Ubiquitous as they were, I didn’t pay much attention to the ancestral poltergeists at first. I was too busy with other matters, such as making my way to, from, and through Thomas Mifflin Elementary School. The school, large enough to have been a junior high, sat halfway down the long slope that led to the Schuykill River, just up Midvale Avenue from St. Bridget’s where Grace Kelly got confirmed and Connie Mack, owner of the A’s, got the last rites. In the winter I could see the school tower from my third floor bedroom.
The problems associated with being the rich kid from up on the hill at a school that served the barely middle class Irish community of East Falls was exacerbated by my parents’ insistence that I wear English schoolboy short pants, sartorial dicta almost unbearably humiliating to a 5th grade American male. Just as bad, I would sometimes be driven to school by Ocela, my grandfather’s chauffeur, as when, for about a month in the fall, my next younger sister and I would stay at Druim Moir where we could look out the window and see the lamplighter get off his bicycle to turn on the lamps on the long drive.
I had learned from repeated failures of reason on the part of my older brother and sister that my parents’ idiosyncrasies were immutable. I had been born into a dysfunctional upper class family with an excess of discipline and a deficit of affection, laced with far too much certitude and booze for anybody’s good. I just had to find ways to work around it.
I would avoid situations in which my knees would attract attention, hugging the edge of the desk when I stood in class, and using classmates as unwitting shields on the playground. Rather than walk down Vaux Street and Warden Drive, thus exposing myself to nearly a half mile of derision, I discovered that I could reduce both the trip and the length of my visibility by taking a shortcut through the Roseneath sanitarium, past the white buildings and down the slope that served as part of a golf course that wound around the property. The danger of being beaned seemed considerably less than that of being embarrassed.
Besides, the attendants were friendly, especially a gangly orderly of minimal intelligence who became my dealer in comic books. Comic books were verbotem in our house, as was reading the Sunday funnies. It was customary for us to head for the kitchen on Sunday afternoon and read the funny papers anyway in a large food closet, certain that black cook Rosetta Minor would cover for us in the event of a parental intrusion. Throughout our lives, Rosetta ran an internal underground railroad for “my children,” using guile — and prevarication if necessary — with steadfastness and skill.
Nannie & Rosetta
She was just as essential to my mother. Rosetta once told me that she had been about to leave shortly after my father’s death but that my mother had pleaded, “‘Rosetta, don’t leave me. There are just the two of us now.’ And that was it. She on the second floor and me on the third.” My mother was 63 at the time. Rosetta was 86. She would live until she was 101, even though she had started out life so small, she claimed, that she was kept in a shoe box. In any case, to her death, members of the her family called her Doll Baby or Aunt Doll.
The Roseneath orderly also introduced me to golf, thus becoming the first person to show any interest in teaching me a sport. He was a voracious comic book reader and gave me his old copies, which I would sneak to the third floor and hide under my bed until it was safe to peruse them. The house, being old, was full of creaks and my room, being at the end of the hall from the stairway, was virtually impervious to silent approach. Nonetheless, innate caution led me to read much of my contraband library by flashlight after I was presumed asleep.
Unfortunately, either through carelessness on my part or by accident, both the comic books and my source of supply were discovered. My parents, outraged at my deceit, were even more concerned that the orderly might have some perverted designs on me. Since, in behavior at least, the orderly was orderly, and since I could not at that point imagine what beastly acts he might be intending — murder was my best guess, which I discounted as unlikely on a golf course in daylight — I simply waited until the heat was off and then resumed importing the nefarious literature, albeit with considerably more care.
I plowed through Mifflin as best I could, beginning my self-education in mitigating the effects of the inexorabilities of life. I quickly discovered some of the uses of humor, how to turn away taunts with wit or a swift change of subject, how to calculate the consequences of one’s moves as though each hour were a new chess game, when to say nothing, and the futility of explanations. When such stratagems didn’t work, I would simply wait until I got home and then I would cry.
My teachers gave me fairly good grades although they were not above humiliation to achieve their pedagogic aims. On one occasion my report on Switzerland — proudly including materials obtained from the Swiss Embassy and neatly pasted on colored paper — was held up to the class as an example of how not to do a paper. Today, I remember only the rebuke and not the logic behind it. On another occasion, I engaged in seminal politics by campaigning against the girl who was the inside favorite to be 5th grade class president. The teacher, who regarded campaigning as a political dirty trick, had everyone stand who had been approached by me. I watched this censure with a mixture of shame and hubris, for I had managed to canvas most of the class.
Some of the worst moments were on the playground. My parents had no interest in sports and absolutely no interest in how their children performed them. There were no kids in the neighborhood to teach me. Thus unschooled, I would inevitably find myself last picked for the team and dispatched far into the concrete right field to await the terror of attempting to catch a high fly with bare, bumbling hands. As I stood there, I would weigh the relative merits of failing in my assignment or sustaining comparable opprobrium by trapping the ball and then being unable to throw it more than halfway to the infield. It was no small matter. As Jules Pfeiffer once said, if you can’t play baseball you can’t make it as a boy. My spherical dyslexia remained with me throughout life and, like Robert Morley, I can say that I have never willingly chased a ball.
