Monday, April 25, 2011

A CHANCE TO VISIT


     SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. -- Sixty years ago, when you add 10 years to my high school Class of 1961, just about all of us were from this then-country village a mere 22 miles from New York City but, oh, so far away from urbanity. We were either raised there or lived close enough that we went to elementary and secondary school in the area. Some went to the South and North Main Street buildings, to the Monsey School, to Brick Church, to New Hempstead. Some went to St. Joe’s, the Roman Catholic school. We formed our early friendships, even the beginning of life’s outlook, in these community schools, just as did the kids from the nearby private Lakeside and Happy Valley schools.  
After school, on weekends, in the summer, some of us from one school might mix with others from another place, though that was rare. We might play with each other in Memorial Park, on the big swings or the merry-go-round. We might see each other in the original Spring Valley Theatre, 14 cents for admission. But, all in all,  we were South Main Street, or North, or Monsey, or Brick Church or St. Joe’s kids or from, whatever school. The bonds formed in our elementary sub communities of greater Spring Valley, itself a relatively small village, would remain with us as we all gathered in September 1957 in the first Spring Valley Junior High School. 
That one year of ninth grade gave us a moment to meet new friends, keep the old, grow in our bodies and minds, hearts and souls as this new, bigger, unified class would soon begin high school in the relatively new building on Route 59, in September 1958. For three years we would all face the toughening that was speech class with the wonderful Mr. Scott, as well as the challenges of our math, English, social studies, art, music, industrial arts, business, phys ed and other instructors. 
We would go to football games in chilly weather, warmed by the joint experience. There would be school dances for some, clubs for many and friendships with the transfer students now arriving in what was becoming suburbia. Many of these students had reluctantly left lifelong neighborhoods and their own high school bonding but quickly became part of what was to be fully cast in three years’ time as the Class of 1961, Spring Valley High School.
Now that class, my class, the class of gathered Monsey elementary students, St. Joe’s kids, Brick Church, from wherever, is planning its half-century reunion August 13 at the Marriott in Park Ridge, N.J. (for information, visit www.50thsvhsclass61.com). Now, not all of us want to go back, especially 50 years. Some may say that it was in elementary school where they formed ties, not SVHS. Others may fence-sit, indecisive about the reunion. 
I’ll be there, and I hope many of my classmates will come. You will notice that I do not write “former classmates.” We can never be that, just as servicemen and women who are once together in an experience of growth and emotion can never be ex-comrades. The moment -- and it is just a brief one -- that is high school is classic in life, as much of an emotional lighting as were your parents, your heroes, your first car, your first love. How much would any of us give for a chance to hold hands with any of that again, even for just a few hours before life marches on in certainty and not?

Monday, April 18, 2011

WALK AWAY YOUR ...


    Growing up in a country area, as I did in lower New York State in the 1950s, even as the sure and steady march of the suburbs was at my heels, I walked everywhere, as did all youngsters. School bus limits were set at two miles in Spring Valley, so we walked to the South Main Street School. After school, we might hoof it downtown. On weekends, when my mother cleaned house, my brother and I (and many a friend)  were left on our own, and to our imagination, and so a walk to the woods or the hills kept us busy and in adventure for a hours.
The walking pushed the fat levels down, exercised us, cleared the mental cobwebs and gave us time to think. Walking became such a habit that I often found myself “turning on my head” as if it were a TV set whenever I took a hike. I’d leave school or the house and instantly began thinking about something -- say the life I wanted when I grew up; or I tried to solve a first-year algebra problem that I had been assigned; or I came up with the essay that Torger Gram wanted for sixth-grade English. Actually, I purposely walked for the essays. They were due Mondays, and I would leave my Hillcrest home, head down Karnell Street to State, to Hillcrest Avenue, to Route 45, to East Williams, to Hillside, to Stewart, to Trinity, back to Williams, to East Eckerson, to Buena Vista, back to Karnell. On that two-mile jaunt, I’d figure out what to write, though I would not pen it in my head since I’d learned that would spoil the sauce, that if I wrote the composition on my walk, it would not be as good the second time, on paper.
Young walkers often lose their stride to the lure of cars, and I certainly did that, barely using shoe leather for 20 years, until one very early morning, after a particularly stressful work at the newspaper where I toiled, I could not sleep. I had also gained 35 pounds more than I should have and, at 38, was without the energy I had always had. Instinctively, I took a walk, and it were as if I had been sent on vacation. I walked slowly at first, with some huffing, even on a level grade. But the next day -- and there was not only a next day, but a next week, next month and 31 next years now -- I found myself with renewed energy, 30 pounds lighter and with time for imagination.
All for free.
If I were the health care guru for the nation, I would offer baskets of apples, oranges and other fruit, free admission to state parks, money for walking trails and other encouragement to get those who wanted to do so into walking shoes. The country would save billions in health and mental health care expenses. And the people who walked would get the best benefit of all, the great "freeing" that comes with a good jaunt.

