Surely it was heartbreak that fueled his devotion to the cause, this once-sanguine young man whose quiet despair now accompanied him thousands of miles from home. That this, my great (x 4) grandfather, was prepared to die is made abundantly clear in a hand-written message, dated August 16, 1776:
I, Shadrach Winslow, of Rehoboth, in the State of Massachusetts Bay, being sensible, although now in a comfortable state of health, that life is uncertain, and being bound on a cruise in the privateer sloop-of-war called the Joseph against the enemies of the United American States, and knowing the many contingencies that in the Course of Divine Providence daily must and do await mankind in every age and station of life, and willing that those temporal goods, and such estate as God has blessed me with, should be so disposed of in case I should not return, as would be most satisfactory to me; Do make and ordain this my last Will and Testament, recommending myself through Christ, first of all, to that merciful being who gave mine and what I possess, and hoping through him to enjoy felicity hereafter.
Upon reading this I had no choice but to delve deeper into the story of Shadrach Winslow MD. So I turned to our family genealogy and learned that the good doctor was a devout Calvinist and superior Latinist who graduated from Yale, Class of 1771. Then, with the outbreak of Revolution …
“… his patriotic feelings were aroused to the highest pitch and he resolved to do all that was possible for the cause. Being a gentleman of means he contributed largely to the outfitting of a warship to attack the enemy on the high seas and went aboard her as a surgeon … The ship was captured off the coast of Spain and all onboard were taken prisoner and brought to Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn and placed aboard the dismal prison ships … Here Dr. Winslow was detained as a POW about one year and suffered much. He never fully recovered from the damage to his health, aboard these prison ships where 12,000 soldiers and sailors perished.”
That he did return is certainly “most satisfactory to me” and mine, because he went on to marry the pleasant Elizabeth Robbins, with whom he fathered ten children as was then common, including my great (x 3) grandfather, Isaac.
I could have left it with that. But I didn’t, and so learned of a love story that never quite made it into the family history.
The hand-written will was referenced in an 1878 centennial address for the Town of Foxborough. Given by the son of one of Isaac’s brothers, John Winslow (who had a penchant for lame Calvinist jokes), the speaker also recounted a conversation he’d had with an old man who knew Shadrach well and spoke of the winsome Betsy Peck to whom the young doctor, just out of college, was soon to marry.
Sadly, young Betsy was “suddenly removed by death” and his inability to save his truelove “produced a deep and lasting influence upon Shadrach’s sensibility.”
Though the romance was cut tragically short leaving little time for love to fade away like morning dew, when I think of that pensive crossing, I’m reminded of this variation of a popular 17th century Scottish ballad, sung by singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff.
In 1776 the strapping young doctor was the same age my son is now. Throwing himself into the cause of independence surely helped to assuage his anguish, and though there are no records the old man spoke of Shadrach’s wanderings in France, Turkey, Portugal, and Spain, using his Latin to communicate, prior to his capture and ghastly imprisonment.
When at last he was released, emaciated and rather cynical, his great good fortune in meeting Elizabeth is the stuff of legend. Not only was she amiable and attractive, but she was a woman capable of such fathomless, redeeming compassion that their first child was named Betsy Peck Winslow.
With a number of chapters nearly complete I have come to one of those “cutting” stages on my current book project, where entire passages are cut for the sake of flow. Sometimes they’ll find their way in elsewhere, sometimes they won’t. Since what follows is unlikely to see the light of day anywhere else I thought I’d give it a good send-off here.
…By all outward appearances our ever-adaptable family had left the storm behind. Wheeling along like the cogs of my father’s career we moved from Ashland in ’61 – to Concord, NH in ’62 – to New Bedford in ’63 – to Evansville, Indiana in 1965.
Now we were “Hoosiers.” As if to underscore that fact our suburban split-level house was next to a cornfield.
Situated across the Ohio from Kentucky, the locals spoke with a twangy drawl, often dropping in a genial “y’all” for good measure and once we figured out we had them, we hastened to moderate our Yankee accents. What we called “soda,” they called “pop;” “bag” (as in lunch bag) was “sack.”
Back in New England we’d had our milk (or “melk” as they pronounced it) delivered in bottles by a milkman. Here it came in cartons purchased at the grocery store. The “melkman’s” demise had already occurred.
Not that there wasn’t a prevailing respect for traditional values. Nearly everyone went to church and we began to attend the First Presbyterian Church of Evansville.
In general people seemed friendlier and more open here. Neighbors actually said “hello” and it was easy to meet kids in the suburban complex that was our neighborhood. Most of them introduced themselves to us.
That’s how we met the Johnsons across the street. As it turned out Mrs. Johnson was a friend of Miss Winnie.
Many will remember the children’s TV series, Romper Room. A national program geared toward the 5-and-under crowd, Romper Room was franchised out to local affiliates who generally used the same script but with resident hostesses.
In Massachusetts it had been “Miss Jean” who, like every Romper Room hostess, ended the broadcast with a look through her magic mirror while she recounted the names of all the children she “saw” out in Televisionland. For some reason she never saw ‘Winslow.’
Miss Winnie was Evansville’s Romper Room hostess. Although I no longer watched it my younger brother, Warren did. It was a big deal when she came to call in her floral poema dress and held court on a patio chair in the Johnson’s back yard.
Instructed to be on our best behavior, we were formally presented and had the honor of shaking her hand. Only later – after we’d grabbed some cookies and wandered back home – did it occur to me that I’d blown my chance to ask her why she and Miss Jean never saw me, or Warren for that matter, through those magic mirrors of theirs…
Cut. So much for that. Perhaps your name was never called out either. Here’s something at least to bring you back to a simpler time.
Formed in North London as the Dave Clark Quintet in 1957, the Dave Clark Five were the second “British Invasion” group to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, two weeks after the Beatles in 1964. Thanks to the impeccable timing they were more popular in the States (for a while) than they were in England.
Written by drummer, Dave Clark and guitarist, Lenny Davidson, this song was released in 1965, hitting Number 4 on the US charts and Number 5 in the UK. After the Beatles struck lucky with their film, “A Hard Day’s Night” it also served as theme song for the DC5’s cinematic response, “Catch Us if You Can.” So let’s get those fingers snapping, mmmm-mm-mm…
Wednesday, August 24,1988. I was sitting in my office on Connecticut Avenue when time began to pick up speed. It was 4:59 p.m. and the receptionist had just announced the arrival of my ‘ol mates, Giles and Tony. “Why, they’re as cute as buttons,” said a passing co-worker.
