bang ending my career was reduced to a whimper. We cleaned Troy’s sheets, straightened up, and headed back to the shore to begin life as retirees.
A few weeks later, I stopped in to see how Karen was faring with “Showtime” rehearsals. On the way, I observed class after class of students’ filling out worksheets, providing short answers that are easy for a teacher or computer to check. Discussions were becoming relics of the past as students prepared for tests to prove that they were mastering the standard curricula. I passed Troy’s American History class to witness another skirmish in Barbara and Mark’s spitball war.
By finally leaving No Child Left Behind far behind us, Bette and I were free to plan an off-season vacation. We knew we would be heading somewhere to the west so we could visit Alana in Santa Barbara, a college she chose because it was rated the country’s most beautiful campus in a Newsweek poll and had a stellar acapella group. Frequent visits were planned to help relieve our empty nest syndrome. At a travel agency, I picked up an Overseas Adventure Travel brochure just to get ideas. Their top-of-the-line trips had always been too expensive and too ritzy for us, but I saw a promotional rate on a new itinerary to Vietnam that turned out to be cheaper than just booking a flight on our own.
Regretfully, Newsweek was accurate in its assessment of UCSB. While weaving up U.S. One toward San Francisco, Bette and I marveled at the crashing waves, looked to one another, and lamented, “Getting Alana back East is not going to be easy.” Twenty five years ago, my mother said the same thing after visiting my brother, Steve, in San Francisco. She was right.
We left the car in Steve’s driveway and headed to Vietnam, nearly as far away from NCLB as possible while still being on Earth. We did our best to escape the aged O.A.T. tourists whenever the busy schedule allowed. I mastered two words of the lyrical but challenging Vietnamese language, thit cho (dog meat). I avoided fast food frankfurters as a precaution.
After the tour, we booked a trip to Angkor Watt, the complex featured in our Junior Scholastic Southeast Asia texts using Cambodian currency. As we watched the sun set over the sprawling complex, a ten year old girl, carrying a tray of Pepsi Cola, approached us. She asked, “Where you from?” After I answered, she asked, “What state you from?”
I answered, “New Jersey and Florida.”
My new friend recited, “New Jersey. Capital Tren-ton.
Florida. Capital Tall-a-hass-ee.”
I told her, “I’m still not a fan of Pepsi Cola. Too much sugar.”
She frowned and whimpered, “Don’t you make my brown eyes blue.” What sales technique! Transaction completed! Her mastery of English (and the languages of every other tourist nearby) brought to mind many of the students I had taught. I wished they had all been so motivated. As I sipped the cool drink, I stifled thoughts of how what we were learning could have contributed nicely to a Team Asia class. Teaching was out of my system, until….
The next summer, I telephoned Marie, to see if any per diem substitute work might be available for the upcoming term. I agreed to a three-week social studies position subbing for the teacher who replaced me. He was due to return from his National Guard tour of duty in Iraq. Easy money. I could teach the new curriculum in my sleep. I would make phone calls and find a place to stay in the city.
I was surprised when I received a follow-up call from Marie. “Rob, I submitted your name for the position, but the computer wouldn’t let me. When I called Human Resources, they said that you were removed from the list. Apparently if you want to sub this year, the NCLB rules stipulate that you’ll have to pass a background check, a police check, and also get a child abuse clearance.” I needed to provide the government’s assurance that I wouldn’t molest the adolescents that I had been teaching for the past thirty three years. A little research revealed that these hurdles would set me back a hundred dollars or so. This was another side industry milking the NCLB regulations. I declined. I told Marie, “Looks like I’ll just be movin’ on.”

As a final farewell, Bette and I attended AMY’s graduation ceremonies. We joined the rest of the staff on the front row. Troy attended with Taylor, who showed no effects of her recent surgery except an uneven haircut. We should not have been surprised that there was no mention of our retirements or of our combined thirty years of service to the school. But one student, Colleen, sporting spiked hair, black and white, prison-striped panty hose, and a tattoo commemorating her promotion to high school, stopped me afterward. She asked, “Mr. A., back in sixth grade, when we were learning about Family Court, you told us a riddle. Then you said, you couldn’t say the answer until after we graduated.” Waving her diploma, Colleen added, “Now I’ve graduated; and I’m still wondering, what’s the answer?”
I apologized for my lack of memory and said, “You’ll have to remind me. What’s the question?”
“Why did Mickey Mouse divorce Minnie?”
“Oh,” I recalled. “She was fucking Goofy.” Thus, my teaching career ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with sharing a laugh over a slightly obscene, old joke; but no joke is old if you haven’t heard it.

I left my course outlines and materials neatly filed in cabinets. My sets of Young Lawyers books, Berlitz language guides, and Team materials remain stacked in the book closet. Those who sold a bill of goods of teaching and testing materials to the school district rendered my stash useless. But, there’s always hope. I believe that every pendulum swings back and forth. Experienced teachers know never to discard any old lessons. When NCLB is repealed, some curious new teacher will perform an archeological dig into my book closet and file cabinets and discover the wealth that an ancient civilization left behind. A Digital Age scholar will unearth these relics of the Paper Age and fill in some link in the evolution of teaching.
That teacher won’t be Troy, as he bid farewell to the School District of Philadelphia and gladly accepted an alternative education administrative position in Florida.
Thanks to the advent of social media, I don’t have to rely on my questionable memory to recall my contribution to society. Through the magic of Facebook, I keep an eye on thousands of former students. Occasionally, I read their posts. Barbara writes of her own bouts with her rambunctious two year-old. Mark served two tours of duty in Iraq before becoming a police officer. Colleen serves drinks at a yuppie bar in New Hope, Pennsylvania and has made certain that my Mickey Mouse riddle lives on. Stephanie sends me a photo she took with the mayor of Philadelphia. She is part of the city’s legal team. In her hand is a copy of the Constitution she received as a Young Lawyer. Alexis writes, “Mr. A. although I am majoring in electrical engineering at Drexel, I am minoring in education. When we discuss good teaching practices, I talk about you.”
And my favorite comment is from Eric, a merchant marine stationed at McMurdo Base in Antarctic.  He wrote, “Mr. A., You were the biggest influence in my life.  Next to Ronald Reagan!”

grade 7                                   “Remembering when I was that age”   (My 7th grade report card)

Waldo

                                                        Where’s Waldo?

                                                He’s run off with Drew Carey’s Mimi

Chapter 30:   Ever Been to Chernobyl?

 

Usually, when someone asks about our travels, Bette and I light up.  At school functions or bar mitzvahs, friends and family politely inquire, “How was your trip?  Where did you go again?” but soon acquire a glazed over, disinterested look two or three sentences into our answer.  So when someone said, “I know you two like to travel.  Have you been to Chernobyl lately?” We should have had a favorable response.  But this questioner was a young man, seemingly only a little older than our college aged Micole, wearing a white lab jacket and a dead serious, sympathetic look.  How did he arrive at such a question?

The answer takes us back to June 3, 2002.  I can be certain of the date because we always celebrated Bette’s birthday in New York City by rewarding our favorite students with a trip to the United Nations, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.  These were easy trips because security is so heavy that teachers need only to provide negligible supervising.  Only once did heavy-handed armed guards have to admonish a parent in the U.N. for sneaking away from the group to satisfy her nicotine urge; and, on the islands, students could wander off on their own with no chance of escape.  Bette and I pointed the students off toward the sites before sitting at the Ellis Island café to enjoy a fast food meal.  Our students stopped by for occasional chats In between scoping out kids from other schools, providing fascinating comments concerning members of the opposite sex. The outing provided a pleasant way for Bette to enjoy her birthday and escape the drudgery of end of year evaluations.  We imagined ourselves on a tropical isle as we shared our overpriced lemonade.  Once I felt we had enough sun, I asked, “Do you want to head into the museum?”  Bette taught a class called “Coming to America” covering immigrant groups’ contributions.  I enjoyed showing students how to obtain information on ancestors and telling them of my success tracking down various Allekottes and Glinors.

But this time, Bette answered, “You can go if you want.  I’m feeling pretty worn out,” figuring it may be the end of the school year catching up with her.  On the way home, we regretted getting too much sun and caught up on our rest as the students and parents watched my homemade video compilation of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” improvisational comedy.

Later that night, Bette said, “I’m going to make a doctor’s appointment.  I think I may have Lyme disease.  I’m always feeling tired.”  A few weeks before, we had led a Sierra Club trip to Rickett’s Glen State Park in central Pennsylvania.  Hiking around, over, and under the spectacular waterfalls was another annual event on AMY school’s calendar.

“But I thought if you had Lyme disease, you’d have a bull’s eye around a bite mark.  I haven’t seen anything unusual.”

“I just want to be sure to catch it early, just in case.”

By the end of the following week, Bette was in the doctor’s office just across the street from our Moorestown home.  A new receptionist looked at Bette’s records and commented, “I always wanted to meet Tom’s mom.”  Tom was our charcoal gray SPCA rescue cat, well known around the neighborhood for his toughness.  He’d often lie in the middle of Newbold Avenue, challenging cars to a standoff.  We thought he braved the chilliest of New Jersey winters, always heading back outside after his feeding times.  The receptionist informed Bette of Tom’s second home.  “We all love Tom.  He started meowing and scratching at the window until we let him in.  Soon he was a regular, purring on patient’s laps in the waiting room.  We even discussed putting Tom on the payroll.”  We wondered what else Tom was hiding from us.  Maybe he was a CIA mole, planted by the government to spy on radical middle school teachers and union activists.

A few days later, the phone rang.  “Hello.  This is Nancy from Prime Medical.  Can I speak to Bette Allekotte?”

Believing that doctor’s offices charge less if they think you’re poor, I said, “Bette’s out thrift shopping.  Can I take a message?”

“Can you ask Bette to call us back as soon as she can?”

Bette soon found out that the blood work showed that some of her numbers were out of whack, and she needed to be retested.  “It’s your white blood cells.  We just want to be sure that it’s nothing serious.”  A week later, a technician was drawing more of Bette’s blood.

A few more days passed before Bette was called back to the office.  When she returned home, she said, “They still don’t know what’s going on.  They’re sending my blood out for more tests.  They told me that if I have a high fever, I should get someone to drive me to the emergency room right away.”

The following Wednesday, I was at my weekly poker game.  I had just taken a big hand with an ace-high flush, when the phone rang.  Host Ed handed me the receiver. “Hi, Dad.  It’s me, Micole.  Mom’s got a hundred and four fever.  She wants you to take her to the emergency room.  I offered, but she wants you.”  Bette got on and told me that she wanted me there in case there were any big decisions.  (We also didn’t totally trust our family’s newest licensed driver yet.) I jumped into the car and turned on the Phillies game.  I dreaded a late night visit to an emergency room.  Once I broke a bone in my foot at afterschool basketball. While I writhed in pain and considered a future without my favorite game, Bette sped up Lehigh Avenue, only to sit in a waiting room and endure endless, mindless talk shows in St. Christopher’s emergency room for hours while stab wounds victims and overdosed drug addicts were admitted.  Some of my fellow viewers enjoyed the shows, even cheering on the lesbian ex-lovers wrestling across the screen.  Sensing our impatience, a receptionist calmly explained the term “triage” to us.

As the Phillies first basemen threw the ball into centerfield on a pick-off play, I started to think about what big decisions could lay ahead.  But feeling uncomfortable with an uncertain future, my mind drifted back to past emergency room encounters.  I remember being rushed to the hospital as a five year-old.  Back in the days when seat belts were to be utilized only on airplanes, my father decided to surprise my spectating mother who was standing aside an amusement park bumper car ride.  She was even more surprised when her loving younger son’s upper lip was covered with blood.  I think my father enjoyed speeding to the hospital and disregarding the red lights.  Then there was the time when I clubbed my brother, Steve, with a putter on the fifteenth hole of Cobbs Creek miniature golf course.  He interrupted my back swing with his forehead on a particularly difficult uphill par three.  Two days later, we returned to the course to complete the match, and the owner even let us play another eighteen holes for free.  We wondered why we hadn’t thought of this scam before.

Bette was sprawled on the living room sofa when I got back.  Wonder Dog Rocky greeted me with a wag of the tail and quickly returned to licking Bette’s feet as Micole and Alana applied cold compresses to her forehead.  I didn’t have to ask how it was going because I already knew.  As we rushed off to the hospital, Bette mumbled, “So how was your night?”

“I didn’t have time to count, but I won about thirty dollars.  It should have been more.  You know how Jersey Jeff always squints when he’s bluffing.  This time he showed three jacks-“

“Uh, that’s enough for tonight.  Maybe you could tell me more in the morning.”  Bette usually grants me one poker story per game, but I immediately perceived that the rules would be different on this night.  Instead, we rode in silence (except for the barely audible baseball game in the background).

I followed the blue “H” signs to Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Laurel.  The first thing I noticed was the “Complimentary Valet Parking” sign.  My immediate favorable impression of the place was reinforced when we walked into the emergency room.  Bette gave her name and was told, “We have a room waiting for you.  Dr. Dunn called to let us know to expect you.  And we can get your signature for admission once you get settled.”

Upstairs in a shared room, a nurse informed us that the first goal was to lower Bette’s temperature.  They applied ice bags to every available surface.  Once Bette fell asleep, and I felt she was getting reasonable care, I returned home and told Micole and Alana, “I really couldn’t stay because it was a shared room, and visiting hours were over.  All I know for now is they’ll be running more tests in the morning.”

The next morning, the three of us went to visit.  An infectious disease expert was talking to Bette.  Bette told him of our many travels, and that the only negative medical experience was when she contacted a rare form of conjunctivitis after failing to understand a Chinese “Do Not Swim” sign in Hong Kong.  That problem was quickly remedied with antibiotics.  A technician drew more blood.  I turned on the television to find that cable stations were not provided.

A few days later, the infectious disease expert reported back that it wasn’t malaria, Lyme’s disease, or Dengue fever.  Another doctor followed.  This one reminded us of Micole’s boyfriend. He shook my hand as he said, “I’m Seth Burk.  I’m a hematologist.”  Maybe he sensed my ignorance because he explained everything in elementary terms from that point on.  “I’d like to schedule a spinal tap.”

“What’s that entail?”

“That’s where we put a needle into your lower backbone and extract some marrow.  It’s done right here in the hospital bed.  You’ll have a local anesthetic.”  He hesitated before adding, “We’d like to rule out leukemia.”

Bette, eyeing the doctor’s youthful appearance, half-joked, “Have you done this before?”

Dr. Burk smiled and said, “Many times.  Don’t worry.  I’m told I’m pretty good at it.  I am also an oncologist.  The procedure shouldn’t hurt.”  After Bette signed the consent form, the doctor said, “I’ll see you some time tomorrow.”

Once he left, Alana asked, “What’s leukemia?  What’s an oncologist?”  I was glad she asked because I didn’t know either.  Bette told her it was blood cancer, and that an oncologist is a cancer specialist.  The mention of cancer was scary because I came from a family where people didn’t discuss illnesses.  I didn’t know any cancer survivors.  All I knew was that my father, my Aunt Judy, and Aunt Jeanne all died of cancer after drawn out battles as my mother looked after for them on our sofa as best she could.  Micole promised to do some online research.

I was visiting a few days later.  Bette confirmed that Dr. Burk did possess a light touch.  As if on cue, Dr. Burk slowly walked in.  Bette viewed his sympathetic look and said, “I guess we’re not ruling out leukemia.  How bad is it?”

“Well, your white cell blood count is 2500, a hundred times normal.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Something is triggering the explosion of cells.  Normally you have diseases in your body that are counteracted by these cells.  Leukemia is the uncontrolled explosion of cells.  It’s cancer of the blood.  Let me ask you a question: I know you two like to travel.  Have you been to Chernobyl lately?”

“Never.  I’m not even sure where Chernobyl is.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, you have a very rare form strain of leukemia.  Most people get it from contact with radioactive materials, like the leak in the Chernobyl nuclear plant.  You can also get it from repeated exposure to benzene.”

“Bette thought a minute and said, “There is a chemical plant a mile from our school.  I have to keep the windows open, especially in the hot weather.”

“About one percent of the cases can’t be explained.”

“That’s me.  Special and hard to explain.”

Dr. Burk smiled and offered, “But there is some good news.”  (I thought of the bad news/good news doctor jokes I had heard:  The doctor informed the patient, “We have to amputate your legs, but the guy across the hall will pay good money for your shoes.”)  Because Hiroshima survivors often suffer from this form of leukemia, every researcher and his mother have been to Japan to study it.  There is a well-established protocol.  We know what to do about it.”  At least he wasn’t suggesting Bette get her affairs in order.

“So what’s the next step, Doctor?”

“Well, you’ll receive chemo therapy, starting in a few days.  The chemo will attack your white blood cells and kill them off.  The tough part is that without the white cells, you’ll have an immune deficiency.  You’ll have no way to fight illnesses, so you’ll have to stay in the hospital where we can keep an eye on you.   After a few weeks, your cells will return.  We monitor them to make sure they come back to the proper level.  They will continue to multiply out of control for a number of rounds of chemo.  Eventually, they will stop going crazy.  That’s when we can say you’re cured.”

“How many treatments do you usually have to give?”

