Tag Archives: personal history

Memories of high school English with Mrs. Gerhardt (1964-65)

One day my sophomore English class convened to find, on each desk, a blank piece of paper. Our teacher wore a serious expression. “Today is lottery day”, she announced. We silently shuffled our mental files, arriving quickly at Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery that we had read earlier in the year. We looked at Mrs. Gerhardt inquiringly. She told us to turn over our papers – she had one, too. A young woman had the black spot. Another pause. Mrs. Gerhardt crumpled her paper and threw it at the chosen victim. We followed suit, littering the classroom.

There was a collective sigh… Release of tension? Discussion followed. The “victim” was asked how she felt. “I knew you wouldn’t really hurt me.” My high school did not protect us from controversial and potentially upsetting literature. Wikipedia tells me that The Lottery (published in 1948) was so unpopular and notorious that it was banned in some jurisdictions, and Jackson received hate mail. Some would define the theme as “it can’t happen here”.

How many teachers can teachers can plan a class that you remember FIFTY YEARS later? Mrs. Gerhardt was a wonderful, stimulating teacher. She took us seriously as readers and writers.

Sophomore year was reserved for American literature, with the usual deviations. Every year, we read one play from Shakespeare (sophomore year, maybe it was MacBeth), worked our way through a grammar text identified only by the name of the author (Warriner), and gobbled up vocabulary from a book calledWorld Wealth. We got SO good at grammar and vocabulary! That left at least 70% of our classroom time for other pursuits.

What did we do? We read! Sometimes we read plays. I was cast as the mother in Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Two boys with theatrical inclinations performed Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. And once each semester, we had a “Folk Day”. We prepared and shared whatever we wanted, so long as it had some relationship to American folk culture. This was in the day of the “hootenanny”, of folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, of Bob Dylan. Folk Day was wildly popular. A friend and I sang an old English folk song, a love ballad, accompanying ourselves with guitar and recorder.

Searching for something that didn’t require a partner, I stumbled on the book Over Their Dead Bodies – Yankee Epitaphs and History by T Mann and J Green. Great! It qualified for Folk Day. But I had a problem. One of the epitaphs struck me so funny that I couldn’t read it aloud without cracking up. I de-sensitized myself by repeating it over and over, until I could recite it with a straight face. This planted it permanently in my brain:

Under the sod and under the trees

Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.

He is not there, there’s only the pod.

Pease shelled out and went to God.

Really?! Was the author kidding us? Has anyone else got such a silly bit of drivel stuck in his/her brain from decades ago? Please share under comments. Using Amazon, I confirmed that this book was published in 1962. Used copies are available! Genealogy fans take notice.

I already wrote about the journals Mrs. Gerhardt required of us. See my blog entry of July 8, 2016. Fifty years of my journal writing has been consigned to a reliable archive.

Another activity from sophomore English was the Book of the Month competition. I think it actually happened four times a year. This wasn’t just an oral book report. You had to “sell” your book as the “best” book, make everyone want to read it. The class voted, and two books (there were two sections of Honors English) would be posted as winners. Once I went all out. I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and plugged it as exciting and patriotic. And I won! But the other class, in a fit of mischief, all agreed to vote for someone who did a terrible job on a perfectly awful sounding book. Mrs. Gerhardt, offended, posted my name and winning title/author in lonely splendor on the classroom bulletin board.

Rest in Peace, Mrs. Gerhardt! You enriched our lives and kept us busily occupied through a year of adolescence.

If YOU had a wonderful teacher in high school, please share!

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Recent Reading

Hello, Friends! I’ve gotten WAY behind in writing for this blog. The last time I said that, I stated that the reasons were all positive – travel and other enjoyment. I’m afraid I can’t say the same this time. A close family member had serious health problems over the winter. I’ve been distracted, to put it mildly. Now, I can say (with cautious optimism) that things are back to normal.