Perhaps, but having arrived from England they were also ready for the weekend to begin, starting with some supper. So off we went, to the Occidental Grill for “handcrafted” cocktails and swordfish club sandwiches, followed by a visit to the Hotel Washington’s roof bar for a few more rounds while the sun set over the White House. The weekend had begun.
A hailed cab after dark, a quick visit to a liquor store in the National Press Building, and our next stop was Union Station where the Night Owl was ready to board. Overnight sleepers had been plying the rails between Washington and Boston since the days of the Federal Express in 1912, and Amtrak’s 1980s version was first rate, complete with showers, room service, and obliging porters who accepted the early vestiges of a wedding party.
Departing promptly at 10:30 p.m. with stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, the train took an hour layover in New York before wending its way along the coast to Stamford, New Haven, Providence and finally Boston. Replaced by the more “modular” Twilight Express in the ’90s, the marvelous old-school service was dropped altogether (along with the fanicful naming of train routes) with the advent of high-speed rail in the 2000s.
Ah, but that was years away. On this night we had our own compartment, to play cards, drink scotch whisky and, while the Night Owl lumbered through the gloom, to raise a toast to each new state we entered. Although the actual number was eight, our glasses clinked over a dozen times just to make sure.
Since my bride-to-be was to meet us in Boston I wanted to be fresh. But somehow we didn’t manage to turn-in until after the train had departed from New York’s Penn Station at 3:17 a.m, and when the Night Owl pulled in to South Station at 8:05 a.m. “fresh” was not one of the better ways to describe us. “We have an appointment with the minister,” Linda blithely reminded me, “and Sweety, the smell of booze is oozing through your pores.”
This was Thursday, and with early arrivals and last minute arrangements (not to mention a quick shower) the logistics were intense. This was also the date that my best man, Sterling, had selected for the bachelor party, thereby providing a buffer for the groom and some much-needed peace of mind for the mother of the bride … and the bride herself. Held at Doyles in Jamaica Plain, with the elevated ‘T’ rumbling overhead and two-dozen types of beer rumbling through Doyles’ taps, the toasting began anew and carried on through the after-party at Sterling’s West Roxbury home,
Now it was Friday, and once the rumbling in my skull had subsided, things got really, really busy: there were more arrivals; and a rehearsal at the Concord church that Linda’s family has attended for over 50 years, followed by a rehearsal dinner at Indian Meadows in Westborough. Then, while Linda and her retinue returned to her parents’ home in Concord, me and mine – including assorted friends and mirth-making family members – headed to my father’s place for what amounted to a pool party in Southborough. 27 years later, It’s a blur to me, but at some point I made it to bed.
And then it was Saturday, August 27, with each moment passing at hypersonic speed. The memories come in snippets: of stepping out of a steamy morning shower and just wrapping on my towel before my sister and brother-in-law burst through the door for a finger-twirling rendition of Going to the Chapel; and of my father’s expressed concern that wearing morning attire for a 4:00 p.m. wedding was surely pushing the limits of propriety; and of the arrival of my old pal, McGill in his parent’s new station wagon; and a telegram delivered by Western Union from Terry, a far-off friend; and the arrival of my groomsman and cousin, Bradley, who wondered where my best man was (so did I!); and at long last, the arrival of Sterling, who’d had car trouble; … and then, just in from London, here was Claude wearing a morning suit and a top hat.
The world was in a spin but somehow everyone made it to Concord (Claude, who rode with McGill was very impressed with this ‘station wagon’), and as if in a dream I found myself at the alter facing a sanctuary packed with some of the finest people on earth, each looking my way and smiling…
…Until the first notes of Thine is the Glory came thundering over the ancient pipe organ – set to a popular Handel tune, a choir had sung this hymn when I proposed to Linda on the steps of Sacré-Cœur – and thine WAS the glory when all the air was sucked from the room in a single gasp while my stunningly beautiful bride came striding down the aisle in her father’s arm. The spree that led to it may have been epic but nothing in my life has ever compared to this!
Although we wrote our own vows I have scant recollection as to what transpired between “dearly beloved,” and “you may kiss the bride.” As for the kiss itself? That was unforgettable. Now we were one, and it was as if time – which would soon return to joyous hyperspeed at the reception – had settled into a comfortable pace, because all was well, very well, for Mr. & Mrs. P.
It’s a sentiment that’s reflected by this song. Written by Noel Paul Stookey who served as best man at (his Peter, Paul and Mary bandmate) Peter Yarrow’s wedding. Yarrow, who was raised in the liberal Jewish tradition was marrying (Eugene McCarthy’s niece) Marybeth McCarthy, a Catholic, and he asked Stookey, who had recently become born again to “bless our wedding with a song.” After praying about it, Stookey is said to have ‘received’ the lyrics and melody in response.
With New and Old Testament references, specifically Matthew 18:20 (“For whenever two or more of you are gathered…”) and Genesis 2:24 (“A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home.”), Stookey duly performed the song at the couple’s Minnesota wedding with no intention of releasing it commercially. But the newlyweds convinced him to change his mind and this version of Wedding Song, with Stookey singing and playing a 12 string guitar, was featured on his first solo album, “Paul and…” in 1971.
Unwilling to take credit for what he saw as a divine gift, Stookey insisted that authorship should not be provided on the record or sheet music. Instead the copyright was (and is) held by the Public Domain Foundation, which he established to receive the songwriting and publishing royalties and distribute them to various charities.
“Into every songwriter’s life comes a song,” Stookey later wrote, “the source of which cannot be explained by personal experience.”
He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts
Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part
The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain
For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name
There is love, there is love
A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home
And they shall travel on to where the two shall be as one
As it was in the beginning is now and ’til the end
Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again
And there is Love, there is love
Well then what’s to be the reason for becoming man and wife?
Is it love that brings you here or love that brings you life?
And if loving is the answer then who’s the giving for?
Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?
Oh there’s love, there is love
Oh, the marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain
For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name
While helping my son pack (and later unpack) during his recent move from Denver to Austin, I somehow managed to reign supreme over the music selection. Naturally I didn’t stint in dragging up the old-school stuff (after all, it’s been a long time since I did the stroll…), which has always been a reliable balm to life’s slightly wistful occasions.
Or at least it used to be. When this old favorite came around I was struck by certain parallels … Substitute 1991 for 1951 in “He was born on a summer day in 1951″ and ‘93 for ’53 “In the summer of ’53 his mother brought him a sister” and the song could be about my own kids … except that Giles was never a “lonely boy” who “thought he was the only one.” And he and Mary have always (well, almost always) been great friends.