“Could be six, eight, ten.  I can’t say for certain.

When I reported the spinal tap results to the girls, Alana asked, “Is Mom going to lose her hair?”

Micole answered for me.  “I’ve been going online.  Here’s what I found.” Alana and I reviewed a few dozen highlighted sheets of paper, some listing side effects including a loss of hair.  The only part Micole didn’t highlight was the section on the loss of sexual desire.  I guess she thought that we could figure that one out for ourselves.  I thanked Micole even though part of my brain was thinking of the cost of yet another ink cartridge.

On a subsequent visit, I met Dr. Burk in the hallway and said, “I don’t know if you know that I am from a gambling family.  So can you break it down for me?  What are Bette’s chances of survival?

He adopted a clinical stance and stated, “Eighty three percent of people who are otherwise healthy get cured.”  Um.  Five out of six survive.  I felt pretty good about Bette’s chances, even though I had seen sure things lose at many race tracks.  Before I could tell the doctor about Nevele Pride losing at as a one to nine favorite at Brandywine Raceway, he added, “It’s a long struggle, but your wife is otherwise pretty healthy, and she’s entering this with a ‘fighting weight’.  That means she will have the weight to lose when she has no appetite from the chemo.”  (When Alana heard about the loss of appetite, she offered to secure marijuana from her ‘connections’.  She boasted of its pain killing powers also.  I wondered how she knew so much.  I always had my graduate level Pharmacology of Drugs of Abuse notes to cite.  I also wondered but didn’t seek information on her connections.  Bette thanked Alana but refused the offer because we didn’t need to be fighting the New Jersey State Police at the same time we were battling Bette’s illness.  Spousal immunity doesn’t cover having to testify against one’s daughter at her drug dealing trial.)

“How long is this whole process going to take?  When can we expect things getting back to normal?”  I asked Dr. Burk.

“Well, Bette will recover, but there’s going to be a new normal.” (Was he talking about our sex lives?)  Bette, and maybe the whole family, will change in ways none of us can predict.”

The prediction of the inevitable hair loss became obvious a week after the first chemo therapy session.  When Bette noticed clumps of her long, thick, curly dark hair growing out of her pillow, we knew it was time for us to put my electric shaver to work.  We made a family project out of the task, pausing every few strokes to photograph the hair styles that Bette would not have otherwise considered.  The Mohawk brought another ill-fated hair style to mind.

For the past sixteen years, we had spent our Christmas vacations on different Caribbean islands.  When Alana was six, the girls had their hair braided and beaded on the beach at Barbados.  We haggled until we arrived at a price acceptable to all parties, but once the hairdresser became aware of the difficulty of working with Alana’s thick hair, we settled for only five or six beaded braids on each side.  A lot of life’s lessons became apparent a little too late.  The fact that braids need to be treated with oils and other products had escaped us until this point.  As a result, we were walking through the Chelten Avenue shopping district when Alana calmly stated, “I think my hair is falling out.”

Bette grabbed hold of a few locks to confirm.  We were happy the hair loss was confined to the temples, resulting in a Mohawk years before various professional wrestlers and Billy Ray Cyrus attempted to make the look fashionable.  Alana lost her front teeth at about the same time.  We dressed her in outlandishly mismatched bright colors to take the focus off of her werewolf/mullet combination.  When she made her theater debut in Henry School’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie”, I was happy that most parents were too focused on their own children to notice ours.  The few who paid attention to Alana would have asked, “What kind of parents would do that to their child?”  We never heard from any child welfare advocates and were happy that the front teeth and hair were replaced in due time.

When the shaving of Bette’s hair was complete, I took a good look at her and saw her late father.  Courting men are often warned to take a close look at their beloved’s mother because that otherwise peripheral person in their lives offers a glimpse of the person they will be sharing a bed with in a few decades.   Though I was still attracted to my bald wife, I wondered if this was part of the new normal that Dr. Burk spoke of.

My mother-in-law, Edith, became a one of the frequent, welcomed visitor to the hospital.  As a survivor of the Holocaust and a few cancers, she shared insights with her baby that I couldn’t provide.  To this day, Bette divides the world into two types of people: those who were there to support her (even those who arrived with St. Christopher medals, prompting a quizzical look from Edith) and those who pretend that devastating illnesses do not exist.  Up until this point, I had fallen into the former category, but Bette’s upbeat attitude left all guests, including me, feeling happy to be visiting.  Most days the room was a cheerful place.

Bette had the good timing and fortune to get critically ill during our school vacations when Edith, Micole, Alana, sister Fran, brother-in-law Irv, or I could be by her side to apply ice packs, adjust a pillow, remind visitors to scrub their hands, or complete the many tasks to help Bette feel as comfortable as possible despite the tangle of tubes attached to her.  In between visits, I phoned family and friends to update them on Bette’s condition.  “Inform” would be a more accurate term than update” because things didn’t change much from day to day.  Dr. Burk surmised that this was a good thing as surprises were not needed.  His plan would take time, and from my perspective of sheer ignorance, he appeared to know what he was doing.

One surprise occurred at home.  For the first time, pet dog Rocky and our cat Tom had reached a level of co-existence.  The occasional growl or meowed threat had disappeared from our household.  They had even taken to sleeping on either side of me as if to compensate for Bette’s absence, leaving me especially surprised to find on my return from the hospital one afternoon that one of them had urinated all over the house.  Alana found Tom at the doctor’s office; therefore Rocky was the chief suspect.  Could he be demanding some of the attention that had been diverted toward Bette?  The girls and I conscientiously showered Rocky with the affection that he had come to expect and deserved after many years of loyalty to us.   When the yellow stains reappeared day after day, I made an appointment at the veterinarian.

The vet said, “Basically what you have is a dog that is getting older.  Incontinence is part of the territory.”  At least the peeing wasn’t part of a psychological battle between man and beast.  A packet of prescribed pills would solve the problem.

Problem solved, until a few days later when Micole woke me up to say, “Dad, Rocky is walking around in circles and his eye has popped out.”  As odd as it sounded, Micole’s description was accurate.  Rocky’s right eye appeared to be hanging a few inches from the floor, attached only by a thread of muscle.  Another trip to the vet and we learned that stroke is often a side effect of the incontinence medication.  As I had only witnessed a hanging eyeball in a documentary about Hiroshima, I wondered if Dr. Burk didn’t tell us that Bette’s condition could be contagious.  This thought was interrupted by some good news.  The doctor could remove the eye and sew up the socket for fifteen hundred dollars.  I balked, because unlike Bette, Rocky had no health insurance.  And the eye appeared ready to fall off on its own.  I had seen old movies when grizzled cowboys stitched up injured posse members with a needle and thread from a rusty sewing kit.  A family conference followed.  The girls let me know that, although they agreed that saving money for college is important, they didn’t want to assist in the surgery.  After telling the doctor that we’d get back to him, subsequent phone calls revealed varying rates for the surgery.  University of Pennsylvania wanted two thousand while a vet in Medford, New Jersey asked for four hundred. (I wondered if there was such a wide range for the cost of chemotherapy.  We didn’t think of comparing prices.  I was glad we chose Virtua Memorial because of the free parking.  They also provided unlimited ginger ale, Jello, and Graham crackers to visitors.)

Rocky’s operation was a success, and I soon found that walking a one-eyed, imbalanced dog earned me a certain amount of street credibility.  I had never before contemplated “street cred” as we walked the shady lanes of Moorestown. I recalled having been on crutches after breaking my fifth metatarsal bone.  Rocky would accompany me to the Seven-Eleven.  Traffic would stop to allow us to cross the street.  I compared this to Germantown when my wobbly walk following our car accident evoked little sympathy and, instead, made me feel like an easy mark.  The notoriety and street-crossing privileges were short-lived as Rocky recovered his balance.  His fluffy white hair around the eye also grew back and, other than upon close inspection, his appearing to be constantly winking in a lecherous fashion, Rocky went on to lead the life of a canine elder statesman.

I acquired some new responsibilities.  I felt like a television news talking head/spokesperson issuing periodic and (I’m happy to say) repetitive statements regarding Bette’s health.  When people asked, “How is Bette doing?” I knew there were showing love and support rather than asking for grisly details concerning the minutia of Bette’s chemotherapy regimen.   I could have said, “Well, last night when I visited, the white in Bette’s eyes was replaced by a devilish, Stephen King-cover red,” but that would beget a commitment to more details and time than the questioner wanted to offer.  I also neglected to mention details of Bette’s mild heart attack.  Bette, herself, didn’t know about this setback until a heart specialist examined her a few days after a restless night accompanied by chest pains and difficult breathing.  I posted updates on Bette’s high school website.  As a result, Bette heard from classmates who had been absent from her life since 1969.  Many passed on encouraging stories of recovery from equally devastating diseases.

One call I had to make was to my brother, Steve. Before Bette was first diagnosed, we were supposed to meet him and wife, Joan, at Niagara Falls for a brief swing through Ontario.  He and I share a lifetime of irreverent humor, so he thought that I was joking when I reported that Bette had leukemia.  To this day, we break into the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls” routine when Bette’s year of living precariously is mentioned.  “Niagara Falls.  Slowly I turn.  Inch by inch.  Step by step….”  People I know can be divided into two categories: those who find the Three Stooges funny (usually males) and those who think their comedies were just plain stupid (females).  The hospital staff lent us their VCR from time to time.  Bette chose Mel Brooks’ films and Robin Williams’ comedy specials over the Three Stooges.

Dr. Burk assigned me the role of keeping Bette as fit as spending weeks at a time in a hospital bed allowed.  He suggested, “Take Bette out for walks around the hospital corridors.  She’ll need to keep her muscles from turning to flab, and it will facilitate her recovery.”  So at least once a day, Bette made the rounds with her I.V. in tow.  The change of scenery also helped psychologically until we took the elevator down to the third floor to view a photography exhibit.  Now I know I should have previewed the material just like I was supposed to do when I was teaching.  Twice I had relied on my faulty memory and placed my teaching career in jeopardy.

Back when I was sharing sixty students with a colleague in a minischool, I had left Monty Python’s Life of Brian behind while I led a class trip.  I had forgotten about the naked Terry Jones jumping up and down, dangling, and yelling, “I’m not an old man!”   And to lighten the mood after a trip to the Holocaust Museum, I showed Airplane on the coach’s video system.  Did you remember that a well-endowed, bare-breasted woman runs through the plane’s aisle in a panic at one point?  I didn’t.  I kept my fingers crossed, but there were no complaints or official inquiries.  I was fortunate that no students or parents harbored long-standing grudges against me.

The hospital’s photography exhibit was a memorial to September 11.  A group of photographers happened to be convening on that day in New York City.  After holing up in their hotel, they decided to head out and start clicking.  The result was a collection of memorable, colorful, graphic shots that hadn’t been displayed previously.  This wasn’t the cheerful change of scenery I sought for Bette.  Maybe patients and visitors were supposed to feel better after seeing people, holding hands, jumping out of the Twin Towers and twisted, blackened steel beams bent grotesquely out of shape.  It didn’t work for us.  As a symbol of my desire to return to normalcy, I purchased a soft pretzel in the hospital cafeteria.

We were surprised to learn that Bette could return home between chemotherapy sessions, allowing us to lead relatively normal lives for a few weeks each month.  Bette was generally weakened and had to be careful because her immune system was compromised; but at least she could sleep in her own bed and be comforted from a safe distance by Rocky and Tom as they had to be retrained to sleep in their own spaces.  People visited, and until the white cell numbers skyrocketed after a few weeks, Bette could begin to feel like what it was like to have a life without cancer.   Raging temperatures and a general feeling of disdain for everything on the planet accompanied the expected spike.  When that happened, I’d drive Bette back to the hospital where her room with a view of Mount Holly awaited.  There Bette would return to constant attention from the staff punctuated by many reruns of television shows.  Dr. Burk warned that a cure would take time, and eventually, the numbers would level off.

During Bette’s hospital stays, I rigorously performed housekeeping as a form of therapy.  In a perverse kind of way, it made me feel a little closer to absent Bette.  During one of the sessions, I came across Bette’s notes and incomplete sections of what was to become Bette’s master’s thesis.  I read her research on the assimilation of different immigrants groups with interest, especially when I realized that with a little organization and editing, she’d be nearly finished.  After a few weeks’ worth of honest effort, I arranged to meet Bette’s academic advisor at Temple University.

I entered, armed with seventy five pages of thesis and a photograph of bald, black-eyed Bette adorning a pale green hospital gown as back-up.  I explained that Bette would have time to complete the thesis after a few more chemo sessions and sought advice as to what additions were necessary.  After a brief review of the paper, the professor, stroked his goatee twice and said, “I think that, under the circumstances, the committee will accept your wife’               s thesis, as is.”  I enthusiastically shook his hand while fearing that I may have spent too much time on the project.  Would he have known if I stuffed the middle section with one of my old Marx Brothers papers from Penn State?  Next time I visited Bette, I addressed her as Bette Allekotte, Master of Arts.

Another event stands out as if to encapsulate Bette’s recovery.  We took Rocky and a few folding beach chairs to cheer on Alana’s high school field hockey team.  Cheering wasn’t really necessary as the team generally dominated and won every game by wide margins.  Alana, the goal keeper far from the action, would alleviate her boredom by doing cartwheels in front of the goal.  This practice was stopped by the goalie coach because it could be conceived as unsportsmanlike and could draw a penalty.  Bette was bald from her recent round of chemo and didn’t like wearing hats because they were too hot and uncomfortable.  We were sitting under the shade of an elm tree watching the game from a distance.  I brushed Rocky’s fur and let the silky hairs float away to be used by birds for nesting material.  When the game ended, the team members walked past.  Although we had been coming to many games, most of them chose not to acknowledge us.  They weren’t trying to mean.  I had the same discomfort with illness and the possibility of death when I was a teenager, so I understood their ignorance.

Around the start of the new year, after the seventh treatment, we celebrated the numbers’ reaching a safe point and leveling off.  Bette hesitatingly asked, “Am I cancer free?

Dr. Burk smiled widely and answered, “Yes,” but emphasized that, medically speaking, we couldn’t confidently use the word “cured” until after three years.  We all feared the ups and downs of remission which others experienced.  My father was in and out of the hospital for three years before he succumbed to prostate cancer, so I wasn’t ready to plan a party yet.

“So what’s the next step?”

“Don’t make any big plans.  Your body will keep reminding you of what you’ve been through.  You’re pretty beaten up.  You’ll go home and relax.  Don’t plan on going back to work until the next school year.  You can think about a summer vacation, but don’t make any definite plans yet.”  Happily, Bette had been banking her sick days.  When we reviewed the statements from the insurance company, they reported that the illness would have cost half a million dollars if we didn’t have coverage.  Chemo bags sell for eleven thousand dollars apiece!  I thought about leaving teaching and speculating in the chemo futures market, but sales were never my specialty.  I decided to stay with teaching for the time being.

Ten years after being cured, we toured the Baltic States to research Bette’s family.  We included a side trip to Belarus.  Although Chernobyl was officially closed to tourists, I asked Bette if she wanted to rent a car and take a side trip out of Minsk.  “Next time Dr. Burk asks if we’ve been there, we can surprise him.”

“No thanks.  You know I like going to new places, but I don’t want to relive that chapter of my life, even if it had a happy ending.”

Chapter 29:  Jersey Justice

As Micole and Alana got older, birthday parties were added to the list of annual events.  Noisy, commercialized places like Chuck E. Cheese didn’t suit our tastes, so year after year, we planned a homegrown event.  The piñata from Zern’s farmers market, constructed from El Dia’s sports pages and stuffed with penny candy was always a hit, even when a blindfolded cousin Jonathan swung away and nearly hospitalized Alana.  The girls’ friends enjoyed horseback riding, but after fifteen minutes on the trail, my back and tuchus always ask me how they got into this.  So, for Micole’s first Moorestown birthday, I suggested she choose a few friends to accompany us to Great Adventure amusement park.

Micole negotiated and whittled her list down to five, leaving room for Alana and herself.  We set off on a warm spring Saturday morning on a ride that should have taken only an hour.  The two largest friends were belted in the front seat of our Ford Escort wagon next to me, three more tucked into the back seat, while Micole and Alana held the seats of honor in the way back.  I made up for the lack of seat belts by providing them with a pile of pillows.  We stopped by a soft pretzel vendor.  I didn’t consider the recent Action News expose on the vendors’ lack of toilet facilities.   There’s nothing like a dozen soft pretzels to quiet a gaggle of twelve year olds.  Micole and Alana faced backward, waving cheerful hello’s to the drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike and competed to see who’d get more responses.

My front seat companions displayed their reading skills, enunciating every highway sign between Moorestown and Jackson, New Jersey.  The one that got the loudest pronouncement was the brown one that advertised, “Great Adventure- Ten Miles”.  The girls began to plan their schedule in an attempt to get on as many rides as possible.  Micole and Alana separated the food to be surreptitiously fed to the animals in the safari park from that which we’d sneak into the amusement park.  Alana asked, “Cheese twists?  For us, or them?”  Claire asked for one.  I know that feeding the animals is against the rules, but I always tried to teach the girls which rules could be broken.  We don’t feed the dangerous animals like the lions, only the fun ones like ostriches and baboons.

