“You don’t pick your totem animal. Your totem animal chooses you.”
This quote, which I heard recently on a podcast, shed some light on a seminal event in my young life. When I was a child, my family was at an outdoor barbecue in Amherst, Massachusetts, when a crow suddenly flew out of the skies and landed and perched on my head momentarily. Since that unlikely evening’s event, I have had a natural affinity for crows and ravens. I have learned to imitate their calls and can converse with them, though I am never sure what we are saying, other than my loud cawing version of, “Hello Crow.” They do respond, and often fly overhead to see if I am holding one of their members hostage, something I would never do to any of my avian tribe. Crows and ravens are the most intelligent birds and are legendary in story and myth for their shape shifting abilities. Ravens are the only birds I have ever seen flying upside down by choice. Your totem animal will clearly reveal itself to you when the time is right, as one did for me.
“I caught a badger with my fishing rod!”
We were on one of our many cross country driving trips, motoring from Stanford, California to Heath, Massachusetts as a family of six in our prototype SUV Chevrolet CarryAll one summer in the 1960’s. We were camping somewhere in the Colorado rockies when I cast out my lure one morning and snagged a dead badger that was floating on the surface of the lake, by far my heaviest and furriest haul from any body of water. My mother had made us pancakes for breakfast earlier in the day and had put a small unlabeled bottle on the table filled with golden liquid, telling us that it was maple syrup. We all poured a large amount of the sweet elixir on our pancakes and were surprised and unhappy to find that we had doused our delectable flapjacks with sherry, rendering them inedible. After replacement pancakes were made and eaten we were cleaning up and taking down our campsite when my mother suddenly yelled sternly at us “Come here right now! Come here right now!” A huge black free range bull was suddenly next to our campsite, menacingly snorting, pawing at the ground and lumbering towards us. Fortunately we were able to get in the car and make a safe getaway.
“I used to subscribe to the paper to read the obituaries, but then all of my friends died so I don’t read the paper anymore.”
A very old Stanford professor told me this when I was a paperboy at age 13 and was unsuccessfully trying to get him to subscribe to the Palo Alto Times.
“From now on his name is Laura. Everybody call him Laura.”
Halstead Knowlton was my wood shop teacher in 9th grade at Terman Junior High School in 1966. He was a very old school shop teacher, gruff and balding with a big beer belly. He was the faculty advisor for the student Bowling Club. He drove a giant gold Buick with enormous fins that he always parked in front of the shop. If he did not think you were paying sufficient attention to him he would sentence you to write sentences – Kids had to hand write 50 times “I will not talk in class,” and turn them in the next day. Hal would assiduously count them, and if there were only 49 sentences he would sentence the student to 100 additional sentences, due the next day.
Dick Dawson was in my woodshop class. He was a small kid with shoulder length blonde hair, the first long haired kid I ever saw at Terman. His older brother was John Dawson, (later know as Marmaduke) who was the lead singer and songwriter of the pioneering country rock band “The New Riders of the Purple Sage” a Grateful Dead spin off. Hal Knowlton did not like Dick Dawson’s long locks and needled him mercilessly, encouraging his classmates, especially the greasers, to do the same. One afternoon he told Dick to come to the front of the shop where he put him in a headlock and cut off a big chunk of his golden locks with some huge shop shears. He taped Dick’s hair to the middle of the blackboard and wrote “Laura” under his exhibition of sadistic cruelty. The hair and the chalk name Laura stayed there for the rest of the school year.
“Tell me Mary Ellen, how can you just get a little bit pregnant?”
The beautiful Mary Ellen James asked our buttoned up Sunday School teacher, Mrs. O’Brien, if it was OK to fool around just little bit with your boy or girl friend. Mrs. O’Brien, snarled back at her: “Tell me Mary Ellen, how can you just get a little bit pregnant?” This sort of joy denying nonsense catapulted me away from Presbyterian Sunday School in Palo Alto into a more holistic, realistic, mystically wonderful set of Taoist/Zennish spiritual practices when I was in high school which still resonate with me every single day of my ongoing life.
“He needed to make a snow proof roof to protect underground nuclear missile silos, so he designed it like an upside down mechanical ice cream scoop.”