For completeness sake, here’s a list of what I read but failed to write about:

“The Man Who Loved Books too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession ” by Alison Hoover Bartlett

Three novels by Alexander McCall Smith:

  • “The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine” from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
  • “Sunshine on Scotland Street”
  • “The Novel Habits of Happiness” (Isabel Dalhousie series)

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee

“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin

“The Word Detective – A Memoir – Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary” by John Simpson

“The Glassblower” by Petra Durst Benning

“American Gods”: The Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman

So… I’ve been on a major fiction kick! Only two non-fiction titles in the list. One item in the Young Adult category, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue”. More female authors than male.

I’ll write about some or all of these sooner or later. Leave a message if there’s a book here about which you feel particularly curious. Thanks!

In honor of MLK Day (1) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

Silent No More

(The Murder of Lillie Belle Allen.)

First, the link above… an exceptional article.

What do I remember about York, PA? I lived there from 1973 to 1975, call it two years, my first two years after finishing college.

Why write about this? Because I just stumbled on a Facebook post pertaining to the “York race riots” of 1968 and 1969. I lived in York for TWO YEARS, only five years later, without know anything about this calamity. Without hearing a word about two people who died (Ms Allen, named above and a police officer named Henry Schaad) and the state of war that had existed between the police and government of York and its African American citizens. HOW DID I MISS THIS? And can I learn something from it now, almost 50 years later?

Why York, PA? What was I doing there? Why write about it now?

First I should explain that I “finished” college with two degrees, BS in Chemistry from Michigan State University in 1971 and MS in (Analytical) Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1973. I had graduated from high school in 1967, so you can tell I went through college in a straight line, four years for the BS and two more for the MS. But most of my summers were not devoted to study. I spent two summers working as a lifeguard (easy, but long hours), three summers traveling (8 glorious months, total!) and one summer on the Penn State campus, doing the laboratory work for my MS degree. I never returned to academe as a student.

Penn State was a great platform for job hunting, and 1973 was not a bad year for Chemistry graduates. I had numerous on campus interviews, traveled to visit some big name employers (like Dupont) and was invited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources to work in its Bureau of Air Quality at a district office in York. I accepted that offer.

For someone with my educational background, this was a career change, undertaken before I had a career. The first Earth Day, in 1970, while I was at Michigan State, had raised my conscious (or at least altered it) and I was less interested in the science of chemistry and more interested in its application to the problems of environmental pollution. Required, at Penn State, to choose among the traditional disciplines of Chemistry (organic, physical, analytical and inorganic), I focused on Analytical Chemistry, for two reasons.

  • I thought I could always count on getting a job in Quality Control, somewhere.
  • And I thought the Chemistry of pollutants would be interesting and relevant.

So, at Penn State, I learned that pollution was studied by engineers, and I took a few engineering courses. Very few. Two air pollution classes, and three or four single credit seminars in water pollution and solid waste management. This meager list qualified me as an “expert” in those early days of environmental regulation.

I’ve no idea why I was assigned by the Bureau of Air Quality to York. I didn’t look very closely at the City itself. The office was new, located in a shabby rental downtown, and very small. We peaked at one supervisor (very young), four air quality inspectors and two support staff.

The work had nothing at all to do with chemistry, and I was on a fast learning curve. We inspected factories, reviewed emissions inventories, investigated complaints of smoke and malodors and serviced a few simple air sampling devices. We kept records when the state sent its stack testing team to our area. We testified in court when we caught a polluter in the act. It was varied and interesting, and we felt we were fighting “the good fight”.

What about York? A friend of a friend was teaching at York Penn State. An apartment was available in the house where she lived. I moved in with my meager graduate student furnishings. Adult at last!

What did I think about York? Well, compared to what? Suburbia? The campus of a large public university? I was decisively an outsider in York. When I called about moving into the apartment in my friend’s house, the owner asked me to meet her at the mall. We had a cup of coffee, discussed the rent and my desire to paint the rooms, and made a deal. The landlady asked “Are you a teacher or a nurse?” I explained about being an air pollution inspector, but I don’t remember her reaction. I knew (but I can’t say how), that the meeting over coffee had been a color check. I was a “desirable” tenant.