I tried to ignore the flashing police lights approaching from the rear until Micole suggested, “Dad, I think the cop wants you to get out of his way.”  I rechecked the speedometer and saw that I was going a modest fifty-eight, certainly not enough to be stopped on an interstate.  When the cop followed me into the right line, I put on my turn signal and pulled onto the shoulder.  So did the police officer.  I mumbled some choice words to myself, aware that my guests would repeat the story in its entirety to their parents.

I came to a stop at the bottom of a rare hill for this part of New Jersey.  Numerous loose stones and grooves on the shoulder informed me that I was not the first to come to rest there.  Wildflowers blew in the gentle breeze.  A red-winged blackbird chirped that we were getting close to her nesting site.  The cop adjusted his mirrored sunglasses and placed his trooper’s hat on his head.  As he did, Micole asked, “What did you do, Daddy?”   I shrugged my shoulders.

Alana cheerfully supposed, “I waved to him.  Maybe he just wants to say ‘Hi’.”

The guessing game ended as he came to my window.  I was about to say, “Good morning,” but didn’t get a chance.  A deep voice ordered, “Your license and registration.  Please.”  Soon he was walking back to his patrol car.

“That was fast,” Alana commented.  “At least now we can still be the first ones on the roller coaster.”

“He’s just checking Daddy out,” Micole explained.  “Maybe guys with a car like this one robbed a bank or something.”  I didn’t think bank robbers would use a four cylinder in need of a valve job as a getaway car.

Alana, from the way back, without a window, changed the subject.  “It’s getting hot back here.  Mommy was right.  We should have had the air conditioning fixed.”

“We may be here a while.”  Instinctively, I set out to open the back door.   I immediately retreated as I heard a booming voice, “SIR!! PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!  WALK STRAIGHT BACK TO THE VEHICLE.  SIT DOWN, AND PLACE YOUR HANDS ON THE DASHBOARD WHERE I CAN SEE THEM AT ALL TIMES!”  I explained to my passengers that a New Jersey state trooper was recently killed during a highway stop.  I don’t know if the assailant was going toward Great Adventure with a car full of twelve- year-olds.

I sat with my hands drumming “Wipeout” on the dashboard, as requested, until the trooper returned.  I saw that his name was MacElroy.  I wondered what he did for his kids’ birthdays, but I didn’t ask.  When he returned my paperwork, I asked if I could let go of the dashboard in order to put them back in my wallet.  He said, “Affirmative,” without a hint of a smile.   The next voice I heard was that of Claire, a front seat passenger.  She whispered, “I think I going to be sick.”

“Officer MacElroy, would you please allow Claire to step outside to throw up?  She’s unarmed and not a flight risk.”  I figured I was going to get a ticket anyway.  I may as well make the most of the moment.

Claire didn’t wait for an answer.  With a hand over her mouth, she jumped out and just made it to the guardrail at the side of the road before letting the Cheese Twist and soft pretzel-based projectile fly.  Emily, the other front seat occupant, followed Claire with a Kleenex and some water without even asking.  Officer MacElroy took my attention away from the young anarchists by informing me, “Mr. Alkalet, I stopped you because you were clocked at fifty-eight in a fifty-five zone. “

Emily told a slightly green Claire, “I read that last sign out loud, the one about Reduced Speed Ahead.”   Thanks, kid.

Back to Officer MacElroy, “Also, the registration sticker on your license plate has expired.”  When I reached over to open the glove compartment, he moved his right hand closer to the gun in his holster.

I explained, “In Germantown, where we just relocated from Germantown in Philadelphia, thieves cut the stickers off of the license plates.  The current sticker is in here.  The Philly police said it was all right-“

“I’m sure you are aware that you are under the jurisdiction of the state of New Jersey now.  Jackson Township.”  This guy must write dialogue for television crime dramas.  Then, a surprise: “I’m not sure why, but I am giving you a break.  I am only writing a warning for speeding.  You will get a citation for not providing a seat belt for all of your minor passengers.  You’ll just pay a fine.  No points.”  When he finished writing, he handed me the ticket and said, “Enjoy your day at the park.”

I don’t know if he was waiting for me to say a thank you.  Instead, I said, “Buckle your seatbelts, girls.” As Alana waved good-bye to the officer, I drove off to a chorus of questions:  “Are you going to pay it?  How much is it going to cost?  Is the money going to come out of my birthday gelt?”

Overly conscious of maintaining fifty-four miles per hour, I answered, “I didn’t read the fine print yet, but I guess I have to pay it.  I don’t think I have much of a choice.”  The ticket was passed back to Micole who informed me that the fine was fifty dollars.  Her offer to contribute was generous, but I declined, at least until I saw how much the rest of the day was going to cost.

Despite our unplanned rendezvous with Officer MacElroy, we went on to enjoy our day at the park.  I felt a sense of satisfaction as we fed the baboons without interference from the authorities.  The water rides made us forget how hot it was.  Claire’s food remained in her digestive system.  No one mentioned the traffic ticket.

The next morning, after reading the ticket closely, I called the Jackson Township prosecutor’s number.  “Mr. Kelly, I would like you to send me the section of the motor vehicle code that deals with seat belts.  My ticket has a violation number, but doesn’t say exactly what the violation is.  Before I send in my fine, I want to be sure what I’m pleading to.”  I didn’t want Officer MacElroy’s sloppy penmanship causing me to plead guilty to ax murder, homegrown terrorism, or income tax evasion.

A few days later, Mr. Kelly’s letter arrived.  Bette noticed my blossoming smile and asked, “Well, what is it?  You look like you won the lottery.”

“Not the lottery.  Just fifty bucks.  I’ve read this three times and there’s nothing in there mandating the use of seat belts in the rear seats, only about restraining kids in the front seat!  That cop didn’t know what he was doing!”

Soon after, I was back on the phone with Mr. Kelly.  He suggested I request a hearing to plead “Not guilty”.  A summons would arrive in the mail.  He closed with, “No problem,” auspicious words from a county politician.

I had nearly forgotten about the interruption to the birthday celebration by the time the summons arrived in the fall.  I took a rare sick day and asked Micole if she wanted to come with me. “Back to great Adventure?  Sure!  I guess I can miss a day of school.”

“No, the amusement park will be closed, but you can keep me company on the road, and maybe you’ll come in handy.”  I didn’t explain that part, but conjured up an image of Atticus Finch’s kids preventing him from being attacked in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Locating the Jackson Township Courthouse was easy.  It was right in the middle of a quiet street that at one time might have been pretty busy.   There was a bank building now used as a community center, a closed gas station, and a café that may or may not have been open.  The courthouse building was in good shape with colorful flower pots along the path from the parking lot.  I wondered if Officer MacElroy’s quota of traffic tickets helped pay for them.  There was a sleeping dog in the shade of the single tree outside the courthouse.  Micole asked if she could pet it.  I thought of the rabid, mangy dog that Atticus Finch had to shoot and said, “No, let’s get this over with.”

Once inside, art deco lettering indicated where we’d find the bustling courtroom. The ceiling fans were more for show than affecting the air flow because they were set at the slowest possible speed.

A uniformed man shouted, “All rise,” and a middle aged, black robed judge took the bench behind a sign reading “Honorable Lois Goldberg”.  A Jewish judge!  I thought of innocuous ways to stick a few Yiddish idioms into my testimony.  (“Oy vey!  A cop is pulling us over!” or “A funny thing happened on the way to a bar mitzvah….”) No angle was to be overlooked in my quest of Jersey justice.

I expected a docket full of traffic violations, but I was wrong.  The first case concerned a woman who had cut all of her roving husband’s clothes in half, followed by a drunken guy who was fired from his job for repeatedly coming to work drunk.  He had threatened to run over his supervisor.   My little seat belt problem didn’t seem like much compared to the others.  I wanted to hear more, but I was called outside to the hallway by a man identifying himself as the district attorney, Mr. Kelly.  Next to him was Officer MacElroy, looking a bit different without his trooper’s hat.  I asked Micole to come too, just in case.

The meeting started with friendly handshakes.  Mr. Kelly wiped his forehead and began, “I was just reviewing your case with Officer MacElroy here.  It seems that over the phone, you neglected to tell me about the warning you received for disregarding the posted speed limit.”

“I only needed information on the seat belt violation.”

Now it was MacElroy’s turn.  Trying to remain calm, he stated, “I was trying to cut this guy a break.  I could have given him the speeding ticket he deserved, but some people don’t appreciate anything.  I should be in my patrol car right now.”  Yeah, ruining more birthday parties.

Kelly took over.  “I think I have a solution here.  I’m going to drop the seat belt charge and have Officer MacElroy issue you the speeding ticket instead.  You can make your plea to the judge in person and save a stamp.”  So nice of him to consider my savings of thirty three cents.

Micole spoke up.  “Dad, is he allowed to do that?”  Good question.

I repeated, “Is he allowed to do that?”

Kelly didn’t answer, but he said, “Excuse me,” and shuffled down the hallway.  MacElroy didn’t have much to say, so Micole and I headed back to the courtroom.  I was getting interested in a boy who was accused of burning his neighbor’s clothes lines because she wouldst return his baseball.  His testimony about her being a witch was interrupted by Mr. Kelly, who again invited us back to the hallway.  This time he skipped the handshake and said, “Your daughter was right, Mr. Alkaket.  There is a statute of limitations on speeding tickets.  Six months have passed.”  Hallelujah!   Our celebration was cut short by the next sentence.  “Instead you are being charged with reckless driving.  There’s no statute of limitations on that charge.”  He let that sink in and added, “Do you prefer to have your hearing today or set another date?”

“Today is fine.  I don’t want MacElroy to miss another day of crime prevention.”  Micole smiled at my sarcasm.  The others didn’t.  Seeing the officer’s reaction, I was glad they didn’t allow fistfights in the courtroom.

When we returned, the county was ready for the New Jersey vs. Allekotte.  I did feel like I was fighting the whole state at this point.  How could I win?

Mr. Kelly called Officer MacElroy to the stand.  He testified, “I observed a 1984 red Ford Escort station wagon, driving recklessly, at a high rate of speed heading east on Interstate I-195.”  He also recalled “a car full of kids, some of them without seat belts.”

Now it was my turn.  “Did your radar equipment indicate the speed of the vehicle?”

“Yes, you were clocked at fifty eight miles per hour, three miles overt the speed limit.”

“Was the car swerving or weaving in and out?

“No.”

“When did you issue the reckless driving ticket?”

Officer MacElroy looked at Mr. Kelly before answering.  “About five minutes ago.”  Judge Goldberg’s leaned closer, not sure if she had heard correctly.

Soon it was my turn.  “I want to make the court aware of a meeting that took place in the hallway five minutes ago.”

Mr. Kelly shouted, “Objection!  What took place in the hallway has no bearing on this case.  The defendant should be answering charges stemming from his reckless driving seven months ago.”

The judge said, “Abstained,” and I searched for an appropriate Yiddish response.  All I could think of was the ubiquitous “putz”, so I remained silent.  Where’s my grandmother when I needed her?  Why didn’t I pay attention to her idioms decades ago?

I began in English instead.  “Your Honor, I admit to going three miles an hour down over the speed limit down a hill on the interstate, but nothing I did could be considered reckless.  Seven children, including my own two daughters, were in the car.  I did nothing that could endanger those children.  I’d like to call Micole Allekotte to the stand.”

The judge asked, “How old is Nicole?”

Micole offered, “I’m twelve and a half.”

The judge asked, “Nicole, do you know the difference between the truth and a lie?”

Micole, wondering if all the questions would be that easy, clarified, “It is Micole with an M.  (At least she didn’t add, “My parents were hippies.”)  And  the truth is what really happened.  A lie is when someone wants you to think something else happened.”  Did she sneak a peek at Officer MacElroy?

Satisfied with Micole’s response, the judge motioned Micole to the stand, saying, “Just make sure you tell the truth while you’re in here, will you?”  Micole nodded and looked very serious.

I started with the promised easy question: “On the day we went to Great Adventure, how many girls were in the car?”

“Seven.”

“And how many wore seat belts?”

“Five.” Then, looking at the judge, “Alana , my sister, and I sat in the way back with a bunch of pillows.”

“While you were in the way back, do you remember if I was driving crazy or swerving?”

“No, you drove regular.  It was really pretty boring.”

“Just one more question: Did you meet with anyone out in the hallway earlier today?”

“OBJECTION!” Mr. Kelly shouted.  “The court has already ruled that this has no bearing on this hearing.”  He offered a scornful look which might have impressed a jury, if there had been one.

The judge restrained herself and reminded me,  “You heard my earlier ruling.  It still stands.  If you feel that the meeting was so important, you can tell me about it in your closing.  Is that understood?”  This clearly wasn’t the time to sneak in a “Shalom”.

“Yes, Your Honor.  I have no further questions for this witness.” I have referred to Micole with many endearments over the years, but this was a new one.

The judge looked over her glasses at Mr. Kelly, who just shook his head before telling me that I could go back to my seat.  Then she looked at me, and I said I had no more witnesses.

Mr. Kelly began to talk about me, saying things like I was a menace on the road, and a poor example for my own children, endangering the lives of my passengers with my reckless disregard for the laws of New Jersey.  If I hadn’t known myself better, I would have thought Charles Manson was back on trial.   I wondered if Micole was going to be afraid to drive home with me.  I would be.

I was glad to have the last word.  “Your Honor, I came here today to answer a seat belt violation.  Five minutes before the trial, Mr. Kelly informed me that the charge was being dropped in favor of a speeding ticket.  When he found that the laws of the state don’t allow him to do that, he switched to a reckless driving charge.  I feel like I’m a yoyo.  If I’m judged not guilty, what charge will he come with next?  If I were driving recklessly, as Officer MacElroy suggests, why didn’t he do his duty and write the ticket when he stopped me?  He didn’t because, although I was going three miles over the speed limit, I was not driving recklessly.  I wouldn’t do that with seven children, including my own daughters, as passengers.”

“When I brought my daughter with me today, I didn’t expect to ask her to testify.  I just wanted her to see how justice works.  I wanted her to see that you are here to make sure I am treated fairly.  If you find me guilty, what example are we sending to her?  I hope you will show me and her that the justice system still works in this country.”

I sat back down, although I felt like dancing around like the lawyers I’d seen in movies.  No one applauded or gasped, but I felt pretty good about my performance.

Justice Goldberg shuffled some papers for a few minutes, giving both sides the feeling that we had a chance to win.  She took off her glasses before speaking.  She coughed and slowly slipped from her glass of water.  Finally, she said, “Mr. Kelly, you have not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Allekotte was guilty of reckless driving.”  Micole smiled; mine was more of a smirk.   I saved fifty bucks, and Micole helped  me win the case.   The judge wasn’t finished.  “And Officer MacElroy, next time, just write the speeding ticket, and save the court a lot of time and trouble.”

I said, “Thank you, Your Honor,” took Micole by the hand, and headed out.  As I passed Mr. Kelly’s table, I leaned over and said, “Sorry we all had to waste half a day here.”

Mr. Kelly offered a slight smile, “That’s okay.  I have to be here anyway.”  Looking straight at Micole, he added, “Maybe we learned something here today.”

When we got to the parking lot, guess who was parked next to me: Officer MacElroy.  He had to see us coming, but he looked straight ahead.  He pulled away as we got into the old Ford wagon.  He was inching along at about five miles an hour, hoping I’d cross the double yellow line to pass him.  Since I didn’t feel up to another day in court, I said, “Mic, why don’t we head over to the café.  Maybe that dog is still there.”

The sleeping dog preferred his slumber to company, and the overweight waitress was only a bit more attentive.  As I added ketchup to my greasy French fries, Micole brought up the trial.  “I liked the way that judge ran things, hardly saying anything, but you knew she was the boss.  How do you get to be a judge?”  (How would Micole look in a black robe, as a Jersey justice?)

Before I could answer, Micole changed the subject.  “I was starting to think about next year’s birthday party.  We saw this video in school with thousands of people dancing in the streets.  Mom would like that.   And there were hundreds of drummers.  You’d like that.  Have you ever been to Rio?  You wouldn’t have to drive.”

Chapter 28:  Cats into Sawdust

By the spring of 1996, our lives in London had become routinized.  Every Friday evening we were in the West End enjoying a musical.  Micole even tried to bring the spectacle of “Grease” to Northumberland Comprehensive School, but “Summer Love” can only go so far when only one cast member shows interest in the performance.  Our daughter’s London premier was upstaged by the ensuing act, the booty-shaking pole dancing of the older Afro-Caribbean pupils accompanied by the encouragement of their mothers’ shouting, “You go, girl!”   I added drama to Alana’s Year Three classroom by directing short historical pieces.  Alana spiced up one presentation by donning a dime store mustache. She subsequently claimed to be the son I never had.

We planned monthly trips to the English countryside, taking advantage of Servas hosts and cheap family bus fares.  We arrived one fine afternoon a few hours before we were due to meet our Sussex host family.  Since every settlement of five homes or more had a pub, killing time was easy.  In these atmospheric meeting places, anyone could feel at home, including wayward exchange teachers.  Sometimes I joined in the conversation; other times I sat back and listened accented talk of country concerns.  The rest of England was very different from London where commuters ferreted to and from work with little time or interest in this visiting family of Yanks.