I might have asked my parents to give me a mitt for Christmas, which would have considerably relieved the pain of catching a high fly barehanded, but I considered my athletic potential to be so dismal that it was irreparable even using mechanical aids. My only comfort was the knowledge that once at bat, I would be at least above average.
In any case, there was no guarantee that I would have gotten a glove for Christmas. My parents were obsessed with not spoiling their children. Thus written budgets, right down to 60 cents for a month’s worth of snacks, were required before our minimal allowances were set. Hand-me-down clothes were standard and hand-me-down Christmas presents were not unknown — albeit carefully wrapped as though new.
My mother – born prematurely to a mother who was 44 and a father who had lost his first wife in childbirth – was 15 years younger than her closest sibling. She had taken her favorite doll on her honeymoon and had early learned that expensive presents were no substitute for love. Beyond that was the pressure of blending wealth and conscience, and what Mado referred to as “les problemes des gens trops riches” — the problems of those who are too rich. Years later, my mother’s accountant told me, “I have never seen a family that could fight so hard over so little.” Why was that, I asked. “Not enough hugs,” he replied.
To many, my mother appeared to do it all with ease and style. She once made an appointment with the bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania at which she explained that she understood the Christian responsibility to tithe — but was that before or after taxes? Yet a few weeks before she died, as we gathered at a family business meeting, she said, weeping, “Having too much is a terrible thing.”
Her accountant remembered some of their sessions:
Your mother didn’t really like advice. So we’d do this little dance. [My partner] Bill would say, “Mrs. Smith, you might want to think about selling your Exxon. On the other hand you might not feel . . .”
Then your mother would launch into a story about how her father had said never to sell Standard Oil and then we’d move on to some other issue.
At times, she could become strikingly brusque and cruel as when, at a business meeting, she attacked my 43 year old MBA brother in front of those present, calling him “my stupid child.” And when my mother died, the Exxon was still in her portfolio. No one had talked her out of it.
My father was the son of a stern Quaker lawyer and a mother who had grown up as a clergyman’s daughter and who, it was discovered upon her death, kept a box in her attic marked “String too short to use.” My father’s clothes and cars reflected this thrift. Nothing about my father’s person or belongings was new. And he expected the same of his children.
As in other matters, there was a curious inconsistency to it all. In the fall, my mother would circulate the FAO Schwartz catalog and we would mark our favorite items. They rarely appeared under the tree, however, for money was always in proximity but you were not meant to touch it. Even in later life, when my parents would make sizable monetary gifts to their children, the grants would invariably be accompanied by the caveat that the sums were “not to be spent in riotous living.” The gifts often seemed not gifts at all but loans to be repaid with the heavy emotional vigorish of approved behavior. When the vigorish fell behind, my parents were never reluctant to remind the recipient of the role the gifts had played in making a proposed course of action possible.
It could happen over the most trivial matter. One of my sisters once asked my mother for a hamster. My mother’s deal-killer response: “Have you brushed your teeth?” There was no more talk of hamsters.
My non-athleticism led me to fail to note that I was the largest boy in the class. I illogically assumed that every other boy, should he be so inclined, could beat me up. In fact, I was rarely in fights, with the exception of once being approached by several youths on Warden Drive, one of whom put a knife to my throat. The cause for this assault is no longer in my memory, but in any case the goal was apparently merely terror and not harm.
Returning home from school, my first stop would usually be the kitchen. There Rosetta waited with fried Spam sandwiches, sagacity, and solace. She had little doubt but that her children were wonderful despite falls from grace which would lead her to issue her most dire command, “Get out of my kitchen!” — the finality of her tone mitigated by the empirical knowledge that the banishment would be only for an hour or two.
The kitchen was the command center of the house. The pantry had a dumbwaiter which reached all three floors and each floor had a buzzer. Through this vertical shaft flowed an endless stream of orders, gossip and food.
In the kitchen, the radio played gospel music and sermons from a low power station. Even through the static, the rolling chords, joyous voices and charismatic cajoling were in stunning contrast to the stolid hymns and stifling liturgy of the Episcopalianism to which I was being rigorously introduced. It never occurred to me, however, that religion was any different than the color of your skin; it was just something with which you were born. Still, the sounds from that low power station were laying the foundation for future apostasy. In this and many ways, Rosetta’s kitchen became a school for my subconscious.
Years later, I asked my mother if she would take care of our young son while we took a trip. Her response: “I raised one bunch of children; I’m not going to raise another.” Later, I mentioned this to Rosetta who put her hands on her hips and said, “What does she mean saying she raised you?”
It took a while for my mother’s Philadelphia domestic staff to settle down. There were, for example, the two women who were followers of Father Divine, the evangelist. They were under strict orders not to work in any job longer than three years and my mother’s request that one of them travel to Maine with her in the summer was flatly rejected. My mother proposed speaking directly to Father Divine about the matter, Christian to Christian, but was informed that he did not engage in such negotiations.