Having watched the integration efforts in off campus housing at Michigan State, I was not surprised.

York was a shabby industrial city, with all kinds of manufacturing mixed into the neighborhoods of apartments, row houses and slightly nicer homes. A cement factory loomed over West York, slowly turning it to stone. (Not kidding.) An iron foundry operated on the east side of town. A national corporation produced sports equipment and 500 pound bombs just north of the city. (Again, not kidding.) A smelly old factory turned out asphalt roofing. What else? Potato chips, and (!) York Mints. Yes, you can still buy them. Where are they made today? In all, about 1000 industrial sources operated in my working territory. A few dozen qualified as major pollutors.

For me, every day was an adventure. I drove around York, Adams and Franklin counties, occasionally striking fear into polluters, who didn’t take their air pollution issues very seriously, and who hated being challenged by a young, female college graduate. I was ignored until the first “certified nastygram” arrived in a corporate office, threatening legal action. At most, fines of around $100 were levied, but business owners HATED to pay up.

If there was an obvious piece of the American social agenda unfolding around me, it pertained, not to race, but to workplace health and safety. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) had been enacted two years earlier (1971) and the first enforcement “pass” through York had been fierce. So when I walked in to enforce air pollution regulations, the reception was frosty. However, the experience of being inspected and judged (and occasionally dragged into court) by a young woman was so novel that most business managers, entirely perplexed, treated me with reasonable politeness. My male colleagues were hassled a bit more than me, but none of us was harmed. (I had one close call.)

The federal government was in the process of taking over or at least regulating occupational health and safety, and environmental protection. These were big, important changes with significant consequences. I observed that the factories I inspected were rather dangerous places.

To be continued…

“Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy

Product Details

I had high hopes for this book before I even opened it. Why? Because the group of smiling young women on the front cover seemed eerily familiar. A face very like theirs looks down from the mantel in my living room. My mother-in-law JRC was a “code girl”, an officer from the first group of women accepted into the Navy during World War II.

Mundy points out that the United States differed from Japan and Germany in its response to the challenge of global war. The US consciously and intentionally mobilized its women, taking advantage of a large pool of educated and willing workers. This was not done without considerable ambivalence. Mundy describes an assembly at which the women were treated to a detailed analysis of what was “wrong” with the use of women to serve military interests. Pretty much everything! The women refrained from expressing anger or amusement. I wonder if the speaker ever developed any insight into his own myopic boneheadedness.

I met JRC when she was almost 60, and contributed two of her (eventually) eight grandchildren during the next decade. Her death at age 85 (in 2005) was a grievous loss to me and all her large and loving family.

We all knew that JRC loved puzzles and codes. She said her interest started when she read Edgar Allan Poe’s popular short story “The Gold-Bug”. See Wikipedia for a good discussion of this thriller!

It’s tempting to continue with personal reminiscence, but I feel that my mother-in-law’s story is not mine to tell. Perhaps I’ll discuss this with family and ask how they feel about it. Like most of the “code girls”, JRC didn’t say much about her wartime military responsibilities.

In the meantime, I loved Code Girls and recommend it without reservation.

My journals – private and otherwise

My private journals are GONE!

I kept a personal journal starting when I was a sophomore in high school. It was an assignment from an English teacher named Mrs. Gerhardt. We were supposed to write, if I remember correctly, 4 or 5 days out of 7. The emphasis was on trying out different writing styles – prose, poetry, short story… (Why did she skip the all important laboratory report?) I wrote only prose. What my teacher called the “informal essay”. A few weeks ago, I excavated my storage space and found my first journal!