The town was remarkably quiet, absent of the usual Saturday afternoon bustle.  No one walked the High Street.  No one plowed the nearby fields.  No dogs barked.  Three cars were parked in front of the Hound and Hare pub.  One had a French license plate, suggesting that we wouldn’t be the only foreigners.  The small chalkboard at the entrance announced, “Meals served all day.  Beer garden.  Childrens play area.”  Micole and Alana expressed a need of food after the bus ride.  Seeing no alternative fare, I decided to enter after expressing my displeasure at the sign’s missing apostrophe.  The sundry flower pots, overflowing with the blues, yellows, and purples of the season, evidenced that someone tended to the needs of the pub with loving care.  Once again, I announced my intention to actually learn the names of some of the flowers we’d been admiring.

As we gained entrance, I realized the reason for the hauntingly silent streets.  The increasing din revealed that virtually every inhabitant of the village must have been present.  People were crammed against the bar, leaned over the snooker table in a smoky outer room, and avidly regarded a football match on a television.  Not seeing any hint of the mutants of Straw Dogs, we proceeded to the loos.  Then, I headed to the bar to order food and agreed to meet Bette and the girls in the adjoining beer garden away from the clouds of smoke.

The girls squinted in the sunlight as they headed outside but immediately recovered all of their senses when they saw the crowd surrounding the trampoline.  “Mom, can we play until the food comes?”  With the kids in bouncy heaven, Bette found an empty table with a partially broken seat.  An overly aggressive three-legged dog of uncertain lineage came by to mate.  Bette made her disinterest clear, and the mongrel solicited elsewhere.

I returned from ordering to see that Bette had been joined by a cosmopolitan couple, looking fashionably out of place in their coordinated designer outfit.  Bette is an unabashed Francophile and somewhat skilled in French, thanks to her Sorbonne-educated father.  I joined the crowd cheering the Arsenal-Tottenham match inside.  Unlike cricket (which I never figured out despite two years in Great Britain) I could tolerate soccer; but I would prefer more scoring or an occasional fight to liven things up like in good old North American ice hockey.

The conversation of two men standing nearby competed with the commentary of the sportscasters.  The pair, apparently farmers, had cleaned themselves up for their weekend visit to the pub.  Their calloused hands and sunburned necks gave them away.  The taller, with two buttons missing from his plaid flannel shirt, was relating how someone named Doc had acquired a horse from a gypsy.  As near as I could tell between roars from those watching the football match, Doc was summoned to a gypsy camp outside the village.  An old man was dying and felt an obligation to have his three animals accompany him.  The scruffy Border collie had gone blind, was nearly toothless, and had mange.  One of his horses was chronically lame and suffering from heart disease; but the second, a mare, though undernourished, was salvageable in Doc’s opinion.  The dying gypsy didn’t want to burden his wife and family with useless animals and summoned Doc to destroy them.  Doc assured him that he would take care of things.  He “bolted” the dog and the lame horse and winched them onto his truck.  I didn’t know the meaning of “bolt” but decided to avoid having it done to me if I ever had a choice.  The old man died, not knowing that Doc had placed the surviving mare in with the others.

The thickly accented storyteller was informing his listener of his involvement.  “Now since I sit on the commission, it became my business too.  The bylaws don’t allow the transportation of living animals with dead ones, so we had to summon Doc and look into the matter.  He told us there was no bleeding need to slaughter the mare, so he broke the law.  We just gave Doc a warning, to make it official.  I still see that mare grazing on the Shaw estate.”

“Doc always thought the law was an arse.  Didn’t I tell you about that?  It started at the county horse show over in West Sussex.  The second colt out missed a gate and shattered a bone in his foreleg.  We all could see straight away what had happened.  I remember telling me sons not to look.  It was a clean break with the leg held together by a flap of skin.  Well, you know how determined horses can be.  Horse-headed, right?  The poor thing was taught to compete, got up, and rolled onto its back straight away.  Before you know it, couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, Doc was over that horse ready with the bolt.  The problem is that the rules require that he should assemble a screen so everyone doesn’t have to witness what was obvious.  So the commission had to have an inquiry to hear why Doc knowingly broke the law.”

“Doc says, ‘Some of you blokes know me as long as you’ve been alive.  That horse was in more pain than I’d wish on anyone.  Hell, I had the screens in the back of the lorry.  I reckon I could have gone to fetch them and waste fifteen minutes getting past the tardy crowd in the car park.  Did you want to leave that bleeding creature in front of hundreds of people, including your young ones, witnessing pure hell?  He didn’t have a bleeding prayer.  Anyone with a heart knew what had to be done, and done straight away.  It would have been ungodly not to destroy it.  It was nasty business, but at the end of the day, a man shouldn’t be punished for doing what needs to be done.’  So what could we say?  We had the law; he had common sense on his side.  The reason we’re all here today is because the man made so much sense.”

I wanted to hear more, but I caught sight of the barmaid with our ploughman’s lunches, fish and chips, and warm beer.  I was relieved to see that the vinegar remained in the bottle, so the kids wouldn’t have yet another valid complaint about English food.  I paid and delivered the tray to the beer garden.  The French couple had left, so I motioned the girls away from the trampoline.  As they sat, they simultaneously were chattering about a man who turned cats into sawdust.  With two narrators, Bette and I couldn’t make much sense of the tale, but it was a welcome change from the mumbled British accents I’d been hearing.  As I listened, I sipped the lager and wiped the golden mustache from my lip.

Bette stopped the girls to tell me what she had been hearing.  The French couple turned out to be transplants who spent half of their time in the village, still deciding if they wanted to become permanent members.  They had been renovating an old farmhouse, expecting the villagers to appreciate what they had been doing.  Bette summarized, “The villagers hardly spoke to them.  That’s why they were sitting out here.”

I asked, “Did they say if it was always this crowded?”

“Yeah, “Micole complained, we had to wait ten minutes before they’d let us on the trampoline.”

Bette continued, “Anyway, they we telling me about this old guy from the village.  He works with animals and was pretty popular, but he was hospitalized yesterday.  The French couple thought that everyone was here because of what happened to the guy.”

Bette and I looked to one another, considering how much we wanted the kids to hear.  That small dilemma was settled when Micole added, “The kids on the trampoline were talking about a guy called Dr. Doo-little.”

Alana asked, “Why did they call him Do-Little?  It sounds like he did a lot.”

Bette explained, “That’s a character in an English movie about a man who talks to animals.”

A smile of recognition came to Alana’s face.  “That’s who they were talking about then, the man who turned cats into sawdust!”

We didn’t recall seeing that scene in the movie.  As she often did, Micole commandeered the story.  “You see that red-headed boy who’s bouncing now.  He told us about his cat. She was about twenty years old, and she had this disease, and she wasn’t doing anything, and was just lying there all day.  Dr. Doo-little asked his mom to get him some tea, and the mom asked the boy to help.  So the boy says, ‘Mum, since when do you need me help to make tea?’ (Micole enjoyed adding the British dialect.)  Then the mom gives him one of those smart parent looks. You know the one where you don’t have to say anything and the kid just knows what you would have said.”

Alana, just waiting to fill in the ending, added, “And when they came back, all that was left of the cat was a pile of sawdust!”  Micole’s nod confirmed the tale.

I would wait to explain that sawdust is used to soak up liquids some other time.

Micole wasn’t finished.  “And you see that girl waiting to get on the trampoline.”  I wasn’t sure I needed to hear more vet stories.  At least Micole could wait until Bette had finished her mutton chop.  I suggested that Micole finish chewing, but she pushed her plate of chips aside and continued, “Well, this eagle with a broken wing had crash-landed near her house, and her mother said that an eagle with a bad wing couldn’t catch any food, and that someone should do something.  The girl begged her mom, ‘Can we please keep it?’ But then the dad came in and said they couldn’t keep up with their chores already.  So her mom says to bring the eagle up to that house on the hill over there.  She didn’t say what kind of house it was, but the little girl knew.”

Alana said, “I don’t get that part.  What kind of a house was it?”

Micole caught her breath and saw that no one was going to answer.  She went on, “So she goes up to this great big white house, but she’s still not sure she’s doing the right thing.  She really wants to set the bird free, but she was afraid the bird would die.” Looking to Bette and me, Micole added, “And she didn’t want to disobey her parents.”  “So she knocks on the door, not knowing who was going to answer.”  She paused for effect.  “Then she hears this creaky voice of an old lady, saying, yelling really, ‘Come on in, but watch the pigs.  My hands are full.’  Three or four little pigs rush to the door, but she closes it just in time.  The old lady was feeding this little furry animal.”

“It was a hedgehog,” Alana proudly explained.

Without missing a breath, Micole went on, “So she’s feeding a hedgehog with a baby bottle.”

Alana took up the story, “Just like it was a real human baby!”  Micole, preferring to be a solo act, pushed her chips in front of Alana to limit the interruptions.  Alana accepted the bait.

Micole continued, “The old lady says, ‘Sorry I raised my voice.  It’s just that I didn’t want to let any of the little ones get away.  I was busy feeding Billy.  You don’t know anyone who’s got room for a few pigs, do you?’  Then she sees the bird and says, ‘My, my!  What have you got there?  You can leave him here.  Doc will take a look at him as soon as he gets back.’  Then the old lady sees the girl looking around and she offers to take her for a tour.  The house had more animals than some zoos!  The lady says, ‘Oh, sometimes people like you bring them.  We find them on the roads, injured.  Sometimes their mum’s don’t want them.  Me and Doc get all kinds of animals, all kinds of ways.’  Then she tells the girls that Doc has to make a lot of tough decisions,’ but she doesn’t explain.  The girl left the eagle there, and she goes back to visit it ever week.”

Alana asked, “Mom, Dad.  Did you ever want a pet eagle?”  I didn’t think the housing estate rules would allow us to raise an eagle in his tiny townhouse.  Alana followed her proposition with another, “How about a baby pig?  They don’t need much space.”  Before we could answer, she returned to the girl’s story, she said, “I don’t get it.  What kinds of decisions did the Doc have to make?”

I answered, “Sometimes a vet has to decide when an animal has lived too long.”  The girls’ contorted faces begged for more explanation.  “Sometimes an animal is alive, but it is in so much pain that it may not want to continue to live.”

Micole questioned, “You mean like Aunt Judy?”  Bette and I looked to one another, each asking, “Did you tell her about Aunt Judy?”  (Judy was my mother’s sister.  After numerous surgeries relating to diabetes, a doctor suggested that she wasn’t “a good candidate” for kidney dialysis.)

Instead of answering Micole, I said, “In towns like this, they have a vet or someone who has to make difficult decisions.  It’s nasty business, but it’s good that they have someone to do it.”

Micole watched a teenager bounce on the trampoline and commented, “I wonder if I’ll ever be that good.”  Her instructor at the rec center in London had told me that if he could combine Micole’s drive with Alana’s natural ability, he would be training a future Olympian.  I told him that we were happy with the way things were turning out.  It was enough to bring the girls to a single lesson each week.  We weren’t ready to sponsor an Olympian. And would they compete for England or the U.S.?  Too many complications.

Bette looked at her watch and said, “It’s after five.  We should be heading over to the Servas house.  Does anyone need a toilet before we leave?”

Foolish question.  We all headed in.  As usual, I finished first, so I waited at the bar.  The crowd had thinned, and this time the barmaid had time for a quick smile.  I said, “That vet they’re all talking about must have been quite a character.”

Her smile broadened. “Vet?  Are you talking about Doc?  He wasn’t a vet.  He ran the slaughterhouse up on the hill for fifty years.  It’s a pity about him though.  I mean, he must have been getting near ninety.  We knew he wouldn’t last forever, but it was still a shock.”

My expression announced my confusion.  “I’m sorry.  I assumed that you knew the whole story.  Didn’t you know that Doc put the bolt gun to his head yesterday?  We all came here today to talk about Doc and remember what he did for all of us these past fifty years.  I guess when he got his last test results, he didn’t want to be a burden.  It’s funny that you thought he was a vet.  Doc saved any animal that could be saved, but if the time came…”  She stopped when she saw Bette and the girls returning.  “Thanks for stopping in.  Maybe you’ll pop in again.”

Later that night when the girls were jumping rope with their new Servas friends, Bette asked, “What did the barmaid have to say?  You seemed pretty interested.”

“I’m not sure, but it seems like we arrived a day or two day late.  We missed a chance to meet the man who turned cats into sawdust.”