There was also Naomi, a strange, tall woman who lasted only two weeks. Rosetta was dubious about her, the children were frightened of her, and an occasional butler was certain that he knew her from somewhere. She was, he told my mother, a drug addict. I didn’t know what a drug addict was but it sounded terrible and I was glad to see the woman go.
Finally, Mary Thomas and Susie Brown arrived and stayed, Susie to my mother’s death and Mary to her own a few years earlier. Mary was sweet and quiet. Susie was as stylish as Rosetta was dowdy and had a hearty laugh that made her the perfect audience when one was bantering with Rosetta.
There were two other havens in the house. One was the basement, where I constructed an HO gauge model railroad. It was a modest layout, clumsily laid and with rolling stock limited to what I could eke out of my small allowance. Reflecting upstairs values, however, the Pocono Valley RR had a board of directors, comprised of compliant adult relatives, and an annual report complete with figures in the low one digits. Board member Uncle Harry wrote to protest that I had passed the regulations of the railroad without board approval and cousin Henry wondered whether an audit would be forthcoming.
The other haven was my room in the southwest corner of the third floor. It was about the sunniest room in the house, at the end of a long hall from the stairs. It consisted of one-half of a bedroom that had been divided with a thin partition by my parents. In this corner, so in contrast to the shadows and gloom elsewhere, I constructed a stage for my imagination. At times the room was the bridge of a ship, at other times the repair facility of the Pocono Valley RR, a radio studio, a writer’s garret, and best of all, a place to sleep in peace beneath a wall covered with my military insignia collection.
I also began building a collection of Pogo comic books. Okefenokee was a great place for a troubled boy to visit. It was the world set right, a gentle locale in which even enemies managed somehow to accommodate each other. At a time when people were learning to be afraid to say anything, Walt Kelly was always sneaking up and whispering something subversive in your ear.
It never occurred to me to have insomnia for it was in those precious moments before losing wakefulness that I concocted some of my most vivid experiences. Years later I would learn that James Baldwin – “curled up in the center of the stillness of the night” – also thought of the dark as his best time.
For me, it would be a new adventure every evening and I could never predict whether the wanderings of my mind would lead me to new triumphs or a tragic end. Each was equally thrilling. These tales had their roots in Jack Armstrong, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, and the Shadow. The comic books had slowly faded as I learned that I no longer needed each line drawn and colored in. The stories also borrowed heavily from my growing collection of books about the sea and the Arctic, in which I found men dealing with forces even more immutable than those at Schoolhouse Lane. I especially admired Horatio Hornblower, the 18th century midshipman who rose, book by book, to become at last an admiral. One of the things I liked about Hornblower was that he, just like me, was given to throwing up; even after gaining flag rank he suffered seasickness.
Later I became infatuated with the idea that I would not survive past the early twenties. My demise constantly varied and often brought tears to my eyes as I developed, under the covers, the denouement of the night. If I prayed for anything in those days, it was that I would live long enough to be an adult man able to carry out the plots I had devised for myself. Later, I gave myself an actuarial extension, in order to enjoy being a good father.
There was surprisingly little morose about this, though I knew, from my reading and radio listening, that a polar bear might attack you at any moment — that is if you were living a truly interesting life. This would be tragic — but in a literary sense — a story that others would tell and weep about for years to come. It made me sad to think about it; on the other hand it would be a good story and it was, it seemed, far better and more interesting to die young by polar bear attack in the Arctic than of respectable, stultifying old age in Philadelphia.
Besides, I was too busy to be morose. I had to practice being a radio disc jockey, construct rolling stock for my railroad, design elaborate charts of things that interested me, put out a family newspaper, and search for new jokes to add to my repertoire and growing reputation as the family wise guy. I had found my invisible sword and shield: I could make people laugh. Later, after I had discovered by accident (for my preparation for such matters was extraordinarily limited) the pleasures associated with my capacity for procreation, I had to devote considerable time to investigating that phenomenon as well.
My family newspaper came out at least 20 times during my 13th and 14th year. It underwent several name and layout changes, the earliest editions being handwritten and the later ones typed in red and black ink. They shared a taste for bad jokes, awkward emulation of adult journalistic styles, and evidence of an editor uncertain whether to put away childish things.
I also demonstrated an early willingness to take on the establishment – including my mother who was showing a disturbing interest in health foods and Gaylord Hauser. An editorial in the Weekly News argued:
In the first place to “live longer” you have to drink yogart. Well that’s an “untruth.” How can you know that you’ll live longer than you’re meant to live, if you don’t know how long you’d live without the yogart. And you don’t.
I’ve watched this wheat germ business. The theory is to have a breakfast or any meal consisting of toast and eggs let’s say. Well you’re meant to pile wheat germ on the eggs so they can’t be seen. Then you slowly eat the wheat germ, germ by germ, until you get down to the egg. By that time the egg is cold so you don’t eat it. Can you tell me what good that egg was in the first place?