Back in 1977, when Lonely Boy reached Number 7 on the Billboard charts (Number 11 in the UK), I’d assumed that it was autobiographical and was fascinated to learn that the songwriter’s mother had required a great deal of reassurance that he’d made it all up. Yes, he was born on a summer day in 1951, and yes, he left home on a winter’s day in 1969 (Giles left home in 2009, by the way) but he promised up and down that it had never occurred to him that anyone would actually think the lyrics were true.
On the other hand, his sister – a psychotherapist (really) born in the summer of ’53 – opined that the story went a long way in explaining her brother’s great success, adding, “When Andy felt deeply he would just make it a song.”
Born the eldest of three in Burbank, California in August of 1951, Andrew Maurice Gold, had parents who excelled at teaching him what they’d learned. His father, Ernest, was an Academy Award-winning composer (for the 1960 film Exodus). His mother was Marni Nixon, who famously provided the singing voices for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (“Oh wouldn’t it be loverly…”), Natalie Wood in West Side Story (“I feel pretty…”) and Deborah Kerr in The King and I (“Shall we dance…”)
Indeed, nobody’s fool, “Andy” – who died of complications from renal cancer in 2011, just shy of his 60th birthday – would grow up to be a talented singer, songwriter, multi-instrumental musician, producer, arranger, and sound engineer, whose versatility kept him busy for the rest of his life. Much sought after for his session work, his favored instruments included: keyboards, guitar, bass, accordion, saxophone, harmonica, flute, drums, percussion, musette, harmonium, and ukulele.
After serving as an engineer on Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, he backed Linda Ronstadt through much of her 1970s peak, playing most of the instruments on such hits as Heart Like a Wheel, You’re No Good, When Will I Be Loved, and Heat Wave.
Andrew Gold also recorded and/or toured with James Taylor, Carly Simon, Maria Muldaur, Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright III, the Eagles, America, Stephen Bishop, Neil Diamond, Eric Carmen, Juice Newton, Leo Sayer, Roy Orbison, Don Henley, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Art Garfunkel, Brian Wilson, Cher, and three out of four of the former Beatles: John, Paul, and Ringo, among others.
As a solo singer/songwriter he released over a dozen albums, memorably charting with Thank You For Being A Friend and Never Let Her Slip Away, on which his friend, Freddie Mercury harmonized as an uncredited background singer.
Then there’s this one, first featured as a track (with Ronstadt providing backing vocals) on Gold’s 1976 album, What’s Wrong With This Picture. Released at a time when album covers were fun, the self-designed picture included no less than 32 anomalies (e.g. a guitar that’s plugged into a phone, red wine in the glass, white wine in the bottle, a closed window with billowing curtains, and open window with still curtains, etc.). The album itself had no title track.
While Lonely Boy would prove to be Andrew Gold’s biggest hit, as the father of three he came to slightly regret the similarities between the lyrics and his life. “Maybe it was a mistake to do that,” he once said, “but I simply put in those details because it was convenient. I hadn’t been a lonely boy at all — I had a very happy childhood.”
What is it that can make half a century pass in the blink of an eye? That’s how long it has been since I was a small boy who, some months after my mother’s death, awoke with a fright in the night. I don’t remember why, must have been a nightmare.
But in the rustic Lake Sunapee cottage that my uncle and grandfather had built by hand, and with three young sons of her own to care for, my mom’s sister was there by my bedside to rub my belly and to lull me with one of life’s more disarming nicknames, “Oh Pooh.”
It was a remarkably calming moment at a topsy-turvy time. I had my dad, and my sisters and brothers, and my grandparents and cousins … and with her reassuringly rich Yankee accent I had my Auntie Peggy. I loved, and was loved, and have had the great fortune of feeling that way ever since.
Even here in my middle age it seemed she’d always be there – of course that’s not how it works, which is why we observe Memorial Day – and when she passed away this week from complications after a fall, it took a while for the news to sink in.
Then I began to see her presence in others: the spry seamstress at the dry cleaners, my nimble ophthalmologist, the sprightly crossing guard …. and suddenly my spry, nimble, sprightly aunt, who didn’t much like venturing over the Massachusetts border but could outpace her (one-time) All-State Athlete husband over every hill and dale in the Granite State, seemed to be everywhere. If only that were so.
Born in Claremont, on the New Hampshire (“New-Hamp-sha”) side of the Connecticut River, Auntie (“Ahn-tee”) Peggy went to school in Springfield on the Vermont side, and married her high school sweetheart, Bernie Dunbar, while both attended Keene State Teachers College.
After moving to the Capitol City of Concord they planned their lives around the school year and that Sunapee cottage (which had been their first home) became the Dunbar family’s summer camp, a mere 45 minutes up I-89 and a short walk to my grandparents’ place on the Georges Mills end of the lake.
Meanwhile, my dad had re-married (a truly wonderful woman) and as a construction engineer, moved the family to wherever the next project was, a fascinating lifestyle but one that lacked a permanent sense of place.
No matter, there was always Georges Mills whenever we could make it there, which meant fun with my cousins and grandparents and time to “visit” (as she called it) with my diminutive aunt, who my siblings referred to as Big Peggy – as opposed to my sister who was then known as Little Peggy – and who could make it seem like she had all the time in the world for you.
Ready to listen, quick to laugh and encourage, as I got older I came to admire her lack of pretention, and to recognize how firm she could be in her beliefs, which included a staunch loyalty to those she loved.
As is the way of life, there would come times of triumph and times of tragedy, and in grief we remained close. “Oh Pooh,” she’d sigh.
But there were also times of adventure and sometimes we’d manage to meet up in places like Athens and London, where with an inquisitive nature she’d want to tour every site. On the day we all visited Portobello Market, a movie crew was filming a scene. Years later, while watching a rather forgettable movie on the tellie (“Who Dares Wins”) that very scene appeared and there she was! Strolling through one of the stalls in the background looking at tea pots.
Eventually I settled down myself – unsurprisingly, she knew my future wife before I did – and when it came time to meet Linda’s parents it was Auntie Peggy who soothed my jitters by assuring me what fine people they were. Of course she was right.
When our kids arrived there were no finer role models than Peggy and Bernie Dunbar, who’d been known as the “cool” parents, spending lots of time with their boys and getting to know each of their friends.
And even when their boys had grown and the grandkids began to call, the door still remained open for this moony old nephew to make his way north for an occasional hug and an all-too-rare but highly treasured visit. For that I am forever grateful.
This universally admired song was written by Eric Clapton and Will Jennings in 1991, after the tragic loss of Clapton’s four-year-old son, who fell from the window of a 53rd floor apartment in New York. Clapton went on to receive six Grammy Awards for it and this, his “unplugged” version reached number one the Billboard charts.