Chapter 27:  An Unanswered Question

During Bette’s spring break from teaching, we visited Amsterdam. A freckled British boy behind us in line asked for the third time, “Mummy, why do we have to stand here in the rain?” That’s a legitimate question for a seven year old. I thought about how I would answer. I could give a history lesson, but it might be better to let things speak for themselves. Bette could relate how her mother told her of the diary, with regret that her advancing age and poor health prevented her from returning to Europe.
Another tour boat navigated the canal. The familiar, accented monotone recited, “On your left is Anne Frank’s House. This is where a twelve year-old German girl hid with her family….” Bette moved her umbrella a few inches to the side and optimistically commented, “I think it’s slowing down.” I looked to the boy behind us and wondered how kids can wait in line for an hour and a half at Disney to ride a two-minute roller coaster, but a short wait in the warm Amsterdam spring rain seemed too much for the whining boy behind us. I told Micole and Alana that this tour could have a lasting effect on their lives. Micole professed some historical data, but Alana cut her short. We moved onto a few rounds of a homemade game, Guess the Nationality, instead.
Our busy lives as part of a teaching exchange in London readied me for vacationing at a slower pace. For the impatient younger generation, maybe they’ll build a theme park around Anne Frank’s House. Families could be transported in box cars to concentration camps, a few minutes of terror with only the dimly lit “Emergency Exit” signs in five languages to remind them of their safety. Could “Anne Frank, the Cartoon” be far behind? How about the bobble-head doll? Rain and travel-weary bodies build cynicism.
I leaned against the wrought iron barrier separating the Anne Frank people from the general public and noticed two bicyclists coasting past. The lead had long, wet, rainbow locks plastered to his leather coat, resembling an endangered rain forest parrot. The other’s spiked silver mullet fought a losing battle with the raindrops, now leaning over like a sickly orca dorsal fin. I was happy that the girls had an opportunity to witness Amsterdam’s reputation for tolerance. I hoped they hadn’t noticed the women in the red light district’s shop windows or the aroma emanating from the many coffee houses we passed; but after all, it was that reputation for tolerance that attracted the Frank family to the city.
As the line shortened, Micole asked, “Can we have some candy before we go in?” As we chewed, I was thankful for another of the city’s great attractions, rich Dutch chocolate. I passed on the opportunity to go into a lesson on Dutch colonial history. The day might be depressing enough. As I picked a stubborn piece of almond from a wisdom tooth, the impatient boy’s question lingered in my brain. Why were we here? The answer goes back to a question from a student a decade earlier.
I was looking through my advisory list, scanning the names of the incoming sixth graders, recognizing some familiar family names, possibly younger brothers and sisters of former students. I imagined physical characteristics to go with the new names. All of these mental activities helped prepare me for the upcoming term. One name stood out: Nursuliana Ensuliaman. “Bette, look at this one. He or she is in my advisory. Sounds pretty Muslim to me.” Generally, I liked the Black Muslim students. They were from close knit families who kept an eye on them. Those who knew something about Islam liked the opportunity to talk about it in class. I knew that they heard from leaders that white people were devils, and that Jews were secretly seeking world domination. I liked challenging stereotypes. Isn’t that what teaching social studies was all about?
As I welcomed my new advisory, I saw that the system had been successful in providing a racial and gender balance. I surveyed the class and wondered who was burdened with a name like Nursuliana Ensuliaman. Finally, a candidate arrived: not what I had expected. A sleek, attractive Asian girl with long, gleaming black hair, partially covered by a colorful kerchief, was the last to arrive. Even with my limited interest in the world of fashion, I suspected that the head covering was made of silk. I had never seen such an ornate batik. What about those gilded threads interwoven into the fabric? Her eyeglasses reminded me of the ones I wore as a teenager before the days of lightweight lenses, the ones my neighborhood pals labeled “Coke bottles”. If this new student could afford silk and golden threads, why couldn’t she acquire a more fashionable pair of glasses, with a frame as delicate as her features? The new student bowed her head, whispered an almost inaudible “Sorry for being late,” and scurried to the last available seat in the rear of the classroom.
Surprised that I was playing fashion police on the first day of class, I caught myself and moved on. Pointing to my name on the board, I offered my pre-emptive strike, “The last name is pronounced All-i-kot. Think of it as Ally Cat if it helps you remember.” If you’re in advisory 308, then you’re in the right place. I’ll start by taking roll. If I mispronounce your name, or if you have a nickname you prefer, please let me know.” When I got to Nursuliana, I hesitated and said, “I know I’ll need help with this one.” As soon as I pronounced the first syllable, I detected a slightly British voice from the rear of the class. “Oh, you can just call me Suzy, Sir. That’s what my parents call me.” I admired Suzy’s assertiveness. Too many Asian students allowed me to mispronounce their names for an entire year without correction. I liked this new girl and wanted to know more.
“Suzy, did you transfer from another system?”
“Yes, Sir. My family arrived from London a fortnight ago. My parents will be instructing at Temple University, so they enrolled me here.”
This introductory dialogue set the stage for many to follow. Suzy always had something interesting and educational to contribute. She fit the Asian stereotype by working hard, but unlike the others, she didn’t do so in a quiet, reserved manner. She was a genuine leader and motivator. In a social studies class focusing on the upcoming 1988 Olympics, Suzy suggested a group project. “We want to construct a model of an Olympic arena.” Her group’s members were as astonished at the scope of the project as I was, only I kept my reaction to myself, having been schooled that a teacher shouldn’t discourage the hopes or goals of students, no matter how farfetched.
A week later, I was presented with a cardboard diorama complete with seats filled with the individualized faces of spectators, a scoreboard, Fanavision, and pipe cleaner gymnasts cartwheeling, doing iron crosses on the rings, and leaping off a three inch pommel horse. When I asked how much time they had spent on the project, the group members looked to one another like hesitant conspirators on “To Tell the Truth”. Finally, Suzy admitted, “I spent about six hours a day during the past week.” Eyeing her group’s reaction, she added, “It’s not really safe to wander about in my neighborhood, so I had ample time. But in my country, Malaysia, no one works alone or takes credit for himself. We think there is something wrong with a person who wants to work alone. We are not like you Americans where you place your own accomplishments over everyone else’s. “
When I attempted to turn Suzy’s comments into another social studies lesson by saying, “That sounds like an Eastern way of thinking,” Suzy clarified the matter.
“In my country, just like here, it is important to know who you are. I am Malay. I am not Asian. In my country, The Indians and the Chinese are called ‘Asians’. The English brought them in to do their dirty work and administer the country. Some of my relatives died defending what you may see as a small difference.” Suzy read my confusion and added, “Oh. You don’t teach about the Malaysian race riots. I don’t need to give you all the details. Let’s just say that knowing who you are is essential. That’s why I am called Ensuliaman at home.” Surveying the class’s reaction to my being schooled, I wished I had Suzy’s command of the class next time I am instructing. We were all enjoying the moment
Suzy continued, “Ensuliaman just means daughter of Sulaiman. That’s my father. At home, it’s important for everyone to know I’m his daughter, and not just because he’s famous. Here I am happy to be Suzy.”
Students asked, “Is your father a singer or an athlete?”
“No,” Suzy explained. “He’s an artist, creating traditional Islamic works, but using modern materials. It’s pretty complicated.”
I returned to the previous topic. “Do you know what ‘Sulaiman’ means?”
“It just means ‘Solomon’ like the wise king in your Bible. Islam recognizes prophets from earlier religions. Didn’t you know that?” By the time Suzy becomes a full time teacher, I hope she’ll master some pedagogical skills and not make her pupils feel inadequate.
I was brought back to Amsterdam by Micole’s polite but insistent nudging. “Dad, what were you thinking about? You didn’t even answer when Mom offered you another piece of chocolate. Too late now. We shared it.” As we were nearing the entrance to Anne Frank’s House, I thought it just as well. I didn’t need my tour interrupted by extra trips to the toilet.
“Oh, I was thinking about a former student of ours. Bette, you remember Suzy Ensulaiman. We met her parents a few times. Anyway, I was teaching about the Holocaust, trying to explain it to eleven year olds. We read a Scope magazine version of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. Suzy asked, ‘How do you know that the diary is real?’ I didn’t have an answer ready for that, so, like any good teacher, I asked why she asked. Suzy said that a Malaysian teacher had said that the diary must have been a fake, that it was too sophisticated to be written by so young a girl. That was an odd comment, coming from someone who is equally too sophisticated for a twelve year-old. ‘It must have been written by an adult, maybe her father, to drum up sympathy for the Jews.’ I reminded the class that the Malaysian government is strongly anti-Israel.”
I could see Alana was thinking of something when she asked, “How much?”
When I asked, “How much what?” Alana chirped, “How much does a hollow cost?” Her repeating of the pun was mercifully ended by Micole, “So what did you tell Suzy?”
“I answered her question with a question. I had the class list all the ways the diary could be proven to be real: handwriting analysis, interviewing Anne’s dad and Miep, the lady who found the diary after Anne was arrested. Lie detector tests. I guess we’re answering that British boy’s question of why we’re standing in the rain. I am still searching for an answer to Suzy’s question.”
Soon we were at the entrance to the former spice trading house, the door which Anne Frank entered years before. The British boy was right. There was nothing remarkable about the exterior of the building, just another of the tall, gabled buildings that proliferate along Amsterdam’s canals. We paid the admission fee and were soon following the Frank family’s footsteps, ascending the creaky stairs toward the swinging bookcase which concealed the entrance to the Secret Annex. Alana saw the lines which measured the growth of the children and shouted, “Look. Just like we have at home!” Micole called us over to the Hollywood fan magazine photos which Anne has pasted to the walls. We also saw the view the from the attic window, Anne’s only view of the outside world for two years. I know she wouldn’t have complained of being cooled by a spring drizzle.
Soon Bette and I were facing the same questions our students asked: “Why couldn’t they just go somewhere else when the Nazis came? How come they didn’t fight back? Didn’t they know they’d be caught?” As teachers, we were accustomed to explaining complex ideas and events in simplified terms, but how do you make the deaths of millions memorable without shocking the questioners into senselessness? All the questions, answered and unanswered, combine to bring a feeling of numbness.
When we left the annex to enter the museum, Micole commented, “I expected it to be bigger.” We walked past hundreds of editions of The Diary of Anne Frank printed in over fifty languages, and then we saw the original. This plain journal managed to detail the story of at least one Nazi victim. Thinking aloud, I asked, “Was Suzy right? Did Otto Frank write the diary to make a martyr out of his daughter?”
Alana asked, “What’s a martyr?”
The three of us chimed in, “Nothing. What a martyr with you?”
Bette said, “I don’t know if she’s a martyr. She didn’t set out to be one. All she did was keep a diary. What if the Nazis who stole the furniture hadn’t left the book behind? What if Miep didn’t save it for Anne’s return from the concentration camps? What if her father didn’t have the strength and judgment to read and publish the works of his younger daughter?”
I added a few rhetorical questions of my own. If these accidents of history didn’t occur, would another diary have taken its place? Would someone else have discovered another Anne Frank to be the face of the Holocaust?
I got closer to an answer a few years later when I was thumbing through my union newsletter and spotted an ad calling for educators wanting to study the Holocaust. “Hey, Bette, want to go on a free trip to Poland and Israel?” Bette declined. Her mother’s tales of life in Poland gave the country a low priority on her places-to-see list. I knew I didn’t have the Holocaust education background as other applicants; so on my application, I stressed that I was always in a good mood, even after overnight flights. I was accepted, and a few months later, Bette and the girls accompanied me to a send-off dinner near JFK airport. There I was asked to introduce myself and my reasons for applying for the trip.
“I hope the trip would help me as a teacher. I don’t like saying ‘I don’t know’ when asked difficult questions. On a more personal level, although my mother is Jewish, her family was in the U.S. long before the rise of the Nazis. I wasn’t raised with any great awareness of the Holocaust. I also hope to gain a better understanding of my wife’s Jewish identity.”
A few days later, I was in the barracks in Majdanek death camp. As the group moved on, I stayed behind to concentrate on the walls. There were hundreds and hundreds of pictures of children who were murdered in the camp, each with the innocence I try to capture when photographing my own children. As each child represented an imploded universe, then surely each deserved a few minutes of my time. When I rejoined the group, I heard what I had missed, a mound of underground ashes and bones.
Treblinka, having been plowed over by the Nazis after the inmate uprising, had a completely different feel, more like a national park than a death camp. The story was told with symbols and abstractions. A row of oversized, concrete railroad ties led to thousands of grave markers, each memorializing a once-thriving Jewish community.
Dozens of railroad tracks led to a single entrance at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our group trudged past the spot where an orchestra once welcomed new inmates, then walked under the ambiguous “Arbeit Macht Fre” wrought iron sign. There was nothing subtle about the bales of human hair or piles of eyeglasses and crutches still waiting for export back to Germany.
The tour’s organizer and leader was Vladka Mead, whose frail frame belied her strength and vitality. She showed us how and where she used to sneak in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Chosen because of her “Aryan” looks, she was raised with a Christian family just outside the ghetto walls. She spent her adolescent years smuggling bread and the occasional weapon to be used during the uprising. Vladka recounted riding a carousel with her adopted Polish family while her family and friends burned on the other side of the wall. My vow to always be in a good mood was becoming more difficult to keep.
At workshops in Israel, we discussed what to say to Holocaust deniers and others who say the numbers are exaggerated by Zionists. Nazi documentation was provided concerning poison gas purchases and the construction of the ovens at Auschwitz.
After the tour, Bette and I spoke to our principal, Chris Sadjian-Peacock, about team-teaching a Genocide course. She was happy to hear that the plight of her Armenian ancestors would be included. We purchased many materials, including a set of ghastly, glossy photographs taken by the liberators of the concentration camps. Our students read the words of witnesses. We used guest speakers, survivors, and liberators, decreasing the odds that our students would become Holocaust deniers.
After particularly grueling days, we would look to our yellowed photograph of Bette’s pre-war family for inspiration. Only a few, including Bette’s mom, lived to see the final days of the Third Reich. Did the children in that photograph write diaries? Probably not, but their dreams could be kept alive by our teaching.
Still, Suzy’s question lingered. Many times, answers arrive when one isn’t looking for them. I was attending a reunion of the Holocaust tour participants in Washington, requesting a vegetarian option from a waiter, when across the table, a few heads turned toward the restaurant entrance. A woman in her late twenties, way too young for this crowd, sauntered across the room toward our table. Her outfit, including black leather, knee-high boots and a hat like the one Zorro wore, were appropriate for the frigid winter weather outside, but seemed incongruous among the diners. She sat down, introduced herself as Alex, and buttered a roll. Conversations continued around her.
After the meal, the newcomer arose when the guest speaker, Alexandra Zapruder, was announced. Without exception, the experts at these reunions had European accents, wore argyle vests, or smoked briar pipes between workshops; so I wondered what this young woman, seemingly more at home spinning a seductive tale to a film noir detective, could teach us about the Holocaust. The silly side of me, after a few lunchtime glasses of wine, wondered if Holocaust speakers ever encountered groupies.
Alex had edited a book, Salvaged Pages, a collection of Holocaust diaries from every part of Europe. She professed to becoming an expert “by accident”, being a foreign language major who was asked to translate a diary or two as part of her graduate studies. Once drawn into the subject, she sought out more diaries in museums, synagogues, and private collections. Soon she was culling and editing them into a 500-page anthology. Some entries were cynical, sarcastic, or even bitter, not at all like the self-conscious musings of Anne Frank. Others were not really diaries, but accounts of decreasing food rations or a description of the children’s entertainment programs within a ghetto. I bought a copy of the book. Alex signed it, adding the inscription, “To the students of AMY school.”

Another steamy day was forecast in Kuala Lumpur. The baby slept through most of the night, so Suzy had a chance to review her notes from the previous night’s meeting. Planning an exposition with the goal of preserving the architecture and heritage of old Penang was more work than she expected, but definitely worth her tireless efforts. She didn’t want to see Malaysia’s past pushed aside in the name of progress. Not one to waste a minute, she considered the lighting of the Governor’s Mansion while showering. Thinking she heard a slight knock at the door, she wondered aloud, “Who’s visiting us this time of the day?” She continued shampooing her hair, happy that the baby hadn’t awakened, thinking it may have been a truck rumbling by.
Suzy forgot about the tapping until she nearly tripped over a package on the way out of her house. Holding the baby with one hand, she bent down to pick up the UPS delivery. “That’s odd. Most things get sent to the office.”
It wasn’t until lunch that she found a moment to open the package. The question, “Who’s sending me a book?” was answered when she opened the cover and read the inscription, “To the students of AMY school, especially Suzy Ensulaiman. Enjoy. Rob Allekotte.”
Over the course of the next few months, Suzy read Salvaged Pages when her hectic schedule allowed. On the last page I had wrote, “Dear Suzy, you might want to pass the book onto your fifth grade teacher.” As for convincing the educators of Malaysia that Anne Frank’s diary is real, it was a long shot. Their views don’t allow for much sympathy for the Jews of Europe. Their government won’t even acknowledge Israel’s existence, and I remember the immigration officials scanning my passport in search of the forbidden Israeli stamp. Israel provides a convenient bogeyman, allowing governmental leaders to take attention from their country’s problems, including racial injustice within their own borders.
When I traveled to Malaysia, I kept my eyes and ears open in search of Suzy’s fifth grade teacher. I have prepared what I would say to him. Some things, like Anne Frank’s belief in the goodness of this human race, Muslims’ adherence to the Pillars of Islam, or my own feeling that my years of teaching help create a better world, must be accepted on faith. Suzy’s unanswered question morphed into an answer unquestioned. If Otto Frank or a cabal of Zionist conspirators authored that diary, that doesn’t make much difference to me. As the grim details of the Holocaust unfolded in the late nineteen forties, Anne Frank rendered the news more palatable by providing one voice of hope. One child murdered in the name of progress or racial purity is one too many. So when millions die, we need to consider what they might have said to us if given the chance.

In addition to the Genocide course, I offered a course on Holocaust literature, focusing on books about children. I received a grant and searched for sets of books at discount prices. The students read four selections as a class and followed their individual interests when I could not obtain a full set of books. Toward the end of the term, each student shared the most memorable parts of the self-selected books. I passed their selections onto my “Showtime” class where we collated them and wrote a musical called “Danielle’s Story”. The fictional lead was a guest speaker at a school detailing her struggles during the Holocaust. Scenes were acted out. It was well received at AMY but because of obvious plagiarism, we couldn’t take it beyond the school’s theater.
One of the books I used in the course was entitled Ten Thousand Children, the story of England’s “Kindertransport” program. Up until their invasion of Poland, the Nazis allowed Jewish parents to send their children to countries that accepted them temporarily. The book showed the Holocaust through a different angle, detailing the stories of children whose parents had made this difficult decision.
At a Holocaust education conference, I lunched with the authors, Anne L. Fox and Eva Abraham-Podietz. I told them of “Danielle’s Story” and asked what they thought of their book being transformed into a musical. They agreed to act as consultants. We also received expert support from Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater, thanks to another grant. The result was the script. The authors and playwrights have agreed to offer the show to anyone who can use it.

Ten Thousand Children script

Based on the book by Anne L. Fox and Eva Abraham-Podietz

Made up of true stories told by children who escaped the Holocaust by the  Kindertransport

Prologue:  Hitler Youth rally (sound of marching boots, Nazis carrying anti-Jewish signs)

 

NAZI LEADER:          And I solemnly pledge…my life…to my Fuhrer…and the Fatherland.

                                    (Youth repeat each phrase.)  Our country lost the Great World War.

 

YOUTH [all]              Blame it on the Jews!  (repeat after each line)

 

LEADER:                    Our nation lost the Great World War.

                                    We were rich and now we’re poor.

                                    Our money’s worth less every day.

                                     And now the Jews will have to pay.

                                    Factories close.  Production’s down.

                                    Porno shops throughout our town.

                                    We’ll make the whole world understand.

                                    We must protect the Fatherland.

 

                                    Heil Hitler.

 

YOUTH [all]:             Heil Hitler.  (LEADER exits.)

 

YOUTH ONE:                        My mother wants my room real clean.

 

YOUTH [all]:             Blame it on the Jews!  (repeat after each line)

 

YOUTH TWO:                        My history teacher’s extra mean.

 

YOUTH THREE:        If you got pimples on your face

 

YOUYH FOUR:         Blame it on the Jewish race.  (Youth exiting, surround and jostle SYLVIA and                                              RUTH.  RUTH gets kicked in head.  YOUTH exit, laughing . Girls exit.)                 

 

           

Scene One: The Goldschmidt residence

SAM:                          (looking through a stack of letters)

More rejections.  Australia, the United States, France.  Nobody wants German Jews.  It’s hopeless.

SARAH:                     Did you see this article in the newsletter?  England is starting a program to save some Jews.

SAM:                          Really?  That’s wonderful!

SARAH:                     But, they will only accept children under eighteen.  Do you think-

SAM:                          Nonsense.  Who would think of sending their children away?

SARAH:                     I don’t want to think about it either. But Sam, we may not survive this…

SAM:                          Let’s just pray it will never come to that.  I don’t want to break up our family.

 

SARAH:                     How could we send our girls into the arms of strangers?

 

SAM:                          Germany’s been our family’s home for hundreds of years.  It’s all the girls know.

 

1: Should we Stay? Should We Go?

 

SAM: (sings)                Should we stay?  Should we go?

 

SARAH:                      We really don’t know.

 

SAM:                           But where will it stop.

 

SARAH:                      The answer’s “I don’t know.”

 

SAM:                           Nazi hate’s on the rise.  I’m afraid of their spies.

 

SARAH:                      If we try to fight back, we’ll lose.

 

                                    They’ve passed a new rule.  No Jews in the school.