My friend Neil Margetson’s mother was giving a talk to my fifth grade class at P.S. 125, in the heart of Harlem in New York city in 1961, and was explaining to us that useful creative ideas could come from unexpected sources. Neil was my first biracial friend: his mother was a white community activist with the longest hair I had ever seen on someone’s mom at that point, and his father was a black mechanical engineer. She explained to us that her husband had been tasked with designing a retractable roof for missile silos in Alaska and had found inspiration in the mechanical design of ice cream scoops, proving that useful ideas can come from unexpected places.
The first mechanical “Ice Cream Mold and Disher” was invented by Alfred L. Cralle, an African-American businessman and inventor in 1897. When I went to Neil’s apartment later for a play date, his mother served us ice cream with the very scoop that had been his father’s inspiration for the missile silo roof, proving that dangerous ideas could also be delicious.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“A winner never quits. A quitter never wins.”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
These “inspirational” quotes were emblazoned on the wall in the boy’s locker room in the gym at Gunn High School and were a glimpse into the mind of Clayton Henry, the football coach and a very old school macho gym teacher. Mr. Henry was a burly unsentimental man’s man. He made us run the 330 yard race every Tuesday and the 660 yard race every Thursday, timing us for grades with an omnipresent stopwatch which he always wore around his neck like an ever ticking, sadistic chrome plated piece of bling.
When teaching us how to hike the ball at the beginning of a football play he told us that the quarterback had to be as close as possible to the center to transfer the ball correctly. He shouted “The Quarterback has to put his testicles right up tight against the Center’s butt.”
On a hot September afternoon he asked us if we wanted to watch video of yesterday’s football game or go swimming. When everyone erupted in a chorus of “swimming!” he scowled and said “Swimming? You want to go swimming” All Right, You Will Swim!” He proceeded to make everyone swim a hundred laps non stop as punishment for caring too little about the football team’s most recent losing performance on the gridiron.
Once while having us run the 660, he had not timed his return to the finish line properly to shout out our times and ran over to the race’s ending point, slipping in a mud puddle and falling down and badly injuring his back. We had to pull him up out of the mud and we did not see him again for several weeks after that as he slowly recovered..
He was also my Driver’s Training teacher. The only driving I had ever done previously was to pilot a 1951 GMC pick up truck around a hay field in rural Massachusetts. Mr. Henry put me behind the wheel of a large Buick and with no instruction or even a practice run around the parking lot and had me cruise out onto a busy 4 lane boulevard, It was tough, but I did not quit and I was able to tough it out and win the day, returning the big Buick undamaged and undented, as the pain of fearful weakness left my body.
“You’ll love it. We have kissing parties all the time. I kissed Annie 40 times”
The summer before I moved to California in 1962, I was eleven years old and was spending June, July and August in our country home in Heath, Massachusetts. My best friend Steve Wolf’s parents subscribed to Life Magazine (my parents did not) which he and I would read together from cover to cover every week, drinking Kool-Aid on the wonderful swinging couch in their 18th century living room which had an Asher Benjamin designed fireplace with Hessian fireplace andirons which was topped with an incredibly long ancient flintlock rifle prominently displayed above the mantle. That summer Life Magazine had featured a long article about kids in California who were growing up too fast and were having “Make Out Parties” in elementary school, an article that described a life that seemed frightening and other worldly to me, and was certainly nothing I had ever worried about in my life at P.S. 125 in the heart of Harlem or during my one year stint in Scotland in third grade. I had only been kissed by a girl once at that point. Barbara Jellineck had kissed me on the top of my head as I was kneeling down to look at a book in the library at the back of the classroom in fifth grade and it just about made my head explode. I felt warm, dizzy, very happy and quite confused at the same time – a future portent of all of the exotic symptoms of love.
The day after I arrived in Palo Alto California, my cousin Prill McAfee took me to Stanford Elementary School, where she was also a student, to show me my new scholastic home for the next year. We were resting on a couple of low brick walls next to what I would soon learn was called “The Multi-Purpose Room” when two boys appeared; Tom Eastman and Brian Jones. They were friendly, outgoing and welcoming and soon began bragging about how many girls they had kissed in make out parties the previous year in fifth grade. I thought back to the Life Magazine article I had recently read and felt an overwhelming sense of wonder and dread.