But along with “My Father’s Eyes,” Clapton stopped playing it in 2004. “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs,” he said. “I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They’re kind of gone and I really don’t want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now.”
That’s good for Eric Clapton, and thankfully this recording remains. Even the most skeptical among us have their own idea of Heaven and if by some miracle I ever make it to mine you can be sure that I’ll be listening for a much cherished nickname, spoken with a rich and vibrant Yankee accent.
Tears in Heaven
Would you know my name
If I saw you in Heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in Heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in Heaven
Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in Heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in Heaven?
I’ll find my way through night and day
‘Cause I know I just can’t stay here in Heaven
Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please
Rivaled only by when she said “I do,” life has offered no finer moments to me than bearing witness while my dear wife first experienced motherhood, and then experienced it again. And such different times they were.
The first was on a fine April morning in 1991, when as Canadian residents we enjoyed the benefits of OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) along with – as we would come to realize – some rather liberal birthing amenities.
Amongst the information provided by Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital was a list of ‘Things to Bring’ for the ordeal. And we followed it closely, including: a cooler with some beer to “encourage lactation,” sandwiches for the expectant dad in case it was a long wait, and a nice bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion.
Also recommended were extra pillows, a telephone to be plugged in so that we could share the news from the birthing room, a deck of playing cards in case “labour was extended” (and how!) and a portable radio/cassette player to listen to our favourite music during the birth.
Nineteen hours – and countless walks around the maternity ward – later, the baby was finally on its way, and although not quite as planned everything had come in handy, except for those cards because we were both too excited to concentrate on our game.
The beer, alas, had been consumed with the sandwiches by this attendant father prior to any hope of lactation, while the rotary phone we’d brought provided a means of casting a bet in the family pool regarding the child’s birth date (which I still have yet to collect on); and the pillows did indeed provide comfort for us both.
At some point after midnight Linda elected for epidural pain relief and suddenly became a comedian. Meanwhile I’d been instructed to wear a mask and, providing much needed comedic fodder, nearly passed out from hyperventilation while encouraging her to breath/pant like we’d learned in Child Birth Class…
After regaining full consciousness I became aware of this piece being played over our radio/cassette player and am thrilled to affirm that I was fully present and clear-headed enough – at 01:22 on Wednesday 17 April – to witness the birth of Giles William Pettingell to the strands of The Flower Duet ... which here takes about seven seconds to cue…
After Giles had been weighed, and his digits had all been counted, and after his grandparents had been informed by phone, Linda and I popped the champagne and toasted to family-hood, leaving the remainder of the bottle for the nurses whose shift was about the end.
Later I recall handing out $5 bills to every street person I encountered on my way home, and I only wish it were more. Although there were neonatal complications and mother and child wouldn’t come home for nearly a week, our only out-of-pocket expense in the end was Giles’ $6 ID necklace … ah the wonders of publicly funded health care.
Yes, but our daughter is a Bostonian and it was around midnight on a May Saturday night in 1993, once Giles had been scooped up by his grandparents, that Linda was admitted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I don’t recall which private medical plan we had back then (there’ve been many through the years) but it provided few of the amenities we’d enjoyed in Toronto. Nor were we encouraged to bring a cooler with beer, sandwiches, champagne, or a radio/cassette player.
Still, the Brigham and Women’s birthing room had its own phone, and in the wee hours of a Sunday morning the maternity ward was an impressive place to be. After a quick and friendly admission we found ourselves on what looked like a circular delivery floor, with half a dozen birthing rooms and a nurse’s station serving as the hub. Again it was thumbs up with the epidural and my hilarious wife, the comedian, was back again.
Nonetheless the comfy chair with a pullout footrest held a particular allure for me, considering the hour, and when Linda began to doze, I too nodded off. Awakened sometime later by the nurse during her periodic examination, I again fell asleep, only to be woken once more by an urgent appeal from my wife to get the doctor, because “the baby’s on it’s way!”
But the nurse, who now wasn’t at her station, had said that it would still be a few hours. As I returned to remind Linda of that assessment I was stopped in my tracks by perhaps the most urgent expression I have ever encountered. My next words were, “Hey, my wife’s having her baby!”
The nurse quickly appeared and began to assure me that she was only partially dilated … until I opened the door wide enough for her to see Linda’s expression. Her next words were, “I’ll get the doctor!”
The Doc may as well have been wearing a catcher’s mitt when he arrived because – for the first time but certainly not the last – Mary Bartlett Pettingell had expressed her sincere desire and determination, and was born (on the dot ) at 08:30 on Sunday 23 May. Though there was no radio/cassette player this time, the strands of The Flower Duet once again wafted through my mind.
After Mary had been weighed, and her digits had been counted, and after the grandparents had been informed, Linda and I toasted with apple juice to family-hood. And mother and daughter came home the very next day.
Dôme épais de jamin (The Flower Duet) is a duet for sopranos from Léo Delibes’ 1883 three-act opera, Lakmé. Written in the era of the British Raj, when Hindus were forced to practice their religion secretly, the high priest Nilkantha has gone to a Brahmin temple to perform his sacred rites, leaving his daughter, Lakmé and her servant, Mallika to go down to the river to gather flowers…
With musical performance by Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, the duet is sung here by the great Dame Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbié.
And to every mother, and despite the poor translation, may you too have occasion today to drift ‘neath the leafy dome, where the jasmine white, blends with the rose ….
Dôme épais de jamin / Flower Duet
LAKMÉ & MALLIKA:
Sous le dôme épais
Où le blanc jasmin
À la rose s’assemble
Sur la rive en fleurs,
Riant au matin
Viens, descendons ensemble.
Doucement glissons de son flot charmant
Suivons le courant fuyant
Dans l’onde frémissante
D’une main nonchalante
Viens, gagnons le bord,
Où la source dort et
L’oiseau, l’oiseau chante.
Sous le dôme épais
Où le blanc jasmin,
‘Neath the leafy dome,
Where the jasmine white
Blends with the rose,
Flowers in the morn, freshly born,
Come let’s drift together!
Ah! Let’s glide along,
Let us gently glide along;
For its enchanting flow,
The current so strong,
The water is shimmering.
Hand skims the surface nonchalantly
On the rippling surface.
Come, let’s go to the shore
Where the bird sings,
Where the spring sleeps
‘Neath the dome rowers unite,
‘Neath the leafy dome, where the jasmine white,
Calls us together!
Ah! Let’s drift together!
Mais, je ne sais quelle crainte subite s’empare de moi.