There were editorial low blows directed at siblings:
I really don’t know why Meredith should want a horse. After all, Elizabeth Krail’s brother doesn’t have a horse . . .
We find that Lewis hasn’t written home all week (for shame).
Mary Minor is the first child of the family who is allowed to ride a bike in the house.
And pet crusades:
It is my belief that all the reports of flying saucers can be contributed to these five sources: 1) hoaxes, 2) imagination, 3) weather equipment, 4) experimental rockets and 5) interplantary travel. There are other sources I shall discuss at a later date. This is only an introduction to a series of articles I intend to write proving to you that THE FLYING SAUCERS ARE REAL.
Not to mention direct confrontation with parental authority:
H. Smith said this week that if anybody asked him that familiar question, “How’s your room?’ he would refer them to what he called the “best judge,” the questioner’s eyes. He said that if persons who had authority wished him to straighten the room that person should leave a notice to that effect either on his bed or in his box and he would attend to the affair at the earliest possible moment. He also said that persons wanting to take notice of the state of his room should take such notice between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. Any persons looking at the room at any other time must realize that work is done in the room between the hours of 3 pm and 10:30 pm.
There were even weightier matters. At 14 I wrote a one and half page essay on the H-bomb: “It can only be used for evil.” And overpopulation: “There will come a point where the earth can no longer supply our needs. Then ours will be a slow, starving death in contrast to the sharp blade of the H bomb.” I toyed with the Malthusian possibility of the bomb as a “check on the ever-growing population of the world” but concluded
Who would advocate such control? It seems more feasible that the solution would be migration off this planet. The big question would be whether or not we could find a planet to which we could adapt. Whatever the answer, it will have to be found within the next 50 years because our tiny planet will not be able to contain the destructive forces of men at the rate they are now going.
It was a room for all young seasons. It was also a place where I felt safe. I was finding the world not as comfortable as I had hoped. Increasingly, a lot of it scared me. I had come to understand that life required that you follow an extraordinary number of rules and if you slipped up, you would be embarrassed or scolded. Worse, you would have “failed.” And if you were among your peers, you would be ridiculed as well.
There were times when just being in a certain place would bring a cold sweat and dizziness. Like church. I would imagine every person in the sanctuary watching me to make sure I did the right thing. It wasn’t God. I wasn’t afraid of. God, I decided early on, was a pretty decent guy or he wouldn’t have had a son as nice as Jesus. Besides, God and Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness and love and receiving sinners.
But God’s people, gathered with such unwavering, unforgiving aplomb in a church that my great-grandfather had built and in which my grandfather was clearly the most important parishioner, seemed totally unforgiving, benches of hanging judges ready to pronounce a wayward boy guilty.
Thus it was with dismay that I learned that the meddlesome, fawning minister of another church my family sometimes attended — for it too had been built by my great grandfather — had written my mother suggesting it was time that I joined the service of the Lord as an acolyte. It would be, he suggested, “spiritually beneficial,” adding that “I am quite convinced that to breathe the atmosphere of the sanctuary at such services does something for the boy he cannot receive otherwise. I look upon Houston as of such a religious calibre as to be deserving of this opportunity.”
There was nothing to be done. You didn’t argue about such matters. In my mind, I was prepared to tough it out, but my body rebelled and I periodically would react to breathing the atmosphere of the sanctuary by becoming faint or ill to my stomach, interrupting the service as I retired as quickly and discreetly as one could bedizened in the black and white raiments. I had done what I feared most, shown myself a failure in the eyes of God’s people. After a while, even the minister gave up on me.
As I grew older I became less terrified, though I sometimes still find my hands shaking and my mind slaloming through space as I stand to sing hymns during occasional church visits or during an otherwise innocuous public rituals that trigger memory of those early Sunday mornings.
I tried to deal with my Episcophobia pragmatically. I learned that it was well worth attending church on the first and third Sundays of the month — which featured the shorter morning prayer service — in order to add argument to why I didn’t feel well enough to go on the second and fourth Sunday for the tedious communion ritual. I became an expert on the small type in the back of the prayer book which contained liturgical ephemera far more interesting than what was going on at the altar. It was here that I discovered the Episcopalian sin of supererogation: doing more good works than God demands of you. I also discovered how to stare at the minister devoutly while dreaming of something magical and fun.
And, despite my feelings, the language seeped into my mind where it rests still in broken, confused fragments like a Sunday lunch poem, beautiful words and bad memories:
We have erred in thy ways like lost sheep and there is no help — or is it health? — in us…
We have done those things we ought not to have done and left undone those things we ought to have done…
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…
Maker of all things. Judge of all men. We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time have most grievously committed, by word, thought and deed.