Monday, April 11, 2011

MAGNIFICENCE OF SOLITUDE


     When one of my two sons was in the second grade, I took a call from his fine teacher, who in routine discussion told me that he was doing quite well, but that he was “quiet,” and she wished he were more outgoing in class. I did not respond, having heard the same story in own earlier life, and, no doubt, my father in his. We three, as well as my other son, are very different from one another but in one regard -- a craving for solitude -- we are one. And quite proud of that.
There are drummers for all people, and we each hear the sounds according to disposition, place, time, circumstances, need. Both my sons have gone on to very good careers, with much responsibility, to marriage, their own children (five in all). They are who they are -- principled citizens and humanitarians -- not because they raised their hands often in class, though that is fine and necessary for many individuals (and society needs both vocal and not-so-vocal joiners), but because they often found magnificence in solitude. They continue to grow in that non-limiting space.
Solitude -- not being alone -- but venturing off to that realm where thinkers go, where, Tom Edison, accused of day-dreaming in school, ignored such criticism and went as an adult every afternoon of his long life, just before his nap. Imagine Edison without solitude? No light for the rest of us, literally.
Consider Edward Hopper, America’s foremost realist painter, now so popular worldwide. Though his iconic oils and watercolors capture this nation’s solitude and the great possibilities within, Hopper’s acclaimed work was once labeled by critics as a look at loneliness. Not so. Hopper rejected that view as much “overdone,” and those who study his art today instead see endurance, quiet, introspection and the great independence that has long typified the ever-frontier spirit of America. I recently asked a Belgian woman why Hopper is so very popular in Europe, indeed why she paints beautiful “Hopperesque” scenes, and she said one word: “American.”
Each nation has its particular character, its attributes, its failings, and, most of all, its overall look after a mix of individuals is averaged. Some foreign movies peg the United States as a land of noisy, pushy, loud, spoiled people living high on the hog, and my Belgian friend could accept that stereotype but is also reflective enough to know that America offers other themes as well, including caring, generosity, patriotism.
Yet as Americans might see the French as romantic or the Germans as industrious or Asians as hard workers, etc., I think others in the world view a vast America and in that big space many individuals in solitude, on a porch, looking at the hills and the sea, lost in thought. Even in the magnificence of it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

THE BAB-O MOMENT

     
     Some decades ago, on one of those school’s-out days in early spring when the sun has not yet chased winter’s cold and a youngster doesn’t feel like leaving the house, I decided, half out of boredom, to help my working mom by cleaning the white kitchen sink. She was rather neat, though not compulsive (didn’t have time for that), and the three-year-old basin was usually spotless. I liked that look -- still do -- and so the other half of the motivation was to keep it bright on this particularly lazy day.
It was 1956, in former country that was becoming a New York City suburb in Hillcrest, N.Y., with small, expandable Cape Cod-style homes rising monthly and selling for about $14,000, all with white kitchen sinks. Not every basin was extra-clean, however, owing to humanity’s variety. One neighbor was particularly messy, another left dishes in the sink without visitation rights for days. But just down Karnell Street and off on Orchard was Mrs. Broat, whose kitchen in toto was shiny enough to be in Tiffany’s windows.
My mom was simply neat, as a housemaker, as a person as a mother. She worked all my years with her but also managed, with my father’s hands-on help, to keep a home going as well. Sinks included.
On that school’s-out day, I had just finished the 9 a.m. movie on Channel 9, invariably a 1930s or 1940s black and white -- a Great Depression “comedy” or some film noir -- when I walked into the kitchen to round up Saltines with butter. That was enjoyed at a Formica-covered table with four-inch chrome moulding popular in the mid-1950s. The chair also had chrome legs and the seats were over-padded with thick vinyl in the optimistic pastel colors of the day, especially aquamarine, pink and gray.
Snacking over and moving to the white kitchen sink to wash a glass, I realized it wasn’t as shiny as usual. Since I had nothing to do, I reached below for the Bab-O, then a popular cleanser containing bleach. It sure got everything clean, and its strong smell and reactive foaming action made you think you were restoring whatever to factory new. 
For 20 minutes, I used probably one-quarter of the Bab-O to scour the sink and the faucets. About half-a roll of toweling later, it sparkled as well as it ever did. I knew my mother would be happy. I already was since the kitchen now had the same sense of order usually given it on “cleaning Saturday.” No compulsion here, but it set the day right for me, killed time and made me feel as if I was contributing the house I lived in.
All that, until the Bab-O Moment was obliterated in a second when my brother Craig, neat enough but no sink washer, tossed a bowl of orange peels into the jewel of a white basin just before my mother walked in the door with her tired dogs in her work shoes. She tackled the sink within minutes.