Quand mon père va seul à leur ville maudite,
Je tremble, je tremble d’effroi!
But, an eerie feeling of distress overcomes me
When my father goes into their accursed city
I tremble, I tremble with fright!
Pour que le Dieu Ganeça le protège,
Jusqu’à l’étang où s’ébattent joyeux
Les cygnes aux ailes de neige,
Allons cueillir les lotus bleus.
May the god, Ganesh, keep him from dangers,
Till he arrives at the joyous pool just in view,
Where with wings of snow the swans are swimming.
Come, let us pick blue lotuses.
Oui, près des cygnes aux ailes de neige,
Allons cueillir les lotus bleus.
Oh yes, let’s go near the swans with wings of snow,
Barreling into the atmosphere at 17,500 mph, they were the largest group of people ever to travel in a single spacecraft, eight in all. And with its collective 987 orbits around the good Earth, they would soon close the book on the Challenger’s ninth successful mission. Tragically it would be the last.
Young, footloose and a little disgruntled, I too was there on that crisp November day in 1985, a face in the crowd. After attending a wedding near San Francisco I’d managed to secure an awesome Auto Driveaway car to make my way back east, a pristine ‘69 Plymouth “Gold Duster,” and then proceeded to post vacancies on the ride boards of every college campus in the Bay area in hopes of finding someone to split the cost of gas.
That evening I received a call from a pair of convivial Danish girls, looking to catch a ride to Denver – this was going to be great! – and after a lively conversation I hung up feeling as though I’d been on the phone with the enchanting Freya herself, free-spirited goddess of love, beauty and destiny, and fellow traveler of the Valkyries.
But turning that Plymouth Duster into a frolicsome chariot just wasn’t meant to be. When I went to sign the Driveaway agreement I was provided with a carefully calculated route – no major deviations allowed: south through the San Joaquin Valley, east on I-40 to Oklahoma City, then south to Dallas and east on I-20 to my stated destination, Atlanta.
By the time I hit Mojave (just past Bakersfield and about a thousand miles from Denver) it was getting late. With no clear signals on the radio there was plenty of incentive to mutter, and mutter I did. Taking the Denver route would have added a few hundred extra miles to the odometer, so what? What could they have done? Hell, I even knew a Scandinavian toast!
Somewhere within the AM static came a random announcement that Challenger would be landing at Edwards in the morning. I continued to mutter. Then a sign came into view: EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE – SPACE SHUTTLE LANDING SIGHT. Say, what was it that announcer had said? I pulled in to a roadside convenience store.
“Follow the signs,” said the woman behind the counter who was used to such enquiries but had never managed to see for herself. “You won’t be alone out on the flat. Maybe you’ll find a party.”
I envisioned a gathering of likeminded souls huddled ‘round a beer keg. It was getting pretty nippy, but as anyone who’s attended a high school football party can attest, that’s not cold enough to keep from celebrating. I kept my eyes open for a bonfire.
The Space Shuttle program had come a long way in the four years since the maiden flight of Columbia on April 12, 1981. Just two astronauts rode in that one, Young and Crippen, whose task was to demonstrate a safe launch into orbit and a safe return. They landed here at Edwards, and soon-after Columbia was fully operational for straight-out missions.
The second Orbiter, as Shuttles were officially called, became operational in April of ’83. Named after a renowned 1870s British research vessel, and with a moniker also used by the last lunar module to land on the moon (Apollo 17), it was christened Challenger, and Challenger would deliver some impressive NASA firsts. Its second mission featured Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space. Its third mission was piloted by Guion Bluford, the first African American to orbit the earth.
In 1984 Discovery joined the fleet, followed by Atlantis in 1985, and Orbiter crews became increasingly diverse, with U.S. congressmen and even a Saudi prince along for the ride as guest travellers. By the program’s eleventh mission in April 1984, Challenger astronauts were able to repair a disabled satellite, another first, which set a precedent that would save NASA millions of dollars through the years.
After so many successes and nary a failure the Space Shuttle program was at its zenith that chilly morning of November 6. Which couldn’t be said for me. The dirt road I was now on was a study in tortuousness and with the moon in its final quarter the Duster’s headlights barely pierced the murk.
At looooooong last I saw a hand-painted sign pointing away from the road and, though visibility was merely a concept, gladly made the bumpy turnoff. In an instant it felt as if I were driving across a never-ending parking lot. This (I later learned) was Rogers Dry Lake, an endorheic saltpan that forms the central part of Edwards Air Force Base.
Smooth, but save for my headlights I remained enveloped in darkness … except for a faint glow in the distance. I accelerated. Aiming for that I was soon able to make out a cluster of beacons in the middle of what looked like a glimmering string of pearls. It was like a scene from Close Encounters. I accelerated some more.
Growing in intensity as I approached, the image was only shattered when I finally entered the bright expanse and found myself – well after midnight in the middle of a dry lake bed – amidst a long row of vending stalls, all open and offering Space Shuttle badges, hats, tee-shirts, postcards and other memorabilia. The “string of pearls” turned out to be a long line, over a mile, of RVs (recreational vehicles), all meticulously parked side-by-side and facing in the same direction. Barring the vendors there wasn’t a soul in sight. They’d all gone to bed.
The only sound, besides my engine, was the singular hum of the portable generators that served all the lights. After driving up the front side and down the back (not a party in sight), I finally parked between a couple of Winnebagos, buttoned up my jacket, pushed down the seat back, and tried to get some sleep.
Daylight, when it finally arrived, brought a different story. With the sun up I could see in every direction, as far as the distant bordering hills, and three-quarters of the flat was cordoned off for the landing.
Military personnel patrolled the area, chatting amiably with onlookers, many of them RV owners of a certain age sporting Space Shuttle ball caps and aviator sunglasses. Others ambled about with camper kitchen mugs and admired one another’s Coachman Classics, Holiday Ramblers, Georgie Boy Swingers and Bluebird Wanderlodges.
The retired couple in the Winnebago to my left had made Chinese lanterns from plastic detergent bottles, all the rage, which they hung with pride from the rear overhang. But after I stumbled out of the car, stretched, and began to stroll in the direction of the port-a-potties I noticed that “The Mrs.” was keeping a close eye on her creations and me. Admittedly, I was in bad need of a shave.
While people began to line up along the cordon, like spectators at a big parade, I made my way to a now-crowded vending stall for a cup of breathtakingly over-priced instant coffee and moseyed on. Further along, I noticed a German flag – as seen in the picture above.