Have mercy upon us, most merciful father. We do heartily repent and are earnestly sorry — or is it earnestly repent and heartily sorry? — for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is intolerable. The burden is grievous unto us…
And then the words I was waiting for, the signal of close of battle:
He took the bread and when he had given thanks he broke it, saying “take, eat for this is my body. . . “
It was almost feeding time. The good burghers of Philadelphia, their wives and families, proceeded to the rail to have their self-assessment confirmed by a man of God. Sometimes my mother wouldn’t go because she didn’t feel she had been good enough that week. I thought that was gutsy, because I didn’t notice others hanging back and I liked the thought that my mother had done something wrong although she never told me what it was. It was probably something of the same sort that drove the Contessa Costa to confession every day, according to Nancy Mitford. Somebody once asked the priest to what the fine lady had confessed and he admitted it was always the same sin: “I have been vile to the guests.”
And then, finally,
The lord bless you, the lord make his face to shine upon you.
Amen! Sunday lunch at last.
My brother, four years older than I, lived in the room next door. By the time we came to Philadelphia, the four-year gap had grown much larger; my brother was in full adolescence and I was still grasping for it. He, however, shared his knowledge of music and military weaponry and his library, which included a supply of Fate magazine, a compendium of exotic, supernatural, strange and occasionally erotic stories of the world far beyond Schoolhouse Lane.
Much of the time, my brother had a big radio tuned to rhythm & blues — or race music as it was then called. At night the radio could bring in the country & western sounds of WCKY in Cincinnati and WWVA in Wheeling.
There was also a radio on the second floor. Before I graduated to the “adult dinner table,” I would join Nannie and one or more of my sisters for dinner dispatched by dumbwaiter, followed by listening to two major icons in Nannie’s life: Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas. I especially liked Murrow, and when I thought of him he was always on a London rooftop calmly broadcasting through the flak-fractured dark. He sat atop the world — much as I, in my third floor room, sat atop the garden and East Falls — looking out his window and telling everyone what he saw. Murrow saw important things and made even things that weren’t important sound that way. I couldn’t think of any more impressive work in which to engage.
Politicians came and went; besides people said bad things about them. But Murrow was permanent, wise and — if Nannie was to believed — omnipotent. I decided to replace Edward R. Murrow someday. Later I would discover Elmer Davis, whom I liked even better because, unlike Murrow but like me, he didn’t have that good a voice. The midwestern commentator has been largely forgotten, but at the time he was the highest paid news broadcaster in radio. In high school, at my father’s urging, I wrote him a letter about my political and journalistic interests and he wrote back:
I can only suggest that so long as the human race is backward enough to be capable of wars — and that will probably be all of your lifetime, if not more — the most important political science book to read is the history of Thucydides — the history of all wars of coalition and ideology.
I also devoured newspapers, and would pour through the magazines that sat in huge stacks in various corners of the house. Life, the Illustrated London News with its sepia photos of royalty in strange lands, and art magazines that I early found had some remarkable views of the female form if you were willing to flip enough pages.
Although television had come to America (I had even seen myself on a monitor during a 1940s visit to Radio City), its use at my house was restricted to matters considered educational. Thus Omnibus and See It Now and political conventions and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth were approved viewing, the rest was not. With Nannie’s connivance, however, I watched it anyway whenever my parents were out on a weekend evening, carefully keeping one ear cocked for an unexpected return. My knowledge of early television, therefore, ran the gamut from Alistair Cooke to Sid Caesar with little in between.
In theory, I had a head start. I was only eleven years old in 1949 when a group of Philadelphia civic leaders started radio station WFLN-FM, which for nearly five decades would provide classical music to the region from a height in Roxborough where Benjamin Franklin had once conducted his experiments with lightening. The civic leaders, many of whom had worked together in Americans for Democratic Action, included Joseph Clark, later a U.S. senator, and my father, who organized the effort. The others soon got distracted by politics and other things, leaving my father with an ill-formed dream on his hands.
It really wasn’t my idea of what a radio station should be about. My musical ambition at the time was to replace Gene Krupa and my broadcasting plans were to replace Edward R. Murrow. Still, you don’t look a gift station in the mouth.
Besides, it was a rare activity in which my father and I could share an enthusiasm, if not as equals then at least as something other than drill sergeant and recruit. Over the years he would engage in strenuous efforts to get more people to listen to FM and to his station in particular. At one point he introduced an inexpensive high fidelity radio that could be tuned to only one station: his. The Federal Communications Commission did not look kindly on this restraint of trade and the project was quickly dropped.
We also had an eccentric and brilliant relative named T. Mitchell Hastings who would periodically arrive at our house with the latest model of his remarkable invention, a FM car radio. It was housed in a sleek silver casing and had a red dial and had to be installed at the local gas station, where the owner was familiar with my father’s innovative avocations having previously hooked up – and constantly adjusted – his primitive (and probably highly dangerous) cruise control system. Hastings, my father, and I would take the car radios for test rides, waiting for the sound to fade as we turned a corner, stopping and adjusting the little plastic encased antenna taped on the windshield, uncrossing wires, and thinking and talking about it a lot. I gladly served my function as the smallest mad genius on duty and crawled under the dashboard to adjust cables and even ventured an opinion from time to time.