 

                                    I’d love to fight back.

 

SAM:                           Now don’t be such a fool.

 

SARAH                        So what can I do?  They all know I’m a Jew.

 

BOTH:                                    And they say that our time is through.

 

SARAH:                      The Nazis are in power and the outlook is not good.  Should we run away and hide?

                                    I’m starting to think we should.

           

SAM:                           I gave my left arm fighting in the war.  So Germany won’t punish me, I’m sure.

 

SARAH:                      I can’t walk in the street or buy Kosher meat.

 

SAM:                           The children aren’t safe.  For nothing, they get beat.

 

SARAH & SAM:          But with hope and a prayer, other people might hear.

                                    And they’ll end this madness soon.

 

                                    Should we stay.  Should we go?

                                    We really don’t know.

                                    But where will it stop.

                                    The answer’s “I don’t know.”

                                    Should we stay? Should we go?

                                    We really don’t know.

                                    But where will it stop?            

(lights fade)

 

 

(Lights up on Ruth’s room)

 

DORIT:                       So the film ended with the all the townspeople chasing the bad guy.

RUTH:                        Let me guess.  Was the bad guy a Jew with a pointy nose and devilish looks?

DORIT:                       Of course he was.  This is Nazi Germany, you know.

RUTH:                        (sarcastically) It’s a shame I had to miss it.

DORIT:                       Ruth, there’s something I have to tell you.  I won’t be able to come over here any more.

RUTH:                        Why not?

DORIT:                       It’s my parents. My father had to join the Nazis to keep his job.  And since the new laws, it’s harder and harder for us to see each other anyway.  You’re not allowed anywhere.  Pools, parks, theaters, stores…

RUTH:                        So how can we still stay friends?  I’m not allowed to have any contact with you.

DORIT:                       We always promised ourselves that we wouldn’t let Hitler interfere with our friendship.

RUTH:                        I hope not.

DORIT:                       I, uh, have to go.  I told my mom I’d go straight home after the movie.      (exits)

(Lights up on the Goldschmidt house.)

SARAH:                     (enters with Sam & Sylvia) You might be making some new friends soon.

RUTH:                        What do you mean by that, Mom?

SAM:                          Your mother and I have heard about this new Kindertransport program?

SYLVIA:                    Kinder what?

SARAH:                     Kindertransport.  There are some people in England, Jewish organizations, Quakers, church groups and others, who want to help get Jews out of Germany.  They have volunteered to take care of children.

SYLVIA:                    But I want to stay here with you.  Can’t you come to England too?

SAM:                          No, that’s the problem.  They will only take children up to 18.  And we might be sent to a place    where they don’t allow children.

RUTH:                        Are you talking about the labor camps?

SARAH:                     I don’t know for sure.

SYLVIA:                    (cries) I don’t want to go to England.  I want to stay right here.

SAM:                          Nobody’s going any place yet.  We just want to be prepared.

SARAH:                     Just in case.

RUTH:                        Just in case what?

SARAH:                     Just in case.  That’s all we want to say for now.  Come on, Darling.  I’ll sing your favorite lullaby.

RUTH:                        I’ll be right back.  I am just going to Dorit’s for a few minutes.  (exit)

SARAH:                     (sings a capella) Lullaby and good night, thy mother’s delight

Bright angels beside, my darling abide.

Lay thee down, now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed

Lay thee down, now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed

(Ruth returns, bleeding from forehead as Sylvia falls asleep.)

SARAH:                     What happened to you?  Your head’s bleeding!

RUTH:                        The Nazi Youth…

SARAH:                     Why would they do this?  Come let me clean it up.  (They exit to bedroom.)

(Loud knocking at door)

SAM:                          Who’s there?

ELSA:                         Please open the door.

(Anna and Elsa enter)

SAM:                          Anna, Elsa.  What are you doing here this time of night? It must be after eleven.

ANNA:                       Don’t you know what’s going on outside?  They smashed the windows to our shop.  They stole every piece of clothing.  Can you help us?

SARAH:                     Well, sit down.  I’ll get you some tea.

ELSA:                         No thank you.  It’s the Nazis.  First the boycott.  Now this.

ANNA:                       The firemen only watched while the Nazis set fire to the synagogue.

SARAH:                     You can stay here until it’s over.

ELSA:                         I’m afraid it will never be over.

SYLVIA:                    (enters) What’s all the noise?  I couldn’t sleep.

SARAH:                     I think it’s time that we start thinking about that Kindertransport.  We Jews don’t have a future here in Germany.  We have to get you registered at once.

SYLVIA:                    But Mommy.

SAM:                          It’s only for a little while.  We’ll be together again after this mess is over.

RUTH:                        When will it be over (The adults look to one another and don’t answer.  Lights out.)

            Scene 2

 

(Lights up on Celia and Marta’s room.  They are packing suitcases.)

MARTA:                     Celia, get your dirty little blouse off my bed!

CELIA:                       Only if you keep your shoes on your side of the room!

MARTA:                     (eyeing diary with Celia’s things) Celia, you wouldn’t dare.

CELIA:                       What are you talking about?

MARTA:                     My diary.  You’ve been reading my diary again.

CELIA:                       No, I haven’t, Marta.  Besides why would I be interested in your dumb, annoying, insignificant life?

MARTA:                     I hate your guts!  Why do I have to have a sister?

CELIA:                       I feel the same way about you.  I hate you.  I hate sharing a room with you.  I hate having to go to England with you.

(Selma enters.)

SELMA:                     Can’t the two of you stop fighting for just one minute?

MARTA & CELIA:   It’s all her fault!

SELMA:                     I won’t be seeing you for, who knows how long.  Maybe our last day together can be peaceful.  I have to do a lot of thinking.  And since your father’s arrest, I can’t get any peace and quiet.  (looks into suitcases)  And you’ll have to repack.  I said only clothes, whatever fits in one suitcase.  It’s cold and damp in England.  Remember, you have to carry everything yourselves.

MARTA:                     But, Mom.

(Selma exits.  Celia throws diary.  Marta throws music box.  Lullaby begins.)

CELIA (sings):           Pack your bag.

MARTA:                     Shut your mouth.

CELIA:                       You know you’re not my mother.

MARTA:                     And I’m glad.  If you were, I would run away from you.

CELIA:                       One good thing, about this move, maybe we should thank Hitler.

MARTA:                     One good thing, about this move, I may get away from you.

(Shift to Schwartz residence)

 

2: Yes It’s For Me

 

HENRY: (sings)          Now you say it’s time that we leave Germany.

 

EDITH:                       There’s no way our people can ever be free.

 

HENRY:                      Please understand ‘cause you know how I’ve tried.

                                    To every land, I’ve applied and applied.

 

EDITH:                       We Jews are banned.  There’s no one on our side.

                                    Is this the way it’s got to be?

 

HENRY:                      Just wait and see.

 

AARON:                      So it’s clear that here there’s no future for me.

                                    And I hear of an offer from across the sea.

                                    The Nazis do just what they had planned.

                                    Most of the world’s put heir heads in the sand.

                                    This Kindertransport’s a helping hand.

 

EDITH:                       Is this the way it has to be?

 

AARON:                      Yes, it’s for me.

                                    This is why I’ll apply for the Kindertransport.

                                    I can’t sit by.  There’s too many problems to sort.

 

EDITH:                       How do we say goodbye to our son?

 

HENRY:                      In Great Britain, you won’t know anyone.

 

EDITH:                       We’ll meet again, when the Nazis are done.

 

AARON:                      That’s the way it’s got to be.  Yes, it’s for me.

 

(Scene Three: Frankfurt Rail Station)

EDITH:                       Aaron, we’re going to go over the rules one more time.

AARON:                    Again?  You’ve told me a thousand times!

1.  Be respectful 2.  Mind my manners.  3.  Be obedient.  4. Be helpful.  5.  Say please and thank you.  6.  Chew with my mouth closed.

EDITH:                       And?

AARON:                    And zipper up…Seat down.

EDITH:                       We love you, Aaron.  You better be going now.

HENRY:                     One last thing.  I want to give you something.  (hands watch)

AARON:                    Isn’t this the watch Grandfather gave you before he died?

HENRY:                     Yes, and that is why I’m giving it to you.  I want you to have it.  You may need it one day.

AARON:                    Father, I know this means a lot to you.

HENRY:                     Cherish it.  Keep it with you, no matter what.

AARON:                    I promise you, father.

CONDUCTOR:          (Chasing Henry and Edith) Come on. Get going.  You’re not allowed on the                                              platform.

(Mother enters with package)

CONDUCTOR:          And you too Fraulein… we cannot take this.  It’s only one suitcase per passenger.

MOTHER:                  It’s a special package.  I have to get it to Holland.

CONDUCTOR:          I’m sorry, but we have strict rules.

MOTHER:                  (takes off ring and hands it to conductor) Maybe you know someone who can use this.

CONDUCTOR:          I will see what I can do.

MOTHER:                  Danke…  Danke. (Conductor loads basket on train)

(Lights up on Marta and Celia)

MARTA:                     You think you’re so grown up… I don’t see why Mother let you bring that dumb toy dog.  You’re 12 and still playing with toys.

CELIA:                       You managed to find room for your doll.  Don’t think I didn’t see.  (Marta stops to play with dog.)

MARTA:                     Come on.  Will you?

CELIA:                       I’m coming.  Is this going to be just like home, with you always bossing me around?

MARTA:                     Well; I am older.

CELIA:                       So what.  Everyone knows that I’m prettier, and smarter. (Celia sits)

MARTA:                     What are you doing?

CELIA:                       I’m sitting down.  What does it look like I’m doing?

MARTA:                     Do you have to sit next to me?  I would like to meet some new friends.

CONDUCTOR:          All aboard!!

(The girls stop fighting and Celia grabs Marta’s arm)

CELIA:                       Marta…

MARTA:                    It’s just us now.  Father’s in that camp, and Mother can’t be with us…

Do you think we can get along?  For just a little while?

CELIA:                       Who knows what it’s going to be like.  I mean, in England.

KURT:                        What’s that? (pointing to basket)  It’s only supposed to be one suitcase for each of

Us.

ROSE:                         Maybe we should check.  I don’t want to get in trouble.

KURT:                        It’s a baby!  With some extra clothes, some toys.

ROSE:                         A baby.  I love taking care of children!

KURT:                        Sh! Not so loud. You’ll wake the baby.  If the guards find out….

ROSE:                         What should we do?  I mean, someone must want to get this kid out of Germany.

KURT:                        But if we get caught, they will punish us all.

ROSE:                         What’s your name?

KURT:                        Kurt.  I’m from Munich.  What’s yours?

ROSE:                         Rose.  Do you think we can all look after the baby?

KURT:                        (looking into basket)  I think it’s a boy.  (Baby pees.)  Now I’m sure.  We have to give him a name.  We can call him Kurt the Second.

ROSE:                         Are there any extra diapers in there?

KURT:                        No.  (removing scarf)  I can make this into one.

ROSE:                         He’s wearing a striped shirt.  You don’t mix plaid with stripes.  And that’s not how you fold a diaper!  Let me show you how.  Boys don’t know anything.

KURT:                        I know when people talk too much.

ROSE:                         I can take a hint.  (moves over to David)  My name is Rose.  What’s yours?

Where are you from?  Can you talk?  (He nods.)  Do you miss your family?  (He wipes tear.) Me, too.  Maybe you will be taken in by a nice family.  Everything will be fine. (David notices baby and smiles.)  Do you want to hold him?  (He takes baby.)

KURT:                        That’s a nice watch.  Where did you get it?

AARON:                    My father just gave it to me.

KURT:                        My advice is to get rid of it, and quick.  We’re almost at the Dutch border.

AARON:                    Why should I do that?  I promised my father I would always wear it.

KURT:                        It’s against the law to take jewelry out of the country.  Where have you been?

AARON:                    What should I do?

KURT:                        Hide it before the inspection.  If they find it, they’ll punish you and your parents.

AARON:                    Where should I hide it?

KURT:                        Just do something fast.  The train’s already slowing down.  (Aaron moves watch up wrist.)

SHULTZ:                    (enters)All right, Jews.  You should know the drill.  Open all luggage, then put your arms up.  (He      inspects suitcases.)  A ha.  A ha.  (Aaron raises hands, gets patted down.)  You may return to your seats.  (sees baby basket.)  Whose package is this?  I said who owns this?

ROSE:                         It’s mine.

SHULTZ:                    What is in it?

ROSE:                         Just…things…for England.

SHULTZ (yells):         The rules clearly state that each of you Jews gets one suitcase.  That is all.  (Baby cries)  Very interesting.  A crying basket.  Who brought this?  (to Rose)  You look very young to be a mother.

ROSE:                         I’m almost eighteen.  If you would just let-  (Aaron picks up Curt’s hat.)

SHULTZ:                    Quiet.  I am thinking.

AARON:                    The baby is traveling with me.  You see, his diaper matches my hat.  (removes watch) If you let him remain on board with us, you can have this.

SHULTZ:                    You swine.  (removes gun from holster and points it at baby)  You offer me a bribe?  (twirls watch on gun)  I do not want your Jewish watch.

ROSE:                         But, Sir.

SHULTZ:                    I told you I was thinking.  I am thinking I have three other cars to search.  (returns watch to Aaron)

AARON:                    Thank you, Sir.

SHULTZ:                    Don’t thank me.  I didn’t do anything.  If another guard comes aboard, I didn’t even see the basket.  I cannot report what I didn’t see.   (exits.  Miep and Marie enter.)

MIEP & MARIE:       Welkommen to the Nederlands.

CELIA:                       At least it’s not another inspection.

RUTH:                        I wonder what’s in the packages.

MARTA:                     Don’t say anything.  They may be after bribes.

MIEP:                         Kinder, we have something for you.

MARIE:                      We have something for you.  Dutch cakes.

RUTH:                        I’d like a piece of cake.  Maybe it will help my headache go away.

MIEP:                         And Dutch chocolate.  Is anyone hungry?

(All kids except David take excitedly take food.)

MARIE:                      And what about him?  Aren’t you hungry?  We want to help you.

MIEP:                         Do you miss your mother?  Do you want something to eat?  (no response- They turn away.)

DAVID:                      I want some chocolate!

ALL:                           What?  He spoke?  What did you say?

DAVID:                      I want some chocolate.  (Miep gives a piece of chocolate.)  Chocolate.  I really love chocolate.

Scene 4- In the summer camp in Dover, England)

 

 

3: We Travel by Boat or by Train

 

ROSE:                         Now we finally arrive.

                                    It feels great to be alive.

 

MARTA:                      My new life will begin,

 

CURT:                                    Can’t think of what might have been.

 

ALL:                            We travel by boat and by train, so much to lose, so much to gain.

                                    In England we will remain for a while.

 

DAVID:                       I’m sitting here, all cold and damp.

                                    Being judged in this summer camp.

 

RUTH:                                    Will they be impressed by me?

                                    Will I join a new family?

 

SYLVIA:                      I think of Mom, the last time I kissed her.

 

CELIA:                        Am I going to get to live with my sister?

                                    I’ll do what I have to do for a while.

DANIELLE:               (to David) Little boy, are you all right?  What’s the matter?

DAVID:                      I was taken from my mother.

DANIELLE:               What’s your name?

DAVID:                      It’s David.

DANIELLE:               Would you like to live in a new home with nice people to look after you?

DAVID:                      This is Schnapps.  My mommy gave him to me before I left.  Can he come too?

DANIELLE:               Of course he can.  Does he eat much?

DAVID:                      Yes, he needs a lot of chocolate.

DANIELLE:               We’ll see what we can do.  (exit)

Reprise Song 4: We Travel by Boat or by Train

ALL:                            Looks like everything has changed.

                                    Our whole lives been rearranged.

                                    Can we do what these people tell us to do?

                                    There’s no way to remain the same.

 

CURT:                                    Watching them all get selected,

                                    And me, just feeling rejected.

 

ROSE:                         Babe, I’ll look after you.

                                    I hope there is room for us two.

 

ALL:                            We travel by boat and by train, so much to lose, so much to gain.

                                    In England, we must remain for a while.

Scene 5    (England)

 

                                    (Aaron is sitting on stage.  Beatrice enters)

BEATRICE:               Aaron I must have your watch.

AARON:                    What do you mean?

BEATRICE:               It’s expensive to feed another mouth. We can have fresh vegetables for a month with the money that watch will bring.

AARON:                    (crying) My father told me to keep that watch, no matter what happened.

BEATRICE:               Well I’m sorry, I must have it. (She takes it off) Now come its time for dinner.

AARON:                    (still crying) I’m not hungry, Ma’am…

BEATRICE:               What did you say?

AARON:                    I don’t feel like eating right now, Ma’am.

BEATRICE:               Richard, did you hear what Aaron has to say?

RICHARD:                (enters) Yes, Love, what is it?

BEATRICE:               He refuses to eat.

RICHARD:                Look here, boy.  I have rules, and I make sure they are obeyed.

AARON:                    I’m sorry. I’m just not hungry, Sir.

RICHARD:                First of all, you listen!  Second, you make sure all your chores are completed, and third, you will never, ever talk back to me.