The eighth person on this flight was German astronaut Ernst Messerschmid of the European Space Agency’s Spacelab program. As there was only accommodation for seven in the crew compartment, Messerschmid had to sleep in the Spacelab module itself, which was housed in the pressurized payload area. Despite the discomfort it had been a successful mission, except for one mishap concerning a few dozen rats in a holding pen. Apparently floating rat feces and food crumbs had found their way into the crew compartment and the Mission Transcripts reveal an abnormal barrage of serious swearing as a result.
Fortunately by the final descent everything, including the crew’s language, had been cleaned up and radios throughout the crowd were relaying Shuttle/Ground Control communication with an occasional announcement about the Orbiter’s location. Some Shuttle-spotting veterans began to aim their telescopic lenses at the precise spot where they expected it to come into view.
Meanwhile the RV crowd was now comfortably settled into lawn chairs on the roofs of their rigs with radios and binoculars at the ready. Although the thoroughfare was becoming increasingly packed, most were deep in conversation with their neighbors, ten feet above the fray.
The excitement level was raised a few notches with the announcement that the spacecraft, with radio communications disrupted, was now re-entering the upper atmosphere at the speed of Mach 24, a velocity at which atmospheric friction induces temperatures of over 3,000° F!
By the time communication was re-established, Challenger, having rolled through the stratosphere, was over Hawaii. Then the Shuttle commander announced that he could see the landing sight … and a hush stilled the crowd.
BOOM! BOOM! Everybody jumped as the decelerating craft broke the sound barrier, and with mouths agape every face turned skyward. “There it is!” An eagle-eyed fellow spotted it without a telescope, and one by one those around me saw it as well. I squinted, cursed my myopia, and at long last saw it too … a drifting white dot, like a tiny toy balloon in the indigo sky.
Designed to carry 65,000-pound payloads to an orbit of 230 miles above the earth and land with payloads of 32,000 pounds (including small satellites), this was no toy however. In fact, with a wingspan of 80 feet and a length of 120 feet, the Shuttle – now leisurely making a major U-turn while it continued its descent – was immense.
While the pilot and Ground Control bantered over every move, “…air speed 300 mph…landing gear down…,” the craft, now easily visible with the naked eye, also became easier to define until even I could make out the famous plane-like profile. I tried to capture the moment with my Instamatic. But the closer it got to the ground, the faster it seemed to travel, and when it touched down at 09:44:51 and quickly deployed its billowing brake chute, it was still too far away for a decent shot.
Once the Orbiter had rolled to a halt everyone cheered. Some (like me) were star struck, much as our grandparents might have been after witnessing their first airplane landing. But for others it had already become routine, and many now referred to it as “the space liner.” Only a few months later, with Challenger’s next mission, that would change of course, and 73 seconds after liftoff this “great white bird” would be obliterated in one of history’s most infamous explosions.
As for me it was time to hit the road, and the rush to the exit took on Grand Prix proportions. While the Duster cranked along at 50 mph, hundreds of other cars did the same, like so many scurrying cockroaches heading in one direction. But the enormous flat easily accommodated us all and Air Force personnel adeptly directed traffic back on to the main road.
Yes, I missed my chance to make merry under Freya’s gaze. But 30 years on, myth or no myth, I can’t help but to reflect on how I was once in the appraising presence of the Valkyries, swooping through the freshly torn firmament as a harbinger of things to come.
And what better tune than this to bring it all back? Although it never received the acclaim of the Grateful Dead, or Jefferson Airplane or Santana, It’s a Beautiful Day was one of the first San Francisco bands to emerge from the celebrated “Summer of Love” in 1967.
Featured on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1969 this, their signature song, was apparently inspired by the experiences of lead singer, David LaFlamme and his wife (keyboardist) Linda, while living in the attic of an old house in Seattle.
“We were like caged birds in that attic,” LaFlamme later recalled. “We had no money, no transportation and the weather was miserable. It was quite an experience but it was very creative in a way….” White Bird was one of the last songs performed at Fillmore West before it’s closing in 1971.
Partly it’s because a day finally came when I could restack my woodpile and the “wealdy” subject of this song appealed to me. Partly it’s because it’s Easter time and the song touches on resurrection. Mainly it’s because it’s nice to listen to a new singer and song and instantly like them both – something that seems to happen less and less. Pandora, that reliable venue for discovering new recording artists, came through once again.
And so here you have Elliott Park, whose father (Ernie Park) was an offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders, and who was raised in Clyde, Texas (population 3,345). While in college he taught himself to play piano and began to write songs, naming Willie Nelson, Simon and Garfunkel, Roger Miller, the Eagles, and Glen Campbell as influences.
For the next ten years his music career proceeded less than apace … until, he was introduced to Nashville songwriter, Walt Aldridge, with whom he co-wrote “I Loved Her First.” Recorded by the band, Heartland it reached Number One on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 2006. Four years later he released “Flyboy,” his first album, which I downloaded as soon as the shed door was locked.
Now working on his second album, Park is the father of four and seems to have the rather endearing quality of regularly singing to/for/about his wife and kids. As one critic notes, “His lyrics draw you down a pleasant road – into an unpretentious world of honest smiles, open hearts, and a few tears along the way.”
Eclectic and fun, there are half a dozen songs on “Flyboy” that I could have put forth here, and I must concur with his five (!?) Amazon reviewers and 925 Facebook “likes.” As another critic puts it, “His music is a seamless blend of genres presented in an honest and endearing way. Elliott Park’s vocals are weathered and truthful as someone at the end of a pilgrimage. His lyrics are colorful and sometimes odd, but always approachable. His genre is life.”
Nice genre if you can get it.
The Soldier and the Oak
This is a story that began long, long ago
I was a young oak tree in dark Missouri soil
And like all other saplings I had dreams of growing
Strong and tall
But one day a rebel with a bullet in his chest
Hung his rifle on my limbs and laid to rest
And there beside me as the blood soaked to my roots
The soldier sang
A song of grace
The heavy rifle bowed me over to the ground
Two years I stayed this way until the rifle fell
And in this manner for a hundred years I grew
All my dreams
Not meant to be
And then one day two men came with a cross cut saw
They spoke of how my arch would hold a weight so strong
And I feared not the blade for such a worthy cause
And so I fell
I gladly fell
Three winter days aboard a northbound train
Three more beneath the hewer’s careful blade
And while he worked he praised my rich red grain
Perhaps it was the soldier’s blood that day
Now I’m the wooden arch that holds a mighty bell
Three stocks before me cracked but I shall never fail
Up in a tall cathedral high above my dreams
Of long ago
And on Sunday mornings when I hear that sweet refrain
I see the soldier’s face like it was yesterday
Calling angels down from heaven with that hymn he softly sang
He appears to have been a man who never quite shook the insecurities of his youth, and the soaring trajectory of his career looks remarkably like the flight of Icarus, who as legend has it … “got crazy once and tried to touch the sun.”