“In the very near future, electricity will be free and nobody will have electrical meters on their houses.”
The town of Rowe Massachusetts had the fortune of having the third nuclear power plant in the USA built within its very rural boundaries in 1960. In the hyperbolic, patriotic, futuristic language of the day it was called “Rowe Yankee Atomic.” It was built right next to the Deerfield River where we often went swimming further downstream, from which it got its water to pressurize and cool the facility. The plant cost $ 58 million to build and $ 508 million to decommission 47 years later. I took a tour of it when it first opened and the voice over of the short publicity film declared that power plants like this would soon be everywhere in America, and that they would make electricity so inexpensive that power would be free for all Americans forever, and nobody would ever have electrical meters on their houses again. In later years it was derisively referred to in the local press as “ A dangerous, old leaky Nuke. ” The plant was 5 miles directly east of our house and the prevailing winds always blew from west to east, so our house would have been one of the first to be enveloped in a glowing radioactive cloud if the domed reactor had suddenly exploded.
In the late 1960’s they gave us a black plastic radio disaster warning device which hypothetically would have beeped loudly if a neighboring nuclear Armageddon had suddenly occurred. My mother stored it in our tool room and never plugged it in. This “Atomic” power plant gave what had been a poor dairy farming hill town a bonanza of a utility tax base, and surrounding municipalities over the years were amazed at the size of the elementary school that they built and how well their roads were paved and maintained. They became more exclusive and soon closed their lake swimming beach and tennis courts to all non residents. Many in the town got relatively high paying jobs working in the plant. Homer, the patriarch of the Simpson family in the long running animated Fox series “The Simpson’s” had such a job. Decades later their elementary school was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, in perhaps an act of Divine retribution.
“Fuck Yeah! We’re the cussingest, most foul mouthed Preacher’s Kids in the whole God Damned world!”
Tommy Day, the 9 year old son of one of my father’s divinity students shouted this to my brother Peter and me as he led us on a tour of his new home town. We were visiting them in Riverton Wyoming, on our first cross country driving trip in the summer of 1962. His father, Jack Day, had a log cabin church there, something that I had never seen in New York City.
“There it is! There it is! That’s Sputnik!”
My father and I were on the roof of our upper west side apartment in Manhattan in October of 1957, when I was 6 years old, gazing upwards at a what looked like a tiny star flying very slowly across the night sky far above the Heaven scraping Gothic towers of Riverside Church. We were watching the first man made orbiting satellite in the opening salvo of the Space Race between the USA and the USSR.
Throughout elementary school, all class work would come to a sudden halt whenever there was an American rocket launch, and we would listen to the drama of countdowns, liftoffs, orbits and splashdowns over the static plagued, crackling radio on PS 125’s public address system. A few years later, after moving to California, we had an actual astronaut (Owen Garriot) as our next door neighbor for several years. Owen spent 59 days aboard Skylab, orbiting the earth. His son Richard later flew into orbit as a space tourist aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-13, the second son of an astronaut to follow in the cosmic arc of his father.
“You’ll have your first piano recital at Juilliard in three weeks.”
My first piano teacher was a wonderful young Japanese woman named Mieyae Ogeso. She was kind, patient and endlessly encouraging and was a student at Julliard School of Music, which at the time was directly across the street from our apartment, at the intersection of Broadway and 122nd street. At night local Italian American kids with elaborately slicked pompadours would sit on the school’s front steps and sing together in three and four part acapella doo-wop harmonies, raising their voices when subways screamed out of the subterranean tunnels onto the elevated tracks above Broadway, half a block away.
As my piano skills improved Mieyae told me that me and her other students were going to have a recital at Julliard, a building I had never been inside of before. It was an aural thrill to play for the public for the first time on a new, crisp, mellifluous, well tuned concert quality grand piano in a room with perfect acoustics. It was a far cry from the 50 year old, ragged, scarred, tone deaf upright piano that I practiced on daily in our apartment, inherited from my grandmother’s house in New Jersey. Everything sounded better at Juilliard.
“You are forbidden from ever giving away another copy of your terrible paper at this school!”