AARON:                    I didn’t mean to-

RICHARD:                (smacks Aaron) Go upstairs to your room.  I’ll deal with you later.  (Lights shift.)

(Bernard is reading a letter and crying.  He throws the letter to the ground.)

BERNARD:               I can’t believe Charles is dead. Blimey Hitler!  ( Rose enters with baby.)  What are you doing, you stupid Kraut.  It’s all your fault we’re in this bloody war with Germany anyway.

ROSE:                         Me?  I didn’t do anything.

LYNDON:                  Why did my parents have to take you and that little devil in?  I hate you.  My brother’s been killed and it’s all your fault.  I hope you die.

BERNARD:               You dirty little Hitler.

ROSE:                         If I were a Nazi, I wouldn’t be here.  (Bernard starts to hit Rose. GLADYS enters and separates them.)

GLADYS:                  Stop it!.  We have enough problems around here without you three acting like idiots…Bernard, we’re all upset about…what happened to Charles.  But that’s not Rose’s fault.  Hitler wants to take over the whole world, and England is in his way.  Rose, could you change little Clive’s nappie?

LYNDON:                  Mum, why do Rose and Clive have to be here?

GLADYS:                  When Deacon Langford talked about taking the kids in, I knew it was the right thing to do.  What if our government declared us the enemy?  Wouldn’t you want help, even from foreign strangers?

(Theresa and Sylvia enter)

THERESA:                 Sylvia, come down.  It’s time to eat.  Plus I have a surprise for you.  (Sylvia enters,                                    crying.)  Why are you crying again?

SYLVIA:                    I miss my mother.  All I have is this one post card… (unwraps it and reads it) I wish I could see her again.

THERESA:                 I’m sure you’ll see her again, and your father.  And we are trying to arrange to get your sister to visit.  Only with the war on, travel is next to impossible.  I’m sure they are fine.

SYLVIA:                    How do you know?  Why haven’t I heard from her?

THERESA:                 We have to have faith in tough times.  The Lord still watches over all of His children. There’s a special angel looking after your mother, I’m sure.

SYLVIA:                    Some angel.

THERESA:                 What did you say?

SYLVIA:                    It’s not important.

THERESA:                 Well, here’s your surprise.  It’s a beautiful doll I got at the jumble sale.

SYLVIA:                    (unenthusiastically) Yes, thank you, Ma’am.  It’s very nice.

            Scene 6  (At the Hostel)

KURT:                        Hello, Marta.

MARTA:                     Hello, Kurt. Are you feeling all right?  You look a little down…  Are you upset that you’re still here at the hostel, with no family?

KURT:                        Well, at least when the war ends, our parents only have to cross the Channel to find us. And we won’t have any long good-byes, like most of the others.  What about you?

MARTA:                     I definitely do miss Celia.   But I really miss my parents even more.  I wonder where they are.

KURT:                        I think about mine too; but it doesn’t do any good to ask questions, if we know there are no answers.

MARTA:                     I got a letter from Rose yesterday.  She says Kurt the Second, only they call him Clive, is really growing.  She said maybe we can all get together when the war is finally over.

KURT:                        Get together?  Where?

MARTA:                     She suggested right here.  We’ll probably have time while all the arrangements are being made.

KURT:                        You know I’ll be here.

MARTA:                     Me, too.   (lights)

(Victory music playing)

NEWS:                        We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for a special news bulletin.  Allied troops have announced that Germany has surrendered.  We repeat, Germany has surrendered.  The war In Europe is over.

4: Epilogue

 

CELIA:                        An American soldier came to my town

                                    Helping refugees, people like me.

                                    To make a long story short, he kept coming around.

                                    Now we’re raising a family.

 

SYLVIA:                      My sister Ruth died from that time

                                    The Nazis kicked her in the head.

                                    I searched for my parents only to find

                                    That my entire family’s dead.

 

CHORUS:                   The war is over.  Our lives are spared.

                                    We stayed with families who proved that they cared.

                                    We’re moving on, thanks to people who dared

                                    To do what was right.

 

ROSE:                         I’ve been busy with Clive, the baby you met,

                                    For these past seven hard years.

                                    He’s helped me out, help me forget,

                                    Helped me wash way my tears.

 

DAVID:                       I got through with a family who

                                    Treated me and little Schnapps great.

 

AARON:                      My family was tough.  They treated me rough,

                                    But I was saved from a horrible fate.

 

CHORUS:                   The war is over.  Our lives are spared.

                                    We stayed with families who proved that they cared.

                                    We’re moving on, thanks to people who dared

                                    To do what was right.

 

                                   

                                   

           

                                    

Chapte 26: The Gelt and the Belt

As the reasons for getting out of Germantown piled up, we followed Mike’s suggestion and crossed the Delaware River in search of a new home. We started with the New Jersey communities closest to AMY, using the Torah test as we went. “Not enough Jews,” Bette commented about Pensauken and Palmyra. “Too many Jews,” I thought about Cherry Hill. The real estate agents showed us many possibilities, but there was one that stood out.
“Bette, this is the place I dreamed about!”
I wasn’t prone to HGTV, house-hunting exclamations, so I explained. “Back when I was driving for Hertz, I occasionally picked up cars in Freehold. Usually, I would race back to the Philly airport for the next job, but Freehold had an afternoon harness racing track. My dad and I used to stop there on the way to Monmouth Park. After picking up a Freehold car one afternoon, I didn’t cash a single ticket. I lost the turnpike toll on a sure thing and had to take this long and winding road back to the city. I passed horse farms including the stables of Stanley Dancer in some place called New Egypt.”
Bette’s glazed over look suggested that I get to the point. “Stanley who?”
“Stanley Dancer is the best driver from the biggest family in harness racing history.” How could she not know who Stanley Dancer was? “I once stopped for M & M’s three times in different convenience stores hoping I’d run into him. Never saw him. Anyway, the road continued through Main Street in this magical, tree-lined town. There were gas street lamps and brick sidewalks like in The Music Man. White picket fences. All that was missing was Opie and Gomer.”
“And?” Bette was becoming impatient, I could tell.
“By the time I got back to Philly, I was so late that the other drivers had all gone home. I was already upset that I had blown my salary at the racetrack. The dispatcher called me into his office. I was thinking of explanations for my lateness. Flat tire? (No, he could easily check.) Hijacking? Alien abduction? (No way. Would an alien leave a spaceship behind for a 1972 Ford LTD?) Illness? Upset stomach? Numerous stops by the side of the road, followed by a long nap? I settled on the illness excuse, but never got to use it. Instead, the dispatcher asked me if I’d like to be a spy. I stayed quiet, hoping to discover what side he worked for. The Russians? Cubans? The Chinese were coming on strong. He continued, ‘I need a driver to spy around Hertz agencies to see which ones are hiding our cars. They keep them as long as they can, so when a customer rents a car planning to leave it in Philly, they won’t get stuck losing one from their own fleet for too long.’ I was already thinking how to surreptitiously slip my double life into bar introductions. Would I wear a trench coat and wraparound, reflective sun glasses? To make a long story short (Bette thanked me for that.) I started making a weekly reconnaissance mission throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Good money, no pressure.”
Bette interrupted, “Okay, Julius Rosenberg, what’s this have to do with buying a house?”
“This is it! Moorestown is the town I’ve been dreaming of, the one on the long way back from Freehold! An old fashioned hardware store for me, the Peter Pan bakery and a thrift shop for you, good schools for the girls.” It was settled. Only a twenty minute car pool ride to AMY over the Betsy Ross Bridge (the only bridge named after a woman), the bridge that no one used because it didn’t go anywhere except Port Richmond, home of a foul-smelling water treatment facility and AMY school. The bridge was supposed to connect New Jersey to Germantown until they realized that nobody wanted to go to Germantown, so the project was scrapped.
One friend remarked, “Oh, Moorestown’s letting Jews in now!” We settled upon a big, sunny, yellow colonial needing work, but compared to our School House Lane triplex, it was in great shape. It had a poker room for me and a driveway, so Bette didn’t have to deal with the denizens of mental institutions when parking. I was already visualizing remodeling projects: construction of two vestibules, finishing the basement, adding French doors to the living room, building shelves everywhere, and laying new parquet floors. I was due for a sabbatical, so I’d have lots of time.
Our plans came to an abrupt halt with one piece of mail. The return address was the United States Information Agency in Washington, DC. Maybe they got wind of my espionage skills and were going to offer me an international assignment. No, it was the Fulbright Teacher Exchange bureau. I opened the envelope and saw Bette’s name and “Tottenham”. I checked a map of Central London and saw “Tottenham Court Road” in the middle of the theatre district. “Bette, you hit the jackpot! We’re going to London! I can take the year off. The girls can delay their entrance into Jersey society for a year.” I had just won my law suit against Bette dating back to the car accident and the insurance company’s refusal to pay for my hospitalization. We had money in the bank and were raring to go!

“What about our new house? Peter (the exchange teacher, a young, handsome bachelor without a car) doesn’t want to be stuck in our dry, suburban Quaker town, no matter how nice and shady it is.”

The real estate agent helped solve that one. He knew of a military family looking to rent a home for a year. Easy money. And we found a small Philadelphia apartment for Peter. Everyone was happy.

It turned out that Tottenham was nowhere near Tottenham Court Road. It was an hour tube ride from the theatre district, in North London. Our estate house (British for starter home) in Ferry Lane was on an island among the last marshes in London. No one had screens in their lovely English windows, so we encountered hundreds of British insects upon arrival. The girls played outside and met a few neighborhood cats while Bette and I swept the ceilings free of daddy long legs. At the Walthomstow street market, we found a sari shop. The Hindu woman eyed Bette suspiciously when we requested the thinnest, most transparent material they had. We purchased five yards of gauze. I cut them to fit the windows. Then I cut strips of cardboard from cereal boxes and held them in place by push pins (thumb tacks) purchased at the DIY, the Do-It-Yourself store. We were rapidly learning the King’s English, although I doubted any British monarch ever had to erect homemade screens. The construction completed, the neighbors assumed we were very private people or American drug dealers and maintained a safe distance.
Bette and Micole pedaled their borrowed bikes along the locks of North London each day on their way to Northumberland Comprehensive School. At Ferry Lane Primary, I occasionally observed Mr. Aki, Alana’s relocated Nigerian teacher with an accent that no one could understand. His St. Lucian aide, sounding like the clairvoyant Miss Clio, would raise one eye brow and mutter, “My Lord. What are we to do wit dat mon?” I decided to become an unpaid assistant three days a week. Alana’s classmates were a mix of working class Brits and recent immigrants from Cyprus, Turkey, Somalia, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Caribbean. I don’t know if they understood my accent any better than the Nigerian of the St. Lucian, but they seemed happy to have me there. And I made certain that Alana would master more than the mimicry of various North London accents.
As the Northern European winter days grew shorter, the London fog and drizzle caused Bette and Micole to ride two red double decker busses to school. The stop between the two just happened to be on High Street, so they got to do some Hanukah shopping between rides. The gift list was mercifully short this year because most people we knew were back in the States or thought Judah and the Maccabees were a doo wop group.
I had learned to be careful not to let the phrase, “Christmas shopping” slip out. I was always considered Jewish enough for Bette. That’s all that mattered. I also learned not to let words like “atheist” or “agnostic” enter into dinner discussions. I bought birthday candles to use for Hanukah. The Maccabees didn’t fuss about their light source. Why should we? We had scattered eight days of presents throughout our small house. The girls were trained not to search too hard for them.
During our macaroni, cheese and fish stick dinner on the third night of the holiday, I noticed an unusual lack of enthusiasm. “Bette, what’s up?”
“Micole can tell you.”
Micole’s story and tears began simultaneously. “Well, remember the gelt we got last night?” Of course I remembered it. It made watching Top of the Pops much more enjoyable. “Somebody (accompanied by a pause, giving time for a long look to Alana) stole two of mine.” I had resisted the temptation to break into their golden coins of milk chocolate, having no need since I was a guest in a country where purple wrapped Cadbury bars were available on every corner. Bette considered me to be obnoxiously honest and removed me from suspicion. I tried to do the same for her.
I spoke up. “This house is so small, I’m sure we’ll be able to uncover some evidence. Let’s try to settle this soon, so we don’t ruin the holiday.” So, as the candles burned, Bette and I snooped. We stayed together, so neither one of us could accuse the other of evidence tampering. We left the girls at the table hoping they’d solve the crime without too much parental intervention. For the first time since I asked the reason for their lateness in the Paris metro, they remained silent.
We found no signs of a break-in, nor was anything else missing. “Inside job,” I deduced. Bette completely removed herself from my suspicion when she found two crumpled, hollow coins behind Alana’s dresser. Bette would have destroyed the evidence in a more creative manner. She figured I would have done the same, so we scratched one another off the short list of suspects and headed downstairs.
When Bette presented her find to the girls, Micole assessed the situation. “You know when you gave us the candy- I mean, gelt, Alana ate all of hers in, like, ten minutes, but I saved some of mine for the dreidel game.“ She looked at Alana. Alana said nothing, but Bette, after having another of her working-in-a-poorly-run-comprehensive-school days, was growing impatient.
“La (choosing her most affectionate term), you have two choices: You can tell us the truth and have a small problem which will go away fairly quickly, or you can stretch this out and have a big problem.” Like Inspector Clouseau, she placed the evidence in front of Alana with a look which threatened matching the bite marks in the foil with those in Alana’s half-eaten fish stick.
Alana studied the evidence, gulped, and turned toward Micole. “I’m sorry I ate your gelt, Micole.” Her deep brown eyes were even bigger than usual, suddenly finding the multicolored floral carpet highly intriguing as she waited for what would happen next.
I had an idea. “Mic, since you’re the victim, why don’t you decide on a punishment?” Our future attorney leaped at the chance to wield the heavy hammer of justice.
“I think I should eat some of the gelt she got tonight.”
Alana, not in the best of bargaining positions, weakly asked, “How much?”
“At least what you ate of mine.”
I admired the quick strike. I didn’t think the hammer fell hard enough, but I had placed it in Micole’s trust. Micole read my mind and added, “That will do, for now.”
As the self-appointed family historian, I couldn’t let an opportunity to relate another childhood memory pass. Before I knew it, the girls would be heading off to college, getting married, joining a traveling circus, or finding another legitimate reason not to have to pretend to be interested in my stories. “Should I tell you what happened when I got caught stealing from Uncle Steve?” I didn’t wait for any answer.
“I took a roll, five dollars’ worth of dimes from Steve’s coin collection. I got caught because I didn’t destroy the evidence fast enough. Sound familiar? Five dollars went pretty far in those days. I had stopped at the bowling alley to buy hot dogs, soda, and twenty frames of bowling. Then my friend Lus suggested playing pinball. We put ash trays under the legs and raised the front end so the ball moved in slow motion. We got it stuck in the ‘Special’ column that gave free replays. We played all afternoon and I didn’t invest another dime.”
“When I arrived home, Grandmom and Steve were waiting for me. A quick search produced seventeen, freshly minted 1960 dimes from my pockets. I swore that I found them outside Lus’s house. I tried, ‘You can even ask Lus. He’ll tell you,’ but it didn’t do any good. My mother threatened, ‘Just wait ‘til your father gets home.’ Steve watched all this with a stupid smirk on his face.” At this point, Micole took a quick look at the mirror. “I tried to think of incriminating information I could use against Steve, but I didn’t have any at the time.”
Alana asked, “So what did your father do?”
I let the excitement build before answering. “Well my dad used to go to work early in the morning when it was still dark. Sometimes, I’d hear his steel-toed, insulated boots clip-clopping across the floor.” Our house had wall-to-wall carpeting, so the sound effects were a recent addition to the tale. “In the early evening, he returned with his blood-stained butcher’s coat, dripping with the fresh entails of slaughtered animals.” My dad was in sales, but I was on a roll. The story was aimed at Alana, but it was Micole who became a vegetarian. “My dad came home tired, just wanting to put his feet up, read the Evening Bulletin’s sports page, eat dinner, and go to sleep. Steve and I used to race to see who could untie Dad’s boots faster. On that night, I let Steve untie them both while I paid strict attention to The Three Stooges on television. My mother had used that ‘Just wait…’ line many times.

Sometimes the storm blew over before she had to tell my father what we had done. Moe had just demanded that Curly ‘Pick Two’ when Dad called me over.”
Micole interrupted, “Did he ask Steve how to punish you?”
“No, he had his own system. I remember it because it was the last time he ever had to use the belt on me.”
Alana, readjusting herself on her chair at the mention of the word ‘belt’, asked, “Did it hurt a lot?”
“No, not really. Even though my father was in a hurry to get to his evening of relaxation, it took him a long time to get the belt free of his belt loops. I closed my eyes and prayed that he’d hold the belt from the buckle end. He always did. Mostly I remember three things: my fear, my dad’s controlled anger, and the embarrassment we both felt. I’ll never forget what I did to deserve the whippings. That was the whole idea.”
Micole asked, “When else did you get whipped?”
“One time goes way back to the apartment on Spruce St. We left there when I was five, so it’s one of my oldest memories. Steve and I were giving each other rides on an old record player. In those days, the slowest speed was 16 revolutions per minute, sixteen turns a minute. No one ever saw records made to turn that slow, so we thought it was made for kids to ride on. We probably wouldn’t have been caught if we didn’t laugh so loud. We both got hit, but it was worth it.”
“Another time, we were playing Sea Hunt (an old underwater TV show) in the bath tub. We got the floor so wet that it went through to the dining room ceiling. My dad already had the belt off by the time he got to the top of the steps. With the tub full of water, the floor and ceiling were getting wetter with each crack of the belt. I thought it was prudent not to point this out to my dad. To this day, I don’t steal from people (except theft of service from EuroDisney). I also don’t play deep sea divers in the tub, or spin people around on record players.”