Hastings would go on to own WBCN in Boston, which, according to Cliff Garboden in the Boston Phoenix, was “a perennially struggling typical FM classical-music outlet.” In 1968, Hastings “an FM-radio technology pioneer turned broadcaster, was persuaded by Ray Riepen, a young lawyer and owner of the legendary live-rock club the Boston Tea Party, to let the kids rock and roll at 104.1 FM from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. That March night, Joe Rogers (aka Mississippi Harold Wilson, later Mississippi Fats) sprang a show called The American Revolution on the unsuspecting airwaves. The broadcast originated not from the WBCN Newbury Street studios but from the dressing room at the Tea Party. It was, as vintage ‘BCNers have bragged a millions times since, ‘Goodbye ugly radio.'”
In more sedate Philadelphia, WFLN merely introduced stereo sound to its listeners. On a number of occasions I would join the station engineers to help set up the system to record the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stereo in those days meant two microphones. The principle was simple: you only had two ears so you only needed two mikes. But while WFLN was the local expert on stereophonic sound, Eugene Ormandy was still the maestro. Once, while listening to a tape of a take, he announced that he couldn’t hear his beloved violins. The producer explained that he was hearing exactly what the audience heard. Ormandy insisted on another mike. The producer finally gave in and placed a third mike near the violins. He just didn’t hook it up. Ormandy listened to the next take and pronounced it much better.
The new technology had fooled Ormandy but little else did. Once, a WFLN producer rushed into his dressing room to tell the maestro that they had forgotten to time one of the pieces about to be played. Ormandy asked the producer to start his stop watch. He continued dressing and talking to people, eventually interrupting himself to tell the producer to stop the watch. His timing was perfect.
And, according to RA Campbell, “Once assistant conductor William Smith called [WFLN] saying he and Mr Ormandy were listening to the broadcast in their office and wish the `stay level` monitor on the broadcast line could be turned off. . . as it sucked up all the quiet passages, which they found annoying.”
The station itself had a fairly quiet life with a few exceptions such as the time an announcer named Mike Nichols was fired for not showing up for his shift and another occasion when the Secret Service suggested that one of our better voices was, in his spare time, a neo-Nazi who had written some unpleasant letters to the White House. The Rottweiller at his feet in the broadcast booth should have been a clue, I suppose.
My father died in 1975. I, representing my siblings, helped his partner run the station for the next thirteen years. But a two-family, two-generation business can be a struggle and when an offer to came to buy the station while maintaining its format we took it.
During that period pedantically known as due diligence, I found myself up against a lawyer from the “killer litigator” firm of Hale & Doar who sported a British Guard’s moustache, and, after a year and a half of negotiations, ended up in a suite for fourteen hours with eleven lawyers as we reached a final settlement. I also noticed an older beehive blonde woman whom I couldn’t identify. Someone explained that she was the owner of a car dealership who was buying some of our land from the radio station’s new owners even as we were selling it to them.
The station continued to play classical music for the next decade, but with the deregulation of the broadcasting industry in the 1990s, all hell broke loose including, in the case of WFLN, it being sold five times in thirteen months. A bumper sticker started appearing that read, “Honk if you’ve owned WFLN.”
The station continued to play classical music for the next decade, but with the deregulation of the broadcasting industry in the 1990s, all hell broke loose including, in the case of WFLN, it being sold five times in thirteen months. A bumper sticker started appearing that read, “Honk if you’ve owned WFLN.”
It eventually meant the end of classical music on the station. According to one account:
The announcement was made on September 4th, 1997. In less than 24 hours, WFLN would cease to exist. The next day, at 6 pm, Jill Pasternak, a WFLN host for 11 years, read the station ID for the last time. Following that, Greater Media CEO Tom Milewski gave a brief speech, in which he explained to listeners that WFLN’s classical recordings were being donated to Temple University’s WRTI, which would be halving its jazz format to accommodate classical music. Milewski added, “Classical music, is, we feel, best presented in a non-commercial context.” After a brief pause, Max 95.7, WXXM was born. The format was modern rock, and the first song was Sheryl Crow’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Do You Good.
The Philadelphia Inquirer one day devoted most of its letters page to reader outrage. Among the letters was one from John C. Olsen that read:
In the last two weeks, there were at least three sorrowful deaths reported in the Inquirer. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa went to heaven. WFLN went to hell.
With air travel banned, all major family trips were made by train and ship. This was all right with me, because I loved everything about trains and ships. I collected train schedules and talked to conductors. Many of the earliest photographs I took with my Brownie Hawkeye were of box cars and trolleys; sometimes just blurry shots of empty track. There were trains I never saw but loved anyway, like the bullet-nosed Union Pacific streamliners and the articulated Pioneer Zephyr. And there were trains that I would occasionally ride like the Royal Blue, the B&O’s upscale express to New York that didn’t really go to New York because the Pennsylvania RR had a New York City monopoly so you rode to Newark and then got on a streamlined bus that dropped you at a streamlined art deco highrise in downtown Manhattan. To sit in the observation car of the Royal Blue was for me a totally convincing replica of heaven.