If, like me, you were rather fond of his music back in the day, it meant bucking the tide to embrace a wildly popular singer/song-writer who, no matter their genre, was looked upon with scorn by many of the music industry’s more “authentic” troubadours.
Sometimes such derision was displayed in a big way, as when Charlie Rich, the presenter of 1975’s Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award set fire to the envelope after reading his name. Then there was the time in 1985 when he was “disinvited” to participate in the “We Are the World” music video, for fear that his image would hurt the song’s credibility.
Granted, his visage in those years was rather Muppet-centric, but the USA for Africa crowd’s gesture remains breathtakingly ironic. Not only was he already an outspoken proponent for AIDS relief in Africa, he was also a key supporter of Save the Children, a spokesman for UNICEF, and a co-founder of the World Hunger Project who’d personally been appointed by Jimmy Cater to a Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger. In fact, before 1985 was over he’d also been presented with the Presidential World Without Hunger Award by Ronald Reagan.
A spirited environmental activist, he was a major supporter of Friends of the Earth, the Cousteau Society, and was co-founder of the Windstar Foundation for wildlife preservation. All of which led to his becoming one of only ten recipients – ever – of the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for Humanitarianism. The other nine being: violinist, Isaac Stern; dancer/choreographer, Katherine Dunham; pianist, Van Cliburn; opera singers José Carreras, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Anna Moffo; and Maestros Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Bernstein. Not bad for a man with an image problem.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. on New Year’s Eve, 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, his no-nonsense father was an acclaimed Air Force pilot whose name is now enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
As noted in a previous posting: Shy, rather introverted and ever the “new kid” (as a military brat) Henry, Jr had a difficult time making friends. Recognizing this, his grandmother presented the (then) eleven year old with a well-worn guitar, to help him to focus his attention on something he might enjoy, and just maybe to help him to fit in … https://thisrightbrain.com/2012/03/20/i-guess-it-broke-her-heart/
Clearly it helped. By the time he was a Fort Worth high school student it was his fervent desire to make it as a musician, which led him to take his father’s car and drive to L.A. to begin his career. This in turn led Henry, Sr. to fly in on borrowed a jet to convince his son to come home and finish school.
Back in L.A. a few years later, and performing as John Denver (in honor of his favorite state), he began to land gigs on the folk circuit. His first big break came in 1965, when he joined the popular Chad Mitchell Trio, who performed on university campuses throughout the country. This included Gustavaus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where he met sophomore, Annie Martell. Married the following year, they bought a house in Aspen.
By the time he’d written “Annie’s Song” (composed for his wife in 10 minutes, while on an Aspen ski lift) in 1974, John Denver was one of the most successful and recognizable recording artists on the planet, whom the Governor of Colorado had officially proclaimed as the state’s poet laureate. And in the years that followed he seemed to be everywhere, starring in TV specials, hosting the Grammy Awards (five times), acting in films, and even standing in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show (15 times).
An avid skier, he served as a skiing commentator for ABC at the 1984 Winter Olympic games in Sarajevo, for which he also composed the theme song. And after a rigorous selection process he was a finalist for NASA’s first citizen trip on the Space Shuttle, a seat ominously taken by schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe.
Although deeply affected by the Challenger disaster, aviation remained an abiding passion. Echoing his father, he too became an accomplished pilot with ratings that ranged from jets to bi-planes to gliders The man whose first hit song (as sung by Peter, Paul & Mary) was “Leaving on a Jet Plane” preferred to fly his own.
Yet now approaching his 50s, his career was in free fall. While the humanitarian work continued, the music was melting away, and his personal life unraveling.
There were bouts of depression, tales of infidelity and domestic discord. He and Annie parted ways. He remarried. It didn’t last. “Before our short-lived marriage ended in divorce, she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other,” he said of his second wife.
There was a DUI charge, then another, which involved wrapping his Porsche around a tree. And so it went until that fateful day in ’97 when John Denver plummeted into the sea and perished.
“A lot of people write him off as lightweight, but he articulated a kind of optimism, and he brought acoustic music to the forefront, bridging folk, pop, and country in a fresh way… People forget how huge he was worldwide,” said country/blue grass performer Kathy Mattea in an Entertainment Weekly interview.
All tolled John Denver recorded and released nearly 300 songs, having written around 200 of them himself. While some have fallen by the wayside, others have stood the test of time – and they’re not necessarily his biggest hits. Take this one, for instance. When it was released as a duet with Placid Domingo (on Domingo’s album of the same title in 1981) there were many among us who found it pretentious, overblown and unlistenable.
But then, to mark the 10th anniversary of his death, in 2007, Denver’s family released Live in the USSR, a set of “unplugged” recordings from a number of 1985 concert performances in the Soviet Union (he would return a few years later to perform in aid – of couse – of the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).
Written for his wife, Annie after their separation, she later reflected that while she “felt blessed by ‘Annie’s Song,’” this was her favorite song of all.
Entering through the tall, leather-clad doors you were instantly humbled. This was a sacred place, a citadel of world literature, a bulwark of British history constructed in an era when studious inquiry was less diverse and a Kingdom’s National Museum and Library were sensibly cloistered together … unlike the knowable world of today, which branches into uncountable disciplines. There will never be another place like it.
Pictured is my second Reader’s Ticket for the British Museum Reading Room, duly granted by the Principal Librarian in January of 1985. It is purposely non-descript, I suppose, because access was restricted only to registered researchers who’d received their credential through written request. In truth my serious research days were over, unlike a few years earlier when I was a proper habitué working on a dissertation. By the time it expired I was living another life on another continent.
Still, it transports me back to the smell of ancient books and old leather; and the spectral drifting of aging academics entranced by the esoterica of their subject matter; and to shafts of daylight filtering down from the great windows encircling the room’s magnificent dome. And to the hushed murmur of the catalogers at the Centre Desk, where the occasional clap of a closing book softly echoed through the vast expanse above our heads. It especially takes me back to a bygone time of Victorian grace.
”It seems to me one cannot sit down in that place without a heart full of grateful reverence,” wrote William Thackeray. ”I own to have said my grace at the table, and to have thanked Heaven for this my English birthright.”
Inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome, the circular Reading Room was a triumph of mid-19th century technology with the latest in heating and ventilation systems, a gorgeous papier-mâché suspended ceiling, and nearly 25 miles of shelving for its cast iron stacks.