Anne G Ruddy, principal of PS 125, shouted this at me and my friend David Sallivery in front of my 5th grade class, denouncing our free paper, “The Early Morning Gossip” in which we had just published an editorial commenting on the low quality of the food at the school lunchroom, having interviewed many of our classmates who ate there every day. We also wrote new satiric lyrics to the Alvin and the Chipmunk’s song “My Friend the Witchdoctor,” making them specifically about our school, which she denounced as “pure garbage.” We made the paper in his apartment after school and his mom typed and mimeographed it and stapled it together for us at her office. This browbeating and public humiliation ended my journalism career.
I’m gonna kick your white honky ass, motherfucker! I’m gonna kick your ass!”
A young black kid at my after school program in Harlem repeatedly whispered this menacing threat into my ears – the only time in my life that I ever felt badly bullied. I told my mother that I didn’t want to be in this Morningside Heights group that she had signed me up for. She went and talked to the director who told her “Mrs. Brown, I wouldn’t ever want my child associating with any of those boys” and she took me out of the program and signed me up for a ceramics class instead.
“I don’t know how a 14 year old boy could do such a wicked thing!”
My mother said this, telling me (at age 11) that my beloved first art teacher had been murdered by a 14 year old boy in upstate New York where she had retired, over a $ 20 debt. This caused a huge crisis of faith in my young life and made me question my belief in God and the goodness of humanity for the first time.
“When they made that enormous rug, that made sure to make one mistake in the design, because only God is perfect.”
I was touring the United Nations building in New York with my fifth grade class. We were looking at a huge rug, woven in Iran and hung vertically, that covered a wall in the lobby that was at least 50’ tall. I asked the guide where the flaw was but she did not know, instantly proving to me that only God knows everything.
“The problems we solve in our craniums, will someday help us to find Uranium.”
This was a poem written by Arondel Jones, the smartest and smallest boy in my 5th grade class at PS 125. His black class mates called him “ Big Little Pygmy.”
“Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”
The most common injury amongst the kids in my Kindergarten class at Riverside Church in Manhattan was concussive head trauma, always caused by kids falling out of bunk beds at night and crashing onto the floor in their sleep, a rude and very painful awakening. This was in the not yet litigious America of the mid 1950’s, before safety rails for bunks had been invented. Kids would suddenly go missing for days and would return to class with their heads encased in full white plaster skull casts that we liked to knock on with our knuckles, while singing “Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”
“May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
I was watching one of my best friends, Larry Cameron, receive his first communion in a black Catholic Church on 125th street in 1962. Larry’s father was a sailor in the Merchant Marine and was almost never in his nautical home port of New York City, so I was there to help welcome Larry into his new refuge port in Jesus Land. Larry was tall and gentle, and looked very much like the saxophone great John Coltrane. He lived in one of the 20 story tall project block towers that the neighborhood destroying city planner/monster Robert Moses had recently created. My mother later told my mother that his mother was very worried that Larry would get sucked into the omnipresent gang lifestyle of young black men there at that time, though his mom was doing her best to see that did not happen with the help of God and the Catholic church.
Being a nominal Presbyterian, I had never before been in a church with so many sculptures of Christ on the cross in mortal agony. The priest droned away in Latin for what seemed like forever and finally gave Larry some sort of holy magic two fingered touch and placed a communion wafer on his tongue, welcoming him into the assembly of God. An angelic choir sang and when the ceremony was over it was Wednesday afternoon and we did not have to go back to P.S. 125, just across 125th street, having been given a Holy get out of jail free card for the afternoon, so we wandered around Harlem together, past the Apollo theater and the roller rink where we often skated after school, deeper uptown than I had ever been before.
I felt safe for the first time with him leading me around and through Harlem. We went into Honest John’s and other shops where everybody knew him and congratulated him on his spiritual progress and shook the hand of his little white friend. Hours later we made our way back to his apartment block to the 13th floor where his mother had prepared a southern feast of ham hocks, fried chicken, beans, collard greens and yams for Larry, me and his younger brother. We watched cartoons on the TV and went to bed and then made our way to P.S. 125 the next morning, wrapped up in the peaceful holy spirit of Jesus.