Yet, in some ways, ordinary trains were even better. They made strange noises and were pulled by huge steam engines. And, of course, between Washington and New Haven there was the GG1, the beautiful double-ended electric locomotive designed one year before my birth by Raymond Loewy and still in service more than three decades later. With five thick gold stripes arching like a scrunched rainbow from coupler to coupler, the GG1 was the mainstay of the Pennsy’s main line, the love of those who ran them, steel heroes to young children, and faithful workhorse for the railroad.
The adjective beautiful before the noun locomotive is semantic deadheading. I’ve never seen a locomotive that wasn’t beautiful. Even the first primitive efforts, devoid of proportion with their boilers plopped unceremoniously on a flatbed over wheels too close together, had charm — whimsical, failed behemoths puffing through the landscape.
The locomotive soon lost its ungainly appearance. It was discovered that there was no functional inconsistency in making locomotive a work of art. From cowcatchers to flaring stacks to the arrangement of circular, cubical and cylindrical forms, the locomotive provided America with its first modern sculpture. And the GG1 was one of the best. As Loewy said, “It looks like it is moving when it is standing still.”
I early subscribed to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s view that “there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take no matter where it’s going.” Such an opinion required not only a sense of romance, but considerable endurance, for love of trains was often unrequited. Trains could be dirty, cold, hot, late, cancelled, overcrowded, or sit for hours in a wheat field for no fathomable reason. I would quickly learn, for example, that the silver temperature control knobs in Pullmans were either dummy switches or that the legends on them had been printed in random order. But such annoyances were more than balanced by the pleasures of standing in the vestibule with the top of the dutch door open feeling the air and the country rush by. Or watching from the last car as the roadbed disappeared into a point. Or pasting your nose to the window and seeing the engine pull you around a curve. Or peering into the backyard of America. Or climbing into the top bunk. Or getting off the train in the middle of nowhere and wondering with another passenger what the problem was.
So there was no resistance from me when, in 1949, my parents announced that the whole family was going to Mexico by train. There would be eight of us — my parents, Nannie, and the children — as well as 35 pieces of luggage. Nor was there any argument a few years later when the success of this trip led my parents to plan a similar trek to Guatemala.
My father had started an export-import business and had an interest in a lumbering operation high in the mountains halfway between Puerto Barrios and Guatemala City. His partner was an ex-Marine named Ward Stevens who wore an Australian bush hat and claimed to have killed Somoza’s brother and was, for me, a soldier of fortune who had walked straight out of a radio mystery and into my parent’s library.
In 1951, armed with even more luggage (and with a new sister but without my brother who was studying abroad) we commenced our joint tour-inspection trip via train to Miami, a ship to Cuba and a United Fruit freighter to Puerto Barrios, the east coast port of Guatemala.
Guatemala was, at that time, a wholly owned subsidiary of the United Fruit Company. Puerto Barrios reflected this fact and little else. The only practical way to get to Guatemala City, other than by air, was by train. Nothing that could be called a highway existed between the two towns.
A 1990s guidebook described the railroad as now being used only by “the poorest Guatemalans and the most ardent train enthusiasts.” My father, who easily fit the latter category, had arranged for us to ride in a first class car, a comfortable if dingy unit outfitted with armchairs and climatized by every window being open.
The train was supposed to take eight hours. Trips of almost a full day, however, were not abnormal, especially since the train had to yield for every pig and cow that wandered across its path.
Halfway up the climb to Guatemala City, my father and I left the rest of the family in Zacapa, a small town at the foot of the mountains that nested the lumber mill. The guide book fifty years later would describe Zacapa as a town of little interest in an area that had become desert-like due to deforestation.
My mother, Nannie and my sisters were left to make it the rest of the way by themselves. Ward Stevens met us in a jeep and drove to the mill, a trip rough enough to require one stop for major repairs and a second to remove the fan belt so we could safely ford a stream that sent water above the floor boards. We then drove a narrow hair-pinned road that barely clung to the side of the mountain. The turn-backs were so pronounced that to rise one kilometer up the mountain it took seven kilometers of driving.
I was only vaguely aware of what my father was actually doing in this place. It had something to do with prefab housing and it sounded important as almost everything he ever did when he described it. He imbued his every action with geo-political or macro-economic significance. For me, it was more a matter of simple wonder, especially at night in the firelight, with strange men walking around speaking a strange language and waving machetes like fans.
We stayed a few days and then descended the mountain again, this time by flatbed truck. My father sat with Ward Stevens in the cab; I sat on the bed with several Guatemalans exuberantly applying their machetes to sugar cane for a morning snack. They, like my father and Stevens, were oblivious to what seemed of paramount importance to me: the outer of the double rear wheels of the truck would periodically extend over the side of the mountain, with only an axle holding it — and us — from a drop of several thousand feet.
When we reached the Reando River, we left the truck and crossed in a dugout canoe. From there it was only a few hundred yards to the railroad station at Pepesca where we took the train to the relative urbanity of Guatemala City.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the murder.
The murder occurred on the United Fruit freighter enroute from Puerto Barrios to New Orleans. Carrying only about fifty passengers, the vessel was not large enough to absorb a homicide in comfort, especially when the body had been dragged through the dining salon to be dispatched through one of its large portholes. The blood-stained path was roped off for the rest of the voyage.