I kept writing, with assorted interruptions, to this day. Forty notebooks covering FIFTY years! Most are spiral bound notebooks from the nearest available campus bookstore. A few are fine, leather bound volumes received as gifts. Some are small, others big and heavy. Many are tattered and food-splattered.

My journals were/are private. They have not been shared.

In addition to my personal journals, I kept a “reading journal” from about 2008 to 2013. It will become the property of my oldest son to use as he sees fit. (He is my “literary executor”.)

My reading journal ended when I began this blog, in May of 2013. It contains about 20% non-book-related entries, ranging from movie reviews to generalized rants. It’s public, written for the world to see, although my name is not given. I had imagined gradually transferring reviews from my book journals to the blog, but I’ve done only a little of that.

I found out that I like blogging! I post three or four times each month. There’s a good deal of “me” in my blog.

I intermittently kept another category of journals, “gratitude journals”. There are two or three of these. And one journal of “memories” for my sons. These additional, non-private notebooks will also go into the custody of my son.

The question of what to do with my private journals bedeviled me for years. Do you know the journal curse?

“If I die before I wake, throw my journal in the lake!”

Destroy it. Tempting. Maybe logical. My journals are unprocessed, full of complaints and worries and anger, as well as joys and happiness. I’ve no wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. But… fifty years of personal writing?! Surely it has some value.

Last summer at a 50th high school reunion (not my own) I chatted with a man who was both a journalist and an author. When I said I didn’t know what to do with my personal journals, he was most emphatic. Find an archive! A library! A repository! But don’t, DON’T, DON’T throw them away.

I did it. I’ve found a home for my personal journals. It’s an archive maintained by my religious denomination. This religious affiliation (acquired in adulthood) has been important to me. Someone may, someday, use my writing to learn more about our denomination. Who else might be interested? Feminists, environmentalists, scientists, educators, local historians? Perhaps a sociologist or psychologist. None of us knows what aspects of our lives might interest someone many decades in the future.

So I chose an archive and discussed my writings. I advise my friends and relatives not to investigate. If there’s serious dirt in there, it’s known to those who matter. Most of what I wrote is mundane. I’m holding on to my most recent journals, from the past three years.

I’ve spared my eventual survivors from having to make one difficult decision. If they seriously need to check on some aspect of family history, they can visit the archive and dig away.

So today was the day! I signed a “deed of gift”. There should be a toast for this occasion! To life? To pen and ink and paper! To the future, digital or otherwise!

“A Carlin Home Companion – Growing Up With George” by Kelly Carlin

Published by St. Martin’s Press, September, 2015. 322 pages, with photos.

One of my favorite book categories is “books recommended by my son”!  And this was not an ordinary recommendation. Robert told me about Kelly Carlin’s book weeks before the publication date, which he marked on his calendar. When it came out, he went straight to the book store and bought it. He read it at light speed and handed it along to me. A high priority read!

This is a wonderful memoir! It reminds me of why I like non-fiction better than fiction. If you made this stuff up, it wouldn’t work. Kelly Carlin comes across as authentic, energetic and lively.

I’m amazed that George Carlin and his family survived the amount of drugs they did. His wife was an alcoholic who, after years of heavy drinking, went to rehab, got sober and stayed that way. George consumed marijuana and cocaine with abandon (and LSD on occasion), and the cocaine may have contributed to his heart attacks. Considering what happened to performers like John Belushi and Richard Pryor (not to mention the “27 Club” musicians), Carlin and his family dodged tragedy with intelligence and a good deal of luck.

So the first part of this book, about Kelly’s early childhood, is very sad. The cover photo is sad. Anyone who works in drug/alcohol abuse counseling knows the story – Kelly tried desperately to be the adult as her parents’ lives became increasingly chaotic. Amazingly, the adult Carlins managed to pull back from the brink.