The kids and I were equally surprised when Bette said, “I have a belt story too.” Once, and only once, Bubba had to wave a belt at me. I was in the fifth grade, and this boy named Adam Greenspan brought candy for the whole class. I don’t think it was Hanukah gelt though,” she added, keeping the discussion centered on the matter at hand. “Adam Greenspan was acting like this big humanitarian. Even though I enjoyed every single jelly bean, I was mad at him for making such a big deal about it. I was also jealous that I couldn’t be the hero. But about a week later, I saw Bubba put some money into an envelope in the closet. Later on, I sneaked up and saw there were lots of envelopes. She wouldn’t miss a single ten dollar bill.”

I was seeing my wife in a new light, thinking I’d have to keep a closer eye on the petty cash around the house.

Bette continued, “So I went to the penny candy store on the corner. Mr. Goldsmith must have been very happy to have such a big spender in his store, stuffing a paper bag with as much as I could. I was even happier to share my loot with everyone, even the teacher and Adam Greenspan, only I didn’t have to act like some big shot. I enjoyed teaching him a lesson on how to be humble. On the way home, I had such a big smile, thinking how I helped make everyone happy. But when I got to the door, Bubba didn’t look so happy. She was standing in the living room waving the empty manila envelope at me. Then I noticed my dad’s thick, leather brown belt dangling from her other hand. I started running around the room, cscreaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Don’t kill me!” Bubba yelled louder, ‘Stop screaming. The neighbors are going to think I’m really killing you!’ She dropped the belt when she caught up to me. Instead she placed me over her lap and gave me two or three good whacks.

I suggested, “You should have told your mom about the Robin Hood part. It might have lessened the blows. I wished I thought of that when I took Steve’s roll of dimes.”“I don’t remember the beating part, just the lesson involved.”

“Did Bubba say anything else?” Alana wanted to know.

“She said a lot more. She told me that even when they were struggling during the war, they never resorted to stealing from family members. I asked, and learned some family history. Aunt Masha was lucky enough to be working at a bakery. When the boss wasn’t looking, she took food ration coupons. Or maybe the boss was doing the same thing, so they had an agreement. Uncle Moishe would trade the coupons for liquor and cigarettes at the black market.”
I could tell that Bette was deciding how much to reveal. “You see, Sorrelle, Bubba’s mother, my grandmother-“
Alana interrupted, “Sorrelle. That’s my middle name!” We only used it when Alana was in need of admonishment.

Bette continued, “When Bubba was even younger than either of you, her mother disappeared in the middle of the night. Somebody, the Polish police, or people pretending to be the police, just came in and grabbed her.”
I was also hearing this story for the first time, so I asked, “Do you know why?”
Alana offered a remote possibility, “Maybe she had snuck into an amusement park.”
Bette explained, “No, they didn’t give reasons in those days. Maybe because she was a Rosican.” She pronounced it “Rot-Z-Sun” as if accompanied by coronets and a drum roll. “Maybe because she was an outsider and spoke many languages. Anyway, my Zeyde, Abe, went looking for her and never found her.” Not wanting to further dampen our already moist Hanukah celebration, Bette cut the story short.
After a pause, I asked Micole, “So are you happy with the punishment for Alana?”
Alana complained with some justification, “That’s not fair. Now she’s going to watch me get hit with a belt!”
Micole made Alana wait by going to the front door to ensure that it was dead-bolted. When she returned, the future attorney, reconsidered and repeated, “I’ll just take the two coins tonight. That’s enough. Probably.” She threw in the qualifier. There’s nothing like having an indefinite punishment to hold over one’s little sister.
Once the girls went to sleep, I asked Bette, “Do you think we’re all being too hard on Alana? Some child psychologists say you shouldn’t use food as a reward or punishment. I’d hate to be the cause of a lifetime eating disorder.”
Bette said, “Those are the same books that say belts don’t do any good either. I think if we use this kind of punishment as rarely as our parents used the belt, we should be okay.”
“Anyway, it was good to bring up those old stories. When we get together with Steve, we should go down the basement and see if that old record player still works.

LondonLondon’s Walthamstowe Market

Chapter 25:  Emergency Room

Whenever we returned from school, Rocky, the wonder dog, got on his hind legs, twirled about like a circus performer, and displayed the behaviors that had won our hearts at the SPCA.  Although the pound had been filled with excellent candidates, Micole had spoken for all of us when she said, “He’s the one!”  Rocky earned his keep by sounding, if not really looking, like a watchdog.  He continued to enjoy our home until someone borrowed our wrought-iron front gate, probably as a fundraiser for crack cocaine (the scourge of Germantown and many other once fine neighborhoods) and abetted Rocky’s escape.

            After a few fruitless weeks of searching, we stopped at the Hunting Park SPCA on our way home from AMY school, to see if Rocky had been captured.  No Rocky, but many willing substitutes filled the cages.  We were discussing possibilities when the conversation shifted to Mike, a New Jersey co-worker who had been trying to talk us out of Germantown for years, often reminding us of the dangers (“insanity” was his word) of living in a crime-filled area.  We listened but figured that he was in search of car pool companions to save him money on bridge tolls.

“Yeah, fine with me.  We can go to Mike’s on Saturday night.  I don’t have any other plans, “I was saying, but what I was thinking was that white Ford van is coming very fast toward us.  Believing we’d just be able to complete the left turn, I refocused my attention on Bette behind the wheel and—“

And then a tornado envelops me, a squall of sights, sounds and other sensations which I am powerless to effect.  I am merely a spectator in this incredibly accelerated situation.  Amidst alternating blinding light and equally unwelcome darkness, I am pushed and pulled through icy, reflective corridors.  I want to turn my head for a more complete perspective, but it is locked in a vise.  Six times I am quizzed: “What day is it?  Who’s the president?”  I am satisfied with my responses, but I fear that the words are trapped in my own mind.  As I am transported from place to pace, from machine to machine, I feel blasts of cool air against my chest, while my shoulders and arms remain tropically hot.  I beg for relief for my parched throat and receive a polite but resolute “No!” as a response.

An unfamiliar voice overheard: “They were coming back from the SPCA.”  Hey, that’s me that they’re talking about!  I was just at the SPCA.  Rocky ran away, again, and we were looking for him.  Then it must be me who is being hauled and contorted through all these devices, poked and prodded in places even I don’t like to touch.  It’s not television; I can’t change the channel or turn my eyes into the pillow.  Perhaps it’s an early morning dream where I can exercise minimal control over the proceedings.  Bette’s soothing voice ends my feint hope.  From across the room, out of sight, “Rob?  Rob?   We were in a car accident.”

“Bette, are you all right?”

Affirmative.  “Lucky bitch.”

I prefer the dream world and try to block all sensations from reaching me.  A young doctor (They all seem like high school kids.) asks what day it is.  “Doesn’t anyone here have a newspaper?” I retort.  He then waves a consent form.  “Do you understand?  I need your permission to run a tube into your lungs.”  I ask if there’s an alternative.  When his succinct reply is, “Death,” I scrawl something.  A further explanation follows.  I have an eight syllable thing, sounding like the courses I used to avoid in college.  My thoughts of palm trees and sand dunes are intruded upon by the doctor’s warning.  “Now this is going to hurt.”  I note that the experience thus far hasn’t exactly been pleasant.  He adds,

“You have some broken ribs, and I must move them aside in order to get the tube through to your lung.”

“Can’t you use an anesthetic?”  It’s been weird, but I believe we are still in the twentieth century.  Because I’ve had a concussion, the doctor’s answer is negative.  “We need to get into your collapsed lung immediately.” He folds my arms into an impossible angle to reach the soft spot between my broken ribs.  The shattered bones afford me such pain that I attempt flight toward the soft ceiling tiles.  A mammoth nurse assumes a sumo stance and is utilized to clamp me into the best position.  Her half-nelson is successful as her sultry voice whispers, “We’ve got you where we want you.”  I realize that the ceiling and all other means of escape have been sealed.  I am alone, forsaken in the Sahara sands, exposed to the elements and foraging creatures of the night.  They can do what they want with me.  There’s no fight left.

I spend the next few days unsuccessfully trying to find a comfortable position in the hospital bed.  The drugs must be working because I feel all right in spite of the visitors’ looks suggesting that I really do belong in the Intensive Care Unit.  Recovering my senses bit by bit, I notice my hair getting greasier by the minute.  And every few hours, I observe a floating ball as I huff and puff into a breathing mechanism designed to measure my lung capacity.  After finally seeing it rise to the top, I am moved to a general ward where my roommate coughs incessantly.  I listen to sports radio and see too many television commercials for products and needs I don’t know existed.

The care is more sporadic than in the ICU.  A nurse, wearing pajamas with pastel canaries on them, pokes her head into the room and gently asks, “Is everything all right.  Do you need anything?”  I ask if someone can wash my oily hair.  After a brief laugh, she responds, “Boy, You ain’t in no God-damn ICU no more!  Wash your own damn hair!”  She mumbles, “What the hell’s he think I am, a God-damn beautician!” as she proceeds down the corridor.  I’ll choose another time to request a sponge bath.

I receive pain killers to induce sleep, the only way to escape my neighbor’s coughing.  The pills must be working because I am camping along a forest stream, awakened by the gently falling autumn leaves.  The birds announce that it is early morning, and I’m deciding if I want to use my energy to get to the bathroom.  I sluggishly rub my eyes, and bits of glass are where my golden slumber beads should be.  I scratch my head in wonderment, and more glass tumbles down onto my– Wait.  What am I wearing?  It’s a hospital gown!  The television sets are displaying lifelines, and I’ve got tubes, intravenous injections, and electrodes plugged into me.  An intern mispronounces my last name, says, “Good morning,” and assures me that I am all right.  She supplies enough information to help me make sense of everything that happened since the futile attempt to find our lost dog.  She states that my lung is improving.  “It’s time to remove the tube.”  Reliving its painful insertion, I squirm.  She informs me that she’s finished.  It was as painless as a spaghetti strand passing through my lips.  I’m cleared to go home.

Back at School House Lane, I feel a renewed sense of appreciation for all life has to offer.  I ask Bette to escort me around the block, so I can feel the crunch of the autumn leaves beneath my feet.  I muse that the lost moments between the van’s impacting my ribs and my re-awakening in the emergency room could be a pre-cursor to the feeling of dying.  I didn’t feel anything, so that’s one less thing to worry about.  I quietly celebrate this epiphany as we got back to our house.  When I lift my leg to scale the first granite step, I feel a tear in what I later learned was an abductor muscle.  I had recently mastered turning over in bed as it became a ten step process because of my broken ribs.   Now every footstep has to be measured in a similar fashion.

When I explain the pain to my physical therapist, she incredulously asks, “Didn’t you receive any physical therapy in the hospital?”  No. “Did you just lie in bed while you were there?”  Yes.  “Didn’t they suggest that you can’t go from a week in a hospital bed back to a normal routine without some instructions?”  No.

While using my bank of sick days for the first time, I stay in bed and have a lot of time to think.  I think about every person who had an effect on my life.  They will become the subject of chapters if I ever write a memoir.  Even though I’m in my early thirties, early retirement seems attractive as it will allow me the time to do what I like.  Another thought occurs to me as I hear the daily police sirens rushing down School House Lane.  With my injuries, I question if I would be able to outrun the street thugs of Germantown.  On crutches, as I head to the therapist, I have to confront the obvious answer.  I could still outsmart most people if given the opportunity.  But do criminals always offer the chance?

While recuperating, I have the time to consider our three burglaries.  The first time they reached into windows and stole only the kids’ penny jars from the downstairs bedroom.  I lost all my tools from the basement the second time.  The third time, the thieves had the time to discover the keys to the upstairs apartments and rummage through our tenant’s bedroom, sorting through her underwear and placing the panties in neat piles on the bed.  (My opinion wasn’t solicited, but I liked Noralynn’s black fringed panties best.)   Nothing was taken, but we found the latest ploy a bit spooky.  They may have escaped with some keys as I was uncertain of the complete inventory.  Between talk shows featuring incestuous families and recovering pedophiles, I take the time to work on a list of misfortunes experienced by us and our Germantown neighbors.

On Wayne Avenue:

-my new Volkswagen Beetle, packed for a cross country summer trip, stolen

-a friend’s screams, scaring off a rapist

-upstairs neighbor Irene beaten and robbed

-next door’s spinster sisters bludgeoned as they slept

-neighbor across the street shot and killed for his new sneakers

On School House Lane:

-our Ford Escort stolen

-three burglaries (four, if I count the missing front gate)

-tenant Erin- attempted hijackers scared off by her scratching and screaming

-our accountant: pistol whipped and robbed in his home

-our committeeman stabbed in the back of the head by a madman wanting a cigarette

-daughters shaken down for their lunch money by an eight year-old at the school bus stop (Bette tracked the thieves down in a candy store across from the housing project and made them cry.)

We were committed to living in this tree-lined, interracial neighborhood bordering Wissahickon Park, a half-hour bike ride to work, with mostly friendly, trusting neighbors whose ideals we admired.  Our fifteen room, Victorian twin had enough molding, trees, woodwork, stained glass, and slate shingles’ needing replacement to keep me out of trouble for many decades.  The mortgage was easily covered by the tenants’ rent.  The Watt Boys funk band could create as much noise as we wanted every Wednesday night.  We had the money to travel every summer for eleven weeks, every Christmas to a different Caribbean Island, and every Easter to a different European ski resort.  Was our commitment to sketchy ideals enough the balance out the fear that so far we’d been lucky not to be the victims of anything more than non-violent, nuisance crimes?  Two events tipped the scales in favor of taking Mike’s advice and moving to the quieter, whiter, peaceful suburbs of New Jersey.

Bette had stepped out of the car just as a neighbor from one of the half-way houses across the street was plodding by.  He had the faraway look of one who recently found God or gotten over a drug dependency, or both.  When he saw Bette, he straightened up, looked into her eyes and calmly intoned, “I know who I’d kill if I was gonna kill somebody.”  Other than our committeeman who had the knife placed into his skull, most of the threats from those who used to inhabit the state’s now defunct mental institutions were meaningless chatter.  The next event was scarier.

Our annual Halloween party was winding down.  A dozen regulars sat around, talking and helping out with cursory cleaning and straightening.  I was between Noralynn, disguised as the Bride of Frankenstein (Earlier I had identified her because I recognized the black-fringed pantyline beneath her bridal gown.) and a five-foot seven pack of Wrigley Spearmint gum.  When I heard the front door open, I wondered who would be arriving at two a.m.  It was our friend, Dan, dressed as a cowboy with a red bandana half-covering his face and a toy gun in his holster.  He was shaken and paler than the Count and Countess Dracula who had just departed.  His look of fear belied any Halloween cheer.

“What happened, Dan?”

“I’m not sure.”  After some thought, as if still piecing the facts together, he continued, “I went around the corner to get the car, so we wouldn’t have to carry the kids.  Just as I got there, three or four guys drove up in a yellow Camaro and asked for my wallet.  The light from the church was enough for me to see something shiny, maybe a gun, on the console.  I tried not to look them in the eyes.  I turned over my wallet without saying anything.  The driver removed the money and handed back the wallet with my credit cards still in it.  He actually said, ‘Thank you,’ without a hint of sarcasm and drove off.”  I telephoned 9-1-1.

Bette offered Dan a cup of decaf, which he sipped while giving the police additional details.  Their uniforms highlighted the deficiencies of the fake cops (carrying Dunkin’ Donut boxes) who were still in attendance.  The officers took occasional breaks from jotting notes to sneak glances at the remaining partiers, resembling the cast of a discarded Fellini project.  Liberace nursed a beer.  Indira Gandhi casually smoked a cigarette, while a corporate headhunter, complete with shrunken heads around his grass skirt, expressed sympathy.

While listening to Dan detail his unexpected brush with death, my mind traveled back to my emergency room, that sterile, foreign environment where I was totally dependent upon others.  I journeyed there to avoid thinking that Dan’s experience was partially my fault.

And now, much later in life, when the air conditioner breaks again, or when the computer issues a warning signal that the checking account is overdrawn, the emergency room has come to represent an indefinite, ironic, peaceful place.  I concentrate only on my breathing and the world continues to turn without my input.  I am the Teacher in Space, floating throughout the universe, only remotely a part of it.

The cop’s offer to escort Dan back to his car recaptured my attention.   Do I want to stay in a place where my friend needs a police escort to safely escape?  The only thing I know for sure is that we will host next year’s Halloween party somewhere away from the wailing sirens of Germantown.

Halloween

Halloween at the Allekottes:

Pita, Paul & Mary

Groucho & Micole