The first indication that something was amiss was a man overboard drill that required everyone to stand on the deck for an interminable period, while the vessel was searched. There was no hiding the mishap from the children. We ate the rest of our meals with a mixture of thrill and fear in the midst of the crime scene. And I arose before dawn so I could watch the Coast Guard cutters and police boats shine their lights on our ship as it wound its way up the river to New Orleans, they and I making sure the murderer did not jump off.
It was hours before the FBI let us leave the vessel. Everyone, including my baby sister had to be interviewed. At the hotel I asked my father about something that was bothering me. I had been part of my first big news story, but had no way of finding out how it all would come out. He gave me a dollar and suggested I tip the elevator operator and ask him to send me clippings if anything developed. He warned me, however, not to expect this to work.
A month or so later, a package arrived from New Orleans filled with clippings that told the story of a crew member murdering another on the ship over a gambling debt. Checkbook journalism had worked.
Back in Philadelphia, my father was helping to found Americans for Democratic Action. At the national level, he joined such people as Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy to create what would be, for many years, a loud and controversial voice of cold war liberalism. Although the message was clear enough, the practice sometimes became muddled as when my father and some others agitated to make Dwight Eisenhower the Democratic candidate for president. At the local level, however, ADA was at the center of one of the nation’s most remarkable reform movements. Philadelphia had lived for 69 years under Republican rule and the city was known as “corrupt and contented.” ADA – which brought under one tent genteel white liberals, union leaders, and Jewish and black activists – proposed to end both the corruption and the contentment about it with a new city charter and new government.
Leon Shull, who would become one of the nation’s most productive and long-lived lobbyists for liberal causes, was the director of the Philadelphia chapter and, with my father as chair, I soon found myself an enthusiastic envelope-stuffer. I had already entered politics having performed competently in a 6th grade debate on the 1948 presidential election, fortified for this task by having actually shaken hands with the Democratic candidate at a political dinner to which my father had taken me. And I was further armed with a comic book from the Democratic National Committee that featured a bespectacled Harry Truman in the trenches of World War I, a bespectacled Harry Truman running his haberdashery and a bespectacled Harry Truman speaking great thoughts about the future of America. I stood up against the reactionary cant of my opponent Owen Tabor with a skill that only I remember.
I found the liberal cause noble and exciting, but I was also fascinated by the different sort of people who hung around political offices. I had met hardly any Jews, blacks or labor union officials in Germantown and Chestnut Hill, they certainly didn’t attend St. Martins in the Fields, but most of all I hadn’t met many people with the sort of tough-talking enthusiasm one found in politics. These were people totally engaged not only with their campaigns but with life and it was this quality, rather than their ethnicity or even their politics, that truly attracted me – so different as it was from the restrained, diffident manner of the upper class Philadelphian, members of a subspecies that has been described as God’s frozen people.
That these were people to be reckoned with was confirmed ten years later when my parents held a fundraiser for Hubert Humphrey at 3460. It was, of course, a son’s delight to accompany his father on the 45-minute drive (and monologue) back to the airport with an actual United States senator who wanted to be President. But the most impressive moment of that evening came when Joseph Rauh, the civil rights lawyer and liberal leader for decade after decade, actually stood on one my parents’ best antique chairs to make his pitch. I looked apprehensively at my mother but she only seemed proud — “pleased as punch” Humphrey would have said and probably did — to be there. I stared at Rauh and realized I was looking at the face of real power.
Thirty years later, Rauh then in his 80s, still remembered the evening as well. He recalled that the crowd was quite old and he didn’t know how the ebullient Humphrey was going to handle it. What Humphrey did, Rauh told me, was to start talking about what a wonderful president Woodrow Wilson had been. They loved it.
The stars of the Philadelphia ADA were Joseph Sill Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Though both were patrician in name and bearing, in Clark the quality went through to his soul. With Dilworth it stopped with his tailored suits. He was an ex-Marine with a quick temper and a towny accent, who never ducked combat or favored equivocation. After the pair had shaken the GOP regime by winning the offices of comptroller and district attorney, Dilworth got the first chance to run for mayor, with Clark succeeding him and then moving to the Senate.
Dilworth’s mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city’s only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor’s home and told his listeners: “Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please.”
At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds at a shot with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.
Dilworth on another occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, “Why won’t you debate the issues with my father on TV?”
The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth’s liberalism and, in particular, his association with ADA. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and `inside pink’ where “Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks.”
Dilworth’s initial reaction was to call Meade a “liar” and to challenge him to a debate. Said Dilworth: “The ADA acted and struck hard against communism while Mr. Meade and his gang created by their corruption the very conditions that breed communism.”
But that wasn’t enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade’s private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: “If you want to debate publicly, I’ll go before any organization you name. I’ll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That’s more than you did, Mr. Meade.”
“Maybe I wasn’t physically fit,” replied Meade.
Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won and as I read the big black headlines, I thought it was my victory too.