Kelly Carlin writes engagingly about her struggles and adventures, including, in adulthood, her need for spiritual context and exploration. After her mother’s death in 1997, she says:

“Death was the scariest thing I knew, and I wanted to be able to learn to sit with it in a more conscious way. Zen and Buddhist practitioners had been facing death with great wit and aplomb for millennia. I was appalled at how mentally and emotionally checked-out I’d been with my mother during the five weeks between her (cancer) diagnosis and death. I wanted to do better when it came to my dad’s death. And I hoped to do better when it came to my own.”

This is a voice worth hearing.

In part due to her wealth and connections, Kelly Carlin was able to undertake graduate studies and professional training in Jungian psychology. Some of her happiest times were when she was a student.

What about George Carlin? (After all, who is this book about?!) I’m not a connoisseur of comedy, and Carlin didn’t particularly appeal to me, except for his “bit” about baseball versus football. But the man I met in the book was intelligent, loyal and intensely loving. The book made it much easier for me to understand the devotion of his colleagues and fans, and the emotion that surrounded his posthumous receipt of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, awarded by the JFK Center for the Performing Arts.

The Wikipedia entry on George Carlin lists his “subjects” (look it up!) and I think he had lots in common with Mark Twain. Not Twain’s novels, but consider his short story “The War Prayer”, which was withheld from publication until after Twain died. Carlin, too, was a harsh critic of American politics and policy.

Of course, as I approach retirement, I resonate completely with one of Carlin’s most popular routines, “A Place for My Stuff”!

This book should be read by anyone one interested in comedy as an art form, or in contemporary American life.

Thanks, Robert, for leading me to this book. I just found a copy of Last Words by George Carlin and Tony Hendra, and I’m already several chapters into it.

“On the Move: A Life” by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is 82 years old, and near death. He announced in February of this year that the ocular cancer for which he was treated nine years ago has metastasized to his liver. This hasn’t slowed him down! His Facebook page is active, with five posts in the past week, including a supportive message to Jimmie Carter, ten years older than Sacks and similarly stricken with metastatic cancer.

When you read Sacks, you encounter dozen of long names for complex neurological disorders, like achromatopsia and postencephalitic syndrome, but most of us would probably “diagnose” him as suffering from “attention deficit disorder”. He was beyond scatterbrained, and unfortunately lost or destroyed as much written work as he eventually published. He was unable to work in neurological research because he was absent minded and “too dangerous” in the laboratory. With the help of extremely dedicated assistants and editors, he published a dozen books and innumerable articles. I can’t figure out what “genre” he should be assigned to, aside from “non-fiction”. (One critic actually accused him of making up the case histories he recounts.)

Sacks approached each of his patients as the bearer of a unique story, and tried to read the whole life, not just to identify the disease that caused the person to seek medical care. His writings consist mostly of case histories. This has left him somewhat at odds with the academic medical establishment.

Sacks was a non-linear thinker. His mind ran off in so many directions that he would continually add footnotes to his drafts, until the footnotes exceeded the volume of the book.

Sacks was related to or acquainted with an astonishing number of public figures, especially scientists, like Francis Crick (of double helix fame) and Stephen Jay Gould, and poet W H Auden. In many cases, they exchanged manuscripts and ideas extensively.

The best part of this book is the next-to-last chapter, entitled “A New Vision of the Mind”. Sacks is wildly excited about the prospect that modern neurophysiology will, in the next few decades, generate a comprehensive scientific understanding of conscious. CONSCIOUSNESS! It’s like saying that science is ready to explain God. When Sacks began his studies in neurology, the brain was deeply mysterious and “mind” could not be “studied” at all. Suitable tools were not available. Now, fifty+ plus years later, the brain can be imaged in incredible detail. Sacks believes that the theory known as “neural Darwinism” will yield a revolutionary change in our understanding of what it means to be “aware”. Relevant authors and books are cited. This chapter is a great springboard for anyone who wants to understand contemporary neuroscience.

Oliver Sacks is an unusual intellectual and I wholeheartedly recommend his books, especially if you occasionally wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you.