Those leather-clad doors were first opened in 1857 to all who could present a Reader’s Ticket, and for the next 140 years it served as workplace and refuge for an astonishing array of scholars, researchers, and such writers as: Kipling, Carlyle, Browning, Darwin, Dickens, Yeats, Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, T.S. Elliot, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, and Mohandas Gandhi.
Oh, and Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One’s Own proclaimed, ”If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where I asked myself … is truth?”
There were also those bent on a specific kind of truth. ‘‘The fact of a man’s being a political exile does not exclude him from the Reading Room,” stated the Library’s 1866 Handbook for Readers … and the exiles appeared.
For 30 years Karl Marx toiled away at Das Kapital at Desk O7, which Sun Yat-sen would later read in the very same room, as would Vladimir Lenin at Desk J8, who obtained his ticket (with a reference from the General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions) under the pseudonym, Jacob Richter. “It is a remarkable institution, especially that exceptional reference section,” he wrote, “Let me tell you, there is no better library than the British Museum.”
While desks could not be reserved, determined regulars, some of whom would be pacing in front of the Museum’s columned entrance, could gain admission with the flash of their ticket before the Museum’s official opening at 9:30 and claim their cherished spot. Mine was G3.
Whereas most had a specific agenda, not everyone was able to retain focus – to put it charitably – and the Reading Room had its share of credentialed eccentrics. Stories abound of the middle aged Reader who’d submitted the same Master’s thesis for over a decade, merely rearranging the paragraphs with each submission; and of the Reader who’d use a rope to lower an anchor to the floor before beginning; and of the prominent occultist who claimed that while her astral body was in the Reading Room her material self was off lecturing in America.
Then there was the celebrated “Miss McDonald” who, for 50 years, bicycled in from Highgate wearing white Bermuda shorts and plimsolls (sneakers) before settling in at Lenin’s favored desk, where she’d hang some twine between the reading lamps from which she’d dangle anti-Papist tracts. While her work entailed translating Virgil into French no one actually knew what she was working on, nor did they really care.
In truth the place itself was rather eccentric. Rest assured that a book of regulations accompanied that Reader’s Ticket, with highly specific MUSTs – e.g. Readers MUST conduct themselves in an orderly manner at all times while on the library premises; and remain silent while at desks; and return all issued books to an assistant at the Centre Desk, where they must reclaim the application slips by which they obtained them before leaving the room.
And even more specific MUST NOTs – Readers MUST NOT eat sweets or any other kind of food, or drink anything, or chew gum; or remove any book or other property of the British Library from the room in which it was used; or allow any book to come into contact with writing materials, rubber bands, paper clips or pins; or bring in any materials or objects which could damage a book, including food, paste and glue, ink in bottles, adhesive tapes, scissors, and knives; or use cameras or electrostatic copying machines; or behave in any way likely to disturb other readers….
To request a book you’d consult the printed catalogue and fill out a form on carbon-triplicate paper. Next you’d “post” the form through a little wooden window at the Centre Desk and watch while it was placed in a small cylindrical capsule, which was whisked away (with a ghostly whoooooshhhh) through a pneumatic tube. In time your books were delivered to your numbered desk on an antique trolley, with a carbon tucked between the pages.
This was always an intoxicating moment. Although I didn’t need to, in addition to a latter-day edition with its useful foreword and essential footnotes, I’d always order up a first edition of whatever volume I was referencing, As a result I could sit at my prodigious desk with its padded blue leather and matching shelf (designed to fold-out and cradle a book while the reader took notes) and hold in my hands the first editions of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Emerson’s Nature … and Thoreau’s Walden.
As with Miss McDonald, nobody knew or cared what I was doing, but beyond the random flight of fancy (at one point I was actually set on learning ancient Greek) I managed to avoid her fate, with a comfortable routine of working ’til noon, then breaking for tea and a sandwich, followed by a quick visit to the Rosetta Stone, or the Elgin Marbles, or (especially) the grand Clock Room, before returning to my desk until closing. Time flew in those days, just as it does now.
The British Museum Reading Room closed in 1997 when most of its resources were moved to the (now separate) British Library’s state-of-the-art repository near St. Pancras Station. It reopened to ALL visitors in 2000 and housed a modern information center reading material that focused on world cultures represented in the Museum.
Closing again in 2007, this time the old desks were boarded over and the space used for temporary exhibitions. When the British Museum opened its World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre in 2014, the Reading Room lost even its temporary function and its future now remains undecided.
I brought my son for a visit in the summer of 2006, prior to that final closing, and was thoroughly amazed at the wondrous transformation. When it was built, the Reading Room (designed by Sydney Smirke) had displaced the British Museum’s original Great Court (designed by Sydney’s older brother, Robert). But with the late 1990s renovation the Great Court was at last revived, and the Reading Room intriguingly encapsulated in its center. At over two acres, it is now the largest covered public square in Europe and truly an architectural triumph.
And yet my sense of wonder was tinged with wistfulness. Here was still another piece of the past, my past, that was no longer there to be shown to my kids. At least I could still stand at that familiar columned entrance and relive this memory:
Upon stepping off the Northern Line and rising up into the hurly-burly of Tottenham Court Road, it was a 4-minute walk from Goodge Street Station – once a deep-level Word War II air raid shelter from which some would indeed come “smashing into neon streets in their stonedness,” – to this very spot in the heart of leafy Bloomsbury. And I never once failed to conjure up this song, albeit Judy Collin’s version.
Looking back I think Donovan Philips Leitch got a bum rap. Widely referred to as the “Poor Man’s Dylan,” partly because the two were influenced by many of the same folk sources but mostly as a result of their 1964 Dylan-centric meeting as seen in Don’t Look Back, Donovan’s distinctive style was actually far more eclectic, blending folk, jazz, psychedelia, pop, calypso, and world music. Released on his second album, Fairyland in 1965, Dylan never sounded like this.
Sunny Goodge Street
On the firefly platform on sunny Goodge Street
Violent hash-smoker shook a chocolate machine
Involved in an eating scene
Smashing into neon streets in their stonedness
Smearing their eyes on the crazy cult goddess
Listenin’ to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic
“My, my,” they sigh
“My, my,” they sigh
In doll house rooms with colored lights swingin’
Strange music boxes sadly tinklin’
Drinkin’ the sun shining all around you
“My, my,” they sigh
“My, my,” they sigh
“My, my,” they sigh
“My, my,” they sigh
The magician, he sparkles in satin and velvet
You gaze at his splendor with eyes you’ve not used yet